Malik sits there, the day after his seventeenth birthday, staring at the clock, waiting for the bell. Every weekday at this time he feels the punch of his heart, the push-pull of his breath, the trembling in his legs. Every weekday at this time he knows he’s a couple of hours away from talking to the walrus. Today, though, is different: today he’s also a couple of hours from learning The Secret. Oh yes, yes: he’s old enough now, finally, old enough to be trusted with the words – and then the merging. What he’s feeling right now – knowing that, at dusk, he and the walrus are to melt, fully, finally, into one – isn’t just the usual sharp, childish thrill. No, this is a warm flood of absolute joy, joy beyond scoring that hat-trick last year, joy beyond Ivaana giving him that handjob round the back of Pissifik, joy beyond glue and beyond gin, joy beyond the understanding of any of the adults in this sweet, stupid land, joy harder and stronger than – as Mum would say – even the oceans could bring.
‘Oi, Jensen!’ The joy dissolves as abruptly as it arrived. The teacher – bald, tired, resigned Mr Lehman – is asking him something. Again. Malik shrugs, Lehman stares, starts to say something, and then shrugs himself. He turns to his next victim and Malik steps back into his own mind.
The walrus told him last week that it’s ‘probably’ thirty-four: seventeen years older than Malik, exactly double his age (and about a hundred years younger than Lehman…) But there’s something so… ancient about the walrus – something pure and wise, like… Dumbledore?… that tells you that, actually, it’s aged beyond hurt and fear and horniness, that it’s older even than the whales and the mountains and the sky.
Hmm. Malik dreamed last night that the walrus was laughing at him. And he knows that dreams foretell opposites, always. The walrus will be there by the lake, he has no doubt – and what has to happen will happen.
He watches the clock click round to 2.57 and takes a long, deep, slow breath in, just as Lyberth showed him. He holds the breath for a count of three, then lets it go, gently. She’d be impressed. Nothing should be rushed today. The walrus will want him calm. The book Ivaana gave him before… before she went, said the same: if you want to merge, you have to make sure you don’t try too hard.
He feels a little jab of anger when he remembers Ivaana telling him that the walrus isn’t real. But she’s – was – a girl and a European and scared of dogs and ice and helicopters. Nice tits and hair but, like most of them, separate from and mistrusting of our ways. Losing her is probably the best thing that could have happened.
It’s 2.58. His mind takes him back to his very first day at school. Old Lyberth -‘you must do everything she tells you, Malik,’ Mum had said – had hair the colour of a satsuma. Like all the old ones, her face was weather-aged, brown, leathery, folds wrapped into each other. Her cardigan was beige and prickly, prickly when she grabbed him and doubly prickly when she picked him up, held him to her bosom, whisked him off toward the horrible brown building and away from Mum. She was thin, Mrs Lyberth – it looked like you could snap her arms with your finger and thumb. Her skin was chalky. Like all the old ones, like Mum, she smelled of seal and soap and restrooms and the church hall. After she grabbed him, he’d caught her looking unsure for a second – a little frightened? – so he squirmed, tried to break free from her boney hug. He kicked her and she yelped in pain and surprise, squeezed him hard, whispered, ‘Don’t you ever do that again, young man.’ He can feel the redness in his face again now, can hear the snap and spit in her voice. And he can see her grin: that afternoon she gave him the tupilaq and told him the first of her stories, told him about the walrus.
Lyberth liked him, he was sure of that from the beginning. She was kind to him when none of the others – kids or teachers – were. She would magically appear whenever the others were taking the piss out of his limp or his lisp or Mum. Kindness. How come kindness always seemed to demand so much in return? It’s sad, he thinks, that, soon, Lyberth would know the trouble she caused by introducing him to the old ways. And yet it can’t be helped. He can’t worry about the old people. Their flesh would soon be gone. Only their words would last.
He fiddles with the tupilaq in his right trouser-pocket, feels its bumps and ripples and sharp edges. It’s a couple of inches high, it’s white, a carved, silly, snarling, grotesque doll that looks a bit like old Lehman. The tupilaq can damn, damn to death. But it can also backfire on the one who uses it. Never use it on someone more powerful than you, Lyberth once said. He stops touching it.
