IT was in early October that for the first time in my life I saw the sea congeal, saw the moving waters freeze and petrify in waves, in ridges, and in hollows.
There are many people round the world who see this every year, but to me who grew up in a region where the temperature rarely falls to five below, where our peasants still talk of the winter of 1879-1880 when the stream froze solid and bullock carts crossed the ice from bank to bank, the sight was magical, legendary. Imagine, I said to myself, a man going from Cherbourg to Halifax by dog team!
This self-evident exclamation summed up, almost by chance, what was significant about the freezing of the Glacial Ocean. For the sea here is the great winter highway that joins camp to camp, family to family. It is the hunting ground that yields not only sustenance for a season but reserves of provisions against the lean months to come. It is the habitat of the Eskimo, the ‘land’ on which his igloo is built, and he lives on the sea and not on the land through many months of the year. Highway, because the runners of the sled glide more smoothly and swiftly over the uniform ice at sea than over the humped and hollowed drifts of variable and uncertain snow on land. Hunting ground — nay, pasture land, wheat field, orchard, in the figurative sense, because fish and seal are more plentiful and constant than caribou, and more to the Eskimo’s taste; while the white fox is to him a mere article of commerce, a source of his ‘luxuries’ and not fundamental to the Eskimo’s life. Land, finally, for here by preference the igloo is built: since the water under the ice is warmer than the eternally frozen ground, the house built over the water is warmer than the house built on the ground.
The sea does not freeze solid in a single night. Day after day I watched it, and I saw how, helped by the shifting winds, the grainy-surfaced mirror would crack and break, the waters would flow free, and then the struggle would begin again. Something more powerful than the demonic power of the sea was vanquishing its impetuousness, curbing its restless spirit. Little by little it was forced to yield, and the waves flung by it against the already frozen shore would stop in mid-air, defeated, crystallized. One morning there was left only a small pool of water in the bay, of a green so dark that it was almost black. Out of it popped a seal, and then another seal. Next day this pool, too, was gone, and there remained only the different shades of green and gray and white to attest the phases of the struggle. I saw the Eskimos move cautiously out from shore, saw them strike the ice smartly with their heels to test its strength, and saw them cross the pack to mark the arrival of the greatest of seasons.
Gibson, meanwhile, had been making ready for the coming of winter. First, as much of the coal as could be stored had to be brought in from the mound that lay by the shore. Then the rest had to be carefully covered over, kept warm, as it were; for when coal freezes it will not burn, and in a land where coal, delivered, is worth one hundred and seventy dollars a ton, you do not willingly waste it. Everything that great cold could damage had to be cared for: electric batteries, for example, which lose half their efficiency when they freeze; the glass jars of tomatoes and of pickles, which would burst in this temperature if they were not insulated. Potatoes that freeze instantly can be thawed out and remain good; but if they are left to freeze gradually, they rot and are lost. In the outbuilding where the trading with the Eskimos went on, the Store, everything had to be got ready in advance, for the Store was desperately cold and damp and a wise man would arrange to work there as swiftly and briefly as possible. Therefore Gibson was sorting his stock, cutting up bolts of calico into three-yard lengths, putting closest at hand on the shelves those articles most in demand.
I found him one day removing one of the planks that formed the steps of his warehouse.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Putting a rotten plank in the place of this sound one,’ he said. ‘A plank like this is worth fifteen dollars, delivered here.'
We went to bed one night amid clear frost and total calm. Towards one in the morning the wind rose suddenly like a man leaping out of bed and running through a darkened house. The Post groaned, the wireless mast quivered among the whistling antennæ, the snow whipped against the house, and, like the brush of a painter, applied the first coat of the element in which the Post would be blanketed with a thickness of six feet. When day came I went out of doors wearing three layers of clothing, and in the blast that sent the snow now forward on a broad front like an army, now whirling and tossing like a band of dervishes, I seemed to be dressed in a sieve and was bewildered by an incomprehensible impression of nakedness. The snow swirled as do the leaves at home, only this blow was hostile — this was autumn at seventy degrees latitude north.
When the wind fell and the sun returned we went off to the little lake to cut ice for our winter supply of drinking water. The blocks of ice were brought up from the lake to the Post and piled on a trestle made of a couple of long planks placed across three empty barrels. (Left on the ground, they would be covered by the twelve-foot snowdrifts that were on their way.) All winter long we would bring in a block at a time and drop it into the water barrel, where — the barrel standing less than two feet from the stove — it would melt readily and yet not melt too fast. Set three feet from the stove, it would scarcely melt at all.
With an eight-foot crocodile-toothed saw, a breaking back, and aching muscles, we cut long strips of ice, about eighteen inches wide. The strip was then chopped into squares with an axe, after which we strove with hooks to raise the plunging, circling slippery blocks out of the water. That done, the block was trimmed and the load dragged up to the Post. Eventually we raised a high wall of pale green, translucent ice that glittered like crystal when the sun shone through it. But it was killing work. We cut thirty blocks the first day — less than a third of the winter’s need. Next day the freeze was harder, the ice was twenty inches thick on the lake instead of the ten inches possible to work, and we had to put off the rest of the job until the clear water froze and we could cut again in the same channel as before.
Everything is like this in the Arctic, for this is preëminently the land of instability and change. Yesterday a thing was possible: today it cannot be done. The snow, for example. Yesterday it was too soft, too fresh for traveling; today it is firm and right; tomorrow fresh snow may fall again, and if you are not away today, who knows when you will be able to travel?
All this was useful to me as a foretaste of what I was to go through, for it had been arranged that Utak would, for the value in trade of one white fox, take me inland again with his wife and child, I to provide my own grub, and, of course, carry with me the usual small gifts for the camp. By the time we were ready to leave, snow was plentiful, and round the Post the drifts were ten feet high. We had to go to the Store to get my effects together, and to cover those seventy-five yards we were fitted out cap-a-pie, exactly as for a long trek. Standing in the outer porch, we drew a deep breath like sailors about to dive into the sea. Paddy opened the door and a gust of snow blinded us as, head lowered, we literally flung ourselves forth. Before me was a wall of snow six feet high, and over its crest the storm was blowing. I put up my hands and felt my way, sightless, until I reached a point where the drift seemed as hard as iron. There I grappled with it, trying to climb over it. Suddenly I was in it up to the hips, held in place by it, my equilibrium gone so that, had it not been for the ludicrous position in which I found myself, I should have been rolled over and over by the wind. How I got to the Store I cannot say; but when I got there Paddy was kicking steps into a drift before it, and over those steps we reached the door.
The shelves of the Store were covered with snow, blown in through every slight interstice in the wooden building. ‘A pocket knife you want, is it? Under that heap of snow, there, in the corner. There’s a box of them.’
At this time I was still eating white man’s grub. ‘Tell you what you do,’ said Paddy. ‘You make a thick soup of salt pork, beans, rice, and whatever else we have that’s filling. After it’s cooked you spread it on a plank, like a poultice, put it out in the porch, and it will freeze instantly. Then you take a hammer and break it up into chunks and put the pieces in a sack. Leave the sack out where the stuff will stay frozen, and take it along when you go out on the trail. When you get to an igloo you warm up one of these paving blocks and your dinner is served.’
I was learning, incidentally, that when a thing really freezes it does not like to thaw out again. One evening I opened a tin of peas and put the peas, tin and all, into a pot of water on the stove. The water boiled and bubbled for ten minutes, after which I took the tin out, thinking there would be nothing left in it. The contents were an absolute block. I broke the block into three pieces and put them back into the boiling water. The result was no better. Finally I had to chop the frozen mass into tiny bits before it would even begin to melt.
An Eskimo sled varies in length between a dozen and eighteen feet and stands no more than six or eight inches off the ground. Its runners are of steel, but steel will not do. Steel sticks: snow clings to it, freezes in lumps, and impedes smooth running. The Eskimos have their own way of overcoming this. During the summer they bring up mud from the lake bottoms and heap it up on land, where it freezes. When winter comes they hack off great chunks of the mud and boil it in a cauldron over a seal-oil lamp. Once the mud is completely thawed out, they smear it, boiling, on the runners, where it freezes again, instantly though roughly. Then they borrow a carpenter’s plane, if they are near the Post, or take an iron file if no plane is to be had, and they trim and dress the mud coating into perfect shape. The last step in the process is taken with the aid of a jug of water and a square of bearskin, nanu-rak. The Eskimo fills his mouth with water (which warms the water), sprays the bearskin with it, and runs rapidly the length of the overturned sled, spraying and rubbing the soaked bearskin over the mud-coated runners. This race up and down the runners — as I watched Utak perform it in preparation for our departure — is comical, but it allows an even coating of ice to form, for the water freezes instantly; and when this is done you can send the sled gliding with the slightest touch of your little finger. No Eskimo takes the trail without this preparation, and often the sled is re-iced in mid-trail because the veneer of ice will have cracked and broken off.
