On the mountain, nights are cold. Two sweaters and a hoodie can’t contain it. You huddle beneath them, Jamey’s sweater and yours, and feed twigs to the fire. Each crackle of flame makes Jamey nervouser.
Stop, his rotted mouth shapes. The thin line of smoke wanders up to the sky. And if there’s smoke, someone might find you: two teenaged boys on the side of Crow Mountain, dog-dirty, chapped with wind and stone.
“For the last time,” you tell him through blue lips, “no one’s coming.”
Jamey scowls, three years older and still unused to being disobeyed. He paces fractal through the autumn leaves, his hospital sheet wind-whipping. Please just put it out. We’re almost at the top.
You are years into your voyage; winter comes quicker in the heights. You drink meltwater, like Franklin, and eat wild pine nuts to keep scurvy away. You have all the science, Jamey and you. Polar documentaries were your passion: two curly-headed brothers in Batman pajamas, sneaking downstairs night after night to see Amundsen plant his flag.
You studied Franklin, and you studied Greely, and came to the same consensus: Expeditions that disunite die in the snow. You and Jamey, you decided, would always aim together. You would not, could not, fail.
So: “Fine,” you say, and palm dirt into the coals. The night falls in fast, pine trees and starlight; their lines meet and part over the tundra peaks. It is so achingly beautiful on the mountainside, alone. You draw your knees up, snug your pricking fingers against your palms. Jamey watches you, sprigs of dark curls withered in his scalp, and with one tendon-roped hand he squashes his hair flat.
I’ll find you a cave, Eli. It’ll be warmer there. And off he goes, Jamey the adventurer, searching for harbour and unconquered soil. He fades first at the ankles and then at the waist, slips around a pine tree and is gone.
“How would you know?” you mumble, but only when the wind will bury it. Jamey’s Viking helmet, left derelict beside you, fades with him; its seamed plastic horns wisp like a mirage. The solitude creeps in then, as it always does in the rare minutes you’re apart. The mountain presses inexorably up. Without him, all the silences you left behind return: the shut door of the bedroom you and Jamey used to share, the sound of his thin hands typing at two a.m. The ringing, thrumming quiet after your parents’ shouts faded, before the husky dogs howled through the TV speakers and David Attenborough’s kind voice took up the work of discovery again.
The pole was Jamey’s thing—rations, correspondences, and maps—but your true love was the huskies. When you were alone, you rewound the tapes to their pricked ears and giddy tails and flattened your palm against the screen.
“They ate the dogs,” Jamey told you once, when you’d argued over some toy: his helmet or a Lego set. You pushed him to the ground and hit and hit until he held you, rocking, and swore he’d told a lie. But you never read a word about Amundsen again, because you knew your parents’ 1981 Britannica would tell you that those bright, soft dogs were killed, and even before his lungs warped, his face thinned, his heart failed, you had to believe Jamey absolutely.
The last rattle of smoke disperses into the clean, cold, empty air, and you bury your face, numb with resentment. Not yet, Jamey. Not yet.
And like an upraised muzzle call, the thought brings him home again. I found one, Eli,he says, the perfect polar explorer: impervious to hardship even after two years in the ground. C’mon.
Your legs burn. Your head aches. You’re so, so tired. And because he’s your brother, you unclench your knees and follow.
You wake pillowed on Jamey’s Viking helmet, locked fetal around your own body heat, ears ringing with the memory of a hunting howl.
Jamey is still ever-reliable. He sits cross-legged on the dirt beside you, armed with a pine needle, drawing the mountain. In the cave’s scrubby soil it rises, a child-sized peak, your own trail across its brown back circling, circling. Our approach is from the east slope,he mouths, and his bared jaw clicks. Behind him, red lichen spreads across the cave walls, and the mist lies on the pine shrubs, backlit orange by the rising sun. Even in the harshest of environments, life, Attenborough pronounced—and you believe him even after everything—finds a way. Life endures.
