Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Queen of the Earless Seals of Lake Baikal

Dia was four years old when she first saw the earless seals of Lake Baikal, and twenty-four when she met their queen. In the time between, she moved from her small town, which was a short train ride’s distance to the lake, to the big city, which was a short train ride’s distance to everything, and went to university to study hotel management.

Dia was well suited for hospitality; she was accommodating by nature. In the city, she learned the art of the turndown: how to dim the lights and plump the pillows just right. She learned how to fold hand towels into the shapes of a dozen different animals, when to step in during disputes between the day and nighttime managers, where exactly to place the flower on a room-service breakfast tray. She learned these lessons faster and better than all her classmates, and the most important one of all: discretion. That sometimes guests would want the whole of her attention, and other times they would want none.

Dia missed her small town for its wildflowers and its quiet, though not for its proximity to the earless seals, which by then she had long forgotten. She made a plan to return after university, not to her own town but to neighboring Petrushevskaya, the center of tourism on the western tip of Lake Baikal. Her classmates didn’t understand; they wanted to work in the cosmopolitan hotels in Europe, the kind with mirror floors and saltwater pools on the roof. But Dia was certain: a modest inn at the Petrushevskaya town center, twelve rooms at most, where she would hang paintings by local artists in the lobby and set out milk for the neighborhood cats at night.

Dia was twenty-one years old when she graduated with this dream of being Petrushevskaya’s newest innkeeper, and twenty-one and a half when she gave it all up. In the time between, she met Abram. Six months after meeting him, Dia’s future looked completely different. What more is there to say about Abram than that?

• • • •

“Welcome,” said the queen of the earless seals, looking the visitor up and down. The woman wore a dark gray dive suit and rubber flippers, the typical garb of humans who came to court. Her breathing apparatus stretched her face into a rounded snout, and the tubes and straps drooped on either side like overlong whiskers. The queen sighed. They always dressed like this when seeking an audience. Some kind of tribute, she had to assume. Of course, they got it all wrong.

“Welcome,” she said again. “You must have come a long way.”

In truth, the woman had come only fifteen meters, barely reaching the Garden of Dancing Sponges and Pathetic Crabs. The visitors with thicker suits and bigger tanks tended to make it a bit farther, but always the queen had to swim up to meet them from her throne, which was another hundred meters down the lake wall.

The woman sputtered into her mask. Bubbles shot out into the water around her, and the plastic disk over her eyes fogged.

“Not like that,” said the queen. She drifted closer and touched her nose to the woman’s mask. “Like this.” She bumped her nose against the top of the woman’s head. “Like this.” She repeated the motion. This was how she taught the visitors to speak underwater.

“Like this?” thought/said the woman.

“Exactly,” thought/said the queen back.

The woman unzipped the pouch at her waist and pulled out her offerings, setting them one by one on an algae-covered rock. A bar of soap in the shape of a clamshell, its ridges already softening in the water. A handful of sea glass, thick pieces in jade, lavender, and amber. Finally, a clay whistle sculpted to look like a brown bear holding a silver fish between its paws.

“You blow into the tail,” the woman said, demonstrating by holding the whistle against her mask, “and the sound comes out of its mouth.”

The queen brought her fins together and swam three tight circles around the woman, one circle for each offering. She took great pleasure in the trinkets the humans brought from the tourist shops in Petrushevskaya, and she especially liked the ones that looked like bears. The brown bears were the earless seals’ only natural enemy, and it was satisfying to see them brought down to size. Small and immobile, utterly nonthreatening. She could swallow it whole if she wanted, or shatter it with a rock—

But first, this business with the visitor.

“Go on then,” she told the woman. “Say what you have come for. What is your wish?”

“I don’t have a wish,” the woman replied. Her tone reminded the queen of the ice break after a particularly long winter. How the first crack was almost imperceptibly quiet before the lake’s surface gave way all at once, ripping the hard sky of her kingdom open.

“I have a question,” the woman continued. “I want to know if he means it this time.”

• • • •

What more is there to say about Abram?

