The thought called up an angel from my sleep, as May appears in front of me at the Shack. May from Garry Lake. Garry Lake is in the Northwest Territories, and dozens of May's people there, in a small hunting settlement far away from anywhere, died from starvation when a hut built by the government burned down. There was no meat on the land at that time, and the hut had held all their food, except for some dried fish in their igloos.
"You must not eat char, Kingumikti," May says (what she really called me was "Qingumigaqti," but I was known as Kingumikti). "Char is only for dogs."
Her people died surrounded by dried char, stacked against the cold walls, everywhere. It is better to die than eat char. Not just because char is for the dogs, but also because if you believe in something all your life, and remain true, then it is an absolute. How else are you going to find an absolute these days?
May ate char and lived, and now she has been given a purpose. To follow me in my mind, and show me tomorrow. She certainly showed up at the right time, as I went to the Shack to think of a reason to look forward to tomorrow. When none appeared, I dreamed of Mary and Alex in the past, both with the dark brown hair, and ordered char.
May looks on in disgust as I raise a piece of char to my mouth. She says, "If you want tomorrow, you have to go back first. When you go back, there are many tomorrows to see. When you see them, then you can see the tomorrow that is still to come."
WE ARE BACK at Baker Lake, May and I. It is in the fifties (year, that is) and the minus fifties (temperature). Midwinter, midnight, and black and white outside. The settlement has about twenty whites, as they called us then, and there are about three hundred Eskimo, as we called them, around and about. I shall call them Inuit, which is their choice. Baker Lake existed, as it does now, for hunting, weather forecasting, a bit of scientific work, and the spreading of the good word.
There are about a dozen crazy godforsaken whites living in a compound of buildings, and a few married folk with little houses nearby, buried to the rooftops in snow. The compound houses the cookhouse, the dining room, the diesels, the bedrooms, and crappers where you can go in warmth. Once a week the drums are hauled away from a hole in the wall, to go where no white man has gone before. Don't ask. I forgot the rec room. Billiards, gnip-gnop, and dances when the illicit home brew has ripened and the Mountie has gone off on the land.
Frank is walking on the hard, squeaky snow with a big sack on his back, full of freshly baked, rapidly cooling bread. The cook bakes bread once a week, and Frank knocks back a lot of brewskis and sits patiently waiting, smelling the yeasty air. When the cook goes to bed, and we all have gone to bed, Frank takes the warm loaves and tiptoes round the bedrooms in the compound, stuffing a loaf under the covers of every sleeper. Now he is off to the houses, with bread on his back like Santa Claus abandoned by his reindeer, but with the spirit of Christmas in his heart.
Next morning we all bring the bread back when we come for breakfast. No one says anything about the growing pile of loaves on the counter. Same as last week. Frank doesn't show. He is sleeping off the beer and labour of last night, but it is a happy sleep, because he has blessed us all with his love once again.
"Why do you remember that?" May asks. Because they had no bread or wine at Garry Lake, those sturdy caribou hunters who starved when fire took their supplies. They had a different communion. "Today we shall die," they said. "Yes. Today. We will not hunt again." Ikudluk. Too bad. No tomorrow.
May asks, "Which is better? To have wine and bread, and a fleeting tomorrow, and a little knot of fear lurking in your heart for the ending of tomorrow? Or to have calm, and lose the future without fear?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Both are better," she said. "You choose."
"They are tough, and sometimes heartless, your people," I say to May.
"It may appear to you that way, Kingumikti," she says, "but not to us. Remember the rape parade."
The rape parade. It is Christmas Eve, but the Mountie has hitched up his dogs, and gone out into the white snow and black sky. The only snowmobile lies at the bottom of Baker Lake. It did not belong to the Mountie, but to Scottie, an Inuit with all the entrepreneurial spirit of his father, the former factor at the Hudson's Bay post. Scottie had bought the snowmobile after a good winter's hunting, but it was too heavy to go where his komatik had gone, and next winter, braaak, it went through the ice. Five fathoms deep his snowmobile lies. Duncan would have approved. Duncan, the assistant at the post, whom I had welcomed to the Arctic as he got off the plane, liked dogs and sleds better. "When you get lost," he later said, "ye canna eat a carburetor." Duncan truly loved the Inuit and their kind hospitality, and won election to the Territories Council with his crisp slogan "Vote for Daddy!"
But I digress. The Mountie returned after New Year's, with Thomasie following behind. A rape had been reported in a settlement more than a hundred kilometres away, and Thomasie was the suspect. Rape? Rape was unknown among these gentle and sharing people. It was like a tornado, or an earthquake, in a land where the husband would welcome you with open arms to his igloo on the land, and the wife with her warm body. But some old grudge had revived ...
A little later on, the Mountie held a rape parade inside the compound, in the late morning as the sun was just returning. The Inuit lined up in a raggedy row, giving off the sweet smell of seal fat. Dignified, totally quiet, they stood there at the Mountie's request, as the young girl walked slowly down the line. She stopped at Thomasie, and a low murmur arose. She and Thomasie were talking, so quietly that you could not make out the words. She then passed to the end of the line, and spoke to the interpreter.
"The man who did it is not here," the interpreter said.
"Is she certain?" asked the Mountie.
"She is certain."
"You can go," said the Mountie.
But no one moved from the lineup. Then old Sagassie came up from the back, where he had been watching. He stood in front of Thomasie, and talked to him in the same low murmur that the girl had used. And he talked and talked and talked. Thomasie did not speak until the end, when he said, "Ima." Yes.
The men then left the lineup and gathered outside in the low noon sun shining on the lake. And Thomasie appeared in a while, with his sled, and all his dogs hitched up. He stood there for a moment, and looked at each man gathered there, and they looked at him. Then he took a firm grip on his sled, mushed his dogs, and headed off down Baker Lake to the east. To the inlet, and to the great bay. The men watched him until he was a tiny dot in the dim light, and then they left.
Where was the Mountie? He was in his house, where he had drawn the blind over the window, so he could not see out. Later, he gathered up Thomasie's rifle, his food, and his skins, and gave them to the men who had watched Thomasie leave.
"That was very sad," I say to May.
"No, it was joyful," says May. "It let Thomasie come back to his people before he died. You white folk seek peace in a god. We find it in our people, and greater than that, in the land and the living things, and then in the spirits. All these were Thomasie's when he went alone to the east.
"Hear Thomasie," she says, and she calls him up.
He appears, a shape of still snow in the drifting whirls.
"How are you, Thomasie?" she asks.
"I was not happy when the Mountie brought me back, but when I left, I went far and I died happy," he says, and his form blows away. May then says to me, "Is that not the greatest tomorrow of all? To die happy? Will you die happy, Kingumikti?"
Next morning we are in the cookhouse, lured from somewhere unknown by things temporal-the aroma of frying food. Bacon beckons. Fried eggs call. Frank appears, cursing away because he has a frozen ass, and it hurts to sit down. The day before, he had sassed Peter, who does our maintenance, for being fat. This morning he had gone first to the inhouse, for his morning dump. The inhouse is like an outhouse, except that it is inside the compound in a room, with its back wall part of the outside wall of the compound. The outside wall has a large door, through which the shit buckets (inelegant, but that's their name) are pulled out and emptied.
Frank was halfway through his business when he heard the walldoor open, and the large bucket being pulled away from under him. Peter, with amazing grace, had chosen that moment to take the bucket and empty it, leaving Frank's ass suspended over the hole, blasted by the frigid air. Funniest damn thing we've heard of in weeks. Frank gets no sympathy. Surprisingly, later, he is nice to Peter. Peter has a house, and next week Frank will take warm bread to Peter's house. Now that's power.
"Time to party," says Karl, the diesel mechanic. It is mid-winter, and minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit outside the door. The sun flirts briefly with the lake each day around noon, then slips back into the darkening vastness. Karl has been feeling a bit low, but not as low as Mac the Cook. (That's Cook with a capital C. The Cook is important.)
Karl comes from Winnipeg. He maintains the three huge dieseis that spin the generators. Always two running and one down, which Karl services in a leisurely way. It takes him about a day a week, and the rest of the time he plays poker, drinks rye from an almost inexhaustible source, and sleeps. He has signed up for a second year at Baker Lake.
