He Stands Before An Unopened Door
To every hour, its mystery. At dawn, the riddles of life and light. At noon, the conundrums of solidity. At three, in the hum and heat of the day, a phantom moon, already high. At dusk, memory. And at midnight? Oh, then the enigma of time itself; of a day that will never come again passing into history while we sleep.
It had been Saturday when Will Rabjohns arrived at the weather-bullied wooden shack on the outskirts of Balthazar. Now it was Sunday morning, two-seventeen by the scored face of Will's watch. He had emptied his brandy flask an hour before, raising it to toast the Borealis, which shimmered and billowed far beyond Hudson Bay, upon the shores of which Balthazar stood. He had knocked on the door of the shack countless times, calling out for Guthrie to give him just a few minutes of his time. On two or three occasions it seemed the man was going to do so; Will heard him grumbling something incoherent on the other side of the door, and once the handle had been turned. But Guthrie had not appeared.
Will was neither deterred nor particularly surprised. The old man had been universally described as crazy: This by men and women who had chosen as their place of residence one of the bleaker corners of the planet. If anyone knew crazy, Will thought, they did. What besides a certain lunacy inspired people to build a community--even one as small as Balthazar (population: thirty-one)--on a treeless, wind-battered stretch of tidal flats that was buried half the year beneath ice and snow, and was for two of the remaining months besieged by the polar bears who came through the region in late autumn waiting for the bay to freeze? That these peoplewould characterize Guthrie as insane was a testament to how crazy he really was.
But Will knew how to wait. He'd spent much of his professional life waiting, sitting in hides and dugouts and wadis and trees, his cameras loaded, his ears pricked, watching for the object of his pursuit to appear. How many of those animals had been, like Guthrie, crazed and despairing? Most, of course. Creatures who'd attempted to outrun the creeping tide of humankind, and failed; whose lives and habitats were in extremis. His patience was not always rewarded. Sometimes, having sweat or shivered for hours and days he would have to give up and move on, the species he was seeking, for all its hopelessness, preserving its despair from his lens.
But Guthrie was a human animal. Though he had holed himself up behind his walls of weather-beaten boards, and had made it his business to see his neighbors (if such they could be called, the nearest house was half a mile away) as seldom as possible, he was surely curious about the man on his doorstep, who had been waiting for five hours in the bitter cold. This was Will's hope, at least; that the longer he could stay awake and upright the likelier it became that the lunatic would surrender to curiosity and open the door.
He glanced at his watch again. It was almost three. Though he had told his assistant, Adrianna, not to stay up for him, he knew her too well to think she would not by now be a little concerned. There were bears out there in the dark: eight hundred, nine hundred pounds some of them, with indiscriminate appetites and unpredictable behavior patterns. In a fortnight, they'd be out on the ice floes hunting seal and whale. But right now they werein scavenging mode, come to befoul themselves in the stinking garbage heaps of Churchill and Balthazar, and--as had occasionally happened--to take a human life. There was every likelihood that they were wandering within sniffing distance of him right now, beyond the throw of Guthrie's jaundiced porch light, studying Will, perhaps, as he waited on the doorstep. The notion didn't alarm him. Quite the reverse, in fact. It faintly excited him that some visitor from the wilderness might at this very moment be assessing his palatability. For most of his adult life he'd made photographs of the untamed world, reporting to the human tribe the tragedies that occurred in contested territories. They were seldom human tragedies. It was the populace of the other world that withered and perished daily. And as he witnessed the steady erosion of the wilderness, the hunger in him grew to leap the fences and be part of it, before it was gone.
He tugged off one of his fur-lined gloves and plucked his cigarettes out of his anorak pocket. There was only one left. He put it to his numbed lips and lit up, the emptiness of the pack a greater goad than either the temperature or the bears.
"Hey, Guthrie," he said, rapping on the blizzard-beaten door, "how about letting me in, huh? I only want a couple of minutes with you. Give me a break."
He waited, drawing deep on the cigarette and glancing back out into the darkness. There was a group of rocks twenty or thirty yards beyond his Jeep; an ideal place, he knew, for bears to be lurking. Did something move among them? He suspected so. Canny bastards, he thought. They were biding their time, waiting for him to head back to the vehicle.
"Fuck this!" hegrowled to himself. He'd waited long enough. He was going to give up on Guthrie, at least for tonight. He was going to head back to the warmth of the rented house on Balthazar's Main (and only) Street, brew himself some coffee, cook himself an early breakfast, then catch a few hours' sleep. Resisting the temptation to knock on the door one final time, he left the doorstep, digging for the keys as he strode back over the squeaking snow to the Jeep.
At the very back of his mind, he'd wondered if Guthrie was the kind of perverse old bastard who'd wait for his visitor to give up before opening the door. He was. Will had no sooner vacated the comfort of the porch light when he heard the door grinding across the frosted steps behind him. He slowed his departure but didn't turn, suspecting that if he did so Guthrie would simply slam the door again. There was a long silence. Time enough for Will to wonder what the bears might be making of this peculiar ritual. Then, in a worn voice, Guthrie said, "I know who you are and I know what you want."
"Do you?" Will said, chancing a backward glance.
"I don't let anybody take pictures of me or my place," Guthrie said, as though there was an unceasing parade of photographers at his door.
Will turned now, slowly. Guthrie was standing back from the step, and the porch light threw very little illumination upon him. All Will could make out was a very tall man silhouetted against the murky interior of the shack. "I don't blame you," Will said, "not wanting to be photographed. You've got a perfect right to your privacy."
"Well then, what the fuck do you want?"
"Like I said: I just want to talk."
Guthrie had apparently seen enough ofhis visitor to satisfy his curiosity, because he now stepped back a pace and started to pull the door closed. Will knew better than to rush the step. He stayed put and played the only card he had. Two names, spoken very softly. "I want to talk about Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee."
The silhouette flinched, and for a moment it seemed certain the man would simply slam the door, and that would be an end to it. But no. Instead, Guthrie stepped back out onto the step. "Do you know them?" he said.
"I met them once," Will replied, "a very long time ago. You knew them too, didn't you?"
"Him, a little. Even that was too much. What's your name again?"
"Well . . . you'd better come inside, before you freeze your balls off."
Unlike the comfortable, well-appointed houses in the rest of the tiny township, Guthrie's dwelling was so primitive it barely seemed habitable, given how bitter the winters up here could be. There was a vintage electric fire heating its single room (a small sink and stove served as a kitchen, the great outdoors