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The Eternal Maiden By T. Everett Harre Characters: 22282

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"The utter tragedy of her devotion to the man who had deserted her, and the utter hopelessness of his own deep passion, blightingly, horribly forced itself upon him . . . Ootah asked himself all the questions men ask in such a crisis . . . and he demanded with wild weeping their answer from the dead rejoicing in the auroral Valhalla. But there was no answer-as perhaps there may be no answer; or, if there is, that God fearing lest, in attaining the Great Desire, men should cease to endeavor; to serve and to labor has kept it locked where He and the dead live beyond the skies."

The moon dipped behind the horizon. For five sleeps naught had been heard from Ootah and his companion. Inetlia, the sister of Koolotah, followed in turn by some of the other women, visited the igloo of Annadoah. Upon her couch of moss Annadoah lay, and over her a cover given by Ootah and lined with the feathers of birds.

"'Twas thou who sent Ootah to the mountains," one complained. "May the ravens peck thine eyes!" cried another. Annadoah shook her head sadly and wept.

"'Twas thou who chose Olafaksoah, the robber from the south, that thou mightest be his wife; and 'twas thou, his wife, who beguiled the men and robbed thy tribe. Did we not give away our skins, and didst thou not make garments for Olafaksoah? And do we not now shudder from the cold? 'Twas thou who put the madness into the head of Ootah, the strongest of the tribe. Many are the maidens who are husbandless and yet Ootah pined for thee. Why didst thou not choose Ootah? Then he would have remained and prevented the thievery of the strangers, we should not have been robbed, and he would not have had to go far unto the mountains, where the spirits have struck him in their wrath? Nay, nay, thou didst make the men of our tribe sick with thoughts of thee. They have quarrelled among themselves. And before the white men came, did they not reproach us, their wives and their betrothed, with thy name and the vaunted skill of thee? Thou art as the woman with an iron tail, she who killed men when they came to her, their skins flushed with love. Thou destroyest men! Thou didst send Ootah and Koolotah to the mountains! And they have perished! Ioh-h! Ioh-h!"

Entering her igloo two or three at a time they reproachfully recited in chiding chants to Annadoah the story of her life; how her worthy mother and august grand-parents had died, hoping she would choose a husband from the hunters, and how she had refused all who sought her; they told, with reiterant detail, how she had caused quarrels among the men, and sent many of the warriors in their competitive hunts to death; and how, finally, when Ootah, the bravest of the hunters, wanted to wed her, she had chosen a foreign man, who deserted her and left her a burden on the tribe. Sometimes they shook her roughly.

To the native women the brutality and virility of the men from the south exert a potent appeal; and the fact that Olafaksoah had chosen Annadoah many moons since still made their mouth taste bitter. This jealousy rankling within them, they now with angry exultation took occasion to mock and abuse her. The girl lay still and did not reply. Her heart indeed seemed like a bird lying dead in wintertime.

Then one of three women who stood by Annadoah's couch leaned forward and whispered a terrible thing. The others looked at the girl and fear, mingled with hatred, shone in their eyes.

"Thou sayest this thing," said one, "how dost thou know?"

And the other, pointing accusingly to the girl who lay before them, her face hidden in her arms, replied:

"The night my baby died . . . I heard her voice."

They stood in silence, rigid, implacable, bitter.

During the latter dark days a terrible calamity had made itself felt among the tribe. This was the death of many of the newly born. Outside the igloos during the past months, as the babies had come, the number of tiny mounds had increased, and when the aurora flooded the skies heart-broken mothers could be seen weeping over these graves of snow. It is not uncommon in this land for babies to die at birth or come prematurely; but the number of recent deaths and tragic accidents to expectant mothers was unprecedented. This was undoubtedly due to the depleted vitality of the starving mothers-but to the natives there was some other, some unaccountable, some sinister, cause. In their hearts they experienced, each time a new mound rose white in the moonlight, that tremulous terror of a people who instinctively fear extinction. The grief of a mother was for a personal loss; to the tribe each death meant an even greater, more significant loss, a thing of more than personal consequence.

And when, out of the dim regions of her brain, one of the women now conjured the terrible thing which she whispered concerning Annadoah, it was little wonder the other two regarded the girl as a thing hateful and accursed.

"She stealeth souls!"

Nothing more frightful could have been said.

"Yea, the night my baby died I heard her voice," repeated Inetlia angrily.

And the other, among the superstitious voices in her memory, found it not difficult to recall a similar thing:

"Methinks I heard her sing the night my own little one came-too soon."

And the third whispered:

"She is as the hungry hill spirit who feasts upon the entrails of the dead. Yea, she carrieth off the souls of the children. Ioh! Iooh!"

Their voices rose in a maniacal cry of terror and denunciation.

