Of all the women his elusive father maintained boisterous and public affairs with, Set liked the principal ballerina of the Ballets Russes the best. His father took him to see her dance in Prince Igor, elbowing Set each time her skirt flared high over her shiny pink thighs. She was very kind to Set afterward, tousling his hair and smiling a dimpled smile for him. She smelled like melted sugar and rose petals. And she gave him gifts: candies from Paris and furs from Moscow, little wooden dolls from the Ukraine that nestled inside one another like a puzzle. He sat in the corner of her dressing room and released the dolls, one by one, while his father whispered something to the ballerina that made her laugh. Set was in awe of this ability that adults seemed to possess—the creation of mirth in another human being. His father wasn’t good for much else, as Pru wryly observed from time to time, but at this, he excelled. He could pull a coin from behind a child’s ear, or tell jokes that even Cedric fell about laughing over, or make a pretty ballerina shake with helpless giggles. In the carriage on the way home, his father turned to Set and asked him what he thought of the dancer.
She seems like a very generous lady, said Set, after careful consideration. His father liked this response.
She is, he said. She is full of generosity. And—Set thought he winked, but it may have just been sunlight hitting his father’s monocle—she’s soft in just the right spots.
It wasn't until Set was almost a young man that he realized she was his mother.
Or rather, his almost-mother, as he came to think of her. After all, Cedric said, it was hardly genetics alone that made one a parent, and in Set’s case (and Cedric’s, and Constance’s, and Oliver’s) genetics had failed rather spectacularly or at least had been a one-sided affair at best. It was widely understood (but never spoken of) that Pru was uninterested in the business of having children, though she was very much interested in the business of raisingthem. She was a children's book author, and as such she had very firm ideas about the way to bring up useful adults. Her books were the sort of moral tales disguised as anthropomorphic animal stories that were so fashionable then, and whenever one of her children behaved badly they were forced to learn the appropriate tale by heart. Osmosis through story. Pru had similar ideas about genetic inheritance; she had hoped her children would be artists, musicians, dancers—but none of them showed the slightest leaning toward their birth mothers’ talents.
Set was the last hope—Pru paid for dance lessons as soon as he could walk—but he was bored by dance and Pru's plans for him were dashed. Like everything else, she took this setback in stride. She summoned her eldest, Cedric, and arranged for Set to go with him on his next expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Set, said Pru, was finally old enough at twelve to travel with Cedric. You’ll have a real adventure, she said. You’ll get a chance to see the heathen up close. Set was disappointed. He wasn’t sure what heathens were, but he supposed they must all be children, very careless indeed with their souls—since the sour-faced ladies at the church were always trying to save them.
Cedric was much older than Set, and in those heady days of Antarctic exploration—the age of men like Amundsen and Shackleton—Cedric, too, had distinguished himself. He’d been in high demand for his survey work, and led several expeditions to map the Antarctic coastline between Cape Adare and Mount Gauss. Before the family moved to Long Island, he’d dined with the great men of science at 1 Savile Row, had given lectures in London for the Royal Geographical Society.
But that was before the world was laid bare, the last dust blown loose from the darkest corners. Now there were no strange places, only strange peoples, and the demands of the public for their secrets. The public couldn’t get enough of the exoticism of the east, the hot wilds of the south, the strange remoteness of the north. Cedric, who’d lived among the native people and depended on them for guides, for trade, and often for protection, did not like way the so-called primitives were often portrayed in newsreels and print. He wanted to introduce Westerners to the complex societies and customs of these peoples, to show them in what he called a “humanistic light.” He became fixated on this notion. And so he took a three-week film course, bought a camera, and began making documentary films about these far-flung inhabitants of the earth. Set could hardly believe it; to Cedric, mechanical marvels like film were anathema. Ced had scorned Oliver’s dreamy love for this new art form. Oliver, he said, only wants to surround himself with shiny objects, like some kind of magpie. But now Cedric saw it as a way back to the past. He told Set this wasn’t about the new or novel: this, he said, was about preserving the oldest ways of living.
This was Cedric’s fifth trip north, to the Canadian Arctic. A certain segment of the public was wild for his films about the Innu people there. And the big fur company, Northland Trading, was happy to bankroll his efforts. But there was another reason he spent so much time with the Innu: he was trying to pin their legends down to history, to track down the ruins of a great northern city, lost and hidden. Of late, he was fixated on it. He spoke to Set constantly about it, his chance at a real discovery.
