Her name is Sarah. She knows that because it’s on her driver’s license. Sarah Brighton. It’s the same name that’s on her library card. The two pieces of identification she found in her handbag that is blue cloth, beaded, with a drawstring top. She knows her name, and the purpose of a driver’s license and a library card. She knows the names of everything she sees: clouds, sky, snow, glacier walls, and the large slab of ice on which she floats. She recalls nothing about Shoreline, the town listed on her pieces of identification. She remembers no one else, although she’s certain there are others because the signatures on her identification are different than hers, and the labels on her handbag, on the inner cuff of her right glove, and on the pocket of her down-filled coat have names different than her own. But she can’t recall other faces, what other people look like, what other people do that is different than what she does: sit on a floating chunk of ice while seals follow alongside. Oh, and there are the seals. She knows what they are called. Each night one of them climbs onto the ice and snuggles against her, giving her the warmth of its body as she sleeps.
But she wonders, why is no one searching for me?
She also knows what a polar bear is. There is one that has followed her, trailing along from the bank of the icy river for as many days as she can remember, although she has no real idea how long she has been floating on the ice. Each night she carves a notch in the ice with a pair of fingernail clippers she keeps in her handbag to count the passing day, but in the morning the notch is gone. Time is meaningless. Her birth date is on her license but she has no idea what year it is, or even what month. The photograph on her license is of a young woman, pretty, but her age is indeterminate. When she looks at the reflection in the mirror in her compact she stares at in wonder, not seeing her face, only seeing a blank slate where all the things she doesn’t know about herself should be evident. She tries to fill in all the missing details of who she was or is, but other than what her identification tells her, she has no idea what other details there could be.
The days are filled with shielding her eyes from the bright glare of the sunlight reflected on the glacier walls and the glinting of twinkling light on the snow and ice. She travels through a glacial canyon with only enough bank on the right wall for the bear to walk along. She bends her neck back to stare up at the sky or lies on her back, her hands behind her head as pillows, and follows the ascent and descent of the sun and moon and the slow passing of the clouds.
At night, with a seal lying beside her, she looks up at the stars imaging the shapes of things she remembers but have no real meaning: animals, flowers, human contours. She has looked for an outline of her own body in the stars, but her body remains unseen and unknown, in the stars and on the ice.
The bob of seals that glide alongside the ice on which Sarah floats, take turns going beneath the water’s surface, reappearing a short time later, and toss salmon into her lap. Sarah understands death, without knowing why, but as the fish utter their last gasps of breath, she is filled with sadness. She scrapes their scales from their skin with an emery board and removes their fins with cuticle scissors. The raw meat of the fish is slightly sweet and satisfying. Water is plentiful, of course. She dips her hands into the freezing water, filling her palms, and pours it into her mouth. Afterward she blows her breath on her hands, rubs them together, and puts her gloves back on. It’s only her face that she has difficulty keeping warm. At times it feels as if her face is a frozen mask.
She is surrounded by sound. Wind whistles in a constant hum through the canyon. The seals splash the water with their tail fins, and bark, as if talking to one another, as if talking to her. The flowing current of the water sounds like the rustling of silk. Chunks of ice crash into one another sending off thudding echoes that resonate between the glacier walls. When a portion of a glacier wall falls into the river, it’s like the noise made by rumbling thunder, only more amplified.
When she dreams, she hears music, but the dreams are filled only with images of things she has seen while on the ice.
She wakes every sunrise thinking, why is no one searching for me?
When the polar bear plunges into the river, snatches one of the seals, and returns to the icy bank with the seal in its teeth, Sarah is at first shocked by the violence of the act, by the brutality of the killing. But other than a momentary excited frenzy, the other seals don’t react and don’t leave the sides of the ice on which she sits. However, now the bear seems closer, more threatening. After feeding on the seal the bear returns to its parallel position to where she is floating, following along as before, its huge body now seeming monstrous.
Sarah spreads the contents of her handbag onto the ice and counts them, as she has done several times before. There are twelve items, some that she has used since being on the ice, some that she hasn’t. She has a cellphone, but it’s dead and has no use. Of the items in her handbag, it’s the only one that’s of no use at all, but she has no memory of what it is anyway. It’s a slab of plastic, similar in shape to the ice she floats on. She knows what it’s called, but not what it’s used for. She holds it in her hands for several minutes, staring at its black screen, and then returns it to the other items, keeping it instead of throwing it into the water only because having possessions, even useless ones, feels like it adds importance to her existence on the ice.
In the night, a seal snuggled against her suddenly pulls away and slides into the water. Sarah sits up and sees lights on the river, growing larger and brighter as they draw nearer. The lights are mounted on a small boat that takes form and shape in the glow of its light and the ambient illumination of the moon and stars. She grabs her handbag and holds it close to her chest as the boat approaches. In the beam of one of the boat’s lights, she feels exposed, as if her clothes had been ripped from her body.
“Sarah Brighton?” a voice blares from a loud speaker aboard the boat.
She knows that’s her name. She’s known it all along. She places her hand on the ice on which she sits and for an instant has a slight memory of clinging to it after a fall. A fall from what?
A fall from that boat.
“We’ve been searching for you,” the voice from the boat, booms.