This short story is based on a ancient oral story past down for many generations. It describes the origin of the little brown song birds that migrate up to the arctic for the warmer months. They are quite plain these birds, though their origins are not.
by Nasugraq Rainey Hopson
Lemmings don't really have names. Instead, as you can imagine, we have a set of complex scents we carry with us to identify ourselves to each other. Pockets of aromatic air that if translated would be paragraphs and paragraphs of information and history-and maybe even tiny lemming thoughts.
I am such a lemming. A northern arctic cousin of the mouse. And my name. Well my name is...Want.
It's not a normal lemming name, not a normal lemming scent. It's a mixture of so many smells and so many places and so many experiences that it speaks of only one thing-want. The need to explore, to be something different. To search, to reveal, to examine.
Today I was close to starving. Spring had finally arrived, bringing with it that span of days when the food is scarce. The winter food stores I had carefully hidden were drained, and the sun, still heavy from sleep, hadn't gotten around to melting the snow fully and coaxing the plants to waken. So I decided to check the food burrows that I keep for emergencies, far from my usual haunts.
It was a long journey. And it took me some time to remember the paths. Some paths were blocked by melting slabs of snow and I had to scramble round them, marking my trail with tiny bites and teeth nicks in plants and sticks, leaving faint marks of my saliva so I could retrace my steps if I needed to. Even these marks smelled of Want. And maybe a tad bit of Wish, too.
I did not like where I was going. Most times these underground holes that I laboriously filled with sweet bulbs and roots of the bistort plant were raided. They always looked like they’d exploded from the earth, leaving a wide opening which would fill with ice, and then water as the ice slowly melted. They almost always smelled of Human. Humans all smell pretty much alike-like seal oil and predator fur, smoke, and the moisture they leak almost constantly.
These food stashes were near the Human dwellings, which is why they survived. No lemming likes being around Humans, and their Human things. Unlike Fox and Wolf and Owl, Humans are unpredictable. You never know if they are going to kill you-or make you a pet for their young.
I veered from my path to climb a small mound that rose above the tall grass by a foot or two. Only those who are destined to be arctic fox scat fail to sniff the winds. The wind hit my dense fur and made me shiver. Sunlight warmed my back and made my scent stronger. I quickly inhaled the smells and cupped my ears to catch the drifting noise. My hair stood on end as I risked being spotted by a predator. The winds told me I was close to the Human dwelling. I could see it nearby, a dark tall mound in the distance. Close to my stores. I heard the quick snap of wings above me and froze, but is was only a bouncing Snowbird as he joyously tossed himself into the winds. Snowbirds are the heralds of Spring, strikingly marked in contrasting black and white. They call to each other with warm voices that seem to pry the ice from the ground.
I tucked myself low on top of the mound, hiding my feet and ears as I tried to look as small and as unobtrusive as possible. I wanted a moment to watch the birds. They fascinate me. With deft and fragile movements they hop from place to place, wings sharp and precise, molding the air to their purpose. I blinked as my eyes watered a bit. Deep in my triple soul I felt something melt, I felt it melt and warm and recognize something in these birds.
My name rang on the winds. Want. Part of me smelled like the birds, it smelled liked the wind under their wings. It smelled like the sun warmed drafts rising to carry a tiny body. I blinked again as my eyes watered more. My tiny brain was working hard to understand what was happening.
Then I realized: I wanted to fly!
I closed my eyes against the pain of the thought, as it made my already racing heart beat faster. It was such a foolish thought. A thought that went against every thread that was my tiny being, yet it still ripped through me as if it were put there by something other than myself. I recognized it as a dangerous thing.
I pulled my warm front paws from under my plain brown fur and looked at them. They were not wings. They were nimble paws made for nimble things, but they were never wings. I took some time to clean the thought of flying from my fur with careful licks, certain that if I ran into my kin they would smell it and be afraid of it, foreign as it was. Things that were different did not survive long in my world; conformity meant safety and predictability. If I could have sighed, I would have sighed. I would have released that breath of air that contained my name.
