They are so like drowned women it chokes us: white-blue skin scourged; ravaged arms raking through a slurry of flaked ice for our booted ankles. We stand with cant hooks readied. A week of their wailing has tendered our ears and the whole bay now is a-ring with it: noise jailed in an arc of forest as these sirens are trapped in this slushed blowhole.
If they were not so starved, we guess, they might slip beneath this plain of ice to open water. Yet they will not eat the fish we throw. Their tails shed iridescent salt-scent coins the colour of sea; these we shovel up to stop the children going for them.
But the danger is less beauty and more pity. The cold has hacked their voices ragged. They shrill innuendo at us, but there is nothing seductive in it; our throats ache in harmony with theirs, and we long only to drape blankets over their peeled bare shoulders, unscrew our thermoses and offer sweet, milky tea. It pierces so, this pity, that the hardest-hearted among us must restrain men and mothers, and we weep.
Little Murray Connolly, three feet high in his red snowsuit, once slipped between our legs and toddled tearstained toward their misery, waving as comfort and gift his brown teddy. As he slipped into slushed salt-sea they lunged at him with stiff fingers, starved mouths that were themselves black pools in iced faces.
No harm came to the boy: out we scooped him with keen steel dogs, his face registering with O‘d mouth and blued skin the shock of cold. Numb, their lips could neither find nor close round his small face, and with some regret did we bite our hooks into their bare chests and arms to keep them from him. More blood, more wailing.
Night comes. Stabbing long across the ice, their barking scrapes our bedroom windows. We have not slept. The garbage bear has left his dump and lumbered ’cross the white to them. He has in mind fishing; he bats at them as they howl. In the morning we shoo him with hooks and rifles and he lollops dumpward, content to patient the daylight away.
The drowned women now are shredded and spent, hands curled into blueblacked hooks. These they still swipe at our ankles, but weakly. Oh monsters, we would cry, were there some mercy that we could feed you, wouldn’t we pour it out for you, surely: raise it to your blackbloodied mouths and tender your rich-mantled heads in our laps. Salve your ravaged nakedness and rescale shucked tails.
But there is no hope of communion. At night the shifting ice snaps and sings its electric wail, high thrilled keening, and the coldsalt air sloughs seaward ’cross the floe and into black.
Natalie Morrill, an Ontario writer, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and writes primarily fiction and poetry. Her work has been included in The Journey Prize Stories, and her first novel, forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada in 2017, was recognized with the HarperCollins Canada/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction.