Cozy Flash: “The Sleeping”

Art by Remco van Straten

Autumn was on its way out; of this the troll was certain.

~

Though he was hairy all over, the cold had crept into his bones. He’d heard the change of season in the wind and in the silence of the animals that had moved south or hidden away. The northerly wind rustled through the red and yellow crown of the forest. A lone squirrel scuttled through the brown carpet of fallen leaves, burying the last nuts and seeds that could be found. The days had grown short.

“Can you hear me? The dark is coming,” sang the birds that would stay to endure the winter.

~

For weeks he had been watching the tiring sun at noonday, sitting under the ancient oak that stood guard over the entrance to their cave. He had watched the sun heave itself to a low zenith, then sigh down again. When the oak had dropped all but its most tenacious leaves, he gathered his many children and their mother, and said, “The time has come for the Sleeping.”

They’d sleep through the coldest part of the year, in their cave deep under the hill, where they wouldn’t feel the worst of winter’s bite. It had always been like this, as far back as they could remember. And on this last waking day, certain rituals must be observed that would prepare them for the months to come.

~

Under the watchful eye of their mother, the younger trolls gathered ferns and leaves and long grasses, whatever could still be found. She praised those who did well, urged on the slow, and made sure her smallest children stayed out of the way, but still felt included.

“Those leaves are perfect, and will lie under my head,” she’d say to them, and she would admire the colours. Father took their eldest ones to collect berries, roots and beetles. They came home when the milky sun moved between the trees. They were tired and happy, having gathered the makings of a feast: on this one day, they took all that they could carry, for this would be their last meal for a long time.

~

The troll set to work building a great fire in the main hall of their cave, and afterwards he gathered his family outside to see the last of the sun. Mother had brought the fire stones, and when the last sliver of sun had disappeared, she struck them together. She lit a bark torch and carried it back into the cave, her many children following behind. Father came last and sealed the entrance with boulders, sticks and mud. The youngest trolls were too young to remember last year’s ritual, but forgot their tears when Mother put the torch to the pyre, and flames crept towards the narrow crevice in the cave’s roof.

~

They all settled around the fire and ate in the warmth and light that made them forget the coming lean months. Mother made sure each bite was chewed carefully, and that they ate as much as their bellies could hold, and then some more. That night’s meal had to be enough for a season’s worth of hunger.

~

Meanwhile, Father told the stories of their family, so they would never be forgotten. First he spoke of the World Tree they had sprung from, and the Wurm that sleeps amongst its roots.

“And like him,” he concluded, “we too will sleep, between the roots of our great oak.”

Then he told of Great Grendel, how he lost first his arm and then his life, and how his mother avenged him. When the pictures he made with his voice were too awful, the smallest of his children hid their faces behind their hands. They must pay attention, Father urged, because the blood of Mankind ran so hot that they didn’t need much hair, and wherever they found trolls they could not leave them in peace.

~

Father’s voice grew soft as he told them about their grandparents, and his own, long ago led away by the Great Reindeer while they slept: the old father with the one leg, the one who rode wolves on the hunt, the grandmother who was a little mad but very kind, and many others. His children knew them all, even though they’d never met. He rose, suddenly, with his hands held above his head, fingers spread out, and behind him the shadow of the Great Reindeer leapt on the cave’s wall. His children shrieked and giggled. Then he sat down again and, as every year, the eldest son asked when they themselves would be taken away.

Father looked at each of them in turn. “The Great Reindeer will protect you,” he finally promised them. “He will watch over you in your slumber. Are you not all young and strong?”

~

When the fire was no more than cooling embers, when all their bellies were full and their voices had gone from whispers to a contented silence, Mother and Father roused their children from their places. Those who had already fallen asleep, they gently picked up and carried.

~

A last hug, then they snuggled up together. As they settled down in their beds of leaf and bracken, they remembered going to sleep this time last year, and waking up again when the trees had budded, and the birds sang a different song. They closed their eyes and drifted off, knowing that the Great Reindeer watched over them, and that spring was just a breath away.

— Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten


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