I was a girl once. With smooth hair my mother wove into plaits. I fetched the kindling for her fires and held my face over boiling grain—learned the moment it thickened to readiness. Through high grass and forest I ran with my brothers in chase of rabbit and elk. I skinned beasts with my father and hung their ruddy flesh to dry, cleaned their blood from under my fingernails with my teeth. After we ate, Father cupped my head with his heavy hand and stroked my long, unbound hair. My brothers complained that I was his favorite. That he failed to punish me when I disobeyed. Neither Father nor I disputed them.
At night, I fell into sleep’s embrace as my mother chanted prayers to vengeful gods. All of us slept close for warmth and awoke with a heel in our ribs or knees bound by another’s arm. We were a family.
If I had known then what would become of us, I would have chanted alongside my mother. One simple request to the gods. Please, let me stay inside a single moment forever: as I open my eyes to a new day’s light, keep me surrounded by the warmth of my family’s sleep in the quiet of our hut.
My mother was the clan storyteller. All of our people’s stories lived within her. Often I caught my mother whispering to herself as she crushed the shells of nuts or pulled feathers from a limp wing. If I interrupted her with a question, which I did only when necessary, I knew she must first finish her thought before she turned her attention to me. She told me the stories as we prepared the food and, therefore, I kept myself quiet when at work in her presence.
“Colluth killed the doe with a single arrow through the neck. It was only then that he heard her fawn in the distance, crying for its mother. He found the fawn and took pity on him. Fed him and kept him warm. The fawn grew to a huge height. The tallest stag any had ever seen. One day, the stag disappeared into the forest. Every few moons Colluth encountered him. The stag approached, careful with his antlers while Colluth ran a hand over the stag’s ribs.
Colluth was called to battle against the Nurr. He fought bravely but was killed by arrows. The stag appeared, lifted Colluth with his antlers, lept into the woods and continued, above the treetops into the sky. Together, Colluth and the stag became Trum, the god of war.”
My mother and I continued scraping clean the skin of a boar. After every story, she worked for a time, then shared her own thoughts. “We do not know whether Colluth existed to care for the stag or whether the stag existed to carry Colluth to the heavens. Was Colluth half god, half man at birth or did he become that way?”
I remained silent. Often she asked me a question that was not to be answered. To answer would be to presume I possessed truth and, according to my mother, truth belonged to no one.
“This you must understand,” she said. “Never trust a story which cloaks itself as an answer. Stories are not answers. They are the questions from which thought begins.”
Our hut was at the edge of our clan, beyond the cluster that formed the center. My mother urged my father nightly to move to the middle, make another hut. The neighboring tribe was growing bold, building closer to our village and would surely start a war. We would be attacked first. But my father was stubborn and refused.
“Any man of theirs who dares come close is a dead man,” he said.
My father’s fierceness in war was legendary. When the children of our village staged a battle, they argued over who played the role of my father.
“And when you aren’t here?” asked my mother. “What then?”
“Have you seen your daughter kill?” he asked. “She is an efficient hunter.”
On a day when the sun was at its most powerful, a boy from one of the center huts stood at the edge of our campfire. He was serious and quiet and I had spoken with him very little in my years.
“Why are you here?” I asked him.
“Your mother sent for me.” He offered me no greeting or gesture of friendship. He was very clean and neat. Around his neck, he wore a band of hide that held two antler tips.
“Why are you not with your brothers?” my mother asked me. “You must watch over them.”
“I thought you needed me,” I said. “To help with the food.”
She led me to the edge of our hut and spoke only to me. “Go run with the boys. Soon you must abandon your wild ways and remain close to home.” She let go of my arm and turned to leave. “Thank your father for such freedom.”
The following day, the boy was there again, and every day thereafter. He stayed until just before we ate, then returned to his own family. No one dared ask Mother the reason for his visits. After a time it became clear.
“I thought I would inherit your place,” I said to her. I was crying and had no regard for her anger. “He will never know as many stories as I do.”
