Every spring ancient icebergs came to these shores to “die”. They were huge, those floating icy mountains, even if you considered only the part you saw and not the part hidden underwater. The icebergs never approached the shore; they stopped at some distance, in the shallow water, their underwater parts scraping the seafloor, crowded the horizon, and slowly melted in the warm sunlight releasing frozen things, ancient trash mostly, as they got smaller and smaller.
A gaggle of boys and girls took their places on the cliff. You wouldn’t distinguish them from a flock of sea birds unless you came close. Wind ruffled their hair and rugged clothes just like it would ruffle bird feathers. The kids’ high pitched voices resembled seagull chatter, too.
They came to greet the icebergs, some alone, most in little groups. Clashing and crushing sounds the ice mountains made rolled over the shores like endless thunder making it hard to hear anything else.
“Why do they come?!” shouted Elie though the noise.
“I don’t know!” replied Rikter in his loudest voice and, clinging to the slippery icy cliff, moved closer to the girl.
“Did you ask the elders?” Continued Elie, relieved that now she didn’t have to scream anymore to be heard.
“I did,” nodded the boy; his long, unruly hair fell on his face as he did that, “but our tribe doesn’t know much. What about yours?”
“Same,” Elie shrugged. “Even my grandma, the wise Kalare, doesn’t remember anything. “The wandering ice just comes, nobody knows why”.
“But we’ll find out, right?” there was a faint hope in Rikter’s voice.
“Right,” Elie assured him, “we just have to watch the ice closely”.
Many times icebergs had come to die under the sun since then. Every time took its toll, killing the kids’ curiosity bit by bit in a slow but steady manner. Ten springs later, only two kids of the initial group kept coming here. Elie and Rikter. Two tired birds, stragglers without a flock, perched on a bare cliff, winds ruffling their rags and braided hair like feathers. They were adults now.
“Why do you keep coming, Rik?” Said Elie sadly, leaning closer to his ear. She didn’t want to shout. “I have a dream, it calls to me. And you, you just look at the ice”.
The young man was silent for a long time, and the silence mixed oddly with the thunder-like sounds of the icebergs.
“I’m here because of you, Elie,” he said at last. “I want to be with you. Forever. Until death do us part. Because I love you”.
Elie didn’t answer. Her gaze drifted down following the cold black waves carrying countless pieces of crushed ice.
“You don’t have anything to say to me at all?” asked Rikter with a bitter smile.
“I don’t know what to say, Rik,” Elie spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “I’ve never thought… I always saw you as a friend…”
“Elders say good friendship can grow into true love,” said the guy reassuringly. He was not going to accept no for an answer. “I think that’s right, Elie… Elie?”
Elie didn’t hear him anymore. She stood at the edge of the cliff and stared at the shore littered with broken ice and trash. Following her gaze, he looked down too.
There was an unusually big ice shard below. The sea had thrown it on the sand some time ago and kept disturbing it since, shifting it and polishing its surface with every touch of the waves.
“There is something inside it!” exclaimed Elie, pointing down with her marble-white finger.
“Hm…” Rikter frowned and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “You have good eyes. I wouldn’t have noticed”.
Hungry birds were already circling above the ice shard with a dark core. They had even better eyes than Elie.
The girl came down from the cliff as fast as a squirrel and hurried along the sandy shore filled with debris and garbage drenched in cold water. Rikter followed her. By the time he managed to catch up with the girl she was already standing on her knees before the ice shard, her hand pressed against it.
“There is a man inside! I see his face…” Elie’s voice was so quiet from astonishment that Rikter barely heard her though the shore noise.
But that was true: there was a human face, pale and motionless, under the milky white ice.
“What are you doing? He’s dead…”
Stubborn as an unruly kid, Elie kept rummaging through the shore garbage gathering torn nets, ropes, and everything else she could tie up and wrap around the ice shard. Then she tried to pull at it, obviously inclined to move the ice gift away from the water.
“Step aside,” said Rikter in a peremptory fashion. “Let me do it”.
