Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)
Slogging across slush was not normal. The ten white huskies with black-lined eye-lids spread out in their fan hitch tugging harder at the seal-hide leads to pull the hunter’s sled.
“This should not be,” Elijah Ujarak mumbled aloud, listening carefully for sounds of danger beneath the rasp of sled runners. He whistled encouragement to his dogs to continue forward to reach the place where ice met sea and sea met sky. It was not normal for the sea ice to be so soft this time of year.
A huge wall of black in the distance marked where he would hunt today. By sled and dogs it was already his second day on the land to hunt country food—-narwhal and seal, in particular. Last night he slept in an iglu he built, sleeping on caribou hides in relative comfort. Moe had offered to him his cabin by the tall glacier that looked like an ice tower, but Elijah preferred the iglu. The snow was “aputi,” perfect for making bricks that spiraled inward to create a hut.
Although Elijah wore traditional soft-chewed leather and fur from beavers, wolves and nanooks, his eyes were protected behind the polarized plastic lenses of black sunglasses. His seal-skin boots were new, a gift from Maki who had finally learned to make him useful things. He did like her apple pies, though, even if it was southern food.
Never taking his shaded eyes off the flat flow of sea-ice, or listening for cracks beneath the unseasonable slush, Elijah thought of Maki that first night in their marriage iglu. Was it really almost 40 years ago? He chuckled at how she hated him, their wedding arranged by parents honoring old ways despite the missions growing in influence.
In the morning she had to pee, and being a girl raised in the south in a place where planes flew and girls learned in buildings not on the land, she kicked out the door of the iglu to pee in the freezing cold. He thought her crazy and little, so he named her Maki. Better to name her “little” than “crazy.” “My name is Lucie,” she told him for the first 20 years. He’d cluck his tongue and say, “Maki Lucie who-knows-not-to-pee-under-the-hides.” Only crazy people or southern people peed outside in the cold.
The dogs drew nearer the black wall. It is said that the sea goddess built the black wall to watch for her husband the white bird. Many times now, Elijah had been paid to bring crazy men to this wall so that they could climb it with ropes of many colors. He’d tell them, “You can see the white bird from down here.”
One man replied that the white bird was a gyrfalcon. Elijah asked for his stories about gyrfalcon, but all he said was nonsense, that it ate other birds and had streaked feathers. Those men who like to climb did not seem to know any stories. So he told the man how the white bird was married to a girl. But the man interrupted and laughed at the story that a bird would marry a girl.
The mission men had stories. Like the man who threw his walking pole and it became a snake, a creature like a sea eel. That man even made the sea split in half so people could walk where water once flowed. Elijah took his name from the mission story about a man fed by black birds. That seemed a practical thing to have in one’s name. As a hunter he would never go hungry. If he failed to fish or harpoon seal, the black birds would feed him. But he always brought home food. Sometimes Maki would smile and ask if he got the seal or the black birds did.
Again his sled bogged down and he turned the dogs closer to the wall of rock. He wondered about the sea ice, if children who were now ten-years-old would know ice when they were his age. Maybe, maybe not. If the ice left, would the seals leave too? No one had said. He could walk to the seals or follow them in a kayak. Ice was not food, but it was where the food lived and a way to travel to it and home again. Would it all be black, like the rock with no ice?
The sun was bright, the sky blue, the land white, the wall black. Snow was many things and ice, too. But what would it be to have no ice? Maki said that Inuit culture would have to be rewritten when the children were older like them. So he tells them stories so they would not forget the Inuit who knew ice. He tells them to revere the environment; you take care of it and it will take care of you.
But these men, these men who climb and search for hidden things in rocks, they say you control the environment. Elijah clucked his tongue and told his dogs, “These are two ways of thinking.”
He slowed the dogs down and stopped, looking at the land around him. This was where ice, sky and sea met. Soon he’d be looking for seals to blow and rise through holes in the ice, but for now, he looked at the ice as if it were his wife before him. Every crevasse a curve, every reflection the light in her eyes. So small they were, still before the wall of rock and expanse of frozen sea. The sky above was like a container. Elijah let out a breath of air that vapored momentarily.
And then the cracking began.
At first, it sounded like a hunter firing a rifle, but it was followed by the popping that a fresh fire makes in a hearth. Elijah could feel the sagging undulations of ice beneath him and knew there would be no where to escape what would come next. The sled broke through first and like a bird taking flight, Elijah spread out his body like an arrow atop his gear. Momentarily it floated.
The sagging reached the dogs and they all fell through, paddling toward the cliff. The fan hitch allowed each dog to swim without being on top of one another. Slowly the dogs began to pull the sled like a barge toward the shelf of ice clinging to the cliff. When that last shelf broke away, Elijah knew they would all sink. He wondered if it would help to have one of those colored ropes and he could climb the wall, but the sled was not a boat and already he could feel the icy water closing in on him.
Slowly he turned over to watch the sky. A hunter watches the land and sea; today he’d watch the sky and its glittering sun, as white as a glacier. A white bird—a gyrfalcon—circled overhead. Elijah smiled. The sea goddess sent her husband to look for him. Soon he would meet her. “Maki,” he whispered up to the bird, “I will miss you as much as the I miss the ice I once knew.”
The sled sank, taking with it each tethered sled dog and one Inuit hunter.
Hours later a small aircraft flew low past the Walker Citadel rising up out of the Sam Ford Fjord. Looking out the window, a man commented, “Best rock climbing ever, if you can escape the arctic reality—you know, the cold?”
His companions, a woman in a gray suit and heels and two other excutivly dressed men, laughed softly. The woman asked, “What do you make of that in the water? Looks man-made. There, among the cracks.”
A blue tarp and a red cooler bobbed in the water.
“Some fool Inuit hunter might have plopped his skidoo through the ice. Can’t seem to get it into their heads these days that it’s dangerous business, hunting on melting ice.”
The woman watched until the plane flew over the land. “Hopefully it was just one. Not enough to make a headline.”
Another man spoke. “You know, they’ll be better off when the ice melts and profits are rolling in from all the hydrocarbons just waiting to be tapped. This melt is good for everyone.”
“It’ll open new shipping lanes, new trade, too,” said another man.
“What’s the population of Baffin Island,” the woman asked.
“Eleven thousand, mostly natives.”
“Not many,” she said. “What do they hunt?”
“Some god-awful fish or walrus blubber or something hideous. At the Nunavut Mining Symposium last year they actually served chunks of raw, half-frozen fat. You know, I like a mean sushi with wasabi, but this was nasty,” the man in the black suit with powder blue tie said, sitting back in his leather seat.
The other two men grimaced. The woman asked, “When does our climate scientist arrive?”
“He was wrapping up a film schedule in Norway for that ridiculous History Channel show he does. Due to arrive in Minneapolis by Wednesday. The Japanese girls are hot for him.”
“Well,” the woman said, “That’s why we hired him. A scientist with Hollywood glitz. It’ll distract the locals from what he really here to look at.”
“Yes,” said another man in a navy suit, red tie, “Let them think we’re collecting data on ice melts because glamour boy likes to dog-sled. He can blend in with the natives and we can update our data despite the injunctions against seismic testing.”
“We’ll get that injunction reversed. Profits always win over people in polar bear suits,” said the man with the blue tie.
The woman frowned. “I don’t think they actually wear polar fur. I’ll check on that though. We want Hollywood Scientist to look natural, not like he’s pitching a Klondike Bar.”
Lucie looked up from her stitching, orange reading glasses near to falling off the tip of her nose. Elijah was not due back until tomorrow, but the feeling of anticipation would not leave her ever since she saw that gyrfalcon fly over town. She’d feel better once he came sledding in with those dogs yipping in excitement to be home. She hoped Aashka fared well, being the first time Elijah hitched her to the team. Reluctantly she turned off the television she wasn’t even watching, set aside her stitching and went to bed.