First, there was the wind.
Then, there was the cold.
Finally, there was the ice.
"On three!" I yell.
The men tense, muscles taut and strong.
The dogs dance around the men's feet, toenails skittering on the ice.
Jimmy slips backwards on the ice and topples to the ground, but the other men ignore him.
Ice snaps off the rope, and some of the shards land near my feet. The boat rolls and creaks, and still the men pull, as a cracking sound knifes through the frigid air. The men only pull harder, but I see what they don't.
"Stop!" I sprint across the floe towards the prow of the ship. Touching the ice encrusted wood, I can see the thick splinters jutting out of the hull. The ship is finished.
The men obediently let the rope drop; they look at me expectantly as I try to maintain my composure. The men need me to be their leader, and I must play the role, even when I don't feel it in my heart.
Sokes, the first mate, steps out of the line and watches as I back away from the ship. "Captain?"
The men await my proclamation. All I have to offer them is a eulogy, and a crude one at that for such a fine vessel. "She was a good ship," I say, pulling my emotions together and looking over the men's heads to the Fortitude. Her masts rise into the sky, barren of sails, like skeletal fingers. "She carried us from the shores of England to this sea of pack ice, never faltering, even when the frost closed in around her hull. It seems a terrible irony to me that now, as the Southern spring thaws the ocean we have called home for the six long, dark months of winter, the ice's tortured movements should crush the hull of the Fortitude." The men realize what I've said and step away from the rope line, dropping the flax as if it were Eve's snake. "We must now scuttle her, men. Take everything you can, including salvageable wood, and load it into the lifeboats. We must move quickly, because the pack ice is breaking up."
First there is the wind. It sweeps across the stark and empty ice field, erasing the sculptures the night wrought in the sea ice. The only constant in this landscape is the blinding, glittering reflection of the sun off the frost. Waves of wind create a uniform world of floating, shifting, cracking terror upon which we have lived for six months, surviving on sea biscuits and dry, salty meat. Fortunately, we can melt the ice, for even though it is frozen sea, the boiling process separates the salt from water. Otherwise, we would never have survived--for we long ago ran out of the heavy barrels of brackish water we brought from Sydney. My men have behaved valiantly, playing games and befriending the dogs (whom I fear we may soon have to leave behind), keeping up their spirits and mine throughout the darkest days of winter. I owe them everything for that, but I cannot even guarantee their survival.
I remember distinctly the first time I met each man, as they came to my London offices answering my newspaper ad. Taking a cue from Shackleton, my ad focused on the chances for danger and glory inherent in the journey. I did not specify the final destination, wishing to speak to each man personally and see if he was capable of withstanding the voyage. Many men will answer any ad relating to Antarctica simply because they seek adventure and glory; these men are often the worst to bring along, because they are too concerned with posturing and the writing of their exploits for the ladies back home to be able seamen. I remember on my first sea journey, a short outing to the Arctic along established waterways, that those men were the first to crack. They would not notice the quiet beauty of the ice, instead looking constantly forward through the fog towards something great and unknown that they could name after themselves and proudly conquer with a flag. As the days wore on, and the monotony of the sea overcame them, their endurance would wane, leaving in its in place fragile emotions and quick tempers. At one point, when we feared that we were trapped in the ice, one of these men leapt overboard, inexplicably. By the time the skipper had hauled him out of the water with a hook, his limbs were blue with hypothermia. Six days later, we buried him on the lonely Greenland coast, a solitary cairn beside a crashing wall of sea.
Each man I accepted had a certain indispensable skill, as well as a patient constitution and a knowledge of the dangers that lay ahead. Most were veterans of the sea, hardened by expeditions to the Orient or to Africa. Almost all had had some sort of military experience, fighting in the Boer Wars, so that they were quick to follow a strong leader and also well--disciplined. The months at sea, with stopovers only in Cape Town and Sydney, bound them to me and each other with the utmost loyalty and respect. I am lucky to have such a crew; most expeditions of this sort involve at least some mutinous rumblings, if not outright violence.
