Down South

Issue 11 | Winter 2023 |

 

 

We were all going places—graduate programs in Ireland and media jobs in Manhattan and paralegal positions in Chicago. We were ravenously jealous of each other, convinced that we alone were failing to move correctly along the path of our desires. On our last day together, we promised regularity: text chains, road trips, yearly dinner parties where we would measure our futures against each other like good strong limbs. The sun skimmed, hard and bright, off the lake as we talked.

Johannes had gotten a fellowship from an earth sciences non-profit we had never heard of. He would be inspecting the chemical composition of ice cores drilled from the perma-glaciers of Antarctica. This was a surprise to all of us; he’d majored in Classical Greek. We laughed and shook our heads and said Johannes, are you sure it’s Antarctica? Don’t you mean Alaska? Don’t you mean Canada? Nunavut? He smiled like a freshly-cracked glacier and said, No, I’m going to Antarctica, I’ll be back in ten months, don’t wait up for me. We did not believe him. We said, Okay, have fun in Juneau, in Whitehorse, in Yellowknife, and he came back ten months later with his cheeks pockmarked from frostbite and a chemical burn on his forearm.

He held a dinner party at our old off-campus apartment, to celebrate seeing trees again. We all came. Johannes had sublet his room out while he was gone and the most recent tenant, a skinny goth girl with two long red braids like hangman’s rope, had refused to move out on his return. Johannes was fine with this, and slept in a tent on his balcony, which he said felt more like Antarctica anyway.

We were into themed dinner parties in those teetering early-twenties days, proving we were appropriately whimsical yet responsible for our age. We came in well-steamed pants and garish shirts. We all brought various winterish dishes, with varying degrees of success: iced pomegranate granita, seared Arctic char, cotton candy the texture of fresh-spun snow. Some smartass brought a baked Alaska, its meringue dome gently slumped like a pre-Cambrian peak. When the smartass’ boyfriend, who had not been invited, opened Johannes’ freezer to chill the concoction, he found it crammed full with a cylinder of ice.

There were markings on the ice, segments sketched out in black and blue and red. The end of the core was injected with a thin purple dye that had fractalized throughout, making a pattern like leaf capillaries, like veins.

That’s just Amy, Johannes laughed, when we pointed out that his freezer had been deprived of the capacity to freeze anything else. They let me keep her. They say you never forget the first ice core you drill. Johannes’ illegal subletter skulked around the doorframe, rolled her eyes.

Ten days later, Johannes announced he was leaving again. They need a chef, he said, and that dinner party got me thinking. How hard could any of it be? Who’s they, we asked, though we already knew the answer. The camp in Antarctica, he said, and his eyes were sun-skimmed. They’re hiring again, and they say cooking for the camp is one of the most bountiful things you can do. Coaxing fire from a place that doesn’t burn.

We graduated our master’s programs, quit our jobs, got fired, got promoted, all of which made us nauseous in equal measure. The one in Chicago moved to Manhattan, the one in Manhattan found herself in LA. Johannes stayed in Antarctica for two years this time, no phone calls or postcards until we finally got a postcard in the mail, emblazoned with the Antarctic flag and dampened at the corners. This was the first time we learned Antarctica had a flag: an outline of its own sheet ice, all jags and crevices. Back in States on Sunday—dinner at mine Monday night. BYOB xoxo J

We rolled our eyes at the idea that our lives were that ephemeral, that we could leave with so little consequence to have dinner across the country on a Monday night. Of course, we all went anyway, apologizing to our long-term boyfriends and girlfriends as we pulled tiny suitcases over the doorstep, promising a swift return. We lied to our bosses about family emergencies, overspent on gas, bought flights right at the airport, and slipped into the sky.

We arrived on Johannes’ front porch simultaneously, where we had a brief but frenzied argument about whether we should stage an intervention, and decided against it. When he opened the door, a sharp smell rushed from the triplex, the metal of tinned tomatoes and the thick simmer of overconfidence.

I’ve cooked for you all, he said, ushering us inside. I’m glad you didn’t insist on bringing your own appetizers, because I’ve spent a long time cooking for you, the way we used to in Antarctica. Everything from a can, nothing fresh, nothing grows, everything pulled from the will of man, it’s gorgeous.

Johannes had boiled a chili of canned beef and canned corn and canned tomato and canned beans and a little bit of the cans themselves, curled shreds of aluminum like bagged cheddar. It adds flavour, he said, but watch your teeth! We smiled politely, chewed on tin.

This is also a farewell party for the apartment, he declared. I’ve decided I need to let myself live a life untethered from material possessions. When you go down south for long enough, you really start to realize what matters in this life.

Like what, ice cubes? said somebody who had just started law school. Johannes flinched. We didn’t hear from him for a while after that.

The summer we all got married, Johannes was at the continent’s coast measuring the salinity of Antarctic silverfish. It was a new method, he said in a phone call. He would be slitting them jaw to anus and letting them dry in the midnight sun till all the water evaporated from the silverfish’s body, leaving a craggy clump of salt behind. He weighed the salt, taking care to record it, and when he was done he stitched it back into the silverfish’s stomach and let it sink into the ocean, where it fell to the silted floor. Really, it’s incomparable. You should see the way they flash.

