NaNoWriMo Word Count: 1,882
“If you’re going to crash a C-130 in the arctic, do it in the winter, I say.” Alex poked at the fire on the open wall of their half snow-cave, half lean-to. To their backside was the Herc itself, but in order to produce a heat source, the search and rescue team had to build several makeshift shelters that radiated from the fire built in the middle. Alex, one of the pilots whose name was Hamilton Prevette, and Sydney occupied this shelter.
Alex continued as if he were lecturing a class of cadets. “In the summer, most likely there won’t be any snow to cushion the impact.” he said. “That’s because 80 percent of the land north of the arctic circle is free of snow. If you do crash land in snow during the summer, most likely you’re in Greenland.”
Sydney was not so sure he’d call that a snow-cushioned landing. Judging by the jarring to his spine and backside, he’d call impacting the tundra ice pack with a 80-ton plane a brutal mat slam. And he hoped they were not so far off course to be over Greenland. Unlikely, but crashing had been an unlikely thought, too before yesterday.
“The other reason is more significant,” said Alex who was now heating up three cans of soup in their cans. “No mosquitoes.”
That was one Sydney could agree to, having spent several summers on Baffin Island. He had heard that there were ten times more mosquitoes per square mile here than in any tropical region. Never before had Sydney seen clouds of mosquitoes. Yes, he was glad they were dormant, but the snow, plunging cold and predators were worrisome enough. “Hope we don’t see any polar bears making their way to the sea ice,” said Sydney.
“Might be fortunate for us if we do,” said Alex, stirring soup with a metal spoon. It was beginning to smell delicious. “A polar bear would be enough meat to sustain all of us for bit longer than our canned rations.”
“Don’t eat the liver, though,” said Hamilton. His brown eyes looked sleepy, which concerned Sydney. The pilot had conked his head during the crash. Alex had cleaned up the wound and applied butterfly tape to close the worse part of the gash. But he probably had a good concussion.
“Why not,” asked Sydney, hoping to keep him alert with conversation.
“Polar bear livers are poisonous,” he said. “Learned that in training for the RAF. Flew plenty of times over the arctic circle. First time I ever crashed. Yes, better that we had snow to cushion the impact.”
Sydney shook his head. The front ski on the Herc had snapped and the impact dug a trench half a mile long. He supposed if it had been rocky terrain instead, the damage to the plane would have been worse. But a crash was still a crash. And it got them further away from finding any trace of Moe or Elijah.
Hamilton began to nod off, his chin sloping toward his chest. “Do you think we should keep him awake,” asked Sydney.
Alex barely glanced at the man as he continued to stir each can in succession. “He’ll be fine. Downright snug in here.”
“For now, by the fire but we can’t go burning all our diesel fuel. We’ll need to conserve it,” said Sydney. When they crashed, one of the earliest orders that Alex gave was that someone collect the diesel before it coagulated. That was after discerning any injuries and making sure the engine fire was out. Of course, that right wing dug into the snow, snuffing out any fires.
The pilot jerked his head up. “Diesel,” he said. “That’s probably what happened. The diesel froze in the line of the right engine we had shut down. Caused a fire trying to power up, caught the other engine on fire before we shut it down.”
“Well,” said Alex, “At least we had enough engine power to get up this far and enough time to call in coordinates before the wind interfered.”
That was the main reason they decided to stay put. They were not within walking distance of any village, mine or base. With their coordinates known, they could dig in. If they had flown so far off track without any communication outside, no one would think to look for them over the land. They had survival gear, including the tarps snapping overhead and sleeping bags, food, water and fuel to burn in a common fire that served three shelters. Keeping part of it open was important to avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Soup is done,” announced Alex. Using his arctic glove like an oven mitt, he picked up cans of soup, setting one before Sydney and Hamilton. The third he held in his glove and at with a spoon clutched in his bare hand.
Sydney had already removed his own mittens, so he used one as Alex did. He blew on the first spoonful of soup, vegetable beef, and savored the hot bite as it filled his mouth with tangy-salty warmth. Never had canned soup tasted so good.
Hamilton did not touch his, as he was nodding off again. Sydney reached over and nudged the pilot’s parka-clad arm. He startled awake. “Eat some soup,” Sydney said.
“Oh, yes,” said Hamilton. “I was just letting it cool.”
“It’s best hot,” said Alex, “but be mindful of the can.” He held up his can, showing the glove he used to do so. The pilot nodded at him and took out a glove from within his jacket. “Good,” said Alex.
