The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Each day he wakes to cold light, dark waves, and a shifting horizon line, the flap of canvas sails, the creak of a keeling ship. There has been nothing else for weeks. He’s ill and cannot get comfortable. His eyes are deep blue, piercing, red-rimmed, expressively empty, and they’ve refused to adjust to the gloom of his cabin. Below deck there is only darkness, but topside, he knows, there is limitless white light. He hauls himself up the aft companionway and from the deck looks at the ice shelf ahead of him. It rises from the ocean like a set of giant’s teeth. You are where you are, he thinks, and his heart leaps, settles, flattens out.
“Good morning.” At his side stands an emperor penguin, cheerful companion, loyal friend. My grandfather has named him Franklin after one of his favorite dogs from home. When he waddles across the deck, he reminds my grandfather of a black and white signal buoy that bobbed near his home cove when he was a child. “Shall I tell the children we’ve arrived?” Franklin says.
“No, not yet,” says my grandfather. A thought forms in his skull and evaporates. The ship dips with the swell, and he steadies himself against the roll. His mind is shorting out. He thinks: the sea is like … is like … is like … the sea.
A bolt of freezing sea wind bores an acid tunnel to the back of his throat. He coughs into a handkerchief. Blood.
“On second thought,” he says, “yes.”
Once his companion leaves, he folds the handkerchief twice, remembers it was a gift from his own children, from his wife, and throws it overside. No need to worry anyone. The stained piece of cloth flutters and dips on the wind like an enormous white butterfly before settling atop the leaden water, saturating, and sinking. Onward, he thinks.
The children appear on deck. There are twenty-five of them, little blonde Norsemen. They’ve read my grandfather’s books, they are excited to be a part of this expedition. Below deck, they’ve made dolls out of sticks and sailcloth, pulled clothes from the winter chest, staged elaborate plays. They’ve helped with dinner and cleaned their plates, they’ll do whatever Franklin asks of them. They’ve shown no greenness on the waves. Looking at them now, however, my grandfather realizes he cannot tell them apart. The only name he can remember is Hjalmar. But which one is Hjalmar? He was one of the smaller boys. Not here, now. Or is he?
“That,” my grandfather says, and gestures over the bow toward the ice shelf, “is McMurdo Bay. If you follow my finger’s line, you will see Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror. They are ice volcanoes, named for ships.”
The children cheer, ball their fists, and look excitedly in the direction he is pointing. If all goes well, their expedition will go like this: depot, depot, depot, rookery, depot, pole. They will cross the barrier ice with South Victoria Land rising to the west; they will climb the pressure ridge abutting the Maud Range; they will cross the glacier and spot Mt. Helmar Hanssen. The weather will be bleak and howling, the journey miserable, but the reward will be great. They will write their own books. Some of the children, he notices, are hugging one another.
My grandfather sweeps his hands wide, and then returns them to the deep pockets of his heavy woolen coat. He gazes at his young crew and works to bury the expression he feels forming. The children peek out at him from their drawn hoods. They are a blessing, not a burden, he thinks. He coughs once, twice. It’s productive. He spits. “Our journey begins,” he says, and Franklin pats his hand.
Their ship is a three-masted, four-hundred ton schooner, outfitted with a retractable rudder and propeller, a windmill for energy production, and a small camp-stove in the galley. Her hull is wrapped in greenheart wood and she draws power from a triple-expansion steam engine. She is his own design, commissioned and built over two years in in Larvik, a ship of astonishing beauty. He will be sad to leave her.
As they move further into the flows, the Ross Ice Shelf forms a basin and all ocean sound drops away. There are no birds. They see neither walrus or seal. The only noise comes from their small engine, lunging along. It feels, to my grandfather, like they are gliding again into the frozen mouth of the world.
Once anchored, they spend the day moving supplies from the ship to the ice, harnessing the dogs, tuning the sledge runners. In the evening, everyone gathers in the main cabin for supper. It will be the last comfortable meal, my grandfather knows, and he’s pleased to see everyone in such good spirits on the eve of their departure. Once the feast is over, the children tidy up, and Franklin lowers the lamp to begin one of his lessons. The children, in their shared sleeping bags, strain to listen. “Do not think of the cold,” he says. “Instead, think of a moment that has brought you great happiness, and let memory be a lantern that warms you. And as we progress, I’d like to remind you that penguins are the link between reptiles and the mainland birds you are familiar with. Evolutionary-wise, that is.”
