Wassamotta

by Robert Boucheron

     Located north of the Arctic Circle, where the frozen tundra meets the ice-capped ocean, Wassamotta lies in a white wasteland, a desolate place of packed snow, where winter lasts nine months of the year. Human habitation is out of the question. On the darkest days, the sun lurks below the horizon, and all you see is a gleam. The cold is so severe, citizens bundle up in layers and limit their exposure. They snort like seals and lumber like bears. They retreat to their dens with steaming mugs, munch calorie-laden snacks, and watch old movies on private screens through half-closed eyes.

     Yet around the winter solstice the city comes alive. The Ice Carnival is the annual event, the time of year to celebrate. People mark it in red on calendars and promote it through garish advertisements. Bleakness and cold unlock the imagination. This is the season for folderol and hoopla. Visitors swarm to the subzero city. The airport is busy, bus and railroad stations hum, hotels are booked, and restaurants are jammed. The playhouse mounts a revival, the symphony gives a gala performance, and the ballet company dances up a storm. The whole downtown is electrically lit like a theater marquee.

     The public park in the center hosts a display of sculptures carved in ice—fantastic beasts, cartoon characters, gods from northern mythology, and caricatures of public figures. Erected of ice, a grandiose castle or Crystal Palace rises on the site of the frozen duck pond. Great blocks of ice are cemented together with plain water and adorned with gay balconies, sparkling pinnacles, clearstory windows, bright arcades, and suites of interconnected rooms illuminated in colors. Music plays from loudspeakers, while people in bulky coats and scarves troop through the palace to ooh and ahh. For the hot-blooded tourist, a bar constructed entirely of ice, with stools of ice on which to lounge in boots and mittens, serves drinks in icy glasses.

     For a few weeks in July, when the port has open water, ships enter and leave the docks in a flash. They load and unload cargo and passengers in a round-the-clock orgy made all the more thrilling by a sun that never sets. Herring and cod teem in the frigid waters. Catching them for export formed the base of the nineteenth-century economy. Herds of caribou and arctic sheep were also a mainstay, and they figure large in traditional lore. The twentieth century added petroleum, with its derricks, pumps, and gargantuan tankers. A delicate perfume wafts through the streets of light sweet crude.

     Wassamottans, however, are sluggish and dull in the interlude that passes for summer. A spell of warm weather affects them like spring fever. Their eyes turn glassy, they bump into things, and they forget their own names. Supremely indifferent, they watch the bustle of the port and yawn. When the soil can be dug, they plant their cabbages, chard, and onions. Potatoes and grain crops cannot thrive. Only the hardiest of flowers do well. They bloom for a day and quickly go to seed. But gardeners notice the short growing season grows longer year by year. The port is free of ice earlier and later. Climate change has come to Wassamotta.

     Far from welcoming the warming trend, citizens say it spells disaster. The city is built on permafrost, the layer of ice and frozen ground that never thaws. Never, that is, until now. Foundations that currently rest on ice like solid stone will subside as the layer melts. In time, the land that surrounds Wassamotta will turn to swamp, and the city will slowly sink in the morass. All they know, their way of life, will be swallowed up.

     Extraction and burning of fossil fuel is the cause of their distress, through carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the source of their prosperity, through global trade. Cruel twist of fate or unresolvable contradiction? Wassamottans blame the weather and ponder the beauty of water as jewel, hard and clear. Ice is beautiful, they say. Rampant warmth is the enemy.

Author Bio

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

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