Negative forty five degrees Celsius, the frosted thermometer read. Keterina swiped away the thin layer of snow with her wool mittens before turning to peer out at the morning sun. The golden rays of light illuminated the wide landscape in her backyard. Before her was a familiar picture of bluish-white snow, pine trees, and the small unpaved clearing to the main roads.
That was all.
The rural town of Oymyakon, Yakutia is the coldest place in the world and that is not an exaggeration. In 1933, they recorded the all-time low of negative sixty seven point seven degrees Celsius. It is the coldest recorded temperature in the northern hemisphere.
Keterina felt a sudden tightness in her legs. Her grey eyebrows knotted together as she stretched her creaky knees. Despite the cabin being heated, she had felt the cold in her bones that morning. Forty Five degrees Celsius had been fine in her younger years, but it hit differently after sixty.
That's why she would have a warm cup of tea for breakfast. She walked over to a uniform stack of ice blocks in her wool-lined boots, the crunching of impacted snow heard with every step, and picked up a large block. It weighed heavily, bearing itself down on her aged limbs. Despite this, she moved as if unburdened; her body kept sculpted from days full of chores.
As she shuffled through, a chill quickly found its way past the six layers of clothing. It traveled to her neck, along her limbs, and eventually to her mid-region. She inhaled deeply, quickening her pace. It was a sensation she'd known since she was a child and was more annoying than threatening; if anything, she considered it a needed wake up call.
A cold cloud trailed behind as she shut the door. From there she mechanically took off each layer: the goose downed jacket, the heavy sweaters, the thick scarf, and the earmuffs. That was always the part she liked least about going out — not the weather, but the never-ending layers.
When the ordeal was over, her heart quickened at the thought of a warm drink. She darted to the kitchen with the ice block under her armpit, the century-old floor boards squeaking under her steps.
A honed knife glinted in the air as she positioned it expertly above the ice chunk, stabbing it into quick to melt pieces. It wouldn't be long now before the kettle sung. Wiping sweat off her forehead, she went to fetch wood from the usual spot by the oven when she stopped and groaned.
"Dam!" Keterina swore in Sakha. She had forgotten she'd run out of wood. Last night, she'd been so wrapped up in finishing a scarf for her daughter, the thought had escaped her until then. There would be no tea for breakfast after all. She quickly gobbled down a breakfast of bread porridge and fried fish before reluctantly donning the many layers again.
In the remote village of Oymyakon, where many resided on self-sustaining farms, grocery stores often were miles from homes. Laziness was not allowed.
Outside once more, Keterina was hit instantly with the drop in temperature and acclimated by doing a few jumping jacks. The exercise gave her a boost of energy, lending her a smile under her heavy scarf. With her eyes alight, she walked to a pile of logs near her bulus (or underground refrigerator) and hoisted a rusted axe over her shoulder. Soon she fell into a swift rhythmic chopping.
She began to hum an ancient melody, a song her grandmother had sung to her about the spirit melding with the forest. When Keterina grew up and became a mother, she had lulled her children to sleep with it. Now it accompanied her at old age while she worked.
When the ax hit a log, splitting it perfectly in the middle, she smiled, pleased.
"We'll have tea in no time," she said, sending off puffs of frozen vapor.
The chore was generating a small bundle of warmth in the middle of her body. It would, however, escape quickly through her extremities. Soon her eyelashes and hair froze and became brittle; threatening to snap in half if touched. It was all so...fragile.
People were so fragile.
Once when she was young, an elderly neighbor had slipped, hit his head against his shed and blacked out. His children had been out buying groceries far away and didn't find his frozen body until an hour after his death.
Perhaps if the family had had a car back then he would have lived, but only the wealthy could drive during the winter. A garage in Yakutia kept your car from freezing over until spring. Everybody else made due on foot or sleds pulled by reindeers.
Such was life. It could be over in an instant, her parents had once remarked. Then as soon as the news came it went away just as quickly to make room for the daily grind.
The memory hung heavily in her mind, giving way to other tragedies. She allowed herself to think of her late husband Bert and how he would work alongside her. They'd talk, their voices mingling and filling the forest with noise. After the flu took him away, it was a while before she got used to the silence.
As she let that tiny window of self-pity take over, a flood gate of memories came back.
She settled in front of the wooden cabin where her entire life played in front of her. Her earliest memory was as a child looking out at her parents tending to the cows in the snow. Then came the birth of her children and the bittersweet awakening as a new mother. Her sons Algyr and Aman and her daughter Michiye running around the yard, laughter trailing behind them on their hunt for mischief. She had spent a whole lifetime within those walls.
This past year was the first she'd ever been by herself. But like the climate in Yakutia, when people expected only a frigid existence, there was a changing of seasons.
It was September, before the frost set in. Keterina had traveled to Verkhoyansk Range and, at an altitude of two thousand four hundred and nine meters, welcomed the Northern lights. In a hand-sewn white dress, she reached out both hands, closed her eyes, and opened her ears. She heard the quiet so loudly, breath escaped her.
And then she waited in a stark blue tent. By night, the lights came. Its viridescent streaks filled the looming midnight sky, dancing slow so she could see every shifting light beam. When it got big enough and seemed to imprint itself across the entire continent, she matched its rhythm until she was no longer Keterina.
She was the air that went into every being's body, the needle on every pine tree, the dirt life grew on. She had been everywhere, had been everything. Her being was as much a part of Oymyakon as it was her.
So when her son Algyr had made the suggestion she left her home to live with him in the city, she refused right away.
"But how will you take care of yourself?" he had said during his last visit.
She laughed and told him he'd be too busy looking after his future children to think much of her.
"But aren't you lonely, Mama?" Her daughter Michiye had written in a letter. Keterina promptly then reminded her of all the things that needed to be done.
"There is no time to be lonely."
Secretly, she had considered it, let the thoughts roll around and stew. They'd show up every now and then when she was doing busy work. But she'd made up her mind.
Her blossoming children belonged in the city where there were schools and opportunities. It was hard for them to understand. They were used to a different life there, far removed from their childhood in Oymyakon. Her bones had already become soft from nursing them throughout the years. It was time for them to find their own way.
While she could never leave. A part of her lived amongst the snow-covered trees, danced atop the still, frozen lakes. It sprinted with the reindeers, fell with each snow flake and, upon summer, melted right back to the earth.
She dropped the axe, inhaled deeply, and let her mind drift.
In her dreams, Bert waited on top of the frozen lake with a hand reaching out for her. She would go to him but right before their fingers touched the ice below would break. and she would fall until she awoke. She'd rise swiftly, her heart thumping against her chest. In the dark, she'd search the empty spot next to her. That deep, incurable pang in her heart would take hold, and she'd spend the rest of the night nursing her wound with letters to her dead husband.
Sweat trickled down her back as she finished hacking the last log and gazed, satisfied, at the large pile in front of her.
There was also another old Sakha saying: you need only hard work to warm you up.
From the kitchen, she sat on the dining table near a window overlooking the winter landscape. Holding the warm ceramic cup in her hands, the heat spread to her finger tips. She melted further into the chair.
As a flurry of fresh snow blanketed the backyard, the thoughts of yesterday faded away. The memories of her youth, the painful and the joyous, retreated to the corners of her mind. With a blank slate now, she could see each snow flake clearly.