This story, “My Arctic Circle,” was recently published by Inkwell Magazine. Because Inkwell doesn’t publish online, I’m posting it here. It’s about 4,500 words. If you like stories about magic foxes, divorce, and ecology, you might enjoy it.
I’m quite proud of what this story achieved. Before I offered it to Inkwell, it was a top-ten finalist for Narrative Magazine, an honorable mention for Glimmer Train, and a runner up in UNO’s Study Abroad contest. It also won me the first place Toni Brown scholarship for the 2012 Winter Getaway writing conference.
Two people I should thank: As you’ll see, the plot makes some radical turns, and these took time to figure out (whereas the fantastical inner world of the fridge came to me in the first draft): thank you to my writing partner, Johanna Deane, for working through the re-writes with me. Additionally, the amazing Beth Kephart gave the story a valuable line-edit, helping me spot and cut out the boring unnecessaries.
MY ARCTIC CIRCLE
I got home from work to find my wife had stolen food from the fridge. An Irish cheese had been consumed, its green-mottled wrapper ripped and abandoned on the lowest shelf. A pack of lox was gone, and a zucchini had been halved, its raw end ragged, as if chewed. This made no sense, but yet it had to be her—only she and the super had a key, and no burglar would have stopped at food.
Crouching, I collected the items Megan had ruined, the fridge wafting chilly steam at my eyes. I reduced its dial a notch, and went down to the spare bedroom, my office once again, the room returned to its old purpose now that I lived alone. No messages from Megan, unless the food itself was the message, a sign she wanted to come back. If so, I did not understand this approach, but I could be patient. With her, I could forgive anything. I ordered another pack of salmon, more cheese, and a box of Godiva, each dome almond flecked. When they arrived, I would call. See if she was still hungry.
During that night’s darkness, the sound of scratching woke me. Floating free of sleep, I warmed all over, thinking she was waiting on the other side of the bedroom door, scraping nail tips down the wood. But when I blinked properly awake, I knew I had misjudged: the sounds were coming from upstairs. Megan and I rented the lower half of a row-home, our living room and kitchen street-level, the bedrooms underground, and through the ceiling I heard no floor boards complain. No one was moving around up there. It sounded like the groaning noise was coming from the fridge itself.
I eased up the stairs. The living room was empty, the chairs and table glinting in the street lamps’ metallic light. No intruder in our kitchen nook; no one in the shower. The fridge was the culprit, whimpering and thudding like something was trying to get out. I approached it uneasily. My wife liked to tell people that I was an engineer, but everything I knew how to fix could fit into a microchip. The wires, chemicals, and regulators of this giant appliance, my height, would be no more susceptible to analysis than Megan’s old Ten of Swords, the saddest in her deck.
I tugged the door open and mist gushed out, chilling my face and feet. The interior was wholly obscured by cold steam. A loamy smell, like turned earth. A waft of brine. While calculating the days until the landlord’s repairman would visit, I waved a hand into the billows, and something inside moved. Jolted, I stepped back a pace, and waved my hand again. A flash of an animal’s white, that suddenness animals have, the skinny hump a dog’s back makes when turning. I glimpsed a tiny eye, heard claws scramble, and then nothing. No sound when I held my breath, just the fridge’s hum, and then the slosh of a car passing by in the street. I swung the door back and forth, clearing the fog, but there was nothing in there except food. No way something that size could have run through my legs, no holes in the back of the fridge, and nowhere inside for it to hide. Impossible. I must have dreamed it, a leftover from sleep. Yet I still cleared the fridge of everything soft and fresh, freezing the things I was determined to keep.
In the morning, however, I kept thinking about what I had seen. That flash of white, and the bottle of oyster sauce it had knocked down. So at work, during the half hour I allowed myself for lunch, I did research on dog breeds, checking images, inspecting Wikipedia. And I found it: an arctic fox. The same white tail, the same small eye. I was mystified how it had squeezed in, but at least I knew its name. And this meant Megan had stayed silent all this time. How stupid I had been.
After work, I stopped in Superfresh to pick up a tuna steak, and then, in a hardware store, I bought rat poison and a gallon of antifreeze. Over the sink, I unwrapped the flesh-red tuna, and doused it until lethal. I ground pepper to hide the sweet reek of the antifreeze, drizzled lemon juice just to be sure, and placed it on a plate on the fridge’s lowest shelf. I scrubbed my hands clean and took a beer down to the bedroom. Megan had not touched this room on her way out, leaving me all its feminine decoration. Three candles fat in their holders. Our bed’s intense blue and gold. The giant pseudo-oriental fan, whose price I still wished I had never learned. I could take that fan down from the headboard, close its arms, and snap it across my knee. On the edge of the bed, I sipped more beer. I decided to let the fan survive.
