Science Fiction & Fantasy



Wolf Tones

. . . and then the second tone enters, high and fierce, the waves rising, a sudden spasm of hail scattering across the deck like a shower of pearls . . . a tone like a moan that vibrates through the ship, down through the cabins lined in red like satin jewelry boxes, those elegant little coffins, and down again through the vessel’s bowels and down through the vast imponderable weight of water its icy knifelike blackness just on the edge of freezing . . . this is a tone that matches the trembling of the earth itself like a magical lover who knows the precise desired frequency of illumination . . . hair, black wind, the cello between her thighs, how are her hands not frozen, how is her face not frozen, that sliver of moon as the waves grow higher and white, their slopes a ghastly fantastic white as she plays the howling insistent tone, she has found her stride, the ropes of her black hair flying and knotted about her neck . . . she is calling them . . . calling them . . . she is playing her lost summers . . . the mountains, the troops of monkeys on their way to the temple, the English church . . . and when autumn came it was time to leave the high mountains, to board the train, and she cried and cried, and they said, you cannot bear the winters here, you’ll freeze . . . oh play . . . play the great winter storm and the avalanche . . . the wolves . . . she calls them over the waves, rough coats and flaming mouths . . . they are leaping down the slopes of the white waves, baying toward the ship, and she goes on playing, she goes on howling, she cannot stop . . .

The first time he saw her he felt as if he had been plunged in icy water. His breath froze and there was a struggle in his chest. You would think she had struck him, struck him in the sternum. She in her paisley shawl, incongruous. Five days out from shore.

• • • •

“So you have gained your seal eggs.”

“I beg your pardon?”

She gestures at his legs, her eyes smiling, crimped at the edges. “Your sea legs.”

“Oh.” He blushes. “Yes.”

She holds out her hand. She has a soft accent, he can’t place it—Indian, Persian? Her hair pinned up with a jeweled comb. Strands of hair are escaping all over her head, blowing about in the wind. “My name is Nesha.”

“Wyland Alexander.”

She repeats his name in her lilting voice. She tells him that, contrary to intuition, if one is ill, it is best to be on deck. When people are sick they want to go to bed, but this urge must be resisted. “Those cabins are death, death!” she says with a shudder.

“Have you been ill, Miss Nesha?”

“Oh, not for a long time.”

He can believe it. She is statuesque, golden, nearly as tall as he. Of the two of them, she may be the heavier. This thought makes him blush again. He stammers something, he asks, where is she going?

“North,” she says.

She has no real destination. She is part of the ship’s orchestra. If he comes to dinner, he can hear her play. And what does she play? She turns up a palm and shows him her fingertips, each topped with a callus like a bubble of hard, dead ice.

Now, on the cruise ship, heading north again after all these years, he remembers the gleaming dining hall, the chandeliers, and after dinner the couples dancing, dancing over the sea, and how he sat at his table and smoked and watched the orchestra. A student. Nineteen years old and bound for Paris on the Agate. It was a French ship, unsegregated. A new life was beginning. Some French boys gestured that he should join their table, but he refused. The orchestra played swelling, tremulous, popular tunes. A rainy street, they played. A blue café. Couples dancing cheek to cheek. A tense conductor with flyaway, graying hair. The light of the chandeliers flickered on his baton. Today, on the cruise ship, there is a singer who croons to a synthesizer. There is karaoke.

• • • •

Sometimes at night he wakes in the drone of the ship and his body fools itself easily, deliciously, into thinking it is that other ship. What time is it? After midnight. He must have overslept. He’s missed dinner. The last dancers will be trailing about the floor. At this time of night they move so languidly, slowly, as if underwater, or as if suspended from the ceiling on long chains. They are hanging from the chains of her long notes, the one she releases from the cello, sleekly, one after the other. In the orchestra, there is a dark-browed violinist with bowed shoulders who, during the day, sheathes her precious hands in a pair of black satin gloves, but Nesha is the heart of the group, you can see that at once, even a self-confessed musical idiot like Wyland can see it, the way she scatters light. When he sits at his favorite table on the far left, near the stage—a table the other guests soon form the habit of leaving open for him—he can sometimes catch the conductor’s glance as it seeks Nesha out and finds her: a glance of confirmation, satisfaction, and cold fire.

