That Friday afternoon in late July was the last time Edie Kiglatuk saw Martha Salliaq alive. As the school bell signalled the end of a long, sultry day and students tumbled out into the corridor, eager to get to their summer fishing camps, Martha spilled the contents of her purse on the floor. Pens, crayons, an eyeliner pencil and a stick of lipstick went skittering across the hot linoleum. As a rule, Inuit girls didn’t wear make-up. Her curiosity aroused, Edie went over.
‘Going somewhere special?’ she asked, holding up the lipstick.
Martha took the stick and dropped it back inside her bag. She flashed her teacher an embarrassed smile.
‘Just curious.’ Edie palmed her hands in surrender. ‘No offence, Ms Kiglatuk.’
Edie laughed. ‘None taken.’ All the same, in a small, remote corner of her heart Edie was a little stung. She’d been teaching Martha three weeks and in that time she’d grown fond enough of the girl to have to hide her favouritism. The old teacher’s pet syndrome.
They finished picking things up. Martha zipped her purse into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.
‘Well,’ said Martha, ‘thanks for helping.’
Edie watched the back of Martha’s head as she made her way to the door, and for the first time since she’d moved from Autisaq a month ago, she was struck by a sudden burst of longing for female company. The girl wore dark braids in traditional Inuit style, tied together at the back. A week or so ago she’d added a subtle blue tint to the colour.
‘Hey, I like what you’ve done with your hair,’ she shouted after her student.
Martha turned, touched her head and smiled, pleased. ‘My parents hate it.’
As the two women stood facing one another, some connection passed between them. Edie found herself thinking she wished they knew one another better. Then the girl looked away and the moment was gone.
‘Saimu, Ms Kiglatuk.’ Bye. It was the last thing Edie Kiglatuk would ever hear Martha Salliaq say.
That evening Edie spent reorganizing her tent. Her police friend Derek Palliser had recommended her for the summer job at the school then found her a cabin to rent on the outskirts of the settlement. They’d both agreed that, after the last summer, she’d be better off spending July and August away from her hometown of Autisaq, 70 kilometres to the east. Here in Kuujuaq it would be easier to escape daily reminders of the death of her beloved stepson, Joe. She’d arrived in the settlement fully anticipating hunkering down in the little rental cabin but it turned out that Kuujuaq was more sheltered than Autisaq and the ambient temperature occasionally topped 10C, turning the interior into a furnace and driving her back outside under canvas. Her tent was now pinned in the front yard of the police detachment where Derek had obligingly given her use of the bathroom.
An hour or two into her reorganization, and for no good reason she could discern, the conversation with Martha came back to her. Going somewhere special? What a dumb question to ask a teenager! She laughed and shook her head and thought, a little wistfully, that her own evening was turning out to be nothing special at all. The last couple of weeks she’d taken to spending a good deal of her off-time with Chip Muloon. Probably too much. Chip was the first white guy she’d ever been with and since they both agreed there was no future in it, she had to wonder if she wasn’t playing out some kind of father thing, her own daddy being a qalunaat like Chip, who’d abandoned her and her mother when she was six. Sometimes even casual relationships were so hard to decipher you had to take time out or risk going crazy. Picking up her hair oil, she climbed the wooden steps to the detachment and looked forward to a long, cold shower and an early night alone.
The following day she got up early, packed some dried fish, her Remy 303 and her fishing rod and lure and drove her ATV out past the military camp onto the harsh, rocky landscape of the polar desert. The joint demands of work and Chip had left too little time for exploring the terrain and she was feeling the familiar pull of open ground. A swollen, rushing river meandered through the rubbled plain that opened into a broad bay. The land was dotted with sedge meadow and hummock tundra and was unlike her home terrain in subtle ways that only someone who had made their living on the land on Ellesmere Island would notice. The tundra here was, if anything, more beautiful than at Autisaq, a jewel box of saxifrage and Arctic poppies set off against soft limestone gravel, fields of black basalt splashed with map and blood-spot lichen, and for hours she meandered happily along thin trails, stopping every so often to collect goose eggs or fish for char by the river, navigating only by the man-shaped cairns, or inuksuit, silhouetted against the summer sky, whose granite arms pointed the way back to the settlement.
On her return in late afternoon there was a note waiting for her in the tent. She put down the fish she’d caught, wiped her hands on her summer parka and picked it up. A Ranger friend of her ex-stepson had swung by to say that he was hoping to come into town that evening and would drop in on her. Willa Inukpuk was stationed at a rappel training camp a few kilometres from Camp Nanook, the summer military encampment established by Canadian Joint Forces North as part of their regular SOVPAT sovereignty patrol exercises.
Her heart quickened at the thought of Willa’s visit. She and the kid had history together. Mostly bad. Mostly her fault. She’d always loved his brother Joe a little too much and Willa never quite enough. Her drinking, his drug habit and the break-up with Willa’s father, Sammy Inukpuk, hadn’t helped. It was only after she’d lost Joe that she realized how much she missed his brother. In the year since Joe’s death, Willa had stopped drinking and smoking weed and got himself together. Joining the Rangers was one of the few good decisions he’d made in adult life. Another, even more recent, had been to set aside his resentments and try to rebuild a relationship with his ex-stepmother. Until now she had always been the one seeking forgiveness and Willa had always rebuffed her. Now it seemed that things between them might finally be thawing. Setting aside the plumpest Arctic char and a handful of goose eggs for their supper, she gutted the remainder of the fish – pegging them on the line to dry in the sun – laid the fire with heather and peat to light on Willa’s arrival, then went to the store and bought a packet of his favourite choc chip cookies for ten dollars, and returned to the tent to tidy up. The note hadn’t given a specific time. Inuit never planned things that way. She was happy to bide her time. While she waited she reminded herself of the good times she’d shared with the boy before her drinking took hold and he stopped wanting to be around her. Like the first time they watched Laurel and Hardy together and he asked if everything in the south was black and white. Or the summer he and Joe had caught their first harp seal and Willa stuffed his pillow with the blubber and said it was because it was soft even though they both knew it was because he was so proud of becoming a hunter.