The ulu is in his other pocket, but he definitely doesn’t want to touch that. Not yet. Sometimes he forgets Ivaana’s no longer here. It’s two weeks now. Two weeks without her. He looks out of the classroom window. The snow is edging back from the college building. Since the weekend, the day has started to hold its own in its battles with the night. Summer will be here soon, the time when the night shrinks and Dad gets angrier and cries more. Malik takes a swig from his water-bottle, looks over at half-dead, droning Lehman. He sighs. He thinks, then: two hours. There’s less than two hours – hopefully – till they can merge and the world can change. In the meantime there’s Burgermania.
It opened yesterday. All the adults have been talking about it for months, especially Dad. Another bloody thing from Denmark. It’ll just cause trouble. They’ll all get even fatter than they are now. What’s wrong with traditional food? ‘Jobs? Jobs?!’ Oh yes, it’ll bring jobs. For Europeans. And all the profit will go back there. ‘Jobs’, can you believe it? Blah blah blah.
Jesus. Malik doesn’t care about all that shit. He just knows that right now he needs a double cheeseburger. And fries. And a banana milk shake. Whatever anyone thinks. Whatever the walrus thinks, or Ivaana thinks, or Dad, or Lyberth, or stupid, old Lehman.
The bell rings and he leaps to his feet and runs. He runs out the classroom, straight down the corridor, into the playground, through the old gate, past the bus stop, round the corner, down towards the harbour, up again, round the hill, past the RockHouse with its peeling-paint, rust-red plyboard Stratocaster balancing precariously on the roof, past the hotel and up to Burgermania’s front door. He bursts through the door.
Brigid, of all people, is standing behind the counter. Brigid, who’s moving to Copenhagen next month. Brigid – who never misses a chance to tell everyone this town’s a shithole, to tell Malik he’s a waster – is here. He creeps up towards her. Don’t look in her eyes. Whatever you do.
‘Um… a burger, please. And fries. And a milk shake.’
‘No fries today. Or milk shakes.’
‘Oh. Can I have a quarter pounder then?’
‘No quarter pounders. Just Big Ones.’
‘I’ll have a Big One then, please.’
She holds out her hand. He passes her a fifty krone note.
‘It’s fifty-two.’ He checks in his pocket but he knows he doesn’t have anything else – he stole the fifty from Dad’s wallet this morning but couldn’t get anything else.
‘Fifty-two’, she says again.
‘Can I… pay you later?’.
‘OK. Um… how about just a normal burger?’
‘We haven’t got any.’
Malik closes his eyes, takes a breath, opens his eyes again, looks around, picks up a plastic tomato ketchup container – sauce-smeared, dented, in the shape of a tomato – and flings it at Brigid. It misses her spectacularly, splats against the advert on the wall for Free Toys With Every SupaMeal!, most of it splashing onto the kindly polar bear who’s sitting there, laminated and smiling, drawing kindly attention to the special offers. Brigid stares at him. He stares back. He knows full well the tupilaq in his pocket can kill, which is why he so rarely uses it and, as he turns and walks as slowly as he can towards the door, he tries to breathe some peace into the place, into his heart. No good, though: he turns back, his breath roaring, takes the wooden figure from his pocket, holds it up towards Brigid in the way he saw the priest do to his Mum with a cross once. He watches Brigid grin, grimace and then cringe away from him, watches her look hard to the floor. He feels a little sad. And scared. He turns again, slings the door open and the sharp afternoon air smacks him in the face. He runs and runs and runs, down through the town and up the hill, past the new stadium. He’s crying, like a girl. He keeps running until he stops, until the road starts getting rockier, twistier, colder.
Around here, the Mountain Ash start thinning and the air changes. He turns the corner and, as he sees Tasersuaq, he feels his breath start to slow. Dad always called the lake ‘She’. She’s still covered in ice, winking at him as always, summoning him to slip, slide, skate across Her. Into her. He edges his way through the dark-purple heather to Her side. He puts his right foot out onto the ice. Then the left. He can hear the little cracks She always makes. He puts his right foot forward again, then the left. In five minutes, he’s standing there, at Her centre, ice all round him, a darkening sky above, deep, deep water waiting for him below. He starts to sing Mum’s favourite: Fernando.
