The April sky is brilliant.
Sun rays shimmer off the sea ice. I hold my harpoon at the ready, anticipating the emergence of a seal’s glistening head from the air hole. I concentrate, trying not to think of my gnawing insides or my wife back in our snow house, with our baby tucked in the warm amiut against her back.
We need food.
I haven’t been able to catch any seal or fish for weeks, held in our snow house by blowing blizzards, unable to follow the caribou inland across the tundra, and unable to come to the sea, where ice has buckled into treacherous ridges, making it impossible to navigate the shoreline.
I think of the seal, and my mouth floods, breaking my concentration. I must focus, keeping my eyes on the inky water, watching for tell-tale signs of an animal.
The sun hovers close to the horizon. Soon, it is too dark to see.
“Amaruq.” Qamaniq whispers my name, and I pretend my belly is full for another night. Our baby plays on the caribou skin between us, his arms waving in the soft light from the qulliq.
In the morning, the men plan a fishing expedition. It is hoped we can get a whale.
Nauja suggests we ask the qallunaat God for success.
I have no belief in the qallunaat God. The black-robed priest from the land to the south tells us a man Jesus died on a tree. How can this be? I have never seen a tree taller than a wolf, my namesake. Our trees are mostly gnarled twigs, just wicks for lamps. I must not ponder this foolishness for too long. It will muddle my mind and confuse my ihuma. I cannot allow that to happen. I may trip and land on my spear or fall in a crevasse.
Some of the men bow their head while Nauja says some words. I take note of the clouds and a few gulls overhead.
Finally, we set out, intoxicated by hunger. We pull the umiak into the lane way of open water and several of us take up oars.
The black-robed man also told us he is a fisher of men. I give my harpoon a doubtful glance. Did he intend to lance us with the harpoon? The fish spear? What kind of God do the qallunaat serve?
The heaved and twisted ice recedes, and we dodge floes as we head for open water. The man in the bow watches for blowing spray, a shining swell, any sign of whale, while the rest of us row.
“Amaruq, you are troubled.” Nauja’s voice comes between a pull on the oar.
“I am hungry.”
“You are distressed from the prayer.”
“I think nothing for the prayer.”
“God is a mighty God.”
“You are a fool, Nauja.”
The umiak rises on the greeny-black swells, then is engulfed in the trough, up and down, rising and falling. I could sleep. My eyes are very heavy.
We are instantly alert. Our harpoons are drawn, and one by one, are flung into the glistening hide. The lines grow taut, and seal skin floats bob into the icy sea. The umiak gives a jerk as the whale dives. I’m not prepared.
Icy salt water closes over my head as my caribou parka pulls me under. Already my arms and legs feel leaden, and I sink deeper, deeper into the deadly, dark Arctic sea. I see through blurred green vision that Nauja is standing in the boat, his harpoon raised, aiming, not at the whale, but at me. Perhaps it is a trick of the light, of the water.
He releases the harpoon.
I feel the impact.
There is no pain. So, then. This is what it is to die.
Then I am lifted over the side of the umiak. The harpoon is pulled from the thick hide of my caribou parka.
“I am a fisher of men, Amaruq.”
I am silent.
The men pull the whale alongside the boat. Not a large whale, but it will feed us for a few weeks.
Qamaniq mends my parka.
I still know nothing about big trees, but I know about being saved.
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