Arnaaluk: The Woman Under the Ice

On the morning that Katara turned thirteen, she awoke to the smell of blood.

In the frozen South, there was little one could smell, usually, unless the scent was near a heat source or particularly strong. The cold kept even the stench of rotting zebra seal carcasses or the latrines to a minimum, so she knew that the source of the blood was nearby. Lying still, trying not to panic, she opened her eyes and listened.

Nothing. No cries for help, no groans of pain. Not even the eerie, sharp crackle of fireballs as the Fire Nation raided their village for what would be the second time that year. Over her head, the taut animal hide of the tent was unsinged. And then Katara realised that she couldn't smell the smoke – the smoke from their ships, from the burning spoils or bodies. She sat up suddenly and looked around her, and then she felt it. There was a seeping warmth between her legs, trickling into her furs.

When she was little, she had watched the older girls enviously and dreamed of this day, when the blood would visit her from nowhere like a messenger from the spirit world, marking her a woman. Then she would be carried, naked except for the ceremonial furs of her tribe, by all of the female waterbenders in her tribe to the place not far from the village where they would respectfully blindfold themselves, and, working together, melt a chunk of the primordial ice and waterbend it to unwrap the furs and then cleanse the new woman, mixing her blood with the lifeblood of the land and cementing her place as a woman of the Southern water tribe. Katara had played each detail over in her mind, down to the moment when she would return to her tribe clothed in new furs, clean and shining, serene and powerful in a unique, feminine way. She'd seen her older cousins and other girls in her tribe walk through the village on the arms of their fathers, glowing with pride, as they re-introduced her to each member of the tribe, and then return home to their tents to enjoy a celebratory meal with their families, cooked by their overjoyed mothers.

Yet she had seen other things in the years since those times.

Her village plundered, her tribe decimated. The beautiful, serene faces of the new-women spattered with blood and contorted in fear as they ran from the invading Fire Nation troops. Eventually they were caught and dragged away, every last one of them, their fathers and brothers looking on with helpless anger, held at bay with swords and fire. All of the beautiful ones. All of the proud, ice-anointed ones; all of the female waterbenders defeated, bound and gagged, and dragged away. And her mother.

Katara had not seen her mother captured, had not seen her die. The little girl had been hidden in the family's tent by her father soon after the first raid began, and by the time the fighting died down and Hakoda re-entered the tent, she knew that her mother was dead. Instinctively. If the fierce waterbenders were easily overcome, then what of her mother, whose hands knew only gentleness?

She had seen her father change, grow silent, withdrawn and morose. With each raid, he fought more fiercely, but the vigor and passion in his daily life faded accordingly. It seemed as if he only lived to fight. And then he confirmed her fear when he took the men of their village and left them a sad little band of fifteen women and a few dozen children. Since then, there were even fewer left, though some babies had been born since the men's departure. There was little joy in the faces of these infants. Katara helped her grandmother deliver a few, and neither the mother nor the child ever cried. They had become silent, like the ice.

Joylessly but purposefully she rose. She boiled some water and scrubbed her furs the best she could, hung them to dry, and went out to fetch her grandmother. Kanna said nothing, studying her solemn little face. She embraced her granddaughter briefly, then said,

"I may not be able to waterbend, but I could carry you, and sing the songs of your ancestors."

Katara's stomach clenched at her grandmother's tenderness, but after thinking for a minute she shook her head. "Thank you, Gran Gran. But I'd rather do this alone."

Kanna nodded her understanding, then took her to the remains of the sacred tent and offered her the ceremonial robe. "And one more thing before you go." They headed over to Kanna's tent, where she handed Katara a large, tightly wrapped bundle. "Here are a few supplies. We'll expect you back at noon."

"Thank you…" Katara's voice caught, and she looked at the ground. Her grandmother removed a mitten and slowly placed her withered hand on the smooth flesh of her granddaughter's cheek. The palm was calloused, but the gesture was gentle and understanding.

Katara shouldered the bundle, gently cradled the ceremonial robes, and set off.

The day was clear, but the sun was not bright. Still, it was somewhat difficult to look at the snow. Instead she fixed her gaze on the iceberg in the distance, where the mouth of a frozen river met the sea – her destination. Once out of sight of the village, she quickly stripped off all of her clothing except for her boots and wrapped herself in the furs. She could feel the blood on the insides of her legs quickly drying and freezing there. She re-shouldered the bundle and continued walking.

The furs were warm, but they were definitely meant to function as a sort of portable bed rather than clothing. Katara could remember few times in her thirteen years that she had been so cold. Still, she reached the mouth of the river relatively quickly. Discarding the furs, she lie down on the ice and began to concentrate.

