Tala stood by my side, proud, unwavering, and with a fierceness in her eyes that burned through every elder that tried to intimidate me. Her normally onyx eyes shone with a fiery glow that I realized wasn’t reflected from the ominous reverent bonfire that burned in front of us, but rather the full corn moon that ignited the night sky in an amber ambience.
“Easy Tala,” I whispered, trying to reassure her that the situation wasn’t cause for vigilance, though I wasn’t so sure myself. She looked up at me with a weary gaze that said, ‘this is not okay,’ and I instantly knew she was right. Our unspoken ways of communicating were unparalleled compared to that of the other kids and their Keotuks in our clan.
“Aylin?” My uncle repeated impatiently. “Did you hear me?” He was never one for tolerance, even with me. As The Alpha of our clan, his good intentions were always masked by a need to exude dominance.
“Sorry Uncle. Yes, I heard you.” I looked around at the five sets of eyes piercing through me, unfazed by Tala’s clear attempt at her own form of intimidation.
“And?” he asked, now with more heightened impatience. Tala shifted her weight, but remained standing tall on all fours, the highest part of her back leaning slightly against my waist.
“Uncle and elders,” I started slowly, “I cannot follow through with your request. I cannot in good conscience sacrifice the one true and unyielding constant in my life. Tala is bound to me, and I to her.” My uncle stared at me, his lips pursed in a thin disapproving line. I knew this look well, having been raised by him in lieu of my mother, who had been banished seven years ago. Banishment was our way of dealing with those that didn’t conform, or those that became a threat to our community. I was never told the full story behind her exile, but as I stood there, my fate teetering in the same direction as hers, I couldn’t help but hate him.
“Aylin, you know it is our custom to sacrifice our Keotuks when we come of age. You were given Tala when you were seven, like every other member of our clan. Over the last six years you may have thought that you were training her, but she was actually training you.” He paused to let his statement resonate with me before continuing, speaking in a low, level tone. “You learned responsibility by disciplining her when she was a pup, and by caring for her well-being. You learned that to gain her trust you had to take the first step, not knowing if she would reciprocate. You learned to love a creature unlike yourself. In return she gave you protection when you hunted, warmth and comfort when you slept, and loyalty when you were threatened. It is true that you are bound to each other, but we, your clan, are all bound to each other. Now, at your maturation rite, the final lesson that she will teach you is how to let go.”
I stood there with steady composure, well aware of all that Tala had taught me and the importance of the mutuality that our relationship had on each of our development. “And if I am to refuse?” I met his gaze, unafraid and in complete defiance. Tala sensed my irregular drum-like heartbeat, having grown accustomed to it when we hunted, and let out a soft whimper.
I knew that The Sacrifice was part of our clan’s tradition, but I never knew the intimate details of how it was carried out. After a 13 year old’s rite, we are not allowed to talk to anyone about the events that transpired during the ceremony. Only the initiate and the elders are to know how the events unfolded, but I did not think this is how the rites were conducted. I thought The Sacrifice was the release of the Keotuks back into the wild, not that that would have gone over any differently.
“I know it’s hard to let go Aylin. You love each other and have grown a great deal together, but —”
“But nothing,” I interrupted, knowing that to interrupt one of the elders, particularly my uncle, was to demonstrate rebellion, a trait not tolerated among my people. “Tala is my family. I will not sacrifice her life to learn a lesson that I have already been taught. My father was killed in the hunt when I was a baby, and my mother was banished when I was six. I have learned how to let go. I have learned how to move on. But I did it because I had to. I would not choose to let them both go if I didn’t have to. You are forcing me to let go of the only family I have left that truly loves me unconditionally.” My face began to burn, and my stomach twisted into a knot, but I forced myself to hold down the vomit that I wanted to eject at the thought of killing my wolf for some lesson.
No one spoke. The light from the fire flickered on their weathered faces, their expressions unchanged by my outburst. My uncle stood up slowly but did not take a step. His wide, muscular frame stood over six feet tall and would unnerve even the most courageous man. Tala instinctively crossed my path and stopped to stand in front of me. I wanted to turn right then and run into the night with her by my side, but I held my ground.
As he looked at me, I saw a tinge of hurt behind his dark eyes. “Aylin, I am your uncle. Your family. And I want you, because I do love you.” To show this kind of emotion in front of the four other elders was not a common practice, and one of the elders shifted uncomfortably in his seat, but ultimately remained silent.
“If you love me, you would not make me do this,” I pleaded. “How? How does this make me a better person? How does doing something so barbaric make me a better contributing member? How can you ask this of us?” Tala remained standing in front of me, but her stance softened slightly as she sensed a shift in the conversation. Her impromptu mohawk that only seconds ago stood on end down her spine had ceased.
“When I was young,” he began, “I had to sacrifice my own Keotuk, Elsu. He was a falcon, and the best friend I ever had. Like Tala, he watched over me. He taught me to see what others couldn’t, to hear what others ignored, and to watch my surroundings with heightened intensity. Sacrificing him was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I felt like I betrayed him.” He looked down at his feet briefly and when he looked back up, his eyes were glistening with years of unshed tears.
“Why would you wish that on anyone then?” I asked plainly, unaffected by his attempt at empathy.
“Because it is our way. Our custom. It is how we make sure that we are raising strong people who are able to make the tough choices. It is a symbolic gesture of strength and survival. Each of our Keotuks bring about the best parts of us and reveal the person we are meant to be. When their task of teaching us all they can is complete, it’s time for them to depart.”
I looked at Tala and then at the elders, who were clearly unmoved by my plea. Their expressions cold and stoic. “And the other children? They were just okay with murdering their Keotuks? Their guardians?”
He cringed at the word but kept his composure. “There have been some that put up a fight just as you are, but complied. There have been some that didn’t think twice. There have been a few that refused altogether and were banished.”
“So that is my fate then? Banishment?”
For the first time my uncle looked back at the four other elders. The matron of our clan, a large woman known as Odina, gave him one clear nod. He turned back to me slowly. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
“You said that ‘when their task of molding us is complete’ it’s time for them to depart. She’s not done yet. Her task is not yet complete.” My voice began to rise but since it looked like I was going to be banished, I didn’t care. “So, if my choices are to let go of Tala or let go of you, then I choose you,” I said with an unconcealable shaky voice.
He looked at me carefully and then at Tala. “Very well. You have chosen banishment.” He said this in an almost rehearsed monotone way, with little emotion. “Aylin, you will never be able to return, you will never be able to ask for help or aid, and you will never be able to communicate with anyone from our clan again. You have one hour to gather your things.”
“Fine,” I said in a juvenile manner that didn’t reflect that maturation I was supposed to be demonstrating at my rite. “Tala and I will leave and find others like us. We will find a way to start our own community, and we will never require the sacrificial killing of loved ones just to prove a point. Family is family, no matter the form, and you are doing nothing except creating resentment and spite among us. That is not a future I wish to have, and that is not the skin I wish to walk in.”
With that, I quickly nodded my head in observance of the decision, whistled sharply at Tala to follow me, and turned away from my uncle without thinking twice.
I reached down to gently stroke her in reassurance as we walked away, content with my decision and its explanation. In that moment I felt sorry for all of my former people. Everyone I surrounded myself with growing up had sacrificed that which they loved willingly, all because they were afraid to let go.