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Ikuutayuq: An Inuit Folktale

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Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

It’s cold. It’s always cold in January. Isn’t it? This January is not so unusual after all, it would seem. It’s still cold. The snow still hangs low in the branches of the evergreens. The snow fox can still be glimpsed occasionally darting in and out of the treeline. No, this January is just like all the rest. Why then, am I here? What ineffable quality of January placed me in this moment? My heart beats out of my chest. My breath is ragged and sudden as I draw my first breath in what seems like minutes. The breath is followed by silence. I wait for a footstep, or a snapped twig, or a figure to come gliding out across the snow from the trees, but nothing moves. No sound comes from the woods. It is covered in an eerie silence. I heard once that snow reduces reverberation, and that’s where the silence comes from, but at this moment I don’t believe a word of that. This is no snow silence. This silence is intentional. It has a purpose and it has a source. I wait, my breath caught in my throat, hiding in the silence.


Then, a sound. It’s low. Barely audible, but I could recognize it anywhere, the low rumbling of drums. I look up to the summit. The tall peak at any other time of year, would entice hikers with the promise of its snow-capped peak, but not in January. Snow is not special in January. The trails are all obscured by the abundant powder, and the mountain pass is subject to avalanches that keep even the most experienced hikers and climbers away until spring. I wish it had been enough to deter me. The sound of drums drifts to me from the peak. Their methodical pulse slows my heartbeat. I can feel my palpitations align with the faint pounding. The rhythm is uncomfortable. Neither too fast nor too slow, it somehow ends up feeling as if it is both. It is not a musical rhythm, but rather a pulse that seems to carry an invitation. The other villagers claim not to hear it. They claim their nights are spent sound asleep in bed. But I know better. I know the sleepless nights spent at the window, looking to the peak. I know the immutable feeling that something writhes beneath the snow of the heath. And I know the call of the mountain. That pull that causes you to take a few steps northward toward the mountain when your destination is south before you realize your mistake and continue about your day with the feeling that you somehow forgot something or went the wrong way. I know life in Qanik, because it has been my life for twenty three years.

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What I do not know is why this year was different, why the call of the mountain is so much stronger for me. Why instead of taking a few steps towards the mountain and correcting, I am now nearing the summit, experiencing the onset of hypothermia with no plans to head back down. Though, what I really don’t know is what is following me. I have felt its presence for at least a couple of miles. Distances are hard to gauge on the mountain. I first felt it when I traveled through the pass. As I inched my way along cautiously, waiting for the walls of snow on either side to come sliding down the mountain and smother me, I felt it. It was far off then. Far behind on the snow-concealed trail. I can’t explain how I know where it is, but I do. I know it as one might know where one’s right hand is at any given time. It may be out of sight, but we know that it is there, just as I knew that this thing was following me. As I exited the pass, after hours of careful footing and silence, I felt it enter behind me. It had reached the mouth of the pass, and was making it’s way through, fast. It had no caution, as if it knew somehow that the snow that surrounded it would stay just where it was. It was at that point I panicked. At the rate it was moving it would reach me before I reached the summit, and I couldn’t let that happen. I am here for a reason. Though I am not yet sure what that reason is, I know I have to reach the summit. I simply must. I have no choice.


As I moved up the mountain with increased vigor, I could feel it approaching behind me. At first it was very far away, but no matter how fast I moved up the mountain, I could feel the gap shrinking steadily. As I reached the last of the false summits, it was close behind me. I did not have long until it was upon me, so I decided to make a mad dash for the summit. I took a deep breath, and set off at as close to a sprint as I could manage. That’s when I felt it. It had picked up speed. It was approaching me rapidly. I had to do something. I had reached a clearing where the snow had gathered together in small drifts. My first thought was to dash into the woods, and wait for the creature to pass. However, the snow had stopped coming down as hard, and I realized my footprints were clearly visible behind me. I had to think fast. It was almost here. I made a quick decision. I left the path, and cut across the field to the treeline, stopping when I hit a shrub. Then I carefully stepped back into my own footprints until I was near to one of the snowdrifts. I bent my knees low, and kicked off, clearing the snowdrift and landing on my side behind it. Then I waited. I could feel it approaching, and then, I couldn’t. Just as it reached the edge of the clearing it vanished from my perception. I couldn’t feel it anymore. It was gone. In it’s place, silence, and then drums. So here I am, hidden behind a snowdrift, waiting, the beating of the drums filling my body and mind. I move slowly and silently to tuck my hands into my jacket in an attempt to stave off the hypothermia, but the cold burns my chest, so I remove them. Minutes pass, the only sound is the a-synchronous beating of the drums emanating from the summit.


I am going to die here. I’m not sure from where the thought came, but as soon as it did, I knew it was true. I had completely lost feeling in my hands, and the senselessness was making its way up my arms, like I was pulling on gloves made of frost. My feet were gone too. I try to wiggle my toes, but it’s useless, they’re frozen solid. I can’t feel how many have already snapped off in my boot. I am going to die here. I am going to die here, if I don’t move. I am going to die here, if I don’t move, and I must reach the summit. All the thoughts pool in my head, and lead to one conclusion: I have to get up. I move my arm under me, and, with some difficulty, splay my fingers to support myself. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel like anything. I can’t feel the snow beneath my finger tips. But I can’t worry about that right now. I push against the ground and roll over, now lying on my back looking up at the cold dark sky above. A snowflake pirouettes down from the darkness, and lands on my cheek. It doesn’t melt. I muster all of my remaining strength and lift myself to a sitting position. My eyeline does not quite clear the snow drift. I am still blind to the path from which I had come. I fumble with my stiff limbs into a kneeling position. I push against the snow drift, my hands sliding into the powder, but it holds enough that I find my feet under me. It feels wrong, like walking with stilts. My knees barely bend. My elbows are stiff too, as I try to wipe some of the snow from my torso and legs. That’s when I see him.


I know it is a him because he is completely naked to the elements. He seems entirely unbothered by the cold, standing motionless. He stands tall, a few heads taller than me, and he is muscular. His body is hard and jagged. Muscles protrude at right angles, as if he were sculpted from the ice itself. However, he is human, insofar as he is composed of human flesh, but his skin has a bluish tint, as if frozen, and his eyes stare ahead, soullessly. He stands at the edge of the clearing from which I had entered. He does not move in reaction to me. His head doesn’t turn to look at me, but I know he knows I am there. He always did. But he makes no move to act on that knowledge. He just stands there like a statue at the edge of the clearing, completely unmoving. I take a cautious step away from him, and he remains entirely still. I take another, and another, and another. I never avert my eyes from him. I don’t blink. I don’t know if I still can. I take one more step, and something touches my back.


My back goes straight, and each hair stands up straight. I freeze mid step, foot dangling in the air. I wait for it to snap my neck or rip into my flesh, but it doesn’t. It just keeps its freezing appendage in the nape of my back. I don’t want to turn. I don’t want to know what new horror this mountain has sent to halt my progress, and I don’t want to look away from him. After a few motionless moments, the terror subsides enough for me to turn, ever so slowly, to face my assailant. As I turn my back away from its dead cold touch, it does not move to resist. It lets me pry loose my jacket from its clutches. I turn my legs and torso first, keeping my gaze averted. But eventually there is nothing else to turn. I have to look. I turn my head slowly, glancing at it in my peripheral vision first. It is dark, and has tendrils outstretched around it like… branches. I turn my head fully towards it and look. Before me stands a lone skinny, leafless tree. It is the only tree in the clearing. I don’t know how I had missed it before. Relief floods my body before I realize. I had stopped watching him. I turn back to face him, and there he is, still stationary at the edge of the clearing. I take a few steps around the tree, and continue backwards, this time outstretching my hands so I could feel when I reached the treeline. The moment I feel pine needles brush against my fingertips, I caution a glance at the forest. I needed to find the path. The snow obscures the foot trail, so I look instead for a gap in the trees that seems promising. I find one a few yards away and return my attention to him before I begin making my way towards it. He hasn’t moved by the time I reach the gap. I take a quick look behind me. The gap continues a ways into the forest, before bending out of sight on its way up to the summit. This must be the trail. I look back to him before continuing. Only, when I return my gaze to his post at the other end of the clearing, he is nowhere to be seen. I frantically search the treeline for his outline, but see nothing but branches being puppeteered by the wind. I panically drive my legs up the trail, each step brings new stiffness and pain. After a few minutes I break free of the treeline, and the sound of drums, once a whisper on the wind, are now in full force, pounding my skull. I can see the summit there above me. It can’t be more than ten minutes walk away. But I’m not walking. I’m running for my life. I move my legs as fast as they’ll go up the sharp incline. The summit rears itself above me, beckoning me in. The drums grow louder and louder as I approach the peak, drilling into my mind and empowering me with new strength. I move my leg for another step up, but find that it lands on level ground. I made it.

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I hadn’t noticed, but the drums have stopped, freeing my mind from their vice-like grip. Before me is a large round plateau. I had heard stories, but had never been to the summit before myself. I suddenly understand why so many hikers and climbers had risked their lives to see this. As it turns out, the stories are true, or at least the ones about the ice. I don’t see any red snow. I always imagined it as one of the mesas I had once seen in a documentary about Native Americans in New Mexico. Only, mesas are completely flat. The ground here is flat, but from it rise tall pillars of ice. There are dozens of pillars of varying heights that point skyward, like frozen fingers reaching for the heat of the sun. Their surfaces are murky, and it plays tricks on the mind, making it seem as if shapes dance within the ice. I walk up to one to dispel my delusions, but find I can’t. It looks like something is frozen into the ice, but I can’t make out what. I lean in closer to inspect, and notice something odd. The pillar is covered in little holes, about the thickness of a pencil. I run my hand across the ice, and feel the multitude of holes like worms writhing under my touch. I take a few steps into the field of ice columns. I don’t understand them, but they’re beautiful, reflecting the dim moonlight between themselves, bathing the entire peak in a cold dim glow. It takes me a few moments to notice her.


In the middle of the plateau stands a woman. She wears no clothing to protect against the cold, and her white skin shines in the light of pillars. Her black hair cascades down her shoulders. Her curves are tight and rigid, and her eyes are cold. She is looking at me. I don’t know what to say. I am caught in her stare, laid bare in front of her. There are no words I can say to make right my intrusion into this place. She raises a hand, and I feel drawn towards her. My legs move on their own to comply, and I move towards her, stopping involuntarily a few yards away. Then she speaks.
“I am Ikuutayuq,” She says. Her voice is like nothing I have ever heard. Its like wind howling through the trees, like a gentle first snowfall and the crack of ice at first spring. It is beautiful, and terrifying. She is waiting for a response. I know it. But I have no response to give. I feel frost in my lungs. I couldn’t make words if I tried. After an eternity she speaks again, “Come, you are cold.”
She motions in front of her. At her feet is a small pool I had overlooked before. Steam rises from the pool. It’s a hot spring. She is inviting me to warm up at the hot spring. I feel my body move forward, closing the gap between me and the pool. As I approach I get a better look at Ikuutayuq. Her face is hard and cold, yet stunning, like a glacier. Her skin is pure white, and seems to glow the same hue as the pillars. Her hair, however, does not glow. It is a deep black. It seems to suck the light away from the air around her. I can’t make out individual strands. It just exists as a unity of darkness, cascading down her luminescent body. She looks me in the eye, and my whole body shivers. I find my legs have stopped moving, and the tips of my boots lie at the edge of the pool. A wall of steam separates me and the woman, as her gaze chills me. She doesn’t need to say anything. I know what I have to do. I remove my clothing as fast as my stiff fingers will allow. My blue toes crack as I peel away the sock, but they are all miraculously still attached to my foot. Once I have stripped off my last piece of clothing I look back to the woman. She motions to the water before her. It’s time to get in. I lean forward, ready for the warm embrace of the water, but pull back.


Something is not right. As I lean forward over the pool, ready to submerge myself, I am hit by something colder than I have ever experienced. A cosmic cold that chilled me to the core of my being. This is not an earthly cold. This cold is timeless and constant. This cold never leaves. This cold did not nibble at your ears as is common on a cold day. This cold swallows you whole. Anywhere the steam had touched my face was frozen solid, I reached up to touch it, and the flesh on my fingers stuck to the ice that had once been my left cheek. I looked up to the woman in horror. Her expression has not changed. She motions again towards the pool. My body moves to comply. My face leans back in towards the steam, ready to tip forward and submerge my whole body. I feel my body move, and I act fast. I use every last ounce of energy I possess, and lean my body hard to the right, landing face first on the ice, away from the pool. I feel a piece of my finger chip off my face with the impact, but I don’t have time to think about that. I need to run. I need to flee. I need to find my way back down the mountain.


I feel him before I see him. As I inch my way across the ground back towards the trail head, I feel his presence on the other side, approaching. The top of his head breaks out over the edge, followed by the rest of his face. He holds the same cold hard expression as before. The same one held by the woman. The next step reveals his upper torso, its cold hard edges outlined by the glow of the pillars. A few more steps and he is fully at the summit. He makes a beeline straight for me. I try to worm my way across the ice away from him, but its no use. My energy is depleted. He reaches me in an instant, and grabs me around the waist. His hands burn. I try to squirm free, but I can’t. Its as if his fingers are frozen in place. He carries me effortlessly back to the pool. The woman still stands there, she motions to the pool, and the man lifts me above his head. He dips me towards the pool head first. I try to put out my hands to stop my descent, but I can’t as they are still frozen to my face. I can only watch as the water approaches my face. The steam burns my whole body, but I can still see. I can still see even as the water rises inches before my face. I can still see when he pushes me under the surface. What I see cannot be described. It is cold and lifeless. It is an expanse of cold that cannot be measured, cannot be understood. It is a cold so dark, so deep, so endless, that I know this is it. This is the rest of my life. I will be forever frozen, scared, and alone.


I cannot tell you how long I am submerged. But I can tell you the moment I am removed. The cold still pervades every aspect of my being, but my sight has returned. I can see the woman, but she looks different. Murky. I try to turn my head to see the man, but find I cannot. My neck is frozen stiff. I cannot move my eyes either. I cannot move anything. I am frozen solid. But I’m moving. My vision is moving. Everything is upside down, and then I’m looking at the ground from above. I move closer and further from the ground rhythmically, and then I catch something out of the corner of my eye, the man’s foot. He is still carrying me, but I cannot feel his icy grip. My vision returns right side up as he places me on my feet. Only he doesn’t. My feet aren’t touching the ground. Or at least I can’t feel them touching the ground. I can’t feel anything. All I feel is cold. All I can see is a small patch of the plateau, a few pillars and the trail head, far out of reach. The man enters my vision. He is holding something I can’t quite make out. Then suddenly the woman is there too. The two stand for a moment, looking at me with their cold soulless eyes. The man hands the object to the woman, and walks away. The woman walks up to me and puts her hand to my face, but she doesn’t touch my face. Her hand stops a few inches from my face and presses against something. It hits me all at once. The man wasn’t carrying me. He was carrying a new pillar. I am encased in ice. The woman’s lips move and I hear a garbled sound. I can’t hear her through the ice. The woman raises her other hand and presses the object against the ice, giving me a good view of the drill. As the woman bores into my body with the drill again and again, she slowly takes things from me. My sight is the first to go, as she drills into my corneas. The drill makes a terrible grinding noise, but I don’t have to listen to it long, because my hearing is the next to go as she drills away my eardrums. I cannot see, I cannot hear. The only thing that exists is the cold and the sharp pain of the drill as it burrows into every inch of my flesh. Eventually there is nowhere left to drill, and the pain subsides. I am alone in the deep dark cold. No one will ever know I am here. No one can save me. I cannot die. January must be over by now, but it’s still cold.

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Credit : Sebastian

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