The Ancestor by Lee Matthew Goldberg

#TheAncestor @LeeMatthewG @ADRBooks @damppebbles

An extract:

Right eye jolts open, the lid flapping like a pulled shade, the left still frozen. The fire has extinguished; he’s not surprised. To keep it stoked, he should’ve only allowed himself an hour of sleep at a time, but rest was more important than warmth. Limbs have tightened up again, difficult to move so he rolls from side to side to get the blood flowing. Out of the corner of his good eye, a wolf sits poised, staring with a piercing blue gaze. His first thought being that this is the wolf he already killed and consumed. It has returned as a vision, a terrible oasis. But the reality of the wolf’s growl tells a different story, one filled with its pack circling around their prey. Four of them, teeth bared, impossible to fight all, the end near. He swears he’ll go out swinging.

“Come at me, sumbitches,” he snaps, morphing into a wolf now too. One attacks by bearing its teeth and going for his arm, but then a gunshot rings out, the echo like a door slam. He scans for the source but is too afraid to truly move. The wolves all do the same, their necks pivoting in unison toward the distance. Another round goes off and this gets them scared. They vanish as a unit, scampering down a hill until they are gone. This time he can tell the direction of the gunfire, due east, curious how he knows that phrase. A rocking ship on uneasy waters lingers in his consciousness, but this is not the moment to search for memories. Whether the bullets come from friend or foe, he’ll die out here soon enough if he doesn’t investigate.

Silently, he pursues the gun owner, hazy from dehydration, each step a lifetime. He’s adept at not making a peep. This is a skill he’s practiced and excelled at before. Atop a bluff stands a man holding some sort of hat over his heart, a dead caribou at his feet. The man wears unfamiliar clothes very different from his own Mackinaw coat and trousers with rubber boots. The gun slung around the man’s back is one he’s never seen before. But he doesn’t know much of what he’s seen before, so it isn’t much of a shock.

When the man turns from the caribou, he can make out his profile but the man does not see him. This man believes he’s alone. His good eye zeroes in on this first human. Dark, shaggy hair kept long, prominent nose and absorbing green eyes with flecks of gold. He removes the embroidered mirror from his pocket. He brings it up to his face to look at himself again. Then his gaze goes to this doppelgänger, this replica of himself except for a scraggly beard. Is he so far gone from thirst and hunger that he’s envisioned a duplicate? He shakes his head back and forth so the vision might disappear, but it remains more vibrant than ever—his past or future self, long-lost twin, or whoever it might be. He nearly soils his pants, manages to keep his colon tight.

“Was all backed up,” he hears another voice call out. A fair-haired man pops up over the bluff. “I didn’t need to know that,” his duplicate replies. “Shat out a moose I tell ya. You got to see it.” “I ain’t looking at your shit, Gray.” “No man, this one is, like, legendary. Size of a baby’s arm.” “You need more fiber.” “C’mon, Trav. Indulge me.” “All right, you degenerate.”

The two disappear over a hill. He’s motionless, mind whirling, unable to decide the next step. He peers past the dead caribou over to some large metal thing on wheels resembling a carriage but without any horse. He makes a break for it and dives into the back, tucking himself tight under the tarp, nose-to-nose with two dead carcasses starting to reek. Barely enough room to squeeze in. He hears the two other men return and hop in the front. A puttering noise is followed by a reverberation under his body, and then he’s in motion: soaring, gliding. “Take me away,” he whispers to the dead animals.

He closes his one eye, exhausted from the trying morning where he almost died before he was brought to life again. His dreams, fragmented and untethered, full of images but nothing coalesces. Staring into a dirty hanging mirror, running a comb through his thick hair. This mirror existed in a place he called home, except nothing exists beyond his reflection trapped in a black hole. Does it lead to a bedroom where a wife and child lay? He senses a presence of something greater than himself in his heart, a pure love, yet who he loves remains an enigma. Somehow, he has found the first key to open the first door, now he must discover the rest.

The carriage stops with a jolt. His head bangs against the metal bed. The dead caribous jostle. He hears a muffling conversation from the two men in the front. They must not find him in the back so he slides out like an eel, slithering into a puddle on the ground. The front doors are opened and he scurries under the wheeled monstrosity, just enough room to fit.

He stares at their boots. “I don’t mind carving up the meat,” one man says to the other. “If you want to pick it up later.” 4 “You don’t have to do that, Trav.” “Keeps me busy. You sure you don’t need a ride?” “I’m gonna pop into Elson’s. Have me a brew.” “You call a cab if you need it. Don’t be getting in your patrol vehicle.” “Thanks, Mom. Will do.” “Fuck you, kindly.” “Solid hunt today.” “Wouldn’t have expected anything else, Gray.”

A whirring buzz resonates and he can see a large door opening upward and a room filled with tools and such. His doppelgänger, who has been called “Trav,” hoists the caribou inside one at a time. This Trav is strong, like himself. Once both caribous have been brought in, the door closes. He wiggles out and stands, bones cracking. He observes the space where Trav has entered, no window to peer inside. A home is built around this entrance and he hugs the siding until he reaches glass he can see through.

