Asavakkit was a young narwhal who lived in the deep, dark ocean under the ice on the roof of the world. It was very deep, and very dark, and very, very cold under the icebergs known to the narwhal as iluliaq. But for Asavakkit, with a narwhal’s thick hide and a cozy cocoon of fat, the bitter cold of his watery home was only a whisper against his skin as he raced the waves.
The wind shrieked over the water’s surface and the ice cracked like thunder. The sun would not show his face again until the moon had waxed and waned three times. Winter had descended. But Asavakkit was not afraid. The heart of the young narwhal leapt with joy. Winter was the time of the feast.
Asavakkit bobbed with Kusanaq, his mother, at the surface. They breathed the cold sea air deeply.
“It is time to dive, mama? Aa-at? Is that right?”
“Yes, beloved,” said Kusanaq. “We dive.”
So smooth, so sleek, so strong, so fast. Young Asavakkit and his mother Kusanaq plunged into the depths like comets mottled black and grey. A quarter mile. A half mile. And still they gained speed. Three quarters of a mile. A full mile, straight down. Asavakkit flipped onto his back and skimmed the ocean floor. He was hunting halibut.
The starlight that illuminates the long night of the roof of the world could not plumb the great depths. The young narwhal Asavakkit hunted in utter darkness. He only knew if his eyes were open by the caress of the water flowing past. The waters of the deep below clasped him in a tight embrace. Time seemed to slow as the narwhals pressed through the darkness, thick like molten glass.
He felt a flutter in the silt beneath his skin. With a powerful thrust of his fluke, Asavakkit turned full circle, head over tail, plunging his teeth into the wriggling darkness below. Oh, how he loved the taste of halibut. The flesh was firm and the bones crunched. He took one large bite after another until he could eat no more.
He felt Kusanaq, his mother, brush his back, ever so lightly. Together they returned to the surface. Asavakkit took a deep breath.
“I am halibut-hunter, deep-diver, fast-swimmer, mama!” he shouted.
Kusanaq brushed her son’s face with her own.
“Beloved, hunting is what we do, diving is what we do,” said Kusanaq. “That is not who we are.”
Asavakkit and Kusanaq his mother watched the great dance of the aurora borealis weave through the starry sky.
Asavakkit saw a tall, black fin cutting the waves like a knife. Then he saw another close behind.
“Mama! It is time to hide, aa-at? Is that right?”
“Yes, beloved,” said his mother Kusanaq. “We hide.”
Asavakkit could see the white heights of the iluliaq behind the tall, black fins like knives. The orca were bigger, perhaps faster, and with teeth like harpoons. But their tall dorsal fins were a poor design for the underwater labyrinth beneath the great ships of ice.
Asavakkit and Kusanaq dove at an angle, aiming for the safety of the iluliaq. They would have to out-swim the orca. And the orca had seen the narwhals make their move.
The orca wasted no time in their pursuit. Asavakkit could feel a wall of water pushing him from behind as the orca closed in. He saw his mother Kusanaq dip her head and point straight down.
Faster, faster Asavakkit plunged after Kusanaq into the crushing depths. He was sure he would feel an orca’s sharp teeth in his tail at any moment. A final burst of speed, and Asavakkit could no longer sense the orca’s presence behind him. The narwhals were too deep. The orca could not follow.
Kusanaq headed straight for the field of iluliaq. Asavakkit kept right by her side. They were almost there. So close. They began their ascent, swimming hard. Asavakkit could not wait to take a deep breath.
But suddenly the orca were right before them, cavernous red mouths open wide. They had swum ahead and lain in wait in the shadow of the iluliaq.
Kusanaq jerked left. Asavakkit twisted right. There was a moment of hesitation while the orca weighed whether to pursue the larger meal or the less experienced prey. They followed Asavakkit. But they were too late.
Asavakkit, his body like a torpedo, was skimming the underwater surface of the iluliaq, easily darting into every crevice, flowing past each contour. The orca could not follow.
Asavakkit met his mother Kusanaq at the surface, surrounded by the safety of the iluliaq at a crack in the ice. Breath had never been so sweet.
“Mama! I am orca-evader, ice-skimmer!” shouted Asavakkit.
Kusanaq brushed his fin with her own, so lightly.
“Beloved, evading the orca is what we do, knowing the iluliaq is what we do,” said Kusanaq. “That is not who we are.”
Asavakkit and Kusanaq watched the reflection of the sweeping green lights of the aurora borealis on the undulating surface of the iluliaq.
The winter was drawing to an end. Asavakkit looked down his nose at the spiraling white tusk that now grew there, causing his lip to ache. He raised his tusk into the cold air, slapped it down onto the waves. He slashed it through the water, then raised his head again. He could see that the beautiful narwhal with a lovely grey mark like a star on her cheek was watching him.
Then another young narwhal, his tusk glinting, swam up to her. Asavakkit snorted through his blowhole.
“Now, I fight,” said Asavakkit to Kusanaq, his mother. “Aa-at?”
“Yes, beloved,” said Kusanaq. “You fight.”
Asavakkit dove. He curved through the water in a wide arc, breaking the surface between the lovely narwhal with the grey mark on her cheek and the intruder. Asavakkit brandished his tusk.
His adversary slapped his tusk down on the surface of the waves. Asavakkit slashed his head from side to side. The narwhals moved left and right, crossing tusks. Asavakkit lunged forward, staring down his foe.
Asavakkit snorted loudly through his blowhole as the intruder swam away, bleeding slightly from a tusk scrape under his eye. The narwhal with the lovely grey mark on her cheek brushed Asavakkit’s fin lightly with her own before swimming back to her mother.
Asavakkit swam to Kusanaq. She was watching the great waves of green light that adorned the night sky of the roof of the world.
“I am the foe-brawler, the tusk-brandisher, the victor!” said Asavakkit.
“Beloved, fighting is what you do,” said Kusanaq. “It is not who you are.”
“And who do you say I am, mama?” asked Asavakkit.
“Do you see the waves of the spirit sea?” asked Kusanaq, looking up at the swaths of color that danced among the stars. “As those lights to the sky, so are you always to my heart.”
Asavakkit felt his spirit rise on the waves of light.
“Seek that which illuminates your own heart, beloved,” said Kusanaq.
Asavakkit turned towards the narwhal pod, seeking the face of the beautiful narwhal with the grey mark like a star on her cheek.
Vocabulary Guide for The Young Narwhal
Aa-at (Ah-aht): ‘Aa-at’ is Greenlandic for ‘Is that right?’
Asavakkit (Ah-SAW-vah-kit): ‘Asavakkit’ is Greenlandic for ‘I love you’.
Iluliaq (Ih-LOO-lee-ahk): ‘Iluliaq’ is Greenlandic for ‘Iceberg’.
Kusanaq (Koo-saw-NAHK): ‘Kusanaq’ is Greenlandic for ‘beautiful’.
Narwhal: Narwhals are whales that live in the Arctic Ocean surrounding the North Pole. Narwhal males grow a long tusk, or tooth, straight forward through their upper lip as they grow up.
Orca: Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are large black and white relatives of dolphins. They live in all of the world’s oceans and hunt fish, seals, sharks, birds, and even other whales.
March 2012, © Bethany Joy Carlson