When we leave for the Cape, for what might be the last time we ever leave for the Cape, my stomach rebels against the rest of my body. Adanna weaves her fingers through my hair as I lean against the stainless steel toilet bowl and groan.
“So much for that last meal,” she says, her voice maternal, judgmental over the din of the submarine’s motor.
I lean against the cold of the seat, too drained to offer up a retort. I had planned that last meal so carefully, so aware of its potential last-ness. It’s not just that most meals at Antarctic stations are either dried and sealed in airtight plastic or consist of a strange gathering of chimera vegetables. That part, disappointment that it is, I can do. That part, I am used to. It’s the goodbyes to meals that are lost forever—swiftly, unexpectedly—which are the hardest.
When we lost Mumbai, when the waves on Juhu Beach crept closer to the shore and washed away street markets, swallowing the same dust that flavored the air around my childhood suitcases, I had mourned by binging on foods associated with the city. On the floor of our kitchen, through mouthfuls of pani puri and pav bhaji, I cried for great-grandparents I never knew, whose ashes had been tossed into the Ganges years ago, and which now mingled with so many drowned bodies in the encroaching Indian Ocean.
When George came home that night, he was careful to show no reaction. He knelt beside me and took my sticky, crumby hands in his, offering me a way to move past, to focus on the future. A proper meal for each one, he promised, as I nodded through unending tears. Any place that is special, for either of us, we’ll do what we can to honor it.
So we did.
When sea levels rise, they do so inconsistently. The math has to take into account gravitational pulls and water temperature, the rate at which cities sink into different combinations of mud and sand, and the likelihood that a tug of the moon accidentally creates a tsunami. We never knew when we’d be saying goodbye to something for good when we left it.
At least, then, when I would come home from another trip to the Cape only to find that another city we loved was lost, there was the ritual. There would be George, dicing vegetables, the unmistakable aroma of his grandmother’s gumbo in the air. When he took the sauce-stained apron off, he would close his eyes, and I would too, and for a moment we were transported somewhere else—to a perfectly sunlit Easter at George’s childhood church, a place where everyone knew his name and this gumbo reigned supreme. When our meal began, and when we remembered we were still in Santiago, George recited it all: the casualty count and the time that the dams broke and the measurements of the typhoon that did the city in. Like a prayer to God before we could begin the meal.
When Adanna and I leave for the Cape, for what might be the last time, we leave in a submarine from Punta Arenas. The order has been issued; the tides around Punta Arenas are higher than comfort would dictate. This is the last time the port will ever be used, which means that as I empty my body of my last meal, the harbor-side station at Punta Arenas is also regurgitating items once held dear. All the books that Adanna and I have ferried back and forth from Chile to the Cape, all the telescopes and microscopes we have discarded in favor of newer and more beautiful ones, all the letters I have ever crafted for George and never sent—all of these things are being placed into crates and shipped away, or maybe being collected into museums for future generations, or maybe simply being burned.
After all, as we’ve been told countless times, any trip might easily be our last. They could easily never build another port because territory lines are too difficult to figure out; or because an intergovernmental cost-benefit analysis could determine that it’s cheaper for Adanna and I to stay, forever, at our station; or because the oceans simply keep rising and it’s unclear if there will ever be a place good enough, high enough, for us to disembark; and do we understand and are we willing to sign onto these risks? We both nodded and signed the papers, never having thought of doing anything else but hearts undeniably heavy, knowing that ports have a way of shutting their doors on more than just empty submarines.
We settle into a routine quickly once we’ve reached our landed Antarctic station: Adanna spending hours in her office, poring through data and communicating with our neighbors at McIntire Station. Her laughter—a twinkling, light kind of laughter—colors the entire station. I get used to the way it ricochets off the walls of our metal box, the metronome to my own routine.
She turns our aluminum-covered cave into a cocoon one day, streaming photos of our friends and families from wall to wall like spider’s webbing. “Artificial company,” she explains, standing in my office doorway as she clips a photo of George onto twine. “Where would you like him?”
I wonder how long she has had this pile of tiny portraits.
“We could also frame him, put him somewhere special,” she offers. Her smile fades at my silence.
He doesn’t belong here, I want to tell Adanna. He didn’t sign up for this place; I don’t want to imagine him lost in tundra. I want to think of him only as I left him: in our kitchen in Santiago, four thousand eight hundred miles away, promising I would come home someday.
“By the kitchen is fine,” I tell her instead. “Somewhere warm. Somewhere we’ll be often.”
She perks up immediately at my response. “Wonderful,” she says, “I know just the place.”
I turn back to my desk as she pads away. Usually she leaves me feeling lightened by her presence, but today I am licking wounds.
We are fundamentally different, Adanna and I. Where I see pressure, she sees diamonds. She taps away at a computer all day, reading reports from drills deep in glaciers, understanding from here how the subtlest changes of our world have stolen away Shanghai. “It’s about saving the next one, you know?” she says in that easy way, that certain way. “It’s about adapting, doing what we’ve always done.”
When she says these words, late one night as the station begins to feel more like a home, I wrap my hands more tightly around my mug of tea. Its heat warms my face. We sit in front of the station’s large bay windows, our spines resting against the back of our couch. We watch the auroras dance, and the urge rises to take her hand and hold it in mine, as though her effortless optimism could flow from her touch and become absorbed into my skin. I envy the way she can look at the stars and see a hope compatible with the numbers she pores over.
“Don’t you think?” she prompts. “We can stave it off?”
“We voluntarily trapped ourselves in a station,” I say, leaning over to squeeze her shoulder. “You wouldn’t have done this if you didn’t believe you could, right?”
She nods to herself, turning over my words in her head. I watch her, feeling like I’ve lied to her somehow, like my heart is slowly collapsing into my lungs, which are collapsing into my gut, like I am as hollow as the words she now clutches tightly.
The winter is long. Each morning I make the mile-long trek to the telescope, adjusting its angle just barely, as requested by mainland, and watching the auroras along the sky as the printer maps out incoming radiation. I clasp my thermos tightly—it is more a tool for warmth than sustenance—and think how beautiful solar wind, killer that she is, can be.
From this perch, thousands of meters above sea level, it’s easy to make out the obvious changes. The acres of ice that have groaned and shifted, having let go of parent territory with pseudo-quakes that shake the continent. The exposed rock, like someone has taken pencil to paper and simply drawn lines that spread like wrinkles around eyes, that curve like silhouettes of hips. Looking inward, even squinting, this ice, sheets and sheets on bedrock, goes on forever. She is the stronger sister, this continent. She is ferocious, an unexplored killer. But like her northern sibling, she is melting, crying floods that bury men.
When I get back to our station, Adanna is chatting away with the researchers at McIntire. “…can’t just say we should look to the stars when there’s so much left to save,” she is saying to the computer as she waves me in. “He thinks this won’t work?”
“They’re saying that it’s budgetary,” says one of the men on the screen, nodding to me as I enter his field of vision. “They’d rather focus on what’s going to impact the most.”
Adanna blinks at the computer cartoonishly. “So many people,” she says, her voice low. “So many people, so many cities.”
“I know,” he says, before laughing darkly. “You know, I brought all these books with me? Weight limits for personal items, and I bring one for each drowned place that had seemed important to me. The shit we do, Adanna.”
“The shit we do,” she echoes.
There’s an appropriate pause, and then, “Hi, I’m Watson. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Uma,” I say. “Hi.”
“Where are you from?”
“Atlantis,” I say, smiling tightly, the image of drowned pani puri carts flashing through my mind.
“Me, too,” he says. “Guess we’re in the club together.”
I hate this club. “Guess so,” I say, and the two of them go back to comparing how their respective budgets have been slashed and how their work has become more difficult and how priorities are out of order, and underlying it all is the unspoken knowledge that the money came to me and to my program, my stars and my solar winds.
