John Thomas thought not about the arms of his wife or of the pride he had for his daughters. There was no room in Antarctica for such hope. He had become his armor of polyester and wool, until it was not armor at all, but another suit of skin. Once John had completely broken in the thermal insole of his thirty pound boots, they had become a new pair of feet. His ulterior perspective was not without a film of condensation. His eyes were goggles, specialized to prevent snow blindness. The strap was constricting, and it always reminded him that he would parish, if not for his artificial body. For Antarctica does not want men to walk upon her, and destroys them effortlessly for doing so. He did not think about this either.
John Thomas was a terrestrial glaciologist, from the fort of South Georgia, which operated under a royal blue English flag. Him and his lab partner, as they liked to jest, were miles away from South Georgia. For the ice core samples that John and his partner sought, could not be measured by the roaming beam of satellites.
“Weem itus wellbeh doing thisup thurn,” John shouted while motioning towards the sky. They had to scream everything they said to each other through two inches of facial protective wear.
“Sbout pedigree warmer,”a muffled holler in return, motioning once again at the galaxy above. It was all around them, in every corner of the dome above their heads. John tried not to think about it. He made his way back to the snowmobile to retrieve a cross sectional deposit case, which looked just like a common stainless steel cooler that one would carry to a picnic.
“Thankoo.” She carefully slid a tube of ice into a cylindrical compartment. No fog swirled around it. They lumbered away, and they looked like astronauts toiling in a desert of ash.
Thomas John existed 82 years prior. A strange, rust haired man with exceedingly careful hands. His home was hidden in a wooded valley dripping off southern Georgia. His mind dwelled often on areas like weather, language and the ingredients of things. He broke recipes down and then Thomas broke them down again. He had no immediate family, save for his wife whom he called Loenda. They lived in a home on the cusp of a shallow trail of water called the Snail Honey River. Its currents drove the wheel of a mill, which in actuality was not a mill at all. It was a whiskey distillery.
“The galaxy might as well be on land,” Thomas told Loenda. They sat in rocking chairs, after eating glazed rutabagas at evening time.
“It’s the only way I can understand those strange bugs.”
“Do the crickets flicker like that?”
They stopped talking. A slowing shake of maracas.
“I am.” He let crude, unfinished whiskey seep in between his teeth.
Thomas anxiously pondered the task force of prohibition agents who aimed at sweeping the South of alcohol. Word had gotten to him that these men had nearly cleared Tennessee and were headed for Georgian territory.
“What will we do?”
Thomas teetered evenly in his chair pieced together with green wood. His lull had answered Loenda’s inquiry.
John Thomas struggled to steady his thoughts. The ice in which he studied under his portable field microscope was a complex storm of fractures and spindles. The routinely extracted ice cores they had unearthed were not routine by any measure.
“Look, look at this,” he breathed, backing away from the lens. John’s partner hunched over and gasped a cloud of white, just as he had. They huddled in a tent. A pale fluorescence illuminated the interior, and their breath spread in stuttered blasts.
“Lord Jesus, no. You don’t think…” She fumbled for a piece of parchment, and refocused. “0, 1,1,…2,3,….5,” she recited while jotting down the digits. When she looked at John, both of their faces were portals of white smoke.
The sample was placed back into its chamber, like an infant to a crib. Their minds careened without pause or total understanding.
“We should persist.”
“My thoughts, exactly. We can’t just turn back now. If this is what I think it is-”
“-Who knows if pattern will maintain, especially now at these retreated altitudes,” John began to wildly unfold maps.
“We need to go further.”
“We’ll probably lose radio reception, and what little satellite is left.”
“We most definitely will. And we cannot check in with South Georgia. They’ll shut us down”
“The dust trapped in those frozen bubbles might just mend the very fucking soul of everything we know.” She peered back into the ocular, and refocused.
The patterns John had witnessed under that microscope were patterns that none other data collecting human being had ever been in the presence of. Falling asleep, elated, in the still of an Antarctican night is more difficult after witnessing such a thing, but it is by no means impossible. As this is the first chance John’s hollow legs got to stop trudging. Trudging takes a blistering toll, until insulated sleeping bags within insulated tents form a humid sheath of safe air. John allowed himself to ponder some past life to slow his heartbeat, but endless spirals and patterns gripped his conscious, and would not release him.
The recipe for simple bourbon whiskey is
10% malted barley
And 10% wheat.
These substances are ground together, and water is incorporated to make slurry. Yeast is added in a fermenter, and the resulting medley is stored in barrels for about two years. Now Thomas will tell you, and he’ll tell travelers that these barrels are the most important part of the process. For an oblong wooden container, whiskey makers go through great lengths to differentiate their barrels. From charring them and coating them with berry juices, to using only specific breeds of cedar. But in truth, Thomas did not care about the barrels, whatsoever. He cared only about the water.
The river that ran through his distillery was no routine passage of water. It was ordinary only by width and burbling sounds, as well as its murky yet reflective surface. The brook was named by natives, hundreds of years prior, until being crudely translated by European settlers. Instead of sharp rapid caps, there were spiraling eddys. Its currents were broken by many rocks, on which perched snails.
Old timers in the area would converse about them, while settled in ancient porch rockers, with mosquitoes and moths crashing into the screens to their backs. They might tug at a suspender band or polish an over sized spectacle frame with saliva. Tobacco laced breath pouring from chins of sharp gray stubble. They would say that them snails in that stream have been alive fer over 200 years.
What was most daunting to John Thomas was not the trail of smoke spilling out from the capsized snowmobile. It wasn’t even his lab partner’s lifeless body meters away from the smoldering wreckage; The last moments of a fragmented human life still on his lips, mingling with the taste of his own broken veins. What worried John most was the mighty gold hues of early sunset. The giant palm of night was steadily approaching, and his only compass lay in shards.
Each minute that he stood there reeling, wind chill readings plummeted towards mercury hell. He flipped open the top of the cooler to see find the ice cores were intact, but guilt nipped at him for even checking. Three more cores had been drilled that day, each more prolific than the next. Each representing a milestone of scientific discovery, as well as financial security for their remaining days. His lab partner’s ecstatic words bounced around in John’s brain, and he cradled his head like it could be destroyed at any second. But it wasn’t. No crash came to claim him.
The white silence was now even louder. He ignored it. He had too, while it screamed at him. John knelt beside his partner. Now almost as rigid as the chopped powder that had become her grave. Exposed skin at the mercy of the elements, but that hardly mattered now. As the sky grayed to a harsh purple, he rummaged through the burning snowmobile’s metal for a trowel. John covered her in loose surface tundra before marking the spot with a cross-like measuring tool. The night had waited long enough for him, and he set off from the wreckage with the cooler slung over his shoulder. His footing was desperate and he limped, reciting quick words of prayer in his head.
Usually, the walloping of rain on tin did not stir Thomas, but his unease was getting the better of him. He shot up, straight in bed, expecting prohibition agents to be pounding on his door with firearms and court deeds. Loenda slept soundly, and he escaped the sheets without waking her. No children or animals danced at his feet, for his curiosities for the natural world had rid him of the pursuit of further company.
“Age, god dammit. Don’t you know they’re coming for you”, he said aloud in the mill, brushing his hand against the side of a barrel. The smell of peat, sawdust and bonfire pinched his nostrils yet his mind was numb to the romance of it.
Outside, the Snail Honey River was taller than usual, as the rain continued to mercilessly attack her waters. Yet still, no rapids formed. The pace remained linear. Sometimes that brook’s eerie properties would just slowly creep up on Thomas, until the very awareness of them made him shudder.
