I know I’ve talked to you a bit about Alaska—at any rate, about the four months that I’d spent fishing, as planned. There were more than enough odd little occurrences in that experience to satisfy most of my friends, and I’m sure I could’ve left the rest unsaid without too many questions asked. But it bears telling. My work season was actually cut short by about six weeks; and it was in the time I spent onshore after that, that the real story happened.
I’d met up with the guys I shipped with, pretty much by word of mouth. Beyond what I was told I needed to know in order to sign on, I hadn’t been too well acquainted with the captain or crew, or even the job, before we set out; but I hear that’s pretty normal for it. Anyway, not being spoken badly of is enough of a recommendation for some boats, and I think this was pretty clearly one of those. For the better part of the summer we’d been docking in a little town called Mumm, just outside of Sitka—a place probably best described by saying that it really merited no description whatsoever. The work was exhausting, and dangerous: hauling in and letting out long lines of big, nasty hooks, any one of which could easily “catch”—a nice way of saying “go through your hand or thigh-muscle entirely”—and drag you off the side. If nobody noticed you going over, the weight of the line could have you a hundred feet below the surface before anyone was able to pull you up—plenty long enough for a man to bid his ass goodbye. As with any industrial job, the opportunities for injury were everywhere there was carelessness; so it was good that our boat’s capacity for fish and fuel kept our trips fairly short. Our longer trips out only went about four or five days, generally speaking, which was just enough to make the time away bearable for us, not to mention the time on land.
We were on one of these longer trips, and just finishing up for the day, when we were interrupted by some bad news. It was actually pretty dramatic, the way it came to us. It had been pretty stormy all day, and for one reason or another the radios weren’t working right, so another boat had to “speak” us in the old-fashioned way, coming up alongside us with flags and a bullhorn. It was almost dark out already, and I remember someone saying when we saw the boat coming on, that if we knew what was best for us, we’d just plug our ears and look the other way, because whatever they had to tell us couldn’t be good. I’d laughed, though inwardly I couldn’t help agreeing. There was something in the faces of the other crew, as calm as they were, that seemed to foretell disaster, the way they say things do sometimes.
And the news bore that out. It was about our captain’s mother. From what I heard later, it must have been sudden—some sort of stroke or attack, as the talk went. Strange thing was, you never would’ve known it from the captain’s reaction. From how he’d spoken of her before, he was no distant son; but if the other crew had seemed impassive in how they’d brought him the news, he more than followed suit in how he took it. Honestly, I’d never heard of anything like it. There’s a lot to be said for acceptance, but this was another story. It was like the two sides were playing parts they’d rehearsed long in advance: theirs to tell him, and his to hear.
Anyway, he got us all together right away, afterward—a man of few words, our captain—and told us he was sorry, but he was going to have to call off the rest of the season. Among working men, news like that always tends to make other talk light and superfluous; and this was no exception. Fishermen aren’t heartless, but not a lot of them are too sentimental, either; and some of the crew were pretty put out by the captain’s decision. Put out is putting it lightly; they were spitting mad. But spitting’s about as far as it went. No one spoke a word of protest, either to him or otherwise. Respect had a hand in it; but I think it was something in the way he’d put it to us, that really predisposed us to accept his decision as final. He was a native—Aleut, I remember someone speculating—and we may also have assumed there were traditional obligations he was called on to uphold, which there was no gainsaying.
That said, it was a big change, and we scrambled to deal with it. A couple of the savvier men among us were quick (and lucky) enough to call places on other boats, and went right back out as soon as we’d put in. A few rang up their friends in Sitka, and presumably sat out the rest of the season gossiping with them. The man I’d been staying with in Mumm just up and disappeared, without a word where he was going. As for me, it’d been my first season, and a busy one so far. I’d made a good amount of money, but I hadn’t had time to make any real friends in Sitka, and I didn’t have the experience to command a place elsewhere, even if I’d been shrewd enough to try. But the Alaskan summer being everything they say it is, and more,—the warm and windy days, the nights unearthly quiet—I guess I felt too enamored with it to leave just yet. You might say I had a romantic impulse, or had just talked myself into the idea of an adventure I was sure I hadn’t had yet. But whatever it was, the idea of returning home without another good story to show for my time away didn’t sit well with me, and in the end I’d decided to stay—that is, if I decided anything at all. I ask myself, now, if I really had any say in the matter; but at the time I wouldn’t have doubted it.
