OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2015 (Joint Winner)
By Nathan Alling Long.
In the Arctic, days rarely reach above zero Celsius. Exceptions to this rule feel as hot as a blistering summer day in which you sweat from the motion of simply mopping your brow. Or so it seemed to some aboard the USS Permanence when the crew anchored the ship to repair a dog-sized hole in the doubled-paneled hull, just above sea level.
During a storm the night before, the edge of an iceberg had bored through the side of the ship as it crested off a heavy wave. Life felt perilous in the cold rainfall and black night, though now blue skies and the glistening rails of the ship—candied with ice slowly softening—seemed to quell all danger. The ship was not sinking, but if left unfixed, the hole could break open further during the return journey. Large waves were already spitting water into the hold; a drip had been detected two floors below, and a small pool was forming in the engine room. And so the captain had determined it best to anchor now, on such a crisp, warm Arctic day, and repair the damage.
Julius Strange, a zoologist who had been commissioned to record Arctic fauna on the voyage, initially determined that the time was best set aside to formally record the observations he had made for the past half week—the exhaustion of travel and the nausea of last night’s rough sea obliterating any previous thought of note-taking. He had also captured a tundra swan two days earlier and had hoped to get in a few good sketches before its release.
But Julius was traveling with his wife Daniella, who—though a Southern woman of some distinction—had secretly confessed just weeks before his journey that she was going freshly mad in the Georgia heat; she would do anything to travel with him to the cool, far northern reaches of the world—especially without having to travel through the northern states themselves. It was the summer of 1906, the hottest since records had been kept in Georgia, just after the war. Even the older gentlemen Daniella knew agreed it was hotter than any summer they remembered, back to when they had been boys. In her hometown, the heat was so tenacious that one could die from exhaustion simply walking from the front porch to the kitchen to add ice to one’s glass of tea—or so claimed Daniella Strange. And though it hadn’t killed her, she insisted the heat had been eating her up, from her first muggy breath of morning humidity to the last gasp of stagnant air before slipping into a sweaty sleep.
Entwined within her request for relief was a half-conscious fear that her husband had taken to such scientific voyages to secure a hiatus from their life together—or more precisely, from her. She carried a subliminal desire to know what the real man’s world was made of—life, say, amid the groan and peril of a ship far at sea. She had pictured whales beating against the stern, imagined bearing the weight of salty waves slapping her face in the height of a gale. From her Georgia porch, this all seemed exotically delicious.
The storm the night before, however, had proven too violent to romanticize, and Daniella had clung to Julius with fear, while seasickness glazed her eyes. Though it was during the two weeks previous, on calm seas, that she had faced the greatest hardship—one she had not been able to imagine from her daffodil-colored porch: monotony. Julius had not thought to prepare her for it, as every day at sea for him—checking the nets, examining droppings found on deck, searching icebergs for bearded seals, measuring barnacle coloration, and, as a hobby, charting the stars—made for a journey without the slightest hint of boredom.
Yet there boredom was, clear as day on Daniella’s face, in her constant musings about Paris and Greece, in her excitement even over arguments, in her too-frequent request to play cards.
If Julius had been honest, he would have had to admit that he took such assignments partially as a respite from the unexamined life of domesticity Daniella had cocooned them in in Georgia, but he had a kind and rational mind, which led him quickly to see the futility of harboring ill thoughts about his predicament and to recognize his own fault in letting Daniella join him for nearly a month in a small ship with little for her to do. He would take all care to make the journey palatable for them both, and in the future remind her, if she ever wished to join him again, of the less pleasant details of this voyage, of how she had unraveled her scarf and reknit it three times to avoid the monstrous tedium of the days.
Julius knew a day at anchor, with the pounding of hammers into the very earth of the ship, would be agony for his wife. And so, for his sanity, and that of Daniella, he surrendered note-taking and prepared a lifeboat with an elaborate picnic lunch (for which he had to bribe the cook), a few books, two cushions, and a large canvas tarp to lay upon. With little prompting, he convinced his wife to set sail for a nearby iceberg “to lunch with him on the open Arctic waters,” as he had put it.
The tipsiness of the lifeboat startled Daniella, made her laugh with nervousness and excitement. Yes, she reminded herself, she had survived the long, cold, gray days and tumultuous nights to be here, with her husband, at the heart of true adventure. As she settled into her seat—a cushion tied to a plank of wood that spanned the width of the boat—she began, in her mind, to narrate this little trip, pressing into it a level of danger apt to excite her lady friends back home, a tale with the sharpness of unsweetened lemonade and the pleasure of sugar discovered at the bottom of the glass.
