Agoonack, the Esquimau Sister
and How She Lived through the Long Darkness
WHAT is this odd-looking mound of stone? It looks like the great brick oven that used to be in our old kitchen, where, when I was a little girl, I saw the fine large loaves of bread and the pies and puddings pushed carefully in with a long, flat shovel, or drawn out with the same when the heat had browned them nicely.
Is this an oven standing out here alone in the snow?
You will laugh when I tell you that it is not an oven, but a house; and here lives little Agoonack.
Do you see that low opening, close to the ground? That is the door; but one must creep on hands and knees to enter. There is another smaller hole above the door: it is the window. It has no glass, as ours do; only a thin covering of something which Agoonack's father took from the inside of a seal, and her mother stretched over the window-hole, to keep out the cold and to let in a little light.
Here lives our little girl; not as the brown baby does, among the trees and the flowers, but far up in the cold countries amid snow and ice.
If we look off now, over the ice, we shall see a funny little clumsy thing, running along as fast as its short, stout legs will permit, trying to keep up with its mother. You will hardly know it to be a little girl, but might rather call it a white bear's cub, it is so oddly dressed in the white, shaggy coat of the bear which its father killed last month. But this is really Agoonack; you can see her round, fat, greasy little face, if you throw back the white jumper-hood which covers her head. Shall I tell you what clothes she wears?
Not at all like yours, you will say; but, when one lives in cold countries, one must dress accordingly.
First, she has socks, soft and warm, but not knit of the white yarn with which mamma knits yours. Her mamma has sewed them from the skins of birds, with the soft down upon them to keep the small brown feet very warm. Over these come her moccasins of sealskin.
If you have been on the seashore, perhaps you know the seals that are sometimes seen swimming in the sea, holding up their brown heads, which look much like dogs' heads, wet and dripping.
The seals love best to live in the seas of the cold countries: here they are, huddled together on the sloping rocky shores, or swimming about under the ice, thousands and thousands of silver-gray coated creatures, gentle seal-mothers and brave fathers with all their pretty seal-babies. And here the Esquimaux (for that is the name by which we call these people of the cold countries) hunt them, eat them for dinner, and make warm clothes of their skins. So, as I told you, Agoonack has sealskin boots.
Next she wears leggings, or trousers, of white bear-skin, very rough and shaggy, and a little jacket or frock, called a jumper, of the same. This jumper has a hood, made like the little red riding-hoods which I dare say you have all seen. Pull the hood up over the short, black hair, letting it almost hide the fat, round face, and you have Agoonack dressed.
Is this her best dress, do you think?
Certainly it is her best, because she has no other, and when she goes into the house—but I think I won't tell you that yet, for there is something more to be seen outside.
Agoonack and her mother are coming home to dinner, but there is no sun shining on the snow to make it sparkle. It is dark like night, and the stars shine clear and steady like silver lamps in the sky, but far off, between the great icy peaks, strange lights are dancing, shooting long rosy flames far into the sky, or marching in troops as if each light had a life of its own, and all were marching together along the dark, quiet sky. Now they move slowly and solemnly, with no noise, and in regular, steady file; then they rush all together, flame into golden and rosy streamers, and mount far above the cold, icy mountain peaks that glitter in their light; we hear a sharp sound like Dsah! dsah! and the ice glows with the warm color, and the splendor shines on the little white-hooded girl as she trots beside her mother.
It is far more beautiful than the fireworks on Fourth of July. Sometimes we see a little of it here, and we say there are northern lights, and we sit at the window watching all the evening to see them march and turn and flash; but in the cold countries they are far more brilliant than any we have seen.
It is Agoonack's birthday, and there is a present for her before the door of the house. I will make you a picture of it. "It is a sled," you exclaim. Yes, a sled; but quite unlike yours. In the faraway cold countries no trees grow; so her father had no wood; and he took the bones of the walrus and the whale, bound them together with strips of sealskin, and he has built this pretty sled for his little daughter's birthday.
It has a back to lean against and hold by, for the child will go over some very rough places, and might easily fall from it. And then, you see, if she fell, it would be no easy matter to jump up again and climb back to her seat; for the little sled would have run away from her before she should have time to pick herself up. How could it run? Yes, that is the wonderful thing about it; for when her father made the sled he said to himself, "By the time this is finished, the two little brown dogs will be old enough to draw it, and Agoonack shall have them; for she is a princess, the daughter of a great chief."
Now you can see that, with two such brisk little dogs as the brown puppies harnessed to the sled, Agoonack must keep her seat firmly, that she may not roll over into the snow and let the dogs run away with it.
You can imagine what gay frolics she has with her brother who runs at her side, or how she laughs and shouts to see him drive his bone ball with his bone bat or hockey, skimming it over the crusty snow.
Now we will creep into the low house with the child and her mother, and see how they live.
Outside it is very cold, colder than you have ever known it to be in the coldest winter's day; but inside it is warm, even very hot. And the first thing Agoonack and her mother do is to take off their clothes, for here it is as warm as the place where the brown baby lives, who needs no clothes.
It isn't the sunshine that makes it warm, for you remember I told you it was as dark as night. There is no furnace in the cellar; indeed, there is no cellar, neither is there a stove. But all this heat comes from a sort of lamp, with long wicks of moss and plenty of walrus fat to burn. It warms the small house, which has but one room, and over it the mother hangs a shallow dish in which she cooks soup; but most of the meat is eaten raw, cut into long strips, and eaten much as one might eat a stick of candy.
They have no bread, no crackers, no apples nor potatoes; nothing but meat, and sometimes the milk of the reindeer, for there are no cows in the far, cold northern countries. But the reindeer gives them a great deal: he is their horse as well as their cow; his skin and his flesh, his bones and horns, are useful when he is dead, and while he lives he is their kind, gentle, and patient friend.
There is some one else in the hut when Agoonack comes home; a little dark ball, rolled up on one corner of the stone platform which is built all around three sides of the house, serving for seats, beds, and table. This rolled-up ball unrolls itself, tumbles off the seat, and runs to meet them. It is Sip-su, the baby brother of Agoonack,—a round little boy, who rides sometimes, when the weather is not too cold, in the hood of his mother's jumper, hanging at her back, and peering out from his warm nestling-place over the long icy plain to watch for his father's return from the bear-hunt.
When the men come home dragging the great Nannook, as they call the bear, there is a merry feast. They crowd together in the hut, bringing in a great block of snow, which they put over the lamp-fire to melt into water; and then they cut long strips of bear's meat, and laugh and eat and sing, as they tell the long story of the hunt of Nannook, and the seals they have seen, and the foot-tracks of the reindeer they have met in the long valley.
Perhaps the day will come when pale, tired travellers will come to their sheltering home, and tell them wonderful stories, and share their warmth for a while, till they can gain strength to go on their journey again.
Perhaps while they are so merry there all together, a very great snowstorm will come and cover the little house, so that they cannot get out for several days. When the storm ends, they dig out the low doorway, and creep again into the star-light, and Agoonack slips into her warm clothes and runs out for Jack Frost to kiss her cheeks, and leave roses wherever his lips touch. If it is very cold indeed, she must stay in, or Jack Frost will give her no roses, but a cold, frosty bite.
This is the way Agoonack lives through the long darkness. But I have to tell you more of her in another chapter, and you will find it is not always dark in the cold Northern countries.