When the runners have been iced, the sled is loaded, and the procedure followed never varies. First come the caribou skins on which we sleep in the igloo. They are folded in three, exactly the width of the sled and always in the same folds. The heavy articles are piled on next — wooden cases curiously bound round with straps made of the skin of the great seal. The heaviest case goes in the middle of the sled; the highest is placed up forward to serve the driver as his box. Then comes what remains — frozen seal and frozen fish, for example, serving both as food for men and as feed for dogs. Here again there is an example of primitive astuteness. Much of this food has been stored in caches at different points along the trail, each cache marked by a heap of stones. The fish are so placed in the cache that the frozen block which they form is the precise width of the sled. The Eskimo has only to hack off with his axe a section of this solid mass, and it is ready for loading. After the fish are stowed, the smaller paraphernalia go on: my sleeping bag, the Primus stove, the box in which are my cameras, my grub, the articles I have bought for gifts and trading — plugs of tobacco for the men, triangular skin-needles for the women. Utak’s riches come last, and they are made up in the main of the white man’s discards — a broken file, a bit of rope picked up from the ground, three nails, and so on.
The loading had taken a good hour, and I was standing by, all thought of departure driven out of my mind by the length of the preparations, when suddenly the sled was off and I found myself running after it, stumbling in the snow, trying to catch up with Utak as he ran alongside whipping his dogs. When I was quite out of breath he stopped the dogs and grinned as I came panting up, happy to have put the white man in a ridiculous posture. This time we were off. We crossed the bay, rose up the ridge, I turned and waved to an indifferent Gibson, and that for which I had traveled ten thousand miles was at hand. We were a mere two hundred yards from the Post when already it seemed to me that I had been transported to another planet.
The moment came when we lost our way in this gray cotton-wool through which we were moving. The air was dense with swirling powder; from the sled itself the dogs were visible only as so many shadowy forms; and Utak left me on my box and disappeared on the run, ahead of the dogs. First I would lose him entirely, then he would reappear abruptly and I would see him nose to the ground, staring, peering, moving with extraordinary rapidity. When the Eskimo wants to bestir himself, he can move very swiftly. I watched Utak that day weaving from right to left and back again, floating as if uplifted by the wind, and that fusion of man with nature was an absorbing spectacle. Suddenly he swerved rearward as birds do when, ceasing to struggle against the wind, they let themselves be borne upon it. Again I saw him, this time running ahead of us while the dogs tugged furiously in order not to lose sight of him. A great stone rose in our path and stopped the sled. There was scarcely time to shake it loose when the dogs were off again as fast as they could trot.
Now and then the leader would turn round and stare at me as if in astonishment. He could not understand why his Eskimo should be floating in the void like this. (The normal relation of man and beast was reversed: this time it was the dog who was saying, ‘I’ve got a firstrate Eskimo, but there is something erratic about him today.') Utak was hunting sled tracks in a storm. Sled tracks are about two inches wide, and I said to myself again and again, trying to make it clear to myself: ‘Tracks two inches wide, eighteen inches apart, going from New York to Boston, and nothing else — no railway, no motor road, no foot path, no landmarks. A world blank in all its breadth, and somewhere a pair of tracks the only trace of its length.’ Now the astonishing thing is that he found them. Digging with his heel into the fresh snow, he had found tracks; and directly he found them he was off again on the run like a leaf in a storm.
Night was falling when of a sudden three glimmering points too faint to be called lights pricked the gray scene. The igloos! Through the translucent snow of which these houses are built the feeble gleam of seal-oil lamps was visible, bespeaking the breath of life and the presence of man on this pallid ocean of ice. I crept through a winding tunnel so low that I went on all fours and knocked in the dark against wet and wriggling hairy bodies. These were the dogs. They had taken shelter in the freezing porch against the greater cold outside. Not for an empire would they have stirred out of my path, and over and among them I crawled until I emerged into the igloo.
