Tom Lowenstein


[The writer stumbles into the household of an old Inupiaq (Eskimo) couple he doesn't know very well.]

'Then we have been wondering,' the woman said — she'd watched me as I'd stumped
             against the wind, flew back in its current and struggled at my door
with cardboard matches dying in the wind to thaw the padlock —
             'We have wondered what sort of man you are, or might be?'

'What sort?' I considered. Not personal history, character and motivation.
             She means 'kind' or 'species': my range, behaviour, patterns of feeding.
How I would mate. My migratory habits.

I'd found my way through her storm-shed passage.
             Beyond the wind, the air was weightless and yet textured.
The smell of oil rose from boot soles and mittens.
             There were stretched skins in frames on the freezer cabinet,
rifles and harpoon-shafts stacked against the ceiling.

I entered the strip lighting. There was a pile, apparently of blubber, on the table.
             Then, through the needles still unfrozen from my lashes, white bear-skin, maybe.
But naagga: she was kneeding, with a shamanistic heavy slapping, bread dough, bloated and elastic.
             'Arrigaa!' I murmured, though not counting on a sandwich.
The grey dough writhed. It reared from the table, mute and silken.

'What sort of a man?' Not psycho-history.
             She grappled the dough and started to punch it.
'We've watched the way you hurry. What business is this with the old man's stories?
             You'll never understand them. They only make sense to us, in our language.'

I sensed the wind her story carried of the white man's tapes, camera and notebooks,
             preying on her place, past, native property.
They came — back then — to take our language and our freedom.
             They built the school. Chased off the shamans.
Killed caribou and whales. Brought in whooping cough and measles. Jesus.

             Then: 'How come you aren't frightened living in the village?'

I'm afraid of your brother,'
I was frightened to answer.
'All this month,
he has been hunting me.
I'm afraid of those coals
that are his eyes.
They have grilled me to cinders.
The crystal of his skull
has burned my retina.
His voice, too's, found its way inside me.
He keeps words in his neck:
small, biting animals:
they come out, half way, when I pass him,
searching with their teeth
and whiskers for me.

The dough submitted, ectoplasm palpitating only slightly, to her forearms.
             She slashed it in half and slotted each lump into glimmering bread tins,
and set them to prove on the oil-stove grating,
             stuffing with a woolen hat the ventilator flap to keep the draught off.

'We like it,' she said, switching, to the lee, her subject,
             'when you eat our meat. With your knife from the bone.
The way you quaq. Eat it with uqsruq. You are even greedy.'
             'Yah, pretty hungry, maybe,' Suluk, the old husband, grunted,
and then gestured with his chin at some meat they hadn't finished.
             The woman slid a basin to me on the table.
'You better eat, ah?' he continued, without raising his head
             from the thing he was filing.
The split tusk sprayed his thumb with powder from the ivory,
             dust spiraling along the smoke flume of his Winston.

I grappled for my portion among chilled crests of blubber,
             and lugged with my hand a fat piece from her basin.
'Where's your knife, then?' asked the woman sharply.
             I had not been prompt.
My hesitation, as though doubtful of their generosity, was rude and ungenerous.
             I drew out the knife from under my sweater and started to eat with canine gruntings.
Suluk glanced up to watch me feeding.
             They started to talk. Sketched out the logistics and particularities
in each of their stages through which a live seal became boiled seal meat.
             Niruvana had been out last Sunday on the north side,
where the ice had parted and had shot, in a single pond of water
             three seals, and dragged them all home on his sleds: no dogs, no skidoo.
'Hard time, that north-side-ice against the south wind,' Suluk murmured.
             'Lots of seal meat!' mused the woman.
Powder and ashes blew across the table.

It was merry to talk. Their voices were cheering.
             'So how long more you gonna stay round here,' she quizzed me.
'Don't you want to see your girl friend?'
             'Make little babies,' explained her husband.
I digested the focus: briefly now their subject.
             Not who I am but what, she's asking:
My texture. White flesh.
             But now penetrated and confused with real meat.

Fondling my knife and sweating through my hair,
             I started to arrange, like Scrabble in the smoke between us,
a legibly constructed answer.
             'It's hard to say where I might begin. I was born . . .'
My throatful of letters, -k and -q in dislocation, spilled, loosely corrupted.
             'As soon as your mother couldn't stand it!'
She half-stifled a laugh. Her husband grinned.
             His teeth were old ivory, twisted and gleaming.
They refracted the moment.
             Then he bit her laughter with them.
She said: 'We don't need a book about you,' — coughing.
             'Too much sigrits,' murmured her husband.

What kind of man had I come here to refashion?
             Now this was a subplot to the old man's stories.
Self as an item: to construe its nonesense and cut away some of it.

In a back-pack strung on my aching shoulder swung a cadaver of patches,
             the stitching unravelled and in flapping miscellaneous tassels.
Extruded through the scapula,
             I had tried to shake this from the globe's crest into European water,
and then to go roast, bald and naked on a north crust of the Arctic,
             reduce it in this crucible to powder,
cold-press, scour, distil and bleach it on the sea-ice.
                                                                                            A naive project.

I'd jumped, as it passed towards his skinboat at the ice-edge,
             onto Piquk's dog-sled,
though he'd scarcely acknowledged the weight as he cantered
             along the solid inshore, whipped through the mush,
flown across the young stuff,
             and then through a defile of spiky ridges,
had lurched, banging the sled runners, up the sides of the gully,
             and had reached the calm black open water where the seals were feeding.

In that gully as we tumbled and regained momentum,
             I had clawed out something fussy, an old woolen from the inside of my stuffing.
My grip was paralyzed: but I'd grasped the worn-outness,
             spongey, flaccid and exsufflicate — and had hurled it to the foxes.

'Now that you've eaten, aren't you going to tell a story?'
             I was sleepy from meat and I'd dozed at the table.
The shirt I'd bought in Fairbanks was abrasive.
             They were testing me now there was real meat inside me.
Did niqipiaq ('real meat') in certain doses, convert one to Inupiaq ('a real person').

There were two dozen angles or so to this issue.
             I'd limned the polymorph on other but more loose occasions.
Counting on fingers below the table I registered a kind of order:

What was real (-piaq) and what was -nguaq (opposite to -piaq)?
             Did real mean justified, elect and central to the pattern of their cosmos?
Or did reality connote a peculiar in-touchness:
             ancient subjectivity claiming deep connection to first principles,
back then in differentiation from the otherness of whales, caribou and marmots?

Aquppak, for instance, who had entered a whale's head,
             migrated north, returning next season to leave 'his' whale meat with the village.
Was he always person? Human whale soul? Whale-and-human blubber?
             How far did the shamans swing between 'genuine' and -nguaq condition,
when their souls became animals, or animals, reciprocally, became their person?
             Think of Kavisigluk, weary of humanity,
who one day left his family to join marmot people.
             When he dived in the burrow and Suuyuk called down to him,
Kavisigluk piped, in marmot language: 'I am staying! I'm staying!
             There are people down here. I have come to join them.'
Then there was Iqiasuaq, the lazy man, who ended his life as a solitary caribou.
             And Qipuagalautchiaq transforming to a polar bear.
His family watched him dive through the iglu entrance,
             bear claws scaping the polished floor planks.

Transformation! Metamorphosis! The manifest and latent juggled
             behind screens of imposition! Inter-species oscillation!
These were slipshod boundaries: blithe transgressions.
             The animals colluded. Spirits connived. -piaq (real) was jestingly fluid.

'I don't know any stories,' I murmured, turning half away,
             as already I knew decorum demanded, and gazed down, nebulously modest.
A silence followed. My heart beat heavily against my hot, rough shirt,
             as though first to scrape and finally to broil it.

'Arrii!' cried the woman, 'my bread gonna burnt!'
             Three loaves came out. They were perfect, smoking.
'Arrigaa!' smiled Suluk, driving his knife through a Smuckers tin-top,
             To carve out some butter she twisted a can
which had melted and then frozen often.
             I'd eaten too much. This shift to a tea would make me vomit.

'You should know stories.'
             'Yah, he's told some stories.'
             Suluk went on, inching the suggestion to me.
'Just made something up. Just saglu (told lies) for a white man.'

If this was inquisition, it wasn't an unkindness;
             and if to affront, their motive was knowledge.
Besides, I was younger. And youth, while lovely in the comparative way,
             was fraught with events and too elastic:
not to be trusted with collective history,
             cycles of memory, temporal concatenations, past and present,
the imbricated texture of relations, with their knit and crises.
             To algebrize would be-to-be a cannibal, and eat the elders.
The aged mastodon had claimed me. I was his grandson.
             Together we formed aapa-giik: 'father-and-another':
a compound folkloristic 'person' idea: the aapa-noun a magical curmugeon,
             and the orphan -giik, an adjunct-without-kin,
the poor boy a mere suffix: the two unified in isolation on the margin
             of some nameless village run by married folk with proper children.