Once, Dia thought that if you knew a person long enough, you would come to understand everything about them: the temperature of their body while sleeping, how much sugar they took with their tea ordinarily versus how much sugar they took when their mother was in the room. The longer she knew Abram, however, the more she felt she might never know him at all.

Abram ate tomatoes whole, gripping them against his palm like an apple until the skin burst. Apples, on the other hand, he would only eat if Dia sliced them and arranged the slices radially on a plate around a small bowl of broom-heather honey. He liked one pillow for the night and two pillows for napping. He liked his jackets let out around the shoulders so he could move about freely, without feeling pent up.

Abram valued discretion. Sometimes he wanted all of Dia’s attention; other times he wanted none.

When she met him, he was a promising young glassmaker; he’d come to her university to present his hand-blown glassware to the graduating class of hospitality students, hoping some would buy it for their hotels. She’d admired his wine glasses, their delicate fluting and filigree, but said that when it came to her inn, she had a lot to think about before she could begin to think about that.

He’d taken her chin between his fingers, lined his eyes up with hers in a gesture Dia had once considered romantic, and growled, teeth out, “Why don’t you think about this?

Now Abram worked in a glass factory where he and thousands like him, in matching uniforms and respirators, used steel molds and conveyor belts to produce cheap glassware for department stores. He worked at a vibrating machine for much of the day, pressing one button then the one beside it, and when he came home, something within him was vibrating too. His body was still in the routine of pressing, pressing. The buttons on the machine had to be pressed hard. Otherwise, the machine wouldn’t register the instruction.

Dia would say, “I understand, Abram. I understand, my dear.” But for years his job hadn’t required the handling of actual glass, and he’d forgotten how to touch something fragile.

Abram wasn’t happy about Dia going to Petrushevskaya one month after her twenty-fourth birthday, on what she claimed was a trip to visit a childhood friend. He argued that she’d managed to go without seeing childhood friends all the time he’d known her, and she said that was all the more reason to do it—that now was the best time, the only time, since soon their lives would be so busy. He insisted that at the very least she shouldn’t go alone, not in her present condition, and she replied that, yes, of course, he was right. Only she knew how necessary he was at work, how they could hardly spare him, so shouldn’t he let her go a few days ahead, then meet her for the weekend? She described all the dull things she’d do on her own, and how together they’d do the things he liked. She reminded him how beautiful Baikal was supposed to be in the summer, and gradually, he relented.

Dia had been well suited for hospitality. She was accommodating by nature.

But not so accommodating as all that, you see.

• • • •

“I want to know if he means it this time,” the woman told the queen of the earless seals, who meanwhile was nudging the shell-shaped bar of soap along the algae-covered rock, trying to decide whether or not to eat it. “I want to know if he’s really going to change.”

The queen pulled her eyes away from the soap. She was skeptical; they taught the young ones to be wary of any prey slower and simpler than the Pathetic Crabs, which were already so slow and simple as to be sedentary. She looked up at the woman. “I cannot tell you that.”

“Why not?” The woman tugged at the neck of her dive suit. “You haven’t even asked who I’m talking about.”

The queen explained, “It does not matter. So long as your ‘he’ is another human, your question has to do with human nature. I am the queen of the nerpa. I know nothing about that.” A small oilfish darted by and she fought the impulse to chase it. This was not the right time. It was important for the queen to show visitors to her kingdom that she took their matters of concern seriously. “But I could offer you something else.”

“I don’t want anything else. I want you to answer my question.” The woman sounded like a starving pup whining for milk. She checked a white-faced gauge at her hip, the needle hovering just left of center.

It was true, the queen didn’t know humans well, but there were some things that she could intuit. Those things—panic, affection—that were shared among animals. She cocked her head for a moment and thought.

“I cannot predict what your ‘he’ will do, nor can I change it. But I can offer you this. If he is loud now, his voice forceful, I can make him quieter. I can give him the soft grunt of the nerpa.”

A beam of light from the surface shifted and caught the sea glass between them. When the woman didn’t respond, the queen went on.

“Of course, I cannot alter the words he says. Only the way they come out. So that when he speaks, it will sound gentle. Dampened. As if you are both underwater.”

• • • •

When Dia’s plane landed outside Petrushevskaya, her arms were covered in bruises. The flight had been awfully turbulent. Those are the facts; they are not the story.

In Petrushevskaya, people told stories about the earless seals. No one knew exactly how they got there in the first place. The fact was that they arrived some two million years ago, when the lake was still connected to the ocean by an ice-age floodplain. The story was that they had twice as much blood in their bodies as any other species of seal, and that this allowed them to dive twice as deep and live two times—no, three times, no, four times—as long.

The facts were printed on the panels at the official museum at the Petrushevskaya town center. The stories were reserved for the cafes and bathhouses, the street tours and the dark corners of pubs.

The story was that each month on the night of the new moon, when the streetlights in Petrushevskaya had to work harder than usual, the queen of the earless seals broke the water’s surface wearing a woman’s skin. As a woman, she was captivating, with plump cheeks and long blue-gray hair and this unnerving way of forgetting to breathe as often as a human should, then overdoing it—performing fast, exaggerated gasps—when she remembered.

And using the woman’s legs, she walked into the inns. Using the woman’s fingers, she traced the rims of empty glasses so they played an ancient ocean song. Using the woman’s lips, she smiled at the men, and then she took them upstairs.

Where else would the seals get all that blood from?

Lake Baikal contains nearly a quarter of the planet’s fresh water. It has an area slightly larger than the country of Belgium. You can put two facts next to each other, and they still won’t be the story. The lake is 1,642 meters deep—a fact—and eighty kilometers at its widest point. The story in the big cities was that if you came to Lake Baikal to “meet the queen of the earless seals,” it meant you were going to drown yourself.

When Dia went to meet the queen of the earless seals, she didn’t go to drown herself. Though no one who knew her could possibly have blamed her.

• • • •

“So?” asked the queen of the earless seals. She was aware of a growing hunger at her middle rapidly gnawing its way out. Visits didn’t usually take this long. The humans came, not at all seal-like, with their offerings of pebbles or souvenirs or occasionally a jar of pickled fish, which she could not even open, then made some straightforward request. Something like the stamina to pass another round of university exams, the good fortune to birth a healthy child, the cleverness to earn a big promotion at work.

The queen would grant their wish, and they’d be on their way, and peace between their worlds would be maintained. It was her job to make herself available to the visitors, so long as they approached her with respect, in accordance with nerpa customs. Her holding court was part of an old agreement between the species, a condition of neither hunting the other. The one time it happened in earnest had been devastating.

“No,” the woman said finally. “I don’t need him to speak softly. What good would that do?” She had one gloved hand on the white-faced gauge and the other on her stomach, as if she was trying to block the air inside from escaping too quickly.

The queen twitched her whiskers thoughtfully. “Perhaps none. Still, I cannot answer your question. I cannot predict what he will do, nor can I change it.”

The woman gazed down the sloped wall—down, down, down to the bottom of Lake Baikal—and though the queen knew she couldn’t possibly see it, she sensed the woman could feel it, that lake floor littered with the wreckage of manmade vessels, invertebrates wriggling in the smothering dark. The woman was not a skilled diver; the queen could gather as much from her nervous movements, her meager equipment. Perhaps she had never even done it before. Yet something about the woman made the queen suspect she was familiar with the lowest points, the darkest places, the gripless loose-silt bottoms of things.

“But,” the queen went on, “I can offer you this. Your skin, it is thin now. Not good for much. For example, you cannot come here without your special suit.” She waved a fin over the dark gray neoprene. “I can give you skin like the nerpa. Abundant, dense, and blubbery. Resistant to wind and water, and anything that might impact it.”

• • • •

Lake Baikal is 1,642 meters deep—a fact, well-documented, unchanging. It was 1,642 meters deep when Dia first saw it and 1,642 meters deep two decades later when she returned. It’s that deep each spring, when the seals mate, troubling the water, and that deep in the winter, when the females haul out onto the ice to give birth. It’s that deep months after pupping season, when the young ones are weaned and start to develop their lifelong appetite for meat.

You can be absolutely sure of the depth of Lake Baikal.

