Monday, September 10, 2018

The Happiest Days Of Our Lives


(An extract from Austral's account of her and her mother's long walk towards freedom after escaping from the prison of Deception Island.)

The days and days of walking blur together. It’s hard, now, to sort dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges bare as the moon stretching away under the cloudless sky. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rocky shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elf stone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really see people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of drums in my blood.

I’m trying to tell you how happy we were, Mama and me. Not only in those few moments indelibly fixed in memory, but also during the uneventful hours of walking through the forest and crossing meadows and hiking up long slopes of scree or snow, or when we rested beside a little campfire, taking turns to braid each other’s hair or simply sitting in companionable silence. The times we picked berries together in some sunny clearing or amongst the sliding stones of a mountainside, or spear-fished in icy rivers, or gathered sea moss and limpets from the salt-wet stones of the sea shore.

Some old-time writer once claimed that happy families are all alike, while unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. If that’s true, then happiness can be attained only by sacrificing or suppressing some part of whatever it is that makes us different, by unselfishly giving up our wants and desires and submitting to something larger than ourselves. Family. Society. God. But in those long summer days, walking south with Mama, it seemed to me that happiness was a gift that fell on us as lightly and freely as sunlight. It was as simple as lying on wiry turf with the sun warm and red on my closed eyes, or the heart-stopping shock of jumping into a meltwater pool. It was a gift the world gave you if you gave yourself to the world.

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