That’s nice, we said politely, but we’re planning weddings.

We married for the first time, some of us for the last, in converted barns hung low with fairy lights, on barefoot beaches, in historic churches in towns where we were born. We placed bets at the receptions on who would and wouldn’t last, stuffing ourselves on ice wine and foamy mushroom canapés. In lieu of showing up, Johannes sent gifts: dried and fileted Antarctic silverfish, with lumps of rock salt in a separate box. The fish were matte and burnished in the bright wedding-sun, all the liquid evaporated from their guts.

We’d always known he liked Alinah best, and our suspicions were confirmed when for her wedding she got, not dried strips of fish, but a tiny and delicately daggered icicle, polished to translucence. We teased her about Johannes’ crush, as we’d always done, but she did not laugh. She had just had her nails done for the day—a deep, veined blue—and she ran them over the ease of the ice.

We read the notecard Alinah had tossed aside, and learned that Johannes was into fossils now. He wanted to discover what the ice encased, so he had joined a team peeling old impressions of fern leaves from igneous rocks.

The first birth announcement came fresh and unexpected, like a crocus from snow. Five pounds, eight ounces, a slip of a thing delivered twice: first by a nurse on the nineteenth hour of her shift, then by a card to the rest of us in the mail. Others followed indistinguishably: six pounds, seven, eight. We read articles about how it was irresponsible for babies to be born these days, how the very gasses pouring out of them were choking the world to death. We marveled at their aliveness, how much they were allowed to scream.

When Johannes came to visit our various cities, he babysat in exchange for a place to stay. He carried himself strangely as he walked around the city: flinching at the sight of tree trunks, forgetting how to drive. Sorry, he said. It’s just hard once you’ve adapted to camp culture. They do things so differently down there. He strapped our children to his chest and took them for long walks. He forgot gloves, boots, sometimes jackets, claiming their little bodies could withstand more than we thought. They came back red and writhing. Two of us declared he was never welcome around our darlings again.

Do you like dinosaurs? he cooed to one of our toddlers. Uncle Johannes is going to Ant-arc-ti-ca to take dinosaurs out of rocks. I’ll bring one back for you if you ask nicely.

She gurgled. You can be anything you want to be, he smiled. Remember Uncle Johannes told you that.

The last time we saw Johannes, we were drawing large sums of money out of old accounts to send our sons and daughters away. We wanted them to be able to go where we did, to gather at lakes and eventually become graduate students in Ireland and paralegals in Chicago and media workers in Manhattan. We emptied everything accordingly: our savings accounts, our children’s pink-painted bedrooms, our garages. Snow hadn’t fallen in a decade, so we tossed our children’s skis into the trash. We talked about taking up pottery, maybe Krav Maga, to pass the new free time.

At our last dinner, Johannes served spinach and feta pie with bright asparagus stalks and delivered an announcement for dessert. He was sick of the ice, he said, how fickle it was in its permanence. It’s beautiful, aching, really, he mused, but it doesn’t love you back. It’s not right. I need to feel the grass again.

That’s great, Johannes, Alinah said. She did not usually speak first. Do you think you’ll keep working in science when you move back?

Alinah, he chuckled. You worry too much.

He was going back to the south, he said, to Gondwana, the continent that was Antarctica two hundred million years ago, a lush tropical forest groaning with its own humidity. It didn’t take long to go back, he said, to ease into the earth’s layers, not when you believed in it. We should try it sometime. We should try living.

We scalded our mouths on hot tea and said this whole thing had to stop.

Johannes laughed, but it sounded half-choked, like a seal breathing hard.

Four months later, Alinah got a postcard from Johannes. It was crusted, she said, with thick warm mulch, like it had been chipped from the forest floor. It was hot to the touch. She brushed the mud from the back, then summoned us to the backyard of her Atlanta McMansion to read his scattered sentences.

I HOPE THIS WILL MAKE IT TO SAFELY YOU FOR YOU ARE MY DEAREST BUTTONED-UP FRIENDS, Johannes began, before finding his footing in lowercase. He had made it to Gondwana, he said, and it was very hot, but the ash-softened sky had not shone with sun for six months. He had met an early ancestor, someone he thought we’d really get along with: the tritylodontid, a sort of mammal, sort of reptile that was good for digging very deep down in the hot new dirt and not coming back up for a long, long time.

One of them tucked me in the soil with them like she had mothered me and covered up my head and I think I will live in the loam for a little while. I am thinking hard about how I am in the only house on earth right now and how in about a million years the sea will start to steam but I think by then I will have mostly decomposed. Perhaps you can dig for me one day. Love to the kids, hope they make it xoxo J.

Alinah did not cry. She scuffed her shoe in the dry Georgia dirt and said she’d never met anyone so selfish and strange. The sun bounced, hard and bright and futile, off the solar panels on her neighbor’s roof.