Now, we load the tiny lifeboats with everything we can salvage from the Fortitude, all the while silently mourning our proud ship. My own emotions rage below the surface of my calm demeanor, clamoring for attention. Carrying heavy loads from below decks strains my muscles but at least it distracts me from the constant wind, even as it threatens to undermine my endurance. I long for nothing more than to lay down on the ice, close my eyes, and sleep until the wind stops blowing and I am not in the middle of a frozen sea, but home again, in the soft green meadows of Lancaster. Yet, another part of me knows I cannot succumb to death here, and now, and leave the men alone. We have only six lifeboats, each of them about three meters long. Many things remain on the ice floe, waiting to be loaded, including the twenty dogs. My favorite, a white bitch I call Dover, is nuzzling my gloved hand with a wet nose, even as I attempt to haul heavy boxes. I cannot leave her behind to die on the ice, for she has been a faithful companion to me. Surely we will need some dogs once we reach the ice continent.
Despite all of our failures, despite the loss of our beloved ship, the low spring sun rejuvenates me, offering me the hope of seeing the continent someday soon. All my life, I have dreamed of exploration, of traveling beyond the earthly boundaries known to man. The ice continent, so empty and uninhabitable, has been calling me since I was a child. I cannot explain the allure, the magnetic attraction between us, just as I cannot resist the force of that attraction. I am ever a child in my imaginings of the barren southern ice fields, even now that I have weathered a terrible winter so close to them. Antarctica remains, in my mind, a place of romantic yearning, inextricably close to my heart.
The men ready the makeshift sails, quickly sewn by Jimmy and Tom from the remnants of the foresail on the Fortitude. Their work must be impeccable, or the deadly wind will tear the sails to shreds before we've sailed a hundred meters. Even now, we cannot raise the sails because they would quickly be destroyed. They are to be used only on the calmest of days, and listening to the whipping wind, I fear we shall never see any. Then we slide the ships into the water, gently, for they ride dangerously low with all the supplies. We have room for only three of the dogs, and I immediately call Dover. She leaps into the guide ship, tail swishing in a flash of white. I stand on shore, surveying all that we are leaving behind. The floe disintegrates before our eyes; the landscape is now broken, heaving shelves of ice. Already, the torque of the ice upon the Fortitude drives the decks together. The splitting of strong wood resonates like the popping of the cork when we christened her, just before sailing across the Irish Sea from Dublin. Whenever a board in the hull cracks, ice shoots out, a deadly spike or just a stinging splinter, and the men duck, shielding themselves. I see the pain in their eyes, observing our valiant vessel sinking so slowly and painfully, and although the same melancholy dwells within me, I call out to the men.
"We depart at once!" I yell, and the men straighten and walk towards the boats. Some glance back at the dogs, who trot obediently at their heels, expecting a game or a treat. I glance down at the ice. I cannot fathom this thought: that our loyal companions, our friends on this long journey, should be left behind to starve. I look for the most humane, efficient men on the crew. "Fitzhugh! Hedley! Cambrill! Please take care of the dogs who cannot make the journey."
The three men refuse to meet my eyes as they draw their weapons. The rest of the men step carefully into the lifeboats, speaking much too loudly to ignore the gunshots. I wait for the three to return before stepping into the first boat. I push off of the ice with my oar and beginning to paddle away from our home, away from the foundering Fortitude. We slice forward through the icy waters toward the crimson dawn.
The night before, Sokes and I plotted the course towards the whaling station using the sextant and the stars, and now I head straight off the brass tip of our instrument. As we leave behind our stagnant and tragic past, I can feel the promise of the future swelling within me, just as the sharp wind swells the patchwork sails, propelling us to a greater destiny. We would reach the Antarctic coast, and perhaps we would even travel inland, as my original plans described. Perhaps they would have more sled dogs at the whaling station on the coast--and supplies--and in my head I am already planning our foray into the ice continent.
