By Kayleigh Grian.
As she glanced up at the sky, Ixin noticed it remained a purplish gray, the clouds blocking out most of the light. She hoped the village would be able to finish the yearly chores before the first snowfall. There was still much work to do and several of the villagers had fallen victim to the sickness. It happened every year, but that didn’t make it any easier. This time of year they really needed every single villager to help prep for the harsh weather that was coming, if they didn’t stock enough food and supplies to last the winter they wouldn’t survive.
But every year around this time, they would have to sacrifice a few villagers to help care for those that came down with the sickness. And then, some of those would fall sick, too. It was like a ripple that started small until it spread throughout the entire village. Very few were strong enough to not catch the winter sickness. Most would catch it at least every other year, and sadly, some years the sickness was so bad that several of her people would die. Usually the sickness claimed the lives of the old and occasionally some of the very young, but some years it did not discriminate at all.
This was one of those years. So far the village had lost over a dozen, and another two dozen were ill. The rest of them were trying to make up for it by working longer hours, but even that was starting to take its toll. They didn’t have time to properly grieve for the loved ones that had passed, many weren’t eating properly or getting nearly enough sleep. Ixin herself often felt a hard wind would knock her right over, and she doubted if she’d be able to pick herself back up. She was only taking short naps here and there and felt as though she had aged ten years since the season changed.
As she walked through the village she watched some of the men dressing several animals. They were meticulous in their work, not wanting to waste anything. Depending on the animal, the hide was used either as warm clothing, bedrolls, or to patch roofs. The meat would be salted and dried to last them many lunar cycles. The fat would be boiled down to make oil for their lamps. Even the bones would be used as tools.
On the other side of the path through the village were several women sewing the hides and furs together. Children would run off to fetch more hides as the stack grew smaller. In the distance she could hear the steady thwack of axes chopping wood. Some of the older children were in charge of stacking the logs at each hut, ensuring every family had enough to make it through the winter. She grinned as she watched two boys load their makeshift carts and race one another to a set of huts nearby. As they stacked the wood each would glance at the other’s pile, gauging who was further along.
“Ha! I win!” one shouted to the other, playfully jostling his companion before they rushed off to refill their carts.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she should stop to eat. She wandered over to the village’s cooking tent, the smell of the stew over the fire making the rumble in her stomach grow in intensity. Instead of grabbing a bowl of the stew she grabbed some bread and a handful of berries and turned to head back to her chores.
“Ixin!” Aylen, the chief’s wife, hissed. “You need to eat before you waste away. Come, I’ll make a plate for you.”
“Mother Aylen, really, I can’t. I must get back to work. There is still too much to do.”
Aylen knew too well what would happen if the village wasn’t prepared for the snow season. When she was still young and not yet the wife of the chief there had been a year they did not have enough food stocked, nor enough wood. Between the yearly sickness that struck and the hunger that followed, the village lost half of their people. The next year Yecar became the new chief and took her as his bride. Together they vowed to never again let the village face the winter unprepared. But Aylen also knew it was important for those working so hard to eat and rest so they didn’t fall to the sickness.
“I won’t take no for an answer this time. You’ve dodged me for days.” Aylen scolded Ixin as she ladled the soup into a bowl, “We can’t afford for you to get sick. Look at you, you are wasting away already. Nothing but skin and bones!”
Ixin sat on the elk skin rug near the cooking fire. Secretly, she was relieved to hear that. She wanted nothing more than to enjoy a hot meal and once again have the feeling of a full stomach, but she didn’t want to let her people down. How could she sit still while the rest of the able bodied were working? She was raised to work hard and do her part to keep the village going.
Aylen brought the bowl of stew over to Ixin. She could see the wear on the poor girl. Their village valued hard work, sometimes to the detriment of their health. No one got a free ride. Well, except maybe the elderly and the sick. Even the young ones had jobs to do, though they fit their size. Their people tried to make the chores for the children fun, often turning them into games and competitions.
“Look at it this way, Ixin, the stew will give you strength to work longer once you go back out. I think that is time well spent. Our bodies need energy from somewhere, and this will both warm you and give you the energy to keep going.”
Ixin blew on her stew before replying, “You are right, Mother Aylen, sometimes I forget. This time of year there never seems to be enough daylight for us to do what we must before the cold comes, and I just get caught up in it.” She slipped a spoonful of the stew into her mouth and immediately regretted it. The stew was still steaming and burned her tongue. Swallowing fast, she could feel the heat all the way to her stomach.
“That is what you have me for, dear child. To remind you.” Aylen smiled and patted Ixin on the head. As the chief’s wife, it was her duty to look after all the village people. She was the nurturer to her husband’s strength. She continued to watch as Ixin gulped spoonful after spoonful of the stew, the bread long gone. “Slow down, Ixin, you have time,” she chided. “There are several moons left before we must be done with the chores.”
“I don’t know, Mother Aylen, by the looks of the sky today the snows could come early. The clouds have that strange tint they always get before it snows.” A chill ran across her spine as she thought of snow coming so early.
“Maybe so, maybe so. Do not fret, my child. Even if the snow begins to fall tonight, we have enough to get through if we are careful. Let Yecar and I worry about that. You just finish your stew.”
Once she finished her meal, Ixin rushed off to help dry the meat. It was one of her least favorite jobs, but she didn’t yet have the muscles to chop wood and had never been good at sewing. She would prefer to care for the sick, but since her brother had fallen ill her mother wouldn’t allow it, for fear she too would catch it.
Halfway through the village she felt something whisper against her cheek. She glanced up to see several thick snowflakes floating down to the ground. The first snowfall had arrived, and Ixin could only hope that they had done enough to make it through the winter.
Kayleigh Grian is currently a part time student working on her Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Computer Forensics and Security. She also works full time as a police dispatcher.
Kayleigh has always enjoyed writing, especially fiction and poetry. She is working on several projects including her first novel and a collection of short stories. Kayleigh enjoys reading as much as she does writing and will often go through a few books a week when she doesn’t have a ton of homework to do.