The noon sky blazed red. My senses focused, alert and watchful. The snowy plain where I knelt reflected skyfire. Near the sleds, the dogs barked, their breath curling white in the air. A flame-trail burst across the sky, then quickly faded to smoke. A loud boom shook me. Hot wind warmed my frosted hood.
I stood up, looking at the sky through my slitted snow-goggles. I tilted them on my nose, as if the bones themselves might deceive me, but smoke still drifted overhead. What I saw was true. I gripped my seal-call tightly, but I did not show fear. A hunter swallowed fear.
My cousin Tatigaq stared spellbound at the sky. For a moment I thought his soul was captured, but then remembered my cousin lacked isuma. He had neither maturity nor judgment. Any good hunter knew a surprise meant watch in all directions. Surprise was emotion; it could kill. I had better sense despite being only fourteen and lacking a penis. But my name-soul, Atuat, also belonged to my grandfather. That made me wiser than others my age.
Suddenly freed from his spell, Tatigaq ran towards the dogs. That at least showed isuma, as the dogs were our lives. “Little Grandfather,” he called anxiously, as he soothed them, “What was that?”
I gave a pointed look. Tatigaq always asked me questions, as one did when speaking to a baby. Isuma meant he should watch and learn for himself.
Tatigaq glared back. “You won’t be so rude when you stop being a boy.”
“I won’t ever stop being a boy,” I told him. “I am Atuat, our grandfather. Besides, both my sisters would think you a fool for insulting me with questions.”
“You won’t be a boy when you have my babies.”
Tatigaq was a child, despite being nearly twenty. That was why our marriage had not been performed. Sometimes I wondered if he might never grow up, and I’d die a boy. Maybe this life was something my grandfather’s soul had arranged for me. I did not want to be a girl and care for an iglu. But I was sipiniq, because my penis had split into a vulva when I was born. So I must have babies like a woman, despite my male soul. Only a shaman could stay sipiniq for life, and I had no such gift.
I wanted to tell Tatigaq he couldn’t even fix his own mukluks. But it was never wise to argue with a child. It weakened the adult, and taught the child insolence. So I shrugged and looked to the west. I saw faint smoke from where the skyfire had vanished.
“I’m joking,” said Tatigaq. “Laugh like a man.”
I knew that wasn’t fair. Tatigaq’s jokes were half-true and not funny. I went to my dogs. My leader snapped at her harness-mate, so I broke them up with a shout. Once I was sure my dogs were fine, I led them towards the smoke, expecting Tatigaq would follow. I was sure he was annoyed, but I didn’t care. I wanted to understand what I’d seen. This was my last hunt before becoming a woman. If I died from curiosity, at least I’d die a hunter.
Just beyond a rocky ridge, I found a huge wet dent in the ice, like spring had thawed only one place. It was deepest near me, and extended away in a long tail. I’d never seen a mark like it. It looked like something round, perhaps as big as five bears, had struck and skidded away. Ridges in the long tail supported my idea. I walked around it, then knelt and sniffed. The snow smelled like fire mixed with some foul shaman’s brew.
Tatigaq led his team next to me. We looked at the indentation, our breath frosting our furs. Finally Tatigaq said, “We should get the elders.”
“I want to know what it is,” I said.
For answer, Tatigaq jumped on his sled and drove away. But I knew he was weak and would follow a stronger hunter. So I rushed my team past him, breaking the deep snow, then circled toward the skyfire. I didn’t look back. As I expected, Tatigaq called his dogs, and soon his sled whispered behind me.
I spotted a structure on the horizon. Larger than any cairn, it shimmered like a melting lake. I drove my dogs closer. Before me lay a jumble; I couldn’t think how else to call it. A giant ball lay broken in pieces. Long spears jutted every direction. Black smoke rose from the jumble, thick and rough on my nose. Heat like summertime pressed at my face. I pushed back my parka hood, slowly circling the mess. It reminded me of a wrecked whaling boat.
Fascinated, I came closer. One shiny section looked like broken crust over icy water; cracks radiated from a shallow indentation, as if someone had crushed it with their foot. Around the watery-looking part, lines of magical lights flickered in colors like the Aqsarniit night-sky.
I glanced at Tatigaq, who stood back twenty paces with his knife half-drawn. He snorted and turned away, fussing with the dogs’ harness. My cousin’s movements read like prey: tense and skittish. I knew his fear was sensible, but the jumble called to me. My soul–my grandfather’s soul–wanted to understand it.
