By Lily Tuck
On board the Caledonia Star, sailing through the Beagle Channel and past the city of Ushuaia on the way to Antarctica, Maud’s husband says to her, “Those lights will probably be the last we’ll see for a while.”
Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the channel; already there does not look to be room for people. Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen—the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.
Also, Maud spots her first whale, another omen. She spots two.
In the morning, early, the ship’s siren sounds a fire drill. Maud and Peter quickly put on waterproof pants, boots, sweaters, parkas, hats, gloves—in the event of an emergency, they have been told to wear their warmest clothes. They strap on the life jackets that are hanging from a hook on the back of their cabin door and follow their fellow passengers up the stairs. The first officer directs them to the ship’s saloon; they are at Station 2, he tells them. On deck, Maud can see the lifeboats being lowered smoothly and efficiently and not, Maud can’t help but think, how it must have been on board the Andrea Doria—a woman, who survived the ship’s collision, once told Maud how undisciplined and negligent the Italian crew was. The first officer is French—the captain and most of the other officers are Norwegian—and he is darkly handsome. As he explains the drill, he looks steadily and impassively above the passengers’ heads as if, Maud thinks, the passengers are cattle; in vain, she tries to catch his eye. When one of the passengers tries to interrupt with a joke, the first officer rebukes him with a sharp shake of the head and continues speaking.
When the drill is over and still wearing his life jacket, Peter leaves the saloon, saying he is going up on deck to breathe some fresh air, and Maud goes back down to the cabin.
Of the 80 or so passengers on board the Caledonia Star, the majority are couples; a few single women travel together; one woman is in a wheelchair. The average age, Maud guesses, is mid to late 60s and, like them—Peter was a lawyer and Maud a speech therapist (she still works three days a week at a private school)— most are retired professionals. And although Maud and Peter learned about the cruise from their college alumni magazine, none of the passengers—some of whom they assume must have attended the same college—look familiar to them. “Maybe they all took correspondence courses,” Peter says. Since his retirement, Peter has been restless and morose. “No one,” he complains to Maud, “answers my phone calls anymore.” The trip to Antarctica was Maud’s idea.
When Maud steps out on deck to look for Peter, she does not see him right away. The ship rolls from side to side—they have started to cross the Drake Passage—and already they have lost sight of land. When Maud finally finds Peter, her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him. Standing at the ship’s rail, looking down at the water, Peter does not appear to notice Maud. Finally, without moving his head, he says in a British-inflected, slightly nasal voice, “Did you know that the Drake Passage is a major component of the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system and that it connects all the other major oceans and that it influences the water-mass characteristics of the deep water over a large portion of the world?”
“Of course, darling,” Maud answers in the same sort of voice and takes Peter’s arm. “Everyone knows that.”
Peter has an almost photographic memory and is, Maud likes to say, the smartest man she has ever met. Peter claims that he would have preferred being a mathematician to being a lawyer. He is an attractive man, tall and athletic looking, although he walks with a slight limp—he broke his leg as a child and the leg did not set properly—which gives him a certain vulnerability and adds to his appeal (secretly, Maud accuses him of exaggerating the limp to elicit sympathy). And he still has a full head of hair, notwithstanding that it has turned gray, which he wears surprisingly long. Maud, too, is good-looking: slim, tall, and blonde (the blonde is no longer natural but such a constant that Maud would be hard put to say what her natural color is); her blue eyes, she claims, are still her best feature. Together, they make a handsome couple; they have been married for over 40 years.
Maud knows Peter so well that she also knows that when he adopts this bantering tone with her, he is either hiding something or he is feeling depressed. Or both. Instinctively, she tightens her grip on his arm.
“Let’s go in,” she says to him in her normal voice. “I’m cold.”
In their cabin, the books, the clock, the bottle of sleeping pills, everything that had been neatly stacked on the nightstand is, on account of the ship’s motion, lying pell-mell on the floor.
