The story of Chulung redoubled his people’s hope that love could bridge all barriers. They witnessed one slight young man cross the roughest waters in Alaskax and win the heart of a woman set against passion. Both died because of a simple misunderstanding and flaws passed down from their parents, but this is common among the great tales of love. Tragic endings are never warnings against emotions, but lessons on how to refine ones passions. Instead of sending one man to bridge the gap between people, Chulung’s people sought to bring many villages together so that people could love freely without the danger of harsh divides.
To establish this great village, they needed to find a new, bountiful land. Moyatat, their elder, proposed traveling around the other arm of the Inlet, to where the caribou migrated to mate. He noted that Raven followed the caribou to the mating grounds of the caribou every year, as well, so it must be the most fertile land in all of Alaskax. There, they could form a great village, made up of many villages, that any man, woman, or child could join, leave, or pass through.
This goal was realized before Moyatat’s people even reached the mating grounds. As they traveled down Turnagain Arm, to the arm they planned to skirt, they discovered another village nestled in the crux of the two arms. Moyatat told these people the tale of their great hero, Chulung, and in return their elder told Moyatat about his people’s hero.
“In the days when men were giants,” said Aarrarat, “the most beautiful, profound woman of the time lived in our village. Her name is no longer known, but she taught man how to make himself homes out of sod, creating all the rolling foothills of Alaskax; she was the first woman to hang and dry a hide, and she discovered all the many uses for her dried skins, from clothing to portable shelter to the hulls of kayaks and umiaks; and most importantly, she taught man how to love. Her beauty and wisdom lit a fire in every person who beheld her, and today we call that fire passion – the fire that separates us from the animals. So in a way, she created man.”
“What happened to her?” Moyatat asked.
“Behold,” he said, and stepped aside, revealing the sweeping scape of the inlet they both yearned to cross. “Do you see her?” he asked.
As the sun rose that morning, the inlet sparkled green and gold, and on the other side, one long mountain lay. The smooth form glowed crimson, its crevices shadowed with deep purple: the clear image of a sleeping woman. A veil lay over her body that gently sloped from her head and feet to the lowlands on the east and west of her; and her features and form were perfectly clear, even in her stony sleep.
“The chief of our village at the time grew covetous of her,” said Aarrarat. “First he made her cover herself at all times. This she did without complaint. But others still fell in love with her for her brilliance. So her husband demanded she remain silent, as well. This too, she did without argument. But still people fell in love with her, simply by sensing the wisdom she possessed. It was then that he demanded they cross the inlet and leave this land, so that no one but him could relish in her spirit. He stepped over the inlet, demanding that his wife follow him to the interior, but she took only that one step and then decided that it was more important to serve her people than her selfish husband. She lay down, where we see her now, to remind our people of the beauty and wisdom of femininity, and the tragedy of silencing our women.”
Aarrarat stepped between Moyatat and the view once again, breaking his fixation on the heavenly form. Moyatat nodded solemnly, then raised his eyes to Aarrarat’s and said, “In the great village, women will be equal with men. Everyone will be free. And femininity will flourish at the foothills of Sleeping Lady. Will you join us?”
Aarrarat agreed, and he and Moyatat led both their villages around the northern arm of the inlet.
On the first day of the journey, Aarrarat’s wife, Betaaka, conceived. Before the two villages rounded the end of the inlet, her stomach hung like the heavy pap of nursing bear, and the first conflict between the elders arose.
“I’m worried that she and the child will not make it to the mating grounds,” Aarrarat told Moyatat as they strolled around the point of the arm while their people slept. “The journey is hard, and one fall could be the death of them both. My child will already be born at the least opportune time of the year, when food is scarce and the weather drops. I should stop here and stockpile enough meat for them to survive the long winter.”
Moyatat continued walking purposefully, with his head down as if in deep thought. “We must press-on,” he said. “If you stop here, your people will stay with you, and we will never realize our dream of founding a village at the foothills of Sleeping Lady.”
“But that dream is worth nothing if my family dies along the way, or during the first winter,” said Aarrarat. “I would be ignoring the lesson of my people’s hero if I ignored my wife’s needs.”
“They will not die,” Moyatat insisted, stopping and turning to his fellow elder. “Betaaka was destined to give birth to that child at the site of our village. The blooming of her pregnancy upon this trip is no coincidence. Your child is a sign that our journey is noble – that the Raven Clan will prosper on the mating grounds of the caribou. If the child is born there, it will usher in a new era of prosperity for our people, as Raven has divined. There will be more than ample food for both of them on that rich land. If you have it here, I fear both your wife and it will die.”
Aarrarat glared at his peer through the moonlit night. “How could that be?” he demanded.
“Because you will displease the gods more if you stay than if you go.” Moyatat turned away from Aarrarat’s glare and continued along the rocky shore. “If Raven gave you this child to sanctify a new village for his people, and the Sleeping Lady wished for you to establish that village at her foothills, then you would let them both down by remaining here.”
Aarrarat stood firm and refused to follow Moyatat as he asserted this grim fate.
Eventually Moyatat stopped and turned back to his comrade. “Come,” he said with a jovial lilt, trying to diffuse the tension. “Walk with me.”
“I don’t think it’s wise to proclaim the will of Raven,” stated Aarrarat.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Moyatat said, nodding. Then he threw his head back and his arms to his side, letting the starlight shower his face and palms. “It’s just that – it’s just that I want our people to soar like Him! To fulfill their desires and feed freely upon the land, without enduring the strife our remote villages suffer.”
“Perhaps we weren’t intended to live exactly like Raven,” said Aarrarat.
“Perhaps not,” said Moyatat, dashing back to his companion and grabbing his shoulder. “But wouldn’t it be great to stretch out across a sweeping valley.” He ran his hand along the horizon in front of the them, where the sun still glowed in the blackness like a smoldering coal, and a great valley swept to the base of Sleeping Lady. “Where we could warm not only our own homes, but halls for gathering and spaces between homes, so that we would never have to remain isolated, could corral caribou and keep plants year round, and never have to worry” – here Moyatat turned back to his fellow elder, grasping both of his shoulders and looking him square in the eye – “never have to worry about your child, or any child, starving or freezing before their first year again!”
Arrarat remained silent, and stared at his comrade through the thick plumes of smoke the man excitedly puffed into the night air. He could not help but smile at the wild eyes that stared at him and sparkled like the moonlit inlet. He did not trust Moyatat’s vision, but he trusted Moyatat himself.
“Okay,” he said. “We will continue.”
Moyatat did not shout, but shook his partner’s shoulder once, firmly, and said, “Thank you.”
“As long as we always watch for Betaaka’s health, and stop if winter begins to descend.”
“Of course, of course,” Moyatat whispered, and ushered Aarrarat back to their sleeping clansmen.
* * *
When Betaaka grew too pregnant to walk, Moyatat carried her on a sled of his own invention. He tied two poles to his waist with braided sinew, which were connected to two tracks on the ground behind him. Betaaka could not lay directly on these tracks, because the ride would have been too bumpy, so Moyatat devised a system of springs. He unstrung four of his hunter’s bows and used them as legs between the poles upon the ground and a secondary frame upon which Betaaka laid. She could hardly feel the rough, broken terrain of the tundra when she rode on this sled, even when Moyatat sped through divots in his haste.
“How much farther do you think it is?” Betaaka asked as he pulled her over a steep hill.
“Not much farther,” he said curtly, pushing his words forth between strained breaths. “The caribou’s tracks are converging. Several herds have already gathered and move as one.”
“How do you know they will stop before the Sleeping Lady, in a valley large enough for us to live with them?” she said ponderously.
Moyatat did not respond, but bared down and lunged to the crest of the hill with two slow, strong strides. “There,” he said, then slashed the sinew from his waist with his ulu and fell to the ground.
Betaaka sprung upright, afraid Moyatat had hurt himself – he had never taken off the reigns midday – but before she could peer over the edge of the sled, she was gripped by the sight before her.
From behind them, Aarrarat saw the sled freeze on the precipice, and he too panicked. He had never seen Moyatat stop without obvious reason, and his fellow elder normally stayed at least one valley ahead of their pack. The only cause for which he could imagine his partner would stop, was imminent danger, or worse – if something happened to Betaaka.
“Moyatat, are you alright?” he shouted.
“Betaaka, can you hear me?”
The elder turned to the men directly behind him and called out, “Drop your things! We must hurry up this hill. Moyatat is in trouble.”
The men did not hesitate to throw down their packs – filled with all the possessions they had brought from their old lives in search of a promised land – in order to aid their steadfast leader. Neither did their wives or children. Everyone within earshot of Aarrarat’s call charged up the hill like a stampede, nearly trampling one another as they scrambled to the summit.
