The official publication date for The Spring Dance is tomorrow, when the free download offer starts for Tales from the Northlands, a collection of stories with a Nordic flavour. This short story is in the same vein. If you like it, you will probably enjoy The Spring Dance stories too.
The spring had been late and cold, and hailstorms had knocked the buds from the fruit trees. The summer sun was pale and fitful, and the few buds that had swollen stayed small and green. Autumn came early with gales and floods, and the crops, the grains, the fruits and the small rodents were washed away.
Winter was biting, and a skinny roe deer wandered disconsolately through the thinning cover of an oak wood. She chewed a trailing strand of ivy, pulled at a stump of bramble, and plodded to the edge of the big field. The field had been mown on the last day of sunshine, and nothing was left in it to tempt her out from the trees. Nothing except a single, bright yellow sunflower that had no business being there, but shone like a beacon against the drab dampness.
The hind took one timid step, then two, then she leapt into the field and the yellow flower. One, then two, then three shots rang out and the hind staggered and fell. With her last strength, she stretched her neck to touch the precious flower colour of sunshine and summer with the tip of her tongue. Then her eyes clouded over and she died.
One, then two, then three huntsmen stepped from the hedge at the top of the field and strode down to inspect their kill. The first prodded the hind with his foot.
“Small,” he said with a frown.
The second jabbed his shotgun into her ribs. “Skinny,” he said.
“Full of ticks,” the third said, turning away.
The huntsmen dragged the dead deer back into the bushes and left her there. Later, when the sun had gone, and the deer was quite cold, a fox nosed her and licked his lips. He was hungry too. He smelled the deer’s death on her and knew who had sent it. Though he settled down to the unexpected meal, his teeth ground in anger. Later still, a badger snuffled by and feasted on the deer. She also smelled the deer’s death and snorted in anger, but the winter was bleak, and food was scarce. A passing barn owl swooped down and wrenched strips of meat from the deer, and the next morning, crows and jays picked at the flesh still on the bones. When all the animals had had their turn, ants picked the bones clean and left them to be covered respectfully by the long grasses and wildflowers when they came back in the spring.
When the cold was over, the year turned sweet and mild. Later, summer rolled around, hotter and hotter. The stream ran dry, and the shade buzzed with biting insects. Lying panting in a thicket of brambles, the fox smelled a bad smell from the cluster of houses where the huntsmen lived. The air was hot and full of grass stalks, prickly seeds and the tiny insects that whined and hummed and stung and irritated. But as well as the dry seeds and the irritating insects, the air had a bitter, smoky taste that boded no good.
With his mate and his cubs, the fox ran across the big, ploughed field and turned on the brow of the hill to watch. In a little while, he was joined by the badger and her family, a flock of crows, a band of noisy jays and a couple of sleepy owls. They perched or sat or lay on the hilltop and watched, as sparks from the barbecue set light to the grass dry as tinder, ate up the bone-dry gardens, gorged on the wormy wooden floors of the barn, and leapt, a roaring beast, to feast on the window shutters, the carpets and the wooden staircases of the cottages.
People shouted and screamed and milled about with buckets of water, or fled to their cars and the road. In the distance, the foxes, the badgers and the jays heard the belling of a monstrous mechanical hound, surely called up by the men to devour the flames. But the fire merely laughed and danced its wild dance.
“Karma,” said the fox. The others nodded in agreement.