“The peril of our existence is that our diet consists entirely of souls.”
I wish that I could tell you this.
I wish that you could hear the ice that thunders on the bay at night like cannon fire. I wish that you could see the planes, their carbon skins, their bellies full of bombs, the runway lights like jewels in blowing snow.
We fly around the clock in every season, ready to cross the globe and drop our radioactive cargoes in an instant, all to stop those who would do the same to us. I wish I could explain this to you, but I cannot explain it to myself sometimes.
My work is secret, but your mother and I devised a code. If on the phone I asked about the apple crop, it meant that I was in North Dakota. If I asked about the oranges, I was in Goose Bay in Labrador, and so I asked about the oranges, for this is where I am, on a base that from an airplane looks no larger than a cluster of anthills on a vast white sheet. The ice glares here in daylight, and the night winds sometimes knock our buildings down, but we survive. We are ever ready to defend you.
I wish that you could know that, too.
Your mother knows, then, where I am, but she does not know about the box Ataneq carved from cedar, its corner joints enlaced like folded hands. On its lid, he carved a swimming salmon, polished onyx for its eye. Waves graced its sides. It was the most beautiful casket I’ve yet seen, and it was small, so small, only the length of a stillborn child. It’s almost a shame that it now lies underground, beneath the hard, black earth that the summer’s heat exposes.
We hired Ataneq, an Inuit, to build crates for us in which to send airplane parts back to bases in New Mexico and Montana, and we sometimes found him sleeping in his crates, squatting, his head between his shoulders, no part of him except his feet touching the ground. He snored, and we stared at him, amazed.
So many things amaze us here. The ground here is so cold.
He lined the inside of the box with parachute silk stuffed with feathers, and the tiny child, no hair yet on her head, lay inside it as though she were asleep, as though she had not died in any pain.
I dug the grave myself with Ataneq’s help. I was under no obligation to do so; the military does not require such work. I offered as a father and a friend.
In July, we took a pair of shovels and found a spot of pumiced ground off-base in a field patched with husks of ancient snow, and there we struck our spades into the dirt. Sweat blessed our faces and the backs of our necks, and Ataneq looked around, his hair awash in the breeze, and said, finally, “Good.”
I did not ask him to help me, but he said it was his duty to bury his granddaughter, and I can understand that.
Jean Laceau, a mechanic and our chaplain, attended the service, but when we arrived out in the field, there was another man, a man who looked like Ataneq but who wore a sealskin suit with fur around the collar.
“Tikaani,” Ataneq said, pointing to him. “My brother. He will say rites after your preacher.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
Laceau read passages from Psalms and from the Book of John until the pages fluttered in the breeze too much, and then he shut his Bible and recited passages from memory. Tikaani stood off to one side and watched the grayed sky, so thick with clouds it was as though a bank of snow had rolled on top of us. When Laceau was done, Tikaani smiled and raised his arms. He sang, and his voice moved all about the wind and through it, and, at times, it was hard to know what was his voice and what was not. Then he beat against the rim of a whaleskin drum, turning it slowly, and the warbled rhythm came back to us in echo.
But I am telling you this story out of order, and I’m leaving out details. Forgive me, Lewis. Let me start again at the beginning.
My first night in Goose Bay, Corporal Davidson of the Royal Canadian Air Force took me to Ataneq’s home. It was a stark building: plankboard and two-by-fours, roofed with sheets of corrugated tin. I had come from Warner Robbins, where the base houses were brick and thick hardwood.
“I build homes,” Ataneq said. “Before that, boats.”
“He knows what he’s doing,” said Davidson. “He’s been with us just over two years now. Best carpenter I know.”
We walked out into Ataneq’s backyard where kayaks rested against his house. They were made of skin and bowed wood, all carefully steamed and stitched together by hand. The wind, unhindered by trees, blew stiff against our coats.
“Where do you get the lumber?” I asked.
“Driftwood. And this,” Ataneq said, pointing to the stretched skins, “is from seals. The meat has been long eaten already.” He smiled.
In their language, Inuit means “eater of raw meat”. Inside, Ataneq’s wife, Anguta, prepared a stew of vegetables and beef. She offered us a side of uncooked seal meat as well, which Ataneq pulled apart with his hands and teeth while the rest of us used forks and knives. Anguta said something to her husband and he laughed.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said that no American would eat this.”
Ataneq chewed his supper, smiling. Wind beat against the windows and rattled the eaves, but no one looked around, no even one noticed. It was nearly ten o’clock at night and still the sun shone bright outside.
Anguta lifted the stew pot towards me and spoke.
Ataneq said, “Would you like some more?”
Ataneq and Anguta had a daughter named Tiquana, which in the Inuit tongue means “son of Ataneq”. She had not been at supper that first night. I once asked Ataneq why he named her “son”.
“She is an only child,” he said, “and in places such as this, there is no time for daughters.”
I don’t believe this view represents the Inuit in general, but it suited Ataneq well. He was a hard and silent man, short, who often smoked a pipe. When he lit it outside, wind blew the smoke away from it like strands of silk. His hands were rough as sawn granite, and when he spoke, words issued from one corner of his mouth. His eyes were black as polished stone.
Tiquana’s skin was smooth, however, the color of rubbed copper, and her eyes, when she squinted, became dark slits. She wore her hair in a braid so black it shone in the glare of sunlight. Each day she wore a checked flannel shirt. Sometimes she tied it about her waist, but only when she had been working, when a line of sweat had blossomed on her brow and down her back. She sawed planks of plywood for her father and often hammered nails. I once saw her drive a lift through the hangar, a wooden crate held high upon its forks. She moved, her long braid swinging, like a swimmer, gliding as through water, and at times I wondered if this had to do with the cold, if it might be part of survival in this climate.
“Sergeant Caskey,” she said to me. Her voice was always a whisper, and her eyes were on me only for a second before almost closing. “Have you seen my father?”
I told her I hadn’t, but that he might be sleeping.
“Yes,” she said. “Sleeping.” And she swirled into the darkness of the hangar like a moth.
I once saw Tiquana with Eli Evans in the base exchange. She was helping him select a jacket. Evans was from South Carolina and had arrived in Goose Bay with no more than his uniforms, a pair of blue jeans, and a flannel shirt.
“You’re going to need more clothes up here,” I said when he stood at attention in my office the first day he arrived.
He pulled the jacket on that Tiquana had picked out. She touched his arm and smiled. He said something, but I was too far away to hear, and when I walked over to say hello, Tiquana looked down and stood apart from Evans.
“At ease,” I said. “Looks like you’re getting ready for winter.”
“Yeah, I’ve needed some help.”
Tiquana blinked and smiled a little.
“You’ll be fine, I’m sure,” I said. “Just don’t forget a good pair of gloves, too.”
They laughed, and I left them alone.
How Tiquana first met Evans, I never found out. Perhaps it was because of the Jeep.
In the mornings, when there still blew a brutal night wind, I had Evans take the Jeep out of our storage hangar and down the runway, chasing off the artic loons that nested there. Loons were rare in those parts and silent in winter, but the runway, heated underneath with wires to keep it free of ice, became their nesting site, and someone had to keep the runway clear for the lumbering C-47 Dakotas that arrived each day to bring supplies. But I can only assume that it was in the hangar where we kept the Jeep, where Ataneq and Tiquana also worked, that he met her, and perhaps it is unlikely since he went out at five AM.
I do not know. Certain sections of my memory are covered with a haze, and I ought to warn you that not all of this is fact. It is not factual per se, I mean, though, as you may judge when you grow older, it is true, true to my memory, and true, I believe, to the natures of all decent men.
But I do know this for certain: that when Eli Evans came into my office one winter day three months after he arrived, he was shaking. I could see it in his freckled hands, across which there splayed a galaxy of sunspots. They were also on his nose, and they seemed stronger now, for as he had spent more time indoors and wrapped in winter coats, the skin around his freckles had gone pale.
“Sir,” he said, “I need to talk to somebody about a problem.”
“What is it, airman?”
“Sir,” he said again, “sir, I may have a child, sir.”
“With who?” I said.
“With Tiquana, sir,” he said.
He closed his eyes when he said her name, and I saw his knuckles whiten at his sides.
“Do you mean a child? Or is she pregnant?”
“Pregnant, sir. She will have a child.”
His eyes, now open, grew wet, and I handed him a tissue.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, choking.
“Stop calling me sir, Evans,” I said. “You’re not at attention.” He scratched the palms of his hands and stared at the ground. “Does Ataneq know?”
