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January 2019 Prompt
A Memory of Blue
By Susan Staneslow Olesen
Cold bit into Loro’s face. He knew the cold would be brutal, but up here, with nothing to hide behind, the wind drove the cold through every stitch-hole in his clothing. His helmet kept his head warm, his goggles kept his eyes from drying out and his eyelids from freezing, but one still needed to breathe. Uphill, uphill, uphill, step, step, step, nothing on his mind but moving forward and upward. He wore liners under his wool socks, and his boots were rated to fifty below zero, but his hands could have been warmer.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. The snow up here was too cold to crunch, the granules so small and packed so close together that they slid past each other like buckshot instead of compacting under his weight. Up the hill, up the hill, up the hill. He had exactly six hours to complete his task; summer was short enough, but clear days were rare even in summer, and few people dared to wander far.
Loro was in his forties by now; it was hard to keep count, let alone remember. Time had lost a lot of its meaning, but he could remember the clear sunny days as a boy, the heat of the sun, the glory of running outside half naked, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the sizzle of rain on hot pavement. His children didn’t believe him, accused him of pretending he lived in a storybook.
Maybe he had.
Three thousand feet up now. Loro puffed his breath out with each footfall. His face covering was damp from the moisture; the moisture froze and chafed his face. Nothing to be done about it. The clouds had thinned to haze, the haze unworldly bright, frosted glass against the sky. Four thousand. Four thousand was the magic number. At four thousand feet, breathless from altitude, the city below would be visible. It was said to be a sight to behold. Perhaps a hundred people would try each summer; perhaps twelve might make it to the top of Mount Covasc, bringing back photos and tales of the bluest skies and clearest air imaginable. Photos would be blown up, placed over ceilings in public places and lit from behind, recreating the hidden miracle. Postcards would be printed with large arrows pointing to the clouds, You Are Here. No one had seen an aerial view of the actual city of Falls Landing in more than thirty years. Satellites had died, and drones died quickly in the cold.
Loro trudged onward. The light hurt his eyes, bolstered his spirit, revived his memories, and made him move faster despite his lungs heaving in the thin air. He’d been eight when the cold came. That summer had been the hottest on record, day after day of scorching heat, even in the valley. If anything, the valley seemed to hold the heat in worse, the mountains blocking the breezes that might disrupt it. Loro suffered sunburn no fewer than three times that summer. In September, the heat faded rapidly, followed by a month of rain that seemed to grow colder by the day. In October, the rain turned to snow, and snow, and more snow. The deep cold came in November, shattering records for the third month in a row. By January the snow was as deep as rooflines, and people were grumpy for not having seen sunlight in so long.
Little did they know.
Spring came on paper. Outside, the valley remained blanketed with clouds. The snows stopped, but the cold never left. The weathermen talked of inversions, of global change, of man-made disasters. The politicians blamed each other, and countries picked fights. Wars were rather fruitless; few countries were used to extreme cold, and invasions proved deadlier to the invaders than the invaded. Food for troops couldn’t be grown on frozen ground. Targeting cities with missiles didn’t work when clouds perpetually obscured satellite imagery, and electronics weren’t built to function in thirty-below-zero temperatures. Most of them failed. Planes couldn’t deploy troops when they couldn’t see to land. Neither could passenger jets, or cargo planes with supplies.
Twenty-six weathermen were murdered in a single year.
Loro’s son Lindan didn’t know what a weatherman was.
Loro’s reverie stopped as his face met with the frozen ground. Keeping up his mechanical pace, he’d stopped paying attention and tripped himself on his own skis. He frisked the front of his jacket frantically. The bump of his camera in his inside pocket, next to the warmth of his chest, was still there. Nothing seemed to shift or rattle, and he prayed it was intact. He didn’t dare take it out. Not yet. He rolled himself to his feet and reset his skis, and reset his attitude. A pole or ski sliding down hill over the ice could be his death.
Loro looked upward. The peak glowed overhead, not much farther, and he set out with fresh energy. Two hundred paces more, and the mists disappeared.
Opaque skies gave way to glaring light, making Loro blink even behind his goggles. Brightness engulfed him from all sides, blinding, yellow, unexpectedly strong. Overhead, clear skies shone in brilliant shades of turquoise and azure and gentian, while thin trails of gray and lavender clouds clawed the horizon.
“YES!” thundered from his lips, cold and unexpected, hanging before him in a ball of frozen breath. “I made it! I made it! I remember this!” Loro shouted, but it was impossible to hear him so far down in the valley. The sun was warm on his face, feeble as a butterfly, but it was real, it existed, brought the memories back. He lifted his goggles, pulled down his face mask, squinting at the brightness, drinking in the sun with every pore before replacing them.
