El Frío

El Frío

by

Phillip McCollum

With the icy ground penetrating the inadequate layer of canvas wrapped around his knees, Captain Joaquín de Toledo y Parra cried out to the miraculous blood dribbling down the white embankment a mere fifty yards before him.

“Mother of God, take me away! Forgive my trespasses!” The words struggled to form across his fat tongue and chapped lips.

To Joaquín, all was clear: The red flow was a sign from the Madonna and its portents were most certain. God forgive him, he hoped that he would not see the sunset before being called into the presence of his Heavenly Father. He reached across himself with a shaking arm and made the sign of the cross upon his chest, knocking bits of crusted ice from his beard.

A cold wind, the same one that had beleaguered every painful step through this blindingly white, unpopulated land, whipped a stinging flap of fur onto his face. Two layers thick, that fur hid his emaciated torso from only the elements in this unpopulated world. A diet of raw penguin and ice chips had left his digestive system a miserable state of affairs since landing on the icy shores two days ago.

Though there was no priest to give the last rites, Joaquín felt secure in the fact that surely the cleansing blood of Jesus was flowing freely before him, there to wash away the sins which had so clearly brought him to these circumstances in the first place.

The once-Captain of the San Telmo, Joaquín was the last man alive out of 644 Spanish sailors sent to put down rebel insurrection in Peru. A storm beyond comprehension had blown the 74-gun vessel into uncharted territory as they rounded the Cape of Africa, leaving King Ferdinand VII with one less ship of the line and Spain with a few more widows.

The gently streaming blood triggered fragments of memory in his mind–under dark clouds and cold, stinging rain, the ship had careened into a large chunk of floating ice, breaking apart with such loud snaps as if God himself had gathered the boat in His great fist only to crush it like a pile of twigs.

But then there was the miraculous blessing, or so he thought at the time. After being thrown briefly into the frigid waters, Joaquín scrambled onto the tiny iceberg. He and one other man were the only survivors. The two of them managed to salvage a large piece of ship’s plank and a box of furs, using their remaining strength to pull them from the sea. After a brief rest, the bickering began over a vital question–Should they try and fashion themselves a raft and chance the seas or wait and take the chance that aid might come? Captain Joaquín was never one to wait for favors, but the other man was too scared out of his mind to step one foot from their ice oasis. So the captain left the sailor with half the furs and set out on his makeshift craft in the hope that he would find more hospitable land and, God willing, Africa.

And land, he had indeed found after only half-a-day at ice-dotted sea, but more hospitable only in the sense that there were docile and easily approachable penguins to strangle. He was famished and without the capabilities to produce fire, so he choked the birds and struggled to cut them open with jagged rocks held by numb hands. Sickened and feeling near death, he knew he had to escape the animals before the tables turned. Images flashed in his mind of them pecking into him, rending his flesh and feeding. This repulsed Joaquín beyond reason, so he marched an uncountable number of steps into the snowy wasteland, hoping to die alone.

But Mother Mary’s omen informed him that even at the ends of the Earth, she would not let him perish in such a manner. He swayed back and forth on his knees now, rocking gently, half not wanting to fall onto the cold ground, half wishing to drift into an endless sleep. His eyes grew heavy and his breath labored.

In his mind, or perhaps quietly under his breath (he was unsure), Joaquín began to recite Ave Maria, and, as if harking to his call, she appeared. Joaquín thought his soul would leave his body for sure, but he steadied himself.

Mother Mary stood upon the bloody hill, looking nothing like Joaquín had expected. Her ensemble was strange, her body more lithe than he had come to expect from paintings he’d seen. She was adorned with a majestic silver material that looked to be an alchemical combination of steel and silk. Her head was covered by a helmet as round and as smooth as a stream-worn stone. Her face, covered by the purest glass upon which the landscape reflected.

Joaquín struggled to push himself to his feet, collapsing twice before succeeding and lurching forward. He felt like he was wading through muck as he climbed the incline to meet her. Every inch of movement caused his muscles to stretch painfully, but he willed himself forward, afraid to die without her touch.

“Mother of God!” he tried to yell, stretching his arms outward. Ice crunched beneath his black ankle-boots. “Do not forsake me!”

She seemed to remain still, yet it was difficult to judge as Joaquín fought dizziness brought on by his short breath. He tried to keep his eyes open against the stinging wind, focused on her standing atop the tiny hill, the sun glaring behind her head. A most fitting halo surrounded her silhouette.

The slope was gentle and so Joaquín was near to her now. Mere feet. With every step, her otherworldly qualities became that much more real. He wanted desperately to grab ahold of her silver legs and blood-stained boots.

“Mother,” he said once more, reaching out with a shaky hand, his fingers inches from her. He looked up quickly to see his frost-coated reflection in her mirror-mask, but as he did so, his traction gave way and with his legs unable to support him, he tumbled forward, smacking his forehead into the packed ice.

Before blackness overtook him, Joaquín smiled, feeling her touch upon him.

#

Warmth.

Sweet, enveloping warmth took hold of every inch of his flesh. Joaquín felt at peace. He was lying down, his back resting against something pliant. He need only open his eyes now to behold the glory of Heaven.

Yes, he need only open his eyes, which he did, but soon regretted.

A foot above him hovered the face of a most disturbing creature. It craned over him with its long neck connected to a tabular ceiling. It had four eyes, each one red and penetrating. They spun in circles and left Joaquín dizzy and frightened. Every time the beast moved up and down over his body, the eyes would flare briefly and make strange clicking sounds.

Joaquín shrieked. He tried to stand, to get away, but was unable to move. He tilted his head down to see himself naked. His wrists and ankles were bound to the soft table on which he lie.

He looked back up at the beast and a wave of comprehension struck him.

A Cherubim.

It had to be one of the Heavenly Host, an angel, that the priests had described as being terrible to behold in their own right. Was it Gabriel? Miguel, perhaps? He tried to call it by its name, but his throat was too dry. It struck him odd that he should be so parched in Heaven.

And then a fear seized him. Not that he was in Hell–he knew that wasn’t possible because his flesh was not burning and he smelled no brimstone. But perhaps he was in Purgatory, a place of purification before admittance into true Heaven.

Bringing him here was your worst idea yet, Chelsea.

A masculine voice from the surrounding dark spoke strange words.

Joaquín flipped his head, feeling suddenly embarrassed by his nakedness. With his vision adjusting, he saw a Moorish-looking man and white woman standing several feet to his right. Unlike the Madonna, they wore nothing to cover their face, revealing matching close-cropped hair and clothing that was equally strange–genteel, frock-like, and as white as snow. His first thought was that one was a priest, the other a nun. For some reason, it didn’t strike him as completely strange that there would be such servants of God in Heaven. He supposed Mass must be held every day for all souls of all time.

I couldn’t just leave him there, the woman spoke now.

Couldn’t you? the man replied sharply.

Joaquín did not understand what they were saying, but their tone implied that they were arguing over something–another sign that he had not yet been admitted into God’s presence. Their words sounded like Dutch, maybe English. Unfortunately, Joaquín spoke neither. He’d honestly never thought that anyone would speak anything but Latin in the afterlife, but apparently, that was not the case.

The man stepped away from the woman to look at an odd window hanging down from the ceiling beside where he lay. Magical writing appeared as an endless scroll. New words would appear and old words disappear as the man ran his finger up and down the window pane.

The pattern matcher confirms his genetic makeup as early 19th century Iberian. Only known contact with Antarctica in this era was a Spanish ship of the line that was supposed to have crashed on Livingston Island. No known survivors.

The woman approached, read the words, and made a snorting sound.

The man gave her a reprimanding look.

Seems improbable, he said, but not impossible.

She placed her hands on her hips and looked down at Joaquín with what can only be described as pity.

That’s what we get for believing history written by someone that wasn’t there. Well, this time period was your suggestion. I’m laying all blame on you.

Fine, the man said, the Commission can just add another mark to my record. Now, since you’re the one that brought him in, what do we do with him?

Joaquín struggled to speak. A thin croak exited his airway.

Maybe we should be civilized hosts–you know, give him water and food, and then talk to him. We can’t just put him back out there.

The man started to speak, but the woman held up her hand. Yeah, yeah, temporal interference…butterfly effect…blah blah blah. Too late for all that now, isn’t it?

Fine, the man replied. You play nurse and figure a way out of this mess. I need to check on the status of the bilge pump if we’re going to be leaving today. Lots of oxidation. His eyes met Joaquín’s for a moment. He probably thinks the ground was bleeding.

The man stepped away and Joaquín’s eyes followed him to a wall, bare and smooth. It split open silently as the man approached, giving way to a hallway of candles which did not flicker. The wall closed back up behind him.

The woman opened a thin paper box that rested on a nearby shelf, removing a small glass with clear liquid inside. She took a thin straw, punctured the top of the glass, and brought it to Joaquín. Before sitting down, she tapped several times on the suspended window.

“You probably had no idea what we were saying,” the woman said.

Joaquín’s eyes bulged and he breathed a sigh of relief. So she spoke his tongue after all. He tried to reply back, but again, the words remained stuck in his throat.