From behind the Herc, the wind howled like a beast from the elders’ stories. No wonder the Inuit of Baffin Island came up with such fanciful tales, thought Sydney. Not only the noise, but the long stretches of time in the dark and the cold to contemplate the noise.
That night, lying awake on his back, cocooned in an arctic sleeping bag, tugged tight with a draw string around his face, Sydney thought of Elijah. The winds howled, but snow merely swirled outside the shelter as they were protected by the plane from the full blast of the straight line winds.
Alex was asleep. His snores a testament to that fact. Hamilton didn’t snore but his breathing seemed slow and even as if asleep. As many times as the man had nodded off at the cooking fire, he didn’t doubt that he would be slumbering now in his bag. Sydney had expressed concern to Alex about Hamilton freezing. Normally a person woke up before freezing, but with a possible concussion, Hamilton might sleep through such impulses. Alex didn’t think so, but they agreed to wake him up during the night just to check in. Ask him his name, wiggle his toes. Alex set his watch for the first observation.
Other than the wind, it was so cold and empty, this night. Sydney wished he could dash off to sleep as easily as the others but his mind kept coming back to Elijah and the broken sea ice. Why did it open up that way? Had Elijah any warning? Where could he have gone but under. It was not a comforting thought. And Moe? What became of him. Maybe he really did go out to sea on a flow of ice, past Greenland. And what of those in Clyde River? Bad enough they had to wait on news of two missing loved ones, but now the search and rescue crew needed rescue.
“This is one way of thinking,” said Elijah. Sydney sat up. He was on a comfortable pad of hides within a dim iglu. He must be dreaming. Elijah was sizzling caribou on an open flame spit that many Inuit hunters used, packing stove, spit and fuel on their sleds. It smelled better than the canned soup. Sydney remembered that anytime Elijah disagreed, he didn’t really argue. He’d graciously acknowledge the point and then offer another. Two different ways of thinking without judging one right over the other.
“Thinking about what,” asked Sydney. He watched Elijah turn the spit, stop and then makes shadow puppets on the wall. He was smiling at Sydney like he were a boy to be entertained. Each shadow animal took form on the ice wall, each hide a black and white pattern of geometric shapes. As each animal took form, it ran in circles around the inner walls of the igloo. A seal chased a fox, a raven dove as if swimming and a narwhal flew across the highest pitch of the roof. Mesmerized, Sydney watched.
Elijah sat back and ate caribou, handing Sydney hot, greasy strips that should have burned his fingers but didn’t. In silence they watched the dance of the shadow animals on the wall. “These belong here,” Elijah said. “I am Inuk. I belong here.”
Sydney knew that Inuk was the singular for Inuit. Somehow that thought penetrated his mind in the dream-state as he watched the animals and ate caribou. “Where did you get the caribou,” asked Sydney, licking his fingers.
“The ravens feed me,” said Elijah. “They belong here.”
“The ice,” said Elijah, “It belongs here.” Suddenly, they were standing on the sea ice. Oddly, Sydney was in his dress reds and hat of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. White ice stretched for miles in three directions. White, solid, cold. Turning, Sydney was surprised to see the Walker Citadel rise up like a black fortress of rock, a hulking ruin of an ancient castle transported to the ends of the earth.
Sydney said, “This is one way of thinking.”
“Yes,” answered Elijah as they both stood on the ice. Elijah then turned to face Sydney, “But the ice is warm.”
“Warm,” asked Sydney, not understanding. “But the ice is cold.”
Elijah stomped with one foot on the ice. Sound reverberated as if the world were a drum and the ice its skin. The black and white shadow animals appeared, illuminated upon the black wall of rock.
“But the ice is warm,” said Elijah and he stomped again and the ice caved in, sucking the shadow animals down into a whirlpool of spinning black waters with chunks of floating ice, sea ice broken up, swirling with the animals. Elijah went down but then rose up from the middle of the widening pool as a huge white bird.
Sydney stood in his uniform, standing as if above the melting ice and sucking whirlpool. The white bird circled over head. Soon the mountains broke up like the sea ice, and the land sucked down into the whirlpool, too. The earth itself turned inside out and drained away. Sydney saw buildings, cars and planes, all black and white like shadow animals, but all breaking up and disappearing. And all went dark.
Sydney woke up with a startled jerk and gasp. It was as pitch black as the end of his dream. So real. It felt so real. But what was real was the silence and the darkness. The wind had stopped. Sydney thought about his dream, could almost taste the savoriness of the caribou.
In the darkness, a thought occurred to him; Elijah’s way of thinking. If the arctic broke up and melted, would the rest of the earth endure?