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   Chapter 9 9

The Eternal Maiden By T. Everett Harre Characters: 14631

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02

"Turning softly, she found a tiny naked baby . . . Annadoah leaned forward, gazing at it intently, wildly-then uttered a scream as though she had been stabbed to the heart . . ."

The sun rose above the horizon and flooded the earth with liquid gold; again the sea ran with running light; the melting glaciers shimmered with burning amethystine hues; the snow-covered mountains took fire and glowed with burning bars of chrysoberyl and sapphire, while on the limpid sea the moving bergs glittered like monstrous diamonds electrically white. On the sequestered slopes of the low mountain valleys green mosses once more carpeted the earth, buttercups and dandelions peeped pale golden eyes from the ground, in the teeming crevices of the high promontories delicate green and crimson lichens wove a marvellous lacery, and wherever the sun poured its encouraging springtime light beauteous small star- and bell-shaped flowers burst into an effulgence of pale rose and glistening white bloom. The suggestion of a very faint, sweet aroma pervaded the air.

Above the promontories millions of auks again made black clouds against the sky,-eider ducks floated on the molten waters of sheltering fjords,-along the icy shores puffins, with white swelling breasts, sat in military line,-guillemots cooed their spring love songs and fulmar gulls uttered amorous calls,-on the green slopes the white hare of the arctic gambolled, and tiny bears, soft and silken flossed, played at the entrances of moss-ensconced caves. Out on the sea unexpected herds of walrus lay sleeping on floating ice; harp seals sported joyously in the waves; a white whale spouted shafts of blue water high into the air. From the interior mountains came the howl of wolves and foxes, the sound of rushing waters and the roar of released glaciers. Nature was vocal with awakening life.

In her igloo Annadoah lay alone-for with spring the time of her trial had come.

In the customary preparations for the coming of Annadoah's unborn child Ootah had entered with rare tenderness and solicitude. When a little one is expected among these northern people, new clothing, of the rarest skins of animals and the feathers of birds, must be made for both mother and child; a new igloo is built for the event by the happy father, for the little one they believe should come in a house unspotted and white as the driven snow. Annadoah was deserted, husbandless; the women of the tribe remained aloof from her; Ootah alone stood by her. And Ootah helped her with unselfish, eager gladness.

For several summers, in anticipation of the day when he might be a father, Ootah had gathered exquisite and delicate skins. These he now brought to Annadoah. There were silken young caribou hides, soft, fluffy white and blue fox pelts, as well as the skins of hares and the young of bears. Of these, Annadoah, in the last week of fading winter, made, according to custom, new garments for herself. Then, as the sun rose in early spring and the birds mated, Ootah went away to the high cliffs, where the auks nested, and jumping from crag to crag, hundreds of feet above the sea, gathered a thousand tiny baby auks, with crests of wondrous down, of which the hood for the unborn child was made. In these high crevices, from which at any moment he might be plunged to death, Ootah gathered mosses of ineffable softness, which were placed in the hood as a cushion for the little one.

Near her winter home, Ootah built a new igloo for Annadoah, and never was one made with more infinite patience and greater care. Inside it was immaculately white, and when he lighted the new lamp the walls glistened like silver; over the light he placed a new pot of soap stone, for everything in that place in which a new life was to come into being must by an unwritten law be freshly made and never used before. He built a bed of ice, laid it thick with moss, and over this tenderly placed, in turn, first walrus hides, then thick reindeer and warm fox skins. He brought to the igloo a supply of walrus meat, and then, fearful to be present at an event in which he had no right of participation, prepared to depart to the mountains to hunt game.

Before leaving he crept half fearfully into Annadoah's old igloo and told her all was ready. She smiled fondly and reached forth her little hands. "Thou art very kind, Ootah," she said, "thou art brave and kind." Ootah was at a loss for words, but his heart beat high, and he was very glad.

The natives watched Annadoah, as, arrayed in her immaculate garments, she made her way, with bowed head, to her new home; they whispered among themselves as they saw the ilisitok (wise woman) follow later.

