FICTION

From Issue II (2017)

 

Last Watch

by BEN GOLDFARB

The deathwatch lingered into a drear Arctic Tuesday—feckless seagulls milling against a heavy sky, surf hissing on the rocks, and the world’s last walrus quivering pink at the high-tide line like gristle spit out by the sea.

The walrus was a pitiful sack of bones. His pocked yellow tusks were broken and jagged. Rubbery scabs peeled and bled where his belly rubbed stone. His breath came in whistling gasps. His whiskers drooped.

Fifty yards down the beach, Harper played with her filters. The walrus turned the color of rust, then brick, then mahogany through her lens. She stepped back from the tripod and squinted against the wind.

“Why won’t he die already?” she stage-whispered to Maria.

Maria lifted her gloved hands to her cheeks. “I wish we could go hug him.”

Harper twiddled the zipper of her parka. They’d choppered in Friday morning; Harper now had—she checked her watch—ninety-three hours of footage of immobile flesh gradually expiring at the most distant digit of North America. Death could be an hour away, or a week. She was glad, as always, that she wasn’t the one editing. She zoomed in, closer and closer, focusing finally on a horsefly strolling the circumference of the walrus’s left nostril. The walrus snorted and the fly picked up, hovered, settled again.

Strips of yellow caution tape fluttered between the dying pinniped and the chilly press corps amassed on the beach. A platoon of grim-faced federal biologists guarded the scene, chests square to the press like riot police, exposed noses red and running. Glittering cameras swarmed insect-like behind the tape, devouring morose visuals. Bored reporters tossed rocks into the surf. A helicopter roared overhead, cameraman leaning from its belly, rotor-wash gouging a divot in the viscous sea. Airborne grit flew into Harper’s eyes. Irate biologists waved the chopper away.

The walrus didn’t blink.

Harper nudged Maria’s ribs. “I’m giving it three hours until he’s . . . ” She drew a finger across her throat.

Maria didn’t react. Harper saw that her partner had retreated into the private space she often entered during deathwatches, an echoing cavern of grief and awe that Harper both resented and yearned to access. Maria’s dark eyes welled beneath her faux-fur hat; her lips parted slightly to reveal dazzling teeth. Her round face glowed with the lambent radiance of the evangelical. Without tearing her eyes from the walrus, she breathed the words she always asked during the final hours. “What do you think he’s seen?”

Harper sighed. “Probably a lot of fish,” she said.         


The press tent was not warm, but it was sheltered from the wind and stocked with coffee. Harper poured a paper cup and opened her laptop on a fold-out table. She plugged in her card reader, set up a satellite connection, and uploaded her footage, the load bar inching along as the file entered the ether, flesh and blood transubstantiating into megs and gigs. Let the guys in New York spin this lead into gold.

The light in the tent was beige and aqueous. Harper checked her watch—22:17, and no sign of night. She thought of her editors wrapped in blankets in the Manhattan semi-dark, a luxury of lower latitudes. Arctic shoots were the worst. She’d turned forty last month and the coffee didn’t circulate to her toes like it once did. Give me a panda any day, she thought.

A young guy with a scrubby fringe of neckbeard plopped into a nearby plastic chair, laminated press pass dangling against his Gore-Texed chest. His rangy limbs threw off energy, like a downed powerline twitching in the street. Harper figured it was his first deathwatch. Christ. He probably wanted to talk about it.

“Damn, dude,” the kid said, unprompted. “This is crazy. Being there for the last one. Just, like, watching this whole race disappear. It’s”—groping—“heavy.” He looked at Harper expectantly.

“Heavy as a brick,” Harper said, not taking her eyes off the sluggish load bar.

“What I keep thinking is—does it even know? That it’s the last? Like is it sentient?” He stared into space. “Like, imagine knowing you’re the last of something. That’s a huge burden, right?”

Harper ran a hand through her dark hair, chopped short for the shoot. “You should go ask him.”

“I can’t believe the network put me on this,” the kid said, slapping his thigh. “They’re like, hey, Tom, Wally’s hauled out and we need you in a helicopter stat. They actually said that—stat. And an hour later I’m flying to a deathwatch. Mind-blowing.” He took a breath. “Who do you work for?”

