The Incident at Veniaminov

by Mathilda Zeller

Content note: This story contains cannibalism, violence, and themes of colonialism

The summer had finally reached our island. We shed layers of knitted wool and sinew-sewn fur and let the wind move across our bare arms and legs — a vulnerable feeling after being perpetually covered for most of the year. Fishermen were out at all hours of the day or night. With the darkness only covering two hours in twenty-four, there was little need to stop; our people moved with the strange rhythms of the far north. From the tundra at the top of the world to the jungles in the south, this is where we had gathered. If anyone were to visit long enough, they’d notice we were different. 

But no one ever stayed that long. Not unless they were one of us. 

In many ways, we’d been forgotten by Civilization. Civilization lived on Wi-Fi and cell towers; we lived on diesel generators and seal blubber fires. Civilization had bars with shelves holding more different kinds of liquor than there were people in our village; we had hooch fermented in Aana Sue’s bathtub, which had been forged from a Japanese submarine that had the misfortune of running aground here in World War II. Civilization had developed standards for schools, but somehow those standards did not reach our far flung fragment of Alaska, adrift in the north Atlantic. We learned to read and write in our own homes, from the same primers our parents and grandparents had used. 

We were happy to be forgotten by Civilization because Civilization asked us too many questions about ourselves, and wouldn’t have left us alone without cutting us open to find the answer. When they forgot us, we developed an innocence that calcified into ignorance, and ignorance is always dangerous.


When the cruise ship docked offshore, half the town gathered to stare. We’d often watched cruise ships pass by. The tourists, clad in puffy white coats and sunglasses, would gather on the decks to spy on wildlife, and we would gather on the bluffs to spy on them. Their garbage washed up on our beaches and we burned it, or used it, if it could be made useful. This one didn’t pass us by, though. It stopped. It calved three small motorboats, which barreled towards us with alarming speed, and when they reached us, we didn’t dispatch them the way the elders claimed to have dispatched the unfortunate Japanese submariners back in the day. Instead, we stood and stared when they came ashore. 

They moved in on us like three wolves rounding up a herd of caribou. The problem was, they were very handsome wolves. Each operator disembarked, and one walked straight up to me, his hand extended. 

“I’m Dmitri. Have we reached Veniaminov?”

I took his hand. It was cold, which was strange, since he had just pulled it out of a glove on a warm day like this. “You have. Why are you here?”

Dmitri threw back his head and laughed, as if I had said something hilarious. “To take you to the ball, naturally.” He bent over my hand like the knight had in the primer that had taught us all to read. “If you’ll have me, lady. I can only take so much dancing with the cruise line women.”

I pulled my hand from his. “You’re a stranger.”

“I’m a Dmitri,” he corrected, “And you’re a —?”

“Elisapie,” I answered, feeling a little stupid. 

“Beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”

I looked down at my blood spattered apron, then my callused hands. He was a flatterer from Civilization. “I have fish to gut.”

“Then I have fish to buy. They are freshly caught, I hope?”

His eyes were blue as the sky on a rare cloudless day. Colored eyes, my Aama would have called them. Like pretty marbles or sea glass to collect.

“We caught them today.”

“Then lead the way, Elisapie.”

He followed me back to the fishery. I suppose I could have yelled at him or thrown rocks at him, scared him off like a wild dog, but he liked my name. I liked the way it sounded when he said it. And he said it a lot.

“Elisapie, have you always lived here? Do you like the sea, Elisapie? And your neighbors, do they like it too? Elisapie, can you swim?”

He had a thousand questions, which he always started or finished with my name, as if it were a special garnish.

Joseph cleaved fish alongside me, his mouth tight, his eyes narrowed. He hadn’t gone to the shore to see the cruise ship, and was annoyed to see the Civilization had followed me back to work. Joseph had little patience for outsiders.

Dmitri refused to leave until he had fifty pounds of halibut wrapped in white paper tucked under his arm, and along with my acceptance to his invitation. Figuratively, at least.

“You didn’t have to tell him yes,” Joseph muttered as he hosed down our work station.

I shrugged. “Maybe I wanted to.”

“It’s tonight.”


“The meeting is tonight.”

“For the Center?” I sighed. “There’s no point in making plans for something we can’t afford.”

“There’s no point in saving money without a solid plan ready.”

The center was Aana Alasie’s — Joseph’s Aana’s — idea. She was sure that one day Civilization would wedge its nose so far into our island that we’d forget ourselves, our stories, our songs, our own identity. We’d leave our own selves behind and spend our lives, our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives, chasing the trappings of Civilization, and becoming impoverished in the process. 

She raised Joseph on the idea, and since I was always with Joseph, I grew up on it too. We were going to build a Center that would preserve everything we were, so that we could always remember ourselves.

But there was so much of us to remember, the Center would need to be a big building, something that could weather wild storms and hard, freezing winters. 

“People are already forgetting our myths,” Joseph said. “The kids coming up through school care more about the future and Civilization than they do about our stories.”

I wrinkled my nose. I hated it when he called them myths. They were more than that, and there was a time when Joseph knew it. But his words only supported his argument. Forgetting was creeping in on all of us, like a fog off the sea, hiding from our eyes the things that should be plainly remembered, 

I pressed my lips together. “It’s a gala. It’s full of rich people from Civilization. Maybe they’ll want to donate to our center.”

“Sure. They’ll donate all the plastic that they normally toss overboard.”

“Maybe they’ll donate money. Enough that we can have materials flown in.”

“They’ll donate your teeth to their pearl necklace collection before they do that.”

I rolled my eyes. “We won’t know unless we ask.”

Joseph pulled open the door to the fishery with grand pomposity. “After you, Lady Elisapie. You won’t want to be late for your big debut.”

I rolled my eyes and swept past him. If it were up to Joseph, we’d be subsistence fishing and migrating with the seasons like the qalupalik.


At home, Dad and my sister Arnaaluk were watching a VHS. We had one of the only televisions and VCRs in town. Yes, I know what year it is. I already told you Civilization had forgotten us, right? 

“That Russian came by,” Arnaaluk said, without taking her dark eyes off the screen. “He left you a box.”


“Kitchen. While you’re there, bring me a bottle,” Dad answered this time. We’ve got no shortage of bottles on the island, thanks to the cruise ships. They store Aana Sue’s hooch well enough to make drinking in one’s own home convenient. As convenient as drinking can be, anyway.

