N ̓X̌AX̌AITKʷ, 1984
A monster named Ogopogo lived in Lake Okanagan and Sylvester’s father Clyde had once seen it drown a bear, face first. It happened a few years before Sylvester was born, when Clyde was almost a boy himself. Clyde told Sylvester that it happened as these things do, which is to say: out of nowhere, on an unremarkable day. Clyde was fishing for perch on a stretch of shore where you could wade in, waist-deep, with your feet anchored in the silty lake bed. It was late in the day, with the sun high and the air thick with pollen and light. Clyde had just felt a tug on his line when a silence fell.
It was the loudest silence he’d ever heard.
“It was kind of . . . respectful,” Clyde said, when Sylvester asked how he’d known to cease all movement, to still his hands and the slow shifting of his legs in the water and even his own breath. “Like your Ma used to say: sometimes time drops a stitch. Everything stopped so he could come to the water and drink.”
The animal itself seemed to materialize out of the air, a few yards to Clyde’s left, at the lapping shoreline. At first its form was unclarified, just a blobby haze. Then, a slow coalescence: a hulking form of textured sable, mountainous dorsal hump and questing snout, a predator stink on the breeze, glittering black eyes. It bent low to drink from the waters at the shoreline. The bear’s teeth were endless and profound; it was a grizzly, unmistakably, and barely three yards from Clyde.
“What did you do?” Sylvester always asked when he could tell that Clyde was sauced enough to tell the story the right way.
“What did I do?” Clyde would bray his screeching laugh. Sometimes, depending on how late in the evening it was, he would also hang his head in disgust, like he was shocked he could have raised such an imbecile.
“Don’t be a smart aleck! I pissed myself!” Then the laugh would come again. “Son, there wasn’t any do. A grizzly, you get me? I didn’t think one single thought, let alone do. I froze like a fawn and accepted the state of things, just like any intelligent animal does when it’s beat.”
Sylvester had pictured it so many times, he might as well have lived it: his own body cramped up in involuntary surrender, awed face slack, with hot urine running down his legs into the lake. The moment was locked in time so stubbornly it felt like an exhibit in a museum that Sylvester could visit at will.
The bear wasn’t the end of the story and it wasn’t the end of Clyde.
As soon as the bear turned its massive head and took note of Clyde for the first time—its eyes narrowing and hackles coming up—a writhing cylinder burst forth from the water and towered above them both. If the bear had stopped time, then the monster from the lake was all motion, pulling the rest of the world along at its own speed.
It was odorless and scaled, its hide pulsing with all colors at once, like an oil slick. It was as big around as the trunk of the elm tree in Clyde’s yard growing up, which his mother had said was hundreds of years old. It moved as a snake would and with such force and precision that, Clyde said, he knew instantly that what was visible was only a fraction of the whole animal. Its head darted to and fro above with dizzying, alien grace. The prehistoric scale of it—the suggestion of its true length—was sickening.
“It could have taken us both, or taken every house from here to Penticton, or plucked a single acorn from a tree five feet away. The control it had! All that tail beneath the water, the part of him I didn’t see . . . it could have been a hundred feet. And strong, like God’s own hand.”
Clyde always whispered that part, like he didn’t want anyone except Sylvester to hear him name the extent of the animal’s focus and power.
It was a serpent, and it was not. It was whalelike and it was not. It had a face and it did not. It was Ogopogo, as indisputable as the bear. Ogopogo, to whom the lake belonged. Ogopogo, who strained its massive body up and out toward the bear, moving past Clyde so quickly every hair on his body stood on end.
Then, the bear’s face was obscured by a flexing, muscular coil and its body was whisked forward into the lake, like it weighed nothing at all. The last things Clyde saw before he passed out were the ass end of the bear, dragging through the water, and his fishing pole, which had been wrenched from his hands and sucked into Ogopogo’s wake, irretrievable. The pole and the bear vanished completely, save for a rippling movement below the surface, just a glimmer of iridescent scales.
As he waits inside a hollow log for his own death to arrive, Sylvester thinks of his father—who died of a stroke in ’76, just after the war—and of Ogopogo. He wonders what death will feel like and suspects it is probably already in progress. It hasn’t hurt badly so far, at least not worse than he can bear. He has shelter and there is fresh water everywhere and, though the forest has become a horror to him, it is not unlike somewhere he’d have selected as his final resting place, if he’d been given the opportunity to choose in advance.
The log is strangely dry inside, despite the rain. For the first time since he and Elias got lost on their way back to camp, Sylvester is grateful he doesn’t have a flashlight, so at least he does not have to see what insects and animals are sharing the space with him. He can feel them against his skin, crawling and burrowing. During the days, he’s been eating all the beetles and worms he can find, because he knows they’re safe. But if he puts something in his mouth without seeing it, in the damp, dark log, it could be a poisonous spider or something else he’d regret. He’s regretting quite a few things now, truth be told.
Last night, he’d ripped spongey moss in huge handfuls from the ground and stuffed it into the log around him as tightly as he could. Like eating bugs, it was another thing Clyde had told him to do when Sylvester was a young man, if he ever found himself lost in the woods. The moss helps, but it’s still getting colder. The temperature has dropped every night since the forest had swallowed Sylvester and Elias up, eleven days ago, and, once the rain turns to snow, if hunger hasn’t already put him down, exposure will.
Sylvester and his friend Elias had camped by the river dozens of times on fishing trips in the Tualatins. It took a hammer and a surprising amount of strength to finish the trout off once you hauled them in, but they were delicious charred over a fire. Elias was good company in that he mostly kept his own counsel. They’d fish and build campfires at night, sticking close to the river, sometimes hiking to Wapato Lake or setting rabbit snares. Elias was gone now, lost somewhere in the pines.
On their fifth day gone, Elias had eaten something poisonous that came back up in a froth of green vomit. Whatever it was made his mind go haywire and his forehead burn with fever. He’d wandered away from Sylvester, mumbling incoherently about running out to the store for a pack of smokes. They’d been walking so long, and Sylvester was so hungry and frigged up himself that he’d been too tired to stop his friend. He’d watched Elias stumble through the brush, the back of his red shirt vanishing slowly, then Sylvester had just kept walking. That was six days ago, he was pretty sure. Or seven. It was hard to keep track.
Things hadn’t gone wrong all at once, but Sylvester knew that they usually didn’t. It was another thing Clyde always said; in the bush, it’s death by a thousand cuts. First you find your water source fouled. Then you stumble into some poison oak and your legs swell up like balloons or you break an ankle or something starts bleeding too heavy to stop. Then there’s a storm. It’s rarely ever like it was on the banks of Lake Okanagan that day, the day Clyde dodged death twice without moving a muscle; when people die in the forest, it’s the result of dozens of little wrong decisions. And so it is for Sylvester.
The first mistake: he and Elias had followed a trail of chanterelles after they’d finished fishing for the day. They’d been south on the river, at a deep reservoir, where Elias’s cousin said he’d caught good-sized crappies and walleye. It was slightly further afield than their normal spot, but neither had registered it as particularly far from camp or taken any special note of it. The chanterelles bloomed from the forest floor like tumors, delicate and a cheerful ochre color. They were so plentiful that Sylvester had taken off his overshirt to make a pouch for them as he and Elias picked. Elias had brought a quarter stick of butter on the trip, which they’d planned to save until their last night. As they picked further and further away from the river, they couldn’t stop talking about the mushrooms, how delicious they’d be roasted directly under a fish, smothered in butter and salt.
By the time they realized that dark was falling, they’d inched a good ways down a craggy incline. They couldn’t even hear the river anymore. And two hours after that, wandering in what felt like circles, Sylvester had fallen and gotten his bell rung, hard. And instead of hunkering down in one of the logs or crevices they’d seen, they decided to walk through the night, certain that they’d come across their camp. They weren’t far from it, they were sure!
The second afternoon, Elias and Sylvester ate the mushrooms raw while they walked and spent the next night and day shitting their brains out on tree roots and ferns, their fingers clenched into the dirt. They never found camp or the river again—just an endless ocean of trees—increasing and decreasing altitude and constant unknown animal sounds, a storm that seemed to be malevolently gathering right over their heads. A thousand cuts, indeed.
And so: the log. The left side of Sylvester’s face still aches from when he’d fallen on the first day, and he keeps using his dry tongue to worry the socket of the incisor he lost and the jagged half of its neighbor that remains. The wind moving through the pines howls and the rain hitting the canopy sounds like waves. But the log is quiet, a dead structure—solid, and stuffed with live things.
Down here, low to the ground and packed in moss like a toad, Sylvester only hears the susurrations of the beetles and spiders, the rustling of ground cover as it is struck by the rain. His stomach doesn’t even hurt anymore, but it feels like his bones are made of slowly-cooling metal, like they could drop right through his skin. Thoughts float through his mind without stopping; he cannot attach meaning to them or to anything.
