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Caribou Tales #7: A fleeting glimpse of ghosts

Catch up on previous episodes: Episode 1  |  Episode 2Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6

Check back on the 25th of every month to read the next episode.

The days are short and getting colder, but still there has been no real snow fall. Carl watches his mother Carla, who is standing at the edge of their small herd with her baby. They stand with their hooves at the brink of a lake staring out. He looks out too, wondering what has caught their attention. The sun glints across the water. Before his eyes, the top layer of water is transforming into ice, crystals linking together and expanding out towards the centre of the lake. The herd is also transforming in preparation for winter; brown coats lightening to the color of the horizon on a cloudy day and growing fuzzier like dandelion flowers going to seed.

Carla walks forward into the water, still able to break the thin coat of ice with her hardened winter hooves. Beside her, baby jumps at the sudden noise and lands in the water, then jumps again spraying water around them both. Carl watches from the forest where he has been grazing and rubbing against an old spruce tree. The feel of the cool rough wood, covered with a thin layer of frost, against his neck and flanks makes his entire body tingle. Carefully, he angles his head away from the tree to keep his antlers from getting caught in the branches. He has already lost one antler. The other will soon follow.  

Attracted by the hoots of joy from baby and the light flashing off the water droplets showering around them, several of the herd are moving out from the edges of the forest into the open. The trees stand sentry, ghost-like with their frost covered limbs, casting a shadow on the edge of the rocky beach. The caribou head towards the lake and sun, nuzzling around at the dried grasses along the edge of the lake, looking for a tasty treat. They grunt in pleasure while rooting around for particularly tasty grasses, and fall silent when they are discovered. One female lays down, falling down gracefully among the tall grasses, eating and dozing briefly in the sun. Her calf lies next to her, their white noses almost touching as they move their lips expertly over the ground around them, so sensitive they are able to distinguish even the smallest pebble from a potentially tasty berry.

They will not stay long in this open place, in this bright sunshine. Wolves can find them too easily out in the open, and since there has not yet been a significant snow fall, could too easily catch a calf or unwitting adult.

Carl walks towards Carla and the herd, picking his way over the rocks slick with ice. When he reaches her, he brushes his nose on her neck. She feels his sadness, but does not understand its source. It reminds her though, of her own sadness for the dead caribou she had seen in the early fall along the long expansion of openness. She remembers the fear at seeing the unusual opening. The memory of the feeling rushes up like the smell of the dead body washing over her had that day. Suddenly all her muscles are tight and her heart is beating wildly. Her baby, always listening to her, looks up, ready to run. Carl feels her fear and recognizes it as part of his sadness. Around them the herd becomes anxious and shift slightly, like a ripple across the water when a stone falls in.

The herd settles when nothing moves but a lone squirrel running across a branch, but the moment of peace has been broken. Carl thinks he sees a white body across the lake, silently staring at the herd, moving slowly in their direction; but now the herd is moving back to the relative safety of the forest, disappearing quickly among the trees, blending in like ghosts themselves.