“Ethics & the Law in Noir Fiction”

[Note from Christopher: During the summer of 2011, I was contacted by an editor representing a new online web magazine (e-zine) dedicated to noir fiction and asked to contribute an essay for its debut issue. The e-zine will remain nameless, for what happened next became a disaster. I wrote the essay as requested, and the editor’s boss, the head honcho editor, said it was too long. I cut it to the new length requested. Then, a day before the debut issue was hitting the World Wide Web, it occurred to me they had not sent the final edited version for me to see, per our agreement. So I asked to see it. And fell out of my chair when I did. It had been cut to half its length, maybe less, and not very well. It read like the author (me) was suffering from some sort of brain disorder. A flurry of heated emails ensued between me and the editors. In the end, I pulled the essay from the e-zine, told them they could not use it. And learned a lesson about doing business with folks I don’t know. So this is the first time the essay has been published, right here on my website. It’s debut! Finally. As for its theme, well, my interest in ethics and law—especially where the two diverge—is what I chose to explore, within the context of noir fiction.]

 

 

During my adolescent years, I came to believe that to live an honest life—meaning an ethical life—you’ve got to break the law. The notion seemed profoundly true to me then. In truth, it still does.

It occurs to me now that many a fine book has been made off the same idea. And so has many a crime.

Victor Hugo explored that terrain in his great novel Les Misérables. A man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and spends 19 years in prison for it. Upon his release, he goes straight but is relentlessly pursued by an obsessed police detective. Clearly, this is a story with a twist, one in which the apparent criminal is actually good and the so-called good guy very bad.

I read that book when I was 16 or so. Shortly before, I’d read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, in which the main character, a respectable businessman and booster of civic virtues, is beneath his facade a morally corrupt hypocrite.

And having grown up in a family of charismatic Bible-thumpers, I was teethed on the story of how the Son of God Himself got nailed to a cross because he was so honest and true that the legal powers-that-be couldn’t put up with him.

I daresay all those stories made an impression on my adolescent person, and the lessons I took from them were not those intended by my elders. But I couldn’t help it. It seemed plain as day to me: the law is corrupt; the law has little to do with ethics; the law is essentially a criminal enterprise.

Looking back at that time helps me better understand why I sometimes write fiction that gets marketed as crime fiction in the U.S. and noir in Europe, especially France. (Though the very same book may get classified as thriller, suspense or mystery, depending on who happens to be doing the labeling that day in that mysterious place, location unknown, where books get categorized for market.)

This is a good moment to acknowledge that no one has a precise definition for what noir is or what it means. As a term, it is procrustean. Some call noir a style, others a mood. Some make up detailed lists of what must occur for a work to be called noir. But all such efforts to define the term fall short. In the end, it’s probably not definable, and I am reminded of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography: “I can’t define it. But I know it when I see it.”

Though its meaning is slippery we talk at length about noir all the same. And for good reason. Noir fiction and film, when done well, burrows beneath the surface of convention. It reveals the hypocrisies we endure, the falsity of public norms, and the corruption we suspect lurking not only within our civic institutions but inside each of us individually. As such, noir is highly dramatic and deeply personal. Inadvertently, it also serves as social commentary.

One particular reason I like reading and sometimes writing noir is that it spotlights the fact that ethics and law are two very separate matters. Each supposedly leads to a common goal but often they are in conflict with one another. And sometimes both systems seem moribund, each of them so crippled by irrelevance to the needs at hand that they create more conflict than they resolve.

In any good work of noir, that conflict appears in a personal way. A noir novel isn’t overtly sociological, not the way a novel by Dickens or Zola is. Instead, it often explores the breakdown of ethics and law, or the conflicts between them, through the point of view of a character who has internalized the conflict and explicitly feels torn about what to do. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist in Cain’s Double Indemnity suffers from indecision and self-doubt even as his irresistible impulses drive him toward a tragic end. That makes it mainly a dramatic work; the sociological critique is implicit. (It’s no surprise, then, that what we now call classic works of film noir from the 1940’s-1950’s were simply called melodramas when they were made.)

That ethics and law are two distinctly separate matters seems so obvious you’d expect most people to routinely acknowledge it. But most of us don’t, because most of us rarely think about it. It’s true that recent events in global finance have caused more people than usual to notice the divergence between ethics and law. Americans who watch Wall Street gangsters rip off the public trust and laugh all the way to the bank (often a bank the thugs manage) aren’t sure how to react. After all, what these thieves are doing is completely legal. But ethical? Well, they’re slimy bastards and we all know it.