“Um. I shoot a nature doc series,” Harper sighed. The kid looked at her—he wanted a name. “It’s called End of the Line—”

The guy exploded from his chair, nearly spilling his coffee onto Harper’s keyboard. “No. Way!” he blurted. “You’re Harper Stone. Harper Goddamn Stone.”

“At your service.”

“Harper Stone! You invented this genre! You’re a legend. You’re why I’m here. I remember seeing the polar bear in high school. That was the first, right? You must’ve followed that critter for a year.”

“Nineteen months.”

“Nineteen months!” the kid cried. “Epic. When it’s chasing that caribou, hungry as hell, and it can’t take it down, and it collapses and you know it’s gonna starve, and you’ve got that close-up right in its eyes, and later Maria goes up and just, like, caresses its head—I wept. That shit was miserable. Damn.” He shook his head. “Harper Stone. How’s it going?”

The load bar finished its migration. Harper snapped her laptop shut and stood. She was a head taller than him. “Oh, yeah, great, thanks,” she said. “Just, ah, looking forward to sleep—”

“Sleep?” the kid cried. “You don’t sleep during a deathwatch. You taught me that. This walrus could croak at any minute.”

Harper’s eyes darted toward the snapping canvas flap at the tent’s entrance. “I was testing you,” Harper said, patting his arm. She moved to escape. “You passed.”

The guy winked and thrust out his fist. Harper stared at it for a confused moment, then clenched her own hand and bumped it gingerly against his. “I knew Harper Stone wouldn’t sleep through a deathwatch,” he said. He searched his pockets, extracted a sharpie. “Hey, I hate to do this, but—any way you could sign something? Whatever you got.”

Harper scrawled a quick signature on her dreg-filled cup and handed it to the kid. “Happy watch,” she said, and slipped out of the tent.

The kid was right—the polar bear had been their first. But before it had come the snakes.

Harper had met Maria more than a decade ago, in Guam, where they’d both been sent to film a documentary about the invasive tree snakes that had overrun the island. She’d been impressed by Maria’s stoicism, the nonchalance with which the reporter pushed through the groping spiderwebs that clotted every jungle crevice in the absence of birds. Maria was poised before the camera, and curiously compassionate: When they’d watched a snake swallow two eggs out from under a hapless kingfisher, Maria had made no effort to conceal her tears. Harper found herself moved more by Maria’s fragile loveliness than by the snake. An idea had begun to ferment.

Sitting around a campsite that week, they’d discussed the inadequacy of conventional nature documentaries, the form’s inability to convey the scope of global grief. There was something inhumane and imprecise, they agreed, about how the suffering of individual animals was buried beneath traditional tales of population-level capital-E extinction. After all, what was extinction if not an endless string of tiny tragedies, one after another, until nothing remained to die?

So Harper had unfolded her vision for End of the Line to a rapt Maria, both of them charged with the peculiar electricity of lingering in your twenties with the world before you, the glow of their lantern attracting nary a moth on an island strangled by reptiles and arachnids. To the studio, Harper pitched it as a sick social experiment, an exercise in depression-porn, reality TV gone too real. How many hours of vitreous black eyes, ribs pressing through off-white fur, futile paddling in search of nonexistent ice, could viewers handle before losing their goddamn minds?   

Harper and Maria followed the world’s last polar bear for those nineteen months, living in collapsible blinds no bigger than broom closets, eating rehydrated chicken cordon bleu and shitting in a steel ammo can. Maria choked tearful late-night monologues into her tape recorder. Sometimes the starving bear pawed at their blind; they scared her off with shotgun blasts and flares. By the end, they could approach near enough to pet her, gaunt body unable to support giant skull.

The film—two hours of redemption-less tragedy, the emotional equivalent of a crippled airplane spiraling earthward—aired in the ratings-Siberia of a Tuesday night at eleven o’clock. By the weekend, it was playing in a twenty-four-hour loop; by the next, it was being projected on the steps of the Santa Croce cathedral before a packed piazza writhing with rapturous Florentines. The public didn’t love it; they worshipped it. It was atonement, it was reckoning, it was the catharsis of hominid shame, a pent-up apology rushing from humanity’s breast. Cast-iron polar bears gleamed before state buildings worldwide. Our secular martyr. Harper read about camps arisen in the California desert, legions of dreadlocked acolytes congregating to watch the film beamed onto stretched-out bedsheets, a brimstone-belching preacher astride a rusted-out pickup, roaring lines from Bill McKibben.

