Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer who lives in Norway and writes in English. Her stories combine the realistic and the imaginary, prose and poetry, and are inspired by, among others, science, history, philosophy, music and film. Berit’s fiction has appeared or will appear in literary journals such as Unstuck, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen and decomP magazinE. She’s also had haiku poems and creative non-fiction work published, as well as popular science articles in Norwegian. Berit was a semi-finalist in the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Competition in 2011 and two of her stories received an honorable mention by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year vol. 4. In September 2011 Berit’s novel, The Empty City, a story about silence, was released, and in February 2012 Turtleneck Press published Berit’s chapbook What Girls Really Think. Berit’s collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in November 2012. Readers can find more about the author at her personal website. The following story, “The White,” was originally published in The Medulla Review (as “Waving at Snow”) and is collected in Beneath the Liquid Skin. We’re delighted to reprint this story here at Weirdfictionreview.com. – The Editors
“Going outside for a bit,” you say. “Just finished all my samples.”
“Stay close,” Professor Johansen says. “Storm’s coming.”
Last year one of the professor’s PhD students froze to death just fifty meters from the base. In a blizzard, he failed to find his way from the infrared observatory to the housing unit. It must have been difficult for the professor to notify the student’s parents.
You leave the fat twin barrels of the hab and lab units behind, as well as the rest of the camp: storage with supplies, food, tools, and snowmobiles; the generator; the water drill; the platform where samples from deep within the Antarctic ice cap are obtained; and the astronomical infrared observatory farther out in the white.
The ground is a thin layer of hard snow atop four kilometers of ice, older than the last two geological epochs. The sky is pale, veiled by a thin mist, ice crystals in the lower atmosphere.
You’re this year’s logistics assistant. You help the camp leader keep track of supplies, make sure there’s enough diesel for the generator and that the fuel stays liquid, ascertain that the right science and medical equipment comes in so the researchers don’t go crazy because their work is delayed, phone the main base on the coast to check that your orders haven’t been left out, and update the food and drink storage. Since there is no room on the ice for specialists, everyone has at least two jobs. You double as kitchen help three days a week, and assist Doctor Lubin in collecting swabs of microorganisms from floors and walls in the housing unit on Tuesdays and Fridays.
You applied for the winterover, so you must feel attracted to something here—maybe the isolation, or the peace? However, you’re not sure humans ought to be here. Anything that doesn’t have antifreeze in its veins to prevent the pack ice of the inner ocean from piercing soft cells when the white descends and works its cold magic might not have any right to be here.
The white isn’t just ice; it’s silence. In deep space it’s so cold molecules and atoms have stopped singing and have fallen silent. That’s how the white feels.
The horizon is a vague, unwavering curve that stretches 360 degrees from your right hand to your left. When the moon approaches the horizon, the Antarctic mirage squashes the orb flat. It’s a sight that takes time to get used to.
Your blue shadow skits across the ground. The landscape is colorless, monotonous. No wonder the emperor penguins at the coast rush to investigate when they see something new. When you first met them, you tried to count the black and white shapes. The bipedal birds packed close and walled you in, like they do with one another when it’s cold. They accepted you, a strange giant avian from the soft north. The noise and smell of twenty-thousand birds was overpowering, yet you happily spent the night inside their feathery mill. It was warm and friendly and loud, the last reassurance for a long time.
When the team finally found you, they sprayed you with chlorinated water and gave you a good talking to.
“Something’s wrong with that kid,” someone muttered.
“How on earth did he pass the medical?” they wonder.
You’re not sure yourself. Your health is good. You’re systematic and conscientious and not too impractical. You don’t say much. Don’t mind being alone. Maybe that’s what convinced the doctor to accept your evaluation and send you to the Antarctic.
The professor doesn’t mind either. He likes you. He likes anyone who doesn’t interrupt his thinking and who accepts his gifts of science: hardbound volumes on satellite sensing and the measuring of polar ice thickness, which he expects you to read.
The professor loves the white. Like a faithful Sterna paradisaea tern he follows the cold north in the winter, south in the summer, exchanges the ease of temperate and subtropical climes for the harshness and striving of the ice. His eyes are pale watery blue, the same color as sea ice, as glaciers. He is the white’s apprentice.
“There is so much to know,” the professor says. “I’m old but I don’t want to die because then I won’t learn anything more.” He’s trapped as solidly as if he were landlocked by kilometers of pack ice; it’s why he chases the white from one end of the world to the other.
