He went out there to be alone. The great American cliché. A man leaving behind hearth and home, all sense of family, to find himself. How often does that work out?
City highways and byways gave way to a thick-wooded wilderness of needled pine—what the rest of the country might think of as Christmas; but providence was not on Santa’s priority list here.
Further North still as he climbed in search of himself, thin woods and brush gave way to frozen wastes, to the sheer white of a black slate, a canvas for a new life. The mind plays tricks, rolls over, does cartwheels all as a distraction to pick your pocket while you’re looking for the button, to steal your time.
If you’re far enough North, a day can last half a year, and in that endless day is where he finds her. The small cabin reminds him of fairy tales—it’s practically made of gingerbread, look at it! The colors, the curlicue spires, weird angles like it was grown from the ground like a tree—
But nothing grows here. Nothing. This house might not look out of place in a fantasy of Medieval woods, but here at the barren tip of the globe? How could there even be smoke rising from the chimney?
“Come in, come in,” says the middle-aged woman when she opens the door. The inside is no less astounding. The number of knicknacks a person can fit over the 60th parallel would strike fear into any man’s heart, to say nothing of the taxidermy. She offers coffee, hot cocoa, hot cider, a hot meal.
“Who are you?” he asks in return. “How do you live up here?”
She miles coyly. “You don’t really expect a straightforward answer, do you?”
She invited him to stay for as long as he wanted, and as it turned out, that was how he wanted it. She was older than he was by more than a decade, but he didn’t let that stop them from becoming lovers. Why should he? Within three hours of catching sight of the house, it had started to feel like home. He had known (or felt, suspected) that up here above the world he would find himself, and he had, but not in the way that he’d suspected. He still left the cottage every day (for a large portion of the time he was awake, that is) ranging out into the tundra for what wildlife there ventured—fish, mostly, under the lakes.
One time, he wrestled a polar bear. He thought for sure he was going to die and be eaten, but he managed to find a strength deep within himself, like a nitro injection to a fuel tank that sparked him to do the impossible and snap the beast’s meaty neck.
He had never felt so powerful. And he owed it all to her.
Yet at the same time, every day when he returned, inexplicably there was food on the table, without his participation. “Where does it come from?” he kept asking.
“It’s magic,” she said with a smile, leaving him to choice but to believe her.
“I’m sick of this,” he finally blurted. “I want to know what the hell is going on here.”
“Why? Aren’t you happy?”
“Of course I am!”
“A man has needs,” he said. “A need to provide. A need to be needed. What the hell am I doing around here?”
“You’re here to achieve divinity,” she said, her back to him.
This fresh-hell double-talk took him off guard. “Divinity?” Of course, he thought, was’t that the reason he’d come here? In a way? To access his own divinity? “Me?” he said, “A God?”
“No, I’m sorry,” said his lover and benefactor, “I misspoke. I am not here for you. You are here for me.”
His confusion was compounded.
“You’re the last step, see?” she said. “Well, next-to-last. The first tread on the last flight of steps, as it were. I have everything I need here, all the power that nature will impart me. But you—you are the one thing she can’t provide: you are an audience.”