But was this an igloo? This witch’s cave, black on one side with the smoke of the lamp and sweating out on the other the damp exudation caused by the warmth of lamp and human bodies! Within, nothing was white save an occasional line that marked the fitting of block to block; and the odor was inconceivable. In t he vague light of the lamp, shapeless things, men and women, were stirring obscurely. If you wanted a hierarchy of light you might say that before electricity there was the gas jet, before the gas jet the lamp, before the lamp the wax taper, before the wax taper the tallow candle, and before the tallow candle the seal-oil vessel. I was in a brown bear’s lair, a troglodyte’s cave. What would elsewhere be the Stone Age was here the Ice Age.
I was too newly come from Outside to see in the igloo anything but filth: the charnel heap of frozen meat piled on the ground behind the lamp; the gnawed fishheads strewn everywhere; the sordid rags on the lumpish flesh, as if these Eskimos had worn their party clothes to the Post and were here revealing their true selves, the maculate bodies they covered with skin and fur to hide the truth from the white. And to heighten the horror of the scene, one of these Eskimos would fling himself from time to time into the porch — as the tunnel is called through which I had crawled —to drive out the dogs; and a howling would resound as of murder committed in a subterranean chamber.
Even today, as I write, it is still difficult for me to explain how it happened that I was able to accustom myself to this life, so that within a month a description like this would seem to me stupid, a recital of nonessentials and a neglect of everything of consequence in Eskimo existence.
Fortunately, I was too overcome with weariness to be able to think. Details met my eye and offended it, but they could not reach as far as my brain. My box had been dragged in, and like an automaton I opened it in order to find something to eat, something ‘white’ that would preserve me from all this. My soup was not there! Had I forgotten it? Probably; and for the reason that I had thought too much about not forgetting it. What was the Eskimo word for ‘soup’? I thumbed through my dictionary without a thought that the Eskimo might never eat soup, and there might be no word for it. Instead, I cursed the dictionary with the curse usual the world over — that a dictionary never contains the words we need. I could not explain to Utak what was missing; but as he saw me hunting, turning my effects over and over, he too — and this was the only comic note of the evening — began to hunt, though he knew not what he was hunting.
What was I to eat? That frozen fish? That repellent snow-covered thing I could hear grating in their teeth as they chewed?
The household stared at me, and I needed no word of Eskimo to understand what they were thinking: not only had this white man no titbits to offer to them, he had not even brought his own grub. They said nothing, but their disapproval was unmistakable. Sick at heart, I crept into my bag and fell asleep without a morsel of food.
We slept six in a row, squeezed together in an igloo built to hold three, our heads turned towards the porch. The men lay naked in their caribou sleeping bags. I kept my clothes on, and it was as if I were sleeping in a cage with wild beasts. All night long something dripped from the ceiling upon my face, and though each drop sent a twinge of pain through me, I could not evade it because we were squeezed too tightly together. In a corner an old woman spat the whole night through, and between one thing and another, in a spirit of the deepest gloom of heart, through which the two or three images of warmth and comfort that I summoned were unable to make their way, I fell finally asleep.
When I awoke the igloo was empty except for the old woman: the men had gone fishing.
I crawled out of doors and had a look round. It wanted almost an effort to identify the igloos in this landscape. There were four in all, four molehills made of snow; and had it not been for the harpoons and other accoutrements sticking up like vertical black lines drawn on white paper, I should not have seen them. These strokes were the only signs of the existence of a camp in this white infinity.
The camp was deserted. Nothing stirred. Here and there a puppy lay half buried in the snow. The men had gone with their sleds and their dogs. Every day was for them a day of work and travel. Every morning they awoke to the same seasonal chores: ice the runners, harness the dogs, unleash the forty-foot serpentine whip with its twelve-inch handle, and go off to the fishing or the hunt.
The camp was built on the flank of a ridge, doubtless because the snow here was more plentiful. Below me I could see a wide flat surface which was a lake. Three out of the five men in the camp had gone ice-fishing on this lake; the other two had preferred to go off to another lake, twenty-five miles distant, on the pretext that the fish there were bigger. At this time of year the ice was only two feet thick, and fishing was still easy.
Utak came up from the lake before the rest in order to build me an igloo. It was not to be separated altogether from his own, but would be a sort of lean-to opening into his igloo, and through this opening he and his wife would be able to keep an eye on my tin of biscuits. However, I should at least sleep alone this night.
