The Orange Runner has heard tales of an Inuit shaman-- a shaman so swift he can run across the sky in a single night, paced by his sled of caribou. Follow him as he runs from Arctic Bay, Nunavut, to the North Pole, and meet the spirits and stories that help him along the way.
Arctic Bay has been home to humans and their gods for over five thousand years. Inuit hunters, tracking herds of caribou from the west, named it Ikpiarjuk, "the pocket," referring to the mountains surrounding the inlet. The Polar Night last for months, and out of the perils of a dark, dangerous Arctic the Inuit wove their religion of spirits, heroes, and gods. Taboos teach them to survive against the brutal landscape. Rituals teach them to thrive within it. Every tale mixes the practical with the mythological, featuring heroes who embody both physical and spiritual strength.
A stranger arrives in a boat, as frigid waves eat at the rocky shore. Her departs, with only a pack slung over his shoulders. He wears a massive orange coat, orange trousers, and orange shoes. He trudges, alone, along the only street-- dark, empty, covered in snow, with only the lights from windows to combat the endless night.
He enters the brightest building in town, a bar, empty save for a few locals, who notice his entrance but say nothing. He walks over to the bar, and the bartender-- tall, bespectacled, old, (like every bartender in the beginning of every tale) and weather-beaten (like any Arctic dweller) shuffles over to take his order.
"How can I help you?" he asks.
"I seek the Shaman of the North," replies the orange-clad stranger, "the one swift he hitches caribou to his sled, running alongside it as he crosses the sky in a single night."
"Well, that's not too impressive," the bartender replies, "Nights up here last for a whole month," he pauses, "But if it's shamans you're looking for, talk to Nannuq, over there. He's the local medicine man." He indicates an Inuit man sitting alone in the corner. The man's face, carved by the Arctic wind, looks ageless. He wears a cloak of white fur with the hood thrown back. The stranger and the shaman, clad in the garments of opposite worlds, make eye contact.
The bartender coughs, "I meant, though, what can I get you to drink?"
"Oh," the stranger turns back to the bartender, "Just a water, please. I have a long way ahead of me."
Inuit religion evolved around their life in the Arctic-- a land of either endless sun and no means of navigating, or endless darkness and danger. Death came quickly to those that did not plan ahead-- practices evolved into rituals, cautions evolved into taboos, and like every religion the unpredictable elementary forces became emotional deities, pleased or displeased at a whim.
"Are you the Shaman of the North, the one so swift you can run across the sky in a single night alongside your sled of caribou?" the orange-clad stranger asks.
"I am not," Nan'noq replied, "You will not find the angakkuit you seek."
Angakkuit, Inuit shamans, interpreted the whims of deities. They bestowed names upon newborns to imbue them with the strength or courage of their namesakes. They bestowed talismans upon the afflicted to protect them from further harm. They took spiritual journeys-- to the underworld beneath the sea, or to the celestial hunting grounds in the sky-- to appease or seek advice from the gods, spirits, and ancestors.
"I will find him or die trying," the stranger responds.
"You most certainly will die," the Inuit nodded knowingly, "He lives across the land, the sky, and the sea...:
The Arctic land could kill with a bitter wind, a biting cold, or the teeth of a predator. The Arctic water could trick you, swallow you whole, and make a meal of you for spirit or beast. The Arctic sky is where the spirits and the ancestors dance and hunt along ribbons of light or twinkling stars. Angakkuit could traverse all three at their peril.
"How can I cross the land, the sky, and the sea?" the orange-clad stranger asks.
Underneath the South Pole sits a continent, but the North Pole sits atop an everchanging landscape of ice and ocean. Compasses are useless within a thousand miles, and it's hard to tell east or west when the sun hovers overhead for six months straight. The wintery stars provide some guidance, but simply observing them runs the risk of freezing to death or making a swift transition from predator to prey.
"Only the feet of the polar bear can cross all three," Nan'noq told him. Polar bears hunted on the land and sea, but many stories tell of bears that lived among the stars.
"How do I get the feet off a bear?" the orange-clad stranger asked.
