by Karen Fayeth
Amid the noise of family chatter around the dinner table, Sakari ate quietly and took small bites while her little brother, Nattiq, scooped mounds of fermented fish into his face.
“Slow down,” she quietly admonished.
He shrugged in return, continuing on pace. At seven he was growing quickly and always hungry. Nine-year-old Sakari grew tall but had more modest appetites.
Each child lived up to his or her name, chosen by their mother well before their births. Sakari was just as sweet as her name implied, and Nattiq was as curious and gregarious as the seal so sacred to Inuit life.
As they ate, both children heard the conversation at the dinner table. Three generations of family talked of boring adult things like money and weather. The winter had been difficult, and as the earth moved into very long days, it was time and tradition for the men to hunt. Food reserves were growing low and the adults were worried.
Their murmured worries were absorbed into the impressionable Sakari and rolled off Nattiq like droplets of water from a seal’s back.
As the grownups talked, they made plans, threw around ideas, and said small wishes for success in their hunt.
“It’s hard to know if Nootaikok will smile upon us this year. We hope he gives us grace,” said Aanak, Sakari’s grandmother. She was the most superstitious of the family and steadfast in her traditional beliefs.
At the mention of Nootaikok, Nattiq’s ears perked up and he smiled.
“What are you smiling at, little boy?” Aata asked sharply, thinking his son had the audacity to mock sacred tradition.
Nattiq smiled even larger, “Nootaikok!”
Aata frowned more deeply.
“He’s my friend! I like him,” Nattiq said as a bit of fish fell from his mouth.
The adults laughed, Aata the most heartily of them all as he rustled his son’s hair and went back to adult conversation.
Sakari looked at her brother and caught his eye. She knew the grownups thought he was being an over-imaginative kid, but something in his voice and in his eyes told her he was serious. Maybe only a kid knew when another kid was telling the truth.
She’d heard him say this before, that Nootaikok, the Inuit god of icebergs, was his friend.
“Nattiq,” she whispered, trying to stay under the notice of the adults.
He turned to his sister, all bright eyes and seal-like enthusiasm. “What?”
“Can I meet him?”
“Nootaikok? Can I meet him?”
Later, after dinner dishes were cleared and bedtime stories told, the children lay under heavy blankets and whispered their own plans. They would tell their mother they were accompanying Aata in the morning to go check his fishing nets. Then they would tell Aata they were staying behind to help Aana with some chores around their home.
In the morning, as the sun touched the horizon and the sound of Aata’s tires crunched out of the driveway, the children shouldered their packs and set out for Nootaikok’s home, the large iceberg about two miles to the north.
Sakari walked in silence, mostly because she couldn’t get a word in edgewise as Nattiq nattered on about any topic that crossed his mind.
The iceberg groaned and creaked under their feet like a living ocean creature.
“How much farther?” Sakari managed to blurt out when Nattiq stopped to look at a rock.
“A while yet,” he said and kept going.
Sakari was starting to get scared and wondering if going off alone had been such a good idea but still they walked. The sun rose high above the world and hovered there for many hours. They walked over hills, through valleys, on and on.
“There,” Nattiq eventually pointed and Sakari squinted in the direction of his finger. She saw a cave.
“That? Where polar bears sleep?” Sakari said, suddenly terrified.
Nattiq nodded. “And Nootaikok too.”
The children walked toward the mouth of the ice cave, one tentatively and one jubilantly. Sakari shuddered and not from the cold. Nattiq came to the cave’s entrance and stepped confidently inside.
“Nattiq! The bears! You didn’t even check!” she shrieked as her voice rattled down the tundra.
“Why are you such a scaredy-cat? Come on!”
Her brother went deeper into the cave and was enveloped by darkness. She was too scared to go inside but twice as scared to stand outside, alone.
With a sigh of resignation, she stepped across the threshold and uttered a prayer to Anarkusuga, the goddess who oversees anything that gets caught in the frozen deep. It was a prayer she would not become another of Anarkusuga’s charges.
“Where’d you go?” she asked with a tremble in her voice.
“Rarr!” Nattiq jumped in front of his sister with flailing paws like a polar bear.
Sakari shrieked again and jumped a foot off the ground, then punched her beloved brother in the arm as her feet touched down.
“Ow!” he said with a hurt look while rubbing his burgeoning bicep.
Sakari gave her brother a defiant look.
“You’re mean,” he said, then, “Come on, it’s this way.”
She followed his bouncing form while squinting in the darkness and running to keep up.
The narrow passageway gave way to a great room deep inside the ice cave. A narrow beam of light from the sun shone into the room. It was a small ray of warmth amongst the cold.
“Here we are!” Nattiq said, expanding his arms.
“Here? Where? What?” she sputtered.
Nattiq only smiled indulgently at his sister. “Sakari, stop. You don’t just run up to a god and shake his hand. Nootaikok is here but we have to show him we can be trusted. Open your pack, spread our blankets. Get out the food I told you to pack. I’ll get something to burn. It’s been a very cold winter, and he’s trapped in the ice. We need a fire to release him.”
“A fire? Where are you going to find wood this deep in the ice?” she asked.
“Shh!” Nattiq said with one finger to his lips. “Stop talking and start believing. If you believe there is firewood here, then Nootaikok will provide.”
Sakari was struck mute and complied with his instructions. She shook her head and opened her pack. To keep her mind focused, she sang an ancient song of her people. Her Aanak sang the same song when she cooked or cleaned house. It was like a meditation.
Soon Nattiq reappeared with an armful of wood and dropped it on the ground.
“But how?” she said, then stopped herself. “Never mind.”
“Spread the food out in different bowls,” Nattiq instructed as he built the wood into a pile on top of several rocks already arranged into a fire pit. “Uh-oh,” he said.
“What?” Sakari said, trying to keep her pulse rate down and having trouble.
“I forgot to bring something to start the fire,” he said, a small amount of fear beginning to creep into his own eyes.
“You said you had fire taken care of! What kind of Inuit are you? Aata tells us a thousand times, you never leave the house without a reliable means of heat,” she admonished her brother.
He looked miserable and nodded his head.
“Nattiq! I’m serious! We could die out here!” she said, voice and fear rising.
His head only continued nodding, and his face ever more miserable, a small tear came to his eyes, and in that moment his sister knew she had gone too far. She walked up to her cherished brother and patted his shoulder. “I’m sorry, dear one, I didn’t mean to make you upset.”
“No, it’s okay. You’re right.”
She put her arm around him and pulled him close to her side. “What do we do? Should we try to make our way back home now? Or do you think we have enough supplies to bed down here?” Her voice took on the authority of her Aata. She knew she was strong enough to keep them both safe.
“I don’t know. Maybe we could try this?” Nattiq said, holding up a small orange Bic lighter and flicking the flame to life.
Sakari jumped back, eyes wide, and then stamped her foot hard onto the ice. Nattiq’s convulsive laughter echoed off the walls of the cave.
“What kind of Inuit are you?” he said, mimicking her voice and giggling as he brought the flame to the wood. The tinder quickly sparked.
Soon a small fire took on a life of its own and burned brightly in the ice cave. The brother and sister arranged themselves near the warmth and sat quietly.
Sakari reached out to take a bite of food, and Nattiq swatted at her arm. “No,” he said, voice serious. “We eat after he eats.”
She could sense this was no joke and withdrew her hand.
“Sing with me,” he said solemnly and began an ancient song in a strong voice. She knew the song too and chimed in.
“Concentrate,” he said. They held hands and continued their song.
Heat from the fire began to rise inside the room of ice, and then water dripped from the ceiling. The droplets fell into the fire and turned to steam as they hit the heated rocks. Soon a form began to slowly emerge from the smoke and steam.
