Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
It was late October when Ikkuma's father, Tulugaq, chief of the Inuit, sent him hunting for seals miles away from the village. His brother, Eretak, wanted to come with him.
They rode their father's sled to the floe nearest to the village. One of the six huskies pulling it was Mingulertok, Ikkuma's dog. Her job was to point her nose in the direction of a breathing hole where she thought a seal would come up. When a seal came up, Ikkuma would harpoon it.
Ikkuma said to Mingulertok, "You promised me a seal a long time ago."
Migulertok looked at him, her eyes striking a look that seemed to say, "Yes, but I didn't tell you when."
Ikkuma sighed. Eretak was taking a nap, and he had been sitting by the breathing hole for hours. It was time they started heading back. So Ikkuma woke Eretak. Before they had taken five steps, they heard the floe shake, and a loud crack shattered the stillness. The brothers let out a yelp of fright. The floe slowly started to move. It had broken off from the mainland!
Ikkuma watched helplessly as the dark expanse of water began to widen. Three feet. Five feet. Seven feet. Ikkuma stiffened with fear. The same thing had happened to several other villagers when an iceberg had rammed their floe. They were never heard from again.
Ikkuma didn't know how to swim, and even if he made it to shore with Eretak on his back, they would surely freeze into human popsicles. Going into the water would be a fatal mistake.
So he did the only sensible thing. He started to build an igloo because chances were they would be stranded on the floe, or worse yet, die on it. He used his harpoon and started to dig out slabs of snow and Eretak helped put them in place. Eretak was taking it pretty well for someone his age. In less than four hours, the igloo was complete. Migulertok and the other dogs clambered in, and Ikkuma and Eretak went inside after them. The dogs had warmed up the igloo so that it was not so cold anymore. Eretak was crying and it was Ikkuma's job as a big brother to comfort him.
He said, "The wind will surely blow us back to shore," but he knew that the chances were slim.
Eretak choked out, "How long will we have to wait?" Ikkuma had no answer.
Ikkuma whistled for Migulertok, but when the large, part-wolf dog did not come to him, he became worried. He fed the other dogs and went in search of Migulertok with Eretak. And then, in the distance, Ikkuma heard barking and a loud roar, and he froze. Migulertok was fighting the largest polar bear Ikkuma had ever seen. He ran towards the fight and he saw that even though Migulertok was fighting bravely, she was no match for the huge polar bear. The great bear was merciless and he swiped a large paw at the dog, flinging her right at Ikkuma's feet.
Ikkuma was angry. He threw his harpoon with all his might at the bear, but the bear knocked it away with his paw like a harmless fly. It was getting ready to attack when there was a loud crack and the piece of ice holding the bear began to float away. Neither enemy could reach the other. Ikkuma ran to Migulertok to see if she was all right. She would never breathe again.
The brothers weeped. Ikkuma retrieved his harpoon and dug a hole to bury the dog in. They hugged her and said good-bye. Then, Migulertok was buried by the gentle hands of Eretak and Ikkuma.
Ikkuma whispered, "She was faithful to the end."
The two brothers could hardly sleep that night and when they did, nightmares of what happened to Migulertok overwhelmed them. The next morning, they were so tired that they could hardly get up. It felt as though things couldn't get worse. How wrong they were.
The following afternoon, the first snows of the winter season started. Ikkuma, Eretak, and the dogs stayed inside the igloo, for they knew if they wandered outside, the blizzard would be strong enough to blow them away. While they were in the igloo, they had some time to gather their thoughts and they realized how worried their mother and father would be. No doubt they would have seen the jagged marks of where the floe was torn from the mainland. Surely they would have tried to rescue their sons by canoe, but where were they? Maybe they had looked for them, but hadn't found them. The thought frightened him and he pushed it away. But what else could have happened?
The storm blew over in a couple of hours and when Ikkuma, Eretak, and the dogs stepped outside, it felt as if they had stepped into a different world. Everything had a blanket of snow on it. Before, the snow wasn't as white and had appeared to be much more watery. The two went back inside and brought out a couple chunks of frozen meat. They gave each of the dogs a slab of meat and ate one each. They cooked it with the magic fire first, of course.
After weeks of being adrift, Ikkuma had caught four seal and had been through 34 snowstorms. Eretak was growing stronger and leaner. Even though it was already the beginning of spring, they still needed to wear their parkas because the Arctic was usually cold until the middle or end of spring.
And then, one day, just as they were about to give up, it happened. Ikkuma was teaching Eretak how to hunt seal because he was almost 13. It was the Inuit tradition to teach one to hunt when he was 13 years of age. The two of them were sitting side by side when the floe crashed. The whole place shook and it felt like an earthquake. Dazed at first, Ikkuma wondered what had happened. Eretak grabbed Ikkuma's arm and showed him that the floe had embedded itself into the mainland. They were both overjoyed and shouting happily. They grabbed their things, found the dogs and were off!
"THE WATER GOD PUSHED THE FLOE TO SHORE," shouted Ikkuma.
"HOORAY," shouted Eretak.
And then, Ikkuma realized they were not much better off than before. They were on the shore opposite of their village and there seemed to be no other village nearby. The only difference now was that they were no longer in danger of the ice floe braking into little pieces and killing them.
Ikkuma started looking around for signs of life and surely, in the distance, was smoke. He hadn't seen it before because he wasn't looking closely. It looked a day's walk away, so they started walking. However, before they had walked long, night had fallen. Even though it was mid spring, the nights could still be 20 degrees below zero. So Ikkuma and Eretak decided once again to build an igloo. It did not take as long this time, possibly one hour.
The next morning, Ikkuma and Eretak resumed walking at dawn. After hours of walking, they finally made it to the village at sundown. They saw many white men and realized that it was a white-man village. A man called out to them, a friendly man by the looks of him.
He said, "You need help?"
He looked to be in his mid 20s. He had broad shoulders, and was packed with hard muscles.
Eretak started to say some thing, but Ikkuma cut him off and said, "We need to take a ship up the Greenland Strait. Are there any ships leaving soon?"
He thought for a moment and said, "The Seastorm is leaving tomorrow at noon. You're not leaving already, are you?
Ignoring the man, Ikkuma said, "Where will she be docked?"
He replied, "Turn right at the pile of lumber up there," he said gesturing towards the massive stack, "and keep walking until you see the dock."
Eretak said, "Thank you."
He laughed. "My pleasure."
That night, they asked an old woman if she would be so kind as to accept them into her house for the night. She welcomed them saying it would be nice to have some company. So Ikkuma and Eretak slept in her warm little house for the night and left early the next morning, eating a piece of dried seal each. They thanked her for her hospitality and headed toward the dock. Seeing that they were the only Inuit in the town, the two of them could constantly feel the white men's curious stares down the back of their necks.
It was a relief when Ikkuma and Eretak reached the dock. They found a man dressed like a captain, wearing a captain's hat.
Ikkuma said, "We are looking for passage on the Seastorm."
The captain muttered, "All full."
"We could sleep with the dogs." He offered.
He replied, "Nah."
"We could work." He tried.
"We could sleep with the dogs and work." He said desperately.
The captain seemed to perk up at this. He eyed them carefully and then said, "You'll sleep with the dogs and work? I'm warning you. It ain't gonna be easy, mate."
"We can do it," Ikkuma insisted.
"In that case, welcome aboard mates. You," he said pointing at Ikkuma, "will help by shoveling coal into the fire. Your shift will be for six hours everyday. You will work from noon to sunset. And you," he said pointing at Eretak, "you will be scrubbing the deck once a day at dawn. Your dogs will sleep with our dogs."
Eretak was about to protest, but one look from his brother kept his mouth shut.
Ikkuma said, "Thank you very much."
The captain said, "We are leaving now. Go start your jobs."
Ikkuma went below deck, picked up a shovel and started shoveling with another man that was already there. The work was harder than he had thought it would be. In a matter of minutes, he was already breaking sweat. Not to mention the incredible heat. The pair opened the door and the heat started cooling.
Eretak, who was busy scrubbing the deck, was muttering about having to do this everyday so early in the morning. By the time he was finished, he was exhausted and he hurt all over.
Eretak was hungry. He ate some dried seal from the kitchen and then went to sleep with the dogs. The smell was not very pleasant, but at least he would be home with his family soon. Sleeping with the dogs reminded him painstakingly of Migulertok. He thought about how she had always played with him and how she would always lick his face. He missed Migulertok all right.
After a while, Ikkuma came in and collapsed on the floor next to Eretak. He fell asleep only after he had thought the same thoughts as Eretak. He sorely missed Migulertok. He wished she was still alive and that she hadn't sacrificed her life for him. Migulertok and Ikkuma had formed a deep bond over the years. Ever since Ikkuma turned 9 years old, they had been inseparable.
The next morning, Eretak was gone when Ikkuma awoke. Obviously, he was already scrubbing the deck. Ikkuma stretched, got out of bed, and went to the kitchen. There, he grabbed a piece of jerky and dedicated his morning to exploring the ship. There wasn't much left to see because he had seen most of it the day before. Ikkuma glanced at the sun. Time had sure passed quickly! It was almost noon, so he headed off to the coal room.
By now, Eretak had finished scrubbing the deck and had nothing to do. He wasn't hungry yet and there was no one to talk to.
Ikkuma was glistening with sweat and was breathing hard. He would have given anything for a nice long nap. It was extremely hot even with the door open. It was like this all afternoon, the following day, the day after that, and so on.
To both Eretak and Ikkuma, everyday was the same. Some days were warmer and others cooler. Finally, after working on the boat for about a month, give or take a few days, the Seastorm docked at a small town just north of their village.
Ikkuma tied all of the dogs to a rope and tied the pieces of rope together. They grabbed the dogs and were off. They ran for a while until they were tired. Then, they walked for the rest of the day. By now, it was probably May or June and so it was growing considerably warm. That night, Ikkuma and Eretak slept on their fur coats, the dogs forming a circle around them.
The following morning, the two brothers started walking at dawn and passed through many familiar places. After a while they both saw the village on the next hill. They ran towards their home. The first person to see them arrive was their mother, Tuktu. She stared at her sons disbelievingly. She reached out tentatively and touched them. They were there all right. It wasn't just her imagination. She hugged her sons and kissed them feeling as if she would never be able to express her love for them. Their father saw them and ran over. He stared at them hugged them and then, overjoyed, said, "You survived!"
And so, Ikkuma and Eretak lived to tell their tale. There was a lot of crying when hearing about Migulertok's death, but they were all happy that the chief's sons were back.
The story is a tale well-told. Poignant and dramatic, it is filled with suspense. "Adrift" is beautifully researched, weaving Inuit traditions into a very satisfying read.