Annadoah rose. Clasping her hands, she demanded piteously:

"Why . . . sayest ye this of me?"

And they shrieked:

"Thou stealest souls! By the angakoq shalt thou be accursed!"

"No, no! No, no!" the girl pleaded, falling on her knees and weeping.

Although they suddenly ceased their reviling, hearing outside the barking of dogs, the women thereafter in secret often assembled together; there were ominous whisperings; and each time a child died visits were paid to the angakoq, and the unseen powers were invoked to bring misfortune to Annadoah.

Outside the silenced women detected the barking of dogs approaching the village from the distance. They heard the excited calls of tribesmen and the chatter of other women. One by one they crept from the igloo. A strange light in her eyes, Annadoah followed.

Over the mountains to the north a soft and wondrous light began to palpitate tremulously . . . While the men of the tribe rushed to meet the oncoming team of dogs in the distance, the women stood and gazed with awe upon the increasing wonder in the skies . . . The northern lights, seen nowhere else so splendidly in all the world, had begun the weaving of their glorious and eerie imagery. A nebulous film of silvery light wavered with incredible swiftness over the heavens . . . The snow-blanketed land took instantaneous fire in the sudden flares . . . In the torridly tropic heaven of the virtuous dead an Unknown God, so the tribes believe, makes fire-just as in the nether regions beneath the earth the Great Evil, who has revealed himself with a more terrible reality than the Great Benign, creates cold and forges ice. In that land of the happy dead, disclosed in the aurora, there is never any night, nor is it ever cold. So the souls there are always happy. Sometimes in their revels they troop earthward to cheer the mortals who suffer from Perdlugssuaq's frigid breath as it comes during winter from hell . . . The women looked at one another. The augury was good.

"The spirits of the dead," one whispered, "are happy . . . They are playing ball."

Into their midst, surrounded by the glad cheering men of the tribe, Ootah staggered. His face was cut and covered with black clotted blood. His legs dragged with utter exhaustion. His features were gaunt and marked by lines of frightful suffering. His eyes were bright with the light of fever. When he saw Annadoah a faint but very glad smile passed over his countenance; he made an effort to forget the anguished throes of pain in his limbs and the intermittent shudderings of cold and flushes of intense fever. He tried to speak, but then shook his head sadly. Instead, he pointed to the dilapidated sledge. Three of his dogs had perished-five had been saved. The sled had been battered, but was lashed together. Upon it, however, the precious load of meat was intact. The subtle aroma of it sent a wave of gladness through the crowd. They danced about Ootah, asking questions. Ootah staggered backward and sank helpless against the sledge. After a while he found voice.

"I am very weak," he managed to say.

Several of the women disappeared and soon returned with a bit of walrus blubber. This, having undergone a process of fermentation in the earth, possessed the intoxicating qualities of alcohol. It is used by the natives for purposes of stimulation in such cases and in their celebrations. Ootah with difficulty ate this.

He felt stronger, and rose.

"Thou art ill," said Annadoah, approaching him, and gently touching his wounded face. "Enter, Annadoah will care for thee."

Her face was perilously near him; it was very wan and beautiful in the auroral light-Ootah felt his heart beat wildly. But it was pity, not love, that shone softly from Annadoah's eyes.

"Thy igloo is cold, thy lamp unlighted," Annadoah insisted. "Come! The others will prepare thy couch and light thy lamps. Until then my bed is thine. It is warm within."

With difficulty Ootah bent low and followed Annadoah through the underground entrance of her igloo. His dogs, which the men had unhitched, and as many as could enter the small enclosure, followed. The stench of the oil lamp at first almost suffocated him. He sank to Annadoah's couch from sheer weakness, and his dogs, licking his face and hands, crept about him.

Meanwhile Annadoah began melting snow over her lamp. The others plied Ootah with questions. Did he go far into the mountains? Were there many ahmingmah? Did Koolotah perish? Was he in the mountains when the spirits struck? To all of this he could only move his head in response. While he sipped the warm water gratefully, Annadoah cut away his leather boots and bathed his injuries. His flesh was torn and one ankle was sprained-by a miracle not a bone had been broken in the fall. With unguents left years before by white men, Annadoah treated his many cuts and bruises and bound them securely with clean leather. After he lay back on the couch she bathed his face, and rubbed into the wounds salves which her father had given to her mother and which for years had been preciously preserved.

Ootah lay with his eyes closed; he seemed to float in the auroral skies without, in the very happy land of the dead. He forgot the pain in his limbs, the furnace in his forehead. He felt only the soothing touch of Annadoah's dear hands, and her breath at times very near, fanning his face; he heard her voice murmuring to the onlooking natives. Not satisfied with these ministrations, in which they really had little faith, the others presently brought a young angakoq, one better loved than the dead Sipsu. For being youn

g he had not prophesied many deaths.