“How I wanted you to be the storyteller,” she said. “My daughter, I have prayed for it. But it is not your fate.”
Even so, as we worked the following day, she began to tell me a story. I moved away from her, then left to gather kindling. After that, we worked in silence. Many days passed like this until we no longer remembered what it had been like, when words moved between us without effort.
The boy had taken my place and, though I was careful never to show my resentment, at times it overpowered me. I burned grass when they were in the hut, knowing the smoke would find its way inside and disturb them. And when they emerged, rough-throated and coughing, I hid my amusement. I told them I was cleansing myself of dark spirits. They knew better.
One morning I sought my mother.
“Mother,” I said. “What is happening to me? Strands of long-fired meat drop from between my legs.”
She stripped bark from a branch and laid it in a pile. “You are bleeding.”
“This is not blood.”
“It’s old blood,” she said. “Later you will bleed new.”
The stranger arrived when the sun began its descent. Because of the markings on his cheek, I knew he was of our tribe, though I had never spoken with him. Then I realized—he was the man all of the children whispered about. We tempted danger by nearing the cave where he lived, but none of us were brave enough to step inside. He never attended the gatherings and the adults warned us to keep a distance from him, that he wanted no interaction with the children.
My mother offered the stranger hot birch water, but he refused.
“We must keep moving,” he said.
My brothers skittered around the hut.
“Where is Father?” I asked.
“On the hunt,” said Mother.
“When will he return?”
The man moved beyond the edge of our fire. His smell was unfamiliar, that of earthworms and river water.
My mother stood behind me and held my shoulders with her full strength. “You must go now. He will take you.”
Panic quickened my breaths. “Where is Father?”
She didn’t answer.
“Will you go with me?” I asked her.
“No.” She let go of me and I turned to face her. “You must journey alone.”
“Why?” My voice grew inside my throat until it choked me.
“We leave now,” said the man. “The sun will soon give up its light.”
“Mother,” I said. “I’m scared.” I pushed tears from my cheeks.
My mother covered her mouth and pointed the man away with her eyes. He pulled me by the elbow. I dropped to the ground and refused to stand.
“Get up,” he said.
My mother lifted me to my feet.
“Mother?” I asked.
The man yanked me toward him. I screamed and bit his hand. He cuffed my head. I fell then rose and stumbled away. The man trapped my ankle and dragged me through the high grass. I kicked to free myself, but his grip on me tightened. I grabbed a handful of grass at the roots. He lost hold of me and I ran. He caught me by the hair and pulled me toward him then squeezed beneath my jaw bones.
“You will not escape.” The pine of his breath shocked me. I had expected rot. He chewed the needles with his back teeth.
He wound his fingers deep in my hair. My limbs were heavy. I walked and turned, searching the distance for my family. The man pulled my head forward. When we entered the woods, the birds lifted as one from the tops of the trees and I heard a scream. But, whose? Was it the cry of the birds or was it the voice my mother?
The ground softened. Mud pulled at my feet. The man led me to the edge of black water.
“Go in,” he said.
I stepped back.
The water was so frigid it sent pain up my spine.
“Kneel,” he said.
The water lapped at my shoulders.
“Trum,” he said. “We ask of you power and strength.”
He stood behind me and emptied a handful of water on my head. The drips wandered down my hair toward my neck. Over and over, he drenched me. Relief swelled in my chest and left me in spasms of laughter. Why had I been so scared? I’d been brought here to be cleansed. The old blood.
His rough hand gripped the base of my skull. “Trum, honor us with victory.” He whispered his words.
The boy emerged from a thicket followed by men from our clan. My father was among them, his eyes covered by a band of hide. One of the men untied it. When he saw me, his shout was that of an animal in its final moment.
And I felt only the cold trace of sharpened stone across my throat. I called to Father, but my voice had disappeared. I tried to strangle the wound closed. I clawed at the empty space in front of me to catch a handful of air.
“Accept our sacrifice,” said the man.