“Yes, my nukatpialugruak?” The elder drew out the word with a fondness. Though his son was eighteen, he was already a man, soon to be married, but he was still his youngest boy and was doted upon as such.
The youth’s eyes darted nervously, not wanting to get ensnared in his father’s watchful gaze. “It’s.. the foreigners. The tanik. They’ve come.”
His father’s face grew stormy and his hands gripped the arms of his creaky wooden chair. A log shuddered in the fiery hearth, as if it was overwhelmed by the sudden anger that filled the room. “Take me.”
The son nodded with ever a touch of hesitancy. The white men had been warned to keep away, but still, they kept encroaching. He grabbed his father’s fur-lined sealskin coat and helped him into it while his father shimmied into his boots. There was business to tend to and no time to waste.
Just last moon, Mikipukiq had killed two who had trespassed into his home. They were growling and seething, and Mikipukiq feared for his sister’s safety. He shot the savages, even though it was truly for protection, but the tanik were stupid and senseless. They could not understand these things they did sometimes and they typically responded with more anger and violence. Surely that is why they have come this night to seek some misguided revenge.
Outside, the dogs yowled impatiently. They sensed something was wrong. The lead dog trilled, antsy and ready to go and trotted in place. The son gave a reassuring head scratch to the pup then helped his father into the sled. Once they were settled in and wrapped in the bearskin, he called out to the team and they broke out in a run, their yips and encouraging barks echoing in the cold, winter air.
Within minutes, they happened upon an angry crowd that didn’t even notice the chief’s arrival. Though he was frail, his voice was strong and authoritative.
The son held his father’s hand and guided him to the middle of the crowd. On the ground, the tanik was kneeling over a pile of blankets, shaking.
“Why have you come and broken our truce?” The chief’s tone was fury. The son recalled the same tone being used in his childhood and tugged his braid, involuntarily. The white man must be terrified.
“A.. aapag—“ The foreigner’s mouth was lazy and clumsy. His big tongue, fat on the unearthly ways of the white man, could not pronounce the simple, true words.
The chief waved his hand, almost annoyed. “English. You can speak English.”
“S-s-sir,” the man whimpered, dropping onto his hands reverently. “I am sorry, so sorry, but you are my last hope.”
If the chief was curious or interested, his face did not show it. He remained, stony and wordless.
Stammering to fill the uncomfortable silence, the white man continued. “I-I-I, my daughter. It’s my child. My only child.” His bottom lip unfurled, wet and heavy, and he shamelessly began to sob. He carefully peeled back a layer of blanket to reveal a girl, no more than three or four years old. Her fair skin was inflamed with the redness of a fever and her blonde curls plastered pitifully to her sweating forehead.
The chief’s eyes softened but his stern jaw did not. “Where are your people?”
The man hung his head. “I have no people,” he muttered. “Not anymore.” He scowled, ever so briefly, then stroked his daughter’s head. “Please, please help her. I will do anything.”
The chief was unconvinced by the man’s response but he was not in a position to allow a child to suffer for her father’s mistakes.
“We will save her,” the chief said. “But we will keep her. She will be taken in and we will raise her. We will teach her the Way and make her one of our own.”
The man’s mouth opened and closed, just like a salmon drowning in the air. “But she’s mine. My daughter! My daughter!”
“You love her?”
“More than anything in the world.”
“What would you do for her?”
“Anything and everything.”
“You want her to live?”
“I would die for her this moment.”
The chief pondered that, satisfied with such a response. “I will not ask that. Not yet. But this is my offer. I will save your daughter. She will live. We will give her all and more what she needs.” He clasped his hands, thoughtfully. “Perhaps you may see her one day, again. But if you mean it, that you will do anything for her, I must hear it now. You must agree to it.”
The man stared longingly at the girl. Her face was wrinkled now in pain, gritting her teeth against whatever awful ailment besieged her tiny body. He whimpered helplessly as he contemplated the chief’s offer. With the back of his hand, he rubbed his daughter’s cheek and in a low voice acquiesced. “Take her. She is yours.”
The chief nodded at the healer, who hurried to the girl and scooped her up. She was followed by a trio of other women and they rushed off into the darkness to tend to the girl.
The man, weakened by his journey and his broken heart, struggled to his knees. But firm hands pushed him down back onto the icy ground. Surrounding him were the four fiercest hunters of the village, their man faces covered by masks of true spirits – owl, raven, fox, bear. Only slits were their eyes and they burned into him.
“What is this?” he cried out. “You already have my daughter!”
“We do,” the chief surmised. “This is true. And so must the price be paid.”
The man’s screams escalated in terror the further he was dragged away by the hunters. There was a choked, gurgling noise, then a ghastly roar, then nothing at all.
The son warily eyed his father, who aside from a slight smile playing across his face, was otherwise emotionless.
“Let us return,” the chief said. “I am tired.”
The excitement, now suddenly over, caused the crowd to dissipate. No one seemed to be interested anymore in the crazed white man whose status of living or dead was in question, nor no one seemed to wonder if the little girl was okay.
The dogs took off back toward the chief’s home, their paws clawing at the glittering snow under the canopy of undulating auroras waltzing across the sky. There was no barking; only the determined panting of the pups eager to get away and the wooden slats of the sled skating over ice.
The youth tightened the hood around his face. It was much colder than it had been not twenty minutes ago and his bones were shaking. His father, however, was indifferent and even had his face exposed to the freezing air as if he were too hot. Sweat beaded his upper lip. His eyes were closed and he looked content.
The auroras kissed and pulled away, arched like a sleepy lynx, and then their colors warmed. The greens and purples melted away to a red that consumed them. Blood streaked across the heavens, angry and threatening. It was a warning.
The boy huddled in his coat deeper and shivered. This was not a good sign.