Fire and Ice | Debra Gwartney | Granta

Fire and Ice

Debra Gwartney

Three days before he died, my husband got out of bed. Somehow he propelled himself down the hall and into the living room, where I found him bent over a volume of Esther Horvath photographs called Into the Arctic Ice: The Largest Polar Expedition of All Time. Barry’s white hair was sprung wild and his feet were bare though it was late at night in December, sleety rain driving against the windows. How had he pulled sweatpants over his bony hips? He’d hardly stirred all day, lifting his head only to sip on bone broth made by one of our daughters, leaning against me to get to the bathroom because he was bleary from pain drugs. Yet he’d managed to transport himself to the center of this rental house to dig out a book that now held his rapt attention.

The book had arrived by mail a few days earlier, when Barry was still able to sit on the sofa for an hour or so, and he’d turned its pages with the slightest pressure of thumb and finger so as not to mar the saturated colors of the photos. Our son-in-law was over with the rest of the family for a subdued holiday visit. The two men spoke in calm, low voices about a region of the planet once intimately familiar to my husband, second only to his knowledge of the thirty-six acres of western Oregon rainforest where he’d lived for fifty years and where I’d lived with him for nearly two decades until a wildfire booted us out one late-summer night. Barry moved closer to Pete and pointed to streaks of blue in Horvath’s images of a vast icescape, the humps of polar bears, the eerie glow of human light piercing the darkness. The peeling noses and cheeks of scientists too long in the cold. I remember how he laughed with a whistle of nostalgia, missing days when he must have felt fully alive.

But now in the living room, he whipped through the pages until I heard an edge tear, a fluttering as if he’d startled a bird. When I said his name, he didn’t answer. When I touched his shoulder, he jerked in my direction and insisted I start packing the car, though first he wanted me to find his suitcase and the down jacket he’d worn for forty years of polar travel. He returned to the book frantic, a man who’d dropped a key into a well’s murky bottom and was crazy with the loss.

I was certain my husband was about to insist I bundle him up and drive him through the rain to our fire-damaged house, an hour away. I steeled myself for it. He’d say he had to die on his own land, near the remains of ten cords of combusted wood and his melted truck, on the smoke-saturated bed in our bedroom whose windows were still smeared orange with fire retardant. He’d check to make sure the essay he’d been working on was secure in his typewriter, waiting. Then he would rest. He’d watch through the window over the bed for flashes of kingfisher and fat rain clouds, for the sky arcs of an overwintering eagle. What nonsense it was to come to the end instead in this stranger’s house with a stranger’s furniture and its strange cast of light. I was sure Barry would rather use any last bursts of energy to pace the perimeter of his scorched archive, as he had most days since the fire. He’d become the lone sentry at the gates of that phantom building, which once held the history of his fifty-year writing life. For months, I’d watched him rake through the mound of ash, releasing shiny particles of the past into the smoke-stilled air. He churned up chunks of paper – cremated books that disintegrated with the slightest touch – and bent metal that he held up to the faint light in the withered forest. What were you, then?

Except that noise was inside my head. In fact, Barry hadn’t mentioned home for over a week. What I finally put together on this Saturday night, from his various mutters and fragmented speech, was that his destination was an archipelago called Svalbard. An Arctic expedition had lost its leader, so he’d been called in to take over. He had mere hours to get there. He slammed the Horvath book shut and clambered into the spare bedroom, where he yanked out a duffel bag I’d recently emptied and stored away in my effort to make this place feel something like a home. He tossed in a broken alarm clock, a pillow, a packet of picture hangers. Where are my gloves? My Gore-Tex pants? My expedition sunglasses? Where have you put my things? Why won’t you give me my things? He flailed his arms so I couldn’t come close. As if the only person preventing him from the most important launch of his adventurous life was me.

And then he fell.

Barry was running – no, there was no run left in him, more an agitated hobble – back to our bedroom. He skidded on the wood floor and went flying. His hip slammed down, then his shoulder, his head bouncing against a doorframe. I cried out, and half dragged him to the bed where I wedged him under the covers. I squeezed a vial of liquid morphine into the pale ditch of his gums and sat next to him, his chest heaving, until he was asleep.

Horvath’s book is about a German icebreaker called the Polarstern, which was allowed to become locked into sea ice off the coast of Siberia. This happened in the autumn of 2019, when the ship’s engines were shut down and the vessel, lit up like an all-night casino, was left to drift, driven only by hidden ocean currents and ‘at the mercy of the wind’. The ship, with more than one hundred expedition members on board at any given time, groaned through dark days and nights, destination wherever natural forces led it, mile after uncharted nautical mile into utterly undiscovered territory: ‘no ship has ever ventured so far north into the central Arctic’, the prologue tells us. The Polarstern churned through ice and storms for an entire year while an international team of scientists did what they could to record the effects of climate change.

On a thin January afternoon about a month after his death, I pulled the Horvath book from the drawer where I’d hidden it to study the photos that had so ignited my husband. I discovered in the text a mission obviously steeped in scientific logic and methodology, yet also not that far from the koans of my weekly yoga class: embrace the moment. Trust the wind to push you where you need to go. Be prepared to find your way back to center through the densest of fog. The only authentic discoveries are those that aren’t forced. Stop trying to control that which is beyond your control.

Barry had been ill for a long time, but his death swooped down on us like a hawk, talons first. Startlingly fast. Everything that gave me stability and safety – our long marriage, our house, the surrounding woods, the river – was unreachable now, in dodgy shadow, and this was probably the source of my irritation toward the book in my lap. It dared to tap into what terrified me most: a reminder that there’d be no clear answers for a good long stretch; that I would have to swim in bewilderment and confusion before I could emerge on some distant shore. Solutions would roll out in front of me in their own time and at their own pace, in their own shape. In the meantime, I would have to learn to drift.

A few months earlier, on 8 September just after midnight, I found a young man on our porch holding a brick he’d been using to batter our front door. I was already awake and out of bed when I heard his pounding, his shouts to open up. A friend had called me minutes before, waking me from a fitful sleep. She told me to rouse my husband and get the hell out of there. I pulled on long pants, though the temperature was sweltering and the house already choked with smoke and grit. Barry was sleeping in our guest cottage that night, a few hundred feet away. I was headed there to wake him when the young man appeared on our porch hollering words my friend had already said: Get out now.

How odd to remember that crystallized moment, to recall how my mind slipped into the uncanny human tendency to minimize any emergency you’re smack in the middle of. This could not possibly be happening to me, could it? This couldn’t be how our story went. How was I to take this boy seriously with his lace-up boots and flannel shirt, red suspenders holding up canvas pants? I let myself imagine someone was just around the corner filming this non-crisis, this rumor of terror and destruction. Otherwise, what was with the klieg lights over-illuminating the woods around our home with a pumpkin-tinted hue as if we’d all been transported into a Wes Anderson movie?

You need to go now, the young firefighter said. You need to hurry.

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the author of two memoirs, Live Through This and I Am a Stranger Here Myself. Her essay ‘Suffer Me to Pass’ was selected for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in western Oregon.

Photograph © John Clarke

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