You hear a strange sound. It’s loud and insistent and returns again and again. You listen to it for a while before you realize it’s the sound of your own breathing and the moist rhythm of your heart. At night it ceases when you are no longer paying attention and the white steals into your 2 ½ x 1½ meter space in the housing unit. The room is barely larger than a coffin. Inside it, you could just as well be dead. You haven’t told Dr. Lubin. It’s just your heart falling quiet, leaving the job of keeping you alive to the white that surrounds you, infinitely greater than your tiny red. Who are you to deny it? After a while your heart starts up again, and that’s when you become aware that it had stopped.
Who are you? Asks the white. You don’t answer, because you’re not sure. You simply stay silent and wait for your heart to resume its beating.
You walk a little more. You enjoy the sound of snow creaking under your thick boots. You’re a presumptuous guest announcing his arrival at the door. Your breathing is a steady sound. Four kilometers below sleeps an ancient lake. It is large and deep. The professor and his team want to sample the lake, pierce its frozen carapace and draw up a ladleful of primordial liquid. It’s just water, you think, very cold and old water, but water nonetheless. You do wonder how it tastes, though.
Something waves at you in the white. It’s a person or an emperor penguin. It’s waving, waving, waving. You wave back. It answers.
“Come here! Come here!”
You look around. Everything is quiet and there is almost no wind. Beneath you the white is packed so hard that your prints are barely visible. The white acknowledges, only grudgingly, your passing.
The waving waves and waves, like sea kelp in a current. You walk toward it, but you don’t seem to get any closer. Maybe it’s a very small person? Or a lost Adélie chick? The crunch of your steps is comforting, hypnotic. Along with your breathing, it sounds like someone going at it on an old bed, panting and creaking, panting and creaking. The thought makes you laugh.
The wind starts to pick at your clothes and the foxtail on your fur hood: a fashion designer’s twisted humor, your twisted humor when you bought the thing. The foxtail can be unhooked by a metal clasp, but you never do. An animal sacrificed its tail, probably its life, for the garment. It deserves to be worn. The tail whips over your shoulder.
Finally the storm comes, yet you don’t notice. You have the wind at your back. It pushes and pushes, roars in your ears and steals your breath. You keep walking. Now the storm itself waves at you. You wave back. In the shrieking gray you see a blue, white, pink house, like a crystal beehive, like a diamond planet. The shearing planes cut the flying snow to chaff. Even the wind cuts itself on the structure’s many angles, and screams. Maybe it’s not a hive, but an igloo? The igloo is waving at you.
You push against the opening. You have to crawl on your hands and knees to get through. In the old days, to impose humility on visitors, the ancestors used low doors.
“No need,” you say. “No need. I’m already humble.” As proof, you crawl for a while longer, even when the walls rise to a crystalline crescendo. You sniffle under the ski mask and pull it down from your face, the restricting goggles too. You are out of breath from crawling and your knees hurt. Maybe you are not as humble as you thought?
It’s warm inside the ice-home and the wind is no longer pushing at your back or roaring in your ears. Now you feel how tired you are. Your eyelids grow heavy and you buckle to the warm surface, foxtail on your shoulder. There is an air of expectation, but it can wait. Everything has stopped waving. You sleep.
While you sleep your dreams are sampled like ancient water, your hair touched and your breath frozen. Someone thinks the foxtail is yours, others point out that it’s attached to your fur hood with metal and that the rest of your body is organic. This makes everyone laugh and want to touch you instead. You are petted like a cat, and your memories of the curious penguins and the professor with ice for eyes and the price of your funny hat are passed on like buckets of water to a fire.
When you wake you are chewing on snow, because you are now thirsty. The snow helps. You look up. You are in a transparent hall of ice, the Antarctic sun high above. The storm is over.
The snow on the ground is strange; it shimmers and wafts like running water, like mist. As you watch, the nearest snow moves and pushes, pulls, molds, shapes, and rises. It stands as tall as you, the rough outline of your heavy parka, leggings, and boots, even the fur hood and the silly foxtail. It is you, made of loose, reflecting snow. In the corner of your eye, there is a secret motion. More snow statues are pulling themselves up from the floor. The snow coalesces to shape you. When done sculpting themselves, the forms turn to you and watch in silence.
You run to find the opening of the igloo, but it has disappeared. You claw at the walls to dig your way out, scrambling like a trapped rodent. The statues watch you, crowd you, like the penguins, only this is not warm feathers but cold, cold snow. Then one leans over and touches your forehead. You flail and scream.
Your thoughts and emotions are now inside your field of vision, inside the sound you’re hearing. You have evaporated and the whole world has taken your place. You have become everything you see: the snow, the crystal ceiling, the sky. But you, yourself, your sense of being separate from the world, is gone. Where are you? Nowhere. Who are you? No one and no thing. You shriek again, loudly this time, not caring who hears, and roll madly on the ground. You think you are dead, or at least dying. You scream and scream.
