Division by Jan Brown

Animals of the North

Iweiwei woke with a shudder. His dogs were yipping nervously, chained outside under the star-pierced sky. Something was after them. Half asleep, he called for Malina, but she was long gone. Her favorite clothing still hung in the closet and the furs she’d meticulously stitched still covered their bed. With a growl he slung himself sideways and planted his bare feet on the cool floor.

The season was mid-spring, still a cold time when the land animals waited out the darkness for morning light. Caribou migrated over nearby land that time of year, following the melt. There was a cadence to their movement that the dogs responded to with long howls and thousand-year-old memories of being wolves in the hunt. Even cocky, young polar bears ventured close from time to time. Their smell came on the wind and the dogs understood it, but this yipping was different, more question than command. Grudgingly, Iweiwei pulled on a seal skin anorak over his polypro long johns and grabbed his .22 caliber from the rack above the doorway.

A lone, wind-scraped hill of stone and ice separated his trailer from the village. To the north, the sea ice was melting, and from the south, the brown tide of softening land ebbed ever closer. Pods of orcas were roaming the summer waters to the east where they never before existed in his people’s history, and from the west, hulking exploration ships were threading slowly through the ice-free passage. In the barren expanses of sea and stone, his world seemed to be shrinking even more without Malina. The animal outside was just another reminder. A grizzly no doubt. He could smell it before he could even see it. A primal stench clung to the animal, dragon’s breath and million-year-old bogs, a heathen among the animals of the north. A polar bear bathed in cold water, rolled and rolled in the snow, grooming itself until its coat burned in the sun. The scent of a polar bear was pure, alive – the grizzly was death.

Iweiwei worried about grizzlies. Their brown fur, the primeval hunch at their shoulders, their greed; they were everything the elegant polar bears were not. They were interlopers, trespassers on turf that belonged to his people and the creatures of the north for thousands of years. There was an unspoken agreement of harmony woven over those years, a symbiosis of give and take that made sense in his land. Though his people and Nanuq hunted the same creatures, seals mostly, they respected each other’s domain (for the most part) and lived without guilt. But the new-comers respected nothing. They pressed deeper into Baffin Island. They followed the retreating line of permafrost and gorged on everything in its path. They woke Iweiwei in his dreams.

§

The first time he’d seen a grizzly was outside Jasper National Park after representing his town at a First Nations conference in Edmonton. He’d seen that bear through binoculars when a guide pointed it out and shared stories of the animal’s wide ranging appetite. A week later, he shared his own fear about the northward migration of ursus arctos to his wife Malina. The sight of bears and wolves had often filled her with a predatory desire for his body. An arctic fox they’d seen just minutes before on their walk home from a council meeting sent her clawing up his spine with tender kisses. He tried to explain how different the grizzly would be as she pressed him against a snag of driftwood mounted on their wall. Smiling, she reminded him that he too was considered an outsider by some. The strange mixed breed of a Japanese sailor who never left and an Inuit mother from a prominent family, he was always conscious of his mixed pedigree growing up. Yet he felt comfortable in the presence of outsiders: the professors of anthropology who strangely told him about his people without telling stories, the climate scientists sifting the sands of their beaches like gold diggers, the polar bear researchers and wildlife photographers. The PhD student from McGill University there to study the mating habits of arctic terns.

“That’s what attracted me to you,” Malina had said. “The stink of seal meat is not in your bones.”

It was the last time he could remember her overpowering him this way.

§

When he turned on the spotlight, Iweiwei’s mind went blank with awe. Still a foot shorter than the white bears of the north, the grizzly’s hunch and breadth were twice as wide. Its hind legs looked like moss covered tree stumps, its paws as wide as snowshoes. He couldn’t just hope and pray it would disappear, find spirits in the doctors of oncology and bury himself under stories of survivors. He’d done that when Malina’s disease still seemed invisible. Iweiwei clicked a bullet into its chamber and wondered if the slug could do anything to slow the animal. He’d heard enough tales of hunters travelling far south and finding the remains of moose, broken bear claws buried deep in the rotting carcass. This intruder was only one of many to come.

Pulling at their chains, his dogs howled as the bear lumbered forward, plowing the space between them with its great head. That was the remarkable thing about a grizzly; its head wasn’t a weakness, it could be a shield. Iweiwei raised the sight of his rifle and fired a shot just over the grizzly’s back. The beast’s fur twitched.

A spotlight had done nothing to distract its focus, but now it turned, coming about slowly, like a ship. Another bullet in the chamber, Iweiwei sighted the barrel and waited for the bear’s shoulders to move into position. He did not like to kill this way, did not believe in a death so disconnected from his way of life, but he was being forced into this decision. Living in the far north, his people had lived in near isolation thousands of years. Now the outside world was coming to them.

He remembered the guilt he felt when Malina chose him

“Go on,” he barked. Iweiwei really didn’t want to shoot. “This is no place for you.”

When the grizzly started coming faster he did what he had to do. He pulled the trigger and watched in astonishment as the bullet deflected off the bear’s shovel-shaped head, barely deterring it. The grizzly stood on its hind legs and roared, long enough for Iweiwei to get inside the trailer and bolt the door before he felt his home shake. If the bear had any sense, it would have gone for the shell’s weak spot, his door.

