On the third day . . . no, Zach can’t be sure any more about the passage of time, it might be only two days, or already five. Without change there’s no measurement, and it’s only the amount of his food and fuel that changes. At least he supposes it changes, he seems to have become muddled in his calculations. When he opened the drum after his last restless doze—he no longer sleeps properly—there was more paraffin than the time before. And he could swear that he’s already eaten all the dried apricots, yet now he’s staring at a whole handful. He lays them out carefully on the table to count them: 1, 2, 3 . . . 27. He has no pen or pencil, but this time he’ll carve the number into a block of ice. And if that thaws a bit in the heat from his stove before refreezing, there’s always his skin—his snowy infinite skin.
Go inside, Zach.
He holds out his arm towards the lantern. The Arctic winter is waning though the sun has not yet pierced the horizon, whose skin bulges with gathering light. A delicate apricot warmth flushes the air, and he breathes deeply, deeply. The scent penetrates his pores, as nourishing as fruit. No need to worry about food when the entire universe is prepared to feed him.
Zach, listen to me. You must go back into the iglu.
‘Max?’ His voice creaks in the long-unused oarlock of his throat, and the sound startles a school of fish into the open—saffron cod, he thinks. Their only natural predator is the seal. One of them nibbles at his hand, another nudges his groin, still another drifts into the seaweed tangle of his hair. He swims a lazy stroke or two. ‘Max, come and join me.’ The froth of bubbles makes him laugh, and he wonders why he’s been so afraid to speak. To tell her, all he needs to do is migrate with the cod, who have a lifespan of at least eleven years—time enough to savour their silvery flanks, palest yellow belly, creamy throat.
With a gasp he breaks the watery surface of his mind to find he’s lying near-buried in a pillowy drift of snow against the wall of the iglu, which is probably what has saved his life. He doesn’t move. Doesn’t speak. There’s a hum like the crackle of radio static in his head. Stiff and drowsy, he’s glad to let Max sweep away the snow, brush it from his numb, waxen face. What’s happened to his mask and goggles? Max gets him to his feet.
At least you didn’t strip, Max says.
They make slow progress through the deep snow, though the wind is light. Zach keeps one mitted hand on the iglu for support, tracing its circumference until they reach the entrance. Max jumps into the trench, then helps Zach slither down. A dusting of powdery snow clings to Zach’s lips and eyebrows, even his lashes. The bucket he abandoned after filling with snow stands where he left it.
You first, Max says. I’ll hand you down the bucket.
By now more alert, Zach turns and searches the sky. He remembers that he’d seen the aurora borealis and went to climb the iglu for a better look. There are still ripples and folds of colour, as if large panels of diaphanous watered silk in amethyst and rose madder and jade hang from the stars and billow in the solar wind. Mesmerised as before by the flutter and flow of light, as ethereal as the spirits of the Inuit dead, he stares till his eyes blur. He blinks rapidly, repeatedly, then turns to Max.
‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Your sister—’
But once again he’s alone.
Though inside the iglu it’s warm, almost hot in fact, Zach turns up the stove to maximum capacity, the lantern as well, yet is still shivering when his coffee is ready. He adds more sugar than usual and gulps down the first few mouthfuls before he can restrain himself. Somehow he’d resisted his impulse to scour the vicinity for Max, merely peering instead over the rim of the trench, but the jumbled tracks told him nothing and he’d hastened indoors. Even those few minutes had been risky, he acknowledges as he pours himself a second mug. He’d begun to tremble so violently that he was forced to leave the bucket outside to retrieve later.
‘I guess you’re not ready to die just yet,’ he mutters under his breath, not quite abandoning his vow not to talk to himself. ‘Is that all you’re supposed to do? Keep going till you go mad?’ Louder still, ‘Damn it, Lev, what now?’
