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Authors: Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley

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BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
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He approached the shore.


After a moment in which the wind arose in an especially strong gust, Kannujaq could almost see the beach past the falling snow. There were fires down there. Figures moved about. Two, maybe. Three? Kannujaq realized that they were running toward the water. But something was wrong. The figures were not short and stocky, like the Tuniit.

They were huge.

Kannujaq thought, breath halting in his chest.

As though his body had taken over, doing the thinking for him, Kannujaq reflexively crouched. There were giants down by the beach! They were manlike, certainly, but enormous in size, as though their mothers had become too friendly with bears. Kannujaq couldn't believe that, only a minute ago, he had been afraid of the Tuniit ripping him apart. In his fear he now seemed to hear his own heart like a drum in his ears. Thankfully, the monster-men had not spotted him.

Then the snowfall eased off. The wind died. And Kannujaq almost fell backwards at the sight of what he witnessed by the water's edge. The giants were nothing in
comparison to what he was now seeing. Nothing at all.

Kannujaq thought, staring at the outline of a massive bird that rested in the waters by the shore.
Giant loon.
In comparison, the enormous bird made the giants seem tiny.

Then Kannujaq squinted, his sense for the shape and movement of animals dismissing any notion that he was looking at a living thing.

he thought.

But what a boat! Certainly, it was a bit loon-like in shape: dark and majestic in its curves. Yet it was larger than a sled. Larger than a tent or a whale-rib shelter or the iglu domes that Kannujaq's folk built in coldest wintertime. It was three times the size, maybe larger, of an
—the skin and driftwood boats in which some families travelled from coast to coast.

On its loon-like “back” danced several swirling flames. Torches. And among these fires, there strode a single, manlike being, whose strange features instantly made Kannujaq label him the Glaring One. As the other giants scrambled up onto the back of the boat, this being turned toward Kannujaq, revealing a face that shone like the sun. In the light of the torches, the flat features glared like daylight upon waves. Kannujaq hunkered down, crouching lower, though he was fairly certain that the Glaring One could not actually see him.

One of the giants approached this Glaring One, and the tone of an argument was unmistakable. The giant pointed to the sky, emphasizing, among his other words, sounds like: “elulang” or “helulan.” The weird sounds of the giant language made Kannujaq think of
—spirits of the Land—who were supposed to speak a strange tongue that only special people understood. Nevertheless, the gestures of the giants seemed like the same ones all men used in discussing weather. Were their words, then, their terms for the
Sky, which was worsening by the moment? Or were they instead talking about the Nuna, Land, the shore which they wanted to leave?

The longer Kannujaq watched and listened, the less like monsters the giants seemed to him. He suspected that he was looking at very large men.

The Glaring One began to holler at the other giant, pointing to any clearer patches of sky that he seemed able to find.

Glaring One,
Kannujaq thought, grunting to himself,
is the one who wants to stay.

Then the Glaring One shoved the giant backward, as one who fails to control his temper might abuse a dog. The other giants, by now, had clambered onto the “loon”—most certainly an enormous boat. Kannujaq watched as they heaved great oars around, maybe preparing to push off from the beach. The sight of the oars snapped Kannujaq out of his terror, and he raised himself up a bit, acting less like a frightened animal, to get a better view. He wondered, now, why he had ever thought that he was looking at a loon. It was simply that the boat had a stylized prow. It was nothing like a bird. Perhaps the giants had been thinking of a beast when they had carved it. Maybe a wolf.

Now he was certain that the giants were human, tall men, given the appearance of even greater size by layers of fur and tools strapped to every part of their bodies. If they were not human beings, they were something close, like the Tuniit. What little of their skin that could be seen seemed pale. Like a corpse. The lower halves of their faces were covered in thick beards, coloured like the tan and brown fur on some of Kannujaq's dogs. A few, for whatever reason, seemed to be wearing bowls on their heads.

Kannujaq counted eight of them.

With fear overpowered by amazement, Kannujaq stepped closer as the boat left the shore, the men at the oars turning it about as though they were used to working as a team. All the while, Kannujaq studied the Glaring One, who did not row like the others, but stood over the other eight like a hunter over his dog team. Before that monstrous boat was at last obscured by the haze of
snowfall, the shining face turned once more back toward Kannujaq. And while he thought it unlikely that the master of the boat could see him, Kannujaq could not help feeling as though the wide, dark eyes of the Glaring One were fixed on his own. It dawned on him, then, that this, too, was simply another man. Kannujaq clutched at his own necklace, realizing that the shining face was very much like the kannujaq stuff that made up the loop his grandmother had given him.

A mask,
he thought to himself.
Their leader wears a mask. Made of kannujaq.

The realization did little to comfort him. The owl-like appearance of that mask was raising the hair on the back of his neck. According to the ways of Kannujaq's folk, every person had animals that were friends, protectors, good signs for them in bad times. A few had enemy animals, as well. The ptarmigan had always been Kannujaq's friend. But the owl was his traditional enemy.

An owl,
Kannujaq thought.
That one, he's like a great big owl.

Had the Glaring One and his followers raided the camp? Is that why the boy had wanted Kannujaq's help? Kannujaq gulped at the thought, staring at the place where the boat had been.

He was unsure of what, or who, these men were, but he had a feeling there was no helping anyone against them. Unless it was to advise flight.

Where is that boy?

Kannujaq found the lad nearby, weeping over a fallen Tuniq, a youth who had perhaps been a friend.

A dead person is not very much like a seal, after all,
Kannujaq thought.

Somewhat sickened, refusing to look toward the sounds of other Tuniit weeping around him, Kannujaq stood over the boy, who no longer seemed to register his presence. None of the other Tuniit even seemed to realize that Kannujaq was there. Respectfully, he tried to keep his eyes averted from the dead.

Kannujaq regarded the weeping boy for some
time, watching sooty tears drip from his chin. He was seeing the boy in a new light. The lad was somehow more real, not at all a character from dream, as he had at first seemed. Kannujaq's eyes followed trails of tears down the sides of the boy's neck, and spotted a partially-covered necklace of raven skulls. Among Kannujaq's own people, the necklace was something an
—a shaman—might wear. Here, it might simply be a boy's strange ornament. After all, the Tuniit were weird.

But they're almost human,
Kannujaq thought.

Then Kannujaq blinked, thinking. For the first time, it occurred to him that the Tuniit might actually
human. Why had he believed them to be half-animal in the first place? Because his own folk had convinced him of it?

He hunkered down next to the lad; and, as he watched this mourning boy, who had wasted his time in hoping for assistance against the Glaring One, Kannujaq felt tears well in his own eyes. He had not even bothered to ask the boy's name.

Why would someone murder like this?
he wondered.
Why all this violence?

“What is your name?” he asked the boy.

Instead of answering, the lad wiped his face against the back of his sleeve, turned to Kannujaq as though noticing him for the first time. He fully removed his hood.

A chill ran through Kannujaq.

Such eyes!

The boy's eyes were as blue as deep ice. Kannujaq had never even heard that eyes could be blue, much less stared into a pair of them.

Kannujaq suddenly understood. The raven skulls. The boy's odd behaviour. The eyes. All were the marks of a special person. Someone who could see the unseen world. Maybe even understand the speech of spirits. This boy was an angakkuq.

A shaman.

The Unseen World

So, do you still think you could have explained your world, your time, to poor Kannujaq? Just look at the man: Even blue eyes upset him! In truth, you should have a bit of pity for Kannujaq; for, as odd as things had been up until now, they were about to get stranger.

The boy's name turned out to be Siku, meaning “ice.” He had been named for the ice-blue colour of his eyes. He was indeed the resident shaman in this camp. The boy himself didn't seem to make much of this, but simply walked Kannujaq to a nearby shelter. Kannujaq had heard that a shaman was a shaman in any place or time, and that his own folk and the Tuniit were the same in this way. If so, was he endangering himself by openly befriending the boy? It seemed that the answer would depend entirely on the boy's personal reputation.

All of the shamans were feared, to a greater or lesser extent, since they could see and interact with a world that few normal people accessed. It was a world
of invisible creatures. Whole populations with their own languages and traditions. Beings that were sometimes close to human. At other times, far from that, and pretty scary. It was a world of power, but one that could also consume whomever tried to use that power. It was the other side of the Land. The
Nunaup Sanngininga.
This was the “Strength of the Land,” which ran like unseen rivers through the normal world.

Could such ideas make sense? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps they could never make sense to anyone but a shaman. Kannujaq himself barely understood what a shaman was—and he had grown up with them. But these were the simple facts: a shaman was not exactly a religious person. Nor a wizard. Nor a wise person. Nor a philosopher or tradesperson or prophet. Yet the job combined bits of all those things.

One way or another, shamans could do things, and one never knew what kind of doing a shaman did until it was done. One of them might heal. Another might make a person sick. One might inform the camp of something useful. Another might play nasty tricks. And every shaman was odd. Without exception. The community was lucky if its shaman was content to hunt and rear a family in peace.

Fortunately, it was a good bet that Siku was the only shaman here—shamans were jealous, and did not like to share territory with one another. It occurred to Kannujaq, in his meagre knowledge of how these things worked, that Siku was probably powerful. After all, it was rare to find a child shaman. They were said to be quite Strong. Not in the sense that they had muscles! No, children were Strong with the Strength of the Land. And Siku's eyes could be interpreted as a sign of such Strength. It was not simply that his eyes were blue. It was because he was different—and different people were usually important.

Who, Kannujaq wondered,
had taught the lad? Or had the Land itself somehow made him a shaman?

The Glaring One and his men had left a terrible mess. There were bodies to gather up. Homes to restore. People to comfort. Kannujaq was led past an old man who knelt alongside one of the rectangular Tuniit homes. He was piling the stones of its low walls back together, but doing so in a dazed, haphazard fashion. When Kannujaq saw his face, it was contorted with agony, glistening with tears. The eyes were wide. Fevered. As though gazing off at nothing in particular. As though the old man had gone mad. Kannujaq barely tore his gaze away from the old creature in time to avoid stepping over two women who were lying on top of a fallen man. Their long, despairing wails seemed to merge into a single voice.

BOOK: Skraelings: Clashes in the Old Arctic
7.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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