In the deepest hour of night, Halian slides off the dirt platform of his bed. Shivering, he tucks the blankets back around his daughter, Lituwa, who just turned four. Her dark hair splays across the grass-stuffed mattress. He kisses his wife’s forehead, then her lips. She smiles in her sleep.
Segowa, his wife, embroidered the top blanket. The arrowhead leaves of her family crest intertwine with the ghostblossom of Halian’s. Two plants that rarely meet in the rainforest understory, yet here they are, twisted together in green and white thread. One of the few marks of his existence in this plank house.
Coals cast soft orange light on Segowa’s sleeping family – sister, parents, mother’s parents. Beyond them are rows of beds in both directions. Several families live under one vaulted ceiling. Halian married into the house four years ago, but the carved stone animals on the hearth mantelpieces still watch him. He swears their eyes glow.
He lifts a polished wooden box down from a shelf. Inside, figurines stand like warriors awaiting commands. These ones are his work, symbols of his ancestors – a limestone seal, soapstone raven, jade dolphin. The house elders refuse to let him place them over the hearth. Stubborn old fools, he thinks.
He’s twenty-three, an initiated stonecarver, a difficult position to attain. His figurines stand guard in his old home a few houses down, and they’re often praised for looking so alive. But his wife’s elders still treat him like a careless teenager. They won’t risk him letting rogue spirits into their plank house, no matter how much they need the protection his carvings might offer.
Illness hit late last winter. It spread from foreign sailors to the colonists’ capital city, and out from there like wildfire. Fear was its smoke, billowing far beyond the flames. War followed in its wake. Razed villages, massacres, gaunt bodies dumped in shallow graves. Halian’s tribe leader, the okorebai, sent warriors north and summoned the rest of the tribe home.
It was too late. They brought the lung-killer with them. By the end of summer, their tribe of two thousand people had dropped to one thousand.
Halian slides a quartz hawk into his breeches pocket and returns the box to its shelf. He pulls on his boots, cloak, and gloves. He tucks a knife into his belt. A woman nursing a baby watches him. Her baby coughs. If it worsens, she’ll have to take it to the healers. Few infants who leave ever return. Halian has already dug tiny graves in the woods for his niece and nephew.
He and the woman have an unspoken agreement. He doesn’t tell anyone the baby wakes her up, and she doesn’t tell anyone he leaves at night.
Snow floats down outside, filling in the shovelled paths. Halian slips into a storage shed near their plank house. He’s done this enough to work in the dark. He scoops flour into a bag and wraps a wedge of smoked salmon in canvas. It won’t be noticed missing. He doesn’t know yet where he’ll take his wife and child, only that he wants to be ready for a long trip.
It’s their food by rights. In autumn Segowa gathered duck potato from streams and ground it into flour, and he caught salmon at her family’s fishing grounds down the coast. They had to work hard, being two of the few adults not sick or away fighting. War still found Halian though. Foreign mercenaries tried to raid the salmon camp. He killed a man by panic alone, stabbing his fish knife into the man’s eye.
My brave husband, Segowa said when he returned home. She kissed his wounds from the mercenary’s sword. They were intimate for the first time in months, his calloused hands clinging to her curves. The next day, little Lituwa wanted stories from the salmon camp. He bounced her on his knee and told her of sea wolves that catch salmon with their jaws. All he saw was that man’s eye.
It’s their family’s food. He bled and killed for it. But he knows why the stone animals over the hearths watch him.
Halian kicks snow over his footprints and heads through the grid of plank houses. Moonlight glazes their snowy roofs in blue. His boots crunch in the silence. He passes his old house without stopping. His brother’s probably awake, grieving, but Halian doesn’t want to explain why he’s awake too.
Some houses sit empty. The lung-killer tore through them, wiping out whole families. A few buildings are quarantined, marked by torches that burn all day and night. He avoids them, but still hears dry rattling coughs. Death’s lullaby. He won’t find solace in the shrine. Someone’s always there, always mourning. They won’t take kindly to overhearing the questions Halian has for his ancestral spirits. The guidance he needs.
Then the last person he wants to see appears in the drifting snow. Segowa’s older brother.
Ranelin is everything a man ought to be. Huge, strong, and blunt as a battering ram. Not a warrior by lineage, but capable enough. He’s been away at the front lines for a month. Segowa will be relieved, for which Halian is glad, but did they have to run into each other now?
“Brother-in-law,” Ranelin calls. Even his voice is big. “Where you going at this hour?”
Halian pulls his knife from his belt. “Couldn’t sleep. Figured I’d better get some weapons practice in.”
Ranelin nods. He doesn’t crack a joke at Halian’s expense. Something is wrong. “I came with news. You’re the first to hear.” He tosses his battle-axe from hand to hand. “The okorebai’s daughter is dead. Killed in battle.”
Halian is silent, stunned. The okorebai’s son has already died. There’s no one left to succeed her. If she dies too, they’re leaderless.
“There’s talk. Every young man might be called to fight. You included, little brother.”
For once, Halian doesn’t bristle at the term. His mind charges ahead like a furious elk. He’s tall and healthy, but not a warrior either, and not built like Ranelin. He’s wiry as a cottonwood sapling. Killing that mercenary was a fluke.
He will die in battle. In days, perhaps. Then his wife and daughter will be alone.
Halian winds along the ocean cliffs, teeth chattering in the icy wind. Stars wink through a clear patch among the clouds. Near the canoe docks, he buries the flour and salmon among the frosty roots of a salt spruce. He takes out a vodka bottle and covers the cache with snow. Hours from now, he might dig it up again.
Segowa will be upset if she sees the vodka. He sticks his knife into the cork, yanks it out, and takes a swig. He shudders. He’s out of practice from his teenage years. It’s not long until the fuzziness sets in.
Every night he takes the quartz hawk from its box. Every dawn he thinks maybe that’ll be the day he offers it to Segowa. A symbol of himself. If they flee, that’s all he can offer. They won’t have the protection of their families, tribe, or the spirits that dwell here.
Today will have to be the day.
He’s terrified she’ll refuse. Running is cowardly. It’s betrayal. A life of loneliness. And maybe she won’t believe he can protect her or Lituwa. What kind of man can’t protect his family? A lifetime devoted to stonecarving and the spirits, and he’s forbidden to call on them. He throws his knife at a stump. It bounces away harmlessly.
He’s more afraid Segowa will accept the hawk.
She was twenty-three when he got her pregnant. He was nineteen. A stupid boy flattered that a gorgeous woman, a talented embroiderer, looked his way. A stupid boy overwhelmed by lust. But Segowa decided she wanted the baby – and she wanted Halian. He made her smile with quiet, dry humour. He made her feel desired. She was amazed that he could touch a piece of rock and know what shape it’d take.
She loves his hands most. He squints at them in the watery moonlight. Long thin fingers, scarred palms, rough skin from stonecarving. A working man’s hands, she says. She likes them on her body.
Always devout, he asked the spirits what to do. The answer was clear. It wasn’t until he held their newborn daughter, in awe of the life they created, that he felt ready. A month later he married Segowa in the shrine. They were tattooed with each other’s crests. He started growing his hair out too. Marriage meant he’d become a man. It grew along with baby Lituwa’s, the same shade of dark brown.
His long braid doesn’t make him feel like a man though. The vodka brings up things he’s pushed down for four years.
He’s forever marked. No other woman will touch him that way now. It’s possible Segowa’s elders will always see him as that careless teenage boy, never permit him to carve for their house. His role as a spiritual guardian will be over. Lituwa will have to apprentice to Segowa as an embroiderer. The only trace of her father will be the ghostblossom crest she inherits from him.
Even that feels like a joke. He’s a ghost in his own settlement. A nobody slated to die before midwinter. He hates himself for caring about any of it when he should be worrying how to keep his wife and child from the lung-killer.
Halian stumbles to the cliff edge. Dolphin-prow canoes bump against the docks far below. Further down the coast, he can see the shrine island. “Help me,” he begs the spirits. “Show me the path.”
On and on the ocean swells. Snow falls on his face. It’d be easier not to ask Segowa. Not to test how much she loves him. Not to make her choose. But he has to. He owes her that much, a choice in her own marriage.
No matter what he does – flees with her or dies in battle – she’ll never look at him again like when he returned from the salmon camp. She’ll never call him brave again. Her back won’t arch, her toes won’t curl for him again.
“Please.” He drops to his knees on the rocks, scoured clean by wind, and screams into the sky. “Please! I don’t know what to do!”
He rises to his feet. The ocean spreads vast below, thick and black. He thinks he can survive the fall. Though, through the haze of vodka, he can’t tell how far down it is. He doesn’t know how hard he’ll hit or how cold the water is. He sways on the edge.
And he leaps.
Halfway to the water, his body changes.
Feathers burst from his arms. He catches a current of air and glides over inky waves. He’s soaring before he realizes he’s a hawk.
He’s only shifted once by accident – in adolescence, the first time he shifted, when the spirits gave him this gift. Every time since has been deliberate. This time, something is telling him to wait. To have faith. To seek another way.
“Halian?” Segowa edges forward.
He’s lying face-up on the docks. He lifts his head to look at her. She’s more stunning than he remembered, half in sunlight, half in shadow cast by the cliffs. Cloud weasel fur on her hood frames her face. Her pine-brown braid drapes over one shoulder. It carries the memory of their first time together, and all the times after, including the one that created their little girl. Memories older than his braid carries.
“Where’s Lituwa?” he murmurs.
“In our house. My sister’s looking after her.”
Our house. He clings to the words.
“Ranelin said you came this way.” Segowa kneels on the salt-stained timbers. “The okorebai made a decision. She’s disbanding our regiment in the colonists’ military. We’re pulling out of the war.”
Halian sits up. He won’t die. Her words can’t be real. And yet… maybe the spirits knew what was being decided overnight.
Segowa touches his cheek. “You’re freezing. How long have you been out here?”
She can’t be real. She, so patient and beautiful and loving, can’t be his wife. He pushes her hood back and trails his fingertips over her lips.
“I need you to do something.” Breathless, he holds out the quartz hawk. “Put this on the mantelpiece in our house.”
Her thin brows furrow. “You know it’s not up to me–”
“Please. It’ll keep you safe. You and Lituwa. Trust me, please. The spirits gave me a sign.”
Segowa bites her lip. She’s questioned many things over the years, his drinking and his love for her, but never his connection to the spirit world. He’s a stonecarver. He knows these things. He hopes, more than anything he’s ever hoped, she believes that now.
She takes the hawk.
He grabs the back of her neck. His heart drums inside his ribcage. “Have you ever wanted another child?”
She stares at him. “Where did that come from?”
“Segowa. Do you want another child with me?”
Her cheeks flush. “Yes. But I didn’t think you do.”
“I want a sibling for our daughter.” He digs his fingers into her braid. He feels all her memories in those strands, pulsing and alive. “Will you give me one? Right here. Right now.”
“Are you insane? It’s too cold–”
“Yes!” The word bursts from her. “Yes, Halian!”
He kisses her, tearing at her leggings. They roll across the docks. His body swells with love, with desire. He doesn’t have to kill someone to be brave, to deserve her love. He just has to choose her. He just has to stay.