Under The Ice (1)
Aroha lay on the ice and looked into it. The sky was blue and the sun lit up the frozen expanse below. She could clearly see water moving beneath the surface. A fish swam past, not so big, but she saw it. Here would be a good place to break through the ice; it was thick but penetrable and she was within striking distance of the land. This always had to be a consideration as the weather changed quickly here. It was easy to lose one’s bearings once the world became a whirling mass of white. It was a wonder that she had not yet been subsumed into the frozen elements. Aroha felt for the twine around her ankle, the other end tied firmly to the frame of her hut, some 50 seal lengths behind her.
She readjusted her position on the fur beneath her body and rested her chin at its congealed edge. Aroha breathed in the pungent scent of the animal the fur had once been. There had been days when hunger had found her gnawing on the stiff skin of her furs, these animals had become a part of her and she knew them well, what they had been and what they had transformed into.
Her hands were shielded in thickly padded gloves, roughly fashioned from waterproof sealskin. She scraped them over the surface of the ice, over and over, until it took on the clarity of glass. With the sun now above her head she could see into the eternity of the depths and felt herself placed at a centre between the sky that fell behind her and the water below.
She found that she was looking at a face; a beautiful, marble-like face, only a hand or so beneath hers; for it was not hers, not a reflection or even a face of her imaginings. She abandoned the protection of her fur and knelt on the ice, vigorously brushing away snow and ice particles to see if there was anything other than the face alone. Each sweep of her hand revealed more of a human figure: neck, shoulders, arms, the finely shaped torso of a young man, hands and, wrapped tightly around the wrist of one of these, black rope, no, hair. She moved to the other side of the body and franticly scraped away at the surface, following the trail of the rope-like hair until she found its source, another face of sweet, child-like beauty, attached to the body of a young woman.
The two bodies beneath the ice were serene in their treacherous plight. Aroha wondered what perils they had endured and what attachment existed between the two, made apparent by the rope of hair that bound them together. She noted that the naked bodies were a wonder of preservation; no creature had torn into the alabaster of their perfect skins. Both bore distinct markings across their bodies, patterns and images that told of some place far away. Aroha registered this fact and then let it slip away as she shook herself into action.
She set to work. The bodies were moving in the gentle current towards the shore, so she struck the hole 20 seals ahead of them, in what she hoped was the path they were drifting on. The work was hard, encumbered as she was in heavy layers, yet she relentlessly struck at the ice with her spear. The clang of iron on ice rang all around, like a bell warning of some auspicious or dire happening. She had faith in her ability to make the hole but knew that her strength against the force of the ice and the sea was as insignificant as a single drop of rain in the wind.
She recalled her mother’s advice, offered in her calm way, following a time when she had been forced back to the relative safety of their home by the howling wind. The ice and snow had whipped her into submission, overwhelming her desperate need to find food.
“You cannot beat the world around you, you have to learn to work with it.”
Aroha had thought her mother was being simplistic, but time and time again events had proven her mother right. On that occasion they had not starved, as, instead of using oil to light the lamps, they had sipped it in the dark, with the raging of the wind all around, threatening to sweep their turf and stone hut away. Aroha recalled the richness of the whale oil lying unsteadily on her empty stomach, and how a few sips of warm water seemed to ease it through her body. It was unpleasant, but they had survived, and with sufficient strength to haul back enough fish to restore them to their former strength.
The memory gave her clarity. Aroha worked with an easy rhythm, breathing deeply and hitting at the splintering ice with precision. Until, at last, she struck and, instead of reverberation, she heard a dull slush as her spear broke through and touched water. Now her work was easier, and she sloughed away at the edges of the hole, taking care that she had fastened her spear to her body with yet more twine, as its loss would be devastating. She knew the spear to have been a gift from the sea, as she had found it embedded in the corpse of an old friend of hers, a minke. He had remained a friend in death, as his oil and meat had sustained her through the long, dark winter. Now she needed to fish again, but this was not quite the catch she had expected.
The past few months had slipped by with each hour bringing its familiar pattern. She found some comfort in the mundanity of the dark season. Most thoughts were occupied with practical matters, fuel, food, warmth and health. In the moments that she could let her mind wander she would converse with remembered voices and told herself stories of different times and places. Day-dreaming nourished her mind as well as any food did her body, but none of her stories had brought beautiful new people to her, as she found it unhelpful to consider any possibility of human contact. To introduce such a hope would distract her from the reality of her situation and the essential tasks that allow a person alone to exist in an unforgiving environment.
The bodies she had seen under the ice were not apparitions, she was sure of this. A doubt flickered as she considered her sense of certainty. She was hungry and knew that this sometimes altered perceptions; but they had been so unexpected and seemed so real, surely her mind could not conjure up two people so far removed from any of her imaginings?
They were there, under the ice, and she was the only one who might possibly free them from their icy tomb.