If Sylvester wakes up tomorrow, he thinks, he will crawl out of the hollow log with more ticks burred into him and aphids filling his mouth. He will squeeze moisture from the damp leaves he finds on the ground for something to drink and then he will walk. Maybe he’ll fall, like he did on the first night, and knock out more teeth or split his kneecap on a poorly-placed rock. Maybe the next handful of pine needles he eats will be coated in something toxic and he’ll die with his throat puffed shut and his nose full of blood. Maybe he’ll stumble on a bear, so majestic and terrible that time itself will stop. Or maybe it’s the walking that will get him and his body will come to its end that way, in shambling motion that slows and slows and slows until he is nothing but another carcass decomposing on the forest floor. Twenty-eight is too young for a long death, he thinks. I hope what’s next happens fast.
The trees moan with the wind and Sylvester trembles. It’s cold, yes, but the moss, his boots and warm socks, and his wool overshirt, long emptied of the chanterelles, are keeping him warm enough. Perhaps the cold snap won’t come tonight. It’s early October, which can stay quite mild, even in the mountains. Sylvester tries to fall asleep, if only to pass the time until he can walk in daylight again. He wishes Elias was here so there could be some companionship in the fate that has found them both.
Every inch of the forest in front of him these last long days is the part of Ogopogo his father could see: stunning, but only cursorily representative of the whole monster. All the forest beyond what Sylvester sees is the long tail beneath the surface of the water, the source of its control and power. Sylvester could walk forever, probably, and not come to the end of this wood. It is all he knows now. It is the world.
Clyde’s buddies got sick of the Ogopogo story eventually—though Sylvester never did— and not just because they’d never believed it. It was because Clyde used it for everything; it never had a fixed meaning. Sometimes he’d seen the bear and Ogopogo that day because the good Lord knew that Clyde was the only mortal man worthy of viewing His most fearsome creations. Sometimes he’d seen them because he was a lucky man or a humble one or a brave one. There were other stories out there, after all, about frail sorts who’d seen the monster and collapsed, stone-dead. Even To’o Jessup, a known hard-case, had been found face down in three inches of water right on the shoreline in ’73, not a scratch on him, and he’d only been forty-two.
Sylvester was having a whiskey with his dad at the tavern in Oroville one afternoon that year when To’o’s sister Coee came in. Sylvester and Clyde were both working the orchards then, before they moved to the Tualatins. Coee came into the bar already half-drunk and Clyde was never not in his cups by that time of day. So he’d started up with her, telling her how To’o must have been unable to handle what Clyde had seen and survived and more’s the pity.
Sylvester had winced and started apologizing immediately; he liked Coee and he’d liked To’o, too, and even though Sylvester never got tired of the story, it was just not the time. But Coee had laughed in Clyde’s face, unbothered.
“You pussy,” she said when she was done. “You fucking leech. You saw N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ and you are telling me you lived because you were stronger than my To’o? Christ, you’re a donkey. Fucking moron.”
“They both could have had me, but I kept my wits and Ogopogo…” Clyde started, but Coee laughed louder, more violently.
“Don’t you call him that, fool,” Coee spat and took a pull of the sweating Budweiser the bartender had just set on the bar in front of her. “That beast saved your life. He knew you were weak. He saw the bear and he knew you never stood a chance. N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ doesn’t need to eat you; he would have spit you up like trash.”
Coee had helped Sylvester roll Clyde out of the bar later. When Sylvester asked her what she’d meant about Ogopogo, she’d told him, more gently: “Your father was never in any danger and my brother had a heart attack. Just his own dumb ticker. Your dad doesn’t even know how blessed he is, or why. God protects drunks and children, right? Well? N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is his name. The lake god. Don’t you ever let me catch you calling him Ogopogo again. That dumbass might not get it through his thick skull, but you can. Right?”
After they’d deposited Clyde on the couch at his friend Happy’s place, which was next door to the bar, Coee walked Sylvester back to the dormitory where all the pickers slept. She hummed ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’ so vigorously that Sylvester joined in. When they finished, laughing, he said: “I’m sorry about him.”
“Don’t be sorry about Clydey, kiddo,” Coee scoffed. Her teeth shone white in the darkness as she grinned. “He doesn’t need your sorry, he’s sorry enough.”
They stood in silence outside the dormitory barn for a moment more before she shooed him off to bed.
“Don’t forget,” Coee whispered as Sylvester cranked the lever to open the barn door and the sound of the sleeping breaths of the off-shift pickers filled the air. “Don’t forget his real name.”
