October 29, 1998
A Halloween Feature
Beloved Fear: Two Scary Inuit Folk Tales for Hallowe'en
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
OTTAWA I hate it, but I love it: fear, being scared, creeping myself out. The two feelings mutually coexist, separate yet equal, in my one beleaguered brain. Sometimes, my consciousness feels like a referee just barely keeping two combatant players out of fist's range of one another. On the one side, there is the need to flee, to avoid that which I fear, while on the other is the delicious ecstasy of terror, the exultation in making myself squirm.
The need to fear is closely related to that well-known human need for adrenaline, the need and note that I choose my words carefully here; not "desire," but need to safely entertain the animal portion of one's brain, to fulfill its subconscious expectation of its heritage, and the inevitability, of primal terror.
After all, is it not practical to be constantly primed to fear? It gives us an edge when the polar bear appears, doesn't it? Consciously, we may outwardly radiate the confidence of the capable hunter. Yet our subconscious minds knows that the bear will come perhaps not in this moment, but perhaps in the next.
And the subconscious mind demands an audience.
I am admittedly a horror addict, and have been since childhood. These days, it's Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson I've always loved to scare myself.
There was not always a time when I could gain access to horror novels or movies, and that time was my childhood, yet I was never without tales of the macabre and horrific. Inuit folktales are rife with gruesome features, and I cheerfully nagged my relatives to tell me those stories over and over again.
So it is as a tribute to all the people who patiently fed little Raigili her bedtime fare that I want to share a ghastly story or two from a late night with my father.
* * *
Kiviuq and the Fox Woman
"Ataataak unikkaaqtualaurit. Father, tell me a story."
"Taitsumaniguuq," he began, "there lived a heroic man who's name was Kiviuq."
Oh goody, I thought, Kiviuq was my favourite story character. Though the story has many versions, the beauty of Kiviuq was that he could and would adapt to anyone's storytelling style. In some stories, he has supernatural powers, and he always came into conflict with evil beings both human and animal.
Then again, he was a bit of a trickster figure, and could come into conflict with just about any entities who happened to be around. But it was the monster stories that were best.
We were at spring camp and it was warm enough to move into a tent. I, being the eldest child, was near the far wall, and I could entertain myself by staring at the white canvas, which had interesting spots.
I could pretend that the patterns on it were story characters, and "move" them around as they were silouetted against the white of the canvas tent. So, as my father spoke, the story came to life in my eyes as well as in my ears.
"Kiviuq was a powerful man," he said, "and had travelled to many strange places. He was powerful, but not as great as Iqimarasuqjuqjuaq" (an Ancient who's name has lost its meaning due to it's archaic nature) "and he fell into trouble from time to time."
"Kiviuq was kayaking that day when he came across a little island which seemed something like a small, waterbound peninsula. Having been on the search for a wife for a long time now, he thought there might be women about, and wasted no time in landing his kayak. He hid it in a safe place and continued in on foot. His seal-skin boots were soon full of holes from walking on the pebbly ground by the shore.
"Not only were his clothes in bad need of repair, but he was starving, having paddled on the sea for many days. It was then a welcome sight when he noticed a trail of smoke rising over a little hill. Not believing his good luck, he decided to be cautious and peered from behind a rock.
"To his amazement, there stood a beautiful woman, the likes of which he had never seen before. She had long, shocking white hair, and was tall and slender. She was hanging some skins on a line attached to her tent, and wonders of wonders was cooking a large pot of caribou stew over a welcoming fire!
"Kiviuq wasted no time and immediately limped down to the tent, playing a tired exhausted hunter for all it was worth.
"'Lovely woman, don't be afraid, I'm not a ghost,' he said by way of introduction. 'I've been washed up on these shores and I have not seen land for a many a day. Please take pity on this poor man and be so kind as to give me just a little stew. That is all I need.'
"He didn't have to beg so hard, as the lovely vision of a woman said in the faintest of voices, 'Welcome to my humble home. I live alone and human company would be refreshing, after all.'
"Thus it was that Kiviuq began living with the white-haired, beautiful woman. It was not a bad life being waited on hand and foot, but soon Kiviuq began to feel uneasy about the whole situation. He could not exactly pinpoint any problems, but it was a feeling that gnawed at the edge of his happiness.
"'So what,' Kiviuq said to himself, 'that she is a little strange and has some eccentric habits.' Every couple of weeks or so, she would insist on hunting by herself at night, and would arrive in the wee hours of the morning looking not like herself at all; in fact, a bit... disheveled.
