Saturday, January 5, 2013
Winter brings the warrior stars, my comrades in arms, my comfort and reminder of home so very far away. It is cold, cold enough to harden the slush and mud into frozen footsteps. No fresh snow, no gentle quiet, only a plateau of footprints with icy ridges and skree, frozen mud and crushed ice gravel. There is no walking quietly, and I am glad of it, the crunch, crunch, crunch announcing the arrival of only friend, never foe. For who would be so foolish as to cross that barren battlefield thinking he would not be discovered and challenged.
I sit now, with the other young men of my village, hidden from the others, who are behind their own wall of boulders. I listen to the silence. I cannot sleep, must not sleep, for it is my turn to keep watch. The night is clear and cold. I keep my nose down, sheltered by my wrap, to keep my nostril hairs from cracking. It is my ears that bear the brunt, remaining uncovered, unable to hear if covered.
When younger, before, when my winters were spent in warm comfort of fire and house, I would stare at the elders, unsure and afraid of their tattered and torn earlobes. My father was among them, the “Order of the Tattered Ears” as I thought of them. It was the summer of my changing that I finally found the courage to ask, “Had he always been deformed?”. I remembered how father had rumbled a hearty laugh and smiled. “So many questions, too many questions,” he had said, not angry as he often was. “Perhaps you will find your answers, come the dark of winter, and the time of the warrior stars.”
Was it less than a year ago that I had asked the question? It had been less than six moons ago, but the memory seemed a dream.
When I was a child, father had told me the stories, during the long darkness of winter. We would go outside, “to be men,” he would say to the women. But it was the women who chased us out into the cold, to get more wood, more water, more food. “Wait, take time,” he would say when I showed too much enthusiasm. “It is hard work, too hard for women.” And we would sit and look up into the winter sky, and he would connect the points of light with his finger, trace the hidden shapes and tell the stories.
And so the warrior stars were there for me, their stories distant echoes that I heard differently now, since I had seen a man die, since I had killed a man.
I lifted my head and listened, but it was only the wind chasing snow over the rocks. I looked up, searching out the familiar shapes, finding one that heralded morning. But it was still high, and the light of the crescent moon had not yet shown. The night was not over. I shrugged to keep the cold from seeping down my neck. A quick sniff and I knew it had gotten colder.
We had been told we would stay only one moon, which meant we leave in four or five days. Perhaps the challenges were over. Certainly they had diminished, now that the nights were darker. I did not dwell on living or dying, not like I once had. Perhaps I would return home, perhaps. But I knew home would not be the same.
Hearing only the quiet of a still, cold night, I lowered my nose and protected it once more. Right now, I am alive, and this winter, should I survive, I will have joined the order of the tattered ears.
- James Seamarsh, who writes of far-away winters in a long-past youth.