When they crested the hill, they, along with Betaaka, were too stuck with the view before them to scour the ground for Moyatat. From the summit on which they stood, a valley swept out before them – entirely unbroken by creek or canyon – all the way to the foothills of Sleeping Lady, who seemed to lay before them less like a stonily silent martyr and more like an inviting natural mother. At her feet, in the grandest expanse of land any of them had ever seen, millions of caribou roamed. Cows stood in large gatherings; young bucks darted from one end of the valley to the other in large packs, like playful dogs; old bucks locked horns in furious battle; and the oldest, stateliest cows meandered through the chaos like forces of calm. The valley teemed with as much life as the richest Alaskan river in the thick of the salmon runs, and both flourished for the same reason: this valley, like those rivers, was rife with more lush vegetation than any other place on earth. Moyatat’s vision was a reality, like the high seas and distant lands of Imitchaq’s dreams. But Moyatat, like Imitchaq, did not swoon with his people.
“Can you believe this,” Aarrarat whispered to his companion, forgetting he had not seen what he charged to the summit to find.
When there was no response, he was finally struck by his comrade’s glaring absence. He turned to his wife. “Where is Moyatat?” he shouted.
Betaaka snapped her gaze down from the view as if waking from a dream. Panic-stricken, she crawled to the edge of the sled and peered over with her husband.
There, Moyatat lay on the rocky summit, sobbing. He did not look at the land he had envisioned and made it his life’s work to find. He sat curled with his head in his hands as if this were an end instead of a beginning, as if his tale were over.
Aarrarat crashed to his side, wrapped one arm around his shoulder and with his free hand clasped his brother’s chest. “Get up,” he said, shaking him. “Get up and look at what you’ve found.”
But Moyatat did not acknowledge his partner.
“Get up!” he demanded. “Our people still need you to lead them.”
Moyatat pulled his fingers down his eyes, and looked pleadingly at Aarrarat.
“Yes,” he said, seizing on his partner’s glint of hope, “we still need you – we need you to show us how to bring other villages to join, how to herd the caribou, and how to cultivate the land. You were right,” he patted his friend’s chest hopefully, filled with his own happiness, “you have found more food to feed my family than I could have ever collected where we talked many nights ago. But your dream has only begun. We will need your vision to fulfill it.”
Moyatat looked away from Aarrarat and stared at the scene in the valley below, then nodded frantically, reassuring himself. “Yes, yes,” he said. “There is much to be done. This valley is still a long way from the vision of my dreams.”
He rose with the reigns of Betaaka’s sled in his hands and drew the sinew tight around his waist. “Let’s go,” he said, without taking his eyes off the valley, his people poised anxiously behind him. “There is much work to be done – first we must clear ourselves a spot among the caribou.”
Moyatat trudged down the other side of the hill, grimacing as the poles of Betaaka’s sled thrust against his hip with every step. His people followed behind him slowly, silently.
Betaaka looked up at her husband, who walked beside her, holding her hand. “Is he okay?” she mouthed.
“Yes,” Aarrarat whispered, though he did not look down at his wife, did not take his eyes off his comrade, did not ask to take up the reigns for this final, short leg of the journey.
* * *
When the men passed through the valley, the caribou parted in front of them like waves cut by a ship and then filled-in behind them like rushing water. The animals gave the humans space, as if they were their own, separate herd, but did not flee from them like from hunters on the plains. This valley was their sacred mating ground. If they could not roam across its soft tundra and gorge upon its ample foliage before winter blew her icy breath, they would perish, so they were not about to run away because of a small inconvenience such as man. They would give him his space and hope he did not force them to take back what was rightfully theirs.
Most of the stags scampered out of the way without looking the men in the eyes, and the men moved on without a thought, knowing these beasts only as the tasty meat their hunters slaughtered. But occasionally a large buck held its ground and stared, slowly turning its head to watch as the men passed. The massive racks above their heads swiveled, too, and the hairless bloody tips of their antlers – shorn of their fur in battle – glistened in the stagnant sun of fall. The thick, hot air stunk with the randy musk of these animals in heat.
“Are you sure this is safe,” Aarrarat whispered to Moyatat. He did not look at his comrade, but stared at the pensive beasts on his side of the sled.
They walked side by side now, on either side of Betaaka’s sled, pulling her together.
Moyatat did not stare at the stags, but looked straight ahead. “Of course it is safe,” he said. “This is where we are meant to be.”
“But the herds are so thick,” Aarrarat said, pressing against the side of his wife’s sled. “How will we build a great village in their midst? What spot of land will they not encroach upon, and possibly trample in a frenzy.”
Moyatat pushed forward, shooing the caribou out of his path by shaking his head, as if he too were crowned with threatening horns. “Raven will show us a sign,” he said.
And with these words, Raven himself descended overhead. With a playful flip, he spun upside down and flew face-to-face with the men, then shrieked. Moyatat and Aarrarat both snapped their heads up and stared into the bird’s hard, black eyes. They watched as he tipped his wings and slowed to their sluggish pace, hanging above them in midair, like a leaf held by a thin branch. Then he shrieked again.
Aarrarat turned Moyatat and shouted. “Is this not a bad omen?”
Moyatat did not break eye-contact with the bird. “No,” he whispered. “This is perfect.”
“A black bird flying upside down overhead while we plod through a pack of wild animals is perfect?” he screamed, trying to break his partner’s stare. “How is that perfect?”
Moyatat remained unfazed. He marched forward with the sled so that Aarrarat was forced to march with him or let his pregnant wife fall. “He is leading us to a meal,” he said.
“No, he is waiting for a meal,” Aarrarat said sternly. “He is waiting to feast upon our trampled corpses.”
“No,” Moyatat said wistfully, still staring into the sky, as if dreaming. “In the time before man, Raven used to hunt with wolf – or perhaps it is better to say, Raven used wolf to hunt. You see, Raven himself does not hunt – he is neither predator nor prey – he stands aside and watches, then uses those enemies to feed himself.
“Whenever Raven found prey, either dead or alive, he would fetch a wolf. Knowing that Raven fed on fresh meat, wolf would follow him. When wolf found a live animal, he would kill it and feast, but leave the intestines and eyeballs for Raven, so that the winged seer may lead him to another calf. When wolf found a dead animal, he would simply feast, but Raven would do more. Raven would watch to see if the wolf died or not – for he had fetched the wolf instead of scavenging the meat himself to find out if the flesh had spoiled. Either way, Raven would feast: either on the intestines that the wolf left for him, or the fresh carcass of the poisoned wolf.”
Aarrarat walked with his mouth agape. “I too am an elder, but I have never heard this tale,” he said. “Why would we follow Raven if he would trick us?”
Moyatat smiled, first at the bird, then at Aarrarat. He stared at his companion with wild eyes and said, “To learn his tricks!”
Raven shrieked again and the pack of caribou in front of the men stirred violently. They had been more tightly packed than other pockets, and when their bodies bumped against one another as they tried to move for the men, they were whipped into a frenzy. Hooves cracked against rocks; elk bellowed; tundra plants were flung into the air like clouds of dust; and Moyatat and Aarrarat were almost trampled. For a moment, it seemed that both elders were right: that Raven was using them to find food, but that they themselves would be the meal. Raven was also known to use stampedes to feed himself: he would spook caribou to trample ground squirrels or run off the edge of a cliff themselves, so he could feed for weeks.
But the companions narrowly avoided being stomped, the herd parted evenly, and when the foliage settled, a vast clearing stood before them. Caribou were tightly packed around the perimeter, as if they were at once protecting and avoiding what lay in the center. Their eyes were all diverted from the sight, implying the latter, but men too avoid sacred places save when they wish to worship.
There, in the middle of this perfect circle created by wild animals, on a slight raise of the rolling tundra, two hulking, robust caribou lay dead, their horns interlocked in eternal battle.
Moyatat stopped and gazed over the land.
Aarrarat took this chance to slowly set down the sled.
“Aarrarat!” Betaaka yelled from behind. “Moyatat!” she called.
But both men stood transfixed by the scene before them.
“Elders!” one of their hunters shouted from behind.
Then they turned and saw the man hunched over Betaaka.
“She’s having the child!” added the hunter.
Aarrarat fell to her side and grasped her hand and Moyatat stood upright and began to shout orders to his people. “Go ahead of us,” he said. “We will make camp in this clearing.”
His people began to flood past him, rushing for the best spots of land, flinging open their packs and thrusting poles into the ground to stake their claims.
Aarrarat shot a glance up to Moyatat and nodded back to his wife. “Save the meat,” he mouthed.
“Clean the two caribou that have died,” Moyatat continued, as if he had not finished his speech but were merely interrupted. “And prepare the fresh meat for Betaaka. She will need to be refreshed before the night is over.”
Then Raven, who had slowly flown past the elder and hovered over the meat, doubled back. He soared low over the heads of the stampede until he skimmed the top of Moyatat’s head, and shrieked again.
“And do not discard the bowels or eyes!” Moyatat shouted, startled, snapping his head attentively. “Pile them far from any man’s tent as an offering to Raven.”
Finally the last of his men skirted by and the two eldest women knelt by Betaaka, instructing her.
Moyatat turned and watched his people fill the plain like a bore tide storming the mudflats. They scoured the tundra for kindling, chopped down the larger yellow spruce to frame their homes, and descended on the caribou carcases like a pack of wolves. Two men grabbed each set of horns and jerked, trying to pull them apart.
“Do not separate them!” Moyatat barked.
The men froze and looked up at their elder like scolded dogs.
