Christopher Lane's
SILENT AS THE HUNTER
An Inupiat Eskimo Mystery
 
 
 
 
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SILENT AS THE HUNTER
Chapter One
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When she heard the commotion, the hoots, the hollering and shouting, her leathery face curled into a smile. It wasn't the neighborhood kids arguing over a game of ball, she could tell, or that no-good Ronnie who lived on the next block beating the hell out of his wife again. No, these were the happy, boisterous sounds of festival.

Doddering to the window, she lifted the edge of the curtain and peered out. Yes. There they were: shadows twirling and bouncing like overwrought wraiths in the glow of evening light, members of the umiak crews come to announce the end of the whaling season, the coming of Nalukataq.

This would be her ninety-seventh celebration, she realized, watching the crew work its way up the row of houses. She was old, tired, her body and mind progressively failing her. Her end was near and she sometimes wished it would hurry up and get here. Yet the sight of the men cavorting, faces hidden behind wooden masks, ignited within her a spark of childlike excitement. She felt giddy, young. . . alive. If every day was Nalukataq, she mused, waving a frail hand at the approaching dancers, she might never die.

Anticipating their arrival, she took her cane from beside the stove and started for the front door. She was entering the Arctic entryway, a small foyer that served to keep winter's cold air and the summer dust out of the house, when the first series of knocks came. Three heavy thumps. Chuckling at the thrill this produced, she called raspily, "Coming!" There was a second knock, and as she hurried to answer it, breath now labored, bad hip aching from the effort, she decided that if she passed on at this moment, expired en route to greet the whalers, it would be as a happy woman. What better time to exit this world than on the eve of the whale festival, so full of hope and enthusiasm?

Upon reaching the door, she pulled it open and pretended to be startled by and a little afraid of the figure occupying the porch. The man was dressed in furfringed mukluk boots with long, dangling tassels, a pair of nondescript black pants, and a white shirt with a zigzag pattern along the bottom cuff. The blouse wasn't as elaborate as the ones she had sewed for her late husband half a century before, she thought to herself, but it was adequate. At least the man wasn't wearing threadbare jeans and a T-shirt with a sports company slogan on it, like some of the young folks did nowadays. His mask, she noticed, was authentic, probably handed down from a father or grandfather. Fashioned of wood, it had a round, almost domed face with thin slits for eyes and a thin smiling mouth. A black band ran across the nose, signifying status. The wearer was either the head of a crew, or the second in charge. Fanning out from the sides of the face were wing-like appendages with jagged edges that bore hand-drawn whales.

"Nalukataq!" the dancer shouted.

She nodded back, laughing as the man performed an awkward jig and nearly fell off the porch.

"Tomorrow we celebrate the whale!"

"AgviQ," she agreed.

"Uh?"

"AgviQ," she repeated, a little disappointed. "The bowhead."

"Ah ... yes, ma'am." The man made a clumsy circle, hopped off the step, and ran to catch up with his friends.

She watched him go, then closed the door and began shuffling back to the kitchen. A whaler that didn't know the Inupiaq word for the very beast he hunted for months each year? It was shameful, but unfortunately, not that surprising. Nowadays young people seemed to have little respect for the old ways. Despite being taught Inupiaq in school, many of them acted wholly uninterested in their heritage. This frightened her. If the traditions and language weren't carried on, The People would lose their way. Lose themselves.

Which was another reason not to give herself over to the grave just yet, she thought with a hint of amusement. The youngsters had to be taught the history of The People and trained in the ways of the Elders in order to be adequately prepared for the challenges of living in a white man's world. That foundation was essential to their survival. Once it was laid, they could act like naluaqmiut if they wanted to, sit on their behinds and watch television, play basketball instead of practicing seal hops and high kicks, shop at the grocery store rather than look to the Land for their provision. But at least they would know who they were, where they came from, that they were Inupiat: The Real People.

Working at the Cultural Center once a week was her way of helping to keep the Inupiat identity alive. Spending her Friday afternoons in the center was a small, but necessary investment in future generations. Though most of her time there was taken up with busy work-filing, pasting newspaper articles into scrapbooks, dusting various displays-every so often she was afforded the opportunity to share her experiences and knowledge with children. Today, for instance, she had led a second grade class from the elementary school on a tour of the museum, concluding with a storytelling time. With dozens of fresh, innocent faces looking up at her, she had recounted folktales about Bear Woman, Caribou Man, Kajortoq the White Fox, and the ever-mischievous Raven. Remarkably, the youngsters had listened with rapt interest, laughing at the antics of the characters, blinking at her with wide eyes as the stories took unexpected turns, nodding their heads at the moral lessons.

There was still hope, she told herself as she laid aside her cane in favor of a teapot. She filled the pot and set it on the wood stove before checking the flame. Low. Nearly gone. What a fitting portrait of the Eskimos of the remote north.

SILENT AS THE HUNTER
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