By Nur Nasreen Ibrahim
She has pockmarks blooming across her surface. Blotches of grey, brown and black interrupt the creamy white. She has melted at an astonishing rate.
We stand on damp grass, surrounded by the skeletons of trees that were once trapped under the glacier. I’m accompanying the only group of scientists the army has permitted to explore this territory because of its proximity to the border and the proliferation of military bases around the villages.
Dead trees poke through the glacial deposits, their bare branches reaching. An old desperation takes hold of me. Perhaps it’s the emptiness, once teeming with tourists, now streaked with wires and fences. Perhaps it is the endless whisper of wind rushing through the destroyed trees obscuring the sounds of doors slamming in my face, dead-end jobs, endless failures.
The army usually doesn’t like our types poking around. Two years ago, most local reporters were laid off. Then international outlets said they could no longer could afford us. Last year, finally, I procured a government grant. I came back here, despite everything, even as the villagers grumbled at our intrusion, the army grumbled at everyone, and the mountains, earth, sky resisted our attempts to play with statistics, timelines, predictions.
I’ve imagined the story I will write. The military as villain, a group of struggling scientists fighting bureaucracy and empty coffers to save a village, the villagers as victims. I have no place in this dispatch, but Khadija does. She stands tall and silent above me, her eyes focused on the glacier, shoulders pulled back, muscles taut. Light bounces off the snow, off her short hair which shimmers like a black hole in the middle of the sun.
We only encounter a smattering of fog this morning. My boots cling firmly to the rocks. Mansoor, our guide, gives me a stick.
“Zohra, the stick goes in the space between rocks,” Khadija said when we first met. She was the geologist in charge on our first journey here. We met on a rickety ATR-42, ten years ago. Back then, the only route here was on a flight from Islamabad. The small plane rocked against the winds and squeezed between peaks to rest on a small yellow strip surrounded by hulking mountains that stretched like reclining giants.
Like the other scientists in the group, she found me irritating. But I was eager and insistent, and I attached myself to her: observed her work, followed her. She tolerated me.
Until one day, two years into our observations, I returned for a brief trip to their base camp. We found ourselves alone early in the morning, staring at the streaks of red and blue rock around us.
“I am always amazed at how quickly time goes for us, but in relation to these mountains, our lives last less than a second,” she said. She had deep lines around her eyes, deeper than her years.
“Why did you become a geologist?” I was curious about this severe woman who regarded me with indifference for so long.
“The same reason you became a journalist, I suppose,” she said. Her expression transformed like she had discovered something new.
“These rocks are a record of time. I think I’m trying to tell time.” She said.
“How can you describe everything these mountains have seen? All the millennia of stories...it’s impossible.”
“We must try,” she spoke to the mountains. “All of it, everything must be recorded, protected, just in case.”
I should have asked: “Just in case of what?”
Now, ten years later, the army has built a massive highway cutting through the terrain. They say they’re here to protect the village from—and the excuses are pretty good—floods, even earthquakes. One took place only five years ago.
The glacier is shining against the dark mountain, like a bolt of lightning. I have to catch my breath. My lungs tighten and the village recedes behind us. With a click and whirr, Mustafa’s drone comes alive and flies over our heads. It sticks out against the patches of white like a mosquito over the back of a sick polar bear.
A glacier that had been evolving for centuries suddenly, in a few years, melted faster than she replenished. Khadija and Mustafa seemed shaken. They’d spent their adult lives alongside these mountains. The foundation of their work was disappearing.
Khadija unpacks her bags, pulls out the tent poles. She is in her fifties but her ability to rapidly ascend the mountain remains unparalleled. She has a brisk way about her, but this year she fumbles with the knots, drops the pegs. Her hands frequently shake. I reach for a small hammer left on the ground, and begin to ram the peg into the mound.
A steady flow of water runs out under the glacier, past us and between the crevasse that leads to the river.
“We don’t have long before she is gone for good,” she says.
“Is that likely?”
“Are dead birds falling from the sky likely? But they are.”
We’d learned that the tankers at the base of the mountain, where the villagers gathered water from, were contaminated with dead birds dropping from the sky. I picture round-bodied warblers, dark blue crows, red-headed woodpeckers, all falling around us, their wings quivering above their bodies, their beady eyes reflecting blue.
“I keep remembering the first image I ever had of mountains,” Khadija says.
“Describe it to me.”
“My Islamiat teacher. Total apocalyptic blowhard. Always going on about how homosexuality would cause the end of times. Probably why I’m an atheist. But one description in the Quran stuck with me: on judgment day, the mountains will become like carded wool.”
I stifle a laugh. “You think that’s possible?”
“I didn’t once. Now I wonder.” She looks directly at me, her sharp eyes flicker and she stares at her hands that are holding the canvas. She blinks once, or twice, and then closes her eyes.
