"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, April 17, 2020

Mosquito horror in Journey by James Michener (1989)

My mother and her mother both bequeathed to me a late-blooming passion for reading the novels of James Michener.

In my teens and twenties I sneered at Michener's popularity and whole mode of operation. But in 1994 my mother gave me his 1989 novel Journey for Christmas. It was only 1/20 the length of a typical Michener novel. I took the plunge and thoroughly enjoyed the book. 

The mosquito scenes I still think of as extremely powerful. And horrifying!

[Journey, a novel by James Michener published in 1989, was expanded from a section originally cut from his large novel Alaska. The book depicts five men, one of whom was an English Lord, journeying in 1897-99 from Great Britain through Canada to Dawson, Yukon, to participate in the Klondike gold rush. WIKI]

....On the third day of fog and rain they succeeded only in penetrating ever deeper into this hellish vale of lakes and hummocks and ankle-deep swamp. At dusk Lord Luton could no longer deceive himself: 'Fogarty, for the first time I fear we are getting nowhere.'

     'Milord, I'm sure I could find the way back to those first hills.'

     'They're mountains,' Luton said almost primly, 'and we shall not see them again.'

     'You mean to press on?'

     'I do.' He said this so simply and with such finality that any gentleman would realize that no adverse comment would be entertained, but Fogarty persisted in his blunt way: 'So you mean …?'

     Before he could phrase the question, Luton said: 'Fogarty, when a man sets forth upon a journey, he completes it.'

     'And if he can't complete it? If there's no way on God's earth he can complete it?'

     Luton did not respond, and that night he slept apart from the Irishman. At dawn they rose with new hope, as the heavy mists had thinned. But even before they made their start the two travelers were thrown together in self-defense, for they were about to be assaulted by one of the most terrible of arctic enemies. It began with a low humming sound, which Luton heard first but could not easily identify. The enemy scouts, after an exploratory pass, flashed back a signal to their waiting army, and within moments a devastating horde of buzzing creatures descended upon the men, launching an attack that terrified them.

     'Fogarty!' Luton shouted with unlordly vehemence. 'Mosquitoes!' and before the Irishman could protect himself, thousands of the arctic terrors had engulfed him.

     The first minutes of the attack were horrifying, because no one unfamiliar with the arctic wastelands could imagine what an assault of this nature was like. Many lands are famous for their mosquitoes, but their breeds are positively docile compared to those of the arctic, and Lord Luton had led his partner into the heart of a breeding area: the swampy land of little lakes which provided endless wet grounds for the winged tormentors.

     Before the two men had a chance to break out their mosquito netting—to have traveled along the Mackenzie without it would have been suicide—they were blackened with the insects, and the biting was so incessant and painful that had they not quickly found protection under the nets, they might well have been bitten to death by nightfall, so tenacious was the attack. When the two men finally arranged themselves under the green netting, they were able to survive, even though thousands of the insects swarmed over them, battling to find even one opening in the clothing through which they might gain entrance to the target within.

     Within minutes of the opening assault, the ankles of the two men were a mass of inflamed bites, and not until Luton showed Fogarty how to tie cords about his pant legs were the terrifying beasts kept away. It was a long and terrible day, and the men were so busy protecting themselves that any thought of trekking farther toward the western mountains, wherever they might be, was preposterous. When night finally came, and a smudge fire was coaxed from damp twigs to keep the insects at bay, Luton and Fogarty had to sleep side by side to share and tend the fire, and before they fell asleep, Luton said: 'This was not a good day, Fogarty. A few more of these …'

     'I'm sure I can still find the Peel …'

     At the mention of that repugnant river Luton shuddered and said: 'We're engaged in a challenge, Fogarty, and the more hideous it becomes …' The Irishman, formulating his own finish to the sentence, thought: He intends to move forward until we perish. Making the sign of the cross, he vowed: And I shall stay with him till he does. But then he added: The minute his eyes close for the last time, back to the Peel and Fort Norman.

