The letters my mother found when her aunt Mavie died exposed her and Uncle Frank as the kind of Catholics who believed in things like exorcisms and bleeding statues. Maybe they were just more open to mystery because their daughter Emily was made of ice. When they lost her, Frank and Mavie wrote to a Mr. Wren, who advertised himself as adept in communicating with the dead.
Emily’s soul still languished in the physical world, Wren responded. The water she became had evaporated, then reconstituted as snow that fell onto a glacier in Patagonia, where her soul remained. He advised that she could be chipped out of there and carried home by someone who loved her, and then she would melt again and her soul could dissolve into heaven.
Mr. Wren suggested he might be of service in obtaining plane tickets to Argentina. He claimed to speak excellent Spanish and said he could arrange a rental car or schedule a flight to El Calafate on the state airline. He could even go with them.
Poor Wren, who in his letters capitalized words like soul and heaven, had not suspected my great-aunt and -uncle’s poverty. We assumed his final letters had gone unanswered; they grew more and more desperate, as though he were himself convinced of Emily’s presence in the glacier and not just a con man preying on the bereaved. My brother Hollis and I had a good laugh reading them, but they were sad, too.
I had to fly back to Seattle right after Mavie’s funeral because I was the principal in Norma. It was the highpoint of my career. After the final performance, I stood in a corridor in my gown and stage makeup and held the hands of everyone who passed me. All I could think about was those long months after Emily melted fifteen years ago, when I was convinced I’d practically killed my cousin myself.
The next morning, I called my brother and suggested that we try finding the Emily ice in Patagonia like Wren had proposed. For a while he thought I was joking. Then he said he couldn’t afford it. I told him I could get us there.
Wren’s letters had invoked the glacier so casually I hadn’t thought much about how patches would be dirty, or how the plain that looked so flat on TV was terraced with exhausting little hills. Hollis and I had lost our trekking group behind one of those hills, when we hung back filling Ziploc bags with ice that matched the blue of Emily’s eyes.
We called for our guides until our throats were tender. When my legs started shaking so hard I was afraid he’d notice, I said I needed to sit down and rest. He crouched beside me, and we were about to eat lunch when I remembered that we had only an afternoon’s worth of food with us. So instead of eating, we made up rules. No blame or guilt around the idea to take this trip. No more looking at the bags of melting ice in our pockets. We were not to discuss what we thought had happened to the rest of our group. We still listened for them, though. I could see it when he’d pause, head cocked, one crampon tilted at a toothsome diagonal.
“We just need to walk in the opposite direction of the sun,” Hollis said.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” he demanded. “The sun moves east to west and we started out coming from the east.”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“That’s not what I meant.” The hardness dropped out of his voice. “We have a long time before dark. Don’t worry.”
I sighed. The glacier was tongued between mountains, but we hadn’t seen their dark peaks in hours. I watched his ponytail sway against his back.
“You all right?” he asked, swiveling his head around. I nodded. “Stay with me,” Hollis said.
Sheaves of clouds skated on the wind and the ice glittered each time they broke.
“I think we’ve been walking longer than you realize,” I said after a few minutes of listening to our crampon spikes puncture the ice. “I think the sun’s in a different place.”
“I’ll take care of you. We can do this,” he said like he hadn’t heard me. I was pretending, too, smoothing over my panic with each step, but I continued to follow him.
A bird passed overhead and I lurched forward and grabbed his arm. The bird just had to be a sign that we were nearing land. Even after it disappeared over the horizon, we stood with our heads tilted up and remembered the arc it had sketched across the sky.
My sophomore year of high school, I’d see Emily in the hallway after fifth-period choir, often with a rangy girl called Julie. Both of them were seniors. My cousin was thin, her hair long and pale. She was into science. She wore black to disguise the way heat undid her, or else wore layers of outmoded, light-colored clothing in diaphanous fabrics: tunics and long skirts embellished with sequins or wan fur. Her parents thought secondhand clothing made them look poor, so she left and returned home in the cheap clothes they bought her and changed in a bathroom or her car.
She called one Friday evening and invited me to an all-night diner. I went through three different outfits before she picked me up. We sat in the smoking section and she laid a pack of cigarettes on the table. We’d brought our homework. She worked on a chemistry assignment in a notebook. I read Ernest Hemingway. Furtively I scanned the room for people I recognized from school. They moved from table to table, laughing and smoking. At the time, I imagined everyone cool to be of a kind—a tight, clever network of those who were stylish and had one thing they were extraordinarily good at—and so I was confused about why no one came over to talk to my cousin. Elderly women occupied the booths along the far wall. Middle-aged people filled out the room, probably workers the glass factory had laid off when it shut down a few months before.
