Arctic Shaman's Seance

The snow fell quietly, covering the settlement in a thick white blanket.  The shaman had told Okwana she’d recognize the singing hut by the large narwhal ivory which jutted up out of the roof; it whistled when the wind raced over the ice, he’d said.  The flakes flew round her in eddies, whipped up by a strong wind.  Her baby Koto was secured to her back in his flatboard, getting heavier and heavier.  She clung to the straps and struggled over the snowdrifts through the blizzard, listening for the whistle.  But no whistle came. The wind moaned and the feathers round Koto’s parka fluttered at her neck – they were young fish-eagle feathers she’d found by the water’s edge, soft and fluffy to keep him warm.  He’d grown so much that now his head came above the top of the board and his feet hung over the edge below; the straps were barely long enough to go round him but he remained very quiet on her back until at last the tip of the tusk emerged through the scurries, soaring up through the snow clouds like a dead tree from the roof of the singing hut.  And then, ahead of her, she saw a group of hunched up figures climbing over the drifts too, and she thought these must be the elders in their capes, and the noise must be the scrunch of their boots in the snow.  Was that really the wind squealing, or was it the tusk? Or was it them arguing about her escape?

The shaman stood at the entrance of the singing hut, whistling everyone in, blowing on his soul catcher and sounding like the blizzard itself.  A band of owl’s claws swung from his forehead, tufts of feathers and straw bristled in his hair and, poking through the straw at the top, a puffin’s beak clacked open and shut while he rolled his head round and round, beckoning everyone in, jabbering through blackened teeth and  waving his arms, shells and claws rattling round his wrists.  Carpets and rugs rose and fell like flags on the rafters inside as the gusts rushed in from the door.  Inside, a large oil lamp was burning.  The flame shot sideways in the draught and Okwana had just enough time to see a face slip behind a mask.  Thick plaits stuck out at the sides; the lips were made with strips of caribou hide; white irregular teeth jutted out of them then down and looked like thick icicles,.  The chin was festooned with long white feathers.  This was the girl from the market.  There were many more faces, all of them vanishing behind their masks.  They were gathering in a circle round the room and the shaman beckoned Okwana to the centre.  The masks were coming alive: thick swollen mouths crawled sideways out to the ears; thinner mouths cut into the leather and sunk back into swollen jowls; eye sockets deepened, surrounded by fur, eyes sparkled through them.  There were other masks carved out of driftwood and they were laughing although she couldn’t hear them, their faces riddled with chiselled lines. Other faces were of dark leather with flat cheeks which stretched into smooth, expressionless plains.  Foreheads were scored with crevasses and crowned with scraps of cloth and ivory which bounced up and down.  One of the heads jerked, leaned sideways and something flapped over the eye slits as a mumble came through the fixed lips.  Then it veered away and the cloths on the forehead splayed out like the spokes of a wheel.  Another mask with a squashed nose leered in, swerved away.

Koto started to kick in his flatboard; he was whimpering, terrified at the spectacle.  His mother undid the straps, pulled him round, held him close to her.  The shaman leapt up from the circle, collided with the carpets in the rafters above then landed in a cloud of dust right by mother and son, the puffin beak clacking shut on his head.  Koto squealed.  The shaman lifted his hand-drum, shook his wrists, his ivory talismans smacking the surface over and over; he swayed his hips, hummed, stomped the ground, swung his head from side to side.

The masked elders and the young market girl stopped down on their haunches and shuffled up closer, swaying from side to side with the shaman’s rhythm, their necks and chins thrust forward, their eyes through the slits fixed on mother and baby.  The market girl thrust her hand in her cloak, pulled out something, threw it over to them.  It was a mask, a sealskin mask, soft and silky, lined with feathers.  Okwana put Koto down in her lap, picked it up, brought it to her face, pulled the strap round her head.  The mask hugged her cheeks: seal skin against Sealskin, Fulmar feathers round the edges.  She pulled the strings tighter to her face, adjusting the form but her boy didn’t like this and he waved his arms, kicked frantically because he’d seen the claws fixed to the chin.  They were Thunderbird claws.

The shaman once again leapt up, waving his rattle.  His breath bellowed out through his mask in rhythmic clouds and he rushed out of the circle, tripped over the market girl’s shawl.  Everyone let out a whooshing noise then noisily sucked in the air through the holes, leering round to see where he’d gone.  But he was already back, bustling into the centre again, leaping over the shawl, nimble on his withered leg and thrusting out his fist.  He wielded an adze, slashed the air and let out a fierce whistle.  Everyone whistled, so many eyes glinting behind the masks.

“Out!” the shaman cried.  They echoed his cry, flung up their hands.  Because something was scrabbling on the floor away from the flames, outside their circle.  All the masks swivelled round to the thing which ran sideways, backwards, then paused, lifting its miniature forearm.  Then it was off again, scrambling over loose cutlery and bowls.  It dashed into the circle, stopped for an instant by Koto.  It was the tupilak, come alive, a tiny black figure hesitating on all fours.   It jerked its little skeleton hand and flashed white eyeballs round the room.  The shaman sliced the air with his adze again; the tupilak shrank back into a ball, darted under the cloaks of the elders and away to the back of the hut.  All the masks – and Koto’s eyes – followed its route to see where it ran to while the shaman whipped the air with his hand.  Immediately the tupilak reappeared, this time round the opposite end of the circle by someone’s foot, its white eyes bulging out of their sockets, flicking back its tiny black skull, then pitter-patter on nifty skeleton feet into the shadows behind.

The shaman panted loudly as he kept chopping his adze up down up down while the tupilak ran round and round the hut, only to vanish behind the pots.  The elders in their dark masks sat clutching their knees as the shaman tried to catch it, clattering through the pans and boxes, spoons and rattles.  But he kept missing it.  Visibly exhausted, he stopped to rest against the back wall, his throat wheezing through his mask as he caught his breath.  They all sat in silence waiting for the next move.  Then the shaman pulled something out from the bowls near the door flap.  He came back into the circle with it, a small, thin drift-wood box decorated with ivory seals, dogs, bears and miniature people in ivory kayaks along the top and the sides.   He climbed over the kneeling elders, stopped in the centre next to Okwana and Koto and crouched on his haunches.  He opened the box for them.  All the masked figures leaned in, peering through their eye slits.  He lifted out a small streamlined figurine carved in green soapstone and held it up.  It was smooth, lithe, in his gnarled hand and shone almost translucent in the light of the flame, a slippery-looking creature gleaming as if covered with water.  Its head was human, the hands were fins, and the arms were moulded into a slithery form which tapered into a fan-shaped tail.

Everyone sighed through their masks, a long “Ah!” and then shrank back.  He held it up, waved it above his head, then turned it in a slow spin.

“Sedna, !” his crackly voice rose on the last syllable.  And then the elders spoke through their masks. “Takanakapsaluk, waves heave in her wake; sigh long and lay back; rolling and turning, the Queen of the Sea circles the world.”

Then he held it out to Okwana. Slowly, carefully, she ran her fingers over it.  It slid cold on her skin; it was strangely smooth but not wet, and there was something in the angle of the tail fin, whipping back in a sharp curve, which made her suddenly pull her hand away.

Photo credit: Ralph T. Coe Collection, Gift of Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts, 2011
Photo credit: Ralph T. Coe Collection, Gift of Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts, 2011

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This extract is taken from an ongoing work The White Lady.

 

 

 

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