Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 10), March 2011.
“...Sedna clung to the side of the kayak, but her father drew his axe and chopped off her fingers, so that she fell into the water. She sank to the bottom of the ocean, and drifted until she came to rest against a great ridge of underwater mountains, that the white men call Alpha Ridge. And there she built her home and became the mother of the sea creatures, and her severed fingers became the seals, walruses and whales, her children.”
Jenny shivered at the thought of poor Sedna having her fingers cut off by her own father, and nestled closer against her grandmother’s side. “But Nana, how could she become the sea creatures’ mother if she drowned in the ocean?”
Before her grandmother could answer, her mother’s voice cut in sharply: “Stop filling her head with those horrible old stories — you’re going to give her nightmares!”
Nana looked up, sadness in her dark eyes like a cloud across the moon. “Our stories are part of who we are — if we lose them, we lose ourselves, and then we have nothing.”
Mom shook her head dismissively as she set a plate of cookies on the battered old coffee table in front of them. “The most important story you need to know, honey, is how Jesus died for our sins. All those stories your Nana keeps telling you — no one believes in any of that any more. She’s an old lady telling silly old stories, that’s all.”
Jenny looked up at her grandmother, as her mother stomped off into the kitchen, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “So how did she become the mother of the sea creatures?”
The sadness seemed to leave Nana’s eyes, and she drew her close. “Every living thing has an anirniq — a spirit inside it. People, animals, everything. But our anirniit don’t belong to us alone — they’re part of the sila. English doesn’t really have a good word for that — it can mean the sky, the air, breath, but it’s also the life that’s in everything — like the anirniq of the whole world. Our own anirniit are borrowed from it, but they go back to it when we die, and once an anirniq is free of the body, it can do anything, be anything.”
Jenny smiled drowsily — she liked that idea much better than someone having their fingers cut off. And later that night, in bed, she sat up and pulled the curtains open, looking out at the northern lights and their reflection on the sea in the distance, and imagined the anirniit of all her ancestors dancing in those shimmering lights, and Sedna beneath the sea, surrounded by her animal children. What bedtime stories did she tell them?
Seven years later:
“The Alpha Ridge is a major volcanic ridge under the Arctic Ocean between the Canada Basin (off Ellesmere Island) and the Lomonosov Ridge. It was discovered in 1963. The highest elevation is about 2.7 km over the ocean floor...”
Jenny sighed, forcing herself to keep her eyes open. Geography class was deadly boring. The stories her grandmother had told about about the Arctic landscape had been so much more interesting. But Nana hardly ever told her stories any more. She had too few lucid days any more. Sometimes she still seemed almost like her old self, but that happened less and less often these days. Other days she talked about things from her own childhood like they were just yesterday, or mistook Jenny for her mother. Or forgot that they used snowmobiles instead of dog sleds now, or that Jenny’s father was in rehab for alcoholism, not off on a hunting trip.
She gazed out the window, shivering from the drafts that always seemed to drift into the decrepit portable classroom. With every year that passed, it was harder to hold onto the sense she’d once had of the land being full of magic and stories, the air around being dense with anirniit of people and animals, everything being connected to everything else. As she looked at the bleak lives of so many of the people in her village, Nana’s words kept coming back to her: If we lose our stories, we lose ourselves, and then we have nothing. Was that what had happened to everyone here?
“The 1983 Canadian Expedition to Study the Alpha Ridge (CESAR) seemed to establish that the Alpha Ridge is an extension of the continent from Ellesmere Island, meaning that Canada could lay claim to the resource rights for the region, in particular for petroleum, according to the United Nations’ Law of the Sea...”
Yeah, right, she thought. Like their community would ever see any of the money from that if it did happen. She flipped to a new page in her notebook and started absent-mindedly sketching a picture of a fingerless woman, underwater, surrounded by seals and walruses.
Seven years after that:
Jenny stumbled across the ice, tears blurring her vision and freezing on her cheeks as the icy wind bit into what little of her face was exposed. It was harder going than she thought. She probably shouldn’t have had so much to drink, but when she’d seen the test results, it was like the bottom had dropped out of her world, and all she’d wanted was to kill the pain.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been someone she loved. Or even liked, or had wanted to be with, not some random guy at a party who wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’d tried to pull herself together afterward, to go through the motions of life as if everything was normal, but the pregnancy test had shattered her resolve. She didn’t want to be another statistic — another messed-up single mother in a tiny community with no jobs and no hope. She couldn’t even face telling her mom.
If Nana were still here — but she was hundreds of kilometres away in the hospital she’d been airlifted to after her stroke, and they didn’t even think she’d ever regain consciousness. There was no one she could talk to.
Reaching the edge of the ice, she stared down into the dark water. At least it would be quick — in these temperatures, hypothermia would kill her long before she could drown. She took one last look up at the northern lights, then let herself fall forward...
The shock of it knocked the breath from her body, cold so intense it eclipsed everything else, and the world faded to black — but then she was dimly aware of strong, bony hands grabbing her shoulders, pulling her up and out of the water, and a painfully familiar voice telling her Hold on, dear, you’re going to be all right... Nana’s voice. But how...?
Seven hours later:
As Jenny opened her eyes, the hospital’s glaring fluorescent lights made her wanted to close them again, but her mom’s voice forced her back to awareness: “Oh thank God — oh baby, I was so worried —“
“You’re in the hospital in Iqualuit, honey. The air ambulance brought you. But how did you get out of the water, and get all the way to the clinic doorstep? That’s where they found you...”
She found her voice. “Nana — Nana was there. She pulled me out — carried me.” She knew how crazy that must sound. Heard a nurse’s voice in the background whispering, words like delirious and hallucination.
Her mom looked stricken. “But that’s — she — oh baby, I didn’t want to have to tell you this right away, but Nana... She passed away, earlier this evening. Another stroke.”
A childhood memory flashed back to her: once an anirniq is free of the body, it can do anything, be anything. And a sense of wonder she’d thought long lost swept over her.
Distantly she heard a doctor telling her mom that she should let her rest. She squeezed mom’s hand before letting it go, and smiled, thinking of the stories she was going to tell her baby.
Story prompt: “Alpha”.