Some while ago, in the now Alaskan place where the mountains came down to the sea, and in spring the walrus swam close to shore, and a man could cross the narrow ocean in a skin boat, was the Yapik village of Kingegan. In the village lived Teragloona, an old-man teller of stories.
When the winter snow swept unhindered down the beach, and no hunters went in or out
of the lodge, when the seal oil lamps burnt yellow and red, Teragloona would sit cross legged on the bed ledge and tell stories.
“Ubagok canok,” he would say. “Here is something I am telling you.”
He sat mending his net by the light of a seal oil lamp. “Many times in the not-so-long-ago there was no food. In one of these times, the wind had blown the ice hard on shore, so there were no seals. The walrus had gone south and the white bear did not come. There were no birds in the hills, no fish in the sea. Men went to the meat shelf and came back saying, ‘cowcow peeluck’- no food.
“The villagers sat by their oil lamps and began to starve. There was little seal oil, and as the lamps went out, one by one, death threatened in the starving time of not-so-long-ago. In that time there was an orphan boy named Puzwuk.” Old Teragloona had been speaking slowly, and he began speaking slower still. “He was not like other boys, that Puzwuk. His mother had died of sickness and his father had been carried off on an ice floe. He was passed from family to family, but no one accepted him for long, for he was too young to work, but ate as much as anyone else. Sometimes he was able to sleep on skins and eat pickled seal heart, but most times he slept on dirt and munched gristly polar bear necks.
“Finally a widow took him in and cared for him alongside her own son. And Puzwuk, to make himself stronger, began to run. At first he ran up and down the beach, then up and down the hills behind the village. He became the fastest, strongest runner in the village, with lungs like barrels and legs of iron. And then came this starving time.
“There were no seals to be caught, and the walrus had gone south. The polar bears did not
come down from the north- there were no fishes, no birds, no foxes. It was the starving time. As the oil lamps went out the cold crept in, and the villagers crowded into the cosgy, the main lodge.
“Only Puzwuk was strong enough to still go hunting each day. The other villagers only huddled together and cried ‘El-lect-pon-a-muck’– this is entirely too bad. Puzwuk went out every day, finding nothing and was about to give up when one day he saw little dark spots on the snow. The spots were tiny birds, sand pipers.
“Puzwuk ran so fast he was able to grab one of the sandpipers. When he brought the bird to the cosgy that night the villagers cried, “See, see. He has a bird. How foolish we were to put him out of our house.’ But a sandpiper has meat only the size of a thumb, and each of the villagers was able to only get the hint of a taste.
“The next day Puzwuk was able to catch two sandpipers, the day after that three. But the tiny birds could not provide enough meat, and the villagers continued to weaken.
“When Puzwuk went out again to hunt he ran up into the hills. There his sharp eyes could see ptarmigans, little birds the size of quail. Ptarmigan feathers are all white, and the birds had hidden their black bills in the snow, but Puzwuk saw them anyway. And even though they flushed and started to fly away he was able to run down one of the birds and bring it back to the village.
“‘Oh! See!’ the villagers yelled out. ‘He has a ptarmigan. How sorry we are that we put the boy out of our house.’ The villagers each ate a small, small bit of the bird, but were still too weak to move about, and so the next day Puzwuk once more set out to hunt alone. As with the
sandpipers, each day Puzwuk was able to catch one more bird. But it was not enough. More seal oil lamps sputtered out, and the villagers grew colder and weaker.
On the fourth day of running up into the hills Puzwuk happened to look back and saw a mist rising from the ice far out to sea. As he stared he saw the mist rise high, then disappear, then rise again. ‘Ahneca,’ he thought.’ There is open water out there, and there are seals in the open water. The mist is their breath. When it disappears they have dived, and when the mist reappears the seals have surfaced. I am too far away today, but tomorrow I will hunt for seal.’
“When he awoke the next morning the cosgy was completely black, not a single oil lamp burning. ‘Now it will become cold, very cold,’ he said. And when Puzwuk looked in the villagers’ eyes he saw that the light had died there as well, that they did not move, and scarcely breathed. ‘They are starved and perhaps will freeze,’ he thought. But he remembered the rising mist. ‘Perhaps,’ he told the villagers, ‘I may get a seal today.’
“It was a long trudge from the village to the spot of open water. The ice had heaped in great jagged piles. The boy moved slowly and carefully but even so fell often on the slick ice, banging his arms and legs on the sharp fragments. At last he came to the open pool. ‘Ahneca,’ he whispered to himself. ‘There are seals here.’
