The Snow Whale

By John Minichillo

Atticus Books
July 2011
266 pages



The first Inuk they met was the charter pilot, a cowboy-hatted kid not much older than Q.  At the municipal airport on the other side of Anchorage, he trudged across the melting slush of the parking lot in cowboy boots, and he walked them to his plane, a Beaver on floats older than its pilot.  The hangar was open with the Beaver in front, parked there overnight to keep out of the weather, with landing wheels beneath the pontoons.  They were headed north, where the days would be longer.  Jacobs had the feeling the weather had gotten warmer but everything was relative, and though the ice was melting, they were caught in a cycle of melt and freeze.

He extended a hand to the young pilot, who saw him as a white man, and Jacobs knew this was how he'd always be seen, no matter what he felt inside.

"I'm flying you to Point Halcyon?" the kid said.

His features looked foreign, though Jacobs knew that at Point Halcyon the Inuit would outnumber everybody else, and he and Q would be the outsiders.  What white luxury—to be on the kid's own turf and see him as foreign, to judge his looks against some white ideal—even here.  And Jacobs realized he hadn't shed his white point of view entirely.  He wondered about Q's perspective and what he thought about the encounter. 

But as soon as the kid walked off to sign out at the office, Q clued him in:  "I hope he can fly."

The cab of the Beaver was smaller than the inside of a VW bug, which was about all Jacobs had to compare it with.  He had never flown in anything other than a commercial airliner, and this was the first signal that they were leaving the farthest outpost for the last frontier.  Inside the cockpit were a hanging rosary and a statuette of St. Christopher.  The kid took off his cowboy hat to put on a headset and a pair of mirrored sunglasses before putting the hat back on.

"Point Halcyon?" the kid said in the moments before he fired up the engine.  He looked down at his clipboard.  "There's nothing there.  Are you a teacher or something?  A missionary?"

"I'm Inuit," Jacobs said.

The kid scrutinized Jacobs and then looked at Q.  "Him too?"

"No, he's American."

"I'm black," Q said.

"I thought you was whitey," the pilot said to Jacobs.  "I don't like whitey.  Nothing personal."

"None taken," Jacobs said.  "I thought I was whitey myself."

"You could sure pass," the pilot agreed.  "So why you up here?  You a teacher or something?"

"Film crew," Q said.  "He's my producer."

"I'm Inuit," Jacobs added.

"Right," the pilot said.  "Well, hang on tight.  We'll get you there." 

At the push of a button the engine coughed and the propeller turned until the entire plane was shaking and all they heard was a steady roar.  The plane pulled out of the hangar slowly into sunlight where it slid uneasily on wet ice.  They turned and crawled the length of the runway, then turned back and the pilot throttled up.  The world outside seemed to vibrate while the steering wheel shook violently and resisted the kid's grip.  Soon they moved along the runway, which was short, and the pilot corrected as they veered sideways.  The wheels remained in contact until the last moment, when they rushed toward a line of trees and a pile of snow.  Then they gently lifted and tilted back over the small airport. 

Jacobs held on to his seat and wondered if Q saw him.  The Beaver was nothing at all like the jet planes Jacobs had flown in, and he felt the pull of the Earth more acutely.  He decided he'd never really flown, and the wings of the plane, for just a moment, were an extension of himself.  He remembered dreams he'd had as a kid when he could fly by breast-stroking in the air.  He would swim to climb above a game of tag or to escape the pursuit of a stray dog.  His arms and legs pumped and pulled as he lifted higher over his yard, sometimes too high for comfort, and he woke up from the dream the second he realized he couldn't really fly, because it was impossible, and then he tumbled and dropped.  Jacobs felt that way now, as if their lifting off the Earth was daring and dangerous.  Like in the dreams, when all he had to do was believe.  But if he remembered flying was impossible, they were doomed to fall.

Jacobs also had the sense of going back in time, to when the frontiers of the globe had been reached and white men turned their thoughts to flight.  A time when the technology was unsure and the machines that defied gravity were by no means standard, akin to the beasts ridden before them, machines that needed to be tamed.  Then, as they gained the height of clouds, Jacobs knew the pilot would depend entirely on the dials and gauges of his instruments, with the clouds white, the sky white, the ground white.  He wondered how bewilderingly white it must all be in the midst of a snowstorm and figured this young pilot had probably flown in snowy conditions more often than not.  Jacobs wondered how many Eskimo words the kid knew for the snow he'd flown in, and he decided they were safer with him than any gray-haired commercial airlines commodore.  The kid had experience and knew his flight path.

After three hours aloft, with the same beautiful rolling scenery, at least when it could be distinguished from white on white, the kid indicated the coastline and beyond it Russia.  Point Halcyon looked a lot like the satellite map, with the landing strip completely traversing the tip of the small peninsula, and the runway appeared short from this altitude.  The pilot spoke into his headset and started his descent.

He held out his index finger near the window to compare his hand to the black land of Point Halcyon that jutted out into the sea-ice.  "They call it Tikigaq.  It means finger pointing.  But they also say it looks like a raven's bill, or a harpoon tip.  It points to the sea."

"It points out into the sea," Q said.

"It's not really land," the pilot said.

Point Halcyon was detached from the mainland with lakes and ponds separating Tikigaq, and only a thin line of beaches connected it to the coast.

"The old legend," the pilot continued, "is that Tikigaq was a whale.  The first hunter killed him and that line of beaches are the harpoon line.  They call Point Halcyon the animal.  It is alive and also dead.  The spirits of whales live there.  It's a sacred place."

"Like the elephants' graveyard?" Q said.

"You'll find whale bones and Inupiat bones," the pilot said.  "It's the oldest continuously populated village in North America.  Tikigaq is thousands of years old, and the Inupiat who live there now are descendants."

"What's the difference?" Jacobs said.  "Inuit or Inupiat?"

"I thought you were Inuit?" the pilot asked.

"I am."

"Inuit is more generalized.  We're Inuit all across the arctic.  Inupiat are the people from the North Slope—the whalers."

From the air, the town looked modern, rectangular houses laid out in a square grid.

"What do you want in Tikigaq, anyway?" the pilot said.  "You a teacher or something?"

The pilot dipped the plane into a nosedive as he aimed for the short landing strip, with the frozen ocean at both ends.  Jacobs had never known a fear of flying but he'd also never been shown such a clear view of the danger.  He felt dizzy and he struggled to breathe.  There had been a kind of helplessness throughout most of his life, but the sight of the black living landmass coming at them put him in the grip of something terrifying.  Tikigaq was an animal.  Merciless and unthinking, the place would devour them.