Eventually, when hunger began to overtake her, she went outside and checked the sky. The sun was behind cloud now and the air had taken on the dumb stare of midnight. There were no birds about. She went back inside the tent and reread the note and saw that it said that Willa only hoped to come and reminded herself that Inuit never committed themselves to these things in the way qalunaat seemed to. Flexibility was a necessary tool for survival up here.
It was too late to eat now. Trying not to feel unreasonably disappointed, she peeled off her summer parka and her shirt and clambered between her sleeping skins. It was only as sleep was stealing over her that she remembered she’d said she would go round to Chip Muloon’s house for supper and sex. It was also too late for that now. Her appetites had clocked off for the night. Within seconds of the thought, she was asleep.
Sunday came and went. Sometime in the mid-morning she went around to Chip’s cabin and, finding him out, left a message to apologize for not showing. In her – admittedly limited – experience of qalunaat she’d sensed that they could be picky about form. Most assumed that Inuit would play by qalunaat rules. Very few ever thought to accommodate themselves to the Inuit way of doing things.
Outside the wind was soft and the air was nasty with mosquitoes. She spent most of the rest of the day in the tent avoiding them, catching up on marking school papers and mending the soles of her favourite sealskin kamiks.
At some point in the afternoon Derek looked in on her. He scanned her few belongings, now neatly arranged.
‘My, you been remodelling in here? Next time you got a couple free hours, my apartment could use a woman’s touch.’
‘I’ll touch it all you like, but you can get someone else to clear it up, if that’s what you’re getting at,’ Edie said.
‘We a little ornery today? Need to eat maybe?’ She saw him eyeing the remaining goose eggs and realized two things: first, he had an agenda and second, dammit, he was right.
‘You like ’em raw or soft-boiled? I got some fish in here somewhere too.’
His face erupted into a grin.
She shot him a salty look. ‘Just as well for you I could use some company.’
Early evening, she took herself back to Chip’s place and found him sitting at his kitchen table surrounded by papers. His lips were stiff when she went to kiss him.
‘Don’t be like that,’ she said.
Chip had arrived in Kuujuaq a few weeks before and taken over an office from the school counsellor, whose job had gone in the latest round of cuts. That was how they’d met. He was working on something dry and technical to do with long-term health outcomes among High Arctic populations and seemed pretty dedicated to it. They’d never discussed his work in detail. Neither was under the illusion that they’d got together to exchange ideas. It was a sex thing mostly, and that was fine. There were unexpected but welcome differences. The hard angles of his body. Inuit men were generally superbly fit but theirs was a kind of lean, compact and wiry muscularity. By contrast, Chip was tall and bony, with large hands and venous, rocky feet. His eyes were the colour of icebergs with depths she couldn’t read. She liked the hairiness of him, and the odd, milky-brown colour of the hairs, like a ptarmigan in summer plumage.
They were both outsiders in a town that didn’t exactly open its arms to strangers. In September, when his contract came to an end, he’d be heading back to his office in the Health Sciences Building at the University of Calgary and she’d return to Autisaq. For now, though, they could do a fine job of keeping one another company.
‘I left you a note,’ she said.
‘I got it.’ They operated in separate universes. His, a world of clocks, written reports and predictability. Hers, well, not.
She went in for an Eskimo kiss, an exchange of breaths, and sensed him soften.
‘God, I wish southern women knew how sexy those are,’ he said. ‘You can teach them.’
He pulled her in close. ‘First, some more practice.’
Part way through the night, it was hard to tell when exactly because it never got dark at this time of year, Edie woke in the middle of a dream and from it managed to hold on to Martha’s face as she turned at the door; then the picture faded and was lost, leaving behind a drift of emotion too fragmented to put a name to. For a while she lay awake, listening to the soft purr of Chip snoring beside her, then, restless suddenly, she crept out of the cabin and down the little track to her tent, where she fell into a profound and dreamless sleep.
When Martha Salliaq failed to show up for class that Monday morning, Edie was surprised, but it was only when the dream resurfaced a little later that morning that she felt a prickle of disquiet. Traditionally minded Inuit thought dreams were visits from the spirits. She wasn’t one of them, least not as a rule, but the coincidence of the dream with Martha’s no-show was enough to unsettle her.
At morning recess she caught up with Lisa Tuliq by the door to the classroom. Lisa was small and plump, with the pinched, repressed air of a kid who’d grown up watching her parents slowly dismantling themselves with alcohol. She and Martha sat next to one another in class and Edie had sometimes seen them leaving together. But Lisa had nothing to offer on Martha’s whereabouts. She’d been out at her family’s summer camp all weekend, and hadn’t seen her friend.
‘My uncle gave me a ride in this morning.’
‘Did Martha say anything on Friday about where she might be?’
‘Not to me,’ Lisa said simply. She looked longingly down the corridor for a means of escape. ‘Can I go now?’
Edie followed the girl out into the corridor, passed through a fire door and knocked on Chip Muloon’s door. The knock was a little too hard and hurt her knuckles. She’d picked up frostbite in Alaska in the spring trying to track down a bunch of people traffickers and still tended to forget how supersensitive her fingers were. A hard rap and it was as though a wire in her body had shorted.
Chip was at his desk flipping through some paperwork. He shot her a low, withering look.
‘I guess you know it’s rude to sneak out in the middle of the night without so much as a “See ya”, right?’
‘No,’ she said. In her culture it wasn’t.
‘Well it is,’ he said, as though that settled the matter. It was one of the things she found most difficult about him, not that he lived in another world, but his refusal to meet her somewhere on the bridge between them.
