Kaattuq (She is hungry) – part one

How a woman named Summer found truth in a wintry place

Inuit called the island Tuktulik—place of caribou—but new numbers suggested the herd was dying off. (Image by Krista Klassen)

By Lisa Gregoire
Special to Nunatsiaq News

We are pleased to offer our readers some light holiday reading in the form of a short story by former Iqaluit resident and Nunatsiaq News staff member Lisa Gregoire. Please note that this is a work of fiction. Happy reading!

The year Summer moved to the Eastern Arctic was the region’s warmest on record and everyone thought that was hilarious and told Summer so, repeatedly, each one thinking they were clever and original.

She arrived in Nunavut’s capital in mid-January during a two-day bout of freezing rain as the new senior wildlife manager and caribou expert for the government.

Iqaluit had never seen rain in January before. People were baffled. Stray dogs slid downhill in ice-cube coats. Cabs slammed into ditches and each other.

Stores made a killing selling flimsy, overpriced umbrellas that snapped like breadsticks in the wind, and a shitload of people fell down and bruised knees the day Summer touched down on a long runway at the end of a long bay named after Martin Frobisher, a long-dead, long-faced Brit.

“Well,” said Summer, her hair a disaster from tarmac wind and rain, to Reginald, her new boss, who greeted her inside the airport terminal waving a yellow poster that read SOMMER. “I didn’t expect rain.”

“Who would?” Reginald said.

“Climate change scientists?”

“I guess.”

Summer’s parents named her Summer “to bring light and warmth to the world.”

So much for that. Summer hated summer—sitting in sundresses on plastic chairs, her doughy thighs oozing sweat like a wringer washing machine. Summer liked big coats and scarves. Her parents should have named her Winter.

Summer was 32, five-foot-one and had thin brown hair bob-cut to her shoulders, shorter in the back and angled longer toward her jawline to hide her double chin.

She was born to a pair of lefties who fought for world peace, the sick ocean, workers’ rights, turtles, trees, bees, South Sudanese children, and so forth. They were earnest and socially active but Summer was neither, making her a double disappointment.

*****

The rain wasn’t the only surprise waiting for Summer north of 60. Iqaluit was a small place filled with nosy people.

“Summer, right?” said Patty Lovelace, her deputy minister, a moon-faced Maritimer with curly hair dyed brown to cover the grey and an underbite that smeared lipstick on her teeth. Patty wore only skirts and sweaters. Church clothes. They met in the office kitchen on Summer’s second day on the job.

“You’re the caribou lady,” said Patty, holding her hands to her head like antlers.

“That’s … me.”

Patty leaned in close so Summer could smell her makeup. “That elk paper of yours a few years back….” Patty shook her head. “The reaction was totally overblown. How do you count elk anyway? It’s not like they wear name tags!” She laughed and whacked Summer lightly on the shoulder with the back of her hand.

“Ha ha, no.”

“You erred on the side of caution. Good on ya.”

I wouldn’t say err, Summer thought. Prairie elk were in decline. She had to warn people. Sure, some people doubted her methods and called her alarmist and amateur but they were know-nothings. She’s still angry at the university for letting her go but she understands why. She was a rebel and schools hate rebels.

“Yes,” Summer said to Patty. “I’m a wildlife biologist. I speak for the animals.” What was she now, the Lorax?

“Yes, yes, good, good.” Patty winked and made that clicking sound in her cheek that people use to call horses. “Listen,” she whispered. “Have you met the minister yet?”

“No.”

Patty looked over her shoulder then back at Summer. “He’s a bit of a … ‘traditional’ Inuk.” She made quotes in the air with her fingers. “He’s not big on ‘science,’ if you know what I mean. Be awary.”

“Did you say aware or wary?”

“Both. I put words together sometimes to make a new word.”

“Ahhhh.”

Patty put her hands to her head again and said, “Like … hantlers!”

“Funny,” she said. What an idiot, she thought.

Speaking of antlers, pregnant caribou retain their antlers after others shed theirs, so they can fight off rivals for food and ensure their unborn babies are properly nourished.

