It was the boy Meksak’s first seal — the one he had to kill to prove himself a man. It was the most deadly bear the great hunter Karangak ever faced. As their strength drained away, both were prepared to die. Then help came suddenly in unexpected waysTheon Wright November 12 1955
It was the boy Meksak’s first seal — the one he had to kill to prove himself a man. It was the most deadly bear the great hunter Karangak ever faced. As their strength drained away, both were prepared to die. Then help came suddenly in unexpected waysTheon Wright November 12 1955
IT WAS LESS THAN AN HOUR BEFORE DAYLIGHT when the boy, Meksak, and his father reached the flat ice where they had spotted the blowhole the day before. The old hunter, Angut, raised his hand as a signal, and Meksak stopped. The boy was shivering, not so much from the freezing wind that swept down from the icecap and across the grey, dead world of frozen sea, but rather from excitement which beat like the wings of a frightened bird in his chest.
This feeling of excitement had been growing in the boy since he started out with his father from the village, when the sky was still black in the south and the only illumination came from flaring pennants of northern lights which cast an irregular glow across the ice.
Meksak wanted to keep moving so that his shaking body would not be noticed by his father. The slightest sign of fear at this time would be certain to arouse his father’s contempt. Nevertheless, he stopped walking and turned his face away from the wind, so that it would not sweep away the sound of his father’s words. Meksak knew exactly what was to be done; but it was the custom for a father to give these last few words of advice and he listened.
“Keep walking slowly toward the blowhole,” his father said, striving to keep his hoarse, rasping voice down to a whisper and still be heard in the wind.
Meksak’s white-hooded head bobbed. The rest of his body was encased in dark fox fur, with bearskin pants and dark sealskin boots, so that the white hood over his head made him seem headless when his face was not visible.
“The hole is directly ahead,” his father went on in a monotonous undertone. “You saw it yesterday—you remember where it is?”
The white hood bobbed again. Meksak was anxious to be moving toward the blowhole. The grey streak of light in the south told him that the sun would appear in a short time, rolling in a shallow arc across the southern rim of the world ; and this was the best time for the kill, since it would be light enough to see but not light enough to tell the difference between a man and a seal out on the ice. Yet he must listen to these final words: this was a relationship that was more than that of father to son, or of blood to blood ; it was like the relationship of teacher to pupil, or of an animal teaching its young how to survive.
Therefore, although Meksak knew everything that was being said, and had practiced many times what he was about to do, he listened carefully to the words of needless advice, his small face puckered in a serious frown as he watched his father with rigid attention.
“You must feel the direction you are going from the way the wind strikes your face,” the old hunter went on. The uksuk was the giant bearded seal; and as Meksak listened to his father he scanned the vast expanse of white, trying to make out the dark spot of the blowhole against the backdrop of sifting snow. He thought of this great moving body, swimming in long curves in the cold water underneath the ice, its two black blobs of eyes turned toward the strange shapes on the roof of the ice above.
“Watch for the eyes of the uksuk when it comes up to the blowhole. The instant you see them you must strike hard.” The older man spoke in a coarse voice, using the guttural syllables of his language to drive the sound through the wind. "You must hold the spear line until the uksuk dies. You are not strong enough to pull the body through the hole. After it is dead. I will come and help you break the ice around it . . . But you must kill it first!”
The boy had not moved while his father spoke, except to turn his head and listen. From this moment on, until he had killed his first seal, everything must happen exactly right, for this was the hour when Meksak would change from a boy to a man.
“Don’t be afraid,” his father said, as a final word. “Strike hard and without fear . . . The spirit of the uksuk will guide your hand if you are ready to be a man.”
He hesitated, as if racking his brain for any further thoughts, and then said:
"Now you are alone.”
Meksak felt an uncontrollable surge in his chest. Even if the seal should drag him into the blowhole where he would become instantly frozen, he could ask no help until he had killed the seal.
Angut at last seemed to be satisfied that he had told his son all that it was possible for him to tell. Now the boy would be on bis own. Silently the older man moved off until he was lost among the grey pillars of ice that stood like ghostly sentinels on the surface of the frozen sea.
The boy looked around behind him at the widening streak of light in the south. He tried to make out the shape of the bird cliffs at Agpat, where he lived, but they were too far behind to be seen in the half-darkness. In this vast, soundless world the boy was now alone, a small solitary figure in the desolation of ice and drifting snow.
Meksak thought, as he looked back, that he saw the figure of his father dimly outlined in the shadows made by the ice mounds. He wondered if he might not be following, ready to jump in if it were necessary to make the kill. A seal was a seal, and was needed for meat and blubber and its tough hide, regardless of who made the kill. This was a disturbing thought, because if Meksak did not make the kill he would not be a man.
MEKSAK had lost an eye as a small boy and his single eye glittered in the darkness. His mouth set in a straight line and his small fist gripped the wooden shaft of his long oonark, or spear, as he bent forward, pushing against the icy whip of the wind. His white hood made his short, round body appear even shorter, like a ball of fur. He moved slowly, step by step, toward the blowhole.
