Not realizing it was already occupied, the seal threw itself on the ice floe, ending, for the moment, the pursuit of the orcas. The seal’s momentum slid it straight into the monster’s leg, and feeling that unexpected warmth, it twisted, scrambled on its fins, knocked a small oar into the water, and was at the edge of sliding back into a cold ocean death when its eyes finally focused on the threat.
“Frick,” it said. “I thought you were a polar bear.”
The monster fished his oar from the water. He had been watching the seal’s misfortune for a half hour and was staggered the mammal was alive. During the engagement with the orcas, the seal had seemed to rise skyward of its own volition, a whirligig aiming for the sun, nose over tail, water droplets flinging forth in a golden spiral, building its momentum in an exquisite vault of freedom from marine constraints.
The monster had breathed in awe at this display. Each time the seal landed with a hard slap, the ocean would still, returned to the solemn rigidity of flat sky and flat water. During these moments, the monster would admonish himself for feeling excitement. But then the orca’s white belly would again push up a swell of slushy water, the seal cradled in its tail, and would fold itself in half with enough force to launch the seal in front of the pallid arctic sun. And the thrill would return.
Now, the seal curled itself into a tight circle on the ice and bore its teeth.
“Frickin’ herring piss. I think my ribs are broken.” Its eyes rolled back to the monster. A flash of recognition crossed its face. “Hold on. I know you from somewhere.”
When he realized that the animal expected a response, the monster’s lips started moving, as though controlled by their original owner. It was some time before the unusual gurgling sound came out.
The seal continued unabated. “No, no, I do. You’re super familiar.”
“I think not,” the monster said. This response, he realized, was much too short, and there was thickness cast over the consonants, but at least decipherable words emerged. Once, he’d been eloquent.
The seal slapped its fin on the ice. “Frankenstein. Am I right? You’re frickin’ Frankenstein.”
“I beg you not use that name.”
“Frankenstein! You’re a legend!”
“The name thou speak belongs to one long and pitilessly deceased.”
“It was the one carried by the creator of the wretch before you.”
“Call me the monster.”
The seal roared with laughter then winced. “Clam-bearded bottom-trawling orcas.” It tried to lick at its side. “Sorry. The monster? No slipping way. Frankie?”
“I beg you no.”
The seal seemed to settle on this, then transitioned to a long tirade about orcas. They were, it seemed, staying up north for longer periods of the year. Less pack ice in their way. They hunted bowhead whales.
“One of those pricks will grab either fin, and another one will drape its blubber over the poor thing’s blow hole until it suffocates.”
The monster felt a small thrill at this ingenuity, then pinched his leg.
“And the narwhals are scared shitless,” the seal said. “They’re huddling near the shoreline because they’d rather get speared by a hunter than torn to bits by those monsters. No offence.”
“I take no offence.”
The seal took a break from its story to wiggle on the ice, seeming to test each appendage, then each vertebra, for pain, wincing as it got toward its middle. It took some breaths and looked the monster up and down with black teary eyes.
“You know who’d love you are the walruses. They appreciate a big fellow. I’ll take you to meet them.” The seal puffed its chest. “We’re relatives, you know.”
The monster thanked the seal for its kindness.
The seal breathed in and out steadily, filling the air with a fishy smell. Beyond the field of ice, plumes of whale breath hung over the water, but beyond this lingering sign, activity seemed to have died. The monster looked out at the patchwork of sea ice, like shattered dinner plates over black marble. It would be time to find his way back to land soon. Hunger chewed at his stomach after the long sabbatical on the ice. It was a regular ritual—balanced on the slender shield that separated sea and sky—meant to clear the worst of his thoughts. He felt a strong urge now, however, to stay by the animal’s side.
The seal let out a long groan as it rolled farther onto the ice.
“I feel like I’m passing a sea urchin.” The seal took a moment to consider the monster. “Will you rub my belly?”
The monster raised a tentative hand.
“Come on, Captain,” the seal said.
The seal’s mottled fur was like damp velvet, and it radiated an unexpected heat. The monster’s yellowed, spotted hand did not look as though it should be allowed there, but the seal let out a relieved sigh.
