As many of you know already, Nunavik has been suffering from a heartbreaking suicide epidemic for a few months now. Recently, we lost two teens I’d known well from my time in Tasiujaq. During the three years I’d lived there, they were like my own students, and were very close to the six kids that I’d taught.
Though I’ll be unable to make it to Tasiujaq for the funeral, I spent the better part of my morning writing letters to each of my old students, to tell them that I’m thinking of them, that I’m proud of them, and to share some memories of our time together. I will send them to Tasiujaq on Monday with a colleague.
As I wrote the letters, I realized how many good memories I do have of each of them. Though I’ve taught many more kids since them, and have lots of memories of those kids, too, Mosesiapik, Noah, Annie, Harriet, George and Jaiku will always be my very first students, and I’m thankful for the three years we got to spend together as a class.
I thought, in particular, of one specific day a few years ago, and a short story I’d written about it. In honour of all the kind, loving, beautiful kids of Nunavik, I wanted to share it.
Love and Ptarmigans
Harriet and Anautak crept on all fours over the frosty tundra. The air was still and thick with silence. The land uttered not a sound – not even the slightest whisper of a crunch as they crawled, slow and calculating, over the brittle foliage. Harriet was first; Anautak followed closely behind like a little hunter in training. Even Elisapee, who had fallen behind and was crying because the shrubs were just a little too big for her tiny five-year-old legs to maneuver, had quieted. Like cats, they were stalking a lone ptarmigan dawdling nonchalant along the side of the hill.
We were just far enough onto the land that we’d lost sight of the village. It was a Saturday afternoon, early Fall. I could smell a hint of winter – that smell of crisp land that happens just before it snows. Winter was soon to come, yet the land radiated orange and red so vibrant and alive. I could see my breath but still feel the strong heat of the sun.
A friend and I were hiking toward Mairaaluk in an intentionally roundabout way that took us up and down one hill after another and along the Leaf River. The girls had seen us as we walked through the village. They ditched their bikes by the daycare, and followed us onto the land. They wanted to come with us, even though we told them we’d be hiking for hours and they’d get tired. They insisted that they knew the way, and they probably did know it better than we did. And though we didn’t want to be responsible for three little people on our little adventure, we let them follow for a while.
I, captivated, stopped to watch Harriet and Anautak as they crawled. As I held my breath, waiting, I wondered not whether Harriet would actually kill it. Ptarmigans do strike me as a tad dimwitted. Rifle or not, they seem to be an easy target, and ever since Jashua killed one with a pebble and plucked it clean on the playground at recess one day last year (he kept it in his desk until school was over), I’ve never once questioned these kids’ ability to hunt. Plus, Harriet, who’d been a student of mine since I came to Nunavik, frequently goes hunting with her grandfather, so perhaps this wouldn’t have been her first ptarmigan kill.
Rather, I wondered how many times she’d done this before and how many times she’d succeeded. I admired the mix of childhood fun, and tradition, and I imagined her carrying it home proudly, and sharing it with her family later on, eating it for dinner.
The world stopped as Harriet prepared to pounce on the seemingly oblivious bird, and there was a split second when I was certain that it was a goner. But sometime within the split second between lunge and trap, there was a sudden and frantic fluttering of wings from the foliage that had, up to that moment, created the facade of solitude. Simultaneously, forty or so wings sprung from the land like camouflaged Jack In The Boxes. The once-lone ptarmigan evaded doom as Harriet jumped back. She giggled, part startled, but also maybe part disappointed, part embarrassed.
“It was for you” she said shyly, but full of love.