by Josh Medsker
An Alaskan Folk Tale Retold
You woke up in a sweat again. There’s an empty bottle of Advil PM on the nightstand. They’ve stopped working. You’ve switched to sleeping pills. You know you’re barely holding it together. You’re staring out the window at the snow-covered tree in the yard. Have you really been in Alaska for a year? A wolf howls in the distance. It sounds like a wolf. You are uprooted, out to the wilderness, thousands of miles from home, and for a while, you were able to forget what happened.
You can’t stand your job. You spend most of your time at work talking with your co-workers or staring off into space. You wander around behind the shelves, hiding, trying not to think of her.
At work today you swore you saw something move behind the bookshelf, an apparition or something. The vision, or whatever you want to call it, has the face of someone you know but you can’t quite recognize her. Her hair is wet, and her face is bloated and puffy. She looks like your ex-girlfriend. You are cracking up.
“Hey, George,” you say to your friend and co-worker standing next to you. “Do you see anything behind the bookcase there?” You motion over to the bookshelf, from the information booth where the two of you are standing. George looks amused.
“Dude, you’re losing it,” he says. “You need some vacation time.” George has been your go-to guy, so to speak. Your talisman. He’s a writer. What you’d like to be if you weren’t so chicken-shit. Don’t protest, it’s the truth. That story you started a year ago is still sitting on your computer, and you only wrote a page since a year ago. You said you were moving up to Alaska to start a new life. And now you’re stuck, a year later, in the same rut you had been in, in New York City.
You push the covers away, desperate for relief. You wipe the sweat from your forehead and look out the window. You see that thing again. She goes right past the window. But she’s less transparent this time; you can make out more of her body now. You can see that she’s bigger than you thought. She’s a lot bigger. You blink to try to get a bead on her, to smooth out her fuzzy edges. You see that she has turned her head back to look at you. You catch a glimpse of her eyes. You expect to see your reflection in them, but all you see are black pools. No whites. They are bottomless. You blink your eyes again to try to figure out what it is you’re looking at. The figure at the bookstore looked a lot like your ex-girlfriend, like Pam, but this creature looks less so—this looks like an in-between thing. The woman’s hair flows out now, flowing all the way across the yard and across the street, and as it comes closer you see that it looks more like long fur than human hair. And it has become blinding white. She opens her mouth and a guttural sound comes out, somewhere halfway between a growl and a heart beating underwater. And slowly you realize she’s calling your name, asking you to come with her. Those beautiful, terrifying eyes beckon to you, and that voice summons you to go, so you decide to leave your comfort and follow this “woman,” this creature, Pam, to wherever.
You put on your rumpled jeans and t-shirt, tennis shoes and leather jacket. You walk toward somewhere. You have no idea what you just got yourself into.
Northern Lights looks scary and desolate. You don’t see the apparition. You see flashes of white coming at you and you start to panic. You realize that they are puffs of oncoming snow and curse the fact that you took a double dose of sleeping pills before going to bed. You look at your watch. 2:30 a.m. The street is empty, except for a few late-night walkers. You wish you had their freedom to walk around in the middle of the night, carefree. You see a set of black eyes in front of you. You hear a honk that passes, getting more faint as it goes past. Then you hear a low, wet thud. That’s your heart. You feel wetness somewhere hope to god it’s not blood. You have pissed your pants. You go over to the curb, composing yourself.
You make the trek back home in the snow and change your pants. You get in your car, scraping the snow on the inside of the window.
You head for the Wal-Mart Super Center one street over, and buy some strong coffee for the trip. You wonder if it will be a long one.
You stop in the beverage aisle on your way and knock a copy of Guitar World down. It falls open on the floor. You happen to see “Fairbanks” on one of the pages, and you get an idea. You put the magazine back and go get your coffee.