The first full day of our journey has ended, and I wake from my fitful sleep in the prow of the lead lifeboat to see Sokes twisting the dials on the sextant and making calculations in his log, charting our position and learning the distance that we have traveled today. I estimate that we have traveled twenty leagues, if not more, from the aching in my arms caused by the two hours of rowing I did earlier. I have arranged the rowing into two hour shifts, marking the time with my pocket watch. Somehow, this tiny memory of home has been faithfully working since we sailed, despite the cold and the water. I keep it wrapped tightly in an oilskin, sealed into a pocket in the interior of my jacket, but after all its use, I'm surprised that it hasn't disintegrated or simply quit functioning.
Sokes continues to scribble, taking far longer than ever before, and I begin to worry. He looks through the sextant again, mutters a bit to himself, and then gestures that I should review his numbers. After scrutinizing them, I realize that, if he is correct, we have not traveled at all--rather, the terrible current has borne us back, away from the continent and the safety of the whaling station. I lean back, trying to keep fear and disappointment from my face yet again, and see the men looking at me questioningly, hopefully. I haven't the heart to tell them just yet. I take the heavy brass sextant in my own hands, turning it over and over before looking through its lens up to the stars. These southern stars, once so alien to my English eyes, are familiar, and I chart our position quickly. Then I verify it with the numbers from the night before, just as we shoved off the ice floe. I can see that the ill wind has indeed sent the currents to drive us, destroying all of our hard work.
"Men," I say, calmer now; there is nothing to be done. "We have not gained any distance at all. Rather, the currents have driven us backward two leagues. Today we must strive to work harder, pushing ourselves forward more. The shifts will change to an hour at a time, to give you more time to rest. You may continue for another hour, if you wish, but it is not required." I pause for a minute to gather my thoughts. I have nothing to say that can express my gratitude and amazement at these men, who have not sunk into despair. "I am truly sorry for not realizing the strength of this ceaseless wind." I sit back down, unable to speak further for fear that emotion will burst from me.
Sokes shakes my hand warmly and calls out to the men, "We simply need to work harder for the captain!" Someone calls out a ragged cheer for me, but I don't deserve any such praise. I simply take an oar and begin to row, and the rest of my rowers fall into position behind me.
Then, there is the cold. Lying in the lifeboats, trying to sleep in between rowing sessions, drenched in frozen salt water and unable to feel my hands or feet, I have come to know her well. She is a cruel seductress, begging me to lay down my head on the hard wooden gunwale and sleep through the night, through this dark and unending world of stormy sea and rollicking waves. This is the underworld, the place where dreams go to die, where the salt crusts our faces, turning them white as if the sun were shining upon us, when really we travel in the frigid darkness before the dawn. In the light, we anchor the boats and huddle on floating glaciers, setting up a cooking fire and attempting to warm ourselves. Sea terns circle overhead, as if awaiting carrion. Even on the glaciers, I still sway with the moving of the sea, but whether it is from fatigue or that the glacier is actually moving, I cannot tell. Exhaustion stalks me constantly, closing my eyes when I should be watching the sea and slowing my judgment.
Our journey across the sea is punctuated nightly by the reading of the sextant and the charting of our position. Sokes twists the dials on his instruments while the men gather around. Once, the dial froze stuck, and we were forced to sail onward blindly until we could find a glacier to light a fire upon. We are slowly making position across this vast sea, despite the bitter cold and brutal currents. We can travel no more than eight leagues in twelve hours, despite our fiercest efforts. Some days we are borne back, but mostly we push onward, five leagues gained one day, then three in a night, then six the next day but only one in the night...
