A Guest for Midwinter

blizzardUran dug his hand deep under the snow, felt for the crust of a hundred almost-thaws beneath the new, fresh fall.  His fingers discovered a sharp lip where the brittle under-layer had broken off – either cracking of its own accord or during his last assault.  He used the frozen edge as a hand-hold, heaved.  As he pulled himself a foot higher, a gust of snow-laden wind slammed against his small body, shooting sticky ice-crystals deep into his furs.  He flattened against the pole poking into his ribs, waited for the rebuke to subside.

‘I’m just a boy,’ he shouted over his shoulder.

Svetnia, the goddess of wind and snow, seemed to listen.  At least, Uran’s voice vanished into the swirl of flakes, which meant she had heard.  He hoped.  Oh, please, please, leave me alone!  I’m not an evil spirit, just a boy, that’s all.

He hated this job.  True, it was his only job during the winter months, but it was the worst of all jobs.  Even Sufia agreed.  She was glad she was too big to do it now, she’d told him so.  And he was just big enough.  He couldn’t wait until he was also too big.  Anya would be better at this than him.  Svetnia wouldn’t even notice little Anya.  She wouldn’t throw snow at her the way she was throwing it at him.  Or maybe Svetnia didn’t like little boys.  He would leave an offering for her, Uran decided.  If he did that, maybe she’d like him more next time.

The steep lavvu wall was too smooth to climb easily, even when it wasn’t snowing.  They didn’t think of that, the adults.  They just wanted the snow off the chimney.  It had to be him, they said, because the gap leading outside was too small for a grown-up.  Besides, they said, the support poles were already straining from their burden of ice.  Anyone heavier might collapse the whole tent.  No one cared that he’d hurt his arm last time, not even Mutti.  They said he’d been careless.  He hadn’t.  He’d got all the way to the top when a big chunk of ice had torn loose, sending him crashing back to earth amid a tumble of frosty rocks.

That’s why Uran hated snow.  He hated climbing the lavvu.  Forget that there was nothing to do inside, that all of them were forced to stay within for weeks on end.  He would rather play stupid girl games with Anya.  He would rather do Mutti’s chores.  He would rather drink Grandfather’s tonic and be sick like a dog.  Anything, rather than to do this.  Whenever the snow fell thick, it was him who had to put on his furs, his woollen hat, his reindeer-skin boots and crawl out under the shelter’s skirt.

The sooted opening at the very top of the lavvu had grown a black fungus-like tumour which thrived, fat and bulbous, in the warm draft coming from below.  The glow from the hearth seeped through the opening and escaped into the blue light of the sunless winter.  The gap was now very small, stopping most of the smoke from leaving.  With thick snow crusting the rest of the shelter, this was the only ventilation.  It had to be cleared.  Uran knew that.  He knew it was important.  But why did it have to be him?

Now he was up here, he remembered last time, when he’d impatiently knocked the biggest encrustation loose, the better to get it over and done with.  It was cold outside, why waste time sawing away like a grandfather breaking up his meat?  Had it been his fault the underlying ice layer was so brittle?  How was he supposed to know the whole crust would break off, sending him falling into the piled-up drift below?  Memory of how his arm had hurt for days after made him more careful this time.  This time he used his pick to chip off a head-sized chunk.  He rolled it aside so he could slide it down the lavvu’s flank without creating an avalanche.  The black-stained object disappeared into the snowy bank below.  It was followed by another.  And another.

Uran paused.  The light coming through the chimney was brighter now he’d cleared most of the crust, and he could hear his family talking.  They were discussing Sufia.  Jaha-of-the-valley’s son had apparently been showing an interest at the summer fair.  Maybe Sufia would be wed this coming summer?  Summer.  He could scarcely remember what summer was like, after months of snow and blue non-day.  He’d heard the same discussion already, a dozen times.  What other news was there, after all?  No one had seen a visitor since the herds went south for winter pasture, and all they’d eaten for weeks now was dry-cured deer and pickled fish, washed down with boiled snow or reindeer milk.

Uran couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to marry Sufia.  Or why she would want to marry them.  He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to marry at all.  It just seemed like a lot of fuss – girls showing off, as usual.  But he wouldn’t mind if she went away.  As oldest child, she had her own bed, which he’d inherit when she went.  No more Grandfather’s snores at his ear, no more stink of tonic in his face.  Or old man farts.  Yes, it would be good if Sufia was wed.

The discussion wasn’t what had interrupted him, though.  He’d heard another sound.  Something in the distance other than the wind.  A voice, calling.  Here he was, outside in the middle of the long night and he was hearing voices.  Even so, he listened hard to hear it again.  He could no longer pick out a voice.  Instead, the sound coming to him over the howl of snowy wind was the metallic jangle of harness.

Using one hand to keep his balance, Uran straddled the now-wide gap atop the lavvu.  Swaying slightly, he shielded his eyes from the hurling flakes and scanned the cold desert surrounding him.  At first he saw nothing.  Then the voice came again – a long ‘Halooooo!’ from the depths of winter.  He looked towards the sound, saw the faintest of lights, moving slowly against the distant hills.