I coughed on smoke and dropped one hand to my knife. Spirits. This jumble must be from the spirit world. A magical… something. Maybe a spirit iglu? I knew I should be careful, but curiosity overwhelmed me.
“Grandfather,” Tatigaq called urgently, “Come away from there. Your parents will be angry.”
What would my ancestors have done? I closed my eyes. All four of my namesakes were hunters, and I asked all of them what I should do. Grandfather was the youngest. He turned to his elder, as each man did to the hunter before him. I could always see my ancestors clearly, as if they stood before me. Usually I had trouble hearing their advice, but this time, I heard every word the eldest spoke. Resist evil and obey good, he told me. Your fear must make you strong.
Tatigaq grabbed my arm. My ancestors vanished. Startled, I planted my feet like a wrestler.
“Little Grandfather,” Tatigaq said, “this is not for us.”
“Decide for yourself, not me.”
“Ask the elders. Let them decide.”
I paused, loosening one heel from the snow. He had a point. Bad things happened when spirits angered, and we were not shamans. But we had both seen the sign, and signs should not be ignored.
I pulled free and walked to the terrible heat. Small flames leaped through the jumble’s smoky wall. With my grandfather’s courage, I reached for the curved section that looked like false ice. I touched it with my mitten.
A smaller mitten scrabbled under the ice’s surface. I jumped back and nearly fell over. Tatigaq caught me, but I shoved him off. Someone was trapped–a child perhaps. I didn’t know if spirit children could freeze, but I knew if I didn’t help, my ancestors would condemn me.
I grabbed my seal-club from the sled. Waving my arms against the smoke, I climbed up a jumble outcropping. I braced my legs and smashed the false ice. I expected water, but more smoke poured out. A small mitten reached through, so I grabbed and pulled. A childlike spirit clambered out. I hugged it to my breasts and jumped off.
Safely on the ground, I cradled the spirit in my arms. The spirit was the size of a large baby who rarely drank milk. Shining starlight garb wrapped its body from neck to toe. Its skinny arms ended in round three-fingered mittens. Its feet bore fat raptor claws, wrapped in the same strange starlight as its body.
The spirit flailed its legs weakly, like a newborn pup. Its swollen head wore a hard, round hat that covered everything to the neck. A clear barrier in the hat covered the spirit’s face. Some protection magic, I supposed. I’d never seen anything more amazing.
I stared into the hat’s clear front. Two black eyes looked back–dark like caribou eyes, with no whites. Slowly the spirit blinked twice: once transparent like water, and then a second time with thicker eyelids. It had gray skin and a little flat mouth like a fish.
Curious, I gently separated its legs to see its genitals, but the shiny garb covered everything. I had hoped the spirit might be like me, wearing the wrong genitals in this world. I supposed that spirits could be male or female when they visited, but the other while in the sky. But I really didn’t know. Where was it from? I wondered if it lived in a bladder like animal spirits did.
Should I carry it home? I glanced at Tatigaq through the smoke. I’d never shown any talent for spiritual matters. The elders could pray for guidance and hear the answers. Maybe the spirit belonged with the jumble, and I should fetch the elders.
But what if the spirit left before I got back?
I didn’t know what to do. I rubbed my fingers together inside my mittens. I got a bad feeling from the jumble, all wrong and hot and strange. The spirit was strange too, but at least it seemed alive. So I carried the limp spirit away from the heat. My dogs barked loudly at the newcomer until Tatigaq threw them some meat.
I spread a bear fur and lay the spirit down like a baby. Tatigaq wouldn’t look; he stared at the ice underfoot. I feared my weak cousin would leave with his sled. I didn’t know what to do, but the spirit needed hospitality, and building an iglu would let me think. This type of snow made a poor iglu, but I only needed a little one for one night. In the morning I would take the spirit home.
I took my ivory snow-knife from the sled and cut blocks with strong, certain strokes. Tatigaq should have joined me, but he stayed back warily. “Help me,” I told him.
Slowly, my cousin knelt and cut snow, keeping his eyes on the spirit. We worked in silence. A raven cried overhead. A lemming poked its head through the snow, then disappeared again. We stacked blocks in a half-circle.
As he lay a block down, Tatigaq said, “Your iglu is too small.”
“It’s just for the spirit,” I said.
“And where then will we sleep?”
I hadn’t thought about that. I was thinking of the spirit and the fiery sky. Careless, like a child. I scuffed my mitten. I was angry, but I couldn’t feel that way now; too dangerous on the ice. So I scraped my emotions flat, like a knife stripping fur from skin.
I said, “Help me make it bigger.”
