Authors: Ekaterina Sedia
It took Peter a few days of experimenting with his cameras to get a sense of the lighting he could really be comfortable with. There was no sense to bringing home substandard photos of Jens’s walruses, and the landscape shots might do if he needed filler, or even if he could write another article for a different market—though heaven knew it as hard enough to interest hard-core environmentalist backpackers in the plight of the Greenland walrus, much less anyone else. The Inuit, it appeared, were not much given to cozy chalets and picturesque hamlets. The Inuit had not focused on the tourist trade.
As he puttered around the research station with his cameras, trying not to get underfoot, Peter found his eyes drawn more and more to Anna. For such a large woman—at least two inches taller than his six-foot-one, and broad to match—she moved lightly. The planes of her face and the club of her black hair intrigued him.
But when he offered to help her dry the dinner dishes, she gave him a flat, displeased look. “I know what you want,” she said in clear English, “and I’m not hired for
kind of help.”
Peter stammered and retreated, professing his innocence, but he thought of his grandmother, cleaning white people’s houses so his mother could go to college and then to medical school, and he was ashamed of himself.
The next day Jens took Peter on the sled, down to the bay where the walrus herd basked. Jens warned him not to stray too close to the walruses. “They move much faster in the water,” he said, “but they can hurt you well enough on land, and not even mean to. I’m experienced with them; you’re not. Stay well back. That’s what telephoto lenses are for. And besides that, we’re trying to keep them from getting the idea that humans are safe. With the hunters out there—their instincts and natural behaviors will be their best protection.”
Jens carried a small crossbow for tagging and tissue samples—a new development, he’d said, and far safer for walruses
humans than using anaesthetic to tag them. He still wandered much closer between the sunning beasts than Peter would have felt comfortable, even without the warning. Jens always seemed to know which way the walruses would shift and when to leap clear. Some of Peter’s pictures were of just walruses, but others showed the parka-swaddled form of the man who studied them, moving with sure-footed wariness among them. He looked forward to more shots over the next few days.
But Jens was shaking his head the whole way back to the research station, and when they got in, he cornered Lotte immediately.
“The herds were mixing,” he told her.
“That’s incredible!” said Lotte, and she switched to Danish, where she could more rapidly question him about the walruses’ behavior.
The next morning, they told him with some regret that this unusual occurrence needed Lotte’s attention, and he would have to stay behind.
“Sorry, Peter,” said Jens. “The sled will only take two, and it’s important to Lotte’s work.”
“Of course. I understand. I’ll just fix up my notes, putter around here. I can take your noon ocean readings, if you like.”
Jens glowed. “That would be most helpful, thank you.”
So Peter watched Jens and Lotte speed off with the dogs. He got a raised eyebrow from Anna when he went back into the house, but when she saw he was going to leave her alone, she relaxed into the day’s duties.
Peter wandered restlessly as soon as the readings were finished. He wished he hadn’t taken so many landscape shots in his first days there—the column was already half-written, and there wasn’t much else for him to do.
On a whim, he started poking around the boxes and cabinets in the lab. Some held instruments he’d seen in use all over the world. Others were unique to the Arctic, and still others appeared to be overflow for the pantry—tins of peaches and boxes of crackers in neat rows.
One huge box in the corner contained a deflated Zodiac raft, neatly folded. Peter saw something whitish in the corner, where the raft had curled upwards. He pushed it aside in idle curiosity, then stopped short.
It was a walrus tusk.
Pulling the folded raft out, he unearthed the other tusk, perfect gleaming ivory. They nestled on a bristled, dark brown surface. It smelled musky and pungent. He pulled that out, too, gasping: the skin of an adult walrus, whole.
Surely Jens and Lotte couldn’t be poachers, ivory-smugglers! Peter thought. But what else could it be? There would be no scientific reason to keep a carefully intact walrus skin in a box under a raft. And what had they treated it with? It smelled fresh and had hardly dried around the edges.
Footsteps in the doorway made him look up. Anna was staring down at him where he crouched on the floor, her expression blank.
“Do you know anything about this?” he demanded.
“Yes,” said Anna. She stooped to gather up the skin. She draped it around her shoulders, a tusk in each hand. “It’s mine. Thank you for finding it.”
She turned and walked away. Peter, biting his lip, followed her. “Look, I want to respect your culture and all that, but you can’t go around killing walruses! It’s not permitted. Jens took it from you for a reason.”
Anna paused at the front door, walrus skin flapping heavily around her. She did not look at him. “He took it to make me his slave. Now I am free.”
“What?” Peter stepped outside, shivering against the Arctic wind. Anna headed down the hill at a half-run, and as she ran, the cold made him tear up, and his vision blurred. Peter blinked and squinted. The walrus skin flapped—the tusks shifted—
Anna slid into the water, a walrus.
Peter watched her swim off. When he could no longer make her out among the waves, he went back inside and closed the door. He sat at the kitchen table drinking cold tea and hoping that Anna would return and explain everything before Jens and Lotte got back.
He had no such luck.
Lotte came in first, shining with triumph. Jens followed on her heels, but he was the first to notice Peter’s expression. He stopped, a questioning quirk to his eyebrows.
“I found a walrus skin and tusks,” said Peter flatly. “Anna took them and disappeared into the water. It looked—it looked like she turned into a walrus.”
Lotte thumped into the chair beside him, collapsing into it as though she could go no further. Jens seated himself more slowly, moving like an old man. “She got free?”
“Yes. Out into the water. You don’t sound surprised.”
“We took her walrus skin,” said Jens, rubbing his eyes. “Of course we knew.”
