James Chaarani’s articles and essays have been published in Instinct, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Fab Magazine. His play, Everybody’s Whore, was named “Best Bet” by Eye Weekly Toronto, and his interactive narrative, Painting the Myth, received a Gold National Post DX Award.
As we drove north, I watched the city skyline slip away in the rearview mirror. I sighed, releasing a knot from my throat, and took a deep breath. Dylan and I hadn’t said much to one another since I picked him up. I ate my breakfast sandwich and looked up at the sky every so often. There seemed to be murmurs in the clouds as they gathered and rolled.
“Look at it out there,” Dylan said once we left the city limits.
The snow was thick on the highway and molded into the shape of tire treads. The car skidded when I changed lanes. The trees were also covered, balancing heaps of snow on their branches.
“Since we were in University you got me to do stupid shit,” he said. “I think everybody needs a crazy gay friend.”
“They do this stuff all the time in those nature documentaries on the BBC,” I said.
Dylan laughed and turned the radio on so low that we could barely hear it. He began tapping his thumbnail against the side window.
“What would you be doing instead this weekend?” I asked. “Watching TV?”
“Come on, I’m excited. It’s more the unknown that scares me.”
“If you read the winter camping book like you said you would there’d be fewer unknowns. It’s not fair that it’s all on me if something goes wrong.”
“Well, if you let me drive then you could read it to me. We have five hours, don’t we?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I guess I’m nervous too,” I said.
He nudged me. “We’re going to have fun. Even if we don’t.” He turned and began tapping his thumbnail against the window again.
We got to the entrance of Algonquin at a quarter after two. The girl at the gate said that it would take us a couple of hours to trek to the lake where we were camping. I loaded the sled with our bags while Dylan sat in the car fiddling with his phone. There were two long poles at the front of the sled with shoulder straps so we could pull it without using our hands. Once I figured out how they worked, I dragged it in a circle a few times to practice. I looked back over at Dylan, who was still in the car. “The sun goes down at five-thirty,” I said. “We should get going.”
He didn’t respond.
“Setting up camp is another half an hour, and we don’t want to get caught on the trail in the dark.”
“It’s not even two-thirty. I just need to do a few things. There’s no reception once we get in there, right?”
“It is the wilderness.”
“Isn’t it better that I get this stuff done now so I don’t worry about it all weekend?”
“I guess so.”
I strapped the sled to my shoulders and turned, staring at the opening in the trees where the trail began. Large birch trunks stood out on either side like pillars leading to a strange world. There was a long hush in the breeze that swam through the branches, which was followed by a silence so loud that it heightened my senses allowing me to feel the depth of the landscape—it was daunting like the open sea. When the wind picked up again, it sent a chill through my body, and brought me back.
I heard Dylan approach from behind so I moved forward with the sled. He mumbled something, but I couldn’t hear him so I stopped and turned but he was just talking on the phone. He put his toque on with his free hand so it sat crooked on his head. I could tell that he was talking to his girlfriend, Sarah. He had an impish grin that he got when she was around. He was a much quieter guy before he met her. Since they’d hooked up though, he seemed to form opinions about things, often trivial things like the lack of taxis in the city, or how they should remove bike lanes because they held up traffic. His opinions often seemed like Sarah’s, to be quite honest. It was annoying, but I guess it was better than him being impartial to things.
My last serious relationship ended just as theirs had begun. Dylan met Sarah the day I broke up with Fouad. Five years of my life felt like a waste, but I knew it was for the best. I’d been trying to convince myself that I loved him for the last two years that we were together, saying “I miss you,” or “I can’t wait to see you,” because I didn’t want our relationship to fail. I was lying to him, as he put it, but I was thirty-three and I should’ve been settled. The thought of going to bars and clubs again to meet people was enough to keep me in the relationship. I think I was also afraid of dying alone, but I guess that’s inevitable. We tried to remain friends after we broke up, but our conversations always turned sour, and I didn’t have the energy for it. We stopped reaching out to one another after only a few phone calls. Maybe I should’ve tried harder.
I continued dragging the sled towards the entrance of the trail.
“Where are you going?” Dylan said, covering the mouthpiece of the phone.
“I won’t go far.”
“Wait for me in there.”
“Okay. Say hi to Sarah for me.”
