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May 13, 2024

The Last Winter

By Gary Durbin

Several springs ago, Sten and Han had returned to the Itak village from a hunt with word of the strangers. The strangers were tall with foreheads that crawled down their faces straight into their eyes. They barely had any eyebrows. Sten and Han told the village how they had crossed the fifth ridge into the valley with the snakey river when they saw them. Sten told them about the skins that the strangers wore -- heavy skins of the mammoth.

The two hunters from the Itak Village had been following a deer into the valley across from a high wall of white stone. Hradef knew the valley. It was below a sharp pointed mountain that kept a snowfield on its north side all year.

The strangers hunted in a band of ten. When Sten said this, the villagers looked to Hradef, but his foresight was dark. He couldn't see anything into the future, but felt a dark fear. The Itak hadn't sent out so large a band for many years -- not since the dry time. "They must have many to feed if they sent so large a band," a villager said. Feeling the eyes on him, Hradef asked Sten, "What kinds of bows do they carry?"

The Itak were excellent bow makers and traded them to other villages. Hradef was the elder who decided which birch trees to cut for bows. The Banta family pounded fibers and twisted the bowstrings. Whenever a villager found a large feather, they brought it back to Kinsk, the arrow maker. Eagle Feathers made the best arrows.

"They had long bows painted red and blue," Sten said. "But some of them didn't have bows, they had long spears."

"Why would they have spears for hunting deer?" One of the elders asked.

"I don't know," Sten said. "We watched them from some bushes. They headed down the valley after the deer we were hunting."

After dinner, the elders discussed sending an emissary to the strangers. The Itak traded with the Yendo to the west and the Kelto to the south. The Yendo made good earth pots, and the Kelto hunted the birds with bright colors. The young men were eager to go on the trading trips. Sometimes they returned with more than goods. Three of the Itak women were Yendo, and one was Kelto. That night they danced for knowledge.

The elders took several days to reach an agreement. They were concerned with balance, the balance between the village, the land, and the forest. At last they agreed that meeting the strangers was not a job for the young men, but when Hradef looked around the fire at the other elders, no one met his eyes. Even Shena, who had been old Netcha's mate and born his two sons, found the fire fascinating. Shena had led the trading trips for several years. Next to Hradef, she was the most senior of the village leaders.

For three days, the village danced for balance while the elders argued. On the fourth day, as the fire burnt into coals, Hradef stood up.

"We are chewing this dry," he said. "We need to visit the strangers in order to find out who these people are. The elders must do this.

"I will go. I would like Shena and Oren to go with me." Shena was an obvious choice because she was the best trader. Oren was the youngest of the elders and the best archer. He was taller than most of the Itak -- his mother had been Kelto. The villagers danced the dance of hopefulness.

They called themselves Ara. Two guides had met the Itak as they approached the village and brought them to a clearing in the center of the village. The guides knelt on their knees when they approached a man sitting on a wooden bench in front of a large hut. The hut, made of skins and poles, was the largest Hradef had ever seen. The man wore a robe of a strange white fur and a headdress of fur and feathers. One of the guides motioned for Hradef, Shena, and Oren to kneel. Hradef felt strange on his knees in front of the man with the white fur robe. They stayed on their knees until the man motioned for them to come forward.

They did not speak the same language as the Itak. It wasn't like talking to the Yendo or Kelto -- the same language with new words -- the language didn't have any words they knew. By a combination of hand signs and some new words, they found out that the strangers had arrived from the east and the man on the bench was called Kirg.

Shena placed two bows, some arrows, a carved stone statue of two lovers, and some deer skins on the ground in front of Kirg, offering them to trade. Kirg looked at them, nodded to Shena, and had one of the women take the items into the hut. They waited for the Ara to bring goods to trade, but they didn't. Shena danced for understanding. Kirg watched, but made no move to trade.

The Itak stayed through the evening meal. On each side of Kirg, two women knelt. They each wore a strip of the white fur across their chest from shoulder to waist. One of them wore a headband of white fur. Women from the village took turns at the spit where a deer roasted. One by one, the women with the white fur went to the fire and cut slices of meat that they placed on bark trays and brought to Kirg. As they approached Kirg, each woman dropped to her knees and then scuttled forward on her knees holding the tray in front of her. When Kirg took the offered tray, the woman bent so that her head touched the ground.

After the first woman had backed away from Kirg, Hradef looked to where Shena knelt beside him. Her eyes held a great sadness as if to say, "What could make them act like this?"

The Itak returned to the village under a full moon without any trade goods and with more questions. What made these people act so strange? Why was Kirg treated so differently? Why would these women act so submissive?

While the Itak worried the questions, a darkness came to Hradef. The future was cold and dark. He had never seen the future so cold.

A week after the trip to the Ara, Sten and Han returned from a hunt to report that they had killed an eight-point stag. While they were cutting a sapling to carry the stag, a group of Ara had appeared. The Ara pointed their spears at Sten and Han and took the stag. For the first time, the village couldn't decide on a dance.

The Ara continued to push their hunting closer and closer to the Itak. Their large hunting parties with spears and arrows overpowered the Itak. As the Ara pressed them from the east, the Itak hunted further west. While the men traveled widely in search of game, the women seldom traveled further than the adjacent valley where they picked berries and dug roots. By summer, the only woman who had seen the Ara was Shena, and Shena had no wish to return to the Ara village.

