“Cold Comfort” by Paul Mooney

Note: This document is one of the few legible pieces of writing recovered from the recently discovered wreck of the Negagfok, anArctic exploration vessel believed lost with all hands sometime between 1898 and 1901. Its authorship is unknown and currently a matter of ongoing scholarly debate.

            We’re all afraid to die. That’s a given. Sure, the men all laugh louder than natural as they try to top each other’s boasts about who’s less afraid. Less affected by the elements. Less disturbed by each eerie creak of the bulkheads around us. More blasé about this whole affair and the terrifying dangers that go with it. They strut about above decks without shirts or trousers (or both) and laugh with fists on their hips and heads titled all the way back.

            Such an obvious facade. They’re terrified. Afraid to die. We all are. Afraid of the eternal Arctic ice that squeezes our floe-bound ship with continuous quiet groans and frequent thunderous cracks. Of the uncounted fathoms of black-blue of water below. Of the foam-tipped waves that slosh and slap the hull whenever a fresh chasm opens in the ice. Afraid of the wind’s cold needles and the rot of scurvy and those grim white bears of the polar regions that have already eaten a half dozen of the sled dogs and damn near killed Calvert, the navigator.

            But more than even those deaths of all forms, the men fear something even more: failure. Not reaching the pole. Not proving themselves the bravest and smartest and heartiest by reaching the northernmost point of our planet. They fear that, even if they do come home alive, it will be merely as men who tried but did not triumph. They fear that history will forget them, their names, their courage, their voyage.

            Lucky for me, I need only fear death. History will never forget me because it will never even know my name in the first place. That was part of the deal. Doctor Johansen made that stipulation very clear when he first offered me my position with the expedition. So I don’t share the men’s terror of figuratively going down as forgotten failures. I’m already a nothing. Not even a footnote will mark my presence aboard this ship if/when the account of its expedition is ever printed. My experiences on this journey are my own alone, to exist almost entirely in my own mind, and never go beyond.

            No one will ever know how early someone like me travelled this far in this way. How close to the North Pole a woman came in this, the year of our lord 1899 (well, somebody’s lord, at any rate). First of my sex to reach the Arctic Circle, at least on record. And a woman of ill repute at that. So the first prostitute to reach the Arctic Circle to boot. That’s two records I’ve set in secret. Though I hear the native women of upper Canada have a far broader and more lax view on sex and its use as a transactional procedure than my fellow Americans. And I suppose some of their tribes may come pretty far up in these latitudes, given what little I know of their occasionally nomadic lifestyles. So I suppose other women may have offered sexual services for profit in these latitudes. But I believe I am the first to have reached this point solely due to said services. Undoubtedly the first to officially belong to what some of my smugger, educated clients call “the world’s oldest profession.”

            I find it difficult to put into words why I took this position, let alone the thoughts and feelings I experienced when Doctor Johansen (most definitely one of those above mentioned smug, educated clients) first offered it to me. I still feel proud I said yes to the offer, don’t get me wrong. If my fate is to die unknown in the cold, I take some comfort that it will be as part of such a grand and daring adventure. I’d certainly prefer to come home alive, but a woman like me takes what solace and pride she can get.

            Yesterday Doctor Johansen informed me we crossed the 86th parallel, meaning the expedition has come farther north than all but a handful of known human beings in the history of our world. That’s a thing to take pride in, formal recognition or not. They say some other, lost expeditions may have made it even further. And I don’t doubt that the dead men eternally aboard their ships and sleds felt their shares of well earned pride before the ice, the hunger, or the sea snuffed the life from them.

            I start and shudder from time to time when I think of those dead. It forces me to consciously acknowledge just how cold it is outside, how barren a place we are, and how deadly the environs are outside my warm and comfortable quarters. But ours is a most well-built and purposefully designed ship. And, unlike most of my crewmates, I never want for a bedmate to keep me extra warm.

            “A proposition,” Johansen began his offer those many months ago when he first presented it to me. Not with a polite question or a subtle lead-in, but that rather blunt preamble. No wonder he seemed to have no women in his life aside from those financially compensated for their time.

            “I’m flattered, Doctor, but I’m not looking for a fresh husband at the moment,” I said as coquettishly as I could muster. I was tired and he was my second-to-last client of the evening. And, like most academics, he wasn’t half as interesting to talk to as he imagined. Still, he paid in advance for an extra hour that night, as he so often did, and I couldn’t well tell him to shut up and go wait in the hall until he was ready for another go.

            “No, no, no. Nothing of the sort, I assure you. An extended temporary position I have in mind for you. Sort of a prolonged contract, if you will.”