Outside it is - 27 degrees Celsius, but inside, in the close and cramped ship’s cabin, it’s as warm as a bakery oven. “Goodnight, young explorers,” Franklin says, and extinguishes the lamp.
Dark night. Long night. My grandfather tightens the mouth of his sleeping bag. The wind picks up and rasps at the rigging, asking to be let in. Not good. Not good. The pain in his ribs has returned, and his tongue feels wooly. Maybe, my grandfather thinks, they won’t show up this time. But his mind is a dark engine, and show up they do: a parade of floating heads, coming down the ship’s corridor, bobbing toward him like paper lanterns on a string. Some wear balaclavas, some are hatless, some scurvyed and bleeding from exposure and sour gums. Their dark eyes are filled with accusatory wonder. They do not blink. My grandfather nervously greets each frozen face as it floats around his cabin, some familiar, some not. Finally, the heads collect themselves in a pile near the foot of his bed. “What do you want?” my grandfather says. The heads whisper quietly and a sound like radio skimming static fills the room.
Finally, the heads begin to quiet down and close their eyes for the night. Franklin has not stirred. They cease their chatter and allow my grandfather to journey to the small clapboard home of his youth, in Svalbard, and then to blacker sleep.
In the morning, he takes stock. Twenty-five children, twenty-two dogs, Franklin the penguin, and himself. Five sledges, each weighing two hundred and thirty-seven pounds. The dogs will take two, the children two, he and Franklin one. In a fur-lined pouch affixed to his hip, he has tucked the medical supplies, his sextant, a chronometer, his journal and pencils, and a roughly folded map detailing their projected route, known elevations, intuited crevasses… It is -32 degrees on the ice, with no wind from the south. It will only get colder as they trek across the barrier ice.
The children stand ready in their hats and harnesses. They are looking to my grandfather for some words of inspiration at the beginning of this great expedition, encouragement, or perhaps even love, but his mind has gone elsewhere, it’s a blank shimmering thing. Franklin clears his throat and shakes his preened feathers. The dogs are restless and yip at one another. Finally, my grandfather turns and says, “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”
The children look perplexed.
Franklin sighs, gathers himself, secures his tow-line over his shoulder. “Gid-up,” he says to the children, and they throw their hats in the air. One foot in front of the other, and they’re off.
Across the ice they are pulling pemmican, sugar, butter, tents, plank wood for an igloo door, hoosh, rudimentary First-Aid kits, amputation instruments, limes, lamps, socks, brandy, whisky, rum, matches.
In my grandfather’s fur-pouch is a photograph of Fridjof Nansen and Frederick Jackson shaking hands at Franz Josef Land. It is the very moment they knew their winter on that infernal frozen island was over.
“Frederick Jackson,” says my grandfather. Low light bounds off the ice directly in front of him. “Heavenly days.”
The first week is slow going. Towlines get tangled, and as they plod farther across the barrier ice, the snow becomes deeper, and heavier, and each step is met with an audible granular give. Each step is like a rasping cough. The sun is a gel smear, dim on the horizon. The ice, in constant adjustment, cracks and groans. The sound is like tree limbs bending, breaking in heavy wind. Mt. Erebus looms to the west, gently sloped, and in front of them they see the pressure ridge, jagged, licked and shaped by polar weather.
“Enchantment, wonder,” says Franklin, pulling next to my grandfather, says. “Uncharted, limitless white.”
“And,” my grandfather says happily, “no more floating visitors.”
“Excuse me?” Franklin says, but my grandfather is adjusting his harness, it’s been biting his shoulder all morning, and he doesn’t reply.
Two miles a day over the ice, then break, then pen the dogs, then set up camp. Then eat, sleep, wake, roll up the tents, pack everything into the sledges, count the dogs, count the children, sight the route, mark the journal, pray for holding weather, head down, walk.
The children set up soccer pitches when they can, and under the low, gray sky kick around a ball made of frozen socks. At night, my grandfather feeds the dogs Norse Fish from tins, heats the food for the children, tells them stories of brave men on the ice, and then, as they settle in—as the primus is dampened, and the light goes soft—Franklin stands to his full height and opens his black beak to the top of the tent to gently sing to the assembled and tired group. Some of the children join in with their boy’s choir falsetto voices, which are delicate and true if a little quavery, but most only mouth words until the melody lulls them to sleep, whereupon each is visited in dream by his favorite dog from the pack.
