North Country

North Country (1996), a 35-minute hypertext narrative work with full sound score by the author with accordionist Guy Klucsevek. Commissioned by Meet the Composer with additional funding from New York State Council for the Arts. Distributed to U.S. public radio as part of the New American Radio series. Also distributed by The Listening Room, ABC, Australia and Kunstradio, ORF, Austria. North Country was also produced as a CD-ROM and for the World Wide Web.


NORTH ELBA, NY, July 1993 -- The skeletal remains, believed to be that of an adult female between the ages of 37 and 47, were discovered by a couple fishing in a small lake off route 73 near the town of North Elba. The skull had a gunshot wound in its right side. Additional bones and the remains of clothing, including jeans, work boots, a shirt,sweater and a leather jacket were also found.

In spite of the grisly scene, suicide, not murder, is the suspected cause of death.

Fade in under final word, dark musical chords (3), crossfade during final chord to the polka version of "Yellow Ribbon". Polka runs throughout "Forensic's" section.
Forensics Expert:

In all likelihood the bullet damaged the hippocampus. Had she lived she would no longer have had the ability to form memories.

Music up and down.

Forensics Expert:

(mouth sound) Investigation revealed numerous signs of animal activity in the area. The lower portion of the skeleton was missing and while the upper part, including the skull, was relatively complete, the heads of a number of the bones, including those of the long humeri and ulnae from the arms, had been bitten off postmortem. (mouth sound) The remains of the victim's jeans, shirt and jacket were found near the bones.

The bones and other evidence were carefully gathered up by the investigators and turned over to me as the regions deputy chief medical examiner at exactly 2 p.m. An hour after the police brought them in, I removed the remains from the carton and systematically laid them out on a tabletop in my office... The reassembly process began with the skull. (clears throat)


"Yellow Ribbon"polka fades away. At end it crossfades with the melancholy "Who Is She?" music.

Voice: Who is she?
  The music continues.

(yelling) Who is she?

  "Who Is She?" music is interrupted by an electric sound, left. Each voice in the following scene speaks in an ambience: steam and space.
Simon (L): (yelling, distant) Simon says, Always tell a story from the beginning. Go back, all the way back...
  An electric sound, center, switch to space ambience.
Reader: (center) She goes back as far as she can. She thinks of astronomical space. She thinks of the picture she has seen of matter propelled forward by the hypothetical explosion known as The Big Bang - great chunks of spherical material moving toward her from some distant point, some earlier moment.
  Electric sound, right, switch to steam ambience.
She (R): (yelling) I can't think a time with a beginning.

Directions: electric sound, center, switch to space ambience.


(close C) It's always difficult to find the beginning. Or better, it's difficult to begin at the beginning and not try to go further back.


Wittgenstein ambience holds briefly then crossfades into ambient birds, squirrels. "Lake Music" begins.

Reader: Her eyes travel quickly over the quiet, undisturbed waters of the lake, noting the perfect reflection of the shoreline - the ruler straight cut of the hemlock's lower branches, a line etched into the woodland by hungry deer, their sharp teeth imposing a shape and orderliness, seemingly of human origin, on the entangled wildness and desolation of the northern shore. And there, where the shoreline bends, standing straight and tall against the fir as it had for years, the silvery ghost-like remains of a tamarack. Her eyes linger in admiration on the intricate filigree patterns it casts onto the lakes imaging surface.

"Lake Music" fades out. Ambience continues.


Glacial terrain, they had said. In the distance, beyond the hill called Forgotten Hill, skeletons of old mountains stand, a billion years old. And here at the lake's margin, the same ice-age terrain, a soil so rocky a sudden wind might tip and upend the trees, their roots unable to penetrate deeply enough to secure themselves against the sudden heaving of the earth or the accidental play of violent winds.

Close to where she stands,a 30-foot fir, tilts to one side, its gnarled roots spread out across the surface of an erratic boulder. "Looking for all the world like the arms of a giant squid." she thinks and raises her arms playfully, in a gesture of mock menace. "A giant squid, an Architeuthis."

"Architeuthis. Where did that come from?" She knows nothing about squid, and her Latin all but disappeared over forty years before.

"Veni, vidi..." She says, "I came, I saw..." She can't remember the third word.


The sound of canoe paddling begins. "Lake Music" returns.


She guides the canoe slowly across the lake, her eyes searching for something. She's not sure what. A sign, perhaps, something that will give direction to her movements.