I was certainly given plenty of discouragement, if not alternatives, by most of my shipmates. What did I want to stay there for? was the first question; and let me tell you, they were able to produce quite an interesting catalogue of reasons I shouldn’t. I was more than once reminded, for instance, that there was only one bar in Mumm, and hardly a whore with enough teeth to pronounce your name properly. Considerate gentlemen, my shipmates, and compelling reasoners at that! But seeing that I wasn’t persuaded by such arguments, my companions soon adopted a different rhetorical tactic.
At first the warnings were commonplace enough—the people in Mumm were reclusive, and didn’t speak well of outsiders; the law was lax where it ought to be strict, and vice versa, as is often the case in small towns. But gradually, as these reasons too fell on deaf ears, the men began to suggest trouble of a more difficult nature to define. Regarding native customs, it was said of some towns that the Alaskan government, in accordance with certain old and unspoken agreements, left them more or less to their own devices: admittedly a forward-thinking policy in many respects; but then some traditions, the men hinted in their rough way, were perhaps better silenced in the interest of the common discourse. You can believe this got my attention.
What these unspeakable traditions might be, however, I was at a loss how to drag out of my fishermen cohorts; who, as though conscious of having spoken out of character in delivering even so vague a warning, now employed all the storied gruffness of their profession to keep anything further from being said on the subject. It’s a fact worth mentioning, that though it was mostly in concluding our business with the captain that we all had occasion to speak together in those last days, these discussions of strange traditions and so forth were never held within earshot of him; from which I surmised, against my own understanding, that the traditions of his own tribe must be among the ones spoken of. But that, as it turned out, doesn’t bear much on my story.
The point is, the adventurous voice had already spoken in me, and while I wasn’t about to question the warnings of my surly friends, inwardly I was quick to take them in a spirit more or less opposed to the one intended. I’d made enough money to live out the season without working, and answer to no master but my own inclination; and besides, having seen no shortage of boats in and out of the little port since we’d arrived there, I knew that if it really came to it I could be on the first one home. So I stayed.
My friends I fobbed off with some small talk or other; and seemingly in the time it takes to tell you about it, I had found a cheap room in a boarding-house. I know that’s a word we don’t use much anymore, “boarding-house”; but it was the right one for this place: a tidy little clapboard thing, one of a row more or less comparable to it, on what might be called the edge of town, if the town could have been so clearly defined. None of the other rooms in the place were spoken for; and maybe that fact should have made a case louder and clearer against it than any the others had already made with me. But the terms were really reasonable, even by Alaskan standards, for such a well-kept house; and there was a very commendable, if partial, sea-view out behind it.
Besides which, the landlord of the place—the person I talked with more than anyone else while I was there—proved very quickly to be nothing like what I’d heard about Mumm’s native dwellers; and that was enough to finally discredit a story I’d already taken with a grain of salt. I can’t say I found him reclusive, or even unsociable, at all; if anything, he was garrulous to the point of being a bit opaque, as often seems to be true of natural talkers. To hear him you’d think he’d been everywhere, and done everything; and amid the flurry of gossip and reminiscences it was sometimes hard to get a sense of who the man really was. Still, he was a good-natured, hospitable person, and this is something I would honestly say for just about everyone I met in Mumm. American foreigners sometimes remark a sort of insular hostility toward them on the part of the Alaskan natives; especially white Americans, who seem to talk each other into such an expectation of it, that they’re practically ready to describe the experience before it’s happened. But perhaps it’s more of an issue in the bigger towns, or places more tourists congregate; certainly I didn’t notice anything like that while I was in Mumm. The worst I could have said initially about the people there—that they weren’t always so eager to talk about themselves—was something I usually chalked up rather to a lack of proficiency in my language, than to anything they did or didn’t want to say in it.
