"The Feast" by Lucy Fitch Perkins (1865-1937)
THE moment the sun had gone out of sight all the people in the village came pouring out of their tunnels on their way to the feast at Kesshoo's house.
Kesshoo's house was so small that it seemed as if all the people could not possibly get into it.
But the Eskimos are used to crowding into very small spaces, indeed. Sometimes a man and his wife and all his children will live in a space about the size of a big double bed.
First the Angakok came out of his igloo, looking fatter than ever. The Angakok always found plenty to eat somehow. Both his wives were thin. Their faces looked like baked apples all brown and wrinkled.
When they reached Kesshoo's house, the Angakok went into the tunnel first.
Now I can't tell you whether he had grown fatter during the five days, or whether the entrance had grown smaller, but this much I know: the Angakok got stuck! He couldn't get himself into the room no matter how much he tried! He squirmed and wriggled and twisted, until his face was very red and he looked as if he would burst, but there he stayed.
Other people had crawled into the tunnel after him. His two wives were just behind. Everybody got stuck, of course, because no one could move until the Angakok did. He was just like a cork in the neck of a bottle.
Kesshoo and Koolee and the twins and Nip and Tup were all in the igloo. When they saw the Angakok's face come through the hole they thought, of course, the rest of him would come too. But it didn't, and the Angakok was mad about it.
"Why don't they build igloos the way they used to?" he growled. "Every year the tunnels get smaller and smaller! Am I to remain here forever?" he went on. "Why doesn't somebody help me?"
Kesshoo and Koolee seized him under his arms. They pulled and pulled. The two wives pushed him from behind.
"I-yi! I-yi!" screamed the Angakok. "You will scrape my skin off!"
He kicked out behind with his feet. His wives backed hastily, to get out of the way. That made them bump into Koko's mother who was just behind them. Her baby was in her hood, and when she backed, the baby's head was bumped on the roof of the tunnel.
The baby began to roar. In the tunnel it sounded like a clap of thunder. The wives of the Angakok and Koko's mother all began to talk at once, and with that and the baby's crying I suppose there never was a tunnel that held so much noise. It all came into the igloo, and it sounded quite frightful. The twins crept into the farthest corner of the sleeping-bench and watched their father and mother and the Angakok, with their eyes almost popping out of their heads.
Nip and Tup thought they would help a little, so they jumped off the bench; and barked at the Angakok. You see, they didn't know he was a great medicine man. They thought maybe he ought not to be there at all.
Nip even snapped at the Angakok's ear!
That made the Angakok more angry than ever. He reached into the room, seized Nip with one hand and flung him up on to the sleeping-bench. Nip lit on top of Menie. Nip was very much surprised, and so was Menie.
Now, whether the jerk he gave in throwing Nip did it or not, I cannot say, but at that instant Kesshoo and Koolee both gave a great pull in front. At the same moment the two wives gave a great push behind, and the next moment after that, there was the Angakok, still red, and still angry, sitting on the edge of the sleeping-bench in the best place near the fire!
Then his two wives came crawling through. The Angakok looked at them as if he thought they had made him stick in the tunnel, and had done it on purpose, too. The wives scuttled up on to the sleeping-bench, and got into the farthest corner of it as fast as they could.
The women and children always sat back on the bench at a feast.
When Koko's mother came in, the baby was still crying. She climbed up on to the bed with him, and Menie and Monnie showed him the pups and that made the baby laugh again.
As fast as they came in, the women and children packed themselves away on the sleeping-bench. The men sat along the edge of it with their feet on the floor.
The smell of food soon made everybody cheerful. When at last they were all crowded into the room, Koolee placed the bear's head and other pans of meat on the floor.
Then she crawled back on to the bench with the other women.
The Angakok was the first one to help himself. He reached down and took a large chunk of meat. He held it up to his mouth and took hold of the end with his teeth. Then he sawed off a huge mouthful with his knife.
