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The hirluaq - A place of shelter and fear

Scars are like stories written upon the flesh. If you look at the little
finger on my right hand, for example, you will see a thin, somewhat curved
scar. If you had seen it before it became scarified, you would be looking
at a wound that half-severed my finger. I got that at the hirluaq in my
early teens.

The hirluaq was a storage shed that my parents used for extra equipment. My
siblings and I dreaded setting foot in it, especially in the dead of
winter, since it was lightless, airless and cold, like a kind of place
where all the unwanted things of life came to rest. It was a dark world in
miniature, having its own smells: ancient canvas, dried fish, gasoline. It
could, and did, hold anything; and it was a cold trip there to retrieve
powdered milk, cereal, a needed tool or an item of clothing. The only task
I disliked more than retrieving things from the hirluaq was hauling bags of
combustible items (wood, paper, etc.) down to the dilapidated shacks by the
creek. So it was the hirluaq, the somewhat lesser of two evils, for me.

The hirluaq's door was invariably frozen shut, which meant prying it open,
flashlight under chin. It opened to reveal a long, narrow area leading
deeper into the place. No simple shed, the hirluaq had originally been
meant as a small home.

One evening, I was sent out to fetch some powdered milk. I had learned to
get in and out of the hirluaq as speedily as possible, but sometimes some
searching was unavoidable in order to find what one wanted. Our year's
supply of powdered milk was kept in a large barrel, and fetching it
entailed filling a pitcher held in hand.

After some groping about in the dark, I eventually found the barrel and
managed to pry the frigid lid off. I was resolved to fill my container as
fast as possible, but I was nervous, casting near-blind eyes everywhere.
That was when my eyes locked upon something bulky, roughly man-sized,
thickly bundled and lined up along one wall.

Oh no, I thought: Where did they store people waiting for burial? It was
too cold, in mid-winter, to bury them properly. They would have to put them
somewhere, wouldn't they? It was one of my father's duties, as a community
leader, to tend to the dead.

Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to intrude on your place, I thought at it.

That was around the time my flashlight began to dim. As it gradually died,
I still could not rip my eyes from that mass -- the possible body --
against the wall. Some instinct told me that if that thing was ever going
to move, ever going to struggle up into a sitting position or roll toward
me, this would be the time. Get powdered milk, an inner voice screamed.
Close lid. Get out.

Something brushed against my leg. My scream flew up, bounced off my palate,
and was somehow swallowed again. My body shuddered as though electrified.
The experience was so sudden and wracking that I barely noticed my hand,
still halfway into the barrel, scraping against the lid's edge.

I stumbled out of there, half-filled jug in hand, bouncing off boxes and
camping gear, until I was on the porch. My eyes were drawn downward toward
white and red in the jug -- blood in the powdered milk. The lid had cut my
little finger so the pad just hung by the remaining skin. It was difficult
to care as I fled toward home.

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"Just some old caribou skins," was all my father had to say.

I did not probe further, but the answer never sat well with me. It never
helped me get a grip on why the hirluaq was such a horror, such a scar, and
that bothered me even more. Years went by. I tried to leave it be.

I only saw the hirluaq once as an adult. It was just a shed, half as large
as I remembered. It was hard to believe that it had ever contained such a
world of darkness.

My family almost lived in the hirluaq, you see. As already mentioned, the
only childhood task I dreaded more than fetching things from the hirluaq
was hauling combustibles, like paper, down to the shacks by the creek. The
stuff was for families who lived in those shacks. They burned it in barrels
for warmth.

When Inuit were first forced to leave their nomadic ways, there was nothing
for them to live in. A tent or snow-house is comfortable, but impossible to
maintain in a settled existence. So those earliest settled families used
scrap wood, often castoffs from construction, to build little shacks. They
were poorly ventilated, breeding sickness and reeking of urine and vomit.
Until the government recognized the crisis and instituted "matchbox"
housing, that creek and the shacks along its sides were like the lands of
the dead.

The hirluaq had originally been intended as our shack.

My family was blessed, and we never moved into that place, which we turned
into our storage shed. But assisting the struggling families was a constant
reminder of what might have been.

I think the reason the hirluaq was such a place of horror for me was that,
in a way, it was always still a shack by the creek, a place for Inuit to
suffer and die in the dark. And it occurs to me that maybe my father had
told me a kindly lie. Perhaps the thing I had seen in the hirluaq really
had been a body. But it doesn't matter now. I simply feel like a tragedy
has been averted, and am thankful that Inuit are alive, walking about, with
no shacks by the creek. But, like the scar on my finger, my vision of an
alternate future is indelible -- the possibility of Inuit lying cold,
tucked away, forgotten and dead, like that mass in the hirluaq.

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.