The flying was bad. The corpse made it worse.
The whore named Ramona was wrapped in a red Hudson’s Bay Company blanket and slung beneath Owen Hart’s bush plane like one of those new-fangled aerial torpedoes. He could hear her down there as the plane bucked in the rough air, the frayed ends of the hemp rope that snugged her in place beating an incessant tattoo against the bottom of his cabin door. Hart was unhappy with this attachment of his macabre cargo, but when it had become apparent at Fairbanks Field that he could not fit the body inside the already-stuffed cargo area – and that he was not about to wedge her next to himself in the cockpit — a patiently insistent Elmer had persuaded the pilot to tie Ramona to the under-carriage struts. “You won’t smell her when she’s out here,” the Eskimo reasoned, holding the body in place while Hart cinched her tight. But then Elmer wasn’t flying with her. Hart understood what the old man was trying to do in sending Ramona back to her birthplace at Anaktuvuk Pass, but all in all it seemed a bad business. In the pilot’s experience women were generally bad luck, and he presumed dead women were doubly so.
It was not just the drag, the pilot knew, but the weight. The single-engine Stinson was so badly overloaded that the pilot had delayed until late afternoon for the August air to cool sufficiently to give him the lift necessary to take off. It was an old bush trick, waiting for thicker air. But now the light was slowly fading, Barrow had radioed of deteriorating weather in the north, and the plane rattled tiredly as its propeller clutched at the broad Alaskan sky. Hart had considered waiting until the next morning but Ramona had not been embalmed, and as he flew across the Arctic Circle the transitory heat was giving way to a cold front, dark cloud building above the Brooks Range. The pilot did not like the look of the developing storm. In 1938 there were precious few places in Alaska to seek help if something went wrong. As usual, he was alone.
Hart flew over an Earth seemingly untouched by human hand or imagination. The boreal forest of pine and birch and boggy muskeg rolled north from Fairbanks for two hundred miles before ending at the talus wall of mountains. The trees stopped and beyond the Brooks Range was the vast Arctic plain, the North Slope, its tundra a great shaggy carpet already turning orange and scarlet at summer’s end. And beyond that was the frozen northern ocean, the ice at this time of year holding offshore and the waves lapping lonely beaches of gray sand. There wasn’t a damn thing in that awful emptiness that any man could really want, Hart knew, except perhaps freedom, or the room to hide from past disappointments and gnawed-over failures. Even the Arctic whalers had gone after a fleet was lost to crushing ice more than half a century before. Now it was a wilderness broken only by a few Eskimo villages, as inconsequential as pebbles in a cold sea.
The bleak, serrated mountains kept this prehistoric world mostly bottled away from the brisk new one except when airplanes buzzed across it like tin mosquitoes. And the corridor through the mountains linking the North Slope and the rest of Alaska was Anaktuvuk Pass, literally translated as ‘the place the caribou come to crap.’ A white man had chosen the melodious-sounding appellation without understanding its meaning, giving it to an Eskimo hamlet growing up around a bush airfield. “Anaktuvuk.” Hart wished he had never learned the true definition.
Weary, used-up Ramona — the whores were called “slot machines” in the bush — had worked the miners and trappers and fishermen and clerks in Nome and Fairbanks and Ketchikan and Juneau. First her beauty and then her income and then her lungs had given out, tuberculosis killing her at thirty-eight. Hart, who had never even had her, agreed to carry her back up to Anaktuvuk for free anyway when Old Elmer asked him to. Elmer was her uncle or cousin or some kind of relation — the natives all seemed kin, when it was convenient for them to tell the white man so — and he said her spirit could be free of bad memories if she could come home. That was reason enough for Hart, who had no home. He was already carrying canvas and rope and ammunition and nails and honey and medicines and hard candy, plus three books and two phonograph records for the village’s mission teacher. Owen didn’t carry whiskey to Anaktuvuk like some of the pilots did, who would trade the booze for furs and leave behind a three-day drunk. That was a profitable but nasty business, and Hart shunned it. He carried less volatile things, excepting blanketed Ramona, and maybe even she was just one more piece of cargo. He hoped.
“Christ, she was ugly,” he had observed to Elmer as the old Eskimo heaved her up against the bottom of the fuselage while Hart tied his slip knots. “How in hell did she ever make a living?”
“You shouldn’t speak so of the dead,” Elmer grunted, who only did this kind of lifting in moose season. “You should have seen her smile in the old days, before her husband took her to the camps and died drunk at cards.”
“Hard to imagine her young. Before whiskey and sugar and tobacco and hell’s half-dozen worst poxes.” Hart pulled on the rope. “There, she’s tight.” He backed away, dubiously studying this modification to his aerodynamics. “Maybe she was pretty enough once, but the last time I saw her it was damned sad. She was more unhappy then than she is now.”
