Snow crystals whipped off a shelter berm, spraying across Ciuqak’s cheeks. He stuck his tongue out and snatched a piece that had landed in the crook of his mouth. The ice crunched as he folded it into what was left of the small hunk of seal fat he was chewing.
The fat in his mouth belonged to the same seal as the fat chewed by his son, his wife, and her sisters. Theirs too will be gone by the end of the day; soon after that their stomachs will complain of emptiness and those complaints will grow urgent. Unheeded, hunger will come up a man’s throat and eat away his face from the inside until nothing is left but skin and skull and dead eyes.
The animals of the great expanse had gone to sleep with the sun one month before. In lean seasons past Qerrataq, the village angakkuq or shaman, would travel under the ice to find a generous caribou willing to give of itself. Old age took her when the sun last dipped beyond the horizon. Without her, and with the other men consumed by fever, the village had only Ciuqak to rely on.
He stepped off into the purple shroud of winter’s midday. The snow barely gave way under the tangluk strapped to his feet. He shook his head at the everyday miracle, the magic in the broad shoes that prevented his weight from sinking him all the way to the top of his head.
The wind blew bitter and frigid. Cuiqak measured his breathing, in a cold snap like this a careless breath could freeze his throat up and kill him before he even started. The faint glow of midday ebbed as he crunched along the snowfields, pausing every so often to lean against his spear and listen to the dark. The cold did its work, creeping through his parka, stealing the heat from his body. Hours passed as Ciuqak drove deeper and deeper into the darkness.
A single snowflake tumbled into Ciuqak’s vision and chilled him from the inside. A storm could have come at any time, he knew this and had kept his fears to himself so as not to tempt the spirits. Other snowflakes soon followed on the back of the wind, filling his vision with sharp white cold. He gripped his spear and stood still in the storm. He should dig a shelter, anything else would be suicide, but that prudence would also be a kind of murder. Ciuqak weighed the two crimes and made his decision. He crunched toward a stand of trees—he wasn’t the only thing that would seek refuge in a storm.
One of the trees ahead shook, dumping a loaded branchful of snow to the ground. A spark of hope ignited inside Ciuqak’s chest but he snuffed it, wary of giving his wishes away, even to himself. He gripped his spear and approached.
A low voice sung out, its words carried in the howls of the wind, Hunter, what do you seek in this storm, so far from your village?
Ciuqak willed his wishes to stay buried in his throat, to give them away would doom him. Everybody knew that speaking what you wished for was the surest way to be denied that thing. Hunger, hearing Ciuqak’s struggle, stirred in his belly, poking him cruelly and nipping at the meat on his ribs. A desperate plan sprung into Ciuqak’s mind and after a long pause he allowed himself to speak.
“I am cold, Brother Caribou. Would you give your warmth to me so that I may survive the night?”
The wind whistled while the caribou stirred under his shelter. I can give you what you want, but all things come with a price. Are you willing to pay whatever I ask of you?
Ciuqak nodded, and told his body to be still.
Then come to me, child. Let your spirit climb into my body so that my fur can protect you from the wind. You will live as a caribou and when the storm clears we will find our herd.
The caribou shook its head, there was to be no return.
Ciuqak kneeled in the snow. The wind burst into an angry howl, buffeting the stand of trees. The landscape faded away until there was nothing to see but the dull purple glow of the spirit world.
A rush of warmth enveloped Ciuqak’s body, a body different than the one he had lived in all his life. He moved his head and felt the weight of his antlers and again quieted his thoughts in case Brother Caribou could hear them.
Without thought to announce his intentions, Ciuqak pushed his new body to its feet and waded into the deep snow, sinking to his chest so that he looked like a fur-covered canoe lost in a great white sea.
Where are you going? Brother Caribou’s voice rang in Ciuqak’s ears. His legs buckled underneath him, pulled between the two wills trying to command them. With an unworded prayer, Ciuqak wrested control of his legs from the spirit who had so generously given of its body. They walked through the long night until the dark blue glow of day once again washed over the land.
At long last the smell of smoke curled its way into Ciuqak’s nostrils. The odor caused a lightning edge of fear to run through his bones, fear born of reflexes owned by Brother Caribou, reflexes that Ciuqak steeled himself against as he forced his legs forward.
Over the shelter berm ahead lie what remained of Ciuqak’s village. Ciuqak’s wife and boy and his aunts and his sick brothers. His legs were caught fast, his will too weak to push himself any further forward.
Unable to move, Ciuqak began to grunt with Brother Caribou’s voice. The sound was faint but carried on the wind. He silenced his hopes before they could form words to foil the plan.
Another smell assaulted his nostrils, the pungent musk of humanity. Brother Caribou fought for control of his voice but the conflict only served to make the beast sound like it was crying out in pain. Movement came over the top of the shelter berm.
Ciuqak called down his brothers’ spears. Sharpened bone pierced his flesh, to the eager shouts of the family he had saved. With his last thought Ciuqak thanked Brother Caribou for his great sacrifice.