We all knew that once the sun went down it would not rise again for many many days. Days cobbled together out of many hours, many minutes, and many seconds in the blinding cold. We knew the future was there, that it lay out in space but it too seemed frozen, shimmering just on the horizon of the last sun we will see for months. We were trapped, most of us scientists, the rest barely even seamen. This was Antarctica, 1897.
We crossed the Antarctic Circle long ago, longer still since we left Belgium. Already one man was lost, sucked overboard when the waters came hard. We saw him for some time, clinging to the rope he had but no one could pull him back up. Attempts were made but we almost lost the Captain. The sea was too rough and eventually he just let go, bobbing for some time before he was gone.
Then the pack ice came. Thick like a living thing. Constant. And when it transformed it became a wall, a floor, a solid structure and here we sit. Prisoners. The boat does not move, does not creak. She has been silenced, stopped in this wasteland, the only thing to see for miles. I would like to see her from far off, sticking up, this foreign object built of wood and nail and rope and yet, still run by the bone and blood of mankind. By his heart. A child’s toy left in a field. But even now she is changing. The ice climbs up the sides like a sea creature, its tentacles reaching farther up the bow and stern; the snow dots the deck. The hull is beyond us. All that wood hammered together by man, lay encased in sheets of ice. The floe has claimed her for at least the winter.
I never knew that ice was more than just clear. More than just white. I never knew that white was blue and also violet, scarred close to red at times, and then coming back to a green translucence like the petals of a plant this continent has never seen before burrowing deep into the black. I believe at times, leaning hard over the side till the wind cut through me, that I have seen every color there is to imagine trapped inside the ice. I believe, but I do not pray. Not out here in this land that does not belong to God.
We have told all the stories we can tell, real and imaginative yet the time refuses to pass. No one has seen the captain for many days. There is talk of madness on board. The food is scarce and the captain has forbidden the eating of penguin, which are stored below deck. Before he closed his cabin door, he walked from bow to stern discussing the problem of food with Amundsen, the first mate.
“But the seal, sir, and the penguin. Surely the men will benefit,” Amundsen says as they pass me again on their endless loop.
“Do not mention it again,” the Captain says, words I have heard before but still cannot comprehend. The other day I heard the men talk of mutiny. I nearly laughed. To where? Frozen in this wasteland our only leader is the ice. We will stay for as long as she says stay.
There are those who already suffer from the sickness. Cook tells me that without meat we cannot stave off the scurvy. I have seen them, covering their mouths, the gums spongy and pocked with blood. I make secret bets with myself on who will lose their teeth first. Sections of the deck are slick with frozen loose excrement. The odor lingers having nowhere to go in this
There was a fight the other day. I wonder how these men have the energy. Even in the darkness you could see the red and purple blisters that batter the hands and, as we all know, spread up the arms and legs. Madness is just as catchy. Those that are not succumbing to the sickness and cold are becoming too aware of their situation. They argue over days lost, days spent in darkness. How many days has it been now?
Knudsen, a sailor, has stopped sleeping. I see him on deck pacing. He climbs off the ship treading across the ice. He yells as if someone can hear him, his voice bouncing in all that open air. He screams he is going back to Belgium. Cook tells me he could be trouble.
“We have to be careful, Henryk.” Cook’s lips are barely visible under the moustache and layers of frozen ice. “Some men might not make it,” he says. “Some men.”
I nod. I like his accent, the light syllables of his American words.
“Let me listen,” Cook says, pulling back my shirt. His bunk is untidy. Messy for a surgeon, I think. He listens to my heart. His fingers pull at my lower lip showing my teeth. He nods. “You’re still okay, Henryk.”
Still means for now. The Captain has still not been seen in quite some time. Where is the Captain, I ask no one in particular. Jules, another officer, says he is laying down, that he wrote his will and is waiting to die. I watch Jules when he tells me this, his face flat with an inchoate violent need. We cannot listen to him. Jules does not know. Last night, the raspy bark of my bunk mate shook me from sleep. I made my way above and found Nansen, the black and white tabby, our faithful companion. We feared her lost as she too had not been seen in quite some time, but there she was, wrapped up in the thick coils of rope, her tail covering her face. I was so happy to see her again and reached out to pet her but she growled and hissed, stumbled off the coils, slinking off in the darkness. Even Nansen is not safe. I wonder if I too am going mad to mourn the sickness of a cat over these flawed men.
I have become so aware of the sky, looming above. It is inescapable. I wonder how I never trembled before. Lately, I am struck with the desperate panicked need to be in a place where the future keeps coming and coming, like wind down your throat. A mouth you cannot close.
“We need to eat meat to stave off sickness. Something must be done.” I hear Cook and Amundsen speak to each other. I hear Amundsen’s thick accent say, “The Captain is lost.”
Finally. Now we can save ourselves.
“We never should have sailed so late,” Cook adds. “Not into that ice.” No one has wintered in Antarctica. Not before us. When the food comes out, men rejoice their bloody lips cracking into smiles. The meat helps. The sickness seems abated. There is hope, which is needed as much as, if not more than, light.
It is short lived. Lieutenant Danco is gone. Emile. He ate at the table last night, sat next to me, and we talked of tomatoes as fleshy and thick as a man’s heart. We remembered the color red. And this morning he never rose from his bunk.
“It was his heart,” Cook tells me but all I see are tomatoes. “Probably a condition worsened by our condition.”
We cut a hole in the ice. We weigh his feet to be sure. My hands tremble tying the ropes around his finnesko. The ice is already forming, growing little crystals across my gloves and down the rope, a spidery web of cold that keeps us all here. His hands are tied in front, palms together, as in prayer. It is a constant midday twilight. We commit his body to the deep. I watch it slip hard and fast across the ice and down into the water.
Later, I lay on the floor of my quarters, my ear pressed to the silent boards of the Belgica and I think of him down at the bottom of the ocean, anchored to the seabed, his body swaying back and forth in the endless movement of the tide, fathoms below this captive hull. To be subject to nothing more than the will of the deep, is that better than locked in the wide open darkness up here? Is it more peaceful? I think of the frozen waters, the sight of the hull above trapped in the ice. The deep dark pressure against Emile. I wonder too if we shall escape such a fate. With one hand I reach up to touch the tender bloody gums where my tooth once was. With the other I pick at the notches on the floor that I have used to try to track the endless days without the absolution of sun.