In Baffin land
A true Story
-1915-
 
By: Alan Sullivan
"The builder...hewed his way out through the bottom course".
 
Tuktu picked his spear from the sledge and shuffled up the hill. On low ground the snow was too powdery for igloo-building, but higher up it was rammed tight by the wind. One of the waiting women cracked a fifty-foot walrus-hide whip over the restless dogs. The other followed with her black eyes the squat dwindling figure with the right arm that stabbed so steadily into the deepening drift. Presently Tuktu lifted his hand. The dogs picked up their pointed ears an hurled themselves forward. The women stumbled alongside the jerking sledge. A long day was nearly done, and they were very weary.
 
Tuktu swung his dag into the snow and cut out a block. It was two feet long, fifteen inches high, ten inches thick, and slightly tapering. Then he cut another and another. In a little while there were enough to make the bottom ring of an igloo.
 
The white pit sank as the igloo rose. Nowrak and Ungluck watched and shivered while they plastered the chinks. This was always the coldest part of the day. The dogs lay motionless. They knew nearly as much as Tuktu. At the end of it all, the builder thrust up the key block, dropped it neatly into place, and hewed his way out through the bottom course.
 
Now the Traveling-gear of the Baffinlander is a  a bundle of caribou skins, a stone lamp, flint and steel, a pinch of frayed wood for tinder, seal meat and blubber, and his dog-team and what goes with it. So in very few minutes the sledge was upended, the robes as food and lamp thrust inside, the dogs fed, their harness buried deep in the snow and stamped tight, and the igloo itself sealed by closing the door with the  block hewn out of it. After this the dogs curled themselves into round balls of heaving fur, while in the gloom of the igloo Ungluck struck fire, and lighted the seal-oil in her stone lamp.
 
The night deepened. In the north hung shimmering curtains of palpitating colors that glinted on the fridgid wilderness, and smote with silver the perfect curve of the dome that Tuktu had built, and inside the builder joked with his wife and daughter, and chewed complacently at a long strip of frozen seal-meat.
 
 
Ungluck,            Tuktu,           Nowrak,            Nunok,             Aivick
 
Fourteen hours later he emerged, and scraped the snow off the sledge-runners. Ungluck crawled out and handed him a tin of water that she had melted, drop by drop, by hanging a lump of ice over a stone lamp. He filled his brown cheecks to the bursting, and squirted a jet up and down the runners. It froze instantly. The sledge was shod for the day. The dogs, dragged to their single traces, snapped viciously, then spread out, fanlike, behind the old lead dog. The long whip cracked, and Tuktu lifted one corner of the sledge to break it loose. In another instant the yelping team was straining down-hill through the loose snow.
 
To reach the tidal ice, Tuktu faced a drop of twenty feet from the land. It was a miracle how he reached it with the sledge unsplintered, but Tuktu was used to such miracles.
 
Now, those who eat raw flesh and drink blood and live without fire and water can do much that is beyond wiser and softer men. So it was that Tuktu, the Walrus, with his wife and daughter, loaded his worldly possessions on a sledge, and building himself a new house every night, came by way of the tidal ice of Fox Channel to hunt the square-flipper seal near Amadjuak Harbor. The journey was only three hundred miles, a matter of a month.
 
But, trotting ahead, with his gaze wandering to the rock ridges that paralleled the shore and began to reveal black crests in the strengthening sun, Tuktu was uncomfortably aware that not only would he find the square-flipper seal near Amadjuak Harbor, but he would also almost certainly find Nunok, the Bear, and Aivick, the Caribou. They were both suitors for the hand of Nowrak, the Gull, the plump-faced girl who trailed her heels near the snow and surveyed her father with black and lustrous eyes.
 
Nunok was a large man and strong, a great hunter and rich; but he had, Tuktu reflected, a sullen and angry temper. He always lived in the largest igloo, but he was cruel to his dogs. Rumor whispered that a white sailor from a whaling-ship had quarreled with Nunok over a woman from Bathurst Inlet, and the sailor had never been seen again. But nunok was a rich man.
 
Aivick, on the contrary, was good to look at, but poor. Every one  liked him because he made every one laugh with his stories and jests. He could hunt well when he wished, but he did not often wish. He would never be rich, but - And here a strange, discomforting thought filtered into the little man's brain:  is it better to be happy or to be rich? He glanced automatically back at the sledge, and noted the faithful mound of fur within which was his own wife, Ungluck, the Goose. They were very happy, he and she, and they were not rich. They had never been sad until a bull walrus killed their only son at Hope Inlet. And now? He gave it up. "She is a good girl," he said to himself; "she will have a good man."
 
