The Last Cold Place Alice Towey
I stand on a glacier, snow cutting my face like shrapnel, and drill a core deep into the ice. It reminds me of our argument the night before I left: like a blade twisting into my heart, you said.
It’s below freezing and the wind is picking up. The monitor on the drill rig beeps; we’ve reached one kilometer. Now the hard part, unwinding the rig and extracting the sample without shattering it. I press a sequence of buttons, hands clumsy in thick red gloves. Slowly, reverently, I bring the ice up to the surface. Jorgen rushes over to remove the final length of metal, carefully laying it on a waiting tarp. We open the barrel and pull out a beautiful cylinder of 100,000-year-old ice.
I always feel like I should say a prayer at these moments. Maybe beg mercy for Earth’s future, or forgiveness for our trespasses against it. But today, the only prayer I can muster is for you: please let Michael forgive me.
* * *
I know that’s stating the obvious, but as we ride our snowmobiles back to base, the chill refuses to be ignored. It’s a revelation, a shock, a force; different from any other cold you’ve ever experienced, the way true love is different from a teenage crush.
We unload the samples into a long, open-sided tent. Jorgen scrawls data onto a clipboard while I triple-check the labels; something this old deserves not to be misnamed.
Finally, I walk back to the communal tent, where Marina is monitoring the satellite phone.
“Any messages?” I keep my voice casual.
She shakes her head no.
* * *
It’s hard to sleep at this latitude, where the summer sun never truly sets. I lie in my sleeping bag watching the tent fabric ripple in the low light. You would hate it here, without the stars.
Back home, we take evening walks and you point out the constellations: Orion, Leo, Cassiopeia. Your obsession with the night sky was one of the things that first attracted me to you – we were both studying things vaster than ourselves.
Finally I give up on sleep and squirm free of the sleeping bag. I dress in multiple layers and step outside, clapping my hands together for warmth. My boots crunch on the uneven snow as I walk to the end of our camp. The ice sheet extends to the horizon, perfect and blank, and a low, tepid sun is the only star.
It’s early evening where you are, the sky just beginning to grow dark. Are you sitting in the backyard, waiting for the constellations to appear so you can name them? It’s a tradition your father taught you, one that you told me you hope to pass on to your own children.
The wind picks up, chilling me through my coat, my jumper, my wool shirt. I turn back to my tent to face the sleepless night alone.
* * *
Today the sky is clear and blue when we set off. I think about you all day, as we ride across the endless white, as we set up the rig, as it refuses to start. Jorgen swears in Norwegian as I flip through the manual.
I know I’m breaking your heart. I could blame the melting ice sheets or the rising levels of atmospheric carbon. But the truth is, I’ve always known: I never wanted to be a mother. There are things I want to give myself to that aren’t compatible with children.
The day before I left, I took a pregnancy test. You paced the living room as I waited for the symbol on the stick to resolve. It was negative, and when I laughed in relief, you misunderstood, thinking that maybe I had changed my mind.
That was our worst night together. If you do decide to leave, I know I should let you go. You deserve the life you’ve dreamed of, a child with your curly brown hair and quiet intensity.
* * *
The rig won’t start, so we head back to base to regroup. Jorgen and Marina argue about spare parts while I borrow the satellite phone. I enter your number, but pause, thumb poised over the square button.
We scientists measure distances in inches, kilometers, lightyears; but the distance between two people is harder to quantify. When I finally call, I can almost feel how far the signal has to travel. “Hello, this is Michael, I can’t get to the phone right now.”
I hang up without leaving a message.
Later that day, I’m entering my field notes into a battered laptop when Marina visits my tent, her shadow long behind her.
“A message,” she hands me a strip of paper, “from Michael.”
My hands are trembling, and not just from the cold. I take a deep breath and open the paper.
I love you. I miss you. I’m sorry.
* * *
I often wonder what will be the last cold place; will there still be ice in Greenland, or in Antarctica, when the rest of the earth is burning? Will people live here? Will they still study the stars?
You once told me that scientists looking for life on other planets study the high deserts and deep-sea vents here on earth. Life finds a way, you said, it’s resilient. I wonder if the same is true for love.
When we get the drill rig working again, we go deep. While Jorgen wraps the ice core in plastic, I drop the paper with your message into the hole. Maybe someday someone will find it. Maybe it’ll still be there in 100,000 years.
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