After twelve days of traveling in this manner, we are so thoroughly spent that I worry about our ability to survive, much less make headway. Four of my men have serious frostbite, and most are wracked by terrible coughs. Cambrill has lost three toes on his left foot from frostbite; when Dr. Everly removed them he made no sound. Instead, he clamped his teeth down on a bit of leather and closed his eyes. All of them are dehydrated, yet even in their need they will offer all of their water to me. I refuse to drink where they cannot, despite the demands of Sokes, who seems to think that I am a weakling compared to the others. He often cites the incident where I nearly fell out of the boat in my sleepless delirium, not understanding that I have set my will against ever leaning so foolishly over the edge again.
"Captain!" I become vaguely aware that someone is yelling in a thick Irish brogue. Twisting my stiff neck but refusing to grimace in pain, I see Tom Fitzhugh standing in the third boat, rocking it dangerously and pointing. The other men are staring in the direction of his outstretched arm, all speaking excitedly. Squinting through the early afternoon light, trying to keep my eyes from the direct breath of the frozen wind, I see what he is pointing at--a spit of land, jutting out from the sea. The large black mass of it lurks above the water, looming like a malevolent shadow. "Land!" Tom is yelling now, over and over again, but my mind cannot grasp the concept. Unless all of our numbers are wrong--unless I have been totally mistaken in all my judgments about where we were and are--unless the very stars themselves are wrong--that cannot be the coast of Antarctica. So I stand, cautious and confused, wishing that the fear of uncertainty wasn't worming its way into my mind.
"Sokes!" I yell. "Check our position!" He is sitting in front of me, staring forward in as much awe as the others. For a second I entertain the notion that this is a mirage--just a pleasant vision that we are all experiencing before the sea swallows us up. Perhaps this is the last thing that a dying man in the middle of the frozen ends of the earth sees, as the cold deludes his eyes and strips away his sanity. I do not yet say that this cannot be the much hoped for landfall.
Sokes looks up at me, and the light of hope has gone from his eyes. "This isn't the continent--just an archipelago of tiny islands." He frowns for a minute. "Perhaps we ought to go to it, spend the night there and get a good rest out of these damn boats. Maybe there's running water!" The light returns to his eyes. "Maybe there's some sort of animals--"
I cut him off before his ideas become wilder and overexcite the men. "There won't be any animals, just birds. And I doubt there will be fresh water on that barren rock." Looking over my shoulder, I see Tom sinking down into the boat, looking crestfallen. "But perhaps we ought to spend the night there, just to rest. God knows, we need it."
We turn the boats toward the island, moving quickly now with the prospect of solid land, even if it is just a barren volcanic rock rising from the ice--choked sea. There is nothing I could tell the men now that would change their minds that this island is a savior of sorts. Anything I could say would be instantly disbelieved. I must let them discover the truth for themselves.
As we approach the shore, I begin to see the outlines of jagged cliffs on all sides. The current here pounds the sides of the rocks viciously, all the stronger for the interruption in their rush across the sea. It quickly becomes obvious to me that the tiny lifeboats will hardly survive the journey, especially now that a storm is brewing overhead, and the wind is quickening. I call off the frantic rush to the shore and yell to the men that we must weather the storm in the lifeboats or we will be dashed against the rocks. The wisdom of my statement sinks in, as does bitter disappointment as we prepare to wait out the gale. Previous storms on the journey have disoriented us, enveloping us in fog. During the first one, we nearly lost one of the lifeboats, and as a result we now bind them all together at the first hint of foul weather.
The night brings the storm, and massive waves which send our boats roiling about as a child throws his toys. We wait it out in terrible dread, knowing from previous experience that these squalls can set us twenty leagues off course. In our minds, the tiny island has now become more than a temporary reprieve from the sea; it is life itself, and the thought of losing that is too terrible to contemplate. We huddle in the frozen darkness, bailing water urgently, never speaking. Once I cannot feel my hands on the bailing bucket, I pass it to the next man, who begins the work anew. I place my hands in my armpits and wait for the pain to pass as they reheat. Then someone hands me a bucket and we begin the cycle again.