Afterward, a patter of tired applause. She talks and laughs with the other musicians, putting her instrument away. He, at his table, is overwound, crackling, beside himself with impatience. He fumbles with his lighter; at last he gives up and lights his cigarette with a candle.

“May I help you?”

“Thank you,” she says.

He carries her cello, which is as awkward to handle as a human body. After she plays, she cannot sleep, no matter how late it is. She wants to run, to roam the deck in the cold air. She tells him that when she was at school, she never used to be able to sleep, she’d get up to all kinds of mischief in the dormitory. She hid the other girls’ shoes, she tied their long hair to the bedposts. She was reprimanded and almost sent home. In the end she was only punished, deprived of the daily recess hour, locked up in the headmistress’s office, but she didn’t care because there was a radio there, she’d play it very softly, leaning her head against it to hear, she could feel the vibrations all through her cheek, her chest. She tells him that the cello is an instrument of vibration. He says he supposes this is true of all musical instruments. Yes, but the cello is special, the finest instrument for producing certain mysterious overtones called wolf tones.

“What do they sound like?”

“Like wolves howling,” she says, laughing. “Like the wild wolves of the north.”

She’s childish at night, giddy, her ankles flashing under her long skirt. And he, in his coat, holding her cello, is freezing, he can see his breath in the starlight, and he thinks his life is always going to be like this. A succession of wonders, one after the other, forever, until he dies. The world is so full. The sky is crammed to the edges with stars. She tells him about Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who theorized wolf tones with his mechanical bowing machine.

She says: “I was meant to live where there is no night.”

The Arctic Circle, he thinks with a shiver. But they are going to Marseilles. From there he will travel to Paris. He has a letter from his patron in his pocket. He has forty dollars sewn into the lining of his coat. He tells her he is going to be an artist. She doesn’t laugh. “An artist, how marvelous!” He stammers as he attempts to explain, without boasting, how his patron, a great philanthropist, picked him out from among the boys at the technical school, first for drawing and painting lessons and then for Paris.

“Then you’re one of us,” she whispers, squeezing his arm. He can feel each finger through his coat.

She says kindred spirits are rare, and he nods, though deep in his heart he doesn’t believe her, he still thinks he is going to find them wherever he goes. Wolf tones, she tells him, are only produced between E and F sharp. They occur when the frequency of the vibrating string matches the vibration of the instrument’s body. A perfect match, she says, it’s too much, it’s overwhelming. The note has to split. It beats. It howls. Musicians say: it wolfs.

He wakes and thinks he is on that other ship. But as soon as he swings his legs out of bed, he remembers the truth. His body reminds him of the truth. He is old. He switches on the light. It’s four a.m., not too early for an old man to rise. He grasps his cane.

He washes his face and cleans his teeth at the tiny sink. He puts on his parka. Then he climbs the stairs. The horizon pulses with pink fire, the rest of the world is blue. His face feels blue, prickling in the cold.

A few other passengers are already up, looking at the sea. They hail him cheerfully, raising mittened hands.

The sea stretches out like a slab, like something solid, a great blue quartz. It lies so still, as if immune to storms.

At breakfast, he hooks his cane over his wrist so his hands are free to carry the tray. Some of the passengers are being assisted by the staff. Hardly anyone on the cruise is under seventy years old. Most of them, like him, have worked all their lives, and possess money and leisure for the first time. Many still wear the surprised expressions of people who have only recently discovered they can afford a cruise, whose children have said, “Dad, why not go?” Some look wary, expecting their luck to run out; others are smug in their furs, adding one more trip to their list. All of them, with their shrunken or bloated wind-carved faces, their hoarfrost hair, look as if they belong to this landscape. We are snowmen, Wyland thinks. How stiffly we move, as if our bones are frozen. He pours himself a cup of coffee.

All day the sun will dance along the horizon, buoyant and lacy, a paper snowflake. There will be islands like dark seals. There will be a guide who tells them about the shrinking of the ice. Trembling, the passengers will say: “Oh no, oh no.”

One passenger is much younger than the others: a researcher catching a ride north on the cruise ship. Wyland sets his tray down beside hers, pulls out a chair, and sits. The researcher appeals to him. He likes her dark skin. Her scowl.

