NaNoWriMo Word Count: 1,947
Dagen finished a second piece of warm apple pie, something he hadn’t thought to encounter in Clyde River. Lucie was sitting with him at the kitchen table and five other elderly woman, even older than Lucie who seemed to be about a similar age as Ax, all watch him from the cluster of chairs and couches in the living room that opened up to the kitchen. They all were smiling, which made Dagen nervous, as if he were supposed to do something more than swallow warm bites of sweet apples and flaky crust.
“Thank you, Lucie,” he said, pushing the plate away before she could ask him if he wanted another piece. “Where do you get apples up here?”
“I order several cases from a man in the south. He grows the apples on trees and dries them. They keep very well up north.” Lucie cleared his plate, setting it in the sink of the small kitchen.
“She doesn’t made her pie crust from muktuk no more,” said one woman from the couch as the others laughed.
Lucie shook her head and sat down at the table with Dagen. “No,” she said, “That was a mistake. I had learned to make pies in the south when I went to school. I had flour and needed some kind of fat to make the pastry. Muktuk was bad.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Now I order shortening. It is expensive but doesn’t taste like seal.”
“Apples and seals probably were not meant to go together,” agreed Dagen. Since arriving, he came to realize that one of the missing Inuit hunters was indeed, Elijah. He felt unsettled, but understood why. It awakened childhood memories. Dagen glanced at the women in the living room and remembered the Brimson neighbors, all women, most of Finish descent like his parents, who came and sat all night with his mother when his dad failed to return from fishing Lake Superior.
“Do you break dance,” asked a woman who sounded like she was clicking her teeth even as she spoke English. She must have been at least eighty years old with snowy-white hair and a crinkled face.
“Break dance?” Dagen was surprised that she would know about an urban style of dance from America. “Um, no,” he said. “Do you?”
“A little,” she answered. “Mostly I scratch records.”
“Oh.” Evidently cheek-pulling had competition here in Clyde River. “Where did you learn to break dance,” he asked.
“Those kids. They asked the elders to plan something for them because they have nothing to do,” she answered.
Lucie explained, “We have a community organization in Clyde River. Suicide has become a growing problem, and we do outreach with the youth in town to get them interested in something good. They heard about break dancers that came to Iqaluit and asked us to bring them here, too.”
Several of the woman began talking in Inuktituk, a few laughed, others nodded. Lucie told Dagen, “They thought these break dancers were imitating seals when they flopped around on the floor. But the kids liked it.”
“What do the kids like about it,” asked Dagen. “Don’t they have other dances, too. I saw some dances that the students in Ottawa did.”
“Yes,” said Lucie. “But this dancing seems to hold a voice for the youth. The kids are like those without a voice. Not all have been south, many have, though or they see things on computers. They are like silent people up north. The dancing of their elders doesn’t seem to fit and the kids feel that they have no fit in this world.”
“I think I can understand,” said Dagen. “I grew up in a rural place, it wasn’t even a town, really.” Brimson was nothing more than a community hall surrounded by family homesteads that dove-tailed logs into snow-tight homes, barns and saunas. Farming was poor, and many families supplemented logging and sparse hayfields carved out of the forest with fishing on Lake Superior. Many families left as children grew, but a few dug in like his parents. Sisu.
“In the south,” asked Lucie.
Dagen had to smile at that. Growing up in Minnesota, he was keenly aware that he lived “up north.” It was odd to think of it as in the south. “In northern Minnesota, but, yes, south from here.” Once a week, he would take a sauna with his dad. His sisters would take one with their mom. He never thought it odd until it hit him in college that every person he knew grew up showering. Yet, sometimes he craved the deep pore-cleansing of a sweat-bath followed by lathering soap and cold splashes. He could almost smell the hot cedar as the wood walls would bake and how good the warmth felt against his back. Ladles of cold water washed away the sweat and soap. A shower couldn’t compare.
“Did you want to dance differently than your parents,” asked Lucie. Her warm brown eyes held his green ones firmly, as if she really did understand his internal struggles he didn’t even know how to speak out loud.
“I think so,” he said, looking away from her gaze. He got up and walked over to the sleeping dog on the floor. Squatting on his toes, Dagen reached gently for the dog and began scratching behind her ears. She stretched her neck forward, pointing a black nose away from Dagen.
From the kitchen table, Lucie said, “The dogs were my solace, too.”
