Snowtouched

Chapter 16: The Tale of Doeli and the Sea

This is a story of long ago. The world was new, but Tata had played his first trick and Eve had retreated into her long sleep, and the young sun shone upon a world where much was yet unearthed.

In those days there lived two nichelings, Jun and Omi. They had travelled far to found their own tribe and settled upon a small island. There the sea was never far away, and if you listened hard on a quiet night, in the very centre of that island, you could still hear waves breaking above the rustling grass, so I heard. Here they began their tribe, which they named Jannu.

Jun and Omi had many children together, but every one was a male. Try though they might they were unable to bear any daughters, and as time went on they feared for their tribe's future. Though they loved their sons very much, with no females to their name they would soon die off.

One night, Jun and Omi were resting together when they heard a rustle in the grass and smelled a nicheling they did not know. Had a wanderer come to be a mate to their sons and save the tribe? The grass parted, and they saw that it was a wanderer, but much to their disappointment another male, and an old male at that. His snout was twisted with Tata's curse, and upon his head were branching horns that pointed to the sky. They had never seen a nicheling with horns before, and they shrank back, afraid. "Who are you?" said Omi.

"My name is Kuronu," said the stranger, and he turned his head from them to show he was no threat. "I came from across the sea."

Jun and Omi, disappointed as they were, could not turn down one who had travelled so far, so they invited him in to their den and told him of their own journey to this island and their fledgeling tribe.

When their story was finished, it was Kuronu's turn to speak. "So I see that you are worried, and for good reason," he said. "Listen. I have travelled far and seen many things, and a little magic remains with me. I am old now, and will not live long, but I can do something for you, though it may seem strange to ask."

"What do you mean?" said Omi.

Kuronu looked her in the eye. "I can give you a daughter."

As Jun and Omi crouched together in the grass, their minds filled with questions, Kuronu could see that he had unsettled the pair, so he continued. "Please, do not feel that you have to decide now. I only wish to help, but let yourself think first, and give me your answer tomorrow night." And with that, he left Jun and Omi to their den.

They talked through the night and well into the next day, wary but tempted by the stranger's promise. But in the end their hopes for their tribe were stronger than their fears, and so the next night Omi came to Kuronu's side and accepted his deal.

The next morning Kuronu was dead, for just as he said, he was old.

But he made good on his promise, and soon after Omi bore two children, with white coats and horn buds to match their father's. The first, who they named Nivar, was another son, but the second was the daughter they had longed for. They named her Doeli.

Together Nivar and Doeli grew. Nivar had a love of the land, and he learnt all about the plants that grew upon the island, while Doeli loved the sea. It was Doeli who first discovered that clams are good to eat, and Doeli who watched the tides and observed how they matched the time of day and phase of the moon. She learnt to swim in the waters and chase fish in the shallows, and the shore became her home and her greatest love.

One day, when exploring the coast at low tide, she found a pool left by the sea's retreat and peered inside, curious about what creatures she would find there. In the water she saw, looking up at her, the reflections of nichelings she had never seen before, nichelings who were not part of her tribe, who had never been of her tribe. When she looked back she was alone, but in the water they looked back up at her, as clear as her own face on the surface of the waters. And so she learned that to her eyes the water was an opening to other times, and the past and future were revealed to her across its surface.

Well, visions or not, time must always pass, and soon Jun and Omi grew old too. One day, as Doeli was watching her pool, she saw a new nicheling, a black and ghostly creature whose shape flickered though the waters were still. It ran off as soon as she saw, but for a moment they locked eyes and she knew that it had come for the tribe. So she ran to her family's den, and when she arrived she saw that Jun was dead and his mate and sons were grieving over his body.

"Did you know?" said Omi.

"I feared I did," said Doeli, "and now I do." And she told her family of the vision in the pool, of the ghostly nicheling who met her eyes and ran. The tribe huddled together in the grass, each one imagining a shifting shadow that ran through the blades unhindered.

"Then it was the ancestral spirits, come for him." Omi touched her nose to her mate's body. "He is in the deep, now. No-one can follow him there."

But Doeli could not bear to see her mother so lost and broken, and though Jun was not her father in blood he had been in spirit, and his loss struck deeply in her gems. "No!" she said. "I can swim far, and deep. The ocean is part of me - I can find him!"

But deep though she could dive, how was she to reach the abyss? You know the abyss is not the sea we look upon every day. It is the great gulf between islands, a place of no light, no sound, no up or down. Those who have crossed the sea to find new lands may swim over it, but none may sink into its depths until it is their time. Doeli knew this as well as all of you.

