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The Eternal Maiden By T. Everett Harre Characters: 29033

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"A frail, pitiful figure Annadoah stood on the cliff, wringing her hands toward the declining sun . . . 'I-o-h-h-h,' she moaned, and her voice sobbed its pathos over the seas. 'I-o-h-h-h! I-o-h-h-h, Sukh-eh-nukh! Unhappy sun-unhappy sun! I-o-h-h-h, Annadoah-unhappy, unhappy Annadoah!'"

Twenty miles to the south, on a great cliff which stepped stridently into the polar sea, stood a house built of stray timber and boxes which, for a half decade, had been the summer headquarters of parties of Danish and Newfoundland traders who came north annually and scoured Greenland for ivories and furs. The hulk of a house was weather-beaten, dilapidated, and scarred black by the burning cold. A more desolate habitation could not be imagined in all the world, a more devastated land could nowhere else on all the globe be found. For leagues and leagues to the north and south, the scrofulous promontories lay barren under the blight of the merciless northern blasts. Over the corroded iron rocks strata of red earth and deeper crimson ore ran like the streaky stains of monstrous and unhuman murders committed in aeons past. Not a particle of vegetation was visible; there were no lichens nor starry flowers. There was no life save that of the black birds which winged restlessly about the sky and squawked in grotesque mockery at the region and its doom. In strange contrast, the sky was as blue as the limpid skies of Umbria,-and nearly two hundred feet below the gnarled gashed cliff the ocean broke in terrific cascades of diamonded foam.

The top of the cliff on which the house stood overleaped the sea, so that, looking below, one saw only the recoiling waters of a rich, deep gold, capped with silver crescents of broken spray. From the sheer precipitous receding face of the cliff, knife-like granite spars projected, and in the crevices and nooks of these countless birds nested. Hungry, desirous, insatiate-the voice of that fearful and balefully luring world-there sounded eternally the roar and crash of the breaking golden waves.

Over the uneven scraggy promontory, blinded by the fierce sunlight, Annadoah staggered. The world reeled about her; the sky above her had become black. Before her-a small speck in the distance-she saw the black wooden house silhouetted against the molten sea. She could scarcely move her legs; she ached in every limb; every moment she felt as if she would swoon, but the frenzied fear in her heart urged her on. She suffered intolerably.

Of that long, tortuous journey Annadoah had no clear remembrance-with each step her one urging, predominant thought had been to forge ahead, to keep from swooning,-to escape those who were angrily calling far behind.

Leaving her village, along the difficult broken coast her trail lay; it crept painfully up over the slippery sides of melting glaciers, some of them a thousand feet high, and made sheer descents over places where the ice was splitting; it writhed about hundreds of irregular sounds and twisted fjords.

In her desperation to escape, Annadoah, without a thought of the danger, essayed to cross fjords where the ice was breaking. As she sped over deceptive unbroken areas the ice often split under her feet. In one of the sounds jammed ice was moving. To go around it she knew would mean a loss of three miles. She leaped upon the heaving ice. It rocked dangerously beneath her feet. As she left the shore the current increased, the ice moved more swiftly. From cake to cake she leaped with the agility of an arctic deer. The ice floes swirled under her and tilted as her feet alighted. Half way across, her foot slipped-the ice fragment eluded her wild grasp and she sank into the frigid water. She felt herself sinking; for a moment she seemed unable to continue the struggle-then she recalled the dear burden upon her back. She fought the swift current and grappled madly with the jamming ice. It gathered about her-she feared she would be buried by the force of the impact. But with a mighty struggle she finally grasped hold of a fortunate ridge on a cake and clambered to its surface. The baby was unscathed. It was crying loudly in its hood. Although her hands were almost frozen, the cold water had not entered her garments. She leaped into the air and fled. She next scaled the rocky face of a precipice to gain time-the rocks cut her face and hands. Swarms of birds, frightened from their nests, surrounded her. Their cries filled her with terror. Reaching, on the farther side, shallow streams over which thin ice lay, she bravely forged ahead-the ice broke-her feet sank into the mud. Her breath gave out-she felt paralyzing pangs in her lungs. Yet the cries behind-which had become somewhat more distant-urged her on. Again and again, in crossing water moving with broken ice her feet slipped into black, treacherous streams, and, swimming with native skill, she saved the child from the least harm. By degrees its cries ceased and it fell into slumber. Occasionally Annadoah was compelled to rest, to regain her breath. Her reserve strength-as is that of her people-was tremendous. Staggering slowly ahead, she often sank into engulfing morasses where the earth had melted and willows were sprouting. Panting, trembling in every limb, she fought her way out. For the better part of the journey her legs moved mechanically-she was only half conscious. Urged by her superhuman determination, the little woman struggled over twenty miles, and when she reached the great promontory where the house stood, her kamiks were torn, her clothing was soaked with frigid water, and her hands were bleeding from wounds inflicted by the sharp rocks.[1]

Behind her, in her delirious flight, Annadoah ever heard the threatening cries of pursuing tribesmen.

As she approached the wooden house she staggered to and fro, and at one time was perilously near the edge of the cliff.

Upon her back the infant slept peacefully.

"Olafaksoah! Olafaksoah!" she struggled to call, but her voice fell to a whisper.

The windows of the grim house were as black as burnt holes; they glared at her unseeingly, without welcome-like blind eyes.

Desperately she raised her voice. Only a panting, breathless plaint quavered over the dumb, unreplying rocks. The sea licked its yellow, hungry tongues below.

At the door of the frame house Annadoah paused and still without losing hope again essayed to call. Her voice broke. The house was undoubtedly vacant. There was no reply.

She bent her head to listen. She could hardly hear because of the pound of blood in her ears.

Surely he had come-did he not say he would come in the spring?

She tried the door. It was locked.

She beat it frenziedly with her fists. She beat it until her fingers bled.

Then she threw her body against it like a mad thing. With crooked fingers she clawed savagely at the wood. At last she quelled the tumult in her bosom and found voice.

"Olafaksoah-Olafaksoah-Olafaksoah-ioh-h-h! Ioh-h-h!" she screamed. She sank to her knees and pounded at the door-sill with her fists.

When the native tribesmen, furious at her flight, at her temerity in trying to evade their inviolable law, clambered up the cliff, they saw a dark, stark figure lying still before the door of the box-house. Their voices rose in a raucous clamor.

Like wolves descending eagerly upon their prey they bore down upon the unconscious woman. Some of the women of the tribe had accompanied them. Their voices rose with eager, glad calls to vengeance; they demanded the life of Annadoah's child without delay. The shrill howl of their dogs was mingled in that vindictive, savage chorus.

"Little Blind Spring Bunting," Annadoah murmured, awakened from her trance by the approaching calls.

Opening her eyes she saw the troop descending. Staggering to her feet she stood with her back against the door, facing the clamoring crowd defiantly. In their veins the savage blood of fierce centuries was aroused, in Annadoah's heart all the primitive ferocity of maternal protection.

They surrounded her. The struggle was brief. In a moment-while strong hands held her-they cut the sinew lashing and rudely tore the baby from its hood. Annadoah fell back, half-stunned, against the floor; in their midst the merciless howling natives had the helpless infant.

As they bore it over the promontory Annadoah uttered a savage, snarling cry, as of a mountain wolf robbed of its youngling, and furiously rushed after them.

Grasping hold of two of the men, she piteously begged them to give her the child. She made frantic promises. She pleaded, she sobbed, she raved incoherently. Holding to the men with a fierce grip she was dragged along on her knees. Then letting go, she cursed the tribe; she called upon them the malediction of all the spirits. Her voice broke-she could only scream. She tore her hair and fell prostrate, her body throbbing on the rocks.

Above the clamor Annadoah suddenly heard a strangely familiar voice shouting from the distance. Raising herself slightly, she saw a well-known figure bounding over the promontory toward the murderous natives. Her heart bounded-she recognized Ootah.

Having returned from the mountains Ootah had learned of Annadoah's flight and the pursuit; and with an unselfish determination to save the child he had immediately followed.

At the very edge of the cliff the natives paused. In his hands, Attalaq, the leader of the pursuit, held the crying babe. Their voices were raised to an uproar; the women were chattering fiercely. With quick dexterity Attalaq loosely twisted a leather thong about the baby's neck, and in haste to finish the tragic task began swaying it in his hands so as to give the helpless creature momentum in its plunge to death. Ootah bounded toward them.

