CHENOO: The Man With the Heart of Ice by Rachael Lucas
Once, in the far north, there was a woman called Nadie. She had earned this name for her cleverness and quick thinking. Her husband was not only known as a great hunter and a wise man, but was also considered very handsome, so that he was known as Huritt. Their only child was a boy named Mingan.
The sky was a soft gray like the wings of a dove on the day they set out from the camp of their friends and family to go hunting in the woodlands to the north. A few flakes of soft, white snow drifted down, settling on Nadie’s hair. Ahead of her, beside the dog sled, Mingan stopped to stare up at the flakes. Then he let out a joyful cry and started jumping and hopping about, trying to catch the illusive crystals out of the air.
Nadie smiled softly to herself. It was only the boy’s fifth winter, and the magic of snow still enchanted him without the added weight of responsibility which comes with having to feed a family in winter. The People of the Dawn were used to dealing with the harsh cold, but it was still a weight on both of the parent’s minds to know that they had to provide for the little family in the coming months.
As they walked, Nadie kept an eye both on her son and the dog with its sled. This simple Travios was full of many of their most important supplies.
Ahead of the woman walked Huritt, a spear held at ready in his hands and a bow with its quiver slung across his back. His braid of dark hair bobbed back and forth across his bow, slowly becoming white from the snow. Nadie pulled her bearskin blanket tighter across her shoulders; it was becoming colder as night came on.
Soon the little family stopped to camp for the night, erecting a simple shelter of skins and bark which could be quickly taken down again in the morning. That night they slept huddled up together for warmth, as the snow continued to fall in the darkness. The next morning there was three inches on the frozen ground; not deep enough yet to wear snowshoes, but just deep enough to make the going harder.
All that day and for three more days afterwards they continued north. Then, on the afternoon of the fifth day, Huritt declared that they should stop and make a permanent camp. The snow had stopped coming down, leaving a crusty six inches behind, and there was a break in the clouds above. The ice-blue sky looked down through the break like a great eye, and as she began setting up a bark shelter, Nadie wondered if it was the eye of the Great Spirit, watching over them from above.
As she worked, Mingan played with his bows and arrows around the edges of the little clearing in the woods. Most likely, the woman reflected, he was pretending that it was a bear or some other fierce animal which he was hunting. The young ones always enjoyed playing at hunting something fierce.
Huritt was out hunting himself, though it was probably the timid deer he was after, and Nadie picked up her stone ax to go break apart some dry branches for firewood. Her man would be hungry when he came back from the cold hunt, and would want something warm to fill him.
She went over to a dying oak tree which stood beside a clump of bushes on the edge of the clearing and began chopping at its dead branches. Clump, crack, clump, crack.
She had already amassed a small pile of wood when she heard a rustling in the bushing beside her. Thinking that it would only be Mingan, playing his games, she turned to look at him with a smile on her face. But it froze like a teardrop in the snow as she stared, terrified at what she saw in the bushes.
It was not the playful face of a little boy looking out at her; It was the hideous face of a Chenoo. Lips gnawed from his never-ending hunger, face blue from the cold, he stared at her with ravenous eyes. His face was as thin as that of a starving wolf and his hair a tangled mess. One hand reached out of the bushes toward Nadie, fingernails like long purple claws.
Like all of the Dawn People, the woman knew the stories of the people called Chenoo. Once, they had been real, warm-hearted people like anyone else. But through greed, stinginess with food, or even cannibalism their hearts turned to ice, and they roamed the northlands looking for warm flesh to eat. Especially the flesh of humans.
Nadie was truly terrified, but she gathered her wits quickly together and did something so brave that she hardly recognized herself in doing it; she took a step closer to the frightening personage, and spoke as if glad to see him. “Father!” She cried, a smile stretched on her face “Where have you been? We have been looking for you!”
And with that, she hardened herself to reach out her hand and take his in it. Confused at such a warm welcoming, Chenoo did not jump on her and rend her to shreds. Instead, he blinked his starved-wolf eyes and allowed her to lead him out into the open. He was a truly pitiful sight, clothed in a few rags and blue all over from cold. His arms and legs were scratched from pushing through bushes, and his lower lip was bloody from being gnawed in his endless hunger.
Feeling true pity for him, Nadie lead him over to the shelter and dressed him in a spare suit of her husband’s clothes. Then she offered him something to eat; a bowl of cold meat stew. But he just pushed it away and slumped to the ground, sitting with a look of sullen bewilderment on his face. He did not understand kindness; everyone which he had met before had screamed and begged for mercy as soon as they had set eyes on him.
Nadie looked at him for a moment, trying to decide what to do next. Then, she heard the sound of Huritt coming back through the woods and ran out to explain to him what had happened. When he had heard the whole story, the man praised her for her resourcefulness and courage. He saw that treating the Chenoo kindly could be the best course of action, and entered the shelter with the words “Ah! Father-in-law, it is good to see you again! You are very welcome in my house.”
Chenoo just stared at him, not understanding.
That night the Chenoo slept in the lodge, having erected a small screen to protect himself from the heat of the fire. But the family did not sleep, being far too anxious that he might awake and decide to eat them in the night.
The next morning, the man had to go out hunting again, but cautioned his wife to be very careful while he was gone.
She agreed, and told Mingan to play outside today, but only where she could see him. Then she took up her ax and went out to chop some more fire wood. As she was working, Chenoo came out of the shelter and drifted over to stand beside her. She tensed, afraid that he had decided to eat her after all. But he simply watched for a moment before holding out his hand and speaking in a ghostly voice “Give me the ax.”
Trembling, she handed it to him, and then watched in amazement as he began hacking and flailing at the dead oak. Chips of wood flew as he broke it all to bits, and then moved on to chop at another tree. Finally, there was so much firewood on the ground that Nadie knew they could never burn it all, and she called out;
“Father! That is enough, you can stop now!”
Chenoo stopped, and walked back to her slowly. In his eyes there was beginning to kindle some warmth, and his skin was not quite so deathly cold in appearance. As he stood before her a mixture of anger and sorrow crossed his face.
Then, as if striving for mastery of himself, he thrust the ax into her hands “Quick!” He said in a voice more human then before “You must save me while I remember who I was before. Cut out my heart with a blow of your ax, and throw it in the fire. Then you must touch the wound with a bough of pine and repeat these words; Life is warm, life is Light. Give him life before tonight.And then I shall be healed.”
Now, on hearing these words, Nadie hesitated, being afraid of striking such a blow. But her husband had come back from hunting early today and just heard the words that the Chenoo spoke. So, snatching the ax from his wife, he struck a great blow on the chest of the Chenoo.
Then he took the monster’s heart, which was solid ice in the shape of a man, and threw it into the fire. It melted away into nothing, and Nadie quickly fetched a branch from a pine tree nearby. Then, touching the ax-wound gently, she chanted “Life is warm, life is light. Give him life before tonight!” as she had been instructed.
The figure on the ground stirred and slowly sat up. The color had come back to his face completely, and his eyes had become gentle “Thank you.” He said, bowing his head to Huritt and Nadie. “You have made me back into a man again, and I will be your friend and servant from now on.”
So the amazed couple raised him to his feet, and lead him into the lodge to eat the first good, cooked meal he had eaten in a long time.
Rachael Lucas is a mountain girl who loves to write, among other things, though she is still in the 'waiting to be published' line for most of her stories.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff