There is no peace out here on the ice. No melody of silence. The floe always groaning. Feel it underfoot, in your ribs. Though you can’t see, what we stand on is halving and hoaring. And god, the seals bark, the pups and harps most, grinding together in flopping disgrace. Those flippers the delicacy we crave. You have to pull not yank, squeeze them under boots, raise your bat and swoile them before they look up. Before you catch their babbie’s eye and see it’s right: there’s no peace out here on the ice—nor neither, my friend, within you.
Seal oil lights our way over sidesticks down gangplanks,
pitching on ice to footfrost and the colony of furs
This whiteness among the periwort, kelp gulls circling Orion.
We leave the Harmony hoaring and pull our gear
to land, the cacophony of the colony a blow to the head
like the back of a hand. We pull fur-skins over our ears,
block out their calling, to be not lulled by the harping chaos
of South Georgia Island. The myths of the seal song
are loud and they’re dry, they’re octariid and pinniped
the botanist says. It means nothing to us
this clan and this reckoning, means nothing to us bar an arduous trip
for the batters of New Brunswick and Halifax and Cape Cod.
From all the Americas we come gathered here
Under captain Thomas Ray, his ship, this sealing way.
Come down the Atlantic spread, past the Desolates and the French,
through Sealers Passage the short cut rent,
these British Isles underneath the world, to fish with rich pickings for the seal.
The fur pups keep barking and the harps they harp back
And we sing as we bang them, we sing with our bats
And the hairgrass shivers in the winds at our backs.
Come home to my captain, my sweetheart, my fur
Yes come to my sweetheart, my boy
For your pelt and your oil I’ll take you my boy
For your eyes and your fur you’ll come home.
The true seals are earless, they clap and they grunt
We swoile them true, yes we bang them to hell
For their oil and their sealskin, black as moon Lilith
As it hangs over Weddell, as she musters the storm.
The true seals are Weddell’s, our captain has for bedding
while the men fight for the tickets and the carrion berth.
Where we whistle and whittle, douse scurvy in kava
and sing songs to our true loves we last saw at harbour,
sing songs of the earth, of soil, sticky ice, this watery grave
the seals would have for us, would drag us back into her neth’ring embrace.
And old Thom, Cap’ Ray, he brought a stringed harp.
He says we aren’t sailors all, nor sealers at all, but sirens
The only batch of men he’s had who know the sealer song
The only men who can sing the seal to her death,
This is why God, says Thom, has the harp abandon her pup
To lead them not into temptation,
To lead them not never to us.
Both we learnt the songs all, the desolation, the fugue,
That the pups are still singing for their mackerel and cod
So we learn the singsong of the pup bark and soothe
Their young hearts, lull them with our roughness
To our feet and hammer them with our clades.
And we boil their blubber and render their fat like the chords
Of Thom’s harp from minor seconds to E flat, so
Says Thomas, our captain, our Makar, balladeer,
That we harmonize, we laddies, with the blubberous catch.
And that’s how we catch them, they think they are us.
They hear us from afar, hear us with their heads under
The pups in the water pull themselves back up
We drive them into the cove, and to the point.
That season of 1820 was the finest we’d sailed, the fur seals
The true seals, the elephants and bulls,
Among them we stood and we’d steal eggs from the sheathbills’
Have them for breakfast, soak them in seal oil,
The black milk of daybreak, the eggs whiter than glue,
And we’d be fit to our black bellies to go swoiling that day, yes
We’d be fat to go sing to the endless ice blue.
Those who’ve been before know it works best,
When we sing the seal song, the song the pups like,
And come rest at your feet, list to your lullaby
And you bang them hard before they begin singing right back.
Oh Maisie, it’s seven months till we sail, two more on from that
Until I put round your shoulders this pelt of gold and black
This fur of my singing, this work of ice voice
The smell of the lullaby, my soul sung out hoarse.
We tie the pelts to our belts with rope made of jute
Hang the flippers on necklaces around our cursed necks
And the wicks of our torches we dip deep in crime
Their oil lights us home to the masts of the Harmony, again.
‘Dig,’ says John. So we dig.
We dig on our knees with trowels and hand-forks, dig carefully fearing skewering, quickly for being bitten. This sett is active, although we’ve kept that from the farmers and their marksmen. On my right the Lynher is full, thrashing, and rising. White tips where the river smashes into rocks and snaps off branches. A dog in there would… It’ll break its banks any minute, time only to work with the inhabited. The rain helter-skelter and everything dreich. Without appeasement. The soil is black lumpen, cake batter running back down the hole as quickly as we swing it into buckets.
We aren’t getting anywhere. They’re going to drown.
‘We’re not going to reach them.’
‘Just dig,’ says Carole, scraping away. We are penitent gardeners, knee-deep in failed salvation. I pull at the soil with my hands. Faster, widening.
‘Don’t lean in,’ shouts John, over the Lynher. ‘You’ll collapse the entrance.’
I place a hand on the oak burl, reach as far as I can. John grabs my legs, stops me slipping in, although rather slip than not. Let me dive into their den, bedding and bracken, get bitten, pull them out by their teeth in my skin.
‘I can see the nest,’ I shout. And rummage, and stop, and turn. ‘It’s empty.’
Just then we hear scurry in the grass around the oak, a rush above the river. A family of five, six, seven, peek their striped noses up sniffing us close, then running, and I cry to see boar, sow and cubs up the bank through pasture, towards Callington, higher ground.
We watch them shamble, disappear into a hedge.
John and Carole laughing pulling me out of the mud, helping me stand.
‘A back door,’ says John. ‘Already dug. The wily buggers.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Lockwood is a writer, runner and academic living in Newcastle. He writes about human-animal relationships, animal protection, running, emotions and other stuff. He is a Winston Churchill Fellow for 2014.