Interweaving Inuit and Norse mythology, The Wolf in The Whale is a magical coming-of-age tale featuring an unforgettable narrator ready to confront the gods themselves.
On the darkest day of winter, when the weakened Sun cannot even pull herself above the horizon, a man stands vigil upon the snow-covered roof of his sod home. He is the angakkuq, the shaman, and his eyes must never leave the sky as he watches for the two bright stars that herald the Sun’s return. But on this night, Ataata’s gaze strays. He cannot stop looking toward the square patch of light beyond the camp. Sometimes the light flickers as the women inside the iglu pass before the ice window. Ataata has never stepped inside a birthing hut, for doing so would break the strictest taboo, but neither has he ever worried before. His own wife, whose spirit now shines among the other stars above him, possessed such strength in her youth that Ataata never feared for her, but his son’s widow is not the same.
Ataata looks again at the sky, nervously fingering the bear claw at his throat. A faint orange glow, like light seen through a caribou hide scraped clean, brushes the horizon—the closest the day will come to dawn. The heralding stars now hover in the eastern sky. The angakkuq watches still, waiting to see if the stars will catch the false dawn before they fade away in its light. Even once the stars rise directly above the glow, the Sun herself will not return for many more days.
Tonight, her brother, the Moon, rules the sky in her stead, looking down with a cold, unfeeling eye on the small birthing iglu and the young woman struggling inside. Once, the angakkuq could have helped his son’s widow, for this is an age of magic and mystery—a powerful shaman should walk as easily through the spirit world as through the world of flesh. He should speak to the Ice Bear, seek the stars’ protection, change the very course of the wind. Or ask the Moon to see a baby safely through its passage from one world to the next. Yet Ataata stands helpless on his roof. He can only watch the sky, not command it. The spirits who once guided his steps have now turned against him—against all Inuit.
Three moons earlier, on a desperate hunt to seek some game, any game, to save their families from starvation, all four of the camp’s young hunters drowned. Among them Omat, Ataata’s only son. The old man, as renowned for his hunting skills as for his mystical powers, watched the two cracks in the ice as they raced across the floe like summer lightning, widening so fast that the young men, as fleet as they were, could not reach the landfast ice. Ataata had never seen the ice behave like that, as if a great spirit had stepped upon the surface of a frozen pool, splitting it apart beneath his boot sole.
Ataata shouted an alarm, and Omat started running, but the firm sea ice had ruptured into a narrow, floating pan, as unsteady as an iceberg. With his pounding strides, the entire floe began to rock. The other young hunters sprinted at his heels. Ataata tried to warn them that their weight would tip the ice, but they could not hear him in their panic. The floe tilted into the water, Omat and the others scrabbling, screaming as they slid one by one into the sea. Lying on his stomach, arm outstretched, fingers grasping at air, Ataata called for his son. But the current was too fast and the water too cold. Soon the camp had lost an entire generation of hunters.
Ataata looks once more at the distant iglu. He knows that his daughter will help in the birth, but even her skills may not be enough to save his son’s widow.
Inside the birthing iglu, Puja sits behind Nona, her arms clasped around the younger woman’s waist, pressing on the distended dome of her womb. All through the long darkness, Nona squats on her heels, thighs spread, laboring to bring Omat’s child into the world. She never gives in to the urge to lie down, to scream, to cry, for she knows any sign of weakness from her will weaken her child. Puja wipes the sweat from Nona’s brow. The woman’s legs shake from exhaustion.
“You must rest,” Puja says.
Nona grunts a pained refusal. She was strong once, a smiling girl whose songs could bring the camp to tears of mirth or sadness, but since Omat’s death, she never laughs. She has grown thinner and thinner, though Puja and Ataata give her every spare morsel of meat. Her bulging stomach protrudes grotesquely from her bony frame.
“Come, Nona, the babe won’t survive if you don’t lean on me. Just for a moment.” Puja tries to ease her brother’s wife back against her own chest.
“No!” Nona barks. “This child will carry Omat’s spirit, and he must be strong like his father. Strong enough to take his place.”
“Even if he’s born with Omat’s soul, he will never take Omat’s place. You know that.”
“Your father says the spirits of the dead are reborn into the living. I believe him. I must.”
The older woman brushes Nona’s damp hair out of her eyes. “Yes, of course. But we shouldn’t think only of the past. There’s the future. There’s your child. Don’t give up hope for yourself.”
“That’s why I must give this child everything I have,” Nona gasps, pulling Puja’s hand back to her stomach as another pain seizes her womb. “I’ll never have another child—there are no other husbands, no other men.”
Puja cannot argue. Here at the edge of the world, there are no other camps, no other families beyond their own near relatives. She and Nona both lost their husbands on the ice—they will never find others.
“I would’ve given my life to see Omat live.” Nona forces out the words through a groan of pain. “And if I have to, I’ll give my life now to see him live again.” Her voice tapers to a low wheeze as finally, with both women pushing together, the baby’s head appears. Puja releases her grip on Nona’s stomach and moves between her legs.
At the moment of the child’s birth, the young mother looks up through the ice window in the roof and smiles through her pain, for she can see the heralding stars in the dawn sky and knows the Sun will soon return to warm her child.
The floor of the snow house glistens red with blood, but Puja catches the baby in the clean fur of a white wolf before it falls to the earth. She cries out in relief, yet her shout of joy soon slips into choking grief: Nona has finally surrendered to the pain. She lies still and gray, resting now forever.
The child in Puja’s arms is silent.
