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Ice worms first start communing with me in Forlandsundet, a miles-deep sound north of the Greenland Sea. I don’t speak Norwegian, but I can parse: For. Land. Sun. It’s completely black outside. Det means “that or it.” Det, that’s easy, I’ve been one all my life.

The KV Svalbard is an icebreaker. From the foredeck, the rocky screes sweeping west are the planet’s emptiest place. No one between us and the North Pole.

Det,” I hear, “Oi Det.” I can’t locate the strange, oblong voice, more of a nose whistle. Near me? but not inside me. I soon give up.

Nonetheless, we’re packed in. Me, Captain Joachim, an interchangeable researcher or two with bins full of cables and gear. They’re hunting for annelids. A colleague’s Tinder date (a geologist) helped me temporarily escape Idaho’s lentil and Reddit zone. “And you’re here to write the eukaryotic goss!” The researchers bump me so much I’m sore. Mostly we drink pints of schnapps in the saloon-cum-dining room.

About me: extra bones in my back, a supernumerary nipple on my left milk line. I wear a simian paw. A few years ago, they cut out my navicular bone and tossed it in the trash. I’m still looking for it: small, gray. I’m a specialist at the largely defunct but still somehow funded Northern Idaho Somatic Institute (NISI). I’d say more but I’ve utterly forgotten how to make anything up.

I learn my role quickly, studying around the lopsided arctic clock. Mesenchytraeus solifugus, so far found only in the glaciers of North America, are earth’s largest in-ice organisms.

I keep going but drift. Search engines say men are 60 percent water, women less. This obsession with dividing means close to diddly, but it happens when googling. Now that I’m injecting hormones, have I upped my water content? If Captain Joachim tells me I look particularly dewy today, is that confirmation: #moremasc?

We plow on, glacier to glacier, creeping northward. After Forlandsundet, we lose internet signal completely except on the Sunair 9000 series HF. But the researchers don’t care what, only if I’m writing.

In the alluvial method I pull back into the sentence before the blank and then froth over the top like a little log, desperately hoping something small more might come. I’m a log but I’m also a river running over what I already made (I’m doing it now). I shouldn’t be telling you this but alluvial is the thing that gets left, or as Ginsberg described it: “You betray your final thought.” Here I am, caught midgesture. Writing, besides trying to orgasm, eating, breathing, is obviously the most embarrassing act.

North Idaho night. Hailing instead of snow—big slashy wet. Climate, amirite? Plus, hydrologists just found out there’s a whole lot less water in the glaciers, thus the world, than they thought. Hold the signal, I said, I’d like to call the clairvoyant.

“Less water is a problem?” I asked.

Oh yeah, she said, yeah.

I entered the Moscow climbing gym and stood there without touching the wall, waiting for a sign. I flexed a bit. The regular climbers moved around me. Size eleven shoes, sloppy socks, mask-murked glasses. They probably smelled that I’m terrified of heights.

At NISI, time rolled over me in suffocating waves. The dense and chemmy grain mounds. The occasional molar fogs. Somehow, I’d insisted on being here at all costs. I stood silo-still in front of the mirror again and again. I was changing, wasn’t I?

Anyway, “silo” wasn’t neutral. Just look at the one downtown. Mammoth and metal and you couldn’t get in or out. Crib notes from our uncoupling: if anything was missing from my interior, I was party to my own depredation. We’d been silos, you said.

Walking back to my car, I pressed my unused bicep, springier? “Ice-climbing experience necessary,” the not-so-red-carpet invitation email announced. I’d erased the rest of my inbox. Hail grew on the ground rapidly, like hair.

Later, alone in my granny unit on Lincoln, I signed into Continue to the archive, yes I am over eighteen. When asked: “goals, dreams?” a Butthead from Glendale, CA, lists: “having intercourse w the snow one winter” as his number one.

I’d been talking to the clairvoyant a lot. She said, Listen up: my guides are pelting me in the head with snowballs. Also, there’s an ugly rooster three inches below my pelvic bone with wattles on his face, I can converse with him if I want.

I don’t know how.

I guess he’s my genital line. My rebuttal: “Nudefart, nudesmack!”—an Aase Berg poem.

On KV Svalbard, October drains toward December. Tunabreen, Blomstrandbreen, Kongsvagen. We try them all.

Captain Joachim is restless—has pals to get back to in Copenhagen. He stands at the bridge spouting into the Sunair 9000 series HF, then whapping at us through the plate-glass windshields with his can of wintergreen snus.

Emotionally we need “a win.” The surface scrapings reveal squat, at least re: spoor. When I look at the size of the Grampianfjella ridge my aortic organs ache. “I can’t eat any more hotdog soup,” I say. New idea: lace to the glacier with crampons and ropes like usual, then shallow core for worms by whirring Chipmunk Drills into its bluish, mottled face.

Ice worm trivia from tonight’s cod-stick dinner: They live precariously near their thermal threshold. Five degrees colder they die. Touch them, they melt. No one answers my very basic questions: Do they talk? How do they get busy? Trivia ends when I knock my beer stein on the already-wet floor.

