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The Antarctic

by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
 

The fight left both sisters drained, sad, and confused about the future of their relationship. Each realized in its wake that for half a century they’d been one another’s bedrock, the assumption upon which their lives rested. Together they’d navigated girlhood in their small northern Illinois town, found and lost adulthood loves, managed their mother’s Alzheimer’s, their father’s stroke, and now lived together, along with the menagerie of three dogs, eight cats, four birds, and whatever other beasts needed shelter at the moment. The animals were technically Regina’s province, and Janet had a small wing of her own in the back of the house, with a bathroom and its own entrance, where she could and did take refuge, but practically speaking, she shared responsibility for the animals. After all, Regina had taken her in, too.

As children they’d had squabbles, as all siblings do, and of course there were irritations as adults. Regina’s tendency to deny and control, for example, could irk Janet, and Janet’s recent inclination toward impulsiveness, random behaviors that had no purpose, rankled her sister. But the deep truth of the matter was that they loved, and even liked, one another. The living situation was companionable and surprisingly easy. The fight seemed to erupt out of the blue.

It had been eleven years since the truck had hit and killed Janet’s husband, and she realized with a start one morning that not only did she no longer feel any grief—to be truthful, she hadn’t in about ten years—she was getting bored. She’d turned fifty this year, and so far the loss of her husband had been the defining moment of her life, the primary lens through which she saw herself. Others, too, viewed her through Doug’s death. A tragedy. If she never heard that word again in her life, she wouldn’t mind. He left her with an unexpectedly large debt, a tangle of feelings, including, yes, grief, but also a shameful sense of liberation. Rebuilding her life—an expression she also wouldn’t mind losing—had consumed this decade. She’d learned about managing finances, developed a robust roster of clients who used her science writing skills, and made new friends, primarily online since their town rarely offered anything new on that front. She was considering joining a gym.

Regina, for her part, had bucked up under the responsibility of sheltering her sister. She’d lived alone since the end of a brief, early marriage, and in any case, she wouldn’t have considered saying no. She viewed it not too differently from how she viewed taking in injured and otherwise unwanted animals. Someone had to do it.

Penguins and seal on floating ice in Antarctica. Photo by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.As it turned out, the arrangement proved more than satisfactory. Practically speaking, it was nice to share the household chores, and since Janet worked from home, she was available to care for the animals during the day. Regina became especially glad for her sister’s companionship, a human voice amid the cawing and barking and mewling, when seven months ago Maury left the clinic and her at the same time. They had been coworkers for fifteen years, and lovers for twelve.

Regina sometimes lay awake in the earliest hours of the morning, thinking about Maury, his fresh pink cheeks, his sandy curls, his long, pale limbs. His haunted eyes. Of late she’d spent as much time in these darkest moments thinking about her sister. Her impulsiveness had become more pronounced. Demanding might be too strong a word, but she expressed her views more forcefully and seemingly without forethought. She brought exotic fruits home from the grocery store and went to movies in the afternoon. She’d begun talking to strangers in public, about nothing whatsoever, like whether or not they used the clumping kind of cat litter, which the sisters absolutely did not in their household, and for good reason, so why would Janet discuss it with a stranger, other than a desire to engage that person in conversation about anything? In the stillest part of the night, Regina feared that Janet might move out.

Then, in November of last year, when the sky was flat and gray, and only a few red apples hung hard and near-frozen from the tree in their backyard, they had the fight.

 “I’ve had the most disturbing thought,” Janet said at the breakfast table. It was their custom to eat a boiled egg each, and with that Regina had toast with butter and jam, while Janet had a bowl of Raisin Bran. They did not usually speak at this hour, other than an exchange of information necessary to the day. So Regina simply ignored Janet’s mention of a disturbing thought. Certainly it could wait for the evening.

Janet continued anyway. “It occurred to me that I could see the end of my life. A straight shot through, like looking out a window and there, a short distance ahead, was The End. Capital T and capital E.”

Regina put down her half piece of toast and took a sip of coffee, regretting that it was still too hot to drink quickly. She could carry the cup into her bedroom, but she wanted to finish the toast. And anyway, she tried always to choose kindness, so she said, “I find that image comforting, not disturbing.”

