Mornings with the light at its best and evenings when it would do, she rolled back and forth on the horizon. The swivel of the telescope her husband left for her entertainment creaked in its housing and stuck when it turned. From its southwestern extreme the brass shaft took a nudge, a firm bump of her palm, to set the device back into motion northwest. She never strayed from that range, never turned the lens skyward to take in the stars or look back toward Europe or closer at hand across the blank slate of Greenland, that near-continent whose raw edge she occupied in her waiting.
The Esquimaux boy and girl brought her breakfast, her tea brewed from leaves long gone stale but so far from the shops and the mongers she was left with no other choice. And her husband, she knew, endured worse, was by then rationing the last dregs of weak coffee among tired men if luck stayed on their side; if not they were scraping up lichen and stewing old leather for broth.
Or, dare she dream, were already on their way south, toward her coast, toward those compounding lenses arranged one after another with her own eye at the far end of the world’s gaze.
She had not spoken more than instructions in days: how to cook, how to clean, how to arrange her chair for the optimal frozen view of the sea from the windows of that lightly adapted—insulated, though you’d never know it for God—fishing shack. She read but her books and her papers were old, threadbare as the trousers she wore for warmth—the way her skirts lifted the hems of her husband’s left behind parka to let in the cold: if the women in the south knew what was out there, how cold it can be in the world, they’d all wear trousers themselves; they’d strangle the dressmakers with their own hoops—and she could not help but wish to be reading her husband’s journal, the log of his excursion across the ice to the Pole.
She had not spoken more than instructions to her makeshift Esquimaux household, her wish their command, but the rejection of her desire to join the expedition still stung: she was not man enough as a woman, her husband would not hear of it, would not take the request to his backers—he’d be laughed from the Society, he said to her face after he’d finished laughing in it himself. There was no room for women apart from those natives so often mistaken for men on the vast empty span of the ice. No room for her stories in the serious white pages of the Society and its magazine, no room for the presence of a feminine touch, a weak female body, to diminish the pleasure of mounting the Pole. It means less, her husband admitted, if you can do it, too.
So she waited, marking the edge of the already-conquered, the no longer a feat. She watched the boy and the girl and their brown-skinned parents struggle with the mechanisms of her modern kitchen transported onto the ice, her parlor assembled as if she were in Philadelphia and the wives of other men might come calling at any moment expecting fresh tea. They knew how the gas cooker worked, her wild housemates. She’d seen them use it with the same confidence they brought to her phonograph, laughing and dancing and singing along in empty sounds she mused, despite herself, might in fact be purer music.
They knew but forgot or refused to employ it and served her raw fish tasting still of the sea and the ice and of the dark distance between the empty space of the Pole and her husband with a flag poised to fill it and the long shaft of his telescope left to her on that coast where hollow air stacked in chambers held the world closer but still out of touch. She sent that fish back to the kitchen, asked them to scorch it until it tasted of dry land at least, and as she awaited a second try at civilization she turned the telescope southward until as always it stuck.
~ from Fram, a novel in progress
Richard Harrington — Theresie, three-year-old daughter of Erkuaktok (Iquugaqtuq), a Pelly Bay (Arvilikjuaq) Inuk, standing next to a snowman carved by her father. 1951.
@ Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum