Little Eyes

Did Jonas' wife hurl him into the land of the shadows . . . or was he slain by a fox which was not a fox?

ISABEL BRIFFETT February 1 1947

Little Eyes

Did Jonas' wife hurl him into the land of the shadows . . . or was he slain by a fox which was not a fox?

ISABEL BRIFFETT February 1 1947

Little Eyes

ISABEL BRIFFETT

Did Jonas' wife hurl him into the land of the shadows . . . or was he slain by a fox which was not a fox?

TO HER OWN folk of the arctic fringe Maria, the Eskimo, is the “Woman with a Story.” They listen patiently when she stops one or other of them and pours out her tale of the strange blue fox whose death brought disaster, and of how she, Maria, all unwittingly removed her husband, Jonas, from the land of seal and cod and sent him headlong into the land of shadows.

“Her troubles have unhinged her mind,” they will tell you in their dialect that bristles with K’s

and that rolls off the tongue in words as long as a native spear. But to Maria they say the age-old word of greeting, “Aksunai!” (Be strong.)

“It was Little Eyes who brought the misery upon us,” Maria will conclude. “The child who lived again in the form of a fox. If only we had believed Enoch all would be well with us now, and Jonas would not be lying at the bottom of the sea.”

“Aksunai!” says her audience gravely, confident that Enoch never lived save in Maria’s troubled mind and that Jonas died on the little island far to the southeast where he and his wife were driven on that stormy evening long ago, when Maria’s hair was still black and plentiful and her brown face unlined.

The morning of that day was beautiful, and the rising sun tinged the tall white tops of the inland ranges with coral and amber and gold. It tinged the water, too, so that when Jonas put out his oars it was as though he rowed his boat through a gilded sea. True, the air was keen, but neither he nor his wife, Maria, cared about that, used as they were to the intense frosts of the arctic winter. To them the air seemed almost balmy as it caressed their broad flat cheeks.

“Just the day for a good catch of fish,” said the man in his slow speech; he always laid each word down carefully as though it were seal-skins he were counting out.

“Nakomeh! nakomeh!” (Thankful! thankful!) chanted Maria, and she began to search around for her wooden bailer in order to get some of the water out of the boat. When she had found it she broke into a tune, her strong voice rising happily in time to her bailing. There was not a cloud in her sky, though she knew from old experience that she would have to keep bailing until their return. The boat was old and very leaky, especially when a good catch of fish put it low in the water, but neither she nor Jonas worried unduly about that. Some day, if they worked hard and hud good luck, they would be able to purchase a new boat, one with an engine that went phut! phut! That happy day, however, belonged to the future. At present they must take things as they were and be content, Maria to keep the small craft afloat, Jonas to fish and row.

The man had predicted a good day for fishing, and he was right. They had no sooner reached the chosen grounds and thrown over a shining jigger than a big cod was floundering on the hook—an enormous cod with a mouth that yawned open like the leg of a skin boot.

Others followed; all big husky fish that made Maria squeal with joy as she pictured them dried and ready for the winter’s eating. She had happy visions of their livers rendered out into the golden oil that slipped down one’s throat so blissfully.

Her husband paused for a moment after he had hauled in his seventh cod and looked around. As far as he could see his boat was the only one out that day. Perhaps his neighbors considered that they had fish enough for their needs and were attending to some other job—he would not have been out himself but for the urging of his wife. He looked shoreward, where their village lay safely

in the shadow of the great beetling cliffs that sheltered it from Attuarnek (the northwest wind) whose terrible breath beat against those crags in vain. A great affection welled up in the man’s heart as he gazed at the row of little wood and turf huts along the water front. His own home was among them, well-located, near enough to the ocean for him to have no difficulty in landing his catch.

His glance travelled to the slope of the hill beyond, where his kinsfolk were buried in the rocky graveyard, each lying beneath his pile of stones and comforted by the nearness of the cairn that held his treasures, the knives and spears and cooking pots that had been loved in life.

