by Michelle Donahue
Thin ice breaks to shards on shore.
Rising sunlight throws shadows, grows rosy about her face.
New summer air buffets her exposed skin; wind whips cheeks and fingertips. It is too early to be this warm. Too early for her to begin communing with quasi-crystals, for the ice melt to peak, for her father to journey to the capital, leaving her here, alone now, in the fast melting snow.
Arva walks, feet muffled by fluffed boots. The ice is glass beneath, frozen sheets pushed to shore then cracking—nearly transparent slices stacked thickly. Thin sheet on thin sheet, spiraling from the force of the sea. An echo underneath of brittle groans, threatening to shatter below her feet. There is only ice below. Shifting ice shards, ice land, then sea.
Also, Mamouk is missing.
Arva bends down slowly, distributing her weight evenly on the fragile ice. She is lucky she is a small thing—short, and only ten. She sticks her naked hand deep into the ice. She needs this direct touch.
Mamouk! The desperation claws from her. She pulses the message through the ice, sends it again and again. Mamouk. Her hand grows too cold and numbness enters her calloused hand. Mamouk. When she withdraws her hand, it is blue, the color of her eyes, the color of the ice in the growing daylight. Perhaps she kept her hand cold for too long. Perhaps frostbite will settle. The ice edges glow opaque, rough cut and sharp. There is also this in her eyes.
It is unsafe to be here, by the shore, where bears and Melters’ ships lurk. Already she has stayed too long. But this is where her ice-talk will transmit the farthest. Here, close to the melted sea, the ice is purest and so her message carries. Mamouk might feel it, even if he is far.
The Melters must have taken Mamouk, her pole cat. He is not yet ready to be alone on snow. Pole cats are so susceptible to cold until they are a full year old. Their coats are not yet thick enough. They don’t know their own limits. They love snow, will stay out for hours.
Mamouk will feel the lure of quasi-crystals; he will locate them and the Melters will take them back for fuel. But Mamouk won’t last long. The Melters don’t know how to care for anything, especially a young pole cat.
The ice snaps. Not below her, but worse, in the distance, under polar bear paws. These bears can swim, these bears that are always hungry and so prowl by the sea where the fish are, where Avra is. She listens for any indication of motion, tries to see beneath the ice, to detect where the bear is. He’s coming for her. She knows this. She knows the quasi-pistol she pulls from her pack might not deter him quickly enough.
Eight months ago, the happiest eight months of Avra’s life ago, she turned ten and her father gave her a companion pole cat. The cat was young, one month, but old enough to leave his mother. Avra would be his new one. She would care for Mamouk; keep him from the snow, give him food, teach him ice-talk. But like her mother, now lost, Avra would remain stoic, a slab of ice.
When she first met Mamouk he bounded toward her, a small thing, paws thick with fluff. Thick fur of white tinted a spectrum of gray to black. Big tufts bloomed from curved ears. His cheeks fat from a mane of insulating fur. And his eyes, ice-eyes, blue specked slate gray. Her father smiled, his happiness stretching to his eyes and burrowing in wrinkled skin.
Mamouk put his paws on her leg. He wanted to be held. But Avra only fastened a leather harness around him. She pulled it tight.
He needs love, Avra, her father said.
Avra bent down to the ice. He needs common sense. I will teach him.
Avra slowly walks away from the shore and all those dense blue pockets of open sea. The sun slides across the length of horizon painting that edge, the world’s end, with blood-splashed red. On other days she would be relieved to see the sun again after so much time with darkness. Avra sees a ripple in a nearby pool, a blunt sooty nose poking from the surface. Bear. She steps backwards, keeping her eyes on the immersed creature. This is important, she cannot turn her back, cannot run. With each step back, the ice creaks like a spine cracking, and it threatens to break and plunge her into its depths. She would die. The polar bear always wins in water.
With help from her father, she built an ice home for her and Mamouk. She insulated it with caribou pelts (she killed and prepared all the caribou), and crafted a glass fireplace where she could burn slim twigs from the dwarf willow tree. The glass would contain the heat and not melt the ice. It siphoned smoke into the outdoor air, but the heat it made would be enough to keep her pole cat, her Mamouk, warm. It was hard dragging all that glass from the source factory twenty lopes south of here, a half-day’s walk. It was hard to think that she could do this properly, that this was enough. When she first brought Mamouk to the home, he leaped through the doorway and sniffed the new smelling crevices. He kept looking back at her, eyes wide. He burrowed into the furs on their bed, only his fluffed head poking from the animal furs.
