The Great Man of the North
Author’s Note: This is a retelling of a tale from Told Beneath the Northern Lights by Roy J. Snell (Little, Brown and Company 1925). The word Eskimo has been replaced with the native American tribal name for the same reason that I’d prefer to be called Irish-American rather than Mick or Bog Trotter.
Some while ago, in the Alaskan place where the mountains come down to the sea, and in spring the walrus swim close to shore, and a man could cross the narrow ocean in a skin boat, was the Yapik village of Kingegan. In the village lived Teragloona, an old-man teller of stories.
When the winter snow swept unhindered down the beach, and no hunters went in or out of the lodge, when the seal oil lamps burnt yellow and red, Teragloona would sit cross legged on the bed ledge and tell stories.
“Ubagok canok,” he would say. “Here is something I am telling you.”
Once in our village lived two boys, Obok and Ootinna, each named for the last person who had died in the village. Obok was a kind, obedient boy, but Ootinna was not. Ootinna fought with his friends, and always tried to do the opposite of what anyone told him.
One day Obok’s mother sent him on a walk far down the beach to find driftwood that had washed ashore during the summer. Obok walked out onto the beach, and walked on, and further on until he found three large fir logs lying close together. He stacked them neatly so that others would know that he had claimed the logs, and turned back toward the village to get help. But he had only taken a few steps when a roaring snow storm swept down from the north.
“Ho,” laughed Obok, “the great man of the north has turned onto his side. The snow has shaken off his back and he blows it with his great breath.”
Obok was not afraid for he had been in many storms before, but this was a wild, roaring storm that tore into his parka and cut his face with bits of ice. The wind scooped him up, turned him over and carried him a long way from shore.
The wind finally dropped him next to five round hills, one much bigger than the others. Obok took shelter behind the biggest hill, crossed his hands on his feet, let his chin drop, and fell asleep. When he woke up he noticed that these hills were very peculiar- large and round at the top and narrower at the base. Obok thought to climb the biggest hill and try and find the ocean. He found where snow had drifted against the biggest hill and climbed up. But all he could see was snow and ice, and a long ridge that extended from the hill he stood on to further than he could see. If I travel the ridges I can stay out of the deep snow, he thought.
He tightly cinched the thong at his waist so he wouldn’t feel so hungry and set off on the ridge. At the end of three day’s walk, when the ridge had broadened into a plateau, Obok came into a huge forest. Maybe, he thought, I can catch a caribou fawn or snowshoe rabbit. The night was bitterly cold. Nanacoo, by and by, Obok built a fire for warmth. The smoke rose straight up from the fire, freezing white as it went, until it reached the top of the trees and was blown apart.
“How strange,” he said to himself, for under the trees he could feel no wind. The next morning Obok knew he was starving. He foraged for food, but couldn’t even find any frozen salmon berries. He cinched his thong around his belly even tighter to try and reduce the hunger pangs. Then he walked on. As he walked he began to hear the rushing of great winds. He walked through another smaller forest to a great yawning hole from which the winds bellowed out every few seconds. Obok walked through the trees to the edge of the hole.
“Who? Who? Who is standing on my lip,” came a thundering voice.
Obok was too scared to say anything.
“Who? Who? Who lit a fire in my chest hairs last night?”
But Obok was still too afraid to speak. At last, after another great gust of wind, he said in a small voice, “I am the one, O great voice. I, Obok, am the one who made the fire for warmth and now stands on your lip. I am very hungry.”
“Ho,” came a great rumble from the hollow chasm. “So you are Obok. I have heard of You. You are a good boy. I will tell you who I am. I am the Great Man of the North.”
Obok trembled, for every Yapik knew and feared this terrible giant, who would turn on one side to bring the warm south winds of spring and then turn onto the other, shaking off mountains of snow, his breath freezing rivers and lakes and almost tearing the parkas off the Yapiks’ backs.
“You are shaking with fear,” roared the voice, “but do not fear me. You are standing on my lower lip, which is safe, but do not come too close to my mouth or my breath will carry you away like a goose feather.
“You slept the first night on my big toe, and have since traveled up my body, building your fire on the fourth day in my chest hair. You may build fires in my beard for warmth, but move each day so my beard is not too thin in one spot. And now I will get you food.
A huge fist shaped shadow passed over Obok and a darkness fell over the forest. Obok cringed as a heavy brown shape broke through the forest branches and fell at his feet. It was a dead caribou.
