Smoke in the Darkness

The reindeer people of Siberia, family groups who made their living herding reindeer, had a rich spirituality. It included a holy man who traveled by magic reindeer, and entered the snow-covered winter homes through the only opening: the smoke hole in the roof. When Christian missionaries ventured as far north as the Arctic Circle in the seventeenth century, they brought with them stories of Saint Nicholas as part of their teachings of Christ. Often, a people’s tradition and Christianity were combined in ways that fit both religions’ symbolisms.

Lopahin snuggled in the bed, a pile of reindeer hides that lay as close to the fire are safety would allow. It was dark. It was always dark in the wintertime. His mother, father and grandmother sat near the fire with the uncle who was talking quietly so the child could go to sleep.

Outside, the wind howled. Lopahin could hear the hard, biting snow pelting the timber walls. Sleepy but not yet asleep, he watched the orange glow of the fire and the smoke from it curl around, then find its way to the main opening in the house, the smoke hole in the roof. The smoke escaped through the hole to who-knows-where. The child certainly didn’t know. It was so long since he had left this little house, so long since it was light and summer, so long since they lived in a tent and followed the hundreds of reindeer his family herded. He could hardly remember…

Sleep had almost overtaken him when his uncle’s voice rose, just a little.

“I met two men that have come from far away. They’re from warm places, but they have come all this way here to talk with us about our holy man,” his uncle said.

Lopahin did not move, lest they see he was still awake and stop talking altogether. But he listened, for he loved to hear stories of the Holy Man, the shaman.

“I told them of our shaman, how we call him when someone is sick or dying. I said that life was like a tree—the roots are underground, in the world of the dead, and the branches reach the heavens. The trunk in between is the earth. Sometimes, if we need to connect with the heavens, the shaman can help.”

Lopahin loved that story. His grandmother had told it to him, while his father carved notches in the big pole in the center of the house to show Lopahin the way life was like a tree.
“The men asked how our shaman is able to travel when it gets so cold. I told them of the shaman’s helpers,” the uncle went on.

The others nodded. In the darkness, Lopahin nodded too, just a little. He knew the helpers. One was a bird which guided the shaman to the upper world. Next was a fish that took him to the underworld. And lastly, the magic reindeer that protected the shaman. This was Lopahin’s favorite. He saw reindeer all the time, hundreds of reindeer; but this one, he knew, was special. He loved to imagine a reindeer that could protect him. Would it look different from the regular reindeer? What magic could it do?

His uncle went on.

“Then the strangers said they’d tell me about their God-man. They call him Jesus. They said there was much to tell us of this Jesus. The God-man has some holy people like our shaman. One holy man is named Nicholas. This Nicholas travels to help people. He has cured people like our shaman. I asked the strangers many more questions. They promised to come in the spring, before we leave for herding, to tell us more about this God-man and his shaman, Nicholas…
Lopahin stirred under the comfort of the blankets, watched a wisp of smoke rise through the hole once more and wondered about all he had heard. He hoped he’d hear more in the spring. But right now, spring was a long time away and he was so sleepy…and his bed was so comfortable…

The wind hurled snow against the walls of his safe house. Closing his eyes, Lopahin fell asleep.