Runner-up , 2015 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction
Ice makes two sounds.
The first sound is the foot sound, the break sound, the cracking crunch that hikers know. You walk on ice and it collapses, mildly, beneath you. It is a stubborn, short sound, underneath your boots.
Ka-krack, krunch, it says.
It says little else.
Ice makes this sound on trails, in glaciers, at snowy fields, and on the gray-green face of tundra soil. Ice makes this sound nearly everywhere.
It is a simple noise. Like a quiet, broken heart.
* * *
I will pick up this story, which was passed onto me, and start with the Inuit, because they break my heart.
You see, I love myths. I collect them on shelves, the fairy tales and legends from the world’s corners – Romanian, Aborigine, Japanese, Russian, Grimms, Sioux, Viking. I gather them close. You get a sense after a while: the hero’s journey, the bildungsroman, etc.
Which is why the Inuit disturb me.
They say when Beethoven went deaf he could put his fingers on the piano and feel the pulse of the music thrumming, singing into him. After living in stories for all your life, you can feel the pulse of myths. The way they vibrate, the way they begin and move, the roads they travel. Archetypes, old songs.
The stories of the Eskimo peoples have collapsed beneath us. Ka-krack. All we have are pieces. Legends and tales were passed down, orally, from family to family until they grew so fragile they now crumble to dust at a glance. It’s hard to explain how this feels, until you understand that these little fairy tales are the lifeblood of a people. Who are the Greeks without grey-eyed Athena and cunning Odysseus? Who are the Norse without grinning Loki and blustering Thor? Something…but less.
All the Inuit have left are fragments of fragments. I can see where the stories should have gone, where they should have started, the magic in between – but a thousand years of Telephone games ruined them before any were recorded. Now no one makes movies about their gods.
Well. As Achebe and Yeats both say, Things Fall Apart. It happens. As the Shaman Karave of the Chuckchi Eskimos says, more hopefully, “Everything still lives: The lamp walks, the walls of the house have their own voice, and even the piss-pot has its own country and tent, wife and children…the dead themselves are getting up and coming to the living.”
And if you listen hard you can hear them speak, in disquieting tongues.
* * *
As stories crumbled down the ages, the leftovers pieced back with grout and guts. Many were Frankensteined together, stitched in lumbering fashion. Like so:
In the Aleut tribe, a woman was once born of mountains. She went on a mystical journey to find herself a husband. She gathered magical rope made of caribou gut and crossed dangerous seas before meeting the handsome son of a chief. So far, so good. Then the story cracks beneath us: she kills the son and hoards his body in her den – at first an accident – suddenly on purpose. The tale shifts again, this time to the chief, who calls upon his magical spirits (wolf and fox and so on) to seek out the evil murderess. Through cunning, she dodges them all. But then the tale shatters once more and lumbers back – the mountain woman admits she killed her lover. It is an accident again. The man is brought back to life via shaman magic, so tellers can put the bow on the story.
This is a common case. No one learns lessons. There is no moral or plot to the fable, just a confused hand-me-down, murky in the blood.
It pisses me off. So many of the story pieces are filled with certain wild magics unique to the tundra worlds, caught from the corner of the eye. All the elements of the earth are alive. The moon rides to and fro on mysterious errands. The flowers of the earth have their clans and adventures. Smart Beaver cheats monsters to save villages. Gabibonike, the spirit of Winter, plays his miserly tricks, while witches stir embers in smoky huts. The world turns on an axis of tide and trails.
Great tales once played here. Now they are forgotten – cannibalized.
* * *
There was time, and there was place. Around 4,000 years ago, traveling peoples settled in a vast, 12,000-mile swath of land that stretched from Siberia to Greenland.
What history can’t tell you is why. The world was a hell of a lot warmer in lands further south, easy to walk into and easy to settle, as the other migrants quickly found. Why did they stay, these dark-skinned travelers, bundling themselves in furs and planting mukluks deep? Were they stubborn? The word Inuit means “the People,” which hints at an ethnocentric sort of view. But they only ever numbered around 60,000, so far-flung they thought of themselves more as clans or families than tribes: Aleut, Yupik, Inupiaq, Inuktitut, so forth.
