A half dozen Weddell seals lay in the distance like giant slugs baked on pavement. Six austral summers at McMurdo, Mike has seen seals appear and disappear on the gray sea ice, but has never seen one actually move.
This season Station installed an observation tube on the sea ice that extends fifteen feet below the surface. Mike’s with Laura, a first-season Dining Attendant with a degree in decorating cakes. They sign in at the firehouse for their turn inside the tube. They’re given a radio, a key, and a check-in time. One minute late reporting back, the dispatcher says, we send Search and Rescue.
A twenty minute walk from Station, the tube, from above, looks like something out of a Mario Bros. game, huge PVC pipe leading to another world. They spread their heavy Station-issued parkas on the ice so they’ll fit together in the tube. Mike undoes the lock, lifts the lid, sets it aside, goes down first. Laura follows. They descend metal handholds until they reach the part surrounded by thick clear plastic on all sides, and then down a rope ladder the last few feet.
From below, the ice glows children’s-toothpaste blue under the intense Antarctic sun. The bottom of the ice is covered with sharp slivers protruding all directions like thousands of frozen urchins.
At the bottom of the tube, Laura leans against his chest. A flask inside the big pocket of his coveralls digs into his sternum. He brought it intending to drink, but, given their situation, decides better of it. She points out a tiny jellyfish, no bigger than a thumbnail, floating before them. While the two of them try to shift into a comfortable position, she notices dozens more jellyfish in every direction. No heart, no brain, no eyes, she says. He imagines they’re similar in size to what’s growing inside her. She presses into him, her neck gaiter against his mouth. The first night he was with her, she smelled like cinnamon, vanilla. Now she smells, he thinks, like sweat, like him.
She grips his hand. Hers is strikingly warm, given they are coatless under the Ross Sea. He feels his own hands begin to shake. When they tried to talk about it last time, the things he said didn’t come out right. He’d wanted her to understand that everything good in his life he owes to Antarctica. He meant for that statement to include her. He wrote some things down on a piece of paper, things about grease-stained fingers buckling children into go-karts for several years, those same dirty fingers spooning pea soup into an abusive father’s crooked, post-stroke mouth. That paper, he now realizes, is folded in a parka pocket, fifteen feet above them.
He shifts, preparing to retrieve the note, when they hear a faint beeping noise. He thinks it’s the radio, which he remembers was also left in his parka. The noise gets louder. Suddenly a Weddell seal, big, spotted, fluid, swims past them. It circles, faster than he would’ve thought. Then it swims away, quickly out of sight, deeper out to sea.
They wait in silence, hoping for a return. He considers the flask. He considers pulling down her neck gaiter to kiss the bare skin of her neck. He considers February will be here before long and he’ll be somewhere else for a while, though he doesn’t know where. A tiny green fish with head and eyes strangely large for its body swims by.
Laura says that kind of fish has antifreeze in its blood that keeps ice crystals from forming. Then she says she talked to med staff this morning. He traces the big veins that protrude in her hands. Med staff arranged her flight to Christchurch on the next C-17 for the procedure. They’ll allow her to return to McMurdo to finish the season. He traces faster. He wonders if a question is implied in her words.
He leans sideways, head pressed against the tube. He inhales, then breathes against the plastic. He expects it to fog. It doesn’t. He sits back hoping she didn’t witness his failure, but she seems to be looking into the blue for signs of life. He places his hand around her belly knowing some point soon they’ll need to climb straight up through the ice.
Justin Herrmann is the author of the short fiction collection Highway One, Antarctica (MadHat Press 2014). His stories have appeared in Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019, as well as journals including River Styx, Mid-American Review, Washington Square Review, and Bull. He spent 24 months living and working at McMurdo Station, Antarctica and now lives in Alaska. He holds an MFA from University of Alaska Anchorage.