After days of rain, wind howling swells of the Beaufort Sea onto the rocky shoreline with a spray of salt and spume, the rain turns to sleet and then sleet turns to snow. It should be spring already on the 141st meridian—where the border between the US and Canada gestures toward the Earth’s axis in a geometry that connects us all to the stars, but the Arctic chill continues unabated.
The caribou won’t be calving as they should this year. An expedition of photographers (with the International League of Conservation Photographers, or ILCP) make their way across the frozen coastal plain in hopes of glimpsing the herd of ungulates with their newborns, and the photographers cross frozen swamps and tussocks framed by mountains that appear like grey giants shrouded in mist whenever the storm shifts and the clouds recede for a time.
June. There should be wildflowers on the plain. Instead, frozen in the icy crust beneath the photographer’s boots—Canadian wood frogs practice the art of dying.
It is an ancient practice and one that’s enabled these frogs to survive in a clime that excludes all other amphibians. In winter, their bodies freeze through and through, their internal fluids crystallizing, and that’s when they cross over, as a herpetologist might affirm, into the kingdom of the dead. When frozen in that northern landscape, brain activity in the Canadian wood frog functions effectively at zero. Their hearts stop. Their tiny lungs grow cold. Stilled in the frost. Their bodies icebound within and without.
Late at night, when I place my head to the pillow and stare into the blue-black darkness, I wonder if this frozen death isn’t somewhere deep within me as well. Do you think of this, too? Your ghost sleeps beside me and I often whisper to you in the dream-dark of our bedroom. I think back to the morning of your death, in 2016, the world closing in around us as I held your hand, which grew so cold and still, and I brushed your hair and kissed you when the last breath left your body.
It’s February now. The years passing by. The windows chilled in sheets of ambient blue light. The doors locked in their metal housings. My heart slows and my breathing turns shallow. I close my eyes and think of you. And I wonder what it is that wakes me from all of this. What will you tell me in dream, hours from now, as I work to perfect the art within me? What is it you whisper in my ear? What kiss do you bring to my lips to spark the muscle in its frame of bone, charging the blood with a voltage connected to memory, where small bright fires flare in the wide amphitheater of the brain, and we are together again, you laughing, the world returned to a lazy Sunday afternoon, the paint from last night staining your fingertips, the painting of flowers over our bed overflowing with petals, fragrant with color, and, of course, this must be what melts the ice from deep within the body. This must be what awakens the frogs in spite of the wind arriving from the Arctic as the globe spins its way through time.
The frogs must know something that can only be learned in a silence so deep it stills the heart and quiets the blood. And yet they open their eyes. Encased in ice, they stretch and slip into the faint light of day. They watch the great migration of caribou across the warming earth. They watch the terrific exhalations from those shaggy creatures, and they decipher meaning from the clicking sounds the caribou make as they move through a slush of mud and crushed ice. The caribou soften into shadow and then disappear in the low-hanging fog of morning.
A meditative hush returns to the earth once more.
Mosquitos lift from their fragile stations to rise into the air. Their wings so lacy and patterned by veins. A faint shimmer of light as they wheel and turn on the breeze.
And the frogs, having returned to this world once more—they crane their heads and open their mouths wide. They gather the cool air deep inside of themselves and, with all they’ve learned from the silent place they have traveled to in dying, they sing.
Brian Turner is a writer and musician; author of My Life as a Foreign Country, two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise), and a debut album with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. His most recent work is The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton & Company). He directs the MFA at Sierra Nevada University.