A Thousand Words for Snow

A novella by Xiaolu Guo.

First commissioned for Weather Stations, an international project exploring literary responses to climate change.


PRELUDE

A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story starts from their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing at this moment? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking, her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food. Their father died a long time ago. He died in a snowstorm while out hunting. The youngest son here is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. He is only nineteen and a half, but he is the hero of the region and everyone calls him Smart Tekk. He is the one who speaks good English and has ventured far out into the world. He made front-page news from Germany to America, from Russia to Australia. At this very moment, he is telling his family of the adventure he has just had:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput — the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipordrifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered. You only remember some of the snow from your life. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow one can always remember…’

Image: Jasper Nance via Flickr

1

Our young Nanook is asleep in his bed. But this is not Greenland. There is city traffic outside, mixed with the sound of aeroplanes. The curtains are tightly drawn, but still, a beam of morning sunlight is sneaking in and penetrating the darkness.

Tekk opens one eye. He observes this strange space and wonders if he is still in a dream. He closes the eye again. The dreams he has just awoken from seem to be inconsistent with his current surroundings. He dreamt he was swimming with a young polar bear through the water, but the bear swam faster than him because polar bears are famous for their strong long distance swimming. He had to give up the race in his dream. Now he feels as if his face is wet: probably from his swimming in the water. But what sort of dream is going on right now? Tekk opens his eyes again and moves his head on the soft pillow. Well, there is a television set on the wall, a fridge, a desk, a chair, a mirror, a wardrobe, and a bathroom beside his bed. Everything seems clear and concrete in his eyes. This is not a dream then. Tekk sits up with confusion. Then he suddenly recognizes his orange suitcase standing on the carpet in the middle of the room. It is a brand new suitcase his family bought for him before he left Greenland. Yes, it is not a dream: it is real. He is somewhere in Germany. He must have landed here yesterday, after a very long and complicated trip. He vaguely remembers he was on a long distance bus, and then he was put on a small local plane, and then he was in a big international airport, and after that he was flying on a very big plane, and he was given some free wine and alcohol by a smiley stewardess, and after that… he can’t remember anymore.

He hears a knock on the door. Tekk does not move at all. There’s another knock on the door. He silently places his feet on the carpet. Now he hears someone turning the key in the keyhole and opening the door. There she is: a young white woman, wearing a uniform with a vacuum cleaner beside her feet. Tekk jumps up with astonishment, and asks in his halting English: ‘Who are you?’

He realises he hasn’t practiced his English lately.

The woman is a bit apologetic when she realizes the hotel guest is still in his room. ‘Entschuldigen Sie!’ She says: ‘Should I come back later?’

But Tekk stops her: ‘Wait, you don’t go!’

The woman turns back: ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Is this Berlin, right?’

She smiles. ‘Yes,’ she answers, ‘it is.’

‘Where about in Berlin?’

‘You are in Hotel Kantstrasse, we are near the Berlin Zoo.’

‘Berlin Zoo?’ Tekk repeats, slightly surprised.

‘I mean, this is a hotel, not a zoo.’ She explains in English that is equally hesitant: ‘but we are near Berlin Zoo.’

Seeing that Tekk is not responding, the woman asks again: ‘You want me to clean up now, or should I come back later?’

Tekk stares at the maid, weakly shakes his head.

The woman leaves with her Hoover, closing the door behind her. Now Tekk sits up. He realizes he is fully dressed. He has slept with his clothes on. He touches his head, finding that there is nothing there apart from his short hair. Where is his walrus fur hat? He loves that old fur hat. He can’t walk around in the world without his hat on. He spots it lying on the desk by the window. He grabs it and presses it down on his head. Now he feels a bit better. He pulls open the curtains. Light floods in. He opens the window. Outside there is a city skyline. He can see huge advertising signs on top of some tall buildings. One reads ‘Benz’ and another ‘BMW’. He looks down. The streets and cars are like small toys. He feels dizzy. He closes the window. Again he walks around in the carpeted room, trying to get used to the space.

He enters the bathroom. The washing basin is strangely designed, like a huge lotus flower. It’s not that he has seen many large flowers in his life. As he touches the basin, a ring of lights turn on automatically, just like in a sci-fi movie. Tekk stares at the shiny washing basin, trying to understand where the light bulb is. Then he gives up. He needs a wash. But there is no faucet for him to turn on. He tries to move his hands under the tap, but nothing comes out. Then just when he lowers his head down to check the tap, a stream of water bursts out and drenches his face and head.

‘Tiaavuluk!’ Tekk curses, grabbing a towel and wiping his face dry. He opens the fridge. There are many small bottles of wine and vodka. He opens a vodka and drinks it directly from the bottle. It tastes good to him and gives his dry throat a kick. He sits on his bed and sips more, as if he is drinking tap water. He then opens the fridge again and finds a package of peanuts. He eats all the peanuts and brings out another vodka, as well as a coke. When he is about to finish the second bottle of vodka, the door bell rings.