“You know, you remind me of someone,” he remarks.

Her scowl deepens. She stabs grimly at her eggs. She is wearing a stiff brown coverall fastened with snaps. Her hands are small, bony, chapped to whiteness at the knuckles.

“The person you remind me of would probably never wear that kind of getup. But she was young like you. And she loved the north.”

His heart gives a little twist, as if waking up. Pain fills his chest. He sets his coffee cup down carefully and breathes.

Breathe, breathe, as if you were walking blinded through the snow. Do not for a moment allow your heart to stop. Nesha smiling at the ocean, wrapped in her long shawl. The blue, and her burnished cheek. Complementary colors.

His vision clears. “Where are you from?” he asks the young researcher.

“New Jersey,” she growls, and then, relenting: “My parents are from Bangladesh.”

“The person I knew was from somewhere near there.”

“That’s nice.” She’s collecting her cup, her napkin, piling them together on her tray.

“She told me anybody could love the north.”

“Yep,” says the researcher, standing up. Young people move so fast. He’s forgotten that. He’s forgotten everything important. How quick they are, how easily insulted, how Nesha flared up at him that afternoon, her smile fading out like smoke. He had told her it was surprising, unexpected, to find a person like her, from the south, so interested in the frozen north. “That has nothing to do with it,” she snapped. She said she was interested in the world. She was drawn to phenomena. “Anyone can love the ice.” Sir C.V. Raman investigated the stringed instruments of Europe, she said, but he was interested in sound. Then she glanced pointedly at Wyland’s hair, the close, slightly reddish curls he had plastered down painstakingly, but inadequately, with brilliantine. “You are going to Paris,” she said, “but you’re also from the south.” And he had been stung in his turn, indignant. “I’m from Michigan.”

The young researcher is walking away with her tray.

“My name’s Wyland,” he calls after her, “but you can call me Shoeless Joe.”

He chuckles. Stupid old man. She’ll never talk to him again. Still, the exchange has soothed the ache in his chest. For a long time he’s called himself Shoeless Joe, as a joke. His friends call him Shoeless. He’s sure the young researcher doesn’t appreciate the humor. He loves this about her: the glittering intolerance of youth. He has not possessed this quality for a long time. He used to call himself The Unhappy Negro, also as a joke, until his children told him it was offensive.

“You’re one of us.”

He’s hungry. He is turning into a wolf. He is waiting for things to become ordinary. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? People are supposed to get used to things. They are not supposed to be tortured every day. The sight of the sea, for example, should become ordinary to a sailor with the passage of time. “What do you think?” he asks a sailor. Standing bleary-eyed on deck at six o’clock in the morning, gesturing toward the North Atlantic. Lavish sprays of arterial color are pouring across the ocean. The sky throbs. There is a dim, wild smell of fish. “Does this seem normal to you?” The sailor observes the youth with the hollow eyes and smiles blackly. He has few teeth, and speaks no English.

¡Salud! Santé! Skål!

At midnight the musicians drink champagne. They are given supper in a room behind the dining hall. They sprawl on the chairs, the women in poses that seem lewd to Wyland when Nesha drags him there for supper with her friends. He doesn’t want to go, he feels instinctively that he will disappoint her, will prove that he is not, after all, one of them, and he tries not to look at the toes of the flautist, who is also a dancer, coiling near his elbow, nude under pink silk. The flautist is from Bohemia; she has poor skin and hair from having grown up on potatoes. “Ah,” she says, closing her eyes. The tall, red-haired percussionist, who has moist and colorless eyes like a pair of snails, flicks a pistachio shell that lands in the flautist’s bosom. The flautist opens her eyes and sits up, outraged, and everyone laughs. The man who plays the oboe is trying to talk to Wyland: he is French, and when he speaks, or at any rate, when he speaks English, gray spit collects in the corners of his mouth. As the oboist draws something complicated on a napkin, the map to a place in Paris where, he insists, Wyland absolutely must go, Wyland watches the laughing gaze of Nesha travel across the table to meet the tiny, flashing eyes of the conductor. No one seems to know very much about this man, the orchestra conductor. He is rumored to be a Pole. He is a taskmaster, Nesha says. He has a thin, spidery body—the type, Wyland thinks, you could crush under your boot.

