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Vol. 5, No. 2

Jimmy Underwater
by Julia Whitty

He heard the ice cracking, the sound traveling up through the soles of his feet. Fissures shot out around him as the surface of the lake sagged. Jimmy saw that he was trapped in the center of a web of broken ice, that he was too heavy, that water lay beneath the thin, transparent surface and was lapping at its underside like a great gray tongue. He was nearly to shore but that was no help. Two thoughts came to him: that he was eleven years old and that he was about to die.
    The cold entered his clothes like fire as the ice opened beneath him. He tried scrambling back, arms flailing, but the surface of the lake dissolved into rubble, and within moments his joints had locked solid and he could no longer keep himself afloat. “Help,” he croaked to his three friends who stood on shore and stared. The last thing he saw as he went under was his sled gracefully balanced on the edge of the hole.

 

~

The ice in Antarctica is altogether different from the lake ice in Minnesota, some of it being centuries or perhaps millennia old and tough as cast iron. Falling through it is impossible. In fact getting through it at all requires driving a drilling rig on tank treads at a lumberous 3 kph out from the McMurdo Research Station, while emperor penguins, riding on their bellies, pass easily by.
    It’s a noisy trip inside the cold cab of the huge Caterpillar, and Jimmy finds that despite having done it many times before, he’s still anxious. Simon, his colleague and research partner, uses the GPS to pinpoint their study site from last summer before starting the drill, its huge corkscrew bit screaming as it bites into solid ocean. Jimmy busies himself peeling off his foam-rubber-lined exposure suit, wool sweater, wool shirt, thermal undershirt, fleece-lined jeans, thermal underpants, outer socks, and inner socks. He’s got the heater inside the Cat cranking at maximum but even so it’s cold. For a moment he’s naked; the frostbite scars and missing toes, as always, fascinate him.
    “Jimmy,” Simon shouts above the drill. “Get dressed.”    
    Normally he wears his own custom-made dry suit. But while testing it at the station yesterday he noticed a weak seal along one of the seams. So today he wears Simon’s suit. It’s way too big, but there’s really no such thing as a too-big dry suit.
    Jimmy dons three layers of long underwear, the first a thin white silk, followed by a union-suit thermal, then a furry gray synthetic that makes him look like a yeti—especially the odd, three-fingered mittens. On top of it all comes a Day-Glo purple ski suit. After that he attacks the dry suit itself, the big rubber mass of it, wrestling with the absurdly tight gaskets at wrists and ankles. The worst part is putting on the hood, like trying to be born again, squeezing through the clammy, grippy darkness of the neck. Once it’s on, welded to his head, he’s nearly deaf.
    “Almost through,” shouts Simon over the roar of the drill bit.
    “What?” shouts Jimmy.
    Simon glances at him, sees the hood, shrugs, then pantomimes the drill, pointing down at the ice, finger going in circles. They cut this seal hole yesterday, a four-hour job. Today they’re piercing only the last twenty-four hours’ skin.
    Jimmy waddles down the stairs from the cab of the Cat, slipping and falling the last two steps. It doesn’t matter, he’s as well padded as a polar bear. Simon holds up his thumb—a question. Jimmy flips him a thumb back, he’s fine.
    Frankly, they’re maternal toward each other out here, and why not? It’s clearly an adaptive behavior that helps them survive this brutal climate. Everyone at the Station bonds with a partner, some as broody as old hens. The few who don’t seem strange, like caricatures of men, pumped up, over-adrenalized, dangerous even—to themselves and anyone else who might have to save them from their notions of independence.
    The drill stops. Inside Jimmy’s hood it sounds like nothing, just the shush of blood coursing through his own veins. He stares at the water swirling in the ice hole and the few stunned krill riding its eddies. In theory, the dry suit should keep him as separate from this frigid sea beneath the ice as an astronaut is from the vacuum of space.

 

~

Sinking into the Minnesota lake was strangely comfortable, Jimmy’s muscles paralyzed and helpless, his arms and legs, bulky inside the snowsuit, wrapping around him in a self-embrace. Pirouetting in slow motion to the bottom 15 feet below, he saw the light under the ice as lustrous and blue as a Popsicle on that shiny winter day. The only discomfort was the shock of ice water flooding inside his hood and the thump as his head hit the bottom, exploding a silt-storm that closed out the light. Still he kept his eyes open, occasionally sighting his red-mittened hands weaving through the murk like curious puppets.

