Old Gods Pt. 1

I hate spring. When the ice on the lakes thaws, and the bitter chill of frost begins to falter, I know that the next few weeks and months will bring out the worst in me.

I give reasons to my friends when asked. It rains too much, the weeds grow faster than I can destroy them in my plot, the animals always seem to have far more luck finding a mate than I do. These are all lies. I have to lie, because there is no way that I can bear to remind myself of the truth. I cannot admit my fear and loathing to them, much less to myself. At no time am I more afraid than those first days where the North wind loses its ferocity as it kisses the floor of the valley. The spring brings back things to me, renews feelings and memories that I always hope should die in the winter.

When I was just a young whelp, my father took me over the crest of hills to the east, to the home of my grandparents where I was to stay a year and learn the customs and skills of my people. It was late autumn, and we hunted our way through the journey. By the time I was in the other village, we had caught and skinned five rabbits as a gift to my grandparents, and had even caught a young boar which we gave as a sign of good faith to the village’s elders as a gift from our own home.

Before we left, my father presented me with his bow, and a quiver of finely crafted arrows. I was told of how the weapon had survived countless generations of my family, its surface a myriad network of fine cracks in the willow. Bone reinforced it, strengthening the wood while retaining the flexibility. I was honoured to own such a thing, and swore to myself that before I returned I should have put it to good use.

The week my father returned home, the winter kicked in. That year, the snows fell with predatory thickness, and the cold seeped through you like water through a cracked hull. My grandparents taught me how to preserve the lot of land and safeguard what few animals we owned from the deepening cold. At last, when the ten-foot deep dunes and the razor thin ice began to melt and the trees began to live again, I was overjoyed. I’d never been so happy to see spring, and I never would be again.

There was a patch of woodland up on the slopes which everyone in the village seemed to treat with religious reverence. There were certain echoes of the old ways still in the community at the time, tradition and myth from when man was young and the wilderness was unknown. The gods of those days were not greeted in the immaculate stone tower and ringing belfry the missionaries had built three decades ago. No, they were greeted in the sky and the ground, the ocean and the lake. They had names, though seldom did anyone care to use them. These gods were Time, Air, Light, Water, Wind, all the things that make the world. They were worshipped in their element, and they required nourishment.

The woodland that I saw when the snows died down was one of those echoes. It was said that every year, when the ice melted and the moon rose for spring, gods met and danced in those trees. Spirits of the wood and champions of the world would make merry and no man was to see this sight.

My grandparents took that last point seriously, more seriously perhaps than they had taken any of my tutelage. They made me promise upon all that I held dear not to pass the saplings at its border, to stay entirely clear at least until summer. I had no choice but to accept. I held true to my word. I worked hard at the plough, making the soil ready for the years crops. I looked after the chickens, the pigs, the cow that was a year older than me. My father’s bow was hung above the hearth, but I was too busy for hunting. I was learning what it was to live in the valleys.

Then, one day, while my grandparents were at market, I saw him. His antlers shone in the spring air like burnished gold, his coat a deep russet. As he bent to nibble a cabbage, I saw the deep velvet darkness of his pupils, and knew that this was not a simple stag. This was my proving.

As quickly as possible, I grabbed the bow and its quiver from its resting place and sneaked out to where the deer had been. It’s tracks lead away a distance towards a curve of the hill, and I saw it linger a while on the precipice of the forest. I quickly followed and, readying an arrow, I prepared a shot. The arrow went wide by a large margin, splintering against the bark of a gnarled oak. The deer, startled, instantly turned and raced into the woods, its white tail mocking me in its flight. Barely thinking, I ran after it, the need to have my trophy running through my veins as palpable and real as the feeling of blood rushing in my ears.

It didn’t take me long to find the deer. Golden, late afternoon sunlight poured through the trees into a clearing, its floor too rough and full of detritus for any real vegetation to have taken root around the stone cairn dominating the centre. The stag stood fixed in place, a placid expression on its face. The hairs on my arms stood straight, and I shivered in the sunlight.

Blood trickled slowly down from the deer’s eye. His mouth began to foam.

Suddenly, thick, ancient roots reared up from the ground like threatened snakes. They did not so much stab, impale, or tear as they did grow into the deer. That was the most terrifying aspect, not the horrific injuries, just the slow, inevitable confidence of a glacier carving a valley as its way was forced into the stag, pushing patiently through the and up its legs, through the nostrils and mouth, the eyes, the anus. The deer seemed to swell in its place as the things found places within him.

Before my eyes, the deer died. Not with the quick clean grace of an arrow through the eye or a knife to the throat, but an organic, earthly sort of death. The antlers were first to go, turning brown and rancid before scattering in the light wind, just more hummus underfoot. Then the head, caving in on itself as the roots pervading it had their fill. The whole animal became soil as the root-things, sucked it apart, a skeletal deer of pure root left behind.

I hear a baby cry then. Perched atop the cairn, it began to move. His skin was pure and white as snowdrops, his form swaddled in moss and bark. The babe turned its face to me, and never have I felt so at peace with a being as I did next to that child, that newborn who was older than the hills and the stones. I felt pure love for the thing. Then it looked at me.

The eyes were spring. The melt water that flows from the mountainside and destroys bridges, floods villages. They were the thin ice that the child falls through, and the bitterly pale sun that cannot stop it reforming above him as he kicks and thrashes, helpless. They were inevitable and futile, the respite from the winter that falls every year.

I suddenly felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my left foot and, panicking, I dropped the bow and freed myself by hacking at the root that was crawling up my arteries. I could only watch with grief and dismay when the soil claimed my bow.

I was lucky to escape. Once I’d limped back to the village, my grandparents took good care of me, and didn’t ask what I’d seen in the woods. There’s a chunk missing from my foot that and a gash wide as two fingers up my leg, but I had eavesdropped on an old god, and had seen what most could not without death. By all accounts, I was living on borrowed time, and I still am. My wound pains me still, a mouldy, infected sort of pain that spikes every year in the last week of winter. My pain is nothing, nothing at all though compared to the fear of that annual horror, the thing that dwells in the forest, the god of spring.

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