A white snowdrift in winter in front of a blue sky.

Summer this close to the pole means a world all whites and greys and the washed-out blue of the sky. Everything, that is, except the red of his snowsuit, and the daisy yellow of the Swede’s. The two of them hunch against the wind as they twist an augur out of the ice, knock a sample into a container. They’ve been at it for hours—too long, he thinks, because exhaustion’s going to make them sloppy, out here where mistakes can be fatal.

He wipes at the frost in his beard, tells the Swede it’s time to go. The Swede nods and stretches his back. What’s left of the coffee is tepid but they share it anyway and set to work taking rods apart, packing boxes, loading it all into sleds. Then their skidoos roar to life and they take off with the frigid air slapping their faces, and the hard snow jolting them. The tracks they left coming out here have been blurred by the wind, turned into ghostly trails leading back along ridges, down small hills, across a flat stretch with snow rippled like sand.

This landscape, it goes on forever—every time he’s heading back, that’s how it feels, as though the station’s moved, or vanished, and there’s only the endless trail. His throat tightens. Not with fear, more a stirring in his gut at the scale of this place because out here, miles inland, there’s no life beyond the microscopic, and the whole empty heart of this continent feels like a warning. Another hill, and another, then out of nowhere there’s the station with its squat towers like upturned buckets, its red trailers nestled together, nearby a plane roosting on the snow like a bird at rest, and he’s almost disappointed by the mundane sight of it all.

How suffocating it is to be inside: the sudden warmth, the sudden quiet. No buzz of motors, no wind, no crunch of snow beneath his boots. Here the air’s dense with the smells of living: damp clothes, fried onions, stewed beef and something else, almost heady. His mouth waters as he sheds his snowsuit and boots, then he follows the Swede along the curve of the corridor to the mess where the others have finished their dinner, have a bottle of whiskey out and a card game going. The two of them eat at the far end of the table. Beef cooked in wine. Fresh bread. One small orange each, chewed slowly. Then they are poured a drink and dealt into a game that goes on for hours while outside the sun sweeps across the sky, and the summer night draws on without deepening. When finally he stumbles up from the table, tired and a little drunk, the small windows along the corridor are filled with a flat blankness. A white-out. The world erased by too much light, and the plane, the trailers, all of it is gone. He leans close and holds his breath so he doesn’t mist the glass. How can such a sight be so magical?

Without thinking, without a word to the others, he’s pulling on his snowsuit, his boots, his hat and gloves. The door opens onto a void. Beyond the ruff of his hood, white. When he glances past his boots creaking across the snow, white. No footprints. No shadows. He isn’t afraid as he walks into all that white because a curious calm cradles him, as though the whole world is holding him safe.

//

He will never be found: soon after he falls, hypothermic and exhausted, the wind picks up and covers him with snow. The others search for him, furious at his stupidity, treading within metres of where he lies. They keep going until a blizzard blows in. Afterwards, it’s hopeless to keep looking.

Even with the snow holding him fast, he won’t lie still forever. Gradually that snow will thicken and compact into ice, and that ice will drag at him until he’s stretched and thin. As the years wear on, the ice sheet will creep along under its own weight, and he’ll be carried miles away to the edge of the ocean where, sooner rather than later in a warming world, a massive chunk will shear off, chilling the water it drifts through, inspected by curious seals, caught in the songs of whales migrating past. When the iceberg meets warmer currents it’ll melt more quickly, and the stretched-out, broken-up body of the man who was lost will slip loose, floating into the path of a shark that noses him and slides away, sinking past a school of quick, silvery fish then on down into the depths where no light can reach, and where ravenous creatures set upon him in the darkness.


Photo by portengaround, used and adapted under CC.