I almost don’t go to the the reading of my grandfather’s will, but it’s important to my sister.
The lawyer reads my name and adds, “Scrimshaw, one,” and with both hands passes me a carving of a caribou antler—not one from a large bull, but a simpler cow’s. Tracing my finger along the almost-ivory, I notice the antler’s bowed slope has occurred naturally without having to be carved. And at the base, its long and smooth grain blisters into the pocked shell of a sand-dollar.
My grandfather hunted humpbacks for six months off the west coast of Vancouver Island—a year after the ‘68 moratorium—and killed most of his time idling in international waters since everything had been dead for a while. There was an emptiness in the ocean’s fluidity that he had once tried to explain to me. Something about how, in just a few days, he could see the vacancy within the waves and knew that nothing was there.
The antler is really just a whale’s vertebra, halved and cut off at the spinal canal. But it must have taken months to carve away that much bone.
I store the whale-antler atop the bookshelf. Over the next couple months, I try placing it in other spots—the kitchen table, my desk, the toilet tank—but everywhere is too conspicuous, and I feel bad, because I never correct anyone when they ask if it’s a real antler. It goes back onto the bookshelf.
Next month, picking up my sister at the university hospital, I’m a half hour early so I pay two dollars for the biology building’s basement museum. Floating through the isles of animal fragments, I see a glass case holding an elk skull with its cerebral plates all dyed rainbow colours.
And the sign beneath it, no bigger than a shoulder-blade, explains how the skull’s configuration correlates with a humpback’s, how it demonstrates that whales descended from a small deer, and that they and even-toed ungulates have a closeness of being you can only have by sharing an ancestor.
If he realized in a few days that the ocean had been sieved of everything, why did he stay for six months? Waves shrugging defeated, the gravelled pull of a knife, the sawdust of calcium. A dull ache in his back.
And what keeps me up at night, watching a raccoon’s planetary eyes orbit beyond the streetlight, is the vague understanding that everything has its own shape, a form entirely unto itself; and how my hand fluidly intuits how to hold their bodies, like I have always known them.
Richard Kelly Kemick has been published or has work forthcoming in TNQ, CV2, The Fiddlehead, PRISM, Prime Number, and Vallum among several other magazines across Canada and the United States. Richard won both Echolocation’s 2014 chapbook and Grain’s 2013 Short Grain contests. A recipient of an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant, his debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication Spring 2016 by Goose Lane Editions.
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