Kaattuq (She is hungry) – part three

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 two of this story here

Adla Ungalak, Nunavut’s wildlife minister, rose in the legislature during the winter sitting and announced a controversial one-year hunting ban on Westminster Island, known to local Inuit as Tuktulik.

The live broadcast, with English translation, was playing on a TV in Summer’s office and she stopped what she was doing and turned it up. Summer, Nunavut’s caribou expert, knew it was coming. She was the one who recommended the ban and she’d helped put together the press package. But still, it was public now, and real.

Adla started in Inuktitut, telling a story of harvesting his first caribou on Tuktulik when he was 14 and how proud he was to share the meat with family and friends.

Then the translation got patchy and confusing with references to climate change and animals, weather patterns and sea ice and the importance of documenting those changes. She knew what he was doing. He was talking about science.

Then he paused, took a drink of water, and read a statement announcing the temporary ban. Anyone caught harvesting caribou from Tuktulik would be charged under the Wildlife Act and possibly fined, he said. He sat down after that looking totally lost. She turned the TV off.

Summer should have been celebrating. She had directly influenced government policy—a first for the young, ambitious biologist. But her stomach felt like pizza dough, spinning around on someone’s knuckles. Patty, her deputy minister, would be jealous of Summer’s influence and look for ways to undermine her. Adla’s constituents would be pissed at having their harvesting rights taken away. There would be repercussions.

God, I hope I’m doing the right thing, Summer thought.

It was early February, late in the day and dark outside. She closed her office door and turned off the lights to better see the shapes of things outside, then rolled her chair close to the window. A wind gust rattled the glass, inches from her nose. Hooded figures appeared in the sweep of car headlights and then disappeared back into shadows. No telling who they were. A mangy dog danced across the parking lot on numb paws. She leaned back in her wheezing chair.

I did it, she thought. It had to be done. Right?

Someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” she said.

“What’s with the lights? You got a migraine or somethin’?” asked Duncan, her colleague.

“No, no. You can turn them on.”

“Did you see the speech?”

“Yeah. Powerful.”

Duncan came closer and lowered his voice. “He went off-script there for a bit, eh? I don’t know what he was on about—ice and clouds and whatnot.”

“Lost in translation maybe.”

“Well, congrats, Summer. A year on the job and already making waves. Here,” he said, handing her a piece of paper. It was a cartoon superhero of Summer with antlers and TL on her costumed chest. “TL is for Tuktu Lady. That’s what the minister calls you.”

“Really, he calls me that?” She looked at the drawing again, placing a hand over her heart. “Did you make this?”

“Yeah, I’m between projects and I found this app that turns people into cartoons. It’s super fun.”

“Thank you, Duncan. It’s sweet.”

“Better than working. Tuk-tu la-dy,” he sang, tipping his head from side to side.

“Stop it,” she said with a smile.

Duncan looked over his shoulder, then leaned onto Summer’s desk and whispered, “This place can suck you dry, me’dear. Celebrate small victories.”

“You’re right.”

He coughed a few times. “I think I’m coming down with somethin’,” he winked. “I’d better take the afternoon off.”

“OK,” Summer said, not winking back. After work, Summer picked up a bottle of wine and some barbecued ribs but when she got home, she went for a walk in the graveyard instead. She wasn’t hungry after all.

*****

“Knock knock!”

It was Patty at Summer’s office door the next morning, mug of tea in hand. “Can you finish off that caribou backgrounder in case the minister gets detailed questions? He’s got a presser later and doesn’t want to be blindsided.”

“Blindsided, yeah,” Summer said. “No one likes that.”

“I knew the minister would come around. The hunting ban was the right way to go. Err on the side of caution when it comes to wildlife is my motto.”

“Good motto.”

Patty leaned into the doorjamb, then lifted a foot, turning it left then right as though inspecting for dirt. “The minister’s taken a shine to you. That’s nice. He liked the guy before you too. And the woman before that.” She sighed. “So many have come and gone it’s hard to count.”

“I bet.”

In the days that followed, hunting groups protested the ban, reporters breathlessly reported and social media went thumbs-down-swipe-left-mad-emoji-retweet-share and polarized into irrelevance as usual. Then a hockey team won a game and a politician said something stupid and a video of a kitten-alpaca friendship went viral and just like that, the controversy disappeared.

Truth was, everyone knew Tuktulik caribou were getting skinnier and more scarce. The elders had been saying so for years.

That Friday, a pale-faced Duncan came into her office and closed the door. He sat down without asking. His eyes were red.

“I just got sacked.”

“Oh Duncan, no!”

“Patty said she had a whole file on my workplace ‘failures and indiscretions,’” he air quoted. “Were you in on this swarming?” Summer looked down. Duncan shook his head in disbelief. “Wow.”

“She asked me to keep an eye on you. but I gave her nothing, I swear.”

“Bullshit.”

“Duncan, look at me. Do you honestly think I’d help that?” she said, chin-pointing toward Patty’s office.