Sure that there was little of The Thought left on my fur, I dashed back to the path that wove its way through the dry, winter drained grass. A few more moments and I would be at my store of sweet bistort bulbs. The grass above me snapped as a Snowbird dove at an insect trying to find shelter in the grass. I looked up and saw the bird perch on the Human Dwelling. The bright blue sky glowed behind it. The bird cocked its head at me, regarding me first with one eye, then the other. It chirped a brief greeting. Then slowly and deliberately it hopped to the edge of the dwelling, cast itself into the air, and fell a full breathtaking span before spreading its wings wide to catch its fall.
It was like the bird was trying to tell me something. A secret maybe? Like why my name was so different? I paused in the grass, hunching my body as small as it would get, trying to hide while the message soaked into my being. The smell of that painful thought bloomed again.
If I could have shrugged, I would have shrugged. With a blurring speed that is only gifted to arctic prey, I scuttled towards the human dwelling, and, sooner than I thought possible, I was at its base. It rose high above me, but I was not afraid. I knew the fall would not kill me, as we lemmings are tiny and tough beings. No, the height did not bother me at all. It was the risk I would be taking by exposing myself to predators that frightened me. The fear curled itself around my middle and made my heart race. I did not want to get eaten by Snowy Owl. Or Raven. Or even clever Fox. Every cell in my body screamed for me to hide. Thousands of years of evolution fought with the tiny new electrical sparks in my tiny tiny brain.
I looked at my paws again, flexed the almost Human like fingers, and then began climbing the towering mound. In no time at all I was at the top, sitting hunched in the same spot where I’d seen the bird earlier. I shivered at the exposure. I scooted to the edge and looked down. I saw, far below me, a bowl made of wood. A human tool. It was filled with a gleaming thick amber fluid; the heavy smell of seal rose from it like a cloud. I had seen the Humans eat this substance, use it to create fire. They treated it with reverence, this oil, and you almost never saw them without it nearby. It glistened and waited for me. At least I thought of it as waiting for me.
I hunched down into myself at the edge of the dwelling, letting the sun warm my fur as it gathered the scent of seal oil in its strands. I needed to know what my name was. With a panicked jerky movement I flung myself over the edge of the mound. My body stiffened as the world fell away and the wind forced my eyes and ears to close. My heart stopped. I held my breath. And I dropped. It did not take long, as I wasn't extremely high off the ground, and I was but a tiny bit of being. When I hit the surface of the seal oil it felt hard as rock. Then it suddenly softened. I took a quick breath before it took me under. I panicked for a split second till I felt the bottom of the bowl beneath my feet. It was shallow enough that I could just reach my nose above the oil to take quick, rapid, painful breaths. Legs skidding on the slick bowl, I made my way slowly to the edge. As I reached the rim a small amount of the strong smelling oil seeped into my lungs and burnt its way into my body making my lungs work hard to try and cough it back up. The world spun and sparkled a bit, and I tasted blood and green shoots on my tongue. The air warmed and made the oil clinging to me loosen its grip.
Once I stopped coughing I leaned against the rim of the bowl and reached a paw out to grab its thick edge. But what came out of the oil wasn't my paw. Instead it was an oil-sodden wing. A brown wing. A brown speckled wing. I flexed my feet under me and launched myself out of the murky golden fluid. My feet clamped tight to the rim of the bowl. They felt odd to me. Gone were my familiar five fingered, weak paws. Instead, very long, clawed and incredibly muscular claws clung to the wood. I flapped my wings-wings!-shaking the last of the seal oil from their sleek surfaces. I pumped them up and down till I felt my body rise, and then I loosened my clawed grip from the edge of the bowl. Though my mind tried to hold me back my body knew what to do. With a shiver I shed all of me that was a Lemming. I felt the hold that name had on me slip from my soul like the oil slipped from my beautiful wings. And I took to the sky in an explosion of glorious golden song that burst from my brown throat. In an instant I had forgotten that I was ever a lemming. And truly, only my color reminded the world of what I once was.
Birds don't really have names, but if we did then my name would be ......