The man woke up feverish and shaking. He didn’t remember much and just kept telling himself he had to get up, take a pill, and call a doctor. In the end, all he was able to do was to open his eyes…
He saw the crushed ice in the sand, the stormy sky above the unknown shore, and his clothes, worn and ragged by time. There seemed to be winter here, but the heat torturing him was unbearable. Unfamiliar boy and girl with skin as pale as marble, clothed in rags, watched him with shock. When they spoke to him, he couldn’t understand a single word.
His memory didn’t offer him much: just a few scenes from the last hike he had with his friends. And that glacier they visited together…
“So your tribe has accepted the man?” asked Rikter.
“Yes,” smiled Elie. “Everyone likes him”.
It was midsummer now. It brought a few warm days, and there were little flowers in the pale green grass. A joyous time!
“And you?” Rikter said, tight-lipped.
“Why are you so angry?” Elie recoiled when he tried to touch her. “He is funny when he tries to speak our language, but the stories he tells about his world… they are wonderful! He is a very good guy, really, Rik! Would you like to talk to him yourself?”
Rikter, who had been fuming just a moment ago, replied with an unexpectedly calm voice and even a smile:
“Oh, talk? Yes, I want to talk to him all right”.
His new name was Aimek which meant “iceman”. He learned to hunt seals and cook their meat on a campfire with young fir needles for a spice. He learned the alien language but couldn’t express his thoughts well in it yet. Sometimes he felt as helpless as a child and it made him angry.
Elie, the girl who found him on the shore and took him to live with her tribe, called on him often in his little cave at the side of the cliff. Sometimes, when Aimek came from his hunt empty-handed, she brought him food. And always asked for more stories. She was nice, and Aimek really liked her.
The guy, Rikter, she brought with her once was different. He wore patterns of another tribe on his clothes. The iceman recalled the guy’s face: he was with Elie when Aimek woke up from his long sleep, feverish, lost, and disconnected from the time he used to live in.
Rikter’s first phrase was:
“I want to study your language!”
He visited Aimek often since then and learned his alien language with that fervent, angry, self-destructive perseverance you might expect from a madman repeatedly bashing his head against a stone wall. Rik clenched his fists and repeated the words after Aimek, hundreds, thousands of times if needed, his eyes burning with a strange, uncanny fire on his pale face.
Rikter had been fighting with the language and himself for a year and won. As to Aimek, he was glad to have another friend he could talk to.
Rikter’s appetite for stories was even bigger than Elie’s. He listened intently, catching up Aimek’s every word. The iceman didn’t quite understand the young savage’s keen interest in the things of the past but he came to trust him more and more and made good progress in learning the local “quacking” language as well.
“So you lived a long time ago when the Earth was different?” frowned Rikter.
“Yes,” Aimek smiled. “Your island was much more beautiful and warm than the rest of the world back then. There was summer all year round, in winter it rained instead of snowing, and the sea was so warm people swam in it like seals… Well, it seems your island remains the most pleasant place in the world even now. But now the icebergs melt here…”
“Do you know why they come?” Rikter frowned again. Aimek had always found the guy’s super serious attitude to everything rather funny.
“No,” the iceman replied. “But I’m going to find out. It’s worth knowing, even if I’m the last scientist on Earth”.
“It is impossible,” stated Rikter with calm confidence. “Sea is for seals. If people tried to swim in it they would freeze to death. You won’t get far”.
“I’m not going to swim all the way there,” Aimek laughed. “I’ll build a ship”.
“A ship?” Rikter brightened up suddenly. He didn’t know the word.
“Yes. It’s for travelling the sea without having to swim,” explained Aimek. “Your people don’t know such a thing… Listen, Rikter, I don’t think I’ll be able to build it alone. Will you help me?”
“Yes!” he answered, resolute and stubborn, as always. “I want to know how to build ships!”
Aimek had to hold a long, unpleasantly curious gaze Rikter gave him then. It felt like meeting the eyes of a predator and gave the iceman creeps. Again, he wondered: how much time had passed, and what had hardened people so, why were they so terse when they spoke, and why did their words remind him of seagull screams… Why the ice… well, maybe the answer was in the ice…
“Come tomorrow, Rikter,” Aimek drooped under the young man’s gaze. “We’ll start building a ship”.