Afterward he sees the conductor below decks, in the red hall. He recognizes him, though the light is dim. He sees the conductor and Nesha standing at the end of the passage. The conductor has his hand about her throat.

¡Salud! Santé! Champagne corks pop. The ship heaves over the sea. It heaves toward France. No, it heaves toward Svalbard. The ship heaves toward the Barents Sea. The water is growing very green, says the violinist. Then it will turn blue, and at last it will be black.

The violinist crouches behind him and rests her head on his shoulder. Her head is small and hard, and there are pins in her hair. He feels as if he is being embraced by his grandmother’s hairy pincushion. The violinist’s fingers, encased in black satin, are digging into his shoulders. Now she comes to perch like a raven on the arm of his chair. She drinks from his glass. Across the table the percussionist regards them mockingly. His jeering eyes, without depth, like chunks of blubber, like segments of walrus tripe, like bits of undigested ptarmigan in an owl casing.

Wyland stumbles outside. He has drunk too much. He touches his face, which has gone numb. Suddenly he’s afraid the wind has sliced it up. No, his face is all right. Everything’s fine, he tells himself, but he can’t stop the wave of self-pity that surges through him, the tears.

Breathe. He leans his arms on the railing. He rests his forehead there.

A narwhal, the corpse whale, nudges its horn through the gloom. All over the hills the snowy geese are sleeping. An ice bear lifts its nose from the kill in the moonlight, painted like a clown.

But what have they been saying? They’re making fun of him. He won’t go back in that room. He weaves his way to the stairs and goes down, touching the walls. Here the ship makes a groaning sound. There is sometimes a frightening ping that makes him think the iron is warping, about to break. He thinks the iron is going to collapse from the pressure of the water. He does not feel he is floating. He is underneath. And Nesha stands at the end of the passage, regal in crimson light, wearing the conductor’s hand like an ivory choker.

“How could you?”

“You don’t understand. He is a very enlightened person.”

“He’s hurting you.”

“And you—you’re going to save me?”

“I could. I could pitch him overboard.”

“So could I.”

He clenches his fists uselessly. “You people are sick,” he says. “You drift around drinking and pretending to be artists. You pretend to love the world, but all you care about is drunkenness and filth.”

“We are interested in the mechanisms of force.”

“Shut up!” he shouts. “You probably all sleep together—you play your wolf tones—”

Now at last she grows angry. “I have never played a wolf tone for you. You have never heard it. None of the regular passengers have heard it.”

The phrase, regular passengers, rakes across his heart.

She rearranges her shawl, folding it tightly, and walks away.

“When I play a wolf tone, Wyland, you will know.”

For three days he doesn’t go to dinner. He hoards food from the other meals, eats rolls in his cabin. Then he is back. He doesn’t sit at his usual table. He sits at the edge of the crowd, as far as possible from the stage. He sits with the French boys, who are playing cards.

She knows he is there. The sound of her cello reaches out. Tentative. Frayed.

He plays cards. All the French boys are laughing at his schoolboy French. The orchestra takes a break, and when they come back, Wyland stops playing. Nesha steps onto the stage. She has taken down her hair.

She plays with her hair falling over her face. It falls to the strings. She is playing her own hair. A strange tune, and quiet, and only for him. So quiet, he can hear the small hiss as she moves in her black silk dress. He hears it across the room. He can hear her heart.

Afterward, on the deck, she sits in the shadows against the wall and he lies down with his head in her lap. He holds her hand. Her other hand circles slowly, comfortingly, in his hair, freeing the curls. The stars are so close. Don’t let me fall.