You drive until you are drunk with fatigue. On the way to Fairbanks, you see what looks like a giant igloo up ahead, breaking out of the fog. There’s a gas pump there. You notice there are no other cars, and wonder if the pump even works, but you need gas bad, so you give it a shot anyway.
You walk up to the pump. No card slot. This thing has the old style spinning metal numbers. You go inside.
“Hey, I need a fill-up on the car out there,” you say to the flannel-shirted man at the counter.
“You got it, bub,” he says, and takes your money. You notice you are even more tired now that you are standing, and that this seems to be much more than a gas station.
“What is this place? A hotel?” you ask, slurring a bit, you think.
“Yes,” the man says. “The Nanook. We’re pretty famous, locally.”
“We used to be a whorehouse, back during the Gold Rush, and up through the Pipeline days. Around about then, we moved above ground, so to speak. We’re a local legend.”
“Oh, I’m a transplant,” you say. “I’m from New York City.” You say this with a little more pride and a more dismissive attitude than you mean to.
“You don’t have an accent,” the man in the shirt says, looking you up and down. He hands you a Nanoook brochure.
“That’s a fallacy,” you say, trying to sound as casual as possible. “A TV thing; not all New Yorkers have accents. Like that show, Northern Exposure. That stuff never happens, right?”
“I fucking hated that show,” the guy says.
“Exactly,” you say. “Like, moose don’t walk through your front yard!”
“Well, that actually does happen,” he says.
“Huh,” you say. “Well, there’s probably not a Native Alaskan shaman dude around at just the right time to dispense pithy bits of wisdom.”
“Not exactly; I’m part Native, and I don’t have any pithy wisdom, but I do have a story. Do you want to hear it?” he asks.
“Sure,” you say. You want to get some of the local color. Maybe it will help distract you.
“I believe in the power of stories to set you free or to destroy you,” he says, looking straight at you. “I’m going to tell you the story of the Qupqugiaq.”
“The Coop-kwa-gin-app?” you say, butchering the pronunciation.
“Koop-coo-gi-ack” he corrects you.
“Anyway, what is it?” you say.
“The Qupqugiaq is a creature that takes the form of a ten-legged polar bear,” he says. You are transfixed, not from entertainment, but from the sound of his voice. He continues. “It can also take the form of one of your dead loved ones. You must be careful when you encounter the Qupqugiaq, because its obsidian eyes will hypnotize you. It lures people into the water and drowns them.”
Your mouth starts to feel a little dry.
“Do you have some water?” you ask. “I need to sit down,” you say, fumbling for a chair.
“Hey,” the owner says. “You alright?”
“No,” you say. The floor looks weird and multi-colored, like a tile floor in a grocery store, like where you saw her. You don’t realize you’ve vomited until the owner says “Fuck,” and reaches under the counter. He pulls out a towel and you strain to get up to help him.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he says. “Sit.” Your forehead is plastered with wet hair.
“So this, Qupthugiat, does it really exist?” you ask.
He laughs and clears his throat. “Depends,” he says.
“On?” you ask.
“Who you talk to,” he says. He is still smiling. You don’t know why. The room feels a lot smaller to you now. You didn’t notice it before, but you have a pounding headache.
“So what do you think?” you ask. “Does it exist?”
“It depends if you believe it or not,” says the man. You suddenly notice the pattern on his shirt, his crazy, curly hair, and his unbelievable look of tranquility. You are irritated at him for being so calm, so unlike yourself. He continues.
“It’s sort of like anything, you know?”
“I thought you said there wouldn’t be any Native Alaskan shamans dishing out pearls of wisdom or wise tales,” you say.
The man ignores your crack.
“I just realized I don’t know your name,” he remarks, eyes squinted. He extends his hand.
“My name’s John. John Atuk.”
You shake his hand. “Steven Mosby,” you say, giving a half-limp shake.
“I don’t mean any disrespect when I say this, Steven,” he says, “but, that’s the difference between you and me. You look at the story and assume it’s a riddle to be solved. I looked at it and take it at face value. I accept it for what it is.” You try to say something brilliant and profound as a response.