Twice more, his small home shook on its raised foundation, enough to knock Iweiwei off balance. He reached for the ancient harpoon of narwhal tusk mounted above the coat pegs, but missed and fell. With another blow, the framed photo of Malina feeding their dogs skittered off a shelf. Polished fragments of whale bone and an opera mask she had scavenged on a beach followed it.

After so many years of erosion, a tide seemed to be ebbing on their way of life. At village meetings they often discussed the shift of balance that was not their doing. Usually they spoke in terms of retreating summer ice and the pods of orcas wrapping around the northern tip of Hudson Bay. Only on long hunts to the south did they speak of the brown bear. But Iweiwei had never imagined behavior like this before. Polar bears were stalkers and ambushers, never so livid.

A mad howling broke out among his dogs and Iweiwei knew the intruder was after them again. He flung the door open and quickly fired a shot at the bear’s flank. To his surprise, it hobbled quickly away, but one of the dog chains was empty, snapped before the collar. Akna. In the distance he could see the invader pounding across the unfrozen landscape, running upright, Malina’s favorite dog sprinting alongside it.

§

Iweiwei stowed harpoons and gaffing hooks against the hull of his boat as he recounted the tale of the grizzly to his lifelong friend and hunting partner. The arrival of grizzlies was expected by all, but for ten days he’d pondered how to explain the bear’s upright run with his female dog, Akna. He didn’t know what to make of it, didn’t want to outright ask either, but he couldn’t make sense of the encounter on his own.

“Even Nanuq cannot do that, Iweiwei. Maybe it’s time you move into the village.”

“Piss off, Siluk. You didn’t believe me when I spotted the orcas. Now we follow them like hungry wolf pups.”

Just that morning, a pod of orcas had been spotted moving north, the first of the year. The significance of their arrival was without question, but opinions were mixed. In their presence, the hunt had become easier. The orcas moved with a confidence he had not seen before in the icy waters. Some argued that it was lazy and they would lose their ways. For the time being, the cost of fuel carried the debate.

“She was a valuable dog,” Siluk said, capping the steel gasoline drum. “That’s too bad.”

Iweiwei noted a tub of smoked caribou Siluk’s wife had packed and heaved a net onto the aft deck of the boat. Akna had been Malina’s favorite and he felt her absence even more without the dog. With a grunt, Iweiwei acknowledged Siluk’s apology.

“Whenever I went away, she slept with that dog. I could smell it on the sheets,” Iweiwei said. “My rival.”

Siluk nodded. After Malina’s deaththree years earlier, he’d shown a keen interest in Iweiwei’s life, sometimes questioning his choice to remain outside the village. For a while he’d come with stews of seal meat prepared by his wife, Keno, and bins layered with arctic char. He intercepted packages transported on the weekly flight and delivered them himself. If they were books, Siluk asked questions about the stories. Sooner or later, Iweiwei knew, he had to move on. When Siluk and Keno’s offerings ceased, the message was clear. “So, that story about the sinking ship,” Siluk asked. “It sank, didn’t it?”

“Very quickly, too.”

The two men plied through the water, curving north through the bay, the sound of their engine groaning, garbling, spitting water and blue smoke. They scanned the horizon for the telltale dorsal fins of the big predators, black blades sawing through the green-gray water. Low clouds ribbed from eastern sky to western sky.

“I brought more than enough,” Siluk yelled over the noise of the engine. He pointed to the tub of smoked meat.

The skies were gray, no sun to signal off the dorsal fins of the orcas, but they knew the best hunting grounds and when they came into a cove they could see the orcas had been there. The water was red from all the blood.

“Orcas chasing narwhal, grizzlies stealing dogs,” Iweiwei said. “What next?”

They had seen the orcas in the same cove before, cornering packs of narwhal with an efficiency that haunted Iweiwei. Watching them, he knew they spoke to each other the way he and Siluk would speak with other boats when the village hunted together. For as long as he could remember, the Inuit were the top predators in Baffin’s icy waters. Now that was uncertain.

“Sooner or later, our new friends will not be so welcome.”

Siluk grunted in agreement and pointed across the cove. On the far side, a wounded Narwhal was spiraling in the water, its long tusk a steeple.

“They are close,” Iweiwei said.

They left the narwhal to fend for itself. There was a time they might have finished it off and taken the creature, but they felt they were cheating nature enough already with the orcas. Seals were far more abundant and useful.

Hours later they glided into shore under the northern lights. They hauled ice chests onto the beach and loaded them into the bed of Siluk’s truck. They straightened their nets, cleaned their grappling hooks and loaded those, too. The hunt had gone well enough. Satiated by the narwhals in the cove, the orcas had bypassed a colony of seals that hauled out on a small shoal for safety. From a distance, Siluk and Iweiwei had watched, knowing their prey would relax. The hunt had been easy, but they’d only taken what they needed.

“Watch where you sleep, my friend,” said Siluk. “You don’t want to crawl into bed with a grizzly.”

“Psst. You squawk like a goose.”

“Yes. But you shit like a bear.”

In the village, Siluk invited Iweiwei to join him for dinner. It had been a while since he’d eaten with his friend and his wife, Keno. The last time was after he cut himself on the blade of a harpoon, alone and lost in thought as he watched orcas gliding in the sunlit bay, marveling at how they moved. For a long time after Malina’s death he’d felt like he was crawling on his hands and knees just to get through the day. His closest friends never pried, though he could see the concern in their eyes. Sometimes it felt lonelier to be around them. Just seeing Keno through the window filled him with jealousy. Siluk and Keno had their grown children and each other; Iweiwei had his dogs. And the bear.