Was it because his passion was incomplete? He was giving her everything. Even now he knows he could not have given more. Lying on the black swell of her thigh, clinging to her fingers, it was as if he had been emptied and then filled. Emptied of everything in the world, of his childhood, his ambition, his patron’s confidence, his family’s hopes, even his forty dollars, and filled to the brim with sorrow. Now he sits in a deck chair, an old man, looking out at the fierce blue arctic waters, and feels that emptiness again. Emptied even of the desire to paint. Old Shoeless is going to paint the Arctic, they said. Good for him. One last run. He is going to paint it from life this time. But although he has found the emptiness, he has not been filled. There is nothing to put inside. The guide is talking and curved brown mountains are floating past the rails. Now a dash of color: pink flowers. Everyone rushes to take a picture. Rare fox cubs. In the distance, black hills garnished with blue snow. “I’m sorry,” she said, and he told her: “Don’t ever say that.” Don’t say you’re sorry, he told her, because he knew it meant saying goodbye. She in her long hair, tender. Her hair stirring on his cheek. She told him about the great singlemindedness of Sir C.V. Raman, his illimitable passion for the natural world. C.V. Raman was interested in every kind of vibration. He studied sound, but also optics, x-rays, magnetism, color. He loved music, flowers, diamonds. In 1921 he traveled to Oxford and hypothesized that the blue of the Mediterranean was due to the molecular scattering of light. Wyland can feel her hand in his hair. He feels she is telling him no. Somehow she is telling him no with these stories of C.V. Raman. The wolf tones occurring only on certain notes. And now the light, the small fraction of light that undergoes the change of frequency known as Raman scattering. Raman established his theory using a mercury lamp, a glass bulb full of benzene, and a pocket spectroscope. Direct a white light onto the bulb and you will observe, contrary to expectation, a magnificent blue radiance. This is because some of the light particles—but only some—are being transformed. He understands that she means she is a blue light, a wolf, while he, Wyland, is ordinary light. Raman scattering, she says, occurs with gases and solids as well as liquids. The first solid Raman studied was ice.

The ice. It’s melting. Sinking. Becoming sea.

The guide announces: “This is a journey among the last of the glaciers.”

The passengers are excited. They board the boat that is lowered down to the turquoise water. To the aquamarine. The scattering.

“Nesha,” he says. “My wolf.” But she is already far away. His hand is empty. The one intended to touch her face. Then someone catches him, steadies him, helps him aboard the boat. “Are you all right, sir?” It’s one of the staff, the young Norwegian, sunburned and jolly in her blue vest. He speaks to her in Norwegian and she laughs, showing teeth of improbable whiteness. “They’ll do,” he says, stamping his boots on the deck. There’s a squeaking sound, as usual, but nothing to worry about, it’s not my feet, it’s my heart, he wants to tell this young woman who is so kind. Now the boat casts off and everyone waves. “Goodbye,” call the ones left behind on the ship. Not everyone has joined the journey among the last of the glaciers. Some of the passengers are too frail. And the young researcher, too, Wyland sees, has remained at the railing. She stares at the boat with a strange look: a look of rage.

Something inside her, certainly. A flame.

As for him, he is empty, sawdust. He has outlived everything, even his century. Its horrors and its triumphs. The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science where the young men worked all night. Coming and going at all hours, often sleeping on the premises so that they could get a chance to use the equipment. C.V. Raman lived so close to the association building, he could slip in a back door whenever he was free. And even though he would later take up residence in lovely Bangalore, where he would maintain a splendid flower garden, a diamond museum, and the Raman Research Institute with its panoramic view of the city, it was those early days at the association, in that dusty building in one of the most crowded parts of Calcutta, that he always called “the golden era.” It was there he began his studies of music and light. Such passion among the mercury lamps. Such frenzied writing. To get his papers into print quickly, before anyone else stumbled on his discoveries, he’d hail a cab, rush to the post office, pay the late fee to make the last mail. Is this what it means to be an artist? To vibrate at such a pitch? In tune with the changing world. It appears to me, a fellow scientist wrote, that this very beautiful discovery which resulted from Raman’s long and patient study of the phenomenon of light scattering is one of the most convincing proofs of the quantum theory.

What are you dreaming of? Did you think it would be quiet?

She lifts her bow.

The grinding and popping sounds. The groans. Subdued thunder.

Wolf tones, she said, are considered unmusical. They are a hindrance. Techniques and devices have been developed for their suppression.

Listen, she tells him, now we are going to begin.

