1- The dirge
She is an old woman. She won’t say how old, but she’s lived long enough to see the city slip from its status as a bustling port—stevedores hauling crates of glasswort from the marshes and containers of ice mined from the northern glaciers—to a silent, starving, ice-locked tomb. She’s old enough to remember when the ice whales first crept into the subway tunnels and changed everything, when their underwater song fogged the harbour with ice and froze the freighters in their moorings. She’s old enough to remember the first icicles dripping off the washers and dryers of basement laundry rooms.
She’s old enough to remember when Saskia Henderay slipped into the already-disused subway tunnel and went with the ice whales as their queen, encouraging the whales to stay, to make their homes in the slippery dark places beneath the train tracks, in the plankton-thick water of the harbour. She’s old enough to have watched hundreds of people in the city develop the lesions associated with ice whales, the hoarfrost bulges on their necks and knees, to have watched them wither, alone, untouchable, until the ice whales took them away from their flats and quay-side merchant houses.
She’s old enough to have lived twenty-eight years and then seventy-two more of whale-songs, which slipper through the streets once a year on the shortest night, when the sun just kicks the horizon before ascending again. She’s old enough to have seen the effigies of Saskia, that bitch, that stupid bitch, burning bright on whale-song night, the embers and sparks (which make no melting mark on the enchanted whale-ice that locks the city) swirling and popping through the streets. The people who hold the effigies wear expressions twisted with so much anger, anger that Piper wishes were alien but in fact is ever so human; they wear this rage and they wear earmuffs tight to block out the sound of the whales’ singing, as is required on whale-song night.
Piper doesn’t like people to know that her name is Piper Henderay, that Saskia was her twin sister. When they find out, she tells them, her time-eaten teeth churning around the words, that Saskia was half again too clever for her own good, that she had pretensions of greatness, that no one should be surprised that she met a sorry end. She tells them that Saskia was always too much: on leave from ice-mining, she would spend her coins on a dozen oysters every night at one of the open-air restaurants along the waterfront; she would try to pry them open herself with a gold-handled knife. She spoke too loud, she interrupted, and then she doomed the city to this eternity of ice.
But Piper will also remind people that she’s an old woman, and even if she’s forgotten her earmuffs, surely none of them can fault her for slipping out of her apartment on whale-song night to—only out of propriety, mind you—mourn her sister.
Piper knows, as everyone in the city knows, that ordinary whales sing too. Humpbacks and mysticeti, narwhals, beaked whales, the flesh-and-blood creatures that slipper through the ocean far to the south—she understands from scrolling through the scant encyclopedia available on her reader that those other whales sing songs made of vibration, that they feel these songs in their blubber and bones, that the songs register on human instruments of measurement but not on human ears. But an ice whale’s song takes everything in the city and turns it into an instrument. When she was young, when she and Saskia scared each other with the stories on their mum’s reader of the ice whales that had besieged other ice-trading cities, Piper imagined that their songs stemmed from seething magic. She still doesn’t know if seething magic or radar vibrations produce the songs, which creep through the shipbuilders’ mansions by the waterfront, sing round wine glasses, trill mirrors on the walls, shudder the glasswort in the frozen marshes east, suck a hidden, mournful song from the oysters in the restaurants along the bay.
When it plays the instrument of the city, the whale-song shudders all boundaries, all barriers. Listening to the whale-song, Piper finds her past pushed up from her heart, down the windy synapse corridors of her mind, and on those nights she is sixteen and nine and fifty-one, every age she’s ever been.
The whale-song also shudders the boundaries between their world and the world of the ice whales, the world beneath the city, the world of their fins and ice-mottled sides and jewels and fish-stink breath. Anyone who listens to the song of the ice whales might find their foot slipping through a numinous-white crack in a paving stone, or might stumble on the stair and watch their fingers punch through to the ice whales’ kingdom. They could break through, fall ill with those hoarfrost-lesions. They could disturb the fragile peace built with the ice whales over the past seventy-two years.
