The front page of the New York Times, on a Thursday in June:
CONGRESS VOTES OVERWHELMINGLY TO BAN CANDY, CITES DENTAL HEALTH
On the same day, on an inside page of a Zurich newspaper:
AMERICAN COUPLE, FROZEN IN SWISS MOUNTAINS FOR THREE DECADES, THAW SPONTANEOUSLY, APPEAR UNHARMED
These two events, it was later proved, were related. It’s complicated.1
1 So pay attention. It will be confusing at first. But it’s worth hanging in there. And there won’t be a quiz.
High on a mountain in Switzerland (one of the Alps, though a minor Alp, not a particularly well-known Alp, not the Matterhorn or one of those postcard-y ones), an odd, lumpy, ice-encrusted shape began to move slightly, causing the glistening snow to shift.
It had been very warm and sunny for days. Weeks, actually—even months. Across the globe, glaciers had shrunk and icebergs had dissolved. Now, on this insignificant Alp, which had been snow-covered for eons, suddenly rocks began to appear, sleek with water from the snowmelt. Here and there a green stem emerged, and an occasional flower.
And now, a moving lump.
Then, beside the first strangely moving shape, another large, snowy lump shifted. Amazingly, from one of the shifting mounds, a hand emerged. It brushed some snow aside, revealing an entire arm. Then a second arm appeared.
The first mound sat up, and the two arms, moist from the melted snow, began to brush snow and wipe water from a face. It was a newly defrosted face, male, with a glowering frown. It looked around, perceived the second mound nearby, and reached over to give it a poke. Then another poke, and another. Finally the second lump sat up, also frowning. This one appeared to be female (though it is hard to tell, with a lump).
“I bet anything my hair is an absolute mess,” the second lump grumbled.
But the first lump paid no attention. He was testing his stiff fingers, tapping at them to dislodge a few ice particles. Finally he reached down to his right hip and removed a soggy wallet from his pocket.
“I knew it!” he groaned, prying open the wet leather. “My money is ruined! Sodden. Practically dissolved. And all stuck together in a messy wad.”
“No, those ridiculous Swiss francs1 they made us get. Clearly inferior. American dollars wouldn’t deteriorate like this.”
“Well, are they usable enough for food, at least? I’m hungry.”
“Of course they’ll take our money. They’re all crooks here.”
The woman (because they were a pair: man and woman) groaned, struggled to her feet, then knelt. “Where’s my purse? I don’t see my purse.” On her hands and knees, she began pawing through the wet snow. “Here!” she said. “Here it is! But yuck—it’s drenched!”
“Don’t worry about it. And stand up! You look like a cockroach, crawling around that way. Come on. We’ll make our way down to the village and get a quick lunch—not that they have any decent food in this godforsaken place. Then we’ll get the first train out.” The man stood upright with some difficulty and replaced the wet billfold in his hip pocket.
Finally the pair, grumbling and complaining, managed to stumble slowly down the side of the thawing Alp, passing on the low slopes meadows dotted with cows, toward the tiny village at its foot. The one main street was lined with brightly painted homes and dotted with flower boxes filled with petunias and geraniums. They found a table at a small café, where they ate heartily of a veal stew and each had three glasses of quite a good wine. But they were thwarted when the bill was brought to their table.
“I’m so sorry,” the waiter said as he looked with dismay at the sodden mass of Swiss francs that the man offered him. “Ve can’t accept vet money. But—”
“Vet? Good lord, man—can’t you even say the word wet?”
“Apologies, sir. I vill try harder. Damp vould be okay, perhaps. But soggy vet is bad.”
“Give them a credit card, dear,” the woman suggested.
With a loud sigh the man pried a platinum card loose from his waterlogged wallet.
“I’m sorry, Mr. . . .” The waiter looked carefully at the card. “Ah, Mr. Villoughby. But this credit card expired many years ago.”
“It’s WILLOUGHBY, you idiot! Why can’t you dolts pronounce a W the way normal people do?”
“I’m wery sorry, sir. I vish I could,” the waiter replied, with a roll of his eyes that implied he did not vish any such thing.
The maître d’ appeared, smiling politely. “Is there a problem?” he asked. Then he looked more closely at the ill-tempered couple. “Oh. I see you’ve defrosted. You’re still damp.”
“Defrosted?” bellowed Mr. Willoughby. “What on earth—”
“You were frozen,” the maître d’ explained, and peered at the date on the credit card. “And now you’ve thawed. It’s happened to a number of climbers.”
“And many goats, as vell,” the waiter added. “It’s the varming.”
“The vat? I mean: what?”
“Global varming, sir.”
Mrs. Willoughby sighed. “You never believed in that, Henry. But now look.” She patted her own head. “My hairstyle is hopelessly out of date. Take me home, right away.”
“Bring me a telephone,” Mr. Willoughby demanded.
“Of course,” the maître d’ said. He nodded to the waiter, who scurried away to find a phone. “You must call your family.”
“Family?” Henry Willoughby said, looking startled.
His wife groaned. “Oh lord, we have those horrible children. Do we know their phone number, Henry? Do we even know where they live?”
Her husband shrugged. “I forget. But we don’t have to worry about them. We hired that nanny, remember?”
“Oh, yes. The nanny.&r...