            “Uh huh,” my suspicions rose. He wasn’t the first fellow who offered to put me up, expenses and all, in a paid for apartment to have me on call. Unlike the Doctor, those sorts tend to be married, but I still figured that was his aim. So when he laid out his actual proposal I was surprised to say the very least. And there I was thinking nothing could surprise me after nearly a decade in my line of work.

            A polar expedition. A voyage to the Arctic Sea. An American attempt to outdo a recent trip undertaken by a Norwegian crew led by a fellow who’s name I never remember and have yet to pronounce correctly. Doctor Johansen planned to assemble a team of Americans to go even farther North in a similar manner and “show up the Europeans.” He spoke with strongly patriotic language, which has never stirred much ardor in me personally. But I admired his fervor.

            Most of the scientific details were outside my realm of knowledge (although not so far outside as the Doctor assumed), and the man rattled them off at an excited rate. At one point I worried he might pass out from lack of air. But after he got all the talk of currents and ice floes and innovative ship engines and avoiding scurvy out of the way, he laid out what he wanted from me in relation to it all.

            “See, the fellows and I will be aboard the ship with naught but ourselves for at least two years, perhaps as many as four. And, while our work will no doubt occupy us to the point of exhaustion most days, there may come times when we’ll require creature comforts beyond what a coal stove and an extra ration of canned peaches may provide.”

            I grasped what he was driving at straight away and quickly stifled a laugh with a counterfeit cough.

            “My my, Doc, that’s quite a notion,”

            “Yes, yes,” he nodded, quite impressed with his own foresight. “Rather innovative, I know.”

            “You mean those other expeditions, that Norwegian fellow, they didn’t…”

            “Oh no. No. At least, not that they let be known,” he paused, likely wondering if his idea was not wholly original. “But no, bringing a woman of your profession along on an expedition such as ours would be a novel addition. I’m… fairly certain.”

            Not wanting to prolong the conversation further and with an eye to the clock on the wall (I had another regular due to come in before long) I promised I’d think on it and get back to him within a week’s time.

            When that day/night’s work ended, I laughed so hard my ribs ached thinking about the absurdity of the Doctor’s idea. Laughed myself right to sleep. But I woke up the next morning with the idea rattling around in my brain in a way I didn’t find quite so ridiculous.

            Two days later I admitted to myself how much the idea appealed to me. And not just the thought of how much money I’d come away with after a contract on my long-term rate for at least two years. And with expenses paid, no less. Hadn’t I fallen into this line of work because I wanted nothing more in life than to get the hell out of the dusty spit of nowhere I came from? Hadn’t I sought out the work of a professional mademoiselle so I could settle in a big city, meet big people, and have a shot at some kind of big life? And what opportunity could be bigger than the one offered out of the blue by dull, dry old Doctor Johansen?

            Four days later I realized I would go. A half day after that I gave Madame Savarille my notice and bid my coworkers a round of earnestly fond farewells.

            Day five I turned up at the Doctor’s door with my scant belongings in a heavy canvas sea bag I’d bought that morning from a desperate Navy sailor who’d come in for a quick lay before taking “French leave” from his ship.

            “Adventure awaits!” cried the Doctor with a grin upon seeing me on his doorstep.

            Second thoughts reared up and I almost turned around to leave. But his enthusiasm swept over me and I stepped inside. After all, it did promise to be a grand adventure. And unknown to history or not, being the first woman to potentially cross the northern pole of the planet would be a hell of an achievement to call my own.

            I suppose this voyage still will be, when all’s said and done. Though it seems that we, like those Europeans before us, may not actually cross the pole, based on the snippets of scientific talk (or arguments as increasingly becomes the case as the nights got colder and longer) I overhear. Still, my experience will be unique and boast-worthy in a host of wonderful ways. And some terrible ones. No other woman has felt the dull dread of the endless black sky, the brutally indifferent white terrain, and the groaning of the ice. Nor has one become so unbothered by them. So used to that constant fear of death that it’s become another routine aspect of my life.

            Strange to think of the sheer terror those things used to fill me with. Strange, too, to think of how unsettling every part of my daily life seemed when I first came aboard. How different I was then.

            Earlier today I looked at myself in the small mirror nailed to the bulkhead above my washbasin. No other room has such an amenity though it’s no secret as to why: as I’m the only crewmember whose appearance is tied to their role on ship. It allows for my daily quick once-over to ensure I maintain the base level of femininity required to earn my keep. But today I took the time to really examine myself without trying to do my hair up or add that little dash of rouge I know McCoy really relishes (he’s the geologist and, more importantly, the cook so keeping him enamored means my meals come from the choicer meat cuts and canned goods).