Lea, daughter of Oren's son, came into the village just as the sun turned red. The sky made the red welt on her cheek and the blood on her nose and hands dark. She had been picking berries by the pool below the waterfall, when a group of Ara men had appeared on the ridge above her. She had waved to them and returned to picking berries. When they came out of the forest where she was, she offered them some of the berries. The men grabbed her and forced her to have sex with several of them. When she struggled, they laughed at her.

The village listened to Lea's story in shock. The Itak men were as shocked by her story as the women. It was common for Itak couples to drift off into the woods together, and all the men and women had several partners by the time they settled into a more or less exclusive relationship.

Listening to her story, rage boiled up inside Hradef. He felt a responsibility for her that was as strong as he did for his family. The women started the dance of mourning. Hradef joined Lea's father, Jond, in the sweat lodge. Even though Jond screamed his anger in the lodge and then danced forgiveness, Hradef could see anger still swimming behind Jond's eyes.

It took the villagers only a week to decide that they had to move. Summer was upon them. There would barely be enough time to build huts and lay in stores for the winter if they left immediately.

Hradef looked back from the west ridge of the valley he had known as home for many years. He turned his back on the peaceful glade and the sleepy river with tears in his eyes. Even though they danced the homecoming dance in the new village, the place had a loneliness.

The Itak moved again and again, first further west and then north along the coast. They learned to fish and gather clams instead of hunting the forest. The winters were more severe; the land was unfamiliar. When Sira brought the first body, Tonora's son, into the village, Hradef saw into the future as if from the top of a mountain. He could dimly make out the animals moving in a far forest; he saw the Itak dwindling as the Ara pushed them further to the north.

Even as the death toll mounted, and Ara raiders became bolder and bolder, the Itak could not kill the Ara. Hradef felt in his soul that killing the Ara would kill something in the Itak, something so old and precious that their soul would die. Hradef's bloodline would end with the Itak. He lived with a passion for life, a love of the land, and an intense sense of community.

When the time came to move again, Hradef was the last to leave the rough village. He climbed out of the valley and stopped on the north ridge holding the hands of his two granddaughters. He looked down on the thin forest and the tiny stream that had been their home for six months. Lira was the youngest of the two girls. Her sister, Lou, was two years older. Lira had danced the dance of womanhood two months ago. Lou was spending more of her evenings with Shena's grandson.

They turned east away from the villagers and stayed the night in the forest. For dinner, they ate dried meat and nuts from his pack. They hugged each other for warmth and comfort as they slept together under his deerskin. The girls had chattered with each other on the first day while he led them through the woods, but on the second day, they walked in silence behind him. At noon on the third day, Hradef saw the smoke from the Ara village. As they emerged from the woods on a craggy outlook above the village, Hradef was shocked at the changes. Stumps marked where many trees had grown. A massive log building squatted in the center of the village. The village was much larger. Small log buildings were scattered around the main building. Smoke filled the valley.

The girls held back, but Hradef took their hands and led them down the hill. The villagers paused to watch the three Itak walking in their midst, but no one stopped them. Kirg's bench had grown larger and now had a canopy. Three women knelt on each side of the bench. Two of the women had white headbands. Kirg looked surprised when Hradef stepped into the clearing in front of the log building where Kirg's bench sat. Hradef dropped to his knees and told the girls to do the same.

Kirg raised his eyebrows and stared at Hradef for some time before motioning for him to come forward. Hradef took the girl's hands in his and scuttled forward until he was about six feet from the bench. Some of the women tittered to each other but were quickly silenced by a glance from Kirg. Kirg studied Hradef and the girls, and then said something that Hradef took to be a question.

Hradef stood up, placed Lou's hand on top of Lira's and approached Kirg. At first, Kirg drew back; his eyes glanced at a spear resting against the arm of the bench; then he sat forward, alert. Hradef stretched out his hands and placed the girl's hands on Kirg's knee, then he stood up and spread his hands. Kirg's eyes moved from Hradef's to roam over the two girls.

Hradef backed away. Lira turned her head and looked at him. Her eyes said that she understood what was taking place, and their sadness tore a hole in his chest, but she let her hand remain on Kirg's knee. Kirg raised his eyes from the girls and looked at Hradef. Kirg nodded.

Hradef turned and walked quickly from the clearing and through the village. He headed west toward where the Itak village had been. The first frost of autumn had turned the leaves golden, and the afternoon light that filtered through the trees reminded Hradef that it was time to gather nuts and store dried meat for the winter. From the ridge above where the Itak village had been, he could see the valley, misty with smoke, and the Ara log huts. He followed the ridge north to the snowy mountain and the granite staircase he had played on as a child. Like a phantom in a dream, with the world at the edges of his vision, he sought out the small cave where he once spent the night as a child.

The cold seeped under his skins, making him sleepy. As he detached from the aches of his body, his spirit sought the granite prominence far above him. From there, he looked into the future one last time. Lira and Lou would bear several children. All would carry the seeds of the Itak. Slowly that seed would spread through the Ara. Slowly a different way of thinking would emerge. Groups of people would find that they shared a common view, one where community was stronger than power. Hradef saw the conflict between these worldviews ebb and flow through the ages. Before he could see where the balance would tip, the peace he sought came to him.

Article © Gary Durbin. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-11-14
Image(s) are public domain.
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