He climbed the last few yards to the top and turned around. Falls Landing was invisible, the valley filled solidly with cottony mist and clouds. Looking at the city was like looking down at the top of a sheep, white and puffy and palpable, a roiling frozen sea. Nothing, in fact, was visible — no hills, no valleys, no towers, no landmarks, no people, just a field of white. From here on the mountain, Loro might have been the last man on Earth, all alone in the wilderness, invisible and as fabled as the sun.
“Hallooooo!” he shouted for the fun of it. “Halloooooo!” The sound carried a short distance, then froze and dissipated. How he wished Lindan could see it, but cold and distance were too risky for children.
Time was short. Loro peeled off his outer layer of gloves and drew his camera from his inside pocket. Twenty panorama shots of the valley below, more of the sky and sun and horizon. A half-dozen of Loro goofing off, taking selfies before the blue skies and sunshine. People spoke of building solar towers on the mountain, but no one had figured out how to do it fast enough to drag the materials up, build it, insulate it, and get it running in under two weeks. Nothing. There was nothing up here, not a tree, not a stump, not a tumbleweed. Anything useful had been removed, and the rest was buried under ice and snow.
Loro went to replace his camera, but his hands, without the heavy outer gloves, had grown cold and stiff. He had trouble working the zipper of his coat, struggling to grasp the oversized tab and pull. Tooth by tooth he worked it down enough to slide his hand in, only to lose his numb grip on the camera. It fell down onto the ice and began to slide.
“No! No! Stop!” Loro launched himself after it, skidding to a clumsy stop so that the camera slid to a gentle rest perpendicular to his ski. He bent down, but his fingers wouldn’t cooperate. Twice he got it off the snow, only to have it fall again. Again it slid farther down the mountain, and again he was able to stop it with his ski. At last he seized the camera using both hands and dropped it loose inside his coat. The elastic drawstring around his waist would keep it from falling out. Using the heels of his hands, he pinched the fabric of his coat to hold it, then drew the zipper up with his teeth.
Loro pushed his panic downward. Panic was dangerous. Panic killed. But time was now short, and he knew his hands were far colder than they should be. His hands were chilling the rest of him. His outer gloves — bulky, heavy, highly insulated — hung from their clasps attached to his sleeves, and still he needed ten minutes to pull them on using his teeth and his wrists. Insulated, yes, but meant to keep heat in, not create it. Instead, they would keep them nicely cold, just like a freezer blanket.
He couldn’t feel the poles in his hands. The straps around his wrists kept him from losing them, but his hands had no grip, and they slipped out of his grasp every time he used them. Without the poles, he didn’t dare build up too much speed down the mountain. Slow was the last thing he wanted to be.
By the time he was halfway down the mountain, the cold had worked its way inside him, and he began to shiver.
They shone the massive spotlights onto the main street, a beacon to anyone lost, a blinding beam for spotting anyone approaching the town. In such cold, search crews went out only if a child was missing. An hour past sunset, Loro shuffled slowly into sight, his skis moving scant inches with each effort. The front of his goggles and face mask and coat were heavy with breath-frost. Starnas and Kembel rushed out and grabbed him five hundred feet from the cleared entrance to the city. They held him by his frozen elbows and slid him through the gateway on his skis, the great snow-doors closing behind them to help keep out wind and drifts. His stiff body was carefully tipped onto a stretcher mounted on a Snowcrawler. They removed his skis, but left the poles in his icy clenched hands as they rushed him to the medical building, half a mile away.
Loro made a noise as Kembel layered warm blankets over him. “Camera,” came the faint groan. “Cooooat.”
“Your camera? It’s in your coat? Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they don’t hurt it.” It was the last thing Loro remembered for more than a week.
When he woke in the hospital, Loro’s face was still swollen. The skin was badly peeled and shiny with ointments, but he wouldn’t lose his nose or lips or eyelids. His toes hurt, but he could feel them wiggling against the sheets.
“My camera?” Loro’s throat was dry, and the words came out as a croak, weaker than he felt. “Photos?”
His wife Milla sat next to the bed. She smiled at him. “The whole town is talking about them. They’re the most beautiful photos anyone has ever seen, and the town council has promised to buy every one of them. The sky, the colors — people can’t believe it’s real. No one has ever gotten a sunset before. No one was ever crazy enough to be out that late.”
Loro’s hands were bandaged and resting on pillows before him.
They hurt. Not just the painful fire of recovering frostbite, but the deeper pain of healing wounds.
“Shhh.” Milla dabbed ointment on his lips. “Let them rest. You lost four fingers to frostbite, and parts of two more. The doctor said you’ll be able to eat, and probably dress yourself, but you’ll probably never hold the camera again.”
Loro closed his eyes, his insides as cold and frozen as he’d felt at the base of the mountain. He lay back on the pillows, and let the memories of the blue, blue sky consume him.
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