The Kindness of Strangers

 

Bob Bartlett and local inhabitant aboard ship during Bartlett’s Arctic Expedition, 1933

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.
here’s no such thing as cold for Ataninnuaq. Just the wind: less bite or more bite. Like the animals he can dress against it and have shelter from it, be warm. So whether he’s crouching down low over ice or running his dogs over the northern expanses, it’s at times like these that Ataninnuaq feels most at home in the world. He likes the winter. A world without snow means nothing to him. Where the others see colors, abundance, all he sees is a barren earth, naked without its soothing white mantle. Summer, which must come to these parts too inevitably, makes him uneasy. So when the expedition is looking for a guide, he eagerly offers to take them to the heart of the land, where the ice doesn’t melt.

*

They hunt for keepsakes, or so the captain tells them. Trinkets and old animals that hardly leave a mark, except perhaps in ice. This seems futile to Ataninnuaq, but he doesn’t object. Instead, he watches them zealously work through the snow, their faces set with determination.

Ataninnuaq knows things happen many times and therefore nothing really changes. Like the mountain hare he hunts. It comes to die and so he kills it. After a time it comes again, gloriously reborn. He knows this is because he treats its spirit properly, lets it roam free. Sometimes at night, when he and the captain smoke their pipes in the low rays of the midnight sun, he thinks that’s the best we can hope for in life, to be treated properly. And in death to have our souls drift free.

But these are linear men. They take a ship from there to here and think everything is different. Maybe that’s why they keep to themselves mostly and don’t bother with feeding the dogs or checking the lines. They eat the fish and the meat Ataninnuaq hunts for them without question, without interest.

The only one who concerns himself with Ataninnuaq is the captain. He has the familiar face of an old forgotten friend and Ataninnuaq is happy to find the captain is measured against life in the North. At night, when the others moan about the eternal light, the captain quietly sits rubbing his hands, otherwise unperturbed.

His name is simple, without much length or meaning. Bob. Bob. It sounds like the punchline to a joke Ataninnuaq tells the children. They love his jokes with funny faces. Meanwhile the captain struggles to master Ataninnuaq’s name and other words he tries to learn them. They both laugh at his attempts. As it turns out, Bob is a goofy fellow as well and though they hardly understand what they are saying, most of the time they get the joke. It makes the journey that much easier – and the others all the more distant.

*

When they reach their destination somehow the roles reverse. Now the expedition men are the experts, setting to work meticulously, while the captain and Ataninnuaq are reduced to useless bystanders. They trudge around camp, trying to keep it tidy and safe, while out there excitement rules as the men prod and drill and chafe and hack.

It’s bugs they’re really after, animals without bones, trapped beneath layers of endless ice. The captain tries to explain these things to Ataninnuaq, how each living thing can be classified. He counts them off on his thumb: things with gills, with bones, with webbed feet and so on, until Ataninnuaq loses track. The captain seems to think ordering the world like this makes it safe and comprehensible and Ataninnuaq doesn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.

On the third day, they get called over to the finding area. The men have excavated quite a generous space and while Ataninnuaq sees nothing of importance down there, they look proud and content. They show him artifacts they have found as well and the captain makes it clear to him they want his opinion on them. Hesistantly Ataninnuaq spins an old arrowhead between his fingers. He wonders if it will break easily. He wonders what they want him to say.

Qarsoq?’ he ventures. ‘Arrow.’

They nod expectantly. ‘Rubbish,’ he explains, with a dismissive gesture that seems to shock them. One of them takes the arrowhead from him with a reverence he hasn’t seen them showing anything else. He decides to try them out.

‘Forefathers,’ he says pointing at the arrowhead. The captain dutifully translates. Instantly they show him an hungry interest. ‘Inussuaq.‘ He stomps around in his imitation of the great Raven that always gets a laugh out of the children. ‘Very big. Strong.’

The expedition men nod and nod, but the captain glances at him sideways. ‘Why would a giant use such a small arrow?’ the men want to know.

Ataninnuaq shrugs. ‘Perhaps a toothpick?’ Eagerly the men take notes. He sets a solid face to keep from laughing. The captain’s mouth quivers but he too manages to keep it straight.

*

On the last day out they find something special, even though they themselves are oblivious to it. They debate amongst themselves at first, so it takes a while before he can take look at it. It’s a simple necklace. A few blue beads and two teeth of the polar bear.

Nanoq,’ he whispers. His fierce daughter. She went kayaking near the end of summer. Sometimes she was like that and needed to go out alone, to measure up against the elements. No trail survives of her. Only her name, Nanoq. Spirit of the polar bear.

‘Yes, a polar bear,’ one of them says dismissively. They don’t give him the necklace to inspect   and instead tug it away quickly with the other extra finds that mean so little to them but that they take anyway. That night he sleeps alone under a helpless sky.

*

The journey home is slow. The men are no longer eager to reach a goal, but linger in various places, as if something somehow opened their eyes to the land. Ataninnuaq doesn’t mind, he is in no hurry. His house is a dark place during summer. The light reveals too many things that had better stayed hidden, like his wife’s sadness or his own loss of purpose. He wonders if the captain has a special place for fruitless animals, animals that leave no trace in the world, not even in the harsh frost of Greenland.

The captain too seems reluctant to head back and Ataninnuaq suspects that, in spite of what he said before, he finds his home too orderly, too safe and he will miss the vile wind of the North, the one that rips at your soul. So when they finally see the outlines of the houses and the masts of the ships etched against the horizon, both their spirits sink and they complete the last leg of their journey in the back of their small band, in silence. They know it is unlikely they will ever meet again.

*

Being back on his ship livens the captain’s spirits though and he wants to make a memory. He believes he can freeze them both in time, make an imprint much like the resinous insects the expedition men take home. He orders Ataninnuaq to sit and perches down next to him, while one of his men sets up an instrument and orders them to smile. This is the closest Ataninnuaq has been to the captain, to Bob. He smells oily, of adventure and violent storms.

‘Forget that man,’ the captain instructs. ‘Forget everything. Just smile.’ This seems odd to Ataninnuaq but he tries to do as the captain wants. ‘Think of our journey,’ the captain tells him, ‘Think of the arrow. Remember? Your giant toothpick?’  They both laugh and Ataninnuaq is happy the instrument captures this moment, this fine joke and not his torn-up soul.

When Ataninnuaq gets ready to go off board, the captains holds him back and puts something in his hand. It’s the necklace. The years have dulled the colors, but in every other way it is as vibrant when Ataninnuaq made it and his daughter wore it. ‘A keepsake,’ the captain says and closes Ataninnuaq’s fingers around it. ‘To remember me.’  He gives him a sharp look with those blue eyes that can rage like the sea and for a moment Ataninnuaq feels his soul is bare. Then the captain turns and orders his crew to cast off.

For a long time Ataninnuaq stands at the quay, the necklace safely in his pocket. Only when the last speck of the ship has disappeared into the thick arctic mist does he trudge homewards, with heavy feet, knowing eternity is waiting for him.

*

This post is part of our series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Milla van der Have (1975) wrote her first poem at 16, during a physics class. She has been writing ever since. Milla lives and works in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Her other work can be found here.

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2 Comments

  1. really enjoyed this

    Reply
  1. Dr. Hurley’s Digest: Vol. II, Week 8 « Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure

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