The Inuit Girl from Greenland
When she was ten, she came to stay with us, the Inuit girl from Greenland. She had long dark hair and wide green eyes flecked with black oil spots. Her teeth were beautiful bone and perfectly straight, her incisors sharp.
Our teacher who arranged the transfer said she smelled somewhat like the forest. We weren’t sure what to make of his words or how someone could smell of a place, as if she were a living part of it, but when she arrived, we circled her like a pack of housebroken dogs.
Her skin smelled the way mine does when it thaws, when you come in from the cold and the blood is red and near the surface. She did not cower in fear in the centre of us, instead seating herself at a desk in the room where she could see all of us as we looked at her. Her dark hair was braided and when she flashed her eyes at me, my stomach felt like a fish dropped into a glistening hot pan.
When she told us of her first kill — not a fish but a seal pup — when she was six, it chilled us and our blood showed, too.
At home, I approached her like I was on new land instead of my own. She looked at my sweater, knit with some orange acrylic yarn, and I looked at hers, which seemed to be woven from a wild animal. I had never felt wool as soft or seen it as white.
“I like your sweater,” I said, trying to make friends.
“Thanks. My grandmother knit it.”
“So did mine!”
She smiled warmly at me and said, “It looks like it comes from a store.”
At dinner, my mother asked what I’d learned about Greenland so far, which was that it was cold, it was dark and life seemed simpler, in a sense, in that you only lived how you could afford to with no room for anything extravagant. We heard words like conservation and preservation. They were repeated to us when, again, our teacher told us how dark, cold and long the winters were in Greenland.
“We make mummies, too,” the girl said.
“I thought they only had those in Egypt?” I was unconvinced.
The Qilakitsoq mummies were found by two brothers who were out hunting. It was a mass grave and the scientists descended on them like tourists at an all you can eat buffet. Six women and two children. They were able to piece together the cause of death for each mummy, including a woman with a tumour and a two year old boy with Down’s Syndrome. But they did not know the reason why they’d all been entombed together. The most difficult finding they’d had to report was that the small baby they mistook for a doll was still alive when it was buried with its dead mother. It was hypothesized that nobody else was left to care for him and he would have died anyway.
The conditions dictated the outcome.
“Why call it Greenland if most of it is frozen under snow?”
“Greenland is what everybody else calls it,” she said. “We say ‘Kalaallit Nunaat’.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means The Land of the People. Colour has nothing to do with it.”
“But what about all the people? Greenland’s population is only 50,000. Where’d everybody go?” At ten, she couldn’t answer this properly. She thought 50,000 was plenty, considering that in the early days of recorded history, it was said that there hadn’t been any people in her country at all. She couldn’t answer why this had been, either, because the truth was, nobody really knew for sure.
Some argue it was too cold and inhospitable and everybody left of their own accord, though others say the Dorset had remained throughout the Little Ice Age, frozen in the ice and emerging from the frigid waters in the thaw.
My mother kept in touch with her after she left. When the girl turned fourteen, she wrote to say that she was with child. My mother began sending letters with money when she could afford to. By twenty, the girl who at six had killed a seal, was now the mother of four children, one of which had developmental disabilities. The father was always hunting, and the little Inuit girl from Greenland was often alone with them. I thought about the Qilakitsoq women who'd been buried together.
In the town where she lived, there were 20,000 people, nearly half the entire country’s population. Twenty of them committed suicide in one year. She wanted to be the twenty-first but she couldn’t manage it. When she put the gun to her mouth, its icy barrel slipped as it went off. She survived, without her right arm.
Now the four children hold each other's hands, the troubled one in the middle, and they all take turns holding the remaining hand of their mother. My mother still writes letters but never receives any back from the Inuit girl from Greenland.