You lift one arm to your eyes, deathly sore. You’ve been shivering in your sleep again, at the raised voices in your dreams. Expeditions that disunite die in the snow, you were saying in the ruins of your shipwrecked house, emotionless and rational so that you would be believed. Your mother patted your dark, sprigged curls and said: Well, you tell your father that. Her eyes skipped over your too-feminine chest, your softening little-boy chin. You would have listened to Jamey, you shouted, and then it faded, into fur and haunches and your father’s averted eyes, into an avalanche of bright canine noses and dawn light.
“Where are we?” you croak. Jamey scrubs the map into dust.
Close,Jamey shapes, with a gentleman’s noble cheer. But we’ve got lots of miles to cover today.
Your lips crack. You taste blood. “I need a minute,” you mutter. Some mornings your lean weight presses you down like the mountain pushes up. A side effect of the hormones, the doctors ascertained. There were to be more tests in Sudbury once your volatile puberty hit full swing, but then Jamey was diagnosed, and then his tumors recurred, charting courses through the hostile environment of his lungs, and there was no time left for your vaguer complaints.
For your malingering, your father’s cut-glass voice says, and then Jamey’s loving hand on your forehead makes it disappear. He accepts the delay in the way he has always accepted your body: loyally and without understanding. You catch a faint whiff of home and rot, and with it comes the helpless guilt of his hospital bed. He was too weak to turn his head at the end, too weak to squeeze your useless hand back. You struggle upright. “I’ll get up. Just get me water?”
He beams like he did the day you caught your first trout: bony chest puffed, endlessly proud. Right back, and he’s off again, out the cave’s narrow mouth.
Not yet, your heart chokes, reflexive, but then it quiets. The silence of the mountain is kinder in the morning, when you can see your goal towering up in the pale blue and know your brother is coming back. The lines of Jamey’s map are a long smear now, swiped out by his dilapidated hand, but you squint down at their remnants for a correspondence. Two short lines still form the summit; far below, your wandering path curves its way.
The half-scratched path is laughable: against every principle of effective travel in the hostile alpine environment. Peary would scoff at the way it wanders across the peak, through the leafless brush. We’re not close at all, you realize, and try to suffocate the thought. Jamey gave you the plan the night, months after he died, when you finally crept past his closed-up bedroom and your parents’ door, past his winter coat still sentinel on the hall rack in midsummer, to find him waiting with his helm donned and a set of ready maps. We’re going to climb the mountain, he said, still blue, and held out a decomposing hand.
And because it was the night after you finished reading the biography of Gregory, sent into the Australian Outback to find Leichhardt’s bones—a book of spindly camels read while Netflix docudramas seared your walls Sahara gold, while the heartbeat sound of hoofbeats drowned your parents out—you shouldered your backpack, wrapped your fingers around that hand, and followed your brother silently out the front door.
“No one is coming,” you tell yourself: savour the metallic flavour of those words. Your wrists and ankles ache, a dull, debilitating grind. You have never been unused to the notion that you would not be rescued. It is only Jamey who still expects, who still fears missing-persons reports and frightened loving arms dead set on bringing you home. No one has ever been coming.
Until now, the thought was never cause for fear.
Jamey materializes around the pine tree, his Viking helmet sloshing. His bony hands hold the plastic brim to your lips. Drink, he clatters, and you gulp down pure cold: snowmelt or runoff from a glacier creek. He cedes its weight, brow furrowed, eyes stubborn, and you are pinned again by that aching love: for Jamey’s daily demands that tugged you from your bedroom and all the ways it was safer to stay inside. For Jamey’s voice, weak from remission, wrecked by chemo, saying my brother and daring anyone to sneer.
Ready? Jamey asks, gaunt and anxious, and you feel the mountain’s pressure on your ribs. It’s bad this morning. The print of your chapped lips lingers on the helmet’s brim, in blood.
“Jamey,” you manage, and stumble. It’s too much to ask. “I’m sick. We need to turn around.”
The shreds of skin left on your brother’s forehead crinkle. We’re so close. We’re almost at the top.