Is it any wonder, Piper thinks, as she thumps, cane in hand, along her street towards the waterfront, without earmuffs, that she’s not supposed to be listening to it?
3- That song you listened to the summer you were twenty-one, which makes you feel like a long-haired loud-laughed girl again, passenger-side to your sister.
In the whale-song, Saskia and Piper are dark-haired girls, born two minutes apart. In the whale-song, Saskia picks glasswort, that long, mean, spiky plant, green as sin, which sucks up salt from the humid marshes until its tips spark and burn. Barges’ foghorns bellow out to sea, and Saskia pulls it up in great overflowing handfuls, holding the stems so the sparks don’t burn her slender hands (just like Piper’s hands. They were so alike, and so Piper wonders, in the whale-song and now, what separated them, what sent Saskia bursting to the whales, when it might have been Piper?). Saskia hauls the glasswort home and dumps it in a bucket in the airshaft-courtyard in the centre of their building. She watches the sparks catch, feeding on each other, until the glasswort burns. She sells the resultant glass to the glassmakers down round the harbour (“I read on mum’s reader that ice whales breed a special kind of glasswort,” Saskia says, and Piper, always half-jealous and half-annoyed at Saskia’s cleverness, smears ash on Saskia’s cheekbone, and Saskia smears it on Piper’s leg, her tongue poking out, and they race round the courtyard shrieking).
In the whale-song, their parents are alive, and then they are not (ice trade: crampons and ropes never enough to keep its workers from tumbling like poppets into the sea).
In the whale-song, Saskia and Piper are seventeen, hustling through the dockside-bustle on their afternoon off, watching containers soaring from the mouths of shipping cranes, peeking into pried-open crates full of packets of dried seaweed and pearls. They’re bickering over whether they should squander their precious sweaty coins on dry seaweed when something lights up the waterfront, some trill playing their bones, a song, coming from the earth itself, and Piper stops, stares at Saskia, and says, “Did you hear that?” And Saskia says, a little crease between her brows, “I’ve been hearing it for three days.”
They don’t know that this is the first whale-song that they’ll ever hear, that it will soon shape their entire lives, steal Saskia, ruin their city and their sisterhood.
In the whale-song, Saskia is twenty-one and receives her appointment to ship north in the ice trade, and she doesn’t cry, and so Piper doesn’t either. She presses three pieces of glasswort between two sheets of clear plastic for Saskia before she goes.
Now, tonight, on whale-song night, seventy-two years after Saskia went to the ice whales, Piper step-thumps to the harbour, where ice creeps: brisk salt water gathering into stasis, barges freezing in their moorings, the susurrus of waves silenced so she can hear only the song. With hands swollen and crooked in their gloves, she bends, at the knees so she doesn’t strain her back, to pick the glasswort. She twists it off its stalks and piles it into her basket. The whale-song ripples along the marsh, playing the stalky reeds, tickling the snow over the thickening ice, and in those notes, those moments, she is there with Saskia, and they are young. They say that ice is stasis, ice is death, winter is both stasis and death, and the ice whales shudder the boundaries between worlds, between past and present, because in eternal stasis, boundaries don’t matter anymore: everything and nothing are the same. For a moment, as Piper picks the glasswort to lie on Saskia’s grave, she wonders: when death creeps through the window for her, will she experience everything always and at once, all the Pipers caught forever like ’wort pinned under plastic?
She wonders: will death creep through the window for her before she completes the one task she’s made her mission for the past seventy-two years?
