You once read, in a psychology journal you found in a dentist’s waiting room, that two people who have loved each other since age five or younger will instinctively believe that they are blood siblings. When, at seventeen, you began to dress like Solomon—to take his sweatshirts home, to wear circular wire-frame glasses identical to his except in their prescription—you despised yourself for it. Although you have no biological relation to Solomon, this mimicry red-flagged incest in a visceral way. You had been neighbors since you floated in utero. All your lives, you lived next door to each other in your little town near Anchorage. Together, you raised bugs and frogs in air-holed mason jars in Solomon’s bedroom and memorized riddles and Grimm’s fairytales to tell each other on tedious fishing trips with your parents. In middle school, you alternated first and second place medals at science fairs in cold gray gymnasiums across Alaska.
Your parents and his hinted cheekily that you and he would one day tie the knot. But as neo-latchkey children, denizens of late-night fast-food joints, the failing arcade, and the reedy backwoods, co-workers at Shoppers Drug Mart, you spent much more time together than they realized; those jokes would sicken them if they understood how sibling-like you’d rendered yourselves.
There was no exact moment when you lost this siblinghood, but it does hit like a loss every time you think of it. It started with dreams where you’d go phantasmal and walk right into his body and never come out again. Then you’d stare too long at the peach fuzz on the back of his neck. In his hallway, comparing the size of your feet to the size of his shoes. His lemon-thyme cologne, your neck. All these mistakes piling up until you started to make him laugh on purpose—that uncontrollable ten-minute laugh he had—just to hear it. By then it was too late. You’d touch his hand and want more than his hand, when just the hand used to be enough.
Mallory and Solomon, Solomon and Mallory. One Sunday at the end of the summer after twelfth grade, you fake flu to give yourself space to consider the love conundrum, tell him you can’t hang out. You watch Planet Earth documentaries from morning until after midnight and think about him, but obviously you do—he isn’t there. The next day you swim with him at the winter-frigid quarry and think about him, but obviously you do. He’s there. Hair wet-darkened and bodies submerged, from above you would look like twins.
You slide out of the water together and he calls you on your copycat game: “I’ve noticed you’ve been dressing like me, Mal.” He’s started using words such as “he” and “him” and “his” to refer to you, and calling you Mal. You didn’t even have to ask, just had to refer to yourself as a boy a few times and he caught on. He’s the only person who calls you by the right words—the only person you talk to about this. He towels off and his hair sticks out in twists.
You take the towel from him. “Well, better you than some stranger. Imitation is flattery, role models as real models. Et cetera.”
He shuts his eyes and takes a long breath. “I have something to ask you.”
Your heart feels like a guppy out of water.
He asks you to go north with him to dive for mammoth skeletons, the last thing you would have expected. What a fairytale of a request. Mammoth tusks are a legal form of ivory; these skeletons litter the ocean floor up there, remnants of glaciers. There’s real money in it, he says. Men—and it is mostly men—go north to freelance for a few months at a time, all of them together like pack animals, then sell their ivory to artisans and private collectors, split the profits from their months on the tundra, with a percentage going to cover their food and lodging. It’s a job you’ve heard of peripherally, but have never considered for yourself. Solomon’s a choose-your-own-adventure of a person; this is very much the sort of niche venture he’d discover. Odds are, he hopes this job together will return you to the static, platonic friendship you had before, the uncomplicated one without tense silences and matching clothes. You want the opposite, but Solomon has asked something of you, and you can’t say no to Solomon. Maybe if you go, you’ll learn how.
Under a moon-colored sun, Solomon’s secondhand forest-green Wrangler bites across tundra: grasslands, then black-and-green swamps, Aurora Borealis by way of tar sands. Mountains hunch like ankylosaurus carcasses, ribbed vulgarly with snow, ridged with pines. Nausea forces you to stare out the window. The car’s motion overwhelms your stomach. You filled out the job application forms as male, and though this self-assessment still strikes you as true it feels eerie to admit.
“There used to be dinosaurs up here,” says Solomon, fingers tapping arpeggios on the steering wheel. His body seems to contain a musicality specific to him—the way he moves, the way he breathes. “Arctic tyrannosaurs, even. They were smaller than the Rex, but barely.”
You suck the gap between your front teeth, give Solomon a glance and look back out the window. “And mammoths.”
You’ve done your research on mammoths. You’ve read about the way that mammoth tusks spiral inside with age rings, like trees—accurate down to the season, with dark rings for summers; you know the last mammoths, a pitiful herd, went extinct on Wrangel Island. You tell him, “Ten years ago, reindeer breeders in Russia found this perfect mammoth body preserved in ice. Hair and flesh still intact. A baby girl—they named her Lyuba. Loo-ba. Died 45,000 years ago. Give or take.”
“Stuck there all that time? How claustrophobic.” Solomon says. “Wonder what mammoth meat tastes like. Probably thick steak.” Sometimes he talks this way, about things he thinks are manly, even dropping the tenor of his voice, as if he wants to remind you that you are boys together, just friends. Still, other times—like now—you catch him glancing at you through his eyelashes, taking in your whole body as if discovering a new constellation. Never can tell, with Solomon—though, maybe that’s what you love about him.
The coast horizons in front of you: white and blue, clouds and icebergs and ocean. Solomon stops the truck. You both get out and slam the doors. Yellow grass leads down to rocks, and then water. A cabin squats at the border between grass and rock. Men in layered jackets with massive hoods mill outside like a pod of Unabombers. The air smells salty, arctic.
They call this place the bone slums. They call you runts. At a driftwood log out front of the cabin, a man with a flask, about fifty-five or sixty with trout-silver stubble over his jaw, introduces himself as Shua. His careful enunciation, eyes a laser shade of amber, and meticulous posture code him as either a shy grandfather or an elderly sociopath. You cough, deepen your voice as far as it will go and, for the first time, introduce yourself with your new name: Mal.
Shua stomps the charcoal off his boots and slaps his hands together, then tours you and Solomon through the bathrooms, the bunks, the shoreline. Waves teethe at the shore under a dark sky. Along the beach, two women and a man pass by in anoraks and rain boots. They have clipboards, vials. Including you and Solomon, nine men work here—stern, coarse men who earn their every moment. There are only two women, these oceanographers. They are sisters, and Aleut, and speak mostly to one another, though they have so far smiled at you more than anyone else here.
Shua takes you and Solomon back inside and leaves you in the mess hall. “You’ve missed dinner,” he says. “Eat tomorrow—breakfast’s at five-thirty. Now get on. Clean something before you sleep, why don’t you. Be more useful than you look.” He grips a mop off the wall and pushes it into your chest. His knuckles dig into your flesh for a second, and he gives you a perplexed look, pulls away quick and baffled. You recoil. Solomon grabs your elbow, takes the mop from you.
“I’ve got it,” you say.
Shua doesn’t acknowledge you when he leaves for the bunks. Once he’s gone, Solomon says, “You’re acting different around these guys.” Without waiting for you to answer, he strides through the swinging half-doors to the kitchen and returns with a bucket of soapy water. He thrusts the mop in, drips it, and swipes it over the floor.
You get a rag and scrub the tables. “I’m not being different. I’m not delicate.” You let yourself keep talking, because he won’t reply. “I said yes. I came with you.”
“Mal,” says Solomon, “he touched your chest.”
“He didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Only because he doesn’t know.”
“There’s nothing to know.”
Solomon balls his fist around the mop handle, leans on it. He grits and ungrits his teeth, making his jaw pop. “If he did… I don’t know. He might think of you in the wrong way. Who knows how he’d react.”
You can’t tell if he’s jealous or just fed up with you. Maybe both. “Coming here was your idea, Solomon.” You say this softly, and infuse your words with more fear than you intended to concede. This was his idea, his page in the choose-your-own-adventure, and you want to rise to it. You’re capable of watching your own back, and his. Of earning respect, safety, togetherness, even temporarily. He doesn’t seem to understand this.
“You’re acting different,” he says again. “You’ve been acting different.”
“It’s only six months,” you say. “Adventure is adventure because it’s temporary. Right?”
After you’ve finished in the mess hall, you head to the barracks. You and Solomon don’t share a bunk bed; instead, he has a place above an empty bed, and you bunk below another man. Solomon’s arm hangs off his mattress, and you watch it: a pendulum, the fingers strong, veins plump. He hypnotizes you to sleep.