“Then why didn’t you tell me the knives were out, huh? Jesus, I thought we were friends.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do!”

“It’s OK. It’s OK. Not yer fault,” he said, raising his palms like a crossing guard. “You’re just trying to get by like everyone else, right?” He slapped his hands on the arms of the chair. “Well, good riddance to this shit hole.”

“Are you going to look for another job or go back home?”

“I don’t know. Fuck me.” He took a deep breath, exhaled through his mouth. “Probably look aroun’ fer a bit. Who knows?”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Got any weed?”

“Sorry, I don’t smoke.”

“Then, no.”

*****

Months went by in the grip of another cold, dark winter. Back-to-back blizzards in February followed by a frigid March left most southerners cowering indoors, their soft flesh expanding under pale, dry skin. Spring didn’t necessarily bring warmth so much as it brought light, which made everyone think it was warmer, Summer thought.

Every day in March and April, she tracked the days getting longer by six and a half minutes. People started to wake up and find things they’d lost. Spring was about growth and renewal. She wished her name was Spring.

Summer kept her head down after the hunting ban announcement, travelling to meetings and workshops. The department’s focus shifted to Arctic oil exploration and Summer was blissfully out of the loop. She missed Duncan’s jokes. He’d left town a month after getting fired and she hadn’t heard from him since.

A week before the spring sitting of the legislature in May, she knocked on the minister’s door.

“Dr. Morrison! Come in.”

“If I’m interrupting…”

“No, no, please have a seat.” She sat in a plush chair and marvelled at a child-sized soapstone sculpture of a drum dancer in the corner of the room. On the wall above were photographs of smiling people by canvas tents, in boats and on snowmobiles. They all looked so happy. “What can I do for you?” he said.

“Well, sir, it’s been a few months since the hunting ban was imposed and I was wondering what people have been saying.”

“They’re getting used to it. Some young men are threatening to hunt anyway and if they do, we’ll have to deal with it. But most hunters understand this is necessary.” He leaned back in his chair for a moment then came forward with a jolt. “I keep meaning to show you this!” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a manila envelope and smiled. Inside was a yellowed paper protected by a clear plastic cover.

Summer gasped. “Is this the map your grandfather drew?” Adla raised his eyebrows, which meant yes. “Oh my,” she said, placing it gently on her palm and slowly inhaling like she was hosting the Antiques Roadshow. The basic shape of Tuktulik was accurate. It had crude little drawings of different animals on the land and surrounding waters. Adla came around the desk to stand beside her.

“You can see the places that were important to him were very precise—even these tiny inlets and islands where he fished and hunted seals,” he said, tracing lines with his index finger. “But other parts are vague.” They were both quiet for a moment.

Summer saw little caribou, on the hills and in the central valley. “Different things matter to different people,” he said. “We remember only things that matter to us.”

“That’s very true.”

“When people draw a picture together, it’s more accurate.”

She looked up at him and he was smiling. She felt suddenly on the verge of tears and had to swallow hard. “I don’t know what to say. It’s a beautiful artifact.” She gave her head a tiny shake to dispel her brimming emotion.

“Yes, it’s precious to me,” he said. She passed the map to him and he placed it back in the envelope and then took his seat again, lacing his fingers together on his desk. “The tuktu will recover. And the people too.”

*****

It was late August, around six o’clock on a Tuesday morning, when Summer woke suddenly to her buzzing phone. She grabbed it from the bedside table: emails from Reginald, her boss; Tiffany, in communications; and Brian Lakerton. Lakerton. How do I know that name?

She was about to open the one from Reginald, when her phone rang.

“Summer? I hope you’re good and awake.”

She rubbed her eyes. “Sort of.”

“Good. So….” he sighed, “The company you hired for the survey stored fuel on the island without a permit. They left it in a flood valley. Know what that means?”

“Oh god….”

“Glacial rivers from the mountains roar down that valley in summer and wash everything away including, very recently, more than two thousand litres of aviation fuel. Just, poof! Gone.”

Summer sat up in the dark, hearing her pulse throb like a drum in her head. She raked her hand through her hair.

“You can’t store toxic substances on the land willy-nilly without a permit, Summer! What the hell were you thinking? Our job is to protect the land, not poison it!”

“OK, ah….” She had left her dark bedroom and was standing in the blinding morning light of her living room, pacing in a flannel nightgown. “Listen, we can probably find those drums before anyone gets wind of it. Whatever gas leaked probably evaporated weeks ago.”

“Probably? Look, Brian Lakerton landed there with a plane full of tourists and Inuit guides and was hoping to refuel with AvGas he bought … from you apparently. People know, Summer. My phone won’t stop ringing.”

“Shit, shit.” She blew air like she was cooling soup. Lakerton Air. Right. She rapped her forehead with her index finger. Think, think.

“Meeting in the minister’s office, eight o’clock.” He said, “I trusted you, Summer. I really did.” He hung up.

Her phone was greasy with sweat. She went back to the bedroom for her slippers, then padded to the kitchen. Loose threads from the hem of her nightgown tickled her shin like a spider, and she slapped her leg reflexively, losing her balance and banging her shoulder on the corner of the counter.

