Tears still burned on her cheeks in the brisk morning breeze. Nilliq heard a distant scraping sound on the bay-ice, from the south, and thought it might be Aiti’s father, Pingousi, returning from his hunt. She expected to see the approaching dogsled veer in to shore through an opening in the ice wall. Instead the driver headed straight toward her on the big rock.
For an instant she understood the need of an animal, a bird, to become invisible. Lacking such power as some shamans claimed, she remained sitting, as if frozen to her rock surrounded by ice.
That gray-and-white lead dog was not one of Pingousi’s. And the man now walking beside his sled wore a thin, drooping mustache. She averted her eyes from the stranger, and with a sleeve of her feathered tunic she wiped away the tears.
The dogs halted at a soft command from their master and sat on their haunches, their tongues dancing, their pale blue eyes looking up at her. How well-mannered! she thought. Unlike the rough mutts of her camp, who by now had caught the scent and set up a mad barking from over the hill. She wished them to be still.
The stranger ignored the distant ruckus from the camp dogs. His sturdy legs planted in a wide stance, the whip hanging loose in his hand, his gaze caught hers.
Nilliq tried to look away — too late.
The man’s eyes seemed friendly, almost familiar, with a slight downward curve reminding her of her uncle Quingak. This younger man had the eyes of a hunter, yet with something other, a remote sheen, as of distant sea-ice.
His lips held the hint of a smile. Her own lips began to tingle and turn open, and Nilliq covered her mouth, coughed, and looked away, out to the open blue water of the bay where earlier she’d watched two gulls dive in the pink light of dawn. Now she saw only flecks on the choppy water.
“Anything out there?”
The stranger tucked his whip under a thong on his loaded sled and took a few steps closer toward the rock, peering out over the bay to see what she could see.
Nilliq could find no words. The feathers on her bird-skin tunic ruffled in the chill breeze, and she shuddered recalling her father’s admonition against wearing it feather-side-out.
The barking of the camp dogs turned sporadic as the wind shifted. Nilliq felt a painful, fearful shyness, and bowed her thoughts back to Aiti, and to her mother. Both dead.
The stranger’s voice came close and deep: “They’re gone now.”
She shrank away from him, her blood beating like furious wings. Her damp cheeks seared hot and cold, and she sat twisting thoughts into strands of black hair.
He backed off to a more respectful distance and said, “I thought you were a pretty loon, sitting on that rock.”
This remark made her cheeks flush hotter. She glanced at him and away again, her chest constricted, finally gasping a gulp of air: seal come up to steal a breath under watchful eye of bear.
His words continued, taunting. “It’s a little early, isn’t it, for sun-basking?” He spoke her tongue, Inuktitut, with a slight, odd accent.
Despite her apprehension, Nilliq felt her blood quicken from the rich, confident tones of his voice. Another smile wanted to emerge. A pretty loon, indeed! With her long thin nose, her sticklike legs? Yes, she could wear this name better than what the children called her, caribou girl.
Aiti, and no one else, had made her feel pretty; and Nilliq heard his voice when the stranger spoke again.
“They will be coming from your camp to see who I am.”
Blocks of fractured ice heaved behind them on the tide, groaning, sighing. With a shiver on the back of her neck Nilliq pictured her father waking in his snowhouse to find her gone. Somewhere she found the courage to say, “The children will want to know your name and where you came from.”
The stranger let out a small snort of recognition, at her grace in deflecting the direct question. More camp dogs barked. The stranger’s dogs shifted, now restless. With cold eyes he looked past her; even, it seemed, past the camp and the hill beyond.
He spoke next in a low tone, perhaps only to himself: “Maybe I should go on my way.”
Now Nilliq had to say more. She surprised herself by blurting out, “Will you stop for a visit here?”
He faced her again, flashed a knowing smile. “That’s why I’m here,” he said. “Yes. For a short visit.”
She appraised the size of his load, the fully packed sled, lashed tight with skins and thongs.
“You’ve been travelling all night?”
“The snow’s better, frozen harder. So then I sleep in the daytime, a lazy hunter. Ha! I catch no meat that way, but now I’m here.”
The first rays of sun streamed out from behind the hill, highlighting the man’s face: a strong and open brow, weathered cheeks, a wisp of beard. He wore clothing of the old style, furs tightly stitched by a capable woman. His woman? The stranger looked toward the camp, squinting.
Nilliq thought of the empty snowhouse. Aiti’s snowhouse, with its winter dome now shrunk to a shapeless hump.
He turned his eyes back to her and said, “You must be Nilliq.”
The words intruded like a rough hand against her tunic.
“How did you know that?” Her own words sounded like a gull’s croak.
“I know people who travel this way.”
Who, she thought, Pingousi? It could be any other hunter of the coast. It didn’t matter. Why had he come here?
