In Lindsay Tigue’s “The Harshest Landscape We Know,” a woman who has recently lost her husband writes a series of letters to people who have frozen to death. Tigue’s story is dense, disturbing, and powerful. Read on.
“I have a daughter and lately she looks at me and asks me questions I will never be able to answer. I hate to be her dose of reality, but she wants too much of me. . . . She wants to bring the dead to life. She doesn’t understand the dead and I try to explain what happened to you. I try to show there are other people out there who don’t come back and there are those who miss them.”
January 24, 1984
Dear Robert Falcon Scott,
I often imagine your reaction when you received Roald Amundsens’s telegraph: Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen. And just like that you were in a race for the pole. How concise news can be. I never pictured the South Pole as an actual place, but I’ve learned it is located on a plateau beyond the sharp points of the Transantarctic Mountains.
My husband Seth used to talk about the site of your expedition as a distant abstraction. He would say that his father, whom he hadn’t seen for years, was as far away as the South Pole. That’s how it feels, he once said. Another abstraction, of course.
I should stop and apologize. I should not write to the dead. But ever since Seth died, I can only reach toward people who are not here. I hope you understand.
There is so much I can never learn from you, Mr. Scott. Here is what I know of your story. Amundsen beat you to the pole. In 1911, you’d been working toward your trip for twelve years since you were appointed leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition. You had Siberian-bred ponies instead of sled dogs, and you had to wait until Antarctic spring—in November—because you worried about the ponies freezing. As your group trekked south, you slaughtered them for meat. Four men would make the last leg of the journey with you, all of you dragging your gear in sleds and sleeping through the cold nights in reindeer skins, huddled in a tent.
My four-year-old daughter plays in the other room as I write you this. Outside, the snow keeps falling and I can scarcely believe it is the same winter it was at Christmas, when Seth died. Years have passed, it seems. The doctor who prescribed me sleeping pills told me it was normal to feel this way. Sometimes, I look at the calendar, and count the days one by one, back to 1983.
Paige, my strange and wonderful daughter, has blond hair and freckles and right now, she sits by the sleeping, shaggy retriever we have—Toby—and piles blocks on him until they fall down. They always fall down. With every dog breath Toby takes, they fall down. Paige is able to focus more on tasks like this lately. She stares so intently and scrunches her eyes as if she can will the blocks to stay where they are.
Paige and I both stay where we are lately. I tell her we are like the animals in winter tucked beneath the snow. When we did go outside more, in December, I would tell Paige to put her mittened hand up to her ear and bend near the icy drifts. “Can you hear them breathing?” I would ask her. She would always say yes.
You roamed, Mr. Scott. My husband’s father was an explorer of sorts, too. I never used to wonder what makes me different. I live so close to where I grew up. I have never felt the need to travel, or leave.