Distant memories.
The dark days and long nights brought deep snow to the northern lands. The people huddled round the embers of their fire, thin trails of smoke curling upwards and slowly escaping through the hole in the roof. A weak light filtered down on them for a few hours before darkness once again closed in, and they slept fitfully on their beds of rushes, wrapped in soft blankets of animal furs.

The young men, five of them, brothers, half-brothers, cousins, had climbed the wooden ladder that led out through the smoke-hole in the roof of their communal dwelling, knowing that the rest of their family relied on them to bring back food. After less than half a day they had encountered a reindeer herd, and loosing their arrows had wounded a stag. The herd had taken flight over the white landscape, the men in pursuit. Soon the injured animal was trailing far behind the rest of the herd, but still he blundered on ahead of the hunters. Stumbling against a tree at the edge of the forest he dislodged one of the arrows from his shoulder, leaving bloodstains that marked his passing. Tracking through the undergrowth was easy for these men, who had lived and hunted in this land all their lives. Still the reindeer was fit and healthy, and running for his life, so at the end of the first day they had still not caught up with him. They gathered dry branches from the trees, and soon had a fire burning from the glowing embers they carried in a clay pot. Digging a sleeping-hollow in the snow under the roots of an old tree, one of the men found the frozen body of a young fox that had probably starved to death. What little meat was on the animal was soon roasting over the fire, and the ravenous men quickly had the bones picked clean. After a few hours sleep curled up in their furs, the moonlight was bright enough for them to find the trail of their quarry, and continue the hunt.
The sun was high the next day when they eventually caught up with the stag. A deep drift of snow was stained in shades of crimson fading to pink, seeping away from the dying animal. The men fell upon the still-warm beast with cries of celebration, whoops of joy. Their sharp blades of flint and obsidian sliced easily through the soft under-belly skin, and spilled out the entrails onto the snow. Nearby shrubs provided dry wood for the making of their fire, and soon the stomach bag of the animal was hanging over the flames on a tripod of sticks, lashed together with rawhide, packed with snow. Mouthfuls of the liver, kidneys and heart were devoured raw at first, such was their hunger. Then slices were skewered on sticks, and left to sizzle in the flames till the outside turned brown. When enough snow had melted in the stomach to produce simmering water, they added the tongue, the brains and eyeballs scooped from the skull. In between tending the fire, the men set to work skinning the stag. They carefully cut away the great rack of horn, to be a trophy, a totem that would ensure success in future hunts. By the time they were finished, the food was cooked and they sat around the fire and laughed together as they ate their fill.
As the full moon rose behind the trees they started on the homeward journey. The skinned and gutted animal was suspended by its legs from a long straight branch, which was carried on the shoulders of two men. Another carried the antlers. Each would take a share of the burden. Heavy as it was, the skin was the easiest to carry. Turned inside out, the thick hair was a formidable barrier against the cold. When the men had put a good distance between themselves and the blood and guts which would attract the carrion eaters from miles around, they stopped and slept for the few dark hours before dawn. For two days and nights, the weather had been crisp and clear. This had made their hunting possible, and their return journey was going well. But when they woke on the third morning, snow was again falling heavily. Although the sun was rising, the sky was dark with heavy cloud. The men knew they would have to make an immediate start if they were to reach their home that day. Finishing off the cooked meat they had brought along, there was no alternative but to shoulder their burdens and battle the elements.

The winter lodge was built to withstand any weather. During the summer months, when the ground was dry, a hole was dug, waist-deep and as wide and long as was needed to accommodate the whole family. Upright tree-trunks set into the ground would support a wooden roof-frame at a man�s-height, which was then thatched with bracken, topped off with rushes. Willow and hazel rods woven into the uprights above ground level stopped the dug-out soil which was piled around outside from falling back into the hole. When the winter�s snow started to fall, the whole structure was soon buried in a windproof blanket, and the only access was through the smoke hole in the roof. For the last two days, the adults had been out gathering firewood, and searching for anything edible. They had brought back plenty of dead wood, but food was hard to find and they hoped the young men would return soon.

And so it was on the third day, as the women held their babies close, and tried to comfort the older children, that a distant sound was heard through the blizzard that raged outside. The sun had already set, and the moon was beginning to rise. Sparks danced as another log was added to the fire. Was it just the wind howling in the trees? Was it the sound of voices carried through the night? The children huddled closer together as a thudding like heavy footfalls hit the roof of their shelter. Fearfully they turned their faces to the hole in the roof but all they saw at first was the heavy snowflakes swirling around. Then they squealed in surprise as the antlers of a reindeer appeared in the smoke. Slowly they were lowered into their midst, dangling from a length of rawhide. An old man reached out a hand and pulled the horns away from the fire. Now all were on their feet, shouting and laughing as the cold carcass was lowered down through the hole. Four of the men quickly descended the ladder and shook the snow from themselves as they joyfully greeted their family members. The last man then struggled through the smoke hole. He still wore the reindeer skin like a giant overcoat. The head of the animal was a hood, and its front legs the sleeves of the coat. Everyone looked up and saw the the strange figure coming down the ladder, wreathed in the swirling smoke. The fresh skin was still blood-red, the fur edges curled back, white with the falling snow.

Time passes. Countless generations stand between these people, our distant ancestors, and us. We have no memories of the time in which they lived. And yet� the dark midwinter is still a time when families feast together. When even a house with no chimney will have candles burning to symbolize the fire. Most curious of all, children will look into the night sky expecting to see reindeer, and an oversized man in a long red coat, edged in white fur, coming down the chimney, bearing gifts.

�Del Richardson, November 2008.
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