Toma stopped in his tracks, surprised by Van’s whisper. Behind him, Kiya’s nephews also halted, looking up at Van with tense expressions. Van crouched, and pointed at a thicket in the shade of a moss-covered rock, on the other side of a large spruce tree. Mosquitoes and horseflies swarmed in the white light, weaving through the foliage.
In the shade of the rock, light brown ears twitched to keep the mosquitoes away.
“You see it?”
Hearing that, Toma and the three young men craned their necks, looking intently into the thicket before their eyes widened in astonishment.
“Correct. She’s going to give birth anytime now.”
Zuppy had been restlessly circling the same place for a while and sniffing the ground, and now she lay down then got up several times in a row.
With a quiet murmur, Van quietly yielded his spot to the youths.
Something that looked like black branches was visible from between Zuppy’s legs.
“Legs?” Toma whispered.
“They’re forelegs. The head will come out very soon as well.”
Suddenly a head popped out between the wet, slender, black legs…and then, quickly, the whole body slid out with a wet sound and fell onto the grass with a thud.
“It was born!” One of the nephews exclaimed with excitement.
Seeing Zuppy turn her eyes their way, as if aware of their presence, the young men froze in panic. As they held their breath, Zuppy quickly got up, and began to restlessly circle the same spot again, just like before, and soon she stopped and dropped another fawn.
And then she turned towards her newly born fawns, and started to vigorously lick their wet bodies. The targets of that diligent licking, the fawns, soon tried to stand up for the very first time. Even though they had just been born, they were already trying to get to Zuppy’s breasts all by themselves.
Eventually, and with strenuous effort, they stood on thin legs that looked as though they would snap at any moment, and unsteadily searched for milk.
“…Keep at it.” Toma whispered.
“Go for it…do your best…it’s a little bit lower…”
The nephews also whispered with their fists clenched.
Before long, they watched as the first-born fawn managed to snuffle its way to Zuppy’s breast and started to suck. A short while later, the other fawn also managed to start nursing. Seeing them single-mindedly drink her milk for the first time in their lives, Zuppy lovingly began to lick the ear of one of her children.
“She did really well.” Van muttered while smiling.
“That girl went ahead and got herself pregnant with a moose’s children all by herself.”
She’s a sturdy doe. She’ll probably be able to give birth to many healthy fawns in the future.
While watching the doe calmly lick her children after completing such a titanic feat, Van felt his chest fill with a strange feeling. Children were born just like that, and would eventually die. The inevitability of the cycle of life swept through him like a wave.
A bird chirped somewhere. The wind caressed the trees’ twigs, and the sun bathed mother and children in a white light through the foliage.
As the sun’s rays became noticeably stronger, great numbers of birds started to cross the sky, making themselves known with high-pitched voices. They were migratory birds which spent the summer in these northern lands, and would pass the winter in the warmer south.
As he tracked a boar by its footprints along the shoreline, Van heard a shrill cry like the chiming of a bell and lifted his head. The birds, which had been gliding across the sky, started to alight on the lake one after another. The red stripes on the undersides of their white wings made it seem as if they were clothed in flames as they flapped their wings.
…Fireclapper ducks, huh?
He had often seen these birds in the autumn in his hometown. Since it was said that alshimi, one of the puyka’s favorite foods, would be abundant in the forests when many mazkara crossed the skies, Van’s mood improved somewhat whenever he caught sight of these birds.
They pass through this place so early in the year, huh? They probably come to this area in early summer, spend the summer here, and head south as soon as they feel autumn approaching.
And then, along the way towards their southern wintering spots, they would rest their wings in Van’s homeland, the Toga Mountainous District…
I’ve somehow managed to make a living in this place. Carry that message on your small backs, and inform the mountains and rivers of my homeland.
Van thought in his mind, as he watched the birds continue their journey towards their homeland.
The fawns quickly grew up in the forest over the course of the summer. Everyday, Van entered that forest with the youths, teaching them about the puyka’s way of life as they hunted.
One day, as Van was planting a trap, Toma, who had gone to take a look at the thicket where the mother and her children stayed, came back with a frantic expression, telling Van that the young fawns were gone.
“Did a fox get to ‘em or what?”
The nephews who returned a little later also worriedly reported that the young fawns were nowhere to be found, even though Zuppy was grazing with the other does in the herd.
Without a break in his movements, Van finished setting the trap and got up.
The youths hurriedly followed him as he walked off. When he reached the grassy patch in the forest where the herd liked to gather, Zuppy was grazing without her fawns, just as they had said. Once Van had grasped the positions of the scattered puyka, he headed downwind so as to not startle them, and sat down in the shade of a tree.
“You guys sit down as well. It will be a long wait.”