“Close your eyes, keep singing,” Nattiq whispered and Sakari obeyed.
A third voice joined them, at first small and whispery but growing in strength. Sakari wanted desperately to open her eyes but kept them tightly shut. The tiny hairs at the back of her neck stood on end and warmth filled her body.
“The boy-seal and the girl so sweet, have you brought me food?” came a deep yet smooth voice.
Both children opened their eyes at the same time and looked up. An Inuit man with long hair, dark eyes, and a gentle face stood over them. He wore thick furs in the traditional Inuit style.
“Please, have a seat,” Nattiq said, scooting back and making room. Sakari was speechless. Her brother had to pinch her arm to get her to move.
“We brought you some fish, some berries, and some bread. Does this please you?” Nattiq asked, being very formal.
Nootaikok grunted his assent with a nod and dug his fingers into the pile of fish, then pointed at the children, a sign they should also eat.
Two humans and one god of the iceberg dined companionably in silence. When the food was finished, Sakari stacked the small bowls and set them aside, her eyes never straying from the legend before her, so many questions on her mind.
“My dear children, you bring me such joy, but it’s also very difficult to take this human form. My strength is already waning. Dear Nattiq, tell me, are you all right?”
“Yes,” the boy said, now uncharacteristically mute. He treated his friend with much deference.
“You grow big and strong. I look forward to the day when I can abdicate my powers to you. I know you will guard the seals and sea creatures with such care.”
Sakari’s eyes went wide and she looked at her brother. He was to be the next god of the ice and arctic creatures? What?
“I’m not ready yet,” Nattiq said, sounding very much like the boy of seven that he was.
“I know, son, I know. But in time. Come back soon. We have much to discuss. I can teach you. And Sakari, your mind is so full of questions. What must you ask of me? Make it quick.”
Sakari suddenly went shy and twisted the hem of her coat with her fingers.
“Speak up, dear girl.”
“I. I mean. How? I mean.”
Sakari noticed the edges around the man were beginning to grow wavy and dim, like smoke rising from a newly lit log.
“Quickly, dear girl, time grows short.”
“Nootaikok, my family must hunt soon or we shall go hungry. I am so scared. Do you bless us with success?”
“Child, my job is to protect the seals and the creatures of the sea. My job is also to protect my people and assure that they survive. It is a delicate balance. Your father and your mother’s father know what they must do. Make sure your family hunts only what they need and use every item from the animals they take. You must keep the ancient ways and the ancient ones in your heart, always.”
Sakari watched as the man grew dimmer. She felt a great emptiness as he turned into a wisp of smoke, which then rose to the ceiling of the ice room and escaped the small hole, then into a ray of sun.
The two siblings hugged each other tightly and cried together.
“Oh Nattiq, I had no idea!” Sakari sobbed into his shoulder.
“C’mon, let’s go,” he said, drying his own tears and sounding very much like their Aata.
The two children worked quickly, packing up their supplies, and Nattiq put out the fire. They quickly emerged from the cave and went back out onto the iceberg.
The journey home seemed to go so quickly, as though floating on air. When they drew close to home, the sun had already dropped well low on the horizon. Colors began to swirl in the sky. Sakari never got tired of seeing the dancing lights.
“Nattiq, is Nootaikok my friend too?” Sakari asked as they entered the gate in front of their home.
The boy smiled and nodded. “Of course. Now come on, Aata and Aana will be mad that we’ve been gone all day.”
“But if you are to become Nootaikok, then what is my fate?” she wondered aloud, now timid around her cherished brother.
“Sakari, don’t be silly, you can be anything you want.”
“Nattiq,” Sakari said, hesitating. “I can’t get used to the idea of you being a god.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t get used to the idea of your face,” he said, laughing and running off.
Sakari laughed too, then chased her brother all the way home into the loving yet worried arms of both Aana and Aata.
Illustration: Heritage, Newfoundland, Canada, 1818 engraving.