Friday, January 22, 2010


Photo by Steve Hillebrand, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

I rode Apostol, the tame reindeer, along the trail that had been packed by sleds through the woods to the village. It was very late, past one o’clock in the morning. Blackie-Olek was dying, and I was a coward. Clumps of snow sparkled in the firs. I felt like a ghost riding through stars.

The village was asleep in the snow-filled valley, awash in a moonlit fog. Feral cats darted through the pine tree grove in the cemetery. A gang of crows squalled in their roost in the nearby woods. The sky was an eerie lavender color, heavy with prayers of snow. Shards of moonlight streamed across the endless white fields.

I hitched Postol to the railing of St. Michael’s, the little white church that looked as if it had grown out of the snow banks, its green onion dome topped by its gold painted wooden cross. I crept inside and took off my boots, using the flint and steel from the wood box to light some char, and lit a beeswax candle on the altar. I knelt and prayed a poem of my own making to an invisible god in the silent frozen room with its yellow pine floor and walls like an empty beehive.

Afterwards I led Postol around the side and put him in the crooked barn. Felt my way into the small house that smelled of wood smoke, trout and rosemary, crawled into bed next to Lassi and fell asleep until noon the following day.

When Lassi got back from fishing the next day and I’d finally woken, we ate fresh baked honey bread and smoked salmon with his mother, a gaunt woman with a disapproving mouth and a nose like a hook. Lassi went fishing with his father and brothers every day of the year as long as there wasn’t a blizzard or a hurricane.

Lassi and I decided to take Postol to the river. I was fourteen and small and my reindeer had a saddle. I had the freedom to come and go as I pleased. My grandfather didn’t care where I went, what I did. He said I was a wise soul, he trusted me, I should do what I wanted. What harm could come to me in the woods or the village? I could not get lost in my own home, could I?

It was another long winter filled with endless snow and frigid winds. Lassi and I walked down the path to the river, through the wide corridor richly festooned with fresh chandeliers, lamps, candelabras and antlers of snow and ice. The most gorgeous palace you’d ever see. Lassi’s blonde hair peeked out from under his red knit fur-lined hat. I didn’t mention Blackie-Olek, who had slept with me in my bed since I was three.

As we walked, Postols knees clicked and his hooves cut the snow. We should have brought snowshoes, but we floundered along, falling and laughing in the white frozen meadow that glittered like crystal and mica when the sun finally came out.

Then we heard it –thunder -- and a huge herd swept into view instantly, surrounding us, crashing through the snow and the pines, huge liquid eyes and steaming breaths topped by crowns of antlers. Take off his saddle, Lassi said, he wants to go. He won’t be able to live, I said, he’s used to eating from my hand. Do it, said Lassi, uncinching the saddle and taking off the bridle with swift motions I barely saw. Postol shook his huge head and gazed at the reindeer who had slowed down to paw the snow and graze, ignoring all of us. He turned and looked me in the eye and a flint-like spark of wildness shot up through his brown orbs and entered me, travelling through my bones. A distant shot and the herd panicked and fled, gone in a mad rush of hooves, dung and fur. Postol went too, I couldn’t even pick him out from the herd. I felt a burden lift, replaced by a spreading sensation of air, light and infinite forest. Life would be worthless without magic, I whispered.

Seventy years later I can still see myself in my fur coat and hat standing on the riverbank next to Lassi, who died the next autumn in that very river. He never was a strong swimmer like me. And I certainly never saw Postol again, nor any other reindeer for that matter. It was the last year they came that far south. Things change quickly. It only took a few years before no one believed there had ever been any reindeer at all.