Chapter Thirty-Eight

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‘What does your name mean?’ Pani asks.

‘What a little pest you are!’ Zach says, caught off guard.

‘Names are important,’ Pani insists, unabashed. ‘They’re part of your soul.’

‘What makes you so sure I’ve got one?’

‘If you’ve left it somewhere, I’ll lend you a piece of mine.’

‘Not the tailpiece, I hope.’

Pani ducks his head, but not before Zach catches sight of the merriment in the boy’s eyes. Under other circumstances he’d have been the school daredevil, this lovely child. Zach leans forward and pantomimes a stitching movement in front of Pani’s lips. ‘I thought you didn’t want anyone to hear us.’

At Pani’s instigation the two of them have slipped away before the rest of the camp is fully awake, though they’ve been careful to avoid the communal room where, in a sleepy bustle, the aunties are beginning to prepare the morning meal. Weeks ago Pani and a few of the other lads excavated their own access route in a small storage annexe, the sort of enterprise that Zach remembers from his Foundation days. A narrow squeeze, this tunnel, and he refrains from suggesting that Uakuak is far too canny not to be aware of it. There’s probably a great deal the old hunter doesn’t reveal, particularly to his son.

Without a torch it’s slow going, even though Pani swears to know every centimetre of the terrain. They struggle against a brisk headwind, which is the very reason for harpoon practice before the hunt. ‘My father took his first seal when he was two years younger than me.’ By the time they cross an unforgiving stretch of icy washboard sastrugi to reach the edge of a polynya, Zach promises himself ten minutes alone with Angu.

Pani delicately probes the matte surface of the water with his harpoon tip, then kneels in scrutiny. ‘Ugurugizak—greasy ice.’ He clears a patch not much larger than a breathing hole, lowers a weighted sealskin bladder, and passes the line to Zach. Rising and stepping back several metres, Pani readies his harpoon. As instructed, Zach waits for a self-determined interval before hauling up the target with a sharp jerk. The boy misses. They repeat the exercise. Again Pani misses, though not by much. Further attempts merely worsen Pani’s aim, and he’s unable to disguise his mounting frustration. After a while Zach calls a halt to walk about, clapping his hands together and stamping his feet. Despite caribou skin mitts and fur-lined parka—Uakuak insisted on outfitting Zach with as much ‘proper’ clothing as would fit—the cold is quick to penetrate his defences. Pani eyes him with a worried expression, the kind a much older lad might use towards a small brother with fever, a beloved dog who’s just been injured.

‘Are you OK?’ Pani asks. ‘Maybe we ought to go back.’

‘A bit cold, that’s all.’

Unconvinced, Pani shakes his head. ‘Your face is too pale.’ He’d of course know the signs of frostbite.

‘Stop fussing, I’m fine. Let’s give it one more try.’ Pani regards Zach a moment longer, then lays his harpoon aside and tugs at Zach’s sleeve. ‘Bend down,’ he orders, and proceeds to blow on Zach’s face till it begins to sting; on his eyes—his eyes, why hasn’t he thought of that?

‘Pani, do things sometimes looked blurred to you?’

‘Not close up.’

‘How close?’

‘Arm’s length, I guess.’

What kind of cruel joke is this? Program a young hunter to need glasses in a world where there’s none to be had.

Pani roots in his pouch and hands Zach a piece of frozen blubber. ‘Here, this will warm you.’ Zach dislikes the fibrous consistency and especially the tracery of blood—the nutty flavour isn’t actually unpleasant—but he chews on it as much to please Pani as to replenish his own energy while mulling the eyesight problem.

‘You haven’t answered me, Zach. About your name.’

Persistent little bugger. ‘It comes from an ancient language nobody speaks any more.’

‘Old like all good names. And it means?’

Zach’s thoughts retreat before the barrage of questions, though it’s hardly Pani’s fault that the Purists are lobbying for their so-called simonym legislation—a proposal to rename all simus in accordance with strict guidelines which would make traditional forenames illegal, even as nicknames. Still hotly debated, yet more and more likely to be passed. Zach rubs a fist across his tattoo. ‘Someday I’ll have it removed surgically,’ he told Laura. ‘No, don’t,’ she said. ‘I like it. It’s part of you, you mustn’t obliterate it.’