“Khadija? Are you alright?” I take her hand.
“What is this?”
“Ah yes. Yes.” She shakes her head and bends down over it.
I set up my own tent. Tomorrow, I’ll return to the base of the mountain, after observing the first assessments of the glacier’s movements, to conduct interviews in the village. Everyone else, including Mansoor and the other three scientists, Mustafa, Taufiq, and Arshad, will be here for a few weeks, taking photos, measuring the water leaving through the river, monitoring daily temperatures.
We get drunk on moonshine as night falls. Mustafa leans into me. Taufiq and Arshad, the closet conservatives, avert their eyes, and avoid drinking. Mansoor, barely old enough to shave, revels in being away from his family in the village, and gleefully pours the moonshine which he procures for us every year. Each trip, Mustafa grows more comfortable with me, bolstered by his drink.
“There are rumors,” Mustafa slurs, “that the army hides weapons under these mountains.”
“Stupid of them,” I say. “Right next to the border?”
“They are trying to make the glacial reservoirs burst and flood the valley. Then they can create more nuclear weapons facilities once everyone clears out.”
“Worried? No one will expose your precious army. And if they did, who would believe them?”
“My precious army?”
“Who’s paying for you to be here and write nice things?”
“The government is.”
Mustafa leans back, pulls a joint and match from his pocket. Khadija sighs and he lights up and takes a long drag, his reddened eyes stare at the stars that blink balefully down at us.
In the city, I used to cough all day, and wait all night for an email from Khadija, hoping to join her on the next expedition. My lungs cleared up the closer I got to the mountains.
I take photographs in the morning light, as I try to spot the source of the silver stream of water. The scientists carry meteorological stations around the glacier. They set one up at the bottom and then at the top, where the air is thinnest and the ice thickest. They will measure temperature, humidity, and radiation levels on a daily basis. Taufiq sets up a gauge in the stream. It protrudes like television antennae.
“Look,” Mansoor points to a series of dark holes at the base of the glacier. “A few years ago these were in ice. Imagine what could be frozen there after hundreds of years.”
“What if it’s an alien spaceship?” asks Mustafa.
Mansoor snickers. Khadija ignores them both. Mustafa is slow and marvels over aesthetics, pointing out the rock formations around us. Khadija is efficient, clinical, to-the-point, a characteristic she gets from managing men.
They insert bamboo stakes into the glacier’s surface to measure her mass. This will warrant another trip in a few months.
In the afternoon, I trudge halfway down the mountain. I have interviews with a farmer, and a bureaucrat. The narrow pathway has space for only one person. The edge of the path is a sheer drop down to a thin river with silver sediment glinting against the sunlight.
At first, I do not see the men in fatigues. I hear a laugh and turn, pressing myself against the rocky cliff.
“Madam, how are you?” one of them is younger, clean shaven, his heavy lidded eyes look sleepy but alert.
“Are you part of the team that arrived yesterday?” says the other, a bearded man with his military cap on. “Do you have your ID?”
I hand it over and watch the younger man, as the bearded man brings my card up to his face.
“Zohra Aslam,” he says. “We are here to help you.”
“I am fine, thank you. I have interviews today—”
“Yes, we know,” the younger man says. “We have postponed them. Will accompany you back to the glacier. These days it isn’t safe.”
I remember Mustafa’s drunken rambling. “I’ve been visiting for years. I don’t need your help.”
“Madam, we’ve been here longer than you, setting up roads, building pipes. There may be dangerous infiltrators.”
“Who are you?” I am irritated.
“Apologies. I am Captain Safdar, and this is Captain Mushtaq,” the young man gestures toward his colleague.
“Why weren’t you escorting us yesterday, if you are so concerned for our safety?”
Captain Safdar grins and shifts his feet. “Madam, we are stretched thin. Half our guys are at the border, some in the village, and the few left are tracking visitors. Your team arrived outside schedule, so we must have missed you.”
I stop listening and turn on my heel. There is no point wasting time. We climb back in sullen silence.
“Madam, have I offended you?” Safdar asks.
“You people exist to create problems for us. How do you expect any work to get done if you intrude?”
He laughs. “You take money from us, and yet you complain? All you people do is criticize our development efforts.” His tone drops an octave.
A plaintive Punjabi love song, presumably from Mansoor’s cell phone, floats down toward us. We step over smooth rocks and my stick slips on the surface. My foot slides and I cry out as I fall. I feel a tight grip on my arm, and Safdar pulls me back. My face is hot and shame bubbles up somewhere in my stomach. A weakness that will not go away, another barrier I am unable to cross.
“Zohra?” Khadija’s voice emerges from above.
“We have guests!” I shout.
Khadija’s stoic demeanor transforms into cold fury with the arrival of the officers. They look through the equipment, question each person individually.