It was her twin, Nivar, who found the answer. He had, as you remember, a great love of the land, and he knew every plant upon the island, where it grew, and whether it was good to eat. He knew more about plants than I expect any nicheling alive today. And he had learnt that there was a rare plant that grew in the shallows that, when eaten, would bestow the gift of underwater breathing. Together they searched and found one of those plants, and all the tribe - Doeli's mother, twin, and many brothers - gathered to watch her go. To each one she said her goodbyes, before she ate the plant and dove under the sea.

You know that out there in the world are nichelings with fins and gills, and you might think they have some inkling of where Doeli swam. But not even they could tell you how she found the abyss. I know one thing - it is a journey no living nicheling may make. It is no place for those who still have light in their gems. Even with Nivar and his plants, Doeli would have been forced to turn back or die were she not a child of the sea itself. How far to the abyss, then? Ask the ocean. It alone can tell you.

Deep and deep she swam, far from the sun and wind, until she came to a place of no light and no sound. In the dark she felt claws grab at her body and jaws snap, and the movement of creatures in the water around her, invisible in the blackness. They knew she was not one of them, that she did not belong here, and they grabbed and clawed and bit to warn her. Turn back, they said, turn back and leave this place. But she would not be deterred. Onward she swam, searching the abyss.

And at last she saw a light ahead, a light that could shine in no place but here, for it was only in such total darkness that it could be seen. But after her journey in total darkness, it seemed to her eyes to shine as bright as the sun at noon, and so she followed. As she swam closer she could see it was not one light but three - the light of Jun's gems. There he was, his body outlined in that green light, that gave the faintest of shapes to the pair of them in the dark.

"Doeli!" He let her swim closer, and they touched noses in joyous reunion. "How can you be here?"

"I swam," said Doeli, and she told him of Nivar and the plant, and her promise to the Jannu Tribe. Jun listened to her words as they circled one another in the water.

"My dearest," he said, when she was finished, "my little Doeli, deer of the sea, you know how many have dreamed of this journey and none have undertaken it. You are the bravest creature I know. But I cannot return."

"Why ever not?" said Doeli.

"What has happened has happened," said Jun. "I was old, up there on the surface. If I returned, I would soon be back here again. You will journey here again one day, you and Omi and all your brothers. But this is not the place for you now. The sun is warm and the wind is fresh - return to the surface and feel them again. That is where you belong."

"Then what about my promise?" said Doeli.

"There is not a moment in the world where a creature does not wish they could do what you have done, little deer. But the sea is already with you, as it always has been. What is must be, but you will find ways to guide your tribe with the gifts you have been given. Do not fear for me. The world down here is as vast as the world above, but it is not for you to see yet."

And Doeli knew there was nothing she could say to convince Jun to break the laws of the world, so they nuzzled cheeks with one another one last time, and as she swam away she imagined she could see other beings outlined in the dark by Jun's light, beings that were there one moment and gone when she blinked. And she she turned and swam away, back to the surface.

I can't tell you how long she took to return, any more than I can tell you how far she swam to find Jun. But when she came to the shore and stood on land, blinded by the sun, she found herself alone. Every scent and sound was richer to her senses than ever before, every bird-call a song, every berry bush a promise of the finest feast. Finally she came to the family den where Omi and her brothers waited, and they fell upon her, purring and calling out that they had not seen her in three days, and had thought that she had gone to join Jun forever in the depths.

"But where is Jun?" said Omi. "His scent is upon you."

"I'm sorry," said Doeli, and she told them the story of how Jun refused to return, and what he had told her in the dark.

"He was right, you know, about the sea," said Nivar. "Look at your gems!"

She did, and saw to her surprise that her gems, which had been green all her life, were as blue as the ocean on a clear day. The sea had indeed left its mark upon her.

As time passed she learnt that it had done more than that. Everywhere she looked, the sea gave her messages. When she opened a clam or walked along the tideline, she saw in the patterns clues to the future. Sometimes they told of good fortune, and sometimes of danger and grief. She could do nothing to change what they told, but with her swift warnings she could prepare the tribe for any challenge they faced.

Doeli taught her children to read these signs, and they taught theirs in turn, and so began the line of the seers - nimble paws to break open shells, and sharp antlers that point to the stars, so that all the worlds exist for them in one. To this day we travel into the dark places when we are grown to receive Doeli's blessings, and emerge with gems of blue. What is must be, that is true, but with a little foresight and the gifts of the sea, we know that we can face whatever may come.