Tekk opens the door. A tall, handsome European man stands there and smiles at him.

‘Good morning. You must be Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. Can I come in?’

Tekk nods his head. The man steps in and shakes his hand right away.

‘I am Hans. I work for this year’s International Global Warming Conference. I will be accompanying you during your stay here.’

‘Everyone calls me Tekk.’ He answers a bit shyly.

‘Sure, Tekk. I speak a little Greenlandic, but I won’t embarrass myself here. Is this your first time in Berlin?’

‘Yes.’ Tekk nods but somehow he feels as if he is being looked down on. So he adds: ‘but I have been to Copenhagen once, and to Stavager. Have you been to Stavager?’

‘Hmm…’ Hans shakes his head. He has never heard of such a place. ‘I am not sure. Is it in Denmark?’

‘No.’ Tekk laughs. Hans notices that the boy has a loud and untamed voice and seems to enjoy his laugh. ‘It is in Norway! They have got this domikirke. Very big.’

‘Domikirke?’ Hans is no longer following what the boy says. Besides, he is a bit bothered by the strong vodka smell in the room.

‘Yes, a domikirke. A huge old cathedral. Very scary inside.’

Hans decides not to sit down. He checks his watch and seems to be in a hurry.

‘That’s great to know, Tekk. If I visit Stavager one day I will go to see the domikirke. But now we are pressed for time. Let me take you for some breakfast, if you are ready. We have a whole day’s schedule after that.’

Tekk agrees and puts on his woollen boots. He follows Hans to the door.

‘Don’t forget your key!’ Hans takes the key from the key slot and closes the door behind them.

Image: Jasper Nance via Flickr

2

It is a beautiful café with lots of art hanging on the walls. Tekk feels a bit uneasy sitting on such soft cushions. Hans has ordered some breakfast for them already. A waitress comes and gives each of them a plate: fruit salad for Hans, an omelette for Tekk.

But Tekk stares at his plate, not touching the food.

‘I thought you said you like eggs?’ Hans leans over, slightly concerned.

‘Yes. But don’t they have some meat?’

‘Meat? Sure, meat is inside the omelette.’ Hans points out.

Tekk suspiciously pokes the omelette with his fork. Yes, there is some ham inside. He eats quickly, but he is clearly not satisfied: ‘I thought there would be real meat.’

‘You want real meat. Okay, I’ll ask them for a plate of smoked ham.’

Hans calls the waitress and orders a plate of ham. A few moments later, a large plate of pink tinged meat arrives, decorated with a few slices of melon.

At last, Tekk is happy. He instantly brings out his own walrus ivory knife from his pocket, which sends ripples of shock amongst the people around him. Before everyone’s silent gaze, the young Nanook picks up slices of ham with his knife and swallows them ravenously. Hans watches him eating, but doesn’t make any comment.

In no time, all the ham has been dispatched. Only the melon remains on the plate.

Tekk cleans the blade of his walrus ivory knife with a white napkin, then wipes his mouth. He now speaks.

‘You know, Hans, this meat is too soft. I like solid meat, like the caribou you get back in Greenland.’

‘Right, Caribou meat! I’m afraid we don’t have that here in Germany’.

‘You should try: more solid meat. Good for teeth.’

Hans finishes his fruit salad, and finally says: ‘I’m a vegetarian’.

‘What is a vegetarian?’

‘A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat.’

‘Why?’ Tekk looks at his German companion in bewilderment: ‘You don’t have good teeth?’

Hans is amused. ‘My teeth are perfect,’ he says, ‘I’m not that old yet! But it’s nothing to do with teeth. It is just…how should I put it?’ He thinks for a few seconds, then remarks: ‘eating animals has a bad effect on the environment. Nor is it good for one’s health.’

Tekk looks at Hans with a quizzical expression. He wants to laugh, but he tries to be polite. All he can say is: ‘if my family heard about this, they wouldn’t believe it. You know, only caribous eat grass.’

Hans shrugs his shoulder. ‘Then I am a caribou. I eat grass and you can eat me. We make up a perfect food chain!’

‘You German people are funny.’ Tekk says, feeling a bit offended.

Hans finishes his coffee and takes out his wallet: ‘I think we should move on. I want to show you around.’

But Tekk can barely stand up. He feels a bit drowsy from the vodka he drank this morning in his hotel room.

‘Hey, have some water.’ Hans hands him a glass.

Image: Jasper Nance via Flickr

3

Hans and Tekk walk along the street, like a comedy duo: one very tall, the other rather short. One walks fast, the other slow. They trundle down to Savingny Platz. The street brims with cafes and bars. Tekk looks around as he staggers along, curious about the world around him. He looks drunk, as is obvious to anyone passing. It’s strange to see a drunk Inuit, fully dressed up in furs, waddling through a fashionable district of Berlin. Hans tries to guide him as they cross over the street.

They pass a bar decorated with flowers and neon lights. In front of the bar, there are some chairs and tables. A lady in a miniskirt is conversing with a gentleman friend. Her naked legs are exposed, and are very attractive to Tekk’s eyes.

Tekk lurches towards the mini-skirted lady. Without saying a word, he lays his head on her white naked legs. The woman recoils in shock. Seeing his obvious drunkenness, she screams. Her gentleman friend stands up and drags Tekk away. He berates him: ‘was ist loss mit dir, mensch?’

Hans intervenes, pulling Tekk out just in time, apologizing profusely to the irate couple.

A few minutes later, Tekk finds himself in front of a huge building with a glass structure outside. ‘This is the headquarters of the International Climate Change Research Center,’ Hans says as he drags Tekk into the lift. ‘I want you to meet the chairman and the organizers of this conference. ’

‘Why?’ Tekk feels his head splitting in the elevator. He can barely walk straight, and he feels like vomiting.

‘Because they are the people who invited you for this trip, and pay your hotel bills. They would love to have you speak at the conference.’

As they enter the office, they are told to wait for a few minutes as the chairman is still in a meeting. Tekk sinks his body into a sofa. When Hans returns from the bathroom, he discovers that his friend is already sleeping, snoring loudly.

As Hans waits on the sofa patiently, one of the organizers comes to greet them. But as soon as he sees the state of their guest, he suggests to Hans: ‘why don’t we let this poor fellow rest today, and do some sightseeing if he wants to. He can come back for the conference tomorrow.’

Hans agrees.

In the afternoon, Hans takes Tekk to the Tiergarten, which makes the young man feel much better and more energetic. As they walk deep into the woods, they come across a pond. Some ducks are swimming around peacefully. Then they see a little canoe, with a man and a woman paddling. Tekk stares at the little canoe. He feels his heart swell with yearning. When the couple on the boat wave at him, he takes this as an invitation. He runs along the bank and, without removing his clothes, jumps into the water and swims towards them. This makes the couple on the boat a little frightened and bemused at the same time. Tekk manages to climb onto it in no time.

Tekk is laughing and having fun in his new canoe. Despite Hans’ yells and gesticulations from the bank, Tekk grabs the paddle from the man’s hands and starts to dip it into the water. Hans runs along the bank and yells to the couple: ‘Please excuse my friend! He is from Greenland — he doesn’t know the rules here!’

Image by Jasper Nance via Flickr

4

The press conference is held in the morning. When the general delegates arrive, a line of important speakers are already on the stage. Tekk is on the stage too with a nametag on his chest. He is given a place at the side of the table, next to Hans.

The chairman makes a welcoming speech and emphasizes the deep importance of research into climate change. His speech is long. Tekk starts to doze, slumping in his seat. Then the chair begins to introduce the delegates on the stage: scientists, professors, activists, and so on. When he gets to Tekk, he announces Tekk as the ‘last Nanook from Greenland: the ice melting community.’ The audience applauds with excitement, while cameras click frantically. Hans hints to Tekk that he should stand up for photos.

Then the chairman continues: ‘Tekkeit Qaasuitsup, one of the last Nanook from northern Greenland will be making a speech in the next few days about his family’s traditional way of life, and what we can learn about the Inuit culture. Now, without further ado, let’s begin the conference…’

A few hours later, a huge close-up of Tekk’s face under his walrus fur hat has appeared everywhere in Berlin’s media. The headlines above the photo say things like: ‘LAST NANOOK IN TOWN!’ or ‘WHAT ESKIMOS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT OUR MODERN WORLD’.

The conference moves along smoothly, and soon all the delegates are having their lunch break. They are in the dinning room next to a very lush garden, enjoying a buffet. A number of people come to shake hands with Tekk, asking him about his family and his trip. Tekk’s attention is drawn by something in the garden.

His eyes are following a young woman in a red dress passing through the garden. Hans follows Tekk’s line of sight, and sees the black haired young woman, carrying a caged raven across the flower bed.

‘Did you see that? Hans? That black bird?’

‘Yes. A raven, actually,’ Hans answers, curiously. ‘A raven in a cage. It’s the first time I’ve seen a raven as a pet.’

As they watch the woman, she seems to sense their gazes and looks back. She smiles to them mysteriously. Just when Tekk runs into the garden, she disappears.

‘Sedna! I found my Sedna!’ Tekk cries.

‘What is Sedna?’ Hans follows him out.

‘Sedna! Our Inuit sea goddess!’

‘You mean the raven or the young woman?’ Hans asks.

‘The young woman! Her name is Sedna!’

‘Okay, calm down, Tekk.’ Hans says: ‘Do you want to tell me who she is?’

