Chapter Thirty-Four

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Zach stumbles from the canoe, chastened by the ease with which Uakuak, despite his age, has pulled for hours against a sea becoming rougher and rougher, a surly headwind. They’ve beached near a camp from which several young boys erupt at a brisk trot to help drag the kayaks over the groundfast ice to safety. A necessary precaution, Angu explains, because the wind, already erratic, may shift direction and tumble debris about. ‘Like feathers from moulting snow geese,’ says Pani gleefully, with a child’s delight in cataclysm.

Even from a distance Zach can see that the hunters’ camp is surprisingly good-sized. Still warmed by exertion, he hangs back until Pani takes his hand. ‘Come on, Zach, I’m hungry.’

As they approach the camp, some of the dogs rise so sluggishly to their feet, and some not at all, that Zach reckons they’ve just been fed. A rich meaty aroma wraps its fingers round his gut and tugs. Saliva spurts into his mouth, and he stops to sniff.

‘Fresh seal,’ Pani says. ‘Yum.’

The large snowhouse is built like a spoked wheel, with a communal workroom at its hub and tunnels leading to private family quarters radiating outwards on all sides. At a guess, there are about forty people sharing the winter camp. Because he’s a stranger, Zach learns from Pani, he’s been given a small chamber of his own, one vacated in his honour by a young couple with a tiny infant. He washes and changes into the traditional clothes that Pani’s big sister Nashuk offers him, her eyes as lively as her brother’s. Pani reluctantly returns Zach’s pocket knife, fascinated as any lad with a new gadget he’s been allowed to play with.

The day’s hunt has been successful, so there’s plenty of stew to go round. Zach eats with the men and older boys, then listens sleepily to the talk while they mend dog harnesses: the typical male-only jokes, the swapping of stories, a complaint or two, a long, detailed, occasionally derailed and increasingly heated back-and-forth about tomorrow’s hunt which reveals a good deal about the social fabric of this little community. Newcomers are encroaching on traditional territory, rogue hunters, as yet unsighted, who don’t scruple to slaughter dogs and leave their carcases strewn about. There’s some mystery about the tracks, but Zach doesn’t follow all the speculation. (Did someone really say rabbit head snow?) These outsiders appear to hunt with large birds of prey, since outsized feathers have been found twice near the remains. Egged on by Angu, a number of the younger men argue for an aggressive course of action, a trap or ambush. Uakuak has Pani fetch a black feather to show Zach, who, despite its striking length and exquisite indigo shimmer, is unable to identify its source. Perhaps now the old man will quietly drop his shaman nonsense. There are no sideways glances at Zach, no sly or provocative remarks, no cross-examination—no questions whatsoever, in fact. If the men are disappointed, they’re too polite to make it obvious, and he returns their courtesy with a tale about a girlfriend, a pair of thermal pants, and a jealous wolf pup, only slightly exaggerated.

He basks in their laughter, some of it undoubtedly relief that, at least for the moment, tempers have been diffused. In this crowded, smoky, noisy, almost festive room, constructed from little more than ice, how easy it is to be seduced by hospitality and warmth, by simple acceptance! Through the long years at the Foundation he’d carried mistrust in his back pocket. Friendships would struggle to survive among the tensions and rivalries and loneliness, the undercurrents and homesickness, part boarding school and part something else entirely. Adult hypocrisy is destructive to kids, but nothing like the harm that comes from treating them like lumps of clay, malleable but inanimate. And a touch rank. You need to matter.

One thing he’s never done is fool himself. The Janus don’t want Zach, they want Corvus. They want a leader and a hero and a legend. They want a fantasy.

But dreams matter.

Pani tugs at his sleeve. ‘Come on,’ he whispers, ‘they’re going to play games just now. If you tell them you’re tired, you can teach me some more songs.’ He remembers his manners. ‘Please, Zach, if you don’t mind.’

Zach suppresses a bubble of laughter. The boy’s face is so earnest.

‘Aren’t you tired too? You’ve been out all day.’ Pani’s eyes light up when Zach adds, ‘Paddling the kayak as hard as your dad.’

‘I’m strong!’ Pani boasts, then immediately looks contrite. ‘I mean, I’m not really anything special, I can’t even handle more than three dogs at once, all the other boys are stronger than me, even most of the girls.’ He glances round, then drops his voice. ‘Don’t tell Grandfather I was bragging, please.’

Laura hadn’t told him how she felt about children. Not the sort of thing you talk about at their age—and not with an auger.

Zach makes his excuses to the elders. Considerably taller than his hosts, he tries to ignore the ache in his stiffening muscles as he hunches over to follow Pani through the tunnel, wondering whether he will ever stand under a hot shower again. At the entrance to Zach’s quarters, Pani lifts aside the caribou-skin hangings which serve as a door. The iglu ought to be warm and softly lit, since Nashuk left a kudlik burning, but as Pani steps into the room he squawks in surprise and grabs at Zach’s arm.

‘What’s wrong?’ Zach asks, but in a moment his eyes have adjusted to the bright glare. Fatigue forgotten, he motions for Pani to remain by the curtain and approaches the slab of ice on which his clarinet rests.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Pani whispers.

When Zach glances back, the transformation—or illusion—is complete. The skin hangings have disappeared, and the two of them are standing in a circle of free-standing ice columns at least three times Zach’s height, each as flawless as the next. As far as he can tell, they’re spaced at equal intervals from one another. Slowly he swivels in place, marvelling, speculating, their strange perfection suggestive of something deeply mathematical—Sean once said that the difference between man and machine is creative pattern matching (‘You’ve got to teach those silicon buggers what to look for, no?’), and the difference between a good musician and a great one, knowing when (and how) to subvert the pattern. Zach counts, then puzzled, makes a second pass. After two further attempts in which he positions Pani by one of the pillars as a place marker, he gives up in defeat. Either their number isn’t constant, or there’s some other principle at work here.

‘Where are we?’ asks Pani, returning to Zach’s side.

‘I wish I knew,’ Zach answers. ‘But I don’t think we’re in any danger.’

The temperature, though cool, is perfectly comfortable, and the air wears the crispness of freshly laundered clothes, with a hint of bleach. Underneath their feet is a layer of hard-packed snow which extends in all directions. The landscape, flat and featureless, bears no resemblance to any place he’s ever encountered, particularly because there is no sky and no horizon, no depth and no gradient. He’s reminded of the whiteouts on training sessions and once on a previous run, but for the pervasive blue colour. And in a whiteout, visibility is almost zero, whereas here you seem to be able to see forever.

‘Stay here,’ Zach says.

His tattoo is itching, and he knuckles his chest as he walks beyond the perimeter of the ring, stopping to brush the nearest pillar cautiously with his fingertips—cold, but no jolt of electricity, no sudden revelations, no transubstantiation. Ice.

To reach Ultima Thule, the ancients believed, would be to command the most northern place on earth, the most remote. For centuries it was dreamt of, searched for, evoked, feared. Like all such grails—or Arctic mirages, depending on your place in history, your temperament—Thule claimed hundreds, maybe thousands of lives, most of them unrecorded. Now with the Poles mapped and melting, and ice hotels offering package tours and honeymoon suites, Thule has retreated from myth to cyberspace: ‘We finally own reality,’ Zhou said in his acceptance speech for the Wolf Prize.

A few paces beyond the columns Zach glances back to check on Pani, who has picked up the clarinet. ‘Go ahead, blow it a bit,’ Zach says, hoping to keep the boy from straying while he himself investigates. When he hears the first notes of Let It Be, which he’d played for Pani at their first meeting, he looks over his shoulder to flash appreciation, but his smile fades as soon as he realises that he hasn’t covered any distance. He turns on his heel and tries walking backwards away from the circle, but his eyes tell him that he’s merely moving in place. Then he notices the cylinders of ice. Originally clear, they’re now slightly cloudy, and a fine network of cracks is beginning to appear on their surface the way a frozen puddle fractures underfoot.

‘Stop!’ he shouts, already halfway across the intervening space.

The columns return to their pristine state as soon as Pani removes the clarinet from his mouth. He hands it to Zach, who licks his lips the way he usually does before preparing to play, then licks and licks again. Pani watches him without a word. Finally Zach raises the clarinet and blows a single note, his eyes on the columns. When nothing happens, he plays a C-major scale in one octave, very softly. This time the ice begins to glow with a distinctive lemony smell—no, that can’t be right. He takes a deep breath and tries a chromatic scale. The rainbow of sensations along his skin brings tears to his eyes, and he’s afraid if he doesn’t stop he’ll embarrass Pani with an erection. ‘I want to memorise your skin,’ Laura said, ‘but every day—every minute—it’s different. Always yours, yet always different. I’m going to need a very long time to try.’

Zach reaches below his neckline for Laura’s pendant, whose chain is tangled with Angu’s leather thong. Encircling both ivory and gold, his fingers tingle—a dread of failure transcribed in bits.

‘Her spirit sings,’ Pani says. ‘She must be very beautiful.’

