Winter lays like a little death on northern Europe. It is near the end of the
last great ice age. A small tribe, more an extended family, had set out early in
Spring to search for better hunting grounds, crossing a small glacier in the
process. They had intended to return to their accustomed winter home before the
unusually severe weather around the glacier would bar their way.
A series of small disasters has found them trapped on the wrong side of that
glacier for over two months. They are in unfamiliar territory, and must huddle
against the moaning winds of midwinter in an opportune cave.
The very air sparkles with frozen water crystals. The weather is far too
severe for the hunting party to go far. They must subsist on the few nuts and
roots that they can find through ceaseless foraging and what they can scavenge
from nearby kills of four-legged predators or what little they have managed to
store in caches in the permafrost.
The shaman shakes his rattle and cries out to their Earth Goddess begging for
the days to cease growing ever shorter and colder…
Standing at the entrance to the cave, a girl faces what must surely be her
death. She has bled for the first time and is required to go into seclusion to
survive on her own until the first blood ceases to flow. When she returns she
will be a woman – if she returns.
The shaman hands her all the tools he will provide – a knife and a
fire-making kit. He blesses and releases her. She walks away without looking
back, but she can hear her mother already sobbing quietly for her lost daughter.
None can survive in the unknown forest alone in the darkest days of Winter.
It is hard to see the trail beneath the snow, so she follows her heart. The
first nightfall comes so very quickly! She calls upon the spirit of her yet
unknown totem to help her.
It is then she sees a large fallen tree: hollow and rotten. The snow isn’t as
deep on the far side, and she crawls within the heart of the tree.
Using her fire making tools, she creates fire with some of the dry wood from
inside her snug hollow tree. She melts snow to drink. Hunger she can ignore.
Thirst she cannot.
First light in the morning finds her walking again, for that is the best way
to keep warm. A few hours pass and the low sun is almost ready to set. She is at
the western edge of the forest facing the broad and windswept tundra. She is the
first of her tribe to have come here, and an amazing sight greets her eyes.
There are unfamiliar antlered beasts here browsing on the mossy birch trees.
As she watches them, she notices one has put its foot down a rabbit hole and
cannot rise. It struggles and its pain is great. Despite its fine warm coat,
lying in the snow has chilled it. The beast moans and cries shivering with the
cold and agony.
The girl knows she should be looking for shelter, but the animal’s great
suffering has moved her. Forgetting fear, forgetting herself, the girl draws her
knife and approaches the creature. She slits the suffering animal’s throat.
“Go to She from whence we all came,” she says.
As she dies, there is a look of thankfulness and peace it her eyes. Darkness
falls as she breathes her last and the antlered head sinks into the drifting
snow. It is then the girl fully realises her plight. There is no shelter here.
There is no dry wood to start a fire. She does the only thing she can think of –
she huddles against the still-warm reindeer carcass. The falling snow covers
them both and the girl slips into a deep sleep.
“Wake young one! If you remain asleep you will surely die!”
Her eyes fly open in fear for she knows she is quite alone. There is an image
standing in front of her, shifting subtly in the fast-falling snowflakes. The
figure wears a long cloak of reindeer fur, and her unbound hair glistens with
frost crystals. A crown of antlers is upon her brow.
“You risked your life to end the suffering of my daughter, and for that I
thank you. You have taken the first steps on your path. Tell your people this:
Do not fear the deep snows of Winter. Do not fear the cold. Do not hide in caves
when Winter winds howl – follow my children and they will succour you.”
As the girl watches, the woman-form seems to become frosty mist in the air,
sparkling like snowflakes, and somehow is both woman and deer. The cloak drops
around the shoulders of the girl.
“The hairs of my fur are hollow and therefore warmest of all in Winter. My
milk can nurse your babes as well as my calves. My meat is sweet and tender. My
antlers can make both tools and objects of beauty. Follow my herds and use them
well. Nurture them and they will nurture you.”
The figure begins to move away, then turns to speak again. “I am here to
shelter you and help you for all time. I will be with you in woodland and forest
along the trackways of time as long as you and your children remember me. Guard
and cherish the animals and sacred places that care for not only your body but
also for your soul.”
The girl is completely alone on the forest floor beside the body of a
A week passes at the cave in the forest. The Shaman has celebrated the winter
solstice, and his magic has caused the days to lengthen slightly. The people are
confident that spring will eventually come. They have mourned for the girl, for
if she had survived, she would have returned long since. Life for the extended
family returns to normality. Things might even be better with one less mouth to
Three young children play in the muddy snow. Suddenly their rough and tumble
ceases and they fall silent staring at the path from the forest. The sudden
stillness brings the others to the entrance.
There is someone walking serenely toward them through the sparkling air. She
wears a long cloak of reindeer fur, and her unbound hair glistens with frost
crystals. A crown of antlers is upon her brow.
“I am Elen,” the girl says. “I have come to take you home.”…
Now in the 21st century, she will come to take you home, if you can just
trust a bit. Unfocus your eyes – look there! Under the pavements of London or
Glasgow or Cardiff grass grows and streams flow. Trees sway in unseen breezes.
The forests are still here in our hearts, and Elen is still with us.