Inuit in Shining Amour
The plane was going down, that much was certain. If that wasn't bad enough, it was going down in the middle of nowhere, the middle of a nowhere that was covered in snow. Maybe that was a good thing: since there was only one parachute between the two of them, only one of them would be praying hard for a very soft landing.
Andrew Halal Dixon rummaged through the litany of curses he carried inside his head. How the hell could this be happening? How could one of the richest men in the world be about to die? What was the point of all that money, all that experience, if it could be rendered meaningless by one stupid light on a panel, one stupid light telling him that one criminally stupid person had not done his job thoroughly enough on the ground?
The aircraft shifted from a gliding motion towards one better described by the word plummet. So far, his wife hadn't panicked, accustomed as she was to him being in control, to having everything go his way. Surely he could take on gravity, and win, as he had won every battle in his life. But now he saw the uncertainty in her eyes, and he felt his rage diluted with a dash of pity.
"Come on," he said. "Hold onto me." He checked the parachute was secure on his back and pulled her towards him, as he had pulled her towards him when she was an eighteen year-old doll. He'd been a confident twenty-eight year old, the world already trampled under his feet. "Hold tight," he had said, lifting her on to the dance floor. "You're in for the ride of your life."
They struggled, locked together, towards the exit, and somehow he managed to get the door open and withstand the rush of air, pulling them both to the opening and throwing them out into space. Bracing himself for the thud of a wing against the side of his head, he held her with hands already protesting about the liquid nitrogen that apparently passed for central heating this far off the ground.
"Shit," he thought, knowing he wouldn't be able to hold her. She was already slipping away, and he straddled her with his legs, fighting a vision of Slim Pickens riding an H Bomb down to Earth, a vision that threatened to fill him with hysteria.
"Hold on," he tried to scream, but the rushing wind blew his words back down his throat. If he could get the parachute open, without losing his grip, he knew he would be able to see them both safely back to earth. He felt her arms clinging tight, held her with his legs and one arm, while he reached for the cord and jerked it away from his body. Anticipating the combined forces of wind and gravity, he gripped his wife as tightly as she gripped him, and they managed to stay together while the silk billowed above them, gathering hundreds of gallons of air, dramatically slowing their descent.
He looked down and she was looking back at him, looking for reassurance, wanting him to smile, tell her the worst was over and they were going to survive. He did smile, but something was wrong. He'd spotted a rip in the fabric of the chute, and he knew, though they were travelling at a fraction of their previous speed, they were still travelling at a fatal velocity. Simply put, they were inadvertently killing each other, and, unless one of them let go, they would both, very soon, be spread like ketchup on a slice of Mother Earth. How ironic, he thought, after all the times he'd imagined her dead, even wished it sometimes, when he'd found her infuriating, or simply inconvenient. Now it came to the crunch - literally - his heart, which he and everyone who knew him, thought had died with his umbilical cord, started to break.
His brain had calculated the odds the moment he noticed the rip, computed the speed they were falling, factored in the probable inflexibility of the ground rising to meet them, and concluded they were almost certainly doomed. There was the snow, of course, and the angle of landing. Both of these would vastly increase their chances of survival. Maybe. But he didn't have time to consider all the variables.
This was bad. He'd killed before, of course, but never face to face, and never someone who wasn't an enemy. All husbands and wives are enemies some of the time, he conceded, but not in the same way as a competitor, an embezzler, or blackmailer. And he wasn't really killing Belinda. He was 'letting her go', as he had so many employees and partners over the years. Decisions had to be taken, and he never had a problem with tough decisions, even now.
He took her hands in his. God bless her, she thought he wanted to hold them tight, and the look of surprise on her face when he let them go, broke his heart all over again. Not so much that he didn't push her away, as the truth dawned and she frantically grabbed at his collar, his jacket, his belt. She wrapped her legs around his, clinging to life as desperately as she had clung all those years ago, when they had strived in vain to create one. Then she was gone, and he felt himself pulled upwards, and felt himself settle into a more leisurely, life-sustaining, descent.
He wanted to watch her go, and, just as powerfully, didn't want to watch. If you pointed a gun at someone's head then looked away as you pulled the trigger, could you convince yourself that you hadn't actually killed them? If you left the room without a backward glance, could you sleep that night, telling yourself all you'd done was manipulate a metal lever: what happened next, what happened to the bullet, was none of your doing, none of your concern?
Possibly. He glanced down but all he saw was a torrent of snowflakes. The world was an abstract panorama of grey and white, and he realised he would not be able to brace himself for landing because he would have no idea exactly when his feet would hit the floor. As the realisation hit home, so did the ground. His legs crumpled with shocking violence, and as he blacked out, he seemed to hear the snapping of a gigantic branch. Then the white turned to black and he slept.
He was wakened by the sound of something scrabbling in the snow, and an excruciating pain shooting up the entire right hand side of his body. His first thought was 'Polar Bear.'
He tried to struggle out of the dark but the pain effectively paralysed him. He cried out in agony and panic, then a furry paw brushed his face and he screamed again, involuntarily, thinking deep down that silence was surely his only hope. The paw withdrew for a moment, then continued to wipe away the snow. He blinked a few times and tried to focus on the figure taking shape above him. There was more fur, but not the creamy white coat of a polar bear. This was grey, speckled black, and he immediately thought, 'Wolf.' But a wolf with gigantic paws? And surely a wolf would be sniffing and baring its fangs, overwhelming him with its hot, hungry breath. He googled his brain for animals likely to eat him in the wilderness: Giant Beavers? Man-eating Mooses? Moose? Mice? Meeces?
Aaagh! Jesus, the pain was unbearable, and the thing hadn't even bitten him yet. Or had it? Maybe there was more than one. Hewas delirious, and he knew it, so did that mean he wasn't delirious? Why didn't they go and eat Belinda? She was already dead, after all, and no doubt her flesh was a lot more tender as well. No wonder they called animals dumb.
"Get the hell away from me," he yelled, and flung an arm out at the beast. The beast pulled away, and his eyes managed to focus on a face within the fur, a face belonging to nothing more terrifying than a woman. He gasped, then laughed with a mixture of embarrassment and relief.
"Thank God," he said, then "Ow! Watch what you're doing!" as she leaned forward and put her weight against his shattered leg.
She gently brushed the remaining snow from his clothes and inspected his injuries, then she climbed to her feet and walked a few yards to a wooden sled. Without a word, over the next half hour, she managed to fashion him a makeshift splint, clothe him in fur and transfer his body, with much screaming and profanity - mostly from him - onto the sled.
They journeyed for an indeterminate period of time, Dixon fading in and out of consciousness. At first, he cast anxious glances over the passing scenery, if a never-ending expanse of snow could be described as scenery. Not that he was interested in the stark beauty of the landscape: all he had eyes for was the crumpled body of his late wife. Again he was consumed by conflicting emotions: he wanted to see her, yet she was the last thing he wanted to see, especially if she was being devoured by rapacious penguins. An irritating little man who had taken up residence in his head, kept suggesting that Belinda might have survived the fall, and this also left him with a feeling of ambivalence.
He sort of loved his wife, he hadn't really wanted her dead, certainly not like this. But he was a man defined by his decisions, and once a decision was taken, he found it impossible to waste time thinking about the ifs and buts and maybes. That whole mindset was incomprehensible to him. He believed there hadn't been a person born who didn't have problems, so get on with it. Complaining never solved a thing. Boo-hoo never invented a light bulb.
He watched the back of this other woman, hunched away from him, hauling the sled on which he lay. This was the kind of person he admired, someone who came across a body in the snow and simply strapped it to her sled and dragged it to safety. Magnificent. Then he passed out again. When he awoke, there was a fire crackling beside him, and the woman was stirring something in a tin suspended above it. He grunted and she turned her head to face him. She was still enveloped in furs, but he could see her eyes, sparkling brown in the firelight. They studied him, dispassionately, and he felt momentarily uncomfortable, as though he was being assessed by an alien being, a member of another species, a species with different, unrecognisable, emotions. In a way he was right, for he had often thought of himself as set apart, someone not ruled by the same emotions and thought processes as other humans, particularly women. That was one of the reasons he had been so successful, in business and other sorts of affairs.