“I didn’t know penguins could sing like that,” my grandfather says. “I didn’t know that about you.”
“You never asked,” says Franklin.
Later, in their tent, my grandfather admits he’s worried about the pace they’ve established, the resilience of the children, the supplies they are towing, the increasing wind, the plunging cold, the dimming sun, and the fact that he still can’t tell one child from another.
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow,” Franklin says, and yawns. “It empties today of its strength.”
Onward they walk, carving a straight line across the ineffable ice. Hours, days. They haul sledges up snowdrifts and skid down furrows, traverse glass ice and black ice, and trek through a low red fog that hounds them for miles. They circumvent pressure ridges, narrowly escape sliding into a crevasse. They brace themselves against the cold and the wind, admire the view, stomp their feet to encourage circulation.
Expeditions have good days and bad days. These days have been good. This continent is a blank canvas, thinks my grandfather, and we are its slow painters.
At rest, Franklin conducts blister inspections on the children, oohing and aaahing; he asks them to be brave for his lancing, rewards each with a small lump of sugar. They are trying to be resilient, they are doing their best. But before bed, when my grandfather reads aloud from his own book, Franklin sees exhaustion and boredom and frustration on their small faces, and now and then glimpses genuine fear.
“Exploration,” my grandfather says warmly as he shuts the book, “is the crucible of the human imagination.”
“And into notational night we go,” Franklin says, lowering the lamps. “Good night, little seals.”
The children answer, a quiet chorus, and Franklin and my grandfather bow through the flaps of their tent. They secure the tent from the outside. The dogs sleep. There is no wind, no snow, and the sky is like an artist’s rendition of sky, alive with brushed light. This will not last, my grandfather thinks.
“We never expected it to,” Franklin says.
That night, though my grandfather’s sleep has become less troubled, the heads do find him. They bob above the barrier ice like glowing, floating apples. Each face deprived of oxygen, each cheek sunk, deep blue with dark eyes. They file in, circle his bed, and gather themselves in the corner of his tent. He pulls his sleeping bag over his head. In the darkness, he wills himself to feel gratitude and tries to push this feeling into the room, wishes to say there is nothing here but love but that is not what he feels. What he feels is terror, and he cannot speak. When he wakes from these corridors he is shaking and shivering, covered in sweat, and there is no one for him to recognize. He listens for a sound that will tell him where he is. He hears the squeak of hospital shoes, and whispered voices down the hall, some distant laughter. He closes his eyes, opens them again. Back in his tent, now. There. That’s better. Franklin sleeps next to him now, my grandfather can see him in the dark, standing with his beak tucked low on his chest, his eyes firmly shut and dreaming, no doubt, of small fish darting through the flashing deep.
The weather turns, and the cold gets worse, the climb harder, the daily drudgery of an expedition such as this more numbing and rote. They make three nautical miles a day, but the parties move at a different pace, and the children are sluggish. They are closing in the pressure ridge that abuts the St. Edwards Range, and even from ten miles out my grandfather can see that it will be a climb like no other.
The less said about the weather, he writes that night in his journal, the better. The fog has cleared, but the cold has gripped. His breath frosts the paper, and the pencil will not bite. He thaws the page with a close-held match he has trouble lighting.
The children have taken to hiding in their sleeping bags in the morning. They’re starting to understand how this expedition will go. All but one has begun to complain about the food. All but one is slow to roll his gear and secure it on the sledge. And this one boy, my grandfather is pleased to see, is Hjalmar.
Hjalmar is not much of a puller. He has a wan complexion, pallid cheeks, delicate eyes. The other children don’t like him. But he has shown a keen interest in navigation, and an exuberance for sighting that my grandfather feels should be encouraged.
“Come, Hjalmar,” he says, when they’ve stopped to fix one of the sledge’s runners. He hands Hjalmar the navigation pouch, and the two of them trudge in snowshoes a quarter of a mile away from the group. “We are ten thousand feet above sea level,” he says as they walk. He knows it’s important to be impartial and not give preferential treatment to anyone in the traveling party, but he’s become fond of this boy. At the camp, Franklin hammers away, realigning and repairing the sledge, tireless and cheerful, while the other children watch with bored expressions.
“Those are the Queen Maud Mountains,” my grandfather says, and points. “And beyond that, you’ll find the King Edward Plateau.”