I woke to the hissing fridge. In my cold bed, I heard the scratches of the fox’s paws, the fridge put-puttering its mist. Feeling my plan closing tight, I smiled, impressed at my deftness, picturing how I would remove the fox’s corpse—then, in the next moment, horror broke on me. I ran up the stairs. On the fridge’s foggy floor, the tuna was uneaten, the plate shoved into a corner, as if inspected and found dubious. I threw both fish and plate into the trash. Then I opened two tuna cans, stirred them into a bowl, and placed the meal inside the fridge. The next morning, the bowl was licked clean.
On Friday, Megan emailed, saying she would collect some final things. On Sunday she arrived with Angela, and they moved the contents of a closet to her car, with Angela, a friend for the last seven years, smiling at me the way people smile at the very ill. I stayed by the stove, frying onions in a pan. When they were done, Megan came back by herself.
She said, “I’m glad you’re keeping this place. Something should stay the same, right?”
I didn’t reply, because I had stayed wholly the same. She had simply stopped liking me. All summer, once she’d been laid off, I had paid our apartment’s rent—May, June, July—never raising the issue. Yet each month she had become only more unhappy, moving to the guest bedroom at the end of August, her first of many steps away.
Megan was about to speak, but then her eyes widened, and I followed them to my fridge, against which leaned a twenty-pound bag of dog biscuits. She shook her head, and laughed, a laugh she caught short.
“Where is he, Bern?” I was confused. She added, “It’s so like you—like us, I mean. Trying everything except talking.”
I told her the biscuits were for a friend’s dog. But even though she had it wrong, I still felt foolish. The bowls I placed in the fridge were gone each morning, yet I wondered at my complacency—I had no clue what arctic foxes ate. I would do the research.
I went to the fridge, and removed the Tupperware case which held the salmon, the chocolates, and the cheese.
I said, “They’re for you.”
She examined the trio, her mouth wary, and she lifted out the chocolates. “I don’t like lox. You know that. But—thanks, anyway. I’ll pay Angela with these.” I must have let my hurt slip, because her face crumpled. She put a hand over her eyes, one slender wrist.
“I’m sorry. It’s a nice gesture.” I put my arms around her, and she touched my side with her free hand, not easing into me.
She said, “I’m such a shitty person.”
I replied, “No,” even though I loved hearing her say so.
In the days that followed, I investigated meals. I bought game at a speciality food store—quail, pigeon, grouse—and I found that although the fox would eat anything, he seemed to prefer cooked birds. And so I cooked each night for two. He disliked only strong spice and white sauce—everything else was good.
Through these nightly feedings, I saw him several times. One evening, when I had only just laid out a plate of chicken breast roasted with olives and prunes, he came bounding out of the mist, snout down. He grabbed the meat almost from my hand. I didn’t know how he appeared and vanished, and no longer had much chance of finding out, because I could no longer see the back of the refrigerator during night time hours. During the day, it merely emitted the occasional groan, but after dusk, fog wafted thick, and ice crusted the crisper compartments at the bottom. The rare moments when the fog parted, the fridge’s walls seemed far off, the space growing large. The freezer door was jammed shut: I couldn’t open it even during the day.
Concerned that this too-regular food supply might domesticate my fox, one evening I bought ten live mice at a pet store and released them into my fridge. To my surprise, they thrived, their numbers growing, scattering into invisibility whenever I opened the door. I cooked every other night, so that he wouldn’t need to hunt them extinct. I hacked away the ice in the two crisper compartments, filled them with water, and then poured in several dark, wriggling fish that I’d bought from a confused restaurant manager in Chinatown. My fox, however, ignored the fish, so I resolved to try harder.
I had seen a live poultry market while driving along Chinatown’s northern edge, a bare place, cream-tiled and feather-strewn, caged birds chaotic in their final hours. I brought home four brown chickens and two wretchedly skinny Muscovy ducks. Getting them into the fridge was not easy—at work, people questioned the scratches on my hands.
