Wintermute is Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet in a Cormac McCarthy universe. It’s Yevtushenko’s “People”, read to an audience of frozen corpses. The story is a melancholy song of solitude and snow, of love and perilousness, but it is sung against the vengeful, screaming winds of Mother Nature, lost to the ears of those who would listen.
Grey Mother needs time to think. She doesn’t want to talk right now. “Unbelievable,” I mutter. It’s been days–days of scavenging on the old woman’s behalf, braving prowling wolves and whipping winds, expending nearly every available resource just to keep the icy tendrils of death at bay in the post-catastrophe arctic hellscape of Great Bear Island.
I wonder if the woman’s lost her mind. She sits eerily still in her rocking chair, rifle in her lap. The crackling light of the nearby fireplace dances across her as it reaches out against the darkness of the night.
A red scarf is tied around her head. I presume this is meant to conceal her blind eyes, to telegraph some vague notion that her remaining senses extend beyond my own. She looks like she was pulled off Bloodborne’s cutting room floor. A placid, menacing Lovecraftian madness exudes from her frail frame.
Everything she has said to me so far has come across as deliberately enigmatic to the point of nonsense. When she speaks, I can hear a manic fear hidden somewhere within her, banging on every word–a panicked beast furiously rattling its cage. This is the nature of the Long Dark. This is Wintermute.
The Cost of Survival
Perhaps in another life, I might find Grey Mother’s demeanor fascinating. I might desire to unearth the series of events that led her to this moment, in this way. Why did she stay in this town after the earthquakes, after everyone else had the good sense to leave before the infrastructure of the island completely failed?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or energy to care. She is an obstacle to overcome on my quest to find Dr. Astrid Greenwood, the woman with whom I traveled to this godforsaken rock.
I want to abandon Grey Mother, immediately. I’ve already given her enough food and firewood to last the winter. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that anything she can offer me at this point is worth what it costs me to linger in this ghost town. The scripted narrative, however, decrees that I wait it out. I need her to talk.
Waiting is expensive, and I am desperately in need of resources. In fact, all things considered, I’m in a dangerous predicament. I have no food and I am already near starving. I cannot afford sleep, nor would I find it particularly refreshing even if I forced myself to rest. My pack is devoid of firewood, and, quite embarrassingly, I have no trousers (thanks to a particularly aggressive wolf).
Thus, I find myself at one of the many points in the Long Dark’s Wintermute at which the organic narrative of survival supersedes—and occasionally undermines–that of the story arc. I have no idea how long I am required to wait for Grey Mother to talk, but I am uncomfortably close to dying.
So, I define my own interim. I’m in search of supplies. I check my map. There’s a farmhouse about a mile southwest of Grey Mother’s house, across a nearby river. I imagine there is some reason to go there, some justification for its existence in this world. A stockpile of food perhaps or a rifle. At the very least, there are probably clothes in a dresser somewhere within the house, something with which to cover my exposed legs.
Outside Grey Mother’s home, the sun has long since set. Darkness suffocates the wilderness in its absence. I can hear the wind howling outside, hear the old house’s shutters rattle and its frame groan under the writhing pressure of a blizzard.
It crosses my mind that there are likely to be hungry wolves between here and the farmhouse—hungry wolves that I will not be able to see in the dark and snow.
Mother Nature is the antagonist here in the Long Dark. She is the Jason Voorhees of Wintermute: a plodding, unceasing harbinger of death. She never rushes, yet she is always there, calm and lethal and ready to kill at the first sign of a lowered guard.
If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not confident that I will survive a journey to the farmhouse without getting lost or eaten. Still, death is guaranteed if I remain in the old woman’s cabin, since all the food I’ve heretofore brought her is somehow strictly off limits.
I could starve to death while she cooks herself a steak in the same room. I could freeze on her doorstep while she sits beside her fire. She doesn’t care. This is the Long Dark. This is how it goes in Wintermute.
Outside, the conditions are worse than I imagined. The cacophonous choir of whipping wind and cracking trees is nearly overwhelming. I wince, instinctively, against the barrage of sound. The storm presses down around me. I can see maybe a couple dozen feet in any direction. My stomach growls, a reminder to move quickly.
I sprint down the small hill upon which her house rests, down into the dark and empty streets of Milton. The pots and water jug on the outside of my backpack jangle with each crunching step, adding to the chaos of sounds as I move past the bank, through the remnants of the burned down school house, and to the edge of town.
This is as far as I’ve ever gone in this direction, so navigation beyond this point is hinged solely on my sense of direction, inhibited as it is by the churning blizzard that surrounds me.
