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Authors: Beth Hautala

Waiting for Unicorns (16 page)

BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
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WHEN I WOKE UP it
was already late afternoon, but Dad and Sura were still sleeping. I slipped quietly out of bed and tiptoed down the hall to Dad's room. I needed to be sure he was actually there. I needed to be sure I hadn't dreamed him.

Turning the doorknob so it wouldn't squeak, I cracked the door and peeked in. And sure enough, there he was, sound asleep, one arm thrown over his face against the afternoon light. I couldn't help but smile. I closed the door still grinning, and padded downstairs in my wool socks, careful not to wake anyone.

I'd never made pancakes on my own before, but I'd watched Mom and now Sura make them often enough to give it a try. I dug through the pantry until I found the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder, and piled the ingredients on the counter along with milk and eggs from the fridge. Mixing everything together until I had a smooth batter, I placed a skillet on the stove and carefully poured the batter into a nice little circle.

It took several tries before I got it right. The pan was too hot at first and I burned the first couple pancakes. But I had a nice stack growing on a plate beside the stove when Sura cleared her throat from somewhere behind me. I found her leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded across her chest and a smile pulling at her eyes.

“If I knew you were this handy in the kitchen, I would have put you to work much sooner,” she said.

I laughed, a little nervous. “Hope it's okay—I just wanted to do something special.”

“It's fine!” she said. “And it looks like you're doing a pretty good job.” She eyed the stack of pancakes. “There's just one thing missing.”

I glanced at the ingredients still strewn across the counter. What had I forgotten? But Sura shook her head. “Coffee,” she said. “We need coffee.”

“Think I'll stick to hot chocolate.”

Sura smiled and filled the teakettle at the sink.

We didn't have to wait long before we heard Dad moving around upstairs, the floorboards creaking under him.

“I smell pancakes!” he said as he came down the stairs.

“Tal made them,” Sura said, handing him a cup of coffee.

“By myself,” I added. Because I wanted him to know I was different, I'd grown up—just a little—while he was gone.

I watched Dad as he ate, his legs stretched out under the table. He was just as I remembered him, and he smiled across the table at me, mopping up the last bit of syrup with one final bite.

“Those were good, Tal. Really good.” He sighed and pushed back his plate. “So what do you say—are you up for finding some unicorns?”

“Now?” I gasped, and Dad grinned. I could hardly believe this was happening.

“Yes now,” he said. “You've got thirty minutes to get your things together. There's still ice out there on the water.” He paused, his voice taking on a serious note. “But a pod of narwhals is waiting for you about a two days' boat ride from here, and I'm not going to let a little ice stand between you and those whales.”

I smiled. There were unicorns waiting for
me.

While we slept, Dad's crew had spent the morning restocking supplies and getting things ready to go back out on the water. He had gotten special permission for me to come along.

We met them at the landing in town where a ferry named
The Walrus
waited to take us out. It was named after that sad, silly poem by Lewis Carroll, and as he loaded our stuff, Dad recited a few lines.

“‘The time has come,' the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages—and kings . . .'” It was a funny thing for him to do, because it was exactly the sort of thing Mom would have done.

“So, what do you think? You ready?” Dad dropped my duffel next to his and leaned against the boat rail beside me.

Was
I ready? I'd been waiting for this moment for weeks, so the fact that I had to stop and think about it for a minute seemed strange. But from the moment I'd stepped onto the dock I'd been trying to sort out what I was feeling, exactly.

I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply, trying to take it all in. I smelled briny salt and underwater vegetation mixed with fish and crustaceans. Flounder, crab, shrimp, newly melted ice and sunshine, and gasoline fumes from the ferry. Beneath all those obvious things, deep down there somewhere, was my pod of narwhal whales—unicorns—old and magic. I exhaled and opened my eyes, running my hands nervously along the cold rail that separated me from the icy waters of Hudson Bay.

“I'm ready,” I said, smiling up at Dad. “Definitely ready.”

This was good, being here with him. Feeling the rush of wind and salt that blew my new short hair away from my face. It was all good. But as I turned and glanced over my shoulder, I also felt like I was leaving a part of myself on shore.

Since my birthday, something had changed. Somehow, over the past several weeks, I'd discovered parts of myself I didn't know were there. And now while one half of me was about to venture out onto Hudson Bay with my dad, the other half wanted to stay in Churchill with my friends. At the kitchen table with Sura. Wandering down some back road with the Birdman, his binoculars around my neck. And especially with Simon—Simon and all of his songs.

I couldn't imagine what Churchill would have been like if they hadn't been here, and as excited as I was to finally be with Dad, to be one step closer to finding my unicorn, I felt a little sad.

I wrapped my arms around myself, fighting off the chill that raced across the open water, and turned to face the sea.

I tried to shake off this strange mix of feelings, but I couldn't get Simon out of my head. I kept seeing his face, his grin, and the way his hair stuck up off just one side of his head. Our wishes had come true—my birthday wish and Simon's skipping-rock wish. There were unicorns off Baffin Island, and I couldn't leave without telling him.

