So Deep That the Bottom Could Not Be Seen — Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming from Prime Books in 2011. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Running with the Pack and in the magazines Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Clarkesworld, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy Magazine, Escape Pod, and more. Her work can also be found in my anthologies Brave New Worlds, Federations, and The Living Dead 2, and in my online magazine Lightspeed. In addition to writing fiction, Valentine is a columnist for Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine.

For most people, global warming is an incipient but still-academic issue, a bogey man still hiding beneath the bed. For the Inuit, whose land is being revealed inch by inch, summer by ever warmer summer, global warming is as real as an uninvited house guest snoring on the couch. As the great ice sheets melt, new opportunities and remarkable challenges arise for these northern people. This next story dives into the glacial slush—and finds magic treading the waters.

Anna Sitiyoksdottir is an Inuit shaman living in last four acres of protected Inuit territory. Her home of Umiujaq is a paved and peopled land, a land whose magic is bleeding out with every last drop of glacial melt. It’s easier for Anna to do her job as a marine biologist, studying a dying sea, than it is to cope with the broken state of natural magic in such an unhealthy world.

No one knows how humanity will survive in a world of massive climate change. This story asks: How will we find magic in such a changed world? And how will we ever deserve it?

SO DEEP THAT THE BOTTOM COULD NOT BE SEEN

by Genevieve Valentine

Anna woke up knowing the last narwhal had died.

It was a note in the air as she dressed; when she opened her door, the wind sighed it into her face, across her fingers.

(She didn’t bother with gloves any more. Winters weren’t what they used to be.)

It was still dark as she walked over the dirt flats to the observation post, her shadow dotted by the fence that marked the last four acres of protected Inuit territory.

Nauja Marine Observatory had been a three-room school, back when. After the new state schools had swallowed up all the students, the government cleared out the building for Anna (“A gesture of goodwill,” the representative said with a straight face). Now it housed third-hand equipment gifted from the territorial government.

The observatory was on the water’s edge. When Anna went down the embankment in summer, she could look past the electric green shallows to where the shore fell into the sea and left nothing but fathomless black water and slabs of milky ice. The sheet ice was already turning greasy and breaking, rotting through as it melted.

The creeping spring made Anna ill; she didn’t look.

Inside, she pulled up the computer and was registering the date of death when the knock came.

The man at the door was in a parka and gloves and a hat and was still shivering.

“Anna Sitiyoksdottir?”

Her State name.

After a second, she said, “Sure.”

This seemed to cheer him up. He checked his handheld. “Miss Sitiyoksdottir, my name is Stephens. I’m here to invite you to the First International Magical Congress.”

She snorted.

He glanced at his handheld to find his place. “The United Nations has called a task force of magic-users to discuss our rapidly changing magical and environmental climate, and to begin cooperation on future initiatives. As a shaman with natural magic, your input will be invaluable. The conference begins tomorrow and goes for two days.”

“No,” she said.

He smiled and went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I will be your escort and aide while you’re a delegate. We can go now, if you’re ready. I’ll wait while you pack.”

“I’m not a shaman,” she said. “And when the last one was alive, spellcasters and the UN didn’t find her input valuable in the least. Pass.”

His smile thinned out. “Miss Sitiyoksdottir, you’re the last Inuit with any shaman status on record, and the government of the Northern States insists you be present. Please reconsider. I have authorization to involve the police if necessary.”

So it was the usual sort of government invitation.

“I need an hour,” she said finally. “Narwhals became extinct last night. I have to find the body on radar and send a report in to the Wildlife Council.”

He blinked. “How do you know they’re extinct if you didn’t see anything?”

She looked at him and didn’t answer. After a moment, he had the good manners to blush.

***

The narwhal had thrown itself onto the shore to die. Anna saw that the sand around it was undisturbed—it hadn’t fought to get back to the water, hadn’t so much as tossed its head to call out.

“Are you going to move it?” Stephens was breathing heavily from the scramble over the rocks. When he pulled off his cap to fan his face, she saw that his hair was thinning.

Narwhals, like winters, weren’t what they used to be, but the carcass still weighed six hundred kilograms.

