Artwork by Morgan Elliott
In the backwoods of Finnish Karelia, there lived a passionate hermit who shunned human contact. He had been living alone for many years, but not always. He had a sharp eye for weakness, and when he regarded other people, it was easier to perceive their faults than their strengths. His scornful nature was counterbalanced by a stubborn inability to confront his own inadequacies, those being his crippling shyness and self-serving disdain. His was a proud but lonely life.
One autumn day the hermit was chopping firewood beside his ramshackle sauna to prepare for another Nordic winter. Honking geese flocked south, and birch trees shed swarms of golden leaves, and the cool Baltic breeze raked the hermit's berry patch. The hermit set aside his axe, wiped his sweaty brow, and stretched his old joints. From the weedy creek-side path came soft footfalls and the scrunching of leaves. The hermit retrieved his axe and pondered his gumption to split a human skull, but his visitor was not even human, just his neighbor Skinny Arno.
Skinny Arno was a man-sized Arctic hare with sad eyes and ratty fur, and it walked upright on spindly legs and possessed forepaws with opposable thumbs carrying the rusty meat cleaver Skinny Arno always carried. It could not speak, but it was able to scream and also knew passable sign language. It lowered its cleaver and gesticulated to ask the hermit if the hermit had any vodka.
"No. Yes. Maybe." The hermit looked at the sky through a hail of falling leaves and inwardly reproached his dreadful indecision. Sunlight glimmered across the stratosphere to illume distant clouds. He realized it was the Equinox. "A half liter of koskenkorva. We can drink it by the lake." He kept his axe constantly by his side as he retrieved the bottle from beneath the clapboard porch of his sauna, and he maintained a safe distance as they sauntered to the lakeshore. He led his guest atop a granite jetty, where he uncorked the bottle and took a swig of liquid fire.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and passed the bottle, whereupon Skinny Arno set aside his cleaver and took the bottle, drained a massive draught, and belched the stench of fermenting cabbage.
The hermit watched the sunset slowly burn itself to cinders and felt vaguely sentimental. "Love. I knew it once. I keep forgetting to forget." He leaned over the lake and beheld his rippling reflection. He threw out his arms to embrace the sky, but instead he embraced himself. As he recalled his past, he felt the giddy vertigo of one observing the earth from the surface of the moon.
He tossed a stone, and the memory vanished. "Was a question of question marks. I blamed myself, don't think I didn't."
Skinny Arno looked across the nebulous horizon toward the vanishing sun. Its forepaws rested palm-down on its knees. A mosquito landed on its ear. Its ear twitched. The mosquito took flight and landed again.
The sun disappeared without a sound save the chattering of Skinny Arno's teeth.
The hermit swatted a mosquito suckling his wrist, and there remained upon his palm a blotch of bright red blood. "So many pesky parasites milking men of energy." He gestured around them at the murky sky and chilly lake, everywhere and nowhere, to conjure compound ghosts from his ponderous past. "Here we are, and there they are, frozen like bugs in amber."
Skinny Arno perked up its ears and scanned the lake from right to left, looking for these hypothetical others. It saw nobody. Its whiskers twitched, and its teeth chitter-chattered.
"At least they are unchanging. They'll watch my back forever, but in truth I never looked back."
The hermit pondered his transgressions, but only for a moment. He toasted the sun's departure, took a swig, and sighed. "Another sun sets on Guilt World. And yet another autumn, nature's rehearsal to prepare us for death. How many more? And how many before? Imagine the endless chain of ancestors linked through time so we could sit here contemplating their absence. Think of that."
Skinny Arno seemed unconvinced and vaguely bored. It was descended from an ancient pedigree of Nordic fear made flesh, the transubstantiation of a million nightmares dreamt by Sami reindeer herders, Karelian lumberjacks, and Russian fur trappers. When their children vanished, it was Skinny Arno whom their mind's eye conjured.
The hare wheezed a raspy noise and gurgled. It had nothing to apologize for.
The hermit felt drunk and hastened to explain, "Everything keeps repeating and repeating, and there's nothing new but dying, and it's just a coincidence the past and future intersect here, right here." He stamped the granite boulder for effect.
Skinny Arno seemed unimpressed. It took a swig of vodka. Across the lake a coo coo called to proclaim a stranger's passing. The hermit looked at Skinny Arno and noticed it was crawling with ticks. He considered plucking a tick from the dandruff-flecked fur.
Skinny Arno glanced at the hermit, and the hermit looked away. He felt the hare watching him, studying his profile. Overhead the sky darkened to display innumerable pinpricks of starlight, phantom suns in a boundless vault.
The hermit was accustomed to silence, but this quietude was deafening. He felt the need to hear his voice to verify his existence. "Times like these you almost feel, just for a second, the possibility of God. And then reality slaps you in the face."
From the hare now came a sound like a chuckle.
He pondered his past and burped into his fist. "And to think I'll never see them again." He looked at the hare. "Or will I? Won't I? Yes or no? You don't know?"
Skinny Arno shrugged.
"So you truly don't know? Or do you think it's in my best interest to keep me ignorant of the true gravity of my situation?"
The hare's head pivoted to the side, its yellow eyes unblinking. It looked away.
The hermit drank some more. Why so many questions? There was only one answer. Sooner than later everything would pass, and time itself would end. "What's the difference anyway? All past eternity was the instant before the waking of the fetus, and all posterity occurs in a selfsame empty moment. There's nothing at stake and nothing to be afraid of. Why am I such a coward?"
Skinny Arno looked at the hermit with trembling whiskers. It was walleyed from alcohol, and its pupils were black chasms of impossibility. The universe without you is no universe at all. The hermit smirked. The vodka was strong. Pity it was almost gone. The hare made a thirsty clicking sound, so the hermit passed the vodka. It took a final swig, licked its whiskers with its long black tongue, and passed the empty bottle.
The hermit rose up like an angry man, but there was no anger in his soul, just formless fear and sorrow. He held the bottle to the dying light and turned it upside down; one droplet hit the lake like a lifetime to eternity. He chanced a backward glance. Skinny Arno's ears splayed dejectedly in the starlight, and its yellow eyes gazed absently, like a corpse transfixed by infinity. "No matter, what's lost is less than nothing." The hermit tossed the bottle, and the lake replied with a splash.
The hare raised its head to the endless void and screamed and screamed and screamed.