A child sat on the riverbank. The day was warm and bright, holding those within in the palm of its hand. Around the child were thin willows, providing shelter from the sun and sometimes sighing in a sudden breeze. It wasn’t a wide river, but it was his. The world was restful. A brace of fish lay below him in the water, wound around a willow stick, cooling in a cold embrace. It wasn’t long now before he had to head home. But for now he cast out again, and continued to breath with the world. Listening to the river, the sun, and the breeze, learning all he could.
It was well past noon when he finally decided to head home. Setting down his fishing rod and jumping down to the edge of the river, the boy methodically cleaned the fish he’d caught, giving silent thanks for each. A crow came to watch him expectantly from down the riverbank, cocked head and bright eyed. The boy threw him some scraps, which the crow greedily pecked away at after a caw.
There was a lean sun-browned look about the boy. Moose-hide pants, vest, and a now empty sheath were his only dress as he stooped over the fish. His dark brown hair was recently shorn, jagged and short, as if done hastily. There was a tightness in the child’s hazel eyes that belonged in someone much older, and a certain knowledge. They were eyes that spoke more than the child’s voice, and took in everything.
Finishing with the fish, he cleaned and sheathed a long thin knife. Standing up, he looked around him, then shut his eyes to lose himself for a few more moments in the world. The crow’s expectant caw brought him back. The boy stood staring at the crow for a minute, then gathered his things and the fish and walked home, threading silently through the wilderness on bare feet.
The village was fading, a smaller declaration of the world. Half the log cabins were overgrown and falling in, the boy had marveled at how quickly the forest reclaimed them. A forest of dense and tall evergreen trees, pine, spruce and fir’s stretching towards the sky. He’d often climbed them, closed his eyes and felt the trees sway, lose himself in the life beneath him. Now there was a faint resentment within him; that this forest he loved so much could be so callus, take back what was given so quickly. He knew it was the way of the world, but his grief and youth denied it.
Two summers ago the sickness had started. At first it was just vague rumors from hunters and travellers, then the travellers stopped. That first summer no one in his village was sick, nearly 200 souls carried on with their normal lives with a sense of apprehension. Canoes had stopped coming down the river from the south then. The elders had sent men to them but none had returned. It was if the world of the Tola had gone silent except for this one village. But soon the winter came and people settled into the isolation of the cold, surviving each day, telling stories and hunting when the times came. For awhile the apprehension was chased away by winter’s cold grasp.
It was the second summer that the sickness came. A canoe was seen floating down the river one day, a man within sick with fever. He was brought back to the village to die a day later, raving for help, telling of villages disappearing, of men, women, and children succumbing to a sickness without mercy. Two days later the first signs of sickness began within the village. Those who showed signs quickly developed a fever that grow worse as the days passed, dying within a week, two if they were strong. The medicine men and elders could do nothing, and soon even they grew sick and passed on. Half the village died that summer. The boy and his sister buried his mother and father, refusing the help of others. And those who passed them digging saw a hard and bright light in each of their eyes, and quickened their pace. Neither of them cried, nor sought the help of others after being left on their own. They had both been taught well and knew the ways of survival.
Now the boy walked through the village, a brace of bright-cleaned fish in one hand, a fishing rod in the other. His steps were sure and clean, full the grace of one used to the body they live in. He nodded solemnly to those who passed, saw pity and sadness in some eyes, hollowness in others. Walking through the village he came to the cabin his sister and he shared, and his father had built. Walking to the back he hung the fish in the sun to dry, while starting a small fire below to smoke them and keep the flies away. Standing he stretched and stared into the forest, a distant look in his eyes. Then a pinecone hit him softly in the back of the head.
Turning around he saw his sister there trying not to laugh at him. “You always think too much Feanra. What will you do without me to bring you back to reality?” she quipped at him happily.
She was the only one, maybe the only thing left that could make him smile now. And standing there staring at her he smiled a genuine smile, replying with his lighter presence. He always thought how beautiful she was, and how lucky she’d make a man one day. Picking up his things he set cleaning up the area and gathering more firewood, while she went to do her own chores after another beaming smile in his direction.