“No,” she said, then added, “It’s right that the birds have it.”

“Oh,” he said slowly, as if he was in the presence of great and terrible magic.

She wished the sea would swallow him.

The whale’s skin was pale grey and utterly smooth, like a pup, even though it was adult. Anna knew it meant something, but she couldn’t sense what. She stepped forward and touched it with a flat hand, waiting. Listening. She rested her forehead on the cool, clammy hide.

Talk to me. Talk to me. What should I do?

“Miss Sitiyoksdottir, if you’re not planning to move the animal, we should get you to the airport.”

It was an answer of sorts.

So Anna went. It wasn’t like narwhals would be less extinct in two days.

***

Her mother, Sitiyok, had moved to Umiujaq as soon as the rest of the province began to fill up with refugees from the Lower States.

Everyone thought Sitiyok was a worrier and a coward to go. She was the shaman; how could she leave them? The land had been given to them; the land was theirs. Nothing would happen. Just because the Southern States were warming up didn’t mean anything. Let some people move north. Who wanted to live in the South anyway, if they could help it?

Sitiyok had smiled at them all, and had moved as far north as she could.

It was not a comfort to know, years later, that she had been right. Her parents’ cities were concreted over to make room for newcomers from the south.

Most Inuit tried to live off the new landscape as they had tried to live off the old one. They gave up hunting and waited tables; they gave up tanning hides and minded stores. They became government workers, or hotel managers, or pilots. Around them the air got warmer; winter was carved away from the land a little more each spring, and Southerners filled in the cracks like a rockslide.

In Umiujaq, Sitiyok took dogs out onto the ice to hunt for seal. She sold the skins she could spare; eventually she sold the dogs. When the sea warmed up and the seals didn’t return, the others in Umiujaq moved inland to find work, one family at a time.

“You can’t stay,” they said. “Come with us.”

Sitiyok smiled, and stayed where she was.

She and a few others remained in the ghost town, slowly starving out on their homeland. Sitiyok learned how to hunt rabbit; how to snare fish; how to go hungry.

One winter, she had a child, and named her Annakpok—the one who is free.

***

The Congresse Internationale du Magique was held in the Amphitheatre at Aventicum, in Switzerland; it avoided any question about the host country unduly influencing the proceedings.

As they left the hotel and the morning hit her, Anna frowned against the baking sun. “And we’re meeting in the amphitheatre because?”

“For the magic,” Stephens said, waving one hand vaguely before he caught himself. “No disrespect. It’s just—my faith is in science. I studied biology.”

She said, “So did I.”

He coughed. “Here’s our car.”

***

The Amphitheatre was ringed with police. Under a sign that read Please Keep All Amulets Visible, two security guards were peering at talismans, necklaces, and tattoos. Inside the Amphitheatre, food stands and souvenir booths had been set up, and the vendors were shouting over one another in their attempts to reach the milling crowd.

The tiers above the gladiatorial floor were marked off by country. She saw signs for Kenya, Germany, the Malaysian Republic, Russia. (She wondered if the Nenets still had real winter.)

“How long did it take to find enough natural magicians to fill the quota? Are there decoys? You can tell me.”

Stephens said, “Please keep your voice down.”

Her name was at the Canadian United Republic table, beside a man whose nameplate read James Standing Tall. He was older—as old as her mother would have been—and when he saw her approaching he blinked.

“I didn’t know there were still shamans in the Northern States,” he said by way of greeting.

“There aren’t,” she said as she sat. “They’ll take anyone these days.”

***

The sorcerer Adam Maleficio, Greater Britain delegate, was the last of them to arrive—under a suddenly-dark sky, in a single crack of lightning and a plume of smoke.

Several of the spellcasters stood and pointed their wands, canes, and open palms at the source of the disruption.

“Hold!” one shouted, and another cried, “Pax!”

Adam Maleficio held up his hands. “Friends, hold back your spells! I come among you as a brother, to speak with you of future friendship.” Absently, he brushed off his cape and his lapels. “Absit iniuria verbis, no?”

A handful of sorcerers laughed. He laughed as well, his eyes glinting red, his teeth glinting white.

