The longest winter night:
plum petals fall and finally
the western moon.
The shock of hitting the icy water was so sudden, so powerful that it knocked all the breath from her lungs in a great soundless scream. Robbed of that last buoyant reserve, she began to sink.
Her tanned garments were made to keep out the cold and to deflect any water splashed on their oiled surfaces, but they were not meant to withstand an assault from all sides like this, and once the water slipped in beneath their cuffs and hems, they were only deadweights, dragging her small body down. She tried to move, but her muscles would not listen to her; they sent her back messages of pain, of feeling like the slightest impact might cause them to shatter like some great glacier, casting its edge into the ocean. One arm still stuck out in front of her, still as though she were gripping the longship's sturdy prow, telling her the story of how she should have tried to hold on longer, how curiosity should not have enticed her to lean so far over the edge, how she should have listened more closely to her father's warnings.
But she could not even hear anything now; the ocean was curiously mute, as though it were wrapping her in one of her mother's lush fur blankets, until all the world was white.
The salty water stung her eyes, and she realized she was looking up through water, watching the play of dim blue light as it broke and crackled on the surface of the dark sea. Midwinter had been only days ago, and the sun had not yet resumed its custom of keeping a full day in the sky; even at noon, as it was now, the sky was dim, and if she squinted, she could almost imagine the stars along the horizon, waiting, straining against the day. She could not see the stars from beneath the water, though, and then it began to dawn on her that she would probably never see the stars again, because she would die here.
She knew that idea should scare her, the thought of her own death, but now it was as remote from her as her own hands, all intellectual realities that she could neither control nor really justify worrying about at this moment. She knew, too, that the paralytic cold should be inducing her to panic, but she found that despite the initial surprise of contact, it did not cause her any fear. On the contrary, she was surprised at how gently the ocean held her, how softly it cushioned her as she sank deeper into its great, lightless heart. It did not resist her; she feared only that she had intruded upon its vast majesty, but it made a place for her inside itself, rushing in over as though she'd always belonged there, and it had been keeping a place for her.
Above her, the already-faint light had nearly disappeared. Her arms and legs no longer pained her -- indeed, she was no longer even certain that she still had arms or legs, or a body at all; for all she knew, she might have become the ocean herself, melting into it as a chip of ice thrown into the soup-pot, disturbing nothing of consequence.
There was one last spike of agony as her lungs opened themselves to the water, so sharp it might have brought tears to her eyes, if she in fact could any longer tell the difference between her tears and the sea. But it was over quickly enough, and her body inside conceded the cold ocean water as her body outside had before it. She could feel herself begin to dissolve beneath the vastness of the water around her, until she herself became its depths, impossibly ancient, impossibly calm. Exhausted by the sheer awareness of her own magnitude, she finally let her eyes shut, and the last light from the surface disappeared.
And then there was a pull that was not hers, nor was from her, but came from somewhere beyond even her comprehension; and she had become the ocean, and her comprehension was limitless. But it persisted, tugging at her as her mother sometimes did through crowded places, and she had no choice but to respond. Thus, she gave herself back to herself, into the air, until she broke through the surface and into the outstretched arms of Master Pakku.
He looked so frightened, she thought, as she opened her eyes and saw his face from beneath the tiny curtain of frost that had formed already across her lashes; she wanted to tell him not to be frightened, but he placed his hand over her lips and pulled at nothing, and instead of talking she coughed her lungs dry at his command. Then she gasped in a deep breath on her own, and saw a smile break across his mean old face, and tears fell from his eyes. He grabbed her close to his body the same way he had grabbed her from the ocean, and held her there on the flat deck, rocking her gently as feet thundered and men shouted all around them.
She could only recall the next few moments in fragments, bright shards cut through a thick fog, as the men around her used their knives of air and warmth to cut her free from where the ocean had gripped so tight. They brought her into the boat's small shelter near its bow and pulled her out of her clothes, laying her bare for the brief seconds before she was enveloped in an embrace of heat and fur, where a body was waiting for her. She could not summon the strength to open her eyes, but she knew her father's smell, and buried her body as close to his as she could will her limbs to draw her. The side of her face came to rest against the broad expanse of his chest, and she could hear his heart pound beneath it. She had no recollection of when he finally let her go.
I'll cross the ridge
up to the yonder side;
journey into spring.
"But the children," said Nigak, dropping her voice to a whisper that could barely be heard over the fire's crackling, "were trapped in the ravine, and the snow covered around them so they couldn't get out."
Hahn snorted, like he always did at this point in the story. "That's stupid!" He folded his arms across his chest and smirked, obviously pleased by the attention the other children were giving the boy who had decided to point out the tale-teller's flaws; a few of the younger boys who followed his every footstep him snickered and looked pleased with themselves. "The must all have been girls. Boys could have punched out, or used waterbending to get free and kill the old man that shut them up in there."
There was a nervous titter throughout the group, but Nigak, an obvious veteran of these sort of battles, just shook her wizened head. "Girls and boys. Both are prone to mischief, and both decided together to scare off the zebra-seals the old waterbender was hunting, so both together were trapped. And their parents went looking for them and went calling out their names, calling all up and down the snowy fields, calling out the names of their children -- but all they heard was the wind."
All the children shifted nervously at this point; some of the younger ones, who obviously had never heard this tale before, began to whimper softly. Yue, however, sat primly with her hands in her lap, perfectly attentive to the tale. She knew it already, of course, nearly to the point where she could tell it herself, but knowing a story and hearing it told were still two different things.
Hunkering over, drawing her audience in, Nigak raised her hands as though she herself were a waterbender. "The old waterbender who had closed them up there went back to his hut on the edge of the village, and when the parents of the children came to him to ask if he had seen the children while he was out hunting, he told them, 'I have only heard the noisy squawkings of the screech gulls, scaring off my prey of zebra-seals, without which I will not live to see the end of this coming winter.' And so they left him alone, and went back to search where their children had been playing. But instead of the ravine where their children loved to play, they found a snowy plain, and where the children had once acted out their stories and played at hunting among the clefts in the ice, their parents saw only flat space, as though the ravine had never been there at all.
"It was then a snowflake alit on the shoulder of the eldest girl's mother, and it sang in her ear, 'Here, my sisters have come to play with your sons, your daughters,' for snowflakes are foolish and can only speak in riddles. But the mother was wise, and she knew to thrust her spear into the ground and begin digging, and all the parents began digging after her. But by the time they broke through the snow the old waterbender had formed in place, it was too late, and all the children had died of hunger."
From the corner of her eye, Yue could see that even Hahn's face had gone a little pale, and though he was obviously trying to smirk off even a hint that this might be bothering him, his hands clenched around the hem of his parka until his knuckles looked the shade of snow. Everyone thought he was so brave all the time, so much that Yue wondered if she was the only person who could see how scared he really was. It didn't make her like him, but it made her feel a little sorry for him.
"They ran to the old waterbender!" exclaimed Nigak, and she clapped her hands together so suddenly that all the children, even Yue, jumped. "And they pounded at the walls of his house, shouting, 'Why have you done this to our sons, our daughters?' But as they pounded at the front, he made a way out the back, and ran up the tall hill behind his house. And the parents ran after him, but the old waterbender was fast, and twice as cunning, and he sped up the snow to the top of the hill. The parents followed, and they were nearly upon him with their spears and knives, ready to kill him. But all at once, he became bright! And he rose up to heaven as a great star!"
The youngest boy, who had nearly buried himself in the lap of his elder sister, lifted his head at this and turned red-rimmed eyes on Nigak. "...A star?"
"In the west, there, appearing in the spring, as the day and the night become even." Nigak pointed to the sky behind her, and all the children peered to see beyond her, even the children who had done this all before. The night sky was full of bright stars, and the brightest of them all shone steady above the horizon, the star that used to be a man. "It is low, never high in the sky, and it stands and waits like an old man waiting at a hole in the ice for a zebra-seal to emerge. And that is why it is called the Listener Star, it is." Satisfied with her tale, Nigak leaned back on her pile of furs, letting the children discover the heavens on their own, letting the older ones point out to their younger siblings the heavenly body in question.