Ten years later, in the log, in the cold and rain and incomprehensible wilderness, Sylvester thinks: N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, please I beg, and it is his last thought before he falls asleep.
The next day, he is too weak to leave the log. He spends the day with the upper half of his body sticking out one side, like a half-peeled egg, watching the daylight move across the forest floor. Sylvester eats two pads of moss and three earthworms, then retches it all back up. He lets the intermittent rain wet his shirt then sucks the water from its sleeves. He wishes for a monster, a savior, to appear, but he is in the bear’s jaws now or he is the bear, in the grip of a deity. He’s not sure. Sylvester sleeps. Wakes.
Wakes to snow.
Sylvester uses his hands to pull himself out of the log, reaching and grabbing the earth, then dragging himself forward. His entire body shakes. Once emerged, he can see the snow everywhere; it has remade the forest under a dusting of variegated white. But he doesn’t feel the cold of it, or the wet, even as he watches his fingers turn red and then a mottled purple. He’s been wrong, he sees that now: he won’t walk out of here. He can barely crawl.
Sylvester recalls faintly that hearing is the last sense to go before death; in the end, you are reduced to your ears. He’d read that somewhere or maybe someone told him; the nurse he dated in Pocatello? Coee? His mother, Kiyiya, who had died herself when he was eleven? Sylvester can still see, mostly, though his vision is warped on his left, and on his right pocked with dark spots. The light in the forest is working strangely and he cannot tell if it is day or night. But he is alive.
Sylvester decides he will crawl to the next tree.
It takes a very long time.
When he gets to the next tree, he collapses in its roots, in the snow. His fingers are blue. There is a constant, cyclical breath that rattles his body and threatens to shake him apart. The breathing sounds somewhere outside of him, so outside that he could feel it, scalding hot on the back of his neck. But who was to say? He had lost track of where the mountains ended and where he began.
N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ or something like you, he thinks, please come.
It doesn’t come as a serpent god from a lake. It doesn’t come as a bear.
It comes as light.
Sylvester rolls over onto his back and lets the snow fall into his open eyes, his mouth, across his cheeks. His vision wavers, but inside him there is radiation, a warlike feeling, a suffusion of brightness and energy. He can move again. He’s nearly weightless, he can carry himself with almost no effort at all. Inside, he is aglow.
Sylvester feels it suddenly, a separation of mind from body, like he is looking down at himself from six inches above his head. He can make this starved, frostbitten shell do whatever he likes. Sylvester rises, feels nothing. Just light, light. He is beyond it all. He walks forward ten paces, stiff-legged, before he can bend his knees again. Then ten paces after that. And then he begins to run.
He runs. And he is the bear blundering toward the lake’s shore on a spring day and he is his own father holding a fishing pole with lake mud between his toes. And he is life itself, he is a human animal made of skin and cells and spells, he is running toward death, headlong and heedless, an endless nova of darkness spiraling through him, dimming his vision to almost nothing, just flares of light winking out.
Sylvester knows now what his father never did: that he is blessed, he knows that death’s light is a sonic landscape of the next world, that it is his holy fortune to have found himself here, running blind and dying through a snowy forest. He is running faster than he ever thought possible, down a steep slope now, just light and light and more. More. The world is so big, so astounding. It is unending. He is on the razor’s edge between something and nothing, between mortal terror and the miraculous. If this is his lot in life, it will also be his privilege to run off the edge of it all.
Sylvester runs and runs, for hours or days, in this world or the next. He runs until he falls and then he gets up and runs even more. By the time the ground has leveled off and he thinks he can hear the flapping of canvas tents in the wind and the distant trill of children’s voices, he never wants to stop. Even when he runs into another body, feels warm living hands catching him and holding fast, he still strains madly forward, longing to stay in motion and sound and light. The hands hold him tight about the shoulders and Sylvester weeps with dry, unseeing eyes because he is saved, yes, but also he is stopped. And oh, oh, oh: he’d been absolutely flying.
AJ Strosahl is a writer and small business owner who lives in Oakland, California. She has work published or forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Signal Mountain Review, Ruminate Magazine, and other outlets. Her essay ‘Dogs I’ve Read’ was recently a finalist for the 2021 VanderMey Nonfiction prize, and in 2022, AJ will be an Artist-in-Residence at the Vashon Island Arts Residency and the Bryn Du Art Center. ’N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, 1984’ is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Only In Pure Air.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #37.