Fiction · 02/02/2011

A Story

I wrote a story about a husband and wife who were both unfaithful to each other but in a way that didn’t hurt anyone. They had loosened the marital bonds just enough that they could each do what they wanted but still go on together. One day the husband found out that he was very sick and would die soon. To console himself, the husband took a new lover. It just worked out that way, that they met just then. So in the evenings he begged his wife to comfort him, both over his fear of losing his life and because when he died he would lose this other woman, beautiful Rose, who had immediately become in his eyes the most precious being on earth.

Though this part wasn’t in the story, everything the wife did and said was colored by the fact that she had been abandoned on an ice floe when she was four years old. Her family had been steaming through the Canadian Arctic when a lead of open water closed up ahead of them. Before they could reverse the ship in the narrow lane, the ice clamped together behind as well. After three days, the ship, locked in the dense pack ice, began to break up. The family scrambled out, dragging crates of food and oil, and took off on snow shoes.

The little girl lagged behind and was not careful in her steps. She tripped across a tiny crack, and by the time she got herself to her feet, the ground below her had broken free and bobbed, a circle of ice, in a seam of gray water. She watched her father hurry away, not heeding her screams and sobs. She never knew whether he had deliberately let her go in order to increase the chances that the two older children would survive, or whether he didn’t hear her, hadn’t noticed, until later he checked and his dear little shadow had gone. He may have come back for her, but she had already traveled on the current a distance of many miles, and so he didn’t find her.

Since she grew up to marry the sick man, we know she survived. A mother polar bear rescued her, nursed her on bear milk and curled up around her at night to keep her warm. In fact, a few days before their ship stuck in the ice, the girl’s family had shot this polar bear’s cub. They had watched from the deck as the mother bear sniffed and prodded her baby’s corpse, walked around and around the body and howled. She would not leave it, though its head had become a pulp of blood and brains. She was so persistent that the family gave up the chance to eat the baby bear’s flesh and wear its skin as a coat.

The mother bear fed the girl and swam her on its back across the channels. Gulls and terns beat overhead, or the sky tumbled with empty mist. Seals shafted their round heads above the water and blinked their lustrous eyes. Green and purple flashed across the horizon at night, while the days stretched forward shimmering claws of white and gray. One morning the bear landed the girl at a whaling station on a rocky island. There a missionary couple adopted her, and she led the rest of her childhood uneventfully in San Francisco. At her wedding, she wore a narrow-waisted dress that swept into oceans of tulle, unending lengths of froth and lace that pleased everybody, though the couple themselves were not that traditional.

So at night, her husband clung to her arm talking and crying. Every day he took a new diagnostic test, blood drawn from his groin, fluid from his spine. He prepared himself for procedures by reading pamphlets and fasting. His schedule mimicked a busy executive’s, with all his appointments and meetings. His new lover, Rose, had little time for him. Perhaps she was worn out by a man who was so terrified. Though she seemed kind, she could have been hiding her distaste, out of pity, or because he wouldn’t last long anyway. He wasn’t sure, and he rehashed minuscule conversations with her, asking his wife’s opinion.

His wife lay on her back, feeling his tears slip warm and mobile down her shoulder. Before her family’s ship went down, the ice had twisted and upended it. It towered above them like a four-storey hotel, spiralling at the waist, the frayed ends of timber jutting out. The wood cracked, crack, crack, each individual beam and plank letting out its lone echoing pop. The whole structure ground in on itself, the right nearing the left, the outside clamoring for the inside, until the entire thing shuddered and dived under, the ice closing neatly and silently over it.

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Angela Woodward is the author of The Human Mind (Ravenna Press, 2007) and End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010).