Finalist | Terrain.org 8th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
Someone has left the skull of a baby reindeer on the front step. It’s narrow and shallow, which shouldn’t be a surprise. What, after all, must a baby reindeer know?
Every human is burned to the foundations in the end, but John Cage proceeded as if that were not the case. He accumulated and multiplied, he collected and discarded, and he treated the inside of his own head as if it were the most precious storehouse imaginable. I love the long shot of him working across a table from Merce Cunningham, a wretched table, an uncomfortable, wretched folding chair, a sterile space that could be an office park or a conference center. They are both engrossed, they both have pulled papers and files out of briefcases and containers. They can work anywhere. One gets the feeling that Merce is fine with this setting; John would welcome a cup of tea and some fresh air.
Cage’s Manhattan apartment, also in the movie, is the opposite of the conference center, a comfy bohemian place where he tended his hundreds of houseplants and cooked macrobiotic food and cuddled the big black cat he loved and mourned late in his life. He was mugged in New York, during the bad years. At a more rustic earlier dwelling, in the Stony Point intentional community, he hunted mushrooms and gave the ill-fated dinner party that made his guests sick on what he thought was skunk cabbage and turned out to be poisonous hellebore. But I like to imagine him, too, on the West Coast, in Seattle and Oakland with his first wife Xenia Kashevaroff, an Alaska-born bookbinder, or earlier in the Santa Monica garage apartment from which he stalked Schoenberg. It was a time when a bright, handsome young man who had been to Europe could squeak out a living giving culture lessons to bored housewives—or could at least give it a fair shot.
John Cage lived as though he expected to be very old, needed to account for his life as an artist at every step, and was successful—and so he is revered, documented, archived. His dwellings will have plaques, his papers are at Bard. Information is sketchier on Xenia, mostly filtered through her relationship to John Cage. They were catastrophically broke during their time together and her artwork is mostly missing; she is buried in Juneau, near where she was born, the daughter of a Russian scholar and cleric, a stray spore of the Arctic, where I now sit looking northeast toward Murmansk, Archangelsk, Svalbard Island.
A little flock of diving ducks out my window is actively hunting in a way unusual for most of the ducks I see, flapping their wings and chasing a shoal of something tasty in the water. It’s after 10 a.m., and the sky still looks like the sun just rose, although it’s been almost full light since two, and never gets completely dark. In the winter, there’s something called the Novaya Zemlya effect, where reflected light from the south belies the polar night; now, in early autumn, there’s a near-constant crepuscular yellow as the sun skirts the tops of the headlands on its way around the pole.
So much looks like it’s been dipped in dusky amber: the horizon, the mushrooms, the rhubarb bolts, the shells. People have lived in this part of Norway since the Stone Age and it’s been on the tax rolls since the 16th century, so every feature has a name; here I am at Borvika, which burned during the war and was rebuilt in no-nonsense brick. I pulled a rotting bathymetric chart from the rafters; it is strange to see the land made beside the point: only the features important for sea navigation merit a mention. Beacons, or vardens, cap the ridges. On land maps, complications and crowded features usually mean people and their doings; here they mean tricky channels, rocky harbors, buoys and changing depths.
There was an organized hike to the largest structure on the island Sunday, Kjottvikvarden. On the windy summit, someone gave me a commemorative pin, in the way of rambling clubs. The giant stepped cairn dates from the 1850s; the Germans did not bother to demolish it. They probably needed it. This landscape, wild as it is, is a useful meditation on politics, loyalty, treachery: an invader would need detailed maps and some local help to successfully take control of this place. A mapped landscape is a vulnerable landscape. Being caught with maps or detailed descriptions would in the past have meant a session with another kind of warden.
John Cage could have scored the far north, azimuths and angles plotted against the usual clocktime of the temperate regions. Today, August 29, is almost ten minutes longer than tomorrow will be; the sun rose officially at 4:22 a.m. and will set officially at 8:26 p.m., but the sky will stay twilit all night; the six hours of quasi-darkness end at 3 a.m. Past the solstices, the variations of cloud, wind, and atmosphere make each day, each hour, unlike anything else all year. Perhaps this is what Cage meant when he said that random operations are designed to imitate nature; nature operates (apparently) randomly within certain set boundaries. Scientists at the University of the Arctic in Tromsø have observed saw flies, a nicely-behaved non-biting creature that lays its eggs in brilliant red galls, the size of a pea, on willow leaves, and predict that this year the larvae will emerge on the fifth of September, precisely. There is random operation and there is precise measurement; does one cancel out the other one? Not here, not necessarily.
Random objects: the flavor of red onion, a photo of my mother at Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico, a purple sea urchin shell. Rain in the forecast. A black and silver purse clip. The American and Prisoner of War flags flying above Angel’s Gate Park in San Pedro, California. There are six elements, enough for a John Cage score to organize. Twice when I have opened my Russian dictionary at random, I have found the word primchat’sya:“to come tearing along.” It is a strange word, a strange concept. There is a sense of a person caught in a wind tunnel, like the tornado scene in Wizard of Oz. But the truth is that this isn’t the first word I found, and managing the randomness, I’ve been admonished by aleatory fundamentalists, violates the rules. The first word was the banal cognate prioritet, or “priority.”
At home, if I watch the trees outside my window long enough, a jay or a woodpecker will come tearing along. This place is still by contrast, except for the waving cotton grass and the slow motion of the sea. Harsh winds and frost have the few birches and willows hugging the ground on stout, short limbs. If I watch the horizon long enough, a boat will sail across it. At this moment there are two, a little yellow tub, someone’s fishing lark, and a big orange cargo ship of the kind I see only once or twice a day.
During the war, the Allies bombed these shipping channels, and the Germans needed roads through northern Norway, to bring minerals from Finland and material to their forces along the Arctic coast. Prisoners of war and forced laborers from as far away as Serbia built them, dying by their hundreds. Norwegians as young as 15 served as guards. When I was hiking up the varden, a cheerful man about my age, but much fitter, stopped to chat; he was obviously an organizer, a warden of sorts himself. He bore a slight resemblance to Vidkun Quisling, the infamous ruler of Norway during the war, but he only wanted to make sure I knew what to do in case the fog came in.
Today, a school group trooped by on their way to a campsite north of here. They are going to spend a cold, rainy night in whatever shelters they have brought along. One boy carried a big battery-powered speaker; a girl in a headscarf and long coat shrugged her backpack higher on her shoulders. Most of the schools in Norway appear to have at least one or two refugee children, even in the remotest areas. A little Somali girl gave me a picture of the island with a Norwegian flag above the headland and a bright rainbow over all.
Clouds gather, the sky turns gray and flat, the surface of the sea ruffles up as if someone pulled a thousand strings at its edges.
Russian prisoners who built Norway’s Blood Road were generally executed after their return through Murmansk. It was assumed that anyone taken prisoner was a traitor. Quisling’s so-called service to his country resulted in Arctic Norway’s farms and towns being reduced to ashes. People lived in caves. The aftermath of the war was so heavy as to sink beyond the common measure of gravity.
If after 500 years John Cage is forgotten and someone digs up this small piece of writing, I can say that he gave significance to the ferry leaving the dock to travel southeast while a small ship sailed west and disappeared behind the headland. Soon the water will be empty save for the buoy and the ruffling water, the gathering gloom, the threads of water dragging the clouds toward the stacks of darker murk and landmass. The first drops are beginning to fall.
The neighbors have a pair of Mongolian camels, which are adapted to the climate, or at least the cold. I wonder how they handle the abundance of forage, which must be different in their native range in the Gobi Desert. Can a camel suffer from diseases of abundance? The camels have a trainer from Mongolia, who has left his family and his 500 animals and is staying here for some weeks. The neighbors plan to develop an eco-philosophical study center at an abandoned fish factory up the bay. Two weeks ago, a South Korean tourist left her friends to continue a long hike and tried to return on her own, but instead died in the fog. No one is quite sure what happened, the cold or a fall, but the event has shaken a key assumption in remote and out of the way places, that if you got yourself there, you probably know what you are doing.
Last night I was half listening to the radio, a story about the Voyager expedition, that took years to pass out of our solar system. The scientist Carl Sagan persuaded the controllers to turn the mechanism for one last picture of our earth, a tiny blue dot in the bottom of a photograph. There is where we live, there is where we measure square miles and draw borders. Next on the radio was a story from Yemen, a man sheltering his children from the realities of the bombing. War is general throughout my sleeping hours, my memories direct and indirect. While the Norwegians were building their giant cairn, the filibuster William Crabb was plotting to invade Mexico; when I visited the church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Caborca I could still put my fingers in the bullet holes from his last battle. Crabb’s entire mercenary crew was taken prisoner and executed next to the church by Mexican and Tohono O’odham defenders, except for a 16-year-old boy they allowed to scuttle home.
Men like Crabb, emboldened by the successful war against Mexico that set the line along the Rio Grande and through the Sonoran and Colorado deserts, persisted for decades. After the Civil War, they went as far as Nicaragua and Honduras looking for places to conquer and restore their slaveholding ways.
Nothing goes away, no one forgets anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. The Prisoner of War flag flaps on, keeping on everyone’s mind not only the prisoners lost and abused by the Vietnamese, but the general treachery of the world toward us, specifically us, the Americans. Conscription, enlistment, fighting, surrendering mean one thing for an American private, a Somali civil warrior, an armed Ukrainian or Russian on the wrong side of a checkpoint in Donetsk or Luhansk.