All moved away as the magician began beating his membrane drum over Ootah's body. Working himself into frenzy, he called upon his familiar spirits. For, according to their belief, illness, and the suffering resultant from wounds, are actually caused by the spirits of the various members of the body falling out of harmony. Then the angakoq must persuade his friends in the other world to restore peace among the spirits of the human hands, feet, head, or whatever limbs may be affected. The soul, or great spirit, they say resides in one's shadow, and sometimes this falls out of agreement with the minor spirits of the body. Then one is in bad shape, indeed.

For half an hour the chant and dance continued. Meanwhile Ootah opened his eyes and often smiled at Annadoah. He was better, he told them, and motioned the angakoq to go. He bade Annadoah sit beside him. He felt unquestionably better.

"You have asked me whether I went far over the mountains? Yea, we travelled many sleeps, yet we scarcely rested. The world was white about us. The spirits carried us over dark places in the hills, wherein Perdlugssuaq makes his home. But he did not strike. We were borne over abysses. The spirits of one's ancestors are often kind. We went through the world of the fog, she who was the wife of that hill spirit who carried the dead from their graves and ate them. Yea, she passed beneath our feet. We came to the high mountains. We passed upward where the eyes of strange beasts glared upon us. I was afraid. But I called upon my father. Then the spirits of the great dead came down upon us. They wove kamiks and ahttees of fire. Their eyes burned as the great light of the stars. They did not regard us. We came unto the ahmingmah . . . But upon our return the hill spirits who live in the caves wakened and struck with their great harpoons. They shook the mountains. Then the good ancestors carried me through sila-the world of the air-yea, my dogs, my sledge, and the ahmingmah meat. I had called upon those who went before me. I woke at the bottom of the mountain, three of my dogs were crushed, my sledge was broken . . . I lay there a while . . . I slept again . . . often . . . Then I lashed the sled, ate a little of the ahmingmah meat, and came . . . hither . . . How . . . Ootah knows not . . . It was hard at times . . . I could hardly walk . . . the ice moved about me . . . always . . . so-" He described a circle with his hand. "But I bethought me of Annadoah-" he smiled-"and I said I go to Annadoah . . . That is how I came . . . I said Annadoah is hungry-yea, as I said it when the eyes looked at me on the mountains, when the hill spirits made my heart grow cold, when Koolotah desired to return . . . Koolotah-he hath gone . . . Koolotah's dogs are gone . . . But I called upon my dead father, my dead grandfather, and the older ones-and I thought of Annadoah." He leaned toward her yearningly, his voice trembling. Fearfully the girl drew away. "It is she who brought the ahmingmah meat," he said. "It is she who led me to the ahmingmah. Yea, she brings you the ahmingmah meat. For the thought of her brings Ootah back after the spirits strike . . . It is she, who lives in the heart of Ootah, who has done all this . . . But you are hungry. Come!"

He rose slowly and crept through the underground tunnel leading from the igloo. The others followed. Without, most of the tribe were waiting. At Ootah's command the men unlashed the sledge-load of meat, and the division began. To Annadoah Ootah gave one-eighth of the load, enough to last by frugal use for more than two moons, or months. Among the others, of whom there were about twenty-five, the remainder was proportionately divided. For himself Ootah reserved only as much as he gave the others.

Outside Annadoah's igloo all engaged in a joyous revel. Hungrily they feasted upon the raw meat. Then they beat drums and danced. Their voices rose in hilarious chants. Wild joy shook them. Ootah was acclaimed hero of the tribe. Although they have no chiefs, he was accorded the honor of being the bravest and strongest among them. And to the strongest and most heroic the last word in all things belongs.

Of all who were able to participate in the celebration, Maisanguaq alone retired. From the seclusion of his igloo entrance he watched the scene with rancor in his heart.

Over the northern skies the auroral lights played, lighting the scene of spontaneous rejoicing with magical glory. Great silver coronas-or rings of light-constantly arose in the north, passed to the zenith and melted as they descended to the south. Luminous curtain-like films closed and parted alternately like the veils of a Valhalla drawn back and forth before the warrior souls of the north. Tremendous fan-shaped shafts of opalescent fire shot toward the zenith and like search-lights moved to and fro across the sky. The clouds became illumined with an interior flame and glowed like diaphanous mists of gold half concealing the vague faces of the beauteous spirits of the dead. Their billowing edges palpitated with a tremor as of quicksilver. Within and through this empyreal web of light marvellous scenes were simultaneously woven. They lasted a moment's space and vanished. The natives, dancing unrestrainedly, saw heavenly mountain slopes covered with grass of emerald fire and glittering with starry flowers. They saw the gigantic shadows of celestial ahmingmah passing behind the clouds . . . and here and there were the cyclopean adumbrations of great caribou, and creatures for which they did not have a name. A tossing sea of rippling waves of light was presently unfolded, and over it they saw millions of birds, with wings of fire, soaring with bewildering rapidity from horizon to zenith . . . This faded . . . Monstrous and gorgeous flowers of living rainbow tints burst into bloom-fields of them momentarily covered the heaven. These the natives regarded with only half accustomed wonder, for they knew there were strange flowers in the land of the dead.