Every violent gust of wind feels like a whip against my legs. I’m probably not even halfway to the farmhouse before it’s clear that I’m near to becoming hypothermic. I push on. I have no choice.
Then, I hear something else. A low, gravelly rumble against the shrieking wind. At first, I think it’s my stomach growling. Then I hear it again. It’s…angrier than a stomach growl. I know that sound. Wolves. Foolishly, I stop, spin around. I can’t see anything in the blizzard, and for a moment, I lose my bearings, forget which direction I was heading.
A third growl cuts through the storm, closer and more menacing. I panic and start sprinting, hoping against hope that I’m heading in the right direction, that I can lose my unseen predator in the storm. I’m nearly hypothermic and starving. I’m exhausted and without trousers, scared and lost and hunted. And all I’m doing is just waiting on someone else. This is the Long Dark. This is Wintermute.
Sweet, Blessed Trousers
As luck would have it, I spot the frame of a building in my periphery. It’s a barn. Inside, there is an old pickup. I climb in, grateful for the momentary respite from my wolf-induced panic. Luckier still, I find a key to the farmhouse on the dash. It never occurred to me that the house might be locked. I grab the key and laugh quietly. What a fortunate find.
I look out through the windshield and spot what I think is the house itself, a shadow just barely darker than the darkness surrounding it. Hypothermia and starvation are imminent, maybe seconds away. I cannot afford to be sit here. After a moment, I make a run for the house-shape. Fortunately, it is indeed the farmhouse, and I slip in through the front door to safety.
What waits for me in the home is a victory of sorts, a happy ending to this particular entry in the survival narrative. There is a pantry stocked with food. Canned peaches, grape soda, and beans line the shelves. There is an actual bed in the bedroom. There are wooden crates and planks and stacks of paper that I use to build a raging fire in the wood stove. Best of all, there are trousers. Sweet, blessed trousers.
It is here, in this farmhouse haven, this bastion of hope in a maelstrom of frigid death., that I remain for the next 36 hours, gorging on the safety and resources it provides. I repair my clothes and learn that I can craft a torch, which will serve as both a light source and a wolf deterrent. I eat enough to fill my belly, then fill my pack with whatever else I can find.
On my second night, I curl up near the wood stove, a bit like Grey Mother. Unlike her, however, I am unable to stay. I’d like to think the impetus for forward progress lies within my journey to reconnect with Astrid, but I know this is a lie. It’s survival. My quest for her is the reason I’m stuck out here in the arctic in the first place, but the sheer cost of moving the story forward means I am always at the mercy of my own mortality and fragility.
In these quiet moments of reflection, it is difficult to escape the inherent selfishness of my journey. Every step I take is a scorched-Earth retreat from the advancing clutches of death. Every house I raid for supplies is a potential disaster for anyone else foolish enough to be caught out here after I leave.
I can’t stop consuming, though—not until I’ve found Astrid. I can’t stop pillaging this land for clothes and food and burnables. Maybe this is why Mother Nature is so intent on killing me. Maybe she’s right to do so. I am a blight upon this land, a frantic consumer of precious resources with no concern for sustainability. This is the Long Dark. This is Wintermute.
Every Journey Ends Somewhere
When I wake the next morning, I struggle to reconnect with the previous night’s qualms. Grey Mother is waiting. It is time to move on. The trip to this farmhouse was the closest I have ever come to dying, and now I am as strong and as well prepared for survival as I have ever been. When I am finally ready, I set out to return to the old woman.
Upon leaving the farm, I am so enthralled by the clear radiant dawn and still air that I fail to notice I am walking directly into a trio of wolves. I don’t have my torch lit. I didn’t even think to light it on such a beautiful morning. My focus has waned, and I will pay dearly for this folly.
I am, of course, attacked by the first wolf that spots me. I attempt to fight it off with a pry bar, but the beast is indifferent to my defense. It gnashes on my leg, creating a terrible grinding noise that clashes against my own screams, until I lose consciousness.
Eventually, I wake and find that I am bleeding badly. My new trousers are ruined. I have a sprained ankle and bite wounds. There is risk of an infection. Once again, my body is dangerously cold. Worse yet, one of three wolves has remained. As soon as I rise, it too attacks me. I stand no chance. Blood loss and trauma quickly overcome me. The bittersweet relief of death is a sanguine blanket falling down around me. I am dead.
I will never find Dr. Astrid Greenwood. I will never hear what Grey Mother has to say to me. My relentless consumption of precious life-sustaining resources has come to an end for naught. Mother Nature has claimed victory. This is the Long Dark. This is Wintermute.