When she sank on the new and wonderful couch, gratitude filled Annadoah's heart, and she murmured over and over again: "Thou art very kind, Ootah: thou art brave and kind." Somehow the bright igloo became black and she seemed to be floating on clouds. She remembered the Eskimo women wailing in the moonlight . . . by the open sea . . . and the curse they invoked upon her through the dead. She trembled and felt inordinately cold. But she knew it was spring, for outside the igloo, with blithesome and silvery sweetness, a bunting was singing.

When Annadoah awoke from her delirium of agony she saw that the wise woman had left her. The walls of the igloo sparkled as the flames of the lamp flickered. Over it a pot sizzled with walrus meat frying in fat. In her half-waking condition Annadoah realized that something lay by her, and turning, softly, she found a tiny, naked baby. Its skin was pale golden, its hair, unlike that of other babies, was of the color of the rays of the sun. With half-fearful gentleness she turned it over and over. Speechless with wonder, an inexplicable stirring in her bosom, she regarded its face-she observed its nose, the contour of its cheeks, the arrogance of its little chin; she noted in her child that curious and often brief resemblance of the new-born to the father-and this immediately recalled vividly and achingly the face of Olafaksoah. This was her child, and his. Surely, surely, with great joy she understood! With this thought, an impetuous longing for the father filled her. Passionately pressing the little creature to her breast she gave vent to the homesickness and ache of her heart in wild, convulsed sobs. The touch of the little one, the resemblance of its tiny face to that of the blond man-these brought back the old passion and longing in all their bitterness. Yet at the same time the child brought a new satisfying solace to her; it filled an immeasurable void in her heart. Now and again she held it from her, and suppressing her violent sobs, solemnly regarded its face. She could not get over the wonder and half-surprise that possessed her. With utter abandon she finally fiercely clutched it to her. The infant began to cry. Annadoah, with slow, cautious gentleness laid it down by her side, scared, amazed. Thereupon the baby for the first time opened its eyes. Annadoah leaned forward, gazing at it intently, wildly-then uttered a scream as though she had been stabbed to the heart.

When the wise woman-who had left Annadoah alone for a long sleep-returned to prepare food and to seek of the spirits the destined name of the child, she saw Annadoah

lying still, her face upturned, tear drops glistening beneath her eyes. The wise woman placed some of the fried walrus meat, or seralatoq-the prescribed food for a mother the day her child is born-into a stone plate and put it on the floor within reach of Annadoah. Then she melted some snow and placed it by the couch. Slowly approaching the bed she lifted the naked infant.

"When thy mother wakes," she muttered, "I shall call upon the spirits. I shall give thee the name they gave thee in the great dark ere thou earnest hither-the name which was born with thee and which shall be as thy shadow."

As she laid the little creature by the unconscious mother she saw a strange and frightful thing. The curse! And thereupon she knew she would not be called upon to learn of the spirits any name for this unhappy child. It had, indeed, been named by the dead and with it the unuttered name must soon return to the great dark. With set lips, and the grim determination of duty on her face, she crept softly from the igloo.

Annadoah awoke. At first she gazed about dazedly. Then she realized that the ilisitok had been with her-she observed the meat and warm water by her couch. She realized also that the wise woman must have seen the horror which had gripped her heart like the teeth of wolves. Beneath lids scarred as by the claws of a hawk, the baby's eyes had been blasted by some unknown prenatal disease-the terrible dead, with their talon-hands, had smitten! The child was organically blind, and, being defective and fatherless, Annadoah knew that, by the law of her people, it was doomed to immediate death. While she shook with terror, withal a grim determination rose within her. All the tremendous urge of that mighty mother-love which has beautified and ennobled the world clamored in the heart of this simple woman that her child must not die.

As she touched the infant with a sacred tenderness, her very hands warmed with the impassioned affection that throbbed through her with every heart-beat. As she gazed upon the features, faintly suggestive of its father's, she felt that she could never part from this familiar and intimate link with the spontaneous and powerful passion of her girlhood. When she peered into those piteous, blighted eyes, mighty sobs of pity shook her, but she felt that she must be silent, and she forced back the tears. Outside, a spring bunting was still singing, sweetly, ineffably.

As she caressed it, the child's face twisted as if in pain.

"Well do I know, little one, thou dost desire thy name-ategarumadlune," she said. "Thou dost desire it as that which is as precious as thy shadow. But the ilisitok has gone and never will she breathe o'er thee the name I know . . . the name I felt stirring within me since the night . . . when the women addressed the dead . . . Sweetly didst thou sing within my heart-but thy song came from the darkness. Yea . . . from the darkness. Ioh-iooh!"

Very gently, very softly, she pressed her fingers upon the baby's sightless eyes.

"I shall call thee little Blind Spring Bunting," she softly murmured, lifting the baby and pressing its tender face to her own. "Poor Little Blind Spring Bunting." She soothed its face, infinite pity in her eyes. "Thou wilt never see Sukh-eh-nukh, nor the ahmingmah, nor the birds that fly in the air, Spring Bunting. All thy days shall be as the long night, and thy whole life shall be without any light of moon. But thy heart is warm and bright as the sun in the south, whence Olafaksoah came, and it makes the heart of Annadoah very warm. Poor . . . Little . . . Blind Spring Bunting!"

Murmuring softly she rocked the little baby gently in her arms. Then she heard the ominous sound of a native rushing by the igloo and voices upraised. What were they saying? That Annadoah's child was blind?

A frantic determination to escape filled her. The danger was immediate-she must act at once. But what should she do? Where should she go?

She rose and moved bewilderedly about the igloo. She felt weak and dazed. At any moment they might break into her immaculate new home and seize the child from her arms. At any instant they might come with wicked ropes to wrap about the baby's tender neck. That she must flee she knew-but where? Where? She thought of Ootah. But Ootah was in the mountains. And not a moment could be lost. In these matters the natives lose little time. Moreover, she knew the women hated her; and that they had succeeded in making the men gradually bitter.

"Olafaksoah! Olafaksoah!" she called tragically. Then she recalled with a start that Olafaksoah had summer headquarters some twenty miles to the south. It was a boxhouse, built on a promontory of the Greenland coast. She remembered it, as she had seen it on a journey south some summers before; the way thither, dangerous at this season of the year when the ice was breaking, she well knew. Yes, she would seek refuge there.

"Perchance Olafaksoah hath returned-did he not say he would return in the spring? When the buntings sing?" She laughed spontaneously. "Yea, yea! We will go there, Little Blind Spring Bunting."

Quickly she adjusted her own new garments, and then she took the little golden baby and over its head and shoulders laced a tight-fitting hood of soft young fox skin. This done she gently placed the child into the hood on her back. Inside this was lined with the breasts of baby auks and made downy with fibrous moss. She hurriedly secured the child to herself by means of a sinew thread which passed about its body as it reposed in the hood, and which in turn, passing under her arms, she tied about the upper portion of her waist. The voices outside had ceased.

Suppressing her very breath, she crept through the long tunnel leading from the igloo and peeped cautiously from the entrance. She could hear her heart throb. She feared the natives might detect it.

Five hundred feet to the north a group were engaged in excited conversation. Annadoah's brain whirled with the fragments of what they said. She knew the moment had come to depart. She emerged and on all fours crept to the protecting lee of her igloo where she was hidden from their view.

An open space of six hundred feet lay between her and the cliff around which the trail to the southern shelter lay. Annadoah summoned all her strength of will, and then proceeded to walk slowly, with her head bent and her face concealed, so as to avoid arousing suspicion, over the dangerous area. Her heart trembled within her-at any moment she expected to hear the savage cries. When she reached the cliff she felt as if she were about to faint.

Looking fearfully backward, with a sigh of immeasurable relief, she saw that she was unobserved. Raising her head heavenward she breathed her thanks to the dead father and mother who were undoubtedly watching. She turned about the cliff, her heart bounding tumultuously, and, panting the words of the magic spell, asked that her legs be given the swiftness of the wind spirits. She was very faint, she had scarcely any feeling whatever in her limbs; but summoning all her courage, bringing to bear all the love of this child she sought to save, she turned and ran.

It was not long before she heard-or imagined-the angry cries of pursuing natives behind her.

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