Excerpt from Terra Nova
Soon they will have to send Tite and Lawrence back. There is no longer enough food for four of them. The men will protest, but it will be no secret that they will be crying behind their sun goggles, tears of relief freezing into grains of ice in the corners of their eyes. Watts catches himself. Their bodies are too desiccated for tears. There is no weeping in this place so stripped of human life. There is only cold. Cold like a presence they breathe and like a force to hold them down, hold them in place even as they inch over endless swales of white and gray, gray-white, blue-white. He wants to curse now, again, at this cruel palette. His lenses struggle to find nuance in this stark world, the camera eye narrowed to a pinprick and even that almost too much for his glass plates. There is only contrast here: white and black and darker black and brighter, impossibly brighter, white.
Cruelty reigns here. Is it not cruel to be forced to crawl like creatures of some frozen anthill or voles beneath the crust of this giant’s pasture, eyes screwed tight against this sun? Is it not cruel to continue forward when they have lost most sense of their progress, when to spin like the compass’s foolish needle and face in any direction, any!—he nearly sits up at the thought—and to set off would make no difference? Except to Heywoud. Heywoud who lies in his bag across the tent, who barely speaks all day lest human interaction distract him from his goal. It is a violence that they are here at all. Four men, and four others waiting at Hut Camp and six more at the edge of a sea from which no ship will depart, no hailing voices ring, for two more months. All of them carried away from gas fires, hearths, fenders, beds by the desire of this man Heywoud to plant the flag in the center of this vast expanse of nothing.
Watts can feel the panic rising in him, his heart fluttering and a small guttural sound rustling in his throat. Anywhere else, he would shout and thrash. He would seize Heywoud by the collar and pin him until he gave a schoolyard’s surrender. He cannot do that now. Not yet. They would know him to be mad, then, another casualty of the white cold, and they would leave him behind to die.
He fumbles in his clothing for his notebook, slipped inside the linen pouch he keeps around his neck. He pulls out the graphite stick but drops it, then scrabbles at the edges of his bag, fingertips already beginning to harden from mere proximity to the ice beneath, and retrieves the stick. Heywoud has not stirred. Watts rolls onto his stomach, the sour tang of the seal pelt thick in his lungs, and riffles the grubby pages. At the beginning of the little book is the list he began to keep when they made landfall. Curiosities sighted: penguin, seal, albatross, a band of vivid turquoise water at the base of a coastal berg. He was all eyes then, eager for the Pole’s new vastness. With time he added to his list. Spit, piss, shit, cum, blood. Things that froze, one by one, elements of his body that this place had overpowered. It is as good a chronicle of their time here as any other. But this is no language for the Geographical Society. If they live, they will have to find other words with which to tell their tale.
Watts finds the first blank page. He does not know how long it has been since he has written. Heywoud keeps the calendar for them now. For Watts, it has been one long day, time marked only by the brief graying of the sky. His mind is in a state of agitation that he knows cannot be calmed, only diverted. He writes to Viola. Once he begins, he cannot stop until the verbs go and he is left with the language of a list, naming her body as if to conjure it beneath him. Neck, breast, legs, cunt. He moves against the bag but knows he mustn’t come for it will mean peeling frozen wool from the only patch of skin that is still tender. He forces his mind to step back from her. Now she is across the room from him. Viola, brown eyes smiling and a laugh suppressed beneath the upper lip that pouts forever out. Her dark hair pinned up in the manner of an Ingres, her shoulder turned to him so that her jaw can cast a shadow, so that the hollow at the base of her neck can darken within her collarbone’s frame. In his mind he squeezes the shutter bulb. Viola, after the bath.
Watts looks over at Heywoud. How can he stand it? Has the man no passions? Before the Pole, on Alpine climbs and in the Dolomites, Heywoud would laugh and jolly him up a rock face. Heywoud would reach a gallant hand down to Viola who would take it without need. He stood on summits and breathed deep the beauty of the view. He clapped arms around them both, Watts and Viola, and they three were the luckiest alive to be together. In all these months that they have journeyed, weeks they camp together in the low canvas tent, Watts has never caught Heywoud so much as sighing. He moves forward each day more like machine than man. Watts rolls onto his back and stares up at a sprinkling of pinholes through which the light pierces like swordpoints. Perhaps Heywoud goes out into the sun and fucks the cold. That is his lover: Antarctica, Terra Australis. And the rest of them have become nothing more than pimps and panderers to the great man’s amorous folly.