“Is it—some spell? Some shamanic trick?”
“It’s how she was born,” said Lotte. “There aren’t many left with two skins.”
?” said Peter.
“Not personally. Just rumors. Anna wouldn’t say if she knew where her relatives were.”
“I wish she wasn’t out there,” said Jens. “Damn! We try to protect the walrus population from human interference, and now this! It’s an appalling level of human contamination!”
a human,” said Peter dazedly. “She’s a—like a walrus selkie. A walkie.”
“She’s human enough,” said Jens. “We’ve lived with her these years. Walruses don’t scrub floors, no matter what happens to their tusks.”
“Humans don’t survive a plunge in the North Atlantic without gear, no matter what they do with a walrus skin.”
“Whatever she is, she doesn’t think like a normal walrus,” said Lotte. “The contamination in their behavior patterns is inevitable if she stays. How will we know if the herd mixing would stay or break up if she hadn’t come? What if she teaches them behaviors that ruin their chances of survival because they don’t have the options she has? It’s really quite impossible. Surely you must see that.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
Jens sighed, rolling his shoulders. “Attempt to find her and talk her into leaving, I suppose. If we can’t find her in human form and take her skin again.”
Peter’s stomach roiled. “That’s how you did it last time? You stole her skin to trap her?”
“We had to keep her away from the walruses, once we knew what she was,” said Jens.
Peter found himself at the center of a storm of activity he had no idea how to stop. Whenever he tried to object, Jens and Lotte assured him that they knew more about protecting the walruses than he ever could. That Anna could not be allowed to contaminate them.
“How will you know when you’ve found her?” he asked them desperately. “What if you mistake another walrus for her?”
“You must not have had the skin long enough to see the markings,” Jens explained. “There are white streaks on her back. No walrus has them.”
“What if you can’t get her to come with you voluntarily?”
“Walruses are very susceptible to anaesthetic,” said Lotte, loading her crossbow. “We will do what we need to do.”
Peter shuddered. “How do you know that the walrus herd isn’t full of others like her?”
Jens smiled patronizingly. “Peter, Peter. Surely you aren’t suggesting that all walruses have human forms.”
“Well, no . . . .”
“I’m sorry you stumbled upon this,” said Lotte. “But we’ll handle it. Wait here until we get back. Then we’ll take you for some more photos on the other side of the bay. Photos of real walruses, not humans!”
Peter didn’t want to stay in the station by himself, nor to leave Anna without aid, whether she was in her human or her walrus form. He bundled up as heavily as he could and set out after the dogsled on foot.
By the time he reached the bay where the walruses had congregated the day before, he was sure he’d frostbitten at least two fingers. He kept expecting Lotte and Jens to pass him going home, with Anna in tow—but no, he reminded himself, only two could ride the dogsled at a time, so someone would have to walk. Would they pack Anna’s skin on the sled? Would they be able to catch her with her walrus skin off? Would they have to use the anaesthetic? Was it dangerous to her?
He paused at the crest of the hill. Jens and Lotte’s bright parkas stood out among the brown backs of the walruses down on the beach. They were picking their way among the torpid creatures. Some of the walruses were watching them, eyes half-lidded but still alert.
Peter spotted her, or thought he did—but then there was another white-marked walrus, and another. Which was Anna? Would Jens or Lotte be able to tell the differences in the markings? Or were some of them simply spotted with bird guano?
“Anna, watch out!” he shouted. Jens and Lotte were not particularly near any of the white-marked walruses, but that was probably safer for Anna—she could maybe make it to the water before they could find her and shoot.
Instead, the walruses moved suddenly, in groups more coordinated than Peter would have expected of non-verbal beasts. He watched, unable to move or speak, as the walruses, marked and unmarked alike, thundered over Jens and Lotte, trapping them, forcing them to the ice, then down into the half-frozen sea.
Peter cried out, but the sodden parkas disappeared under the swells.
The walruses all swam off: the males in one direction, the females in another, and the small, mixed group of marked walruses on their own, straight for the sea. He could have sworn one or two of them waved their tails at him as they went.
Peter stared down at the water for quite some time.
The whining of the sled dogs brought him back to awareness of how cold he was, and how dark it was getting. Peter gathered the dogs and headed back to the station to make the necessary calls.
A SONG TO THE MOON
This is the early nineteenth century part of Manhattan. Normally on such a night in a quiet cul-de-sac in the West Village you’d be able to see the full Dog Day moon hanging right over the low buildings.
But tonight outside the Cherry Lane, that tiny old theater, banks of klieg lights blot it out. You’d hardly think those still in town would be willing to come out of their air-conditioned apartments. However a crowd chokes curving, ancient Commerce Street on this muggy night in a torrid August.
We didn’t get intense publicity but with a cult that’s not necessary. All it took were brief notices in
, a bit in the
, mention on internet sites, especially L-ROD the Luna-Related-Obsessive-Disorder blog. The message was: Thad Ransom live!
Just that slogan, this place and time. The crowd started to line up in the afternoon. The theater only seats one hundred and eighty-three and those first in line were let inside an hour ago.
Many others, old theater devotees and a lot of young people, are still in the street waiting for a glimpse of a legend, a touch of lunar magic.
People with a certain edge who have been in the city since mythic times remember a very young Ransom at a tiny café on Cornelia Street in an unknown writer’s first play on a night very much like this one. He was transformed before them, his eyes got huge, his face awe-struck as he described the crash of an airplane.
For others Thad Ransom is a screen icon, famous for moments like the one where the camera a slides past a crowd of onlooker’s in
The Kindness of Wolves