It is while he is sighting the horizon with Hjalmar that a cry goes up from the camp. Franklin is signaling to them with his dark flippers, and, once he has their attention, points frantically. They’ve spotted something due south. When my grandfather looks through his binoculars he sees what seems to be a cairn of some kind. It’s nestled within gentle slope of snow that makes it nearly invisible against the ice.
“Not good,” Franklin says, when my grandfather returns. He’s nervously flicking his toes against ice.
“They’ve spotted it,” my grandfather says, “we have no choice.”
The children work in pairs to shovel through the drift, and soon they have cleared a path to what seems to be a tent from long ago. My grandfather chips the ice from the tent’s frozen flaps, inhales deeply, then peels them wide for all to see.
It’s as though they’ve drawn the curtain on a diorama in a natural science museum. The children gasp. Three men in fur hats sit frozen around an ancient stove facing one another. Their emaciated faces are deep brown, their eyes are closed and sunk in the sockets, mouths drawn tight. An open journal rests in one of their laps, a small pencil at rest in its crease. The scene is oddly tranquil. They look comfortable, at peace. There is no smell. But it is impossible not to see is the heap of bones stacked on one of their cots.
Franklin coughs and begins ushering the children out of the tent. “Those are chicken bones,” he says. He laughs nervously. “Imagine having chickens all the way out here!”
The children are perplexed. “Who are these shriveled people?” one of them asks.
“Brave explorers,” my grandfather intones. Carefully, he steps across the tent and pulls the journal from the lap of one of the frozen men. After he has read to his satisfaction, he turns and addresses his own party. “They did not find the pole,” he says. “This,” he gestures to the tent, “is as far as they got.” This is met with silence and shuffling. “This is good news,” he says.
The sledge is repaired. The tent is closed up and left to the weather. On the horizon, a mountain range stretches, brown and iceless, across their path. The dogs are eager to move. They should see the rookery as soon as they reach King Edward Plateau. Half a mile behind, the children are humming as they walk.
As they begin to climb, my grandfather finds himself lost in a strange sort of reverie. Each foothold is like a mark across his brain. Then his veins run warm, and it feels as though he’s floating. The ice pulls away. A new and certain calm begins at the base of his skull and braids around his chest. But then there’s a plunge, and it’s as though he’s sliding down an ice chute into one of the earth’s dark, endless fissures. He sees his children, small and pulling for air, and then growing and becoming indifferent to him; and then he sees wife, Eva. He’d said nothing to her of his plans before he’d left. He didn’t think she’d understand. Her complaint was always that he preferred the ice to her, and though it’s not true, he could never correct her in a way that settled the issue. He takes another step, and then another. She is a face carved into the brown range in front of them, now. She is in the low clouds. She is leaning over him, and then she is gone. He regrets that now.
Excellent day, beautiful day. They make eight nautical miles and camp themselves on the other side of the range. The mountains are imposing, but my grandfather suspects that they will have less trouble once they pull over the ice-ridges that smooth into the plateau than they have had on the journey so far. They are steep mountains, glacially cut, and they are pleasantly disorienting to see up close. All of the children know how to ski, and after setting up camp take to the slopes with abandon. Franklin delights everyone by waddling halfway up a gentle slope, whooping like a crane, and then turning to luge down on his belly.
That night in the tent, the children put on a play. They’ve dressed the dogs as seal and use an overturned sledge as their ship. Everyone laughs, and there is a heroic swell, a moment of doubt, a great drift, and then finally vindication, a safe transport home, a hero’s parade. My grandfather is deeply touched. In the third act, Hjalmar stands suddenly, and begins a rendition of Ja, vi elsker dette landet. His fragile voice pushes beyond the tent and out on to the ice, through the sifting fog, back to their ship. The other children have forgotten their lines, but join him in the refrain: Yes, we love this country / as it rises forth / love it and think of our father and mother / and the saga-night that lays / dreams upon our earth.
When he’s finished, there is a deep and long quiet.
“I’ve never heard that before,” Franklin says. “Bravo.”
“Hjalmar,” says my grandfather. “You have an astonishing voice. And a long, distinguished career on the stage ahead of you.”
Hjalmar nods, a blush beginning at his ears. All the other children stand and bow. A reading that afternoon placed them at 87° 40’ S. The play is complete.
In the morning, they trudge and trundle over rock and ice, sledges clattering, sending up shouts of alarm. Finally, the range flattens and the party quiets down, but still threat and danger lurk everywhere, and this leg…feels different. Crevasses open up in front of them and drop three hundred feet into glacial caves. Nesting terns call sharply from the bare mountain walls. “Is that a warning?” the children ask. “An omen?”
“No,” Franklin replies. “Those are just stupid birds.”
They come out the other side, but it’s taken three days and they are not intact: blisters are infected, lethargy is sinking in, there are rumblings of wanting to return home. Their goggles fog up, their hats are too tight. Their gloves, once wet, won’t dry. Stop complaining, my grandfather wants to shout, but he knows that will get him nowhere.
They set up camp on the southern edge of the range. After the dogs are penned and the food is heating up, Franklin pulls my grandfather aside and asks him to acknowledge what they both know is approaching but have not mentioned: that every day the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky, and the stars have emerged more brightly visible; a true dusk is settling, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to note where the white of the horizon meets the white of the sky. What this means is that no matter my grandfather’s careful calculations, no matter his long preparation, polar night is upon them. “We should be farther along,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to the days.”
“We’ll make due,” Franklin says, but my grandfather can hear weariness and resignation in his voice. “Blackest night, blackest night, light, light, light,” he clucks, and totters off to tell the children.
And that evening, a cold and unforgiving storm comes over the ice like an avenging angel, and pins them where they are for three weeks.
They do what they must, given the time of year and the storm: construct a winter depot that will shelter them at the base of the range. To not achieve the Pole before the change of the season is devastating to the expedition. The blizzard wipes clean all visibility, the wind is ferocious and stings like needles under exposed skin. The dogs are restless, yipping and yelping. The children suggest making a more permanent shelter for them, so they can be warm, and happy, and against my grandfather’s objections, a vote passes and the children set about making a second depot. They manage, but just barely.
The temperature outside drops to negative sixty-seven degrees. The snow pushes against the depot walls in steep drifts. The weather seems to come from the pit of the earth, a howl that does not stop. It circles the ice. It’s like punishment from the gods.
The children are frightened. There is nothing to tell them. A mistake has been made, they should be home by now. But whose mistake was it?
“Disaster, starvation, otherworldly endurance, the crumpling of the will, snow blindness, frost-bite,” Franklin says, later, in their tent. “I can feel it all coming.”
“I know,” my grandfather says. “I can feel it too.” He reaches for his penguin friend, and gives his sloping shoulder a gentle squeeze. “But weather clears. The soul does not.” He takes a long drink of brandy, then another. The lamp’s wick is lowered. My grandfather is exhausted. He can feel his black mood returning.
A small mercy: that evening, the wind abates, quiets, abandons them completely.
The cold is unworldly and halts the expedition, no day trips, no dog runs, no sky watching, no going outside at all. The night settles over the winter depot like an affliction. Cooped up, the children mope, they circle up, they exclude. They’re listless and fatalistic. No stories get through to them. No calls for a stiff-upper lip, no fables of endurance ring true, they’ve turned inward. There are no songs that Franklin can sing to get them roused to the clean and clear schedule that must be kept during these long and disciplined and dark days.
They will not wash. They refuse to exercise. “Your toes will blacken and fall off,” Franklin says. “Cuts on fingers will produce infections that transform into brain-frying fevers. We will have to amputate your feet if you don’t move!” This gets the children to shuffle around the depot, but they make faces the entire time. In the mornings, they slink from one corner to the next. In the evenings, they sing a song they’ve made up called “Oh the Tedium, Oh the Monotony, The Betrayal Has Been Great.”
What’s the matter with you children? my grandfather thinks. I’m the one who’s sick. He stands. He opens his mouth as if to say something but decides against it. Hjalmar sits with his head in his hands, eager for all of this to be over. The children say nothing. They set their little faces in angry scowls.
In one of their evening plays, a large polar bear swims across the North Sea to lay waste to an unsuspecting village. In another, a heavy cloud rains a wall of knives. “Every awful thing that has happened is your fault,” the children say to my grandfather. He closes his eyes and pretends not to hear. It hasn’t escaped his notice that Hjalmar isn’t participating in these productions, and when they get to the final play of the night he understands why. This one is called “Hjalmar’s Lament.” It’s the story of a young boy, who has neither mother nor father, asking everyone he meets for help, until finally a baker sets upon him with a rolling pin and leaves him beaten in the street.
Months pass. Outside the depot’s door the night is thick and unending, black with no texture, the absence of light.
