She mistook the thunder for thousands of caribou hooves. The clouds drew closer and enveloped the mountains, like a grey owl’s wing wrapped around chiseled blue stone. The rain held back, fighting the pull earthward, then released as lightning touched down beyond the ridges.
Eila followed the herd through binoculars as they migrated south of Alaska’s Brooks Range. Her two colleagues had left her to hike toward the tree line, where they would position cameras and sensors on black spruce and fir trees, devices to measure growth and photosynthetic activity in the arctic climate. Eila counted the caribou and surveyed the vegetation they grazed on—sedge grasses and willows—thinking of how its presence compared to previous years, before wildfires had bloomed and smoldered across the tundra.
The land stretched flat and soft for miles; purple ribbons of fireweed spread over the recently burned areas. Aspen and willow burst through the black soil in bright yellow-green patches. The Earth was adapting, reinventing itself as a new kind of landscape.
A few days earlier, in Arctic Village, a woman had told Eila about the increase in summer storms, how her grandchildren were driving her crazy indoors, and how many people were getting colds from all this strange weather. The environment was becoming less and less predictable. Eila and her team-members had packed plenty of rain gear, but the bush plane that dropped them off wouldn’t be back for another ten days. They’d have to sit through it all—both the likely and the increasingly uncertain.
Just an hour before, light had bounced up from the river at the bottom of the hill. Eila had pulled a mesh mosquito-net shirt over her head, drawn her hair back in a ponytail, and adjusted a baseball cap to shield her eyes from the sun. There was no shade to be found here, only woody shrubs and some alder nearby. They’d measured one stout spruce by their camp as being fifteen years old, yet it didn’t reach the height of Eila’s knee.
She’d waited all morning to see the caribou—tracked a golden eagle from one peak to another, witnessing it swoop many times to claw at prey, and followed a ground squirrel and a fox as they raced toward a burrow, the squirrel winning by a fraction of a second. Then, from what seemed like nowhere, the Porcupine herd had appeared, a mass breaking and coming back together in diverting streams. She noted in her field book the numbers within a given section and made check marks for the calves she spotted. Analyzing a smaller pocket of the group, she calculated that there were fifty or so cows, with thirty to forty calves bounding to keep up. The entire herd totaled tens of thousands. This kind of work was subjective and supplemental to the GPS tracking data they received from the collared caribou, but it was the way Eila preferred to work. She would always choose to be as close to the animals as possible, and she’d convinced the team that it was a necessary component of their research.
As she wrote in her notebook, the clouds darkened. The caribou moved out of view—all but one that drifted in solitude, undeniably brave. There was no escape here. In addition to the relentless torment of insects, at any moment a bear or wolf might charge in at forty miles an hour. And now a storm swept across the exposed terrain, where it wasn’t unheard of for lightning to strike the ground, the cracks in the Earth rippling outward, dead caribou at the center.
Still this lone bull ambled slowly, his head bent to the ground. Occasionally he looked up at the mountains that rose beside him. The air vibrated with another growl of thunder, and lightning etched the sky again.
Eila put her binoculars and notebook in her bag and scanned for the other researchers, hoping they had already returned to camp or found shelter somewhere else. When she saw no one, she climbed down the hill for cover. Rain pounded the tent while she changed her clothes. She organized their equipment—food and sunscreen, walkie-talkies and GPS devices—then re-organized it. She thought she heard the sound of voices, like a radio somewhere outside the tent, but it was just the chatter of the river rising and rushing over rocks.
After the storm had passed, Eila unzipped the tent and walked to the gravel edge of the river. The current was running much fuller, higher, and faster than it had that morning. She climbed the hill again and looked for the caribou, but saw only the one that had been there before, lingering, his antlers carving the air as he walked. Eila found her feet moving in his direction, despite the great distance between them. Then she saw her team-members returning, three arctic grayling swinging from a stick.
That night the researchers drank coffee under the midnight sun and lit a campfire and hung their wet clothes to dry. Passing their cameras around, they looked at the photos they’d each taken of the dark clouds approaching. They cooked the fish in tinfoil over hot coals and watched the sun touch briefly on the northern horizon before climbing once again.