She finally joined him in bed, but she slept away from him. She would not touch Mamouk.
The polar bear shoots his head out of the sea, off-white, almost yellow fur sleeked with water. He’s close enough that she can see his pupils. His eyes are cold, not the cold of ice, but the temperature of hunger.
I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry if you hurt me. Avra communicates to the ice. Polar bears don’t understand ice-talk, but it’s the principal of the apology that matters most. And this is the only way she can speak. She takes stretched steps back, her stride lengthened. She puts as much distance between herself and the bear. It will take him some moments to crawl onto the ice.
She steps back and the ice breaks. Her boot plummets, stuck in the sea.
Here, all children receive a pole cat, their pole cat. The children then retreat into their newly built home and raise the cat alone until they are one year old. They do this, so the cat will bond with them, and only them, for life. Pole cats are domesticated and are at first unsure of life on the ice, so they need to be watched, trained, and loved carefully.
In the beginning, she observed Mamouk closely, but wouldn’t get physically close to him. She spent every waking moment with Mamouk and made sure he understood the rules.
But after several weeks of Mamouk insisting closeness, she relented. She allowed him to curl on her chest. He purred and gave her presents of soft kitten kisses on her neck. She gloved her hands and played with him—hiding her wriggling fingers under blankets and waiting for his pounce.
The next morning they drank warm musk oxen milk and ate snow berries grown in the closest greenhouses. She threw dried pieces of dall sheep meat and Mamouk flipped into the air to catch them. He leaped so high that he flew to her eye level and though she didn’t want to laugh, he brought it roaring from her throat. Laughter was the only audible sound Avra and her people could make. Words don’t come, but even the cold ice can’t suppress laughter.
Avra heaves her leg, attempts to dislodge her boot. Panicked, she keeps pulling. The polar bear digs his black claws, slimmed to a point, deep into the ice. Avra tugs and tugs on her boot, desperate. She drops to her knees, and angles her foot, tries to gain some leverage to pull free. The bear has long, yellow teeth.
Then, the ice breaks again under his weight. Shattered. The ice is so thin now. Avra pulls once more and yanks her leg out, and now, with the polar bear plunged back into the dark depths, she runs, ice bellowing beneath her. Her padded boots slide, but she runs and the ice grows thicker, less slick, turns to hard packed, once soft snow. She runs until exhaustion brings her down. She falls, half buried in the snow. Just breathe, she thinks. Father would tell her this when she got too angry, too determined, was too sad after mother died. Breathe.
Her hand, still numb, is buried deep, and as she tries to re-catch her breath, she calls again, Mamouk! Her signal a little muffled now that she is farther from shore. The water line rests far in the distance, a sliver of blue. She can’t see the bear. Perhaps he’s still beneath water. Or perhaps he’s on the ice, his fur blending in. She mustn’t stay here too long.
As her lungs expand upon inhale, they feel stiff, and she thinks they must be frozen. She fights against it, willing her hard lungs into more natural breath. It comes in struggled pushes and pulls. And then. A faint whisper returns. Mamouk. A soft reverberation of the snow, pointing her in the right direction. A whispered, follow me, come here. Help.
She follows it.
Every day, Avra took Mamouk outside and showed him pieces of the world. Not long ago, they walked straight to the sea. Mamouk bounded toward the water, dipping his clawed paw in, purring, giddy. With one swipe, he captured a Cod, grabbed it with his teeth and brought the squirming fish back to Avra. Look, Mom. Look what I got you. He rubbed his face against her leg, marking her with his scent. You are mine and I am yours. That night, Avra cooked the fish and they ate it with their paws and hands. She reveled in that warmth, that heat of flesh.
Avra returns quickly to her home, so cold and empty now without Mamouk. Her hand still feels numb; her fingertips are cloudy white. She packs supplies—food, blankets, a tent, walking poles, her quasi-pistol, a knife, all fitted into her ice-boat. She equips her feet with skis and wraps the boat harness around her, so that the boat drags behind and skates on the ice.
She moves south, but almost everywhere is south of here. She follows that faint vibration in the ice. She wears dark goggles and even with the uncommon heat, wraps her face with a scarf. She’ll be outside for too long—Mamouk is far.
