Is it the second day? I suppose it must be, though in the constant half-light of the starlit Antarctic, who can say? I have been walking a weary long time, I know that much. Long enough, almost, to have exhausted my curses. And I have cursed. I have cursed the navigator who let us drift so far from our station, and the sub that found and maimed us there. I have cursed the unseasonal ice that snared and trapped us here. I have even cursed ‘Tasia, and that, I know, was unfair. But I have not cursed my captain, no.
He has redeemed himself; he suggested the foraging party. I volunteered, of course, though as a forager I make a damn fine lady’s maid. That hardly mattered. No one expected us to come back with food. No one expected us to come back at all. Yet some of us preferred this to the other death, to the constant calculation and recalculation of a sum that does not change, of the question of whether the fuel or the food would give out first. But now the sum has changed. We have changed it, and now they will have food as long as they have heat and light. Perhaps it will be enough, perhaps the ice will break, perhaps they will be found.
I do not begrudge them the possibility; it is not one that I could pin any hope on, myself.
I was not alone in that. We were a party of eight. We shook hands, and we chose each our own direction, and we set out. Can it have been two days ago? I think perhaps it must have been. I have been walking so long now that I stumble even where the ice is smooth. It has almost become tempting to lie down here, just at this very spot, and to wait. My legs keep moving, mechanically, even as I pretend to consider the possibility. I know that I will keep moving until I find some shelter, or failing that then as long as my strength lasts. To lie down, now, on this empty plain of ice, is too much of a defeat. Let me find shelter, even the flimsiest illusion of shelter, before I lie down. Let me believe to the last that even in this land without dawn there may be a tomorrow.
**** ** ****
There is shelter. I can see it, now, and I can trust my vision, because the light is steady enough, though it is dim. I alter my course a fraction. This must be the true shore, or perhaps a rocky islet off the coast. It does not greatly concern me which, but it will be good to die on solid ground.
I can see it more clearly, now. A little spine of rock breaking free of the ice, dark against the constant white. But as I trudge on the image wavers. Ragged cloud is flowing in (from the east? Perhaps, but the only bearings I have now are the ship, behind, and the rock spire, ahead.) I am too close to miss it now, even as the wind rises, and the darkness closes in.
I wonder a little at the darkness. Is it the darkness before the dawn? I have a hazy notion that we are at least ten days from sunrise, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I have walked, in the stupor of fatigue, far longer than I had thought possible. It seems seductively reasonable that it might be dawn, because the clothes that I knew from the start were pitifully inadequate have become stifling. How else could that be, except that this warm draft is the precursor of the dawn?
I stamp down hard on that train of thought, finding that I have been struggling to unfasten my gloves. It is fortunate that my hands are too stiff for the job; our ship’s surgeon has lectured us until we are half sick of the subject on the insidious dangers of hypothermia. The brain gives up, stops attempting to tell heat and cold apart, and falls back on misleading experience. It is impossible to be this cold. Therefore I am this hot.
In the gathering darkness, and in my distraction, I have missed my mark. I suffer a moment’s blinding panic, straining against the gloom, and find it once more. It is less clear now, the outline uncertain. As I struggle onwards I realise that the outline of the rocks has not changed. A figure has risen from the shelter, confusing me for a moment, a figure that is now making its way towards me. I find that I have stumbled again, and consider resting as I have fallen, until the figure can reach my side and help me to my feet. But the figure is very slight, and I realise that it is unfair to make her come all the way out to me when I could meet her half way. I am suddenly very certain that the figure is female, and more than that, that I recognise her. Even from this distance, in this light . . even after so long. Only my ‘Tasia moves in just that way.
I push on. Try to run, fall, rise, push on again, and all the time I am thinking only of my ‘Tasia. I think of her as I saw her last, laughing coquettishly in the shadows of her father’s arbour, warning me that she could not promise to wait for me. She has grown tired of waiting, as she said she would. She has come for me.
We meet, and cling for a moment, and then she is leading me back. She tries to support me, but I am awkward in my heavy clothes, and she is only a slip of a girl. I find, if anything, that my progress is slower than before, but together we make it to the outcrop and collapse gratefully into its shelter.
Automatically I begin to pull off at least my outer mittens, and check myself. There seems to be some reason that I should leave them on, but I cannot remember it, and I am so very hot. I can hardly remember when I was last comfortably warm, much less uncomfortably so, and it is blissful – would be so even without ‘Tasia at my side, ‘Tasia in the peach silk dress she wore at that last supper party.
I manage to wrestle off the mittens at last. And why not? I am half sure the I remember reading of the search for Ultima Thule, for the land of summer beyond the ice. I must have stumbled across it, and the rest of the ship’s company so close, and freezing. I must go back for them, but there is no hurry, now. I can wait for the storm to clear.
I have a nagging doubt that Ultima Thule was in the far north, and beyond that was a myth that was long ago disproved, but how can I doubt the evidence of my senses? And if I doubt even that, here is ‘Tasia before me, ‘Tasia for whom I have run to fetch shawls and rugs on even the balmiest summer evening. ‘Tasia in her peach silk dress, her cream shoulders bare and lambent in the moonlight. And ‘Tasia is not cold.
She is far from cold. The warmth of Thule, though it has yet to soften the frozen folds of my coat, has melted her reserve completely. Even as I struggle with the stiff material she has come closer, and the kiss that I half expected – on my nose, on my ear, on the crown of my head, perhaps – has caught me unawares, lip to lip, long and yearning. She begins to help me, though in her unfamiliarity she does little to speed the process. I can barely feel her hand against my skin, and yet her touch electrifies me, leaving me breathless and shaking. My reaction scares her, and she draws away a little, but I hold her close for reassurance and she melts once more into my embrace.
**** ** ****
It is later. I have . . slept, and I have woken alone.
The wind has risen. The stars have gone. There is only darkness, and the taste of ‘Tasia.