Instead of a double bed, their cabin has two narrow bunks. The bunks are made up in an unusual way, a Norwegian way, Maud guesses—the sheet wrapped around the blanket as if it were a parcel and tucked in. In her bed, Maud feels as if she were lying inside a cocoon; also, she does not dislike sleeping alone for a change. As if Peter could read her mind—he has an uncanny ability to do this sometimes—he pats the side of his bunk and says, “Come here for a minute, Maud.” Maud hesitates, then decides not to answer. She does not feel like making love—too much trouble and often, recently, sex does not work out, which makes her anxious and Peter anxious and angry both. Over their heads, on the wall, the public-address speaker crackles and a voice says: “Long before the poet Samuel Coleridge penned his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the albatross was a creature of reverence and superstition. The sailors believed that when their captain died, his soul took the form of an albatross. Of course I cannot speak for our excellent Captain Halvorsen, but I, for one, would not mind being reincarnated as an albatross.” In the bed next to Maud, Peter snorts and says again, “Maudie, come over here.” Maud pretends not to hear him. “By the way, my name is Michael,” the voice continues, “and in case you have not yet met me, I am your naturalist on board.” Peter says something that Maud does not quite catch although she can guess at the meaning. “The albatross has the largest wingspan—the record, I believe is 13 feet, 3 inches—and the oldest known albatross is 70 years old. When he is 10, the albatross goes back to where he was born to mate—” Maud tenses for a comment from Peter but this time he makes none. The public-address speaker crackles with static, “ . . . feeds at night . . . eats luminous squid, fish, and krill.” Maud looks over at Peter’s bunk and sees that Peter’s eyes are closed. Relieved, she reaches up to turn down the volume on the speaker as Michael says, “The albatross will fly for miles without moving its wing, or setting foot on land. Soaring and gliding over the water, the albatross’s zigzag flight is determined by the wind.”
The captain’s cocktail party is held in the saloon—or, as Maud refers to it, Emergency Station 2. She is dressed in her best slacks and a red cashmere sweater, and Peter wears his blue blazer and a tie. The saloon is packed tight with passengers who are all talking at once. Right away, Maud orders a vodka martini at the bar while Peter has a beer.
“Take it easy,” Peter says, handing her the martini.
The ship’s motion is more pronounced. Maud hangs on to the edge of the bar with one hand and holds her martini glass in the other. Sometimes Maud drinks too much. She blames her age and the fact that she is thin and cannot hold her liquor the way she used to—not the actual amount she drinks. Standing in the center of the room, Captain Halvorsen is a tall man with thinning red hair; he smiles politely as he talks to the passengers. Maud guesses that he must dread this evening and the enforced sociability. Looking around the room, she does not see the darkly handsome first officer. A woman holding a golf club—which, at first, Maud thought was a cane—walks over to them and, standing next to Peter at the bar, orders a glass of white wine.
“If I am not mistaken, that’s a 5 iron you have in your hand,” Peter says to her in his nasal voice.
“Yes, it is,” the woman answers. She is dark and trim and does not smile.
“Do you always travel with a golf club?” Peter, when he wants, can be charming and act completely entranced by what the other person is saying. If that person happens to be a woman, Maud tends to resent it even though she knows that Peter’s attention may not be entirely genuine. Peter continues, “By the way, my name is Peter and this is my wife, Maud.”
“I’m Barbara,” the woman says. “And, yes, I always travel with my golf club.”
“As protection?” Maud manages to ask.
“No,” Barbara frowns. “My goal is to drive a golf ball in every country of the world.”
“And have you?” Peter asks. He does a little imitation golf swing, holding his bottle of beer in both hands. When, in the past, Maud has accused Peter of toying with people, Peter has accused Maud of misreading him.
“As a matter of fact, I have. Or nearly. Except for Antarctica, which of course is not a country but a continent, and a few African nations which are too dangerous. I began 20 years ago—”
Why? Maud is tempted to ask.
“After my husband died,” Barbara says as if to answer Maud.
“Can you get me another martini?” Maud asks Peter.
That night, Maud cannot sleep. Every time she closes her eyes, she feels dizzy and nauseated and she has to open her eyes again; she tries sitting up in bed. To make matters worse, the Caledonia Star creaks and shudders as all night it pitches and lurches through a heavy sea. Once, after a particularly violent lurch, Maud calls out to Peter, but either he is asleep and does not hear her or, perverse, he does not answer her. To herself, Maud vows that she will never have another drink.
In the morning, at seven according to the clock that is on the floor—Maud has finally managed to sleep for a few hours—Maud and Peter are awoken by the now-familiar voice on the public-address speaker.
“Good morning, folks! It’s Michael! I hope you folks were not still sleeping! For those of you who are on the starboard side of the ship—that means the right side for the landlubbers—if you look out your porthole real quick, you’ll see a couple of Minke whales.”
When Maud looks outside, the sea is calm and it is raining.
“Do you see them?” Peter asks from his bed.
“No,” Maud says. “I don’t see any Minke whales.”
“Michael is lying to us,” Peter says rolling over on to his other side. “Be a good girl and give me a back rub. This mattress is for the birds.”
In the rubber Zodiac, Maud starts to feel better. The cold air clears her head and she is looking forward to walking on land. Behind her, the Caledonia Star rests solidly at anchor as they make their way across to Livingston Island. The passengers in the boat are all wearing orange life jackets as well as identical red parkas—when Maud inquired about the parkas, she was told that red was easy to see and made it easier for the crew to tell whether any passenger was left behind on shore. And had a passenger ever been left behind? Maud continued. Yes, once. A woman had tried to hide. Hide? Why? Maud had asked again, but she got no reply.
Holding her golf club between her legs, Barbara sits across from them in the Zodiac. Instead of a cap, she wears a visor that has Golfers Make Better Lovers printed on it. Michael, the naturalist, is young, blond, and bearded, and he drives the Zodiac with smooth expertise. Once he lands the boat, he gives each passenger a hand, cautioning them: “Careful where you walk, the ground may be slippery. And, steer clear of those seals,” he also says, pointing. “Especially the big fur seal, he’s not friendly.”
Looking like giant rubber erasers, about a dozen seals are lying close together along the shore; their beige and gray hides are mottled and scarred. Except for one seal who raises his head to look at them as they walk past—the fur seal no doubt—none of the seals moves. Maud gives them a wide berth and makes no eye contact; Peter, on the other hand, deliberately walks up closer to the seals and takes several photos of them.
A few yards inland, Maud sees Barbara lean over to tee up a golf ball. She watches as Barbara takes up her stance and takes a few practice swings. Several of the other passengers are watching her as well. One man calls out, “Make it a hole in one, Barbara!” The golf ball sails straight toward the brown cliffs that rise from the shore; a few people applaud. Barbara tees up and hits another golf ball, then another. Each time, the sound is a sharp crack, like ice breaking.
Michael is right—it is slippery. Wet shale and bits of snow litter the ground; also there are hundreds—no, perhaps, thousands—of penguins on Livingston Island. Maud has to watch where she steps. It would not do, she thinks, to break a leg in Antarctica or to crush a penguin. Like the seals, the penguins appear oblivious to people. They are small and everywhere underfoot and Maud feels as if she is walking among dwarves.
When Peter catches up to her, he says, “You think one of these penguins is going to try to brood on a golf ball?”
“Incubate, you mean,” Maud says. “You brood on a chick.”
“Whatever,” Peter answers, turning away from her. He does not like being corrected, and although Maud should know better by now, old habits die hard.
In the Zodiac, on the way back to the Caledonia Star, the wind has picked up and the sea is rougher. In spite of Michael’s efforts, waves slap at the boat’s sides and cold spray wets the back of the passengers’ red parkas.
“Tomorrow, we will see icebergs,” Captain Halvorsen promises during dinner. Maud and Peter are sitting at his table along with another couple, Philip and Janet. Philip claims to have been in the same college class with Peter and to remember him well (he alludes to an incident involving the misuse of cafeteria trays, but Peter has no recollection of it and shakes his head). Janet, a tall brunette with smooth olive skin and dark full eyebrows, is much younger; she never attended college, she tells Maud, giggling. She took up modeling instead.
“If the ice were to melt,” Captain Halvorsen tells Peter, “the water would rise 66 meters.”
“Isn’t a meter like a yard?” Janet asks. “I was never any good at math.”
Sitting next to Maud, Philip, who is in real estate, is describing the booming building industry in Florida where he lives.
“The grounding line is where the ice mass begins to float,” Maud overhears Captain Halvorsen say. “In Antarctica, icebergs form when ice breaks away from large flat plates called ice shelves.”
