Shelter

by Stacey E. Shaw

Ghiem stood knee-deep in the water, his face to the wind. He had been fishing in the shallow part of the lake when he felt the direction of the wind shift. He froze, motionless in the water, and squinted as the northwest wind stung his eyes. Rooting his feet deep into the warm, wet soil of the lake, Ghiem forced the air out of his lungs in an uneasy grunt.

He stood in the water for a long time, holding his spear away from his body. He turned his head and looked across the wide, dark lake and noticed the water moving more rapidly than it had been when he began fishing.

Ghiem checked the small basket of fish around his waist to make sure it was secure and waded toward the shore. When he reached the edge of the lake he paused again to face the wind, moving his eyes over the trees and mountains surrounding the lake.

He walked across the rocky beach to his things. He squatted, untied the basket and placed it into a larger, more tightly woven basket. He tied each end of a coarse piece of vine to the larger basket and knotted this over his shoulders so that the basket hung against his back. He wiped the point of his spear clean with a leaf then rubbed it with two handfuls of pebbles. As he worked he listened to the low rustling of the trees and mountains as they swayed and felt the skin on his back naked against the wind.

Ghiem followed the narrow footpath through the trees to a small clearing in the forest. Smoke from Brechís fire filled his nostrils as he approached. Brech was tending the fire when he heard something heavy moving through the trees. He turned abruptly toward the sound. When he saw Ghiem, he resumed prodding the coals around the fire with a long stick.

Ghiem stopped in front of Brech, untied the basket of fish, removed the smaller basket from the larger, and presented it. Brech held the mouth of the basket close to his face and inhaled several times. He nodded at Ghiem and held one hand up in a gesture of approval. Ghiem walked toward the hut.

Inside the hut he hung his spear, made a private gesture to the god, and returned to the fire.

Brech had taken several fish from the basket and pierced each with a sharp stick. He held these in the flames, turning them and taking them out occasionally to check their progress. Ghiem squatted beside him.

"The wind has changed," Ghiem spoke quietly, his eyes fixed upon fire.

"Are you certain?" Brech said without looking at him.

"The gods have changed the wind. It is time."

Brech removed the sticks from the flames, broke off the charred tail of one fish, and ate it. He gave three of the sticks to Ghiem and kept the other three for himself. As they ate, the sun sank behind the trees and the northwest wind grew stronger.

"You are correct about the wind." Brech nodded. "It is time."

"We must begin soon. The gods will not wait for us to return to Hftwae,"

Ghiem nodded solemnly in agreement. They ate the last bits of blackened skin and tossed the sticks into the fire. Ghiem watched them burn.

"We will choose tomorrow, first thing in the morning." Brech motioned toward the star-filled sky as he spoke.

The next morning Ghiem awoke earlier than usual. The sun was just beginning to brighten the indigo sky with a wash of crimson. Ghiem stretched noisily and left the hut. Brech slept undisturbed.

Ghiem rubbed his hands briskly over his face and prodded the orange-glowing coals that remained from the previous dayís fire. He moved quietly to the edge of the clearing where he lifted his furskin to one side and urinated.

Ghiem felt the wind blowing his hair and turned his face toward it. The air was very cool and moist and the wind made him shiver. He felt his skin prickle from the chill. As he squatted before the smoldering coals to warm himself he turned his eyes toward the bare hill in the distance.

When Brech emerged from the hut he followed Ghiemís ritual, finishing to warm himself by the coals. Brech cooked the rest of the fish. They ate quickly and without speaking to one another. Finally, Brech rose. "We must begin choosing now. It would be foolish to delay any further." Ghiem nodded.

Each man folded tools of stone and bone inside a piece of thick fur and tied it around their right thighs with vines. They each took a staff and a large basket secured to their backs with knotted vine thrown over their shoulders. They carried their furs, skins, and larger tools in these baskets. They bundled the largest tools together and secured them with several knotted pieces of vine and slung these over their shoulders as well.

