Conversation 32

textile mixed media art piece

I See You

Cynthia Alvarez

Embroidery thread, gouache, acrylic and watercolour on canvas/embroidery hoop
35.5 cm round

Permafrost Releases Ice-Age Fossil

Anita Lahey

The baby mammoth strayed a foot too far.
A mud-slick pool claimed one leg, one more,
she tipped and kicked and sank before
the females in the herd could crowbar
her onto their teeming tundra’s safe, hard
ground. The beasts lumbered off toward
sedges, sagebrush, shrubs, the score
one down for a species doomed. The star
of this exhibit pierced the permafrost
snow-encrusted, petrified, a wince
sunk into her pose. She’s crossed
all those eons—are we convinced
by her stiff, drab folds? We lean in, exhale.
Her trunk, curled, enfolds the gale.

Her trunk, curled, enfolds a gale
of long-lost terror let loose in tremolo.
She thrashes, gasps, writhes with immense
cries and roars against the undertow. . .
that slurping, all-consuming down-suck. The bed
of the Yuribei bulges. Cracks. Stills
its catch. An ice-bound secret pickles
in the sediment of her habitat. Instead
of ducking spears, swipes from sabre-tooth cats,
lumbering into adulthood with the herd,
she ferments in soil, acid, time—intact.
That mud choked and drowned and made her were.
Yet she is: shrivelled to half her heft,
transformed, preserved, what’s left.

Transformed, preserved, what’s left
from her thirty-two days of life includes
her whole heart plus skin, bones, lungs, tufts
of thick brown mammoth hair—and food,
the last meal of a baby giant pooled
in her x-rayed gut. Milk, of course.
In her winding intestine, remnants of stool,
Mama Mammoth its likeliest source,
her feces sowing microbes for a someday
eater of plants. But Lyuba never dined
on broad-leafed herbs. The steppe’s buffet
of windswept grass rustled her infant mind.
Proboscidean eyelashes delight.
Milk tusks shy from the gallery’s light.

Milk tusks shy from the gallery’s light;
its dimness cradles a bent-back hoof,
a wrinkle-nestled eye shut tight.
She’s fossil, mystery, rune, aloof—
our specimen of life gone still.
We’ll set queries to the rings on her tusks,
to her hump of fat apply a drill,
x-ray her bones, run scans and bask
in theories of how she lived and died.
Say she dodged a hyena, then tumbled.
Wandered, a toddler, from Mama’s side.
I’ve been sucked right into this fumble
for clues, a plot, redemption, what more?
She’s 42,000 years old. On tour.

She’s 42,000 years old, on tour
from the Late Pleistocene to Chicago,
a Siberian sandbar to Salekhard,
Sydney, St. Petersburg, Tokyo.
An underworld beast breaks ground!
Is this it? The deities’ reprimand?
Ivory’s coveted, traders abound.
You know? I can almost understand
what drove the cousin to steal the corpse—
a year’s supply of grub, a snowmobile
or two. Propped against Novvy Port’s
main-drag shop, she gave up her tail
to a hungry dog, an ear to a similar cause.
Phones, flickering, clustered like stars.

Phones, flickering, clustered like stars
come to earth in that far-north town,
converging and refracting, pulsars
beating wtf. No way. And Wow.
(That is, however astonishment’s
conveyed in the lingo here.) As to ice,
I wonder what’s said—on, say, the punishment
of these mild winters. Their price?
Reindeer crossings and sled-friendly roads
to edible growth. A muddy hunger
thickens, boosts the weight of their loads.
What rites exist for casting asunder
all hopes for seasonal comforts, predictable skies?
It could serve as consolation, this surprise.

Could it serve as consolation, this surprise?
Our sole reward for catastrophic thaw:
one nearly perfect beast to mythologize.
Imagine ice-age matriarchal law,
the buds they plucked with delicate, dexterous
tips of trunks. We fashioned combs,
built durable huts; made daggers, spatulas;
mistook their tusks for dragons’ bones,
believed they rumbled and burrowed below,
perished if sun or moonlight struck
their monstrous, hairy hides. I know
this ivory woman, bird, those killing sticks
(boomerang-curved). Atop a deep-dug grave,
mourners positioned a shoulder blade.

Mourners positioned a shoulder blade
over two dead infants long ago.
They chose with care, they were afraid
of scavengers, the spirit world. Snow
and ice piled over that site, till the cold
bone warmed and twitched and cast
off the hard layers of time. If I fold
these phrases over her limbs, will they last
forty more millennia? By then
dry winds may shush through grass,
birds serenade a steppe that again
wends placidly north, on past
the site of an animal’s fall
through time. I sputter and stall.

Originally published in The Malahat Review no. 2013, winter 2020.