‘Yes. She was a very beautiful Inuit girl with long black hair, just like that woman.’ Tekk is still walking around restlessly in the garden, hoping to encounter the scene again. ‘Everyone in our region knows the story. Because Sedna was so beautiful, she was always turning down the hunters who came to her house wishing to marry her. But Sedna’s family was very poor, so her father wanted to marry her off. Her father said to her: “Sedna, we have no food and we will go hungry soon. You need a husband to take care of you, so the next hunter who comes to ask for your hand in marriage, you must marry him!” One day a hunter covered in smooth black fur arrived before their igloo, and asked Sedna’s father if he could marry his daughter. Sedna said yes, though she didn’t even see the man’s face. She was then placed aboard the hunter’s kayak and journeyed to her new home. You know what a kayak is?’

‘Yes, I know what a kayak is. So what happened to her and her strange husband?’

‘It was a long way on the sea. It was snowy and windy. They covered themselves in their heavy robes. For the whole tripe, Sedna never saw her new husband’s face. At last they arrived at an island. Sedna looked around. She could see nothing. No hut, no tent, no cooking pots, just bare rocks and a cliff. Her new home was a few tufts of animal hair and feathers strewn about on the hard, cold rocks. As they stepped onto the rocks, the hunter stood before Sedna and pulled down his hood. He let out an evil laugh. Guess what?’

‘Sedna’s husband was not a man but a raven! Is that the story?’ Hans smiles.

‘Yes, you Germans are clever people! He is a big ugly black crow!’

‘So then what? Did she live with that evil bird for the rest of her life?’ Hans asks impatiently, aware that everyone around them is finishing lunch. Yet Tekk and Hans have not started eating yet.

‘Of course Sedna didn’t want to live with that ugly black bird. But it was a long way home. She couldn’t just go back by herself… ’

At this point the conference organizer comes to them and interrupts Tekk’s story. ‘Hello Tekk, hello Hans, I hope you are enjoying the press conference this morning?’

Tekk shakes hands with the organizer. He then realizes how hungry he is. He rushes to the food table, grabs a plate and serves himself some food.

‘Indeed. I just hope our friend from Greenland can take a whole week of conferencing!’ Hans greets the organizer, heaping salad onto his plate at the same time.

‘Don’t worry. If our Inuit friend gets bored with all the talks, you can take him sightseeing. There is lots to do in Berlin — the Holocaust Museum, the Checkpoint and so on. What do you think, Tekk?’

Tekk’s face cracks into a dry smile. He is busy with his deep fried schnitzel.

‘How did you find Berlin, Tekk? Have you seen our famous bear yet?’ the organizer asks.

‘Bear?’ Tekk swallows some schnitzel, startled. ‘You have bears in Germany?’

‘Yes,’ the organizer answers, ‘we have our own famous polar bear. His name is Knat.’

‘You are teasing me!’ Tekk stops eating, and is exasperated. ‘Where is he? Can we go to see him now?’ He turns imploringly to Hans.

Hans laughs. ‘Not now,’ he says, ‘but maybe later if you are not too tired.’

Journalists crowd around them, urging Tekk to pose in his fur hat and to smile at the camera. Tekk poses with the hat, but he cannot summon a smile.

Image by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr

5

Tekk and Hans are queuing in front of Berlin Zoo. Like them, there are lots of people waiting to enter. Eventually, Hans gets hold of two tickets.

As they pass the entrance, Tekk is already impressed by the scale of the zoo, with its lush plantations and artificial hills. He asks lots of questions.

‘So people find all sorts of animals and then put them here, not killing them?’

‘No. That’s why we can see them, I mean, to be able to see a live tiger eating and running before our eyes.’

‘A tiger!’ Tekk exclaims: ‘I saw them on TV. Very scary animals! I don’t want to see them. Please don’t take me to meet one.’

‘Okay, no tigers then.’ Hans smiles, leading him further into the zoo. ‘I will make sure you don’t meet any animal you don’t want to meet. But you haven’t finished your story yet. About Sedna! What happened after that beautiful girl married the ugly raven?’

‘Yes… Sedna discovered her husband was only a black crow. Frightened and saddened, she tried to escape, but the big bird would drag her to the edge of a cliff, threatening to push her off. The bird also begged her to be his companion, as his life was too lonely to endure. So she became the raven’s wife, living on bare rocks. Everyday, the raven would fly out and bring back home raw fish. And that was the only food she could eat. She cried and cried and called her father’s name. The howling arctic winds carried the sound of Sedna’s weeping cries all the way to her father’s ears. Sedna’s father recognized the call in the air and knew it came from his daughter’s weeping. One day — ’

Tekk stops narrating the tale. He is distracted by some big animals in front of him. His face is anguished and frightened. They are in front of some gorillas. Apparently Tekk has never seen a gorilla in his life. He is crying and laughing at the sight of such large, dark, human-like animals.

‘Maybe they are also men, don’t you think, Hans?’ Tekk asks with a trembling voice.

