The Brother Seal

by James McPherson

It’s sad remembering the old days. Days when people were different. The world was different. It was a time when the idea of plenty was nothing more than a warm home and a full belly. I’m talking about a time that is gone now. Before the changes. Before our lands on the roof of the world became warmer, and the ice began to melt on the great frozen sea.
     The frozen sea gave up her gifts with a smile in those days—days that seem from another time now. It was a frosty smile grant you—one that bit into your fingers and toes, and turned your lips as blue as the winter moon, but a smile nonetheless. You had to toil hard for the gifts you received, but the great frozen sea smiled protectively and nurtured you with the benevolence only a mother shows to her child. You in return, treated her with the reverence only a child can have for his mother. The great frozen sea was always kind to you, but she kept her most precious gift hidden beneath her icy surface. She kept it hidden from all other creatures except you… 
     The seal, your brother seal, your adversary, your friend, was kept happy and well fed in his watery home beneath the great frozen sea. Your brother seal enjoyed the cold embrace of the depths, but when he came up for air, he was yours. And he gave you everything—food to eat, warm skins to protect you from the north wind, and oil to heat your cabin during the long winter nights. Your brother seal gave you all the wealth you ever needed, and yet the lure of the modern world, with its electric lighting and loud machines, empty promises and greedy ways, melted your once unshakable certainty in the old ways just as surely as those warm winds from the south melted the great frozen sea.
     I am an old man now. I am of the frozen north and know very little about the modern world. I have heard many stories however. Stories of shiny towers that reach as far as the sky, and carriages that rumble like hungry beasts underneath the ground. I have listened to many smart words spoken about the wonders of that far-away world. It is difficult for me to imagine—to understand what all the smart talk even means. I am a relic, a memory of another time I suppose. A time when my people lived a simple life. We honoured the creatures who soared across the clear blue sky and journeyed over the clean white snow, and brother seal was our truest friend… but who am I… I am only a frail old man—I only know what I see, and when I look around me, what I see makes me very sad. I know you my son. I know you were not always like this. Once you were like me. Once upon a time you relied on the old ways—the ways of the frozen north. You put your trust in those simple ways, respected them above all else. Once you were just like me.
     You remember how it was during the long winters, when the stars seemed to wink at you from above as though they knew what was in your head and approved of your every thought. You remember when the fiery light from the heavens used to come and perform its colourful dance, and you felt as though you were the only person in the whole wide world who was watching. Your cousin moon was big and blue and clear in those days, and he looked down on you with those sad eyes as though he knew the future of our lands on the roof of the world and was weeping for it. Late morning was the time for survival in the winter days, remember? Do you recall that special light? Oh, I yearn so much for that special light, never lasting long, when the far-stretching dark from the top of the world would drop its guard and allow you the tiniest sliver of a glowing. How beautiful it was, and the great wind from the north—the piteraq wind—would shout at you, scream, howl, bully you into getting up from under your cosy furs and leaving your cabin. And with stiff legs and creaking arms you’d listen to its voice. The sky often lit up your path for the briefest of spells and the wind would let you know this. Move… it would shout. Wrap up in the thick white fur of your mighty uncle Nanoq the bear… it would bellow. Nanoq is smiling down upon you, his fur will keep you warm… it would scream. Take your bone saw and go to the ice, go greet your brother seal. Punch and dig and cut a way through the ice… your brother seal is waiting for you… it would howl
      But that was the old days when things were different. Now the great sea is no longer frozen and your brother seal has disappeared along with the ice. And you have also disappeared my son, unrecognisable in your modern clothes and modern ways. You talk now of things that I do not understand. You use words I have never heard before. Words like Expansion… Assimilation… Globalisation… But I know deep down the old ways are still in your blood no matter how you might deny it. Despite your modern ways you still remember a time when things were better than this. The great piteraq wind still acts as your conscience my son—reminding you that we are only here for a short time—that we are just a small spec in the great universe of moon and stars and fiery light. It demands that you think of your children, and their children after. It whispers with an ailing rasp that the new ways will be the end of everything. The piteraq wind still whispers to you in the night. I know this. The piteraq wind in the north is your only truth. It tells you the way things are my son, the way it will be. As a boy I used to sit for hours and admire the winter light. The heavens would open-up before me during those times and show me all that was beautiful in the land. I saw how clean and white and powerful the ice of the sea was. I also saw how delicate my home on the roof of the world could be. Even now, after all that has happened, the winter light skips across the snow… but it’s different these days. It has to fight for its existence. Now, as an old man, I sit outside my cabin with my bearskin draped over me and watch what used to be the great fiery light from the roof of the world, pale and dim behind the murky shadows that seem to hover over our land now. I often ask myself what our people have done to deserve such a fate as this. We are not a greedy people. We have always lived by the code of our ancestors. We do not seek much. We live simply and share our food with our neighbours. We have always listened to the mother sea and father sky. When we hunt, we only take enough of our brother seal to sustain us through the winter. We live well on modest means, and yet, here I sit with tears in my eyes watching our great fiery sky pale and die. It is hard for me to imagine the need for more than the simple comforts of my people. We need so little. We want so little, we take so little… and yet our land bleeds. The earth bleeds. I have seen the blood of the earth. It is thick and black and runs deep through her veins. The earth is bleeding my son, and one day, when machines have gouged and stabbed and drank enough, she will have no more blood left to give.