Did they enjoy watching the Vikings, the English, the Russians, with all their pale faces, striding across the ice flats like they were the first to find them – and then dying ignobly, voyage after voyage, because they hadn’t thought to ask for help?
Or maybe they just liked the place. The mirrored days, stretching into months. The sanctified calm of frozen plains, lit almost by their own light. The freezing waters that gave and took. The rising and falling ice, an ever-unfinished cathedral. The bitter, killing weather.
Either way, they settled. They created snowshoes, kayaks, sleds, harpoons, homes. They fostered something called qaugri, the sense of wonder possessed by children, and they fashioned the “Old Agreement” between humans and animals – who to eat and when, and how much, and how to be eaten in turn.
This is how they told a story:
Three hunting seasons coursed by the Inuit clans, with caribou and narwhals and seal fleets. Between the hunting, there were only cold days. We like to think of all the Eskimos living in little round igloos made of somehow-curved ice bricks, but they actually built with whatever was around: temporary cabins of packed snow, houses of stacked driftwood, and huts of deep sod with holes dug in the roof for smoke.
Let’s go back. Deep in the dark days, when the sun plays coy and families gather close – the people tell stories to pass the Winter. The rooms are small, close. On the edges suet and skins dry; everything smells of sweat and fat and burnt blood. Here the grandmother huddles, and the children huddle next to her in root-like shapes. She murmurs with unending cadence about the roles of hunter, wife, child, lover, monster. There, by the fire, two lovers lie cloaked, stretched out head to head. They nuzzle each other’s necks and they whisper stories, stories of tundra sorcery and runaways and ancient heroes. Outside, shamans watch the stars from inside the deepest hoods.
They did, they did, I am sure.
* * *
But I guess I should talk about Grandma now.
She wasn’t Inuit. God, no. She was part Cherokee, of all things – not uncommon in the deep Midwest, where she was born. Her eyes were a very English sea-green, her hair (back then) dyed black, and she could make wonderful chocolate, rhubarb or apple pies. Grandma things. She was a free nanny for my parents, so I spent many summer days with her and Grandpa, growing up.
What I remember most is her stories, when I was a child. She told me stories before naptime, stories before dinner, stories after dessert, stories on our walks. Fairy tales and old legends made up on the spot, a hundred once upon a time’s.
It was not long before I (a precocious, annoying towhead) started telling stories too. So we made a new game: Grandma and I traded our tales back and forth. She would start, I would tack on, she would carry again, and we built stories like piecing together stained glass windows. The writer today was born then, on those story walks, when I hung from her hands and we strolled down to the beach.
We built on shore and sky. There was a painting of a fisherman at dock, circled by seagulls, hanging above the bed in her house, and we built on that too. Like stories do, they began to resemble our surroundings: the ocean gleaming, the salty, fished air, the wide-bright sounds of childhood. Under our direction fishermen went on grand adventures to magical islands. Seagulls and seals were enchanted beasts offering dangerous quests. Princesses were rescued from sea-stormed castles and treasures were found in deep lagoon caves. Down the long steps we’d go, into the driftwood and wild sand. Dreams spilled from us like agates to the ground. We twisted, turned, dove, and a tale threaded between us.
Until, one day, when I had grown older, Grandma stopped telling stories. “Oh, I’m too tired,” she said absently. As if something had been lost. Eventually, my hair grew brown, and I stopped asking.
* * *
The fingerprints of children are scattered across the limping Inuit stories, filling in pieces. Animals use cheap tricks, magic realism abounds, shamans and witches fling snot from their noses to fight. You can almost hear the giggling.
The fingerprints of grown-ups, too. In one particularly chilling story, kindly owl parents adopt an orphan human boy, and then, out of nowhere, become the villains and try to murder him. As if someone was trying to teach about the uncertainty of the world. The way it breaks underfoot.
* * *
But then, we’re lucky to have even oral accounts.
In some ways, the Inuit are like their tales.
At first they got on well enough because of their distance, their habitat…oh, who am I kidding? They didn’t have anything other people wanted, except maybe their souls, and even the missionaries weren’t excited about the trip. So, the tribes died a very slow death, whittled by alcohol, or disease, or lost little things.
