Circles of Ice
Kathryn Michael McMahon
For weeks, while her twins suckled in their den safe below the winter snow, the ice bear mother had dreamed of a third child. Though she could only hear the wind howling outside, a heartbeat drummed through the earth, rousing her.
Risking the lives of her hairless cubs, she pushed massive paws and a black snout out into the cold, finding, alive and alone, a human infant, pale blue and swaddled in wool. The mother hadn’t eaten in months, but the infant looked as feeble as her own cubs and, gently in her teeth, she carried it inside.
The baby fed from her. At first, she worried there would be less for her twins, but her new daughter drank little and, if anything, there came more milk. As winter cried outside their den, the ice mother spoke of things only ice bears know and sang melodies only ice bears hear. All three babes grew fat and strong with hair as white as their mother’s.
Spring thaw slicked the hunter’s house. He readied his shotgun. Soon, there would be bear cubs with fine furs for the taking.
Spring thaw dripped into the ice bear den. The mother pushed through the snow bank and her children saw sunlight and blinked at its newness as they tumbled into the softly mysteriousness snow.
Her third child had left her wool blanket in the den. With eyes like the night sky and skin the ancient blue of sea ice, she lifted the snow to her face and buried her nose in as if to inhale its purity. Gripping her mother’s fur strong and hard, she climbed naked up to sit on her shoulders. The bear bellowed and her twins followed them down the mountain.
Sometimes the cubs would join their sister on their mother’s shoulders, sometimes they would knock each other off into the snow. Though she tolerated the antics of her children, her stomach grumbled as they drank and drank. Down the mountain glittered the ice crust of the sea, beneath which swam blubberous seals.
The sun ringed the horizon like a nervous skater. The hunter packed his shotgun and kissed his wife goodbye. A new pelt would put dinner on the table for the weeks it took for the ice to free his fishing boat.
Daybreak hovered, flirting orange. Hunger kicked at the bear mother’s belly even as her children squealed for food. Her third child grew taller by the day, bones longer and flesh temptingly firmer. But the mother could not eat something she had once fed.
They reached the foot of the mountain and the third child smelled her first whiff of salt. She threw her hands in the air and, tossing her head, her white hair grew past her shoulders and waist. She climbed off her mother and as her feet touched the ice, her limbs stretched. The ice girl danced. When she tired, she returned to her mother’s back and her long, white hair covered them both.
The sun flung its face at the sea. The mother struggled, reluctant to ask her ice daughter to walk. She stumbled and sank to the ice. The girl climbed down and stared into her mother’s black eyes splashed with sacrifice. She turned and drove her hands through the ice. She held out two fish and her mother took them. She plunged her hands in again and again and fed her brother and sister their first meal that wasn’t milk.
While the sun circled the sky and teased the mountains with night, the family slept full-bellied.
The hunter was lucky. There, over there, was an ice bear asleep with two cubs and… What was that? A hump on her back? No, an old woman, dead? A meal for later? His stomach growled as he lifted the shotgun and fired.
If an ice spirit thinks she’s about to die, be prepared because she can’t, though other things might happen instead.
The sun, which had been preparing to catapult itself into summer, saw the bullet and fled, tearing a hole in the sky. Night rushed in, giddy with stars.
Hearing the blast from the shotgun, the ice cracked.
As the bullet sped away, onto the hunter fell a spray of lead dust. Each hair it touched grew dense and black and as it touched other hairs, they, too, grew thicker and darker until the whole of him was fur pushing through clothes and boots until it split them. When he returned home, his wife screamed and shunned him. Cast out, the hunter wandered the desert of ice. No animal ventured close, so easy to avoid was he that hunger took the rest of his body, leaving only bones, boots, and a matted coat.
But long before that death, when the bullet struck the mother and the cubs tasted blood in her milk, they wailed and ran. One east, one west, both south to uncertain continents.
The mother saw her twins vanish into the white and caught the scent of her own blood before it filled her eyes. Her ice daughter took her long hair and wrapped it around the wound. Still, she fell to the cracked ice and it shattered, tumbling mother and daughter into the sea.
In the water, the ice girl squeezed her mother’s front legs and they shivered and turned to flippers. The ice girl took hold of her mother’s hindquarters and pulled and pulled until a great tail undulated where paws had been. She stroked her mother’s snout and the bones broadened and the teeth grew long and flat. The girl’s long, white hair brushed over her mother’s back and the fur fell all away. The ice girl kissed the wound. The bleeding stopped and her mother’s lungs inflated.
Into the sky, the ice mother blew air and blood and water.
Rejoicing at her new shape, she sang. The sound skimmed beneath the surface of the ice and rang through the sea. Other ice bears took to the water and lost their legs for the pleasure of the song. Their voices joined and grew into a melody only ice whales can understand.
Invited waves dissolved the ice spirit into a whisper of salt. As a whale opened her mouth, a mother swallowed what she had once fed.
Kathryn Michael McMahon lives in Vietnam with her wife and dog. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Devilfish Review, Wyvern Lit, A cappella Zoo, The Subtopian, and others. On Twitter, she’s @katoscope.