Tuktu could see specks on the ice long before he reached the hunting-ground. The dogs smelled the end of their journey, and raced forward. They tore into a cluster of igloos, and instantly the air was full of frenzied yelping that was quelled only when the lash of a fifty-foot whip whistled above them, and cracked like a rifle-shot. Unguck and Nowrak dived into a friendly dwelling with the fur robes and the stone lamp, and Tuktu, having upended the empty sledge, turned, and looked into the hooded faces of Nunock and Aivick.
 
"You have come at the right time," said the latter, smiling; "the hunting is good." Then he added with a laugh, "Even I have killed a seal."
 
"So you can see the hunting must be very good," came in Nunok's cold voice. "You will sleep in my igloo to-night. It is large. I expect you. See, it is the farthest out of all."
 
Aivick began to chuckle.
 
"I, too have expected you. See, my igloo is close."
 
Tuktu hesitated, and at that moment Ungluck and Nowrak crawled out among them. He turned to them with sudden relief.
 
"Nunok and Aivick say the same words - that we sleep in their igloo."
 
The old woman's face wrinkled with amusement, then her eyes fell upon the rich man in his new fur cloths.
 
"We will - "
 
A tug at her elbow, and Nowrak whispered quickly.
 
"We will sleep with Aivick," concluded Ungluck, showing her rusty teeth.
 
Nunok grunted.
 
"What does one night matter?" he said, and turned quickly away.
 
Darknes fell like a cloak; then the moon climbed above the stark hills and shed a radiance on the igloo of Aivick, in which there was much feasting. And Aivick told his funniest stories in the flicker of the stone lamp, while the women held their sides and munched sheets of delicious blubber. After which their host and two freinds danced the Spirit Dance of welcome to the new-comers.
 
Now, the tale of that wonderful hunting of square-flipper seal near Amadjuak Harbor is still told in the igloos and tupiks of Baffin land, and it is also told that before the hunt was half over Nunok and Aivick had begun to look at each other without turning the head, which is a bad sign in the North. The only difference was that Nunok frowned, while Aivick laughed. This went on for a day or two till the rich man came to Tuktu and demanded Nowrak for a wife. When Aivick heard of it he demanded her also, and Tuktu could only look from one man to the other with trouble in his eyes, because he knew that murder would follow whoever got the girl. So he asked Ungluck what he should do.
 
The next morning, if any one had looked behind the igloos, he would have seen Nunok and the old woman talking very ernestly, after which the rich man laughed and walked out to his own air-hole, and stared down into the water with a smile on his face, as though he were looking for seals. And the same night Ungluck told Tuktu that the best way to decide the matter was to give Nowrak to the man who killed the most seals on the following day.
 
"Then Nunok will get her," said Tuktu, thoughtfully.
 
His wife nodded.
 
"It is well; she cannot live on jokes and songs, and Aivick has nothing else."
 
"I have enough for another one," answered Tuktu, slowly for in the bottom of  his heart he liked Aivick, and did not like Nunok, for all his wealth.
 
Ungluck's voice had a touch of anger in it.
 
"You will not live forever."
 
The news filtered quickly through the village. When Nunok was told about it, he did not seem surprised, but only grunted, and began examining his seal-spears very carefully. Aivick did look astonished, and then a curious expression came to his eyes, as though he were looking at something a long way off, and he began humming the "Song of the Swan."
 
The igloo of Nunok was much farther from shore than the rest. It was, in fact, placed close to his air-hole because Nunok was so keen a hunter that he wanted to lose no time. A quarter of a mile farther out was the edge of the ice.
 
When Aivick came out to hunt next morning, the whole village came with him, and they found Nunok already sitting on a pad on his ice block, with his feet in a caribou-skin bag, watching intently for the single air-bubble that marks the approach of the square-flipper seal to his breathing-hole. So intent was he that he hardly turned to look. Then Aivick settled himself on his own block two hundred yards away, and immediatly opposite. He stared, sometimes toward Nowrak, who was walking shoreward with her mother, and sometimes at the motionless figure of Nunok, and sometimes into the patch of green water at his feet. Then he began again to hum the "Song of the Swan."
 
