Kurzeme, Latvia - 1604
Winter had come early that year.
The bitter sting of the wind slapped at her face, rebuking her for plodding defiantly through the knee-deep snow. She gritted her teeth, painfully aware of the numbness creeping out to her arms. Days had grown much shorter, and the sun reigned only for a few precious hours. Now the nights returned to their natural state of harshness and severity. The intense wind suddenly grew fiercer, pushing her back and sapping her strength. Already exhausted from the miles-long journey, she finally fell to her knees, letting the precious rabbit-skin pouch slip from her shoulders.
Her cry sounded like a whimper in the midst of the howling breeze. "Please help, Mihalje!"
Up ahead her brother turned around, with heavy satchels slung over both shoulders. He made his way back to her, his face red from the cold. "No, the medicine!" he shouted, staring at her pouch flapping in the wind. "We cannot lose it! Come, sister, we are only a short distance from home!"
The sturdy young man stooped a little, allowing her to catch his arm and lift herself up. His words encouraged her to keep moving. She picked up the pouch and clutched it tightly with gloved fingers. Home, she thought, and smiled. There would be a warm fire waiting for them upon their return, with roasted fowl and hot onion broth. Soon she would be playing with their little brother Andrejs, and their mother would sing them to bed.
Mihalje saw her smile and returned in kind. His voice was a rock of strength. "Don't worry, Meilute. We will be home soon enough."
He had always been the strong one. Papa had died four years ago, before her sixteenth birthday, simply from working the land so tirelessly. It was, then, Mihalje's responsibility to care for the family. He tended to the fields and animals, and made all the necessary tax arrangements with the Duchy of Kurzeme. He repaired the old wooden hovel, keeping out the rain and snow. Their ailing mother praised God everyday for such a valuable son.
And of course, she helped him. Mihalje was now twenty-four and looking for a wife. He would move on soon, to start his own family. Until Andrejs grew into manhood, she would be responsible for the household. Their family had lived on these lands for countless generations; they would not die out now. She had listened to Papa, and now she learned from her brother. If only she could endure everything that he had, all would be well.
They continued to trudge through the snow-blanketed forest. Their travel to Briezi had started early in the morning, for the purpose of bringing back medicine and supplies. Andrejs had grown sick. He was five years old now, lively as a small child but now melancholic. It couldn't be explained; it was as though his body had grown tired of living. The medicine would work; it had done so before, the town doctor assured them. Hurriedly, they made their way back. It had grown dark in the woodlands, and they stumbled most of the way. Off in the distance the magnificent songs of the wolves sailed through the thicket of pines.
Finally, they saw the light of their hovel. Their slow-beating hearts revived, and they found renewed energy as they dashed across the snowy fields, calling out names and shouting merrily. They were like frenzied children, running and yelling out in the night to their doorstep. She had never made the trek to Briezi before, unlike Mihalje who had traveled several times. It had been a long day for her, and she was never happier to see home again.
"Mama, Andrejs, we're back! We brought medicine!"
There was no answer. Fear bubbled in her throat then. She looked nervously at her brother, whose face turned grim. With a familiar vigor, he kicked open the door to the hut. They rushed inside, not knowing what to expect at all.
It was quiet, the air filled only by the crackling of the fire. Beside the hearth, in a chair, was their mother. She held little Andrejs in her arms, who must have been sleeping. In his sweet face, they saw the angelic innocence of a cherub. He was wrapped tightly with blankets. Mama was crying.
The satchels dropped to the floorboards with a loud thud. "What?" Mihalje shouted, rushing to her side. "Mama, what is it? Andrejs!"
The dark-haired girl stood, frozen by the door, with the rabbit-skin pouch still grasped in her hand. She watched as her brother tried to shake Mama out of her stupor. She watched as he plucked Andrejs violently from her arms, touching his body and listening for a heartbeat. She watched, suddenly nauseous, as Mihalje lowered his head, his manly lips now quivering in disbelief. There was no heartbeat, no soft breathing. Andrejs was dead.
