Bitter recrimination was not going to be of any help in erecting the tent, so I tried to will my frozen hands to close on the rope, to tense it as much as possible around the pole. To aggravate matters further, Wilson was having trouble keeping the pole steady. I looked up at him, and could tell by his expression that he was doing his best. More, I felt, than his body could take.
I said nothing, and coped as best I could with the trembling pole. Each movement against my fingers sent terrible knives of agony up my arms, but still I could not ask more of Wilson. He was close enough to collapse as it was. And collapse likely meant that he would never get up again.
Like the others. The three of us, Wilson, Scott and myself, represented a poor sample of the proud expedition that had set off a mere four months before. But the three of us would have to do, as we were the only vestige left. Men. Dogs. Donkeys. Even a motorized sleigh. None of them in evidence now. Just we three and the meager supplies we were able to manhaul from our last camp, a mere two miles away. It felt so terribly unjust that each day seemed longer in our pain, but the true distance covered grew inexorably shorter day after day. Inevitably, there would come a day after which we would not leave the tent for another day's walk. That the tent, once erected, would not be pulled down by our hands.
Looking at the post, I was suddenly gripped by the certainty that today would be the last time that I would have to put up this tent.
But then I set the feeling aside, and returned to reality. A reality dominated by the cold. A cold so extreme that its presence was physical, the pain it caused a constant companion, equal in its presence to the whiteness or the silence. Even with the wind, the silence was overwhelming.
The cold. I was tempted to blame all our suffering on the cold, but could not with a clear conscience do so. By this time we should have been back on board our ship, the icy wastes a distant memory. The cold would not have been a factor then. No, what had happened to us was the product of bad planning. And that, in turn, was not due to any lack of dedication or time. Our leaders had no true guilt in this. It was simply because we were in a place where few men had gone before, and many of those had not returned.
But if we were fated to die on this packed snow, it will have been none of these considerations that proved our undoing.
It will have been Amundsen.
As long as I live, I will never be able to forget the moment when our illusions were taken from us. On our approach to the South Pole we knew, without any shred of doubt, that no group of men had ever been as far south as we were at that moment. This was our strength. But then came the sight of the abandoned camp and the proudly displayed Norwegian flag, coinciding with the exact position of the Pole, that shattered these illusions forever.
Amundsen had made the Pole before us. The enormity of the concept was an unbearable, crushing weight. All our efforts, the cold and the suffering, had been for naught, as no one would ever remember the name or members of the second expedition to reach the Pole.
Nothing was left for us to do but return, though the strength that had brought me this far seemed to leave my body at that moment. During the return, the pain seemed twice as difficult to bear, and the cold twice as cruel. The single-minded sense of glorious purpose was gone, and with it the ability to perform superhuman feats. At that point I became aware that I was not a Colossus on my way to immortality, but a frail human immersed in a place most inhospitable towards life. A life whose only purpose at that time, just as now, was to preserve itself.
I finished adjusting the cord and glanced up at Wilson. He was silent, and it was obvious from the cast of his features that the only thing keeping him upright was sheer British pride and his own streak of stubbornness. The breaking point for his body had long since passed. He didn't meet my gaze, his own being lost somewhere within the falling snow over my left shoulder.
I believe that the endless whiteness had contributed to the terrible choice taken by Oates. How can one live after becoming convinced that he will never again see a green and pleasant land? That this stark white waste is the extent of what destiny holds for him? When Oates left the tent, never to return, knowingly going to his death instead of having to face the terror of another day, I couldn't believe it was simply the cold and the pain that decided him.
And the others? Men who were as healthy and strong as any of us simply falling over dead or never waking up on a given morning. I have come to believe that there is a controlling part of the mind that can decide when the promise of a reward is simply insufficient to justify the effort of trying to attain it. At some point, this part of them had decided that infinite pain was too high a price to pay for the meager compensation offered: a few more hours or days or weeks of eternal white.
And then I understood why it was so important to me that Wilson meet my gaze.
He had been the first of us three to realize, three nights ago, that we would never be leaving the whiteness. The first to realize that our desperate struggle was just an illusion to avoid the madness that comes with despair.
On that night he had been unable to find the strength to help us to make camp. Scott was convinced that he would not survive the night, and I was inclined to agree.
But, to our surprise, Wilson had been up before us the following day, and had shown no sign of giving in to his lack of hope. He had marched as strongly as before, shouldering his share of our dwindling supplies and never uttering a single word of protest. But his eyes had betrayed him all the same. It was just a matter of time, they said, Antarctica will have my bones.
Those were the same eyes that I wanted so badly to meet. Because, standing on that icy plain, feeling the weariness in the very marrow, I knew then that Antarctica would have my bones as well. That I had put up a noble fight, but that Bowers would forever join the others, scarred from frostbite and gangrene, in this white and empty resting place.
I needed for him to tell me how he had defeated this feeling. How he had found the strength to go on for three more days for no reason other than for whoever found his body to say that he had gone as far as his strength had permitted and had not given up one instant before. I needed this, for if not, I would not awake on the morrow.
He finally met my look, but held his silence.
It did not matter, as his eyes told me all there was to know.
Nothing could be said to modify my feeling now. How long I lasted from this moment depended only on my own scale of values, as my fate was sealed beyond any doubt, and probably had been since the moment we spotted Amundsen's camp. He could not help me at all.
But also evident in those hopeless eyes was an absolute understanding of my condition.
They assured me that I would not die alone.
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