When Men Hunted Polar Bears
After dinner, talk turned to survival.
Listen carefully, children, you said. There are forces at work in this world, melting polar ice caps, wicked hurricanes, hungry tornadoes guzzling cars, churches… even children.
Dad! our parents said. Don’t scare them.
You shooed our parents away. Could we cut off our own arm to save ourselves like the climber trapped in a mountain’s dark crevasse? You pointed to your own forearm with the faded tattoo of a mermaid, her long green hair swirling around one breast, the other bare and scandalous and proud. Could we survive lost at sea for months, fighting off sharks with only our fists and a plastic oar? Leaning back in your chair, you regarded us with your one good eye.
We sat up taller, squared our shoulders. We could do it, Grandpoppi, we promised. We could saw through muscle and bone; we would hit that shark on the nose!
That’s the spirit! You rewarded us with more orange pop and promised another story of survival, a strange story, you whispered, maybe the strangest one of all.
We gathered closer. Two of us climbed into your lap. Three sat at your feet.
This is a story about a man from a village in Denmark, who traveled to Greenland. He lived in an igloo with his Eskimo wife. He had a beard down to his navel and stood 7 feet tall. One morning, he kissed his wife goodbye and set off with the dogs to join a hunt.
Did they kiss with their noses? one of us asked. Like this, the two on your lap said, rubbing theirs together.
You considered the question seriously, stroking your grizzly chin and saying hmmm, hmmm, and let me think. No, you decided. They kissed with their lips like all civilized people.
What were they going to hunt?
Narwhal. Walruses. Maybe even a polar bear.
Not a polar bear! we cried.
Your fist hit the table so hard, the dishes danced. This was 1924 when men hunted polar bears without apology! This was when men were men!
Your good eye dared us to argue. Your bad eye, with its permanent blizzard, blinked a message we could not decipher.
You raised your arms up high. Blowing in from the north came a great wall of snow that swallowed the giant up! Whoosh! You brought your arms down and snapped us to your chest so that we squealed with delight.
But! Luck was with him that day. He found a boulder and crouched down next to it while the snow formed a cocoon around him. The blizzard lasted a long time, and though he tried not to, he fell asleep.
Your head lolled to one side, mouth open, eyes closed in mock sleep until the littlest of us poked you in the belly. Grandpoppi? Your eyes snapped open.
Hours later, the giant awoke to darkness. Outside his cocoon, night had fallen. He tried to sit up, but one of his legs was frozen to the ground. Try as he might, though he pulled and yanked and twisted his body, he could not break free. He needed something to chip away at the ice. But he had only these — you held your hands up. They were the size of a bear’s paws, and crisscrossed with scars and two blackened nails.
You paused to consider the giant’s predicament. Who knew how long he lay there or what he thought about? Was he afraid? Did he allow himself to think about death? Did he imagine his wife, skimming over the waters to him in her whalebone boat? What mental tricks kept him occupied? It is in those moments that a man makes up his mind to live or die.
You rubbed your good eye, that beautiful blue eye. Soon, the blizzard over your bad eye would cross to the good one. The storm clouds were forming already. We had heard our parents whisper — what would happen to him when the other eye went dark? Would he go willingly to the place they had picked out for him?
We tugged your elbow. What happened to the giant?
Did he bite through his own leg like a wolf?
Did his wife find him?
Did he snap his leg off?
No, no, no. You shook your head.
The giant made up his mind to live. And that is why, when nature called, he knew what to do.
We frowned. When nature called?
You reddened slightly. He had to poop. Good thing he had eaten a big dinner the night before, plenty of seal meat and blubber. So, he reached into his pants and caught the warm poop. There was just enough to shape into a tool, a dagger with a flat edge. When it froze hard, he used it to chip himself free.
We looked at each other, gaping.
An old Eskimo trick, you chuckled.
We might be willing to cut off our own arms, but we would not touch our own poop. Gross! we said.
Gross? you asked. Gross? It’s the will to survive! It’s the human spirit! Don’t underestimate what it can do in your darkest hour.
We knew a little of darkness: dark rooms and dark closets, and though we had never had a dark hour, we understood then that one day we would.
A shadow fell into the room. One of our parents stood in the doorway, the same parent who’d joked that you were too stubborn to go anywhere, that they’d have to throw a bag over your head and drag you away when the time came.
Time for bed, she said.
But wait! What happened to his leg?
Ah, yes, the leg. The giant broke out of the cocoon and he limped along, dragging the leg behind him and making a strange trail over snow so white it almost burned his eyes. That was how the Eskimos found him, by following his trail. But it was too late. From knee to toe, his leg had turned black as an old riding boot. A doctor sawed it off some days later.
Okay, okay! Enough of that! the parent said.
You brought your watch up to your good eye, and squinted. Bah! It’s not that late! Let them stay up.
But she had already lifted the two from your lap.
To make us giggle one last time, you flexed your arm so the mermaid’s hips pulsed. Later, as we lay alone together in the dark cocoon of our beds, we thought of her, your green, watery woman. We think of her still.