Levi never talked. Never. He raised his eyebrows for yes and scrunched his nose for no. Otherwise, I didn’t hear his voice until the beginning of the second semester, when my students wrote a journal entry about their worst fears.
“I’m afraid the ice won’t come back,” Levi blurted, staring at his paper.
“The ice?” I asked, trying not to sound surprised.
I expected typical adolescent worries-heartbreak, demonic possession, maybe even death-not ice.
“What if the ice doesn’t form in the fall? What would that mean for Inuit?” Levi continued.
“That’s a good question.”
“We couldn’t hunt,” Markoosie said.
“Or fish,” Jane added.
“It’d suck,” DJ closed his journal.
All the methods I’d learned to facilitate discussion failed as the students doodled in the corners of their notebooks or studied the orange shag carpet, stricken. Levi remained silent for the rest of the semester. Until the whales happened.
A few days after the ice discussion, I headed to the Co-op for groceries. I hurried across the frozen pond, my sealskin kamiks crunching on the snow. The sun rested high in the sky and would remain there throughout the bright Arctic night.
As I scanned the shelves, Lena, Levi’s mother, approached me. Her youngest child slept in the pouch of her amautik.
“Did you hear about the whales?” she asked.
“No,” I replied, pausing before selecting a $4 litre of milk.
“Belugas are trapped in the ice. They must’ve come in through a crack during the warm spell. This is the first time it’s happened in May-the ice is changing.”
“Markoosie told me it’s melting earlier.”
Lena raised her eyebrows in agreement. “We’re all going to see the whales. You should come, too.”
I nodded, my excitement building.
“But you have to travel with us. You can’t go alone.”
A few hours later, I drove my Ski-Doo down to the shore and waited. Lena and her family soon arrived, pulling their kamotik filled with muskox furs and bundled children.
Levi hopped out, his rifle in hand, and perched behind me on my Ski-Doo. Riding with his back to me, he smoked in silence.
We hummed across the sea ice for hours. Sometimes, the ice smoothed to a glowing expanse of blue. Other times, we twisted our way through forests of formations.
Just as my thumb became too cold to press the accelerator, Lena’s family stopped up ahead. We sat between two great icebergs, enjoying some tea and bannock. Lena pointed at two worn paths on one of them.
“What do you think made that?” she asked.
“I can’t imagine.”
“Polar bears sliding.” The image delighted me.
We continued on to the whales. Hours later, Levi and I approached a row of snow machines in the distance. People gathered around the black hole in
We joined Levi’s family and stood, gazing into the water. Trails of pink blood snaked across the ice, ending at scavenged beluga carcasses, their rib cages casting jagged shadows in the midnight light.
A sled dog wailed in the distance. I wondered aloud at the stillness of the water.
“They’re trying to hide from the bears,” Levi said. Then, a white form rose from below.
The beluga’s breath exploded as it crested the surface. Great tears in white blubber revealed red secrets within and a wound yawned in place of the whale’s eye. The blowhole had been punched, the skin around it collapsed and cut. Another whale surfaced beside the first, its skin cross-hatched from claws, its vertebrae exposed. Then, they plunged into the black water, their bodies like swirling cream. Whale after whale crested, all of them mutilated, all of them desperate for strangled breath when they could hide from hungry polar bears no longer.
“My God,” Levi whispered.
A few days later, I was organizing some art supplies in my classroom. I didn’t hear Julia appear in the doorway.
Julia had been the first journalist to arrive. A freelancer hoping to sell her article about the belugas, she set up her tent right beside the airport runway.
“You haven’t seen Levi?”
Her voice made me jump. She leaned on the door frame, sunlight shining through her curly hair.
“He was supposed to meet me here.”
“Do you mind if I use the fax machine to send my article?”
“Long distance is expensive…”
“I can leave a few dollars if it’s such a problem.”
She turned and strode down the hall towards the office. I followed her, put the papers in the machine and let her dial the number. She handed me an envelope. She’d written Levi’s name on the front in red pen.
“Can you give this letter to him?”
I shrugged, taking the envelope.
“He was supposed to meet me here, but he didn’t show up. This letter will explain how the real world works.”
“Maybe he’ll be here soon. A group returned to drill breathing holes for the belugas. I think they got back in the middle of the night.”
“My flight’s leaving-I don’t have time to wait. He was supposed to bring some photos of the whales, but he couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed.” She rolled her eyes. “I was going to pay him, too.” She took her papers from the machine, tapped them on the counter and walked towards the door. “Thanks,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I replied, aching with the betrayal of my silence. I returned to my classroom and tossed the letter onto my desk. I continued to sort half-empty paint bottles.
“Hey…” Levi stood in the doorway, his hair an endearing mess of tangles.
“Hey, Levi. You’re back. ”
“Was Julia here?” he asked.
“She just left.”
“I can’t sell the photos.”
“But you could have made a lot of money.”
“You saw the suffering. I can’t sell them.”
“Fair enough.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Julia’s letter on the desk. I flipped it over, hiding the name scrawled in red pen.
By Andrea Cameron, Brockville, Ont.
Andrea Cameron is a drama and musical-theatre teacher in Brockville, Ont., and has also worked at Umimmak School in Grise Fiord, on the southern tip of Ellesmere Island. “Thin Ice” is inspired by her immediate understanding that, for many of her students there, time spent in the classroom was just something to do until they could escape to the land, an environment she found intimidating and dangerous. Andrea saw how climate change alters not just the livelihood and culture of the Inuit, but their very sense of self.