Blood and Ice
I was swimming leisurely toward the ice when it happened, following the patterns in the cracks with my eyes and spinning myself in dizzy circles with my tail. Breaking season wasn’t far off; soon the ice would be patchy, and mothers would surface with their new calves for a first breath.
I kept an eye out for shadows above and a surfacing hole. It had been about eight hours since I’d come up for breath, and I didn’t want to waste energy breaking a new hole. Surfacing holes were also dangerous places: Sometimes birds dove in for fish, or seals or bears lunged through. I had seen my wakefriend, Nela, attacked by a bear when we were just outgrowing the pup stage. She had scars that ran like ice fissures from her shoulder to her belly and across her face, leaving her blind in one eye and a lopsided swimmer.
As I gazed at the blue and green ice above, the hollows where mosaics of bubbles gathered, I saw odd shadows. I flipped onto my back and paddled my fins so that I could get a better look, stifling an exhale that would send up a new stream of bubbles.
The shadows moved slowly, like a stalking bear moved. But there were only two dark spots, oblong in shape, instead of four round ones. And the creature making them was nearing a seam in the ice.
There was a groaning sound as the creature’s weight caused the ice to shift. I bit my lip, and a gush of bubbles drifted up. My dense down hair stood on end as they came to rest with soft noises against the ice.
The shadows stilled, then grew into one hazy shape which lengthened and solidified as the creature spread itself across the slab. It was nearly as long as me.
I had played a game with my broodmates in which we surfaced, crawled onto the sea ice, and inched ourselves toward the frailest pieces. All the while the wind would prickle our fur and the abovewater noises would boom in our ears. Whoever lasted the longest before breaking through won.
Was it Renau, or Filo, teasing me? Had the two shadows just been a trick of the light?
The ice gave way all at once, jagged chunks tumbling around me. I wheeled and gasped out much of my remaining air.
An edged piece scraped my side and I thrashed as I saw the blood rise into the water, but I was not the only thrashing thing.
A furry creature with four paws flailed, cried something into the water. It almost sounded like my language.
I forgot my wound and watched it, heavy with water, begin to sink. Its head faced me, and it reached out a paw, opened its mouth. It had eyes like my father’s.
Again, it made a noise, reached for me, then looked above to the ice. Bubbles hung from its lips and nose, which were jarringly similarly to my own, though more prominent. The mane of pale fur around its head lifted like a second skin peeling away, and I saw that its head was covered in thick, dark down. It looked more like my kind than I had thought.
“Are you hurt?” I sang. “Can you understand me?”
My air was nearly gone. The creature was moving less. I swam closer, and it reached for me, but it had no claws, could only pin my lateral fins to me as I whipped my tail and brought us to the surface.
We both gasped, and then it stuttered at me, a sound that hurt my ears. It pawed at my face and I bit the paw, but my teeth sank into dead skin and empty air—another second skin that came away, and the creature removed a light brown fin like mine, only without claws.
I had my breath, so I submerged us again, but before I could speak, it wriggled and wailed. I felt warmth against me and smelled urine in the water: male. It—he—was losing all his oxygen, so I surfaced again.
This time, his eyes were unfocused. His grip on me loosened, and I attempted to wrap my fins around him. My claws caught on his furs. Even with two skins, he felt cold through, not just blubber-cold.
Then I knew what he was, and I should have let him go beneath the ice.
Instead, I spun him between my fins and grabbed his mane in my teeth. I backed to the thickest part of the ice shelf and hauled myself onto it tailfirst.
With my powerful neck and shoulders, I dig in my claws and dragged him inch by inch from the water. He was heavier than my oldest brood brother. His second skin made tearing sounds against the jag of ice, but he came free: sodden, ashen onto the ice.
I couldn’t hear his heartbeat. My ears were overwhelmed by the gust of the breeze and unfamiliar animal noises, the groan of ice. When I pressed my face to his neck and licked it, I felt blood move, slowly. Not much time.
The hole he had made was not far from an icy outcropping where the bears wouldn’t spy us and the wind wouldn’t freeze him. I pulled him there, leaving a thin reddish trail from my side.
His outer skin was wrong: sopping and wet, and I had seen it come off of his hand with no blood. I tore into the skin, splitting it down his chest so that all of him, bluish now, lay exposed. His body shook, but he remained unconscious. I lay against him, blocking the wind, and coaxed blood into my extremities so that my skin would be warm instead of cool and blubbery. It was a survival mechanism for being stranded on the surface. The only things my kind did with any regularity above the water were breathing and mating.
I licked his face until his lips began to look less blue. I lost count of how many times I licked him, and my tongue began to feel papery. By the time he stopped trembling and groaned, I was shivering and hungry. His eyes fluttered and he moved away from my tongue. Then he opened his eyes and would have leapt away, had he not been pinned.
He noticed the shredded state of his second skin and tried to cover himself with his fins, looked at me, spoke again, quietly. Still nonsense.
I didn’t bother to reply. By then I knew he would not understand.
My side had stopped bleeding and my stomach roiled suddenly, loud between us. He paled and drew himself into a crouch. The alcove had warmed enough that he wouldn’t immediately die of exposure. I licked my teeth and thought of fish, began to stir.
His smell changed subtly, mildly sour yet sweet, and he reached a fin out once more, placed it beneath my eye.
I looked at him and he spoke again, quietly.
A distant sound reached my ears and we looked outward. Then another sound, from a different direction. He rose, hesitantly, and I moved away. He answered the distant cries and now I felt the vibration of the ice at the approach of more of his kind.
I scooted across the shelf and into the water without looking back, flicked my tail again and again until the blue had deepened to indigo. Nela would wonder where I had been for so many hours and would lick my side and face. I sniffed for fish, thought of their warm blood on my jaws, filling me with heat.