The mythical rolling fire, ignited by the sin of Goochuq and his brothers, melted the glacier above their village and tore up the river of ice to the heart of Alaskax. No one lived to recount their tale. The water that was created as the ice melted, flooded all the disparate villages near the river and formed the myriad lakes of Alaskax. The fire would have melted all the ice of Alaskax, flooded all the land, and drowned all of the world’s first people, if not for the highest mountain in all the land, Denali.
Her Majesty controlled all the weather of Alaskax. Rising straight from sea-level and shooting twice as high as any other mountain in the land, directly in the center of Alaskax, Denali caught every major storm or pressure system that moved in from any coast, swirled them around her jagged peaks, and redirected them wherever she pleased. She sent storms from the arctic back to where they came to protect her people in the south, she sent warm weather up the coast so that striving forests could flourish, and she piled clouds from the pacific against her southern rim until they were ready to burst, then sent them to the southeast to extinguish raging fires. But this is not what she did with the mythical rolling fire.
She wanted to examine this new form of fire, and she knew it had to come to her if it wished to pass above or beside her, because all the glaciers of Alaskax originated in her high peaks, so she waited. She stored all the freezing winds of the northwest and all the heavy rains of the southeast in her folds until the fire arrived, and when it bore its flaming head into the glacier at her base, she blew it out with one icy breath. She froze the fire, reestablishing her icy grip all the way back to the ocean.
Only the head burned on. This she trapped deep in her bowels, covering the hole through which it entered with a giant avalanche. She hoped to study this flame so that she could learn how to control it. Its powers proved to be vastly inferior to her own, yet so different and complex that she could not understand it, so she enlisted the help of Raven.
Raven accepted, ecstatic to live next to an eternal source of heat, and knowing he could tease out from the flaps of fire whatever he sought to amuse himself.
For the fist time in his history, man was drawn to the foothills of Her Majesty. They were led by a man named Atanq, who carried an ulu said to be passed down from one of the world’s first elder, Seyzar. Atanq had gathered people from the disparate villages on the edges of the great flood and brought them to this mountain because he believed its powerful aura would protect them.
Denali was a foreboding sight for many; Her Majesty is ever-shrouded in clouds. The weather systems that constantly swirl in her peaks bring down more snow on her foothills than anywhere else. But Atanq promised that by being closer to the ruler of the weather, would help them avoid its most violent storms.
“How can that be?” asked Tuvaq, Atank’s most skilled hunter.
“As with all things,” he said as a soft snow began to fall. “Outlets prevent eruption. Her Majesty would never destroy herself, so we are safe at her feet.”
The snow grew heavier, and Rewit, Atanq’s wife, asked, “But won’t clouds pile thicker against this mountain than any other?”
Atanq knew Rewit was right, but he was drawn to the aura of this snow-capped giant like a salmon drawn upriver. A hum from its direction guided him away from the flooded basin; he felt it pulse through the ground as they crossed the frozen plains; and now, as he stood at its base, he thought he heard it rumbling to him. He knew it would not protect them from the elements, but he was sure it would offer his people something else.
“No,” he said sternly, still starring at the clouds. “We must plant our roots here.”
Rewit brushed off the snow that had piled on her shoulder and looked at Tuvaq to see if he agreed with the elder. The hunter looked at the clouds, as well, but also glanced at his transfixed leader as if he was not sure what to think. “Okay,” she said, “rebuild our village here, but I will lead the other groups south from the mountain to establish themselves there, just in case this mountain proves dangerous.”
“Great idea!” Atanq said, glancing back at her and smiled. He pecked her on the cheek like a father sending his child to check the trap line while he attended to more important business, then turned back to the high peaks.
“And I’ll stay with them,” she said.
He turned back to her, pouting now, as if she had denounced an inalienable part of his personality. “You don’t want to stay here with me.”
“Just for now,” she added. “Just while they establish themselves.”
“That is probably best,” he said, nodding. They stared at each other for a moment, then Atanq swiveled his head over his shoulder to gaze back at the mountain.
Rewit marched away.
* * *
Atanq erected his village despite constant snow and rocky earth. The base of Denali had no topsoil, so Atanq shoveled gravel and even rolled boulders to prepare the subterranean floor of the igloos. But even as he emptied holes in the ground, the heavens filled them up again, so that Atanq moved enough snow to fill twice the space he cleared – often the same flake several times – like a child digging in the sand.
“Do you not grow cold?” Tuvaq asked, stopping his own work and looking up, then finding he could not see his elder through the downpour even though Atanq worked only one home away.
“Not at all,” a voice boomed through the whiteout. “The heat from the mountain keeps me warm. Can’t you feel it? Her Majesty wants us near her.”
Tuvaq scraped his eyebrows backward, breaking the ice. “Then why does she bombard us with so much snow?”
“To test us!” Atanq shouted. “She does not protect us from the elements, but she gives us something else – a power that warms us despite the cold.”
Tuvaq located his partner: in the midst of the falling snow, a stream shot upward where Atanq dug. “What is that power? Where is it coming from?” Tuvaq asked, stopping his work, fascinated with his elder’s energy.
“I don’t know,” Atanq said, leaping from one home to another, digging anew. “But we will find out soon. As we live with her, her powers will be revealed to us.”
Tuvaq wondered if this power did not rest in Atanq himself, released by his fascination with Denali. This suspicion grew as they erected their village while Rewit lived in the outlying towns. Atanq rolled out the sod roof of shelters even while their future occupants rested or took cover from a storm. He never visited Rewit, and everyone including her believed this was because of the inhuman amount he labored. But Tuvaq saw that he produced great amounts not because he invested great amounts of time, but because he was more efficient than any other man. For all he accomplished, Atanq also appeared to spend endless hours sitting at the base of the mountain, starring through the sky-piercing peaks that protected its singular rolling dome like a gate surrounding a sacred kingdom.
“Do you plan to climb her?” Tuvaq asked, stopping by Atanq’s post on his way home.
“No. I draw all I want from Denali, right here,” he said, patting the rock on which he sat. “This rumbling gives me all the energy I could ask for.”
Tuvaq finally blurted out the question he’d been holding back: “What is this rumbling you hear?”
Atank snapped his head to Tuvaq with wild euphoria. “You don’t feel it?” he asked.
“No,” Tuvaq said, shaking his head. “You’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve never felt it, and I’ve never heard anyone else mention it, either.”
“It’s a beating,” he said, springing to his feet. “Almost like our ceremonial drums. I heard it in the distance after the flood and it drove me all the way here, now it drives me still – to rebuild!”
Atanq fanned his hand over the rare view of Her Majesty’s summit, but Tuvaq stayed focused on his elder. He suddenly saw the man’s motives as being as pointless as climbing the mountain, and remembered what he’d come here to remind him. “But what will it drive you to do after we rebuild.” Tuvaq shrugged. “After all, we’re almost finished.”
Atanq’s pupils widened to circles, as if he had not considered this. “Nothing,” he said, refocusing on the mountain. “I will be content to sit here in her presence.”
Tuvaq shook his head, less awed by the energetic man than sad for the man obsessed. “Rewit has been gone three weeks now. Have you seen or heard from her?”
Atanq sprung to his feet and clutched Tuvaq. “That’s a great idea!” he said. “I should see if their building has gone up as fast as ours, and if they can hear the drumming.” He leapt off the rock and pushed through the deep snow.
“The sun is setting,” Tuvaq shouted at Atanq’s back, but the sound was dampened by a cloud of fresh powder whipping between them. The hunter sheltered his eyes and looked up at Denali: a thick gust rushed down the mountain, berating their village while the dome eclipsed the sun.
* * *
After waking several villagers to find out where Rewit slept, Atanq burst into her sod igloo, clouds of snow flying from his head and shoulders. “Do you hear it?” he yelled.
Rewit stirred under a blanket in the corner. Atanq barely saw her veiled form shift, but he recognized her groan, so he charged across the room. “Why are you asleep?” he asked, drawing back the thick hide, and dusting her with snow.
She blew the cold powder from her face and shot upright. “Atanq, how are you?” she said, flinging her blanket around him and kindling his arms. “Has something happened to our villagers? We were worried you’d been snowed in all these days.”
“Not at all!” He flung off her cocoon and spread his limbs. “We have rebuilt nearly the whole village. How have you fared this far from the mountain?”
“Good,” she said slowly, and peered into his wild gaze, trying to align his words with her reality. “We finished almost a week ago. We’ve wanted to come look for you ever since, but the snow storms have been too thick.”
Atanq baulked like a hunter almost shooting a cow, nearly expressing his surprise, then shook all doubt from his mind. “No, we’ve been fine. Rebuilding has just taken us longer because of the snow. But we’ve been motivated by the presence of the mountain. I came out to see if you needed help.”
