The Last – Premee Mohamed

Metaphorosis_2016-07Erik was balanced atop one of the standing stones on the black pebble beach when the elders told him of his father’s death. Drowned, they said. Out at Sampson Fjord. Killed by Old Blue.

Darkness overtook him and he spilled boneless from the stone, was caught and laid on the wet weeds of the tideline. Elder Erde lifted his ankles into the air with one hand. Erik’s friends paused incuriously, then wandered off.

“I want to see the body,” said Erik.

“No,” said Erde, but Saba pointed to the lookout hut. Erik ran clumsily over the wave-rounded stones and found his father crushed and bluegray with cold, like the sky. The boy dropped to his knees and wept.

#

When he returned home, his mother told him about the other death. She spoke quietly, rotating a gull over the fire, her face turned from the oily smoke. Erik’s father had washed ashore first, but Nafeez had been with him. The bodies had returned before the boats. Currents around their village were precise, regular, and cruel.

“There is only his son now,” she said. “And you.”

He slumped to the floor and put his arms around his knees, unaware that he was shivering. The north was hard; he was no stranger to grief, to the currents that pushed and pulled his heart every time someone died. But this was different, this death of love.

“Where were you this afternoon?” she said.

“I had to go get my net back from Dante,” he said. That was a long way for a young boy, even with the shortcut through the stunted forest, but he had needed to walk and think. The old man had returned the mended net without comment or sympathy. Erik had walked back slowly in the twilight, ignoring the trees that called out to him, feeling out his path with a broken stick.

#

In the morning, the same elders came to the house carrying a bowl carved from a whale’s backbone. Erik watched stonily as they counted out the handful of mixed coins — a nonsense mass of silver and copper and bronze. She would get this payment for a year, blood money for the loss of her provider, tacitly acknowledging that her child was too young to work the bergs. Erik wondered what they would do at the end of the year.

“Look at these,” she said when the elders had blessed the house and left. He sidled closer as she held a few of the elaborate little discs up to the window. “There was a time when these meant something, when they made sense. A whole system. Now they’re meaningless.”

“They’re not meaningless,” Erik said. “They’re money.”

“Money used to make sense,” she said again.

“When you were young?”

“No, baby. This was before my time. Before many things.”

“Then how do you know?”

“I heard it,” she said. “From someone who knows.” She smiled. “It’s better now. Quieter.”

#

Erik went to his father’s grave later that week. The piled rock marker was already beginning to flatten out. Soon it would be gone entirely; then in a few years the bones would start popping up from the slick black stones, rough and white from salt, and children would find them and throw them into the sea. Not me though, he thought. I am not a child any more. I am a man.

From the cemetery he headed up the hill, wading through hip-height grass to Nafeez’ ramshackle house, looking for his new mentor. Nafeez’ son Jamil was out front sharpening a slope hook. Showing off, thought Erik, and incompetently at that. If Jamil wasn’t careful, he would ruin Nafeez’ careful hookwork.

“I guess you’re my apprentice now,” Jamil said, not looking up.

“Yes,” said Erik. “We’re the last, you and me.”

“I’m the last, not you,” Jamil said, discarding the hook and standing up, a tall thin boy with his father’s sea-green eyes and black hair. “You’re nothing. You’re a baby. You’re not even old enough to go out with the men.”

“All right,” Erik said meaningfully, and waited while Jamil fretted away the edge of his lip with his teeth. His silence said: No one goes out for a berg alone — not even the little ones that smash up on the offshore islands. It wasn’t that you could die alone out there; it was that you would. The oldest, canniest cowboy would rather be out there with his nine year-old grandson, or his ninety-year old grandmother, than alone. With the fathers dead, the entire village depended for its water on the braggart Jamil — who had only been on two hunts — and Erik, who had never hunted.

“Well, I suppose I can teach you, if you aren’t too stupid,” Jamil said. “And if you can work hard.”

“I can work hard!” Erik said. “I promise. When do we start?”