He remembers his throat was sore. The oncoming fever made him feel like a child. He allowed himself to be ordered about like a child in the supper room. They made up a bed for him by pushing the chairs together. “This fever,” he told the flautist, “is the outcome of despair.” “Nonsense,” she crooned, loosening his tie with her wormlike fingers. Someone was taking off his shoes. The lights were in his eyes and the oboist stood on the table to shield them with paper. Individual paper shields, perhaps made of cigarette packets, for each of the little sparks in the chandelier. Wyland’s eyes filled with tears because of the kindness. “These tears,” he explained to whoever was listening, “are the outcome of despair.” They gave him a special cigarette, telling him it would help his cough, but it made him cough more. His chest seized, his body thumped on the chairs. Through his tears he could see the conductor observing him, as one would regard an insect, with a calm and clinical gaze.

“You,” wheezed Wyland. “I know you. You’re the Devil.”

A collective excitation

He’s read so much, through the years, to try to make sense of it. The papers of C.V. Raman. The hope that our laboratory studies would furnish a solid experimental basis for the explanation of such natural phenomena as the colour of the sea and the colour of the ice in glaciers

Glacial blue. A frozen heart.

The young Norwegian helps him ashore. They will climb this little ridge. They will see the ice. He proceeds with a creaking sound not unlike the sound of a glacier. Not at all unlike the melting of a glacier heard from a distance. The unmusical, daily sound of his prosthetics.

The far ultraviolet

A little ridge. Then glaciers like wild beasts. Their condensed, alien, and lambent blue. Everyone gasps at the sight, but it’s the smell that makes him weep: a raw and ferrous wind from the days of hope. From the days when he still had feet.

If the process of scattering could be

He moves forward slowly, testing the ground with his cane. They have half an hour, says the guide, before they must return to the boat. They may walk on the ridge. They must not go down to the ice. He walks toward the distance with fragile, uncertain steps. Snow breaks under his boots.

Toward the fading isles. The blue cathedrals of desire. The sinking world.

Listen, now we are going to begin.

His throat aches. He wants to clear it, but he’s afraid of the pain, and even more, afraid diseased flesh will slough off into his mouth. Certainly they’ve put something in the cigarette. But the ship soothes him, rocking. The chandelier swinging, adorned with tiny shades. It begins to swing more violently. Shadows pass over him. A pair of red lips, a naked shoulder, a small chignon. Then the sparkling cuff with jade links that can only belong to the orchestra conductor, followed by his neat and jaundiced-looking hand, a hand that comes startlingly close to Wyland’s face, as if to stroke him, then turns to exhibit the knuckles tufted with fine hair.

If the process of scattering could be regarded as a collision

Nesha’s face, with the lights of the chandelier winking around it.

As if a coronet of stars.

She’s taking him, picking him up. It is time, my darling. Is he being carried? Out the doors where the wind whips at his face. He whoops for joy. The door flung back behind them, banging, the glass shattering.

Sailors running about, feet thudding. French shouts. The huge sea.

The deck tilts and flings him against the wall of the dining room.

New pain, now, in his shoulder, in his knees when he falls on the deck. “Nesha!” he shouts. Frightened, for the first time.

• • • •

To be scattered at higher frequencies is to be scattered to the blue.

The members of the ship’s orchestra have taken their seats on the deck. Somehow, when the ship tilts the other way—tilts so sharply that Wyland clings to the broken dining-room door, to keep from being swept off—they do not move.

The conductor raises his baton.

“No!” Wyland screams.

Flashes of light and darkness. Flashes of flying hair. And her face, impossibly clear, as if she were seated right beside him, though she is far away, too far for him to reach. Too far for him to seize the hem of her skirt, though he tries to crawl. His fingers are bleeding from the broken glass. Something hard slides down the deck and hits him, shocking his wrist into numbness. He clings in the doorway, sobbing. He cannot go.

I was going to go to Paris. To be an artist.

She lifts her bow.

Her face like a topaz. Luminous. Remote.

Her face of sorrow. Of deep, slow-burning triumph. Of desire. Her arm in the torn sleeve rising like a whale.

The bow on the string. It’s as if someone has touched his inner ear.

The wind. He writhes. His body curls and uncurls in sound. Sound of the ocean. Sound of wolf. Of storm. It beats back and forth. It achieves an unbearable. A shudder that never ends.

At the hospital in Svalbard he says: I saw a woman riding on a wolf.

