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The Breath Of Seals
Lucy Jane Bledsoe

At 5:00 a.m., Roz shoved a spatula under the first fried egg and began her day. The workers were first in line. Folks who shoveled the snow, fixed the machinery, hauled the garbage and recylables. They ate eggs, sausage, French toast. A handful of scientists started their days that early too, like Tom, the guy who studied penguin feces and Stanley who studied ice cores. Roz guessed that Tom was looking for diet clues and Stanley for history of the Earth clues. Either way, their data was no fresher, no more meaningful at 5:00 in the morning, but they were just that kind of people and would make the first breakfast shift whether they were in New York City or here at McMurdo Station. They ate bowls of oatmeal or fruit.

The last group who showed up right when the galley opened were the folks manifested for a flight to the Pole, recognizable by their inability to eat at all at that hour. They tried a Danish, maybe a banana. These were the people Roz anticipated the most, sifted through, searching every morning for her. She'd seen Tamara the cosmologist only once ever, that first week when so many people were in McMurdo before flying off to their field camps, or, as in the case of Tamara, to the South Pole. Roz still looked for her every single morning, on the off chance that she had had some reason to return to McMurdo.

It wasn't a crush. Roz was way too raw for that. It was more like Tamara was an important subject for her own research project. Everyone came to Antarctica looking for something and if they denied that they were lying. True, probably a good half of the folks here couldn't say what it was they were looking for, including Roz, but she knew she was looking and Tamara seemed like prime data. Tamara herself was looking for the beginning of the Universe. Which made Tamara, to Roz, something akin to being, okay, maybe just symbolizing, the beginning of the Universe. Certainly nothing about Tamara's physical appearance indicated divinity. She was on the short side, wore her brown hair parted in the middle, let it hang over her ears which stuck out a bit, and she had a goofy, lopsided smile.

Roz thought someone who had looked so deeply into the source of the Universe would glow from within, would look as if she had seen something wondrous. But it wasn't like that. The truth was, and Roz knew this, Tamara spent her days with data, staring not at the swirling black cosmos studded with pricks of light, but at a computer screen. Her data wasn't visceral, like penguin feces revealing fish species or ice cores showing cataclysmic events in the history of the Earth, no, Tamara's data was no doubt long lists of numbers, probably unvarying numbers, maybe even just combinations of zeros and ones, as she waited for some ideal combination, some long-hoped for spike or aberration. In the month Roz had been on the Ice, this she had learned was the greatest paradox about scientists: though they may be studying the most fascinating instant in the history of the Universe, an event an ordinary person like herself could ponder for a long time and not get bored, the actual work of the scientists was deadly dull, not just hours but years and in some cases decades of examining minute shreds of potential evidence, billions of pieces of data, waiting, waiting, waiting for that one shred or datum that burst open a new piece of the puzzle. That took patience in the most extreme. It took tolerance for boredom. But there was one character trait that it also took that kept Roz interested, in all scientists, but mostly in Tamara, and that was hope. A person couldn't dedicate a life to looking for one piece of a puzzle unless she possessed some uncanny investment in the future, some beautiful vision of the big picture. There was that paradox again: people who focused on a tiny piece of the story their whole lives only because they had a rare ability to imagine the grand epic.

Roz got through her mornings as the grill cook in the galley at McMurdo by posing questions to herself about human nature and then trying to answer them by studying the people who came through her line. The Tamara question, about how a person maintained hope on a futile planet, was the apex of her studies. But on some mornings she concentrated only on such trivialities as why some women felt the need to smile even when they really didn't feel like it or why some men thought it was okay to scratch intimate body parts right there in the galley just because it was five in the morning.

Tamara didn't come through her line that morning, of course, because she was at the South Pole. But he did. He came through the galley every single morning, like clockwork, painfully gorgeous with his shaggy blond hair and doe eyes, and definitely not scratching rudely. He spent his days out at the air strip plowing snow, pushing it out of the way, or sometimes into big piles, constructing and destructing. What was his name? John. Or maybe Jim. It was wrong to not remember the name of someone you'd made out with. Roz winced at the thought of it. She winced every morning at the thought of it these three weeks since it'd happened. She'd only been on the Ice for a week at that time, it was her first party. What was his name? Maybe not a J name at all. Ralph. Sam. Maybe it'd been internalized homophobia that had caused her to do it, but she didn't really think so. Nor did she think it had anything to do with Karen, or Karen and Larry, for that matter, although Roz admitted that taking this job in Antarctica had everything to do with Karen. But what had happened with John-Jim-Ralph-Sam hadn't been a reaction to anything. She had been sincere with him. He had that shaggy blond hair and those eyes. Maybe it'd been the party, which was an exact replica of the parties she'd attended when she was in high school, probably also of the parties her students attended now, and the atmosphere must have drawn her into its reality. There was the rock music at distorting decibels, a cluster of guys near the speakers pretending to play the guitar, a few other guys wandering, looking, sad, dissatisfied with the party, knowing the big guys with imaginary guitars were idiots but wanting anyway to feel what they were feeling. Roz was wandering that night too, wandering, and wondering if the pumped bass beat were a substitute for heartbeat, like people who cut themselves to feel something. Maybe that's why people took jobs in Antarctica, so see if the wildest, coldest, windiest continent on Earth could make them feel something.