The spirit lifted on its right arm, letting its left dangle. Its eyelids blinked shut–first the clear ones, and then the heavy ones. It opened its eyes again and gazed at me.
“Careful,” hissed Tatigaq, reaching for his knife.
“Don’t! It’s a good spirit.”
“How do you know?”
“Grandfather told me,” I lied. But it was a truthful lie; Grandfather had told me to obey good, and my cousin was lost to fear.
“You never hear ancestors,” said Tatigaq suspiciously.
“This is a powerful spirit, and it’s here for something,” I said. Tatigaq looked skeptical, so I added, “See, it’s hurt. Look how it doesn’t use its left arm. Remember when you fell, four summers ago?”
Tatigaq grimaced, shamed by the memory, then nodded once. Even if my cousin didn’t believe me, he wouldn’t risk neglecting a spirit in need.
Without speaking, we shaped the snow bricks into a dome. I cut a ceiling-block of clear ice to let in light. I did not like dark iglus even at night. The spirit lay unmoving on the furs. When I spoke, it just blinked at me. I placed the best strips of dried seal on the fur, but the spirit ignored the food. I worried I might have offended it.
Night came early, and the moon was weak tonight. When we finished the iglu, Tatigaq and I crawled inside, with the spirit wrapped in fur. We curled together, with the spirit snuggled warmly against my breasts. I slept instantly. My dreams were silent.
Just before dawn, a loud noise woke me–like a bear tearing open a walrus. I clutched the spirit. I whispered to Tatigaq, but my cousin slept on. Now I was frightened. I lay awake in the endless night. The wind stole my sleep and left me in darkness, where no hunter could do anything but think. This thinking did not warm the stomach.
When I went home, I could not stay a hunter any more than a child could remain a baby. If I wanted to stay sipiniq, I must become a shaman. I feared the shaman’s path; I would spend nights in a dark hole under the ice, listening for spirits. I must learn to see myself as bones, and bare my breasts during rituals for all to see. I did not like this idea.
But I didn’t want to be a woman either, working at home all day. I must rely on Tatigaq for meat and sinew, and my cousin was lazy. I would attract the animals’ spirits for my husband to hunt–and watch Tatigaq lose all his prey. This dependence shamed my soul. But I could not keep hunting, not as a man would. I must do women’s hunting, instead of exploring the wide ice fields. Even if my people starved and women must help in the wild, as sometimes happened, hunting would never be the same for me. I would always be spare. This was simply truth.
I thought these things until the thoughts chased themselves into nothingness, and the wind carried sleep to me. I dreamed that I spoke with spirits, but when I looked around, none were near, and my mukluks had torn open.
I woke to a smoky smell. I thought it was memory, until I realized the smell filled the iglu. Firelight flickered through my icy ceiling. A drop of water splashed on my nose. I crawled out of the iglu, leaving the spirit.
The jumble burned. Flames leaped from the ball-like pieces, and foul smoke burned my nostrils. It smelled like something unworldly from beyond the sky’s dome. I stared, fascinated. The dogs barked, and I shushed them. I thought the spirit might know what to do, so I reached into the iglu. Ignoring my cousin, I grabbed the spirit and showed it the fire.
The spirit shook in my arms. Its little mouth gaped through the clear hat. It screamed soundlessly, like a fish in a boat. I hugged it, feeling lost and alone. I had only a hunter’s knowledge of spirits. I could thank an animal for giving its life, and return the proper parts to the spirits, but I couldn’t interpret signs. All I could do was guess. I thought the spirit suffered, like a caribou lost from its herd. I tried petting its head, but it wailed silently, hopelessly.
Tatigaq crawled out of the iglu. He looked at the burning jumble. “We must leave the spirit,” he said. “It will know how to go home.”
“But it’s lost.”
“Then we should find a shaman.”
“No time,” I said. “Look.” The spirit lay weakly in my arms, still shaking, its mouth hanging open. I recognized a dying creature. That was hunter knowledge.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Tatigaq. “Let it go.”
He scoffed. “Spirits don’t die.”
“This one might,” I said, irritated with myself for childish arguing.
“You’re no shaman.”
“I could be if I wanted to,” I said, stung.
“You don’t have the gift,” said Tatigaq. His tone wasn’t cruel, simply matter-of-fact. “Just because you’re sipiniq doesn’t make you a shaman.”
I turned away, done talking. My future lay before me, as familiar as an ancestor. I foresaw my hunter’s soul dying in sickness. Tatigaq would come home from each hunt with another excuse for why he had little meat. I would have to mend my cousin’s gear when he rested, and know that Tatigaq hated hunting while I longed for it. It wasn’t fair, and it made me so angry I couldn’t breathe. I crushed the feeling to powder. I would not feel. Ice wrecked those who felt.