“Leave them where they lay. They will remain here as long we do,” he shouted in crescendo. “This is the land we have been searching for!”
The men dutifully dropped the racks and jumped into the work of gutting the beasts. But in their haste, they did not remove the anus, tainting the hindquarters, a rack was chipped, and the eyeballs were trampled underfoot.
* * *
Aarrarat and Betaaka’s child was named Layakar, and he grew much like the village into which he was born. He was scrawny but strong as an infant because of the long, hard search his people had endured to reach his birthplace, and he remained quiet and reserved for most of a year because winter quickly set in after they arrived. But plenty of meat was harvested and preserved before the end of mating season, so Layakar and his people ate well throughout those long, cold months. Instead of growing thinner and hungrier until the spring brought back foliage and the game that fed on it, like other villagers and all wild animals of Alaskax, Layakar and his village gorged during the dormant months and grew fat.
When spring erupted and even Layakar, the youngest and most vulnerable member of their village, was healthy and satisfied, it was truly a miracle. The villagers were eager to see berries explode on the foothills of Sleeping Lady and watch salmon fight up the rivers that fed the inlet, but they were not crazed to eat these treasures like other villagers.
Many people from other villages passed through this valley and were amazed to find Moyatat’s people so calm and happily fed.
“Your people have truly been fortunate this year,” one wanderer told Moyatat. “I had to abandoned my village because there was not enough food around us to fend off the deep winter hunger. The herd of caribou that winter near our village was much smaller than usual. But it seems all seasons are bountiful for your people,” he added emphatically, throwing his head back into the sun, as if the blue sky overhead reflected the eternal state of this valley.
“You are free to stay with us,” said Moyatat, chuckling. “Everyone is. At least stay, rest, and rebuild your strength.” He took the stranger’s arm and strolled across the tundra toward the inlet. “And if you choose to go, tell everyone you encounter,” he swept his hand over the horizon, “that we have enough bounty to share with all, and together we can make the strongest village in Alaskax.”
As he said this, Layakar burst between the two men. He pressed himself against their hips and walked with them, looking up at the stranger and grinning while chewing a piece of seal fat.
The man dropped to his knees, clutched the boy, and stared at him with wonderment.
Layakar kept grinning and chewing.
The man looked up to Moyatat. “This child could not be more than one year old, he said, baffled.”
Moyatat smiled and nodded confidently, pleased with what he knew the man was thinking.
“But that means he must have been born just before winter, and he is the healthiest one year old I have ever seen. Not a single child survived the winter in my village, and this infant already walks like a boy!”
“That is Layaker,” Moyatat said proudly. “And he will be the strongest man in the Raven Clan.” He turned his palm up to the village of the plain. “Just like his village.”
The man looked at the village and the elder and the child with wild amazement. “Well I believe I will stay,” he whispered.
* * *
Many other wanderers stayed indefinitely like this one, and many more stayed for a time and then moved on or returned to their villages. These people told everyone of the bounty and prosperity they witnessed in the village of Moyatat, especially about the strongest child they had ever seen. Every traveler was inspired to behold this sight for themselves, and many whole villages also decided to accept Moyatat’s offer. They uprooted, made their own epic journey, and settled in the valley with Moyatat and Aarrarat’s people.
When these many, disparate villages, with their own highly adapted, unique skills and customs, came together and conjoined, the great village of the plain was born, and Layaker truly became a new type of child. The best and most diverse tricks were used to rear him, so that by the age of two he was not only learning to wield an ulu and arrow, but also a sewing needle and drying rack. The people of the great village accepted the most liberal principles of their time, so that all men and women were trained in all the arts previously considered exclusive, love was shared as freely as the daily fishing catch, and new ideas were never dismissed, but always attempted to discover what the may yield. And innovation blossomed in this valley like wildflowers. In the place where villages collided, traditional ideas were not only shared, but new ones emerged that had previously existed nowhere, born from the unique environment of the great village of the plain.
More varieties of plants grew in this fertile basin than man had seen before, and many of them were more succulent and delicious than any plant man had known, but because of the vast diversity, the succulents were not numerous enough to feed everyone. This was unacceptable to Moyatat; he was determined to feed the entire village the most delectable foods, so he encouraged his villagers to work for these plants, as bees worked for the dazzling flowers. They dried and spread seeds from berries and fruits, shelled and buried nuts, transplanted male and female plants of the same species next to one another, and nurtured all these desirables with the rich, clean glacial water from the salmon rivers.
Man had also never seen so many caribou calves as in this valley. On the open tundra and along the coast, where caribou moved in smaller herds, it was rare to see more than half a dozen yearlings with twenty adults. Because they were so sparse, hunters never considered taking them. But here on the mating grounds, where every suckling calf had to follow its mother as she vied for another child, they were everywhere. Bright eyes, a bulbous body, and spindly legs seemed to wobble beneath every mature female frame, so whenever one of these calves broke an ankle or lost an eye, the people of the great village would kill it and eat it.
Calf meat quickly became the most desirable food. This delicacy of the great village of the plain was as fatty as seal blubber and as gamy as ptarmigan, and seemed to swell in women’s chests, so their breasts grew more ample and rife than ever before. Moyatat considered this the blooming of femininity he had promised, and decreed that no man or woman need repress their urges.
As a result, the villagers began to slaughter healthy calves before the end of the season. This rich meat, along with all the succulents cultivated that summer, made Layakar and all of his fellow villagers healthier and happier than man had ever imagined possible.
No one was happier than Moyatat. He felt justifiably responsible for progressing the the state of man with his life – and more profoundly, he felt the joy of providing for all the villagers that he knew and loved. He considered them all his children. But Aarrarat and Betaaka worried for their dear friend. His sod igloo stood next to theirs, less than a third of the size, but it could have been even smaller, because he never went inside save to sleep. He spent all of his time with them and Layakar. Late into the night, every single night, he would stay up telling them tales of Raven, and Chulung, and their own journey to this valley. He could not have been more jovial and loving to the family, but a night never passed when Aarrarat and Betaaka did not have to argue with him to go home. He wanted to keep them awake, in conversation with him, until he fell asleep talking.
“Why don’t you take a wife?” Betaaka asked, laying a plate of four calf livers in front of her family and Moyatat. She asked with a playful air, but stared at him now, with her head cocked and eyebrows raised, expecting an answer.
“Oh I don’t need a family,” Moyatat said dismissively, sliding a liver onto his own plate. “This village is my family.” He bit the hot organ and inhaled a deep nose-full of the pungent aroma on his palate.
“One can have the family of the village and also a family of his own,” Aarrarat said, attempting to add a serious tone to their conversation.
“Oh, that is easy for you to say,” Moyatat said, clinging to the joking tone. “You have Betaaka.” He gazed across at her as she sat to eat with them, turned his head sideways and half-sung to her. “I too would marry if there were only another Betaaka!”
She playfully smiled back and cocked her head, as well. “And if I had a double, she would surely marry you,” she said. “But I do not.” She snapped her head upright and nodded firmly. “And still you live.” She leaned over her food and looked at him pleadingly. “And you would make a wonderful father.”
“I am father enough to Layakar!” Moyatat proclaimed. “Why do I need to have a child when the two of you have already had the perfect one – the prefect child of our new village?!” Moyatat held his arms up victoriously, as if his logic were impervious, but no one applauded him, not even Layakar, who hungrily ate his dinner.
Silence filled the room, and Aarrarat and Betaaka both looked at him dubiously. “True, your name may have been his first word, but we are still his parents,” said Aarrarat. He leaned over his plate and plead with Moyatat. “You know there is a difference. When a child’s parents die, he is an orphan, no matter how many others care for him. In the same way, there are adults who are orphans because they have no child, no matter how many children love them.”
Moyatat lowered his arms self-consciously, glanced back and forth at the serious stares surrounding him, and rose to his feet. That night, he did something he had not done since Layakar was born. He left before the boy fell asleep. “Thank you for dinner,” he said. “I’m going.”
He hoped his abrupt action would force them to see the errors of their ways – he hoped they would feel guilty for hurting him and beg him to stay – but no one said anything.
He stormed into the night air in a fit of rage. How dare they question the quality of his life, the way he chose to live? He was the leader of his people! The founder of the great village of the plain! One of the great heroes of the Raven Clan!
When he stumbled out of the igloo, Raven himself stood before him. Raven did not move, but sat squat with his beak under his wing, preening.
Moyatat froze, startled by the presence of this god at this moment. He slowly walked toward the bird and knelt before him. “What do you think, Raven?” He peered, trying to discern the form that was slightly darker than the night air. “These attacks are not fair, are they? No one questions you for flying solitarily. To ask more of your people would be unjust. You keep the world aligned with your lonely ways.”
Raven looked up at the man. His ebony eyes sparkled with the starlight. He screeched.
“True,” Moyatat shouted. “If it would better your position, you would take a mate when you were ready.” As Raven resumed preening, Moyatat turned his head to the sky and looked at the stars himself. “But even here, in the greatest village in Alaskax, there is not a single mate I’d like to take.”
Raven tore a feather from his breast and shrieked.
“Yes,” Moyatat said firmly, looking down at the bird. “Of course I would take a wife if one suited me.”