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
He sings louder, louder, louder until his voice is echoing over the lake, into the trees and mountains, into the heavens. The lake seems to crack Herself louder in response. A heron flies over him. He can hear a jet-ski from way up the other end. He finishes the song, stands for a minute or two and then starts to creep his way back to shore. The cracking beneath him seems even louder now, more threatening. She sounds a bit angry. He slips, feels himself falling back, slides onto his arse, his wrist twisting a little underneath him. Ouch. He struggles to his feet, a redness back in his face. Eventually, he gets back to the shore, scrambles up onto the path. He’s really bloody cold now. His wrist hurts. At least half an hour or so still before dusk and the walrus. The late-afternoon mist is starting to steam down. He should go back, that’s what the rest of those wimps would do. He turns instead away from town, starts striding, swatting away the trudge of the slope and the pain in his wrist, up past the old shepherd’s hut, past the strange mound of stones that looks like Shrek, past the old abandoned motorbike. The path ends then. There’s a hundred-metre stretch of snow between him and the pylon on the grass that sits tucked beneath the mountain. He steps into the snow; it leaps up at him, swallows his feet, his legs. After a few steps, it’s just above his waist. He takes a breath, hauls himself slowly through, drags himself onto the wet grass. He pauses, takes a breath, walks up to the pylon, leans on it, looks up at the wire running into the mist, wonders what would happen if he climbed up, swung from the wire. He’s hungry. The mist is becoming thicker, colder. He looks back towards the town but the big block of flats – Ivaana’s flats – that overlooks the lake is nearly invisible now. Ahead of him, there’s the boulder-dashed slopes and the mountains.
He and Dad would climb these easily in the old days, make their way comfortably to the other side. But Malik knows he doesn’t have Dad’s power, turns to his left to take the gentler, longer path. He’s apprehensive, can feel damp inside his boots now. He heads across toward the fjord, tripping a couple of times on small rocks. He puts the hood of his parka up, pulling the toggles tight. He zips it up, wishes he had gloves with him, wonders where he left them. He walks for a few minutes more. The mist is fog now – it’s making it impossible to see more than a few yards in front of him now. And then snow starts tapping his cheeks. Shit. He keeps walking. The fjord isn’t far from here. Can’t be. Soon, he can’t see anything at all. He trips again on a rock. He can feel his heart beating. He hears a yelp – a fox? Or worse? Shit shit shit. Keep walking. Keep walking. It’s so cold. Keep walking.
Another – what? Ten minutes? Fifteen?- shuffles past. He wonders when – whether – anyone will bother looking for him if doesn’t get back for the fair. Death feels, suddenly, a little closer. He can hear Ivaana’s laugh, see Lyberth’s sad, disappointed look. And then, suddenly, there it is! The bothy. The coldharbour. Funny how sometimes Dad uses those weird European words. It’s a wooden, six by ten hut, asymmetric, off-brown, neglected. His heart is beating; he pushes the door open. There she is. Ivaana is sitting in the worn, mauve armchair, in the same position as last time. And the time before. He closes the door, the wind sighing as he does so. He remembers her saying there’s no such thing as an accident, at the party a couple of weeks ago. Too European, Iv is. Was. And sometimes too Kalaallit. As usual, he says hello to her and as usual she says nothing. He sits down on the hard, splintered floor, next to her. He looks up. Not a sound. He wonders what he would do if she spoke. She always scared him, even when she was alive. She scares him more now, in frozen silence. He’s hungrier than he’s ever been: and so, so cold. If only she were… He stands up again, goes over to the table, opens the drawer. It’s gone. He left a Pepperoni here last week and now it’s gone. He glances over at her, back down at the drawer, closes it.
Ivaana’s eyelashes are a fierce white. Her skin seems whiter too. He stares at her chest, waiting for a rise and fall. He wonders what her tits would look like now, then shivers. Her cardigan is mottled, worn. Her eyes are half-closed, her face waxy and grey.
He’s a little surprised no-one’s found her yet. But the fishermen are up North at this time of year; the tourists won’t come until next month at the earliest. The first time he came here, to the bothy, was the happiest he’d ever been. It was Triple Danish afternoon, so he’d left at lunchtime, met Iv outside her flats. Birds were squawking; the sun was shining; a tractor rumbled somewhere down near town, still trying to extract something – anything – from the raw evening fields. When they got here, they found someone had left a bottle of Johnnie Walker on the table, and a tin of pears, and a musk-ox bone cup. No tin-opener, though. And no whisky in the bottle. But the place felt like home. Because Ivaana was here with him. Because her hair seemed even redder than usual, her dancer’s walk even prouder. He knew she might well have rather been anywhere else with anyone else, but it was OK. She sang some old song of her grandmother’s and they talked about ancestors and the age of the shark that had washed up last week and the poison of its meat, and they fucked till morning.
The second time he came here, on his own, the walrus came, spoke to him, told him to bring a sacrifice next time.
The third time he came here, he saw what could be if he let the walrus merge with him. Ivaana had decided she couldn’t be with him anymore and the walrus had to have its sacrifice, so…
He waits now. And he talks to Ivaana. Sometimes he thinks he should apologise. She probably didn’t want an ulu between the ribs, an ulu of all things. He knows, if he’s honest, why he used that, why he stole it from the never-visited museum in town. Because he’s not supposed to, as a man. An ulu must only ever be used by a woman. Fuck them. Fuck Lyberth and her kindness. Fuck the old ones. They gave this land away years ago. It belongs to us now, the not-European/not-Kalaallit. The Nothings.
He sits, waits, notices his foot tapping on the wooden floor. Ivaana’s presence, her absent presence, feels reassuring, warming. And soon he hears the rumbling, scratching scrape of the walrus.
You never see the walrus.
You never see the walrus. That was the first sign for Malik that there was real magic here. Back when he was a kid and Dad used to come home from the bar, the front door slamming open and slamming shut again… it sounded just like the walrus does. Scrape-slam-creak-slam. Rumble. Shake. He feels a little of the same fear he felt back then now, as the door of his bothy bursts open. The walrus’ head is poking in. He knows it is.
You couldn’t see the walrus, you could only hear him. Her. He/she had a voice like the man in that chocolate ad. Like a thousand deep men. Except Malik doubted whether The Chocolate Man spat sticky phlegm every time he spoke.
‘How. Are. You. Malik?’ The stuff goes on his cheek, his chin, his forehead. One wet, snotty globule spatters into his right eye. He knows he can’t recoil. He knows he needs to be strong, firm, hard. Otherwise…
‘How are you?’ The walrus sounds impatient, a little weary.
‘I’m fine. I’m… ready.’
‘You’re ready? And yet you hate, you throw things, you hurt women. Women… other than her.’ He heard the huge, creased head of the walrus creak round, knew it was nodding at poor, cold Ivaana.
Malik feels himself redden. ‘I didn’t want to do it, you know that. She… she just kept taking the piss. About you. About the ulu. About coming from this place. About staying in this place. And you said…’
The walrus snorts. Malik can’t tell if it’s a sneer or a laugh or a shnuffle of resignation. ‘And you respond to truth with violence? Yet you want the Secret. You’re too young.’
He knows he shouldn’t let the walrus see how angry he was. ‘I know I’m ready. The soul of this place is in me.’
There’s a sniff then – of contempt, this time? Of sadness? ‘’Soul’. Alright. Promise me: you’ll rest when you’ve done it. You’ll accept – just accept – and not try to change. Have you brought the woman-knife?’
‘Then say the words I give you, kill me with it. It will be hard work. But you know that.’
Malik feels Ivaana’s eyes on him. What if…? She’s a tourist. They’re all tourists.
He feels tears come again. He sees a flickering image of Christmas back before Mum went and Dad started drinking. Fish, whisky, potatoes, seal. Songs from before the Europeans came. Songs that made no sense to him but made him feel good. Because they all sang them. Because they belonged to the songs.