“I need to do something before we go,” I told Dad. “I'll be really quick!” And before he had a chance to argue, I bolted from the ferry. “Don't leave without me!” I called, but he just stood there at the rail, a confused expression furrowing his brow.

The house the Birdman and Simon were renting for the summer wasn't that far from the landing, and I raced there as fast as I could. I had to tell Simon about the whales. About Dad. About everything. I needed him to know that my wish—
our
wishes—had come true.

I ran up the porch steps, pounding on the door, and nearly fell over the threshold when Simon jerked it open.

“My dad came in last night! He's alive and he's fine, and there are narwhal whales off Baffin Island,” I said breathlessly. “Unicorn whales! And I'm leaving now with my dad to see them. But I couldn't leave without telling you. Without saying good-bye!”

“Well I hope not!” he exclaimed, and he grabbed me in a hug that was one part relief and all parts happy. “Pretty sure we couldn't be friends anymore if you just up and left without telling me something as great as all that.”

I stepped back, my face flushed from the wind and my run and the warmth of his hug.

“See?” he said. “I told you your dad was fine!”

“Yes, you did.”

“I'm almost always right. You should listen to me more often.”

I laughed.

“I have to go.” I thumbed toward the landing. “Dad's waiting and I said I'd be quick.”

Simon nodded. “Come back, okay?”

“Promise,” I said. “You want me to make any wishes for you, while I'm out there?” Doing so would break rule number two. But I didn't really care that only my wishes were supposed to go into my jar.

“Nah. I'm good.” He shook his head. “I've already got everything I want.”

“Really?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I've got everything that counts,” he said. “And I guess that's pretty good.”

Mom's words swirled around me for a minute, tossed by the wind sweeping in off the bay.

The happiest people are the ones who've decided that everything they already have is everything they'll ever want.

And she was right.

THE WALRUS
HEADED TOWARD Baffin
Island, where a small whaling boat waited to take us into the island inlets. Dad's team had sighted narwhals there only a week ago.

One week.
How far could a unicorn swim in a week?

Three miles? Thirty?

“They won't go far,” Dad said, “if their food source is good.”

So I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and wished for shrimp. Hundreds of shrimp.
Millions.
And cod. And whatever else they ate. That way, those whales wouldn't have to move a single inch. They could just stay right where they were and wait for me.

Beneath sweaters and wool socks, my jar waited at the bottom of my duffel bag. Every once in a while I was sure I heard my wishes rustling around over the rush of the arctic wind. They'd come alive again since my dad's return, and they had taken on new life out here. So when I saw that long white horn rise up out of the arctic water for myself, I'd open that jar and empty my wishes into the sea.

It would take us a day to reach Baffin Island aboard the ferry, and another day to reach the spot where the whales had last been seen. If we were lucky enough to see them ourselves, Dad wanted to follow them and learn as much as he could about the pod. But only if the weather held. It was still dangerous out here. Even though the ice had already broken up, leaving only a stray iceberg here and there, the weather could turn in a matter of minutes, throwing the relatively calm sea into raging turmoil. I could only hope that wouldn't affect our chances of finding the pod.

Lucky for me, whales stick by each other, look out for one another, and pretty much behave like a family. They're very social creatures, so whenever you hear about a whale off all alone, you can be pretty sure it got separated from its pod. That meant chances were good that I would see more than one narwhal.

There were young whales with this particular group, which, Dad told me, meant it was a healthy family. They had enough to eat and enough freedom from predators to feel safe.

“Young whales are always a good thing,” Dad said. “The more narwhals swimming around the Arctic Sea, the greater chance I'll have to study them.”

And the greater chance my wishes would be granted.

“But if we don't see the whales,” Dad said, “if we search and can't find them within five days, then we'll turn around and go back to Churchill. It took us two days to get here and it will take two to get back, granted the weather holds. I don't want you out here any longer than necessary, and nine days on a whaling boat on the Arctic Sea is more than enough.”

Dad cared about my safety more than he cared about my happiness. And even though five days wasn't very long, it was enough time to find my narwhals. It had to be.

The morning we were set to arrive at Baffin Island, Dad and I braved the cold and stood on deck, looking out into the bay. Dad was smiling, his eyes watering from the bite of the wind. I knew he was worried about keeping me safe, but still, he
wanted
me here with him. He really did. And I didn't realize how great it would be just knowing that.

I gripped the rail, the cold seeping through my mittens. I knew the Arctic Sea was a dangerous place, even for an experienced team of researchers. That was obvious every time I looked over the ferry's rail into the dark water.

Being out here wasn't dangerous just because of the cold water and icy temperatures, though. It was also dangerous because Hudson Bay and all of her surrounding inlets and channels, basins, and uncharted depths were unpredictable. Dad couldn't guarantee anything. He told me that. No matter how hard we looked, there was a possibility that we wouldn't see those unicorn whales. And without them, there would be no granted wishes.

