By Sarah Byam
Once, a very, very long time ago, when the world was so young that forests still roamed the earth in great galloping herds, chasing after the moving laughing waters of the earth, there lived a young deer girl named Holly.
Holly had seen many summers, as summer and spring blended into summer and spring. She knew her family, her tribe, and her neighbors. She knew how to stitch a breech cloth, and how to shoot a running squash, how to pick her teeth, and how to ride bareback on her scrap eater. But never had she known hunger of cold. Until this morning
There were three tribes that hunted in the galloping green, the Seed Munchers, the Tree Catchers, and the Squash Hunters. Holly was, as you may have guessed, a Squash Hunter.
She was not a particularly good squash hunter. She was short, small and awkward. Her rack was too big for her head, as yet, and her mother wondered if she would ever marry. It did not help her condition one bit that Holly could hear that voice of the man in the sliver moon, who whispered to her constantly.
“What do you know,” he whispered. “You’re just a dumb girl.”
Holly would lower her chin and lift her eyes ever so slightly. “I know my family, and their family, and their family. I know when to pick berries, and when they are green-sickening. I know how to dry wood, and catch water and – ‘
“You’re just a dumb girl,” he repeated in a soft sneer.
Holly would lower her head even further, and try not to listen. It didn’t help much.
So Holly stayed at the back of the line when the hunting parties were chosen. Holly was hardly ever chosen, because she did not seem to want to go. And so, her skills were not as sharp as they could have been. And when the moon whispered:
“You’re just a dumb girl, what do you know.”
She began to reply, “you may be right.”
In the springs and summers of the valley of the squash hunters, night was always just long enough. Not too long, or too short. Holly would sleep while she was tired and wake just before Sun Up.
This morning was different. Holly woke, refreshed, but chilled. She didn’t have a word for chilled, except when the laughing waters turned on her, and she got soaked. So she checked her clothes to see if they were wet. She had a word for wet. But her clothes were dry. Very dry.
Outside the house, the stars and sliver moon shone along the ground, white like cotton seeds, everywhere. Her breath puffed away from her, and by some magic of a kind she did not understand, she could see her own breath. Holly picked up a handful of the seeds from the ground. She brought them to her nose to smell, and they quickly melted into her palm, turning into water, which was slow and still.
“Water?” she said, curious.
“You’re just a dumb girl. What do you know.”
Holly ignored the voice, and pushed on. Her scrap eater was pawing at the squash rinds in the (what would she call it? Still water?) as she approached and scratched him behind his ear.
“When d’we go? When d’we go?” the scrap eater asked her, eyes bright. He danced in quick circles, chasing his tail, too excited to sit still and let her mount.
“When d’we go? When d’we go?”
“Yes, yes – Wendwigo – you finish your breakfast and we’ll ride at Sun Up.” She threw down a couple of dried apples and a man shaped carrot she’d caught in her root trap. The scrap eater munched them down, greedily.
Wendwigo, who wasn’t the brightest scrap eater, spoke often about going and about hunger. If he talked about anything else, travel and hunger would soon distract him. But Holly loved her mount. He was strong, and fast, and faithful. He was white as the still water on the ground, and his fur was soft wild. The other Squash hunters didn’t take them too seriously, but she didn’t care.
“What do you know. You’re just a dumb girl,” the moon whispered.
“Right,’ she said back at the moon. “Tell me something useful next time.”
Wendwigo was the only scrap eater in the village this morning, and Holly didn’t quite know what to make of that. After the furry beast had finished his breakfast, he bumped his nuzzle under her hand. She dug up a neck full of fur and swung herself more or less gracefully onto his back.
“Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o “ the happy beast crooned as they rode off in the direction of the galloping forest.
The village had followed the forest since the villagers could remember. The forest seemed to wander, following the water, which was lively and never still on the land. Never until this moment.
Holly expected Sun Up by the time that she found the forest, but the sun did not rise and, when she found the running brook, it was not running. It was shiny in the moonlight, but as she and Wendwigo rode down into the middle, the waters did not – could not – scamper away. The water seemed hard, like stone, and their speed sent them crashing forward in a great, awkward sprawl along the surface.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on – “ cried the scrap eater as they spun. But Holly was sent flying to the far bank, landing smack into the middle of a thicket of broken tree roots.
Holly shook her hands free of blood and splinters, to examine the roots where the trees had been. Trees were pretty nimble in her experience. Holly had never seen a broken root, let alone a whole bank of them.
“They tore away in a run!” cried Holly, “Look at this, they bled sap all the way down!”
“Stupid girl,” said the sliver moon, a little brighter now, “ what do you know.”
“I know the sun should be up by now!” she cried. “What have you done with her?!”
The moon did not respond. Holly pulled the splinters out of her hands, and wrapped them once more in Wendwigo’s mane. Tracking a forest was something she knew how to do – but this was something new – a wounded forest? Tearing itself out of a stone brook? Holly rounded Wendwigo in a tight circle and rushed back to the village.
It was dark, but there was enough light to follow her own tracks back the way she came. She had no warmth and was hungry. Wendwigo was getting hungry again too. And there was no sign of the hunting party.
Holly rode through the village calling alarm, raising the villagers from sleep. Ordinarily they rose at Sun Up, but Sun Up was late, and she couldn’t wait for it. Something was deeply wrong.
Her mother was first out, then the elders, toddles, and ‘tweeners. Everyone of hunting age was nowhere to be seen, and she had the only mount left.
“Where have they gone, Holly?” said one toddle, eyes wide.
“Yeah, why did they run off and leave us?” said a ‘tweener, angry.
“I don’t know anything, except that the forest is gone too,” Holly replied.
“Where is the sun??!” Cried her mother.
“Who will warm our breakfast?” cried a granther.
“I said,” began Holly, tentatively “I don’t know, but I am going to try to track the forest, and may find the hunting party with it.”
“Breakfast!” cried another toddle.
“You will have to share what you have until I get back, “ replied Holly – but they did not look like they were in the mood to share. It was dark and there was not even a little heat. Everyone clung to their little baskets, and held them tightly. Some had more than others, but none had very much. Having only summers and springs, this was a time before anyone had thought to preserve food. Hoarding fresh food only caused it to spoil and eating too much only made one fat.
“I don’t want to share!” said her mother, clutching her basket the most tightly. “There’s only enough for me.”
“Mother, please,” Holly tried, “Something different has happened, so we must do things differently if we are going to live through it.”
“You’re just a dumb girl!” one of them shouted. “What do you know!”
The words cut through Holly like a knife. Did they all know? Was it true after all? Holly dropped her head and rounded Wendwigo to leave the village. She would find the forest, and the hunters, and food for the village. She would find them. Or she would die trying.
“What do you know,” chuckled the sliver moon, cutting deep, “You’re just a dumb girl.”
She turned back for one last look.
The toddle was holding out his basket of apples– “I’m small,” he said, “take mine.”
Holly bent down and took only two apples, one for her and one for Wendwigo.
“Thank you little one,” she said. “I’ll be back. I promise.”
She touched his face with two long fingers, and rode off, leaving the rest to squabble or share as they chose.
They rode for what seemed like many days, and the sun did not rise at all. The moon got brighter and fatter, running back and forth across the sky, but the sun did not show her face. As the ground was white with the still-water seeds, it was not hard to see their way, and Holly found little snatches of the forest along the route.
A berry branch that had grown prickly and sharp, that snapped at her with its last bit of life.
A carrot shaped, clear stone that she could crunch and swallow. It turned into water like the white seeds.
But while there were minor forest signs, nothing of the hunters or their mounts.
And louder, and louder in her mind, the ringing voice of the now half moon, harrowing her along the way.
“Stupid Girl, what do you know.”
She pushed on, counting what she knew and adding it together as she went.
“I know my name. I know my village. I can ride, I can track. And I will find the forest!! I will!”
She might have been discouraged, and she was certainly tired, hungry, stiff and not the least bit warm. But the harder it seemed to be, the more determined she was, knowing that things at home must be getting worse by the mile.
They could not discern one day from the next without Sun Up, so they slept when they were tired, and woke when their toes and fingers prickled painfully. Wendwigo got thinner, and started to be snappish. They ached. Their stomachs growled. Holly pressed on.
“Stupid girl,” she thought she heard the scrap eater mutter under his breath. Of course he said no such thing.
Then, after Holly counted 16 sleeps and more hours than she knew riding, they found their first patch of galloping forest, crawling root deep up a hill, as though it had been culled from the herd.
Holly had been sneaking up on forests since she was a ‘tweener. It had never been particularly dangerous. The worst thing that might happen is that your prey might scatter and you’d go hungry.
This was a different matter. This band of trees was intertwined in a queer way, with sharpened angles. The trees had been dropping their leaves like seed pods, and struggled naked up the hill, branch in branch, with undergrowth shivering and twisted into spiky thicket.
Holly and Wendwigo charged up the hill, and circled around to head the band off before it reached the top and sped downhill.
There were five trees leading the band. The needled greens were out in front, as they had not shed their coats. Three of them reared up, shooting cones and needles at her in rapid fire. Holly ducked and galloped in low, aiming for the fruit trees, but the fruit trees were bare, and huddled in, encircled by the larger trees. The cedar swept a great bough that nearly knocked them off their feet. Holly retreated.
A frightened pumpkin rolled from the pack headed down hill. Holly skewered it with a tethered arrow, and swung it in a great circle to collect after the battle. They charged again, this time the roses and the blackberries joined forces to make a to snap trap around Wendigo’s ankles, almost breaking his leg as they fell beneath the oncoming tree band. It wasn’t nearly a full herd, or they’d have been stampeded. But the white seed-stuff was slippery, and Holly was smarter than the average tree.
“Roll!” yelled Holly, and she and Wendwigo tightened in to a ball of muscle and fur, sliding just out in front of the on coming band of trees as it came over the crest. They slid down into the deepest part of the ravine at the bottom of the hill, skidding sideways over this next stone frozen stream, just escaping the path of the stampeding band. The trees did not circle back.
Holly and Wendwigo limped their way back to the pumpkin that they had barely managed to secure from the forest.
Holly gathered up the shards of wood and briar that the band of trees had left behind in their wake and built a small fire. In all her memory, and the memory of her village, no one had ever heard of a dangerous forest. Running, playful, tricky, mysterious – yes, but vicious, no. Holly rubbed her sore legs, and massaged some heat back into her muscles.
She carefully scraped the seeds out of the pumpkin. Normally she would roast them, but now she was careful. Who knew when they would find a wild pumpkin again? She poured the seeds into a small pouch and tucked it inside her tunic.
It was a fat pumpkin, and she roasted half of it and they ate well. The other half she packed with some kindling. They slept with full bellies, and toes warmed. Holly was feeling so content, that she thought surely they would find Sun Up soon.
“Stupid girl,” said the fattening moon. “What do you know.”
Holly was too tired to respond. She fell asleep in the deep stink of the wet scrap eater’s fur.
That night she dreamed of golden fields, against a gold sky, warm and breezy as the sun set. The first chill of evening tickled at her toes dangling in a pond of still, clear water. She saw the palest refection of herself in the water, but in the reflection she was older than granther. Her scrapeater wandered toward her from the meadow, a small child grasping at the swishing tail. All was right above in the sky and below –
Holly woke looking down at her matt sandals, only to find that Wendwigo had chewed through the left sole down to her feet, biting down on her toe. No one ever said scrap eaters were smart.
“You just ate, last, last …”
She looked up at the sky with despair. The sun had not yet risen, yet she had been asleep for long enough for another Sun Up to have arrived. They had grown quite thin and had only had one meal the day before, which might keep her, but the scrap eater? Apparently not.
“Ok, lets ride a little, and then we’ll break for food, ok?”
The scrap eater dug his claws into the cold-seed, beneath his feet, clearly not willing to move.
“No Kay!” it said. “Hungry!”
Holly had always fed her mount before riding, and this was a pretty frustrating moment. Who knew how long it would be before they would find food again. Shouldn’t they conserve it?
“Wendwigo, We’ll go, then eat, then go again, “ She reached gently for the fur on the back of his neck and he snapped at her, missing her fingers by a whisper.
Snap! Snap! Snap!
“Wendwigo?!” she cried, backing away.
“GRRRRRR!” growled the scrap eater, hunching towards her.
As they circled each other, Holly was dimly aware that something new was at play here. Scrap eaters did not attack their riders, at least not in memory of anyone she had known. But then, the sun did not hide, water did not turn to stone, and forests did not attack. Something had gone out of the world, something important, and if she couldn’t set it right, would they all be fighting each other until they perished?
“Huuungry!” moaned the scrap eater, foam and spit forming around his mouth.
Holly stepped backward slowly.
Wendwigo stepped forward, angry in a way that she had never seen any beast or person. The moon above was almost doubly bright, and nowhere was there a hint of sun. Wenwigo’steeth seemed to grow longer, as did his claws. His fur even seemed to grow. He reared up on his back legs to throw himself forward, and she ducked underneath, quickly as she could, sliding beneath his legs, upending him with one antler as she slid to the other side..
She whirled and drew her bow.
She’d never drawn her bow on anything smarter than a turnip before and, brave though she was, it gave her a queasy feeling.
“Stop, Wendwigo. Stop right there!”
“Huuungry!” He lunged for her, she shot his right front paw, then his left hind, then his right hind paw, catching nailing him to the ground for just long enough for Holly to run as fast as she could to get away.
Thumthp! Thumpth! Thumpth!
She ran, foot bleeding where he’d bitten her, but she ran. She might have run all night, if night had ended. Instead, she ran until she collapsed at the foothills of very large mountains. She crawled into an overhang out of the wind and cold and moonlight, and slept again for a long time.