“Come back tomorrow. I have to get everything ready.”

#

Walking back, Erik spared a glance for the captive berg tethered in Drinkwater Bay, and was shocked to see how much smaller it looked today under its covering of hay and canvas. Big Markus was getting water, his bulk balanced on tip-toe, chipping delicately at the free side. A neverending job, thought Erik. How many children did he have now? Four? He must be out here all the time, day and night.

The iceberg screeched in anger as Erik trotted down the boardwalk. So small already. They would need another one, and soon. Not this week, not next. But sooner than he could learn the trade.

“It is not that we feel the push from the land,” his father had told him once, not so long ago, as they sat on the warm pebble beach. “It is that we feel the pull of the sea. The pull of the bergs. They call to us, and once we hear them, it is like sirens; we must go to them. That is why I do this, Erik.”

“What’s a siren?”

His father chuckled. “There were stories in the old days, before everything went away, about things called sirens that lived in the sea. Some say on islands; some say simply in the water, like fish. They sang songs that sailors loved. And then, when the sailors had come close to hear the beautiful music – uhmp! The sirens would take them down into the water, and drown and eat them.”

Erik shuddered excitedly, picturing the sirens like the great silvery tuna they would catch sometimes, marveling at how dainty their mouths were for so big a fish. What kind of songs would lure a man to his death? Was that like the song the icebergs sang? A predator’s song?

“I don’t hear the call,” he said, disappointed.

“You will,” his father said. “When you’re older. It’s in your blood.”

#

The next day Erik wondered whether it was in Jamil’s blood. It certainly had been in his father’s, who had been one of the finest cowboys in memory. Nafeez had climbed and roped, netted and sailed as if he had done it in a previous life. ‘Born with a hook in his hand,’ the elders used to say every time he returned in triumph. Jamil was rough and clumsy, and worse, reluctant to share even what little knowledge he had with his new apprentice. When they returned to the house at dusk, Erik had was no longer bewildered but furious, ready to invoke the names of the dead in his anger.

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” he shouted, waving at the blunted equipment, the unraveling ropes, his soaked clothing. “You can’t even tie a knot. You don’t even know which way is north! You’re not Nafeez’ son! You’re the son of a clamdigger, the son of a moneyman!”

“Watch your tongue, blubberbrains,” Jamil snapped, shoving Erik hard enough to send the smaller boy sprawling in the grass. “You’re my apprentice. What do you know? Who says you can say that?”

“I have to say it! You’re going to get us killed! Let alone get the next berg. We’re going to die, everyone will go thirsty, the village will have to leave, and it’s going to be your fault!”

“It’s my fault I have a stupid apprentice, is it? A stupid little brat who can’t learn?”

“It’s your fault you can’t do anything! You almost sank my father’s boat!”

“Shut up! Or I’ll shut you up!”

Erik scrambled to his feet, willing himself not to cry. At first he had thought Jamil was simply nervous teaching, but as the day had worn on, Erik had watched him throw his body the wrong way when the boat hit a wave, tie sloppy knots that fell apart in the water, tangle his hooks so that they tore at their ankles. Fear of death rode with them, bobbing in the swale like a scrap of wood, always visible from the corner of their eyes. Was that the faint sound of Jamil’s call? The call of his talented blood, drowned out by that fear? Erik looked up into Jamil’s green eyes, startled to realize they were seething with tears.

“All right,” Erik said. “But we’re… we’re an apprentice teaching an apprentice. I know you didn’t get your own hooks. You weren’t ready, when Nafeez died. I wasn’t ready either. We aren’t grownups and we’re all they have. I mean we’re all the village has. And there’s no one to help us.”

Jamil sat and absently picked up his sharpening stone, looking at the pile of hooks at his feet. “Go home.”

Erik went.

#

Back at the house, his mother and her friend Gumma were singing as they gutted a brace of sparkling mackerel so taut and fat that Erik’s stomach growled a greeting.

“Two for you tonight,” his mother said, as he went to change clothes. “Because you worked hard today, my little cowboy.”

