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The New Igloo by Mary E. Bamford

 

The sky was lowering. The small storm-"igloo," or round-topped snow house, was full of Eskimo dogs that had crowded in to shelter themselves from the bitter wind. This small igloo was built in front of the door of a bigger round igloo in which an Eskimo family lived. The dogs' small igloo was built where it was, to keep the wind and the cold from coming in at the family's igloo door.

Over the snowy ground a boy, clad in a reindeer coat, came running. His brown cheeks were flushed, and his black eyes were bright with excitement. His lips curved and parted over his white teeth as he chuckled happily to himself about something. He rushed to the very low door of his home, dropped down on his hands and knees, put some slender thing between his teeth, pulled the hood of the reindeer coat up over his head so as to keep the snow from slipping down the back of his neck, and then scrambled quickly through the low opening, pushing aside the dogs, till he reached the interior of the larger igloo. Then the boy jumped up and snatched the thing he had held in his mouth.

"Oh, see, see!" he cried, holding up his treasure. "See what the teacher gave me!"

What he held was the half of a lead pencil, a rarity to him, given to him now as a prize at school.

"And see!" cried the excited lad once more.

He pulled from his reindeer coat a piece of paper. The paper was part of his prize, too. He made some rude marks on the paper with his pencil, and held them where they were visible by the light of the small stone lamp, shaped like a huge clam shell, and burning with walrus oil. The lad's face was illumined with enthusiasm. Never before had he owned such treasures. To think they were his own! He had earned them by good behavior, and diligent, though extremely slow, attempts at learning. A sarcastic laugh came from one side of the platform of snow, that was built around the whole circular interior of the igloo. On the platform lounged the lad's brother, Tanana. "You went without your breakfast yesterday, and ran to school, and now you come back with those things!" laughed Tanana. "You are a dog of the teacher's team, Anvik! He can drive you."

Anvik's black eyes snapped.

"He does not drive me!" cried the boy. "He teaches me to want to learn! I have gone to school many days. I want to learn, to learn! I can make A and B. See!"

He pushed his paper with its awkwardly formed letters farther into the lamp's light. The edge of the precious paper took fire, and with a cry of alarm, Anvik smothered his paper in the snow.

His brother laughed again.

"To-morrow will be another day," he said. "Why should anybody learn for to-morrow?"

But the mother of the two lads stretched out her hand, and took the paper, and looked at the straggling marks. The fat baby, that she carried in the hood of her reindeer suit, crowed over her shoulder at the piece of paper, and Anvik forgot to be angry. He put his pencil in his mother's hand. She looked curiously at the strange new thing.

"You make A, too, mother," urged the boy; and, putting his hand on his mother's, he tried to show her how to make the strange marks.

His mother did little more than touch the paper with the pencil. She smiled at the tiny dark line she had made, and gave back the pencil and paper to the boy. She was proud of him, proud that the strange white man should have thought her boy good enough to give him such queer things. Anvik saw her pride, and felt comforted.

"To-morrow will be another day," murmured Tanana from his lounging place. "The teacher is wrong. He makes that loud sound when school begins. The wise man says the teacher must not make that sound any more, for it will prevent our people from catching foxes and seals."

"It is the school-bell," answered Anvik, knowing that the Eskimo sorcerer had gone to the teacher but a few days previous, to prophesy evil concerning the ringing of the bell. "The foxes and the seals care not for it. Go to school with me, Tanana, to-morrow. The teacher wants you."

Tanana did not answer. He drew a bottle from out of his skin suit and drank. Anvik looked at his mother. The odor of the liquor spread through the small round house. Anvik had not noticed the odor when he came in, being then too excited over his prize to have room in his head for any other idea. But now he felt a great sadness of soul. Tanana and their father were both beginning to learn to drink. The sailors who came to the shore had liquor with them sometimes, and traded it to the natives.

The teacher at school had told the boys never to touch the sailors' liquor. The teacher said it would steal the boys' souls. Anvik did not understand that very well, but he knew liquor made Tanana and their father cross and lazy, and the laziness kept them poor, and the mother was sad.

Anvik lay long awake that night, on the raised platform of snow in the igloo, and thought.

"My teacher said he heard that at one Eskimo village a canoe came with whisky and the Eskimos pounded on a drum all night, and shouted," thought the lad. "When the morning came, the people were ashamed to look in the face of their teacher. My teacher said I must pray the dear Lord Christ to save Tanana and my father from drinking."

And Anvik prayed in the dark igloo.

The next day came, and Anvik went again to school, but Tanana and the father went off to look at the ice-traps wherein Eskimos catch any stray wolves or foxes.

When Anvik came back at night to the igloo, he met his father and Tanana rejoicing over a bear cub that they had killed. They were bringing it home with them, and were laughing, and shouting, and singing, not so much from joy as from drinking together from the bottle that Tanana had procured.

"We have a bear cub, a bear cub!" shouted Tanana in maudlin tones to his brother. "See how strong the hot water we drink makes us! We come home with a bear cub! Hot water, let us drink hot water!"