§

The dogs followed Iweiwei for a mile back to his trailer, keeping up with him as his truck bounced across frost heaves as big as a walrus’s back. He counted the pack as he drove, but it was difficult. They darted in and out, herding his vehicle, nipping the body with their snouts, dodging the wheels. Expecting the grizzly to return, he kept his pack off their chains. They knew where their food came from. Only Kiki, a wild female, ever wandered off for long. She was gone even now, he noticed.

He dropped his bag on the steps of his trailer and let the dogs come sniff him. Returned from seal hunts, they always mauled him with attention. They sucked at his pants and hands with their snouts. Sometimes they fought with each other to breathe that strange smell of creatures from the sea.

“Where is your sister?” he asked Kiki’s littermate, scratching him behind the ear.

The last time Iweiwei had seen Kiki, she was darting off in the direction the grizzly had gone, carrying a long sliver of seal blubber she had pilfered from his truck.

“Come,” he said, opening the door for the dog.

The others howled and whined. Iweiwei did not doubt their understanding of how he would favor Kiki’s brother this night. Following Malina’s death, Iweiwei had deserted his dogs. He neglected to feed them and let them off their chains. Akna was the last to leave. In a matter of days they ran wild, dispersing into the village. Every now and then he saw one or more darting across the tundra in pursuit of hare. On one trip to the village he noticed Akna with an elder, curled up next to the man’s feet. Furious, Iweiwei grabbed Akna by the scruff and led her to his truck. One by one, he had collected the dogs and brought them home, giving each a night inside with him. But Kiki had refused his offer. “Are you hungry?” he asked Kiki’s brother. “I’m hungry.”

Outside, the dogs fought playfully with each other. He could hear their growling, paws scratching the earth like wind dervishes. There were brief fits of silence mixed with strings of howling as one streaked away from the pack and returned to the melee full stride. He often felt like that creature in full stride when Malina was alive. His love was feral in that way, sometimes. When she was alive he’d let no animal enter the trailer except during the fiercest of storms, but talking to a dog was better than talking to yourself. He’d done that plenty in her absence.

“We’re both getting soft,” Iweiwei said, dropping a hunk of muktuk into a bowl.

He poured himself a whiskey and set a pot with a frozen block of caribou stew on the cook top. Outside, a green shimmering sky cut across the horizon in rolling waves. He scanned the horizon for signs of the grizzly.

“No need to hunt,” he said, “when the hunt will come to us.”

When Malina cooked, the food was always good. She’d accommodated his weak stomach and the distaste for muktuk he’d hidden for years. Visiting researchers brought her cookbooks and expensive spices from the mainland at her request. She modified local dishes and filled their home with exotic smells. Now he prepared his meals in the same way he outfitted himself for a long hunt. He cooked a week worth of stews at a time. He stuffed Tupperware tubs with seaweed, fireweed and grilled vetch. Crowberry and cloudberry all but disappeared from his diet except when he stole nibbles from Siluk’s cache on their hunts.

Exhausted, he slumped into his chair. An hour later, his companion was barking and Iweiwei stuttered awake.
“Oh, piss,” he said, turning the stove off.

His stew had turned into a brown stone and the air was choked with smoke. The dog was lunging at the door. Outside his littermates howled like hungry coyotes.

“Is she back?” he said. “So early.”

This time he had the advantage. Bears hate dogs. Some even fear them. Especially packs. His dogs could detain their prey for hours.

“Show me,” he said, taking his rifle.

But the dog had waited long enough. He bolted into the darkness, chasing that scent of fear. Alone, the huskies steered clear of big predators. Even the lazy walrus they knew to leave alone; but in a pack they felt invincible. A good thing, too, because without Malina, Iweiwei just felt old. Together, they’d been a pack.

Still foggy from the whiskey, he rushed into the darkness wearing only long john’s and seal skin slippers. Not far off, though, the pack was playing its game and what he saw stopped him in his tracks. Under the green lights, Iweiwei witnessed a dance, not a hunt. As before, the grizzly stood on its hind legs, stepping in circles, golfing its thick arms and paws as the Huskies darted in to nip, never quite striking. The dogs were playing nicer than he knew them to be with intruders. How long this dance had gone on Iweiwei did not know, but suddenly a shadow flashed in the darkness, breaking through the circle from outside it and striking the grizzly in the ankle. It could only have been Kiki.

The grizzly let out a roar and charged through the pack, coming straight for Iweiwei. With shoulders so wide and hunched, it was hard to believe how fast the grizzly could run, but even the huskies had a hard time keeping up; all but Kiki, nipping its heels, herding it forward. He raised the barrel to sight his target, but the whiskey and the darkness dulled his senses, and it was difficult getting a bead on something moving so ran low to the ground, like a fleeting night shadow. Iweiwei listened for the heavy paws striking the earth, but only heard the howling of his dogs. At the last second, the grizzly veered off, clipping Iweiwei in the hip with a blow that sent him flying backwards in the moss. Seconds later, the pack rushed howling past. When at last the cacophony of their barking faded he heard a scratching off to his side. It was Kiki, clawing the earth.

“Who were you protecting,” he said. “Me or the bear?”

