Ice: a short story

Short stories Published April 15, 2016 in Dark Mountain issue 9

He was standing drumming his fingers on the kitchen counter and staring out of the window. Some birds were fighting over the peanuts in the dented wire cage hanging from the hook on the porch. They would knock each other off and then be knocked themselves, they would arch and swoop away, then circle and come back round. Being human was a terrible test. This was a realisation that had just come, with the birds. It was a terrible test, it was the carrying of water over dry earth forever. The water would spill in the end, because it wasn’t a test, it was a trick, the whole thing was a trick and there was no getting out from under it.

Was it a test being a sparrow, or a greenfinch? Something fell into him as he stood watching through the glass. It is all about eating, he thought, obviously it is. It is all about feeding. Being human, being a bird: these are just forms. Feeding on other life, feeding on places and things, sucking it all dry, breaking open the bones to find the marrow, this is the common cause. Everything in the world is eating everything else. Then he felt weak and brittle, as if his bones would be snapped and chewed, as if he were prey that had not yet been hunted down. But he would be, he would be hunted down, his bones would be snapped and he would be pulled into pieces, as he had pulled other things into pieces, as his kind had pulled everything into pieces. He was some tall, lean animal with animal eyes, which fed upon the world, and soon he would be food and then there would be some justice.

Well, whatever. There was no point thinking much about it. There was no sign of the goldfinch on the teasels by the pond thinking much about anything. He thought that a human was the lowest form in which a soul could be reincarnated. A human, unlike the goldfinch or the teasel or the snail working its way up the brickwork or the light from the sun or the young alder growing by the lane, would always turn its gaze in on itself, from where it would be reflected back out into the world again, and then in again and out again and on that way forever like a hall of mirrors, all shimmered, partial reflections and no truth. For the goldfinch, truth was in the seeds it extracted from the teasel head when the summer was coming on late. The goldfinch was a higher form of life. Also, it looked like it was having more fun than he was.

Everyone was having more fun than he was. John had said that, and then he had left and there was no sign that he would come back this time. There was no entertainment in this place, there was no lightness in this soul and lightness was prized above all things in the world as it grew dark. Lightness and hope and everything will be all right in the end, everything will be tied up in ribbons like it is in the stories, there is nothing we cannot solve together if we want to, every problem has a solution la di da di da. Well, he had tested John and John had failed and that was fine. There were bigger things than men or women, bigger things than sex or love, bigger things than people, than eating, than any of it. Anybody could see that. Except John, apparently.

He stood there and watched the sky and thought about how much it was changing, thought about everything that was locked in up there now, everything that was making its way slowly under the ice, under the frozen soil to loosen it, to softly convert it into swirling brown water, to crumble and to accelerate. He thought about invisible plumes billowing into impossible skies in hemispheres vast and empty, about underwater vents opening wider, about gas bubbling up through acid waters, about cracks lengthening through rocks and caverns. Now they were all to be eaten, all of them, invisibly and by themselves. There was no point in thinking much about it. But nothing else was nearly as interesting.

It really only mattered if you were going to be part of it, and he wasn’t. So why push it away? You only needed to do that if you were planning on sticking around, arrogantly, clumsily, as if it had not been made abundantly clear that you were not wanted. You, with your hope and your faith and all of your plans and your grasping, animal hands. Your hands cannot turn this to the shape you want, not this time. Or have they? Have they already?

Bitterness was not attractive. John had made this clear. When they had first met, John had given a different impression, of course. Back then, he had seemed to find cynicism charming, at least until they had gone to bed a few times. Then it had begun to dawn on John that what he was encountering was not cynicism, as he had previously encountered it on Twitter and in American talkshows, but was actual, committed misanthropy, properly researched and in it for the long haul. Misanthropy was fine when it was voiced by Larry David or George Carlin, because they were both funny and American, but it was not fine when expressed repeatedly by a man you have moved in with, perhaps too rapidly. It was not fine in a relationship. Relationships, said John, were about the future. And what kind of future was this?

