by Isobel Cunningham
“Berry picking is for ladies.” My very macho Inuk student, Josipee, told me that. I had heard the kids talking about flying to another village north of Kuujjuak to pick with their families. I asked if he was going and he put me firmly in my place. He was used to the old burdens of kindly contempt, weary tolerance and amusement that the students must pick up with each new white teacher who comes to Adult Ed. There I was and I had to learn.
I was thrilled when some ladies invited me to pick berries with them. It was Friday night at The Lounge. Once I figured out the meaning of, “Are you loungin’ it?” I was happy to tag along with the principal and a few of my middle-aged students. They were women who hung faint hopes on the “retraining” project of which I was a blind and blundering part. In class they acted as aunties to the fresh kids who had dropped out of school for a couple of years to go hunting or to have a first baby. Word soon got out that you could pull down an allowance for going to Adult Ed, and the more ambitious ones even dreamed of a job afterwards. The older women had no such illusions, but Zen says we should live in the moment. Zen masters should have an obligatory year in the north.
The Lounge was a bar in the big hotel down the hill from our new school, a small building with the smell of paint and glue and plastic still hanging in the classrooms. The lights blazed all night and the school secretary laughed at my suggestion that she turn off the photocopy machine. “I’ll only have to turn it on again in the morning. You’re not paying the bill, are you? I know what you’re going to drink tonight, I bet.”
“What then, Suzie?”
“Two glasses of red wine. Am I right?”
“You nailed it girl!” I was learning too.
Down the hill we went in the afternoon twilight to the low, ugly modern hotel. In the bar a huge muskox head stared glumly down at the clientele. The whites sat on one side of the room and the Inuit on the other. Our group sat in neutral territory on bar stools. The bartender was a young woman with her hair tied up in a long ponytail. It whipped around as though it had a life of its own as she served beer, rum and coke, vodka, bourbon and a couple of glasses of very bad red wine. There were a few American men up for the fishing and they sat at a corner table, spreading their legs and laughing a bit too loudly. They eyed the girls and shrugged in their huge camouflage jackets.
After a couple of drinks, Alice—my boss and principal of the college—leaned over and smiled her gap-toothed smile, her smile of the crinkly eyes, and she asked a question that made me so happy.
“You wanna come picking berries with us tomorrow?” She raised her eyebrows and nodded as you would to a dim child who needed to be persuaded into doing something that was really good for her.
“Oh, yes. Thank you. I’d love to come.” She and Annie and Lally laughed and laughed. It seemed they had been making bets on what my reaction would be.
“See,” said Annie. “I told you.”
Alice told me she would pick me up at eight in the morning and that I was to wear good boots. I walked back to my ugly apartment, one of six in an ugly building.
When I got invited to the apartments of other teachers I was disconcerted to see that their furniture—the couch, the bookcase, the coffee table—was exactly the same as mine. Walking into their houses was like entering a bad dream. I imagined fighting with them over whose house it was and throwing them down the steps into the snow.
Of course, what I said was, “Oh, you’ve made it your own. It’s quite different from mine.” They either roared with laughter or looked at me with the proud satisfaction of having endured the north for years, having created their own north, a white north that had nothing to do with hunting or having tea out on the land.
Saturday morning was brilliantly sunny as I watched by the window for Alice to drive up. She was a bit late and I began to feel hot in my coat and boots, standing and waiting at the window as stray dogs chased the wind from the river up and down the street. I suppose I could call it a street. There was even a stop sign where another group of buildings ended up on the hill.
Alice’s car was a strange ancient GM hybrid that you would never see down south. It was a car in the front but the back was a truck-bed. Annie and Lally were sitting on tires back there. I clumped down the slatted metal steps that would shed snow in a few weeks. The white caps on the river were a warning of the chill air, and I was glad I had worn my jacket with the hood. Alice shoved the passenger door open with a stick because there was no outside handle. The screwdriver she used to start up the engine was stuck in the crumbling foam of the dash.
“We’re going to Three Lakes, out past the airport.”
We sped along the dirt road that led out of town. A few scrubby trees flashed by. How flat and open everything was!
“Are there really three lakes?” I asked, guessing it was that kind of question that made the kids in town quit school.
Alice was kind and had dealt with many mixed-up people so she just smiled and said, “You won’t see them. We’re going for berries, remember?”
I resigned myself to not hearing about the three lakes. My notions of social chit-chat were swept away by a wind like the breath of God, the wind that blows chit-chat and life and death away—blowing and blowing forever, up around the top of the world.
Alice stopped the car and we got out. We were out in a wide expanse of hilly terrain. We walked over large slabs of rock or stretches of pebbles. Here and there were big mats of crimson or orange or green growth. There were many huge mushrooms, the color of shiny toffee, sitting in these beds of color. Alice showed me the small blue berries on bushes a few inches above the ground.
“Why do you have that big gun, Alice?” I asked in my Little Red Riding Hood voice.
“We’re not the only ones who like berries.” And the women laughed and laughed.
“Pick the ones with the green leaves, not the red. The bears like these black berries, but we eat them too.”