It looked as if he would surely cut off the end of his nose too, but he didn't.
When the men had all helped themselves, pieces of meat were handed out to the women and children.
Soon they were all eating as if their lives depended on it. And now I think of it, their lives did depend on it, to be sure!
I will not speak about their table manners. In fact, they hadn't any to speak of! They had nothing to eat with the meat – not even salt – but it was a great feast to them for all that, and they ate and ate until every scrap was gone.
The Angakok grew better natured every minute. By the time he had eaten all he could hold he was really quite happy and benevolent! He clasped his hands over his stomach and smiled on everybody.
The women chattered in their corner of the sleeping-bench, and Koolee showed Koko's mother the new fur suit trimmed with white rabbit's skin that she was making for Menie. And Koko's mother said she really must make one for Koko just like it.
The twins and Koko talked about a trap to catch hares which they meant to made as soon as the long days began again, and the baby went to sleep on a pile of furs in the corner. Menie fed the pups with some of his own meat, and gave them each a bone. Nip and Tup buried their bones under the baby and then went to sleep too.
After a while the Angakok turned his face to the wall, as he always did when he meant to tell a story or sing a song. Then he said, "Listen, my children!" He called everybody – even the grown up people – his children! Everybody listened. They always listened when the Angakok spoke.
The Angakok knew the secrets of the sun, moon, and stars. He had told them so many times! The people believed it, and it may be that the Angakok really believed it himself, though I have some doubt about that.
"Listen, my children," said the Angakok, "and I will tell you wonderful things.
"There is a world beneath the sea! You catch glimpses of that world yourselves in calm summer weather, when the water is still, and you know that I speak the truth!
"Then you can see the shadows of rocks and islands and glaciers in the smooth water. Far below you see blue sky and white clouds. That is the calm world in which the Spirits of the Dead live. I have visited that underworld, many times – I have talked there with the spirits of your ancestors."
The Angakok paused and looked around to see if every one was paying attention. Then he went on with his story.
"Do you remember how two springs ago there were so few walruses and seals along the coast that you nearly died for lack of food and oil?" he said. "My children, it was I who brought the seals and walruses back to you! Without my efforts you might all have starved!
"I will tell you of the perils of a fearful journey which I undertook for your sakes. Then you will see what you owe to the skill and faithfulness of your Angakok!"
All the people looked very solemn, and nodded their heads. The Angakok went on.
"You must know that in the depths of the underworld, far beyond the beautiful abode of the Spirits of the Dead, lives the Old Woman of the Sea!
"There she sits forever and forever beside a monstrous lamp. Underneath the lamp is a great saucer to catch the oil which drips from it.
"In that saucer there are whole flocks of sea-birds swimming about! All the animals that live in the sea – the whales and walruses, the codfish and the seals – swarm in the saucer of the Old Woman of the Sea. That is where they all come from. Sometimes the Old Woman of the Sea keeps all the creatures in the saucer. Then there are no seal or fish or walrus along our coasts, and there is hunger among the innuit (human beings).
"At the time of my journey she had kept all the creatures for so long a time in her saucer that you and many others were nearly dead for lack of food.
"It was then that I prepared myself for the perils of this journey to the underworld. I called my Tornak, or guiding spirit, to lead my steps. Without his Tornak an Angakok can do nothing. The Tornak came at once in answer to my call. He took me by the hand, and we plunged down into the water. First we passed through the beautiful World of Spirits, where it is always summer. This part of the way was quite pleasant, but on the farther side of that world we came to a fearful abyss. It could be crossed only on a large slippery wheel, as slippery as ice.
"I mounted this wheel and was whirled across the chasm. No sooner had I reached the other side than new terrors came upon me. I had to pass by great cauldrons of boiling oil, in which seals were swimming about.
"A misstep would have sent me plunging into the boiling oil, and you would have lost your Angakok forever!"
The thought of this was so dreadful that the Angakok paused and wiped his eyes. Then he went on again with his story.