      You know how I am my son. I am just a simple old man, and when I was a child my father was a hunter. He hunted brother seal on the ice of the great frozen sea during the long winters. I do not have to tell you that winter is a time when there is little food. There were occasions when no matter how many skins we wrapped up in, we all went cold in the bitter night. I would go hunting with father, and even though my fingers were frozen and my tears turned to ice when I cried, I still remember those days as the happiest of my life. Walking on the ice of the sea was a wonderful thing. If I close my eyes I still remember that very first time. I close my eyes and I can still see… father up ahead, boots crunching through crisp virgin snow, and me with frozen tears on my cheeks, my fingers cold and hurting underneath the sealskin gloves I wore. I remember having a feeling of great worry on that first walk. I remember crying out to him… father… father… it hurts…. And I remember him stopping, turning, the serious expression on his face suddenly mellowing. When my eyes are closed I can still picture that far off time as though I was back there, that child again, with father walking towards me, squatting down in front of me and taking off my sealskin gloves. I remember him placing my tiny hands in his huge fiery palms and clenching them tight. His big rough fingers squeezing my little hands tightly My cold skin aching so badly, but I could feel the heat from those big calloused hands of his. It sent sharp little needles of pain through my fingers. I remember trying to draw away from the pain, pull away. I cried again, louder, but father looked right into my face, smiling and holding my hands even tighter until the pain went away. After a while father’s serious face returned. I put my gloves on and we both trudged through the snow once more. In the years from then until now, whenever I have been cold, or confused, or feeling the weight of the earth on top of me, I just close my eyes and remember a time when big rough fingers could massage heat back into tiny cold hands.
      I see the world through my father’s eyes these days I think. He told me once that the goddess of the sea rewards the clever hunter. He also told me that she guards the children who swim in her depths jealously, and woe behold those who think they can trick her into parting with them. The frozen sea is a vast paradise of bounty… he once said… It is the duty of the clever hunter to protect that paradise with all he has… He would whisper to me about how he’d shout at the north wind whenever he received the gift of brother seal. He told me how he’d holler at the fierce piteraq wind with gratitude for his bounty. I can still picture my father screaming back at the great piteraq wind—telling it how lucky he was to share in all the goodness of the world—the sustenance that swam and wriggled below the depths. That faith kept us warm and safe and free from hunger for a thousand lifetimes and would have remained so for a thousand, thousand more… But that was in the days before the strangeness, when the world changed and blotted out the fiery light.
      When the men from the south came with their smart words and promises of a better life, I do not blame you for listening to them my son. The smart words of the modern world are powerful weapons indeed. They tell you stories of great cities with roads that stretch so far it would take a man many moons to walk. I have heard other stories of lights that can pierce a hole in the heavens, and machines that fly miles high in the sky. Things we can only imagine. Things that seem somehow ridiculous, impossible even. They talk of unbelievable wealth, where everything is controlled by the simple push of a button. There is no mention in those words about real energy however, true energy, the lung bursting kind that has served our people well since the ancient times. The raw power of muscle and sinew is treated with contempt in this new world—as though hard toil and a simple lifestyle is something only a little people, a meaningless people would want. It seems to me that these modern words are full of boast and pride my son. They seem to be designed to trick your ears my son. They trick your ears into believing things your eyes cannot see. But look around you. Look at how we once were… Look at what we have become… What do you see my son? What do you see? I am too old and weary for this world now. My time is past, and all I have is my memories. Do you remember walking on the ice of the sea with me my son? You were not much older than when I took that first walk with father. You would walk far out on the ice with me, to the place where brother seal called home. Do you remember how melodically brother seal called out to you from beneath the frozen surface? It was almost as if he was beckoning you to come down into the water of the ice and join him. Inviting you to swim down into the depths of the great frozen sea and sing his song with him. You know me, I cannot walk so far now and my memory is failing, but my imagination can walk for miles my son. I remember those times with you as though it was only yesterday. Oh, they were such happy times.
      The times I spent with my own father are also very clear in my mind. The times when I went hunting with father. We would walk across the frozen sea together with nothing more than a rope and a spear and a single dog from the pack. Father used to tell me all about our brother seal and his simple ways. I learned from father how brother seal thought. As I became older I began to understand that we all have a place in the earth, and brother seal understood this also. He was happy beneath the ice until it became time to serve his purpose. I could tell you of the hard times. Times when winter was so bitter, and the ice was so thick, our people could not dig down deep enough into the water to find our brother seal. Those were the times when the pack dogs had to be slaughtered for their meat. Times when our children fell into a deep sleep and died of cold and hunger. In those terrible times we thought the goddess of the frozen sea had forsaken us, abandoned us forever.
      Our history is full of such times, but brother seal always came back and we prospered from his friendship once more. I could also talk to you of summers when the light lasted all day and the sky was blue forever. Herds of Caribou roamed the land in numbers so many it was impossible to count. The mighty bear Nanoq swam to shore and fished with his great paws in the river, and the wolves came down from their mountain lairs to follow the herd. Those were the prosperous times, and with bow and arrow we lived in the kind of luxury that is now hard to imagine. In times like those we could stock-up on supplies for the long dark winter. There was a harmony to all the beautiful chaos of those long-ago days. Man and beast lived side by side and we were all a part of the same undeniable symmetry. Those times have gone now, for I have seen the blood of the earth, and it is thick and black and its smoke darkens the sky when the men with their machines come.
      I do not blame you for allowing yourself to be enchanted by the silky words and hollow promises of the modern world my son. You are only human after-all. Once you have been exposed to a world that wants more and more, and still more again, it is difficult not to end up bewitched by it. There have been many times when I have wanted more. More meat for my family, more oil for the lamps, more summer nights when the sun shines on my face for ever and ever. I have wanted many things in my life and have prayed many times to the mother sea and father sky for them. But the piteraq wind is our conscience. It sighs and says… what are these things you pray for old man. Are they more important to you than the respect of your people, the love of your family? The wellbeing of your land? and I have always answered… no, no, these things I pray for are nothing compared to that…
      I am thankful that I will not be a part of this new and frightening world for much longer. And when I sleep, I dream of walking on the ice of the sea. You are there my son. My father is there also, telling us the ways of our world, the old ways. His lessons I have never forgotten. I was taught from an early age about the ways of brother seal. Brother seal is a creature of silence… my father would say. He can hear a flea jump on the back of a dog, and the gentle crunch of a child’s first faltering footsteps on the snow. He hears all things—every crackle and hiss the ice makes as it melts. Every tinkle and splash it causes when it breaks and falls into the ocean. Brother seal listens carefully to the earth. He can hear it breathe. He can see with his own salty eyes all the catastrophe caused by men when they tinker like children with things they do not understand.
      When I dream, I dream of walking on the ice of the sea, and as I walk, all is lonely, all is quiet. In my dream I walk on the ice of the sea as a man instead of a child. When I walk on the ice of the sea I walk the free path of all the many generations who were here before me. I think of them all, and my thoughts are as crisp and clear as the piteraq wind. Oh it is a glorious dream, when I walk on the ice of the sea.