He examines the blisters on his fingers, but in relief concludes that the damage is superficial; he has no desire to lose any digits. Then he rubs his hand over his rudimentary beard, trying to calculate from its length how long he’s been here. But like an obstreperous toddler, time simply won’t cooperate. And despite his so-called prodigious memory, he can’t recollect his last shave. Was it in the tent with Lev? At basecamp? (He backs away from other questions, more fundamental yet invidiously fanged.)
Still groggy, he’s tempted to lie down and sleep. Something tells him, however, that he needs to stay awake and moving for a while longer, and in any case he’s a bit afraid of his dreams. Once the circulation is completely restored to his fingers, he picks up the clarinet. The blisters make it difficult to hold, but he’s nothing if not stubborn. The more it hurts, the more he perseveres; the more he perseveres, the more it gives him purpose, gratification even. He wonders if pain can become addictive, here in this limbic nightmare.
‘What am I doing wrong?’ he asked.
‘Maybe if you hurt me a little . . . ‘ Laura said.
With a cry of anguish, Zach throws his clarinet to the floor, heedless that it may break. Wanting it to break. Wanting all of its virtual keys to fly like silver bullets through the air and put an end to the bite and suck of memory, its persistent taint. But though the instrument bounces several times, then rebounds off the fuel drum to clatter to a halt near the sleeping platform, it seems undamaged. He waits—perhaps he won’t pick it up at all. Another of his lies, he tells himself grimly, he’s never been any good at letting go.
He crouches before the instrument without touching it. There was a wooden recorder once, his grandfather’s, before his first clarinet. One keepsake, they’d said when he was consigned to the Foundation. With cinematic clarity he replays the final morning—the sleek noiseless black car with tinted windows, the dented music case clutched in his lap, the permanent smile of Mrs Holmes, their housemother, whose breath smelled of peppermints—to this day he gags if obliged to brush his teeth with the usual sort of toothpaste. Remembers too the other new boys, especially Donald with his pale blue, nearly colourless eyes—watery, tremulous eyes that stayed open long after lights-out. Remembers the high electronic gate, the endless gravel drive, the grounds. The neat bunkbeds, the computers. The smell of roasting lamb and potatoes and something lemony awakening his hunger like an unwelcome guest who’s dropped by for dinner (at least they’d always been well fed). Sometimes he wonders what made him take the recorder, rather than his beloved clarinet, rather than a book, one of his dad’s, say, what made him take the recorder rather than the ivory and ebony chess set his mum had brought with her from home, rather than that silly teddy who’d lost an ear ages before he’d passed it on. There was no way he knew about the envelope at the time, tucked away in a faded satin pocket amid folded sheet music and a handwritten fingering chart. Maybe because it was the very oldest thing he owned, the recorder on which Oupa had taught Zach’s mum to play? Though he still hopes it’ll turn up on an auction site, common sense tells him its splintered fragments were thrust vengefully—gleefully—into a campfire.
At last he retrieves the clarinet and blows a few tentative notes, which sound clear and true. He sits down on the sleeping platform, trying to empty his mind of all else. That’s the thing about music—he thinks of sex as a wonderful impossible biological prank, the sort of trick the Monkey King himself would have delighted in devising, but even the simplest drumbeat or chant, as any shaman knows, slips the trap of time, of thought, of memory.
Whenever agitated, Zach chooses the lucidity of Bach—not fire and frenzy, but cool fresh water welling from a subterranean source, the very mineral impurities and air bubbles of his own inadequate renderings a reason to keep drinking and drinking. After a good beginning, his breathing falters. He starts again. A few phrases in, he lets the clarinet drop to his lap. Angrily, he wipes the tears from his eyes, then jams the mouthpiece to his lips and drives a loud jazzy uplifting tune out the bell until a delighted laugh fills the iglu. He gasps and swings round. ‘Laura,’ he calls out before he can stop himself. There are no echoes in this house of ice, and very few shadows.
Where is she?
He knows he ought to eat, but instead finishes the lukewarm coffee, lowers the flame on the lantern, and strips completely. Ignoring his sleeping bag, he constructs a nest for himself among the caribou furs. He’s not going to pretend any longer, he wants Laura so badly that he’ll do anything to reach her. Anything to tell her what he should have told her when he was too proud, too stubborn, too scared to speak.