“Okay,” you say, with a shrug. That’s you in spades.
Atuk takes what looks like a brownie from the drawer by the cash register. He chews off a giant hunk and hands it to you.
“Plug?” he asks. “It’s ‘Days O’ Work,’ great brand.” You think of the brown drool going down his chin, or yours. You shake your head no.
“Suit yourself,” he says, spitting into a 7-11 cup. You turn away.
“Mr. Atuk?” you ask.
“Please, call me John,” he says.
“John,” you ask. “I need a room for the night. Are there any available?”
“Anything you need, we’ve got,” he says. “Did I show you the gift shop?”
He shows you the books Prostitutes of the Gold Rush, Alaskan Bear Tales, and Pipeline Tales on the bookshelf, as well as some pearl-handled ulus and jade necklaces, before guiding you up the steps to your room. You are still pretty weak from not having anything in your stomach.
You both enter the room.
“Here you go,” he says. The room is average, unassuming.
“Have a safe night,” he says in an amused way and walks out. You flop down on the bed. You barely get your clothes off before you pass out. Your pillow feels like thin cardboard, and the sheets are green like military surplus. You wonder why he said to have a safe night. You fall asleep, and immediately dream.
You are wet. You are floating. This place is familiar to you. You wake up in the dream in midair. Your car is nose-diving into the water, and you can’t move your arms to escape. They are fused to the wheel. You frantically look for the top. You can’t breathe. The water is up to her mouth when you let her go. You gasp. The water rushes in through the broken window. “Help!” you cry. It’s too late. Water has filled your lungs. You see her head smash against the windshield and then back against the headrest. You gasp. Her blood streams out into the water in slow motion. Then your face hits the dashboard as the car hits the water. You sink. You pull at her frantically. You see that her seat-belt clasp has jammed. You pull on it but it won’t budge. You feel sick. You hold back vomit. You struggle to get your own seat-belt free. Your arms are leaden. The blood is streaming out of the wound in her head. You try one last time. Both of you will die if you don’t make a quick decision, so you give one last pull on the seat belt. You break out a side window as best you can and climb out. You let her die. Why are you bothering to deny it? You cannot move your left leg, and your right foot is broken. You flail your arms in the water, trying to battle your way to the surface. You finally make it to the top of the lake, and gasp loudly like it was your first. You throw your arms out with a huge splash and bawl out something incomprehensible to a person on the shore. You are saved, you coward. It should’ve been you. It was your fault. You are delirious with adrenaline, with guilt. But you live. You live, if you call what you are doing living. You hear screaming and turn your head.
You wake with a start. You will never forget the way she looked. You run through all the reasons you couldn’t save her. You had no choice. You had to save yourself. No, you were just weak. But what else is new? You never learned the lesson that would’ve pushed you into being more. You retreat. That’s what you do, who you are. You shake your head but you can’t deny the truth. “Just shut up,” you say. But, the feelings keep coming back, and come back stronger, until you can’t get away from them. “Shut up, just shut up!” you say again, but you are the only person in the room. You toss and turn and put the pillow over your head, trying to retreat back into sleep. After 15 minutes, you throw the soaked covers off and walk over to the bathroom.
You switch on the light and look at your stubbly face in the mirror. You piss. You wash your face and contemplate going for a walk, but then realize it is five degrees outside and decide to go back to bed. Retreat. A shadow of a car passes along the wall and the bedroom ceiling and then zooms away. You wash your face and run your hands through your hair. What are you doing here? Why don’t you just go back home and forget this ever happened? You have a job. Some people don’t have that. You just want to know why this is happening to you. Why this thing won’t leave you alone. You keep putting off every important goal. You do realize this, don’t you? You must. “I’m not talking about some metaphorical issue, although I know how much you’d like to.” You say the words aloud to the TV. It helps you, makes you feel better to think in the abstract. “Oh, okay,” you say aloud. “You’ve got it all figured out.” You finally sleep, but you do not dream.
The next morning, you walk downstairs to check out and you see John Atuk behind the desk.
“You sleep alright?” he asks.
“It was fine,” you say. You rub your eyes. They burn.
“Good,” he says. You don’t tell him about the sheets.
“Here,” he says, handing you a card. “In case you find your way back here sometime.” You take it and put it in your pocket.
“Thanks,” you say. You don’t plan on coming back. You walk out and get in the car. You decide to keep heading north. You will complete something. You will see this trip through. You look around to try to figure out where you are. You see a road sign that says, “Fairbanks, 10”, and figure you’ll stop there. You’ve heard it’s another big city. You look outside and for the first time in a week, you marvel at the never-ending expanse of snow. The card for the hotel sits on your dashboard.
Fairbanks is flat and midwestern. You’ve never seen buildings so short. The only thing that betrays its Alaskan-ness is the proliferation of themed gift shops. You drive past Tenana Gifts and see parkas and miniature dogsleds. You drive further down the Parks highway, into town, and see Go Kiss a Moose T-Shirts and Gifts. In the window, you see shirts with cute sayings on them: “Denali or Bust,” “Chris McCandless Lives,” and “My Wife Climbed Mt. McKinley and all I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” You wonder where there is a restuarant in this town. All you’ve seen besides these gift shops are strip malls and gas stations. You spy a diner on the corner and turn in.
You see an old man in a mesh ball cap eating biscuits with white gravy, alone. You see that he’s staring out the big front window. You also see a young family, a young daughter in tow. The parents are chatting about the dog-sledding tour they are going to go on later, while the girl hums quietly to herself, coloring her placemat, her stocking legs tucked under her. You are seated by the window, and look at the menu. Your eyes glance over it. It’s the usual diner fare, but the burgers look interesting. There is the Attu Burger, the Tok Burger, and finally you notice the Qupqugiaq Burger. Your waitress comes by, and pulls a pen from her wild mess of hair.
“Hi,” she says.
“I’m Inez, I’ll be your waitress. What’ll you have?”
You smile and say, “Yes, I’ll have the Qupqugiaq Burger and a Coke.”
She smiles, after taking your order, and puts the pen back in her bun.
“Nice pronunciation,” she says. “You from here?”
You laugh a little. For the first time on this road trip, you feel good. You say, “Well, I’m from New York originally, but I’ve lived in Anchorage for about a year. I’m just familiar with the story.” Inez makes you feel comfortable.
“Well, welcome,” she says, winking with her voice, turning from you to serve the young family at the next table.
“You know, you shouldn’t believe all of those old ghost stories. They’re just superstitions, to keep people bound into tradition and stuff like that. And to scare children.”
You finish your burger and order a coffee. The steam feels good on your face. The snow floats down outside. It is beautiful. The white covers everything and keeps coming down. You watch the plows and big trucks whiz by, marveling at how fast they can go in this weather. In New York, there’d be a pile-up by now. You decide to get going, to avoid the bulk of the snowfall.
You get back on the highway, windshield wipers going crazy. You slow down, almost stop. The snow seems less a novelty now. You remember the road atlas said you took the Parks highway up here. You pull out your map. The Richardson highway will take you back to Anchorage. You head that way. You want to see new scenery. You wonder where you can pull over. You drive until you get a horn blast from a semi in the oncoming lane. You jerk your head up just time, swerving to miss the truck barreling towards you. You crank the cold air, blasting it into your face. The sunlight has faded, but you are positive you see that igloo again. You question your navigation skills. By the time you park your car, it is pitch black. You look at your watch. Although it’s only 4 p.m., you suddenly feel like you’ve been up all day. You feel like settling in with a cop show on TV. Maybe read a book in the bath. Some of those titles in the gift shop looked promising, you think.