“Here is food for you,” rumbled the great voice. “There will be more when this is gone. One thing you must do. Make a basket of limber twigs, cut one ear tip off each caribou and put it in the basket. Now make your fire, for I wish to sleep.”
After Obok had lived in the giant’s beard for a long time and the limber twig basket was almost full of caribou ear tips, the giant said to him: “You must go away, for I will turn over. If I turn over now you will be crushed or buried under a mile of snow.”
Obok was an obedient boy, and he gathered the limber basket and some meat and left. After he had walked a day and a night and a day a huge snowstorm overtook him. Ah, he thought, the giant has turned over. He kept walking through the storm, and after several days he came to the ice pack on the ocean shore. He turned south along the shore and in another day reached Kingegan.
Everyone cried with happiness to see him, for they had thought Obok was gone to Peeleuptuk, the land of missing men. Ootinna pushed his way through the crowd surrounding Obok.”What is in the basket?” he demanded. When Obok was too busy saying hello to reply to him, Ootinna lifted the lid and peeked in. “Ah,” he said, and reached into the basket to pull out a caribou ear. But Ootinna had to keep pulling and pulling on the ear until an entire caribou skin came out, a soft, spotted summer skin that makes the best parkas.
Because Obok was generous as well as obedient he gave the skin to his mother so she could make a parka for his younger sister. Obok began pulling out the ear tips one by one, and each grew into a full skin. When he was finished he had enough skins to clothe most of the people in the village.
The whole time Ootinna stood next to him whispering in his ear,” Keep these skins for trading. Then you will become a rich man.” But Obok knew that the skins were needed by the village, for this had been a bad year for hunting. He could see that half of the villagers wore parkas of rabbit skin – poor protection against the cold and easily torn.
He gave away every one of the skins. Then he picked up his basket and walked to his mother’s igloo, where the grateful villagers gave him a feast of pickled seal heart and juicy hind flipper of white whale.
Ootinna demanded to know where Obok had gotten the basket of ear tips, but for a long time Obok wouldn’t tell him. Then his heart softened, and Obok told him how to find the home of the Great Man of the North. “But,” he said, “If you go there you must be very careful to do exactly as the giant says. Otherwise bad things will happen.”
So Ootinna set out to find the great man. But not in a storm, and with a good supply of food. He journeyed until he came to the giant’s feet and climbed up. Then he walked from feet to knee, and knee to thigh, and thigh to belly and belly to chest, and chest to chin, all done without the cold and hunger that Obok had suffered.
He trembled a little when he stood on the giant’s lip. But when the great man rumbled, “Who, who, who is standing on my lip?” Ootinna answered brashly, “It is I, Ootinna, a friend of Obok. I am tired and hungry,” he lied.
“Why, Why, why did you come?” roared the voice.
And Ootinna lied again. “I was lost in the forest.”
“Well,” ground the voice like broken rocks, “You are a friend of Obok. He is a good boy. You may live in the forest of my beard and I will give you caribou to eat. You must save an ear tip from each caribou and put it in a limber basket.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Ootinna said impatiently. “I will do that.”
“There are two things you must not do. You must not cut too much of the beard forest in one place, for that will make my face cold. And you must not come too close to the edge of my mouth.”
But Ootinna was so greedy to begin receiving caribou that he did not seem to hear the great man’s warnings. He kept his camp in one place rather than moving around, and, too lazy to forage for dead branches, he chopped down whole trees for his fire.
The giant felt his chin grow cold and rumbled a warning to Ootinna, but Ootinna ignored him. A few days later Ootinna decided to explore the giant’s face. He walked around the gaping chasm of the giants mouth and through the small forest of his mustache. He decided to look into the giant’s nostrils, and grabbed a tree growing sideways from the giant’s left nostril so he could swing up and look in.
But as he climbed up, the tree jiggled and tickled the giants nose. There was a great insucking of air that almost pulled Ootinna from the tree trunk, and then an explosion of wind that tore Ootinna from the tree and threw him so high into the air that he disappeared into the clouds.
No one knows if Ootinna fell back down onto the ice pack, or into the ocean, or into a mountain of snow, or went to Peeleuptuk, the land of missing men.
Obok grew into a man honest and trusted who traded with many villages. Without any greed at all he became the richest man in Kingegan, the village where the mountains come down to the sea and in springtime the walrus pass close to the shore.
Edward Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. Original wife, but after 45 years they are both out of warranty.
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz writes stories, takes pictures and makes teddy bears by hand.