I found myself in an industrial facility in the far North, near the Arctic Circle. It was a vast installation of steel beams, steaming pipes, and concrete tanks built on the icy shore of a dark waterway. It was a station that had been established to keep the passage clear of ice for the ships passing through. I went down to the water and watched the ships go by. They chugged along against the smoldering red glow on the horizon, and I could see the cranes and claws and machinery hauling the ice floes out of their path. It was an awesome, massive operation, slow and methodical, an automated process neglected at the end of the Earth, moving through its ceaseless cycles in the eternal twilight, somewhere far, far, away from the living world.
The facility itself was a labyrinth of cold steel and rust. I wandered through it trying to see if there was anyone else around. The snow crunched under my feet and more flakes swirled in out of the dark, carried on a biting wind. I called out and heard my voice reverberate off the tanks. I was about to mount a flight of metal stairs when someone emerged from the shadows beneath it. It was large woman, much taller and broader than me, and she had on a thick parka with a fur-lined hood. She told me that she was the only one that worked at this facility. She ran it all herself, tightening valves, checking gauges, keeping all of the machinery fueled.
She explained that the passing ships never docked there, but she would sometimes have brief contact with them over the radio and she could hail them out there on the water with a flashing beacon and they would respond with a low bellow of their horn. That was all the human contact that she had. Even the occasional supplies that were brought to her were loaded onto a pallet and attached to one of the cranes by a hook and lifted right off the deck of the passing ship without the ship stopping or dropping anchor. There was just that half hour of radio contact with the captain and then he would chug off again into the darkness and the static.
I asked her if she had things here to keep herself occupied. She nodded abruptly and she said that she did, but I could see that she was lying. I could see that she hadn’t been prepared for the loneliness and the cold. She couldn’t have fathomed it beforehand. She had brought nothing with her. I could see that she slept there under the stairwell, under the light of a single bulb shining somewhere far above, casting the long deep shadows that were all around us. She slept there on the ground with her coat pulled tight around her against the cold. I could see that that was all she had. There was a twitch at the corner of her mouth. She was getting to where she couldn’t take it anymore.
So I decided to start bringing her things. I brought her a music box the first time I came back, and the second time I brought some hardback books. I never thought to ask her what she might want or need. I’m not sure that she would have admitted to wanting or needing anything. But she thanked me for everything that I brought and I saw the warmth returning to her face and her eyes. I brought her a large book about the history of art, illustrated with pictures of famous paintings. I brought her a hand knitted blanket. I brought random photographs and postcards. I brought records and a record player. I brought anything that I could carry in my hands that I thought might brighten her life a little.
One day I brought her a coffee maker and a can of coffee, and she insisted that we have a cup of coffee together. She took me to a little apartment that she had made for herself in the lower decks of the facility. She wasn’t sleeping in the dark stairwell anymore. The door to the apartment was a metal hatch, but it was surprisingly homey inside. It was warm and she was able to take off her coat. I looked around at the books on the shelves and the little lamp with the stained glass shade by the chair and the picture frames propped up on the table under the lamp. I heard the music coming from the record player, the soothing play of the piano keys. I saw the lit candle mounted on the wall. I hadn’t realized that it had all amounted to this, that I had brought all this one piece at a time. There was a porthole window at the far end of the room and I could see the ships passing out there on the water against the red horizon.