There is Nothing to the North of Ny-Ålesund
J. R. Handfield
“There is nothing to the north of Ny-Ålesund,” said the man.
I pulled down my gaiter, took a quick glance at my phone’s camera to register the face ID, and the colorful map appeared on the screen. A pin with “Ny-Ålesund” was in the center and a few pixels north of that, more land. At least according to the internet, there was something to the north of Ny-Ålesund.
“My friend,” he replied, lightly pushing my phone out of his line of sight with a hook hand, “it is true that the map believes there is something to the north. It is also true that there are those who claim to have been to the north. Those are mere stories. If you do not have official business, you should not be here.”
At that, he went back to the Ny-Ålesund Town and Mine Museum office. Before closing the door, he poked his head back out and, with a smile, repeated himself once more: “There is nothing to the north of Ny-Ålesund.”
Sitting in our small hotel room, we studied a printed Norwegian atlas as we ate.
“So, if we take a snowmobile and follow this route here,” I said, tracing an invisible line with the tip of a pencil, “we should reach the Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park in a few hours and avoid any questions. We can set up camp here-” I circled a green area of land, “-then continue north after we rest.”
“Makes sense,” she replied, taking the pencil from my hand. “I like the plan, but-” she drew a zigzag line across the 79th parallel and placed the pencil on the table, “-there’s nothing here.”
She smiled as she stood and removed her jacket and gloves. The ever-present sun beamed through the window and illuminated the map as she moved out of its way.
“I still wonder what he meant by that,” I said, staring at the atlas.
An orange glove hit my face. I looked up at her, and she grinned as she left the room. “It’s just the locals messing with visitors,” she yelled from the bathroom. “You’d do the same thing!”
Between the relative warmth and persistent daylight, we made good time and reached our destination ahead of schedule, and without further hassle from the locals.
“So, we get some rest,” I said as we unrolled our inflatable airframe, “and tomorrow, we head north.”
“Northward to nothing,” she laughed as she refilled the snowmobile’s gas tank with one of the spare canisters. “There’s probably a clan of advanced polar bears doing research that we’re not supposed to know about.”
I turned on the air compressor, the sound of its motor cutting through the wind. “Maybe the arctic birds are collecting human specimens for experiments,” I said.
“Or maybe there are dragons,” she said, “and the heir to the Norwegian throne is riding around and setting fire to the villages in the name of her hunky husband!”
“Or maybe…” I said, “there are two sisters who sing catchy songs with a goofy looking snowman?”
We continued joking as we made camp. I shut off the compressor once the tent was up and looked to the sky just in time for a chunk of snow to hit my face.
“Or maybe there’s a super-secret snowball tournament, and you just lost!” She threw another snowball and I gave chase, slipped, and fell in the powder. She turned back to me, pulled down her red scarf, and stuck her tongue out. As she continued to back away, her body suddenly jolted and she fell forward. Her scream accompanied an otherworldly howl, and the last thing I saw was a white blur racing toward me.
I awoke to clouded vision and ringing ears. Everything hurt. What didn’t hurt felt numb. I carefully rose, my body slow to adjust as I moved my limbs in an attempt to get the blood flowing again. I went outside and observed that the tent was still fully intact, but the snowmobile was flipped onto its side and a wide, off-color spot spread from the upturned and now-empty gas canisters.
As my eyes adjusted to the perpetual sunlight and the snowy tundra, they fixed on a red blur a few yards away. Was it blood? Her scarf?
I couldn’t find her.
I immediately ran toward the red and stumbled. Instinct kicked in. My arms moved underneath me. I felt my left arm snap, and I was unconscious again.
Inside the tent, sunlight illuminated the interior with the blue of the fabric. Her orange-gloved hand held mine, and I saw her face as I came to. I tried to lift myself up with my left arm and yelped in pain.
“Easy there, polar bear,” she said with a soft smile as she lightly pushed me back down. She looked pale. She wasn’t wearing her scarf.
“What happened?” I asked. “You were running backwards, then you… you hit something? Something hit you? There was an attack? I don’t und--”
“Shhh,” she said, putting a gloved finger to my mouth. “Don’t you worry. Your arm is in rough shape, but I think my first aid girl scout badge came in handy after all.”
I looked at my left arm. A makeshift splint, sturdy but misshapen and made from something I couldn’t place, was tied to it over my jacket. “What is that?” I asked, “did you do that with… with a bone?”
“No no no,” she laughed. “It’s a tusk.”
“A what?!” I stared at the splint, which looked far too small to be a tusk.
“A tusk,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “It’s not like a dead walrus was gonna use it anymore.”
The tent was quiet. The stillness felt at odds with the still-burning sun.
My arm throbbed. My legs ached. My ears rang.
She rose and walked toward the exit of the tent. She glowed a bright white in contrast with a single orange glove.
I fell asleep.
Time no longer had meaning. I awoke alone to more sunlight, a sore arm, and a dead phone battery. I heard movement outside of the tent, and slowly eased my way out, careful not to apply any weight or pressure to my left arm.
Outside, the tent and camping equipment was still in place, and the pool of gas remained a discolored blight on the otherwise pristine snowscape.
The snowmobile, however, was upright. She was next to it, brushing snow off the side. She again wore her red scarf and one orange glove, but her form was now a bright white - her body no longer defined by warm winter clothing, but instead a glossy, sheath-like sheen resembling a bodysuit. I somehow knew, however, that it wasn’t clothing but instead her actual flesh.
She turned to me. “It’s time,” she said with a smirk. Her smile, once so familiar, stretched beyond what I thought the muscles of the face could achieve. Her wry grin morphed and changed, and her jaws opened to reveal rows and rows of sharp, pointed teeth. Within seconds, her mouth - its mouth, because it wasn’t her anymore and I didn’t want to believe it wasn’t her anymore - opened as if on a hinge.
She - it - took two giant strides toward me.
I raised my good arm to block its approach. It tore right through, and I screamed as my arm exploded in blood and joint and muscle. The sound echoed across the tundra. Instinctually, my splinted arm jabbed at the center of its body. The splint faced some initial resistance from the creature’s chest before forcing its way through the flesh to the other side.
It howled. It howled in pain. It howled in rage.
It reached for me, but, within moments, the blood in its mouth that was once mine turned from a bright red to a sickening green, and it slumped over, still skewered on my arm.
I forced the creature’s corpse off my arm, and left the monstrosity with the tent, with the gas canisters, with the air compressor, with the equipment. I created a makeshift tourniquet with her scarf before I bled out and drove the snowmobile back to Ny-Ålesund.
Upon my return to the settlement, I collapsed not two steps after dismounting the machine.
When I awoke in the medical facility, the medic scolded me for not bringing a rifle to protect against polar bear attacks. I began to tell him what happened, about her, to defend my case, and he raised his arm to silence me.
“We will try this again,” he said, gesturing where my right arm should have been. “You see, in Ny-Ålesund, it is important to travel with protection in case of... polar bears.”
He put strong emphasis on the words “polar” and “bears.”
Only then did I understand.
I chose to stay in Ny-Ålesund following my recovery and took a job at the museum. Every so often, a visitor to the outpost will ask about my missing arm. My response is always the same.