Task of Fear


Hiki turned over on the broad shelf of snow that was her bed and buried her face deep in the fur sleeping bag to keep warm. She had not slept well, and the morning was much too fast in coming. As her mother lighted the seal oil lamp, Hiki peeked from under the fur to see the light sparkling on the snow ceiling of the igloo. She loved the way it glistened and imagined it was smiling at her, but this morning she didn’t smile back. Today I will walk on the bottom of the sea alone and I am afraid, she admitted to herself.

Many times when the tide was out she had gone with her mother under the sea ice to gather mussels. Always the giant shadows from the candlelight, the far away rumbling of the sea, and the strange undersea world had frightened her. But Mother had always been close-by to reassure her.

Today Hiki must lower herself under the ice alone. At the thought she buried her face even deeper into the fur blankets. She had never in her eleven years been sick. She had never even thought she would want to be sick, but this day she wished for a sore throat or a headache, anything that would keep her at home.

“Hiki,” Mother called, “it is time to arise.”

Hiki peeked out of the fur once more. Her mind raced, trying to find a reason to stay in the warm bed, but she could think of nothing.

All of her friends had gathered mussels alone on the ocean floor. Hiki had heard them tell of the fun it was, but to Hiki it could never be fun.

“Hiki?” Mother called again. “There is much to do.”

Slowly Hiki crawled from the sleeping bag. Quickly she put on her clothes made of caribou skins and her socks of baby sealskins. She began chewing on her caribou hide boots to thaw and soften them so she could put them on.

“It’s so nice to have a daughter who is now old enough to help,” Hiki’s mother said, smiling and patting her daughter’s shoulder. “Today I will sew while you go for the mussels.”

Hiki wished she could tell her mother how she felt, but she couldn’t. She wanted her mother to be proud, and who could be proud of an Innuit girl who was afraid to enter the under-ice world alone?

Hiki lingered over her seal meat breakfast much longer than usual. She poked a hole in the snow walls and looked out, hoping to see a terrible blizzard, but the day was beautiful with few clouds and little wind.

“A nice day for making snow statues,” Hiki commented.

“After you bring the mussels,” Mother said. “You must hurry now or you will miss the tide.”

Slowly Hiki put on her fur coat and mittens. Then taking a candle, matches, shovel, long ice chisel, and a pan, she removed the ice block from the tunnel that led into the igloo and crawled out. Once outside she listened as Mother slid the ice block back into place. Never before had she felt so alone.

Carefully she placed her tools on a small sled. Then, pulling the sled, she started for the ice-covered beach. With each step her heart beat harder and her breath came faster. Her hands began to perspire inside her mittens and her knees felt weak. She reached the beach much faster than she wanted to, then stepped beyond the beach ice to the thick, snow-covered sea ice. It was bumpy and covered with ridges caused by the terrible pounding of the sea. Hiki brushed away the snow on several of the ridges until she found one that had a big crack. Taking her chisel, she chipped at the crack until a hole about two feet wide was made.

As the last piece of ice fell, the girl jerked away. There was no longer anything between her and the ocean floor. I must go down, she agonized. But what if the tide comes in before I get out? What horrid creatures are lurking on the sea bottom? What if I get lost and can’t find the hole to get out?

Hiki’s stomach rocked and churned. She knew that she must go down to the sea floor, but also that she couldn’t do it alone. For a moment she closed her eyes tightly. “Please help me to do what I must do,” she prayed.

Then, taking her equipment, the girl lowered herself under the ice before her fear could stop her. Hiki’s hands shook, but after three tries she managed to light the candle. Carefully she picked her way over the pools of water and slimy seaweed until she saw a string of blue black mussel shells embedded in the sandy seafloor.

“This is a good place,” Hiki muttered, a feeling of confidence replacing some of the fear. “There are enough mussels here to fill my pan, and I will not have to go far from the opening I made.”

As she spoke, the words echoed eerily through the ice-covered cavern. The echo was strange and scary, but somehow it was more comforting than the stillness. She placed the candle between two rocks and hurriedly gathered mussels until her pan was almost full.

Several times as she worked she was startled by a glimpse of her own shadow, big and black against the smooth sea walls. But by the time the pan was full, the fear had eased. She stood for a moment and listened to the angry rumbling of the faraway sea.

“The tide is coming in,” she said, and hurriedly tossed the last two mussels into the pan. Gathering up her tools, Hiki found the hole and, with a sigh of relief, lifted herself back into the cold-white world she loved.

“It is done,” she whispered.

Looking proudly at the overflowing pan, Hiki sat down on the small sled. For a moment she did nothing but enjoy the warm feeling of accomplishment.

“I have done what I feared to do,” she declared, and then her face broke into a soft smile. Closing her eyes tightly she whispered, “Thank You for helping me. Next time it will not be so hard.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg