5.02 / February 2010

An Arctic Mirage Sounds a Lot Like Rusty Crickets

During the pitch black of winter, we Muktuk princesses train around the clock for our competition. We shoot rifles into the long days of polar darkness, aiming at the glowing rods of fluorescent bulbs pilfered from the warehouse in Iqaluit. Piaraq, our trainer, has made a simulated fjord scene and she pokes the light bulbs up between chunks of snow while we point and shoot. When we hit one, sparks flare and the air lights up with crackles of electricity that sizzle and smolder into the ice. Piaraq shouts words of encouragement in every language that she knows. She paces back and forth inspecting our results.

“Yes! Wonderful! Atauq! Bonne! Godur! Chin up Arqunaq. Hold steady, Siku. Always keep both eyes on the horn. Ready with your grapples girls!”

It is Piaraq who incorporated ball gowns into our portion of the Nunavut Arctic games. She studied at a mainland University for a few years. She has big ideas about the symbolic nature of things. She likes to see us a rebellion against the influx of weak, waif-like, contemporary beauty ideals. We are strong women who laugh in the face of female softness and haul sea beasts out of the ice in a tangle of dirty prom dresses and rippling muscles. Except that most of us just like the swish of crinoline and satin against our skin. Even teenage whale hunters want to wear frilly gowns sometimes.

When we have shattered every last tube of glass, we aim at twisted branches. Usually by then the months of darkness have broken giving us a few hours of hazy light to practice in. By May, the midnight sun burns across the skies, and daylight spirals out unfettered. We hone our killing instincts without the constraints of time. We are relentless. The pack ice where we practice is a glittering mess of broken glass, splintered arctic willow, and smoking bullet holes. The bottoms of our boots are frozen, snow-crusted, collages of destruction that crunch when we walk, giving us our own unique cadence. Piaraq bores simulated blowholes into the ice, each one about the width of a golf ball. We aim for that sweet spot, the tunnel to the cantaloupe brain that will take down a fully grown narwhal bull.

The simulation is easier than the real thing. During the hunt we have to make sure we get them at the very instant they are filling their lungs with air, or else they sink like rocks to the bottom of the sea. Cemeteries of lost narwhals lie at the bottom of our ocean. We could build a kingdom from the ivory tusks down there. Success depends upon a combination of canny timing and perfect aim that comes as much with instinct as with practice. Sometimes the bullets ricochet recklessly. A few of the girls wear white-heat scars across their cheeks, but it is a mark of distinction among us.

The throat singers watch us from the edge of the ice floes hitching and humming, deep chest guttural groaning, frozen ribbitting us on to victory. It adds a fire to our buck shots, and puts a zing in our spring loading. It helps that most of us Muktuk princesses do not have the ancestral talent of breath-song. It leaves a hostile edge on our singed eyelashes. We might brandish rifles and shot put grappling hooks in ball gowns, but the throat singers enchant the men with sloe-eyed sex whispers and vibrating vocal spasms. They do not need any weapons or glamour. They don’t pin all of their hopes on the four-thousand pound, horned beasts of the sea.   They purr, they pulse, they shake the ice that we stand on. They are frozen sea sirens. Nothing can compete with that.

The stakes are especially high for me because my Gran was the reigning Muktuk Queen for nearly a decade. She held the undefeated narwhal hunting record of all time in our village. She is the only woman to ever slay an elusive double tusker, a beast so old its hide was scratched and scarred to a faded white, the color of new snow. It was a true ancient behemoth of the sea. She supported our family for years with the profits from its horns, and shared its muktuk with the entire village that winter. These were unparalleled blubber riches whose legacy still lives on. There is a picture of Gran hanging over our mantel. She stands beside the monster’s decapitated head and lets loose an Inuit battle cry. They are separated from an empty expanse of white by a circle of blood, and Gran’s powerful hands squeeze the twin tusks with vicious pride. It is almost a part of my own memory I have stared at it so often.

All that success came at a price, however. The narwhals claimed her soul. Long after the pods had migrated back across the Baffin Straits they continued to torment her. In her sleep she heard their clicks and squeaks, and she began wandering out onto shifting pancake ice in the dead of night trying to follow them. She suffered intensely from arctic mirages and ocean dementia. She sought some solace in cherry schnapps and Newfoundland screech rum, a potent combination that made her a little deranged. One day she jumped into a hole in the pack ice, and was swept beneath the floe into a fast moving current, before anyone had time to stop her. The elders still hear her tapping messages to the whales from beneath the frozen waves when the moon is full.

“She was whale-struck,” my mother says, like that is a noble way to be. She stares at the picture a lot too.

It would have been tragic, if not for the fact that my mother was pregnant with me at the time. She felt my grandmother’s soul rush in through her bellybutton and settle through my embryonic form like warm Jell-O. This is not an uncommon occurrence around here. I am not only named after her, I am her, as far as my mother is concerned. I have been the matriarch of our family for as long as I can remember. I use this to my own advantage when she comes to me for advice on how to discipline myself. But being my Gran’s reincarnation carries a weight of its own. I am expected to continue her narwhal hunting legacy and take the crown at the Arctic Games. Each year, so far, I have been a disappointment. I possess the instinct but I choke at the crucial moments. Something always stops me from consummating the kill. It is the fear of catching the thing that plagued her.

“Arqunaq will be reclaiming her title one of these summers,” my mother likes to brag at tribal meetings. More recently she has followed that statement with, “She’s just a late bloomer this time around.”

My Gran grappled her first narwhal at the age of thirteen. I am going on eighteen this year. That is pretty old for a Muktuk princess by any standards. Siku is next in age to me, and she is a few months younger. Most contestants do not continue on past the first couple of unsuccessful attempts. Those of us who have not given up can be recognized by the desperate fire in our eyes. Each summer our chances get smaller, our potential diminishes. There is a new brood of rangy, leather-limbed Inuit girls, a dash faster, a smack smarter, waiting to replace us in the Arctic Games. The edges of my ball gown are ringed with frozen salt now. The bows wilt under smudges of gunpowder residue.

Siku and I have tried everything we can think of. We have prayed over tusks, danced around steaming blubber, one summer we even tried drinking the blood. Siku managed to get down half a cup, but I choked on the pungent, fishy liquid. For weeks after, I felt I could hear whale hearts beating inside me, echoing my own. Their deep pulse hounded me, left me shaky and agitated. These are the times I felt closest to Gran.

Last year, Siku almost won the title of Queen. I’m not sure if we would have been able to stay friends if that had happened. She shot a mammoth bull just an inch outside the blowhole. The ten foot tusk was close enough for her to touch. She got the grapple in but it sank and pulled her through the ice, the ruffles of her gown disappearing into the boiling waves, the soles of her boots getting swallowed whole by the sea. She was saved by Piaraq, who was coaching from the sidelines and has the reflexes of an arctic wolf. It is a risky business, being a Muktuk princess. Lots of guts and hardly any glory at all.

During the Arctic Games, tourists come from all over to see our competitions. We have fun with them. They are so ridiculous it is the only way we know how to handle their intrusion. They camp on the edges of the sea ice, always zippered up in ten kinds of designer brand snowsuits, playing whale calls on their i-pods, or hanging about the throat singers like love sick puppy dogs, hoping to lap up a trace of their ancient power. Siku and I invent make believe words when they ask us how to say things in our language. It has been a running joke since we were little girls. We make up different words for snow.

“Gooble-click-boo,” I say, and Siku offers them translations.

“That means: snow falling in the morning.”


“The words for: the softest snow.”

They catalogue and scribble down the senseless syllables in notebooks looking goggle-eyed and impressed, carefully trying to roll the words out on their own tongues. They watch us in the same way they watch the narwhals, the arctic foxes, the lumbering polar bears. To them, we are all a part of the same animal-wildness.

“Beware of the Qallunaat,” Piaraq tells us, as if we whale hunters could be scared of people who cannot even survive our mildest weather without the accoutrements of nylon fleeced parkas and expensive survival gear. She is prejudiced because when she returned home from the mainland she had a half-Inuit blue-eyed baby girl in tow. Mixed blood or not, chances are, her daughter will make a fierce Muktuk princess one day.

Our portion of the Arctic Games centers around the narwhal migration. When we hear them coming, in chirps and creaks, we hold an ice parade and a midnight ball gown pageant. We demonstrate our sharp-shooting, and grapple giant, plastic bags filled with melting snow. We sit astride them and wrestle them off the stage, hauling and lugging them until streams of cold water spray out the holes and shower the audience. At the end they vote on their favorite contestant. In the previous years I have won prizes, but this time I am too focused to put on a good show. You can only be the Queen if you claim the biggest horn during the hunt. I don’t let my attention wander too far from this thought.

That night, under the sunlight flooded sky, I ask my Gran to help me. I call her down with the clicks and squeaks that led her away. I make all kinds of promises in return for a successful hunt. I write her letters, light them on fire, and send them out my open window on a frosty breeze. I minister to my ravaged ball gown. I carefully brush salt crystals from the bodice and try and straighten out the mangled hem. I visualize it covered in blood and fish slime. I imagine my head thrown back in Gran’s battle call, my cheeks flushed with victory. I listen carefully to the staccato creaks that will define my fate tomorrow. The midnight sun sits on top of my eyelids while I sleep and my dreams are many different shades of white, pierced with salted hopes, and giant glaciers that hum.

In the morning, the pods make their way towards us, creaking like rocking chairs and rusty crickets. The males arrive first, clearing the leads for the calves and the females. They navigate the Baffin Straits in a pointy horned procession, bucking and swelling through the frozen waters, their tusks cracking the ice and feeling their way through the floes. We don’t start to hunt until horns are carving the fjord in a steady trickle. We listen to their voices click and rattle off the glaciers and shimmy across the floes. The others drink and celebrate, but we contestants tensely await their arrival. Siku and I sit on blocks of ice and strategize.

“We’ll hunt the Clover Bend,” she says, scratching a map in the ice with the end of a stick. Her dress is not looking any better than my own. Hers is a sea foam-green stained taffeta. The crinoline freezes straight out from her wiry body and hangs down over her boots in dirty spikes and shreds. Siku is hard muscled and angular, and her face always slants parallel to the sun. Her family is thick with throat singers, but Siku is asthmatic. She goes into hacking convulsions if she even thinks about trying to reciprocate her breathe with another person. It has been a disappointment to her parents. She also has something to prove.

“Right here!” She whacks her ice map hard for emphasis and slivers spray across my cheeks.

“Not enough flow” I tell her, shaking my head. “And the big ones won’t come that close to the shore.” The clicking of the approaching whale pods makes the blood swirl around my body in a maddening way. The skin crawls up around my hairline. I am sweating on the block of ice. I fan myself with a sequined shawl, sending a flurry of silver sparks off into the wind.

Siku frowns and studies her map. Her eyes are ringed with frustration and yesterday’s pageant makeup. She is wraithlike in determination, but I know where we need to go. I saw it in my glacier dreams. After all, I have my Gran’s instinct buried somewhere inside me.

“Here,” I say, pointing at a place that she hasn’t even drawn onto the map. Her eyes widen. It is a treacherous mass of shifting ice, capricious and unstable. I surveyed it early this morning, stepping over sleeping campers, smoldering fires, and snow-shoe hares. It has the narrowest leads and the ice is broken clearly. The water beneath is red-tinted, rich with tiny krill. I am sure that the pods will go there.

“Have you gone crazy Arqu?” she asks. “Are you trying to end up like your Gran? That is nothing but grease ice. Might as well hunt whales from the top of a snowflake. If we sink one, it will pull us straight down.” She shudders in icy remembrance. A dipping in the Baffin Sea is unforgettable even when the sun is shining.

“This is our last summer,” I tell her and her face freezes. It is something I was not supposed to say. Behind us a group of throat singers start up. The vibrations make her eyes hard. She starts to wheeze and her jaw clenches. She snaps her stick in half. Grease ice or not, I know she will be hunting beside me.

Piaraq is not pleased of course.

“I forbid you,” is what she actually says. “This is a competition, not a suicide mission. I won’t endorse this kind of thing.”

But in the end she can’t stop us. She has trained us to rebel against all types of authority. She watches us make tracks across the snow and looks as helpless as I have ever seen her look before. Siku’s face is pale as we tenderfoot the shifting ridges of ice, rifles and grappling hooks slung over our shoulders. Some Inuit hate the feeling of the ocean moving underneath the frozen ground. It is inherited and unspoken, a result of countless generations of icy sea deaths. I am not one of these but Siku is. She doesn’t have time to change her mind. We are half dancing in leaps and jumps, from one piece of ice to another, when horns begin breaking through.

“Tuugaalik! Tuugaalik!” Someone shouts behind us. The narwhals are finally here.

Siku follows me across the ice. They are routing themselves straight towards us. The horns bend and quiver as they tap at the ice. The channel swells with their currents. Mottled backs, the color of dead flesh, swell up out of the water, giant tails slap at the waves. The clicking and creaking is so loud it is hard to think. It requires some fancy footing, but our nail-soled boots do not slip on the ice. The shifting grease sheets do not give way beneath us.

“Arqu!” Siku calls as I race on ahead of her. “Wait!”

I already have my rifle raised to my shoulder. Ahead of me, a big bull is breaking the surface, expelling a thick stream of water from his blowhole. His tusk is massive, fifteen feet long at least. With a horn like that I could send myself to a mainland University like Piaraq. My family would be proud. I could wear ball gowns every day of the week.

“Arqunaq,” I hear again. This time it is not Siku calling my name, it is a series of clicks and rattles coming from the sea. It is the echoing vibrato of the great beast swimming towards me, or the whisper of my Gran, finally deciding to speak. I can only decipher my name, the rest of the sounds could be anything; the words we make up to say snow. The stink of rotting ocean life swirls around the narwhal, warm wind gusts of decomposing shrimp and krill. I lose my ice legs for a moment and almost topple into the sea.

“Arqu!” Siku shouts and I pull myself together. The bull shudders, expelling the last of the sea water, and pausing before sucking in air. My face is wet with his regurgitated shivers. I see the livery hide tremble around the blowhole as he inhales. My rifle arm shakes despite my training. I drop the grapple to the ice to anchor myself to something.

“Arqunaq,” I hear again. It is not Siku it is that rusty-cricket voice. It is the sound of ancestral spirits, and angry oceans; frozen rasps, sucking intakes of water rushing under ice, that stagger my mind and steal away my center. Though I have always been wary of arctic mirages, I doubt myself.   I can’t trust my senses. I am concerned that this really is my Gran and that somehow she got inside of this monster. I have always suspected that I do not really carry her reincarnated soul. Now I am sure that the ocean has swallowed it.

The horn saws back and forth through the ice. The slick body expands. I only have a few moments to take action. There is a split second where I battle it out in my mind, and then I hear Siku wheezing up behind me. Her chest is rattling with the frustration of throat singing impotence. She is gulping up air. She is raising her rifle to claim my prize if I surrender it.

If my Gran were standing here in my body she wouldn’t have to think about what to do at all. She would point and shoot.

5.02 / February 2010