One hour sufficed Utak for the erection of my spiral shelter, and it was no sooner finished than soiled. The dogs climbed and ran all over it on the outside, as is their habit, and yellowed its dome and sides. Ohudlerk hastened to pay me a visit as soon as I had installed myself. With a great deal of hawking and spitting he explained to me that the igloo was perfect — from which I was to understand how great was my debt to Utak. And Utak himself, by way of creating a fitting atmosphere, came in with the gift of a heap of rotted fish.
An igloo is very pretty when it is new, when it has just been finished and the iglerk, the flat couch of snow that rises about fifteen inches from the floor, has been smoothed down. It is so pretty, so white, so pure with its little heaps of powdered snow at the base of the meeting of the blocks, that one is afraid to move in it for fear of soiling it. But the miraculous industry of the Eskimo soon removes this sense of caution and daintiness. In less than a day the igloo is made cosy and homelike: everything is spattered and maculated; the heaps of objects brought inside create great black spots where they lie; the ground is strewn with the débris of fish spat forth in the course of eating; everywhere are stains of seal blood and droppings of puppies.
I am told that there are Eskimos who keep their igloos clean, scraping the floor daily and sprinkling fresh snow over it to cover the stains. This is not the case with the Netsilik of King William Land, who seem to feel the most profound indifference, indeed contempt, for cleanliness. As for my igloo, they invaded it as if in conquered territory; and after all, it was their igloo, I was their guest, they had doubtless the right to treat it as their own. They were the masters, I the captive, I said to myself. ‘You wanted to live with the Eskimos, did you? Well, here you are, you silly ass.’
Thus my beginnings went very badly. Worse than the pillage was the fact that two days later my hands froze.
'Una-i-kto!’ (‘It is cold!’) Utak had said on waking that morning. But we had gone off together on his sled to fish on the great lake whose name I had by now learned. It was called Kakivoktar-vik, ‘the place where we fish with the three-pronged harpoon.’
Half a mile out from shore Utak began by clearing the snow off the surface of the lake with his native shovel in a circle about twelve feet in diameter. Then he knelt down, a hand shading his eyes, his nose to the ice and tried to judge whether or not the depth of the lake here was what it should be. I did as he did, and could see the bottom of the lake perfectly, the grasses waving and the fish moving past in their tranquil world. As soon as he spied the fish, Utak became feverish. He ran to the sled, which with the dogs had been left a hundred feet off, and came back with an ice chisel; now the ice was flying in an upward rain of chips. He was cutting out a hole, and it was incredible with what speed and precision he worked. I have seen Eskimos go through seven feet of ice with one of these chisels in ten minutes. He would stop at every four or five inches, send down a sort of ladle made of bone, and slowly and cautiously bring up the chips.
When the hole had been pierced through, the water flowed in and brought to the surface the odd chips that still remained, which were carefully ladled off. Then, on the far side of the hole, Utak built a wind screen of three snow blocks, one set straight ahead of him and each of the others serving as wings. This done, he spread a caribou skin, and knelt on it. With his left hand he unrolled a long cord at the end of which hung a small fish made of bone, with two fins. He let the decoy down into the water, and when he jigged, or pulled on the cord, which he did with the regularity of a clock, the fins beat. The little bonefish was like a water bug swimming. In his right hand, held very near the hole, was the kakivok, the great three-pronged harpoon. When the fish, lured by the decoy, came swimming beneath Utak, he would lower his harpoon gently into the hole, and at the proper moment he would strike, and the fish would be speared.
Nothing was more comical than the silhouette of Utak, his bottom in the air, his nose literally scraping the ice, his eyes fixed on the moving water, his whole being as motionless as a deer at the moment when it takes fright and is about to run. At first I had knelt beside him. Then, my hands freezing and my muscles stiff, I stood up to stretch. He became furious, for a man walking round the hole frightens away the fish. But one could hum as much as one pleased without disturbing them, and as Utak peered into the hole he kept up a monotonous humming.