Not that I was ever particularly able to make heads or tails of their talk, either. The languages of the “Eskimos”—as one can still call them in Alaska, without invoking disaster—these languages are a very strange, complex thing for a foreigner to learn. One wonders how even native speakers ever manage to learn them; it seems as though one would have to be at least partly fluent already, in order to learn anything at all. But I suppose you could say that about any language; and to people who speak any of the Eskimo tongues, I understand they’re really not all that mystifying. The common rumor, for instance, that they have a hundred words for snow or ice, is not quite right; in fact, their one word for it is only made to seem like a hundred, by the circumstance that, in their language (as in, say, German), long and complex phrases are often spoken as single words, and so become near-impossible for the non-native speaker to hear in their separate parts.
That being said, that there are words in their language which defy translation, and denote concepts as strange to the foreigner’s mind as the words themselves are to his ears, is perfectly true of the Alaskan natives, as it is of anyone. The sound a catch of fish makes when it’s dragged behind a dogsled; the strange behavior of a child, when he encounters someone he doesn’t know; the act of turning pale with fright; the loss of one’s ability to hear birds—all these are traditional expressions in the language of the Alaskan. He even has a word for himself, as addressed by the non-human things of the world. But I’ll spare you my attempts at pronunciation. Suffice to say that language was as much a barrier for me there, as it is for everyone everywhere; and that my efforts at crossing it had very few results to speak of.
Nor, I might add, did I have the best of teachers in my landlord, who in his hilarity far preferred my mispronunciations to my progress. To him it was all a good yarn; and under his careful tutelage I was kept in a state of stumble-tongued ignorance that would have embarrassed a mute. This state of things I endured patiently for as long as I was able; but that, I admit, was not very long.
One day, remarking my silence, and reproaching me good-naturedly for neglecting our “Eskimo talks,” my landlord gave me occasion to voice my complaints. When I had done so, he gave a broad laugh.
“Ah, typical qallunaaq,” he said—qallunaaq being one of their words for a white person. “Always worried there’s something you’re not in on! What do you want to talk Eskimo for anyway, eh, whitey? You think the snow’s doing something behind your back?”
I replied that I didn’t much care what the snow was doing, but I preferred not to be talked about as a complete laughingstock around town.
“‘Talked about’?” he said brightly, turning to face me. “You say that like it’s unfair! How do you know that a laughingstock’s not just what you are?”
The man had me there, I had to admit with a laugh.
“Aha—and there you have it,” he said. “You start talking Eskimo, you’ll just be a little worse at being the laughingstock that nature made you. And besides, people like a laughingstock, you know; it’s harder to like someone you understand. Take Mrs. Ikka, down the way: don’t you think she likes you a whole lot better than that sad-sack doctor she saw in Sitka the other day? He can speak Eskimo fine, and all he had to tell her, is that she’s dying!”
Well, here was an example of the old Eskimo bluntness; and I’m sure my face showed my dismay. Mrs. Ikka lived in one of the row-houses close by, had always smiled very kindly at the laughingstock as he’d passed, and had even insisted on speaking to him a few times, despite his complete lack of understanding. How long had the doctor given her, I asked?
“Oh, he says it’ll be any day now, any minute. As if he can talk!” The landlord’s brow furrowed. “Well,” he added, as though to correct himself, “he could be right, of course; they do say it happens to everyone, don’t they? I suppose it’ll even happen to me someday; though not for a while yet—I have a feeling.”
I said I hoped that was the case, for both him and Mrs. Ikka.
“Hope! Hope is for children,” he said, waving me off. “Better to know; or at least talk like you do,” he added; and with a strange little smiling gesture he disappeared abruptly back inside.
Now, this conversation must have taken place about three weeks into the six I spent at Mumm. I recall the fact with some confidence, because it was about that time that I started to notice something a little strange going on next door.
I think I mentioned before that my boarding-house was one of five similar two-story houses, lined up in a funny little group a short ways off from the rest of town. These were all built on an embankment that ran along the water’s edge behind them, to which the town road ran roughly parallel in front, so there was really only one way for me to approach them on my way home. The first house belonged to the aforenamed Mrs. Ikka, who lived there alone; the second, to a middle-aged couple I never heard speak to anyone but each other; the third, to a man called “Jones,” who was apparently an old friend of my landlord’s; and fourth was our boarding-house—all of which, being mostly wooden, and built long ago on an embankment that had since changed its opinion of the water behind it, had warped and tilted a fair amount; until, to someone approaching them from a little distance up the town road, they looked like an irregular little group of gossips, each leaning in to get the last word of his neighbor.
Excluded from this spirited conversation, so to speak, was the fifth house. This seemed to belong to no one, or at least had been empty for as long as anyone could recall. I often had the impression that it was on account of its being so tightly shut up that it hadn’t sagged and leaned as the others did, for in every other respect of its construction it seemed to be the same. Yet under the circumstances, the fact that it didn’t lean and sag only made it look somehow crazier and more suspect than the others—as is often the case, I suppose, with people. It wasn’t any farther away from my boarding-house than the building was on the other side, but its rigid uprightness next to the warped foundations of the other buildings made its boundaries much clearer, and gave it the appearance of a stern, reproachful person, a hard-faced minister or judge perhaps, from whom others shrink away instinctively.
In any event, the place had interested me from the beginning. I had been foolish enough to express that interest to my landlord at some point; to which, as always, he’d been ready with his response.
“Of course you’re interested—there’s nothing there,” he’d said, his face slacking in mock exasperation. “It’s an old saying of mine that I used to tell the guests here, when they got inquisitive: ‘There’s nowhere a cat would rather be than a room he’s been shut out of, and nothing a white person likes better than a broken-down old igluvigaq.’”
But it didn’t look so broken-down to me, I’d protested; and anyway, what was an igluvigaq?
“Well, you know what an iglu is, don’t you?” he’d laughed. “A house like that is the same thing, just a little bigger, and a lot harder to warm up. Whoever owns it is probably just waiting for this town to become worth a damn, so he can sell it off. Hope he’s not holding his breath for that! Anyway, it’s not bad for business, since people say it makes my place look safer; but if you ask me, the row ends here. Nobody ever goes to that place.”
I didn’t say anything in response to this, but at the time I’d thought to myself that it was a pretty strange thing for my landlord to tell me. I wondered if he really believed it himself. It had been pretty early in my stay that I’d realized just how many people did go there; and truth be told, for an abandoned house it seemed to be a very popular spot. I never saw anyone visit twice, but there was no shortage of newcomers; nor was it only the usual crowd of teenagers and layabouts that one might have expected to see hanging around such a place. Admittedly, the visitors were all natives, as far as I could tell; but aside from that, they seemed to be of all callings. Most of them, too, were people I’d never seen around town before—which, in a town the size of Mumm, is newsworthy in itself. But the really remarkable thing was, none of them ever went inside the old house, or even tried to. Apparently the visits had some other purpose. One of my side windows gave me a pretty good view of its porch, and part of the front door; and I got to observe what I came to call “the ritual” more than a few times in its entirety.
The visitor would climb up the porch stairs, usually alone, usually around sundown or after—though I think this was mostly for convenience’ sake, as I also saw it happen earlier in the day. He would stroll right up to the front door, rarely with any hesitation, and give it one or two good knocks, often loud enough for me to hear next door. Then he would crouch in front of the door, and press his ear up tightly against it; and in this posture he would remain, sometimes for a few minutes, but never much more than that. Invariably it was the left ear the visitor used to listen with, and since this turned his face away from me, I was never able to see with what expression he listened.
I should say that this last detail was the thing that came to unsettle me most about the whole business. I felt that if I could only see an attitude of curiosity, or surprise, or hilarity, in the carrying-out of this strange little performance, that I’d be persuaded of its insignificance—a mere attraction for native tourists, a sort of small-town Alaskan Blarney Stone. But I could never glimpse these listening faces at all; and something told me that if I could, it wouldn’t be curiosity, or surprise, or hilarity that I’d see there. Certainly it was with none of these expressions that these visitors to the old house finally departed; though what exactly to call the look most of them did have, I’m sure I couldn’t say. I don’t believe I’ve seen that particular look anywhere else.
About nightfall, a day or two after the landlord had told me about poor Mrs. Ikka, I was on my way back from a trip into town when I saw the very same old lady’s little figure hobbling along the road ahead of me.
She was assisted by a girl of about seven from town, whom I’d seen with her before; no doubt some young relative of hers. At first I thought I might overtake them and say hello, but as I began to quicken my pace I realized that they were moving much faster than I’d anticipated. The old woman especially had a look of grim determination about her, and seemed to be pulling her young friend along, about as much as she was leaning on her for support. When I came within hailing distance of them, I noticed that they were reciting or chanting something together, quietly, the old woman with an almost disturbing intensity. They looked strangely focused, as though only they and their little chant existed in the whole world.
Well, naturally enough, I felt I shouldn’t interrupt them; and being that we were going the same way, to avoid seeming antisocial I hung back a little to follow them at a distance. Mrs. Ikka’s house was the first on our row, as I mentioned earlier; so I figured I’d have a chance to wish the pair a good night when I passed them there. I was more than a little surprised when, instead of turning up the path to her own porch, Mrs. Ikka and her young friend continued chanting right on past it. In turn they passed each of the other houses, and I realized with growing intrigue that they were heading for the last one. Well, this was an interesting development, to say the least; and when they had passed my boarding-house I was as quick as I could be in getting up to my window to watch them.
Mrs. Ikka had just knocked when I looked out. She and the girl had stopped their chanting. She stood back very deliberately, watching the door, and now I saw a variation in the ritual as not she but the girl crouched, very obediently, with her left ear to it. It came back to me then, with a feeling I can’t call entirely comfortable, that the old woman was hard of hearing.
Soon, very abruptly, the girl began to speak. I couldn’t make out the words but could just hear her voice, which came in soft and halting tones, as though she were repeating something carefully as it was told her through the door. Mrs. Ikka stood silently listening, and the thought occurred to me that I finally had the chance to see the expression of the listener, if only at a remove. But no—her face remained a mask of concentration: eyes wide, mouth slightly parted, as still and unintelligible as a salmon’s. She might have been listening to a court sentence or the weather report.
Before long, the ritual was done. The girl stood hesitantly, and for a long moment she and the old woman regarded one another meaningfully. Finally, as if on cue, the tension dissolved into relief: the girl ran to Mrs. Ikka in a flood of wordless emotion; and Mrs. Ikka clasped her tightly, her stony expression breaking into the same broad and kindly smile I’d seen there so many times before. Only then, as unisonant in their silence as before they’d been in song, did the two turn, arm-in-arm, to step falteringly from the porch. A high laugh arose, from which of them I couldn’t tell; and in a moment, both were gone.
Needless to say, this incident brought my interest in the old house to a new high. Also needless to say, my landlord had nothing to tell me about it.
“She’s probably just playing with her granddaughter,” he said dismissively, when I asked him about it a day or two later. “She’s in good spirits these days, you know. That Sitka doctor called her and took back his diagnosis—turns out he’d spoken too soon. Just like a qallunaaq, too—always quick to conclusions, when it’s more sensible just to wait and see!”
Well, glad as I was to hear Mrs. Ikka was all right, this account of her visit next door hardly satisfied me. I began to ask around, as subtly as I could, about the place; and while I can’t say the people I spoke to were any more overtly reticent with me than they’d been previously, I did feel, for the first time, as though I were being “ever so politely” snubbed. My questions met with brief, vacuous answers, when they met with answers at all; and most times, they didn’t even meet with that much. Yet this didn’t stop me from drawing my own conclusions about it, as members of my race are evidently disposed to do.