Watts hears the clink of chain outside and then the dogs begin to snuffle and cry. Tite murmurs to the dogs and their whimpers become yelps. They think he has food for them, bits of potted seal and meat from the dogs’ own comrades, dried in the sun and preserved with fat, a canine pemmican. Such cannibalism no longer offends. These are the exigencies of the Pole, demanding, in so many ways beyond just this, that those who venture there consume their own kind in order to succeed.
“Down,” shouts Tite, and the dogs fall to silence, expectant and quivering, Watts knows, trusting and loyal. They don’t know that Tite has marked Lulu, the oldest bitch, as the next to be slaughtered. If Heywoud sends Tite and Lawrence back to Hut Camp, perhaps the old dog’s life will be spared. There is a future in which Tite lives out his days beside a hearth in Cornwall’s tropic zone, wrapped in shawls and jumpers against even that temperate clime, the old dog at his feet.
“Edward,” Watts says, for Heywoud has not moved at the sounds of the day’s beginning. “Edward.”
The man jolts upright, looking about him, quickly assessing. Still here, his gaze seems to say. Still not finished. Still in sunlight. Still cold and snow and ice. And still Watts. His eyes glance off Watts and he stares at nothing. His mouth opens and shuts as if practicing speech, or learning it. The men’s lips go numb in the night despite the fur they pull up to their chins. There is always, but especially upon first waking, a limit on what they are capable of saying.
Without addressing Watts, Heywoud pushes his bag down around his waist and dons his outer parka. Over his head he lowers the long strap connecting his fur mittens. A band linking the ends of the strap rests across his chest. To lose a mitten here would be to lose a hand, a limb entire. With more smacking of his lips, Heywoud strikes a match and lights the Primus stove. Nearly instantly the tent fills with briny, dark-gray smoke. It is seal oil they are burning, made from fat boiled down at Shore Camp and carried from each depot to the next. This can is one of the last four they possess. They will need at least two to reach the Pole.
Watts sits up in his bag and watches the little pot on the stove where Heywoud has dumped a tin of hoosh, a thin gruel of oats and pemmican, a breakfast fishy and foul. There can be no nourishment in it but to keep them from maddening dreams of gristle, toffee, bone. He craves such things his teeth could wrestle with. He wants to chew.
Tite’s ginger head pokes through the tent flap.
“Oi,” he says. “I was just having my morning constitutional.”
This is the way with Tite. Never afforded the leisure of a constitutional in his life as a farrier, up at dawn with the horses, he affects for Heywoud’s and Watts’ amusement the manners of the upper class.
“It’s a fine morning, gents,” he says.
But Watts can see the skin peeling off his pale cheeks above the copper beard. He has seen Tite limping and seen—once only and sufficient viewing, that—the right foot blistered and raw, the edge of black where the little toe is dying. There is a value to Tite’s jollity, but they must send him back. If they do not, he will be the cause of all their deaths. They are as tied to one another as the dogs in their traces or the mittens strung around their necks.
“Where is Lawrence?” Heywoud asks, his voice cracked and hoarse.
“He’s coming.” Tite assumes a cheery smile.
Watts holds back the tent flap and winces at the shock of the sun. He makes a lattice with his fingers and peers through it, searching the white until he spots a dark figure approaching from the other tent. Heywoud still maintains the rank and discipline of his Navy life and keeps the men’s tent at some remove from the one he shares with Watts. Unlike Heywoud, Watts is no officer, but he thinks he may still be a gentleman.
They take their bowls outside the tent and sit, two and two, on the sledges with their gloved hands cupping tin. For a brief instant the tin is hot and the steam rises up to moisten cheeks and beards and eyes. Watts dips his face so close that ice forms on his beard. There was no gray in it when they sailed from Cardiff.