This was the dream of every boy. Later he would sit in his hut, like old Amorok who lived down by the edge of the water at Agpat, and talk of great battles with white bear, or of driving his spear into the hack of a walrus out among the treacherous floes of the rough ice. But now his mind was fixed on one thought: his first seal !
The snow was sliding stealthily across the solid surface of the sea, so that it looked like moving water in the flickering illumination of the northern lights. The surface ice was slightly rubbery, which warned him he was nearing thin ice around the blowhole. He suddenly realized that he had been staring ahead intently, with his face fully exposed to the freezing wind so that his nose was slightly frozen. This made him think of Kulee, the girl in the hut next to his father’s at Agpat, who called him "Kringaranguitsit,” which means "little creature without a nose,” because his nose was so thin. Actually it was not badly shaped and would have passed for a handsome nose in another climate, but long thin noses were not beautiful in a land where the proper length was measured by the degree of exposure to the freezing air.
The light was growing stronger, and Meksak, still thinking of the girl, looked back to see if his father was coming behind him. The figure on the ice was much closer now, only a few feet away. Meksak tightened the grip of his mittened hand on the shaft of the spear. The notion that his father might have to kill the seal was more painful to Meksak than the cold air on his nose. He knew he would rather be dragged into the blowhole by the seal than suffer the humiliation of returning to the village without his kill, to face the laughter of the other hunters—and particularly the laughter of Kulee.
While his thoughts were on these matters, a voice came through the wind, low and hoarse; and Meksak realized it was not his father’s voice.
"Bend down close to the ice, little one,” the voice behind him said. "Don’t lift your head. Move your feet slowly so the uksuk will not hear you. Make yourself think like an uksuk.”
MEKSAK knew the voice. It was the voice of Karangak, the greatest hunter in the village. The boy was surprised that Karangak should be out on the ice. Only Ikyak, his younger cousin, had come with his father and himself, and Ikyak was somewhere behind with the dogs. Karangak must have followed them out from the village and staked his dogs some distance back. His presence caused new excitement to beat in Meksak’s chest. Karangak was known as a strange man, who lived alone and was believed to possess strong powers with the spirits. His presence might mean wonderful things for Meksak on his first hunt alone. Karangak would know for certain that the bearded seal was ready to come up to the blowhole and be killed.
It might also mean certain difficulties, however, which Meksak understood quite well. It was unheard of that a man should come out on the ice to give advice to the son of another man— particularly when the father also was on the ice! It implied that Meksak’s father was not capable of giving proper instruction to his son; and it was well known that Angut, the father of Meksak, was a great hunter. Furthermore, he had already given his son all the advice he needed, and any further efforts by Karangak would create unendurable humiliation.
In spite of this, Meksak could not help feeling a surge of pride. It was a good omen that Karangak should be out on the ice with him on his first hunt; since he knew the habits of the seal, obviously he would not have come out unless he knew the hunting would be good.
"Walk slowly, little one,” the husky voice came again through the low monotone of the wind and the sharper noises of cracking ice. "The uksuk will follow . . . but move slowly. The ice near the blowhole is thin.”
Meksak could feel the slight resilience of the ice as his sealskin kamiks slid slowly forward, testing each step before he put his weight on the ice. And now he could hear the faint, chuffing gasp of the giant seal, grunting as it came up to the blowhole for air. He knew the seal could sense his presence. The curiosity of animals was their undoing; soon the seal would push its round nose up to the blowhole to find out whether the shape on the ice was another seal.
At that moment, Meksak would lift his oonark and drive it straight through the blowhole. The tip was made of walrus tusk cleverly fashioned so that the flange would slip off the shaft once the spear was driven into the seal’s body. The harpoon head served as a hook, fastened to a heavy line of twisted sinews, which was used to drag the seal through the ice.
"You are near the hole, little one," Karangak’s voice continued, drifting to Meksak against the wind. "Watch for the eyes. Be sure you see them before you strike.”
All this Meksak knew. Yet it gave him a warm thrill to know that the hunter was helping him. But he also thought, I must not tell my father of this. It would shame him to know that another hunter had helped me!
BY THIS time daylight glowed faintly on the dead world around them. The sallow sun, barely appearing on the rim of the sea to the south, threw soft shadows across the hummocks of ice which stood out like white boulders on a moonlit plain. From the north came occasional flickers of northern lights, creating a weird contrast of light and shadow.
Meksak heard the sharp cry of a dog, and he looked around. One of Ikyak’s dogs had worked loose from the pack and had crawled up to them. Karangak, without shifting his weight, drove his heavy booted foot into the dog’s side and it ran whimpering back across the ice.
Meksak took a firmer grip on his whalebone spear and leaned forward. He heard another gasp below him, this time much louder, and he knew he was over the blowhole. This was the moment when a hunter’s real skill counted. Many times had Meksak practiced thrusting the spear into the ice, but always his father had been with him.
"Strike!” the voice behind him said. Meksak had seen two round blobs rising toward the thin surface of ice around the blowhole, which was hardly as big as a seal’s head. With a gasp that was like a prayer, he raised the spear and plunged it downward. "Good!” the man behind him said.