The cash-flush studio passed down orders. The last wild tiger, tracked for seven months through Sumatran jungles. The last cheetah, brought to you by Amazon Globe. The last orangutan, a ropy old specimen who tore his hair out in clumps. Crowds thronged to watch and weep in Times Square, the Sydney Opera House, the Maracana soccer stadium. The last snow leopard, presented by SpaceX-Boeing. An international wake. Harper and Maria ran out of charismatic species, found obscure ones. The Kittlitz’s murrelet. The Corroborree frog. They honed their craft, upped their production values, won awards as fast as committees could dole them out. They hired local explorers who plunged through forests and deserts questing for the last representatives of failing species and called the studio when feathers and fur began losing their sheen, when eyes filmed over. When the end drew nigh. The Atlantic puffin. The akikiki. The koala.

Harper was End of the Line’s talent, her portraits the envy and inspiration of videographers worldwide. But Maria’s narration was the star. They’d both grown up idolizing Sir David Attenborough, and his crisp, wry insights were their lodestar. Yet Maria intuited that the intimacy of a deathwatch called for a more personal tone—tear-edged and quavering when Harper’s camera swooped in to forlorn mammalian eyes, firm and furious when it pulled back to reveal an iceless sea, the Amazon aflame. Maria nailed it. “What do you think it’s seen?” she asked Harper and herself and her audience, over and over. And the answer always the same: death, diminishment, the world smaller and uglier. If the animals were the martyrs, she was the prophet, small and fierce, her musical voice tinged with outrage, every melodious note chiming They died for our sins.    

Once, and only once, they slept together, on the floor of a concrete hut in a Mexican village, waiting for the last Kemp’s ridley sea turtle to drag herself onto the beach to deposit a clutch of infertile eggs. Maria’s skin smelled faintly of milk, her bones fine, her lips soft as a lamb’s ear. Harper had dreamt of this moment many times, though when it arrived she felt coarse and graceless, her hands sandpaper rubbed on an inner thigh. Afterward Maria kissed her lightly on the cheek and slipped into the hot night. Harper watched from the window as her partner walked light as fog over the moonstruck beach, tiny feet leaving shallow prints in the wet sand.

When Harper returned from the press tent, she saw the condition of the world’s last walrus had further deteriorated. His eyes were jaundiced. His mouth and nostrils foamed. His once-snug radio collar dangled loose around his withered neck. The humane thing, Harper thought, would be to shoot him. But that would disrupt the narrative. The narrative must not be disrupted.

She found Maria immersed in conversation with a bulbous, white-mustached biologist. Maria was nodding vigorously, eyes locked on the scientist’s face, her every cell communicating interest and attention.

“—and so, what happened as pH and temperature changed was an ecosystem phase shift,” the scientist was saying, “from a diverse system dominated by benthic crustaceans to jellyfish monoculture. Complete trophic collapse.”

“And that led directly to starvation?” Maria asked, though by now the world knew the story.

“Well, not immediately,” the biologist said. “We saw a lot of southern migration—you probably recall the Columbia River aggregation. But obviously those populations were well beyond the species’ thermal limit and weren’t viable long-term.”

Maria’s eyes went damp with feeling. She was pathologically incapable of insincerity. “When did you have some inclination that Wally”—with a nod to the maroon mass perishing over the biologist’s shoulder—“might be the last?”

The man toyed with his mustache. “Well, we’d been doing our Bering surveys for years, of course, and for a while we thought they might’ve vanished already. With no one there to document it.” He shuddered at the thought. “It was a herring fisherman who found him last year. And we managed to dart him and get the collar on.” He shifted his bulk to rope Harper into the conversation. “We sure are grateful to you gals,” he said, his voice suddenly thick. “Not just for coming out to see Wally here, but for all of them. The one that got me was the Adelie penguin. That fluffy chick, nudging his mother, trying to wake her up . . . ” He lowered his blocky head and pinched the bridge of his nose; when he looked up, his wind-burned cheeks glittered. “You’re doing the world a service.”

Maria lunged at him, wrapped her arms around his midsection in a ferocious hug, not quite able to encircle his girth. “It’s people like you who are the true heroes,” she said, pulling back, eyes afire. “Without you, species like the walrus would die in vain. You help us bear witness.” She turned to Harper. “Wouldn’t you say that’s true?”

