ven though the temperature had not risen above freezing in nine months, the bear carcass was not frozen. When Sadaluk, the listener of the Ice Trappers, poked it with the narwhal tusk he used as a walking stick, the flesh rippled beneath the coarse white pelt. It was a full-grown male, past its prime, with battle scars denting its snout and a ragged strip of cartilage in place of its left ear. Dead for at least thirty days
, Sadaluk decided, squatting by the creature’s head. The eyes and soft tissue around the muzzle had mummified in the dry air, and drift snow had compacted in the Y of its splayed rear legs.
You did not need to be a listener to know it for an ill omen.
Nolo’s dogs had sniffed out the bear--most unluckily for Nolo as they were leashed to his sled at the time. In their excitement, the dogs capsized the sled and scattered Nolo’s load of willow cords and blocks of frozen whale oil. Nolo was thrown from the runner, landing hard on the river ice. By the time he got to his feet, the dogs and the empty sled had reached the carcass a quarter league downstream. Straight away Nolo knew something was wrong. Hungry dogs didn’t stand three feet away from a potential meal and howl like half-crazed wolves. Hungry dogs ate. Nolo was young and still distracted by the pleasures of his new wife, but even he knew that.
Glancing at the rising sun, Sadaluk drew himself upright. His elbow joints creaked--a recent development that both bothered and delighted him. Age was his stock in trade, and it did not hurt a listener to have a body that snapped as it moved. Reminding the young of their youth was one of his tasks. Still, it did not mean that he liked lying within his sleeping skins every morning, waiting for his body to start acting like something that might actually take his weight.
Sadaluk drilled his stick into the river ice, cleaning. Behind him he was aware that Nolo and the other five hunters were waiting for him to speak. As was proper, they stood in a half circle facing into the sun. All knew better than to cast a shadow on a dead bear.
When he was ready Sadaluk turned to look at them. The river’s slipstream riffled their caribou pelts and auk feathers, and blew their exhaled breath against their faces. All were winter-lean and strong-bodied. Kill notches on their spears told of varying degrees of bravery and luck. Nolo was the youngest, but none of the six were over thirty. Their faces were still, but Sadaluk could see through the holes in their eyes to the fear that slid between their thoughts.
“Nolo. Retrieve your dog whip.” Sadaluk pointed to the strip of salt-cured sealskin that lay curled in the hackled ice at the river shore. It had been left behind yesterday in the excitement of finding the bear.
Crouching to control the length of his shadow, Nolo shuffled upriver. Hearing the hunter’s soles padding against the ice, Sadaluk inspected Nolo’s feet. For some reason Nolo was wearing his formal dance boots, sewn from thin late-summer hides. The sound produced was softer than with his normal snow boots. Satisfied, the listener turned his attention to the remaining five men.
With a backward flick of his stick, he said, “I name this bear Saddlebag. He was delivered by the gods. Inside him lies a message. Shura. Puncture the hide.”
The listener glared at the hunters. The bear scared them, and that meant he, Sadaluk, had to scare them more. When Shura hesitated to do his bidding, the listener spider-jumped toward him. It was a small trick, and doubtless all gathered on the river this day had seen it before, yet five grown men stepped back in astonishment and fear. Old man, eh?
Sadaluk thought with a small nod of satisfaction. Old and bold. Sneaky and creaky
Scared and unprepared
But he could not let them know it.
“Prick the belly,” he commanded.
The morning sun washed the river channel with silver light. Snow, sucked dry of moisture by half a year of glacial winds, drifted in the air like goosedown. The village lay three hours by dogsled to the west. To the east loomed the towering mountains that men named the Coastal Ranges, but Ice Trappers called by their real name, the Steps to God. Underfoot, the river ice was frozen to a depth of five feet. Water flowed darkly beneath the surface, fed by deep and untraceable springs. Tracks scored lightly into the surface ice told of dozens of journeys to and from the village. Winter was long, and sometimes a man or woman simply loaded their sled, harnessed their dogs, and took off. Sometimes they never came back...but Sadaluk would not think about that now.
His thoughts must be with the bear.
Shura Broken Nose was the hunter with most respect in the village. The kill notches on his spear stretched from the seal gut bindings that held the obsidian point in its socket all the way down to the bear foot grip. Normally at this time of year Shura and the other men would be out on the sea ice, hunting seal. Hunting had been bad this year, though, and the sea ice had formed early and grown as wide as a new country: The Land of Missing Seals.
Leveling the spear at shoulder height, Shura sprung toward the bear. Hoops of bone and mica charms suspended from the hem of his coat chinked like shells. One of the four remaining hunters inhaled sharply. Mananu, the eldest, pressed his thumb pads into his eyelids, sealing them closed in prayer. The spear shot forward. Air thucked
as the point punctured the hide.
A sickening squelch was followed by the hiss of escaping gas. As Shura yanked back the spear, black liquid fountained from the wound. It stank like gangrene and fuel. Someone gagged. All save Sadaluk stepped back. Downriver, Nolo loosened his grip on the dog whip, letting the hard black leather spool onto the ice.
“Mananu,” commanded the listener. “Give me your horn cup.”
The bear carcass deflated as Mananu raked beneath his caribou skins, locating his treasured drinking cup. Sadaluk imagined that if a man were to strike a flame at this moment the entire river trench would ignite.
Mananu pulled out the fist-sized cup and handed it to the listener without looking him in the eye. Age had yellowed the horn. Mananu’s grandfather, Tunnu Fat Man, had spent three days belly-down on the sea ice, pushing himself forward with his toes to get close enough to slay the great tusked walrus whose horn the cup was carved from. King Walrus was the creature’s name. It weighed over two tons and provided enough meat and blubber to feed the village during the last and hardest month of winter. The tusks were four feet long. As was fitting they were Tunnu’s to claim and own. Tunnu had offered the right tusk to the Ice God, and a week later the sea ice had begun to break. The second tusk, the left one, he kept for himself. The cup in Sadaluk’s hand was carved from its diamond-hard base.
Closing bare fingers around the horn, Sadaluk approached the carcass. He was a listener, and that meant he stayed still while others moved. You can only hear what others cannot when you make no noise yourself. His earlobes had long gone--chewed off by decades of frost--but his hearing was close to perfect.
“Ears like a wolf”, his mother used to say. “Boy can hear a storm coming before the gods have finished planning it.” It was true enough. Sadaluk had heard his mother die the night before she’d stopped breathing. He’d pushed his left ear against the space between her breasts and listened to the fatal rhythm of her heart. He could detect fissures within river ice by the tick
of compression beneath his feet. And he did not need to leave the dugout to know when the Northern Lights were firing: he could hear the crackle of energy jumping between states.
Mostly he listened to his dreams as they whispered of the future and the past and the invisible fibers that bound both domains into one. But on days like this he listened for the sounds left over from creation.
The Ice Trappers had many gods--gods of ice and sky, sea and seals, fire and rain, smoke and flies. They held power in their jurisdictions, but nowhere else. One force beyond the realm of nature held power in all states and territories. This force had birthed the gods. Whether it was a god itself or something else was a question Sadaluk had no time for. He was a man, and therefore unfit to probe the mysteries of creation.
He could, however, hear them.
Kneeling by the bear’s sleek white head, Sadaluk let the sounds of the river drift from his mind. The squeak of ice beneath the hunters’ boots, the tinkle of charms, and the shuss of the wind faded. All grew quiet. Black liquid trickled from the wound. This close, Sadaluk could smell its true nature.
The listener of the Ice Trappers leaned forward and pressed the cup into the bear’s coarse underfur, just below the wound. With his free hand he massaged the belly. Liquid flowed. Oily green streaks flashed on its surface as it rolled into the cup. A gobbet of soft black blood plopped into the tusk, splashing Sadaluk’s hand. The substance was warm. It tingled as its fluids evaporated.
It was alcohol, but it was not pure. The bear had died a month earlier, from what--starvation, disease, old age--Sadaluk did not know. Nothing had attacked it. Beneath its fur the black hide was intact. It had died whole; its torso sealed. Dense fur had insulated the internal organs from the cold, and soft tissue had not frozen. Heart muscle, kidney fat, lung tissue, sinew, offal and grizzle had liquified. And then fermented. It started in the stomach, in the curdled mix of bile and partially digested food that was known as chyme. Acids continued working after death, releasing heat. Usually the heat dissipated--most carcasses were too small or their pelts too thin to retain heat--but occasionally with caribou and white bears, the heat did not escape. It built.