There was a huge white box in the kitchen. It sat like a beacon of pure light against the dingy yellow walls.

“Hooch!” yelled Dad.

I brought him his hooch.

An hour later, I was ready. As ready as I could be. The box contained a dress like something from a dream. The bodice was armor for a sea goddess — sheets of luminescent nacre — the skirt, layers upon layers of pearly white cloud. There were pearls for my ears and wrists and neck and head — a headdress like a sun’s halo — and shoes that were made by someone who had never seen Veniaminov. I pulled on my mukluks instead, the ones that used to belong to my Aama, the ones my Aana trimmed with fur and embroidered with red thread flowers. There’s no way I could leave my house in the pearly white heels; they would sink into the earth and die the moment I stepped outside.

A knock on the door told me Dmitri had come. No one in town would knock before entering. I slipped past Dad and Arnaaluk and opened the door.

Dmitri was wearing a tuxedo and shoes that were dying the way those heels would have done. I wriggled my toes in my mukluks, happy for a secret covered in an ethereal white cloud of silk.


I’d spent half my life on ships, but the cruise ship was as different from our fishing boats as the earth was from the moon. I forgot to care about Dmitri’s hand on my waist as we walked on red carpet through pearl and gold gilded halls. People in every shade of skin and hair were here — people from the whole earth, I bet. They wore saris and ballgowns and robes and suits; absolutely none of them were like us. I could smell the earthy human scent coming off of them, without the least hint of the sea. 

A pale old man smiled at me and extended his hand. “Dmitri! Who is this lovely lady —”

“Elisapie.” Dmitri’s hand tightened on my waist.

“Elizabeth! Welcome —”

“Thank you.” I smiled back without correcting him, wiggling out of Dmitri’s grasp. “I’m from Veniaminov, and we’re hoping to raise money.”


“For a center. To hold our history —”

“Yes, yes, of course —” The man’s face split into a toothy grin. “We are here to help, of course. We are here for the island’s bounteous people.”

“So you’ll help us?”

“Every last one of you.”

“Thank you!” A giant smile spread across my face in spite of myself. “Please, tomorrow come to the island, and —”

“Of course, of course.” The man waved a hand. “We’ll have it all taken care of tomorrow.”

“Are you hungry?” Dmitri pulled me toward a buffet, towering with shrimp and crab and sushi; fruits and flowers I only see in the summer, fruits and flowers I have never seen at all. I stared, and Dmitri pressed a finger up on my chin, picking up the jaw that I dropped.

“Yes,” I could barely whisper. I thought of the winters we had gone hungry, of the winters we’d gotten down to nothing but caribou, every day, caribou until I wanted to vomit just thinking about eating it. Now, and here, there was everything I had ever wanted, everything I never knew I needed. I wanted to eat it, all of it, and never stop eating, ever.

We filled our plates with a rainbow of fish, and fruits, and flowers that Dmitri insisted were edible, that smelled better than anything I could have tasted. As he guided me over to a table to eat, a hard knuckle jabbed me in the back. 

I turned. It took me a moment to recognize Arnaaluk. She was dressed to the teeth in black iridescent pearls and obsidian, silk blacker than night clinging to her hips and swirling around her legs. A veil covered her eyes, obscuring them.

“Don’t eat it.” She muttered.

“What?” I glanced over at Dmitri, who had been sidetracked into conversation by a pallid old woman, whose colors were painted garishly on her face.

Arnaaluk knuckled me side again. “It changes you.”

“How did you even get here? You didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“Dammit, Elisapie, listen to me. Don’t. Eat. It.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.” I felt my voice tightening to a childish, petulant whine, as it always did when I knew in my gut that my sister was right. I looked down at my plate. It was beautiful, and I was hungry. I wished I could punch her. When I looked back up, though, she was gone.

We sat at the table, but the lingering ache of both her knuckles and her words had curdled my appetite. Dmitri frowned. “Aren’t you hungry?”

I wiped my sweating palms across the napkin in my lap. “I’m just a bit nervous, is all. Hard to eat when you’re nervous. 

Dmitri’s face melted into gentle understanding. “Of course, of course. Come, let me show you something. You’re not alone, here, you know.”

“Really?” He was going to take me to a table with Arnaaluk, I was sure of it. She’d confess that her warning was just a joke, to give me a hard time, and it would all be better. I would eat and eat and dream of this food next winter when there was nothing but caribou. I smiled and followed him.

We didn’t go to Arnaaluk. Instead, we went up the stairs, onto a mezzanine, down a hall lined with heavy swaths of black velvet curtains. 

“I’ve invited you here for a reason, you know,” he said, the warmth in his voice as thick as the velvet around us. “And to get to that reason, I have a very personal question to ask, if you’ll permit me.”

Heat rose to my face; I was suddenly overly aware of how exposed my chest and neck and arms were. “Depends on what you ask.”

“Are you like them?”

“Like who?”

“Like them.”

Dmitri pulled the cord on the wall. The velvet walls rose to expose glowing aquarium glass. Fish flitted about in the cold light, seaweed waved lazily, and through it swam people. But of course, they weren’t people in the same way we were. No, not people like us, but not qalupalik either. 

Qalupalik’s eyes were flat black mirrors — shark eyes. These people had dark brown eyes like mine, or round blue marble eyes like Dmitri. 

Qalupalik had black eel tails, thick as a carboy and tapering out twenty feet to a serpentine point. 

These people had the scaled, iridescent tails of rainbow trout or coho salmon, barely longer than legs. 

Qalupalik’s hands had black ragged claws, spears of baleen, twice as long as fingers. 

These people had hands like mine, fleshy and small and agile. 

Qalupalik stole small children and ate them.

Some of these people were small children. 

My skin buzzed from the crown of my head to the pads of my feet in vibrating rivulets. I lifted a hand to the glass. 

A girl my age drew close to the glass and pressed her hand to the glass under my hand, staring hard at me. Her black hair would have fallen to her knees, if she had knees. Her skin was as warm and brown as mine got every summer. If I didn’t know everyone on my island, she could have been from here. 

The glass between our hands grew cold, so cold it burned, but I couldn’t take my eyes off hers. She pressed the glass harder with her hand, her eyes widening with the effort. The cold shot up my arm, stabbing at my shoulder, my heart, my brain. It screamed one thought that drowned out anything else. 


The black velvet curtain fell, heavy enough to push my hand down, and I stumbled backwards, the one thought, the overwhelming urge chanting with every beat of my heart.

Run. Run. Run.

Dmitri’s smile barely registered with me, his words only emerging in bits and pieces through the imperative drumbeat.

Run. Run. Run.

“I knew it —”

Run. Run. RUN.

“The rest of your island too, I’ll bet —”


“Could smell it on you —”


I ran. 

I’d have tripped and fallen in heels, but I was wearing my mukluks, formed in the hands of my Aana and my Aama. Dmitri’s shiny black shoes were plastic and slow, their soles buried somewhere in Veniaminov’s summer mud. The guests were overfed as autumn bears; I slapped their hands away as they tried to grab me. I burst from the world of gold and red to the deck where the wind screamed in my ears. I dodged one grizzly-sized man with an earpiece, then another. Dmitri’s hand closed around my wrist as I cleared the railing, but I broke away, leaving him holding nothing but a broken string of pearls.

I fell seaward, relief enveloping me as sharply as the frigid water. This was why we all lived together, our people, on this island; the other people, people who rode on cruise ships and built cell towers, would cut us open to see how our lungs could breathe water as well as air, how our bodies could flourish on kelp and krill and sheefish, how we could cut through currents like greylings in water cold enough to stop human hearts.

I reached the beach and ran into town, my dress sodden and half gone. Everyone was at Aana Sue’s, trying the new batch of hooch when I hurtled in, raising all the eyebrows as a curious silence settled over them.

“The cruise ship,” was all I could say.

“What about it?”

My lips trembled as I formed the words that shook me to the core. “They’re going to take us away.”

The room burst into laughter. 

Not one believed me.


As long as I could remember, I had always been a part of this town, and this town had been a part of me. When I was born, they had wrapped me in seaweed and held me in the stream. My Aana had died, my Aama had died, but it was okay, because I had Joseph’s Aana, Aana Alasie. I had all the Aanas and all the Aamas in the town, and they had me. They braided my hair and taught me to sing. When Dad was too drunk or sad to be my Dad, there were other dads. There were grandfathers. There were aunties and uncles, cousins, and cousins and cousins. 

My days were filled with fishing and crabbing, reading lessons and leather sewing. My nights were filled with throat singing and storytelling, falling asleep in front of a fire, lumped in a pile of children like we were newborn puppies.

I knew who I was because I knew who they were, and because they knew me. We were us, apart from Civilization, but never apart from each other. 

Now, though, now — that was gone. And in its place, there was laughter. I stood before them all, burning as if a kerosene lamp had broken over my head, and they laughed at me.

“They’re tourists.”

“They’ll pay us too much for our hooch and beadwork and be on their way.”

“Have you been reading more Civilization horror stories?”

“We’d tear them all limb from limb before they could take any of us away.”

Aana Alasie narrowed her eyes as they raked my body. “What are you wearing, Elisapie?”

I shrank into myself, suddenly remembering my appearance. I was a glowing mass of tulle and nacre, standing before them like an overdressed polar bear. I had let someone from civilization dress me, and then appeared into Aana Sue’s bar claiming something would happen that had never happened before, a wild eyed prophetess dripping in pearls. All their eyes were on me now, and it burned. They looked at me in the same way that they had looked at Dmitri.

Larry squinched up his lower lip as he worked a lump of chaw against his teeth. “Does your Daddy know you went out to that ship?”

My mouth went dry. It took a second to find my breath, to find my voice. I shrugged.

“Did these people give you something to drink, honeybucket?”

I cringe at the old nickname. “No.”

“You coulda fooled me. It runs in your family, you know, to drink too much.”

A fire flared deep in my gut. “Shut up, old man. Don’t act like you’re not as bad as my Dad. Worse, even.”

Larry jerked up from the table. Aana Sue put a hand on his arm, but he shook it off. “You better get home,” he barked. “People respect their elders here.”

I turned and fled — more to protect him than me. Every muscle in my body was aching to fight, aching to throw itself into combat, and punching Old Larry would have only made more problems. And there were too many of them — all of them were Old Larry, staring at me, doubting me, mocking me. I had gained the costume of Civilization and lost the credibility of everyone else in the process. 

I didn’t turn north towards my home. No, I couldn’t have Dad see me. They’d laugh at me too. I would lose my oneness with him, as I had lost it with everyone else. And Arnaaluk — she’d be waiting with her arms crossed and a lot of “I told you so,” smugness. Everything burned, everything hurt. I ran directly south, into the sea, lurching out of my clothes as I threw myself into the waves and kicked my body seaward. The qalupalik migration was coming, yes. There were other bloodhungry creatures in the water, yes. The sun was setting, the tide was rising, and a ship of predators sat directly ahead of me, but none of that mattered. I needed the sea. I needed it with every inch of my skin, with every cell in my bones. I flew through the water, darkness below, starlight above, the vanity of pearls and tulle lost in my wake. I swam till the fire in my muscles was quenched, till my tears and sighs were indistinguishable from the salt water around me and the lapping of currents. I swam until I had dissolved into sea foam, as the story went, or at least until I had fallen asleep.

The sun on my face was high and bright and cold when it woke me. I had drifted into the hull of a fishing boat. Pushing off of it and rubbing a hand across my eyes, I saw that it was the SEDNA, Joseph’s boat. I climbed up the nets hanging over the side, hauling myself aboard. 

Joseph was asleep on a bench. I slipped into the pilothouse and wrapped myself in one of his emergency blankets before coming back out to lean over him where he lay, letting the cold droplets of water fall from my hair onto his face. He sputtered, slapping at his face, eyes snapping into focus. 

“Elisapie,” he breathed. “I came out here looking for you. I thought maybe you were drowned. And then I —” he looked around sheepishly —  “I fell asleep.”

I snorted. “You know I don’t drown, Joseph.”

He shook his head. “That’s just what my Aana says.”

“You just don’t have enough faith in your Aana.”

He sat up, frowning. “Why are you naked?”

“I’m not naked,” I snapped a corner of the emergency blanket at him, “I’m clothed in the finest robes your ship has to offer.”

“You’ll get hypothermia.”

