Monday, 22 August 2016
A British Eskimo
THE VETERAN MAGAZINE,
A British Eskimo
(This little article probably appears in several magazines as a repeat./drf)
IT came to me only yesterday—the hardest blow of the war. A “returned postal packet,” and inside a letter of my own sent him several weeks ago. On its face was the soulless stamp “Deceased.”
Six years ago we met, John Shiwak and I, in the most detached part of the Empire— the hyperborean places where icebergs are born, where seal grunt along the shore, where cod run blindly into the nets of adventurous fishermen gone north in a midsummer eight weeks of perilous, comfortless, uncertain industry.
Far “down” the desolate coast of Labrador, a thousand miles north of my Newfoundland starting point, I came on him in a trifling settlement that hugged, shivering and unsteady, about a long white building, a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company—the merest collection of windowless boards that housed human beings only in the less harrowing summertime.
For John Shiwak was an Eskimo.
Just one week I knew him, and then we separated never to meet again. But in that week I came to know him, better than from a year’s acquaintance with less simple souls, and his record to his glorious end proves how well I did know him.
There, where the bitterness of ten months of the year drives the two straggling thousand human beings of half as many miles of coastline to the less grim, less bleak interior, John Shiwak had awakened to the bigness of life. He had taught himself to read and write. Every winter he trailed the hunter’s lonely round back within sound of the Grand Falls, which only a score have seen—often alone for months in weather that never emerged from zero.
And every summer, when the ice broke in June, there came out to me in Canada his winter’s diary, written wearily by the light of candle, hemmed in by a hundred miles of fathomless, manless snow. And no fiction or fact of skilled writer spoke so from the heart. He was a natural poet, a natural artist, a natural narrator. In a thumb-nail dash of words he carried one straight into the clutch of the soundless Arctic.
And then came war. And even to that newless, comfortless coast it carried its message of Empire. John wrote me that he would be a “soljer.” I dismissed it as one of his many vain ambitions against which his race would raise an impossible barrier. And months later came his note from Scotland, where he was in training.
I followed him to England, but before we could meet he was in France. When, last summer, he obtained sudden leave, I was in Devon. His simple note of regret rests now like a tear on my heart.
But I have heard from him every week. He was never at home in his new career; something about it he did not quite understand. Latterly the loneliness of the life breathed from his lines. For he made no friends, in his silent, waiting way. His hunting companion was killed, and the great bereavement of it was like a strong tornado. He was cold out there, even he, the Labrador hunter. But the heavy cardigan and gloves I sent did not reach him in time. . . .
In his last letter was a great longing for home—his Eskimo father whom he had left at ten years to carve his own fortune, his two dusky sisters who were to him like creatures from an angel world, the doctor for whom he worked in Labrador in the summer time, his old hunter friends. “There will be no more letters from them until the ice breaks again,” he moaned. But the ice of a new world has broken for John.
He had earned his long rest. Out there in lonesome Snipers’ Land he lay, day after day; and the cunning that made him a hunter of fox, and marten, and otter, and bear, and wolf brought to him better game.
And all he ever asked was, “When will the war be over?” Only then would he return to his huskies and traps where few men dare a life of ice for a living almost as cold.
London Daily Mail, Jan. 11, 1918.
[John Shiwak, as is well known, was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and was killed at Cambrai, November 21st, 1917.—Eds.]
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.