Now by "hot water" Tanana meant of course the liquor in his bottle, and when Anvik saw the young bear and the condition his father and brother were in, the lad immediately became very anxious, for the Eskimos are usually very careful not to kill a young bear without having first killed its mother. It is considered a very rash thing to kill the cub first, and when men who are pressed by hunger do it, they are obliged to exercise the strictest precaution lest they should be attacked by the mother-bear, for she will surely follow on the track of the men.

So the Eskimos usually go in a straight line for about five or six miles, and then suddenly turn off at a right angle, so that the mother-bear, as she presses eagerly forward, may overrun the hunters' track and lose her way. The men go on a distance, and then turn as before.

After doing this several times, the men dare to go home, but even there weapons are placed ready for use by the bedside, and outside the house sledges are put up right, for the bear is always suspicious of the erect sledge, and she will knock it dawn before she will attack the igloo. The knocking down of the sledge makes a noise that gives warning to the family.

But when Anvik saw the condition that his father and brother were in, he was greatly frightened, for he did not believe that the liquor had left enough sense in their minds so that they had remembered to turn off in the homeward journey, and, if they had come home without covering their track, there could be no doubt that the mother bear would come to attack the igloo that very night.

But it would do no good to say anything to Tanana and his father. They were far too much under the influence of what they had been drinking. Anvik told his mother his suspicions.

"We will set up the sledge outside the igloo," said his mother, trembling.

"I will have my harpoon ready," answered Anvik bravely. "Do not fear, mother. Perhaps the bear will not come."

They put two harpoons and a spear beside the raised platform of snow in the igloo, after the father and older son were stupidly sleeping.

Then came an anxious time of waiting. The stone lamp's light grew more and more dim to Anvik's drowsy eyes, as he, too, lay on one side of the circular platform. Nothing disturbed his father and brother in their heavy, liquor-made sleep. Anvik's eyes closed at last, even while he was determined to keep awake. His mother, tired with scraping and pounding skins, nestled her chubby baby in her neck, and dropped asleep; too, after long watching. The igloo was quiet, except for the heavy breathing.

A terrible noise arose outdoors. Anvik started into consciousness. There was an uproar of dogs, awakened by the destroying of their small igloo. The sledge fell. The family igloo seemed to shake throughout the entire circle of hard snow blocks. The dome-shaped hut quaked under the attack of some foe.

"Father! Father, wake up!" screamed Anvik, springing to his feet. "The bear! The bear has come! Father! Tanana!"

He rushed to their side and shook them, but he could not rouse them.

"Wake up! Wake up!" screamed Anvik.

His mother caught one harpoon. Anvik seized another. The great paws were digging into the igloo! The dogs had attacked the bear, but she fought them off, killing some with the powerful blows of her claws.

"Be ready, Anvik!" warned his mother.

The side of the igloo gave way! A dreadful struggle followed. There was a chorus of barks and growls and screams. The bear fought desperately. The struggle and the falling snow partially wakened the father and son, but they were stupidly useless. The dogs attacked the bear's back. Anvik, watching his chance while the bear was repelling the dogs, drove a harpoon into the animal. The bear savagely thrust at the lad, but the dogs leaped up and Anvik's mother drove her harpoon into the enemy. As well as he could in the darkness, Anvik chose his opportunity, and as he had seen older Eskimos do, skillfully avoided the attacks the bear strove to make upon him, till at last he managed to drive the sharp spear to the animal's heart.

All was over at last. The shrieks, the growls ceased, and the dead bear lay among the ruins of the igloo.

The next day Anvik stayed away from school to help build a new igloo. His father and Tanana did not talk much, from the time when they laid the blocks of extremely hard snow in a circle till the time when the inwardly-slanting snow walls had risen to the topmost horizontal block that joined the walls. But, once during the building, when the three workers had taken great flat shovels, made of strips of bone lashed together, and were throwing loose snow against the sides of the new igloo to protect its future inhabitants from the cold, the father stopped, and turning to Tanana said:

"My heart is ashamed! The hot water made us forget to hide the way to the igloo, and when the bear came to kill my wife and children, the hot water made us sleep. My heart is ashamed."

And Tanana, keenly humiliated that his younger brother and not himself had killed the bear, answered, "My heart is ashamed, also."

"The hot water bottle shall not come to my mouth again," resolved the father, with determination.

And Tanana promised the same. The bottle had been broken in the scuffle, but Tanana knew his father's and his own promise included any other bottle of liquor.

"You shall go to the teacher's school with Anvik," decided the father. "The teacher speaks well when he tells the boys that the hot water will steal their souls. If Anvik had drank it, we should all have been killed."

Anvik jumped up from chinking a crack between two snow blocks. He remembered his prayer, and he laughed aloud now with joy for the answer.

"The new igloo is better than the old!" he cried. "The hot water will never go in at the door of our new igloo!"

And in his heart the boy added, "May the dear Lord Christ come into our new home!"