He hadn’t known pain, fear, or sorrow. Until two months ago he hadn’t known cold or hunger. Most of all hunger. He often thought back to before he had been stranded. What else was there to do.
He knew that it wasn’t good to think about such things in his situation, but he couldn’t help it. Grandpa had always said “no use thinking about what you can’t change” and he couldn’t go back in time.
Snow curled up beside him, her thick white fur, rose and fell with the steady rhythm of her breath, a comfort in this desolation he was now stuck in. Ice everywhere. Nothing but white cold. He looked out of his tiny shelter at the windblown ice and groaned, then lifted the furs off of him and Snow and sat up.
The sled dog opened her jaws wide in a yawn that ended in high pitched whine and stood. She stretched languidly before wandering off to sniff the ice. He could see her ribs even through her thick fur. He wondered how he looked under all of his layers of skins and flannel, probably pathetic. He felt pathetic, an insignificant speck in a vast world of white solitude. Everything was his enemy in this existence since anything could kill him, even Snow. He’d seen men’s sled dogs turn on them when put in a great deal of stress, Snow was now in the most stressful of situations. She had watched him sacrifice the other two dogs to sate their hunger. Add to that the instinctual need, born in every living thing, to feed and it was just a matter of time before her loyalty to him was tested beyond it’s limits. “No, not Snow”, he told himself. She would never betray him. They had been through too much together.
“Alright Nels, get your lazy ass out of bed” he said aloud. The sound of a person talking was reassuring to him, never mind that it was his own voice. Snow paused in her sniffing and looked at him questioningly for a few seconds then went back to her work.
Nels rolled onto one side before pushing himself into a sitting position. His muscles had become weak, even this small exertion was taxing. He had been strong, but now he could barely get out of bed. He had been a deckhand on a whaler, now he waited to die on this floating ice prison.
Nels climbed awkwardly out of the shelter that he constructed from the boat that saved him one day, then cursed him to this hell the next.
When they were first hit by the storm there was the usual excitement among the men, but they had all been through rough seas and this was no worse than any other storm for those seas. Then it became worse, much worse. After hours of fighting to keep the ship into the storm waves, Johannes, the helsmen, finally made a mistake . The ship didn’t hit one of the waves straight, causing it to roll violently and turn even further off course and by the time the next wave got to them it was too late. They were hit full broadside and capsized.
When he wasn’t working on deck, Nels had been in charge of the sled team. Expeditions to the frozen north often took a sled team. The fear of getting stuck in the ice was a real one and having a sled team on board could help the ship scout to clear water if the ice began to crowd in. Not only that but, once stranded, it helped to know that you had some means of travel.
When the storm hit he took the dogs up top. He told himself and the crew that the dogs were getting sea-sick below deck, but In reality he was afraid of being trapped if the ship went down. It was extremely bad etiquette to talk about, or even show concern that the ship might sink.
When the wave hit and all on deck were hurled into the freezing sea, he had managed to come up next to one of the whaling boats that had been thrown into the water with everything else that had been on deck.
The weight of the heavy clothing he wore and the added weight of the water they had soaked up made entering the boat nearly impossible. When he had, using every ounce of his strength, lifted himself into the boat he had seen that it was already a third of the way full of water. He quickly found a large hole in the aft hull and plugged it the best he could with the sail that was piled haphazardly in the floor of the boat. The water was past cold now, and his hands and fingers were beginning to neglect his commands. He brought them to his mouth and blew a trembling breath into them as he scanned the water for survivors.
That’s when he had seen Snow. She was already swimming toward him. “Good girl” he said. His teeth were chattering now. He leaned over, careful to place as much of his legs as possible as far from where he leaned as he could so as to keep from capsizing this boat as well. He grabbed Snow on the scruff of the neck and lifted her from the water.
She looked pathetic then too. Her thick hair was pasted to her skin, making her look much thinner than normal. Although not as thin as she did now, he thought. As soon as he dropped her into the boat she shook, and stood on trembling legs.
