It is said that the world’s first people, the Raven Clan, were bound to a single island, high in the arctic, by the sea monster called Amikuk.
Man had seen nothing but that ice-laden island for his entire existence, yet the people of the Raven Clan knew they belonged on the open ocean, where the bounty of the world flourished and they could fulfill their dreams. They made their village on the edge of the highest cliff, and all their entrances faced the sea, so that they had the best view of the waves crashing against the rocks at their feet and rolling off the horizon in the distance. When the summer sun glistened on the water, they yearned for freedom. They knew the bounty of the sea was limitless; they knew there was a wold teeming with life beneath its surface – schools of fish larger than their village, larger fish that fed upon those schools, and fat-bodied seals that ate their pick of them all but would fall beneath the point of their hand-crafted spearheads; and they knew, too, that the expanse of ocean before them was their gateway to exotic, distance lands, where the sun rose year-round, trees grew large enough to shade their sore bodies, and fertile fields nourished thick, ripe berries and fat, hoofed game. They knew all of this, because every night, after staring at the endless sea all day and retreating to their igloos to sleep, every one of them saw these visions of fish, and berries, and animals in their dreams.
Each morning, when the people of the Raven Clan emerged from their homes and exchanged knowing glances, hope burned deep in their chests. Their shared visions were never spoken, but the feeling they inspired occasionally reached someone’s mind in the form of an idea, and a man, restless with the urge to provide for his family, would fashion a pair of wings from kindling and attempt to soar above and beyond the Amikuk’s reach; or two women, heartbroken by the idea of feeding their dying parents the same, dry bird meat eaten every day of their lives, would jump from opposite sides of the island in hopes one may survive and spear a fish. But no matter how high a man soared, or how many women worked together, the Amikuk snatched them with its seemingly-infinite, fleshy tentacles, and crushed their dreams between its man-sized teeth.
But one night, on the eve of a great storm, the father of a doomed child had a new idea. He stood on the edge of the cliff and stared not at the expanse of water before him, but into the tumultuous, gray sky above him. In the fold of two billowing clouds, Inuuraq caught a glimpse of Raven as he had never seen him. Even though the ebony bird was their namesake, the Raven Clan did not yet view him as the deity of creation. They believed a great unseen spirit created the natural order of the world and gave them glimpses into its working. The Raven Clan viewed the black bird as an omen of death because he only came to them riding the waves of rough skies, and thus he was the perfect symbol for their bleak lives.
At first, Inuuraq accepted this image. It seemed to explain Raven’s presence that fated night. Inuuraq imagined, like all the fathers of doomed children before him, that the bird foretold the sacrifice of his beloved son. But as his vision grew cloudy with tears, and the heavens turned pitch black, lightening struck, and Inuuraq did not cower from the thunder, but stared at the electric bolt and watched Raven twist around it in ever-tightening gyres then laugh in his shrill voice as it broke and echoed across the island as thunder.
This bird, he thought, is not at the mercy of the unkindly elements. By diving into their depths on his black wings, he has conquered them!
At this thought, Inuuraq’s quiet cries burst into sobbing. He stood on the precipice of the cliff that his child was to be thrown off the very next evening and wailed as all doomed fathers had wailed. While the storm broke and soaked his thick, hide clothes with heavy rain, his people laid their heads on the cold ground and ignored these familiar screams of despair, eager for the next day’s festivities. But Inuuraq’s were not screams of despair. They were howls of laughter. He would save his son. And he would save the Raven Clan. Even if they tried to persecute him.
Inuuraq felt the rain hitting his face grow colder and turn to ice. Soon it would be snow. The elders had correctly predicted the day this storm would start, as they did every year. Winter was coming – they were right again. But that did not mean they were right about everything.
With water freezing in his thick eyebrows, Inuuraq turned to the long sod igloo of the elders. Inside, the three of them sat awake, side by side, under the shadow of their curved igloo wall, too anxious about the next day to sleep, waiting for Inuuraq and his wife Ticasuk to bring them their child. It was the elders’ duty to ensure that the only tribe of men in the world survived another generation, and to do so they had to maintain the ancient order of the Raven Clan. Through their rituals, the Raven Clan had kept the birds migrating over their island with the tradition of wearing their tanned hides decorated with their feather; they had kept the rivers flowing from the glaciers with the ritual of washing their hands after every hunt; and most importantly, they had kept the sun returning to their island every year, breaking the spell of cold darkness and initiating every other cycle, with the sacrifice of one special child every first day of winter.
“Tomorrow,” said Seyzar, the center-seated elder, “is the hardest day for our people, as well as us.” The eldest among them spoke to the dark paradox that kept them all awake: the grim reality that they, as leaders, were forced to sacrifice one of their own in order to protect the others. “Even without our telling them, there is no man, women, or child among us who is not starkly aware that the darkness is coming – that it begins tomorrow.” Seyzar did not turn to his right or left as he spoke, but closed his eyes as if he could truly communicate with his fellow elders only by retreating into himself. “It will be painful, as it is always painful, to sacrifice one of our own to the Amikuk. But it is necessary. Though the beast keeps us locked on this island, he is also an intrinsic part of the natural wold, and by giving his child to him every year, our forefathers ensured the return of the light and warmth. We do not know what would happen if we did not fulfill this difficult role, but we know exactly what happens if we do: the sun returns and our people survive another year. By giving them this ritual we give them hope. Without it, anarchy could be loosed upon the world.”
The other elders nodded in consent and closed their eyes. Seyzar was right. The alternative was unthinkable. As awful as their next day’s task was, it was necessary. Without it, every role and system of order of the Raven Clan could crumble, and the natural order itself could spin into chaos.
Outside, rapid thunder shook the ledge on which Inuuraq stood. He glared at the triple-wide igloo and shook his head furiously. He knew exactly what the elders would say. They would say he was selfish; he was putting himself before his people; he was the worst type of sinner and damned. But he knew better. He knew that ideas struck like lightening. He did not know where his idea was born, but he knew it had not originated in the simple urge to save his son; it shared a source with the urge that inspired Raven to ride the waves of the storm. And he too would come out laughing that he and his family had conquered the very worst of the natural world – had stared into its face and emerged its master. And all for the good of the people.
Inuuraq ceased shaking his head. He became confident that he could convince the elders, but he realized there was someone else he had to persuade first. His eyes moved three homes down and stared into the only other entrance that flickered with light. He sprinted out of the storm and into his home.
Protected by the shelter of the entranceway, Inuuraq felt safer. He began to relax and believe he did not have to fight the storm by himself; his family would stand beside him. He stepped into the living room quietly and stopped when he saw his wife’s back. She stood over the small changing table he’d built for her. A candle sat next to their son and the light danced across her profile as she swaddled him in a long strip of feather-lined hide.
The imminent fight faded from Inuuraq’s mind for a moment and he smiled. His family was as it always had been and always would be: his calm in the midst of chaos. That Ticasuk was dressing their son for winter made Inuuraq believe she already felt what he thought. As Imitchaq lay naked on the driftwood table, smiling at his mother and kicking gently, she tucked a tuft of hair behind his ear and smiled back, then lovingly ran her fingers down the cold, moist gills along his jaw. She had long-since ceased flinching or balking at the deformities that had sealed his fate; she accepted the anomaly as her son and loved him. She had already overcome the skewed vision of her people – she would accept his new vision instantly.
Ticasuk folded Imitchaq’s webbed feet into the hide and wrapped upwards, pinning his finned hands against his waist and carefully covering his head so that his gills were hidden and only a sprig of black hair stood out under his hood. Then Inuuraq put his hands on her shoulders and they gazed down at their child together.