Nunok killed within the hour a seal so large that they had to chop away the sides of the air-hole to get him up, and at a sign the villagers brought out their knives and ate and drank before the frost should stiffen the warm, quivering flesh. Aivick got up with a laugh and helped himself, then bowed his thanks to the still form at the other air-hole.
 
When it became dark enough, so that the water only reflected, and one could not see into it, there were four seals beside Nunok, while Aivick's Spear had not tasted blood. So the rich man came to Tuktu and said:
 
"I will take the girl now."
 
 But Nowrak shook her head.
 
"I am not ready; I will come to-morrow."
 
Nunok began to protest, but Tuktu, because he was sorry for Aivick, and because this was the last night the girl would spend with her parents, said:
 
"It is well; to-morrow is soon enough."
 
Then they went back to Aivick's igloo and ate heartily, and Aivick sang and danced for them; but there was a break in his song, and his feet were heavy. In the middle of it all Nunok crawled through the tunnel entrance and said, "I bring gifts for Nowrak." So  they went out and saw and wondered. There were caribou robes, and carved walrus tusks, and copper knives from the Coppermine River, and dressed dog-skins, and a looking-glass that shut itself up in a flat box. The wealth of the whole tribe was there.
 
"By way of the tidal ice"
 
Nowrak looked at it.
 
"Nunok is very generous." She then added, "When it all comes back." After that she crawled back into the igloo without another word.
 
Nunok, wondering what was the matter, turned suddenly to Aivick. "Will you dance and sing in my igloo to-morrow? I will pay you well for it."
 
"I do not sell my feet or tongue," answered the other.
 
The rich man sneered.
 
"Of course not; who would buy them? I really meant to give you a present - because of Nowrak."
 
Aivick chuckled, and a curious thing followed. He took Nunok by the arm, and together they walked out to the igloo of the latter. There the singer looked north and south for a long time, as though he were tracing sledge-tracks on the snow. His eyes were half closed, and his face was like the face of a man who has been nearly dead, but lives again. He blinked as though he had been asleep.
 
"You will indeed give a present, and because of Nowrak," he said quietly. "It will be the largest present you have ever given."
 
Then he walked slowly to his own igloo and left the hunter in wonderment.
 
That night all save Aivick slept very deeply, for their stomachs were full. But he got up as soon as it was light, and for the first time in his life there was no smile on his lips. He looked toward the igloo of Nunok, expecting to see him coming in, then gasped with surprise, because the ice-field had parted, and the waters were now, it appeared, close up to the rich man's house. The broken part had disappeared. It was strange that Nunok should not be visible.
 
The young man's heart began to beat in a way that was quite strange to him. So he crawled back and woke up his guests. They all stared with much astonishment and started on a run, calling out as they passed the other igloos, and in a few moments the whole village was following them. Aivick, being very quick on his feet, got ahead, and as he neared the edge of the ice, he saw that it ran straight for Nunok's house. But the house itself seemed uninjured.
 
"The dogs lay motionless"
 
He reached the edge, and stopped and stared. One half of the igloo remained, but the other had disappeared with the drifting floe. It was sheared exactly in two parts, just as if some giant had swung at it and split it with an enormous dag. The half with the raised edge, where every eskimo sleeps, had gone, and with it the rich man in his slumbers. The other half, into which Aivick could see by peering round the end of the snow wall, contained all the lost hunter's wealth. There were spears and robes and knives and the square box that had swallowed music, which he got from the Hudson Bay post above the Narrows.
 
Then Tuktu ran up with the two women, who were breathing very hard. When Nowrack saw what had happened, she looked at first very sober; but she caught the eye of Aivick. They stared at each other, and both broke into screams of laughter.
 
Tuktu frowned at her. "You fool, you were nearly the wife of  a rich man."
 
"Do not scold her," answered Aivick, "for it is all hers, and I shall be the husband of a rich wife."
 
Tuktu tried to look very angry, but could not.
 
"Let us get these things to a safe place."
 
That evening Nowrak bathed herself in seal oil and put grease on her hair. The song had come back to the tongue of Aivick, and his feet were light again.
 
"I hope," said Tuktu, when his son-in-law took the girl to a new and beautiful igloo, "that you will forget your songs and keep your wealth."
 
A smile came into the eyes of the young man, for he was very happy.
 
"When my wealth is forgotten, my songs shall be remembered," he said softly.
source: Sullivan, Alan, In Baffin Land, The Century Magazine, 1915, p 703-709
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