I opened my mouth to tell him that he should know I don’t get hypothermia, but it would be a waste of breath. When it came to believing his Aana, Joseph would hold onto his skepticism even if the truth was dripping water straight onto his face. As much as he wanted to preserve our history, he discounted half of it as mythology–the half step to forgetting completely. He was sure Aana’s stories were laced with fantasy, the product of too much traditional medicine on an aging mind. He wanted to remember our stories for sentimentality’s sake, rather than history’s. He didn’t believe what the rest of us knew, but maybe, just maybe, that would be the thing that would save us. Perhaps that same cynicism would help him accept what no one else could.

“They’re coming for us, Joseph.”


“The cruise ship. They want us all. They’re going to eat us, I think.”

Joseph frowned. “Eat us?”

“Every last one of us. They’re hungry. They’ve got actual —” I struggled for the words. The girl I’d seen on the ship wasn’t a qalupalik, and she wasn’t a human. But she was like me and I was like her, only she was more of that part of me that could swim in a frozen sea.

I took a deep slow breath. If there was anyone who would believe me, it would be Joseph. “They’ve got actual mermaids.”

It was as if a storm that had been waiting offshore our whole lives blew in. I could almost feel the barometric pressure drop with my words. I’d said the word we didn’t say, I had talked about the thing we could barely acknowledge. I braced myself, waiting for Joseph’s reply. His scorn. His skepticism.

Instead, Joseph turned and pulled open one of the storage benches, and began rummaging through it. 

“What are you doing?” My heart began to hammer and panicked drumbeat on my ribs. Did he think I was crazy? Was he looking for a tranquilizer?

He turned around, chucking a pair of coveralls at me. “I’ve known you our whole lives, and I’ve never known you to be a liar, Elisapie Atoruk.” Joseph took a shaky breath. “I’ll follow you on a mission to save some mermaids, but for crying out loud, you’re not doing it naked.”


Even before we reached the shore, everything felt wrong. Joseph felt it too — it was written across his face as clearly as the salt spray. We dropped anchor at the dock, where no one was out mending nets or chewing the fat. 

No one was on the road into town, and no one was hanging out at Aana Sue’s. A hard knot formed in my stomach as we walked through my empty house. I dug out some jeans, thick wool socks, and my favorite kuspuk — the one Arnaaluk made for me last winter. My igruuraak, hanging on the wall above my bed, caught my eye. They were a bit of normalcy a childhood toy, a weapon of my ancestors. I grabbed them and stuffed them into the pocket of my kuspuk.

The tight knot in my stomach bloomed into hot tears when we arrived at Joseph’s house, starkly empty without Aana Alasie. Joseph’s lips trembled and I caught sight of his igruuraak, gathering dust near the iron stove. I pressed the igruuraak into his hands for courage.

“Not her, not her,” Joseph said, his fingers curling through the igruuraak’s sinew strings. “Anyone but her.”

“Everyone and her.” Arnaaluk appeared in the doorway, chewing on something. A foul, fishy smell rolled off of her.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, swallowing down my fear. 

Arnaaluk shrugged. “Berry picking. Salmon camp. You know how people are.”

“We’re not talking about people, we’re talking about the whole village,” Joseph said, his voice reverberating off the emptiness of his house. “You’re here. You must know.”

Arnaaluk shook her head. “They’re better off away from here. Away from me. So are you.”

Something had changed about Arnaaluk, and it wasn’t just the smell. Her eyes were darker. The pupils had swallowed up her irises and some of her whites. She looked like she’d taken too much of Joseph’s Aana’s sleeping tea, but was forcing her body to stay awake. She grinned widely and set a finger to work between two of her teeth. Her fingernail was long and grayish, like a piece of baleen that had been left out in the sun too long. Her teeth, which had been blunted from working leather for mukluks, were elongated, sharper.

Arnaaluk, what long nails you have, I wanted to say, rewording the phrase from the storybook she’d read to me a thousand times. What black eyes you have. What sharp teeth you have.

Something had happened to her, and that something had everything to do with the disappearance of the town. My mouth felt dry. 

“What are you eating?”

Arnaaluk shrugged, continuing to chew, continuing to work her long sharp nails in between her long, sharp teeth. “Food, I guess.”

“What food?”

“None of your business,” she pulled a paper bag from her pocket and stuck three fingers into it, drawing out a shiny gelatinous lump. Muktuk, maybe. It didn’t smell like muktuk, though. It didn’t smell like any fish I’d ever had. It smelled dangerous.

Arnaaluk slipped the lump into her mouth and resumed her rhythmic chewing, picking at her teeth. She stopped abruptly, looking, for a moment, deeply sad and conflicted. “You two had better leave this island, too, you know. It’s no good for you here anymore.”

Joseph shoved his fists into the front pocket of his kuspuk, something he always did when he was nervous as a kid. “This is our home. This is your home. Why isn’t it any good anymore?”

Arnaaluk slid another lump into her mouth and took a step towards us. “Because I’m hungry.”

“The freezer’s full of meat,” I pointed out.

Arnaaluk shook her head, and for a moment, she looked a little scared. “Not the kind of meat I want. Not the kind of meat I need.”

“What kind of meat do you need?”

Arnaaluk’s pupils grew bigger and darker, bleeding outward until they consumed all of the white. Her mouth split her face into a gaping, morbid grin, showing jagged, wicked teeth, and teeth behind those teeth. 

She spread her black claws wide. “You.”


Swimming in freezing waters my whole life did not prepare me for the sensation of my blood literally running cold. Arnaaluk advanced on us slowly, her round black eyes shining like sharks’ eyes, her lips trembling.

“I’m hungry, Elisapie. So very hungry.”

“You just ate whatever was in that bag.”

“It wasn’t enough. I need more. I need you.”

“Why?” Joseph burst out. “Why her?”

“She’s more mer than the rest of you combined. They let me have her since she proved so much trouble on the ship.”

“You’re mer too!” I shouted, the heat of my rage driving out the cold in my veins. “You can’t eat your own kind!”

Arnaaluk let out a high, mirthless laugh. “We do it every day, though. We lie and we cheat and we disbelieve and we forget. Aana Sue eats every last soul in this town with her hooch. You tried to tell them of the danger, and they ate you, too. Eating each other, it’s what we do.”

“We’re a tribe. We’re a village. We don’t do this,” I was babbling now, and the floor seemed to swell beneath me as if we were at sea.

