The Companion
Helen McClory

The inside of the tent had a beautiful glow to it, a buttery yellow. It was part of the reason Eloise had chosen it for her trek. Going out alone, she reasoned, it would be good to have this bit of colour to look forward to at the beginning and end of each day. This was morning and time for lard cake and waiting for the snow to melt for coffee, and calling home, and looking at the compass and the maps, then the less fun tasks of packing up the canoe, checking the kit was secure, and making the blood sigil to ward off the polar bear who had been following her trail these past three nights. She said nights, still, even though there was no darkness, just a switch to pink or lavender in the sky at around midnight.

The needle of the compass twitched. Eloise could taste coffee vapours crystalising on the inside of her face mask, and heard the sound of her skis and her poles scraping across the disruption of the sea ice. At this time of day, the risk of attack was minimal, and all she had was that noise, that taste, the treachery beneath, and the cold air around. The cold was one of the reasons she had come. It was dull to say that it made her feel alive, but Eloise had trouble finding the right words around what it did do to her. It blasted some alchemical joy, made her veins fizz and her eyes bright. Each slog of a day, prior to realising she was being tracked, had been brilliantly rewarding.

If there was a way to hold onto that thread of goodness.

If there was a way to keep the broadness of the arctic indifferent to her.

If there was a way to be a witch, even if she had only so far learned one solitary, useless spell.

Going back was the easiest option, and Eloise was no fool. But. She continued, and walked the days. For the next four nights the polar bear circled her golden tent. She began daubing the blood sigils before sleep—at a distance. Writing blood on sift ice is hard work, but when they began to glow, something would settle inside and she would sleep despite the noise. That rattle at the bear's throat, a wheeze of the kind with which an old woman might be afflicted, or the whirring down of clockwork. That too, when Eloise did hear it edging on her sleep, gave her grim hope.

It was about three o' clock, judging by the sun, when she saw the hulking mass of the bear ahead of her at rest on a piled wave. It is not hard to be outpaced even by a sickly polar bear, nor are appointments with death in the arctic ever truly unexpected. There was no diverting from her course, unless she got into her canoe and paddled, and even then the gap in the floes looked likely enough to close up, trapping her. So Eloise walked. She took out her compass, looked at the wavering needle begin to turn, the iron growing frantic as the distance between her and the white bear lessened. Still Eloise did not discount her own survival, yet.

She was about twenty metres away. Below the beast stretched a black pool in the ice, scattered with something red. Eloise clenched her hand where the sigil cuts itched. In a land without reference, spells will sometimes fail. That's what home had said. She whispered to herself, a prayer this time: what. Ski step over ski step is slow growing, but eventually the black, red-filled pool rose to a lake. The polar bear sat breathing with the familiar wheeze, mouth open, staring at her. Eloise moved closer. There came the chalky crickling of the ice, but the edge of the black lake seemed stable for the moment, for the both of them. It struck her that the reason her own breath came steadily was that there were too many competing opportunities for her death.

Red things moved in the water: they were being nudged aside by more and more small bulbous shapes blipping up crimson from the black depths.

Eloise pulled back her hood and took off her face mask. The polar bear made a huffing, rasping sound. She turned to it again to see it stand and pull back its head, looking up, looking down at her, looking at the pool, in which floated—roses. A conjured fleet of heart-red rose heads, each open, almost overblown. Eloise could not run to any purpose, so knelt to gather them from the water, and under the continued watch of the bear, a pile of flowers amassed. Though her fingers were numb it seemed to her that she could still feel their petals, impossibly soft, and that even when they lay on the ice they were soft, and smelled like the Turkish delights she loved as a child, dusted with icing sugar. Eloise took her gloves off, thinking of the damage, but mostly of the miraculous. The polar bear came to the pile. It nosed them first, then began eating. So Eloise picked up a red bloom and ate it too. Velvet and tender. Eloise lay down beside the roses. The bear lay down, still now and then licking up a blossom and chewing it noisily. Together they waited, curled. Eloise thought: to be given the inexplicable alongside death. And also: this seems then the whole package of dying, like the dying in a painting. But there wasn't an objectivity that took it on itself to answer. The scarcity around their opulent centre creaked white. Her scarred, slowly freezing hand reached, over and over, into the same festivity. Long, yellow teeth, petal-covered tongues, sweet breath. Something, something, was going to break.

Helen McClory lives in Edinburgh. She's the author of a collection of shorts, ON THE EDGES OF VISION (Queen's Ferry Press). Her debut novel, FLESH OF THE PEACH, is forthcoming from CCM.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

W i g l e a f               03-01-16                                [home]