Measured off, mapped, the land creates freeman and slave, citizen and refugee. The Sami here lost one traditional way of living after another to agricultural colonists; eventually a Finn or a Norwegian was a farmer, and a Sami was a nomadic herder or dispersed hunter/gatherer/fisher. The Sami Wounded Knee was the 1982 damming of the Alta River, when the artist Niillas Somby tried to blow up a bridge and blew off his own arm; there is a famous photograph of the severed limb atop a copy of the Norwegian legal code. The authorities beheaded Somby’s ancestor Mons in the 19th century after a rare rebellion among the Sami, in Kautokeino; his skull was sent away for study after the phrenological fashion of the time. After Niillas returned from hiding out with a Canadian tribe, he spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, and it is now buried with the rest of Mons Somby’s body in a churchyard in Alta. Families want the empty skull, the DNA-authenticated bits, no matter how much time passes.
Before World War II, the Sami were exempt from military service, it being recognized that asking a Norwegian Sami to fight a Finnish or Russian Sami made little sense for people used to crossing borders with herds in the way of the Berbers in North Africa and the Tohono O’odham and Pima of southern Arizona and northern Sonora—although fight they did, more than the generally peaceable Sami, at least. The first half of the 20th century obliterated the idealistic (or condescending) idea that any people could be transnational, could be without the need for the protection of a state, either strong on its own or allied with other stronger states. The human being stalled out in the face of the citizen; if one is not a citizen, one is nothing. It was Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian, who introduced an internationally recognized document for stateless people, the Nansen passport, it came to be called—or the “Nonsense” passport as Vladimir Nabokov nicknamed it, frustrated by the ordeal of trying to negotiate his own movement and, more urgently, the movement of his Jewish wife Vera between European states that viewed a stateless refugee with scorn and distrust.
Quisling was on Nansen’s board; he spent much of the 1920s in active humanitarian work. He married two Russian women, at least one of them purely in order to get her a Norwegian passport and help her escape a desperate situation during the Ukrainian famine. He was an active, useful person, rose early, and made pronouncements on the spot. He liked to classify based on his own ideas about race, reincarnation, and materialism. He messed around with politics on the left before moving right, and used the media to create a sense of inevitability for his own unpopular party.
John Cage didn’t like to be away from home, and he didn’t care for Europe. He approved of Japan, and they of him. He liked South Asian rhythms, and often quoted Gita Sarabhai on the purpose of music: to sooth and quiet the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences. He drank too much until he discovered the macrobiotic diet, and he had trouble reading the news; an article about crack babies in the ‘80s made him cry. At the end of his life, he said that love and relationships were the great agony of his existence; he had never resolved them.
Fridtjof Nansen is revered in Norway as a pioneer in Arctic exploration. He understood how ice drifted, he speculated that the North Pole is not a frozen solid mass, but a complex of ice plates in constant motion. He would likely connect the accelerating change in the Arctic climate, and the corresponding and related streams of displaced people further south, in Syria, in Eritrea, in Haiti, in Houston. His organization helped displaced Russians, Armenians, and Assyrians, but couldn’t manage Jews and Spaniards, and dissolved in 1938.
Climbing the Kjottvikvarden, I felt dizzy, as if perched at the top of an unstable stack of rocks, although the pile was looming above me, not below. Below was a free fall to the water, a thousand feet down.
The museum at Kirkenes has a new exhibit: bicycles that refugees rode across the border from Nikel, Russia. There is a statue of Fritdjof Nansen in Yerevan; his organization sent about 50,000 Armenians there and to Lebanon and Syria after the genocide. Many of those families have since left for Los Angeles under the well-founded fear that a Syrian or Lebanese passport may someday be about as useful as a Nansen document. I am writing a postcard today to one of the descendants of this complicated diaspora, a Ukrainian-Lebanese-Armenian-American the same age as Maida, my Somali artist friend. I’m not sure she would put an American flag in the picture, but she would approve of the rainbow.
The friends of the South Korean tourist who died have gone home. The North Koreans were in Oslo last week to negotiate with my own baffling government, and in order to keep despair at bay it is necessary to imagine there are people on both sides of the discussion who consider a nuclear standoff a meaningful prioritet. Immigration officers in south Texas have been ordered to help people displaced by Hurricane Harvey, that homespun American killer, without making an effort to deport anyone, but I imagine that people without their papers in order will opt to keep moving. There is no longer a document, even a flimsy one, for people who belong nowhere and have nothing.
There is, however, forever a flag for prisoners of war, the legitimate ones only, forever loyal, jungle plants growing through the eye sockets of their skulls. In 500 years, whether John Cage is remembered or not, may they rest in peace at last, and may their flags have rotted into scraps, all the black flags of causes bad and noble.
Alisa Slaughter’s essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared most recently in Santa Monica Review, Poetry International, and Kettering Review. Her collection of short fiction, Bad Habitats, was published in 2013 by Gold Line Press. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and an MA in comparative literature from the University of Arizona, and teaches at the University of Redlands.