The hoosh is quickly gone and the animals quickly fed with chunks of meat Tite throws for each dog separately so that they will not maim each other in the eating. Watts returns to the tent and emerges with his camera. He unfolds the tripod and stands the camera on the ice. The other three men glance up and look away. They do not like the camera. Lawrence complains about the weight of its glass plates—as much as seven stone—and even Heywoud has begun to worry that the record of their journey will never be seen if they cannot survive the hauling of it. Watts does not let the men see that he too has begun to find the burden heavy. He masks his grimace of effort as he heaves a box of plates and positions the camera on the hardpack surface. The men need no excuse from him to toss the plates into the snow like so many shards of ice.
He covers the camera with its thick, black drape and ducks beneath the cloth. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply in the darkness, a scent of wool so dry it smells like fire. The men’s voices come to him as if along a corridor. The camera is what keeps him here, away from fires and corridors. But for his skill with it, would he not be the one to go, back to Shore Camp and then a homebound berth at sea? Heywoud will never let him leave, will never send him back, never forego the photographic proof that Watts creates for him. Nor will Watts volunteer to leave. It is his job to take the photographs that document the expedition. He serves his friend, now here his Captain, by capturing images of stunning beauty to bring back to London. For this he braves the dreadful ice. The faintest cloud of heat fills the air before his face, though to call it heat would be to name their exertions no more than a stroll.
He forces himself to reach into the cold outside the drape for the box of glass plate negatives, then once again inside the soothing blackness of this fabric room he selects a pane of glass and inserts it in the negative-holder and slides the wooden apparatus into place within the camera’s box. They would mock him at the Slade for clinging to such cumbersome equipment in so inhospitable a place. But Watts began with a determination he has not yet shed: to document the southern lands as purely as he can. No film for him, but instead the immediacy of light etched in emulsion. When he shows his photographs in London—he impresses himself with this confidence in his own future—his viewers will see through the glass just as his camera has done. Viola will stand among the rest, staring in wonderment at his art, his vision, and she will look at him across the room. And there will be Antarctica, the thief of so much, yielding up in black and white some tithe of what it has stolen.
This photograph he frames for its documentary qualities. January 1910, Captain Heywoud and two of his men at breakfast, one hundred miles from the Pole. When the newspapers publish this one, they will place the word breakfast in quotation marks, reassuring wives and husbands at their morning meals that Antarctic exploration preserves all the rituals of English life, that even here in this extremity of land, Englishmen are civilized. In a photograph taken in September at Shore Camp, they had toasted blood pudding on long forks over a fire, Heywoud brandishing the package for the public: Harrods. Sent to Lyttelton in New Zealand with the returning depot ship, that glass plate has by now found its way into newsprint, the jovial scene so many months gone now gracing households across the Empire.
Watts squeezes the shutter bulb. The men’s movements are so small—spoon to mouth, spoon to bowl—that they will never blur the image. The masses of their bodies and the sledges, and the smaller masses of the now-dozing dogs scattered around the men in a beautiful asymmetry, will be reproduced in sharp focus. At least there is that here, with the camera’s eye closed so tight against the sun: the focus is pin-sharp. In London’s gray, the shutter’s little curtain moved with deliberation, as if it had all the time in the world. Here it draws forward and back with the alacrity of a train porter closing a carriage door. In the Antarctic summer, time is frozen. Nothing seems to move—not sun, not ice—though at Shore Camp they woke nightly to loud cracks and groans as the ice shuddered and swelled against the shifting of the sea.
“And now one more, boys,” Watts says. “Give us a smile. Last leg and all that.”
The last leg, they call it, as if there will be no return journey, no slog backwards against the slow unspooling of their southward path. They say this as a hope, to think only of the goal, the success, but it is at once an utterance of resignation.
Lawrence rises from the sledge and pulls Tite up beside him. The smaller man sways a little as he stands and, throwing an arm around Lawrence’s shoulders, conceals his unsteadiness with a swagger. Heywoud looks up and rests his bowl in his lap. In the camera’s eye, Watts sees Heywoud’s posture straighten. The man’s expression is serious, almost stern. Unlike Lawrence and Tite, he cannot hold a smile long enough.
