Spirit of the Brown Bear

(Torar Angiyok Aklark)

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

The man kept walking, even though his legs seemed to be made of ice and the bearskin covering had stiffened.  He kept on walking.   His hands and feet felt numb, along with his brain.  He couldn’t think of anything other than why he was here.  What had happened back there that had torn the world apart? 

He kept walking until his legs gave out.  Then, when he hit the ground, he felt the pain from his knees jerking his senses back to his dilemma.   The cold ground made him shiver even more violently.  He tried to get up, but wasn’t able to make his limbs work.  He couldn’t make his frozen hands release the bearskin.  He wanted to cry, but was unable to.  It would have been useless anyway, the man thought.  Tears would have frozen and made him even more uncomfortable.

Then he thought of the flare gun he had used on the bear.  Maybe, just maybe he could make it work.  His stiff fingers fumbled under the furry bear hide for the pistol.  He couldn’t find it.  He dug under the tattered parka.  There was no pistol.  Finally with an almost inaudible moan of despair, he gave up.  He huddled under the skin wondering again how he had come to this point.  Even as he fell asleep, he was still wondering.

 

                             ========================

 

Utaq watched the stranger through narrowed eyes.  He had seen the crash of the airplane and noted the death of one of the men.  He had really wanted nothing to do with the white men, even in death, but then he became fascinated by the actions of the second man.  A hibernating ‘aklark’ or grizzly bear, one that had lost the right to eat the dead man, had attacked the survivor.  It must have been older to be so unsuccessful in hunting to eat a man, dead or otherwise. 

The man had not run from aklark.  Indeed, he had ingeniously shoved a weapon down its gullet and fired.  And then when the bear had died, the white man had skinned it for protection against the cold, wisely wrapping himself fur-side in.  When the man had walked away from the crash site and into the forest, Utaq had continued to follow him.  The Eskimo had paused in his surveillance of Nanurark, or bearskin, as he was calling the white man, only long enough to go and cut several large chunks of bear meat to share with his dogs.  The winter had been harsh on those still following traditional ways and meat like this, even though it was rangy and overly lean, should not be wasted.  This was the only foolish thing the white man had done.  A warm meal would have been of great use in the walk that Nanurark was making. 

Popping a small piece of the still steaming liver in his mouth, Utaq turned back to the white man’s trail.  He would follow as long as the man was traveling in the general direction he wanted to go and as long as the weather held up.  He urged his quietly straining dogs on the path made by Nanurark, pondering what he would do when the white man’s stamina waned.  While he could care less for what he considered foreigners, still he didn’t think he could leave one out in the wilderness to die.  Nanurark continued onward, though, plodding through the old snow with what appeared to be some kind of fierce inner determination.  It was halfway through the long night before the man’s strength finally gave out.  In the meantime Utaq had seen evidence of caribou on the fringes of the forest, much more than he had seen for many days.  Perhaps this strange Gus'k'ikwáan, or white man was good luck.

Utaq noticed the slight difference in the feel and sound of the wind and knew that the weather was changing for the worst.   He gazed at the huddled man on the snow-covered ground.  The man was one of those his tribe had turned their backs on, but the idea that this unorthodox intruder could bring good luck intrigued him.  Utaq decided to make a shelter and rest here during the storm.  Staking his dogs just inside a thicker stand of trees, the Inuit temporarily ignored the stranger and searched for materials for his shelter.  While he was casting about, the wind continued to pick up and snow began falling, a precursor to a blizzard.  He cut pine boughs and brought them back to his sledge.  He pulled a hide and canvas tent from the sledge and set it up with the surety of one who had done this many times.  The dogs barked a chorus, anticipating their breakfast and then they quieted down anticipating the storm.  Utaq latticed the boughs over the tent to insulate it and then he checked out the man.  To his surprise, the bearskin-clad man was awake, huddled at the base of a nearby tree, watching him.  Obviously he was cold, only his eyes were showing.  Even in the dark glow of the Arctic pre-dawn, the blue of the man’s eyes was evident.  They seemed almost luminous in their appraisal. 

Utaq motioned for the man to get in his tent even as the snow began falling harder.  Stumbling to his feet, the white man did just that, never relinquishing his tight hold on the bloody bearskin.  Cutting some of the bear meat for his dogs, Utaq gathered the rest of his supplies into the shelter with him.  Without saying a word, he pulled out an old camp stove and filled the reservoir with seal oil.  Pumping several times, he struck a match under the pilot and watched with satisfaction as the small flame flashed brightly.  He turned the knob in front and the flame flared around the circular burner.  A pot went on it to heat while Utaq went outside and gathered some of the fresh snow.  It was continuing to snow more heavily and he was able to gather several armfuls rather quickly.   Each time he slipped back into the shelter, the man watched him with inquisitive eyes.  He didn’t say anything, didn’t move, only watched.