I don’t know what to do with myself now that I know what they’re discussing, so I scrub everything clean. I get down on my hands and knees on the fake hardwood floor of our station, and I deep-clean our home. The motion—back and forth, scrubbing out and in— is a soothing oscillation. The muscles in my back strain and I lean into it.
An hour later, the kitchen floor shines, and the steel of the sink matches. I pause to breathe, resting my elbows on the counter. I am so spent that I could sleep, but Adanna’s voice nudges me awake.
“Why are you here?” she asks, her tone neither accusatory nor concerned. Empty.
“I felt antsy?”
“Why are you here, on this continent?”
I turn to face her, and the look in her eyes makes me feel cornered. “What do you—”
“You could be anywhere,” she says, sitting down on a counter stool opposite me. Her voice is still cool, but her jaw twitches with something more heated. “Couldn’t you do this work anywhere? But instead you’re here, and you’re funded by the same people I am, and your funding is eating away at mine. I’m not mad,” she adds quickly. “I’m not. I know you. But why are you here, Uma?”
I open and close my mouth, a caricature. “I have to.”
“Really?” she asks. “Because I actually have to be here, Uma. I can’t report back on shattering ice shelves and crumbling ice cliffs from Chicago. But can’t you look up at the sky from anywhere?”
“That’s not fair,” I say quietly. “I understand you’re upset about the budget changes. I get that.”
“Of course I am.” Her voice is measured. “I’m trying to understand why moving around a telescope is more important than saving people on the shores.”
“It’s not more important than saving people.”
She waits, and I can feel her anger coming off in waves. I get that she’s upset. I get that it’s an unfortunate partnership, ours, this balance of a scientist who is trying to understand the world around us and another who is far too future-looking, who is trying to understand something far beyond the fabric of our lives. I get that priorities can be—and are—muddled in this situation.
I could say to her that the first moments of how our universe was created can be seen only from here, that the atmosphere is so clear that these intimate, sacred beginnings can be mapped out from cosmic ripples only from the peak I travel to each morning. I could ask her, do you know how divine of a place we are in?
I could say to her that being able to map out solar radiation is a gift from my field to hers, in case we have to leave here, in case these ice shelves keep fracturing, in case our world keeps flooding. That we will inevitably have to find some world beyond this one, and before then we must understand the anger of that thing which gives us life and light.
I could say to her that I am here because it is the only way I can help. I know astronomy can’t compete, does not compare to the ability to save lives here and now. I do not pretend that looking to the stars will save the billions of people fleeing coastlines.
I could bow and ask for her to remember who I am, convince her that I did not ask for this.
(I did not ask for this.)
Remind her that we are at the mercy of a world that isn’t sure atmosphere and ice shelves are good politics.
Instead I hold my hands out. “I’m sorry. Whether or not I was here, your budget might have still been cut. I have nothing I can say.”
She looks at me for a few long seconds, and I break eye contact to look at her feet. I watch them pad away into her room, the door closing hard behind her.
That night, we get the news from a freighter in the Southern Ocean that Punta Arenas is underwater. Adanna pulls out a half-empty bottle of scotch and silently pours the amber liquid into two stout glasses. She hands one to me, and as I take it her fingers catch mine. I almost jump; I’ve been expecting her anger, not for her to weave us together. She squeezes my hand, and when I finally look up from the glass I realize I’ve never seen her face so devoid of emotion.
She lifts her glass but still says nothing, and I’m secretly glad for it. Instead, we clink glasses. I contain a shudder as I swallow. The large, thick windows of the station offer an utterly uninteresting night outside, as though the sky knew to contain her inappropriately festive lights.
I pour us another.
We drink until we hurt, until we have sufficiently punished ourselves for leaving the rest of the world. Sometime that night, I take down the photo of George. When we finally talk to one another, we talk around what we want to say. We describe details without ever touching the silhouette. Adanna crawls into my bed as the morning turns, wanting anything but to be alone. She has been dreaming of Lagos. I have been dreaming of spaceships navigating through solar wind, unable to find a new home.
I wake up in the mornings and press down on my ribs as I lie in bed. I have always been able to count them out, but now their numbers are ritualistic. Assign each to a finger like playing scales on a calcium keyboard. They give way, something I had not expected but now know intimately. I wonder how hard I would have to push before one broke. Each morning, I decide that today is not the day to keep pressing, that it’s not yet worth knowing how much pain I can tolerate at my own hands.
The morbid exercise is not the only reminder of my mortality.
Adanna determines, nearly four months into our time, that our neighbors have died. She radios them three times each day, switching the schedule every week in case she has just happened to be calling only when they are out. She calculates how long it has been since anyone from our station made the trek to theirs, how much food they were supposed to have had, how many days’ worth of heat had been ensured before payments stopped. She calculates based on the day we arrived, based on the day Punta Arenas flooded, based on the day our communication with mainland stopped. She makes these calculations over and over again, in each moment of her spare time. Her notes begin to appear outside of her office, little calculations of possible death on blue paper pads sitting adjacent to the coffeemaker or the toilet.
“I think we killed them, Uma,” she says one morning. She sits at the counter, midway through her cereal, as I set water to boil. “I think we were supposed to go and see them.”
My right hand subconsciously plays my left ribs like chords.
“I know we weren’t told to be responsible for them, for their food or anything else,” she continues, voice picking up pace. “I know they aren’t required to communicate with us except for in emergencies. But those conversations I had with Watson—I don’t think that just ends on a whim. I think we were actually friends.”
She waits, the empty space begging for my answer. But I don’t want to think about how long it takes for cotton to disintegrate in cold temperatures or how long after leather cracks a shoe might become useless against encroaching hypothermia. Instead, I want to think about how tea might smell if the cardamom were fresh.
“Uma,” Adanna says shakily.
I pour boiling water into my mug and say nothing.
“Uma,” she says again. “I need you to talk to me.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say.” I hear my words, quicker and louder than I had intended them to be. “What do you think we should do?”
“We shouldn’t do anything,” she says, “but I think I have to go there.”
“Oh,” I say, and my surprise and fear mingle together and sound like mockery that I know I don’t intend. I imagine Adanna leaving me for the dead station and my heart beats faster than it should. “Oh, so you’re just going to walk there and ring the doorbell, see what’s up?”
“Don’t be like that, please.”
“Like what? Adanna, you want to take the car out for a spin? It’s just miles on melting ice, but hey, everything is just fine, right?”
Her eyes harden as she stands up and moves wordlessly around me. Her bowl clatters in the sink. I can feel her heat, close enough to reach out to—close enough to comfort—but her silence is shaming. The faucet runs angrily, just barely masking the muted sounds of her sniffling.
“Adanna,” I try, voice softening.
“Don’t,” she hisses, the air cold as she leaves the space around me. “Look, I can’t help it that you don’t care. I can’t help it that you don’t see why this matters.”
“It’s not that. I’m…”
She storms wordlessly around me, grabbing her shoes and coat from their place beside the door. The door to her office slams behind her.
That night as I sleep, she collects dry meals and loads up the car. The tracks are still visible when I scout for her in the morning. I follow the tracks until I cannot see our station, and then I have no choice but to turn back. I sink into one of the chairs at the counter and try to figure out what I’m waiting for.
Once, when Adanna and I were in university for our seventh year together, our fourth living together, she had disappeared for four days. At first, I had assumed she was caught up between her teaching assistant job and her new boyfriend. When it had been forty-eight hours and I hadn’t seen her, I finally picked up the phone and rang the man. He had picked up in a haze—I hadn’t registered, in my panic, the time of night—only to say that he hadn’t seen her either. I waited on the phone, long after he had hung up, listening to static.