‘Martha Salliaq didn’t show this morning. It’s not like her. I was wondering if she said anything to you?’ It was this she really wanted to talk about. There was no point in wasting time trying to resolve the rest. Come September it would resolve itself anyway.
‘Why would you think that?’
‘Because you two talked.’ It was an odd question. She’d seen them chatting in the corridor a few times and once bumped into the girl coming out of his office. She had no idea what they’d talked about. She’d never asked him about it.
‘Not really.’ His eyes fell back on his paperwork. ‘She’s probably still at summer camp.’
‘In this dream I had . . .’
‘Oh, OK, you had a dream,’ he said.
She forgot about Martha for a while in the afternoon. The effort of trying to teach a class of kids who didn’t want to learn a bunch of stuff the government insisted they must took up all the space in her head. And if that wasn’t enough the heat in the classroom made her hands worse. Whoever had designed the building hadn’t understood how things worked up on Ellesmere and failed to make any allowance for the continual summer sunshine blazing through the picture windows, which barely opened. There was no air conditioning and either no one had thought to order blinds or they’d not had the money. At 3.30, Edie thought the hell with the geography of British Columbia, set some homework and let the class out early. She was rubbing the whiteboard clean when Martha’s father, Charlie Salliaq, appeared.
‘Martha here?’ The old man swung about, scoping out the class as if his daughter might be found among the empty desks and vacant chairs.
‘No, and she hasn’t been in all day,’ Edie said. The faint, distant shimmer of unease which had accompanied her most of the day suddenly condensed into a dark, forbidding cloud.
Charlie leaned back and pinched his chin between his fingers. ‘We were expecting her over at the camp on Saturday afternoon. I figured maybe she’d got tied up with schoolwork. I had to come into town anyway. Ran into that friend of hers at lunchtime, Lisa. She told me Martha hadn’t shown up for the morning session.’
Derek had warned Edie about Charlie the moment she stepped off the plane. As one of the oldest men in town he felt entitled to respect and, for the most part, got it. Unlike most Inuit, Charlie could be as blunt as a duck’s beak. Most folks respected his achievements. For more than a decade he’d lobbied the Defence Department to cede land at a Cold War era Distant Early Warning radar station back to the people of Kuujuaq. When the department had finally given in to his demands five years ago, he’d begun another campaign to force them to pay for a full decontamination and clean-up of the site, known as Glacier Ridge, a battle he’d won only last year. All that fighting had made him uncompromising and ill-tempered and most people preferred to keep him at arm’s length.
‘You checked the house?’ Edie asked.
‘Do I look senile to you?’ Salliaq’s brow knitted. ‘I don’t know what could have gotten into her,’ he went on. ‘She hangs out with her uncle Markoosie when we’re out of town and he hasn’t seen her since Saturday morning. She picked up a schoolbook she’d left at his house. Her ATV’s still parked outside.’
‘I’m sure she’ll turn up,’ Edie said, to reassure herself as much as anything. The dream came to mind again but she decided not to mention it. She realized that Martha hadn’t talked much about her life out of school. ‘Is there anywhere else she’d be likely to visit?’
‘The bird cliffs up by Glacier Ridge, but I went by there on my way here.’ Salliq’s face locked into a series of frowns and lines like some glacier-scoured rock. ‘I’ll go over to the town hall and put out a message on the red radio.’ The local CB network was always the first port of call for any urgent requests or news. ‘But I don’t like it,’ Salliaq went on. He was leaning against the desk now, as though having to steady himself. ‘Not with all those unataqti just outside of town.’
The thought had already occurred to Edie. For the past week, several hundred soldiers, Marines and Rangers, had stationed themselves at Camp Nanook, a temporary encampment a few kilometres from the settlement. This year the Sovereignty Patrol, or SOVPAT, forces were headquartered in Resolute, a few hundred kilometres to the south of Kuujuaq, on Cornwallis Island. It was the first year they’d deployed on Ellesmere. Camp Nanook was their farthest flung satellite and something of an experiment.
The sudden influx of qalunaat into an otherwise quiet and remote Inuit settlement had, unsurprisingly, created a few problems. In the week since they’d arrived, several dozen unataqti had made their way into town in the evenings, looking to drink and gamble and meet young women. There had been a few insignificant cases of harassment, a couple of minor brawls. Many local families had decided to take no chances and moved off to their summer camps on the coast earlier than usual. Others were happily profiting from the new arrivals, setting up impromptu bars to cater to their desire to drink and even, rumour had it, establishing a brothel, though none of the locals seemed to know where it was or who was working there.
‘Listen, avasirngulik,’ Edie said – she was careful to use the respectful ‘elder’ with him – ‘you want help looking for your daughter, I’ll come along. I’ve hunted this way a few times, though I don’t know the land around here real well. Either way, I think it’s best if we go see Sergeant Palliser at the police detachment. Maybe he’ll organize a search plane.’
Sergeant Derek Palliser was the more senior of the two members of the Ellesmere Island Native Police, who between them were responsible for policing five hamlets and a couple of weather stations scattered across a frigid desert of mountains, fjords and rocky scree the size of Wyoming. Right now, Derek’s deputy, Constable Stevie Killik, was on a computer course in the south, so Palliser was on his own, but he knew the land, he knew the people and, more to the point, he was Edie’s friend. They’d solved a couple of tough cases and she trusted him to know what to do.
‘The Lemming Police got nothing to say that I want to hear,’ Salliaq said. The local people found Derek’s scientific interest in lemming population dynamics quirky at best. Salliaq had nothing but contempt for it. For Palliser himself too. Edie wondered if it was because Derek was half Inuit and half Cree. Charlie made no secret of the fact that he didn’t trust Indians or qalunaat. There were exceptions, of whom Edie was one. He’d heard about her going after her stepson Joe’s killer and seemed impressed.