Rewit dropped her head, disappointed. In missing and worrying about him, she had forgotten his poor decision to remain in the foothills, and his motive. And the quaking of his eyes told her that this motive stoked his fire more than fear or longing for her, despite the hand crawling up her thigh.
She pushed the spider back and brushed away its web of goosebumps. “So why do you come only now, when the village is nearly complete?”
Shock wrinkled his brow. “What do you mean?”
“I mean why do you visit me now, when you’re energy has no other outlet.” She drew the blanket back over her chest. “I missed you these last three weeks, worried about you. If I thought I could have marched through the whiteout, I would have.”
“It’s not that the work wasn’t hard, or I wasn’t busy,” he stammered. “I just needed to help all of our villagers.” He pleaded with his eyes but she stared flatly back. “I’ve come for you now. We can go back together, live together again.”
“I don’t want to.”
His strong limbs turned to sap and he poured across her lap. “Why?” he whined.
“Living that close to the mountain is foolish. Our lives are hard enough without constant snow.”
Atanq reconstituted himself. “It is not foolish. That mountain is magical, and there is much to learned from its power.”
“What are you going to do? Climb it? Conquer its power? Is there more to be learned from that than living with me in this safer plot of land, gazing at Denali from a distance?”
Atanq erupted from his seat. “I did not leave your side, you left mine. You said you would return and now you refuse. You say I am unwilling to compromise by living with you, but it is your turn to compromise for me.”
“There is no compromising with the mountain!” Rewit rose to meet him. “The snow will pour as long as you live there.”
“I don’t care,” he said, fists balled, lip quivering. “And soon you will see why!”
As Atanq pushed through her covering back into the cold, a curl of snow snuck in behind him and wisped around the the room. Rewit wondered if he was truly mad, or could indeed sense something the rest of them could not.
* * *
Contrary to what Tuvaq had hoped, Atanq returned more inflamed. Before dawn, when only the sun’s bright shadow curled over the horizon, he pounded on the outside of his best hunter’s home.
“Are you mad?” Tuvaq demanded, curling his head around the entranceway. Unfortunately, the answer was all too clear. Half of Atanq’s face was frostbitten, black and lifeless, and he shook with the violent energy of fatigue. “Did you march to the outer villages and back last night?”
Atanq crawled through the snow and fixed his eyes on Tuvaq while his head flitted from perch to perch. “Get dressed, we must finish our work immediately.”
“No,” Tuvaq insisted. “You are in your death throes. You must sleep – now!”
“Do you not see?” Atanq arched back. “We are in a pocket of sunlight. Out there, they are being snowed on, and clouds gather in her peaks, but we are free this moment.” He snapped forward sunk his hand in Tuvaq’s nape. “She wants us to be done.”
Tuvaq recoiled from the frigid mitten and stared at his elder, who still shuddered like the dying. He wanted to say no, not this time, as Rewit had done. Maybe losing both his allies would show him his plan was flawed. But if frostbite and seizures did not stop this man, neither would solidarity. Better to be there to drag him into a hut and bundle him when he passes out, Tuvaq thought, then let him fall on his own in the concealing snow.
Tuvaq ducked into his home and reemerged thick with layers. Every igloo had been framed, the two only needed to roll sod on the last few. But no loose sod remained. They needed to use the rolls from the public house, which sheltered those who waited the completion of their own homes.
Atanq insisted snow wouldn’t pour for several more hours, so they should strip the roof first, allow the families to sleep until light poured through their ceiling and compelled them to help. Tuvaq did not protest, but hoisted his elder up the wall, sure the man would be asleep by the time he scrambled after him. He kicked two grips into the ice and glanced up to plan his route, then a slab of sod buried him in the snow. Every effort to push down gave way under the weight, so he scrambled sideways and tunneled to the surface. Then five more rolls flew down. He avoided these, but could not avoid Atanq, who crashed into his chest.
“Let’s go,” he said, springing out of the powder and yanking Tuvaq after him.
Each man dragged several lengths of sod to the row of skeletons, then bound them down with thick sinew. Atanq had been right: the clearing had held and now that the sun poured into the public house, its residents marched out to help them. As they dove into the last two houses, Tuvaq stepped back and observed their elder. As he worked, Atanq’s movements grew more fluid. His hands guided the sinew through the sod, around the birch and back out in one, deft movement. He appeared never to fatigue but only grow stronger, covering the whole last entranceway by himself and tacking it down without help from anyone inside.
The last of the homeless, who had slept in a public house the night before and now had homes of their own, flocked around their elder, thanking and praising him. Atanq calmly held his hands up and nodded, without a hint of the jitters that clutched him earlier, then backed away to the first home they had finished that morning, where Tuvaq stood.
“You were right,” the hunter said.
Atanq strode past his companion. “Let’s sit,” he said, and continued to the outcropping on which Tuvaq had advised him to visit Rewit.
“What’s the rush?” Tuvaq said, plowing threw the snow while Atanq already sat. “You’re done.”
“We’re not done,” he said, shaking his head. “We won’t be done until our village is as firm as Denali.”
Tuvaq scrambled onto the rock and lay beside his elder. “What do you mean? How would we ever be as firm as Her Majesty?”
“We can wall ourselves in, like her protected dome,” he said, excited by the ideas springing to his mind. “In the summer, we can re-sod the public house and store food and wood. We can rebuild every igloo as soon as it is tattered. We can make sure no one dies from the cold.”
“This plan sounds familiar,” Tuvaq said, his tilted forehead shadowing his eyes. “This desire caused nature to rise against man, in the Great Village of the Plain.”
“Man violated the established order there. Here, nature wants us to build. Can’t you hear the rumbling yet? Denali herself drives us on, nothing she dictates could upset her.”
“Is Rewit coming?” Tuvaq asked, halting Atanq’s stream of ideas. Denali sent a frozen, snow-less gust of wind down from her peaks. It whipped across their rock and chilled them both. “When you went to see her, what did she say?”
Atanq tightened his face, damming back his words.
Tuvaq shook with disappointment. “You cannot embark on these projects without her. She came with you all the way from the flood plains, caring for us when we grew ill – even you!”
“They could not hear it!” Atanq shouted, whipping his thoughts over the barrier. “And their villages will not be as strong because of it. I cannot convince her of this, but she will see, and then she will come and join us.”
“And until then, what will we do?” Tuvaq sharpened his eyes to slits. “What will you do?”
Atanq doubled his chin and shook his head. “I’ll be fine,” he said, then stretched out his neck and gazed over the igloos. “And there are plenty of others who can help us until then.”
Tuvaq turned with his elder.
“That is Duvat, an extremely capable young woman.” Atanq said, as Duvat broke apart from the group and strode to the first igloo finished that morning. “She was one of the last villagers working with me every night – even after you went to sleep.” Duvat stopped at the entrance to her home and stared at the entranceway. “And she was with me today when I unfurled the last roll of sod, even though her home was done hours before.” Duvat did not enter her house, but tracked prints through the snow, then swung her head and stared back at the men.
Atanq fell silent.
“She’s coming out to meet us,” Tuvaq said, and watched her skate across the deep snow faster and with less effort than he had.
When she reached them she smiled at Tuvaq but walked past him to Atanq; she grasped his bare hands between her mittens and squeezed. “Thank you so much for waking us this morning, for using this bright day to finish our houses,” she said.
As she stood between him and Denali, her head was crowned by its peaks. “You finished your own house,” he said. “You made it for yourself and you have helped many others make their homes, as well. You have accomplished much.”
“But you inspired us all,” she said, leaning down and pressing his hand against her chest. The head of the mountain now rose above her own, its shroud of clouds hallowing her. “You gathered us together from the flood plains, brought us here, and showed us we could live in this snow locked land.”
“Her Majesty gives us our strength,” he said, pointing behind her. She turned and gazed at the dome, and with her back to him, Atanq saw her reflection in its windswept form. “She summoned us her, gave us the strength to build in these foothills, and this clear day to finish.”
She spun back to him, her black hair cascading over one shoulder. “Perhaps,” she said, smiling. “But we never would have understood her signals without you.”
Atanq smiled back, but Tuvaq quickly broke in. “You should go,” he said, staring straight at Duvat. “I’m sure your family is waiting for you.”
“Oh, I have no family,” she said, grinning at Tuvaq’s glare. “But you’re right, I should go.” She turned back to Atanq. “I need to prepare for my first night in my new home.” She squeezed her elder’s hand once more, glanced at Tuvaq as she stepped off the rock, then sailed back across the deep snow.
Tuvaq shook his head, admiring her light steps. “How old is she?” he asked.
“13,” Atanq said, as she ducked into her igloo.
“Then why is she living alone? Shouldn’t we find her a family to stay with?”
“No,” Atanq said, fading away from this conversation. “She came from the floodplains alone, is very capable for her age.” The sun set behind them, but the last of its bright rays reflected off the dome of Denali, and drew Atanq back. “But did you hear the rumbling grow louder while she was here?”
Tuvaq watched his elder stare into the peaks, both skeptical and curious as to what he heard, but did not respond.
“Now that we are finished, it sounds different, more like drums than before.” He sprung to his feet and turned to the hunter. “We must go look for it – I think I know where it’s coming from.”
Tuvaq leaned back, hand in the snow, and shook his head. “It’ll be dark soon, and you haven’t slept in almost two days. If we venture to the foot of the mountain, you won’t make it back.”
“Nonsense!” he said, kicking a chink into the icy rock. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. And if we do not go now, I fear the opportunity will pass, like if we had not built today, we may never have had a clear day to finish these homes.”
Tuvaq no longer shook his head. The same logic that dragged him out of bed this morning could stand now. If he did not go and the elder crashed, no one would be there to help him. But Tuvaq knew that he would be no help either, tired from work himself. Still, he was compelled. He looked up from under his brow, pleading with Atanq to give up, but telling him he would follow if he supplied a reason.
Atanq leaned over Tuvaq, the last ray sun lighting the gold flecks of his retina brighter than the snow on Her Majesty. “I believe a chance to see the workings of the mountain may be open because of our work today, that will be closed tomorrow.”
* * *
The horizon drowned the sun and extinguished its light long before the men crossed the foothills to the base of Denali. “But the mountain holds the sky clear for us,” Atanq remarked as the matt sky opened its pores to free the stars. “There’s no need to wait for the moonlight before we press on.”
Tuvaq conceded. There was no practical reason to stop as long as they could see, but there was also no practical reason to go forward at all, and he had not seen the stars this brilliant since they entered the cloud cover of Denali. “Wait,” he said, gazing up. “Look at the Great Bear, lording in the night sky. This is why He is a symbol of plenty.”
Atanq stopped but did not look up, examined his partner’s wonder. “He gives us direction, with his arm pointing north,” he agreed in purpose, but not wonderment. “Her Majesty has revealed him to us now to guide us. She will not leave these signs exposed for long.”
Atanq twisted Tuvaq’s vision, but the hunter could not deny the power of the elder’s interpretation. The mountain did control every element of their life, and they could not overlook the passing of a single, clear moment. He looked down to find Atanq standing in the midst of the constellations himself, their bright spots shinning on the snow around him. The elder doubled his pace and Tuvaq strode after him.
They reached the base while Denali still cut the full moon crescent. Tuvaq’s eyes shot to the sky once more. Her Majesty was clearer than she had ever been. Tuvaq wondered if she only showed her whole visage when she was properly hallowed, and was sure Atanq had lied to him – was sure he wished to climb her peaks and summit the dome.
“Do you see that light?” Atanq exclaimed.
“It’s amazing!” Tuvaq whispered.
“We must climb to it.”
Tuvaq turned to Atanq only half shocked, then clouded his vision with fog as he wondered aloud, “What is that?”
Along the base of the mountain, several folds ahead of Atanq, firelight flickered from inside the mountain. Tuvaq heard the drumming. Both men now ignored the celestial show above them and thrashed through the snow.
With every point they rounded, the light grew bolder. The flicker grew into a constant burn with bursts of brightness.
“What do you think it is?” Tuvaq asked as they turned into the fold.
“The drumming!” Atanq shouted, and down a long tunnel an inexplicable fire burned, popping and hissing with the beat that filled their ears.
Wonder struck, the two men gravitated toward the flame like mosquitoes; they dashed from large rock to curved wall, never exposing themselves to a stray glance. But there appeared to be no people to catch. This made sense to the men, because no man could have possibly reached this mountain before them, yet this seemed impossible too, for how could a fire burn under a mountain of ice without the work of a human hand? What invisible hand or eye, controlled this stirring music?
Before the men could ask themselves these questions, forms sprung from the depths of the flames. A whole village of people sprung from the fire, one after another, men, women, and children, all dancing wildly to the rhythm of the flames, heavy shadows accentuating their bare, bouncing skin. After the last person left from the fire, while they circled tightly in the heat, Atanq and Tuvaq realized men did not tend this fire because this fire tended men. Then a final form emerged from the flames that was neither human nor ethereal. It did not flop toward the sky and then fall to the ground, but floated upward on outstretched wings as if the fire were a gust of wind.
“What is it?” Tuvaq asked.
“Datson Sa,” muttered Atanq, the manic shakes reclaiming his hands. “The Great Raven.”
The bird, larger than any man, descended, gripped the earth with his massive talons, closed his wings and hopped around the fire with the men. At first Raven danced on equal ground with all the revelers. He rubbed his breast feathers against the bare back of a woman and they wound to the ground together, then she rose and turned and he tickled her thighs with his crown. As the dance itself heated, Raven reigned as king, breaking apart fights, forming groups, and laying with whomever he pleased, man, woman and child. Then when the dance came full circle, and these seemingly celestial beings fulfilled all the roles of their forms, he performed the vile task of cleaning up the mess. Whenever any of the dancers stopped to defecate, Raven swooped in behind them and devoured the mess.
“We must go!”
Shocked that his elder had shouted loud enough to echo into the cave, Tuvaq turned to find Atanq suddenly flushed with the exhaustion of two days work without rest. His head wobbled atop a weak neck and his limbs spasmed backward, reaching for loose rock away from the revelry. He lunged forward only to grab Tuvaq’s wrist. When the hunter felt how hot his skin burned in his elder’s icy gripped, he gave in and sprinted down the corridor with his leader.
When they emerged, snow piled against the base of the mountain, the stars and moon suffocated by thick clouds. Atanq plunged into the fresh powder and shoved it into every crevice of his clothing despite his dropping temperature. Tuvaq jerked toward him, then paused, unsure if he should help his elder or run from the madman. Then Atanq leapt to his feet, arms full of snow, and plowed into Tuvaq. He pinned him down and rubbed the flakes into his face and every orifice of the hunter’s coat, as well, then held him against the ground until he stopped flailing and spitting.
“We must not tell anyone,” Atanq stressed.
Tuvaq nodded, slashing a line in the snow.
“No one!” Atanq repeated, the snow freezing his hair into a crown of feathers.
“Yes, of course we cannot let others know,” Tuvaq agreed, careful not to bar their own return.
“Yes, we can tell no one else,” the elder mumbled, releasing the hunter and rising to his feet. They both gazed back around the folds. The fire produced the only light that could guide them now. But it illuminated their path home.
* * *
Tuvaq did not even tell his wife where he had been that night. He tried to slip into their bed without waking her so he would not have to lie, but she rolled over and whispered without opening her eyes, “Where have you been?”
He could have easily said he explored the base of the mountain with Atanq, but he did not want her repeating this to anyone, did not want anyone else exploring the base of the mountain and finding what they had found. The image of Datson Sa scooping a pile of feces into his bill and choking it down floated across the face of his sleeping wife, and he gagged.
“I just stayed up with Atanq, discussing what we would do now that the village is finished.” Tuvaq slumped to sleep, satisfied with his story.
“I did not see you on the rock,” she mumbled.
Tuvaq shot upright, terrified at how far he must go to cover his tracks, or worse yet, how much he must tell her. The fleshy women flopping in the firelight seared into the back of his eyelids. He could not close his eyes on his wife without seeing them enticing him to join their dance. He could not bring his wife there, could not reveal those things to her. So what would he tell her.
He sat so tense, struggling to invent stories while his mind wandered back to the cave, that he did not notice her head curve into the crevice of his hip. He fretted while she fell fast asleep. And when he finally noticed she was asleep, he was so relieved that he did not dare to move. He held his awkward, taut position until she woke.
“Did you sleep at all last night,” she asked, turning her sleepy eyes to his and combing her fingers through his chest hair.
“Yes, of course,” he blurted, eyes fixed on the entranceway before him. “I’m just anxious to meet up with Atanq. We have big plans for today.”
“Get going then,” she teased, pushing him out of bed and stretching sideways. “Sleep with him tonight if you have no time to waste.”
Tuvaq paused with one arm in his coat and turned to her, enraged by the thought. But her seductive smile disarmed him, and he realized no one suspected what he had seen. The evidence was not written on the outside of his eyes, as well.
He kissed his wife and left for the the rock overlooking Denali. Atanq was perched there as expected.
