4.11 / November 2009


listen to this story

Today I have taught Yeti “walls.” He has built two woody sides that come only up to our knees. Yeti crafts them with care; he has felled ten trees. There are not many left in the valley.

The Yeti labors. He stacks the trees with snow, wraps them round with twine. I do not know where he got it. He shivers in the wind, which shakes the fragile walls. The new snow blows in and covers the bald patches on his chin and cheeks.

There is a cave a little east of the house that Yeti is building. The cave is marked by a pine and hides its mouth from the house. I watch the cave and wrap myself in the white that Yeti gave me. I wait for Yeti to build the walls and live inside them so he will not see me when I disappear.

My house in my village was lovely, large, and made of stone. There are no stones but mountains here.

* * *

Easy, to teach him “wind” and “cold.” “Keep out” has taken days. Now he piles logs to make our door. His big hand hammers on the wood and so he does not hear me when I make my run.

The snow today is fresh and flat. There are kinds that carry fluff, or sparkles. Such snow, I’ve learned, turns to cotton or splinters of glass in the mouth. Today’s snow floats as I run and when it does land, tastes like fresh cream. My breath turns to clouds in the air. I breathe my air back in; it stings me. I am brave to this, for I come from a village with bees. I come from a village with a flowering bush. Our word for it I have not taught to Yeti. I have not taught him most of our words. I have not taught him, yet, our name for him. I have taught him, instead, Big.

Yeti, below in the valley, has made a sound like a chair scuttling back against a floor. I think that the door has defied him. I lift my feet up out of the holes the snow has made for them. I climb and wait for the hand to hammer again.

The snow grows hungry with height; my feet it sinks and buries; like tar it moves into the spaces I leave; it molds to my forceful footstep. I lose my feet from the shoes that Yeti won. I do not know from which village, but I do not think it is far. The shoes are from a little girl like me. I leave them behind me in the snow, which sinks them whole.

I wait for the hand to hammer. But there is only one sound in the valley. The door has been abandoned, and the snow like cream churns behind me with a fup, fup, fup.

I can see the cave over the slope, gray-green with molds and bird dung. My feet grow numb, half-buried in the snow. Yeti bellows behind me. I turn to see his big mouth open red. I try to gain my feet. I think that he is angry with me. Then he swats where my feet have sunk, and I think that he is angry at the snow. Yeti lifts me free, tucks me in the crook of his arm. He brushes my feet clean with his leathery fingers. I think that he is grateful to see them.

“Safe,” I say, and point to the feet he has cupped in his hand.

He growls. He does not know this word, for I have not taught him.

“White,” I remind him instead, and point to the snow that forms the valley’s floor.

I have taught him all the colors we can see from the valley. I have pointed them out from the house: white is the first, then brown, then green. Our sun, above, is diamond. Our snow comes grey like ash and turns to white only when it touches the ground. Yeti’s kill is red. Our tongues as well, though Yeti’s is short and shadowed by his fangs. The eyes of his kill are black. Yeti’s eyes, as well. Mine.

The flower-bush in my village is pink. Where I come from, it is blooming.

* * *

I believe that he used to take them whole—little girls. This stopped when he caught me. Now with his hands like shovels he scoops them up and wins their clothes alone for me to wear. I do not think he will eat me, take my clothes. I do not think he does that anymore. I think I am the last.

Yeti takes me into the house he is building. He pushes his half-made door against the opening, hammers it to fit with his hand. He is finding the door very useful to him.

Inside there is nothing to do, so I weave. I tear long strips of bark from the walls. I make him baskets and bowls as I was taught in the village I come from. They grow with mold and fill with snow, now, until Yeti builds us a roof.

* * *

Yeti, most times, hunts the small—a diet of rabbits and burrowing creatures. I do not eat as the Yeti does, for he near mangles his meat before he eats it. Instead, I have taught him “fish” and “berries” and he goes to the villages to find them. None of them are my village, for we have no such fish as Yeti brings'”great grey fat fish, where ours are skinny and pink. Yeti is shy of the food he brings me, shy of the way I prepare the kill. He shuts the door on me when I start pulling out the bones, shearing off the scales. The eyes I leave for him, for I think that he will like their color. They are golden rainbows over black ocean rock.

Yeti comes back in when he hears me gathering branches. I show him, say the word, ask for more. He hoots and brings to me the remains from building our house. I show him “eyes,” hold them out. He looks into them, turns them round and round before he puts them in his mouth. As he chews I build a fire.