The canine wasn’t even panting. She stood on long, fast legs and stared at Iweiwei with icy blue eyes.

“Come here.”

But Kiki turned and trotted off.

§

His possessions disappeared one at a time. Returning home from a supply trip he would notice something missing. Clothing he hung outside seemed to disappear on the wind. Arctic char he’d set on racks to dry. His Adirondack chair. The ground had gone soft by then, but there were no tracks to follow, no signs of a burglar. When he mentioned this to Siluk, his friend nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “You’re not alone. Someone stole the Qulliq of old Yakone.”

They wandered through Northmart on the false pretense of replacing Iweiwei’s stolen chair, but really, he was there to scout news of the grizzly. His grizzly, he’d begun to think.

Nudging a chair, Iweiwei groaned.

“What happened to your shoulder?” Siluk asked.

“We’re getting older,” was all he said.

Malina had liked going to Northmart even when they had no money. It felt good to be around things that had not been worn down, she’d told him. After the second miscarriage, it broke his heart to see how quickly she passed the children’s clothing section, even as she devoted her free time to nieces and nephews. She nuzzled their bellies and nibbled their toes when they were young. She crafted meticulous seal skin and fur parkas when they grew into little toddlers. She chased them around the floor, yipping like a fox, feeding on their love, but every now and then Iweiwei found the receipt for onesies or baby slippers he never saw. He would say nothing.

“I liked that chair.”

“I’m sure it is that boy Nasak sired with his woman from the south. We’ll find it.”

Iweiwei wasn’t so sure. Yes, his possessions had disappeared, but his dogs were another matter. They deserted him for long stretches, sometimes not coming home until morning, sometimes not at all. It was only Kiki at first, and then the others. Without them he slept poorly, even felt cold under his furs. Dreams of the bear kept him awake at night.

“Yes, that could be,” Iweiwei said.

“I am sure of it.”

They walked outside to Siluk’s truck and climbed into the old cab. The rear was loaded with nets and a gasoline drum. Siluk’s best dog panted in the back.

“You think it’s that bear, don’t you?” he said.

Iweiwei nodded.

What troubled him was the choice of objects stolen: Malina’s favorite of his shirts, the chair she fell asleep in, a tray of the smoked char she was addicted to. The carving he’d made when she was pregnant of a mother bear dancing with her cubs. But he did not admit these musings.

“I worry maybe you should move into town, friend. The outside is getting the best of you.”

“Psst. I don’t sleep with my dogs. I’m good.”

Siluk shifted the truck into gear and spun out in the dirt. A thin grime of dust coated the buildings and vehicles, muting the bright colors that the long gray winters demanded. Even summer demanded color; for weeks a gray cloud hung over the skyline like permafrost.

“Let’s go see what the fuss is about.”

Down at the beach they came upon the carcass. A dead bow whale had washed ashore; polar bears gathered for a feast. In times past, the people would work together to harvest the leviathan’s meat, but scientists sent up from the provinces had convinced them otherwise. Two had already set up cameras.

A small line of cars had parked along the bluff.

“They think the grizzly will come?” Siluk wondered.

It already had.

Iweiwei recognized one of the researchers. He was a young man, no more than thirty, with a blonde beard and the strong, carved face of a Scandinavian. Iweiwei had taken the man on his boat to survey polar bear habits on the shores of Frobisher Bay only the year before. He’d expected a head full of ideas and ears full of wax. Instead, the young researcher, Andre, had only listened and let Iweiwei guide the survey. Now, Andre waved for his former guide.

“Coming?” Iweiwei asked.

“Close enough,” Siluk said.

Iweiwei walked slowly down to the shore’s margin where a line of rocks thrown up by the tides edged a crescent shaped beach. Half a dozen female polar bears and half as many males gorged on whale meat, their snouts stained with blood and gore, their paws seemingly fit with red boots. A cloud of sea birds hung over the brown crusted body.

The dank stench of rotting blubber hung in the air.

“Do you think your bear will come?” Andre asked.

Andre studied Iweiwei carefully as he considered his answer.

“You’ve been speaking with Siluk.”

That time on the boat Iweiwei often wondered if Andre was a wildlife biologist or an anthropologist. Then he dropped the idea wondering what difference it made when his people were of such little consequence to those in the south. His people had been skeptical of the outside world for two centuries. Now they stood by, passing on a great harvest. For reasons not of their own doing, they needed to collaborate with men like Andre. The nomination of Iweiwei to guide the scientist had been unanimous.

“She’s greedy. She will not pass this up.”

“She already came,” Andre said.

Andre clicked through a series of options on his camera and set it to replay. “Came?”

“An hour ago. We first tagged her eight months ago, heading northeast near Fort McMurray.”

Andre stepped aside as Iweiwei watched. At the far end of the beach, the grizzly had emerged from the underbrush. It ranged its thick snout side to side, drinking the air. As big as it was, the polar bears stood a foot taller. Their sleek bodies appeared more nimble and quick, but the grizzly showed no fear. It walked slowly, but without hesitation. Twenty feet off it stopped to watch the ravenous crowd shucking the whale before taking a place in the lineup. At first, the polar bears were too engrossed in their eating to take notice, but slowly their habits changed. They stole quick glances. They grew restless of their work. They began to push and shove.

“The grizzly must have sensed it was safe enough,” Andre said. “But keep watching.”

Like an angry drunk, a polar bear peeled off from the pack and tactlessly climbed the grizzly’s back. It easily stood a foot taller, but the brown one threw it back into the crowd. Two more polar bears, disgruntled, pulled away from the carcass. At once they converged on the interloper and backed it away from the whale. Their threats should have been enough, Iweiwei thought. He had seen how fierce the white ones could be.

“Yes, we have customs here, brown one.”

He did not expect it when the grizzly charged back.

For the first time, Iweiwei recognized his admiration for this outsider that seemed so much like Malina, so unwilling to back down. To his surprise, the local bears relented. There was plenty to share. And then, from the edge of the camera perspective, a dark flash shot into view: a dog joining the feast. It nipped the heels of the grizzly, demanding room. When at last there was space, the husky pressed into the carcass.

“Is that your dog?” Andre asked.

Iweiwei’s eyes were getting old, but it could only be Kiki. She’d always shown a special fondness for Malina.

§

Lying naked beneath a mound of caribou fur blankets in their home, just days before her death, Malina had called for Iweiwei to warm her. She’d gathered the artifacts of her life into their cramped bedroom: books, photographs, wood carvings he’d made, all within reach. She’d never looked so small.

“Do you remember when I first came looking for you? For myself.”

The moment never felt distant.

“You were crawling through walrus puke with that researcher from Quebec. What was his name?” Malina asked.

“Patrice.”

“Yes, Patrice. The two of you were probing the puke with shining metal sticks. And when I asked why you played in the vomit, you said, ‘Because the walrus don’t speak our language. We can’t just ask what they had for dinner.’”
Iweiwei laughed then, but tears came to his eyes, too. Over the course of eighteen months he’d watched as the invisible cancer feasted on her life from the inside, robbing her flesh.

“Those names you called me when we were kids,” he said. “When your father summoned me to his door.”

“My father didn’t summon,” she said.

“Bear sniffer. Ice miner.”

Malina wheezed a laugh, taking his hand and placing it on her chest.

“I snared you, didn’t I?”

“Seaweed scratcher.”

The doctors had only given her six months. During those final months, Malina spent even more time outside, resting in the Adirondack chair Iweiwei had been given by a wildlife biologist from Halifax. Watching their dogs. Her mother brought concoctions spiced with the grindings of whalebone and teas made from saxifrage flowers and bearberry leaves. When that failed they flew to Quebec City for experimental treatments, but there was no stopping the encroachment of disease on her body.

Even under the blankets she felt cold.

“Maybe you should have talked to the walrus’ instead of crawling in their vomit,” she said.

§

Another night and another dog gone. Siluk rolled up in the morning, puffing with anger. His rifle was mounted on the rear window of his truck. Iweiwei looked inside and saw a cooler on the bench seat.

“Are we hunting?”

“That bear of yours raided my smokehouse.”

“Mine. I thought it was Nasak?”

“Even Nasak does not smell so bad.”

Siluk reached into his truck and tossed a plank of wood on the ground. Claw marks outlined a door latch fixed to the wood, the clumsy effort of the grizzly. The shape and size was different and polar bears preferred seal meat over fish. They did not live and hunt by streams, but preyed where there was ice and open water.

“Besides, I saw it running upright. It looked like I caught it shoplifting.”

Iweiwei looked to the sky.

“They’re made of armor,” he said. “Maybe we should wait for tomorrow. A squall will be coming.”

“Old news, friend. We have time.”

The road was soft and slow from the spring melt. They drove in silence to the low hills west of town where rocky promenades carved out niches in the horizon, a landscape of stone temples. Insects choked the air.

“We begin here?”

Iweiwei was sure of it.

What had surprised him at first was the bear’s laziness. Arctic char often plugged the deltas of freshwater rivers and though the fish were small, the spring spawn was plenty for a big predator. The only explanation that he could reason, one that he had difficulty admitting to himself, was that the raids on his home were an invitation. Weary from long days on the bay, Iweiwei had often walked the rocky land to his favorite fishing hole with Malina. There he was just a man. Not the strange boy of an outsider. Only Malina made him feel this way. They would slice their fish and eat it raw, quietly watching the stillness of land. Baffin was a place of slow, near imperceptible change, melting glaciers, softening land, the steady rhythm of the tide and the slow retreat of the snow. Just when change seemed to begin, that change retreated. Away from the bay and the mountains, the long peninsula was the only place that ever felt permanent, even if it was a lie. But with Malina he loved that lie.

Now, he walked the same ground, hunting the change that had come so unwelcome. For three hours, Iweiwei and Siluk stalked the ground silently, picking up on a track here, odd scratchings there. They could see for miles in the barren landscape. At the river’s edge the winking of a pocket mirror caught their eyes. Farther upstream an empty bean can, crushed and smoldering with flies. The first snowflakes at the front of the squall lit the air.

“Do you think we should lure her with a burrito?”

Another half mile on a small tributary entered the river, splitting the land like an arrow. They divided.

“Don’t try to take her on alone.”

Iweiwei knew his friend would be on the wrong track.

“How do you know the bear is a she?” Siluk asked.

Iweiwei grunted. “I do not understand this bear. It must be a she.”

