Memories of past experiences are stored within the tissues and fluids of the body; these are often lost to consciousness as the mind, unable to integrate them at the time, numbs itself to their presence by blocking the free flow of energy and movement through the area. Such stagnation seems to occur mainly in the body’s fluids and soft tissues. Reawakening of awareness and movement there may cause memories and feelings to resurface into consciousness.
Linda Hartley, Wisdom of the Body Moving: An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering
They said true to size so I went a half size up. Still they fit like a glove. The third toe on the left made some noise about that. I’ve only recently been able feel them again, my toes.
Some commenters called them moon boots but I think they’re actually supposed to look like kamiks. I guess the platform is pretty out there so I’ll call them moon kamiks. It might as well be the moon up there, the way people talk about it. The platform is thick white and jagged like a cartoon shark’s mouth. Real kamiks aren’t made out for the salt and the kind of ice we have down here. Instead of hide, it’s made of a kind of sleeping bag, lined with microfleece (fur). On each side there’s a pearly little patch of camouflage that looks like ringed seal. A suggestion: call the colour “seal” instead of “quarry.” (Although I suppose there are quarries up there, along with pretty much everything else.)
The moon kamiks’ laces are fat and they cross over only twice through the six eyelets. Somehow this provides adequate support. Now I know that good boots let the air circulate. My last boots were way too stiff and that’s why I had to learn to feel my toes again. In fairness, I waited until the day before I moved up north to find a pair. The ones I chose looked “sturdy” and at the time I was only concerned with keeping the cold out. I was on the cusp of the only size they had left, but they were on sale and I liked how small my feet looked in them. There was room left. Not quite enough room, but I assumed the -30 rating would make up the difference.
The moon kamiks don’t have a temperature guarantee. Find me two people who want the thermostat at the same degree and I’ll throw them the wedding myself. Trust toes, not tags. Boots are only one factor in keeping warm, in and of themselves. The rest is all about movement.
There’s a day every year where each government office hosts traditional group activities for the whole staff. The purpose of this day is to remind us all of the eight societal values of the community, which are supposedly the foundation of every public program and policy. In our office, this meant a trip out on the land followed by a catered lunch and movie. A rare initiative in which all factions of staff were equally invested, “working together for common cause” to enjoy a snowmobile ride and an early dismissal.
That morning I trailed my colleagues over and through parking lot enclosures to the main road, where we shuffled across and cut behind the nice hotel. The nice hotel is on the shore. The shacks on the shoreline stood as the only markers of our sovereignty, a boundary that was only meaningful for a few months of the year. That was the day my toes froze. I went so far and fast but I wasn’t moving. It’s not a riddle. The temperature rating doesn’t factor for inertia.
We advanced on the pod of machines, at least six, in formation along the coastline. They were flanked by men who looked more like time-travelers than leisure and recreation guides. Guns and nets, iridescent goggles and audacious smiles framed by furry haloes. Their skin was wind-beaten brown but as I approached my driver, I could see two white islands under his M-frames. Imagine the difference between the back of my hand and my palm, like that. These were real hunters, not weekend worriers. Every southern male with a Northern Allowance had a snowmobile and all they brought back from the land were ruddy cheeks.
When I heard that we were headed to a peninsula called the Meta Incognita, I looked it up. “The Unknown Limits.” Christened by the Queen. The limits of the earth were obviously known to the people here. Not that I said anything. By then I knew that such commentary would be received as preachy by half of my colleagues and pandering by the other half.
There were not enough machines for everyone to ride with a driver and I wouldn’t have fought for the chance. Actually, it might have been the case that all staff had to ride in tow (insurance). I bundled into a wooden sled with some of the administrative staff. The discomfort began as soon as they dragged us out into the bay. The shocks to the sled were absorbed by the bones in my ass and my brain rattled against its limits. Once it became clear that it was not just a rocky start, I directed my cries to the women surrounding me, in a fruitless bid for sympathy. They were not callous but I was the youngest in the office and I still do this thing where my yelps sound like laughter. They treated me like their niece. I don’t mean to say that I was special; family is not a zero-sum enterprise and I was but one niece of a substantial cohort. Nieces are there to assist, amuse, and behold the extent of all they don’t yet know.
Selina and I had developed our own workplace ritual. I was taken aback the first time she kneeled beside my desk and tilted her head towards me, instructing me to hunt and extract greys. A manager might walk past and observe us through the door, unable to make sense of what they’d witnessed into any formal or customary codes of workplace conduct. Ainia’s son came to the office after school and waited for her to finish work. I could never convince him that I was truly busy and so I became his playmate. Even though his presence in the office coincided with the end-of-day stretch when I’d finally begin making progress, his mother didn’t tell him to leave me alone. And I was glad she didn’t.
Once inured to the impact of the sled, I turned out to let the wind slap my face. It made me feel like a half-god sprinting across the land. I unfocused my sight and took flight into the wash of white and blue. It was hallucinant, so much so that I didn’t even notice my toes were dying until we got to our destination at the known unknown. The term “frostbite” is misleading. A bite is an event while so-called frostbite is as creeping and inevitable as the bay freezing up every October. Once the freeze sets in there’s no way to stop it, like you would tie up the dog and the bloody limb. These administrators/aunties would have told me that my boots would kill my feet, had I known to ask. I thought big boots would out me as a newcomer but theirs, a mix of kamiks and factory-made, skimmed their kneecaps. Mine just reached the meat of my calves.
A polynya (Russian, the local language doesn’t sound like that) is a place where the sea ice is open all winter. It’s like a watering hole on the savannah, which you may have seen on safari or in Disney. The polynya draws out creatures from sea and sky and earth to hunt or be captured. All I remember is that it was deafeningly bright and the water danced and taunted me. That’s how it felt, as if it danced to set itself apart from the water in my feet, which was coming to resemble the sea ice. Temporarily dead. Impassible; the rhizome of blown out fissures, suspended in vitro, the only evidence of prior life. The circulation slows and then stops and what was once fluid expands to fill the space available. Like forgotten cans of pop in the freezer. Whatever space there was between sock and the boot disappeared. The polar air was relentless and my toes pressed against the shell of each boot, ten clobbered soldiers bolstering the gate of their besieged stronghold. At least the cans finally end their misery by annihilating themselves.
It was too painful to chat and reveling at the polynya was out of the question, so I broke off from the group, towards the small peak watching over us. No one knew me well enough to tell if I was smiling or wincing from that distance. But even if they had, I didn’t want to spoil the day. I didn’t want to be like the others, who made demands. Their demands made changes. I didn’t even know my feet had a voice, let alone a vote. To unburden them, I lowered myself into śavāsana. The clearest days are the coldest and that day the sky was a taut blue. I lay there for some time, not in surrender but to be in position for divine rescue. I had no choice but to keep breathing until the rumblings of departure came upon me. We got back to town the same way we rode out, no faster, over our own rutted tracks.
My senses dulled once my brain was satisfied that I would not die from exposure. I can’t recall how I made it from the shore to movie theatre on top of the hill, adjacent the second-nicest hotel. The movie would have been filmed up there. These movies fall into two categories: either everyone has seen it a hundred times or no one has seen it, ever. All I remember is that I took advantage of the darkness to unveil my feet and set about reviving them. It’s horrible and amazing that your feet can become so thick and heavy that they seem apart from you, like they’d been embalmed. As they slowly defrost, there’s a softness that grows around the solid core. The only thing I can compare it to is the feeling of an ice pack. Imagine desperately, delicately using the puny heat of your hands to knead an ice pack back into jelly.
When your feet freeze you understand such concepts, like freezer burn. Something can really be frozen and on fire, numb and stinging. The thawing is somehow worse because you anticipate relief, but sublimation could never be painless. I only stayed for one year, one freeze and thaw. Weeks passed before I walked comfortably; it was several years before I didn’t panic at the mere suggestion of a chill. When the echoes of that day stopped ringing in my toes, I stopped thinking about them at all.
All of this reminded me that sometimes our junior high chemistry teacher, a Belgian, would often start to lecture while obstructing the formulas we were copying form the board. One of us would ask politely, “S’il vous plaît, est-ce que vous pouvez bouger?” He would shake and flail as if he were covered in a rash and we would laugh and scream until someone would ask properly: “Monsieur, est-ce-que vouz pouvez vous déplacer?” It turns out I’ve known for some time that displacement isn’t movement. To stay warm, your feet need to move and create friction. Your heart should be pounding, not from dread but from effort.
Those cursed boots. Real kamiks can get stiff, too, after being kept in storage each year. But they’re skin so it can always be mollified by oil. There’s no reason for hard boots because folds and stitches are enough to keep water out. The moon kamiks keep water out with Gore-Tex but the important thing is that they are supple. Even though they fit like a glove I know that if it came to it, they’d do their best to expand to accommodate my toes.
Another person might have destroyed the old pair but my conscience wouldn’t have permitted it, given that we shared responsibility for my injury. Instead I brought them down for my mother, half a size smaller, to shovel the walkway or to retrieve the mail; nothing so fraught as time travelling.
Miatta Gorvie is a writer based in Montreal.