Big flakes swirl around outside while she drinks black coffee. Flannel shirt, wool hat, fingerless gloves. The thrum of the ship is steady, familiar now that she’s been out on the ice for a few weeks. Night watch on the Research Vessel Ātarangi. ‘The shadow.’ An escape and an adventure. And a chance to get Tia out of her head.
She taps a pen on her journal, then flicks it around her thumb, watches it twirl and land back between her fingers and thumb. Flicks it again. And again and again. Stares through the windows into the night, hears the wind rush the rigging and the ice scrape the hull. She flicks the pen and remembers Tia slapping her hand down. Knock it off, would you? You’re driving me crazy. Tia’s voice fills her head. She can’t help but smile.
The alarm chimes and she suits up. Waterproof pants, boots, bright red parka, scarf over her cheeks and chin. She adjusts the hood before stuffing her hands into oversized waterproof mittens. Then she grabs the heavy-duty torch and walks the decks, opening and securing doors and hatches, looking and listening for anything out of the ordinary.
The timbre of the wind is different in the passageways and completely non-existent down below where the researchers and crew are asleep, the droning hum of the ship a lullaby. Although she steps out into the elements only twice on her rounds, each time the polar blast freezes her eyelashes on contact. At the stern, she peers into the dark, points the light into the cavernous vacuum. Nothing but snow and ice. On the foredeck, she sees ice that’ll have to be smashed off soon, ropes as thick as her arms frozen in their coils, the mainmast straight and strong and dripping with icicles.
Back in the warmth of the wheelhouse, she strips out of her cold-weather gear, rubs the melting ice from her lashes, then checks the instrument panel before noting the time and signing her initials in the logbook. The same routine every hour on the hour. Not a hard job or terribly exciting. But satisfying in a meditative sort of way. She spends the forty minutes between each circuit writing, trying to make sense of what happened with Tia. This night, she writes about saying goodbye.
Goodbye to the smell of her, the feel of her in bed, the sound of her humming in the morning. She writes about their seven years of hand-holding in the park, dinners on the rug by the crackling fire, making love to the roar of the ocean. She confronts seven years of holding Tia too tightly and the shame of snooping: reading her text messages, rummaging through her pockets, following her after-work movements. Pacing late at night, waiting for the sound of the car in the drive, then pretending to sleep while lying wide awake next to Tia’s dreaming body. Breathing in unfamiliar scents, sleepless beneath the weight of jealousy.
Tia announced she was leaving six weeks before she left. She said she needed to stretch her legs. To see what the City of Sails had to offer. Move away from the Arahura River, the rugged West Coast with all its tourist trappings, find out what’s beyond the Southern Alps. She flung her arms out and spun around, and the afternoon light caught her eyes. How they both smiled at the possibilities! She said she’d move back one day. To the river, the pounamu, the bush. But now, she needed to explore to see if she could hold her own up north. And then she put two fingers to her lips, stopped talking, and shook her head. I need to go alone, she said. Without you.
Tears tumble down her cheeks. Still raw. She wipes her face and looks up from her journal, sees the ship bathed in an eerie glow. The sky shimmers, illuminating the ice floes as if under a canopy of green flares. The captain told her to expect the aurora, but this is her first sighting. Snow filters through the hazy light, and although it’s not quite time for her next sweep, she bundles up anyway and heads outside.
It’s as cold as ever, but when she looks up, the sky wriggles alive with a light green that scatters the darkness, creates the illusion of warmth. She can see that they are the only vessel on the ice field. Not far from the bow, pancake ice is jumbled into an ice ridge, an island of sorts, almost as tall as the research vessel is long. She picks her way to the foredeck, slips once, pulls herself up, then wedges her feet against the railing, peers at the ridge. The aurora casts an uneven light, and when it dims, she sees what looks like a dark shadow climbing out of the frozen brine. She blinks and looks again. Nothing. She shuts her eyes, counts to five, opens and squints. Still nothing. Overhead, the last of the aurora melts away.
She finishes her rounds and makes her way back to the bridge. Starts a letter to Tia to tell her about the aurora, how it lights up the sea of ice, dances like wildfire, plays tricks with your eyes. As much as you’d absolutely despise the cold, she writes, I can see you twirling beneath its mystical glow, arms stretched out and laughing. She breathes in deeply. How’s Auckland? Hope you’re finding what you’re looking for. I miss you. She sighs, then crosses that last line out. Re-reads the letter, then screws it up and stuffs it in the bin.
The wind blasts against the starboard side and a light on the instrument panel starts flashing. The engine remains steady as the ship groans and ice breaks under the sudden push. She picks up the night vision binoculars and looks out to the drift ice, then back at the instrument panel. Another gust hurls itself against the ship and again Ātarangi leans as ice scrapes against the metal. The engine thrum stutters and the lights flicker. She stares at the flashing light and opens the troubleshooting binder, scans the procedure list while suiting up. It’s a ‘go-look’ light. Check the engine room first, then backtrack around the decks. A little early for rounds but close enough.
She executes a thorough check, stoops under pipes in order to shine her torch into dark corners, runs her hands over the concave sides of the ship feeling for any abnormalities, examines each instrument gauge to ensure things are working within their normal range. Everything appears to be running and working appropriately, so she winds her way up through the ship bowels and eventually steps outside, makes her way to the bow. The ship is steady, calm. Peaceful in the silent snow.
She shines her light into the distance at the spot where she thought she saw something earlier, and while the beam is strong, all she can see is falling snow. Not even a hint of the stacked ice. And then, just as she steps back into the wheelhouse, a long silky ribbon of light flickers through the sky. She rushes back out and the aurora moves quickly, jumping and streaking across the sky. She looks up in awe; the snow has stopped, the wind suddenly little more than a whisper. The sky a silent light ballet.
Oh, how she wishes Tia could see this! She’d whoop and holler and spin, whisper a karakia, maybe grab her hand, even after all this time. And then they’d just stand there, drinking in the mystery of it together.
She shakes her head. Who is she kidding?
She lifts the binoculars to her eyes and there it is again. A long, curved shadow, a little bent near the top. She lowers the glasses for a second then looks again. The shadow is up on the ice and it’s clearly something real, something sentient. It turns and seems to wave. She lowers the lenses, heart thumping, sees the drift ice in the odd glow while the wind whistles through the railings. She looks one more time, but the shadow is gone, so she scans the ice and spots a dark grey shape trudging away. It labours through knee-deep snow, then turns and beckons before rounding an ice column and disappearing.
She sweeps the horizon looking for other vessels, searches the sea for unusual undersea movement. Sees nothing but flat ice, calm in the dim light.
In the wheelhouse, she notes the strange sighting in the logbook then sits staring out the window, flicking her pen back and forth, back and forth. A metronome to her thoughts. No other ships. No submarines. It couldn’t possibly be a person, could it?
Tia would laugh at her, call her dumb or crazy. She’d dismiss the encounter completely, then walk out to the bow and look for herself. Claim the grey figure as her own and tell the story as if it’d happened to her.
She hasn’t been sleeping much, only a few hours each afternoon, choosing instead to stay awake long past the end of her watch. She talks to the scientists, sees them scramble over the side of the ship and walk across the ice in groups of two or three. They core the slabs, collect surface snow, skim the water between the floes, then return to the wet lab for the afternoon. Only then does she finally retire. Clearly, she’s sleep-deprived and not seeing straight. Not in the green glow of the aurora anyway. She yawns. The captain will be up in a couple hours and the rest of the crew shortly thereafter. The passageways will fill with their morning rituals and she’ll bunk down for a long sleep.
The pen twirls out of her hand, clatters over the instrument panel. She hears Tia’s voice in her head again, rubs her temples, breathes deeply. She thinks back to the day Tia left. Just a note on the bench: I’ve been to the river. Sorry I couldn’t say goodbye properly, but you know me. Take what you want, give the rest way. Go have an adventure. Set yourself free. I loved you. Never doubt it. – T
After a week of panic attacks and drinking cheap whiskey like water, she found herself at the fish and chip shop. Spotted a handwritten flyer advertising for a night watch, no experience necessary, urgent. She texted the number, and the captain called first thing the next morning. Minimum wage for 60 days. Did she have sea legs? No matter if she didn’t. The question was could she handle the solitude? The quiet? How about wind and cold? Could she be ready in two weeks?
She texted Tia. Told her about the job, about heading to the Antarctic, a real adventure. She wrote that the West Coast held too many reminders, that everywhere she turned, Tia was there, but not. She texted all morning until she finally got a text back: This number is not currently connected. She stared at the auto-reply, then threw her phone on the ground, watched the back split away from the case, the screen implode. Two weeks later she emptied the house, threw almost everything away or into donation bins, packed a duffel bag with her essentials. Then she, too, paid a visit to the Arahura, looked to the snow-capped alps, dragged her fingers in the glacial water, tried to memorise the scent of the bush, then hopped a plane for Christchurch. Two days later, she was on the ship.
At the sound of the alarm, she suits up, slings the binoculars around her neck, grabs the torch. She walks the maze of the ship, her feet going where she needs to go, her mind on auto-pilot. Quarter of an hour later, she finds herself at the bow, straining to see the island of ice. As if on cue, the southern lights skitter across the sky. She watches as once again the dark grey shadow seems to climb from the sea, stand on the ice, turn and wave, then walks away slightly bent, looking back once before disappearing behind the ice column. As she lowers the binoculars, the wind gusts and ice grates against the hull. She feels the rumble of the engines. Scans the main deck, lingers on the starboard ladder, the one the science teams use to get to the ice. She goes to it, looks over the side, sees flat ice hugging the ship’s frame, the rungs frozen solid.
Chicken, Tia seems to whisper in her ear. And with that, she heaves herself up and over the side of the ship, kicks at the encrusted ice, and steps down to the pack. It’s her first time standing on the ice and she’s surprised how solid it feels. When she jumps, there’s barely any movement. She does a rough time calculation. Half an hour before her next round, give or take. Half an hour to get closer to the shadow.
