Qaqqasiq walks to the far end of the cemetery and looks for the empty space among the scattering of white crosses. After ten years of visiting his grave it annoys her that she still has difficulty finding it. At last she spots the inconspicuous emptiness that marks the space above her Atiq’s headstone. Qaqqasiq had commissioned a friend’s son to carve the headstone for her namesake’s grave, a large unpolished piece of soap stone that read: Qaqqasiq Padlulaaq 1930–1999. It blends in with the brown-black of the frost-covered ground and she bends down to wipe the flakes of light snow stuck to his name. He would have hated to have a cross marking his grave.
“The symbol of a white god, means nothing to a shaman—just marking territory, like dog piss. You can believe what you like, but don’t preach to me after church or we might as well stop all this. Our lessons are not about Jesus, you understand?” he grumbled as they approached her grandfather’s grave—his best friend’s grave.
“Atii, old man, let’s visit.”
Qaqqasiq murmurs as she pulls out her thermos. She sits on the ground and her shoulders relax as she pours herself a cup of steaming tea, then slowly empties the thermos out on top of the grave until it forms a small puddle. She takes a feather, the delicate variety from the undercoat of a raven, dips only the tip into the tea so that it floats on the surface. She watches it, breath held, until it starts to quiver.
Qaqqasiq smacked his lips as he put down his empty mug, the usual sign that he wanted more tea, and little Qaqqasiq stood to get the pot to pour him a refill while he continued talking about the best ways to hunt seal.
“It’s all about breathing, Atikuluk. You know how your breath gets after running for a long time? That’s how seals will be feeling when they are coming up to the aglu for air. That’s how we know when they’re coming, by using the qiviutaq, you know what that is? The little, soft, down feathers that keep birds warm. You just dip the tip of the qiviutaq in the water, and when it starts to shiver you know the seal is about to come up for air.”
The old man was pleased with himself thinking about that moment of triumph, he had clearly felt many times in his youth, so he hadn’t notice the distracted look on Qaqqa’s face as she half listened to his advice, until she spoke.
“Atiq, I decided I’m gonna quit school. I’m gonna quit school and come learn with you every day. You can teach me even more on the land. I don’t like my classmates. And even though I do well, the others makes me feel stupid. Like it’s my fault that they don’t do well. I am going to stop.”
Qaqqasiq’s turned his stern face toward her and shook his head.
“Atikuluk, you will not do that. Do you like your life? Do you like the way your cousins act? You will not do that because we have to move forward. Qallunaat are in our lives and are going to stay in our lives. You have to learn their custom just like you are learning ours. If you don’t understand the way they think then you will be as ignorant as your lumbering cousin, Miali. You will be full of hate in a world already full of hate, and that is how you get lost. I will not tolerate that.”
Qaqqa had not anticipated this reaction. She had been so certain, so sure that her Atiq would be proud of her decision to dedicate herself to her shamanic apprenticeship. Before she could dwell on it, he began explaining the importance of breathing again and that was the end of the conversation. Little Qaqqasiq would stay in school.
The shrill ring from her BlackBerry pulls Qaqqasiq from her reverie; it’s work. She picks it up.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Udluriaq, I know you are on annual, but it’s Thursday and the Cabinet deadline is today. We need your signature on the Small Tools Grant Request For Decision. I can bring the papers to you if you’d like.”
The cold presses in on Qaqqasiq and she shirks against it.
“No, James, it’s fine. I’ll come into the office. I need another hour though; can you leave them on my desk and I’ll come in at lunch?”
“Yes of course, will you be meeting with the Minister, or should I have the copy sent over to his office once you’ve signed?”
“No, that is fine, just send Letia over with the papers; she’ll get them back to you by three o’clock. Copy me on the electronic version will you?”
“No problem.” Click.
She puts her phone away and stares at the little lake of Red Rose. The feather has sunk to the bottom. What must he think of me now? She wonders of her Atiq. Inuit need a healer. We need to heal. And now I sign papers to give money to Inuit for arts and crafts. A Band-Aid on a gaping wound. She packs up her thermos and stands up stiffly, noticing how much the temperature has permeated her muscles and joints.
The cemetery is silent. It’s the kind of silence muted by the falling of soft snow. Qaqqasiq relishes the feeling of the moist flakes packing into the tread of her boots as she makes her way up the path, back to her cousin Saa’s house. She walks into the house shaking her coat and hat off before the snow soaks in. Saa greets her with a cup of coffee and a plate of buttered pilot biscuits.
“One sugar two milks, your favourite. And I got the hard kind of biscuits just for you. I know you miss your Atiq, and that he taught you to like these hard square things. We definitely never had them at our house! Always the ‘roundies,’ because Mom wouldn’t buy anything else.”
They laugh together, reminiscing about their favorite ‘Eskimo foods’ growing up. Qaqqasiq admits to mixing quick oats into her tea on cold days, to warm up and remember the comforts of her grandmother’s house. Saa starts to laugh.
“Did I ever tell you about that time Pitsi and I stole a whole box of candy from The Bay?”
“Taa, no! What happened?”
“Well, we were 11 or 12 and nobody was looking so we took a box off one of the crates Mr. Peterson was unloading and ran with it all the way to the beach to eat them. We must have eaten 10 rolls each before we felt sick. Later on I gave a pack to Miali all proud that I had candy to share, and she started laughing so hard.”
“We had stolen Tums! I wondered why they tasted so chalky …”
They laugh themselves to tears and settle back into their chairs at the dining room table.
“Unaalu! Why didn’t you ever tell me that story before? It’s so funny!”
“I don’t know. I probably was scared you would tell your Atiq or something. Or my spirit would be blackened from stealing. Haha. You scared us little kids, you know, with your shaman magic.”
Saa, her youngest cousin, was the only member of her family that Qaqqasiq could talk to this way. It surprises her to learn that she was frightening to others. Her own youth had been so full of uncertainty and fear. Caring for Saa had encouraged Qaqqasiq. She was a new little person to fight for, and that feeling still resonates with Qaqqasiq when they are together now, thirty years later. After her parents had died Qaqqasiq moved in with her aunt and uncle and cousins, but never felt accepted. Saa is her only true family, as she was to her Atiq. It hurts her to see Saa struggling in a world so different than what they had envisioned as young women in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Remember that pin doll that belonged to your mother. I remember it was so worn down, but you used it to teach me how to sew. We made doll clothes. Why couldn’t it all just stay that way? Simple, life on the land, without all these modern problems.”
It was a rhetorical question of course, and Qaqqasiq knew that even then, it had been complicated. Saa was little, she hadn’t really lived yet. She didn’t realize that their camping trips on the land were not the same as a life on the land.
The boat was silent, but for the sound of little Saa’s nervous shifting while she watched for seals. This was always Qaqqasiq’s favourite time because everyone was so focused on the water, she felt safe and alone. The water was calm, except for the soft lapping of waves against the canoe. The surface looked like green-black glass, and suddenly Qaqqasiq saw it moving smoothly up from the emerald depths. The seal broke the surface nose first, nostrils wide circles, breathing in the crisp August air, and then it looked at her. Right into her eyes, big and brown. They both gazed with wonder at each other, both taken by surprise at the remarkable similarity they saw in the colour of each other’s irises, a warm deep brown that reached all the way in. She knew the seal was him, Iola, her grandfather. Qaqqasiq turned and pointed to the other side of the boat, and everyone followed the direction of her hand as the seal sank back into the water.
Her uncle whispered, but there was nothing there. The diversion had worked.
“Oh, I thought I saw bubbles. Sorry.”
It was always the first thing elders noticed about her: she had her grandfather’s eyes. Her aunt would say that they were the only beautiful thing about her. So she knew that Iola’s tarniq, his spirit, was in that seal, the seal that stared at her unblinking, just feet away from her uncle’s rifle.
She had learned about tarniit from Qaqqasiq, that before light came, the world was cloaked in darkness and all animals could switch forms. But when Hare brought light to the earth everything was fixed. Only your tarniq could change bodies after that.
“In the darkness we are all the same,” Qaqqasiq had told her.
Qaqqasiq’s next day was rushed from the beginning and has set the tone for the rest of her day. James, her new director of policy, a tall, skinny man, emits anxiety from his entire body and causes Qaqqasiq to be short with him, even on good days. Today is no exception, as they hurriedly prepare for their meeting with Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated.