“Don’t call me that!”

He was full after the first fish, but doggedly finished the second simply to prove that he had earned it. Afterwards, they tossed the bones and skin on the dimming fire and watched it flare as it ate the oils.

“When I was at the mail house today, they said a volcano down in the south just erupted,” Gumma said, stirring the ashes with the tip of her knife.

“Terrible!” said Erik’s mother. “How many dead?”

“Oh, you do not know of this volcano,” Gumma laughed. “It warned the villagers, and they evacuated. All the sheep and the cattle and all.”

“I heard of one in the Americas that learned morse code, and warned everyone too,” Erik’s mother said. “It was almost too late. I think twenty or thirty people died. Who knows morse code any more?”

“This one learned to make sounds from its vents,” said Gumma. “It could only say one word and that was ‘Flee.’ Apollo said it had been saying it for two weeks before someone realized it.”

“They should all figure out how to talk,” Erik said. “It’s not hard.”

“Nonsense,” said Gumma. “Have you ever heard a horse talk? Or a dog?”

“Of course not. That’s different.”

She smiled, and smoothed his curling hair behind his ears. “Did you know that in the old days, they were just dead rock, volcanoes? And icebergs were nothing more than ice?”

“What?”

“Not long ago, either,” she said. “And trees never spoke. Nothing spoke but us. It was only after the day happened, and everyone went away. That’s when things awoke and began to know.”

Erik smiled to show that he was old enough to know a joke when he heard one. “And the people who went away, they used to drink water that flowed over the ground, too, you said.”

“Indeed they did,” Gumma said. “They had water from the land, they didn’t need to capture icebergs in the old days.”

Erik’s stomach heaved. Awful, muddy water, crawling over the surface of the land and burping up out of it like vomit, full of dirt and rocks and worms and twigs! He supposed a river of mud might be all right to play in, but you couldn’t drink that. People would die of thirst first. It would be worse than drinking seawater, surely. And ice just ice? There had been iceberg cowboys for generations and generations, corralling the semi-sentient blocks and towing them inland; otherwise what would people have to drink? Erik wondered how hard it had been to capture them in the old days, whether anyone had ever died trying. The good old days, he thought, gloomy with envy.

#

The next day, at sea, Erik brought it up to Jamil, expecting his usual sneering answer.

“Well, I don’t know,” Jamil said slowly. “My father said the same thing. Just the same thing. Almost used the same words, I think.”

“Really? That people drank that land water?”

“Yes. Our people have been here a long time, almost as long as your people. Almost since the day. And he said we were the ones who wrote everything down. Said he had a book showing it. But I never found it in his things.”

Well, how could you find anything in that house? Erik almost said, but was quickly distracted by having to yank back the mainsail as the wind shifted. He breathed a strange air of sweetness for a moment, and then the breeze was gone. “I think there’s a berg nearby,” he said.

“Get the oars out,” said Jamil, looking around uneasily in the fog. “And drop sail.”

“I can’t do both.”

Grumbling, Jamil wrestled with the lines while Erik dug belowdecks for the oars, finally dragging up the heavy bundle. He and Jamil both looked up at the same moment to see the berg sail by in the hazy distance, no more than a smudge of white.

“Get after it!”

Erik dug into his side of the oars as Jamil scrambled into position, and they fought their way through the crosscurrent, using the big mirror to check the berg’s position. It lurched behind Bear Island and vanished. Erik pulled his side up short and yelled as the boat swung in circles till Jamil got his oar up.

“There’s rocks under the water here! Are you trying to get us killed?” Erik squinted through the fog. “Stupid thing knew where to hide.”

“No it didn’t. They’re stupider than sheep. It was luck, nothing else. We can sneak around from behind,” said Jamil. “I went that way last time, when I was on the hunt.”

Erik nodded uncertainly, listening as Jamil tried to describe the route, the size and shape of the landmark trees. It wasn’t a big berg, first of all, he thought. It was on the small side. It would be used up in no time and they would have to get another one in a month. And that wasn’t the one he wanted, anyway. He wanted Old Blue, the faceted monster. It had taken his father’s blood; he would take its water. He had been thinking about it for days.

Jamil didn’t like the idea, even when Erik pleaded that he too had lost a father to the odd-coloured berg. “Absolutely not,” Jamil snapped. “We are not going after it. I don’t care how big it is. Don’t you know why that thing is the only iceberg that has a name?”

“I…because it’s…because it’s blue.”

“Because it’s old, idiot. Because it’s so old, it was probably the first one to start warning the other bergs to stay away from shore. That thing is the reason we have to chase them. It’s the biggest and the meanest and the oldest. That’s why it…it…”

It killed the people we love, Erik thought. So it has a name, so what. The thing I hate, why should I spare it? It never tried to spare any of us. He turned his face away to hide his tears. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go after that one that we saw. The secret way. Like you said.”

“Good. Oars down!”

#

The water was quieter on the other side of the island, dampened by the submerged rocks. Here they were easier to see; several had broken white edges, like flinty teeth, alarmingly close to their hull in the murky water.

“Where’s the glass? Tie up here.”

Erik moored the boat to a skinny spire of rock jutting from the island, then pulled the brass spyglass from its padded hole and handed it up.

“I see it,” Jamil murmured, knuckles showing white through his deep gold skin, clenched tight around the heavy tube. “I…it’s not moving.”

“It’s watching us.”

“It’s not watching us.”

Erik sat back in the boat and automatically began to untangle the hooks and put them back on their holders, securing them with a single small slipknot the way you were supposed to. One, two, three, four… Old Blue was too big, he thought. You would need too many hooks to subdue it, make it swim back after their little boat. They did have enough hooks for the other berg though. Eight, nine… Enough to pierce more than half of its primitive brains. Not enough hooks to spare, he thought uneasily. Twelve. He could get Old Blue some other day. Today, it was about water, he promised himself. They had enough hooks. The boat wasn’t shipping too much water. They could get it. Show the village there was no need to fear.

While he thought, Jamil put the spyglass down in a coil of rope and leaned over the gunwale. His voice lost its brashness for a moment, the old rasp of the childhood bully suddenly the voice of the same little boy who had lent his classmates books from his father’s library and read to the elders on the beach. Erik looked up hopefully.

“What makes you think it’s watching us?” Jamil said. “They don’t have eyes.”

“No, I know that, but…” But they do always seem to know where we are, don’t they? They may not be smarter than a sheep, but they do seem to not be as dumb as just ice. Don’t they? He said, “Well, I think most of its brains are on our side. Weren’t you counting?”

“Shut up. Come on.”

#

With the sail down, they moved slowly through the waves, oars splashing. Twelve slope hooks, thought Erik. Two table hooks. We have enough. If we don’t hit a rock, if it doesn’t speed up and get too far out, or too close to another island…

The hull bumped and slid over a hidden rock; both boys hissed in fear, but then they were over and slipping down its spine in silence. The berg was just visible in the fog again, snow-white like a tiny lighthouse, growing larger then smaller, then larger again as the boys followed it. It was moving in fits and starts, straight north into calm water.

Erik thought: We paint our boats blue to hide them from things that cannot even see us. What does that tell you?

They paint the warships red. They do not care who sees them. Do they? But I don’t think they are really less afraid than us. Or that we are less brave.

The breeze blowing from the berg came more frequently now, cutting through the salt. Off starboard, one of the shiny black-and-white whales the old folk called horkas paused to look at them, then moved on. Erik lifted his oar to let the pod pass by, each giving the boat the same brief glance. Bad luck, horkas. They would flip boats for fun, Papa had said. Come up on shore to eat children.

As if he had spoken aloud, Jamil said “Don’t be superstitious. Do you believe all the stories they told you when you were at the tit?”