The youths looked quizzically at Van, but did as they were told.
Van retrieved herbs for repelling mosquitoes from his pocket and shared them with everyone. Without a word, the youths squeezed the herbs, and smeared their faces and napes with its grassy-smelling sap. Both hunting and grazing the herd were jobs where one often had to wait patiently. The young men had gotten used to waiting.
For quite a long time, Zuppy slowly wandered through the meadow with the rest of the herd, who were eating grass or rearing up to pick at the soft new leaves on the trees. Eventually, she left the herd by herself. Noticing that, Van got up. Signaling for the youths to follow him, he followed Zuppy, keeping plenty of distance between them.
Zuppy walked through the forest and then approached a moss-covered, fallen tree laying on the ground.
“……!” Toma gasped.
A small figure appeared from the shadow of the fallen tree. With a faltering gait, but with unwavering determination, it approached its mother. Another one jumped out of the shade of a rock. The fawns crawled under their mother’s belly with great joy, and began to heartily drink her milk.
Van turned back to explain to the youth looking on dumbfoundedly, “The fawns can’t eat grass yet. However, the mother must eat plenty of grass to produce good milk. That’s why the fawns will hide in the shadows of fallen trees and rocks like that.” Van smiled, scanning the vicinity. “You see, during this period the little ones are lurking all over the place, holding their breaths.”
After explaining that, Van stifled his smile.
“If it were up to you, which of the little ones would you raise?”
Toma and the nephews looked at each other, hesitating for a short while, but in the end Mino spoke up.
“…I would raise the first-born.”
Van looked at the other three.
“You share his opinion?”
Toma and Moki nodded, but after some initial hesitation, Chida said, “I get a feeling that the second-born will grow to be stronger.”
“Why do you think that?”
Chida became bright red in an instant. This youth, the youngest of them, was timid and tended to aimlessly trail after his bigger brothers. Probably overwhelmed after realising that he had unintentionally disagreed with his brothers, he couldn’t quite speak up clearly.
Van waited quietly.
Before long, Chida said with a hoarse voice, “…The way it walked is more brisk.”
Van smiled at that, “You did really well to have noticed that,” and then he added while pointing at the fawns, “Take a look at the way they position their legs. The fawn that was born later has his legs slightly closer together, right? Even though his balance is shaky because his legs are spread, he’s standing properly.”
The young men stared intently at the fawns for a while, and started to nod one after the other.
“Being able to stop the trembling of their legs and loins is proof that they have had enough milk to grow properly. The fawns that develop slowly despite suckling frequently are ones that actually have not enough milk.”
The youths hung onto Van’s every word with serious looks.
“Both of the little ones over there have fairly good builds. Unless it is killed by foxes or wolves, the first-born will likely grow into a splendid puyka as well. However, the second-born is the one that will be capable of galloping without any issues even with a man on his back. That guy will become a great riding puyka.” Van smiled at the young men. “This period is the most crucial one for building bonds with puyka. We will aim for a time when the mother leaves its fawns, and approach the fawns to gradually get them used to our smells.”
The young men nodded, their eyes sparkling with uncontainable excitement. Chida brightened up especially, his whole face lighting up with happiness.
When evening came, Van told the youth folktales revolving around puyka, tricks for riding puyka that he had learned through experience, and similar stories as he sat at the crackling fireside. Seeing their faces illuminated by the dimly burning fire, he was struck by the thought that his own son, had he still been alive, might have listened to him with the same look in his eyes.
Feeling the warmth and weight of Yuna, who was lying across his cross-legged thighs, and listening to her breath slowly in her slumber, he keenly felt the pain of losing his child so long before his time. Yuna had already become quite heavy, and her cheeks had a healthy, red tinge to them.
──My son also had days like this. I wonder, just what is the difference between a life that seems to continue interminably, and a life that is so easily snuffed out. Why did my very young son, who hadn’t done anything, have to leave this world so quickly? Why did the illness choose my boy and my wife…?
Each time he thought of it, he could feel a suffocating rage well up from deep within him at the irrationality of this world. The grief and anger that seemed like it would rip his heart right out of his chest every time he thought of his son never waned and would likely follow him until his death. The same could be said for this void, the emptiness that existed in the deepest part of his guts.
Yuna is very dear to me. But, raising this child won’t soothe the loss of my own child. It’s not like training Toma and the others as puyka riders will bring back my former purpose in life.
And yet, the days now were filled with a serenity that he had only experienced that day in the light of the autumn sun. Van had a vague feeling this sensation of transience would gradually melt away as he began to put down roots in this place.
However, it was accompanied by a lurking shadow. Just like the shadows that appeared beneath a grove of trees bathed in sunlight, a cool shadow that got darker as everything else became brighter haunted his every step.