She dreamt about the people in her village, getting hungrier and colder. She dreamt about many days without sun, until the flowered meadows of home curled and turned ash gray. She dreamt of white blankets covering the world too dark for anyone to marvel at the wonder. All the while it seemed that life was being swallowed up out of the living. People argued bitterly and refused to share with children, the old, and the sick. Some started to slip away into the half light, like smoke from the fires. Fires burned low and there was no wood to replenish them. The hunters didn’t come back, but their scrap eaters began to form a menacing circle around the village. In the dream, Holly drew back from the sight of her own village, only to see every village in every valley was the same, one after the next, after the next
Holly pushed herself awake, rubbing her eyes, her hands, her feet, warming them as she could. She stood and shook off the nightmare tendrils, even more determined than before. She would set this right!
Holly found the moon to be almost unbearably bright as she climbed out of the protection of the overhang.
She looked up at the moon, and he laughed back down at her. She felt even more stupid and small than she had before.
“Stupid girl –“ the moon began.
“Will you just shut up!” She cried, her fists balled with all the fury of her 14 summers.
“It seems to me that this all started with YOU!”
The moon was silent, for the moment, and Holly climbed. Hand over hand she climbed the peak ahead of her. The steeper it got, the more determined she was to make the peak. The surface became slick and unbearably cold. She used her dagger to carve small hand holds, then stuffed arrows in the cracks to give her foot holds while she carved more. Up and Up she went until, at the very lip of the peak – she stumbled and slid.
Down she went, Just a few feet, just far enough to see a mirror clear lake, the width of the peak, that could not be seen from the ground. It was so lovely in the moonlight, but like the river, hard as stone.
Around her, in the reflection of the lake, she saw scrap eaters, with no riders, their teeth long and their claws sharp. A rumbling growl resonated around the bowl of the lake. Below the moon whispered as she drew her bow.
Holly took careful aim at the pool, the reflected moon glowing almost as bright as the early morning sun.
She whirled and pointed the bow high above her head.
Thwtht! Thwtht! Thwtht – she fired off three shots directly at the moon, his belly popping like a squashed gord!
As the bright golden light began to shine forth, Holly didn’t stop to marvel, but ran to the first scrap eater at her right. She thumped him on the head with the handle of her knife and squeezed his stomach with all her strength. In one great, loud “ URP!” out popped Oak Knot, sprawling onto the ground, shaking his head.
“What?!” he sputtered, drowsed and slippery
“The scrap eater’s belly’s, hurry!” Oak Knot followed her lead as she pointed.
“Grab the next one!” shouted Holly, and they rescued the next hunter and the next from the bellies of the distracted scrap eaters as the sun popped back high in the sky, a safe distance from the moon.
The water in the lake began to melt, The water beneath the hunters and the scrap eaters started to crackle.
“This way!” shouted Holly, and they ran, lightly, to the thickest edge of the pool and scrambled up the bank.
They took a moment in wonder as they mounted their scrap eaters, who were now a little dazed but no longer in the sway of the moon. The valley below the mountain began to sprout green and fine before them.
The squash hunters traveled back home, gathering food and water as they went. The scrap eaters more quiet than usual, were more than a little ashamed for having eaten their riders. A new law was spoken, and to this day, no one dares to ride a scrap eater during the full moon.
The hunters themselves were a little embarrassed for having shunned Holly for so long, but nothing needed to be said. She walked with the herd now.
The villagers were a sorry sight, but they had begun to think about what to save and what to share in times of need. And the more they practiced it, the more they saw the wisdom of it.
They say that mother sun made some decisions that day too. Scrap eaters could run with the people, or eat them, but not both. Most chose to stay, but some went into the wild, consumed with hunger, eating such things as they could catch on the full moon. Wendigo never did return, but people sometimes see him in the forests, fierce and hungry. The people know well enough to run the other way.
And the jealous moon was said to slink from the sky, for he had lured Mother Sun with promises of love and care and rest, only to swallow her whole.
But Mother Sun was wise, and even turned this trickery into something good. She saw that a little darkness for part of the year was good for the squash hunters, the tree catchers, and seed munchers. It made them stronger, more creative and more caring. She saw from her unique vantage point, that it helped them grow.
So three months out of the year, she would travel across the ocean – to have such adventures as we do not know – only to return just in time, every time.
And the deer tribes made these dark times a special time to come together, share gifts and food and stories, lest they forget the lessons of old.
The moon, now only a pale reflection of what he once was, muttered away. But it is said that the daughters of Holly can sometimes hear him whisper on the wind.
“Stupid girl. What do you know…”
And these days, the girls reply, as their mother’s mother’s taught them “More and more, every day. More and more, every day.”