It was that time of year again. I woke up to a furry snout nudging my hand. Lhyelhing the wolf was eagerly trying to get me up; so I pulled off the cover and then immediately went under them as a cold breeze blasted my body.
But the wolf wasn't having any of that and just snatched the blanket with his jaws. I grumbled, getting my jacket and another pair of socks. Then I followed the irritated wolf.
Brother was yawning, already falling asleep on a chair. The wolf got mad and nipped his ankles. "Aahh! Okay, Lhyelhing! I'm up, I'm not asleep!" He fell onto the floor in surprise.
I laughed. Then the wolf growled at me and gestured at us to follow him. "Ah, okay, Lhyelhing. Yes, we follow."
The door was open and outside the ground was covered in a thin blanket of white snow. Little flakes fell from the sky like a crystal rain.
There was bread on the table and we ate quickly.
"Gonna be a long journey today, huh?" Brother asked. Yes, a long journey, just like every year.
Father was putting on his boots and then he put on his deer shaped mask. It was made with the head of a real deer, treated and preserved to maintain its natural shape, even having the antlers intact. The fur was a little matted but that could be fixed with a simple wash. Wrapping his scarf a little tighter, he called us. He loaded the bucket onto our small sled and patted Lhyelhing tenderly while he fastened the leash on him.
"Ride on, beast, ride on!" he said as he clapped his hands and the wolf obeyed, carrying the sled while we walked alongside him. We walked in silence for about an hour just looking around at the trees and listening to the soft crunch of snow beneath our boots. And then we came to an open spot where a few deer were roaming. Father signaled for us to be absolutely quiet and we hid behind a few trees.
Slowly, he crawled up to the deer with his deer mask and the animals did not suspect him fortunately. Quickly, Lhyelhing, who now had the sled detached from his body, ran up and pinned the animal by biting its ankle. With his knife, Father swiftly got up and stabbed the deer right in the flank. The animal struggled for a few moments while father stabbed the deer again, this time right in the neck. It fell right there and probably died in a second. Maybe a few seconds.
Father called for us to come. We brought the sled and Father took something from it to collect the blood spilling from the deer's flank. The blood flowed into a bottle and as he collected it, he spoke to us.
"So that's how you kill them. One stab at the heart might not do it so a deep stab in the head or neck will do so. Or of course, just wait for them to bleed to death. But," he paused as the blood filled one bottle and he took another one. "But then you would lose a lot of the precious blood."
"Fu…" I groaned along with Brother. "It smells disgusting… I know we do this every year. But it's still disgusting,"
"Be quiet, ungrateful child," he grumbled as he filled another bottle and loaded the carcass onto the sled. I shivered at his stern tone. "Ah, you'll understand someday. Now help me." Brother just ignored my reaction.
Lhyelhing already was chewing the leg he bit off. Father smiled and stroked our furry brother's head and reattached the sled. He pulled with all his might and we walked slowly until we came home.
The blood had frozen in the cold as all the warmth had drained out of the deer's body. Father got out his large dagger and began carving out the deer. Brother followed father's order to gather the firewood to make a huge bonfire. I helped too. That was called the "Ngellhiilh"- the open space where all rituals take place.
After an hour, he was able to carve out the head with the antlers. He moved the head onto the wood we prepared and poured one bottle of the blood on it.
He wore his deer mask and threw off his jacket. He was standing with a deer mask, his chest bare and just standing in his pants. Almost immediately, he lit up the torch and lit up the firewood with it.
"Let the Lhopno Dzhalhong begin!"
He let the fire blaze and the bloody deer head blackened in the flames.
"Timelhkholhaay, accept this head, let us be blessed this winter! Don't let the cold destroy us this year and let this deer feed us! Let the Khuzhye be happy with us and protect us in this forest!"
We watched Father dance around the fire while the head burnt. This happened every year and every year, Father would dance that mesmerising trance around the large flames as they burned away at those bones.
The antlers cracked and easily split under the heat of the flames. Even though it was winter, I could feel the heat of the flames creating its own sphere of summer, making me take off my jacket. I watched on as the skull that was blacker than the night slowly became milk white.
Father kept on dancing, moving his legs quickly over the barren ground and we felt the air around us change. Gusts of air blew towards the fire, making it grow bigger as the skull cracked more and more. We felt it. The Khuzhye had arrived. Like a thin light, glowing a soft colour like the sky, I saw the shadow of a deer in the fire. Father's eyes lit up in joy as he saw the shape of the guardian spirit. Now he danced with even more energy and this continued for a few more minutes. Finally, he stopped and then bowed down to the Khuzhye. The Khuzhye bowed down to him in return. Then it disappeared into the smoke, the fire also burning out with it.
Slowly, father gathered his things as the winter weather began to return. As he got his jacket, he began digging with a spade into the soil, stopping as the metal met the permafrost, which was close to the surface in this winter weather. Fortunately, the hole was big enough for the skull to be buried. Who knew how many skulls were buried in this Ngellhiilh, our own sacred field in the forest of the Khuzhye.
I wore my jacket too and ran up to Father to embrace him since the ritual was a success. He hugged both me and Brother.
"Hmph… can we eat now? I'm hungry," Brother asked, gazing at the dead deer with desire in his eyes.
Father sighed. "You insatiable dwarfs," he said. "Okay, let's get some firewood from the house. I'll help Mashunya carry the big pot." And we did just that.
Brother got the wood, I got the pots and pans and Father returned to the deer, cutting away at it with his knives and daggers.
We cooked some of the deer that morning. After that, Father spent the entire afternoon with us, chopping away more meat for later. We preserved some of it in the underground freezer and some of it was smoked over an open fire.
This is my family's story of the Lhopno Dzhalhong, our yearly winter celebration.
Samir Hussain Khan is a grade 12 student from Delhi Public School (DPS) Dhaka.