Lying down like that, it was easier to waterbend. She felt the snow beneath her warm and melt. She could feel her fingers and toes again. Her body was dark against the white of the snow; her blood even darker against her legs as it began to unfreeze and run again. She turned her head to the side and focused on a chunk of ice near the frozen river.

Slowly – painfully slow – it rose a few inches into the air. She drew it closer to her, concentrating on it, envisioning the ice warming and melting. The image of a midsummer sun appeared in her mind. She could see tiny patches of short, scrubby grass breaking the monotony of the frozen tundra. Her head pounded as the chunk became a ball of warm, slowly spinning water. She managed to levitate it just an inch above her nose, and then her control slipped and it splashed down over her.

She got to her feet. The water, mixed with her blood, ran down toward the river to the sea and slowly froze over, becoming part of the ice. Shivering, she undid the bundle and found a brand-new blue robe, the colour of her mother's eyes, and new furs that her grandmother had knit in preparation for this day. She dried herself with the ceremonial furs, folded them respectfully and dressed quickly, unable to stop her chattering teeth, and then sat by the river to plait her hair.

The legend went that there was a woman underneath the ice; a woman whose patience and forbearance were matched by none other – after all, she could live beneath the ice, where only zebra seals and the occasional whale or unicorn fish swam. She cared for her elderly father there, the symbol of the well-being of the tribe. Her faithful dog slept by the door of her tent, watching for danger. She guarded all of the women of the Southern water tribe, so that they in turn would care for the well being of the tribe. By sending their blood down to her icy home, she would know that another woman had been born into the tribe, and would write her name down with her own blood in her sealskin book.

Katara stared into the unfathomable waters. A few feet below the surface, where the ice ended, all went completely dark. All around her, it was eerily silent. No cheerful singing voices, as was meant to be. Even the river was silent. Finishing her hair, she bent over the frozen river and, unable to see her reflection or the silhouette of the woman beneath the ice, she started to cry silently. Who am I? she wanted to be told, wanted to wring the answer out of the wind-burnt land. Why am I. What has been done to what I am, what has been done to my life.

Somewhere, in those cold waters, that woman held Katara's heart.

When she reached the village, it was nearly noon. The tribe stood in a huddle, waiting for her. Sokka was standing closer to the open tundra, watching through the rubbed-thin bladder of a zebra seal for her to return. When he caught sight of her, he started walking to meet her, the tribe's staff in his hand. She noticed that he had proudly decorated his face with the ruddy paint that the fathers of new-women wore, and as she walked up to him he caught her around the shoulders and hugged her tightly, saying, "Hi, Katara."

She almost gave into sobbing, but she still wanted to look proud and untouchable, so she fixed her face into a serene mask. "Hi, Sokka."

Keeping his arm around her shoulders, they set off toward the tribe. Sokka gravely introduced her to the remaining members of the tribe as "Katara, daughter of Arnaaluk; mother of our tribe." The women smiled sadly and kissed her fingers, and the children, sensing the tense atmosphere, followed their mothers' examples – except for a particularly precocious boy of five, who quirked his head and said sternly, "I know that's Katara."

Katara almost laughed, almost cried as the boy's mother shushed him. It was filled her with a fierce glad feeling to know that someone knew, beyond reason, perhaps beyond knowing, who she was.

Sokka led her gently to Kanna's tent, where she drew in her breath at the sight of the feast her grandmother had prepared. Here was one thing that had not changed since the old days. She felt guilty that her stomach growled, and guiltier still when she tasted the food and loved it, felt for a moment even that she might deserve it. The meat melted on her tongue; the ale was sharp and frothy. Sokka and Kanna ate with her too, but no one spoke a word. Her new furs were tight; it felt, too, as if her skin had somehow become too tight for her body.

That night, she stumbled in the softly falling snow to the watchtower, where Sokka was preparing to extinguish the village's lights. She looked up at him, struggling to maintain a poise she did not feel. When he saw her, he doused the lantern and came down, asking with concern, "What's wrong?"

She ground her teeth, not wanting to ask, but he took her by the hand and caught her gaze. Looking into her brother's eyes, she felt as much as a little girl as she'd been the night previous.

"It's okay," he said.

They walked back to the tent together and crawled in under the furs, the way they had the night after their mother died, and again after their father had left. They fell asleep facing one another, right hands clasped tightly in-between their faces. As she began to drowse off, Katara watched her brother's stony, calm face. She knew that he tossed and turned in his own furs, but whenever they slept together he was as still as ice.

His face. The face of the last man of the Southern water tribe. Her face. Likely, the face of the last new-woman of that same tribe.

She remembered, with incomparable grief, the way she could not see her face in the frozen mirror of the river.