She walks away from the village but ponders going there first to seek help. Most of the elders, like her father, have gone to the capital to try to convince the government to stop the Melters. This is difficult because the capital-people don’t understand ice-talk.
And Mamouk is her duty. Alone, she will be faster than in a group. She can push harder.
She walks, chewing on dried meat to keep up her energy. The world is ice-still. To the left, the landscape stretches flat, and to the right, this flatness, punctured. Hydrolaccoliths, mounds made from once melted ice. Caverns and caves eking existence out. Her legs ache from this ski-walking.
The ice silence allows for too much thought. Pain is an illness, longing a distraction she must suppress. She walks up a steep slope, her skis slipping, the weight from her dragging boat almost too heavy. She digs the tips of her skis into the snow, grabs hold of it with her hands.
She cannot suppress it.
When Mamouk was two months, they ventured outside. She harnessed him with a leash made from wolverine leather, and when she clasped it, he purred, as if he knew this would be their first adventure. He couldn’t ice-talk yet, that would come soon. Avra lifted the thick leather flap that was their door, and he bounded out. He leapt and plunged in and out of snow. Fluffy snow coated him, dusting his coat, clinging to his whiskers. He mewed, ran between her legs and plummeted back to snow.
He always ran a certain direction, pulled the leash, jumped in excitement, his thick fur standing fluffed. Pole cats are drawn to quasi-crystals, a crystal configuration of ice found only here at the top of the world, in century-old ice. A configuration with enormous power trapped in its bonds. So Mamouk pulled toward the crystals; even when young he felt their allure. In excitement, he shook his body, fur ruffling and snow falling from him.
Quasi-crystals are scattered through all the ice; this is how Avra’s people ice-talk. They send language, neuron-like chemical pulses, relayed through the quasi-crystals in ice. Long ago, her people bonded with pole cats because the cats find areas where quasi-crystals clump with increased concentration. Each person must find her own patch and place a part of herself, a lock of dark hair, a drop of blood, deep within this spot, if they wish to begin communing with ice. Before this long ceremony is completed, direct contact with ice is necessary to speak. Once the communing process is finished, ice-talk can occur long distances from snow.
Mamouk yearned to pull Avra long distances through the snow to the quasi-crystals. To distract him, Avra plopped to the ground and lay down. She moved her hands toward her head and then down to her legs. Imprinting a winged girl into ice. Mamouk cocked his head, and bounded toward her. He lay in the snow too, stretched out on his back, his big thick charcoal tail stretched underneath him, his legs curled, paws dangling. He looked over at her, with his too-cute wide blue eyes, as if to say look, I did it too.
His ears got too cold that day. The beginnings of frostbite settled into the tips. Avra scooped him up, rubbed her free hand over his ears and ran home. She felt her heart rattling her ribs. After some time by the fire, after pained minutes, his ears warmed. It was a near miss. She vowed it would never happen again.
When Avra reaches the top of the ice peak, she balances her ice-boat on the edge. She climbs into the boat and sits atop all of her gear and food. Clunky, precarious, she moves her weight forward, sending the boat down like a sled, whipping fast. Her hands grip the sides of the boat. The fingertips of her possibly frostbitten hand have turned dark. Deep purple, cloudy gray. She wills the boat not to flip.
She rides the momentum until the land flattens and she hits hummocked ice. The landscape turns ridged. She climbs out of the boat and her limbs ache from movement and from cold. Though the sun doesn’t move from the sky, night approaches. This morning was the only sunrise of the season and now, sun always, until winter comes.
Avra keeps moving, dragging her boat, so heavy now as it drags across the gullied ice. Her sliding ski footsteps, the only sound; the ice is thick here, so it doesn’t groan. Then, a low rumble, like the sound preceding a quake, ice like tectonic plates shifting, rupturing from strong ocean current. Avra drops to the ice, but it sits still, the sound comes from the sky. Melters. An Ornithopter, a metallic, mechanic bird piloted by Melters. It streaks the sky with steam. Its wings beat the arctic air, flap thickly to keep the heavy contraption aloft. It expels heat. A heavy wave Avra can see; it bends the air, forming a heavy sheet of curved heat.
The Ornithopter pumps the warmth out, the Melters’ method of warming the ice, of melting the quasi-cyrtstals so they can collect the newly melted water brimming with crystals and use it as fuel. Quasi-crystals have enormous energy.
Avra runs. She flees to a nearby cave, to avoid that massive ultraviolet heat. Already the exposed skin on her hands begins to blister.
Father left, only three nights ago, when he saw the first Ornithopter this season. It was a metallic speck in the dark midday sky. He trekked five lopes to her and Mamouk’s home.
This is the beginning, he transmitted, his eyes recessed in wrinkles. The other elders and I will leave for the capital tonight.
Mamouk hid behind Avra. He pawed her thighs and mewed. Avra reached to the ice wall of their home and touched it with her hand. He’s good Mamouk. He is to me what I am to you. Then Mamouk purred and purred.
The three hugged. Avra holding Mamouk. Her father holding her. He looked at Avra, her arm warmly wrapped around Mamouk. It’s nice seeing you like this.
Avra held Mamouk close to her chest and listened to his breaths. Her father held her tightly. Maybe you should come back to the village.
Mamouk nuzzled her, nose to nose. She looked at her father, her eyes cold. No. Mamouk isn’t ready. Her father shook his head, his body tense. Perhaps you haven’t changed enough.
She stared at him hard. I’ll be careful. Cold settled and hugged her.
Avra slides into the glacier cave, the ice walls protecting her from the worst of it. The heat from the Ornithopter continues to spill out. She touches her blistered hands to the ice. Her poor hand, black frostbitten at the tips, and now blistered. She sits inside the cave and looks out at the sky dusted with heat and steam. Through a small hole in the cave’s ceiling she sees the sun, a hazy orb.
The hole grows larger.
Avra puts her head in her hands, but that hurts her bad hand too much. She wants to go home. Not home to her ice house, but home to the village to her father, except he’s not even there; he is far away. Pain slivers into her hand. What if she stopped? Mamouk is only a pole cat. She is only a girl.
She repeats this; Mamouk is only a pole cat, he is only a cat. The mouth of the cave gapes with long, sharp icicle teeth, dripping.
When she no longer hears that pervasive rattle of wings, Avra continues sitting, and tries to feel only the pain in her hand. She wants to stay here.
She ventures from the cave’s mouth and her footsteps form damp imprints in the ice. Walking here will be harder. To the west, the ice land has given way to sea. Black, oily skinned creatures clump at the diffuse ice edge. Avra knows them when she sees the tusks, long slender protrusions, curving from left upper jaw and spiraling into a left-handed helix. Narwhal.
Avra puts her good hand to the thin ice below her feet. You’re a long way from home. She says, but the Narwhal don’t understand. She speaks to no one but the ice. Soon it won’t listen either.
The Ornithopter gullied gaps into this land, turned thick ice into a fracture zone. Now every step is a held breath, a hope that the ground below her feet will hold. Her boat slides tremulously behind her. She can barely sense Mamouk. Though he must still be sending his communications out, she can only faintly sense it. Perhaps the signal is fading, because the ice is melting.
The Melters aren’t walking in a straight line. They’ve curved back, heading in the direction of her and Mamouk’s home. Avra feels like she is tracking them in a circle, perpetually behind no matter how fast she runs. Helpless, she tries to run faster. The ice grows more solid and she runs until she cannot run any longer and sleep catches her. She has been awake for more than one day and now weariness settles too strongly within her. She searches for flat thick ice. She finds none. She sets her tent up on the thickest ice patch (still too thin) and crawls into her sleeping bag and catches a few moments of sleep.
She awakes to the midnight sun. During her brief sleep, the ice under her tent has drifted nearly five lopes, but the ice land has moved toward the Melters, not away, and she is close now. She quickly folds her bag, steps from the tent, and stares blinking into the ice, the sun, the water creeping through the cracks. The ice drifts. She takes down her tent, tucks it into her boat, pulls out her walking sticks and straps on her skis. The ice is more treacherous today. She walks.
She sees the Melters. Ahead. Walking toward her. She cannot see Mamouk. The Melters have a mechanic sled hovering behind them, carrying what Avra guesses is melted quasi crystals. They must be waiting for their copter to fly them and their loot away from this place. No copter could land here though. They must find flat pack ice. She touches her good hand to the snow. Mamouk. She walks toward the Melters and steps between chunks of ice, using her skied feet to balance over the empty spaces between. She turns away from the Melters. Pulls her quasi-pistol from her boat, tucks it into her pants.
