01 Feb The Alaskan Curse
“Remember, it always comes from the sea…” Aanaq murmurs as we sit around the roaring fire, staring me right in the eyes and shaking her bony finger in my direction.
In the far stretches of America, my family had only just arrived home from cousin Panuk’s funeral after a full day’s travel and Aanaq and I sit across from each other in front of the fireplace. Although this is one of the first funerals I’ve attended, I find it strange that there is neither a body nor burial during this service, and afterwards when meeting with my relatives here in the far North of Alaska for the first time in years, we are told that we are strictly forbidden from bringing up cousin’s name, even among each other. While we played, nobody (not even cousin’s siblings) talked about him during his life, let alone his death, and I was left more confused than ever.
On the 18 hour car ride home, mother and father sat in silence, but when we neared the outskirts of our city, I asked them what happened to cousin Panuk. Mother went pale and told me that I am never to bring cousin’s name up again, and that they will tell me what happened when I’m older and ready.
My grandmother- my Aanaq as we call her, came to live with us in the city many years ago. I awoke in the middle of the night shortly after we arrived home by the subtle knocking of Aanaq at my door. She brought me to the living room before making sure mother and father were asleep, sitting in her old rocking chair before pointing at the chair across from her and motioning for me to do the same.
“The Imaquumajuq always comes from the sea,” Aanaq repeats, getting a stern look as she reaches out to grab my wrist. Her grasp on my arm isn’t too uncomfortable, but I can feel the cold metal of a ring pressed against my skin.
“What’s an Ima-koo-majook?” I ask, puzzled. I don’t know the Inuit language as well as the rest of my family and I’ve never heard this word before.
“It’s the reason your cousin is gone,” she states, her grip around my wrist tightening.
I can do nothing but stare, wide-eyed. Finally, it’s time to get some answers around here, I think to myself. What happened to cousin?
“This thing killed cousin Panuk?” I ask.
“No!” she whispers with a tone of fear in her voice. “Your cousin’s gone, but his body’s still alive.”
“What do you mean Aanaq?” I question her once more. “We went to his funeral yesterday.”
“We went to his funeral to honor his life, but he is not dead. Your parents don’t want you to know until you’re older so you will take it seriously, but I think you’re old enough to understand.”
“Tell me what happened,” I plead. “I’m ready, I swear!”
Aanaq slightly relaxes in her chair before continuing, taking nervous glances over her shoulder to make sure my parents are not coming down the hallway to scold us for being awake so late. She begins by telling me part of the history and tradition of our people, which I already know very well, but still patiently wait before she gets to the part that I want to hear.
“My parents told me about the Imaquumajuq when I was just a girl not much younger than yourself,” she said, and the mention of the Imaquumajuq immediately got me paying attention again. “My sister and I were playing in our camp when we caught a whiff of the most awful stench that we had ever encountered; a smell of rotting fish, garbage and stinking meat. Not a minute later, there was a commotion in the camp- the men and women of my clan were running to and fro, desperately packing up what they could. This included my parents, who quickly scooped up my sister and I to place on the sled. We hadn’t even packed up all of our supplies before we took off, leaving untold amounts of precious meat and animal skins behind. I didn’t see it for myself, but my father told me that-”
“I thought your father died when you were young Aanaq?” I cut her off in my curiosity.
“Yes little one, but this was before my father passed on…” she informs me before trailing off. It takes her a few seconds to regain her train of thought and continue where she left off. “Now where was I… Right- when we were safe in the sled, that’s when father informed us that it was a Imaquumajuq, and that the great spirits had blessed us Inuuk with a good sense of smell so that we may flee before it arrives.”
Her rough and twisted hands are beginning to me hurt now as they lock on and the pressure increases.
“What is it Anaaq, what is it?” I beg for her to give me details.
“The Imaquumajuq is a terrible creature, one I pray you may never have to see. You must understand, those who still lived the traditional life- such as Panuk and his family, never take the Earth and it’s creatures for granted. Every single part of every single animal that they come across is used for something up in those endless white plains, but when it comes to this… thing, you don’t hunt it or track it. You wouldn’t dare.”
I think back to when I was taught in school that our homeland in the North had less people or animals than almost anywhere else in the world, and when we drove through the snowy hills with my parents that weekend and saw nothing but trees, ice and snow for hours and hours, I believed it.
“If they’re not careful and don’t take heed, entire camps- entire villages even, can be gone in just a day.”
“What kind of creature can do this?” I interrupt Aanaq as I lean forward to feel the warmth of the crackling fire.
