I Will Stay With You As I Live And Breathe
By sean mcnulty
‘To my dear family,
If I am still alive and you find yourself reading this letter, then you must stop reading this instant.
I don’t care if you have opened it by accident.
Put it away right now and wait until I’ve met my demise.
Okay – am I dead yet?
Okay – good – now you can go on reading.
You will by now have ceased asking about the island from whence I came and how I eventually settled with you in Denmark.
Walter – you have bugged me many times on the question and will continue to do so, I am sure.
And Katrine – my angel – I have no doubt you will grow to be a rational adult and so naturally inquisitive you shall be regarding these ancestral details.
The truth is: my recollections of the island are few.
I have small memories like the crunch of seaweed in my mouth and the smell of ripe cloudberries in summer.
I recall climbing tall trees in a great forest with friends; these faces, the children I played beside, are among the only faces that have stayed with me along with the reassuring countenance of my aunt.
I have no memory of attending school on the island.
I did not know my parents and lived with my aunt there until I reached adolescence.
It was around that time she arranged for both of us to leave.
We hitched a ride with a Norwegian frigate and we got to Oslo.
My aunt later married a commander in the navy.
She spent a number of years trying to wipe my mind clean of Akkitok and I think she succeeded as my memories are muted to this day.
But in her later years she became racked with guilt over this.
She had taken both of us from the island and we had travelled far but years after she acknowledged there was something tying both of us to the land.
She spent those years resuming the old customs and guided me privately in the philosophy of the island.
My aunt died when I was twenty-two.
I had already moved to Copenhagen by that time and was a student in the university.
She was forty-three.
But she made it clear to me in the last years that it was important our bodies were returned to Akkitok for burial.
It was the island itself that our people worshipped, she told me.
They were not nomadic.
To leave was to commit a great sin.
The naval commander brought her body back to be buried but I did not hear a word from him again.
Which I didn’t mind so much as I never liked the man.
I did not travel with him to Akkitok to see her buried and this I regret hugely to this day as I believe she would have wanted me to see her final resting place.
I now realise I should have left with her.
I feel now and forever caught between worlds.
But, my sweethearts, concentration holds strong with you for now.
And I will stay with you as I live and breathe.
But I ask when I die that my body too is returned to Akkitok and buried there.
This is a monumental request – I know.
I do not make it lightly.
I will not frame this as imperative, only last wish and appeal.
I see those tall trees of my childhood each day and voices calling from the north.
You will find Akkitok if you head four hundred and fifty miles northeast of Jan Mayen Island.
I hope you can both tolerate these totemic impulses.
That is all.
I love you.
Your forever devoted mor and wife,