With each step, she feels the ice give just a little. There is a boot-thick dusting of snow and the cracks between the floes are barely visible. She leaps over the gaps and after each successful jump, she turns to see the ship behind her. It’s not long before it’s little more than a smudge in the distance. The aurora twirls above as she studies the ridge now directly in front of her, and there it is. The shadow hoisting itself up onto the ice. Now that she’s closer, it looks even more like a person fully suited, just like her. It turns and looks at her, arm raised, motions for her to follow. Her heart hammers in her chest and the feeling reminds her of what it was like coming home that day to discover that Tia had gone.
She watches the figure walk away and feels dread rise inside her even as she runs toward it. No longer paying any attention to the sea veins separating the ice rafts, she focuses on reaching the ridge, on catching up to the grey silhouette. She lands heavy on a weak point in the ice and crashes through, sinking up to her knee. Face-plants and scrabbles up, anxious not to lose sight of the figure. Despite all the waterproof gear, she feels icy water in her boot. She ignores it and navigates the puzzle of smaller ice floes. They wobble and there is more sea sludge to dodge. The southern lights suddenly dim and she lifts the binoculars to look back to the research vessel. There in the distance, she can just make it out. Two deck lights like giant eyes in the dark.
She slows down, steadies her breathing, picks her way carefully to the ridge, hoists herself up onto the floating island. She sees the ice column and then the grey figure. It turns to wave her on before rounding it. She tries to run, but the snow is deep on the island and it sticks to her wet pant leg. Weighs her down. She trudges and falls, and just as she reaches the ice column, the aurora snuffs out. Suddenly she is plunged into darkness. Alone with the wind and the snow, unable to see anything at all.
She puts the binoculars to her eyes, looks across the ice to the Ātarangi. Sees nothing. No beady lights. No faint curve of the bow. Her skin prickles. She strains to hear the deep delta waves from the engines. Nothing.
She needs to turn back now. It’ll be time for her next round and not long before the captain will be up for the handover. She lowers the binoculars and breathes deeply, puts the lenses back in front of her eyes. Still nothing. She thinks about the ice column and reluctantly lets go of her need to follow the figure. She must get back to the ship. Somehow.
Without the comforting glow of the aurora, she can’t find the place where she scrambled up, and it’s not obvious how she might get back down. She takes tentative steps, applying pressure, uncertain exactly where the ledge is that might send her tumbling into the Southern Ocean. The ground gives way several times, and each time she listens to ice plunge into the water before shifting a little to her left and repeating the tentative pressure-step again. Her breathing is fast and shallow, and her lashes are so thick with ice that they don’t fully close. She tries squeezing them shut and whispers Tia’s favourite karakia. Begs for the aurora to return. Just for a minute. Or even just thirty seconds. That’d be long enough to see a way off the island and find a route back to the ship. The wind whips across her shoulders. The sky stays dark, stars obscured. Snow tickles at her cheeks.
She sits down. There is nothing else to do.
Tia’s voice is suddenly shouting in her head. What were you thinking? That it would last forever? She is standing in the kitchen, bags in hand, face tight and unforgiving. This was the third time Tia broke up with her. The third time she’d yelled words that hurt. The third time she’d left. It was also the final false start before Tia took off and vanished for real. She remembers waiting it out, trusting that Tia would find her way back to their bed by morning, and she did, crashing through the front door, dropping her bags in the hallway before climbing into bed, scooching up so close she could feel her breath hot at the back of her neck.
She cinches her hood tightly around her face, her cheeks burn from the cold.
Go have an adventure. Set yourself free.
Her feet and hands are numb. She must find her way back.
She imagines the aurora blazing through the sky in sheets of mystical green. The sea sloshes against the cracked ice, and she feels her muscles heavy and tired, her mind sluggish. She visualises the flickering wisps, the green tendrils of light, and when she lifts her lids, there above her is the faintest of light. A hint of the aurora, but it’s enough for her to get her bearings. She looks for the ship and can’t find it. Scours the horizon, but it isn’t there. The island must shift in the current, she thinks. She has no option now but to round the ice column herself. She needs an exit point to get back to the vessel.
Fearing the aurora will vanish at any time, she summons the energy to stand up, and her hamstrings scream. Despite the suit and the layers of polypropylene, she is freezing. Colder than she’s ever been before. Her arms contort, bending in as her fingers curl in her mittens. She can’t even feel the lower half of her wet leg, but somehow she manages to drag it through the snow, wills one foot in front of the other. She labours through the knee-deep snow, hunched over, bent, and just as she reaches the ice column, she turns and looks behind her, raises her arm to peer through the weak light, waves her arm through the darkness, one last look for the vessel. Seeing nothing, she rounds the ice column.
Jenna Heller is an American-New Zealander living in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. She won the 2020 NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition and has a flash piece included in Best Small Fictions 2020 and forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2021. You can read more of her writing in The Wax Paper, Takahē, Typehouse, Pif Magazine, Flash Frontier, and The Gay and Lesbian Review.