“I read that the Ross Ice Shelf is the size of the state of Connecticut,” Peter says.
“The size of France,” Captain Halvorsen says.
Leaning over, Janet says something to Peter that Maud cannot hear, which makes him laugh. Maud watches, as still laughing, Peter puts his hand on Janet’s forearm and pats it in a gesture of easy camaraderie.
“Can you pass the wine, Philip?” Maud interrupts him.
“Eighty-five percent of the ice in the world is in Antarctica,” Captain Halvorsen says. Then, as an afterthought, he adds, “and 6 percent of the ice in the world is in Greenland.”
And the rest? The 9 percent? Maud wishes to ask but does not.
For years, as a child, Maud had a recurring dream. A nightmare. In her sleep, she always knew when the nightmare was beginning but she was unable to stop it or wake herself up. The other thing, too, was that Maud could never describe it. The dream had nothing to do with people or monsters or violent situations or anything she might know or recognize. The dream could not be put into words. The closest way she could come to describing it was to say that it was about numbers (even so, that was not quite right as the numbers were not the familiar ones like eight or 17 or 224); they were something other. (When consulted about the nightmare, the family physician suggested that Maud stop taking math for a while but, at school, math was Maud’s best subject.) The numbers (if in fact they were numbers) in the dream always started out small and manageable—although, again, Maud knew that was temporary—for soon they multiplied and became so large and unmanageable and incomprehensible that Maud was swept away into a kind of terrible abyss, a kind of black hole full of numbers.
It has been years now since Maud has thought about the dream. Antarctica, the vastness, the ice, the inhospitable landscape, is what she assumes has reminded her of it. When she tries to describe the dream to Peter and mentions the math part, Peter says he knows just what she means.
“You’re in good company, all sorts of people had it. The Greeks, Aristotle, Archimedes, Pascal.”
“No, what the dream stands for.”
“Which is?” Maud is not sure whether Peter is being serious.
“The terror of the infinite.”
“Interestingly, the ancient Greeks did not include zero or infinity in their mathematics,” Peter continues, displaying his fondness for the arcane. “Their word for infinity was also their word for mess.”
Captain Halvorsen is right. The next morning they see icebergs. The sea is filled with them. Icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Some are as tall as six-story buildings, others remind Maud of modern sculptures and are tinged with blue—a brilliant aquamarine blue. It is also snowing.
Despite the snow, Peter spends the morning on deck with his camera, taking pictures. When Maud joins him, he says, “Have you ever seen anything like those icebergs? Have you ever seen a blue like that?”
“Are you warm enough?” Maud asks. A part of her—a part she dislikes—resents seeing Peter so happy and excited about the icebergs, and she feels excluded. At the same time, she also envies his ability to be so genuinely absorbed and enchanted by nature—at home, Peter is always pointing out large, beautiful trees to her. His appreciation seems pure and unmotivated and Maud wishes she could share it but she is too self-conscious. Too self-referential, she decides. She cannot look at the stars without wishing for a falling one, or gaze at the sea without thinking “drown.”
Each time the Caledonia Star runs into a large ice floe, there is a loud thumping noise, but since the ship’s hull is made out of steel, there is no need for concern. Many of the ice floes have penguins and seals on them. When the ship goes by, the penguins, alarmed, dive off like bullets; the seals, indifferent, do not move. Often, blood, looking like paint splashed on a canvas, stains the ice around the seals—the remains of their kill. In addition to fur seals, Maud is told, there are Crabeater seals, Ross seals, leopard seals, elephant seals, and the Weddell seals.
“A marine mammal exhales before he dives,” Michael is saying over the public-address speaker in Maud and Peter’s cabin, “and oxygen is stored in his blood, not in his lungs.”
This time, Maud and Peter are making love on one of the bunks.
“Shall I turn him off?” Maud starts to move away.
“No. Stay put.” Peter has an erection.
“Seals collapse their lungs when they dive. Their heart rate drops and their arteries constrict. In fact, everything is shut down—”
Maud half listens.