‘Grandfather!’  Uran called down into the hole, not sure if he was excited or afraid.  ‘Someone is coming!’

His grandfather looked small, foreshortened by the angle, and from this height he also looked thin and frail.  The silver head dipped, wrested the lard-fuelled lamp from its hook on the central pole and passed it up to Uran through the chimney.

‘Show it,’ the old man said.  ‘Let them see us.’

Obedient, Uran straightened up, held the glowing lamp as high as his small arms could manage.

‘Haloooo!’  he called, as loudly as ever he could.

He called time and again, waving the lamp left and right above his head.  For an age, the bobbing light continued on its way and Uran was sure it would fade from existence at any moment.  Already, it had moved some distance from where he’d first seen it and the flurries passing between it and him made it glimmer and twinkle in the half-light.

They won’t see me, Uran thought.  My light is too small, my voice is too soft.  Whoever is out there, they’ll just keep going. 

Then it seemed to him that the moving light was changing course.  Or was it?  The blizzard, the shifting swirls of ice…  Perhaps his eyes were trying to fool him for making them stare at one thing for too long?  Finally, though, there was no mistaking it – the strange light had veered south and was moving towards him.

He was shivering and ice was melting off his face by the time the sleigh was close enough to pick out the blurred outline of six snow-covered reindeer, plunging through the deep drifts.  The man riding the sleigh was hidden from view, but a great pack was stacked high behind him, swaying as the broad skids tilted this way and that under the uneven surface, threatening to tip the whole thing over.

‘It’s a trader,’ he called down the chimney.  ‘He’s bringing supplies.’

Sudden excitement bubbled up from the hole between Uran’s feet.  Uran himself was too curious about their unexpected visitor to get caught up by it, but he could guess what was going on.

Grandfather would be shouting orders, his mother would be fussing with the fire, warming soup for their guest.  His sisters would be tidying up and his father would be finding out the scrimshaw and tools he’d spent all winter carving.

When the newcomer was finally visible behind the sleigh’s wooden windbreak, Uran frowned.  The man had to be a trader – the pack on his sleigh was a give-away – but he’d never seen a trader who looked like this.  He wore skins, rather than furs, which had been dyed red with blood or berry juice.  Arctic fox trimmed his hood.

After following its long arc towards the lavvu, the sleigh arrived all at once.  The man galloped his reindeer straight for Uran.  He steered it up the tallest of the drifts and slid it to a halt with a swish and a shower of churned ice, halfway up the side of their home.  His reindeers’ pelts were thickly-matted with ice, but they seemed content to stand there, blowing ghosts into the air, while the man stepped down from his sleigh and knocked crusted snow from his clothing.

‘Well, hello there,’ he called up to Uran.

Uran closed his mouth, remembering his manners.  ‘Greetings and welcome,’ he said.

‘Let him in, boy!’ Grandfather shouted from below.  ‘Don’t leave him out there to freeze!’

There was only one way in for a man that size.  He had no choice but to clamber the rest of the way up the side of the felt wall.  Uran lit the way with the lard lantern, grasping the top end of a pole as he stood aside to let the visitor pass.  All the while he waited for the ominous sound of a support pole cracking beneath the man’s weight, but it failed to come.  The visitor winked at him as he hoisted a white-booted foot over the lip of the chimney and lowered himself down.

By the time he’d followed the stranger into the warmth, Uran’s family had also realised this was no ordinary visitor.

‘A shaman!’  Fatta hurriedly put aside his scrimshaw and gave a reverential nod to the blood-coloured man.

‘We don’t often see a shaman out here,’ Grandfather said.  ‘Especially not during the long night.’

The icicles in the stranger’s beard trembled and crusted snow crumbled from the man’s whiskers as his mouth stretched wide in a hearty laugh.

‘Then you’ve been unlucky,’ he said.  ‘I visit all the homes I can during the long night, bringing presents sent from relatives.  I bring trade goods and supplies if you have need of them.  I bring stories to tell, spirit songs to sing.  I am a shaman of the north and this is what all shamen do.  Give me the gift of your hearth’s warmth.  Give me a drink of your reindeer milk.  Let me enjoy your food and good company and let us call up the spring that brings the sun.’

And so the red-robed man entered Uran’s home and brought news and gifts from distant friends, from good neighbours.  When the sky was black, he departed.  But not before he knelt at the boy’s side.

‘I will see you next year,’ he promised.  ‘Each year, during the midwinter, I will find your lavvu and I will come laden with gifts and news and stories to tell.  This is what Shamen do.  It is what we have always done.  It is what we will do until the midnight sun no longer sets and the blue night no longer falls.’

Uran climbed to the top of the lavvu to watch him leave.  The shaman would find Jaha-of-the-valley, along with the son who liked Sufia.  Grandfather had told him where to find their neighbour’s lavvu, and they’d sent goodwill gifts and pickled fish in exchange for the dark ale the shaman had brought from across the unfrozen sea.  It was a big world out there, but the shaman would find every chimney before the sun rose again.  He had told Uran so and Uran believed him.

And next year.  Next year, the shaman had promised to bring a special gift, just for him.Father-Christmas

 

 

 

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