I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Dipping your hand into an icy stream is a dangerous move – especially for a water bender. The feel of the water can bring back buried memories.
Count: One – two – three –
The acrid smell of smoke filled her nostrils. Her eyes blazed and her cheeks stung from tears and smoke. She realised that fear was a physical thing – it made your fingers shake and your heart thump at twice its usual pace. Around her there was confusion and panic, but none of the drama she had imagined. There were just people, some clad in blue, some in red, and muffled shouts, and the scuff of boots on snow.
Katara gasped and tipped her head back, tucking her fingers inside her furs to ward off the cold. The stream that flowed inches from her knees had melted straight from an iceberg and it was unimaginably freezing. Her hands had been in the water for two seconds and she could no longer feel them.
What are you doing, Katara? What are you doing?
Her inner voice chided her stupidity, sounding exactly like her mother. Why are you doing this? Who are you trying to prove it to? Who is there to see you?
Katara scanned the ice wastes surrounding her. The nearest thing to a person in this desolate landscape was a scrawny wolf-rabbit, its eyes like black rocks entrenched in the surrounding snow. She stared at it, and it scrambled away.
Now there was just her. Just her, and the shouting of the stream. The summer months were coming, and water had begun to flow from the icebergs in earnest, filling the wastelands with hidden eddies leading to the open sea.
A long time ago, her mother had told her a story about such streams.
Katara shut her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. The air rattled between her lips. She untangled her hands from her furs, raised them – and plunged them back into the water.
The cold hit her like an anvil across the backs of her hands. Pain rocketed up her arms and she moaned, loudly, into the bitter air. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.
What was she doing?
She was remembering.
Katara's hands sank into the water, and her mind sank into the past.
There was a fire at the centre of the village, to celebrate the winter's passing. It had been a harsh season, and this was the first day in months when snow had not fallen. Already the ripples of snow around the village were dirtying and churning up with footprints.
Katara was glad. She was sat in her mother's lap, her head pressed against her shoulder. Her mother's arms clasped protectively around her, shielding her in a cocoon of warmth.
It was just her, and her mother. Even her brother and father – telling jokes beside them, recounting some hunting adventure she was not privy to – seemed withdrawn and far away.
There was singing, laughing and even dancing from the villagers. Katara remained silent, watching them with huge, liquid eyes.
"Hey," said her mother in her ear. "Are you still here, Katara?"
Katara nodded sleepily. Her eyelids were as heavy as ten-tonne weights. Her tongue felt swollen in her mouth – from the warmth – and she could not speak.
"Do you want me to tell you a story?"
She nodded again.
"Long ago, there was a woman. She grew up in a village not far from here – it's gone now, of course, but if you walk far enough you can see the ghost of it on the horizon, and a thin black plume of smoke. Don't try it. Ghost towns are not worth the effort it takes to see them. Anyway, this woman was in love.
"You might think she was in love with a man, but hold on for a second while I tell you. The person she loved was a bear."
Katara lifted her head in curiosity, but her mother hushed her with a hand on her forehead.
"I said, hold on. Everything will make sense once I'm finished. This woman was in love with a bear. And what a bear he was... He had glossy white fur, sleek muscles knotted just beneath his skin, eyes as black as a pair of star sapphires, and claws that could rip the heart from a seal with a single twitch. He was a formidable creature."
"Why would she love him?"
Katara's mother ignored her and continued, stroking her hair. "They met when the woman was a girl of sixteen. She fell into a sinkhole, and you know what they say about sinkholes – once you lose sight of the opening to the air, you're dead. The woman lost sight of the hole. All she could see was the ocean fading to black miles beneath her feet, and an endless ceiling of ice above. She prepared herself for death – even murmured the prayers – but at the last second, she was saved."
"By the bear?"
