from How to Talk to a Glacier

Author’s note:

The following excerpts are from the unpublished manuscript of a novel, How To Talk To a Glacier. In them we meet seven-year-old Wirrie, the youngest member of a tribe of children and teens who are surviving (and thriving) in the northern wilderness of a post-collapse world. When the tribe encounters a dying glacier, Wirrie becomes the glacier’s constant companion and recipient of the glacier’s transmitted stories. She tries to educate the other tribe members about Grandmother Glacier and the profound significance of the stories and teachings she carries, but must bear solitary witness to the glacier’s death while other human-centered shatterings occur among the tribe. The novel is narrated by a teenage boy named Kura.

I was out on my own one bright day, hunting half-heartedly for roots. I’d crossed a stream and struggled up the flank of a mountain I hadn’t visited before. I was coming down by a different route when I saw it—a long thin tongue of gravelled ice, stretching down the mountainside toward me. 

I’d heard about glaciers before, but I’d never seen one. Everyone said they were all gone, that the last one had disappeared years ago. Just to be sure, I scraped off some of the gravel. Underneath it was pure ice. My fingers froze and I put them in my mouth to warm them. Then I walked back slowly, full of wonder. I was trembling, too, a little, though I didn’t know why. I didn’t report it to the others. I kept it to myself.


Did we dream about Stefan? I know I did. Sometimes he turned up at Sky Mountain, out of breath, angry that we’d abandoned him. Other times I saw him far off in the distance, and though I ran to catch up I never made it.

I thought maybe he’d just appear one day, out of the blue, with no explanation about where he’d been. Huang would give him back the radio and we’d go on as before, Stefan silent and preoccupied but one of us again, one of the ten.

Ten was a better number than nine. Even though, according to Des, if you carved nine notches in a birch trunk you built the nine steps to heaven. An old song sometimes ran through my head: I’ll sing you nine oh, Green grow the rushes oh, Nine for the nine bright shiners . . . But as ten, I thought, we’d shone more brightly than we did now. We’d been dimmed a little, and that wasn’t a good thing.


Wirrie was still troubled about the animal Des and Braj had seen. She slept badly and had nightmares in which beasts with dripping fangs crept toward us. One evening Des said he’d read from the Book to send the nightmares away. Milena said crossly that Des was making things worse, and Huang said Wirrie was being a baby and should grow up, and of course Wirrie burst into tears and everybody began arguing.

—No arguing! shouted Nur, to our surprise. We didn’t know she’d remembered the Laws. —Law Number 2!

—And no remembering, Huang added. —Just forget about the animal, Wirrie.

But Wirrie said she needed a Spell Circle, so we dutifully gathered round Des. Des, instead of reading from the Book, reminded us how powerful it was and that it had spells for everything. —It’s a book to set the world to rights, he said. —Look, here, on the last page. There’s instructions on what to do when the ice dies.

—What’s ice? Wirrie wanted to know, and Huang explained how, if it stayed cold enough long enough, water stood still and you could walk on it. 

—You mean streamcrust, Wirrie said. —But you can’t walk on that. It breaks.

—Not if it’s thick enough, Milena said. —As thick as this, and she held her hands out as far apart as she could.

—I don’t believe it, Wirrie said. 

—Milena’s right, I said, and before Huang or anyone else could say a hurting thing, I told them about the glacier. 

Wirrie stared at me, round-eyed. —Is it like Milena says? Can you really walk on it?

Of course everyone wanted to go and see it right away. Des held up a hand. —We have to do it properly, he said. —We can’t just go there any old how. We have to follow the instructions.

We all started arguing again, but Des stood firm. —When the ice dies, he said, reading aloud above the hubbub, these are the last rites. Follow these and the world will be reborn.

We each had to take a branch dipped in pine pitch and light it at our fire. Afterwards Milena banked the blaze, half-burying it under stones, and we set out holding our torches. It was dark and starry and a little warmer than it had been. Karim wanted to know how long it would take us to get there, but Braj told him to shut up, hadn’t Des said we had to walk in silence? If anyone was watching from the moon, we must have looked like a trail of fireflies crawling across the earth.

By the time we arrived the moon was high overhead. There was less of the glacier than when I’d first seen it, or so I thought. Huang went and stood on it, to show Wirrie it would hold his weight.

 —Is that it? Wirrie said disappointedly, staring at the thin wedge of dirty ice. —I thought it would be all sparkly and beautiful.

—That’s why we need the instructions, Des told her. —To make it all shiny again.

—Don’t tease her, Des, Milena said sharply. 

