The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club
STELLA STARFLAKE PEARL RUBBED frost from the turret window and scowled out at the snow. She ought to be in the most splendid mood—it was her birthday tomorrow, and the only thing Stella loved more than birthdays was unicorns. But it was hard to be cheerful when Felix was still refusing to take her on his expedition. Even though she’d begged, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, and stormed—none of it had done any good at all. The thought of being packed off to stay with Aunt Agatha again made Stella feel positively sick. Aunt Agatha didn’t know much about children, and sometimes she got things completely wrong, like the time she gave Stella a cabbage for her packed school lunch. No chocolate dinosaurs, or marshmallow cake, or treats of any kind—just a single, solitary, useless cabbage. Plus, Aunt Agatha had nostril hair. It was almost impossible not to sometimes stare at it.
Stella had wanted to be an explorer ever since she was old enough to know what the word meant. More specifically, she wanted to be a navigator. She never got tired of looking at maps and globes, and as far as she was concerned, a compass was just about the most beautiful thing in the whole entire world. After unicorns, obviously.
And if she wasn’t meant to be an explorer, then why had the fairies given her a middle name? Everyone knew that only explorers had three names. Felix had given her his last name, Pearl, but then hadn’t known what to do about a first name, so he’d asked the fairies to name her instead. This was probably a good thing, because Felix was fond of peculiar names like Mildred and Wilhelmina and Barbaretta. But the fairies had given her not one name, but two: Stella and Starflake. And surely that meant that she was absolutely destined to be an explorer.
Stella scrambled onto the turret window seat and pulled her legs up to rest her chin on her knees. It was getting dark outside, and she knew Felix would be looking for her to give her her twilight present. It was a tradition they had—Stella was always allowed to open one present the night before her birthday. But right now she was too angry and disappointed for presents, so she’d come up to the turret to hide. And if she tucked herself into the window seat she couldn’t be seen from the end of the corridor.
Unfortunately, though, Gruff liked the turret too, and
he had come lumbering over almost as soon as Stella had sat down, and was now poking his nose into her pockets in search of cookies. Mrs. Sap, their housekeeper, hadn’t been very happy when Felix brought an orphaned polar bear cub home one day, but the bear would have died otherwise. Not only was he an orphan, he had a deformed paw as well, and would never have been able to survive in the wild. Stella thought it was the best thing ever to have a polar bear in the house, even if he did almost flatten her sometimes when he wanted to cuddle. Polar bears were quite startlingly huge.
She reached into her pocket for a fish cookie and held it out to Gruff, who took it from her with extreme gentleness and then crunched it up happily, covering her in crumbs and bear slobber. Stella was used to the bear slobber, so she didn’t mind, but the downside of Gruff coming to see her was that he gave her presence away when Felix entered the corridor a few minutes later.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, stopping by the window seat. “I’ve been searching high and low for you.”
Stella looked up into his face—her favorite face in the whole world, the first one she could ever remember seeing. Stella had been a snow orphan, just like Gruff. If Felix hadn’t found her when she was a baby, she would probably have died out there, alone on the ice. Stella had never met anyone with hair as white as hers, or skin as pale, or eyes her particular shade of ice-chip blue. Most people had pink, or
black, or brown skin, but Stella was white as a pearl from head to toe. It was something that had always bothered her. She wished she looked more like her adoptive father.
Felix wasn’t particularly handsome or distinguished, and he didn’t sport a mustache, whiskers, or sideburns, as was the current fashion. This was in large part because those things required quite a significant time commitment in terms of grooming and maintenance, and Felix said he had (so far) counted up a total of 134 more interesting ways that he would rather spend his time, including making numbered lists of interesting ways he would rather spend his time. His nose was bent at the top, and Stella loved the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. His golden-brown hair was usually just a little bit too long, curling around his collar—and his mouth always wanted to smile. Felix didn’t like frowning. He said it was a waste of good muscle use.
Stella had always thought of him as a special person, and the fact that he was a fairyologist proved it beyond doubt. There weren’t many humans that fairies would speak to, but they had always liked Felix. He could hardly leave the house in the summer months without one of them perching on the brim of his hat or landing on his shoulder to whisper into his ear. So if he forgot to brush his hair sometimes, or put on odd socks, or did the buttons of his shirt up wrong, none of that mattered one bit to Stella. Besides which, Felix knew how to ride a unicycle, perform card tricks, and make little flying
birds out of paper—and if that wasn’t enough to make someone a favorite person, Stella didn’t know what was.
“It’s twilight-present time,” he announced, holding up a white box wrapped with a wonky pink bow.
It took all of Stella’s discipline to say, “I don’t want it.” She turned her head to stare out the window.
“I cannot believe you are serious,” said Felix. He tried to nudge Gruff—who had lain down next to the window seat—out of the way, but nudging a polar bear is a bit like nudging a mountain and really isn’t any use at all, so Felix climbed over the bear instead and sat on the seat opposite Stella.
“I’d take you in a heartbeat,” Felix said quietly. “If girls were allowed on expeditions, then you know I would take you.”
“It’s not fair that girls can’t be explorers!” Stella said. “It’s stupid and it doesn’t make sense!”
The injustice of it made her whole body tremble. Stella had grown up listening to Felix’s stories whenever he returned home from an expedition, and had always loved them, but there comes a time when a girl gets tired of hearing about other people’s adventures and wants to start having a few of her own.
Plenty of explorers took their sons with them on expeditions. Even Stella’s friend Beanie was going on this next one with his uncle, the renowned entomologist Benedict
Boscombe Smith. Beanie was the same age as Stella, but he was part elf and not quite like the other children at their school. He had a long list of dislikes that, so far, included small talk, sarcasm, handshakes, hugs, and haircuts. Basically anything that involved physical contact was a definite no.
“You’re absolutely right,” Felix replied. “It is stupid, and it does not make sense. I’m sure it will be different one day. But the world doesn’t always change as quickly as we’d like it to.”
Stella continued to look out the window, preferring to stare at the snow than meet Felix’s eye. “I thought rules didn’t matter to you,” she said, biting her lip.
Felix had always said that some rules were okay to break and, in fact, some should be broken regularly for one’s health. When Aunt Agatha said that Stella needed a woman in the house to bring her up properly, Felix was always on Stella’s side about stuff like being allowed to gallop around the grounds on her unicorn, or build a fort out of books in the library, or learn how to make balloon animals rather than sew ugly embroidery.
“There are some rules that absolutely cannot be broken,” he’d say. “Like being kind and treating others as you’d like to be treated yourself. But whether or not people laugh at you, or think you peculiar or different from them, doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things.”
“It’s not like it would hurt anyone if I went on the expedition, is it?” Stella asked, trying to use Felix’s own logic against him. “And if people think it’s strange for a girl to be an explorer, then that’s their problem. Not mine.”
Felix sighed and put the present down on the seat between them. “My dear thing, I wish it were that simple. But I don’t make the rules at the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club.” He nudged the present along the seat toward her. “Let’s not let it ruin your birthday. Why don’t you open your present?”
“Take it away. I don’t want it,” Stella said in her coldest voice. But she felt awful as soon as she spoke, and she hated herself for being cruel, and she hated being angry with Felix too. It felt so unnatural not to be friends—it made her stomach feel all twisted up and wrong.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted quickly. “That was mean.”
Felix picked up the present and pressed it into her hands. “Open it,” he said again. “The poor things will be getting terribly stuffy in there by now.”
That piqued Stella’s curiosity, so she tugged off the bow, removed the lid from the box, and stared down at a tiny igloo, nestled in a bed of pink tissue paper. Exclaiming in delight, she lifted it free of the box and realized it was made from actual ice. Each minute brick felt freezing against her fingers, and frost sparkled along the curved surface like dozens of tiny diamonds.
“It’s enchanted,” Felix said. “That’s why it doesn’t melt. I got it from a magician I met on my travels through Snuffleville. Look inside.”
Stella lifted it to peer through the open doorway and gasped at the sight of a family of tiny penguins happily sliding about on the ice inside.
“They’re Polar Pets,” Felix told her. “They’re part of the magic trick, so they don’t require feeding or anything, although the magician said they like to be sung to every once in a while. One of the other igloos had polar bears in it and another had seals, but I thought you’d like the penguins best.”
“I love them!” Stella replied.
“There was even one igloo that had tiny snow goblins inside, but that one struck me as just plain worrying. What on earth are you supposed to think if someone presents you with an igloo full of snow goblins? When I looked in, they seemed to be trying to poke each other’s eyes out with twigs. It was all getting quite violent.”
“Sounds like the kind of present Aunt Agatha would give,” Stella said, immediately feeling glum again as soon as she said her name.
Stella loved the tiny penguins in their tiny igloo, just as she had loved all the other oddities, treasures, and knickknacks that Felix had brought back from his travels. But what she really wanted—more than anything—was to find her own marvels and rarities to bring back home with her.
She wanted to have her very own study, the walls lined with maps and charts, where she could spend as much time as she liked drawing up packing lists, inspecting her curiosities, and planning her next adventure to strange lands on the other side of the world.
“Your aunt does her best,” Felix said. “She just . . . well, she finds our ways a little odd, that’s all. But she does care . . .” A faint frown line appeared between his eyes as he looked out the window. “In her own way.”
Stella wasn’t at all sure about that. Felix had always introduced Stella to people as his daughter, and she knew he loved her as much as any father ever could, even if she was just another orphaned foundling he’d discovered in the snow. But Aunt Agatha had always looked at her with the same kind of mild distaste with which she looked at Gruff after he’d just done one of his long, loud, fish-biscuit burps.
Stella didn’t want to argue with Felix anymore, though, so she gave him a kiss good night, scrambled over Gruff, and returned to her room. She set the igloo by the side of her bed, got changed, and then climbed under the sheets, where she stared up at the slowly revolving mobile that hung from the ceiling. She knew she was too old for mobiles now, but Felix had made this one for her when she was very small to make her feel more at home, and Stella loved it.
He’d designed it to remind her of where she’d come from, stringing it with shaggy-haired yetis, snow-white
unicorns, massive woolly mammoths, and glimmering silver stars. There were even abominable snowmen and cloven-hoofed yaks on there, all painstakingly created from clay and beads and wool and sparkling glass stones. Stella had only been a couple of years old when Felix had found her—too young to remember anything about her life before. And yet, sometimes she’d dream she was a baby again, sitting on a bed, playing with a tiara covered in crystals and pearls and ice-white gems. Then the image would shift, and she’d be outside and there would be blood splattered across the snow. . . .
Stella knew she would never find out what had happened to her or her biological family, but the frozen wilderness out there had been her home once and she wanted to see it again for herself.
And when Felix and his expedition attempted to be the first explorers to reach the coldest part of the Icelands, Stella wanted to be there with them. She just needed to think of a way to get Felix to let her come.
Finally, she sighed, turned over in bed, and snuggled down deeper into the covers, where she fell asleep to the sound of the quiet, happy honking of the penguins in their igloo.