The room was so hot that sweat dripped from Emily’s face onto her paper. She held her water glass over the notebook to catch the drips. She melted in the heat and also when she was agitated or upset; her doctors had taught her to collect this meltwater and drink it back into herself. Every time the bell above the door jangled, she raised her head and looked over my shoulder.
“These old ladies must make them crank the heat or something,” she muttered. I snorted. She’d pushed her wet hair back off her face, and her cheekbones gleamed. I shut my book around my finger and asked what she wanted to do after graduation.
“Keep working, I guess,” she said. A peal of laughter came from a nearby table, and Emily ducked her head slightly. She wrapped one hand around the water glass but didn’t drink from it. “Hollis said he’d go to Alaska with me.”
“Can I visit?”
She lowered her eyes and tapped her fingers against the side of her glass. “It gets really cold.”
“But you said Hollis was coming,” I insisted.
“Maybe you can get your parents to fly you up for a week.”
My heart started to pound. Frank and Mavie chronically struggled to pay their bills, which they tried to conceal from Emily. Her family seemed strange and comical to us, old fashioned. The inside of their rented duplex smelled like freezer-burned ice cream. Mavie was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she insisted that she was three years her husband’s junior, though she was actually eight years older, Surely Frank handled their finances and paperwork, yet he never seemed to find out. It was like the world before empirical science, when one might look at stars or the horizon’s curve and see only the dark and the flat.
“I can save up,” I murmured.
“Do you even have a job?”
“Right.” She lit another cigarette. “I check out when someone mentions graduation. I can't wait to get out of here.” She laughed, and my heart slowed down.
In her terrible handwriting, she scratched a broad column down the center of her notebook page. I opened my book and closed it. “I think I can get a music scholarship if I keep my grades up.”
“You can. You’re really smart.” Then she slid her glass off the page and clapped her notebook shut. “Hey, I have to meet someone, you want to come?”
“It’s just this guy from work. My parents think he’s sketchy, so we have to meet in the park.” She rolled her eyes and smirked. “It won’t take long.”
She waited as I put on my coat and hat and wound my scarf around my neck. “Don’t you have to drink your water?” I whispered, motioning at the glass. She smirked again and drank half.
We drove to a park with a couple miles of wooded walking trails and a stream, and play equipment on a hill. The parking area was flanked by drifts of plowed snow. Emily’s was the only car in the lot. She did not bother to run the heater. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and kept her eyes locked on the rearview mirror.
“Did Hollis tell you we’re going skiing in Mankato with Julie over Christmas? Her boyfriend’s family’s got a place up there they never use.”
I felt a quick lift in my chest. “I’m usually in rehearsal when he comes for dinner. We’re doing Cats.”
“For the musical. I play Grizabella. We’re all these cats, and we move just like cats, and all the lines are poetry.”
She compressed her lips into a thin line and exhaled. A car turned onto the long gravel driveway toward us, then backed up and returned to the street.
“Do you think I could come with you guys?” I asked. I unbuckled my seatbelt, drew up my legs until I could rest my chin on my bent knees, and wrapped my arms around my shins for warmth.
“I’d have to ask Julie. We’re just taking one car.”
She turned on the radio, scanned through the stations, turned it off. “I miss hanging out with you,” I ventured. “I miss Hollis since he’s graduated.”
“You wouldn’t want to hang out with us,” she said, not unkindly.
“Could we turn on the heater for a minute?”
“He’ll be here soon. You could go for a walk or something.”
I flushed. “Okay. I’m kind of cold just sitting here.”
“Sure. Hey, I’ll take you out for real before I leave over break, all right?”
I mumbled something affirmative as I fumbled up the lock through two pairs of gloves. I walked to the edge of the parking lot and looked at the icy trees. Another car turned in from the road and drove toward us. Snow crunched under my feet as I went up the hill to the swings. The air burned my cheeks, but I pumped my legs to propel myself as high as I could. At my topmost arc, I could see the adjacent golf course behind the shag of frozen branches. All the diner coffee I’d drank roiled in my stomach.
I gave Emily twenty minutes, but when I returned, the windows were iced over thick, parking lot lights speared gold across the windshield. Smoke seeped around the window edges. I knocked on the door, but she knocked back instead of opening it and her friend started to laugh, so I went to the golf course alone. New snow fluted across the hard-packed swells. I looked up at the moon and stars and thought I would get so far away from this town and this family that the constellations themselves would be unrecognizable. Like the Incas we talked about in school, I would know the stars only by the darkness between them.