Evans shook his head.
“Are you going to tell him?” I asked.
“I think I’m going to have to,” he said.
I looked for a moment at a photo of your mother, Lewis, and I said, “Let me talk to him first.”
I found Ataneq in the hangar where he worked, a swirl of sawdust spinning all about him and through the doors. The temperature was not quite twenty and he was shirtless, wearing only a pair of blue jeans and boots, his jacket hanging on a sawhorse. His narrow mustache shone with perspiration.
“These look good,” I said, motioning to the crates he had completed stacked against the hangar wall.
“They’ll hold,” he said and wiped his arm across his brow.
“Where’s Tiquana?” I asked.
“At home today,” he said. “She was sick this morning and stayed in bed. I told her not to come, to stay home and rest.”
“Good,” I said. “Good.” I watched his face. It did not change. His eyes were the color of crows’ feathers, a black beyond darkness. “I need to talk to you, Ataneq, about why she’s ill.” Still his face did not change. His fists rested at his hips. “She’s pregnant.”
He turned around and shook his head, then spat out the door into a wind that carried his breath off to the south. “Do you know with who?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
Ataneq stretched his arms behind his back. “Don’t tell me now,” he said. “I don’t want to know.”
“I think he’d better tell you anyway. That would be better than me.”
“I’ll find out.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I might kill him if I found out now,” Ataneq said. I said nothing to this.
He picked up a hacksaw and went back to work, leaning into the wood, pulling with great and violent strokes. Whips of sawdust rose into the air around him. For a moment I watched the muscles of his back move beneath his skin, and then I turned, pulling up my collar, and walked back out into the wailing air.
Tiquana did not return to work the next day or the next. When I saw Ataneq walking from the storage hangar or the mess hall, we didn’t speak. He just nodded in my direction and walked on, his head low, a mug of coffee often in his hand, his pipe jutting from his shirt pocket.
Evans lived in fear of him and told me so.
“I can’t sleep,” he said to me in my office a few days later. “I don’t know if I can do this job anymore.”
“This is the military, son, and you’re an adult,” I said. “I can try to help you, but it’s a mess you’re going to have to fix yourself in the end.” His eyes were red. “Take tomorrow morning off. Sleep in a little if you’re tired.”
“I haven’t seen her in days, sir,” he said. “We need to talk. I’ll take care of this. I’ll take care of the baby, raise him up, be a good father, but I have to see her.”
“At this point,” I said, “I think that’s going to be up to Ataneq.”
Evans, the edges of his mouth trembling, saluted me and left.
The following morning, I was up early and out to clear the runways of loons myself in his absence. At five the wind was miraculously still, and scattered above like bits of ice were stars, each one almost moving, unimpeded in the cold and silent darkness. I took the Jeep, its engine sounding out across the base, to the runways where I saw a bouncing light in the distance. It moved as though carried, like someone was walking with it, and every few seconds, the beam moved close to the ground and became motionless. I drove across a frozen bank of snow and out onto the runway. A few loons scattered from the engine and disappeared into shadow. I saw in the distance the silhouette of a person, a woman, and when I pulled up next to her, cut the engine and got out, I saw the fur-lined hood of her sealskin coat and the flashlight that she carried. Slowly, carefully, she was picking up the sleeping loons and placing them on the snow beside the runway, where they awoke and stood and flew away on their own into the sky.
“Tiquana?” I said. “What are you doing out here?”
“Eli is sleeping.”
“I know. That’s why I’m here with the Jeep.”
“These birds,” she said, “are so rare here, so rare. They’re more common in the West. There’s no need to frighten them away. Just set them on the snow and they will leave.”
“As long as they don’t stay here,” I said. “One of these loons gets pulled into a jet engine and we could lose a plane to birdstrike, maybe even a few lives.”
She turned and stared for a moment at the waving aurora borealis to the north of us, and I saw her braid snaking down her back.
“Do you know the story of Kahasi and the loon?” she asked, not looking at me, bending down again and curling her arms beneath another bird. “Kahasi was a boy whose father was a great hunter, but Kahasi slept all morning, every day, even as his own village starved. The men went out to hunt for seals, but could not find any, and Kahasi never helped them. The walruses, they were eating all the seals, so there was nothing left for the village to eat. But a bird, a loon, just like this one,” she said, stroking a loon’s neck with one hand and cradling it with the other, “came to Kahasi in a dream. It spoke to him and told him that even though the villagers made fun of him and called him ‘lazy,’ he was actually storing up his strength, that he would use this stored-up strength one day to save them.