When you gain traction, you make one more attempt at running from the snow sculptures and crystal palace. You scramble up a small incline. You remember a science show on TV that said igloos have a keystone at the top. Maybe you can dig yourself out from there? You stumble and slide into one of the statues. It disintegrates like newly fallen snow, then merges like liquid, like mercury, to again become you in white.
This is too much. You clench your high-tech mitts over your eyes and roll some more on the ground.
“What is this? What is this?” you hear yourself pant, as if knowing will make the loss of yourself easier to bear.
“What is this? What is this?” the snow replies.
You begin to weep. You want to dig a hole down to the icy lake and swim back to camp. There, you will pull open the door of your room in the housing unit, crawl into bed, and sit under the duvet while you rock silently. But you can’t. There is no way to argue with the present. You can only be here.
The room weeps with you, a low sound like the wind. The snow statues have their hands clasped over their faces. When you look up, they look up. When you turn to look around, they turn too. You become so fascinated that you forget to cry. You are caught by the unfathomable.
You sit up and they sit up, a group larger than the team but smaller than the pack of penguins at the coast. They are all inside you. They are you. “Who are you?” you ask.
The statues ask you the same, point at one another, then at you. They can’t be from here, that you understand. Maybe from the lake? Ancient underwater creatures awakened by the professor’s noisy drilling?
“Where are you from?” you say.
The snow shapes point at one another and then at the sky.
You point at them, then the sky.
They point at the sky, then at you, then one another.
This makes you feel like screaming again. You weep instead. The snow cries with you, yet sheds no water. The forms touch your tears and lick them from their fingers. Now they know what you taste like.
One of them makes a little drawing in the snow, a white vortex with a nub near the center.
You feel a white world, a little like your own, yet larger, heavier. You are in that world and it is inside you. You see a frost-covered coast, solid ice, teal beneath the white. The ice is frozen into plunging waterfalls, bulging waves, floes of pack ice crashing into one another. In the sky, two pale discs watch the world without blinking. The ice reaches the core of the planet. There sleeps another ocean, liquid metal turning slowly in languid waves.
Despite the cold, there are organisms on the ice. White forms, neither soft liquid nor hard crystal, but both. They float on the surface, collect the pink light from the twin suns. On the underside of the ice, tall organisms with undulating arms anchor themselves to the slick surface with hook-like feet. Shadows of marine beings, large and small, swim past. The ocean is an upside-down world, reaching from the white ice in the sky to the dark depths below; in all strata life is present.
You push the cold world away and it willingly recedes. Now the statues are gone. They have reverted to being both liquid and crystal, and are moving and floating into one another, inside you.
“We think you understand,” they say.
“Why did we come here?” you ask. You see the edge of morning cutting across the globe. The dark field behind holds clusters of light, matter originated in the stars and utilized to emulate their luminance. The glow is a beacon in the ocean where the atoms have forgotten to sing. You have to find out who is borrowing that light.
“Are you going home?” you ask.
“Here is home. Everywhere is here,” says the crystal.
You understand. The world is still in you; your thoughts remain inside the world like the clouds in the Antarctic sky. But it no longer feels like you have lost yourself. Instead, you have gained everything else. And it isn’t new. The snow just made it clearer. It has been the view in your eyes since you were born. The liquid snow is the same; you share a basic nature, even if your form is different.
“What about them?” you ask. “What shall I tell them?”
“You are the others,” the crystal says.
“I am the others,” you say. “They won’t believe me.”
“We believe us,” both you and the crystal say.
You don’t think you’re going to huddle under the duvet in your room after all.
“Why us?” you ask.
“Why not us?” the ice says. You can only agree. Why not us?
You return the same way you left. No snowstorm now, you can see the bright blue flag that flies over the base. You turn and wave slowly at the crystal. It waves back.
“You are we,” the crystal says.
“We are us,” you say, yet feel a little sad.
Safely inside, you get another talking to, louder this time. After the storm, three team members drove out on snowmobiles to search for you. The temperature dropped to minus sixty. Doctor Lubin is now very tired of your antics and is going to keep her eyes on you.
“One more stunt like that and I’ll send you home with the first ship in spring,” she says. It’s when you’re going home anyway, so the threat isn’t very scary.
“Where is your sense?” they ask.
“Where is my sense?” you wonder, and have no answer. You know you will dream of ice singing in a cold ocean all winter.
“I went to the white,” you say. “To make peace with it.”
The doctor groans, but the professor smiles. Wrinkles narrow the corners of his eyes, his gaze as blue as sea ice.