The Unknown: An Excerpt From Lee Matthew Goldberg’s “The Ancestor”

"The Ancestor"

We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Lee Matthew Goldberg’s new novel The Ancestor. Goldberg’s novel tells the story of an amnesic man who awakens in Alaska beside his double; the result is a harrowing novel grappling with questions of agency, violence, and the allure of the Gold Rush. Kirkus’s review dubbed the book “[a] story that blends the familiar and the supernatural in a manner that calls Stephen King’s work to mind.”



October 13th to October 21st, 1898 

The weather decides to be as tortuous as the terrain once we leave the area surrounding Dawson City. Providence is telling us not to continue, and for a moment Frank and I remain hesitant. Neither of us is a good rider and if our horses get ill, we’ll be done for since it’s hundreds of miles to our location. After a moment of warmth in the lean-to, I’m resigned again to the bitterness of the cold that nips at my fingertips and ears like tiny evil bugs. 

Within hours, we cross the Canadian border back into Alaska, the first stops being Fort Cudah and Circle City where we take breaks and gnaw on jerky. We stock up a bit with food since this is the last small city we’ll hit, but we know to survive the journey, the land will have to provide. At Porcupine River, we strip down and bathe in the freezing waters to remove some of our stink. Then we start a fire and cook beans and fart into the night trying to outdo each other. 

“I’m sorry about before,” Frank says, mummified in a blanket. “And I don’t apologize a lot.” 

“You talkin’ about on the G.W.?” 

“It was a rotten thing for me to do.” He twiddles his thumbs. “Can’t tell ya the amount of times some other prospector has taken what deserves to be mine. I got scared it would happen again.” The flames lick at his face, which is rather cherub-like. He whistles though the gap in his teeth. “Anyhoo, I thought you should know this.” 

“I much appreciate, Frank.” 

“Other men would’ve slit my throat first chance they had. But not you, Wyatt Barlow. You’re etched from a different kind of stone. Honorable, I’d say.” 

I pour a little whiskey into a metal cup, take a hearty sip. 

“Frank, whatever ill between us is now forgotten, erased, and done away. The two of us are gonna be the first to find this hidden gold, making everything we went through worthwhile.” 

“Hear, hear,” he says, and I swear I can see a trickle of a tear at the corner of his eye. 

We clink whiskey mugs, down our poisons, and sleep the day off, awakening with a freshly sealed bond that should carry us well into The Unknown. 


October 22nd, 1898 

In the middle of the night, I wake from a dream or possibly I am still deep inside one. The fire cooks and morphs into the shape of a wolf’s head, ice-blue eyes shining through. Frank is still under as the fire speaks and tells me to be careful who I trust. I wonder if it’s speaking of Frank or someone else we will encounter, but it vanishes before I can inquire. When I wake, it has turned back to a dying flame. 

I’m less conversational with Frank this morning as we set off. He’s telling me a story about his wife Rosalie. I guess he hadn’t been lying about her before on the G.W. Elder, although I’d assumed everything that came out of his mouth then had been a falsity. But he tells me of plump Rosalie who’s always cooking biscuits and usually has a speck of flour dusting her cheeks. That neither of them has any money, and he’s not sure if they’ll still have their house when he returns, since the bank’s been sniffing around to collect its loans. 

“You’re quiet today,” he says. I’m eager to cross the Romantzoff Mountains along the Yukon River. They stand tall and craggily, threatening except it looks like we can swing around them without having to climb. The altitude still rises and I’m a little light-headed when I see what appears to a bear but I wonder if it’s simply a vision. The bear winds from out of a blueberry bush. It’s so massive that it only takes a few steps to be right in our faces. 

“Don’t make a sound,” Frank says, bringing out a rifle. 

“If you shoot, you better hit it, Frank.” 

Frank closes one eye as the bear sniffs. Then it opens its mouth, sending a big roar our way. Frank fires, but due to the kickback of the rifle, he’s knocked off his horse and the bullet sails away. We all watch it become lost in the clouds, bear included. Then the bear charges. Frank’s horse gets spooked and attempts to back up, but the bear roars and swipes at the horse with its claw. Scratch marks bleed from the horse’s body, gaping wounds that won’t heal in the cold. The horse buckles as Frank’s rucksack with his gold flips over the side of a snow bank. We hear it reach the bottom of a cavernous hole many feet down. No way to get to it. 