“I was sure you’d say that. But I don’t. The idea that there won’t be a single surprise from here to the end… Oh!” she wailed, causing Regina to set down her coffee cup and pay closer attention.

“Well, what is it?” she asked.

“The idea. That this is it. You and me—and you know I love you, Regina—but this routine life of ours. Breakfast, work, dinner, bed. Endlessly, unchangingly, for another, say twenty or thirty years. I can’t bear it.”

Regina thought that a person who’d lost her husband to a drunk running a red light would have more sense than to think there were no surprises in life. In fact, Regina had thought that she was doing her sister a favor by providing constancy, that very “routine life of ours,” to assuage the trauma Janet had suffered eleven years ago. She knew that Janet was grateful, but there was something irritating about her dissatisfaction. After all, there were so many in need. Maybe, Regina thought, she would bring home that cockatoo someone had left on the clinic porch. Janet would enjoy him.

Janet watched her sister’s face, and with growing consternation saw that she was not getting through to her. Of course Regina enjoyed the certainty, the solid footing. She probably thought of her own death with satisfaction, the same way one might think of one’s bed at four in the afternoon, savoring the thought of getting into it at the day’s end. More, Janet could just hear Regina saying in the not too distant future that she’d had quite enough of this adventure called life, thank you very much, and turning off her own light. Yes, suicide. After all, she’d euthanized any number of animals in her practice, and Regina was zealous in her belief that there is no distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. “We are animals,” she liked to remind people, annoyed at the race’s incessant need to think of ourselves as higher.

It was aggravating. She used this insistence on being an animal to keep distance between herself and other people. To keep herself cloistered here at home with the beasts.

“The mail carrier accidentally delivered the McAllister’s mail to us yesterday,” Janet carried on, and Regina was glad that she’d changed the subject. “There was a brochure for a voyage to Antarctica.”

Maybe Janet just needed to chat more. Since Maury had left, Regina knew she’d sunk into a silent melancholy, taken advantage of her sister’s comfortable presence. Maybe she’d been selfish, blind to Janet’s need for a bit more interaction. And yet, Regina drew the line at early morning conversation. She poured out the rest of her coffee and rinsed the cup, shoved her uneaten toast down the disposal.

“I think we should go,” Janet said.

Regina pretended she hadn’t heard and picked up her keys.

“Regina!” Janet nearly shouted. “You don’t need to leave for work for another fifteen minutes. I insist you talk to me about this.”

Regina turned slowly, a hot flash rising on the word “insist.”

“You work too hard,” Janet said. “You never take a break, have any fun.”

“Paying good money to be locked up with a bunch of strangers and heaved about on the open sea is my idea of hell.”

“Imagine seeing real penguins and seals!”

“Imagine crossing the Drake Passage at our age.”

“I’m fifty and you’re 52,” Janet said in a low and slow voice. “We’re not dead.”

“Go!” Regina said. “Go! Leave me here in peace. I would love a bit of time to myself.”

“You’ve become a drudge, Regina. No one will want to be around you. You only know how to relate to animals.”

“And animals are all I want to relate to.”

“Well, that’s obvious. You’ve nearly lost touch with the English language altogether. You grunt and, perhaps if you’re happy, which you haven’t been in months, chirp a bit. Truly, Regina, you’re becoming downright misanthropic.”

Warm light on mountains in Antarctica. Photo by Lucy Jane Bledsoe..“And you’re becoming one of those silly women who will talk to anyone about anything at all, even when you have nothing to say, as if the sound of your own voice is all that keeps you alive. You look desperate, Janet. To a plain stranger you look desperate.”

“Well, at least I’m honest in my appearance then, because I feel desperate. You live this subterranean life, refusing human comforts, pretending that all you need are the beasts. You’re becoming a beast.”

“Don’t be stupid, Janet. I’ve been a beast since the day I was born, as have you. If you think there is any difference, any difference at all, between you and the rest of the animals on Earth, then—”

“Oh, for crying out loud. This again. Yes, yes, yes. I know. 98 percent and the chimps. Oh, yes, and 70 percent with the mice. I know, Regina. But truly, I don’t care how much my DNA resembles a hippopotamus’s, I’m not going to wallow in mud.”