When Adanna returned home, when she careened through the doorway in that manic way of hers, I had already gone through the possibilities of her death. I had imagined her drowned. I had imagined her murdered. I was mentally preparing for the call to Lagos, unsure how to inform her family that she had been swept off the face of the earth and no one had known. I was in mourning, and her arrival in our broken-tiled, far-too-expensive apartment was hindering my ability to sit shiva.
“Hi,” I said dully, dutifully. “Glad to see you’re home.”
She nodded quickly, grabbing her sweater from its draped position as a dishtowel on our oven. She swept it over her shoulders. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, distracted. “Are you cold? I’m cold.”
It was warm, per usual. I watched as she set water to boil on the stovetop, constantly pacing. If I hadn’t been so frustrated with her disappearance, if I hadn’t made her vanishing so about myself, maybe I might have figured it out immediately. Instead, only recognizing the gauntness of her face, the fever in her eyes, I ushered her to bed. I tucked her in as though she were my child, closed the curtains, and set to work completing her initial tea-making task.
When I brought the steaming mug back into her room, she was so silent I thought her soul might have escaped in those few minutes. But she was awake, staring at the wall in utter silence, breathing so quietly that my own footsteps drowned her out. I placed the mug on the bedside table and sat beside on her on the bed, contained within the crook of her stomach and knees. Drying tears glinted on her cheeks.
“I think I made the right choice,” she finally said. “But if I did, then I have to admit I don’t believe in what I do. How can I think science will save everyone and also think I did the merciful thing, the right thing?”
I squeezed her shoulder and said nothing.
“I thought I would call my mom,” she continued, voice lifting up like a question, catching in her throat. “But I don’t think she’d understand. But you”—and she finally looked at me, for the first time in that room—“you would. You do, right?”
“You’re a scientist,” she said, “and you’re the type to believe history will repeat itself. So you tell me, why would I bring a child into this world? How can I be responsible for creating life when people are coming into these borders every day, when we might turn into those lost people one day?”
I could not answer, then. There were no right words. Instead I got up and moved to the other side of the bed and lay down on top of the covers. I tucked my face into the nape of her neck, between her headwrap and her shoulder blades, and I held her as she cried.
This time, four days pass and then four more, but Adanna does not come careening through the door of the station while I wait for her at the counter. Each of those mornings, before I leave for the telescope, I write a fraction of a note that ends up crumpled in the waste bin of our kitchen. When I am on the peak, refocusing the telescope but unsure what mainland wants to see, all I can think of is how futile this is, how stupid our assignments are. How alone I will be if she never comes back. When I trudge back to the station, I glue my eyes to the ground, breath caught in my throat, waiting to see the tracks of the car.
For weeks, I do not know if she is alive. And then one morning, the radio in her office crackles, and while it cannot compare to the way her laughter ricochets through the station, its steady static sneaks its way to where I am by the bay windows, back resting against the couch, waiting for any sign of a dark figure on white landscape. For the first time in so much time, I breathe.
I race into the room and twist the dial. “Hello?” I ask frantically. “Adanna?”
Her voice sputters to life. “Uma,” she says. “Uma, I’m sorry it took so long.”
“What happened?” I ask, sinking into a chair. I take the microphone in my hand so I can lean back. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I found them. I was right,” she says, and my guilt is a sucker punch to the stomach.
“It’s okay. I just… I couldn’t call you when I was right, you know? But I took care of everything. I cremated them.”
I think of the incinerator at the back of the station and imagine Adanna dragging frozen bodies behind her, trying to lift them into the machine. “What happened?” I ask, trying to shake myself of the image.
“The station must’ve been unstable. Stress caused the windows to fracture, and it must’ve been overnight. They probably didn’t notice when the cold came in. But it’s the dead of winter, you know? And you’d expect the station to be safe since it’s being managed from mainland. But, nothing. They didn’t know, I guess, because the comms are out.”
