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?”

“Later.”

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.

“Go.”

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.

The water cradled me in its sudden warmth and rocked me to sleep. When I opened my eyes, I saw I’d been resting on a bed of moss. The water combed my hair to soft tufts of wool. The sun’s rays drifted through liquid sky. I wanted to escape, warn the other children of the man, but my limbs would not obey and I could not swim.

The ground below me split and swallowed me whole. I knew nothing of time, for I had no sun or moon to mark the rhythm of days. The sounds of the surface gradually grew louder until I could no longer hear the lap of water. Roots of tall grass hemmed my flesh. From underneath, weeds grew and pushed me to the surface. I had to escape the wrath of the sun— its light blinded me and its heat burned my skin. I crawled to a thatch of ferns under the shade of an old tree. I could only open my eyes at night. Each morning I held them open longer with the stretch of a new day’s sun. I saw that my skin was now no different from that of an elk’s nose—forever darkened and turned slick by the black water. Where skin was missing, I packed the gaps with moss and mud and the tiny bones of dead fish. The smells of the earth overwhelmed me—the rot of leaves, the sweetness of honey. I found a bear’s abandoned hollow and hid inside. Afraid the sun’s heat would turn me to dust, I left the cave only at night in search of food. I coaxed a squirrel to come near me with a handful of nuts, trapped it under my arm and broke its neck. I ate the raw flesh and hungered for more.

Soon the ache in my breast to find my family grew too sharp to ignore. I knew I would have to leave the forest in search of them. I moved at night and crouched close to tall trees during the day, protected from the light by overlapping leaves. One night, when the moon did not appear, I reached the edge of the forest and came to a vast field of grass. I had no trees to follow and no glow from overhead to guide me. I entered the tall grass and walked straight. I could find no end. I turned and retraced my path, but lost my sense of the forest. The sharp edges of the grass made tiny cuts in my flesh. The sun rose and I curled myself tight on the ground and covered myself with earth and grass. The heat pierced my skin and my throat began to dry.

I stumbled and forced myself to continue forward. I pushed through a thicket of grass and found myself suddenly in the open. Two men swung at the grass with long, curved blades. One of them saw me and yelled in horror. The other startled and dropped his blade. I tried to run back to the grass, but fell and could not lift a hand to crawl.

They came toward me with their blades and prodded me with the dull handles. They spoke to me, but I could not understand them. Our land had been conquered by a strange and foreign tribe.

“I’m looking for my family,” I said. “Do you know them?”

The men stepped away from me when I spoke. They became angry and yelled at me in their language. I began to cry and told them all I wanted was to find my father and mother. As I spoke, I realized I would never again see my family. I had known all along, but hadn’t wanted to believe.

The nearest man reached for me and pulled away his hand. He touched me again, then lifted me and tried to make me walk, but my knees bent and I dropped to the dirt. He carried me in his arms.

I reached for his smooth jaw. Only boys went without beards, never men.

He caught my wrist and tightened his hold until I thought he would break bone. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. The other man carried both blades and kept them close to my neck.

Please. I knew if he looked at me, he would understand. Can you return me to the water? It is where I belong, where I’m meant to be.

But the men brought me to their village where the huts pointed to sky, sharp as arrowheads. Women fanned the cook fires and children played at their feet. The women shrieked. The children were too curious to stay away. They pushed their strong, tiny fingers into my flesh and broke the fish bones underneath. I screamed in pain and the children ran, then slowly returned. The men swatted them away.

The people surrounded me, bringing their fires close. I thought the heat would turn me to vapor. Again and again, I heard the word “demon” though I knew not what it meant.

I’m thirsty.

A boy approached. He was serious and very clean. Around his neck he wore two antler tips bound by a band of hide.

I studied him. It’s you, I said.

Yes.

You tricked my mother, stole my fate. I was to be the storyteller.

You are wrong. His appearance hadn’t changed. He looked exactly as he did when he came to our hut. I am Trum. He stared at me with his plain face. Without me, there is no story.

I stepped toward him, but the men held me back. You convinced my mother to sacrifice me.

Yes.

Why?

To begin the war.

With the Nurr?

No. The war within.

Why?

Because it is my purpose. The moment I enter a tribe, I have already begun to bring it to its end.

I knew then my father had killed the stranger, and, with that, began a war in our tribe. This had been the boy’s plan all along. He had convinced my mother to sacrifice me in order to win the war against the neighboring tribe, but it was a lie. And the scream I heard when I entered the woods? It had been my mother’s.