So much for the law. For that matter, so much for ethics. Both systems are intended to help us struggling humans resist our atavistic biological impulses and behave according to rules and principles that support social cooperation and trust—what we commonly call civilization. But we all know from history, and too often from personal experience, that the collective project we call civilization is a tough uphill grind. We strive, more or less, to achieve it. And we routinely fail.

Sometimes the breakdown is huge. War, for instance. Or a country falling prey to criminal cartels. Or being torn apart by fundamentalists, religious or political. Or an entire economic system being brought to its knees by the greedy self-interest of a few. Such general breakdowns in ethics and law create widespread distrust of the institutions that supposedly support them. People become more cynical. They become more anxious. And much, much angrier. They start to believe that justice can be achieved only by taking the law into their own hands. In other words, that justice requires breaking the law.

So it’s probably no accident that the roots of noir fiction in the U.S. go back to the era of the Great Depression, a time when the Average Joe and JoAnne were getting royally screwed because the controlling elite—acting legally but outside all ethical bounds—completely broke the economic system. During the 1930’s, millions of ordinary folks were jobless, homeless, and hungry. And the rest worried they might be next. Civilization, such as Americans knew it, hung in the balance.

That prolonged crisis highlighted the difference between the rich, who mostly remained rich, and ordinary folk, who suffered mightily. In places like Philadelphia, people were stripping bark off neighborhood trees to boil and eat. The era ushered in a great deal of class conflict on the social level and personal anxiety on the individual level. People were frightened. And very pissed off. They were angry enough to celebrate bank robbers like John Dillinger and revere Bonnie and Clyde as folk heroes. Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” (1939) offered sentiments like, “As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

Clearly, the established order had broken down. The country’s institutional authorities had been discredited. Alienation from the law became commonplace. Moral ambiguity ran high.

And so entered from stage left—or maybe it was right—the early expressions of what we now call noir. It was not then considered high art. For that matter, it still isn’t, except for a few aficionados of the genre. But it sure remains popular with readers and moviegoers and commercially appealing to publishers and filmmakers. In recent years, the noir style has found a place in TV, too, given the creative opportunities offered by less censored cable TV channels.

A lot has been written about the development of noir in the U.S. By that I mean the way early hardboiled fiction led to noir fiction and film noir. Individual isolation and alienation, existential anxiety, atavistic aggression and violence as a coping strategy within the framework of social and class conflicts—exploring those themes exploded during the 1930’s in the hardboiled crime and detective fiction of writers like Chandler, Hammett and Cain.

A decade later, Hollywood was in the same game with film noir, its movies based on those earlier groundbreaking writers—The Maltese Falcon (1941, based on Hammett’s 1930 novel), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, from Cain’s 1934 novel), and so on. That’s a history we all know.

Those who dial down the microscope to look more closely observe that the fiction of Cain (and of others like Cornell Woolrich and W. R. Burnett, both relatively unknown nowadays) was distinctly different from the work of writers like Chandler and Hammett. They all worked in prose styles that were lean, gritty and often bleak. But the Chandlers and Hammetts arguably led to later writers like John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker, whereas Cain’s offshoots included Jim Thompson and Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark).

So that’s where and when the tree forked, we are told, with crime/detective fiction headed in one direction and noir fiction in another, with a main difference then and now being point of view. The first school of writers mostly features tough detectives, private or public, who nowadays reveal a sensitive side, at least in their relations with women. Whereas the second group often writes from the perspective of criminal perpetrators (and sometimes victims), and sex relations focus more on glands than sensitivity. In short, crime fiction generally focuses on the POV of cops and private dicks, and noir fiction more often focuses on the flip-side POV.

And some writers do both, making them satisfyingly difficult to categorize. This happens to be the group I like best, and covers a diverse range of writers, from Elmore Leonard to James Ellroy. It’s a group I happily joined when I published my first novel, Robbers.