From behind Anna’s chair, Stephens leaned forward and translated, “May our words not injure.”

Anna said, “We’ll see about that.”

***

The Congress Director called for comments before the floor opened for debate.

Maleficio stood up with great ceremony and said, “I have been elected to deliver a statement on behalf of all users of magic.”

James Standing Tall looked at Anna. “Too late to opt out?”

“Eight hundred years too late,” she said.

Maleficio delivered an erudite and lengthy Statement of Brotherhood to the
assembled. (There was no telling who had elected him to speak, since some spell-
casters’ wands stayed pointed at him the whole time he read.)

After the first twenty minutes, Anna and James wrote notes to each other on their programs.

She learned he was Cree, one of the last of his nation. He had remained in the Southern States even after Canada had annexed them. He would come home to a spring of 130 degrees.

I can call the wind with prayer, he wrote. It’s better than leaving.

She didn’t question why he stayed. Anna had no questions to ask about where people dug the trenches for their last stands.

Instead she wrote, Why did you come?

He wrote, I wanted a voice.

What are you fighting for? she wrote.

He wrote, Everything. We will have to fight everything, if we are to have any power.

After a moment she wrote, My mother was the shaman, not me. I have no real magic.

On the floor of the amphitheatre, Adam Maleficio was saying, “Unity is more important now than ever, when magic users are taking a unique and visible position in a changing world. Let us not forget this is a place we made. This is a place of magic. This is a place for magic. And without unity, we weaken.”

James wrote, As long as you can fight.

Maleficio was still going, enjoying the podium and trying to drown out the translators for good measure. “This is a place for those who know true magic to meet with respect and understanding, to come together with a single vision, and, conjunctis viribus, we shall succeed in all we try to do on this sacred ground.”

“With united powers,” Stephens translated.

“May this be a milestone of a new era,” Maleficio finished.

He crushed the pages in his hands and threw his arms wide; the paper turned into six doves and flew away.

***

The day was boiling hot and fruitless, and during the Magic-Assisted Environment Preservation referendum Anna decided she would leave. There was no reason for her to pretend she had a voice in a council full of wand-wavers.

Then one of the delegates from Japan stood up to address the assembly.

She was wrapped in a fox stole so long that half a dozen fox heads knocked against one another as she stood. Under the stole her suit was the grey of rotting ice; the grey of the narwhal.

Anna sat up in her chair.

“While I can’t speak for all natural magicians,” the woman said, her voice carrying over the hum of translation, “I know my own magic has already been compromised by the problem that you ask us to solve. Without a natural world for us to call upon, we are powerless.”

Maleficio called, “Don’t pretend you’re powerless, foxwitch!”

Her stole rippled as the six fox heads lifted and hissed at the crowd.

“No magic, no speaking out of turn,” called the Congress Director. “Delegate Hana, thank you, you may sit down—no magic, ladies and gentlemen, please!”

The woman sat, amid a chorus of derisive laughter from the spellcasters.

James said, “If they had to call their spells from the grass, they wouldn’t be laughing.”

“If they had to call their spells from the grass,” Anna said, “we’d still have grass.”

***

The first thing Annakpok had done as shaman was build a bier for her mother’s body and sing as it burned down to ashes.

It was still cold enough that Annakpok walked out onto the sea, scattering the ashes around the holes in the ice where her mother had hunted—a gift to the seals, in return for what they had given.

(It was an empty gesture; there were no more seals.)

There would be a feeling of light, her mother had told her. Annakpok would take a breath and know her purpose as shaman, and her power would move through her blood.

The closest Annakpok had come to feeling like a shaman was when she was twelve, and a government agent came to get her mother’s blood sample and register Sitiyok as a natural magician.

The deep-winter sun had already set, and without her mother Annakpok was alone in Umiujaq. Besides the moon on the empty ice, there was no light at all.

The wind stole the ashes from the bowl as she walked; when Annakpok reached land again, she was empty-handed.

That was the last thing Annakpok had done as shaman.

***

Anna put herself in the Japanese woman’s way as everyone filed out of the theatre at sunset. The woman didn’t look surprised to see her.

(“Kimiko Hana,” Stephens told her. “Tsukimono-suji. They hold power over magic fox familiars. It’s inherited.”

“Is that spellcasting or natural magic?”

Stephens shrugged.)

Anna watched the fox heads watching her. “Do you kill them to get their power?”

The fox heads shrank back and hissed; Kimiko rested her hand on the stole to quiet them.

“No,” she said, when they were still again. Her voice was carefully neutral. “It’s to remember them after they leave our family. Their children are close to us.” She looked askance at Anna. “Do you . . . have a familiar?”

Anna wondered if a dead narwhal counted. “No,” she said, and then, recklessly, “I don’t even have magic.”

Kimiko raised an eyebrow, kept walking.

Anna followed her down the stairs and across the amphitheatre, waiting for a reciprocation that never came.

Finally she asked, “What sort of magic have you got?”

“It serves me better not to explain,” Kimiko said. Her dark eyes flashed red. “If you don’t have power, pretend otherwise. If you do, pretend otherwise.”

She stroked the foxes’ heads; under her hand, they sighed.

“What is your power?” Kimiko asked.

Anna said, “I’m great with funerals.”

***

A woman outside the hotel was selling amulets from a card table.

“Magicked by the sorcerers from the Congress,” she called, holding out a stamped clay bead on a string. “Talismans and charms! Witch-blessed! Shaman-approved!”

Anna didn’t know what the symbols meant, but she could tell they were empty of power. The seller had dusted them all in cinnamon; the smell choked the air.

As Anna passed, the woman thrust it at her brightly. “Need a little magic, miss?”

Yes, Anna thought, and kept walking.

***

Anna dreamed of the narwhal, stark and pale against the black rocks. When she walked across the ice to meet it (she was so far away, she should not have wandered), she slipped. She remembered the ice was rotten, and was afraid. She stood where she was, too frightened to move another step and risk falling through the ice and into the water.

On the beach, the narwhal had turned to face her. Its mouth gaped open, revealing Sitiyok inside, standing and waving, gesturing to the shore.

Annakpok could not move, she was so frightened—even when the ice she was standing on sank under her, she stayed where she was. She looked down at the water lapping at her knees—so cold she couldn’t feel herself drowning, so deep that the bottom could not be seen.

The ice gave way under her, and she tilted her face upwards, fighting for her last breath. The sun above her gleamed fox-red.

As the water swallowed her, she opened her hands and felt something slip from them; she had been holding tight to something she could not see.

There is always more than we can see, her mother said.

Her mother was unafraid.

Her mother was waving.

***

“You look horrible,” Stephens said as they took their seats. “Didn’t you sleep? The papers will think you’re a refugee.”

“And that’s why they recruited you into the Diplomatic Corps,” Anna said.

The environmental referendum ended with spellcasters insisting that they could not possibly be to blame for a weakening of natural magic they did not even use.

“We make a study of the art,” said Maleficio. “Our magic is the result of scholarship. If anything, we begin at a disadvantage, because natural magic rarely chooses us. We are powerless, though we may pretend otherwise.”

Anna looked up. The tips of her fingers itched as if she were stroking fur.

Maleficio threw his arms wide. “Natural magicians have the authority of the ages—they have inherited magic!”

“We have to register like livestock!” someone from the Kenyan delegation called.

Maleficio ignored him. “We spellcasters have to read and practice, and must make the best we can of lesser circumstances, to create what power we can.”

The spellcasters nodded sadly. Anna and James exchanged a look.

Kimiko said, “Then in your infinite scholarship and wisdom, suggest a solution that will enable natural magicians to find enough magic for ourselves without robbing powerless, impoverished spellcasters of all their hard work.”

“No magic!” cried the Congress Director, as a dark rumble spread through the Amphitheatre.

The air crackled, and heat rose from the dozens of angry sorcerers. Adam Maleficio seemed angriest of all, his arm trembling, the air rippling around him.

For a moment, his blue eyes glinted fox-red.

There is always more than we can see.

***

In the pause between debates, Anna slid into place behind Maleficio. Across the amphitheatre she could see James and Stephens frowning at her. She ignored them and leaned in. This close, Maleficio smelled of sulfur.