“And I would not hesitate to have a child,” he asserted.
“And my child would be a shining example of what the Raven Clan has become,” he demanded. “He would be a pure spirit of the great village of the plain!”
Raven nodded wildly with the man’s excitement, then shrieked once more and sprung into the air, directly at Moyatat. He scraped the man’s scalp with his talons and tore a tuft of heair as he ascended on his broad wings, then curved to the west.
Moyatat dropped to the ground and turned to watch Raven fly: the black bird soared overhead, deep into the foothills of Sleeping Lady, then vanished.
Moyatat stopped squinting through the night air, let his eyes relax, then dropped his head. Had he gone mad? Did he really just shout at a bird? What if others had heard him? He would never find a wife.
* * *
The next day, the rare wandering woman descended from the foothills of Sleeping Lady. Tipoyak said she came from the other side of the mountain, from a village nestled in the vale that stretched from the Lady’s forehead to the lowlands, that had been washed out by a flood. Her people had disbanded and traveled to separate villages to avoid overburdening any of them, and she had journeyed straight to the great village of the plain.
Tipoyak said she had heard stories of the great village and instantly supported its ideals. She had warned her people that it was dangerous to live on a flood plain and encouraged them to cultivate plants along the riverbanks and store more food for winter. They had not listened, and her parents and siblings had died, so she came to the great plains to start her own family and develop the ideas she believed would progress the state of man.
The people of the great village immediately accepted Tipoyak. Her story portrayed their village as the beacon of hope and prosperity they believed it to be, and she seemed to be a true woman of the era. She suggested that they crush the animal bones, hides, and intestines that were not needed for shelter or food, and scatter them on their growing fields. This nearly doubled the crop yield in the first season.
She also taught the fisherman to make their kayak and umiak frames out of cedar saplings instead of stately evergreens so the vessels would be more flexible and maneuver better in the ice-laden inlet, and to tie larger holes in their set-nets, so the salmon would be caught by their gills and be less likely to escape. Both practices were instantly adopted and successful, and Tipoyak was lauded for progressing the Raven Clan more than any woman of the great village. Aarrarat even speculated that this mysterious lady might not have come from a washed out village at all, but from the mountain herself.
“My people and I believe she is the Sleeping Lady from our myths,” he said.
Moyatat was skeptical of both Tipoyak and her ideas. He avoided direct contact with her and argued that the increased harvest and catch were the result of a natural bountiful season and no effort of their own.
“Nonsense,” said Aarrarat. “That is what skeptics have argued about the success of our entire village. We know that is not true, and we must continue to see the truth if we wish to develop.”
But Moyatat would not listen. There was nothing Aarrarat could say to convince him, and this made Aarrarat realize that his comrade had never truly listened to him. Moyatat was too stubborn to listen to anyone; he had only sought Aarrarat’s companionship because he needed a fellow elder to lead their people.
“You will isolate yourself from everyone,” Aarrarat barked at him across their meal. “You consider yourself greater than everyone – than me, than her, than your people – but you are nothing without all of us.”
Moyatat rose to leave early, which had become routine since his encounter with Raven. “Just because I do not trust this woman, does not mean I do not trust you, or think myself better than others. I merely wish to be cautious.”
Betaaka jumped from her seat and grabbed his hand to stop him from leaving. “We are not trying to push you away from us,” she pleaded. “We are trying to keep you close to your people. We are trying to tell you that your cautiousness of her looks like contempt for us all when we love her and trust her so much.”
He twisted his wrist free from her grip and turned back to the entranceway.
But then Layakar did something he had never done as the elder rose to leave. “Moyatat,” he squeaked.
Moyatat stopped, and even Aarrarat and Betaaka turned to their child, who furrowed his brow and looked sad for the first time any of them could remember. “She nice,” he said.
Moved by his son’s outburst, Aarrarat rose to his feet to plead with the fleeing elder. “Even a child,” he said, “who is only concerned with food and staying warm, can see that she’s wonderful.” Moyatat cast his eyes down and shook his head disgustedly as Aarrarat spoke. “But not you. No one can change your opinion about her. No one can change your opinion about anything.”
Moyatat spun and left. He stormed out of the sod igloo and turned toward his home. He would pack his things and set out on a journey of his own the next morning. He would travel to the head of Sleeping Lady and see what he found. He was sure there was no village, but if he did find remnants, he would travel to the surrounding villages and find the survivors to see what they knew about this Tipoyak. In his rage, he probably would have even left that night if he had not run into the woman herself between Aarrarat’s house and his own.
“Just going home?” she asked.
Moyatat froze silent. Aarrarat had been wrong. There was in fact someone who could change Moyatat’s opinion about Tipoyak, and everything else. And she planned to do just that. She had won the hearts of his people, now she would win the heart of their leader.
“It’s late, isn’t it?” she continued.
Moyatat wanted to turn away but he was struck by the figure crouching before him. He couldn’t tell what she was doing in the dark, but she looked prepared to spring upon him at any moment.
“But I suppose you and Aarrarat have much to talk about,” she said, and sprung to her feet, but not toward him; she stared over the foothills of Sleeping Lady.
He did not follow her gaze, but stared at her Raven hair.
“There was little to think about in my small village,” she said. “It took hardly any work to run.”
Her black locks reminded him of something – he peered through the dark air to distinguish their slightly darker shape – then he noticed they hung in layers like spry ebony feathers.
“But you must strain every waking moment to keep the great village in order, don’t you?” she asked, and turned to the elder, her eyes sparkling in the starlight.
“Yes,” he answered instinctively, wondering if she were a gift from Raven.
“That must be why you have never taken a wife, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said, wondering if she were Raven herself.
“But have you ever thought it might make things easier, if you had a wife who worked just as hard as you, and raised a child for you, to continue your work after death?”
“Yes,” he said.
Then she did spring upon him, scraping her fingernails through his scalp.
When he let his lips part to accept her tongue, he was relieved to give himself to her, relieved he could bury his feud with Aarrarat and Betaaka, and relieved he would be leader to his people as a family man as well as an elder. He kissed her back furiously, lifted her legs around his waist, and combed his hands through her feathery black hair as he stumbled the rest of the way to his igloo with her in his hands.
She dragged him to the floor on top of her and took him deep inside herself. The dream that flooded her mind when she woke in the folds of Sleeping Lady’s locks to the cry of a furious Raven with a tuft of hair in his talons, was realized when Moyatat throbbed inside of her. The woman who came from nowhere had mastered every aspect of the great village, and she and her family would bring justice to the disparate villages that starved and suffered.
* * *
The next day Tipoyak and Moyatat framed a sod igloo twice as large as Aarrarat and Betaaka’s, on the opposite side of the valley. The four elders agreed that this would be the best way for them to maintain order in the sprawling village.
Moyatat covered the frame in the thickest sod, because he and Tipoyak were sure they would have a family before winter, and they were right. Before the ice on their river receded to the base of the glacier from which it was born, Tipoyak removed her belt to free her swelling stomach and wore flowing, beaded dresses through the summer. Her belly blossomed like the berries across the tundra, never weighing her down, but filling her out and coloring her like a ripe fruit about to burst. Her child did not hang from her hips like a bear’s udder, as Layakar had hung from Betaaka, but filled her dresses like sails impregnated by the wanton wind, promising a great journey that would deliver much riches, like the sails that had freed her people from the icy island of their birth. Her son would deliver them from worldly plight as Imitchaq had once done.
Moyatat catered to his wife’s every need. She continued to advice the farmers and fisherman, instigating irrigation systems for their fields and tandem netting on the open waters, but she never labored to implement her inventions – Moyatat acted as her able hands. She also ate only the most delectable meats and succulent plants. She said their child made her crave fat as if she were starving in the dead of winter, so Moyatat appropriated enough calf meat to feed her through that barren season; she never ate the tough, lean meat of adult caribou, and as a result, her breasts swelled even more swiftly than other pregnant women’s. Before mating season, she said her palate watered for heart even immediately after she had eaten, so every day that Moyatat spotted even a lone cow on the horizon, he hunted to bring her back the fresh, tender organ. As fall scattered the leaves across the tundra and the caribou into their mating grounds, Moyatat slaughtered as many calves as he could to ensure Tipoyak and their child would have ample meat to survive the winter without growing cold.
Makkatahlung was born on the cusp of winter as Layakar had been, but he was not scrawny and strong; he was the plumpest, most robust child any member of the great village – even the wanderers who had traveled all over Alaskax – had ever seen or heard of. He looked like a child of the valley itself, with eyes green as ripe succulents, hair the reddish brown of spring caribou, and skin the golden yellow of the mudflats. He did not cry when he was born, but neither his parents nor the elder woman who delivered him feared for his health, because just moments after his birth, he looked at them more attentively than any two year old could muster and giggled like a clever old man who had just tricked his grandson.
Makkatahlung also grew faster than Layakar. While Layakar grew quickly and was always advanced for his years, Makkatahlung bore no resemblance to his age; he skipped infancy altogether and swiftly grew stronger than a toddler. He walked proficiently before winter.
The people of the great village of the plain proclaimed he was a new child for a new village, a new era. As Chulung had grown from the loving environment of his people and era to conquer the inlet and a stony heart, so Makkatahlung grew from the great village to champion and save all struggling, isolated tribes. But in his habits, he was more like Imitchaq: even after the heartiest plants had withered and died in the frozen earth, and every other member of the village sat isolated in their homes and relished the warming fuel of fat, Makkatahlung ran wildly around the valley. His high pitched squeals of delight were heard throughout the night, and the plodding of his bare feet upon the ice pack sounded like a calf playfully tearing through the valley without a thought to man’s residence.
No matter how tightly Moyatat and Tipoyak cinched the laces around his ankles, Makkatahlung slipped the knot with a trick of his legs and defiantly kicked the boots in their faces. His son’s irreverence infuriated Moyatat, but when he snapped his head up from his work, Makkatahlung’s subtle laugh and ancient smile always stopped Moyatat from yelling.
He turned to Tipoyak, who rested in bed. “I think he can talk,” he snapped. “I think he can speak better than any of us but choses to be silent for fun.”
Tipoyak rolled her head to her husband and rested her chin on her shoulder. She was constantly exhausted from nursing her burgeoning child. She grew thin and weak and the luster seemed to fade from her eyes. But she still gazed at him lovingly. “Let him have his fun then,” she whispered sweetly.
“Look at you,” he shouted, storming to her bedside. “He has had his fun long enough! You are wasting away – soon their will be nothing left. He needs to eat solid food and tell us what he wants. You breasts have shrunk from the largest in the village to those of a young man.”
“You would expect no other child his age to speak or quit his mother’s breast,” she said sternly, glaring at him now.
“But it is haunting that a child his of his size and skill has done neither!” He turned away from his wife and stood firmly, but also tried to avoid his son’s persistent, chilling smile.
Tipoyak sat up straighter than she had in weeks, but did not yell at her husband. She knew she was too weak to win an argument, but also knew that she alone possessed the strength to persuade him. She spoke as softly and lovingly – almost pleadingly – as she could. “I am happy to grow weak so that he may grow strong. Nothing is more important than nursing our child, than nursing the most promising child of the great village, who could bring prosperity back to the distant villages of Alaskax.”
Moyatat spun back, knelt down and took up her hand. “I too want to see our child prosper, but I don’t think you must suffer for that – I don’t think it is good for him to disable his mother! That does not teach him to respect his people!” He pressed his forehead against the back of her hand, pushed her protruding hand bones into his skin. “This is not healthy,” he cried, then looked up at her hopefully. “It would be far better for him to go on a hunt with Aarrarat and I, to learn the skills and rewards of the providing for himself, to taste the fresh, rich heart. Nothing could prepare him better to be a leader of our people!”
Tipoyak smiled fondly and nodded. “That does sound like a good idea,” she said, falling asleep.
“Wonderful!” Moyatat shouted and sprung to his feet. He looked at his son and proclaimed, “We will go hunting tomorrow. And you will have to wear shoes – snowshoes – or you will sink in the powder!”
Mukkatahlung continued to smile and chuckle, and shook his head slowly.
* * *
Makkatahlung refused to put on his shoes the morning of the hunt.
After watching his son’s ankles shrink to the size of a caribou’s several times, he finally gave up and said, “Fine, but I will not let you walk on the snow without snowshoes. You will have to ride on my back.”
When Aarrarat arrived, Moyatat strapped Makkatahlung into his pack and hoisted him onto his shoulder.
Aarrarat squinted at his friend as if he had lost his mind. “The boy runs around the village day and night,” he said. “Why are you carrying him on your back?”
Moyatat spun around and kissed his sleeping wife goodbye. Makkatahlung opened his eyes when he saw Aarrarat and smiled broadly.
Aarrarat stepped backward, startled by the boys widening grin.
“He refuses to wear his shoes,” Moyatat said, turning back to his partner and ushering him out of the house. “And I will not have him fall into a crevice and get lost.”
When they stepped into the crisp air, Moyatat sucked a deep breath and sighed as he exhaled. “A perfect day for a hunt.”
Aarrarat said nothing, but began trudging up the snowbank out of the valley.
Moyatat ignored his companions shortness and followed him up the hill. There would be plenty of time to talk as they scoured the frozen tundra for stray herds, and getting out out of the valley early was important if they wished to return before dark.
Above the high walls of the plain, rolling hills stretched out to the west that one rarely saw in the great village. Sleeping Lady dominated the view from their homes, but these hills followed a serpentine salmon river to the base of a glacier wedged between sky piercing peaks far larger than Her Majesty. While the stony silence of Sleeping Lady captured the quiet mood of a frozen winter day, these men were on the hunt, so they turned to the hills that still bustled with life inside their folds – migrating moose and caribou, wintering ptarmigan, even hibernating bears – and where the distant cracks of calving glaciers and thundering avalanches reminded them that Alaskax never sleeps.
As soon as Moyatat crested the plain, Aarrarat pointed to the horizon and said, “To the southeast, they move north. We can cut them off dead east,” and began trekking through the high snow before his comrade could soak in the view or enjoy discussing their route.
Moyatat began to suspect Aarrarat was upset with him, but he could not fathom why. His only thought was that he did not want to be hunting when there was ample food stored in the village, so he swiftly followed to avoid keeping them out any longer than necessary.
Moyatat focused on the faint speckles of brown in the distance of white as they walked. He was not sure they were caribou while he crossed the first few hills. They flickered in and out of view as if they may be tricks of light, and when they finally appeared solid to him, they looked stationary, like a cluster of rocks, or birch branches sticking through the snow. But long after Aarrarat had identified them, he too noticed their legs, and saw the bends in their knees carrying them directly into his own path.
He looked ahead, pleased with his companion’s keen vision, and found Aarrarat far ahead and steadily pulling even father ahead of him. He watched the snowshoes of his fellow elder break through the ice cover and sink into the softer layer of powder, while his own snowshoes sunk nearly to the base layer with every step. “Slow down,” Moyatat hollered. “I cannot cross the snow as fast while I carry Makkatahlung.”
Aaarrarat did not turn around, but shouted, “I will get a head start on cleaning the animal, and we will walk the same speed back when I too have weight to carry.”
“You will not have to carry all the meat back,” Moyatat said apologetically, as if there had been a misunderstanding. “After we eat, I’m sure Makkatahlung will put on his snowshoes and we will be able to share the load.”
Aarrarat said nothing, but quickened his pace. He flung snow back almost to Moyatat’s feet with the racking of his snowshoes.
“Why are you upset with me, Aaarrarat?” he shouted sternly. “I only invited you because I thought you wanted to help raise Makkatahlung, as I helped raise Layakar.”
“I do!” Aarrarat screamed, halting his rapid pace and turning to face his partner. He puffed several deep breaths of steam before he continued. “But only because I am unhappy with the way you have raised him!”
Moyatat was shocked, but he did not freeze, offended. He wanted to know what his brother thought, he wanted to reconcile and he also wanted his whole village to be content with the way he raised his child. He dashed down the long, sloping hill until he reached Aarrarat’s side and grasped his hand. “What is it?” he gasped, out of breath. “What have I done to offend you?”
“You have let your child grow out of all measure, at the expense of Tipoyak! She has nearly died while he has prospered and you have done nothing to rein him in.”
Moyatat could see his brother had worked himself into a fit of rage. He did not try to stop his rant to explain himself; he wanted to hear him out, then let him know that he was trying to set his family in order, and only his dear friends could help him.
“Betaaka and I remember you were set against Tipoyak from the day she arrived in the great village. She inspired everyone from our original village that the Sleeping Lady had returned. And now you seem to be letting her die to retain sole power for you and your son! You march into the freezing winter air so that he may taste heart out of season, and when he refuses to wear snowshoes you hoist him on your back. You ignore your wife, your people, and even yourself for the boy – you feed him to the detriment of us all.”
The fierce words of Aarrarat’s anger fogged the air between him and his friend. But Moyatat let Aarrarat’s vengeful breathing subside with silence, and only when he could see his comrade’s soft eyes through the thinning cloud, did he plead with him.
“No, Aarrarat. I promise you I hold no grudge against Tipoyak or you or your people. My people have only flourished because of yours and I consider us one. And Tipoyak is the most gifted, beautiful woman to join us from any land. I myself have told her that we must wean Makkatahlung off her milk. That is why I have gone to such great lengths to bring him on this hunt. I feel that the only meat he may eat is a caribou heart. He has refused everything else, and I share your fears of what may happen if I cannot get him under my control. But I know the first step is controlling his appetite. That is why I hope that if we get him to eat, he will wear his snowshoes. Then maybe when we return to the village, he will speak. Then he can grow into the leader we all hope he will be. If he does not learn to respect his people, his strength could indeed become a bane to us all.”
Aarrarat turned and blew smoke away from his brother, contemplating what he had said. He had forgotten how thoughtful Moyatat was. He nodded and turned back. “I see you have given this much thought. I hope you are right. We shall see. The caribou are just over this hill.”
