It was a story passed from mother to daughter. Something they murmured to themselves while they rocked babies, sucked on stones to stave off hunger pains, made jokes that nobody remembered the origins of because the origins were burnt to ash.
They didn’t try to keep it from the others, but when the world ends, motherhood develops its own myths. It cannot help it. Suddenly people remembered older stories, the kind where people die, and are reborn, and birth is difficult. The end of the world just made it worse.
And so the story was whispered over cookpots and cradles, and it was a woman’s story. Everyone listened, hearts straining, but not everyone truly believed in it. You cannot truly believe in something like a seed and a dark place, and room to grow, and a strange and brilliant flourishing against all expectation, unless you harbor that potential inside of you like a sickle, like it could kill you, like it sometimes does.
Stephanie’s grandmother was a girl during the war, and she tells her daughter the story like it is as true as hunger, as true as fire. Stephanie’s daughter’s name is Snow, because she liked the way it sounded, because she was seventeen and had born a daughter white and glistening and cold, though she warmed and darkened later, because her mother’s mother said that snow was like a blanket, a respite from which new things would grow.
Snow is ten and has never seen a clear sky. Snow does not know where Norway is, except as a place of magic, of prophecy. It has no substance, it is a waking dream.
Most of the maps are burned. They keep drawing maps in the dirt even after they are gone, memorizing them, the curves of lands impossibly distant and unknown. Maps are primal, as basic as stories, as basic as fire, from a time even before there was sowing and reaping, before writing, before names. Bees have them, and wolves, and many others, a language built not on words but places, fueled by need.
Snow knows the maps like she knows her own bones, though they shift sometimes, like bones; they warp and grow. She does not know who first made that important notation, long erased but embedded in the minds of her mothers like the need to sleep and eat and reproduce. Norway, the map says. North. An island so cold and strange and far away as to be unreal. As to be exempt. From the end of the world, and from everything that comes after.
Snow spends a lot of time learning about ships. Her father says his father said that ships once circumnavigated the globe, which is too huge to be fathomed, that ships like birds sailed in the sky. Snow knows better than to doubt this but focuses instead on the ships at hand, the warp and weft of them, the way the joints fit together, the way they lie on the water like living things and invite girls into their hollow bodies.
Stephanie dies with Snow’s sister barely out of her and the sister dies an hour later. Snow does not give her a name. There are other children there, but not many, and they are small. They all huddle together at night, men and women and children, a pack of dirty, hungry creatures clinging together half for warmth and half for comfort. They tell stories. They sing into the darkness.
Snow sails up and down the coast, practicing. She takes other girls with her. They learn quickly and are eager for the work. Sometimes they see other people, but they do not call out to them, do not wave, sail past quickly and with a wide berth. When the world ends, their mothers have told them, it is not wise to stop to talk to strangers. In their minds they perfect their maps, they draw them on the ground for their brothers and sisters, they memorize the shape of the land, how it curves, how it bends. Girls with children tell them stories, and their daughters listen and their eyes gleam. They wrap their tongues around the word Svalbard like a pearl.
At night, sometimes, she goes to others for comfort. She learns how bodies are like maps, too. As the days grow shorter Snow can feel something twisting inside her, taking root. Knows it will not last the winter. Not the way things stand. She takes what she can when she departs: precious little food, warm clothes, willing girls. The rest watch wearily and shake and wave.
The sea is rough but manageable. The maps are not perfect but better than nothing, something to aim for, something to pin a hope on. They sail all hours, by day, by night. The girls tell stories, always the same stories, chew the skin off their own fingers to keep from going mad with need. Snow tells the daughter inside her the story, again and again like a prayer or an incantation, like saying it will make it true, will make it real.
It goes like this: at the top of the world there is an island. On the island there is a vault. Inside the vault are seeds. These are the seeds from which the world will be born again.