Everything had been well, months before. We were following the reindeer. We had food, security, shelter. We were at peace. But then a quarrel began, between two of the younger men.
They had both decided they should lead us, that they each were more capable than the other of leading. But we were following the reindeer, we did not need leaders. We had the elders of our group for guidance. They knew how to keep us alive. These young men, they made such a fuss that we were forced to stop our migration along the ancient trackways and find a solution.
We should never have stopped. These two young men would not listen to reason to settle their dispute. One man killed the other man. Then he was banished from our tribe. We left him back on the road with one spear and an extra fur, now destined to find his own way.
This dispute took days, and while we thought we could simply just catch up to the reindeer, we were wrong. Months had passed, and we were still searching.
One day, as we sat for a moment to eat what meager rations we had left, I felt I could not take it anymore. My mother handed me a wooden bowl, very precious because the wood was not easily found. Inside was water with a few dried berries and a sprinkling of dried herbs. We had finished our reindeer jerky the week before, and our dried fish the week before that.
I looked down into the almost barren bowl and suddenly, was overcome with a rage I could not control! I threw the bowl at the rock next to me and watched as it splintered into several pieces.
“I’m hungry, Mama! I don’t want water, I want food!” I screamed at my mother.
The people in our camp were silent, staring in horror at my behavior. Yet, I continued. “I can’t eat this! I need real food! I am hungry! Why can’t you give me something else?”
My mother watched me, her own rage burning in her eyes. She walked towards me until Grandmother Elder put a hand on her arm.
“We are all hungry.” She spoke to no one in particular.
I saw my mother’s eyes soften then as she looked at me. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get anything out, I kicked a shard of wood at the rock and screamed again.
Grandmother Elder spoke gently, “We are all tired and hungry. I smell a storm on the wind, we will not find the reindeer today. Set down your packs and rest.”
People sighed and grumbled beneath their breath, though all knew not to criticize Grandmother Elder. They darted looks at me though, squinty eyes and sneers. Some looked on me with compassion, though I did not return the sentiment.
“Pick up the pieces, Layna,” Mother said with a new gentleness to her voice.
“No!” I screamed again. Mother sighed then, rolled out her mat and lay down.
“Come and rest with me, Layna.”
“I will not!” I spoke still with anger.
Mother then rolled away from me. Other people had moved further off and were beginning to set up their poles and hides to create a shelter from the weather. I sat by the rock and watched, aware of Grandmother Elder’s eyes upon me. Eventually, the shelters were made, and people slipped inside or slept soundly on mats on the ground, like Mother. I could not shake the rage that I was feeling, and I was so hungry. I thought Grandmother Elder had fallen asleep, and so I stood quietly and began to walk away.
“Where are you going, little one?” She asked, proving she was not asleep.
“I have seen far too many moons to be called a little one, Grandma. I am going to find a bush.”
“Do not wander too far, I do not want to lose you.”
I walked off in a huff, grumbling to myself.
“Little one! Huh! I am not a little one anymore, I am Layna, I carry my own pack. I do not need to be spoken to like a child. I will not get lost, I know this land. I don’t need to be treated as such, I am just hungry. I cannot be expected to survive without food…” I looked up then and did not know where I was.
I had just come down from a little rise and saw the land spread before me. I turned around and headed back up the rise, but from the top, I could see nothing except more land with little dips and valleys. There were no people to be seen at all.
My body wanted to panic, but I took deep breaths and walked in different directions to look far. I should see them, I hadn’t wandered that far. But everywhere I looked, the landscape was void of people. I was terrified. I started running and calling out for Mama, but still, there was nothing. I ran in circles, screaming.
I noticed then that storm clouds were building quickly on the horizon as the sun began its descent. The tundra is a cold place during the sun time, but when the light is gone, the moon hanging in the sky, it gets excruciatingly cold. And there was that storm.
I looked around me and noticed a rock outcropping not too far away. I wandered over there and much to my gratitude, there was a cave! Well, it was a large crevice in the rock, really, but I was small enough to make use of it as a good shelter. I thought of my mother, resting on her mat in the oncoming storm, and fought away the tears that came. She would be inside now, with the others, safe. But she did not know where I was.
I sat in that crevice for a long time, waiting for the clouds to reach. I was so cold. I trembled and shivered and pulled my cloak tighter around my body. I vowed to survive the night and search in the morning until I found my people. It would all make more sense then.
The cold kept me tossing and turning, but eventually, I fell asleep. I had not been sleeping for long when a noise roused me. It was faint, and I strained to hear the sound over my own heartbeat. Drums. I stuck my head out of the crevice and then was sure. Drums meant people, my people!
I left my safety and made my way towards the sound of the drums. As I walked, I could see shadows flittering in and out of the scrub bushes. They looked like little people, but I imagined that my mind was playing tricks on me. I was cold, exhausted and hungry and the drums so alluring. Once I got far enough along, I could see the glow of a campfire around a rock.
Fire! Warmth! Safety! I ran then, towards the light, shadows flickering in and out of my vision. I ran around a rock and stumbled to a stop right at the fire.
Everyone around the circle stopped, including the drums. I could feel the little shadows close in behind me as I took note of the scene. There, around the fire that cast ominous shadows on the rock wall, was a ring of human-like creatures, dressed in an array of colors, pointy noses and beady eyes, only half my height. I had heard of these creatures before, though I had never seen one. Elves they were called. And I had been warned to stay away from them.
I stood there, immovable with fear, scanned the circle. My heartbeat quickened, my knees trembled, and when I saw the enormous creature on the other side of the ring, I almost collapsed.
He was tall, taller than any man I had ever seen. His body was covered in a dark, matted fur, a long face with a pointy jaw. Teeth, so long and pointy they did not fit inside his mouth. A tongue hung menacingly out one side. Large curling horns protruded from his head, and on his fingers that cradled a goblet were claws so deadly, they could rip my body in two. I looked to his feet and saw the cloven hooves of a goat.
I knew that even if I could shake this terror and move, the elves would not let me past. A whimper escaped my lips, spurring this creature to set down his goblet and turn all attention to me.
His eyes, so dreadfully dark, held menacing mirth that seared the cold into bones. The creature began to amble around the fire towards me. I could do nothing but stand there, trembling, as each step brought him closer. When he reached me, he bent slowly down to level his face with mine. I tried to keep my face down, but he raised his hand and placed the tip of one dirty claw beneath my chin and lifted my face to his. The smell of his body and his breath was chokingly horrid, and I tried breathing shallow bursts through my mouth.
“Are you hungry?” He asked me. Stunned, by the moment and the unexpected question, I didn’t reply. So he asked again, slower.
“Are…you…hungry?” I gave my head a brief shake.
His claw still poking the soft spot beneath my chin, he brought his other hand up by my face and snapped. I jerked and could see a laugh come into his eyes. He kept his other hand by my face but flattened it as if waiting for something. Momentarily one of the dark shadows placed a bowl into his hand and in the dish was a mass of dirty, grubby, insects and worms, squirming and writhing in some unspoken agony. I shook my head again, more fervently, and he shooed the bowl away and stood up. I took a deep breath of slightly fresher air as he walked away from me and began to slowly pace the circle.
“So,” he began in an oddly conversationally voice, “you are not hungry. But you were hungry earlier. SO hungry you smashed your bowl upon a rock!” His voice grew more menacing as he continued to speak and pace, “SO hungry you screamed at your mother. SO hungry, you left your mother’s side to wander alone, and now she is devastated because you are lost…SO hungry! Yet, you refuse my food.”
My body began to tremble violently. The creature bent down to pick up a bundle of birch branches. He stood and turned his head slowly toward me. “Do you know what happens to naughty, little children?” My eyes grew even bigger as he slowly made his way towards me, slapping the birch switches against his open palm.
I stood, rooted to my spot in terror. Eyes widening with each menacing step in my direction. Too quickly, and agonizingly slow, he was next to me. Drool clung to the corners of his mouth as his tongue lashed back and forth in anticipation. He raised his arm slowly, the intent clear in his stance. Those birch switches were going to come down upon my head, and that was only the beginning. I finally found the sense to cower and cover my head, waiting in dread for the sudden burst of pain.
It never came. Instead, a voice rode over the night wind and stilled the arm of the creature.
