Beyond the Northern Lights

By: Arizona Tape

“You are dying,” Ben whispered to the half-frozen starling, white clouds escaping from his mouth as he said so. He glanced around as if he expected there to be someone that could overhear him on the abandoned mountainside. With a cheeky smile, he added: “But I will tell you a secret. I am dying too.”

The freshly fallen snow cracked under his leather boots as he made his way back to the cabin. He cupped the small bird as carefully as he could under his jacket, hoping to slowly raise its temperature. The black-feathered bird was barely breathing and his only sign of life was a soft twitch in his right claw. It was painfully obvious that if Ben hadn’t found him, this would’ve surely been his last flight.

The starling felt so cold and fragile in his hands, Ben was almost certain he wouldn’t be able to save the creature. But another part of him, his stubborn side, wouldn’t give up on the starling without even trying. Nobody, not even a little bird, deserved to die without at least someone trying to save it. The irony of that thought was completely lost on him though.

He draped the bird in an old towel and poked the logs in the hearth, flaming up the ashes. “I will take care of you now,” he muttered as he held the wrapped bird close to his chest, hoping that his body heat would gradually warm him up.

It had been a long time since he had spoken out loud, he noted as he stared at the pile of black feathers. Ever since he moved here he hadn’t spoken to another living soul. And muttering to himself didn’t count.

Maybe having this little bird as a friend wouldn’t be such a bad thing. That was, if he could save him. He placed the bundled-up bird in his hat and placed it close enough to the heat so that he could slowly warm up. The young man rummaged through his cabinets, looking for something he could feed his new companion when he woke up.

“Tinned beans… Nope… Tomato puree? I don’t think so… Would a bird eat dried jerky…?” he muttered to himself as he scoured through his rations. It really was just a bunch of random food items thrown together.

He scratched the back of his neck and embarrassedly noted to himself that he should really put an effort into cooking some decent food and getting some nutrients into his diet. But then a dark voice in the back of his head whispered: Why bother?

“Aha!” he triumphantly exclaimed as he found an old pack of crackers in the far back corner of his cupboard. It was far too crumbled for him to enjoy, but this would be a perfect little snack for the bird.

He clumsily ripped open the package and cursed under his breath as crumbs flew all over his countertop. “Damn it!”

He quickly wiped the mess onto the floor and grinned as he could just imagine his mother scolding him for doing so. She really hated how he never properly cleaned up after himself and she was baffled that a dirty dish didn’t bother him in the slightest. Anytime she reprimanded him, he would just shrug and wave her arguments away saying he would clean it up later.

After all, why wouldn’t he? He had plenty of time and there was always a later.

That was before he was diagnosed with cancer and decided that it was nobody’s business how his life came to an end. He didn’t want his parents or little brother around. They would fuss over him, they would smother him, they would coddle him. His mother would go grey from all her worries, his father speechless in silent sorrow, and his younger brother would make death his acquaintance far too soon.

He vividly remembered how his mother had cried as he announced he wanted to spend the rest of his days living alone in their vacation home in Sweden. His brother had asked him if he could come and visit so they could play in the snow together, while his dad had wordlessly stared at him. But regardless of their reactions and protests, he had packed up what little he owned and had kissed his mother goodbye, promising to write her for as long as he could. The handshake he had gotten from his father had been one from man to man, instead of man to boy, and he appreciated it.

The one thing he regretted was that he hadn’t been able to say farewell to his younger brother. Björn had been far too angry that he wasn’t allowed to go with Ben. So when Ben was saying his final goodbyes, he hid under his bed and refused to come out until his traitorous brother had left.

It was probably my own fault anyway, Ben noted wryly. It had been his choice not to tell Björn what was truly going on. He didn’t want his little, innocent brother to know about death yet. That definitely hadn’t made things easier for him though. There are many things seven-year-olds don’t understand. Taxes, girls, and why aeroplanes stay in the air, are still mysteries to them. But there was one thing Björn understood perfectly: His big brother was leaving and he wouldn’t come back.

He fondly looked at the picture on the mantelpiece where his family posed for their annual holiday picture. They were wearing matching sweaters and his mother had a spark in her eyes that had never returned after he was diagnosed. She had always been so full of life, but he knew that every moment she had to look at her dying son, it slowly killed her on the inside.

His father had a stern look. But then again, his father always had a stern and serious look on his face. At times, his mother would accuse Ben of being a spitting image of her husband and ordered them both to smile more.