“Just a little longer,” Watts says, and gives a quick squeeze to the shutter bulb. “All right.”
He watches through the camera as the smiles drop from the men and Heywoud resumes eating his hoosh, and then he ducks beneath the drape once more to remove the glass plate. It joins nine others in its box and he knows the men are thinking of the weight of it. It is just light he has captured in Paget’s solution of chemicals and egg whites, dried more than a year ago in London. It is just light and it has turned a burden for them all.
The men tend to the dogs and the sledges while Heywoud occupies himself with the sextant that is his constant companion. Watts begins to pack the camera but stops and gazes out in the direction he thinks they will take this day. With the Barrier and the Beardmore far behind him, he sees only a plain of gray-white ice, dimpled like the skin of a satsuma or the face of someone suffering from pox, and above it pale blue sky. Is it possible that this vast whiteness bears another expedition party like theirs hauling sledges and urging dogs onward? He sees no sign, hears no shout or howl. And yet the Norwegians cannot be too far, English and Norwegian paths from different coast camps converging surely now as both expeditions approach the Pole. Watts and Heywoud have been racing Olav Nilsen since before that September breakfast, even before their ship left portfestooned with bunting and hailed by Navy bands. Who will be first man ever to the South Pole? This is the race they run. Watts knows that Heywoud scans the horizon daily, masking his search as a test of the sextant’s readings. They all do it. He has seen Tite crouch down to shush the halted dogs and cock his head, listening for the sounds of other men’s progress. Watts strains to hear now but there is only the hum of the wind.
Viola will have to run to catch the march. One hand rucks her skirt and the other grips the camera strap and she breaks into an awkward trot. The camera bumps her hip with every stride. She turns the corner onto Victoria Street and bulls through the stragglers. She makes no apologies, seeks no pardon. Even if she did, no one would hear her over their own shouts and slogans. Viola saves her breath, a thing she sees in puffs this January day, and pushes forward.
Where Victoria Street narrows she takes to the pavement and makes for the march’s head. She glimpses the leaders—Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel, Sylvia—their feathered hats like plumage. But today she will photograph the crowd, this legion of women who, when the Pankhursts summon, answer with voices, bodies, hearts. There is power in these multitudes, strength in the anonymity the crowd affords. What might a woman do here among so many others. Look at them! Delegates with sashes listing towns from all of England. Graduates in academic dress. Votes for Women! Deeds Not Words! Mothers, daughters, sisters, all linking arms and singing. Viola is none of these—not even daughter lest an orphan claim the name—but here she is, among them all, and their numbers are so great, their shouts so high and clear, success seems destined.
Months now she wades into these protest rivers like an angler in the current. It is no less a marvel than a sunlit Yorkshire beck, this stream of joyous women brushing past. She spreads her feet to brace against the jostles and lifts the camera to her eye. She turns the focus ring and takes a photograph. Women fill the frame. Hat brims overlap, signs clash. Lavender and green, the colors of the movement, on every brooch and sash. In black and white, these shades will be just paler grays. No matter. Color is no loss here when she has the women’s figures for her work. She breathes on frozen knuckles and looks about for the next frame.
Ten paces off, a woman taller than the others sports a bandage on one eye, perhaps a casualty of last week’s tussles with police. Viola calls to her, waves, and the woman glances. “Yes, you!” Viola shouts. The woman halts. Viola wants her sharp and still and with the blur of marchers all around her. She turns the shutter knob to slow, dials the aperture as small as it will go, and springs the shutter. “That’s it,” she says and the woman gives her a shy smile. “Thank you,” Viola calls. “We must all fight as you have done.”
She dashes to the front and looks out past the leaders towards the railings of Westminster Palace. Today’s march seeks an audience with Asquith. Since the Prime Minister refuses all discussion of the cause, these women bring the cause to him. But the gate to Parliament is closed and by the time Viola reaches it the press of marchers is so thick she cannot even move to raise the camera. The women are shouting now and a constable’s whistle shrills somewhere overhead. A surge forward buckles Viola’s knees and she nearly tumbles. Constables break through to seize a woman who has climbed the iron fence. She hurls something over the crowd and it glints an instant in the sun. A key, ignored in favor of its lock now fastened around the woman’s other wrist.