“Yeah. No, no, don’t worry. We won’t die. Yeah…”
I headed far enough into the forest so I couldn’t hear him talking. There was a beauty in the lack of symmetry of the forest. The land was thick with birch, spruce, and red and white pines, creating an elaborate maze with their branches crisscrossing above me like a gothic canopy. Everything seemed so timeless and uncomplicated, void of the distractions of civilization. This is why I came, I thought.
Some time before Fouad and I had broken up, I found out that I had cancer: stage two Lymphoma. I needed chemotherapy. At first, I thought that if I ignored it and didn’t do the treatments, it would go away, but then I started to smell something rotting inside of me. It was like the scent of human flesh burning. When I started to smell it more regularly, I knew that the cancer was growing. I could almost feel my bowels splitting from the tumors. I finally agreed to the treatments, which were to begin the week after the camping trip but decided that until my hair started to fall out and I looked emaciated, nobody was going to know, not even Dylan. Things were hard enough and I didn’t need the sympathy and tears.
After finding out that I was sick, I focused much less at work, and made inappropriate jokes about world issues during meetings. This got me promoted. At dinner parties, hosted by my more affluent acquaintances, I’d get excessively drunk and ask perverse questions that I’d always wondered about, like whether or not lesbians could be into fisting. Dylan believed that I was committing social suicide, but my comments only guaranteed me a seat at the next party. I also began spending the money I’d saved for a waterfront condo on expensive dinners, designer shoes, and an eight ball of coke here and there. It felt great at first: I was getting all the things I’d ever wanted, but the more I bought, the less satisfied I became.
“Where are you?” Dylan yelled.
The sound of my snowshoes crunching the snow made it hard to hear, so I stopped. “I’m up here waiting for you!” He must’ve been far behind because I couldn’t hear him walking through the snow. It was completely silent. I read that it was much quieter in the park during the winter because snow absorbs sound. In the absence of sound, the landscape became more potent. I closed my eyes, and felt the air moving around: brushing and stroking me. The smell from the pines lingered in my nostrils. I could feel bark on my skin. It gave me shivers.
“Are you alright?” Dylan asked.
“‘Cause you had your eyes closed.”
“I was just thinking.”
“O-K,” he said, laughing, like I was mad.
There was a charm in Dylan’s meek manner, but unfortunately he was becoming aware of it. I was happy to see him more confident. He’d come a long way from that quiet kid in class who had all the answers but was too scared to speak. He’d always surprised our professors when they called on him because he was never wrong: statistics, marketing, French—it didn’t matter; he always knew the answer.
He recently got promoted to National Director of Sales at the agency we both worked at, and bought a Lexus the very next day. I didn’t think he was the material type, but when I asked about it he said, “Haven’t you always wanted a Lexus?” There was something different about him after that. I could see it in the way he rolled his eyes, and how he talked back to, say a waiter or a store clerk, when asked a simple question. Beyond his soft smile was an arrogance that sort of crept in.
The truth was that he reminded me a lot of myself only a few months before. Not anymore though.
As we continued on, the trail became more rugged, making it harder to pull the sled through the narrow passages between trees. We had to be extra careful when we crossed a creek so the sled wouldn’t fall into the water. We were losing light, but I didn’t want to say anything to Dylan that would make him worry. Instead, I asked him about Sarah, her friends and family, and whether he thought they’d get married. They’d already discussed it, even though they’d only been dating a few months. He wanted to wait until he had enough money to buy a house uptown. Then we talked about my two-year-old niece and how cute she was. Dylan asked whether I wanted kids, which I sort of did, but thought I never would have, what with my illness.
“Why not?” Dylan said.
“‘Cause they’d get in the way of your career?” He laughed.
“Not at all,” I said.
“What then? Isn’t it easy for you to adopt a kid from some country?”
“I don’t know if it’s easy, but it’s possible.”
“‘Cause of Fouad then? You’re a great guy, you’ll meet someone new.”
I turned to him and shook my head. “I could care less about Fouad. Nice guy, but I’m over him.”
“Well, you’re either lying or you’re in denial. Or you’re hiding something.”
“Why isn’t ‘because’ a good enough answer?”
“Cute. Let’s change the subject.”
As we lost more light, it began to snow. It started with just a few flakes, but soon it was falling everywhere, filling in the forest and clinging to the hemlocks and spruce. Our conversation became thin: we talked about our mutual friends, our mutual enemies, my mother and my sister, and then nothing.
We marched silently.
The forest was endless and there was no lake in sight. After about three hours of trekking, I began questioning whether we’d taken the wrong turn. It was 5:02pm, and the sun was to set at around 5:28pm. “Let’s take a break,” I said.