Meksak had no time to think of anything but the seal. He felt the sharp tip strike something dead and soft. The force of the blow carried his arm downward so that he almost fell to the ice. For an instant he thought the spear had missed. Then there was a terrific threshing, and a wrench that tore the shaft loose from the harpoon-head. The boy uttered a startled cry, and reached for the twisting line with his other hand.
Meksak clung to the tough line with both hands, desperately holding the seal against the gaping hole in the shattered ice. He could see the huge black body of the animal, a writhing monster in the dark water.
I can’t hold it, he thought; and this drove him to more frantic efforts. He felt his feet slipping against the surface, and he wondered if the ice was strong enough to hold him.
Let the uksuk drag me in, he thought; I won’t let go! I’ll go into the ice first!
He held the line for what seemed an interminable time, trying to keep his feet while the seal struggled wildly, churning the icy water. The blood from the wound in the neck of the enormous animal splashed up on the ice, leaving dark, widening stains.
Meksak felt a heavy hand grasp the line and the pull of the seal seemed to go out of it. There was a mighty tug, and the bearded face of the animal appeared out of the water. Meksak had seen seals after they had been pulled through narrow holes in the ice by white bear, with every bone broken so that their skin was like a limp sack of smashed bones and flesh. It seemed to him this was happening to the seal as the head was slowly drawn up. The seal’s eyes, set in round, black sockets of its strange face, bulged as if they were about to explode.
It was Karangak who had come up to the blowhole. Now, with incredible strength, he was literally drawing the seal through the opening.
In the gloomy half-light the weird battle was like a strange torture scene, enacted without benefit of an audience in a land that was dead except for this sudden violence. The hunter stood over the boy, his short legs solidly planted, both hands grasping the line. The giant seal, weighing almost half a ton, fought desperately against the cold death that was slowly reducing its round, twisted body to a ragged pulp.
With a final heave the huge squat hunter wrestled the seal out on the ice. He dropped his grasp on the line at the last moment and threw his arms around the twisting monster, heaving the dying seal bodily out of the shattered blowhole. It lay there, its flippers slapping feebly against the ice and the great blobs of eyes staring unseeingly at a fading world of greyish light. The white spear stuck out from its neck at an odd angle, startling in contrast to the dark body.
OUT OF the dark, almost miraculously, other figures appeared in the distance. Angut, Meksak’s father, waddled first out of the mist of the swirling snow, and the yapping of dogs indicated that Ikyak was not far behind. Meksak was trying to twist the harpoon-head from the seal’s neck as his father approached them. Karangak now stood above the boy, watching silently as Meksak dragged the animal away from the blowhole. He was a short but huge man, with enormous shoulders. His hooded head, sunk into the broad outline of his body, seemed to be part of the shoulders and not separated by a neck.
As Meksak hauled at the body of the flattened seal, Karangak leaned over and with a single blow of his fist knocked the animal senseless.
"The kill is yours, little one,” he said quietly. "Nevertheless, let’s see that it is dead.”
He knelt beside the boy and took the seal’s jaw into the crook of his arm. Then, with his shoulder pressed against the neck, he drew the head back until there was a soft snap.
Meksak looked up and saw his father. Ikyak had run up, tugging at the dogs, and was fairly dancing around the seal, his face glowing with excitement.
"Meksak has killed the seal! Meksak has killed the seal!”
Meksak, feeling his sudden elevation to the seriousness of manhood, turned to his cousin and said sharply:
"Be quiet, little fool; somebody will scare away the other seals.”
Meksak’s father stood for a moment looking at his son. He was slightly taller than Karangak, although not so bulky. Finally he leaned over and looked at the limp body of the giant seal as if to make sure it was dead. Then he turned to Karangak.
"You saw my son kill the seal?” he asked.
Karangak nodded, without smiling, and turned to Meksak. A scowl deepened the lines in his face, which drew his mouth down, like scars in his cheeks. His face was pointed at top and bottom, with wide cheeks, and his eyes were deep-set and close together. Even in the half-darkness they were unusually bright, like the fevered eyes of a starving dog, gleaming from the recess of his white hood. His black hair hung in long strands around his face, matted around his neck, framing the feverish intensity of his eyes.
Meksak said nothing. He felt that perhaps he should express some kind of gratefulness to Karangak for his help: but this would result in humiliation for his father, who—as a great hunter— should have told his son all he needed to know.
"The seal was dead when it was dragged from the hole,” Karangak said finally, in his low guttural voice. “Some body had to crack its neck and the little one is not yet strong enough. Perhaps someday he will be a great hunter.”
Meksak thought there was a trace of contempt in the voice of the old hunter. | He wondered if he should explain to his father that Karangak had stood with him when he drove the spear into the seal—and that the seal was very much alive when Karangak had pulled it through the blowhole!
While the boy was pondering, Karangak turned without another word and strode across the ice toward the distant village, which was perhaps two hours’ traveling time by dog sled, back in the direction from which the sun was rising.
