The sky hung low over the sea and Torngait mountains like a mouse-coloured skin, sounds echoing loudly off the waters and the boiling ceiling of mist. Tutauk paddled his kayak up the coast, moving swift as the shadow of a bird or a small beluga across the face of the night coloured water. He made sharp and risky turns, sometimes nearly grating the skin of his craft against late spring ice bits, unlike Father, who avoided any contact and steered his kayak in large arcs to his destination.
Although Tutauk grew hot as his shoulders churned his bladed pau’tik through the waters on either side, he would not take off his tulik or parka. Even in spring one dip in this sea might steal his energy, and his life. Best to sweat a little now, then strip and dry off quickly when he reached his destination.
He paused for a moment and gazed out at the sun struggling to burn through the mist over the ocean. When he was younger, he had asked Father what lay beyond the sea, and inland beyond the Torngaits. Father was carving sandstone, and would continue some while before stopping to answer any question put to him. Tutauk could not see what it would become yet, whether a nanook or perhaps a woman and child. These were the two things Father carved most, although sometimes when in a humour he would make an excellent narwhal or harp seal.
“The mountains are where the first people came across. Through passes guarded by wind spirits who freeze your skin and bones, and Adlit who lure in travelers to eat their liver.”
Father blew powdered stone off his carving and eyed it carefully.
“Across the sea are more Inuit, the people. We use hi’ olik seal skin. They use u’djuk. They speak words funny. Sometimes they are friendly, sometimes not if they are hungry.”
As he grew into manhood, Tutauk stopped asking questions. He went as far as he needed to hunt or to catch terns like those strapped to his kayak today, and no farther. This land was all he would ever need, and he would need to master it to survive.
The leaden sky oppressed Father Johannes this morning, as it had every morning since leaving Grönland. As the only priest on the ship, he was free from the arduous duties of sailing the carrack across the Atlantic, skirting spring gales, icebergs, and pirates or pressgangs. With the king of England fighting the Hapsburgs, maritime safety could not be guaranteed, especially as he rode in an English ship. Best get to the Labrador and hunker down with his new congregation while the wars of godless European rulers burned themselves out. He had always longed to go beyond the sea, to the empty spaces of the map, the places of savages, and do the Lord Our Father’s work among them. After two years’ apprenticeship under Father Yens in Grönland, he was finally ready for his own longed-after mission in the Labrador, and blessed that this English carrack had offered to take him to the wild coast there.
Truth be told, Johannes hated the English. It was good that the Labrador and its natives had fallen under the mercy of the Moravians. If the English had care of them, they would surely degenerate further and be forever bereft of God the Father’s grace. The English sailors who crewed the carrack he rode were especially loathsome representatives of their race. They laughed at Johannes’ voice as he read scripture, dumb to the beauty of it, ignorant that their own bastardized language had sprung from his noble tongue. Although pride was a sin, he felt sorely wounded by their smirks and snickers. Still, he gave services daily as was his duty.
This day Johannes felt generous. The captain had told him they would soon be in sight of the Labrador, near the place where esquimeaux were thought to have villages. Villages Johannes would be the first white man to see. In honour, he broke open his dear supply of wine and wafers to offer Communion to these heathen sailors. They lined up quickly for a sip of the rich crimson wine, yet half of them refused the ancient wafers. Johannes suffered through their abuse with good grace.
“This is my flesh and blood. Eat of it and be saved.”
“What is a man? Is a man’s face only white? His tongue only English?”
A sailor yawned loudly.
“I say to you no. God the Father has made men of all shapes and sizes, but all equally needful of salvation. In the beginning, God moved across the face of the waters. And now he moves me across it to do His work.”
Tutauk lifted the kayak onto his shoulder and carried it to the river, where he washed it, rubbed muck gently off with snow, then coated it with seal oil. Father had taught him how to preserve his boat and mend it, although eyeing it now he could not see that it needed any sewing. It would be essential for hunting seals in fall, but now he would take fishing and birding trips such as this for his pleasure and to keep his skill up. Once again he hefted his craft and walked towards the cache at the treeline where Father and he kept dried meat and other supplies for hunting when not needed. Tutauk would set tent here tonight and paddle back home tomorrow.