John woke up on solid ground, in snow deeper than he recalled falling asleep in. Blizzard wind thick with flakes whipped in every single direction. Direction. He rose to his feet in haste, spinning hard. A marker was set before he fell asleep, to keep his place, but now it was rendered invisible. Only a blank nothing surrounded him. For now he was truly lost. He lurched forward, bowing his head down, with a spine that ached purely from convulsive shivering. John struggled not to think about his solitude, or of the blood he had tasted the night before.
The stillness of his surroundings haunted him, now more than ever. The hum of the snowmobile was gone. The smell of gas and the vibration of exasperated engine gears was gone. The presence of his lab partner was gone. He was the only thing that wasn’t gone. Absence was taking too much control, and John shook it off. He allowed himself to dwell on the frosted fossils that he carried. Boiled by age and isolation.
He could die if not for his armor. Simple fabrics stood between him and turning to stone. He started to talk to himself, but feared that somebody would talk back. An emancipated voice would reply. Perhaps the spirit of his partner. Vengefully seeking the ice that would make them both wealthy. The thought of his current habitat being some kind of purgatory was raised, but John verbally denounced it. Shook as hard as he could.
“No,” he breathed. The wind breathed back, louder and the shudder that overtook him was a response to overwhelming eeriness.
Thomas dipped a duker to extract a small sample of yellow sludge from his flagship barrel. The whiskey was closer than it ever had been to complete distillation. Under the slide of a brass microscope, Thomas John inspected the progress of his trusty little yeast molecules.
This batch was on the brink of readiness, but it needed to be aged just a little more. And rushing this process was out of the question, as he had done before, or as moonshine makers did. Thomas did not line himself up with moonshiners, as he found them an unpredictable bunch. Reliant of firearms and avidly nocturnal in their work ethic. Thomas preferred concocting his medicine under midday clouds with the company of bird song.
“It’s far too hot to be drinking,” Loenda told him. Thomas let the contents of his glass whirl around. Furrowed his brow. Adrift in a rocking motion, on his porch.
“Doesn’t matter, it’s not ready yet.”
The air hang heavy with white smoke that billowed from the tiny kettle room, which was situated in a tool shed. The space where Loenda’s garden might’ve been was cluttered in old barrels. Now, instead of tending to sprouts she drew in pads of cotton paper. She conceived images in gestured lines. Of sparrows, ferns and moon planets gouged with gray.
The latest illustration Loenda had finished was a snail, curling over richly set typography. It was an errand undertaken at the request of her husband, though she already had several drawings of snails.
“Your not a businessman John, you don’t know how to sell things,” she told him as he pulled the edges of the paper taught. Loenda could see that his eyes were aglow with grandiose dreams.
“It does not matter, Loenda. Cures sell themselves. But with this label, my dear, you have outdone yourself.” He held the drawing of the snail to filtered sun beams and he grinned.
Any indication of celestial lamplight was sheltered by shivering, condensed cloud coverage. But John still carried himself onward, despite being in the rifle sight of old man winter, who was immortal in this place. He was a brain, a sieve of consciousness atop a numb vessel. The rushed panic he could only acknowledge before had subsided, and now, everything was slowly melting upwards. Two scraps of hope lingered. One was the hope that he was traveling in the right direction, and the other was the trusty weight of ice at his side.
He was the vessel to protect the ice. If it was lost in this powdery desert, than the conditions may never bestow such specific diamonds again. John made a habit of scooping up handfuls of snow to quench his thirst, but a gut full of snow is not a comfort by any means.
Something was cracking in the space between his hip and thigh. Emerald was all around him now. A crooked ridge of mountains lay about a half a mile ahead. An island drowning in continent. He allowed himself to piss in his suit, and it temporarily thawed his glaciated thighs.
Loenda joined Thomas on the porch again. “I’ll fix dinner, but our bread has spoiled. We’ll need to go to Bills on Tuesday.”
Thomas did not stir, in the silence that he sat in. An old jet black trigger shotgun leaned against the side of the house.
