My brothers and I crouched in a grotto sculpted by centuries of rainwater, by embers bursting from the rapid chafing of cracked spruce. Every shade of red and orange danced along the cavern walls, reflecting in our eyes and turning our wintry breaths into steam. Another moment, and we would’ve died.
Elder had made it to the hollow with two logs, though one was rotting and the other had patches of holes. He rolled the rotting one to the center of our room and propped the timber on its side. Milan brought a pile of pine straw, bark, and snapped twigs. The pine straw, tucked between the gaps of the lumber. The bark to cover the pine straw, and the twigs to make mischievous light. Elder had asked me to find leaves, an impractical task. I was too small to reach them, and the last time I climbed I fell, and my arm felt bizarre for a few days. There were two leaves by the base of a great oak tree. I had a feeling Milan had found them for me and placed them as bait, but at the time it didn’t matter. I had completed my task.
I tried explaining that the great oak was too high to bother crawling the trunk, and my arms couldn’t even wrap around it, for that matter. Elder thanked me for the leaves and placed them by the pine straw. I think he was too cold to say anything else. His lips were an awful mix of crimson and blue, parted just enough to breathe. If they touched, they wouldn’t open again.
Elder told me to start the fire. I was never good at starting the fire, but that wasn’t the time to say no. Milan offered the branches, and they both watched with skeptical stares. Gelid air flushed through a gap somewhere deeper in the cave.
“Be quiet,” I said, and began my chore.
Flecks of wood skin fluttered from the rapid saws, twigs scrubbed back and forth, and my brothers and I watched in awe. I felt frost biting my hand.
“No,” I yelled, “not now.”
Milan smiled at my frantic bickering.
“Yogi’s fighting with the cold again,” he said. “How cute.”
Elder silenced us with a hush. I continued my work with my lips pressed together and pulled into my face. The wet of my tongue ran over broken skin, stealing away the blue before it could latch on. Vapor curled from the wood. I was doing well. My hands were shocked into place, but I held fast and went quicker with the dance. I saw Elder lean into the heat out of the corner of my eye. The twigs splintered from pressure, but my labor never stopped. It was only when they snapped for sure that I finally relaxed, and the blood seeping from my fingertips stippled the snow.
Elder should have raised his voice; if I were him, I would’ve raised my voice. The sting of cold was returning. Milan plucked the spares from underneath his thigh. I waited eagerly for the shake of his head to tell me I did badly. Elder worked the fire, and Milan watched the sparks. And when those two leaves caught the tinders, my brothers pulled me between them and pushed firmly against my sides. Bearskin and feathers kept us warm, and the flames kept us alive. They had made a tradition of spreading the heat by hugging my back, but that night Elder folded his hands in his lap. It was difficult to rest without the weight of his arm. I saw the moon rise and plunge without falling asleep.
Breakfast, Elder said. We left the fire running and quit the cave just as the sun peeked over the tree line. We were always awake before the sun. We had split the path a month earlier so that all three of us could hunt at once. It was up to Elder before then, since Milan would stay back to watch me. He said that it was to protect me, but I knew and he knew that I could protect myself. It was only a month later and I could go off on my own. Nothing of importance had occurred between then and before. I hadn’t even grown a single strand of hair.
We threw makeshift dice to make the decision. Milan would challenge the mountains on the left side; Elder would take the right by the glass lake; I would head down the middle, among the pines.
“Every hunter needs a weapon,” Elder had taught me. We sharpened limbs into lances, and I hummed a song he used to sing. “This is your protection. This is your best friend.”
It wasn’t my first time hunting alone, but still I felt pain prickling my stomach, and the spear sat heavy in my hands. I was too afraid to say that I hated going without them. I always heard sounds in the forest, like the trees were twisting in on themselves and moaning as they bent. When I asked Elder, he explained that it was nature trying to change herself.
“We think nature is perfect just the way she is,” he said. “When you hear nature moving, you tell her no. Tell her she’s beautiful. She’ll listen.”
He said it as if it were a guarantee. I knew that it was only a matter of chance. Nature could kill me if she wanted.
