map Ice Carvings

by Gabrielle Rupert

Published in Issue No. 236 ~ January, 2017

On his snowmobile, Tobias Morgan rode along the frozen sea of Mortla. He was hauling an unusually large package that had taken him fifteen minutes to tie onto the sleigh hooked to the back of the snowmobile. The treadmarks in the snow were made deeper from the weight. On top of the package was the usual bag of letters. Tobias did not care what he delivered; he got paid every Friday, the same amount, as long as every package arrived undamaged. He was the fastest messenger because he was the only one. Not many people wanted to traverse the desolate, cold permafrost twice a day, six days a week, to deliver mail between two rural pop-up towns. Tobias took what money he needed and put the rest in the only bank in Sinaaq. Not having the time or interest to use his growing fortune, he only went to the bank for deposits.

Having left Itcha Narvak about three hours after eating lunch, Tobias expected to reach Sinaaq in two hours. The snowmobile chopped his time in half, as the two towns were a day’s walk apart. The wind whipped against his many layers. Snow from the ground frequently obscured his vision through his goggles. Journeying through the arctic was already cold, but even the thick garments barely protected Tobias from the high speeds of travel.

As Tobias drove on the large frozen plain, his constant stare on the horizon furrowed when he saw a dark blur. Getting closer, he noticed that the blur did not move position, but contrasted more and more with the white snow. The messenger reached the scene of the blur.

There were only two colors: red and black.

Lying on the surface of the ice was an orca. It was bleeding. Liberally. The large, pectoral fins had been brutally separated from the body. Blood had poured out in large quantities from the gashes, accumulating on the ice and leaking into the hole that the animal had been pulled from. A strap had been left wrapped around the animal’s body.

The taking of the fins, but not the dorsal fins, was a sign of poachers. Gangs of foreigners would come to Sinaaq during these cold months to track pods of orca under the Mortla ice, then fish for the whales. Finding the orcas had recently become easier with technology, as Mortla’s ice became thicker and thicker each year. The poachers would cut the pectoral fins only; they were believed to prolong life about five years. Or so said the insincere guides of Sinaaq.

Tobias never understood how such an advanced world could still believe in myths. Once close enough, he swung his leg over the seat and stood on the snow. He walked over to the giant, stopping before the pool of blood. The whale did not move. Tobias grimaced as he observed the marks made by the straps.

POP! Crank. High-pitched spinning.

Tobias rushed to his vehicle to keep it on. But he could do nothing as the machine shut off, smoke seeping from the vents located by the motor. The man’s gloved hands slammed against the seat of the vehicle. His exclamation was matched with a strange noise from behind him.

The messenger looked. The orca made another noise, and it sounded like torture. Watching the orca, he understood that it was not dead yet. He was not alone, now. If he reached Sinaaq tonight, he would still be alone, something he thought was normal for living on the outskirts of Mortla. Though, being near this animal made him feel whole.

Forgetting about the low temperature, Tobias took off two sweaters and pressed them against the cuts on the monster. The sweaters barely covered the lacerations. Blood soaked the thick cloth quickly and filtered through Tobias’s fingers. Tobias gasped, then let out a shout. The blood was boiling compared to the air belting against them.

As the blood still poured, Tobias grabbed the strap and untied it from the animal. With difficulty, he was able to pack one of the wounds with the sweaters and keep them in place with the strap. Every time Tobias put pressure on the incision, the orca blubbered in pain.

“I know! I am trying to save you!”

The sea creature did not stop wailing. Once the makeshift bandage was set, Tobias paused, thinking of what to do next. Then he grabbed the bucket from his sled and edged towards the large hole in the ice. If he fell in, he would most certainly die. No one would find him here.

Tobias filled the bucket to the top and struggled to bring it to the orca. The weight pulled on his back muscles, causing the burning sensation to build in the fibers. He poured the water over the orca, hoping this would keep it from drying out. The water gravitated down the soft, rubbery skin, washing the blood off the mutilated area, diluting the blood that collected on the snow. Though the process was slowed, blood still seeped through the bandages. The other wound was still uncovered, though the contact with the ice caused a slow flow.

Perhaps, Tobias reflected, his efforts to save the orca would help it stay alive or until help came. Though he was the only one known to travel here, apart from the poachers. Tobias noticed the fading tire marks in the snow, heading in the direction of Sinaaq.

“Are you suffering?”

Perhaps, Tobias reflected, the orca was in a lot of pain and wanted death to arrive sooner. His hand instinctively went to the knife secured to his belt. Mentally mapping out the orca’s body, he tried to guess where the brain might be. Or the heart. If he could find them, he could end the orca’s pain. But if he missed, it would cause the orca more grief.

Another screech came from the orca, though quieter and feebler. Tobias felt nauseous and turned his head to look at the pure, white horizon. He still had to walk four hours to get to Sinaaq. His small fortune would now be dented after paying someone to pick up his vehicle and fix it.

The rising of the orca’s body as it breathed shallowly pulled Tobias’s focus back to the current picture. When the orca was not shrieking, Tobias listened to the whiny wind whistle against the flat frozen lake, picking up dustings of snow. The ice was so thick this winter that it did not creak or shift; thick enough to hold the large package he was to deliver, and thick enough to support a truck full of orca fins.

If he allowed himself to listen more closely, Tobias could hear the arduous breathing of the orca. Time passed by as he filtered out the noise by splashing more water onto it. He passed time by trying to talk himself into leaving, knowing he shouldn’t be outside at dark for long. He knew the whale would die. But could it survive? He didn’t know much about whales.

Tobias stayed. He found himself talking to the orca, telling the wild animal that “it would be okay” and apologizing for “asshole people.” His muscles hurt. The bucket started slipping out of his fingers. Splashing. Wasting time. Wasting water.

The exact time was not noted mentally, but Tobias came from the ice hole to the orca for the nth time, and he noticed the orca had stopped crying and breathing. Freezing, Tobias did not know what to do. So he poured the bucket out, put it on his snowmobile, and tried the motor out of spite.

Thundering on, there was no smoke percolating out of the vents. Tobias didn’t shout in joy, though. He realized he would see the body tomorrow. Twice a day. Six days every week. Its bones would remain on the ice until the ice melted, which could be months from now.

After unhooking the sled, Tobias drove slowly over to the body, sidling up so the front of the vehicle touched the carcass. With great precision, he powered the vehicle against the body slowly, pushing the body towards the hole in the ice. He didn’t want to go too fast and fall in, himself. With a final plop, the orca’s body slid off the edge and into the water. Tobias made a tight turn away from the hole. After the sled was attached, Tobias hesitated, turned around, and saw all the red fluids that stained the snow and ice. He would go around, drive on the other side of the frozen plain. After a few snowfalls, the blood wouldn’t be visible.

Adjusting his seat, Tobias got comfortable and drove in the direction of Sinaaq, towards the shadowing horizon.

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I am from Boston, though I recently moved to San Francisco for graduate school.