Still, he couldn't remember looking at anyone with the same cool detachment with which he was being observed, and he found it slightly unsettling. He grunted again, and nodded at the steaming tin, trusting she would understand the query in his gesture. She did, for she turned immediately to the pan and lifted out the wooden spoon, then held it to his lips. Hot liquid entered his mouth and ran down his chin, but he didn't mind. It was salty and delicious, and he didn't care if it was boiled walrus brains, he wanted more. The woman fed him from the tin, occasionally taking some for herself, and for a moment Dixon felt resentment welling up inside him, but before he could analyse his feelings, the pain in his legs reminded him that hunger was not the only item threatening his life.
He somehow managed to sleep, how long he didn't know, then they were off again, bouncing downhill through the snow, bouncing off hidden ruts of ice, labouring up slopes, thumping along on the flat, on and on, his leg throbbing, his face stinging. He slipped in and out of consciousness, praying when he woke that they were close to safety, but as darkness fell again, the woman built another fire, boiled some more brains, and they settled in for another night.
He dreamed of voices, male voices, celebrating, coming closer, then he was gone again as the searing pain returned. The next time he opened his eyes, he was moving, and the voices were still there, murmuring. He was being carried, and he saw a fur-covered figure at each corner of the sled, jogging along. He heard other voices, farther away, growing in volume, and they were shouting and cheering. He looked for the woman who had saved him, but couldn't lift his head, not until they reached the voices and he was set down on the floor.
They were in a kind of village, he reckoned, for Eskimos or Inuits, whatever they wanted to call themselves. Lots of them gathered round, hugging the men and clapping them on the back. He saw the woman, then saw her surrounded, saw her being congratulated enthusiastically, welcomed like a hero, or someone of great popularity who had been away a long time. Dixon had never been greeted like that, and didn't suppose he would be when he returned from this disaster. Not that he cared. No doubt there would be a handful of sycophantic ass-kissers waiting to tell him who'd been trying hardest to fill his still-warm boots, but they could all go to hell.
The woman was being shepherded towards one of the huts, and for a minute, Dixon was forgotten. It did strike him as odd that his rescuer should be applauded while he was virtually ignored, but for now his ego was a long way second to the pain in his leg. He tried to cry out, but he sounded so feeble and pathetic, even to himself, he quickly gave up. It didn't matter, for four other men came and lifted the sled and carried him to the centre of the camp. He could feel the heat of a great fire, even before they set him down, and he welcomed the warmth.
Children gathered round and stared at him with curiosity, and the same unsettling ambivalence the woman had showed him earlier. There was something familiar in their faces, and Dixon realised it was an expression he'd seen on photographs of other children, children on another continent, children of another race. These were the pathetic, and apparently apathetic, faces of children who had given up hope. But why would these children bear such a resemblance to children who were starving? There was no drought here, for certain. These people didn't rely on crops for their food. There had to be fish, seals, seabirds, even Polar Bears. And walrus brains; don't forget the walrus brains.
His own brain was racing, confused by the pain, confused by the faces of these strange, alien people. He didn't understand. He'd bought into all the global warming stuff, or climate change, or whatever they were calling it now, even made another fortune out of carbon credits and wind farms. He'd been well placed to cash in on the recycling surge, collecting stuff they said he couldn't put in landfills, then shipping it to landfills in China and Brazil.
No one told him about starving Eskimos. Or Inuits. Or anyone else. Still, that wasn't his problem. Maybe he'd look into it when he got back home. Who knew, there may be something he could do to help, and if they were sitting over lakes of oil and gas, maybe they'd show their gratitude with some cheap mining permits. Who knew? That kind of luck had always managed to find him in the past, so why not now?
He heard another commotion, and when he turned his head, he thought he'd gone delirious. People were arguing about something, something on a table, something pink. Some of them pointed at the pink thing, then pointed at him. There was a man at the centre of the arguments, holding a knife, and dressed in an apron, a bit like a surgeon. They were surely telling him Dixon was injured, he needed urgent help.
And now things were moving fast. The arguments stopped and the men moved towards him. The women, meanwhile, surrounded the pink thing and started to cover it in furs. The pink thing moved, then stood. Dixon craned his neck, but the men were in the way, and the pain riveted up his spine, so he lay flat on his back as they surrounded him and began removing the furs the woman had lent him, and then his clothes.
"Whoa, stop," he cried out, in between the screams as they banged against his splintered shin. He looked for the surgeon guy, the one with the knife. Surely he would understand the pain he was in, and order the others to treat him gently, but Dixon couldn't see him. There were too many people crowding round and his head felt fuzzy.
"Please," he heard himself say, as though he were watching from a long way off. "Stop it, please."
He must have retained some of his old authority, for the men stepped back, the hands stopped grasping at him and he was able to grab some of his clothing and cover his indignity. He noticed a heavy silence had descended, as though a fresh fall of snow had enveloped the village, then the man in the apron stepped forward and issued some orders. Five or six men lifted Dixon into the air and carried him across the village. "At last," he thought. "Now we're getting somewhere.
He turned his head and saw children staring up at him, children with sad eyes, with hungry eyes, with eyes still bereft of hope. Maybe he could help them, when he got home. Maybe he could get one of his secretaries to set up a trust, build them a school. He could name it after Belinda, yes? Or a hospital. God, they could do with one, it looked like they were going to deal with his injuries out here in the open, over there, on the table where the pink thing had been, before the women hurried it away. And now they were setting him down on the rough, makeshift table, and this was better, because he could feel the warmth from a nearby fire, and hear it crackle as the pine logs burnt. Hands removed his last shreds of clothing, and more hands massaged his flesh, warming him, soothing him, rubbing in some kind of grease, and he looked and he saw Belinda, watching him from a bundle of furs.
Surely not? He knew people had survived worse plane crashes than theirs, even without parachutes and snow. There was a teenage girl, he remembered, when a jet crashed in Peru, who walked for 9 days through the jungle and survived. And Hugh Glass, the man left in the wilderness 1800's, in a situation very similar to his own, and he survived. But Belinda?
Again he stretched to see, but gentle hands restrained him, the massage continued, the silence persisted. He didn't feel good all of a sudden. Not that he'd been feeling great before, but now he felt woozy. Maybe he'd lost more blood than he thought. When he looked down at his body, he had the curious feeling that he was looking up, as though his feet were above his head. Something warm tickled his neck and then his ears, and he tried to tuck in his chin, to see what it was, but all he could see was red. Then Belinda was beside him, and her eyes were a mixture of anger and pity, and pain, and he tried to speak but found he was unable. He wanted to ask her what was happening, and she must have read his mind because she bent down and spoke close to his ear.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for saving me."
He didn't know what she meant, and he couldn't snap at her this time, couldn't argue with her, because he was incapable of speech. He looked frantically into her eyes, pleading with her, desperately searching for answers. If she wanted to believe he had saved her, when in fact he had kicked her away in mid-air, simply to save himself, well fine; there was nothing to be gained by correcting her. But he was sure there was something else. The bitterness in her voice was not the expression of someone on the receiving end of the biggest favour one person could give to another. She bent forward again.
"Not when we fell from the plane," she said. "I know what you did then." She looked into his eyes and he felt the pieces of his broken heart trying to crawl back together inside his chest. "I forgive you," she said. "Who knows, if you'd held onto me, we both might have died. I would have missed the snowbank that saved me, I would have missed the hunting party that found me and brought me here. You might have missed the woman that found you and brought you here. And here we are," she said, "together again."
"So how did I save you?"
Dixon couldn't tell if the words came out or not, he was sinking fast into a warm, dark ocean, but he heard Belinda's answer, even felt her soft warm breath as she whispered in his ear.
"These poor people," she said. "These poor, starving people. They've waited so long, and they wanted to wait a little longer." She glanced away, then spoke quietly to him. "The supplies will be here the day after tomorrow," she said. "Just think. But the children, Andrew? The children are dying. And the old ones…They just wouldn't make it."
"No!" he screamed inside his head. "Belinda, please..!"
"Thank you," she said again. "And don't worry; I will wait for the supplies…"
Andrew fought to the end, but some things you just can't fight. If it had been drugs sending him deep into oblivion, he may have had a chance, for people have fought the effects of all kinds of drugs, and won. Some people stay awake through complicated, painful operations, though very few have chosen to do so. Mystics and Yogis have been known to withstand tremendous extremes of cold and heat, without incurring any damage. But no one has ever conquered what Dixon raged ever more weakly against now, which was the loss of almost all his blood.
As the man in the apron anxiously hovered over him, as the last few pints trickled from his severed arteries and into the bucket beneath him, Dixon's final thoughts registered dimly, somewhere far away on the everlasting plane of his fading consciousness.
"What a waste," he thought, and, finally; "…Well they can forget that goddamn hospital…"