"Aulate! Aulate! Halt!" Ootah cried. "I will be father to Annadoah's child."

The crowd turned-for a moment they gazed with mingled feelings of awed surprise, half-incredulous wonder and speechless admiration upon this man who offered to make the greatest sacrifice possible to one of the tribe; to become the father, protector and supporter of another man's helpless, defective infant. For, according to their custom, they just as spontaneously grant life to a defective child when a member offers to assume sole responsibility for its keeping as they are implacably determined upon its death if its mother is husbandless. But seldom does any man make this sacrifice; in this land of rigorous hardship and starvation it means much.

Ootah fought his way among them. They gave way, and a low groan arose-his noble offer had come too late!

On the crest of a golden wave a tiny white speck of a baby face gazed in open-eyed, frightened astonishment skyward, and in a lull of the intermittent rush of waters a thin, piercing baby cry arose from the golden sea.

Awe-stricken, abashed, suddenly overwhelmed with regret and shame, the natives silently drew back . . . Ootah paused at the very edge of the cliff . . . he saw Annadoah's pleading white face . . . he extended his arms as a bird opens its wings for flight and brought the finger tips of his hands together above his head. For a moment his body slightly swayed, then poising to secure unerring aim, he leaped into the dashing sea . . .

Still and statuesque as a figure of stone, but wild-eyed, Annadoah stood alone on the extreme edge of the precipitous cliff and watched the struggle in the dizzy depths below . . .

Awed by the splendor of a heroism so dauntless, a love so overwhelming, unselfish and great, the natives retreated to a far distance and waited in fearful silence.

The prolonged infinity of suspense and horror of many long arctic nights seemed concentrated in the brief spell that Annadoah tensely, breathlessly, watched the struggle of the man to save her child.

Annadoah saw Ootah disappear in the waters after his desperate dive from the cliff and rise with unerring precision on the surface near the sinking babe. The sea came thundering against the jagged rocks in long, terrific swells, and was hurled back in a torrential tumult of breaking foam. Ootah fought the seething waves in his effort to grapple the living thing which was to Annadoah as the heart of her bosom. The tiny speck had begun to sink-Ootah made a dive under the water-and rose with the infant clasped in his left arm. With only one hand free, he made a desperate struggle against the onslaught of the terrible watery catapults as they hurled him, nearer and nearer, toward the rocks beneath the cliff. Annadoah saw his white hand, glistening with water, shine in the sunlight as he tried to climb against the impetus of the sea. Sometimes his head sank-then only the struggling hand was seen. She crept dangerously closer to the edge of the cliff . . . Slowly, but steadily, Ootah and the child were being swept backward . . . By degrees the steady strokes of Ootah's arm began to waver. Annadoah saw him being carried further and further under the cliff by the irresistible momentum of the waves . . . To be dashed against the jagged rocks beneath she knew meant death. Her heart seemed to stop . . . but presently, swirling helplessly in the foaming cauldron of a receding breaker, she saw Ootah, still clasping the baby, emerge from under the rocks. He still lived. He still fought. Annadoah watched each desperate, failing stroke. She saw his strength giving out in that unequal struggle, saw his arm frenziedly but ineffectually beating the water, saw his head disappear . . . for longer and still longer periods . . . She caught a last vision of his white upturned face, of his eyes, filled with importunate devotion, gazing directly at her from out the blinding waters . . .

Then she fell to her knees, and lowering her body, gazed wildly, for a long, long time, into the sea . . .

Suddenly she uttered a low, sharp, involuntary cry-and the waiting tribesmen, recoiling as though stunned, understood. They all loved Ootah-none dared, none could speak. Silent, grief-stricken, they turned away their faces-even their dogs were still. Annadoah still peered, searchingly, for a long time, into the sea.

No, there was nothing there-nothing. On the aureate waves was no speck of life.

Rising, Annadoah gazed with wide-open, solemn eyes seaward; for the moment she felt in her heart only a dull ache.