Once, a man returned from the ice whales. They found him sprawled and shuddering on the yellow line on the subway platform at one of the abandoned stations. He wasn’t wearing shoes and his toes had been scraped away to nubs, scabbed over and hardened with scar tissue hundreds upon hundreds of times. He was distended with the tumourous bulges of greyish hoarfrost that appear on the neck-glands and tangle in the arm-hair of those who touch the ice whales. He babbled about the ice whales’ underground caverns of ice-gems in shades of aquamarine and sea-garnet. About their marshes of glasswort, a different breed than grows in the city: their glasswort is white, alien, smoky, the colour of stars and ice. One stalk of ice whale’s glasswort clung to his coat; as glove-wearing biohazard workers shoved him off the yellow line and back onto the tracks, the stalk fell onto a frozen puddle and melted it, sending off clouds of steam like beacons into the frozen air (Piper was there, in the crowd of horrified bystanders, and when she saw it, when she watched the ice whale’s glasswort fall onto enchanted ice and spark and burn, her jaw tightened).
The man was sent back to the ice whales. It’s forbidden to return from their kingdom once you’ve gone. Once someone slips through, by accident or curiosity or trickery, they’re contaminated, unclean, and besides, they belong to the ice whales, not the city, which has to take care of its own, which can’t risk the ice whales rising further, occupying first floors and city streets and the decks of ice-locked ships. This is the ecosystem they’ve built, the agreed-upon status quo. The people who survive stay in their city. They subsist on the sickly fish dredged up through holes cut in the ice, on the trickle of beef jerky and canned beans imported by sledge from the south. They live bearable, safe—for now—lives. They take out their anger on the memory of Saskia, the girl who started it all. In exchange, they abandon those who are contaminated by the ice whales. They do not listen to the ice whale’s song, do not digest its magics.
Except for one person: Piper, old woman, who’s rising from her marsh-pickings, a basket of rustling glasswort swinging from her arm.
5- The key shift
Piper’s boots crunch through fragile salt-water ice, her cane taps into frozen puddles, dislodging starfish, and then she’s back on pavement, shuffling past dark-windowed merchant houses, down the wide sidewalks between the glass-and-iron skyscrapers, towards the curlicue-iron facade of the subway station where her sister broke through to the ice whales seventy-two years ago.
In the whale-song, which is shivering the paver stones beneath her boots, in the whale-song where Saskia is here and they are young, the ice whales are pressing their flanks against the undersides of the basement, streaming into the harbour, and Saskia, age twenty-eight, is curled on the couch, her legs folded beneath her, her left arm cradled in her right. “Pee-pee,” she says, her stupid childhood name for Piper, which twists like a knife right up in Piper’s gut, “the things the human body can do are pretty crazy, aren’t they?” On the gentle vein of her left arm bulges something thick, smelling of salt water and ice, black and coin-sized and gemmed with hoarfrost.
They find dusty sewing needles and jam them into the tumour. The needles snap away. Saskia twists in a knife; where it sinks into the frost, the serrated tip produces one brilliant tear of water. The wound remains. Saskia looks at Piper with flat lips and big eyes. “The terrors in the ice,” she says. “You can’t imagine, Pee-pee.”
“Can you not call me that, when you’re trying to be serious?” Piper is standing with her back against the window clenching the sill so hard she can feel it lining her palms.
“I must have brought this—” her arm, laid bare “—with me from the north. Whatever it is. When you cut far enough into those glaciers, you start seeing things: little ice birds flying away, musical notes floating into the air and then popping like bubbles…and, shadows, shaped like whales.” She raises her eyes to Piper’s; the memory of the stories on their mum’s reader hangs between them. “This—” She flexes her arm. “It came from…”
Saskia’s been home from the north for a week; Piper’s only just gotten her back. She can’t imagine how everything will unfold a season later: the ice whales screaming under their basements, the ships’ crews filing frantic reports of the whales floating through the harbour, and Saskia and Piper descending into the subway, which is CLOSED FOR REPAIRS THIS WEEK (although it will never reopen again). They hold hands as they step over the yellow rope and descend the stairs to the silent shabby tracks, gleaming with ice. “Let’s figure this out,” Saskia says, cradling her bandaged arm. They went to the doctor just a few days before; the doctor donned gloves before touching the arm, muttered vague certainties, threw around the word psychosomatic, and declined to make a follow-up appointment.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to go down there,” someone shouts, loud and officious, behind them. They ignore the shout. The subway tracks are lined with doors, through which passengers on broken-down trains might be able to flee. Saskia presses her palm against one of these doors, four-hundred-fifty feet in from the station, according to a placard. She’s shivering, and Piper loops her arm more tightly through hers. The whale-song is shaking the sign, cavorting up the tracks, and in that whale-song, the whale-song within the whale-song, Piper is seven years old, practising kissing by pressing her mouth against Saskia, which they both pronounce GROSS, she’s nine years old, and Saskia is teaching her how to use your fork or teeth to sever the oyster from its bivalve, she’s twelve years old, and their parents aren’t coming home.