“What should we do?” the hunter plead as he scrambled out of the snow. “I could not sleep last night. The drumming is growing louder. It beat all night while the women danced in my head.”
Atanq remained poised, staring at the crown of the mountain like a kingfisher waiting to strike. “The sky is clear again.”
Tuvaq was derailed by his elders response. He gazed at the heavens, expecting something monumental, but the sky was overcast. “Clouds still circle her dome. We cannot see the peak.” He crashed onto the rock and grabbed Atanq. “How does that matter? What did we see last night?”
Atanq turned and smiled to see his reflection from just weeks before, when they reached this rolling foothill. Tuvaq shared the wild eyes and tosselled hair. All he needed was direction to turn his chaos into order. And that was the role of the elder. “The mountain shared a secret with us, because we accepted its offering. Now the skies are clear again, and if we continue to work, it will continue to share with us.”
Tuvaq shook, confused, the cold creeping up his sleeves like ants. He wanted to brush them away, wanted to use his energy and not go mad. “What can we do? Can we not tell anyone?”
“No!” Atanq demanded. “We can tell no one. But we can begin work on the fence.”
Tuvaq nodded as if the cold chattered his whole head instead of his jaw. But he vanquished the cold as he rose to his feet, and all his movements became deliberate.
* * *
Atanq and Tuvaq hiked the opposite direction of the cave and scoured the snow pack for sprigs. Only the most formidable trees could shoot through the deep base layer, so they dug a pit around each, cut the trunks along the permafrost, and hauled them back to camp.
They replanted these behemoths around their village with spikes of ice in place of roots, digging holes into the permafrost with sharp angles pointing downward, lodging the trees into these holes then yanking upward, locking them in place below the reach of the deepest thaw. In a single day the erected posts around half the village, spaced by smaller trees that would be bound in horizontal rows. Tuvaq believed this work could be started, but as soon as the horizon pinched the tip of the sun, Atanq rolled the logs to rest and walked toward the village.
“What are you doing?” Tuvaq cried. “The sky has grown clearer as we’ve worked. If we continue, we’ll be able to hang the rails by the moonlight.”
“No,” said Atanq. “The night is Raven’s time. We cannot ignore the change in the heavens; we must also change our moods. Let’s retire to the outcropping, watch Denali, and see what Her Majesty has in store for us tonight.”
Wood in hand, with at least an hour of sunlight left, Tuvaq realized Atanq conflated the mountain and the fire at its core. He saw there was a clear dichotomy between the two, even an opposition. But at the mere mention of Raven, he found himself deep in the cave, transfixed by the dancers even after Atanq was horrified and anxious to leave. “Shouldn’t I go home to my wife if we are done?”
“After your ambition this morning, she will assume you’re staying up late to work, as you just proposed.” The snow between them glowed orange, and their looks anticipated the twilight. “And everyone will agree when they see all the work we’ve done today.”
As the horizon pulled the sun down by its toe, the men watched the villagers deposit the of last logs they had collected into the public house, and then file into their igloos. The top layer of snow had thawed in the bright day and now refroze, creating a sheen of sheer ice. The villagers slid to their homes and could not see the elders through the glare.
Duvat was the last to drop her logs, after the sun had sunk, and she skated home in the last rays of daylight, all the way to the end of the village, in the igloo that sat nearly between Atanq’s crest and Denali.
“Why did you wait until the last day to build an igloo for such a young orphan?” Tuvaq wondered aloud.
Atanq did not consider this an attack on his logic – both men basked in the serene dusk – and he answered the question in the same calm with which it was asked. “We started building at the heart of the foothill, and her home belonged close to this peak, in line with the mountain. “Plus she was so eager to work, I wanted to let her help extend the village to its end.”
Duvat slid into her home and stoked a small fire, but the conversation about her continued in her absence. “Do you think she would have helped even if her home was finished first?”
“Yes, of course,” Atanq replied. “She enjoyed working with me, and I saw her exquisite skill. But others would have questioned the utility of such a small girl.”
The loose tangents of Atanq’s logic confused Tuvaq, who simply wondered about the character of the girl he had seen so seldom, but had done so much work on the same village, with the same elder, as he. But before he could ask Atanq to weave the threads, the envelope of night folded shut, and before the stars could shine through the seams, a fire exploded out of the side of Denali.
The men turned to each other, shocked, but had no questions. They knew what the flame was and they knew they would visit it again. Without a glance or gesture, they slid onto the ice, slipping across the path they crushed into the snow the night before. Deep in the bowels of the mountain, the ceremony proceeded as it had the night before. The dance did not grow more vile. Raven seemed content with the ritual he had conceived. He slept with many men, women, and children, as man and women, and scraped all their feces off the rocks.
The men did not flee from this sight the second night, but watched it as if studying a sacred but difficult lesson. They noticed the fire itself seemed to delight in the revelry, blazing brighter when Raven stooped to slurp, lighting every dark crevice of the bodies and the caves. When the two had taken enough, they backed out and scurried to their homes without speaking to one another.
This night, Tuvaq did not struggle to be quiet, but ripped off all his clothes, climbed into bed with his wife, and sidled up to her. She was roused by the rough rubbing of his leg against hers, and found him staring at her, his eyes sharp with wakeful purpose in the dark. He thrust his nose into hers, tilting her head back for a kiss. While she was involved with this, he pressed his shaft against the back of her bare thigh and rubbed it deep into the crevice of her buttocks. She was sleepily confused but suddenly wet, so she rolled onto her back to set things right and let him ravish her. He was clearly full of angst because he finished first, but more than groggily aroused because he did not pass out, leaving her in limbo. He stooped down slurped at her clitoris until he was re-erect, then made love to her one, two, and three more times before the dawn.
When light slipped passed the dark curtain and in their entranceway, Tuvaq came for the last time and scrambled out of bed.
“What did you dream about last night?” she marveled, pushing herself upright, beaming with satisfaction. “Whatever it was, I will do it to you more often.”
“Nothing.” He leapt into his pants. “Just couldn’t sleep – anxious about my work,” he said, then ducked out of the home.
* * *
Atanq was poised on the rock once again.
“Do you even go home at night?” Tuvaq joked.
“No,” the elder stated, gazing over Duvat’s home and the mountain behind it. “I wait to see what she’ll show me.”
“Well, she’s shown us a brighter day than any other. Let’s get to work.”
Atanq agreed and the men excavated the last of the logs needed for the fence. When they hauled these poles through the village, Duvat was carrying wood with the rest of the villagers. She sprinted ahead of the rest, dropped her sticks in the public house, and rushed to help the men. The rest of the villagers hurried to do the same. Now they could see the purpose of the mens’ labor. A wall was emerging around their city that would temper the elements. Along with the public house full of wood, they could remain active even during the coldest winter months.
With all of their help, the last of the stakes could easily be planted in one day. Atanq and Tuvaq decided to let their villagers complete this while they began hanging the rails. But when they turned to leave, Duvat followed.
When they hiked far enough from the bustling crown to hear the footsteps in their wake, both men turned around, shocked to see her.
“What are you doing?” Atanq asked. “Don’t you want to help?”
“There are plenty of strong men to plant the stakes,” she said. “Perhaps I could be more helpful with the two of you. I was a skilled planer in my last village.”
Tuvaq cut a circle in the snow turning to look at his elder, as if he’d just had a profound revelation.
Atanq ignored his partner and shook his head at the girl. “It will only take two men to put the rails up,” he said. “But there is a very precise job that must be done to secure the stakes.”
Duvat did not sulk or shrink away from them, but listened closely as Atanq explained the craft of cutting spikes into the permafrost to hold the stakes upright, then rushed back to the village to advice the others.
“Did you hear what she said?” Tuvaq said, rekindling his excitement. “About planing the wood?”
Atanq nodded and continued their trek.
“We will use half as much material that way,” Tuvaq said, skipping after Atanq.
The elder still did not reply, and Tuvaq began to worry he was confused. Had they already talked about this, or was it a bad idea? “I had not thought of this, had you?”
“No,” Atanq stated. “It’s a brilliant idea. We should start immediately.”
Tuvaq ignored his elder’s odd demeanor and they marched to the first stakes they had erected and the piles of logs they had saved to use as rails. By cutting each into thirds or halves lengthwise, they made two or three rails out of each log, saving the time needed to gather more wood.
They planed the rails for their fence as they had once planed the planks for their kayaks, tapering the edges for a smooth transition into the round stakes, never splitting a knot, and leaving thickest the section that would be most likely to bow. Only now, instead of sailing off in their crafts to discover distant lands, they walled themselves in.