Sadaluk had come across only two such carcasses before. The first was when he was apprenticed to Lootavek, the one who had listened before him. Lootavek had ordered hunters to drag the bloated caribou carcass onto the sea ice and thrust it through a seal hole. That way the two most powerful gods--the gods of ice and sea--might annul the bad omen. All, including Sadaluk, agreed the strategy worked, for a week later the tribe’s second best hunter died after stepping on grease ice that was masquerading as shorefast ice with a covering of new snow. To lose one man, however valuable, to such an ill omen meant the tribe had escaped lightly.
The outcome with the second carcass had been less fortunate.
Two children had stumbled upon a dead she bear while out sledding in the frost slags south of the Whale Gate. Just as today, when he had been roused in the dark hour before dawn, Sadaluk had been summoned to view the carcass. Unlike today, he had been young and untested, and still in possession of two fine earlobes. Lootavek had died the previous summer, and Sadaluk had been anxious not to make any mistakes.
So of course he had gone right ahead and made some. He had not listened, that was the thing. When faced with the dead bear--the mummified head and soft, bloated torso--he had let the sound of his own fear drown out any message from the gods. Foolishly, he had supposed that because Lootavek’s solution had worked so well that the best course would be to duplicate his plan. Sadaluk too had ordered hunters to haul the bear onto the ice. And then stood by and watched as the seal hole was enlarged with picks. Only when the hunters began to wedge the carcass through the opening, did the listener feel his first thrill of apprehension.
The hunters had been lazy and the hole was barely wide enough to take the bear. Pressure had to be exerted. One of the men clamped his big meaty hand on the bear’s snout and shoved down with all his might. Something tore. The hide split open like an overripe fruit and black oily liquid sprayed the hunters.
Sadaluk never forgot the smell. Forty-two years later and it still stank the same. If a god rotted it would give off fuel. And that fuel would smell like this.
“Nolo,” the listener snapped, addressing the young hunter who was still frozen in place upriver. “Close your mouth and use your feet. Join your brothers.”
As Nolo tucked the dog whip into his belt and started down the ice, the listener used his stick to lever himself to standing. Tremors passed through the liquid in the cup as he rose. Forty-two years ago he had made a mistake. Drink
, the gods had whispered, and in the arrogance of youth he assumed he had misheard them.
A death occurred in the family of every man who came in contact with the black liquid that day. Not just the men who were sprayed, but those who stepped on the oil slick later and stamped black footprints around the hole. The deaths occurred over a single season. Newborns did not take the teat. Scrapes and knife nicks grew gangrene. Grandmothers hacked up blood. Hunters ran out of luck on treacherous spring ice. Seventeen died in all, and the listener accepted responsibility for every one of them. The Ice Trappers had not blamed him. People who lived on the edge of the world, in a land that lay frozen for three out of four seasons, were not accustomed to laying blame. The expectation of death was always present. Trust had been lost, though. Enthusiasm for his ceremonies waned. Journeys were undertaken in spite of his warnings. Hunters went out on the sea ice without his talismans. When strangers appeared at the Whale Gate they were not automatically escorted into the listener’s presence for questioning.
Trust had eventually been regained, but Sadaluk did not fool himself over the reason for it. The accepted way of regaining trust with an Ice Trapper was to outlive him. Sadaluk No Ears had excelled at that. All the hunters who had helped haul the bear to the seal hole were now dead. Many of their sons and daughters were also dead. To those still living, the story of the bear had lost its sting. Sadaluk’s youth had been emphasized. The dangers of not following the guidance of gods had been lost.
None of the hunters gathered here today had been alive back then. As Sadaluk raised the horn to his lips, he looked from man to man. Some were stoic, some wary, some afraid. Trust was the common thread, steadying each of them on the ice. The worst kind of luck lay on the frozen river at their feet, but their wise and crazy listener would take care of it for them.