Roz didn't leave the party. She had stayed. And oh what a mistake. Each morning, 5:30, and there he was. All doe eyes, sweet, still after these three weeks, hopeful. Maybe as young as twenty, a full ten years younger than Roz. Shy, painfully shy. Perhaps if he wasn't, perhaps if he could make a bold move and she could reject him, they would be done with it. But he couldn't. He made brief, fleeting eye contact every morning while ordering his eggs.

"Hey, Roz."


The doe eyes intensified from a light coppery color to bronze. He placed his tray squarely on the slide, his hands gripping the edges. Uh oh. He smiled differently this morning, a smile that Roz recognized as a calcification of resolve. He said, "You don't remember my name, do you?"

Roz shook her head.

"It's Josh. My name is Josh."

"Two over easy, Josh?"

"You going to the party in the Heavy Shop tonight?"


"I'll stop by your room. We can go over together."

She wasn't prepared for that. After a month of too shy to say more than hi. She had thought the statute of limitations on when, after a make-out session, you could ask a person for a date had run out. She almost said yes, for lack of knowing what else to say, but she shook her head, then cruelly shifted her eyes to the next in line, shoved her spatula under two sunny side ups, lifted an eyebrow at her next customer. When Josh moved on, she snuck a glance at his back, thin but standing tall. He'd be okay. What was wrong with her? Making out with a boy behind a bunch of boxes of tinned peaches! Of course she'd had a bit of beer. Was that an excuse? She'd been afraid of the lesbians, dancing in a small group, in the middle of the party. She had needed sweetness, lightness, yes, the doe eyes she had needed. She had meant the making out, it had been something she wanted then, but she didn't mean anything else, she didn't mean even a moment into the future, just that corner behind the tins of peaches was all she had meant. The peaches themselves had been a part of it. If, for instance, she had found herself with the boy behind cartons of canned ham hocks she is sure she would have left. Peaches and doe eyes. His sincerity was what she had wanted and if she were a good person, she would tell him that.

When Roz's shift ended, she left the galley and walked up to the post office. Ten degrees today, the sky clear and creamy blue. Standing on the hill, in front of the post office, she held the envelope in her mitten and looked out across the sea, still covered with ice. A few black curls, like parentheses, clustered around the cracks. Seals, big Weddell seals, with eyes like Josh's. It was a card envelope, square, slightly inflexible, rather than the rectangular soft packet of a letter. That alone was a disappointment. Cards can be equated with guilt. A quick greeting, the gist of which is written by Hallmark. Roz told herself to wait until some time in the future to open the card, but what time would that be? She pulled off a mitten and tore open the envelope flap. All the white space of the card was covered with Karen's scrawl, a real letter after all. Roz trailed a mitten-covered finger over the green ink, touched the overall aesthetics of the message, the not quite out of control handwriting, with small portions of text tucked in at right angles to the main message. Then she flipped the card over to look at the back and there she found a couple of sentences of the neater but cramped handwriting, also in Karen's green ink, borrowed, she supposed, for a moment, to add his charity:

Roz, I can't believe you are actually there, living your adventure. How many
people actually follow through on dreams? Good for you! Larry.

Her dream! More like Siberia. How generous he must have felt writing that note. Roz looked across McMurdo at the seals again and let herself wonder how they could feel comfort lying on the ice like that, as if they were basking in warmth. Perhaps this ten degrees above freezing was warmth for them.

Why did she write?

Of course it was a Christmas card. How could you ignore at Christmastime someone you had loved quite recently? Karen couldn't. She loved Christmas and strove to invest it with what she considered true meaning.

Roz read the card. Newsy. It had been raining on the Oregon Coast for three weeks. Did she remember Carleen McBride -- what a ridiculous question, as if Roz had been gone years rather than weeks -- well, her daddy was lost at sea in one of the storms. It was so awful, Karen wrote, how these things keep happening, but then why wouldn't they, the ocean is so powerful and that doesn't change with time, and yet, it seems like we should be able to prevent disasters as ancient as a fishing boat getting lost at sea. Was the entire card going to be about Carleen McBride's dad? No, she goes on with a series of questions. What were the people like in Antarctica? What was her job like? Did she have a good boss? Then at the end: I know this is a lot to ask, but maybe you could send back some pictures, it would so thrill the students to see their own Ms. Frick in her new environment.

