A Wintering Place

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for M.W.S. 

The nomads of the Steppes call me a name which loosely translates to 'Black Giant.' Giant is understandable, but the other. . . . Perhaps it is because of my hair, which has grown long down my back. I keep it tied with a leather thong. Perhaps it is because of my cloak--once a dark, rich leather which has been continually exposed to the elements and soaked in seawater several times. Then again, perhaps the nomads have the ability to see into my heart, for it too must be as black as midnight, as black as a vulture's wing, as black as the earth where my victims lie--their bodies strewn across three continents: Europe, Asia, and finally the Arctic. A zigzag trail of blood as crooked as the scars that cover my body like a taut snare. I have not killed--Man anyway--for a long time. Yet the blood seems fresh on my hands. The nomads must sense it too. They keep clear of me. When I have been spotted, they post triple the usual number of sentries for a few nights. No matter. I pass quietly through their encampment, a virtual city of tents, taking what I need. Only what I need--this is important--and only when I need it. Food usually, occasionally ammunition or matches. And I try to pay for what I take. Twice I left them bearskins, another time a leather pouch of herbs. Often I leave toys for their children--figures carved of wood or rock or bone. Animal shapes--bear, deer, squirrel, owl--and figures resembling their nomadic parents. Men with long mustaches and wide shoulders. Women with large eyes, full breasts and long straight hair. Once I carved a likeness of myself but I destroyed the hideous chunk of wood in the fire. I trust the elders give these trinkets to the children. I don't think they associate this covert form of barter with me. Surely they believe one such as I could not possibly slip into their camp, past their vigilant sentries, past their skittish blue-eyed dogs, past the wakeful mothers who fear for their babes. They fear sickness, they fear hunger, and they fear that the Black Giant will snatch them for his stew. Sometimes I hear them muttering about me in the night. I often linger in their camp, listening to their sounds, the walls of their felt tents doing little to insulate them from me. The whimperings of a feverish child, the gibberish of a delusional old man. Couples whispering long into the dark night about their hopes and troubles. Or sometimes I hear their lovemaking--such a foreign sound to my ears. Though I am in a sense a virgin, I somehow recollect the dance of it, and the smell and the taste of it. All of these things come flooding back to me--flooding back from the nameless void which is my past. There is no word, no phrase in any language for my origin. There was a married couple whose trouble was lovemaking. I would hear them fumble in their tent, then silence and sighing, then they would speak in voices below hearing. I could only detect the tone. The woman coos as if to an infant. His voice becomes increasingly agitated. Finally he walks in quiet fury from the tent and pisses in the dark. I see his steam rising in the light of a recently full moon. He is bare-chested in spite of the cold. I stay cloaked in shadow, as silent as a tree. The woman begins crying. I wanted to help them. I carved a phallus from ashwood. It took me days to shape and smooth the phallus. Often I was overcome with grief and loneliness and a painful sense of irony. Here I am, healthy and vital, full of love, and I have no one. When I was finished, feeling exhausted and empty, I crept into their tent city. I easily found the home of the troubled couple--I have the senses of a wolf--and I left the phallus outside their tent's opening. I wrapped it in a piece of my finest leather, so that they would know it was a gift and not a cruel joke. I have not been back to eavesdrop on their tent. I could not take another act of kindness being misunderstood and dismissed. It would plunge me into suicidal despair, yet I do not have the courage for suicide. I attempted it once, just after my father died. I stood at the northern rim of the world and set myself on fire. I writhed like a serpent. Then the ice must have cracked and I dropped into the frigid sea. I gulped in the salty water, trying to drown myself. I lost consciousness but awoke on a jagged raft of ice. Involuntarily resurrected once again. I recall little of the weeks that followed. Animal instinct for survival. I made my way south, back toward Man. Man, my cousin at least if not my brother. I have a sense that I made most of the journey on my hands and knees. I ate leaves and grass, much of which I vomited. I ate birds's eggs from their nests. The birds had no sense of how to defend their young against a predator such as I. At one point, my nadir, I found the droppings of a bear and chewed on the bits of undigested bone in its feces. Then one morning, before first light, I woke to the sound of human voices and the smell of horses. I thought I was hallucinating. It was a tribe of nomads en route to their wintering place. That night I had my first taste of bread in many months. I trailed them for days, and gradually, thanks to my thieving, my strength returned. One night I stole a rifle and a knife. The next day the nomads found a field-dressed buck in their path. They paused just long enough to prepare the venison for travel. The nomads finally reached their winter camp in a narrow valley between lavender mountains. I do not know the names of the peaks but they remind me of my father's beloved Mont Blanc. Living in the shadows of these mountains I have an odd feeling of reassurance. It was the day I decided to partially ascend one of the mountains that the nomads first saw me. I was on an exposed face of rock when a small hunting party spotted me. I heard their excited voices far below. Their word for bear drifted up to me but they must have quickly dismissed the notion. I was awkwardly making my way toward some cover when a bullet struck an outcropping of rock an arm's length away. It was a shot of experimentation, I am convinced: They wanted to see if I would react like Man or Beast. The nomads are expert marksmen. Even at that distance and odd angle, they could have shot me through the heart. I suspect their experiment proved inconclusive, and they had not a clue if I were Man or Beast. That night I heard the name 'Black Giant' for the first time. Already the tale had been elaborated. It seemed I was transporting the carcass of a bear cub up the mountain, and that when fired upon, I returned a volley of stones. Later I heard that I rolled a huge boulder down at them, narrowly missing their leader, whom I appeared to know instinctively. There was even talk that I was a winged creature and was in fact flying up the mountain. I have been more careful since, and they have only seen me at a great distance--which must exaggerate my size. To them I must truly appear eight feet tall, a height my father ascribed to me, but even though he was a man of science, a physician in fact, my father was prone to hyperbole. Unfortunately he was also prone to destruction, a trait I unfortunately inherited. Since my most recent resurrection, I have tried very hard not to succumb to that side of my nature. I have taken up lodging in an inconspicuous cave at the base of the southern mountain. I store my possessions here; I can cook my food in a small fire pit I have dug. To my astonishment I discovered a pool of fresh water in the back of the cave, where no light can penetrate. The water is so bracing it must be fed from high up on the mountain. I inspected the cave for a bear or puma or some other wild animal but there was none. Of course, bats reside in the cave, thousands of them. Their cacophonous squeaking just before dark was annoying at first. Otherwise they are tolerable fellow lodgers. This species of bat has enormous ears and no snout whatsoever, and it has a slightly sour taste, like that of rat. I was forced to eat rats when stowing away on a freighter bound for Arkhangelsk. The cats on the ship were more adept at catching rats than I, so I ate them too. I am not proud of the fare I have dined on. Man has forced this upon me as well. I am watching from near the entrance to my cave when a single rider approaches the tent city. He is dressed much like a nomad, including the coarse tunic and the knee-high felt boots, but his face is hairless. At first I think he is a boy. A small party from the camp rides out to meet him. They greet each other as friends but I note there is a subtle difference in their languages. Still, they invite him to proceed to their camp and the four horsemen ride in together. The event sparks my curiosity but I have to wait for darkness to fall. No matter. Probably all I will miss is the tending to the horses and an elaborate meal--not elaborate with food, but with formality and speeches. Man is so often preoccupied with ritual. There is a sliver of moon low in the eastern sky when I enter their camp. As I suspected, the stranger is in the tent of the elders, the political nucleus of the camp. I can hear the odd dialect of the stranger's voice amid the other voices in the tent. They are having a heated discussion in the language of the nomads. It involves family connections: 'Elka has been our responsibility for fourteen winters . . .' 'She cannot survive our way of life, it is not fair to the girl--' 'You speak of fairness, God cast that die fourteen years ago when He made her blind and crippled . . .' 'Surely someone among you--' 'There is no one, and Elka's parents unburden themselves, her father is not well, she is past the marrying age . . .' There is silence, then: 'Is she fertile?' 'Who can say? And if she is, no one wants to pass on the crookedness . . .' There is movement nearby in the dark. I realize my cheeks are wet--I fear I have been weeping aloud and will be discovered. It is not for my own safety I am concerned. I am afraid for theirs. My instinct for self-preservation is too strong for me to control. The sound is only young people sneaking around under cover of night--a boy and a girl going to steal kisses in the dark. I focus on the voices again: '. . . three days hence then, we will prepare for her arrival . . .' While returning to my cave I think about the woman-child. Snow is in the air and stings my wet face. I sit in the glow of my weak fire and imagine her deformities: 'blind' the stranger said, 'the crookedness' he said. Suddenly I am drowning in a maelstrom of bitter emotions--rage, despair, jealousy. . . . In my mind's eye I see my own promised-one, carefully selected by my father. She is there, lying on his table, completed. Then I watch her being butchered, the rending of her lovely skin, the quick dismemberment, the final--and