The guy left without saying goodbye. People don’t say goodbye anymore. They don’t even have a word for it in their language. As well as for greeting…
“Hi, Aimek!” he heard a clear, sweet voice.
Elie. She had been learning his language as well, but, unlike Rikter, treated the process as a game instead of an ordeal. She still pronounced certain words wrong sometimes, but the iceman enjoyed every conversation with her nonetheless.
“Hi, Elie, my dear!” he replied with the sincerest joy and hugged her. “Did I tell you what your blue eyes remind me of? The sea…”
“The sea is grey where it’s shallow and black where it’s deep,” she shrugged doubtfully.
“Well, in my time it was blue…”
White as the coldest snow, slender and smart, with long hair often covered in frost, she was so beautiful to Aimek, so dear. She seemed to shine, against all the odds, in the middle of the crippled world of dark sea and cloudy sky.
“I am so happy… that… because… there is you,” was Aimek’s best attempt at expressing his feeling in her quacking seagull language.
Elie laughed, covering her mouth with her hand, then ruffled the iceman’s hair, a long unbraided mane spread over his broad shoulders.
“Tell me about the blue sea!” she demanded with child-like simplicity. Aimek obeyed.
He was shaking inside as he spoke. When did he become like this? He didn’t remember. It’s easier to recall the first moment of dawn than the birth of love. And of love he wanted to tell her so much! In Elie’s native seagull language, in a way that wouldn’t make her laugh.
Will he even dare to try? Here, he is an alien. What if he says or does something wrong? What if she rejects him? What then?
“...Rikter, tell me about your wedding rituals,” he asked his young friend once.
Rikter frowned, his black thick brows knitting into a scowl, and gave Aimek a suspicious look but didn’t answer.
They were working on the ship, and an awkward question was forgotten soon. Aimek was glad about that, because, obviously, he had asked something indecent.
Rikter could work hard for a long time showing no sign of fatigue, frail as he seemed to the man of the past. Aimek envied his friend’s tremendous willpower and endurance and wondered where the little guy took all his strength from. The iceman himself couldn’t stay long in the icy wind and had to take lots of breaks from work to retreat to his cave and get warm. And when he did, Rikter worked alone. Yes, the savage guy learned very fast.
“Tell me, Aimek, back in your time, did all people could be frozen into the ice and then brought back to life again? Or was it only you?”
Rikter spoke the old language fluently now and was quite able to express complex thoughts in it. Some questions he asked were like well-aimed shots, as if he tested some hypothesis of his own and Aimek was a test subject.
“It’s a long story, Rik,” Aimek tried to evade the question, but his friend’s stern gaze didn’t allow him that. “All right, all right,” he gave up. “I came to see a glacier with my friends. It was a hike for them, and a little private expedition for me. I needed a few samples of the ice from this area. We suffered from cold there even though we were well equipped for the journey. But the natives, they were a lot like your people. I mean, they wore light clothes and didn’t mind the cold at all. I befriended them and asked for their secret. They gave me some purple moss they used to add to their every meal, and it helped. I chewed it most of the time then and didn’t feel cold anymore. I guess I consumed so much it helped me survive the freezing. And then…”
“You melted the ice shard from the inside,” said Rikter. “You were feverish, burning all over”.
“Yes,” Aimek sighed. “It could’ve been a great scientific breakthrough in my time. And now… I doubt there are any scientists left in the world at all”.
Rikter made no comment, occupied with his own thoughts as he sewed seal skins together for the ship’s sails.
Building a ship is hard work. Aimek was right that he wouldn’t make it alone, without Rikter. Now, when the ship had been finished and named - “Swift Seagull” was written on her side in the old world’s language - it was the time to test it. Elie wanted to sail with the men, but Aimek didn’t let her.
“I don’t know whether Seagull is safe now,” he said, tenderly. “But when she is, I’ll take you with me where the icebergs come from. There we will learn all the secrets the world holds for us. I promise”.
