Kaattuq (She is hungry) – part two

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. (Illustration 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!

See part one of this story here

At the beginning of August, almost exactly six months after Summer had moved to Iqaluit to be Nunavut’s resident caribou expert, a government team had assembled to count caribou on Westminster Island, known locally as Tuktulik.

Past aerial surveys had suggested the herd there was rapidly declining and Summer wanted to get a current snapshot, so government biologists, and hired Inuit, were conducting an aerial survey with support from southern-based Blue Sky Aviation.

The biologists didn’t fully trust Blue Sky and were annoyed that experienced northern flyers had been replaced to save a few bucks. But their concerns appeared to be misplaced.

Other than a couple of cloudy days when the plane was grounded, the project was completed without a hitch, on time and on budget. Once it was done, Yakov from Blue Sky called Summer for a debrief.

“The biologists complained that the pilot flew too high and then too low,” he said.

“Biologists are like that.”

“The Eskimo spotters were very quiet.”

“Inuit.”

“Oh yes, they were into it.”

“No, no. They’re Inuit, not Eskimos.”

“Of course, yes. Sorry.” She could hear him dragging on a cigarette. “So,” he went on, exhaling, “we have some aviation fuel left over. Maybe we could leave it for you?”

Tiffany in communications appeared at Summer’s open door, red-faced, phone waving. “Pardon me Yakov, just a moment,” Summer said, palming the phone’s mouthpiece. “I’m in the middle of something, Tiff.”

“Dr. Morrison, that narwhal tusk thing is blowing up. Reporters want to know what we’re doing to crack down on illegal trade. What am I supposed to say?”

Summer shrugged. “How should I know? That’s Penny’s job. I don’t do marine stuff.”

“Penny’s at a conference in Montreal and Duncan’s got the flu. Again. If you’d read my emails….”

“What about Reg?” Summer said, referring to her boss.

“Reginald is in budget meetings,” Tiffany said, exasperated. “A radio reporter is camped out in the lobby. According to the ‘chain of command,’ you’re supposed to deal with this,” Tiffany said, inserting those popular air quotes. “The minister’s getting calls.”

“OK, OK, I’ll draft a statement.”

“Thank you.” Tiffany turned on her fashionable mail-order shoes and marched her skinny ass out of sight. Summer’s colleagues always acted like they were stressed and overworked and, yet, most of the time they seemed to be doing absolutely nothing. Pretending must be so tiring, she thought.

“Yakov, I apologize, you were saying?”

“The barrels of AvGas, you give us a few bucks, we leave them for you.”

“Sure, sure. Outfitters can use it. Can you store it on site for now?” Summer asked, cradling the phone between neck and shoulder and typing narwhal ivory nunavut into her computer search engine.

“Sure, sure, it’s not complicated.”

“German police trace ivory smuggling ring to Nunavut.” It was the first of several stories. “Sorry, what was that?”

“We know what to do, Dr. Morrison.”

“Of course. OK, pick a safe spot and send me a report. And an invoice,” she said. She hung up and clicked on the website of a registered dealer who was selling an eight-foot narwhal tusk for $20,000. Holy crap!

*****

By late November, the survey team leader had compiled a report on Tuktulik and the news was devastating. He estimated fewer than a thousand caribou on the island, a fraction of what they were twenty years before.

It was likely part of a normal boom-bust cycle, he told Summer, compounded by bloodsucking insects—so numerous and relentless now in the longer, warmer summers that, in some areas, caribou just ran in circles trying to shake them off and went mad from hunger and exhaustion.

Unable to eat! What would pregnant cows do? Summer nearly wept at the thought.

She read the biologist’s report over the weekend, taking a break on Sunday afternoon with tea and carrot cake by her living room window, the blood-orange sunset spilling across Frobisher Bay like fingerpaint on a daycare floor. Work was grinding to a halt for Christmas and southern transplants had pretty much given up trying to disguise their laziness and racism.

Do I have to do everything around here?

What do you call an Inuk vacation? Monday!

Sippora’s report isn’t done yet. The shit they get away with!

Those poor souls, Summer thought, stuck in cold, boring Iqaluit, ticking down the days to “freedom” while collecting their fat northern salaries. The Arctic looks great on a resumé! should have been Nunavut’s territorial slogan. She was so tired of them all.