A small child lies on his stomach, feet kicked up in the air. The child focuses on a large box with moving pictures, mouth agape. The window has been open a crack and the smell of apples and cinnamon wafts into his nostrils. Stomach churns, saliva drips, longing occurs. A bite of something sweet seems an impossibility, a morsel of anything would be a gift from God. “Eli,” a voice says, sugary like that dream.

The boy doesn’t avert his eyes from the box as a woman joins him. His heart stops beating, then beats faster, organs out of whack. The woman has reddishorange hair, wild like a fire, clipped back in a ponytail that hangs down to the small of her back.

A kind face, the tips of her cheeks rubbed red, freckles dancing across her forehead. All her teeth show when she smiles. He can tell she smiles a lot. “Daddy’s home,” she tells the boy, who then becomes alert. The boy jumps up, feet tapping away. “Give him time, he’s in the garage.” She pets the boy’s hair, gently sitting him back down. She tucks him to her chest, his legs crossed over her own. They stare at the curious box with the moving pictures.

From their fireplace, flames crackle and whistle, and he wants more than anything to be a part of their coziness. The love in this house full and simmering. Remote yet familiar. His head feels like a blown-up balloon, and he has to grab onto the windowsill for support. The world gets small like he’s looking through the wrong side of binoculars, then widens again, stretched out and surreal. A different woman and a different child appear in his mind. A similar fire cooks. The child and the woman are dressed in recognizable clothes. She wears a floral dress buttoned up to her neck with lace around the trim, not much skin exposed unlike the woman he just witnessed. Her hair less orange, redder, even fierier.

She sings to the child, tucked beneath her bosom, who’s barely able to keep his eyes open. “To-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, too-ra-loo-ra-li, too-raloo-ra-loo-ral, Hush, now don’t you cry.” It’s an Irish melody, this he knows. Ireland is a country, and he’s not there now. He’s in America; he can tell from everyone’s accent. He’s uncertain if he’s been to Ireland, if that’s a part of his history. He dives further into this vision, afraid it might disappear. The woman has a name that rests on the tip of his tongue, but for now, that’s where it will stay. The same with the child. These aren’t strangers, he surmises. They are certainly a part of his past. Is this the wife and son he craves?

He waits to feel his heart swell with love but it’s been frozen for too long like he has. Frozen.

At that thought, his sealed eye twitches. How long had he been trapped in the wilderness unable to move? This unsettles him, the notion that he’s farther away from home than he ever could have imagined, no mode of transport to take him back. “To-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, too-ra-loo-ra-li, too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush, now don’t you cry.” The song settles into his soul, but he doesn’t heed its advice. Tears the size of raindrops plop from his socket, collect in his beard, and leave a salty tang on his lips. The woman and the child morph back into the ones in the house before him, cruel imitations since he believes the others to be his actual family. Why else would they sink into his mind? Are they fretting right now as to where he could be? Do they cry similar tears from being apart?

A stabbing pain in his stomach warns him that he might never know. He squeezes his good eye shut to conjure them again, but they have faded, possibly never returning. The lullaby remains trapped between his ears while he stays trapped in this voyage to a new world, this hell on Earth.

In the house, Trav enters the room and the boy squeals, leaps into his father’s arms. They spin around in delight, shower each other with kisses, each one causing the pain in his chest to stab even harder. He wants to burst in and replace Trav, experience the sensation of a kiss, a foreign entity since it’s been so long. Eons have seemingly passed without a hug and this has whittled him down to a nub.

“Got a whole caribou,” Trav says, and the woman gives her thousand-toothed smile and now they kiss, long and hard, melting into each other. He must turn away, unable to watch their happiness anymore. He folds into his sleeve, the tears continuing to stream. But in horror, he forces himself to look back, since he knows the only way to return to his loves will be to keep this family in his sights.

So he glues his rheumy eye to the glass, knowing at least one thing about himself. He is tenacious. And no one should stand in the way of what he wants.

Book Blurb: A man wakes up in present-day Alaskan wilderness with no idea who he is, nothing on him save an empty journal with the date 1898 and a mirror. He sees another man hunting nearby, astounded that they look exactly alike except for his own beard. After following this other man home, he witnesses a wife and child that brings forth a rush of memories of his own wife and child, except he’s certain they do not exist in modern times—but from his life in the late 1800s. After recalling his name is Wyatt, he worms his way into his doppelganger Travis Barlow’s life. Memories become unearthed the more time he spends, making him believe that he’d been frozen after coming to Alaska during the Gold Rush and that Travis is his great-great grandson. Wyatt is certain gold still exists in the area and finding it with Travis will ingratiate himself to the family, especially with Travis’s wife Callie, once Wyatt falls in love. This turns into a dangerous obsession affecting the Barlows and everyone in their small town, since Wyatt can’t be tamed until he also discovers the meaning of why he was able to be preserved on ice for over a century. A meditation on love lost and unfulfilled dreams, The Ancestor is a thrilling page-turner in present day Alaska and a historical adventure about the perilous Gold Rush expeditions where prospectors left behind their lives for the promise of hope and a better future. The question remains whether it was all worth the sacrifice…


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