As the flashlight gradually died, I still could not rip my eyes from that mass — the possible body — against the wall.

Some instinct told me that if that thing was ever going to move, ever going to struggle up into a sitting position or roll toward me, this would be the time. Get the powdered milk, an inner voice screamed. Close the lid. Get out.

“Close the lid and get out,” I said aloud.

With that, something brushed against my leg. My scream flew up, bounced off my palate, and was swallowed convulsively, never quite managing to escape. But my whole body jerked, as though electrified. The experience was so sudden and wracking that I barely noticed my hand, still halfway into the barrel, scraping against the lid’s edge.

There was that feeling you get when you know that you have been sliced. Not injured or hurt. Just the brain’s registration of “sliced.”

The experience pulled my eyes from the could-be body. I had enough milk and stumbled out of there, jug in hand, bouncing off boxes and camping gear that filled the hirluaq, until I was on the porch.

My eyes were drawn downward toward white and red in the jug – blood in the powdered milk. The lid had nailed my little finger, so the pad just hung by the remaining skin. It was difficult to care as I fled toward home.

“What did you see?” my father asked.

I told him what had happened, asked if my theory was correct: That, as a lay pastor, he had placed a dead person in the hirluaq to await burial after winter.

“Just some old caribou skins,” he said.

I did not probe further, but the answer never sat well with me. It never helped me get a grip on why the hirluaq was such a horror, and that bothered me even more. Years went by. I tried to leave it be.

I only saw the hirluaq once as an adult. It was just a shed, not half as large as I remembered. It was hard to believe that it had ever contained such a world of darkness.

A truth: A wound is only best understood while it is healing, not when it is initially received. Similarly, the truth about adulthood is that we do not so much shed our fears, we simply become better at understanding why they are there.

My family almost lived in the hirluaq, you see. As mentioned earlier, the only childhood task I dreaded more than fetching things from the hirluaq was hauling combustibles, like paper, down to the shacks by the creek.

The stuff was for families who lived in those shacks. They burned it in barrels, for warmth. When Inuit were first cajoled into leaving their nomadic ways, there was nothing for them to live in. A tent or snow-house is comfortable, but impossible to maintain in a settled existence.

So those earliest families that settled used scrap wood, often cast-offs from construction, to build little shacks. They were poorly ventilated, breeding sickness and reeking of urine and vomit. Until the government recognized the crisis and instituted “matchbox” housing, that creek and the shacks along its sides were like the lands of the dead.

The hirluaq had been intended as our shack.

My family was blessed, and we never moved into that place, which we turned into our storage shed. But assisting poorer families with bags of things to burn was a constant reminder of what might have been.

I think the reason the hirluaq was such a place of horror for me was that, in a way, it was always still a shack by the creek, a place for Inuit to suffer and die in the dark. And it occurs to me that maybe my father had told me a kindly lie.

Perhaps the thing I had seen in the hirluaq really had been a body. After all, the pre-funereal dead have to be stored somewhere, don’t they? But it doesn’t matter now. I simply feel like a tragedy has been averted, and am thankful that Inuit are alive, walking about, with no shacks by the creek.

But, like the scar on my finger, my vision of an alternate future is indelible — the possibility of Inuit lying cold, tucked away, forgotten and dead, like that mass in the hirluaq.