—Stand in a circle, Des commanded, ignoring her. —Boy girl boy girl. We obeyed him, shuffling into place, though we were short a girl and so left an empty space where she would have been. —Now, hold up your torches and tip them together so they make a big flame. 

Everyone shouted when the flames soared up, though Des told us to stop, we had to be quiet. Reverent, he said—one of those words no one else knew. After that he read out of the Book, some long passage with words in it in a strange language. It went on and on, and I was half-asleep when someone, Nur I think, said —Listen!

The glacier was speaking. Not very clearly, it was true, but it was cracking and grumbling, the stones groaning beneath it. We all stood there, terrified. Several of us wanted to run, but Des stopped us with a look. He dropped to his knees, bowed his head, then stood. The rest of us did the same. —Is there something you want to tell us before you go? Des asked politely.

—It’s moving, not speaking, Huang muttered, but several of us shushed him sharply.

Silence. We stood there, waiting. I don’t know what I expected. The glacier groaned again, as if tired of its burden. I’m ready—was that what it said? 

Fire and ice, Des said, reading from the Book. —Ice ends and fire follows and then ice comes again. It made us shiver with fear and amazement, there under the pale stars. 

—Poor glacier, said Wirrie suddenly, and bent down, stroking her small hand across its rough surface. She laid her cheek against it, and when she lifted her head the mark was left behind, a tiny hollow in the ice. 

We went back after that, subdued and solemn, no one saying anything. —So it’s true, about walking on water, Wirrie said wonderingly. —If that’s true, anything can happen.


—Do glaciers really move? Wirrie asked.

We were sitting drowsily round the fire the next day after our late-night adventure.

—Gravity makes them move, Huang said. Then he had to explain gravity, which he demonstrated by dropping a pine cone on Wirrie’s head.

—But now they’re moving backward, right, because they’re melting, Wirrie said.

—They’re melting backward from the tongue, Huang said. —The part that was nearest us when we walked up.

How did Huang know all this? Because he’d lived near a glacier once, he said.

—You had your very own glacier? Wirrie sounded amazed and envious.

—It’s not an animal, Wirrie. Even if the tip is called a tongue. It’s just a bunch of slowly moving ice.

—What happened to your glacier? Karim wanted to know.

—It melted, of course. Just like all the rest are doing.

—Can they move forward too? This from Sonsie, who was throwing the pine cone up in the air so she could see gravity for herself.

—Yes, if they’re growing. And sometimes when they’re not. No one really knows why.

—They move forward because they’re sticking their tongues out at us! Wirrie and Sonsie fell over each other, giggling.

—See what you’ve done? Huang looked disapprovingly at Des.

—All your facts, said Des, explain how, but they don’t explain why. You said so yourself.

—And stories and spells do? Huang raised his eyebrows, and shook his head, and laughed.


If the glacier spoke again we weren’t there to hear it. We kept our distance. We were busy, anyway, finding food and staying warm. Nur’s arm had healed, but it hung now at an odd angle and she found it more difficult to hunt. She offered to teach Huang, but that made Milena angry.

—Why don’t you teach me instead? she said.

—You might get hurt, Nur said. —Then what would happen to the Laws? Nur regarded both of the Books with awe, and always sat with her eyes shut when Des or Milena was reading aloud. —You wouldn’t be able to write any new ones.

So Milena offered to teach Nur to read and write, but Nur shook her head and said no, it was too dangerous, though she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain why.

I thought maybe she’d chosen Huang because then he’d give up on the radio. He still slept with it at night, though the case had cracked in several places from being dropped so often on our journey to Sky Mountain. I was pretty sure being dunked in that river hadn’t done it any good, either.

But Huang didn’t want to learn. He didn’t need teaching, he said. He already knew what he needed to know. And a girl couldn’t teach him anything about hunting anyway. 

—Nur’s a much better hunter than you are, Wirrie said. —She’s better than any of us. She rose to her full height and puffed her chest out like a grouse. 

Huang retreated to the back of the cave with the radio.

Keeping the radio wasn’t going to bring Stefan back. The singing had been very beautiful, but it was a bad omen. The angels had sung Stefan to his death.


A few nights later Milena read out the Laws, the way she did every so often. —Law Number 5, she read. —The bigger kids look after the little ones. And then she read a law we hadn’t heard before, Law Number 6: —If the Book of Spells says something different from the Book of Laws, the Book of Laws is right.

We all stared at her. —That’s not a law, Huang said. —You just made it up.

—It’s a new law, Milena said calmly. 

—It’s only a law if we all agree, Des said, very quietly.

—But we need this law, Milena said. —The Laws keep us safe. The Laws got us here, didn’t they?

That led to another argument, because some of us said it was the Book of Spells that had got us to the new Safe Place.

