Noatak died in winter- or at least, he disappeared then. On the coldest night of the year, their father had taken them outside. Tarrlok could still remember the worry in their mother’s voice when she had told them to watch for the approaching storm. He had never listened to her anyway. He took them out without a second thought.
Tarrlok didn’t have to ask the man if he regretted it the morning after.
He did not look for Noatak, the morning after. He said he was tired from the storm, the hunt. He was an old man now, a man old enough to use that as an excuse. Tarrlok didn’t buy it. If he had any of the confidence his brother did, he would’ve snapped. He would’ve told his father that they were all tired. He didn’t, and he and his mother searched for the missing piece of their family for hours, seeing nothing but snow.
Noatak was gone. The other villagers said that it was the worst storm of the season, perhaps even the year. “Perhaps ever,” old lady Anjiji had said when they asked her about it. No one could’ve survived it, they all said. Noatak was a lost cause. No- Noatak was dead. That was the only answer. A brother lost on a futile quest.
The night in between, Tarrlok hadn’t slept. He couldn’t- he had stayed up all night waiting by the door for Noatak to return. His brother would come back- he had to. He had to return- he couldn’t just leave them.
Tarrlok didn’t sleep for a week, afterwards, in case Noatak came back.
“Go to sleep, Tarrlok.” He said, his voice gruff, low, and demanding as always. “You aren’t a guard dog.”
Tarrlok pretended not to hear the order and kept his gaze on the door. His mother had let him keep it open, to keep watch, as long as he kept the oil lamp close by himself for warmth.
“Are you deaf boy?” He snapped. “I told you to go to bed.”
“But what if Noatak comes back?” Tarrlok whispered. He knew he could hear him, he was speaking just loud enough to ensure it. “If he comes back… he’ll be sick and cold and injured. We’ll need to be here for him.”
“He isn’t coming back.” He grumbled. “Good riddance, if you ask me. If he doesn’t want to be here, let him leave.”
Tarrlok spared him a brief glance before turning back to the open door. The storm had died down quite a bit since that night, yet still raged just beyond his line of sight, hidden by a mask of clouds and darkness.
“We’re not going to go on any more hunting trips.” He grumbled, adjusting his posture.
“Really?” Tarrlok had no choice but to turn to him, his impulse betraying him. He didn’t want to go on any more ‘hunting trips’, but he had learned never to trust a word from his mouth.
He shook his head- a brief movement, devoid of any emotion. Typical of him. “There isn’t much of a point to it anymore.”
“Oh.” Tarrlok inhaled a cool breath that tasted like snow and lamp oil. “Does this mean I can go to the school in Sialuk?” It had been a lifelong wish- of both Noatak and himself- to attend the schoolhouse in the next town over.
He paused to think, hovering his hand over his chin as he did so. “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” He turned away, and Tarrlok wasn’t sure whether or not the motion was a merciful one.
Tarrlok couldn’t exhale, even if he had wanted to. He did want to, he just didn’t know what was stopping him. It could have been the stillness of the moment or the scent of lamp oil in the air. It could have been that he was simply giving up, after years of work. It could’ve been that Tarrlok didn’t want to let go.
“You should get some rest. I’ll take you and your mother out to town.” He said as he stood up, his back to Tarrlok. “We can talk about school then.”
Tarrlok watched as his father disappeared further into the home, before closing the door and heading inside himself. It was a cold night, after all. It would do better to stay warm.
The room seemed empty without Noatak. They had shared a room since they were both boys and had never spent a night apart from one another. Even when things got rough between them, they had each other, which meant they weren’t alone. Tarrlok had gotten used to falling asleep to the sound of his brother’s breathing, a steady reminder that at least he wasn’t by himself. In the dead cold of night, it was a welcome comfort, a reminder.
And now, with Noatak, it was gone. The room fell into a still, dead silence, or maybe returned to it. Tarrlok wasn’t sure if Noatak brought the life into the space, or if he had taken it with him in his absence. Upon further consideration, the distinction didn’t really matter.