Along the horizon to the east the sun, irradiant and magnified, lay low over the heaving seas. Over its face, like a vei

l of gold, translucent vapors-the breath of Kokoyah, the god of waters-rose from the melting floes. A strange spell seemed suddenly to have fallen over the earth. Out on the ocean the great bergs, which had majestically moved southward like the phantoms of perished ships, seemed to pause. The little birds which had clustered about the rocks disappeared. High in the sky above her, a sinister black bird poised motionless in the air.

At her feet the roaring clamor of the waves seemed resolved into the solemn sobbing measure of some chant for the dead.

Slowly and by degrees the utter realization of her loss dawned upon the soul of Annadoah. And to her in that magical spell the spirits of nature and the souls of the dead began to manifest themselves.

Out of the crimson-shot vapors mystical forms took shape. Annadoah saw the beautiful face of Nerrvik, and in the mists saw her watery green and wondrous tresses of uncombed hair. She saw the nebulous shadow of the dreaded Kokoyah, the pitiless god of the waters, to whose cold, compassionless bosom had been gathered Ootah and Little Blind Spring Bunting.

Along the horizon Annadoah saw the clouds moving to the south. Higher up they moved to the west, and toward the zenith stray flecks moved to the north. The spirits of the air were not at peace among themselves. And dire things were brooding. From the inland highlands of Greenland now came a series of swift explosions, and in the brief succeeding interval there was an unearthly silence. Then a grinding crash rent the air. The spirits of the mountains had engaged in combat. And in the swift downward surge of the glacial avalanches Annadoah saw tribes wiped from existence and villages swept into the sun-litten sea. But Annadoah knew that the sun-litten sea was a treacherous sea; she knew that Koyokah, whose face in the mist was wan, whose lips were golden, had no love for men, and she knew that the spirits of the air, who moved in the diversely soaring clouds, were engaged in some fell conspiracy against her helpless race.

A vague realization of the impotence of humanity against fate, against the forces that weave the loom of life within and without one's heart, weighed crushingly upon her.

Radiant indeed was the sky and softly molten golden the glorious sea, but yet, grim and grisly, behind this smiling face of nature, Annadoah, primitive child of the human race, shudderingly felt the malevolent and evil eyes of Perdlugssuaq, the spirit of great evil, he who brings sickness and death. Annadoah felt that instinctive fear which humanity has felt from the beginning-the superstitious terror of tribes who confront extinction, in the face of famine; the quiet white tremor of the hard working hordes of modern cities in the face of poverty and starvation; the dread of savage and civilized races alike of the incomprehensible factor in the universe which wreaks destruction, that original and ultimate evil which all the world's religions recognize, interpret, and offer to placate-the force that is hostile to man and the happiness of man.

On the smooth tossing waters, reflecting the glory of the sky, there was no sign of those who had perished.

Then, after the first crushing sense of helplessness, an instinctive, insurgent hope that would not be defeated asserted itself. Annadoah called upon Nerrvik, for surely Nerrvik was kind to men. She pleaded with Kokoyah. She importuned the spirits of the sea and air to return her beloved ones to her.

"Nerrvik! Nerrvik!" Annadoah supplicated persuasively, "gentle spirit of the sea, lift Ootah unto me! Thou who art kind to man and givest him fishes from the deep for food, give unto Annadoah's arms Little Blind Spring Bunting."

She swayed her frail body to and fro, and in a tremulous, plaintive chant told unto the gentle and gracious spirit of the waters all that Ootah had been, all that he had done for the tribe; of his prowess, of his love for her, of her own hardness, and how she had turned a deaf ear to his pleading. Incident after incident she recalled. She told of the long night, when Ootah went by moonlight into the mountains, how he had braved the hill spirits, how they struck him in the frigid highlands, and how the beneficent quilanialequisut had brought him home. Her exquisite voice rose to a splendid crescendo as she described that valorous adventure, and in the chant ran the motifs of the hill spirit's anger, the brave leaping steps of Ootah, the tremor of the mountains as they were struck, and the deep tenderness of Ootah's love. In that customary chanting address to the spirits, Annadoah told of Ootah's return from the mountains, of the suffering he endured, and how, when she soothed him, she thought of the great trader from the south. She recalled how he had staggered from the igloo, the agony in his eyes, and how she heard him sobbing his heart-break in the auroral silence without her igloo through the long sleep.

