Storms are sex. They exist alongside and are indifferent to words and description and dissection. It had been blizzarding for five days and Victoria had no words to describe her restlessness. Motion everywhere, even the floors vibrated, and such motion was impossible to ignore, just as it was impossible not to notice the squeaking walls, the relentless shuddering of the wind. Robertson was in Yellowknife, and she and the kids had been stuck in this rattling house for almost a week, the tundra trying to get inside, snow drifting higher than the windows, and everyone inside the house longing to be out.
It was morning, again, and she was awake and so were the kids, but they had all stayed in bed and listened to the walls shake. Nine, or something like that, and still perfectly black. She had been dreaming that she was having sex with Robertson. She was glad she had woken up. Even the unreal picture of it had left her feeling alarmed—though that eased as the image of the two of them, entwined, had faded. In another conscious moment she was able to blink the topic away and out of her thoughts. As it had been.
She could hear her girls, Marie and Justine, whispering to each other in their bedroom. She couldn’t tell what they were saying. She heard the word “potato.” Pauloosie, her son, her oldest child, was silent. She listened carefully and thought she could hear him turning in his bed. And then the wind wound up and just howled.
As a girl she had not been this restless, waiting out storms with her parents on the land in a little iglu, drinking sweet tea and lying on caribou skins. It had been more dangerous then but less frightening. Storms make an iglu feel more substantial somehow. This house, on the other hand, felt as if it were about to become airborne, and it would have if not for the bolts tethering it to its pilings. It had been made in Montreal, of particleboard and aluminum siding, before being shipped by barge to Hudson Bay, sagging from square with each surge of the sea. Where the door frame gapped away from the kitchen door, snow sprayed through in parabolas. These wee drifts persisted as long as the door stayed closed. After five days they seemed as permanent as furniture. The wind whistling under the house kept the kitchen floor nearly as cold as the stone beneath it.
That stone slid, in its turn, through the town, to the shore, and then under the ice of Hudson Bay, angling shallowly out into the sea basin like a knife slipping between skin and meat. And on top of that water was ice, a quarter million square miles of it, arid and flat and sucking in the frigid air from the High Arctic like a bellows—blowing it down through Rankin Inlet and into the rest of the unmindful continent. Chicago would be Rome but for this frozen ocean, not that its significance is known to anyone who doesn’t live alongside it.
Rankin Inlet, Repulse Bay, Baker Lake, Coral Harbour, Whale Cove: variations on the theme of shelter from the sea, each of these hamlets lies on the west coast of Hudson Bay, named by nineteenth–century whalers seeking safety. The smallest is a couple hundred people and the largest of these, Rankin Inlet, is two thousand, almost all Inuit, with a handful of southerners, Kablunauks, among them.
The people exist along this coast against a backdrop of a half million square miles of tundra, gently rolling treeless plains. In the summer, this land is boggy and moss–bound; in the winter, frozen and blasted lowlands, eskers of rock protruding through shallow snow. The Inuit lived here for ten thousand years, pulling their living from this meager forage until the 1960s, when they accreted in the little government towns built along the coast and left the tundra empty of human inhabitants for the first time since the glacial ice had melted.
Victoria and Robertson had been married a year when Robertson paid to have this house shipped here for his new family to live in. It was twice the size of the housing department shacks offered to the rest of the community; this benefit of marrying a Kablunauk had been remarked upon in Victoria’s presence since the house had floated its way to the bay at the edge of the town. The other young families were crowded into the back rooms of their relatives’ cramped houses, and privacy such as Victoria knew was considered an uncommon luxury.
Robertson was not from here, and so no toothless and snuff–spitting aunts had been assigned to their family. The drawbacks of marrying a Hudson’s Bay Company man had been explored by dozens of women in the town, but this single advantage held. She lay in her bed now and listened to her daughters squealing and whispering and calling out to each other. This was an intimacy, she thought, that could never be available to a family who shared their house with another. She was lucky, at least on that score. But then, she thought, there might be a different kind of intimacy available to the cousins and brothers who had grown up unencumbered by the rind of privacy.
