Her heart was still sore from the words Arbek, her stepfather had spoken. “Go,” he had said with a dismissive wave. “Find us some food or don’t bother coming back here. Useless girls have no place at my hearth.”
And so Svarna fled from him with down cast eyes and white knuckles, taking the cumbersome fishing baskets with her across the wide open spaces of the steppes. She walked rapidly with a swinging gait that clearly said she wanted to put distance between herself and the small turf and wood dwelling that she and the others called home. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know where she was headed. She just needed some space and room to breathe and some time to think about what had gone wrong. Out in the open she could do just that. There was no one waiting for the opportunity to criticize her there. She touched the turquoise necklace about her throat, the one her mother had made for her on the dark nights of winter, each bead carved by hand and wondered about the hold Arbek had over her. Why did her normally loving mother remain silent when her new husband harangued and scolded her? Why did she not speak up? Surely their bond could not have been extinguished so easily?
Her breathing eventually became ragged as much from the rising altitude as from the punishing pace she had set herself at the start. But that had obviously served its purpose. Now her more immediate issues were the regrouping of her energies and thoughts so that she could come up with a workable plan of action that would enable her to bring back food for her family. A grassy hillock to the right of her seemed suitable enough for the purpose and she was so tired anyway that when she reached it she did not care much about the tussocks of grass that stuck in her back or the ants that nipped peevishly at her skin. As the clouds scudded by heedless of her sorrows she turned her attention to her failures over the previous weeks. She’d spent most of that time fishing the series of small lakes beyond the forest since they were closer to home and a lot more sheltered. Mostly she’d come back empty handed. But regardless of what Arbek said, that could have been for any number of reasons. Anyone with any sense knew that the gods could take away their blessing from a hunter just as easily as they gave it and that sometimes waters can sour naturally. Otters could have contributed to the problem too, especially if a large enough family moved into an area. Either way she knew she could not afford to come home with nothing again. She must bring home food if it was the last thing she did. Her life depended on it.
So this time she settled on venturing north towards the creaking towers of ice that would one day, many thousands of years into the future be called glaciers by the people who would inhabit these lands. There she would find the mighty salmon that lived in the gentian blue river that issued forth from the glacier itself. Her father had taken her there once, many moons ago. He had told her that they were looking for a medicine man who lived there and that if they could find him he might be able to heal her seizures. They never did find him and for many years afterwards Svarna felt that her father had just been amusing her with his silly game until news reached her of the deaths of two tribesmen. They’d been crushed by falling ice whilst out looking for the very same medicine man. It was then that she realised that it had been no game. The glacier was indeed dangerous and her father must have had good reason to take her there. She would do well to remember that today, she told herself.
After another hour of climbing and walking her efforts bought her within sight of her destination. By that time the twine and willow fishing baskets she carried were starting to chafe her scrawny shoulders, so she paused briefly in the shadow of the ice sheet to balance them. Perhaps it was this seemingly minor action that caused what happened next or maybe it was the increasing warmth of the day. But whatever the case, without any warning whatsoever a great slab of ice sheared off and plunged into a rocky outcrop a mere hundred metres away. The sound was ear splitting. Instinctively she fled, eyes flashing in terror and baskets forgotten; only coming to a stop when she reached the safety of the outer ice field. There she cowered listening to the ricochets bouncing off the nearby cliffs and the smaller pieces that were continuing to break free in the aftermath. Some fell into the river. Some hit the ground below and were turned to powder in an instant. Eventually all was quiet. Her heart slowed and her breathing returned to normal. Then she remembered the baskets. To return without fish would be bad enough but to destroy the only means they had to catch any in the future would be inexcusable. It was this thought alone that gave her the courage to retrace her steps.
They were quite intact actually and when she discovered this, she felt better. She turned them over and over, inspecting them for damage, reattaching the food scraps that she had bought for bait. When she had done this to her satisfaction she gazed up at the cliff the ice had fallen from and saw something that truly horrified her. There was a man up there staring at her from within the ice flow. She stifled a scream and dropped one of the baskets. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she realised he was entombed within the ice, so she moved forward for a better look.