At sunrise, the storm moves onward, seeking new victims. The fog lifts, revealing a blood red sky, and the men begin to look about frantically for the island. Soon we spot it across the now glassy sea, which is a deep emerald in the clear sunlight. Nothing about its surface even hints at the violence of the previous night. I give the order and we row for it as quickly as possible. Impossibly weary men now vie for the oars, demanding to be the first to set foot on this new place. I give over my oar gladly and fall back against the gunwale. Every muscle in my body cries out in agony, and even slumping down sends bolts of pain coursing through me. My stomach twists with hunger and my throat burns from the salt of the sea, while my hands and feet remain useless numb stumps. I pray to God that this damnable cold will infiltrate my entire body, so that I might sleep forever, but I know that the men need me to lead them. Even Sokes, a man I would trust over all others, seems to have lost his sanity in this environment. I cannot leave them behind, no matter how sleep beckons to me. This island is no more a savior than the icy depths of the sea.
We crash to the shore, for the current is deceptively strong. One of the lifeboats shatters its prow against a rock, and I realize that we are now marooned here until we can repair it. Dover bounds from the prison of my boat and onto the shore, barking in excitement, and the men follow, attempting to run but instead collapsing onto the white sand. I grasp the guide rope and tie the boat to a rock, barely able to move my fingers, while yelling at the others to do the same. Soon, we have secured the boats, but I am still freezing, and still barely able to move. I order the men to start a fire, which they gladly do, and soon we are sitting around a warm blaze. For fuel, we throw in wood from the Fortitude. Sitting in front of the flames, warming my hands, I begin to feel as if I made the right decision in landing on this island--but that could just be my body drowning out my reason. The broken lifeboat probably cannot be repaired. We remain a hundred leagues at least from the coast of the continent, and once we are in sight of it, we still must find the whaling station. Yet I am glad for this island, because the fire drives away the cold, and that is the only thing I have dreamed of for days.
That night, we surround the fire, speaking of home, and of our long--suffering families. For the first time in twelve days of Rosemary, and the sorrow that I had forgotten her reminds me of my mourning. Her face, which once burned on the backs of my eyelids nightly, comes to me again. Rosemary, dead at twenty-four giving birth to our first child, a daughter, who died shortly after her mother. I christened her Anne, alone in the churchyard before the gravestones, but the grief in my heart was only for Rosemary. I had no feelings for the child I had never known. Now, in front of this fire under the strange stars of the southern hemisphere, I realize that I will never be a father to anyone, least of all little Anne, so innocent and so far away. I pull my pocket watch out of its pouch and flip it open so I'm able to see the picture I've pasted into the cover. Rosemary's eyes gaze up at me, big and pleading with me, I imagine, to end my dreaming and return to her. She never understood why I had to make this journey. I remember her mother, standing up at the funeral and screaming at me that I'd killed her daughter by planning this expedition. She continued to scream at me until her husband and two other men carried her outside, and even then I could hear her screaming in the churchyard. Rationally, I know she was wrong--my planning had nothing to do with the rupturing of an artery during the birthing process--but if I'd only been at the manor house with her throughout her pregnancy, rather than running between London and Dublin, and if I'd only listened to her more, sat with her in the evenings more, when she was confined to bed, rather than pouring over the diaries of dead explorers... Perhaps she would have been stronger. Perhaps she and Anne and I could have been sitting in front of the hearth in the great hall even now, reading stories about adventures we would never leave the manor to have. Perhaps I could have fooled myself into contentment...
My reverie is broken when Dover and the other two dogs return to the fire, yapping. I snap the pocket watch shut and see Dover carrying something proudly in her jaws: a huge white and black bird. After a moment, I realize that my dog has found dinner for all of us in the form of a penguin; outside of the Royal Zoo, this is my first glimpse of Antarctica’s most famous wildlife. Rather than examine the strange creature, we pluck it and roast it over the fire. Dover happily fetches us more for a share of the meat. I eat until the grief falls away to the back of my mind, an exile in my thoughts. Then I eat until I cannot eat anymore, until my exhaustion becomes pleasant and not a fight against death by hypothermia. I fall asleep in the sand, using one of the lifeboat sails as a blanket, and awake only when a cold wind drags the sail off my body.
