He had grown up with the story of the horse. That magical meeting between man and beast that had forever changed his father’s life. He knew the story like the trail to the watering hole. He could tell it in his sleep. He watched for years, the love shared between his father and the horse. It was almost as though they were two halves of the same soul.
He watched time pass, first with joy, then with worry, as the horse began to age. His father left the village less and less as the horse became frailer. Almost like he was afraid that the next time he left would be the last time he would see his dear savior. He feared his father would never recover from the loss of this horse that had been his constant companion for many years. He tried, for many moons, to come up with a way to save his father from this pain. He knew, deep within his heart, that there was no way he could stop the horse from dying any more than he could stop the sun from setting or the river from flowing.
Sitting with his clan mates around a roaring fire in the cold of an early winter morning, he watched as the young men, a few years older than himself, stuck their knives in the heat of the flames and then used the heated knives to imprint beautiful images on spare pieces of jerkin for the young women they shared the mating dance with. Watching the simple methodical process, he was struck with an idea, a way for his father to never lose the other half of his soul. He knew it would take time, time he didn’t have to waste and that he would have to be careful to not let anyone catch on to his plot but he thought that it might work
Before the sun began to shine over the mountain tops in the distance, he rose and left his family’s tent. He carried very little, his knife, a small piece of extra jerkin, and a kindling bundle were all he needed to begin his plan. He crept into the woods, praying that none of his clan would follow him on his mission.
Reaching a secluded spot in the woods, a grove of pine trees that had become his favorite spot over the long winter months, he began to collect a small amount of kindling and cleared a spot in the snow to light his fire. While the flames rose to a decent size, he used his knife to carve an image in the ground. Over and over he carved it, because it had to be perfect before he attempted to carve it into the jerkin.
When the fire was small but bright, heat radiating off of it, he moved forward with his plan. He let his knife heat until it was glowing as red as the flames it had been resting in. And then he did what he had seen the other men do. He imprint the image in the jerkin. Every spare inch of it soon became covered with the image he selected. He set the jerkin down, admiring his handiwork. Although it wasn’t perfect, he knew he could do it. He could save his father from the heartbreak that would surely destroy him.
Several moons passed as he perfected his craft. He could not work on it often, for fear of his mother noticing all the jerkin going missing. Each day he prayed he would have one more, one more day to ensure his plan would work. His father never left the camp anymore. The elders were starting to whisper about him, about how the horse was a demon who had stolen his soul all those years ago and now refused to leave him, to let him tend to his clan.
And finally it happened. It was a dewy spring morning, the sprouts of green grass just beginning to show through the ground, when the horse finally passed away. His father was inconsolable. He disappeared into the woods, unable to be near the dead body of his dearest friend. The clan was of mixed opinions. The elders hoped that perhaps the horse’s death would grant his father freedom from the claim it had had on his soul. His mother was worried, worried her husband would never come back and the clan would descend into madness. The rest of the clan just prayed that their leader would return as strong as he had when the horse first saved him.
The young man put his plan into motion as soon as his father left. He gathered the small pack he had hidden under his bedroll, the pack that had been hiding there since the first morning he had started the preparations for this very moment. He crept into the woods, quiet as a whisper in the wind, once again praying no one would follow him.
As he walked through the woods, he tried to focus on his breathing. He wanted to be sure he would not ruin his plan now, not when it could do so much for his father, for his clan as a whole. With the sun sending shadows through the blossoming trees, he traversed.
After what seemed like a far longer time than it truly was, he reached his spot among the pines. He almost seemed to feel their spirits reach out to him, to tell him that his future was bright. He took a deep breath, inhaled the wintery smell of pine trees and the faintest hint of the coming spring and settled in to do what he had come to do.
Like many moons ago, he started with a small fire. While the fire gained momentum, he laid out the rest of his tools. His pack contained his knife, freshly cleaned before he left the village, and the small satchel of healing poultice he had snatched from his mother’s bedroll when she was distracted.
With the fire blazing brightly, he steeled his nerves. Taking the knife in one shaking hand, he glanced at the pines, almost waiting for them to reassure him that this would work. The wind blew at that moment, the pines shook and whispered to him in their secret way, and he felt calmed.
He stuck the knife into the fire, all the while staring at the pines. With every breath of fresh pine into his lungs, he felt steadier. After several moments, he pulled the knife out of the fire and tested it against the barely sprouting blades of grass to ensure it was ready. With the grass sizzling beneath him, he brought the knife to his face. Painstakingly, with great care, he carved the image he had worked on for so long into his cheek. It had to be perfect. His plan had to work.
Each time he thought he would pass out from the pain, he looked to the pines and waited for their reassurance. And each time he felt calmed and was able to proceed. Finally, after what could have been minutes but felt like hours, he was done. His mission was complete. Now all he had to do was play the part. He let the knife drop from his fingers, shaking like a leaf in a windstorm now that it was over. He grasped the satchel of healing poultice, dropping it several times in the process from his shaking fingertips.