I’m unsure whether to dismount my horse and try to help, or to save my life by kicking its sides so I can flee. I think of the wolf’s warning from the fire. This would be an easy way to part with Frank for once and for all, but then, it would only be me and the horse traversing this land, surely not good odds to make it out alive. So I dismount as quietly as possible, slip a pistol from out of my rucksack. The bear charges at Frank, saliva dripping from its mouth on his face. He covers himself with his arms pleading to be saved. I fire right into the bear’s behind as it lets out a howl loud enough to cause an avalanche. It spins its head, trying to locate its attacker, enough for Frank to wiggle out from under. When it sees me, we lock souls, each knowing that only one of us will make it out of this fight alive. I fire again, hitting its shoulder, as a burst of blood paints the snow. Frank has a knife out and stabs the bear in the back. He removes the knife and does it again and again until its blood reddens his face. He’s still stabbing even after the bear has stopped roaring and is obviously dead. He’s yelling and cursing and sadistic in his knife cuts, organs spilling everywhere. I want to tell him to stop but I don’t dare, lest he turn the knife on me. Finally, the knife gets stuck in the bear’s flesh and he can’t pull it out to mutilate anymore. Only then does he relent. 

He’s breathing heavily as he looks my way and there’s the devil in his eyes that I pretend not to notice. 

“Let’s roast and use what we can from the rest of it,” Frank says. 

So we make a fire and I work to skin the bear like I’d been taught by the Tagish. We use the snow to wash away the sinew from the fur until we have two separate blankets. Then we roast a few cuts, our bellies distending, fuller than I’ve ever been. 

“We’ll split the gold that’s left,” Frank says, almost as an order. “Since mine went over the snow bank.” 

“That’s fair.” 

“I’m glad there’s no argument.” 

That’s all we say to each other that night. I don’t want to speak, only sleep. We set up separate tents and I curl up beneath the bear blanket. A glittering snow falls, the only sound in the night, except for Frank who’s muttering to himself in his own tent. Part of me wishes I had gotten on my horse and fled, but this is the choice I’ve made and now there ain’t no going back. 


October 23rd to November 8th, 1898 

For weeks, Frank and I share a horse as we pass the Yukon Mountains and the Kaltag Mountains. Once we saw a steamboat toot by and we waved and cheered for the sign of other humankind. No prospectors got off, the boat filled with ghosts, no idea who was even steering. I think we are going mad. The food has had to be rationed since we lost half of it, much of the protein, and I’m sick of eating beans. I’m gassy like you wouldn’t believe, and each night I feel like worms chew on my insides. Frank is no better. He smells vinegary like a hobo and has taken to having full conversations with himself. Oftentimes it has to do with devils and serpents. I try to shut my ears off and think of Adalaide and Little Joe, but I appear to be losing them. The edges of their faces blur; the sound of their voices fades. I know Adalaide has a melodic Irish lilt, but I can’t capture the sing-song pattern just right. And as for Little Joe, I’m remembering more of him as a baby than the little child he is now. I wonder if he’s forgotten me already, his brain unequipped for this long an absence. 

As we reach November, the cold changes from a nuisance to a penance. Winds batter our weary horse. I don’t remember the last time I could feel my fingers. My face burns red, each snowflake like a blade. Where we’d been able to travel for many miles a day before, now we can only hit a few before fatigue sets in and one of us needs to lie down. I’m constantly nauseous and cramping as all hell. The blood isn’t flowing properly through my veins anymore. Frank has lost a good chunk of his fat while I’ve turned gaunt, my cheeks sunken-in so much that there are bite marks on the insides. I wait for the wolf to tell me what to do, but it never appears. And I know we might be dead soon. 