“Oh Tom, why is that thing out again?”
“I’m gonna shoot those bastards off their horses”.
“No your not going to shoot anything. Come on indoors, I boiled turnips.”
“I don’t want turnips.”
He drew a heavy sip from another glass, and handed it over to his wife. Loenda took a disgruntled turn with it and placed the glass inside. Her figure flew back out onto the porch, screen door flapping in the wind.
“Is this what I think it is?” She took a second swig, and her eyes raced about the landscape. But she felt foolish for not recognizing her husband’s sorrow, and she took a seat beside him. Blanketed his knuckles with her palm.
“So timing was not never your strong suit. We’ll hide the batch. Under the floorboards.”
“I’m not hiding anything under any floorboards. I sold the rest. They’ll find no booze here,” he declared under a heavily mustached frown.
Loenda looked sideways at the man, in his strange temperament. Ignored his enigma.
“They’re the ones who call it booze. Think of what you said. Why those Indians called it spirits,” she pleaded.
“It’s deteriorates the body. The mind.”
“But how it remedies that ghost that is caged in our bones. This could mend the very fucking soul of everything we know,” she peered into the glass. Refocused.
Thomas sat up. “You’re drunk.”
The mountains were above John’s head now, as he slumped his mass against the wall of an ice cave to fall asleep and finally consider his wife and daughters. His staggered foot prints were all that reminded him of his own presence. The edges of the cooler lid were softening from John’s incessant need to check his precious cargo. But now in his mind, he knew that those drilled out tubes of glass would outlive him. He accepted this and even breathed a sigh of relief at the pure realization of it all.
His legs were frost bitten and useless, red, and raw skin he dared not visualize. John tore the mask from his face, peeling off a thin layer of flesh. Tore the goggles, and felt the band release. Felt the caves freezing fog attack his exposed body and begin to constrict his veins. Frigid knifes jabbed at his temples, harder than the light prodding that he had known before. He gave one last look around the cave, at his tomb and a strange sight caught his eye. Something wooden and not of that place.
The prohibition enforcers came in the small hours of morning, with no preliminary court deeds or knocks on the front door. The shotgun still rested cold on the porch, untouched. Loenda sat by the window. Thomas idled around the barn, regarding shattered glass and splintered barrels. The recklessness the agents had shown, with the swing of their axes was a tangible pain, especially in contrast to the care Thomas had taken around them. Talking to those barrels and running his hand over the complex grains of wood. The acrid punch of pure ethanol all around. Muddy foot prints from the banks of the Snail Honey, with its tides now just calming. Thomas was so distraught, that he did not hear the distant car engine groaning clearer with proximity.
Loenda rushed out of the house, tearing the shotgun from its solitary position on the porch. A fight had stewed in her, and she was aching for retribution.
Loenda wavered the sight of her gun. A squirrel spined man with a dirty hat piled out, surrendering empty hands.
“Mrs. John,” the visitor raised his hands in surrender.
“Oh, Bill, you gave me a fright,” Loenda discharged a flustered sigh.
“It’s quite alright,” declared the man called Bill, as Thomas joined them.
“My condolences,” Bill announced to him, surveying the bruised grounds.
Thomas swallowed, and dug his fists into his hips. “Just a little after midnight. Took em’ minutes.”
“God damn ’em Tom.” Not a barrel was left intact. “They really did a number.”
“Moonshiners joined in, I reckon.” Loenda said, subconsciously wrapping her finger around the trigger.
“Never thought I’d see a day when moonshiners worked with lawmen. Countries a god damn shame.”
“I appreciate your sentiments Bill, but what brings you out here?”
Bill’s grin almost reached the corners of his hat. “Welp, Thomas, oddly enough I come bearing good news.”
Loenda squinted her eyes at him. At his crumpled hat.
“Those crates you sold me on Monday?”
“All of ‘em went.”