Moyatat clutched his brother and shook his shoulder. “Thank you,” he whispered to avoid spooking the animals, but grinning wildly. “You are the wisest hunter in Alaskax. I could not have done this without you.”
Both men drew their bows from their shoulder and readied arrows against the strings, then slowly crept up the hillside, silently pushing the extension of their toes into the snow. When they crested the hill, the animals dashed through the length of the valley to escape, but both hunters fixed on one large cow, aimed, and let rip. Both arrows sunk deep, one in the neck and one in the heart, and she fell, a streak of red across the smooth, glistening white.
They hiked down into the valley together, side by side now. Moyatat unstrapped Makkatahlung and made him sit on the hide pack while they cleaned the animal.
“This is a sacred blade,” he said, drawing an ulu from his coat and waving it in front of his son. The long, sharp edge flashed brilliantly in the high sun. “It traveled with me from the village of Chulung, where it fed our people along Turnagain Arm. It is said to have been the knife of Ponteesh before that, where the elders used it to feed the people of Natsalane, and before that it belonged to the elders who led the battle against the man-eaters in the interior, and slew Arnarr. And even before that, it belonged to Seyzar, who led our people off the frozen island onto which we were born, and conquered the high seas.”
Moyatat slit the beast’s throat and bled it, then Aarrarat sliced down its gut and started to clean. “It is the knife I used to feed our people as I led them to the great village,” he went on. “And one day you will use it to feed the people of the great village, as you spread the good news of the plain to all the people of the Raven Clan still suffering in disparate villages.”
With the quarters properly sectioned and the bowls piled neatly for Raven, Moyatat removed the heart, carefully wrapped it in a clean cloth and placed it next to Makkatahlung.
“I will be right back,” he said to Aarrarat. “I must clean this blade, and fetch water from the river to accompany our important meal.”
Aarrarat nodded, hugged his companion tightly, and watched him descend the long valley to the river, glad he had reconciled with his fellow elder through the hunt and sorry he had ever doubted Moyatat’s great love and leadership, but when he turned back to Makkatahlung, these pleasant thoughts swept from his mind like a howl whipped across the tundra. Startled by the smiling adult face on the young child, his mind filled with the eerie silence of the barren land. The boy chuckled at him as if he had laid some cruel trap he were about to spring. His smile seemed to grow wider, the corners of his mouth drawing up into the center of his cheeks.
“You’re ravenous,” he said, disgusted. But when he averted his eyes, his gaze fell squarely on the tightly wrapped caribou heart, and he was struck with an idea. He turned back to the child, nodded vigorously and said, “Yes, yes, you’re hungry aren’t you? Why don’t you eat?” He knelt down in front of Makkatahlung, drew the heart between them, and unwrapped it.
Raven screeched and circled overheard.
“Yes, Raven’s hungry, too,” he said encouragingly, drawing another knife from his jacket. “The hunt is over, now it is everyone’s time to eat.” He sliced the heart directly in half, the cold blade pushing through the warm organ like a kayak through cold water, then held one half firmly and cut a single bite from the center, most tender section. “Looks delicious,” he said, raising the piece for the boy to eat.
Makkatahlung stopped laughing and sealed his lips.
“Eat it!” Aarrarat yelled, and shoved the heart against the boy’s mouth, trying to squish it between his lips.
Makkatahlung moved to the side, sending Aarrarat crashing into the snowbank from his own force, then jumped up, planting his bare feet firmly in the snow, grabbed a point on the caribou antler, broke it from the rack, and stabbed Aarrarat through the back.
* * *
Moyatat heard Raven screech and realized he should hurry back. If the stench of the bowls had reached Raven’s nostrils as he soared overhead, the heart was beginning to grow mealy, and he wouldn’t want to spoil Makkatahlung’s appetite with poor texture. He quickly plodded back up the valley.
In the distance, he saw Raven had already descended and fed on the bowls, though the pile was much closer to his son than Moyatat remembered and Aarrarat must have climbed the snowbank to take care of something himself, because he no longer stood there. The slight disjointedness of this scene disquieted Moyatat. He redoubled his pace.
As he ran straight to his son, he passed the pile of bowels. Raven had not eaten them, and Aarrarat was not gone. Raven stood upon Aarrarat’s chest, pecking out his eyes, the point of a rack shooting through his comrade’s heart, a streak of red across the smooth, glimmering white.
Moyatat yanked his son up by the wrist and held him away from the scene, starring at the massacre all the while, afraid the rack had somehow come to life and sought revenge. But then he felt an unmistakable chip of antler in his son’s palm and looked down at the boy’s hand. From wrist to fingertips, it dripped with blood. Moyatat furiously wiped it clean with his shirt, anxious to stop the bleeding and patch his sons wound, but when he cleared the snow white palm, he saw that none of the blood was his son’s own, and the sliver of antler was lodged in his hand from thumb to wrist, as if he had jabbed – and not been jabbed – with the murder weapon.
Moyatat thrust his son away from him in horror and looked him in the face for the first time. Despite the chaos around him – Raven pecking the eyes out of their friend’s scull, bowels rotting, a caribou left untouched, and a heart squashed underfoot – Makkatahlung smiled wildly and giggled. The corners of his mouth had widened to his jaw bones.
Moyatat threw his child to the ground and struggled to ignore him while he chased Raven off Aarrarat’s corpse, pulled the antler from his chest, and then strapped his body to his pack as he had done with Makkatahlung. He forsook the caribou meat, abandoned Aarrarat’s pack and knife and snowshoes, and tried to run out of the valley without acknowledging the monster, praying for what he had struggled to avoid that morning – that Makkatahlung would fall into the snow and die.
But Mukkatahlung sped past his father, crested the hill between him and the great village, then turned around, the setting sun exploding into the horizon behind him, and buckled over, slapping his knees and hollering with laughter, as if the trap the old wise child had set at birth, was finally sprung.
Moyatat dropped his eyes and trudged up the hill, trying to make it to the great village before nightfall. He stared at his feet as he plodded across the tundra, watching his snowshoes sink even deeper into the base layer than they had on his hike out, trying to ignore Mukkatahlung as he skipped alongside him, never breaking the thin, top layer of ice, smiling and laughing at his father defiantly as if he relished the cold snow under his bare feet.
When they dropped into the valley of the great plain, Mukkatahlung took off running like a stampeding stag, weaving between the igloos and rolling up and down the walls of the valley.
Moyatat marched straight to the home of Betaaka. When he burst through the entranceway, she stood over a large basin of thick, boiling stock, stirring blubber into the mixture with an ivory spoon. Steam rose from the concoction and warmed and scented the entire home. In a back room, Layakar playfully sung a love ballad of Chulung. The air was rich with the best parts of the season.
Betaaka looked over her pot and saw only Moyatat’s face, but she could tell something was terribly wrong. His jaw and eyes shook violently and his neck twitched. She would have assumed he shivered from the cold if not for his frantic eyes, which made her fear that he also suffered from the other affliction of winter: madness.
“What happened?” Betaaka cried, his crazed state swamping her with emotions. Had he and Aarrarat argued about Makkatahlung? Had they gotten into a fight? Had Moyatat hurt her husband because he criticized that unwieldy child? “Where is Aarrarat?” she demanded, squeezing around the pot to search for him.
But Moyatat blocked her path by throwing Aarrarat’s corpse at her feet, face up. The empty eye sockets glared at her, the gaping wound in his chest oozed cold blood, and his skin was a deathly blue.
She screamed, then froze, looked up at the man inching toward her with winter fever pulsing through every vein in his body, and thought he reached out to kill her, so she moved to kill herself: she turned and grabbed the rim of the basin with both hands and thrust her face into the stock.
Moyatat lunged to stop her, to tell her what had happened, to tell her to live to protect Layakar, and most importantly to seek her help – to help stop his child before he reeked havoc on his own family and the whole village. But he was too slow. As soon as her shoulders hit the thick stew, she sucked her last breath.
Her body fell limp onto her husband’s, face up, her neck and face dark red and covered in oozing blisters, her eyeballs melted, and her hair singed into spindly prigs standing on her charred scalp like twisted needles.
Just when Moyatat thought he could not be any more horrified, Layakar walked into the room looking up at him and stumbled onto the pile of his parent’s corpses. His face landed on hers, popping one of her blisters and smearing blood and puss across his cheek. He screamed.
With all the fury that burned inside of him against Makkatahlung for killing his two best friends and orphaning their child, and ruining his life’s work, this village, his place in the history of the Raven Clan, and Tipoyak and his dream of reaching out to the disparate tribes of Alaskax – for stranding untold numbers of villagers across the barren tundra – he snatched Layakar off his parents’ bodies and flung him out of the entranceway. “Get out of here!” he shouted.
The boy rolled to his feet and looked back at his uncle like a bucked wolf pup.
Moyatat stumbled outside, screaming at him. “Get far away from here!” His face burned red. “You have no family, no home, no people. Tear your clothes, rip you shoes, blacken your face with mud, and go to a home where they do not know you! You are an orphan now!”
Layakar cowered, terrified to flee, terrified to stay.
Moyatat could see he was not prepared to do what he must – he must run, he must hide, he must forget to whom he was born – instead he clung to some hope that Moyatat could save him, but Moyatat’s own child had reeked this madness. To save Layakar the only way he knew anyone could be saved from this monster, he kicked him across the village.
