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Ursa Major (cont')

A human appears

Ursa Major (cont')

7
The enormous gantry of halogen arc lights turned night into day as they splashed their hot, humming radiance across the deck of the rig. High above the platform a gas flare burned relentlessly into the oil-black sky. During the night a regular flotsam of charred and stricken birds fell from this huge flame into the catch net below like moths scorched by a candle.

The gas flare was an irresistible magnet for all manner of birds. Storm petrels, kittiwakes, arctic terns, tundra swans and even snowy owls fell from it and jumbled together in a dead and dying by-catch.

The net had to be emptied regularly and the oil-man responsible for this macabre duty had been keen to volunteer. He climbed the steel ladder housed in its tubular safety cage and stepped onto the welded mesh that supported the catch net. He carefully inspected each bird and frequently cursed as he did so. He delicately placed some of the dead but undamaged birds into a large plastic laundry bag that he had carried with him for the purpose. He also selected and then killed several of the injured birds by gently choking them before they too were deposited in the bag. When the bag was full the oil man secured the zipper and placed it to one side near the ladder. He then picked up the rest of the dead and dying birds in two’s and three’s and depending on the direction of the wind he launched them over the side of the safety rail into the sea many stories below. When the net was at last cleared the man retrieved his bag and descended the ladder. By the time he had reached the bottom two more birds had tumbled from the flame.

He made his way across the deck of the rig pulling his baseball cap lower over his eyes to avoid the blaze of light from the gantry and then he disappeared into the shadows of the upper deck canopy. Despite the gigantic size of the rig, the dimensions of the stairwells and gangways within it were small. The oil man started a hasty and furtive descent to the deserted galley deck deep in the bowels of the platform. He scurried along the narrow corridors on an imprinted journey turning right or left without thought or hesitation. He met no-one on his way, which was just as well because had he done so one or the other would have had to back track until a suitable passing place could be found. The oil man seemed to relax as he entered the galley.

Apart from clearing the catch net this man’s job was to cook. He moved with practiced precision through the familiar kitchen and into a small and gloomy ante-room strewn with open boxes of tinned food, bins of detergent, dirty and clean towels, black plastic bags of waste food and stacked plastic bottles of water. Along one wall was a rack of stainless steel shelves that held pots and pans and framed in the middle of the wall next to him was a large insulated plastic door in the middle of which was a sign that said “please keep closed.”

He put the laundry bag down, craned his neck around the door jamb and glanced back into the empty kitchen. Satisfied that he was alone he turned again and rummaged in the bottom of one of the broken boxes and retrieved a half empty bottle. Relieved to find it he pulled the cork and with scrunched eyes took a long pull of whisky. He wiped his stubble with an open palm which he then licked. The bottle was carefully replaced and the man rearranged the tins to conceal it. He turned to the heavy plastic door. Entering the blast freezer he deposited the laundry bag into the far corner and covered it with a large plastic sheet.

8
The distant golden glow of the gas flare was reflected in the centre of the bears eyes as it stared entranced across the sea. She was so enchanted by the flame that she was tempted to jump into the sea and swim towards it but she was so hungry that she knew such an expanse of open water would prove too much, so instead she reluctantly remained on the shrinking ice berg.

Beneath the incessant gas flare the superstructure of the rig was also plain but the bear only saw the flame. Even during the mid afternoon with the sun high in the sky the beacon was still obvious but unlike at night time its acrid smoke banner was also visible, rising in a fume and then bending off into the wind.

In recent years the oil men had become used to seeing ice bergs – even this far south. As long as they were small and far enough away to be of no threat to the precious rig their passage went largely unheeded. Occasionally the rig’s crew would report the ‘bergs to the coast-guard, duty bound if any of the huge oil tankers that visited the rig were in the area. With each passing day the rig and its beacon became smaller, receding down into the northern horizon as the bear drifted southwards towards an unseen coast.

9
The Cree name for the bay that the Kovik River empties into and in which the marooned bear now found itself is Winipekw. On its far northern shore is the town of St Francis that houses the workers of the numerous oil and gas rigs that now litter the bay.

The town had been built on the foundations of an old fort that had once been the most northerly outpost of the early European settlers. It had originally been used as a place to trade goods for the furs that the indigenous people had trapped during their hunting season. As the European appetite for fur diminished the trade died out and the fragile agreement for peace between the white settlers and the first nations was replaced by insurgency and brutal, murderous repression. The town now existed to reap a different bounty from the land and sea, the appetite for which would never be satisfied.

St Francis consisted of a harbour front and a jumble of clapboard buildings. The un-surfaced main street was littered with the skeletons of broken down vehicles, empty fifty gallon drums, worn out tyres, and all manner of other discarded rubbish. Stray dogs were everywhere and wandered aimlessly and hungrily about sniffing out the next opportunities. All the telegraph poles leaned and the wires sagged. About half way along the street was a store over which a sign proudly declared “Carllsen’s For Guns, Ammo, Traps and Sundries” and underneath the writing was the crudely painted crosshairs of a rifle’s telescopic sight. Next door to the store was a once gaudily painted but now very weather worn bar.

Down at the harbour a transfer ferry from one of the rigs had recently docked and from it exited a number of men. Almost all of them were unshaven and they wore the yellow overalls of the oil company for which they worked. As they made their weary progress down the sloping, aluminium walkway to the concrete breakwater, they discussed loose arrangements to meet later, promising each other beers and a beating at pool. When the column of men had left the harbour in a variety of expensive trucks and 4X4’s another man emerged from the ferry. He wore a baseball cap low over his eyes and was carrying a plastic laundry bag.

He was well over six feet tall but walked with a lightness of step unusual for such a big man. He wore a thickly quilted eiderdown jacket the cuffs and collar of which were trimmed with beaver fur. From the collar, hanging loosely at the back was a voluminous parka hood trimmed with wolverine. He also wore the company overalls and leather rigger boots. His face was obscured by his dark beard which extended high up his ruddy cheeks. His nose was blushed with broken thread veins and his eyes were pale and cold.

He approached a Wrangler pick-up truck that was parked at an angle near one of the harbour offices. He unlocked the doors using a key-fob and carefully placed the laundry bag on the back seat. The engine fired noisily and the truck lurched a little as the transmission engaged before it moved away. The vehicle exited the harbour and proceeded up the hill towards town.

The man lived alone in a clapboard cabin that backed onto rising woodland on the outskirts of the town. The only part of the cabin that was not built from timber was the random stone fireplace and chimney at the far end. It was similar in construction to all the other houses nearby; a triangular, single story facade with wooden steps leading up to a door in the middle and two windows on either side. The front elevation of the house was completely covered with antlers – the bleached trophies of scores of hunting trips. There were so many of them that there was no space left for any more to be nailed at the front and so the antlers from the most recent trips had spread around the sides of the building.

The Wrangler nosed its way into the scruffy front yard of the cabin and parked up next to a rusting, windowless station wagon the bonnet of which had been removed and was nowhere to be seen. Underneath this rotting vehicle a dark stain of oil had soaked into the ground.

The man got out and retrieved the laundry bag from the back seat of the truck and entered the cabin. Inside the air was rank and it was gloomy and untidy. Unwashed clothes lay scattered around on the bare floorboards amongst empty beer bottles and pornographic magazines. The long dead fire place was piled so high with ash and cinders that much of it had spilled out over the hearth. After taking off his coat the man kicked a clear space on the floor and put the bag behind a battered sofa. He lit a cigarette and then picked up the phone and dialled a number from memory, his smoky tobacco breath puffed into the mouthpiece, ‘Carllsen, it’s Magnus, ‘s that you? Yeah, I just gotten in, yeah I got ‘em - some real beauties too - dollar signs all over ‘em, I’ll drop ‘em by later. Listen Man, you’re not gonna believe this... I saw a polar bear in the bay floating along on ‘n ice berg... no shit. I think it’ll ‘ve made land fall on the Kovik somewhere – no I’m not kiddin’ - I ‘scoped it from the catch net two days ago, I’m telling y’ man it was a great big freaking polar bear... Carllsen, listen, have you got those Sabot shells I ordered...?’

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