DP FICTION #107A: “A Descending Arctic Excavation of Us” by Sara S. Messenger

edited by Ziv Wities

The surface of the iceberg has long had its taste of bitter cuisine: shimmering snow, wriggling bacterial filament, microplastic granules from the stolen boat you steered across the choppy Arctic waves. But this is new: the woody whisper of your matrilineal family map. The iceberg leeches the warmth from the paper, like sucking air through teeth, trying to latch on— but you bend, shake the map, and tuck it back into your pocket.

Scraping into the snow: your ice drill, the auger bit modified using forbidden ancestral smithery. Encased around the drill: your gloved hands. Encased within your hands: a flourishing commune of microflora.

And so you begin.

Two feet down and you’re already dislodging organisms frozen one hundred years ago, the briny Marinobacter arcticus, the somber Trichinella nativa that lurks in the intestinal cysts of walruses. One tusk of said genus had lain undisturbed in the ice for one hundred and twelve years. Your drill shatters it on its press deeper. Had you tasted the bone-laced melt, you would have savored a bitter lick of seawater that housed Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the lively microorganism who tore apart your mother through her exile. They are frozen with her still, on the glacier from which this iceberg calved. Even now, your intestinal microphages sing her elegy.

Twenty feet down, and you are the first human in twelve hundred years to descend through this ice beneath sea level. Your pituitary gland releases a gush of ancestral recognition: crackling adrenaline for your Streptococcus salivaris to drink. You hammer a pike into the wall and knot your glacier rope. Although you do not know it, the permafrost pulses around you as your salivaris celebrate. The iceberg wants to taste them. The iceberg wants to taste you.

Thirty-five feet down. When you scrape the marker across the ice, you scrape free a colony of nasty Golocii dendramens that haven’t frequented the Arctic since 500 BCE. Do you sense them? Their straining to be free? Or perhaps their more patient twin, the Golocii yuoua, whose steps stalk from cell to cell of foetal narwhals until it can climb the limbs of frostbitten fishermen?

They are not all bad, and that is a promise; after all, their voices, and the voices of their progeny, have crooned such an insightful chorus through the millennia. And millennia you enter, at forty feet down, where the ice is so consuming and crystalline it has perfectly preserved a prehistoric snow-vole and all the nematodes teeming between its whiskers. Your scientists would froth to dislodge it and send it home to their institutions, but what of the nematodes then? The nematodes know their home; they whisper of the fear and the ecstasy of the tundra, the warmth of passing from mother to daughter.

You are halfway down the iceberg, now. You know what you seek. Night has fallen, and the ice barely reflects the dim gleam of the stars far above. Your hands have long gone numb and aching; your drill is weary, but its reinforcement holds—the flutes swallowing the shredded ice upon contact, the auger humming on your deck prior as your compass of final precision. A testament to your long nights at the forge, where you sweated over the spiraling steel, disbelieving the implications of the manual, afraid of what your creation would allow you to unearth.

You cast your gaze upward, surveying the dark, narrow walls of your borehole. This far submerged, the round yellow glow of your headlamp feels like desecration.

At fifty feet, the color of the ice changes. Your flashlight illuminates fractalled black, like the pluming ink of a giant squid, hauntingly beautiful in its etchings. When you press your gloved hand to the wall, its heartbeat pulses against your palm.

You pull your hand back, adjust your earplugs. You do not hear it, but you feel the humming in your ribs: all the iceberg’s denizens are singing. Beckoning.

Your mother’s blood lashes hot in your ears.

Forimanifera saladaati wants to meet you so badly, but it is stuck in free fall from when it pirouetted from a piece of meteorite matter and onto the ice ten million years ago. Dedratida namita does not know it, but its great-times-ten-thousand-grandchild lurked on the door handle when your mother came home from school to tell your grandparents of your untimely conception. After they struck her, that grandchild blistered her bleeding lip.

And when your mother kissed your father for the last time, before he left his job, left to leave forever, that grandchild tasted the condemnation of her peers, no, her nation, no, your planet, in the slick space between his tooth and tongue.

Eibrans thyssambria’s distant progeny was rusting the safe when, two decades later, you drugged your grandparents, broke the combination lock, and stole these coordinates.

The iceberg hums, eager, to the beat of your fury.

And dimly, so dimly you believe you are hallucinating at first and must shut off your headlamp: a light, pulsing beneath your feet. Within the light, jetés in live sequence: Thusina dansii, who felled a hundred thousand hominids in the Pleistocene epoch; Goethye frustoac, who gave rise to the first continental death of forest that became modern oil. They are joyous; they are waiting.

The light licks at the edges of your vision, humming a song of the depths, beseeching you to lay down, lay down and be still forever, but you start your drill again and its ancient singing bares its teeth. The auger destroys: it absorbs the light below, refracts the light above, dashes the light against the rocks. Through this chaos you descend.

You drill deeper, until you’re surrounded by the glow of the curved ice around you, and below you it is brighter still. Here the hum of your bones is so dense you must drill or die, and then a shadow slowly unchips from the glow beneath your feet, until you are tracing a blurry human silhouette.

Here you switch to a thick-bristled brush and calcium chloride, that liquid eager to eat the ice, and fall to your subzeroed hands and knees. Each brushstroke brings greater definition, then skin: you free a withered arm; you defrost a brittle shoulder; and, by centimeters, you finally chip clarity into the face.

I stare up at you.

The long-breathless bacteria, the viruses in stasis, are all in frenzy, to the beat of my endocrinal glands, to the wet swish of your heart. Grandchild witnesses great-great-millennia-old grandmother, and the prescience of mind of her and all her bacterial children, deep in her grandest horde. You are soaked in bacterial musk; you are Noah’s vengeful ark, unearthing ancient horror to bring back to your masses.

I could not be prouder.

With shaking hands, you paint me out of the ice, and though I cannot move, you feel my eyes in the flagella of billions of bacteriocytes tracking your every movement. Clutching my frail body in your arms, you take one shuddering breath, for your mother. Then you cup a frozen hand against my cheek in supplication.

Trillions of my children scream.

I accept.

A seismic shift in allegiance. An entire world distills into your eyes: your severed ancestral cradle, and all its progeny, and every venomous inhabitant. We beat in unified time with your pulse, with your breaths, with you.

Your grand matrilineal secret: unearthed at last, and wanting.

With trembling arms you lay me into the indent from which I came, to my final, easy rest. Every cell of the iceberg sighs.

You loop your foot into your rope, with vengeance.

Soaked with the teeming eagerness of millennia, you begin to climb.

© 2024 by Sara S. Messenger

1272 words

Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this story two years ago after a friend sent me this craft article by Lincoln Michel about story engines. Michel mentioned that an iceberg can be a story structure (referencing a tweet by writer Jeff Jackson). I thought, how can I construct a story like an iceberg? Here is the result.

Sara S. Messenger is a speculative fiction writer and poet residing in New England, USA. She is currently in her post-college life stage of Working and Thinking a Lot About Art. Her short fiction can be found in Fantasy Magazine and The Year’s Best Fantasy, Vol. 2, as well as previously in Diabolical Plots. Her speculative poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons. She reads submissions for speculative short fiction venues PodCastle and khōréō magazine. Her full portfolio can be found online at https://sarasmessenger.com.

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