for those interested... but not willing to buy whole book for just a single short story....
warning - no doubt spoilers for the movie - though how exact and much spoilage.... but for those not wishing to be spoiled - simply skip this post...
a short story
written by Sara Maitland
Far north, inside the ice circle, in the land of the long night, lived two women. One was a young woman and one was an old woman. The old woman must have known how they came to be living there, on their own, so far away from other people, but she never said. The young woman did not know--she remembered no other view than the long lifting of the snow banks and the chopped ragged ice in the sea below their home.
Because there was no one else they did not need names for each other and used none. Because they had no community they did not need to name their relationship either, and they did not do so. They never used the words mother or daughter or friend or sister or aunt, niece, cousin, lover. They just lived there together. Because there was no one to see they did not know that the young woman was very beautiful and that the old woman was not. They knew that the old woman was full of ancient knowledge and useful skills, was wise in the ways of weather and seals, and knew all the hundred words for snow. The young woman was strong and rough and could run all day, a slow steady lope across the snow, in pursuit of moose herds, and she could crawl and slither over ice after seals and polar bears. And in the evenings the old woman could tell stories about the Seal Queen, and the lemmings maddened by each other and the winter fever who rushed into the sea; and her gums could chew, her hands could carve and her fingers could sew and plait and skin and braid. The young woman could sing and dance and let down her beautiful long hair and comb the thick dark mess until it glowed and sparkled with strange lights. And so they lived happily for a long time.
When spring comes inside the ice circle it is not with long rains and sweet emerging greenness. Instead there is the strange sound of the deep ice crashing and gonging as it breaks up--howling at night as it shifts and moves at last. The skeins of geese overhead break the stillness of the air with the powerful rush of their homecoming; and the she-seals are fat with promise and contentment. The light begins to seep back into the air; hardly noticed at first, the blubber lamp pales and the distant ice floes take on specific shapes. Where the winter freeze humped and pressured the sea into strange designs there is a new flatness smoothing itself back into water, but slowly.
And one year, with the spring, came something new. One morning when the young woman left the warmth of the ice house she saw, far away across the whiteness a new shape she had never seen before and heard, borne on the motionless air, a new noise, a swish-swish. The shape was dark and tall and it was not silent. In fear, she watched a while and the shape came nearer. She turned back into the ice house and told the old woman. And the old woman wrapped a polar fur around herself and came out. The shape had come nearer; it had a strange rising and falling gait, not the smoothness of an animal but rhythmic, lilting like the tune from a song. The shape was coming towards them directly and with purpose and both women were afraid, though for very different reasons: the young woman was afraid because she did not know what the shape was. The old woman was afraid because she did. It was a man.
He was a young man, tall and handsome. He was an ice traveler. He had spent the winter far from his village, all alone, because of a courageous but foolish error of judgement which had taken him too far to get back before the snowstorms and the darkness had come. He had wintered far from his own people and was now on his way home. He was surprised to discover this ice house; he had not known that anyone could go away and live so far from the village. Now, swishing on his wide snow shoes, swinging each leg wide of the other, his pack on his back, he came across the snow plateau and, seeing the smoke, thought of singing and company and warm meals cooked by someone not himself and a few days rest before he went on with his endless ice traveling.
The two women stood at the door of their home. With the necessary courtesy of people who live in such cruel terrain it never occurred to them that they would not welcome him and feed him with whatever they had available and keep him in comfort until he was ready to travel again. In the pale light of the mid-morning he came towards them, slowly, swinging and swishing, and they stood there and waited for him. And when he came up they took him by the arms and led him into their home, and all three of them stood unwinding from their fur clothes in the light of the blubber oil lamp. And as she took off her seal skin jacket and pulled back her fur-trimmed hood the young woman learned at last that she was beautiful, because his eyes told her so. And as she sank to her haunches to tend the cooking the old woman knew that she was old and ugly, because his eyes did not even turn from the young woman.
Of course the young man loved the young woman; and the young woman loved the young man. Nothing else was possible with the spring crashing into life around them and both of them strangers to the other, and the young woman had never seen a man before and the young man was far from home on a courageous but foolish journey. Yes, they loved each other and the young man took the young woman to wife there in the ice house, on the fullness of the spring tides in front of the old woman and she said not a word, but squatted lower over the cooking pot and faded as the summer came. She could not hate the young woman, because she had known and lived with her for far too long and she could not hate the young man because she could see the rightness of this mating. But her sleep was disturbed by their loving and then by the dreams that came to her afterwards.
In some ways it was good to have the young man with them. With two hunters, both active and tireless and whose bodies know the curves and thoughts of each other's, there is hunting possible which cannot be done alone, and the piles of fur beside the house mounted and the young man talked of trading and possessions that the women knew nothing about--of drink that turned your head to fire and allowed you to meet the ancestors again and fight with the monsters; of fishing hooks and needles so fine and strong that they seemed magical; of colors and ribbons and beads and clothes that the women thought were parts of stories and not real though he told them over and over again. He took the old woman's skins in his hands and admired them and said that she had more skill with the knife than anyone, man or woman, he had ever seen and the skins that she handled would fetch higher prices. And he picked up the carvings she did, in bone and rock, marveling how the walrus and the bear and the fish were revealed growing there. These too they could trade and he described the things that he and the young woman could have if they sold the carvings the old woman had made. And she who had carved for delight alone, through the long winter, wanted to snatch back her animals from his hands and hide them, but she did not. She did not because the muscles on his neck stood out like the sinews of the moose, and his legs were sturdy, strong and planted firmly in the ground, and his hands were driving into her heart and gut with their strength and beauty, and because the white horn of his nails made her think of the new moon. But she did not trust him.
And she was right. One day the young woman came to her and said that they were going away. She did not think about the old woman left alone in the ice house when winter came again; she did not think about the cold wind and the wildness to be endured alone. She said that he had made a sledge for her, each runner a rib of a great he-walrus that the young man had killed for her; he had worked on the sledge secretly when the old woman thought that he was hunting or walking or fishing. She said the sledge was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen; each runner was intricately carved; the seat was lined with pale fur; the seal sinews were so strong and taut that she would ride without a jolt across the frozen wastes. He would take her to his village and buy for her beads and jewels and garments worthy of her beauty. The young woman told the old woman that her husband was going to take her away from this dreary desolation, and this empty lonely life, and bring her to a place where her beauty would be appreciated and reflect credit on him. She told the old woman also that there was a child growing in her, that she hoped for a son as lithe and fine and strong as the young man, that she would have a son and a place where her beauty could be admired.
She desired the beauty of the young woman; she desired the child of the young woman; she also desired the husband of the young woman; and she had little enough to do all day except feed those desires. So they ate into her, like the ice of the approaching autumn, creeping up the rivers of her blood. Soon the couple must be gone, because the courage and foolishness of the young man were diminished by the loveliness of his wife and his tenderness for her, and he wanted to be in his village safe and certain before the hard weather and the long night came. The time was approaching when the old woman could wait no longer. One day the young man was gone from the house, so the old woman said to the young woman that it was a long, long time since she had braided up that beautiful hair. She said that they should prepare a special feast for the young man and that the young woman must look her most beautiful. The young woman was pleased; she felt that the old woman had not entered into her joy and had withdrawn from her recently so she was happy to find that she had been mistaken. So she unpinned her long hair and sat cross-legged on the floor at the feet of the old woman. The old woman took the comb made from bone which she had carved many years ago for the young woman and began to comb her hair. And she combed and combed. She reveled for the last time in that living loveliness; the hair shone and shook in the light of the lamp and sparkled like the sea-deep does in midsummer when it is crazed by the