This thing with Abram, Dia never knew how deep it went.

Everyone had monsters, she told herself, lingering somewhere beneath the surface. Abram wasn’t alone in that. What mattered was how fearless they were, and how often they came up for air.

Abram’s life had fed his monsters well. It had nurtured them and given them room to grow, so that now they were numerous and tireless, sharp-toothed and afraid of no one.

What more is there to say about Abram’s life than it was one punctuated by death? His brother hanged himself on the family porch when Abram was still in primary school. Their mother made a bracelet of his baby teeth and wore it every day until she went herself, to cancer, a variety common in their factory town. His father waited until Abram was grown, then somersaulted his truck over the Vitim River Bridge. He was a long-haul driver, did deliveries across Siberia, and everyone said it was an accident, that the Vitim had taken many fine drivers in its time.

But Abram the glassmaker knew. He had asked about the glass. Had learned that the truck’s windows were rolled down even before it broke through the icy river, on a night in January when it was thirteen below.

Because his father hadn’t lived to see him make a single sale, for a long time afterwards, Abram threw everything into his glassmaking, trying desperately to melt down the ugliness he’d witnessed and mold it into something beautiful. Color-drenched rims and hand-cut engravings. A set of vodka glasses inspired by Dia, even, carved with images of her namesake, the goddess Diana. On the bad days, she carried one of the glasses in her pocket, a reminder he could be tender. Diana’s robes free and billowing, bow strung over a crescent moon.

Abram liked to tell Dia that they were fated. Destined like the Roman deities. That they alone could understand one another. That everything in their lives had brought them together. Even the worst parts—especially those. He said they had death like some couples had a favorite movie, one they’d both seen countless times and could quote from memory.

Abram liked his jackets let out around the shoulders. He liked his socks matched in pairs while still in the laundry basket. He liked books in which the heroes were successful in every task and everyone, even the dogs, lived at the end.

Everything else about Abram was hard for Dia to guess at, as futile as trying to predict the weather. Sometimes he was a storm violently jostling the plane through dark clouds. Other times he was a lily-scented breeze, so light as to not even ripple the water.

The facts, so called, publicly accepted: Abram was gainfully employed, paid his taxes, was handsome, a friendly neighbor, shoveled old Lyuba’s walk every morning last snow, had a tragic upbringing—here someone would shake their head sadly—much to overcome, but was still young! Had all his teeth, all the promise in the world. As for the bruises, Dia had always been clumsy, hadn’t she? Clumsier now, getting used to her new center of gravity.

And the story, in the face of such facts, feeling hunted, retreated.

• • • •

The woman looked at the bar of soap, which was no longer shaped like a shell but amorphous, vaguely egg-like, thoroughly worn down by the water.

“No,” she said. “Your thick skin does sound useful, but it would provide the wrong kind of protection.” She paused. “I have another proposition.”

The queen felt a change then: a sudden cool current, the diffused sunlight dimmer than before. “I will hear it,” she said to the woman, who glanced at the air gauge before speaking.

“I want you to take her.”

The queen had been wondering when the woman would mention the child. It wasn’t her high position—all nerpa could sense when another creature was close to calving. But the queen knew enough about humans’ sensitive nature not to bring it up before the woman was ready to talk. “Your pup.”

“Yes. I want you to take her and raise her as your own.”

“It’s not that simple.” A hunk of seaweed floated between them and instinctively the queen lunged for it, then, remembering herself, held it between her teeth instead of gulping it down. “A human child would not survive their first freeze.”

“Not human then,” the woman insisted. “He said that things would be different when he was a father. That being a father would make him better.” Her eyes drilled into the queen’s, searching. “But you can’t tell me if that’s true.”

“No,” the queen replied. “I cannot.”

“Then this is the only way to make sure she’s safe. Everything you’ve offered me—your thick skin, your soft voice—has to do with your kind. You say you can’t change the circumstances in my domain. So bring her into yours.”

The queen pawed absently at the algae that sprawled across the rock with the offerings onto the craggy wall. “I myself could not take her. The queen does not have children. It would distract from her queenly duties.” Slowly, she added, “If you were to go through with this, your pup would be given to another nerpa to feed and wean. In the beginning, at least. We learn quickly to fend for ourselves.”