I glance back, as if I’d be able to check the health of our windows from here. “How are you still there?”
“Patched the window with some of the emergency supplies in the car. Constant fires.” The connection grows muffled, and I lose her for a few moments. “… sure when I’m coming back.”
“They have a lot of stuff here, and Watson and I were in the same program. I just think I should at least finish going through his data before coming back.”
The white noise of the radio cuts in and out. The chair squeaks as I lean forward, closer to the machine. “Addy, don’t stay there,” I say. “Please. Don’t do that.”
“I’m not ready to give up on this,” she says. “It’s the same thing we always argue about, but I have faith, Uma. I don’t think we have to give up on the coastlines yet. And I don’t blame you for doing the good work you do, okay? I know it’s important. I know it’s necessary.”
“I know it matters, but I can’t believe it’s all that’s left yet.” The radio crackles, sizzles like fresh eggs and sautéing onions. “Winds are strong out there. I’ll stay in touch, okay?”
Staying in touch is no better a plan than what the dead McIntire researchers had, I want to say. Or, I understand that this is the tension we will always have: that where I see dirt, you will always see pearls, but that is not reason enough for this type of sacrifice.
Instead I say, “Okay.” That night, I too dream of Lagos sinking.
A year passes.
Our sun betrays us, warming just enough to exacerbate what we’ve already done to our earth. Ice begins to crunch beneath my boots when I trek to the telescope, a sound I have not heard so long as I’ve been traveling here. Even as I reassure myself that my station was meant to be permanent, that it is built on rock and not glacier, the sound reverberates through my bones like a death sentence. The auroras dance, a spectacular fervor, and I spend months charting out how one might best navigate past the mocking lights and onto a new world. I send the maps off to a mainland that may no longer exist.
The temperature threshold that Adanna has been so frightened of has been reached. As the Southern Ocean warms, the ice shelves on the coastlines melt even more quickly, and now from both above and below ice turns to water turns to floods that overtake cities at the moon’s gentlest tug. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the ground will groan with the movement of an ice cliff shattering into the ocean, and I will hold my arms tightly and pretend they are not my own.
At night, knees clutched tightly to my chest, I find Adanna on the radio. This we still have. She is confined to a smaller room in McIntire Station, her patches never holding for long enough. She used to travel back, re-up her supplies, but for a while now she has spent each day combing meticulously through Watson’s data, using his equipment to send subtle radar pings to see where the ice has collapsed. She used to do the math and map it out on the computer to see which cities we’d presumably lost. After Lagos, she does not name the cities or the estimated casualties. She just describes the vastly changed landscape to me, and I etch the changes onto the top of an office desk.
There is a lot that we don’t talk about.
We don’t talk about the food problem, which inevitably will do us in. There were always enough meals to last years, but no one expected signal loss this soon after Punta Arenas drowned. We don’t talk about the unsustainability of McIntire, now that the ice beneath the once-temporary shelter is being compressed beneath its weight. This will matter for Adanna, perhaps sooner than the food problem will, and then she will have to drive back home to me or risk exposure to unfriendly elements. I pray that the miles between us look the same as they always have, but the constant vibrations beneath my feet, tectonic plates shifting, strike a visceral fear. We talk around these things, like we always have, like we taught ourselves to do during our first trips together to the Cape.
Like how, as she continues to sift through what is left at McIntire, voraciously reading through Watson’s books and notes like they are treasures, she radios me in.
“This passage is beautiful, I couldn’t let it sit unread,” she says.
“Go,” I say, waiting, putting some type of dried food into my mouth that tastes the way chewiness feels.
“I don’t know where it’s from,” she says, “but this page has a bunch of calculations up top and then—” She pauses, and I can almost hear her deciphering Watson’s notes as if they are crucial data. “It says, maybe we will get used to this new… earth? I can’t tell. And like the very young and recently migrated, take it for granted that April is the time for shorts and sandals, or that the New Year traditionally announces itself with a biblical flood. His handwriting is terrible.”