She is playing the wind, the water, the ice. He lifts his face. He sees them playing faster and faster, the whole orchestra in frenzy but she is slow, slow, the bow a thing of intolerable weight. She does not need to move quickly because each note she plays is thousands, millions of notes. The others are playing the ocean but she is playing the tide. The conductor’s baton dancing like an antenna against the rising waves. The slopes. The darkness clapping like a bell.

When it goes up, he tells the nurse, you can’t look down.

The foaming waves. Lit up in the night. Luminescent, like a corpse.

The violinist playing and screaming. Ecstatic. A volley of curses. The percussionist’s shirt ripped off, his body of solid white fat.

They are all monsters. The flautist’s teeth, how has he never noticed them? The oboist’s eyebrows twisting up like horns. The conductor with his matted hair. And Nesha. She is huge, her glance of thunder. She is taking up the sky.

She throws her head back. Icy mouth. Delirium.

And the waves come down.

He says: The ship went down into a hole.

He mimes it with his hand. His fingers diving against a background of white curtains. At the hospital in Svalbard.

He says: Let me sleep. He begs them: Let me.

Curled in bed, he clings to the pillow. He will put it over his head to save his ears. He will strap himself to the little bed and use it as a raft. All night the bed will bang against the wall. And he will see her rising. Throwing her cello over her shoulder. Her long hair. How she grasps the Wolf King by his gray-white ruff. With a leap, she gains his back. She sits astride him, howling, raising her bow to the sky. The Huntress of the North.

But I was going to Paris. I was going to be an artist. I had forty dollars sewn into my coat.

His feet are black, the doctor says. He doesn’t understand. The doctor repeats it: Black. They will have to come off.

Tie me up, says Wyland. He begs them to tie him to the bed. Then, for a long time, he doesn’t speak.

When he speaks again, he asks for books. He asks for books about music, science, and history. He takes comfort in the language of Sir C.V. Raman. If the process of scattering could be regarded as a collision between a light quantum localised in space and an individual molecule, the observed laws of light-scattering would be quite different from those anticipated on the classical principles. The words are like a rope thrown in the dark to Wyland who has lost the ability to anticipate anything on the classical principles. He sits by the window in the full glow of night. It’s so bright outside, the shadows of the window bars are cast across his page. He reads the words: There are more unexcited molecules than excited ones. Why should that be? What causes this difference? Why are so many of them left out? Touched, but never transformed. He searches for a reason but cannot discover it. He cries for the first time since his rescue.

In Norway they tell tales of the Oskoreien, the Terrible Host, who may be the souls of the restless dead. They rush across the sky with a dreadful noise. They enter locked homes and devour the Christmas feast. Once, at Dalen, they left a dead man on the hearth. The corpse hung from a pothook. By his clothes, the people who found him could tell he came from Numedal, a valley to the east. The Terrible Host must have seized him there and ridden him to death. His heart frozen under the silver buttons on his vest.

Now as he walks across the snow it wells up in him again, filling him. All his sorrow and his years. The hospital at Svalbard, and how he asked for newspapers he could read, English and French papers from the time of his accident. The papers told of the tragic wreck of the Agate, a French ship driven mysteriously, incredibly off course in a freak storm. The lone survivor, an American Negro, had been picked up by a team of land surveyors. He was feverish, raving. He did not know his name. The unhappy Negro, Wyland read, was transported to the hospital for treatment. A phrase that stuck with him, ringing: le malheureux nègre. He began to read voraciously, as if he could discover in written language the whole meaning of his life. How closely he followed the career of Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, how passionately he read the texts that travel back to him now in fragments, as he walks through mist, through an arctic morning suddenly overcast so that he stumbles, missing his footing in whiteness, his depth perception failing. He remembers the words: spectral violet. He recalls: the romance of glass. He hears a sound in the distance, a sort of siren, undoubtedly from the boat. He remembers: In the waters of our seas and oceans live many denizens of the deep endowed with what has been happily termed living light. Words that sustained him through the years, the painting career in the Florida Keys where he moved because, he would say with a shout of laughter, he hated snow, where he married and had children and was widowed and became part of the furniture in a bar, his sweat sinking into the chair. But Nesha, you told me I was one of you. He sways, he staggers. The ground is moving. He is riding on a boat. Beasts groan about him, jostling in the fog. He reaches to touch them but they will not come near. He coaxes them, clicking; they answer with hollow grunts. He laughs through the pain in his chest, through the tears that freeze at once on his lashes. These are her herds, the ones she keeps to feed her wolves. He must be very close now. And soon, yes, the mist draws aside its nacreous curtain and there she stands, taller than the peaks.