‘Yes, very.’ Then after a moment of disorientation, ‘Who?’

‘The White Seal. She always chooses a powerful shaman.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ve got a good imagination. I’m not a shaman.’

‘But you’ve brought us here.’ Pani sweeps his arm in a wide arc. ‘And your music changes the patterns in the ice.’

‘Yours did too.’

‘Maybe Grandmother is right. Tornarssuk often visits me in my dreams.’

Zach looks swiftly round, but if the air stirred his hair, it was from an imperceptible source.

‘A polar bear talks to you?’

Pani can’t quite suppress the note of pride. ‘It’s a sign. A powerful white bear will come to swallow me so that I can travel to the spirit realm and be reborn.’ Then shrewdly, ‘You’ve also seen Tornarssuk.’

‘Not in that way.’

‘Yes, in that way,’ Pani insists in a manner which adds years to his age. ‘You’re a stranger, you don’t know the legends. While you were playing, your skin changed.’

‘My skin?’

‘Your spirit skin. Everyone has one, but yours is very strong.’ Pani squints at Zach. ‘Right now it’s salty orange like char roe.’

‘I hope your family doesn’t decide to roast me.’

‘You shouldn’t joke about spirit matters!’ Then his eyes glint. ‘But of course, a shaman follows other rules.’ His grin lacks only the telltale ring of chocolate. ‘When I’ve done something they don’t like, it’s kind of useful.’

Zach laughs, then opens his hand to show Pani the pendants. ‘Do you really hear her?’

Pani nods.

‘Then I’ll need your help to find her.’

‘She’ll be my Seal if I sing her, not yours. She’s different for each of us.’

Zach doesn’t know what to say to this—doesn’t even know if they’re speaking the same language. In the last century technology had driven most shamanic societies to extinction—occasionally underground. And now Wu’s theorems have rendered non-scientific models of consciousness entirely anachronistic: stuff for the historians and cultural anthropologists and odd fringe group (homo sapiens is a notorious recidivist), though the big-time religions have managed to hang on through some curious rationalisations. Bizarre rationalisations, which at the Foundation were always good for a laugh at mealtime—without warning, Axel winks at him in that cocky way he had before Martens and Jiao and that cold bitch Malovich ground away his ‘rough edges’. A few kids had shattered beneath the rasp and file of discipline. We’re simus, for godsake. Why have we taken it?

Why hasn’t he tried to find out what happened to Axel?

Axel, who’d replaced Donald as their roommate. Axel, who played poker like a pro. Axel, who started an investment club—invitation only—with first-year returns which might have been beginner’s luck if the second and, sadly, final year hadn’t provided Zach with a portfolio he’s been smart enough to hang onto. Axel, who in that second year took to mumbling right before he fell asleep, nothing Zach could make out. The cantillated rhythm of it though. In sleep Axel’s eyes would flicker wildly beneath lids of delicate veined glass. And Gould was loyal enough to keep his mouth shut, and plainly unwilling to risk his stake in their roommate’s market savvy, even when Zach ended up, night for night, crooning lullabies in a half-forgotten tongue, guttural yet magical like all the secret languages of childhood.

(Another of those shameful secrets—afterwards, he missed comforting the tormented boy.)

Zach shifts his gaze to an imaginary point in the distance, or what ought to be distance. His earliest memories are of music—sometimes lilting, sometimes mawkish, sometimes discordant; never less than enthralling. His mother sang at bedtime or at work: certain songs ambush him even now with a frisson of pure feeling, of longing primal and inexplicable. At once he hears the voice, the glorious liquid voice of the cello which drew him away from the stall and through the small rutted carpark, past the rusting postbox with its dangling door, down the flagged path, and into the ramshackle farmhouse itself. ‘It’s the Adagio from the Haydn Concerto in C,’ Marc said. ‘Do you want to hear it from the beginning?’ Nobody in his home played a string instrument, and Oupa’s recorder would only come out on special occasions. Once he was allowed to cycle on his own, he followed the sinuous melodic trail to the farm, several kilometres distant. Two men, sapiens both, yet they didn’t mind his visits. Sean gave him his first clarinet, taught him the rudiments of wind technique and theory. They continued to play duets long after Zach’s skill outstripped his mentor’s. Men who deserved a better end. For a short time in the latter half of the twentieth century, homosexuality was tolerated, even welcomed. He’s often wondered if the reversal of public sentiment had anything to do with the advent of augmented cognition.

