She was paddling
where the bluff had slumped.
She saw the river thicken to sauce.
She saw a skull netted in a willow,
white teeth gleaming. She smelt
rotten eggs and knew the bears
He was walking
where the cliff had slipped
beside a human cemetery.
He saw a skull gargoyled,
its horns a metre wide and sheathed
in goblin boots. He knew
the flesh would rot.
He removed the bones and put
them in his mother’s freezer
to preserve them.
They were mining gold, melting
muck with a hydraulic hose.
Thy saw the carcass, stopped work
and called the university in.
The body was taken first,
severed from the frozen head
and neck fixed in the bank for days.
We dig up thousands of steppe bison
bones, buried where they died on plains
that turned to forest, tundra
in an earlier warming. Sometimes
we find their permafrosted
bodies too. They roved from Asia
as far as Mexico and France.
We painted them in our Spanish
caves with charcoal, haematite
and ochre. They had two humps
and thick, brown-reddish fur.
In the laboratory, they cut a chunk
of flesh from a defrosted mummy’s neck.
They diced and simmered it
in a pot with stock and vegetables.
They made a Pleistocene stew
and ate it.
A quick, cold burial, interred
by the frigid height
of the Wisconsinan glaciation.
The Yukon horse dug up
at Last Chance Creek
had in its intestines: grasses,
sedges, poppies, mustards, pinks,
buttercups and roses,
its wintered death preserving
what it had eaten
as well as what lay near.
I think of my last meal
of dahl and naan bread
decomposing with napkin
fibres, tulip petals, the oak
table and the Indian rug
shipped through the Panama
Canal from Scotland.
A sea-less land once fastened
Siberia to Alaska. Too dry
for ice, too cold for trees.
Not even, it seems, the grassy
steppes we’d supposed
but plains of flowers
instead, providing protein
for Beringia’s creatures.
This horse in this museum:
a skull, a foreleg,
a skin from ear to tail, a twist
of mane, all under almost
everlasting glass. The rest,
backhoed into muck or eaten.
Close up. The hoof is a wooden cup.
The skin, unfolded over months,
a leather shroud. Tooth marks
on the neck.
The foreleg gnawed.
A wrinkled sock of skin
pulled over the knee.
That knee, bent so tenderly.
I lean on solidified silica, lime and soda.
That knee: it’s bending me.
Did those knife-toothed, bob-tailed, squatting cats
slash infant mammoths’ necks then drag
them away, or did they attack and leave them
to bleed? It depends who you read and believe.
Somehow they dodged mammoth mother tusks,
pulling fresh young flesh to their caves. Where would
we put a scimitar cat now, as cougars come closer
to the warming north? Give them back Beringia,
herd them to Kamchatka and raise the land bridge?
Go safari, make a movie? Or declaw, detooth them,
feed them chunks of laboratory shmeat dropped
from copters? The scimitar and the mammoth
were as carnivorously connected as the lynx
and snowshoe hare today, as humans are to the cows,
pigs and sheep we grow in our fields and factories,
one eye always on the changing weather.
Steller’s Sea Cow
I sit on my cold, rounded rock bound
in salted seal skin facing thin daylight fire,
stones stacked high to keep out unceasing wind,
gaps caulked with kelp. Thank God I seized
my quill and ink from the ribs of wreck
still sinking. The ink, I keep it pouched next
to my skin so it doesn’t freeze, though it
does. The quill too, bent and blunted,
the bedraggled feather tickling my armpit.
The men save feathers for me now as they
pluck puffins and the biggest cormorants
I’ve ever seen; they will keep me scratching
as if I am a talisman. These Latin letters are;
the alphabet is all that keeps us human,
that, and shivering. We should become those
giant beasts, tidal boulders wallowing low in sea,
perpetually eating algae, seagrass, kelp. Their meat
is as good as beef, their fat as good as butter;
their oil doesn’t smoke or stink if it pools too long.
We use pots of their own skin to store their oil.
Their hides are as tough as leather without curing.
A cobbler could make boots. I saw a man cut out
a chunk of sea beast before he let it swim away, blood
blackening the sea. We say these beasts don’t feel,
though they bash their heads against our numb legs
to save their kin. We’ve heard them moan.
Our dead lie downwind on the slimy beach;
theirs rot in thickening water, bandages
of skin hanging from their vast flanks.
The elephant didn’t want to give birth
to a shaggy mammoth. Yet when
the infant dropped to the concrete floor,
she kicked it, pulled its head up
trunk to trunk, until it breathed.
She hoiked her daughter to her feet,
nudged her from slippery blood
and splattered embryonic sac
until she walked. The mother slid
her trunk along her strange calf’s
hairy skin, frayed and clotted, sniffing
her peculiar hump, her tiny ears.
We think we know about elephants.
Their memories, matriarchies,
their heavy hearts and brains.
How they stay with the dead.
We think we know about woolly
mammoths. Hundreds of them frozen
in the north, melting in our laboratories.
We know their chilly habitat, their four-inch
fat, the curved five-metre tusks they dug
with, the tough, dry grasses they grinded
with their blunt, enamelled teeth, the cat
who ate them. We think mammoths’
pregnancies lasted nearly two years.
We think, like us, they had one child,
usually, at a time. We think, like us,
they lived for more than seventy years.
A sunshine glint on salt-water,
a pendant pressing lightly
on my heart, a breath and pulse
in harmonic, happy recognition
of a sloping oval silhouetted
before a line of sky and sea.
This is the cormorant to me.
The Bering bird was dead
a hundred years after Steller,
shipwrecked, first wrote
his observations, noting one
large, stupid and almost flightless
creature fed three starving men.
They killed and cooked them
the Kamtchadal way, encased
in clay, baked in a heated pit.
The penguin of the north
flippered its small wings
to fly submerged, diving deep,
web-propelled. Down to nearly
fifty metres in cold, slow
circumpolar water, where
the globe spins quickest, where
the wet weight of darkness
presses torpedo ribs.
Fed and standing back on rock
in air, it stretched its slick wings
to dry them, Kamchatka breezes
quivering head feathers, restoring
green and purple glimmers
to its rounded back. Its white-ringed
eyes must have watched the hunters’
boats slide to the stony shore,
a truck stop on a water highway.
No one wrote down what colour
its irises were. Steller didn’t say.
Red or white or yellow.
The Aleuts, they’d know. ◉
Joanna Lilley is a writer living in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her latest book, a collection of short stories called The Birthday Books, is available from Hagios Press.