Summer licked cream cheese icing off her plate and thought of her upcoming holiday in Toronto, at her mother’s. She’d grown to tolerate her parents, and even enjoy their company periodically, in spite of her youthful estrangement from them. They were her only family.

The Christmas trip would be her first time leaving Nunavut since moving there a year before. She did take time off in July but stayed up north, flew to Pangnirtung and hired an outfitter to take her to Auyuittuq National Park.

It was giant and wild, full of falcons and hawks swooping down from cliffs to snatch lemmings in their talons. The air was cool and tasted prehistoric. The only other visitors she met were a pair of Germans near the park’s main gate.

“I am Hans. This is Helga. We are from Frankfurt!” the man announced.

“Summer,” she said, their hearty handshakes sending shock waves through her whole body.

“Summer! You are … getting hotter,” he said and he and Helga laughed loudly. Summer thought she’d heard every joke about her name, but nope.

“Thank you?” she said, laughing along with them like they were pals.

“Are you bouldering?” Helga asked.

“Oh heavens, no! Just going on a little hike,” she said, making a walking gesture with her fingers, which she immediately knew was unnecessary, and regretted.

“You are from?” asked Hans.

“Toronto, but I work in Iqaluit.”

“Arctic liver!” He said, holding his arms out like a preacher to his congregation.

Summer pictured an Arctic liver, scarred and bulbous from disease, and was both repelled and confused. “Oh, Arctic live-er! Yes, I live here. I monitor caribou.”

“Caribou oh-ho-ho!” Hans said, rubbing his hands together. “We will eat some!”

*****

Summer had forgotten how much Toronto sucked at Christmas. No snow, just salt and car exhaust and people banging into each other on the sidewalk with bags of disposable junk.

Summer’s mom worked in a flower and gift shop and rented a second-floor apartment in a 1940s duplex in Toronto’s Greek town. She was seeing a guy named Howard who fixed automated bank machines. He was in high demand and away a lot.

“Isn’t that hard on a relationship?” Summer asked as they drank tea at her mom’s place on December 24th, a plate of shortbread between them but only Summer eating.

“Not at all,” her mom said. “It’s a bonus.”

“You used to hate it when dad was away.”

“Because I knew he was screwing around.”

Summer’s lusty father now lived in Vancouver and worked for a mining company, negotiating land rights with Indigenous people. That sounded like selling out, but Summer never told him so. He lived with a TV reporter named Tanya who was not much older than Summer. They used to snowboard and do couples yoga until he threw his back out.

Summer’s mom insisted on cooking Christmas dinner on her own and shooed Summer out the door mid-afternoon on the 25th. Summer ambled down back streets, sweaty and overdressed, avoiding loud thoroughfares where she felt newly claustrophobic in a sea of strangers and noise. She was used to quiet, wide open places now and familiar faces.

Summer soothed herself with thoughts of dinner—garlic mashed yams, honey-glazed carrots, turkey and gravy, stuffing, dinner rolls and pie. But an hour later, when she sat down at her mom’s table, she was disappointed: roasted chicken, steamed cauliflower and kale salad.

“Bon appetit!” her mom chirped, pouring wine.

“Wow … do you have any bread?”

“You don’t need bread, dear. Here, have some coleslaw,” she said, passing her a container. “Fermented foods are good for your gut.”

Summer opened kitchen cupboards until she found an artisanal flaxseed-something loaf. It was more football than food and cutting a slice was like sawing wood. Seeing no butter or margarine, she poured olive oil into a bowl and brought it to the table.

“I don’t eat carbs much. Or meat. I’m thinking of going vegan. You have to be careful at my age,” her mother said, patting her flat abdomen.

What the hell are you going on about? Summer thought. I barely recognize you anymore. She took a sip of wine and changed the subject. “Hey, you should come visit me up North! It’s a whole other world up there, Ma.”

“Oh honey, you know I hate the cold,” her mother said, scraping skin from a piece of breast meat and then putting her utensils down. “So … tell me about your Arctic adventures!”

“It’s not what you think. It’s pretty modern. They have a mosque … and, like, zumba. I mean, not together,” she said, pulling a chicken leg apart and biting off a hunk of meat, skin and all. “Now ‘that’ would be an ‘adventure.’” Did she just air quote with her greasy fingers? God, she’s an air quoter now.

“Speaking of adventure, find a boyfriend yet? Or girlfriend, I guess I should say.”

“No.” Summer tore off a piece of bread and pressed it firmly into the oil for maximum absorption. “Joined a sewing group though. Making a real Inuk parka. It’s going to have silver fox fur around the hood.”

“How wonderful!” her mother said, going back to her small square of white poultry.

“This woman Allasua who runs it? She’s so patient and skilled. I’m learning a tonne about sewing.”

“Sounds lovely,” her mother said, her silver charm bracelet tinkling on the plate as she speared up a forkful of stiff kale. “You were always so crafty.”

“Yeah but, this has zippers and a lining….” Summer stopped to consider the grey cauliflower clump on her fork and decided she had to say something. “Mom, what happened to your usual Christmas dinner with all the fixings? Remember that broccoli au gratin you made one year? And the homemade donuts? I mean, where’s the gravy?”

Her mother’s smile faded. When she spoke, it was to the table. “I used to make a lot of things, especially after your father left. It helped pass the time.” She folded and unfolded a corner of her linen napkin. “I cried so much in that food, I never had to add salt,” she said with a short laugh and a long drink of wine.

“You were so mopey. And I was too sad to help.” She finally looked up at Summer. “Food was the only thing I knew would make you happy.”

Summer, who was about to deposit an oily bread crust into her mouth, returned it to the bowl. Her mother placed her right elbow on the table and twirled her earring, smiling hard so her cheeks would push the tears back in. Summer crossed her knife and fork on her unfinished plate, downed the last of her wine and stood up, pulling her sweater smooth over the roll of her waistline.

“It did,” Summer said.

She walked to the kitchen and scraped her food into the compost. The opening beats of reggae Deck the Halls soon replaced the apartment’s dead hush.

“I hope you saved room for dessert,” her mom called out with rekindled joy. “I made fruit salad!”

*****

When Summer got back to work in January, she called a meeting to deliver the bad news.

“The results are in from the Tuktulik survey.” She shook her head and paused. “The numbers are really low. There are theories as to why but the main thing is, drastic measures are required.”

“Whoa. Christmas buzzkill,” said Duncan, the muskox guy.

“Are you ‘sure’ about the numbers,” asked Patty, the deputy minister. She drew out the word ‘sure’ like a Grade 2 teacher.

“I’ve gone over them with the team. We had four spotters in the chopper, including Inuit. The results are sound. If the numbers from ten years ago are true, this is extirpation territory.” Summer didn’t get to say ‘extirpation’ very often and felt important when she did.

Patty pressed her smile into a straight line and raised her eyebrows, which made her look like a clown. “I recommend a temporary hunting ban,” Summer continued. “The herd must recover or it will disappear.”

Sleepy eyelids snapped open. Dominican tans faded instantly.

“How will people there feed themselves?” panted Reginald. “All they’ve got is overpriced, freezer-burned grocery store meat. I can see the headlines now: ‘Food security fiasco.’”

“Not to mention public relations fiasco,” said Tiffany, the comms lady. Everyone nodded their bobble heads.

Summer shrugged. “I get paid to deliver facts. It’s up to you to decide what to do with them.”

“OK,” Patty said, sighing. “Send me your report. I’ll do my best to convince the minister.”

After the meeting, Summer returned to her office feeling uneasy, like the way you feel watching a character in a movie who’s about to get eaten by aliens. Her phone buzzed with a text from Nora.

nachos tonight at the pub?

Summer had planned to watch a show about endangered rhinos and finish a scarf she was knitting, but she was overdue for a night out.

*****

The bouncers at the pub were all east African and the servers were locals or Newfoundlanders. Summer ate more than her share of the nachos and was still hungry when Nora suggested they go to the club. They paid their bills and then shuffled unsteadily down the slippery street in their indoor shoes, giddy with an early evening wine buzz.

The steps to the dance bar were crowded with chattering smokers when the two women arrived. They turned sideways to squeeze their way to the door. It was only nine o’clock and already busy inside.

Coloured lights danced across dingy wood panelling, and a disco ball threw white squares around the room like an angel’s fishnet. People swam beneath in running shoes, sealskin kamiks and boots. Summer was at the coat check when her minister, Adla Ungalak, appeared in a white shirt and sealskin vest.