I looked at the spirit. Its pale eyelids fluttered, and I worried it would curse me as it died. Maybe that’s why it was here–to soften my hunter’s soul. Maybe its curse could make me a happy woman.
The spirit squirmed in my arms. Confused, I boosted it to my shoulder. When it kept kicking, I lay it down on the fur. It wobbled to its feet and hopped toward the jumble. The spirit walked like a goose, and I smiled at the sight.
The spirit dug at the jumble. It pushed aside blackened sections and gathered shiny things. One large shiny piece lay under a charred pile. The spirit tugged, its little legs slipping on the ice. I saw what it wanted, so I came forward. I lifted with all my strength, with no luck.
I gave Tatigaq a sharp look. My cousin reluctantly offered one hand, keeping the other on his knife. Tatigaq was tall and strong. The help was enough, and I braced the piece against my thighs and pulled it out. The jumble collapsed further. I lay the piece down for the spirit to examine, praying that I was doing right.
The spirit performed strange rituals on the pieces. It pulled things, dropped things, selected things. It worked with its right hand, using its twitchy left arm to balance pieces. I didn’t understand any of it, but I fished shiny pieces out of the burned jumble and set them next to the spirit. Tatigaq watched briefly, but mostly he fussed with the dogs and pretended he was busy.
Whatever the spirit was doing, it was so lovely and intricate that I decided it was artwork. The spirit lined edges up with other edges and linked pieces together, like a woman sewing animal tails to a ceremonial parka. It twisted together strange sinew-thread that held its shape. The spirit matched colors and thicknesses together, then tucked them underneath the shiny pieces. The spirit always twisted them the same way, with a few quick motions. Sometimes the matches were identical, and other times they seemed random.
After watching for a long time, I searched the pieces for other sinew-threads. It was hard to tell what I needed. Matching colors was easy, but the threads had too many shapes. I wasn’t sure what mattered. I noticed that the spirit always paired the thickest black threads together, so I copied that. The sinew was surprisingly stiff but bendable, and it held its structure when twisted. My fear became fascination. Searching carefully, I found three more sets and twisted them together.
When the spirit picked up my connected threads, it stared closely, and then set them down on the artwork. I feared I had offended, but the spirit wobbled to me and rubbed my leg with its round hat. I laughed aloud, charmed. Tatigaq smiled too, but I saw teeth.
Over the afternoon, I tried to copy some other twists. But every time I tried, the spirit rubbed my leg, then undid my work. So I stuck with finding black sinew and setting it next to the spirit, since it always seemed to need more of that kind.
In early evening, the spirit lit the artwork’s magical fires. Colors blossomed to brilliance, like a field of lichen, brighter than moonlight. The whole artwork hummed, startling me. The dogs barked at the noise, and Tatigaq yanked their harnesses to subdue them.
Finally, the spirit stepped back from its artwork and sat down on the fur. I sat too, admiring the sight, and the spirit nestled its head against my elbow. I was glad tonight was warm and still, almost like spring. The magic I’d seen today awed me. I wished I knew what it meant. Maybe a shaman could tell me someday. Or maybe it would make sense to me after reflection. Even shamans had to meditate on complicated matters.
Nearby, Tatigaq paced and checked the wind. He said, “We should go now, Little Grandfather.”
“Soon,” I agreed, staying seated.
Tatigaq muttered something and harnessed the dogs. He climbed into the sled and looked at me. I sat unmoving, staring at my cousin. A wolf howled in the distance. Finally Tatigaq stepped down and dug into my pouch. He threw some sealskin-wrapped narwhal gristle towards me, which fell short. The spirit got up, retrieved the food, and dropped it in front of me.
“Thank you,” I told it.
Tatigaq brought another fur and sat down ten paces away. I didn’t care about his sulking. I was thinking about how I couldn’t hunt after this unless we were desperate, and that made me even madder. I squinted at the artwork, hoping somehow my spirit wisdom would wake.
Tatigaq said, “I don’t want to be here anymore. What if the spirit kills us?”
“I don’t think it will. It could have hurt us anytime it wanted.”
“Didn’t you say it was lost? There might be more of them. You think you’re such a great hunter. What if it brings more spirits here? Or what if it poisons us?”
I glared at him and said nothing.
Tatigaq continued, “It might not mean to hurt us, but it might. You and I don’t know.”
