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Towards Tundra

by Hanna Whaley

The great beast was first sighted in the ice-capped water, still groping and writhing, but quelled by unabating sea and soon to sink under, extinguished like sunlight dropped from the sky in the dark North. Ten crewmen readily hauled the bear on board, imbued as they were, as all whaler-men became, with the barbarity of their endeavours. This white brute was an Arctic trophy, though she howled pitifully whilst being roped. Undecided whether to eat or grow rich from their hunt, they let the bound creature be.

When the storm came that night, the bear, rested and fearing for life afresh, bellowed into the wet air and wrestled against the bonds tethering her to the tilt of the ship. Furious waves capsized bergs, breaking apart island coasts, lifting sediment and sea ice, such that anything not frozen in place was hurled at the whale-catcher. The bear broke free only to be faced by a boy, held tall by the cry of his voice, sung in foreign tongue above Northern Seas in reach of the raging ice bear.

This motherless cabin boy was youngest of the crew; born to natives but fathered by a sailor and taken onboard a returning voyage alongside three matured men of his tribe who died soon thereafter, savaged by the hunt and witnessed by the child. The crew wished well for their waif but beliefs held fast that work on a quarter deck was the acme of opportunity, the envy of countless youngsters in whaling ports back home. The boy, it seemed, believed differently.

The Arctic storm subsided but left faded men with a wild animal loose in their midst. Still, danger fell secondary to fascination, for the bear and the boy sat entwined, young hands working through salted fur, his infant face pushed into the mudded flank of the mighty polar creature, soft comfort for them both. The bear flared at anyone who thought to intervene. The crewmen heard unceasing whispers and swore the boy sang secrets to the animal through each of the following three nights.

The crew acted to recapture their prize only when the ship made port, the bear unfurling as planks slapped the stone of the dock. She forced a path forward, fending against corralling crewman with savage might until pausing, dauntless, at the deck’s edge. The boy stepped past injured sailors to join his companion, small fingers in the fur once more, heaving himself onto the back of the bear. They walked straight through town, it was said, and people stood out to see the bear and the boy as they passed by, journeying towards Scotland’s tundra to live free, together.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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