‘They tell me you’re half qalunaat, but you don’t play by qalunaat rules,’ he’d said when he’d first met her.
‘Only set of rules I know is mine,’ she’d said. ‘And I don’t have any.’
That tickled him.
Now, though, his mood was more sombre.
Edie picked up her bag and made a move towards the door. ‘Well, I don’t suppose you have any objections to my talking to him?’ She’d already decided she was going to do just that whether the old bigot liked it or not.
‘You can try. Won’t do anyone no good, though.’ Salliaq shrugged.
For a moment their eyes locked.
‘You do what you like,’ the old man grumbled, finally. ‘What I heard, that’s what you always do.’
‘I’ll take that as permission granted,’ Edie said. As she followed him out into the corridor, Martha’s face reappeared as it had in her dream and a rush of foreboding rolled towards her like a low, dark wave.
Derek Palliser lit his seventh cigarette of the day, put down his empty coffee mug and returned to plugging the hole in the window frame of his lemming shed. He was making slow progress, though, on account of the stiffness in his fingers, which had continued to plague him long after his hands had healed from the frostbite he’d suffered last spring. He’d planned to spend the morning working out a route for the summer patrol, but the weekend rain had swollen the window frame and busted out the glass. Once Constable Stevie Killik returned from his combined computer course and summer leave, Derek intended to start a programme of exterior renovations in preparation for the winter, but the window on the lemming shed was one chore that wouldn’t wait. If there was one thing the rodents couldn’t stand it was draughts.
The cigarettes and coffee were keeping him just the right side of alert. Truth was, he could have done with a few more hours in bed and would have taken them if he’d thought that there was a chance in hell he’d sleep. He had to remind himself that he’d felt this exhausted every summer since he’d first arrived on Ellesmere nearly thirteen years ago. The constant light – and absence of anything approaching a normal ‘night’ – from March through to September always left him wired and ornery. White noise cascaded through his brain, as if a permanent avalanche had set up inside his head. He knew from bitter experience there was nothing for it except to keep himself pepped on nicotine and coffee, but this year, somehow, everything seemed even more of an effort than usual.
Hearing something behind him, he turned to see Edie Kiglatuk, waving and trying to get his attention. He stubbed out his cigarette and went over. Her face was strained.
‘Trouble?’ he said, swatting away an eddy of mosquitoes. He’d allowed himself to get bitten while he was working. Thin, braided rivers of sweat and blood made their way down his forearms.
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you inside.’
If Derek had been honest with himself, he’d have seen a long time ago that the interior of the detachment was no better than the outside. The old wooden floor was warped and the boards needed replacing and the blinds at the windows were cracked from sun and frost. He’d lived quite happily in a state of bachelor-style semi-squalor until Edie had arrived. Now he was a little embarrassed by it. Something about her presence made him want to fix the place up, make it look nice. He scouted around for a spare chair.
‘Now, that trouble . . .’
The instant she mentioned the Salliaq family, his spirits sank. Years back, when they’d been having a really bad problem with loose dogs, he’d impounded several huskies belonging to Charlie Salliaq and made the old man pay a fine to retrieve them. Ever since, Salliaq had taken gleeful pleasure in bad-mouthing him. In Derek’s mind the animosity between them had nothing to do with stray dogs and everything to do with the fact that Derek was half Cree. Inuit and Cree had never been the best of friends. The word Eskimo derived from the Cree for ‘head louse’. Just one reason why Eskimo in the eastern Arctic preferred to go by the name Inuit. These days, though, most folk had got over the old hostility and learned to rub along, conscious that both their futures depended on presenting a united front. But Charlie Salliaq was old school; he held on to grudges the way others held on to their hats in a blizzard.
As Edie’s story unfolded, he felt a growing sense of relief. Everyone went a little crazy in the summer and it sounded very much as though Martha had just gone AWOL for a while. Ten to one she was visiting friends in some distant summer camp and, either through thoughtlessness or teenage defiance, hadn’t told her parents she was going. Maybe she’d picked herself a boyfriend from among the soldiers. The military camp had only been up and running a week but already there were plenty of lean young unataqti hanging around town in the hope of meeting local girls. And succeeding. He’d seen them, half cut, clinging on to their conquests like they were life-vests. Broke his heart a little, tell the truth.
‘Who saw her last?’ he said.
‘So far as we know, her uncle, on Saturday morning. She went round there to pick up a schoolbook. Charlie said he’s gonna put out a message on the red radio, hope someone will call in to say they’ve seen her.’
‘They won’t if she’s with a soldier.’ No one was going to volunteer to be the person who broke that news to old Charlie Salliaq. ‘But, look, even if she’s on her own somewhere she won’t have gone far.’ It would have been different in winter. But the polar bears had left for the north with the ice and the wolves were too busy feasting on lemmings to bother humans and he thought it was unlikely she’d come to any harm. In this weather she wouldn’t freeze.
‘I wouldn’t be too worried,’ he said. ‘Even if she’s twisted an ankle or something, there’ll be someone passing who’ll pick her up. The place is swarming with soldiers out on exercise.’
‘It’s the soldiers Charlie’s worried about.’
Derek took out a cigarette, lit it and hungrily sucked in the smoke. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Salliaq isn’t using this as an excuse to make trouble. He’s made his views on the military clear. Doesn’t like them and doesn’t want them up here. The old man wields a lot of power round these parts. He’s managed to keep control of the Council of Elders for years and he likes to remind everyone of the fact. People don’t necessarily like him but they don’t feel they can oppose him. There’s not many old folk around here with the authority.’
‘I noticed that. Assumed they were all at summer camp.’
Derek stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Some of ’em are, but a lot of Charlie’s generation died young. Problems with game numbers back in the seventies and eighties I believe.’ The name of the place meant Big River, but for years even the fish had stayed away, he said. No one knew the reason and there didn’t have to be one. The Arctic was unpredictable that way.
Edie sat back and thought about what Derek had said and decided it didn’t add up. So what if Charlie Salliaq was troublemaking. Nothing she knew about Martha suggested that she was the kind of girl who went off on flights of fancy. One thing she sensed above everything else was that Martha was hungry for an education. She wanted to have options in life.
‘I guess it just doesn’t make sense to me that she would skip class unless something serious had happened,’ she said.
Derek smiled. ‘The girl’s eighteen. What you think is serious and what she thinks is, are probably two totally different things right now.’ Edie frowned. ‘I had this weird dream about her on Saturday night.’
The stirred feelings from the dream hadn’t gone away.
Derek pulled his chin towards his neck and gave her a long-suffering look. ‘Oh, you should have said.’ He went on, his voice laced with the banal sarcasm of the sceptic.
Edie stopped listening. She’d heard it all before, most recently from Chip. Instead, she gazed out of the window to the muddy road and further, to the rotting snow banks piled up against the fishing shacks, and thought about the girl.
Derek was pulling on his jacket now.
‘I need to get back to that shed. Martha’ll be fine, you’ll see. Let’s wait this one out a bit.’
‘You’re probably right,’ she murmured.
He smiled to himself. ‘It has been known.’
She made for the pile of sleeping skins at the back of her tent. For a while she lay down and stared at the soft light filtering through the canvas. She was beginning to realize that neither her head nor her heart had yet fully recovered from the ordeal of the spring, when she’d first stumbled on the dead child in Alaska. She was conscious of feeling raw and oversensitive, like some nocturnal creature suddenly brought out into the midday sun. The midnight sun too, come to that. Sometimes it felt exhilarating to be around so much light, other times only painfully exposing. Maybe Derek was right about Martha. Maybe a dream was just a dream. She pictured the girl’s face, the black hair tinted raven-blue, the eyes wide with life, and she thought of herself at the same age, heard her voice saying, Going somewhere special? The words repeating themselves over and over in her mind.
No, she thought, she wasn’t prepared to let this one slide. She got up, walked back out into the white, crystalline light towards the lemming shed and called Derek’s name. His head appeared from around the roof of the shed.
‘Remember last spring?’
He turned, squinting at her. ‘I’ve been trying to forget.’ They’d been dumped out on the sea ice and left to die and Derek would have done just that if Edie hadn’t built a shelter and kept him alive until help came. He owed her one.
‘Look,’ he sighed. ‘I know why you’ve come.’ He stepped down from the ladder and rested his hands on his hips. The sun shining on his face lent him a ghostly air. ‘You had some dream and now you want me to send out an SAR. Do have any idea how expensive a search and rescue is? Or how hard it is to bring this detachment in on budget?’ He wiped his hands on a rag and picked up a can of wood preserver. ‘This can, that ladder, the brush I’m about to use. All that comes straight out of my own pocket.’
It was a lot to ask, she knew. Budgets, reports, justifying spending decisions to HQ, but none of that meant anything when someone’s child was missing.
‘I just want to find her.’
He pressed his lips together. She could see he was softening. ‘Look, it’s not that I don’t trust your instincts or respect your concern. It’s your motivation I worry about,’ Derek went on. She could see impatience in his eyes. ‘You can’t turn back time. You can’t mend people, Edie.’
He’d seen what she was only just beginning to realize was there.
This wasn’t only about Martha. It was about her stepson, Joe. About the knots she’d tied herself in wondering if Joe would still be alive today if she’d acted more decisively after he had gone missing. About living with the guilt, the endless nagging doubt. She didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that. Not ever.
‘What if we don’t look and it turns out that something bad has happened to her?’ she said. She tried to put herself inside his head. ‘What about your credibility in the community?’
‘Ha!’ His laugh was as bitter as old coffee. ‘I represent qalunaat law, remember? In the eyes of the Kuujuamiut I have no credibility. I’m irredeemable. A scumbag.’ He met her gaze for a moment then rolled his eyes. ‘OK, OK. If the girl doesn’t show up in the next hour we’ll fly.’ He held up a hand. ‘But you’re not coming. I don’t want the compliance folk on my back.’
She stood her ground. He pulled off his work gloves
‘Holy walrus, Edie.’ He was half exasperated, half amused. ‘All right, you can come in the plane, but not in any official capacity. Now, if you wanna make yourself useful, go ask Markoosie to put a message out on this evening’s radio show. He’s the nearest we’ve got to a proper shaman in this town. The way that show works, it’s kind of like the old shamanic drums and song duels. Come back here after. We’ll ride to the airstrip together.’ He leaned in and trained a steady eye on her. ‘And listen, this makes us evens. In fact, if anything, you owe me one.’
‘I’ll try and remember that,’ she said.
Derek spoke briefly to Pol, his pilot, to tell him to prep the plane, then courtesy-called Colonel Al Klinsman, the officer in charge at Camp Nanook, to inform him about the SAR and let him have Martha Salliaq’s description just in case someone at the camp was hiding her. After that he fixed some tea in a vacuum flask so they’d have something to keep them warm when they were in the air. As he was walking back into the office, the door opened and Edie’s face appeared, those black eyes of hers almost frighteningly intense.
‘Everything sorted with Markoosie?’
‘OK, then, let’s go.’
Pol took the Twin Otter up over the hills just west of the settlement and turned east along the shoreline, coming inland over the bird cliffs. The plane rose over blustering clouds of thick-billed murres. Then they followed the white rush of the great Kuujuaq River, heavy with meltwater. A series of tracks criss-crossed the slump fields, cutting through the sporadic vegetation northeast to the lake on the boundary of the old Glacier Ridge Distant Early Warning radar station and on to Camp Nanook. For a while they kept to a course parallel to the shoreline overlooking Jones Sound. Near Jakeman Glacier they flew over a silvery cord of narwhal making their way west towards Hell Gate. Further ahead a group of walrus hauled out on the beach began scattering for open water, but there was no evidence of any human agency. At Derek’s suggestion, Pol switched back and began to head in an arc across the Sound inland towards the bleak, bevelled table rock at Glacier Ridge and down past the abandoned buildings of the old radar station. The plane dropped altitude once again, then rose as the ridge gave out onto low, flat tundra.
