Skip to content

After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 7, Sec 3.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.


Final Instalment.
Back to Index →


The Death of Daisy—Long unipkaaq

ASATCHAQ SAID NOTHING about Daisy in the aftermath of her disappearance. This had been a child who had called the old man ataata, grandfather. The event was too horrible to talk about and I couldn’t introduce the subject. Daisy’s disappearance was, I felt, not my business. I was a bystander. The tragedy of that death affected me deeply. But, wrongly perhaps, I didn’t feel like intruding. It was for Daisy’s relatives and for the village to mourn. I’d learned to exercise this distance soon after the war. I had, so I felt, no right to suffer. The tragedy was someone else’s and I must respect a distance that forty years later I no longer feel. I mourn Daisy today perhaps more than I allowed myself at the time.

silence was impenetrable…Present instabilities, the uncertainty of life in 1976, perhaps seemed to him a repeat of the years around 1900. ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’…

Asatchaq’s silence was impenetrable. And his feelings were no doubt more profound than he wanted to express. I wonder, too, if his response was perhaps complicated by memory. He had lived through the period of the great sickness and had witnessed the deaths of many, young and old, who had been contact disease victims. While he and his immediate family had survived in good health, Asatchaq had grown up surrounded by the death of many others — annually about one sixth of the village. Present instabilities, the uncertainty of life in 1976, perhaps seemed to him a repeat of the years around 1900. ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’, the line occurred to me. And the moral emptiness of material America with the weak and self-justifying prop of Christianity, had materialized in horrifying climax. Dope, alcohol and the dollar economy had arrived even before the pipeline — or even Project Chariot (see this instalment) — had established their triumvirate.

The other line that inevitably occurred to me was from Eliot’s Wasteland: ‘These fragments I have shored my ruins.’ The passage preceding this was also one of horror and defeat:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images..

It is easy to contemplate the meaning of such lines. But to live in their midst: that was no doubt how Old Tom despairingly existed in the limited shelter of a tradition whose grander forms he’d watched breaking in pieces. And this is how Asatchaq lived in the after-shock of Native and American contact. The line quoted from Macbeth made more sense than its casually abstract implication. Against the culture of death, did Christianity, after all, offer the social or psychological succour I imagined? This was a moment when I needed at the very least to hear the voice of Mrs Charlotte, in all its self-confessed ambivalences. But Mrs C had gone. She was, bless her, dead already. And we dwelt in the space that she’d understood better than most. This was comfortless and hollow.

If confusion, in the older sense of disorder in its wider sense, was what Asatchaq experienced in modern life, then perhaps the narrative tradition represented order. Without hesitation therefore (so I thought) Asatchaq launched into the longest and most imposing story in his repertoire. He didn’t, characteristically, comment on or introduce what we called ‘the long unipkaaq’, beyond prefacing it with the words ‘this story is a long one.’

Nor did the old man suggest that the recitation had to do with Daisy’s disappearance or the disorder in which this happened.1

The long unipkaaq is a narrative about travel, transformation, human survival and shamanistic initiation in the form of death and rebirth.

The long unipkaaq is a narrative about travel, transformation, human survival and shamanistic initiation in the form of death and rebirth.

Yes, storytelling is about knowledge and it’s this knowledge – plus the memory that conveys it – for which Asatchaq was respected.

But the storytelling process also has to do with healing. And I believe that this may have been Asatchaq’s motive in launching the long unipkaaq. The people whom the storyteller might try to heal may have been out of reach. In the past, perhaps, a community that came together might well have achieved the reassurance that life was worth living, that social existence continued.

The story represented a foundation. It was ancient and it continued to abide. The horrors of loss are not, to the onlooker, possible to comprehend. Wounds can’t be salved. There is no consolation, only emptiness and grief. ‘All dark and comfortless’, as blinded Gloucester cried out at the hand of cruelty. But still there remains the communal foundation. It persists. It is there. It may be visited.

This instalment concludes the serial.

Start again.

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

  1. I was threatened, bizarrely, during the same period and escaped the person I described as ‘my murderer’ by a fluke. I’d been locked in my unheated cabin during the same period of confusion and emerged in good health to learn that the next translated ‘long unipkaaq’ sentence would be ‘he was then shut in his iglu.’ And although that event represents another story, the narrative involved me, perhaps superstitiously, in the turmoil of which I was otherwise a spectator.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *