The Story Finder

Voices in Fairy Tales

by Michelle Tocher

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The Magic Drum

(This bare-bones, heart-wrenching story comes from the Inuit, and was discovered in Tales of the Igloo, collected by Maurice Metayer, 1972. It is followed by an astonishing poem, written by novelist Annie Jacobsen, who wrote Watermelon Syrup. Annie died in 2005 after a long struggle with cancer. This poem is the deep song of her experience.)

An old married couple had a daughter who did not want to marry. It was not that she lacked suitors; young men who were good hunters had come from great distances to take her for their wife. But she had refused all proposals. She had said no to all.

She said no to them all, to all, that is, but the last two brothers who had come.

These brothers arrived with the same intentions as the others. When first they entered the igloo the girl took them to be men just like their predecessors. However, though they had neither said nor done anything extraordinary, the girl became attracted to them.

She followed them outside the igloo. Scarcely were they outside when the two brothers reclothed themselves in the skins which they had left at the door. The young woman then recognized them for what they were—white bears.

They took her away over the ice and forced her descend into the water through a hole in the ice. For some time, she was dragged along through the water, only to be abandoned when the bears came to another opening through which they disappeared.

Left on her own, the girl sank to the floor of the ocean. When her feet touched bottom she was able to look about her. One side of the ocean appeared to be darker, the opposite side seemed brighter. She reasoned that the dark side must lie to the north so she began to walk toward the south where the light was brighter.

While she was walking tiny sea animals surrounded her. They bit into her body, tearing away strips of flesh. Little by little her body was devoured. Eventually only her bones remained.

Then she noticed an unusually bright area which led her to think that she was about to find a place where she could climb up to the land. She was nothing but a skeleton but resolutely she advanced toward the light. She found a crevasse in the ice and was able to climb up on to the ice surface.

After a while she felt better. And in her mind’s eye she saw her parents with their well-filled storeroom and she asked herself what she must do to have the same. While pondering this problem she took some snow and made a small igloo, one that resembled that of her father. She also built a small platform as a storage place.

When she had finished she thought out loud: “I have nothing warm in which to sleep. I need a sleeping back, some skins and some furs. With these thoughts she fell asleep.

On awakening, the woman was surprised to see a big igloo, exactly like her father’s, in front of her own. Near it lay a freshly killed caribou. Her dreams had been realized! She dried the caribou hide and made herself a sleeping bag. The meat she prepared for storage on the platform.

From that time on, each night before going to sleep, she would think of what she needed, knowing that when she awoke the next day everything would be provided. In this manner she soon she all she required, except her own flesh. What the sea animals had eaten could not be replaced. She remained a walking skeleton.

Each day she spent long periods of time on the ice. On one occasion she happened to see two hunters coming down to the sea ice to hunt seals. The young woman wanted to meet these people and talk to them. But when she approached them, the hunters fled in fear. Disappointed, the girl watched them disappear into the distance. Then she returned to her igloo thinking, “I would like to have met them, but I frightened them. It is I who prevented them from coming. I am but a skeleton and my bones clatter when I walk. No doubt they were afraid of me, that is why they ran.” She was sad and began to torment herself because she had been unable to get close to the hunters.

The father of these hunters was an old man and when his sons had gone to hunt at the sea he had been left behind. They had made him stay in his igloo; he was no longer capable of hunting and could not provide himself with anything to eat.

Upon his son’s return, they told their father: “Yesterday we saw a woman who was nothing but a skeleton. She came to meet us, but we were afraid. We fled and did not see her again.”

“Ah well,” replied the old man, “I don’t have much longer to live. I shall go and meet her tomorrow.”

The next morning the old man went to find the girl and found her sitting in the entrance of her igloo. She did not move towards him but when he arrived she invited him to enter the igloo. The interior was bright with the light from the stone lamps. They ate and then went to sleep.

When morning came, the girl who had been reduced to a skeleton spoke to the old man who was no longer able to hunt.

“Make me a drum,” she said. “Make me a very small drum.”

The old man immediately went to work to satisfy her desire.

When he finished he gave her the instrument. The woman blew out the lamps, took the drum and began to dance. She beat the drum with a stick while repeating a magic incantation. The drum grew larger and the sound of the beat swelled and seemed to fill the air.

The dance finished, the lamps were relit and the old man was once more able to see the girl. To his amazement the skeleton had gone; instead, a pretty young girl, dressed in superb clothing, appeared before him.

The girl took the drum again, blew out the lamps, and began to dance.

After awhile she asked her visitor, “Are you all right like that?” With his affirmative reply, she relit the lamps. It was no longer an old man who appeared before her, but rather a handsome young man. The magic rhythm of the drum had given him back his youth.

This is how the girl who had not wanted to marry and who had been eaten by the beasts of the sea found her beloved.