Viola pitches down into a storm of banners, boots, and constables’ batons. Her cheek is scraped by buttons on a woman’s sleeve. A shoe steps on her skirt. The Midg catches on something and the strap snaps and it is gone. On hands and knees she feels for the hard edges of the camera box. Let the box hold or her day’s work will be glass shards. She saves her head with one raised arm and forces through with the other until her fingers close on the camera’s corner. She brings it to her chest, pushes to stand. She gives the Midg a little shake as if to chide a prodigal and sighs relief at no sound of broken pieces. The plates are packed in velvet and thick oak, thank god for that.
The crowd squeezes close again and she scrabbles for purchase but it is too late; she is aloft among the bodies. “Stop!” people are shouting. “Move back!” She keeps her arms wrapped tight around the Midg. It is like tumbling down a snow face and the rope not yet paid out. From James she learned the safest way to fall. But now, pressed to the fence, chin tucked to save her neck, Viola has no safe route out but up. Toe to the fence, one hand at the rail and tugging with her climber’s grip, she pulls free of the crowd and feels an awkward twist in her ankle. She seizes the railing with one hand to hoist herself up onto the granite lip. An ache pulses in her ankle, but her vantage is so good she must ignore it. She looks out over the hats and bared heads of the march that has become a protest and the force of it near takes her breath away.Today’s march spreads further, wider, than any she has photographed before. When she gives her photographs to the newsmen at the Telegraph and the Observer, everyone will see the scope of the movement’s power. Surely, everyone will see that they must not be turned aside.
She spots a new band of constables brandishing a saw. They are a dark blue streak in a field of greens and lavenders. They shove towards the woman who has chained herself and she clings to the fence like a Prometheus, the constables like pecking birds. What these women want—and Viola too—some think it is as dangerous as fire. So many are arrayed against them—Anti-Suffrage Leagues and Government and men with daft ideas about whatwomanhood must be. Must women be punished like Prometheus for claiming what they should already own? A hand seizes Viola’s shoe and she grunts at a jab of pain and nearly tumbles from the ledge. She breathes in deep and braces tight, watches the crowd moving like unruly clouds below a cornice. She has one plate left and she must choose. What has she not yet captured? No, that is not the question. What has no one, no photographer, artist, or journalist yet captured? What image makes the most of her stolen freedom to stand here, at this moment, with a camera, on this ledge?
She waits until the instant the police lay hold of the chained woman. One constable pulls at her, a dark diagonal. Another works the saw; he is an anchoring mass in the frame’s lower left. She brings the camera to her eye and holds her breath. The crouched policeman takes the woman by the waist. The instant she is seized and shouting, Viola springs the shutter, feels the curtain dash across the lens. It is the same glorious sensation every time: the plate settles in the box and all the light and shadow she has stolen from the air is caught between her hands.
She makes her way along the rail until she reaches open space and lowers herself gently to the street. She weights the foot and sees that she can walk with careful steps. Breathless, she looks back at the march still pressing at Parliament. Her photographs will show the country women must be independent. They will show James and Edward, too. Yes, you traveled to the world’s last place, but see what a world grew while you were gone. Look at the power of these women. Is it not almost as great as the strength of you few exploring men? Or greater, driven not by desire or curiosity but by the need for freedom.
It is an hour’s walk home to Margaretta Terrace, but even with her ankle sore she cannot
imagine taking the Underground and being stuck inside a tube after such excitement. She walks slowly west instead, ignoring the cold that nips her ears, bearing the camera at her hip like a creel lined with silver shining fish, each one a piece of light tugged from a brilliant stream. There is a tale somewhere of fish who leap from creels or rivers to grant a stranger’s wish. If such magic sprang now from the camera at her side, what would she ask for? Her single and constant wish comes to mind quick as a superstition: may James and Edward return safe. She rests the ankle, waiting for a line of cabs and omnibuses to cross and, in the moment she is still, her other, deeper, wish arrives, like something she cannot outpace. May her photographs astonish. May she capture light like a live thing to flash silver and white and black inside her darkroom and then leap out into the world. Viola shakes her head to shed the idea, the hubris of it, the folly, but the thought clings to her like the cold. She is not sure the photographs she took today will generate that sort of living awe. What can she do to match what James does with his camera at the Pole? What can she find in this world to surpass his reflections of a new one?