Though she’d grown up in Alaska, Eila had watched the sun perform its shallow solstice arc only one other time from beginning to end. She’d been in Fairbanks then, so the sun had dipped lower than it did here on the North Slope, and it had been the summer before Jackson disappeared, so she’d been an Eila with more optimism. They had climbed onto the roof of a cabin her father had just finished building, after using the kitchen to make halibut-melt sandwiches. Jackson had done handstands on the roof peak that nearly stopped Eila’s heart; she’d wished that her heart would stop, so they could stay frozen in that moment, pretending that things were as they used to be. They’d licked melted cheese from their fingers and lain on their backs and said absolutely nothing, even though she had imagined saying many things.
A few months later, Jackson was gone. Good friends die just as easily as anyone else.
Here on the tundra, it was different. Grayling wasn’t halibut; the sky was not pink but orange; her companions spoke more than enough words into the open night. Still, Eila felt alone and remote enough to speak, after a year without him. The things she had imagined saying that night on the roof she decided to say here, far from Fairbanks, to two acquaintances with whom she had only a research question in common.
“We don’t know anything about ourselves,” she began. “There’s science out there that says our bodies are what’s left of dead stars. Cosmic explosions in the galaxy. We’re changing all the time—our cells recreate, and our bodies evolve again and again—which means the people we are here will be replaced by new people soon enough. So, for right now, let’s be these people, the real us, and then next time, let’s be better.”
The light is fading. Not slowly—the apricot sky darkens in leaps. Stefan remembers leaving the hammer at the building site but can’t recall where. He carves through the snow with gloved hands, his knees absorbing the cold and sending a chill like a circuit through his bones. The hammer isn’t that important—he has others—but things can’t be left like this, no matter how inconsequential, forgotten and locked between a frozen ground and its rind of snow.
The light may be fading only now, but the moon has been visible all day. Above, the sky is a blanket, dissolving from orange to indigo, into which someone has slashed a thin, delicate arc to let in some radiance from behind.
He kicks at the snow around the perimeter of the cabin’s foundation and ventures into the tree line at the edge of the property, but finds nothing. Then, when he sees the ladder leaning against the cabin frame, he knows with certainty that the hammer is up on one of the exposed ceiling beams. Climbing down that ladder is one of the last things he can remember before the cold came on abruptly, with its calm persistence, sure to stay.
Stefan secures the ladder and climbs. As he knew it would be, the hammer is resting on a beam a few feet away. He straddles the beam and slides toward it, his eyes focused on the tip of a black spruce ahead. He doesn’t look down, and he’s not worried. This is what Stefan Jacobsen does for a living: he defies gravity.
From here he can see the valley darkening and slipping into frigid stillness. Some might call it bleak, but Stefan can see a glow hovering over the surface of everything. He is still on the beam, suspended nearly twenty feet above the ground, when he notices the first flicker, like a dying light-bulb, in his right eye. He blinks. After another moment, he sees nothing at all on that side anymore, and the world begins to tilt. The moon is falling, sliding down the slope of the sky like a shaving of ice from a spoon. His balance falters, and his hands grip the beam for support.
A stinging rises to his temples. With his eyes trained on his hands and his hands tight around the beam, he lies flat on his stomach and shimmies backward to the ladder. He almost slips each time he descends another rung, but eventually both of his boots are on the ground again. He can go down no further, yet he feels as if he’s sinking.
Turning, Stefan tries to see the road. It’s much darker now. Driving seems like a bad idea. There’s a path through the woods that leads back to his cabin, but he isn’t sure he’ll be able to find it.
He tries, covering his right eye with his palm, as if he were being asked to read a chart on a wall. Tears seep from his other eye, stinging his cheek. It’s twenty degrees below zero, yet his neck is sweating beneath his tightly wound scarf. He tugs to loosen it and stumbles toward the woods, right hand over his eye, left hand still clutching the hammer.