When a gorilla comes towards them, Tekk becomes very still. Then suddenly he drops to his knees, facing the fence and praying to the gorilla.

Hans observes Tekk’s strange behaviour, raising an eyebrow but saying nothing.

They move towards the enclosure where the giraffes live. Tekk carefully observes the towering animals, impressed by their long necks.

‘I wish I had such a long neck, so I could see the enemy coming from a far distance.’ Then he kneels down again: ‘Hans, we must pray. Otherwise they will revenge us one day.’

Hans shrugs his shoulders, watching Tekk pray to the animals while murmuring a string of inaudible words.

Finally they walk towards the zoo’s most famous tourist attraction: the polar bear. The area is surrounded by tourists. Everybody is waiting by the fence with their cameras and smart phones. According to the news report, the famous bear has made no appearance for a few days.

But as soon as Tekk gets close to the fence, things change. From behind some large rocks, a huge white body gradually appears. All the visitors hold up their cameras with anticipation. Tekk stares at the great bear, the famous Knat, who is now sitting on a rock by the water, looking bored and lonely. Paying no attention to the tourists and constant clicking cameras, the polar bear surveys the shallow water around him.

‘Oh Tekk, you are lucky to have a chance to meet our city’s super star. He has created about 2 million euros annual income for us.’ Hans says with some excitement.

‘How?’ Tekk asks.

‘How? You see all these people here? They bought tickets just want to see the polar bear.’

‘Knat…’ Tekk murmurs. ‘In Greenland we don’t wish to see bears face to face. We would wish them the best of luck, but don’t want to invite them any closer.’

A team of school kids arrive. They push Tekk to the side and jump around, trying to catch a glimpse of the super star animal.

‘Well, Knat has not been very happy in the last few months. Some animal experts say he is missing his native land, or he needs some companion. He does look a little sad. Sometimes he refuses to come out to bathe in the sun. He just hides in his caves, so no one can see him.’

Tekk seems to understand this situation very well. He says; ‘I would be the same, if I were put in a big cage. I would die, I think, probably in three days. ’

The more Tekk watches the bear, the more he is affected. As if caught by some magic power, Tekk is rooted to the ground. His hands grip the fence. His eyes follow every movement the bear makes. And he speaks as if in a dream: ‘I think he knows me…’

Under Tekk’s gaze, Knat finally seems to respond to Tekk. The animal’s eyes shine with sadness and hope. Tekk is in trance, and keeps murmuring. ‘Oh Hans,’ he says, ‘he is watching me. I think he knows me…’

Image by Simon via Flickr

6

A gust of wind blows above the zoo, carrying the sound of sirens and city traffic. Knat suddenly makes a sorrowful and angry cry. Slowly, he walks back to his cave, and decides to hide himself away for a little while. He shakes himself as if from a swoon, rubbing his eyes. Hans asks if he’s alright. Tekk says nothing, pulling at the fence, his head down. Then, suddenly, as if snapping out of a dream, Tekk resumes his black raven story.

‘So I was telling you that Sedna had to become the raven’s wife, and cries her eyes out on the cliff every day. Then one day, Sedna’s father heard his daughter’s cries through the snowy wind. He felt very guilty for what he had done to his daughter. So he decided it was time to rescue her. He killed a big walrus, preparing food to eat for the next several days. He loaded up his kayak with food and water, and followed the sound of the crying. He paddled for three days through the icy arctic waters to Sedna’s home. As soon as he approached the island of Sedna’s husband, he saw a red figure standing on a cliff. He recognized his daughter, wearing the same red dress she had had on when she left home. She was so happy and surprised to see her father, she ran towards him and quickly climbed into his kayak. They paddled away without hesitation. After many hours of travel, Sedna and the father turned and saw a black speck far off into the distance. They knew it was Sedna’s angry husband flying to chase her.’

At this point the polar bear inside the cave howls twice, as if he can hear the story and understands it well. The bear then emerges from his cave. Tekk stops speaking: he cannot help but be drawn in by the bear. The bear seems to meet Tekk’s gaze.

‘Maybe we should walk around the fence, in between the tourists,’ Tekk suggests. ‘So I can see if the bear really recognizes me.’

As they walk around the enclosure, at first the polar bear loses sight of Tekk. But after a few moments, the animal finds Tekk again amongst the crowd. It’s like some electric current passes between their eyes. But then suddenly two zoo keepers distract the bear by throwing a large rubber seal into the enclosure, their hope being to get the depressed bear to do some exercise. Knat seems to be roused into an angry state, leaping from his rock, and starts to tear the rubber seal apart.