One night, I remembered to check my mail, and saw that Megan had emailed me the previous day, asking if we could speak. I went on researching the north pole. For the first time in a long, awful year, I felt content.
I had always assumed that the Arctic was a vacuum, an emptiness of wind and ice, but I learned otherwise—it was a complex web of interdependence. I made sure the fish were not eating all the seaweed and algae in their ponds, and I sprinkled breadcrumbs to feed the mice. The chickens died, and the other tenants complained when I brought a second batch into the building. I listened to my landlord’s stern words for an hour, pretending to agree. During a Phillies play-off game, the rest of the building out in bars, I introduced a pair of mated hawks to the fridge’s highest shelf. These new arrivals seemed to intensify the interior world, thickening and expanding it, and I often woke before the light of dawn, hearing the refrigerator squeak this way and that, rocking in the bellows of its own tundral gale.
Despite daily calculations, I did not fully understand how this miniature world functioned. Some nights, I would open the door to find an infinite expanse of dark earth, frozen sky and running streams—other times, I would find the actual trays of the fridge returned to normal, but with an assortment of feathered animals perched on them, staring at me, idle beaks scratching feathered breasts. Sometimes the only transformation took place in the crisper boxes, and the walls of the fridge seemed mundane, until I looked down at the vast, dark lake where hundreds of my fish swam. And I discovered new creatures, ones I had not added. I watched an otter splash, and, one night, a black-legged crane sailed out. It fluttered around my living room until I shoved open a window, allowing it to escape.
Once, while my fox was ripping apart a rotisserie chicken that I’d picked up in Bobby Chez, he let me reach in and stroke his head and neck.
I often wondered what Megan would say if she knew. I was not creative, she had once remarked—yet I had made all of this, guiding it into greater and greater life. I often imagined showing her the fridge, so she would see me the way I truly was, but I held back, worried that she might protest or complain. Then, a few days before Christmas, she returned, letting herself in with her key.
“Jesus, Bernard. Has anyone cleaned this place since I left?”
I was eating ramen at the table. I turned my pack of charts and figures face down.
She walked close. “You don’t look well, you know that? It suits you. The ragged look.”
“You look wonderful.” It was true. Yet, while I was pleased to see her, I was concerned about the fridge. At this late hour, its noises might erupt at any time.
Megan asked, “People say you got fired. I’m not trying to be rude—my career is in the shits as well. I’m struggling to keep a leaky roof over my head.”
“They just won’t renew the contract. It’s fine. It was always a six-month thing.”
“But you said you were basically running their business. How could they—”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She asked what I had in the fridge, so I took her out to a nearby pizzeria.
She watched me as we ate. “Bern. You seem different. Like you’re actually focusing. Like you’ve started—paying attention.” Then she asked, “Have you met someone?”
I said, “Sure. She’s beautiful.”
“Really? When did this happen?”
“Seven years ago.” Megan shook her head, groaning, but the smile stayed in her eyes.
We drank three beers each. At home, we didn’t kiss, or remove clothes, but we lay down in bed, and sometimes I had my hand on her waist, sometimes hers on mine. Drifting with the alcohol, I felt at peace.
She said, “I’ll give the place a clean tomorrow. So you don’t think I’m using you.”
I tried to think how I could refuse.
She said, “I know this is wrong of me. I just—it’s so lonely. So lonely this winter. I’m out there, doing my thing, talking twenty-four seven, and then I come home to my shitty studio. It’s so bleak. I don’t know how people do it. How they don’t go crazy.”
Not knowing why the words came out so hot, I said, “So you figured I’d be an easy target. Serve you a good meal.”
Her head softened into the pillow, and she closed her eyes.
She said, “I slept with someone—you know that, right? At that conference in August. I wish I hadn’t. I wish that so very much. Only I did. I needed something, you know, and I hadn’t felt it in so long.”
I felt pierced to hear her say it, and strangely my mind flashed that cold plate of tuna steak, wafting the sweet scent of antifreeze. Yet, in the next moment, a great heaviness lifted. Megan had ruined us, not me.
Deep inside that night, I woke alone. I could hear the wind howling upstairs, and knew the fridge door was open. So much for secrets. I found Megan draped in a blanket, sitting cross-legged in front of my fridge, which opened into an endless plain of dark earth, mountains, and scanty, ice-coated trees.
I sat with her, making sure to keep my voice calm. “You’re lucky. Most nights, you see a little of that world, but only in portions. This is the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
“You know about this?”