Summer had been reading about Nunavut caribou non-stop since she got the job. She adored caribou mothers. They were fiercely attentive and devoted, unlike her own parents.

The year Summer turned 15, her dad ran off with a poet he met at a meditation retreat, and her mom got a bleached-blonde brush cut, and a bunch of people who thought shoulder pads looked good started hanging out on her mom’s porch with cocktails and cigarettes and singing “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama to try to make Summer smile, which never worked.

Her parents were predictable sandbox divorcees, each one snatching or burying toys and tripping in the holes they’d dug. It always ended with broken things and crying.

Summer wished she could just slip into her new life in the North like she’d always been there, but that was impossible.

“Summer? Don’t blink or you’ll be gone,” said the security guard, with an elbow jab, when he gave her the office key fob.

“Summer? Are you sure you got on the right flight?” said the coffee shop guy who drew a sun on her cup instead of her name.

“Sama? Taimannaqai nailualaqputi!” said a junior colleague, laughing so hard his eyes disappeared into round, brown cheeks.

“What does that mean?”

“Summer? That’s why you’re so short!” he said, tapping the top of her head.

“Good one.” She’d heard it a thousand times but never in Inuktitut, so that was different.

Her government job came with a free, modern, two-bedroom row house all to herself, with a big window overlooking a cemetery and Frobisher Bay. It was lovely, so close to the ocean and a short walk downtown. Plus she loved cemeteries. Everyone there was dead so it was quiet and peaceful. People left you alone.

“They put you where?” asked a woman from accounting.

“Out near the graveyard.”

“Ahh.”

“What?”

“Guys’s old place.”

“Guy?”

“The last caribou guy.” The woman put her thumb to her lips and tipped her head back.

“He played trumpet?” Summer said, ignoring the hint. She hated gossip.

“No,” the woman hissed. “Drinky-drink?”

“Oooooh.”

*****

“The elders don’t like it,” Reginald said, fiercely biting his thumbnail and then wiping his wet thumb on his pants.

It was three days after Summer arrived and Reginald was briefing her on wildlife issues, starting with the sale of caribou meat over the internet. “They worry it’s depleting a sustainable food source and it goes against their ‘traditions,’” he said, making air quotes, as though traditions weren’t actual things.

“I see,” she said.

“But the hunters, some of ‘em haven’t even finished high school and this is good money so… ”

“How much meat are we talking?”

“No idea.”

“Who’s selling it?”

“Lots of people.”

“Who’s buying it?”

“Lots of people.”

“From where?”

“All over.”

“O … K, perhaps we should look into what’s happening to answer some basic questions.”

“I like it! Let’s ‘look into it.’” He air quoted again. What’s with the air quotes? Was there some inside joke she was missing?

The other big issue was Westminster Island. Inuit called the island Tuktulik—place of caribou—but new numbers suggested the herd was dying off.

“The guy before you suggested a hunting ban to let the herd recover and it caused a media shit storm.” Reginald flicked his fingers like he was trying to fling something. Shit maybe. “Adla Ungalak, our minister, is a hunter and Tuktulik is in his constituency.”

“Can we do an aerial count to verify numbers?”

“Oof. Major expense.”

“How major?”

“With a chopper? A hundred fifty thousand at least. And it’s not on the books.”

“How do we get it on the books?”

“We have to take something off the books.”

“Is that possible?”

“Oh god, yes. We do it all the time. Item in, item out. No one pays that close attention to the budget.”

Reginald suggested she work with Duncan, the muskox guy, because he’d done aerial surveys before. She’d met Duncan at a retirement party for some old white dude the day before. Duncan was a pale, thin guy from Prince Edward Island with thick glasses and long fingers. The opposite of muskox. More like insect. He’d been raised in a crab fishing family but was prone to seasickness so he studied sociology.

“Nobody told me that would be a fuckin’ waste a time, eh?” he said at the party, a little too loudly, as Summer scraped cake icing from her plate with a fork.

“Crabs woulda been better,” he said, making Summer laugh and choke and turn away to cough into a napkin.

“The shellfish!” he whispered, rolling his bug eyes then winking.