Diving in iceberg melt does not lose its otherworldly charm over the next two weeks. You wake early and sleep late, numb to your own exhaustion. Between shallow dreams, you skim out of the bay into the open water in an aluminum skiff. Most days the ocean is a deceptively pretty aqua, but once underwater you grow frigid even through your dry suit. You and Solomon skiff together, speak to each other far more than to anyone else. Solomon stays in the boat while you dive, ready to pull you up by an infinite cord in case you need it, and then you switch places.
Under the surface, you find eerie, hyper-blue silence you didn’t know existed. The ocean itself is a whale, an animal with rocks for bones that has swallowed you. You are Pinocchio in an oxygen tank, a wooden boy attempting realness, Solomon your Gepetto above. You don’t find any tusks in the first two weeks. The tusk harvest might not come—this, the men bemoan over oats, beans, and venomous coffee in the mornings. Someone compares the crescent moon to a tusk one night, and everyone makes fun of him for it—even Solomon, who’d love to find a tusk as much as any man among you.
On land, in the mornings and evenings, you return to existence. You and Solomon are not much like the other men. The guy who sleeps in the bunk above you, a sharp-bodied, pockmarked young man named Ando, says as much: “Jeez, you two stand out like dog pricks.” After dinner, they outdrink you, throw half-empty cans into the fire. By the third night Solomon no longer cares to keep up, and instead sips a single can. You try harder, seeing Solomon slow, and the men egg you on, pouring liquor down your throat by the end of the night. The next morning you throw up for an hour before Solomon wakes, but he finds you in the bathroom. He brings you a mug of coffee and rubs the back of your neck and you get feverous chills, but the whole time he seems quietly furious. “Stop performing,” he says. You tell him you aren’t. Still, from then on you both take only water in thermoses, sitting on the farthest driftwood from the flames or, when at the ocean’s edge, farthest from the waterline. Even the women outdrink you.
Now that you and Solomon spend every night sitting apart from the other men, on your own side of the fire, you’ve little to say. You offer up facts, but he knows them all. You share the same brain database. If Solomon speaks, it’s only about whatever copper bangle or orca bone you found on the ocean floor that day.
Many topics you feel you should all talk about here and never do. You should talk about women—women by name, not by shape and favor and movement, which come up enough. No man mentions the Indigenous land your site stands on, nor the community nearby, nor how some of your men probably come from this community while others do not. At the beginning, sometimes, the group discusses mothers, and families, until Shua says his mother died caribou hunting when he was four, gives no more information than this. Other men allude to similar stories. Then, no more discussion of mothers. Here, you can’t acknowledge God, gods, the idea of someday, the idea of mistake.
Ando says he bit his own tongue in half getting pushed off a tire swing in fourth grade, says talking still hurts him down to the soul. It’s the most you’ve heard him say. The men play cards and sing drinking songs you don’t know the lyrics to. A fat-faced, red-haired man named Norman curls logs like dumbbells. Three or four times, you sacrifice a childhood story on a pillar of hostile silence. Sometimes the story is about Solomon, but he doesn’t react to it, makes as if you’re lying or exaggerating the extent of your friendship. Yet on the walk back to the bunks, he hangs back with you, your fingertips brushing, and you wonder if he feels as if his stomach, too, is full of embers.
You are too small, both of you, but Solomon more so, now. You’ve begun to fill out your coats better than Solomon does his. Physical labor has broadened your shoulders, thickened your neck—you wouldn’t even wear scarves anymore if not for your lack of Adam’s apple. Solomon has less appetite and gets skinnier as the weeks pass. He can’t pull his own weight the way everyone expects, in chores or in anything; you can tell, from the way he shrugs off your concern, that this bothers him. He gets asthma attacks when stoking the fire. He wakes up with night terrors, won’t let you talk him down from them anymore, says he’s fine. It’s easier, maybe, for both of you to distance from one another, because then at least you only have your own shortcomings to answer for.
One night, Shua strides from the woods onto the shoreline, where the men crouch skipping shale over the water, and brandishes a silver rabbit impaled on a buck knife. “Baby bigfoot for dinner,” he says, monotone, an order. Blood spatters the beach rocks. Ando takes the rabbit, almost fondling it, pulls out a knife for skinning. The men walk up the beach to the fire pit where you first met them.
