LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE ANTARCTIC RESEARCHER WITH THE PHOTOGRAPH ON HIS DESK
BY CARIN CLEVIDENCE
What I remember clearly even now is the phrase you used: a stupid accident.
I was working in Antarctica for the season on a Russian tourist ship, the Alla Tarasova. My friend Jasmine and I had been waiting on the pebble beach for the passengers to return from a tour of a nearby research station. You opened the door of the Chilean base and invited us in.
I don't remember your name, and over the years your face has faded to a vague impression of dark eyes and hair. Of the half dozen men there, you were the oldest and clearly the one in charge. You possessed a wistful gallantry I attributed to the fact that you were South American. The flowers of Antarctica, you called us, your English beautiful and assured.
Meeting anyone outside the world of our ship was a novelty: for most of the season we landed on desolate islands inhabited only by penguins. I'd traveled since childhood, but I'd never seen anything like Antarctica. It exploded every former sense of scale. We cruised past icebergs that stretched three miles long, and anchored in bays ringed by a dozen glaciers. I was in love with the austere purity and grandeur, the beauty of the constantly shifting sky. Now as I sat in the workmanlike research lounge I tried to imagine what it would be like to live here like you did, not to visit on a cruise ship with a hundred tourists, but to stay all winter through the long polar darkness, fully immersed in it.
We asked and answered the usual questions. Jasmine ran the onboard shop, I assisted the expedition leader. Neither of us had been here before. Already I knew I wanted to return.
You were from Santiago, where you had a wife and children. On the desk was a photograph of a young family. And beside it one of a boy, laughing with his head thrown back. "Your son?" I asked, though the resemblance was obvious. "How old is he?"
There was the faintest shift in the room.
"He was eight."
It took a moment for me to understand. I don't know what showed in my face.
"We lost him in a stupid accident."
You didn't elaborate. Graciously, you moved the conversation to something else. Tea was offered, and dry cookies of some kind. It was a short, friendly visit between people who found themselves for varied reasons at the bottom of the earth. My boss called us on the radio soon afterward, and Jasmine and I left to organize boat shuttles back to the ship.
I was, at the time, not yet thirty.
Later, after my children were born, I remembered our brief exchange. I was filled with the awful responsibility of motherhood, and still am. From the start my children have been wholly, irreplaceably themselves. Their vulnerability terrifies me.
When my daughter was ten I took her to Antarctica. I was in my early forties, and the lens through which I saw the landscape had changed. I marveled again at the desolate islands hung with glaciers, the vistas of ice and snow, the albatross and whales, the enormous, variable sky. But this time, I found myself searching for traces of the people who had been there before us.
The try pots rusting in the tussock grass on a beach in South Georgia showed where sealers had camped a hundred or more years ago, to slaughter seals and render their blubber.
At Whaler's Bay on Deception Island, I came across the remains of a cemetery all but destroyed in one of the island's volcanic eruptions. Two white crosses remained, makeshift and listing, bearing the years that encompassed a man's life. Again, I thought of you.
The last time I went to Antarctica was a month after my father died. The heart attack that killed him was wholly unexpected. A week later we'd planned to have Thanksgiving together. I couldn't fully believe that he was gone. It felt as though the sun had vanished from the sky. I kept wanting to ask him a question, or tell him something, even as my sisters and I gathered at his house and wandered variously weeping through rooms filled with books and pillows and reading glasses he had only recently put down.
Going to Antarctica seemed like a dereliction of duty, or an attempt at escape. Nonetheless the tickets had been bought months before. Staying would not bring him back.
And in some ways it was easier to be, temporarily, in a place with no connection to him. Or even to people. What I expected in the face of his unimaginable death was for the human world to grind to a halt. In Antarctica, it almost does.
Time operates differently there, as though measured with two separate clocks. One clock races madly and the other inches so slowly it seems to not move at all. As the ice recedes each spring, the brushtail penguins hurry to newly exposed hillsides to make their pebble nests. All austral summer the rookeries bustle with life. The penguins fight for space, steal each other's pebbles, mate, lay eggs, raise downy chicks and try to protect them from the predatory skuas. In a few months the colonies empty again. The penguins scatter out to sea. The snow returns and the ice reforms, eventually doubling the size of the continent. And through the urgent cycle of the seasons, beneath the ice and snow and the rough pink feet of the penguins, the rock keeps its own geologic time, moving at a wholly different pace through the millennia.
Nothing in Antarctica is on a human scale—neither time nor space. On this trip, that vast indifference was a balm. Out my cabin window, at two or three or four in the morning, I watched a panorama of ice fields drenched in sulfurous yellow light, glaciers tinged with blues and violets, arched and crenellated icebergs like frozen castles. The sun didn't set. It feinted toward the horizon and then pulled back, as though having second thoughts. Everything felt upside down and the external strangeness merged with my internal numb dislocation. There was a part of me that didn't want to go home.
My daughter is twenty now, living at college, applying to study abroad programs an ocean away. Like the rest of the family, she loves to travel. My seventeen-year-old son leaves for college in the fall. In the meantime he's working toward his private pilot's license. He has been learning to fly planes at the small local airport since he was twelve. I'm proud and afraid in equal measure. Twice in recent years I've attended the funerals of children their age, kids who died decades too soon, in stupid accidents. The awareness of their vulnerability never leaves me, even as I encourage them to spread their wings.
Their grandfather has been gone for two and a half years. On a recent visit to New York City, where he used to live, a fierce, illogical hope overcame me: I thought I might see him among the throngs of strangers in St Mark's Place. I understand that he's dead, but even so, I kept searching the crowd for his long stride and dark hair, his observant, appreciative gaze, his sunny smile. It was useless, of course, no matter how hard I looked. There are over eight and a half million people in New York City. Not one of them is my dad.
I can't imagine the grief you carried when we met over two decades ago, that you carry still. Over the years I've wondered how you are. I picture you back in Santiago, your hair perhaps getting gray. You must be roughly my father's age, I realize. I think of how my children loved his stories about building a cabin on an island in Puget Sound or sailing in the Bahamas. I like to think you have grandchildren yourself.
Maybe they sometimes ask about the time you spent in Antarctica. Was it very cold? They want to know. Was it really night for the whole winter? And you tell them that it was cold but also beautiful, like nowhere else you've ever been. You tell them how the penguins sometimes looked, at a distance, like a line of children on their way to school. And how, after a winter of constant darkness, the sun crept back slowly, a little bit each day, though there were times you thought it never would.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carin Clevidence grew up in a family of naturalists and travelers. She is the author of a novel, The House on Salt Hay Road (FSG) as well as travel essays and short stories appearing in O Magazine, OZY, Panorama, the Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. She has worked as a deckhand in Baja, Mexico and an assistant expedition leader in Antarctica, and received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, and Sustainable Arts, and residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, the Hermitage Artists’ Retreat, Marble House Project, Willapa Bay AiR, among others. She is currently at work on a novel set onboard a ship in Antarctica.
Header photograph by Yuriy Rzhemovskiy.