‘Do it.’ The walrus has moved closer to him, he senses its vibrations, its tough skin, its ivory ferocity; its voice iss, now, a thunderous whisper.
‘What are the words?’
‘You know them already, boy.’
But he doesn’t. He doesn’t.
‘Tell me the words. How can I merge without the words? You told me…’
‘I told you many things. You already know them all.’
The rage returns. He feels in his pocket, feels the tupilaq and the ulu. He’s absolutely sure he could kill the walrus with the doll. But that’s not what the earth wants, what history demands of him. That’s not the way they will merge. Old Lyberth – who had once lived without the New God, had lived with all the people, family upon family, in the Big Houses, in the time before they were told it was immoral and they were diced-up into ‘families’ – said that, told him change happened through words, and words only.
The walrus’ breath clangs and clunks. It stinks even worse now: sweet and sour. Malik reaches up, touches it for the first time. Its whiskers are soaked with drool. He withdraws his hand quickly, the damp turning instantly to ice. What must it be like to live in a warm place, a place with day and night all year round? He’d know soon…
He shoves his hands into his trouser pockets, feels again the cold ivory of the tupilaq and the knife, its rough sharpness. He wonders how many seals his grandmother had skinned with it. He takes it out. It looks… innocent. A small, rough triangle of faded slate, no threat to anyone. To anything. He pictures Brigid and her fear and her silly boasting. He pictures Ivaana’s sad smile.
He realises he hasn’t considered how to use it to kill the walrus. You dig with an ulu. You scrape, slice, chivvy, chop. You don’t really stab. It’s a woman’s weapon.
He tastes the walrus’ amusement, knows it’s staring – harder this time – and he knows its great eyes are glistening, knows it’s shaking its head gently, taking a step towards him.
‘Time to be a man, Malik’.
He feels his heart leap. He isn’t sure this time who’s spoken. The voice came from the chair by the fireplace. And it sounds like Ivaana’s. He thrusts forward with the ulu, feels it touch harsh, wrinkled flesh, slip off.
‘Harder’. It is Ivaana’s voice. ‘You could kill me, easy, that was no problem at all, was it? You could kill a girl. But you’re scared of merging, Malik, aren’t you? Scared of moving away from this place? Scared of using the words, scared of taking on something bigger than you?’ Fuck you, Ivaana. He spits, thrusts again, chopping sideways and inwards and he feels the walrus’ skin split. He pushes, soft, warm, liquid pouring onto his hand. He pushes again, pulls, slices, feels tears fall, hears the small groans of his walrus’s pain, hears them grow louder as he keeps up his onslaught, punching and lashing and digging deep into the thing with all the power and tears of his life, as he hears the song – ‘every hour, every minute seemed to last eternally’ – and the voice of Lyberth, as he hears Ivaana telling him to do it, DO IT, be a fucking man, as he hears the cracks of ice on the Autumn lake and the squawk of gulls returned from the South and the lap of water on the bottle-strewn beach and the beating of his own heart and the soil falling onto Mum’s casket and the song of the helicopters and the ferries and the chatter of Dad’s radio.
One final up-and-in thrust and he steps back; he knows. He hears the walrus slump down, its head hitting the floor with an umph of final breath. For a moment, a moment that flickers in, holds him tight, then moves away like one of those parasites that blind the sharks, his eyes are opened, there’s a firework-flash and he sees the walrus in all its glory, hears it give him the words. He turns and sees Ivaana smiling, turns back and sees the walrus wink one big eye. The bothy goes black, a deep, hellish black. Malik feels a hand – a paw? – at his throat, feels it squeeze, feels it push, feels himself grow tired, feels himself smile, feels himself fall towards the bothy floor, feels his own head hit the side of the bed, knows The Merging is coming.
The policeman kneels down, lifts Malik gently up. He looks once more around the bothy, walks back through the door and out into the blizzard, nudging the creaky slab of wood shut behind him. A tupilaq – one of those crappy little things they sold to tourists – falls out of the kid’s pocket. The policeman kicks it away, looks down at the boy for a moment, then walks carefully back to the helicopter.
If you enjoyed ‘Crack’ leave a comment and let Kevin know.
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