I've made a lot of promises in my life. Even kept a few of them, though I don't make a habit of it. What's the harm in telling someone what they want to hear?
So when my pal Sam asked me to cremate him when he died, I promised him. It would give him something comforting to think on as he shivered himself to death, I figured. And after he was gone his body wouldn't know the difference.
I was shook up by the thought of him dying, to tell the truth. We depended on each other. It's a comfort to travel with someone you can trust, when you're far from any other souls.
But when he finally passed it came as a relief. That kid had never liked the northern life, and he was finally free of it. And maybe I could make it back to camp alive despite our low supplies after all. We'd been making bad time with Sam as sick as he was, but now I could finally move.
I closed his eyes gently and gave him a pat on the shoulder. It was time to say goodbye. But somehow, though I had intended to take Sam's body from the sled, I instead found myself reaching to lash him tighter to it. And I called to the dogs, and we started forward, and I didn't even know where I was going.
We'd had our route planned and I knew the way back to camp, just a few hard days away. But here I was veering off to God knew where. My hands wouldn't listen to me to let go of the sled, my mouth wouldn't open when I tried to call the dogs off. And those dogs ran like they were fresh out of their kennels, like they could run forever and never get tired.
The bright, painful blue of the sky and the endless horizon of snow and ice didn't seem so welcoming the way it used to. I felt weighed down by the press of the brightness around me.
Mushing for hours through biting cold across dangerous terrain is always a kind of horrible, but wanting it makes all the difference. My nose was chapped, my toes numb, my eyes half-blinded from the glare of the sun across the white expanse. My friend was dead and I just wanted to sit down in the snow and weep.
But I couldn't.
I was about ready to fall off the sled from exhaustion when the dogs finally slowed. I wouldn't have to continue through the night after all, I guessed. Whatever force was driving me, it was willing to give me the small kindness of sleep at least. I dragged myself through the routine of setting up camp, devoured my dinner and fed the dogs, and buried myself into my sleeping robes. Sam's body sat enthroned on the sled beside me. He looked like he was smiling.
I had an uneasy sleep that night, as dreams flickered through my mind. Fire, ice, wind through fields of cotton, and Sam's grinning face like a spectre, seeming to look me in my very soul. "You promised," he said, and I woke with a start.
I promised. I had promised! The thought electrified me. I felt near as tired as I had the night before, but I had to move again.
In no time the dogs were pulling me forward, inexorable, the same way I'd been going the day before. I was less panicked now, and instead of being afraid, I was burning mad. I had come north to be free to do whatever the hell I wanted, and here I was apparently on a mission: travel on until I found some way to cremate Sam's body.
I didn't care if it was Sam's unrestful spirit, the code of the trail, or God himself making me keep my promise. I was ready to spit in the face of anyone who was to blame. I yelled into the wind a bit, just to get my feelings out, but it didn't do much beyond make my dogs skittish.
And on we went.
We travelled for days, me and Sam's cold body, as the weather turned ugly and I near lost some of the dogs in a patch of rotten ice. "You ain't getting cremated, Sam," I told him. "I'm like to die myself here any day, and we'll both freeze in a snow drift forever after." But of course he didn't seem to care. He just kept on smiling away, looking like he couldn't wait to find out what was round the next bend in the trail.
Sam didn't have my back anymore, but he was still all I had out here. I started singing, songs I used to hear him wistfully croon around the campfire at night. "The Hills of Tennessee" and the like. Awful sappy stuff, but it was what he liked, and he couldn't sing them himself any longer. The longer I sang, the more I started to take a grim pleasure in the ending of "The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee." He could have learned a lesson or two from that one. Going back to Tennessee wouldn't have been all sunshine and roses for Sam either, I knew. Sam'd told me about his folks, all right, and he wouldn't have got no prodigal's welcome if he'd returned.
It was better he'd died here. He was better off here listening to my godawful singing as we travelled towards certain death, even if it did mean he'd never be warm again.
Singing was all I could do for him now. We were a team again. I couldn't do this without him -- I couldn't have travelled all these long weary difficult days alone. And I wasn't alone. I had Sam.
The dogs were slowing down. A good team needs a lot of feeding and I wasn't the only one going short by then. They were tired and stumbling, but they ran on their hearts.
"Sam," I said, "do the Northern Lights count as fire? If we die here, will you be satisfied?" He smiled at me, and I felt comforted.
How long had we been travelling? I couldn't remember anymore.
Where were we going? I didn't know. Had I ever known? The only thing left was the endless journey.
We were out of food, but Sam didn't mind. I did my best to follow his example. The dogs had a harder time of it. That was all right. I could pull the sled myself if I had to.
I had a promise to keep.