“Of course not.” He kept his gaze fixed on the white berg. They were steadily catching up, aided by a fast unseen current that the whales were using too, so small it did not even ripple the dark water. Whales sang, he thought. Would the sirens sing to them? Or the other way around?

He sniffed and frowned. Fresh, fresh water. And then he was scrambling for better purchase on his oar, ducking a swinging sail, for Old Blue was upon them. There wasn’t even time to scream.

#

Old Blue, greatest and oldest of the great old bergs, with its one edge shaped like an axe head, was moving faster than either boy had ever seen a berg move when it slammed into their port side. In the chaos of freezing water and splintering wood Erik clung to his oar, but Jamil went flying, right over the edge like a gull. The boat lurched almost onto its stern before catching the invisible current and dropping flat onto the water with a crack. But the berg was still coming, slicing into the wood, using the ocean as an anvil. Erik shrieked as the water reached his waist, and then everything went black and cold.

In the deafening dark he saw a tiny white shape and reached for it, fingers remembering days at Children’s Cove, the wooden charm his mother had carved on its string floating upwards, to air. He thrashed after it and was promptly struck in the side of the head by a chunk of the boat, almost sending him under again. Somehow he grabbed a line and hauled himself up onto the chunk, against the thousand-pound pull of his wet clothes. A wall of blues towered over him — turquoises of summer days, corpse greys, shards of black and purest white and lilac and cobalt in the facets. He shrank back from the unseeing glare of the huge berg, not sure if it sensed him now. There was so much wood in the water, he realized with a shock. It smashed our boat to pieces. We’ll never get back to land.

“Jamil!” he cried, voice deadened by the wall of ice. He scanned the heaving, foam-spattered water, looking for large pieces of wood amongst shrapnel smaller than coins. A glint in the depths, sinking fast, showed where the line of hooks had torn free from the railing. He snatched at the last foot of line and nearly slid off his temporary raft, panting. His fingers were going numb in their mitts, but the death shivers hadn’t started yet. He had a few minutes to think — or live, he supposed.

Without realizing it he began to sob, and hauled on the hook line, seeing the hooks come up one by one like skinny silver fish, backs arched. One tore into his britches and left a thin line of red on his thigh. Through his soaked, hanging curls, he watched tears spatter the cut. “Jamil! Jamil!”

“Erik!”

His head snapped around; Jamil was clinging to a piece of the hull forty yards away, spitting water and blood.

“What are we going to do?” Erik screamed. “I don’t know what to do!”

His ears popped and all he could suddenly hear was the huge, menacing silence of the berg, and the sinister lick of the waves on his raft. As if it had heard him and intended to answer, Old Blue began to move inexorably towards the older boy. “Jamil! Swim! Quick!”

A great wash of water almost stole him from his raft as Jamil’s dark head vanished, gone for endless, terrifying minutes. Erik screamed again when the two claw-like yellow hands grasped the wood by his feet, feeling his bladder let go, a shocking burst of warmth.

Jamil couldn’t pull himself aboard; Erik couldn’t pull him up. He looked down at Jamil’s drawn face, like a skull covered in gold paint.

“The smaller one,” Erik said, chest hitching. “It was fishing for us, it was drawing us out here.”

“A trap,” Jamil said. There was a faint crunch behind them as Old Blue hit the piece of wood he had been on. Soon it would notice them again and swing back to hit them. It will swing, Erik thought. It knows it has that sharp edge — I don’t know how, I don’t care — and it doesn’t know to use anything else.

Water began to bubble up between his legs as the raft canted towards Jamil’s dead weight. In the thick water Erik could see Jamil’s legs paddling dreamlike, too slowly to keep him up.

“What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

Jamil smiled at him, teeth no longer chattering, an awful, sleepy smile. “Erik. They named you…after a brave…”

“Don’t let go!” Erik cried, stabbing himself on the edges of hooks as he lunged for Jamil. The only thing worse than dying out here would be dying all alone, mad with guilt and terror, still clinging to Jamil’s frozen body. He grabbed at Jamil’s sleeve and hauled with all his strength, trying to get Jamil’s head clear of the water.

