My mother and I made the long journey beyond the mountains to hunt. Out this far there were no other humans, although where we lived there weren’t many to begin with. Snow piled high in this frozen landscape and our snowshoes made soft shushing sounds as we walked.
Neither of us spoke.
The hunt was a tradition passed down through generations in our family. I don’t remember my mother telling me about it. Instead, it was as if I had been born with the knowledge.
And then, once I’d had my first cycle, crossed the threshold into womanhood, I’d gone to her.
She’d only nodded.
“When will we leave?” I asked.
“Tomorrow.” The lines in my mother’s face had seemed deeper, etched like stone in an emotionless expression.
But there was a quick flash in her dark eyes.
I saw it for only a moment.
Now, as we entered the land of tall pines, towering forms blanketed in thick snow, I shivered. There were stories. Legends. The elders claimed when those unworthy trespassed here, the trees transformed into clawed beasts. Guardians of this sacred place who allowed only those of a specific bloodline to pass through.
The sun, a glowing white ball, began to set in the bone cast sky.
“Janera, we’re almost there,” my mother said, voice low. I barely heard her over the rhythm of our snowshoes and the rattling arrows in the quivers on our backs.
“What happens next?” I asked.
My mother pointed to a large pine at the top of a hill.
Night bled inky black through the thick cloud cover, but under a full moon, the snow glowed as if midday. We both kneeled under a dark pine bough, and despite layers of fur, I could feel the cold biting at my legs.
Below, in a small bowl-shaped valley, a herd of dark elk pawed at the ground, uncovering dry grass to graze.
I pulled an arrow from my quiver, started to notch it in the bow.
My mother’s hand stopped me.
“No, none of them.”
I shook my head, incredulous.
“You’ll know,” she said, “when you see her.”
Time passed strangely after that. The herd moved on, and the moon rose higher in the night sky. It may have been seconds, minutes, or hours. We were frozen under the cold light of the stars, like the guardian pines.
And then I saw her. The largest elk cow I’d ever seen, and as pure white as the unblemished snow.
I flicked my eyes toward my mother. She didn’t turn her head but nodded.
My heart thudded. I swallowed thickly, slowing my breath like my mother had taught me. The beating in my chest slowed, matched the tempo of my lungs.
I brought the arrow up, drew back on the bow string. I felt the anchor point, where my bow string touched my face. The cow raised her head, and even from so far away, seemed to sense me there.
She looked directly into my eyes, and into someplace deeper. Into the place where all the previous generations of women in my family dwell.
I lined up the shot. Breathed once, twice.
Let the arrow fly.
It hit the place right behind her left front leg, lodging into her lungs.
She went down, legs kicking upward. A long, mournful death rattle escaped the elk’s mouth.
I stood and cried out in triumph. Next to me, my mother remained on her knees.
“Mother, I got her!” I grasped her elbow, and she turned at my touch.
Only then did I realize she was crying.
We traveled down the hill. I removed my leather gloves and prepared to field dress the large animal. As the tip of my knife blade pierced the soft flesh between the cow’s back legs, just below the stomach, my mother spoke.
“We only take the heart.”
I looked up in confusion. We always ate or made use of what we killed, never wasting a single part.
Her voice was firm.
“Only the heart.”
My mother did not answer any of my questions. Her silence fell heavy over us, like the winter clouds that now hide the sky. She set up camp while I started a fire, first rinsing the blood of my kill from my hands. I was reminded of the blood of my first cycle, the event that had brought us here, and to whatever came next.
Over the fire, I placed a cast iron skillet and melted fat into it. As it sizzled, I took the elk heart and fried it, turning it over in the pan as it cooked.
I took out my knife again.
“No,” my mother said. “This is for me only.”
She picked up the heart and ate it in large, tearing bites.
I could only stare.
When she was finished, she looked at me. There were salt trails of dried tears on her cheeks.
“I love you, my daughter,” she said, and embraced me.
The air became charged, electrified. My mother shed her furs and I could only watch in horror and wonder as she transformed. Like the pine trees into guardians, my mother became a large white elk.
She lowered her head once, blinked at me slowly, and disappeared into the night.
I would not enter this valley again, until years later, when I returned with my own daughter to hunt.
And would finally see my mother again.
About the author:
Heather Santo is a procurement lead living in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and daughter. In addition to writing, her creative interests include photography, painting and collecting skeleton keys. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Heather52384.