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The Eternal Maiden By T. Everett Harre Characters: 16026

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"'Do the gulls that freeze to death in winter fly in springtime?' she asked, simply. . . 'The teeth of the wolves are in my heart' . . ."

Desolate and alone, Annadoah walked along a crevice in the land-adhering ice of the polar sea.

The prolonged grey evening of the arctic was resolving into the long dark, and the Eskimo women, as is their custom at this time of the year, had gathered along the last lane of open water-which writhed like a sable snake over the ice-to celebrate that period of mourning which precedes the dreadful night, and to give their last messages and farewells to the unhappy and disconsolate souls of the drowned, who, when the ice closed, should for many moons be imprisoned in the sea.

An unearthly twilight, not unlike that dim greenish luminescence which filters through emerald panes in the high nave of a great cathedral, lay upon the earth. The forms of the mourning women were strangely magnified in the curious semi-luminance and, as their bodies moved to and fro in the throes of their grief, they might have been, for all they seemed, shadowy ghosts bemoaning their sins in some weird purgatory of the dead.

In the northern sky a faint quivering streak of light, resembling the reflection of far away lightning, played-the first herald of the aurora. To the south a gash of reddish orange, like the tip of a bloody-gleaming knife-blade, severed the thick purple clouds. There was a faint reflected glimmer on the unfrozen southern sea.

Snow had fallen on the land, igloos had been built. Over the village and against the frozen promontories loomed a majestic yet fearful shadowy shape-that of a giant thing, swathed in purple, its arm uplifted threateningly-the spectre of suffering and famine.

This wraith, brought into being by the gathering blackness in the gulches and crevices of the mountains, filled the hearts of the natives with unwonted foreboding.

Profound silence prevailed.

Already the sea for miles along the shore was frozen. The open water lay at so great a distance from the land that the sound of the waves was stilled. The birds had disappeared. Even the voices of the sinister black guillemots and ravens were heard no more.

Annadoah's sobs rose softly over the ice.

"Spirit of my mother, thou who wast carried by the storm-winds into the sea! Hear me! Annadoah loved one Olafaksoah, a chief from the south; for him the heart of Annadoah became very great within her. And now the heart of Annadoah aches. For he hath gone to the south. And not until the birds sing in spring will he return. And Annadoah is left alone. Ookiah comes with the lash of wicked walrus thongs, and there is no blubber buried outside Annadoah's shelter. Neither is there oil. And the couch of Annadoah is cold-so very cold. Yea, listen, spirit of my mother, and bring Olafaksoah back, that he may bruise Annadoah's hands, that he may cast Annadoah to the ground and crush Annadoah if he wills with his feet! Io-oh-h!"

She moaned this in a curious sing-song sort of chant. Over the ice the voices of the other women rose, and each, to her departed relatives and friends who had died in the sea, told about the important incidents of the year and the misgivings for the winter, in a varying crooning song.

Annadoah passed Tongiguaq, who jumped and danced in a frenzy of grief. Tongiguaq had lost three children; two had been drowned, and a new-born baby, three months before, was born maimed. According to the custom of the people, a fatherless defective child is doomed to death. So rigorous is their struggle to survive, so limited the means of existence, that a tribe cannot bear the burden of a single unnecessary life. So in keeping with this Lycurgean law, worked out by instinct after the stern experience of ages, a rope had been twisted about the neck of Tongiguaq's baby and it had been cast into the sea.

All this the weeping woman told in her chant to the departed. When she saw Annadoah approaching, she paused.

"Here cometh the she-wolf that hath devoured the food of our tribe," she wailed, intense bitterness in her voice. "Yea, by her cajolery she persuaded our men to give unto the traders from the south our precious food. And now we starve! Yea, she hath robbed us. She is as the breath of winter, as the blackness of the night."

Along the line of wailing women Tongiguaq's reproach was suddenly taken up. As Annadoah walked by them they did a strange thing. The natives fear their dead-they never even mention their names. For possessed of great power are the dead, and they can wreak, as befits their moods, unlimited good or ill. Believing they could persuade the dead to array themselves against Annadoah, the women took up Tongiguaq's denunciation and reviled Annadoah in their weird chant to the departed. Annadoah wrung her hands and wept. Bitter and jealous because the white chief had selected her during his stay, their bosoms full of the harbored ill will and envy of years because she had been the most desired by the young men of the tribes, the women now invoked curses upon the deserted and unprotected girl through the medium of the incorporeal powers.

The dread of it filled poor Annadoah's heart. She quailed at the bitter execrations called upon her head. Instinctively her hand reached through the opening of her ahttee and she clutched at a piece of old half-decayed skin. This was a remnant of her mother's father's clothing, a amulet given her as a child, when saliva from the maternal grandfather's mouth had been rubbed on her lips, and which she believed protected her from ill fortune.