“We wont give him to them,” he said.
“I know,” she replied, without looking back.
“We will train him to kill the Amikuk and he will free our people.”
Ticasuk ran her hands through Imitchaq’s sprig of hair twice more and he fell asleep. Then she turned and stared into her husbands calm eyes. The lack of conflict in their expressions reconciled them both. He took her by the hand, led her to their bedroom, and made love to her. They both slept soundly the entire night, but woke quickly at first light and walked straight to the home of the elders, leaving Imitchaq behind.
“What do you mean, ‘you haven’t brought him?!’” Seyzar shouted. “If we do not give the Amikuk his child at daybreak, all of us may die.” the elder leaned forward onto his balled fist, out from the igloo’s shadow, and stared at Inuuraq from under his thick, hide hood.
But Ticasuk spoke first. “We don’t think so,” she said, standing before the seated elders. “We don’t think our child was born to be sacrificed.”
Inuuraq held her hand and nodded in support.
Seyzar cast off his hood and Ticasuk. A pale, blue light illuminated the ice floor and reflected fiercely in the elder’s gray eyes. “How could you think otherwise?” Seyzar asked threateningly. “The Raven Clan has always given the Amikuk his child. And we have survived thousands of years under this order.”
“Because he is too beautiful,” Ticasuk said, clasping her mittened hands in front of her chest. “With his long gills and tiny webbed hands and feet, we believe he was born to stand up against the Amikuk!”
Seyzar leaned farther over his red knuckles and stared deep into her eyes. Large, round, and growing moist with tears, they reminded him of the fat bodied seals’ from his sleep.
And in the searing glare and horrified quiver of her elder’s upper lip, Ticasuk saw the terrified, old order set against her hope.
“Do you realize what you’re suggesting? The consequences?” he screamed, thrusting himself back into the shadows between the other elders. “The traditions of our people keep us in harmony with the natural world. This single ritual stops our two gravest threats from crushing us: it satisfies the Amikuk so that he does not destroy us all, and it guarantees that the seasons continue to cycle, so that we are not doomed to cold and darkness until we die.”
“What if you are conflating our two fears?” Inuuraq asked, pushing back his shoulders and standing tall. “What if the Amikuk has nothing to do with the changing of the seasons.”
“They are more than fears!” Seyzar proclaimed, snapping his hood back over his head. “They form the base of the natural world, created by the great unseen spirit, of which we are all a small part. Our elders explained this generations ago. We must play our role in this order, for if we disturb it, we will be crushed, not it. Are you suggesting our wise forefathers were wrong about the very basis of the world, or tricked their people to believe in lies?”
The left and right seated elders turned their heads to Seyzar in shock, but Ticasuk stole their attention, and Seyzar’s and Inuuraq’s, as she fell to her hands and knees on the ice, head down, one mittened hand raised to the sky. “No!” she pleaded. “I’m sorry. We did not mean to go to far. You are wise men, and your fathers and fathers’ father were wise men, too. It’s just that, it’s just that…”
“It’s just that we believe things are different this time,” Inuuraq said, stepping closer to the elders, and raising Ticasuk by her feather-cloaked shoulders. “We believe our son was born to deliver us from this island and conquer the sea.”
“The sea,” Seyzar sneered. “The sea has nothing for our people.”
But Inuuraq did not relent. He stood as tall as he could while still looking down at the shrouded elders and said, “What about our dreams?”
Even Ticasuk turned to him, shocked he spoke their deepest secret.
Seyzar remained calm. “They are just dreams,” he said, rising from the shadows to meet him. The elder’s long, narrow frame, cloaked in dark Raven feathers, bent under the curve of the igloo far above Inuuraq’s head. “We cannot risk our lives for dreams,” he whispered.
“But,” Inuuraq stammered, intimidated but desperate. “But we all share these dreams. They are as real in our lives as this island itself. And when life becomes unbearable, they are more important than our waking lives.. They give us the reason and vision to press on.”
“We, the elders, give you the reason and vision to press on. We are the only ones who receive signs from the great unseen spirit,” said Seyzar. “No dream can guarantee the darkness will ever lift if we let your child live, let alone ensure that he will kill the Amikuk and lead us across the oceans. What if we let your son live and the darkness never lifts, and then it is too late and even if we sacrifice him the darkness stays, and it grows colder and colder until we freeze. Or what if the Amikuk grows furious and kills us all, or worse yet, we put all our faith in him and he fails. Anarchy would ensue.”
“That will not happen,” Inuuraq pleaded. “This will bring us greater order. The same sort of order that guides Raven in the clouds.”
“Enough,” said Seyzar. He crashed back into his seat, glanced a the other elders, then poked his head out from the shadows and looked at the couple with a gaze of grim finality. “The elders have spoken. There are simply too many risks. We refuse to be the elders who let our people perish or plunge into an eternity of darkness. You will deliver your child immediately. The ritual is about to begin.”
Inuuraq dropped his head as if accepting his terrible fate a second time. Ice cracked faintly from outside. Then Inuuraq whispered. “There are not too many risks. There are too many possibilities.” He raised his head and looked at the elders once more. “How can you three refuse to be the elders who saved our people from the return of the cold and darkness, defeated the Amikuk, and led our people across the oceans and the lands of their dreams?” Then he turned and took Ticasuk in his arms and said, “Let’s go. They will never understand.”
“Wait!” said Seyzar, carefully folding his legs. “Let the elders and I speak a moment longer.” He glanced at the left and right seated elders then leaned back into the shadow, next to them.
As Inuuraq and Ticusak listened, the elders spoke in the ancient language of the Raven Clan. This tongue had long since vanished from the winds of the earth except through the lineage of these three men. Their fathers had passed it on to their sons for generations with one purpose: to enable man to change the future set for him by history. For only by using the word of law can law be changed, only through language can the systems built upon it be altered. The power of language being that it, like the physical matter of the universe, cannot be destroyed, but under extreme forces can take on new forms, as long as the most basic elements remain. Innuraq and Ticasuk’s argument was a strong enough forces for the elders to alter their oldest rituals and replace it with a bright, new dazzling star. As long as the most basic element remained.
“It is done,” said Seyzar, opening his eyes. “Your boy will live to kill the Amikuk.”
Ticasuk clasped her mittened hands above her heart once more, this time with joy instead of desperation. “Thank you, wise elders!” she said, with no hint of sarcasm to the word wise
“We will not disappoint you,” Inuuraq said.
Both parents were so enraptured by the verdict and so ignorant to the word of law that they did not perceive what had changed and what had remained the same. They were like an awestruck lover ignorant of his beloved’s signs, willing to agree to anything for a single embrace, even if the agreement ensures the embrace is doomed.
They cared only that Imitchaq would live.
“No, you will not,” demanded Seyzar, determined to make himself clear. “And you will also tell no one of our plan. We will tell the people that your son will live, but not that he will kill the Amikuk. You must train him to do so in secret.”
Inuuraq paused, cocked his head to one side, and asked“Why?” feigning sincerity. He yearned to propose that they tell everyone everything. He believed his vision was so perfect and so obvious that it would persuade them all. But he refrained because the elders had already granted his child life. After winning that victory, nothing else mattered to him.
“Because the loss of this ritual will already panic our people,” said Seyzar. “To tell them we also plan to kill the Amikuk, another constant in their lives, would be too much.”
Inuuraq could contain the passion for his vision no longer. “Then why not give them an alternative? Why not give them hope?” he said, positive this would delight the elders and ease the tension between them.
“Absolutely not!” said Seyzar. “Your boy may fail, and if the people put their faith in him, and he does fail, chaos will ensue.” Seyzar leaned into the pale, blue light, and pierced Inuuraq with his gray eyes. “Your plan depends on our leadership – we must keep the people calm while you train Imitchaq. The future of the Raven Clan depends on maintaining our order – a new level may be built upon it with your son, but either way, the old order must remain or everything could crumble. Their faith must remain in us!”
Inuuraq and Ticasuk cowered at these words. Their faith was not shaken – both believed their son would succeed. And Inuuraq knew his vision was sent from Raven. But neither wanted to provoke further dispute with the elders. As Seyzar said, they needed the elders, their fragile hope depended on them. Like anxious lovers or war-torn countries, they would accept peace, even on dubious terms, ignorant of how those agreements always ended.
“Do you understand?” Seyzar asked.
“Yes,” said Inuuraq. Ticasuk nodded anxiously.
“Then you may go.”
They bowed and muttered further reassurances, then shot out of the igloo like loosed arrows, straight back to their home, back to their child, ignoring their fellow villagers, who slowly emerged from their igloos and gathered in small groups.
Imitchaq sat peacefully on his changing table when his parents flew into the room. When he heard them and saw them hovering over him and smiling, he smiled back and wiggled back and forth under his wrapping like a fluttering baby bird. Inuuraq and Ticasuk fell to their knees on either side of him, pressed their mittened hands against his swaddled body, and relished every feature of his face, as if he were just born: his sprig of black hair springing out from his hood, his forehead as smooth as the still ocean, his cheeks red with warmth and not frostbite, his lips still soft and un-chapped, his cheeks, nose, and chin rolling like the hills of their dreams, and his eyes ancient and glittering like the prophet they knew he would become.
Ticasuk reached behind his neck, untied his swaddling, and began to unwrap. She wanted to see the features that had sucked this euphoria from her during his first birth, she wanted to relish them like she relished everything else about him. When the wrapping fell from his chin and his gills gasped for breath, she did – she was filled with joy, repenting for the time she was struck with horror; and when his webbed hands were freed and flung upward at his parents, she did not recoil as she had done before, but redeemed herself and let him grasp her finger with one hand while her husband let him grasp his finger with the other.
Connected by him in a new way, their relationship had a new dimension – their family was reborn. Smiling at each other over their small child, they felt like the chains that had shackled them to a single fate had been broken and now they were free to create a new destiny for their son and their family and their people.
“He’ll do it, right?” Ticasuk asked.
“Yes,” said Inuuraq. “I will make sure of it.”
They leaned into one another over their child to kiss, but before their lips could meet, a low, rhythmic chanting began to vibrate their ice walls and the tension of the outside world flooded their home. They froze, watched each others euphoria melt and resolve into panic, and then turned to the entrance of their igloo.
Outside, their clansmen had gathered to demand the murder of their child. This first step of their ancient ritual boomed so loudly from the depths of all their people’s chests – like one unified, pulsing heart – that they suddenly feared even the elders could not stop it. Maybe this ritual of the people, like the changing of the seasons, was beyond the elders’ control. Maybe the movements of man were fixed like the orbs in the sky, and no matter how human it was to alter that order – no matter how cruel or unfair an element of the order was – it was hopeless, like setting yourself against the sun.
Peering out of their house at the elders’ igloo, Inuuraq and Ticausk marveled at the size of the mob. Were there really that many people? Inuuraq realized he had lost track of his small band of brothers while consumed with his own plight. There were infants and toddlers he did not recognize, and elders who were starkly missing. Before, he had been part of this mob. He had stood shoulder to shoulder with them, swaying and chanting, and he had felt the painful need for this sacrifice. Now, remorse gripped his chest for the relief he was stripping from them.
Ticasuk felt this, too. She realized the elders had anticipated it, and imagined what they had felt. “This is what the elders feared,” she whispered. “This is why they remained cold, even after they saw our vision.”
“Yes,” said Inuuraq, tears streaming down his cheeks for the pains he caused all his people. “But it must be done. We can see for them, even if they cannot see for us. This is best for us all.”
“Silence!” Seyzar screamed, emerging from the largest igloo.
The mob ceased chanting and gasped, shocked not by the reprimand, or the absence of Imitchaq, or even the break in their ritual, but by the state of the elder. Like a man possessed, he paced in front of the entranceway, his face twisted with raw emotion. He flinched and blinked hard, bit his lip and beat his chest before speaking. This, from the force of calm in their chaotic lives, was the most immediate, disconcerting shock for his people. “We will not sacrifice the child,” he wailed, still staring at the ground, as if talking to himself. “Not today, not this year.”
The Raven Clan did not erupt at these words, but remained enraptured with their elder. By becoming the concerned leader, he stole the crowd’s attention from the change taking place. He ripped the fear from their minds before it could engulf them and became its living embodiment. They were transfixed, and if he kept them riveted, they would follow his monologue to whatever conclusion he reached.
“This is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do, but it must be done,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen – it has never been done before. We don’t know if the Amikuk will be enraged, or if the warm light will not return, or worse. But it must be done. I don’t know how anything could be worth risking that, worth risking all of us, but it must be done.” He stopped abruptly and turned to his people with panicked, pleading eyes. “In our deepest trance, the great unseen spirit gave us a clear sign that the child must live. I don’t know why, I can’t explain how, but I can tell you for certain, that the only thing more dangerous than obeying this sign, would be not obeying it.”
The people were awestruck. The elder was so distraught, yet so resolved, that his people felt too selfish to express their concerns or question his judgment. Their leader suffered, struggled, and understood more of this plight than any of them could know. That was clear. Their pain was petty in comparison and if expressed would only distress him further and jeopardize them all.
“If you have any concerns, please come to us.” He trembled violently and repressed convulsions as he went on. “We will talk to you, try to reassure you, but also listen to your concerns and consider them in our decision. It is not too late to reverse this decision, or discover another ritual that must be performed to replace it.” Seyzar stood up straighter now and appeared more composed. The clansmen caught a glimpse of the calm elder they had known their whole lives, who could look at none of them – stare wistfully over their heads – and speak to them all. “We promise you, we will pay close attention to the great unseen spirit, and if any sign indicates that we must enact a new ritual, we will not hesitate to inform you.”
Seyzar slumped again and let his eyes dart amongst the crowd. “Now we must return to our meditation so we miss nothing. But if you have concerns, come to us.”
Seyzar turned and flew back into the elders’ igloo.
The Raven Clan stared into the dark entranceway for several moments, then, without looking at one another, began to peel off and return to their homes. The will to action that had brought them there was gone, their collectivity disbanded. They sulked, distinctly sad but unsure why, waiting for the next promise of hope that could fulfill them.
No one looked at Inuuraq or Ticasuk as they passed the igloo in which Imitchaq lived. Not the ones who clung to their rituals and could blame the couple for robbing them of their greatest joy; nor the ones who feared the Amikuk and Winter and could accuse the parents of dooming them all; and not even those who had been forced to sacrifice children of their own and could hate the whole family with the unbridled force of jealousy. All of them repressed their emotions under a common, deeper fear lined with faith that a moment would come and resolve their feelings, or give them the chance to react.
Ticasuk was overwhelmed by the fears of her clansmen. She felt their deep, personal pains and understood how all their peace depended on the peace of the elders. Only they could resolve the issues of all her people. She saw now that her son could not do it alone, but that he had a role to play, and he must play it well for all their sakes. “He won’t disappoint them, will he?” she asked, concerned that day for the people she had challenged that morning.
“No. He won’t”
“He’ll do it, won’t he? He’ll kill the Amikuk, right?”
“Yes. He will,” said Inuuraq.