Elder crept out at once, gripping his pointed stick as if it were a roman javelin, each of his steps purposeful and menacing. Milan swore that our older brother wanted to scare the wildlife into submission. He would stick around to determine if my protection was sharper than his, and whether we should swap.
“Mine’s better,” he said, goading the needle with his finger.
He tickled my nose and I swatted at his hand. Then he left, and I was alone. We lived in eternal winter. The snow formed in dunes and fell as an ivory blanket of death. If you weren’t buried alive, you were frozen in place. Our footsteps were cursed by the crackle of squeezed ice. There was no way to move without making a sound. Beyond the trees and deep inside my forest, I could already hear her twisting.
“Be quiet,” I whispered.
I prowled into the polar desert at a low crouch, like Elder. He would always return with the fattest game, Milan with enough to feed himself, and I with something small, like a bird. They were the hardest to pursue, and that had to count for something. The stick was too heavy for me to carry in one hand, so I held it across my body. I pretended it was a tightrope balance, and that each step I took meant I could die if I was wrong. Before the cavern, we had stayed wherever the wind wouldn’t quench the fire. I never changed directions; I was too afraid to lose home. I went two hundred paces out and two hundred paces back.
I found a junco on my one-hundredth pace. Elder taught me to be careful not to throw my weight.
“One wrong step and you’ll shift the snow. That’s all it takes to lose your mark. So when you see something you want, don’t move.”
I watched the fowl skip along matted rainfall, jousting his rounded head and mining for chips of wood. He tossed the earth with his beak, dancing along the ground with only one thought on his mind, unaware of my shadow. He reminded me of myself. I thrust the spear through its heart and pinned it to the snow. The junco’s blood was black, like licorice. I hiked until my two-hundredth pace, and didn’t see another junco until I reached two hundred and fifty. He flickered off with a fit of yelps before I could bring him home.
Milan was kindling the fire when I reached our cavern. An arctic hare lay stiffly by his side, its coat bloated around the wound and shaggy ankles pinned in a bowtie.
“You likey?” he asked.
“He’s a big boy,” I said.
“Tried to run. I cut him clean through the throat.”
“Nice. Mine didn’t run.”
“Ahh. A junco. They never run.”
“Yeah. Elder will be mad.”
The thought of facing Elder’s punishment was enough to make me shiver, even without the cold. Despite his stern customs, he had always been creative when dealing with me. I had lost tastebuds from freezing my tongue to the cave wall, and holding clumps of coals had numbed my fingertips to pain. Milan saw my eyes wander, and I could tell that he knew what I was thinking. His hand cradled my cheek.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “He might be. But he’ll bring back enough for you both. Good ol’ Elder.”
We played sticks with our fingers and slipped them through the flames. Elder was its creator, but fire had always belonged to Milan. On days when the two of us were home alone, Milan would snuff the embers and I would count until he had revived them. There were always a few moments of dread before it was bright again, and I would be watching beside him. They had a friendship that I could only have in dreams.
Elder returned later, empty-handed. I wanted to ask what had happened, but his eyes were squinted, and I knew that he would scream if I said anything. He sat cross-legged by the pile and held his palms close to the heat. Milan and I observed him with caution. It wasn’t the time for sticks, or stoking fire. We sat in silence.
“There was a monster,” Elder said.
Our voices caught in our throats, and Milan flinched at the words. Elder wasn’t one to make jokes, let alone lie. When he finally lifted his head, he looked at me, as if I should be the first to respond.
“What did it look like?” That was a reasonable question.
“I didn’t get a close look. I heard it and saw a huge white shape going through the trees. I hit it with my spear but I don’t think it stuck. I hit it, though. But I couldn’t kill it.”
Silence again. A monster outside, and Elder couldn’t kill it. He stared at me as if Milan didn’t exist. His eyes remained squinted, but they were more expectant than upset. I didn’t have an answer for him. I turned to Milan for help, but he had already regressed to playing with the pyre. Elder and I locked attention. I don’t know what came over me, or why I spoke at all.
“I’ll find it,” I blurted. “I’ll find it and I’ll kill it.”
At last, Elder diverted his gaze.
