On a frozen coast near the top of the world, there lived a northern clan and a southern clan. Distance between the two was sometimes hard to measure in the white, wintry landscape, but they knew their two settlements lay only a day’s journey apart. When the days were short, they could meet within only a few hours. When the days were long, it took hours more. During the season when the sun never set, the two clans could not meet at all. When the sunless season arrived and a day meant no time at all, the southern clan merely had to step outside their settlement to find the northern clan’s homes, and this was the danger.
At plentiful times of year, when you couldn’t throw a net or spear into the water without catching a fish or seal, the two clans traded tools, food, and sometimes kin in arranged marriages.
But a year is not always plentiful at the top of the world. Dark days scared many animals away from the clans, and dark months drained stores of food. At these times, men from the southern clan left their homes, walking only a few steps over the ice to reach the settlement of the northern clan in search of food. The northern homes rested under the ice, only visible by the smoke trickling up from the white-dusted ground. A family sat around a fire, telling stories to keep the darkness at bay at one moment, and then at the next the darkness invaded their lives in the form of axes, chopping through ceilings and clothes, flesh and bone. Other families, hiding in their own holes, heard the screaming ring through the walls and did not move for fear of being eaten.
Incidents like this happened in all the lean times. Whenever life grew easier, the southern clan resumed trade as if nothing wrong had happened and the northern people were expected to forget the butchery of their kin, as quickly as the hungry men forgot that some of their own lived among their prey.
One year, as the animal numbers grew lean and food stores became shallow for the northern clan, they decided something had to be done. They considered huddling up in one large home, but perhaps then the hunters would slaughter them all. They considered taking some of the southern clan’s people, but the north didn’t want to eat human flesh and hostages would not stop hungry men.
They grew desperate, unsure, hopeless, and then a stranger appeared. She dressed in the furs and skins of a clan that lived much farther north and she bore the wounds of that harsher land on her body. Ninety-nine years filled her life, seven toes graced her feet, five fingers were shared between her hands, three teeth stuck up from her gums, and only one eye remained in her head.
“I know your troubles, for I am Pukulria, who sees past and future in the lights of the sky,” the ice witch said. “For you I will craft the Tupilaq, a monstrous worm that will defend your homes and your lives. But his birth will require a sacrifice. I’ll need all your tools of bone and sinew to craft the Tupilaq tonight.”
The northern clan didn’t want to surrender their tools, but if their stores were emptying, then the southern clan likely faced the same trouble. Worse, each day grew shorter than the last. In three days, the sun would barely grace the sky and hungry men would emerge from the darkness. The northern people gave Pukulria all their tools, the ones for slaying beasts and for cooking, the ones for chipping ice and for building homes.
Pukulria toiled through the night until a screech sounded across the ice. A great worm of bone and sinew emerged beneath the witch’s hands, stretching longer than seven men, with teeth as sharp as any spear. When hunters from the south appeared with axes and appetites, they were driven home in a hurry by the Tupilaq’s howls, and the only screams heard by the northern clan that night were those of the hunters’ terror.
On the next brief morning, the people found the Tupilaq lying in pieces on the ice, its body and energy spent.
“The sacrifice was not great enough to keep him alive for more than a night,” Pukulria told the clan. “To your misfortune, the men of the south will grow hungry again and come in greater numbers. I can make another Tupilaq, but I will require some of your food stores to craft the second one.”
The northern clan didn’t want to surrender a morsel of their food stores, which sat shallow enough already, but they didn’t want their families to become the food stores of the south. They gave Pukulria what meat and bone remained of whale, walrus, and seal, hoping this would be enough to make a new guardian.
Pukulria toiled through the night and another Tupilaq was born beneath her hands. When hunters came from the south with spears and slavering tongues, they were driven off once more by the Tupilaq’s howls, and the northern clan slept safely, if a little hungry.
In the scant sunlight of the dawn, they found the second Tupilaq resting in pieces on the ice, and the food that formed its body had shriveled up.
“Even this sacrifice was not great enough to keep him alive for more than a night,” Pukulria told the clan. “Worse, the men of the south will come in full force tonight, determined to eat your people before resorting to eating each other. I can make a third guardian, but I will require your children to craft the Tupilaq tonight.”
No one in the northern clan wanted to give up their children, who were few enough in number anyway, but if all the people were killed by the coming southern clan then there would be no more children in the future either. With heavy hearts and many tears, the sons and daughters of the northern clan were put to the axe, and then put to the witch’s use.
Pukulria toiled through the night, threading a third and bloody Tupilaq through her fingers. When the hunters traveled from the south in great numbers and with a gnawing in their guts, they were driven off again by the cries of the Tupilaq, yet the sounds of their retreating screams did not ease the northern clan into slumber this time. They were weakened without their tools, hungry without their food, and heartbroken without their children.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Rising from the ice while the footprints of the southern hunters remained fresh in the snow, the people of the northern clan harnessed their only remaining weapon, the one they’d bought in bone and blood, the Tupilaq, and marched south. The journey took only a few steps at this dark time of year, so close to the sunless season, and they arrived at the homes of the southern clan right behind the failed, hungry hunters.
The Tupilaq burrowed into the ice, its teeth chewing up limbs, splitting spears and heads, and gnawing out hearts. No weapon could harm the undead beast, and few men had the courage to raise a hand when faced with a monster whose skin and muscles resembled the bodies and faces of children. While the worm tore the hunters and their women to pieces, the remaining people of the northern clan swept into the southern homes and gathered up the children of the dead to replace their own.
When scant sunlight shimmered for a few minutes the next day, there was only one clan remaining on the icy coast, and the shallow food stores were enough to last the few people who remained. The third Tupilaq fell dormant like his brothers and looked much like a line of children’s bodies that had been left out too long in the cold.
Pukulria took her leave before the clan could ask anything else of her, and if she took with her a few fingers, toes, and teeth for her own purposes that weren’t used in making the final Tupilaq, no one noticed.