"That, Kiviuq didn't mind so much. When she returned from such hunts, however, she would kind of smell funny, like she had been eating old meat. Again, Kiviuq was ready to endure all for the sake of living in peace. 'I'll get used to the smell,' he thought, 'after all, I'm a little strange myself.'
"It was only when these peaceful times began to deteriorate that Kiviuq was beginning to doubt his sanity. His wife, the beautiful woman, began to have times when she would launch into a temper tantrum and decry Kiviuq's abilities as a provider and capable man. 'What kind of man are you,' she would scream, 'that you send your wife out to feed you? You're like a monster, and you smell of sweat!'
"Kiviuq kept quiet, but each time the verbal abuse became sharper and just plain strange. Once, Kiviuq swore that he heard a sound like a high-pitched squeal in one of her tirades more like the sound a small animal would make when threatened.
"'Uakallangaa, I've got to do something,' he thought to himself, 'and I've got to do it soon. All this lying around and being treated like dirt is getting to me.'
"One day, while he was cogitating upon his lot in life , he thought he saw scratchings in front of the tent that he hadn't noticed before.
'And why,' he asked himself, 'does she always hang skins outside, even on a bad day? Oh, of course!' he cried in his Kiviuq logic. 'How could I have been such an idiot! She loves another! Why didn't I see it all before? That is who is giving her all those animal pelts.'
"He then hatched a plot to spy on her and follow her the next time she went 'hunting.'
"So it was that, one evening, Kiviuq pretended to fall asleep even faking a loud snore for good measure. He thought himself to be quite clever. 'You have to wake up pretty early to pull one over on old Kiviuq,' he chuckled to himself. 'Wait till she sees what I have in store!' He then lay on the smelly bed, keeping one eye open to launch his plan.
"One night he got lucky. His wife had gone out of the tent 'for a pee' and hadn't seemed to return. Peeking outside, he spotted no sign of life. Not even a slight breeze came up on that early fall night. It seemed that not only had Kiviuq's wife left, but she had taken a whole load of furs previously hanging on the line. 'Don't tell me she's leaving permanently this time,' Kiviuq growled. 'Women!'
"Kiviuq followed her tracks, which were visible on some sandy part of the ground. Oddly, there seemed to be an animal either with her or following her, as he began to see some strange footprints mingled with hers. 'What the... !?!' Kiviuq muttered a few curses to himself. 'This can't be happening.' Suddenly, the woman's tracks had vanished into thin air."
This was the part of this story that I had been waiting for, the part that came with sound effects and funny voices.
"'Either this lady can fly, or I'm going crazy.' Kiviuq doubted his sanity. Nevertheless, he followed what was left of the tracks to arrive at what seemed to be a small gathering of people.
Actually, what he could see through the fine mist that had risen up from the ground made it difficult for him to see shapes . The mist also had the strange effect of muffling the people's voices. Kiviuq thought he heard a cough, but it was someone who seemed to have laughed at another's joke.
"'Ha, ha, cough, ha, ha that's a funny one,' he heard. 'But you know what's funnier? What's funnier is how their children look when they're born. They look like overgrown lemming cubs, all hairless and blind! Ha, ha, ha, bark, bark!'
"'Good grief!' Kiviuq barely managed to exhale in breathless terror. 'These are animals! Animals who were talking!
And, there, right in the thick of it all, was his wife. Only, she was not in a shape that Kiviuq was accustomed to. She looked kind of like a fox but only bigger. Who could mistake those beautiful, hazel eyes, and that lovely, white hair? But her mouth: it was no longer human, but canine. And to complete the effect, her voice had become high-pitched and gravely.
"'Ka, ka, ka, ka, kaw! Ka, ka, ka, ka, kaw! Ka, ka, cough, ka, kaa, ka, kaa...'
"Then they turned, and they saw him. Kiviuq fled.
"'Bark, bark! A human! Yip, yip, yip, yiiiiiii...!'
"'Kaa, ka, ka, ka-ooooww, come bacck! Kaa, kaa, kaa, cooommme seeee your son, yip-yip-yiiiip!'
"Kiviuq prided himself as a brave man, but he ran hard, refusing to look behind him. He ran until he could no longer hear that voice, the voice that he knew so well as belonging to his beautiful wife, but that was also the voice of a fox.
He ran until he was out of breath, finally leaning against a rock to get his bearings. He had run so hard that sweat was streaming down his face, mingled with tears. His tears were salty and tasted like the sea that he had had to prowl for many a lonely night.
"He left in his kayak that very night, and before long, the mist obliterated the island that had been his home, leaving nothing but grey clouds on the horizon. Ahead, a small shaft of light from the setting sun once more became a lure to him, and promised adventures to come.
