Upon a Forest Deep

When they recovered Evans, the poor man grovelled with his uncovered, frost-darkened face and hands thrust into the snow. Oates would have thought him dead already if he weren’t twitching.

Oates stayed with Evans as the other three went for the sledge. Beard hoary as if touched by death, the delirious man raved on about some creature pulling his leg, and he seemed to mean it really, in most serious terms.Evans said he’d seen a man standing before him, and he fell on his face in fear. Oates later shared this with the doctor, who of course wondered if it was the Son of God himself—something Oates might have liked to believe. God alone could save them now.

How many times over the past few days had Evans complained about loose ski shoes, climbing out of the harness only to wrestle back in. So they left him behind, thinking to warm up his lunch for when he arrived. A well-meaning mistake, and a necessity. He’d have died no matter what the doctor or anyone did. It was the way of things on this dreadful expedition.

Sun by day and night and nothing visible! The snow was blindness. It left their eyes streaming and sometimes they lay for hours in agony, wishing to scrape the scalding jelly from their sockets. When fog or blizzard favoured them, they strained in equal measure to find the cairns through the ghastly swirl. All the world was lost in dead whiteness. And every day Oates fought longer with less energy to cram his decaying feet into their layers of hairy socks, saennegrass, and boots. More disturbing, his old thigh wound from the war had become a constant grievance, even before reaching the Pole.

The sting of defeat had depressed their spirits since that time. The Norskies might well be packing to sail home already, having swooped on the Pole in December. They had their heads screwed on right. Oates wagered they hadn’t lost a single man, whilst he and his comrades would be fighting to the last to reverse their luck before it killed them.

At least they’d passed the Glacier with its pits and secret forests. Fossils of that lush past were wrapped away in the sledge, much to the excitement of Scott and the doctor. Oates hardly cared for a thing too long dead to feed him.

Where they’d shot Christopher, that devil of a pony, Oates insisted on digging up the uneaten remainder of horsemeat. The head was useless, rotting despite the frigid temperatures. That wicked old crock bit back even in death!

It was in the pony’s face that Oates saw the vision.

The dead eyes seemed to form up like liquid crystal, until they were fresh orbs set between decaying lids. Oates counted four figures reflected in their glossy depths, besides himself. He felt the stiff wind pierce him to his core, seeing this other standing there. Not Evans. No, worse.

His mother.

“You should not be here,” he whispered. “You must be safe at home. Arranging the books for my exams, and the caramels, to send me. Not here! Not here!”

“Laurie? Will you never come home? My darling Baby Boy!”

Her face was blurred, wrong. Something else had taken her place, a deathly creature. Then it disappeared. Only a mirage—the Antarctic world playing games on a tired mind. The eyes were dead again.

Scott was shaking him. “Oates, dear chap! Are you quite alright?”

Oates shut his eyes and let the rotting head fall. It was an effect of confronting the ponies ordeal again, surely. There were no crocks to manage now. I have done my part, Oates thought. The ponies were my duty and I did it right. Now he had only himself to care for, each man for himself, as Scott had told them not long ago.

“I’m fine. Only thinking how long we wrestled with this devil, and how relieved I am to have seen him die.”

He must be plucky, to show her he was no child. There were things worse than death. To die less than a man’s death, that was worse. To live in humiliation as a cripple, that as well. And at this point, he could not hope to rescue his feet.

Scott clapped him on the back. “You’re a first-class example of British courage, Soldier. In six months’ time we may devour ten juicy beefsteaks and flagons of brandy together, laughing at this wretched continent for trying to bring down the finest British stock.”

“We will see,” Oates said.

“What feasts we’ll have! Never a bite of hoosh or biscuit again. But in the meantime we must be watchful,” Scott said.“We cleared the Glacier; with decent weather we ought to have a straight shot home. We will spit on the hand of Fate if we can.”

“If we reach the next depot, I will kiss Fate’s hand,” Oates said.

“Always the pessimist, Soldier, but we will see, as you say.”

Despite the bravado of Scott’s words, they came hollow out of his empty belly and turned foul between lips crevassed like old Beardmore Glacier. All the talk revolved around eating these days.

Once in a while Oates managed to remember further back than his last meal.The happy days on the voyage out from Cardiff, never more trouble than a stretch of sail to mend. The fresh breeze on salty air, the waves skipping beneath the craft, good friends for company, and always the expectation of adventure beyond the horizon.Oates was in such soaring spirits that a passing visit to Father’s grave at Madeira didn’t oppress him. And later, when they reached this place at the end of the earth, there lay a white expanse like a carpet of lilies, to quote the ski expert. That man must already be sailing home just now. Days on the pack ice, frolics on ski, and at last the sighting of the continent.

