At Lady Mott-Bayfield's regular salon in March of 1872,
Certain Arctic explorers were displayed
Like cakes on a tray.
Did I say "displayed"? I meant invited, welcomed, feted!
They held tea in china cups,
Answering questions from thick-bearded men and fine ladies
As the snow from their boots slowly melted
In a trail from the door to where they stood.
"What did you see?
"Who sponsored your expedition?"
"Terribly cold, I expect?" (this last sending a ripple of titters through the ladies nearby.)
We left fingers, toes, and twenty-seven immortal souls there,
On the endless pack ice.
We saw things...
Things that were there,
And things that were not;
We saw enormous, yellow-white bears circling our camp at all hours
In hunger and in curiosity.
(The guests now quiet and hanging on every word,
Making a ring around the explorers as if they were moons.)
We saw seals
Pulled up from their dens by the bears, who could smash through the ice with their great paws and tremendous weight;
Our friend Roberts had become disoriented,
Believing one of the seals to be a woman or a mermaid
Depending upon the degree of his fever.
When the bears caught his particular darling,
He dashed out on his frozen twig-legs, lurching,
Tears freezing on his cheeks before they could fall.
A bear shattered his skull with a single swat,
Letting the madness out,
And his spirit.
One of the salon attendees clears his throat.
A lady's hand flutters at her heart,
A practiced gesture,
Half sincere this time.
It was dark around the clock,
The sun an impossible memory
Like warmth, or a wife.
There was no respite from the cold,
The wind over the open ice,
Or each other.
We had long since killed all of our dogs and horses,
(Someone sets down a cake, making a small noise in her throat)
And we ourselves were dying by degrees,
Losing first our sense of mission
Then our equilibrium,
And, for the twenty-seven, life itself.
There is silence,
Then a hearty "I say!" from a railroad magnate.
The explorers are never invited back,
And a maid cleans up the messy slush by the door
The moment that the last explorer has left,
And it is shut, firmly, behind them.
linked to Real Toads open link Monday