(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
It was Deepwinter.
The land was locked in snow; it lay like a blanket, clothing the trees and
filling up the ravines, turning everything into a featureless mass of white.
There was nothing, no place, that was free of the snow. It was easy to imagine,
in the depth of Deepwinter, that the snow had lain like that for eternity and
that it was only a fantasy that there had ever been a time without it. It was
even easier to imagine that the snow would never melt again.
The snow ruled over everything. It ruled the lives of the Tribe, too, as surely
as it did those of the animals of the forest who slept away Deepwinter if they
could or hunted despairingly for food if they could not. It was Deepwinter that
was the time of renewal, when the Tribe marked the passage of time and the end
of phases in its existence. Even more than Highsummer, Deepwinter was the most
important part of the life of the tribe.
It was Deepwinter.
In the caves where the Tribe had shut itself in, the People huddled around the
fires and stoked the flames with some of the increasingly scarce fuel; the
walls ran with the condensation of their breath and the air was fuggy with
their exhalation and the smell of their bodies and their clothing. But they
noticed none of these things, because they were used to them and because old
Kutti was talking. When she talked, everyone listened.
"So it was in those days," she was saying, "the old, who could no longer work
their share, used to take their leave of the Tribe and walk away into the snows
of Deepwinter. They would do this as a gesture of kindness to the Tribe,
because they had generosity in those days. Yes, they had moral fibre." She
paused to sigh, and nobody dared suggest that she, being old and no longer able
to work, should do what she praised and take herself off into the snowbound
"And it is in the deepest of Deepwinter," she continued, "on the night when the
cold is at its most intense and the snows at their thickest, that the Cannibal
Spirit walks the land. Just on that one night of all the cycle of the seasons
she walks, and any human creature that is abroad on that night is lost beyond redemption,
never to be seen again." She paused again, and put a piece of boar fat into her
"Bekur had been a young man once," she resumed, "and he had been a great hero.
Oh, he had been young, and strong, and in the Highsummer of his life he had
fought and hunted; he had made maidens sigh for him and bedded them and
fathered many children for the Tribe, and he had brought on himself all manner
of glory. Oh, he had been someone for the Tribe to be proud of, had Bekur.
"But time passed and the seasons went by, and Bekur grew older and his strength
began to ebb; he took to sitting by the fire while the young men, among whom
were his children’s children, went a-hunting or to war. And little by little
his eyes began to dim and his teeth to wear away; his hearing worsened and his
hands, which had once been so clever at making things when he had had no other
work to do, began to lose their cunning.
"And Bekur decided, although he was held in such high esteem in the Tribe that
none would have ever suggested it, that he would leave the People and go out on
his own into the snows of Deepwinter, while he still had enough of his senses
and strength left to leave this life on his own terms, dying as he had lived,
according to his own desires.
"So, one night, when the snows had the world in their grip and the People slept
in their caves, Bekur rose from his place by the fire, and picked up the great
old bronze knife that had been his companion through a lifetime of hunting and
combat, and he tucked it into his belt. He pulled on his fur-lined jacket and
hat, and his heavy old boots and then – pausing only to pick up a bag of smoked
meat from the cave’s larder – he passed like a ghost between the rows of
sleepers and out of the cave’s entrance. There was a sentry, but he, too, slept
at his post; and no one saw him go.
"It was Deepwinter; and the snow had fallen all the day. Before dawn, it would
Bekur paused outside the cave to get his bearings. It had been a while since he
had been outside, and the blanket of snow changed every part of the familiar
topography, sculpted a new world for him to explore.
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