At first Dagen didn’t move. Who was this woman who seemed to be able to fish out feelings he had long submerged. He couldn’t really accuse Ax of talking about him to Lucie because these were feeling he never even shared with Ax. And Ax was the closest person he had in a life where he tried to keep people at arm’s length. But she was right. He reached out to dogs. Still squatting and rubbing the old dog’s ears he turned just enough to look back at her. “Why do you say that?”
She laughed heartily as if Dagen had delivered the punch line to a big joke. “I know what it is like,” she said. “My parents came in off the land when I was a very young girl. My older brother was barely of age to go to school. My mother wanted that for him and there was a school at Cape Dorset. My mother found her artistic skills were of use there, too. But I wanted more of the things I learned in school. Letters that became words, words that became ideas alive. I discovered that I loved to type by the time I was old enough to go south for more school. Ah, the south,” she said looking away as if remembering something she long for like apple pies.
Dagen thought about that for a moment. Although he could hardly compare Brimson to a village in the arctic, he could see how his generation was like an end for the life his parents and grandparents had tried to carve out in an unyielding land. He opted for college, to escape the endless swaths of white pine and trails of lakes. Like Lucie, he wanted to learn more. “But what did you want to do? I mean, if you loved learning and typing, what did you want to do with that?”
Lucie shook her head, smiling. “I don’t know. Maybe, I was like these kids, just trying to find my voice in a new and different world.”
Dagen had wanted to be away from his old world, if he could think of it as that. But he realized that he had no idea how to really fit into the new one, other than that he wanted to see it. “Why did you come back,” he asked.
“It was summer. School was over. I returned to my parents and discovered that I had a husband,” she said.
“You mean, your parents married you without your consent?” Dagen had heard of arranged marriages, but he didn’t think they still existed.
Lucie sat up straighter, pursed her lips for a moment, then said, “It was expected. I don’t mean I expected to return to a husband, but once learning that I had a husband, it was expected that I do the right thing.”
“And the right thing wasn’t to run,” asked Dagen, sitting down on the floor so he could continue to rub the dog’s ears and talk to Lucie.
“No, the right thing was to honor my parents. Honor my husband and his family,” she said.
One of the women from the couch added, “We do not write down our laws, but we have laws in a way. Just like you would not break a law that a Mountie would arrest you for, you would not break a law that was given to you.”
The old world, Dagen thought. Not unlike what sisu was to the Finnish. You did what was right no matter what. You ran the race no matter how hard the course. You kept the homestead no matter how rocky the soil. “I guess I chose to run away,” said Dagen. “Not that my parents arranged a marriage for me, but they left the family homestead to me, their son. And, I sold it.”
Lucie nodded as if understanding the stiffness that came over Dagen. She said, “If I knew how, I think I would have sold Elijah back then, too.”
The women laughed and Dagen relaxed, laughing, too. “So how did you manage to stay married, then?”
Lucie smiled broadly. “After ignoring him didn’t work, he ignored me by going hunting for long times, too, I think I got bored. When kids say they are bored, elders act like there is something wrong with them, but I know that boredom. Snow, games, singing, it can seem boring after seeing trees and riding in cars and airplanes and typing.”
A few of the women shook their heads as if Lucie were as hopeless as the youth. She continued, “So I started to walk the shoreline, taking the runt that Elijah left behind. She was a smart dog and liked the open water. She even learned to fish. I think Elijah was always looking for ways to get me interested in something other than my boredom. I was not good at art, didn’t learn a lot of the traditional skills because I grew up off the land. But I really got to like that dog. Elijah saw.” She began to tear up, looked away and sighed.
Thinking about it, dogs had been an escape for Dagen, too but not from boredom necessarily, but from missing his father. Had his father lived maybe he’d be chopping down white pines and hauling in a catch of whitefish from the big lake right now. “Dogs can fill empty spaces,” said Dagen.
“Yes,” said Lucie. “Really, I met my husband through the dogs. I learned to love him through the dogs. And I will remember him through the dogs.”
Dagen didn’t know what else to say but, “You have sisu, Lucie. It is a special kind of courage my elders knew.”
From outside, over the howl of the wind that had continued to pick up after the sun rolled over into the western horizon, the whine of a skidoo grew louder. A headlight beamed in the window then turned off. Someone seemed to pound up the front steps quickly and then the door flew open without a knock.
It was Tobie, covered in fresh snow as if dusted in powdered sugar. “The mounties’ plane crashed,” he said, breathlessly.