When they reached the lake they knelt along the edge to drink from their cupped hands. They trailed the perimeter of the lake, stopping to rest at places they had stopped many times before. Brech saw a large bird and tried to kill it with his staff. When the bird screeched away he found a nest hidden among the rocks containing several fist-sized speckled eggs. He collected them impulsively and brought them to the rock along the waterís edge where Ghiem waited. They each broke open an egg and ate its contents.

Although the sun was at its midpoint, the air was cool. Brech told Ghiem again that he was correct about the wind and suggested that the gods may have spoken to him while he had been fishing.

When they reached the foot of the bare hill, Ghiem stopped and struck the rocky embankment with his staff. "Here," he said confidently, pointing to the crest.

Brech stared at him in disbelief. "The hill?" Brech thundered.

"We can watch as the gods change the clouds and know when the snow and ice will come. Then the hill will be warmed by the sun and the snow and ice will melt. We will then be able to search for food until the gods send the next storm," Ghiem appealed.

"Search for food in the snow and wind?" Brech raged. "We will be food, my friend. And what good will the sun be when the wind is cold? A crook between the mountains, protected from the cold wind, is our only hope for survival." Brech was unyielding.

Ghiem and Brech argued for a long time.

"It is foolish to think the crest of that hill will provide protection. We will be weakened by the wind, snow, and ice and I refuse to die as food for foraging beasts or frozen as ice. Because of your ignorance, you can find shelter on the hill alone. I will search for a warm hollow to build my shelter."

Once Brech had announced his desire to separate the decision was simple. Nothing more could be said. They agreed to return to the hut in the clearing when the wind shifted again and the ice and snow had melted for good. Then they would return to Hftwae together.

While Ghiem began ascending the rugged face of the hill Brech forged ahead around the lake. Halfway to the top Ghiem scrambled over a flat rock and watched Brech until he disappeared into the forest. Ghiem reached the treeless crest just before sunset with enough daylight remaining to unload his tools and furs and build a small fire before going to sleep.

The next day the wind had grown even stronger and colder. Ghiem discovered a small cave in the rock and fortified it with logs, twigs, and dried grass. When his shelter was complete he made a solemn offering to the gods. As the sun set he built a fire in the mouth of the cave and ate a handful of dried grass before falling asleep.

As the days passed the wind grew stronger and the sun colder until the forest turned brown and lifeless. Animals emerged from the woods to forage. One day Ghiem stood on an escarpment jutting from the hillside and watched as heavy black clouds rolled across the sky. The snow and ice followed.

Much of the snow blew across the hill, settling in the hollows in between. When the sun appeared enough of the snow and ice melted for Ghiem to hunt. He removed the flesh from the animalís bones and gathered baskets of snow and ice remaining between the cold rocks. He packed the flesh in the snow-filled baskets and stored them outside the caveís entrance, within armís reach. He used the skin and dried veins to make clothing.

After an unknown time, black clouds would appear on the horizon again and more snow and ice would fall. While Ghiem was trapped inside the cave he formed tools and jewelry for himself with the animal bones and roasted the ice-covered flesh in his fire. When the sun returned to melt enough of the now for him to leave, Ghiem hunted and stored again. Each day he watched the sky and considered the wind.

Ghiem knew when the wind shifted away from the northwest. He made a gracious offering to the gods, gathered his tools, furs and skins and made his way down the hill to the lake. He followed the edge of the lake to the shallow water where he had fished an unknown time ago and found the hut in the clearing. Animals had made it their home during the cold. Ghiem killed one with his spear and built a fire.

Ghiem waited for Brech to return until the sun burned through the verdant forest but as each day passed he grew more fearful that the wind would shift again. One morning before the sun rose he collected his tools, furs and skins in the usual manner, slung several baskets over his shoulders, and abandoned the hut.

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(This story was originally on the web at a short-story website, www.ssws.net, which is no longer online. ca. 1998-99?)