“Well I,” Thomas smiled in a quizzical fashion. “I didn’t expect them to sell so fast, and how on earth.” Shocked that something of good news could’ve found him on this morning.
“Well once I heard what had happened, and the whole county’s in a mess with these agents, and the moonshiners tryin to take over. Hell, the whole world’s in a mess. All this taking and no giving, well I, I digress. Some man, some young explorer came in and bought the lot. Said he was from the city, and was to be on an expedition in the Arctic. Musta caught wind a all this, and decided to stock up before the whole of America ran dry.”
The Snail Honey River boiled in the brief silence. Bill handed Thomas a bank voucher, said a brief goodbye and made his way back down the road. Southern accents floated in the air like kicked up clouds of sediment in a cow pond. Thomas allowed his vision to blur and stared out into the distance as if he were searching for someone far away.
Echoes of John dragging himself across the tundra resounded all through the cavern. He anchored himself with the strange crate when it was finally in reach.
“Bill’s Hardware and Wholesale,” he whispered with frozen vocal chords. Images of wives in green dresses and Christmas flickered in his head, but he brushed them aside.
The crate resembled some box sold in a novelty antique store, and the top came off with ease. Inside was at least a half dozen glassy bottles of amber liquid. Not in the least bit frozen. He surveyed the sketch of a snail on the label, which was also still intact. It smelled of sawdust, and lightly of some vinegar boiled root.
For a while John just looked at the bottles, but could not begin to speculate as to how they had gotten there, or how words worked to begin with. The notion of bourbon whiskey held some significance to him, but he could not ascertain it. Perhaps sneaking nippers of it in high school, or expensive bottles as birthday gifts. America. He didn’t know. Thomas left his mitten on, as he struggled to move the cap. After some light tampering, he finally turned it past the threads and lifted it. The aroma, oh the aroma was enough. His heart slowed, and his organs braced for shutdown, but some left over spirit in him forced his muscles to bring the glass lip to his mouth, in some strange, primal reflex.
Hot, smoky grain hit his throat like thunder at the end of the world. Pine and honey swept up the mess of fire and all together they tumbled down into his stomach. Peppery frost formed on his chin. Nothing so cold had ever tasted so hot. He took another sip, and chased it with a swig. His eyes welled with tears, but did not stiffen.
“I can, I can feel my legs,” he told the bottle. John tipped the bottom to the furious harpoons of icicles jetting from the ceiling. Watched giant air bubbles race to the sediment pool at the base. He transferred the amber lava into his stomach as fast as he could. In minutes, he held empty glass.
Thomas John had nothing left of his efforts in whiskey making, save for Bill’s check. The mill was destroyed, with all remnants in shambles, and the shambles in smithereens. Smoke stopped pouring from the chimney, and the rocks went cold. Moss and dead leaves reclaimed the barn, and eventually the home. A dam was built miles away that dried up the Snail Honey. The strange mollusks and mysteries of its waters seemed to evaporate just as simply. The source of their odd ways was misplaced by time, never to be resolved by grain and copper kettles.
Thomas and Loenda’s affections did however remain intact, and they brought those affections with them to a coast. Their front porch had the additional company of freeway car wind, yet they did not let that stop them from allowing the years to pass in rocking chairs. Every now and then they might remember those immortal snails, or the peculiar river water that Thomas had tried to cure the world with. They would wonder out loud as to where that batch of whiskey ended up. Thomas and Loenda could never decide, but they would always agree on how nature is a remarkable, if not uncanny thing.
As for John Thomas, he had just enough polyester armor to make it half way back to survivable climates. Eventually the molasses flavors disappeared from his lips, and he watched Antarctica disappear from the agonizing comfort of helicopter window panes. He went many places, and made homes of some. Others he never returned to.
In a frosted out cave, under a mountain surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing but thin air, John Thomas had been drunkingly warm. And even though it had passed, he carried it with him for the rest of his life.