After the death of Arnarr, the Raven Clan quit their assault against the man-eaters. They strove to live in harmony with the natural world and not outgrow their village boundaries. Across the vast coastal plains of Alaska, each valley contained a separate tribe of men, who fished from their shores, hunted the game that crested their mountain boarders, and harvested the fowl, berries, and plants within the bounds of their niche.
Respect for nature was their guiding virtue, and from this, their elders extrapolated specific laws called taboos, never to be broken. Traveling to another village without expressed purpose, approved by the elders, was a taboo – inter-marriages were arranged by elders out of utmost necessity. Killing salmon after they grew dark red and their souls had left their bodies, a taboo. Overfishing the ancient flat fish and rock fish, a taboo. Wasting any part of an animal, from meat to hide to bone, a taboo. Refusing to share the product of your good fortune, a taboo. And to break any of these taboos with malicious spirit, the greatest taboo of all: rape.
The elders proclaimed that anyone caught violating a taboo would be punished accordingly. Those who did not share their wealth would have totem poles depicting their sins erected before their houses; those who sinned against nature would have their shares of her bounty cut; and anyone who raped the land, animals, or another human would be branded, cast out of their village, and shunned by all others.
The descendants of Seyzar also used their most ancient, mysterious powers to curse the taboos, and said that even those who were not caught – who broke taboos in private and thought they had escaped the rule of law – would in fact be punished by nature herself because of their curses. An allegory called Arnarr, Bear Woman, was told to enforce this decree. Her story showed how no sin could be kept secret forever; how a broken taboo could ruin ones life even if no one knew until it was too late; and how being punished by nature was even more severe than being punished by man, because only nature was bold and even-handed enough to repay a man for all the terrible consequences of rape.
After many generations, the story of Arnarr did indeed become no more than an allegory to the people of the Raven Clan. Like Raven himself, the people of the Raven Clan used many tricks to sustain themselves, but never took more than they needed. As in the days of their first tribe, on the island high in the arctic, fowl became the staple of the Raven Clan again. But this time they did not wait for the biyearly migration of the long-winged travelers; they harvested the curious, fat-bodied fowl called ptarmigan, which remained near their villages year-round.
Ptarmigan grow from the gentle, giving, and faithful side of nature. They lack any hint of the ferocious, unforgiving aspects of the man-eaters, long Alaskan winters, or frigid, dangerous cliffs. They live in large flocks and frequent the villages of men, picking at the roots and grub worms upturned by his daily deeds. They were the perfect food for a culture determined to live in harmony with the natural world. Their tender meat and warm down feathers could be taken almost without effort, as ptarmigan would sit still until men where only inches away from them, even while their flock was shot with a barrage of arrows. They rarely ran like prey or fought back, thus never inspiring the warring instinct of man. It would take more than a lack of respect to abuse their bounty, it would require sedition.
In summer, ptarmigan look like any game bird of the great plains. The white speckles of their brown feathers flitter among the trees as they chase each other through the underbrush. They bristle their feathers and cackle at competitors, pounce on mates in heat, and flutter across the tundra, adding to the air of Alaska in bloom with its thick scent of wildflowers, and berries bursting across the hillsides.
In fall, ptarmigan gorge and grow fat like all the other animals who endure Alaska’s long winter. Despite their extra meat, the people of the Raven Clan never took too many ptarmigan during this season, because under the layers of excess bulk they knew another bulge grew: the spring litter. Ptarmigan told the people of the Raven Clan their mating season was over and they should not be harvested by plucking out their own speckled feathers and revealing a brilliant white coat of winter down. If these white mothers were slaughtered, the flocks would have dwindle and forced man back to his wandering ways, following moose across the Interior.
In winter, their feathers grow longer and whitter until they blend perfectly with the soft, fluffy snow in which they make their homes. There they hide, never tempting men while he endures his longest, coldest nights. They feed their wombs with their fat reserves, and grow lean and agile.
In spring, they erupt into motion again. They lay their eggs after the final freeze and speed around the tundra faster than during any other time of year, gorging on the berries, bark, and roots of the rich coastal plain. After hatching, their young quickly provide for themselves, taking off on their own twiggy legs and feasting on grub worms. Then the elders pluck their feathers again, revealing a fresh, ruddy spring coat – a signal to humans that they can be harvested safely once more.
After the first day of spring each year, when the ptarmigan dashed around the villages in their dark, red coats, pecking the compact grass from under men’s footsteps, the people of the Raven Clan began to trap them. Every year, this day was used as a ritual to teach the youth of every tribe about the balance the order of the natural world. The boys in each village whose faces had grown as ruddy as the birds they were meant to hunt, were put in charge of setting the traps that first night and checking them the next morning.
Thus one spring morning, Eech and Kwali rose before the sun, carefully stoked a sealskin lamp, illuminating their sod-walled living room, and dutifully sharpened their spears.
“Today is our day, brother,” Eech said, carving a sharp edge with the cold, black stone.
“Do you think they worked?” Kawali said, raising his head from his blade and looking at his brother.
“Of course they did,” said Eech, dragging the stone across his spearhead once more, then slamming it on the table. “There will be fat-bodied fowl in our traps!”
Eech’s smirk crept across Kwali’s lips, who ceased sharpening, as well.
“Come, let’s get dressed.”
The boys had not slept since they set their traps the night before. Waking dreams had stole their sleep. Both boys had gone to bed anxious about the birds, and imagining the glory of their first hunt. Then Eech had whispered words to give them the same visions. He conjured images of the bloated fowls that dashed about their village into their bedroom, where they could fondle them at their will. That morning, the knew those same ptarmigan were caught snug-still in their traps, waiting to make their dreams a reality.
The perceived feeling of the down between his fingers shot through Kawali’s body. He shivered as he drew the hardened sinew laces across his ankles, strapping on his muckluks.
