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Qitsualik: 'Poisoned tomatoes'

Moonlight draped its ghostly pallor over the hills behind our house. New snow crunched underfoot. We children had been left to entertain ourselves. I had my little sister in tow, on a piece of sealskin. I think my parents had hoped that she would soften it for them.

The first stop was Anna's place (not her real name). She was the closest available playmate, but she was delicate, too-often sad, disturbed about something. Sure enough, we entered her small hut to see her sniffling in the corner.

We hung around for a bit, but I could tell that there would be no playing with her today. Her father had been at her again. He was a vulpine man who rarely had anything good to say about anyone. When he did, his words were always chosen to hurt someone else. He eyed us suspiciously, eating his canned tomatoes in silence, while we tried to cheer Anna. To my surprise, he finally offered my little sister one. He followed the act by wondering aloud why my little sister was so cute, while I was not.

Simultaneously, he made motions of offering me tomatoes, while carefully keeping the can out of reach. When I grow up, I thought furiously, I'm going to be just as mean to you.

Next stop was Sammy's house. He had an actual replica of a sled, complete with rope lashing. I was always begging my father to build me one (mostly so I could steal our most important dog, Kusik, for practice-sledding), but it would remain to the future for him to do so.

For now, we had only the sealskin and Sammy's sled. So up the hill we trundled, with me having to push-pull my little sister along. It was like carting a huge stuffed doll, with a will of its own, just heavy enough to be tiring. The silver moon was now high overhead. Usually, the dogs howled this time of night, but a spell of quietude seemed to have been cast over the frozen expanse. At the top of the hill, I stared at the night, marveled at the number of stars.

Then the magic died. Once we began, the sliding was barely worth having to drag my sister up the hill each time. Whenever I ended up at the bottom, it was to find her still face-down, as though she had been shot, her mitts having flown off somewhere. Frustrated, I resorted to piggybacking her, sealskin rolled under my arms. Sammy and his sled always seemed ready to go, bunny-power incarnate, compared to our turtle progress.

In one stolen moment, I tossed my sister onto the oncoming sled and managed a little solo trip down. At the bottom, I was greeted by the sight of her once again. There she was, like a great fish, limbs moving idly in the snow, waiting for me to right her. She was just about upside-down.

Sammy was already halfway up the hill, and I stared after him enviously.

A brutal thought came over me then. What if I just left my sister where she was? I could go sledding. If she wanted to continue, she could damn well get up and play like the rest of us. I had reached the very pinnacle of my resentment at having to shepherd her.

Today, I understand where the feeling came from, although it was beyond me then. In a way, I had been poisoned. Venom had been working its way through me. Anna's father was a miserable man. Something in his past had poisoned him, and when I visited, he had tried to pass it on to me. His was an emotional toxin, withering poor Anna over time. If he was successful, I would pass it on to my sister forever more. He meant to kill my relationship with her, because, in his wretchedness, affection had become anathema to him. Like a breeding mosquito, he would perpetuate his cycle.

I picked my sister up out of the snow, as always. We sledded until we got cold, and went inside.

Many years later, I again saw that man, Anna's father. He was old, lonely, deflated. I was tempted to tell him that his trick had failed, but it was obvious that life had already repaid him in full.

Some cycles deserve to be broken.

Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.