He cocked his head to one side and stood with arms spread before her, offering no threat. With a courteous smile he returned to the earlier question. “My name is Wallin. I come from the town down the coast, Poste-de-la-Baleine.”
Nilliq’s wariness eased with respect and larger curiosity. “Oh, the big settlement, what we used to call Kuujjuarapik. Poce-Balen,” she said, giggling.
“Ai, that one.” He waved his arm toward the south. “I’m not going back there. It’s getting too big now. Too many khalunat.”
For an instant Nilliq saw the wide land, bright with the warming sun, open its immense arms to welcome a new man and woman, walking together. She hadn’t called this bird-thought to her, but her heart quickened with the next one, a question.
Was he that man, and she that woman?
As his town had grown too big, had her old camp grown finally too small?
Then she lowered her eyes and saw herself for what she was — a gangly, foolish girl, unworthy of a fine-looking young hunter with a well-laden sled and team of patient huskies.
A burst of ducks took off from the open water far out on the bay. Wallin stood shuffling his feet on the ice: a seal-hunter who has lost patience at one breathing-hole and is ready to move on to another.
Nilliq let words out flying: “My people lived around Kuju — Poce-Balen, before I was born. They say it has lots of big wooden houses that are warm all the time. And the houses have lamps that burn without oil, all night and day. Is it true?”
Wallin’s eyes wrinkled at the corners. “Yes, those things are true. And instead of hunting for food, the people spend their days and nights playing khalunat games, and get their food from cans.”
He leaned casually against the rock. Nilliq didn’t move.
“I’ve tried the food from cans,” she said. “Some of it tasted good — sweet.”
“Aghh. Do you know what happens to your teeth when you eat too much khalunat food?”
“No.” Now she had offended him. She pressed her lips together and stared down at her feet folded beneath her, wriggled her toes in the sealskin boots.
“Well, you’re lucky. Have you never been in a settlement?”
“I’ve been to Townsend Bay.”
“Oh, that pile of tin boxes.”
Nilliq noticed that Wallin was not too proud to carry a rifle, or to make his sled runners hard with steel instead of glazing them with mud and ice. In a meek voice she said to him, “The way you speak, you must have been very unhappy there, in the big settlement.”
“Ah,” he said, fixing her with the gaze of a raven, so she could no longer look away. “This is a question. You have heard the answer. I made a decision: that kind of life is not for me. Not any longer. So maybe, you think, I’m looking for a camp such as yours?”
Nilliq said nothing.
Wallin leaned away from the rock. His grey-and-white lead dog stood up and wagged its tail. “Things are not as simple as they appear,” he said then in the dry voice of an old man. “Even this camp of yours is a settlement, only a different kind. It’s not just how big or how many khalunat, but also: how you fill your days and nights; what pictures your thoughts make; what the animals say to you. Are you happy here?”
In his eyes Nilliq saw the brightness of truth-knowledge. She felt trapped inside herself again, an idiot sea-bird perched on the cold, hard rock. She shifted her folded legs, and once more she felt her face grow red.
After too many moments she found a tiny voice that said, “We live in the old way here. My father, Sandlak, provides enough to eat—” She turned back, with seawater eyes, in the direction of the four little snowhouses of her people’s camp. She couldn’t speak about her father’s simmering moods, or about those who had died, or about her loneliness. “There are no other young people, now, except Tiniq, who’s not yet a man. And the smaller children, of Palli, the only woman left who’s not old and wrinkled.” Nilliq’s voice began to choke shut. “My mother—”
“Maybe you’re hungry. Come—” Wallin nodded his head sideways in the direction of the camp. “I have fish; we’ll bring some to Sandlak, your father. Would you like it cooked the way they do in Poste?”
What an odd thing for him to say — a guest offering to serve food to the host. And the host, Sandlak!
Sandlak’s daughter didn’t know how to respond. If the stranger had any notion to court someone named Nilliq, he chose the worst way to go about it.
A pair of ravens came swooping over the hill, diving and circling, children of the air. Then they disappeared as quickly as they had come.
“Ravensway,” Wallin murmured.
Nilliq hardly heard him. Her lemming fears ran aimlessly, a husky hot in chase. Maybe she and Wallin should not even go into camp, but should leave at once, to disappear into the land together. Foolish! her father would say. She pictured his rage, his face a mask of grim fire. She recoiled, blinked away the vision. Yet no one else remained, with Aiti gone. Was this her only chance for a year, or more?
The truth remained, the stranger had suggested no such thing. He had proposed to come to camp with her and cook a fish for her father. Her cramped legs unfolded and she found herself standing before him.
“Why not? Come with me and we’ll have a meal together.” Nilliq said this foolish thing, knowing it was all wrong.
Wallin smiled in a satisfied way. “Good,” he said. “I would like to meet your father.
In Chapter Two, Corporal Jack McLain, manning the RCMP detachment in Poste-de-la-Baleine, finds out there’s been another murder up the coast.
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