He turned from me to the crowd and spoke. The crowd grew silent. His voice was low and steady, that of a man. I saw the flash of his new teeth. He pulled the antlers free and held the band aloft. When he finished, the crowd considered his final word, “demon,” then stood and shouted as one.

He faced me. This has always been your fate.

The man who carried me earlier lifted me and I pleaded with him. Hold me underwater and drown me.

They tied my wrists and my ankles and brought me to the fire.

And it burned so hot, I only felt the start. Feathers of ash drifted to the ground and an old woman trapped what remained—fragments of bone and charred teeth—in a vessel cold as winter water. She dug a hole and covered me with fresh soil. Earthworms curved past. Beetles scraped their dry legs against the vessel’s sides searching for a way in. Once again, time proved its vastness.

I heard a terrible roar. The ground above me shook. The beasts are escaping their hard graves. Rising up in rebellion against humans who tore at their flesh with dull teeth.

I felt buoyant, as if I were being lifted. I rose to the surface and recognized the source of the noise. Water. I rode the current and broke free of the vessel. The sunlight warmed me and I wanted nothing more. It was a peace I thought no longer existed.

Then a girl struggling to swim came near. She swallowed me and I was inside her. She kicked her legs and punched her fists. I told her to relax. She would sink and we would live in the depths of the dark water.

She listened to me. She relaxed—and floated. She caught a branch and used the residue of her energy to pull herself to earth. And I was there again, on ground. Certain he would come for me.

Her legs were unsteady. She looked at her hands, stronger now that I was inside. Her body was familiar, nearly the same as my own that had first entered the frigid water. I convinced her to abandon her home. The flood had destroyed it, and her family, like mine, was gone. I taught her patience, for I understood it well. We moved together and soon she knew the stealth of the hunt. Through her I learned to once again appreciate the gifts of the earth—the determined hammering of the woodpecker and the pop of a bush berry in our mouth.

But the day came, as I feared it would. We were underneath the morning fog at the stream bank, sipping from a cupped palm, when I saw him on the other side—a young boy, barely able to walk, skin clear of mud. And, around his neck, the antlers.

I tried to pull her away, force her to run, but he cried out like a lost fawn and she looked up. She waded in and the water rose to our knees, our ribs, our neck and yet she never lost touch with the streambed. We reached the other bank and she lifted him and cradled him in her arms. I saw no hint of recognition in his eyes. He would recognize me, though—soon. And he would destroy her if I stayed inside.

I had come to love the girl as a mother would a daughter. I wanted her to live in her own body, not as I did, as part of whole. If I could destroy myself and let her remain—but we had grown together and could no longer be separated. If I destroyed myself, I would destroy her. Then, finally, I understood.

In order to save her, I must find a way out.

When the girl emerged from the floodwater she spoke in a new voice—my voice—split by stone and marred by fire. At first, she could only whisper, one word, then another.

Raise your voice, girl. Use the power that lives deep within, for we are female: born of each other, warriors of the sacrifice.

She spoke aloud the questions I had carried through time.

Mother, why? Were you certain we would be conquered and I would be lost anyway? Was it purely to appease the gods? Or did you know I would be all that remained of our people?

I urged the girl to find a new village, and, with it, an audience. I knew the risk the boy posed, but my mission was one of survival. There would not be much time for the girl once he recognized me, for I was the only soul who knew who he truly was. And his strength lay in disguise.

We left the shelter of the forest and paused at the edge of a crop growing in perfect rows. I hesitated. Nothing in nature followed such a pattern. Was it a trap? Would the men be waiting on the other side? The girl pushed ahead in the space between the tall stalks and when we stepped through, we faced a structure larger than anything I had ever seen. It was sharp and straight—perfect, like the rows of tall stalks. Huge, hollow grey birch trunks pierced the sky and the smoke of many cook fires raced out of them. We continued past the structure and the girl found a cluster of trees where we made our beds and slept.

As the sun began to open its light, I taught the girl, just as I had many mornings before and as my mother had with me.

You must find those who will listen. It is in them I will live. In order to survive, you must free yourself of me. Every word you speak leaves less of me inside.

In our first days together, the girl had been slow to learn. She resisted her own fate and refused any guidance I offered. But, after a time, she accepted her role—the role I believed was mine—and my teachings were never enough.

The stories of our people are like threads woven into a single rope. There is only one story. One from many. And when I began, I was a girl.

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