“Just go on.”
“Maybe we are misremembering the past! The Thames hasn’t frozen over for generations, and the dream of a White Christmas is only a collective Dickensian delusion. Wasn’t it always a wet country?”
I giggle, if only to prompt her own hysterics, and I imagine she is in this station, beside me, with me. I wonder if this is how Watson satiated his own loneliness—with his books from drowned countries. I thank a god that I’m not sure exists for the fact that this might ease Adanna’s own.
Her laughter latches on, haunts me, follows me.
“Blessed are the meek,” she tells me that night. “Just think of who’ll be left when the world ends.”
“We have billions of years before then.”
“The roaches will inherit the earth.” She laughs. “No—the tardigrades, those resilient little bastards.”
“When I was little,” I say, “I used to think cicadas and cockroaches were the same, and I couldn’t understand how they were supposed to be able to survive nuclear apocalypses when they couldn’t even make it past a summer.”
“They were like rain,” Adanna says.
“Like a crunchy storm.”
“They had such amazing lives.” Despite the static, I can hear her voice soften. “They always had a second chance, when they crawled out of the dirt. Do they overlap, do you know? Generationally?”
I shrug, and then remember its futility. “No,” I say aloud. “I don’t know.”
“I guess they lay eggs before they die?” she continues. “Fascinating, no overlap. Mother and father cicadas giving up their lives for a little joy, a little egg-laying. And no one to tell the kids they’ll do the same in some-odd years, that they’ll mate and feast and lay an egg, and then fall flat on pavement.”
“So loud,” I say. “You couldn’t think, the way they sing.”
“Wouldn’t you, too? Sing as loud as you could if that was how you were gonna go?”
I pick at the map on the desktop with my nails, unwilling to entertain this conversation. I’ve never been good at talking about death.
“Uma, you should go to the submarine,” Adanna says, the pause making her too antsy to stay quiet.
“Addy, that’s morbid.”
“I’m serious,” she insists. “It has been months of this, Uma. I want you to go. There’s food stocked in the sub, and if this ice keeps melting, who knows if you’ll be able to even get to it if you keep waiting? It’s closer to you. I’m too far.”
“That’s ridiculous. You don’t know that,” I say, even though everything she has said is rational and we do both know it.
“I’m in an ice pocket. My station is sinking and disintegrating. One day I will be buried and I won’t be able to claw my way out—”
“—or I will drop into the water and I will drown. This station was not meant to last.”
“So come back here! There is an answer. It is an easy one. You have the car. It’ll take you a matter of hours.”
“I can’t, Uma.”
“You’re stubborn, I know that. Don’t fight me on this one.”
“I can’t, Uma,” she repeats. “I already tried it. It’s cracked. I won’t be able to make it.”
My heartbeat is a bass drum. “When did you try?” I manage to croak out of my tight chest.
She says, “Yesterday,” and I hear, “I’ve known for a while.”
She says, “Get to the submarine,” and I hear, “You have to go on without me.”
She says, “There’s no other option,” and I hear, “I’ve done the math. We won’t make it much longer. You have to find home.”
She says, “Goodbye,” and I hear nothing.
When I lie in bed that night, the words she said and the words I heard mingle together until I cannot remember which ones she actually said, whether or not she seemed optimistic. All night, I don’t know if I am too warm or too cold, instead waking every hour, on the hour, watching the second-hand of the clock tick even though I’ve never been able to hear its mechanical heartbeat before. Now I imagine it thunderous, hell’s metronome.
I go back into her office and turn on the radio. Static leaps at me. I press down on a button and call her name—softly, at first, and then more loudly, until I am shouting in the metal box, my voice reverberating off of the walls. I hit the desk with one hand, not hard enough to break bones but hard enough to crack skin. I lift my knuckles to my lips, taste the iron on my tongue. Adanna does not answer.