Then Layakar did as he should, and scurried to his feet and sprinted into the mass of homes, searching for the least familiar.
“You are an orphan now!” Moyatat screamed at his back.
In his fit of rage, he almost missed the source of his fury and let Makkatahlung dash beside him and overtake Layakar. His terror redoubled as he saw his son’s jagged molars gnashing between the slits that stretched form his lips to jaws. If those teeth crushed Layakar’s scull, all would be lost – the last trace of his dear friends would be swept from the earth like a faint snow in late spring.
He jumped onto the small child and rolled him to the ground. When he pinned his sons wrist together behind his back to keep his snapping jaws at a safe distance, he hauled him to their home.
Night had fallen. There was no noise in the village save the crunching of the snow beneath their feet, and only the starlight sparkling on the whiteness lit their path. But when they left the crisp frigid air outside, Tipoyak was awake and stirring in their home. A day without breastfeeding had rejuvenated her.
Makkatahlung relaxed his tense muscles and breathed deeply when they crossed the threshold and he could smell her. His wrists slipped from his father’s hands like his ankles slipped from shoes and he ran to her.
Moyatat dashed after him, reaching out and screaming, but Tipoyak turned around and scooped him up; he leaned his head against her shoulder and closed his eyes like an innocent babe. “What’s wrong?” Tipoyak asked, cocking her head and shooting him an astonished glance. “You look like you have a fever. Did everything go alright?”
Moyatat froze, shook his head. He did feel hot; he felt mad. Had he imagined it all? His son looked so innocent in his wife’s arms. “No,” he said, shaking his head, trying to fight the calm in the room, trying to make her understand the madness reigned beyond their walls. “Everything is not okay. Makkatahlung killed Aarrarat!”
Tipoyak looked down at her sleeping child, his eyes and lips lightly shut, the slits that extended to his jawbones sealed, as if they were never there, and then she looked at her husband, covered in the blood of the hunt, hunched over from carrying their child and then fresh meat, with dilated pupils from staring at the glaring snow all day, and a fever of delirium from the hard work. “No,” she said, laying Makkatahlung on the bed, then taking her husband by the hand and pulling him down beside his son. “You are just tired. Lay here with your son and get some sleep.”
“No, you don’t understand,” he pleaded, shaking his head but feeling sleep consume him like a dark fog. “He’s not our child, he’s some sort of monster. Look at him. Look how he’s grown so large. How voracious he is. How he will not wear shoes, how he slips them off – the signs have been here all along!”
“Rest,” she whispered, laying him back into the bed and kneeling between him and her son, facing them both. She combed her fingers through his hair, as if he were the child, and said, “My village had a story of a changeling, too. The father suspected something was wrong when the girl grew too fast and wore no shoes, only this changeling spoke too well – seemed to have a knowledge beyond her years, beyond any of their years. One evening when her father cooked an egg inside a nut, she said, ‘I’m amazed! I’m as old as the hills, but I’ve never seen an egg cooked inside of a nut.’ At this exclamation, he rushed to his wife and demanded they kill the child. He said she was a changeling and would kill them all. But his wife refused and kicked him out of the house.
“He ran from the village, ran deep into the woods, and there, he stumbled upon his own human child, skipping merrily through a small grove. ‘What are you doing here?’ the father asked. ‘I was a captive of the animals while their child was a captive of yours,’ said the boy. ‘But they did not kill me because my mother refused to kill their child. And when she turned you away, they did the same to me, because they realized they had no control over her.’”
“Yes, yes,” mumbled Moyatat, “we must kill him. Tell him you will feed him then slit his throat when he draws near.” Moyatat pulled his ulu from his jacket and held it out to his wife, but dropped it on the ground in his stupor. “He will come to you if you tell him you will feed him, because he has not eaten.”
“He has not eaten?” Tipoyak said, surprised. “Why didn’t you tell me? I must feed him.” She pulled her thin, beaded shirt over her head, revealing her smooth, unblemished skin.
Moyatat caught only one last glimpse of the body he cherished before he fell asleep. He felt like he was only out for one brief moment – the flicker of a candle, a blink of the eye before he could resurge and convince his wife that this was no myth and they must kill him to save her and his village – but when he woke and groped for her, she was no longer in front of him. He turned and looked down in the bed beside him, and through his sticky, sleepy vision he saw her, dead, her breasts chewed off and Makkatahlung gnawing on the bone beneath, his mouth extending from ear to ear.
He shook his head and backed away, crying. “Monster!” he screamed, and stumbled outside.
The sun was rising now but warming nothing. His face cracked in the dry cold as he threw his head back and shouted, “Monster!” In the absence of all sound, as people quietly stirred in their homes, his call echoed across the plain, resonated between the igloos.
Those close to Moyatat sprung from their houses, panicked, others emerged slowly or peered out, but many remained in their homes.
Moyatat ran to those who stood attentively, grabbed them one by one and thrust them into the homes that sat silent. “Everyone must pack what they need and leave this plain! A terrible monster has killed my wife and son, and Aarrarat and his entire family. We must journey into the hills before it kills us all. After you have told everyone, gather your family and go yourself. The others will fall in line.”
Moyatat strapped on a borrowed pair of snowshoes and led the exodus. He marched through the village shouting but stopped to wait for no one; he hiked straight into the foothills of Sleeping Lady. His people followed as he predicted. They scrambled out of their homes and flooded behind him like a steady stream. The heard rolled over the hills in a tight pack – a million legged mammal snaking across the tundra.
Speculation whipped among the people like a thick froth. Questions about who had died and what had killed them were the waves that splashed against Moyatat’s back with every step. But he spoke to no one. He pushed himself ever harder, never letting even the most able men pull alongside of him. His closest friends repeated that Aarrarat was dead and both elders’ families had been murdered. The beast had not been spotted, but this was the greatest reason to fear it, because it snuck from one end of the village to the other to kill the people’s leaders; it moved among them without them knowing.
But this was not exactly true, Moyatat thought, the waves shoving him farther and faster with every step. The beast had not physically killed Aarrarat’s family. In a way, he had. He had not tempered his response, he had not prepared for Betaaka’s reaction, he had not safeguarded their families first – he had been too terrified. He felt like the valley he had found and nurtured had opened its cavernous jaws and swallowed him. Nothing had changed. Makkatahlung was indeed a child of the plain – nature’s son, the symbol of their people – but something had gone terribly wrong, and man had begun to feed upon himself, like monsters from the deep: a feasting sea serpent who spins too quickly and swallows his own tale. He, Moyatat, was being devoured. He would be shat from history as the leader who failed the Raven Clan, who failed Raven, who could not invent a trick to conquer one unnatural predator, who abandoned everything he created and did not even learn a simple lesson, did not know what had happened, could not teach his people what mistake to avoid repeating – he had added nothing to his people’s strength and lost something precious – he had lost the elder’s ulu!
“Stop,” he screamed and spun back to his people, holding them at bay with two raised palms. “I have left behind a sacred tool. Someone must go back to fetch it or we are all doomed.”
Sweat poured from Moyatat’s brow. His moose hide shirt was drenched from the inside. And he shook. He shot his eyes between every member of his tribe as if he searched for something hiding behind them.
“When I die there will be no elder for all these people. If that happens, lessons, stories, tools, a language, will be lost – that cannot happen. One of you, young enough to be my son, with no parents of his own, must step forward to take the place of my lost son. And you must be tested. Since no one now has the lineage to prove they will uphold our family’s work, they must prove themselves with bravery. To show they can carry the Raven Clan’s values to the next village, they must carry it from the last. They must return and fetch my ulu without being killed by the monster.”
No one said a word. Everyone thought the elder was mad with grief. But before they could condemn him, one boy stepped into Moyatat’s view from behind an unfamiliar man. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I’m an orphan. I have no other reason to live.”
“Yes, yes, you’re perfect,” Moyatat said, slinking through the snow back toward the boy. “How long have you been in our village.” He grabbed Layaker by the head and smeared the dirt across his cheeks with two forceful thumbs.
“Just one day.”
“And still you will risk your life for these people?!” he shouted for all to hear.
“Then go! To the home that stands alone on the far side of the plain, and retrieve the ulu that lies beside the murdered woman.”
Before any adult could stop them, Layakar turned and ran.
Moyatat shouted after him. “Hold your breath and hide if you hear him. He will seek more human flesh.”
His words echoed across the tundra as his people fell silent.
* * *
When Layakar descended the last foothill of Sleeping Lady, he saw Makkatahlung running across the village like a wild animal, shooting up the walls of the valley, turning around, and sprinting across the plain in a new direction. Layakar crouched on the edge of the bowl and waited until Makkatahlung ran straight toward him, climbed the rim, kicking snow over his head, then turned around, just inches away, and ran with his back to him.
