Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beginning The Exile

The following is an excerpt from my Arctic Memoir Exiled from the Tundra.  Shortly after the start of my second year teaching in the Arctic, an assault by a member of the community required me to leave the village and to determine how accountable I was for the incident.  The night after the assault I visited a Surete du Quebec detachment in a neighbouring village to give me account of the incident.  As always was the case, the plight of the Inuit took precedence over anything I might have been concerned about.

There was no small talk on the way to the station.  The officer would be prying enough out of me in a few moments and it would be better to do it while he had pen and paper rather than have the false start in the truck and leave too much out when it came time write things in detail.  I was a bit uncomfortable with the silence and, desperate to fill it, complimented the village.  He remained silent and I did not choose to push the silence back further.  

We arrived at a small building which appeared to be nothing more than a modified shipping container and the officer politely offered me a seat and a coffee.  I declined.

We started with a few questions about the time and place of the incident that occurred at my home 24 hours before and then proceeded to the extent of the relationship that existed between the woman and I prior to the incident.  I started with her presence in my income tax class in April and that we knew each other in passing from that time and from the time that I stayed in the hotel while my plumbing was being fixed.  I did not share the occasion where she may have dropped in while I was on my way out to the school.  I could not confirm it was her so I did not bother.  As I thought about it again, I was convinced that her stalking - if that was what it was - had started early the previous winter.  I recounted the insistence of her questions and requests for attention during the tax class.

The officer struggled to determine whether or not that amount of contact was enough to warrant the vengeance of a jilted lover and his brow clearly furrowed, but he would not give away whether he did not believe that I was telling the truth or could not believe that she had pursued me despite my limited involvement.  He was starting to see the likelihood of a pattern of stalking when the phone rang out, startling the officer more than me.  His face pinched with apology and anxiety as he looked at me before picking up the phone.  He spoke briefly and scribbled on a separate pad as the voice on the other end of the line worked in a higher range, filled with urgency and fear.  He hung up, apologized to me for the interruption and took off.

Left alone for a while, I paced all of the two steps the space allowed and found himself staring through the bars of the small cells that were on the opposite side of the desk.  Each of the two was slightly bigger than an outhouse, with enough room for a stool next to the stainless steel toilet.  I was surprised.  For some reason I didn’t think that I would see such a thing in a police station. 

“Of course stupid,” I said out loud to myself.

There was something illicit about being alone in a police station of all places.  The feeling quickly passed and I became cautious about learning too much about the place.  I stopped looking around the station for details about how things worked there.  A jar of Coffee Mate and pile of styrofoam cups intimated more universal routines, but I turned a blind eye to anything that would have revealed the inner workings.  I heard a car door slam and darted back to my seat.  Nobody came in.  It was a neighbour coming or going.  I remained seated, the two jail cells stuck in my imagination.  I reflected on how they were used and wondered how often people were put in there.  In my case the night before, they did not lock the woman up until she reappeared to accost me.  If she had not done this, she would have been able to sleep the night off as she wished.  Even then, they let her out as soon as they could.  
I sat in the chair trying to keep still and did not have the space to pace as I would have liked.  Not wanting to be caught being nosy, I didn’t glance at the report to see how it read to me.  Another 20 minutes passed and my thoughts became as still as I was.  

When the door crashed open, it startled me back to reality and the ejaculation of, “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?” from the perp brought me to a previously unknown level of meek.
My consciousness and train of thought were restored, along with the details and biochemistry of the attack the night before, if only for a moment.

“Smarten up,” the officer said to the man.

The officer put the drunk in the cell.  I recalled the fresh image of the cell and I added the image of the drunk perp sitting there, cuffed and teetering on the three-legged stool.  I never got a good look at his face.  His unruly hair and the downward tilting posture of the handcuffed obscuring any efforts I could have made to discern something that would help me empathize with the man somehow.  Through the hair, his face was incoherent shards of cheek and chin, a nose and a glinting, watery eye.  He passed too quickly and his words intimidated me too much for me to combine those elements into the biography or personality of someone who ended up in the jail at this small village's police office early on a Monday night. 

