Absorbed by the intricacies of the sonata, Zach hears nothing until a small clump of snow slides to the floor by the cold sink, followed by a second. He lowers the clarinet to listen, but assumes it’s only some pieces breaking off from the roof of the entry porch. Almost immediately, a shouted greeting brings him to his feet. Casting the instrument onto the sleeping platform, he snatches up the panak and hastens to peer up the narrow passageway. The voice doesn’t sound hostile.
‘Lev? Is that you?’ he calls out with more hope than conviction.
‘Hunters,’ comes the response.
‘What do you want?’
A laugh, followed by a second and deeper voice. An older voice, Zach guesses. ‘A mug of tea would be welcome.’
Zach lowers the snowknife. ‘How many are you?’
‘Three. Two and a half.’
It’s the half that intrigues Zach, and he bids them to join him, leaning his knife within easy reach against the storage box.
Traditionally dressed, the three remove their mitts, parkas, and outer boots, while Zach puts water to boil and sets out dried fruit and biscuits. Hospitality first, questions afterwards. (Could these be Lev’s hunters?) The older man settles on the fuel drum, keeping an avuncular eye on the half, a boy perhaps Max’s age, who first arranges the parkas on Zach’s line, then collects the mitts and boots to take to the cold sink, where he flips them inside out and scrapes the cuffs free of snow and ice with his panak. Hardly a word is exchanged, so well does the lad know his routine, but his eyes, bright with curiosity, dart often to the clarinet. The younger man refuses a seat on the sleeping platform, preferring instead to squat by the stove. After the last mitt is hung up to dry, he takes out a chunk of frozen meat from a leather pouch for the boy to shave into thin slices.
‘Caribou,’ the man says, flashing, of all things, a facetted gold gem implanted in perfect teeth. And their accents! It has to be Mishaal and that bizarre sense of humour of his. ‘It’s good. Eat.’ It’s also raw, but Zach takes a tentative bite, then gnaws away upon realising that the boy will not touch his share till the adults have eaten.
The tea passed round, all of them stir in plenty of sugar, and for a while slurping noises fill the iglu, a discreet belch or two. From somewhere another pouch appears in the younger man’s hand.
‘No thank you, but please go ahead.’
Soon the pall of tobacco mingles with the smell of stale sweat and drying fur, all smells which remind Zach of Lev and Bella and the glow of a small, improbable stove in a blizzard. There’s never been a run where things hurt so much, never a run where the rabbit hole loops straight back into his own cerebral vortex, and looping, traps him in the prism, or chasm, of memory. Chesterton: ‘It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.’ How long can he, a simu, yes, and yes, one of their trained Fulgriders—one of their chosen—yet willy-nilly flesh & blood, piss & puke, little more in fact than a rough, slouching beast, just how long can he remain in the gyre and reel and icy thrall of this place, his thoughts ever snowier, his memories ever more arctic, before he dims and dims and dims, finally to go out altogether like a guttering lantern? Are there limits to how much irreality the mind can absorb? He’d like to believe that despite Fulgur, despite reason, despite all that he knows about the interface, he’ll turn round one balmy April afternoon at a tap on his shoulder and there, there will be Lev, smiling his irksome, unrepentant, cream-lapping, and utterly beautiful smile. He’d like to believe in answers, not riddles. Damn it, he’d at least like to believe he’ll remember the questions.
‘What are you hunting?’ Zach asks, a safe start.
‘Seal,’ says the younger man.
‘I thought they’re only found on the sea ice at this time of year.’
‘It’s not far,’ says the boy shyly.
The man clouts him on the head. ‘Mind your manners, Pani.’
Pani drops his gaze and murmurs an apology.
‘Haven’t you got any dogs?’ Zach asks.
‘Out on the ice,’ the older man says. ‘We’ll be leaving soon, we’ve come by canoe to fetch you.’
‘What for?’ Zach asks rather too bluntly.
The two men exchange glances. ‘We could use an extra hand,’ the older one says. ‘One of our men has taken ill.’
‘How did you find me?’
‘In the Arctic there are few secrets.’
Oh yeah? Obviously you haven’t run into a certain Lev. ‘I’m sorry, but I prefer not to kill a seal.’
The older man’s nod, though slight, seems to convey a message to his fellow hunter, who removes a small object from his pouch but keeps it hidden in the palm of his hand. Zach crosses his arms over his chest and studies his kamiks in order not to stare.
‘It’s good to have the proper respect and humility,’ the older man continues, ‘particularly when there are signs that the ice is threatened.’ He pauses to draw on his cigarette, then coughs. ‘In difficult times sacrifice and survival sleep under the same skin.’
‘I wouldn’t be of much use,’ Zach says. ‘I’ve never even held a harpoon.’
‘Nor will you be holding one. The people do not kill the Raven’s wife.’
A lame wisecrack about skewering his own foot plummets from reach. ‘Who?’
‘She who gives life.’
‘Sea Mother. Woman. White Seal. She takes many forms.’
Zach waits till his voice is sure to be steady. ‘The form of a stranger? A young woman?’
‘That will depend on your journey.’ He forestalls Zach’s protest. ‘A shaman with the gift of raven song is not bound to this world and this time and this body.’
Now he knows Mishaal is up to his tricks, Mishaal, whose father was a professor of anthropology renowned for his research into shamanic cosmologies and who, unlike Zach, never opens the seven-volume collection of myths—‘Imagine, a grown man wasting his life on fairytales!’—which remains, even unfinished, the classic work in the field.
‘I’m not religious,’ Zach says. ‘I mean no disrespect, but it’s not what I believe in.’ And I’m certainly not anybody’s medicine man.
‘The universe is indifferent to your belief, my son.’ Silence falls, a silence in which Zach hears the wash of their breath against a perilous headland. There is only a single mast to which he might be lashed, but he himself has splintered it. He sculls into deep water, smoke-wreathed minutes pass while he slips further and further from shore. The light is cool and blue like ice. Then Pani shifts on his haunches and hums a few notes. Sound can travel far in the high Arctic, and hunters learn very young to pay attention to anything out of the norm. At first the sound is no more than a vibration along Zach’s skin, as if a tuning fork had been struck against his ribs, against the hull of his fragile skiff. Skin is permeable, and the transformation to note takes place beneath the skin, or in the skin itself. ‘Your skin is singing,’ Laura said. Zach closes his eyes to see her better, but there’s no resisting the melodic line Pani has cast. The boy has a good ear.
‘And the seal?’ Zach asks.
‘She bestows her spirit to return with you,’ the old man says. ‘That is the nature of renewal.’
A single tone, sustained but faint, so that Zach glances round to see if the others have heard. Pani is staring at the clarinet. Sensing Zach’s scrutiny, he looks up. ‘Please will you make it sing?’
Again the younger man raises his hand, but this time Zach stops him. ‘No, it’s fine. I’m happy to play for him.’
Zach gives the boy some children’s songs, classic rock, a little jazz.
‘And the song you were playing when we came?’ Pani asks. ‘It’s very beautiful.’ He repeats a fragment of the melody in a clear, true, still unbroken voice.
‘You have a feel for music,’ Zach says.
‘This son of mine is forever drumming and singing, even the women’s throat singing.’
Zach laughs. ‘They used to say something like that about me, too.’ He addresses Pani, curious if the instrument will respond to another. ‘I’m sorry, that song isn’t finished yet. But would you like to try my clarinet?’
‘Oh yes, please.’ He looks guiltily at the older man. ‘If Grandfather permits.’
Within a short time Pani teases a simple tune from the clarinet, then embellishes it with all the signs of a real affinity for improv. Perhaps it’s easier for a child to establish a rapport with Lev’s instrument, perhaps it’s got something to do with his upbringing. Wunderkind isn’t a word sapiens like to use for those who don’t belong to their own little tribes, but Zach is no sapie. He knows musical hunger when it lifts its head and howls.
‘Astounding,’ Zach says to Pani’s father. ‘Your son is very gifted.’
‘Don’t puff him—’
‘Angu, a stranger may not understand our ways, seeing envy where there is only a father’s love and legitimate concern.’ Uakuak interposes, a man of some diplomacy; a man of authority. To Zach, ‘No one doubts my grandson’s hereditary promise. The spirits will choose.’
Pani launches into a last tune on the clarinet, his dark eyes gleaming mischievously. Slowly Zach turns to regard the boy. It must be a coincidence, mustn’t it? Why shouldn’t Mishaal or one of the other programmers happen to fancy a folksong he’d taught Max, who took to humming it slightly, but maddeningly, out of tune?
‘You’ll bring your clarinet?’ Pani asks when finished. He gives his father a cheeky grin. ‘Grandmother says music is the best lure for the White Seal.’
At Zach’s nod, Angu offers him the item concealed in his hand. ‘An amulet. Carry it at all times.’
‘To prevent harm?’ Zach asks, careful not to smile.
‘To help call your soul back from its journey,’ Uakuak answers. ‘I’ll not deceive you, my son. The White Seal is very seductive, and sometimes men prefer to remain with her in the spirit realm.’
The trinket, not surprisingly, is a seal carved in ivory.
Zach lingers behind with an eye to suitable carving material. To break off a table leg seems reasonable till he considers its club-like appearance and, moreover, its suggestion of reckless impetuosity. A perfectly good table in exchange for a child’s toy? If there’s any spare wood or bone at the hunters’ camp, he’d like to show the boy how to whittle a simple flute or recorder. The duets he and Sean used to play, Pani would love that. (Just Pani? Admit it, Zach, you’ve been getting a bit lonely, musically speaking.) At school he’d even fashioned a series of end-blown flutes complete with mouthpiece, rather like small keyless clarinets, but he couldn’t imagine what to use for reeds on the ice.
Sweeping the torch in one final, slow, reluctant circuit of the iglu, he thinks of all the leave-takings there have been in his life, most undertaken without any real sense of finality. You never believe things end, do you? One day you’ll go back. One day your mum or dad will defy all reason and all evidence to come for you. One day you’ll build that snowman . . .
And the worst is, he does go back, again and again and again, till he’s carved a story out of hardpack snow which will melt in the first good thaw. Like this iglu, he thinks grimly. It’s not just the monkeys who have to be dragged from the slushpile of their ice-palace dreams. And what the fuck is the matter with him anyway, wanting to teach a cyber shadow to construct a clarinet? About as sane as chiselling it from ice.
Swiftly he slithers from the iglu. Pale light is rimming the horizon, with stars glittering through broken cloud overhead. In a few days the sun will rise for the first time. There’s hardly any ground wind, and Zach can see the small party gathered round two canoes moored on a natural jetty of ice about 100 m distant.