Chapter 8: Lightstorm
When he awoke again, the sun had already gone down. Even though he was on Greenland-time sunrise and sunsets, somehow seeing the night sky made him feel like he had totally wasted his day. He had only about fifteen pictures, including his throwaways of the back seat, and one field injury to account for this side trip. His lack of productivity had left him feeling rather disappointed. In his dread he decided to see if Kate was coming up the rope yet.
After climbing out of the helicopter and looking down the hole, he realized he couldn’t see or hear her, and it occurred to him that he would be stuck there for an unknown amount of time while he waited. This made him nervous. By now he had gotten hungry and wished he hadn’t eaten that apple back at the wolves’ den. He checked around the helicopter for his lunchbox, but remembered that, in his haste that morning, he had forgotten to pack anything in it. In fact, the only reason he had the apple at all was because he had put it in his pocket a couple of days before and forgot to take it out when he didn’t eat it. Fortunately, he did find Kate’s lunchbox, but he didn’t feel right taking her food without asking.
After a few minutes of deliberating the state of his stomach, Jake decided he would at least see if she had packed something inside that she wouldn’t miss. When he opened her lunchbox, he discovered that it was empty. Immediately he thought that she must have come up for lunch while he was asleep. It would’ve been the only time she hadn’t wakened him all day.
Some immeasurable amount of time later, Jake sat exhausted with his legs draped across the helicopter seat, thinking about all the pints of Gatorade he had drunk during his Arizona years, when something unusual caught his attention. As he was fumbling around with his camera case strap and dwelling on the past, he noticed something glowing from the corner of his eye. He was oblivious to it at first—like the moon had finally risen over the horizon and was hardly worth scrambling to view—but as the ethereal glow got more intense, he noticed. When he looked up, he found a majority of the helicopter’s interior flooded with rhythmic color patterns.
He took one quick glance out the window to see what was causing it. As he stared through the snow-covered glass, he discovered fluctuating green and yellow lights waving ominously in the sky. Within moments red and white hues gradually added to the spectrum. The image sort of impressed him because he couldn’t see anything like that back home, but now that he was paying close attention, he realized he had already seen it every other night since coming to this freezing nightmare of a place, so it had gotten less impressive. There had been a number of occasions when he thought about taking a picture of the natural phenomenon, mostly to keep for his own personal photo collection, or to give it to Kate for her calendar. But, he just didn’t think he would appreciate it down the road, and Kate had already taken about ten pictures of it, so he really couldn’t develop enough nerve to take the shots. He went back to staring at his feet instead.
Just as his eyelids began to drape shut, Jake noticed his body tingling and the world around him growing brighter. At first, he dismissed the occurrence as nothing more than a shift in atmospheric pressure, squeezing the life out of the Aurora Borealis before it concluded its show for the evening, and his body, especially his legs, reacting accordingly. But, as the light continued to grow brighter and brighter, he figured it was begging for his attention one last time.
He wanted to ignore it because he was getting very tired, but as the cabin’s illumination continued to intensify, he realized that closing his eyes wouldn’t have been enough to darken the world and let him sleep. So, he peered out the window again to watch the great light show and appease it of its neediness.
Only, something in the atmosphere had changed. Drastically. He wasn’t looking at the Aurora Borealis anymore, not exclusively at any rate. What he saw was a transformation of everything he had expected to see. And that was the only thing his brain could register for nearly a minute.
After a long stretch of blank thought, Jake finally caught wind of what he was watching. Only, he had no idea quite how to describe it to himself. His mind was struggling to process the reality.
His mouth sprang open in sheer confusion, while his eyes transfixed to the lighted sky in complete wonder.
As the first flecks of drool began to trickle out of his mouth, he found himself clutching his camera case tightly between his fingers, ready to pry his device free from its confines.
As he felt his index finger picking the latch that kept his carrying case closed, he found his free hand slowly working its way to the door handle.
Once he managed to pop his camera case lid open, he pushed his way outside to get a better look at the sight above him.
Deep down he knew he was feeling pain and tingling in his legs, but that didn’t keep him from setting foot to the snow outside. If he had been paying attention to his senses, he would’ve known that his boots sank about three inches into the ice below him. But, he wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t even know if his boots had sunk even a single inch. The world above him wouldn’t give him that opportunity to figure it out. The world above him was wrestling with the ice below to stake a monopoly on his focus. The world above him was not about to release him from his mesmerized state. It had barely allowed room for him to even remember that his camera was ready for action.
It was almost as if something had exploded in the heavens, but vastly and quietly. He wanted to convince himself that the show in the sky was the equivalent to nature’s Fourth of July, only he couldn’t. Nothing about what his eyes were discovering could equate to a mere fireworks show. The lights above rained down from the atmosphere in droves, filling the sky from one edge of the horizon to the other. Only, the effects it produced were much more complicated than what his brain could unravel. If it had been merely a matter of filling the sky with falling lights, he probably could have made sense of it. After all, the Aurora Borealis had been delivering a similar effect all these nights before. The problem was that whatever was happening at this moment, it had nothing to do with the Aurora Borealis. Something unearthly was lighting up the night.
Jake wanted to convince himself that the event befalling him was one of those Arctic things that occurred often, but not nightly. He wanted to assume that what he was seeing was not unique, but just a product of nature that had yet to introduce itself to him. Knowing that this sort of thing happened all the time would’ve made accepting its reality a lot easier.
But, as he continued to watch these unusual lights drop slowly from the heavens, he decided that maybe he would’ve been happier if it was unique. Maybe he would’ve been more satisfied believing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. If he had been the only person to witness such a spectacle, then the fact that he was out here to see it at all would’ve made him doubly unique. In either case, it was something worth capturing on film.
The problem, however, was that the lights alone were not enough to mesmerize him. If it had been only about the lights, then he would’ve had his camera aimed and focused by now. The problem—the whole reason why he had trouble comprehending the sight to begin with—was that the raining kaleidoscope did not consist of the colors of the Aurora Borealis. The “Lightstorm,” as he knew he would one day remember it, did not carry the deep rich hues of a standard fireworks show. If it had been the least bit identifiable to anything he had witnessed before, then the spectacle would have gotten him on his feet at a much more reasonable pace.
The issue was that the rain of lights refracted a spectrum of colors that he had never seen before. Where this spectrum came from, or why he was able to see it—those were the things he could not describe. The colors he saw—they had no name. Even if he knew exactly what his eyes had been witnessing for the last couple of minutes, he wouldn’t have begun to understand for a second how to explain it. For that he felt his head tensing up.
After another moment of trying to rationalize the state of his vision, he finally realized that it defied his efforts at sensibility. The only way he would have a chance to reason the situation was to think about it after it had finished. But then he faced the problem of convincing himself that he had actually seen what was happening. Something like this wasn’t bound to repeat in his presence again. The fact was, if he didn’t start taking pictures now, there was no way he would ever prove to himself, or to anyone, later that he had truly seen what he was seeing now. So, with that thought in mind, he finally detached himself from his mesmerized state long enough to prime his camera ready for action.
His brain still felt a bit unhinged when he found the kaleidoscopic Lightstorm centered within his lens. He knew that capturing the image would’ve required only a quick and easy stroke of his fingertip, but his lack of ingenuity in that moment prevented him from finding the shutter button. The button had never given him problems before, even when he had found himself hunted by a snarling polar bear, so to lose sight of it now was indeed frustrating to him.
Jake also found his knees shaking in the midst of all the madness. He didn’t quite notice his tremors before because his lack of sense and reason had encompassed all areas of his mind. But now his slow return to consciousness gave him room to notice these things again. As he carefully lowered his knees to the ground, he anchored himself steadily to get a firmer angle at the sky. When he found his knees shaking even more violently, and the pain in his wounded leg vanishing by the second, he reverted to a horizontal position backwards in the snow. At that point he remembered where his camera’s shutter release was located.
Lying with his back flat against the ice, Jake affixed his gaze toward the heavens. The cosmic lights continued to fall through the wavy curtain of the Aurora Borealis, but this time something different started to happen. Up until now, Jake hadn’t paid attention to the storm’s traveling distance. For the last few minutes, he had seen only descending lights that cluttered the sky. It had never occurred to him that they had a disintegration point. As he aimed his camera upward, he gave notice to the fact that the storm fell only so far.
Having an endpoint meant having an end, and Jake realized in that moment that the storm would not last forever. If he was to eternally immortalize this unworldly occurrence, he had to do it now, while he still had a chance. Waiting another moment brought risk to the table that the world might miss out on seeing it for itself. He realized he was blessed to see it because he was the one lying in the ice with a camera in his hand. Capturing it on film was essential. Everything else on his plate could wait.
Without further hesitation, he fired off a rapid volley of snapshots to ensure the preservation of this moment forever. One shot after another, he strummed the button as if it were a musical instrument desperately trying to wow its audience. The clicks and whirs to accompany the shots contributed to the melodic score. Each mechanical note rose and fell with a pitch of fine splendor, delighting the artist’s ears effectively. When he finished off his existing roll, he fumbled around in his camera case frantically for another one to complete his masterful symphony.
Only, there wasn’t another roll available. In his utter contempt for this journey, Jake had left all of his remaining rolls of film back at the Igloo Hotel, along with his missing lunch. As he suddenly lurched to an upright position, pointlessly dumping his empty camera case upside down, his heart began to panic. He knew he needed more.
Even though he was drawn deeply to the spectacle above, he realized he had to temporarily detach himself from it if he were to successfully preserve the storm in its full volume. His mind scrambled for an answer, but the only thing that came to him was the need to search the helicopter for a few spare rolls. Realistically, it was the only thing to make any sense. Daring to take his eyes off the sky for just a moment, he quickly jumped to his feet and bolted for the open cabin, diving inside to see if either he or Kate had left anything in the seats. And in that moment he realized something even more drastic was happening than him lacking film: Kate was missing the show.
Of all the pictures she could have taken, this miracle moment would’ve topped them all. All the floating ice and scenic mountains in the world could not have reached the magnitude that the Lightstorm had offered. To witness this moment would have been like witnessing the birth of the planet. And Kate was nowhere around to experience it. She was missing out on the greatest photo opportunity of her life. All because she wanted to take pictures of underground rivers.
In his haste to show her this amazement, Jake, now completely free of the pain in his leg, made a mad dash for the hole and peeked over the rim to see if she was coming up the ropes. Unfortunately, all he saw was darkness. He clutched the edge with all his might, trying desperately to focus his sights toward the bottom. But even with the assistance of the exploding lights, he couldn’t see far enough down.
“Kate,” he yelled into the icy abyss, “where are you?”
Silence followed his echoing shout.
“Kate,” he shouted again, this time with every ounce of breath he had. “Kate!”
As he waited restlessly for a response, he noticed the brightness of the illuminated sky gradually fading. He carefully, but dreadfully rolled over on his back to catch another glimpse of the falling Lightstorm. Only this time, the sheer magnitude of its size began to diminish. Jake felt his beating heart slow to a crawl.
Slowly, clump after clump of the falling particles disintegrated and vanished from sight. As the colorful waves of the Aurora Borealis continued to flicker softly, the ocean of unearthly lights weakened in strength. The unusual colors gradually transformed into a familiar white, and then slowly burned out.
“Kate,” Jake shouted again, only this time with a defeated lack of fervor.
A moment later, the last squall of the Lightstorm sputtered from the darkened heavens and vanished halfway to earth from existence. As the final particle transformed to ash, Jake stared motionlessly at the empty sky and waited. For the first time in nearly ten minutes, he remembered what it was like to feel cold.