As they walk into the tunnel, something catches the light from the station behind them, crosswise to the tracks. A seam, opening up, cold air rising from it and shafting into their world, curlicues of white light rising too. Saskia shrinks back but Piper, for the first time, keeps going without her, just a few steps. They blink, and the air in front of them shifts, and then the ice whale is in the tunnel with them.
It floats in air, or maybe it stands on its back fins as though they are legs. It’s their height, shaped like a whale, with a torpedo-shaped body and a flat head (but as Piper stares at it she falls into the optical illusion that it’s bigger than a freighter, or the city, or the Earth). Its sides are black but mottled over with frost, tinged pink and blue in the gleam of the flashlight shaking in her hand.
People are shouting behind them and it steps, or air-swims, or just dreams towards Saskia, and regards her. She pulls a handful of glasswort from her slouchy coat pocket, holds it out to the ice whale. It ignores the glasswort, bends, whispers something in her ear. She looks at it, her face drawn in towards itself, and she nods, gravely, without smiling, and places her hands on its back, her sleeves scrunched over her palms and fingers so she doesn’t touch its skin. The ice whale waltzes her through the tunnel—one two three, one two three—a human dance clashing with the chaotic nerve-thrumming whale-song, as though they’re in a goddamn fairytale.
Piper hears the thud of heavy-booted officials jumping from the platform to the tracks, but she hears them as though from another world. Saskia jerks back from the ice whale, her jaw set.
“Tell me,” she shouts. “You said if I danced with you, you’d tell me—” She jabs her finger at her arm.
The tunnel swallows her voice. Piper turns around: police officers, their batons at the ready, are streaming into the tunnel, and bystanders leap down too. They stop next to Piper, stare at Saskia, at the ice whale looming behind her, its face in shadow, its fin resting on her shoulder as though it owns her. Her bandage is loose; the hoarfrost distends her skin. Piper can see its whorls and crenellations from where she stands.
Saskia starts forward, and the police officer next to Piper, no doubt thinking of his children, sticks out his baton, his eyes slitted. “Not a step closer,” he shouts.
Here’s a curious fact about crowds. They will follow orders. They will pounce if one or two among their number pounce first, or they will stay still and silent, held back by nothing more than an official voice and an outstretched baton. Nobody moves—not even Piper—as Saskia backs up, the silvery smoke-light swirling around her boots, silhouetting her, one step away from slipping through the seam into the ice whale’s kingdom, forever (and then she slips, she goes, and Piper never sees her again).
And here’s another fact, about disaster: people thrive on blame. No matter that seventeen other ice workers visited doctors with tumours distorting their arms and necks in the week before Saskia disappeared; no matter that Saskia only followed the ice whale into the kingdom below because of the policeman’s outstretched baton. No matter that ice whales besieged towns that Saskia had never lived in, that their presence in the ice-trading cities in the north was as inexplicable and brutal as plague or death. No, the people of their city saw Saskia waltz with the ice whale, ice-tumours bulging her arms, and they built their stories, and made their effigies.
Now, seventy-two years later, as Piper heads towards the subway, brightness stains the air at eye level half a block in front of her, and as she shuffles on she passes a crowd, broad-shouldered and short-haired and earmuffed, screaming around an effigy that they’re thrusting into the air like a flag, a crude poppet-effigy with dark hair and a button, signifying a tumour, gleaming on one arm as it melts in the flames.