Suddenly, a voice in beautiful loon-like song drifted down to him, singing a lovestory he knew well. Tutauk smiled and followed the singing into the trees, to where he noticed a small fire burning next to a caribou hide tent he had seen many times before. As he approached he called out “Caubvick! Caubvick!” The singing stopped and the tent awning was thrown aside. Tutauk watched smiling as Caubvick slowly emerged, first clean sealskin mukluks, then leggings, then a spring doeshirt. Caubvick smiled back at him.
“I came near here with my sister and her husband fishing. I came here to await you.”
“I am happy.”
Tutauk hefted a brace of the terns he had caught.
“I have had luck. Dinner.”
“First, come in and clean up.”
Caubvick returned inside the tent. Tutauk lowered his kayak and his catch, removed his heavy mukluks, then followed her inside.
Johannes could not sleep for the bestial singing of the crewmen. The captain had rationed out rum to all to keep the chill from their bones and celebrate the sighting of land, and the sailors had made the most of it. Between the noise and his excitement, slumber was near impossible. Johannes wrapped himself in his cloak and furs and left his cabin, intent on a walk in the moonlight, and maybe even to get a sight of the land.
Johannes had half died from the croup on the journey from Europe, and still would often be wracked with coughs like those that plagued many people of Father Yens’ mission. Although he needed desperately to keep warm, the pestilent atmosphere of his cabin often forced him on deck to fill his lungs with keen Arctic air.
As Johannes passed rows of crates and barrels in the hold, a moan came to his ears, as of a man in pain. The priest peered into the dark, and was about to speak when his eyes adjusted and he beheld the groaner.
Two sailors lay behind a keg, fornicating. The buttocks of one rose up and down, and now their mingled moans floated to Johannes. The priest spun on his heel and continued to the hatch under the forebroom. Although Johannes was terribly lonely, he would neither sin with men nor take any woman, save a bride from the fatherland once he established his mission and sent for her. It would be a hard life, but one they would share in the service of God the Father.
Tatuak lay in the tent under the covers, holding his lover Caubvick tight. Her long raven hair snaked across his chest and warmed him. Their naked bodies steamed, a sheen of his seed fixing his crotch to her hip and buttocks. There was no blood this time like when they had first made love before he went birding.
Caubvick stirred and turned to look at him, her breasts hanging near his forehead, her shining eyes peering into his.
She pulled on a light parka and crawled out to the fire, where water boiled in a shallow stone basin. From a hide sack she drew two cup-bowls and a handful of kayak-shaped dried leaves of orange and green, then scattered the leaves in the cup-bowls. She used a minkskin glove to tip the heated basin and pour hot water into the cups, then let the tea steep. When it was ready she knee-walked back to the tent door and gave Tatuak his drink.
They sat sipping, he looking at her framed in the tent opening, she looking out down the hill to the sea.
When they finished, Tatuak pulled on his clothes. Caubvick smiled at him.
“What’s it like kayaking on the sea?”
“Will you take me out sometime?”
“Women ride the oomiak. The women’s boat.”
“But why?” She faced him, serious. “You could teach me. And I could teach you useful things.”
“No. Men use the kayak. Women the oomiak.” Tatuak sighed. “Stop talking.”
“I will not. Father says women must be as strong as men.”
Tutauk slapped her, the contact of palm and cheek echoing out over the hill, sending a shock through them both. He turned his back to her, watching the sea while he rocked on his heels. After a moment, Caubvick gathered the cups and tea sack then began to prepare the terns Tatuak had brought.
Johannes took one last look around the cabin he hoped never to see again. He swept up his pewter figurines of Christ, which his father had given him before leaving home, and the bone figures of the Nativity given to him by Father Yens before leaving Grönland.
When he arrived on deck, the captain was peering at the land through a spyglass. He stopped and nodded to Johannes, then pointed and spoke.
“There be an esquimeau on yon shore. Will you go to him?”
The captain proffered his glass. Johannes pressed the greasy spyglass to his eye, then after a moment’s searching spotted the Inuit by the line of stunted trees above the beach, bending over a kayak, albeit smaller than the ones he had seen in Grönland. Further up the hill behind the man Johannes could make out rising smoke and the top of a tent.
“Yes. Take me to him.”
The captain made orders and his men jumped to remove a dory from its braces and hoist it up. Two sailors loaded Johannes’ meager possessions, his book, wine and chalice and tabernacle, clothes and dried food wrapped up in cloth and tied tight with string, then one jumped in and offered his hand as the other held the swinging dory steady. Johannes clambered into the boat and banged his buttocks painfully on the hard seat. He turned and nodded to the master of the ship.
“God bless you, captain.”
“I fear you will need His mercy more than I.”
The second seaman scurried aboard, then the captain whistled and the dory was lowered down upon the heaving sea in bone-jarring jerks.
Tutauk could not believe his eyes. He had gone to retrieve another tern from his kayak and seen that something terrible lay on the sea, a large dark shape like an enormous rotted log or a dead whale with its ribs picked clean and sticking up at the sky. Was it an immense oomiak? The thought was insane, yet the shape was similar and he could see mannish forms moving like horseflies atop it.
A few of the figures milled around on top of the craft, then unbelievably began to lower a much smaller oomiak from it with thick thongs, but of which animal hide Tutauk could not tell. Three figures rode the strange smaller boat, two rowing while one sat between them, this last all in black and clutching packages instead of lashing them down as any sane woman would have. Each wave lifted the three up and smashed them down, showering them with a freezing rain of salt sea water. Were they witless to risk their lives on these waves in such a craft? Or were they spirits of the sea who knew no danger upon it?
Tutauk watched as the boat finally ground onto the rocky shore, then one rower jumped out and held it while the other threw the packages further up the beach. This done, the figure in black descended. The three men-things squawked at one another for some moments, then the rowers boarded their vessel and set off back towards the immense oomiak.
At the shout, Tutauk was rooted to the spot like a pinetree. The manthing wrapped in black skins, the Qalunaat on the beach had cried out, but its voice was eerily human. Its face was pale as a corpse, but lined in thick and dirty brown fur. It smiled and showed its teeth at Tutauk.
“Hey boy! “Ahé, ahé, thou tcharacou! I am friend!”
Tutauk now mistrusted his ears. Could the thing be trying to say “Ai tutsiarakku,” to ask him drop his arms as men greeted one another did? Was it too stupid to see he had no harpoon, and no knife save a bird-scraper? Or was it testing him to see if he were undefended?
Then the dark thing lurched closer, and Tutauk winced as he saw how its skins hung loose and left it cold, unlike a good parka. No man could survive in such loose skins.
“Come not closer!”
Tutauk picked an egg-shaped stone from near his feet and held it ready. He would protect himself and Caubvick. The Qalunaat halted, then raised its arms and repeated what it had said. Tutauk shook the hand holding a stone.
“Come not closer! Leave this place!”
The Qalunaat come forward again.
Tutauk’s arm was a blur as he sent the stone arcing towards the thing and struck its exposed temple, one of the few hairless spots on its ugly face. The thing groaned like a man, then its knees buckled and it fell.
Tutauk heard the soft footsteps of Caubvick behind him.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. A beast.”
“I heard it speak.”
Tutauk nodded. The Qalunaat had spoken a half language, almost sounding like Inuktitut, the language of the people at times.
“What will we do?”
Tutauk thought. Was this thing a Tornit spirit come down from the jagged mountains? No, he had seen him come from the sea. Or maybe a cannibal Adlet trying to catch Tatuak with his guard down? But it was not a person. Father would know what it was.
“Go back to your sister’s husband’s camp. I will take this creature to Father.”
Tutauk fished some strong caribou cords from his kayak and began to tie the thing’s hands.
Johannes trotted behind the youth’s kayak, his eyes tearful with joy, heedless of the cut on his temple or the tiredness of his feet. To find an Inuit so quickly he was truly blessed. Of course there had been a misunderstanding and blood drawn, but now Johannes was being lead back to their village. The bleeding scalp would be his mark of passage – was not Father Yens beaten by the men then tempted by the esquimeau women of Grönland before winning them over? This was Johannes’ Calvary, and he would happily bear what little suffering God The Father had chosen to test him with.
The Bible and figurine packages that hung from around his neck thumped his chest with each step he took, reassuring Johannes and giving him strength. Now was the time to start his mission.
“Sky father blesses you, my son. I forgive you.”