The Melters have musk oxen. Likely stolen from her village. Musk oxen milk and meat is ideal for hard ice treks because it’s brimming with calories. But even the oxen are having trouble navigating this ice. The Melters are close. She can make out their snow goggles, the horns on the musk oxen.
Musk oxen have white-muzzled faces with horns curving from their wide set eyes. They have so much fur they can’t run fast or for long because they’ll overheat. Instead, they form a defense circle. Once, Avra and Mamouk watched this from afar. A wolf approached and each musk ox faced out, a phalanx of furred heads, strong horns. The baby musk oxen hid safe inside the circle. The wolf feared the mass of musk oxen, their numbers totaled too great and the wolf retreated. The musk oxen knew to keep their children safe.
But now Avra does not have others. Her people do not number greatly. All she has is one frostbitten hand, one good hand, and a quasi-pistol.
She walks straight toward the Melters. To them she is only a speechless child; they do not understand and will not see her as a threat. She will confuse them, by her mere presence, this continued existence on the snow. There are two Melters. Men from the build of them. Now she can see the tips of their noses, their lips as they breathe out moisture and form fog. Mamouk is not with them, but she can smell him on them. Pole cats smell sweet like fresh snow, sharp like the bottom of her boots.
The men say words she cannot understand. Her good hand wraps behind her back and grabs the pistol.
The night before the Melters took Mamouk, he pranced around their ice home, body pulsing with excitement. I feel the quasi-crystals. I’m ready. Let’s adventure. Avra laughed but continued drying the musk oxen meat for dinner. Soon, not now. Mamouk was almost full-grown, his head now eye level with hers, but his coat hadn’t finished filling out yet. Avra sat by the glass fireplace.
Though he could hardly contain his energy, Mamouk settled down next to her, curled up and laid his head on her lap. You’re cold. Let me give you heat.
Melter language is all guttural groans, all swift exclamations. She doesn’t care. She is a small thing and they don’t expect her quasi-pistol. She shoots. One man, then the other. Fast. Her aim is true and strong, her father has trained her well; she aims for their exposed face. They crumple, limp bodies adorning the ice. They are faceless now and the ice is warm red melting.
She respects the polar bears, will apologize for killing them, but now she only runs. She strips the skis from her feet and takes off her boat harness, so it is only her and the ice now. Her body is on fire, burning like it did back in the cave, when the Melters pumped thick heat into the sky. Now, she feels no doubt. She needs her Mamouk to save her from this cold, this ice inside. She leaves the two Melter bodies far behind and runs to find a third.
She can feel him, but not like she could before. She jumps over fissures, slips and slides. Her small body compresses the thin ice. She navigates open spaces of sea. And then.
In the distance: a small thing, black and gray and white and black, fur spiked and matted. A cold coil on the ice. Tips of fur frozen. Curled paws covering pink nose on an ice plate surrounded by sea. She leaps to it. The ice groans beneath her, that brittle crack of ice splintering, threatening to let loose the sea. She feels a crack begin within her. She slips forward, haphazardly, not nearly as careful as she should be.
She is on top of him now, she unzips her parka, presses her chest, her heart to him, tries to give him her heat. Breathe. She puts her ungloved hand on his body, pets his soft fur that already resonates cold. The ice begins to break. A crack creeps from the sea toward her and him, him and her, lying cold on the ice. Breathe. His ears are ice crystaled, his paws blue.
Mamouk had melted her ice open, had pulled a hidden thing from her. Breathe. But now, her face is water turned hard, tears freezing and shaping her cheeks sharp. The ice crack spreads, a chasm opening directly beneath. The ice moves under her. She stretches her hands out, rough nails digging deep into the drifting ice. Her frostbitten hand is almost useless. It burns, which means it isn’t dead yet. There’s still something living within that flesh. The melting ice below them pulls apart and she holds on, tries to keep the ground below her. She won’t move without Mamouk. The ice moves, disintegrates beneath her; she fights against it. Mamouk won’t move. Her arms stretch now. Her frostbitten hand still burns. Her arms can’t stretch longer; she is a small thing and the sea grows. Breathe.
Michelle Donahue has fiction published in Beloit Fiction Journal, CutBank, The Baltimore Review and others. She has an MFA from Iowa State and is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. She was the managing editor for Flyway and is a prose editor for Adroit Journal.