“MEKSAK stared after the wide swaying figure as it slowly became lost in the sifting snow. Then he heard someone speaking.
"You must remove the harpoon head from the uksuk,” his father was saying, in his rasping voice. "Let me show you how this is done . . . He inserted a finger in the wound, and deftly turned the head around.
"For this you need a knife, which you must have if you expect to be a hunter,” he said.
Meksak had seen all this done before. But he watched dutifully as his father drew a knife from the folds of his fur jacket. It was a crude knife made of a seal’s jawbone with chips of sharp stone wedged into the tooth sockets. This saw-tooth knife did not cut easily but it was the only knife known to these people, whose tools were entirely of bone and stone.
Meksak watched his father’s bloody surgery as the old hunter extracted the tip of the harpoon from the dead seal’s neck. The sight of blood staining the white ice was vaguely pleasing to him, and his single dark eye still glowed with the excitement of the kill.
He was still vaguely troubled, however, by Karangak’s sudden departure. Meksak knew that the great hunter was a strange man, given to solitary moods. Was he angry because I did not speak to my Father about the help he had given me? the boy asked himself.
This seemed hardly likely. Karangak had killed many a great seal and had fought battles with the white bear. His fame as a hunter had passed from village to village, and he would have little reason to concern himself over the first kill of a hunter who was still little more than a boy. Yet the matter had great importance. The power of the old man in predicting good hunting was well known. He might also turn the spirits of the seal and walrus against Meksak, so that the boy’s hunting days would be over before they had begun. An unlucky hunter among Meksak’s people was better off dead.
Meksak was not given to worrying, however. He quickly forgot the trouble with Karangak as he turned to help Ikyak harness the dogs to the sled, which had been dragged up to carry the dead seal back to the village. It was customary to cut up the seal at the place where it was killed, but this was Meksak’s first seal, and he wanted to display his prize back at the village.
The island upon which the village was located was several miles away. This island was near the coast of the great land known as Umivik. During the long summer day there was good hunting in the open water between Agpat and Umivik for walrus, which were killed from a kayak with a harpoon. But in the winter and early spring, when the kayaks were stored away, the only hunting was for seal, which came up to the blowholes to breathe; and since the fierce winter winds blew almost continuously across the frozen sea, this hunting was hazardous and most of the men of Agpat stayed in their huts or went north to hunt caribou and white bear where the hunting was safer.
THE village itself consisted of a dozen huts made of stone and sod. About fifty people lived in these huts during the winter, the exact population depending upon the number of hunters that had gone north. The huts sprawled along a rocky ledge between the base of the bird cliffs and the sea. These cliffs rose in a series of irregular ledges, appearing from a distance like the open mouth of a giant full of broken teeth, scarred and mottled from the erosion of wind and water.
The cliffs faced to the southwest, and the great auks flew in from the sea in the early spring, each bird laying a single egg. The auk eggs, found high on the cliffs, were used in preparing a delicacy known as manik panertut, which consisted of eggs and blubber stuffed into seal gut.
Beyond the circle of the way to the south lay the ice field of Narsasuk, and the deep gorges of Arnaluluark Nuna, filled with rivers of ice which poured down from the great icecap. The icecap was a wild and lonely place, stretching many hundred miles to the east and filling an immense bowl between two mountain ranges.
The village could not be seen from the hunting place, but as the boys raced across the ice with the dead seal, the ragged shapes of the huts became more distinct against the snow. Some of the huts were empty, and those back near the base of the cliffs were partly covered with snow. But along the lower end of the shelf or rock upon which the village had been built the wind had blown away most of the snow, leaving bare patches of stone and hardened ground.
Above the village the rattle of the wind against the jagged rocks that rimmed the bird cliffs gave a constant overtone of sound, interspersed with the fierce cry of gulls and the longer scream of the great auks as they came.
Few people were outside their huts, but the dogs of the village set up a quick howling, apprising all of the arrival of fresh meat. Meksak and Ikyak drove the dogs up to the hut which his father, Angut, shared with a brother, Enwarsok, and his family. The seal was well frozen on the surface, and had lost some hide in the process of being dragged through the blowhole. Meksak rolled the carcass off the sled, as the people of the village began to cluster around.
An old woman, short and sturdy, crawled out of the doorway of the hut as the boys drove up. She stood with her kamik-booted legs spread apart as she surveyed the boys and their kill. From the crown of her head there rose a black knob of hair with a white bone thrust through it, standing as firmly as a Chinese temple and giving her an appearance of belligerent dignity. Her face was round and was extraordinarily fat and ugly, the nose almost buried between bulging cheeks, so that she looked perpetually as if she were about to whistle.
This was Pekrornik, the mother of Ikyak; in the household of Angut, in which she was the only woman, she ruled with matriarchal authority. She had been a mother to Meksak as well as her own son since the days when the people of Agpat had lived in the lands of starvation to the west, where Meksak’s mother had been stolen by wild men, who had taken her from the village at Kangerdlug to be killed and eaten.
NOW she looked at Meksak’s first kill, her black eyes gleaming from the fat folds of her face.
