I am so proud and grateful to Achiote Press for making this book something I could hold in my hand. It began in 2013 when I sailed the arctic circle with a group of artists and came back empty… or I thought I was empty. For months I couldn’t write. Then one day I saw an image in my head. I hadn’t done any drawing for years, but I felt compelled to do something, anything, since the words weren’t coming. And then something happened: once the image was on the page, it began to tell me a story. I wrote the story down. Another image came… and so on until there were twelve drawings and twelve stories. As many of you know, I then created a hand-made book, bound with fishing line I found snarled on the arctic beaches. That version sold out, but the small, fierce things weren’t done with me. In the following months, the images continued to present themselves to me on my long walks, on the bus, in meetings, in my sleep, and I kept getting them onto paper, and each image had its story. Eventually, there were twice as many small, fierce things, and with the help of a wonderful publisher, they are now here in book form for everyone. I hope they burrow, claw, sneak, or steal into your heart and head the way they did into mine. I hope they remind you of what it is to be restless and curious and hopeful.
Pyramiden was an actively haunted ghost town. Weeks could go by with no visitors, and then one afternoon a cruise ship might arrive unannounced carrying 700 tourists, with well-dressed women making their way up the rutted dirt road in high heels, and not even one of the crew thinking to bring a gun, despite the threat of polar bears. The young Russian guide did his best to guard them as they explored the many empty rooms of the former Soviet utopia, its movie marquis featuring sun bleached posters of Michael Douglas, who had been starring agelessly through the long polar days and nights since 1998. In the massive hotel, two older women baked fresh pastries every day, ever prepared for a moment such as this to open their small shop for a brisk business in chocolate and vodka. Across the courtyard in what had been the family dormitories, gaping windows coated in birdshit looked out over a decaying playground. When the wind changed, the endless shrieking of the birds grew deafening. Over dinner on our ship, the guide confessed to having stumbled upon a KGB office in one of the basement rooms. How the hackles had raised on his neck when he remembered stories of torture and contact poison. How even he, a man of a different era, was not immune to certain ghosts.
otter and wolf
It was said that otter was not right in the head. She ran toward loud noises. She jumped from steep snowbanks that dumped out onto the highway. She shoved her nose into piles of scat, into cooling campfire embers, into snake holes. She took deep breaths and held them as long as she could, exploring the dim and tangled root-tunnels below the lake’s surface, never knowing if she had enough air to make it back. She acted without fear or worry, because she mostly got what she went after: if it was large and dangerous, she was fierce enough to startle it, and fast enough to get away. Otherwise, she proceeded to roll around in it, eat it, hide it, tear it to shreds, or grow bored with it and move on. All her life, otter had been able to catch anything she tried to catch, with one glaring exception.
It nearly always appeared at dusk, usually in the middle of the lake, but not always at the same time. she had tried swimming out to it, but it kept pace with her, drawing away as she neared until she couldn’t see it anymore, but when she turned to head back to shore, there it was, floating on the water in the direction she’d come from. It also sometimes appeared in puddles, or in the slow parts of the stream that fed the river, but when she pounced, it scattered apart into tiny, distorted pieces, bright and restless. It seemed to be breathing. She wanted to press her snout against it. She wanted to feel what it felt like between her teeth. Instead, she would crawl into her den and hold it in her mind until she slid away into the frictionless dark.
Wolf had been watching otter for many months. He had a reputation as a cynic and a loner. He sat outside the mouth of otter’s burrow and listened to the pattern of her breathing. Even in sleep, her heart rattled insistently. He had watched her chasing the thing in the water. He had never noticed it there. He had never thought to look down like that, to notice what was in front of him. He was always looking out at the horizon. He was always thinking ahead. He was always worried about what might happen, and always regretting what had already passed. This made him slow to decide. This made him cautious. This is what wolf was thinking about as he sat outside otter’s burrow and carefully licked his paws. Then he looked up and saw it appearing over the ridge, and he howled. Wolf howled not at it but because of it, because it rose a giant and grew brighter as it shrank. Because it grew thin and disappeared, and then it returned, swelling- a new light or the same light- he never knew. But always far away, always out of reach, no matter how he called to it, no matter how far into the distance he looked.
Otter emerged from the burrow, awakened by the howling. She strained to see what wolf was staring at, but she was near-sighted. All she could see was his fur and the nearby grass waving slightly in the breeze. But the sound he made was so horrible and wretched she had to do something, so she bit him, and ran.
Wolf caught up with otter at the edge of the lake, just as her tail and back feet disappeared into the water. After a few moments, she surfaced a few yards from shore, looking back at him, her whiskers limned with bright droplets. The water’s surface stilled, and in it, wolf saw the pale orb appear, huge, glowing, and close enough to touch, with otter floating in its center. Otter, squinting, saw that wolf had caught the bright thing, not once, but twice, with his eyes.