Tekk turns away in disgust. He drags Hans away from the enclosure to a bench near a tree. With a sigh, he continues the story: ‘So the big black raven chased after his wife, steadily gaining on her, riding on the wind. Finally he swooped down on the kayak. Sedna’s father took his paddle and struck at the raven, but missed it. The huge bird continued to harass them. Finally the raven swooped down near the kayak and flapped his wing upon the ocean. A vicious storm began to brew. The calm ocean soon became a raging torrent, tossing the tiny kayak to and fro. Sedna’s father became very frightened. He grabbed Sedna and threw her over the side of the kayak into the ocean. “Here”, he screamed: “here is your precious wife. Please do not hurt me. Take her!” Sedna screamed and struggled as her body began to go numb in the icy arctic waters. She swam to the kayak and reached up, her fingers grasping the side of the boat. Her father, terrified by the raging storm, thought only of himself, as he had always done. He grabbed the paddle and began to pound against Sedna’s fingers. Sedna screamed for her father to stop but to no avail. Her frozen fingers cracked and fell off into the ocean. Gradually, all her fingers turned into seals and swam away under the water. She tried again to swim and cling to her father’s kayak, but again he grabbed the paddle and began beating at her hands. Sedna’s hands froze and cracked off. The stumps slowly drifted to the bottom of the sea, this time turning into whales and walruses. Sedna could fight no more and began to sink.’

‘What a sad story,’ Hans gasps. ‘The father is as bad as the raven.’

‘In Sedna’s desperation,’ Tekk went on, ‘she turned her body parts into sea creatures — her hair became millions of shrimps and little fish, her intestines became lobsters and octopuses, her sorrow became seaweed and her longing became a sand dune on the beach. Finally her red dress became the Mara Mountain towards the North Pole, protecting people from the icy wind. Now all the hungry Inuit families could get their food from the rich sea which had become filled with sea animals. They could now build their huts at the foot of the mountain. It is for this reason in our region that after a hunter catches a seal he will kneel towards the direction of the Mara Mountain and drops water into the mouth of the mammal before he kills it, a gesture to thank Sedna. Sedna is our sea goddess.’

‘But what happened to that horrible father and the evil bird?’ Hans asks.

‘Both the father and the evil bird were taken by a polar bear. Actually the polar bear was the master bear of that region and he knew all this was going on. So he punished the raven and the father.’

Tekk has finished his story. They both grow silent, as they gaze back into the distance. Inside the fence, the bear has already retreated into his cave. Hans sees this as an opportunity to leave. He promises Tekk that they will come back to see Knat tomorrow.

Image by NASA via Flickr

7

The evening passes for Tekk without any significant moments. He is in some grand restaurant, with the most beautiful seafood and meat before him, with luminous candles on the table and inky red wines and golden beer. But Tekk only manages to eat two pieces of roast beef. He feels depressed, although many friendly delegates are trying to hold a conversation with him. But he has no vocabulary for the cultured white Europeans. Nor can he involve himself in any sophisticated discussions about carbon dioxide emissions or levels of acidity in the oceans. He misses his family, his favourite dogs, his igloo, and most of all, the freedom he can only feel in his natural environment. He asks Hans to walk back with him to the hotel, while everyone is having wine and gooseberry cakes.

Later, alone in his hotel room, Tekk feels a little better. He removes all of his clothes, stripping down to his shorts, although he leaves his walrus fur hat on. He loves his fur hat. It reminds him of all those great times when he and his father went hunting for walrus, and watching his father skin animals with his knife. He misses his father, though he knows his father’s dead body is lying there senselessly deep in the snow by their house. Suddenly, tears run down his face.

He lies in the bed, pressing the remote control, flicking through TV channels.

On one channel there’s a cooking programme, on another some soap set in a rich family’s house somewhere in Europe. On another is a police story with car chases and gun fights. Tekk watches this for a while, but it’s in German. He soon grows bored, and his feeling of lonesomeness returns.

He switches off the TV, lying still, trying to sleep.

Through the thin wall, he hears the noise of two people making love next door. The noise grows louder and louder.

He lies there, eyes wide open, listening to the noise.

The next day, Tekk asks Hans to take him to the zoo again. This time, Hans only accompanies him to the entrance, and tells Tekk that he will come back to meet him by the gate in three hours time, because he has to work at the conference. Tekk is happy for this three hours by himself in the zoo. He walks straight to his friend’s enclosure, and in no time, he is standing in front of Knat, the lonely polar bear. He watches the creature’s every single move, but is careful to remain obscured, so that the bear doesn’t see him.