"So—a boy has killed a seal!” she snorted, and turned to Ikyak. "It is time somebody brought meat to a house where your worthless father sits all day on the sleeping ledge, guzzling blubber and making noises like a walrus!”
Ikyak grinned at Meksak—the matter of his "worthless” father being a subject for continual discussion in the household of Angut and turned toward the other occupants emerging from the small door of the stone hut, shouting excitedly.
"Meksak has killed a seal! Meksak has killed a seal!”
Ikyak’s father, Enwarsok, had roused himself from the sleeping ledge and waddled toward the door. Meksak s older brother, Kroomanapik, a fat, lazy youth in his early twenties, reached the door at the same time. Since it was hardly large enough for one fat man to pass through, both of them became wedged in the opening and had to be pulled through.
Both were naked to the waist, but their bodies were smeared with grease and the cold did not immediately affect them. Enwarsok, his huge girth bulging over the top of his sealskin pants, waddled over to where the seal lay.
"We should keep it for isswenark— since it is Meksak’s first seal,” he said importantly. Isswenark was seal meat that had been allowed to ripen nicely in the summer sun and would be ready for eating the following fall or winter. "On the other hand,” Ikyak’s father continued, his broad face wrinkling in a frown, "perhaps we should eat it now.”
"Perhaps you should go back and guzzle seal blubber!” Pekrornik exclaimed, unceremoniously thrusting him aside. "If it is Meksak’s seal, let him say what to do with it! If you wish to decide about a seal, roll your fat blubber out on the ice and find one!” Everyone roared, and Enwarsok, slapping his bulging stomach to keep warm, ducked hastily through the door into the warmth of the hut. Kroomanapik, who had barely emerged from the hut, had already gone inside. By this time Angut had helped Meksak haul the seal on the stone, and it was decided to cut it up.
BEFORE the seal could be dismembered, it was necessary to propitiate the spirit of the dead animal. This was done by tying an old spearhead to part of the spleen and hanging it from the roof. The tip was broken and useless, but it resembled the one Meksak had used, and since seals are notoriously nearsighted, the spirit of this one would not know the difference. This linking of the seal’s mortal parts with a replica of the weapon that had killed it was designed to prove to its spirit, by some obscure logic, that those who did the killing were neither wicked nor malicious at heart.
When this had been properly done and the bundle hung by a string of seal gut to the roof of the hut where the seal would be eaten, the butchering began. This was a special function, requiring the most exact principles of priority. Meksak, as the hunter who struck the lethal blow, had the privilege of hacking off the choice portion. The four main portions were awarded according to a set priority—first, the right and left forequarters, then the right and left haunches, with two ribs attached to each. After that the ribs were apportioned to others in the hut of the hunter who had made the kill.
The butchering ceremony struck a snag after it started. Meksak, grinning with unrestrained delight, used his father’s saw-tooth stone knife to hack off his portion. When he had finished they looked for Karangak, who had helped pull in the seal and cracked its neck, and therefore was next in priority.
"Perhaps he is in his hut,” someone suggested. "Somebody should go and fetch him.”
Old Angut looked intently at his son. He was a man in the middle forties, which was old for his people. Although he was older than Karangak, he did not have the tremendous shoulders and bulk of the great hunter. His nose was shorter than Meksak’s, curved like a tooth, which gave him a perpetually puzzled expression. Now his dark eyes were grave as he spoke to Meksak.
"I spoke to Karangak after the seal was killed,” he said. "He said you killed the seal. Is there any reason to believe you did not?”
Lying was not a habit of these people; and Angut’s question was not directed to his son’s veracity. It was a matter of custom that must be settled; if Karangak was adjudged to have killed the seal, Meksak could not be regarded as the killer and must not claim the first portion of the meat.
"Karangak broke the seal’s neck,” the boy said finally. "Maybe he should have the first portion.”
"Meksak killed it!” Ikyak shouted heatedly, but Pekrornik thrust him aside.
"Shut up!” she said. "This is for older heads to decide.”
ANGUT shook his head. Differences of this sort were rare, yet an important principle was involved. He looked from face to face seeking some solution. In this frozen land, where danger and death were the constant fare of every living creature, hunting was the basis of life itself—and therefore the rules of hunting were more important than any other rules by which men lived. Here was a situation without precedent—a hunter who did not claim his rightful portion of the kill! There was a strangeness to the situation, like profaneness in a temple, that disturbed the old hunter.
After a period of weighty deliberation, he said, "Karangak is a great hunter. If there is any question about this, he must be called in to take the first portion of the seal.”
Meksak listened, but said nothing. He knew the seal was his kill, because it was the rule that the hunter who thrust the first spear at an animal had the honor of the kill, even though a dozen wounds were made in the animal afterwards. Old men, with frozen joints, might throw small stones at a dying uksuk or walrus in order to be able to take a few ribs as their portion without being thought of as beggars. But no one had ever claimed the first portion who had not thrust the first spear!
Nevertheless, he was a young hunter and it was not his place to speak. If his father wished to call Karangak to take the first portion, Meksak would in a sense be a boy again. He would have to hunt another seal for his first kill.