The words were harsh enough, and the tones of their voices even more severe, but the feeling that they had hit rock bottom, on their own and in their relationship to one another, was palpable. They had reached cold places, separately and together, from which they could not return.

Regina left for the clinic, knowing now for sure that her sister would be making plans to move out. She felt heartsick.

Janet too felt devastated, and yet, after a short walk with the dogs, she found within her thicket of upset, a tiny heart of excitement in the frisson of it all. Something had broken, and speaking strictly from a physics perspective, that meant energy had been released. Janet used it, after putting the dogs back in the fenced yard, to call Orca Expeditions. She gave the nice lady on the phone her credit card information to reserve two places in an upgraded cabin. For the first time since Doug’s death, she had a bit of extra money, and she saw no reason to hoard it away in a bank account. Especially when she glimpsed out that window to the wall she knew to be the end of her life.
  

When Regina came home that evening, Janet said nothing about having booked the trip. To her immense surprise, Regina brought it up herself, saying that okay, she would go. Janet knew that this was an apology for her hard words this morning, but still, it was a whopping big apology. Janet didn’t apologize for her own hard words, although she wished she knew how to. Both sisters pretended nothing had happened.

When, two weeks later, the thick packet of vouchers from Orca Expeditions arrived, Janet simply left it out on the kitchen table. Another two weeks passed before either sister mentioned the trip again, and when Regina did, it was to suggest they shop for parkas and long underwear. Janet told herself that Regina was secretly excited about the trip.

The night before their flight to Ushuaia, the town on the southernmost tip of Argentina, a spit away from the death-trap called Cape Horn, Regina worked late. She checked in on every single boarder at the clinic, and reviewed all her patients’ files, double-checking that she’d made every necessary arrangement for her two-week absence. They hadn’t yet replaced Maury, but George and Cecelia were more than happy to cover for her. Regina had always been the one most willing to come in on weekends, or in the middle of the night, when there were emergencies, and she never complained about covering for her colleagues when they went on vacations with their families. Their enthusiasm to reciprocate made Regina a little uneasy, an echo of Janet’s acid assessment of her life.

None of them—not George nor Cecelia, and certainly not Janet—knew about Maury, that she had in fact experienced an enormous and reciprocal love for these many years, limited in practical terms as it was. She didn’t like them feeling sorry for her. She hated them feeling sorry for her. But she was deeply grateful that she and Maury had never hurt anyone else. With their impeccable secrecy, they had managed that much.

Dreading the trip, Regina stayed at the clinic for as long as she could that night. Agreeing to Antarctica was the only way she could think of to make amends to Janet for her mean words. She might not have even minded enduring the miserable trip if she thought it would make Janet happy, but of course it wouldn’t. How could it? It would only last for two weeks, and then they would return to their lives, which Janet apparently now found intolerable. The trip would only forestall more dramatic changes.

After leaving the clinic, Regina drove by Maury’s house. She hadn’t done this in over a year, not once since he’d ended it. She had only ever done it a handful of times. Now she parked in the dark across the street, thinking that she had nothing to lose. Maury had made a clean break, and now she was going to Antarctica. She had a right to view this part of her life, from the outside, one last time.

Maury lived with his wife and remaining child—the other two were in college—in this pleasant ranch-style house. Tonight the windows were buttery with light, only darkened now and then by a passing form. She couldn’t tell if it was Maury, his wife Susan, or their sixteen-year-old Thomas moving about the house. She sat there in her car until someone turned off the downstairs lights, and then the upstairs ones, all but one bedroom. That, she suspected, would be the boy’s. It seemed too early for Maury and Susan to be going to bed.

Regina started the engine of her car and drove home. When she came in the front door unwrapping her scarf, Janet—still cautious in her triumph about this impending trip—said, “I thought you’d gone AWOL.”

“I’m worried about the animals,” Regina said and dodged a particularly penetrating look from her sister by rushing to her bedroom. She had a hard, silent cry and then lay awake most of the night.
  

Two days later, Janet knelt in front of the toilet heaving while Regina held her head. The bent-over position hurt Regina’s back, and she was angry because she had known all along that this voyage would be hell. And here, not five hours out, it was indeed.
More heaving and moaning from Janet.

