September 30, 2019

THE HISTORY OF OUR SURVIVAL by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines

This was not the first winter of the wolf.
I know the history of our dark times,
of our hunger...
The village was hungry. It was deep winter, and stores were low. The harvest had not been as bountiful as hoped in any case. The wolves were getting bolder, too. Sheep were carried off, and then a little girl went missing. Illness followed the hunger, and slowly we were all succumbing to starvation or cold or fever. The ground was too hard to dig, so the dead were laid in coffins behind the church. This brought more wolves. We might not have lasted to spring.

As the death toll climbed, the remaining villagers gathered in the church. We would send the young and strongest in pairs in each direction, to find help if they could. This depleted us further, of their youth and strength, and of the scant provisions we sent with them for the journey. They set out early and quickly disappeared from view.

"Will they come back?" my husband asked.

"I wouldn't," I answered.

This was not the first winter of the wolf we had come through, and the villagers remembered the stories. My grandmother had been midwife for as long as she lived, and now that duty fell to me, along with the other necessary things. I know the history of our survival, of our dark times, of our hunger. Those stories were also passed to me of where to go, what to collect, when to sacrifice.

I could see the desperation in the eyes of those around me, I shared their hunger and their fear. One mother's eyes were dead as she mindlessly stroked the hair of a child. She wouldn't last the week if nothing changed.

"What else can we do?" one woman asked me breathlessly. She meant, "Tell us what must be done."

I demurred, and shook my head. "We wait. We pray."

A man stepped forward, "Our traps are empty!" His voice was sharp. "The hunters return empty-handed, there is nothing in these woods but wolves, and they hunt us!"

"Yes, tell us what to do," a younger man joined in, "Or else we are lost."

"You know what this entails," I said, shrinking into myself, feeling the resistance tighten in my chest. "This isn't something to take lightly."

"Lightly!" the first man yelled. The others jumped at the sound. He lowered his voice, leaning close to me. I could see the tears standing in his eyes, "Better to lose one, than not any survive."

The mother with the dead eyes roused herself, rubbed her temple with chapped fingers. "It is time, midwife. I remember the story. Make the count."

"Make the count," the breathless woman echoed, and the others repeated it.

Make the count.

It was their will. It was mine, too.

"Send me the children," I said, and I walked out into the cold and back to my own home.

They started to arrive soon after. My husband asked no questions, just directed the children to the fireside. When they were all gathered, I counted them up. The greatest number of boys were aged ten, and the girls were aged four. I sent the other children back home, pulled broom straws, and held one hand to the boys and one to the girls. They each drew.

"Who has the short straws?" I asked.

A boy with dark hair that flopped into his eyes, and a small girl with golden curls held up their luck. I sent the others home. I felt ill.

My husband busied himself building up the fire. I pulled the children into my arms and tried to push what strength and protection I could offer into them. Then I let them go and forced myself to smile. "You've been chosen to save our village," I explained. "We're going on a journey, and you'll have to be very brave. But first you'll eat."

There was a knock at the door and my neighbors began to arrive, each bearing a dish of whatever provisions remained to them. We spread the table, and they each left in turn, some pausing to stroke the children's hair, or press some small gift into their hands. Some did not acknowledge them at all. It was easier that way, they had lost so much already.

"Eat," I said, helping the children to fill their plates.

"This is for us?" the boy asked.

I nodded. "Eat as much as you like." I settled them both at the table, then went to the corner where my chest was. I pulled out extra cloaks and blankets, and from my midwifery supplies, two small, sharp blades.

"Are we going like the others did?" the boy asked, "To get help?"

"Something like that," I answered.

The little girl held up her plate, her face smeared with food. I wiped her cheeks and chin clean and gave her a second portion.

Once they were fed and full, I tucked them into bed, and went to sit beside the fire with my husband.

"It's for the best," he said after a long while. We didn't sleep that night.

In the morning, I packed up the last of the food. We walked a long way, deep into the forest. We stopped to eat at midday. I fed the children well, and my husband and I took only what we needed to continue. The little girl grew tired and my husband carried her while she slept on his shoulder. Eventually, we came to the place I sought. The trees opened up in a circular clearing, and stones marked out another circle within. It felt warmer here.

I took the children's hands and brought them to the center of the circle. "This is where you must be brave," I said. "This is where you will save the village."

"What do we do?" the boy asked, and the little girl began to cry.

"You just sit." I made a pallet of blankets and bundled them together. "Just close your eyes," I said. I kissed each small head. I set the blades on either side of them as I'd been taught, and I walked away.

I reached the treeline and began quickly back up the path. My husband lingered behind, watching the children for a moment longer.

"We can't wait here," I said.

"I just... I don't want to forget..." he said, but turned and followed after me. I put my hand on his arm and moved him to walk in front of me.

"Are you leaving us?" I heard the boy's voice. It was at a distance, he was staying in the circle. He was a good boy. "Don't leave us!"

The little girl screamed her protest, cried for her mother.

My husband's shoulders shook, but he made no sound. We walked away.

Then I heard the thing described to me by my grandmother; a thing I had never convinced myself wasn't a tale just to frighten me as a child. It was a voice, ancient, like cracking ice and swaying tree branches. "Children," it said. That was all. Yet terror gripped me and turned to ice in my veins.

I clutched my husband's arm and swallowed to wet my dry throat. "Come," I breathed, "Come away. Quickly."

We returned more quickly than we had gone. It was easier with only two of us, and we knew that when night fell we would be easy prey for the wolves if we were outside. When we broke through the trees, we ran.

The village seemed abandoned after that. The last of our food had been given to our small saviors, and no one wanted see who was missing. There were so many gone already.

After two more days a buck walked into the middle of the village. It was taken down swiftly, and the whole village came out into the square. We butchered the meat. We feasted. We celebrated. We ate, and for the first time in long months, were not hungry. We nursed our ill, and a hunting party found more of the herd. In another week, maybe two, two of the young couples returned with supplies. We would survive this winter.

I returned to the clearing after that, once I knew we would make it to spring, and the blankets were folded in a neat pile, with my blades on top. There was nothing else. The only disruption in the snow was made by my own footprints. I collected my things and carried them home. As I laid them back in the chest, I found a golden hair tangled in the fibers of a blanket. We would survive this winter.

When the ground thawed, we would bury our dead. In the spring, the priest would come through, and we would have him say a blessing. We wouldn't mention the children. Not ever. But I am the one who keeps our history. I am the one who remembers their names.
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines is a writer of fairy tales and other fantastical things. She lives in New Orleans with her husband, a one-eyed cat, and a snake. Her writing can be found at workofheartkag.wordpress.com. Find her on Twitter @ThatKiyomi

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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