Beside him, Derek noticed Edie turn her head, craning out of the rear window at something he could not see.
She was gazing down at a dip in the land that locals called Lake Turngaluk, the Lake of Bad Spirits, though it was mostly dry now, pitted here and there with bowls of pewter-coloured pools and ponds, separated by windings of briny marsh. Locals said the area was a portal to the underworld and that birds wouldn’t fly over it for fear of being sucked under but Derek didn’t hold with that kind of nonsense, preferring to believe that the birds didn’t bother to visit because what was left of the water was devoid of fish, a fact that had nothing to do with spirits or the underworld and everything to do with contamination from the radar station. So far as Derek understood it, the site should have been cleaned up years ago but it had got mired in political horsetrading until, about a decade ago, Charlie Salliaq had dismissed the old legal team and called on the services of Sonia Gutierrez, a prominent human rights lawyer specializing in aboriginal land claims. They’d finally won their case against the Department of Defence last year. One of Colonel Klinsman’s jobs was to organize a working party to begin the necessary decontamination at the station and on the surrounding land, including the lake.
‘How odd,’ Edie said. She pointed out of the side window but all he could see were a few thin strings of cirrus.
‘What?’ Derek undid his belt and twisted his neck around, though it made his head swim to do it.
‘A bear. They’re usually on their way north to the floe edge by now.’ ‘You want me to swing back?’ Pol asked Derek.
The policeman nodded and prepared himself for the stomach lurch. Ahead, the rows of tents and prefab units of Camp Nanook stood on the tundra in incongruous straight lines, as though on parade. The plane rose higher then banked sharply and wheeled round, retracing their route through a patch of cloud. Coming through into clear air they caught sight of the bear. Spooked by the sound of the aircraft engine, it was running for the safety of the sea.
The surface of the pool where the bear had been appeared to be bubbling and seething. Derek first supposed it was a trick of the light, but as the slipstream from the plane passed across it, the western bank seemed to expand, as though it had suddenly turned to gas. He realized that he never seen anything like this before. He turned back, leaning over Edie to get a better view.
‘What the hell is that?’
She curled around and caught his gaze. There was something wild about the way she was looking at him now, the muscles in her face taut, her black eyes blazing.
He began to speak but she cut him off. ‘They’re feeding on whatever attracted the bear.’
On the flight back to Kuujuaq Edie tried desperately to stop herself from imagining the worst. As they descended, a memory surfaced in the odd way they sometimes do when you least expect it, or perhaps when you need it most. This one was from when she was seven or eight, a year or two after her father had left. Every year the annual supply ship brought up two or three films in cans. People sat in the church and watched them projected onto a roll-up screen. One year they showed The Red Balloon. The dazzling, crimson purity of the balloon against the stark black and white of the film. How often she’d seen its equivalent. The dark winter sky, blood sitting on snow. Nature red in tooth and claw. Years later, she read that a newborn baby recognizes red before any other colour. This came as no surprise. Somewhere inside her the child was still reaching for that red balloon.
After Pol dropped them at the landing strip, they drove their ATVs to the nursing station and picked up Luc Fabienne, the nurse, and the gurney trailer and headed out along the muddy track towards Lake Turngaluk. For long stretches on either side of them the rock was bare, or loosely laced with brilliant red and yellow lichens, but as they moved further from the coast and the ground dipped, the slick rock was replaced by pucks of muskeg tufted with cotton grass and mountain sorrel and eventually they found themselves on a desert pavement which stretched all the way to the mountains. In the past week, the summer heat had alchemized the tundra, transforming the cold, dark, peaty substrate into a bright, living carpet. The high sun, shining from the south in the day, from the north during the bright night, had exposed the carcasses of half-eaten animals entombed by the ice through the long winter and brought them to the attention of foxes and ravens. All around them there were freeze-dried body parts, racks of antlers, remnants of fur and hoof. Before the summer was out, whatever remained of the flesh would be picked clean and new plants would spring up: snow buttercup, polar chickweed and moss campion, blooming around the bleached bones like grave flowers.
For all that, though, the tundra smelled sweet and freshly vegetal and from time to time the scent of Arctic heather blew up on the prevailing northwesterly breeze. It was only as they moved out of a hollow and up a slight incline that the unmistakably abrasive, sour tang of decomposition hit her and Edie felt herself slowing, a feeling of hollow dread holding her back. Derek came up alongside, pointing to his nose.
‘What’s up?’ This from Luc.
Edie swallowed. ‘Blood.’ A scent as individual as the grooves in a fingerprint.
There was nothing for it but to press on. Bumping across rocky scree, they descended into a soggy hollow then up another low incline. The smell grew stronger and they found themselves on a patch of slick rock overlooking the pool where the bear had been. They keyed off their engines and sat for a moment looking out. In her mind’s eye Edie could see Martha Salliaq, sunny-faced and smiling, chatting in the breaks between classes, the flash in her eyes suggesting that there was more to know. She thought back to that Friday afternoon, to the girl she’d half hoped to recruit as a friend. Then she heard herself whisper, If it has to be someone, don’t let it be Martha.
She was right about the mosquitoes. They were dancing and dipping, trying to work their way further in towards the water. Derek and Edie exchanged glances. Mosquitoes didn’t usually bother cadavers, which meant that the blood must be in the water, along with whatever had supplied it. They walked on, more carefully this time, their progress slowed by the curtains of mosquitoes which flared up from the muskeg beside them and by a heaviness of heart that made each step drag.