Unfortunately, there is no possibility of bailing when you’re on a ship. They were onboard for the duration. Regina missed the beasts already.

Janet raised her head and sat back on her heels. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Perhaps,” she said, “That’ll be the end of it.”

Regina sincerely doubted it. She helped Janet move onto the bunk, where she whimpered and closed her eyes. Regina patted her knee. It was all she could do to not state the obvious, out loud, that she had never wanted to come on this trip.

“Go look at the sea.” Janet spoke as if her mouth was full of marbles.

Mountain and floating ice in Antarctica. Photo by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.To keep herself from saying something irretrievable, she took her sister’s suggestion, suited up, and made her way through the labyrinth of close corridors and stairwells, until she managed to emerge onto one of the decks. A cold spitting rain struck her face, and she welcomed it. The only other passengers hale enough, and stupid enough, to be on deck were two women, perhaps also sisters as they looked alike with their dark hair and rosy mouths, walking brisk laps. They laughed their hellos each time they passed Regina, as if this voyage was a hilarious joke. It was a more sensible response, Regina supposed, than any other one, short of staying home. If Janet was so intent on noting the difference between humans and other beasts, then this was one perhaps Regina should mention to her: our ridiculous pursuits. Rockets to the moon. Treks, strapped to oxygen tanks, to summits towering above our atmosphere. Voyages in steel tanks across the roughest stretch of sea, this passage named after Sir Francis Drake. Regina was in the business of comfort. She reduced pain, healed illness, and yes, ended lives when they became unbearable. Only humans, so far as she knew, engaged in behaviors that increased pain and called it fun.

 She stopped and looked over the edge of the railing. The water was cold and turbulent, tossing them about, and gunmetal gray. She hoped the neighbor girl was as responsible as her references said she was. She’d only ever left the beasts for three or four days at a time, never for two weeks. They would be sick with worry, and the neighbor girl didn’t know their habits. Regina had given her a twelve-page set of instructions, well in advance of their leaving, so that the girl could study it, and when she questioned her the day before their departure, she did seem to have grasped most of the content. Still, it was imperative that Willa have her own water bowl, in the downstairs bathroom, and that it was filled daily, and preferably twice daily. That Dendur be watched carefully for any weakness in his back legs. That Sugar be groomed regularly because he’s too old to do it himself anymore. That the birds’ cages were covered at dusk, not before and not after. That Florence—well, the list goes on. They were certainly paying the girl well enough. Regina had assumed a place to live for two weeks was recompense enough, but Janet looked into it, and apparently it’s customary to pay housesitters. The girl actually argued for a particularly high rate because of the beasts’ special needs.  

Regina sighed, wishing she were a bit nicer of a person. At least she tried to be scrupulously honest, even when she was the only one who knew the difference. So a couple of hours later, when the seas suddenly calmed and her sister recovered from seasickness, she admitted to herself the ugly truth that she might prefer Janet remaining bedridden for the duration.

Janet lifted her head and declared, “It’s calmed, hasn’t it!” Before Regina could answer, Janet was up brushing her teeth and dressing for dinner. Regina thought she might skip the meal, but Janet insisted, and so they went to the dining room and found two places at an empty table. She was relieved that no one joined them.

“Who’s that silver fox?” Janet asked.

Regina breathed deeply and removed her reading glasses. She’d brought the information packet from the cabin to read at dinner, and now put the tip of her index finger on her place in the text. She followed Janet’s far too obvious gaze to see an utter stereotype of a cruise gentleman sitting at a table much too close to theirs. He actually nodded slowly, raising his fingers to his brow in what Regina assumed was an attempt at a suave greeting. She felt stabbed by an ache of missing Maury, his fresh genuineness.

“I think he’s looking at you,” Janet said.

Had she spoken at all, Regina would have said, Oh, shut up. Their first night at sea, and her vow of patience had stretched to gossamer strands. A hot flash washed the back of her neck and dripped between her breasts. She forced herself to return to reading the information packet, although she couldn’t concentrate after her sister had used that ridiculous term “silver fox.” If she closed the reading material, it would signal an openness to conversation, which would be erroneous, and so she kept her glazed eyes on the page until a plate of food arrived.

“Handsome,” Janet said. She was still looking at the man.

“He’s eighty if he’s a day,” Regina commented.

“Not yet 65,” Janet returned.

“And you’re fifty.”

“It’s you he’s looking at.”

Regina lowered her glasses and examined her sister’s face for signs of impending insanity. For someone who spent her life reporting on scientific fact, she sure could summon some doozy fantasies. Janet carved up her chicken breast and forked it into her mouth as if she hadn’t been vomiting into the head, as they call it on a ship, just hours ago. Regina pushed her chicken – dry as an old rag – away and signaled for the waiter. She asked for a glass of wine. And didn’t Janet grin at that. She thought Regina was loosening up. Her mission, apparently. No, Regina was simply anesthetizing herself.

She noticed the two dark-haired, rosy-mouthed sisters sitting with two other women. Who wouldn’t notice them? They were howling with laughter. Two empty wine bottles already littered their tabletop. The four women were probably in their 30s. One had prematurely gray hair, cut short, and bright blue eyes. The fourth in their group was thin and mousy, with straggly hair and a pinched nose, and every time the laughter erupted she looked shocked for a moment and then, as if she got the joke a bit late, joined in. When she laughed, her face became merry like a pixie. Regina had an in explicable urge to tell that table of women about Maury.
  

The seas were rough again the next day, and Janet passed a few hours throwing up her large breakfast. But like the day before, she was fine by dinnertime. Downright festive, in fact. She put on a new pair of jeans and new royal blue silk shirt. The silver fox sat down at their table, right next to Regina and across from Janet.

“What’s brought you two ladies to the ice continent,” he asked, apparently thinking himself witty.

Janet didn’t even begin with niceties. She launched, “I woke up one morning and realized I could see the end of my life. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I pretty much know what will happen between here and there.”

Regina interrupted to say, “The words ‘barring unforeseen circumstances’ negate your whole point, Janet.”

The silver fox grinned at Regina as if she’d been witty.

Breaching whale mother and child in Antarctica. Photo by Lucy Jane Bledsoe..Janet barely gave her sister a glance and continued. “The thought was horrifying to me. I told this to the checker at our grocery store, and she gave me this look. Like a cross between pity and disapproval. Because, you see, my husband was killed by a drunk driver eleven years ago. Of course I know perfectly well that I haven’t a clue what’s around the next corner. No one knows that better than me, because of what happened to Doug, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling. Then, I thought, why should I shake it? Or, maybe it was more that I should shake it, as in, shake up my life. So I booked the trip for me and my sister Regina. I’m Janet, by the way.”
 
Regina shook the silver fox’s hand—he said his name but she didn’t listen—and looked for the four women. There they were. Laughing again, although more quietly this evening. Regina wondered what their occasion was. Certainly none of them thought she could see the end of her life.

When Clayton invited the sisters for an after-dinner drink, Janet readily agreed. She could tell that he was more interested in Regina, and she tried to subtly cajole her sister into coming along. One of Regina’s charms was that she remained entirely unaware that she held sway with some men. Not most men, but Janet had seen it a few times, the exceptional man who found the force of Regina’s personality, alongside her stark kind of beauty, irresistible. She projected both autonomy and sorrow, setting up a dissonance, her own energy field. Janet liked men who were drawn to her sister, it was a sign of intelligence, of complexity.

Though the sisters actually looked a lot alike, Janet did not have the same effect on men. It was probably true that she attracted more men—though we’re not talking big numbers here—but she felt they were an inferior sort. She always felt plain and flat next to Regina. Her sister’s hair looked passion-blown while hers merely messy. Regina inhabited her extra fifteen pounds, as if she needed them to house her love for the beasts, while Janet just felt fat. And yes, as Regina had pointed out, Janet came off as slightly desperate.