This is the world in which they live now: their city held in ice, Saskia’s body belonging to the ice whales and her memory to the seething crowds who burn her form. And Piper, Piper is nothing but an old woman, going to place her sister’s favourite plant on her grave, probably, for the last time. And that’s that, isn’t it?
6- Marching song
But it’s not. Piper descends into the subway, her orthopedic boots landing sure on the steps as they always do when the whale-song brings to life the salt smells and briny tastes of her youth. She crosses the platform, dodges a rat’s skeleton with frozen bones, sits on the edge of the platform and lets herself drop onto the tracks.
With the whale-song shaking loud in her ears, limning the boundaries between the worlds, she can see the seam bisecting the tracks, between frozen puddles and rust. Just as she’s seen it every whale-song night for the past seventy-two years. The ice whales have kept them frozen for all of those years, their fragile peace—their siege—enforced because the people of the city are not allowed to tap into the whale-song’s shivery and strange power, its way of making nothing and yet everything possible.
But Piper is just an old woman (just as, in the whale-song, she’s a young woman who was just questioned thoroughly by the police, and a middle-aged woman with a taste for fish-skin who garners no attention, sneaking down into the subway just as she’s doing tonight) and surely no one will bother her, just as no one has ever bothered her.
She approaches the seam. There, on the tracks, cradled in a gleaming white conch, sit five glasswort, white and alien. The glasswort of the ice whales. Each of them sparkles with gems of fire.
She slips a scrap of canvas around the conch, the cold biting even through the canvas and her glove, and she slips canvas and conch into her pocket. She lays the basket next to the crack and nudges it with her boot. It slips away, teeters on the edge in the swirling silver, then tumbles into the crack. She made sure to slip in an oyster for Saskia, along with a gold fork, but what is left of Saskia, after all this time with the ice whales? Is her body still there, is she kept alive with some feverish magic? Piper wonders if she’ll come here next year and find no basket waiting for her; she wonders if the same will happen to Saskia. Next year. The year afterwards. Someday. She wonders if she’ll gather enough glasswort before then.
She counts the glasswort that Saskia left for her: five, in exchange for her basket of the green glasswort from her city’s marshes. She imagines that Saskia will replace the pilfered white glasswort with the green, holding onto the fragile hope that the ice whales don’t notice that she’s been stealing from them all this time. Piper’s closet brims with it, the ice-whale glasswort, sparking and sequestered in glass containers that once held food. How many will be enough, to melt the ice, to break the curse on the city? Will there ever be enough?
Maybe not. But old women are stubborn, aren’t they?
Piper bows her head to her sister, then hobbles back onto the street. The youths are still shouting around their effigy. They are flush in what they know, in the righteousness of their anger, in their inaction in anything else. The ice-whale glasswort is safe in Piper’s pocket, but, just for good measure, she lunges at them, her cane held high, and jabs at the effigy, her arms trembling as she wields the cane. The effigy flies to the sidewalk, drooping and deflated, flames billowing in the wind, vibrating in the whale-song. The youths stare at her, shocked, their faces twisting into just the same expressions that their fathers and mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers held seventy-two years ago when they stood behind the baton, when they watched Saskia step, step, step back, tumble into the ice-whale kingdom.
Maybe they don’t deserve to be free from the siege. But Piper isn’t doing it for them.
She sneers backs at them, showing her time-worn teeth, shaking her cane as she cradles the stolen song, the stolen glasswort, all that stolen seething power, while her girlhood and her sister tremble in her ears.
Story copyright © 2017 by Emily B. Cataneo
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Kat Weaver
Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as Nightmare, The Dark, Interfictions, Interzone, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She was longlisted for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, and her debut collection, Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories, is forthcoming in May 2017. She’s a graduate of both the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Clarion Writers Workshop, and she likes history, hats, and crafts.
Kat Weaver is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.