The other hunters stood around the butchering rock, watching Angut intently. They were all fairly short men, dressed in almost identical fashion— dark fox-fur coats, with white hoods and sealskin pants tucked into sealskin kamiks. Their features were very much alike: flat, round faces, with dark skin and black eyes. Those who were not wearing hoods exposed their long, straight, black hair that tumbled over their faces and hung to their shoulders.
Their expression reflected the same similarities. Each face wore a look of surprise and expectancy as if they were waiting for someone to solve this dilemma.
Finally one of the hunters, Avatuk, spoke up. His wife Kriwi was considered the strongest woman in the village. Nobody ever argued with her, and her husband’s opinions had acquired much of the authority accorded her.
“Meksak killed the uksuk,” Avatuk said gruffly. “He struck it first with the spear. If Karangak is not here to take the second portion, then Meksak should say who gets it!”
Kriwi, standing behind her husband, nodded firmly. The glint in her black eyes, gleaming above a broad, straight mouth that looked like a crack in solid rock, was ample evidence that she agreed with her husband. Meksak was well liked in the village, and he was a particular favorite of Kriwi.
Everyone else nodded, ready to agree without argument to anything that offered a solution to this abnormal situation. The people of Agpat disliked anything unusual, or lacking in precedent. These things puzzled them, and it was not easy to laugh when one was puzzled.
Soon everyone was shouting for Meksak to cut up the second portion of the seal. The boy looked at his father, and old Angut also nodded.
MEKSAK, whose heart had been torn by this sudden break in the liveliness of the occasion, lowered his head modestly, and rubbed the toe of his kamik against the butchering rock. Then he looked again at his father.
“Old Amorok has little to eat,” he said, with a certain shyness since he was not accustomed to making decisions on the division of meat. “If Karangak does not claim his share, let me give it to the old man.”
Everyone was delighted at this solution, and faces brightened visibly. Meksak grabbed his father’s saw-tooth knife and began to hack off the shoulder. He snagged his thumb on one of the stone chips, tearing off part of the flesh, and laughed uproariously. After a good deal of sawing and cracking the flipper joints, he finally tore loose the portion that was to have been Karangak’s, and set it aside for Amorok, who subsisted on what was thrown to him by others in the village.
Meksak had a great fondness for Amorok and was deeply pleased that he should be in a position to give part of his first seal, which entitled him to be regarded as an inuk—a man—to his old friend.
By this time everyone was happy again. Meksak sawed off part of his breast portion and passed it to Avatuk, who chewed it with relish, smacking his lips to indicate its good flavor—although everyone knew fresh meat had little flavor and was far less tasty than it would be after it had been piled on a dirt shelf, covered with blubber to keep out the air, and left to rot slowly in the rank air of the smoky hut.
Angut beamed at his son. Since he was third in sequence he snatched his saw-tooth knife from Meksak and began to hack off pieces of his portion, which he passed to the hunters who had come from other huts and were now crowding around the butchering rock.
“It is a man’s seal!” he exclaimed, tossing the first piece to Krissuk, who lived in the neighboring hut. Krissuk, not wishing anyone to think he was in need of meat, passed the piece quickly to another hunter. Soon pieces of dripping seal flesh were being passed from hand to hand, while everyone grinned and no one ate. The case of Karangak had rendered everything appropriate. Finally Angut settled the matter by retaining one of his own pieces of meat, which he began to eat. Soon all were eating raw seal meat, smearing their faces and hands with blood, their dark eyes glowing with pleasure, and all talking and laughing at once. By this time everyone seemed to be getting into a mood for a feast.
Pekrornik had undertaken the task of slicing the pieces belonging to her hut— which was almost the whole seal—into smaller chunks, using an ooloo, or woman’s knife, a flat, wedge-shaped stone with one edge sharpened and a bone handle fastened to the broad side, making a kind of chopping blade.
The meat was stowed away on a dirt shelf in the side of the hut. A piece of sealskin was laid over the dirt and the meat piled on this, not as a concession to sanitation but to keep the blood from draining off into the ground, which was warm and soft from the constant heat.
THE next day Karangak drove his dogs northward. He drove so fast that the ice-coated runners of his sled, encased in "boots” of walrus skin to prevent the wood from wearing down, cut through the crust of snow with a constant humming sound, like the whine of the wind.
He had covered two days’ travel when he saw the tracks of a gigantic white bear, and halted his dogs.
Karangak knew, with the experience of many years, that this was a tremendous bear. The snow crust was frozen, showing clearly the deep gashes cut through to the ice by the talonlike claws. The toes pointed toward a cleft in a wall of rock that formed the western barrier of the icecap, and Karangak immediately swung his dogs around and started up the slope toward the bottom of the cleft where a glacier spilled itself across the lower plain.
"Nanooksu!” he cried to the dogs, and they struggled forward as if they understood that their master was on the trail of a great white bear.
Behind him the dark shadow of the headlands which guarded the crimson cliffs rose against the opalescent whiteness of the southern sky, and as the sun sunk lower the entire coastline was swimming in a radiance of purple and gold cast out by the vanishing sun.
