Friday, March 03, 2006

The Eskimo Widow (after Luis Untermeyer)

The Eskimo

Robert L Fielding

  This is my story.  I am Nana.  I live here where the sun only shines for half the year.  My husband is dead, drowned off an ice floe, and frozen solid or else food for the fishes.
Now that I am too old to work, too old to go out for food, too old for anything really, the people in the huts about here bring me everything I need.  I eat but little these days, and my poor hut is rarely lit, and poorly heated.  I sit in my bed, remembering my youth, going to school in Anchorage, skipping through the streets on my way home.  Now there is only ice, cold and six months of dark.  Things changed in my little hut one morning when I heard something moving across the ice.  I know the sound of my neighbours tramping heavily across the snow.  This was a different sound.
  Moving towards the noise, a murmuring sound an animal might make, I found a decrepit bundle of matted ice and fur.  It was a polar bear cub, still too young to fend for itself, but still too heavy for me to lift up and carry back to my hut.  I could only drag the bundle, a few feet at a time, but we eventually made the door of the hut.  I dragged it indoors, brushing the ice off the cub's face, seeing its eyes moving slowly, feeling its heartbeat.
  Since I had no oil for a lamp or my little stove, all I could do to warm it was to wrap it in oilskins and put it under my blanket on the mat I use for a bed.  It worked, the cub thawed out and slowly began to move.  After an hour, it was dripping wet.  The ice had melted, and so I dried it quickly to prevent the cub from freezing.  In these sub zero temperatures, even during the daytime, any moisture is death.  Sweating has to be avoided, although it is almost impossible to sweat except when doing hard, physical work.  The moisture freezes quickly and toes and fingers get frostbitten, turn black and have to be amputated at the hospital in Anchorage.
  Dry, warm, and later fed with scraps I was going to eat, Chinga the cub moved around the hut to look at his new surroundings.  There was no doubt he felt strange, sad and lonely for he called long, plaintive wails for his mother, who I guessed would have been killed by hunters.  His crying awoke my own maternal instincts that had lain dormant for so long in these frozen wastes where there is little time for anything else except surviving the long, long winters.
  I called the cub, my cub, Chinga after my own dead child, dragged from me stillborn, back when I was much, much younger, when my husband, Nanook, was fit and strong.
  Chinga grew bigger and leaner, stronger and taller until he occupied the same space as Nanook had done.  When Chinga rose from our hut and came back with fish, I felt so proud of him.  I called him Chinga, my child in the privacy of our hut.  Chinga was the child I had never had, the child I had longed for through the cold, lonely nights since Nanook went out one day and never returned.
  We were all used to the hardships winter brought.  We sat in our huts uncomplaining, huddled together to share the warmth of our bodies.  This winter was a particularly hard one.  I knew Chinga would not have survived it alone.  Chinga instinctively knew it too.
As food got scarce, the people of the village got restless from hunger.  Some of the younger ones were looking for a scapegoat, for something to blame, as well as for something to eat.  One night, I heard a group of young men coming quickly across the ice, talking heatedly, approaching my door.  I looked for Chinga, but the cub had gone out some time earlier.  Suddenly, there was a loud rapping on the door of my hut.
  "Open up, old woman," they shouted.  I peeped through the cracks in the side of the door.  I saw cold, angry faces.
  "What can you want with me at this hour?" I asked, scared and somewhat distressed.
  "Open up, we will tell you what we want."
  "And what if I don't want to open the door?"  I shouted, summoning up some courage from somewhere.  The answer came loud and clear.
  "It will be the worse for you if you don't," shouted one.  I recognized his voice.
  "What do you want, Yorger, son of Olaf?"  The young man answered sheepishly.
  "We only want to talk to you."
  "Then talk,"  I said, still bold.
  "Where is Chinga?" another asked.
  "In a place you can't find him," I said, "and thank God for that."  I heard the men mumbling and grumbling in the cold air.  "Come," said one, "we have no work here."
  I allowed the sound of their heavy footfalls to die on the evening air before I dared open the door.  Looking out I listened for Chinga's step, much different from the sound of any human movement. There was none.  The night was chill and the air was frozen into stillness.  No sound came to my ears.  I shut the door and knelt and prayed for the safe return of Chinga, and for the coming sun to bring life back to normal.
  In the morning, I arose to another sound.  Pressing my ear to the door, I heard what sounded like people, a lot of people, and I heard the sound of Chinga too.  I became terrified for Chinga's safety.  I flung the door open.  Already the light was becoming stronger, but it was still icy.
  "Old woman," shouted a neighbour, "come out and tell us what your Chinga is trying to say to us."  Chinga was beckoning to the people.  Chinga was telling the people to go with him, but to where?
  Outside, Chinga was waving his paws, clutching his white belly, pointing yonder, over the mountains of ice to the north of the village.
  "Chinga wants you to go to where there is food," I cried with joy in my heart.
  "Food, there is no food, he is the only food there is for us," shouted the same young man who had knocked on the old woman's door.
  "I know what he is saying," I cried, pleading now.  "See!"  I shouted.  "See how he is clutching at his belly.  That means he has eaten and there is more to be eaten."
  "Let us at least go to see," said a woman, reasoning to the others.
  "Yes, let us go," said another, "and if there is no food, we can kill him and eat his flesh."
" Now, forty years later, the old widow woman is dead.  She died happy.  She died in the arms of her beloved Chinga.  Chinga pined away and died shortly afterwards, in the arms of the villagers, who revered him as their saviour after he took them to the huge bull seal he had fought and mortally wounded, lying bleeding on the ice-pack.
  That was the year of the hard winter, children, that was the year Chinga the Great saved the village.  That was the year our fortunes changed.  That was the year that we were taught something about the life that surrounds us.  We learned in those hard days that dumb animals are not really dumb, it is just that we cannot hear their words, we cannot always understand them.  They speak to us, nevertheless, and now, after Chinga the Great, the bear I once wanted to kill for its meat, Chinga, brought us to life giving food and fuel, and now, we listen to all living things."

Robert L Fielding


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