The Inuit boy in the kayak did not look back or respond, merely continued rowing up the coast as the sky burned salmon-flesh pink, drawing Johannes along with his animal cord. The priest smiled. Caught and brought in like a lamb, it was he who soon would be the shepherd.
“Sky father blesses you! My name is Johannes. What is yours?”
The Inuit continued paddling as stars came out over the ocean.
“I am Johannes. Who are you?”
Silence, then a pair of loons took flight low along the shore ahead of them.
The Qalunaat was insane. Tutauk remembered an uncle who had lost his spirit once, and who had talked in much the same way. Tutauk knew as anyone did that the spirits were all around them, but expecting sky spirits to come down and care for people was mere foolishness. Men fed and clothed themselves. The thing also kept forgiving Tutauk, but he had done nothing needing forgiveness.
Tutauk was unhappy. He had looked forward to spending the night with Caubvick then returning at first light. Now he and the crazy Qalunaat drew into the family camp as darkness fell, and the cry of a wolf could be heard. At least the thing had been quiet the last little while, except for its ragged breathing.
Tutauk saw the silhouette of his father emerge from the largest tent, always limping from his accident with a mother seal when he was a boy.
Father’s brow furrowed.
Tutuak bowed his neck and averted his eyes.
“This strange thing has followed me. I don’t know what to do with it.”
Father looked the Qalunaat over. It had collapsed as they entered the camp and sat wheezing in its loose black skins, insensate. Two packages hung around from its neck on braided cords.
“Maybe it is come down from the Torngaits.”
“I saw its oomiak. It was made of hard wood, open to the air, and it nearly threw this creature into the sea. It came from the belly of a larger oomiak filled with its kind. The Qalunaat seemed not to know how to use the boat, and two others rowed it. It tried to talk to me in the language of people. I left its tools with Caubvick’s sister’s brother.”
“Hmmmm. Maybe it stole them from a sea spirit. Could be useful.”
“What will we do with it?”
Father bent his knees and rocked on his heels, eyes glittering in the starlight as he studied the creature. Behind him, Tutauk could see his little sister and brother peering out from the tent opening. He whistled them back inside, then looked up at the starlit sky, then the ground lighted by the rising moon. Father spoke slowly.
“It is another mouth to feed, unless it can feed mouths. Yes it has arms and legs and looks like a man. But have you ever seen the bones of a polar bear? Nanook’s hand bones are as fine as yours or mine. Have you heard the cry of seal pup on the ice? It cries as a woman’s baby would, and you have to steel yourself the first time you kill one.”
Father nodded at Tutauk, who nodded back.
Tutauk took a large rock in both hands, lifted it over his head, then brought it down on the skull of the Qalunaat. He did this two more times. The thing lay spread out in its skins as moonlight collected in silver pools about it.
Father called out.
“Mother, bring your bear skinning knife.”
Father went through the two packages strung around the Qalunaat’s neck. Both were made of some soft fine cloth Tutauk had never seen the like of.
“We will wash these and give one each to your Mother and sister.”
After unrolling both packages, Father laid their contents out. One had contained a tooled black skin wrapped around a pile of white soft tree barks, covered with marks. The other had held several tiny figures of men and animals, like the sculptures Father made, but of bone and white not dark stone. Father peered at the bone figurines.
“These are made by the people! How did the Qalunaat come by them?”
Tutauk looked closely at the figures. It was as Father said, they were Inuit, but not any story or character he knew. Next Father took out several of the larger, white figures of Qalunaat, which resembled the one at their feet. Father rubbed them, bit a corner of one, then tested it with both hands. It snapped and Father cried out and drew back. Tutauk could see the jagged edge had cut the tip of his finger.
“The colors are beautiful, but this stone is too weak for this land.”
Father’s hand lazily sent the broken white figures out over the inlet, where they splashed into the reflected moon and destroyed it with the ripples from their impact. He kept the bone figurines.
Father hefted the white tree barks wrapped in tooled black skin.
“This will burn well.”
Father threw it on the pile with the cloths, bundled it all in his arms and began walking back to the main tent. He nodded at the Qalunaat.
“Drag that over.”
As Tutauk grabbed the Qalunaat and pulled, a tickle in his throat set him coughing. He continued coughing all the way back to the tent, and could hardly breathe by the time he arrived.