‘A shaman’s name, I reckon,’ Pani says.

‘No. It means God remembers.’

Persistent sly little bugger. One of these days somebody will knock that grin off his face if he’s not careful. When Pani bends to retrieve his harpoon, Zach scoops up a handful of snow.

‘You fight dirty,’ Pani says a while later in surrender.

Zach turns away, memory lying in ambush behind every hummock and every pressure ridge like a council bleb with his snowball filled with shot. Removing a mitt, Zach stoops to run his fingers through the layer of windblown snow. Though Pani says nothing, Zach can feel his disapproval. Ice crystals are far more complex than described in school geography, even their names suggest a lyrical complexity: plates, stellars, columns, needles, spatial dendrites, capped columns, rimed, bullet rosettes, irregulars. This love of taxonomy—how much does it explain, how much conceal of the mystery of ice? It’s staggering that no two crystals are identical when composed of nothing more than water, than a hexagonal latticework of H2O molecules nucleated under supercooling. Again Zach scrapes up some of the astonishing stuff to study before it melts, as though he could somehow magnify the flakes to reveal their exquisite fingerprints.

‘Stop that!’ This time Pani feels obliged to interfere. Zach wipes his hand on a sleeve and slides it back into his mitt. The air is surprisingly dry, and between them they empty the seal-flipper water pouch which Pani is carrying under his parka. Drinking is meant to help keep the skin from freezing; Zach wonders if any simus were included in the trials. Pani goes for a refill from a nearby drift—unmelted snow only increases your thirst, he warns—while Zach turns back to the polynya to pee. As a man it’s wicked enough to lower his trousers at these temperatures; what must it be like for a woman! The splash of laughter, unmistakable, is disconcerting enough to spray his boots.

He swings round, hastily sorting out his unfinished business. Pani is staring out over the pack ice, and Zach can tell from his stance, a taut predatory stillness, that the boy is all attention. There’s something he’s trying to make out. If someone laughed, it wasn’t Pani.

‘What is it?’ Zach calls. ‘A seal?’ The wind snatches away his words. Skirting a finger of the polynya to move closer, he hears a low grinding noise which brings him to a standstill—a primeval sound of rupture, he’ll tell himself later, and the memory will become the septic forceps of sweat-drenched nightmare, tearing him from sleep. But now there’s no time to think, and no time to take fright, no time to register the frantic movements of a figure emerging from the distant iglu, the scrambling and frenzied barking of the dogs, no time to hesitate or prognosticate or levitate while, in slowtime, the ice buckles and folds beneath his feet, folds and buckles and tears the caul of time in this thin cold place.

‘Pani!’ he cries, and leaps towards the boy.

And then there is only silence, and cold, and suffocating snow.

‘He was born with a caul.’ Slowly Zach raises his head against the snowy weight of memory, his mother’s words overheard long ago, then explained and soon forgotten; frozen words, jarred loose by the quake.

The light is blue, so deep and pervasive a blue that at first he sees nothing but blue. He spits snows from his mouth, shakes his head, extracts the clumps jammed into the neckline of his parka and beginning to trickle down his back, then works himself to all fours. His own cap, oddly enough, still covers his ears though the hood has slipped back. If anything is broken, he’s too numb (or concussed) to feel it. More confidently he scrambles to his feet. Above him stretch high, near-vertical walls of ice and a jagged shard of the sky. In the strange light it’s difficult to guess how far he’s fallen. ‘Pani! Where are you? Are you OK?’

‘Zach?’ Pani’s face appears at the edge of the crevasse and he begins to laugh with predictable resilience. ‘You look like a snowman.’

So they build those too.

‘Better covered in snow than blood,’ Zach mutters but pulls off a mitt to wipe his face and cap, then right his hood. ‘What was that? An earthquake?’

Pani shakes his head. ‘An ivu.’

Zach has read about them: ice shoves driven by wind and sea currents to ram violently and often precipitously onto shorefast ice, surging landwards like a tsunami; the terror of Arctic hunters.