So be it. Off she went to the bar with Clayton, while Regina opted for yet another walk on the deck. Clayton wasn’t bad looking. His silver hair was plentiful and coifed. His face a little too red. He had a generous smile and wide eyes, grayish-green. His blocky build had the appearance of conscientious maintenance. There was a gold chain, but if—and she was embarrassed to have this thought even privately—things ever developed, she could certainly find a way to get him to lose the jewelry. In any case, Janet was delighted to sit at one of the small round tables with him and order a white Russian. Clayton had Scotch. He told pleasantly boring stories about his life, and Janet enjoyed herself immensely.

Regina walked around and around the upper deck, breathing the cold, wet salt. She liked the silvery light. She liked how the vast sky floated atop the vast sea, the clean line of the horizon, its burnished shimmer. She cast her thoughts farther and farther out, the expanse a balm.

On her eighth lap, she saw, off the bow, perhaps 150 yards away, a disturbance in the sea. A froth. No, a spray. Yes, it was a spray! She’d never seen whales before. Regina gripped the railing and strained her eyes, and there it was again, a seawater fountain spouting high into the silver sky. Two! Regina caught a glimpse of both shiny black hides, mounding out of the water, side by side, and then rolling back into the immense sea of tears.

She longed to tell Maury. She tried to imagine what he was doing at that very moment, but she couldn’t remember the complicated time difference between northern Illinois and the Antarctic, nor did she know what his life looked like now. Maybe his eyes were no longer haunted. He had suffered so much. No one believes such things can happen innocently, but they can and do. And once love happens, how can anyone turn their back? Who on earth can give up the one thing worth living for?

Yet she admired him for leaving. Love can be a gigantic paradox. No use thinking there is something to understand. Other than people do what they have to do. He loved his wife. He’d never stopped loving her. Their three children had been four, six, and seven when the affair began. Regina never ever expected him to leave his family. Slowly, over the years, what he lost was himself, and once that happened, there was no one there to love anyone else. He’d become a ghost.

Maury must have been applying for other positions for some time. He’d figured out, and rightly, that changing clinics would be the only way to make a clean break. He had a much longer commute to work now, and she wondered how he had explained the change to Susan.

When the four rowdy women approached, Regina tried to point out the whales. But they must have dived deep and swum away, because they were no longer visible. The women introduced themselves. They’d met and traveled together, over a decade ago, during a college year in Spain. The two dark-haired ones were indeed sisters, in fact, twins. By sheer coincidence, all four friends had experienced devastating breakups last year. The twins came up with the idea of taking a trip together.

“Well, me, too,” Regina said, “Although I can’t say that’s why I’m on this trip.”

“Details,” Pixie said.

“His name was Maury and he was married.” A couple of “Ahs” and two of them pointed at the short-haired, blue-eyed one, apparently part of her story, too.

“Don’t mention this in front of my sister,” Regina said. “She never knew about Maury.”
  

Whale tail in Antarctica. Photo by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.Janet didn’t return to the cabin until after ten o’clock, and while she could tell that Regina wasn’t interested in hearing about her evening, she was compelled to share the details anyway. She said Clayton owned a picture-framing business and had been married twice. He never planned to marry again, he’d been clear about that, and Janet laughed merrily. “The idea,” she crowed,“that he thought he had to warn me!”

“He looks like an aging Ken doll.”

Janet looked shocked that Regina had spoken so meanly. But not as shocked as Regina was herself. “Oh, god, I’m sorry, Janet. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She knew exactly what was wrong with her. She closed her eyes. She had to let Janet go. She had to bear her grief alone. Everyone does. That’s the nature of grief. It was so unfair to blame her sister for her own life dead end.

Janet thought Regina was jealous. This made her angry. After all, Clayton could have happened to Regina. Janet had tried to step aside. But her sister preferred taking bracing walks alone, sucking in the frigid air. That was her choice. And this was Janet’s. She wanted this. Whatever it was. She said, “You have nerve judging me. I know about Maury.”

Regina could barely contain her welling sorrow. It washed right over her surprise at Janet’s knowing. She choked back the miserable urge to tell that it had ended. Janet might feel like she couldn’t continue with the silver fox. With Clayton. Regina did want Janet to find her own happiness. So she only nodded.

“At least Clayton’s available,” Janet said quietly. “At least I’m not lying to anyone.”

Regina nodded again and held her sister’s hot gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said and then stood. Of course Janet had known. There are no secrets, our lives are as plain as biology. She longed to fill her lungs with that cold salt air. She left Janet in the cabin.

