‘We are tilted. This was the first thing to understand’. Earth’s tilted axis is a central motif in William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese – part memoir, part travelogue, part natural history narrative. It is an idea that is returned to time and time again throughout the text. The Snow Geese charts the author’s physical and psychological journey, following the migratory path of geese travelling from Texas to their spring nesting grounds on Baffin Island, Canada. It is a vast journey, spanning roughly 3000 miles, undertaken by Fiennes as he recuperates from an unnamed, yet serious illness.Read More
Our binding ceremony took place one hot summer day, as the sun perched in the sky above us and the very land was sweating and heaving in the heat. I had met my mate only a few weeks ago but in our community we had learnt to savour a good thing when it came along. She was not what anyone would call beautiful; she was pale and underfed and she had a gammy leg that trailed behind her when she walked. We always had to make our way slowly to places, taking our time, something that our community had difficulties understanding. Everyone in the village was always bounding off so frantically that I learnt to take pleasure in drawing out things and doing them slowly. On our way back from work, my mate and I would weave our way through the fronds and stalks of the forest surrounding our village, fingers trailing along the trunks of the trees. The shade would be thick and cool underneath them, gathering in viscous pools that we basked in with our faces to the sky. We would watch the tips of the tall striplings sway in the wind, unfurling themselves like antennae.
Our community had its base in a valley called A’kirikam, a ramshackle village with few permanent homes – most of us preferred to sleep on the ground. We were a mining community by profession, and every day would see the members of our village troop along to a patch of ground that looked promising. We would tap into the rich loam and harvest the precious substances within, working until the sun had long set and our joints shook with the effort. The work was hard and the results were just enough to live off of but my mate and I didn’t need much as long as we had each other to come home to.
That was all before the Disasters started happening.
The first warnings came in the form of tremors in the ground. They would shake across the land, rippling in waves underneath the surface and they would uproot everything in their path. Our mining equipment often got crushed and we would be thrown from the ground, landing dizzy and disoriented. Then came the task of finding the wounded and bringing them back to the village. The stalks of the trees would sway angrily above our heads on these occasions, parting so that we could see great patches of sky.
Our village counsel had a meeting the night of the first tremor. Chief Borr’arum sat silently on the floor among us while our shaman predicted doom, his arms waving threateningly against the light cast by the firefly lamps.
“The gods are angry at us because we mine the land and drink it dry!” he portended, his old voice shaking with anger. “Our greed will bring doom upon us all!”
Chief Borr’arum shook his head solemnly. His impatience with the shaman was widely known, and he openly showed contempt for the old gods and their rituals.
“How am I to feed my people, old man, if we stop mining? We would bring doom on ourselves just as surely if we ceased all production,” he snarled, “These tremors are nothing more than a sign that the land is healthy and that it lives and breathes as we do. We continue mining.”
But Chief Borr’arum should have swallowed his pride, because the tremors did not stop and we were soon faced with new trials.
The gods proceeded to manifest their anger with a new evil: a machine we called the Destroyer. It came from the sky this time, a possibility we had been blind to, and which caused us immeasurable sorrow. It moved so fast that we could barely make out the shape or form; all we knew was that it had blades and that it was lethal. We were coming back from the mines at the end of a long day when it struck for the first time, mowing through our group like we were wisps of air. Grandma Fzz’ta was sliced in half in front of my very eyes, both sides of her body peeling apart from one another like two orange segments pried apart by the hands of a greedy child. I wanted to help the survivors of my mining party gather up the dead but all I could think of was finding my mate. I knew she had been on an earlier shift today, so she the only place she could have been was back at the village. I ran back, hoping it had been spared the worst of the destruction.
When I arrived at the edge of the village, I could see that the entire left side of it had been obliterated. The shacks and tents had been scattered everywhere, debris littering the pathways and kinsmen struggling to crawl out of the wreckage. Many had succumbed to the Destroyer. But my mate had survived; I could see her helping our neighbours and pulling aside the broken planks and fabric that made up our homes, her gammy leg trailing through the dust.
“I thought you were dead,” I told her breathlessly, and we hugged fiercely.
Slowly life resumed; the remains of the community resumed mining and we tried to rebuild the things we had lost. My mate and I found ourselves a small shelter on the edge of the trees, where we tried hard to keep our fears at bay.