With what patience that left hand, as regular as a metronome, rose and fell while the hours went by! And what passion the Eskimo put into this form of the chase! What intensity was in his gaze! The tiniest fish that passed drew from him muttered words, and it was clear that the game absorbed him, that time and space had fled, leaving him only this hole in the ice over which he would peer for days if necessary. Had I not been tortured by the cold, I should have been content to watch for hours. But, although it could not have been more than fifteen degrees below zero, I was freezing. Doubtless my skin had not yet become adapted to this climate. My fingers burned in my gloves, and I was too vain to speak of it.
While I knelt there, suddenly Utak’s right hand would close over the handle of the kakivok, and before I could see what had happened the thing was done, the fish was gasping on the ice, had flung itself twice in the air and then lay still, frozen almost on the spot. And Utak was back in the same posture, absorbed again in his chase.
We had been out several hours, and the pain in my fingers became so unbearable that I could have screamed. The heel of my hands also had begun to harden. When, finally, we stood up, I took off my gloves to have a look and saw that my fingers were waxen. I had frozen my eight fingertips.
Three days later my fingers were still useless: hard as wood, very painful, whenever I touched anything with them they burned, and I could not so much as roll myself a cigarette. Rubbing them with snow did no good. Dipping them in coal oil merely produced in them a sensation of cold. There was no remedy, and the best I could do was to hope they were not permanently frozen. Meanwhile, I was chained to the igloo like a hospital patient to his bed.
From my iglerk, my couch, I watched the life of the women through the opening in the wall between our igloos. Unarnak, Utak’s wife, was industriously at work. On the skins that covered their iglerk the little boy was naked at play. He strutted, grimaced, chattered, and held behind him a looking glass while he peered round to see in it the reflection of his bottom.
With her hand Unarnak trimmed the wick of the seal-oil lamp; and when she finished she sucked the oil from her fingers, or else wiped her fingers in her hair, though the latter means a less thorough job. I have never yearned to find myself lord of a harem of native mistresses; but the sight of Unarnak would deprive any white man of the temptation to make her dishonorable proposals.
At the other end of the iglerk Utak’s mother, Niakognaluk, sat in her habitual seat all day long scraping skins — a task that never ends in the life of the Eskimo, for weather, snow, and water are constantly soaking and hardening the clothes he wears and the skins he lies on, and it is only by this process of continual scraping that the hides can be softened again and made wearable and usable.
Niakognaluk wore an old woolen bonnet, and was dressed in hides so worn that all fur was long gone out of them and they were as black and shiny as a blacksmith’s leather apron. Bowed over the lamp, working with misshapen hands, her feet folded beneath her, she scraped and scraped; and as she worked tirelessly on she would murmur words which for all I knew might have been addressed to the lamp, to the dog, to herself. When a skin was finished she flung it against the igloo wall with an air of weariness and indifference and got up to get another.
She had two or three different scrapers to work with, but the real softening was done with her teeth. The Eskimo’s teeth serve him as a third hand, and, though I had demonstrations of this again and again, yet each time it was as marvelous in my eyes as a turn at the circus. The miracle was that when Niakognaluk had finished a skin it was really white and as supple as a glove.
Among the Eskimos, as with the humble of every land, the Old Woman seemed to express the sum of experience, of hardship, of wisdom. She was symbolic; she was permanence; she was She Who Stays Behind. The others leave or die: she is always there. Each death, each winter, adds its burden to her load of life, bends and curves her a little more, but it does not achieve the breaking of her, and she goes on living. She mutters and seems to grumble, merely because she is old; but because she is old, also, her heart is kind. She makes no demands, and when you make her a little gift she sends forth a worn smile that is warm with friendliness.
The routine upon waking in the igloo never varied. It went like this.
First, hawk and spit for at least half an hour.
Second, grumble and mutter until your wife, having crawled out of the krepik, the deerskin bag, has taken up the circular knife and cut off a great piece of the frozen fish that lies on the ground.
Third, eat the fish, panting and grumbling meanwhile because wife and child are stirring in the krepik and getting into the way of your free arm.
Fourth, between bites, suck your fingers noisily and tell a story or recount your dream, a satisfied appetite having put you in a good humor.
Fifth, with great deal of puffing and snorting, light the Primus stove. If it refuses to go, fling it across the igloo and slide down growling into the krepik, after which silence is restored in the igloo. If the Primus should catch with little trouble —
Sixth, brew tea, gulp down two or three mugs, and say ‘Una-i-kto’ (‘It is cold’), so that the Kabloona may be seized with compassion and get up to prepare his grub for you. After each mug of tea, wipe up the leaves with your fingers and eat them.