But Iweiwei lied. He understood the interloper more and more. Though he was born in the same ward as Siluk, he was not an Inuit. He was a mixed breed less pure than his dogs. Even the land was a challenge for him. His small feet snagged in the bogs and sank deeper in the snow, but on the rocks he danced. For several minutes Iweiwei kept an eye on his friend, traversing the land, dipping in and out of sight as the rocky knolls crested and troughed. They waved to each other, signaling they had seen nothing. Then the river took a deep turn west and the trail dove low behind a wall of rocks, hiding from the sun. The river turned flat and quiet.

“Nice and easy,” Iweiwei whispered to himself, sliding his rifle out of its scabbard.

Down by the foot of the river he heard a whining sound and following it came to a cave. The embankment of rock split open like the binding of a book, fording a narrow passage deeper into the earth. Outside it, the pilfered junk of his friends littered the opening. A tottering folding chair with a broken leg, a sun pendant carved from stone, the bones of fish and small game animals. Iweiwei knew he should call for Siluk but he had to know for himself.

“Crazy,” he muttered.

He entered the alley of stone with his rifle drawn and the safety off. Whining, from bear cubs he presumed, grew louder with each step. This was the only other answer for the animal’s bold thieving. Children. Though she had never been able to bear any children of her own, Malina displayed the same bold instinct of motherhood. She cared for her nieces and nephews like they were her own, clashed with the parents of bullies and spoiled her sister’s children in the ways they could afford. He never once argued. Her instinct was too strong.

The presence of cubs was also, he knew, the first reason to turn around and find safety. Maybe Siluk was right, he thought, maybe it was time to move into the village. If he lived to tell the tale.

The passage of stone narrowed until he came to a hanging wall with an opening only chest high. The sky was still visible above, a slash of blue and white as small as his trailer door with fat snowflakes filtering down. A stench of rot and teeming life poured through the opening. Common sense told him to go back, but he crawled down a stone decline into a large cave.

Dim light spilled through the entryway. Immediately, a low, gentle howling began as he fell over a short lip. At first nothing happened. Just more noise. More whining. More howling. Then a hot, wet glow stung his face, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized his dog Akna. She climbed all over him, burrowed her snout in the crook of his neck as he pushed himself to his feet. Kiki stalked behind Akna, pacing back and forth. A litter of bear cubs tumbled behind her. Still blind, they charged forward to inspect the intruder, but Kiki intercepted them and toppled them back with her nose. When Iweiwei moved closer, his wild husky growled. The hair on her back stood like needles.

“Have you forgotten me, Kiki?”

Another step and she lunged forward, snarling and feral. He did not understand.

There were bones scattered about the cave and the remains of other dogs. In the corner he saw the stolen Qullig of Old Yakone, broken in half, and the crude carving he had made of dancing bears. Beyond that another passage drove deeper into the cave.

“Get,” he whispered to his dogs. When they didn’t move he slapped Akna on the rump. But Kiki held her ground.

“Always the wild one,” he said.

In the sudden silence, Iweiwei realized the grizzly was not there; it was returning. He could not have made it this far otherwise. Heavy footfalls echoed in the alleyway. He backed into the opening of the next passage and lifted his rifle high. One good shot, he knew, would not kill the bear, even if he wanted to. But he didn’t, and he shook so much he might just shoot himself by mistake. The mother bear unfolded like a shadow and growled.

“Is it you?” he asked.

He watched as the grizzly padded over to her cubs. Then she turned back again to face him. Kiki bolted out through the opening.

Iweiwei lowered his rifle. “Is it really you?”

The cubs were mewling and whining. They tumbled blindly over each other and stood themselves up hanging onto their mother’s legs. Two of the cubs had the hunched back of a grizzly but a pale tawny fur. The brown one was sleek with the long nose of a polar bear. The grizzly roared again, but Iweiwei could not shoot. He was overwhelmed with fear and wonderment and love. Still, he inched ever slowly for the passage outside.

“No one will know,” he pleaded.

The grizzly huffed, pacing back and forth. It stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air. Iweiwei was sure it was Malina. Why else hadn’t it charged yet?

“Iweiwei.”

Siluk’s voice dropped through the opening like a thread from the outside world. Both he and the bear turned towards it.

“Iweiwei.”

The grizzly finally charged. A glance from her shoulder sent him tumbling across the cave. He felt his ribs crack and a jolt that sank his brain deep in the base of his skull. He recoiled, expecting a finishing blow. But nothing came. Only the sound of Siluk’s rifle and the acrid smell of gun powder. Then more shots.

Iweiwei was limping through the narrow stone alleyway a minute later, blinded by the light, when Siluk spoke. “So you live.”

Siluk stood on top of the rock promontory that shaped the cave, peering down into the alleyway. Snow filtered in from the thin light above, big flakes that melted as they touched the skin on his face. The grizzly lay face down halfway along the passage, blood matting the back of her neck.

Iweiwei wheezed.

“I was beginning to think maybe you were making love with that beast,” Siluk added. “Damned fool.”

Iweiwei hid his face. He was crying. He had to climb over the bear to exit, smelling her deeply, crawling on his hands and knees, the same way he felt years ago when Malina died. It hurt too much to do it again. He met Siluk outside the passageway.

“You are hurt bad?”

Iweiwei just nodded. His breathing came in shattered tugs.

“Let me see this den first, then we’ll go.”

“No,” Iweiwei said. The snow fell heavier. “I must go now, friend. There is nothing in there.”