The next morning, I force myself to concentrate on solar winds and theories of earthly origin but it isn’t long before I am heating up a tasteless meal and sitting with my usual mug in front of the radio. Every twenty minutes, until the sun has long set, I say her name. Adanna, Adanna, a mantra. But Adanna does not answer.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Fitful sleep, restless wait, repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Until none of the words feel like words, until I’ve deconstructed every moment of every memory that led us here. Until Adanna is just a character that I have analyzed into nonbeing, nothingness, until she is no longer the woman I have known and loved as long as I have known and loved myself, until I cannot sit still until I sit still inside that submarine.
It takes fifteen days of Adanna’s radio silence for me to decide to leave her. The last night we are on the same continent, I scour our apartment for mementos. I don’t know how to decide what does or does not make the cut. I could keep the sentimental things, but it suggests that the going ahead will be tougher than I expect. Or I could leave it all behind and take just what I need to stay warm and fed. But just as I had hesitated to place the photo of George up in this wintry tomb, it feels wrong to leave things we had loved to rot here, too.
I end up taking every photo of Adanna that I can: the framed photo of Adanna and me in college that had sat in our kitchen, the sun-fading image of Adanna and her family that had rested beside her bed, the cutout of Adanna and her childhood dog that she kept by her rosary.
That night, I pack a bag and plan the route to the submarine. Yet, in the morning, the sky a true denim, I detour.
The wind is biting, the intangible claws of the continent reaching out to warn me not to leave the four walls of the station. I notice for the first time the way my boots compress the ice beneath them, the way I can imagine jumping hard enough to break it beneath me, flailing, sinking, like a domesticated cat roaming the snowy outdoors for the first time. I push myself to walk further this time than I did the last, leaving the station far enough behind me that when I look around, everything is exactly the same. An icy expanse. In the rover Adanna took were the astrocompass and the navigational maps; I stare down at the small weighted compass in my gloved palm, its needle furiously spinning as the Cape’s iron-heavy rocks distract it from its purpose. What kind of a karma is this? I double-check myself against the landscape of granite ridges at the edges of my vision, glance back at the line of my footprints behind me.
But I am imperfect. As the sun makes her trek across the sky, the feeling that something is terribly wrong settles into my stomach. My angles have curved, slowly enough that I didn’t notice when I measured my new steps against the line of prints behind me. I turn around, eyes squinting at these breadcrumbs, this footprint trail. The line seems straight, even as the line disappears from my sight.
Through goggles, breathing into the thick scarf over my nose and mouth, I try to remember where the water has always been. Has it always been on my right side? Is it supposed to be behind me?
I am at a standstill, unable to decide if I should continue this incorrect route or turn back, while my prints are still etched into the snow. A thought sparks, shoots across my mind: How much effort am I meant to put into saving someone who cannot be saved? And no one is watching; even if I put in the effort to save Adanna, it will not matter; only I will have to live with this decision.
It’s all laughable, then. I sink to my knees on the snow as the realization knocks the wind out of me. I smile beneath the scarf, my breath reflected back at me as warm humidity. I cry, and the goggles cup my tears so that when I turn back toward the breadcrumb trail still behind me, it’s as though I am bobbing in and out of an ocean of my own, tears forcing blurred vision. I clasp my hands, two gloved paws unable to weave fingers together, and I take the first step back to the beginning, to where I came from, to the moment when we could not be saved.
Zadie Smith, “Elegy For A Country’s Seasons,” New York Review Of Books, 3 April 2014. Excerpt: “Maybe we will get used to this new England, and—like the very young and recently migrated—take it for granted that April is the time for shorts and sandals, or that the New Year traditionally announces itself with a biblical flood. They say there will be butterflies appearing in new areas, and birds visiting earlier and leaving later—perhaps that will be interesting, and new, and not, necessarily, worse. Maybe we are misremembering the past! The Thames hasn’t frozen over for generations, and the dream of a White Christmas is only a collective Dickensian delusion. Besides, wasn’t it always a wet country?”