I cannot stress enough the ground. Not winter’s wonderland. When northerners arrive, they wonder why Antarctica is black and brown when every map said white. Something about it suggests fossils live below, like those tar pits by Hollywood which occasionally divulge a sloth. Corpse-cold dirt must support bones; if not, it’s a rip-off. So we have a disproportion of paleontologists. Nowhere on earth will you find more people talking ruefully of theropods.
I fled from you and your finest climate and came here to the world’s last latitude instead. Now this winter’s my third (another is on his dozenth). Snowfall is actually not much. Less than a dusting, it’s a dandruff most days. Still, we are fastidious even over flurries. Keep the roads clear. Somehow, being the fire brigade, we have been roped into maintaining the roads, too. That means salt and a steamroller to knead the black into a tidy kind of tarmac.
MY ROLE HERE
Fire brigade. Got to have one. It is cold in Antarctica, sure, but the cold itself won’t put out a yearning flame. Makes fire more common, actually, since what else prompts a fire better than shivers? A freeze is not the end of heat but the impetus. Drip your faucets, everyone.
People will warm up in nifty ways. Venereal disease spreads quick as gossip. Perhaps you would like it here. A lot of people are married, but the spouses live north. Anything goes on the bottom continent.
Which reminds me, I must check on Lars. He has never been woman-warmed. His hovel is right in McMurdo’s middle; inside, it’s a big room made little by clutter. Knock on a red metal door. I’m fire brigade, which means you have to let me in if I knock. Knock.
Who is it?
You have to let me in, I say. I’m fire brigade.
Who is that?
The rules, I say. The rules say you must let me in. I’m fire brigade.
Lars surrounds himself with the debris of his lonesome. If born a bird, he’d make a mighty nest. Too bad birds on this continent never learned nests. I must check his fire extinguisher; it is the rules. On the walls, Lars has DVDs with exactly enough pornography for a trip around the sun. Not real women but cartoons, with bodies rendered in crazed proportions. Breasts to break a back. Oh, Lars. What do you do here? Your sheets, once white, are corn-colored. Your chair. I would not sit in your chair, not even on a dare. Not for a hundred dollars would I sit in your chair. Your fire extinguisher is tip-top. Brand-spanking. The tag says it’s good through 2010. We love you, Lars. You have taken your loneliness seriously and moved into a crotch of the world’s last continent where you pet your prick and do important work involving the management of internet cables.
The long winter lets no flights in or out. For months McMurdo is nocturnals-only. For months the dark of the sky blends black with the ground, fossils waft freely between, you wreck my sleep by way of dreams, and no matter what hour I wake up, I wake up in the middle of the night.
Buildings are painted caution-yellow, or SOS-red, or the green of John Deere. Consequently, McMurdo is as motley as the quilt I stole from your mother’s house, though not quite as warm. We have parkas for that purpose, nautical-orange, sporting a mane of fur—all the rage. Off-base, the color yells out loud, here I am, olly-olly-oxenfreeing the body out of the bleak.
Semicircling town, a range of hills gives McMurdo the feel of being cupped in the palm of the coast. Dormitories. Garages. The water distillery. A one-size-fits-most chapel. Cafeteria. The general store. A post-office, futile half the year. Harbor. Pier. No banks. No library. Three barbers.
Toolsheds plentiful as moons make up perhaps one-third of all structures; in these can be found all manner of blow-up dolls, seances, trysts, and quiet hours.
I know most everyone through their fire extinguishers. For instance, Marv. It is Marv who runs the general store. The price of whiskey is kept artificially low thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Behind his glass counter, Marv has postcards that preach of Pangea. Even since the Cambrian, this place has not moved much, too south to matter. Let’s move on.
Here is Karla, a scientist of rocks. Her eyebrows buttress a thought. What am I doing coursing through her door, checking the sprinkler system? Life or death, these matters, though I was here just last week, and my stammer says I know. It’s alright, I’m told. She has a stone she’d like to show.