“Fine. Just tell me who you leave her with. I’ll come back to see her when I can.”

“You are welcome to come back, but you will not find her. She will be nerpa. Once she molts, her pelt will be the same color as every other nerpa. Once she learns to use her claws, she will make a breathing hole in the ice the same size as all the rest. You will not be able to pick her out.” The queen hesitated. “Even if you did find her, she would not be like me. She would not understand your words, nor you hers.”

The woman was quiet for a very long time, as the air gauge on her suit ticked lower and lower.

Finally, like a set of jaws snapping shut over a mouthful of mollusks, she said: “Do it.”

• • • •

If Dia could think of the bruises as souvenirs from a bad but brief vacation—

Dia was four years old when she first saw the earless seals of Lake Baikal. Her grandparents brought her from their town to Petrushevskaya for the day. It was the wrong time of year to be there; better to visit when the weather is warmer, when you can sit on the patio of the hotel room sipping chilled orange juice or flip lazily through a magazine on the beach.

If Dia could think of the bruises as a single wrinkle on a thousand-count sheet, otherwise smooth and inviting—

The seals galumphed toward them across the icy desert. They crawled gracelessly on their bellies, the land not their best medium, stopping frequently to rest and toast their backs under the faint winter sun. What few tourists there were snapped photographs so they wouldn’t forget.

Dia and her grandparents were there, in Petrushevskaya, expressly to forget. Or to try to. About the accident at the very least, the entire past month if they could manage it. A month of funeral arrangements and mourning clothes. Dia in her black velveteen dress with the lace collar. Dia squeezed between them in the front seat, boxes of her belongings in the back.

Dia asked her grandparents why they were called earless, if it meant the seals couldn’t hear anything they said. She shoved her fingers into her own ears, knuckle deep, testing what it would be like for a whole world of sound to disappear.

Her grandfather laughed, the first time all month. “Smart girl,” he said. “I grew up with the story that these seals are the most vicious beasts you can imagine. They say that the queen hunts the townspeople, and that God made her earless so she would not hear their screams.”

Dia’s eyes were wide and shiny, empty platters. Her grandmother slapped his arm hard.

“Tsk! Why do you tell her such things?” She glared at him, then turned to Dia, pulling gently on the little girl’s braid. “Do not listen to your grandfather. He is a gullible man, and that is just a story. The truth is that the earless seals can hear as well as anyone. In fact, they are the best listeners in the whole animal kingdom! So, if you have a secret, or a wish, or a message you want no one else to know”—she leaned down and whispered into Dia’s ear—”you can tell it to them.”

If Dia could think of the bruises as the slightest crack in a drinking glass, one that wouldn’t spread so long as she was careful, so long as she sipped from it only occasionally, barely touched her lips to it, barely breathed as she wiped it down, steady, steady, before placing it back on the highest shelf—

• • • •

“Do it.”

As a rule, the queen didn’t pass judgment on human matters. For one thing, she had never understood them. For another, her kingdom was no paradise; there was violence among the seals, too, removed from it though she was on her throne in the deep. The males fought one another for mating rights, the females for food for their young. She ran her fins through the Garden of Dancing Sponges, debating whether or not to ask.

Finally, she ventured: “And you?”

“What about me?” The woman examined her hands in the diving gloves, avoiding the queen’s gaze. Her headlamp illuminated the space around them, billions of plankton hovering like a sky of nameless stars. “I’ve heard the stories. I know the magic only works for one.”

“That is true.” The queen waited for the woman to say more, then tried again. “You could build your den as deep as you are willing to dive. On the shore, the others would form circles around you.” She made her tone a plush bed of kelp. “He would not find you.”

“No,” the woman said, and that single short word sounded like the crash of skull bone against lake wall, like what happens when a seal chases oilfish full-speed and doesn’t manage to pull up in time. Then, softer, fumbling: “I can’t. We belong together, he says that. And I’m all he has left.” She exhaled. “He needs me. And she needs not to know him. It’s hard to explain.”