Elie gave Aimek a hug and kissed him on the forehead. Rikter, who happened to stand not far away from them, silently clenched his fists and made a deep breath. A minute later he seemed perfectly calm again, helping Aimek with launching the ship.
“Swift Seagull” turned out to be far from perfect. Very far. No wonder: it was the first real ship Aimek had ever built. He had always been a fan of everything ship-related and knew a good deal about that but the ships he used to build before were small models supposed to decorate your home and surprise your guests but never go anywhere near water. Building a real, seaworthy ship was a very different thing.
The iceman didn’t give up, though. Months of trial and error, launches and repairs were exhausting for both him and his friend, but they made progress.
Rikter practically lived in the little dock they built under the cliff and worked harder than ever. He had learned so much since the day he appeared on the doorstep of Aimek’s home! It gave the iceman hope. He dreamed of the day when he returned here after his journey to see dozens of little ships sailing on the sea, exploring, fishing, moving passengers between the islands. It would give local people a new, better life, a hope, a future.
But that was up to Rikter. Aimek spoke to the guy about that, and he agreed. As to the iceman himself, he was going to find out the fate of the world he knew and he planned to take Elie with him.
Soon. Very soon…
Kalare was blind. In the semi-darkness of the cave, her motionless eyes shimmered bleakly, milky white, like shards of ice in the moonlight.
The old woman had a keen hearing which developed as compensation for her blindness. Thousands of subtle sounds filled the dark world she lived in. Right now, where a normal person wouldn’t hear a thing through the noise of the waves, she heard little hands сlapping on the icy walls of a cliff she lived on, and a sound of light steps on the stony path. Those were the sounds of familiar hands and feet, her beloved granddaughter’s. Elie was coming to visit her.
“Grandma! I brought you some berries!” the girl announced happily. “Aimek calls them rubinika. Because they’re as red as rubies. And rubies are gems. And gems are...”
Kalare held out her marble white, wiry hand, slightly shaking, and accepted her granddaughter’s gift: a handful of tiny red spheres. They smelled good but tasted sour. Kalare ate them all savouring each one.
“Rubinika!” she gave a short laugh. “Another strange word. You use them a lot now, my girl...” Kalare squinted her eyes, her voice changed: “Why do you keep learning that ancient language? It’s been dead for ages. Perhaps because it’s no use in the world where you have to shout to be heard over the roar of the dying ice”.
“But it’s beautiful, this dead language, when Aimek speaks it,” Elie blushed. “And he told me so much! I translated his tales to you, remember? About the blue sea, the hot summers, and the people of old. And the ship! I wish you could see “Swift Seagull” sail, catch the wind, carry people from island to island. It feels like you can fly!”
“I am blind, but I see many things, Elie,” Kalare signed, “Come, sit beside me… You fell in love with the iceman, right? Don’t answer if you don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. If there is light in my dark world, it comes from you, my dear. You are like a burning little sun before my blind eyes”.
The old woman held out her hand and touched Elie’s face gently.
“My dear,” she said. “I see a threat, as dark as a storm cloud, hanging over your man. A hateful evil spirit is prowling about seeking his death…”
“No! Why?! He is a kind guy, he’s never harmed anyone!”
“Don’t cry, Elie. Every trouble can be helped. Just listen to me and do as I say…”
Kalare stood up, rattled the dishes on the shelf searching for something for a while, and then returned to Elie with a tiny leather bag.
“Take this. Purple dust, that’s what must be inside. Yes, purple, if my memory still serves me well… If you want to save your Aimek, make sure he eats a pinch of this dust every day without knowing it. It won’t save him from his enemy’s hatred, but it will save him from death”.
“Grandmother…” Elie wiped her tears. “What is this?”
“Purple dust is a secret we pass down from grandmother to granddaughter in our family. My grandmother said it came with wandering ice. Just like your man did. Sometimes icebergs bring strange gifts, indeed. Hundreds of years ago they brought a beautiful purple plant frozen in an ice shard. Once on the shore, it burned through the ice and turned into dust. That dust we’ve been keeping since then. Maybe it remembers the time when the sea was blue and people spoke the strange language you learn. It is a remnant of a world now gone. It will save your man”.