“Hello Dr. Morrison. Qanuippit?”

“Mister minister!” she half-shouted over the ootsa-ootsa-ootsa dance beats. “Qanuinngittunga.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

“I insist. I’d like to talk to you.”

“Oh,” she said. “OK, I’ll have white wine. Thank you.”

Adla ordered a can of light beer for himself and led her to an empty table. It felt weird to be sitting alone with him in a dance club and she prayed he wouldn’t make a pass at her. She took a sip of wine. It was warm and sweet and she suppressed a gag.

“Patty told me about the hunting ban.”

“That was fast.”

“She questioned your numbers.”

“Did she,” Summer said.

“She said a hunting ban would be unpopular with Nunavummiut, which is true,” he nodded. “She also told me about a paper you wrote about elk that a bunch of people said was wrong. She said science can be wrong and told me to be careful.”

“Sounds like she said a lot of things.” Anger burned through her like acid. Patty the two-faced liar. Summer held her tongue and let the heat vent out of her face.

Adla smiled and took a sip of beer. “Me? I think my homeland is changing so fast that we need help making sense of it, with traditional knowledge and science.”

“Yes,” she said, surprised. “I agree.”

Adla spun his beer on a ring of condensation and said nothing. When Summer first arrived in the North, those Inuit silences made her anxious so she would fill them with chatter. She learned to shut up and give silence time and space to settle and expire. Most white folks didn’t bother. They preferred to move things along with the sound of their own voices.

“I’m worried,” he said, finally. “Families in my community have fed themselves for generations with Tuktulik caribou.”

“Yeah,” Summer said, nodding.

“Many Inuit wouldn’t understand. They’d feel disrespected and abandoned by people with power and privilege. People like me.”

Summer nodded. “I know how that feels.”

“What about a quota? We could limit the harvest and take only males,” he said.

“I wondered about that too, so I ran the model a bunch of ways but, with respect, sir, I don’t think it’s enough.”

He sat back and looked toward the dance floor, spinning his wedding band around and around. Summer glanced in the same direction, feeling the music’s deep bass vibrate through her chair and into her crotch. It was arousing, which made her flush with shame.

People stumbled by, laughing too loudly as if to prove what a good time they were having. She looked back at Adla, a man of virtue. During the last sitting, when his government colleagues voted against building an addiction treatment centre, he accused them of ignoring vulnerable people and walked out of the legislature in protest.

She thought of her father, fighting for “causes” she didn’t understand, for people and animals on the other side of the world. Adla’s fight was local and relevant. It was born of love, not neo-lefty trends.

“You would hate my dad,” she said, out of nowhere.

“Oh?” Adla looked up, puzzled. “Why is that?”

“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “I was just thinking of how he was always fighting to save some weird animal or change some obscure law. He didn’t fight for real things, like you do.”

“Those things sound real. They’re just not at home.”

“Uh-huh,” Summer said. At home, where I was, she thought.

She saw herself at age 13, alone in the school cafeteria, scarfing down french fries to fortify against the coming taunts. “There ain’t no cure for the Summer-time blues,” they would sing. She saw herself coming home to an empty house, dodging the mushy bananas they threw. Mooo Cow Mooo! There was nobody with antlers to protect her.

Tears pooled in her eyes. “Whew!” she said, snuffling, embarrassed.

“Are you OK?” Adla asked.

“Must be that time of the month!” Did she really say that? God!

“Oh,” he said, clearing his throat. “Were you hoping to be pregnant?”

“What? Oh no, no. It’s not … it’s fine.”

“OK,” he said, looking away to give her time to recover. Then he straightened his back and faced her. “I’ll have another read through your report. Thank you for talking with me. I respect your knowledge.”

“That means a lot, sir. I respect your knowledge too.” She wanted to hug him. Actually, she wanted him to hug her. “If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you. Sorry to cut into your dancing time,” he grinned.

“Oh gosh, I’m no dancer, sir. What about you?”

“I might dance.” He laughed. “But only later, so no one remembers.” He left to join a table of friends and Summer scanned the crowd for Nora.

Read part 3 of this story tomorrow on nunatsiaq.com

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