"Yes. But when the woman first saw a giant creature swimming towards her, its fur flowing in the current of the water, she was absolutely certain she was dead. Now I will be ripped apart and eaten, she thought. Bears are frightening creatures. I hope you never see one. They are larger than you can imagine, and their sheer strength is enough to make you scream. But the girl was not ripped apart, and she did not drown. Instead she felt the weight and grip of the bear's paw on her parka... and the water rushing around her face as he swam her towards the surface and returned her to the sinkhole.
"She grasped at the surface. She lived."
Katara could stand the cold no longer. The bones in her fingers and hands screamed furiously, and she tugged her arms from the water. Again she gasped and clutched at her fingers. But this time, she was smiling.
It was one year since she last heard her mother's voice. She had thought she'd lost it – but here it was, resonating inside her head as strong and clear as if her mother was beside her once more, whispering the words into her ear. A story just for her.
She was lucky. Many of her friends had lost someone close to them in the Fire Nation raid – even four seasons later, the village was still grieving for its losses. None of her friends had this.
The stream really worked; her memory was refreshed and clear. She prepared to put her hands back in the water. The rational side of her brain called for her to stop acting so crazy, to stop causing herself pain. The emotional side of her brain, the part her mother lived in, pulled her fingers towards the water.
And – in.
"Is that the end of the story?"
"No. Patience. So, the woman lived. But when the bear climbed from the sinkhole, majestic against the reddening sky – it was sunset – she wished that she had died. Because as soon as she saw him, and her eyes connected with his, she knew she was in love with him. And that was worse than death. Her village hated bears. It abhorred them; bears were supposed to be killed without mercy or exception, and any sightings were supposed to be reported to the village chief.
"The bear gave her a lingering glance and then paced away. She knelt by the sinkhole until the sun was just a molten disc on the horizon, surrounded by charred clouds. She watched the bear leave and felt as though half of her heart was abandoning her too. It began to snow, and still she sat. Never sit in the snow by yourself, Katara, it is so lonely. Eventually she shifted herself, bones creaking, and made her way back to the village. She never expected to see him again."
"But she did."
"Yes, she did. It was the summer of the following year, and the water was flowing fast and loose through the landscape. Ice was breaking – you know how that sounds, the wrenching cracking sound of the ground tearing apart. It reminded her of her broken heart. Since the bear left, she had not been hungry, or hot, or cold or even very sad – she had just felt numb, as though her whole body was encased in a layer of ice. Her father could not understand it – neither could her brothers. The only person who understood exactly her feelings was the bear, because his emotions mimicked hers. They were both missing each other, loving each other in silence and secret, and it was slowly killing both of them."
"Love is sad, sometimes. Hopefully not for you. But it was for the girl. Anyway, she met him twice more. The first time, she was fishing in a nearby stream. As soon as her net was set up, she settled on her heels and watched the banks of snow for the bear, as was her custom. She always did this – it was nothing special. But this time, she saw him. He was loping towards her across the snow. He was thinner – the winter had been difficult for him, and so had the spring. It had driven him closer to civilisation than usual... driven him towards her."
"What did they do?"
"Without a word, the girl rose from her sitting position and stood before him, the wind stirring her long black hair. Neither of them moved for a long time. It was not very romantic; it was awkward, because each of them loved the other, and neither of them knew what to do. Eventually the girl climbed on his back, and they walked."
Katara's fingers came out of the water. Again there was the groan, and the frantic attempt to warm her fingers.
This was madness. Why was she punishing herself, when the only reward was a story she could easily tell herself, safe in her tent with her brother by her side?
No. This kind of memory only came when she was alone in the snow. Her mother was right; it was unbelievably lonely.
Katara understood now the woman felt, now, loving something that was impossible to love.
The barrier between the girl and the bear was as insurmountable as death, but still they walked together.
Katara stared at the water, foaming and hissing as it rushed through the ground. It had the power to bring the next part of the story – and her memories of her mother – to life. All she needed to do was put her hands in.
It meant pain, but it meant memory.
Again, she braced herself.