You and Solomon watch this from the grass by the Wrangler, where you’ve taken to spending the scarce free time you have. You hike your jacket to your ears, dig your boot into the ground, but it’s still too frozen to burrow into. You want Solomon to make a move, but you aren’t sure what that means. To either find a tusk or work better than he does or work harder at the very least—or to take you somehow, to touch you differently than he ever has. This last is your fault, not worth mentioning, not fair to begrudge him for, but it feels as if he’s already rejected you by not doing it yet.
“They think we’re weak,” you tell him.
“They think you’re weak,” you say. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“No, since I’m not.” Solomon’s grabs your forearm and twists it one way with one hand, the other way with the other hand. You start, but the move is as old as childhood. Through your coat it doesn’t burn, and you wriggle out, try to catch his head in your armpit. He grabs for your glasses. You grab for his. He laughs, a rough, adolescent sound, the first laugh you’ve heard from him in weeks. You duck him, sprint for the beach, and stop: the men are staring at you. Solomon crashes into you, then stills when he sees the others. How they stand with their heads tilted back, throats taut, mouths flat. Shua is stern, placid, but Ando gestures with the hunting knife for you to go to them.
You go first, Solomon lagging. As you approach, Ando pulls his upper lip back; it forms a ferocious, beautiful arc over his teeth. Absentmindedly he shucks at the rabbit with his knife, shaving off bone flecks.
Norman holds an iron pan over the fire, full of potatoes and onions hashed in grease. He gives you an uncomfortable smile.
“Keep hanging back and I’ll suspect something,” says Shua in a soft-pawed voice. “You don’t want us to suspect something.” He is almost good-natured, almost paternal.
“No, sir,” says Solomon, cheeks reddened.
Ando snorts. Shua bites a birch bark strip held between his thumb and forefinger.
You and Solomon stop at the edge of their group. “What kind of something?” you say.
“What?” says Ando.
You stare at him. “You said you’d suspect something, but we only mind our business—that’s all we do,” you say.
Ando knifes a long whip of skin off the rabbit. He watches you with the same intensity he should focus on the catch.
“You runts don’t trust us? Over there on your own all the time?” Shua says. “That’s all we mean. City boys—so skittish.”
You and Solomon share a log. Shua forces plates of dried halibut into your laps. As he carves the rabbit, Ando moves around the fire in a half-crouch, goblin-like. Only now, the sky tilts toward night. One of the tall men you’ve hardly spoken to returns from pissing in the woods and wedges between you and Solomon. Over his large body, you look at each other instinctively. Wide-eyed, Solomon seems anxious to be without you, but perhaps only because you are stronger; here, you have switched places, and now it is you who protects him. Maybe this humiliates him, but maybe it might also make him feel something new for you. Around you, men murmur so low you can’t hear over the fire’s sharp borborygmi.
When Ando gets to you, he pauses, cups the rabbit by the belly and tips it toward you. Pulse in your knuckles, you hold out a hand, unsure if he wants you to take the meat from him. Ando’s eyes look tarmac-black in this light, his face narrow and hungry. Solomon reaches over the man between you to grip your knee, and your heart pounds, but Ando knocks his hand away. You know how you and Solomon must seem: soft, strange, two boys hiding a secret between them.
Ando squeezes the knife. You flinch. He runs the blade across the rabbit’s body and flicks his wrist so the blood spatters your face and chest. His knife stops, steady in his fist, about four inches from your nose. You wipe blood off your face with a finger and lick it, then lick your lips, too, taste blood and metal and fear. Solomon exhales fright. Ando laughs, his face expectant and almost invisible; his back is to the firelight.
Then you laugh, too, and push Ando’s hand away—he retracts the blade from your face but keeps laughing. The other men join in. Solomon allows himself a tremulous breath, shoots you a jealous look. It’s such a reversal—Solomon jealous of you for a change. This might be what you’ve wanted this whole time. Now that you have it, it makes your stomach hurt.
“I’d better get more than that for dinner,” you say, voice too high. You cough, try again: “Shouldn’t you put that over the fire? We’ll have it for breakfast at your rate.”
Later that night, once you’ve all finished the meal, Solomon leaves for the barracks before you do, abruptly and without goodbye. You sit unspeaking and gnaw the last meat off a thighbone. Norman makes himself seem only an extension of the fire pit, constantly tending to it, barely a man. Shua reminds you of someone but you can never place who. Someone paternal. Someone you want to trust. Passing the dock on the way to the showers, your legs shake as if they are someone else’s. You have not blinked in weeks.
