<I’m going away for a few days, so here is some fiction I wrote a while ago. This is what happens when I read ‘Cassell’s Tales of Endurance’ and ‘The Naked and the Dead’ back to back. I was trying to capture the vivid portrayal of extreme fatigue that Mailer achieves, recalling moments of desperate suffering with an absolute clarity that is usually obscured by the protective fuzz of memory.>

Concerning Warmth.

I think above all other things human beings crave warmth, either of the physically toasty-warm type, or the more abstract warmth between family, friends, lovers…

My earliest, fuzziest memories are of delicious warmth, pressed against mothers flesh, sometimes directly and sometimes cushioned and textured by fabric and of this being the safest, most comfortable, warmest I have ever been. I’m certain I have been hotter, damnably hot, but I’ve never been warmer, that I can recall. Warmth does not solely consist of heat, there is something else, I am sure. Much more recently than the pre-oedipal memories of mothers comforting warmth, I walked in the hottest deserts, and found in all their searing heat no warmth whatsoever. The noon sun-baked the landscape with no love, bringing only heat, debilitation, thirst and madness. I remember-oh, how I remember-summer days at home where the sun blazed just as fiercely as it could and brought warmth along with the heat, be it never so hot as in the deserts.

Perhaps, as the sun’s heat increases as latitude decreases, so its warmth decreases? This would imply that as latitude increased and the sun’s heat decreased, so its warmth must increase…but such nonsense! Here I lie, where if such a theory were true the sun would impart its greatest warmth for all its lack of heat, and not a therm of that precious commodity is to be spared. Nor even sight of the sun!

More recently still, I stood in the boiler room of a steamship, and watched men stripped to the waist feeding coal into the dragons-maw of the furnace. Hotter still than the cursed deserts, there was nevertheless a considerable sense of that ineffable component that makes mere heat become warmth. The stokers sweated, to be sure, until great droplets formed and ran down their backs, carving deep channels in the dark grime, but it was somehow more wholesome than the precious fluid sucked from ones body by scorching desert sun. I stood watching them for some minutes wearing a worsted uniform in the infernal temperature and glow, and was warmed considerably, but not heated overmuch.

Lying here, I cling fiercely to the memory of the warmth of the boilers, of the sun at home, of being held by mother, even of the terrible desiccation of the desert until I can smell the coal, hear the roaring furnaces and the clatter of shovels, I can feel the roughness of her cardigan against my face and the softness of her hands, my eyes remember the glare and, yes, the heat…but all the power of my imagination cannot bring the slightest suspicion of warmth to my shivering, starving carcass.

Perhaps it is the human component that changes heat to warmth? In all cases, save the desert, the heat is associated with the presence of others, mother, friends and family, the crewmen. In the desert I was alone and found only heat, and sand, and thirst. To be sure, I am not alone here, but my companion and I have lain in silence for hours now. Or is it a day or more? With the perpetual darkness it is impossible to tell. At first, we had the chronometer and everyone had a watch, some two, but as men fell out and died in the snow it somehow became less and less important to keep watches wound, and heavy, cumbersome objects like chronometers where dropped. For myself, winding a watch with frostbite is a bloody painful business.

I blame the dogs, totally without justification of course. They didn’t make me take my gloves off, only I can accept responsibility for that, but it was their harnesses I was untangling…and in seconds my hands were numb and waxy, painful cold replaced by a terrifying insensitivity. I thought it would make the tiresome chore of un-knotting the brittle leather of the dog harnesses quicker and easier. What a fool I was. My watch has been stopped certainly for days and manipulating the tiny winder with the blistered, blackening tubes of frozen fluid my fingers have become is simply impossible.

So, how long exactly my sole surviving companion has lain silent I cannot say. I cannot even say whether he is alive, in all honesty, as we both lie cocooned completely by our sleeping bags, as though we were children and the killing cold and the dark were a bogeyman that could be warded off by being completely covered. It is far too cold to allow a hole for ventilation so we lie hidden from one another by the vaunted new fabrics of our bags, as well as the polar night. Again, I desperately remember lesser discomforts, as when at home I allowed my sheets to cover my face as I slept and woke dewed with the unpleasant condensation of my own trapped breath. Here, the moisture in my breath soaks the fabric of the bag and freezes solid, and continues to accrete until the bag has the weight, flexibility and insulation of one fashioned of steel plate.

