Poetry

A badly researched history of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition, headed by Douglas Mawson, explored the Antarctic coast between 1911 and 1914. After losing a sled team and their supplies down a crevasse mid-­expedition, the two remaining explorers – Mawson and Xavier Mertz – journeyed back, staying alive by eating their sled dogs. Mawson was the only survivor to make it home.

The first body disappears without warning. There is just a crevasse shades of white and a trail of dead dogs splayed like snow angels on the ice’s edge.

Perhaps they looked at it and thought of children playing, that there was some beauty in that end. The remaining ones will disappear more slowly –
a body can survive two months without food. Imagine your torso calling its tissues home, how it devours itself, first the fats, then the muscle, a remaking of parts. How when the hunger stops you can move through pain to euphoria, and doesn’t that sound like a beautiful way to die among the snow? But explorers are not known for quiet deaths.

There shouldn’t be a ranking of interesting deaths, but I cannot help but catalogue them when I hear about them. If it is the last thing you do – you want it to be ‘extra’.

When I was in high school I heard about a girl who drowned herself in a bowl of water. Just put her face in and breathed until her lungs became flood walls. The sheer determination to make that work is staggering. Maybe these explorers had high expectations. When you voyage all the way to Antarctica you don’t want to leave by laying down in the snow.

The second body that disappears walks to its death willingly. Such a good dog, she sits in the white, tail wagging as they cock the gun and gloss the snow carmine. How do you choose which body will disappear like this? Was she a slow dog, did she chew on things she was not meant to?

When they are done they hold handfuls of soft fur as they carve out a meal. The other dogs take their fill without hesitation.

The next bodies disappear in quick succession. This vanishing is gaining speed – unravelling at the explorers’ feet. They have learnt to make magic – now you see them, now you don’t – survival sacrifices laying their bodies on the altar of science. What a last meal for a vegetarian: a husky is all gristle and bone.

Apparently dog meat tastes a lot like chicken. If this is true, what of the unending amount of Aussie favourites that could be re-­created: apricot dog, dog kiev, the Saturday Bunnings dog sizzle. I suspect they just boiled and ate the flesh – which does not sound as appetising (though I tactfully don’t say this out loud, as my own dog is watching me write this), but I suppose, in the throes of starvation, boiled dog would do.

The last (human) body that disappears disintegrates by degrees. His organs are closing shop – he is wild-­eyed, bites clean through his finger to prove he does not have frostbite. He retreats to his sleeping bag and gives in to the exhaustion.

The stages of frostbite are not dissimilar to the end of a relationship. There is a feeling of irritation about something that used to feel good followed by a cold feeling and, finally, numbness. You know that once it’s dead you can’t bring it back, but you can’t change it either. You just have to watch as it morphs into something dark and no longer a part of you.

When we talk about love ending, we shouldn’t talk about heartbreak. We should talk about frostbite.

And then we are down to one. How many ghosts did he carry through that last stretch of snow? What kind of life could be imagined after such an unmaking? When he reaches an empty camp near home and sees an orange left for him by search parties, it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. To see colour again after that endless blanched horizon, sweet and sharp and far too late.

People think colour blindness means you see in black or white. Usually it’s just a couple of colours you can’t see. Red, green. I had heard that it’s only men who can be colour blind, but it’s not true. Women really can be anything. I wouldn’t mind so much – I don’t have aspirations of being a pilot, but I suspect not knowing when my fruit was ripe could be annoying.

Dogs are colour blind too. For them, it is much harsher – they only see in blues and yellows. I guess out in the snow, any colour feels like a sign, some kind of coded map back to civilisation, some reminder of home.

Only one body makes it back to camp. Makes it so much further than camp. It makes it back to Australia, to a marriage, to being knighted, to finding its way onto Australian currency. It makes it far enough to make new bodies, two daughters.

It makes its way through a long life.

And still, even with all that history – does Mawson really make it back from that snow?

I know a little about disappearing. The ways you can exist and not exist. Sometimes, when it’s at its worst, I wonder how no one else can feel the temperature dropping. How you can be slipping beneath the ice and still get your work in on time. How you can feel the blizzard inside you burying everything alive and still talk about some movie or book or the person you are dating. How you can get up in ultraviolet and open your eyes without flinching. How you can see your friends, go to parties, and never really be there at all.

How sometimes you disappear, and all that’s left is a body.

 

This work was supported by a fellowship made possible through the Queensland Arts Showcase Program.

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