Harper, startled: “Ah, sure, yeah, definitely true.”

The biologist clasped one of Maria’s hands in his own raw mitts. “Can’t wait to see the send-off you give old Wally. He’s a special critter.”

“We’ll honor him the best we can,” Maria vowed.

The scientist rumbled off to mind the caution tape, and Harper and Maria were left alone on the beach, a hundred feet from the main gaggle of reporters. Harper had trained her tripod on the walrus and, given the animal’s immobility, felt confident leaving her camera unmanned. She shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and rolled a rock with her toe.

“Where’s your head right now?” Maria asked abruptly, her voice taut as a snare drum.

“Excuse me?” Harper said, looking up to find Maria’s lips twisted into an elegant scowl.

“Anyone can tell that you don’t want to be here,” Maria snapped. She rarely got angry; when she did, it was when someone, usually Harper, could not match her commitment. “You’re wandering around staring off at nothing, not engaging, not even attempting to get original material.” Down the beach, the kid from the tent had burst through the caution tape and was hurtling toward the walrus, camera jouncing on his shoulder; he skidded to a halt before the catatonic beast and shot triumphantly in its face for a good five seconds before a biologist brought him down with a flying tackle. “At least that guy is trying,” Maria said. “But you’re getting the exact same shots as the network guys.” She shook her head. “This is your genre. And now you’re being all half-hearted about it.”

Harper took a deep breath. The sun had rolled off the edge of the earth and the sky was dimming, prelude to the fleeting dimness that passed for Arctic night. Maria balled her fists on her hips. The walrus heaved a disconsolate groan.

“Do you ever want to shoot abundance?” Harper asked.

“What?”

Harper pulled her arms into her jacket and hugged her own torso, warming herself against the wind. “Abundance. Plenty. Resilience. Go do a doc about everything that’s left.”

Maria blew air through her lips, a pshh of incredulity. “That would be a short film.”

“Wildebeests on the Serengeti. Sandhill cranes on the Platte. Hammerheads in the Galapagos.” Unaccountable sadness swept over her; she had to keep talking or she would cry. “Or the stuff that’s coming back. Grizzlies in northern California. Wolves in France. The de-extinction of the Tasmanian tiger.” Harper took a step nearer, ducked her head to come level with Maria’s, searched her partner’s face. “There’s life out there. Everything is not a deathwatch.”

Maria gripped Harper by the elbows. Her creaseless skin glowed, the effulgence of the blameless. “Those are exceptions,” she insisted. “Okay, there are lots of sandhill cranes—great. There are plenty of pigeons, too. Meanwhile, we’re two years away from starting a deathwatch for whooping cranes. The overall trend is catastrophic. The world knows that, because of you. All we can do is—”

“—bear witness,” Harper said. “Yeah. So you keep saying.” The video guy was being hauled off, the flotsam of his broken camera left behind. “Only—so what? This shit keeps happening. Did doing the polar bear save the walrus? Did the tiger save the cheetah?” She could hear the wobble in her own voice, the heat climbing her neck. “We do these films, one after another, and everybody sees them and cries and, like, self-punishes . . . and then what? Nobody actually changes what they eat or where they live or how they travel or whatever. Nobody does anything. They just watch and weep. Pay an emotional tax and go on being an asshole.”

“I don’t think—”

“It makes me feel cheap,” Harper finished. She kicked hard at the cobble, sending sand fleas bounding like popped corn.

Maria looked baffled and sorrowful, her damp eyes huge, and Harper felt a twinge of satisfaction at having dented her partner’s righteous armor. She trudged off down the beach, toward the press tent. The light was fading fast and the ocean simmered, thick as tar. Harper stole a glance over her shoulder at the videographers and photographers unrolling their sleeping bags to catch a quick nap before daylight bloomed again. Parasites, all of us, Harper thought. Beyond the caution tape, the world’s last walrus had blurred into an amorphous blob, indistinguishable from the boulders that littered the beach.

The press tent was blessedly dark, the wan glow of computers and phones standing in for stars—everyone uploading, saving, storing, the hum of flying files practically audible in the gloaming. Harper found her backpack wedged under a table and unfurled her bag. She crawled in, the warmth of her body filling the cocoon, her anger settling into a lonely lump untouchable in her chest. The patter of keyboards eased her into sleep like falling rain.