She sees nothing.

And that she realizes is the point. She settles on the wildest stretch of shoreline - a place without pathways, a wilderness in which it makes sense to strike out in any direction - and with strong, quick strokes paddles toward it.

  Paddling fades away in next sentence.

She beaches the canoe, on the far side of a tangled mass of dead and broken trees, in an area dominated by reeds and grasses where it will not be seen from the water. Then putting the pack on her shoulders, she moves quickly into the wet wilderness.

  "Lake Music"/ambience fade. There is a beat of silence, then short oom-pa version of "Yellow Ribbon" music begins. Forensics Expert comes in in its fade.
Forensics Expert:

Science is not simply a matter of collecting facts, but of arranging them. You build a structure of inferences, snapping them together piece by piece. The arrangement is everything. Think of scientific theory as a mental construct that helps you organize data in a useful way. A convenient fiction.

  "Who Is She?" music returns, holds until the sudden snapping of fingers.
Reader: Something snaps into place. "Vici." she shouts. "I conquer, that's it. No wonder I couldn't remember."
  "Who Is She?" music picks up immediately where it stopped.

Who Is She?

  Long fade of "Who Is She?" music into thunder.

Three hours later a middle-aged woman enters her new office. Seating herself at the desk, she stares at the terminal's blank window, straining for understanding. How is it possible for someone to disappear and never be missed? How is it possible that none has ever enquired for this woman -- not one person -- in three years.


"Three Hour" music begins.

Reader: For a time the questions repeat themselves: not one? how is it possible? Then gradually they fade, absorbed into the immense inarticulate underside of her own life...
  "How is it possible?" "Not one person" repeated in pause in reader's text. Stops with next words. Music contnues.
Voice: Who is she?

The concept of person is not a concept that stands still...

Gerard de Nerval:

Dream is a second life. We cannot determine the exact moment when the self, under another form, goes on with the task of existence.

Someone (upset):

I can't believe it. The Eastern Woodrat is disappearing. There are only 11 left, and you know what? nobody knows why.

  Music fades. Thunder returns and fades away as Readerspeaks, giving way to water/birds.
Reader: She returns to an awareness of her surroundings, reaches for the terminal switch and pushing one of a number of nearby cartridges into the port, turns on the machine.
  "Game music" begins. Wind fades in, sometimes wiping out the sound of the music.

Within minutes, she is paddling the cold choppy waters of a northern lake...

It is midsummer. The skies are clear and the sun's rays strike with a blinding brightness. But the wind is blowing, and the day icy cold. The coldest winds blow from the mountains to the north where ice still covers the peaks.

  Canoe paddling begins.
Reader: She wraps her legs in woolen leggings in anticipation of the cold and pulls a deerskin jacket over her sweater. Still, in spite of the cold, her palms grow sweaty as she approaches the shore, and wet patches spread out under her arms. She tries to remember that this is a game, like many she has played before; and that in all likelihood she will accumulate bonus lives before she is through. But she knows it is not like other games. It is drawing her in, taking possession of her, affirming its own reality through her: She experiences a twinge of near terror at the thought that her life is not under her control...

Then, as her eyes continue to probe the shoreline, trying to catch a glimpse of any unusual movement, she forgets her fear and finds herself wondering how she came by this amazingly natural skill with a canoe, this alertness to her environment, this sense of connection - to the water, the air, the land toward which she moves.

The stillness of the shore is uncanny. Where she is the wind blows, a sharp cold breath requiring both strength and attention to navigate the small craft, to keep it moving in one direction. On the shore nothing seems to move. She fixes on the tops of
the tallest trees. There is no wind. On the water close to shore. It's like glass. The skeleton of an ancient tamarack throws intricately embroidered patterns onto its mirror-like surface. Reminding her of something...

  "Game Music" and nature sounds begin to fade away under text - from "She fixes on the tops of he tallest trees..." Fades into steam ambience, left.
Simon (L): (in a loud voice) Everything is a secret mirror of something else, Simon says.
  Steam ambience switches, right.
Voice (R): (in an equally loud voice) Wrong. Thomas De Quincey said it.
  Steam ambience, center. Voice with reverb, a little distant.
Voice: Frankly, I astonish myself. Forty years out of college, my education all but forgotten, and I remember Thomas De Quincey! Who am I?
  Wind/ Game Music fade in. Left/right movement of all sound.
Reader: And then it happens. The shoreline begins to waver and shift. The trees no longer stand straight; but bend first in one direction, then another, like an image breakup on a screen. Details blur and fade, images disappear, while between and around
a gray space enlarges, grows enormous, and a terrifying emptiness fills her vision...
  Music, now discordant, rises, fades away to silence.
Neuroscientist (R): (close, casual) It's always unsettling to think what we might be missing. But mind and memory tend to organize experience in their own way.
Simon (L): (shouting) Tell me the story from the beginning...