Julius set them off rowing toward the nearest iceberg, while Daniella, wrapped in coat and scarf, took deep breaths of Arctic air, as though storing them for her return. Halfway there, Julius pointed out to his wife an Arctic tern migrating north all the way from Antarctica for the summer. “They travel farther than any other bird,” he told her with excitement, adding that this was the first one he had seen on the journey. Daniella clapped her hands with pleasure, as though her husband had spontaneously pulled the bird out of his coat sleeve. For Julius, to see her excited about some same aspect of nature that excited him was enough, never mind that their enthusiasms were of a completely different order.
The iceberg was long and motionless, and—as Daneilla noted—roughly the size of her porch at home. Yes, she thought, she would incorporate this detail into her retelling of the day. After Julius brought the boat against the long side of the island and secured it with rope to a spike he’d driven deep into the ice, he laid the canvas tarp over the edge, unfurling it until it touched the far edge of the iceberg. He removed his books, the spare cushions, and the basket of lunch, then helped hoist up his wife, making sure she did not get wet or cut herself on the solid edges of their island of water.
The sun was insistently warm, and Julius set up lunch so their faces were directly facing the light. They drank hot tea with brandy to whet the appetite and ate crackers and anchovies from a can Julius unwrapped with a special key. Then, he served a hot cabbage soup the ship’s cook had made specially for the couple and potatoes wrapped in wool socks to keep them warm. From where the couple sat, the ship seemed like one of the many distant chunks of ice, though uniquely gray against the blue-white hue that surrounded them. They could still hear the hammers and the shouts of the men, though from their little perch, the sound seemed inexorably distant and of no concern, like the details of minor wars found only now in history books.
They sat close to each other and the combination of the thin Arctic air and the brandy made Daniella dizzy. She laughed. It was worth it all, she said, all the weeks of monotony, for this moment, for their little happy outing. Julius smiled. It took no scientist, he thought, to make a woman happy.
When they had finished eating, Julius poured a small glass of port and, after that, another cup of tea. He read to her light poetry, and Daniella laughed harder. Finally, Julius removed their coats—for the sun and liquor and tea had warmed them sufficiently. Then he placed the dishes aside and drew Daniella down to lay beside him. The blinding, cloudless day stretched out above them like fire. Soon they were kissing in a way they had never allowed themselves to back in Georgia, or even on their honeymoon. The Arctic seemed to reinfuse into their bodies the primordial urges early discipline had promptly restrained or vanquished. Julius unfastened his wife’s blouse.
The men on board the Permanence were too busy at work to notice the scientist and his wife. They had been respectful and distant toward her the whole voyage—and if they should now have looked, so what? What could they see from the ship with their bare eyes? More intimidating was the enormous eye of the sun, glaring white and hot, high above the couple—yet even it seemed to gaze upon them with a blinding indifference, if not approval.
And so the couple undressed until they were as naked as the ice. Daniella ceased her private narration of the day and let her body fall completely into his. Julius, too, allowed himself to be present before the sheer wonder of his naked wife and of himself naked in the world—without instruments, observations, or calculation. Soon their bodies swayed to the rhythm of the lapping waves, and when they grew cold, Julius simply tugged their bundled clothes and the edge of the canvas over them, and they continued on, in the shadow of the heavy cloth, as though the entire day had instantly dissolved into night.
Afterward, Julius and Daniella lay entwined for a long silence, each lost in their own thoughts, without any motion except breath. She wondered how she might, in her retelling of this day, hint at their abandon without seeming improper; he considered whether he should allow his wife to come on one of his future voyages after all.
Neither were thinking at that moment of where they were, lying in the hottest summer day on record, on top an island of ice at the edge of the coldest sea. If they had been, they—especially Julius—might have contemplated how the day’s warm air against the cold water could form fissures in the ice, like cracks in a chilled glass filled suddenly with hot water—and how the heat of their bodies over time could slice along a fissure like a hot knife to the core.
The couple did not have time to disembrace. They looked briefly into each other’s eyes as the two halves of the island dipped inward, toward each other, then rocked apart. In a single gulp, the canvas and everything on it spilled into the ocean, like sand. The two reached out into the black and viscous water for something to grab hold of, but their hands seized only on a teacup and a flask, then a cold chunk of ice.
All the while, the crew of the Permanence worked on steadily to seal the hole in their ship, their hammers sounding like someone knocking on the enormous door of the sky.
ANNOUNCEMENT: Nathan Alling Long has conveyed that he wants to donate his prize money. On his behalf, Open Road Review will retain INR 5000 and add to the OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2016. The magazine also places on record the heartfelt gratitude of its staff for Nathan's generosity.