Arnaaluk said nothing, but lunged for me. I leapt aside and bolted for the door. It was locked. My hands scrabbled for the lock, but I was shaking too hard to unlatch it. Claws closed over my shoulders and jerked me backwards, into Arnaaluk.

“You are meat, and I hunger.” Her breath roiled over me in fetid waves that made my hair stand on end. 

“You are my sister,” I gasped. “My sister.”

A clanging thud resounded near my left ear and the claws fell away. Joseph stood over Arnaaluk holding a cast iron pan. 

I scrambled to my feet, breathing hard. “You hurt her. You could have killed her.”

“She was going to kill you.”

“She hadn’t killed me, though, had she?” I knelt by Arnaaluk’s side, cradling the goose egg forming on her head. “Something’s wrong with her. The same thing that is wrong with those people on the cruise ship.”

Joseph stared at me. “You don’t have a survival bone in your body, do you?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be alive right now. Help me get her to the couch.”

We hauled her onto Joseph’s Aana’s threadbare chintz couch. Joseph wanted to zip tie her hands, but I refused to let him. If she came to, she would need a way to feed herself, to care for herself if no one else had returned. This island, with no one on it, would be prison enough. 


Joseph and I hurried out of his Aana Alasie’s house and down to the beach. The cruise ship sat just offshore, like a white whalish death demon. 

“They’re all in there, Joseph. I know it.”

“Why haven’t they left yet?”

I paced the shore, watching the cruise ship as if it would tell us the answer. I thought of Dmitri, how he had led me through a momentary madness of formality and courtship, a compressed game of hunt and chase, teasing and playing and luring me into his trap. The horrible thought dawned on me.

“They’re waiting for us. They want us to come to them.”

The sharp sound of leather slapping on leather made us jump. Dmitri stood a few yards off, slowly clapping his gloved hands. “Well done, Elisapie. Well done.” He smiled approvingly, as if congratulating a child who had caught her first fish. 

“What makes you think we’ll go?”

“You love them. You want to free them, probably. But I am here to disabuse you of that notion. You can’t pull off any sort of rescue mission, let alone the rescue of hundreds of people. But you’ll come willingly anyway.”

I glanced out at the water, calm and clean and inviting. I could outswim this monster who smelled of blood and earth, but had nothing of the sea in his blood.

“Why would I do that?”

“To prevent suffering.”

Joseph tightened his grip on my hand. I cast about for a stick, a stone, anything with which to arm myself, but there was nothing to hand. It was just Joseph, me, and the sea.

“As you may have noticed, Arnaaluk was also a guest at our soiree last night,” Dmitri went on, “and she indulged in our most decadent of offerings. The flesh of mermaids is a delicacy beyond measure. The pleasure of consuming it cannot be understated.”

I thought of the conflicted pain in that moment before Arnaaluk was overtaken by her lust. I’d seen that look before, in my father’s eyes. 

“It’s addictive.”

Dmitri shrugged. “It’s such a reductive word for such an all-consuming experience.” He smiled in a way that made me want to punch him in the mouth. Repeatedly. “You yourself nearly came to know the same euphoria. You would have if you hadn’t balked at our pets.”

“They’re not pets,” I snapped. 

“Your people are watered down,” Dmitri said, ignoring my outburst. “They have mixed and commingled with humans of every stripe. They’re not mermish enough, and yet they are what we have. We need them complicit and docile, and for that, we need you. You must reassure them that we mean them no harm, that we are here to save them. If they are calm for the slaughter, they will suffer less. They will be more mermish, and less human. Your job is to calm them, Elisapie. If you sing to them, they’ll listen to you, especially if their human brains are raging and panicking.”

My mouth flooded with the taste of copper. I had bitten my tongue.

Dmitri’s nostrils flared. “Don’t tease me like that. Your time will come. Save your blood for now.”

There are times when the answer to the problem is staring you in the face, and as soon as you see it, you feel like a fool for not having seen it before. My hand at the side felt the sealskin balls in my pocket coat. My igruuraak.

I slipped my hand into my pocket and drew it out, sliding my fingers along the braided sinew until I caught hold of the black baleen handle. I closed my hand over the little black tab of whale tooth and thought of how much I had dreamed of our town hosting the Eskimo-Indian Olympics in our center, of a whole team of us spinning igruuraak before a captivated audience. They would see us and know in their hearts who we were. We would be remembered. We would carry on. 

I began to spin mine. Joseph, seeing what I had done, got his out and began to spin his, too. 

Dmitri looked confused. “What are those?”

I shrugged, taking a small step towards him. “A simple child’s toy.”

“We’ve been playing with these since we were kids,” Joseph added.

“They calm us, you know.” I smiled. I had long since mastered the trick of getting the two balls spinning in opposite directions, but doing so now made me feel powerful. “They calm our raging, panicking human brains, as you would say. They help me think clearly.”

I knew in the way Joseph hitched his breath that now was the time. We both dove at Dmitri, our igruuraak spinning. Mine spun around his wrists, binding them, while Joseph’s spun around his ankles. I dropped a knee onto Dmitri’s chest, pulling his bindings up tight as if he were a felled caribou. 

“Our ancestors used them to hunt,” I remarked. “It’s funny, what can stay with you through generations of — what would you call it? — commingling.”

We dragged him back to Joseph’s Aana’s house and left him tied to her stoop, an offering for Arnaaluk. She would probably be hungrier than she already was when she woke up.

We walked back down to the docks, the spectre of the ship looming up before us. 

“How are we going to get them back?” Joseph asked the question that had been grinding on my brain like a whetstone on an ulu.

I thought of Dmitri, trussed up like a caribou, awaiting Arnaaluk. I thought of Arnaaluk, hungry and dark eyed as a qalupalik. “We’ve got to hunt the hunters.” A horrible thought occurred to me. “The qalupalik migration should be passing us soon.”

Joseph shuddered. I knew he was thinking of the drawings, the stories, the warnings we’d spent our lives receiving from the elders. Arnaaluk was so like them, his skepticism had evaporated. “They’d just as soon eat us.”

“They’ll eat the slowest swimmers in the water.”

“It’s suicide.”

“It’s all we got. They’ve got money, and a ship, and all sorts of shiny things. They’ve probably got twice as many guns as us. What they don’t have is our swimming ability or our chum.”

Joseph shook his head, wide eyed. “Chumming. Chumming during the qalupalik migration.”