At McMurdo, a newcomer throws fits in our cliques. He arrived before the winter began and chose to season-over. An artist—they are always sending us artists. But this artist says he knows a thing or two about death. Try me. A paleo-artist, he explained. The idea is, he paints critters from the arrangement of their bones. Get a load of his name: Homer. Hating him was easy when he said dinosaurs had feathers. Are you sick in the head, Homer? No kid wants to see dinos drawn like ducks. The point of dinosaurs is that they look like dragons. They have roars. Are you mad?
We slap the graphite from his hand.
Are you mad?
We tear his canvases.
You will extinct yourself. You will extinct your field. No kid will grow up wanting to dig bones if she knows they belong to big, gawky birds. Tearing his parka, the downy fuzz fizzes out. We tar him, feather him. How do you like it? We are doing you a favor, Homer. Hell to your feathers; science is about a good story. Give them dragons.
Adélie penguins, shin-high, waddle through town like a million bucks. Three or four of them. But they’re going the wrong way and will die. Your rookery’s that way. Pointing, I try to persuade them using words they might know, gesticulating on the map. Their disdain is total. My incompetence reeks. They are not the first to wind up here by making wrong turns. The advice of ice is a slippery slope.
I’ve seen their rookery in pictures. Twenty miles east, it is a swath of chocolate ground. It is the shit of eons. Fecal and homely and bone-cold. I think of you enjoying summertime and how we were never on the same page, not even on calendars. Equators will do that. Our ornithologist assures me the Adélie is nowhere near endangered.
The terrain of his mind is tough going; it has potholes that break the axles of his thoughts. We’ve placed him at the firehouse window through which, if he likes, he may contemplate the tusks of a forklift. He is safe here. You hear that—you are safe here, Chief. Thanks to us, your mustache gets the attention of a bonsai. Combings and spritzes. Are you hungry, Fire Chief? We spoon him oatmeal. Are you scared, Fire Chief?
Last night Karla gifted me a pretty rock labeled 300 m.y.a.
What’s the m for? I said.
In my memory she looks at me curiously.
She wanted to know: How did you wind up down here?
Plate tectonics, I said.
For mental stimulation, I show the gift to Fire Chief. Within the slice of stone, a trilobite dog paddles. I look for any indication of recognition on his face. An old friend, perhaps?
His eyes are filmy with years.
There are no bears native to Antarctica—I checked before I came. And yet. Here she is.
Brown. Her teeth are pebbled. Senile smile. We first saw her in spring and soon held a vote on whether she was a hallucination. We voted in favor. Thus, we try to ignore her on weekdays. Her skeleton bobs about beneath her fur as she ambles under windows, through alleys, amid the backhoes. Golly she’s a thin one. As bony and sagging as a tent poorly pitched.
A tag through the left ear means someone has counted her and entered her presence into a bear census. Wasn’t me. Funny, she knows enough English to stand on one leg. A ball will balance on her head.
Only after winter began did we discover it was a rewilding experiment. Angelica, peeling the label off a beer, has admitted that an old circus bear was brought here to study how polar bears might adapt to southern life.
Why didn’t you just bring a polar bear?
Angelica shreds her napkin. At some point, Angelica lost interest (scientists are always losing interest). The bear is tame. She won’t eat penguins. Trash tastes better. So she is just out there.
We are on the surface of a comet. Wind falling straight down from space convinces me we are hurtling. The air recruits ice and dust and becomes pointy—see the gale’s trillion teeth passing through the blond cones of McMurdo streetlamps which stay lit winterlong.
I beat my boots. My nose is Saint Nick’s. You could haze a frat boy with this wind. And we nearly did: Homer again. I tell Marv all about it, how something is off about that guy. Homer, I mean. He likes our company, gives us the creeps. He’s stopped painting dinosaurs and started having us sit for portraits in which he paints our skeletons, feathered. Old habits.
It’s darts mostly, although a marathon can be run by circling the town twelve times; every year there’s a taker—maybe someone who rowed boats at Harvard. Something about this black ground takes energy quick, succubusing the soles of feet while the wind wicks warmth from above. When the runner falls, invariably, into the clench of a whole-body charley horse, Doc Schulz withholds her electrolyte solutions because they are better spent on the hangovers we got from watching.
Doc Schulz believes it is her destiny to remove her own appendix. I concur. We can’t rush these things. In her own time she will decide when she is ready, only then will we gather around like students in an Eakins.
Drying a row of rocks glasses, he speaks neatly, as if all his words were third drafts. The horn of the adult Sumatran rhinoceros, Marv tells me, was once thought to be prized for aphrodisiacal reasons. But anthropologists now know that, in the history of Malaysian folk-medicine, it was more widely used as a defense against leprosy.
I regard Marv with gabled hands. He leans over the counter, too near, and whispers inside my ear, The Bornean rhinoceros, a subspecies of the Sumatran, was thought to be extinct; after the discovery of a female, we know, in fact, there is exactly one left.
It tickles, the way he articulates his T’s. Quit it, Marv.
Marv’s general store is a dim sort of dive bar where, in addition to drink, you may purchase postcards, perished candies, and better socks. A woman sits down at the counter, and I ask her if she’s from around here. She gets up soon to rummage for her song in the jukebox.
I told someone a secret recently and was told in return to take it one day at a time. In McMurdo, where the sun does not rise, I will take it one day at a time. Do you remember the moment you told me you were a slut for color under a painting named Grey and Black No. 2? I do. And many like it. None of which will decode for me despite the fact that I am in Antarctica now and can consider them upside down.
Exactly one gun exists in McMurdo Station. Twelve gauge. It reposes over Marv’s bar and is said to have killed the last Thylacine. Extinction memorabilia. Patrons may admire it while Marv conjures their whiskey.
It’s loaded, he’ll tell you though nobody asked.
Loaded with what? says Homer. What a softie.
Marv, you swindler, this whiskey’s half water.
A pith helmet is the paperweight for polaroids of a safari. Blood is always dripping from Marv’s stories. He’s told me about a fantasy he has: a graveyard for animals, each grave a different species. In particular, they are the last of their species.
The last Bornean rhinoceros is old, near its natural end, Marv talking again. A permit should be issued, he tells me, a permit to hunt it. Someone will pay millions to sputter a species.
The money can be used for conservation, he adds, assessing the shine of his glass. And we know Marv will kill the bear very soon. His eyes twinkle. I am not asshole enough to tell him extinction is a weird kink. I am only here for a good show. So why not. Entertain us, Marv. Quicken the clock. In McMurdo we have hours where the moments should go, and I will take it one day at a time.
It’s entirely possible I’ve got a tyke sporting my nose in your lily-pad latitude, but, like the men leading up to me, I did not wait around to know. The second I finished going soft in you for the final time was the second I fled. Your face dissolves. I voice you in my teeth, and I throw you far as a fetch against crags that I believe must date back to the Permian Extinction.
I cannot explain it, but things are looking up for me. Last night I was fighting with a row of lights operated by motion-sense. That is, I was installing them. I could not get the sensor to see my hands. I clapped. I jumping-jacked. In the darkness of the shadow of a long warehouse on McMurdo’s blackest edge, where the wilderness is at your elbow, I leaped and frogged and cursed the bulbs to work, and I realized I was not miserable. Conveyed by a skid of ice, I flattened my face into the wall. That did it. The bulb above me burst alive, then the next one, down the line in the manner of dominos, until the last cone revealed Karla. She came to stretch beside me and look at the lights, then left. Not a hi, not a bye, nor the talk in between. I cannot explain it, but things are looking up.
Marv shoots the bear in the middle of the solstice hubbub—perhaps the exact moment McMurdo is tilted furthest from the sun. The street is amok with costumes. A skit has just ended, acting out the failed Terra Nova foray of 1910; women with painted beards pretend they are Captain Scott, and one wears his uniform, exhumed from the historical hut.
Our fellow revelers make ample use of horns and furs. Pan is currently man of the hour. Maroon wine has waited all year for tonight, and Homer, dressed as a bust of Homer, drinks the color greedily, while around him, tuxedoed pals pass for penguins. The recoil kicks like something bovine, and Marv, who has fired from the hip—no, the crotch—feels it in both testicles. I am in the three-legged race, laughing my ass off because Karla’s doing the same. We overtake the bear whose partner is a teddy version of herself just as the buckshot sparks off the streetlamps. The bear wins, and at the finish line we inspect her body for death, but on her skin we find no blood, no nicks. You’re a shit shot, Marv; he’s laying flatbacked, and later he will say they don’t make ‘em like they used to. More wine is found, as is more cheer; we double down, pass them around, because the night, truly, is still young.
I wake up with Karla pulling feathers out of my side. One, by soft one. Her head is hand-propped in bed. The streetlamp beyond the window simulates a dawn, and it is the most precious moment I’ve had.
Feathers no taller than a ten-point font. They keep coming out of me in single-file, the way tissues issue from their box. Karla has lips to cripple with. She looks at me with love, and I am clubbed to death without caring much. Like hankies from a magician’s trick, the feathers are endless. Their source is a small hole between my fourth and fifth ribs. Around it, a bit of blood has dried to a smudge which I think could pass for a print of your old lipstick.
One moment I will feel I am healed. Only to stand, then keel. I turn evil with pain. Comets orbit my temples, and dark figures hide in my peripheral vision. Doc Shulz presses hard, plays a chord on my ribs, and asks, does this hurt?
Nothing she can do. The buckshot is in there, somewhere, perhaps pub-crawling the organs. Exploratory surgery, in her professional opinion, is a drag. She’s a classicist—appendectomy, tonsillectomy; nothing else is in her repertoire. The feathers will fester, and you’re already in bad shape. Why didn’t you come to me sooner?
Medevac, in winter, is almost never done. Visibility: none. The pilots would crash, and then where would we be? I see a grove of greyscale crepe myrtles, leafless, with corvids perched in the branches of one. My fever lifts, and the birds take flight, only to settle elsewhere—my medulla maybe, or the grooves of my groin. The crows give me advice: take it one day at a time. It is the only way to make it through the night.
In the most prodigious sweat of my life, I grow sleek enough to slide without friction from my bed, to stand. I see you, Lars. Lars, you fill your pee jugs and guard their gold, while on your computer screen a short-skirted girl receives a yard of cock. Fire Chief, you are our buddha; where other brains have wrinkles, yours has crags, and we love you for it. You grunt once a week and spend the other six days mustering the words. Homer, quit drawing me. Quit it, please. The last portrait you did, I was a skeleton, fully-feathered and fetal, like a chick in the process of reyolking. Excuse me for a moment while I step out into this arid air where anything dead gets mummified by the chapping night; those Adélies are bird-jerky by now. Down leaks from my parka where the pellet flew through, and those crows are acting eager in my brain. Often in McMurdo we have needed to get a truck unstuck from a wheel-spinning hole. In a human heave-ho, pushing something poundsy, there’s always one in the group who can’t get a good spot, who’s got his hands against the hull merely for show. I feel this way with my hands against Antarctica’s black dirt, persuading the world to hurry and turn.
Because I will miss checking the sprinklers as much as I miss the sun. What scares me most is that all my thoughts are biodegradable. For the first time alive, I feel less like litter and more like a member of a niche. So nice of you to come. We will emerge one day, on the season’s other side, with the urging sun lifting the lid of night and checking on us like an experiment. We will emerge from the whiskey winter, crystals in our thoughts, glaciers in our shoes. Butcher-cold, we will emerge from the absolute zero of the heart, only for Karla to check the data and tell me it was the warmest year on record.