“Don’t be too anxious,” said Eech, with a wry smile. “You’ll cut off your circulation.”
Both boys chuckled mischievously without quite knowing why.
Then their mother Satali entered the room and they fought to conceal their grins.
“Did I hear you two laughing?” she asked playfully, beaming with pride from one boy to the other.
“No,” Eech muttered, keeping his head down though he was done lacing his mucks.
“You must be anxious to get out there. The sun’s not even up yet.”
“I’m not anxious,” Eech said defensively. “We’re just getting ready.”
Satali laughed at her son’s shortness. “Don’t be defensive,” she said. “Your father and I were once your age. We understand how you feel.” She glanced back and forth at her boys once more, growing nervous as to why they held their heads down so firmly. “Come here,” she said. “Give me a hug.”
Kawali glanced at his brother, shocked. He had never disobeyed his mother before, but something about hugging her after the visions he had stared at all night and the laughs and smiles he had shared with Eech that morning disgusted him. He looked to his brother for guidance.
Eech raised his eyes to meet Kawali’s and shook his head so that his brother, but not his mother, could see, then nodded to the exit behind them and rose to leave, still without looking at Satali. Both boys curled around their seats toward the door, ignoring their mother, imagining she didn’t exist. But when they looked up, a massive form filled the entranceway from top to bottom and side to side, blocking their escape.
“Go to her,” it boomed. The boys flinched like dogs at the crack of thunder. It was their father, Natsalane. The legs of his pants were damp with dew and he held two packs, one in each hand. These, too, were wet, but they were so heavily oiled that the water clustered in huge beads across their surface and shook off as Natsalane thrust them into Eech and Kawali’s arms. “These were my brother’s and mine,” he said. His eyes conveyed his pride, like Satali’s, but his jaw was forcefully stern.
He had sensed the tension when he entered the room, had seen his sons turn their backs on their mother, and remembered what it felt like to check the traps for the first time – the eagerness to become a man and the conflict between his duty to the tribe and his own burning desires. Both felt like an urgent part of growing up, but one supported their stable society, and the other led to untold misery. That is why the proper path had to be reinforced, that is why he had barked his first command, stood broadly to fill the entranceway, and held these packs before them now.
Eech and Kawali took them in fear, but as soon they held them the thick musk of the old, warn hides flooded their nostrils, and made them proud.
“Your grandfather and great uncle used them, as well,” said Natsalane.
The boys swung them onto their backs and the cedar frames creaked with age. Natsalane’s act as the stern father had worked; his sons were instilled with the sense of family and community that needed to accompany their new urges. They felt like they were upholding an ancient tradition, and afraid their other impulses would corrupt that tradition, they pushed them out of their minds.
“Now go to her,” Natsalane repeated.
This time they did not hesitate. They turned to their mother and found her standing with her arms opened wide and her eyes filled with tears. She was so proud of them that Kawali felt proud of himself; he held his goal clearly in mind and dismissed his earlier digression. But Eech’s pride was tinged with shame; he was ashamed that he had tried to avoid her in the first place, that he had brought her to tears. He did not know what had overcome him, did not understand his other impulse.
Satali wrapped them in her arms and tried, through her body, to calm theirs. She, too, was still afraid for them. She had never seen Eech act so cold toward her. But there was little she could do now. She had raised them for this day, when she knew they would be her wards no longer. Now she could leave them with only one last impression of her, their mother, and she strove to make it a tender one, to remind them how small and delicate she was, like all the gentler sides of nature that they were charged to respect.
She let go of them, brushed back their hoods and combed her fingers through their black hair. She looked tenderly into their eyes and then hugged herself and pressed her body into Eech’s chest for him to embrace.
Eech tried to pull away from her, but Kawali, who understood both of their subtle signs, bound them together in his arms, both to please his mother, and to avoid any drama that would prevent them from going out that morning, which was the last thing Eech wanted, even if he could not control himself enough to prevent it.
“We are both very proud of you,” Natsalane boomed from behind. “Today you will begin to provide for your people. As you do so, always keep them in mind. We are all a part of nature, so the way you treat her is the way you treat us. When we abuse nature we abuse ourselves; we create a hurtful relationship that can only harm us.”
Natsalane put his hands on their shoulders and drew them away from Satali. She exploded in a burst of tears and they felt conflicted, paused as if to return to her. But she put her hands on their chests, pushed them away, and whispered, “Go.”
They turned to their father and looked up for further reassurance and council. Were they doing the right thing? Should they leave her like this?
“Go,” he said, nodding in approval and guiding them to the door. “It hurts us to see you go – to see our children grow up and leave us – but ultimately it will make us happy. What you do effects us more than you will ever know. When you suffer, we suffer. But when you succeed, as we know you will, we too will feel your joy. Go, bring back food for our village.”
Natsalane thrust his sons out of the house, watched as they dashed into the woods, then turned back to his wife.
She was no longer crying, but her eyes were swollen and red, and she still held herself, biting her knuckle pensively.
“What’s wrong?” Natsalane asked.
“I’m still worried,” she said.
“Don’t be,” Natsalane responded, now laying his hands on her shoulders. “They will do wonderfully. The spirit of Raven is strong in them.”
“I know,” said Satali. “But the way Eech looked at me this morning – he has never looked like that before. He looked more like the Raven who gorges himself until he cannot fly than the one who brings food back to the nest.”
“There is nothing we can do now,” said Natsalane. “We have done our best to raise them. We must trust that they will be good men.”
Satali knew he was right, and this is what troubled her most. If anything were to happen, she would torture herself over how she could have raised them better. Nothing is more difficult than to release a creation who the creator knows is flawed – like when Raven freed the first man from his clamshell, knowing his worst instincts; or the storyteller let his hero take life, suspecting his tragic flaw. Satali, as the creator of her children, knew her life rested with her two boys. If they were great, her legacy would also be great – the Raven Clan would continue to thrive, and she would be immortal through her offspring. But if they failed her, if they broke the Raven Clan’s sacred union with Nature, hers would be the most tragic tale of all.
* * *
After being thrust out of the house, Eech and Kawali sprinted into the woods at the edge of their village and did not look back.
“The first trap is here, to our left,” Kawali shouted forward to his brother, ducking a low branch as he struggled to keep up.
“Leave it,” Eech hollered back, hopping a divot. “Let’s go to the furthest trap and collect the birds as we return Then there will be no excuse not to check them all.”
Eech’s words put air under Kawali’s feet. He extended his strides, caught up with his brother, and ran shoulder to shoulder with him, happier than he had been during all his anticipation of this day – happier, even, than during his waking dreams the night before, more excited by Eech’s pure instincts than his hints at the impure. He yearned to be reconciled, and if they completed this day like the great clansmen he knew they could be, he would be eternally reconciled.
With this thought in mind, he turned to his brother, smiled, and shouted, “Race you!”
The two sped through the underbrush faster than any wild animal could have maneuvered, avoiding the puddles, fallen trees, and cliffs. Even the black bird who circled overhead, watching them, struggled to keep up as they pushed to the boundary of their village. But when they exploded into the clearing at the edge of the valley, where the trees thinned and began to climb the next mountain range, Raven caught up with them and landed on a nearby branch to watch them check their first trap.
“Is anything in it?” Eech shouted to Kawali, who pulled ahead.
“Yes! And it’s alive,” Kawali cried, crashing onto the stake of the trap.
Raven cackled as he watched Eech slow to a stop and smile pitilessly. “Alive?” Eech gasped.
“Yes, look! He’s running,” said Kawali, grabbing the trap’s line.
Eech watched as the ptarmigan struggled to escape into the woods with its leg ensnared. For a moment, he thought the bird would escape and was overcome with panic. But he smiled as Kawali yanked, and the bird helplessly hopped on one foot, being drawn back to the stake. He rubbed his hands together greedily as the soft, spring feathers became visible, and nearly laughed when the bird’s fat body bounced into view.
Raven’s appetite was peeked, as well. He stirred with the same impulse he saw in Eech: mischief. He yearned to witness the boys violate their bond with the ptarmigan so he could snatch their meal from them, entertain himself at their expense, or both.
Eech stepped close behind his brother as Kawali drew the bird near. Raven opened his mouth to crow in laughter as Eech reached over Kawali’s shoulder. But before Eech could jump over his back, Kawali snatched the bird, snapped its neck and tossed it into his pack.
“There. Done,” he said, rising and turning to his brother.
Eech looked furious. Raven thought he would witness more than he anticipated – perhaps brother slaying brother. But the elder’s rage quickly morphed into intense pride. He patted his younger sibbling on the shoulder and said, “Good work. Let’s go to the next trap.”
Eech and Kawali raced to the next trap, as well, and every trap after that. The winner of each race relished the prize of dragging the trap back to the stake and discovering if the ensnared bird was alive. Few traps remained unsprung, so the boys handled hundreds of ptarmigan that day. The first few birds Eech won were dead. When he lifted their limp bodies, and felt their weight resist his hand and their tufts of feathers fill the crevices of his fingers, his deepest impulses were triggered. He yearned to fondle them, to play with the corpses. But each time he looked up, his brother was watching him, and he tossed the birds into the bag, releasing the grasp his instincts had on him, glad someone stood beside him.
Afraid of his silent urges, he passed his first few live birds to Kawali. When he drew them close and saw them flailing at the end of his rope and felt the burning in his neck and behind his ears, he shouted, “Kawali, grab this one while I hold the line.”
Kawali was gracious. He dutifully helped his brother and never questioned his motives, even though he had been able to reign-in and kill the very first bird either of them had caught. He accepted his brother for who he was, understood his urges, and waited anxiously to see how they would play-out.
After several birds, Eech grew more confident handling the objects of his desire. The excitement of the flaccid bodies in his hands faded.. He began to toss the soft bodies from one hand to the other, and roll them across his palms before dropping them into his bag. This numbed his senses, but also heightened his desires. Soon he needed to grasp the living birds and snap their necks himself.
This proved to be the most brutal, necessary pleasure of his life. No hunter, no matter how hardened, is not disquieted when he takes a wounded bird in his hands and knows what he must do. Reverie for life is never greater than when one holds a life in ones hands. No matter how necessary a hunter knows his duty is, it never ceases to break his heart when he must take the neck of a writhing bird and break it. But this heartache is a self-defense for man. Like the tears that choke him when he contemplates suicide or the nightmares that wake him from dreams of death, it keeps him from breaking the bonds of Nature, from growing senseless in his taking from Her womb. He can justify it only by realizing he is a part of Nature, and he must play his role the painful, sometimes violent existence that is Her realm. Some animals die so that others may survive, and that is the only justification for their death.
Eech deeply felt this duality with the first bird that he murdered. His raw desires flourished while he yanked it toward him, knowing he would grasp it soon. But when he actually took the living fowl in his hand, his unnatural desires sunk deep beneath the surface. He was overcome with the enormity of his task. The shaking body no longer thrilled him, but terrified him. As unexplainable as his earlier impulses had been, they were not to kill. It was hard for him to snap its necks. But he knew men often had to do difficult things for their families. Clutching the writhing bird in his hands, he reminded himself of the necessities of life as he inhaled, then exhaled and did the deed.
He felt so much relief that when his muscles relaxed, that he was shocked to realize how tense he had been. The agony of that anxiety was unbearable. He couldn’t possibly endure it every time he had to provide for his people. Thus his goal became to normalize both the action and the feeling.