That last was cruel. Code to slip by Larry who obviously had read the card before adding his greeting. Ms. Frick. She had also written, Love. Love, Karen.

Karen Fenoglio was the principal of Lincoln City High School, Roz's most recent place of employment. Her husband was a writer, unpublished, but he should know better than to use the word "actually" twice in a two-sentence note. Roz had moved to the Oregon Coast about 18 months ago because she'd gotten a job there, because it was beautiful, and because she had worn out her welcome in Portland. She should have immediately sought out the lesbian community (a lesson she still, apparently, hadn't learned here in Antarctica) but she had hoped to medicate herself with a big dose of abstinence, to see how long she could go without drama. Besides, it was time she committed herself to holding onto a job. She spent her first weeks on the coast dedicating herself to becoming a fabulous teacher: she read new, revolutionary books on teaching, she made poster-sized copies of the covers of her favorite books and displayed them in her classroom, she had individual conferences with each of her students and many of their parents. Karen Fenoglio was the most demanding principal she'd ever worked for and, because she didn't have anything else to do, Roz strove to meet her high standards. She stayed late many nights. Sometimes, the new teacher and principal chatted over the copy machine when they were the only two left in the building. Though Karen's personality approached a kind of athletic severity, she was friendly, and obviously impressed with the long hours put in by the new teacher. Still. There was no excuse for what Roz did.

The coastal storms in Oregon had an insulating effect. That November evening it was dark by four and the rain lashed about the high school building as if tying it up. Roz wasn't going home only because she didn't want to go out in the weather. She'd corrected all her papers and so she strolled down to the administration offices. A wedge of light shot out from Karen's cracked door. Roz placed her toes in the point of that wedge and knocked very lightly, then pushed open the door.

"Have a great evening, Dr. Fenoglio."

Everyone called the principal Karen. Using her title and last name was not required. Doing so now was either subversive or flirtatious. Karen stood up behind her big oak desk. She didn't smile. She answered, "Good night, Ms. Frick."

Ridiculously, that's all it took. From then on, only if they were alone, they spoke their little joke. Not too often and always turning away quickly, as if witnessing the effect it had on the other would be admitting too much. It was so silly and yet the phrase, "Ms. Frick," spoken by Karen, shocked Roz's core. She should have found the lesbian community in Lincoln City.

From there, it spiraled quickly into a Well of Loneliness thing, only the twenty-first century version.

Larry never knew they had fucked. Or even kissed. Karen said she had hinted, said she had "let him know the seriousness of the situation."

Karen didn't fire Roz. Even if she had wanted to, how could she have explained the job termination? Roz left. She hadn't been in Lincoln City long enough for anyone to really care why she was leaving so suddenly. The whole affair was very clean and the surgery to remove it fully successful.

Roz propped the Christmas card up on the small desk in her dorm room in McMurdo. Miraculously, she didn't have a roommate. Occasionally a transient scientist, on her way to a field camp or the Pole, was placed in her room for a few nights, though never Tamara. It was the kind of luck she often had, getting a room to herself when everyone else had to share, and she mentioned her fortune to no one in case it was a mistake they didn't even know they had made.

Roz slept for several hours. When she woke up, she laid in bed a while wondering if she should go to the party in the Heavy Shop. Still undecided, she dressed in expedition weight long underwear, fleece pants and a sweater, her enormous down parka, and a hat and mittens. She placed Karen's card in the pocket of her parka and stepped out of the dorm. It was quite late and she'd slept through dinner. She could get something at midrats, short for midnight rations, later. Now, instead of walking up the hill to the Heavy Shop, she headed down to the continent's edge where the tides had pushed the sea ice up hard against the land, creating pressure ridges, piled up chunks of ice. She stood there for a minute, her toes pointed due south, and closed her eyes. Roz heard a huff of wind and she tilted back her face to feel it on her cheek, to find out from which direction it came. But the air touching the bit of exposed skin on her face was still. She turned toward Hut Point, and then in the other direction, toward Scott Base, and finally faced north, and still felt no wind. She heard it, though, just barely, like a long sigh, followed by silence, and then another long sigh.