Today, around the enclosure, there is a television crew from the BBC reporting on the famous polar bear. Tekk watches a blonde woman presenter, speaking in front of the camera in English:

‘Welcome to the BBC World Service! Right now I’m in the Berlin Zoo, standing in front of Knat, their famous polar bear. I want to give you some insight into why Germans are worried about him and what is the real problem. We were told by the zookeepers that Knat has been leading a very reclusive life and stays in his cave for most of the time. He’s also been showing some signs of losing his appetite. Usually polar bears would eat raw meat, but recently he’s los interest in that, and instead he’s begun to eat human food like vegetables, cooked food — even croissants and bread which the tourists give him. We wondered if the famous carnivore could become a vegetarian. In a week’s time, Knat will cerebrate his fifth birthday with the zookeepers and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of cute photos of Knat’s birthday party…’

The bear in the background roars towards the camera, which frightens the television presenter slightly. But she adjusts her smile and continues her report. But then a group of animal rights activists swarm in front of the camera, raising their banners and shouting together: ‘caging is a crime!’. The bear seems to be getting more and more disturbed. But at this point, Tekk steps out from behind the tree, and into Knat’s field of vision. After a few moments, Knat notices his friend. Then he gradually grows quiet. Tekk is chanting words in his Inuit language, louder and louder. His chant seems to pierce the noise of the protesters and the crowd of tourists. The bear seems to sway back and forth in time with his chant. And then the eyes of bear and man lock again.

It’s at this point that everyone else begins to notice the strange scene happening between the bear and the fur-clad Asiatic man standing by the fence, who’s producing a resonant song from deep inside his chest. Knat releases a long sad groan in response, and raises his head, stretching his whole back, as if waving his head to Tekk. Suddenly, there is a silence, only punctuated by the background sound of traffic, and the occasion animal noise. Tekk and the bear stand frozen, gazes locked, as the crowd and zookeepers look on. But then, like a string breaking, an air of hopelessness comes over the bear, and their mutual gaze is broken. Knat, as if releasing some heavy weight, turns to go back into his cave, dragging his paws over the concrete. Tekk leaves quickly before anyone can question him.

Image by Machael Gallacher via Flickr

8

The week-long conference is heading towards its climax. It’s the morning Tekk is going to give his speech. He has a text Hans helped him to write. Over the last few days he has been practicing it and he has learnt to read it quite well. This is his speech:

Dear delegates of the 5th Global Warming Conference,

My name is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup and I am from a village in Greenland. I feel honoured to be able to present the story of my family and my people to you here. I must admit that I know nothing of global warming or climate change, but still, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to come to Berlin.

Here is my story: I am from an Inuit tribe. We are hunter-gatherers. I am indeed a Nanook, that is, a good hunter. Originally, Nanook in my language meant the master bear. In our culture, the polar bear is the master of all bears. Only he can decide if hunters deserve success in finding and killing bears; he will also punish the bad hunter who violates the rules. My father was a bear hunter and so am I. We have to hunt for our food. We have no shops near us. The nearest supermarket to our house is three days away by dog sled. So we have to fish and to hunt to keep our life going. But we always listen to the calls of the bear master when we hunt. After arriving in Germany, I was very surprised to see our master was caged in the Berlin Zoo. So, while I have been here, I have had to go there every day to worship him. I am worried about his condition. I hope he is not going to punish me one day.

The last thing I want to do is thank my friend Hans. He has taught me good manners and I have learnt through him something of the European way of life. But I am not sure I will become a vegetarian like Hans, because if we eat the good animals from the sea and we only eat what we need to eat, then there is no need to be a vegetarian. We can’t eat three seals in one week. We can only eat so much food everyday. It is strange then, for me, that there is so much food in the supermarket. What happens when they can’t sell it all by the end of the day? Do they throw it away, or let it rot? Anyway, I know big cities have more opportunity for living, but I prefer my hometown, and already I miss being there. I hope to fly back as soon as possible. This is the end of my speech. Please excuse my English and thank you for listening.’

After this speech, everyone applauds and agrees Tekk is the most charming guest in the conference. He is instantly asked for photographs by his new fans. A few minutes later, a man in a nice suit approaches Tekk. He introduces himself as Werner Vidoni and he is the head of Berlin Zoo, specialising in animal behaviour.

‘What do you want from me?’ Tekk is a bit surprised.

‘Oh, we need your help, Tekk, if you don’t mind my direct approach.’ Werner explains.

‘What sort of help?’

‘You’ve already met our polar bear in the zoo, and you know he is very precious for our city. Indeed, I have witnessed the powerful relationship you have with our Knat. I was there the other day, when you calmed him down.’

‘Yes, I know Knat,’ answers Tekk, somewhat enigmatically.

‘Knat was born in our zoo, and his mother died shortly after his birth. So he has lived a somewhat lonely life for a bear. Now in the last several months he has grown more and more reclusive, and he eats less and less. We are quite worried about Knat’s health. Since you are from Greenland, the native land of polar bears, I wonder if you might have some good suggestions for us. And if you like, we can invite you to accompany our bear keepers, so you can get closer to Knat and tell us what you think about his diet and his behaviour. ’

This is a surprising appeal for Tekk. He is lost for words, and he nods his head in earnest.

‘Tekk loves Knat: I am sure he will be very happy to have an opportunity to get closer to him.’ Hans hears the conversation and answers for Tekk.

The next day, Tekk is picked up from the hotel by the zookeeper. On the way to the zoo, two documentary filmmakers with a camera and recording equipment also join them. They want to make a reality show about how an Inuit trains the bear, and they believe the whole of Germany will love to watch the show. The team is received in the zoo by the enthusiastic staff. Before Tekk enters a back door leading towards the inner enclosure occupied by Knat, he kneels, facing the cave where the bear is, and prays silently. When the ritual is over, he wipes dust off his trousers and says: ‘now we can go in.’

The zookeeper is curious about Tekk’s ritual. ‘Tekk,’ he asks, ‘what do your believe?’

The young Nanook answers with an old saying from his Inuit culture: ‘We do not believe, we fear.’

‘You fear?’ The zookeeper repeats: ‘what about God? Do you have some kind of god like we do here in Europe?’

‘God? Everything is god. Seal is god, walrus is god, fish is god, and polar bear is god too.’

‘So do you fear these gods? I mean, if you don’t believe in them, you wouldn’t fear them…’

‘Belief is not important for us, but fear will protect us. We fear nature,’ says Tekk.

The documentary filmmakers record Tekk’s speech. Soon Tekk’s mysterious answer will become an enigma for the Berlin media. Soon the genial Nanook will become a celebrity, as famous as Knat. Tekk’s photo will appear in Bild and Süddeutsche Zeitung alongside that of the polar bear Knat, with the headline: WE DO NOT BELIEVE, WE FEAR.

The day passes by with Tekk inside the enclosure with the bear and the animal specialists. Tekk has been talking to the zookeeper about his and his father’s knowledge of polar bears. ‘You know, the polar bear is the great long distance swimmer. But here in the zoo, he can’t swim anywhere, and he can’t really do any exercise.’ The Zookeeper nods his head. He knows the problem well, but he doesn’t think they can change Knat’s living space.

Image by David Craig via Flickr

9

‘We can’t return our Knat to nature, because he was born in captivity and never lived outside of the zoo. He won’t even have the ability to secure his own food. He will just die if we let him out’. The zookeeper explains to Tekk.

Tekk has no more words to offer. Before he leaves the zoo, he suggests: ‘Knat needs a friend, his own kind of friend to live with.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ says the zookeeper. ‘We have decided to raise 500,000 euros to buy another polar bear — a female one from Norway, to be Knat’s mate so he can start a family. We have already raised some of the money and we are confident that we can raise enough to host the new Mrs Knat.’

But only our young Nanook knows that his friend inside the fence is reaching the end of his life. The bear is short of breath, and he hasn’t eaten half of what he is supposed to eat in the last few days. He has no more strength, not even bringing himself out of the cave to meet the public.

The next day, Hans accompanies Tekk and his orange suitcase to the airport, and they find hundreds and thousands of people gathering in front of the television news in the departure hall. Everyone is watching the direct live broadcast from Berlin Zoo. Knat is dead. He died from a mysterious disease: apparently a tumour in his heart. Both Tekk and Hans freeze in front of the news report. It says that Knat’s sudden death has caused an international outpouring of grief. Hundreds of fans are visiting the zoo, leaving flowers and mementos near the enclosure. The mayor of Berlin, Mr. Herzorg, is speaking on the television now: ‘We all held him so dearly. He was the star of our city. But he will live on in our hearts. We will create a monument for coming generations to preserve the memory of this unique animal.’ The report also says that Knat’s remains may also be stuffed and put on display in the Museum of Natural History. The news ends with a song performed by children: ‘Knat — The Dreamer, we love you forever’.

Alone on the plane, Tekk contemplates the floating clouds outside his cabin. The scenes from the last few days are like a film playing before his mind’s eye. He falls asleep as the plane makes its way north. In sleep, he returns to the dream he had a week ago, on the night after he arrived in Germany. He is swimming with a young polar bear in the arctic sea. But the bear is such a good swimmer that he soon leaves Tekk far behind. In no time the bear is nothing but a small, bobbing head on the swell far ahead, and then, slowly, it fades: becoming indistinguishable from the grey sea surface and the dull sky. Tekk scans the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse. But there is nothing. He is alone, far out in the ocean. Then, suddenly, the sky to the north begins to change its form. The light and clouds merge to form a smile — a smiling bear head hovers before him in the fading day’s rays, and the grey waves are touched by a shimmering whiteness.

Image by Michael Taggart via Flickr

EPILOGUE

A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story continues from within their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing at the moment? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking. Her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food; their father died long ago. He died in a snow storm while out hunting. And now their youngest son, Smart Tekk, is telling his family of the adventure from which he has just returned:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput — the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipor drifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered in your life. You only remember some of the snow. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow I will never forget…’


Xiaolu Guo is the author of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and I Am China. She is Free Word’s Writer in Residence for Weather Stations.

Weather Stations is an international project developing literary responses to climate change.

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