"However, with great courage I kept upon my way until at last I saw the Old Woman's house! A deep gulf lay between us and her dwelling, and outside it stood a great dog with bloody jaws. This dog guards the entrance, and he sleeps only for a single moment, once in a very great while.
"For six days I and my Tornak waited there for the dog to sleep. At last on the seventh day he closed his eyes! Instantly the Tornak seized my hand and drew me across the bridge which spanned the chasm. This bridge was as narrow as a single thread.
"When we were safely across the bridge we passed the sleeping dog and boldly entered the Old Woman's house. The Old Woman is terrible to look upon! Her hand is the size of a large walrus, and her teeth like the rocks along the coast!" The Angakok dropped his voice to a whisper.
"However, when she looked upon Me she trembled!" he said. "She saw at once that I possessed great power, and was a great Angakok. I spoke to her flattering words. Then I told her of the hunger of my children!
"I begged that she would send the seal and walrus and sea-birds to our coast at once. But she had no mind to yield to my requests. Then I stormed and threatened." The Angakok's voice grew louder. "The walls shook with the thunder of my voice! At last I seized her by the hair! I tipped over the saucer with my foot! My great power prevailed against the mighty sorceress!
"The seal and walrus swam away. The birds flew into the air and were gone. I had conquered the Old Woman of the Sea! My children were saved!" The Angakok was silent for a moment. Then he spoke again in a natural voice.
"When I opened my eyes in my own igloo again," he said, "the famine was already over. Flocks of sea-birds were flying overhead. The sea swarmed with fish, and with walrus and seal. Every one along the whole coast was happy. Ask yourselves – is it not so?"
The Angakok seemed very much pleased with himself, and he looked about, as if he expected every one else to be pleased with him too. All the people were filled with wonder at his great power. They began to talk among themselves.
"Yes, I remember the famine well," said Koko's father. "I was away up the coast that season. Several died in our village for lack of food."
Other men remembered things about other times when food had been scarce.
"It is lucky," they said to each other, "that here we have a great Angakok who understands all the secrets of the World and who can save us from such dreadful things."
At last Kesshoo said, "Will you tell us, great Angakok, how you make these wonderful journeys?"
"Do you really wish to know?" asked the Angakok. "If you do, I will summon my guiding spirits to tell you, but they will speak only in the darkness."
Kesshoo took the lamp at once and put it out in the tunnel. Then he placed a thick musk-ox hide over the entrance, so that not a single ray of light came into the room. The darkness could almost be felt. Everybody sat very still and listened.
Soon a heavy body was heard to strike the floor with a dull thud, and a strange voice said, "Who calls me?"
Another voice said, "You are called, mighty spirits, to tell these children of the labors of their Angakok."
Then began all sorts of strange noises, as of different persons speaking. All the voices sounded much like the Angakok's, and they all said what a great medicine man the Angakok was, and how every one in the village must be sure to do what he told them to!
At last the Angakok himself spoke, in his own voice. "I will tell you how I make these strange journeys," he said.
"My body is now lying on the floor at your feet. Now I begin to rise. You cannot see me. You cannot touch me. Now I am floating about your heads, now I am touching the roof! I can go wherever I please! Nothing can stop me! I know the secret places of the sun, moon, and stars. I can fly through the roof and go at once to the moon, if I wish to."
Then the voice was still. Nobody moved or spoke.
Monnie had gone to sleep in the corner of the bed, but Koko and Menie were still awake. They had listened to every word about the Old Woman of the Sea, and how the Angakok traveled to the moon.
You know I told you before that Koko was six. He wanted to know all about things. So he spoke right out in the dark, when every one else was still.
He said, "Mother, if the Angakok can go anywhere he wants to, why couldn't he get out of the tunnel?"
Koko's mother tried to hush him up. "Sh, sh," she said, and put her hand over his mouth. At least she thought she did, but she made a mistake in the dark and put her hand over Menie's mouth instead!