Fireworks are going off in his head. Tiny explosions. He sits and leans against a tree trunk, his temples throbbing, his knees weak. The reality is that he may die here, because whatever is transpiring inside his skull, it’s keeping him from moving, and not moving can be deadly when it’s this cold; when it’s dark; when you’re turned around and half of the world has simply disappeared.
Stefan rests in the snow for what could be five minutes or thirty. He knows he needs to get up and try to make it home. On the ground around him, he sees animal tracks. Eventually, pulling himself to his feet, Stefan keeps walking, pausing to touch anything that will tell him which way is up, down, forward.
When his boot gets caught on a moose antler beneath a crab-apple tree that curves up out of the snow, he knows he’s close. His daughter is always finding these antlers—some odd talent—and when her own backyard began getting cluttered with them, she started bringing them over to his.
Ice crystals have formed on his beard, tingling as they spread like white moss across his face and neck. His eyelashes stick together with the same frost, and he blinks it away. At one point he collapses against a chicken-wire fence, the sound of quivering metal sharply disturbing the silence. Dogs begin howling nearby, and as he lifts himself up his elbow releases the latch on the kennel gate. The dogs bounce madly around their shelters. They’re tethered to poles that limit their radius of movement, yet they seem assured of imminent freedom. Stefan would normally just re-latch the gate, and he knows it’s important to do so. But he looks at his hands and sees only wooden blocks, incapable of doing anything useful on their own; his brain refuses to tell them how to behave.
He leaves the gate open, provoking the dogs into a unified frenzy. A few more steps and he recognizes his own driveway, his own porch steps. Somehow all he can do is sit there, in front of his cabin door, inches from warmth and safety. Nothing makes sense. He looks at the cold hammer in his hands, to ground himself in something real, and forces himself to remember the details of something, anything.
He strings together a memory. Eila. Nine years old. The hammer drops from his fingers into the snow at his feet.
When he wakes in the morning, Stefan is in his bed, though he doesn’t remember getting into it. His skull feels hollow, as if something large and important has vacated it. He steps out from the back room and finds Eila on her hands and knees, mopping water from the floor with an old towel.
“What happened?” she says, pointing to the clothes he was wearing the night before, which he apparently shed immediately after coming through the door. They’re lying in a pile on the floor, heavy and dripping with water.
“I don’t know,” he says, and he isn’t lying or pretending.
He can tell that Eila has just come from the barn. She studies and cares for caribou and musk oxen at the university’s Large Animal Research Station, and her overalls are caked with dried mud and hay that, mixed with the water on the floor, are creating even more mess. Still, she keeps scrubbing with the soaked towel in pointless circles.
“Neighbor’s dogs got out. Got in a fight with another dog down the road. Did you see the gate open when you got home last night?”
“I don’t know,” Stefan says again. “Actually, I think I might have opened it. But I can’t remember. I can’t remember coming home.”
Eila stands up, and Stefan realizes that he’s been looking at her for the last few moments as if she were a child again. Small, timid, sweet. When she rises, she instantly grows again into the tall, strong, spitting image of her mother that she’s been for many years now—straight black bangs chopped just above the eyebrows, a long braid from which loose strands curl behind her ears. The look on her face is her mother’s as well, and her voice matches the look when she says, “This isn’t the kind of thing you do.” He cringes a little as she wrings the towel out into the sink. “Something isn’t adding up. You have to try to remember. Retrace what you did last night, and maybe it’ll come back to you.”
Stefan sits on the couch, feeling more and more like a child who’s done something punishable. The cabin is small—two rooms and a loft. The couch faces the sink and stove, with only enough room for a round table in between. His legs are jumpy, and he stands again and says, “Maybe if I go out there it’ll come back.” He pulls a wool hat onto his bald head and a heavy coat over his shoulders.
Outside, the sky is bright. It’s later than he thought, and warmer. Probably almost noon already, and somewhere around five below. He walks to the end of the driveway, toward the yipping sounds that never seem to cease. The gate is latched, and Stefan hesitates briefly before opening it; a flicker of something familiar bursts and then fades. Inside the kennel, he says, “Shhh, shhh,” and sits on his heels and rests his hand on the chest of a tan and white husky pup. Her body heaves with hurried, anticipating breaths.
The other dogs jump to the tops of their shelters and then down again. They do this over and over, as if they can’t decide which vantage point they like best. Some just keep up their frantic circles. Stefan feels dizzy again as he stands, and reaches out for the fence. The sound of the metal shaking and the sight of the dogs pulling on their chains—suddenly it’s there. The hammer, the ladder, the path through the woods, collapsing into the kennel.
There’s reassurance in remembering, but also a palpable distress. His throat feels as if it’s closing; he struggles to swallow. Then panic overrides memory, and the images vanish. Stefan sits in the middle of the kennel while the frenzied dogs howl for a break in the system—the chance for their spirits to run until their bodies refuse to run any longer.
The room is unreasonably bright.
Stefan has never been in a hospital for this long before, and he both appreciates this fact and wishes for familiarity. He sits in a floral-patterned chair with his eyes closed, knuckles massaging his eyelids. The intense light manages to seep through. He’s waiting for information. News. He knows somehow that it won’t be good; it’s just the degree he’s anticipating.
A man in the chair across from him is nodding off, reeling forward and then jerking his head upright. The man is alone and Stefan is not, and for that he’s grateful. Eila is speaking to the doctors, getting the hard truth so she can shape it into a more easily absorbed kind of truth for him.
He folds his hands over his stomach and leans back. If he weren’t so sure there was something wrong with him, he’d think the ceiling was melting—little upside-down peaks, dripping toward the floor. Someone is pushed by in a wheelchair, a pebble caught in the wheel clicking with each rotation.
The headaches have come and gone for the past week, but after that first night, the vision in his right eye left him and never returned. He began to forget more things as well—an appointment with a prospective tenant, which road led back home from town, the name of the thing he was looking for when Eila found him half under the front porch without a jacket. He even forgot, sometimes, that he was cold.
Only his most recent memories disappear. The distant past hasn’t been affected, and so he takes comfort in his history, giving in easily to any recollection that surfaces in his mind.
He thinks of his arrival in Alaska almost thirty years ago, with Eila, an infant, in the back seat of the station wagon. He had no idea where he was going to end up, only that he needed to go far from where he was; and he had no idea what he was going to do. Using his hands, that was something he was good at. In his old life, he’d been a gardener. In his new one, he’d just have to learn to do something else.
In Tok, soon after they’d crossed the border from Canada, a man at a roadside diner asked him where he was headed and why. The man wore a blue trucker hat and a white t-shirt and had a rough two-day scruff clinging to his square jaw. Too tall for the diner table, he sat with his knees pointed outward and poured what seemed an excessive amount of hot sauce onto a plateful of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. When Stefan couldn’t answer either question, the man said, “Well, you sure won’t be leaving anytime soon. I can tell. You look like you were made for this.” He used a spoon to scoop the eggs and potatoes into his mouth.
Back then, Stefan still had a full head of shoulder-length hair and wore crisp button-down shirts. The beard was a few years off yet. His shoulders were small, and his pants hung loose around his hips. When he held his infant daughter, he always used both hands, never letting one stray to grab a drink of water or toss pepper onto his food, or even reach for a cloth to wipe her chin. If his hands were necessary elsewhere, he would lay her down in her car-seat and make her comfortable first. She spent a good portion of those days in the space between being lifted up and nestled back in again.
He didn’t know what he was made for.
“You’ll figure it out,” the man said. “You’ll have to.” He wiped the corners of his mouth with his thumb, then took out a pen and wrote on a napkin the address for the Land Management district office in Fairbanks. “They always need help cleaning and building and whatever else,” he said. “It’s where I spent my first few years here.”
Stefan thanked him, which apparently encouraged the man, because he quickly came forth with more: recommendations about where to find cabins for rent—small places that were cheap but required four-wheel drive and the ability to haul in your own water.