“Except for the brain, the adrenal, and the placenta—that is, of course, if the seal is pregnant—”
Afterward, still lying pressed together on the little bunk, Maud frees her arm, which has gone to sleep, from under Peter and, as if to make up for her movement which breaks the post-coital spell, she kisses Peter lightly. Also, in spite of herself, she asks, “So what are you going to do with all the photographs you took of icebergs?”
Peter does not answer Maud right away. He shifts his body away from her a little before he says in his British-inflected, nasal voice, “Why enlarge them, naturally.”
Instead of going ashore again in the Zodiac with the others, Maud decides to remain on board. Except for the woman in the wheelchair who appears to be asleep (her eyes are closed and she breathes heavily), Maud is alone in the saloon, and from where she is sitting reading or trying to read her book, she can watch the passengers, dressed in their red parkas, disembark at Fort Lockroy, the British Station. She watches as they spread out and start to climb the snow-covered hill behind the station. Some of the passengers have brought along ski poles and Maud tries to pick out which red parka belongs to Peter and which belongs to Janet, but the figures are too far away. She thinks again about the woman who tried to hide and again she wonders why. Was the woman suicidal? But freezing to death, Maud also thinks, may not be such a bad way to die. How did the Emily Dickinson poem go? “As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— / First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—.” In spite of herself, Maud shivers. Then she makes herself open her book. When next she looks up, all the figures in their red parkas have disappeared.
“You didn’t miss anything,” Peter tells Maud when he returns from the station. Nevertheless, he looks animated. “There was a museum that was kind of creepy—an old sled and some frying pans—but Janet bought some postcards.”
“Ah, lovely Janet,” Maud says.
“What do you mean by that?” Peter asks.
“What do you suppose I mean?”
“For God’s sake, Maud, why must you always be suspicious of me? Why do you always attribute some underhanded motive to everything I do?” Peter turns and limps out of the saloon, leaving Maud.
The woman in the wheelchair has woken up; she gives a little embarrassed cough.
The first time, 20 or so years ago, Maud accused Peter of having an affair, the discussion had turned violent—Maud threw a plate of food at Peter and Peter picked up a glass full of wine and flung it across the table at Maud, shouting, “I can’t live like this!” Then he left home for three days. When finally he returned, he did not say where he had been and Maud did not ask. Nor did they ever again discuss either the fight or the affair. What Maud remembers vividly is her panic. During the time Peter was gone, she could hardly breathe, let alone eat, and she could not sleep. She was assailed by all kinds of conflicting emotions, but the dominant one was fear: the fear that she had driven Peter to some action she would regret and the fear that she would never see him again.
When the Caledonia Star crosses the Antarctic Circle, all the passengers crowd onto the bridge to look. The sky is a cloudless blue and the sea calm, but the horizon is a wall of icebergs. Maud recognizes the handsome French first officer up in the crow’s nest, dressed in a bright yellow slicker and waterproof pants. He is reporting back to Captain Halvorsen on the bridge by walkie-talkie. The ship’s chief officer is tracing the ship’s course on a sea chart with a compass and a protractor; on the radar screen, the larger tabular icebergs show up as small luminous points.
Below on deck, Peter is looking through his binoculars.
“What do you see?” Maud asks but she cannot hear his answer.
By then, Maud is able to recognize most of the passengers on board the ship, and she knows many of them by name. One flight below their cabin, she has discovered the gym and she exercises regularly on the treadmill. She has also become more tolerant—even of Barbara, the golfer—and has made a few friends. One is the woman in the wheelchair.
“She’s from Philadelphia and she’s already identified five different species of albatross,” Maud tells Peter, “the Grey-headed Albatross, the Sooty Albatross, the Wandering—”
“What’s wrong with her?” Peter wants to know. “Why is she in a wheelchair?”
Maud shrugs. “I didn’t ask.”
After dinner one night, a film is shown in the saloon. The film is old and grainy and tells the true story of the perilous voyage of a ship named the Peking. Sailing around Cape Horn, the Peking encounters a terrible storm—the mast breaks, waves crash on deck—and, to make matters worse, the captain of the Peking has brought his dog, a vicious little terrier, on board. The terrier is seen jumping up and biting the sailors who have as yet not been swept overboard. The dog provides a kind of gruesome comic relief and makes everyone laugh, including Maud and Peter.
When the film ends, Janet tells Maud, “I once had a dog who looked just like that. His name was Pepe.”
“I love dogs,” Maud, expansive, answers her.
Peter moves to sit next to Janet and starts to describe a cruise he once took in the Mediterranean as a college student. “I was on deck one night after dinner—we were docked in Cannes—and my wallet which was in my back pocket must have fallen overboard—”
Maud has heard the story a thousand times and does not listen. Instead she strikes up a conversation with the woman in the wheelchair. “Have you always loved birds?” Maud asks.
“You can’t imagine! The most extraordinary piece of luck,” Peter is telling Janet as he leans in closer to her, “A fisherman caught my wallet in his net. The wallet had over a thousand dollars in cash in it—I was planning to buy a car in England, an MG—”
Looking over, Maud sees that Janet has stopped paying attention to what Peter is saying. She is looking past him toward the door of the saloon and Maud follows her gaze. She sees the handsome French first officer standing there; she sees him signal to Janet.
“Excuse me,” Janet says, getting up and leaving the saloon.
“Pinned up on the wall of the Cannes police station was every last dollar—” Peter’s voice trails off.
Maud looks away. She is fairly used to seeing Peter flirt, but she is not used to seeing him defeated.
A few minutes later, Peter says, “I’m tired, I’m going to bed.”
Maud would like to say something that might be of comfort to him but cannot think what that might be. She merely nods.
When Maud wakes up during the night to go to the bathroom (or head as she knows she is supposed to call it), she sees that Peter is not in his bed. The sheets and blankets are half lying on the floor as if Peter had thrown them off in a rush.
“Peter,” Maud calls out in the dark.
Turning on the light, Maud goes to the bathroom, then pulls her jeans over her nightgown, grabs her parka, a hat, and gloves.
The ship’s corridor is dimly lit and empty. As Maud half runs toward the stairs, her steps echo eerily. All the cabin doors are shut and, briefly, she imagines the occupants sleeping peacefully inside. The ship’s motor hums smoothly, there is an occasional thud of the hull hitting an ice floe. Her heart banging in her chest, Maud runs up to the saloon. The saloon, too, is dimly lit and empty. In the dining room, the chairs are stacked, the floor ready for cleaning. From there, she opens a door and goes out on deck. The cold air momentarily takes her breath away but the sky is unnaturally light. The ship’s huge searchlights move back and forth over the sea, restlessly illuminating here an ice floe, there an iceberg. Inside the bridge house, Captain Halvorsen, holding a mug of coffee, stands next to the pilot at the wheel. The handsome first officer briefly glances up from the radar screen as Maud comes in.
“My husband—” she says.
“Is he ill?” Captain Halvorsen asks, without taking his eyes from the horizon. “Has something happened?”
“I’m looking for him,” Maud answers, intimidated.
His face expressionless, the first officer continues to study the radar screen.
Every few seconds the pilot at the wheel shouts out numbers, coordinates, compass points. He, too, pays Maud no attention.
Directly in front of the ship’s bow, a tabular iceberg that is taller and longer than the Caledonia Star appears yellowish-green in the spotlight. In the bridge house all the attention is fixed on getting safely past it and not on anything that Maud says or does. For a moment longer, Maud stands motionless, not daring to speak or breathe, and watches the boat’s slow, safe progress past the iceberg.
“Where were you?” Peter asks when Maud opens the cabin door and switches on the light. He is in bed, the sheet and blanket neatly tucked in around him.
“Where were you?” Despite the enormous relief she feels on seeing him, Maud is angry.
Peter tells her he went up on deck for a few minutes and they must have missed each other. At night, he says, the icebergs look even more amazing. “All that uninhabitable empty space. So pure, so absolute.” Peter sounds euphoric, then, as if suddenly remembering something important, he says, “Maud, it’s 4:30 in the morning.”
Maud does not feel tired, nor does she feel any desire to sleep. Back in bed, she has switched off the light when Peter calls over to her, in his slightly inflected British voice, “Sweet dreams, darling.”
Maud says nothing.
Lily Tuck is the author of four novels, including The News from Paraguay, which won a National Book Award in 2004. Her latest book, Woman of Rome, is a biography of the Italian writer Elsa Morante.
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