When Harper awoke, the world’s last walrus had escaped.

Bedlam ruled the beach. Reporters strained against the tape, cameras whirring, shouting questions at the stony federal bouncers. Helicopters screamed overhead; blasts of static hissed from walkie-talkies; journalists ranted into satellite phones. Harper spotted Maria at the throng’s periphery, locked in conversation with the burly biologist, who tugged anxiously at his mustache. Harper tried to catch her eye, but Maria didn’t see her, or pretended not to.

Harper stood on tiptoes to peer over the knot of parasites. It didn’t take a detective to deduce what had transpired during the brief darkness. The walrus’s radio collar, too big for his shrinking neck, lay on the rocks, a child’s abandoned plaything. And leading from the shallow depression where the walrus had wallowed: a scar in the cobble, the track laid by an animal silently dragging his dwindling bulk back into the ocean’s blessed cover.

Search parties coalesced. The biologists concluded the walrus was swimming west, swept along by prevailing currents. A fleet of drones took to the sky, robotic Wave-Hoppers skipped into the surf, foot patrols beat the shoreline. The more tech-minded searchers logged onto Google Sea, scanned the feeds from radar buoys and remote cameras. The documentarians seemed gripped by a predatory lust; Harper remembered joining a pack of kids—she’d been, what, ten or eleven—that had somehow got onto the trail of a car-struck fox. They’d followed the mortally wounded creature through tall brush and surrounded it in a clearing, where an older boy, cloaked by the morality of mercy, had gleefully bashed its head in with a stick.

Harper had no appetite for the hunt. The search parties formed around her and departed. Maria, without a glance in Harper’s direction, hopped into a single-prop seaplane and whined away. Harper unsheathed her camera and filmed the chaos for a few minutes, but her heart wasn’t in it. She turned off the device, leaving it standing on the tripod. There were enough cameras rolling to make a thousand documentaries. The form she’d birthed had outgrown her. The walrus hunters swirled west and vanished behind sheer cliffs. Soon it was quiet.

Harper walked east.

A cool tide of relief rose in her as she moved, quenching inner pools that had laid dry for too long. Let others strip meaning from the bones of dying wildlife. Suppressed memories of deathwatches washed up, and she picked through the wrack. The vaquita, thrashing in a gillnet. The kiwi, sagging in the jaws of a feral cat. The last wolverine, pacing snowless slopes in search of a den to raise the kits she’d never have. Enough.

Harper walked along the crenellated coast, the beach threading beneath steep walls and ducking into coves. A jumbled wedge of rockslide blocked her path and she scrambled over it, the face slick beneath her palms. On the other side she passed under a lip of cliff, a sheltered space where the sun never shone and clumps of festering seaweed ensnared spars of driftwood. There, in the dank secluded inlet, shivered a titanic mound of pink flesh—the walrus, hauled out to die in a dank private place where his body could be his own.

Harper backed away. The walrus didn’t seem to have noticed her; he was beyond noticing. His eyes were swollen shut. Harper patted her pockets for a camera, a phone, anything with which to record. She had nothing. Too far to return to camp. She reached out and stroked his weathered pink hide, studded with wiry hairs.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Harper murmured.

She knelt, the stones sharp under her knees, and laid her cheek against his skin. Cool as marble. No camera between her and the beast. She roamed his lumpy contours with her hands, stroked his polished tusks, tugged his brushy whiskers, explored the velvety interior of his ear. The low-angled sun broke through clouds as Harper petted and fondled, lost in a worshipful reverie; it occurred dimly to her that she’d finally joined Maria in her companion’s sacred internal cave, a space untouched by cynicism, where the stalactites were made of a strange, fierce love that broke when you touched them. In that moment she knew Maria better than she had in a decade of working together, and she longed to take her partner’s face in her hands and kiss her, just one more time, to tell Maria that she understood.

Harper scooted around to the walrus’s front and touched its damp muzzle. He creaked open one crusted eye and regarded her with ancient forbearance. Obsidian pupil, chocolate iris, bloodshot sclera. A creature spent. The scream of spotter planes rent the Arctic morning; they would be here soon enough. The walrus’s bulk wobbled in a great shuddering sigh, breath rushing from his flapping lungs. She would have to serve as witness enough.

 

Ben Goldfarb