"If you had a spear you could hunt one... but I think you'd be better off simply asking," Nan'noq told him, "Politely," he added.
Hunting, for the Inuit, was as much a matter of respecting your prey as utilizing it. Bears were not killed, for example; they allowed themselves to be killed-- but only by hunters that would use every inch of their carcass and give them spearheads, needles or combs for the afterlife.
"How do I find a bear to ask?" the orange-clad stranger asked.
"Just follow the great bear in the sky, of course," Nan'noq told him, for in Inuit tales the great bear spirit, one day overcome with the thrill of the hunt, ran clear off the edge of the earth and settled into the northern sky. Where the Greeks saw a bull, the Inuit saw a bear.
"Thank you," replied the orange-clad stranger as he hoisted his bag upon his shoulders and turned to leave, "You've been a great help."
Nan'noq shook his head "I do not think I've helped you," he looked up "And watch out for wolves!" he shouted, for the great wolf, Amarok, was known for devouring anyone foolish enough to hunt at night.
"They'll have to catch me first," the orange-clad stranger declared as he stepped out into the darkness.
He turned north, facing a cluster of stars that could almost be a bear's face, and started running.
The Orange Runner flew across the Arctic plains, a conspicuous speck of color sailing across the ocean of greys. To reach the Shaman of the North, the one so swift he runs alongside his sled of caribou, he needed the feet of the Polar Bear, capable of crossing land, sea and sky.
Upon leaving town, he followed the Great Bear in the stars, the constellation Nanuk, which the Greeks called Taurus, hoping it would lead him to one of its brethren. It did.
The bear lumbered away across the landscape, its white coat shimmering in the distance. The runner, watching it lumber away, shed his pack in pursuit.
The bear increased its speed, its white coat gleaming brighter than the ice. The runner, watching the gap widen, shed his own coat and continued his pursuit.
The bear sprinted towards a mountain, its coat rising up the mountain like the moon. The runner, watching the bear shrink in the distance, followed it.
The bear flew up the slope and over the snow, its coat now a speck of starlight against the inky sky. The runner, wheezing and despondent, drove his legs after it.
The bear disappeared over the peak, its sparkling coat vanishing into the stars. The runner, heaving with the last of his effort, hurled himself towards the summit.
But the bear had gone. The runner saw only ice, only mountains, only sky, illuminated only by twinkling stars. He put his hands on his head, huffing, wheezing, pondering.
He heard a low growl at his back. With hands on his knees for support, the runner turned and saw a great, white wolf bristling behind him.
With the last of his breath, the runner let out a sigh, then fled across the Arctic plains, a conspicuous speck of prey in the endless night.
The two sped across the landscape. The wolf pursued purposefully. The runner fled purposefully.
The runner, already exhausted, took a glance back, dismayed at the doggedness of his pursuer. He pressed on.
Until finally he could no longer manually override the dozens of death alarms ringing out from his lungs, his heart, his muscles. He sagged as darkness thundered around him.
The wolf chomped down on his leg. Fangs sunk into his ankle. Most people believe themselves brave enough to face death-- the runner certainly believed himself capable of such bravery-- but that bravery wavers once teeth hits bone, and everyone will look for another option. The runner had precisely one.
He ran. The darkness thundered around him, his vision went black, his body numb, but he propelled himself forward.
The two sped through the darkness. The wolf pursued purposefully. The runner ran blindly.
Beyond exhaustion, unsure of how his legs still moved, the runner chanced a look back. He despaired at the doggedness of his pursuer. With nothing else to do, he pressed on.
Until even his survival instinct gave way. Splotches of light twinkled before his eyes. He knew that if he kept running forward he would die. He knew if he stopped he would die.
The wolf chomped down on his other leg. Fangs sunk into his other ankle. The pain renewed his vigor, forced his mind forward. He must die, he knew he no longer had a choice there, but he did not want to die by fang.
So he ran.
Towards the splotches of light, towards death, the runner ran.
The runner sped through the splotches of light, which shone and swirled and whirled around him.
He did not look back. He had chosen to run.
So he ran.
Until finally, finally, with the utmost certainty, the runner realized he was ready to die. It was a realization most runners come to, if they can dig deep enough. He was no longer afraid. He had a fate to face, and he would face it.
He did not glace over his shoulder. He planted his feet and pivoted to face what came.
But nothing came. No beast pursued him. Confused, he realized the splotches of light were not indications of oxygen debt but stars. He wondered, idly, why he had stopped panting.
He realized his feet rested, not on snow and ice but atop a ribbon of the Aurora Borealis. He wondered, idly, how the light generated from Earth's magnetic field could support him.
The world unfolded beneath him. The stars sprawled above him. He realized he had run clear off the edge of the earth and into the heavens. He no longer had corporeal form, it seemed. He wondered, idly, at the larger implications of his actions. He wondered, idly, why he could only wonder idly about things.
He looked down at his feet, where the wolf had bit him, and saw a wolf's tooth lodged in either ankle. He wondered why it didn't hurt. Perhaps, without corporeal form, he did not feel corporeal pain.
He picked the teeth from his ankles and held them in his hands. He wondered how he had continued to run with them in his feet. Perhaps, without corporeal form, he was unbothered by corporeal physics.
As he held the teeth in his hands, they turned to spears. He stopped wondering here, and started accepting. He held two magical spears in his hand which he had won by outpacing a wolf. He stood atop a road of dancing ancestors. In front of him shone stars, millions of light years apart, that formed the shape of a bear, the Great Bear Spirit which, like him, had run clear off the edge of the earth.
It probably had feet he could borrow, and now he had two spears with which he could ask politely.
He found, lacking corporeal form, that he lacked corporeal fatigue. He hoisted his spears and, with the speed of a wolf, he ran towards the Great Bear Spirit.
With no weapons except the speed of a wolf, the runner charged the Great Bear Spirit.
It took up the entire sky before him. He realized, directly in front of it, that he had no idea what to do.
So he jumped. He found, lacking corporeal form, that he had no use for corporeal survival instinct.
He latched onto the Great Bear Spirit. He held on not for dear life-- he wasn't sure he had one anymore-- but because, lacking corporeal form, he also lacked corporeal reason. Wrestling with the Great Bear Spirit seemed to make spiritual sense, however, so he held on for that.
But the Great Bear Spirit swatted him from its hide.
Getting to his feet, the runner realized he still held the bear. Or the bear's coat, rather.
Some Inuit tell tales of giants that walk on the Arctic Ice in the form of polar bears. When they return to their igloo each night they hang their coat by the fire and assume the form of a man or woman.
The runner looked up to see Nan'nuq, the old man from the bar. His chest was bare, and he wore white trousers and clawed, furry boots. The runner remembered something the old man had told him before his journey began.
"Excuse me sir," the runner began, as politely as possible, "Wanna trade your boots for this coat?"
"That seems fair," the old man smiled, "The speed of the wolf, the strength of the bear, you may find your shaman, yet," and took his boots off. They traded: boots for coat.
Nan'nuq put on his coat and turned to walk away, a polar bear with old man feet.
"Wait!" the runner cried, "Now what do I do?"
"The shaman lives across the land, the sky and the sea," the old man told him, again, "and you've already crossed the land and the sky." Which wasn't exactly specific, but it seemed impolite to ask for clarification on mystic advice. Besides, the runner thought, it made spiritual sense, which was enough. There was one more thing he needed help with, though.
"How do I get down?" he asked
"Oh, just take those three stars," Nan'nuq told him, pointing to Orion's belt. In some Inuit tales, those three stars are the stairway to the heavens. In others, they are called "The Runners."
Again, the advice seemed to lack a certain practicality, but the runner had crossed the land and sky, outrun a wolf, and outwrestled a bear, all without practical advice, so he wasn't too worried.
With his new boots, he crossed the sky.
He reflected-- a dangerous thing to do on a quest, when all energies should be spent on "forward." Even more dangerous on a spiritual quest, which-- having fought a spirit bear in the sky-- he assumed he was on. Things only make narrative sense on a spirit quest, and if you look at them too hard they fall apart. Still, he reflected.
He had chased a bear to his own exhaustion, then fled from a wolf beyond exhaustion, beyond death, beyond even his own body and the laws of physics. He now ran along the Northern Lights surrounded by stars which were stars but also bears. He had then fought a bear, made of stars, and traded the wolf's teeth for the bear's feet, which were really just boots belonging to an angakkuit from a bar, who was a celestial bear but also a man in a bear's coat. He frowned, struggling to keep the conflicting realities in his head.
He crossed the Sky. He ran down Orion's Belt, which was really millions of miles away but also the stairway to and from the Spirit World.
He crossed the land. He came to the coast, with dark, dangerous waves lapping the shore, ready to swallow the unsuspecting wanderer.
He crossed the sea. The polar bear boots splashed across the surface, hopping from ice flow to ice flow. Soon-- or not soon, as time passed strangely without the sun-- the ice and sea blended together, and before him lay an endless, frozen tundra, broken only by the shimmering stars.
It occurred to him that the Inuit probably had so many stories about stars because there wasn't much else to look at.
He shivered, and realized it had been a long time since he had shivered-- first because he had been running too fast, then because he had been running for his life, then because he didn't have a body to shiver with. Now, apparently, he did.
Charging behind that realization came the hunger. Regardless of which reality he chose to focus on, he had run a long way and gone a long time without food.
"Grumble," said the runner's stomach, as he sped across the ice.
Suddenly, he spotted a caribou-- a brilliant white caribou shining brighter than the snow, the tips of its antlers twinkling against the stars. ("Maybe they ARE stars," said one side of his brain, "Dinner!" said the other side)
With the speed of a wolf he charged!
With the strength of a bear he lept!
... directly into the caribou's crown of antlers, which flung him backwards.
"Oof," said the runner
"Thud!" said the ground
"Whoosh!" said the runner's breath, leaving his body in a hurry. Stars that were stars that were also caribou antlers that were also oxygen debt danced in front of his eyes.
"Patience!" boomed a voice above and behind him. The runner, winded, could not open his eyes, much less turn around to look at the speaker.
"Swift as a wolf, strong as a bear, impatient as a child," said the voice. "Try again, but go slower."
When the runner had finally regained his composure he sat up to address the source of this unsolicited advice, but he saw no one.
"Who was that?" he wondered aloud.
"Grumble," said the runner's stomach, as he got to his feet.
"Nice deer," said the runner as he slowly approached the deer.
"Grumble," said his stomach, so he broke into a jog.
"Patience," the runner said to himself, as the deer fled.
"Grumble," said his stomach in disagreement, so with the speed of a wolf he charged!
With the strength of a bear he leapt!
... directly into the caribou's kick, which caught him just under the chin, sending a symphony through his nervous system and turned his limbs to jelly.
"BONG," said his skull.
"Oof!" said the runner.
"Thud!" said the ground. Stars that were stars but also caribou antlers but also ripples from his rattled skull danced in front of the runner's eyelids.
"Patience!" boomed a voice above and behind him, but the runner had not quite solidified his limbs yet and could not turn around to face the speaker.
"You must convince the Caribou that you have great need of it," the voice told him. "It will take many miles before it will give itself over to you."
The Caribou Mother, one of the oldest Inuit deities, resides in the sky, sort of. Really, she is huge. She is the sky. She is also the earth. The souls of men and caribou crawl across her like lice. When we are born, she plucks a soul from her hide and places it into our body. When a caribou is born, she plucks a soul from her hide and places it into their body. Our souls, however, are tiny and indistinguishable to her, and they often get mixed up. Caribou, therefore, must only be killed in time of great need, as to kill one is to kill your fraternal soul. Practically speaking, overhunting Caribou means fewer Caribou next year, which means fewer hides, tools and meals.
The runner didn't know this; he just knew he was hungry, and that every time he tried to touch the caribou it did him grievous bodily harm, so he had to find a way to kill it without touching it. He had an idea, but his stomach wasn't going to like it. He pushed himself to his elbows.
"Where does that voice go?" the runner wondered aloud.
"Okay... one more time," the runner told himself, and approached the deer slowly.
"Grumble," said his stomach. The runner ignored it.
"Patience..." the runner told himself, as the deer fled. He jogged, slowly, after it.
"Grumble," said his stomach in disagreement. "Patience," the runner told it.
"Patience..." the runner told himself as he continued to jog.
"Grumble," protested his stomach. "Patience," the runner told it.
"Grumble," protested his legs. "Patience," the runner told them.
"Lub Dub," protested his heart. "Patience," the runner told it.
"Huff... huff.." protested the caribou. "Patience," he told himself again.
"Patience..." the runner told himself as he saw the caribou slowing.
"Huff... huff..." protested the caribou, as its legs gave way.
"Dinner!" cried his stomach and legs and heart in harmony.
"Stop!" boomed the voice as the runner approached the caribou.
"Huh?" said the runner.
"When we are born," boomed a bearded giant, clad in crimson furs, "The Caribou Mother, whose antlers scrape the stars and cause them to twinkle, plucks two souls from her hide, placing one inside our bodies, and the other inside a caribou's body. Each man may lay claim to one caribou," the giant explained, "and that one is not yours."
"How do you know?" the runner protested. "Grumble," agreed his stomach.
"Because it is mine," said the giant.
"Oh," said the runner. "Grumble," said his stomach.
"You've run my lead caribou to the ground," the giant continued, "Which is impressive but inconvenient. Now you must take his place."
"But I haven't eaten!" protested the runner. "Grumble!" agreed his stomach.
"You've run my lead caribou to the ground," the giant continued, "Which is impressive but inconvenient. Now you must take his place."
"But I haven't eaten!" protested the runner. "Grumble!" agreed his stomach.
"Here, drink this," said the giant, pulling out a flask from beneath his heap of furs and beard.
"What is it?" said the runner, skeptical of drinks from strangers.
"Reindeer milk. Old arctic secret. Restores energy, helps blood flow, used to cross great distancs at incredible speeds."
The runner, still skeptical of drinks from strangers but more skeptical of starving in the Arctic, drank greedily. Warmth seeped down his throat, silencing his stomach, soothing his legs, releasing all the knots and tension and scar tissue that one gets from running to the North Pole via some celestial detours.
"This is amazing!" the runner exclaimed, his stomach gurgling in agreement. "So, why do you have a sled of caribou?" His brain, unable to speak over the din of his stomach, was now politely asking for his attention.
"Caribou can keep up. Dogs fret themselves away too early. Caribou are more patient," the bearded giant explained.
"Where are we going?" the runner asked. His brain, a little more urgent now, tugged at his consciousness with an urgent memo.
"Tonight we are crossing the sky," said the crimson-clad Arctic-dweller.
"In one night?!" the runner asked incredulously. His brain lost patience, called him an idiot, and left the memo on the tip of his tongue.
"Oh, it's not too impressive; it'll be night for another month, still," said the man with a sled full of reindeer.
"You're the Shaman of the North!" exclaimed the runner, finally.
"I am," said the Shaman of the North.
"I've travelled a long way to train with you," the runner told him.
"And train you have," the Shaman agreed.
The runner thought about escaping the wolf Amarok by running past death and clear into the sky. He thought about fighting the bear Nan'nuq atop the Norther Lights and winning His boots. He thought about running the Shaman's spirit caribou to exhaustion. He thought about the speed, strength, and patience that he had earned over his journey.
"Still though," said the runner, who had crossed land, sea and sky but wasn't exactly sure how he had done any of it, nor was he certain he could replicate it, "How do we do it?"
"As swift as wolves, as strong as bears, as patient as caribou," replied the Shaman of the North, "And a little bit of magic," he added.
Which wasn't exactly specific, the runner thought as he strapped himself into the lead position, but it seemed impolite to ask for clarification on mystic directions. Besides, it made spiritual sense, which was enough.
And if it wasn't enough, there was always a little bit of magic.