Crack. The resin buried deep within the log could no longer remain dormant under the intensity of the fire. The tiny explosion adjusted the blaze in the hearth. The embers momentarily opened their impossibly red eyes and a shower of sparks sprayed up the chimney.
She is not distracted. Not one part of her. She holds the ash shaft securely in the vice while she shaves the fluff from within the follicle of the feather.
She takes it gently between the tweezers and releases the vice. She uses the tiny badger hair brush to line the follicle with a breath of glue. She fixes it to the wood, equidistant from the two white gander feathers. They face towards the bow. The black, the king fletch—the goose fletch—faces away. She does this arrow after arrow. Hour after hour.
Outside the cottage is a world of silence. That certain blue only seen on a frozen landscape at night. No wind. Utter stillness. The air thin. Birch and rowan bejewelled with icicles, spruce tufted with snow, the ground thick with it, both powder and firn.
The wolf lies on his rug at the grate, his lids half closed; head on his forepaws. Both he and Saoirse seem at peace, relaxed. Like sister and brother from the same mother their hearing is flawless. If there is a sound to be heard—the jangle of a bridle, the kick of a heel against a flank, the sound of breath they will hear that. From miles away. Whether on foot, on horseback or riding the reindeer-pulled sled, if the otherkind try to approach the two will be gone. There is no simple way to travel this far into the forest. Any petrol-driven vehicle will run out of fuel at least a day before it reached this remoteness.
Saoirse was not born here but she has grown up here. She is this place.
Her da had lived to forty but her mam had died when her child was just one year old.
Her da and his wolves had stalked the kill with Saoirse secured to his back in a finely crafted leather-and-weave cradle board. To get her used to their territory. Her mam had hunted those razor toothed, iron traps the otherkind had ordered set to catch the wolves. Or the people.
She’d missed the one that took her leg off at the ankle. She died before Saoirse da found her, the blood like crimson butterflies on the snow, her mam seemingly the creature itself, just sleeping.
Saoirse knew they were after her. The Church. That crazy species of two-legged otherkind with their vengeful god. Their belief that their species was superior and chosen. That hers must be saved. Brought in and saved. She knew they lied about her people, An Lucht Súille. Indigenous hunter gatherers.
Wolves are always wild. There is no such thing as a tame wolf. When the otherkind had first contact with an Lucht Súille they had thought the wolves that travelled with them were domesticated. They shot anyway and those not struck down had fled, the people not shot rounded up and herded. They had been forced to walk that long walk. It was only then that the otherkind realised that two-legged and four were pack and that both were wild. It was the word wild that was the confusion. Tame was what? Safe?
Tame is not safe, Saoirse muses as she attaches a nock and a broadhead to each of the twenty four arrows. Tame is vulnerable.
To make this forest safe for their enterprise the Patron, the title of the leaders of those who claimed an Lucht Súille’s ancestral lands—before the burning of vast tracts of forest, before the railway, before the cities—had devised the systematic hunting of her people. When they worked out how to parley, the interpreters gave An Lucht Súille two choices: adapt and settle in the cities or live on the land allotted them. Land without forest called a reservation. They were supposed to make do and not hunt anymore. They were to have nothing to do with wolves.
Some of her people thought adaptation might provide better for their families, in the fast-growing cities. Working for the foreigners. They left the reservation. They lived in small rooms, crowded, in upright coffins. Cinderblock flats. Alcoholic. Shunned because of the slight slant of their eyes, the clan tattoos. Thought of as barbarians. Eaters of the raw dead.
They ate what the shop owners sold them. They ran up debts because they did not understand money. White flour and bread. Sugar, a new food. Canned staples. What meat they could pilfer was old or rancid. No fish. They worked the roads to pay their bills. They had nothing. A relentless cycle. They were subject to disease, to liver failure and diabetes. They got fat and died young. Their children lost their language and their lore.
Many of the people who used to live where Aileen now sleeps had fought back. They had fought from the tree line, not wanting to venture onto the wrongness that was now pasture where once the forest had dwelled, habitat and mother, from before time. They all died. They brought down a merciless punishment on the women and children, the elders, who had not fought also. It was all slaughter then. Just forty seven years ago. The otherkind had guns, Aileen’s people the axe and the bow.
Aileen’s parents were second generation reservation people. They had become lovers because their own parents were all close: knowledge holders. From different clans they shared secrets freely now. Those secrets, and the An Lucht Súille lore of both clans, were told to Aileen’s mam and da. In case of hope. In case of a future. So that the knowledge of who the people truly were did not vanish from the world.