“I asked not your name,” the monster said.
“Nattiq, I think. But I think we all might be named Nattiq? Anyway.” It propped its face on a flipper. “I heard that you were off to kill yourself at some point. But that must have been…” It seemed they shared a tendency, as the seal’s lips moved silently. The monster couldn’t identify any lip shapes that might produce numbers.
The monster sighed. “Two hundred and fifty-two years ago.”
“I fear it is true.”
“Frick you’re old. You look good for so old.”
The monster’s chest flooded with confused heat. “
Must be lonely,” the seal said.
As the monster and the seal sat together, the sun continued on its steep angle toward the water and the pack ice loosened and drifted apart. A passing flock of murres let out their stuttered nasal complaints, barely kept aloft by their struggling wings, but otherwise their world was calm. The monster wondered about the location of the rest of the seals, where Nattiq’s colony lay in a rippled heap, keeping for themselves heat and contact not available for outsiders. Seeing colonies of seals and murres, pods of orcas, flocks of kittiwake, often struck hatred in his heart, a feeling he knew to be as ridiculous as it was sincere.
The monster supposed that there could be room in his life for an injured seal. His fishing skills were more than sufficient. Though there was the question of how to carry the animal home.
The seal had wriggled closer with increasing insistence, and was now wedged between the monster’s outstretched legs, head resting on his hip. Moisture from its chin seeped into the monster’s pant leg. He stroked the seal’s cheek, admiring those sturdy whiskers. The animal’s breathing steadied.
“I would like to tell you how it feels,” the monster said.
There was no response. The monster looked down and saw its shut eyes. The monster patted the seal’s slug-like body. The eyes squinted open, one at a time, then it rolled over and vomited a chewed pile of fish on the ice.
“Maggoty sea-liced orcas.”
“I would like to tell you how it feels,” the monster repeated.
“I have murdered.” The monster took a deep breath. “Loneliness was so shocking to my newborn self—in one moment thrust into an awesome world and rejected—that I knew only rage. A rejection of rejection. But now, this time having passed, I know loneliness intimately, its perniciousness, better than I know anyone. How its moods change by years. To say loneliness is sadness, to me, is not accurate. It aches, stabs, and soothes in turn, changing its face with little prompt.” The monster ran his finger over the soft fur between the animal’s eyes. “Once, seeing phosphorescence dancing around my hands while bathing off the coast of Baffin Island, I fell into a depression lasting a year.
“Anger and hatred have not the longevity of despair. While those surge and fall, despair can drag steadily though decades, an undercurrent to every thought. I have found that the only hatred which does not die is my hatred of myself, which on the contrary, will thrive until its carrier draws a final breath, for it has wormed its way through my stolen veins like a parasite.”
The seal blinked several times. “Uh-huh.”
The monster stared out at the frozen field. “For periods of time, here, I can lose myself to the daily analgesic of survival. I lived in an Inuk hunter’s home for one year, and I expected there to at last experience happiness. But in his home, against the love I yearned to find, did I finally realize the meaning of true loneliness. Sitting at his fire and sharing his meals, my mind could never stray from the horror I believed him to feel behind his well-practised expression. Finally, I understood that even in forgiving and loving community I cannot ever escape my remoteness, for now it is housed in my breast. Here, amongst my drifting compatriots, the icebergs, I feel less in solitude than in the company of humans. Now, I consider myself not lonely, which implies I could be anything else, nor isolated, which implies I have had in the past genuine company and lost it. I am another thing. I am perhaps desolate.”
“Wow,” the seal said. It rolled to look straight into the monster’s face. “So, like, Desolation Sound? I have cousins there.”
“I am unsure why I’ve told you all this.”
The seal licked at a thin trail of blood that had leaked from the side of its mouth.
“I’d like to see my sister,” it said.
“I can’t, though.”