The word universally used for the house was the same my landlord had used, igluvigaq; which, as someone more helpful than himself finally condescended to tell me, was a word that in modern times simply meant an iglu or house, but which had once had the more particular meaning of “a house with no one living in it.” No one living in it! I began to think that, commonplace as it was, there was much concealed in that phrase. Even the translation seemed strangely significant: the house was not empty—it was inhabitedby no one. With these words, as though implicit in them, arose a notion still more abstract, but still more insistent to my imagination: that my first impression of the place had been wrong. Before, I would have said that the house was silent, and silently excluded from the society of the town to one side of it. Yet it was perhaps more to the point to say that the house was conversant with the open wilderness on the other. It was a conversation that fell silent in terms of human talk, but had nevertheless been going on continuously, possibly for a very long time; a conversation not given to man to interrupt, but only, on occasion, to put his ear to the door and overhear; as a child might be suffered to overhear the talk of his elders, of whose idioms and innuendoes he is reliably ignorant. But as the child sometimes feels, with an uneasy certainty, that the talk, at least in part, concerns himself and his destiny, so I felt; and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed this must be the case. I couldn’t account for the force of my sudden conviction; but once it had taken hold, it nagged at my conscience like no other ever had. How else can I describe it? I begin to think all strong convictions are equally unaccountable—which must be why most people don’t seem to hold them. But unusual as my conclusions were in this case, it wasn’t long before they received a sort of confirmation.
This came in the form of an exchange I had with Euphemia, Mrs. Ikka’s little granddaughter. I was starting into town one morning when I overtook her. She was just returning from an early visit with the old lady; and by way of joining her, I took occasion to ask after Mrs. Ikka’s health.
“Oh, she’s fine,” said Euphemia, without a trace of mistrust. “She says she feels much better. The doctor was wrong,” she added, “just like we knew he would be.”
I was glad to hear it, I said. But how had they known?
“We heard,” she said; then, after some thought, added, “Well, I heard; Anaatsiaq doesn’t hear so well, so I had to tell her. It wasn’t time, it said; that’s in a few years, so she and I have lots of time to visit.”
I admit my blood ran cold at this little speech, with its it said; but I tried to keep that out of my voice as I asked: What was it that had told her all this?
“You know—in the old house,” she said, looking at me doubtfully. She stopped, and gestured for me to bend down. Looking around, as if to make sure no one else could hear her, she cupped her hands and whispered a strange and ugly-sounding word in my ear.
“It was that,” she said. “Anaatsiaq and I went to hear it the other night.”
She looked up at me, suddenly puzzled.
“Haven’t you ever gone there?” she said.
I hadn’t, I said, though I saw a lot of people doing it. How did it work?
“Oh, it’s very simple,” she said proudly, in the voice children use to educate foolish adults. “You don’t even have to say anything. You just knock on the door and listen, with this side”—she indicated her left ear—“and then it comes around, and pretty soon you hear it talking.”
And what did it say to her, I asked?
“Well, it didn’t say anything to me,” she admitted. “Anaatsiaq says it only speaks to the one who calls it, and she’s the one who knocked this time. She says I’m not allowed to go until I’m a grown-up. But you could go,” she added encouragingly.
Maybe I would, I said; but what sort of thing did it tell you?
“Only the one thing,” she said, as if we both knew what she meant; and to tell you the truth, we did.
We’d reached town; Euphemia had to go. My head was full of questions, and I’m sure there were better ones to ask than the one I did, but I think I’d already decided to find out those answers for myself; so what I asked her was simply my last pressing concern—or the last pressing concern of the part of me that already believed.
I asked: Did anything bad happen to you, for asking?
“You know,” she said.
In the week that followed, no one came to listen at the old house. It was as though whatever was inside had heard me debating with myself next door, and warned off anyone who might influence my decision one way or the other. Of course, the decision was already made, or I’m sure I would never have made it the way I did. As it was, I needed the week to talk myself out of a strange, threatening belief in what I’d heard from those childish lips; a belief, in company with which, my curiosity wasn’t satisfied with pretending to remain mere curiosity, but felt the need to disclaim against another, less comfortable feeling—as around those of our friends who know us best, we speak with a certain self-doubt, where we might otherwise plunge confidently into fibs and exaggerations. A new voice had spoken up from within me, and it was one I knew would not be easy to silence. Yet in a week, it had at least grown quiet enough to ignore. The dullness of my days,—the empty gregariousness of my landlord and others,—all contributed to a sense of everyday nihilism that couldn’t but spread, even to cover the local curiosity I’d suddenly come to take so seriously. From there it was no great leap to wonder what there really was in it that had conduced to such a tradition; to entertain the tourist’s petty horror, that one should leave a place without “experiencing” everything it’s known for; and all the other incentives that invariably persuade otherwise sensible men not to leave well enough alone.
It was daylight when I finally went around—a concession, perhaps, to my former credulousness, though I can honestly say I didn’t think of it at the time. I simply felt I had dallied and debated about it for long enough. The day was appropriately cold and clear for the occasion, and I met it impetuously, striding right up to the door as though it were my own. A cool breeze stopped me; I hesitated only a moment—listening, as I said to myself, for any sign of someone already inside. Then I put out my hand, knocked as firmly and frankly as I could, and knelt with my ear to the door as I had seen others do, however many times.
There was a silence, for I couldn’t say how long. For how long: only that the odd thought came suddenly to me, that there was still time. But of course, there wasn’t. The step was on the floorboards before I heard it, and in a moment I did hear it, winding through the empty house: heavy, soft, measured, as though it were feeling its way—the only way it had ever traveled.
I won’t deny that in that instant I was terrified; more so, in fact, than I had ever been before. My heart cried out against my own incredible foolishness, and I would have run; but the sound froze me, and I was as powerless to move as I would have been to speak. I could hear it speaking already, as it moved itself up close to the other side. The voice was barely above a whisper, but shout-like in its intensity, like the voice we use when recalling a heated exchange to someone else after the fact. The words were quiet, but preternaturally clear, and succinct—for almost as soon as it had begun, the speaker finished, and retreated back into the depths of the old house with hardly another sound.
Soon I could move again; and rising, I walked back over to my boarding-house with the unsteady steps of a drunk. Thank God my landlord was away! I know I couldn’t have dealt with talking to anyone just then; my ears still rang with the palpable weight of what had been said to me. Whatever had been said to me—for it was only when I was safely inside, and my door securely locked behind me, that I realized I had not understood any of it.
The words, clear and succinct as they were, had been not in English, but Eskimo.
Once the initial shock had worn off, hard reality reasserted itself; and I actually found myself laughing at the implications of my adventure. That an oracle should speak only one human tongue, was plainly ludicrous—a fatal flaw in the legend. It was a cruel trick on the natives—a trick that relied on the connection between their language and their superstitions. And yet I, too, had been taken in by it—had expected the speaker’s message to be meaningful. More likely, the house was simply unowned, and tenanted by some enterprising local who’d discovered a neat way to keep the place to himself. Perhaps there was even a long-standing tradition of such charlatanry that had gone on undetected for years under the nose of superstition. There was doubtless a rule built into the performance that made it somehow taboo to speak of to others, thereby lending the whole thing a layer of inscrutability almost impossible to pierce.
Still, I was curious to know who the inhabitant of the house might be, not to mention what he might have come up with to say to me in particular. Could it be particular to each visitor? Nobody ever seemed to go twice—another built-in convenience to the legend. Would whoever it was speak the same sentence over again, if I came back—say, with a translator?
My landlord was unenthused by the idea.
“I told you, the place is empty,” he insisted. “You’re right, someone’s just making a fool of you. And that’s my job; I’m not going to help someone else do it by translating for them. Anyway”—and here his voice became ever so slightly more gentle—“say there was someone in there, telling people—that;—are you so sure you’d want to know?”
That all depended, I laughed, on what they had to tell me; which, of course, was why I needed a translator in the first place.
“Well, it won’t be me,” he answered simply.
Fair enough, I thought; there were plenty of other candidates around. But as it turned out, that wasn’t quite the case. Charlatanry or no, the house’s mystique was effective. The few people in Mumm I knew well enough to ask for help with it, either refused outright, or suddenly lost all confidence in their linguistic capabilities. Soon enough it seemed that no one in town could be persuaded to go anywhere near the place with me. It was either too unimportant to be bothered over, or too serious to trifle with, depending on whom I asked. Yet the satisfaction of my curiosity lay somewhere between these two, and the indifference of the locals was hard for me to bear.
