Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

Chapter One: Amsterdam

Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.

As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in—the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.

She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.

Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne. It is a photograph of tall houses on a canal, each painted a different color, pressed together and tilted slightly, like a line of people, arm in arm, peering tentatively into the water. The picture has a Technicolor glow, the colors hovering over the scene rather than inhabiting it.

She turns the postcard over, expecting nothing—an antique white space never utilized—like others on the rack, bought decades ago on longforgotten vacations, and never mailed. But Amsterdam had been stamped; Amsterdam had been posted. The postmark is dated 14 Sept 1965 and there is a message, carefully inscribed:

Dear L—

Fell asleep in a park. Started to rain. Woke up with my hat full of leaves. You are all I see when I open or close a book.

Yours, M

Isabel stands before the rotating metal rack for a long time, holding the postcard, rereading the message, imagining the young man (it must have been a young man) whose small, precise handwriting stretches across allotted space perfectly. She imagines the young woman (Miss L. Bertram, 2580 N. Ivanhoe St., Portland, Ore) who received the postcard, and how much she must have read between those few lines,
how much she must have longed for him to say more.

Isabel turns back to the image of Amsterdam, wondering if the houses on the canal still stand, or if they have succumbed to time and damp. Amsterdam is one of those low-lying cities, she thinks, remembering a New Yorker article about melting icecaps.

She searches the rack for more of Amsterdam and the correspondence between M and L, but finds none. She buys the postcard and leaves with it tucked deep in her coat pocket.

Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.

Back in her apartment she pins Amsterdam to the wall above her bed, beneath another old postcard: four brightly painted totem poles and a few muskeg spruce, leaning over a marshy inlet.

Chapter One: Amsterdam excerpted from Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Alexis M. Smith. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books.