John Patrick McShea

In 1953, the Inuit Told Us of Nanuq


   The arctic is a pale desert.
   We have long been tangled in a race with the Soviets for the North Pole. The Soviets established their first manned station sixteen years ago, and it drifted nearly two-thousand miles on the ice floe during its first year in operation. We reached the North Pole first, in 1909, with the help of four Inuit men. Naturally, the Soviets dispute this; they say they reached the true Pole first in 1948. A thirty year difference—what have they been doing all this time?
   We are high in the arctic and we can’t say where. We have spent the last several months bringing the natives into our communities or pushing them even farther north. A recon plane spotted an isolated Inuit tribe gathering at the sea in an area where the pilot has flown many times before. He said he has never seen any sign of native life there, yet the Inuit gather as if appearing out of nowhere. It is our mission to bring them in or push them north like all the others.
   We came up along the coast by boat and landed some twenty miles south of where the Inuit gather. We have travelled by dog and foot and have made camp at the top of a slope where we can look down the valley to the shore where the Inuit lie. It is night here almost always and we can barely see the Inuit in our binoculars. They have built igloos at the shore and have made a camp. We suspect that our presence is not known to the Inuit.
   Inuit fires flicker down in the valley and they reflect off the ice and sea. The Inuit kneel around the fires and watch the sparks rise into the sky where they hang in suspension to become the stars. The Northern Lights are purple above us and their reflection glows deep in the snow. This morning we woke to a single line of polar bear tracks through our camp and the dogs were startled.
   The Inuit have pulled in a bowhead and it lies on the shore dying. They hack at it with knives. Our hands are cold as we watch them butcher the whale.


   The whale still lies on the shore dying.
   The Inuit have removed large hunks of flesh from her sides. Many of the Inuit’s harpoons remain stuck in her body and one of us mentions that it is a shame.
   We have found no new signs of the polar bear that walked through our camp two nights ago, though several of us stay up on watch both night and day. One of us mentions that he heard what sounded like a bear cry out in the middle of night. Another one of us says in a dream he saw a polar bear stand upright. He said the bear stood twelve feet tall and never moved—it only watched us while we slept. Some of us mention that they are unnerved by the dream.
   We now know that the natives are aware of our arrival. We have spotted a lone Inuk standing between us and the tribe far off in the distance. He stands next to a single igloo and he watches us all day. Fur envelopes the entirety of this man except for his face, and in his hand he holds a harpoon. We are able to see him without the use of binoculars; he is visible under the purple glow of the Northern Lights. How did we not see him before? There are far too many of us not to have noticed.
   The lone Inuk has not moved since we spotted him. One of us says she can feel the contempt within him. We have decided to stay at camp and continue to observe.


   The lone Inuk continues to watch us.
   The wind here is harsh and it howls over our camp. It blows snow down the slope—fine snow but rough, it mimics sand. The coarse powder rises upward like roaring steam and then it tumbles back over itself. The land changes every day in the arctic. Wind pushes the wandering ice into the shore and it piles; mountains grow into the shore. This world shifts like a labyrinth. How many more miles has the Soviet station travelled on the drifting ice? Is it even still out here all these years?
   Here in the arctic, the world has become itinerant. Nothing is permanent. One of us mentions that the Inuit tribe below us is like the land—having appeared almost out of nothing, simply brought on as if carried by the wind. Another one of us mentions that the thought of this might be naïve and we would be wise not to consider the Inuit tribe as incidental.
   Overnight, the Northern Lights turned blue and now they swim in the sky. All is quiet except for the wind and it howls. The bowhead still appears to be alive, but we know this can’t be true. Are we hallucinating when we see her slap her tail against the shore? One of us suggests that the Northern Lights are playing tricks with our sight. Is the arctic just an illusion? Tomorrow we will walk down to the Inuk between us and the tribe and make contact. We will ask him to walk us to the tribe.
   There has been no sign of the polar bear. The dogs are still worried and whimper in their sleep.


   Last night, one of us attacked another.
   Nerves are high and the snowfall dense. One of us thought the other was a bear upright on hind legs. He charged with a knife and realized his mistake too late. The wound is not deep and it seems under control.
   The whale’s bones show, either outright or where her flesh recedes. She grows thinner and we swear she is still alive. The Inuit have tied her down with rope from their harpoons. We watch them take small bites as they hack away at her.
   The Inuit let the dogs lick their knives as they cut away her flesh. We know the Inuit make their knives from walrus ivory. We know they spread her blubber over biscuits.
   We leave camp first thing and head toward the lone Inuk. He watches us as we traverse the ice and still he has yet to move. One of us mentions that there is no doubt that the lone Inuk is full of contempt. Above us, the Northern Lights still swim in shades of blue. The Soviets could arrive at any moment. Would they kill the Inuit? Would they kill all of us? We’ve lost track of their drifting base.
   Walking down the slope is slow and we decide to leave our dogs at camp. The packed snow and ice is uneven; jagged edges rise like the ice at the shore. Other sections of ground fall away before us. Marching straight toward the Inuk is difficult but proves to be the quickest. Why did we not think it would take this long? It seems that the Inuk grows farther from us the longer we walk. The wind seems stronger than yesterday and our hands are still cold.
   When the wind’s howl dies down, we hear the Inuit huskies whine in their camp. Back at our camp, we watched the snow pack into our dogs’ fur hard like a crust. Some of our dogs shake the snow off and hide when they feel the wind. Do their dogs hide from the wind like ours? We have seen a small igloo that we assume must be for their pups. We have seen children carry the young dogs in their hoods to and from the igloo.
   When we reach the Inuk he remains quiet when we ask for a name. It has taken us nearly the whole day to reach him; we have made pitiful time climbing down the slope and against the wind and over the shifting ice.
   It is difficult for us to judge the age of the lone Inuk, he appears neither old nor young. His sealskin boots are stiff but glisten like the ice. His fur pants are white and wide and they blow in the wind. Even as we stand before him, he does not move.
   Eventually he speaks as we all gather around and even then he looks straight ahead. He asks us if we have knives for trading and we say no. He asks us if we would like him to take us to the Inuit camp and we say yes. He tells us that what we want we will not get. He says that what we look for we will never see. He says that we have found something that was never intended for us to find. We ask him what all of this means. He tells us we should turn our backs to the Inuit and go home.
   We refuse and tell him that we will go to the Inuit camp. The lone Inuk smiles. He says that the Northern Lights don’t stay blue for long and that soon they will turn green. He says he knows that our hands are cold. He says he knows we race the Soviets, but doesn’t understand what we race for. He says he knows that we are afraid of the polar bear tracks in our camp and that our dogs whimper in their sleep. He says that the whale on the shore has always been dead but we are too blind to see. Is there any sense or truth to what the lone Inuk says?
   Over the lone Inuk’s shoulders, we can see that the whale is still alive and that men still hack away at her. We hear someone moaning in the lone Inuk’s igloo but we decide not to inquire.
   Along with the Inuk, we head for the Inuit camp.


   Deep in our bones, we feel the wind strong off the shore.
   At their camp, the Inuit women carry naked infants under their fur coats. An Inuit man shores his kayak, and then he sits and waits for children to come out from under the sealskin hull. Down along the coast, the ice is always moving. Ebbing and flowing, the ice stirs like the sea itself. We see another man standing at the shore. He harpoons a fish and then kills it with his teeth.
   The lone Inuk walks us over to the bowhead. She is still alive—the Northern Lights do not play tricks on our eyes. The blue light reflects in her eyes through the darkness. The Lights spin in her inky pupils. One of us mentions that it looks like the Milky Way. Can there be such a thing—a whole galaxy in the eyes of a dying whale? The lone Inuk sets off for his igloo. He leaves us at the camp.
   The Inuit camp is loud and the wind rips through the flattened snow. The weather is an oppressor. Like ours, their dogs shiver in packs. Snow and ice crust together in their fur. The Inuit offer us flesh from the bowhead on extended knives and we accept. We eat the whale right off the knives and she tastes fresh. A toothless and smiling man wants us to lick the ivory blades—he mimics the act in offering. The taste of the blade is thick and our tongues are coated in fat.
   An old woman carrying many children approaches us and the rest of the Inuit step away. She asks us if we have any beads to trade and we say no. She tells us that we will stay the night with her in her igloo in the center of the camp. We go inside, where we no longer hear the wind. It is by far the largest igloo and it is full of children. Even with all of us and the children, there is plenty of room.


   Our ears ache from the lack of a wind’s howl.
   When we wake in the morning our hands are no longer cold. The inside of the igloo seems to grow larger before us. Space is abundant. A stone hearth sits in the middle of the igloo and seal oil is used for fuel and moss is used for wicking. The fire burns small and cool and the children hang their bare feet over it and smile at us. All throughout the igloo, furs and leathers litter the ground. Other than the soft crackling in the low hum of the fire, the igloo is quiet.
   The Mother tells us that she knows why we are here. She says she does not have an answer for us—that she does not know if she will send her tribe with us or if they will retreat farther north. She says that she already knows of all the tribes who have come with us and of all the tribes who continue north. To where, she wonders aloud, do those tribes travel? There is nothing waiting for them north she says. She tells us that her tribe has always been a wandering tribe and that it does not have a name. She says that the lone Inuk who brought us here left the tribe long ago but still remains nearby. He follows them. She says that she, like the lone Inuk, knows that we are afraid of the bear tracks in our camp and that our dogs whimper in their sleep.
   The Mother says the polar bear that entered our camp has a name and that all the Inuit call it Nanuq. She tells us that Nanuq is a wise and precious being, and that he is closer to human than bear. She says Nanuq can be killed only when he allows himself to be killed and that the hunter who kills him has been deemed worthy by Nanuq himself. The hunter who kills him must hang Nanuq’s fur in his igloo for several days and the hunter must offer knives and tools to him out of respect. If the hunter pays the proper respect to him, Nanuq will tell the polar bears that the hunter is worthy and that they too will offer themselves to the hunter like Nanuq has done. The Mother says that Nanuq walks upright on his hind legs. He hangs his own fur in his igloo.
   The mother brings us outside where she cuts a block of packed snow from the ground. From the block, she carves a polar bear and rests her hand on his head. She smiles at us and we smile back. One of us tells her that we are no longer afraid of Nanuq. But another one of us wonders if it is not fear that we’ve lost, but knowledge that we’ve gained. Are these two related—fear and knowledge? Is it that easy to mistake the two? Does the loss of one give rise to the other?
   Another one of us mentions to look over at the whale. She is still alive, and now she is smiling. The snow-crusted dogs bite at her fins. Her sides are pure bone.
   Outside, we feel the wind again. The sound of the wind fills our ears and now they no longer ache. The wind howls as it covers us in snow. The Mother places her carved polar bear back into the snow.
   She tells us to return to our camp—the Inuit will need time to decide if they will come back with us to our community or retreat farther north. She says the Inuit have come to the shore for food. She says that they have been pushed out from the interior desert, where they can no longer find caribou or fox. The animals of the interior have become lost to the land. Here, at the shore, the water offers seals and walruses and whales to the Inuit. It is still early in the day and if we hurry we hope to reach camp by night. The ocean wind at our backs will carry us. The Northern Lights have turned green in the dark sky above us. How close are the Soviets? We are afraid they are near.


   The lone Inuk awaits our return.
   We reach the Inuk between the two camps in good time. We tell him that we know he once belonged to the nameless tribe and that now he follows. Looking straight ahead, he smiles. From his smile, he says that the tribe will starve. He tells us that the whale was a gift, but it has always been dead. He says he will stay here by himself forever. We tell him that is not an option.
   The lone Inuk tells us that everything we’ve learned about Nanuq is myth. Polar bears are not sacred, and the Inuit starve themselves by following worn tradition. The lone Inuk tells us that the Inuit waste their time looking for their ancestors in the Northern Lights where they believe their ancestors dance. The lone Inuk says that the Inuit believe that the polar bear is near-human. He says they believe that most animals are near-human. The lone Inuk believes that humans are often not even human. He tells us this: the Inuit believe that if you whistle at the Northern Lights they will come down and cut off your head.
   The Northern Lights are bright and green when the lone Inuk says this. He moves his head and points it toward the Lights. He puckers his lips and he whistles out a song. Some of us become frightened when the Lights begin to swim in the sky. The Lights begin to dance. They turn red and rise like the wandering ice against the shore. They peak and then begin to crash down on themselves above us. Some of us beg the Inuk to stop. Others of us start to cry. A few of us begin to cheer. The Northern Lights are boiling and dive straight for us. Some of us run away. Some of us slit our own throats to get it over with. Some of us start to kiss each other. Some of us ride down the slope on our bellies and become swallowed by the sea. Those of us who are kissing start to use our tongues. The lone Inuk’s song grows as he whistles louder. The Northern Lights churn in the sky and consume us. They pass through us entirely.
   The Northern Lights leave our heads on our bodies and then return to the sky. The lone Inuk smiles.
   Those are us who are left pull ourselves together.
   The Inuk points to his igloo. We can still hear moaning coming from inside like before and the lone Inuk tells us that Nanuq is inside. He says that those of us who are left will come inside to see for ourselves if Nanuq is sacred. The lone Inuk says that those of us who are left will need to do what he says or else he will kill us.
   Inside the igloo, the Inuk shows us a broken polar bear. He says he has shattered the bear’s legs. The bear’s fur is covered in blood and small gashes line the bear’s ribs. Those of us who are left cannot hear the wind howling outside of the igloo. All that we hear are the heavy breaths of the dying polar bear. Looking up at us, the bear has stopped moaning.
   The Inuk holds out a harpoon. He tells those of us who are left to stab the bear in its sides and that he will kill those of us who refuse. Without hesitation, those of us who are left stab the bear with the harpoon. Some of us are tender and disgusted and gentle with the spear. Some of us stab with force. And some of us stab the bear more than once. The one who dreamed of the bear standing on hind legs holds the harpoon in the bear’s side for a long time. The one who mistook the other for a bear plunges the spear deep.
   The lone Inuk asks us if Nanuq is sacred. Those of us who are left say no.
   The lone Inuk tells us that it is time to leave. We are to head back to our camp immediately. The Northern Lights are bright red and so is the snow.


   From our camp, those us who are left look down on the Inuit.
   How much time before the Soviets arrive? Barely any flesh remains on the bowhead, and through our binoculars we watch as she draws slow breaths. The Inuit dogs have taken to licking her bones and the bones closest to the ground are licked clean. The bones on her backside are red and some flesh remains, and the dogs jump into the air to reach them. We hear the dogs’ faint barks under the howl of wind. Those of us who are left can no longer see the lone Inuk—he has disappeared from the horizon.
   A red haze from the Northern Lights covers the Inuit camp. Some of us who are left mention that the red glow gives this place a strange feeling. We have decided that we will spend the day at our camp with our dogs and that tomorrow we will make the trek back down to the Inuit where we will ask for a decision from the Mother. We hope that she will come into civilization with us, but will accept her decision if she decides to venture north.
   Fresh bear tracks have been made through our camp last night, but the dogs do not seem startled. The wind howls high up here on the slope, and our hands are as cold as ever. Our tongues have become rough and dry from exposure, and those of us who are left desire the slick coating of whale fat in our mouths. Some of us who are left have expressed a desire to trade our boots with the Inuit—the stiff sealskin hangs in some of our minds. The red Lights begin to let up late in the day.


   As when we came, the Northern Lights are purple.
   The purple does not look as vivid as before—the lights are not as bright. Some of us who are left mention that the snow no longer reflects the color of the Northern Lights.
   The sounds of the arctic are strange today. The wind’s howl is lonely and this place is just a pale desert. We hear the sound of ice cracking, and it echoes through the arctic. How deep does the ice split? Will the North Pole tear itself apart someday?
   The wind drifts the coarse snow across the hills, and it fills in between the jagged edges of rising and falling ice. We have set off for the Inuit camp, which has dissipated behind the snowy air. Travel is slow again and, like before, we have left our dogs at the camp. We watch as the landscape ebbs and flows before us. The arctic is alive but empty. The lone Inuk is no longer there, and we walk straight through to the Inuit camp.
   As we approach the camp, one of us who is left mentions that he cannot hear the whines of the Inuit dogs. As we enter the camp, we see that all of the Inuit igloos lie in ruin, smashed and ransacked. Their furs and leathers have been thrown on the ground. It is clear that the Inuit camp is empty.
   Some of the snow and ice is red, and we discover that it is blood. A grown dog lies frozen in a pile of ice and below her a naked child lies dead. Her skin has turned blue from the cold. The remaining flesh from the whale’s back is gone yet still she struggles under the harpoon lines. Her bones are as white as the snow and the ground beneath her is black. Those of us who are left can taste her flesh in our mouths. We pull her lines from the ground, but she remains. Why won’t she leave? She lifts her tail and it falls back to the shore.
   As faint as they are, the Northern Lights begin to disappear from the sky. Those of us who are left do not know where the rest of the Inuit have gone or even if they are alive. Has something else come for them in our absence? Have they done this to themselves to trick us and send us home? Is this the Mother’s answer?
   We decided to head back to camp and have called for a boat to meet us. We reported that the Inuit tribe appears to have ventured farther North. We do not mention that their camp is destroyed or that a child lies dead. And we do not mention that we have set free a whale that was never alive.
   Past the Inuit camp—far in the sea—large chunks of ice have separated. One of us who is left mentions that the separated ice is a clear sign that a submarine has emerged from below. We suspect that the Soviets have come, but there is nothing here for them. We no longer care about the Soviet arrival; we no longer desire control of this place. The Northern Lights are gone, and the sky is full of sparks. The arctic is nothing but a pale desert.


JOHN PATRICK McSHEA is from Pennsylvania. His writing appears in TriQuarterly, Sonora Review, Salamander, Hotel Amerika, and Hobart, among others.