§

When Kiki returned the next morning, Iweiwei could barely move. Despite the bandaging and the drugs, every shift of his body wracked him with pain. Even so, he opened the door and she came inside. He offered food from the refrigerator and fresh water. He let her sleep beside him as he napped. Waking, he found Kiki studying his eyes.

“Are you really feeding those cubs?” he said, scratching her belly.

The husky rolled over and he could see it was true. Her teats were swollen and red. The cubs were fine. They might learn to hunt together, someday, like wolves. He wondered if he should go out and kill them, spare them the turmoil certain to come. The animals of the north were already struggling. But that power was beyond him. The glaciers moved. The waters moved. It was not his choice.


Interview with Christopher Ring


by fiction editor Mary McMyne and assistant fiction editor Genevieve Smith

 

Border Crossing:· Tell us about the research that you did for this piece. Have you ever visited Iqaluit?

Christopher Ring: I never have visited Baffin Island. (Iqaluit is one of the “major” towns on the island – pop.  7,740 as of the 2016 census ).  Locate Greenland on a map and you’ll find Baffin to the Southwest and the top of Hudson Bay beyond that.  The geographic location of Baffin Island has isolated it from the rest of North America for obvious reasons and yet it will be one of the earliest regions of the northern hemisphere to be impacted by global warming.  I have dreamed of visiting there for many years, but the costs of travel and the time required have prevented me thus far. Writing this story was, in a sense, a way for me to journey there.

I have visited parts of the world that share some similarities to the landscape on Baffin Island, but most of all, I studied maps and countless photos to inform my descriptions. I rely on sensibilities and mood more than tangible aesthetics.  What to me may seem bleak could feel rich to other people. Describing the land is the easy part; trying to convey the hearts and minds of people, particularly people of such a unique and unfamiliar culture is the greatest challenge.

I read a lot about Inuit culture from books I could find and academic journals. Most of these writings are authored by scholars, anthropologists and travelers from southern Canada and the U.S.; most of them are white.  That’s why my story had to focus on Iweiwei. He’s an outsider. Some of the feelings he works through are universal to outsiders everywhere. Telling the story through his perspective was the only honest choice.

BC:  Where did the fabulist elements of the story come from?

CR: Some of my stories result from asking a simple question.  (What if a grizzly showed up on my doorstep, hungry for dried fish?) Sometimes my story ideas are a response to a specific issue. Still, others begin with a single line or a voice that reaches out and grabs me. All of these starting points  apply to “Animals of The North”.  I began with a simple line – “Iweiwei hated grizzlies” – but it was that frustration bordering on anger and despair that grabbed me. At the same time I was thinking about articles I had read and documentaries I had watched on the impacts of climate change around Baffin Island. I was astonished to learn about Orcas entering into new territories. Video footage of grizzlies feasting with packs of polar bears on dead whales had me gawking like a witness to a plane crash.  If those adaptations aren’t fabulist elements in and of themselves, then what are? Climate change is turning the world upside down in a sense; it demands that we see our lives differently.

But the very earliest inspiration for these elements is a bit more humbling. In addition to short stories, I write the text for children’s picture books. My daughter Molly (age 6 at the time) and I had often joked about writing a story involving a father who turns into a bear. She’s still waiting for it. That father has to go live in the woods (Molly’s idea), but everyday he returns to play with his children (my idea). We joked about it due to my hirsute nature – I’m more Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I. than Ryan Gosling, if you know what I mean.  I loved this picture book idea, but I struggled with it.  Alas, it found a place with “Animals of the North.” When I asked myself questions about the grizzly in the story I realized the bear had to be more than a just a bear. Living in Wyoming, years ago, a black bear had entered my friend’s home and stole his bagels out of the refrigerator. No joke. He and his girlfriend were asleep in the bedroom.  The bear left behind cheesecake and beer. So, if a grizzly stole dried fish…what’s the big deal, right? They’re known to be gluttons. But if the grizzly steals something more personal, human, like a chair, then the distinctions we draw between humans and animals get blurred. I think it’s time we stop seeing ourselves on such an elevated level with respect to animals.

BC: · “Animals of the North” dramatizes environmental concerns that are becoming more and more urgent: the grizzlies encroaching into polar bear territory, the climate scientists and researchers who visit Iweiwei’s village. Could you talk about your motivation to explore these concerns with this piece?

CR: The short answer: I’m a tree hugger. Literally. After hiking or climbing I hug trees and offer thanks. After mountain biking I hug trees and ask forgiveness. That might make me sound like a real hippie, but I’m not. I simply know my place in the world.

The long answer: I wrote “Animals of The North” so that I could dramatize the impacts of global warming, but I don’t like the word dramatize because it betrays the realism necessary to get people to take the issue seriously. To that aim, I wrote the dialogue with a minimalist approach to quiet the story.

Baffin Island is a perfect setting to discuss these issues. Already, rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns are affecting people throughout the world, but it’s happening in places far from the people (like myself) who are most responsible for this new epoch, the Anthropocene. I could have focused on island nations in the pacific, desert regions on Africa’s east coast, or the Great Barrier Reef, but I was already thinking about grizzlies and orcas.  People have been living on Baffin Island for thousands of years, yet there is a real frontier sensibility to living in the arctic region. The climate demands it. Nothing is taken for granted there. Nothing should be taken for granted anywhere.

BC: Despite the fact that Iweiwei and Malina come from different cultures, the bond that Iweiwei feels with his late wife is strong. Could you talk about how you developed these characters and their relationship?