"For how long they walked, neither of them could tell. They saw the sun rise and set at least twice, and the weather changed from fat drops of snow that fell heavily on their shoulders, to the kind of crisp day when the sky glows blue. Their pace was leisurely; they did not rush. They did not communicate much but were content to be lost together in the snow. Each of them was focused on the other's heartbeat, the warm rushing of their blood... the kinds of things memory cannot conjure.
"They could have walked forever. But eventually the girl began to starve. Bear, she told her companion, I must return. I will die otherwise. And my family will be missing me. She felt a pang of regret, then, because while she was walking with the bear she had forgotten her father and brothers. Their faces had become lost in the snow.
"When she returned, her family hugged her and cried, and asked where she went and why. She could not reply, and remained silent throughout their interrogation. We missed you, said her youngest brother fiercely. Why won't you tell us where you went? She did not reply, because she could not reply. She felt deeply guilty for leaving them, and guilty for her desire to see the bear again."
Katara said, "You said she only saw him twice."
"Yes, and that was the first time. The second time was – again – a year later. She was eating grilled fish with her family around their campfire, and happened to glance into the surrounding darkness. The bear stood there, barely distinguishable from the snow in the dim light. Without a word, she told her brothers and father that she was feeling ill, and that she had to return to the tent. She needed to lie down, she said. Really, though, her heart was dancing inside her chest. This time she was determined not to return. She knew that one of her lives must fade – and she chose the bear.
"She did not know that this was not her decision to make – that it would be taken out of her hands in the space of a few minutes."
The hands emerged again, aching and trembling, from the water. Katara stuffed the fists into her mouth this time – her parka was not warm enough. The tips of her fingers and her nail beds were turning a painful blue.
Even so, with a mouthful of fingers, she smiled. The story was almost complete now. She could feel the presence of her mother beside her, almost alive again.
In the air around her was the crazy, unspoken idea that if she endured the pain – if she reached the end of the tale – her mother would wake from the dead.
In went the fingers. Out came the pain, and the story.
"The woman packed a few meagre supplies with shaking hands. She was in a hurry. If one of her brothers came in now and spotted her, the bear would die and it would be her fault. They were leaving together! She tried to bite down her excitement, but could not help grinning despite the guilt of abandoning her family. From now on, she would walk with the bear in the snow. They would be together forever. It seems trite to say that, but that was her dream.
"But when she sneaked from the back of the tent into the snow beyond, her youngest brother – the fierce one – saw the shaking of the tent poles and grew suspicious. Without a word to the rest of the family or the villagers, he retrieved his spear from the ground beside him and followed her silently.
"You can imagine what he saw. You can imagine how shocked he was."
More pain, flowering in her fingertips. But she was so close, now – so close to the conclusion. Beside her, her mother grew stronger by the second.
Katara's hands plunged for the final time.
"The woman had been standing with her hand pressed against the bear's temple just above its eyes, but when she heard his boots crunch in the powdery snow she spun around. For a second none of them moved; the woman, the bear and the warrior. The woman's brother and her love eyed each other with hatred and wariness, each one preparing for an inevitable battle. They sized each other up. The bear decided that he could crush the brother's skull with little trouble, so long as he avoided the tip of the spear. The brother decided that his best bet was to get beneath the bear, stab it through the stomach, and then dodge out of the path of its falling body.
"The only thing holding them back was the woman, stood between them. She looked back and forth between the two.
"The bear pleaded with her with its eyes. The two black jewels glowed at her from the darkness, telling her of all the days they could spend, walking in the snow and admiring each other's heartbeats. The brother pleaded with her with his voice. He beseeched her, he bribed her, he threatened and begged; he told her legends of the bloodthirsty bears that had decimated her village several generations back, and he told her she was a human and her place was in the village, with her people. The woman did not move. She could not. She was frozen in place, as firmly lodged into the ground as the centre pole of a tent.
"Eventually, the brother and the bear grew tired of waiting. Each one was excited and ready to fight for the woman's place in their world. They moved to the side, the woman still rooted in place. Then they charged. The result was a battle of the kind of magnitude only usually seen in epic tales of heroes. The boy and the bear fought as valiantly and mercilessly as any heroes. The bear bellowed, the boy screamed, and paws and boots scuffed across the snow. The girl had become unfrozen and stood to the side, helpless to break apart the clashing of the beasts."
