We are cruising out of haunting Hebron, where the remaining wooden houses bow and bulge in the wind, get down on their knees, collapse in the grass, where inside the church attic there is graffiti, written with a finger on the dusty glass of an old window, just some names and some dates, a teenager’s joke at the expense of history, see how ephemeral we are? And where the apology from Danny Williams is mounted on a plaque, and where on the same plague the Inuit respond to William’s apology, and say that they accept it, without diminishing the trauma suffered by the community, accept it with such honesty and grace that the letters blur and enlarge under a smooth lens of tears because you can’t read it without tears, you can’t, trust me.
And where the sun bursts in shafts through blistering, silvered windowsills and the old paint flakes off the walls, and the church is being restored, yellow beds of insulation piled in one corner, a rusted woodstove, ornate with curliques and clawfoot legs, sinks into the dead yellow grass. Inside the dry wood smell of shut-up buildings and the ghost-voice of the choirs and brass bands and, as we emerge from that music and shadow we walk down to the water, step into the Zodiacs, patterns of sediment swirling on the landing rock, and where Billy gets the Arctic char, willing it out of the water with a wrist-flick or Vulcan mind control, or just the fresh air hunger for something salty and sweet. If you eat something that fresh, like the gutted roe, it will give you prophetic dreams.
Later in St. John’s Harbour: some hikers on the mountain are as tiny as insects against the skyline. We look up at the sun and try to wave but they don’t wave back. Maria picks red berries left over from last year, points out the flock of ducks at the pond’s edge, and Pavel’s drone catches us all in our garish bright jackets against the lurid emerald grass messy with boulders, there we are, making our way, caught in a god’s eye, and the mosquitos come out all at once. Stick their thin and stately needles in, guzzling our blood, and then they float off drunk or sullen or bloated or blitzed and glutted and lazy and slow enough to catch in a single clap. We cruise away, leaving the Inukshuk standing watch, pointing the way to Nachvak Fjord.
And in the afternoon?
Stealth. A rumour. A momma and two cubs. The Zodiac swings on the crane, an ink blot in the middle of the sun. Hits the water, and the chain coils up, and another Zodiac sways down. The drivers zip out. The ocean is a bed of harsh, sharp sparkles. Everything lit up, hyper-bright. The bay is calm; it should be cold but it isn’t.
Five Zodiacs, another hanging up there, and swaying like a cradle.
The rumour says a cove further down the bay, lolling in the grass, soporific, snoozy and rubbing all that fur against the sand. More yellow than white, paws bigger than your face, fifteen Zodiacs in the water now. Engines idling, drivers standing with legs apart, braced against the tiller, silhouettes. Splat of radio static, but the drivers are talking low. The drivers are using bedroom voices. Copy that.
Nineteen Zodiacs in all, load them fast, hurry up. Fast, but quiet. That’s the first ten. Copy that. Go, Tina, to the left. That’s the next ten. Let’s keep our voices down. Go, go, go.
A little ride around the bay while we wait. We have to go together. Give everyone a chance to see. If they’re there, we won’t scare them off. We won’t get too close.
So, we zoom up to the waterfalls. Fans of spring melt, thick as concrete where it spills off the black rock, and then shrapnel, bullets or feathers or glass bead far flung dazzle, icy cold. Drilling the water below, drilling down to where the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain gorge on whatever billowing energy the tumbling water stirs up and the other sentient beings, blind or numb scoot around the boiling turmoil to feast.
Will the Zodiac engines send the bears gambolling through the long grass. Can we see them? Is it different? To see a polar bear in the wild? Is it different than a zoo? Can 198 passengers, staff, and Zodiac drivers sneak up on the momma? Not disturb her?
There was a polar bear in the water as we entered the Nachvak Fjord, swimming. The smooth pellet of a head, tiny in the distance, imagine the churning paws the drive and power, holding up all that weight maybe a mile from shore. All that power concentrated in the work of keeping his black nose up above the surface, held high, sniffing.
The Zodiacs, nineteen now in a line, approach the shore. How blue and eye-hurting the ocean is in the binoculars when you touch the focus dial, and a single sparkle bursts like a bomb in one of the lenses and a tiny bump makes the mountain blur in a slo-mo jerk, so the solid rock goes unsolid and seems to pour. Squish the two sides together, fold them in and the visual shock of the shore crisp as close and clear. Vivid and sharp enough to cut. You can see each blade of grass for an instant, the another bump on a wave and it all goes liquid and runny again. Then we stop, we idle. Nineteen Zodiacs and you can hear, on the wind, passengers saying: I can see them. I see them. A momma and two cubs. And the shuck-shuck of the camera.
Search the landscape. Each boulder yellowish and could that be the momma? Could that be a cub? A kind of stabbing disappointment with each boulder that is just a boulder.
But, oh god? The elegant, awkward clambering from a grass roll, standing now, and the shimmer the binoculars make of mist and distance. Standing now and turning her head, looking back over her shoulder. Shaggy and shapeless and bigger than you thought. Much bigger. And the cubs, someone says, have got to be two years. The cubs are big.
Turning to sniff the air, turning to acknowledge. And the cubs beside and there is no hurry. Hand the binoculars over. There, there. But it’s yellow, it’s not white, and bigger than I thought and slow/fast. Dangerous and peaceful. Mother and monster. Silent and arrogant. Powerful and endangered and solitary. The fur has no pigment. Each hair is hollow. The skin beneath is black. So what is that colour, why white? Why does it look ancient? It might be made of ice.