He turned away from the birds and began to fill the kettle. He put a mug’s-worth of water in, then set it down and flicked it on. It was not misanthropy, and it was lazy of him to buy into that, cowardly of him to let them paint him that colour. There was no hatred in him, no anger, only a calm acceptance. Or was it boredom? There were the goldfinches and the sparrows and the peanuts, here was the kettle, beginning to rumble now, here was a lone teabag on the dull wooden surface, here were his fingers, very steady, there were the two tickets, in their white envelope. The kettle steamed and rumbled and clicked off. Everything was as it was. Everything was rolling on and turning over, this was what it was and what it had always been, it was all changing as it had always changed. Who had ever thought it could stand still?

He would go anyway. He would go, and he would create such beauty.

He would tolerate the cruise. He would tolerate the onboard entertainment and the stops in little Greenlandic towns where local people would come aboard and dance shamefully on the boat for the visitors. He would tolerate the other people on the ship, he would tolerate the luxurious fish dinners cooked by the on-board chef and the little trick the bartenders apparently had of fishing ice out of the sea and dropping it into the drinks of the passengers. Hey buddy, would you like some 4000-year-old remnants of a collapsing ice cap in your Martini? Sure you would. Swell.

John would have loved all this, but now he would not have to pretend to love it as well, he could just tolerate it, or avoid it, which most of the time would probably be better. He would have a cabin, and he would take some binoculars and wander the decks looking for whales. As part of the itinerary they had been promised a trip to go and see polar bears. Just last week he had read that polar bears were failing to adapt to the warmer summers in the Arctic now, summers which took the seals further away from them and left them with nothing to eat. That had given him an idea, but he had rejected it. It was too much. Still, he would love to see polar bears. He would make sure he saw some. There was a fire sale on polar bears, and he wanted to be in there before it ended, which it seemed would be soon

The real sell for him all along had been that the ship would pass the Petermann Glacier. The Petermann connected the ice sheet which sat on top of Greenland to the Arctic Ocean, and it was one of the fastest-melting glaciers on Earth. All the glaciers on Earth were melting, but when this one went it would help speed all of the Greenland ice, which was also melting, into the sea. He had seen a picture of the Petermann in a magazine. It was what had made him want to book the cruise. Ice, snow, a great perfect emptiness filling up most of the frame. He had never seen anything so still or full of promise. He had never seen anything so stark, and so real. The glacier was etched with ridges and patterns, scarred with furrows and lynchets like an archaeological landscape, but white as the universe before time. At the top of the picture was a distant ridge of brown stone mountains, capped with snow. Snaking through the whiteness, tiny at top left, filling the frame at bottom right, was the bluest, glassiest river he had ever seen or could imagine. It was a river of meltwater, from the dying glacier. The whiteness beneath the water was clearly visible, as were the great dark, jagged cracks in it, which only made the blueness seem bluer. Everything was so crisp, simply so, sharply so. So crisp and blue and perfect in its dying.

About ten years ago, they had first noticed that meltwater from the Petermann and the other dying glaciers was slipping down underneath the Greenland ice sheet, and destabilising it. A few years later, they announced that all the glaciers were melting three times faster than they had been before. Everything was moving faster than anyone had thought it would. Then an island of ice twenty miles wide broke off the end of the glacier and disintegrated into the sea. Two years later, a bigger one. Two years later, another, then another the next year. The air temperature was increasing twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Next year, they were saying now, the summer sea ice would go. They used to take icebreakers through the Northwest Passage, now they were taking kayaks. That had never happened before, and it wasn’t supposed to happen now. It wasn’t supposed to happen for another 85 years, according to their clever little computer models. Their computer models had obviously been created by people like John. La di da di da.

He had looked, stared in awe, at the photograph for more than a minute before he saw the kayaks. Tiny in the great blue flow of the river, so tiny that you had to look twice to be sure of what you were seeing, two of them were paddling their way downstream. Seeing these tiny boats in the great blueness immediately changed the perspective of the whole image. Suddenly the river was even huger, the landscape even more empty and wide, than it had looked at first. It was astounding. That there were places like this, that there had ever been places like this, so great and empty and unquestioning. You knew there were places like this out there, you saw them on the TV and you looked at pictures of them in magazines like this and in books, and sometimes people told you about them, you knew there were great forests and endless deserts and mountain ranges and whole cultures and ways of seeing that were greater than anything you had ever touched, you knew all that, but you didn’t really believe it. He had never really believed that anything like this glacier could exist in a world which contained him.