She was thinking about that when the banging at the kitchen door began. Victoria thought the door had become unfastened, and she leapt out of bed to close it before it was torn from its hinges. When she got to the kitchen she turned on the lights and saw her father standing just inside the door. Drifted snow stretched out alongside him on the kitchen floor. His eyebrows and eyelashes were coated in ice, and his caribou parka shed granules of snow steadily as he stood there.
“Qanuipiit?” he asked.
“Qanawingietunga,” she replied. As good as could be expected, anyway. They were all bored, certainly, but the furnace was working and there was food. Which was rather a lot to express with a shrug and a single word, but sufficiently severe terrain makes for a pronounced economy of expression. Consequently, Inuktitut is the very language of economy.
A little windy? Her father’s understatement made her smile. Justine and Marie appeared in the kitchen, drawn by the sound of conversation, and when they saw their grandfather in his sealskin kamiks they paused behind their mother. Twelve and fourteen years old, they were nearly as tall as the old man and were not prepared to greet him while dressed in their pajamas. Pauloosie loomed up behind his younger sisters in a flannel shirt and jeans. The old man reached inside his jacket and pulled out a plastic grocery bag. He held it out to the boy. “Tuktu.” he said.
Pauloosie took the bag of caribou meat. “Koyenamee.”
The steaks were frozen into pink and cartilaginous bricks. Pauloosie took the bag to the kitchen sink and peeled away the plastic. He began rinsing the meat off with cold water, picking away the bits of hair and tendon that stuck to it. Victoria and her father watched him. “How is Robertson?” Emo asked.
“He’s in Yellowknife again. Gets home next week.”
“He’s bidding on a contract.”
“He works so much.” The old man looked around the kitchen as he said this, as if scanning the house for evidence of the man’s absence.
“He does.” Victoria followed her father’s eyes around her kitchen defensively.
“Do you need anything here?”
“Not really.” Which was to say: nothing at all.
“I didn’t see the lights on.”
“There’s ice over the windows.”
“You should tell the girls to put some clothes on. It’s ten in the morning.”
Justine and Marie were down the hall and out of range before Victoria's backward glance even came close to them.
“Your mother wanted me to see how you were.”
“Why didn’t she phone?”
“It’s not working again.”
“Do you need money?”
“No. We just forgot.”
“I’m going to the bank when the storm lets up. I could take care of it.”
“If you want.”
“Do you need some fish?”
“We still have char left over from the fall.”
“Tagak shot a nanuq last week.”
“A good one?”
“That will get him two thousand dollars, anyway.”
Emo stood there a moment, studying his daughter. If Emo had been the man his own father–in–law was, he would have pushed Robertson off the floe edge and into the sea by now. He turned to the door and opened it.
“Ublukatiarak, attatatiak,” Pauloosie said.
"Igvalu, irnuktuq," Emo answered.
After her father was gone, Victoria cut up a pound of bacon and began frying it. Justine leaned over the kitchen table, opening her math book to do her long division. Marie sat closest to the stove with her Nancy Drew mystery: The Secret of the Old Clock. On the cover, a blond and dauntless Nancy peeked worriedly from behind a tree larger than anyone in the room had ever seen. Pauloosie laid the caribou meat on the counter and began cutting thin strips off it with his hunting knife and stuffing them into his mouth. After a few minutes of this, the bacon was finished and Victoria put a plate of it down in front of the girls.
The wind surged again and rose a half tone in register. Victoria looked out the window at the blowing snow. Pauloosie retreated to his room wordlessly. Her daughters read silently beside her. Storms like this make you appreciate a house. All you had to do was keep from losing your mind.
When Victoria was ten years old, in the summer of 1962, she was brought on board the government ship C.D. Howe, a red steel supply vessel that traveled along the west coast of Hudson Bay each summer. Her family had noticed how she spent her days squinting into the sky for birds she could hear but not see and peering at stone cairns, Inukshuk, she thought were people. The C.D. Howe conducted tuberculosis screenings and ran a vaccination program together with general minor medical care and eyeglass dispensing. In the late 1950s, the people remained for the most part on the land, coming to the coast in the summer to trade the furs they had accumulated over the winter, and to catch char and arviaat, beluga whales. While they camped there, steel freighters plied the coast, dropping off crates of fox traps and rifle cartridges and flour and tinned meat at the Hudson’s Bay posts, or, in the instance of the government ships, inserting medical appliances into ears and pushing naked chests against X–ray plates and collecting sputa in metal cups.