Duncan quit sociology for biology and ended up North thanks to a couple of papers he wrote about a rare muskox sighting in Labrador. Middle achievers like Duncan landed in Nunavut because high turnover and constant hiring meant endless government jobs for wanderers and misfits.

Duncan loved snowmobiling and beer so he fit right in. Maybe too well. He was busted for drunk driving in a government truck just before Summer arrived. Reg put him on notice saying if he was going to drink, he had to drive his own car.

Summer read over the Tuktulik files before meeting with Duncan. It was true—aerial surveys in the North were godawful expensive. She called a company she knew out of Winnipeg.

“Sure, sure, we’ve done work in the North before,” said Yakov at Blue Sky Aviation. She sent him the job specs and he sent back an estimate a couple days later that was a bargain.

“Whoa!” said Duncan, pushing his glasses up his nose to examine the quote. “You sure they know what they’re doing?”

“I’ve used them twice.”

“In the Arctic?”

“They said they had northern experience,” she said casually, knowing full well they probably meant Thompson, Manitoba.

“Well, we could sole-source it for a one-timer, see how she goes. You’re really shaking things up around here, Madame Caribou!” he mumbled through a mouthful of muffin. Then he started singing a Fleetwood Mac song about going your own way which was totally off-key but made her smile anyway. It was nice to be respected and trusted again.

She hadn’t felt that since her study on boreal elk won praise in Mammalia Alive! magazine. Suddenly she was giving talks and everyone wanted to collaborate. But all that got snatched away by so-called colleagues, jealous of her success. She wondered if Patty had told everyone about the controversy.

She should have known people would find out. Whatever. Geniuses are often misunderstood. It was a burden to bear.

*****

“Ullaakkut, Dr. Morrison.”

Summer jumped to her feet like an army private. It was a few days after the Tuktulik survey had been approved and her minister was standing in her office doorway.

“Ullaakkut, mister minister.”

“Are you busy?”

“No, no. Please have a seat,” she said, gesturing to a chair. The minister was short and broad-chested and looked a little like David Suzuki with his frameless glasses and goatee. His face was copper coloured and his wavy hair was a mix of black and grey.

“I can’t stay long,” he said, walking over to a map of Tuktulik on the wall and clasping his hands behind his back. Summer joined him. “Knud Rasmussen asked my grandfather once where he got his caribou and my grandfather said Tuktulik,” he said, tapping the map. “Rasmussen asked him if he could draw the island and its location and my grandfather did. A Danish museum tracked down my family and returned it in the 1980s. I still have it.”

“Wow,” she said. She’d read about Rasmussen’s dogsled expeditions across the Arctic. He was intrepid. “Could I see the map one day?”

“Sure.”

“I can’t believe your grandfather met Rasmussen. What an honour.”

“For Rasmussen, yes,” he said, smiling.

“Of course,” Summer stammered, embarrassed. Adla was one of the most esteemed ministers in cabinet and she was desperate for approval. His bio scrolled in her head: eldest of six children, legendary hunter, high school dropout who returned later to get his diploma, role model, fiddle player, devoted father and grandfather. It went on and on.

“I hear you’re going to count the tuktu.”

“Yes sir. We’re concerned about the herd.”

He nodded, eyeing the map. “They usually gather here in summer, on the hill,” he said, pointing. “It’s windy there, not many bugs.”

Summer got a pencil and made a circle. “Thank you,” she said.

“Here too. It’s a flood plain. Lots of lichen.”

“This is so helpful,” Summer said, circling the area. The two of them said nothing for a bit, just stared at the topographical lines that spread across the map like water stains. “You must know so much about the land and animals.”

“I know some things.”

Once he was out hunting alone not far from town, he told her, when a blizzard rolled in. He made an iglu and holed up for three days, melting snow on a camp stove for water and living off pilot biscuits and dried char. On the fourth day, just as skies were clearing and search and rescue teams were assembling, he returned to town on his own.