Extending her arms over the sea, Annadoah reiterated, after each statement of Ootah's bravery, her plea to Nerrvik that Ootah be given back to her.

"Nerrvik! Nerrvik!" she called, "surely thou art kind! O thou whom, when the great petrel raised a storm, wast cast into the depths by those thou didst love, thou whose heart achest for affection-hear me, hear me, and Annadoah will surely come to thee very soon and comb thy hair in the depths of the cold, cold sea." [2]

Tears fell from her eyes. With self-reproach she told of her old longing for Olafaksoah, the blond man from the south, whose grim, fierce face had cowed her, yet whose brutality had thrilled her, to whose beast-strength and to whose beast-passion all that was feminine in her had surrendered itself. But he had left her-he said that he would come back in the spring. Now, she knew he would not come back-and she did not care. As if to convince the spirit of this, she compared Olafaksoah with Ootah; she knew now that he had used her to rob her people, that his heart was as stone. Ootah, she had once said, had the heart of a woman; but now she realized the difference between them. She knew the arms of Ootah were strong, that the words of Ootah were true, that the heart of Ootah was kind. And she felt stirring in her bosom things she could not express; a vague comprehension of the pure spirituality of the man who had died to save her child, a response to the love that had stirred in the bosom now cold beneath the sea. All the primitive deep profundity of the devotion of that wild-hearted man who had brought a wealth of food to her from over the mountains, who had faced death for her on the frozen seas, who had tended her in her time of trial with the gentleness of a woman, his indomitable heroism, the splendor, the dauntless unselfishness and bravery of his offering to father her sightless child-all this-all this, and more-welled up in the heart of Annadoah.

"Nerrvik! Nerrvik! To him who loved her Annadoah lied. Dead, she told him, was her heart as a frozen bird in wintertime-but her heart was only sleeping! And now the wings are beating-beating within her breast! Ootah! Ootah! Ioh-h, ioh-h!"

Her voice broke. She beat her little breasts. She bent over the sea and listened. For a long while she watched.

Then, from the shadows in the clouds, the answer came. Truly Ootah was brave, and his heart was marvellously kind; unsurpassed was his skill on the hunt and of every animal did he kill; and great was his love for Annadoah. Even the spirits had marvelled and spoken of it among themselves; but Annadoah had chosen her fate; she had denied the love that had unfalteringly pursued her, and now that she desired it, even so to her was that love to be denied. That was fate.

Then in a clamorous outbreak did Annadoah plead with Kokoyah. She grovelled on the ground. She called upon all the spirits of the winds and air. In a tremulous, heart-broken plaint she finally called upon the spirits of her father, her mother, and those who had gone before them.

But unrelenting, passionless, the answer came-from the shadows in the clouds, from the winds, from the moaning sea. To warm the wild heart under the water was beyond the power of all the spirits. They repeated to her, as in mockery, all that she had told them that Ootah had done, of his mighty love for her; but nevermore might she soothe his injured limbs, nevermore might she touch his gentle hands, nevermore might she look into his tender and adoring eyes. His hands were cold, his eyes were closed, his heart was still. It throbbed with the thought of her no more-and that would be forever. That was fate.

A frail, pitiful figure, Annadoah stood on the cliff, wringing her hands toward the declining sun. In the midst of that wild golden-burning desolation, Annadoah felt her utter loneliness, her tragic helplessness. In all the universe she felt herself utterly alone.

Far away, awed by the heroism, the very splendor of the bravery of the man who had perished, the tribe stood murmuring. In their hearts was no little unkindness toward Annadoah. But, forsaken, outcast, she did not care.

Over the aureate shimmering seas she wrung her little hands and into the waves lapping at her feet her tears fell like rain. For the heart of Annadoah ached. Nothing in the world any more mattered. All that she had loved had perished in the sea. And she loved too late.

Gazing at the low-lying sun, veiled as in a vapor of tears, remote, and sadly golden in its self-destined isolation, an instinctive wild-world-understanding of that tragedy of all life, of all the universe perchance-of that unselfish love that is too often denied and the unhappy love that accents only too late-vaguely filled her primitive heart.

Sinking to her knees, convulsed sobs shaking her, she wrung her hands toward the sun, the eternal maiden Sukh-eh-nukh, the beautiful, the all-desired.

"I-o-h-h-h!" she moaned, and her voice sobbed its pathos over the seas. "I-o-h-h-h! I-o-h-h-h! I-o-h-h-h, Sukh-eh-nukh! I-o-o-h-h, Sukh-eh-nukh! Unhappy sun-unhappy sun! I-o-o-h-h-h-h, Annadoah! I-o-o-o-h-h-h-h, Annadoah! Unhappy, unhappy Annadoah!"

Annadoah's head sank lower and lower. Her weeping voice melted in the melancholy sobbing of the aureate sea. One by one the natives departed. She was left alone. To the north the sky darkened with one of those sudden arctic storms which come, as in a moment's space, and blast the tender flowers of spring. A cold wind moaned a pitiless lament from the interior mountains. Yellow vapors gathered about the dimming sun. Ominous shadows took form on the shimmering sea.

"I-o-h-h-h-iooh! Unhappy sun-unhappy, unhappy Annadoah!"

Taking fire in the subdued sunlight-and descending from heaven like a gentle benediction of feathery flakes of gold-over and about the dark, crouched figure, softly . . . very softly . . . the snow began to fall.

[1] Annadoah's flight, extraordinary as it is, is not without even more remarkable precedents. In one case a woman who had been rejected by her husband made a forty-mile journey during winter to a spot south of her village where a child, some years before, had been buried. There the woman wept and thus consoled herself. Having exhausted her grief, she returned to her people. On the trip she had no food whatever.

[2] Nerrvik, a beautiful maiden, according to the legend, married a storm-petrel who had disguised himself as a man. When she discovered the deception she was filled with horror, so that later, when her relatives visited her, she determined to escape with them. When the petrel returned from a hunting trip and discovered that his wife had gone, he followed, and flapping his great wings raised a terrible storm at sea. Water filled the boat in which Nerrvik was escaping. When they realized that Nerrvik was the cause of the storm her brothers cast her into the sea. With one hand she clung to the boat; her grandfather lifted his knife and struck. Nerrvik descended into the ocean and became the queen of the fishes. Possessing only one hand she cannot plait her hair. A magician who can go to Nerrvik in a trance and arrange her tresses wins her gratitude and can secure from her for the hunters quantities of fish. It is interesting to note the similarity of the legend of Nerrvik to that of Jonah. But just as the Eskimos have changed the masculine sun of southern mythologies to the feminine, so the victim of the mythological sea storm in the arctic becomes a woman.

FINALE

According to the legends of the tribes, not for many long and aching ages shall the melancholy moon win the radiant but desolate Sukh-eh-nukh. For having refused love she is compelled to flee in her elected lot from the love she now desires but which she once denied, and this by a fate more relentless than the power of Perdlugssuaq, a fate which they do not comprehend, but which is, perchance, the Will of Him Whose Voice sometimes comes as a strange whistling singing in the boreal lights, and Who, to the creatures of His making, teaches the lessons of life through the sorrows which result from the acts of their own choosing . . . Sometime-when, they do not know-the sun and moon will meet. They will then, having endured loneliness and long yearning, be immeasurably happy, and in the consummation of their desire all mankind will share . . . For as ultimate darkness closes, all who have been true to the highest ideals of the chase will be lifted into celestial hunting grounds, where no one is ever hungry nor where is it ever cold; all who have done noble deeds will be hailed as celestial heroes. He who died to save another will attain immortal life; he who gave of his substance to feed the starving will find ineffable food and in abundance; he who loved greatly, who suffered rejection uncomplainingly, and who sought untiringly-even as the moon pursued Sukh-eh-nukh for ages-will, in that land where the heart never aches and where there are no tears, see the very fair face of his beloved smiling a divine welcome, and her eyes filled with a radiant response, gazing into his own. The end of the world will come, and with it will cease the suffering struggles of all the world's races. And then all the highest hopes of men will find their realisation in an undreamed-of heaven to which all who have lived without cowardice, ingratitude or taint of selfishness in their hearts, will be translated as the world's last aurora closes its mystic veils in the northern skies.

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