Aimek was alone in his workshop when Elie came by. He greeted the girl with a happy smile and was about to give her a hug but she swiftly slipped out from under his arms.
“Here, take this,” she said handing him a small leaf-wrapped bundle that smelled of something sweet and spicy.
“What’s this?” wondered Aimek.
“Candy. Just like the ones from your time. At least I hope so,” said Elie, cheerfully. “I gathered sweet roots and mixed them with the sweetest berries and herbs. Then I boiled their juice until all the water was gone and melted what was left in the clay cups on hot rocks,” she explained, clearly proud of herself. “Try them. You’ll see Rikter is not the only jack-of-all-trades around!”
Aimek took a bite. The taste was slightly sweet and fruity, with an unusual bitter note, but it definitely was caramel.
“Wow! Isn’t this magic!” he praised the girl. “They’re just like I remember them! May I have another one?”
“You can have only one per day, no more,” said Elie. “Sweet roots can be bad for you if you eat too much. Don’t worry, I’ll bring you more tomorrow.”
With this, she ran away before Aimek could object. He was alone in his little workshop again. The memories of the past filling his mind were as bitter and the dreams of the future were as sweet as the taste of the new world’s caramel.
Preparing the supplies for the journey took them a week. Aimek noticed that working outdoors wasn’t so hard for him now, as if he got used to the cold, just like the natives. A day outside, knee-deep in cold water? Not a problem anymore! He couldn’t help being proud of that.
Rikter mostly kept to himself now. When he did ask something it was always a well-aimed question.
“How did you end up in that ice shard, Aimek?”
“I fell through the ice,” Aimek shrugged, “and there was water…”
“You’d just drown this way,” Rikter interrupted the iceman, his hands defiantly crossed on his chest.
“I guess the purple moss the natives gave me had something to do with this, I have no other explanation… As soon as I fell in the cold water I lost consciousness. Everything went cold and dark. I don’t remember anything else”.
Rikter just gave Aimek a solemn nod, picked up his spear, and went looking for the seals to hunt.
The day of departure was close. It was the third time Aimek had ever seen the wandering ice clear the horizon. All he needed now to begin the journey was good weather. With the first sunny day the world will open before him and nothing will keep him on this cold shores then. There will be secrets to uncover, truth to find, questions to answer. Finally, he will learn the fate of the world he once knew.
...He woke up with a start, somebody was shaking him violently. Rikter. The night was pitch black. The stars shone bleakly through the open mouth of the cave.
“Get up, Aimek!” Rikter almost roared. Aimek had never seen him being so emotional before. “Elie’s in danger! We’ve got to help! Hurry!”
He had no time to wake up properly. He grabbed his spear and ran out of the cave in the light clothes he slept in. Rikter was ahead of him, somewhere in the dark. Ice and snow hurt Aimek’s bare feet as he ran but he didn’t care. He flew forward, mad with fear, without actually knowing where he was running to.
Rikter called him from the darkness ahead. Aimek caught up with him at the edge of the cliff, the one from which three years ago Elie saw the ice shard with a sleeping human inside.
“She’s down there! Help me get her up!” Rikter shouted pointing to the darkness-filled abyss below. “Hurry!”
“Right here! Look!”
Aimek leaned over the edge, above the stormy sea that flooded the beach overnight. He couldn’t see anything. And even if he could, he would never be able to climb those rocky walls like the ones who played there as kids did.
Something was wrong, but the fear of losing his beloved didn’t allow Aimek to think clearly. He stepped on the slippery stones - or maybe someone pushed him, he wasn’t sure - and fell, right into the dark, cold waves that drain warmth and life from human body in minutes. His scream got lost in the roar of the sea.
Rikter sighed and crossed his hands on his chest as he raised his eyes to the sky.
“That purple moss of yours doesn’t grow here, Aimek,” he said sternly. “You should’ve died hundreds of years ago, by all laws of nature and justice. You had no right to meddle in our age’s fate, in my and Elie’s life!” He fell silent, his gaze fixed upon the constantly moving dark waves. The flame of triumph had suddenly died in this chest and now sadness, as cold as sea water, was filling it as swiftly. “I am sorry, my teacher, my friend. I did what I had to. You lingered too long among the living… I… I will keep my promise about the ships”.