Roz walked around the side of Observation Hill so that she could look out at the frozen sea without seeing the ugly buildings of McMurdo. The ice soared toward the horizon in its white glory, eventually meeting the sky, but only eventually. Long fractures in the ice revealed slits of black sea, and scattered around these few cracks were seals, pale ones, spotted ones, black ones. She sat on the rocky soil on the side of Observation Hill and looked at the seals, sky, sea. Black, blue, and white. Roz took the card out of her pocket and held the it at arm's length. A red ornament on the front and the word Peace.

At Christmas Karen and Larry would go to Portland where Karen's parents and all her brothers and sisters and their children would convene. Larry would be uncomfortable. He'd confided this to Roz near the end, willing to share his vulnerability, as if it were a gift that would benefit Roz. Perhaps he was saying: there are other parts of Karen's life with which I'm uncomfortable, not just you. Or perhaps he was saying: you don't really want her, she comes with a big messy family.

Sitting now on the side of Observation Hill, looking out at the seals, Roz reread Karen's note. It really wasn't a letter, even though the card was full of green handwriting, it was only a note. Karleen McBride's dad's death and questions. That was all. Except for the Ms. Frick. How could her own name scrawled in green ink bring back so much?

Roz's own Language Arts classroom in Dr. Fenoglio's own school. The principal, for crying out loud. Long after the custodian had left for the day. A month after the Ms. Frick and Dr. Fenoglio game had begun. A year ago this month. It must have been six in the evening, an absurd hour for a teacher to still be in her classroom, as if she wouldn't rather be reading student essays in her own home, covered by a fleece blanket, sipping hot tea. It was raining again and outside her classroom windows silver slashes lit the black December night. Karen stepped into the room and shut off the light. Roz embarrassed herself by gasping. Karen laughed.

"Scared ya."


"What are you doing here so late, Ms. Frick?"

Karen leaned against Roz's Jack London display and flinched when the head of a pushpin poked her shoulder. She folded her arms and didn't smile. That not smiling of Karen's was like a hand slid under her shirt.

"Reading essays. And you?"

"I'm always here this late."

What she should have done then was remind Karen of her husband. It would have been easy: How does Larry feel about you staying late all the time? Instead Roz stood up and walked toward her. Just beyond Karen was the shade Roz had installed on the door window to prevent kids in the hall from making faces at her students. Administration officials never approved of those kinds of changes she made in her classrooms, the irregular ones, the ones she did without prior approval. But Roz didn't see Karen as the principal anymore. She saw her only as a woman who had come into her classroom and shut off the light. Roz reached past Karen and pulled the blind. Karen put a hand on Roz's hip. Roz couldn't tell if the pressure was away or forward. It didn't matter because Karen kissed her.

The sound of boots crunching on rock brought Roz's attention back to the present.

"I followed you. I'm sorry."

She turned to see Josh traversing the slope. He sat next to her.

"You shouldn't have followed me. That's not right."

"I know."

"Josh, I can't be your girlfriend."

"I know."

"There're so many nice girls here."

"They're all lesbians."

She wanted to ask, Who's a lesbian? but it seemed unfair to use his pain to solicit information that she wanted. Roz nodded, intending to keep quiet, but heard herself saying, "All of them?"

"Are you?"

"I'm afraid so."

He nodded an it figures nod. Then he asked, "Who are you after?" assuming that everyone is after someone.

"Tamara. The cosmologist." Of course she lied.

Josh brightened, then coughed out a laugh. "Really? The one who works at the Pole? Is she a lesbian?"

"I doubt it."

"Do you have it bad?"

Yes Roz had it bad. She wanted to tell him how it felt to come to work in the morning, to face a crowd of oversexed adolescents, and to try to get them to discuss Jane Eyre in the classroom where you had had sex with the principal the night before.

She handed Josh the card from Karen, and he read it carefully. He relished the story that Roz then told him, and she appreciated that in him.

"So it's not really the cosmologist," he said.

Roz shook her head. "She looks too far. She misses everything." She said that as if she knew her, as if she had had conversations with her.

It was true, though, what she had just said about Tamara. The beginning of the Universe had to have been a cold, desperate place. The Big Bang had to have been cosmically painful, excruciating beyond comprehension. To pin ones hope on the beginning like that was the ultimate need to start over. Not just life, not just this century, but the whole Universe! Maybe that wasn't hope at all. Maybe that was desperation.

Roz lay back in the rocky soil, slanted against the side of Observation Hill, and looked out at the creamy sky floating above the faintly luminescent sea ice. Who was to say this very moment, this very moment that held a silence deeper than any she'd ever known, wasn't the beginning of the Universe?

The seals, who had been squirming earlier, were nearly still now, as if they had all fallen asleep in unison. Only their blubbery sides rose and fell as they slept. A faint, rhythmic whoosh brushed across the icy stillness, not wind at all, only the breath of seals.

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