‘She looked through him, but his face was that of a seal and it drew her gaze.’
Extract from The Walrus Mutterer
By Mandy Haggith
Published by Saraband Books
In the morning everything was frozen: the drinking water barrel, blankets, ropes, deck planks, benches, boots, coats, toes, fingers, tears. Even the sea.
Faradh’s nose froze. He cried. He buried himself in his bedding roll. Li wrapped himself around him to try to keep him warm.
Ussa strode the length of the boat wrapped in her polar bear coat. She was a pacing fury. Sometimes Pytheas paced with her.
Toma stood at the tiller, chewing. Periodically he said something. Rian heard him say it over and over, not knowing what it meant. He was saying it to Ussa and to Pytheas. Eventually he said it differently and something changed. Rian did not know what it was.
Og said, ‘Thank the Mother.’
Toma came and stood over her. She closed her eyes so as not to have to see him. But he tapped her on her shoulder. She looked through him, but his face was that of a seal and it drew her gaze. He was holding out a piece of the whale meat he chewed, offering it to her, and then he hummed, bringing his face close to her right shoulder so she could feel his breath on her neck. He hummed almost inaudibly into her ear the song he had sung to the whale. Staring at her, wild eyed. Tugging her out of herself.
She reached a hand out from under her blanket and took the meat. She curled her fingers around it and closed her eyes again. Her hand retreated with its gift under the blanket. Toma gave an insistent poke. She resisted, then lifted her lids. He pointed out on deck, and then touched her lips with a feather touch. His eyes spoke. ‘Come.’
Something in her decided to accept the challenge. She allowed him to pull the puppet inside her and to do his bidding. She was, after all, only a slave now.
They were sailing towards the sun and the sea was milky. They were among an archipelago of ice islands. Everyone was looking to the right. A white bear was ushering two cubs away across the ice, looking over her shoulder at the boat and striding purposefully away, her two followers scampering to keep up. At the edge of the floe she poured herself into the water and the cubs splashed in after her. She let them climb onto her back and swam off. Before long she was swallowed into the seascape, a blur, a dot, gone.
Rian’s attention returned to the ice. Near to the water line it was translucent blue. The pieces ranged in size from large plates to small islands. They were all, subtly, in motion, a teeming yet inanimate hoard in a bath of jade green sea.
A seal with a frozen moustache lying on one of the ice slabs regarded them with curiosity but no fear. Another, closer, slid into the sea. Two kittiwakes flew by, tilting sideways to get a better view of them.
The boat nudged its way though slush and Toma began to sing the free spirit song. Rian joined in and let her voice escape out over the freezing ocean.
Ahead of them a sea spirit with a single-horned head lifted from the water, puffed and rolled back under, showing them the way. Toma had taken over the tiller from Li, who moved between the ropes, tightening, slackening, keeping the sail taut with the breeze behind them. It seemed to be helping. Li did not sing, but he pointed to the water where the creature had been and breathed its name. ‘Narwhal.’
The Walrus Mutterer by Mandy Haggith is published by Saraband on 21 March priced £8.99.