In the late 1800s and into the 1900s the United States government tried to help, a little. Maybe they felt bad about all the other tribes they had encountered. It was like a toddler trying to piece together a broken lamp. What could any government aid give them, those tundra walkers, those lost ice folk? The most we ever did was halt the peregrinations, split up families, and put the kids in schools where their own tongues were outlawed (the American Special). The economy did the rest. In the eyes of young men and women, it turned out that whiskey was nothing compared to new southern jobs.
As they say, Things Fall Apart. The center cannot hold. Some tribes survived, of course. You don’t live in a frozenly beautiful wasteland for hundreds of years without learning how to persist.
* * *
Most clans were held together via a shaman, or angakoq. When people think of shamans, they think of crazy dancing, old bones, flailing arms, spit and masks. Here, this is quite accurate. The shamans kept the people together, as did the karigi, the dance houses, and the kashims, the common houses, where families gathered to eat potlatch. Now and then, they would hold massive trading fairs, or nalukataq.
Like all good mystics, the Inuit shamans ran about cursing rivals, healing friends, and calling on tuunsaq, or helpful spirits – generally protecting the People from the cruel forces of nature. Their spells were made from words (Harry Potter would be proud), songs sung from the heart. You see, the word for “poetry” among many Inuit is the same word for “soul.” It is anerca. The root verb of the term is “to breathe.”
There is a story among the Caribou Eskimo of a famous shaman who “wore and held a shirt,” and sometimes vanished for years at a time. He predicted weather and deaths. Mostly deaths. He had a curse for when people angered him or laughed at him. He told them, “No place will be familiar.”
* * *
Many dozens of other tales exist, thick with confusion. Some seem so much like Grimm’s fairy tales – my mother read them to me (a family thing) – that it’s easy to suspect cross-pollination. Who knows what tales those missionaries told? And yet the accounts sing still with Northern notes. About everything is the sound of ice, the stench of thick arctic fur, the glaze of blubber and meat, and the gamey magics of the trails.
I especially enjoy the stories about Moon Man, the mysterious spirit that lives on the moon and comes to earth from time to time on his magic sled. He occasionally lets people visit the fairy land of the moon in return, all his strange and rich fields. In Inuit tales, even the stars are sometimes alive, and come to the sparkling cold fields to look for brides. Ka-krack, as they step down onto the ice sheets.
* * *
Once upon a time, a boy left his grandma’s house to explore the plains and forests, as Wanda Stalker of the Naupaktomiut relates. He went out hunting, and was captured by a spirit woman who flew him up into the clouds, and made him marry her in front of her enchanted family.
The boy begins to devise tricks to escape until, krunch, the story is passed on and suddenly it is about that boy, later on. He is warned to never catch a spotted seal, unless he be cursed to never reach home. Alas, as happens, the boy killed a spotted seal, who is actually an enchanted child, and is doomed to travel forever.
Krack. The story is traded again. Suddenly the boy is on a magical ride home, where he uses his an-yuk to turn into an arctic tern, a mitkutaylyuk. Ah, but he is doomed again, because at the end he finds his grandma has died and he cannot change back. Ever after, he is trapped as a bird searching the skies. Flying free.
* * *
I’m also partial to the stories about cannibals, a fiercely dark archetype of the North.
In a land where every family teeters on the brink of starvation and walks a knife edge from hunt to hunt, nothing is more feared – more tempting – than devious cannibalism. The tales track the taboo: Instead of a witch in a cottage at the dark of the forest, the villain is a cannibal at the edge of camp. They seduce, they offer fire and food. In a land where a guest is a high honor, they kill guests in their sleep and suck the marrow from their bones. They murder hunting partners and harvest them for meat. They represent the ultimate degradation of society, the thing everyone feared turning into.
In one story, a family of cannibals kidnapped a woman for their oldest son to marry. The son considered eating her right away, but waited because of her beauty. Krunch – the brothers of the kidnapped woman learned of this. They met the cannibals and played nice, invited them hunting. Then, in a fit of vengeance, they caught the cannibal son, dug a hole in the lake, and tossed him in, trapping him under the ice.
And that, they say, explains one sound that ice makes.
