Open Ground

The following illustrated story is one of my historical fiction/fantasies. The second in a series for early spring. I will be posting others, along with oil paintings by Bill Long, Moss Moon Studio.

Open Ground
A clear primordial light refracts in the crystalline grain of the rotting snow pack and reflects back toward the pale blue morning sky. In one place on the frozen expanse the earth has been liberated from the cold mantle of winter. It is a spot that sees the first bare ground every year. Because its inclination is so well suited to catch and hold springtime’s sunny rays, the cairn-topped hill has played vernal host to tender shoots of sedge ever since the retreat of the last glacier. Each succeeding day brings more of the earth’s sleeping life to light.

The ground around the cairn is sprinkled with stones of every shape and size. Not so long ago a layer of earth literally rained down on this place from a mile-thick atmosphere of ice. Throughout the length and breath of the continental ice sheet, particles of dust, bits of rock, and boulders the size of mammoths were once suspended in frozen animation. When the glacier melted away, the mineral wealth within dropped to earth in a slow motion tumble. From this tillage the cairn was assembled, as a hunting blind and beacon of spring.

Open ground promises life, and just as surely, the risk of life lost. Mice creep tentatively from the safety of their winter burrows. Overhead, birds of prey drift on thermal updrafts. Warm breezes carry the delicate scent of fresh herbage across the vast plain, piquing the appetite of roving deer.

A puff of wind raises a lock of hair off the thick brow of a man. He squats, eyes closed, pressing his fur-clad back against the cairn. The outlines of the man and the stones blend into one silhouette. His attention is focused on the expectation of hearing the sound of hoofs tracking on gravel. Hovering above his shaggy head is the scallop-edged head of a spear. The gray chert point is lashed to the smooth wooden shaft he holds erect between cracked and swollen fingertips. From a hide-covered lump pressed close to his side extends a second spear. It is clutched in the hands of a boy who shivers from cold and anticipation.

Three deer traverse the white slope in a line. At the upper edge of the snow-cover they spread out onto the open ground and begin investigating spiny clumps of vegetation, cropping tender green shoots where they find them.  At the sound of grass being ripped, the hunter’s mouths begin to salivate, the taste of venison already on their tongues. The man knows without seeing where each deer forages on the slope below the cairn. Before lifting his eyelids he sees the flight of the spear and where it will strike the deer’s side.

The air below the cairn is suddenly filled with alarm as the man and boy spring from the cover of their blind. Two deer leap safely away, back along their familiar path. The third animal plows straight down off the hill, into soft snow, with a spear shaft dragging from its rib cage. Its labored breath is stolen by the puncture to its lungs. Legs faltering, the fatally wounded animal sprawls on its chest, sliding head-long down the frozen slope. The boy, being lighter than the man, sprints across the top of the snow after the deer, his hide-swathed feet barely sinking in. He dances with excitement around the kill, a hand raised high holding the spear he forgot to loose. A bright red stream of blood flows from the deer’s dilated nostrils, congealing in a dark pool on the plain of whiteness. The boy drops to his knees, cradles the deer’s head in his hands and brings his mouth over the velvety tip of its nose. He draws blood from the deer’s flooded windpipe to warm his own insides and assuage his hunger.

The man slices a length of tendon from the deer’s foreleg with a sharp shard of slate and gives it to the boy. The young hunter runs back to the top of the hill and slips the sinew into a crack between two stones as an offering to the cairn and blessing to the memory of its builders.

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