superfluous--beheading. Death and the female form. They are forever paired in my mind, like freakish twins joined at the heart. I think too of murdering my stepmother. There was more astonishment in her eyes--beautiful green eyes with flecks of gold--than of terror as I strangled the life out of her. And there is the other female, the one who appears in my dreams. A mere girl really. I can sense her anguish and confusion. Also I can feel the impending doom that covers her like a mourning gown. Death will be her constant companion and she somehow knows it--in spite of the opiate of youth. I do not recall the girl's name. No, more than not recalling, I never knew it. Yet I share an intimacy with her, a mother-child kind of intimacy. Perhaps I am retrieving womb memories, the interpretations of a fetus. But I have no recollections of boyhood, any boyhood. My fit in the cave continues long into the night. At some point my fire goes out but I do not care. Dark and cold are two of my oldest friends. I wait for the arrival of Elka. I worry that the snow that fell will delay her traveling; but it is the fretting of an old woman. Only a finger's length of snow is on the ground and it has already melted from those places directly in the sun. On the third day, about mid morning, four riders enter the valley of the nomads. As they draw near I notice that one of the riders is on a brown and white pony. This must be Elka. She is completely cloaked in a bearskin. Puffs of her breath come from the portion of the bearskin which forms a hood. Elka's pony is being led by the stranger who had visited the nomads originally. I want to see the blind girl's face but it is completely obscured. I once had a friend who was blind. It was as if a skin had grown over his eyes. I wondered if Elka's blindness was of the same type. I often thought that if I'd had a surgeon's skill--as my father did--I could have removed that second skin and given my friend the gift of sight. Yet it was his blindness which allowed him to befriend me. We never had the opportunity to pursue our friendship. Man drove us apart. Milton wrote of the Fallen Angel; I fell that day. Dare I wish for a companion? A female with whom to share the rest of my days? God appeared to decide otherwise some years ago. However, I have felt justified in questioning Him. It is a cold day. The sun is bright but it feels distant. Here and there, along the stream which feeds the valley, pools of water have formed a crust of ice. The stream flows less briskly. I stand in a grove of coniferous trees and watch the trickling water. In the days that I have waited for Elka a plan has formed in my mind. Truly, it seems to have taken shape of its own accord without any voluntary thought from me. So standing there among the trees, a cold breeze blowing my hair, I consider the plan as if it is being offered by some outside agent. In a few weeks spring will come to the valley, and the nomads will trek north, as their ancestors have done for generations. I will watch for the signs of it, and when they are on the verge of leaving I will take my Elka--yes, damn them all, she is mine!--and bring her to my cave. They will not delay their departure for long. Not to search for a poor blind girl they did not want in the first place. Then the nomads will leave the valley, and I will be alone with my Elka. Alone with my Elka: The idea of it makes me light-headed with joy. This is surely what is meant to be. Why else would my miserable life continue to be preserved? Who better to be the benefactor of the poor, the malformed, the wretched? So I wait. Nightly I creep into the camp, hoping to recognize her odd dialect coming from a tent, hoping to catch a glimpse of her by firelight. But again and again, I cannot find her. Is this a joke? Did I not see her ride into their camp? Was it a hallucination? Has this entire episode with the nomads been a hallucination? Perhaps I lie dying on an ice flow in the Arctic Sea, and in a few tortured hours I have imagined months of encounters with the people of the Steppes. No, it must be real. My love for Elka is real, my desire for her too. I must be patient. I must continue to stockpile provisions in my cave, so that when I bring my Elka home I will not have to leave her in search of food--not for many days. I do not like the thought of leaving her alone in the dark of the cave--though I know its blackness is insignificant compared to the blackness she has always known. Slowly spring has come. It rains almost daily. Buds are appearing on the earliest trees and bushes. Activity at the camp has changed; the nomads are preparing to leave. At last the day has come for them to tear down their tent city. I creep as close as I dare in daylight and watch as they pack their camp. Tonight they will sleep under the stars and at sun-up they will begin their long journey north. I must find where Elka will lie. There are so many men, women and children moving about. It is bedlam. I search frantically for her. Tears of frustration blur my vision. Finally I see a figure who is not running about. She is seated by a fire, the bearskin around her shoulders. Some final tents were blocking my view of her until they were taken down. I strain to see her eyes, her nose, her mouth but Elka's hair is hanging down. Here we are, on the eve of our union, and I still do not know my lover's face. My heart is racing. I notice that a thunderstorm appears to be