When they returned to the old man’s family no one recognized him. His own sons said, “Our father, who is very old has traveled north toward the sea and has not returned.”

“I am your father,” replied the man. “I was once old and this woman was but a skeleton. But we’ve become young and handsome and now we are together.”

Skeleton Woman by Annie Jacobsen

It is not that she lacks suitors.

Young hunters
come from great distances
sit grinning
in her father’s igloo
or stand in the wind,
the holes in their mouths
letting in snow.

Inside
she tends the burning
seal oil.
Her strong fingers
grasp the carved stone.
She sets it down
between them.
When they go, she waits
in the smoky light.

The last two brothers come blaring in
through the snow door
She thinks their eyes are candles.

They sit like the others
only they are smiling light.
The thongs unlaced at their chests
reveal landscapes–
nipples are tiny mountains
polished and dark.

Arms big from paddling
stir the air around her.

Clumsy hands cuff her hair, feed her meat
until the bones in her chest
become a cage against which
her heart flings itself
Yelping. A hungry dog.

She crawls on hands and knees
out of the igloo,
easy as a summer stem
bending with purple flowers,
eyes closed for a moment
against the coming snow.
The caribou fur
warming her breasts
will soon turn into a man’s hands.
She will journey to the moon.

Their bear skins
lie piled on the snow
black linings
glistening, with tiny rivers and lakes
of creamy fat. Exposed.
The innocence of death.

As they enter the skins
she watches
the quick dissolving
of flat human griins
into cliffs of black gums,
the rapid grinning eruption of
tarnished white mountains
of polar bear teeth
in their mouths.

She twists, screaming
in the drag
of their claws.
Shards of ice
rip through her moccasins.
Her father’s igloo is gone.
Only this blinding white.
These mountainous bears.

Lithe as seals, they dive
into a hole in the ice.
Their claws hold her
in their cutting embrace
She is only another
writhing fish.

Her fingers tear
at the bloodied cups
at the edge of the ice,
her last footprints.

Her cry reels into the wind.

Falling
she knows the shock of the sun
shrouded by Arctic night
the panic of the puny stone
tumbled by a fuarious spring river
the rage of flesh
pierced by an indifferent arrow.

Falling into a universe
of black, unbearable water
she sees behind the slits of her eyes
sewn shut by icy lashes
a light exploding
as if a star had entered, burning.

Sea creatures
nuzzle her face, her neck
her breasts
as if curious, kissing,
They dazzle her with their mouths,
so close,
opening and closing
opening and closing.

Fizzures snake through
her ice-grey cheeks, her belly, her thighs.
Surely, she thinks, they are only rivulets
carved by her tears.

Dangling in the black
she calls to her mother.
Even her mother’s quick smile
leathery cheeks
polished eyes
squinting against the spring sun
are fading.

A walrus eats
her eyes, carves
with his tusks
the remains of her cheeks.
His needle whiskers pierce
the last bloody scraps
of her lips.

Seals, smiling like
frolicking children,
slide off ice floes,
dive to her,
devour her blackening toes.

The sea waves
the tattered rags of her body
And then, like a hand
gathering slippery reeds
claims her.

***

The whiteness of her bones
surprises her.
Rounded and graceful
they float like pale newborns
in the salt and sway
of the sea.

They feel nothing.
They tap and tumble
against the rocks,
random as sand.

Then she remembers
her grandfather
crouched with bone drills
and knives
in caves of earth or ice,
carving
the wide bird’s eye
deep into the bone

***

She walks the ocean floor,
thin as a bone knife,
slices through
the sun’s fractured radiance
toward a narrow crevasse,
glimpses a split second of
blue.

Climbing out is easy

Unweighted
her body is only a memory.

Nimble as a crazy needle
she weaves in and out
of piles of ice.

The astonishing air
feathers her.
She is newly naked.

Ghosts of wind snatch
her up and
throw her down.
Dice in a dead man’s game.
She crackles. An icicle.

The sun has run away.
No points
on the horizon.
Her skull fills with snow.

Her fingerbones, stupid with cold
flail like brindly reeds in the storm
jab at the monstrous eggshell
on which she lies sprawled.

But her hands have not forgotten…

Fingers become knives

She unpacks
a snow block from its bed,
places it at the foot
of the circle she draws
with her toe

She bends, cuts, lifts.
There is only now,
only building this igloo.

Her arms and legs are one
with the falling snow.

“I need warmth,”
she murmurs to the white wind.
”I need skins and furs
to cover me.”

At last, drifting into sleep
inside her own small igloo,
she hears a voice
as if already in a dream
”I need warmth.”

***
She flies in her dream,
swift as the shaman
over jade grasses
lacy with purple and pink.

Whales sing somewhere
voices high and cracked.
Seals flop in beds
of starry flowers
Bears tumbled under a tree
arms wide as eagles.
A walrus nods and nods
his face to the sun
while the caribou slip casually sideways
on their spindly legs
chewing to the north.

Black hair flows behind her.
Her arms, outstretched, are blue-feathered.

In the distance
she hears a girl singing.

Curled into herself
like a mouse
she stirs in the morning.
The dream spirits are playing tricks on her.
An igloo as big as her father’s
stands outside her small door.

A fresh caribou,
still warm
lies in front.
She moves toward it
slides her hand
over its crisp fur.
She will dry its hide,
chew it into a soft sleeping bag.
Its flesh will feed her.

She understands then.
Her own thoughts
are now her father and mother.
Everything will be provided.

Only the dream of her own flesh
still escapes her.

Day after day
as she works by her igloo
aching loneliness
gnaws at her bones,
flings and flings
its exhausted head.

Hunters
small brown stalks
wave between earth and sky.
She runs
towards them
clacking
as if her skeleton body
is swinging on a stick.

The wind pours through
the cavities of her eyes
swirls in the hollows
of her pelvis.

Wrists, teeth, elbows
knees, ankles, skull
grind bone on bone,
harsh as her need.

But the men lumber away from her
startled bear cubs—

The small sheaf of grass
she has tied to her clavicle
so that it hangs
in the empty place between her ribs
where her heart used to be—
flies out behind her
skitters across the ice
a broken wishbone.

***

“They are right to run away!
I am nothing
My fingers will scratch
their cheeks, tear their hands.
I have holes for eyes
empty ribs,
an ugly skull.
My hip bones
are a broken bowl.”

She rocks herself like a child.

***

“Ah well,” the old man says
to his sons, the hunters.
”I shall die soon.
I will go and meet her tomorrow,
this skeleton woman who sends
you running.”

When he comes upon her
sitting by the far side of the igloo,
sees her hanging gray teeth
her bird-thin claws
splayed on the snow
he wants to smash this living death.

The skull looks up
as if she has been expecting him
but continues sewing.

When she speaks the words
of his own language
it is as if they were just now
whispered to her by gulls.

In the light
of the stone lamps
she offers him meat
and a caribou hide.

Falling into dreams
he glides in his first kayak
over waters ignited by the sun.
In the distance he hears
a young girl laughing.

“Make me a drum,” she asks.

The old man’s crevassed hands
construct a wood frame,
the skeleton over which
he will carefully stretch
a patch of walrus gut.

He sews the edges tightly
behind the frame
with a gray bone needle
while he sings

He remembers
the tawny skin
of his wife’s face
stretched taut
over her cheekbones,
the musky smell of
caribou skin, fur, hair
untangling
in his hands
He remembers
the soft place where
he buried his face.
Her cry.

***

She watches his hands
pull hard at the sinews
afraid he might tear the gutface
he is lacing so tightly.

She remembers the first time
her small feet stamped
to the beat of the drum,
straw socks and moccasins
heavy on the thin summer grass

While the men, swaying in a circle
sang songs of the eagle and whale
called out to their spirits.
The women rocked close by the fire
eyes black and dreamy.
The shaman beat the drum
under the full moon
until it became her heartbeat.

In the black belly of the igloo
she beats the drum
he has made.

His heart rises and falls
into the swelling sound
a whale
crashing down into dark waters.

Her legs brush his arm
bony wings of a spirit bird.

Her skirling voice
lifts them
to a place beyond
the end of the sea.

He is drowning in sound
when her dance ends.

In the first lamp’s flare
he sees only the soft brown of her cheeks,
her shining hair. Her eyes are candles.
In the light of the second lamp
flowers of beads sparkle and
flow over the sweet waves of her body.

He sees her young beauty
through a blur of tears.

She touches his old cheeks
blows out the lamps
to dance once more.

Beating the drum
she knows his proud loneliness
the once young heart
steering a strong kayak.

She dances the scars on his hands,
the old harpoon wound in his thigh,
his cries as he crawled
through a blizzard
toward his wife and children.

She dances her first sight
of his grizzled face
framed by the blue sky.

At last she stops
Kneeling before him
she lights the lamps.

His dark eyes pull her in.
Shy young cheeks
burn smooth and round.
He takes her face in his hands,
says, for the first time, her name.

They open their new arms.
The old man’s sons
do not recognize
the handsome young couople
standing before them
in the gull-gray dawn.

“Our father has not returned
from the north, from following
a skeleton,” they say.

The young man smiles.
”I am your father
and this is the skeleton woman.
We are together.”

The sons look at each other.
Their wives hold their hands
to their mouths, giggling.

The children
faces burnished
in the risen sun,
dance in a circle around them.

Annie Jacobsen

(Story based on “The Magic Drum” from Tales of the Igloo, collected by Maurice Metayer, 1972)