At least that's what I thought until that morning when I came home from the tavern covered in someone else's blood and bear skins, heavy with girly jewelry for my sisters, and the usual mulled wine, and waddled my way through the snow to our family hut and found my father lying on the bed, with one eye wide open and half his face missing.
Three men had come to our hut, and brought Father, and left. That's what Grandma Grielda said. He'd gone hunting alone while I was away. That's what Grandma Grielda said. And I wasn't there to help when the beast went for his head. That's what Grandma Grielda said. And also that I was now the only man of the family. And that it was all my responsibility to bear. I'm not sure if she meant the family, or Father's death. They were both my responsibility, come to think of it.
This is how I became the head of our family. Head of the family and sole provider and protector for five women – my mother, my sisters and Grandma Grielda – three of which in need of husbands, and all of which in need of mourning clothes.
***There is a clear and simple division of work in our lands. Men hunt, women make clothes and food. Occasionally women grow plants for food and herbs for ailments. Occasionally men hunt other men, from the villages across the river, where it's warmer and the people grow grains in the fields, fields they have taken away from the forest and which the forest is forever trying to take back. We live in harmony with the forest and the forest treats us well. It gives us wood for our homes and food for our tables. But it is only men who can get these. And it's hard getting food and wood for six all by yourself.
My sisters did try to help. Sigrun, the eldest, wanted to hunt with me. Hildrun wanted to gather firewood. And Gridun, the youngest, wanted to work at the tavern as a cook and bring home the leftovers. But who'd marry them if they did? We were not the only family with only one man. Pillaging was dangerous. Hunting was even worse. But no respectable woman hunted or chopped wood or cooked for others, and our family had always been respectable. Let Grandma Gudrun from the edge of the forest hunt and gather her own food. She was too old to marry and had no family to embarrass by such behavior. But a woman of our family was to be respectable, and the village would not stand for a woman doing such things. The girls could never marry if they were allowed to do as they pleased. And as the man of the house, the only man of the house, it was me who had to provide for them and stop them from their foolishness. That's what Grandma Grielda said.
As soon as Father's boat was set aflame and floated down the river into the afterlife, I was sent to work. It was harder than I'd thought it would be. I had never had to work in my life. I'd been hunting with my father before, but only for fun. Father always brought home enough food for all of us, so it didn't matter whether I killed anything or whether someone else got the deer I'd only wounded. It was ten times harder now that I had to do it seriously. As soon as I was hunting for food, not for a new fur coat, my hand started shaking on the bow and I missed even the easiest targets. And I couldn't try for big game either, or anything dangerous. My life was no longer my own, it belonged to my family. I'd never cared about losing my life or an arm before, but if I died now, or if I couldn't hunt anymore, it was more than my life that was at stake. It would be the end for the whole family. The mere thought of that was enough to cripple me in anything I did.
And the pillaging? Have you ever tried pillaging for money? It's nothing like doing it for fun. You have to pay attention and take only what can be sold, never what you like, because the things you like are just heavy, hard to carry, and completely worthless. I mean do you need another engraved whalebone bow? Does anyone need another engraved whalebone bow? Of course not. They're big and showy, but not all that practical. You can't use it and you can't sell it, so just stick to the gold and leave it behind. That's the sort of thing that went through my head every time I saw something I liked. And I could never bring myself to like the crude chunks of gold and silver that sold so well at the fair. Which was for the best, in a way, because it made selling my loot a lot easier. There was nothing I would have rather kept for myself or for my sisters among the things I looted that year, the first year after father died. I can't understand why those people from across the river were willing to give their lives for such junk. And they did give their lives for it too. When you're the only man of the family you can't be careless anymore. Can't leave any survivors who could remember you and try to get revenge. This is the village from across the river, after all, not some faraway land where they'd never see us again and never know where we came from. And you can't afford to get killed over some petty revenge, not when you're the only man in the family and everyone is still waiting for you to produce a male heir.
Which brings us to the ultimate problem of being the last man of the house: the male heir. I'd always known that was my duty, but I'd thought I'd have more time for it. I used to think of it as a pleasant task: finding a nice girl, getting drunk at the wedding, that sort of thing. Now all I got were angry stares from my mother, and Grandma Grielda welcoming me home every day with the words "Thank the gods you're back alive! I was so worried you'd die without an heir!" I got the feeling it was all right for me to die afterwards, as long as it was a healthy boy with a good chance of survival.
But that was precisely why it took me so long: I wasn't choosing a wife for myself anymore, I was choosing a wife for the entire family. She had to be not just pretty and smart, but also hardworking, respectable, with good hips and a solid dowry, not to mention she had to come from a good family. In fact, she didn't even have to be pretty at all, according to Grandma Grielda. She just had to be all the other things and still talk to me. Which excluded all the girls in our village ever since I'd been turned into the only man of the family. Even Hygda, who'd been sweet on me before, turned me down now. She told me flat out that she wasn't going to see me anymore if that meant turning into a walking womb and becoming a slave to six other people, especially to Grandma Grielda. Those were her exact words.
***A year after my father died, I was hunting alone. My old friends never hunted with me now because I only went for the "safe game", which made me a coward. I had to be careful though. Already a few of our best hunters had disappeared in the forest, and their bodies had been found days later, mangled by an unknown beast just like my father. Our men wanted to find the monster and dreamed of nothing else than wearing its pelt, but breadwinners need to be cowards, as painful as that may be.
I wasn't hunting for food this time though. I'd caught some fat hares a few days earlier and we were still living on hare stew at home. That day, I had my eye on a silver fox, now that it's fur was all white for the winter. I wanted it for my little sister. It would have made a nice fur bonnet and a nice present for the Winter Solstice.
I knew that fox well. I'd seen it hunting around, and I'd snatched a few hares from under its fangs a few times. I felt almost sorry when I thought of killing it, but my little sister came first. And the white fur would have set off her dark hair and her dark eyes and would have helped her find a good husband faster. The sooner she'd be out of our hut and living with her new family the better. Both for me and for herself, for not having to put up with Grandma Grielda's nagging and with eating hare stew five days in a row. Hygda was right: being part of my family isn't exactly fun.
But the fox didn't seem to agree with my plan. It valued its life above my sister's happiness and it was reluctant to be turned into a piece of fur. My hands had gotten steadier again, after a year of hunting for food, but my arrows couldn't touch it. It seemed faster and smarter than anything I'd ever caught. At times it stopped and waited until I took aim, then jumped out of the way with unearthly swiftness, startling me and sending my arrows astray. Other times it ran ahead of me, jumping from side to side, running away, turning back, running again, as if it were playing. It darted through the snow, a white needle like a flash of lightning, almost unseen, leaving tiny pawprints behind it, graceful as if it were dancing, always ahead of my arrows, never touched by them.
I don't know when I got caught into its dance. I followed it through the forest, not knowing where I was going, not knowing where I'd come from, forgetting everything, even my little sister and the present I wanted to give her for the Winter Solstice. Before I knew it, I had been caught in the fox's game. The more it escaped me, the more I wanted to catch it, not for the fur – not anymore – but just to prove that I could. And the fox lured me deeper and deeper into the forest, until the sky turned dark with overlapping branches and the tree trunks were knitted together like a solid wall. There the fox disappeared out of sight. I squeezed through the trees to follow it and I found myself in a round clearing where the snow seemed untouched.
The clearing was as dark as the forest. I looked up and saw the sun had set and the night sky was covered with heavy clouds. A thin veil of snow was falling like powder, erasing all prints – the fox's and mine. I could not go back. I didn't know how to get back home. Nor did I know for how long I'd been walking. I looked around but I was certain I had never seen that part of the forest before. And then I saw her: the woman in the snow.
She had pale skin, like a ghost, and long, silky white hair that clung to her face and clothes like spider webs, yet her face looked young. She wore a long, white coat that looked like it was made of white fox furs, only it had no seams that I could see, as if it had been made of the pelt of a single large animal. She looked at me with her round, grey eyes and I felt the cold of the winter night vanish in an instant.
"I've been waiting for you," she whispered in a voice cold and sibilant like the wind.
It didn't seem strange then that she'd been waiting for me, just as it didn't seem strange that she was there either, or that her eyes seemed to glow in the dark.
"There's a bear," she said. "You used to like to hunt bears."
She wasn't from our village. I'd never seen her before. She couldn't have known, but in the happy days when I could do as I pleased, I'd used to love hunting bears. I hadn't done it since Father died. I'd been afraid of getting killed, of leaving my family without an heir and a breadwinner, but I missed it. I missed the thrill of plunging my knife into the bear's throat the instant before its claws could rip me apart, I missed the moment my heart beat a thousand beats, the moment I didn't know which of us was faster, or if I'd hit the right spot, and I missed the smell and taste of victory when the bear collapsed at my feet.
"I can't," I said. "It's too dangerous."
But already I was thinking how to do it. Bears slept at this time in winter. If I could just get close enough unnoticed, if I could just kill it before it would wake...
"I will take you to it," she said, as if she'd heard my thoughts instead of my words.
When she looked at me with those round eyes, I felt I could do anything. Even fight a raging beast.
Be careful what you wish for, Grandma Grielda always says. Our bear was a raging beast, all awake and sprightly. It was bigger than any bear I'd seen, and its red eyes glowed like burning coals on its dark fur, black as a demon from another world. It stood on its hind legs, staring at me in angry surprise, as if I'd been the one who was supposed to be sleeping all winter while it roamed the forest undisturbed. I turned to the woman and shouted at her to get out of the way, but she'd disappeared.
"Run!" I heard a voice saying in the wind.
That's what Grandma Grielda would've had me do. But I wasn't going to run away now. I threw myself at the bear, shouting our war cry. I jumped at its throat and plunged my dagger into its thick fur. Too thick: the knife came through it clean, driving out clumps of hair but no blood. The next moment the bear's paws were on my chest, pinning me to the ground. Something white darted at the beast's neck. A white fox, sinking its fangs into the dark fur. The bear released me and shook its head, roaring in pain, sending the fox flying into the air. I plunged my hunting knife into the mark of red blood left by the fox's bite. The beast's jaws reached for my head, but it lost its strength and fell over me with a dying groan.
I lay on my back in the snow, the weight of the bear crushing me, forcing the air out of my lungs. I tried to crawl out from under it, but I couldn't move. For a moment I thought I'd killed the beast everyone was hunting for, and I wouldn't live to carry it home. Then I saw my silver fox leaning over me, its fangs dripping with blood.
"Sleep," the voice in the wind said, and it felt as if it were the fox speaking. I thought that Grandma Grielda would be mad I'd died without an heir, and I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again, I was lying in the clearing, half buried in snow, and the woman with white hair was leaning over me.
"I thought you would run," the woman said in her soft whisper that sounded like the wind. "You had always been cautious before, not like the others, who got themselves killed before I could do anything. I thought you'd distract him long enough."
I looked at her, but I didn't understand what she was saying. All I understood was that she was beautiful, and that I was alive.
"If it hadn't been for you, humans," she went on, "he would have never crossed the river. But your kind took away his woods, and so he tried to take away mine. My fangs were too short. But because of you, his spirit now rests."
I tried to get up, to raise my hand and touch her face bent over mine.
"Sleep," she said, and her voice sounded like the voice I'd heard in the wind. My eyes closed on their own and my mind drifted into long, meandering dreams.
When I woke up it was morning again, and I was lying in the snow, cold and numb in the middle of the round clearing, with no woman and no footprints in sight, and only the body of the fallen bear further in the woods to show that it hadn't all been a dream.
There was little I could do, short of freezing, so I tried to find my way back through the forest. I don't know through what feat of luck I managed to get back home alive, but when I got there that evening I found out that two whole months had passed since I'd left.
My sisters had run free in my absence, doing the unheard of things Grandma Grielda had most feared. Sigrun had gone out to hunt and brought home more game in a day then I would in a week. Hildrun had chopped firewood all day, growing strong and slimming down considerably, until she looked more like a woman and less like the mother bear I remembered her to be. And Gridun was working at the tavern, cooking all day and bringing home the leftovers at night. And, although I had been away and enjoying myself in the forest, no one had died from it, not even Grandma Grielda, although she'd come mighty close to it when Sigrun came home from her first hunt.
My sisters were nowhere near as unmarriable now as my family had feared, which is probably why Grandma Grielda was in such good spirits upon my return. Sigrun had been proposed to by at least a dozen men, who all had fallen for her skill in the hunt. She was taking her time choosing one, but Grandma Grielda was sure she'd pick the best hunter in the village and fully restore our honor.
Hildrun had been proposed to by Wulfih, who was short and feeble, but he was also the Chief's son. He'd always been a sickly child and wasn't much healthier now as a grown man, and he said he treasured a strong woman who could look after him instead of relying on him. And Hildrun, strong and motherly as she was, had already accepted him. They were going to be married in spring, because Hildrun refused to let him stand outside in the snow for the ceremony and demanded they waited warmer weather, but they were most definitely getting married, to Grandma Grielda's great joy.
And as for Gridun, every man in town would have married her, if not for her beauty then for her cooking alone. And those less eager to propose to her were being spurred on by their mothers, for even women came to eat at the tavern now and said that was the best food they'd ever tasted. But my little sister said she was still too young and refused to give marriage any thought at all, as much as it made her happy that the whole village loved her and her cooking.
They loved her and her cooking so much, in fact, that my life would have been in great danger had I not made it known from the start that I would not force my sisters to return to the life they'd had before my disappearance. There would have been no point to it anyway, apart from making Grandma Grielda happy. But Grandma Grielda's happiness was the least of my concerns, and it was better achieved by this announcement than it would have been by my early death, for no sooner had I proclaimed my sisters' independence from her wishes than Hygda started acting all sweet on me again, saying she was proud of me for having come back alive and for having grown a backbone out there in the wilderness.
The year that followed was a good one. Since nothing bad had come of my having deserted my family for so long, I decided to live my life as I pleased and leave all breadwinning to my sisters, who were doing such a fine job at it anyway.
I went out to hunt bears again and to pillage the villages across the river just for the fun of it. I brought home less meat but more furs, and less money but more pretty things for Gridun. And Hygda wanted to marry me more than ever, though I wasn't sure I wanted to tie my life and my family's destiny to her anymore.
Hygda was, of course, everything a man could wish for in a wife: strong, handsome, and with good hips for bearing children, and nothing like my woman in the snow. She would have made any man very happy. She would have made Grandma Grielda very happy. But I had bigger dreams now.
I went looking for my woman with white hair many times, but I could never find my way back to that clearing. The silver fox often hunts with me now. Sometimes I take the prey it's been chasing, and sometimes it snatches away a hare I've only wounded. Sometimes I think I see a cheeky smile in its grey eyes when it runs off with my prey. Sometimes I think it understands when I speak to it too. But it's never taken me back to that clearing and to the woman I want.