The Whaler

The Whaler
by Ingrid Brunkhorst Hurrell


He did not wait for the moon to dip behind the mountains before he got up. The woman stirred in her sleep, moving ever so slightly, stringing hair across her face with the back of her hand. He stooped down to look at her, tucking the warmth of the hide around her, kissing her cheek. For a brief moment he rested his hand on her huge belly. The child responded, kicked. She groaned, turned over. Then he was gone. Gone from their warm hut that smelt of cedar, smoked salmon, herbs and roots gathered from secret places in quiet forests. Gone from Ahnah’s comforting arms and her soulful black eyes.

His song was mournful, echoing down the paths of the ancient ones, recalling their ways; hopeful too, that he would succeed as they did. Some deer, startled by his sudden appearance, nervously watched him. He spoke kindly to them, telling the mothers their fawns were safe as he was not there to hunt them
The village was hungry, but it was the growing life within his wife that spurred him on the most. He stood silently at the water, waiting for the others. He felt their hearts. Heard the thumping. They gathered, quietly.

“Oohmailiq.”

They whispered his name reverently. He nodded. The name was heavy to bear for with it came the lives of the men surrounding him. As their whaling captain, he had to be like Qigiq, the white hawk that flies in the sky. He would watch them carefully, always. His voice would be gentle, yet firm and knowing. His hand would be there to hold or steer, or bind their wounds. He shouldered the weight of bringing them back to their mothers and wives, alive. Oohmailiq shuddered as the sky-reaching trees do when the northwest winds pound them with ice stones. He prayed that he would be able to bend with the wind, but not break.

One by one they bathed in the water, gasping as the cold struck their lean bodies. Gritting their teeth, they rubbed their arms with the sharp of mussels and barnacles. He watched as his blood dripped red and strong into the water. Today, perhaps tomorrow, the lifeblood of The Big One would also flow. Respectfully he prayed that the Creator would bless their journey.

Here, where their village nestled against the Great Waters, he hesitated for a moment, breathing in the salty air. Only yesterday when he ran along the beaches, an eagle swept low over the waters, and skillfully swooped up a silver fish with its talons. He smiled. Their hunt would be successful. Firmly he gripped the side of the canoe and heaved off, his paddle barely skimming the surface. They would need their strength later.

The men glanced back at the village. A few elders stood, huddled together at the entrance to the red cedar long house, silent and strong. The women’s songs would not be heard until the men returned. They would not even eat or talk until the hunt was over. We are the Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx, they would tell their sons and grandsons later. The people who live by the rocks and the seagulls. The people who hunt whales. The ones who are known to be generous with food.

The three canoes glided through the waters almost effortlessly. Eight men in each one, nine in the leading canoe where Oohmailiq was. The men were ready, eagerly watching the horizon for any telltale ripples or movements. Out of the quieter waters they rowed, into the roaring, open ocean where the horizon seemed to stretch out beyond the day.

During the week, Ahnah, the Wise Woman, made him a small basket pouch from cedar roots. She skillfully wove a sling for it so he could wear it. In the pouch she placed some smoked salmon and dried roots - food for the journey; and a string of shells. He touched the shells one by one, reminders of times with Ahnah - a walk in the forest, telling stories by the fire in the long house, or skinning a deer together. Each shell worded her heart for him. Carefully he hung it around his neck. He would have her with him on this journey.

Before the sun kissed the damp earth and the foaming waves, they had to be where the Big One swam. The men sang softly, rhythmically as they rowed. The sun crawled along, a pale light in a sky billowing with grey and white clouds. It reminded Oohmailiq of the puffing smoke that would rise from his grandfather’s pipe.

He longed for Ahnah. He loved her from the first time he saw her. Her family moved to his village when rain and mudslides covered much of their small fishing town. She came, walking tall and proud, carrying nothing but a papoose - her sister’s child - and a small bundle of clothes. He stood in the shadows, equally proud, watching her every move, how her face would change as she talked, sang or was left in thought by herself.

They came upon the whales suddenly.
It was Anuun who saw them first. To the sky he called, to the waves he roared; his voice returning to the boats and filling the hearts of the men with courage, dread and hope. The canoes rocked dangerously. Sweaty hands gripped harpoons. Breathing became laboured; voices low, tense, subdued. Rowing became stronger, warlike; their muscles knotted and bulging with strain as the canoes propelled towards the whales before they could dive deep into the cold ocean, leaving hungry hunters behind.

There were five of them. Oohmailiq stood up in the canoe and quickly evaluated each humpback. There could be no mistakes, no miscalculations. One cow had a calf. They would not touch them. Briefly he watched as the young whale swam close to its mother. His heart smiled. Soon Ahnah would hold their child in her arms. Her time would be upon her before the moon fills up again, the older women had told him. At first, he held back, wanting to wait with the hunt, but the village’s need for food had him gazing intently at the ocean daily. And then the eagle came and he knew it was time to go.

The men, their bodies tense and ready, were skilled fishermen and whale hunters. They moved in unison, taking slow, deep, deliberate breaths. A bull was picked and carefully two of the canoes flanked him on his left. The third circled around. The harpoons were strong and sharp, the mussel shell tips of each spear struck hard and deep. Sealskin floats attached to the harpoons bobbed around in the waves as the whale fought his attackers with wild tail flaps. Hours of struggle ebbed out with his lifeblood and suddenly it was over.

The moon glimpsed down on the hunting party. They were subdued, thankful for all the whale gave them, and honoured by his courage. A swimmer slipped over the side of a canoe, diving into the cold. He cut a hole through the top and bottom of the whale’s jaw, and attached a towline. It would be a slow journey home.

The first hour or two the men were silent. Rowing methodically in their weariness, keeping an eye for the dark clumps of land against the skies every time the moon would fleetingly light their way. Their villages would have fires on the shores, like beacon lights.

Oohmailiq’s spirit was deeply grateful as he took turns at rowing. His family and village would feed well. Hoarsely he sang of his deep respect for the whale, of the bravery of his brothers, of his child, yet to be born. The whale followed silently, a dark mass of provision, towed along by storm-weathered canoes and men with life in their eyes.

The breakers spew them out, wildly towards the sandy beach, past jagged rocks that had withstood the beating waves for centuries. The dawn had settled, a fine spray mist hung over the village. The wood smoke burnt their nostrils. Exhaustion left them numb. The villagers pulled their canoes ashore. The Whale was welcomed. Small children shyly touched its tail. The elders sang songs of honour, of respect, of thanks for the safe journey of the men. The wives of the hunters entered the circle, emerging from their time of solitude. Oohmailiq looked around, wildly. “Ahnah!” his soul cried.

An Old Woman touched his arm. She smiled gently, “Go Oohmailiq, go! She waited for you. The potlatch will be here, later. Today, your son heard the calls of the whales and the eagles...and yours! Now, go!

Oohmailiq ran like a deer.


Biography
South African-born Ingrid Brunkhorst Hurrell lives in Langley, BC with her family. She is registered with the BC Council of Social Workers and a member of the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and actively volunteers in her local community. She enjoys travelling, Thai food, cats, alone-times, mountains, forests and the ocean.

Ingrid Brunkhorst Hurrell