"And that's the end of the story," my father said.
"It can't be," I protested, still wide awake.
"Well, Kiviuq can't kayaktuq forever. Where did he end up?"
My father knew where I was going with this. He sighed, "Aren't you getting sleepy?"
"Uh, sure, but I want to know where he went next. He met... the Spider Woman next, didn't he?"
* * *
The Dreaded Spider Woman
It was the dreaded Spider Woman that I had been waiting for. I wouldn't let my father alone until he told of her.
Finally, he gave in with, "Okay, but this will be short because you have to sleep now."
I settled in, and the patterns on the wall seemed to bring his words to life.
"Kiviuq was in his kayak for a long time," he began, "when he arrived on the shore of what what at first seemed like a coastal village. In the distance, he could see a few sod houses, and some stone ones as well. His heart was still aching from his last experience, and it perhaps dulled his judgement.
"Feeling hopeful and desirous of a new life, Kiviuq docked his kayak on the shore, and secured it with traces to some large boulders.
"Turning it upside down, Kiviuq planned to spend at least one night in the lee of his kayak, but after sorting through his belongings, and noting the miserable bit of food that he had with him, he decided not to wait until morning to explore that mysterious village.
"Kiviuq was upon the village, coming quite near before he noticed the strangeness of the structures. He had travelled to many bizarre lands, and lived among peoples having all varieties of traditions and taboos.
"Yet the closest structure to him, to which he had now arrived, was constructed in dimensions that made him shiver with the weirdness of it, for he realized that there was no way that it could possibly act as a human shelter. The structure was semi-circular, a wall of stone built only four feet high.
"He did not have to wait long to view its owner. As he cautiously peered over the edge, there came into view a hideously bloated spider-like thing, nearly the size of a man.
"It rocked gently to and fro, four of its legs tucked into some kind of sitting position, while the others dangled at the edges of its sickening form, a grey like the colour of dead flesh. Oddly enough, it/he/she seemed to be wearing some kind of clothing, which was clumsily made and didn't seem functional at all.
"The sight of the creature was so shocking that Kiviuq at first failed to notice the objects lining the base of the wall. What had seemed at first to be bags and bundles were in fact human heads.
"They had been neatly severed, and balanced side by side upon their stubby necks, amidst scatterings of old dried bones. The bottom of the 'shelter' looked more like some abandoned pantry that wild animals had raided. And for all intents and purposes, such a comparison was not far from the truth, as it was dawning upon Kiviuq.
"'Uakallangaa!' he thought. Kiviuq's mind barely acknowleged what he was seeing. As he stood above this ghoulish scene, a bit of saliva from his open mouth dropped below onto the head of the Spider Woman. Kiviuq hid behind the wall.
"'What was that?' she chirped. 'Is it raining? Damn these eye-lids anyway.' With that the Spider Woman snipped off her top eye-lids to reveal red coals burning in the sockets beneath, and went back to her tasks.
"Kiviuq then realized that, as with his wife, this was some inhuman thing that had tried and not quite succeeded to assume the form of a woman, that he had arrived in some horrible, nightmarish land from which he would be fortunate to escape.
"Kiviuq watched as the Spider Woman continued to strip the meat from the calf of some animal she had caught. Kiviuq turned away to spare himself recognition of that flesh that he suspected was not of a caribou. Suddenly, he heard a noise.
"'Y-y-y...' It was one of the heads along the wall, that nearest him. Somehow, Kiviuq was already resigned to the fact that there was nothing normal about this place, so he was not surprised when the head rolled its eyes at him, pathetically gasping, 'Y-young man! O-over h-here...!'
What could he do? He stood paralyzed, and listened. 'Young man,' the head wheezed, 'save yourself. Forget about us. Her hearing is very poor. Just don't let her smell you. Leave before it is too late. Leave before you are invited in, like we were...'"
My father continued to talk, but it was getting hard to listen. Sleep was nearly upon me now, waving in and out, like a dark, gentle tide. There was more to the story: something about a snow bunting, and three riddles, and then at some point my father saying,
"...and I don't remember the rest."
It was the Inuit way of saying that one didn't want to tell anymore. I think I resisted feebly, but the night's storytelling was done.
Comfortable in my warm fear, a gift of love from a patient father, I began to drift. The patterns on the tent wall were fading now, figures disappearing into the mist. The last pattern I remembered was of a man walking with a dog, carrying his harpoon and walking off into the distance, until both of them were small black dots.
Thank you, father.