The Ice Age

Amy Gerstler

A million years ago the earth grew cold. Iowa was covered by twenty-five hundred feet of ice. No one knows why the glaciers formed and spread, or why they eventually retreated.

I blinked and you were gone.

As a boy, he loved the idea of the ice age. Lumbering woolly mammoths and giant sloths. Outside, a vast white edict erasing the landscape. Inside his head, cave paintings of bison leapt in the firelight, their horns spiraling upward, the tips smoking.

Men on skis came to dig you out. Though they worked all night, they were too late.

Waking every day the frost reasserts itself. Its relentlessness a tedium, a closure. The earth must have looked more familiar when all was water. We don’t recognize ourselves amidst this overwhelming winter: static that censors newscasts, cold that burns, incessant dripping as icicles perfect themselves. The night skies are a riot of Chinese silk: bolts of crimson and shadow-blue. The radio crackles faintly.

Medical refuse litters the beaches, spews into the water from a backed up sewer under the pier. Bacteria cavort in the seawater. The weather’s gone haywire all over the globe. The more sensitive you are the earlier you’ll die. Just hold your breath a little longer, dear.

Once you start this medication, you can’t stop. Your life changes. You decide, based on a dearth of information, which force you want to submit to: nature, now less maternal than ever, or her idiot son—modern medicine.

You make an effort to find some grand design in this blindness. If you can’t see well enough anymore to edit your film, perhaps you can still do the music. You set an example. ― Lemme outa here.

As a boy, before his mother found out and made him stop, he’d bury the frozen birds he found on the porch after big storms by warming the earth first with his father’s blowtorch.

Being human, we can’t help attempting to arrange events into patterns—the way a sick man sees faces in the stains on his bedroom ceiling. He names them. Months later, they all converse.

The men in the ice-covered radio station play cards and drink bourbon.

What defense can one mount against an avalanche?

Spotless beakers, pipettes, rows of small cages. Welcome to the lab. Here’s the chamber where we run preliminary screenings. Better don these gloves. Why not use two pair, like me? The new man on the night shift nods off over his work, with the radio playing. Its tinny strands of music enter his dream disguised as a dead friend’s hair. He had short coarse hair, like a terrier’s, pleasantly stiff to the touch. The lab is brightly lit to ward off the backwash of night. Under the table the research assistant’s feet twitch spasmodically in his sleep.

A series of blurry black-and-white newsreels flickers on the screen. Martian canals overflow their banks. A lake in Africa exhales a cloud of poison gas, killing thousands of villagers on its shores. Venice sinks. Anchorage, Alaska, is leveled by earthquakes. Pompeii is breaded and fried by its volcano. The swamp swallows another sand bar, then coughs up a tiny island. Subzero temperatures paralyze Acapulco. There have been several ice ages, a female narrator intones. The most recent lasted 90,000 years. A timer goes off and the lab assistant jerks awake. In about the time it takes to drink a glass of water, he remembers where he is.

“This is probably the last time I will write to you . . .”

The rocks applaud. Summers turn short and cool. The world remakes itself without us now.

Source. About the poet. Illustration: Mahmut, the monster. "The Boy Scouts of the North; or, The Blue Pearl," was serialized in issues of St. Nicholas Magazine, August 1920, p. 897.


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