“That’s why she deserves a decent rest with her ancestors. You’re a good man, Owen, for taking her.”
“Well, she’s got about as much money as any other passenger I’ve met in this god-forsaken icebox. At least I’ll have company while I fly myself broke.”
Elmer misunderstood. “Yes, you’ll have Ivan.” That was the name of his half-blind, half-crippled, ear-chewed husky. The dog was as pug-ugly as Ramona and smelled about as bad, yet Hart was taking the mutt to Anaktuvuk anyway: probably to die as well. The animal was no good on a team anymore.
“Short-wave says the weather’s getting bad up north,” Hart noted.
“You’ll have an angel on your shoulder,” the Eskimo assured matter-of-factly. Hart knew that Elmer believed in angels as solemnly as he did the return of the salmon or the cycle of winter. When the old Eskimo picked up a buck or two by pushing a broom or changing oil at the Fairbanks airfield you could sometimes hear a wheezing hum and be told, if you were new, that it was “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Some of the pilots laughed at Elmer when he was downtown and passed out in piss and vomit, but not Hart. He regarded the old man as good luck, as good as women were bad. Maybe that would balance Ramona. He sort of wished Elmer had come along. Except that the janitor smelled too, truth be told.
The Stinson began to buck a bit, evidence of growing wind, and Hart eyed the weather with unease. He usually was a safe flier, which meant a cautious one, and of course that was what cost him his shot at the big-time in 1934 and sent him like a whipped dog to the North. “I didn’t hire you, Owen, to advise me what I shouldn’t do, I hired you to find a way I could,” the millionaire Elliott Farnsworth had told him as Hart had slewed their plane around to race away from the storms of Antarctica, ruining the explorer’s first great chance to fly across the southern continent. Farnsworth had lived to come back three years later and try it again, finally making what should have been a fourteen-hour crossing in twenty-two days after putting down for periodic storms. And Hart had been dismissed long before that as the pilot without grit, the man who hesitated, the exacting, over-cautious cold weather flier whose heart had chilled at the critical moment. Farnsworth, having spent so much, had not hesitated to complain bitterly in the press. So Hart had come about as far away from Antarctica as a man could get. Now here was bad weather again, clouds rolling down the barren slopes of the Brooks Range like a mirror reflection of surf hissing up a steep beach, and once again he had a woman to think about. “Hang on, lady,” the pilot whispered to Ramona. The Stinson hit a pocket and bounced and there was a bark and a yelp at the back. “Shut up, Ivan!” he called. “You’re the only damn thing in God’s whole Creation uglier than that whore!”
The earlier woman had been named Audrey. He’d found her in California when preparing with Farnsworth. No, he corrected, she’d found him: walking with bold grace up to the pilot on a Long Beach float, both the tethered seaplane and her halo of hair afire from a golden dusk. She was a kind of woman Hart had never known, exhibiting the poise that comes with effortless beauty and drawn to the dock not so much by the money as by the sense of limitless adventure that millionaires like Farnsworth exuded. She glowed from the electric atmosphere of pre-expedition camaraderie and fed on its energy, funny and fascinated. And in the ensuing weeks he had lost his heart and maybe something else…because when the critical moment came at the bottom of the world he had finally been afraid. Not at the risk of losing himself so much as losing her, of never coming back to all she represented: the perfume of her, the soft caress of her hair, her implicit promise that life was not just grim struggle but sweetness as well. And in not risking he had lost her ever more completely, of course, lost her in a rush of shame and hurt pride and devastating regret so that he had come to regard all women with a tight wariness. Because wasn’t it then — when she first smiled at him on the gently rocking float and asked if the sky was just as honey-colored up there in the cockpit, closer to the sun — wasn’t that when his luck had begun to leave him?
The Alaskan light was wan, the sun down somewhere behind the mountains, and only lingering chinks of silver glimmered through. Unconsciously adopting the half-grin his mouth locked into when he was worried, Hart leaned forward as he calculated his chances. He had the lean build of the rangy Montanan he was, not so much muscled as wiry — a cowboy body, she’d called it. It was not a frame built for cold climates but it adapted well anyway, handling nasty weather with a burning, restless energy. The pilot was handsome in a rugged way, dark hair falling toward smoke-gray eyes and the symmetry of features pleasantly ruined where his nose bent just slightly from being cracked on the cockpit rim of a flipped-over barnstormer. His cheekbones and chin were as hard as the country he was flying through but his grin conveyed reassurance. Only when he was caught alone, lost in thought, did his mouth and eyes carry the shadow of loneliness, perhaps, or of some promise irrevocably lost. And then if someone approached and spoke he would smile again. If he wished it a woman would return his look, before glancing uncertainly away.