 

~

It’s been a year since Jimmy’s done this tricky work, and he belays himself mentally through each step of the job before committing his body to it. The regulator is attached to his mask so he can’t drown even if he loses consciousness (breathe in, breathe out, air seems good). He wriggles into the shoulder harness of the scuba tank as Simon attaches the low-pressure hose and bleeds some air off to inflate the dry suit slightly. The heat inside it now is a self-generated steam room: sweat, fear, and claustrophobia mixed together. Simon checks his gauges.
    “Three thousand pounds of air,” he shouts.
    Jimmy nods. They both know it’s far more than he’ll ever need down there. Long before he can breathe through it he’ll be a shivering wreck.
    He straps the dive computer to his wrist as Simon carries the digital-video camera in its waterproof housing out to the edge of the ice hole. Jimmy crosses one leg then the other, yanks his fins on, swings his legs over the edge. The pressure of the water pinches the loose folds of the dry suit against his ankles.
    “I hate dry suits,” he says to Simon. Through the regulator it comes out sounding like Ii-aii-ii-ouos.
    Simon nods. He dives too, but on alternate days from Jimmy because of the toll it takes on their mental and physical reserves.
    Jimmy gives Simon a thumbs-up.
    “Whoa,” says Simon. “Hang on. Your lifeline.”
    Shit, thinks Jimmy.
    It’s early in the season. Behind them, the stone-and-snow cone of Mount Erebus vents its volcanic breath, reminding them there is land here. It’s a fine day, the sun shining but the wind blowing spindrift sharp as staples. The only place it hits skin is on a thin strip along Jimmy’s forehead. He turns away.
    Simon, his face protected by a nuclear-green balaclava, lumbers over to the Caterpillar, retrieves the nylon line attached to the front bumper, then ties it to the rescue buckle on the back of Jimmy’s dry suit.
    “OK,” he says, patting Jimmy on the shoulder.
    Jimmy hoists himself off the edge of the ice hole and slumps into the water. For a minute he feels the old panic and adjusts his face mask so that Simon won’t see.

 

~

For a long time he lay on the bottom of the lake, neither swimming nor breathing nor dying. Long enough for the silt to settle over him. Long enough for him to see that two of his friends were still standing on the high snowbank above peering through the slush ice in search of him. The view was disturbing: him down here, his friends up there, this strange inescapable realm separating them. So he closed his eyes, and in that moment all the muscles in his face went slack as his jaw fell open and the water flooded inside.

 

~

Now beneath the seal hole, the shock of cold on his forehead seems to eat right through to the bone. A trickle of water oozes through the neck valve on his dry suit. Perfectly normal, Jimmy reassures himself, his underlayers will wick it up. Yet anything more than a seep would be disastrous. If he ever really sprang a leak the suit would fill with water and not even Simon would have the strength to haul him in. They’ve discussed that. They’d use the Cat, of course. Still, it would be a cadaver retrieval, not a rescue.
    He hangs just under the seal hole, reluctant to leave its orifice, watching his exhaust bubbles weave upward and then bump against the underside of the ice. He feels Simon tugging on the tether and reaches behind to tug back. All’s well.
    Simon is surely noticing that Jimmy’s not descending. That’s OK. First dive of the season is a fuckless wonder as far as data goes. Just get your bearings. Get steady. Later on they’ll begin to identify and count the species living under the ice and map the creatures’ movements over time.
    Diving under the ice is different for Jimmy than it is for Simon, who dives out of a love of adventure as well as a post-doctoral ambition to decipher the chemical defenses of invertebrates in Antarctic seas. Jimmy dives for these reasons too. But he’s in search of more, some clue to the death that grabbed him, swallowed him, then spit him up nineteen years ago.
    He presses the bleeder valve on his chest. Air streams out of the dry suit and bounces up inside its cage of ice as Jimmy sinks.
    Just as planned, Simon has put them right over their old study site. Jimmy can see the grid they laid out last summer, the yellow nylon line in three-meter squares still intact in the deeper reaches but plowed to chaos in the shallows by rampaging icebergs. He swims along the perimeter, filming. Tonight, he and Simon will analyze the video and plan Simon’s dive tomorrow to begin to repair the grid.
    The bottom is gray, sandy, silt actually dragged out from the land and ground up by the ice, its surface dimpled by countless millions of clams, all but their siphons buried. Except for the occasional penguin jetting by, or a seal, all under here is still. This is an illusion. In reality, a yellow sea spider standing on the bottom is in motion, tiptoeing incrementally from here to there, making, at best, a centimeter an hour. Straddling Grid 7-C and 7-D, a companionable huddle of red sea stars seems frozen to the carcass of a Weddell seal. This is also an illusion. Each star is wrestling and squirming in extreme slow motion, Sumo-style, to the bottom of the pile, hoping to make contact with the carrion, evert its stomach, and begin to digest the flesh. Speed notwithstanding, the aggression is fierce, and those stars that can’t elbow in with all or most of their five arms will lose out on what may be the only meal of a fleeting Antarctic summer.