Menie tried to say, "I never said a word," but he could only make queer sounds, because Koko's mother's hand was tight on his mouth.
Of course Koko didn't know his mother was trying to keep him still, so he said again, "Why is it, mother?"
Koko's mother heard Koko's voice speaking just as plainly as ever though she was sure she had her hand over his mouth! She was frightened.
"Magic! magic!" she screamed. "Bring the light! Koko is bewitched! I have my hand over his mouth, yet you hear that he talks as plainly as ever!"
Koko tried to say, "Your hand isn't over my mouth," and Menie tried to say, "It's over mine!" but he could only say, "M-m-m," because she held on so tight!
Koko's mother was making so much noise herself that she wouldn't have heard what either one said anyway. The baby woke up and whimpered. Nip and Tup woke up and barked like everything.
Kesshoo got the light from the tunnel as quickly as he could, and set it on the bench. Then every one saw what was the matter! They all laughed – all but Menie and the Angakok. The Angakok said to Koko's father, "You'd better look after that boy. He is disrespectful to Me. That is a bad beginning!"
Koko's father was ashamed of him. He said, "Koko is so small!"
But the Angakok said, "Koko is six. He is old enough to know better."
Everybody was so glad to see the light again that they all began to talk at once.
Some one said to Kesshoo, "Tell us about the long journey to the south you took once long ago."
Then everybody else listened, while Kesshoo told about how once he had taken his dog-sledge with a load of musk-ox and seal skins on it far down the coast, and how at last he had come to a little settlement where the houses were all made of wood, if they would believe it!
He told them that in the bay before the village there was a boat as big as the Big Rock itself. It had queer white wings, and the wind blew on these wings and made the boat go!
Kesshoo had been out in a kyak to see it. He had even paddled all round it. The men on the great boat had fair hair, and one of them, the chief man of all, had bought some of Kesshoo's skins and one of his dogs. The man was a great chief. His name was Nansen.
This great chief had told Kesshoo that he was going to take a sledge and go straight into the inland country where the Giants live! He said he was going to cross the great ice! No man had ever done that since the world began.
Kesshoo thought probably the great chief had been eaten by the Giants, but he did not know surely, because he had never been back there since to find out. And to be sure, if he had been eaten by Giants, no one ever would know about it anyway.
Then Kesshoo showed them all a great knife that the white chief had given him, in exchange for a sealskin, and two steel needles that he had sent to Koolee. Koolee kept the needles in a little ivory case all by themselves.
She always carried the case in her kamik, so it would not be lost. She could do wonderful sewing with the needles. Koolee was very proud of her sewing. No one else in the whole village could sew so well, because they had not such good needles to do it with. Koolee used them only for her very finest work.
At last the Angakok said, "It is time to go home." He called to his wives. They climbed down off the bench.
That started the others. One after another they put on their upper garments, which they had taken off in the warm igloo, said good-bye, and popped down into the tunnel. Last of all came the Angakok's turn.
Then Kesshoo and Koolee and the Angakok's wives all began to look very anxious. The Angakok looked a little worried himself. If he had stuck coming in, what would happen now after he had eaten so much!
He got down on his hands and knees, and looked at the hole. He had taken off his thick fur coat when he came in. Now he took off his undercoat, and his thick fur trousers! He gave them to his wives. Then he stretched himself out just as long as he possibly could and slowly hitched himself down into the tunnel, groaning all the way.
Kesshoo and Koolee and the wives waited until his feet disappeared, and they heard him scraping along through the tunnel. Then they breathed a great sigh of relief, and the two wives popped down after him.
The last Kesshoo and Koolee heard of the Angakok, was a kind of muffled roar when a piece of ice fell from the top of the tunnel on to his bare back.
Menie and Monnie and the pups were already sound asleep in their corner of the bench when their father and mother fixed the lamp for the night and crawled in among the fur robes beside them.