“Not the beast itself, but those affected by it’s terrible curse,” she continues. “The Imaquumajuq itself is a hulking thing the size of 2 igloos put side by side, with a shell as hard as stone and large spikes covering it’s body. It’s light blue color makes it almost impossible to see in the snow, so it’s always best to recognize them by the smell instead, and one thing for certain is that it always emerges from the sea to hunt. No tribe has ever been able to kill it, I don’t even think it can die, and the last thing most people see as the Imaquumajuq charges at them is it’s dozens of black eyes staring them down, it’s countless legs ferociously scuttling across the ice and it’s spiny jagged claws snapping and snapping. I mean; the last thing they see before the change that is.”
“Change? What happens to them- the ones that Imaquumajuq takes?”
“It’s touch is a curse,” Aanaq trembled out. “1 touch is all it takes, and your mother, your father, your child- anyone you care about will begin to forgot that they even knew you at all. It’s only an hour or so, sometimes less, before they start spitting and howling. If you’re unlucky enough to be near to someone with the curse, they’ll insist that they’re fine, try to walk on with you if you let them, but it’s only a matter of time. You can tell they’re fully gone by looking at their eyes; black eyes that never blink and never stop staring at you.”
She digs her nails into my wrist, and I yank my arm away. I know that it’s an accident- that she can’t control her hands very well for the past few years, but Aanaq is really frightening me now. I can tell she is nearing tears by the bright reflection coming off the bottom of her eyes.
“That’s what happened to a man in my clan. He had forgotten something very important at the camp and went back for it, despite our pleas for him to keep moving with the rest of us. He was adamant about returning, claiming that his ancestors would never forgive him for leaving behind his family heirloom. He came back several hours later, but he was changed. He spat out black chunks from his mouth, he scratched at his skin leaving behind black and red marks on his face, but the worst part was his eyes. It started with small shadowy lines around the edges, but soon both of his eyes were nothing but darkness. When he staggered past my sister and I on the sled, he took off his glove and reached out a hand, dripping in black goo, towards us. That’s when my father and the other men of the clan knew that he needed to go.”
After telling this part of the story Aanaq calms down a bit and locks her ringed fingers together, moving them closer to the fire for the heat it provides.
“I thought you had never seen Imaquumajuq?” I ask Aanaq.
“I have never seen it child, but I have seen those it has cursed with it’s murky liquid. Their speech becomes jumbled by this terrible affliction, and not soon after restraining this man, my father was forced to gag the fellow to keep all his spitting and stuttering obscenities to a minimum. It had been many generations since our clan had an encounter with the Imaquumajuq, but they still knew how to handle any who were cursed. Careful not to touch the cursed man himself, father wrapped him in a large dried seal pelt before tackling him to the ground and binding the skin tightly with help from a few of the strongest men in the clan. They dragged the screaming and delusional man miles and miles through the snow and although his mouth was covered, I could still hear every word coming from him. I heard him alternate between begging to be released, begging for death and then threatening to kill every one of us- all within the span of a half hour, only for him to start all over and repeat the cycle again and again.”
“Wow Aanaq, is this story really true?” I butt into her story to make sure this isn’t one of the village legends like the Qalupalik made to scare children who don’t listen to their parents.
“I wouldn’t be telling it to you if it weren’t child. This isn’t to scare you. I’m trying to save you.”
“Then, is this what really happened to cousin Panuk?”
Aanaq slowly closes her eyes and nods her head before continuing, a small tear rolling down her cheek.
“The men of the village took that cursed man to a local lake that stayed frozen all year long, all while he was squirming and wriggling about in that seal-skin. My father took a hacksaw, like the ones your aunt and uncle use for cutting snow for the igloos, and cut a circle into the surface of the frozen lake, almost a foot down before hitting water,” Aanaq punctuates this sentence by pulling apart her hands to show me just how thick the ice was. “It was difficult work, but eventually they were able to remove the circle of ice and plunge the cursed man into the dark still water before picking up the ice block and covering the hole like a cork.”
“That’s why Panuk wasn’t buried…” I mumble, finally figuring out why his funeral was so out of the ordinary.
“Once one is marked with the curse of the Imaquumajuq, true death will always escape them. No matter what you do to their body, it will not stop trying to infect others even if you put a bullet in their head. The only way to keep them from spreading is locking them underneath the ice where they can no longer grow their pestilence. We didn’t go ice-fishing in these small lakes and the surface was far too thick to crack, so it was perfectly safe for us to walk across it’s surface, but I’ll never forget the faces of the cursed ones staring back at us through some of the thinner, clearer parts of the ice. It helps to remember that they’re no longer people like us.”
The fire is beginning to die down now and the lights seem to dance across Aanaq’s spotty wrinkled face, and I’m starting to think that there are some truths that I would rather not know about.
“I’ve heard stories from other villages though…” she presses on while pulling her hands from the dying fire and rubbing them against her arms. “Stories of men snapped in half at the waist by the Imaquumajuq’s fearsome claws, only to keep dragging themselves through snow and ice, leaving that toxic inky gunk wherever he tread. Others that are afflicted with the curse strip themselves of all their clothing before tearing at their skin and giving chase to their former family, doing anything in their power to spread the curse to all who are near. I can’t be certain whether this was rumor or not, but another young boy in a neighboring tribe told me about the time his father came across a blackened head buried in the snow, only this head didn’t have a body! It’s eyes darted around as quickly as any living soul’s would and although nothing escaped from it’s mouth except black drool, it still opened and closed at a steady pace, chattering it’s teeth together and clicking it’s tongue on the roof of it’s mouth.”
Aanaq fumbles with the rings on her fingers nervously and looks at me before resuming.
“This is what happened to your cousin,” she states. “Your cousin and his friends were walking near the water’s edge on the beach when they smelled the stench but they didn’t take the warnings to heart. The boys were cursed by the Imaquumajuq and ran back to their village to tell their parents.”
“So Panuk’s out there somewhere!?” I nearly shout in shock. “Underneath one of those frozen lakes?”
“I told you, your cousin Panuk is gone- his body and mind are no longer his to control. I suppose in a way though, part of him still exists in that shell of a body. I expect you not to bring up his name after tonight ever again. We are never to speak the names of those afflicted with the curse of Imaquumajuq after they are gone, lest someone remember them for how they were in life and attempt to release them from their resting place. We are only to acknowledge them just once and move on, no matter how painful it-”
Just then, Aanaq is cut off by the creaking of a door down the hall and I nearly jump as I see father step into the living room where I can barely see his face in the dim light of the fire. I hear a clink of something falling against the wood floor as Aanaq quickly stands and addresses her son.
“Well, I think I’ll be going off to bed now,” Aanaq tells father before grabbing her cane and gently hobbling down the hall. “I hope you learned something from this story child,” she yells after me while entering her room.
Father merely stares at me with his arms crossed. I know that I’m going to be punished for staying up past my bedtime and speaking of Panuk, but I can only hope that father doesn’t find out we were talking about Panuk and the Imaquumajuq too. Father only stands there, one foot in front of the other without a word escaping from his lips.
“Aanaq was just telling me stories of her father when she lived in the North,” I blurt out hoping to end this silence, but at this my father’s eyebrow is instantly raised and he tilts his head.
“Oh really? Tales of her father?” the stern man says while slowly walking forward and I begin to panic, knowing that he can always tell when I lie.
Father walks past me, grabs another log and places it on the fire and I know that I’m really in for it now. I’m certain that he plans to have a long conversation with me and scold me for listening to Aanaq. After he has a seat, I break almost immediately, telling him some of the things Aanaq told me about Panuk, and the time her village was attacked by a monster before her father rescued her. Father only shakes his head and places a hand above his brow before letting out a sigh and leaning forward.
“So it’s really not true then? The Imaquumajuq really is just a story to scare me, isn’t it Papa?”
At the mention of the Imaquumajuq, father’s face becomes twisted in anger, and his eyes narrow. I think maybe I made a mistake and that now both Aanaq and father will be angry with me, but his scowl quickly goes and he instead tells me to continue- tells me that he’s not angry, he just wants to know what she told me. I recount the entire story Aanaq told me of the Imaquumajuq, careful not to leave out any details, and end by telling him that I was sorry and I won’t ask about Panuk again. Once more father lets out a large huff of air before continuing.
“Aanaq’s story is wrong, son,” he explains to me in a sad shaky voice.
“So Panuk wasn’t really cursed by the Imaquumajuq?” I let out, but I’m very confused at this point.
“No, he was, and the Imaquumajuq is real, but…” he takes a pause before continuing. “Look, your Aanaq doesn’t always tell the truth, okay? Sometimes, because she’s so old, she mixes things up, or maybe just believes what she wants to believe, but it wasn’t a strange man from her clan that they buried in the ice that day.”
My eyes finally drift down and I glance towards where I heard the metallic clink from earlier when Aanaq sat up. I get out of my chair and lean down to inspect the object before picking it up; the same metal ring that was pressed against my skin while Aanaq was holding onto me. Father reaches his hand out for me to give it to him and I drop it in his palm.
“You’re not in trouble,” father says to me while standing up and pointing at my room. “Why don’t you get to bed now son? I have to return this to the family chest where it belongs.”