“I made it.”
We watched birds cross the icy sky. Something white was moving among the nearby ferns, and my wife tensed.
“Don’t worry. That’s my fox. He’s probably hungry.”
She couldn’t grasp that I had built this almost from scratch, so I explained the entire system, showing her the chest freezer where I stored whole turkeys and portions of pig, the electric saws and carving blades, my charts where I planned the schedule of feedings and new introductions. No matter how large it became, the landscape seemed never completely self-sustaining—there were always subtle problems. I showed her how I had calculated that I would need to add a box of mice within the week. She was amazed.
I explained, “The more I add, the more complex the world becomes. I feed it, and it generates more life.” I wondered if it would one day create people.
The following evening, Megan returned, carrying a bag of things.
She eyed the fridge. “It’s still in there?” I swung the door open, revealing an ice floe sea, glowing red under a low sun.
When it was time to add the mice, my wife stood in the kitchen, holding the rattling box in both hands. She looked at me askance.
I said, “You did want to be involved.”
“This isn’t quite what—”
“It’s just how it works, honey.”
Despite her lack of interest in my projections, she seemed to love this world as much as I did, and she spent almost every night looking in, sleeping late, letting her appointments slide. I wondered when I could suggest she sub-let her studio. Then one night while we lay in bed, her head on my bare shoulder, she said, “I can’t believe you’ve never gone inside.”
I didn’t reply.
She said, “It’s a magical world, right here in your living room.”
I said, “It needs someone to monitor, make adjustments.”
“You just think that. Not everything needs you to control it, you know?”
“This does. Before I got involved, there was just mist—and the fox. Trust me, okay?”
I assumed I’d settled the issue, but one day I came home to a living room full of circling, cawing birds, and I could not find Megan. Her shoes and clothes were gone, and she had written me a letter goodbye. She had gone in, she said, and asked me not to follow. She said that we were just too different—she wanted to actually live, and I wanted to control, to observe, manage. The fridge-world didn’t need me. It was its own place, with far reaches my number-crunching would never discover, and she intended to wander in it deeply.
I could not believe it. She was so wrong about me. I had guided that world, feeding it, helping it live, while she didn’t care if her presence provoked new, unstable responses—new and dangerous life-forms. She hadn’t even considered that.
Over the next two nights, I watched the fridge’s world, the spring sunshine thawing the ice, the high pines swaying darkly green. I thought at first that I would simply ignore what Megan had done, and go on running the world as before, but my calculations and charts now seemed a joke. Megan was enjoying my creation, and it was clearly changing now she was inside. I started to think that she might be in danger. Who knew what it was like to stay night after night in that world? How nutritious was the food? I wrote her a letter, asking to confirm she was doing fine, and I placed it in the fridge with a box of energy bars and a flask of filtered water. The next morning, they were all untouched, the envelope still sealed. I knew I had to go in. I would make sure she was alive and healthy, offer her some supplies, and then, if she still wanted to be alone, I would leave her be. I would let her choose.
I prepared. I unpacked an old North Face hiking jacket, and bought new laces for my boots. With the help of a few survivalist magazines, I chose a two-person tent, a portable filtration system, and a first aid kit. I borrowed my dad’s .357 revolver, and I bought several seed boxes, bringing with me potato, lettuce, and kale. Once I was ready, I wound a rope from the fridge’s handle to the coffee table’s leg, holding the door ajar. I threw my pack across and saw it bounce on the damp earth. Climbing in, I stood at the beginning of a pine forest, crows cawing overhead. Somehow I knew that Megan was living beyond these woods. I could even feel the tug of her direction—this, after all, was my world.
I hiked for hours. A sugary scent drifted among the heights of pine, as if the trees were leaking sap. The solitude of this world was both exhilarating and scary, and I kept glancing both ways, seeing only the silent trunks, the whispering fern leaves, but the feeling that something was watching remained. My shoulders getting raw, the sky hazed with amber, I came to a high ravine, jagged rocks torn free from the soil. A river churned below, and when I got to the edge and looked down, I saw Megan on the far bank. She was sitting on a log, watching the river rush by, its current frothing past the rocks. Down there, the trees were smaller, bent with fruit, and beyond them meadows flowered. I called, but she didn’t hear me. I searched for a way down, but when I looked for her again, Megan was gone.
I guessed she had gone with the river’s current, and I hiked that way. Panting, my back sweat-soaked, I eventually caught sight of her in the distance, but the light had failed enough that I did not want to risk the journey down. I got my tent hammered in place, ate a few energy rations, and set about with my trowel, digging little holes to plant my seeds. I set up a camp light on a pole, but despite the glow it spread through the clearing, everywhere was turning dark, and I worried that perhaps Megan had good reason to live beyond the river. Perhaps there were things up here, things that came out of the woods at night. I told myself this was crazy. She had survived, and so would I.
Nature rioted through the night. Insects hummed, birds called close by, and even the trees spoke, their branches clacking in the wind. I kept my flashlight close, as well as the campsite lantern’s remote control, and told myself that I was simply hearing the natural vitality of this land, the proof of my hard work’s success. There was nothing to fear. Then I woke into the darkness and the stink of that same harsh sweetness I had been noticing all day. The tent reeked of it. And I could hear something moving outside. Its steps were heavy, landing very far apart—this thing, whatever it was, was huge. Then a hiss broke the silence, right by me, but when I aimed my light, I saw only its beam trembling on the tent’s wall. Then something round and very large pushed in, stretching the canvas, making the tent’s bars lean together, and, panicking, I thumbed the camp lantern’s remote. It blazed a horrible silhouette, something enormous and spider-like, its many bent legs as thick as tree trunks. The thing’s head pushed closer. I grabbed my gun, flicked the safety, and fired. The retort was terrible, a yell that made every bird take flight, and the thing fell away, slumping below the hole in the tent my bullet had made. I waited, hearing only the slow return of the forest’s chatter.
I lay on my back, holding the gun across my chest, knowing I could not sleep until I had seen the thing I’d killed. I came out, revolver ready. The camp light still shone, illuminating the clearing. I looked down at the beast, and saw only my small white fox, lying bloody on the earth, a wound seeping from its front legs. I couldn’t believe it—it didn’t make sense. I had seen some sort of monster—a giant spider, or a scorpion—and yet here was the arctic fox, dead. It was a nightmare.
Kneeling, I put fingers against my fox’s neck, but there was no pulse, no breath, so with my trowel I began to dig. I heaved away earth, sweating in the dawn’s chill, furious with myself and this crazed land. At the moment when I thought I had made a deep enough grave, my tool hit a hard surface, and when I shone my light, I saw, peeking out from under the soil, white plastic. I had cut down to the fridge.
I lifted my cold fox down there and covered him up. By the time I was done, the sun had half-risen, and I could see that everything was ruined. The trees looked less solid, the grass less green. Every shade was turning pale. And back the way I had come, a dark pillar was standing in the sky, my doorway to the real world growing more and more massive. This world was shrinking. By the time I had packed my camp, the land around me was fading into mist, all whites and mottled browns. Everything I had made was dying. Megan had been very, very wrong—this world was connected to me. So deeply connected.
I had to warn her. I looked down into her valley, which, I was amazed to see, remained as lush and verdant as before. A single white pine stood immense and gleaming. Ferns gathered thick on the path down the ravine, and by the river’s edge, white-speckled willows continued to dangle down. A circular grove offered apples, and far off glaciers blazed red in the morning sun. Somehow, her part of this world was still living. I could join her there.
I started down the mountain path, my knees wincing at the slope. As I passed under a low tree, I felt something touch my head, and I shook off a dead leaf, and then had to brush away another. The tree was shedding dead leaves, letting its foliage fall dry and shrivelled. I kept descending, and at the river’s edge I crossed a natural bridge of smooth stones. As I walked along the bank, the grass I was stepping on browned, dying in a greater and greater circle with my every pace. When I reached the grove of apple trees, their fruit rotted and fell, splashing mouldy on the earth, and for some odd reason, this made me smile. Above, I saw mist wafting over the cliff face, obscuring the rocky lip, and already the river’s flow had thickened, turning foamy at the edges, fish floating sidelong in the ooze. Ahead, that single giant pine was withering, its needles littering the earth like flecks of hair, and then in a tearing shriek one huge branch split off and fell. Everything around me was wasting away, and I was the cause. Me alone.
I clambered over that fallen branch and continued walking, the land dying in all directions. There would soon be no more world in which Megan could hide, and at this thought, although I didn’t know exactly why, my mood lifted. I headed on in search of my wife, surprised to feel only an ever-growing sense of satisfaction.
— — — —
Daniel Wallace 2013
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