“I remember the wind howling and the songs I sang to pass time. I was running out of fuel and getting scared. But the worst was knowing how I was worrying everyone. People have enough to worry about without others giving them extra worries.” He locked eyes with Summer. It was dead quiet except for the ticking of the electric baseboard heaters.

“Yes, they do,” Summer said, sweat dampening her armpits.

He smiled. “Good luck with your survey. It was a pleasure to talk with you, Dr. Morrison.”

“Thank you, sir. My door is always open.”

After he left, Summer collapsed in her desk chair, blew her bangs away from her sticky forehead, planted her elbows on the desk and pressed her mouth to her clasped hands as though in prayer. Three days alone in an Arctic blizzard. Sheesh!

Duncan appeared in the doorway. “Did you get that report I sent? Some stuff in there about caribou quota disputes with Manitoba First Nations. Thought you might be interested.”

“No, sorry. I was tied up with the minister.”

“What ‘e want?”

She shrugged. “Just checking in, I guess.”

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“Did he tell a story?”

“Yeah.”

“He likes to tell stories, right? That’s how he gets his message across.”

“What message?”

“Depends on the story. Patty says he does it to ‘establish dominance,’” he air quoted, “to let you know who’s da boss, right? I just tune out.” Summer thought that sounded more like something Patty would do, like casually mentioning the elk study to make Summer feel vulnerable.

“Did I hear my name?”

“Hello, madame deputy,” said Summer.

“Oh please, just Patty. Am I interrupting?”

“No, no, on my way,” said Duncan, leaving.

Patty closed the door behind her. Summer offered her a seat and then sat down herself.

“Don’t get too close to that guy,” Patty said.

“Duncan?”

“Dead man walking.”

“What?”

Patty leaned forward onto Summers desk. “He’s unfit for the job. We’re building a file. If you come across anything we can use, let me know.” Then Patty winked and made that clicking horse call again, like they were best buddies.

“I … if you say so.”

“Everything else good? You’re counting caribou this summer? One, two, buckle my shoe?”

“Three, four, open the door,” Summer said.

“Make sure you count them all, right?” Patty winked.

“Ha, yes.” Summer smiled through clenched teeth.

Summer liked to cook, read, walk and watch nature documentaries and that was all easy to do in Iqaluit.

The huge tides of Frobisher Bay caused thick sea ice to crack and buckle in winter leaving sharp peaks covered in snow like frothy meringue. During brief sunlit hours in winter, she would dress like an astronaut and walk into that frozen blue-white world, stepping over deep ice crevices and hearing only her squeaking steps and ragged breath. If you turned your back to town and looked to the horizon, you could feel alone in the universe, which Summer found oddly comforting.

But you could die out there if you broke an ankle. It was just a fact.

Four months after moving north, Summer made a friend at a parka-making class. Nora, who worked for the city, called herself a Chewfie because of her Chinese dad and Newfoundland mother. She looked Asian with her short black hair and fine features, but she had round Irish eyes and a thick accent that seemed out of place.

“Good choice. I was gonna pick purple, but I went for blue,” Nora said to Summer the night they met.

“Blue’s nice,” Summer replied. They were sitting side by side in the high school shop class.

“Nora,” she said, offering her hand to shake.

“Summer.”

“Summer? Dat’s a beautiful name!”

“Not if you hate summer.”

“Haha! Not if! I suck at sewin’ eh? Dunno why I signed up,” Nora hissed, trying to thread a needle.

“You’ll get the hang of it.”

“Fat chance a dat.” Nora squinted at the tiny hole and stabbed at it with the end of her thread until she finally got it. “Woo-hoo! It only took half da class, eh wha?” Her classmates laughed and she bowed.

Inuit and Newfoundlanders love fiddle music, a good joke and the outdoors, which is why they get along so well.

“I’ll need a drink affer-dis. You?” Nora asked.

“Oh, ah… I’m…”

“I’m not gay or nothin’.”

“No, no, it’s not that,” she lied. Summer had already been pursued by some of Iqaluit’s middle-aged lesbian singles. She didn’t want to lead anyone on. “I guess a glass of wine couldn’t hurt.”

Read part two of this story tomorrow on nunatsiaq.com

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