It’s been nighttime since lunch. Everyone takes the chance to step out for a “wild pee.” Fine, I’ll squat. And I’m wondering, Is the researcher squatting near me, their round shape semi bare and semi inviting—are they sort of waving their knees, trying to tell me something?

Our pee freezes up in a clump.

“This is an example of the alluvial method not working,” I say.

Back in the saloon I pass around napkins and lead us in a round of NISI-approved nondominant-hand writing. Captain Joachim has an immediate breakthrough, tears scampering down his face.

“Copenhagen,” he says.

I’m hot then I’m cold. I’m near my thermal limit, I must be. The researcher with the beard has one buttcheek on my lap. In Idaho, a talented trainee of mine wrote an invisibility ritual. They wanted to go to McDonald’s in drag as if it was 100 percent No Thing. The ritual went like this: say you’re invisible.

My nondominant side has entirely clammed up.

The sun rises later than ever, well past 10:00 a.m. I stage an uprising on deck. I yell some things. Maybe: “Down with drills!” Maybe: “Touch makes mush!” Maybe: “Ice worms unite!” As they lower the zodiac into the ice floe, the researchers tell me their work is important for climate politics. That glaciers and I aren’t linked, that glaciers don’t have (as I have, on more than one occasion, claimed) an ionic charge. They find the worms, zoop, everybody wins.

“Then what am I feeling?” I say. “About your big hot hands? Does zoop mean melted worm? Doesn’t anybody know?!”

I stay on board in my berth/coffin reading about internal deformation with my headlamp. It mostly goes over my head, except the description “parallel planes of crumpling,” caused when ice crystals under pressure slide over each other. I begin a hasty journal in cramped script, write:

Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home
I’m so cold, let me in your window
Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home
I’m so cold, let me in your window

Through my porthole, I hear the Chipmunk Drills zuzzzzzing across the fjord. At last night’s end, it wasn’t one but both researchers.

“Knock knock,” they said.

“Not so sure,” I said.

“We’re entering,” they said, and flopped torsos-first onto my minuscule bunk.

I tried to rearrange some things for their comfort, offer a pillow, but there was very little to arrange. Researcher One started: “We think you have some hang-ups,” they said. “In fact, we’ve witnessed quite a few. One, you can’t climb. Two, and this is clear as day, when I was squatting out there, anyone would have known I was wanting you to flirt at least a bit, maybe push open my thighs and look. That’s literally what an-neee-body would do.”

“And how about my buttcheek on your lap!” the other researcher said now from the shower, that’s how small my room is, but he’d stepped out of his midweight wool and was, under the weak stream, sudsing. “I couldn’t believe it!”

“What’s your water content anyway?” the first continued. “Fifty-six, 57 percent? Don’t worry, it’s science. Not 60 percent that’s for sure ...”

“Or maybe you’re just too far outside it to count?”

Me, to my mirror: “I can’t get into A-game genitals right now.”

Me, actually: “I can probably drink more H2O?” But they were comatose, which we all know means back-sleeping, on every inch of my bunk.

It’s 2:00 p.m. and the sun is crashing. I put on my eiderdown parka with the snorkel hood and tighten my borrowed Kamiks. I can’t shake this growing feeling that I am not in but am the landscape. At least the scale of remove. I climb the steel rungs to the bridge. I’m not supposed to touch the radio but there’s a dog musher Olaf? Teju?I met back in Longyearbyen. I need to tell them that I’m moving glacially. Glacially can be fast! There’s a glacier in Greenland that dumps out twelve thousand meters of water a year.

Another thing I would say: Yes, we got slushy on the rug during so-and-so’s post-glogg-shots-at-SvalBar slideshow of “this charismatic megafauna almost ate me, no, this one”—but pedal forward into sexual substantiation, the kind that’s more than just “we’re in our host’s snowmobile closet and I’m for five-seconds-unassailable at this or that body-tripling act,” and soon every detail will begin to corroborate the terrible story I know about myself, the one where I’m here and you reverse back into normal life unscathed.

Here being.

You being you.

The sky ombrés, then darks. It’s 3:00 p.m. The bridge smells like a lot of Captain Joachim. I stab at the buttons and dials randomly, listening for the zodiac’s plunging outboard, you’ve seen the Nat Geo shot.

I find it impossible to take any contours of my life seriously, as if they’re all 2-D, nonevents.

Hey Det,” a muffled woosh goes through the receiver, which is suddenly crackling. Same oblong voice, same conky whistle. “Det.”

“Do you have to call me that?” I say. I’m not usually so sensitive but things are building up.

You get it, Det. With all this drilling, we wanted to tell you. We’re in here, just deep.

“Gosh!” I shout, despite myself. I picture them in the thickest glacial moulins: neon, with giant spermatozoa-y heads. “Can you stick around? The researchers will be so . . .” I can’t quite find the words. “Now that we know you exist, we’ll cap the gases, lower the foot-print. . . . There’s a bunch of you, right? We’re going to need to collect . . .” My fatal flaw: sucking toward team energy indiscriminately. I’ve almost forgotten my earlier platform, “Ice Worms Unite!”

Yeah, Det, we’re good in here.

Is it me or is the boing in their voice now frostier? More tube-y? Less close?

“Is it like, melt, melt? What if we . . . you know . . . wear gloves?”

The Sunair HF gives a final seismic crackle, more like a skewer.

Det, fine, you can come on in if you need to. But we don’t want to come out.

We stay on anchor, floating under Tunabreen’s pocky shimmer. I’m not sure why everyone believes me given my erratic water content, but we rush to set up racks of floodlights and drill-shave-drill until every wave’s coated in hacked ice. I horizon-scan. Silos/bergs bobbing everywhere. They even try to get me up on the glacial wall, something about the signed contract that’s tucked into my ergonomic desk back at NISI.

“Contact them again!” they all say repeatedly, miming a giant phone call, bee bop beep, etc.

This goes on for days or hours. I’m not part of it, I’m trying to find something in a new hole in my parka pocket. The hole starts small, I keep sticking my finger in and pulling out more and more-necessary bits of dislodged fluff.

Contact, as Jodie Foster knows, being THE front-back-side-stomach-ass-entire issue.

That was winter, now winter in the Palouse persists. As I reenter my routines, I feel like what my Somatic colleagues call “bad Jenga.” I tuck myself farther in. The designation can’t easily be undone.

Something Captain Joachim said bothers me. Something about betrayer energy. But did you betray your final thought?

I go to the Moscow climbing gym so much that people start to recognize me. I’ve taken the free lessons and learned vocabulary like “On belay.” I work the balls of my feet. Puff cloudy chalk between my hands. Just by standing here in the vibes, I’m half expecting Popeye forearms.

It doesn’t seem like I’m ditching my assigned Somatic sections, just like I’m doing what’s necessary. I’m practicing what I tell my trainees: move intuitively, press yourself to things, achieve porosity.

There’s a rainbow-chipped tower rising sixty feet into the atrium. Climbers zing up and down in pairs.

“Pristine,” the climbers call it. The best in the region. I’m starting to have some questions about the region—what it entails.

Meanwhile I’m inching closer to the most basic bouldering wall. I call it: Tunabreen. Green arrows pointing down means start your hands here and only use the same green (lime/avocado?) holds. There are other greens but off-limits. I’m imagining myself in. Big breath. Sideways approach. Me, two feet off the mat. Clenching desperately at the yellow, red, all the greens, orange.

The truth is, when you shout across water you hope a shout rebounds.

Trying to describe it? I’ve been weeping for days.

You wouldn’t notice because it’s behind my face. I’m stuck in basics. Like how this morning the med tech at the center won’t refill my testosterone script no matter how I cajole or yell. “But we haven’t seen you in, um, three years,” he says. Captain Joachim’s wrong, I’m not trying to control everything. Alluvial’s not holding too tight, not pinching your poop. I’m a log AND the river! In a lab somewhere they shook ice with metal balls. They shook that ice “like crazy” until it became almost a water. Also, almost a glass.

“We shook the ice like crazy for a long time and destroyed the crystal structure,” they said.

The structure is now chaotic.

They squished it with a diamond anvil

 This (pulverized) amorphous ice is said to be the most abundant water in the universe.

Whatever we think we know about water will irrevocably change.

If I can get back to Forlandsundet, I won’t need to tell them this bc duh they know! I’ll brush only the tiniest air holes into the ice. I’ll give them what we all need, more than six feet. “The less I perform okayness, the less ok I am,” I’ll say.

I’m interrupted by a fuzzy-energied climber in bristling legs and a neon-purple harness. They’re mouthing words to me or chewing gum.

“Nuh,” I say, shocked by the grid of their nearness. They’re leaning in, tying the double figure eight to my low wattle.

I’m panicked, scanning mats for any other stag climber. Can’t you read my blank sweaty forehead?


But their moist thumbs are on their coifed rope and they’re already over, under, around, around.

“Bro, let me spot you?” they say. I seem to be climbing something.

“Take up the slack!” I say, from a height, as if these are words I know.

They hold my foot to the wall, my weak one. My peripheral nervous system surges. They’re cupping my climbing shoe that’s cupping my absent bone. I can’t remember when someone last. “I know what’s wrong but can’t fix it!” I say/yell. It’s getting so hot. There’s too much of them everywhere. Everywhere is anywhere. Even as my thermal limit’s collapsing I feel a flood of fresh subzero air. Zoop, it’s through my nose first, then me slushing out my eyes, then I’m a puddle on the floor.


PS. It’s not loneliness for you but pathos against a structure. For instance, rest stop stalls. For instance, ppl and their dumb vapes. In the alluvial method you push every word through your body. Which makes them always come out gmmmmnh like this.

—Thanks to Elizabeth Stark for the ritual
and Eliza Swann for the guides


This story appears in our spring 2023 issue, Conjunctions:80, Ways of Water.

Jess Arndt’s debut story collection, Large Animals (Catapult/Cipher), was shortlisted for the California Book Prize and their writing has recently appeared in Granta, LARB, and in performance collaborations with The Knife. They live on an island in Washington state and teach at the University of Idaho and Pacific Northwest College of the Arts.