“Can I help you?” the man behind the counter asks. He pushes his glasses up on his nose.
“Yes, hi. I was here the other day,” you say tentatively, more like a question.
“Oh, hi, how are you?” John Atuk asks. A moose head stares up at you from the paneled wall, eyes bugged out. John Atuk scratches his armpit.
“Never better,” you say.
You continue. “Hey, do you have another hotel on the, um, Parks highway?” you ask.
John Atuk looks at you quizzically.
“No, this is it. Been here since prospecting times, since the turn of the century, bub. Would you like the same room as before?” he asks.
You consider this for a second, remembering. “Yes,” you say triumphantly. You decide guilt will not rule you.
John Atuk says nothing, just gives you the key.
“Good luck,” he says.
“What’s that?” you ask. You are distracted by the books.
“I said ‘good night’,” John Atuk replies.
“Oh, good night!” You look at the Alaska Bear Tales and put it up on the counter. John Atuk gives a little smile.
“My high school English teacher wrote this,” he says, ringing it up.
“It’s one of my favorites. These are true stories.”
“That’s what the cover says,” you remark, taking the book and the keys from Atuk. “Good night.”
You are finally feeling normal. You let yourself into the room and plop down on the bed. “Fuck,” you say. The TV is broken. Oh well. You decide to settle in with the book. The wind has picked up and is howling outside the window. This is what you wanted when you moved out here from the East Coast. The pillow feels soft under your head. You begin reading, and quickly doze off.
You awake with a start. Something is rapping at the window. You look over and think you see something fly away. A shadow. Yes, a shadow. You turn back to the book. You were able to finish half of it in one sitting. A bear is munching on a hunter’s arm, and he can feel everything. Unreal. You wonder how this world and your world can co-exist. You feel a little respect for the bear. He never wavers from his life’s mission. From his instincts. You keep reading. That sound comes back, and you turn again to the window. A black figure stares back at you with bottomless eyes and a woman’s mouth. It’s her. You shrink back into the bed. The creature lets out a roar so loud it hurts the fillings in your teeth. You have started to weep and you don’t realize it until you put your hands to your eyes. “No,” you say. You repeat the word over and over, louder, hoping that you can will this thing away. It roars again, shattering the window. It swoops in, right up to your bed, and hovers there. You recognize the white, flowing hair. Its face has locked on yours. It has Pam’s face. The creature’s body is thick, and you look down at the claws on its ten legs. When you look back at its face, you see it has transformed into a white bear. The Qupqugiaq rears up at you and comes down squarely on the bed, splintering it. You jump away at the last second, frantically looking for a weapon. You grab the book, now lying on the floor. It bounces off the bear’s head. You just made it angry. It swipes at you, and catches you right on the shoulder. You fall back against the wall, clutching yourself. You pull back a palm-full of blood. You feel lightheaded. The bear charges you and smashes its face into the wall. You are on the other side of the room. You see one of the bedposts, lying halfway between you and it. As it’s recovering, you grab the bedpost. You jump up on the nightstand and ready yourself for the next blow. You feel like you are moving through syrup as you jump off the nightstand. It falls as you push your leg off of it. You draw your arm back and plunge the wooden post right into the Qupqugiaq’s neck. You hang there for a second, shocked, not sure what to do. You feel razors slice your side. You smash into the wall as everything fades out. You think you hear banging. Is someone calling your name?
“Jesus!” you shout, swatting the cotton ball out of John Atuk’s hand. The wraps that Atuk put around your body are already damp with blood. The room is totaled. Even the broken TV is in pieces. The bed lays in pieces in the middle of the room and the mattress is covered in glass.
“I’m not even going to ask what happened in here,” John Atuk says, seeming to laugh a little.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” you say.
“Wouldn’t I?” he asks. He prepares a wrap for your head. The wind blows through the broken window. You tense up from the pain.
“You got cut up pretty bad,” he says. “But you’re going to live.” You are going to live.