Hart didn’t want to turn back, not with a corpse on board that needed to freeze into the permafrost. If he found the mouth of the pass in time he might be able to fly under the weather to Ramona’s home. He’d hit the range a bit east of the opening and now skirted the foothills to search, storm clouds stacking above him like dark towers. The plane lurched in the rising wind and Elmer’s Husky let out a low howl.
It had been this way in 1934 when Farnsworth tried to become the first man to fly 3,400 miles across Antarctica. The expedition was dogged by ill fortune. First the Northrop monoplane Polar Star had wrecked its undercarriage when the ice shelf being used as a makeshift runway prematurely broke up: only the wings, caught by ice floes as the plane dropped toward the water, prevented the plane from disappearing into the sea completely. The millionaire steamed back to the United States to make repairs — Hart seeing Audrey again, sinking helplessly into the pool of her green eyes — and then returned dangerously late in the season, toward the end of the Antarctic summer. This time weather was the enemy, week after week of storm and overcast. The millionaire’s mood turned as foul as the climate and he finally ordered his men to pack for home. Of course it was then that a bowl of blue sky opened up like a doorway to heaven. “We’re going!” Farnsworth roared excitedly. The crew heaved supplies on board the plane as Hart and his employer crouched over the maps a final time. In little more than an hour they’d lifted off, sprinting south. Then, three hours into the flight, a wall of cloud loomed over the polar plateau and Hart swung away.
“Damn it, man, what are you doing?” Farnsworth cried, looking up from his chart.
“That’s suicide weather, Elliott.” The featureless white of the Antarctic plateau had dissolved into the rushing fog of an approaching storm. “You didn’t pay me to let you go down in that. We’re going back.”
Farnsworth protested that the front looked weak. Or that they might fly through it, or over it, or around it. That they were turning their back on history. He’d sputtered and raged and finally just seethed on the long painful retreat home, as the weather first chased them and then hung back over the white horizon, a taunting ghost. Back on Snow Hill Island the financier muttered “damned yellow” within hearing of the crew. Owen had stalked away in his own bottled anger, neither man really knowing if a path could have been found or if a break in the clouds would have proved a sucker hole leading them to whiteout and death. And in making his call Hart had committed a kind of suicide, of course, giving up a sliver of Lindbergh-like fame for doubt, for whispers, for airfield second-guessing. No one would talk about it directly, of course. Especially not the woman. Audrey was incapable of knowing what to say because Hart didn’t know himself, incapable of staying in love with a man who’d become frozen from failure. They drifted apart as if Antarctica had marooned them on a rifting shelf of ice. Which one had stopped calling? Which one had decided that the lead of black, unfathomable water had become too broad to cross?
So Hart finally came to Alaska where he didn’t have to face anyone not talking about it. Where the country was as fierce and empty as his heart. Where the almosts and what-ifs and do-overs wouldn’t haunt him quite as badly. Maybe. Where he could wonder all by himself if the arrogant millionaire was secretly right — that he’d looked out over a frozen wasteland and allowed it to swallow his senses, squeeze his heart. And then turned away.
“Snow.” He grimaced, watching the flakes whip past his windshield. Late August and the termination dust was already spitting at him. It wasn’t unheard of but frustratingly bad luck. The clouds were lowering on him like a shrinking room in a horror movie. He drifted down closer to the forest, the trees themselves stunted and shriveled this far north. Alaska was wrapped in gauze, the view losing definition, and Hart knew his chance of finding Anaktuvuk Pass was blurring with it. Still, the Alaska wilderness offered a shred of familiarity: the dark black-green of the trees, the dull pewter of taiga lakes, a familiar scale of height and distance. In Antarctica, by contrast, there had been a glorious clarity of atmosphere that destroyed depth perception: a seemingly airless infinity above sterile whiteness without a hint of life. The continent, bigger than the United States, boasted an emptiness as intimidating as a cell, its clouds boiling down from the high polar plateau. Alien, primeval, Creation before the fire. Hart had been lured by it, hypnotized by it, sucked into it and finally frightened by it: this Antarctica that became a frozen mirror of the recesses of his soul. And so he’d run, and run, and run, and now here he was in his new refuge flying for his life, bucking the descending storm like the first loose leaf of autumn. The engine roared and then groaned as he skipped from pocket to pocket of air, wings flapping as they picked up a rime of ice.
Only the toes of the Brooks Range were visible now and they had turned white. He skittered west, looking for the John River that rose near Anaktuvuk and hoping he wouldn’t overshoot and pick up the Alana, a river that dead-ended in the mountains. He cursed himself for being so anxious to lift away from Fairbanks and cursed Elmer for saddling him with a decomposing corpse. The cockpit windows were frosting, so he cursed the Stinson’s balky heater as well. It was hard to believe the warmth of Fairbanks had given way to this, but that was Alaska. Where was Elmer’s angel?