“What are you seeing?” asked Maria impatiently. “Our home . . . the graves of our friends. It must be a hard thing for a man to lie alone in death.” “Tut tut!” his wife replied. “Did I come here to bail water while you moon over unlikely things?” She took a quick look to windward, “By-and-by Attuarnek come. I can see the fringe of his parka showing at the edge of the sea.”

Jonas threw out his jigger again, and soon another cod was flopping among his brothers.

“Nakomeh!” said the woman fervently. There had never been such cod !

Jonas, too, had never known such fishing, but after a few more throws of the jigger he decided to reel up for home. Already Attuarnek was showing his angry face at: the edge of the sea, puffing out his cruel cheeks for the deadly blow he meant to deal. “We must go,” said the man.

“No, no,” replied his wife, “you can catch more fish and get to shore too.”

Her husband pulled two more cod into the boat, “Now we must go; the whiskers of Attuarnek are white on the sea.”

MARIA gazed hastily around the horizon. “No, not yet,” she protested. “There is time for another fish.” Such wonderful cod could be exchanged for beads to trim her moccasins, a new tin kettle, and other things which their budget had not been able to bear. Jonas, who was a little vain when it came to clothes, might even secure the heavy coat of checkered cloth he had been coveting so long. “Not that it will be better than what he is wearing,” she thought complacently as she looked at the heavy calico smock lined with fur and trimmed with beads around the tails. Every man in the village had envied Jonas that garment when it came from Maria’s needle.

Jonas pulled in a big chuckleheaded fish and threw out his jigger again, but now the ocean was seething with whitecaps. Continued on page 34

Continued on page 34

Little Eyes

Continued from page 17

“Come,” said Maria, “or I won’t he able to make it.” It was only natural that she should think in terms of her bailing, since without it no amount of rowing could bring them safe to shore.

The man bent to the oars, taking long hard pulls, but nevertheless he failed to make any perceptible headway against the wind that sent the tops of the waves against the tossing punt and half-buried its occupants in spray.

“We shall have to throw out the fish,” Jonas groaned after a heartbreaking quarter of an hour. “Loaded as we are, we can never make the shore.”

Maria threw out the smallest cod; then the next. She looked up pleadingly, but Jonas nodded to her to proceed. Two more fish were flung overboard.

“More, more,” cried Jonas. “All, all, all!”

With*a cry that came from her heart the woman obeyed; then she fell to bailing more vigorously than ever—and well she might, for the water had gained on her.

The man shot a despairing glance at. his native village and leaned on his oars. “We are lost, wife.”

“Not yet,” Maria comforted him, and ceased bailing long enough to look around the horizon. “Perhaps we can make that land out there.” She pointed toward a low rocky island to the southeast.

“Perhaps,” answered Jonas cautiously, and he began to row again; but now, with the tide in her favor, the boat leaped ahead like a charging whale, rising on top of each blue foamcrested billow and sinking into a trough.

Nearing the island point, Jonas pulled frantically while Maria threw down her bailer and helped him. Slowly, surely they fought the undertow and edged toward the rocky beach; then a sudden gust swept an oar from their grasp and broke it against a crag. The boat swung round and headed out to sea.

With only one oar there was nothing they could do but drift, hoping that somewhere they would make land.

Their hope was not ill-founded. Toward sunset another small rocky island loomed up ahead, but such was the terrific force of the northwest wind that their boat was splintered to matchwood upon a reef. From that welter of water Jonas and Maria escaped with nothing save what they stood in and a couple of tiny fishhooks which the woman had skivered in the front of her smock.

“What profit to escape drowning?” moaned Jonas as he stood on a crag and shook the water from his hair. He looked down at his fine beaded smock; it was bedraggled and torn.

“Aksunai! We will find shelter.”

“But where can we find food? No jigger, no knife, no spear.”

“Come,” cried Maria cheerfully. “There will be berries.”

Not far from the shore they found a patch of berries and ate greedily; then they explox-ed their island, keeping in the shelter of the rocks to pi-event, the wind from blowing them into the sea.

It was a peculiar island, like an illmade granite cooking pot. I n its centre Was a hut with smoke rising from the roof.

“ Nakomeh! nakomeh!” Maria began to sing as she ran down the slope. Jonas followed her, his face cheerful now that they had found company and shelter.