I explain to Yeti that because I do not kill the fish myself, I am not the one who wins it. That there is another woman, or man, somewhere, who takes the fish from the water and strikes it dead with the flat of a trowel, or the butt of a knife handle. Yeti does not know what this means. I point to the remains of his last kill, to the pile of rats’ bones. I mime pouncing upon them. “Win,” I say, lifting a bone, pretending to gnaw.

Yeti hoots at this, wary, uncomfortable. This is the first time I have touched his kill.

At the end of the day, Yeti brings back another. I point to it in his mouth, say “Win.”

Yeti snuffles, drops the kill at his feet. Waits for me.

I drop my weaving. “Big,” I say, pointing to Yeti.

Yeti stares with his eyes black like stones. The kill’s skin sags around its small body. Its eyes and mouth are open. Black, red.

“Big,” I say, pointing, and mime pouncing on the small; “win.”

Yeti understands, is proud of this. He strikes his chest with his fist.

“Win” has proven a useful teaching.

* * *

Yeti did not want to take on the elk, I could see, but I had taught him “win.” And so when my white soaked through with snow, I pointed to the elk and said “win,” and he lumbered out, slashed and tore with his teeth, won the skin and meat though he was not hungry for it. The meat I buried for him, safe, in a corner of the snow-floor. With the skin I stitched a new covering.

Yeti knew where the new clothes had come from. He tore the skin from my shoulders and flung it into the snow. He threw the white on top of me. I threw it off and went unclothed, which he did not expect. I sat in the corner crying, pale-skinned from the wind, covering my shoulders, shaking my hair dry from snow that came in through the uncovered roof. It was night before Yeti went outside, tugging the elk-skin gently back in the house. I sat small in a corner, wrapped myself in the elk-skin and his white—I said “cold” and he understood.

Nights after, Yeti brought back from his hunt another elk. The meat I kept safe in the snow-floor had already gone to waste. I do not think Yeti likes the taste. When he showed me the carcass he struck his chest. I was made to understand he had won it for me to use.

I stitched myself some clothes, a blanket, a pillow. Yeti watched, and I taught him “sew,” though I knew he would not be able to do it.

Yeti brings elk skins night after night. I think that he thinks he is protecting me from them.

* * *

From our house I can see there is more sun now, though no less cold. I think about how the men in my village make their roofs. I see the barrows full of reeds and the broad bowls of beansilk just harvested. I see the men flopping thick, roped slats of roof onto their houses. I figure it out for us as best I can.

“Reed,” I teach Yeti, showing him a long strip of bark from the house’s inside and giving it a tufted head with my fingers.

Yeti brings back wheat, tall grass, pussy willows. I do not know where he finds them. Somewhere there must be a lake. The grasses are pale and dry. Somewhere they must receive too much sun, or perhaps it is autumn and they’re dying.

I wait for reeds like in my village, but they do not come.

I start laying the dried grasses out in rows. I weave them together with house bark. Yeti watches, brings more. This takes several days.

I hand Yeti the patches of roof I have made. Soon we have the house covered. I have an idea; take sinew from our elk to help Yeti bind the roof to the house. I am careful to clean and dry it.

And so Yeti builds me a roof. The house that we sleep in is warm, and Yeti sleeps late.

* * *

Today I vanish while Yeti is still sleeping. I take my pillow and my elk-skin when I go. I leave the white behind.

The house has kept me too long from cold. The valley around us is turning to ice. The branches crack and fall where Yeti hasn’t torn them yet for wood. It is the home of the wind.

The cave lies at the top of the hill, though the pine tree that marked it has been felled. It is the first thing I saw when Yeti brought me, held limp under his arm into the valley. The Yeti’s claws scratched my belly as he lumbered down the slope. He did not like to see the bloody marks he made, and went away, and dug the ground, and brought me back the white to wear. A skin just like his. I stood watching him then, in the valley, shivering.

I do not think any animals live in it anymore. Yeti has not brought home kill for days.

As I climb toward the cave, the cold makes icicles in my heart, puts bruises in my throat. It turns my hands to fish skin. The skin tears. My feet slip. I am hands and knees in the snow. The ice eats into the cuts the cold has made. I climb, my feet slipping. Now bare.

The Yeti roars from below. He opens and shuts our door. His clever palm-feet dig into the side of the valley. His body makes a noise like horse meat hitting a butchering floor. It is an angry noise.

I am slipping down the hill. Yeti’s fingers grip my waist. He takes me in his stride. He shakes my body in his rage. I dangle from his arm, my hair in the snow. My nose runs down into the corners of my mouth. I am screaming words he doesn’t know.

He tears off my elk-skin, throws it in the snow. He has brought the white and yells at me as he wraps it around my shoulders. He pulls it down over my head. I see nothing. He picks me up again, holds me too tight in his arms. I scream into his matted fur. He carries me back to the house. I call him a brute. I call him my enemy. I call him a word that my village applies only to traitors and swindlers. He leaves me shouting on our floor, his fat lips throbbing with anger, bristling with hairs. He roars back at me, but weakly. I throw aside the white, spitting as I yell. He backs into the corner where his elk meat lies buried.

I have yelled “Shame” at him and I think that he has learned it.

The Yeti leaves in the evening. My belly aches with scars. I know better than to try again. I lay curled up on the snow-floor. The white is dry and, it is true, warmer. I pull it over my head, inhale its musk. Mixed with Yeti’s, it smells like sour bread and onion broth. But there is terrible, metal blood in the leather; blood that chalks off on my hands and my head. I want to wash myself in the lakes the Yeti knows. I want to throw myself in the snow and sink.

But our floor is beginning to melt.

* * *

Our sun has turned to yellow clay. A few twigs of trees poke out where Yeti tore their fathers free.

Yeti allows me now to gather, though I fail to find much we can eat. Berries bloom on small shrubs to the east of our house. I think that they are poison and so do not pick them.

Yeti finds mostly birds. Yet I never hear their songs where I gather.

I miss bees. It is time again for flowers in other parts. Where my village is.

I teach Yeti “bees,” humming through my teeth to make their sound. I gesture in the air. Bees are very nimble, very small. “Small” is easy in comparison to Big. I teach him “pink,” dripping birds’ blood on the thinning snow. But it does not look like the pink of the flowers in my village, and Yeti grows mad at the wasted blood.

Days we spend with half a basket’s food and learning words, Big and I, building our vocabulary.

* * *

Days pass and Big does not return. I find wild onions, pluck them and let the rich, foul broth slide down my throat. Days.

Big returns while I am sleeping. I do not hear him. I do not awake. I do not know he has returned. I learn it in the morning.

In the night another girl half my size curls herself into my warmth. I do not know until the morning. Shuddering, crying. Saying words that she knows. She tries to nurse me, though I do not know it. She bites, leaves marks. I do not awake. I have slept nights without a roof and this is the valley of the wind.

In the morning I find her building snow creatures. Her creatures do not look like mine. I do not know where she is from. I watch her, holding the breast she bruised in my hand. I am not tender. I did not feel a thing.

* * *

I do not know how old Young is.

She follows me into the woods, secretive, like a rat in search of food. I yell her name when I spot her. I yell “house,” but she does not understand. She wanders away, calling for other people. Of course there are none. I let her go, though I know that Big would not like it.

Young discovers that the berries on the shrubs are food. She devours half the woods before I see their purple blood in the corners of her mouth.

I pluck them, take them home and show Big this new, vibrant shade. Big sniffs at the corners of Young’s mouth.

* * *

Young grows faster than I. Soon she stands to my shoulder and weighs almost like one of Big’s arms. Big has given her the white. She disappears with it in the snow, reappears. Big does not keep track.

Big has grown as well. His arms are longer, his neck thicker around. He grabs birds from the branches now and not from the ground. He has grown a taste for elk, though there are not so many this year. Young builds a fast fire to cook the meat for us. Big devours, enjoys, though he hasn’t before. Young as well. I do not eat the elk, though I know this makes me grow smaller.

I fear she makes the days go faster. I fear I will never grow again.

In my village, I am old and have done all my growing. I would have been married in fall.

* * *

Grass is spiking through our snow-floor. Young sniffs and tears at it, lifting it to her narrow nostrils. She makes a noise with her lips like a tree-full of birds escaping into the air. I think that she is smelling the wood rot. Our walls are wet with slime. Young tries to clear away our snow though I tell her it is keeping the house warm. Big growls at her to stop. We are all in charge of Young and must be very patient with her.

Big has lost interest in hunting and instead goes with Young to gather. They bring back onions, real ones, and parcels full of barley. Once, bread. I stay in the house. I make baskets for them and clothes.

Today Young has caught a fish. I know because she beats her chest on opening the door. Yeti has taught her “win.” Young scales the fish, gives its head to Yeti. The flesh inside the fish is pink.

I grab the fish’s head. “Pink,” I say to Yeti. I show him. Yeti grunts.