Excerpt from the clover house
from Chapter One
On those rare occasions when she couldn’t control the world around her, my mother placed the blame squarely on America, the country she had reluctantly immigrated to from Greece in 1959. My father would retort that there were flaws in Greece too, but she ignored him because he was American.
They met in 1955, when my father was based in Athens with the American mission in Greece, building roads and repairing bridges on the Marshall Plan. For four years, they lived a glamorous life of parties and dances in a city that was working hard to shed the effects of the Second World War and the civil war that followed it. Once they were married and it was time to choose a country, my father won the argument, flying ahead of my mother to purchase what would be their only home. When she joined him in the hair- sprayed suburbs of parochial Boston, knowing no one and understanding little of American life, my mother’s reaction was quick and certain. To keep what she considered this unsightly world at bay, she took the brown paper from the moving boxes and covered every window of the single- story house.
She sat inside, fuming at my father and at what she knew lay on the other side of the paper. She glared at the shadows of the neighborhood children as they ran from their yards into hers and out again. They lingered before the covered windows, wondering what was hidden inside, and she watched this shadow theater, thinking of the Karagiozis puppet shows she had watched as a child.
After a week, my father tore the paper down. He led her to the glass and forced her to look out at the jewel- green lawn and the fat buds on the dogwood tree.
“See,” he said, almost in tears. “It’s beautiful.”
She never agreed. In her mind, my mother never really left that papered- over room. And I spent my childhood trying to win an invitation to join her there in the Greece that she imagined and remembered.
I know this story about the papered windows because my father told it to me before he died, some ten years ago now. I don’t know what made him tell me. We didn’t see each other very often, so it must have been important to him that I know. Perhaps he knew that I’d be left with only my mother’s stories after he was gone. Perhaps he knew they wouldn’t be good for me without some sort of dilution.
For my entire childhood, until he gave up on the whole project and left, he watched me beg my mother for the stories I learned by heart— about the grand house in the city of Patras, where my mother and her sisters and brother did whatever they wanted under the benign gaze of their elegant parents; about the farm in the country, where the children climbed trees and ate fresh fruit all day. My mother was always happy to oblige my requests. She would bring out a jar of syrup- stewed oranges as she talked, spooning out the delicacy she had carried home from our summer trip to Greece into a bowl we would eat from together. I didn’t like the stuff— the sweetness of the syrup barely covered the bitterness of the citrus— but I waited my turn with the spoon, happy to be sitting with my mother, nourished by her memories of a better time and place.
Sometimes I would press her to clarify a bit of history or to elaborate on a detail.
“What?” she would say, turning to me with a startled gaze. “What did you say?”
And I would pretend I hadn’t noticed that she’d forgotten all about me. She wasn’t really telling the stories to me; she was simply saying aloud in my presence what she was thinking about every minute of the day.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Boston in late February when the phone rings and I recognize the city code for Patras. My mother moved back there, newly widowed, and since then we go long stretches without speaking on the phone. It’s better this way. Our most recent conversation several weeks ago ended with her complaining about the rudeness of her two sisters— women who have shown me nothing but love.
I let the call ring but perch on the couch and fi nally force myself to answer it. I’m surprised to hear the voice of my cousin, Aliki, on the other end.
“Calliope,” she says.
The short o sound in her Greek pronunciation knocks me into a life that seems to have been just the other side of a thin wall. Legally, I’m Calliope Notaris Brown. I am the latest in a line of Muses in my mother’s family, she being Clio, the daughter of Urania. But Callie Brown is my American camoufl age. It makes it easier when I want to tell myself that the Greek part of me doesn’t exist— that I have no connection to anyone save the people and places I choose. Now one tiny vowel sound has brought it all back. And, with Aliki’s alto, the fear that she is calling to tell me my mother is dead.