At the end of the following day, they glimpsed the continent for the first time. The entire group of passengers stood shivering at the bow, their eyes straining for the ice-crusted landmass. Regina stayed on deck half the night as they chugged south, that wall of ice getting closer and closer. Around midnight, they came upon their first iceberg, soon followed by many others, and Regina went to get Janet, thinking she really should see this. She wasn’t in the cabin, so Regina checked the bar, and found that room dark and empty. A mirror ball swayed with the motion of the ship, glinting.

Janet felt no fear or even ambivalence. Going with Clayton to his cabin, after checking to make sure his cabin mate was on deck with the rest of the passengers, felt straightforward and beautifully simple. She did wonder how she might justify this to her sister. She was a beast, she’d tell Regina, 100 percent animal. The thought made Janet laugh, which made Clayton laugh, and then they were both holding their stomachs in a giant release of mirth. A man who saw the humor in sex! And she hadn’t even shared her beastly thoughts out loud. She liked Clayton very much. In any case, by the time her shirt was off, Janet didn’t care one whit what her sister would think. Clayton was tender and kind, his eyes expressing the same gratitude she felt. She didn’t think she’d ever love him, but oh she loved this moment. The next one, too, and then the one after that. The ship rocked the small cabin, her insides going liquid like the sea, Clayton’s hands fearless.
  

The next morning, Regina got up and out of the cabin very early, not wanting to be there when Janet returned. They were scheduled to make their first landfall today and the zodiacs were leaving at 8:00 a.m. Regina planned to stay onboard, but she wanted to watch the launch. At breakfast, the four women who were celebrating their breakups, invited her to join their boat, and Regina surprised herself by saying yes.

A few minutes later, she bumped along in the front spot of the zodiac, the rubber bow riding high on the crests of sea chop and slamming down in the troughs, jarring her bones painfully. Pixie looked as frightened as Regina felt, and the bright blue-eyed woman looked simply startled, but the twins were hollering with laughter once again. Sisters can make you feel brave, Regina thought. She swallowed hard and willed this day over soon.

The young blond-bearded guide at the helm of the zodiac searched the sea ahead, a scowl squeezing his brow. He eased the motor down to a quiet purr and shouted, “Don’t think we’re going to make it!”

Regina’s heart plummeted to the pit of her stomach. Death by a quick lethal injection was one thing. Dog-paddling in the Southern Ocean until one lost strength, or simply got too cold and sunk, was quite another. Even the twins sobered up.

Then the young man shut off the motor altogether. “It’s just too choppy to go ashore,” he said, and Regina realized that that was all he had meant about not making it. “We’ll try again later today. But it looks like we have a pretty nice consolation prize for you.” He nodded to a spot in the sea beyond Regina’s head. She didn’t bother turning. Her neck hurt. But everyone else strained to see, the twins actually standing in the boat until the guide told them to sit.

Then the pixie gasped. Instinct took over, and Regina pivoted on the hard bench to look at the rough sea. Not ten yards away, the glistening black tail of a humpback whale sunk into the water, a spray flying off the tips. Then, not much farther out, another gleaming black hide, studded with barnacles, arched out of the water. And another and yet another. They were surrounded by humpback whales. One swam right for their small rubber boat, its back barely breaking the surface of the water. Then, when it was merely feet away, it raised its massive head and looked at her. Looked at Regina. Yes, the humpback whale made eye contact and held her gaze. Cool and easy. Curious.

The whale dove right under the zodiac, without disturbing the boat’s stability, and was gone, leaving Regina with an overwhelming feeling of peace.

The sisters found one another in the dining room at lunch and sat at a table by themselves. They didn’t need to say a word. Janet was phosphorescent and Regina was a deep blue-green.

  
  

Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of several novels, including The Big Bang Symphony:A Novel of Antarctica, which came out this year. She's a two-time recipient of the National Science Foundation's Artists & Writers Fellowship, which allowed her to spend many months living in the American stations and in field camps in Antarctica where scientists are studying everything from climate change to penguin diets. Catch up with her at www.lucyjanebledsoe.com.
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