In keeping with the folklore/mythology theme early on, I want to move a bit north where the ice covers the ocean in the winter and the Inuits continue to live much like they did in the past. Here, on Little Diomede Island, a mere two miles away from Russia, it’s not only the whales that live under the ice.
I present my story, “The Girl Under the Ice”, and hope it doesn’t completely turn you off from visiting Alaska, the last frontier.
Endless patchwork ice and gray cliffs shrouded in the last fogs of summer; dried walrus meat, water squeezed from snow and rain, saved for the harshness of winter; to the West, and the not-to-far-off Big Island, a land of the future, both in its great machines of creation and in the slow movement of time; to the East, endless floating icebergs and, far, far off, the mainland, a place of new age wonders, a forbidden place.
These things, along with the stilted house built precariously on the island slopes, were Nuliajuk’s entire world. At least until everything changed.
The most exciting time of winter, The Leveling of the Ice, had come and had gone. Their only machine of creation, the backhoe with the rusty joints and worn treads, emerged from under its tarp, carved the runway, and returned to its hibernation. All the while, Nuliajuk slept and dreamt of the sea. The outsiders, swooping in from the sky on their yellow, metal bird, had also come and gone, leaving in their wake a whir of excitement and supplies from the Other Land.
Nuliajuk slipped on her kamiks, fashioned by her father for her twelfth birthday nearly three freezes ago, and skipped down their rickety staircase four steps at a time, careful to avoid the rotting step. The crunch of stone under her feet traced her path all the way to the water’s edge. When the heavy snows came, she’d move across the island as quiet as a ghost in her boots.
Though the elders were long since at work, the sun was still shy. Dawn reared her head, but wouldn’t come fully alive for another couple hours, as many hours as she had before her chores began anew.
Nuliajuk spent what little time she had to be a kid playing along the seashore. The blue waves called to her, sung her name among the seals and the walrus, among the fish and the whales. One day, she’d be one with the sea just like the beluga and the humpbacks.
It was cold enough for some of the thicker ice to allow her weight; she had to be careful wherever she let her feet fall. She knew better, but the temptation was more than her young heart could handle. She slid along the surface of the ice, pretending the float would take her all the way away. She delighted in her make-believe form of ice-skating. The rush of speed made her squeal and cry tears of joy that froze to her cheeks if she didn’t wipe them off quickly enough.
Sometimes, she’d press her chubby cheeks and nose against the ice and watch the bubbles spiral up. If she was lucky, she’d catch a school of fish streaking by or she’d get a kiss from a seal. In those cases, she felt the phantom tickle of the seal’s whiskers and laughed and laughed.
This time, only bubbles. Endless, spiraling bubbles. Then, a shadow arose from the depths, moving faster than anything she’d ever seen. What almost looked like a seal’s flipper, but longer and with sharp knife-like claws at the end, blocked the rest of the creature’s body from view. It tapped the rhythm of her favorite song on the ice.
Oh, that was lovely, she thought, abandoning all fear of the mysterious creature. “What else do you know?”
The thing kicked off the ice with flat, webbed feet, and darted like a torpedo towards the edge of the ice. Nuliajuk hesitated, but a sweet siren song touched her ears and drew her forward.
A thing so sweet could not possibly wish me ill. If only I could get closer and sing along…
She ran across the ice, sure-footed and elated, until skidding to a stop at the water’s edge. Here, she shivered with bad feeling.
Maybe I should turn around.
As she turned towards the village, a splash sounded from the open sea. The hum of song became a tumultuous affair, simultaneously as beautiful as a harp and as jarring as war drums. At its source, a scaly, green woman, if a creature so grotesque and fish-like could indeed be considered a woman, with razor-sharp claws and an amautik tied snuggly behind its back. But this creature possessed no motherly qualities to speak of. The water around it boiled and steamed.
Nuliajuk lunged away from the creature, attempting to slide across the ice on her belly fast away, but it moved too quickly. Almost as quickly than it had moved through the water. Its claws dug into her ankles and her sides as it pulled her closer and closer. She struggled for purchase, raking her hands on the ice to find something solid to grab onto, but found nothing.
A scream caught in her throat at the same moment it pulled her under. Ice filled her lungs and froze her limps. The cold water absorbed into her clothing and poured into her mouth. Then, relief. The creature stuffed her into its pack with bumpy, slippery hands and Nuliajuk was overcome by womblike warmth.
She became, finally, one with the sea, never again to take part in The Leveling of the Ice that marked each winter or feel the chickweed under her bare feet in the summer. But that was okay. She was now the sea, and the sea was her.