At St. Michael, we pick up a few provisions with the little money we have left. The town is practically empty, a few Indian settlers who don’t speak a lick of English so we can’t inquire about where to head from here. I search my brain to recall some Tlingit or Tagish phrases, but come up empty, even after we’re fed a seal stew. On the map, it seems as if the red X appears north of St. Michael because to the south are just bays. We pass through a town made up of a shipping port right on the water of the Norton Sound. The snow reflects and blinds us. We can’t even see our hands in front of our faces. We tie up our horse and trudge inside where a very old man sits behind a counter. A candle glows in front of his face. 

“Don’t track in any snow,” he says in an accent I cannot place. “Take those boots off.” 

We do so, our socks sopping wet with ice chunks. There’s a tiny fire emanating from the fireplace and we hold our hands out to warm them. 

“We’re sorry to bother you,” I say, because I can tell our presence has upset him. 

“This is a shipping port,” he says, in that weird accent. “Nothing more. Ships come in, I take in shipments and put shipments to go out.” 

“We were looking for Anvil Creek.” 

The very old man takes his candle and comes over to us. Upon closer inspection, he has no teeth and appears so thin that his skin hangs on his bones. 

“Anvil Creek? You after what the Three Lucky Swedes found?” 

“Gold?” Frank gulps. 

“Came by around summer.” He gums his lips. “Don’t get many visitors other than ships come in with shipments. Been my job for decades.” 

“And the Swedes?” I ask. 

“Yes, the Swedes. They found gold. Don’t know how they knew to come up around here. Not by horse like you two neither.” 

“We’ve traveled a long way,” I say, but he silences me. 

“Anvil Creek is about thirty kilometers north. There’s a large creek, probably iced over by now. It feeds into a lake that’s probably iced over too. The lake is many kilometers long, so you won’t miss it when you see it.” 

“Thank you, sir. That’s really helpful.” 

“Many will come to this area. The wind told me this. When you are alone for so long you begin to listen to the weather. It told of the Swedes and the two of you.” 

Frank glances over at me and crosses his eyes. This man is crazy. 

“But the Swedes have left with their bounty. You two will not.” 

“What?” I ask, my throat suddenly dry. “How do you do know this?” 

The wind beats against the door, begging to get inside. “Like I said, the wind.” 

We both look at the door that seems as if it’s about to burst open. 

“And many more will come by next year. The turn of the century will bring droves to this land and what I knew of my home will be no more. But I will be dead by then. The wind told me that too.” 

All of a sudden, I’m leaping up and have this old man by the collar. I’m shaking him and his head is bobbing from side to side, mouth wide open in a scream. I don’t want to be doing this, but I cannot help myself. 

“Why do you say we won’t make it back with our bounty?” I yell. Frank is trying to pull me off the man, who’s wheezing and choking. Frank’s telling me this man is bonkers, to let go of him so we can head off. I remove my shaking hands, apologizing over and over to the old man, to Frank, to myself. 

“Too much blood has been shed,” the old man says, as a declaration. “And you must pay. Each sin has a cost.” 

“But he tricked me,” I cry. “The life I shed was not my fault!” 

“The wind does not know of particulars,” the old man says, picking up his candle that has fallen to the floor. “Now you must leave.” 

“C’mon, Wyatt,” Frank says. “I have a bad feeling about this place.” 

The old man has returned behind the counter, the candle creating an orb of light around his face. 

“No, I want more answers,” I say, and Frank tosses his hands to the ceiling and leaves the room. 

I go over to the old man, stare into his rheumy eyes. 

“I am a good person,” I say, demanding for him to agree. 

He shrugs. 

“Tell me I am good!” I thunder. 

“Time has no meaning. Birth, death, and everything in between. We are simply in debt, paying for every mistake. You may not realize it but you are paying for things that haven’t even occurred yet.” 

I’m a quivering mess, ice running through my blood. “What will I do?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. “Tell me. Please.” 

He sighs. “While your sins may have been accidental before. In the future, they are premeditated, despite what you will tell yourself.” 

“You mean Frank?” I ask, indicating the door where the wind still whips. 

“No, not just Frank.” 

“Who else?” 

“Your very own blood.” 

I hear a scream bellowing from outside, Frank’s girlish squeal. When I turn back around, the old man has gone, only the candle remaining in his place. 

“What the…where did you go?” 