She rocks the baby, heedless of the blood. “Go ahead, little one. You may cry, even if your mother could not,” she urges, her voice catching.
But the baby makes no sound beyond the faintest rasp of breath.
As the stars fade in the ever-lighteningsky, Puja cuts the umbilical cord, chafes the child’s limbs, rubs its narrow back, and swipes the fluid from its mouth. Again and again, she urges it to live. Instead, its arms and legs lie still; its lungs barely swell.
Struggling to her feet, Puja pulls her parka over her head but does not put her arms through the sleeves. She clutches the baby to her naked breast instead to shelter it from the cold as she hurries outside to find her father.
Atop the roof of his qarmaq, his sod home, Ataata still stands. He turns, smiling, when his daughter approaches, but his expression quickly falters.
“The heralding stars have caught the dawn. The Sun will return—yet you bring bad tidings.”
“Nona’s gone.” Puja’s usually stoic face twists. “And the child . . .”
She lifts the hem of her parka so her father might see the bloody infant. The old man slides off the qarmaq’s roof. He holds the child up to his face. It doesn’t open its eyes. He places his ear to its tiny, gaping mouth. He sighs, although the babe does not.
“It has so little strength that it cannot breathe in its spirit.” He speaks the words calmly, though misery burns his throat. He passes back the child. “It’s like one of the undead. Soulless.”
And so, with the hope of the entire camp dying in her arms, Puja carries the baby beyond the circle of domed huts. She scrapes a cradle in the snow and places the bloodied child in the embrace of the ice. Puja has not wept since her childhood, when her own mother died. She did not weep when her brother and her husband and the other young men drowned in the icy sea. But now, staring at the thin blue lids that hide the child’s eyes, Puja feels tears course down her cheeks. The drops fall upon the child’s face like rain, freezing an instant later into shards of brittle ice.
The Sun’s rays appear—a single flare of pink at the horizon—before sinking away like a doused lamp. The Sun herself stays hidden. Puja speaks to the Moon instead. “Bring back this child, and I’ll feed it from my breast,” she vows. Her own son is near weaned. She has milk enough for Nona’s.
She waits. She watches. Now the sky is the deep purple of a ripe bearberry. The Moon soars overhead in an endless circle, ice-bright and full, sweeping Puja’s moonshadow across the snow. When the finger of darkness falls upon the child’s motionless body, she finally stands and turns back to the camp. She has surrendered the baby to Sila, the unfeeling Air—only It will decide the child’s fate.
When she emerges at the next false dawn to gather snow to melt for water, Puja expects the baby to be either frozen or gone—carried off by a fox or bear. Instead, Nona and Omat’s child still breathes—and it is not alone.
A great white wolf crouches in the snow, its long muzzle searching the tiny body. Despite Puja’s resolve to surrender the child, she cannot bear to watch it torn apart. She runs to scare off the beast, but it lies down instead, chin resting on its paws. Puja stops a few paces from the unlikely pair. The wolf, she sees now, has not harmed the baby, merely licked the blood from its skin, cleaning and warming the child with its hot breath.
Cautiously she kneels, her knees sinking into the snow, head bowed. She knows now that her brother, Omat, has sent the Wolf Spirit to save his child. The Wolf has breathed a piece of its soul—and Omat’s—into the babe.
The animal rises and stares at Puja for a moment, challenging her with eyes like yellow stars. Then it stalks away, tail low, ears swiveling. Its walk turns to a lope, then a gallop, all four paws suspended above the ground with each leaping stride; then the Wolf disappears, white fur invisible against white snow.
Puja gathers up the child, its body warm despite the frigid morning. Its eyes are open, a luminous brown like her own. Like her brother’s. She slips her arms free of her sleeves, tucks the babe beneath her parka, and guides its mouth to her breast. It sucks hungrily.
When two moons have passed and the Sun has returned her warmth to the land, Puja and Ataata stand once more upon the qarmaq’s sod roof. The tears Puja once shed still lie upon the child’s cheeks, turned from icy drops to tiny brown birthmarks, reminders of the sadness with which it entered the world. And yet the baby smiles as once its mother did and shows its father’s strength in the grasp of its tiny fist.
Cradling the fur-wrapped baby against his chest, the old man appeals to the spirits for guidance. For the first time since the icy sea swallowed the camp’s young hunters, the spirits answer his question, confirming what he and Puja already suspected: his son lives again in this child. It will take Omat’s name and be taught to hunt and paddle as its father had.
“With the spirit of the Wolf in its heart,” he proclaims, “this child will one day grow to be an angakkuq even more powerful than I.”
His words are strong and full of hope. They must be. For Inuit alone at the edge of the world, hope is the only thing left.
* * *
Now you know the story of my birth. At least the story my family told me in my childhood. I know now that Ataata and Puja were not the only ones watching my mother labor beneath the winter sky—far from it. Other beings far more powerful than any angakkuq witnessed my birth: spirits of sky and sea, gods from the lands beyond our ken—all watched that night as the Wolf licked the blood from my cheeks. Even then, the great spirits of the world knew I was no ordinary Inuk.
They say that from the moment I took my first breath, I have lived between many worlds—between Sun and Moon, man and woman, Inuk and animal. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I have seen worlds my family could never imagine.
I have seen the painted men in their bark houses, and I have slept beneath trees as tall as a whale is long.
I have spoken with the spirits and walked in their land.
I have seen men who could harness the wind, men with hair the color of flame and eyes the color of ice. And when their own great spirits set foot on my shore, striking thunder from the stars and calling monsters from the deep, I have battled with their gods of war—and wept with their gods of love.