A short squat native appeared at the door of the hut, his mouth falling open in amazement at sight of visitors.

“Aksunai!” cried Maria and Jonas together.

The stranger returned their greeting in a halfhearted fashion.

“We have been wrecked,” the woman explained, “driven from our fishing ground far away.”

“Ran before the gale, and had our boat smashed on your island,” finished Jonas.

“The stranger stood aside from the door and bade them enter.

Maria caught sight of a big hunk of seal meat upon the rude table. Once more her nimble mind began to run ahead. This small island so far out in the sea must be a good place for seals. Perhaps before their sojourn here was over, she and her husband would be able to make up for the fish they had been forced to throw overboard. With only one man to disturb them, seals would be plentiful.

“Alone?” she asked.

“Me and Little Eyes,” the stranger replied. He hesitated; then decided to forego explanations.

JONAS AND Maria ate their fill of seal meat and lay down upon the skins their host provided. Jonas fell asleep immediately, but Maria gazed at the strange Eskimo.

“Surely lie resembles one I have known,” she thought, and she wrinkled her brow. Yes—it was of her greatgrandmother. She concentrated fiercely on remembering the many relatives who had stemmed from that old woman. Why, she could account for them all. The ones who were not living in the village lay behind it on the hillside ... or did they? Wait! What was that story she had heard? She

remembered now. There had been Joanna, enticed away by a white man; Joanna, who had wandered back to her village babbling of strange people and especially of a son, Enoch, and of a small daughter who had died in childhood.

“Enoch,” said Maria softly.

The Eskimo started.

“You are of our people. I remember hearing of your mother, Joanna. She spoke often of you and of your little sister with the face of a white child.”

“Little Eyes.” The man stirred uneasily. “She died long ago.”

“Little Eyes! A strange name, that.”

“Her eyes were blue.” He gazed around in search of something to which he could compare them; looked up at the sky and out across the sea, then shook his head.

“Why do you live here alone?” the woman asked.

“Not a white man—not an Eskimo,” was the laconic reply.

Maria nodded. She understood.

It was next morning that Maria spied the fox tripping daintily through the hollow by the cabin and stopping to nibble the meat which Enoch had put outside the night before.

“Most beautiful! most beautiful!” cried Maria. “The pelt will be worth much.”

The face of her host was thunderstruck. “But it is Little Eyes.”

Maria’s mouth fell open; she gasped like a cod out of water.

“My little sister,” said Enoch.

“Nonsense! nonsense!” Not even in their heathen days had her race believed that the soul of an Eskimo might pass into the body of an animal. All the same, there was something uncanny about the beautiful lilac-blue creature. The woman had seen blue foxes before, but they had been no more like this one than a walrus is like a seal. Oh, the wonderful sheen of the fur!

“She crossed the ice a few winters ago,” Enoch went on, “a young thing then, driven out by her kin because she was not like them.”

Maria and Jonas nodded. That part was plausible enough. The creature was a freak, and therefore likely to have a hard time of it among its kind.

“All her body the color of my little sister’s eyes. I knew then that the child had come back to me in the shape of a fox ... to keep me company here where I live alone.”

That afternoon Enoch went away to hunt seals after having persuaded his guests to stay home and recover from their fatigue.

“What a pelt!” cried Maria as soon as their host was gone. “That fox would fetch a great deal.” She tapped her forehead. “The man is a fool.”

“He lives well,” Jonas replied slowly. “The fox is his family. Without her he would be desolate . . . besides . . . perhaps . . . who knows? He may be right.”

“Nonsense! nonsense!” Maria grunted. In spite of her best efforts, she had never been able to knock superstitious foolishness out of her husband’s head. Now she could see he had swallowed Enoch’s yarn, hook, line and all. “What do you think a trader would give for a skin that was the only one of its kind?”

“I can’t say. Blankets, fishing gear • . . many things.”

“Perhaps a new boat with an engine.” The woman’s small eyes widened in her tense face. Oh, for a new boat, a tight boat, that would not require bailing! She herself, released from her unprofitable job, could use a jigger as well as her husband. They would go back to that wonderful fishing ground

“Don’t be foolish,” said Jonas.

Maria merely smiled.

As she had predicted, seals were plentiful on the island. The creatures climbed upon the .rocks and slept in the sun. They gambolled a little way from shore. Jonas killed them in dozens; his wife scraped the skins and made them soft. Never had the two Eskimos known such plenty.

“When frost sets in we will return home,” said Jonas one day. “I have found here the skeleton of a whale. 1 will make a sled of whalebone; on it we will load our skins and some meat.”

And the blue fox pelt, Maria thought, but she did not say so. Jonas would have been horrified.

To carry away the pelt was one thing; to get it, another. Maria knew that Enoch would mete out swift vengeance to the murderer of Little Eyes, but she was nothing if not cunning. One day in the absence of the two men she craftily prepared two small chunks of j meat for Little Eyes, and in them placed the tiny fishhooks from the front of her smock. She did not feed the fox immediately, however, but saw to it that the animal went hungry for a few days. That wras easy. As soon as Enoch had put out meat for Little Eyes the woman contrived to get it out of the way before the fox could eat it. The consequence was that Little Eyes ravenously wolfed down the prepared meat and shortly afterward died.

ENOCH WAS stunned. For two days he sat on the turf floor of the hut, rocking himself to and fro. The third day he got up and buried Little Eyes; that is he put the dead animal under a canopy of sealskins and fastened the edges down with great stones.

A few days afterward, the ocean began to smoke with frost. Soon it froze over. Jonas was in a hurry to depart before a fall of snow spoiled the going. Hastily he and his wife loaded the sled and said good-by.

“Aksunai!” they cried as they left their host.

“Aksunai!” said Enoch, but he did not rise from his bed of skins.

“Now for the pelt,” said Maria. “What?” Jonas stopped short. “Enoch will die of grief. What use to leave such a beautiful skin to rot? After all, a fox is only a fox.”

It took some time for that idea to penetrate Jonas’ brain. “Yes, a fox is only a fox,” he agreed at last; but he looked around him nervously.

When they reached the grave and removed the covering, they found Little Eyes frozen hard as a stone. No knife would slit, the skin.

“Phew!” cried Maria in vexation, but nothing daunted she caught the carcass in her arms and flung it on the sled. “Now,” she exclaimed in triumph, “we can skin it when it thaws!”

Jonas looked at her, and admiration struggled with resentment on his face. Why did she always have to be so much smarter than he? A spark of anger J flared in his eyes, but in a minute it died away. Where could he find another | woman, he reflected, who could make him such garments, who could stand hardship better than a man, who could help him with hunting and fishing? He picked up the hauling rope.

Luck favored Maria. They had not gone more than half a day’s journey before they fell in with a fur trader on his way back from a large and populous island to the southwest. The man had a native guide hut seemed glad of company nevertheless.

Jonas’ eyes widened with envy at sight of the trader’s leather coat, furlined and beautiful.

“Aksunai!” the trader returned their greeting. “Going far?”

“Home,” said Jonas and named his village.

“It is well ... I too travel that way.”

The trader turned to his guide, “I shall need you no longer.”

After Jonas had placed the trader’s duffle bag and haversack upon the whalebone sled, the three set out together.

As soon as it was convenient, Maria plucked the white man by the arm. She pointed to the dead fox beneath the sealskins. “Look!”

The man put out his hand and moved the covering. “Blue fox . . . umm! fairly plentiful around here. I have bargained for all the winter’s catch.” Maria, however, had noticed the gleam in his eyes and the spasm of shock that had passed over bis face at sight of the wonderful fur.

“There is no other like it,” she said proudly.

“Then what use is it? One skin is not enough.”

“But the white women, 1 have heard, want a thing that no one else can have. Somewhere there is a woman with eyes like this fur.”

The trader was startled at her shrewdness. Here was a woman to be reckoned with!

“1 will give you a pair of blankets,” be said, “calico for new smocks, pots, pans ... all for this one skin. It is absurd, but then ...”