“She was sunning herself on a piece of ice. Like this one. A sun cycle ago. And this momma orca comes along with her calf. The orca pushes a big wave over the ice and Nattiq gets washed in. We were all on the shore, but I heard that splash and I knew right away. The orca momma is using Nattiq to show her baby what to do. They’re rolling their bodies over her, but the calf is bad at it, and every once in a while, I see Nattiq’s face come up for a wide-eyed breath. Then they push her back under. Tossed her around a few times, too. I kept waiting for that blush of red in the water. You know, the one that tells you it’s over and you can go back to whatever? But you know what the momma orca did? She pushed Nattiq, alive, back on that same ice floe. They practise with us like we’re in-animal objects.”
“For a while. Never went in the water again. Had to drop fish in front of Nattiq’s nose like she was a baby.”
“I’m truly sorry.”
“I need my colony.”
Three streams of thought passed through the monster’s mind simultaneously. The first, to finally slip from the ice into the black water and exhale with force, sink with speed to the bathyal zone to be feasted on by hagfish until nothing should remain but a mishmash of borrowed bones. The second, to weep. The third, to smirk and question the seal on its need to be constantly surrounded by its barking and stinking mates, who could no more help or comfort it than walk soberly on land, which is the action that the monster of course took, and was responded to by the seal with a gentle reminiscent smile and a comment on how its family really does stink.
Just beyond the next ice floe, as though summoned by the monster’s sudden rage, a black blade sliced up through the glass surface. Behind them, the sharp exhale of whale breath sounded, followed by a mist scented with decomposing flesh. The seal did not react, seemingly now buried beneath the weight of recollection, eyes unfocused but tracking the movement in some bygone scene.
A killer whale spy-hopped to their left, peeking like the curious children who used to spy in the lab windows. The pod was closing in. The whale—the monster presumed it to be the leader—bobbed up again, its starkly white-framed eye calculating their position. Others circled around, their breath shooting into the thin air like steam.
The seal blinked and looked up at the monster. “To never go in the water again is a terrible thing for a seal, you know. Swimming is our freedom. You’re right. We’re idiots on land. Underwater, there’s no thinking about getting here to there. Just happens. The worst part is that they drown you. They take you where you’re happy. They keep you under, teeth forked into your blubber, and you look up at the air you can’t have until you breathe in salt water instead.”
“We’re doing a lot of long-talking,” the seal said. “I don’t normally do so much long-talking.”
The monster agreed.
One of the orcas moved torpedo-like and dove under their floe, sending a wave of water over the ice. The wash of ice water soaked into the monster’s pants. The seal was swept a couple inches and stopped.
“I can’t swim,” the monster said.
The seal groaned. “Bad, bad, bad, bad.” It brought its head up and nuzzled into the monster’s stomach, seeming to wish to enter there for safety. The seal’s belly was hot, and a dark bruise was forming under the fur.
“I can’t swim,” the monster said again.
“They’ll eat me,” the seal replied. Tendrils of blood and spit trailed between its teeth. Now, despite its girth, the seal had seemed to become a wriggling pup. Shrinking, rolling, eyes watering. Again, the lead orca spy-hopped, and the line of others advanced. The second wave washed the seal and monster close to the edge. They scrambled back. The seal breathed hard, head bent toward the ice.
“You’ll push me in, won’t you?” asked the seal. “That’d be the sensible thing. After all, you have the option. You needn’t anthropomorphize me.”
The orcas had lined themselves up, prepared to build the wave that would wash them together into the Arctic water, where the undersides of ice floes glowed blue, and offered protection to those small fingerling fish that needed no air, and death to anyone that did. It was a clean and full world down there, rich with life. If only it were empty down there, no more than an ice bath which would preserve the bodily integrity of those who died. Two parallel bodies could rest for generations on the seabed. A place to remain whole without the struggle of breath and thought.
And probably the orcas and hagfish would know better than to touch the monster. But not so for the seal, the monster realized. Dismemberment and digestion would mark the end of that dream. Only one body would remain on the ocean floor.
“Go on, Captain.”
They had shared a moment of love. The monster felt sure. And when he looked again at the seal, he understood that his boot was already on its side.
Jen Neale’s work has previously appeared in Maisonneuve, the Masters Review and Augur. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. In 2012, she won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Her first novel, Land Mammals and Sea Creatures (ECW Press, 2018), is in stores now.