The woman and the queen of the earless seals considered one another. Suddenly, a small light on the air gauge flashed red and began to blink.

“I have to go,” the woman said. “Will you help me or not?”

The queen rubbed her snout against the arm of the dive suit. “You know about the blood then.”

“What?”

“You say you have heard the stories. So you know the one about the blood.”

The woman thought back to her grandfather’s bedtime stories, which gave her nightmares every time she heard them, and still she begged for more. The stories that had brought her to this place after so long. “I’ve heard that you come up once a month, and you go into the inns and pubs . . .”

“Oh!” the queen interrupted. “Not those ridiculous rumors.” She huffed out a fast stream of bubbles, gnashed her teeth once or twice, then collected herself. It was important for a queen to maintain her composure, and also not to give away too much. “Nerpa have more blood than other seals, yes. Though we have no need to go out and”—she tossed her head in a show of disgust—“fetch it. That we live longer than all the others, that is true as well. They say up to four times as long, the last I heard it, but you should know as well as I do that your kind tend to underestimate us.” Her round black eyes twinkled. “I personally have lived a great many years, and I plan to live many years more.”

The red light flashed on and off, on and off, and the woman said slowly, “Many years more?”

Many years more,” the queen repeated. “Though a year means something different to us than it does to you. And since nerpa do not leave Lake Baikal, so long as I live, I will live right here.” She spun, sending plankton wheeling in every direction. “Which is to say, if you came back this season, or the next like it, or another like it a thousand moons from now, I would be here still. And you would know where to find me.”

• • • •

No one could have blamed Dia for trying to drown herself: life could be horribly inhospitable at times, and love was not exactly a five-star stay. But that is not why she went to Lake Baikal that summer.

When she emerged, a dark gray dot bobbing in the water, the lifeguards mistook her for one of the local nerpa until one of the beachgoers—a bored teenager reading a fashion magazine—looked up and shouted, “Hey! Is that a person out there?”

On the shore, the lifeguards stripped off Dia’s dive suit and wrapped her in blankets, rubbing her arms and legs vigorously until their color returned. While they waited for the ambulance, she drank hot tea with lemon and they grumbled to one another about the owner of the scuba gear rental shop, how irresponsible he was, what a blight on the entire community, to send a tourist out alone without even bothering to check her certification. A woman tourist. Pregnant, no less.

She lost the baby, of course. Suffocation, the doctor said. Something that can happen when you stay too long underwater.

The next morning, a seal pup was found mewling on one of the rocky outcroppings near the Petrushevskaya newsstand. Its fur bright white and woolly, eyes still blinking open—not yet a day old. It was the first week of June, well past the end of pupping season, and the adult seals had abandoned their young, instead dedicating all their time to finding new mates. No one expected a pup so out of season to survive.

From the window of her room in the modest inn that was not hers, but was quite nice anyway, with an ideal location at the Petrushevskaya town center, Dia watched the commotion over the seal pup, and she knew it would survive. Its fur would molt, and it would learn to chase down fish and forage; maybe it would start with the Pathetic Crabs, which were so slow and simple that even the most unskilled hunters could catch them. It would learn to slow its heartbeat down the deeper it dove. It would learn these lessons faster and better than any of the others, Dia was willing to bet.

And the people of Petrushevskaya would tell stories about her seal pup, as was the shared fate of the earless seals of Lake Baikal. Fate, Dia thought, and underneath that word, fate, appeared another word, a bigger word, like a bigger fish—a shadow that took shape as it moved toward the water’s surface. Took shape and swam straight for that skimpy word, that slippery and unsatisfying word, fate. Came to swallow up that word, fate, gone in one swift bite, fate. And the bigger word was future.

Dia was twenty-four years old when she met the queen of the earless seals of Lake Baikal.

She was about your age when she packed her things and moved home for good.

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Kristina Ten

Kristina Ten. A woman of Russian and Korean descent with auburn hair, wearing a straw-colored top, standing in a field in Rocky Mountain National Park and smiling.

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in Lightspeed, Fantasy, Diabolical Plots, Flash Fiction Online, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. A graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop, she is a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.