‘I don’t think I can climb out of here on my own. You’ll have to get help.’

Pani wriggles further over the lip to look for himself.

‘Mind you don’t fall in,’ Zach says. ‘Then we’ll be in real trouble.’

‘I already am,’ Pani says, resigned to the hiding he’ll undoubtedly get from his father. ‘Move round to keep warm. I’ll hurry.’ He disappears from sight, then reappears with his food pouch. ‘Here, catch. There’s not a lot left, but eat it up.’

With Pani gone, Zach sets out to explore his icebox, though without much hope of finding anything to use in lieu of a ladder or ice screws. He checks for his pocket knife, whose presence is more comforting than utilitarian under the circumstances. If Pani had thought to throw down his panak, it might have been possible to cut and stack some blocks of snow—far too few, however, to reach above his head, not to mention ground level. Could he score holds into the ice working one-handed? No hunter in the Arctic, boy or man, relinquishes his most important tool without a compelling reason.

The floor inclines downwards and Zach treads carefully, fearing further instability or fissures concealed by snow. A programmer’s sjambok might have laid open the ice, so whiplike is the shape of the crevasse. He reaches its far end, only to be confronted with a narrow opening through which fresh light wells. It stains the air, the snow, his skin the way a death stains the living. To staunch its course, he shuts his eyes, shuts them and listens. If you listen long enough, the ice will always speak. ‘Laura,’ he whispers.

In years to come he will cross the ice barrier many times; his White Time cycle will become the first cognoscens music to supplant the primitive interface; one of his granddaughters will marry Max’s grandson, and their daughter will bear the true if nascent Levian gift; Pani, and Lev, and most of all Laura will never be far from him; such are the whispers crossing time’s chill rift.

The walls hem his shoulders but soon widen enough for him to walk more quickly despite the gradient, though in fact he slows time and again to take in the eerie beauty of the formations. The subtle variations of colour—here, sapphire, and here, turquoise, and here, lapis lazuli, and everywhere thalassic hues as fluent as the ice itself—pale in comparison to the contours. At one point he has to sidle carefully round lethally sharp icicles suspended like cathedral organ pipes from the roof; at another he can’t stop himself from giving a tentative prod to a bubblewrap encrustation surrounding a vertical cleft, curious if the hemispheres will pop (they don’t); but mostly he simply gazes at the ice, whose chance carvings surpass any a master sculptor could tool. However frosty his breath, he doesn’t feel particularly cold. At a delicate, glittering, frozen waterfall he halts to listen once more.

The ice is ancient, Lev says. It contains questions none of us can answer.

Underfoot the passage is slick, gradually steepening so that his body tilts forward slightly, but never once does he slip or wish for a set of crampons. If anything, it feels as though he’s skating along virgin ice on immaterial blades; almost floating. Every now and then he can hear a distant creaking, but not the deep groans he’s become used to above ground. When playing at his most concentrated, or composing, or making love, his sense of time is suspended, his consciousness supersaturated at the metastable boundary between now and forever; so too this journey. Yet at the least disruption water vapour can precipitate from supersaturation to freefall. A familiar sound begins to intrude, then to baffle him: how can there be running water down here?

How indeed, Zach? says Lev. How can there be light?

A sharp bend in the passage is screened by a projecting fold with the translucent grace of a Shoji panel in blue. Striations in the walls suggest enormous pressure, as though one muscled glacier has slammed itself against another, stress fractures and torn ligaments requiring millennia to heal. The soothing flow of water is louder now, with a dreamlike quality that in itself is hypnotic. There is no stark simplicity to ice: even without temple and earthquake, this is an empire of beauty and brutality, of gratuitous light and darkness.

And still he is unprepared for the sight—the preposterous sight—which confronts him. He remembers his joy upon first discovering the cave. He remembers his renewed delight each time he’s gone back. He remembers Laura’s astonishment when she opened her eyes, and regardless of snakebite, regardless of police and parents, regardless of everything, her unabated wonder upon their return. The steam rising from the pool drifts on a current of air, thins for a glimpse of the water, thins and wafts upwards even as it regenerates itself in sleepy drifts. He takes a step forwards, then startles at the sound of wings.