The name plays a tremendous part in the life of the Inuit, says Patrick. They will give the same names indiscriminately to their boys and girls. Frequently the child is named after the recently-departed—not to indicate the reincarnation of an individual, but to act as her representative, to perpetuate her memory. A grandfather will be found calling his infant grandson “my sweet little mother”; a boy will be found calling his father “my son”.
I walk far distances on my female legs, with weapons in my female arms: across the sea-ice, across the sea-ice. I opened my last seal and rubbed my son with its fat, head to toe. Then I wrapped him in his furs and kissed his eyes shut. I left him holding amulets and took his smile in my mind. This is what I think about, this is what I struggle with. Many men do not like a woman to hunt for animals. They worry the animals will be offended and will leave our shores. I do not have many words for them.
I saw a seal-bull in his breathing hole. An old seal-bull, who breathed wearily and thirstily. He did not look around, so I knew how old he must be. He breathed as if to say: the world is ready, the weather is ready, and I will never be ready. I stood elongated and my harpoon drove him beneath the water with a sound like an ice cliff falling. Firmly I held the old man down, while he reverberated the ice beneath my feet. He twisted farther up my hooks; he clawed as if digging new holes for breathing. To the world I hold the appearance of a snowy beast. I bend over the water, I bend upon the ice, doubly, triply layered in fur. What separates me from a fat, useful wolf? The furry hood upon my back, where I sometimes carry my son, when we need to move together, is empty, like the saggy paunch of a mothering bear.
The lemmings call the sky the rounded belly. The lemmings lament the cold; they lament the infinite ice; they are lamenters. Inside my son’s amulets I have sewn the skin of unborn lemmings. If his enemies find him, he will be safe. Lemmings hide in unsuspecting armpits; lemmings dart like arrows. If his enemies find him, he will be safe: it is said the spirit of the lemming sewn inside the amulet will dash so quickly that when it enters an enemy’s anus it will burst from her mouth.
I walk far distances on my female legs, far from my sleeping son: across the sea-ice, across the sea-ice. I saw a man and he saw me. He was dragging the hardened carcass of a seal along the floor. I decried its lemming-head, its poorly tail, the deformity on its back like a thigh of wizened meat. You’ve done yourself proudly today, I said. But he did not speak, and he did not turn, as though he could not stand it. I walked ahead, my clean weapons in my hands, across the rounded sea-ice. It is common for me to wonder: which is the floor and which is the sky, and which is the breathing hole and which is the dancing black spot on my eye, and which is the outline of a real thing and which is the outline I only suppose is there?
I am walking far, and the ice is occasionally groaning. I am glad for the wolves I killed, whose skins I sewed to wrap up my son. He is in a dark burrow of fur, many layers deep. At the heart of the burrow he lies, a fatty ball, with a fatty heart. I would not be surprised, when I unwrap him, if lemmings fall from the layers, for they love to hide, and all would still be well, for their tiny thumping hearts would warm him too. In the icy field there grows an edge, over which I crouch to find the sea. The sea is two metres down, and black. On my icy promontory there are ledges the size and shape of dogs. I put my hand on them. On my promontory the ice has grown delicate limbs, which I can rub like the tusk of a walrus. I can see no activity within the sea, so I listen. There is a brutal crack and my promontory snaps from the land, and when I climb from my stomach the promontory is an ice floe and the land is a harpoon’s-length distant, and then it is two, and then it is three.
Down in the moving water is a walrus; I can see his shadow. I would need to be with three or more men to kill a walrus. The ice I came from has reduced to nothing on the horizon. Far away there passes a floe like a spiky mountain, its limbs bizarre and intricately arranged, as if it has been made by the frozen bones of whales and walruses floating together. The walrus alights on the island and squirms inside its dark belly. From the belly of the island comes the walrus song; the words are foreign, but I know what they say, the same they always say: it is a love song for the sun, who stole the walrus’ daughter. Three small floes overtake me, but they are smaller than mine, and they all travel in the same direction.
A floe passes a little distance away, carrying the figure of a man. He is small, and he is standing still. I do not hear a sound from him. I consider waving but I do not. It passes away into nothing.
A floe passes closer to mine, carrying the figure of a man. This floe is small, and the man unsettles its balance when he moves. He clings to it like a child on a rock in a river. Catch me, he calls, and together we can feed ourselves. I hold my harpoon steadfastly. Hold it out, he calls, to let me climb over. Soon this ice I’m on will disappear. You can make me your husband. We can love each other, at least, before we both die. Hold it out, he calls. I hold my steadfast spear and try to see behind his rimy fur, into his eyes, and he leaps at me but it is too far, and he enters the water two harpoon’s-lengths distant, and sinks like an amulet, and the ice passes away into nothing.
A floe passes closer still, carrying the figure of a man. He has a dog sitting quietly beside him. I wave to this man. When will I ever see my family? He calls. When will I ever see my son? I reply, At least you have a dog to hug. My sons will have to learn from another man, he calls. At least your sons will live, I reply, and at least you have a dog to hug. My wife will go to bed with other men, he calls. At least we have this conversation, I say, and at least you have a dog to hug. For a long time our floes are matched in pace. Then they split to circumnavigate an icy island, too far to leap to, and when I pass around it, the man does not.
The sky grows dark, and the sky grows light, and I float beneath it. My floe spins, slows, and accelerates, as though it is confused. The sky grows dark, and the sky grows light, and I pierce a seal on the end of my harpoon, and I float with it.
My floe reaches a land of ice. I walk a far distance, my harpoon a stick for my weary legs. In the icy field there grows a house, and I recognise the house of an old neighbour. I do not greet my neighbour. There grows another house, and it is my house. I open the door and I see a child crawling on a fur. I see many children arguing together. I see two men and two women deep in a conversation. I see my son, who is an old, old man. I bring my bloody hands to my icy mouth. He stands creakily and ushers me in from the cold. He introduces his son, and his grandchildren. He looks at me as though he does not recognise me. Indeed, he does not recognise me.