Of course, one thing all these writers focus on is violence, a theme that Americans seem nihilistically addicted to in their entertainment, whether it’s books, movies or television. In this regard, however, crime fiction and noir no longer rule the roost. With a few exceptions—I think of pulp romances—violence has become compulsory in almost all our popular entertainments, and the darker and more brutal the better. Hannibal Lecter is now just our average middle-of-the-road culprit, if not the outright protagonist.

Which leads us back to the tension between ethics and law. Have the two diverged so much in our current era that large numbers of people find it impossible to live according to both? Do we once again believe, as we did during the 1930’s, that the law is essentially a corrupt tool of the wealthy and powerful? Are the Average Joe and Joanne ready to embrace new incarnations of Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde?

I don’t think we are collectively quite there yet, at least not in the U.S. and Europe. People in some places, such as Mexico with its drug cartel heroes or Somalia with its sea pirates, certainly are. But I suspect the rest of us will be joining them soon. I think the distrust of large institutions—civil ones like government, economic ones like banks and big business—is now running so high, and those same institutions are so broken, and ordinary people so alienated from them, that we are entering another period when the law will be seen as enemy as much as protector. The social contract is breaking, and it’s about to go kaput. Yet again.

Well, you say, that’s an awfully dark view. Yes, it is. I heartily agree. But I also foresee a fertile time for noir. A prime time. I see a great future for the genre.

I don’t think it will be the same as almost a century ago, however, when noir was born in its modern manifestation. History does tend to repeat itself, but with variations. For instance, I expect the noir point of view to find full expression in television, which after all is a kind of digital form of pulp fiction: relatively cheap, quickly produced, a disposable consumer product. Cable series like Breaking Bad and The Wire are taking us there.

On the literary side, I see the cutting edge of noir appearing in new genres. I already see its influence in fiction like that of William Gibson and his cyberpunk offspring, a kind of Blade Runner style in print—or, increasingly, the digital e-book medium.

However it develops, I think noir will continue to explore the notion I mentioned in my opening. That is, to live an honest life you’ve got to break the law. In traditional crime fiction, the good guys are basically good and the bad guys basically bad. But noir recognizes an essential truth: the conflict between good and bad, between legal and criminal, is in reality a conflict festering in the heart of every single one of us. That ongoing eternal struggle is a drama—a personal melodrama—we all experience.

And which side wins out, when it could go either way, makes for a story well worth telling, and one we desperately want to hear.

 

*****

—Christopher

“Howard Peacock and the Big Thicket”

Howard Peacock, naturalist and eco-activist.

 [Note from Christopher:  Howard Peacock is an extraordinary man and a great friend. A life-long eco-activist and fellow writer, he helped create the Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas after years of battling the big multinational timber companies and backward-thinking Texas politicians. On a lovely spring day in 2000, the two of us took a long walk in the Preserve along the Kirby Nature Trail north of Kountze. This resulting article was published in the March 2000 issue of Texas Co-op Power Magazine, whose editors have graciously permitted me to re-publish it here. Another fine friend, the gifted professional photographer Randy Mallory of Tyler, Texas, took these lovely photos to illustrate the piece. By the way, I am glad to report that Howard’s lament regarding the Preserve having no Visitors Center has since been rectified. It now has one, and it’s terrific.]

 

“Man can find deep solitude and, under conditions of grandeur that are startling, come to know himself and God.”
                                              —Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

 

We’re strolling along a trail beneath a canopy of beech, the path mottled with sunlight, our feet padding a soft carpet of leaves. The early spring air smells sweet with leaf-burst and wildflowers. My companion, Howard Peacock, stops and cocks an ear.

“That’s a red-eyed vireo.”

I listen closely. A series of short caroling notes, flute-like, bounce through the morning woods. My first thought: I’ve been hearing that bird all my life and had not an inkling of its name.

But that’s how it is on a walk through the Big Thicket of East Texas with Peacock, a naturalist and writer who lives in Woodville. You begin thinking you know something because you can identify half a dozen trees, a few wildflower species and a handful of bird calls. After a while, you discover what you really know: hardly anything at all.

It’s doubly humbling to learn that Peacock, 75, is trying to forget what you never knew anyhow. Standing before a tree I identify as either crepe myrtle or ironwood, he says, “It’s hornbeam. But ironwood is a common name for hornbeam. And there’s another tree called ironwood. And that other tree also is called hawthorn beam. That’s where you get into trouble.

I nod, understanding completely.

