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THE LEGEND OF ATANEQ NANUQ
by JACK DEY
When injustice and fear collide it has a name… Ataneq Nanuq.
A disturbing mystery.
A crisp command silenced the dogs as the weathered, leathery face pressed hard against the fractured window; a legacy from last winter’s trials. His faltering gaze followed the rocky shoreline of the bay through the broken glass and from the confines of the tired, dishevelled hut, keeping his aging outline pressed against the wall and trying to stay out of sight. His panicked hot breath steamed the pane, partially obliterating the view while two milky brown eyes, bloodshot and squinting from too many years exposed to the glaring icy landscape, traced the small ship’s progress as it entered the deepest part of the wilderness of Scoresby Sund. A worried frown settled across his wrinkled brow. It had been nearly two years since he had glimpsed another European and by his reckoning, that wasn’t long enough. The fear rose into his chest and threatened to freeze the scene into a long buried moment in history he’d worked so hard to forget.
In the isolation of the wilderness, there was no one to impress or be judged by. Being alone was sometimes lonely, but it was far easier than feeling hunted by his own kind and required to perform or give an account of what he had done. There just wasn’t a plausible, easy explanation for what had happened able to satisfy him, let alone a civilised European court. He had evaded his hunters for well over fifty years, vanishing like a shy Arctic fox into the tundra and beyond the reach of their prejudiced form of justice.
He was bitterly aware, maybe even more so today than the day it happened… he was a fugitive: a wanted man.
Dwarfed by icebergs, floating lazy and majestic in defiance to the seasonal thaw and towering rebelliously against the smoky-blue backdrop of the late summer sky, the tiny ship appeared insignificant by comparison. The remnants of the winter sea ice, now scattered and breaking up over the surface of the warming water, playfully nudged the steel hull of the white ship as she pushed closer to the shore and his hut. The ship’s movement through the Sund created ripples that disturbed the tranquillity and betrayed the ship’s intended direction. As it came closer, he could make out the Russian name: MV Multanovskiy. Momentarily distracted, his eyes diverted from the vessel and focused on a nearby berg. Desperate thoughts chased around his mind. Surely the Russians couldn’t have an interest in my history or a reason to pick a fight with me. Just to be certain, he stayed well out of sight anyway.
Surrounded by a backdrop of rugged, snowcapped mountains, the tortured old hut stood on crumbling brick pillars just one metre above the rocky tundra floor and only a stone’s throw from the Sund. The floor timbers sagged with age, complaining bitterly with every step the old man took while the fire had finally gone out in the old fireplace. He had used up the last of the seal blubber fuel and the gaps in the stone chimney let the windblown chill into the hut, something he would have to fix in what remained of this summer, before the ice storms of January. The roof above him was the strongest part of the hut, strengthened to support the weight of dense winter snow and the turbulent gales of the long Arctic night. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it was home.
After the summer thaw had advanced and defeated the winter pallor, Salix glauca turned the once-white snow covered tundra into a rich red, giving the illusion of a living welcome mat sprawling across the landscape and leading to the rocky shores of the Sund, testifying that the long winter had indeed retreated and the short summer was now in command. As he gauged the ship’s position once again, a sense of irony struck him. In the depth of the endless Arctic night, he had driven his dogsled clear across the frozen Sund on an iceshelf two metres thick to fish through a drilled hole in the ice, close to where the ship now cautiously picked its way across the fluid summer sea and towards his home. He watched in surprise as the ship executed a wide arc and came within fifty metres of his old dwelling. Seemingly convinced there were no signs of life, it turned unexpectedly and steered again for the entrance to the Sund, picked up speed and silently slid out of the fjord, bringing a sigh of relief from the old man. From his position hidden within the shelter, the aging eyes struggled to focus on the departing vessel as it vanished from view.
The dogs began to whimper, eager to get back outside into their natural environment and leave the confines of their hiding place. He cautiously surveyed the scene outside the window, sweeping the barren landscape for any threats. His searching stopped abruptly, while his blurry eyes pressed shut and open again in an attempt for clarity, trying to focus on a large granite boulder some distance away. It was still there after so many winters and summer thaws, perched lifeless on the granite mound, weather bleached and staring in the direction of the fjord where Nanuq had slaughtered him: the skull of a muskox.
The hapless creature had wandered into a two day standoff between the old man trapped inside his hut and a hungry nanuq, keeping the human pinned down. The dogs had alerted the old man to the presence of the dangerous male polar bear, while Nanuq had watched every move from his hidden position, his fur camouflaged perfectly against the white winter environment. Unwittingly, the muskox had sacrificed his life and meandered into Nanuq’s patient trap, ending the ordeal for the old man. Nanuq struck with such stealth and ferocity, driven by hunger. His agile and powerful 600 kilogram frame, standing 2.7 metres tall, launched with deadly accuracy as his voracious, tearing jaws crushed the life from his victim. It was doubtless the muskox even saw him coming. His hunger then satisfied, Nanuq, the powerful male polar bear, had turned toward the hut and tossed his head and sniffed the air in a warning toward the old man. Nanuq’s dark eyes had set a deliberate challenge, daring him to do battle in a future time. One last huff and Nanuq had sauntered away into the depths of the polar winter, leaving enough of his conquest as a sign of his rank and stature among the polar bears, allowing the smaller, hungry subordinate bears to clean up after him.