Stefan drove on to Fairbanks, up a highway that cut through hills of endless spruce and past the intermittent silver pipeline. The road turned to gravel and then back to rough pavement. Another two miles and he’d be at his destination—a cabin he had found in the paper. The road was fringed with purple fireweed and thin white birches. The cabins were sparse, tucked within the trees at the ends of curved dirt paths. Eila’s head wobbled from side to side as Stefan drove over each bump and pothole. The slower he went, the worse the bouncing got.
His first job was to build a cabin in the White Mountains north of town. He’d never built a cabin before, but he found that the act of creating something from nothing was not a singular skill; it was something he could transfer from one venture to the next. For a couple of weeks, he was on the trails in the mountains every day—Eila with him, lying on her tummy in the moss, her fingers grasping at twigs and leaves.
And then, one day, Vern came along, tumbling out of the bushes, carrying a canvas bag spilling over with garden tools and gloves and some clustered, fuchsia-colored flowers. He tried to hide the bag behind his back.
“I…hello,” Stefan said. He’d never seen anything so bright. “What do you have there?”
Vern looked caught, then resigned. “Lupines. It’s a project. I guess you could say I’m in the business of architecture too, but with plants.”
Stefan put down his tools and picked up Eila.
As Vern delved into the basics of plant breeding, they sat on rocks, watching a rough-legged hawk circle the treetops. Vern explained the physical aspects of his task but also the strange, emotional elements that he hadn’t expected. Quite often, lately, he couldn’t remember what he’d set out to do in the first place. He only knew that he had to keep going. He’d been in Alaska for just a couple of months, but already he felt he had lost his way.
“I need to pick up the trail again,” he said. “Are you any good with plants?”
Stefan shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m good at any more. Yes, I used to be.”
“Perfect,” Vern said, clutching the canvas strap across his chest. “You sound just about as lost as I am. It’s not such a bad place to be, really. Here, let me tell you something about adaptability.”
Stefan Jacobsen spends his final months recording stories from his past, as his memory slips away. His daughter, Eila—a researcher of caribou migrations across a changing Alaskan landscape—is left with his notebook and her promise to read every word. She is already suffering from another loss: Jackson, the person she loved most, went missing two years before, presumed to have fallen—or jumped—into the freezing Chena River. As Eila begins reading Stefan’s journal, the two losses tug on her, pulling her toward her own migration.
Of all Stefan’s written memories, there is one that disturbs Eila most: after many years of studying botany in the Arctic, Vern—a scientist Stefan met soon after coming to Alaska—became obsessed with the impermanence of life. Incredibly, he claimed to have discovered the secret to immortality in his flowers. But the cost of his experiments was great, as Eila learns through her father’s writings.
In an attempt to restore balance to the world, Eila breaks into Vern’s cabin, steals his research, and embarks on a journey into the frozen north, planning to destroy all of his records. But Vern follows close behind, after convincing Sadie—a woman he has greatly wronged—to come with him, hoping to regain her trust and earn some semblance of redemption.
On her journey, Eila digs deeper into her father’s journal and learns about the things Vern and her father did in the name of science. When she reaches Vern’s remote lab, she releases bees that have been living there for decades. Then, as she drives back to Fairbanks, she’s drawn off-track by visions of a bear that she believes is her father, which leads her to the edge of the Yukon River. There she encounters the last of Stefan’s memories, nature at its wildest, and an unexpected reunion of souls.
ARCHITECTS OF A BETTER EXISTENCE is composed of multiple narratives. While rooted in reality, they are threaded with the magical aspects of a remote arctic setting. The novel tells the story of people who want to build a better world, though quite often they are blind to the destructive outcomes of their good intentions. It’s also about the ways in which animals—humans included—adapt when the natural cycles they have always known are disrupted.
Jessica Bryant Klagmann received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Her writing appears in Whitefish Review, Terrain.org, Stonecoast Review, echoverse, and elsewhere. She’s been a writer for environmental programs in northern New Mexico, a college writing instructor, and an adult-education program director. Fascinated by landscapes, she’s usually running on mountain trails with her dog, hiking in canyons with her family, or restoring a hundred-acre forest in Maine. More about her can be found at www.thehillsdranktheriver.com.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022