Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The First

(Note: this is a passage didn't make the final cut of my new novel, Austral. I've repurposed it as a short story.)


For a long time, Antarctica was no more than a rumour. The obsession of a handful of cartographers and hydrographers. A southern land which terminated in the islands of Tierra Del Feugo. A fabled continent isolated by storms, snowy seas and pack ice, inhabited by every fancy of the human mind. Terra australis recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita.

In 1773 Captain James Cook’s expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, and in that year and the next he recrossed it from different directions, keeping as far south as ice allowed, ice encountered from every direction, killing the idea that any land beyond was habitable. Other European explorers discovered desolate islands covered with ice and snow to varying degrees; it was some fifty years after Cook’s expedition before the mainland of Antarctica was at last sighted.

By then sealers were plundering the great colonies of fur seals and southern elephant seals in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and were sailing south in search of new hunting grounds. Whalers came south too, hunting the southern right whale. One sealer, William Smith, discovered the South Shetlands. Soon afterwards, in 1821, a landing party from the American sealing ship Cecilia, captained by John Davis, made a claim, long disputed afterwards, never settled, to have set foot on the shore of Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. Other explorers sailed down the long finger of the Antarctic Peninsula, and sighted Wilkes Land and Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, but there was no documented landing on the continent until 1851, when Mercator Cooper, another American sealer, stepped ashore at Victoria Land in Eastern Antarctica.

Even supposing that Captain John Davis’s undocumented claim was true, there may have been others before him. People who were not Europeans, or Americans. People from shores much closer to the last unconquered continent. It is possible, for instance, that voyagers from New Zealand or Tierra Del Feugo may have been pushed south by storms, and somehow survived the brutal crossing. Lashing their ocean-going outriggers together, surviving storms and giant waves, avoiding bergs and pack ice, and at last fetching up on one of the islands fringing the continent, or the northern shores of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Imagine these voyagers encountering the edge of an ice shelf in the white light of austral summer. Hauling their canoes across its frozen trackless waste. The sea lost behind them in a long glare and a forbidding land rearing up ahead, bare black mountain peaks rising from a tumult of ice, and along the rocky shore of a bay mostly free of ice penguins crowding in their stinking rookeries, solemn as convocations of priests, snowy storms of seabirds whirling up from their cliff roosts, and seals crying like men as lost as they.

Imagine them building stone shelters against the knifing wind. Although it’s January, midsummer, the average temperature is never more than a degree or two above freezing. Imagine them building a great fire from dried seaweed, huddling around it for warmth, their faces scorched and their backs freezing. They make a great slaughter of penguins innocent of fear of man, and use the oily carcasses as fuel, and roast the meat, which tastes of beef laced with rotten fish oil. They raid penguin and seabird nests for eggs and eat them raw. They stalk and kill seals, and feast on their meat and wear their stinking uncured hides.

Perhaps one man goes mad and kills or wounds many of his companions before they can kill him.

Perhaps they split into two factions, and after a fierce quarrel one slaughters the other and hauls the canoes back across the ice shelf and sets out on a hopeless journey across the unforgiving ocean.

Perhaps they die one by one, from pneumonia or from injuries inflicted while hunting seals, from falling from the high cliffs while collecting eggs from sea bird roosts or from food poisoning after eating meat stored too close to their fire.

Or perhaps they have enough cunning and determination to make a kind of home on the Antarctic shore. They boil kelp into a slimy soup, gather shellfish and crabs, use the spears they brought with them to catch pale sluggish fish. Chipping tools from stones, like aborigines of a distant past. Curing hides in salt boiled from seawater in hollowed rocks placed in the margins of their great fire, and sewing clothes and boots using as thread ligaments pulled from seal and penguin muscle. Building hutments from stones, stuffing chinks with kelp and weaving roofs from tough kelp holdfasts. They know that without women their settlement will survive only as long as the life of the last man, and they fortify their resolve by singing the old songs around their fire and telling and retelling old stories.

But winter is coming.

Day by day, the sun in its tireless circuit of the sky dips closer to the western horizon. At last it touches the horizon of the ice shelf, turning it into blood. And ever afterwards it dips below the horizon a little more each day. The temperature plummets at night and the nights grow long. The sea birds leave. The penguins and seals are gone. There are fierce blizzards. Storms that blast in from the sea. Howling winds that strip woven roofs from huts and blow the flames of the fire flat. So cold they pierce hearts and bones. The stores of frozen meat lack sufficient vitamin C and the mens’ gums swell and their teeth loosen, their joints ache horribly and they are gripped by a deadly lassitude, and the great fire, unfed, gutters and goes out, and one by one they succumb to the cold that lies in wait beyond their crude shelters.

Perhaps they survive one such winter, and do not go mad in the months of permanent dark and do not exhaust their stores of food, and supplement their diet with seaweeds rich in vitamins. But in the next winter, or the winter after that, a storm blows so long and hard that they cannot survive. They burn even their canoes, but it is not enough.

They leave behind their huts and the stone circle of their hearth. A clutch of chipped stones. And their scattered bodies, skin shrunk to leather on bones inside seal-hide clothing, mummified by cold. The cold preserves much, but these men were shipwrecked a thousand or five thousand years before Captain Cook’s historic voyage, and at last a great storm washes away what’s left of them, or a tongue of ice pushes down the steep slope above and scrapes the camp clean and pushes the remains out to sea in a last burial, and snow settles where it had been like a new untouched page.

The continent erases them from history, but still: they were the first.

2 Comments:

Blogger austint said...

Authorship seems to mean being brutal to one's creations, if cutting out a perfectly good prologue like this is anything to go by.
Halfway through "Austral" right now (and getting into it, big time) and this would only have enhanced it, in my ever-so-humble.

October 26, 2017 11:25 am  
Anonymous William Donelson said...

Wonderful pocket history, Paul. Thank you!

October 27, 2017 1:26 pm  

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