Your mother dangles you, a 4-month-old, feet first in a fast-flowing north-Canterbury river. The water, a gushing bridal veil dyed auburn with leaf-litter, comes from the Rolleston glacier and is barely above freezing. It tugs at your frog-like legs. You laugh and laugh.
You live in a flat inland town where snow settles in the winter, looked over by a mountain range that takes the form of Sleeping Beauty, who in winter slumbers beneath a white shroud. The Narnians in your storybook wait for God to come in the form of a lion, thaw their frozen kingdom and kill the witch who made it cold. But not you. On snow days you and your sisters listen to the radio, shushing each other not to miss a word; race up and down the hall; find scraps of old board with which to toboggan down public hillsides.
When there is thunder, you run into your parents' room while the sky cracks its whip. In the fields, where there is nothing tall to divert the current, people have been struck. You imagine them lit up, leaping, now vessels for power, now dead or miraculously unscathed. Your parents' duvet is as white and puffy as good snow, and your mother tells the story of Bad Jelly the Witch, doing all the voices and being the witch, saying, "Just step inside this nice sack and you'll be nice and warm." The witch is going to make the children into sausages and they'll have to escape on the back of Jim the eagle, which is all you want – to fly from a tower on the strong back of an eagle into the crisp unknown.
At 8, you move to a new city, where the weather changes several times a day and you are told to dress for all possibilities, like a witch in drapes of black merino layers, easy to add or remove at short notice. It's hard to keep yourself so hidden and so prepared, so you teach yourself a trick: you decide the weather you want it to be and dress accordingly. Now, if you dress in shorts, no amount of bitter wind could convince you to feel discomfort. You learn to relax into the cold, to un-tense your muscles one by one, to become cold-blooded.
On colder days, you and your sisters have the beach to yourselves. You swim on the wild side where the rips form and you dig your feet into the sand to withstand being pulled out to sea. It's better that way. "Once you're in, it's so nice," you say, but no one believes, who doesn't already know. When you are numb you are invincible. You ride waves into the shore and stagger to your feet before the force of the retreating wave grinds you into the sand. You run along the beach in winter and command the waves to stop at your feet. There is a thunderstorm when you are camping so you go outside and dance, and then you go to the river to swim.
As you grow older, people say you are hard to read. You seem "uninterested", even when you insist you are interested. You don't show the expected emotions – you're cold. Aloof, they say. Which means "cold and distant", but originally meant "away and windward", back when it was a nautical term, a direction for a ship to press out to sea, its head kept in toward the wind, away from a lee shore, where it might flounder. You like to think of yourself as windward.
You want to be like Elsa from Frozen, creating ice-palaces with a flick of her hands. You start with ice marbles, and you learn to carve sculptures, ice headdresses, igloos, houses, palaces, self-portraits. People see themselves in your sculptures and they tear up. They still say you are hard to read.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
One day you win an award for your ice sculptures. "You must be so thrilled," says an acquaintance. You agree you are, but you don't appear thrilled to them.
"Don't you experience those emotions?" the acquaintance asks jokingly.
"Not full-time," you reply. You were thrilled in a more immediate sense when you found out about the award, and now you are thrilled in a theoretical sense. You don't revert to the same excitement you first felt every time it is mentioned. You don't know how to summon the emotion on request as people seem to expect of you.
It bothers you to be considered aloof. You can see the pattern in the words used against you. Aloof and uninterested are both synonyms for cold. Also on the list is loner, a word once yelled at you across a playground. Antonyms of aloof: kind, compassionate, sociable, warm. You are not sure how to feel about your temperature being taken in this way.
You move to warmer places and get used to them. You get used to swimming only in the height of summer on crowded beaches. But there's something oppressive about hot days. Like being carried in a comfortable sack. You go overseas, seeking a white Christmas, but find yourself in an apartment with centralised heating. It's hot inside and, in all that time, you can't sleep through the night. The heat wriggles inside you.
You return and, over time, become comfortable in the warmer city you now live in. You go out to events in the evenings and learn to beam, drinking wine and learning faces, and everything is tepid like a public wave pool, safe. But when you go home each night you don't dream. You aren't creating anymore. The little ice-figurines you try to make melt before they're complete. For the first time winter becomes too much. You shiver in your office overlooking the sea, which shivers back.
One night in winter, you are standing on the waterfront in the middle of the central business district. You go down to the water, which is green-black and murky. For a long while you stand there, looking further than you can see. It's cold. You strip and jump in.
Madison Hamill is the author of Specimen (Victoria University Press, $30), winner of the Best First Book Award for General Non-Fiction at this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.