'Ni'rite! Come quick!'
I opened one eye. My mother was at the mouth of our tent, beckoning to me. I sat up, shrugging off my wolf-fur blanket. I looked down at my bare body, and then at my mother, who looked away. I stood up slowly, and grabbed my deer-hide dress from the floor, and pulled it on. I pushed my hair behind my ears, and walked to the entrance to our tent.
'Alright mother, I'm here. What's going on?' I asked.
My mother turned to face me. I could see bags under her eyes, like she hadn't slept for days. She probably hadn't - she'd been talking with the elders late into the night for the past week or so. Her eyes looked like they were watering, too.
'Mother?' I whispered. She shook her head.
'Al needs to talk to us,' she muttered back, 'A storm is coming.'
I gasped. Storms could prove fatal for small communities like our tribe. The last storm to hit our area was... Well, before I was born. Before my mother was born too. Storms caused our tents to cave in, flooded the lands, and what blew little possessions people had away. There were few survivors when a storm struck a tribe.
'Come, Ni'rite. I promised Al we would go.' my mother said, slightly louder than before. She began to lead the way to the clearing that we used for meetings. As I followed, I looked around. Many people were coming out of their tents, some looking puzzled, some worried. As we reached the clearing, I saw the elders sitting in a half-circle. My mother went to join them - although she wasn't officially one of them, they had allowed her to sit with them since my father died. I heard Al whisper to her, ‘Mati, a pleasure.’ I sat in the centre of the clearing, along with everyone else. Al, the chief, stood up.
Some of the other adults stood. Being thirteen, I am not counted as an adult yet, so do not have to join in with things like this. But I stood up too. I knew the tribe wouldn’t make it, I wanted to do something with them, no matter how small. Al addressed us in a solemn voice.
'People, I have grave news,' he began, 'a storm is coming.' Gasps drowned out what he said next. People whispered to each other. I think somebody screamed. Al cleared his throat, and everybody turned to look at him again. He continued. ‘The neighbouring tribes have been struck already. I am guessing that we will be hit next. Everybody who wishes to leave, take your belongings, and do not return. I suggest you do this if you want to be safe. As Chief, I will stay.' There were more gasps at this - I was among those who did. He couldn't stay - he had no child, nobody to carry on as chief!
'You can't stay!' a young woman cried. Other people cried out in agreement. But Al just shook his head.
'This is my tribe. If it goes down, I go with it. I will protect those who wish to stay.' he said. I slowly raised my hand.
When will the storm hit?' I asked quietly. As I said this, the tribe fell silent.
'Nobody knows.' Al replied, also quietly. 'That is all I can tell you. Everyone may go.' he added, slightly louder. As people filed out of the clearing, they were talking quietly, discussing whether to leave, what to take, when to go. I knew my mother would insist on staying, no matter how life-threatening the storm would be. But I was thirteen. Though I was not an adult, I was independent. I would stay safe. I would leave. I walked to our tent alone, as mother was still talking to the elders. Picking up my few belongings, I wondered where I should go. To the forests, maybe? No, the storm would hit there. To the nearest tribal settlement? No, that was miles away, and Al had implied that it had already been struck. I would just have to wander, fend for myself, until I found a safe place to stay until the storm was over...
I looked out through the entrance to the tent. The sunrise shining through the gaps in the trees was beautiful. The sun threw rainbow-coloured beams of light, illuminating even the darkest of places. The dark trees were silhouettes against the pale red sky. How could I say goodbye to that? I couldn't leave immediately. I had to see the beauty of another sunrise. "Tomorrow," I thought to myself, "tomorrow I'll go".
My mother came running into the tent, apologizing hurriedly. 'I'm so sorry Ni'rite! I was so busy talking to the elders I forgot about you!' she cried. I put a finger to her lips.
'It's alright. I needed some time alone,' I reassured her, 'To think.' she nodded her head, and went outside. I thought it was nearly time to eat, so I took my bow and quiver of arrows, and looked out. Mother started to pull branches off the nearby trees, and build a fire. 'Ni'rite?' she called. I walked out of the doorway.
'Yes?' I responded. She looked up.
'Catch something for us. I forgot about a morning meal.' my mother said.
I nodded slowly, and ran into the trees. As usual when I was on hunting trips, I stopped when I could no longer see the light from our tribe. I heard footsteps. I assumed it must be another hunter, as they were coming slowly. I ducked behind a bush, and peered out of the leaves. To my surprise, I saw a small deer heading towards me. I grabbed an arrow, and got ready to shoot. But then the deer's hind legs came into view - it was dragging them behind. I dropped my bow, and ran over to the animal. It was just a baby, judging by it's size. I picked it up, and it relaxed in my arms.