In any case there is no heat here, and if the human component is essential to warmth, so then is the component of heat. As I think a little longer, I wonder if there is human component any longer in this frigid hell. There has been not a word between us, certainly for days, and I struggle even to remember my companion’s name. Does he outrank me, or I him? Rank, familiarity and social niceties have been dropped in the snow in the last terrible fortnight along with the time pieces, the scientific equipment, the samples. In lightening our sleds as far as possible, we discarded along with the useless equipment those final shreds of behaviour that made us civilised men exploring the wilderness, and became again a mere desperate tribe, struggling futilely for survival. Friends of years became indistinguishable, no more than nameless members of our bearded, filthy tribe. Known simply as Man Before and Man Behind, we stumbled through the snow. When Man Before fell, still, to the ridged ice, oneself and Man Behind fell upon the carcass of the sled, stripping it of the flesh of food, clothing and usables, leaving a skeleton of useless items, theodolites, books and letters from sweethearts. Items we once deemed essential now left to the freezing embrace of the ever thickening ice.

So we struggled until at length we became Man Leading and Man Following, myself and my companion, the last of our tribe. Some time ago we simply stopped. Without a word of discussion or agreement we lay down the sled harnesses, pitched the tent with glacial haste, and lay down in our rigid sleeping bags to await…what? Rescue perhaps, or more likely the grip of death, the incremental death of the cold as lips, cheeks, nose and toes follow the fingers into morbidity.

Food imparts it’s own special kind of warmth, discrete again from the simple heat it provides. I remember winter dishes from home, hot pots and stews, thick with roots and the unctuous meat juices, that carry the love and care from the cook to the consumer, the human component again the essential. Elsewhere in my travels I ate lighter dishes, yet spiced and sauced to impart much warmth. Even before we began to starve, our rations in this miserable place were utterly joyless. Pemmican and biscuit, heated to scalding over the spirit stoves yet failing to warm in any meaningful way. The food of halcyon remembrance was served by loving parents, grandparents or spouse in an atmosphere of comfort and happiness, cloth, crockery and cutlery laid out just so. Did I ever eat in that way, or is it a dream, a confabulation, and the last, best meal I had was a battered tin mug half filled with rancid Pemmican, dried meat swimming in the scalding fat and a few crumbs of biscuit, handed me by a deathly apparition in filth ridden clothes, the frozen dog excrement on his gloves adhering to the mug. I gulped it down, reviling the taste, hardly noticing it burning my numb lips. Crouching dismally with the canvas of the tent tight to my back, the wind an icy cat-o’-nine-tails, this meal brought no warmth, only the joyless energy required to walk, and push, and drag and toil into the whiteness.

When the pemmican was gone we ate the dogs. The beasts had been on the same starvation rations as the men for some time, and there was precious little meat on them. Nevertheless, it was deemed better that they die, that we might live, and sentimental as we were, we thought it more merciful than allowing the hounds to starve alongside us. Now I might wish we had done so, for the few more weeks we gained from devouring the sorry creatures was simply extending our time in frigid purgatory. On we went, now man-hauling our sleds sustained only by the meagre scraps of frozen flesh we gnawed from the dog carcasses that our sleds were now carried. There was no question of cooking the meat, the fuel for our spirit stoves was long since exhausted. This is the point, I now realise, at which the final vestiges of warmth left us at last. In a landscape of total frigidity, plodding silently detached from one another we gnawed our frozen dog meat bereft of any vector for receiving human warmth.

When the dog meat ran out, men began to die. The expedition became an elongated graveyard in the snow, it’s entrance marked by the first pair of mounds of snow, pitifully temporary monuments to our comrades. The path through this exclusive resting place wound for 20 miles, passing every few miles a single grave, sometimes a pair, plots alloted simply by the expedient of piling snow over a body where it fell. A promenade through this longest and most sparsely filled of burial grounds would end here, at this pathetic canvas tent half covered by drifting snow, it’s sides bowed by the ferocious wind and driving snow. A pair of sleds, also covered by snow and nameless frozen chunks of garbage, lie abandoned a few yards away.

A sudden urge to move fills me. I must make contact, some final word or look with another human being before the end. Pushing open my sleeping bag allows in a rush of colder air, searing my nose, throat and lungs. I haul myself half upright in the cramped tent and reach for my companion, every movement allowing more frigid air to reach me, sucking away energy and resolve. I grasp his shoulder and pull him towards me. He rolls over easily, sleeping bag falling away to reveal the blackened lips drawn back over dry teeth. My companion’s beard is sparse on the discoloured, dessicated skin. He is dead and I have not even the strength to weep.

At length, I stand, a process which takes some minutes, straightening from the tent into the freezing blast of the wind. On the horizon, the merest glow has appeared, the vaguest promise of the sun. I take a step towards it and another, before falling forward onto the iron hard snow. I lie still, sinking slowly into delicious warmth.

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