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The wind screamed across the glacier and sought with icy fingers to tear its way into the low shelter, but the sloping walls were strong, the overlapping hides held firmly together with lengths of tough sinew. The floor was three feet below ground level, so that the frozen earth itself formed the lower walls, Within, the air was thick with the stench of unwashed bodies, and although the fire burned low, supplied with just sufficient fuel to keep it alive, the hole above it had been covered against the snow, so that smoke filled the dwelling. Close to the walls were dozens of storage baskets, most still filled with seeds, nuts, tubers and dried berries, the fruits of summer. A clutter of poles, reaching to the roof and lashed to its frame-work, supported leather thongs from which hung strips of blackened, smoke-cured meat. Outside, under the snow, a layer of stones covered cut-up carcases: fresh meat.
The people sat in silence, their eyes peering through the near-darkness at an old man who checked and re-checked the markings on lines of straight sticks spread out before him. Close to the fire, in the position of honour, the Mother-of-all-in-this-dwelling raised a boney, big-knuckled hand from her furs and signalled him to approach.
They had often been lovers, these two, in the long-ago summers when she was just one chattering girl weaving baskets, gathering food, and having babies. He’d been a strong young hunter then; not the bravest, or he wouldn’t have lived to become the shaman; but he’d been good enough, and now was her dearest friend.
All their age-mates were gone now, their lovers and companions; some properly smeared with red ochre and curled up with a handful of flowers or grain in shallow graves covered with rocks; some lost forever, killed and eaten by creatures who were better hunters than they, or fallen down gorges or cliffs, or simply, unexplainedly, lost.
“Is it the Day?” she asked.
“It is the Day,” he replied, and crouched down beside the fire. A boy stood by the entrance, holding the old man’s staff in signal that first light had appeared, but the shaman was not anxious to leave the shelter, to walk out into the wind. Perhaps his view would be obstructed by flurries of snow, or by clouds; or perhaps, this time, the answer would be one that the people dreaded.
For many months, since high summer, the Sun had been moving steadily to the south, dwindling until His heat no longer reached the people, and the Goddess slept, giving nothing of Herself to Her children. In past years—and these two old people remembered over forty such years—He had on this day ceased His outward journey and begun slowly but certainly to return. Always.
But who could be sure that He would return this time? Sometimes people, in the gathering season, walked much farther than they had planned, taking twice as long. Hunters, time after time, went out for a day, or a week, and returned safely, and then went out to return no more, or to be carried home to die. Women seeking food were sometimes attacked by beasts, or captured and taken away by strange humans. Death or disappearance came to all. Babies, of course, died more often than not, but even when life was well established death came at some time, and usually without warning.
So who could know whether the Sun would return, or when? He might decide to travel further, and even He might be attacked and eaten by something stronger than Himself. Until He was seen to begin His return journey, the people waited in fear. Food must be spared and saved in case He should be late. There could be no plan of what to do if He failed to return at all.
The shaman stood, straightening slowly and painfully. Two young men came from the shadows and lifted a heavy cloak—a huge bearskin—and wrapped it around his thin body, fastening it at the front with three long toggles of bone, then walked ahead of him to pull aside the skins that covered the exit. Accepting his staff with a fur-covered hand, the aged reader of signs hobbled through the inner doorway, and then, alone, out into the cold dawn.
The vault of heaven was clear, and still twinkled with stars. The Youngest Mother, brightest of them all, sparkled above the eastern horizon, and below Her, a narrow band of gold heralded the Sun’s appearance.
Moving slowly, planting his strong stick firmly in the snow before every second step, the old man ascended a hillock at whose summit four tall rocks had long ago been placed to outline a narrow oblong. He moved about until the pair nearest to him obscured the other two, and waited.
Gently the morning star faded, and a glory of golds and reds suffused the eastern sky. The old man fixed his gaze between the paired stones, and saw, with heart-filling gladness, the Sun rise precisely between them. He raised his free hand in a wave of joyful greeting, then looked down to where the Great Mother slept beneath the snow.
“He comes,” he said softly, and turned towards the dwelling.
Not only the downward slope eased and speeded his walk. Dread had gone; fear had departed. Now he dared to imagine the warmth of spring, the indolence of full-bellied summer.
Once within the shelter, he allowed a young man to take his stick, and raising both hands above his head, he shouted the glad news.
“He returns. Again the Sun is born. The Giver of Warmth returns to us and to the Mother of All.”
Noise and activity erupted around him. Laughing women began to bring baskets of food from the storage places There was chatter everywhere, mostly about food. From its special place some distance from the fire, six hunters began to drag an enormous log. It was part of a mighty fallen tree, and had been brought here in autumn, to be the focal point of this special day. With much heaving and grunting the strong men wrestled it into the centre of the fire, while others brought bundles of stored fuel to heap around it. Once alight, it would burn for many days.
While some men occupied themselves with the fire and others went outside to uncover the smoke hole, a group of young women went to the Mother-of-all-in-this-dwelling. One stooped and lifted the frail form, holding her easily while the rest took up the furs and straw on which she had been lying. Well away from the fire was a low earth platform: a part of the floor deliberately left a little higher when the base of the shelter was originally dug out. Here the old woman’s couch was remade, and she was laid gently in its softness.
When the matriarch was comfortably settled, her back well supported and furs tucked around her legs and shoulders, another girl, heavily and proudly pregnant, lit a finely decorated stick from the tiny flames that were beginning to lick the end of the massive log. She carried this to the old woman, who used it to kindle small lamps; roughly made little stone bowls filled with fat. Each lamp was put into the cupped hands of a waiting child. Three of the children each quietly requested a second lamp, “Because our baby is too young”.
The children’s eyes reflected the little dancing flames, and their faces were solemn as they carried the lights to their own mothers, who knelt and accepted them with equal reverence. The fire, the sun, the tiny flames, human lives; all were manifestations of the Great Mother’s life force. The bringing of the lamps was an acknowledgement of the gift each child had received from its own mother, and an expression of faith that the Great Mother would again give life to the world.
The young mothers now lit lamps of their own, and bore them to older women, most of whom had already received one or two. Young hunters also took lights to those who had given them birth. Now the oldest men and women, and two younger ones whose mothers were no longer alive, carried lamps to the Mother-of-all-in-this-dwelling, the original source of almost every life in the shelter.
Almost all, because a small number of the tribe had begun their lives in other places. In the group now approaching, the tallest man, an aging but still valuable hunter and the favourite teller of tales, had been found as a boy, unconscious and battered, on a heap of scree below a cliff. Two of the women had been terrified girls captured and brought here by a hunting party. They had wept and gabbled unintelligibly at first, but time and closeness had made them members of the tribe. Each had given birth many times, and a goodly number of their children and grandchildren had lived. Without them, the tribe might not have survived.
There were several other adopted people living in the shelter. Each had an older woman as a stand-in mother; someone to whom they had presented fire today; Only the matriarch and the shaman were without mothers—but they were closer than the younger people to the Mother of All, and would soon enough be cradled in her arms.
The old woman looked at the shaman, who sat alone, feeling the grateful warmth of the fire. She felt a wave of pity for him. How sad to be a man, never to have the joy of children! Many men had sisters’ sons to teach and play with, but that was not like having a child of one’s own body. And the shaman had had no sisters.
Still, she reflected, there was sadness for mothers, too.
Had all of her babies lived and grown, this huge shelter would hardly hold her descendants. She found happiness in her family, but deep inside her was a hollow place, a place aching with sadness for the little lives that had glimmered briefly and flickered out, like tiny lamps exposed to the wind.
The giving of lights was over. Men left the shelter and returned with rock-hard chunks of meat, which they thrust into the heart of the now blazing fire. Before night there would be roasted meat for everyone. Meanwhile, heaps of dried fruits and nuts were laid out, parched seeds were handed around, and tiny pieces of hoarded honey-comb were unwrapped and given to eager children and puzzled babies. Singing and laughing together, brewing hot drinks, hugging each other, and eating, eating, eating, the people forgot that this celebration had happened so many times before; they did not know that this day of love and joy had been marked for thousands of years; that this, no matter how important it was to them, was by no means the first mid-winter festival.