The Disappearing Widder


by H.L. Fullerton


Her mother always said the Widders kept everything but their men.  Dora supposed if her mother had married into the Tudor family, she’d have an equally snide comment about Tudor women losing their heads.  But the Widders’ packrat tendencies seemed a blessing to Dora when Baron Jones wanted to make a documentary about The Disappearing Widders–“Working title only,” Baron assured her–and Dora was happy enough to let him go through the old trunks and photos jammed in the attic of Widder House.

She was less thrilled about tagging along on their expedition reenactment to Antarctica in the midst of winter, but mention of a generous stipend made her most agreeable–things had been tight since the divorce.  Still had she’d known she’d spend most of the trip putting up with Dora the Explorer jokes, she might’ve reconsidered.

“Nervous you won’t see home again?” Baron said and Dora knew cameras were filming.  Most of what she said, he’d edit out.  She wasn’t the story, more like a living footnote–and a disappointing one at that.  She’d never met her grandfather, had nothing but a few anecdotes to share about him and even less about her great-great grandfather.  All of which could be found in old newspaper clippings or books on Antarctica’s Heroic Age of Exploration.  Only value she could add were family photos of the couples before the men sailed to the Last Continent, then of the wives and children left behind.  But Baron had been excited ever since he’d discovered the untouched suitcases.

Neither Widder wife had unpacked her lost husband’s trousseau and so Baron filmed the removal of each item as if it were the opening of a king’s sarcophagus.  Dora couldn’t tell if Baron hoped to uncover some mass grave in Antarctica or find nothing and perpetuate the mystery of the lost Widder expeditions.  Whichever, Dora would play the part he wanted.  Hadn’t she read Edward Widder’s  horrible Beat-inspired sonnet, When the Clouds Come Down, over and over until Baron had decreed the inflections just right?

“More worried I’ll catch frostbite.”  She chuckled; it was expected.  Then she switched to a thoughtful expression, almost felt the lens zoom in for a close-up.  “For one hundred years, my family’s wondered what happened at Camp Widdershin.  I’m hoping to bring home answers.”  In 1913, Jonah Widder and his twelve-man expedition pulled a Roanoke.  Fifty years later, Edward Widder–Dora’s grandfather–followed in his grandfather’s footsteps.  No bodies were ever recovered.

“Third time’s the charm,” Baron said and Dora wondered what he meant by that: did he plan to find her grandfathers’ bones or lose her?

#

Widdershin III was ready and waiting for them–about two hundred yards from the Heroicly-Aged hut constructed on site by Jonah Widder and his men.  “Tongue and groove panels.  Felt and slag wool for insulation,” Baron shared about the original camp–a squat rectangle hunkered in the cold.  “They used a blubber stove for heat.  Our tents use solar radiation.  More eco-friendly and plenty warm.”

Dora wasn’t sure she’d feel warm again.  All the snow and ice, far as the eye could see.  White, white, white.  Broken only by the cluster of yellow-and-red-striped clam tents they’d be sleeping in and the long blue arc of their main shelter where they’d gather for meals and filming.  Only thing boxy about Widdershin III was the block of toilets; otherwise it was all nylon curves.

The monotoned landscape tugged at her bones until she thought her skeleton would burst her skin to seek out Jonah or Edward’s corpse for a frosty waltz.  Dora looked up, needing to see something other than snow and ice.  The sky was cadet blue with far away iridescent clouds.  They wavered like cellophane, high in the stratosphere–dozens of floating sunsets.  Dora felt herself warm, float up towards them.

“Wait till you see the photos,” Baron said and Dora snapped back to herself.  She shivered as if freshly experiencing the frigid temps.  “Photos?” she asked, feigning interest.  It was hard with the wind.

“Didn’t I mention?  We came across some negatives from 1913 in the museum’s archives and those suitcases were a treasure trove.  Your grandfather’s Kodak had a roll of undeveloped film in it from ’63.  We’ve had prints made.  I’ve copies on my tablet.  Come see, Explorer Dora.”  Baron took her arm and led her in the blue tunnel-shaped shelter.