When he yanked the next few living birds toward him, he focused on ignoring his sympathy for their plight. When he took them in his hands, he disassociated himself from their struggle. He imagined them not as striving, living beings, but as objects to be used. And despite his deep sensitivity, Eech proved to have an uncanny ability to suppress his natural instincts. Before the end of the day, he was hardened to his relationship with the ptarmigan.
In this void of natural emotion, his other instinct grew. The cold suppression of his anxiety as he drew the birds toward him turned into wild excitement. Kawali noticed a smirk appear on his brother’s face when the birds in his traps were alive, and that he would pull with extra vigor. Eech no longer asked him to help, and if he attempted to step in and take his turn because he had lost the last three races, Eech would hold him back. He chuckled as he snapped their necks. And sometimes, it seemed like he paused before he killed them, not out of agony for taking their life, but out of excitement at the feeling of the quaking, fat bodies.
Kawali was disturbed, but also jealous. He never fully understood his brother’s strange urges, but Eesh remained his older brother, his guide to manhood. Kawali knew that one cannot always reconcile the impulses that lead greatness. No one could explain why the elders had to wonder in the woods for weeks on end, but everyone accepted it as necessary to their mystic powers. Kawali had not understood why it was necessary to shun their mother that morning, but he was sure Eech understood manhood better than he did, so he had followed. And now, Eech was beating him to every trap, pulling the birds in far quicker than he could, and capturing and bagging more food for their people. The odd smirk and subtle laugh on Eech’s face disquieted Kawali, but he saw his brothers excitement had transformed him into the greatest hunter in their village – no one had ever checked all the traps in one day, and they were well on their way – and Kawali was willing to adopt any disturbing habits if it would make him a great hunter.
He summoned forth the images from his waking dreams, recalling the feeling that burned through his body as his brother whispered through the night, and pushed himself to victory in the last three races. His motivations disturbed him, but he shoved that aside, justified by his success. He was a great hunter; he could provide for his people. And when he pulled those last three flailing birds into view, he too smiled his work to see, unconsciously quickening his pace, then snatched up the birds and paused before he killed them, relishing the writhing of the fat between his fingers – a dream fulfilled.
But Eech felt robbed. He had forgotten his brother was competition. He had anticipated those last three birds – counted on them to quench his desires. After those, he was sure he could go home without further mischief. But when his brother pulled ahead of him his heart sunk, he grew hungry. He even attempted to snatch the last bird out of Kawali’s hands to snap its neck himself, but his younger brother had held him back with his broad shoulders and killed the bird before Eech could touch it, as he had done with the first bird. But this time that did not relieve Eech. A whole new yearning surged through his body – a fusion of his lust for the birds, his jealousy of his brother, and his lost respect for life. His goal became to quench all three.
Raven swooped low overhead. He sensed the entertainment he sought that morning was close at hand.
When Kawali flung the last bird in his pack, he synched the hide shut, reset the trap, and dashed back toward their village, but Eech grabbed his shoulder and said, “Wait! Why rush?”
Kawali turned to him, perplexed. “We’re done,” he said. “Aren’t you anxious to show our people how much food we’ve gathered?”
“Not really,” said Eech, dismissively. “We’re done, so we can take it easy. Our village will learn of our good deeds soon enough.”
Kawali was shocked and impressed by his brother’s calm. His own excitement felt childish in comparison. A truly great, mature hunter would not crave reassurance or praise for the merit of his work. His own satisfaction would be enough; his personal fulfillment would be paramount.
“We have fulfilled our obligations, now we can stroll back to our village. We can enjoy the spring day, and pursue whatever else may interest us.”
“You’re right,” said Kawali, feeling more like a man than ever before as he suppressed his excitement despite his great deeds. A great hunter would surely enjoy more than just the hunt, he thought. He would relish every aspect of life, appreciate the beauty of the world, and follow his every instinct.
“Follow me,” said Eech. “I want to spy on the ruddy ones as they frolic.” With this, Eech stepped off the trap line and into the thick underbrush without looking back, as if he didn’t care if his brother followed him. But when he heard the dry sticks and leaves crunching underfoot behind, relief filled his body and he smiled. His plan was working.
Raven shot ahead of the pair. He could see this was going to be a long game, and while he was willing to wait to see the outcome, he did not have the energy to hop from branch to branch while they strolled. He soared far into the distance, looking for a probable ending place. Then he spotted it: a curious, fateful ptarmigan. This bird was so luscious that he yearned to eat it despite being full. Its eyes were twice as large and curious as any other bird’s, and its fat body hung with especially tempting heft. When it walked its blubber wobbled from side to side and quivered like the healthy pap of a female man. Raven burned to dive down, slurp out its precious eyes, tear its feathers from its flesh, and gorge on its fat, but his only instinct stronger than his appetite was his curiosity, so he sat on the branch and waited.
Eech carefully stepped around the broad trunks of the forest. He did not want to startle the ptarmigan, yet. He knew that when surprised these game birds stupidly froze, dead still, relying on their camouflage to blend-in and survive. They would never understand the power of man’s discerning eye. But Eech did not want to entrap them, yet. He wanted to watch them run, bounce, and jiggle, stirring his own emotions, and his bother’s.
When they meandered around the brush like slow, grazing moose, the ptarmigan did not try to hide from them, but carried on as if they were in the presence of harmless, fellow herbivores. They jumped playfully from branch to branch, shaking their girth; pounced on one another; shook their tail feathers seductively; and even mated at Eech and Kawali’s feet.
After passing through several clearings and letting his passions burn, Eech turned back to Kawali to see if they were sharing the experience. Kawali smiled before his brother could even part his lips. The visions they had dreamt up in their beds were attainable in this forest, like a pre-human land where the animals were not afraid of man, but could be taken at his picking.
Eech’s ulterior motives almost left his mind – he felt as if he could stroll through this paradise forever without ever needing to grasp its treasures – but then he stepped on a large pile of twigs that shattered underfoot. The serenity was broken. All rustling and whistling ceased. Raven woke and peered down from his perch.
Eech and Kawali stood on the edge of a large clearing; in the middle of which stood the plumpest, fattest ptarmigan with the most beautiful, dazzling eyes either of them had ever seen, frozen dead-still, trying to hide, like a luscious tree in the middle of a garden, that could not conceal its tempting fruit. This was exactly what Eech needed.
“Look,” he said, and wondered if his brother would need further coaxing or just read his mind.
Kawali peered over Eech’s shoulder, amazed at how still the bird stood, yet enticed because the fowl’s fat still shook from its sudden stop. The dark side of his urge to be a great hunter took control. “Let’s see if we can grab it,” he said, and looked to his brother for approval.
Eech nodded and they crept forward.
The ptarmigan diverted its large, round eyes, pretending to ignore the predators. It took one short, squat step away for every long stride the men took toward it. But its movement only excited their pace and soon they were upon it.
Eech reached out and grabbed it with his bear hands, then lifted it before them.
The bird struggled, but not violently. It seemed to submit to Eech’s firm grasp on its legs and neck. It did not fight to break free, but swung its body in circles, dancing for the boys, staring them in the eyes with its own sweet, clear orbs.
Eech was thrilled to his core. This was more than he had dreamed of. The feeling of the flesh between his fingers fulfilled one part of his desire; now he turned to his brother, hoping to achieve the other two.
“What should we do with it?” he asked.
Kawali did not look at Eesh, but stared fixedly at the undulation of the bird’s body. “We could bring it home as fresh meet for our parents,” he said.
Eesh shot him a sharp glare, but Kawali did not notice. His eyes wandered up the girth of the bird to its own wide, soft eyes. With its narrow face and curious stare, it looked as if it were almost begging him to touch it. “But we have plenty of fresh meat for our family, and our whole tribe,” he said. “We are probably bringing home more meat than any man on the first day of spring.” The dismissive pride of a seasoned hunter overcame him. “We should do something else with it.”
Eesh smiled at his brother now. In Kawali’s eyes he could see the second part of his plan had been fulfilled. Only the third remained. “What should we do with it?” he asked.
“Maybe we could put out its eyes,” said Kawali.
“Great idea.” cried Eech, holding the bird steady. “Let’s see if it can fly without its eyes. Go!”
“Out!” Kawali screamed, and squished the vile jelly with his thumbs. He laughed wildly and watched the red and white goo pour down his hands.
Then Eesh threw the bird into the air and they both watched it flap helplessly. It could still fly, but without its eyes, it had no bearing of up or down. It crashed straight into the ground, shot up again, then quickly turned and nosedived.
“What now? What else can we do to it?” Eech asked, never diverting his eyes from the suffering bird.
“We can tear out its feather,” Kawali said, turning to his brother again.
Eech nodded, egging him on.
Kawali turned back to the bird, screamed “Yes, let’s see if it flies without its feathers!” and descended onto the blind fowl, tearing every feather from its living body. It writhed and screamed beneath his grip until there was nothing but stains of blood on its bare skin.
It tried to take off but could not. It jumped and flapped its useless wings but slapped back on the ground like a severed breast. After one attempt, it knew its efforts were futile. It lay upon the ground and moaned, heaving from exhaustion and wailing like a human child.
The boys fell into each others arms, laughing. Eesh was entirely relieved. He enjoyed the feeling he had yearned to grasp, seen his brother partake in the pleasure with him, and brutalized a bird to his jaded satisfaction. He stumbled away from the scene, towing his brother underarm.
Kawali followed blissfully, thrilled that manhood was filled with more secret pleasures than he had ever dreamed.
Both boys were so thrilled with their exploits, that they didn’t notice the loud shriek of Raven as they left the woods.
* * *
The people of their village were elated by Eech and Kawali’s big haul. They brought back far more meat and feathers than any youths had gathered on their first outing, probably more than any two men had ever provided in a single day. The customary feast for the first day of spring was held, and the boys who had brought the bounty were its centerpiece more than ever. They were fed the first and last bites of the meal and served the biggest and best portions of the birds. As their parents proudly flanked them, each member of the village bowed and thanked them for providing the feathers that would keep them warm and the meat that would be dried to feed them through the winter.
“You must have wanted those birds more than anyone,” one clansmen said as congratulations.
The boys bowed in return to every member of their village, and thanked them for aiding the clan that had raised them to be well enough and strong enough to provide for their people and continue the great legacy of the Raven Clan.
“We love trapping ptarmigan, and will do it for you as long as we can,” Eesh said for both of them.
Even the elders, who rarely attended the village’s feasts, thanked the boys. The eldest among them – a direct descendent of Seyzar named Ponteesh who had inherited that early elder’s height – curled his massive frame before the boys and said, “With the two of you, a new chapter will be written in our people’s history. So far it is a great chapter – the greatest ever told. Now it is up to you,” he said, bowing to Eech, “and you,” he said, bowing to Kawali, “to determine if the rest of it will be just as great. And all you must do to ensure that it is, is remember that what you provide for us, you take from nature, and she gives you what you give to her.”
Drunk on the fatty meats, Eech and Kawali simply nodded to the elders and smiled. They were in no state to comprehend the magnanimity of the men or the graciousness of their gesture. But the words of Ponteesh were like a thing unto themselves. They bore into the boys’ minds and hibernated, waiting for the proper moment to emerge.
After the feast, Eech and Kawali were so full with spring meats, so blissful with the praise of their clansmen, and so exhausted from not sleeping the night before, that they stumbled back to their room and passed out. There, in the beds where the foul deeds they had performed that day were hatched, the words of the eldest elder awoke and filled their dreams.
This supported a pleasant sleep, at first. Ponteesh’s praise soothed them. It’s deep, sonorous sound and lively proclamation lulled their sleeping minds into a deep trance. But then the elder’s speech repeated, and then repeated again. Like the beat of a ritual drum that carries on too long, it made the boys uneasy. They stirred under their muskox blankets and began to sweat. As their nerves burned their skin and they tossed back and forth, the elder’s speech grew choppy and even more repetitive. The end of his praise beat against their temples, “She gives you what you give to her.” These words did not sound deep and sonorous, but hollow and ominous. The refrain grew louder and faster until it shook the walls of the room, the boys snapped awake, and a giant ghost of the bloody ptarmigan hovered between them. Then Raven shrieked and they snapped from their nightmare.
They sat up and turned to each other, dripping with sweat and panting, then simultaneously shouted, “Go!”
They pulled on their clothes and strapped on their muckluks, charged out of their house and into the forest. They knew the woods were not safe at this time of night. The man-eaters roamed the perimeter of the village, never crossing the threshold into the thick stench of man, but devouring any lost or fleeing animal. But the boys were so terrified by their nightmare that being killed by a bear seemed like a necessary risk; they did not know what the alternative was, were not sure what they were going to accomplish, but felt like a fate worse than death would overcome them if they ignored this sign.
“I think it’s to the right, Kawali. Turn!” Eech shouted.
Kawali turned too hard and crashed, cutting his face on a sharp rock. But Eech did not stop for him, simply jumped over his fallen kin and pushed on. Kawali was not mad. He sprung to his feet and ignored his own cut, too anxious to see what lie beyond the threshold to care about anything else.
Both of them saw the massive tree in the distance that supported the large clearing. A big black form, too large to be a crow, sat on its lowest branch, but the boys did not notice. They sprained their ankles, smashed their shins, and bruised their faces careening toward the field. And when they reached it, both tripped over one jutting root and landed on their faces.
Neither scrambled to their feet. Both understood the ill temper of this omen. Nature had flung them into the perfect position to witness the awful remnants of their deed. They looked to each other, trying to avoid their fate, but the trembling horror in each others faces was no consolation. Together, lying on their stomachs in the dark woods, they turned to the field.
The plain where they had tortured the bird was the brightest section of the forest floor. Moonlight poured through the branches of the massive trees, creating a latticework of iridescent blue that stretched out before them. And there, in the center of the garden, where the ruddy bird had once stood, theirs for the plucking – where they had left only a naked, bloody corpse, robbed of its eyes – sat a pile of pristine, ruddy feathers, atop which rested two perfectly clean, dazzling eyes, starring them in the face. Cold water began to pour from their pores.
As the hollows of their eyes aligned with those that had apparently reformed from goo splattered across the earth, Raven shrieked overhead and broke their gaze.
Kawali turned to Eech. “What should we do?” he asked.
“We should check all the traps again, right now. We should bring home more meat than anyone has ever brought, more than we brought yesterday – and earlier, before the sun even rises!”
“But we don’t have our packs.”
“We will string them together, head to foot, and hang them from our necks. We must!”
Kawali shook his head in agreement and the brothers jumped to their feet. They raced to the farthest trap as they had done the morning before, only even faster than when they were anxious to become hunters, charged with the deepest fears of men. They were unsure how providing even more for their people would forgive their deeply personal sins, and they feared that all the meat they could gather would be tainted by their taboo, but they could fathom nothing else to do. There is no feeling of powerlessness greater than when one realizes one has committed an irrevocable sin, even if it remains a secret. The sinner can struggle to amend their ways, to bury their taboo beneath piles of good deeds, and no one can ever learn of their digression, can swear they are the purest, most generous soul on earth, but the sinner can never rest peacefully again, can never hear an argument or thunderclap without assuming the men and gods have finally come for their revenge. So Eech and Kawali sprinted through the woods, running from the inescapable, collecting more birds than the day before but approaching no oder of penitence. They reset every trap as they went, and when they walked the entire trap line before sunrise, they went back to the start and walked it again – a feat that had never been achieved before. But the sweat poured thicker from their pours with every step they took. As they approached their village, the trap line was covered in a layer of water, though the morning due had lifted.
* * *
Natsalane and Satali woke lethargic but content from the night’s feast. They strolled into their children’s room expecting to find them fast asleep, recovering from the biggest meal of their short lives. When they found an empty room and disheveled beds instead, an inexplicable fear struck them.
“Where could they have gone?” Satali asked.
“I don’t know,” said Natsalane. “They came home with us, right?”
Both parents struggled to remember the end of that hazy evening, but each quickly recalled walking down the empty streets with their sons, and seeing them into their room.
“Maybe they went to check the traps again,” Satali said.
For a moment they were filled with hope and pride. That would be the best possible reason for their absence, and it would amaze even them. If their sons could wake themselves from the deep sleep induced by a fresh ptarmigan meal, their instinct to hunt and provide for their people was more powerful than first imagined. But Satali feared a different instinct had driven them from their beds; she could not shake the image of Eech refusing to look at her the morning before.
“Let’s find out,” Natsalane said, dashing into the living room.
Satali followed and watched her husband descend on the neat pile of sacks of down and drying hides, and heave them across the room.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
Natsalane answered by turning back to her with two, soiled packs in his hands.
Satali shook her head. “Maybe they went without them,” she asked with a pleading voice.
“Maybe,” Natsalane said, doubtful but feigning hope. “Maybe they were eager to go out early, just realized they forgot their packs, and are headed back now.”
The parents clung to their pride with this thought; they half-believed their children had once again been too anxious to sleep. But each was also uneasy at the fact the packs had been forgotten; they half-believed their children had some other reason to return to woods. How else would they have forgotten the one tool necessary for their task.