Meilute screamed and screamed. Her shrieks rebounded off the walls of the hovel and escaped into the night, carried on the cold unforgiving wind.
Mihalje was recruited into the latviesi army three months later.
War with the Swedes had already begun. The invading Nordic tribes had sailed across the Baltic Sea and attacked the port of Ventspils. Soon they would march toward the capital, Riga. By the order of the Duchy of Kurzeme, all men of age would be conscripted, by force if necessary, to defend their homelands.
She could not sleep the night before. Her brother moved about despondently that morning, making sure all of his things were packed. She arose as well, and began to prepare his breakfast. For all that brother and sister had shared throughout the long hard years, this morning they worked together in silence. There was no need for words. Between tasks, she would tend to their now-mute mother, who had not spoken since that night.
It was a hearty breakfast of lamb stew and potato cakes and stale bread. She was pleased that Mihalje approved. They talked quietly while he ate, remembering the old days with Papa, looking forward to the future when Mihalje would return from the war. And he would return, she knew. Afterward, he sat down with her and went over the responsibilities that were now solely hers. She listened with a heavy heart, but for her brother's sake, wore the look of firm resolve. He must have, however, sensed the apprehension apparent in her eyes.
Mihalje placed a large hand on her shoulder. She took one look into his compelling, confidant face, and the fear suddenly melted away. "Be brave, sister," he said simply. "You are a strong young woman. The blood of a robust people flows in your veins, as it does in mine. Poor Andrejs, God rest his soul, was simply called early to Heaven's Gates, and now sings with angels on high. But you have a long time coming before that. You will survive."
The Duchy's soldiers came shortly after, riding tall on horseback and armed with shiny swords and lances. Mihalje could do nothing but obey their sharp commands. As he walked out of the door, she stood to see him off. They embraced for what felt like a long time.
"Farewell, my brother," she spoke as forcefully as possible. She chided herself, now that her tears finally burst forth for all to see.
He looked at her and, with a thumb, wiped away those tears. "Take care of yourself, Meilute, and Mama. I will be back soon enough." He leaned forward and kissed her quickly on the cheek, then joined the men. They rode off, with the horses' hooves kicking up snow and dirt, leaving a filthy trail behind in the once-pristine snow.
Even after they had disappeared into the forest, she still remained there on the step, not even shivering in the cold.
Mama did not get better with time. She walked about now, slowly but clumsily, as if she were a zombie. Still she did not speak. At night, her wails were terrifying to listen to.
During the day, Meilute would busy herself with the chores. With Mama safely locked inside, she would walk over to the barn and feed the livestock. There were holes in the roof that needed patching, and snow had to be swept off to prevent a collapse. Through every task, she managed to find some joy in her heart, humming Mama's old lullaby while she worked. It made her recall happier times, warm times. She imagined waking up one morning to find Mihalje home again, safe and healthy, and she would listen to the wonderful stories he would tell by the hearth. She dreamed of finding a husband who would love her and provide for their children. And she thought of times when the family had been happiest. Every night before dusk, she would say a prayer over the graves of her father and little brother, hoping they could leave Purgatory soon to join their all-loving Lord.
Some months went by, and supplies became low. She had to travel to Briezi once again. The town was about twenty kilometers away by foot, roughly four hours with the snow. She wondered whether it was safe to leave Mama behind for nearly an entire day. Mama could easily injure herself, and she certainly could not defend against strangers. But she also would die of disease without medicine. In the end, Meilute decided to leave and make the journey alone. It was the only way for them both to survive the long winter.
She took the route that Mihalje had shown her months before. The sun was already high in the sky when she left the forest. The warmth tickled her skin, the areas not wrapped in thick wool and hides. In Briezi, she located the doctor's home rather quickly, her first journey still ingrained on her mind. He was very sorry that Andrejs had passed away. For Mama, he recommended some herbs to help breathing, and a small bottle of silver tonic for night fevers. Meilute became disheartened, for the few copper coins she had brought was not enough to pay for everything; thankfully, the doctor was sympathetic and accepted what she could give.