Pain, pain, pain. But the memories were so clear – especially her mother's voice. She could hear the low vibrations of the words, and feel the stirring of her mother's hot breath in her ear.
"The boy won, despite the bear's superior strength and size. He was more cunning. He let the bear think he was injured by limping, and when the bear reared up to deliver the fatal blow, he slipped his spear between its ribs and stabbed its heart. He was a very clever boy – but this story is not about him. It is about the woman and the bear."
Katara felt unwelcome tears intrude beneath her eyelids. She swiped them away by rubbing her face on her mother's sleeve. "So the bear died, then, did he?"
"Yes. The woman was devastated. She knelt beside the corpse and screamed at her brother: Why did you do that? Why did you take him away from me?
"The boy replied, Because he was going to take you away. Your place is not out there, he gestured at the desolate lands that encircled them. Your place is with the family, back home. Then he pointed at the fire, glowing orange in the distance, and the tents that surrounded it in a cosy circle. I would not let you lose yourself in the snow.
"The girl hated him for it, of course. She kept a starving vigil beside the hulking body of the bear, eating snow to keep herself alive but otherwise staring numbly into the distance. She waited until three snowfalls had completely obscured the bear's body. Then she trudged back home."
There was a silence. Katara stared at the bonfire, unseeing. What she could really see was the woman, treading a solitary path back towards her village, her footprints deep, her sorrow even deeper.
In real-time, Katara was crying. She was crying because the woman's loss was nothing – nothing – compared to the loss she had sustained when her mother died. She was crying because her little-girl self had not known about the grief she would soon endure.
"Is that the end?" said the young Katara.
Oh. Pain. Katara had thought her fingers were completely numb, but now there was more, flowing up her forearms, rippling through her body.
"Yes, apart from one thing."
The stream rattled and babbled against her wrists, and she bit her lip so hard it bled.
"The girl saw the bear again."
"But you said only twice!"
"She saw the bear in his living form only twice. But one day, while fishing, she found a way to remember him."
Just a few more seconds, Katara promised her arms and hands. In a few seconds, she would be able to warm them up properly.
"She dipped her hands to the wrists in a stream of freezing water."
Ten seconds more.
"The sharp pain that accompanied it reminded her of her grief, and it pierced a hole in the dam in her mind. Suddenly, memories of the bear and their walks together filled her mind. As she closed her eyes and endured the pain – it was terrible pain, Katara, never do this – she felt the hulking form of the bear form in the air beside her. It was just a slight thickening in the snowflakes, or perhaps a particular way the sunlight bounced off the ice, but for a second she saw the bear as clearly as she had ever done."
"Did they go off together?"
"Perhaps they did. Perhaps they didn't. All we know is that, on that day, the girl disappeared into the tundra. She might have died from the cold, or the shock – or she may have finally run away with her white bear. Either way, her story ends here. It's time for bed."
Katara's mother wrapped her arms around her daughter and slid to her feet, clasping her to her chest. "Come on. Let's get you warm and dry, my love."
With a shout of surprise and victory, Katara clamped her hands against her chest. She fell backwards into the snow, her face scrunched up, and nursed her fingers by rubbing them between the folds of her parka. She hardly dared look at them. When she opened one eye for a glimpse, the tips of her fingers were a frightening, bruised shade of blue.
Eventually, Katara lay still.
She did not open her eyes. Beside her – kind and comforting despite the cold – was the presence of her mother. She could feel it. She believed in it, wholeheartedly.
Okay, Katara. Moment of truth. If you open your eyes and she's there...
She won't be there.
But what if she is? What if you've really done it?
She won't be there.
But what if, what if, what if...?
Opening your eyes is a dangerous thing – especially for a grieving daughter filled with hope. First, you count. Three... two... one... Then you open.
Her mother was not there.