A new morning has arrived, and as I survey my men, all of whom are sleeping, and the remains of the feast of the afternoon before, I begin to feel a glimmer of hope for their survival. I never thought I would leave the ice continent alive, for I know my history, but now I realize the selfishness of my thoughts; if I perish, my men most likely will as well. I must survive this adventure, if only to save them.
I stand up and set to work, despite the soreness in my muscles. I pull supplies out of the lifeboats and begin to plot in my head the best method to reach the continent. All of my plans are laid to waste for the foray into the interior, and I know it. We are too exhausted to even contemplate the journey. It will live on in my imagination for a future expedition, though I cannot think of a better crew than these loyal and brave men.
All of the men have awoken by early afternoon, and I hold council around the fire, detailing my latest plans. "With the damaged lifeboat, we cannot all attempt to journey toward to the whaling station. Instead, we will outfit one of the boats specially to travel the distance quickly. There will be three men aboard it--myself, Sokes to navigate, and Jimmy, for his carpentry skills. I hope to leave as soon as possible, so we must start work on this special boat now. The men watch me cautiously, seeing an end to their struggles with the sea--but also a great uncertainty about their futures. The chances of our survival across the roughest waters of the Weddell Sea remain small, especially in a tiny, makeshift boat. The closer we get to the shore of the continent, the more sea ice will remain, ready to destroy our ship. And always, there is the wind, and the brooding cold.
The modifications to the ship are extensive. We create a layer of sealing against the inside of the hull, using oilskin, and then place more wood over that layer. We build a wooden roof over the top of the boat to create a tiny storage room and below decks. There, we can sleep out of the wind, at least, or so I hope. Last, we create a thick sail and a strong mast, so that we can travel with the wind.
Finally, there is the ice. Sailing with the stark wind, nearly flying over the sea with the sail raised and the water splashing off our bow freezing on contact to our ship, the remains of the sea ice loom before us. Some of these relics are thick sheets of flat ice, riding the waves like ships in a storm; others are tall glacial formations, their ice almost blue as the wind erodes them into fantastic shapes. Each presents a new challenge to our tiny boat, as we must navigate it, despite the wind and current, which conspire to wreck us. Sometimes the ice rises up like a wall before us, but mostly it hides behind each crest of water, only to appear seconds before imminent collision. They've destroyed part of our prow, sending water rushing in, so that my brilliantly conceived below decks is now a soggy mess that must be constantly bailed. I navigate the ship carefully, fear lurching in my stomach at every giant wave. Storms blow across the sky, knocking us off course as they churn the sea, and concealing the stars with thick clouds so that we become hopelessly lost and wander for days. Our rations run low, but still the ice attacks us, unceasingly, until my nerves are so frayed that I flinch at a glimpse of white on the horizon, even if it's just a tern.
On the twenty-third day of our journey at sea, I stagger up from below decks to begin my eight hour navigation shift. I have been expecting to sight land for four days now, and worry once again devours my soul. If we perish here, wandering the sea until we are torn apart by ice or starvation overtakes us, no one will know where the men are to rescue them. With shaking hands I set the sail, catching a strong wind and surveying the heaving sea for danger. Something flies past the ship underwater, and I turn my head for just a second, startled, wondering if it is a fish I can catch and eat. I am so delirious that I half-entertain the idea of catching a fish with my bare hands and eating it raw, bones, eyeballs, and scales all at once, eating until I can eat no more. I swing my head back to the front and see more streaks under the blue-green water, black and white swimmers racing below me as if in a flock. For a minute, my brain refuses to understand this phenomenon, and I continue to fantasize about fish, and then I realize that this is a flock, a flock of penguins shooting past me. And if there are penguins, we must be near to shore. I squint into the distance and fancy that I can make out a dark outline, but I’m lying to myself. I see nothing. The penguins must have been stranded on a floe. Hope fades in my heart, and I continue the rest of my watch in a dreary oblivion of dull fear.