He responds in his form of blank verse, smiling at the thought of each line:
Sleep all day Drink all night Eatcack Have good time .
We are only allowed a dozen bottles of booze a year, ordered in advance for delivery by the September supply ship. Right to our front door! But not for Karl. Each month or so, when he reaches for another and finds air, he has a medical emergency. An asthma attack. He stumbles, wheezing as hard as he can, to the small hospital.
"Jesus, Karl," the nurse says, "again?"
But she sends him off to Winnipeg anyway, on the plane. He comes back with two bulging sports bags. Klinck, klinck, as he walks down the steps of the plane. The Mountie says, "What's in the bags, Karl?"
"Sody pop," he answers.
The Mountie snorts, but lets him go.
The party is in a large room in the compound. The Inuit in the settlement (most are out on the land) come for the square dancing, and the Virginia Reel. I call a Virginia Reel, which I have introduced to the settlement.
"Everybody forward and back. Do it again with a wickety-wack."
The concertina starts up, and the dancing is vigorous and fun. When the squares and reels are over, the Inuit disappear, and the records go on for the slow dancing. There are a few women at the dance, and we treasure their presence. Some wives, the nurse. The wives dance first and last with their husbands, but in between they dance with all, close and cuddling. It's their gift to the crazy, bushed single men, and their husbands all understand.
Mac the Cook is in a corner, weeping for his loneliness, and his wasted life. Not a happy man, even as cooks go. Cooks usually last about eight months or so, and then go bonkers in different ways. The last one threw a dozen freshly baked pies, methodically, one by one, at a husky pup that had slipped in the door. He was chopping at the big iron stove with a snow knife when the Mountie radioed Churchill for an emergency Otter to evacuate him. It's a hard life for a cook, and we take our turns to spell Mac once a week.
Karl hauls another mickey out of thin air, kicking the two dead soldiers at his feet behind him, and boogies over to cheer up Mac. He listens for a while, and then puts his arm around Mac, and starts to weep in sympathy. He rocks back and forth with Mac, somehow holding his mickey perfectly upright all the time. Karl can fall asleep, and slide off a chair to the floor, but the precious mickey stays level and steady in his big mechanic's paw. A great gift. Mac then stands up, wipes his eyes, staggers out to the kitchen, and comes back into the darkened room with a big cake, cut into squares in the tin it was baked in. He offers it first to Karl, for his earlier sympathy.
"Good cack," Karl says.
The party eventually breaks up when Frank does in our precious copy of the Tarzan movie. We had showed it after dinner, and Frank was entranced with Jane, swimming under water, with no clothes on. Halfway through the party, he retires to a corner of the dark room, behind a table, and sets up the projector with its lens inches from the wall. He finds the swimming sequence on the reel, and just intends to watch it a couple of times. But as the booze takes hold, he becomes transfixed, and runs the sequence forward, and back, and forward, and back. Ptoing-the poor, abused film breaks, and a half-hour's worth of 16-millimetre dreams go flying all over the corner of the room. Lots of warm bread, Frank, if you want us to forgive you for that!
"I felt so good in those days," I tell May, "Tomorrow could bring anything."
"Tomorrow could still bring anything," she says, "You are alive. Have faith. You are here because you had luck when you were young. That means you still have something to do."
A few years later, I have finished my long winters at Baker Lake, and I am going to law school. In the summer, I have joined the Jacobsen-McGill expedition to Axel Heiberg Island in the Arctic, as a geomagnetician--my old trade at Baker Lake. We are going from Isachsen on Ellef Ringnes Island, up through the Sverdrup Channel, to Eureka on the Fosheim Peninsula (lovely names), and are flying in a twin-engine Otter over the Beaufort Sea, north of Axel Heiberg Island. I am sitting on a small wooden case, on top of a large wooden case, and it is very uncomfortable. The ceiling is 200 feet, and we are flying below it, bumping up and down. Just above us, cloud, and just below, the Arctic pack ice. We drop down to about 30 feet above the sea ice, and the two cases and I are suspended until the drop stops. Then, whump, as we bottom out, and climb back up to the cloud ceiling. After hours of whumps, I am gritting my teeth. My rear end has gone beyond pain.
