A Life for a Life

The people of the north were known for their white hair and pale, grey eyes.

Every little girl and boy born to the tribe was affectionately referred to as ‘little snow-walker’—a term of endearment often used to describe the way they would scramble through the perfect white expanse, tripping and falling with every step, their little legs still too small to plough through the flurry. They were, after all, white as snow, and from the time they could crawl, they were inexplicably drawn to it.

In the early weeks of February, Ama came into the world with a fierce cry—the first signs of her commanding presence piercing straight through her mother’s womb. And while Ama came into the world bursting with fire and vigor, the one who’d given her life was not so fortunate. One life had been given in exchange for another, the celebration of the child’s birth bittersweet for all those who had gathered.

But the child grew ill without her mother’s milk. Few of the other nursing women had nourishment to spare, leaving little Ama to wither away as her father crumbled with his dwindling hope. Not only had he lost a wife, but he would soon lose a daughter as well. Perhaps if the babe had been a son, the tribeswomen would have been more compassionate. The men of the tribe were few in numbers; the birth of a little boy was a gift from the spirits that would not have been so easily dismissed.

“Take her to the deathless tree by the rock of the wolf at sunset, and pray to the spirits,” ordered the tribe’s elder when consulted over the child’s condition. “Return at sunrise. If the spirits are merciful, they will give your daughter strength that needs no ordinary woman’s milk, and she will live. If they do not find her worthy, they will take her to the other side where she may find peace.”

Ama’s father doubted the elder’s wisdom. No matter how the old wise man painted his words, every tribesman knew deep in his heart that to leave a child alone by the deathless tree meant a certain end. And yet he had nothing but those painted words to cling to; if he did nothing, the babe would die. Perhaps, then, foolishness was still better than nothing.

At sunset, Ama was taken to the deathless tree—a towering creature with bark white as the snow that embraced it. Its eternal companion—a large boulder in the vague shape of a four-legged animal with a nook tucked at its base—was used as a den for she-wolves giving birth to their pups. The ground there was softer and warmer than the rest of the land, easy to dig through so that it could provide warmth to the young. Ama’s father made sure to wrap his little daughter in elk skin and fox fur blessed by the elder, then he dug a small pit between the tree and the rock and placed the white-haired babe inside. She did not cry or fuss as he turned to leave, saying his goodbyes in silence.

As the last specs of sunlight gleamed over the horizon and darkness blanketed the sky, the moon rose to greet the creatures of night that dwelled in every corner of the tundra. Scavengers crawled out for their burrows in search of food—crows and ravens stalking the black sea as wolves howled warnings to one another from a distance. The night danced on, and still baby Ama did not fuss, her tiny limbs stiff from the cold even beneath her garbs.

But the night was long—far longer than the day—and soon, predators lurked among the shadows after having caught the scent of her young, plump flesh. The infant had little awareness of the coyote that stalked up to her tiny nest—cautious but curious nevertheless. He was hungry, salivating from his slackened jaws as he drew closer to the tiny bundle. But before he could snatch the child between his fangs, a shrill cry from the branches of the deathless tree pierced the air. A large, black raven—his plumage dark as the night and visible only by their iridescent, blue sheen—dove from his watchtower towards the greedy predator. With his beak sharp as blades of bone, he struck at the animal’s head, plucking at the fur and flapping his wings.

Yelping in a fright, the timid coyote jumped away from the den, scampering away from the raven’s attack. Puffing his chest out with pride, the black-feathered scavenger let out a triumphant caw before hopping back to the den where the little girl lay. She was whining now, squirming from the cold even in her furs. The raven fluttered down into the hole, plopping himself onto the baby’s chest as though she were an oversized egg. But his body was barely large enough to cover all of her—her tiny limbs wriggling out from underneath his thick plumage. Releasing a low croak that resembled the sigh of an exasperated caretaker, the raven shuffled off the child and began pecking at the ground in search of food. Perhaps she was only hungry? He plucked out an earthworm, dropping it on the child’s face in hopes that it would find her mouth. Only instead of eating, little Ama began to shriek and howl, turning her head away from the offending critter.

Seeing that she was not hungry, the raven treated himself to the stray worm, then took off towards the deathless tree, perching himself on its highest branch. He looked out toward the forest, an underworld of its own just barely licked by the dim white glow of the moon. Then he opened his beak wide and cried out to the woods, rattling the quiet away and awakening the hunters within.

He was calling for help. And the raven knew from pacts made in ancient blood that if he called to them, they would come.


Art by Valentina Remenar

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