Emo and Winnie rowed their children, Victoria and Tagak, out to the ship a few minutes after it anchored in the inlet. It was August and there were twelve families camped, waiting for the trading ships. It was getting colder but was not yet cold enough to travel easily on the land. And the rain had come. The walrus hunting was finished until the ice froze again, the deer were far inland, and char were no longer running, so the people were bored and had spent the previous several weeks playing cribbage and arguing. When the government ship appeared, it was greeted as a break in the boredom, and everyone climbed into the boats to visit with the iqswaksayee.
The lab on board the ship processed their sputum samples on the spot and the doctor dispensed antibiotics for the ear infections and provided spectacles to the squinting children. Victoria had wire–framed glasses strapped to her head and gasped at the sudden clarity of the world. All the children were weighed and measured. With the doctor were two nurses who were not nuns but another kind of nurse, whose devotion to their profession was less absolute and more understandable: “nungurayak” was the name for these women, which meant “false nun.” The nurses who spoke enough Inuktitut to understand the etymology of their title were constantly amused by it.
One of these women steered Victoria into a waiting room with her mother and father. Her mother teased Victoria about her glasses, but all she felt was a suffused contentment. Even at a distance, she could see the world now, found it many times as rich and detailed and complex as she had previously understood. One image burned itself into her memory: her father standing in the companionway of the ship in his spring boots, kamiks, and caribou parka, brown and lined in a way that had surprised her. Beside him: her mother, her marriage tattoos almost obscured by her tan, which stopped just where her father's did, at the throat. There, their skin became as pale as a char's belly, and remained so right out to their wrists.
She studied the lines on the backs of her father’s hands, and the fineness of the stitching on his waterproof sealskin boots. She noticed the skepticism in the eyes of her mother, which she had not appreciated before, and the unease in her face as she stood in the Kablunauk ship. A moment earlier, the iqswaksayee had finished explaining to her, through the interpreter, how to care for Tagak’s ear infections. He turned then and walked crisply away, the scent of perfumed soap and shaving cream wafting to her wrinkling nose. Behind her parents, Victoria could see the drip marks in the paint on the ship’s bulkheads; she could see the gray in her parents’ hair and how much skinnier their faces were than she had realized.
In the cramped waiting room were squeezed Victoria, her parents, Tagak on his mother’s knee, the iqswaksayee, Caroline Kapak, the woman hired to interpret the local dialect, and Siruqsuk. Siruqsuk was one of the oldest of the Inuit elders in the area, though she was not accorded the deference usually paid to the very aged because of the low stature of her family and because of a whispered–about scandal to do with a long–dead husband and her sister.
Siruqsuk had lived on the margins of several encampments and was discreetly and grudgingly given food by her nephews when there was enough to share. Victoria had been aware of her for as long as she could remember, though they had not talked often. The iqswaksayee spoke in his flat and guttural Kablunuktitut language, and Caroline Kapak translated. “He says he’s sorry but the X–rays show puvaluq. You’re both going to have to go with the ship to the sanatorium.” Victoria wondered if she was going to have to live with Siruqsuk while her parents were away when she realized Caroline was looking at her and the old woman.
The ship made for the Hudson Strait, and then for the open Atlantic and around to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, eventually, Montreal. Siruqsuk and Victoria watched from the stern as the ribbon of shore disappeared behind them. Victoria kept a firm grip on her heavy skirts in the wind and the old woman put her stringy arm around the girl’s shoulders. Victoria asked what she knew about where they were going. Siruqsuk told her there would be plenty to eat when they got there and that the other Inuit in the hospital would take care of them. They could both feel the ship’s engines throbbing through the deck. Then the fog closed in and they went inside.
From the Hardcover edition.