By Benjamin Michael Miller
My grandmother once told me of the birth of wolves. It happened long, long ago, before my time, before my grandmother’s time even. This was when the gods of the forest and tundra walked before our people, in harmony with man. This was when the lands between the Ferrying Tundra and the Burning Forest were still wild.
Long ago the spirit of the northern winds breathed life into man. This was before our people became known as the Warogi. We were as one. We spoke the same words, we wore the same clothes, we worshiped the same gods. We were made to serve the gods and spirits of the land and aid them when they could not themselves. The spirit of the north, the god called Inama, was pleased with his creation. Mankind grew strong and populated. They served the gods well and built temples in devotion to the spirits of the northern territories. Satisfied with mankind Inama took to the northern territories, far past the glacier bay, even further past the Ferrying Tundra, where no mortal should go. Man was saddened by Inama’s departure, but their faith remained vigilant and prayed for his return.
Mortals are fickle creatures, however. Man eventually split into separate tribes. Those who worshipped the grizzly cat, Kikamei, traveled to the southern mountains and killed any who trespassed on their land. Those who worshipped the reko, Giyeq, moved to the Burning Forest in the northwest and skulked amongst the gigantic red trees and billowing geysers. The last believers of Inama took to the plains, south of the Ferrying Tundra. We had no deity to protect us from those who would do us harm. Our people were godless. That is until a girl named Riparro was born.
Riparro came into the village on the coldest night of winter. Water froze in the air and burned in the lungs. Silence filled the night, save for the cries of a newborn child. The skies were clear, and the moon glimmered as none had ever seen. The little girl was named after that night and that cold moon. She was named Riparro, which meant icy waters.
As the girl grew, she watched her village, and her people, dwindle. The hunters returned with less meat and fewer hunters every trip. The plains south of the Ferrying Tundra were home to the mammoth and the rhino. The mammoth trampled the forests, and the rhino charged through the fur huts of the village. Without homes, and without the tree line to break the wind, her people were slowly being given to Edattuk, the taker.
In the quiet hours of the night, after her mother curled up in her animal furs to sleep, Riparro would step into the frigid winds and kneel in the snow to pray to Inama. She prayed for the northern spirit to blow his warming winds down to her people so they may feed on the grain of the plains. She prayed the hunters’ spears were sharp and their arrows true. She prayed for the trees to return so her people would not freeze in the long nights. She prayed every night, but Inama never responded.
The silence that billowed with the rushing winds burned in her chest. Each night she prayed was each night met in solitude, and each night the fire in her chest burned a little warmer. The pain and rage inside her threatened to burst forth if she did not do something about it.
“I will go to Inama and convince him to help us.”
“No,” her mother cried when Riparro told her of what she must do. “You are my only child, and I will not see you lost to the tundra. Stay in the village and continue your prayers. Inama will hear them soon enough.”
The young girl wished she could obey her mother, but she feared Inama would not hear their prayers in time to save them. Riparro had to go, whether she had her mother’s blessing or not.
That night Riparro packed her bag full of dried fish, tied stone knives to her leather trousers, stretched her bow over her shoulder, and left the comfort and safety of her hut as her mother slept. She traveled north, towards the Ferrying Tundra, the domain of Inama and the other creators, using the night sky to guide her. The sky was bright that night, almost as bright as the night she was born. The moon smiled with its crescent grin as Riparro’s feet crunched in the snow. The stars gleamed in nebulous clusters that stretched their way towards the unknown. Riparro’s path became illuminated by their brilliance. The gods and her ancestors called to her, leading the way.
Her faith and her courage remained strong, even as the skies grew dark from storm clouds. For many days she trekked as the wind whipped at her chapped cheeks and thrashed across the ever-expanding plains. The trees that would shield her from the north’s freezing winds grew smaller and smaller until they were little more than sparse shrubs. The land grew gray, and she could hear the lapping of ocean waves over the howls of the wind. She was in the realm of the gods now.
“Inama, hear my prayers,” she whispered every night she made camp.
When she was close to the forests, she would start a fire to warm the dried fish from her sack. The smell and warmth wafted down her frozen nose and to her gullet. The thawed morsels reminded her of home and relieved some of the aches of the day’s travel. Now, the trees were gone, which left Riparro with no fire, and the dried fish was cold and tough in her mouth.
The girl’s faith remained strong, though her body grew weak. The Ferrying Tundra sent blizzard after blizzard to keep Riparro from her task. The spirits wished to test the girl’s strength. They wished to measure her courage and determine if she was worthy of meeting the god of white winds. She could brave this, she reminded herself. She would prove herself worthy.
The days and nights began to blur for the girl. The last of the dried fish was eaten some time ago. The pangs of hunger ate at her mind and body. Riparro wished to hunt for game, but none presented itself to her. The snowfall covered any animal tracks, and the winds swept away any smells. She spotted a rabbit on one gray morning and drew her bow. The string broke and whipped a red gash on her cheek. The young girl screamed and hurled her bow at the rabbit as it disappeared into the white nothingness. Another night would be spent with an empty stomach, and then the snow began to fall again.
Helpless, hungry, and lost, Riparro pleaded with mumbled prayers to Inama to guide her path. She prayed she would meet the end of her journey soon. She hoped Inama would be waiting just a little further ahead. He would blow his warm breath over her and rejuvenate her spirit. He would hear her plea and save her people. He would descend from his frozen throne and drive the mammoth and the rhino away. The great northern spirit would circle his wings around the tribes of man and make them as one again.
But the further she walked the less she believed.
Inama was the spirit of the north. The wind was his, and his alone. He was the creator of the hallowed tundra, the plains of her people, and the red forests of burning water. All the creatures of the north looked to him as their master. Why would he not answer her prayers?
“It is not because he is not hearing them, it is because he is ignoring them,” she said to herself.
The words froze her in her tracks. The mammoth and the rhino were Inama’s creatures. Why would he not stop them? Did he not care they were destroying her people?
“That must be it,” she thought. “He is the wind. His power blows across the land, all the way to the southern mountains. If he could not hear my prayers, it was because he did not want to.”
Riparro wanted to be angry. She wanted to curse the northern spirit and go back home to the familiarity of her hut and the warmth of her mother’s embrace. She wanted to forget all about this voyage and turn back. She questioned if Inama existed at all.
Her supplies had dwindled to nothing. Turning back now meant death. The only hope she had was moving forward and finding the northern spirit who had forsaken her and her people.
But she was tired, so tired. The snow battered at her eyelids, and she wished she could lie down to rest. She could not, though. She knew if she stopped, she would close her eyes and they would never open again.
She looked across the black ocean, focusing on something other than her pain. She marveled at its largeness and its undulating waves churning and slapping against the rocky shore. It was mesmerizing to Riparro, that another realm would exist right next to hers in such a manner—an entirely different world, filled with unfamiliar creatures and unknown gods.
It was in her splendor that she tripped and fell onto the hard snow and earth. The pain in her frozen nose screamed in her head, though she did not have the energy to shout. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she dared not let them fall. Crying wasted water and took too much energy. Instead, she fluttered her eyes and stared at the rock next to her. A moment passed before she realized what was on the rock before her. A blossom of lichen stretched across its well-washed surface. Riparro was not unfamiliar with lichen. It grew readily on rocks and trees down south, but she figured it was far too cold and hostile up north for it to survive. She remembered that some lichen was edible.
Riparro grabbed the stone and untied her knife with cold, fumbling hands. She freed the knife and scraped at the stone’s surface. Flecks and small sheets of gray lichen fell to the white snow beneath her. She plucked at the flecks and pushed them into her mouth. The lichen was bitter and dry, but at last, she could feel something in her belly.
With renewed vigor, she searched for more lichen. She scraped at the rocks and devoured the bitter morsels that flecked off like dark ash. The lichen led her closer and closer to the shoreline. It seemed to enjoy the salt spray of the ocean waters.
The shoreline grew to a rock outcropping that jutted over the churning waves. The outcropping was covered in lichen of many kinds, from moss-like growths to stemmed cups that reminded her of large mushrooms. A flicker of faith warmed within her breast. She could fill her pack full of sheets of this blessing. She could sate her hunger with the odd little plant and continue to Inama. The cries of her pained stomach had been answered. Perhaps the northern spirit had heard her prayers after all. Maybe he only needed her to show faith.
Riparro climbed onto the outcropping and set about filling her sack with lichen, as well as her belly. The curious growth filled her with strength. She felt her life being restored like the great northern winds were blowing into her spirit and giving her courage.
“I can do this,” she thought.
She stood at the edge of the large rock and watched the ocean. The black waters rushed and slapped against the hard stone like they were trying to move something that would not budge. The futility of it reminded her of the babies she used to see in her village before the rhino trampled through their homes. They would dip their hands into the bone marrow the hunters collected when told not to. They would drag the hide blankets out of the huts even when scolded for doing so. It did not seem to matter what anyone had to say. The babies, and the ocean, would do as they do because that was their nature.
It was at that moment a powerful gust pushed against Riparro’s back and lifted her off the outcropping. She fell into the icy black waters below. The young girl fought to find the surface, but the current pulled her back under. The chill of the water soaked through her clothes and stung her skin like fire. Her lungs were bursting from holding her breath. She could not give up hope yet. She must save her people. She must hear the coos and laughter of babies in the village once again.
The current sucked her out into the deeper waters, then smashed her against the rock outcropping she had stood on just moments ago. Over and over the girl was thrown about. She felt like the plaything of some god’s wicked game. The burning cold of her skin now became numb. The air burst from her lungs then flooded with seawater. The current pulled her back out to the deep waters, but instead of throwing her back against the rocks, she began to sink.