I held myself steady against the cold wind and sea spray, and the possibility of disappointment. I'd been holding out for this a long time. Hoping. Since that first week in Churchill, actually. Maybe even before. I just hadn't known what I was looking for back then.

But here's the thing about hope. You're not guaranteed much. Not ever. That's what makes it such a beautiful and terrible thing. Despite your determination, or how hard you believe, or the number of wishes in your jar, hope, like a tern, can fly straight into your outstretched hands, or it can fly just out of reach.

As we sailed on, Dad and I rode through the wide channels and inlets that bridged Baffin Island and Greenland. The cold water and gray skies were interrupted only by occasional whitecaps, stray massive chunks of ice, and an endless parade of seabirds, curious and hungry.

I was hungry, too, but for something else entirely. I pictured the shape of those waters on the map that hung on my bedroom wall. Fingers of water pressed into Baffin Island on the south and into Greenland on the north, like misshapen hands pushing up against the land masses, holding back what I was hoping to see.

On the evening of the second day, we traded our ferry for a small whaling boat on the shores of Baffin Island to help us navigate the seas better. I curled up my body as tight as I could against the cold, fists buried in my underarms as I tried to coax heat from my body. But even wrapped in wool sweaters and a goose-down parka, I couldn't keep my teeth from jumping against each other. I was freezing. Dad was, too. Every time he stepped out on deck, icicles formed on his beard and frost collected in his hair and eyebrows—the frozen fog of his own breath.

Inside the cabin, a map was pinned to the wall, speckled with dots and connecting lines. It was twin to my own map, except this one had the addition of several small stars. These marked the locations Dad had sighted narwhals.

On the morning of the third day we reached the place where Dad had marked his first star. We had five days to find whales. I kissed my fingertip and pressed it against the mark.

This is it,
I thought.
This is where the magic happens.

We immediately started dropping booms into the water, holding our breath and pressing our hands over the headphones covering our ears—like it would improve the quality of sound pouring in from ocean currents beneath the boat.

Adjusting the dial sensitivity on the receivers and repeatedly checking our location, Dad and I were relentless. We didn't even take a break for lunch; we just kept going, moving in wider and wider circles around that first star on the map, like some kind of small water-bound moon circling our own invisible sun.

But the sea was quiet.

Just before dark we reached the location of the second star Dad had marked on his map. I started getting the booms ready again, but he stopped me.

“Talia, it's late,” he said. “You haven't eaten anything since breakfast and we need to take a break for the night. If the whales are here now, they'll be here in the morning.”

“If the whales are here?
If?
” I asked, my chest tightening. My voice sounded loud. Too loud. “They have to be here!” I insisted, clearing my throat and lowering my voice. “We can't stop now, not when we're so close.”

“No one is giving up, Tal,” Dad said. “I'm glad you're so enthusiastic about the whales, but we won't last four more days if we try to keep this pace through the night, and don't forget, we have to make it back to Churchill, too. Come on. Help me make dinner. We'll try again in the morning.”

I was so reluctant to stop the search that Dad eventually had to insist, gently taking the boom cables from my hands and winding them back up in their crates. Although I didn't want to, I finally gave in, and helped him put away the equipment. If I put up too much of a fight, his surprise at my commitment might turn to concern or frustration, or worse, curiosity.

Even though Dad knew about me and unicorns, I wasn't ready to explain my jar of wishes just yet. I was worried he wouldn't understand. Sometimes a secret gets better when you share it, and sometimes telling a secret makes it smaller. I couldn't afford to have my belief in unicorns shrink just when I was about to see them. We still had four whole days left to search, and just because we hadn't found the whales today didn't mean we wouldn't find them tomorrow.

But the next day was no better.

And neither was the day after that.

All day we orbited the second star on the map in ever-widening circles. And then we did the same surrounding the third star Dad had marked. With chattering teeth and shaking fingers I turned the knobs and dials on the receiver myself, while Dad lowered booms into the Arctic Sea. And with every ounce of strength I possessed, I poured my whole self into listening, waiting to hear whale song. Waiting for the voices of my unicorns. But they did not sing for me.

In the midst of all that cold, where gray skies pressed down on gray, empty water, I tasted the same disappointment Dad must have felt, searching for his belugas and never finding them. Even my wishes, written across dozens of tiny paper slips, had gone still in their jar. Silent.

And the sea remained quiet. Empty. By the middle of the fourth day it was all I could do to keep from screaming, “
Where are you? You're supposed to be here!

But I didn't scream, or cry. Instead I just stared up at the cloud-filled skies as they bore down against my chest, and I whispered one word, over and over and over again until Dad rested his heavily mittened hand on my shoulder. I jerked away from him, throwing myself against the prow of our little whaling boat, whispering that one word in my heart.

Please. Please. Please.

It became a kind of prayer. A prayer that went unanswered.

BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
8.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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