Young takes the fish head back. She chastises me in the language that is hers. She puts a spear of bark through the fish’s head and roasts it over the fire until the skin crackles into black, the flesh inside creamy white. She hands it to Yeti, who bites at the lump of meat, delicately as he can.

I am looking at the body. Its skin dribbles grey around its meat where Yeti has helped Young tear it. The outside scales are almost bronze, almost the color of blood in the snow. They have lost their color in some white and terrible sun.

“Pink,” I say to Yeti. “Pink.” This fish is from my village. They have been to my village.

Young bellows at me. She grabs the fish from my hand, scattering its blood between the blades of grass that peek through our floor. She pierces its body with the thick sharp bark.

The fish is in the fire and I am screaming at Young to stop. I am screaming for where she got the fish. I am screaming for the location of my home. I think that she understands me. Yet the fish is in the fire. Her hands are steady. She furrows her dark eyebrows. I do not know where she is from, but I know that she understands me. She must.

Big watches on, saying nothing. I think that he is on her side.

I lunge for Young. My feet scatter our fire. I grapple with her fish-sticky hands. My feet flash and spark and blacken beneath me. I am pushing Young to our floor, I am holding her down with my knee to her neck. My feet free and numb behind me.

Big lifts me from Young’s gawky body. Young writhes in the melting snow and makes her foreign curses. They sound to me like insects swarming out from a bloated throat. She sounds like a dead body to me. I see my feet and they are black, crumbling red. I am crying into Yeti’s fur.

Yeti grumbles out his sympathy for me. He opens our door. He takes me outside, cradles me away from the wind. He ascends the slope of the valley with his flat, callused feet. The leather pads sink into the snow. It is that kind of snow again. I am lying in the Yeti’s arms. His white fur covers my legs and my arms. It is slick and tufted, feathery soft. It is warm.

I think before the pain reaches my feet that Yeti nuzzles my cheek with his chapped, bulbous lips. I think that he gives me a kiss before I sleep.

* * *

This year our barley crop suffers from blight. I sort the good from the bad and place the good in my basket. The bad I give to our boy, who will take it to the village center to burn. I sit on my father’s porch with the latest beans. I dig them from their pods. I deposit the shells in a barrel for the pigs to eat.

I do not see the pigs surviving the winter, for it’s rumored to be cold. I have heard we will slaughter all but the heartiest before then. Pigs are not a product of our village. We find them in the forest already tamed, run from other villages that perhaps sell their pigs to yet others. We do not pay or get paid for our pigs.

We sell baskets and baskets of barley. This is my job and that of the other unmarrieds.

The trees in the forest have grown tall and wide. They look as if they will crush my father’s house. I am surprised, still, that the house is still standing. I should not be—it is made of stone. Yet I am.

Soon will come the roofers. I offered to help them when I returned last year. I showed them my technique, but they did not stop long enough to watch. All day they thresh and bind and tar. I sit on the stoop and sew. I build baskets to hold the reeds. There is nothing else to do. My feet have turned to cinders and there is nowhere I can go.

Somewhere there is a house deep in the depression of a valley, a house with no floor but grass. The grass gets no sun and dies because I never taught them “windows.” I stopped teaching when Young came. There was much more I needed her to learn. She did not know about the floor, that it could rot away beneath her feet, that the walls could die if she does not keep them dry.

They may die, may be dead, yet I cannot see the house otherwise than standing. I can see Yeti and Young, their white fur flashing through the sparse trees, their toes and footpads sinking beside each other into the snow, big and small. They come up to stand at the edge of a wood. Yeti sends Young up to a baker’s door. Young has lost her language, but she knows the signs she needs, and she comes back with a loaf and once, a cake, which she learns Big does not like. They make a steady diet of fish, and Young learns to smoke it well. She grows tall and swells out as she is meant to. One day her long, sturdy legs carry her to the top of the hill and she hides in the hollow of the cave until Yeti has bellowed himself sore for her, until he faints of grief or rage, until he buries his bald leather face in the snow, until the thick sky sparkles with his sleeping breath. The next morning she leaves through the forest. She bleeds from her feet and knees.

She arrives some winter in the snow on my father’s stoop and asks hands and mouth for some of our bread. I give it to her. Or maybe not. She can take it from me, and does. She curls up beside me and asks for some of my warmth, and I give it to her for I must, for I cannot go elsewhere, cannot stop making heat. She asks me for milk—she does not remember—but I do, and say I cannot. I cannot.

But she does not understand my language anymore, and her little teeth worry at me all over.

4.11 / November 2009