I am roused from my sleep, lying on the ice that lines the bottom of the ship, by a call from above. Raising my head, I squint in the darkness, trying to understand the shouts. Sokes' voice grates against my ears as I grope in the dark for the hatch. "Land! Land!"
In a second, I am climbing out of the hatch, followed by Jimmy. We crowd the prow of the ship, looking out over the water towards the faintest outlines of white land rising from the horizon, stretching as far as I can see in either direction. My stomach lurches violently as I see the coast of what must be Antarctica. My childhood dreams--my adult desires--everything I've ever imagined about this continent, for all the years of my life--all of them come together in this glimpse, this hint of the ice continent, and suddenly all these endless months of hardship are erased. I am a child again, looking at stills from the first forays to its coasts.
As we draw nearer to the shore, I realize that my sepia-tinted imaginings don't compare to these grand cliffs of blue ice. Where the sea meets them, it crashes sharply against their formidable walls, throwing up white spray. When we sail between two of the towering ice cliffs, it’s as if we are traveling down the nave of a cathedral full of blue stained-glass windows. The light pours in through the ice, muted but pure. We search for the whaling station, hoping that we're in the correct position, although we cannot be certain. The wind begins to pick up, blowing us towards the ice walls alarmingly. For a moment, I envision us dying right here, so close to our goal; then we spy a black outcropping of land ahead of us, and something that resembles a beach. We navigate the boat onto the shore and then I step off the prow and onto Antarctica.
The human species has a very limited habitat, and Antarctica is not a part of it. This is an alien world, even different from the ice floe and the island. I can sense the strangeness as I walk up the rocky shore to stand at the top of the hill and look for the whaling station. When I reach the top of the hill, and stand astride it, overlooking the continent, a strange energy flows through me. The emptiness of the ice fields holds a hard and eternal beauty, as do the patches of stark black earth rising from the ice like ebony ghosts. I am so entranced that I do not notice Jimmy come up beside me, holding binoculars, and point towards the shore. "The whaling station!"
Immediately we are running towards it, despite our numb feet and the stony ground. I can think of nothing but my men as we race towards the gray columns of smoke rising from the chimneys of the station. Even when I trip and slide downhill on the ice, the wind tearing at my face, forgetting any shreds of dignity I may have had, I think of them, and of Antarctica, where I am at last, after so many years of dreaming.
Suddenly, my coat catches on a sharp rock and tears open, and the pocket watch falls out, flying from its oilskin covering. I slam my feet down and grab for purchase on the ice, reaching out desperately to catch the watch, but it flies far away from me, skittering down the slope. Sokes and Jimmy look back at me, startled by my sudden movements, and I yell, "I've dropped something--don't wait, I'll be down shortly!" Then I begin to crawl up the ice, desperate not to lose my watch, and Rosemary’s face inside.
I lunge over the top of the hill, only to find a gaping crevasse opening behind us. I cannot see the bottom of the chasm, but I can see the pocket watch, maybe a meter down, dangling by its chain off a piece of thick ice. The lid is sprung open, revealing Rosemary’s dark eyes and high cheekbones. She looks beautiful and regal, lit by the blue interior of the abyss, even more so than she had in life. I throw myself on the ground and slide forward toward the crevasse, trying to reach the chain. Beneath me, I can hear the ice creaking and groaning with my weight. The luminous quality of her face is almost painful to me, and I extend my arm--I must see her again, I cannot lose this last remnant of my wife. If I am to be swallowed whole by the demons beneath the ice of Antarctica, then so be it. I expected, indeed prayed for, nothing less for months. Still I stretch my body, and still the ice moans beneath me, the depths of the chasm calling out, beckoning me in, to follow the watch chain as it begins to slide further down--
"Captain! Captain!" Jimmy and Sokes' voices come from far behind me, so far that they seem to drift away in the air and disperse before I can understand them. I strain forward, feverishly now, my reason replaced with the pounding of my heart. The ice beneath me cracks sharply, and I tumble down into the blue--tinted chasm, landing sharply on a ledge. The watch now dangles before me, and I need only crawl forward, a little further out on the ledge, to hold it.
"Captain! What the hell?" I twist my face up toward the sunshine and see Jimmy looking down at me. "Jesus! Are you all right?" He disappears for a second, and I hear him calling to Sokes, "Hold my feet! He’s fallen in!" His face reappears, and I realize that he is lying on his stomach. He reaches his hand down to me. "Grab my hand, Captain. We'll get you out of there." His broad face is open, concerned. He wants to save me, he is devoted to me, he would even risk his own life for mine.
I twist my body back, focusing on the watch. I cannot leave her here in the cold. The ledge beneath me isn't solid, and I can feel its foundation beginning to fail. The watch is half a meter away--
"What are you doing? Forget about the bloody watch! Come on, Captain, that bit of ice isn’t going to hold!" All I need to do to catch Jimmy's hand is just reach up, but I continue to inch my way along the ledge. It cracks sharply, just like the hull of the Fortitude as the floes crushed her, and I know what is coming. My fingers close on the watch chain just as the ledge gives way beneath me.
A strong pair of hands locks on the back of my undershirt, hauling me upwards, but the chain is caught, and won't come loose. "Let go!" I yell, completely senseless and struggling against the grip. "Jesus Christ, let go, or I'll drop it!" Still the hands pull me up, ignoring my shouts. The chain snaps violently, and the watch tumbles off it, down into the ice. I feel my heart falling with it, bouncing down into the depths of the earth. The glaciers beneath me will spend the next million years grinding it down, tearing the fragile paper of the picture, destroying her slowly, just as I did. I close my eyes and stop struggling, and Jimmy hauls me out of the crevasse and onto the ice.
He is spitting mad. "What the hell was that, Captain?" he yells at me, and I deserve it. "What the hell was that!" He stands up and stomps off, leaving Sokes staring at me as if I'm a deranged creature, not to be trusted.
"Sorry," I whisper, looking into the icy depths. I feel as if I'm in a trance, unable to break free. Around me, Antarctica waits, silent except for the eternal movement of the ice grinding its way to the sea. "Jesus Christ, I'm sorry." Sokes reaches over and helps me to my feet gently. I stand there, half dead, still imagining the watch in the bowels of the ice.
A whistle floats over the air, and I shake myself awake. The laborers at the whaling station are being called to work. Sokes hesitates before asking, "Oughtn't we go down there and find someone with a ship?"
"Yes," I say, nodding my head and turning away from the crevasse. "We should." I see Jimmy already heading down the hill, and Sokes and I follow, more slowly this time, sliding across the barren ice. The sharp wind stings my eyes and I feel life returning to me, filling out my soul and calling me to run forward through the cold and ice, yelling for joy that I am alive, that I have survived, and that I am here, in Antarctica, breathing the salty air of the shore, on my way to rescue the most loyal men a captain could ever command.
Later, as we sit around the fire in the whaling station manager’s house, I remember the sunken Fortitude, and all the long months I spent waiting for her to sink, even though I knew it was inevitable the moment the ice closed in around her. The station manager is busily arranging for a ship to go out and rescue the men, speaking loudly and excitedly, but we sit in silence, weary beyond all reckoning and barely able to answer the simple questions he poses to us. The weariness is different this time; the burden that stripped away my soul has gone. Instead, the weariness fills me out, leaving only the warmth of deeds well done and dreams well accomplished.
This is the Talent Show part of the Everything Noder Pageant 2003. If you actually read this far... congratulations and thank you for reading! If you liked the story, check out Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett, which was recommended to me after I wrote this story, or read Ernest Shackleton's diaries, which inspired me A LOT.