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Skwirloo: a birthday just-so story

The shamans of the Skwirloo tribe of the Inuit—a minor sect of those we call the Eskimo—taught their children that birthdays were to be celebrated with special joy. They knew that they lived at the center of the world, which they believed to be a great disk. They knew that on each birthday, each year of life, other people in a land without color gathered round to call out their names and shriek with cold and isolation. They knew that there were warmer, gentler places in the world than their own Arctic home… but they knew that beyond any warmth or comfort must come again the cold, the wind, and the ever-present ice.

Skwirloo legends tell of a brave sailor who on one birthday, the moon hanging high in the sky, traveled far from home, through the warm lands, past the gentle happy people who dwelt there, and to the frozen painful edge at the farthest sea from home, one year’s sail from the Skwirloo. There this sailor stepped off the edge of the world, into another, continuing from its edge one full year past warmth and comfort to its own Arctic center, where dwelt a tribe much like the Skwirloo—so alike that they could comprehend each others speech perfectly, so alike that the sailor’s family thought this was their sailor.

At first they thought this sailor their own departed sailor now returned—but their sailor had sailed to the East, and this stranger returned from the West. Realizing this to be an otherworldly demon, they drove the sailor out with rocks and sticks and many curses, on a day when the moon hid its face. Prow turned to the West, the sailor traveled far around the curve of the world, through warm and gentle people. They fixed the sailor’s boat, restocked its larder, and waved as it left on the next wave. On the sailor traveled to the icy edge of that world, on and past that edge. On and on beyond the icy edge the sailor went, through warmth and comfort back to the Skwirloo lands, on a day when the moon lay below the horizon.

The sailor’s boat came at last to the harbor of the Skwirloo, who met it with rocks and curses. This sailor they knew well the scars and wounds of their last year’s rocks. They saw the wounds of their last year’s curses. This was not their sailor, no matter from which direction. This was the demon returned! The Skwirloo drove the sailor out that very day.

The sailor left the lands of the Skwirloo forever, fleeing with tears and anguish to the warm land of the gentle people. These people heard the sailor’s story, saw through the sailor’s eyes the impossible beauty of a land of ice and snow, saw the strength in the sailor’s heart from a youth in the cold and and life on the sea. So they built boats of their own, wove coats from the white fronds of palm and black wool of the island goats, and followed the sailor to the Southern Rim of the world. There they settled, and there they are to this day. They wander far across the rim of the world, glorying in mountains of ice, bathing under the aurora, awash in the perfection of sea and storm. Their children grow strong in the harsh winters at the edge of the world, and their old ones are wise from ages on the ice. They travel alone in their perfect world, save once a year, on the birthday of the Sailor—the anniversary of the day the moon hung high in the sky, the anniversary of the day the moon hid its face, and the anniversary of the day the moon was below the horizon—when they gather to hoot and cry and squawk with celebration, for they are never alone save by their own choice. Theirs is a tribe of harsh cold strength when it chooses to be, but ever knows that the warm and soft lands are there should they return, and ever knows that the rest of their tribe is just one wave, one frozen hill of ice and salt, away. They are the penguins.