“Too dangerous,” he said shortly. “You can’t go alone.”
“I’ll go with him,” Milan said, beguiled by the hearth. His fingers passed between citrus and gold, like he had tamed the colors for himself.
“And you’ll both be back tonight?” Elder said.
He had to snap to grab his attention.
“We’ll be back,” Milan assured him.
Elder stared through me. He peeked into my essence, searching for a sign of vigor or something else I couldn’t define. Then he grunted, releasing the tension that was lifting his shoulders. It was his turn to flirt with the flames.
Milan prodded my shoulder, and when I looked he was already on his feet, weapon strapped to his back. His hand pulled me up beside him. I resumed my tightrope technique, and for once, Elder sat alone in the cave. When I looked back from the entrance, he seemed to shiver even as he hunched near the fire. His beastly shape loomed along the walls. We took the right path towards the lake. Elder’s tread lingered from his morning voyage. We followed the tunnels he had embedded into winter, stepping into each hollow so as not to confuse them with our own.
I could hear nature twisting ahead of us, but she was easier to ignore because Milan was there. He walked ahead of me and I realized how tall he was from behind. As tall as Elder, maybe taller. I was thankful he was there.
“Thanks,” I said. I hoped he knew what I was referring to, so I wouldn’t have to explain what I meant.
“No problem,” Milan said. “I couldn’t let you die alone. Now you can die with me.”
Those words were intended to comfort me. We trekked further into the woods until the gaps between the pines stretched wider, and we met the glass lake. Milan hoisted on his tiptoes to spy across the wasteland.
“Yep,” he said. “More footsteps over there.”
He dawdled for a moment.
“What did Elder tell you about walking on ice?”
I paused to think. Elder had never said anything about walking on ice. My brows furrowed in frustration and I shook my head at my brother. Elder would’ve sent me on this quest alone, if he could have. Milan offered a shivering grasp, and I held his fingers in mine.
“Just follow my lead,” he said gently, placing one foot firmly on the water.
I mirrored his steps. We made it halfway before Milan decided to push away from me. He skirted across the ice, and I yelped in surprise.
“Don’t do that!” I pleaded. “You’ll fall.”
“I won’t,” he laughed. “See? You’re doing just fine without me. Keep going.”
I looked down at my feet, commanding stillness and imagining myself inflexible. Milan’s back was turned; he had already strutted ahead. I followed his lead, just like he had told me. One foot after the other. I was careful to avoid risking a crack. My steps were slow and deliberate, like my oldest brother would’ve done. Elder would be proud of me.
I heard the chirrup of slippery frost, and a hefty weight slammed the surface. I felt the vibration in my feet. When I looked up to find Milan, he lay flat against the glass by the shore. There wasn’t any time to play games, but I chose to go along. I shambled over the lake and spurred his foot with my own. Milan didn’t move. He must’ve been very bored, because when I jabbed his backside he refused to quit the display. I spoke his name.
“Milan,” I said.
The juncos answered my call. Blood seeped into my shoe. It came from him. I called his name a few more times before deciding to scream it instead. His eyes matched the snow, and one side of his head was flatter than the other. Patches of skin bonded to the frozen lake. I tried putting his face back together, but I was shaking and it slid from my hands. Part of me wanted to leave and bring Milan home. Then I remembered that I wasn’t big enough to climb a tree and I wasn’t big enough to carry him, and Elder would never forgive me if I didn’t kill the monster. It was too quiet without my brother. I cried into his chest to make noise, and the sounds were comforting for a while. I held him for an hour before matching my hot shoe with Elder’s next footstep.
Milan’s knife burned in my chest pocket. I had pilfered it in hopes that it would grant the vigor Elder needed from me. I wasn’t allowed to have a knife because “they’re sharp,” and I shouldn’t be gambling with death. Never mind that a spear was sharp, too. The handle was the femur of a snowy owl, with Milan’s name carved along the shaft. He’d sown the down feathers into his jacket and tied the skull around his neck. I could’ve had anything, but it was the knife that I wanted.