“You couldn’t have made something up? Told them we decided to leave yesterday?” she hissed.
“Khadija, what could I have done? They were on their way! There aren’t many routes to the glacier.”
“You didn’t have to take their money!” she says angrily. Safdar looks at us, his eyes narrowed.
“I have to work too. I have a career.”
“What career? You haven’t written anything in a year.” Something in her face has twisted.
How many ways can a face we think we know completely surprise us?
“That’s not fair,” I say.
“The only people who would hire you are the ones who need propaganda.”
My eyes sting. She turns away to stop Mushtaq from digging further through our food supply.
The day settles into evening. Safdar and Mushtaq seem intent on keeping us in their line of sight. Khadija stares at her charts against the flicker of a battery-powered lamp with razor focus. She has always been anchored by her work, but this has put her off balance.
Here we are: a day into recording the changes in her. The interlopers look through every pipe, each scanner and laptop, and even pull out the bamboo stakes.
They break apart Khadija’s equipment and I feel satisfaction. I would have alerted her but she has been lying in her tent all day. Captain Safdar watches me as I stand with Mustafa at the base of the glacier, under the station. Mustafa reads the thermometer and the anemometer. Safdar climbs up the grassy mound.
“Can we help you, Captain?” Mustafa says, with exaggerated formality.
“Yes, you can bring that machine down here, where we can check it.”
Mustafa is panicked. “We can’t. We would lose a day’s worth of data.”
“Do as we say, or your permit is gone. Get others up here, and dismantle it.”
“It will take another day to put this back. Sorry, Captain.” Mustafa steps away from the station and starts sliding down the slope.
I hear a click, flash of metal blinds me. Safdar has pulled out a gun. “Sir, we’ve been patient. Please cooperate.”
Everyone stands still. Khadija is climbing out of her tent, far below us.
“Okay, let’s calm down,” I say. “Mustafa, just take off the thermometer…”
“We have to analyze it all together!”
“You can set it up tomorrow.”
“No!” Before I can react, a bang rings over the mountains. Safdar’s gun jerks, and the antenna on the station flies off. Khadija is shouting. I smell something burning, and Mustafa has fallen face-forward, his hands shielding his head.
“Bring it down,” Safdar says, sounding bored.
“You idiots!” Khadija shouts from below as she clambers up the hill.
“All we ask is that you listen to us. These are matters of national security,” Safdar shouts.
“It’s a fucking weather monitor!” Mustafa sits up.
Safdar points the gun at him.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Khadija’s mouth is a big, red O, her short hair is scattered over her forehead. Almost as quickly as she ran up to us, her face transforms into wide-eyed confusion.
“What are you even doing here?” but she looks at me as she speaks.
“Khadija, what do you mean?” I glance around at Mustafa who stares back at her, his mouth open.
“Where is she?” Khadija gestures towards the glacier. “Where did she go? How long has this been happening?”
I don’t speak to anyone for the next two days. Khadija’s hands shake every time Safdar barks out an instruction. One station is broken and dismantled, and Mustafa tries to salvage some data.
“She didn’t tell me about her condition,” he whispered to me.
“What are we supposed to do? They aren’t going to let us stay after learning about this!”
She is back at her charts, muttering over them, as I give her some tea. She is back to her old self, for now.
“Zohra, I didn’t mean what I said.”
“I can’t concentrate with this fog in my head.”
“I can help you.”
“Each time I look at her, she is different. Disintegrating before my eyes.”
“There is an entire range of glaciers out here waiting for your help.”
“She was the first.”
She keeps shaking her head, pressing her palms into her cheeks. I have never seen Khadija outside of these mountains. She always kept to herself in the city and found an excuse to come back when she could. I imagine a little creature crawling through her mind, crushing old memories, settling on these mountain ranges holding her soul in place and dissolving them.
I decide to trek up the glacier myself for a little privacy. If I have to conduct interviews under their supervision, so be it. I cannot sit around anymore. My notes are a mishmash of data.
A pocket of water from the glacier is trapped in one of the mountain’s side valleys. It could overflow and flood portions of farmland, but the flooding will likely be interrupted by the terraces and walls built at the mountain base. The drone captured an image of what looked like a strong flow of water from the left side, but we have not tried to climb there yet.
I climb north, stabbing the ground and crawling upwards. After half an hour, I turn around and see small specks of red, blue and green tents with ant-like figures moving around.
“What are you doing up here?” Captain Safdar has appeared.
“Looking for a stream,” I say. A powdery stretch of snow, dividing blue ice from the muddy-grey, catches my eye. Safdar is standing a few feet below me, his feet dug between jagged rocks.
“I think you are only following orders,” I say. “But there is no agenda here. I was vetted thoroughly by the government.”
I move to his left, my feet slanted, my boots gripping the rocks.