There couldn’t possibly be a city here, Set said. Who would have built it?
Cedric shook his head. No one knows. The elders of the tribe speak of a place somewhere on the north coast. They say the people who built it abandoned it long ago.
The coast was a barren tundra. No trees, no rocks, just frozen ground and sea. What would they build it with?
Cedric smiled. Earth and whalebone, he said. The natives say these people built an entire city in the frozen ground, and stretched hides over the bones of whales for roofs. You see why it will be bloody difficult to find—an ancient city, buried in the cold earth.
Set was not sure how he felt about the Arctic. He had longed to see something of the world, to seek out a place in it, but here he felt entirely removed. He was always cold and they were always on the move and the dogs smelled bad and the humans worse and the food was dreadful and unchanging. His brother was traveling with a small film crew and a few very rough men from the fur company. Once they were in the Innu village in Labrador, the fur men settled down to hard drinking, and complained about the slow pace of Cedric’s work. They refused to help with the camera or the lighting equipment, so Cedric instead trained the natives as his assistants.
Set liked the natives much better than the fur men—they taught him how to kill and skin a seal and how to start a fire and how to build an igloo properly. They seemed strong and self-reliant and not at all in need of saving, despite what the church ladies at home said. His friend Agloolik, a boy about his age, taught him how to fish through the ice. They sat companionably around the ice hole, as Set fidgeted and Agloolik laughed at his impatience. Agloolik asked Set what his name meant, and Set shrugged: nothing, he supposed. The Innu looked disappointed; his name, he said, was that of a spirit who lived under the ice. The spirit helped men to fish and hunt, and—he slapped Set on the back—so wasn’t it right he was helping his friend to catch fish? Set pointed out that they didn’t seem to be catching much of anything. Agloolik put a little fish down the front of Set’s parka and rolled around, shrieking with laughter, as Set jumped and scrabbled and shouted that he would be tickled to death.
But then Agloolik became serious and sad. My people, he said, they say you do not have a soul the same as other men. Set was uneasy. He remembered, but did not mention, the words of the Japanese lady long ago, the argument between Cedric and Oliver he’d overheard.
Well then, he said, how do I get a soul?
I do not know, said Agloolik. But you will need one when you die, to lead you back to your body.
The fur men offered Set whisky and roared when he choked on the burn it left behind—though he did enjoy the way it warmed him from the inside, like a little candle. Pru was dead set against drink, and she always warned of its destructive powers. After that first sip, Set waited all night with dread for the signs of destruction to begin. He wasn’t sure if his toes would drop off, or his face burst into pustules, or his insides collapse like a tent in the wind. He wondered how he would find his way back without his soul.
Cedric caught him staring into the fire and shook him roughly. Listen, you can’t go trance-eyed out here, or you die.
But aren’t I already dead? Am I my own ghost? askedSet.
Cedric’s eyes narrowed, and he did not answer the question. Take off your gloves, he said, and put your hands over the fire like this. This cold, why, this is nothing. Not like sailing through solid ice. Did I ever tell you, he said, about how I filmed the pack ice on the Intrepid?
Set shook his head, even though Cedric had told the story many times. He liked to hear Cedric tell it.
We made a little wooden seat, said Cedric, and we tied it below the jib boom. And there I hung, furiously filming the ship as we rammed that ice. We’d ram it once, just enough to put a wedge in it, to weaken it. Then we’d fire engines and drive full speed into that wedge. We’d break that ice apart with a great, groaning crash, boy, and me hanging on for dear life with that rope around my waist, cranking my camera like anything.
In the weird and wonderful tradition of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Amber Sparks’s dazzling new collection bursts forth with stories that render the apocalyptic and otherworldly hauntingly familiar. In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” two orphans translate their grief into taxidermy, artfully arresting the passage of time. The anchoring novella, “The Unfinished World,” unfurls a surprising love story between a free and adventurous young woman and a dashing filmmaker burdened by a mysterious family. Sparks’s stories―populated with sculptors, librarians, astronauts, and warriors―form a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Purchase here.
Amber Sparks is the author of The Unfinished World and Other Short Stories, as well as the collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author of the The Desert Palaces. She lives in Washington, DC with two beasts and two humans, and she lives online at www.ambernoellesparks.com or @ambernoelle on Twitter. She's almost certainly seen more Godzilla movies than you.