Riparro saw through frozen eyes as the light of the white sun dimmed below the ocean’s surface, growing further away. Her hand wanted to reach out for it, to touch the warmth of the sun, but her body no longer responded.
“Please, Inama, please…”
Darkness swirled at the young girl’s vision. Edattuk was collecting his prize.
Warmth filled the young girl’s body then. It was unlike the warmth of the sun or a fire. It was like the embrace of a loved one; it warmed from the inside. Riparro opened her eyes and saw a blinding light shining down on her. Was she in the underworld now?
“My child, you have searched for me. Now I am here,” a voice called to her.
Riparro was in shock. Inama? She had found Inama? Perhaps she had died. She looked about and found herself continuing to sink in the black waters of the sea. Ribbons of seaweed licked at her skin as she made her way to the ocean floor. It was odd that she did not feel the need to breathe. The cold waters filled her lungs and she let it go, like the currents around her.
“Did you not hear my prayers,” she cried to the god. “I prayed for you to save my people. I prayed every night. Where were you?”
“Listening,” the voice replied.
“Why only listen,” the girl asked. “Why not stop the mammoths from destroying the trees, or the rhinos from trampling our huts? Why do nothing?”
“To see what you would sacrifice.”
Riparro was silent. Her people were broken. They barely survived against the cruelty of the north. They managed to find meat from time to time, but that was to feed themselves. They had nothing in excess that could be used in offering. What could they possibly give the god of the north?
“It is true, I am the northern winds,” Inama said. “I blow life into everything north of the southern mountains. I have carved out the Ferrying Tundra and spread the seeds of the Burning Forest. I have done these deeds, and so much more, but your destiny is your own. Mankind must choose their means for survival, and what they will sacrifice to do it.”
“I… I have nothing to give, Inama,” Riparro said. “My clothes are wet, my bow has a broken string, my knife dropped with me into the ocean. If I had something to offer, something you would accept to save my people, I would surely give it.”
“You already have,” the northern spirit responded.
Riparro questioned what he meant.
“You have given me everything,” he continued. “You have given me your clothes, your bow, your knife, and your very being. You have given all you have to me for your cause, and in doing so I will return them to you. However, you will not be like before. To defend your people, you must be different than as you are now. I will give you new clothes, ones that will keep you warm from the northern winds. I will give you sharp fangs so you may never lose your means to hunt. I will breathe life into a new body, one that will have the strength to run across the tundra and the plains and drive the mammoth and rhino from your lands. You will be a guardian to your people, but you will not be of them anymore. Do you understand?”
Riparro stared at the white god. She looked back to memories of her mother. Warm embraces and words of encouragement welled salted tears that blended with the dark ocean. Everything she had known and loved was so far away now, and there it would stay. She would never play with the babies of the village or help the women tan the hides of their game again. She would never know what it is like to make love on her wedding night. She would never be able to give her mother grandchildren, which she had hoped for on many occasions. But in this, at least, she could ensure her people’s survival.
Riparro smiled and nodded to Inama and felt the warmth inside her grow.
The waves of the ocean above lapped at the coastline under the darkness of a new night. The waves pushed up white seafoam onto the lichen-covered rock and left it as the water receded. The foam amassed and emulsified with the lichen, flecks of gray and green bubbled up into the mass. The northern wind, the same one that roared at Riparro during her journey, blew at the foam with a mighty breath. Clumps of bubbles sprang into the air and fell back into the sea. The wind blew again, and the seafoam took shape. A paw, covered in gray fur, stepped forth from the foam. A long muzzle, with a wet black nose and sharp teeth, emerged. Amber-colored eyes, framed by pointed ears, looked upward towards the moon. The creature stepped out from the seafoam to reveal a long, fur-covered body, ending in a bushy tail. This new animal sprinted with the speed of the northern winds to the top of the rock outcropping and gave a mighty howl. It was said this howl was heard all across the lands between the tundra and the forests. This was the first wolf, and her name was Riparro.
The girl, now a wolf, ran across the tundra. The cold no longer pricked at her bare skin. She sniffed out a rabbit, the same one that alluded her bow, and drank its hot blood. The wolf ran to the plains of her people and hunted the mammoth and the rhino. She killed any who dared to threaten her people.
Without the mammoth, the trees returned, and the forest grew. The winter winds no longer took her people as they slept. Without the rhino, the village could grow and become filled with the laughter of many children. Riparro had saved her people.
However, she remembered Inama telling her she would no longer be one of them, so she kept to the forests and plains as her home. The people of the village revered this strange new animal and thanked her for her protection. She became the god of her people. She became known as a god of protection, companionship, families, and hunting. As time went on Riparro’s people became known as the people of the wolf, the Warogi, and it is said her descendants, gifted to her by Inama’s grace, continue to watch over them to this day.