June 10

[Moon Shadow]

Sun Dog and Sings-in-Trees have gone fishing. Lately the catch has been good, the roach and chud are plentiful, and every now and then we have bream and grayling. I have a hunger for trout but it has remained elusive.

I am left here to poke fire. It has become too easy now that a deep ember bed assumes the responsibility, needing only an occasional log to feed its voracious appetite. It would likely stay alive for a day and a night without attention. But I am the resident fire keeper so here I am. The morning warmth challenges my willingness to stay alert. I watch the insects work the flowers that line the margin of the old surrounding forest. There are thousands, soundless flecks bringing in the harvest, dancing about like dust. And then there are the bees singing their sacred songs; my eyelids simply won’t stay open. I can’t think about that even as I struggle with idle speculation concerning the whereabouts of their hive. If I knew where it was I would elude the fire’s notice and risk getting stung for the pleasure of having some honey. I could make mead. That would chase away the boredom. I am starting to understand the underlying warrior’s task inherent to poking fire: monotony. As each day finds me tending fire while Sun Dog and Sings-in-Trees fish, my respect for the Fire Society deepens. But they are not my relatives so I am adding a few logs and crawling off like the dog that I am to a cooler spot to take a nap.

I am startled awake. My heart is pounding as though I had had a bad dream or suddenly remembered something that required my notice. But neither has happened; the fire is fine. Small blue flames are flickering across the embers while a few golden white ones continue to ravenously consume their new quarry. Then I see him.

A long way across the Great Circle there is a man who appears to be moving this way. I can see that he is enormous. Powerful muscles are overlaid with what appears to be massive, fluid flesh that shifts back and forth with each of his lumbering steps. I think, walrus, and wonder if he is sporting tusks. He looks determined and moves swiftly toward me, in spite of his bulk, even agilely. This behemoth is clad in rough cut skins, maybe seal, the surface of which appears to be sprouting. But as he gets closer I can see that the sprouts are plumes, an unimaginable array of plumes. Strings and strings of shells bounce across his chest to the rhythm of his gate. Only fifty feet away I stand to greet him. But now he is close enough to see in detail, I feel shaken.

He smiles broadly revealing bright green, pointed teeth and introduces himself as Smew.  Composure recovered I have invited him into camp and I can’t help but notice that Smew sparkles in the fire light. Fish scales are stuck to his skin, scattered in his hair and beard, and yet my attention is drawn to his plethora of plumes.

Smew collects feathers, of that I have no doubt, and my curiosity has gotten the better of me. I see gadwall and wigeon, bufflehead and golden eye. I marvel at the whimbrel plumes and those of curlew and yellowlegs. My admiration escapes my lips when I spot jackdaw and chiffchaff, and the extraordinary feathers of wagtail and pipit. Smew smiles, enjoying my unabashed attention, and says he has brought breakfast.

He reaches into his clothes and gently draws out a sack of bird eggs that have been packed in softgrass. With poignant grace he creates a nest on the ground in which he gently places each egg one by one. They are beautiful and I recognize quail eggs, and those of cormorant, petrel, and gannet. How could this giant manage to scale the cliffs needed to collect them? And there are others, grosbeak, redstart, waxwing, and what is rapidly becoming an uncountable many I do not know. I am fixated on the nest, so is Smew. But his stare is trance-like and my eyes dart from the nest to his face and back again to the nest. In moments the eggs are moving, some life and death struggle is clearly taking place inside them. Several crack, then several more. Soon the nest is full of naked baby birds, crying in a cacophony of voices begging for a meal. From deep within his vest Smew produces an endless menu and feeds each of them until they settle into a peaceful sleep.  I had remained sufficiently confounded but nothing will rival what I am watching now. Every chick is transmuting into a fledgling, hopping around, and testing its wings. In an instant all of them fly off into every direction. It is a stunning thing to watch and even after every bird has disappeared I can’t think of a single thing to say.

Finally Smew pulls out the last pouch, our breakfast. It is full of seaweed. I doubt I could have eaten the baby birds but I could have easily eaten the eggs. It hadn’t occurred to me I would be eating seaweed for breakfast this morning and I really don’t mind at all. I am more than fifty miles from the coast and haven’t been there since last summer. It tastes like feast food.

As suddenly as he appeared Smew slaps his thighs, smiles, stands, and heads off toward the river road. I sit here in silence, even the fire and the bees are quiet. As they cautiously return to their purpose I am beginning to think I have dreamed this uncanny event and set out searching for evidence to the contrary. Sure enough, there are fish scales clinging to the log on which Smew had sat, and a small, flat bundle. I am half afraid to open it for fear the affair will unfold again. So I wait, but not for long. With inordinate tenderness I loosen the laces and open the soft leather. Inside rests a fan of kestrel and falcon feathers, fringed with the tiny plumes of nuthatch, finch, and wren. I am spellstruck by the fan’s beauty and its unquestionable significance. It is the only medicine bundle I have ever received. I wonder if I will ever see Smew again.

The sun is well on his way to his western destination and I have spent the entire day sitting with the fire. The fan rests on the log beside me, secured in its sheath again. Shadows of clouds drift across the Great Circle. I glance at the bundle, touch it, tempted to look inside again but I tuck it in my vest instead. I hear Sun Dog’s and Sings-in-Trees’ laughter as they approach. They will make camp in moments. I finally see them, swinging strings of trout. It is a good day.

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Responses to “June 10”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson June 15th, 2013 - 4:06 am

    Wow – what a crazy uncanny tale, yet whilst it’s so far from my experience I find myself believing in the uninvited guest to the fire and the events which unfold from the nest.
    I love it when the firekeeper discovers the gift that Smew has left.
    I wonder if Sun Dog and Sings in Trees will believe the events they’re about to hear of and if they will teach the firekeeper to fish for the trout that he adores to eat ..
    You will, of course, know the answers to the questions in my mind.