Atanq had lied about their need for Duvat. Their work could go much quicker with a third person, especially if she were a skilled planer, as she said. She could cut and craft the wood while they hung. But Tuvaq didn’t ask his elder about this, and he no longer questioned him about Rewit, either. They were partners in everything now, so he was glad to slowly erect this wall with him, and keep the weather clear with their expeditions by night.
Watching this ritual became a ritual of its own. Their presence nourished their work with sunshine more than any rain dance nourished fields with water. And while the dance barely deviated – never diminished or expanded in members or activities – the drumming grew louder. The men’s passion grew hotter. Both began to focus on the role of Raven.
The figure that Tuvaq had ignored and Atanq had run from, repulsed, became their fixation. How did this bird rule the ritual that enticed them, that lay at the heart of this magic mountain, that controlled everything from the workings of the heavens to their own small energies, and still perform his filthy task? That single act stood in contrast to the rest of what they knew and believed, so they watched it with the interest of early explorers. They could not shut their eyes, could not run away, could not rub away their guilt with snow. They watched him scrape the crap from the rocks with his rigid beak and cringed, but also marveled, because somehow his power was greater for performing this feat, greater than anything they could fathom, more all-encompassing than their grandest plans.
Tuvaq returned and ravished his wife every night. She slept early so she could wake before he arrived and anticipate their act as much as him. Even after days, he never tired, but made love to her until the sun threatened to find their bed, then dashed outside after Atanq.
The elder did not sleep, either, but his nights were not active. While Tuvaq tore through his days, perpetually replenishing his energy, Atanq kept his activities separated, like the ragging fire and the mountain of ice that covered. He relished watching the fire night, he worked during the day, and between the two he worshipped at the foot of his cathedral. Poised on the rock outcropping, he gazed at the peaks of Denali, waiting for the clouds to part, desperate for a glimpse of Her Majesty bathed in the starlight or the rising sun.
Tonight, she remained covered until the nightly lives of the stars were snuffed out, and he feared he would spend another day ogling the fire at her base, but not her celestial crown. But as the darkness retreated, her wrap unfurled like a thin shawl, and he was blessed with a magical vision of Her Majesty, with a sliver of the rising sun curled around her dome like a halo.
Atanq rose to his feet, and for a moment the drumming subsided. A chorus of voiceless music welled from the depths of Denali, as if Her Majesty vibrated like a taut string plucked, and resonated through the chamber of her foothills. Atanq’s chest ached from the beauty of the moment, which intensified when Duvat drew the curtain back from her entranceway and emerged. The dome of the mountain stood high in the sky, and her home sat like a replica, squat at its base. Summoned forth like this perfectly rendered chord, she turned and gazed up at her mother, her hair cascading down her shoulders like slopes of snow. Her head and not her home was now the replica of Denali’s dome.
Atanq fell to his knees. He saw the world align and come into focus. Everything was balanced. Then Duvat dropped her pants to her ankles, lifted her coat, and squatted to shit.
Atanq tore his eyes away. The drumming and the chord clashed like an irate avalanche. He cupped his ears but he could not block it out, he could not even hold hid head down. His eyes gravitated back and he saw her crouched with a fat, brown turd stuck halfway out her hole.
The drumming intensified, but so did chord, and it oscillated now, so that the music climaxed in an unbearable crescendo. Atanq shook his head and cried, but there was nothing he could do. He could not even blink. Suddenly his vision was bathed in the flickering firelight of the cave, and he saw himself swoop down behind her, inhale the rank stench curling up from her behind, and bugger her next to the brown snow.
He shrieked aloud and Duvat rose, bear legged, and spun her head from the climbing sun to her falling elder. Atanq threw himself off the rock and into the fresh powder, then burrowed like a vole hunted by a fox. He shoved snow under every inch of his clothes, rubbed it into his skin, and crammed it down his ears, nose, and mouth. Nothing stuck. The powder melted the moment it touched his burning skin, so that his skin burned hotter from the friction.
Duvat saw no one on the rock, and assumed the shriek had been a hidden Raven. She pinched the last inch of her bowl movement, cleaned, and went inside to eat.
A moment later, Tuvaq was also surprised to find no one perched upon the stone. He was worried that his elder was not ready to begin work, and concerned that no one had been watching Denali through the night. He rushed to the outcropping and as soon as he hit the rock, Atanq popped up from the snow beside it, waving his hands before him and backing away as if Tuvaq were a startled bear.
“Are you okay?” Tuvaq asked, reaching out to him.
“Yes,” Atanq stated, grabbing his partner’s outstretched arms and stabilizing himself. He planted his feet, narrowed his eyes, and calmed his breathing. “I’m fine.”
“What happened? Why weren’t you watching the sun rise?”
“I fell,” said Atanq. Both men glanced at the flat surface. “But I’m fine. Let’s get to work.”
Tuvaq was now more panicked than his elder. He eyed the man, searching for signs of fatigue, worried that their lifestyle was not sustainable after all, that simple accidents may befall them, that an error in judgment, balance, or ability could lead to a tragedy as great as their dreams.
“Are you sure,” he asked patiently. “You could rest today while I work.”
“No.” Atanq stomped, cracking the ice underfoot. “I must work today.”
Tuvaq nodded. He understood. If he felt his energy waining, he too would rather word harder to keep it alive than let it die. Both men believed this feeling was a fire to be stoked rather than a system to be cycled. They worried it could be snuffed out, but not over fanned. After all, the fire at the base of Denali could not melt Her Majesty’s glaciers.
* * *
Atanq worked to restore his order. The men hung more rails that day than they had every day before. The wall crept up, plank by plank, and Atanq imagined it corralling his wild thoughts, his confusion of the mountain with the cave, the pristine with the filthy. He plained to straighten the knotty wood, to make what was curved, linear. He stacked them on top of one another to rise tall, butted them against each other to run straight, pinned each to the post to be perpendicular. And he was stricter about precision than ever.
“We have to take them down,” he said, surveying the section of rails they had finished while Tuvaq carried the first plank to the next.
“What do you mean?” asked the hunter, holding the wood from one post to the other, anxious for Atanq to grab his end.
“It’s crooked,” he said. “A brow of post sticks above the rails on the left, but not on the right.”
“So raise the top rail,” said Tuvaq. “It’s not nailed down yet.”
“No. The problem starts at the bottom,” he said. “They’re all skewed. We must start over.”
Tuvaq smacked his plank against the finished section. “It is a wall,” he cried. “It stands, it covers. If we take it down,” he said, inflecting high, pressuring his companion with knowing eyes, “we will not get it up by sundown. We will be late.”
“We cannot go to the cave with the wall out of synch,” he insisted, and began prying the boards from the posts.
The men were not late for their night. Their regular pace was furious by any standard, but standards, even the most extreme, change with circumstance. With two pressing duties tight against one another, they squeezed both out – built the wall to please Atanq, and slipped into the mouth of the cave in time to see the first woman spewed from the flames.
More satisfied by their day’s work than ever, both men enjoyed the night’s festivity more than before. For the first time, they felt themselves swaying against one another, dipping as Raven dipped, scraping against the wall, and even drumming on their bodies. When they left the cave, they ran over the folds to their village. Atanq shot off as Tuvaq ducked into his home without a word to each other, both retreating to the one part of their lives they did not share.
Inside, Tuvaq’s wife was stripped and waiting for him. When he pulled back the curtain, she reached through the entranceway and pulled him out of the cold faster than he could leap inside. She tore off his clothes so fast that he pulled back, intimidated by her voracity, worried he could not keep up. But when she reached down and pulled out his fat prick, still hard after the long trek, his energy resurged. He fought back, grabbing at her naked body as if he were ripping off her sleepwear. They pulled at one another and pushed each other back, biting and scratching each time they collided, until they threw each other onto the bed.
Then they scrambled trying to gain control, side by side at first, then with him on top, holding her down, until she roped one foot behind both his knees and flipped him over. She tightened her legs around his waist and finally plunged herself around him.
They made love like every night before, stopping only when he grew flaccid or she dried out, then sucking each other off until they were ready for more. As the night grew late, she lay stretched out on her stomach, bracing herself by the edge of the bed with her fingers and toes while he ran into her from behind. They both enjoyed this most, and thus saved it for last, her with her eyes clinched tighter than her fingers and toes, immersed in the world of delight behind her eyelids while his outer thighs caressed her inner and he exploded into her without coming, and him propped up with his hands on her hips, his back arched like a whale exploding from the surface of the sea to flip, putting all the force of his hips directly into hers. Her butt quivered the entire time each time he was out of her. When he gazed down, her flesh was more beautiful than anything he had seen in the flickering firelight of the cave – different, a constant hue more smooth and flowing than any image he could draw from nature. As he made love to her, he thought for a moment that he, too, could transcend to a heavenly plain through her beauty. Then, every time he rammed her, fat dirty farts spluttered out of her backside – big fat fellows, long windy ones, and quick little cracks that ended in a gush – and her tongue come bursting out through her lips.