But then came the final disaster, which was more deadly than any of those that had come before. A sickness slowly spread throughout the land, going from village to village, killing all in its wake. It took the infants first, and the elderly and feeble. The people whispered to one another that the shaman had been right, that it was time to leave this place, time to follow the Nowhere Road that led to the end of all places, and jump off into the void. Our legends spoke of the Nowhere Road as a place of rebirth – great heroes of the past such as the warrior prince Kibi’dmm had led their people to safety across the Nowhere Road and the whispers in the line of miners at work and the hushed conversations in the streets of the village spoke of these legends and their wisdom. I argued long nights with my mate to try and convince her to join me on the Nowhere Road.
“My leg is gammy and weak,” she would tell me, “and I would only slow you down. There is no place for me anymore amongst the survivors.”
Her words made me furious, furious that she should place so little value upon her life and we continued to argue about it alone in our shelter. There was nothing to lose by leaving this place, I would say, and we would take as long as it took to walk to the end of the world as long as we did it together. She would counter that there was everything to lose; everything she loved was here and she would die where she belonged. I think she already knew then that she had caught the sickness, could feel it twisting through her veins and poisoning her slowly from the inside out. But she stayed silent and did not tell me about how she felt because she knew that if she did I would never leave. Finally she gave in to my urging. We were the last to leave the village, which by now was almost empty. Only the dead and the dying were left behind, and the unknown was spread out in front of us.
We started out onto the Nowhere Road slowly, always careful of my mate’s slower pace and labored breathing. We travelled days and days, sometimes meeting corpses along the road, or kinsmen who were breathing their last. We offered them what comfort we could, but I was starting to worry about my mate, who was increasingly tired and slow. One morning I caught her rubbing a cut on her leg which oozed green.
“You’ve caught the sickness,” I said. It was not a question. She looked me into the eyes and saw there was no reason to protect me from the truth any longer.
“You need to keep going. Promise me. When I die, leave my body behind. And keep on going, for me,” she said. I shook my head frantically, rubbing my eyes with my hands. I didn’t want to believe what she said and I grabbed her leg, inspecting the cut, trying to prove it wasn’t deadly. Once I was holding her I noticed several other lacerations along her torso and arms. They were all tinged green, and the flesh around it looked mottled and decayed. The cuts smelled like something already dead. I withdrew sharply, avoiding her gaze.
“You’re talking nonsense. Let me bind those cuts,” I told her firmly. Her eyes pitied me as I ripped up the mossy growth of the underbrush and bound it to her body. As soon as the moss absorbed the residue from her wounds it shriveled and turned brown.
It took only a few more days before she died. When we got up to leave one morning, she stayed on the ground and refused to get up. I knew that she had been right about everything, but I stayed with her body several days longer, unable to leave its empty husk.
When her body started to show signs of discolouration and rot, I covered it with the supple stalks of young saplings growing nearby and paid my last respects.
Finally I continued my journey. The land was dead around me, bare and pale and empty of the usual rustle of life. I journeyed alone, passing empty villages and discarded mining equipment in the shadows and dips of the land. The way was easy to find; it was obvious that many had chosen the jump over the slow decay of disease and the path had been trampled clean of undergrowth.
I finally reached the end of all things after several days of travel. There was only a long, narrow spur of land leading to the infinity beyond it. The trees had also stopped growing here, and I walked along the thin ridge of land, my arms trailing through the long grass on either side of me. Finally I reached the edge, and took in the immense panorama of nothingness. The tip of the path swayed slightly in the breeze. Here was the end of all things, the boundary between our land and that of the great unknown. Of my people, I was one of the last to come here. Taking a deep breath, I pushed off with my muscular legs, and for an immense second I soared through the air before spiraling downwards.
“There we go Mr. Tibbles! That should be the last of those pesky fleas,” Annabel said as she tightened the new flea collar around her cat’s neck. Mr. Tibbles purred contentedly.
My boy makes coffee in a big white cup
and I like to watch how exact he is;
scooping the near-black granules from the jar
then boiling off the kettle, mixing milk,
his mind half somewhere else.
He takes it dark and it helps him to wake up.
(Through all of this, fresh little currents form:
eddies or ebbs in our continuum)
he puts the spoon down precisely on the side,
looks at me, his eyes meet my eyes
and in his surface I find
tiny whirlpools and tides