Jennie Black gave a final swipe to the stove and looked around at her mother-in-law's kitchen, anxious for it to be perfect. Visiting her husband Will's family on the Quileute reservation for the holidays was always fun, but rather...exhausting. They were great people and Jennie was very fond of them (well, mostly), but there were so many of them, with so many complicated relationships. And they were all so hearty, practically bursting with health and high spirits, though, to be honest, it was Will's air of vitality that had attracted her in the first place. Jennie's offer to take charge of the after-dinner clean up had been motivated as much by the longing for a few solitary moments as by a desire to be helpful.
After drying her hands, she slipped quietly into the great room to join the rest of the family. Will's parents had done their best to recreate the atmosphere of the traditional longhouses of their people, with the welcome addition of modern conveniences. Warm log walls, colorful weavings and a huge heating stove made it an inviting place to gather after the evening meal, and the lazy flakes of snow falling outside only heightened the cozy feel. The comfortable, over-stuffed furniture was made for sprawling and cuddling, and that's what the multi-generational group was doing.
Will caught Jennie's eye and patted the arm of the recliner he had commandeered. Smiling, she joined him, making him squish over so she could have a share of the seat, accomplished by draping her legs across his and leaning her head on his shoulder. They'd been married for three years, but she still felt a happy quiver as she nestled against him.
Some of the older folks began to make shushing sounds and soon all eyes were focused on the patriarch of the Black family, Will's grandfather, Jacob.
Seated by the stove, back-lit by the flames showing through the glass doors, Granpa Jake was a striking figure. He wore his years lightly enough; still vigorous, the black in his hair was almost equal to the silver strands, and though well-lined, his face retained an almost boyish quality, especially when he smiled, which was often.
"It's a good night for a story or two. What do you think?" The proposal was greeted enthusiastically--this was a tradition--and the old man grinned at the eager faces turned toward his, as different voices offered suggestions.
"How about a story about Raven and Bear?" piped up one youngster.
"Naw! Those are baby stories!" scoffed an older child. "Let's hear something exciting or scary, like Taha Aki and the Cold Woman."
"Mmmm," Granpa Jake considered, "or...how about another story, one you haven't heard before. It's about the Cold Ones, just...different; I sort of feel like telling it tonight, for some reason." Everyone settled in and got comfortable, since, of course, a really good fireside story took awhile.
The old man was the center of attention as he cleared he throat and glanced around the room at the expectant faces.
"Way, way back, in the Time of Beginnings, we are told that Q'waeti' the Transformer created the Quileute people from wolves. Q'waeti' gave them this beautiful and abundant land for their home and he told his newly made beings ‘You Quileute shall be brave, because you come from wolves. In every manner you shall be strong.' What he said came to pass, for we Quileute are resilient, wise in the ways of nature and magic. And the wolves are our brothers still." Heads nodded all around the room.
The husky voice took on a subtle rhythm as the tale continued. "Other, later stories tell of the coming of the Cold Ones and their dreadful acts. These same legends relate how the wolf Protectors came to be, defending the People against these unnatural creatures.
"Then, one day, a new group of Cold Ones came to our land, calling themselves a family and claiming that, as blood drinkers, they fed only from animals. The Chief of that time, a man named Ephraim, felt it to be in the best interests of the tribe to make a treaty with this family, who promised faithfully not to hunt the People in exchange for being allowed to stay here. So both parties each kept to their own lands and tried to pretend the others didn't exist.
"Over the years, the Cold Family came and went periodically; sometimes whole generations would pass before they returned, since time has little meaning for beings who live forever, and the People would nearly forget about them till the next time they appeared.
"Besides this Family, there were others of their kind who came through. Evil predators who did not recognize the treaty and whose eyes glowed red with the blood of their victims. Then the spirit wolves would be called to fulfill their ancient responsibilities. When the hókʷať, the white men, began to arrive, the Quileute Protectors agreed among themselves to guard these newcomers as well, because there were many in the tribe who did not fully trust the promises of the Cold Family. They did not disclose this to the Whites, who had little understanding of such things.
"At one point, longer ago than anyone can remember, there was a particular Protector, the son of the chief, who was called...Sitka. He was as tall and strong as the tree he was named for and brave, as a warrior should be. It happened that he fell in love with the daughter of one of the white settlers.
"She was clever and pretty. Her name was B--" One of the other old-timers barked a cough and shot Grandpa Jake a sharp look. Serenely, he carried on, "--her name was Blossom, because her skin was as fair and lovely as the white blossom of the Dogwood tree.
