Fishing for Lost Souls
The Kamaks live on a permafrosted island,
barren and colorless, where it’s easy to believe you are
alone on the planet but not in the universe. Even the
Kamaks wonder how they ended up there. Someone, they think,
lost his way.
Then, nights when they gaze into the clear,
cold, star-crowded sky, they’re reminded of just how lost
they are, and their sadness ripens into the profound ache of
those who have lost even themselves.
Long ago, when the earth was newly formed,
the Kamaks lived far to the south, where the air was warmer
and heavier and the land softer and greener. Then, they
say, something happened that made the Kamaks and the land
suddenly incompatible; either the land grew hostile toward
the Kamaks’ carefree and irresponsible living or the Kamaks
ceased to appreciate the land for its beauty and abundance.
Whatever the reason, the warmth began to burn, the air stuck
in their throats, and the bright colors seared their eyes.
The Kamaks knew they had to leave.
The Kamaks’ souls had other ideas. “Not so
fast,” they said. “We like it here.”
“But our stomachs reject the food and our
skin angers in the heat,” said the Kamaks.
“We don’t care,” said their souls. “The heat
pleases us, and the food means nothing to us—we’re souls,
after all, not bodies.”
The Kamaks don’t know why their souls became
so belligerent. It may be that the souls had begun meeting
at night, while the Kamaks were asleep. And they talked.
They developed their own ways. They decided that what they
liked and disliked did not always agree with the likes and
dislikes of Kamaks’ bodies, which felt more and more like
prisons to them. They developed their own music and dance
and held their own spirited celebrations and never invited
their Kamak bodies, who slept stupidly through the orgies of
their own souls.
The Kamaks were scandalized by their souls’
rebellion. They had always believed there were times—when
they made love, said the romantics—that their souls spoke to
each other. But they could never have imagined their souls
would sneak from their bodies and throw parties at night.
The Kamaks had to decide whether to stay with
their errant souls or leave for cooler lands and thereafter
go it alone. They pleaded with their souls.
“You can’t stay here! You belong to us!”
“What nonsense! It’s you who belong to us!
We know we can live without you, but the question you must
ask is whether you can live without us.”
In the end, the Kamaks took the risk. They’d
grown sick of the heat, the heavy air, the overly rich
food. The land was so green it hurt!
So they left, some of them weeping, and
sought a new home. They came to an ocean and sailed in
boats. The Kamaks are only fair sailors, though, and they
don’t have a keen sense of direction, so they drifted
endlessly, surviving on fish and rainwater, until finally
they awoke one morning to find their boats locked in by
ice. They stepped out and hiked to the nearest rise.
“This is our new home,” declared their
leader, his open hand trembling, his voice quaking in the
cold. The Kamaks looked at each other in frightened
silence. Someone coughed.
They adapted, learning to fish through the
ice in winter months, when only the moon provided solace
from the darkness, and to hunt reindeer and stay away from
bears in the summer months that were warmer and lighter and
reminded them of their former home, which some now wished
they’d never left. They found they could survive without
their souls after all, but they also felt a growing ache
that made them anxious and moody.
The Kamaks say they should have known what
would happen next.
One day, in the dead of winter, they awoke in
darkness and stepped outside their ice-huts to find the sky
littered with tiny lights.
“Our souls!” they cried. “Our souls have
come looking for us!”
At first, the Kamaks now believe, their souls
were probably thrilled to finally be free of their fleshy
wardens. Then, too late, they discovered the loneliness of
disembodied souls, the airy sadness of ghosts who moan and
shuffle through the eternal night. The souls longed for
their bodies, just as their bodies longed for their souls.
And so, in their sadness, the souls went looking for their
bodies. But Kamaks’ souls, like the Kamaks’, have a poor
sense of direction. Souls can only move upward and drift,
and from so great a height, the souls could not hope to see
or hear their living bodies calling to them.
“We’re here! We miss you too! Please return
to us and we’ll let you out at night!”
The souls did not answer back, and the dark
winter skies were cold and silent as always.
The more unhappy Kamaks had long thought of
setting out in boats for their lost home to the south, but
now they knew that would be useless. Their souls had gone
wandering, and the Kamaks would never feel at peace until
they brought their lost souls home.
It used to be that the source and final
destination of all Kamak souls was the Great One, but now
when a Kamak dies, his soul doesn’t know it. And while a
soul is released from the Great One when a Kamak is born, it
never makes it into a Kamak body. Instead, it gravitates
naturally toward the other souls. And so each Kamak child
is born without its soul, destined to experience the same
ache and emptiness as its parents.
Imagine the longing a Kamak feels when he
looks into dark skies and knows that somewhere in the galaxy
of lights his disembodied soul drifts on an impossible
search. Imagine the long winter months when the souls drift
above the Kamaks day and night, leaving the Kamaks in a sad
trance. They know they’d be better off with their eyes to
the ground, but even there the ice glimmers with the souls’
dim reflection. Imagine the long summer months when the sun
does not set, their souls don’t appear, and the Kamaks’
relief turns slowly to longing and then to concern that
their souls have given up the search.
But the Kamaks are not without hope. In
winter months, and in those months between seasons when the
stars come only at night, the Kamaks perform a simple,
moving ritual that translates as “fishing for souls.” When
the sea is navigable, they set out in boats, and when the
sea is iced, they walk far out onto the smooth, desolate ice
shelf. They carry torches, the flames casting orange pools
on the surface of the sea or the ice. When their leader
determines they have reached the right place, one far enough
from land that there is nothing to obstruct the firelight,
he holds up his trembling hand and announces with a quaking
voice, “Our souls may see us here.”
Then the Kamaks light the long arrows they’ve
brought with them and slide them onto their bows. The
leader says a prayer:
Dear lost souls, we send you this light and
to help you find your way.
Lost souls! We miss you!
Please return to us and we’ll give you
the light and heat you desire,
even in the darkest months of winter.
Lost souls, we’ll let you out at night
to practice your own customs
and enjoy your celebrations.
We’ll make love in the day
so you may speak to each other
through our eyes and fingertips.
Dear lost souls, follow these flames back
for our longing hearts to greet you.
And then the Kamaks shoot their flaming
arrows into the clear night like flickering beacons, while
the ice glows a pale orange with streaks of reflected
Only the arrows return to earth, but Kamaks
are certain that a day will come when the lost souls will
follow, falling from the sky like luminous rain and finally
making the Kamaks feel home again.