     The next day was the worst the two men would know, for with the coming of dawn and the dying of the smudge fire, the hordes struck with renewed fury, attacking any centimeter of exposed skin. They simply engulfed an area, sinking their proboscides deep into the skin, and their bite carried such a potent irritant, that once they struck, Luton and Fogarty had almost uncontrollable desires to scratch, but if they succumbed, they exposed more skin, which was immediately blackened by new hordes. 'My word, this is rather frightening,' Luton cried as he adjusted his netting to keep the little beasts from his face and eyes, but Fogarty expressed it better when with ghoulish humor he muttered as they attacked him in a score of different places: 'Stand fast, Milord, or they'll fly off with you.'

     The two men found macabre delight in chronicling the ingenuity of their foe. Luton said: 'Look at this rivet on my glove. You'd think not even a gust of air could force its way in there, but they do.' Belatedly, Fogarty found that the insects were assaulting his face by forcing their way through a minute hole in his net; they had detected it in the first moments of their attack. No opening, no gap in clothing could be so insignificant but what these murderous creatures exploited it. And they were murderous, for tradition in the arctic was replete with stories of unprotected men who had been caught in summer and driven to suicide by millions of mosquitoes which assaulted them without respite. There were many cases in which caribou or horses had been killed by overwhelming and relentless attacks.

     In all of nature there was no comparison with the arctic mosquito; mercifully, it appeared only for a few weeks in late spring and summer, but when it did men shuddered and animals sought high ground where breezes would keep the pests away.

     On this hideous day the two men were not to find their escape on high ground, for there was none that they could see, only the remorseless tundra swamp populated by myriad mosquitoes which maintained their attack in unbroken phalanxes. At one point in the early morning Lord Luton was so beleaguered by a black swarm—perhaps five hundred thousand coming at him in waves that darkened the sky—that he clawed at his face in despair as hordes broke through a tear in his netting. In that moment he realized that if the assault were to continue with such fury throughout the day, he might indeed go berserk as caribou were said to do when the mosquitoes pursued their relentless assault.

     Fortunately, Fogarty spotted the break in Luton's protection and repaired it with grasses that he wove through the surrounding interstices, and in this way Luton was saved, but neither man had much hope that if such conditions persisted for several days, they could survive, especially since they had only limited food and no clear understanding of where the western mountains lay.

     They did have drinking water, of course, and Fogarty suggested: 'Milord, that was a sad attack you suffered. Fill your belly with water. It gives a man courage to feel something down there … anything.' But when the Irishman led Luton to one of the pools and they bent down to drink, they found the surface covered with millions of black and wriggling larvae that even as they watched were transforming themselves into mosquitoes. The insects rose in swarms from the lake to enjoy their brief two or three weeks chasing across the tundra in search of any living thing that carried blood. Finding Luton and Fogarty delivered right into their cradle as it were, they swarmed upon them so mercilessly that drinking became impossible, and in this extremity Lord Luton very nearly lost control: he shivered, he fought the attacking hordes with shadowy movements of his hands as if he were a doomed boxer, and looked helplessly at Fogarty.

     But before he could speak and reveal his near-disintegration, he saw behind the Irishman an animal moving, or was it a pair of animals? Believing that he was to be attacked from yet another quarter, he ran back to retrieve his gun, and would have fired at the creatures had not Fogarty anticipated his wild action and knocked the gun aside, so that the bullet sped harmlessly through the horde of mosquitoes rising from the lake.

     'Milord, they're Indians!' and when Luton lowered his gun he saw two Indians of the Han tribe whose representatives he had seen at the mouth of the Peel. Toward them walked a robust man, dark-faced and with black hair neatly cropped above his eyes, and a lively little woman adorned with strands of seashells around her neck and with intricately beaded shoes upon her feet. They halted a few yards before the two men and dropped to their knees. From their manner of probing into everything and even inspecting the knapsacks, Fogarty concluded that they had come, with friendly intentions, across the tundra to see whether the white men were lost and needed help.

     Luton, with a bounding joy which cleared his tormented brain, rushed toward the startled Indians, shouting to Fogarty: 'You see! There is a track through this wilderness! They've come to show us!' But when he reached the Indians he stopped short, as if a mighty hand had been thrust in his face, for the Indians were engulfed in a most putrid stench. However, when Fogarty came close he burst into laughter and pointed to the man's face: 'Some kind of animal grease, probably rotting. Keeps away mosquitoes, but it does stink.'

     Luton was correct in guessing that the Han had come to help; they had seen the wanderers from a distance and had deduced that they were lost and in grave trouble. Their tribe made their summer camp along the edge of this inhospitable land and various members had made the long excursion to the Hudson's Bay establishment at Fort Norman, where they had traded furs for the rifles, axes and iron cooking pots they treasured. They were not engaged in such travel now, for it would have been unlikely that any Han man would take his wife on such a trip, trading among strangers, especially when the latter were white. They were in this harsh land only to hunt the arctic hare, but this intent was discarded now, for to succor men who were obviously lost was another matter.

     However, Lord Luton could conceive of no way to converse with these people who had no command of English and no proficiency in any language other than their own, and he was angry with himself at being unable to explain to them the extremity in which he and Fogarty found themselves. But the Irishman was encountering no difficulty in discussing his predicament with the Indians, for with vigorous and imaginative gestures he described Fort Norman, and the Mackenzie River, and the Peel with its ugly rapids, and the journey through the western range, and the mosquito attacks.

     When this was understood, with the Han nodding in enthusiastic agreement and adding comments of their own, also in sign language, Fogarty turned his attention to the gold fields at Dawson, and he had dug only half a gold mine with his lively gestures when the Indians indicated that, yes, they understood about the find on the Klondike because several of their men had worked there and others had acted as guides from the headwaters of what had to be the Porcupine or some similar river into Dawson. Yes, they knew the mosquitoes were horrendous at this time of the year. Yes, there was some game among these many lakes. And what was most important of all, yes, they would guide the two men through the myriad lakes and the endless swamps along the paths which gained high ground where the mosquitoes were less ferocious.

     When Fogarty gestured a question about a route directly through the distant mountains, the Indian man shook his head and pointed insistently along the valley, indicating that if they kept to the lower elevations, they would at the far end of the valley reach a spot from which two relatively easy passes led through the mountains. Then he turned toward the nearby range Luton had proposed to climb, and started to scrabble in the air as if hauling himself up sheer rock and then collapsed suddenly on the ground. His stunned audience realized that they would have perished had they attempted to climb those heights; fallen to their deaths down some monstrous chasm.

     That night the two Indians took from sacks about their waists odd bits of dried meats they carried with them when traveling the tundra, and after assuring the strangers that they were going to make a kind of stew in an iron pot they carried, they went to the shore of the very lake that Luton had refused to drink from because of the mosquito larvae and dipped up a copious supply of the water. Fogarty, seeing that the water was still crawling with future mosquitoes, indicated that perhaps the Indian would want to skim off the violently swimming creatures, but the woman shook her head vehemently, indicating that the larvae, when properly boiled with bits of venison, were not only palatable but also nourishing.

     After they had eaten, the Han built a smudge fire, using an aromatic grass they had gathered that repelled the insects most effectively, and the men slept well, with Luton whispering to Fogarty before they fell asleep: 'They've saved our lives. We must pay them well.'

     It was what happened the next day that shocked Lord Luton, making him not a scorner of the primordial Han but a devotee, for after leading them to a footpath and pointing out the pass through the mountains, they insisted that the two strangers leave the path, which Luton was reluctant to do, and visit a site on a little rise beside a clear lake. There Luton and Fogarty found three mounds, each the size of a grave, and where the headstones might properly have been, rested three small piles of stone.

     'Who?' Fogarty asked in sign language, and so clearly that it could not be mistaken, the little Han woman indicated that the three corpses had been white men like himself, that they too had become lost, and that they had perished from mosquito bites and madness and starvation. To indicate madness she rotated her forefingers about her ears, crossed her eyes, and staggered to her imaginary death.

     Luton was tremendously affected by this account: 'Damn me, we've got to give the poor souls a Christian burial,' and to Fogarty's astonishment, Luton stood bareheaded facing the graves and recited long passages from the Book of Common Prayer, saying at the close: 'Heavenly Father, accept belatedly the souls of these good men who perished in their Wilderness of Gibeon.'


17 April 2020

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