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Solstice

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Every culture marks the winter solstice in its own way--the ceremonies of Inti Raymi and Soyal, the Christmas lights and Yule logs, Chanukah with its menorahs. For all their variety, these rituals run to a common theme: the longest night of the year is held sacred as a time to gather, share food and drink and warmth, light the candles and burn the fires--to wait together, in hope, for the return of the sun.

The Inuit, of course, know that they won't see the sun the next day, or the day after, not for many days, in fact. Their celebration is an act of faith, performed in the trust that the sun shall return, as indeed it must someday, bringing light and life back into the land.

The traditional Inuit rite of solstice is the Bladder Festival, during which the men, the hunters, undergo a purification ritual in the kashim hut, which is filled with the inflated bladders of all the animals they've killed that year. After five days, they cast the bladders into a hole cut in the sea ice, then leap through a bonfire, engage in contests of strength, and take a final sweat bath.

I realize that it sounds ridiculous; I know (though I try not to dwell on the thought) how preposterous Ray would have found it, how the very words "Bladder Festival" would have caused him to give me that sidelong squint of incredulity, that nasal derisive laugh.

The people of Holman are not entirely traditional, and their celebration this year was devoid of animal bladders, and more in the nature of a noisy and cheerful party, down at the town hall. I was in attendance, of course, making sure that the teenagers were being kept away from the liquor and that Joe Ullulaq was behaving himself. During the evening, several young women tried, with many giggles, to pull me into the dancing, and though it was a kind gesture, I was grateful when they abandoned the effort. I don't belong out there on the floor with the men in their tassled caribou dance coats, shuffling and leaping to the drumbeats. I know these people, I care for them, I will guard and defend them with my life, if need be. But I'm not one of them, and never shall be.

Instead, after a while, I deputized Carl and Gilbert to keep an eye on the proceedings, and slipped out the back door, into the night. I felt some guilt at leaving my post, but I'd learned, with difficulty, that I could trust others to help me in my job, that I needed at intervals to make time for myself and my own thoughts. I harnessed up Dief and the other dogs, and steered the sled away from the town, out between the bluffs, into the empty land. Thought the darkness was almost complete, the moon glowed faintly through the clouds, just enough that I could, eventually, see the inukshuk.

I pulled up next to it, halted, anchored the sled. I folded a blanket onto the snow, and sat down on it, pulling my legs close to me. It wasn't particularly cold out, for someone adequately dressed, and the dogs, warmed from their run, were comfortable enough.

For a long time I just sat, letting my mind settle, emptying itself of the bustle and cheer of the party, and refilling with silence. It's rare for me to get much unbroken time to myself these days; I hadn't quite anticipated the relentless busyness that would come with serving as the lone representative of the law in this town. For the most part, I welcome the distractions and the demands, and the friendly intrusions of the townspeople's sociability. It's a healthy corrective to any tendencies to brooding, and keeps me usefully occupied.

But each of us has our own particular holy days in the cycle of the year, to be observed in private, and winter solstice is mine. Every year, on this longest night, I take some time alone to think back on the year past, take stock of myself and my life. Last year it almost passed by without my noticing it. I'd just arrived here, my days were filled with getting settled, getting to know the town and the people, and my nights were filled with long hours ticking past, as I curled up alone on my narrow cot and strove do anything but reflect on myself and my life.

Two years ago ... it seems impossible, but two years ago I was in Chicago, bruised and aching from my beating--but also, as I sat out the long night, filled with a fierce joy that Ray had stood by me, set aside his doubts and disagreements to back me up, had taken the wheel and called me to ride shotgun beside him. On that night, rather than contemplating the past, I was eager to move onward into the future, and I could almost feel the returning sun already glowing warm on me.

(But that was long ago, and in another country. I regather my thoughts, and glance up at the inukshuk, to remind myself of where and who I now am.)

Most rituals of solstice are about gathering together and making light; but what rituals I have I perform in solitude, in the darkness. I'd brought no paraphrenalia for a celebration--no candles, no log to burn through the night. The one thing I had thought of bringing with me was the single postcard I'd received, back in August, but that would have been silly. There's no way I could see it now, in the darkness, and in any event it's clearer in my mind's eye than it would be if I had it an inch in front of my face.

The card was a bit battered by the time it reached me, and had clearly gotten wet at some point in transit, so that certain words were smudged to illegibility. The front was a glossy photograph, a panomara of a desert city, with "Surprising Scottsdale!" embossed across it in florid script. On the reverse, the address was clear enough: "The Mountie, General Delivery, Holman, NWT Canada." The short message contained neither salutation nor signature: "I took down 3 [smudged word] robbers last week. [Smudged] another commen[smudge--"dation," I assumed]. It felt good. It's hot here, that feels good too."

After that was a line where a sentence had been written, and then scratched out with such ferocity that the pen had dug deep grooves into the cardstock. Beneath that, on a line of their own, a few last words: "I [smudge] you."

I'd often wondered what that final lost word was--"miss," perhaps? "hate"? "love"?

I'd like to think it might be "forgive," but that would be too long a word.

There had been no return address, and I took that as a sign; no matter how many times I'd found my hands moving for the telephone, for the computer keyboard, knowing that a few minutes' effort would locate him, I'd always pulled back. As much as I wanted to interpret the card as a reaching-out, I knew that to be wishful thinking.

The wind has picked up a bit, and I wrap my arms more tightly around myself. Though it might seem a bit melodramatic and pointless to be sitting out here in the night, alone--though Ray would certainly have found it so--still, it matters to me to sit vigil, to keep watch for that moment when we stop circling deeper into darkness and begin the long slow turn toward the light. It gives hope, through the deepest cold, that warmth will come again.

Strangely enough, Ray understood that central point about the solstice. I recall one time when we were sitting on stakeout on a chilly winter night, Ray shivering and complaining beside me, and I sought to console him by pointing out that at least the sun was rising earlier. I half-expected the comment to irk him, but instead he said, "Yeah. Y'know, it always seemed weird to me that it's--astrologically or whatever, it's supposed to be midwinter way back in December, which is when the bad part's just starting and you know you still got January and February to get through. And March too, most years. Like it's all out of whack." He made a gesture expressive of disjuncture, moving his hands in the cold darkness. "But then--upside is, even when you're freezing your nuts off, up to your ass in snow, you know the days are getting longer, so you got some reason not to just take a header off the bridge. It's like--you're still getting the crap kicked outta you, but you can hear the cavalry coming over the hill. Y'know?"

Understood, Ray. And though he would certainly have scoffed at the Bladder Festival, he perhaps would also understand . . . Well, of course bladders per se aren't the point, and as silly as its name may sound, the festival is rooted in deep and painful truths. It's a hunter's rite, a killer's ceremony of penance, to propitiate the souls of all that he's put to death. The Inuit are a pragmatic people; they know that death is necessary, for life to continue. And they know that in the time of darkness a man must make an accounting of the price paid. I like to think that Ray would understand that too.

The dogs are getting restless now, muttering and shifting in their harness. The clouds have covered over the moon, and it's fully dark, so black that even the inukshuk, that enduring guidepost, is lost to sight. I push back my coat sleeve, press the button on my watch, and the faint blue light springs up to illuminate the numbers.

12:37; solstice has passed, a new year has begun. There are many days of darkness still ahead, I know, but the earth has completed its cycle, and is turning slowly back toward the light. I rise, shake out the blanket, unstake the dogs, and wheel them back toward the town, and the life that awaits me there. The deepest cold is yet to come, but I move onward into it in faith that, somewhere out of my sight, the sun is beginning its return.