Saltwater trails frosted my cheeks. The tears persisted as I waded through the slush, and it didn’t take long for them to chill into place. It became difficult to see. The sky churned gray, matching nature’s moans and stirring steadily above me. The sounds were an omen of a horrible storm, and still I had found no signs of any monster. I had until nightfall. I considered camping, but I couldn’t make fire the night before, and there was no reason to believe I could one day later. My feet had taken me two hundred and seventy-two paces, which was the farthest I’d ever been from home. I clutched the javelin in my arms. My best friend had grown too heavy to carry with my hands. Three hundred paces were enough.
I heard a foreign stride at two hundred and ninety. The earth throbbed with every step, and at that moment it was easy to forget Elder’s teachings. I swung towards the sound, lance extended before me, my heartbeat vaulting as the stranger approached. It was troublesome to spot among the snow. The thumping ceased, and there the monster stood, not far from me at all. It wasn’t nearly as large as Elder had described. About the size of a black bear, only white.
I could tell that it was young. Its sable eyes glinted between the firs, and I waited for the vicious lunge that would send me to Milan. We stared at each other until I counted to sixty in my head. It never blinked. I shunted the spear through one of its eyes and followed its sluggish collapse. The puncture leaked vermilion blossoms; I hadn’t seen such colors in years. Winter had frozen them over and shaded the planet gray. Milan’s blade helped me tear out a few claws for Elder, because I knew he would want testimony of my triumph. I went ten more paces until I reached three hundred. I kissed Milan on my way home.
The storm didn’t hit until I was a mere eighteen steps from shelter, and when I made it inside Elder stacked slats of wood over the entrance. He pulled me into his breast and crushed me in an unfamiliar embrace. I dropped the talons in his hands when I was released.
“I did it,” I announced. “I killed the monster.”
“Where’d you get these?”
He sounded surprised and not at all proud. I frowned. I waited for him to lift me on his shoulders and tell me how pleased he was. Elder backed away from me. He noted the frost blotching my face.
“Where’s Milan?” he asked.
“He slipped on the glass lake,” I said. “He’s dead.”
My heart plunged when the bear claws tumbled to the ground. He staggered towards the fire, sobbing as he went, and I collected my testimony from the melting snow. Elder fell to his knees in a heap of skin and fur, silent as the flames hypnotized him into calm. I sat and pressed myself against him, just as he would’ve done to me, though I felt incomplete without my brother beside me. Elder murmured something beneath his breath.
“What?” I said.
“There was no monster,” he whispered.
He didn’t say anything else, as if those four words were an explanation for everything that had happened. I closed my eyes to shake off the panic, and saw Milan staring back at me. Seeing him in my head somehow felt worse than feeling him with my hands.
“Milan’s dead,” I said, but my voice was an echo to my ears.
I turned to Elder, who didn’t have the vigor to look back.
“Why’d you lie?”
“You couldn’t make the fire,” he said.
The flames licked the cold, dancing hello to my brother and I, taunting me with whistles of Milan’s name.
“Be quiet,” I muttered.
“You brought me fingernails instead of my brother,” Elder said suddenly.
“I thought that’s what you wanted,” I said, puzzled.
My palm stung; I had clutched the claws tightly enough to pierce my skin. I saw dark eyes between the firs. I saw Milan gliding ahead of me. His knife was leaden in my grasp. Elder shoved me away, burying my head in the dunes hiding the living room floor. When I sat up, he had stood and his shadow was dimming the flames. He pushed me again, pinning his hands to my throat, and the knife was sharper than ever. I poked him several times, snatching gore each time I pulled away, and drawing a sound from Elder that I had never heard before. I screamed and I poked until he was as stiff as and as white as the arctic hare. His blood looked strange by the light of the embers. Like licorice.
The rumbling sky rattled the earth, and sleet gushed into the cavern. I could see the light dying. Nature startled the wood that my brother had piled by the door. She moaned and pounded the walls, and the weight of what I had done was just beginning to settle. I was alone. It could’ve been hours before the storm ended, and there was no way to be sure. Elder watched me from the snow. He would’ve been proud of me. I looked nature in the throat and told her she was beautiful. And for a moment the fire was brighter, and the wind stopped blowing, and the voices of clouds were more gentle than before.