There was a crack. A sharp cut split the frozen ground. Its echo jettisoned itself from the source in an attempt to find something to reverb against. But there was nothing. And just as a pebble is plunged into a pool the waves would go on; perhaps they could carry themselves forever like the never ending movement of the seas. Or maybe, like the vast void of space beyond the sound would be muted into a suffocating nothingness. The cracking sound came again and a new set of sonic tide chased its elder in a futile race. Again, none could tell whether the noise had effect on anything. Perhaps a petrel wheeled into a somersault before continuing on its flight; or a crab clenched his pincers tightly into a defensive stance. Soon the intrusive noise struck like a metronome as that outer layer of permafrost was scooped away by the hermit’s shovel. His shoulders stooped over his work, acknowledging not the cold arctic sun that shone blindingly at his back. The icy shards that had been disturbed by shovel fall glistened in kaleidoscopic patterns, a fleeting beauty that slowly disintegrated into the oozy mud beneath it. The sea dribbled slowly shore-bound; caressing the icy sand and moss with the gentleness of a mother. Relax, she said, pay no kind to the shovel or the hermit who busies himself. The extraordinary stretch of Siberia could burden one man’s clumsy digging.
The summer knew its time was dwindling. That hopeful season had pushed its head above the winter’s waters to steal a breath for itself before it was forced to languish in the murky depths for another eleven months. Winter was greedy here; a glutton that devoured all it could from beyond that last latitude of trees. It knew that it could rule here, for none other gave attention to such bleak shoals – this place where the globe pivots. Even as the wind whistled from distant Yakutsk – the pole of cold – the hermit continued to fight the elements and dig.
His hut watched on from a distance, its black windows jarring in the endless daylight. The ground was tough to shift and the hermit knew he had to be careful lest he broke his only shovel. The blade fell and clanged against the muddy ground; there was no way he could dig any further down. He tossed the shovel aside and dusted his hands. This will have to do, he mused with arms akimbo. Caring not for the cleanliness of his clothes, he ensconced the edge of the hole and brought the iron box into his lap to look at one last time. It was a dingy little thing but it would serve its purpose well. Appearances did not matter here, especially when the hermit intended to bury the thing anyway. Out of habit he took his final inspection of the contents of the box. Nestled in a dirty rag was a brass compass, its needle quivering and threatening to spin about its axis. The hermit looked up at the ocean; his only bearing was that bleak shoreline, for who can say which way is north when one is up so high? The compass struggled but remembered its mission. Point to the pole; and while it seemed to be doubting the integrity of its mission, it still jutted its red arm towards the direction it believed to be true. A piece of parchment bloomed from beneath the compass, as though it were leaves supporting a new rose. The hermit shifted the compass ever so slightly, so that the sun shone down on the messy letters he had penned onto the scroll.
Are you happy? It said.
The crudeness of his handwriting somehow added a forceful emphasis to the words they represented. He looked about himself again and then down at the parchment.
Are you happy?
The hermit threw his head back and sighed to the sky – yet the only response he received was a saturation of drowning blue. His heart echoed its beat solemnly. Was it here that he wished to remain? Beyond that last line of trees – where taiga acts as perimeter to the wide world beyond – where tundra was encapsulated? Beyond the ice-toothed bay where seals lay sleek in the midnight sun; beyond the fabled North-West Passage – did a more distant Thule lay in waiting? Or was this lonely abode the very place where isolation reigned? The hermit furrowed his brow and strained his mind. He tried to recall a tree; the colour green splattered so verdantly against the sturdiness of trunk. Where did the arctic birds rest their wings without these majestic branches? A building – one of greater opulence than his shabby hut; those grandiose arches and colourful creations of the city seemed little more than the fabric of dreams, so much so that the hermit wondered if they had ever really existed at all. He tried to remember a person; another human being. But his mind had been purged of any such distraction by the blistering white of sun and snow. It was on a sudden too much for him to bear. Frantically he tossed the compass back into the box and begun to heap dirt over his bounty. The tears that coated his haggard face threatened to freeze in the polar gale; and still the sun shone as he shambled back to his hut with his body convulsing with sobs. As the lonely Siberian echoes blew about his humble walls in frigid gusts, his mind did begin to soothe. The throbbing of his heart slowed to a more regular pace; it felt to him as fragile as an icicle and any sharp blast of wind might knock it from its perch and shatter it to pieces.
Are you happy?
The words haunted the Siberian scene. They flew on the wintery wings of the wind. They crashed land-bound upon the ice-toothed bay. They glistened on the pelt of the seals that lay sleek in the midnight sun. They shone down cold on the stale earth. The hermit turned to his kitchen bench and smiled at his comfortable clutter of simple utensils. He turned to his worn and ancient chair and thought of the comforts it brought. He turned to the little dog that lay on the blanket near the hearth. The dog raised his own eyes and stared into the soul of his master – reading every emotion etched into his heart as any true friend should. His tail wagged lazily; the hermit wondered whether his dog would survive another winter. Maybe then they would make the trip south, walk away from the cold shore. His mind was made; he would not leave now. The dog made a noise somewhere between contentment and understanding. The wind wailed outside, the gulls cried noisily in the muted distance and the hermit decided that yes, yes I am happy.
There was no need for words. There was no need for any further action. There was no need for time in the Siberian solitude.