She leaned there, tears pooling from pain and shame. Then she inhaled the last of her pity party and put the kettle on.

When the tea was ready, she stood by the window and looked out. Ravens and gulls fought over something on the road below. It looked like a meaty bone. They flapped their wings at each other. She could hear their shrieks through the glass. Frobisher Bay shimmered silver in the low sun like a broken mirror. Relentless sunlit summer. Nowhere to hide. Except perhaps … behind some damaged goods.

*****

Summer was the last to arrive at the meeting. Reginald gave her a curt nod. The minister did not meet her eye. He was looking across the room and out the window at the rain that had just begun. He had a cup of coffee and a file folder.

Patty was smirking and scrolling through social media on her phone. Tiffany was there with her boss, Marie-Josée, whose hair was screwed into a snug bun and whose lips and nails were Vegas red.

Reginald wore a faded beige shirt and his eyes were tiny and stress-wrinkled, like an elephant’s. He cleared his throat at eight sharp.

“Thank you for coming everyone.” He cleared his throat again, louder and more prolonged this time, then described the fuel-caching blunder with long exhalations, like he was climbing Everest. “We’ll get ahead of it, issue a news release at noon—short on details, more to follow, yada, yada. That’ll buy us time. Summer?”

Heads swivelled. Summer felt like butter chicken at an Indian buffet: everybody wanted a piece of her.

She straightened her back, stretched out her neck and was about to weave a cloak of lies when Adla finally turned to her.

Her throat closed like a ship’s door and her hands went clammy. She poured water from a pitcher and drank. Then she felt strangely light all of a sudden, like something dark and thick was slowly draining out of her. Maybe it was anger. Maybe hunger.

Rebel. Misunderstood genius. Who was she kidding? Her parents should have called her Fall.

“I’m sorry,” she said, directly to Adla. “I didn’t get a permit. I messed up.” Adla closed his eyes for a moment and gave a tiny nod.

“But everything we do requires a permit! How does that slip your mind,” Reginald squeaked, cheeks flushed.

“When Blue Sky asked about caching the fuel, I was dealing with that ivory trafficking case and….”

“The narwhal case? Why were you on that?” Reg asked.

“Penny was away. Duncan was sick. You were tied up with the budget.”

“That’s right,” Tiffany said. “The smuggling thing. And then that report on seismic testing came out … what a crazy week.”

“What did you tell Blue Sky?” Reginald asked.

“I told them to store the fuel and we’d find a buyer.”

“Did you sign off on it?”

She looked down at her hands, pulled her chin in, nodded.

Misfit. Middle achiever. That was more like it.

“O … K,” Reginald said, shaking his head like a judge to a young offender. “Tiffany, write up a release that acknowledges the breach. Say we’re taking it seriously, investigating the chain of events, tightening up regulatory processes, blah, blah.”

Patty tsk-tsked and sighed. “Duncan was still around then, right? Are you sure he didn’t have anything to do with this?” She winked at Summer. “If we need a fall guy, we could blame him.”

“No,” said Summer, with the vigour of someone who, only moments ago, was about to do that exact thing but was now pretending otherwise. “This one’s on me.”

“We need a distraction,” Reginald said. “Polar bears … anything coming up?”

“Actually,” Tiffany said, scrolling through her phone, “big UN meeting next month in New York. Our minister’s taking a delegation. We could re-ignite the old ‘endangered species’ fight with the U.S.” She air quoted with phone in one hand and coffee in the other. Impressive.

“Bingo!” Reginald said. “Mister Minister, shall we draft a statement on polar bears to emphasize traditional knowledge and Inuit hunting rights?”

Adla pushed his lips out, thinking. “OK,” he said.

“Great. Summer, assemble a team to search for those fuel barrels. Hire local, for god’s sake. Anything else?” Adla cleared his throat and everyone turned to him.

“One day when I was a boy,” he said, “me and my friend took my dad’s boat out without permission. We came back with lots of fish and everyone was happy and proud, but the next day, the boat floated away because I didn’t tie it up properly and it was dashed on rocks when the tide came in.” Adla paused.

Marie-Josée looked at her nails. Patty glanced at a text on her phone. Reginald opened his mouth to say something, but Adla raised a finger and smiled to show he wasn’t done.

“My dad didn’t care whose fault it was. He was just sad about the broken boat because it was an important tool for the family. We spent hours that summer fixing it. When it was finally done, he taught me a proper fisherman’s knot and then he asked me where I found all those fish.”

Summer’s colleagues nodded absently, leaning slightly forward in their chairs, poised to leave. Adla looked at Summer and held her gaze for a few seconds. Relief washed over her like a breeze. Adla thanked people for coming, stood and left the room.

Everyone followed but Summer, who stayed behind to watch the rain. Soon it will be snow, she thought. The bay will freeze over and it will get dark. Summer will come back.

This work was made possible with help from the Canada Council for the Arts and The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

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