For a few minutes he watches the light flicker along the pelt-lined walls, playing an old childhood game. He’s back in the Foundation woodlands after dark, where he’d sneak off by himself to lie in a moist nest of bracken and leaves, not doing much of anything—listening, mostly, and watching the trees, the shifting latticework of black and deeper black. He shared the night with all manner of creatures, who tolerated his presence so long as he made no threats. His heightened senses meant that he was never alone, but it was a respite he needed again and again from the uninterrupted thereness of the other boys, the teachers, the staff—a thereness as stifling as the air in the tube during a severe heatwave. After a while you couldn’t breathe.
He’d also learned to masturbate in those woods, where there was no danger of being overheard by your roommates. The other boys didn’t seem to mind, they joked enough about it and even coordinated their wank-off sessions, but he always pretended to be asleep. A couple of piss-taking skirmishes, then they let him be. Later on he told them he was meeting a girl from the village, which soon proved easy enough to arrange. And he was a pretty good pimp, too, though of course no one ever called it that.
You used them, he could imagine Laura saying. Maybe so. And why not? What did she think they were busy doing? ‘You’re a terrific fuck,’ Melanie used to tell him. No, that was Georgina.
He can remember when he stopped. No matter how tightly he shuts his eyes, the scene in the shed intrudes—the knife, the smell of dank mould and piss (his own), the hatred on their faces; the elation. ‘Reckon you can rape our girls?’ If the croakers had been in a hurry, they wouldn’t have thrashed him first. During the week in hospital he’d tried hard to be thankful for the stitches, the pain. But it wasn’t at all hard to be grateful to Smyles, the cranky gardener whose name and stuttering were always good for a laugh—dour skinny Smyles who, hearing the thuds and groans, came to investigate. By that time they’d already got Zach’s trousers and pants down by his ankles. He still sends Smyles a card for his birthday, goes round with a bottle at Christmas. Even crankier with age.
One of the softest calf pelts is just the right size. At first Zach lies on his back, then he curls on his side, finally he tries stretching out full length on his belly, the thick fur of the bedding almost coarse enough to abrade his skin. Laura’s pendant slides back and forth under him. He pictures it gleaming in the candlelight, swinging gently between her breasts. It’s warm by the fire, and the sweet smell of woodsmoke will cling to their hair. Her cheeks are flushed; her eyes lit by the flames, backlit by something very much like mischief. On occasion he’s wondered if girls find an erection amusing, if not downright preposterous.
In the end he gives up, his body is refusing to respond. Maybe hypothermia can do that to you, maybe it’s this place. It’s happened before, especially when he’d miss taking his serum on schedule. He pulls the furs up over his face and settles in for a long night. At the moment even Chloe would be welcome.
Sleep doesn’t come. His body aches with exhaustion, bouts of shivery spasms seizing his muscles from time to time, though he’s warm enough. But his mind will not settle, writhes like a spawning eel in the weed mats of the Sargasso Sea. There’s no sunlight to penetrate the waters, no clear blue depths. It’s as though undiscovered species await him, if only he could permeate the murk.
The Zach she saw, he’s gone now. There remains only a fleshless skeleton of the person he might have become. He slides a hand from under the furs, holds it up towards the low flame, and spreads his fingers. The light reddens the webby parts of his skin to near translucence. He remembers how she once matched their hands, palm to palm. With an inarticulate sound he throws back the covers, scrambles to his feet, and bounds to the lantern, then slaps his hand onto its hood. He holds it there, feeling nothing and everything, till his palm begins to shrill in agony. Laura. He clenches his teeth to choke off her name. He will not say it. Words as slippery as eels have always been his self-defence, spawning guile and deceit and spite.
‘Why won’t you talk to me?’ Laura cried.
Because the sea is fathomless, forever hidden by sargassum. Because it’s not as warm as you imagine. Because we’d drown.