The coast of Antarctica was so vibrant with life, as Oates never would have thought. Fat little penguins surged all around the ship, hundreds, maybe thousands, leaping and diving with ease through the deep green waters to greet the newcomers. Far away, the shimmering blue and green, a landscape of crystal and sapphire and emerald. It was sublime then.

Later the dark yet cosy winter. Life in the hut was barely dangerous except for death by boredom. He remembered laughing and dancing on midwinter day, shooting down every man with his new toy popgun, and of course, the most excellent seal soup and plum-pudding, candied almonds and crystallised fruit, free-flowing champagne and all manner of liqueurs, a capital meal. He’d give anything just to lick up the crumbs on that table now. Oates never thought he’d crave the long night of winter, but sometimes in the thrall of snowblindness, he almost did.

Conjuring the warmth of the past was a task too great for a hungry man waiting on death. Against all his instincts, Oates had begun to welcome death. Death would silence the pain. Dead, he would walk no longer.

They struggled onward, pulling a dreadful load of supplies and instruments and fossils. Oates resented the need to carry useless instruments. Scott would not consider casting off the unnecessaries even if they all must grind themselves into the ground for it.

But at least the thermometer measured the drop into winter, yes, at least they had figures to measure the flinty winds cutting open their faces and fine white sands filling their finneskos and hungry frost creeping up their limbs. Naturally, figures made the going more tolerable. Never mind the soggy ankles, sinking at every step through a flaking crust under the thick powdery snow.

Two weeks after losing Evans, they did reach the depot, but there were yet seventy miles before the next. They ate a full ration of the usual pemmican hoosh and biscuit with tea, and it was a feast even without the beefsteak Oates craved.

But the weather stalled them, and the same day Oates was at last forced to reveal his deteriorating feet. He was proud that he’d endured his toes so long, and his thigh longer. Yet Scott seemed displeased, as if it were a personal failing of Oates, and the other two showered him with pity. The doctor lavished his feet with attention, waving aside protests that grew more feeble, and Oates ached with gratitude although it was all vain. He knew he was worst off, sinking deeper every day.

To think, the real ocean lay under this crust of ice. If the Barrier were to melt away, suddenly, they’d drown in a sea like ink. It was preposterous, but Oates felt the more disturbed for having thought of it. On the mainland he’d felt more secure, somehow, even if he wasn’t aware of it then. That thing Scott spoke of. It hated them. Now they’d left the land behind, and the follower seemed only more bold.

Early one morning, the call of nature disturbed Oates and he dragged himself from the tent. As he relieved his urge and the deadly air stole his breath away, he noticed a figure stir near the sledge. Thinking it one of the others, Oates avoided drawing the man’s attention until he had finished his business.

When he approached, he found it was his mother. But not her—the other her. The one that wore her face.

It was busy rifling through the supplies on the sledge. Oates shouted at it with his failing voice. Then it looked up, eyes colder than the depth of winter, and his joints melted.

Her mouth contorted. “Baby Boy, go back to sleep now.”

“Why are you here?” he said.

“Hush. Children do not demand answers from their mothers. Go back to sleep.”

He faltered. Her voice, the inflection, the tone, all pointed him back to childhood, and all the seasons of ailment that haunted him in those years. “You’re a false apparition. A trick of the mind.”

She shook her head. “You drink day, yet you don’t trust your eyes. I am what you see.”

“You should be home,” he pleaded.

“I live on this exile.”

He shivered, not sure if he had heard right. His mind was always fogged over lately. Then he noticed, in the snow at her feet, one of the fossils the doctor had taken from the cliffs on the mainland, what seemed like ages ago. But this thing could not be his mother. “Why do you want that?” Oates said.

“It is my forest,” it told him. “Nowdrinkers burn ancient to cross the sea, and nowdrinkers want to burn my ancient to leave again.”

“You hate our fires? Is that it?”

It stooped to grasp the fossil piece, and the face of his mother puckered. “You have stolen my ancient, and your taint lies upon it. Now you must become forever.” A gust of snow swept over the figure of her, and the thing vanished away behind the curtain.

Oates had stayed too long in the cold. He felt as if he would shake apart if he stood another second outside the tent, so he stumbled through the door and crawled back into his bag, his body rattling with tension.It was only an apparition.

It was more than an apparition. It had pulled out the fossil and believed they stole it, that was all. It would be simple to return the fossil and be rid of that dark presence. The other three wouldn’t understand, but Oates might solve the problem without their knowing.