With the precious medicine tucked safely in her rabbit-skin pouch, she made her way out of town. Here it was not cold as in the countryside, and many people walked about the narrow streets. Men of different ages leered hungrily at her, their gazes making her very uncomfortable. Mihalje was not here this time to look after her. Her pace quickened, and she drew her cloak tighter against her body. She had never considered herself a pretty girl, despite what her family and others said. No, she would never be as beautiful as the princesses in Russian fairy tales or in the stories Papa had told her. She was simply a common peasant girl who valued hard work and loved her family. And that contented her enough.
Evening had fallen quickly on her return through the forest. The wind picked up again, determined to interfere with her undertaking. Her pace slowed now, though in her mind she knew she must return home soon or risk freezing to death. Every so often, she heard a low mournful howl from somewhere deep in the woods, echoing through the trees. It was said that when a wolf howled, it was sending up a prayer to Heaven. The cries she heard could very well have been prayers, spoken in a language intimate only to God and his creatures. They grew louder as she traveled farther within, sometimes answered by another, sometimes by many. She wondered what they spoke, and for a moment even longed to understand what human ears could never understand.
Near the edge of the forest, she could finally see a small pinprick of light that was her home. She smiled then, her face stinging because of the cold. She had traveled alone so far, and now she would return. Her body responded to her joy by radiating a burst of warmth and energy. But it quickly faded when all of a sudden she heard a loud growling ahead of her in the darkness.
She stopped immediately and stood motionless. Two greenish-yellow eyes floated silently among the trees, moving ever so closer to her. She closed her eyes then, icy fear swallowing any warmth she had left. Uttering a prayer, she opened her eyes again and saw a large male wolf emerging from the brush.
Her pulse quickened. The wolf's eyes had never left her. His lips were curled back to reveal sharp rows of ivory teeth, and she could hear the low growl rolling in its throat. She winced when it barked suddenly, loudly, but with purpose.
Behind her came a low snarling. She turned her head slowly to see another wolf, this one a dark gray female. The two creatures began circling her, their eerie glowing eyes never wavering. She knew what could happen. Was this, then, how she would die? It could not be. She had to survive, for her mother's sake. In an instant, she remembered Mihalje telling her to extend her hands palm-up if a wolf ever confronted her. In doing so, it was a sign that meant no harm.
She summoned all of her courage, then slowly knelt in front of the female and extended her palms. Miraculously, the wolf responded to her gesture. It uncurled its lips and lowered its head, creeping now closer to the brave trembling girl. The female sniffed the palms at first; sensing no danger, it began to lick her hands with its warm tongue. Somewhat relieved, Meilute pressed on. "Please," she whispered aloud, her eyes locked with the female's. "I must get back to my mother who is very sick. I…I know you understand, for you are among the noblest of God's animals. Please, spare me…"
Perhaps it was something in her voice that the wolf comprehended. Or perhaps the Lord was there at her side, sympathetic to all that had happened to her in her young life. The female raised its head and looked intently at Meilute. She felt something then with the wolf, an understanding…a connection. The feeling was incredible.
"Mans ledija," she whispered, running a hand softly through the wolf's thick gray fur. She felt the sting of oncoming tears, but refused to cry. "My lady, thank you."
Ledija looked past her now and barked at the still-growling male. His ears quickly went flat against his sleek head, his bared teeth now covered by black lips. Meilute watched them both in awe and witnessed how magnificent they were. With a short, guttural yelp, Ledija dashed back through the trees, her male consort following close behind. Then they were gone.
The dark-haired girl could not help but smile to herself. Quickly, she rose to her feet and hurried on her way home. The forest seemed different to her then. It did not seem as dangerous as it used to be. It was not filled with evils and monsters that sought to destroy her. Rather, the forest simply contained life. God's life, which he imparted on every creature, including those of her noble friends. What reason, then, was there to be afraid?
She took a deep breath, allowing the cold clean air to fill her lungs, to rejuvenate her senses. She felt safe, at peace. Everything was so meaningful in the world of the night, away from the world of man.
She no longer feared the darkness. She longed to be a part of it.