“Another common name for this tree is muscle tree,” he continues, pointing to the hornbeam, “because the convolutions in the trunk look sort of like muscles. Common names are very interesting but they are not very precise.”

I nod again, thinking, Geez, is he ever right about that. Then he strokes his beard and lowers the boom.

“I am trying to forget names of trees and flowers and birds and everything like that. I’ll tell you what I found out. I found out that the names get in the way. When you are looking at a flower and trying to figure the name, you are not enjoying the flower. I am trying to forget all that.”

The attitude seems very Zen to me—“Don’t let mental concepts pollute clear perception”—and I feel a tad like Grasshopper has just received his weekly kung-fu lesson from Master.

But mostly I’m relieved. There are at least 85 species of trees in the Big Thicket, and more than 1,000 species of shrubs and flowering plants, and 300 species of birds. Now I don’t have to learn them all. Not only that, but I will be wiser for my ignorance.

Then I turn toward Peacock and see him gazing beatifically at the hornbeam. I’m standing here noodling in my head, he’s experiencing the tree. Boy, do I feel dumb.

Howard Peacock is a man who puts a premium on joy. And one reason he finds for rejoicing is that a group of stubborn, organized activists—of which he was one—managed to save the 86,000 acres in East Texas known as the Big Thicket National Preserve.

The preserve is a collection of 12 units along the Neches River bottoms north of Beaumont and scattered among water corridors to the west toward the Trinity River. Established in 1974, the preserve was officially designated an international Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations in 1981. As a unique ecosystem, it ranks in an elite world-class category.

Here in Texas, Big Bend and Palo Duro Canyon get better press in a state entranced with its western cowboy mythos, but the Big Thicket is arguably the most extraordinary landscape in the state, bar none.

The geologic story of this region involves glaciers and repeated ice ages and rising and retreating seas. The land once was roved by woolly mammoths. But the first telltale human signs appeared about 7,000 years ago, and the Native Americans who later came to reside in East Texas called the region the “Big Woods.”

And it was. More than 3.5 million acres in all, the primitive Big Thicket ranged from the Sabine River westward to present-day Navasota, from Beaumont northward to near Lufkin, an area of more than 5,500 square miles where average annual rainfall exceeds 55 inches. The early Spaniards mostly went around it, but a century and a half later, during the 1830s, Anglos drifting westward from the American South began to penetrate the dense region they came to call the “Big Thicket.”

Legend says that name was derived from the impassable thickets of titi, an Indian word for the shrubs that grew so thickly a snake could hardly thread them. That’s where Confederate draft evaders went to hide during the Civil War, where Confederate troops tried to burn them out.

The Big Thicket region, as with all of East Texas, was logged heavily after the Civil War. The timber was sent eastward and northward for a nation reconstructing itself and extending railroads into the frontiers. The heavy logging continues; timber is the number one agricultural industry in East Texas.

Today, only a few slivers of virgin woods remain, and those are within the Big Thicket National Preserve. With its 10 overlapping ecosystems, from eerie cypress sloughs to pine forests, the preserve is known to scientists as the “Biological Crossroads of North America.”

No wonder this remarkable place also is called “America’s Ark,” with all the environmental implications that name entails.

The story behind the preserve—how it came to be established by federal law despite decades of opposition—is almost as complex as the landscape. Or as the intricate journey of Howard Peacock’s life.

As we walk along the Kirby Nature Trail in the Village Creek bottomlands, not far from the preserve’s visitors station north of Kountze, he spins the interweaving tale in a long, casual narrative interrupted by commentary on the passing scene and suspended moments of silence. Stopping to marvel at an enormous magnolia or the fragrance of blossoming jessamine, he seems much the pilgrim who has traveled far to honor a holy place.

But he is not religious, Peacock says, not in conventional terms. “I am spiritually oriented.” The basis of his beliefs? “Kindliness and good humor and tolerance. Playfulness,” he replies.

He pauses to tug at his hat brim, the clear gray eyes searching the woods beneath bushy eyebrows that arch like a tomcat. He smiles. “I really enjoy playfulness.”

On the other hand, he has little patience for those who disrespect Mother Nature. “I cut off Exxon after the Valdez oil spill,” he says. “Haven’t bought a gallon of their gasoline since. The company used such poor judgment.”

Howard Peacock along the Kirby Nature Trail in the Big Thicket National Preserve.