Shower logistics still prove challenging. Most nights, you go to the showers together and Solomon stands at the entryway between the sinks and toilets and the shower stalls to keep watch, his back to the showers. The heat doesn’t last long, even washing up as late as you do, once the men have gone to bed or while they’re still outside, but the hot water feels lovely as lava for a few minutes.
Tonight, Solomon waits in the entryway, tapping his foot on the tile. You pass him and undress in the corner, so he’d have to crane his neck to see you, and pile your clothing on a wooden bench. The chest bandages come off last, carefully; bruises and rashes lap your breasts. You pile the bandages under your cargo pants.
“Why did you stay tonight? Do you actually think you can win them over? Seriously? That’s playing their game, Mal. I thought you were smarter than that.”
“I wanted to watch the fire burn down. You don’t have to diagnose everything.” You wrap one of the ratty towels around yourself—it barely covers you—and enter a stall, pull the opaque plastic curtain behind you, and drape the towel over the tiled shower wall.
“I’m not trying to diagnose.”
“You came here to leave home, so leave it. Let’s change. Let’s both change. Do new things for the sake of doing them, you know? I’m going to turn on the water now.”
“Okay. I’m here.”
The water steams, turns your skin rosy. You arc your neck, collect pools in your collarbones. You massage your own arms, soap your back, and nail sweat and dirt off your skin. Rabbit blood washes down your face; monthly blood washes down your thighs, too. Scarlet forms galaxies in the drain and disappears. You cover your chest with one arm and imagine the twin swells there filled with cancers, tumors.
By the toilets, Solomon whistles a song his dad used to sing. He’s tried to teach you how to whistle, but you never learned. You think you can feel his gaze through the translucent shower curtain. You don’t look up to see if you’re right.
You have narrow thighs, teenage boy thighs, though slicked with blood. What you need between them is something to clutch, something to squeeze in your first. You only have softness; you yield. For a moment you consider Solomon, because he is not there—not there. He’s not with you. He could give you something to clutch. He could clutch you.
When you get out of the shower, your limbs beg for gravity, sleep.
“Mal, are you okay?” says Solomon, his back to you.
“Let it lie, Solomon. I’m fine.”
“You say that every time I ask.” His body is slender as a question.
“Yeah, because it’s true.” You dry off and dress quickly.
“I’m sorry I took us here,” he says.
Angling past him out of the shower room with your pants on but belt undone, you carry your shirt and coat in your arms. Bruises lap from underneath your bandages. Out here, you are exposed. The bathroom door could open at any time. The room is large and cold. He might see you as anyone: as a new version of yourself or a version of him. “I kind of like it here. I like who I am here,” you say. “Don’t you?”
“Put a shirt on,” Solomon says. “I don’t know why I thought coming here would make things easier.” You put on a shirt but feel naked still. He looks at you as if expecting you to move. To make a move, more like. An angry curiosity, his lips gone white. Making a move might be what you’ve been training yourself for since you came here. You’ve been drinking and hauling and mopping and scrubbing and searching for bones, a fragile balance that can’t last, all to bridge the two feet of bathroom floor between yourself and Solomon. But he doesn’t move, only looks, so you do the same.
The next morning, you and Solomon wake up later than usual, exhausted from the previous night, and skiff out with no breakfast. It’s almost June and frigid. The cold raised you, but Anchorage can’t compare to this northernmost waterfront cold.
Ocean looks like ocean looks like ocean. Each boat has a bulky GPS to navigate with, so you can coordinate to a patch you haven’t searched before. Solomon unspools the anchor. Another skiff prickles the horizon, an iota. Already in his dry suit, Solomon shoulders his tank. You do the same.
Solomon slides his goggles on over his dry-suited head but spits out his regulator to speak. “You don’t need to dress up yet. I’ll go first.”
You watch your body from his eyes: you are lightheaded from hunger, sleeplessness graces your eye sockets gray, your shoulders shake, your chapped bottom lip recedes into a determined frown. You seem vanishingly weak, almost translucent.
You pull your goggles on and say, “I’m diving too.”
“What? No. Watch the boat, Mal. Hold the cord.”