            I tried to compare what I saw to what my face looked like back in my shorebound days, when I spent far more time primping and preening my reflection out of necessity. The shape’s the same, the structural features no different. But the differences and the devil are in the details. The spiderwebs of small wrinkles at the corners of my eyes from squinting either in the dark of the ship or the glare of the sun on sea or ice above deck. The mouth, which once naturally held itself in a pretty, coquettish little upward curl, is now a hard, thin line held shut by a permanently clenched jaw. The skin pale as if permanently powdered aside from a darker strip running from temple to temple, across the eyes and bridge of the nose. It’s from so many months spent unable to go above deck without all but the eyes covered in layers of heavy fur and oilskin. While my hair has not yet gone gray, the lack of proper washing has done it no favors. And, like all my crewmates, a thin line of soot traces my hairline. An unavoidable effect of the ever-burning oil and coal that lights our cabins, cooks our food, and keeps us warm. Easy enough to wash from the face, but hard to get out of the hair without a full bath.

            Overall, the person staring back at me looked more like a battle-worn Lakota brave than a woman. And if I could have grown a beard I wager I’d look exactly like a viking or Celtic warrior of old. Anyone from a culture that’s seen lots of combat and has a propensity for decorating their faces, really. And the space surrounding the face only adds to the perception of it belonging to someone accustomed to hardship. Bare wooden walls. A simple mattress on a simple frame nailed to the deck, a sea chest by its foot. A small desk with a small oil lamp. The walls all but bare, mirror and washbasin notwithstanding. A single black and white photograph in a wooden frame on one wall and an empty shelf above the bed. What little keepsakes I’d brought along that survived the tossing of my first storm at sea are buried at the bottom of that sea chest, relatively safe from the ocean’s tendency for smashing things.

            The differences in me and my surroundings, compared to a year before, shocked me when I took that first long, hard look. But only for a brief moment. A benefit of living a life of ever-changing faces and circumstances, I suppose. And besides, if we do make it home and I return to my old profession or even open a brothel of my own, I think I can pull off the “alluringly hardened, slightly older woman” look that certain types go for. So why lament the loss of some of the more youthful characteristics of my appearance?

            Reflecting on these changes, I think back to the early days, when the ship first got stuck in the floes. When I had to choke back a scream at every one of the deafening cracks and explosions of blue-white ice colliding and breaking all around us. When I fretted how the coming months would entail endless days of the same sweaty, miserable men flailing their musky bodies atop mine in a circuit day in and out ad nauseam. But now, after nearly a year of drifting, I oddly miss the sharp pangs of that earlier fear. Back before it became the numb background of my every thought.

            Hell, some days I mostly-jokingly think I should strangle any one of my male shipmates just to break up the goddamn monotony. If I had to pick, it’d be Higgins. Assistant engineer, keeps the engine and pumps running. Absolutely vital to all of our survival but I’d love to throttle the bastard. I can tell when he sleeps on his side even when he’s not sharing my cabin. His snores rip through the bulkheads so fiercely they damn near drown out the sound of the wind. I suppose I could live with the possibility of the boiler exploding and killing me in a steaming geyser of scalding water in exchange for a full night’s sleep at this point. And to break up that aforementioned goddamn monotony.

            I find myself muttering the word “adventure” aloud from time to time to try and remind myself of the wider picture. It doesn’t work like it used to. Sometimes the word rings as a mere mockery of its actual definition.

            And while I may not need to fear being forgotten, the fact that it’s moot grates if I think on it too long. Which I’m certainly doing now, scribbling these idle thoughts on a scrap of paper during one of the rare slow days for me and my work I’m always happy to have.

            I will not be remembered. The history books will not mention me. As far as the future will know, I will not exist as any part of this. Word of Higgins’s snores are more likely to reach the public’s ears than my very existence aboard the ship. As are the snores themselves. No wonder the suffragettes are so damn mad. Maybe I’ll join their ranks if I make it back alive. If they’ll have a soiled dove in their organization, that is.

            Best not to get ahead of myself. The Doctor says it’s liable to be at least another year before we’re free of the ice, having reached the pole or not, and that’s before we can even start sailing for home. So this repetitive, purgatorial state in the uppermost latitudes will remain my lot for a good while yet. I ought to keep my thoughts on present circumstances, do what I can to find warmth and comfort in my cozy little berth and savor the occasional moments when all of this still feels like an adventure. Though at this moment, any upsides I can think of strike me as cold comfort when taken against the bitterness of our surroundings and the mists of history my story will be lost in even if we do come home alive.

Paul D. Mooney is an award winning writer and filmmaker who earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College as well as degrees from Boston University and Stony Brook University. He’s had fiction, nonfiction, and humor pieces published by The Writing Disorder, American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and more. You can learn all about Paul’s creative work at https://www.thewritepaulmooney.com/.