That was a decade ago, but the attitude runs through the current of all his years, from the time he was a Cub Scout in Beaumont to the present. In the Navy during World War II, he loaded ammunition aboard ships in the Philippines. Later, he worked as a newspaper journalist, then as editor of the Houston Chamber of Commerce weekly and for the Southern Pacific Railroad magazine. Eventually he became director of the United Fund—precursor of the United Way—in Houston.

“All that time,” Peacock says, “I was free-lance writing for magazines,” a constant in his otherwise zig-zag career. The other constant: taking to the woods when possible and joining the ongoing battle to create a national preserve in the Big Thicket.

“The first movement began back in the late 1920s. The Depression came along and hurt it. Then World War II came along and just about killed the movement. But it revived in the late 1950s and 60s.”

By then Peacock was leading the Texas Bill of Rights Foundation, which he’d help found with friends. The John Birch Society was flexing its muscle, President Kennedy was assassinated. “This was a time of very serious hostility between opposing political factions,” he recalls grimly. “Our group wanted to create a forum for these differing ideas to be presented in a reasonable atmosphere.”

For seven years, the Houston-based foundation held town hall meetings and public school programs, even broadcast a weekly TV show on which public figures as diverse as Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy appeared.

Meanwhile, Peacock had become increasingly active in the Big Thicket Association, formed in the 1950s to continue the long struggle to preserve some of the East Texas wilderness. The names of those involved in the movement roll off Peacock’s tongue: Lance Rosier, Archer Fullingim, Geraldine Watson, Pete Gunter, Maxine Johnston, Billy Hallmon, and others. They, in turn, nicknamed him “Tush Hog,” a term usually reserved for the toughest ol’ rooter in the woods.

“They were my soul buddies,” Peacock fondly recalls. “It was a very exciting time.” He had moved to a job at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where he put on programs about the Big Thicket. “And on weekends I was over here taking groups to places like this,” he adds, sweeping an arm toward the lush bottomlands.

The determined activists drummed up support among scientists and nature writers, and took their battle public through state and national media. Among the high-profile advocates of the preserve was U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a strong supporter of natural preservation. But the movement faced even stronger opposition among a group that wielded tremendous political influence in East Texas—the timber companies.

According to Peacock, it took two unusual men to finally bridge the gap. Ironically, one of them was a life-long timberman.

“The guy who really turned the trick was Arthur Temple,” Peacock says. “There was a complete standoff—I mean a hostile standoff—between the environmentalists and the timber companies. Then Arthur Temple broke the pattern.”

The board chairman of Temple Industries—along with Kirby and Louisiana-Pacific, one of the big three timber companies then—Arthur Temple appointed one of his foresters, Garland Bridges of Jasper, to work with the eco-activists and look for a compromise. Meanwhile, Temple worked on his fellow timber executives, convincing them it served the public interest to preserve parts of the Thicket. In the end, an agreement was reached.

“We didn’t get the 300,000 acres we desperately wanted,” Peacock admits, “but we got about 85,000. That at least preserved some of the ecological systems in the Thicket.”

The agreement still needed passage through Congress, and the man who had laid the groundwork for that was U.S. Senator Ralph Yarbrough. “He was our champion in the Senate,” Peacock says. “He was a great man.”

For years, Yarbrough—with the help of U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt—had kept the idea of a national preserve alive in Congress despite intense opposition from timber interests. The legislative wrangling continued right up to the end, when Yarbrough was no longer a Senator, but a final bill was passed and signed into law October 11, 1974.

Even then, there was work yet to do. “The acquisition of the land, for one thing,” Peacock notes, “and then the plans for a proper visitors center, which still have not come to fruition.”

The land for the preserve eventually was acquired with minimal conflict—most belonged to timber companies or absentee owners, Peacock says—and is managed by the National Park Service. Attempts to expand it another 11,000 acres have been stymied since 1993, when Congress passed approving legislation. Negotiations to swap National Forest Service land for the additional preserve, which is owned by timber companies, have faltered.

Peacock hopes the land eventually will be acquired, but the nonexistent visitor center rankles him. “The center is supposed to have movies, big pictures, exhibits, all that good stuff you see at any national park.” He notes that the facility would bring more visitors and raise the visibility of this precious part of Texas. It would benefit both the park and the area economically.

So why, after 26 years, hasn’t the center been built? “Money,” Peacock replies. He laughs wryly. “But maybe the political landscape will change.”

If such a center existed, Peacock described the Big Thicket it would interpret in his 1994 book Nature Lover’s Guide to the Big Thicket (Texas A&M Press). On page after page, he describes the 10 complex ecosystems of the preserve, from baygalls to longleaf pine uplands to oak-gum floodplains. Found in them are cacti and orchids, four species of carnivorous plants, splendid ferns, champion trees and mushrooms, minks and bobcats and alligators.

What strikes any visitor to the preserve is that one moment you seem to be moving through the Amazon jungle, yet a short time later you are wandering through a forest of upland pines. The biological range is phenomenal. “The Thicket contains more kinds of ecosystems than any other place of similar size in North American, perhaps in the world,” Peacock observes.

It is extraordinary to think that this exotic and fantastic ecological mix once covered an area of Texas larger than the state of Connecticut. And it is sobering to think that although some of it was saved, more than 97 percent of it was lost. Does that make Peacock feel his cause was a failure?

“No, it was a success,” he quickly replies. “Not a huge success. We didn’t get all the ecological treasure, but we got some nice pieces of it. We got pieces we can work with.”

That any of it was saved, and that he played a role in the saving, seems something of a miracle to him. And a reason to reflect. “Yes, it was one of the best times of my life,” he recalls thoughtfully, “one of the best times.”

Then Peacock suddenly stops and that familiar look of joy passes over his face. “Just look,” he exclaims, pointing, “look right there. I will tell you one thing I had not expected to see, and that is Jack-in-the-pulpits coming up.”

I lean forward and see the tall green stems rising from the forest floor, the peculiar canopy atop each stem, and mentally note to remember the color, the shape, the name of this graceful flower.

But I will soon forget, I just know it.

Still, I also know that I can always come back and see it again. Maybe someday I will bring my grandchildren, if we are lucky. I will show them the flower and explain that I once knew its name but wisely forgot it so that I could see it all the better, on the advice of the happy man who first showed it to me.

 *****

The author, photographer Randy Mallory, and Howard Peacock.

—Christopher

“Full Moon Over Bohemia”

[Note from Christopher:  In 2005, a publisher in the U.S. asked me to contribute a piece on the Czech Republic for a travel book they planned to publish called Travelers’ Tales, Prague & Czech Republic. So I wrote this short memoir essay for the book. The publisher liked it well enough to include in a subsequent global anthology titled The Best Travel Writing 2006, True Stories From Around the World. It’s not really a magazine article, but this seems a good place to present it.]

 

 

The full moon hovers midway down the southern sky, a platinum sphere afloat in a black sea of stars. I glance back at the cottage, at the small quarter-paned window aglow with firelight, the wood smoke curling off its rooftop chimney, then thrust both poles into snow and slide away down the slope toward the distant treeline.

Southern Bohemia, the remote countryside, on a wintry December night. The temperature hovers just below freezing. Fresh snowfall blankets the rolling fields and spreads under thick stands of conifers. The landscape spreads pale white and shadowed in gray, just right for a cross-country trek on skis by moonlight. After months of living within the urban confines of Prague, surrounded by too many people and too much noise, I need this solitary adventure.

I’d arrived earlier in the day with two friends after an hour’s drive from the city. The paved road off the main highway had given way to a paved lane undulating through snowblown hills fringed in trees. Sturdy farmhouses and stone cottages dotted the hills, an occasional frozen pond. Then another turnoff into a smaller lane, which might have been paved or not—one couldn’t tell for the drifting snow—and there eventually appeared a remote cluster of houses. Past them the lane abruptly stopped. There we parked and unloaded, piled our gear onto a sled and plunged across the fields toward the isolated cottage. It was a hard slog, thigh deep in snow, and before long we were sweating, stripping away our outer coats.

The cabin itself was either a weekend chata or chalupa (the latter is usually larger), and it seems almost every Czech family owns one. This one belonged to my friend Vaclav, who’d spent years working on it, improving it, maintaining it, a never-ending project. The single large room downstairs with a living area and kitchen felt cheerfully rustic, the two bedrooms upstairs cozy and snug. But then, Czechs seem to value comfort above all else. Between the latest electronic gadget and a comfortable pair of houseshoes, I do believe they’d choose the slippers. They often remind me of hobbits.