, Sadaluk wanted to cry out. To hear is not the same as to save
The listener glanced at the bear. Its small eyes were sealed closed. They used you
, he told it silently.
Just like they’ll use me
Sadaluk pushed the walrus cup against his lower lip and did not breathe. He listened. When he was ready he exhaled...and then inhaled. Fumes sucked up his nostrils by the contraction of his diaphragm entered his brain. It was as if a giant squid had injected him with ink. The blackness was instant. Dizzying. It killed all information entering his brain from his eyes. He had been prepared for something....but how could you prepare for a visitation from the gods?
Opening his mouth, the listener tilted the cup. As the liquid hit his tongue he had a sense that everything was tilting--his body, the river ice, the world as he knew it--sliding out of control and into free fall.
The listener fell. He had lived a lifetime, and now he fell one.
His mind was a ball of mercury--heavier than his body and dropping at a greater rate. He experienced a small wrenching sensation as his thoughts broke away from his flesh. The blackness intensified. It was absolute and unbounded. Sadaluk perceived that time was its measure, not distance. No man with a notched stick could record its depth. It existed without end, cold and inert: the exhaled breath of creation.
The listener fell through it with no expectation of landing. His senses fled from him in an order that seemed to make sense: sight, taste, touch, smell. Before his ears gave out he heard the wush
of air escaping.
Sadaluk’s thoughts came in broken spurts. Did I drink poison? Am I dead?
The gods were not benign, he knew that. One man’s fate was nothing to them. He could fall for an eternity and they would not blink an eye. Yet there was something turning in the darkness that was beyond them. Something infinitely old and massive. Sadaluk remembered a tale Lootavek had told him about the ships that sailed from the Fortress Isles. Their turning circles were so large that they would not stop if a man went overboard. By the time a ship completed a full circle, the man would be long dead. Sadaluk was struck with the idea that the presence in the darkness turned for no one. Not even a god.
Yet it was in motion. Sadaluk could feel the pressure building: a mountain bearing down on a square foot of earth. The presence had an absoluteness of purpose: it claimed. Space. Existence. Time. Its outriders might be evil, cunning, savage, but the thing that moved was implacable--merciless not because it was cruel but because it was beyond mercy. It existed outside of nature, on a plain Sadaluk perceived only as unknowable. He was an old man, possibly a dead one: it wasn’t hard to accept that his mind was too small to comprehend all things.
So he listened instead. For thirty-five years he had listened without earlobes; how hard could it be to listen without hearing? The habit of stillness, the assembling of a quiet, habitable space in which to wait for the sounds to come, was deeply entrenched in him. All he had to do was exert his will: a relaxation of muscle, a suspension of thought and it was done.
And Sadaluk No Ears, son of Odo Many Fish, and listener of the Ice Trappers, became the first man, dead or alive, to hear the end of existence. If he’d possessed ears it would have made them bleed. The sound was vast and deeply alien, punctured by world-shattering booms and explosive cracks. Everything was being ground up, sucked in and then destroyed so completely that nothing, not even the memory of its smallest particle, remained.
Sadaluk feared for the Ice Trappers; for Nolo and the hunters, for their wives and children, the sled dogs, the white bears. Himself. Images lied--you only had to walk half a league onto the sea ice to know that--but sound had never failed him. Sound was truth.
The concussion grew louder and closer. The presence, the thing that turned for no one, was moving on a tangent to intercept him. Not to meet or acknowledge him--Sadaluk knew better than to flatter himself with such claims--but simply because he, the listener of the Ice Trappers, was falling in its path.
It was the gift of the white bear.
Or its curse.
Cold burns. The listener fell and burned. He was stripped and scoured, smelted in the raw black furnace of extinction. Down he plummeted, screaming without words, learning all the ways a paralyzed man feels pain.
As he drew closer to the presence he shrank and hardened. Thoughts were blasted away. The quiet, habitable space began to fade.
Sadaluk listened as it diminished. He listened. And learned.
When he woke in the darkness later, irrevocably changed and branded, the first words from his mouth were, “Nolo, do we live?”
Sadaluk understood then the truth of how the world ended. What was precious was always lost first.
He could no longer hear himself speak.