"The two had been friends since they were children, and the girl plainly still thought of the chief's son as just her playmate. So he decided to be patient and to try to prove his love in small ways until she would see his devotion and return his feelings.
"While he waited for her to become aware of him as a man, the Cold Family came back from one of their long journeys. One of the family members was a, well, he looked like a young man, though he was really very old. This young-old creature saw Blossom and wanted her for himself. He professed to be drawn to her in some otherworldly fashion and told her that he loved her. She believed him and, because he was new and different, and because his magic powers of persuasion were very strong, the girl became infatuated with him.
"Sitka was horrified, as can well be imagined, both as a Protector and as a man in love. Earnestly, he worked to get her attention, attempting to point out her folly and draw her away from his rival. When he tried to tell her of her danger, she would not hear him, for the Cold Man was as cunning as Raven and could turn Sitka's own words against him. At times, Blossom and Sitka almost quarreled over the situation, but the warrior would remember his resolution to win her affection through perseverance and apologize. Then the girl would laugh and forgive him for the sake of their old friendship.
"But all his plans for the future were dashed when Blossom told him of her upcoming marriage to the Cold Man; he could not accept that she preferred his enemy and that she was choosing what he could only see as a fate worse than death. In his view, even the thought that she might well die at the hands of his adversary was better than the alternative--that she be changed into a Cold One herself."
A little shiver at the thought took Jennie by surprise and Will pulled her closer in reaction.
"In his fury and disappointment, Sitka took to the forest in his fur, vowing never to come back. Eventually though, his loyalty to his father and his pack brothers--not to mention his hope that perhaps things had changed with his beloved--brought him home.
"It was too late. The Cold Family had left, taking Blossom with them. He became nearly demented with despair and grief. Others urged Sitka to forget her, to choose one of the tribal girls and build a life, but he could not bring himself to do this. Once again he departed.
"For years he searched for his beloved, both as a man and as a wolf, traveling far and seeing many strange things. He returned to the Quileute land from time to time; La Push was the home of his ancestors and the only place where Blossom could be sure to find him, should she ever decide to.
"Finally, weary and heart sore, the Protector came home to stay. He gave up his wolf, married a woman from the tribe of that time and raised a fine family with her. The life he made was satisfying enough, but always, always there was the awareness that the great love of his life was gone beyond his reach, one way or another.
"Because of all the time Sitka had spent as a wolf, his life was very, very long and eventually he out-lived his wife and then his children. He decided to withdraw from tribal doings and took himself off to dwell in the woods, some little way from the village of the People. He was largely left in peace, though the current generation of wolves--it was a much smaller pack by then than when Sitka was a young man--often came to him for advice and to learn the lore of the Protectors.
"Late one night, there was a knock at the door of his cabin. He answered--and staggered back from the door, reeling with shock. It was Blossom. But the sight of the woman he had so longed for brought him no joy, for...she had been turned. She was a Cold One.
"Dazed, Sitka invited her in and stood as far from her as his small house would allow; he was bewildered by his feelings, repelled and fascinated by her at the same time. Blossom's beauty was both dazzling and terrible. Her lovely pale skin was hard as marble and just as cold. As with all of that kind, her scent was sickening sweet, like the stench of decay, and burned Sitka's nose like a cold fire. Occasionally, a mighty shudder would overtake him, as the wolf inside him tried to break out; only his great discipline as a warrior prevented this from happening.
"Gradually, he recovered from the surprise of her reappearance and grew a little accustomed to the changes in her and was able to relax. Furthermore, he was relieved to see that her once soft brown eyes were the color of pine amber, meaning that, like the family that had wooed her away, she did not feed from humans.
"They talked through the night. The girl, who would be a girl forever now, sadly told Sitka that things had not gone well with her in her life as the bride of the Cold Man. His heart was just as cold as the rest of him; he only really wanted a thing he didn't have. Once she was his wife--and had been made like him--his interest in her waned. Finally, Blossom came to see that she was no more than just another of his many possessions and she left him, returning to the last place she had been happy.
"As he heard of Blossom's lonely, neglected life, Sitka's heart broke all over again. In all the years that had passed, at the very least, he had hoped that the girl he loved and lost had found some measure of happiness with her undead husband. At last her voice faltered to a stop and she looked forlornly at him from the very depths of her odd-colored eyes. It came to him, that in spite of the experiences of their very different lives, she was still the same girl who had captured his heart so long ago.
"As if drawn by a magnet, the two stepped toward each other, hands out-stretched. They could not quite bring themselves to touch, but with his hand hovering in the air over hers, Sitka began, ‘Will you please--' as Blossom said, ‘May I please--' and they finished together '--come home?' Sitka felt a piece of him that had been missing for as long as he could remember click into place, and at last he was made whole."
A soft collective sigh sounded throughout the room. Jennie blinked back tears and thought to herself, He makes it sound so real, almost like he was there.
"Wasn't Sitka angry at Blossom?" The timid question came from one of the great-nieces.
"No, he wasn't angry; he couldn't be." Granpa Jake explained in a strangely tight voice. "Because, you see, as much as he had suffered, her pain was even worse: all their unhappiness came from decisions she had made, and she knew it. She had to carry that knowledge around with her forever. Sitka decided that she had been punished enough by her own sorrow and regret."
"Well, I hate her!" exclaimed a second girl. "She should have been smart enough to stay with the Wolf. He loved her all along!"
"Oh, you shouldn't hate her, Lena. She was very young at the time and the blood drinker was quite handsome and convincing and, well, Sitka didn't always handle things as well as he could have. Like a lot of young men, he was...a little too full of himself and kind of high-handed at times."
Jennie was startled by the bleak expression in the old man's eyes, but the notion was pushed away as he continued the story. "The pair did not have long to enjoy their reunion. Within a day of Blossom's arrival, the tribe's three Protectors came to the cabin and told Sitka that the Cold Woman could not stay there, so close to the village. It was against the treaty and was...disturbing to the People. They would have been within their rights to destroy her, but because of the respect they had for Sitka, they merely required that she leave."
"How did the Protectors know she was there?" questioned a small boy at Granpa Jake's feet.
"They just did," he answered with great seriousness. "It was given to them by the Spirits to know when a threat was close, even though Blossom was no danger to them."
Persistently, the child asked, "Well, what about the smell? You said she, um, all the Cold Ones, smell really bad."
Granpa Jake laughed his low, throaty chuckle, "Well, Davey, the wolves don't smell any better to the Cold Ones, sort of like really strong dirty, wet dog. So, being intelligent creatures, they spent a lot of time outdoors. In any case, love usually means putting up with some things you'd just as soon do without, so they're about even on that issue."
The little boy was hushed by his mother and the story continued. "Sitka refused to be parted from her, so he and Blossom moved farther into the woods, to be by themselves and not bother anyone. In the beginning, life was strange for the two of them, being fundamentally enemies, but they worked at getting reacquainted and were starting to feel something like their old closeness, when who should appear...but the young-old Cold Man, Blossom's husband.
"He did not care for her as she deserved, but he could not bear to have one of his belongings decide for itself to leave him and he demanded that she return. When she refused, he attempted to take her by force. The sleeping wolf inside Sitka woke up. Filled with rage, he transformed into his Protector self and began to fight the Cold One.
"The struggle lasted a day and into the night. Sitka had libiti taxilit, or strong spirit power, the power required for all good warriors, but the Cold Man seemed to be invincible. The battle was brutal and vicious, with Sitka getting the worst of it till, at last, he was near death."
"No!" came the simultaneous gasp from several listeners.
"As a Protector, Sitka was valiant and had his love for Blossom to strengthen him, but one wolf is no match for a vampire. Wolves are mortal, where the Cold Ones are not. And it must be remembered, although a Protector who is active is believed to live forever, Sitka had been retired for many years and was aging, slowly, but it was catching up with him.
"And where was Blossom during all of this? The girl was no fighter, but she had been following the battle as best she could, begging the two foes to stop. Now, seeing Sitka's plight, she threw herself on top of his broken body and swore to her husband that he would have to tear her apart to get to the wolf.
"Just at that moment, when all seemed lost, into the fight rushed the three Protectors of La Push. While it is true that a wolf alone is no match for a Cold One, never forget that the greatest advantage of the spirit wolves is the pack. More important even than their strength and speed, is how they work together for the good of all.
"So, even though the blood drinker was fierce and angry, as well as skilled, he was not equal to the combined forces of the Quileute wolves. Before long, they had the Cold Man at bay and were just about to finish him off, when Blossom screamed at them to stop. Shocked, the wolves froze.
"A strange majesty surrounded the girl's frail-looking form as she rose and walked forward, her arms held stiffly by her sides. Her aura of dignity caused the wolves to fall back, in spite of themselves, and they parted for her to pass between them.
"She came to a halt in front of the fallen body of her estranged husband and regarded him in silence for a long moment. Growling and whining uneasily, the Protectors circled the pair as they waited to see what Blossom would do.
"The look of terror on the Cold Man's handsome face melted into one of pleading, then shifted to an expression of sly triumph as she reached down to him and gently wove her fingers into his tangled, coppery hair. Plainly, he thought that Blossom had had a change of heart and would either somehow save him, or die along with him.
"In a bitter voice, she choked out the words, ‘He's worth a hundred of you.' Her hands tightened and, giving a high-pitched grunt of effort, she tore the head from his shoulders. Then, with a gasp of revulsion, her grip loosened and the head dropped to the ground. She leapt over the backs of the surrounding wolves and returned to crouch by Sitka.
"They made short work of the headless body, which flailed and kicked in its death throes. Shifting back to human, they gathered the parts for burning, which is the only way to truly kill a vampire.
"As the rank fire blazed, the Protectors turned to Blossom, where she still lay huddled over the fallen Sitka wolf. She knew the treaty, and despite the odd moment of deference they had given her earlier, she had no reason to believe that they would be any more lenient with her than with her husband. Fear of the Protectors shone in her golden eyes, but her voice was clear and steady as she asked what they intended to do with her."
With an evident flare for the dramatic, Granpa Jake paused, and as one, all the members of the little audience leaned forward in anticipation.
"This was quite a quandary indeed for the Protectors. After conferring among themselves, the way good leaders do, they told her their decision. They were not at all happy about having a Cold One as a neighbor, but they had seen Blossom shelter Sitka with her own body and watched her deal the death blow to their adversary. Furthermore, the older wolf's injuries were terrible and it seemed highly likely that he would die."
There were stricken-sounding moans from many of the listeners; Jennie realized that she was one of them.
The elder pressed on, "The wolves decreed that if Sitka recovered, Blossom could stay. However, if he passed on to the ancestors, they would not destroy her but she must leave immediately. She agreed that this was more than fair. So the wolves departed, not knowing what the outcome would be.
"Sitka was dreadfully hurt and had been bitten by the enraged Cold Man." A hiss of dismay went around the room. "Blossom carried him back to the simple shelter he had built them, where he hovered on the edge of death for many days. Her fear was that the monster's venom had sapped his will to live. She beseeched him not to go to the spirit world, declaring that she had lost him once already through her own foolishness, to lose him again would be beyond bearing.
"‘Don't leave me alone!' she pleaded.
"Her Protector was very far gone, but somehow the desperation in her voice penetrated his unconscious state. He wavered, for the call of the final land was strong, but the knowledge that she could never join him there decided him and resolutely he returned to life.
"It took some time, but at last he was cured, thanks to the wolves' own healing magic and Blossom's dedicated nursing--she left his side only to hunt, sharing her kills with him to give him strength. He was never quite the same afterward, for the ordeal had taken its toll, but at least he was reunited with his true spirit wife."
"So, Blossom and Sitka got married, right Granpa?" One of the girls who had spoken earlier asked the question with an air of assurance as to the answer.
The old man sighed, "No, Tansy, they didn't. They were just...too different. Beings like that, created by Nature and the Spirits to be mortal enemies, well, there's just no way that they could ever...get married."
Tansy's face crumpled and she protested, "It's not fair! He loved her so much and waited so long!" She gave a prolonged sniffle.
"No, it's not fair," Granpa Jake said soberly. "Their love was able to overcome most of their obstacles, but not all. Sometimes life hands you things and you just have to take what you get and let that be...enough for you."
His noble face was wistful, but he quickly brightened, saying, "There's a little more. The legend goes that their friendship and love couldn't end, even with so much going against them. Sitka's recovery and their mutual devotion did not go unnoticed by the La Push wolves. They watched the pair discretely and, after a time, came to realize that, just as Sitka had told them, Blossom was no menace to the People. In time, an unspoken truce developed between the parties, which led in turn to...cooperation.
"Trouble with the Cold Ones is rare now. As always, the wolf pack is vigilant in their duties, but the task is made easier by the...advance guard. Intruders are met, and mostly dealt with, by a great russet-colored wolf, and his immortal companion."