He tried to look away, tried not to hear – he was ashamed and he knew not why – but then the rank stench of her cunt mixed with arse wafted up to his nose, and he fucked her even harder.
She quickly came. Her vagina gushed then tightened around him, but he was still extremely hard. He pulled out, prepared to climb down between her legs so he could pleasure them both one more time before the sun rose, but with his nose filled with the stench wafting up from her arse, he got another idea. He grabbed his shaft and poked his head between her buttocks. With both of their privates slathered with the sweat and sluice from a night of making love, he slipped in quickly. But the tight stretch of her anus around his pole set him ablaze and he came in one swipe.
He yanked himself out, terrified, afraid of her fury. But she turned her head, still flat on her stomach, and smiled at him. “You have to warn me first.”
She was not furious, but his terror intensified. He scrambled backward out of bed and pulled on his clothing, keeping his eyes on her as if she were a threat to his safety.
She rolled onto her back and looked at him, but the light creeping under the curtain of their entranceway distorted her vision. She saw him dressing frantically, but did not see the horror in his face. She closed her eyes and fell asleep to the familiar sound of him clawing across the floor for his clothing, content that he would return eager to make love to her again that night.
But Tuvaq’s vision was spinning. He was desperate to leave that cave and never climb into a hole again. Flushed, sweating, and shaking, he drew the curtain and shot out, his eyes already wrapping around his entranceway to spot Atanq’s rock. But as soon as the curtain fell closed behind him, an image of himself, if this madness gripped him for more than a day – hair disheveled, eyes shaking, and sweating – looked him in the face.
“Atanq! What’s wrong?” he asked.
The old man trembled and glanced over Tuvaq head and his own shoulder as if he were pursued by a wasp. “Do you hear it?” he asked. “The drumming. It’s growing louder. Too loud.”
“Yes!” Tuvaq shouted. “This is terrible. What is happening?”
“The fire,” he said, then clasped Tuvaq shoulder and drew him close, as if he saw him for the first time. “It has escaped from the cave.”
“What?” Now Tuvaq glanced away, checking the direction of the cave for a rolling flame, but there was nothing. He turned back to his elder, concerned. “What do you mean?” he asked, afraid he knew the answer.
Atanq pulled Tuvaq by his jacket, their faces an inch apart, his mouth open and teeth chattering. Tuvaq smelled the rank stench of ass wafting off his palate. The elder pursed his lips and forced out the words: “Duvat is dead!”
“No!” Tuvaq shouted and shook his head.
“Yes,” Atanq said, nodding rapidly, then pressed his brow against Tuvaq’s and explained. “She was scorched by the fire.
Before Tuvaq could argue with Atanq about the nature of the cave, before he could reason away this horrible scenario, Atanq stepped to one side and revealed Duvat’s dead body, curled in the snow and charred black.
Atanq stood silent and let the image work through Tuvaq’s mind like a conquering worm. The hunter could not rip his eyes from the dead heap of woman on the ground, could not imagine that his wife would end up any differently than this girl, could not imagine that he could end up any differently than his elder. He could not imagine that Raven could be contained.
“Gather our people,” Atanq said.
Tuvaq’s skin burned with fear and vengeance. He was scared of his elder, scared of himself, scared of all humanity and desperate to extinguish the viscous, growing fire any way possible. He was prepared to do anything his elder asked.
“We must kill Raven.”
Resolve struck Tuvaq. He stopped shaking, squared his shoulders, and stared ahead.
* * *
After more than a week of Denali holding back the snow, parting the clouds so the village could prosper, and walls being erected that were visible to the villages farther from Denali, Rewit returned to make peace with her husband. The firm, settled snow made her trek easy on snow shoes. She crested the foothill to his village as a fold of clouds opened above her majesty and light poured across their newly built igloos through the opening in their gate.
She still did not share Atanq’s vision. She was not willing to move to the base of the mountain. Despite the week of good weather, she knew the clear days would be dwarfed by mountains of days, piled one on top of the other, filled with violent snow storms and total darkness. But she saw that her husband and his companions had built remarkable structures in the amount of useful time the mountain had given them. She would praise him for this. He had undeniably tapped into a force that gave him strength. If she gave him credit for this, in the subtle ways of a lifetime companion and lover, she could also convince him that he needed balance. He could utilize the spirit of the mountain when the snowstorms held their breath, but back away and live with her when they violently blew through the valley.
As she passed through the threshold into the glare ice of the bright city, she believed they could strike a balance – believed he could be convinced to temper his energy with her calm reason. Then she saw every single member of his village huddled at the base of the large storehouse, felt a fear that was ready to combust radiating from their shivering bodies, and witnessed her husband climb to the roof before them.
“As you all know,” he said, eyes on his pacing feet. “Duvat is dead!”
Rewit stopped heavily behind the crowd. Her foot cracked the top layer of ice and turned a few heads. She remembered the girl: a darling orphan who chatted with her and her husband over almost every meal on their journey to Denali. The memories flooded her mind then dissolved to ether. Her pain turned to curiosity. She wondered what could have shadowed the young woman, ripped her essence from existence.
Anxious to learn her fate, proud her husband took Duvat’s lose profoundly, but also afraid of what caused this furor and to what it might lead, she listened as he continued. “There is a fire under this mountain of ice!” he proclaimed, spinning on his heel as he reached the edge of the storehouse. “Tuvaq and I discovered it when investigating Duvat’s death.”
Her husband did not look at the crowd, but projected more mightily than during his proposal to strike inland from the floodplains. He shook and sweated, but sounded perfectly rational. She remembered this tactic from stories of their first great elder, Seyzar, and her fear grew stronger.
“Datson Sa resides in this fire, and every night he conjures primordial men, women and children to dance for his amusement, and last night, he lured Duvat into his cave. When she drew to close the flame leapt out and scorched her.”
The crowd gasped with fear, but Rewit shook her head in disbelief and began to shove through the villagers. She had to stop him. His passion had grown more dangerous than she feared. It was too large and deformed for him to understand. Now he unwittingly wielded it against himself to his own demise.
“Stop!” she screamed, but her soft steady voice was drown by his booming rhetoric.
“Now that Raven’s fire has been unleashed. There is no controlling it. It will consume us all if we do not kill him!”
She could not possibly raise her voice above the outcry now. People cried out in support, screamed no, and burst into tears. But Atanq knew exactly how to control the furor he created. The purpose of the elder was to tend this fire, and he believed it had grown out of control since the days of Seyzar and needed to be extinguished. Raven did not deserve his heightened role in the cave, or among his people.
“Raven has plagued our people since the days of Imitchaq,” he demanded. “The violent spirit led the man-eaters against us, led our children astray when we needed them most, and foiled our greatest attempts at order. His spirit inspired us to create, but we do not need his physical presence any longer, we never needed it. We are capable of controlling and creating ourselves on our own, and that is why he fears us now, why he scorched our brightest star.” The elder finally stopped pacing and dashed to the edge of the storehouse roof, imposing his square frame over the crowd with shadowy slouch. The crowd quieted, not to a calm, but to the point before explosion. “We can kill him without killing our own spirit, and if we do, there will never be another death like hers. Future generations will flourish!”
No one could argue Raven had not harmed them – haunted them at times and drove men to insanity. But he also could not be excluded from their greatest deeds, from the songs of Layakar to the lessons of Sleeping Lady. They stood on the verge of boiling, either to purge Atanq from his leadership or propel him on his mission.
Then Tuvaq stepped beside the shrinking, shaking elder and raised him by the shoulders. “He is right,” the hunter yelled. “We can continue to progress at all our tasks, without the random disturbances of Raven.”
Rewit scoured the sea of faces, searching for skepticism, but they blindly morphed into one firm look of resolved. She was too horrified to speak.
“Are you behind us?” Atanq asked.
The heads nodded like willows bending under the wind.
“Good,” he said. “Then get into your homes and secure yourselves. Be prepared for anything. Tuvaq and I will leave immediately.”
Their people scattered to their homes like stomped ants scrambling for hiding places. Then Atanq and Tuvaq swung off the roof.
“You must go wash yourself in urine now,” Atanq said as they crunched through the packed snow. “That is the only way you will not be burned when you touch Datson Sa.”
Tuvaq glanced at his elder, shocked by the surprise and insight of his comment. As a hunter, he immediately saw the benefit of suffocating his pores: he would smell more natural and thus spook a pursued caribou less. But he had never heard of this hunting technique before. He thought it strange a practical practical practice could be born from their extreme mission. “What good will that do against Raven?”
“We can only defend ourself against his filth by embracing our own.”
Tuvaq recoiled now. Embracing their filth seemed like an admission to the spirit’s power, which he hoped to wholly reject. He fell a half step behind his elder and cocked his head.
Atanq whipped around and shouted. “Just do it! It is the only way!”
“This is not the only way,” Rewit shouted, asserting herself between the men while Tuvaq shrunk from his leader like a lead dog having lost his path. “Killing Raven is a grave mistake. You will doom your people and yourself.”
“No,” Atanq contested, dragging his feet toward her with his palms cupped. “You were right all along. The spirit that drove me was evil. Now we must kill it.”
“Raven is not evil,” she said. “If he inspired evil in you, you misunderstood him.” He stopped and she stepped toward him now, wrathful rather than forgiving. “You cannot fathom what will happen if you kill him. You think he is a stain on your mountain but he is something else entirely. He is everywhere. You think he is chaos but there is no difference between chaos and calm, only balance, and Raven teaches us that balance. If you kill him, you will not find the balance you seek, but destroy it, and destroy yourself and your people with it. We cannot live without Raven. The fire will burn twice as hot.”
When Atanq realized he could not pander to her, he rose against her. Standing tall and bearing down, he yelled, “Duvat is dead! The fire consumed her and it will consume others. Raven can no longer control it, we must take control of it ourselves.”
“Why did she wonder so close to the cave?” Rewit asked, and their argument plunged to the personal. Tuvaq tried to shuffle away.
Atanq caught him with his gaze and said, “Do as I told you. I will meet you at the edge of the village.”
Tuvaq was not convinced by either of his leaders. They both seemed to pander to Raven’s ways, but he nodded and ran away, resolved to do what he saw fit.
Rewit did not let him Atanq follow after him. Her assault was not over. “Why was her home the last one built?” she demanded, pointing to the igloo on the edge of the village, decorated with a totem of mourning. “Why is it so far from the others, between Denali and that icy rock?”
She barred down on him but he refused to back down, refused to answer her questions. He shook his head furiously as if he fought off her thoughts and his own. “The people have spoken,” he said. “They are scared of what has happened. They want to end the way they’ve been living, and take control of their lives themselves!”
The air between them clouded with heavy breath. Each was prepared to strangle the other to stop what they saw as fatal.
“Who controlled their lives?” Rewit asked. “Who was responsible for the way they were living and what happened?”
Atanq leapt toward her, his momentum in his shoulders and curling arm. She turned to avoid his fist and fell back onto the cold snow, eyes clinched. She braced tightly for several moments, but nothing came, then slowly relaxed and looked over her shoulder to find Atanq marching toward the cave.
“Don’t do it!” she screamed, but she knew he couldn’t hear her, knew she couldn’t catch him, couldn’t stop him if she tried. But she also knew he would destroy no one but himself. She laid back on the snow and let him go.
Focused on the folds of the mountain, the flickering firelight burned every glacier in his path.
* * *
As Atanq and Tuvaq rounded the last fold before the cave, the sun fell behind the mountain and the fire erupted. The procession began as it always had: the heavy drumming, the shadowy cave, the bodies bursting forth from the flame, then Datson Sa, slowly emerging on broad black wings.
But the men did not cower in awe as they had the night they first discovered this dance. Atanq and Tuvaq huddled behind a wall of the cave, stiff as the rock, prepared to seize Raven. The other dancers did not exist for them. The former objects of their desire were now mere distractions, blocking their view of their leader. When he stooped to slurp the filth, they did not gag or revere or envy, but contemplate whether this was a good time to attack.
“No,” said Atanq. “Wait until he is on this side of the fire and laying with a woman. When he is about to finish, we spring on him.”
At these words, the dance proceeded as if it bent to Atanq’s desires. No one stopped the circling to fornicate. The dancers wound round one another, arm in arm, until Raven took the curve on bended wings and rushed into a woman between the elder and the fire. The rest of the dancers stopped and sought out partners, sweaty palms grabby at bare flesh, until everyone was paired in the most poised moment the men had witnessed. Tuvaq stuttered toward the flame but Atanq braced him.
“Wait until he’s nearly finished,” he whispered.
The approach of Raven’s climax could not be more clear. Thrusting his feathered hips, he threw his head back and cackled loudly, ever faster until his call became a solid shriek, then the warriors pounced.
Raven could not notice the men approach in his state. His vision was blurry, limbs weak, every sense focused on the swan song of his prick. When he spilled his last seed and fell back from the girl, trying to find his footing, he stumbled as usual, but before he could plant his talons, he was snatched off his feet and stuffed into a large, hide bag.
Atanq held the sack before him and stared in disbelief, shocked that Raven could be contained in such a simple device. The spirit’s elbows, knees, and head comically jutted against the hide, but he did not slash through with his talons or beak and emerge like majestic god. Atanq would have laughed if he did not notice Tuvaq backing away and feel the pressure of the other revelers bearing down on him. The threat of the cave laid not in Raven.
When he looked up, the dancers were closing in around him, but not with haste. They were stepping then pausing, stepping then pausing, still in unison, still to the beat of the drum, the heartbeat of the fire, the pulse of the earth. Atanq felt the weight of far more than these bare men, women and children suffocating him. The very cave seemed to collapse around him. As the apparition nearest him reached out, he felt himself shrinking, falling through the floor into an unfathomable underworld. But the reveler did not lay hands on him. He grabbed Tuvaq.
The hunter gasped, and Atanq focused on his comrades face, curious to see what happened when touched by these figures, hoping they would be as easy to control as the bagged Raven. For a moment, Tuvaq’s face lit with hope, he seemed to swoon, to accept the embrace and glide toward his partner, as if he were prepared to dance. But then his face, in stark contrast to his expression, shrank with horror. His skin oozed down his bones.
“You didn’t do it, did you?” Atanq shouted. “You didn’t bathe yourself!”
Tuvaq turned to his elder, grimacing as he did, as if each degree popped and burned, then looked squarely at Atanq, with his cheeks overrunning his jaws, his brow drowning his eyes, and whispered, “No.” Then fell down dead.
Atanq could only stare at his fallen comrades decomposing form for a moment before several of the revelers grabbed him, too. But their touch did nothing to sully his skin. He turned with Raven slung over his shoulder and sprinted from the cave.
* * *
When his feet sunk into fresh snow, the heat behind seemed to burn hotter, the mouth of the cave like a furnace. The fire must be reaching for its maker, Atanq thought. Raven would not fight back but his creations would. He had to kill the demon fast.
The clouded, lightless night lit no path back to his village. Atanq could only imagine Rewit there, trying to stop him, and the prospect of falling and dropping the bag, then Raven escaping amidst all his people. He ran away from the village, scrambling through the snow, trying to imagine a way to kill the bird with no ones help. He could not open the bag without Tuvaq and risk Raven escaping before he could slit his throat, so he instinctively scrambled up the mountain.
One steep wall separated him from a sweeping glacier that led to the most jagged peaks of Denali. He would climb to those and cast Raven’s body bag on the rocks, cracking him into a million pieces.
“Don’t do it,” Raven said plainly.
“Quiet,” Atanq shouted, planting his foot in the wall then throwing himself upward, feverishly grappling with one hand faster than he had walked to Rewit’s village.
“You will regret it,” said Raven.
“I will regret nothing! Not coming to this mountain, not stumbling upon your cave, not watching you, and not killing you. That is my purpose, I just did not understand it until now.”
“You have no purpose,” said Raven.
“I do!” the elder screamed, hurling himself over the edge and rolling across the ground, bag in arms.
“Ouch!” Raven hollered.
“My purpose is to save the mountain.” Atanq shook the bag as he chastised it. “You have tainted her with your rituals, just like you have tainted the entire Raven Clan. Denali summoned me here to see that.” His voice dropped deeper, to match the rumbling of the mountain. “And I saw it. I saw it and now I must kill you. I will rid this mountain of you. Then this mountain will be a pure symbol for our people. And then our people will be rid of you!”
The bag sat silent and lifeless, but Atanq was not falling for Raven’s tricks. He slung the bag back over his shoulder and pressed on. The glacier stretched before him was broken into a labyrinth by crevasses, but he chose his path and followed it.
As he turned the point of the first crevasse, its finger stretched out and the ground under his feet dropped out. He threw the bag over the ledge and dug his fingers into the ice. Kicking and clawing, he scudled back onto solid ground. He lay curled and panting, the negative heat of the glacier sucking the heat from his body through his thick hides. The sack sat before he, and he wondered why he had saved it, why he didn’t let it fall, and if he would be able to cast it on the rocks.
Raven’s nasal voice pierced the hide. “I’m not the fire,” he said. “You were not drawn to me, not scorched by me. Your people made the fire. But I can teach you to control it.”
The heat of Atanq’s body fought back against the cold. His fever repelled the cold and pushed him to his feet. His mind was scorched against contradiction. There was no nuance to him. Raven must die. He sprinted up the glacier now, giving each crevasse a large berth.
“You control it!” he cried in pain. “You let it grow out of control, let it burn me, let it kill Duvat!”
“How could I let something I control grow out of control.”
Atanq could not see Raven, could not even see the bag bouncing against his back, but suddenly felt the face of Datson Sa narrowing in on his own, felt a great pressure suffocating him as if he were back in the cave. And Raven spoke on. “The women, the men, the boys…they were not the fire,” he said. “They were my desires, but I could control them. You could not control your desires, including me.”
“You lie!” Atanq shouted, whipping the sack against the base of one precipice as he began to climb. “My people did not war against the man-eaters, did not impose strict laws, did not outstrip nature.” With every shout he bruised Raven’s body, swinging his sack against the rocks to climb the icy peak. “You showed us to. If not for you, we would not have ruined our land, stifled our young, and killed our own. We would have prospered in peace.”
“Bound to a small, icy island,” said Raven.
“Quiet!” Atanq yelled, swinging the bag high over his head and slamming it onto the summit. He straddled the limp sack and squatted, pointed his finger and pressed on. “You are the spirit that killed Duvat. If I destroy you, there will never be another death like hers.”
Raven did not respond, but sat silent, still, neither admitting nor denying anything. In that silence, the drumming in Atanq’s head crescendoed. Raven sitting quietly, asserting nothing, being as he was, drove him made. He choked the sack by the neck and hurled it over his head in a high arch, over the edge from which they came.
Raven spread his wings to fly, but constricted by the sack, he could not slow his dissent. The bag hit hard rocks – Raven’s body broke – and it flattened like a fresh liver, slabbed on a stone.
Atanq sucked a deep breath, his heart filled with harmony – the drumming gone – he expected to be bathed in a new light. But nothing came. He exhaled and slumped over the edge, staring at the lifeless sack, then quickly scrambled down the sack to seize it. He was sure Raven was dead now, not playing tricks, so he tore open the neck and reached inside. Raven had cracked into jagged pieces like a brittle stone.
Thrilled now, nearly weeping over the odd ashes, he clinched a beak in one fist and petrified tuft of feathers in the other, and leapt with joy, throwing back his head to survey the world that was beautiful again, the world he was sure he had saved. He shook the relics at the dome of Denali, so she could celebrate in their victory, and shook them over the sweeping landscape of Alasax, to show every bird, beast and man that they were free – free from the black trickster!
From his new perch, Atanq could see that the folds of Denali formed the contours of the land beyond. The curves rose to become the other hills and mountains, which gathered water in their valleys and fed the silent streams. Denali, with her coffers of glaciers, was indeed the icy mother of the world, sitting atop its peak, feeding every form of life its first sip of water and rich minerals. And now she was untainted! No stain on her pure whiteness. No flame burning between her beautiful folds. Clean, as all mothers should be.
But as Atanq gazed deep into a large lake, imagining schools of salmon pushing up its streams and deep crouching to sip from its shores, the surface began to steam. Then to boil. He glanced from lake to lake and all were churning, all around him, vapor rising from their surface, blurring the air all the way to the sky, until suddenly, in a single puff, every river, stream, and lake evaporated. Every bed lay barren, a chapped desert, a dry mother.
Atanq fell to his knees, dropped the shards of Raven into the bag, and shook his head, a dreamer begging to wake, when there was no waking state. Cracks opened along the lake bottoms and they began to fill, not with water again, anew, but with liquid fire. The lava bubbled and popped, scorching the leaves off every tree and sparking fires that ripped through the forest. All the land was ablaze.
Atanq looked down and found that the thick fire poured from the cave he had discovered. From the base of the mountain, it built in Her Majesty’s majestic curves, flooding the valleys and spilling over the hills, like a rising red tide. But it did not break out of the foothills. Instead, it seemed to turn its head back at Denali, and charge forward, rushing up the riverbeds that led to her glaciers, pouring into he base at every seam, ending the war that had begun before Raven.
The mountain began to quake. Atanq scooped up his sack and pressed it to his chest in fear, a child clutching what he had cast aside. But the fire did not war against the ice. Instead, the ice began to quiver as the surfaces of the lakes once had. Then bubble. Then rise from the land like a ghost. As Denali began to crack apart, Atanq knew what was coming, but it did not rise from the glacial beds below him, as he expected. Behind him, the dome of Denali blew into the sky and became of cloud of ash that sealed off the heavens. A delicate black snow fell across the land, befitting this scattering of a god, and lava gushed up from the hole, oozed through the fingers of her peaks – like blubber through a clinched fist – and slowly crept down the contours of her body, an incubus seizing her very being.
Atanq’s people fled, the different villages cut off from one another, forced into different mazes, which pushed them into distant lands, never to reunite until their recollection of this moment grew distinct, in words, ideas, and memory.
Cut off by a mote of fire around Her fallen Majesty, he was trapped by his own devises, in his own creation. A wave of lava rolled down the mountain behind him.
He sprinted down, rounding the edge of crevasses closer than when he had nearly died, now in less danger of falling through than being scorched by the lava seeping up. He ran up the wall over which he had conquered the glacier and high wire walked to its cliff, but there was no break in the mountain’s mote, no bridge of fallen.
On that high spot, he crouched. There was no escape, no hope, except one. He poured the pieces of Raven into the snow and dropped to his hands and knees, desperately trying to put them together. Beak into jaws into beady eyes into crown, he could not believe what he was doing. He was about to die but to save his life would he resurrect a killer? And what would that demon do to him, the man that killed him? No! This was his chance to remake the god.
Atanq tried, with all his conscious might, to distort the aesthetic of the bird, to push aside the genitals, to leave out the organs that led to filth. But when he did, his vision blurred, his hands shook, and his skin burned. The drumming inside his head resurged. He could not do it. He could nothing. He sat paralyzed, but then his hands moved, guided by something beneath his consciousness, below his dichotomies, on a plain that connects all things – not like the heavens that soar over the dirt, but like the dirt itself. This primordial force could not deny the obvious, could not try to force the wing under the chin, or the eyeballs upside down. The one true aesthetic was clear, undeniable.
He slid the talons into place and Raven leapt to life.
The bird shot out his wings, knocking Atanq backward, and pushed himself into the air above the fallen human. “What have you done?” he croaked.
Atanq cowered under the sharp fury of the black bird’s eyes. If the demon did not remember, he did not want to tell him. He would surely endure his wrath. But he also did not want to lie, because he might hinder the god from setting things right, and he felt the heat of the lava rising under him, like an incoming tide about to cover his nostrils while he’s stuck in the mudflats.
“I killed you!” he cried, flipping onto his stomach and pinning his forehead against the ice. “Then all the water dissolved and these fires broke loose.” He covered the back of his neck in manifold fear. “You must put them out or everyone will die, all of Alaskax will perish!”
Raven did not respond, but the heat dissipated. Atanq heard no burning, heard his heart and breathing calm despite his fears, heard the flapping of the bird’s broad wings, heard…a crack shoot through the ice!
“Look up!” demanded Raven. “Look around you.”
Still terrified of the spirit, Atanq peeked under his arm. The slopes of the mountain stood stately, unscorched, snowy white. The glaciers and the dome of Denali were intact.
Atanq swung his head up to the hovering god and marveled. “What have you done?”
“Nothing,” said Raven. “There were no fires. There is water everywhere.”
Atanq scoured the landscape, hoping. Lakes filled the valleys, rivers gushed through the hills, and trees shaded the banks, but there was no village at the base of Denali, none further down its foothills, no trace that a home had even been built. Despair forced the fear from Atanq’s chest, a heavier gas displacing a lighter, with a discharge of breath. “My people are gone.”
“Of course they are,” said Raven, landing before the man, shorter than his waist. “They no longer exist.”
Atanq’s air was now one of disbelief. He stared at the small being, and felt like a mountain climber after all, who found the tracks of a bird on heights impossible to scale. “What do you mean?”
Raven preened. “They are many, far apart. The only trace that they are one is their stories.”
Raven pushed off the cliff and soared backward through the air, upside down. The wind carried him aloft and the landscape shifted under his gaze, subject to the single, black point of his perspective.