“Krampus! Do not touch that child lest you are willing to face worse retribution!”
There was silence for a few long moments before I finally found the courage to lift my head. Krampus, the creature who now had a name, was backing away from me, the branches lowered by his side. A sneer of disgust distorted his face as he stood looking at the voice. The elves twitched uncomfortably, but none of them made to move.
I turned towards the voice of my savior, not without fear that it may be a creature worse than the one before me. There, to my amazement and relief, stood Grandmother Reindeer, giant, beautiful antlers towering over the elves in the firelight. Her eyes were kind, but stern as well. “Come to me Layna, now.”
My feet carried me to her side. She bent her front knees and said, simply, “Climb upon my back.” I hesitated for the briefest moment, “Now, Layna. Grab my fur and pull yourself up.”
I did as I was told. The moment my body settled onto her back, my arms around her neck, she spun from the fire and ran.
I could hear the screams behind me and felt the fear of pursuit. Grandmother Reindeer fled so fast I was brought to mind of an eagle soaring across the tundra. On and on she ran, until the sounds of screams died off and the shadows no longer tugged at the edge of my vision. Ran until her pace became a steady gait that lulled me into a deep and heavy sleep.
I felt the light of day before I opened my eyes. The warmth and smell of Grandmother Reindeer still clung lightly to my body as I lifted my eyelids. But there was no Grandmother Reindeer. There was no one. I was back in my crevice in the rock, alone.
An immense dread and fear rippled through my body. I had dreamt it all. The fire, the gnashing mouth of Krampus, the dark, shadowy elves, and the late-night flight of Grandmother Reindeer. I sat in my small, temporary sanctuary as tears poured from my eyes and the cold crept in on delicate tendrils. I needed to find my people.
I wiped my cheeks dry and crawled out to the opening. The brilliance of white freshly fallen snow dazzled my eyes, and it took a moment to adjust to the brightness. I stood up and stretched the kinks out of my body, wondering which direction I should take. If only I had paid attention when I left camp yesterday, noticed the path I had started to walk in, then I would have an idea of where to look.
As I thought all of this through and looked around to get my bearings, I noticed an odd thing. Reindeer tracks in the snow. They weren’t scattered all around as if a herd of reindeer had come through. No. There was one set of prints, leading from the crevice I had just exited. I looked around a bit to try and find the tracks that led up to the entrance, but I could find none. They simply began at the opening and led away from the rocks.
Hope began to lighten my step as I followed along the tracks, followed them away from the crevice and in a steady direction westward. I periodically looked up and around to see if there was evidence of other reindeer, but there was none. There was only the single track leading westward.
I must have traveled for a few hours because I could feel the need for rest coming on. But I would not stop. I could not stop until I found my people. I had my head tucked in against the cold but came up to look again.
There! There just over the next rise! My people!
I ran then. I did not need the tracks to lead me any further. My people were there. As I got close enough, I yelled, “Mama!”
Everyone turned to me. I saw a few people step away from a hunched figure as she stood and looked in my direction. She instantly shed her grief and ran towards me. We met a few moments later, wrapped in each other’s arms. My mother searched my body with her hands, frantically feeling for any injury.
“I’m good, mama, I’m healthy,” I assured her. She grabbed my face and kissed me repeatedly.
“Where have you been? Don’t you ever run off like that again!”
“I know, mama, I won’t.”
The memory of last night’s dream welled up inside me, and the tears came pouring forth. “I was so scared, Mama. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I broke the bowl, I’m sorry I yelled at you, I’m sorry I ran off…”
“Shh…, it’s ok, I know. You’re safe now. We’re together again, you’re safe. And look,” she pointed towards the west, “we found the reindeer.”
And there she stood, Grandmother Reindeer, looking as bold and strong as she had the night before. I knew then it had been no dream.
I looked at Grandmother Reindeer, who stood a fair distance away. She kept her eyes on me for a moment. I smiled at her, admiring the glory and strength of her antlers again. After a moment she turned and began to lead her herd westward.
An organized commotion rumbled through our camp as people greeted me with hugs and well wishes and then slung their packs upon their backs. When everyone was ready, we stepped once again onto the ancient path of the reindeer.