The room was colder- colder than it was when two of them instead of just one boot out of the pair. All of Noatak’s belongings remained- his thicker parka he had neglected to bring with him, his fine beaded boots for festivals, the bracelet he had been braiding for the boy he liked, the one who lived in town and was an apprentice leatherworker. His bed was made, just as he had left it, perfectly organized with the blankets folded over. It was as if he had been planning to leave them, and had wanted to tidy up before he disappeared. The sight of it- an empty bed with no brother in it- brought Tarrlok to tears. He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around his body. It was cold. Too cold.
Tarrlok took to sleeping in his brother’s bed, after that night. The blankets smelled like Noatak did, and he didn’t want to forget.
Each year, on the winter solstice, Tarrlok took a few days off from work to mourn.
In some ways, it was an easy task. Most people took time off from work for the holidays. They assumed Tarrlok was like them, that he would be spending the time with his family or connecting to the spiritual. In a sense, he was doing both, but people never really liked to talk about that sort of thing.
In other ways, the winter was a curse. Republic City never got as cold as the Northern Water Tribe did, and Tarrlok really should’ve built up an immunity to it, but the chill of the wind still bit into his bones and shook him to his core, like a reminder of his home.
What was worse than the cold might’ve been the people, Tarrlok realized. People often asked questions, and often wanted answers to them. It wasn’t enough for the strangers in bars, cafes, and stores to simply leave him be about his plans and his past. They had to know what his story was. Tarrlok resigned himself to the same simple lie he always told when asked about his family. “It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.” And it was partially true. No one would understand.
Before she, too, had passed, his mother would join him in the ceremony. Even when separated by distance, they had agreed to perform it at the same time, so that Noatak could find them both. Now that she, too, was gone, Tarrlok performed the ceremony for his mother as well, though under the spring sun. It had always been her favorite season.
The ceremony was simple, designed for use in more rural parts of the world. It consisted of simple objects- a bone knife given to him by his mother, a simple oil lamp, and a prayer he had memorized long ago. Technically, the ceremony was supposed to be done under the light of the aurora, but there were no northern lights in the city. Tarrlok would have to improvise with the city shine outside his apartment window.
At the clock’s chime of midnight, Tarrlok opened his window. The open air would help him breathe. According to the legends, his mother told him, having an open window during the solstice would invite spirits into your home, good or bad. Tarrlok only hoped his simple blessing would work, and that he would invite the right spirits back.
He kneeled awkwardly by his windowsill- a task that had been easier when he had been younger and shorter. He lit the oil lamp with just one match, and watched as the oil caught flame. It sparkled in the dim light, the only source of heat within sight. Tarrlok breathed in the distinct aroma of the flame, and waited until his tears had passed before continuing.
He put his right hand up, with his palm to the sky. With the other hand, he held the knife, then drew it across his palm, letting his own blood drip over the windowsill. Even now, in such a sacred moment, he could feel his own blood within his bending grip, waiting to be moved and manipulated by his own will. It made him sick.
Tarrlok parted his lips to recite the prayer- the words that would make the ceremony complete, but couldn’t summon the breath. He choked on his silence and broke the serenity of the moment by wiping his tears and snot on the sleeve of his jacket. He couldn’t tell how long he wept there- his wounded, cut palm still face up, waiting for Noatak to return.
Would the ceremony even work, if he didn’t recite the lines? The prayer was vague and old, and the words escaped him. He was sure he could find a similar mantra by simply looking or asking, but it wouldn’t be the same. The message he would be given would be different from the one he had been raised on saying. Noatak wouldn’t recognize it. It would be wrong.
All Tarrlok could do was try. “Please, Noatak…” He whispered, faltering on the plea. It wasn’t the right words, or the right time, or the right inflection in his voice, but did it ever really matter? “Please… come home. I miss you.”
He didn’t know what, exactly, he was praying for.