You take a breath that feels like drowning. “We dive together. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m strong now. I’ve gotten strong.”
Solomon’s Adam’s apple flickers. “Does that prove something? Like, what, you’re better than me now? Is that what you want?”
You’re trying to prove this vision: you and Solomon, like those reindeer breeders in Russia, uncover your own Lyuba. A perfect fossil baby. You pluck its teeth, the two of you, in an underwater moment of caustic understanding. Returning to shore with your catch makes coming here worth it. The other men thrust the tusks over their heads; they hit you and bark your names as if, ice age people, you killed the mammoth yourselves. And you did, or feel that you did, or your body hums as if you have. You didn’t grow up together; no, you killed a mammoth together, and that is the new love story.
“I came here to dive with you,” you say. “Let’s dive together—really together, this once.”
“It’s not safe,” he says. “Stay in the boat. One of us needs to.”
“Put in your regulator.”
He does, but flashes a bland, quizzical look. You stick in your regulator too, suck air, grip Solomon’s forearm, and roll backwards off the skiff, pulling him with you. The boat tilts so far it almost flips, and you spill deeply. Bubbles frisk, white and fragmented, toward the surface.
You turn over and swim down, and then look back for Solomon. He hangs with his arms spread. Bubbles waft around him. You can barely see his face. He holds grudges, and will not soon forgive you for dragging him in. But he strokes to meet you, and when he does, doesn’t touch you. He surveys the gradient below: blotches of uniquely blue ocean, and paler splashes shot through with needles of light from above. These dark figures: mammoth herds, lost in this great melted tundra. You swim. So does Solomon. Down and down, into the herds.
Silt meanders upward. Then dunes rise, littered with black rocks. Solomon touches down in a gust of silt and passes you in moonwalker steps. You used to see him underwater in the lakes back home; there, you would fight and try to half-drown each other. Here, he drifts, expansively relaxed.
One morning in the Wrangler, Solomon told you that when he dives, he feels like he has buried himself inside an hourglass, as if time passes at whatever speed the currents pull sand around him. When you find the mammoth skeleton, you only know you’re at a half-tank and have no idea how long you’ve been under.
And you do find the skeleton. You do. First, one parchment-colored crescent reveals from behind a rock shelf, then another. You expect these to be tusks, but they’re ribs. The whole skeleton is gigantic, so much huger than you imagined; enormous femurs, colossal spaces between each bone where the sea’s movement has separated death from death, life from life.
Solomon finds the skull, though—behind you, so separated is it from the rest of the bones. He grabs your hand, pulses his palm against your fingers in excitement, and pulls you to the skull. You take several moments to turn your head and look; the rest of the skeleton has transfixed you.
This alien item somehow once stored a brain, once bloomed a trunk. Between the eye sockets sinks a second mouth, a void, a mistake, winged as if splitting into an extra set of eyes. An article you read months ago claimed that legends about Cyclopes likely took their inspiration from mammoth skulls, the trunk hole confused for a single eye socket.
From this central socket branch the tusks. They seem hand-sculpted, surreal, and sanded clean. They split from the skull with the smoothness of octopus tentacles, the jaw a strange, gnarled, almost humanoid clot below them.
The tusks curl inwards at their points, almost meet one another. You and Solomon hold onto them close to these ends, your foreheads almost touching when you bend at the knees and try to lift, but the skull resists—of course it does. You cannot lift this thing to the surface, not even with the two of you.
Fingers outstretched, you put your hand into the trunk socket. The ocean gets cooler inside the skull, or seems to. You have your hand where this animal’s thoughts would have lived. Its body and Alaska have changed so much since this mammoth was alive; you aren’t sure reaching into its skull counts as an invasion anymore.
Solomon grabs your other wrist and pulls you back with a head shake. Bubbles froth around him. The point of one tusk jabs your spine, and you pull air in through your regulator in pain. Solomon’s gear obscures his face, but the way he ducks his head you can tell he disapproves of this, now that you’ve found the skeleton. You’ve desecrated this burial site—but you came here to desecrate it, didn’t you?
You push off the tusk and punch at Solomon—mean only to knock him, same playfight as always, but your fist slips too fast through the water and slams his jaw. Solomon stumbles and pulls you with him, fails to find loose fabric to hold on your dry suit. The tusks imitate a boxing ring around you. Solomon finds purchase. He pinches the front of your dry suit and shoves you against the skull. His knuckles dig your bound, cartilage-hard chest. Your tank wedges into the trunk socket, and you yank free, go torso-to-torso with Solomon, so close your noses almost brush. If not for your regulators your lips would touch.
With both fists, you pull him closer by the dry suit collar. He trembles as if his bones have come unstuck from each other. Or maybe you tremble, not him. Through his goggles, his eyes, gone bronze in this pseudo-subterranean deep, lock with yours. He wears the same expression Ando did when he threatened you beside the dying fire. You still do not know how to tame that expression.
Then an unfamiliar tug drags at your mouth, as if you have a fish trapped behind your teeth. You almost open your mouth in surprise but thank hell you don’t. Your tank has come unstrapped; it floats above you, attached only to your regulator by the tube. Then you almost open your mouth to yell Solomon or help but he wouldn’t hear and your jaw, right now, is the only thing connecting you to air. If you let go, you drown.
You pull Solomon toward you and point at your tank. An estranged and distant lung, it separates life from death. Solomon tugs away from you, kicks off in a silt spray and strokes for the tank. He moves with easy desperation, made for the water. Your jaw aches but you force it to stay shut. You can’t speak or scream. You don’t even breathe in case you let go.
So: choose your adventure, then, if that’s what you came here for.
First adventure is this: you let him rescue you. Treading water, he cradles the tank back to you, reaffixes it to your back, and pulls you by the wrist to the surface. When you break through into sunlight, your skiff having drifted several waves away, he pulls off first his own mask and regulator, then yours, so roughly your teeth hurt, and kisses you. He tastes of salt and blood—you must have split his lip in the underwater tussle.
Back at camp, he doesn’t mention your reckless conduct out at sea. For weeks, you sneak to the showers together in the middle of the night. He still tastes all over of salt. At last, exhausted from sleepless nights, you deem your shower excursions too risky and take the Wrangler home. The whole drive, though, you can’t stop thinking about what Solomon said right after he kissed you: “I didn’t know if I could save you. I’m so glad I saved you.” As if he made you his own again, created you in his image, pulled you from his rib and held you aloft, intact, his.
Second adventure: you swim for the tank yourself. A stronger swimmer, you get there first, regulator beating at your teeth. You pull the tank toward you and carry it upwards under one arm, Solomon trailing after. You don’t think of it as leaving him behind, but weeks later, in one of your last conversations, he’ll tell you that’s what it felt like, describe this trip as the time you tried to get both of you killed. Once at the surface, Solomon finds the skiff first and pulls you in so hard you smack the deck face-first and your nose bleeds.
Back at the bone slums, you talk over each other, both trying to be the first to tell about the mammoth. This is one of the last moments you can recall being friends with Solomon. From here, the friendship disintegrates in a melancholy way. You still laugh together, right up until you leave the camp and stop thinking to get in touch with each other, but only in groups or at inside jokes from ages ago, never anything new. When you leave, the drive home sounds of radio and of pop songs you loved as children, and you barely speak. But when Solomon drops you off, he leans across the center console and kisses you on the neck, right beneath the ear. “You taste like the ocean,” he says. This isn’t something he’s ever said before, but everything, coming from him, feels like an ancient inside joke now, something to leave behind.
Third—and this is not a real option, but wouldn’t it be beautiful—you suspend here, breathless, until you and Solomon finally sink into sediment, his body curled around yours like a carapace. Both of you open your lips and let your air tanks float away. Drowning feels like flying, and you perish. Your flesh decays. Your bodies forget that the ocean ever had a surface. Limbs entwined, his chin forever affixed to your shoulder, you petrify. Minerals replace everything that your bodies used to be. Over millennia, you bind with each other, with the sediment. You crystallize together into a singular perfect fossil, here among the mammoth bones.
Sophie Crocker (they/she) is a queer writer, performer, and editor based on unceded Songhees, Esquimalt, and W̱SÁNEĆ land. Their previous publications include PRISM International,The Fiddlehead, Room, The Malahat Review, CV2, and others. Their debut poetry collection, brat, is forthcoming in fall 2022 from Gordon Hill Press. Find them on social media: @goblinpuck.
Photo by Aviv Perets from Pexels.