The expression on his face was easily discernible. Although neutral, she imagined it to be kindly. Quite possibly he had brought her luck, she thought – after all the baskets were miraculously undamaged and she herself was not dead. She leaned forward and touched his icy prison, whispering a thank you that could only have been heard by mice.
But she needed to hurry. Daylight did not last long in the upper regions of the northern hemisphere. In just a few short hours the light would falter and night would swiftly follow. There would be no fishing to be done then. With this in mind, she made her way over to the river where she identified a likely spot and dropped one of the baited baskets in. She repeated these actions with the other two at different intervals then stood for what seemed like hours holding onto the rough twine she’d attached to each of them. It was a boring task so not surprisingly her thoughts began to wander. She thought of the ice man and what his life might have been like and where he had come from. She speculated about how he had come to end up locked within the glacier and of how long he might have been trapped. These thoughts triggered a distant memory of a time when her family had lived somewhere warmer. Then she had found another type of ice – but very tiny pieces and globular in shape. This ice was not cold though and neither was it white or blue like the ice that came from the glacier. This warm ice was a deep orangey yellow and yet clear at the same time. It also had the power to capture living things just as the glacier had done. She had found ants inside it, spiders and even a lizard on one occasion. She wondered what would happen if the ice ever melted. Would the things captured like this come to life again once more? Or would they stay inanimate? Who could say? There was much about the world that she did not know yet.
Suddenly there was a loud creak and the overhang Svarna was standing on collapsed, plunging her into the water. The air left her lungs in one explosive gasp. She couldn’t swim so naturally she went under. Panic brought her up again, all thrashing limbs and terror. She sank once more but for longer this time. Without knowing how, she propelled herself up again to the surface. She coughed and spluttered, gagged and sobbed. She cried out to the wilderness, to the gods and her ancestors, ‘somebody save me! I’m dying!’ Her body was under siege from both within and without. The sub zero water seared her flesh. It filled her nose and mouth. She couldn’t think any more. Her mind was too consumed by terror. She battled to breathe, she battled to live. She battled in vain to reach the bank. For several agonising minutes she struggled on valiantly, becoming progressively weaker as time went on. Eventually she was spending more time beneath the surface than she was on top. Her movements grew ever more feeble until finally her blue face sank beneath the surface for one last time, her hair fanning out like the tentacles of a golden anemone as she faded from this life.
Morning arrived and for the moment everything on and around the glacier was still. A solitary black wisp of smoke drifted above it carrying with it the smell of freshly cooked fish. It had not travelled far. Beneath the ice sheet that had revealed the iceman to Svarna the day before, a camp fire flickered brightly in its efforts consume the damp spruce wood someone had so hastily flung across it. Beside it stood a basket of fish. They were substantial in size and fresh too; in fact some were still flopping about. One of them was already cooked. It steamed on a wooden slab, sending its tantalising aroma into the nostrils of a sleeping girl. She stirred beneath the enormous bison fur blinking twice. Abruptly she sat up, confused.
She had died, her mind protested. How could she still be alive?
The water had swallowed her up and she had sunk to the bottom.
Svarna wrestled with this contradiction until she spotted the fish waiting to be eaten. She devoured it quickly and then sat licking her fingers considering this also.
If she could feel hunger then she definitely wasn’t dead. So someone must have pulled her out and revived her. But who? She called out over and over half expecting someone to come running. Maybe her mother or her brother perhaps…but no one did. She was all alone except for the ice man who stared out at her from his chilly abode. She stumbled towards him lifting up her hand to touch the turquoise beads around her neck as she often did whenever she was upset. But before she even had time to complete that familiar gesture her hand froze in the realisation that her actions were pointless because there in front of her, the beads were slung not around her neck, but around the iceman’s, resting comfortably on the hair of his chest.
Once she got over the shock of what that meant she bravely reached out again. “Thank you,” she said to him, running her fingers across the ice. His only reply was silence and a frozen stare but it was the warmest gesture she had known in many months so she marked it well in her heart.