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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A special Flash Friday edition of From The Vault, where we feature favorites from issues past. The story first appeared as a “New Voice” in Tin House #28.
We live in Tasiilaq, the eastern tip of Greenland, where two jutting coasts curve in on each other like crab claws. We are ruddy and plump and strong. The land around us is white and gray, white and gray, until August, when the broad ice belt begins to drip, drip, melt, shift down the river in blocks to the south. Some grow up and leave, those in the west, those who are more connected—the main airport, the capital city—the sons and daughters of insurance agents and doctors. They go south to Canada where things are more like TV, sunny and iridescent. We stay. We are the sons and daughters of seal hunters; we know the old ways and over our beds hang carved animals of tusk and bone. When we were children we were bundled and tied and carried under miles of stars to the fjords of the north, where dark shadows lumber in the narrows of snow, snow on every side, down and around and catching in our eyelashes and melting down our faces. Once we saw the huge mass of a polar bear fallen in the snow, saw our fathers tie its paws and move it across the flat, misty shore of the arctic lakes.
We are few and we are different. Our language has distinct lilts and rolls; it is lower and softer, musical, is passed between neighbors, used to calm the children in dark rooms when the wind pulls the snow off the ground and flings it into the sky. We visit the mainland once a month, taking the helicopter to Kulusuk, the big blades churning over our heads. We watch the cliffs drop and our brightly painted houses disappear into the rocks. The store there is big. Glazed teenagers with jeans and sweatshirts work the register, looking to meet somebody new, exciting. They know who we are. We dress in the old clothes, we are not pierced or decorated, we spend very little and do not leaf through the magazines at the counter or pop gum into cloudy pink bubbles. They nod at us, indifferent. The south pulls on them and they are forever pointed like compasses in the direction of Ontario, Vancouver, Quebec City, places of durable vowels and consonants, of four seasons and respite from the ragged edges of this place. We are a reminder of all that is strange and separate here—the midnight sun, children roller-skating down the main road at three o’clock in the morning, gliding and shouting under the dark, slow burn. Time is nonexistent for five months of the year; dreamlike we float through our lives. The northern lights float themselves across the sky like slow curtains—blue, green, disappearing and reappearing. Our mothers never sleep; they sit at the windows and watch the town from high-backed chairs. In the mornings we find their apple peelings in the sink, like tracks.
We have no hospital in Tasiilaq. We are born in damp kitchens, in a rush of boiling water and blood. High cliff walls jut over our houses and cast shadows across our bedroom doors. We go to school in a one-room schoolhouse built into a mountainside at the edge of town. We learn astronomy and mythology from waxy textbooks stacked against the walls. There are no desks. We walk to school in hordes in the winter, holding gloved hands and fighting the snow across the street. We remember the girl who froze in the school yard when we were five. They found her huddled and solid against the pipes. We walked to the lake and sang for her after school that day, solemnly arranging sticks and leaves on the frozen banks.
We remember the day they came, in the middle of a clear and burning June. The reporters, the strangers with white faces. They filmed in the northern fjord, by the lake. They stayed in city hall. They slept all night and we saw them in the mornings, setting up cameras on spidery black legs and framing shots. They were loud, complaining of the cold. We watched their alien crane bend toward the lake and lift something out, something frozen and gray and fused together in a mass of ice. These people gasped and snapped pictures. We stood silent behind huge generators that pulsed and melted the snow at their bases. They talked about “child and mother,” “frozen solid,” “recently died.” “Mystery,” they said.
But it wasn’t a mystery. It was Annuk and her baby, Annuk who had died in childbirth in the spring of last year when the ice began to give and crack. She died in her bed, her stomach still large and loose from the baby. The baby was red and scummy and screaming. We knew what was coming. In some places, much father north than we will ever go, when the mother dies, the father suffocates the baby, or buries it alive. Here, we let them rest in the lake. Our parents lowered Annuk’s body into the water, her baby waiting on the shore, warm and crying in our arms. Annuk’s hair floated across her face and slapped wetly against her mouth. The baby followed, stopping its crying when it felt the water. We watched the dark shapes drift, the baby moving its fat arms silently and kicking until the water rose and the baby was gone.
People on the mainland are starting to talk; we can see it in the way they look at us across counters and through windows, with a hard silver stare. Those who are unable to believe in the old ways go south, where life loses this rawness. Those of us left, we remember the baby, its skin thick and moist, the water lifting its arms out and away and its big wide eyes never closing, not for a moment.
Some late-summer nights we meet at the school, all of us silently converging on the mountainside. This is where we know each other best. We walk onto the frozen lake, as far as we can, until we are surrounded by a wall of rock and whiteness. The midnight sun doesn’t pass the horizon; it hovers there and burns orange over the land, making the ice beneath us glow and mottle. We lie on the ice in our layers of furs and skins, connected by an arm touching a leg or a head resting on a lap. We lie there and feel the air heavy with cold, searching the sky for the Perseids. We are East Inuits; we are young; we are full of something that startles strangers and makes our parents pause. It takes us all night to walk to the cairn, the town’s highest point, where we can see the ocean spread thin and curve to the horizon. We stand there all night, the eerie, cold sunshine pulsing over the town below.
Seals are migrating to the outermost islands. Our fathers are moving with them. They will not return for weeks.
We will be here, in Tasiilaq, waiting.