At that moment, Eech and Kawali poured through the door, and Natsalane and Satali realized both their beliefs had been founded. Instead of the packs, across their backs, the ptarmigan were strung. Mangled and tied together by their own feet, they hung around their necks like giant weights, draped down their shoulders, arms, and legs.
The boys were filthy, their clothes covered in dirt, their hair knotted with sticks, and their nails filled with blood, as if they had been in the woods for years, surviving as banished mad men.
“What has happened to you?” Satali cried, falling next to them.
The boys rolled onto their backs and looked up at her, their eyes stirring wildly in their sockets. They spoke, but were incomprehensible. They heaved their chests off the floor and then crashed back on the ground, as if they were trying to force the words out to tell her something, but all that passed their lips was the rapid babbling of a boiling brook, and water gushed from their pours like from the skin of a squished sea anemone; it streamed across the floor, soaking Satali’s clothes and finally reaching Natsalane’s feet.
“I must get the elders,” he said.
Satali looked up at him, wrought by her children’s sorrow, crying violently, but also shaking her head. “No,” she said. “What will become of them? What will they do to them? What will become of us?”
Natsalane shared her fear, but greater still he feared what their plight might do to their people. “Something evil has overcome them,” he said. “We have no chance of saving them ourselves. If a taboo was broken, maybe the elders can reverse the curse. Maybe they can stop it from getting worse, from spreading.”
Satali fell onto her boys again, resigning to her fate.
From under her heavy sobs, Natsalane heard her whisper, “Go.”
* * *
The elders arrived and identified the illness at once. “They have broken a taboo,” said Ponteesh.
“We know!” cried Satali indignantly, too terrified to show proper respect. “What will happen to them? How far will this illness go? What can we do to stop it?”
The elders did not reprimand her for her insolence. They felt assured that either from her gratitude for their work to come, or the extent of her suffering, she would be no threat to them. Their goal, as ever, was to protect their people.
“We cannot tell yet,” said the eldest elder. He bent his massive frame down over the children, who writhed beneath him like trapped ptarmigan. “We must see the extent of their punishment to know the extent of their sin. They will be repaid for what they did, and then we will know how much to fear.”
At these words, Eech and Kawali howled more terrible howls than man had heard since the wars against the man-eaters, since Arnarr wrapped herself in the cloak of a wolf. It shook the walls of the sod igloo and resonated across the village and into the woods, where it reached the ears of Raven.
The elders and parents blocked out the sound with their palms and watched from their muffled, dream-like state as the boys’ eyes began to boil in their sockets.
Satali grabbed Kawali’s chest, slammed him against the ground and slapped his face, desperately trying to stop the madness. But red and white goo exploded from his eye sockets and scalded her own face, forcing her to pull back.
Ponteesh snapped his head to the others elders and barked, “Summon our people!”
When they left, Natsalane crashed onto his knees next to Ponteesh, quaking with fear, and asked, “What is happening to my family?”
With every member of the tribe gathered in front, Ponteesh emerged from Natsalane’s sod igloo.
“Listen,” he boomed. “The boys who delivered our spring feast have broken a taboo.
We know not the cause.
We know not the reason.
We know not if it was revenge.
We know not if it was Raven.
“But the signs look bad.”
The crowd erupted panic.
“Silence,” said the elder. “There is no time to distress. There is little hope these boys will live, but that is not our gravest concern. If their sin was foul enough, our whole village could be punished. If they desecrated nature, nature may desecrate us. Famine and drought may descend upon our city until we have suffered as she has suffered.”
Several villagers began to cry from fear.
“But we can prevent this if we fortify ourselves against it,” he shouted, pleading to rile them behind him. “All of you must remain here, and hold vigil while the boys’ parents and us fight to save their children, fight to make the boys elucidate their sins and repent.”
Husbands now held their wives and looked up at Ponteesh with hope.
“Stand fast,” he said, “and hold respect for nature before your mind; pray that your children never overstep their bounds; and summon the wisdom of Raven that we may escape this trap.”
The people bowed their heads and clutched their sons and daughters to their sides, then a shattering screech exploded from the woods and pierced their ears: it was Raven.
Ponteesh spun and charged back into the igloo. Inside, the children’s howls had subsided. With the loss of their eyes, they had regained their tongues. They still moaned and occasionally shouted with pain, but also spoke to each other as if they were still in the woods.
“Where has the body gone?” Eech asked, scrambling on the floor as if he were combing through tall grass.
“I can’t find her,” shouted Kawali. “We must destroy her, we must bury her, we must let no one know what we did.”
“It’s too late. Someone has taken her,” said Eech. “Some cruel spirit has stolen our fate and holds it over our head like a trap.”
Satali could sit silent by their sides no longer. “What did you do? What have you done?” Satali cried, curling over her knees and tearing at her own chest.
“Mother?” Kawali stammerd. “Is that you?”
The elders and parents snapped upright, shocked.
“Keep speaking to them,” Ponteesh demanded.
But she needed no prompting. “Yes, you’re with me now,” she said, scrapping back onto her hands and knees and crawling to her children. “You’re home now.”
“No!” Eech shouted as if she had been slain before his eyes. He sobbed with remorse, like he clutched a corpse, and stuttered: “We have sinned in our own home! We have sinned against our mother!”
Satali’s words then had the opposite effect for which she had hoped. Instead of soothing their anxiety, it twisted the knife that tortured them. They cried out again, and as their eyes had done before, their skin began to melt.
Satali merely muttered and wept over her children, but Natsalane turned to the elders angrily. “What is happening?” he demanded. “I have served you my whole life. I came to you the moment I found them. Please stop this madness. Save my children!”
“We cannot do that,” said Ponteesh, ignoring the father and staring at the bleeding children. “We must focus on making them admit their guilt. That is the only way to save our people.” He turned back to Natsalane now. “You must concede that you have lost them. You must stand by my side. And if you do, I promise you you will survive with some sort of family intact.”
