A Thousand Words for Snow – Part three

 

Continued from part two, which you can read here.

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.

 

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, 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 do fishing and hunting to keep our life going. 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 everyday 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’s 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? They throw it away, or let it rot? Anyway, I know big cities have more opportunity for living, but I prefer my hometown and I already 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 already met our polar bear in the zoo, and you know he is very precious for our city. Indeed, I have witnessed your power with our Knat. I was there the other day, when you calmed Knat 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. 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.

Next day, Tekk is picked up by the zookeeper from the hotel. On the way to the zoo, two documentary filmmakers with a camera and recording machines also join them. They want to make a ‘Reality TV 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, he asks: ‘Tekk, 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, along 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, polar bear is the great long distance swimmer. But here in the zoo, he can swim nowhere and he can’t do any excise really.’ The Zookeeper nods his head. He knows the problem well, but he doesn’t think they can change Knat’s living space.

 

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 the right thought.’ The zookeeper says. ‘We have decided to raise 500,000 euros to buy another polar bear – a female one from Norway, to be the mate of Knat and to conceive future baby bears. We have already secured some money and we are confident that we can raise the rest of fees to host our new Mrs Knat.” Says the zoo keeper.

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.

Next day, when Tekk is accompanied by Hans to the airport along with his orange suitcase, 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 said Knut’s sudden death 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, 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.

 

 

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? 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 is dead 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…’

 

END

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