* * *
Years after my grandmother stopped telling me stories, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and began that wilting, slow/fast decline. Her sea-green eyes dimmed. Pieces went missing, gobbled up.
When something like that happens to someone you love, you’d expect to feel sadness, or anger. But the first feeling is actually incomprehension. It takes years for that feeling to fill up, and when comprehension dawns it just makes you empty. With all that emptiness, there’s never much space for anything else.
She had been forgetting names for a long time; now she forgot herself as well, thinning her life out to scraps. I remember one day, leaning in her kitchen I was watching Grandma totter from counter to counter, cooking an apple pie. I had seen her do it a hundred times before, but now she baked in short, halting steps, as if proving each time she still remembered the next part.
I stood helpless, pale, having the same conversation with her five times in a row. (“But you always liked chocolate better, didn’t you?” “No, Grandma.” “I had to save some apples for your Aunt Leota.” “Of course, Grandma.” “I do have vanilla ice cream.” “I know, that’s great, Grandma.” Krack.”You always liked chocolate better though, didn’t you?”). The emptiness filled me quickly.
There is another tale of the Greenland Eskimos, about a man who is haunted by his wife: “To kill a person who is already dead,” her ghost told him, “That is the unkindest thing of all.”
I wonder about that.
“Let me die,” Grandma used to say, in her worst times, a moaning depression. “Just let me die.” Even her worst wasn’t bad – she never shrieked or clawed or thought us enemies, like other Alzheimer’s patients at times do. She just wanted it to end.
I was there at that end, holding the hand of her insensate, shriveled body (hair gone thin and white), watching it go. There was no proper goodbye, but there wasn’t much to say goodbye to anyway.
Well. Things Fall Apart. It’s not like Grandma was the first to grow old and get dementia. But now, if I ever have children, I will tell them about her stories and they will say, “Oh, tell us one,” and all I will have is a handful of half-there memories about seas and birds and magic, fragments I will have to piece together myself. Frankensteined.
And that disturbs me.
* * *
Many of the Inuit landmarks are named after exactly what they are. “Lake in the Land of Caribou Bulls” is one. “The Place Where Bones Were Left” is another and “Blowhole Spray Drifted Out All Day” or “The One Stocked with Fjord Seals.”
Perhaps that says a lot about them.
Perhaps I have misjudged.
* * *
“Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore they do not always tell of beautiful things,” explains Osarqaq, an Inuit from the Polar regions. “But one cannot embellish a tale to please the hearer and at the same time keep to the truth. The tongue should be the echo of that which must be told.”
More succinctly, Mark Albert Blackfish says, without apology, “Stories are not just about living things. They are living things.”
And that may explain the whole of it. If stories are alive, then they grow, they decay, they reproduce, they die. Their children and grandchildren live on, and even if they are forced to abandon their old language, the DNA is the same.
Let’s pretend you asked of my favorite Inuit story of all: It’s from the Chukchi Eskimos of Russia, who overlooked the edge of the world and told a broken tale called “The Attainable Border of the Birds.” The tale speaks of a magical sea beyond the seas, the vast and pale-lit expanse where “the solid sky falls down, striking against the earth, rebounding, a gate that never ceases its opening and closing.”
The final land of birds lies beyond this sky-gate, and every bird seeks that heaven when the days grow cold and dim. But flying beyond the gate is hard: The sky comes flashing down so quickly and so often, like a glitter in the air, that very few birds manage to dart through. Those caught in the gate’s closing fall dead in a vast mound of crushed birds, until at all times there is a rain of feathers floating about the border.
But those that make it, those that reach the land beyond – they fly free, forever.
* * *
Ice makes two sounds.
The first sound is the crunching, cracking underfoot. The short, stubborn, ubiquitous noise.
The second sound is very rare. I have only heard it once, when I was a teenager at Diamond Lake, in the northwest United States. You hear it now and then in early spring on the tundra, or in the mountains by shallow lakes where thick sheets of ice melt slowly. Here, bubbles gather under the ice sheets. Those bubbles dance, reverberate, then suddenly burst in escape, resonating the sheets like a bell. They spring into the air, free and hungry; long and sparkling notes in the air.
Here, the ice sings.