Hunting Icebergs

Norman Lock

Sousa stood on the shore of Lake Victoria, sobbing into his sousaphone. It was a mournful sight, and we closed our hampers uncomfortably. We had left Entebbe early that morning for a fête champêtre and had not heard the news. Then the message arrived, delivered by hand, "From a Friend."

The Titanic had been lost -- that strong ship -- "scratched by an iceberg."

"Itís wrong to eat our sandwiches and play the shepherdís game," I said, wondering what friend had sent the message and how he had known where to find me.

She nodded solemnly and did up her ribbons.

"Icebergs should be hunted to extinction!" she said earnestly. "All the big-game hunters should leave Africa at once for the North Atlantic."

She fell down on the reed mat and wept for the watery death of so many.

I knew I ought to volunteer to lead a safari to hunt the icebergs. She wanted it; and, failing to act, I would dim in her eyes (so lovely, so brown!). But I hadnít the strength for such an undertaking. It was all I could do to fall asleep each night and then, each morning, wake.

Sousa ceased and entered the hatch of a submarine. We heard the bell ring on deck, and then the submarine slid smoothly into the depths of the lake.

"He is going to play a dirge at sea," she said.

But this was mere conjecture, and I doubted whether one could reach the ocean from the interior of Africa in a submarine.

"Unless there is a subterranean passage," she said. "An underground river is well within the realm of possibility."

I thought this was nonsense but kept my own counsel. I had high hopes of resuming the shepherdís game after a suitable period of mourning. I touched her white shoulder in an ambiguous gesture of sympathy or seduction.

"Thank you," she said.

We gathered our sandwich papers, rolled up the reed mat, and returned to Entebbe, our thoughts on the sea.

That night I dreamed I was with him -- with Sousa, on the submarine. Because it looked like a sousaphone, I was not at all surprised to hear a lovely underwater passage.

It sounded like this in the lower register: Ooooommmm!

"What you hear is whales singing each to each," she said in my dream.

"No, it is Sousaís submarine in the lower register," I insisted. (In the upper register, it skirled.)

"You are only guessing," she said in her shepherdessí blouse.

I looked out the window at the walls of the underground river. Here and there a mirror gave me back my own face, which was flushed because of my nearly overmastering desire to undo the ribbons on her blouse. (No, Iím sorry, but I will not tell you her name. She has become a famous missionary in Africa. Iíll mention the fish instead: they were brightly tropical and then, quite suddenly, gray as we entered the North Atlantic channel.)

"What is the water temperature?" she asked.

I looked at the thermometer riveted to the outside of the hull.

"37ļ Fahrenheit."

"What is that in centigrade?" she asked.

"I donít know!" I said, much annoyed.

"Why were you so annoyed?" she asked the following morning over buttered toast.

We had agreed to tell each other our dreams, no matter how unkindly we had acted toward each other in them.

"I donít know," I said (truly).

Out on the North Atlantic, the icebergs drifted willy-nilly into the shipping lanes.

"Do they do it deliberately?" she asked as we played the shepherdís game under the mosquito net.

The Entebbe night was sultry, but I shivered at the thought of malevolent icebergs -- icebergs with navigation and decision-making ability.

"Icebergs are the elephants of the ocean," I said, changing the subject.

"I feel immortal under the mosquito net," she said, laughing.

She was pink (mostly).

"What did he say?" she demanded. "What did Sousa say?"

I knew she was referring to my dream of two nights before, but I pretended perversely not to understand.

Now it was her turn to be annoyed.

"In your dream!" she shouted.

"He locked himself in his cabin," I said. "I never got the chance to sound him."

She sighed.

"What an opportunity you missed there!"

"Why didnít you speak to him yourself then?" I asked hotly.

"It wasnít my dream," she answered with a flounce.

Just then Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt -- friends with whom I had lost contact after the Mombasa mischief -- entered with their double-barreled Hollands bristling.

"Weíre going to hunt down the iceberg that destroyed the Titanic!" they shouted. "And any other icebergs that get in our way."

She rose from the table and left the room. She said nothing, but I knew she was crying as she did up her ribbons.

"Youíve become effeminate," they said. "Take off that ridiculous costume and come with us!"

I measured them each out a gin while I considered my response.

"Have you studied the matter?" I asked, after a long pause filled with the appreciative sounds of their drinking.

"What matter?" they asked.

"How best to kill an iceberg. Where its vitals lie."

"No, but we shall practice on the smaller ones we meet on the way."

"I am with you then," I said.

They hoorayed me thrice.

"A kiss goodbye?" I called through the bathroom door. But she would not come out, neither would she answer.

"Are we traveling by submarine?" I asked as we dawdled in the yard to take our bearings.

"What an idea!" they hooted. "Weíre going by steamer."

They snapped their compasses shut and pointed towards Tunis. "That way," they said.

Icebergs are much taller than I imagined, and their color is more blue than gray (in some lights, rosy). They do not look much like elephants.