“No,” said Maria, “we will only sell for a boat that goes ‘phut! phut!’ ” Her husband gasped in amazement. “Oh, oh, oh,” laughed the trader, “a motor boat for one skin!”

Jonas said hastily, “We will sell for what you offered.” He fixed Maria with a glance that said, “are you mad?” “We will sell for a boat that goes ‘phut!’ ” Maria persisted, “and for nothing else.”

“For what you offered,” said Jonas stubbornly, “or for your coat, maybe.” “My coat for your smock and the skin,” the trader replied.

»Jonas’ eyes began to sparkle.

“No, no!” stormed Maria.

The trader scowled. »Jonas, he could see, was easily handled as wax. But the woman was obstinate as an old cow moose and wily as a fox. A pity she hadn’t perished with the wrecked punt.

Maria was smart enough to know what was in the white man’s mind. “If anything happens to me,” she thought, “Jonas will give him both skin and smock for that coat.” She looked all around at sea and sky. What could happen to her? She was young and strong and hardy. She had survived both drowning and famine; in her village they said she had the nine lives of a wolf.

Not long afterward the sky clouded over and snow began to fall. A strong breeze sprang up, whirling stinging snowflakes into the hoods of their parkas. But even with the land blotted out, the Eskimos’ strong sense of direction did not fail. In spite of snow and wind they reached the coast— but what a coast! It was even more inhospitable than the frozen reaches of the open sea.

A wail went up from .Jonas as he looked. The strong swell had broken the new ice along the shore so that it afforded no foothold. In the twilight it rose and fell between them and the coast, a mass of chumed-up cakes, none strong enough to float them. There was nothing for it but to trudge along the edge of the ice in search of some place where they might land.

At last they came to a cove where they found a narrow bar of ice still whole. Eagerly they crossed it and climbed over humps and hollows to where a sloping hillside ran steeply up to a rugged mountain range behind. It was a terribly forbidding place. The wind shrieked like a thousand demons in their ears, and the crags cast great

black shadows among the mounds on the slope.

»Jonas turned away with a shake of his head. “No shelter here.”

It was then that the trader stumbled and almost disappeared from sight. In a minute his voice rose cheerfully. “An old hut . . . come down and see.”

“No,” shouted Jonas.

“Why, man? With our skins and a fire we can survive any storm.”

“It is bewitched,” Jonas explained, and he glanced fearfully around. “Once it was a heathen village. They lie here, all but their medicine man, and he walks still, so I have heard.”

“Let him walk,” growled the trader. Maria caught up an armful of skins and threw them into the hole, pushed Jonas aside and descended. Seeing that he stood alone in his decision to go on her husband followed.

“See!” The trader pulled a halfdecayed upright from the turf, “Bure tinder.” He shredded the soft wood with his hand and struck a match. There was a curl of blue smoke and an acrid smell as the wood began to burn. “We are safe here. We can snap our fingers at the weather.”

“But not at him who walks abroad,” »Jonas replied solemnly.

“Tut! tut!” scoffed Maria as she fetched a hunk of seal meat from the sled, “Only old tales. The people who wanted to be good went away and built their houses near the missionaries; the people who wanted to be bad stayed on here till they died.”

“We will leave as soon as the snow clears,” said Jonas, “night or day.” He stared at his wife. Now she was fetching Little Eyes and laying the dead fox in a corner.

“Piffle!” said Maria, who had no fear of a dead medicine man. All the same, she feared the shifty eye of the trader, and determined not to sleep that night. Neither did she; for that matter neither did Jonas, who kept poking his head out of the shelter to see what the weather was like. About an hour before daylight the snow ceased falling. Jonas roused the trader.

“Bad weather over; time to be on our way,” he said.

“An ungodly hour to be travelling,” the white man complained a few minutes later as he picked his path among the hummocks that had once been huts. He was in a bad humor. A few more hours and the Eskimos would be home. Good-by then to Little Eyes, except at the woman’s price. Why hadn’t he thought up something instead of sleeping like a denned bear? The fox skin was the most marvellous piece of fur he had ever seen, and he was letting it slip from his grasp.