They descended to the water’s edge in silence. The liquid lapping at their feet was greasy and terracotta-coloured, a bloody soup. Edie glanced at Derek who blinked grimly in return.
A body was floating in dark water not far from the bank, naked, face down with the arms spread on either side like a cross. The swelling, the shadowy patches on the skin suggested that it had lain in the water some time. The hair was short, exposing the neck, and for a moment Edie felt a rush of relief. She moved forward, her legs propelling her towards the lake, and before she really knew what she was doing she was stumbling through the mud in the shallows, the mosquitoes whirling up around her like black hailstones in a thick wind, yelling, ‘It’s not her, it’s not her!’
Then there were splashes behind her and a shrill voice. A pair of hands landed on her shoulders, pulling her back towards the waterline. She felt herself being whirled around, caught up in Derek’s arms and unable to move.
She froze. For an instant nothing happened then she felt Derek begin to drag her from the water, his arms squeezed so tightly around her that there was nothing she could do to resist him. They stood at the water’s edge, panting a little, the policeman’s face etched with anger.
‘If you behave like that again, Edie Kiglatuk, so help me I will arrest you for interfering with an investigation.’ He let go of her and stepped back, leaving his frustration draped between them.
Luc was standing at the water’s edge staring at the body. ‘If it’s not Martha, who the hell is it?’
Derek stood with his arms hugging his chest. ‘Whoever it is, we’re gonna have to bring them in. I hate to do it. Procedurally, we should leave the body at the scene until the medical examiner and the forensics team get here but it’s a three-hour flight from Iqaluit, and that’s assuming they can leave immediately. If we don’t get the body out of the water that bear’ll be back before you can blink. Then I’ll have to shoot it and the damned Wildlife Service’ll be all over me. Not to mention the elders for depriving them of one of their hunting tags.’ He ran a hand across his face but the anguish in his expression remained. ‘But let’s not jump to conclusions. We don’t yet know a crime has been committed here.’ His lips tightened into a thin line. To Edie he said, ‘Luc and I will get the body. I need you to check around this pool here then the boundary of the lake.’ He reached into his pack and took out a camera. ‘Look for prints, tracks, objects, anything that might be useful.’
Edie hesitated. She felt sidelined, and she didn’t like it. ‘But . . .’ Derek shot her a dark look, his brow furrowed, hands on hips.
‘Please, Edie, just do as I ask and try not to be such a pain in the ass.’
The lake consisted of a series of pools linked by slow-running channels. To walk around them all took some time. By the time she returned, empty-handed, the men had already removed the body. It was lying on the gurney zipped inside a bag. They were now fixing wooden stakes around the immediate area. Derek passed her a roll of crime tape and motioned to her to help him string it around the stakes. Before she had the chance to ask whose body it was, Derek said, ‘What’d you find?’
‘Not much. Some newly broken willow twigs. Looks like a vehicle came this way, but nothing you can follow.’ The weather had been rough over the weekend, with squally rain. Any tracks had long since disappeared back into the willow and the mud.
‘Any drag lines? A blood trail?’
‘Uh nuh.’ She knew he trusted her hunter’s eye to have picked up anything like that.
They finished with the tape. She jerked her head in the direction of the body.
‘You know who it is?’
Derek nodded. Something on his face made her heart quicken and a dull dread fill her belly.
‘I want to see the body.’
Derek shook his head. His voice cracked a little. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s been in the water a while.’ He scraped a hand across his forehead. ‘In this heat.’
But he was too late. Edie was already striding towards Luc’s ATV. Luc glanced across at the policeman, who shrugged.
At the gurney she stood for a moment to gather herself. Then she took hold of the zip on the body bag and pulled. In an instant, Martha Salliaq’s face appeared from under the plastic, as if in some terrible hallucination, puffy, the skin mottled, a greenish-purple web already creeping across its surface. Edie heard herself give an involuntary cry, more animal than human, like the moan of a gull. Her hand was shaking, her whole body electrified. Something fluttered uncontrollably in her chest but she barely recognized it as her heart.
The girl’s eyes were still part open, the mouth slack and watery, the lips blue-tinted now to match the hair, which had been cut crudely into a short bob. But there was nothing on the face to suggest anything other than a kind of calm and remote unreality, as though the skin had only ever contained an impression of life, a reflection perhaps. As she stood an implacable sadness came over her, as though she’d reached a vast wall at the end of a dark track.
She reached for the zip again and the nightmare disappeared under the plastic.
Derek came towards her with his hand outstretched, a pained look on his face. She pulled her arms tight around her body. Last thing she needed right now was sympathy. She thought about the girl’s firebrand father, Charlie, then about her fragile mother, Alice; how this news might crush the life from them both.
Luc gave a little shrug. ‘Hard to tell. The condition of the body suggests a while ago, maybe a couple days, but I’m no expert. I’m guessing from all the blood that she was alive when she went in.’
Edie suddenly felt numb and useless. ‘Her hair. Someone cut it. Why would they do that?’
‘A trophy maybe? I don’t know, Edie.’
She heard herself give a low moan. ‘You’re sure she was murdered then.’
‘It looks that way,’ Luc said.
‘Do you know how?’
For a moment no one answered. She saw Luc cut a sideways look at Derek, seeking permission to speak, then bite his lip and avert his eyes.
‘It looks like a stab wound. We can’t confirm anything yet. There will be tests, an autopsy,’ Derek said.
There were no signs of injury on the girl’s face or neck. None on the body, at least what she had seen of it.
‘A stab wound where?’
Derek threw a glance at Luc and braced himself.
‘Utsuk.’ The vagina. ‘It looks like the knife went a long way inside her, most likely severed the uterine artery, Luc thinks, which led to the blood loss. But it’s not inside her now.’
Edie felt something inside her melt. An ill vapour spread through her body.