He sinks to his knees on the rocking ice. Nesha!

Wyland! she says. Come in!

In where?

In here, she says with a merry laugh. She is wearing her same paisley shawl, only now its pink and pale-green shades are spread in majesty across the sky. The colors shift and ripple with a meditative intensity so beautiful he cannot move. He cannot close his eyes. Come, she says, I will make you a supper of seals’ eggs. There’s no such thing. Oh, but there is, she assures him, in her hall. And he will dine on the choicest ones, served on a bed of blackened greens retrieved from a bear’s stomach. Eggs so tender they burst at a glance. He will see marvels in the light of whale-oil lamps. And he will tell her marvels, too. The tale of the crystal lattice. Of the fiber-optic probe. Leaning into the warmth of her couch, which is made from the wing of a goose, he will speak between kisses of the diffraction of light by ultrasonic waves. The Raman spectrum, he will tell her, is the physicist’s musical score of the atomic symphony.

The young researcher settles down into her sleeping bag and presses play. A gentle droning fills her headphones. It’s Naldjorlak I by Eliane Radigue, a composition for solo cello that fills the young researcher’s bones with sound. Now, at last, her muscles relax. Soon she will begin to feel like she’s floating. Then she will be fully here: here in the camp, in the tent that envelops her in a pinkish glow, cocooned in the sleeping bag, in the polar night. Then she will let go of the trip, of the fury that consumes her every time she has to travel on one of those awful cruise ships: the sense of contamination as she shares the heated air and the thrum of the oil-guzzling vessel with the stupid, wide-eyed, gawking tourists. They’re all old, they’ve lived their lives, they’ve driven their big cars, they spend their days between the swimming pool and their air-conditioned rooms. When they click their tongues at the dwindling ice and hold their little paws up over their mouths in dismay, she wants to bash their heads in. You gave me this world, she wants to shout. But she doesn’t. She needs the ride. A frown creases her forehead. She wills her breath to deepen. Let it go, she tells herself. Let it all go: the trip, the guides, the miserable delay as they searched for the old guy who wandered off on the glacier tour. They never found him. He probably had a heart attack out there. The blond guide who’d gone out on the boat was in hysterics. Her face covered with red blotches like a rash. “He was so nice,” she sobbed. The young researcher sighs again. Let it go. And as she listens, as she allows her thoughts to dissolve in the subtle, resonant tones of Radigue’s music, she feels it going. She even feels a touch of the old excitement. Tomorrow, after all, she’ll be on the ice. She’ll be on the ice, taking measurements with a remote Raman spectrometer, gathering data on the structure of the dying bergs.

A wind ripples the tent, and she closes her eyes. Radigue’s music has always filled her with a sense of space. It’s music that builds an environment, patiently, delicately, inexorably, as crystals form. It’s the feeling of the ice. Because of this music, the young researcher forgives Radigue everything. She forgives her for belonging to that generation. The word Naldjorlak, which makes her think of trolls in a winter cave, is apparently made up, and she’s read that it’s supposed to suggest something to do with Tibetan Buddhism. This, too, she forgives, she lets it go, the vague religiosity, the whiff of exoticism, she lets it go, she sinks, she feels herself shifting from red to blue, becoming spectral in the vast vibrating night. For this, for music that sounds like ice, she is willing to forgive. So it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t know and will never know that earlier today she met the painter Wyland Alexander, known as “the painter of glaciers,” because she might have forgiven him, too. She might have forgiven his age, his questions, and his foolish jokes, had she known that he painted glaciers obsessively for fifty years, developing in them a blue of such convulsive, pounding radiance that critics called it both appalling and sublime. It was said that one was “battered” by Wyland Alexander’s blues. This was painting that aspired to the state of noise. In the end, his color was something no one could bear for very long: a blue as deep and penetrating as a howl.

— for Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of four books, most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her first novel, the epic fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, won the 2014 Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Samatar also received the 2014 Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her memoir, The White Mosque, an exploration of family, faith, and border crossing, is forthcoming in October 2022.