Zach snicks his tongue in annoyance. There’s something refractive about the illusion of infinite distance that is forcing his eye inward, as though to generate a vanishing point within himself. He’s always depended on the extraordinary accuracy of his senses, with hearing quite possibly the last he’d relinquish voluntarily. But what happens when far becomes near? Or cold becomes sweet or noisy or heavy? Or all of them? Or none? He rubs two fingers over his tattoo, then drops his hand in dismay when he hears the itching in his through his beyond his skin.

‘You see,’ Pani says. ‘Shamans speak in music.’

‘I promise you, Pani, I’m not a shaman.’

‘It’s all right, I won’t tell anyone if you want to keep it secret.’

‘And I won’t teach you another note if you persist in transposing me into a different key.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Listen carefully, I’m going to try something.’ Fixing his gaze on the nearest column, he raises the clarinet to his mouth.

There is no flash of blinding light, no roll of thunder. Lev simply steps from the ice. A Lev for each pillar, astonishingly, but then Zach blinks and the multiplicity is gone.

Tornarssuk,’ Pani breathes.

Don’t mock him, Zach begs Lev silently. And indeed Lev acknowledges Pani’s awe with an easy, almost indulgent grace. Teachers ought to be screened for downright decency; parents too. Something tells Zach that this man—man?—would consider it an honour to be called a teacher. He smiles at Pani, then strides to the caribou hangings as though their reappearance were perfectly natural. ‘Your family will soon start fretting. Go back now,’ Lev says, parting the skins. ‘Your turn will come.’

Pani has trouble wearing solemnity for long. As he bows, his eyes fillip a look of delight and mischief and smugness at Zach before slipping into the access tunnel. Lev adjusts the pelts so that there is no crack for a draught to penetrate, while Zach, to dispel the feeling of sway and dip, the slight sense of vertigo, closes his eyes and runs a hand over the clarinet, not trusting his eyesight. Not quite trusting his fingers either.

‘You’re still thinking too literally.’ Lev laughs in his old way. ‘But you’re learning.’

Zach clamps his mouth shut. He is not going to ask a ream of foolscap questions. Lev holds out his hand for the clarinet.

‘You know, I prefer homo musicus,’ Lev says.

‘What?’

‘There’s a universal music that underlies all cognition. Among other things, this instrument is a very sophisticated translator whose task is to render itself superfluous.’

‘Simus hear differently than sapiens, translation’s impossible. Unless you’re talking about other forms of life?’

‘Ears aren’t anything more than channels. The mind generates hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling . . . ‘ Lev taps the clarinet. ‘Music precedes language. Your scientists have yet to discover that music is deeply quantangled in neural structure. Without music there’s no consciousness. Even emotions are essentially musical.’

‘Does that mean the deaf can be taught to hear?’

‘You’ve told me about Max, haven’t you?’ He holds the clarinet aloft. ‘Play.’

Zach reaches for it, but with a sweep of his arm Lev propels it towards one of the pillars. Zach braces himself for an impact. Instead, each of the columns reverberates with a different tone overlaid with subtly fluid intratones.

‘Go on,’ Lev says.

Zach stares at the clarinet, now embedded in one of the pillars. ‘You don’t need it,’ Lev says.

Zach shrugs and closes his eyes. It takes him a while to quieten his mind, but then he begins to picture his Buffet in his hands, its body as familiar to him as his own. He fills his lungs and belly with air. Its mouthpiece moulds itself to his lips, warm and a bit tremulous. At first there is only the first tentative tremolo which far out in the middle of the sea could mean nothing or everything, which is a mere echo of a note, an audible shiver on the surface of the water, but which slowly and inevitably begins to build, gathering momentum, becoming now a line of melody, now a movement of Laura’s sonata. As the piano adds its voice to the rising sonority, the music surges ever wilder ever louder ever closer to the icebound coast.

It’s beautiful, Laura says.

Zach flounders, swallows a mouthful of brine. The roaring in his ears syncopates into an erratic heartbeat, and when he opens his eyes Lev and the columns have disappeared.

‘Laura?’

The windy hissing of burning oil, bitter in his nostrils, is his only answer. Wearily he settles himself on the edge of the sleeping platform without touching the clarinet, which is lying exactly where he left it before the meal. Should he be unnerved? Or just relieved? His eyes pass over the meagre possessions of the family who have given up their privacy for him—the all-important kudlik, a large kettle, some battered dishes and utensils, a coil of rope hanging from a length of caribou antler, skin sacks, a spear. And in the alcove where the platform meets the fur-draped wall, an item even more unexpected than the clarinet.