I tried some of the black ones. They were rather bitter, tasting of tannin. Tiny cranberries nestled in the foliage but I was told not to pick those. All the large stones of black or grey or dull green had a sort of halo of bright mosses or lichen. We scrambled through some low bushes to get to a hill where picking was good. There were soft white plants underfoot.
“The caribou eat that. It’s a kinda moss, I guess,” Alice said.
On the little hill the caribou moss was thick, like foam and scattered about were tussocks of pale pink and violet. As I walked, my feet, in big rubber boots, sank into the soft cushion of mosses. The women laughed at me when I said I was destroying the environment with each clumpy step.
We spread out, far from each other, wandering, wandering over the hill and the wide range on the other side—stopping, stooping, picking and moving on. How strange it was to focus completely on the tiny plants on the ground, moving from one small set of bushes to the next, picking the berries one or two at a time and dropping them into a bucket that now seemed huge.
Suddenly I saw the skull and antlers of a caribou on a little clear patch of pebbles. The lower jaw was gone but the whole upper jaw with the teeth was intact. There was a faint reddish smudge on one of the antlers and around the eye sockets, a pale sea-green tinge. I picked it up by an antler and thought about the moment when the creature lay down there and breathed out its spirit and then it wasn’t a caribou any more but food for something else. I looked up and there was the huge sky and the land stretching away, away off to the horizon.
Alice and the others were nowhere to be seen. I heard no voices, only the wind and some insect and the faint rustle of tiny leaves and my own solid heartbeat. The antler grew quite warm in my hand as a feeling of my own fragility and smallness closed over me. I was not afraid but I knew it was quite futile to move, to call out, to do anything but stand there in the gusty wind. Had a little child or an old woman wandered away long ago on berry picking day, wandered away like the tired young caribou as the others sped on driven by the need to run fast and far?
Just a few moments passed—breathing the gusty northern air, standing all alone until Lally appeared, coming up over a ridge. Her glossy black hair stood up in the wind like fine silky wire.
“Hey, here you are. Had enough?” She looked into my bucket and called the others. “Not bad. At least you covered the bottom of the bucket.” They laughed and laughed and I laughed too, happy to be found and to be led away to where we would make a fire and have tea before going home under the lowering sky.
Long after, after I had scrubbed the caribou head with a toothbrush and baking soda, when I had decided it was clean enough to be hung on my wall, I drew a picture of the caribou head. It was a Sunday, a deadly Sunday afternoon in November when the sky was grey and evening came in the afternoon. I was alone and lonely at the top of the earth in my little apartment. I wondered what would happen if I were to walk out and away from that little town, out far away past the airport up towards Three Lakes. No use to look for the spot where I had picked up the caribou skull but I might have found another spot to lie down out there in the cold.
I knew it was a foolish idea. I was too afraid of the stray dogs around the house and still too much in love with my life. I had cried a lot that afternoon over my boyfriend who was far away down south and who would never leave his wife. I knew in the marrow of my bones that I would never again be loved as I longed to be loved. I looked at the caribou skull and although I am a poor artist, I drew a spirit-woman flying above the skull and the breath of the caribou pouring out onto the colored mosses. I looked and looked for a long time and I remembered what someone dear to me—a true artist—had said about not just looking but seeing and somehow the caribou skull appeared under my hand on the paper.
I pinned the drawing on the wall across from the television. The TV man admired it when he came one day to get my name for billing after I had been in town for months. He told me his nephew was in my class but he made me guess who the nephew was and never really let on. I think it might have been the fellow who took my boots and hid them every day for many days during the first snows.
During the brief orientation to prepare us for teaching in the north someone told me I was never to lose my temper. He said that traditionally losing one’s temper was considered a sort of madness. That made sense to me. After all, if one lived in a hunting society, one would want to be on good terms with everyone else. Sharing becomes important when you haven’t caught a seal for a while.
I took that advice very much to heart, even though it was tiresome to have to search all over the school to find my boots when Bobby hid them in unlikely places. I grumbled to another teacher about how annoying it was and he told me about Bobby’s life. After that I felt open to patience.
One day I decided to skip the search and simply wear Bobby’s boots home. I was quite a celebrity for the next couple of days, having tricked the trickster. He never hid them again and even developed a fondness for me. He told me he would lie down on the airport runway and not let the plane take off when I lost my job and had to go home.
The Adult Ed. program withered away when the town went completely wet. Up until then you could only buy liquor in the Lounge or another bar. Then the council voted to change the rules. Suddenly anyone could order liquor from down south and the town took several months to work through that phase. No one signed up for Adult Ed the following semester.
Of course they had a nice party for me before I got on the plane to fly south.
“C’mon you!” said Alice. “Help with the decorations. You’re getting a present after all.”
The students were still in their last class as we hung balloons from the lights and stuck up streamers. Alice told me that on the day we went berry picking the women had spotted the caribou skull and hurried over a little rise to hide before I came along.
“We knew you’d like it. We wanted to see what you would do if you thought you were all alone and lost. We went away fast over that hill, hid and stayed quiet. We were glad you found it. Are you gonna take it down South?”
I just gave her a look. “What a question to ask!” I thought.