“Ramona, my sweet, you’re a hard luck case even when you’re dead,” Hart muttered. “Why did you ever leave Anaktuvuk?”
There! A ribbon colored white and lead gray, leading into a knot of storm. Hart banked and began following the river. It led to a gap in the foothills and he pressed on, five hundred feet above the John. The water was unfrozen and low at this time of year. Its exposed bars had turned white with snow flurries.
The air had stabilized since he’d crossed the edge of the storm but light and visibility continued to fade, leaving Hart in a box of cotton. He dipped lower toward the broad gravel channel, snaking the plane and sensing more than seeing the squeeze of enclosing hills. Still no Anaktuvuk. Ivan was whimpering, his toenails skittering as he scraped for purchase in the bucking plane. “Dog,” said Hart, “I think we’d better put down.”
He’d been foolish not to do so earlier, he realized. The fog of snow had cost him the ability to judge exactly how close he was to the ground, increasing the possibility he would slam into it when he tried to land. He needed a dark log to serve as reference point but had left all trees behind. He was in a developing whiteout, the same effective blindness he’d feared in Antarctica. “A sane man would have fled to Brazil,” he observed to himself, not for the first time.
If he could drop a reference marker from the plane he could judge his approach to the ground. Something big, something colorful, something…..red.
Ramona’s blanket was red.
Hart debated it for only a moment. Crashing would do her no better good — she’d be chewed up if the undercarriage broke and the plane skidded down on top of her — and the snow might cushion her fall. She was beyond caring, wasn’t she? The only danger seemed to be the possibility of angry relatives if she was busted up too much. Right now they seemed less threatening than the unyielding flank of a mountain.
Banking as steeply as he could he turned downriver, anxiously watching a snow slope solidify off his wing tip. Then he continued turning until he was pointing north again, satisfied he could maintain that orbit. There was a gravel bar below, far superior to boggy tundra for a landing. He unlatched the plane door and pushed it open against a shriek of wind and cold, holding it with his leg. Leaning out, one hand on the stick as he circled, he began tugging at the slip knots that held Ramona in place. Ivan kept up a low, rumbling moan.
Hart clung to a fistful of blanket. At the point where the John’s channels joined, he let go. Ramona slumped, the wind caught her, and she was gone.
The Stinson bounced upward and circled. There! The red blanket was bright as a cherry against the snow, closer than he’d imagined: nervously, the pilot pulled up a few feet. Then he aimed for her cigar-shaped form, wanting his undercarriage to touch just past her. Flaps down, power reduced, he glided down, fighting small gusts. The heavily laden plane was sluggish. He aimed as if to ram her and then hopped over Ramona at the last minute, striking the bar beyond. The plane bounced once, twice, set down, stumbled over a rock, began to slow. He’d made it!
Then it all went wrong. The right wheel banged into a snow-hidden hole and shattered, a wing tip caught, and the plane jerked sideways, pivoting out of control. The propeller chewed into gravel and disintegrated, one piece cracking the windshield. The engine screamed, coughed, died. And then it should have been quiet except that Ivan was barking excitedly. Hart blinked. He’d been thrown onto the control panel. Cargo had lurched forward to occupy the space where his head had been and he reached up to shove it back.
The plane was awkwardly tilted. The pilot popped open the door on the elevated side, pushed clear, and dropped to the wet, snow-dusted ground, sweating. He sat a minute on the hard gravel and then stood unsteadily and backed off to survey the damage. His propeller had become two wooden stumps. One wing was crumpled. The wheels and struts were gone and if Ramona had still been strapped on she’d have been crushed. His plane was finished, and so was he. He had no money to repair the damage, and, after this, precious little reputation to get a loan.
“Damn, damn, damn.” The world was a white blur of gusting snow. He assumed he was near Anaktuvuk but had no idea how far. There was no real danger, he thought: the storm would soon blow over this time of year. He’d just have to wait. But caution had cost him his chance at fame in Antarctica and now impatience had cost him his livelihood in Alaska. These are the kinds of things losers do, he told himself.
Hart dug out his parka and some jerky, throwing a bit to the dog. Then he sat in the cockpit. Damnation! Well, he could still probably find a flying job in the Lower 48, running a mail route and going crazy from boredom. Or he could chuck the whole business and stay up here and fish. To hell with it. To hell with everything.
His thoughts drifted, and as darkness thickened the whiteness of Alaska melded with that other white place and she stole into his weary dreams like a ghost, beautiful and sad, her great green eyes searching and her lips silently mouthing the last question she had ever asked him: “Why?”