“I’m just concerned that we are not going to be able to account for our use of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, the Tunnganarniq principle, like they had suggested, Ms. Udluriaq. Where can we apply this principle?”
“Honestly, James, we are not going to change this policy we’ve been working on for seven months to fit a vague translation of Inuit societal values because they recommended it in a passing review. These ideas have passed through our Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Coordinator, Elders, and many Inuit have been involved in the writing process. You need to stop looking at the principles as a formula to run everything through and start applying them more abstractly in the way we think about our work. I need to print some documents before we leave. Can you ask Letia to come into my office on your way out?”
Qaqqasiq turns briskly away from James and starts rifling through papers arbitrarily, avoiding his red-faced stare.
Qaqqasiq rubbed her eyes and marked the spot in her textbook. She was tired and weary of studying for her final exams. She decided to step out of the bedroom for a smoke break and walked into the living room where Peter, her boyfriend, was talking with his friends about their work on the Land Claim Agreement. She walked up behind him and kissed his hair. He continued talking without turning to look at her.
“Well we’re working on Article 17 now. We’ve got them to agree about hunting grounds and outpost camps, which is good. You know they’ve included some new wording, something about ‘lands important to Inuit history and culture.’”
Qaqqasiq straightened up and interrupted.
“Isn’t that ALL the fucking land? Why the hell are we settling for 18 percent ownership, Peter? What have we been talking about for the last two decades? I thought this was supposed to be a change for the benefit of Inuit! Looks like we’re getting the shit end of the deal if you ask me.”
“Well, we didn’t ask you. And besides, it’s too late, Qaqqa. We have to take what we can get and work within the system. You’ve seen how they treat people on reservations, do you want us to live like the Indians do? This is how it’s going, whether we like it or not.”
Qaqqasiq and James walk over to the Royal Bank building to meet with the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated people and march past the multitude of aggressively large trucks in the parking lot, including Peter’s. She shakes her head, remembering her old boyfriend and how little he’s changed. Qaqqasiq stands up straighter, relieved that she has at least not sunk to their level of self-serving indifference. They enter the conference room and Qaqqasiq greets her fellow Inuit and bureaucrats while they all settle in for the meeting.
“Qaqqasiq, a Mr. Zinsser is here. He says he has an appointment with you.”
Mr. Zinsser, a sociologist from Wisconsin, had contacted her several months ago asking for an interview. He is writing on the political structure of Nunavut, studying aspects of self-governance in the early stages of devolution. Her rise to such a high level at a relatively young age had peaked his interest, and he had asked to interview her about her early career and what motivated her to enter government.
“Yes, let him in. We’ll be meeting until noon, please hold my calls.”
William Zinsser is a handsome man in his 50s, with hints of greying hair and a big smile that only improves his good looks. He is pleasant and impressed with Qaqqasiq’s work, and has a well-spoken demeanour—the underlying assumption implied by the comment privately amuses her. She gave up on being insulted by well-meaning ignorance a long time ago.
“What was it like for you in school? Did you experience much racism from your white teachers and authority figures?”
Qaqqasiq laughs. “Well, no. They were actually quite lovely, we were a community, and they were a part of it. I grew up in the 80s, not the 50s.”
Mr. Zinsser blushes and starts to mumble a quick apology. It’s the reaction she was seeking, and she smiles broadly.
“Don’t worry, I’m just bugging you.”
He relaxes a little as Qaqqasiq laughs freely at him and continues.
“There was racism. I mean it was around. It still is now. But I think the people who were hardest on me were other Inuit. I’ve noticed that it happens to many successful people. Maybe because it’s easier to be hard on people you know can take it. People you relate to more. That’s how I always felt anyway. It’s made me into a stronger person.”
He is staring at her intently, engrossed in her every word, with more interest than his academic research necessarily requires, and the attention gives Qaqqasiq a content and excited feeling she hasn’t felt in years. They are finally interrupted by Letia, who knocks on the door, and both lean back in their chairs, having only just noticed the subconsciously intimate positioning of their postures.
“Sorry, Qaqqasiq, but I have the papers you need for that meeting this afternoon. I will be out on a course after lunch so I need to give them to you now.”
“Oh right, thanks Letia, good luck with that course.”
Both women laugh and shudder, thinking about an afternoon full of Access to Information and Protection of Privacy training.
“I have meetings all afternoon, Mr. Zinsser, but if you’d like we can continue the interview this evening. Here’s my cell number, why don’t you call me after dinner and I can come pick you up. Are you at the Frob?”
“Yes, room 208, and call me William, please. Thank you so much; this has been such an illuminating discussion. I am very much looking forward to seeing you again this evening.”
He stands up, packing his notepad away and shaking Qaqqasiq’s hand, lingering longer than necessary to gather his things and eyeing Qaqqasiq in silence.
Qaqqa paced back and forth in front of her Atiq’s shabby green couch, enraged by his silence.
“I thought we were going to HELP people when we started all of this! You’ve just wasted my time for the last 10 years.” He was visibly hurt by her words.
“Atikuluk, I can only pass on my knowledge to you, you are the only one who will learn from me. You have to use it to change the way other people think. I can’t reach them anymore, nobody listens to me. Make them listen to you. Make them learn how to heal themselves.”
After work Qaqqasiq braces herself, teeth and hands clenched, against the cold air blowing from her car heater as she slowly makes her way to her dying aunt’s house. She walks upstairs where her aunt lies in bed in a bright room, while her cousin, Miali, prepares dinner in the kitchen downstairs.
“Aja, I know you can hear me. Maybe it’s better that you can’t talk back. You never treated me like your own, you know? I hated you for a long time. But not really, I mean, I thought I did, but you were always my Aja and sometimes, when you didn’t think anyone was paying attention, you could be kind like my mother had been. I know you loved her, and loved me, even if you didn’t want to admit it in front of your husband. I hope you aren’t in pain. I hope you can’t feel this cancer eating away at you. You don’t deserve that.”
Qaqqasiq pulls out a small tupilaq on a piece of sinew. She ties the protective amulet around her aunt’s neck and kisses her on the forehead. As Qaqqasiq is about to stand to leave, Miali comes in and sees the tupilaq. She rips it off her mother’s neck.
“Get this devil’s trinket out of my mother’s house! Are you trying to KILL HER? I should call the RCMP!”
“Oh yes, I’m sure they would love that. They could charge me with blasphemy. Maybe if you weren’t so blinded by faith you would be able to enjoy the last bit of time you have with your mother, maybe you would see that your precious God has made you a cold, hard woman and that is why your girls never come to visit! You better get into heaven because you’ve done a damn good job of making your life on earth a living hell!”
Qaqqasiq drives home in a foul mood. She eats some left-over tunnu and soup, which calms her down. She has entirely forgotten about William Zinsser by the time the phone rings, and she is pleasantly reminded that she has a “date” this evening. She clambers back into her boots and coat to go pick him up from the hotel, feeling like a much younger version of herself.
When they arrive back at her house she pours them each a glass of wine.
“I hope you like red; I find white too sweet for my taste. But don’t write that down …”
William laughs and accepts the glass eagerly, before he continues on his line of questioning. He is much more relaxed than before. As the evening progresses, his questions become more personal and vague and he stops writing down Qaqqasiq’s answers.
“I’m going to take a huge leap and ask if I can kiss you.”
Qaqqasiq stares at him silently, while William shifts uncomfortably waiting for her answer.
“Well, ask then.”
Qaqqasiq laughs playfully as his face sinks into relief, and he moves in to kiss her.
Qaqqasiq smiles in the dark while William strokes the skin on her back.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but so many people I know back home would be appalled that I’m lying here with you right now. Native relations in the States are pretty different than what you have here.”
Qaqqasiq laughs. “So was this just a part of your research?”
The joke makes him uneasy and he hurriedly backtracks.
“Of course not! I think you are beautiful, and smart. You are very charming. I was just thinking out loud. You know, skin colour matters a lot more where I live. It’s nice to meet people who don’t feel that way.”
Qaqqasiq smiles. “In the darkness we are all the same.”
Napatsi Folger is an Iqaluit-based freelance writer and Senior Policy Analyst for the Government of Nunavut. She has written both fiction and non-fiction for publications such as The Walrus, Matrix Magazine, The Town Crier and published her first Young Adult novel Joy of Apex in 2012 with Inhabit Media. “Silence” is one of a collection of interrelated short stories Folger is writing about contemporary life in Iqaluit.