“We’d hoped to avoid this,” Franklin says. “How we had hoped.”
The food they’ve brought with them is dwindling, and what hasn’t spoiled already will certainly do so soon. Everyone is hungry. Their supplies will not make it to spring. The children talk of soaking their harness straps until the leather is soft enough to eat; they consider their boots, their socks. Franklin is unhappy and silent, because he knows what happens next. My grandfather is saddened by the prospect, for he has become fond of the dogs as well.
No one will help him. No one will even hand him a knife. He sets off with creaky bones for the second depot and returns with enough meat to last another month if rationed correctly. The children are silent and unforgiving. They avoid eye-contact, and sleep as far away from him as possible as possible.
“Someone had to do it,” Franklin whispers when everyone is asleep. “It’s why we brought them in the first place.”
My grandfather doesn’t answer. He is looking darkly at the ceiling. Those dogs were the sweetest creatures, so easy to love. They licked his hand, they had no complaints. So much of his life has been spent heading in a single direction, and it’s brought him here. He can feel his own brain dimming. Where is he going? What is it he sees? With a cough he returns.
“I said, they’re angry, but it’s not your fault,” Franklin whispers. He sees that there is blood on my grandfather’s chin. Delicately, as though handling a child, he dabs it off. He notices that my grandfather is avoiding looking at something in the southern corner of the depot, but cannot see or imagine what it might be.
A stillness—a collective fugue—settles over the group. Within another month Franklin is amputating frostbitten feet and hands. The bandaged children are stoic but furious. Their songs lose their melody and become deep guttural chants. After my grandfather lowers the lamp each night, there is a fury of masturbation, a symphony of self-abuse, that comes from the gathered sleeping bags before each child falls into troubled sleep. They’ve taken to taunting the remaining dogs
Why is this happening to us? Why did you bring us here? the children want to know. But soon they stop asking and my grandfather is too tired to give it the answer it deserves.
“They’re getting older,” Franklin says, one night as he and my grandfather are walk the perimeter of their camp. They are taking measurements of the ice. “They’re not quite themselves.”
“It’s not just that,” my grandfather says. His energy has left him. His throat is raw. His stinging eyes won’t stop watering. It’s all he can do to stay standing on the ice, to not lay his head down and go to sleep. “They are terrible children. They’re plucking your feathers while you sleep.”
“I know,” says Franklin, rubbing his back.
Above them, the dark sky is pricked with starlight. It unfurls like a sail and covers them completely. It feels as though they have truly found the end of the world. “It’s beautiful,” Franklin says. As they watch, a curtain of light, green and blue, is drawn across the southern sky. It shimmers and bends; it points to some larger mystery; it moves as though responding to music neither of them can hear. To the questions of why one leaves the comfort of home to traverse such an inhospitable landscape, one answer might be this, the very thing they are witnessing.
“At moments such as these,” my grandfather says, reciting from memory, “a man may feel as though he is at the bottom of some great and deep ocean, gazing up through the depths to the peaceful surface and the silent, folding waves.” He coughs. “Let’s just stay here a little longer.”
Franklin, looking up, can think of nothing to say.
When they get back to the depot, the door is tied shut from the outside. Inside, they see only Hjalmar. He’s sitting near the stove, with his knees pulled to his chest, crying softly into his elbow. “They left,” he says. “They took the rest of the dogs.”
The depot has been emptied. All the sleeping bags are gone. Half the biscuits. Most of the dog meat, one or two maps, though my grandfather with relief sees his navigations bag still hooked above the work table.
“I wanted to go with them,” Hjalmar says. “But they wouldn’t let me.”
“You should’ve insisted,” my grandfather says. His ears are ringing with heat. He takes off his coat and goes to lie down near the stove. Franklin brings a blanket to cover him. “Oh,” he says, when he checks my grandfather’s forehead with his flipper. My grandfather can feel his pulse pushing all rational thought into small, winding rivers behind his eyes. This fever…it’s a bright one. Hjalmar begins to fret. He brings my grandfather tea, brings him his book, tries to get him to take some pills that look like raisins. He stands and pulls my grandfather’s navigation pouch from the wall and begins listing and cataloging its contents.
“Let him sleep,” Franklin says.
“His gums are bleeding,” Hjalmar says to Franklin. “I know,” is the reply. “It’s not good.”
Leave me alone, my grandfather thinks. He closes his eyes and tries to push his mind to the back of his skull. Here’s the order of the expedition, he thinks. After the mountains, an inland lake. A large bird. A winter depot. A rookery. The pole.
“We’re at the winter depot now,” says Hjalmar softly, applying pressure to the bridge of my grandfather’s nose.
“Right,” my grandfather says. “Of course.” He is having trouble feeling his legs. He thinks: my ship, my dogs, the children. “They will surely perish,” he finally says. The thought brings him no sadness whatsoever.
His fevered mind opens its letters. He’s back aboard his first ship, a young captain, nervous, waking early to see the ocean, dark blue and leaden and still, achieve its creased texture under a swiftly rising sun. He glides like a tern over a crevasse that opens at the base of a volcanic Mt. Erebus. Now he is gripping hands with Frederick Jackson, and Frederick is saying hull, salmon, sledge, good luck, good luck, good luck.
Darkness. Then, in a large lecture hall, he listens as the speaker at the podium raises his elegant, bearded chin to the quieting crowd. “Our clothing,” the man begins, “was made from sealskin, reindeer skin, wolf skin, burberry cloth, and gabardine. Our sledges carved from Norwegian ash, with steel-shod runners made from American hickory.”
Sitting there, he is filled with admiration and jealousy. He leans forward to hear more, but his mind is pinwheeling now and won’t cooperate, and suddenly he is home, in Svalbard, it is Christmas, and his older cousin is visiting. They are young, which is why they are sharing his bedroom. His older cousin has removed his pants and is making lewd gestures. My grandfather knows what is coming next, he has never forgotten it. He can hear his parents talking in the next room. They are speaking of his loneliness, his strangeness, and his penchant for solitude and self-pity. Why is no one helping that boy? he wonders.
“Yes?” the speaker says.
Every face in the lecture hall turns toward him. There is a deep and resonant silence. But my grandfather has caught himself up. He’s seen too late that the speaker has no body. He is only a floating head.
“Not today,” my grandfather says. “Forgive the interruption.”
When he wakes, it is evident to him that some time has passed. He can’t move his head. Above him he sees a scudding cloud. Things smell white and clean, and he can hear the crunch of footsteps on snow. It’s bright, and he must close his eyes to the streaming sun. “How long have I been sick?” he asks. Franklin and Hjalmar, who are pulling the sledge that my grandfather is strapped to, almost fall over from surprise at the sound of his voice.
“Two months almost!” Hjalmar exclaims. “I can’t believe it.”
“A miracle,” says Franklin. They’ve both got their harnesses off and are peering down at my grandfather, who is trying to stand.
“Franklin wouldn’t leave your side,” says Hjalmar. “He just sat there, feeding you apples and blueberries all mashed up.”
“You would’ve done the same,” Franklin says.
Hjalmar tells him they’re fifty nautical miles away from the pole, and that they’ve already passed Mt. Helmar Hansen. They’d already spotted, in the distance, the children who had peeled off from their expedition with the dogs.
“All dead,” says Hjalmar, sadly.
“What about the rookery?” my grandfather asks.
Franklin tears up. “Gone, gone,” he says, picking up his harness. “It’s not how I remember.” Hjalmar adjusts his hood. “We kept walking. There was nothing else to be done. We should go and set up the tent.”
“I’d like to see,” my grandfather says, and, working together, they unclasp his restraints, unzip his blanket, and prop him up on the sledge. The ice stretches and bends to the horizon. It’s reflective: in it he can see the quick-forming clouds. To the north stretches the Queen Maude Range, and beyond that the barrier ice, and beyond that his ship. What else, what else? He’s too tired now to keep his eyes open. But they see, they see … he doesn’t know what it is, at first. “Franklin,” he says, and reaches for the binoculars, and raises them. Settled, sighted, a round view, and he sees it’s one of the dogs, bounding happily toward their small group across the ice. He approaches with his black tongue hanging out, panting loudly in the cold air. His eyes are like beautiful blue marbles. The snow has begun to flour his fur. “Where are your brothers?” my grandfather says. “And where is your sister?”
“Right here,” says the dog. And then Franklin disappears, and then Hjalmar, and the world is without color, and then without any sound. When he wakes again, there are flowers on the windowsill. And when he wakes again they are gone.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a finalist for the John Leonard Award from the National Books Critics Circle, and received honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award. His second collection, Farthest South, will be published by A Strange Object in 2021. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut with his wife and two sons.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.