The Girl Who Married a Gnome

Arouk lived with her aged parents in a small sealskin summer tent close to the mouth of a great fjord. Many hunters who traveled up and down the fjord in summer stopped to visit Arouk, but her father always sent them away because he believed no man was good enough for his beautiful daughter. Arouk loved her parents, but she very much wanted to get married.

One day a young man paddled up to the shore and called, “Arouk. Arouk. Come out.”

“Listen, father. He knows my name,” said Arouk pushing aside the caribou-hide door cover of the tent to peek outside.

“Go away,” yelled her father to the young man. “There is no one here by that name.”

But the young man persisted. “I have seen Arouk. I know she is there,” he yelled back. And then the brazen young man got out of his kayak and walked up to the little tent. The stranger’s boldness made the old man angry.

“Go away,” he said, and he pushed the young suitor backwards. But the young man caught himself, straightened up, and shoved the old man down onto the ground. Furious that a young man would show such a lack of respect, Arouk’s father picked up a rock and threw it. The rock struck the young suitor on the head, and he fell to the ground unconscious.

“Oh, my,” the father muttered. “What have I done?” The old man suddenly feared for his life. He called to his wife and daughter and told them to pack up the family’s belongings and hurry down to the shore. The family loaded up their little umiak, and left as quickly as possible.

On shore, the young suitor, who had regained consciousness, jumped up and shouted, “You will be sorry, old man. Your daughter will never find a husband, and you will starve before I or any other man gives you food.”

The old man, his wife, and their beautiful daughter traveled for many hours before they spotted a small island far away from the mainland and went ashore. Half hidden behind a giant boulder sat an abandoned stone house that suited them quite well.

The family lived happily in the little house until one day, when the old man began to have visions. “This morning I saw a little man in our house,” he said to his wife and daughter. Arouk shrugged her shoulders and continued to cut up seal meat for the evening meal.

Again the next morning, Arouk’s father saw the little man reaching up toward Arouk’s sealskin lamp to warm his tiny hands. But when the father got down from the sleeping platform, the little man was gone. “I am certain there was a little man standing here just a minute ago,” he said to Arouk.

At last the daughter spoke: “Father, I have married an atliarusek [an Inuit word for elf or gnome]. But I feared you would not like him, so I do not let him stay long in our house.”

The old man thought this news over. Finally, he said, “I do not mind. Tell him to come and live with us.”

The following morning when Arouk’s father woke up he saw the stout little man sitting on the platform beside his daughter. He was pleased to have a new son-in-law, even if he was very small.

That evening Arouk’ s husband brought home a stack of fresh seals. “My husband has brought us meat,” she told her father, “but he must take some home to his relatives, and we will not see him for awhile.”

A long time passed before the atliarusek returned, but finally one morning when the old man awoke, his elusive son-in-law was resting comfortably beside his daughter. The old man smiled and laid back down on his furry caribou blanket.

For many months the stout little man sat beside Arouk in the morning, but he always disappeared before the family got up. One morning, however, the atliarusek did not disappear. He stayed home all day. “I am resting,” he told his father-in-law. “Tomorrow I must go to the mainland and visit my people.”

“We will join you,” said the old man.

“No, it is a very long trip,” said the atliarusek staring up into his father-in-law’s anxious face. “I must travel far up a long fjord, and it takes many days.”

Arouk stopped mending her father’s caribou-skin anorak. “We would all like to join you,” she said to her husband. “We are hardy people.”

Eventually, the atliarusek agreed to let his wife and her parents follow him in their umiak. They set off the next day, but the family had to paddle very hard to keep up with the atliarusek’s little kayak as it skimmed expertly over the water.

That evening when they stopped to rest, a series of tiny kayaks carrying other atliaruseks joined them. And each day thereafter, whenever they stopped to rest, more kayaks filled with the little people got in line behind them.

One afternoon, Arouk’s husband pulled up beside the old man’s boat and said, “We are going to disappear so that people on land do not see us. Stay in the wake of our boats.” Then, all of the boats disappeared under the sea.

“This is very frightening,” said the old man to his daughter. “Perhaps we should not have followed your atliarusek husband.” But before he could say another word, their umiak dove underwater and resurfaced at a place beyond where they could be seen from the shore.

Arouk’s family followed the long line of atliarusek kayaks up a narrow fjord. When at last they stopped, they had to tie up their boats onto large boulders sticking up out of the water.

The atliaruseks stopped below a steep cliff where a progression of natural steps made it easier for them to climb to the top. Even so, the atliarusek had to reach above their heads, grab the edge of each step above them, and pull themselves up, one step at a time. Arouk and her family followed after them.

Arouk and her parents followed the atliaruseks far inland until they came to the Valley of the Caribou where thousands of large brown caribou fed on stubby willow trees and clumps of grey-green grass that grew where the snow had melted. “You may stay here and I will hunt with you,” said the atliarusek to his wife and her parents.

The family hunted caribou all summer with the atliarusek people and filled their umiak with meat and furs to take home. When it was time to leave, they bade goodbye to their new friends and headed down the fjord and back out to the sea. Now, even if the seals stayed away the following winter, the family would not go hungry.

Not long after they arrived home, a hunter from their old village came to visit. The visitor told Arouk’s family that his people at home were starving. The old man grew silent after he heard the news.

His family had enjoyed great prosperity during the summer, and he knew he should share it with his old friends. So he loaded up his boat with caribou meat and hides and journeyed back to his old village. When he pulled up to shore, his boat overflowing with fresh meat, the men scorned him.

“You expect us to believe you got this yourself?” asked the young man who had tried to steal Arouk from her family. “You would not allow your daughter to marry; therefore you cannot have anyone to secure meat for you. You could not have taken all this caribou meat by yourself!”

The old man remained silent as he unloaded the meat on shore for his old friends, got back into his boat, and paddled home. Before long, Arouk’s husband returned home and heard the story about the ungrateful friends. “Invite them to our island. We will show them our prosperity.”

The old man did as his son-in-law requested—he returned to his old village and invited the men to his island for a feast.

Soon a long line of kayaks, many carrying his daughter’s old suitors, pulled up along the shore. Arouk’s family invited them in and prepared a great feast of caribou meat and seal blubber. After everyone had eaten, the old man stood up and spoke.

“Do you remember a long time ago one of you wanted my daughter for your wife? And do you remember that I had to flee from our village with my family because that suitor would not respect an old man and might have killed him? And that same young man prophesied that my daughter would never find a clever husband? Well, here sitting among you is my son-in-law who is a very great hunter,” and the old man pointed to the atliarusek.

The men lowered their heads in shame.

“And does one of you remember that he vowed never to feed us if we were starving?”

Still, the men sat in silence. Not one of them raised his head—especially not the young man who was guilty of having made the threat.

The old man stood proudly before the group. “A father knows the man his daughter should marry,” he said. “You see that I have made the right decision.” Then, the old man’s voice softened, and his words came forth gently. “Help yourself,” he said. “Eat as much as you like.”

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