Finally, having eaten and drunk and waked the entire household, come up out of your krepik, ready to be off fishing.
The men came in from their jigging, and the silent igloo was suddenly filled with stampings, threshings, and snortings as of beasts in a stable. Voices and laughter broke forth; the constant and horrible coughing and spitting began that seem always to attack the Eskimo indoors. The tea, which had been boiling all day long above the seal-oil lamp, was poured into mugs and bowls and its steam rose from between their hands in an odor of seal while the air of the igloo became a vapor in which the bodies were seen as shapeless blurs.
Almost immediately an incident took place that gave me a great fright.
Ohudlerk’s son, Kakokto, who had been away fishing on the distant lake, had come back to visit his father. He and his wife were standing before me in my igloo, and as it was time to eat and they seemed to be expecting something, I fed them. Whether it was jealousy or not I do not know, but while I was talking to the young couple Unarnak came in, picked up my sack of flour, and took it into her igloo. There she proceeded to bake an impressive quantity of baneks, — a sort of flat bread, — which she distributed to everybody present. I watched her out of the corner of my eye and observed that she had been lacking in the first article of courtesy, which was to offer the baneks first to me. I waited a moment; then, seeing that the sack was not restored to its place, I told her quietly to put it back where she had found it.
Up to that moment everybody had been in splendid humor — those in my igloo because they had supped handsomely, those in Utak’s because they had received an unexpected offering. As soon as I had spoken, silence fell. Unarnak, knowing I considered her at fault, gathered together all the baneks and placed them without a word on my iglerk, with an air of complete disinterestedness. But her husband would not take it thus. Like a true Asiatic, this Eskimo conceived his finest vengeance to lie in ridicule. Refusing contemptuously the tea I offered him, he let himself back on his couch and then, the igloo being full of people, smoke, and laughter, he began to tell them how I had frozen my fingers. It was not hard to guess his story.
‘And there was the white man,’he said sarcastically, ‘walking in a circle and stamping his feet, blowing on his fingers, making noise enough to frighten away all the fish in the lake, and saying, “Aiie! Aiie! My fingers are frozen!” till he looked like an unhappy fish, like the littlest fish in the world.’
All of them roared with laughter, for a game of this sort is always played collectively.
‘Finally we started back,’ Utak went on. ‘It was all he could do to drag himself back to his couch, and there he’s been lying these three days past, whimpering and showing his fingers and moaning: “Una-i-kto!” With wonderful mimicry he counterfeited not only my gestures but the very timbre of my voice.
‘And tonight, finally, for a couple of grains of flour . . .’
Each time that a burst of laughter greeted one of his sallies Utak would turn towards me to see how I was taking it. Some of the others, indeed, rose from their places and came round to have a good look at me as I sat there, ill and half stupefied with fever — for it was curious that my frozen fingers had raised my temperature.
I went on talking to Kakokto and his wife as if I had no notion what was towards, but at bottom I was extremely upset by the sudden turn which things had taken. And when Utak had finished he and his wife went triumphantly out to tell their story in the next igloo.
Remembering what Paddy Gibson had said to me about Utak, I slept with one eye open. This fellow is subject to fits of temper, I thought. He killed his stepfather. He had to leave his own family and come to live on this side of the island because of it. I was uneasy. Never before had I heard that word for white man — ‘ Kabloona ‘ — pronounced with such contempt; and I suspected that this contempt came into an Eskimo’s mouth only when he felt positively aggressive. I seemed to myself imprisoned in a disquieting atmosphere and had no notion what might come of this. I knew only one thing — that I could not retreat from the position of indifference and dignity which I had adopted.
I dropped off to sleep, and suddenly I awoke. I had no notion of the time and could hear the child weeping. Utak was standing smoking a cigarette, his wife was stirring about, and all three were clothed. Unarnak came into my igloo and, thinking me asleep, picked up swiftly a pile of skins which belonged to them and had been stored with me for want of room in their igloo. ‘They are going to strike camp and desert me,’ I said to myself, still with my eye on them. They seemed to be consulting each other, to hesitate. Finally they went to bed. Weariness sent me back to sleep — and in the morning the first thing I saw on opening my eyes was Utak bending over me, grinning and offering me a mug of tea, a peace token.
(To be continued)