It broke so many rules, rules we kept, not only from obedience, but from a bone deep survival instinct. Predators lived in the water, and we’d be fools to deliberately lure them. But what else was there for it? We had guns for bears, but bears were solitary creatures. You didn’t encounter them hundreds at a time. Bears didn’t think like qalupalik did. They didn’t hunt like qalupalik did.

I turned towards the fishery. “We don’t have the firepower to take them on. But we do have chum. So much chum.”


The sun was still high and bright when we were loading the last of the chumbuckets onto Joseph’s fishing boat, but I was bone tired. I was late-evening tired. 

A hand closed around my wrist, jostling me out of my fatigue. The pale hand had deep red grooves along the arms and wrists, grooves where the braided sinew had bitten into his flesh. I looked up into the haggard, desperate blue eyes of Dmitri. 

“You don’t give up, do you?” My voice was calm, but my heart hammered a thousand beats a minute.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” he hissed, “but you’ll never make it. That whelp will die the moment he sets foot aboard the ship, and you’ll not be that far behind.”

I glanced over my shoulder. Joseph was untying the boat from the dock and hadn’t noticed Dmitri yet. I could have screamed for him, but my tongue felt swollen in my mouth. 

“No one can get you out of this alive,” Dmitri pressed. “No one but me.”

I stared at him, torn between fear and utter, appalled disbelief. He, who had stolen my whole village, he, who had tried to get us to comply with the annihilation of my people, he was proposing to be my savior? My mind could not comprehend this level of gall.

“Elisapie,” Joseph said. “Hold very still.”

I didn’t dare look beyond Dmitri, but I could see her in the periphery, looming in the fog. She had awoken, and she was still hungry.

Dmitri’s hand tightened over my wrist, ignoring Joseph. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I liked you. You know that, right? I have my own supply, I don’t have to eat you. There’s a rehabilitation facility for people like us in Canada, I think. We can get there, I can get better. You don’t have to stay on this miserable island, you can see the world with me. There’s so much out there, you know.”

Bile rose in my throat. Behind him, in the mist, something was moving. It was shaped like Arnaaluk, but bigger. 

“Dmitri,” I said quietly, meeting his eyes. “Dmitri.” I sang his name this time, holding his gaze as tightly as he held my wrist. Holding his gaze so tightly he didn’t see my hand drop to the worktable behind me. “How could I trust you, when you’ve taken my whole island? How can I trust someone who keeps our kind trapped inside glass aquariums? That’s not where we belong.”

Why was he asking this now? I stared at him and there, in his desperation, lay the answer: he thought we stood a chance. I grasped this thought with fierce hope as my hand closed over the filet knife behind me. I gripped the handle and whipped it into the top of the hand gripping mine. He screamed, and the crimson blood that flowed from him darkened to black sludge as it hit the cold air. 

“We belong in the sea,” I said as Joseph started the engine.

Arnaaluk had reached him now, and as ravenous as she was, she didn’t eat him. Her dark claws raked him open. Upon finding all his blood to be rancid, she let him drop to the ground, her eyes rising to meet mine as we pulled out to sea. 

Her eyes were still the fathomless black they had been before, but they had shifted. The sadness in them now was unmistakable. 

She let out a long, slow wail that turned to wind. That wind blew so hard it pushed the water, thrusting us out to sea faster than our motor could carry us. I watched her, my heart echoing the sad cry until the fog shrouded her from our sight.

I thought of her namesake. Arnaaluk, the woman under the sea. The giantess. Of course she could move the currents. Joseph didn’t believe in the Old Gods. Most people didn’t believe in the Old Gods. But I did now.

I turned to look over buckets and buckets of chum that weighed down Joseph’s little vessel. I thought of the qalupalik, how the Aanas told us that they could smell blood in the water from a hundred miles away and could close that distance in a matter of minutes. How the smell drove them into a bloodthirsty frenzy that knew no limits. How they could strip a body to the bones in the time it took to open your mouth to scream. 

I picked up the first bucket of chum and tipped it over the back of the boat, watching as the blood and oil and flesh mixed into the churning wake of our path. 

“Here’s to preserving our people,” I said.


Like a venomous black cloud, they appeared, billowing towards us with deadly speed. 

I’d grown up on stories of the qalupalik my whole life. They were the kidnappers of the sea, snatching small children and sometimes even grown people from the ice when they wandered too close to the water, dragging them down to the ocean floor, to feed off their energy, devour their flesh, or raise them as other qalupalik. The stories were always different, depending on who told them, but the point was the same: if you were caught by the qalupalik, you would lose your life. You could even lose your soul.

That is what we knew, Joseph and I, and still we poured bucket after bucket of chum into the sea, until the dark cloud of qalupalik swimming towards us stretched from one end of the sea to the other, as far back as the eye could see. I had never imagined there would be so many. I thought about all the stories of violence that just one rogue creature could inflict on a town, and here there were thousands of them. 

“Almost there,” Joseph said quietly. He was feeling this same trepidation. I could see it in the stiffness of his back whenever I dared glance away from the army behind us. The sight of those dark figures in the water, drawing ever closer, filled me with a primal fear I could scarcely put words to. Visions of them launching themselves onto the deck of our ship like skeletal, humanoid demons, scrabbling towards us with their deathly white arms and their serpentine black tails, sent a shiver down my spine. 

“They’ll tear your boat to shreds,” I said. It wasn’t a fear borne of my anxiety; it was a statement of fact. We were wildly outnumbered. “I’m sorry, Joseph.”

Joseph shook his head. “There’s no need for you to apologize. You didn’t bring the cruise ship here. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made.”

“I’d rather you not be part of that sacrifice, though.” This was also a factual thing; if we didn’t reach the cruise ship on time, we, too, would be torn to shreds. As little as I liked the idea of boarding a ship full of cannibals, I liked our chances of survival there much more than our chances out here, on the water, facing down a bloodthirsty qalupalik horde. 

Joseph tightened his jaw and his grip on the tiller.

A bony, pale hand with claws the length of daggers, slapped wetly onto the back of the boat. I grabbed Joseph’s rifle and brought the butt of it down onto those fingers, as hard as I could. A ghoulish screech was abruptly muffled as the qalupalik disappeared back under the water. I glanced over my shoulder; we were less than half a mile out from the ship. Joseph was guiding his boat towards a ladder a pair of sailors had dropped over the side. They were expecting us. They had assumed that Dmitri’s invitation had worked. 