With application came sweet relief from the burning pain in his cheek. He felt around the wound as he applied the poultice, wanting to know if he had done it right. He could not tell from touch alone but he knew he could find a stream of water in which to check his reflection. And he would need the water to wash his face anyway. The poultice would need to be reapplied at least once before he went back to the clan.
But first he needed to rest and practice his story. He knew the success of his plot rested on his performance when he arrived back at the clan. He only hoped it would be enough.
His walk back to the village was slow, each step sending pain through his face. Even the slightest breeze against it caused his breath to catch in his lungs. As the pain continued, he wondered for the first time if his plan was actually worth it. Would all this pain be worth the end result? What if his father never returned to the clan, what if this was all for not? As these thoughts crossed his head, the smell of pine crossed his nose. Looking to his left, he saw a pine tree, like the ones that had comforted him through the whole experience. Letting his hand rest against its bark for just a moment, he felt that familiar calm wash over him. With renewed vigor, he continued his trek, assured of his success.
His mother was the first to see him when he entered the village. She was standing near their tent, worry clear in her eyes as she methodically scanned the forest in front of her. When her eyes landed on him, she seemed to stop for a moment, almost shake herself, before reacting. She ran, like a deer who heard a noise, and careened into him. He gasped as the force caused pain to rush through his face but the relief he felt in her embrace far outweighed any pain it caused.
She stepped back and finally noticed the imprint on his check. Her hand came to her mouth without her say so and she fought back tears at the sight of her son’s injury. He put a hand on her shoulder, hoping to calm her. “It’s nothing bad, mother. I promise. But I need to talk to father. Is he back yet?”
“It looks like it hurts.”
“It does not bother me too much. And the pain comes from something great, mother. Something I desperately need to tell father about. Is he back yet?”
Shaking herself out of her stupor, with the sound of tears in her voice, “He came back last night. He almost left again when he heard you were gone but the elders would not let him go. He has been in the tent all day, muttering about how he cannot lose you too.” This statement was too much for her, as a few tears escaped from her eyes.
“But I’m back now mother. And I shall not disappear again. But right now I need to talk to father.” With those words he pushed past her, gently but firmly, and made his way to the entrance to his tent. Taking one single, deep breath to steel himself for this moment he pushed the tent flap open.
His father’s eyes shook him to his core the instant he opened the tent flap. They were dead. He looked like he had given up, like he had no joy left in his life. His father looked at him like he was a dream. He rose slowly, with shaking steps, and crossed the tent. Hesitantly he reached his hand out, almost afraid to touch the child in front of him. When his fingertips connected with solid flesh, a dam seem to break in the man.
He pulled his son into his arms and held him tightly for moments that stretched into eternity. As his father pulled back, he finally noticed the mark on his son’s cheek. With gentle fingers, he touched the wound and, his voice shaking, asked, “What happened to you my son?”
“Father. I went into the woods after you left. I felt this pull. It was like nothing I could explain. It was like a voice in my head telling me I needed to go somewhere but it was not clear. Not like a voice actually speaking to me. It was more of a feeling.”
With slightly stronger steps, his father lead him to his bed roll, near the slow burning fire that always remained in the center of their tent. “Please continue my son.”
“The pull lead me to a glade in the woods. I can’t clearly remember where it was or what it looked like anymore. Because the moment I stepped into the glade, I felt this sense of rightness. Like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And then a creature stepped out of the woods in front of me. Father. It was your horse.”
“My horse? My horse met you in the woods? But he died son. He’s gone.” Sobs rose is his father’s voice as he talked about his horse but he fought valiantly to keep them from escaping.
“It was not your horse as a living creature Father. It was his spirit. He came to me and told me he wanted to help me. Wanted to help guide my future.”
“But how son? How could a horse guide your future?”
“He said he could see into the spirit realm. Said he could see my life strings and that he could guide me on the right path.”
“What happened then my son?”
“I accepted his offer. His soul now resides beside mine in me. He left me with an imprint. A mark to show our bond.”
Before he could even gesture to the mark on his cheek, his father’s fingers were there, reverently touching the mark his horse had left on his son. “He left this mark on you? A mark to show your bond?”
“Yes father. He will be with me always. He may have left the clan physically, but he shall be with us forever in spirit.”
At these words, his father’s eyes came to life, like the first day he came back on his horse. He jumped up, with the energy of a man far younger than he. “I must tell the elders. I must show them that my horse was not a demon. He is going to guide us to the future.” With these words, and one last reverent touch to the mark on his son’s cheek, the man left the tent, more alive than he had been in many moons.
And his son was left alone at last. He let out the breath he had been holding. His plan had worked. His father was saved.