Shadow in the Valley, pt 3
That morning, he searched the area for some decent game trails, leaving a pair of beaver traps down near the water’s edge and a few sling traps to catch a rabbit or two for food. Then he grabbed his net and pole and moved upstream above the beaver lodges that dotted the widened ponds dammed by the locals. He picked up a few trout in short order, cleaned them and fried one up for an early lunch, leaving the others to dry in the sun with a pinch of herbs and salt. It was all mindless labor to him; the necessities of his life, all performed by muscle memory. The unfortunate side effect of his life being so performed out of habit was that it left his mind to mull over the campfire conversation of the night before.
He didn’t quite know how to factor this new truth into the assumptions he had made over his youth, and resolved to hashing this out with his father’s shadow if he returned that evening. He spent the rest of his day walking the woods near his encampment, looking for new opportunities to lay traps and plucking edible vegetation to accompany his supper.
After supper was a memory of flavors on his lips, he set about sharpening his tools: an axe for chopping, a knife used for gutting the fish, and another for skinning the rabbits or beavers he hoped to find waiting for him in the traps he had laid out. He set aside a small pile of ash from the campfire to use in preparing the skins, as well as a cast iron pot for melting down what he’d need for tanning the hides. He even looked for indicators of other animals, including the possibility of bears to help. In a good season, he would need a fair amount of animal grease to help the preparation in the furs, and nothing beat a bear for grease.
It wasn’t the first time he considered the option of simply putting up a house out here in the mountains. He could have a nice room set aside for the sole purpose of the tanning process, which could put out a fair stink, and it would be nice to have a place to store the meat where he wouldn’t need to keep an eye out for the occasional critter. But that meant months of work he could otherwise be roaming and trapping and living on the land. A full season would be lost, just for the benefit of a building; and if the land ever got tired of him, there he would be with a pointless house to show for it.
No point in putting down roots, ‘less you’re a tree, he thought, unaware that he was saying the words along with his thinking them.
“Is that what you think roots are for?” the shadow said.
He hadn’t noticed the spirit’s arrival, and nearly cut his thumb open on the edge of the blade he had been honing.
“Ah, hello there again,” he said, attempting to behave as if he hadn’t been startled.
The shadow seemed to nod its head in acknowledgement of the rider’s greeting. “Roots, I said. You liken them to a prison, do you?”
The rider shrugged his shoulders, pretending to admire the lack of light along the edge of the blade before sheathing it and setting it aside. “Trees do seem to do well with them.”
“Ever wonder why that is?”
“Not as such, no. Just not really a thing for people as much as for a tree.”
“A person’s not a tree.”
“That’s my point.”
“But a person can be like a tree.”
It sounded like the strangest thing to be said, but it was certainly the kind of thing his father liked to say. The rider’s grandfather was a learned man, knew his letters and such, and had passed that learning along to his children. But arriving in this country had changed the inheritance of knowledge, and the rider and his siblings had spent more time learning about trades and earning a living than such as could be found between the pages of books.
“How do you figure?”
The shadow was taller now, reminding the rider of looking up at his father when he was a young lad. “A person can be like a tree in that it needs sunlight and water, and things to make it grow tall and strong. A tree and a person can be thick or thin, can branch out, can bear fruit and send its seeds off to grow in other places. A tree can perish, give shelter, be made to be useful, be a part of a group of others or grow up alone, all by itself. A person can be like a tree.”
“That’s fair,” the rider said, scratching his beard. The gesture was as much to soften the itch he was feeling there as it was to remind him that he was a man, now, and not the tiny lad of his memories. “But it doesn’t mean a man needs roots.”
“What happens to a tree that has no roots?”
“Rain falls, wind blows, the tree goes down. But a man isn’t a tree.”
“A man can be like a tree,” the spirit repeated.
“And that means a man can be unlike a tree, as well.”
“And what happens when the rain falls? When the wind blows, when the rains come?”
The rider was silent for a while before he answered. “Then the man leaves the rain and wind behind him.” When he looked up, the shadow was gone.
to be continued