The wind stroking her face took her back to that mystical day when, for a brief while, visions blended and time folded. Anotkloska set a hand upon Uki’s shoulder. Its skin rippled beneath her touch. “Remember it all too well,” she told the seal pup. “What we went through. How could you think I could forget?”
The pup barked softly; their hearts aligned.
Anotkloska moved the bait by jiggling the float and cracking the ice skin which had formed over the hole she’d bored. The roar of the sea to her right, light of stars above, and Pawpaw wheezing, but not with such an awful cough, brought her back. The world around her faded under the weight of her eyelids, and it was happening all over again.
There in the darkness outside the village, just offshore amid whitecaps and shining black surface, she could see the fin of Orkut. Its shifting shadow below, coursing wide arcs hungrily. Hunting Uki. Hunting Anotkloska just as much. Enough wind blowing so her cheeks had numbed.
Then she had closed her eyes out of fear, feeling what her mother called “flatness of flesh,” a moment where her own body’s weight was almost spiritual. At last, she exhaled, each breath crystallizing starlight as fuchsia and emerald dreams, inhalations after as rowing oars to the soul.
She couldn’t have known when she set out earlier that it would be the day she changed forever. The day she grew up … the day she became a woman like her mother, capable and independent. Fearless. The day life became life and the development wings of childhood fell away broken, no longer used nor necessary.
There had been no question of its urgency. Her trip to the angakkuq, the tribal healer. Pawpaw had gone frighteningly pale in the night, and his feet were blue-black. They didn’t look real; nails withered and curled. She stoked and fed the fire, but no amount of fire could help. She’d not ever seen him weaker. Not ever seen anything weaker, not even the bird she’d once tried to save in a glove. And his coughs were sharper than the tip of any arrow, lips driftwood gray, eyes dim below drooping brows over sagging jowls.
Red spots on his chin, too. Therefore, she knew what she had to do. As soon as Pawpaw drifted into a sweaty, restless slumber, she acted. Slipping into the cold, rushing towards the boats, telling herself, “You can do this, you can do this.”
Anotkloska heaved the boat, dragging it through across the iced dock, boot spikes fighting for toehold. More than once they kicked out from under her and sent her to a knee, but she did not quit. At last, the canoe cleared the snowbank and kissed the water, slipping into an enclosed center amid a frosted oval. The melku, her village’s launch as used since time began. Her mother had shown her how to succeed there when she was barely able to walk, but she was not permitted to go at night and alone.
Anotkloska was aware of the danger behind this rule, yet she had no choice. Leaving the melted oval, the surface was calm as she paddled forward. She drew tight her fur hood. “You can do this, you’re not too young anymore,” she said, with fear-tears. “He needs you.” The vast openness of the ocean warned her to go back yet despite her stomach failing those first swells, she persisted. One magic moment, “No tomorrow,” she said.
On both sides of the vessel, ghosts of her ancestors appeared, forming from mist, some so old she knew them not, each stony and emotionless. She waved in disbelief. Omens were omens and this was one. She screwed her eyes shut and when she opened them again, they were not there.
“Please do not fail me,” she prayed.
From the churns where melt greeted the sound, the glow of the oil lanterns faded. Yupinyuak’s shore passed away behind her, soon disappearing into the white distance. “Today,” she began unconvincingly, “there is only you. You must do this. You can do this. He needs you. You must, you must!” And as her eyes grew damp and her teeth gnashed, she drove the paddle side to side and the canoe whispered ahead.
“Blessed K’kut grant neqe at the end of my voyage,” she said. “Save him.”
She would find the angakkuq. What she might not find was fresh neqe, as the hunt had not returned, nor would it for another two moons. Even so, would she be able to get it to Pawpaw in time to make an improvement, or was it hopeless? She clenched her teeth and drove on.
Above the sky turned into a polar bear cloud, swallowing the stars. She suddenly felt smaller beneath the deep purple and pale green heavens, though she took not her eye from the guiding star. Saltwater spray and frozen lashes staked her to the earth, and it was here her spirit awakened. And she could no more than laugh in the face of that cosmic dread as the boat struck a dark shape swimming below the black. She lost the paddle at once and kissed the bottom of the boat as the world flipped upside and around.
Anotkloska groaned, and things came slowly into focus. Her skull throbbed and pounded as it had the time her brother had dropped her on her head. She wished he were there to pick her up. He wasn’t. But peeling herself away from the ice meant the worst possible truth. She couldn’t do it.
To see through crusted bits of salt and ice was near-impossible, but she removed one sopping wet glove and wiped gingerly with a bare, trembling finger. The impact of the dark shape had thrown her from the canoe onto a small floe. In shaking agony, she pushed upright, seeing nearby the oar skitter due to the motion of waves, traveling across the ice towards the edge.
“No!” she gasped, then the seal appeared.
There was pooled seawater, steam, and the bright shine of two tiny eyes. Anotkloska scrambled forward using her toe picks, then snatched up the oar and turned; those spikes kept her dug in despite the shudder and buck of the sea. What she saw staring back at her was no older than a newborn pup. She stood unmoving, until she laughed.
“Why, hello there little one!”
The seal pup huffed from its nostrils, sinking pitifully.
Anotkloska asked, “Happen to see a canoe around here? Lost one, you see.”
The pup turned and slid away. It rode the rise and fall of the ice island, then plunked into the black water. A lump formed in Anotkloska’s throat, and though she tried to cry out, the words jammed. Then the seal pup appeared again, swimming expertly.
“Wait!” she called after it, stepping towards the edge carefully.
A moment later the pup reappeared, sliding onto the floe, shambling at Anotkloska with a rope held in its mouth. Anotkloska’s hand closed upon the rope, and the lump released. “You found it!” she cried happily. “Can’t believe you found it! You saved my life!” She clapped and drew the rope hand over hand, bringing the canoe out from shadow into the soft reflecting glow of the aurora overheard. A huge fin swam past, and her blood ran suddenly cold. So big it was, that dark shape, that it obscured the polar bear cloud entirely. Her hand fell over her mouth.
“Aarluk,” she said.
The pup barked twice then hunkered down onto its belly.
“We must get out of here,” she said. “By Sedna’s blessing! You saved me and now I’m going to save you.”
The seal pup whimpered. Another monstrous dorsal fin broke the surface behind the seal. This time the head of the black and white whale appeared. Pointed teeth, each twice as long as the blade of the ulu held in the loop of her belt. The beast nudged the ice, causing the island to skip headfirst into a crashing swell. Somehow, Anotkloska’s toe spikes kept. The seal pup curled against her, and she prayed feverishly to her elders.
Another whale appeared, shooting saltwater into the air from its blowhole. The seal dragged even closer, wrapping its quivering form under her legs. When the floe jumped again only those boot spikes kept them both from the worst of what could be. Suddenly, a whale rose with its mouth wide, and she heard a voice coming from it.
“What are you doing out there?” it said, excitedly.
Trembling she met its studious gaze. Then the massive orca submerged out of sight. And three canoes, each fronted by a hunter with a harpoon appeared, the front of their boats slicing neatly through ocean tempo. A hunter shouted, “Back up foolish one!” and as Anotkloska complied, trusting her boots, the hunter let loose and harpooned the floe.
The biggest fin yet rose behind the three canoes and Anotkloska screamed.
“Get into your boat, quickly!” shouted another hunter.
Anotkloska tugged free her feet and climbed into her canoe. She saw no damage and breathed easier. The pup barked and whined so she leaned and picked it up, like her brother had done for her, and she took it into her lap and jabbed at the ice with the oar. With the shivering creature between her legs, Anotkloska watched the hunters pull their harpoon, and this, along with her poking the oar at the floe, sent the canoe sliding finally into the ocean once again. She looked up and waved as they pointed to shore. She paddled with all her might and came up beside their boats, and all of them rowed for a melted oval ahead. Not the one in Yupinyuak. She said, “We made it,” and the dark gave way to faint glimmering of lanterns and of fire.
The seal pup pressed tighter against her. The boats all came ashore safely, and those hunters laughed when they saw her. “Who are you?” one demanded, and another said, “Did you see the size of it?” Then another cried, “Look at what she has!”
“She is my little sister,” said one, and though Anotkloska had not seen him since he had moved away four year earlier, it was clearly her brother Bhoru. “And she is one amazing yet foolish girl!”
Anotkloska was crying now, hiding her face, clutching the seal pup to her. Bhoru ran his hand over Anotkloska’s hair, and softly, he said, “Suppose you tell me what you are doing here. Where is Mother? Are you alone?”
The other hunters threw back their hoods, and Anotkloska could not believe how many girls her age were among them. “Pawpaw,” she said. “He can’t wait.”
“Help her up,” said one of them, and the rest happened so fast she couldn’t keep track.
Snapping back to the present, Anotkloska smiled at Uki. “What a day it was that day we met,” she said, patting the seal pup’s head. “Good Uki.” Around her the world grew strangely silent, stripping away a chilly, unrelenting wind. The bell jingled and she sat up and hand over hand drew up the bait. There was a fish on the line.
She knew what her ancestors had been trying to tell her.
“All things are possible,” she said. “If only you act for love.”
Pawpaw came up behind her, shuffling on a crutch of bone, wheezing. Thankfully, those awful spats of coughing had passed. And there were no more drops of blood upon his lips, while his skin was not any longer as pale as a new moon.
“The neqe makes my bones strong,” he said. “Heals from the inside out.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For what?” he laughed.
“Should not have gone alone,” Anotkloska started.
He waved a hand, “What you did was save my life by thinking for yourself. You acted with courage! I did not have the strength to make the journey and believe me when I say that your mother will be proud of you when she learns of your adventure.”
Uki barked just once and Anotkloska bit her lip and smiled. One tear streaked to the ice under her, and she bagged the fish. Uki barked again, and she said, “That one is for us, next one is for you.”
Uki hunkered in tight against her leg.
“Mother of the Sea Sedna spares a girl and her pup,” Pawpaw laughed.
“Go see your Pawpaw, Uki,” she said. “What a tease,” and at once the seal tottered to him, nuzzling her nose into those ancient palms. Anotkloska watched and it brought joy into her heart. She asked, “Do you really think she will? Be proud and not angry?”
“Being proud and being angry have a subtle difference,” he said, scratching under the chin of the pup. Uki’s little flippers tapped the ground happily. “And I haven’t properly thanked you yet, have I? Thank you, Anotkloska.”
She hugged her grandfather, Uki squeezing in, and none of them let go for some time.
[Mord McGhee’s work can be read in four published novels and anywhere literary fiction is found. He is currently a board member of Rowayat.org and an associate editor for Ariel Publishing and Parsec SFF. Two unpublished manuscripts are Claymore Award Finalists of ’22, and upcoming are novellas The Stroke of Oars and Mind Poker. Mord is also an associate executive producer for upcoming feature film The Man in the White Van starring Sean Astin and Ali Larter. Mordmcghee.com for more. On a personal note, Mord collects fossils and writes out of Lowcountry South Carolina.]