Tom Lowenstein - At Uqpik's Cabin
Tom Lowenstein - At Uqpik's Cabin
Capping the ruins and scattered through the village stood the 19th century traders' cabins: tightly constructed clapboard houses with thick tar-paper insulation. Five of these houses, dragged back from Jabbertown1 along the south beach in native skin boats, survived in the village.
Uqpik's stood near the western end of the peninsula. It had been Max Lieb's cabin, bartered by his family when Lieb froze to death in 1902 on foot to the village from Cape Thompson2 where he had been starving.
Lieb's house stood alone on flat ground near a grassy beach ridge, set round with iglu pits and their ruined whale bone tunnels. ------ Still more remote, and infested with families of wild, nesting huskies, stood Asatchaq's cabin. Sixty years back, his father Kiligvak, 'the mastodon', had built it with lumber he bought from a Jabbertown trader - the first native frame-house in the village.
Perched near the south-west tip of the point, as though set to spring for the sea ice or the open water, the house, with its desolate window and broken chimney, was the furthest northwest building on the continent. Uqpik was its closest neighbour.
I'd stopped here, though the backpack nagged my shoulder,
and watched a flight of longspurs feeding.
It was midday, and a hard wind rushed across the tundra.
I was sweating and cold; my feet were swollen.
Still the outdoors held me.
To enter this soon, was too soon, so it told me.
The south wind grew violent.
It tore at the insulation on the corners which had broken
from their seams of deep, flat 19th century nail heads,
buckling the east side where the dogs lay tethered.
I clambered up the northwest corner.
Ox-eyed daisies, hinged to broken turfs around the house base,
rapped my ankles. Camomile tapped, as though knocking to enter,
the edges of my boot soles.
As if no feet had ever broken through
the stepped frets of the labyrinth!
I glanced along the shed roof. There were caribou blankets
pocked with thick eyes gnawed by warble-fly larvae;
some gulls, half rotted, plumage withered,
beaks and claws in pieces, lay sprawled in a bundle.
Other remainders of game, traps, hunting tackle lodged here,
anchored with long curving whale jaws,
and runners, like horns, of snow-mobiles, exanimate,
stuck through some chassis that was rusting among discs and vertebrae.
A soul scuttled through the frieze of apparatus and detritus stored here.
Torsos clamoured from the scaffold to retrace their bearings.
Midday winked. The fable mended. Red-fox-and-snowy-owl.
They'd been just on the trail through their sublunary offices,
When the hunter - with an invitation for exchange and sociality - had detained them.
The fox squeezed out of his shriveled costume.
He'd dressed in it only once too often.
Earth had grown skinny.
No more fox tracks, no more ruckus.
Day ticked forward. Sun and wind rotation.
The high disc shone through coat and muscle.
She'd been trapped in her nod, in her snow and soot plumage,4
Eyes shrouded on his vertebrae,
His tooth on her shoulder, her beak on his sternum,
Abrasively kissing, dialectically embracing,
Cross-hatched with each other,
When death entertained and finally engaged them.
I tripped the latch, my thumb sliding on the runnels
where eighty-five years of seal-oiled fingers
- hunters, Yankee-German traders, native wives and their 'half-breed' children - had polished and unfixed the catchment.
It was twilight in the passage: the floor, defrosted tundra,
caving beneath plywood panels that squelched in the mash
and rocked from the centre as the inner door I sought emerged from the dullness.
The horns of my backpack scraped a high shelf where I faltered,
wrenching the left shoulder, scapula extrapolated from its matrix
(on a photo-plate I felt it, geometrically projected) on the screen of entry
where I staggered to control the threshold.
Inside the room was black
as the tarp5 I heard flopping and had seen it wagging from the east side
where the dogs slept flat-out in the grass, forget-me-nots and daisies.