As they crossed the bar of ice, Jonas whispered to Maria: “Better take what we can get . . . the coat and ...”

The woman caught the towrope from her husband’s hands. “No, no, no! I have spoken of the matter for the last time. It is the boat or nothing.” In her anger she gave Jonas a push that momentarily caught him off guard and very nearly tumbled him into a lead of open water.

“Looks as though the wind has done the ice no good,” the trader said when Jonas had regained his footing. “Perhaps we’d better go back to the hut and wait for winter to clamp down in earnest. We’re a day or two early for good ice.” He did not add, of course, that a delay was just what he wanted.

“We will push on,” said Jonas stubbornly.

“We will push on,” Maria agreed.

MARIA COULD never quite understand how it happened that she and the trader found themselves so far behind Jonas. Of course, she was hauling the loaded sled, not willing to

trust the precious skin to her husband again, but that was not the whole of the matter. Perhaps Jonas was so afraid of the dead medicine man that he was oblivious to everything but the necessity of getting away from the place. Also, he was thoroughly angry with her, but she never cared to dwell upon that, nor ever imagined that anger as well as fear had lent wings to her husband’s feet.

The stars were losing their brilliance and showing lustreless discs in the paling sky when Maria stepped on the edge of a tilting pan and found herself in the water. Luckily the trader was near enough to grasp the hauling-rope and prevent the sled from following Maria.

“Ah! ah! ah!” cried the woman as she bobbed up, gasping and splutter-, ing. She was not frightened. It was not the first time she had broken through bad ice. Quickly she took hold of the nearest pan and tried to get a hold upon it, but the edge crumbled. She tried again; heaved herself breasthigh from the water, only to have the ice break from her fingers. But in that instant she had seen what was happening. The trader was hastily throwing everything upon the pan, keeping only Little Eyes and his bags upon the sled.

Maria screamed and beat her fists upon her breast; then down she went again. She was almost spent by the time she had wrangled her way to clear water from underneath a pan of ice, but she raised her voice in a shriek that made even the trader look in her direction. However, he seemed to consider her safe enough as far as escape was concerned. Hastily he set off on a run, the hauling-rope taut in his grasp.

The shock of what the man had done almost deprived Maria of her senses. With a despairing moan she sank down through the icy slush, but not for long. Perhaps her guardian angel was working overtime in her behalf; perhaps frenzy gave her strength. In a few seconds she had shot to the surface, caught hold of a spearlike hummock on a heavy pan, and with a tremendous

heave drew herself from the clutches of the sea. But now that she had made that almost superhuman effort her strength went from her and she sank down exhausted.

After a while strength flowed back to her and she opened her eyes. A man was running toward her. Now he was on the pan, his breath coming in great gasps, so spent he was. The trader had come back to finish her off; she could see the leather of his coat and the soft fur that concealed his features in the greying dawn. With a bound she was upon him and had toppled him from the pan; then she caught up the spear he had thrown from the sled and pushed him down so far that his cry was only a gurgle in her ears.

Maria never knew how she managed to get home, but she had a faint idea that she had crawled the last miles.

“Jonas,” she gasped as soon as she could speak.

“He is not here,” replied her wondering relatives. “Alas! he did not have the nine lives of a wolf like you. We knew he must be dead at night fall yesterday when he passed through the village, not halting, not speaking, but dressed in the smock that you lined with fur and embroidered with beads.”

Maria’s breath left her in a scream. “I have drowned my husband; I have pushed him into the sea.”

“Her troubles have unhinged her mind,” the neighbors whispered then, for the first time.

“I thought it was the trader; the man wore his coat.” She could see now what had happened. Jonas had given the trader Little Eyes and his smock for the leather coat; then, his anger subsiding, he had come rushing back to rescue his wife.

Impetuously Maria began at the beginning and poured out her story— the mighty catch of cod, the wreck, Enoch, Little Eyes. The tale finished, she tore her hair and screamed.

“Aksunai!” said her neighbors gravely, confident that Enoch never lived save in Maria’s troubled mind and that Jonas died on the little island far to the southeast, “Aksunai!” ★