January 17, 2016 § Leave a comment
When an elder dies in Igloolik, everything shuts down. The Nunavut hamlet, normally known for its streets full of people walking, goes inside. Planes bring long-lost loved ones into town and kids watch adults talk quietly around kitchen tables. The Co-op and Northern stores tape notes to their doors: “Closed at 4:30 for the funeral.” Government workers take the afternoon off.
Manasie Qaunaq works for the housing corporation—he almost never gets time off—and it’s springtime, so he takes advantage of the sun-drenched day to go walking. He climbs up to the top of Cemetery Hill and keeps going, towards a place that kids call “Itiveh,” on the western end of the island. All day, he soaks his running shoes, stomps on pond ice, chews 100-year-old willow branches, tightrope-walks along long shale ridges and hunts for eggs and upsets their parents.
He was playing a game that mostly children play—find a long, flat rock, then yank it up quickly to catch what’s crawling underneath—and found a siksik, an arctic ground squirrel, chirping, spread-eagle on its hind legs, little fists raised against the sun.
“I didn’t mean to kill it,” says Manasie, matter-of-factly. He opens his palm to show me the siksik, which looks like it’s sleeping, except for a dot of blood at the corner of its mouth. “The rock slipped out of my hand. But I thought at least I could use the pelt; it would make a nice parka for my niece’s dolls.”
“But why aren’t you at the funeral?” I ask.
His eyes widen. He forgot.
And with that, he’s off, down toward the base of the hill, where he dropped his bike earlier. I see him put the siksik in his bike basket and ride towards old town—the Anglican side.
The church door swings open. An untreated plywood box is loaded onto the bed of a pick-up truck and the first truck leads a convoy of pick-ups and a few ATVs up the hill and into the graveyard.
Past the missionaries’ plots, the Anglican plots, the Catholic plots and all the plastic flowers that adorn them, to the farthest yard where all the congregations’ dead now mix, there’s a clean white cross and an empty grave chipped into the permafrost, three or four feet deep. When the elder was born, they didn’t have graveyards; bodies were wrapped in skins and left for the animals on the highest point of land.
Trucks are still arriving as the box is slid into the grave and the widow takes her place on the right-side edge of the plot, bum on the shale and feet dangling into the pit. She wails loudly; then the crowd wails with her. When a group of sleddogs tied up a couple hundred yards away hears it, they wail too. Everybody keeps wailing as the relatives shovel shale high on top of the box lid and the convoy breaks up and heads back down the hill again.
All week, while the visiting goes on and afterwards, while the planes take the loved ones back to their homes in Hall Beach, Iqaluit, Ottawa, Montreal, I think about Manasie at home, making siksik parkas for his niece.