“The loon told him how to do it, too. The loon said, ‘Go to the walruses and make them angry with each other.’ Kahasi did this, telling the walruses that each wanted to rule the whole colony, and so the walruses fought and fought for power until they had all killed each other, and there was plenty of food, then, plenty of seals for Kahasi’s village to eat.”
“So Kahasi was a hero,” I said.
“Yes, and an angakuq, a priest.”
“These birds are sacred to you, then.”
“No,” she said, “Nothing here is sacred. But everything here is alive and has a soul.” She looked up the sky. “Everything.”
She held a loon beneath each arm and set each gently on the snow. I watched her and tried the same, pushing my gloved hands beneath one, lifting, and I was surprised by how light it was, how soft its shining feathers in my arms. At the core of its feathers, I sensed the beating of a life. The loon’s feet moved a little as I walked, but it was not afraid and only turned a pebble eye in my direction, then opened its beak a little, and when I set it down against the cold ground, it stretched its neck and spread its wings, and then it stood and flew away.
We worked that way until the stars faded and the ground became gray, when the aurora borealis disappeared from the horizon and the moon was stuck in the cold, blue sky like a pearl, tarnished and alone.
When Tiquana gave birth, it had not yet been nine months. By my estimation it had been maybe six and a half, and I only learned about it afterwards.
“She was born dead,” Ataneq told me over breakfast. I was surprised when he set his tray down across from me and took a seat. We had not spoken of anything personal since that day in the hangar.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, and I was.
Ataneq took a sip of coffee and stared out a window. By then it was summer, and the sun shone all night, sometimes sitting on the rim of the horizon and never dipping beneath it. It was seven in the morning, but it looked like noon outside.
I offered to organize the funeral service, and he accepted, and then he built the box, the one with the salmon carved into its lid.
Evans was at the service, too, with Tiquana, and I have never seen a grief like theirs. Later I would tell Evans that he was in the Air Force, that it was our job to protect, to defend, and that any of us should be prepared for death if it came our way. But there, in that field, I said nothing. I only watched the wind blow tears across their faces.
I may never have seen a combat death, but I have seen death here, and I’m convinced that it is just as difficult, regardless of the circumstances. Yet even this, even the death of Tiquana’s child, is not the reason I am telling you this story, even if I do want you to know about it, about all I’ve gone through for you and for your mother.
I’m telling you this story because of the sky on the night you were born, how filled it was with stars, and how beautiful they were. Even more important, though, I’m telling you this because of how you learned first to say “no,” then “mama,” then “truck,” but never “papa.”
I wish that you could know who I am.
When you were not quite eighteen months old, your mother took you to a zoo. You cried when you saw the giraffe. We don’t know why; you are not a timid child. You fall asleep in cars; you ride your rocking horse for hours at a time; you eat Cheerios off the floor, and when your mother finds you doing this, she picks you up, tells you to stop, then finds you doing it again later the same day. You like to try to help the yard man, and when he comes, you push your plastic wheelbarrow around the lawn. Owls fascinate you, as do dinosaurs, as do turtles, and when once you found a stone under which there was a nest of garden snakes, you took the snakes inside to try and save them.
Never mind you got in trouble for that. You tried to help, and that is always the right thing to do.
I know all of these things about you from phone calls and letters, photos folded inside envelopes – not from knowing you in person. I have been in Goose Bay for just over three years, and it now seems more like home to me than Georgia. I hope that that will change someday soon. I hope, too, that someday in the future you will find this story and read it, for it is a love story of sorts, and it is, in many ways, about you.
But then perhaps it’s not a story at all. Perhaps it’s just a message, something that I needed to write, something you will never see.
Either way, Lewis, I wish, finally, that you could know this: that when I stand out on the ice at night and look up at the ripple of the Northern Lights, I realize that I’ve lost something up here, something in the snow, in the wind, and yet the stars don’t even care. Their light is millions of years old. They may be beautiful, but they are dead, and they don’t care for anyone at all.