Zach has gone back to studying the sculpted tusk when Nashuk appears with a steaming bowl. ‘I’ve brought you some broth.’

‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Smells good.’

She indicates the tusk. ‘Mikitok is always making something. Do you like it?’

‘It’s very beautiful.’

‘I’ll tell you the story while you drink.’ Standing on one leg, she rubs an instep with the toes of her other foot and smiles so that her plump cheeks dimple. ‘Sit down, you’re tired. Let me take off your kamiks and massage your feet.’

Zach feels his face redden. ‘That’s very kind but . . . I mean, it’s not that you’re not . . . I mean, I don’t think . . .’ He takes a sip of broth to cover his confusion.

She giggles. ‘You’re sweet. Are you sure?’

He nods, too embarrassed to answer.

‘Never mind. But sit down anyway. It’s a good story.’ She selects a fur from the heap on the platform, spreads it on the floor near the kudlik, and kneels so that her face is turned towards the carving.

In the beginning before the beginning‘, Nashuk begins, her voice taking on the lilt of a practised storyteller, ‘the world is dark and silent and covered by endless water. There is no night and no day, no yesterday and no tomorrow. Only two creatures share the world—a pure white seal and a bird black as the water, swift as the wind, powerful as a great spirit. The seal commands the sea, which nourishes her. The bird, who rules the sky, also has no need of flesh, for the air fills his belly and the cool breezes quench his thirst—except the one thirst from which he has no rest, and that is the thirst for song. The bird, you see, cannot sing, and where there should be music, there is only emptiness and yearning. So he circles the earth, soaring high above the sea, in search of his voice. He is always listening for the keynote that will unlock his throat. Sometimes his wings tire despite his enormous strength, and then he glides with the currents, allowing them to carry him downwards towards the airless depths. Towards the airless depths he glides, each time a little closer. Perhaps it hides there, he thinks. Still he does not dare to shear the water till, riding a long downwind, he spots a pearly glimmer in the darkness beneath him and sweeps low enough to skim the unfamiliar swells.’

This is my realm, says the seal. You have nothing to seek here.

The bird would answer her, but though he opens his beak and sucks in an immense breastful of air and strives with all his might, he makes no sound.

Go from here, commands the seal in disgust, for a dumb creature is no creature at all, merely an abomination on the face of the waters.

Saddened, the bird flaps his wings and is gone.

Again this happens, and again the seal sends the bird away.

But the third time the bird is so filled with grief that a tear falls from his eye onto the smooth surface of the sea. As soon as water meets water, a crystalline note rings out and a small drop of ice forms, as white as the pelt of the seal herself.

Do that again, she says.

The bird hovers into the wind, and another tear falls into the sea. The ice grows larger at the sound of a different note, as pure and silvery as the first.

The seal is entranced. And again.

But there are no more tears, for the bird opens his beak and with joy beyond measure trills and trills the two notes he has learned as he sweeps up and away into the air, his sleek glossy feathers and gleaming eyes quickly lost from sight.

It is the seal’s turn to be saddened. She has never heard birdsong, which has awakened a new feeling in her breast. The sea has always been her home and her delight, and she has lacked for nothing. So it is to the sea she returns for comfort, diving deep and swimming far. But what had once been a perfect and limitless reach now seems too dark, too salty, too cold. Too narrow to contain her spinning thoughts.

The seal finds her way back to the small island of ice. She circles it many times, ever more slowly, as she wrestles with her fear of the unknown. To leave the water! But in the end, though it requires utmost heaving and straining and panting, she clambers onto the floe.

Not without cost. In her struggle over the rough edge of the ice, the seal has torn a long gash in her belly, now bleeding and sore. She licks the wound, from which an ugly bulge protrudes. I’m dying, thinks the seal. Unexpected sensations—the wind in her fur, the unyielding surface beneath her limbs, the weight of her flesh—are as frightening as the wound itself. I’m dying, and will never hear that song again. She lowers her head over the brink so that she may at least look upon the sea, and begins to weep.

Her tears flow copiously. As they drip into the water, a wildflight of notes is released until enough ice has been added to the island that her tears can no longer reach the sea. But by then she has ceased weeping: the bird is echoing the song, embellishing it with rich harmonics.

He alights at her side.

You’re injured, he says.

He examines the wound. Though alarmed by what he sees, he will attempt to save her, for the gift of his voice suddenly seems empty without someone to share it. He thought it enough to know of her existence—to remember it, to imagine though he couldn’t imagine its watery course. It is not enough.

There is something living inside of you, he says. I shall cut away some of your skin for it to escape.

