As I do each year, the office of 'Canadian Ckayaker' is closed for the Holiday. The staff have been sent home to be with their families, the fires turned down, the lights dimmed for the Season, and I've got a story for you.
We'll all be back in the New Year with more paddling stories from here and there. Best Wishes, Everyone!
Many years ago along the shores of Hudson's Bay people were accustomed now and then to seeing some strange things when they were out on the land hunting. This story is about one of those times. It happened not too many years after the traders first came to live among the Inuit and brought many of their strange ways to the people who lived in this region.
Men would usually hunt in groups of at least two and so it was on this occasion. Two close friends went walking along the coast looking for a way out onto the new sea ice where they might catch some seals. It was not many days away from Christmas, the winter celebration at the trader’s place. Both men were looking forward to being at the traders again this year. Last year, the first year they had gone to the post, they got several presents and both were hoping to get a gun this year, although both knew it wasn’t going to happen. To get a gun they would have to have things to trade and neither had much to offer the trader.
Coming to a long point of land leading out into the sea, they noticed that the bay formed in its leeward side had frozen over nearly completely. Using their harpoons to tap on the new ice as they walked, they cautiously headed out towards the open water. About half way out, they heard a moaning sound coming from the land along the point. At first they assumed it was just the sea ice moving in the tide that had caused the sounds, but the more it continued, the more human it sounded. Breaking off from their hunt, they turned towards the sound and went to see what it was.
Nearing the land, they could see something alive, trying to flop along the ice. Neither could tell what it was, but the closer they got, the more odd it seemed. Finally reaching within a few meters of the creature, they saw it was human in form from the waist up and fish-like below. It’s long hair was once black and shiny, but its struggles on the sea ice had filled it with snow and ice crystals now all tangled and twisted about its upper body. The lower fish body on the other gleamed and sparkled in the sunlight as it flapped and spun around.
Both men were terrified and began to back away having never seen or heard of such a creature before. Suddenly the moaning stopped and the creature turned and faced the men. “Don’t leave me!” it cried. “Help me back to the sea! I will reward you if you help me...”
The men looked at each other, amazed that the fish creature could speak. “How can we help you. We’re afraid of you.” The fish creature spoke again, telling them that she was afraid of them as well. They mustn't touch her. She told then to go find a piece of driftwood and to use that to push her to the floe edge. If they did so, she would reward them with whatever they wanted.
The men began looking along the shore for something to push the creature over the ice towards the open water. As they searched, one said, “I’m going to ask for a gun!” The other man laughed. “That’s crazy talk, but you know what? I’ll ask her for a sewing machine like the trader’s wife has. My wife really wants one.” Both men continued walking about the beach laughing to themselves about their choices. At the least, we’ll have a good story to tell the others at the Christmas party they agreed.
Once a strong enough piece of wood had been found, the two men returned to the fish creature and set to work pushing her towards the water. She was heavier than they realized and the work took them some time. Finally with a big plop, the creature slipped over the ice edge and fell into the water. Turning to the two hunters, the creature asked what the hunters wanted as gifts for saving her. “A gun”, said one. “A sewing machine”, said the other. “I’ll bring you something for your children as well. You have saved my life! Come here tomorrow and I will give you your gifts.” With that the creature dove below the sea and was gone.
The men decided to return home as the light had already turned to dusk and finding seals was no longer possible in the growing darkness. On the way home, both talked about the strange experience and wondered whether it would be wise to mention what had happened to their families. Perhaps not, they agreed.
The next day was Christmas. The Inuit from all around gathered at the trader’s place and waited for their gifts. As had happened the previous year, there was hot chocolate, some candies and little bells for the children. Afterwards there was a dance with accordion music played by the new trader’s assistant. No one got a gun that year. The two men didn’t mention finding the sea creature.
It had been disappointing, but what did they expect? The next day, both men met as usual and headed out to the flow edge to again hunt for seals. As they neared the bay ice they had been on the day before Christmas, they could see something dark basking on the ice. They headed towards it hoping a large bearded seal might have chosen to haul out, but the closer they got, the more confused they became. Lying on the ice some distance in from the gradually freezing ice was a gun, a sewing machine and a gramophone.
Merry Christmas Everyone!