After the altercation with Nanuq, the old man had left the skull of the muskox where it lay, as a chilling reminder and evidence of the ruthless fight for survival in a hostile and unforgiving frozen wilderness devoid of friendly human contact. One lapse in concentration in a powerful winter storm—where the temperature plunged to in excess of minus twenty-three degrees Celsius—or an unguarded moment flaunting his life in front of a hungry, prowling nanuq away from the safety of his shelter, could prove fatal. Still, he was more at home in the cruelty and isolation of the tundra where man, beast and the environment fought to the death only for survival purposes. When hunger and the depths of winter no longer threatened, man and beast lived together in an uneasy cohabitation, keeping a close, wary eye on each other. Unlike European society, where a fatal blow constantly lurked in every corner and every human being was an enemy and a target in a relentless drive to conquer and dominate each other. He shivered as he imagined society closing the door on his troubled freedom and trapping him in a crowded man-made nightmare.
Sensing the threat had passed, Akiak’s warm muzzle pushed into his empty hand, forcing his thoughts back to the present and reminding him his dogs needed to get outside. She was his faithful dogsled team leader, wise in the things of the tundra, saving his life more often than he cared to remember. He stooped to ruffle her thick fur and then opened the hut door, the dogs bursting out into the warm sunshine excitedly barking and enjoying their sudden freedom.
The temperature this time of year was an exhausting one degree Celsius and there was much to do before the relentless winter night once again descended on his world, plunging him into the crippling freeze. The old man felt different in the bright polar sunshine, lighter in spirit and even a small sense of hope pervaded his thinking. A noticeable freshness drifted across the polar tundra leaving the threats of winter far from his mind, while his old enemy, Nanuq, had migrated further north following the food source associated with the permanent pack ice of the extreme Arctic pole.
For now he was content and an uneasy peace settled over his soul.
As he ventured outside, he bent to investigate the sled lying unused in the protection of the crawl space under his hut. He stiffly drew it from its resting place and examined its condition. The shaped timber skids had dried and split, but it was still solid and usable. The tow straps the dogs wore were stiff, but would soon become pliable once the dogs had worn them in again. A shrill whistle from the old man called the dogs to the sled and away from the serious play they had engaged in. They came barking and running, excited at the thought of pulling a sled again.
Today he would venture onto the edge of the vast tundra away from the hut to trade Arctic fox furs he had trapped during last winter. His buyer, Katu, lived fifty kilometres away and his store was an outpost for the remaining trappers living deep in the wilderness. He would trade for supplies for the coming winter and learn the grave news of the outside world. Katu was a native born Greenlander with no apparent interest in the history of an old European fugitive. The round trip would take two days and he usually stayed the night with Katu.
The old man peered over his shoulder at the hut from his position standing at the back of the sled, a sick feeling rising in his gut as if he was saying goodbye to a trusted friend. With a pile of furs lying in the passenger well of the sled, he breathed out a nervous sigh, turned and mushed the dogs on toward Katu. The dogs barked with excitement as the old wooden sled jolted forward and sped across the Salix glauca effortlessly.
Two hours into the journey, the old man spotted a strange sight in the distance. He called the dogs to a halt and tried to squint, to clear his vision and focus. The fear rose, marshalling his senses to high alert at the outline of a large nanuq prostrated on the ground, as if he was preparing to pounce.
Thoughts flashed through his mind and then reason took over: all nanuq should be hundreds of kilometres to the north by now and if this particular bear was a threat, Akiak would have surely warned him. The old man trusted her implicitly; her senses were sharp, always testing the environment around her for threats and she missed nothing. From her position at the head of the stationary dog team, she raised her snout again to taste the air in the direction of the nanuq, wary of the deadly menace. Convinced Nanuq offered no threat, she turned to concentrate on another distraction and contemptuously lost interest in the hulking, motionless form.
The old man stepped from the sled and reached for his rifle, then cautiously measured his ground till he was almost on top of the predator. The smell of decaying flesh assaulted his senses and a gasp filled his lungs. There had been a momentary struggle before this large, three metre tall male nanuq had succumbed to a single, brutal force that had stolen his life. The old man prodded the dead beast with his rifle butt and estimated the nanuq to be close to 700 kilos then searched around till he found the footprint of the culprit, perfectly preserved in a mud puddle created by melting snow. He dropped to his haunches and examined the massive pad print, then compared the huge male bear’s paw lying dead before him.
It was nearly fifty millimetres bigger.
He swallowed hard, the fear bristling the hair on the back of his neck and out of habit he searched the surroundings, gripping the barrel of his gun tightly. After all these years, his old nemesis was still around somewhere. The last time he saw a track like this he was only a boy, nearly sixty years ago, and the memories of that horrific day etched forever into his young mind, shaped his life and as a fugitive, drove him deep into the wilderness.
When injustice and fear collide it has a name… Ataneq Nanuq.
A disturbing mystery.
Released 17 September 2015
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