He could make quick work of it, for his beak is long and sharp as a harpoon, but he stops from time to time to sing so that the seal remains calm and doesn’t struggle. Nor does he want to tear her skin more than necessary. Still he is astounded when a head and arms emerge from the wound, then a featherless, furless torso.

Who are you? he asks the beautiful creature.

A woman, she replies in a low voice, shaking out her seal-white hair over ivory breasts.

At once the bird is enchanted by this new being.

Have you always been inside the seal? he asks.

I am the seal. It’s your song that has brought me forth.

I will sing ceaselessly if you remain with me, he says.

I cannot fly, nor you swim. We would sicken and die on the ice.

He has no answer to this and turns away to hide his sorrow. The seal woman lays a hand on his wing and strokes the lustrous black feathers. The bird has never felt the touch of another creature; his heart begins to beat with unaccustomed haste.

Do not grieve, she says. You have a beautiful voice, which will always sustain you.

I would gladly relinquish my song for your company.

You would mourn it once it was gone, and hate me for it.

Is there no way for us to be together?

There is one. You must return to the air, and I to the sea, but when your loneliness becomes too heavy to bear with song alone, you may come to the ice and summon me with your sweetest notes. And while we are together, you must grant me a portion of your music, so that I too may sing.

Like this? he asks.

The seal woman accepts the gift. Tears fill the bird’s eyes as he listens to her sing. His remaining caws, though harsh, seem to please her, for she lays her head against his breast.

And so it is agreed. The bird flies and the seal swims, but henceforth whenever there is need, the seal removes her skin and joins the bird in song.’

The broth is cold by the time Nashuk has finished. Zach drinks it anyway, then hands her the bowl. ‘Thank you, especially for the story.’

‘It’s one of my favourites, though I don’t get to tell it often.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s kept for the eve of a White Seal crossing. Stories enter our dreams.’

‘Dreams don’t always come true.’

‘This is the Sea Mother.’

‘Then I’d best make out a wishlist before I sleep. Any special requests?’

Nashuk frowns and rubs a finger round the rim of the bowl. ‘Why are you making fun of me?’ she finally asks. ‘Am I too ugly for you?’ Fingers flutter over a breast. ‘Too skinny?’

‘Of course not!’ he exclaims, now thoroughly disgusted with himself. He should have been more careful of her sensibilities. ‘To dream of the seal, I’ve got to be alone. No . . . you know.’

She looks up and smiles. ‘I didn’t know that. Shamans don’t usually talk about their journeys.’

This time, though sighing to himself, he doesn’t bother to argue. ‘Some things are hard to put into words.’

‘That’s why we forget our dreams, I guess. I try to remember where my soul has gone when I sleep, but I’m not Pani. Grandmother says his dream colours are already strong, someday he’ll be able to control wherever and whenever his soul travels, like all shaman.’

Pani would make a better apprentice for Lev than I ever could, Zach thinks. Any of these people.

Despite Nashuk’s storytelling skill, Zach’s sleep is thankfully dreamless, yet he wakes with a rare headache which reminds him of the time he drank a couple of lagers at school, ending up in the infirmary with the disgruntled ministrations of the nurse as placebo, and detention looming as inoculation against further depravity. He’s desperately thirsty too, and fights leaden limbs and drowsiness to drag himself upright. His tongue is furred, and there’s a metallic taste at the back of his throat, as though those lagers had been left open in the sun too long, but the icy drinking water helps to clear his head a bit. A piece of dried caribou in hand, he goes back to the sleeping platform. Puzzled, then disbelieving, he stares at the furs after pulling back the upper layers to air. The impression from a second body is unmistakable, and when he passes a hand over the elliptical indentation, he can feel the residual warmth as well. For a moment he’s tempted to believe that Nashuk had stolen back while he slept, but on second thought realises she’d never breach shamanic taboo. Once again he brushes his hand over the hollow. The hairs he collects are as long and silky as Laura’s, and smell lemony when he brings them to his nose. But he’s never seen any quite as white as these. He curls them into a neat tight coil, then on impulse unwinds them and plaits them into a strand of his own hair. Let the hunters think what they like.

His headache has begun to abate. While he chews his strip of meat, washing it down with more water, last night’s tale returns in all its vividness, as though Nashuk had indeed crept back to retell it in his sleep. He lays the water flask aside and stoops to pick up Mikitok’s carving. Then hastily sets it back down, just managing not to drop it. Then picks it up again, his hand trembling.

The ivory seal-woman has emerged fully from her skin, which lies crumbled at her feet.

Chapter Thirty-Seven