Utaq pondered, but continued to do what needed to be done.  There would be time for talk later.  Aklark.  Aklark—the brown bear.  That’s what the man reminded him of.   There was something a bit fierce about this man, despite his weak and half-frozen condition.  Of course, he would have to be, Utaq reminded himself, considering that the grizzly bear had attacked him and the Gus'k'ikwáan had killed him with only a flare pistol. 

He went back out of the tent and pulled a second rifle from the sledge.  Then he paused as he heard a sound above the noise of the wind and rustling tree limbs.  It was a cautious sound, perhaps indicating a prey animal rather than a predator.  Utaq heard whining from the dogs and silenced them with a motion of his hand.  He prided himself that he had trained them to respond that way as well as by voice.  He did not possess a whip; he had never needed one.

Quietly, Utaq crept toward the sound.  He was now beyond sight of the campground, though the swirling thick snow had made that a fact almost before he had walked ten paces from the entrance.  Quietly, he continued his stealthy search.  The noise stopped and he stopped.  His eyes surveyed the area.  Even his plumed breath was muted.  Then he saw it—a large male caribou stepped to the edge of the thicket.  The pre-dawn twilight made it hard to see, but there was a blood-encrusted tear on one flank, as well as dried blood on his antlers.  It was quickly apparent that the creature had been targeted by a pack of wolves and had fled into the forest to escape.  Utaq listened.  There was no evidence that the predators had followed.  The reasons why the animal had taken refuge here was immaterial; it was only important that he had.  The Eskimo had been greatly blessed by this good fortune.  Even as he was thinking these thoughts, Utaq drew his rifle to his shoulder, sighted and fired. 

The caribou had seen him move and turned to bolt just as Utaq had thought he would.  The bullet was true and the animal dropped in its tracks.  Behind him, he heard the dogs begin a cacophony of barks and howls.  Ignoring them, Utaq walked to the dead caribou and gazed at it.  He frowned.  Either he would have to cut the carcass here and make several trips back to the tent, or harness the dogs again, or . . . or ask the Gus'k'ikwáan to help him.  He doubted that the man had a great deal of strength, but even a little would allow him to haul the caribou back to the camp and hang it from one of the trees there.  Turning, he made his way quickly back to his camp and saw the stranger standing at the entrance of the shelter, Utaq’s other rifle in his hands.  For a moment the Eskimo wondered if the man was going to use it on him, but the rifle was at his side, his gaze not aggressive. 

“I didn’t know what was happening,” the blue-eyed man said when Utaq stared at the rifle.  The bearskin had been left behind and the torn parka revealed some injury from the encounter with the bear.  The voice was mellow, low as though coming from deep within.  The man didn’t need to speak loudly in order to be heard even over the increasing wind.  

“I was hunting and shot a caribou,” Utaq said in explanation.

“I don’t know what I could do to help, but I am willing to try . . . if you need any,” the man offered.  “It looks like a blizzard’s coming.”

Utaq nodded.  “Get the knife from inside.”

The man said nothing, but ducked inside.  He was quickly back, handing the knife to Utaq, who had collected a stout leather rope.  The white man followed Utaq to the caribou.   With deftness and acquired skill, the hunter prepared to dress the carcass.   He directed his companion to help him drag the caribou back to camp and a nearby tree, where the two of them pulled the carcass off the ground to hang head down from a stout limb.  It was the only such available tree in the vicinity of his camp.    Near the tundra, the forest growth was usually scraggly and stunted with only pockets of larger growth. 

Again Utaq directed a glance at the man straining beside him.  The sheen of sweat beaded his brow and as he pulled on the rope, he could see the grimace of pain pass across his face.  The wounds from the bear would have to be tended soon.  Some would say that all that had happened this night was coincidence, but now no one would be able to convince Utaq that this man wasn’t good luck.  Two food supplies in one day was more than coincidence.  The Eskimo would gladly take care of this man as long as he needed it. 

Again with deft skill, Utaq finished dressing the caribou.  He directed the man to get a pot from inside the tent.  When Utaq slit the animal’s throat, he did two things that seemed to interest the white man.  He intoned a prayer to the animal’s spirit and caught the blood in the pot.  It would make a fine soup.  He handed the pot back to his new companion and conversed with him as he worked on the carcass.  “The plane you were in.  Where did it come from?”

“Plane?  So that’s what all that wreckage was?”

Utaq continued to work, but his mind was busy.  The stranger either had already been on the ground, but no, that couldn’t be.  Utaq had been hunting this region for some time and there had been no other incursions.  The man just couldn’t remember or he didn’t want to say. 

“Who are you?” the Gus'k'ikwáan asked. 