building in the north. If it does not delay the nomads's departure, the storm could work to my benefit. I do not move. The day wanes. The nomads prepare their meals. They tend to their animals. Then they sleep next to their fires, which smolder more than burn. It must be approaching midnight when the first drops of rain fall. They are heavy and cold. The wind has come up and thunder follows lightning at a close distance. The streaks of lightning seem to be tinted red--perhaps a trick of the mountains. I should probably wait for the storm to pass but I cannot. My patience has been exhausted. I move from my hiding place; my limbs are stiff at first. I stay low to the ground--as low as a being of my stature is able. A flash of lightning momentarily brings daytime to the valley. I must be careful. My feet, wrapped in strips of leather, slip in the mud and I nearly lose my balance. I must make certain to take a circuitous route back to the cave for my footprints will be easy to track in the mud. The nomads have posted some sentries but they are huddled under tarpaulins smoking their pipes. I reach their camp and crawl on my hands and knees between packed bundles and smoldering fires. When lightning streaks across the sky, I freeze and try to resemble just another bundle. The thunder is a cannonade. I reach the group of bodies where Elka is sleeping; I can smell the musk of the wet bearskin she is wrapped in. Lightning flashes and I see her long tousled hair. I am an arm's length from my Elka! Short of breath, I reach out and gently touch her hair. Even wet, her hair feels like silk, which I have only touched once before: The gown my stepmother was wearing when I murdered her was of silk. The instant the next bolt of lightning has receded I snatch up my Elka. She weighs nothing. I carry her, bearskin and all, as a mother carries her newborn, except I keep my hand over her mouth, careful not to also cover her nose. I am touching my Elka's face! I want to see her but it is too dark and I am moving too quickly. I must keep my balance. I can feel her deformities through the animal skin. Her back is hunched. Her legs are as thin as broomsticks and they are not connected quite right to her pelvis. Elka is perfect. She is trying to scream but my hand prevents it. We are some distance from the camp when a ruddy lightning flash illuminates the valley and I hear the shouts: 'The Black Giant!' 'He's got hold of something!' I quicken my pace as best I can in the mud. At a great distance or just muffled in the rain, I hear: 'Elka--the Black Giant has Elka!' God, what are you doing to me now? I try to run but my foot slips and I go down on one knee. I recover and continue. Elka is thrashing about in terror. I want to get her to my cave--all will be well there--but I know my path must be serpentine. I sense that the nomads are following me. I did not expect this reaction. After all, Elka was unwanted by both her clans. I know where there is a depression in a grove of trees. Perhaps I can hide there until they stop searching, which will surely be soon. I make my way there, slip down the hill, and carefully lay Elka on the ground. I cover her with my arms, keeping my hand over her mouth. The trees shield us from the lightning flashes. So with the dark and my hand and the wet hair matted to her forehead, I still do not know my lover's face. She is horrified. I try to calm her--'It is all right, I will not harm you'--but I find I have not mastered the nomads's language, particularly her clan's dialect. My words must sound like the gibberish of a lunatic. The violent part of the storm has abated somewhat but it is still raining hard. The drops are loud in the tree limbs. Mist hangs in the air like vengeful spirits. Elka's heart beats furiously against my forearm. I can see torches through the trees and the nomads are calling her name. At first they are in front of me then the searchers seem to be all around. The rage of a trapped animal begins to swell in me. I realize that Elka is not struggling as she had been; perhaps she is exhausted. I whisper, 'Please, do not scream,' and cautiously take my hand from her mouth. She does not. Because I cannot see her still, I touch her face. Her eyes are deep set, her nose is strangely but gently curved as if molded of clay, her jaw is set irregularly and feels thicker on one side. She is perfect and I love her desperately. The searchers continue to call her name. Some of them are close. I struggle to keep my sobbing from giving me away. I pick her up again; this time she does not fight. I carry Elka up the slippery hill and place her in the open. I kiss her hair, then return to the grove of trees. I listen as she calls to her people. They quickly locate her and begin conveying her back to camp. I watch as the torchbearers come together. All I can see are their crimson flames. They appear to merge into a single blaze. When all is quiet I make my way to the cave. I look at the piles of provisions. Then the words of the poet come to me: 'As one who in his journey bates at noon, Though bent on speed; so here the Arch-Angel paused, Betwixt the world destroyed and the world restored. . . .' By the end of summer I must find somewhere else. I will go east or west. But I cannot be in the valley when the nomads return to their wintering place.

"A Wintering Place" orginally appeared in ElevenEleven #6.

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