(moving left to center) The facts, damn it. Just give me the facts.
  There is a pause before next voice speaks.
Voice (C): Her case becomes one more folder in the file of unsolved crimes.
  Musical reprieve. Part of disintegration music, fades into steam. Then silence.
Reader: The screen is blank. The terminal off. She stares at it, puzzled by its presence so close to her face, troubled by the experience of dissolution and emptiness that envelopes her.
  Wind fades in with beginning of "Cold Weather" music, wind.

Outside a northeasterly wind begins to blow; the temperature falls.

In the morning she rises early, before dawn, and begins the 20 mile drive to her office.

  Windshield wiper sound begins, out at "movies". Second cold weather music fades in at "focused attention"...

A freezing rain had started to fall after midnight. The road is slippery and to her surprise, it curves more than she remembers. But then, she is not that familiar with the drive,and the slick surface requires her focused attention. Later she will remember with some curiosity the intensity of the experience -- and a few set pieces - the hypnotic tic of the windshield wipers -- a picture of herself hunched forward, straining to see the road. She wonders if she has confused the materials of this new memory with old memories of movies.

One scene seems unique: she is passing through a particularly dark, wooded area when she slows to consider which of two branching roads to take. The one to the left has the force of a magnet, drawing her irresistibly toward it. But the road's surface is like glass, reflecting the lights, the front o the car, her own huddled image, while over the right-hand fork a white mist lifts, revealing the solidity of wet asphalt. At the last minute she brakes; the car sliding sideways for ten or twelve feet before she can bring it under control and return to the right fork. She had been frightened, she remembers, by the thought of navigating a space that reflected back her own image.

By evening memory of the road's location has faded. She suspects it may be somewhere 8-10 miles from home, perhaps where the handpainted sign reads. FIBO or ELBO, but its location no longer seems important.