Zach goes over to examine it closely. Feeling a bit light-headed, he drops to one knee and rubs his eyes, which are beginning to smart from a faint smokiness in the air. His fingers are drawn to the creamy ivory.

A length of narwhal or walrus tusk, he can’t tell the difference. The upper half of the figure delicately worked, its grain and glow evoke living skin in the same way a Michelangelo statue breathes and sweats and pulsates with freshly oxygenated blood. But like the Captive Slave the carving is only half finished: a woman’s head, arms, and torso are struggling to emerge from the tapering piece, struggling to escape the restraint of tusk. Her hair lies in a long plait along her back, so finely sculpted that each strand seems combed in place. Zach runs his fingertips over the lower half—smooth and polished, with a small lift to the tail. Perhaps finished after all. Another fucking seal, he thinks savagely, but never the right one.

‘Nashuk will tell you the story just now. I’ve asked her to bring you something hot to drink, something to help you sleep.’

Caught off guard, Zach glances round to find Uakuak standing in the entrance.

‘Would you like to come in?’ Zach rises gingerly, but the dizziness has passed.

‘Just for a moment.’ Uakuak takes a seat on the sleeping bench and gestures for Zach to join him. ‘I don’t sleep much any more, but my wife insists that I rest my old bones.’

‘In my world, men half your age don’t have your strength and stamina.’

‘My spirit grows restless. I’ve had a good life, and there’s not much I regret, but one thing I would have liked is to travel to other worlds. Alas, I don’t have your shaman’s gift. My soul will do its journeying soon enough, though.’

Zach is quiet while he struggles to find a measure of truth, not just courtesy. ‘Many in my home believe as you. I wish I could.’

Uakuak’s scrutiny lasts till Zach is on the verge of getting up and moving away. The old man asks gently, ‘Who is it you’ve lost? Your wife? A child?’

Zach is silent, staring at his hands.

‘The dead stay dead, Zach, there’s no changing the past.’ The quiet words of a man who has no need to prove anything. ‘There is only another past, separated from us by a thin layer like young black ice. In dreams we may catch a glimpse beyond the darkness, while a shaman sees further into these realms. And there are so many realms, far more than stars in the sky, drops of water in the sea.’

And far more clichés where they’ve come from, the old Zach would have thought. Yet snowbound though he is, this wily hunter would have far less trouble understanding quantum theory, if properly explained, than most of Zach’s own classmates. Quantum reality is counterintuitive to the average sapiens. Countless times in physics class he’s heard them ask, how can something’s nature become fixed and definite only when it’s observed? And even more often, what do you mean by random? Science is supposed to be able to predict an outcome, that’s what science does.

Science used to: drop a Newtonian apple and it fell in a predictable time with a predictable velocity through a predictable trajectory. But now science deals in probabilities and nonlocalities and emergence and Wu’s Qlions. And still without an adequate unified theory to consolidate general relativity and quantum mechanics. Cosmic reality eludes even the cognoscens mind—and might always, if the Purists have their way.

‘The worlds to which the spirit travels are real, as real as your own,’ Uakuak continues. ‘It’s only natural to be afraid. Shamanic journeys are dangerous, and the journey to the White Seal the most dangerous of all.’

‘Please believe me, Uakuak. I’m no shaman. My people use special tools to make many things’—he can’t bring himself to repudiate their lives—‘and many distant journeys, but nothing remotely supernatural.’

Except, of course, that these aren’t lives, or shouldn’t be. Till now Fulgur has only uploaded test participants in the rehab programme, plus a few volunteer research subjects. Everything else is background: programmed modules for verisimilitude, like a sophisticated version of gaming avatars.

Uakuak laughs, then places a hand on Zach’s forearm. ‘Tools can’t teach us how to live. There is no distinction between natural and supernatural, least of all to our true senses.’

‘If I’m a shaman,’ Zach asks, ‘then why don’t I know how to find the White Seal?’

‘Tomorrow while we hunt, the women will ready a cleansing bath, afterwards you will fast and rest and, if it’s your practice, take some of the tea Kiviuk, our shaman, prepares from the plants he himself collects and dries. No one will disturb your solitude. In the evening we will join our music to yours, our drumming, and Kiviuk will guide you till the White Seal appears.’

‘And if she doesn’t?’

‘You have already heard her calling, haven’t you? So Lev has told us.’

Damn it, he should have known! Cautiously, ‘Lev visits you?’

‘A fine shaman from the far south. Whereas you, he tells us, are angatkuqpak. A shaman’s shaman.’

Yeah, Sean would have been proud of him. This time he curbs his wee daft cognie tongue.