Except he was dying too quickly, and for several days the thing did not manifest itself. Scott had decided they would eat full rations despite the shortage, but even on a full stomach Oates lagged more every day. He asked them what to do. They said he must keep marching, and so he did. But Scott ordered each man to carry a fatal dose of opium, because dying had ceased to be an ‘if’ and become rather a ‘when’ and ‘how.’ Oates had no vigour left to resist the order. He could barely talk, and his thoughts now fixed on everything that he must leave unfinished.

On the night before his birthday, Oates settled into his bag for the last time. He was glad that his death should be natural.

Father came from across the desolate plain, with neat moustache and long face, exactly as Oates remembered him from boyhood.

“I have a hearth stoked for you on the other side,” Father said. He walked on air above the ground and looked sharp, yet comfortable, in his morning attire, as if he’d just stepped away from breakfast to meet Oates.

“There is a hereafter for me then,” Oates said. He could feel the aches of his legs sloughing off, and the tired starving body falling away as if it were a soiled suit of clothes.

“So there is,” Father said. “I am proud to have a son of such valour conquer the Pole for Britain.”

Oates glowed. “You’d never guess it. I was quite a sickly child.” 

“And a strong man in consequence. You learned from a young age how to carry on through all the horrors and rigours of this last journey.”

“The last journey,” Oates echoed with a sigh.

“Your mother will be upset, of course, but it can’t be helped. She has your sisters to look after her.”

“Yet I think she’ll be glad for the respite from my nagging for money. I asked a full thousand pounds for Scott’s expedition.”

“You will of course be sorely missed,” Father said.

“I know it,” Oates said. “She will fear the worst if she thinks too much about my last letter. It’s awful to leave her behind. But she is safe, and well?”

“Yes. Come with me.”

Oates looked back at the tent where his comrades slept. They would not be surprised to find his lifeless body in the morning. They had no chance of going home unless he removed himself.

Now the ice spilled away under his feet, and Oates was nearly alarmed to find that he stood on nothing but air. Hundreds of miles of ocean passed beneath them, a tiny whaler that might be the Terra Nova, after it the great lush island of New Zealand, and more ocean and mountains and tropical forest and ocean. In only minutes it appeared they had come to England, and he saw her there, in lively conversation with his sister. She did not seem worried as she sat in the parlour, immaculate and straight-backed as always.

He opened his mouth to comfort her, and his lungs hitched. The welcome scene dissolved into the humid interior of a bag where Oates shivered and coughed weakly.

He was awake.

Oates wished to sob, but he was numb all through. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper now, though deep in his frostbitten body a voice was screaming, shrill and horrible.

He’d survived the night, his escape no more than a dream. The disappointment crushed him.

But today, he thought, my birthdayI choose today. Only one thing left to do.

He’d spent a number of birthdays with the Sixth Regiment in Ireland, fair green Ireland—not home, but near enough—he’d eaten and drunk to bursting for jolly old St. Patrick. You celebrate death with life, and life with death.

Oates knew of only one way to redeem himself now. The follower was skittish, but it would confront him alone. He only needed to take back the fossils and rid the others of himself and their enemy, in one blow. He pushed himself up. The three men looked at him, pity in their gaunt, weathered faces.

“I am just going outside…and may be some time,” Oates said, as if in a trance. He paused at the tent flap, wondering if he might say more to them. But his mind was dull and stupid, and he’d exhausted himself just giving them a handful of words to remember him by.

He stepped out into the blizzard. With petrified hands, he gathered the fossils up in a bag and shambled away from the tent bootless and gloveless.

He wandered out through the endless storm until he saw a shape resolve out of the spinning dimness. The shards of ice were flaying his face. He struggled to use his decaying lips and tongue. “T-t-take,” he stammered, holding out the bag. And then, to seal the bargain, he added, “go,” a mere puff from his throat.

One last scrap of dignity demanded that he stand before the creature, but his legs refused to give him this last request. The snow was plush against his body. The world had gone sideways.

He always understood that death in the snow was like falling asleep in a warm blanket. But as the thing stood over him, motionless, Oates discovered that he had never known real pain. Grains of ice trickled through the gaps in Oates’s clothing and crackled over his skin. They seeped into what nailbeds he had left. They crawled over the ragged places where he’d already lost flesh. They invaded his sores, ears, eyes. They burst through his veins and made crystals of his blood.

In equal measure, Oates felt his perception grow sharper. His brain tried to shut down beneath the weight of overwhelming torment, but he was locked in. Embalmed. Entombed. And totally, devastatingly, conscious. Feathery shadows were closing around him, blotting the sight of his mother’s face.

“Now you will become forever,” the thing said through her lips.


[see companion story, Within a Blinding Now]