He couched the long oars and began rowing through the debris of the shipwreck. He picked up what he thought he could use, and looked for survivors on the way, calling out periodically to no one and anyone who would listen. Each time he paused in his rowing to listen for a response. He found another two dogs in the water, Black Beard (for the pattern of black on his chest) and Pig (for his appetite). Pig’s leg hung useless, and he whined constantly.
Nels found the bale bucket under one of the bench seats and began the work of staying afloat. He fought the wind and the rain, the cold and his numb hands, but after what felt like hours of work, but that was probably only half an hour, he saw that he was able to make progress against the leak. At least the work warmed him somewhat.
There was an oil slick on the surface of the water now, whale oil. He scanned the water again, and saw casks had slowly begun to rise to the surface of the water, the storm had mercifully abated somewhat and he was able to see some of them as they barely broached the surface. He began paddling to them and hauling them into the boat.
They had taken a Sperm whale, and it’s oil would keep him alive. Each cask was another few weeks to a month he could live, provided he could find food and water. Water shouldn’t be a problem. They had been navigating their way around icebergs, and ice flows for the past month and were retreating before the ice trapped them when the storm hit. Chunks of ice as big as the boat jutted like black boulders from the calming sea. They must have broken off of a nearby flow in the storm.
Nels was exhausted. Hours had passed and he began to see a lightening to the sky around him. His voice was hoarse from yelling, but he was only greeted with silence. He made it to the edge of a large ice flow and took some of the planks that he had scavenged from the wreckage and built his first fire.
In the weeks that followed, the Ice thickened, and the sea became farther and farther away. The temperature dropped each day. At first Nels tried to move his camp with the retreating ocean, but this only served to tire and frustrate him. Instead he maneuvered the boat so that it was against a large chunk of ice at the edge of the water and used several of the longer planks to wedge around it so that as the ice froze during the night it would push the boat on its side. In the morning he would break the planks free and wedge them again. Until finally he was able to grab the mast and pull the boat so that it was three-quarters of the way capsized creating the shelter he and Snow now lived in.
A loud grinding noise interrupted Nels as he walked to the spot where he made water every morning. The ice was doing that more and more lately. He assumed the water temperatures were warming up with the increased daylight. At any moment a crack could form right underneath his feet and end his torture, taking him down to a cold lonely deep. The thought made him shudder.
He would much rather die, cold and hungry than cold and terrified as he sank beneath the dark surface. All of the men on the ship had died that way and it was not how he wanted to go. Another shriek of ice splitting struck his ears like a hammer and made him turn to the deafening sound. A large opening had formed in the ice just thirty feet away.
“Snow?” Where was she? “Snow?” His plea sounded shrill and panicked to his own ears. He ran to the opening despite the probability that the edge was unsafe. He heard her before he saw her. Splashings. Dying. As he came to the edge he saw the sled dogs predicament. The sheer side of the ice gave the dog no purchase as she struggled to remove herself from the freezing water. She was probably five feet below him, just out of reach. She let out a short whimper between breaths, the first he’d heard her give.
“I’ll be back girl, I’m going to get some wood. Hold on.” He ran to the boat and grabbed the longest piece of wood he could find from the meager wood pile he had saved from the broken oil-casks and ran back to the opening. The whole time calling out to Snow, reassuring her, giving her hope.
As he approached the opening once more, he didn’t hear the splashing. Nels peered over the side and saw nothing but the black water. Small chunks of ice floated on the surface, knocked free from the separation of the ice and the fighting claws of the terrified animal. Nels scanned the hellish hole again and again, unwilling to accept the only explanation to the dogs disappearance.
He yelled, an angry sobbing plea to heaven. “Why?” Like Snow he hadn’t cried since being stranded until that moment. He wasn’t sure how long he’d sat at the precarious edge of what he was sure was the entrance to Hell itself, but eventually his sobbing softened and then stopped altogether.
Suddenly the fear of being alone on this white desolation was more terrifying than anything he’d felt. “No use thinking about what you can’t change.”
Nels slowly brought himself to his feet and slumped forward into the hole that either God or the Devil had prepared to receive him. He did not struggle, despite the shock of the incredibly cold water, but instead he let it embrace him, and just before he let the water enter his lungs to take his life he felt the warmest he had in months.