CR: In the first draft of this story there were ten or fewer lines referring to Malina. I had a basic sense of her and a sense of Iweiwei’s grief, but I was more concerned with the action of the story than the emotion. That’s my weakness as a writer. My first concept doesn’t always tie the two together closely enough.  With each successive draft, the peers who read my story asked for more about Malina. She became a bigger character than I had anticipated.

I got there through the bear.  Iweiwei lived in a trailer, something unstable that the grizzly could shake.  And every object (and animal) the grizzly stole revealed facets of Malina to me. So I built her through objects at first; the carvings, the blankets, her favorite food. Malina was long gone, but those things she loved were still in Iweiwei’s trailer, haunting him, reminding him of all the ways he loved her. Those things brought her to life – for me at least. It only seemed natural that someone as shy as Iweiwei would be drawn to such a life force as Malina; and that he would be so decimated by her death, too.

But their relationship was still missing something. I hadn’t shown how Iweiwei, an outsider, came to be with Malina. If I could show that, I knew, I would discover more about each of them.  Fortunately, I met a marine biologist at the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference last year, a real collector of seal puke! He described combing through vomit with a metal stick and I had my lightbulb moment.  Already, I’d established that Iweiwei was sent out of the village as a representative because of his comfort with outsiders.  Now I just had to track that backward and show how he got there. In an earlier version Iweiwei is teased by Malina with disparaging nick names.  She calls him ice miner, bear sniffer, and seaweed scratcher. It only made sense that the boy who felt like he didn’t belong would gravitate to the researchers who visited their community. Those experiences brought him to Malina.

BC: Could you tell us a little about your experience at Bread Loaf Orion?  Would you mind talking a little about how the experience of the conference contributed to the development of the story?

CR: It’s funny that you ask that, because the small section I developed for the story at Bread Loaf was the same section that the editors at Border Crossing gracefully suggested that I might not need; and in earlier drafts of the story I one hundred percent would have agreed with that comment.  My earliest readers at an MFA workshop asked for more of Malina.  So I wrote more of her into the story, mostly in details.  When I presented the updated version to my workshop at Bread Loaf, the readers asked for even more. So I wrote her into the story even more, but this time I added back story, not just details and slices of life. Strangely, when I received the suggestion to cut or shrink the section involving Iweiwei’s interactions with Malina as a young boy, my first impulse was a reflexive desire to keep it – despite my original desire months earlier to leave more to the reader. In the end, the editors at Border Crossing were right.  I didn’t cut all that was highlighted, but their thoughtful comments encouraged me to reconsider what was necessary and to further refine that which was. Good editors are great that way.

The Bread Load experience was terrific.  One of my favorite writers in the English language is David James Duncan.  He was one of the fellows leading a workshop that week. Talk about a writer bleeding with a love for nature.  David Duncan’s heart is evident in every word he writes.  He also can give you quite a good laugh just having a friendly conversation.  There were several other writers there that I had never heard of, but now admire. I think I got just as much out of my social interactions with other authors as I did from my instructional time with Belle Boggs, my instructor, and she was terrific.  She helped me bring Malina out of the woodwork, so to speak.  Her comments, backed up by other participants, made me realize that my references to Malina were always buried in the lines. I needed to bring Malina front and center at some point.

One last comment on Bread Loaf.  The writers there come from a great diversity of backgrounds and experiences. How else would I have met a real collector of seal puke?  My head was buzzing with ideas and questions after a week there.  The simple lifestyle fostered at Bread Loaf really gets your brain focused and engaged. The living quarters are spartan and yet it was one of the most luxurious weeks of my life.  The setting is pure Vermont beauty.  It was hard to say goodbye to the friends I met there.

BC: Could you tell us about your work as a naturalist and how it informs your writing?

CR: First of all, I am an amateur naturalist.  I need to make that clear lest anyone think I have a scientific degree; though I am working towards one. I also do a lot of volunteer work guiding classes at a local research reserve.

For the most part, my experience as a naturalist simply keeps me engaged with the natural world and the issues humans should be placing front and center. The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, where I volunteer, is monitoring the impacts of warming oceans, the proliferation of invasive species, and the encroachment of human development, among many other processes, on a daily basis. A three hour field class at the reserve is enough to get anyone engaged.

My understanding of the natural world encourages me to be authentic in my writing.  Characters have to be real, of course, and so do landscapes and animals; even weather patterns. That doesn’t mean writers can’t employ surrealism into our work. It just means we have to shape those landscapes and creatures so well that readers are willing and prepared to accept a divergence. We also have to troll in possibilities. Thirty years ago, a story placing Orcas around Baffin Island would have been inauthentic. Today it is real.

But more than anything, a scientific, even an amateur understanding of nature gives me material to write about. The natural forces around us are so fascinating that a writer can simply roll out dry details in a story and capture people’s imagination.  There’s nothing more to writing about the movement of Orcas in a bay than pointing and saying “look at that.” Details matter.  They build the story.  In Animals of The North I used my research to inform the details.  Hopefully, they  were authentic enough.


Christopher RingChristopher Ring is a writer, explorer, and amateur naturalist. He received his master’s in writing from the University of New Hampshire. He has lived in Colombia, Austria, Ireland and all over the U.S. He currently lives in coastal Maine. This is his first story after taking time off from writing to build eco-friendly homes.