The great white bear lifted her head, narrowing her eyes against the driving Arctic snow. She looked back along the rubble ice to the cub that followed her, waiting for him in the white-on-white landscape.
All around her the ice of Victoria Strait groaned as it moved, compressed by the pressure that flooded from the Beaufort Sea, forcing its way through Melville Sound toward the Northwest Passage.
It was desperately cold. Colder, certainly, than a man could tolerate for long. But the bear did not register the temperature, padded as she was by four inches of fat and insulating fur. She was in her country, her kingdom, impervious to any law but her own.
The Greeks called this place Arktikos, the country of the great bear. From November to February it kept the long watches of the world's night; but in the spring it was more alive than any other country.
Three million fulmars, kittiwakes, murres, and guillemots fed in Lancaster Sound in the summer; over a quarter of a million harp, bearded, and ringed seals. In May and June ten million dovekies, with their stocky little black-and-white bodies, passed over Devon Island. And above them all, clearly bright in winter, shone Polaris, the yellowish star that never seemed to move, with the lesser stars of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, circulating around it. Most beautiful of all were the lights--lights that the Inuit said were the torches held by the dead to help the living hunt--the aurora borealis, whose pale green and rose-colored flags streamed and undulated across the skies.
The polar bear had mated on the ice floes of Peel Sound last May. She had been an exceptional and solitary traveler, even among her own long-ranging kind. Swimming all that season, rarely resting on the ice, she had crossed the Arctic Circle opposite Repulse and was spotted, though not tagged, by a marine mammal research team, as she crossed the old whaling routes, in March. On most days she could swim fifty miles without a rest, churning through the checkered ice at six miles an hour.
In December she had given birth for the first time, in a snow den deep underground.
Her single male cub had arrived complaining, mewling, flexing his feet against her within minutes. He weighed less than a pound at birth and fitted neatly into her curled paw; but by April he had grown to twenty-six pounds, and she had broken her drowsy sleep and pulled down the door of the den to the outside world.
She came out onto the snow, thin from her prolonged starvation, her cub following her. At first, she simply sat contentedly in the sun at the den's entrance, closing her eyes against the light. Even then she had no desire to eat, but she would occasionally roll backward to let her son feed, while she looked up at the endless wide sky. Sometimes, the cub would lie on her stomach, and she would rock him in her forelegs, just like a human mother rocking her baby in her arms.
But it was August now, and the light was beginning to change. And she felt--had felt for days--that the angle of the light was subtly wrong. She had, perhaps, tracked too far before denning; perhaps she was too far west. The internal mapping that ought not to fail her seemed to have done so, and in the first spell of real cold now, she stood indecisively on the freezing floe.
There was something strange here.
She felt a thread of danger--just a beat in the blood, a message transmitted in nerve impulses and scent. She wanted to turn back, to trek south, where her own kind was concentrated--and it was starting to be a command, this low-key tremor in her consciousness. But louder still was the knowledge that the cub was sick--too sick to travel far. Still watching him now, she saw him drop to the ground, roll over, and lie passively in the snow.
The polar bear raised herself up on her hind legs and, after pausing only for a second, slammed her full nine-hundred-pound body weight down. If the same mammal tracking team that had recorded her last year had seen her now, they would have been puzzled at this out-of-place behavior. With such force she was able to break through into seal dens, stealing the pups before they had ever seen the light, or break through ice to make swimming holes. But neither purpose was fulfilled here, in the whiteout of the storm.
Copyright 2001, Elizabeth McGregor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher - Dutton Books.
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