I’ve become partial, a blip, a dim light that the interaction between my conscious and unconscious convulsions scraped alive under the influence of reality television. Now I’m maintaining a fire in the snow and hunching under a shelter of moss-packed branches. I’m talking to myself, exclusively.
It started when I lost my driver’s license. I moved from Oregon to Maine. I lost my wallet in the first week, and with the wallet, the Oregon license. I tried to get a Maine license, but the Department of Motor Vehicles needed to photocopy a hard copy of the Oregon license to complete the transfer. I requested a duplicate of the Oregon license, but after eleven attempts and eleven failures, I gave up. The processing fees were immense. I was running out of money.
During the same week I gave up on the license, my passport expired. In order to obtain a new passport, I had to mail the expired passport to the Department of State. Plus, another processing fee. Dropping the envelope with the passport into the curbside mailbox, I knew I had crossed a threshold. I saw my full self in my mind’s eye for the last time. I felt myself falling. Vertigo with morning coffee, with afternoon job searching, with evening drinking. Each grew more desperate.
The new passport never arrived, of course. October did. I no longer had any form of identification. I had to leave my sublet because the owner’s son was moving home after college. He was becoming a day trader. I couldn’t rent a car. I couldn’t get a lease or a loan or a W2.
From there the horizon of my experience slipped dramatically. A fog enveloped my movements and choices. I slept in the elementary school playground. I built a fire and then was threatened by a police officer. I hitchhiked away from town so that I could build a fire without attracting police. I asked the driver of the truck that picked me up for matches, and he gave me a whole box of them. Thanks, Tom.
After a trek into the woods, I stopped at a small clearing. I sat down and dug a hole with a rock and arranged small twigs and dead leaves inside. I had seen the procedure on wilderness survival shows. I had watched enough episodes to understand what might work best in a situation like mine.
On that first night, I saw him. He was strange and he was familiar. He hovered over the fire and angled his body toward mine, glowing orange and red. He was a version of myself, which grew out of my wide-ranging criticisms of wilderness survival reality show personalities. For years he had been lodged in the pits of a neural lymph node. Now he was invigorated. He had instincts, such as Build a shelter like Amy’s and Never make traps like Ralph’s. He was content consuming rabbits and squirrels. He would stay sane by singing.
As the weeks plodded on, I maintained the fire. I built a moss and stick shelter. I ate berries and vomited them up and knocked my palm against my head, thinking He would never have eaten the berries and He would have caught a rabbit by now. So, he took over a little. Using shoelaces and twigs, I created a haphazard snare. I caught rabbits at a rate that felt miraculous. He spread throughout my sense of self. I acted without seeing the world or my body move. Pale white sky. Taste of dirt. I woke to a boiling carcass. I woke to a collection of spears.
One morning, I saw a group of hunters. They saw me. They huddled around my clearing and asked how I was doing. Not knowing what to say, I let the crude specter of myself take over. The timbre of my voice communicated a new authority. I showed off my snare, the bones of my rabbits and squirrels, the stones I used for tools. The hunters said they admired my choice to go off the grid. They said they’ve fantasized about subsistence living. They referenced podcast hosts and social media influencers who, as I understood them, obsessed over uncovering a primal self. But they were all marketing. I was the real thing. I was a real thing for the first time in my life. The hunters fist bumped and gave thumbs up and disappeared back into the woods.
He never let go again. No self-narrative can hold my skin on. I am the way I know north. Because I learned from Gunnar on season three. I am the way I know to find drinking water. The rest of me left. I flickered by the fire and radiated into the night. I evaporated and reconstituted as a small percentage of my previous matter. I am tall, light, and I ride the air. I expand my shoulders into wings and tuck them back. I hear the wilderness reality show personalities cheering me on constantly. I am their conglomerated attitudes and affects. Their catchphrases are my mantras. I pick the right mushrooms, store rabbits for winter, chase deer, break down my camp and move deeper into the woods. I feel nothing. I know no time. I perform simple tasks that consume the entire day and night. I have no questions in my heart. I cannot surface in my mind the photograph of myself that appeared on my license or passport. No sense of an eye color, an expression. I cannot recall a single address where I lived. I live alone between mounds of earth. I tear patches of beard from my face and scream names I may have had into the night.
Ryan Shea’s writing has appeared in Rejection Letters, Juked, and other journals. He lives in western Massachusetts.