After a time, the fire burned down until it was only a low flickering ring, and the children found their own ways back to their own houses, until Yue alone remained in the audience. Nigak sat amongst her furs, her eyes closed and head bowed, singing low to herself; Yue watched the stars as they made their slow progress across the heavens, sitting as patiently as the old zebra-seal hunter. Torches began to flicker and dim in the houses far below them, as all the people -- her people -- settled in for the night. The clear night air was calm, and the moonless sky watched over the steady sea in the distance.
A heavy log in the fireplace cracked open with a great sound and a shower of sparks that startled Yue so bad that she fell backward, losing her careful kneeling balance and landing on her bottom on the hard-packed snow. She heard a dry cackle, and looked up to see Nigak, whose old face had lifted its lines into a kindly smile. "That reminds me of the story of the wolf-bear that hid in the cook-fire," she said with a thoughtful look.
"Grandmother," said Yue, and the word was a plume of steam from her mouth, "do you think that he gets lonely up there, as a star?"
Nigak looked at her a moment, her mouth parted with an expression of faint surprise, then let forth that low cackle again. "Aren't you the observant one?" She folded her mittened hands across her lap and stared at Yue across the fire, and in her face lit by the changing light Yue could see glimpses of the young woman she had once been. "I don't think anyone's ever asked that of the tale in my earshot before."
Yue took a moment to settle herself back on her knees, brushing the ghostly powder of snow from the side of her long parka. She wasn't sure what to make of Nigak's response, so she said nothing, for fear that she had somehow embarrassed herself or violated some tale-teller's rule by questioning the story. After all, a story was a story, and to pick at what it took as true was to take apart the truth of the story itself.
But after a moment's consideration, Nigak sighed and gathered herself slowly to her feet; she stood at the edge of the sculpted terrace, her back to Yue, her face toward the city below them and the ocean beyond it. "The story does not tell," she said, her voice quiet, "and so it has not been told to me."
Another log on the fire snapped, but this time, Yue barely flinched at the noise, keeping her hands folded tight across her lap. She, too, could be very patient.
"Perhaps he does," Nigak nodded at long last, folding her arms inside her sleeves. She had no family of her own, no husband, no children -- but she had all the stories in the world, or so it seemed to Yue. "But now, from there, he can wait in peace for his zebra-seals, and whether he catches them or not will no longer change whether or not he survives the winter. Perhaps that for him is better than not being lonely."
Above them, all the other stars turned, but the Listener Star watched still from his place, and Yue watched still from hers.
Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush.
The bone needle slipped through the hides as smoothly as though she had drawn it through snow, and with a dozen short stitches she had closed the last gap in the shroud. The last she saw of her mother was the ridge of her forehead, back from which Yue had so carefully braided her mother's long, dark hair; and then she was gone beneath tanned white hides.
Yugoda put her hands on Yue's shoulders and drew her up from the edge of the grave. Above them, the sun ran slowly through the same course Yue would have sworn it had maintained for days, its constant presence dragging out all the days into one day. High summer, at least, meant the ground was soft enough for easy digging, and the men had been here hours earlier, gathering the stones and scraping out the long, shallow hole where her mother's body would finally rest. But they had all risen from their completed tasks and returned to the village, leaving the women to the burial.
All told, some two dozen women in their deep indigo-dyed coats stood guard around the grave. More, of course, had gathered in the village for the communal show of mourning, men and women alike, but the actual task of burial was left to the women, as was the custom. Together, their small group had accompanied her body on the long trek away from the village, high up on the glacier's side, until the only hint Yue could now see of their village was the trails of cookfire smoke rising from the direction they had come. Otherwise, they were alone in the white.
Yugoda made a lowering gesture, and four of the women, all of whom were the age her mother had been, placed their hands beneath the shrouded body, urging it gently down into the grave. It was easy not to think of the body as her mother; her mother, after all, had been a woman full of life and laughter, nothing at all like the mute object before her, which bent to every push and pull, with no regard for what it wanted for itself.
A bundle of cloth lay on the sled that had carried the body to this place, and Yugoda untied the knot on the top, revealing the contents: a bone-and-amber necklace, a tightly woven red blanket, a comb from an elephant whale's tusk, a hunting knife with blue stones embedded in the handle, a pink seashell from warmer waters a world away. These had been her mother's possessions, things brought from her family to the marriage, gifts from her husband, treasures she had held dear. As Yue watched from Yugoda's side, other women lifted the items gently and brought them to the edge of the grave, holding them as they stood proudly by.
"Hear your daughters, ancient spirits," said Yugoda, her voice as clear as the midsummer sky. "Today, we return to you the body of your daughter Talini, which gave shelter to her soul for thirty-four summers, and which gave shelter for three seasons to the child who became Yue, who stands here a testament to her mother's life. All things have come from you, and to you all things must eventually go, as the snow falls to the ocean and rises to become snow again."
All the women nodded, and those holding the possessions placed them in the grave alongside the body. Yue had on several occasions brushed her mother's hair with that comb, wrapped herself inside that red blanket, held the seashell to her ear and listened to the sound of the ocean's crashing on some unknown distant shore. "We give you also these things which were hers," Yugoda continued, "because though the pain of losing these things of value is great, compared to the pain of losing your daughter Talini, it is as nothing."
Yue blinked back the stinging tears that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. She had been strong this whole time, wanting no one to worry about her, especially not her father, who wore his own grief in the heavy sleepless shadows that had gathered beneath his eyes. She needed to be brave, even if that bravery was nothing but silent endurance.
"We are people of the ocean, of the moon. We come from one, and are all our lives watched over by the other." As Yugoda spoke, Yue could see some of the older women, veterans of many funerals themselves, move their lips silently in time with the ancient litany. "We do not move, except the ocean moves within us, and we are not moved, except the moon moves us. We are none of us greater than that which made us, and we are none of us more powerful than the source of all of us."
Grown silent again, Yugoda closed her eyes and raised her hands out before her, her breathing strong and steady; her old hands, gnarled as they were, did not shake, and her breath did not tremble. As slowly as a child carrying a pot of hot soup across a room, she brought those hands together, palms toward one another until they met. Yue was so fixed on the gesture that she barely noticed the creak of the shifting snow beneath her, and turned her head to the grave just in time to see the snow close over her mother's shrouded body. Finally, Yugoda dropped her hands, and the snow and ice spread out flat before them as though pushed by a wide gust, as though nothing had disturbed them to begin with.
For a moment, the crushing weight of her grief was broken by amazement, and she looked wide-eyed at Yugoda, who gave Yue a kind, sad smile. "You see," Yugoda said, pulling a lock of Yue's hair from her face, "the world has many secrets."
Yue nodded back, not because she thought she understood completely, but because she wanted to make clear that she would not be the one to violate those secrets. Perhaps waterbending was an art meant only for men to know, but birth and burial were both mysteries their tribe had abandoned to the women, and what the women did with those mysteries was no longer the men's prerogative to question. And she would never tell.
Seven women each lifted a stone from the place the men had stacked them, and one by one arranged them in a circle over her mother's grave, symbolizing that very cycle that would one day take this glacier to the sea, and return everything within it to its salty tidal source. Until that day came, the ground would have a secret of its own -- her mother, whose burial place was only distinguished from the land around it by the seven-stone circle. Scatter them or take them away, or cover them beneath the snow from a heavy storm, and she would disappear into it forever.
Full autumn moon:
my shadow takes me with him
He seemed to fade whenever he thought no one was looking at him, like a storm swirling over the ocean that suddenly hit colder water beneath and slowed its fury to a crawl, too tired to expend the energy needed to maintain its force. Yue watched him from the corner of her eye, always pretending to pay attention to her father and his words, but with her gaze fixed instead on her intended across the room. Certain that the eyes of all were turned somewhere else, he let himself slip; his shoulders became not so broad, his head was held not so high, his smile seemed not so confident.
Men were creatures alien to her, and though she heard some of the other young women her age and older laugh about how easy they were to predict, to manipulate, Yue had never found them so. There was no way she had found to tell when they would be gentle and when they would be cruel, or when they felt the need to pull their cruelty over themselves like a blanket, hiding all weakness from sight.
They rose together before the assembled elders, and she placed her hand in his, and their fathers said words over and about them. At last, Hahn's father handed him a necklace, which he in turn handed to her father, who brushed her neck free of her long hair and heavy fur collar. Against her bare throat, he placed the necklace, and she had to summon up every fiber of her strength not to flinch or wince or even scream as the cold silver disc landed against her skin. It seemed like a living thing, a predator intent on sucking all the heat from her body, and though she felt her body work to give it what it wanted, it demanded more, and never gave an inch from its own chill temperature to match her heat.
And then it was all over, and the elders melted from a stoic audience to a warm mass of congratulations, grabbing Hahn's forearm with great force and pressing their noses lightly to Yue's; and after a time, everyone else began to filter out into what little remained of the late autumn daylight, leaving the engaged couple alone on the sculpted stairs of the great meeting hall.
Perhaps he was more intuitive than she gave him credit for, or perhaps he simply didn't feel like making his future wife accustomed to behaviour he could not reliably sustain, but whatever the reason, Hahn let his bluster fall once they were alone. He was older than she, but his expression made him seem so young that she could more easily imagine becoming his mother than becoming his lover. With a soft sigh, he tucked his hands into the sleeves of his parka. "I hope you like it," he said, as much to the otherwise empty room as to her.
She drew her thin skin gloves to her throat, where the silver disc continued its chill work, numbing the skin beneath. "It's lovely," she told him. "Did you make it?"
"No." He shook his head, his seemingly everpresent cocky smile lost in a soft, distant sorrow. "My father's older brother promised to teach me, but ended up mostly making it himself."
The truth of the admission brought a smile to her face, and only as her muscles turned there gently did she realize her face ached for the force of maintaining a fixed smile for the duration of the betrothal ceremony. "But you supervised," she offered, determined to offer him a way to salvage his pride here, if he wanted.
Hahn shrugged. "What I could."
Yue nodded. From beyond the doors to the room, she could hear her father's voice; he was not a boisterous man, and his words did not carry especially above the crowd, but somehow she found she could always hear him. He had not presented the idea of marrying Hahn to her as an option, only come home one evening and told her that this was the way things were going to be, giving her all his reasons as his larger hands covered hers and his always-sad eyes settled everywhere but her face. All things considered, she was glad that he had never made the engagement a choice, because she had never been able to refuse him anything, and this would be no place to start. So she sat politely at her place by the fire and listened as he told her about powerful family alliances and longstanding arrangements and the tribe's future and her own future, and she let him talk because she was not the one he was convincing with his speech.
The less remote the occasion became, however, the less it had come to sit well with her, and now the betrothal necklace burned at her skin, stubbornly refusing to compromise, daring her to take it off. She fixed her shoulders in place and took her lower lip between her teeth; it would not yield, but she could be more stubborn than silver.
"Yue, I--" Hahn began, and then he fell silent again, because there was nothing to say. He could not offer to free her from the engagement, and even if he could, she would not accept. He could not ask her what she wanted to do next, because the next choices were not his to give, nor hers to take. He could not even apologize, because he had nothing to apologize for, except that he did not love her, and if that was a crime, then their guilt was mutual and could thus be left unspoken.
Instead, he cleared his throat and brushed the long, dark locks of his hair from his face. "You look beautiful in it," he finally spoke, keeping his chin towards his chest, his eyes strictly forward.
Moved by his honesty, she reached over and placed her hand in the crook of his arm, smiling as he looked at her with faint surprise. "They'll be waiting for us at the evening meal." She nodded at her future husband and they strode forward, his outer pride reasserting itself with every step that took them nearer to the others, and she let him lead her there. Perhaps that was the difference, she thought, between them: Hahn pushed all his boldness outward, making sure everyone knew of his bravery, that no one might think it lacking in him; she kept her own strength so deeply inward that it might be thought not to exist for its invisibilty, yet if ever did abandon her, everyone would know, because she would simply collapse.
Beyond the crowd that turned to greet them, she could see the ocean, its waters already lapping high against the shore in anticipation of the full moon that would shortly peek its face over the eastern horizon, all of them waiting for the coming night.
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