All the first people now rested in their own homes, praying the elders would discover the next step in their history, and preparing themselves for a bleak season with no definitive point of hope – with no assurance spring would return without having sacrificed the child that day.
Inuuraq walked back into his house, picked up his child, and from that minute forth, did not cease to imagine his child as the savior he would become. He unwrapped him from his swaddling and tailored him small shoes, pants, shirts, gloves, and hats. The boy would not spend his first years coddled and retaining warmth as tradition dictated. He would immediately begin to grow strong like a man. After dressing him in his new clothes, Inuuraq walked Imitchaq around the house through the night, through the fussing and crying over being tired, until he took several final steps, and fell asleep standing, suspended form his fathers fingers.
When he woke, a small ulu rested in his hand. Ticasuk had crafted it for him in the night, carving the blade from hard rock and the handle from wing bone so it would be light enough for him. She encouraged him to lift it with gentle murmurs, and scolded him when he threw it down in a fit of hunger or frustration. She wrapped his small fingers back around the handle and guided his hand across and down his body in smooth cutting strokes, then again encouraged him to do the same. That first day, he cried for hours, and it wrenched his mother’s heart, but she did not feed him until he mimicked her guided movement. Every meal after that, every morning after that, he learned how to receive his mother’s tender pap more quickly, until it was instinctual for him to raise and wield the blade when he wished to suckle.
As an infant, running too became routine to Imitchaq. After only months of being walked by Inuuraq – months of learning to love this game with his father – Inuuraq would no longer pick him up. When the child fell, he had to struggled to his feet and grasp his father’s fingers on his own to continue. Watching Imitchaq flounder on the floor and cry the first time brought tears to Inuuraq’s own eyes, but he remained strong so that his child would grow strong, and it worked. Soon Imitchaq was dashing across the room to frolic with his father. Then the parents brought their lessons together, so that the ulu was involved in this game, and feats of strength were involved in feeding. Imitchaq had to run across the room, maneuvering his blade around placed furniture anytime he yearned for love from either of his parents.
When the elders witnessed this, even they believed the training went well. Seyzar smiled from the shadows and said, “The boy is remarkable.” The family beamed with pride and hurried back to their home for further training. They couldn’t help but notice, as they crossed the cliff of their frigid island, that the plight of their people was worsening. The light had left their lives completely and the darkness grew darker daily. Winter thickened, and the cold became deadly. But no one blamed this on the family or the elders. This was simply the cycle of their lives. What everyone awaited – the elders, the family, and the people – was the equinox. All of them could feel that the day was near when the air would be darker than Raven’s eyes and frigid enough to kill a man in a moment if he dared step outside. They waited to see if that state would lift, as it always did, or if nature would grow more fierce because they had not done as they always did.
The elders had not spoken to the people since they announced their decision. They had not reassured them that they believed all would be well, or even predicted they day of the solstice, as they always had. But after they witnessed the young prodigy, and meditated on his development and the signs in the stars and land and air, they grew so bold as to make a prediction. “The sun will return,” Seyzar said, standing before his people on the edge of the cliff, the ocean stretched out behind him. “The cold and darkness will settle as it always has, but this year, the day before it leaves, the warmth will be ushered in by a giant bird made of fire. He will rise from the waters behind me and soar over our village. Then the sun will begins its slow ascent.”
The people were perplexed. No bird had ever flown over their island in the dark time, let alone the coldest day of the year. And a bird made of fire was grander than their boldest dreams of the ocean. To them, fire and birds were alike only in that both were sparse. In the summers, they gathered as much driftwood as time allowed and still did not have enough to keep everyone alive with small fires through the winter. But Seyzar answered no questions. The elders returned to their igloo and deep meditation.
Inuuraq, more than anyone, thought this prediction was strange. Since confronting the elders, their mystique had vanished for him. He saw them as practical leaders. But this prediction was beyond all practicality. All Seyzar needed to do was guess that the freezing would cease. If this alone were fulfilled without the sacrifice of his son, it would seem a miracle to the people. He thought the elders were risking the loss of their people’s faith unnecessarily.
But three days later, reason was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The solstice came. The people could feel it through the thick, ice walls of their homes, even as they huddled around their small flames. The coldness stabbed through their feathered hides, froze their skin, and slowed their vitals. Even the thickest men in the village felt near death. They focused as hard as they could on the fires dancing before them, thinking about the beating of their own hearts, willing them to keep pumping. But even focus on their very lives could not distract the from what emerged through their entrance ways: on the thick black horizon, the stars began to disappear; the darkness grew fainter – a shade of gray it wouldn’t naturally become for anther half winter; then the unmistakable beak of Raven poked over the horizon, fiery red. Like a crystallized mirage of dazzling lights, undulating in the heavens, this bird ablaze danced over their heads, formless in its perfect form. It sprawled across the sky from horizon to horizon and rolled into the shapes of their dreams, then moved without content, pure motion, like a music from nature that brings hope to a dark land without engaging the mind. Then it was gone. It drew itself apart and passed over them.
The people of the Raven Clan marveled at the sheer beauty of the thing long after it was gone. They fell asleep, their minds ablaze with color, which exploded onto their dreams, painting the open oceans and distant lands more vividly than ever. They woke to a slightly warmer, slightly less black morning, with a general, free flowing hope. This feeling, inspired by the vision and the turning of the equinox despite their suspended sacrifice, could have focused on any point, person, or group. But when the people began to follow this formless vision to a source, only one point existed for that role: the elders. They had predicted it and it had come. The people could lay their fears to rest and keep faith. The sun was coming and the elders would continue to lead them.
The sun came, and most of the Raven Clan survived another season of darkness. No one spoke of the mid-winter aurora like no one shared their shared dreams, but every day of sunshine struck them with a strange sense of newness. The existence of daylight and the shifting of the seasons while the webbed footed child ran among them made life feel entirely other. It was off-putting, but like all things off-putting, intriguing. They marveled at the infant who literally ran among them, and wondered if all gilled children were as gifted as him.
But they would never find out, because all those born before him had been killed, and starting that year, no more were born. This did not concern the people of the Raven Clan, because they now knew the sun would return without their sacrifice. And that winter, the winter aurora erupted in the night sky many times, and often danced above them for several days. Five days before the solstice, it erupted from every edge of the horizon, like a flock of Ravens from the deep, then crossed itself as the equinox turned, dove, and took just as long to crash on the opposite shores. This dazzling spectacle that no one could avoid witnessing through the small portals of their homes, was accompanied by an even more incredible exhibition that few observed and fewer believed. Yet some swore they saw, even more plainly than the aurora, in the foggy vision of their burning, dry eyes, the webbed footed child Imitchaq, at the same moment the flock of Raven’s converged, at the coldest moment of the year, when it was believed man could not survive more than a step from his fire, emerge from his igloo, run to the edge of the cliff, and sit down, stare up, and stay there until the spectacle disappeared. Then the second disappeared, as well, back into his home, so that the two phenomenon were inextricably linked in some people’s minds.
But few witnessed this, few who witnessed it believed what they had seen, and almost no one who was told about it believed what they heard. Still, it was whispered about in the coming year, which was more than could be said about the visions every member of the Raven Clan shared. And when told, even if the audience thought the character and story were fictions, everyone believed in the tale for one moment, shared an impulse with the boy for one second, when he ran out of his home, despite the cold, to look up at the dazzling heavens – the burning fire at the coldest moment. Everyone yearned to do that. It was instinctive. Many even thought the heat of the image would keep them warm. But it was just an image. Everyone knew that. Only someone with an imagination stronger than their fears, like a young child, could act upon that impulse and discover the truth.
The following summer, some claimed they heard that the boy’s parents proposed he accompany the men on their hunts. The parents had not not suggested he could spear a bird, but insisted he could clean it and help haul meat, feathers, and hide back to the village. Everyone had seen him run and wield a blade, but he did not go with them. Some dismissed the suggestion as nonsense, others were indifferent, but some speculated that the elders had refused, and that was the truth.
The boy already garnered too much attention, they said. The people were curious about him because of his mere existence, but his untimely strength and coordination were enough to quench their curiosity. Anything more would make him seem too remarkable. The Raven Clan would start to grow weary of him, fear him, want to sacrifice him because his difference was disconcerting. “After all,” said Seyzar, “it was long believed that the gilled child was the son of the Amikuk. We would not want them to fear that another monster grows in our midst. We must tell no one he stood outside in the solstice, and he must not hunt the flocks with our people. But you should take him to the other side of the island and begin training him to use a spear. And let him out this winter anytime he wants.”
Thus Imitchaq started hiking across the island and mastering the dagger. The men of the Raven Clan hunted the flocks without him, harvesting just enough meat to survive the long winter; and the women gathered enough driftwood to heat their homes until the last day of darkness. Then the season of silence set in. This year, as last year, the winter auroras erupted far more often than before. And with every demonstration of light, it was rumored that the child sat outside in the cold. Some even claimed to see him bareheaded and without gloves. But the season turned as it always had, even since the child had not been sacrificed.
Ultimately, little changed. By the age of five, Imitchaq possessed all the skills of the men in his clan, but his new feats were demonstrated so slowly and so steadily that change became the constant. No one was jolted by it; they expected to see him progress. Few even noticed the boy’s abilities were beginning to outstrip their own. Still, he was not allowed to hunt with them. Inuuraq wondered if this decision was wise. His child was growing so strong, so fast, and so able, that when he was allowed to hunt his prowess would awe even the strongest man. But the elders insisted. They ensured Inuuraq that the time for his child to hunt would be made clear to them with a vision from the great unseen spirit. Until then, they would remain silent about the boy, the auroras, and the rumors. They believed comment by them would only aggrandize the phenomenons, and their silence would let them settle without a splash. But Inuuraq wondered if their silence made them look blind to the changes in the heavens. But he didn’t care; he had complete faith in his child.
Imitchaq differed from other children in his demeanor, as well. He was quiet, like all the people of the Raven Clan. There was only one point in the whole lives of the first people when they were enraptured with life, chatted about it endlessly, and frolicked as if there were no monstrous border around their world. That was late childhood, when they discovered new facets of themselves, and life, and the world, before the larger feeling of futility hit them at adolescence. But Imitchaq remained quiet and pensive all the way to adulthood. His parents believed this was because he had mastered the feats that enamored children when he was an infant. While his peers learned to run and jump and play with toys, he conquered cliffs, dove into alpine lakes, and sharpened spearheads – feats that required much more care and technical ability.
He was also submerged in the deeper realms of life far before adolescence. His parents tried to make him feel normal, to give him a normal life, but his mental awareness was as heightened as his physical prowess. He never asked his parents why everyone watched him, or why the people whispered twice as much and half as loud when he was near, or why the other children didn’t play like he did, or why he was the only one with gills and webs, the only one who ran outside in winter, the only one to strolled without a hat or gloves. He knew he was different, profoundly different. And he knew there was something about his life even more curious than all his differences combined. But he also knew his parents didn’t want to talk about any of this, so he never asked. He served them as dutifully as he could, followed his own instincts about everything, and even though he was the most remarkable, unique, important child of the Raven Clan, he was also the most reserved and reconciled.
Despite all of this, his parents began to feel that he pent a strong urge deep inside himself, as if he kept a darker secret than the one his parents kept from him. The year that he grew to be the greatest hunter on the island and his skills continued to sharpen daily, yet he was still not allowed to hunt, his parents grew afraid of his deep-seated anxiety. When he sat to eat with them, he was still the most respectful, loving child any parents could dream of – he was grateful to them for all they had provided and compassionate with them about their physical pains and mental concerns – but at times he would fall silent and begin to brood like a thunderhead. His eyes sagged with tears and he threatened to explode at any moment. His parents wondered if his differences had made him conflicted in other ways, like the men who never took wives, refused to speak of women, and occasionally disappeared together on the hunt. After nearly losing him as an infant, and constantly fearing for his survival, watching his every move, and worrying how the people and the elders reacted to him, his parents now relished his company more than any other parents could fathom. Yet when he sunk into these moods, like he did now, they feared how he would break out of them, and what he would say.
“I must speak to the elders,” he demanded, rising from his meal and turning away from his parents.
“Wait,” said Inuuraq. “What do you mean?”
Imitchaq spun around and stared his father down with rage, as if his parents had held him back. “I must speak with the elders immediately,” he said, pointing through their wall in the direction of the largest igloo. “It is absurd that they do not let me hunt when I could feed so many people.”
“But you cannot go to the elders unsolicited,” said Ticasuk, welling with concern. “It’s not allowed.”
“They said they would ask you to join the hunt when they received a sign from the great unseen spirit,” Inuuraq said, trying to placate the son who had grown stronger than them and now raged inside their home.
But Imitchaq grew no more furious. He dropped his hands to his sides and breathed deeply, then nodded slowly. He was accepting their concern, but also arranging what he had just learned from their fragmentary comments with his own knowledge of himself, views of the world, and ideas of the elders.
His parents stood silently before him, waiting eagerly, patiently, timidly, for his response, while Imitchaq decided what he would do, what his life meant to him, his people, and the elders. He stopped nodding. “Then I will be there sign,” he said, and left the igloo.
After that day’s long hunt, no one remained on the cliff of their village, but several Ravens pecked the ice where the flock of geese had been cleaned. Imitchaq stopped and watched them chip and swallow succulent sections of red ice. His parents did not follow him out of the house, which meant they either secretly wanted him to talk to the elders, or feared him. The Ravens hopped around, laughed, and flapped their wings as they relished the snack. They were remarkable, Imitchaq thought, for being able to withstand the cold and inclimate conditions. They didn’t need to migrate like the geese and ducks; they soared overhead in the depths of winter. That was why they were the gods of his people: both fought the harshest conditions and won, both remained. The only difference was, the Ravens did so by choice. They were a far clearer sign than the unseen spirit.
Imitchaq stormed into the igloo of the elders.
“What is the meaning of this?!” shouted Seyzar, fully submerged in the shadows. “We were deep in meditation, and no one disturbs the work of the elders. Why do you think you are any different?”
“Because I can serve our people,” Imitchaq said, and stood before them.
The elders sat silent for a moment, then Seyzar asked, “How would you serve our people?”
“I would hunt. And I know that if you let me hunt the largest lake, I alone, with the help of my father, could catch more than all the other men among us combined, could kill enough geese for our people to eat comfortably all winter. And with me providing food, the other men could gather wood. No one would freeze, no one would starve, and we would grow stronger as a people.”
“How can you be so sure,” snapped Seyzar. “That sounds rather arrogant. Arrogant in believing you are greater than all your elders combined, and arrogant in believing you know what is best for our people without our guidance.”
Imitchaq could see the other elders nodding slowly in unison. Then Seyzar leaned forward from the shadows, bareheaded and eyes ablaze, fiery red. Imitchaq stepped back
“Do you know arrogance is the greatest taboo, the single sin that can divide our people and bring us down? At the mere hint of dangerous arrogance, the elders must act accordingly, for the good of the people.”
Imitchaq was terrified. For a moment, he questioned his own reasons, prodded his own pride. But there was only compassion. He still felt confident, which assured him his arrogance was not dangerous. “I don’t believe I’m greater than my elders,” he said. “And I don’t propose I know what is better for our people than you.” He glanced across the shadows, resting his eyes on all three elders in turn. “Strength is not greatness, it is merely a tool. And it is a far more limited tool then the knowledge and vision you three possess. I don’t know as much as you, or my parents, or even other children. But I do know that I am different. And I know that I am like this,” he held his palms up to the elders with his webbing spread and flared his gills, “to serve our people.”
The elders sat silent once again. Imitchaq lowered his hands and breathed normally, awaiting his verdict. Seyzar’s eyes seemed to cool and he retreated into the shadows. The elders spoke a tongue Imitchaq had never heard before, but he understood every word of it. They said this was the sign. They said he must be tested now because the reckoning was upon them. And they said they should say no more in his presence.
“After their success today, our men will not be hunting tomorrow. They will be resting here, so you and your father are free to hunt the large lake then. Depending on how you do, we will consider the rest of the season.”
“Thank you,” Imitchaq said immediately. He knew they were testing him, not only because he had heard them say so, but because the men had been so successful that day that all the geese that were not killed had fled, and it was unlikely more would descend upon a pond on which others had been massacred the day before. But if a reckoning were coming he wanted to be ready. Somehow, he would lure more geese to the island. “You are wise men,” he added, and left.
* * *
Over the cliff on which the Raven Clan lived, there were barren rolling hills, most lodged with thick ice and one longer valley that contained a frigid alpine lake. No fish lived in this silty, glacial water, but twice a year, birds – mostly geese – flew over the arctic island of the Raven Clan, and occasionally a flock took refuge. It was from these flocks, and rare birds speared in flight, that the Raven Clan caught all its food, clothing, and organic materials for the entire year.
On the day of Imitchaq’s first hunt, he and Inuuraq scaled the cliff and hiked to this lake during the brief darkness that had returned since the summer equinox. Imitchaq insisted upon this because he had a plan to attract the passing flocks. His father shared his concern that no fowl would descend on water still red with blood and littered with feathers, and he also feared the elders were not giving him an opportunity but setting him up to fail. But Imitchaq said he had a plan, so Inuuraq was awake during the only hour of summer darkness, frantically sharpening spearheads on the banks of the lake.
Imitchaq scraped next to him until there were only ten spears left – his father could finish those while he prepared. There was already a pile of more than one hundred spears, for as Imitchaq had told his father, this plan would require more spears than the Raven Clan had ever used, even though he was one and they were many. He would take all of these spears into the lake and disturb the still surface the way the fish did in their dreams – a plan no other member of the Raven Clan would dare suggest, and the elders would not allow in front of the others – and when a flock of geese noticed this and landed to feed, he would deftly spear each one of them, one by one, and pin them to the bottom of the lake, until they fled. Inuuraq had known this was the plan, but when his son stood up and stripped, his steady hand shook with nerves and he could not sharpen the last ten spears.
“Don’t worry, father, I’ll be fine,” Imitchaq said.
“The water is freezing!” Inuuraq shouted, his voice cracking, his head down to hide his tears. He struck sparks from the rock as he sharpened with anger.
“I can withstand the cold,” he said. “I already hunt without gloves or a hat, as no one in our village can do, and trust me, I do not feel the slightest chill. I know I must do this – must learn to overcome the frigid waters – to serve our people. And that passion keeps me warm.”
Inuuraq stood, his head still down, and handed his son the last spear. “Go,” he said. “The sun is almost rising.”
Inuuraq took an armful of sticks and walked into the water, step after step, until he disappeared, fully submerged. Then Inuuraq, remembering that his son promised he could dodge them, hurled the rest of the spears into the water, one after the other, then hid. As he watched, the surface of the water began to ripple, just as it did in his dreams, first in one section of the lake, then on the far end, in rapid succession. bubbles streamed everywhere. This gave Inuuraq hope that his son was working hard enough to stay warm. All he prayed for now was a passing flock. He knew his son’s plan would work, no matter how high the birds flew overhead, but he also knew there were days not a single song bird darted by the island and his son would not quit until he died.
But this fear faded with the rising sun. Moments after the horizon was lined with an orange sliver, that sliver was filled with a flock of geese larger than any flock that has flown since the days of the first people, and it shot for their island in a perfect v. Inuuraq crouched lower behind the hill, peering over just enough to see the bill of the lead goose. Even from this perspective he could see his son was right. As the geese headed toward him they gently descended along the way and splashed onto the lake like a handful of sand flung from the heavens. When the ripples subsided and he heard the birds paddling around the lake, looking for their anticipated snack, he stuck his head over the rim and watched.
His son worked patiently. The flocked moved as a unit in the water, as it did in the air, so that there was always one goose in the back, out of sight of the others. Imitchaq pulled this bird under, time and time again, as the goose stuck his head down to search for fish. Inuuraq imagined how fast his son must have been to snatch the bird by the neck and pull it to the bottom so quickly that the other birds didn’t see when when they dove. As the flock grew more frantic, searching for a meal they couldn’t find, Imitchaq began to spear them to take them down faster than they bobbed. From Inuuraq’s perspective the water was the scene of a great massacre. Birds were being sucked into the abyss at an astonishing rate. Before the sun was halfway to its apex, the enormous flock had dwindled to fewer than twenty birds. Yet Imitchaq was so deft that the remaining individuals did not begin to panic until they were fewer than ten. At that point, they stopped seeing a lake full of their fellows as they turned their heads; they noted how few of them were left and flew.
When they did, Imitchaq stabbed the last bird he had caught into the mud, grasped an arm full of spears from the floor of the lake, and swam to the surface. As the last ten geese ascended on the winds, Imitchaq launched into the air, flung ten arrows, and brought them down.
Inuuraq stared at the birds as they soared over his head, were struck in the chest, and fell to the ground like great rocks. He was transfixed by the prowess of his son. To spear ten birds that perfectly was unfathomable, and his son had done it after slaying more fowl in one day than any other man could boast of killing in his life, and he had done that from the depths of water so frigid few could touch it, let alone live under it.
Inuuraq suddenly feared his son was dead.
He sprung over the hill and saw the whole lake clearly, but his son was nowhere. He stared at the still surface as he ran to the banks, but couldn’t decipher so much as a ripple of movement or bubble of breath. Panic stricken, he stripped off his clothing and prepared to plunge in. But when his first foot hit the water, his body arrested him despite his soul’s firm resolve to die searching for his son. He fell backward and clutched his heel, desperately attempting to alleviate the pain so he could try again, but before he could stop screaming, Imitchaq emerged.
At the sight of his son rising from the glowing water, walking strongly, confidently, as if he suffered not the slightest fatigue, Inuuraq forgot his pain and stopped screaming. He noted every detail as his hero walked out of the glacial water, onto the bank, a train of spears in each hand. While he had panicked and failed to save his son, his son had skewered the birds, five or six on each spear, and lodged the spears together, arrow to butt, so that he could drag out his entire catch in one slow procession.
He stopped only when he saw that his father was in pain. Then he dropped the sticks instantly. “What’s wrong with your foot?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’m fine” said Inuuraq, trying to stand next to his son.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll get you my shoes and clothes, then we can clean our catch and bring it back to the people.”
Inuuraq burned with shame, but he waited for his son to fetch him his clothing, then dressed and rose to help him. Imitchaq was much faster at plucking and cleaning the birds – unquestionably because he had been trained with the ulu as an infant – but Imitchaq often paused and asked his father for advice. On the first bird, he was unsure how to dislodge the anus without spoiling the meat. On the second he did not let the goose bleed long enough, and wondered how to salvage the hide. Inuuraq had the answers to all these questions, and felt more like the father who had fought for his son’s life and won with every hide they stacked and bag they filled with meat, until they were done and he felt victorious once again. He had saved his son, and his son would save his people.