“I’m sorry man.”
“Settle down.  I’ve got work to do here.  When I finish this we’ll talk about it.”
“I love her too much man.”
“It’s Montreal that’s making you like this.  Every time you come back...”
“I know I know.  It just makes me crazy in my head when I go there.  I really love her though, man.”
“I know.  I got to work.  Okay?”
The perp’s tone changed slightly to redirect his words to me, “I’m sorry there, man.”
My ears perked up and I looked to the officer to see if he should say anything.  He did not indicate that silence was better.
“It’s all right.”
“Now, where were we?”, the cop asked.

We continued with the interview from where we left off, occasionally interrupted by apologies from the cell.  The officer took pains to accept them and the conversation that went back and forth between them suggested a familiarity that went back ages rather than the brief gathering of facts from the pick up, just as it would have to in a village so small.  The officer kept reminding the man of what was necessary to keep him out of jail and off the bottle.  The man in the cell acknowledged this and said that he knew, but that the devil was a “strong guy” and that he was weak.  

The officer looked over the report that he had in front of him and paused for a moment to consider any other questions he might ask before nodding and adding, “That’s it.  Thanks.”

The story of what had happened the night before, how a drunk woman came to my home demanding to spend the night and threatened to kill me when after a long, drawn out confrontation I declined every possible way I could until faced with the threat on my life, each of he syllables punctuated by a trigger pull on her finger gun.  The account at the police station was a bit more desiccated and detailed than this description, but the questions about my career as a teacher hung overhead and required me to fly south to Montreal for another account of the incident, where the likelihood was that I would be presumed guilty, despite clearly being the victim.

The cop gave a head jerk towards the lockup to indicate there were protocols.  I would have to wait.  I had become too familiar with “Inuit time” and thought about the possibility of waiting another two or three hours until somebody came along to look in on the perp while I was delivered back to the principal’s house for the night.  I wondered for a moment if I would be asked to stand vigil if another call came in.  As the officer took a peek at the prisoner and contemplated the incident that he had extracted the perp from, the pain and sympathy in his face etched a few more decades into his face for a moment.  

The two of them likely knew each other since childhood and each knew where the other was headed but had no interest in changing their own paths.  It was the trope of a more gothic police movie or one of those stark paeans to hardship from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.  Two men destined to have their shoulder-to-shoulder lives intersect at this point, where the little that stands between them just happens to be so much.  It was not a story that was told as often in the north, it is not part of their heritage or mythology as far as I knew it.  

Under the circumstances, the best this officer could do was to don the cloak and authority of the kalunait justice system.  For countless reasons, he could not (formally) rely on elders for their advice or insight.  He was not able to offer an ancient, rooted alternative to the kalunait.  If what I experienced the night before was an indication, the SQ was probably too tentative to enforce the law as strictly as it would in the south, consequently making themselves less effective and leaving a void in the balanced and constructive application of justice.  

Perhaps the two of us were cogs hoping to keep a much bigger machine humming along, even though there was little indication that we were making a difference with the work we were doing or keeping the machine operating, regardless of the direction it may be going in.  Contemplating what the school ought to be doing was an engaging topic to grapple with and it was a stimulating a subject for reflection and conversation - the intellectual counterweight to the commitment and support I had devoted to the kids in my class.  

Sooner than I expected, the replacement the officer called arrived.  He seemed to be nothing more than a friend of the officer and after a few quick instructions he sat himself down at the desk, familiar with the routine and his surroundings.  He looked in at the sleeping prisoner and assured the officer he could handle things in the meantime.

We drove back to the principal’s house, each of us sitting quietly with our own thoughts.  A few times each, we sighed with a soft extended rasp.  It was not in imitation of one another, but seemed a way of replying, “You can say that again,” to the thoughts of the other.
Finally, at the principal’s house, “He’s going to be my brother-in-law.”
“Ah.”  It was all I could manage.  In English, of course, it expressed the surprise and inability to add more, and I had been around enough Inuktitut to have it mean “yes,” as well.
“Good luck.”

It surprised me to hear this from him.  I hadn’t thought that I was worthy of it, especially with what lay ahead for him that night and beyond.  We shook hands and I could only hope it was reassuring to him. 

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