Four hands with grappling hook-sized claws appeared this time. I pounded off three of them before another six appeared. I shuffled along the back rail, jabbing the gun against demonic white faces and sickly pale hands. If it weren’t for the claws, they’d be the hands of dead people, drowned in a frozen sea. Their screams grew increasingly outraged, the hands, and now heads, and now torsos appearing over the back railing of the ship became too many. I considered turning the gun around and pulling the trigger, but the kickback was more than I could handle, and I was a notoriously bad shot. I’d just as likely shoot my own foot as stop one of these from advancing. 

I fell back as they made it over the rail, flopping onto the deck with all the grace of landed fish, using their black tails to leverage themselves forward, pale arms reaching for me, gaping mouths screeching and wordless. 

“Retreat!” I shouted to Joseph by way of warning, pulling him from the tiller.

Shaken from his task, he stared, wide eyed, at the creatures covering the deck, clawing over one another towards us. Our only advantage was that we were land creatures on the deck of a ship. Strong swimmers though we were, we would not stand a chance against them in the water. 

The momentum of the fishing boat had us coasting alongside the cruise ship, drawing closer to the ladder. We ran to the fore. It was too far to jump, still. The qalupalik drew nearer, drawing their lips back from their teeth, their faces contorted with a primal, predatory ravening. They were slow on land, but the moment one claw caught hold of us, it would be over.

We were ten feet away from the ladder. Joseph grabbed a long net and held the handle towards them. Ready to prod them off. I swallowed my fear and turned the business end of the rifle towards them, too. 

Eight feet from the ladder. The nearest qalupalik grabbed the net handle from Joseph, and even as he tried to jab them with it, the creature leveraged its grip on the handle to pull himself towards us even faster. My hands were shaking as I pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t discharge. It was too wet. Joseph let go of the net and the creature fell backwards. 

We had nothing with which to defend ourselves now. Six feet from the ladder. Five. 

It was probably too far to jump, but we had no choice. 

We jumped. 

Perhaps it was Sedna, the sea goddess, who chose to save us. Perhaps she loved us. Or perhaps she hated the qalupalik, or the cannibals. Whatever it was, we caught the ladder and scrambled up it. The qalupalik poured over the whole of Joseph’s fishing boat, like a breathing black and white wave of death, weighing it down, slowing its progress towards the ladder. By the time we were pulling ourselves onto the deck, a dozen qalupalik were pulling themselves up the ladder, their tails undulating and thrashing in the wind. 

A ruddy faced man wearing a captain’s uniform strode towards me, hand extended. “We meet again, Elizabeth. I’m so glad to have your cooperation today. Your friends and family are…overly agitated.”

I stared at him, breathing hard. Did they not see what was coming up after us on the ladder? Did they not see my own “agitation”? I struggled to catch my breath, casting about the deck for something, anything, I could effectively use against the hoard that was coming up the side. 

“Captain!” someone called. “We’ve got company!”

Shouts of alarm and calls to arms echoed across the deck as staff scrambled to find things to ward off the qalupalik. Joseph’s eyes locked on mine and we both understood: we were forgotten for the moment, but we didn’t have much time. 

I led him into the ballroom, up the stairs to the place where that mermaid had been. I could hear the cries of dozens–hundreds–how many had they taken captive on this ship?

I ripped away the curtain Dmitri had lifted only the night before. The aquarium was packed like a fish farm — our whole town, and full bodied merfolk besides. A large padlock bolted the door that presumably allowed access to the aquarium. I grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall and began slamming it against the glass as all their eyes turned on me. 

“Wait!” Joseph shouted over the banging. “Shouldn’t we just break the lock?”

I handed the extinguisher to Joseph. He knocked the lock off and we ran inside, climbing the stairs to the top of the aquarium. The water’s surface was ten feet below the top of the glass, but rope ladders hung on the walls. We dropped them into the water and our people climbed them as quickly as their waterlogged bodies would carry them. Aana Alasie came first, and she fell into his arms, shaking with exhaustion. Joseph’s shoulders shook with relief, relief and anger. 

“I’m going to kill them. I’m going to kill them all,” he growled. “How could they have taken you?”

His Aana shook her head. “We can have our revenge, or save our people,” she said. Her voice’s silky low alto had somehow become silkier. Was it something in the water, perhaps, or having shared the space with all the merfolk? I didn’t have time to answer this — children and elders needed help getting up the ladder quickly. We weren’t leaving anyone behind.

Even as I thought this, I looked back down into the water. The mermaids couldn’t climb the ladder. Even if they could, there were stairs to descend, a ballroom to cross, and a deckful of cannibal humans to fight through, only to jump into an ocean filled with qualupalik. It was obvious, bitterly obvious why they had put the aquarium up here on this upper level of the ship; down low, perhaps, we might have found a window to break, or perhaps we could have found a way to ram through the hull. But up here–it was like being stuck in the middle of the desert.

They had swum to the surface and stared at us mournfully. The mermaid I’d connected with last night reached out her hand to me and I took it. As her hand wrapped around her wrist, I was immediately filled with unfathomable pain and longing. The water was thick with something that gummed up their voices and drowned the sharpest edges of their pain, but the pain still persisted, without end. She was a mother, and her children waited hundreds of miles south of here, if they still lived. They were all of them mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. They deserved freedom as much as us. 

I turned to our Joseph. “You’ll lead them to the north end of the ship — if we’re lucky the qalupalik will be so distracted with the cannibals that you’ll be able to jump overboard and swim home.”

Joseph shook his head. “I’m not leaving without you.”

“And I’m not leaving without them. We don’t have time for this.” As if on cue, the sounds of qalupalik screeching and humans shouting echoed through the dining room. 

“She’s right, Joseph,” said his Aana. “Trust her. She’ll find a way.” The old woman smiled at me in a way that warmed me through to my toes. “Let’s go.”

Joseph opened his mouth to protest, looked at me and his Aana, and then closed it again. He squeezed my hand one more time. “Come back to us.”

“I will.” I looked down to the mermaid, still clasping my hand in the water. “I’m getting you out of here. I promise.”

She nodded, but narrowed her eyes fiercely. It was an impossible promise to make, she knew it. 

Letting go of her hand, I walked down the stairs, meaning to pick up the fire hydrant and begin banging on the aquarium glass again. But what would that do? Create a lot of broken glass over which the merfolk would slide, shredding their skin and drawing qualipalik. I punched my fist to the wall in frustration, and a metallic echo sounded. I punched it again, curious this time. 