While Inuuraq packed the last quarter of meat, Imitchaq rose again. His trim body was covered in scrapes and lesions, and blood both from his himself and the birds he had been cleaning. “I’m going to rinse off,” he said, then walked down to the lake and dove in.
Inuuraq watched as his son frolicked. It was the first time he had seen his pensive child act carefree. He floated on his back as he scrubbed his arms; he dove into the water and shot out like a splashing wave. He was more at ease in this frigid water than in their stilted village. And Inuuraq realized he should not be surprised, because that is exactly what he had imagined for his son the night he saw Raven play, just like this, in the thunderstorm – the night he had decided to save his life.
When Imitchaq emerged from the lake this time the sun was burning red on the western horizon. This had been a long hunting trip. But their people would not need to worry about catching another bird all summer, though Inuuraq knew his son would insist on returning. As Imitchaq walked toward him, the drops of water that clung to his body reflected the sunlight and glowed like drops of fire.
He stood before his father for a moment, his thick hair dancing around his shoulders in the cool breeze, and then said, “Next year, I must kill the Amikuk.”
Inuuraq dropped his sack before it was sewn shut and stared at his son, open-mouthed. He had never mentioned a word of his agreement with the elders to anyone, least of all Imitchaq. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Why must you do that?”
“To serve my people,” he said, “and because I can.” His father shook violently, so he continued. “Our people – the people of this island – are destined to conquer the sea. We see this clearly in our dreams every night. The only thing that stands in our way is that terrible beast. And I am the only man in the history of the Raven Clan who can slay him, so I must do it. Look at what we accomplished today.” He motioned at the stacks meat sewn into hides. “Anyone, including you, would have said this was impossible. But I had a plan. And I have a plan for the Amikuk, too.”
Inuuraq dropped his head in shame. He had kept his son alive with the promise he would serve, but now he hated the limits of that fate. He believed his son and he believed in their shared vision of conquering the sea, but when it came to confronting the monster they needed to overcome, he yearned for a simple, reserved life of hunting and resting with his son. “How do you know you’re ready?” Inuuraq asked, his head still down.
“Look at those clouds,” Imitchaq said. Inuuraq snapped his head up at his son’s command, and followed his webbed finger across the hills: luminous, blustering clouds gathered on the horizon. “No one tells those clouds when it is time to rain.” Imitchaq dropped his hand and turned to his father. They met eye-to-eye for the first moment since his announcement. “Despite my age, I am ready.”
Inuuraq instantly recognize the power of Imitchaq’s metaphor. His son was indeed a force of nature. Staring into his eyes now, he remembered how his face resembled a thunderhead when he brooded. He was at peace, but the bags under his eyes and the force of his brow persisted. He was ready to release his thunderclap, and it would surely be blessed by Raven.
Inuuraq rose and hugged his son as if it were the last time they would ever embrace.
* * *
The people erupted with simple joy at Imitchaq’s haul. They were so ecstatic with the bounty that his feat did nothing to fuel the rumors about his life. The elders conceded that he could hunt again as much as he wanted and instructed the men to join their wives and mothers and gather wood. This would be the most comfortable winter in the history of the Raven clan, the elders proclaimed.
As the season of warmth pressed on, that is how it looked. Imitchaq and Inuuraq continued to capture and clean large flocks of geese for their people while the rest of the village stockpiled more driftwood than elders remembered gathering throughout their whole lives. Inuuraq and Ticasuk’s family had given the Raven Clan a second youth. The adults frolicked with their children. With peace of mind about the season of darkness, they nearly forgot about the Amikuk and relished simple pleasures, like the midnight sun, as if life had no boarders. Oddly, the only spots of darkness in this brightest summer were Inuuraq and Ticasuk themselves. The increasing sense of security brought the people more joy daily, but every day the parents seemed to grow more sullen, as if they walked slowly toward their death.
Their son beamed with confidence. He didn’t smile and frolic endlessly like his clansmen, but he was also not morose like his parents, who retreated when thanked for raising their boy. Imitchaq simply smiled, said thank you, and insisted he must return to the lake to hunt.
“No, stay with us,” children and adults would plead alike. “We have plenty of food for the winter, and we want to show you how much we appreciate you.”
“No,” Imitchaq would reply. “The more food we have, the more of us will survive, the healthier we will be. And we will all need our strength,” he added, mysteriously.
“Then let others hunt for a day,” some would persist.
Then Imitchaq would state his most perplexing response. “No, I must continue to train.”
Train for what, the people wondered, but the Raven Clan remained too stoic to prod one another for answers. Only Inuuraq and Ticasuk knew what he was referring to, and it disheartened them every time they heard it. His singular focus assured them he would jump from the cliff next spring, even if the elders had not proclaimed it.
But that winter the elders did proclaim it. Not because of a sign or vision they received from the great unseen spirit while secluded in their igloo, but because on the solstice, while children played outside under a dazzling aurora because blazing public fires kept them warm, the Amikuk raised one fleshy tentacle and snatched them all. As their parents ran to the edge of the cliff, chasing their lives greatest treasures, a second tentacle soared into the air and crashed down upon the homes of the Raven Clan. For hours, the leviathan wreaked havoc, devouring as many people as he could grasp and smashing their village in frustration when he grasped no one. The assault lasted for days, until all the fires were put out, cold gripped the cliff once more, and nearly a quarter of the Raven Clan lay dead or missing.
In the aftermath of the onslaught, the survivors rebuilt their houses and built meager fires with the remaining driftwood. Then the elders held a meeting. They said it was clear why the Amikuk had attacked them: because he was hungry. Normally he would hibernate all winter – grow dormant and less hungry like they did – but this year he was kept awake by their warm, bright lights and loud activity. Whatever he feeds on must be dormant in winter, too, so he turned to them more ravenously than ever before. If the Raven Clan wanted to improve their lives – wanted to live like it were summer year round despite the natural seasons, wanted to feast on the bounty of the earth and perhaps even conquer the sea – they would have to kill the Amikuk. “And we all know who has the best chance of success,” said Seyzar.
“I’ll do it,” Imitchaq said before his people could even turn to him.
“Great,” said Seyzar. “We must live meekly this winter, but on the first day of spring, Imitchaq will kill the Amikuk.”
The aurora burned deep red through every hour of darkness for the rest of winter. Imitchaq was not seen again. He spent every hour with his parents, trying to reassure them that he would succeed. They believed him, but they still worried. They insisted this fear was natural. Any parent worries when their child faces danger, no matter how much faith they have in him, they said. But a deeper fear wrenched their hearts about which they never spoke. They wouldn’t have known how to express it if they tried. It was a vague fear of the elders, their people, the death of the Amikuk, and the future of their people on a sea that presently consisted solely of dreams. They had no idea what the culmination of those elements would be, but they feared it gravely.
The people yearned for it. They also couldn’t imagine a world without boarders, an island without the Amikuk, and beyond, but if it were anything like the half year of youthful joy they had just enjoyed, it would be pure bliss. And if they could actually take to the sea – actually craft vessels and push into the horizon to the bountiful oceans and lands of their dreams, everything could change. The structure of their society was definitely growing hazy. Some saw Imitchaq as their savior, others as a tool to be used by the elders, and most were not even considering the system of order taking shape around them, they were so enraptured with the vision of their future. No one was certain of anything, not even the outcome of the coming battle. The people had faith in Imitchaq because of his unprecedented ability to hunt, but the beast had demonstrated monstrous power when he ravished their village, and Imitchaq had not stopped him.
This doubt intensified as winter stretched on and the public fires became a distant memory. The people grew cold, as they had always grown cold, but the blood red sky and the memory of the massacre chilled them further, deeper. Doubt and fear crept into their minds – fear that Imitchaq would fail and the Amikuk would be enraged and vengeful. Many began to believe the fate they were sure lay in store for them when they failed to kill the child had merely been postponed until now. They believed the sun had returned for all these years only to give them one last glimpse of the beautiful life they had ruined by abandoning their ancient rituals, and now the Amikuk would kill them.
By the time the sun returned, fear and anxiety gripped the people. If nothing were done, anarchy surely would’ve broke loose before the first day of spring. Something had to be done to restore order, to give the people peace of mind – a return to normalcy – so the elders stepped forth. To usher in the new year – the year that would define the lives of their people for the rest of history – the elders led them in daily chants.
By giving their lives this small routine, the elders seized complete control of their people again. And that is exactly what the people needed. Having a bold leader soothed them. Having a path to follow relieved their anxieties, even if they did not know where that path would lead, even if that path were simply the words of the elders. Being able to follow them, to do something, to engage in the fight for their fate, reassured them – in themselves, in the Raven Clan, and in their ancient order.
The people needed Seyzar and Seyzar needed the people. He assured them Imitchaq would kill the beast and they would conquer the sea, as long as they banded together through this tumultuous time. And they agreed to do as he instructed, which began with these daily chants, and would grow complicated and sporadic as the day approached and the battle took place.
The chants grew deeper and louder until that day, and when the sun rose on the morning destined for battle, everyone stood on the edge of the cliff, stared into the entrance of Inuuraq’s house, and chanted to a crescendo not heard since the last morning their village summoned Imitchaq forth, so many years ago. The rhythmic pulsing beat like a huge, booming heart.
Imitchaq emerged, proud and prepared to slay the Amikuk. His parents walked out behind him, terrified by the distant memory of this chant. Their son was being sacrificed after all, they feared. The elders finally lead the procession that they postponed years ago. Inuuraq and Ticasuk understood now that the elders had never entirely freed Imitchaq from his fate. They said he could live to kill the Amikuk – his life still had a purpose, a destiny.
This realization didn’t pain the parents, though. As Imitchaq marched to the edge of the cliff, and the people parted for him to pass, they were reassured that they had a part in crafting this fate, and that their son had ultimately forged it. They had saved his life for this purpose, and now he desired it. Their child, and by extension they too, had altered the history of the Raven Clan. This was possibly the greatest change that would take place if Imitchaq killed the Amikuk – the people’s claim to divine knowledge would be equal with that of the elders; everyone’s impulses would be accepted as part of the truth; Raven would become as powerful as the great unseen spirit. That is how the sea would be conquered, that is how their dreams would be realized.
Imitchaq stopped on the precipice, fingers spread wide, five spears in one hand, and his ulu in the other. The flesh of his webbing glowed golden in the morning sun. Inuuraq saw exactly what should happed: his son should raise those webbed hands high into the air, dive off the cliff, arch hugely, and plunge straight into the Amikuk, then beat him down from the inside. The beast would writhe and toss until it sunk down, then, as they burned with anticipation, fear, dread, he would emerge to the cheers of all.
But that is not what happened. Imitchaq’s knee jerked violently, and the largest tentacle of the Amikuk soared into the air and tore him from the ledge.
Ticasuk wailed and both parents ran to the edge and peered over the cliff.
“Seize them,” shouted Seyzar. “A new ritual begins today.”
Neither parent caught a glimpse of their son as they were dragged from the precipice, wailing and shouting.
But Imitchaq did not hear their screams. As the Amikuk flung him into its mouth, the rhythmic chanting was replaced with the beating of an actual massive heart. His nostrils were filled with the putrid smell of rotting flesh, and his eardrums pulsed with the heavy pounding of the Amikuk’s body. But he was not shaken. He did not even fear the long, jagged teeth of the Amikuk’s mouth. He predicted these fangs were for sifting, not masticating, and he was right. He passed straight through them with a rush of water, and was suddenly submerged in the saliva of the beast. Now he faced the real danger. Below him, he could see a burning, bubbling cauldron of acid – the stomach of the beast. That is where his clansmen and untold numbers of forefathers had perished. That is where he would die if he fell
He quickly plunged his ulu into the wall of the Amikuk’s throat and clutched the incision. As the beast writhed furiously, Imitchaq slashed into the wound again and again, deeper and deeper, digging through a vast flap of fatty flesh, until water began to pour in from the outside. He swam against this current and forced himself outside of the Amikuk, then dropped his ulus and readied his spears. The Amikuk flailed wildly, but was too disoriented to grab Imitchaq.
Imitchaq narrowly dodged the enormous, swiping tentacles while orienting himself. Soon, he found his objective: the pulsing heart of the beast itself. A red glow emanated from one section of the Amikuk’s body, and beat in unison with the rhythm that filled Imitchaq’s ears. He clasped all his spears in both his arms and swam toward it with all the power of his strong legs and webbed feet.
The point of every spear plowed deep into the Amikuk’s heart, and a stream shot forth from the wound, throwing Imitchaq backward. The blood was so thick and powerful that he could not see the Amikuk or swim back to ensure he was dead. He was thrown from the water and crashed onto a rock at the base of the cliff.
At first, his vision was blurry from a layer of blood across his eyes and the impact of his head on the rock. But he shook violently and stared into the water: there, he clearly saw the Amikuk hemorrhaging blood and sinking. His tentacles flailed above his head, out of the water, as his body sunk. But soon, the disappeared to, and the Amikuk sunk to the depths, gone forever. Oddly, the heart of the beast still boomed loudly and clearly. But he had done it. He had save the Raven Clan. He had freed them forever. He had fulfilled his purpose to serve his people, and now the elders could lead them across the ocean to the lands of their dreams. Ecstasy lifted his tired body, and he climbed the cliff behind him. Above him, the public fires raged again in celebration of his success, of their independence.
He hurried over the edge, but as soon as he caught sight of the fires, all his joy disappeared. Three fires burned. Each under a cross. On the outer crosses, his parents hung, nothing but black skeletons below their waists and shriveled skin stuck to sunken faces. Imitchaq doubled over in agony. The beastly heart beat not behind him, but before him.
A band of his people grabbed him and dragged him to the third cross. He could have easily overpowered all of them, even in his weakened state, but he did not. With the Amikuk and his parents dead, what was there to live for? His people would conquer the sea without him. That was his purpose – to serve his people. In life, he had served their most pure, beautiful impulse – the impulse of Raven – to soar across the sea and chase their dreams. In dying he would serve them, too. Unfortunately, he would serve their most confused, darkest impulse, but he could not dissuade them from that. Persuasion was never his strength – that was the elders’ gift. They had planned this all along – persuaded his parents not to tell the people they had predicted this from the beginning, persuaded the people that they, the elders, were the only ones who could control this chaotic situation. And the people believed it despite the clear evidence of the auroras, despite their love for the child who fought the cold to gaze at the lights of solstice, despite his love for them, despite everything.
As Imitchaq was strung up on the cross, and the flames began to melt the thin webbing from between his toes, he did not curse them, any of them. He simply prayed that as they sailed across the oceans and spread across the lands, his story would be retold profoundly enough to be understood. He didn’t care if he himself, as he existed, was the hero of this tale. All he wanted was for the true impulse to overcome the false. He wanted the people to know that it was not the great unseen spirit that freed them from an island high in the arctic, but Raven.