  Wind/music fades to tic-steam ambience. Forensics expert (r) hums.
Lawyer: Look, I'm only interested in ascertaining the facts.
  Forensics expert continues to hum.
Lawyer: (angrily) The facts!
  Forensics expert continues to hum.
Lawyer: (pleading) Just one little fact...
Forensic expert: (singing) So tie a yellow ribbon round the whole crime scene, the whole crime scene.
  Musics/wind fade back in. Singing begins in background, then fades.
Reader: The snow begins Sunday evening. By early Monday twelve inches have fallen. School is canceled. Without it the plows will take their time. They will probably not reach her road before noon. She lies in bed comfortable with the fact that she is not going anywhere.
  Sudden intensification in music.
Reader: North Elba! the words break through the wash of vague, comfortable dream-like thoughts, stunning her with their significance. The sign said Elba, probably North Elba. Abruptly she sits up.
  Music fades out. Icey water fades into wind.
Reader: The cold has deepened. The snow, once confined to the peak of the distant mountain now extends well below the frost line. The wind is bitter. As your canoe approaches the northern shore, brushing through the pale dead weeds, you can hear the sound of thin ice breaking. There is a partially submerged canoe near a mass of dead and broken trees. Beyond the swampy land stretches east and west, blackened and limbless trees rising up out of the partially frozen waters;] a cold white mist hovers over the apparent desolation.
  Wind and water fade into "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" music. Fade water out, wind down, music up.
Forensics Expert: Decomposition follows a predictable course. The muscles and ligaments gradually decompose to the point that when a skeleton is picked up or otherwise disturbed, it falls apart. After two years there is no soft tissue left; the bones are completely isolated.
  Wind, icey water water, cold music return.
Reader: She guides her canoe carefully past the blackened trees. She listens attentively to the sound of breaking ice and the thump and scratch of the dead limbs hovering just beneath the surface. The canoe comes to rest twenty feet from solid land, stuck in the decay of once dense woodland. She sloshes through the partially frozen water. Dead grasses and foot deep mulch catch at her feet. Inside her waders, her legs and feet grow cold. When she looks back toward the canoe, she can see her pathway through the broken mirror of ice.
  Music/sound fade into whistle "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."
Lawyer: All we need is the truth, the truth.
  Whistle continue, cross-fading into music/wind. Footsteps begin.
Reader: She changes from waders to a pair of lined boots and with her rucksack slung over one shoulder, surveys the woods. Daylong sun has warmed the pine boughs; now and then the branches bend and their burden of snow falls to the ground startling her. There is no other sound.
  Footsteps continue, then stop. A moment's pause, then...
Reader: Suddenly she stops. There are unexplained words in her head. They come in a voice younger but otherwise very like her own. For the listener, who listens in the snow...She says them to herself, For the listener who listens in the snow, remembering them as if they were friends, but unable to put them or the voice into a context. She feels the breath of the empty space. The cold. The night closing in...
  Fade in "Yellow Ribbon" music.
Forensics Expert: In general a body left exposed to the elements in winter will decay more quickly from within The surface larval activity that can consume the skin in summer, that won't exist. In hot weather maggots will typically strip a body to the bone in two weeks.
  Yellow Ribbon music finishes, fading into a tic background.
Voice: When the medical examination was complete, the information gathered was sent to the National Crime Information Center database. Her identity is unknown.
  Tics continue, crossfade with wind. Cold music begins under Reader's text: "You can no longer..."
Reader: You can no longer remember your step by step passage to this spot. You feel as if there has been a jump - some oddly incomprehensible transition. Information is missing.
  Music fades into tic-ambience.
Technician (R): It's the gun.
Doctor (C): Looking for the cause of forgetting is like looking for the cause of darkness on a moonless night. Instead of asking what happened to cause the darkness, we must wonder why there is no moon. Instead of asking what happened to cause forgetting, we must look for what would have caused remembering had it not been absent.
She(C): Hmpf. What would have caused remembering?
  Long pause, ambience continues.
She(R): Hmpf
  Ambience fades into cold music.

Behind her the landscape has eroded; details thinned out; images disappeared. She does not remember the canoe, or the lake or the intricate image of the dead tamarack reflected on its surface.

The sun slips behind the trees; the cold deepens. She moves closer to the woods, gathers pinecones, sticks, broken limbs while she can still see...

  Music fades into clock ticking, refrigerator.
Reader: The window frames the scene in unnatural silence. She continues to stare into the fading light at a woman building a fire, but now she is aware of being cut off from her. The sounds she hears are not those of a wilderness setting, but of a domestic one. They belong to a here in which a refrigerator has just begun to hum. She searches her bedside table for a map, locates North Elba, and traces the small winding road that leads... "that leads to the dark backward of time." She is upset by the words. She had intended to say:"to the road on which I live."
  Clock/refrigerator fade out. Singing begins: "Who Is She?..."
Voice: Is there a difference?
She: Difference?
  Singing continues to end. Wind fades in under Reader.
Reader: The snow has obliterated all the boundaries by which your world is generally defined. You can no longer see the terrain or the pathways that have given you direction. You may stay where you are or you may strike out in any direction.
  Wind. Crossfade to tic-steam environment.
Lidell: (confidently) Gorillas and chimps living in a well maintained environment tend to remain there. If you leave the door to their enclosures open, most will watch the open door for awhile, then walk over and take a hesitant look outside. Then, 95% of them will then close the door.
  Tic ambience cross-fades into wind. Melancholy music begins under Reader: "The snow extends..."
Reader: She stretches, jumps from one foot to another, beats her chest and arms for warmth. The snow extends, pure and unmarked to the horizon, its beauty in the early morning light as dazzling as anything she can remember. A feeling like intoxication begins to flood her limbs...
  Hold music and wind.
Technician: It's the gun. It's stopped firing...
Neuroscientist: Remembering transforms one kind of experience into another. In being remembered an experience becomes a different kind of experience. It becomes a memory with all that entails, not merely of the consistent, the enduring, the reliable, but also of the fragile, the errant, the confabulated...
  Wind and music up.
Simon: (yelling from a distance) Tell the story from the beginning. Honor the chronological order of events. Only then will what you say be revealed as possessing meaning.
  "Melancholy Music" continues, then slow fade away, leaving wind. Hold then slow fade out.



© Helen Thorington, 2004