We present the third of four parts of the short story "Love of Life," by Jack London. The story was originally adapted and recorded by the U.S. Department of State.
The man had brought his gun half the distance to his shoulder before he realized what he was doing. He lowered it and drew his hunting knife from its cover. Before him was meat and life. He ran his finger along the edge of his knife. It was sharp. The point was sharp. He would throw himself on the bear and kill it. But his heart began its pounding. Then came its wild leap and he began to feel faint.
His wild courage was replaced by a great fear. In his weakness, what if the animal attacked him? He drew himself up tall, grasping the knife and staring hard at the bear. The bear advanced a couple of steps and stood up. If the man ran, the bear would run after him; but the man did not run. He was alive now with the courage of fear.
The bear moved away to one side with a threatening noise. He, himself, was fearful of this strange creature that appeared unafraid. But the man did not move. He stood still until the danger was past. Then he yielded to a fit of trembling and sank to his knees on the wet grass.
He regained control of himself and then started to move forward, afraid now in a new manner. It was not the fear that he would die from lack of food. He was afraid that he would be destroyed by forces other than starving. There were the wolves. Across the wasteland their howls could be heard, making the air itself a threat most real to him.
Now and again the wolves, in groups of two and three, crossed his path. But they stayed away from him. They were not in sufficient numbers to attack, and besides, they were hunting caribou. Caribou did not battle, while this strange creature that walked on two legs might bite.
In the late afternoon he came upon scattered bones where the wolves had made a kill. What remained had been a young caribou an hour before. He studied the bones, cleaned of any flesh. They were still pink with the life in them which had not yet died. Might he look like that before the day was done? Was this life? A fleeting thing without meaning? It was only life that pained. There was no hurt in death. To die was to sleep. It meant rest. Then why was he not content to die?
But he did not think about these things for very long. He was soon seated in the grass, a bone in his mouth, biting at the bit of life that made it yet pink. The sweet meaty taste drove him mad. He closed his teeth firmly on the bones. Sometimes it was the bone that broke, sometimes his teeth. Then he crushed the bones between the rocks. He pounded them into tiny pieces, and ate them. He was in such a hurry that he pounded his fingers, too. He felt surprised at the fact that his fingers did not hurt much when they were caught under the rock.
Then came frightful days of snow and rain. He did not know when he made camp and when he broke camp. He traveled in the night as much as in the day. He rested whenever he fell, moving ahead whenever the dying life in him started up again. He, as a man, no longer struggled. It was the life in him, unwilling to die, that drove him on. He did not suffer, nor feel pain. But his mind was filled with hallucinations and wild dreams.
But he still ate the crushed bones of the young caribou, which he had gathered and carried with him. He crossed no more hills, but followed a large stream which flowed through a wide valley. He did not see this stream nor this valley. He saw nothing except hallucinations.
One morning he awakened with his mind clear, lying on his back on a rocky surface. The sun was shining bright and warm. Far away, he heard the noises made by young caribou. He remembered rain and wind and snow, but whether he had been beaten by the storm for two days or two weeks he did not know.
For some time he lay without movement. The friendly sun poured down upon him and filled his body with its warmth. A fine day, he thought. Perhaps he could succeed in locating himself. By a painful effort he rolled on his side.
Below him flowed a wide river. Its unfamiliarity puzzled him. Slowly he followed it with his eyes, as it curved among the bare hills. They were more bare and lower than any hills he had yet seen. Slowly, without excitement, he followed the course of the strange stream toward the skyline and saw that it emptied into a bright and shining sea. He was still unexcited. Most unusual, he thought. It was probably a trick of his mind. He was certain of this when he also saw a ship floating in the shining sea. He closed his eyes for a while, then opened them. It was strange how the sight continued. Yet it was not strange. He knew there were no seas nor ships in the middle of this land, as he had known there was no cartridge in the empty gun.
He heard a noise behind him. It seemed like the dry sound that comes from the throat when air is forced out in a cough. Very slowly, because of his weakness and stiffness, he rolled to his other side. He could see nothing near, but he waited patiently. Again came the cough, and there, between two rocks, he saw the gray head of a wolf. The sharp ears did not stand up as straight as he had seen them on other wolves. The eyes were dull and the head seemed to hang. The animal opened and shut its eyes frequently in the sunshine. It seemed sick. As he looked, it coughed again.
This was real, he thought. He turned on the other side to see the reality of the world which had been hidden from him before by his hallucination. But the sea still shone and the ship was still there. Was it reality? He closed his eyes for a long while and thought, and then he remembered.
He had been traveling north by east, away from the Dease Divide and into the Coppermine Valley. This wide river was the Coppermine. That shining sea was the Arctic Ocean. That ship was a fishing boat which had wandered east from the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Now it was lying in Coronation Gulf. He remembered the map that he had seen long ago, and it was all clear and reasonable to him.
He sat up and turned his attention to immediate affairs. He had worn holes through the blanket wrappings, and his feet were like shapeless pieces of meat. His last blanket was gone. His gun and knife were both lost. He had also lost his hat somewhere, with the matches in the band. The matches against his chest were safe and dry inside the paper. He looked at his watch. It marked eleven o’clock and was still going. This proved that he had kept it wound.
He was calm. Although very weak, he had no feeling of pain. He was not hungry. The thought of food was not even pleasant to him. Whatever he did was done entirely by reasoning. He tore off the legs of his trousers to the knees and bound them about his feet. Somehow he had succeeded in keeping the tin container. He would have some hot water before he began what he knew was to be an awful journey to the ship.
His movements were slow. He shook as if with a disease. When he started to gather dried grasses he found he could not rise to his feet. He tried again and again. Then he contented himself with moving about on his hands and knees. Once he went near the sick wolf. The animal dragged itself out of the way, licking its face with a tongue which seemed hardly to have the strength to curl. The man noticed that the tongue was not the customary healthy red, but was a yellowish brown and covered with a half-dried coating.
After he drank some hot water, the man found he was able to stand. He could even walk as well as a dying man might be supposed to walk. But every minute or two he was forced to rest. His steps were unsteady, as were the steps of the wolf behind him. That night, when the shining sea was hidden in the blackness, he knew he was nearer to it by no more than four miles.
Through the night he heard the cough of the sick wolf; now and then, the noises of the young caribou. There was life all around him. But it was strong life, very much alive and well. He knew the sick wolf was following the sick man’s steps in the hope that the man would die first. In the morning, when he opened his eyes, he saw it looking at him with a hungry stare. It stood with its tail between its legs like an unhappy dog.
The sun rose brightly, and all morning the man headed toward the ship on the shining sea. The weather was perfect. It was the brief return of summer which was usual in that country. It might continue for a week. Or, tomorrow or the next day, it might be gone.
Now it's your turn to use the words in this story. How do you keep your mind clear in a difficult or dangerous situation? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
leap - v. to jump from a surface
courage - n. the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous
grasp(ing) - v. to take and hold something with your fingers, hands, etc.
starving - v. suffering or dying from lack of food
scatter(ed) - v. to cause things or people to separate and go in different directions
gather(ed) - v. to bring things or people together in a group
puzzle(d) - v. to confuse someone; to be difficult for someone to understand
cough - n. a short, loud noise made by forcing air through your throat, often because you are sick
watch - n. a device that shows what time it is and that you wear on your wrist or carry in a pocket
wound - v. (passive tense form of wind) to turn a knob, handle, etc., on something (such as a clock) several times so that it can work
journey - n. an act of traveling from one place to another
shook - v. (past tense form of shake) to move sometimes violently back and forth or up and down with short, quick movements