Finally I got the chance I was waiting for. A boat came in one day, from one of the little native towns up north—Teller, I think it was, or some similarly tiny, middle-of-nowhere fishing village. They arrived late; and I happened to be alone at the bar, having just said goodnight to whomever I’d been drinking with, when a few of their crew came in. They were agreeable, talkative men, glad to be off their boat, and as a fellow visitor to Mumm with a line on the bartender, it wasn’t too hard for me to strike up with them. To make a long story short, by the time we disbanded at the end of the night we were good friends; and having told them about the old row-house and its visitors, I was able to persuade one of them to come back with me and tell me what he could understand of what the speaker said.
It was well past dark when we started up the town-road. The road was deserted, but there was a bright moon out, and our drinks had us in good spirits for this sort of adventure. To be clear I should say that my friend was really pretty drunk, even for a fisherman, and I had quite a task keeping him quiet as we made our way along the row. Fortunately he wasn’t the sort to bristle at being hushed. He said (as, in progressive stages of drunkenness, he’d already said a number of times that night) that he’d heard of something like my igluvigaq before, though never first-hand. I supposed it might have been the same place; he said he didn’t think there were too many such things about.
Soon we had arrived; and I’ll tell you, skeptic or no, I never saw a house look so much as though it had been waiting for me. The moonlight falling to one side of it left its porched front in deep shadow; and into this yawning blackness, I suddenly had the impression of all my curiosity about the place rushing from me. I was again describing “the ritual” to my drunken friend, and I realized that insensibly my voice had taken on a faraway seriousness, as if I were reciting something official for the thousandth time.
For his part, my friend was hardly in any shape to listen. Having endured the litany for a moment with a bemused expression, he cut me short.
“Unnerstood, fella,” he said suddenly, with a wave of the hand. “I’ll go first”—and before I could stop him, he’d banged twice sharply on the door, and was kneeling to it with a look of gleeful anticipation. I started to say something to him as he turned his ear to the door.
“Ssh,” he whispered sharply, holding up his hand to silence me. “I hear someone.” He smiled. “Sounds like he’s coming around the back of the house; a big old guy, maybe, dragging his feet. I wonder if—”
He stopped abruptly, listening hard. I watched his face; all at once he’d seemed to sober up entirely.
Now I too could hear the muffled whispering through the door, each strange word so eerily enunciated. My friend listened with what seemed to be a growing astonishment, as the unknown speaker delivered its verdict. Suddenly his face was contorted by a grimace, as though he’d just suffered a deeply personal insult—yet one which he knew to be as true as it was cruel. In the attitude of one so insulted, and with hardly a stumble, he rose very quickly to his feet.
“What is this? What’s this about?” he demanded of me; and his breaking voice seemed at once dangerous and terrified. He looked as though he couldn’t tell whether it would be better to stand or run, but was inclining strongly toward the second.
Wait, I said, putting one hand on his arm; and with the other, before I knew entirely what I did, I reached out and rapped on the door.
We both stood motionless. The voice, which for a moment had gone silent, now started up again in its even cadence. Through the rushing in my ears I could hardly make out a word of what it said; but I knew beyond all doubt, as though I were face-to-face with the speaker itself, that now it spoke to me. Yet only my poor companion, his ear still close to the door, could be said to have understood its fatal message.
What was it? I almost shouted at him; for the speaker behind the door had ceased, and already I heard the heavy sound of footfalls back down its inscrutable path. Yet my voice seemed to recall the other man to himself. He looked once at me, in a way I’ll never forget, and probably never decipher; and without another word he wrenched free of my grasp, and bolted from the porch in a panic. The rest seemed to be over before it had begun; it was indeed as though it were inexorable, as though it had been going that way from the beginning. One moment I heard him half cry out, and the next he was lying at the bottom of the stairs, his mouth working in the unintelligible speech of death. He would say no more than that; he’d broken his neck.
I called the sheriff’s office right away to report the death, and was hurried on my way from Mumm shortly thereafter. It was fortunate for me—though in no way calculated to set my mind at ease about what my companion had heard said of me through the door—that no one seemed to find any reason to doubt my word, or even to ask for the whole story of what had transpired. My landlord himself saw me off with almost nary a word. I had to assume it was one of those cases where the locals enjoyed the privilege of being, as it had been said, “left to their own devices.” I suppose I’ve gotten back to enjoying my own, after a fashion.