I pretended Tatigaq was no one. I would not speak to him. Nothing would prove the truth but what we saw. I opened my mind like a crowberry flower, ready to soak the brief summer sun. Even a flower knew winter would come again.
I watched the spirit to see what I should learn. The spirit caught my eye, and then raised its arm skyward. It dropped its arm, then repeated its gesture. The spirit pointed to the star that never moved. Maybe that was the hole in the sky’s dome? That was what the Aqsarniit was: the dead playing kickball with a walrus skull, and the lights were how they marked the path to the next world. Maybe the spirit was showing me which way was home.
I couldn’t figure out any more, so I simply watched and listened. Finally the spirit gave up pointing and just sat still. Occasionally it reached forward and touched its artwork. I kept it silent company as hunters do; we are like dogs that way. We waited, though I did not know for what.
“Are you staying here?” asked Tatigaq contemptuously.
“I’m leaving with my dogs,” he said. “You’d better come home soon or your father will be angry.”
“You’re supposed to kill a seal,” I said. “Have you forgotten?”
“I will have better hunting another time,” said Tatigaq, which was what he always said. I shrugged and turned away. Let Tatigaq do what he said he’d do. To his credit, my cousin finally honored his word, and drove off with his team. I wasn’t worried. My dogs napped nearby, and the spirit was here. I didn’t feel alone.
Slowly the sky faded to full night. The artwork lit the ice with a dreamy haze of colors. In the sky above, the dead had placed beautiful summer-green torches that covered the sky. They must miss this spirit who rested with me.
“Well done,” I said softly to my companion. “You can go home. They’ll show you the way.”
I didn’t think it understood me, but it bumped its head on my leg again. I picked it up and rocked it in my arms. Maybe, I thought, maybe it won’t be so bad raising babies, if I can remember this day. Maybe that’s what this spirit came to tell me. Even if I never saw it again, I’d know it was with me. I would remember everything to honor this spirit–every smell and sight and sound of my last hunt.
Suddenly the artwork lights danced in colors. A round section lifted and spun–slowly, then faster. A point emerged from the section, and sought the sky near the unmoving star. My arm hair stood up. Invisible power shook me as the humming grew louder. My whole body hummed too. The spirit jumped up and down, its hat shimmering with magic.
Overhead, something roared, and I leaped to my feet. A giant bird soared above–no, not a bird, but a huge whaling boat sailing overhead. Its curved hull covered much of the sky, as if I stood at the sea’s bottom. Flames trailed in its wake. I stared, amazed, sure I was seeing the end of days. No one had taught me this; no one had prepared me. But at this sight, I thought, How could it be otherwise? How can anyone know the truth until he sees for himself?
A small shining ball fell from the boat’s hull, then took flight on invisible wings. Despite my courage, I fell to the ground, shaking as the object landed in front of me. I buried my face in the snow. The spirit rubbed its head on my arm. I knew it was comforting me. How funny that I should be the one needing comfort now!
And once I smiled at that thought, I knew that I had accepted this wonder into my life. I would never be the same again.
White light shone through the fur of my parka hood. I dared to raise my eyes, blinking as magical light streamed everywhere. Before me, brightness silhouetted more spirits–five of them, just like the one I’d helped. They waddled forward, picked up the artwork, and carried it into the light.
My new friend tugged my arm, catching my attention. The spirit looked up at me, moving its little fishmouth. I raised myself to one knee. The spirit tugged me forward encouragingly. It hobbled toward the light, then back to me, and pulled on my arm again.
I stared into the light, lost in its glory. What lay beyond? I knew the spirits would welcome me–that much was clear from their behavior. But what would become of me? It was hard to think. I couldn’t even see my ancestors.
I closed my eyes, slowly. This light was not mine–not yet. I had to learn more before I dared visit the spirit world. I must study as a shaman, so I could walk between the worlds as I pleased, and take care of myself. I must use my fear to become strong.
I sat crosslegged on the fur. When the spirit tugged me, I smiled and petted its head. After a few more tries, the spirit extended its arms wide and rolled its head from side to side. The spirits in the light gave the same sign. I repeated what I saw, the unfamiliar gesture feeling oddly natural. I smiled as my friend limped into brightness.
The light vanished, leaving my eyes aching. When my sight adjusted, the shining ball had vanished. Only the humming boat flew overhead. With a burst of fire, the boat sailed away to another world, beyond the colorful torches of the dead. I watched it go until I saw it no more.
When the night fell silent, I slept in the iglu. In the morning, prepared for my new path, I readied my dogs and went home.