With this, Rikter turned his back to the sea and walked away.
The morning came, damp and cold.
“Elie… I came to tell you…” Rikter, a guy who could climb any cliff without missing a beat, tripped over the threshold as he said that.
“What happened, Rik?” Elie jumped out of the bench she slept on. Half-dressed, her hair unbraided, she looked like a helpless baby bird. She shook Rikter by the shoulder, demanding: “Tell me, now!”
“Aimek… he is dead…”
The sea had washed the body ashore. Calm and quiet after the storm, it touched the motionless man gently with its dark waves.
The iceman’s skin was as white as snow, drained of life completely. Beside him, hungry birds bobbed on the waves, preening their feathers and bickering, but for some reason not daring to approach the food yet.
Elie wept inconsolably, her face hidden in Aimek’s wet hair; Rikter stood nearby, silent. Remorse, late and bitter, was tearing his heart apart.
“Elie, listen,” he said in a whisper, his voice caught in his throat. “It’s not right that he is there, in the water… and you are cold, too… Let me move him away from the sea”.
Elie fell silent. She no longer cried, just sobbed quietly, tears rolling down her cheeks. She stood up and made a few steps towards the dry sand.
Hauling a lifeless body was no easy task for a scrawny guy like Rikter. Sometimes waves helped, sometimes they tried to pull his burden back to the sea. The birds watched, their beady eyes unblinking. Ruffled figures appeared on the cliff: Aimek’s tribe came to mourn him.
One by one people descended to the beach. Even old Kalare came: one of her grandsons carried her down the cliff on his back. Out of her cave, in the sun, she looked even older than she was, as bleak as last year’s grass, as crooked as a dry branch. Kalare walked slowly, carefully putting one foot in front of the other, leaning on a cane to keep balance. She approached Elie. Old woman’s blind eyes gilded by the young sun met the girl’s.
“The birds sound so restless!” she said, listening. “They are hungry, but no bird will touch living flesh… How come the birds are more observant than you?”
“He’s alive?!” Elie beamed; Rikter sighed.
A gentle smile touched Kalare’s lips.
“Patience, my girl… Had he eaten more purple dust, he’d sleep for years. But since he hadn’t, he should wake up soon”.
“Aimek, wake up…”
It feels so good to wake up in the arms of your beloved. Even if these arms are white and cold because of the sea wind and you lie on the wet sand covered in crushed ice.
Aimek had a fever and was shaking badly. As soon as his blood began to circulate properly again, numerous purple bruises appeared on his body where sea hit him against the rocks. Nevertheless, he smiled…
Having recovered his strength enough, the iceman slowly got up on his feet, with Rikter’s help. Aimek’s tribe couldn’t believe their eyes and rejoiced at the miracle, Elie cried at her beloved’s chest. People asked questions, loudly and incessantly, their voices akin to cliff birds’: “What happened? How did you survive, Aimek?”
“What happened yesterday?” Elie asked raising her teary eyes at him, eyes as blue as the ancient sea…
Aimek looked at her, then at Rikter… At his friend and apprentice he looked intently, for a long time… There was neither hate nor usual sternness in the young man’s eyes now, only pain.
“I don’t remember,” Aimek said to everyone, as loud as he could. “I must've hit my head on some rock when I fell. I have no idea how all this happened”.
Rikter’s heart sank when he realized: Aimek does remember. And he forgives him.
It hurt, badly, for days and days. It burned in Rikter’s chest like a glowing ember or a little island of purple moss would. Some things you can never forget, but you can learn from them, and Rikter was very good at learning.
He let Elie and Aimek go on their journey with a blessing. He taught his people to build ships. He was happy, in a way.
But the far, unknown horizon called to him every time the wandering ice died and cleared it to the view. Then Rikter used to sit on the lonely cold cliff for hours thinking of the fate of Aimek and Elie. What did they see? What secrets did they find? Where are they now and why didn’t they return?
And always - why does the wandering ice come...