“Are we almost there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are we lost?” He pulled off both straps from his shoulders and let his backpack drop into the snow behind him.
“I don’t think so. We’re looking for a lake.”
He laughed. “Where’s the lake?”
“Relax! The worst thing to do is to panic! You’d know that if you read the damn book!”
“Okay, okay…easy…let’s think.” He kneeled down and leaned against his bag. “Why don’t we use the compass?”
“Do you know how to use a compass?” I said.
“Are you kidding me? Of course not! You don’t?”
“There’s a trail—why would we need a compass?”
“The snow is covering up the trail!”
“Look, I’m going to run up ahead to see if we’re close to the lake,” I said. “It could be over that hill.”
“You’re going to leave me alone?” he asked, standing up.
“If it’s not close, we have to camp here. We still have to set up camp and we don’t want to do that in the dark. We have twenty minutes of daylight left.”
It didn’t take me long to get beyond the hill without the sled, but it just led to a valley of trees that stretched miles. I began running as fast as I could thinking I’d find the lake quicker, like it would just appear beyond the next hill. My body heated up, and I could feel sweat forming along my back. It gave me a chill, which was dangerous, according to the book, because it could lead to hypothermia, but I kept running anyway. One of my snowshoes slipped off and I found myself knee deep in snow. It was a struggle to get it back on but I finally did by rolling onto my side and lifting my leg up. I was in the stomach of the forest, every inch of me being digested. The trees teamed up, making it hard to pass, poking and teasing me along the way. I felt that I could beat them, that I had it in me. I grabbed a branch that was at my face, and twisted it, hoping it’d break. It flung back, whipping my cheek. I had to stop. It was getting too dark to continue so I turned around. As I walked back, I undid my shirt so I could get some air to my body. When the wind touched my lower back I knew the weather had changed: it must’ve been at least twenty degrees below zero Celsius, and dropping.
Dylan was still standing in the same spot when I returned, shivering. “Now what?” he asked. It was like he was mocking me, like I was to blame. He could’ve at least read the damned book!
“We set up camp,” I said.
I pointed to a clearing amongst the trees. “It’s just as good of a place as any.” I walked over and flattened the snow with my snowshoes by stomping back-and-forth. Dylan watched for a few moments, and then grabbed his headlamp. It didn’t take us long to set up camp in the dark. When we were done, he got inside the tent and stuck his head back out. “I’m going to sleep,” he said.
“It’s still early. It’s not even six-thirty and you haven’t eaten.”
“I don’t care. I’m cold and tired.”
“It’s because you haven’t eaten.” I grabbed my bag and pulled out a power bar. “Here, have this.”
“I don’t like power bars.”
“I don’t either, but it’s what you’re supposed to eat when you do stuff like this.” I grabbed a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese and handed him a few wedges. “Eat these then.”
He unwrapped one and shoved it into his mouth like a starving child. Then he unwrapped another and another. The edges of his lips had bits of cheese that he didn’t bother wiping off. “Can I have some more?” he asked.
“Here. Did you want a bagel?”
“Did you want something else then?”
“No, thank you.”
When he was done, he went back into the tent, so I followed him. As I zipped the fly up, I could suddenly smell the rot inside me again. It came out from my sweaty hands and sat in the air, filling up the tent. I wondered whether Dylan could smell it too—the scent was more acidic than usual. “Are you awake?” I whispered. He didn’t say anything so I got into my sleeping bag and placed my hands in between my thighs. I felt nauseous and light-headed so I rolled on my side and closed my eyes. After an hour of tossing around, I finally fell asleep.
When I woke up in the morning there was a thin layer of ice on the inside of the tent. I reached up and slid my finger across the surface. Drops of water formed and slid down my hand. Dylan was asleep with his back towards me, breathing heavily. I put my head down and closed my eyes. Just as I was about to fall asleep I heard something tumbling in the bushes outside, followed by the sound of footsteps. I jumped and looked over at Dylan again. “Did you hear that?” I whispered. He didn’t respond. I listened for a moment but all I could hear was the wind whistling through the front zipper of the tent in long strides. I grabbed my pocketknife from my pants, and unzipped the front of the tent. When I stood up outside, blood rushed to my head.
The sun was still below the horizon, creating a silhouette of the entire forest. I could see the outline of an animal, but it took my eyes a second to adjust. After a few moments I realized that I was face-to-face with a large black wolf. I swallowed my scream before it passed my lips. My heart beat violently, pounding at my chest.
The wolf growled. It’s large body bullied with a mass that doubled my own, bulging and flexing to exaggerated proportions. Don’t run, I thought to myself. It’s ears stood up like it heard my thoughts, and puffed, creating a cloud of stream in front of its face. I pointed my knife at it but knew it was too small to fend it off. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst. “Go away. Go away,” I said quietly. The wolf finally turned its head like it was disinterested and retreated into the bush. I listened to it wander back through the forest. I couldn’t believe it was just there, a real wolf, standing in front of me. Is it really gone? I thought. It could’ve killed me.
A great silence fell all around me but with so much more force than before. I was bewildered by it at first, by its vast emptiness that echoed. After a few moments I collapsed onto the snow. “My God!”
“What’s going on?” Dylan said, unzipping the fly of the tent and poking his head out. “What was that sound?”
“There was this wolf, it was just right there.”
“It was…I scared it away. It was incredible!”
I don’t know why but I started laughing. “No. I’m serious.”
“What?” Dylan put his hand over his mouth and looked down at the snow. “Jesus. Jesus. We need to leave.”
“Do you realize that those things stalk you?”
“You can’t leave me.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“I need to stay. We scared it and it’s gone.”
“What’s going on with you?”
“It was an animal. What do you expect? We’re in the forest.”
“We’re going,” he said, disappearing back into the tent.
“Why? So you can…go back to the city…and drink your no-foam latte and just pass time…until you die?”
He stuck his head back out. “What are you talking about?”
“I need to do this. I really need to do this.”
“Need to do what?”
“If you don’t stay I’m going to continue by myself,” I said. “This is probably one of the most important things I’ll ask you to do for me.”
“There’s something going on with you that you’re not telling me.”
“We’ve been best friends since university. We do crazy shit for each other, and we haven’t died yet. Remember in Mexico City when we bought that weed?”
“You mean when the drug dealer wouldn’t let us go?”
“We saw a side of Mexico that not everyone sees.”
“We got kidnapped and were taken to the slums!”
“But it didn’t kill us and it’s a great story.”
He pulled out his sleeping bag from the tent and stared at the ground. “Aren’t you supposed to be gay?”
“Is that a yes?”
“We leave first thing tomorrow morning,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “We wake up and go. And if I hear or see another damn wolf, we’re leaving. Both of us! I’ll drag you by your goddamn face! Now let’s go find that lake so we can, I don’t know, snowshoe on it. That’s why we’re here, right?”
“You’re nuts!” I thought he was going to cry.
“No, we’re nuts.”
“No, you’re nuts. And you better cook something nice when we get there. I’m so damn hungry I can hardly fuckin’ stand.” He shook his head. “There’s something going on with you.”
“There’s nothing. We’ll be fine. We always have been.”
We packed up camp and continued on. I used the movements of the tree branches to help guide us through the forest. Dylan followed along quietly. When I thought about how I was able to guide us like that, it all stopped. It was as though my mind needed to be inactive in order to obtain those abstractions. I was somehow able to sense our direction through the negative space of the forest. It took us no more than an hour to reach the lake.
“It does exist,” Dylan said.
Most of the lake was covered in snow and ice, reflecting the blue haze of the morning light. The air was moist with light flakes of snow drifting through the sky like ashes.
“This is actually kind of nice,” he said.
“Aren’t you glad you came?”
“Glad might be too strong a word.”
We slowly walked along the edge of the lake until we found a place with enough room to set up camp. “Why don’t I take the sled out and collect wood,” I said. “You can start digging out the fire pit.”
“What do you mean?”
“You use your snowshoe like a shovel and dig out a big hole. Like in the book, remember?”
“Ha-ha-ha. You and your damn book. Where do I dig this hole?”
“Far enough away from the tent so we don’t burn it down.”
As I pulled the sled back into the forest, I lost my breath. It was like the cold had sucker punched me out of nowhere. I fell over going up a hill and when I tried to stand, I fell over again. I pushed on, straining each muscle with thoughts of cooked food warming my stomach. Most of the loose branches were buried beneath the snow which made the collection of the wood a much more difficult task. I found a large tree that’d tumbled over, half-submerged in the snow like a drifting vessel. The smaller branches snapped right off with my bare hands. The larger pieces put up more of a fight so I used the saw that I brought with me. The first few were easy to cut, but I began feeling even dizzier and had to stop and rest. I eventually collected enough wood for breakfast and decided to gather more after we ate.