This was "storm weather.” The Negark was blowing from the southwest and, while it did not carry the freezing whip of the west winds, it usually brought snow. Karangak glanced now and then at the gathering pile of purple clouds behind him, as his sled snaked upward toward the looming cliffs. Several times he slowed the dogs, thrusting his whipstock into the snow as a brake, and examined the bear tracks, noticing the formation of ice around the holes dug by the spiked toes which showed how much time had elapsed since the bear made the tracks.
At times he left the wandering tracks and cut directly across the rising slope, crusted with thinning layers of snow as he neared the lower edge of the glacier. Each time his burning eyes, now peering between strands of thick hair which he had drawn across his face to shield his eyes from the blinding whiteness of the glacier, quickly picked up the spoor again.
The sun now had reached the point midway between its long disappearance during the winter night, and the summer days when it would revolve ceaselessly in the sky around the rim of the world; and even now, when it dropped below the edge of the ice-crusted sea, it cast a glow like the light before dawn upon the white rim of the icecap.
It was bright enough for Karangak to see the tracks in the snow, and he knew the moon would soon flood the upper valley with its white light. He also was sure the bear was hungry. It had come down to the ice after the long winter cold, perhaps seeking a seal; but the ice was still too thick along the shore for hunting.
Now it had gone back to the upper regions of the icy world where it lived, starving for food. Karangak knew that a hungry bear sometimes was a careless bear.
As soon as he reached the lower rim of the glacier he tethered the dogs, turning his sled to provide some shelter against the gathering storm. By this time the wind was sweeping across the ice plains and a veil of snow was drifting through the lower end of the valley.
THE ground along the edge of the glacier was bare of ice or snow, and Karangak followed the fringe of ice, keeping his dark, fur-clad figure concealed against the background of black rock. He carried a bow and arrow and a short spear. The bow was made of caribou horn, with a shaft so heavy that no other man in Agpat could use it. Its power was sufficient to drive an arrow of splintered bone halfway through the body of a white bear.
The dark cliffs hung above him like curtains, closing out the brilliance of moonlight that flowed across the icecap; but across the white surface of the glacier he could see clearly. He strayed down from the rim of the icecap, staying against the dark background of rock to make himself less visible.
In spite of his caution, Karangak did not see the enormous animal until he was within a few feet of it. Only the round black snout was visible at first, but the low gruff noise in the heavy silence of the snow was unmistakable.
The bear had come around a huge boulder partly buried in the ice. Karangak barely had time to draw an arrow from the sack and fit it to the string of tough narwhal sinew when the bear reared its head, panting at the smell of another creature.
Normally the bear would have avoided the hunter, since these animals dislike the smell of man. But the overpowering hunger often dulls their normal instincts. Now the long snout was pushed out tentatively, while a low whimpering sound came from the bear’s throat.
Suddenly the bear rose to its full height, its paws flailing the air like a feinting boxer. The bear was enormous —a massive monster that towered above him. Karangak’s eyes never left the crimson mouth, and his aim was steady, although it was by far the largest bear he had ever seen. As the bear lunged, he drove the arrow into its throat.
The bear gave a strangling cough, wrestled furiously with the arrow, embedded deeply in its throat. Then, with a desperate lunge, the huge white monster careened forward toward Karangak.
THE old hunter had dropped his bow and now gripped his short spear, which he snatched from the ground. He stood with his legs wide apart, his heavy body receiving the terrific impact of the bear’s lunging charge. Before he could drive the spear into the bear’s throat, the great talons ripped into his back. Karangak knew from the sudden weakness of his left arm that the muscles of his back were torn badly.
This was a serious thing to have happened at the start of a fight. Many times Karangak had faced death when he fought white bear, since it was not always possible to kill from a distance and he usually fought alone. But never before had he fought such an immense bear with one arm useless.
He thought of the tallow hall with the hidden bone. If there had been time, he thought, I would have made the bait; but there had not been time, and now there was no use thinking about it.
The bear was a monster, much taller than Karangak. The old hunter’s tremendous strength was equal to almost anything, but now he began to wonder if his legs, already bearing part of the weight of the huge animal, would withstand the crushing burden long enough for the bear to die from the wound in its throat.
He felt the warm, stinking breath of the bear as it drew his massive body closer to its own tangle of reeking hair. The short spear was now useless, but Karangak’s body was partly turned, so that he could reach with his right hand into the folds of his jacket. Now he let the short spear drop and reached for the knife lying against his body.
He found it with his mittened hand. The pressure on his back was now almost unbearable, but the bear seemed to be squeezing him rather than bearing him down with its weight. He could I feel the hot panting of the huge animal as it towered above him. His left arm now was almost powerless, but he managed to work it loose as the bear I relaxed its grip, snatching with its paw at the arrow still projecting from its mouth.
At this instant Karangak shoved his left forearm deep into the bear’s mouth.