“Tsukimono-suji,” she whispered.

He startled, stiffened. “Who are you?” he asked without looking.

“I’m natural magic. And so are you, foxwitch.”

“I’m a sorcerer,” he hissed. Around them, people were caught up in arguments over who was responsible for making natural magic possible for those who practiced it; no one heard him. “I studied at Stonehenge. I spellcast.”

“You have a fox at home,” she said. “The rest is party tricks.”

She felt, rather than saw him flinch. “What do you want?”

“Force a vote,” she said. “In our favor.”

He sniffed. “Forget it. I’m not about to switch sides. Besides, the others won’t care if I’m foxblood. I put in the work on spellcasting.”

“Oh sure,” she said. “It’s heartwarming. We’ll wrap up with that story, then,” and she moved as if to rise.

He flailed one arm behind him. “Stop, stop, come back, you horror. What am I putting to a vote?”

***

In a surprise turnaround, Adam Maleficio made an eloquent case for the respon­sibility of the magical community to support its own.

“Natural magic was the earliest magic,” he said. “It deserves our respect, our support, and our devotion. I, for one, will be voting to create a coalition that will work to discover a magic strong enough to shield the natural from the ravages it has suffered, and shame, shame, on those who do not join me!”

The spellcasters drew wands, and voted (barely) yes.

***

As Anna walked the ring of the amphitheatre back to her seat, she passed the Japanese table. Kimiko caught her eye and beckoned her over.

“What did you do to him? You must have more power than you thought.”

Anna smiled. “I had no power,” she said. “I just pretended otherwise.”

One of the fox heads looked up and grinned.

When she got back to her seat, the note paper was waiting for her. James was looking straight ahead; he didn’t even acknowledge she had come back.

Under I have no real magic, James had drawn a question mark.

She folded the paper carefully, rested both hands on it like a talisman.

***

At home, she waited for dark to go down to the water.

A hundred yards out, in the dim moonlight, she could still see that the narwhal was gone.

She ran.

As she lurched over the rocks, she saw it was not really gone; it hadn’t sprung to life again and swum out to sea (as she had half-hoped).

It was devoured.

The narwhal was eaten clean down to the bones (impossible for birds to manage in three days), and the bones themselves were intact, despite the wind (impossible, impossible). The ribs rose sharply white against the green-black sky, the skin curling like parchment against the black ground as if the wind itself had pulled it gently from the flesh.

Annakpok looked in the sand for tracks. No animal tracks (she expected none), but she was surprised that only her own footprints came out this far.

She walked slowly, tracing the edge of the laid-out hide with her feet as she went, trying to still her pounding heart. She had to listen; she needed to see.

There was no flesh left on the bones at all; she would have suspected that she had been trapped in time, at the summit for a hundred years, except that the bones had not yet begun to dry. They were pearl-white still, the ribs like joyful hands, the tailbones pointing mournfully to the sea.

Anna knelt and plucked the smallest tailbone from the hide. It was the length of her palm, and hollow. She slid it over one finger.

She made rings out of ten vertebrae. They warmed against her skin; when she curled her hands they shifted against one another like she wore gloves of bone.

The ice under her feet was slippery, rotten, but she stepped where the moon reflected thickest. The bones in her hands thrummed as she breathed.

She walked across the sheet ice, out and on, past the light from shore, past her mother’s old hunting grounds, to the edge of the ice-veiled sea. There she stopped, and trembled. The ice rocked gently under her feet, and she knew if she slipped here the sea would swallow her.

It might swallow her in any case. (She thought of her mother inside the mouth of the narwhal, beckoning her home.) It was great magic, what she was attempting. It was beyond her power.

She would be the sacrifice.

Around her the world was flat and black; the wind slid mournfully against her face.

Annakpok held out her open hands before she could be afraid. If she was a shaman, the sea would bring them back to her as narwhals. She had only to wait, and be worthy.

(What are you fighting for?

Everything.)

The bones fell into the water, ten white sparks that disappeared into a black so deep that the bottom could not be seen.

When she turned for the shore, the narwhal’s bones looked like a doorway, like an open hand waving her home.