Having finally arrived, we threw open the cottage doors and aired it, cut firewood, built a fire in the stove, sat down to bread and sausage and beer. Following a brief rest, we strapped on our skis and set off for an afternoon trek through the surrounding countryside. Afterward, more food, more beer. Conversation by the stove’s warmth, dozing into a nap. Contented. As I say, a hobbit’s existence. Very pleasant.

By evening, though, the cabin had begun to feel claustrophobic, the friendly chatter noisy and intrusive. I needed to get away, outdoors, alone. This pressing need for solitary time seems peculiar to Czechs, the most sociable of peoples. But they are very tolerant, too, so smiled when I quickly explained myself and ducked out the door. Those crazy, restless Americans!

This is true, at least in my case. I’ve felt skittish lately, more than a little off-kilter. Fenced in. A Texan by birth and upbringing, I’m accustomed to open spaces, wide skies and large distances, and the Czech Republic, like most of Europe, often feels cloistered and crowded to me. Yet altogether civilized, and charming. I can’t imagine Americans living so compactly without social catastrophe. Even as it is, the sheer stress of daily life in the States seems to erupt in anger, in routine violence. But not here, though by comparison this country is poorer. It was the same when I lived in Mexico: so much poverty, so many smiles… well then, so much for the correlation between wealth and contentment. Quality of life cannot be measured with money. Convenience will never replace joy.

These thoughts pass through me scarcely noticed as I skim over the moonlit snow, my skis sliding down the gentle slope toward the treeline. The cold air gathers around me, encloses me in frost. My breath, at first ragged, falls into a rhythm. I move across the open field under a wide arc of scattered stars, headed into mystery, leaving everything extraneous behind, forgotten. Just me and the starry night and the snow slipping past underneath, as smooth as dreamless sleep. Lost in reverie beneath a Central European sky.

A cross-country ski trail enters the woods.

Reaching the treeline, I come to a slow halt, pause for a searching look. My eyes trace the deep shadows for an entry point, a trail. There it is, scant, twinned grooves almost covered in new snow. The towering evergreens loft over me, and beyond the first of them moonlight falls downward through the branches in small ragged splashes, reveals the surface of snowfall only dimly here and there. Beneath the thick canopy of the forest, I will have to see with my skis, an edgy prospect. I push off all the same, and enter.

The beauty of cross-country skiing is not found in what one sees so much as in what one does not hear. Snow subdues sound, absorbs and smothers it. Inside the woods, the stillness is profound. Such silence. What is left is emptiness. And that absence of things heard becomes uncanny, mystical. Like the nothingness of Zen. Except for my own quiet suspiration, the world no longer exists.

But trees certainly do, as I soon discover. Here in the murky forest, where the meandering trail is less seen than intuited, I find sudden, sharp, invisible declines fairly teeming with trees. I hurl downward, waving my ski poles wildly, frantically, bumping into low branches, finally smashing into a sturdy trunk, full stop, expelling a most unZen-like harrumph. Sprawled ungracefully, with snow down my collar, I think: A forest threadbare in moonlight is lovely, but perhaps not such a good idea.

An hour later, I finally find myself through it, emerging from its far side into another open field. I am a bit lost now, but if I turn left and travel far enough, I think I can circumvent the trees and circle back into fields near the cottage. At least it seems so. But of course the immediate way is uphill. And quite a long, steep hill at that, a real effort. It will cost something to climb a hill like that on skis more willing to slide down than up. But one does what circumstances require, one must. This is a lesson, I tell myself. This is the adventure. Any bold exploit teaches us something, unwanted or not. And it does not come free.

So off I go. Halfway up, I calculate the cost, and it seems very high. The temperature has plummeted, the air biting cold, but beneath my coat, my sweater, I am drenched in sweat. And tired, out of breath. I stop to take a rest, doubled over. The silence settles over me again. The emptiness. Now there is nothing in the world but my fatigue and this hill. For some reason, the notion that my life has come down to this, a simple but perfect metaphor, seems depressing. What could be worse?

The answer promptly rises through the silence, cuts through it like a knife: distant howls. Eerie, unearthly, hair-raising howls. But very much of this earth, I gather, and of these woods. Wolf howls. Or wild dog howls. And not one, but several. This is not a sound I wished to hear. It is not even a sound I thought might exist here. But it does, undeniably so, and it is coming my way.