‘At this stage it’s hard to say whether or not she was raped, other than with the knife of course,’ Luc added hastily.
A steadying hand landed on her arm but she didn’t need it. Part of her felt strangely energized. She guessed it was the shock, or the adrenalin, or both.
‘We should tell the Salliaqs,’ she said.
‘I think that might be best coming from you,’ Derek agreed. ‘Before the gossip starts. You know how it is up here.’
She did. Her own home settlement of Autisaq was exactly the same. There were only two kinds of secrets in the High Arctic: the open ones and the ones you took to your grave.
‘Don’t say anything specific about where the body was found if you can help it. It’ll be hard for them to hear that she was in Lake Turngaluk. The Kuujuamiut go out of their way to avoid coming here. They say it’s evil.’ He arced a finger in the air. ‘You’ll notice all the inuksuit point away. If they ask how she died just say she was stabbed. Right now, it’s important to keep the information to a minimum. For the investigation as well as for their sanity.’
Turning to Luc, Derek said, ‘You and I need to get the body back to the nursing station. I’ll call the forensics unit and make sure the folks at Camp Nanook are kept informed.’
Edie felt Derek’s eyes searching her out. ‘Can you do this?’ It was a question that didn’t deserve an answer.
An hour later, she was making her way on foot in the direction of the Salliaqs’ house. At the shoreline track, just south of the store, a voice called to her. In her daze she found it hard to place. She swung round and saw it belonged to Chip.
‘Hey,’ he said, throwing her a quizzical look. ‘You OK?’
She blinked away the film in her eyes, pressed her lips hard and shook her head.
At her nod his shoulders fell and he reached out an arm. ‘I’m sorry.’
She nodded but didn’t touch him. ‘The family don’t know yet. I’m just on my way to tell them.’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t say anything.’ He crossed his arms. ‘No one round here speaks to me anyway. You wanna come see me afterwards, you know where I am.’
She met his eye. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s the least I can do.’
The Salliaqs lived in one of the identikit boxes that had been hastily erected parallel to the shore in the seventies and eighties to replace a row of canvas tents and rudimentary cabins constructed from bits of old packing cases insulated with caribou hair and heather. The houses represented a victory for the Kuujuamiut. The Canadian government, who had removed them from their homeland on east Hudson Bay and brought them to Ellesmere, had been promising to provide housing for twenty years. Ellesmere was so dry there was rarely enough snow for snowhouses. A whole generation had grown up surviving in tents lined with caribou skins in winter temperatures that frequently dipped to –50C. They’d begged the government to return them home. To make the journey on their own, two thousand kilometres on dogsleds across the harshest terrain on the planet, was impossible. But the Canadian government refused to take them. It needed Canadians on Ellesmere to strengthen its claim on the territory. So they had no choice but to accept that they were on Ellesmere to stay. They’d done what Inuit are uniquely gifted at doing: they’d made the best of it.
The houses were drab and overcrowded but functional and, most importantly, warm. Over the years those who could afford to had added on little personal flourishes. In Charlie’s case, a small outhouse, heated with overhead pipes diverted from the main house. Martha had once told Edie that her father went there to escape from the women of the family. Ironic that seemed now.
She let herself into the snow porch without knocking, as was the custom, and slid off her shoes. There were voices in the room next door, seemingly oblivious. She took a breath and walked in.
The family had gathered to wait for news. All except Charlie were sitting in the front room. Alice Salliaq was on the couch. Edie had got to know her well enough to pass the time of day with. She was a soft-spoken, self-effacing and delicate woman in her mid-forties, the perfect foil to her gruff, firebrand older husband, and it would be easy to imagine she lived in his shadow were you to miss the quietly determined cast of her eyes. Beside her sat Lizzie, Martha’s elder sister. Edie had seen her at the store with her mother. The siblings were physically alike, taller and plumper than their mother, with high cheekbones and generous, uneven mouths, but the difference in their characters made them seem less so. Though she had never really spoken with the girl, Lizzie had struck Edie as a kind of pale imitation of her younger sister, a moon to Martha’s sun, more conventional, less ambitious, the kind who would marry early, have babies and lead a life that was essentially the same as her mother’s. Alice’s elder brother, Markoosie Pitoq, sat in a chair beside the sofa. He was leaning forward, his hand on a mug on the coffee table, but his head shot up when he heard her come in.
She greeted them.
‘Take a seat,’ Alice said. Edie moved towards a chair but in that instant the inner door swung open and a qalunaat woman with an immaculately groomed head of chestnut hair swept into the room. She glanced about without seeming to notice Edie.
‘Where’s Charlie?’ the woman said. Her English was heavily accented but she spoke with the kind of unquestioning confidence Edie more usually associated with missionaries, though from her clothing and air of glamour it was clear that she wasn’t one of these. Edie had seen her around the community, often heading towards the town hall building, once or twice in an oddly customized ATV on the track to Camp Nanook, then again coming out of the hotel. For a moment she thought that the qalunaat woman might already have heard the terrible news and was about to blurt it, but a glance at her face reassured her. A relief. The Salliaqs should hear about the death of their daughter in Inuktitut.
With the thin authority of a man who had unilaterally declared himself in charge, Markoosie reported that his brother was still checking out the area around the bird cliffs.
Finally clocking Edie, the woman held out a hand and introduced herself as Sonia Gutierrez, the lawyer working with Charlie Salliaq on the decontamination of the old radar station at Glacier Ridge ‘and family friend’. Edie noticed Alice frown slightly when she said this. If Gutierrez was a family friend, she was no pal of Alice’s.
‘You have news?’ Gutierrez asked.
Silence fell, everyone waiting for Edie to speak. She looked between the faces gazing expectantly at her. A little crack opened up in her heart, knowing that what she was about to say would break theirs.
Excerpted from The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath. Copyright © 2014 by Melanie McGrath.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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