I peer around the counter, knocking over the candle, as it ignites against the wood. A fire spreading. 

“Wyatt!” I hear Frank cry. 

The flames consume the wooden walls by my next breath. I speed out and find Frank mourning over our horse that has fallen over, already covered in snow. He looks up and I see the flames from the shipping port in his eyes. 

“C’mon, c’mon,” he says, grabbing my arm. I shoulder the heavy rucksack and we run from the port. We’re a few feet away when it ignites and explodes, a dark cloud touching the sky. We’re hugging each other, icy tears in our beards. 

“Forget about this,” he says, “Anvil Creek. No other distractions. Thirty kilometers. We can do this.” 

I nod, words zapped from my body. We give the horse water and warm him with our hands until he eventually gets up. We grip onto one another, limping north. I’m trying to exorcize the very old man from my thoughts, but he’s bored in, infiltrating like a spy. 


November 9th, 1898 

We go straight through the night on our horse to Anvil Creek. A blizzard accelerates, punishing in its downfall. The horse’s legs are shaking from exertion and I know it won’t live for much longer. There’s no light save for a tiny beam from the moon, marking our way as if we’re the only two beings on Earth. 

Frank talks to keep our spirits up, telling of wild times from when he was younger. Booze and girls and prospecting before he found a family. I’m slipping in an out of consciousness, so I lean on his back like it’s a pillow and allow a semi-sleep to wash over me. I do not dream, but I am no longer in the realm of the awakened, straddling in between. The giant lake off Anvil Creek spills forth, and beyond it, the mouth of a cave opens wide. The cave hidden to most who would pass, looking like a patch of ice with a hole, but I can smell the gold inside, its perfect aroma. I’ve been to this cave before in my mind while on the G.W. Elder, and when I entered, the gold was so blinding I could barely see. This cave exists and we will spelunk. 

When I come to, a thin band of sunlight pierces the horizon with its golden sword. The snowbanks glitter from its reflection, warming exposed skin. We hug a thick band of water that I hope is Anvil Creek. After about a mile or so, the creek parts open to a giant iced-over lake that sparkles. Our horse collapses with a dying wheeze, as if it had been engineered to bring us as far as we needed to go before it passes on. Once we dismount, it sucks in a final breath but never exhales. We divide up the pack and I use a tied blanket to shoulder my half—the gold nuggets clinking with a pickax, a knife, and some dried beans. 

We skate out onto the lake that spans for miles in its circumference. I spin around to try to locate a sign of the cave but only a forest surround us. Frank stamps down on the ice with his boot.

“Gotta be fish under here,” he says. “I’m starving.” 

He takes out his pickax and hacks until he’s created a serrated hole. He dips a few fingers in. 

“Cold as a witch’s tit.” 

He uses a fishing rod with some dried beans as bait. 

“We’re pretty much in the center,” he says. “We should take a minute to fuel up and try to figure out which direction to head.” 

I’m lost for words and out of ideas, so I simply nod. 

After some time, Frank gets a tug on his rod. He pulls up a tiny minnow, catching it flapping in his fist. He chews on it whole. 

“Don’t worry I’ll catch one for you too.” 

He’s a man of his word and soon enough I’m chewing on a raw minnow too. I hadn’t realized how hungry I’ve been, the tiny fish making my brainwaves pulse. Frank’s yammering on about some story I don’t care to listen to. I’m chewing the last bits of flesh from the fish and trying to locate the cave in my shuteye. As I spin around, all I see is darkness, but to the left I spy a glowing. 

“That way,” I say, still with my eye closed, hitching the tied blanket over my shoulder. I walk and hear Frank scurrying behind, asking a thousand and one questions. 

The glowing gets brighter the more I pursue and my feet step off the frozen lake onto squishy land. I keep my eyes shut as I move aside branches. I’m running now, taking flight, creating a snowstorm in my wake. In the darkness, a pair of ice-blue eyes emerge, the wolf returning. 

Beware, it tells me as it lets out a powerful howl. 

I run straight into something blocking my path. I’m thrown back as my eyes flutter open. Before me, a gaping dark mouth of a cave. I jump to my feet, about to rush in as the wolf returns, this time in the flesh. It licks its salivating teeth. 

Do not let the other traveler know of what you found, it tells me. I spin around but can’t see Frank. I brush past the wolf, about to leave my tied-up blanket by the mouth of the cave, but then open it to remove my knife and stick it in my belt loop. 

The inside darker than when my eyes were closed, but when I walk farther, a faint glimmer surfaces. I feel my way as a beaming glow intensifies and before me stands a wall of pure gold. I touch it to see if it’s real, that I haven’t become trapped in a hallucination, but the gold is tangible because I break some off. It shimmers in my palm, this elusive treasure that will give my life meaning. I kiss it as if I’m blessing it over an altar, as if I’ve finally found God. 

“Hands to the sky,” I hear echo through the cave. When I turn around, Frank steps out of the darkness, his face lit by a dangerous light that reveals a pistol in hand. He must’ve taken it from Soapy. His eyes shift from me to the wall of gold, pupils dancing. The wolf’s howl enters our chamber. 

“There’s more than either of us could ever ask for,” I say, face flush with tears. 

He spits at his feet. “Don’t matter.” 

“But you couldn’t even possibly take it all with you.” 

“You fool, I’ll come back again and again until I chip away.” 

“Leave me a few bars,” I plead. “I’ll never return. I don’t want to leave my family anymore.” 

“Hogwash, you’ll race back here the first chance you can.” 

“You have my word.”

He steps closer. “Words mean tiddlywinks.” He cocks the pistol and presses it right against my heart. “I’d say it’s been nice knowin’ ya, Wyatt. But it really hasn’t. You’re like a gnat I swat at that never goes away.” 

The wolf’s voice whispers, Now! 

I swipe the knife from my belt loop and plunge it into Frank’s belly. He drops the gun so he can use both hands to wrench it from his insides. With an agonizing moan, he thrusts it out but loses his footing, his fat body falling right on top of mine and we fly back into the wall of gold. I go to get out from under him, but the sleeve of my mackinaw coat becomes caught in a groove between two gold chunks. I twist around trying to loosen him off, but he’s too heavy and I’m too weak. 

“Frank!” I yell, but his eyes have ascended to the top of his skull. I’m drenched in blood and he’s already dead. “Frank,” I whimper, trying once again to wriggle free but knowing it’s useless. 

A day passes like this. I know because of the way the faraway sun descends and then trickles in as it rises again. My stomach grumbles in agony, I’ve soiled myself multiple times, and Frank’s body has begun to stink from the excess of spilled blood. I don’t want to, but I begin to gnaw on his ear, lamenting my situation, knowing it’s all I can do to survive. Eventually the ear rips off and I chew it disgusted with myself and how my saga will end. Each day, I nibble what I can of Frank, but dehydration soon sets in, my tongue turning into a metal plate, dreaming only of drinking water. By day four, I know I am done for, too emaciated to even open my eyes so I live in darkness. I ruminate on what I’ve done to deserve this fate, cursing the old man in the shipping port who proved to be correct with his proclamation. Had that been the devil? Had he recognized a kindred soul from the sins I committed? My final vision—the wolf’s eyes, brilliant and bluer than the most ideal sky, telling me that this will not be the end, that time is vastly different than I believed it to be and I am not like everyone else. I will not succumb to time’s cruel measure. My heart will maintain its beautiful beat. 

Days keep going by. I am dead by all accounts, but the tiniest pulse of my heart perseveres. I know not why or how, only that the wolf is correct. Years pass as a rainstorm eventually flushes me out of my entrapment, sending me down on a luge, spinning out on the lake and tossing me over a snowbank, where the blizzard of all blizzards sweeps across the land, forming me into a block of ice and suspending me for the next century. People are born, grow up, and give birth to children, then die as their children have other children, who then die too, much like my own blood will. The world continues spinning into the future while I stay preserved. Do I have any memories of this miracle? If I do, they are not accessible. My last thought being that it had to have been the devil I encountered in the shipping port, causing this long punishment cast on my soul. Had it been a benevolent God, he would’ve let Frank shoot me in the heart rather than allow it to linger with a miniscule thump. 

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