'You poor thing...' I whispered into the deer's ear. I couldn't kill it. I lay it down in the bush I had hidden in, and stood guard outside of it. I saw some more deer deeper into the forest. They were a different breed - their coats were darker, and duller than my baby deer. I took an arrow, aimed, and shot. It hit one of the grey deer - the others fled. I looked up to the sky- light was shining through the trees. I picked up my baby deer, and ran to the dead one, dragging it behind me as I walked towards the light. Eventually, I reached my tent. I dropped the dead deer at the fire, and went into the tent. My mother was there. She gasped when she saw the deer in my arms.
'Ni'rite! I - I told you to hunt one, not bring it here l-live!' she stammered. The deer in my arms began to whimper. I looked into it's coal-black eyes.
I stroked it's head. 'Shh...' I crooned, before facing my mother. 'This deer was injured. It was abandoned, and could not walk. I couldn't kill it.' I said firmly. My mother's hard face relaxed.
'Injured? Still Ni'rite, I do not think you should keep him.' whispered my mother. I shook my head.
'He stays.' I said, firmly. My mother sighed.
'Alright,' she said, 'Alright! Here, put him on this.' she added, pulling a fur blanket towards us. I placed my deer on it, and he curled into a ball. He looked up at me, before closing his black eyes.
'I'm going to call you A-wa-ni-ta. Cherokee for "baby deer".' I murmured.
'Ni'rite!' I looked up to see Al standing in the doorway. He was smiling proudly.
'I would like to congratulate you on your kill,' he said, 'it is the biggest we have seen from somebody your age.' I glanced at the grey deer. It was big, all right! I must have forgotten the size, as I was too immersed in caring for A-wa-ni-ta.
'Well, I never looked at it. I was too busy looking after this little baby,' I said, moving aside to show Al my A-wa-ni-ta. He looked impressed.
'Ah. A-wa-ni-ta. I'm glad you saved him. He used to limp past my door each night,' Al sighed, 'I used to give him scraps of food.' He smiled wistfully.
I smiled too. 'I've called him A-wa-ni-ta too. I'm taking him with me when I leave.'
‘When you leave?' My mother gasped. Al said nothing.
'The storm? Remember?' I laughed, 'I'm leaving so I'll stay safe.'
'Ni'rite...' my mother trailed off. 'Stay today. Leave tomorrow, if you wish to leave.'
'I was planning on going tomorrow, mother.' I reassured her. 'I had to stay for another night, see another sunrise.' I smiled wistfully, like Al had when he was talking of A-wa-ni-ta. Al suddenly spoke up.
'Well, Mati, I think you should get that deer cooked.' he said, clapping his hands together. 'It's so large, perhaps I may join you?'
'Of course, Al.' I answered before my mother could. She ran to the fire, and began cooking the deer.
So Al stayed for a meal with us. We talked. About the storm, the tribe, the wildlife, how some of the other tribes had come to Al, asking for help, and he had reluctantly turned them away, and most importantly, my little A-wa-ni-ta. We talked until sunset. I managed to get away by saying I was tired. Mother was reluctant to let me go to sleep. I think she wanted to spend as much time with me before I left. But I insisted on going in to the tent, shrugging off my deer-hide dress, and laying down on the woven floor. I picked up A-wa-ni-ta, who was still sleeping, and hugged him close to my chest. He opened one eye. 'If the storm strikes tonight, I want to be with you.' I whispered into his ear. I pulled up the wolf-fur blanket, hugged my deer even closer, and fell asleep peacefully. But the peace didn’t last long.
I heard screams. Gasps. People running. Babies and children crying. Deer fleeing. The crack of a branch breaking off a tree. The roll of thunder. Crashing waves. The storm had hit.
I opened my eyes, and looked up. The tent had caved in. I couldn’t sit up, but I shrugged off the wolf-fur blanket. I put a hand up to my bare chest. A-wa-ni-ta was gone! But he couldn’t be! I put my hands up and pushed up the roof of the tent, so that I was able to stand. As I did so, I saw a ball of white-flecked brown fur. It was A-wa-ni-ta.
And he was breathing! I smiled, in spite of my destroyed surroundings, and rushed over to pick the deer up. He was cold, so I breathed oh him. He opened one eye, then the other, and then put his wet nose on my cold cheek. I laughed softly.
My next thought was my mother. I found a note, written in our ancient language - Cherokee. It was from my mother, and it said she had fled. And I must too. But there was something she hadn't written, but I knew it was true.
I was alone.
I pushed the collapsed frame of the entrance to our tent out of the way, and cautiously stepped outside. As soon as I did, the tent collapsed. I clutched A-wa-ni-ta tighter. Other tents had collapsed. I saw the distant glow of something orange – somebody’s fire had got out of control. I ran over to it, hoping to find survivors. At the sight I saw, my heart leapt. A tent stood, not caved in, or torn by the fierce winds.