Well, he would see it now. He would see it now and he would touch it, on his own, all alone, surrounded by all of the people on the boat, smiling at them and pretending to be one of them, he would walk on this ice, he would see this river and then perhaps he would believe in it. A trip to the Petermann was promised as part of the itinerary. They would leave in the morning, take smaller boats from the big ship to the ice fields, then get off and walk around on the glacier for an hour or two, with a guide. That was the promise. He wasn’t going to listen to the guide, though. He wasn’t going to listen to anyone, there was nothing to listen to, not from people at any rate. He was just going to be there, to taste the air and feel its astringency on his face, he was going to hear the sound of the ice and snow under his boots, he was going to touch the blue river, he was going to hear the great groaning of the ice as it shifted from its moorings, as it woke up and yawned and began its metamorphosis in the new world they had built.

He had always found it fascinating to watch things coming apart. How could anybody not be interested in it? It had been fascinating to watch him and John coming apart, from a certain angle. The way humans behaved as the consequences came upon them, the way they didn’t behave, the way that, in fact, nothing changed at all, the way they drowned out the sound of the barbarians at the gates by turning their music up. People were endlessly interesting to him when they got like this; the way their minds worked, the way they would flee from reality like it was a sickness. Perhaps it was a sickness: a kind of dull ache in the bones, a brown cloud around the mind.

He had always loved watching things disintegrate because he had always believed, really, that nothing ever did. He had never believed in death, or change, or any kind of deep alteration, even though he knew that these were the stuff of life. What did knowing matter? You could know everything at the touch of a button now, but it didn’t tell you much. Everything was always changing and yet, all of his life, nothing had ever really changed. People had come and gone, things had happened to him, but inside him, in the part of himself where he stored all of the things that were true, everything had been flat forever.

They were saying now that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would fail, would fall into the sea, much more quickly than they had ever believed. It might be a matter of decades rather than centuries, and then the seas would rise by twenty feet and then perhaps there would be change, then perhaps the flatness would edge upwards, contours would appear, something would seem like it mattered. Something would happen, then, to whoever was around to feel it. Not to him, though.

He picked up the kettle and poured water on to the teabag in the mug. It fizzed slightly and brown liquid began to seep into the clear, steaming water. The birds were still at it on the feeder, fighting and scrabbling to fill themselves. He supposed that on the trip to the glacier it would be easy enough to wander off from the party. He had seen pictures of visitors there walking all over the place. He supposed it would be easy enough just to walk and keep walking, to get over a ridge and not be seen. He thought about the crevasses you got in glaciers, deep, some of them, with shelves in, with ridges and ledges. He supposed they wouldn’t find you if you wanted not to be found. Perhaps he would walk until the tight ball of light that fired him had burned out, and his legs were full of acid and tired, and then he would just lie down, he would stretch out his arms, he would lie in the shape of a cross in his puffy plastic coat and his puffy plastic trousers and his woollen hat and he would just stare up at the sky.

Perhaps he would walk up the blue river, walk as far as he could and then just lie down and listen to the water melting through the world and look up. He would breathe, then, steadily and with joy and he would flex his fingers and his toes and the world would keep moving on and everything would keep turning, and the new story that was playing out now, the new story they had written, would keep on telling itself to the ice and the water and the sky. The plumes would billow up, the amber gases would roar out and under the frost forest the soil would shift and sink down and the trees begin to lean. In the oceans, the waters would grow bitter, the fish would let go and fall through the canyons, the coral would crumble, the skies would become heavy and warm and the deserts relax into the farmlands and at the last the people would look up from their machines and frown.

And up here, on top of the world, all the time he would be singing with it, he would have seen the last of it, he would have been here, been alive, been real and risen, and he would lie outstretched staring up at the falling sky, and the ice would melt, it would all melt under him and carry him down, and in the blue river he would be washed away.

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