lights of the underworld that float up and dance on the surface. The young woman told her to hurry, eager to see her beauty in the admiration of the young man. So then the old woman took the hair and began to twist and braid it into a fat rope, and she took the rope and wound it round the young woman's lovely cream-colored neck and pulled and pulled, tighter, until the young woman was dead. Then she took her little hand knife, which she had made herself for skinning, down from the wall and, using all her immense and practiced skill, she skinned the young woman's face, not spoiling the hair, which was both lovely and necessary, not pulling out one eyelash nor missing the soft curves of lip and cheek. And when the young woman was faceless and bloody she dragged her out of the house and buried her in the soft snow of a drift not far away. Then she took a broom and swept the house and the snow with great attention so that no blood and do drag lines and no mess could be seen. Then she took a soft seal skin shift that she had made herself for the young woman and put it on; its gentle folds caressed her skin and everything seemed possible for her. She washed in ice water, the coldness of it bracing her joyfully. After all that she took the skin from the face of the young woman and with delicate practice of the years smoothed the young woman's face over her own. Its lovely pliability covered the wrinkles and jutting bones of her old, ugly face; she pulled the creamy skin of the neck down as far as it would go, securing it with an ivory pin to the top of the soft shift; she tugged the heavy mass of hair back over her own thinning greasy locks and shook her head so that it fell loose again covering the seamlines. And then she lay on the bed that the young couple had made themselves, and covered herself with furs and skins under which they lay night after night, leaving her outside. The thought of what she had done warmed her; the thought of what was coming heated her. She lay there waiting, ready and eager.
The young man came home. She heard the gentle rhythm of his snowshoes; she heard him banging off the spare snow and stomping about outside the house; she heard his muffled breath as he pulled his skin-jacket over his head; she heard the soft whistle that he always made when he was tired but pleased with himself. He came in. And seeing her lying on the bed all beautiful and waiting for him, he smiled. Where was the old one he asked. And she told him that she had gone to the beach to look for a special stone for carving, to be a present for them at their departure, a very special carving as a bride gift and a gift for the child. The young man said that that was good because such a carving by the old hag would fetch a good price from some white-skinned collector and he laughed. The old woman would be gone for hours on such a task. The young man tugged at his boots; then he pulled off his shift, his trousers. His chest was muscled and beautiful, his loins were leaping for his bride, he fell upon her and she, kicking back the blankets, received him in her eagerness. He plunged into her body and she responded with delight. He was so far into his joy and lust that he did not notice the changed body. He plunged and bucked like the melting of a river when the great chunks of ice are hurled suddenly into the sea; he melted into her like the full tide of spring; and she leaped up for him like a young seal taking to the water for the first time. He rode her like the porpoise schools, she held him like the ocean deep. There was a love and a knowing in them both.
He worked her like an old bull walrus and it was hot hard work and at last he was done and lifted him head and smiled down into her eyes. And the sweat from his joyful labor dripped from his forehead down the fringe of his black hair and fell onto her face. It shriveled the skin, because the old woman had not had time for proper curing. The skin of the young woman shrank and curled away from the face of the old woman. Where it was secured at the neck with the ivory pin it tore away; from around her mouth the lips peeled back revealing her thin tired gums. The bones of her cheeks broke through the tenderness of the young woman's skin. The tears that sprang in her eyes rolled away the young woman's soft velvet and uncovered the harsh wrinkles. The hairline parted under the strain - the think hair falling backwards onto the pile of bed-skins, the forehead dissolving, shrinking and disappearing.
With his hands he completed the work his sweat had begun, scrabbling at her face, scratching her, making her bleed. She herself did not move. Still naked, still lying on her, his lower body still replete with joy, the horror came into his eyes. The young man screamed and leapt to his feet; he grabbed for his shift, his breeches and boots and rushed out into the gathering gloom. She heard him retching and gasping as he fumbled the straps of his snowshoes. She heard his heaves and moans as he gathered what was necessary from around him. At last she heard the swishing, swishing mixed with his horror, repulsion and guilt. The noises died away into the twilight, diminishing, fading and finally, after many many minutes, finally gone.
And then the old woman was alone.
transcribed by §fyre