“Utaq.”  Some of his people would be hesitant to give their personal names to strangers, but this man had proven himself to be of worth not only to Utaq, but to the people of his village as well. Besides, the white man didn’t understand the custom.  “And you?”

The man opened his mouth to speak, then close it again.  He looked confused and then agitated.  There was a glimpse of fear in the blue eyes.  “I . . . I don’t know,” he finally stammered.  “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Utaq admitted.  “But the snow is falling faster and we need to finish dressing the caribou.  We can talk more in the tent.  Right now, take the pot in and put it on the stove.”

With a nod barely discernable in the twilight morning, the man picked up the pot and took it into the tent.  He returned a moment later and silently helped Utaq with the carcass, doing exactly what the Eskimo asked him to do.  A few of the dogs whined in anticipation but otherwise lay quietly and let the snow cover them. 

By the time they had finished, the snow was falling like a heavy curtain, making it difficult to see even the caribou’s carcass hanging from the tree above them.

Utaq was quick.  The stranger wasn’t able to help a great deal anymore, but he saved time by throwing scraps and bones to the dogs and helping him raise the bundled meat higher; enough into the tree to keep other animals from disturbing it until after the storm blew over.  With a look of satisfaction, Utaq motioned to the man and headed toward the tent.  He figured this storm would blow out in two to three days.  More than enough time to eat, rest and try to find out more about the mysterious white man. 

“I almost warmed up out there,” the stranger quipped as they both crouched and entered the shelter. 

“Good,” Utaq grunted, feeling over-warm right now.  He smelled the broth and smiled in satisfaction.  He cut up and tossed in a few chunks of bear meat, opened a small packet and added some salt and pepper.  Then he pulled off his outer parka and sat against a rolled up fur.  He gazed intently at the man sitting a few feet across from him.  The portable cook stove’s fire lit the small enclosure to just a little brighter than the morning twilight.  The man must have been feeling the cold again now that he was inactive, because he reached for the bearskin. 

“No,” Utaq said, tossing him his outer parka.  “The skin needs to be cleaned and preserved.  Then it will be a fitting tribute to your prowess as well as keeping you warm. 

“You sure you don’t need this?” the man asked, indicating the proffered parka.

Utaq shook his head and then smiled.  “You are not from here or you wouldn’t feel the cold so deeply. 

The man pulled the parka over his head and sighed at the feeling of warmth it created.  He only wished he knew where he had come from, and most especially he wished he knew who he was.

“You really don’t remember your name?” Utaq asked as the wind outside began shrieking intermittently.  The sides of the shelter rattled ominously, but everything stayed tight.  Utaq checked the center post as he waited for the white man’s answer.   “You don’t remember anything at all?”

“No,” he said softly, shaking his head.  “It’s a very frightening feeling,” he added after a long pause.   “As though you are a cipher; nothing at all but a black spot under someone’s heel.”  The voice fell off, almost to a whisper.

“Then until you do remember, I will give you a name,” Utaq pronounced decisively.  There was something drawing him to this man.  It was like this Gus'k'ikwáan was some kind of magnet, drawing Utaq to him and enfolding him into his soul.  And yet it wasn’t a threatening feeling.  It was like breathing in the essence of a beloved uncle.  The Eskimo man could only imagine what it might have been like if the man did know who he was.   Or might that be the reason for this feeling now—that the man didn’t have his memories to hide the inner soul?  Utaq shook himself mentally.  The spirits of the land might or might not reveal the answers to him. 

The blue-eyed man just gazed at him in surprise for a moment, then he frowned.  “That won’t give me back my memories and it certainly won’t tell me who I am.”

“It will tell you who you are now, though.  And when the rest comes, it will all add together.”

“All right, what do you plan to call me?”  There was a hint of a smile, and Utaq thought that the white man was secretly pleased with his concern. 

“There are two choices that come to mind,” Utaq began, relaxing more comfortably on a rolled up fur blanket.  “Nanurark was my first choice, because of the way you utilized the bear skin.  But the more I am around you, the more I am inclined to call you Aklark.”

“Why?” came the simple question. 

“Because you not only looked like the brown bear as you were walking, but I see some of the dead bear’s personality in you.”

The man blinked in surprise and then began laughing.

It was Utaq’s turn to look surprised.   “I enjoy a good joke.  Why do you laugh?”

“You have said I have some of the dead bear’s personality.  Do you mean I am nasty tempered and irascible?”

Utaq chuckled, and then he shook his head.  “Maybe, but I meant that you are courageous and I also see power in you.  There are very few men who could kill a fully-grown aklark almost with his bare hands.   There are very few who would even have the courage to try.”

“I had a flare pistol,” the man pointed out. 

Utaq shrugged.  “It takes more than the power of a pistol to kill a mighty bear like that.  You have some kind of magic force that is helping you.”

 

 

Chapter Four
Chapter One
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Contents
Main Page