Helmet of Ice
It was a cold November day, and our dry boats rested one hundred yards from a sea broken into churning black heaves of water between jostling bergs. I feared my father would chase me with his axe, as a joke, forcing me to run over the hard creases of shore ice, which were sharp enough to cut through my seal-skin pants and gash my legs. My mother lay on her stomach among the women. For some reason she was acting as if she were a seal pup—her cough could sometimes be heard above the wind that was dying as the clouded sun fell toward the horizon.
My father’s harassment had become intolerable. This morning he had scoffed when I spilled whale oil while pouring some into a smaller container that my mother wanted to give to a destitute neighbor. So I had taken his rifle and set it in a snow bank a mile from the village and baited it with the head of a seal. Then I’d built a cowl over the seal head with a piece of tarp and old tent poles. I had seen a polar bear hunting the ice edge near there and hoped it would nose under the cowl, take the bait, and trigger my father’s rifle.
“Have you seen my gun?” my father had asked me around noon.
“No,” I said.
I had been listening all day for the rifle’s report. I wanted to slip away and inspect my trap, in case I had missed the sound. If the bear had been shot, I would reveal everything to my father. I would share the meat and earn respect and my father would never harass me again.
Now my father was talking among the men, leaning on the handle of his axe. All the men wore caribou-hide parkas trimmed with fox fur. I would walk by slowly and continue to my rifle set. My step was light, no louder than grains of sugar stirred in a metal canister.
As I was passing the men, I over-heard my father giving advice: “Arch your back while screaming, and your sound will carry another mile.” The men nodded carefully. “Grab yourself by the neck first thing every morning, and let that be the last time you are caught off-guard all day!”
Then I heard the faint report of a gun. I almost ran, but I stopped altogether and lifted my nose toward the distant sound. My father squinted at me.
One of the men thumped his mittens together to beat away the cold. My father turned back to the men: “Do all sons hate all fathers?” he asked loudly. “I have always thought so, and this is why I must sit quietly for days at a time.” Every eye avoided every other eye. “Do you fathers have any hobbies?” he continued. “My favorite is to lie still with a helmet of ice on my head. I find this helps me to master difficult thoughts and feelings.”
It was getting harder and harder to stand this harassment. I would run to my trap, though it might set off his pursuit instinct. I would see the bullet in the bear’s forehead, then reveal all. I would go. But I felt him looking, and I couldn’t go. For what if the bear was still alive?