FEED THE UKTENA by Sam Lauren

I didn't tell him it's an old legend or that I stopped
believing in Uktena when I was 12. I held my
father's hand and promised to do the impossible...
On my father's deathbed, he could not remember which of the crying women around him was his wife or what his own name was, but he knew he had hidden a diamond in a cave. He clasped my hand and urged me to find it.

“You must feed the Uktena,” he said. “It is time.”

The room was dark, lit only by candles and half hidden phone screens. My sister’s bloodshot eyes glanced at me across the bed. My girlfriend clasped my hand tighter, the way she does when dad calls me by his dead brother’s name. Mother’s silent stream of tears became a babbling brook.

My father didn't notice any of this. He made everyone else leave, so “they won't be burdened by this secret,” and he told me where to find the diamond of Uktena.

“You must feed it tonight,” he said. “If you do not he will escape and feed on your family.”

I didn't tell him it's an old legend, or that I stopped believing in Uktena when I was 12. I held my father's thin, leathery hand and promised to do the impossible.

“Go,” he said. “Now. Use the bow I have stored in the cave. Bring the bearskin back with you so I can lay on it as I die, and be soothed by memories of my youth.”

My heart tightened a bit at these words. I had intended to retreat to the living room with the rest of the family and pretend I'd sought out this diamond. I didn't believe it existed. But what if there really was a bearskin rug hidden in a cave out there, somewhere? I couldn't refuse my father his dying wish.

I brought my girlfriend with on my trek into the woods.

Even with the sorrow weighing on my soul, it was a bit romantic. A slight breeze cooled the air and coaxed the leaves into a ruffled song. It was so quiet- that time of night when even the bugs and bullfrogs are asleep.

The full moon lit our way. Its silver rays gave Andrea’s raven hair a shine that we would never have seen in the daylight.

I smiled. Ironic, that thoughts like that are exactly what started the Uktena myth. The sun was jealous of our people's love for the moon so she tried to kill us. We sent Uktena to kill her.

“Do you know the myth of Uktena?” I asked.

Andrea shook her head.

“He's a giant snake, as big as a tree, with horns on his head. He's fueled by rage.”

She laughed. “So I'll get to see him in the cave? What do you feed a snake that big?”

The trees grew thicker there, darker. Every snap of a twig had me glancing over my shoulder in search of a menacing creature or a trickster squirrel. The color of the forest was lost to shades of black and grey yet it had never looked so beautiful. Nor intimidating.

I led Andrea to the creek and then we left the path to follow the water, just as my father had described. “Blood,” I said.  

Her laugh was shorter, and muffled by uneasiness.

“It’s just a story,” I said. “There's no snake there. Even in the story, there isn't really. Just his soul.”

“What's the story?”

The creek behind us made a bubbling, mucky sound and we both flinched. A spooked frog diving in, maybe.

“The sun was jealous of the moon so she began poisoning us with her rays. We used the magic of the Little Ones to turn men into snakes- Rattlesnake and Uktena.”

“Little Ones?”

“Fairies.”

“Oh.”

She glanced around as if she thought she would spy one watching from the thicket. That's not how it works though. They are always spying on us, they are everywhere, and vicious; but we cannot see them unless they want us to. Their reasons are usually malicious.

“Anyway, we sent Uktena to kill the sun. But the rattlesnake got there first and killed the sun’s daughter. Which worked, because the sun retreated in sorrow and wasn't poisoning us anymore.”

We reached the cave. Andrea almost walked past it, so hidden was its entrance, but I recognized my father's hunting mark scratched into the rock.

“Here,” I said.

We both stared down at an opening maybe a foot high and twice as wide, that slanted into the ground. “I thought you meant a regular cave,” she said.

“That wouldn't be safe.”

“This isn't safe! We can't go in there, there could be animals living in there.”

“I'll go first.”

Andrea protested, looking around at the woods. It feels closer when you are scared. Like it wants to wrap around you in a strangling hug. I had learned to embrace it but she had not.

“I'll be quick,” I said. “I just need to grab the bearskin.”

I army crawled down the short slope until the stone above me stretched out into a ceiling I could stand under. The room was lit by the soft blue glow of a diamond, perched on an altar of rocks opposite the entrance. The bearskin covered an earthen floor. My father's bow leaned against a wall.

Andrea followed me in. She caught her breath with a whoa that I felt echo in my heart.  

“Is that a diamond?”

She moved forward to touch it but I stayed her hand. “Don't. It will kill you.”

“What?” She looked more confused than frightened.

I winked at her. “That's what the legend says.”

“Oh. Tell me the rest. Did you know this was here?”

We sat cross-legged on the bearskin and I told her the tale of Uktena, just like my father had done for me. Andrea was no child but the story has been scaring warriors for centuries. It made the cave seem smaller. It made me feel like we were alone in the world, us and the captured soul of Uktena.

But that was silly. It's just a myth.

“Rattlesnake got all the glory. Uktena was furious. He killed Rattlesnake’s family, one by one, to punish the warrior inside the snake.

“Next he killed other members of the tribe that had praised Rattlesnake. He kept killing innocent people, and we tried to stop him but the Little Ones had made him nearly invincible so that he could fight the sun.

“He had one weakness- the 7th spot on his back. Behind it is his heart. After many years, a brave warrior was able to take down Uktena by shooting him in the heart. He took the heart, a blue diamond, out of Uktena’s body and hid it in a cave so that the spirit of Uktena would not be able to escape and return to his body.”

Andrea’s eyes widened. “This is Uktena’s heart?”

“Probably not the original Uktena. He split his soul to make children, and they are said to still roam the land.”

The diamond’s glow caught in her eyes. I had never seen a rock emit light like that, even a precious one. The room felt alive. It was an unpleasant sensation, like walking to the kitchen in the dark at night. You tell yourself you are alone but you wonder if someone is lurking behind the next wall, waiting for you.

“The heart must be fed the blood of small game every week, and large game twice a year. If it is not fed it escapes the cave and searches for its body. It kills the family of the warrior. Then their families, then their friends.”

My father's feet had worn a path across the bearskin to the small stone on its stand. I could imagine him, he who had held onto his strength until the very end, taking the bow out into the woods and stalking a deer to feed our family. He'd taught me how to be patient, how to steady the arrow. Where to aim.  

But bringing his catch here, to smear blood across the alleged heart of Uktena?

“I can't believe he did this, week after week,” I said. “It's just an old story.”

The diamond pulsed on its altar.

Andrea jumped. “Is it supposed to do that?”

“I don't know, I don't think diamonds are supposed to glow at all.”

It pulsed again. And again. The beats came quicker until they were as steady as my own racing heart.

Andrea grasped my arm and we both struggled to stand. I picked up the bearskin rug and threw it over my shoulder. “I think we should go.”

She grabbed the bow and its small quiver of arrows. “I think you should feed it.”
Sam Lauren is a journalist and short story writer from Northwest Indiana. Her works include horror and fantasy published by Zoetic Press, Cracked Flash, and Everyday Fiction.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff


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Comments

  1. I want to read more!

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  2. I was hooked from the very start and intrigued right up to the very end. I love how the story flows so naturally, and that it is never quite clear whether the legend is mere superstition, or perilous truth. This story straddles that delicate line perfectly.
    Though I am with Andrea ... maybe they should feed it. Just in case.

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  3. I love your story too. So proud to know the author before she became famous!

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