Goose Heart
by Jennifer Zakutney

Finally, I was going "out on the land."

It had been three long months of ice, snow and dirty streets.

At first, life in the little Inuit village had been enough to satisfy my curiosity. The village was organized in a neat circle plopped in the middle of an icy white landscape. There were two types of houses. White people or halunacks lived in old shacks like mine with running water, but a glorified honey bucket for a toilet. The Inuit lived in square Lego homes with brightly coloured caps of blue, green, yellow and red. At night, lights shimmered from windows joining with the Northern Lights above the village. By day, Ski-Doos zoomed about ferrying people to and from houses, the Co-op, The Northern Store and the coffee shop. I had frequented all of these places to exhaustion. There were no more surprises to be found. I had lost my revulsion for the puppy pelts tacked up on sheds or the polar bear skin stretched out on the hill just out of town. No roads entered or left the village, only Ski-Doo tracks leading to the mysterious unknown; 'The Land'.

Two months in, I swallowed my pride and begged more than one Inuit colleague to take me fishing. The women would look me up and down and then shrug their shoulders in a noncommittal way. My friend Megan, another white teacher, clarified the matter for me.

"You're a skinny, white, single woman. You're a threat to them and you don't have enough fat on you to keep warm. Why should they take you?"

I resigned myself to standing at the edge of the village, watching longingly as entire families headed out every Saturday. Ski-Doos pulled sleds or hamoutiks filled with people and supplies, and disappeared into the white flat landscape. I imagined a wonderful world of wolves, polar bears and silence. On Monday, colleagues' tanned faces greeted me with self-satisfied smiles to my pasty white one. I despaired of ever being one of the tanned ones, of ever being accepted. But now, I was going out.

Anna was an Inuit colleague. She was not one of the tanned ones. When her husband, James, managed to go hunting he rarely included her even though she was longing to go. I know she convinced him to take us with the promise of parading his hunting skills in front of a white girl. James was known to be a layabout drunk who could rarely get up early enough to go hunting, but I was desperate and didn't care about prostituting my whiteness. He would take us both.

I awoke at 5 a.m. anxious and excited. The roar of the Ski-Doos of early risers could be heard in the distance. Not wanting to be late, I packed what little food I had, a cup, an extra sweater, socks, sunscreen, my couch cushions and my homemade fishing-stick, line and hook attached.

It was only five minutes to Anna's house. Doors were never locked up here. I entered with a quiet warning knock. Anna had a one-floor, three-bedroom Lego home. The air was hot and humid with the strong smell of too many bodies in a small space. Her oldest boy, Eli, slept on the living-room sofa while six others shared three bedrooms. Eli saw me first.

"Are we going out?" I asked him as he rose from the couch wearing only shorts.


I tensed. He was calling James. I relaxed when Anna emerged bleary-eyed from one of the rooms.

"Come back later. We aren't ready yet."

"Oh I'm sorry. I just didn't know what time."

"Later. Maybe seven?"

I looked at my watch. It was 5:30 a.m.

"I'm sorry. Seven ... I'll be back at seven."

Anna was kind enough to smile as I slipped out into the cold air.

I didn't sleep, but instead unpacked, re-packed, re-packed again, stared at my equipment, drank tea, and then drank some more. I wandered over to Anna's house four more times over the next three hours. There was no activity outside the house and I was too timid to go inside. At 8:30 the door burst open. James and Anna rushed in and out packing the entire house in their small hamoutik by 9 a.m. We were joined by two other Ski-Doos. Two elderly women sat in one hamoutik, pulled by a third woman on a Ski-Doo. In the final hamoutik, in between drills, supplies and seat cushions, sat a smooth-skinned, plump, 40-something woman, waiting patiently while her husband announced his presence by gunning the engine. I didn't know any of them.

I sat next to Anna in her hamoutik. Sporadically, the sled would catch some air off a bump and our backs and bums would absorb the impact. The couch cushions helped, but there was no doubt my back would feel the pain. Anna loved to show off her English.

"I was born at a camp over that hill.... We are going to one of the most popular fishing spots in the area ... Martha caught five char there last week."

Every comment meant pushing back my hood and straining to hear the comments over the loud drone of the machines.

She stopped commenting. The village was fading away against the vast white. At last I'd made it out of the circular village. I waved to the strangers standing at the edge of the village watching us.

We drove for an hour. My back hurt, but my imagination was on fire. My white, halunack eyes saw nothing. No trees to burden my view. Only ice and snow in different shades and when the Ski-Doos stopped—silence.

Not that far, but the lake was just far enough. The women didn't waste any time. The men's cigarettes were barely finished before the elders' Inuktitut hounding began. Drills were pulled out from under blue tarpaulins and placed where elderly women waited. They had a way of knowing where the fish were. The men dutifully made holes, pushing the drills deep into the ice, and then pulling up. The hole was deep enough only when water and ice overflowed the opening. The men barely had time to pull their drills free of the hole before a woman staked her claim and dropped her line. I fished my hook out of my bag not wanting to miss my chance.

The flurry of activity stopped with each of us settled at a hole. This was northern timing. Sit, wait, think, wait, and then act. Everyone knew what to do and when to do it. No discussion only understanding of what needed to be done. I sensed a leader in the group, someone orchestrating the action, but I couldn't identify the hierarchy. I was a child emulating, following and copying all that went on around me. No questions, no questions. Questions were the white way and I didn't want to be white today.

I rejoiced in my foresight in grabbing my couch cushion. It protected my side as I lounged on the ice under a big blue sky. It was a warm spring day, but ice is ice, no matter how hard the orange ball in the middle of the sky shone. I lay there for hours no longer anxious for a nibble on my line. Some of the other women had moved on to find other more fertile spots, but I'd felt an earlier tug, and could not be deterred. We were now spread out across the lake.

Anna came to get me for lunch. The women had made a makeshift camp on some rocks at the edge of the lake. One of the men brought some wood and made a campfire. The strangeness of having a wood campfire in a place where no trees grew, struck me only later. I sat on the rock useless, as the others went about their silent ballet. One woman cut carrots and potatoes while others gutted and cut up two of the fish that had been caught. Fish soup was on the menu.

James arrived with a goose on the back of his Ski-Doo.

Geese mate for life. It's better to kill them in pairs or else the mate left alive will search for hours and sometimes days for its dead partner. James came back with only one. He walked tall with a wide grin, holding the goose by the neck, its head dangling near his hip. His eyes were cruel. He had enjoyed this kill. Where was the other goose? I looked to the sky hoping that its mate was not circling. How long would it search in vain? I didn't want to eat goose today.

Anna deftly plucked the goose that James dropped at her feet. I was amazed at how quickly a goose can be made naked. She cut off its head, cut open its main cavity and rummaged around for the organs. Each organ was carefully wrapped in tin foil and put on the fire. I was looking forward to the fish stew boiling in the pot with the carrots and potatoes.

Anna gave me some tea and bannock. The tea was watery, but hot. The bannock was bland, but filling. The elders smiled at me with their gums and I smiled back. They offered more tea and bannock. I ate, all the time bowing, smiling, laughing and gesturing. I was a skinny white clown. I hoped they didn't regret their invitation. Suddenly pots were removed from the fire and the tin foil pieces were kicked free of the flames. I gravitated toward the fish.

"Heeyay," an elder shouted. A special Inuit thanks for the food about to be devoured.

I was stopped halfway to the pot of fish. An elder blocked my path and handed me a present. A small tinfoil ball. I looked at her and smiled hoping my eyes did not reveal my panic.

"That is the best part," Anna translated from across the rock. "The heart."

At least it was cooked. I had managed to avoid raw meat of all forms since coming to the North. I had seen the raw meat on flattened cardboard boxes on the floors of kitchens in every house I had visited. There was always a raw fish, seal or caribou lying about ready to be tasted by family and visitors alike. I opened the tin foil ball and saw the bloody organ barely singed by the fire. The woman looked down and then up at me with her toothless grin - waiting. What would the skinny white girl do? I sat down and took the bloody organ in my hand. I wanted to return. I wanted to be invited back. I had no choice.

I ate it whole. Chewing only once, I refused to let the springy muscle get caught in my teeth. Luckily it could be swallowed in one gulp. It had very little taste. The old woman laughed and soon everyone on the rocks by the lake was laughing uncontrollably.

"We never eat the heart raw," Anna said through her tears.

Jennifer Zakutney lives in Dorval, but has managed to escape the dullness of the suburbs through her writings. In her fantasy world she makes money from her writing and spends hours concocting exotic characters in the comfort of her basement office. In her real life she teaches math to high school students and drags herself to her computer every once in a while to get a little 'ditty' written down.