“We can’t be sure these days. And who knows what you end up writing?”
A slow realization dawns. “Do you even intend to let me write?”
“Yes. From the safety of your home. Tonight we are going to pack up, considering the state of your team leader. And nothing is getting done.”
I stand in front of him. He is bigger and stronger than me, but the glacier is stronger than both of us.
I let my foot slip and I fall into him. His body hits the powdery snow behind that collapses into a moulin and dips into darkness. I taste blood in my mouth, and feel a sharp pain shoot through my hands. Ice has cut through my gloves. I manage to grasp a thin protrusion inside the crevasse. A stream of red trickles from under my fingers and over the slick, slippery ice. Any second now, it could crack and send me down.
The opening is narrow, and Safdar is wedged in between sheets of ice, his body blocking the darkness. I hear a faint sound of rushing water, flowing through the tunnel below. We have found the stream.
“Look at what you did!” Safdar screams up. “I can’t reach my radio!”
“Try pulling yourself! Use your feet and press your back against the ice,” I shout. I can barely breathe. I try to move upward, toward the rock, but I hear a cracking sound.
Hands grasp my shoulders. Khadija looks down at me. I gratefully loosen my grip. She shivers as I pull myself onto the sloping rock and cling to it. My breath emerges in small bursts.
“You!” Safdar is still shouting. “Get some help! Do you have a cord?”
Khadija leans over and looks down. “Don’t worry!”
“This ice is cracking!” His reedy voice grows frantic.
Khadija turns to look at me and picks up a rock. “It seems you found the direction of the melt. Did you know about the moulin?”
“I noticed it as I got up here.”
“Good eye. Let’s get some help.”
“We shouldn’t leave him.”
“I can try screaming for help, but they won’t hear us.” Her face is transforming, her eyes are losing focus again.
“Did he attack you?” she says. “I saw you fall. Did he hurt you?”
“Not yet.” I begin to understand her. “He was about to. He threatened to shut down our project.”
“We can’t let him do that. We’ve worked too long and hard.” She is shaking, her hands grip the rock tightly. We both stand on the precipice, a small part of me wants her to go over first.
I look below us and the fog has obscured the base of the glacier. We are no longer visible. All around, this imperfect white waits silently for the smallest push.
“This is a stupid idea,” I begin to say and then I pause. “But he was threatening me, he had his gun with him. I was scared.”
This is a new Khadija, a silly, infirm, weak Khadija who stands there blinking, her legs braced between two icy mounds, her slightly wrinkled hands shaking with the strain of holding up this rock.
“Isn’t she perfect?” She gestures toward the desolate, dirty glacier. “It’s like we are at the beginning of everything.” Her mind seems to be transforming the glacier and for a brief moment I can see her renew before me.
“But she’s dying.” Khadija says, and the moment passes.
We hear a scream and a scrabbling sound. I look over; Safdar stares back at me, his eyes filled with tears.
“Bitch!” he spits out.
Khadija flings the rock. It strikes its target with a crunch. His fingers loosen, body slackens, and slowly at first, then quickly, he is pulled down and swallowed in the darkness and rushing water.
“I saved you and could not get him in time. We had no choice.” Khadija’s voice breaks.
“Yes, we didn’t,” I search her face for some indication of the old Khadija, the one who thought every step through.
“Even the army can’t take on a mountain,” she says, turning back.
She will spit up the body in the valley. It will be black and blue, mouth open and fingers fallen or ripped off. She felt him tugging away, struggling and then growing still. She will wait just a while longer.
They will be swallowed up first, the silly scientist with the drone, the one who prods and pokes her, the guide, the journalist. She will eat the ugly fences and men in uniforms. She will take her last, the scientist who gave up her memories.
Abeer Hoque talks to Nur Nasreen Ibrahim about “The Death of a Glacier.”
Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a television producer by day and a writer by night. Originally from Pakistan, she is currently based in the United States. She was a twice-nominated finalist for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Specter Magazine, Platypus Press, The Aleph Review, and in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Hachette India). Her work is also forthcoming in Salmagundi Magazine. She has written essays and reviews for Catapult, The Millions, Barrelhouse, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @Nuri_ibrahim.
Seyhr Qayum is an American-Pakistani visual artist, who currently lives and works in Islamabad, Pakistan. She holds a BFA in Painting from Boston University, and has a diverse studio practice, ranging from making largescale oil paintings – a combination of representational and abstract visuals – to creating mixed media installations. Her work centers on female identity and empowerment in South Asia. Seyhr has exhibited her art internationally, including in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Along with her studio practice, she is a freelance graphic designer, who with a keen interest in filmmaking, has also worked as a production designer for short, independent films in Pakistan. She frequently writes and contributes articles to various publications exploring select aspects of the art world. You can find her work at seyhrqayum.com, and on Instagram @seyhr.qayum.