When we land, the boxes are unloaded, and I ask what they contain. The big one--dynamite. The small one--dynamite caps.
"Don't worry," the construction engineer says, "these things hardly ever go off like that."
That evening in the mess hall, they have a good laugh at my fears. "It's like the popcorn stuffing for a turkey," says the engineer. "You pour the popcorn into the turkey, and stick the works in the oven. When the ass blows off the turkey, you know it's done. Your ass is still there. That's all you had to worry about."
It is a good summer in the High Arctic. I get the magnetic gear running at the expedition base camp on Axel Heiberg Island, and the readings roll in. I climb Wolf Mountain alone, and get bawled out by the chief scientist when I return for being an idiot. It is a magnificent climb. Endless scree at the start, but a peaceful, still view for miles at the top. The mountain has only been climbed once in recent times-by the chief scientist and a mountaineer. They had put a note in a waterproof pouch under a stone cairn at the top. I take the cairn apart, open the pouch, tear three corners off the note, and put things back. If you ever climb Wolf Mountain, that's my sign. I don't know if that dynamite flight was a close call or not. Flying under the overcast was nothing. The only thing that scares me, and scares the seasoned pilots flying in the Arctic, is a whiteout. A whiteout has cloud and falling snow everywhere. No visibility to speak of in any direction, including straight down. Kind of hard to land. My departure this summer from the base camp, however, is a close call.
The pilot and I are in a Super Cub, a small plane with big balloon tires. With them the plane can land on hard snow in the winter, or a rocky strip in summer, like the runway at the base camp. The Super Cub is a narrow plane, and I am sitting in a cramped seat directly behind the pilot. The engine is revving way up, as it is a short strip. At the far end, the runway just stops, as the land curves down about ten feet into a small lake.
The brakes are released. We roar down the runway, and about halfway down, the pilot yells, "I can't get the tail up. Hang on. We're going to crash."
I wrap my arms around some metal struts, and think, "I hope it's quick."
At the end of the runway, we nose down over the rocks, and hit the lake. Splash. Then we are in the air again. The balloon tires have hit the water, and we goddamn well bounce back into the air! I can't believe it. Down again, bounce again, and we take off from the water as if it is a runway, with the tires bam-bam-bamming along the surface of the lake.
We circle and land, and I am so far gone they have to wrestle my arms from the struts and pull me out of the plane. What has happened, we find out, is that the cook's assistant has loaded a 70-pound bale of wire in the tail, to go back to Churchill. He covered it with a tarp, and forgot to tell the pilot.
"That was forty years ago," I tell May, "and I still shake to recall it."
"It was your god's gift to you," she says, "don't waste it."
"Those flying stories," May asks, "are they true?"
"Yes," I say, "the flying stories happened, and they're true. The other stories happened, but they are not true."
"You are a storyteller. It's all the same," says May.
"What do you want to do now? Where shall we go? I want to take you to Mexico, and tell you what happened there."
"Ah, so you want to tell more stories," May says. "My job with you is over. I am finished here. I am now going to see Thomasie, and tell him how you brought him back to life. Farewell, child. Don't forget to write." And she leaves for nowhere and everywhere.
So i will tell you more stories tomorrow, about Mazatlan and a brave forcado, about Pienza, and an epiphany in Assisi, about Nerja and the balcony of Europe, about the doctor in Cuba who made mojitos after the sun went down, but most of all, about Alex and Mary, my daughter and my wife, whom you will meet when you leave, as shall I.
DON FRASER (1937-2014) was a retired law professor and arbitrator when he wrote this story. He spent some time in the Canadian Arctic in the late '50s and early '60s as a geomagnetician at Baker Lake, as an inspector of geomagnetic observatories for the Dominion Observatory, and as a member of the Jacobsen-McGill Expedition to Axel Heiberg Island. "Inuit Dreams" first appeared in Queen's Quarterly 114/1 (Spring 2007).
Caption: SATELLITE IMAGERY: NASA
Caption: Don Fraser at Baker Lake, 1957.
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|Author:||Fraser, Donald O'Brien|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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