The Columbia Icefield, August, 2019…
Cece Paine, Professor of Glacial Geology at the University of British Columbia, is not sure, when she crunches out of her tent in unlaced, crampon-clad boots, if a spot of bright green deep in the crevasse lit by her headlamp is not a dropped hat or mitten. She hopes it is not another dead signal-free iPhone snuck up by an idiot student.
In the nineties, needful of free student labor, she downplayed the rigors of these research trips but now, with tenure, her weed-out speeches are stern. Rations are dry, tents cramped (except hers), and days long. The only rescue attempts will be for people who fall, and the official waiver makes no guarantees. Anything else lost down a crevasse will be regarded as an archaeological gift to a future century. But despite her policy, Cece is not devoid of empathy for these kids, many of whom are terrified by their first time on a glacier where spooky whale-like groans, thumps, and cracks fill the nights as the ice beneath them shifts without warning. Surrounded by snow-veiled chasms, the tiniest misstep can be unforgiving.
To forestall whining, Cece resolves to ask her students about the green object in the morning. If they can fish it out without risking a what-were-you-thinking mishap, she will amuse herself letting them try.
She shuts off her light, relieves herself, then stands to relish the sky: like salt tossed on moonless black velvet. Back under Vancouver’s nonstop amber glow, she will miss the stars like social media “friends”—distinct, but remote. She slides her eyes to where the pinpricks of light melt into a milky sea at her feet: star glow plus a mysterious bioluminescence she hopes to study one day. She will miss the Icefield’s presence and power most of all.
She ducks back into her tent and re-nestles inside her down bag. This time tomorrow both items will be draped across patio furniture and she warm and deliciously spent, spooned with her husband. She pictures tomorrow’s trek down the headwall (never rote, sometimes epic) then the ten-hour drive home into sunset and night. Alistair will have chilled her favorite white, procured takeout (Chinese or Thai) and gracefully resisted Nate’s pleas for extra bedtime stories.
Sunlight illumines Cece’s tent walls. Camp stove roar and cheerful banter suggest a welcome shift from her team’s testy exhaustion. Amiable but commanding, Hamlin Rutter’s voice pierces her tent’s thin fabric.
“Knock, knock, Dr. Paine. Rise and shine! Coffee! Last day!”
How can her top grad student be so resolutely cheerful? She adjusts her face to slightly less grumpy, unzips the flap, and takes the steel mug Hamlin holds out. Across the valley, peach tones inch down jagged peaks. She lowers her eyes from the hills to her mug. “I’ll never get enough of this,” she sighs. Transforming her words into a puff across her coffee’s surface, she imagines the tiny quick ripples as her private ocean.
“Isn’t it amazing, Dr. Paine? God’s grace is new every morning!”
Cece hopes she doesn’t look too condescending. She memorized that verse as a child. She nods her thanks, re-zips the flap, and sets down her warm brew. She puts on her least stinky socks then remembers. “Hey guys? Guys?”
Someone kills the stove and a silence so lovely ensues that she thinks of vanilla. Reluctantly, she breaches it. “Did anyone lose something green yesterday?” She imagines glances and shrugs.
“Looks like no,” Hamlin says. “Why?”
“Because I saw something in the crevasse beside my tent last night.” Booted footsteps crunch close and pause. “Holy crap!” someone yells, followed by a sound like a dozen heads of lettuce chopped all at once—a herd of cramponed boots swarming to see.
Eudora’s voice trembles. “Dr. Paine? I think you need to come see this. Like now?” Eudora Dewey is flighty but full of potential, one-in-a-hundred observant. Whatever it is will be unique. Cece steps out to a semicircle of student faces. They may be dismayed or delighted, but all Cece perceives is them standing still, eyes wide and locked as if she’s the empress in a fool’s parade, about to find out that she’s naked. (She glances down just in case.)
Eudora points far down into the crevasse and hands Cece a pair of binoculars. Cece raises them to her eyes and moves them around, searching.
“Where? What am I looking for?” Suddenly, spider chills scuttle up her arms and neck to caress her scalp. A green parka sleeve is enmeshed in the ice below them. From it a grey hand protrudes as if keen to write in the air.
Cece abruptly inhales. She’s slept above it all week.
Fifty years earlier: the first of December, 1969…
Snow covers the Stockbridge-Boston Turnpike.
Night falls and TVs blink on, their laugh tracks pre-empted. In one hour’s labor, every ten seconds, a white-haired Washington, DC official extracts another blue-green skull-like capsule from a glass jar, cradles it briefly, then cracks it open. A cold voice decrees the three hundred sixty-six birthday verdicts, one inside each—life or death, freedom or war.
Each televised nationwide slap causes five 747s-worth of young men to cry out in shock or relief as the soldier nursery slowly fills. Except for those called and chosen, laugh tracks and sweet dreams resume. Within weeks, a lilting lullaby will freeze the night’s surreal events in pop music culture: the day’s snow will melt; the date’s pall will not.
Three thousand miles west of Massachusetts (as a drafted hitchhiker might tramp the route) looms the continent’s greatest snow cover outside Alaska. Canada’s Columbia Icefield sprawls to the size of five Manhattans, thick as its towers are tall. Long before Babel quit building its version—well before nations and wars—the Ice Age left the Icefield an orphan.
The last of the first Europeans to see it worry tonight for great-grandsons but for the Icefield, both events exist in a blink—this night like any across the millennia. Snow falls softly, relentlessly, adding two stories each year. Naïve to the Icefield’s secrets, next summer’s tourists will throng the dripping grey tongues of this miniature Antarctica hours from the U.S. border to take snapshots, buy pre-stamped postcards, and picnic. Only a handful will venture further.
As his plans are buried tonight, one man among them hears far off exquisite singing—a siren song or a heavenly choir, if he believed in such things. He conceives a grand quest. He will cross the Icefield’s yawning crevasses. He will ascend its toothy, confining prongs. He will master this behemoth jewel, and with it, his fate. Another man born the same hour as the first observes the night’s sad spectacle and writes in his private journal:
“Watch and pray. Wait on the Lord.”