Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Canada (01/29/09)
TITLE: Lost digits in Nunavut
By Sharon Kane
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How long he floated for Richard never knew. He emerged slowly from the blankness of unconsciousness. The rocking motion of the waves fooled him momentarily into thinking he was back in his bunk on the Carolina. Then the excruciating pain in his frost-bitten fingers, and the sound of strange voices alerted him to the fact that something was terribly wrong.
“Chris? Dave?” His cracked lips barely moved as he tried to call his mates. Panic set in as the familiar voices of his colleagues failed to respond. In their place he heard an animated cacophony of incomprehensible sounds. He opened his eyes and saw a ring of parka-framed flat faces peering down at him. He felt a hand behind his head lifting him to sit up, and something – warm – being pressed against his lips. From the first swallow of melted seal fat, instinct told him that these strangers had the skills and volition to save his life.
Unable to communicate with his rescuers he had to rely solely on his powers of observation and deduction to determine his situation. Sitting up he found himself in an animal-skin boat, about 30 feet long and eight wide. His rescue party consisted of ten men dressed in the traditional Inuit sealskin trousers and jackets, with the distinctive parka hoods. The carnage in the bottom of the boat indicated that they were skilful seal hunters. Their elaborate hand gestures and broad smiles conveyed the message that they were taking him home. Relaxing in that reassuring knowledge he succumbed again to exhaustion.
Richard's arrival at the Inuit home was greeted by tears of terror from the children, curious stares from the women, and excited conversation from one young man who proudly told Richard in heavily accented English that he had been to government school for five years. Unable to find work in the towns, and homesick for his traditional life, he had returned to the family home with its seasonal rhythms of hunting, fishing and trading.
His new friend led him into an animal-skin tent warmed inside by lamps burning seal fat. Once safely cocooned he was ordered to strip and put on a set of traditional clothing. A dinner of fresh fish and seal meat followed before he slipped again into blissful sleep.
Over the following weeks Richard's battered body recovered its strength, though even the wise medicine woman failed to save two of his frost-bitten fingers. He accompanied the men in their hunting trips in the oomiak. They regaled him with incredible tales of harpooning bowhead whales so enormous that they had to be towed home. He never ceased to wonder at the bustling life of the tundra. Arctic foxes, hares and brent geese all seemed to be racing against time to raise their young before winter again imprisoned the region in its icy grasp. Majestic caribou grazed in great herds, seemingly oblivious to the passing human caravan. At home he marvelled as the women cured animal skins to fashion waterproof boots and clothing, sewing them with whale-bone awls. He mastered a few words of their Inupiaq dialect, to squeals of delight from the children who soon lost their fear of the strange white man among them. At night he was lulled to sleep by ancient stories told to the beat of a drum, and otherworldly ballads sung by the women.
With the turning of the season the Inuit fervently begged Richard to spend the long winter teaching them English. Despite his longing to repay the debt he owed them, he was desperately missing his family who, by now, would be anxiously awaiting his return. It was four heavy hearted men who accompanied Richard to Igaluit. Arriving there everything happened so fast. A few phone calls, a light aircraft landing on the small airstrip, a tearful farewell, and Richard was airborne. Settling into his seat he closed his eyes recalling the events of the past month, and wondering which to tell his wife first: how he came to lose two fingers, or how he came to be alive.
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