 

~

Dying back then was an oddly seamless experience. He lay on the bottom and the cold settled into him. That was all. It froze him, then froze him some more. He became aware of his heartbeat slowing, the lengthening interval of stillness bracketing each contraction. Lying there seemed the right thing to do under the circumstances, and he remembers thinking, I am a good boy.
    Heartbeat fading to a shiver, Jimmy separated from his body. From the outside he looked small, not at all as he’d felt himself to be. Slowly, he began to drift, up to the surface, through the slush, hovering in the air. Frankie and Timmy sat on the lake bank, perched on their Radio Flyers, staring into the water, Frankie rocking his sled back and forth from his heels, Timmy sitting on the front so that its rear runners tilted off the ground.
    “I guess he’s dead by now,” said Frankie.
    “Shit,” said Timmy.
    “How long’s he been in there?”
    “Maybe ten minutes.”
    Already the slush was healing solid.
    Jimmy—this other Jimmy—could see their fear, a kind of black aura around them. It was not so much fear of death itself. More the fear of what was going to happen to them as a result of it. The shit that was coming their way.

 

~

Twenty minutes into his dive under the Antarctic ice, despite swimming hard along the lines of the grid, Jimmy is shaking uncontrollably. He continues to film. It’ll be ugly but useful. Twenty-five minutes down he feels Simon tugging at the tether. OK. Five more minutes. Now he does what he always does with the last moments of each dive, turns off the camera, releases the last of the air from his dry suit, and bumps down to the bottom as silt wafts over him. Slowly he turns onto his back, stares up at the ceiling of ice, its underside soft and rounded like the bellies of clouds, only green. To his left, a lone fish, a marbled notothenia, lies on the seabed. Jimmy checks the thermometer on his dive computer—minus 0.3°C. By all the laws of science that fish should be frozen solid, its cells punctured by crystals of ice. Instead, it stares at him, comfortable and relaxed in this hostile realm. Jimmy wonders—without the glycopeptides this fish carries in its intercellular tissues and blood, how did he survive his icy plunge nineteen years ago?

 

~

Fifteen minutes after he had fallen through the ice the Search and Rescue team arrived in a truck—two men in wet suits, a captain who drove, and eleven-year-old Simon, sitting up front. Jimmy watched as Simon pointed out his two friends sitting on the bank, then scrambled out of the cab, running for the edge of the ice while the truck still rolled forward.
    The SAR team went to work, laying out the hoses, starting the generator on the truck, firing up the compressor to feed air through the hookahs. Jimmy was impressed. He’d watched this stuff on TV. Yet he could also see more, colors, angular and blue, spiking outward from the rescue men so that Jimmy knew they were frightened—for him, the Jimmy underwater, as well as for themselves who had to go find him.
    Simon stood on the edge peering in, until one diver, about to inch feet first into the water, pulled him away. Frankie and Timmy stood nearby. “It’s been like fifteen minutes,” said Frankie.
    “Twenty,” said Timmy.
    “Grab him,” shouted Simon into the water.
    “He can’t hear you,” said Timmy.
    The flashing lights of an ambulance bounced off the snowbanks as paramedics unloaded a gurney, laying towels and blankets on top of it.
    One diver’s head broke through the slush, his face livid purple from the cold. He pulled the regulator from his mouth, hands twitching, breath steaming, “Can’t find him.”
    “Try again,” said the captain.
    The diver nodded, bit back down on the regulator.
    “He’s under the sled,” shouted Simon.
    The diver sank, his bubbles rising to the surface.
    “I could find him,” said Simon, almost hopping with frustration.
    “Shit, Simon,” whispered Frankie, pulling him away. “Leave them alone.”
    Some part of Frankie, something around his ears, was now tremblingly green, like fireflies. It was wondrous, how this, the other Jimmy, knew that Frankie was ready and even excited to embark on the adventure of having a dead friend.

 

~

Lying alone on his back on the bottom of the Antarctic sea, Jimmy closes his eyes. OK. He’s ready. He stops breathing, carefully pulls off the mask, the regulator coming with it. The cold on his face produces an instant, agonizing headache and his jaw clenches from the pain. He forces himself to relax until his mouth falls open.
    The water enters, attacking his teeth, tongue. Slowly he opens his eyes. The cold . . . surely it is the most horrifying of all sensations. His body seizes from it, wracking off the sea floor as he groans, bubbles spiraling up to the ice roof. For a moment he pities himself, then remembers why he does this. Somewhere in this realm where living things slow to an almost complete stop without actually ceasing, where starfish remain motionless for up to a year at a time, where fish live decades or perhaps centuries, life begins to approximate infinity. This is the real subject of Jimmy’s research.

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