In the dark the wind growls like ten hungry wolves. Mama says we are safe under the furs on the illeq, the sleeping platform in this hut. The wind-wolves only roar, never bite, she tells me. I smile at her, the only human I know. She is warm and soft. That is my first memory. Mama tells me everything begins and ends with the dark. It covers the world and it fills every belly and every heart. We wait through many months of the dark. Then a silent spark flashes between the mountains on one special day and we know the sun will return. Little by little the sun rises and the dark slips away for a few months. I arrived on the day the sun returned, Mama always told me. I was like the sun coming back to the world, driving away the dark.
I remember watching Mama weave the beads together in the flickering light of the soapstone oil lamp. She puts the beads into rows and puts the rows together to make a picture. She stitches them together so they will stay in place. On the tapestry, the night is white and the moon is blue.
The fire in the pit crackles as the wind shakes the hut like an ice bear’s paw slapping the walls.
In the tapestry is another mama bundled in furs, tugging at the cap of another baby. Mama smiles. She tells me the tapestry is her and me.
The fire crackles, spits—
Pounding on the door! Mama looks afraid. She tucks me under the furs on the illeq, hurries to the door.
The man with the red beard returns. He is angry, slaps at Mama. I don’t know the words they shout. He takes Mama in his arms, pushes her on the furs beside me and drops over her like a big bear. She cries and shouts, then falls silent.
Mama looks at me as he covers her, all his weight on top of her. Her eyes are red. I know she is going to the dark place and I cover my face with my hands. I hide under the furs.
I hear Mama scream. I hear hard things hit soft things.
When I look out from under the furs, Mama is on the floor. Her naked body shakes, her head turning back and forth. The man with the red beard is gone. I climb off the illeq and hurry to close the door. Snow blows in before I can close it.
The tapestry is also on the floor. The man with the red beard stepped on it, broke many of the beads. I know Mama will fix it better than before.
Mama is still shaking on the floor. I grab the stick and put it in her mouth like she taught me to do. I throw a big fur from the illeq over her. I sit on her until she stops shaking. It is like riding the sled over the ice, the dogs pulling hard, the sled breaking over the rocks.
Later, I awaken in the bed, Mama beside me, whispering a song. It was not a dream, she tells me. When the winds blow cold or the sun burns bright, he comes. The man with the red beard returns to this hut whenever he needs to release his evil spirits. It’s a lesson, she says, and I must learn it if I am going to follow her into the spirit world, or else I must stay in the world of humans and live by their rules. Soon the time will come for me to choose.
A storm rattles the hut like the howling of ten wolves. Mama holds me close, skin to skin under the furs. She pushes her nipple to me and I suck. The world is new to me, still warm and soft. Yet I have seen cold and rough. That is the true lesson, says Mama.
Later we go outside. Holding me inside her sealskin amautik, the hut blocking the wind, we watch the night sky over the fjord. We wave at the dancing green lights above us that paint the glacier, the lights that tell our destiny. We also wave at the stars that are all our ancestors watching us.
“They are waiting to see you do great things,” says Mama in the language she is teaching me. “So you must find the star that will guide you. There are many to choose from.”
I tell her I want the brightest star and she points to the one in the north.
“That one is yours.”
The first time I remember the man with the red beard coming to hurt Mama, I had almost three years. She let him in every time he visited, though always with the shouting and slapping. Better than letting him freeze to death outside, she said. We must be kind to everyone who comes here through the dark. Yet her eyes turned red each time he visited. He always left when she lay shaking on the floor. She was no use to him that way.
Mama was the crazy woman, I learned later from humans in the village. She was blessed or cursed with the sight of beyond. A few humans came to ask questions and she would answer. She chanted and sang strange words. She tossed bones into the air and watched them hit the floor. She saw pictures in the bones there, told them what she saw. Yet no humans came to ask her questions now. They were afraid.
That was the reason the others left, Mama told me. There used to be more huts around ours. There used to be more people living on this point of land across the fjord from the big ice. A small village of mostly fishermen, seal hunters. One by one they left, moved across the island to the larger village. Mama took what she could from the abandoned huts, built of whale bone beams and turf walls, wooden floors, skins and furs, ice blocks and snow roofs, adding them to this hut—the same hut where I was born, where I lived until Mama died.
The village all those humans moved to was far away. It took three days to walk there, going over the mountains and through the valleys, across the snow and ice. Even by dog sled it would be more than a day—if the snow was right for a sled. The rocky ground and the high mountain passes didn’t make going by dog sled so easy. Better to walk.
The humans in the village on the other side of the island wouldn’t let Mama live there. Yet they would give her food and the things she needed to live in this hut on the rocks. She would go to the village once or twice a year and exchange beadwork or other crafts she made for food and supplies. Sometimes one of the villagers came to this hut with gifts of food and supplies to trade for her prophecy.
Sometimes men came to the hut just to hurt her. One man hit the side of her head, she told me, and I saw the scar where it healed after she sewed the skin together. That was before the man with the red beard swept onto the shore. That was before I was born—before the other babies were born, the ones asleep in the ground behind the hut. Ever since those men attacked her, she fell a lot and shook against the floor.
The people in the village had many names for her, she said. I never knew Mama’s name. She was always Mama to me. The man with the red beard called her Woman. When Mama died I still called her Mama. I had to cut into the hard ground to make a pit for her body to rest in, so deep the bears would not smell her and dig her up as food.
I said, “Goodbye, Mama” and watched her for a few days.
When humans from the village came later and dug her up to move her to the village, they asked her name.
I just said, “Mama.”
“She’s your mama?” they asked in my language.
“And what is your name?”
I told them.
“Wolf? Who is Wolf?” they asked me.
I pointed to my face. “I’m Wolf.”
“Mama called me,” I said.
The tall man with the badge said, “A girl called wolf? Hah! You’re too small to be a wolf.”
“I’m only thirteen. I will grow big as you.”
“Let’s hope so,” said the man. “You don’t want a real wolf to eat you! Not enough of you for one good meal.”
And they led me away from the hut where I was born. Where Mama was born. Where the man with the red beard came one day, and many days after. I never looked back as we hiked over the ice and snow. I looked forward.
A GIRL CALLED WOLF