When I returned, Dylan had finished digging out a fire pit. He was sitting on one of the bags, facing the lake. “I’m so hungry,” he said. “I really can’t stand up.”
“I know you don’t like those energy bars, but you should really have one just to tide you over until the food is ready.”
“Give me one of those damn things.”
I grabbed one that I’d stored in my sleeve. “It should be soft—I’ve been keeping it warm.” I dragged the sled over to the pit. “You did well. You got all the way to the ground below.”
“You did well.”
“Shhhh!” Dylan said, turning his head. “Did you hear that?”
“I thought I heard a bear.”
“Bears are hibernating now.”
“Not if they’re psychotic.”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Then it was the wolf,” he said, looking out into the forest.
“If it’s the wolf, the fire will scare it anyway,” I said, hoping that was true. I built a teepee in the fire pit with the smaller branches and drizzled them with lighter fluid that I’d brought, careful not to use too much. It was only for emergencies. When I threw the match into the pit, the surface of the wood burst into flames, but the fire went out. I had to use more fluid to get it going. After a few minutes, I threw one of the larger logs onto the fire to help produce heat.
“The damn logs are frozen,” Dylan said. “They’re never going to burn.” He was right; it sizzled for a bit and turned black but wouldn’t light.
I could suddenly feel the presence of something watching us.
“I saw a video on YouTube,” I said. “I don’t understand. I did everything right.”
“There’s a damn wolf out there and you’re talking about YouTube?”
“How else am I going to learn?” I drenched the log with the remaining fluid and threw another match onto it. It only stayed lit for a moment and went out again.
I quickly went through the smaller pieces, trying to keep the fire burning. I didn’t take my eyes off the flame, not once, fearful that if I did it would kill the fire altogether. It didn’t appear to be getting any warmer, but I stared relentlessly with my snowshoe at hand ready to fan at any sign of weakness. I have to be strong, I thought. This isn’t going to kill me.
Twenty minutes had passed, but with no luck.
There was definitely something rustling in the bushes.
“Do you hear that?” Dylan said. He was sitting with his arms tucked into his sleeves.
As I threw the last branch on, a small flame began dancing along the body of the log. I dismissed it at first, and put my head down, but when I looked again the flame had doubled. Within a few minutes the log was burning all the way through. From there on it howled with strength, so I loaded it with more logs.
Whatever it was that was in the bushes left immediately. I was so happy that I did a jig. I hollered, and hollered again. I even attempted a cartwheel but I just fell over into a snowdrift.
I placed the grill over the fire and cooked those damn steaks so they were nice and juicy. I ate mine with my hands, licking my blisters clean.
“Food has never tasted this good,” Dylan said with his mouth full and juice gushing down his face.
Afterwards, I roasted potatoes, toasted some bagels, and melted snow for drinking water. The book was right, you can burn snow, and it tasted just awful like roasted pine needles and metal, but we drank it and appreciated every drop.
After breakfast we sat next to the tent and looked out onto the lake. Out of the corner of my eye, I felt a surge of light bleed across my lashes. The early afternoon sun peeked in through a break in the trees. Rays of light blasted through the rising smoke. The sun disappeared and reappeared again, each time rising higher than the last. Shadows dragged along the snow like moving stencils, many arrangements displaying the shape of the land. When the sun reached the top of the sky, its light reflected off the snow on the lake. I knew I had to go out there.
“I need to tell you something,” I said. I stood up and closed my eyes. “I have cancer and I might be dying.” Dylan didn’t say anything. He’d fallen asleep. “You’re kidding me,” I laughed. “Well, now you know. So what do you say we go out onto the lake? No? You don’t feel like it? Okay, I guess I’m going alone.”
I walked over and stepped onto the ice at the edge of the lake. It was so much warmer in the sun, so I took my jacket off. I walked to the middle of the lake and looked back at the surrounding forest. I could feel eyes watching me from the shadows of the trees. Maybe they were wolves like Dylan suggested. Maybe it didn’t matter. I got down on my knees so my thighs were half submerged in the snow crystals. I removed my glove and lowered my palm into the snow. Clusters of flakes stuck to my hand. They quickly melted and turned into water, returning back down to where they came from. It was magnificent.
I could still smell the rot inside of me, but I wasn’t afraid anymore.