“Puzwuk crept up to the water’s edge and waited patiently for two hours until a young seal surfaced in range of his harpoon. He speared the seal and dragged it out of the water. He began singing happily, ‘I-I-am-ah” and the falls and bruises on the walk back to the village seemed not to hurt. He threw open the flap to the cosgy and dragged in the seal, ‘See what I have,’ he yelled.
“‘Oh! See!’ cried out the starving ones. ‘He has a seal. How foolish we were to put the boy out of our house.’ The widow had enough strength to cut up the seal and give each villager a thin slice of meat and a strip of blubber. The villagers grumbled, saying that each should have had bigger slices, but felt better and thanked the boy.
“Then Puzwuk gathered twigs together and made a fire, hanging a strip of blubber above it. Soon one seal oil lamp was glowing red and yellow, then two, then five. And the villagers began to hope that, after all, they might not starve and freeze.
The next day the boy went back to the open water and was able to spear two seals, then strained and panted until he had dragged the two seals back to his village. And the next day, again, he harpooned a seal.
But on the fourth day, after harpooning two seals, Puzwuk was caught in a raging blizzard that blew the snow like a pelt over him. The boy lost his way, and was afraid he would freeze in the howling storm. But he did not give up, and dragged the two seals after him. Finally he came to a shore. He knew that this was not his shore, but could see a faint light, and hoped to find shelter in a house. When he entered the house he saw several thin people huddled around a lone oil lamp, which flicked with its last drops of oil.
“’ This is too bad,’ Puzwuk said, ’You have no food. But see, even though this is not a proper visit, you may have my two seals.’ They took his gift gratefully and prepared meat and rendered seal oil for the lamps. When the storm had blown over Puzwuk left and after two days had found his way home. He told the widow what he had done. She was not angry.
“’What you have done is good,’ she said. ‘Always do that way and you will never lack
game to hunt’”
Teragloona stopped telling the story long enough to shift the seal net in his lap so he could work on a new spot. “The next morning Puzwuk took down his harpoon and walked back out to the open water to hunt for seal. But there were no seals at the hole in the ice and Puzwuk decided he must walk further out and find another spot.
“He walked further out, where the ice was drifting and piling up, and where giant ice bergs had gone aground. Puzwuk was walking around the base of a huge ice berg when he heard a loud, coarse roar. He thought the sound came from another ice berg breaking apart and falling into the water, and continued walking. But the roar came again, louder and fiercer.
“Puzwuk stopped and turned, holding his breath, trying to see the source of the roar. Then, Ahneca! A huge white bear came snuffling around the edge of the ice berg. Matna! Such a bear he was, with powerful forepaws, thick neck, gleaming eyes and bright teeth.
“The bear never paused, for this was his starving time as well. He roared even louder and charged, hoping to crack the boy’s bones with his ivory teeth. ‘Ahneca! Matna!,’ yelled the boy, and began to run around the base of the ice berg, with the bear chasing after him. Bears can run faster than man, but Puzwuk was able to hold his distance as they circled around and around the ice.
“Puzwuk heard the bear’s hoarse breathing coming closer, and willed his legs to move faster. All this while the boy had held onto his harpoon, and he had a desperate idea. “There is a spot of soft ice on the side of this ice berg,’ he thought. ‘ Each time I pass it I will give it a hard jab with my harpoon. When the space is big enough I can crouch inside it.’
“And so he did, running round and around the ice, jabbing each time until there was a big enough space for him to hide in. Puzwuk ran even faster, putting more distance between him and the bear, then jumped into the recess, turned around, and prepared to strike.
“’I may be killed,’ Puzwuk thought,’ but the meat we could eat and the bone marrow we could suck from this bear would keep us from starving until spring.’ The boy heard the rasping breathing approach, and when he saw the bear’s breath mist in front of him he struck. The harpoon entered just behind the bear’s front shoulder blade and pierced its heart. The bear dropped with a roar and skidded many feet down the ice. It was dead.
“Puzwuk returned to the village and told his people of the bear. ‘Those of you who are strong enough,’ he said, ’come with me so we can bring back the meat, bones and pelt. There will be plenty for all.
Teragloona put down his net and stared at those in the lodge before speaking again. “There was plenty, and the starving time passed. Little Puzwuk, unwanted except for a poor widow, had saved his village. Tiny sandpipers, little ptarmigan, seals and a great white bear, he found and killed them all. But think, had he not started with one tiny sandpiper, all in the village would have died.”
This is a retelling of and homage to a tale from Told Beneath the Northern Lights by Roy J. Snell (Little, Brown and Company 1925). The word Eskimo has been replaced with the native American name for the same reason that I’d prefer to be called Irish-American rather than Mick or Bog Trotter.