“The signs are growing worse,” Ponteesh informed the gathering. Natsalane stood at his side to show the people that the family supported the elders’ work. “Through these boys, Man, though part of Nature, rose again Her. And in return, Nature, though part of Man, rose against him. Never forget that Man is a guest in Nature’s bounty, and when the guest rises against his host, the natural order is broken and unnatural forces loosed upon the world. All we can do is try to contain them. If the boys’ suffering spreads beyond the walls behind me, a fate worse than famine will inflict our people.”
The elder fell silent and let the magnitude of this prediction hover over his village. He did not want to lie to them; he wanted them to know exactly how great a feat stood before him.
“But my hopes are high,” he boomed. “Satali has made contact with them, and if she can make them confess their digression, the punishment may end with them. We may be able to save our people.”
The crowd nervously cheered and one man shouted, “Save us, Ponteesh!”
“I will try,” the elder replied directly to the man, then continued addressing the whole crowd. “But I cannot do it alone. Pray for Satali now. She is our last hope.”
With this, Ponteesh grabbed Natsalane and stormed back into the igloo.
The debate between the boys that had started the night before continued still that day. They accused one another for what they had done and argued about telling their mother.
“You tricked me,” asserted Kawali. “You pretended to be a great hunter, but you were nothing but a coward.”
“You did what you wanted,” said Eech. “Your impulses led us every step of the way.”
Kawali moaned, as he always did when they reached this point. He wailed, “It does not matter.” And shook his head. “We must tell her. We have sinned against her, only she can forgive us.”
“We cannot!” Eech snapped, louder every time. “She can never know this side of us.”
“Enough!” Ponteesh shouted. “This must stop.”
The parents and other elders looked up at him, expecting to find him bearing down on the boys, but he was not. He stared directly at Satali, who cowered under his gaze. “You must make them understand what they could do to our people. You must make them submit!”
Satali did not reply, but at her side, Kawali rolled onto his stomach – the most either boy had moved in three days – and then lifted his torso off the floor. He stared straight at the eldest elder with the gaping holes that were his eyes and spoke in a raspy voice. “Do not yell at her.”
Ponteesh took a step back, terrified, but Kawali did not lunge at him. He fell under his own weight, rolled onto his back, and began to flail more wildly than before.
“What’s going on?” cried Satali.
“It’s happening,” mumbled Ponteesh. “The punishment begins. She will feed on us like monsters from the deep.”
Kawali’s body rapidly popped off the ground like a cracked egg frying over a flame. He popped and sizzled as if he were cooking, then suddenly stopped and dried up. His body expelled its last reserves of water in a gush and curled like burnt fat. He faced his brother.
“Tell her,” he said as the dry skin of his face cracked. “Tell her, now.” With these dying words, all his skin fell from his corpse like ash.
“No!” Eech cried like he had when he first heard his mother in the room. He sprung upright and stared at her now, stared at her with his hollow eyes, stared at her like he refused to do on the first day of spring. “I’m sorry,” he said, the water pouring from his body, his skin drying tight, time running out.
With his last force of strength, he parted his burning lips and cried, “We raped her.”
These words gave him great relief. He knew his life was over, but now he felt he might die in peace, saving the rest of his village. But before he could pass away, his mother dropped to the ground; her eyes caught fire and scorched; the water exploded from her body in a geyser, soaking Natsalane and the elders; and she shriveled up and died.
Eech watched in horror. His cracked, bloody skin burned with a fiercer fire than he had felt when he yearned for the plump fowl, tricked his brother into torturing it, or laughed at its agony. With the helplessness he felt at finding its feathers and eyeballs intact, he died.
“What has happened?” Natsalane asked, grabbing hold of Ponteesh. “What has happened to my family?”
The father buried his head deep in the chest of his people’s father. He pulled the man’s feathery cloak against his eyes, stabbed with misery. But upon the heels of misery runs questioning, and Natsalane lifted his facade and stared angrily at Ponteesh.
“Why did you not stop this?” he asked, looking back at the pile of his family’s corpses. “Why didn’t you lift your curse on the taboos? I knew my sons would die, but why did you let my innocent wife pay for their sins? You promised me a family!”
Natsalane crashed onto the ground. He pressed his head against his wife’s mangled body and shook against her chest.
The igloo fell silent save his subtle sobs, and Ponteesh whispered, “We cannot lift the curses on the taboos. We did not cast them. That is beyond our power.”
Natsalane looked up and shook his head in disbelief. His expression turned from sadness and grief to pure horror, like the pale moon dyed harvest-red.
“Come,” said the elder. “At least you have survived. Come outside with us.”
Ponteesh snatched the father up and dragged him before the people, then raised his hand and waited. The vigil fell silent again, anxious.
“They are dead!” he proclaimed.
A burst of screams erupted from the crowd, but Ponteesh left his hand high in the air, and soon silence fell again.
“The boys broke the most sacred taboo. They raped the natural world. They put all of our lives in jeopardy, and for this, they lost their own lives. But their innocent mother died for their sins, as well. No man sins alone. His guilt punishes everyone close to him. The grave guilt of this sin could have killed all of us. But it stopped with this man.” The elder put his hand on Natsalane’s shoulder. “His fortitude, his steadfast good valor in advising his sons and summoning us when they erred, saved him, and saved the rest of us.”
Natsalane fell to the ground, sobbing. Tears poured from his eyes and ran like streams into the crowd.
But Ponteesh continued. “We must try to assuage his grief. We must console him with a new family, and all respect him as an elder for the years this trial have given him in wisdom. Rise,” he said to Natsalane. “Rise,” he commanded. “Rise and look out over your new family.”
But Natsalane did not rise.