As they danced, the colored imageries steadily faded in the growing intensity of the great banded coronas that rose from the north. A light of cold electric fire increasingly blazed over the heavens until a frigid silver day, brighter than any day of sunshine, reached its brief noon upon the earth.

Rocking their bodies and singing, the natives dispersed to their respective igloos. Sitting on his sledge by Annadoah, Ootah dimly heard their voices echoing into silence; he experienced terrible pains again in his limbs and the fever in his head. Everything became dizzy, and with a sick feeling of faintness he crept into Annadoah's igloo and fell upon her couch.

It was in his heart to ask her once again to be his, to repeat the protestation of his love; he felt that he had shown he deserved to win her. But his utter weakness, and the very enthralling delight of her soft hands on his forehead, kept him still. He lay in a semi-delirium suffering greatly, but at heart very happy. A new peace possessed him. Never had Annadoah caressed him before, never had he felt the tingling thrill of her tender hands, never had her breath so perilously warmed his face. For an hour she sat by him, perfunctorily bathing his wounds with the white men's ointment and rubbing a yellow salve upon his face. And while she did this, often, very often, she closed her eyes. Sometimes her hands, as they passed over his forehead, absently wandered to the couch, sometimes they soothed the air near the suffering man. Then she would recall herself. Gazing upon Ootah, pity would fill her; and then-well, then her mind would wander. She was faint herself, tired and half-asleep.

Once, as she touched Ootah's hand, he closed it impulsively over hers. Her heart gave a thud. Her eyelids quivered. A smile appeared on her face. Ootah pressed her hand more firmly-he did not realize how fiercely in his fever. His blood ran high; in a mingled delirium of pain and transport he drew her slowly toward him. Her one hand soothed his brow, softly, very gently. The smile on her face deepened. She gasped with a throe of the old memories.

"Olafaksoah," she breathed, rapturously.

Ootah felt a horrible pain grip his heart. He opened his eyes, stark conscious. He saw the eyes of Annadoah were closed. On her face he observed the fond, far-away smile; he knew her heart was in the south. And in that frightful moment his untutored mind by instinct realized why she had bandaged and soothed him so tenderly, realized, indeed, that in doing so, in his stead, her mind had conjured up the vision of Olafaksoah. His hands were strong, she had said, they hurt her. Ootah, with ferocity, gripped her little hand tighter.

"Olafaksoah," she murmured again, with delight-then, recalling herself, suddenly uttered a sharp cry of dismay as she opened her eyes.

Ootah staggered to his feet. The utter tragedy of her devotion to the man who had deserted her, the utter hopelessness of his own deep passion blightingly, horribly forced itself upon him.

"Annadoah! Annadoah! Annadoah!" he wailed, his voice sobbing the beloved name.

The igloo was stifling; he felt that he was suffocating. Everything reeling about him, he crept painfully from the igloo into the night. He felt he must be alone.

Outside the aurora was paling with intermittent cascades of resolving lights. Over the snows glittering rosy fingers painted running rainbow traceries. It seemed as though the spirit revellers were pouring fiery jewels from the skies.

Ootah stood before that revealed and radiant land of the dead-the dead who danced and were happy-his hands clenched and upraised above him.

"Annadoah! Annadoah!" he sobbed the name again and again, and in his voice throbbed all the piteousness, all the bitterness of his utter heartbreak. There was no reproach in his shuddering sobs; only sorrow, only the desolation and eternal heart-ache of that which loves mightily, unrequitedly, and realizes that all it desires can never, never be.

Ootah asked himself all the questions men ask in such a crisis; why, when he loved so indomitably, the heart of Annadoah should stir only with the thought of another; why the spirits that weave the fabric of men's fate had designed it thus. Why the ultimate desire of the heart is forever ungranted and an intrinsically unselfish love too often finds itself defeated-these questions, in his way, he asked of his soul, and he demanded, with wild weeping, their answer from the dead rejoicing in the paling Valhalla. But there was no answer-as perhaps there may be no answer; or, if there is, that God, fearing lest in attaining the Great Desire men should cease to endeavor, to serve and to labor, has kept it locked where He and the dead live beyond the skies.

Ootah fell prostrate to the ground and his body throbbed on the ice in uncontrollable throes of grief. The aurora faded above him. Darkness closed upon the earth. Sitting in her igloo, startled, vaguely perplexed and half-afraid, Annadoah heard him sobbing throughout the night.

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