“It’s coming again.”

“Don’t look!” Erik blurted. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, arms trembling. Their raft was sinking. Half the hooks had disappeared into the water again. It lured us out here and tried to kill us, he thought. It did the same to our fathers, in whose shadows we lived with pride, but they were not the last; we are the last. We are the last.

We are the very last.

He pulled one of the hooks free and sank it into Jamil’s sleeve, snapped on another, and leapt free of the raft, trailing the rest of the hooks like a tail. Every stroke towards the blue wall was like swimming through stone, as if the water too knew his name, wanted him to die. His head had gone under when his hand brushed the ice, and almost as if by reflex, he slammed a hook into it, felt it bite deep enough to bear his weight.

He couldn’t see if Jamil was still attached, couldn’t spare the motion. His neck felt too frozen to even turn. The berg howled as the hooks went in, rising to a scream as he climbed. Five. Six. Look at my beautiful knots, Erik thought dreamily. He was shivering so hard he couldn’t see; everything was a mist of grey and blue, splotches of red from his bitten tongue. His hands were on fire; he imagined pressing his face to them for warmth. Eleven. Twelve. Inch by inch he hitched Jamil from the ocean’s grip, crept towards the summit. The useless table hooks slid out immediately and splashed to the water far below.

And he sat at the top of the berg, listening to its song of rage.

Twelve is not enough to bring it back, he thought. I climbed it for nothing. He looked down; Jamil swung on the hook-anchored line against the sheer wall of ice, as flat as a painting in a cave. Maybe dead. Who knew.

I can’t bring it back, but there’s islands out there… we could build a fire… unless I’m too weak to walk…unless we die…

He was about to call for Jamil again when he saw the dark spot on the water, approaching them jerkily, in little sideways steps, like a crow begging for food. His eyes snapped into sudden focus. A boat! He knew that blue-gray hull, the blue-gray sail. Nafeez had mixed all his paints himself. Famous for it. The bodies washed to shore, he thought wildly, but this boat never did! If hooks were still aboard, maybe…

“Jamil!” he shouted, then realized even a whale’s ears couldn’t hear him over the noise of the infuriated berg. He climbed down to the third hook and jerked sharply on the rope. “Your father’s boat is out there! We have to go get the hooks! It’s the only way we’ll make it back! Do you hear me?”

“The fool apprentice of a fool,” Jamil murmured. “What do you know? We will die. We will never reach it.”

“We will die anyway,” Erik said, and meant it. But Jamil was clearly in no shape to swim out to the boat. What could he do now? He had bought some time, and his teeth had stopped chattering as he had warmed from the climb. It will have to be me, he thought, but what is it?

He was shivering again when he untied the line from the second-last hook and climbed back up, slowly, pulling it through the eyelets.

“Don’t!” Jamil cried, but it was too late and Erik had swung from the tip of the axe, landing with a flat and final slap on the ocean near Nafeez’ boat. It was far worse than the first time; he felt himself go limp, simply watched the bubbles rise from his mouth through the dark water, watched the sky recede, noted which way his charm floated.

Erik inched up the side of the boat like a crab, wondering if Jamil could still see him. As soon as the sail went up, Erik tensed in fear, knowing that Old Blue would attack it. But the hooks had gone true, and the berg stayed and screamed as the boat bumped towards it in the freshening wind.

#

A crowd had gathered on the beach, massed darkness already in mourning clothes between the racks of smoking fish, as the sun began to set. Without the spyglass Erik could only guess that his mother had come too — dazed, walking on the oakum and shattered planks of their boat, comforted by the fluttering hands of elders. People were still coming, cresting the hill tiny and black as ants.

The setting sun lay behind him, Erik thought. No one would be able to see him, only the berg. But he waved anyway, waved and called till his voice cracked, till the villagers began to cry and wave in turn, till Jamil lifted his head groggily at the noise, as the great blue mountain and the last iceberg cowboys sailed in triumph back to their home.

###

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