The brown-black eyes of the storyteller were distant and his voice was soft and low as he concluded, "And so, they are still with us; she will never die, and as long as Sitka keeps his wolf, neither will he. They walk our mountains and forests together, forever. It's said that sometimes, on a moonlit night, you can even catch a glimpse of them--the pale, beautiful girl, and the changeling wolf who never stopped loving her, even when it seemed hopeless."
A long silence held the room like a spell, broken at last by the fretful wail of an infant. Then, blinking and murmuring, plainly reorienting themselves, families began to rise and prepare to either return to their own homes or to bed down at the Blacks' place.
Jennie noticed that a couple of the tribal Elders were giving Granpa Jake rather odd looks, but she got distracted helping to find a lost mitten and didn't think of it again till much, much later.
Even in the spacious house, sleeping quarters were so stretched with such a crowd that Jennie and Will were tucked into a tiny attic room under the eaves.
As she shivered into her night things, Jennie asked her husband, "Just how old is your Granpa Jake?"
"No idea," replied Will, with a shrug. "Older than he looks, I'm guessing. I'm not even sure exactly where he fits into the family tree; he's not Dad's father. It's tradition to address anyone older than your parents' generation as ‘grandfather' or ‘grandmother', as a term of respect, even if you're not related, so who knows? Great old guy, isn't he?"
Jennie murmured an agreement as she snuggled next to him under the quilts; Will was always so warm and the heat was just heavenly on such a cold night.
Much later that night, Jennie came awake, fully awake and shuddering from confusing dreams rife with fantastic imagery. A silvery light glowed through the thin curtains and she felt somehow compelled to rise and look out the window. For a wonder, the cloud cover had cleared and the three-quarter moon gleamed brilliantly on the light snowfall.
Movement below caught her eye. A man walked from the shadow of the house and headed for the forest that grew close by. Jennie blinked; it couldn't be Granpa Jake, could it? Surely not. It looked quite like him, but this man was hardly old--he moved swiftly and with purpose, his body straight and strong. Even after he disappeared into the trees, Jennie couldn't make herself leave the window, though vaguely she supposed she ought to alert someone to the occurrence.
After a time, she saw movement again, farther up the mountain, in a clearing that wouldn't have been visible to someone not looking from the high attic window.
It was the shape of a huge, impossibly huge, wolf. Alongside the creature was the silhouette of a slender woman...
For a long time she stood there, in the cold, staring out the window into the night.
The thin gray light of pre-dawn was glimmering around the curtains when Jennie woke next day. Memories of the night before prompted her slip from under the warm covers and silently dress. Stepping outdoors into the freezing morning, she quietly circled the house till she was under the attic window.
From there, she struck out, heading through the woods where no snow had reached the ground through the thick branches. She looked back frequently to sight her direction from the house's roof peak.
In an open space from which she could just see the top-most gable, she came across what she'd been searching for--the tracks of a giant, heavy dog.
Beside them, just visible in the soft snow, were marks that resembled the footprints of a small woman.
She stared, open-mouthed, at her find, till movement caught the corner of her eye. Heart leaping, she looked up and recognized Granpa Jake emerging from the trees, a rueful half smile on his face. But...how on earth could she ever have thought him old? This man was powerful and vital--not young, but still in his prime, mid-forties perhaps. He was the very image of a warrior and protector.
The two gazed at each other for a long moment; the expression in Jake's eyes was a mixture of entreaty and challenge. Jennie opened her mouth to say...what? That she admired his courage and steadfastness throughout all his trials? That his secret was safe with her? That she wished he could have a love like hers and Will's? It all seemed so feeble in the face of a life that could only be described by words like mystic and magical. She just gave a brief nod, feeling terribly inadequate.
Jake nodded back, solemnly. Then he took a deep breath. Exhaling, he allowed his shoulders to slump; his trim waistline now looked soft and undefined. With a shake of his head, the long black hair streaked with silver fell around his face, shadowing his features; the keen expression in the brown-black eyes was replaced with one of kindly resignation.
The transformation was astonishing. With an odd jolt, Jennie realized that she had always seen an old man, largely because she expected to see one. Even now, she had to squint and suspend the evidence of her own eyes to reconcile the elderly man standing before her with the previous version.
Granpa Jake extended his arm in a courtly, old fashioned gesture, saying, "It's a fine morning for a walk, but I think I'm ready for a cup of coffee, Granddaughter. How about you?"
Diffidently, Jennie accepted the offered arm, and together the two of them, the young woman and the old man, walked back to the house in companionable silence.