—Kura found the new Safe Place, Milena said, looking at me. —It was supposed to be a lake, remember? In Des’s dream?

Silence, because we all had to agree that this was true.

—And after Des and Stefan broke Law Number 2, Stefan left. Remember?

Another silence. Several of us squirmed uncomfortably, not looking at either Milena or Des.

—So, because Des broke a law, one of us had to go, Milena went on, in that maddening, calm voice. —That means the Book of Laws must be stronger than the other Book.

There was something wrong in what she’d said, though I couldn’t figure out what it was. Des sat with his head in his hands.

—They’re both important, Nur said stubbornly. —I don’t see why we have to choose.

—It isn’t a law anyway, Huang said again, because we haven’t voted for it. Who’s in favour?

No one put up their hand. 

But Milena held up the notebook. —It’s written down in here, she said, so it’s a law. Sometimes we need a law even if everyone doesn’t agree.

She closed the book and went off to the back of the cave, leaving us all sitting there in the firelight.


What would have happened the next time Milena read out the Laws I don’t know, because two other things happened instead.

Wirrie went to visit the glacier again.

And we saw Others. Their sign, at least.

Wirrie was gone for a whole day, and when dark came on and she still hadn’t come back we were all worried. Me especially. At last she came scuffling across the gravelled lip of the cave and slumped down beside us. We gave her food and she ate hungrily without speaking. 

When she was done she wiped her mouth. —It said something else today, she said, looking at us.

—What are you talking about? Sonsie was mad because Wirrie hadn’t taken her along.

—The glacier. It gave me a warning.

We looked round at each other in the firelight. —What kind of warning? Des asked cautiously.

—To be respectful. It’s very old, it’s lived a long time, longer than anything. It knows everything.

—Like what? Nur was repairing her bow and not paying much attention.

—Death. Life. Everything.

This didn’t make much sense, so we ignored it. Sonsie said —Look, Wirrie! and showed her a piece of wood that spun on its sharpened tip. Milena yawned and helped herself to the last of the stew. Huang went off to pee. Only Des took any notice. —Ice ends and fire follows and then ice comes again, he said, to no one in particular.

I put my arm round Wirrie and told her I’d missed her. 

—I had to go, she said, because it’s lonely. Being the last glacier. It has no one to talk to.

It’s true, what Milena said once, I thought. Des does make things worse.

—You’re sure you understand it? I asked.

—I had practice. With the rocks. Wirrie took one out of her pocket and held it up so I could see the black markings. 

It was at that moment we heard the noise—a sort of rumbling and whirring from high up in the sky. We all scrambled to our feet. Red and white lights flashed far above us, and the rumbling grew louder. 

—A dragon! screamed Karim, and fled into the cave, followed by Wirrie and Sonsie.

—It’s a helicopter, Huang said, staring upward into the night sky. —It’s the first time I’ve seen one this far north. He and Des took turns explaining, since they were the only ones who’d seen one before. We watched as the lights and the noise disappeared into the distance.

—There’s Others, then, Nur said quietly. —Nearby, maybe.

The younger ones came creeping out of the cave, wanting to know if the dragon had gone. Karim was still shaking. —If it’s a dragon, he said, then it’s going to bring fire. That’s what dragons bring, don’t they?


It was Sonsie who found the first wild crocus. We were seeing more tree squirrels now—we’d even caught a few—though the fat ground squirrels hadn’t come out of their burrows yet. With the end of winter the fourfoot would start moving through on the way to their calving grounds. We were all eager for fresh meat, but who would go hunting with Nur? The younger ones weren’t strong enough for the bow, and we needed Des for the Book and navigation, and I had no stomach for it. So that left Huang after all.

—Someone has to do it, he said, and I guess it has to be me.

Nur showed him how to stand, how to hold the bow and arrow. He spent his days shooting at the targets Karim and Sonsie had set up for him in a clearing—scraps of cloth fastened to trees, rusted tin cans. In the evenings, under Nur’s direction, he made his own bow, shaving the branch he’d chosen, smoothing and curving it. Grumbling pleasurably—Of course I know that’s the way to string it! 

Wirrie was spending her days collecting sheets of bark from the paper birches that grew half a day’s walk from Sky Mountain, though she wouldn’t tell us why. 

The first of the fourfoot arrived in the middle of a wet spring snowstorm. Dim shapes in the distance, huddling together. Nur and Huang filled their quivers with freshly feathered arrows, honed their hunting knives. That evening, under a three-quarter moon, we held a Spell Circle.  We sang the hunting song Des had found in the Book:

Lose not the sight of them,
Tire not in following,
Speed your strong arrow,
Bring the rich deerflesh.
Fleet-footed, fearless,
Strong be your bow arm,
Faultless of hand and eye,
Striking the deerheart.

