There is a tall peak at the head of the valley – capped by snow – blinding bright in the morning sun against a deep blue sky. A finger of ice reaches down the valley – pointing at me – accusing me. Its reflection on the surface of the lake pointing back – breaking up in a rising wind. ‘I am only a messenger,’ I cry – voice a feeble croak robbed of feeling.
I reach the edge of the river and turn down the track along its shore – turning my back on the peak – pushing the encroaching ice from my mind. Ahead, the shadow of a cloud moves up the valley.
My tired old eyes peer into the forest looking for the clearing I missed on my way up. The shadow broaches the crest of a ridge and careers down its side. Tired legs plead with me to stop as I slow to look more carefully. Perhaps this is the place.
The wind is dropping and the shadow stalling. I turn off the track and start to make my way towards the clearing – the sound of the wind in the trees rising again. It is the spot – recognised by the rock outcrop. My eyes scan the far side of the clearing. The fallen tree is there and I make my way towards it.
As the shadow reaches the clearing I am sitting cross-legged on the base of the trunk looking down its length at the long-dead branches, trying to recall which were the important ones – slowly turning the image of the tree into a map of a distant valley. It starts to emerge. I let my mind drift back and imagine myself leaning back against my grandfather's chest – his cloak wrapped around us both against the wind – his deep voice quietly recounting the stories.
Everyone has heard stories of another route – further to the east – an old route – often used in the distant past – a large long valley stretching south – stretching beyond the known – a fertile valley – plentiful food for the deer – difficult to access – difficult to steer the deer to. Only grandfather had ever been there.
I stand and walk cautiously along the log – legs unsteady – examining each branch for marks – branches that represented side valleys – carved marks representing villages and hamlets – large and small marks – straight and crooked marks. Near the middle of the log is a cluster of marks surrounding the main winter camp.
I sit again – sit still and fix the images in my mind. They bring back grandfather's voice and more details. A snowflake lands on the log before me. I ignore it – more stories.
When finally I can remember no more, the log is obscured by a growing cover of snow. I realise that I am cold – needing shelter from the wind. With a firm grip on a sturdy branch I ease myself carefully off the slippery trunk of the tree onto firm ground and plod towards the rock outcrop – legs failing – stick in hand to keep me steady.
Somewhere at its base is an overhanging shelf that grandfather and I had used as shelter. I see it and turn towards it. It seems lower than I remember, but I was smaller then. I settle on my side and look out over the clearing to the tree – happy and satisfied to have finally found it.
My stomach is not satisfied. I take the food pouch from my belt and start to eat – thin flakes of dried meat I have carefully pounded with a smooth rock to save my old teeth the trouble. My stomach appeased, I curl up and pull my coat around me – carefully tucking it to keep out the wind. I relax exhausted and soon sleep.
When I wake it is dark. I hear the wind but don't feel it. A snowdrift has built up over the opening of the ledge. I push snow back from me – take my stick and poke
through it. The snow is deep – too deep to trudge back to camp in the dark. I decide to stay the night and return in the morning.
The deer have become restless over recent days. With this snow they will start to move tomorrow – start their long trek south. The clan have agreed to try to direct them down the eastern route – with much disquiet, fear, and accusation. It is not my fault that the usual route is no longer safe – unsafe for deer or their followers.
The moon has been through a complete cycle since I returned north for the first time since I was a young man. It was a tiring journey and I have not yet fully recovered. I was never sure that I could make the distance, but I had to come. I bore news of death and destruction that lay in their path if they took their usual route on their winter migration – death and destruction that had lost me my family and neighbours – all that I cherished – all that I had struggled to establish over my adult life.
My message was received with ridicule by many of the old clan who said my head had been addled by years of drinking the vile fermented grain. They poked fun at my bulbous nose and said it was turning as red as a mushroom.
Wiser heads grilled me carefully for days – looking for inconsistencies – probing for details – not entirely convinced at first and wary of dividing the clan, but they increased the size of the scouting party and gave instructions to a few men to scout the eastern route – locate the point of departure – prepare barricades to help divert the herd.
The shaman took me to his camp and plied me with the urine of his cow that had been fed mushrooms. He, too, plied me for details – slowly and patiently over many days. The shaman became convinced of the truth of my story and returned to tell the elders. Discussions switched to gathering knowledge of the old route that had not been travelled since the old cold days generations ago.
I told the shaman of the stories I had heard from my grandfather – of a fallen tree that told the story of the route. Day after day the elders sent me out with search parties to try to find it. When we failed, the ridicule returned.
Time was running out, but the scouts on the old route returned with rumours that confirmed my story. Reinforcements were sent out to those scouting the eastern route. I left the shaman's camp and came out again to find the tree.
I liked the shaman but not his concoctions and harsh diet. The mushrooms gave clarity but took away the soul. After initial confusion, all that was left was a ghostly emptiness. I walked around his camp like a disembodied spirit – seeing the plants with new eyes – the texture and colours – their struggle for existence – the smallest insect taking my attention – attention without feeling or emotion. But there was warmth in the way he whispered to his cow as he tended her.
In the main camp I now saw his calm, quiet mood reflected in the manner of the whole clan. Perhaps they needed it – needed it to come close to the herd – to bend it to their will when necessary – to befriend a few and turn them into leaders – to subdue the unruly with the promise of an occasional mushroom treat.
The grain spirit of the southerners gave feeling and emotion – joy and sorrow – love and hate – the energy to build and explore – life.
Lying in my rock shelter – my snow cocoon – memories of my past start coming back to me – slowly and cautiously at first with fear of the black deadening sorrow that had accompanied and burdened me on my journey north – my only counter, the thought that I might save my old clan from a similar fate. I drift in and out of a weary shallow sleep – darkness and light come and go – dreams and memories merge into a steady stream.
There are happy memories from my childhood – the excitement of the long winter treks – exchanging small gifts with the children we met, just as the adults exchanged their goods. The long summer evenings spent carving decorative objects from wood brightly coloured with dyes – or the much prized horn – figurines – amusing or mythical characters – likenesses where special bonds had been formed.
My family are storytellers. We recount the stories of old – put to rhyme to keep them true – recounting deeds or hard won truths – good and bad – right and wrong. Some are just amusing tales to entertain. We compete among ourselves to add to these.
I remember the day I first saw my wife on my last journey south with the herd. I was fascinated by the homes of the farmers. I was sitting at a distance watching a family busy building a new home – father and sons struggling to raise a heavy pole – mother and daughter called to lend a hand – still they struggled. I rose and walked over to offer help.
I didn't see her as pretty then. Only later did I recognise her beauty. What struck me at first was the sparkle in her eyes and the enthusiasm she had for everything she did. It was several years before we left that farm – then only to move a little distance to set up our own home for the child she was bearing and for the others who followed.
Memories drift by of the many years of toil, pain, and happiness that followed. New fields were cleared. New crops were tried with failure and success. My skill with deer helped me establish a small herd of cattle that were tamer than any others in the area. My expertise was widely recognised and I was called to travel to other districts where my skills were gratefully rewarded.
It was on my return from one of these trips that I surveyed the home plain from a distant hill to see houses turned to smouldering ash. I approached cautiously, keeping behind the tree line. I see strange horses – hear raucous voices in a strange language. Closer – as close as I dare – I see strange men – well armed soldiers loading what plunder they could onto dragging frames.
There is no sign of my family. I wait out of sight and visit spots I thought my family might have fled to. Perhaps they have managed to flee further afield. Perhaps they have been warned in time. I watch the soldiers attach the dragging frames to horses and leave heading south. I approach cautiously.
My mind now refuses to recall the sight that was waiting for me. I spent many days digging holes to bury my family. A young man and small child – survivors – pass by bearing tales of more destruction. Soon I head north.
Lying in my snow cocoon, barely conscious, I force these painful memories from my mind. I think of the tree – each branch and its marks. I must remember them all. I retrace them in my mind – over and again.
I know some marks. My Testament is covered with them. I take the polished cylinder of bone from its fine pouch and run my fingers over them – each storing memories of better times. I was given the Testament on my first journey to help with cattle, as recognition of my success.
I feel the mark that testifies my recognition as a person of knowledge. I move to the mark that testifies my recognition as a master of the cattle art. I slowly work my fingers down its length – over each of the marks that were added by the communities I helped – where each local scribe scored their community's unique mark.
The Testament has protected me on my many journeys. It signifies the wrath of each of the marked communities towards any person who harms me or who denies assistance when I am faced with danger. It gives me hope as I think of the long
journey to come. The deer will be starting their journey – earlier each year. I have missed their departure. I will travel alone. Now I need rest.
After what I sense was a long time, strong memories start to return – not the dim reality of waking memory but the vivid reality of dreams. Dreams come and go. I set out on my trip – meet with a strange clan. They are friendly. They want me to trade my knowledge of southern cultures in return for taking me with them. I agree. I go with them. I am here.