Her parents had escaped and it was years before their absence came to the attention of the authorities. Punishment had been the murder of all the known knowledge holders, including Aileen’s grandparents.
Aileen’s mam and da had known how to call to the wolf in the correct manner. Politely. How to honour the hunt trails. To honour the kill. To stay alive. To live well. To follow the dragon lines, the ancient ley lines the nomadic must travel in order to honour the seasons of the year.
The wolves understood the nuance of the language of their two-legged cousins. They had hunted and shared the hearth with them for millennia. They remembered. They led the runaways to the furthest, still untainted territory within the forest where they lived in isolation. Where Aileen was born. The wolf, upon his rug, is the son of the pup placed within her crib on the day of her birth. Aileen has lived twenty winters and this pup, five.
The second last thing she does for the night is to clean the tools her da had made for her. Put them into their individual compartments of the chamois bag with the straps. Stow this into the pack—tough leather, reindeer hide—that she keeps beside the door alongside the quiver of twenty four arrows, just below the frame that supports the recurve bow. Her da had made that for her from the wood of the mountain ash just a year ago. He had crafted it especially for her. She was given it the night of her initiation. The night her da had inked the first of her clan tattoos into the skin of her face with the ink made from the soot of the mountain ash. The perfect blue line from her left ear, across her cheek, over her nose just below her eyes and on to her right ear.
Just months after he did this for her he died. She gave him to the crows and hawks and bears, the way she had been taught, for all of us are food.
The last thing she does is to pull down her snowshoes. The wolf is instantly on his feet. He prances to the door in anticipation.
They move in silence deeper into the forest. Far enough so that the smell of their urine will not attract anything back to the cottage.
That night they sleep curled together on the rug before the hearth, like puppies, the smouldering back log sending off no sparks. This is how it is done.
The next day they hunt from the hint of silver-pale predawn until well into the blue and shadow of the night. Aileen carries all her weapons and wears her pack on her back. Game is scarce this deep into winter. All they bring down are two hares. White. Only visible by their movement. Aileen shoots the one and has time to slit it from throat to groin, gut it and skin it before the wolf finally stops tormenting the other, with a defining snap to its neck. A race the hare would have won a month earlier or a month later.
The wolf carries his quarry back to Aileen, tossing it high in the air and pretending it is still alive. Aileen eats the rich, warm liver and heart of her kill, tossing the remaining offal to the wolf. She guts and skins his trophy before returning it to him whole. As is fair.
Winter fur. Good hides. She will use them to thicken the lining of her boots.
Splitting the silence of the night, the jangle of harness. A baying. Aileen and the wolf are instant stillness. Which direction? They waited. To the south was the high squeal of a winter hawk echoes through the rarefied air. A warning.
Now attuned, the pair wait. Their enemies are many miles away. Still unknowing. The advantage is with the hunted.
The whuffle of a horse’s nostrils, the snow giving way beneath hooves. Four horses. Two hounds. That means four men; less probably because they’ll need at least one horse for supplies. Even odds if confronted. Unless they have rifles. They are bound to have rifles.
And the scent of blood is upon the snow. The red of it a deep stain. None of the hunters will know what had been killed or by what. The An Lucht Súille woman and the wolf still hold the advantage.
The otherkind will burn the cottage but she is not attached.
They run. Most of the night. Mile after mile deeper into the snow, higher into the alpine raw.
Daylight is four hours of grey becoming white becoming grey with no horizon within the perpetual mountain. What’s the plan? None. Not anymore. Aileen and the wolf follow the caribou trails north through nights lit by green and amber borealis, grandmother of rivers, teaching the deepest ones the sorcery of silence that the brooks and burns are too young to comprehend. It is the silence of the oldest boulders that pock this tundra.
She gathers kindling and easy to snap elder wood, uptorn roots from this or that ancient storm for nightlong warmth. She builds their fire to the side of the entrance to dissuade the curious predator from trespassing a sleep of peace. The camps are the lava tubes, remnants of the mountain’s savage and molten history, countless millions of years ago.
COMING UP IN 2017
Initiation | a Memoir is currently available as both hard copy and Ebook. For anyone who has ever been lost or confused. A different perspective from a person dwelling twixt worlds.
January looming to be tarot in Sydney. Aiming for the Edinburgh Samhain Fire Festival, then the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, late October to present the Otherkin Conference. Natural magic, heretical thinking and making a real difference in the world as we know it. Updates as they occur.