Three Arctic Relics
By Steve Himmer.
In the crystalline quiet where no one watches an iceberg calved with the shrieks and growls of any birth. A part of her shivered then rumbled then slipped, splashed into the ocean to announce an arrival with ripples of frigid blue waves.
From the raw edge of ice that remained a cylindrical tin of preserved meat emerged, a tooth cutting out from a gum or left behind by a bite taken badly. A blue stamp on one end had been smudged by time and the elements but the metal itself was unpunctured; the canister still held its shape since being dropped by some expedition long gone. It pulled free with a scraping exhale audible only to a lone skua resting at the peak of the berg — it’s body a graphite smudge like something almost but not quite erased — but the bird didn’t react as the weight of what had been exposed of the can towed free what was still in the ice. That second splash was nearly lost in the still-flowing wake from the heavier fall of the calf now floating nearby. The can dunked under quickly and bobbed as if it, too, might float, a third iceberg in miniature, then it sank — more slowly this time — to the seabed where it came to rest.
The gray and the quiet resealed the rent. Fish fed in bubbling shoals from the stirred swirls where calf and can met water while two icebergs, one large and one small, glided apart, pushed by the force of their own separation, broken but still somehow whole. Oceans away, days afterward, weeks, water lapped the smallest bit higher on some far off beach and none of the tan, dangling toes come to eke out the last scraps of summer were the wiser when a chill of northern water washed across southern skin. In the north those icebergs glistened with meltwater runnels and the slimmest suggestions of cracks that would, someday, become fissures then splits as those frozen wedges of time sweated through seasons they weren’t meant to see at temperatures they’d never known. The can rusted below in the dark and the cold until one day it burst in a thick cloud of old meat, a strange feast for scrabbling creatures who feed from the bottom and were only too glad to take it all in while what remained of the metal rusted into no more than specks in the sand and then into nothing at all.
Mornings with the light at its best and evenings when it would do, she rolled back and forth on the horizon. The swivel of the telescope her husband left for her entertainment creaked in its housing and stuck when it turned. From its southwestern extreme the brass shaft took a nudge, a firm bump of her palm, to set the device back into motion northwest. She never strayed from that range, never turned the lens skyward to take in the stars or look back toward Europe or closer at hand across the blank slate of Greenland, that near-continent whose raw edge she occupied in her waiting.
The Esquimaux boy and girl brought her breakfast with tea brewed from leaves long gone stale but so far from the shops and the mongers she had been left with no other choice. And her husband, she knew, endured worse, was by then rationing the last dregs of weak coffee among tired men if luck had stayed on their side; if not they were scraping up lichen and stewing old leather for broth.
Or, dare she dream, were already on their way south, toward her coast, toward those compounding lenses arranged one after another with her own eye at the far end of the world’s gaze.
She had not spoken more than instructions in days: how to cook, how to clean, how to arrange her chair for the optimal frozen view of the sea from the windows of that lightly adapted — insulated, though you’d never know it, for God — fishing shack. She read but her books and her papers were old, threadbare as the castaway trousers she wore for warmth after the way her skirts lifted the hems of her husband’s left behind parka to let in the cold during her first misguided days on that shore: if the women in the south knew what was out there, how cold it can be in the world, they would all wear trousers themselves; they would strangle the dressmakers with whalebone and hoops, even the most highborn and coldblooded ladies. And she could not help but wish to be reading instead her husband’s own journal, the log of his excursion across the ice to the Pole.
She had not spoken more than instructions to her makeshift Esquimaux household, her wish their command, but the rejection of her desire to join the expedition still stung: she was not man enough as a woman, her husband would not hear of it, would not take the request to his backers — he’d be laughed from the Society, he’d said to her face after he’d finished laughing in it himself. There was no room for women apart from those natives so often mistaken for men on the vast empty span of the ice. No room for her stories in the serious white pages of the Society and its magazine, no room for the presence of a feminine touch, a weak female body, to diminish the pleasure of mounting the Pole. It means less, her husband admitted, if you can do it, too.
So she waited, marking the edge of the already-conquered, the no longer a feat. She watched the boy and the girl and their brown-skinned parents struggle with the mechanisms of her modern kitchen transported north, her parlor assembled as if she were in Philadelphia or Boston or Cleveland and the wives of other men might come calling at any moment expecting fresh tea. They knew how the gas cooker worked, her wild housemates. She’d seen them use it with the same confidence they brought to her phonograph, laughing and dancing and singing along in empty sounds she mused, despite herself, might in fact be purer music.
They knew but forgot or refused to employ it and served her raw fish tasting still of the sea and the ice and of the dark distance between the empty space of the Pole and her husband with a flag poised to fill it and the long shaft of his telescope left to her on that coast where foreign air trapped long ago between lenses held the world closer but still out of touch. She sent that fish back to the kitchen, asked them to scorch it until it tasted of dry land at least, and as she awaited a second try at civilization she turned the telescope southward until as always it stuck.
That man with a camera, as strange as the last group of southerners to pass over the ice — the ridiculous trinkets they offered for sealskins and furs, baubles and gewgaws that wouldn’t get a man through a cool day in summer never mind cold winter depths. They thrust their shiny toys with wide-eyes, worked up as children finding their first clutch of edible eggs, as eager for a pat on the head.
Look what we have! Look how shiny, how new!
And that one, the camera-man, interrupting each act of the day with the stab of his lens, the rattling whir of his machine on its three wooden legs — a mechanical creature that couldn’t walk let alone run, as impotent on the ice as its owner if Allakariallak and his family lost interest in humoring him. If hospitality wasn’t their way.
Now, here, in that trading post where Allakariallak had exchanged skins for tools many times — for his rifle, for bullets, for steel fishing hooks, a scarf for his wife so brightly colored it seared their eyes and had to be trailed from their sledge frame to wash out in the sun — here the camera-man mimed ridiculous things. Play with the phonograph, he suggested with wild gestures from behind the lens; crank its arm and marvel at its weak southern music. He urged Allakariallak to gawk pop-eyed as those earlier white men had done, to gawk with the void gaze of a seal fallen under the club. Then he took up a phonograph record behind the camera and pretended to bite it, to make a meal of its wax, of the sad songs contained in its grooves. He bounced from one foot to the other like a monkey Allakariallak had seen once in a book in that same trading post and despite himself the northerner couldn’t keep from laughing inside his furs, he couldn’t help taking up a phonograph disk of his own and testing it with his teeth to mock the man-child’s routine. Around the room and just outside the camera’s view, Allakariallak’s family laughed as he popped out his eyes, played up the ruse of encountering music for the very first time, and asked without asking, “Who are these strange men from the south? Will they never grow into their bodies?”
The camera-man laughed along, set down his own disk and cranked grinding gears inside the machine until its brittle film ran through and pulled free. While the man rushed to prepare a new reel Allakariallak stood, inspected the shelves of the trading post’s wares: the matches in boxes, the hats knitted with stripes, the rifles and whip-thin fishing rods. Amongst them all in a jumble of harpoon heads too old and worn out to be sharpened again he found a strip of sun-washed walrus bone on a strap of the same animal’s hide, two oblong eye-shades bearing bleached umber marks he had not seen in years.
Those shades were his father’s once, out on the ice, where Allakariallak had learned to hunt and to fish, to make a block home and a family. They were his father’s when his father was lost with one of his uncles in a year so far back Allakariallak hardly remembered it now, but he remembered those markings, those shades, and as one white man laughed by the cashbox and another laughed wrestling the mechanical beast with its insistent, intrusive glass eye, Allakariallak was no longer laughing. He saw his father’s body out on the ice and saw pale fingers picking him free of his eye-shades and furs, releasing the last wisp of warmth from his long-frozen flesh. He saw southern fingers leaving his father’s whole story behind, trampling it with their own tales and bringing back no more than they could salvage for coins to be carried away. He saw his own uncles a season ago in the same trading post, speaking into the horn of another man’s phonograph, telling his family’s stories in exchange for the convenience of foreign objects and he wondered — too little, too late — where those stories were taken and swallowed by what hungry ears.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 13th, 2013.