There are moments in all our lives when we wonder at our own capacity for creating dilemmas. Not just ordinary dilemmas, but absurd ones. Outrageous ones. The sort of predicament that could make a fine story, if we survive it. And if we don’t, well then, no one will ever know just how foolish and wretched we felt in those final forsaken moments. This is not reassuring, to realize the options are so extreme: a fine tale that becomes more comical with each retelling versus, for example, an ignominious end being ravaged and devoured by wild dogs.

This notion—not just an idea, mind you, but an actual image, and a gut-wrenching sensation in my belly—spurs me into action. My fatigue is palpable, but so is the fear, and what muscles won’t accomplish is assisted by adrenaline. I move upward, gaining the slope, and when the skis seem to be holding me back, I rip them off and climb with my boots, plowing the knee-deep snow like a machine. My heart is thumping, my breath flushing raucous clouds of exhaust like a steam engine. The metaphor of the hill now seems trivial. It is nothing compared to the mythos of the wolf, the wild dog archetype, of the primeval canine predator that terrorized our prehistoric ancestors and still lurks forgotten within the marrow of our bones.

The howls have come much nearer, are circling now. They rise from the woods, echo through the trees. The dogs—for this is surely what they are; wolves must have been killed out of these parts a hundred years ago, because after all this is Europe, the Czech Republic, not Montana, not the Yukon… right?—these dogs must be tracking me by smell, downwind. But staying out of sight, a good sign. On the other hand, perhaps they simply haven’t found me yet. But they’re looking.

I push on through the snow, clothes soaking wet to my skin. Thinking they probably aren’t wild dogs anyhow. Most likely, they are farm dogs. Pets, really. Though of course, when you get a pack of them running together… well, we’ve all seen what humans can do in packs, much less dogs. People use guns, bombers, nuclear warheads. Then pretend afterward they didn’t enjoy it. Whereas dogs suffer no such guilt. They just rip with their teeth, go for the entrails, growling, snarling their primordial pleasure.

At the top of hill, I quickly lower the skis off my shoulder and refasten them to my feet, shove off down the slope aiming toward a place, just discernible, where the treeline seems to come to a point in the moonlight. The freezing air whips past my eyes, turns tears into thin strings of crusted ice down my cheeks. Behind the near treeline, the howling paces me. This is the closest they’ve been yet. I can practically feel them there, briefly believe I see their loping eyes. I drive the poles into the drifting snow, pushing hard, thrusting forward, no longer thinking—or at least I’m unaware if I am. It’s down to me and them in a race, and while they’re faster, I have more to lose than they have to gain. If it comes to that, I can bite, too. And scream. In Canada once, I had a black bear come into my tent and when I screamed it scrambled out quick, it couldn’t get away fast enough. Recalling the incident now, I smile. It has over the years become a fine story, a staple for late nights over a beer with friends in this tavern or that.

And this escapade will, too. I feel almost certain of it. But first…

Reaching the bottom point of the treeline, I turn the skis to skirt it and see in the distance across a wide rolling expanse a small flickering light. A golden twinkle set against a squat silhouette. The cottage, its window. My friends. I strike out for them, moving more steadily now. From the woods behind me rises a tumultuous chorus of howls. It ascends in what seems to me a bitter, keening complaint, as if even nature can prove unjust. The hair at my neck stands on end and I shudder.

Half an hour later, I lean against the cabin steps and remove my skis, prop them against a wall and stand watching the dark line of trees beyond the luminous snowfield. I listen closely. From inside the cottage, a murmur of voices. But from the distant forest, nothing. Over it hovers the Bohemian night with stars like diamonds strewn across a black velvet cloak. The wide lucid moon reaches down the sky.

After a while, I walk up the steps and open the cottage door, go inside. My friends look up from their chairs beside the stove, their expressions both welcoming and surprised at once. They’re wearing flannel pajamas and big cozy houseshoes.

Tak, dobry vecer,” calls out Vaclav. Well then, good evening. He holds out a Pilsner in my direction. “How was the skiing?”

“It was great,” I reply, taking a seat, “a real adventure. Want to hear about it?”

They both smile. Yes, of course. Why not?

 

*****

A Czech chata during the summer.

Chata in summertime.

 

—Christopher