He could hear the snap of the arrow as it broke off. He pushed his arm deeper, until it was we'll behind the cruel fangs that curved backwards along the line of the bear’s jaw. He knew that as long as he kept his arm there, the bear could not close its jaws or slash at him with its long sharp teeth. It was now a question of how long he could hold his arm in the mangling grip of the bear’s jaw before the pain would render it numb and useless.
Karangak had shaken off the sealskin wrapping from the knife, and now pulled it from his coat. Holding the unfamiliar weapon by the handle he began to slash wildly at the neck of the white monster, which once again had engulfed him with its huge forelegs.
The two—man and beast—remained locked in this strange rigadoon, cloaked in the swirling snow that now filled the glacial valley. Karangak had strength such as no other man possessed, and he had previously outlasted white bears in this kind of struggle to the death, knowing that the bear was slowly dying from its wounds. But now he did not know whether the bear was dying from the arrow driven into its throat.
Perhaps it is I who will die, he thought, and he drove the knife again and again into the bleeding neck.
THE huge beast might have crushed the life out of the old hunter, except that the burning pain in its throat distracted the full force of its fury. Now and then it would relax its grip and snatch with its paw at the broken end of the arrow, which was driven against the roof of its mouth by Karangak’s forearm.
It seemed to Karangak that strength was running out of him like blood from the throat of a dying animal. His arm was almost paralyzed from the crushing grip of the bear’s jaws, and the blows he was driving at the side of the bear were becoming weaker and weaker. His head swam in blind madness, until he saw nothing. His breath was sucked in and exhaled with sobbing noises, and his legs, which had lost all feeling, began to tremble violently until he felt that he would soon lose his footing.
He knew there was a place behind the shoulder of the bear where a spear would destroy the animal’s ability to fight and he drove the knife with all his strength, aiming blindly for this spot.
The bear gave a gasping cough, and suddenly the pressure against Karangak’s body relaxed and he found himself standing alone.
Karangak, still on his feet, watched the immense body of the bear topple backwards, its crimson mouth open and the white fur now stained with great blotches of red. The bear was dead when it rolled to the ground. For several seconds Karangak was unable to move. His left arm, soggy from blood, hung at his side, and his great chest heaved as he strove to draw air into his tortured lungs.
He looked at the knife, clutched in his mittened hand. The blade and handle were red with the bear’s blood, and he stared at it in growing wonder. The new knife had killed the bear! Finally he was able to kneel without falling, and he groped for the piece of sealskin lying on the snow. He first wrapped the knife in the sealskin; then he remained for many minutes, crouching on his knees while the warm blood ran down his arm.
When enough strength had returned to his body, he unwrapped the knife and cut a strip of sealskin which he used to bind his mangled arm.
He knew the muscles of his back had been torn, but the blood must have clotted against the feather lining of his aukskin inner jacket. He could move both arm and shoulder, but could not exert any strength.
Using the new knife and his teeth, he stripped the hide from the bear and managed to sever its head, which had special healing powers and would be needed to restore his wounded arm to full strength. The new knife slashed through the tendons of the neck so swiftly that Karangak now know the knife had the power of the spirits.
HE walked back to the foot of the glacier, where he had tethered the dogs, and he drove them up to the place where he had killed the bear. He loaded the skin and head of the bear on his sled, and started northward again toward Agput. In his mind was a new thought, which burned like the pinions of fire that streamed across the northern sky at night.
He-Karangak—now possessed the power of the spirits! He was an angakok . . . the greatest angakok in the world! The new knife had been given him by the spirits to kill the great white bear— when otherwise he would have been destroyed !
It was a thought of such powerful intensity that Karangak, plodding northward beside his sled, felt nothing of the pain that seared his shattered arm. His eyes burned through the tangled mattress of hair, seeing again and again, against the whiteness of the snow and ice, the red mouth and hashing white teeth of the giant bear, and the hot breath of the monster against his face. And again and again he felt in his aching arm the agony of the hot claws drawn through his living flesh . . . And each time he felt, with a deep pleasure that ran through his body like a tremor, the deadly impact of that knife as it drove so easily, again and again, into the solid flesh of the bear . . .
Karangak drove his tired dogs up the slanting ledge from the rocking surface of the breaking ice, already interlaced with widening cracks of open water, to the ledge of rock where the stone huts of Agpat lay in the shimmering sunlight. Some of the hunters were in the village, and they came over to examine the huge head of the bear, shaking their own heads in wonder.
Karangak said nothing, which was not unusual. He dragged the white head with its shaggy mattress of bloody hair into his hut. He showed no one the new knife.
For nearly a moon he sat in his hut, while the wounds on his back and arm healed slowly. He kept the new knife in a sealskin wrap, but often unwrapped it and sat looking at it as it glinted in the flickering light of the seal blubber burning in the stone lamp. And as he watched, and his wounds healed, his thoughts grew together, almost as the scars on his back and arm, flesh welded to flesh, until his mind held only a single thought: I am Karangak, the greatest angakok in the world !...
He had killed the mightiest white bear with his Great Knife, and the knife was the symbol of his greatness! ★
This story will be included in the book, The Knife, by Theon Wright, to be published later by Julian Messner, Inc., New York.