At the last minute Huang gave me the radio to look after until he came back. 

They set off early the next morning. We crowded round them, touching them, wishing them success and a safe journey. Watched them until they were no more than distant black dots, disappearing into bush.



Be polite. Don’t interrupt. Listen carefully. You can call them Grandmother or Grandfather. They like that.


It was two or three days after that we found more signs. 

We’d been away, gathering bulbs to eat. When we got back there were boot prints in the ground below the cave. Large boot prints of different sizes. Definitely Adults. 

Des, staring at them, said —The helicopter.

—You mean the Dragon People? Karim asked anxiously.

—We don’t know who it was, Milena said.

But Wirrie, who’d been searching nearby, called —Over here! We all ran to join her. She was staring at a rough circle of crushed plants and blown earth in a clearing not far from the cave. —Dragon sign, she said.

We all looked up at the sky, as though we expected them to still be there. Several of us prowled round the circle, looking for I don’t know what. Braj held his slingshot in his hand as if he was ready to attack. 

—Let’s see if they come again, Des said. —I’ll take first watch tonight.

I took the second watch. I saw the moon, a glowing almost-circle, rise in the sky, I saw the stars come out, one by one. Once I thought I heard something in the distance, but it was only the wind sighing in the trees.


Nur and Huang returned at Lowering-Sun Time. They came staggering toward us in the reddening light. Nur carried a fourfoot’s great antlered head on her shoulders. Behind her Huang was bent under a haunch, blood dripping down his shirt.

Sonsie, who was on watch, saw them in the distance and hallooed us all in. We rushed toward them, shouting and leaping. Karim and Braj seized the head between them and carried it off triumphantly. Huang handed me the bag of guts. His eyes shone in his dirty face.

We all took part in skinning and cutting up the carcass. Then we built up the fire and had a huge feast. Nur, after she’d eaten her fill, stood up.

—It was just at dawn when we saw him, she said, her voice low, and we all stopped eating to listen. —He was standing above us on a hillside.

—A young male, Huang added proudly. —Maybe three years old.

—We crawled upwind on our bellies. We’d missed one the day before, we didn’t want it to happen again. 

The fourfoot, scenting them, had flung up his head. Nur let her arrow fly, but missed. It was Huang’s that hit home, that found and severed the great neck vein, killing the animal instantly. 

Nur lifted the heart from where it lay on the butchering stone. —Heart for the hunter, she said. —Heart for the steadfast. She held it out to Huang. He cut off a piece and ate it slowly as we watched, silent, awed.

Afterwards we lay down by the fire one by one and fell asleep. My head was nodding too, though I tried to stay awake. As I dropped off I thought I saw the fourfoot standing there in the bushes, watching us. It dipped its antlers, letting us know we were the ones it had chosen to give its body to, and then it disappeared.



Wait for them to talk first. They’re slow-moving, so it takes them a while to decide what to say. Sometimes they don’t say anything. 

They don’t like to waste their breath.


Wirrie arrived in my life ten years ago, appearing out of nowhere, much as she does at the beginning of the novel. I didn’t know how a seven-year-old could be so wise, but there was no question that it was Wirrie who carried what may have been traditional teachings from her earlier and unknown life. It is Wirrie, alone of the tribe, who understands in her bones that “being in profound relation to place changes everything between, around, and about us.” Wirrie’s sense of kinship with the glacier—when they meet she lays her cheek down on its flank, melting the ice beneath her—is immediate and unquestioned. —Poor glacier, said Wirrie suddenly, and bent down, stroking her small hand across its rough surface. She laid her cheek against it, and when she lifted her head the mark was left behind, a tiny hollow in the ice. It is Wirrie who responds with her body rather than with words, who reaches across the boundaries those of us who live in techno-industrial society grew up with, and who makes common cause with the glacier’s suffering. In fact Wirrie dedicates her life to serving the glacier, even as she becomes more estranged from her tribe. The Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason says, “When I take a photo of a glacier, it’s like I’m recording and preserving an old woman singing an ancient lullaby.” It’s a sentiment that Wirrie, although she wouldn’t articulate it this way, would totally understand.

About the Author

Born in the UK and raised in northern British Columbia, Patricia Robertson has lived in Spain, London, Yukon, and elsewhere. Her third fiction collection, Hour of the Crab, was named co-winner of the 2022 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. She now lives and works in Winnipeg, Manitoba, located on Treaty 1 territory—the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation—where she writes stories with one foot firmly in this world and the other somewhere else.

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