“Here, drink,” she said and held the straw to his lips. He tilted his head up slightly and drank. It tasted like the purest water he’d ever swallowed. Joaquín greedily sucked but the woman pulled it away.

“Not too much or you’ll spew it all up again. You’re in bad enough shape as it is,” she said.

His head fell back to the table as he remembered that his arms and legs were restrained. The words were finally ready to come out.

“Sister, where am I? Why am I being held?” he asked.

He wanted to ask about his clothes, but there were too many other questions related to that which he did not want to deal with. Why was he embarrassed by his nudity? Why did they wear clothes? Why did he still have his earthly body at all?

The woman’s pale cheeks bloomed a shade of red. “Precautions,” she said. “I’m sorry.” Her head turned back to the wall where the man had left and then she stood. One-by-one, she unbuckled his restraints. “You’re in no condition to be much trouble,” she said. She helped Joaquín sit up on the table. His hands instantly went to his private parts. The woman noticed and averted her eyes. She moved quickly to a cabinet across the room, pulled out a white coat matching the one she wore and helped Joaquín into it.

“I know you have many questions,” she said. “Believe me, I have just as many myself.”

Joaquín peered cautiously up at the Cherubim now floating near the ceiling, silent, its eyes grown faint. Was it observing him? Judging his conduct?

She spoke further. “Admittedly, I don’t know much about 19th-century social history. I’m….we’re….geologists.”

“Geologist?” Joaquín asked. “I did not know Heaven had a need for geologists.”

The woman regarded him silently for a moment. “Just where do you think you are?”

Joaquín eyed the hovering angel once more. “Perhaps I spoke too soon. Forgive me, Sister. Is this Purgatory? Are there sins for which I still need to atone? Before I awoke here, when I saw Mother Mary–”

“Mother Mary?”

“Yes,” he said. “Upon the hill of our Savior’s blood.”

The woman’s mouth opened wide. “Ohhhh,” she said, and then cleared her throat. “I see.” She tapped her fingers on her legs. He caught her whispering: What have I gotten myself into?

She straightened up and looked Joaquín in his eyes. “I don’t know how to state any of this in a way which you’ll clearly understand, but I’ll try my best and just tell you how it is. There is no Mother Mary.”

“Blasphemy! I saw her with my own eyes,” Joaquín injected, feeling slightly offended as if he were being looked at as a madman. Perhaps this was indeed a test. He continued to feel the overbearing presence of the Cherubim above.

The woman held up her hands in defense. “No, look, I don’t mean at all. Maybe there is. I just meant the woman you saw was not her. That was me.”

“You?”

“Yes. I had my environmental suit on. It’s freezing out there, you know.” She chuckled, but Joaquín found no humor in the situation.

“Sorry,” she said. “Bad joke.” She took a deep breath. “We’re getting off track. My colleague and I, we’re not from here. Well, we’re from here, as in Earth, but from another time. We’re a part of a scientific expedition, you see, that’s been tasked with measuring….”

The woman spoke at length using terms that Joaquín could barely comprehend, some not at all. Only a single phrase weighed on him the whole time.

….we’re from here, as in Earth….

When she finished talking, appearing as if Joaquín should respond, he asked, “So this is not the afterlife? This is not Purgatory or Heaven?”

The woman grinned slightly and shrugged.

He directed his eyes at the Cherubim. “And that is not an angel?”

The woman stifled a laugh. “Well, it’s part of our ship’s computer system and it’s useful–it told us about you, after all–, but I don’t know that I’d call it an angel. It goes on the fritz more often than not, requiring the occasional reboot.”

Joaquín lifted his eyebrows. “Ship?”

“Yes,” she said. “You’re in the infirmary.”

Just as he took another moment to gaze at his otherworldly surroundings and take it all in, the wall where the man had previously exited split open again.

“Get ready, we’re leaving in five,” he said upon entering.

The woman jumped to her feet. “Wait, what about him? We haven’t–”

“Just got off the horn with the Commission,” the man interrupted. “Turns out they knew about this, only they didn’t inform us….temporal interference…butterfly effect…blah blah blah,” he said with a wry smile on his face. “He’s the Captain of the San Telmo, the first crew known to step foot in Antarctica. He’s to participate in some history exhibit. They’ll give us the details when we return.”

The woman had a momentary look of shock on her face but quickly recovered. She turned back to Joaquín. “You’d think I’d be used to this by now,” she said as if they were old friends. “Well, looks like you don’t have to freeze to death after all and you get to travel forward in time. Lucky you.”

Lucky me, Joaquín thought somewhat morosely. He closed his eyes and breathed in the sterile air. If he wasn’t going to spend eternity among the Saved, he could think of nothing better than to sail forth on uncharted seas.

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