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By the end of winter, feeding everyone was a challenge. All the berries, roots and nuts they’d saved from the summer were long gone and the snow covered anything fresh that might have survived the cold. True, the men and boys hunted nearly every day. Occasionally, they’d bring back a deer to feast upon, but mostly it was rabbits and squirrels.
Just enough to keep them alive.
“Magpie?” her mother said, looking up from the stew she was building over the cook fire. Her brother had snared a rabbit today. “Could you look in the bins and see if there’s any more rice?”
Magpie set aside the beadwork she’d been working on and went to the stack of rawhide food containers, though she didn’t think there would be much to find. They’d done everything but scrape the bottoms for a week now.
“Sometimes they like to hide down in the seams.”
Magpie glanced up at her mother. How did she do that?
“Yes, Mama,” she said.
She quickly set aside the container that held what was left of their dried meat and looked through the others for the remains of the rice.
“It is growing warmer every day,” her father said behind her. He was sitting with her older brother beside the fire, warming themselves after a long day trudging through the snow in a fruitless hunt. It was her younger brother who’d snared the rabbit. “The snow is beginning to melt.”
Her brother agreed. “The creeks are running fresh with snowmelt, the willow budding. Soon, the grass will show green again.”
Magpie found the rice container and untied the bindings. The people of her village had spent many days in late summer and early fall gathering the tiny grains from the edges of the lakes around their summer camp. Everyone helped, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest toddler, either with the gathering of the seeds, husking them, or spreading the seeds in the sun to dry. Yet, as hard as everyone worked, there never seemed to be enough.
They always ended up hungry.
She pulled the flaps open and peered inside the container. As she’d expected, it was empty. But she remembered what her mother had said and tipped the container until the fire light fell on the seams at each of the four sides. Sure enough, little grains of rice hid there in the seams.
She tried using her finger to scoop them out and loosened a few, but most seemed to dig further into the seam.
“Something fresh would make this soup so much better.” Her mother said.
“Soon enough. Soon enough,” her father told her. “With the next moon. Earlier if the snow keeps melting.”
Magpie turned the container over and tapped it on the packed earth of the lodge floor. A few of the grains came loose. She hit it again, harder, but only dislodged a few more.
“Are you having trouble, Magpie?” he mother asked.
“No, Mama,” she said. “I’ve got it.”
She slipped the small knife from its sheath at her waist and used the tip of the blade to pry the seeds from the seams of the container. Within a few moments she’d dislodged all the remaining grains of rice.
Magpie returned her knife to its sheath and began to pick the tiny grains of rice from the packed earth floor.
One of the seeds caught her attention. It was different. She separated it from the others and held it up into the light to examine it closer. It looked like the seed had split down the middle and a little white finger grown out of it. The end of the finger had just a touch of green.
It looked like the sprouts that appeared everywhere when the snow went away.
The wispy shadow of an idea began to form in her mind.
“Magpie?” her mother said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m coming,” she said. But before returning to her mother, she set the strange kernel aside, safe from the soup.