Dora had seen images of the expeditions–the black and white of Jonah’s, the garish colors of Edward’s–recovered from the abandoned camp.  The men of 1913 were grave-faced and leathery; their likenesses faded and yellowed.  The men of ’63 smiled for the camera, as if color added all the difference.  As a child, she’d poured over the pictures; watched the choppy 8mm film of the ’63 anniversary expedition for clues.  As an adult, she’d settled into the reality that they’d succumbed to hypothermia, that their bodies were encased somewhere in meters of snow and ice.  But Baron’s never-seen-before images made the mystery of her lost forefathers and their companions new again.

Especially the image of Jonah smiling.  “It’s exactly like that photo of Great Great Grandy and Grandma Susanna,” Dora said, thinking of the photo on display in the library at Widder House.  “Except minus Grandma.”  In that black and white, Jonah’s arm was lovingly wrapped around his bride, his head turned towards her, showing a profile crinkled in joy.  Susanna wore a secretive smile and faced front.  Both dressed in their finery.

In Baron’s version, an aged Jonah was alone, dressed in bulky pants and fisherman’s sweater.  A mittened hand pointed to something out of frame, elbow cocked as if the clothing prevented him from straightening the arm completely.  Behind was a horizon of sea and, in the sky, v-shaped smudges.  A wavy line bisected his outstretched arm and something like giant snowflakes marred the edges of the photo.  Dora ran her finger down them.

“Mold blooms,” Baron said.  “And scratches and smudges from improper storage.  Museum never properly catalogued the donated items, didn’t know the negatives existed.  All these years…”

“He looks happy,” Dora said.  Whatever had happened between this photo and the whaling ship finding Widdershin abandoned–suitcases packed and waiting–he’d been happy.  His last journal entry, left lying open on the table, was: Tomorrow we leave.

“I think these are the last photos taken of the 1913 expedition.”  The next photo was a mountain of ice banked by streaks of clouds.  Nothing worth pointing at, nothing that would explain Great-great grandfather’s joy.

“Like the clouds we saw tonight,” Dora said–and those colored smudges in the jumpy 8mm.  These must be what Grandpa Edward referred to in his sonnet.  How did it go? Gasoline-riddled rain puddles shimmer in sky.  ‘Shiver’ in sky?  Something like that.  Aloud, she quoted, “The colors callingCall like home.

“Nacreous clouds,” Baron said.  “Though you can’t really tell.  You can see their colors better in Edward’s shots.  You’ve watched the footage from then, yes?”

Dora nodded.  After a quick tour of the camp and crew, the cameraman had shot nothing but the thin, garish clouds.

“They’re rare.  This is one of their few habitats.”

Dora felt a kinship bloom in her heart.  Seeing what her great-great-grandfather and grandfather saw. Standing where they stood.  That sky…  If they found nothing else, seeing the same clouds, feeling the same fascination her forebearers must’ve felt–it made the trip worth her while.  She wondered if her camera battery would last long enough to capture the clouds.  “I’d like to take some pictures of the sky.”

“Tomorrow,” Baron said, and Dora, thinking that her answer turned to leave for her assigned sleeping tent.  But Baron was still speaking, “we’ll call the clouds down.”

“What?” Dora said, thinking she misheard.  Did he say, ‘call the clouds’?

“They’ll only come for a Widder.  I already tried.”  Baron’s face thinned out, reminded Dora of 1913 Antarctic grimness.  She recalled there’d been a Gareth Baron–the photographer, maybe–on the first expedition.  She couldn’t recall his face, but bet it looked a lot like Baron Jones’.

“The clouds?” she said, just to make sure she got Baron’s crazy correct.  He nodded as she inched away.

“It won’t do you any good,” he said.  “They know you’re here.  Tomorrow, they’ll take us home.”  He pointed up.

With growing unease, Dora thought about the odd clouds.  Imagined translucent rectangles drifting toward icy earth like autumn leaves.

Jonah’s journal: Tomorrow we leave

Edward’s poem: When the Clouds Come Down.

Baron’s promise: Third time’s the charm.

Sweat broke out on Dora’s skin, but her bones turned to icicles.  She didn’t want to die, to disappear.  She wanted to return to Widder House, get over her ex and find someone better.  Her hands clenched; something papery crumpled–the picture!

She stared down at the awkwardly pointing Jonah Widder and realized it was exactly like the one with Grandma Susanna–except in this photo, Jonah’s arm draped around his iridescent cloud bride.