“Haystack Hayfield”  Drawing: Alan Crichton
“Haystack Hayfield” Drawing: Alan Crichton
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There was once a time before Christmas. There were few houses then and none were as we know them today in this cold place. The few dwellings that were here were at the base of a small mountain, and on this morning, they lay tucked into a deep, quiet snow.

In the purple light before dawn, one house sent up a thin straight plume of white smoke from a hole in the roof. It was too cold for birds to sing as the sun began to brighten the eastern sky. The skin-flaps of the house opened and closed quietly as a man came out into the thin light and began to stride purposefully uphill behind the village.

He had been making this walk to the top of the mountain each day now for some weeks. It didn’t take long although the slope was steep in places. There were no sheer rock faces, only tangles of branches, tumbled boulders and a forest of twisted trees. The wind was always strong around the mountain, and the forest had grown twisted, frozen like dancers caught spinning to a wild song. The man’s breath froze, too. It froze into his beard so that, by the time he reached the summit, the rays of the sun shone on his face as if it were a red flower or a fire miraculously burning in a glittering white crystal garden.

That summer, the man had come to the summit with a carving he had made. He had cut a thin straight tree of the hardest wood he knew, scraped and carved it with his flints and bones until he had the image he wanted. He had tapered it into a long sharp thorn twice as tall as he was. Its base was as thick as his own thigh and around its sides animals and hunters ran through twisted trees. He had dug a deep hole and buried its shank with its carvings of profusely tangled roots and the moon in its phases.

After planting the carving, he had gone to the stream banks and gathered red and black clay. He had ground white rock into powder and mixed it with plant juices and, with these colors, had painted the carving black as it left the ground, white as it rose bearing its forests, men and animals, and red at the tip, smooth and sharp against the sky.

Now, on this winter morning, he went about his work. At sunrise and sunset each day, he had been tracking the shadow of the point. The winds regularly blew the mountaintop bare, and he could mark the shadow’s length and position on the ground with fist-sized stones. On each stone, he would chip a line marking the point of the shadow. He had assembled a regular arc of stones over the past few months as the cold grew deep and the days short. He wanted to know when the light would start returning. He wanted to tell the rest of the people, to lift their spirits. It had been a difficult winter, and the people were hungry.

The sun broke over the distant horizon, and he watched as it cast the shadow of the long point onto the windswept ground. He was startled. The shadow was not pointing to the bare ground but back onto the stone he had placed the day before. He looked closely to see that no stones had rolled in the wind. No, it was true. The light was returning. He would tell everyone that the worst was behind them. He felt a relief, and he was glad as he looked up at the carved point glowing in the new day’s sun like a hot ember.

He walked over to the carving, cupped his hands against it and blew on it with his warm breath. He licked his two thumbs. With the left thumb, he rubbed white paint from a carved animal and, with the right one, he rubbed red paint from the tapering point. He rubbed the white paint into the center of his forehead and the red paint down the center of his nose and onto each cheek.

He let out a whoop and thanked the sun, the wind and stars for this day. For the first time since leaving his house, he felt the cold in his bones. A fine, frigid snow had begun, driven by a sharp wind. Still, he stayed on the mountaintop and went to a small crevasse between two large rocks where he could crouch down out of the wind and watch the sun crawl across the forests below.

As he sat, two small yellow-and-black birds appeared at the top of the crevasse where the wind swirled the fine light snow. He watched as the two birds played, diving and rising easily on the wind. With an occasional chirp, they somersaulted and danced in the air. They made him very glad, and he spoke to them sweetly. “How little you fear the cold,” he told them, “and how small you are.”

He thought of his people below in the village and suddenly wanted to be with them. As the birds flew away, he got to his feet and began a quick step to the edge of the hill. He noticed bright red berries clinging tightly to a thin leafless tree, and he paused to break off a bundle of the branches. As he walked, he wove the branches into a circle. The purple bark with its green stripes and hard red berries became a pleasing big ring in his hands. He put the ring on his head like a crown and took a bundle of branches from the low green bush with its frosty blue-green berries. He made another smaller ring, weaving the red and green berries and the branches together. This one fit just over his forearm. He picked up speed at the steep part of the trail.

Suddenly, he stopped short. There were hoofprints in the snow. A large animal had passed here while he had been on the mountaintop. He was excited; he would hunt that animal on this day. He quickened his steps.

When he got back to the village, he slipped through the hide-flaps and into the dark warmth of his home. There was a little food cooking over the fire, and his woman was nursing their child. He took the small wreath from his arm and put it on the child’s head, and the red berry wreath he put on the woman’s head. The child stopped nursing and laughed. The woman laughed, too, as he held them both tightly and told her about the sun.

That day he did hunt, and he killed the animal. The people feasted late into the night. There were many songs and stories, laughter and dancing. One by one, the people left the meal and went to their houses.

The man needed water for the morning, and in the bright moonlight, he took his waterskin and walked to the stream. The water ran noisily in the quiet night. He filled the skin quickly and began to walk home.

It was just then that it happened. Where the trail to the village crossed the path to the mountain, he heard voices. He stopped and listened in the bright blue light. The voices were strange, high and reedy, cheerful. He heard laughing as they came towards him down the mountain trail through the forest. He stood very still as out from the trees ran a silver fox and a red fox. They laughed and pranced, talking in a language he did not know.

When they saw him, they became instantly silent, but kept on dancing along the trail. They watched him in amusement as he dropped his waterbag in the snow. When they reached the crossing paths, one of them — he never recalled which one — turned to him, its eyes sparkling in the moonlight. It spoke with a high, clear and friendly voice, “Peace be upon you, brother,” it said. The foxes paused to look at the man who, in a stunned, small voice, replied, “And upon you, too.” 

The foxes both laughed, and they leaped into the air and were gone.