Layakar jumped into the valley and sprinted down the bowl behind him, making sure his footsteps hit the ground at the same moment as the other boys, so the monster could not hear him. He passed only two igloo before the beast pulled ahead so far that Layakar was in danger of being caught in his peripheral vision. He dashed behind the nearest home and hid again, this time shifting around the igloo as Makkatahlung ran circles around him. He waited until the monster skimmed by him in the direction of Moyatat’s home, then he fell in-line and inched his way closer to his goal. This worked until he was nearly half way there, then, to his horror, the footsteps stopped.
Layakar heard Makkatahlung sniff loudly and gnash his teeth in the air, then scream murderously, like a starved child. Suddenly, a flurry of motion exploded on the other side of the igloo that was too fast to track – footsteps hit the ground faster than a drum roll and a cloud of snow was kicked into the air. Layakar dropped to the ground and cowered, unsure which way Makkatahlung traveled in his frenzy. The footsteps stopped again, but the air was so thick with snow Layakar could see nothing. He pulled himself into an ever-tightening ball, terrified the ogre baby may stand before him when the dust settled, but when the last of the flakes stuck to his jacket, he was surrounded only by silence.
Feeling alone, he rose to his feet and stared over the edge of the low igloo. Makkatahlung was nowhere to be seen. He worried that the monster had smelled him and now hid himself, waiting for Layakar to pass so that he could spring out behind.
Layakar knew he stood no chance of outrunning the beast, but there was nothing else to do. He stepped into the clearing knowing he could be killed. Anxiety flooded his body – his heart raced and his skin burned despite the fierce cold – so he repeated to himself that there was nothing to live for. His parents were dead and his only other elder kicked him away. Moyatat would only accept him back if he retrieved the knife; if he could not, he may as well die.
As he crossed the village a calm coursed through his veins from head to heart to hands to feet like an icy stream. When he stood before the entrance of Moyatat’s igloo, he heard the ogre baby inside, crunching on the bone of some helpless victim. He pressed against the shadowy side of the passageway and slid inside.
The ulu was on the floor just a few steps in front of him, at the base of Moyatat’s small wooden bed. On the other side, Makkatahlung ate. His small head bobbed in and out of view and he chomped down on whatever crunched between his jaws. Layakar crept along the ground, grabbed the ulu and pulled it back to himself to keep his distance from the bed. But as the blade scrapped against the ground, the finely sharpened stone hummed.
Makkatahlung snapped his head up in mid-bite and caught Layakar’s startled expression. The ogre baby looked as he always had, save his mouth, which clinched the corpse of his mother by the breastbone and now stretched form one ear to the other. He opened this orifice even wider, dropping his mother’s body, and leapt across the bed, gnashing like a feeding fish.
Layakar whipped the vibrating ulu off the floor and jabbed it into the air as the boy descended. Makkatahlung hit the blade between bites, and the sparked, shaking stone rolled across his nose bone, slicing both his eyes.
The beast threw his head back and howled, giving Layakar a moment to scramble to his feet and run. He dashed out of the entranceway and turned hard toward the nearest wall of the valley. As he flipped over the rim he looked back and saw Makkatahlung sprinting straight for him.
On the other side of the rim, he looked for somewhere to hide, then realized his error. He had seen the blade slit both eyeballs – there was no way the monster could still see – he had only heard his feet crunching in the snow. Instead of dashing for a distant rock, Layakar held perfectly still.
Makkatahlung hopped over the rim seconds after him. Layakar was right. The ogre baby twisted his head around, searching, but did not see him even though he stood in plain view. But then, to Layakar’s horror, Makkatahlung stuck his nose into the air, blood pouring from his eyes, and began to sniff. His nostrils began to widen like his mouth, and he slowly stepped in Layakar’s direction.
Layakar knew his stench had thickly soiled his clothes, so he tore off his jacket and dropped it on the ground, then hopped onto a small stone, trying to dampen the sound of his footsteps.
The monster seemed not to be able to hear him, but he sniffed on. When he reached the jacket, he quickly tore it into strips and swallowed it, then pressed forward.
Layakar kicked off his shoes, socks, pants, and every last article of warmth that protected his frail human skin from the Alaskan elements, but Makkatahlung devoured them all and still sniffed something about the man.
Layakar was nearly freezing now – shaking with cold and terror. He no longer wanted to die. He held the ulu. Moyatat would accept him as his own – better than his own, since Moyatat’s blood had curdled in this monstrous beast – but he did not know how he would get back to his new father alive.
Poised atop a high rock, on the precipice of a hill, he made one last attempt to cover his human smell: he shot into the air and dove head-first into the snow. Cutting through the powder with the sharp ulu blade clasped between his pointed hands, he made little noise and sunk deep into the base layer. Once there, he did not stir. Wedged several body-lengths beneath the surface, he held still and listened closely. For a moment, there was nothing, then he heard it: the rapid, persistent sniffing of those monstrous nostrils. The beast still pursues him.
Layakar wiggled, trying to swim downward with the lateral thrusts of a fish. He knew it was no use – if the ogre baby started down his hole, he could not escape – but as he neared the ground he heard another noise: the trampling of a caribou herd vibrating through the hills. There was hope: if he could keep the ogre far away and suppress his scent enough, the monster’s nostrils would probably draw him to the sweatier, stinkier animals.
Layakar turned horizontal now and wriggled with his belly against the ground. He thought he heard the baby sniffing down his hole, but then the herd crested the hill above him and all he could here was stampeding hooves.
Makkatahlung howled more horribly than Layakar had ever heard. The piercing cry sounded like that of a starved child, the blubbering of a harpooned seal, and the last cry of a stricken, old man. The baby took off in the direction of the animals – his footsteps tearing toward them overhead – just as Layakar had hoped. He swam back toward the surface now, listening closely for the cry of the beasts as the monster slaughtered them. But he heard no such thing. Instead, the cry of the ogre baby calmed and coalesced with the grunting of the herd.
Layakar hurried to the top to see what was happening. When he resurfaced, he shot a glance across the hills and saw the animals rolling over the summit, a human child running in their midst.
Layakar wasted no time – he ran back to the village, threw on clothes and chased after his own herd.
* * *
Moyatat sat on the same hillside from which he had sent the orphan, contemplating what he would do if the boy did not return. His people filled the valley below him, and the whispers that reached his ears were much more sinister now. The best ones claimed that he was mad – that it was vile to send an orphan to face a monster from which all of them had fled. The worst accused him of murdering his wife and child himself, and leading them from the village to cover his tracks and gain sole leadership from Aarrarat and Betaaka.
He needed Layakar not only to return, but to return with the proper ending to this tale – something he could use to cast it in a grand light – or his people would never trust him again. If he did not, his story would be like that of Imitchaq without the new ritual, Arrarat without the woman at the heart of the beast, the tale of rape without sweeping punishment, or an inlet that could not be crossed even by the greatest lover. If the ulu were lost, the power of the elders could vanish forever.
As Moyatat imagined this, Layakar stumbled up the hill below him. The elder sprung from his perch and shot through the valley before any other member of his village could reach the boy. Layakar held out the ulu, smiling hopefully, and Moyatat grabbed and tucked it into his coat without looking long enough to note if it were the same one. Layakar would have been crushed, but Moyatat took him in his arms and turned him away from the crowd, holding them at bay with a raised hand, and walking back to his lookout.
“What happened?” he asked with wonder.
Layakar told him about his cunning game of hide and seek, his encounter with the monster, the fact that his nostrils had grown when his eyes were lost, and how he had been forced to discard his clothes and dive deep into the snow to hide his scent, and finally about the disappearance of the ogre baby.
Moyatat could hardly believe it – it was too perfect. He spun to face the crowd, Layakar clutched to his side and the blade raised high above his head.
“My son has retrieved the blade of his ancestors!” he cried. “This boy is not only my son now, because he sacrificed his life for our people, but he has always been my son!”
The crowd gasped and Layakar looked up at him from under his brow.
Moyatat proceeded undeterred. “He lived as an orphan on the outskirts of our village, but he was born to me and Tipoyak. Shortly after his birth, he was stolen by the caribou people and replaced with the changeling Makkatahlung. Makkatahlung was the beast that killed my wife and the family of Aarrarat!”
The bewilderment of Moyatat’s people simmered to a boil, but it was not steamed by suspicion, but curiosity. They began to connect the dots of Moyatat’s creative tale. “The caribou people wanted to chase us from the valley,” he said. “For we grew too large in their breeding grounds, and took too many of their young calves in our own lust. In a way, Makkatahlung was the saviour of disparate tribes that we proclaimed him to be, because they were suffering as we ravaged the mating grounds. This orphan could only escape the caribou’s monster by casting off all the clothes of that village and trying to hide his human scent. Likewise, we must never look back to the great village of the plain, but live in small, disparate villages, as close to nature as our earliest people.”
Layakar now saw his elder’s logic, too, and tugged at his father’s elbow.
Moyatat glanced down at him and smiled, then turned back to the crowd and concluded. “And this young orphan boy will one day be the elder of all those villages, and he will be named after the lost, human child of our fallen elder Aarrarat. He will be called Layakar.”
The crowd cheered, thankful for the living memory of their lost loved ones, hopeful to recall the bountiful family as they returned to the life of scarcity, sure they would hear the cry of the ogre baby every time the caribou returned to their mating ground, to remind them never to return.