"Io-ooh! io-oh!" Annadoah moaned in pain.

The women forgot their own tragedies. They forgot the messages they were imparting to the dead. Directly they might not be able to invoke any effective curse upon Annadoah; but well they knew, indeed, the awful power of the disembodied. And to the dead in the cold shuddering sea they told how Annadoah had played with the men, how she had betrayed them to the white traders, cajoling them to rob themselves of food, and how, because of her, famine now confronted the tribe; they told of the long devotion of Ootah, the desired of all the maidens, and how Annadoah had rejected him.

Possessed by a frantic contagion of released rage, their voices rose and fell in a frightful chanting malediction. In the weird gloom their vague forms leaped about, their arms writhing like black things in the air as they called the names of their individual dead to hear.

As their voices approached a crescendo they danced with increasing hysteria. Some shrieked and fell to the ice groaning, their bodies twisting in convulsions. Others laughed madly-laughed at the dreadful horrors with which the dead would smite Annadoah. Losing all control they were carried away by their delirious malevolence; their voices reached a high shrill pitch. Their arms clawed the air. Through the dead curses were invoked upon Olafaksoah, the great trader, who had cowed them and robbed them. They begged of the tornarssuit that he might be rended by wolves, that his body might rot unburied, and that the spirits of his limbs might be severed and be compelled to wander in restless torment forever. They called anathemas upon his unborn children; and of their dead, who should be imprisoned in darkness in the depths of the sea, they furiously invoked upon Annadoah's offspring the curse of the long night . . . Their voices shuddered over the ice as they demanded that most dreadful of all dreaded evils-that Annadoah's child might be born as blind to light and the joy of light as the dead in the sea.

Annadoah crouched in frantic terror upon the ice. From the Greenland highlands a moaning echo answered the women. To Annadoah the hill spirits had joined in cursing her-all nature seemed to upbraid her. Tremblingly, with a last lingering hope, she crept on her knees to the edge of the lane of lapping black water. She whispered a pathetic plea to Nerrvik, the gentle qu

een of the sea, whose hand had been severed by those she loved, and who felt great tenderness for men. Annadoah listened.

"Thou art cold of heart to him who loves thee, Annadoah," a voice seemed to whisper in the lapping waves. "Thou art beautiful as the sun, but as Sukh-eh-nukh shall thou be eternally sad. Thou shalt lose because of thine own self the greatest of all treasures. That is fate."

Far out on the open ocean spectral fire-flecks flashed like mast-lights on swinging ships. These mysterious jack o' lanterns of the arctic are caused by the crashing together of icebergs covered with phosphorescent algae.

To Annadoah the dead were lighting their oil lamps for the long night. As she watched the weird illuminations a paralyzing fear of the vague unknown world beyond the gate of death filled her, and her blood ran cold. She felt utterly crushed, utterly helpless, and utterly deserted, both in the affection of the living and that of the dead. She uttered a despairing cry and fell back in a cold faint. The women drew about as if to leap upon her.

A momentary wavering of the northern lights revealed her face grown sad and wan. The women stood still, however, for approaching in the distance they heard a man's voice calling:

"Avatarpay-avatarpay,

akorgani-akorgani,

anagpungah . . ."

Those mystic words, believed to give magic speed to the one who utters them, came in the well known tones of Ootah. A joyous cry went up from the women.

When Annadoah opened her eyes Ootah was bending over her.

"I was held in the mountains, Annadoah. The hill spirits were at war. The snow came, the storm spirits loosed the ice. I fell into an abyss . . . I lay asleep . . . for very long. It seemed like many moons. I could barely walk when I awoke. I had no food. I became very weak, but I uttered the serrit (magic formula;), those words of the days when man's sap was stronger, and the good winds bore me hither."

A mystical silver light had risen over the horizon, and in the soft glimmer Annadoah saw that the face of Ootah was haggard and drawn. His voice was weak.

"The sun hath gone," murmured Ootah. "The long night comes. Ootah heard thy cry and has come to care for thee, Annadoah."

His voice was a caress. His face sank dangerously near the face of the girl. She panted into full consciousness and struggled to free herself. Ootah helped her to her feet.

"The winter comes . . . and famine," muttered Annadoah, hopelessly. She pointed to the gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow, empurpled-robed, against the frozen cliffs. "My heart is cold-I am resigned to death."

"But I have come to give furs for thy couch," murmured Ootah, a beseeching look in his eyes. "Thou wilt need shelter-I shall build thee an igloo. Thou wilt need food-I shall share all that I have with thee and seek more. Thou wilt need oil for heat. I shall get this for thee."

Annadoah made a passionate gesture. A curious perverse resentment for the youth's insistent devotion rose in her heart.

"Nay," she said, warding him away. "My shadow yearns only to the south . . . the far, far south."

"Thy soul yearns to the south-forsooth, will I all the more cherish thee. Thou art frail, and the teeth of ookiah (winter) are sharp."

"The teeth of ookiah are not so sharp as the teeth in my heart," sobbed Annadoah.

Ootah felt a great pity for her-a pity and tenderness greater than his jealousy.

"But I shall teach thee to forget, Annadoah."

"I cannot forget. Even as the ravens in their winter shelter dream of the summer sun, so my soul grows warm, in all my loneliness, in the memory of Olafaksoah."

Ootah groaned with an access of misery. Frenziedly he caught her hands and pressed them. Annadoah struggled. His words beat hotly in her ears:

"But I want thee. My blood burns at the thought of thee. It is against the custom of the tribe that thou shouldst be alone. Thou must take a husband."

"No-no," she shook her head.

"But some one must care for thee. I love thee. Thou wilt forget

Olafaksoah. Thy hurt will heal."

Annadoah shook her head piteously.

"Do the gulls that freeze to death in winter fly in springtime?" she asked, simply.

Ootah did not reply.

"He was strong," she murmured. "His hands bruised me. He was cruel. He hurt me. Yet he gave my heart joy. My heart is dying-dying as the birds die. I feel the teeth of the wolves in my heart."

Ootah pointed to the women. The soft crooning of their voices reached him as they resumed the dismal dirge of their own woes.

"They hate thee," he said. He pointed to the constellation of the Great Bear which glittered faintly in the sky. "Yonder qiligtussat (the barking dogs) would rend the gentle bear. Thou rememberest the old men's tale. A woman ran away from her family. She was false at heart. The good mother bear protected her and gave her food. But yearning for her husband, she returned and to gain his favor betrayed the hiding place of the mother-bear and her young. Then the husband drove out with sledges. His dogs attacked the bear. But they all became stars and went up into the sky. Even as the bear was good to the false woman so hast thou made clothing for those yonder, and now they would as the dogs rend thee. Thou needest a husband."

"They would be bitter to thee," she argued.

"Perchance, but I would protect thee. I love thee."

Annadoah shook her head. "The teeth of the wolves are in my heart," she said. "And I no longer care."

"Yonder Nalagssartoq (he who waits and listens) bends to hear thy reply." Ootah pointed to Venus, the brightest of the stars-to the Eskimos an old man who waits by a blow-hole in the heavenly icefloes and listens for the breathing of seals. "Thou wilt come to Ootah, who loves thee? Answer, Annadoah! Ootah listens."

He soothed her little hands. A wondrous light burned in his eyes. Every fibre of his being yearned for her. But Annadoah's hands were cold, her eyes were sullenly turned away. In her heart a vague fear of him, a resentment of his very love, stirred.

"My shadow yearns to the south," she repeated pathetically. "I shall wait. Perhaps he will come as he said when the spring hunting sings." In her heart she feared that he would not.

Ootah in utter anguish dropped her hands. Annadoah sadly turned away. Falling to his knees on the ice, he covered his face with his arms. The sound of his heartbroken sobbing was drowned in the funereal chant of the women as, in a long procession, they passed near him on their way to the shore.

When he raised his head, the rim of the moon, a great quarter-disc of silver, peeped above the horizon. A mystical melancholy light flooded the gloriously gleaming desolate white world. The ice floes glistened as with the dust of diamonds. The ice covered faces of the promontories glowed with the sheen of burnished metal. The clouds became tremulous masses of argent phosphorescence. Far away the women's chants subsided. One by one they joined the men in their grotesque dances in the distant igloos. Ootah was left alone.

He gazed long upon the pearly lamp of heaven. The subtle sorrow of this world of magical moonlight filled his soul. Then the hopelessness and tragedy of all it symbolized were unfolded to him, and, extending his arms in a vague wild sympathy, in a vague wild despair, he moaned:

"Desolate and lonely moon! Oh, desolate and unhappy moon! . . .

Desolate and unhappy is the heart of Ootah!"

Far away, in her shelter, Annadoah heard the sobbing voice of Ootah. And nearer, in an igloo where the men beat drums and danced, she heard the voice of Maisanguaq laughing evilly. Of late Maisanguaq had gibed her with her desertion; he was bitter toward her. But nothing mattered to Annadoah. She thought of the blond man in the south, and the pleading of Ootah. As she heard his weeping, she shook her head sadly. She beat her breast and muttered over and over again:

"Do the gulls that freeze to death in winter fly in springtime?"

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