By the end, both you and Jamey understood the limitations of bodies, but you still can’t speak of them. It is still ingrained to never say that your body is too weak for the path ahead. “Gregory turned back,” you say instead, desperately. “For the horses. He turned back to spare their lives.”
Gregory’s expedition was a rescue mission, sent forth on the scantest and slenderest hope. The rules for deserts are different. Water weight matters; so does salt. When the water ran out and he turned back to save the horses, you stuffed a pillow in your mouth and cried. Save the horses, you thought over and over through that long night with his biography, and then you finally packed the bag and tiptoed out the door.
Jamey frowns. I’ll take care of you. I always take care of you.
“You can’t,” you say, and then it’s out, like vomit on the hard-packed soil. Not yet,your heart wails, crumbled gravel, tortured scrub. Oh, please, not yet.
“I have to go,” you choke out, and stumbling upright, turn around.
The way down the mountain is immense. It stretches like the future, sixty or seventy empty years down into the valleys, to the messy lands without striving, and sled dogs, and snow. Your breath hitches. You cannot let the sobs show in your back, your knobby spine. Eli? Jamey says. The first step is an impossibility. It lands like the sound of winter dirt, one shovel full, on a wooden coffin sunk in a fresh-cut grave.
Come back. Eli, please, he begs. Your Leif Erikson, your Columbus, your personal James Clark Ross. How can you ever leave him; how can you ever just let go?
Below you stretch the towns, the valleys dusted with spring. The world below is green and rich through the mountain clouds, small towns like yours specks in the rucked-up skin-folds of the land. You blink back the tears that blur them into smears, and turn around to your brother.
The terror smudges from his eyes, shrunken so low. We’re a team. We aim together, he mouths unsteadily. Vowels without a tongue. Your last and only truth.
You have never been one for grand measures: the running medals were Jamey’s, the polar expedition plans written in his hand. When you left home it was silent: no fishbelly gasps, no chemo, no flowers from the Rotary Club wives pouring in, minute by minute, as the heart monitor stuttered and slowed and the whole family gathered, afraid to weep, around the bedside. When you left home Jamey led and you followed in matching pajamas down the stairs, your footfalls in his shadow.
Eli,Jamey creaks brightly. Your brother, who loved you best. Expeditions that disunite die in the snow.
You’re already dead, you think, gently. You’ve been dead for two years. And the dead can’t hear the living: not truly, even though you can follow them through the wilderness into scarcity, can use their scratched-out maps.
Not yet,you beg, but it’s over now. Your brother is gone, and you’ve always known that Amundsen’s sharp dogs died.
“We’re a team, yeah,” you say quietly, and his yellowed shoulders sag with the relief of an unabandoned child. He does not hear your voice hitch. The dead can’t hear the living. The dead, in the end, can’t understand.
You’re almost at the top of the mountain now, circling, circling, almost there forever. Jamey was older, and he always knew the way, but in three months you will be seventeen: the age Jamey was when his lips turned blue and he died. Soon you will be the precise same age, and youngest child, circumspect child, you’ve learned to walk tiptoe.
You never mapped Jamey’s mountain. You followed up the trail, and it will take you years to get back down. But the day is coming. When you are seventeen and four months and nineteen days, and alive, you will turn your split boots around and trace those footsteps down the mountain, and this is how it will feel: you and the dogs and the horses, tumbling down the mountain, while his voice, the voice you love best, follows you around every turn. Begging, pleading, swearing through all the trails, through the lost years, to turn around, to come back to him. To come back to the safety of his hard-nosed, ardent love.
Maybe you will make it. Maybe you’ll get down in time.
Until then—like Amundsen—you will practice. You will map. You have all the science on how the South Pole was planned and won. Every day, you will walk a little farther, toward the trailhead, down the cliffs, before you turn at the sound of his grief. Quietly, slow as the sun moving across the thin topsoil. Quiet as the press of padded paws.
So that when the day comes to take the bitten road back down, you will not turn. You will not falter.
On the mountain, the sun rises, and you and your brother head up the trail, united, explorers of the wastelands that stretch endless away from home.