"I was wrong: icebergs are not the elephants of the ocean," I wrote her. "I am not yet sure what they are; but when I know, I will write you again. Love from your devoted Shepherd."

I posted the letter, then went up on deck to stand watch.

Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt were asleep!

I whisked the snow from them and shook them roughly awake.

"Derelicts!" I shouted. "Slackers!"

They shrugged sheepishly.

"Our eyes grew heavy," they said. "We could not hold out a momentís longer against sleep."

I tied bells around them so that, should they drift off again, I would hear of it.

Ding! went a practice ring.

I adjusted the timbre setting.

"Dong!"

"Better," I said, satisfied.

We have entered a field of icebergs. So extraordinary are they that I find myself forgetting their homicidal nature. They rise from the iron sea like blue-gray buildings. (One recalls a wintry New York or Paris just before rain, except that these buildings move -- slowly, but oh, how majestically!) When the sun flashes on them, they are most beautiful. But their beauty is lethal. I must not forget this!

The bells ring constantly as Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt sink under the weight of sleep. There is something in the air intensely soporific. (Not the cold, but a dreaminess.) Let them sleep! I do not want to share this scene with anyone.

Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt are fast asleep, under a shroud of snow. Their Hollands poke out like rusty spokes. I am the sole consciousness of this immense northern ocean.

(Unless the icebergs are conscious!)

The icebergs are waltzing!

Help!

No, I am in no danger. They glide together over the frozen oceanís polished floor. Blue and rose dancers. I would dance, too; but Iím afraid to shame myself in front of these graceful waltzers.

If only she were here, or Anna, who lived with me for a time in Wilbur and Orvilleís bicycle shop. But they are fading, their faces -- crowded out of my mindís eye by the icebergs.

Sousa stands on the deck of the submarine, waving his baton. I wish he would go -- and he does! He climbs down the hatch (I hear his shoes ring on the metal rungs), and the ship dives under an ice sheet.

Iím alone with them.

I love the icebergs!

I was undressing when Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt woke. They seized me in time to prevent my jumping overboard. I wanted to make love to the icebergs. I was prepared to die in their embrace.

"Steady on!" they said. "Icebergs are no friend to man. Remember the Titanic."

They locked me in the engine room where the cherry-red steam boiler soon had my blood flowing at 98.6ļ Fahrenheit. (I donít know what that is in centigrade.) They did not unlock the door until we bumped up against Tunis.

"Africa!" they said, excitedly as we stood on deck.

How blue the sea is! How lovely the junipers!

We left the ship without a backward glance at the horizon, beyond which the terrible icebergs do a dance of death to the rattling bones of the drowned. As we strolled through the forest of green monkeys, we soon forgot all about those cold-blooded assassins.

(What had I seen in them to love?)

And then I smiled secretly at the thought of her, fragrant under the mosquito net.

"What are you smiling at?" Carlson, Hanby, and Blunt asked, one after the other.

"Nothing."

I found her sighing in a thicket of dreams. I touched her breast; she woke and pulled my hand away.

"Your hand is cold!" she said, angry for having been so rudely wakened.

"My love --"

"You should have stayed with your icebergs!"

Her reproach hung in the air between us, insubstantial yet impenetrable, like the mosquito net behind which she cowered.

"I went for you. I wore your pink ribbon round my neck."

I showed her it.

"To avenge the great ship!"

"Your hand is cold," she whined. "Go away."

I went out into the yard. The hot Entebbe night withdrew. The insect voices stilled to a winter modality. And in the stillness I heard them sing -- heard the icebergs sing to me from the distant, freezing waves.

I prayed for Sousa, for his blaring band to come and drown their song; but it did not come.

Oh, you sirens!


 

This is one of 42 "Histories of the Imagination," a book-length collection of interrelated fictions that relates a history of 20th century ideas. Personalities or events of the century's formative years that have come to figure prominently in our consciousness combine in metaphysical or aesthetic comedies, to illuminate present preoccupations. By defining the outset of our era, I hope to explain - in part - its end. Other histories have been widely published - in Archipelago, Imago (Australia), The Barcelona Review, The Paris Review, The North American Review, The Literary Review, The Cream City Review, The Quarterly, New Letters, Lo Straniero (Naples), NeEuropa Review (Luxembourg), De Tijdlijn (Belgium), Ambit (The UK), Idiom 23 (Australia), Dirigible, Literal Latte, Unlikely Stories, and many others. "Hunting Icebergs" was first published by "The Literary Review" in its winter 1999 issue.

In addition to fiction, Norman Lock's plays have been performed on major stages in America and Germany. "The House of Correction" was judged one of the ten best plays of 1988 and (for its revival) 1994 by the critics of the Los Angeles Times; it was also called "The best new play" of the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. Four radio dramas have been broadcast by WDR, Germany's largest radio station. He is also the author of a film short screened at theatre festivals in the U.S. and Canada, and served as script consultant of the feature film adaptation of his play "The House of Correction".

© 2000 Norman Lock
HNLOCK@aol.com

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