Nothing lay between us and the outside but corrugated tin. I took the fire hydrant and swung it, as hard as I could, into the wall, creating a deep dent. Ten more swings and I had an opening large enough for a mer. It was a hundred foot drop, but it didn’t have to be. Not if the ship was upside down. 

Not if the ship was upside down. 

I remembered the stories about the Elders, how they sang. What they did to the sea, that caused it to eject the Japanese Submarine from the water like a ball cut loose from a spinning igruuraak. That was why the submarine was half swallowed in a hillock, the skeleton of its operator still coming apart inside. The Elders did that. They say they did that, and if they did that then, surely they could flip this boat, and free these merfolk. 

Outside, the clamor had quieted. I pressed a hand to the glass, and the mermaid pressed her hand to the other side. “I’m getting help,” I said. She tilted her head, her expression impassive. I hope she understood.

The ballroom was hauntingly empty. There was blood on the floor, both red and black. 

The qalupalik were gone, and their absence left a heavy silence. I hoped it was only cannibals who had sated them. 

There was no one on the deck either, though the wreckage and carnage was everywhere. Bones littered the surface of the water, and again, that terrible dread that some of them might belong to an Aana or Aama clutched at me. I needed to find my people, and to find them all alive. I dove into the water and swam towards the shore, so singularly focused on where I was going that I didn’t see the four rogue qalupalik until they were upon me, their dark claws scabbling to find purchase in my legs. 

I jerked free, causing their claws to tear through me. The heat of my blood leaving my body filled me with dread. The red cloud bloomed out, washing over the four monsters at point blank distance. A communal shriek tore through my mind as their bloodlust flared and they swarmed me, all claws and teeth. I landed punches, dropped elbows into their luminous black eyes, but it would only be a matter of seconds until it wouldn’t matter anymore. In less than a minute, my body would be stripped of its flesh and I would be gone, all gone.

Two strong hands reached in and pulled me out. Screams of rage filled my head, but whoever — whatever grabbed me would not be deterred by the qalupalik’s discontent. They pulled me away and swam with astonishing speed towards the island. 

As we moved away from water fogged with blood and fear, I saw the black claws encircling me, the long black tail propelling us through the water. It was just another qalupalik, taking me for itself. I thrashed and fought and bit and scratched and twisted, until I caught a glimpse of the face. 

The qalupalik was Arnaaluk. 

Arnaaluk, the woman from the sea. 

Arnaaluk, the giantess. 

Arnaaluk, my sister.

We had reached the shallows. Arnaaluk set me on the rocky seafloor and let go. There was a fullness to her belly — she was sated on the blood of one kind or another — and she stared at me mournfully for a long minute before turning and disappearing into the waves. 

I stood up, breaking the surface of the water. A cold wind hit me, sending a shiver through my body. My sister was a qalupalik now. It was, I supposed, what happens when our own kind eat merflesh. We, too, change. We, too, become addicted, ravenous, eternally hungry. But under the hunger, we, too, are still us. And in the end, it was the qalupalik who saved us, wasn’t it?

I turned landward to see half the town huddled in blankets at the shore. They had come back to wait for me, to watch for me. I ran to join then.

Dad wrapped me in a blanket. “We thought we’d lost you.”

It was as close as Dad would ever get to saying I love you, and for me, it was enough. He cared. 

I leaned into him and he held me. I felt held by everyone. They knew now I had been telling the truth. 

“Where is Arnaaluk?” he asked. 

“She’s gone to sea,” I said. “She’ll be all right.”

Dad held me tighter, his hot tears falling onto my ear. 

I looked to Joseph’s Aana. “Did you really force the sea to spit that submarine into a hill?” 

Joseph’s Aana smiled. “As surely as the sun rises and sets.”

“If you could do that then, could you capsize a cruise ship now?”

Joseph’s Aana shook her head. “Not alone. We Elders were young when we did that. Most of the people who helped us are dead now.”

Joseph bit his lip. “If we helped you, then?”

Aana smiled. “If you helped us, we could do anything.”

Joseph took her left hand, I took her right, Dad took my right hand, and soon the entire village was connected. 

Aana began to sing, a long, low, rhythmic song. Within the first few notes, all the Elders were singing it with perfect fluency. A look of startled recognition came over Dad’s face, and he began to sing it, too, along with all the people his age. In another minute, I knew the song, and so did Joseph. 

The waves of the sea began to rock and pulse, cradling the cruise ship in a fluid half pipe, swinging from side to side, tilting the ship further and further. We sang faster, and louder. Joseph’s Aana’s grip tightened on my hand, and so did Dad’s. Something ran through us, a thrill riding on the momentum of each tossing rush of water that threw the cruise ship from side to side. 

Finally, we hit the note — the peak of the song, the perfect singular moment when everything we’d been working towards came together. The cruise ship flipped, going top down into the water like a duck diving after a morsel to eat. 

We had to do more, though. The boat was heavily weighted on the bottom. I followed Joseph’s Aana’s lead as the notes became slower, heavier, deeper and deeper, pressing down on the vessel, keeping it upside down, pressing towards the seafloor. 

The merfolk knew what to do. Within minutes, their heads appeared above the surface of the water, leaping and diving in exhilaration at their freedom. 

We stopped singing, but the ship didn’t stop moving. It continued to rock and sway. Merfolk swarmed it the way qalupalik swarmed a carcass, stripping it of metal and glass with their bare hands. Had they been that strong in the aquarium, no mortal ship could have bound them. It was the seawater, the same thing that gave me strength. 

They pulled the ship apart and pushed the pieces landward. Our people waded out into the water to receive them as I stared on in disbelief. 

Joseph turned to me, grinning. 

“You do know what this means, right?”

I nodded. “The cruise ship people are providing us with our cultural center, after all.”

© Copyright Mathilda Zeller

Mathilda Zeller loves sushi, likes muktuk, and has never, to her knowledge, consumed mermaid. She grew up on her mother’s and grandparent’s stories of life in northern Alaska, and is a grateful beneficiary of the Aqqaluk trust (support them, they do good work). She drinks too much herbal tea, has a low key horticulture addiction, and writes stories whenever she can. She currently lives in New England with her husband, six children, and six chickens.

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