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Vignette: Numberless Herds
Soon, I see the first of them, moving as a mass as they crest a low ridge in their path up a low valley, the lead animals distinct while the herd behind blends into a forest of antlers on the move in a cloud of snorted vapor and powdered snow. With cream and tawny coats their stocky legs propelling them purposefully across the landscape. They stream towards us and around us, seemingly taking no notice of where we stand. I reach out and touch one, it nuzzles my hand briefly with a furry nose. I look into its large eyes, a surprising shade of deep blue, and it moves on.
We stand in place for an hour, watching the river of animals stream past us. I distinguish some with and without antlers, but cannot tell males from females. Looking ahead and behind, I see no end of the herd. I realize there must be easily hundreds of thousands of animals just among those I had already seen, and their numbers only seemed to augment the longer we stood.
The angel says, anticipating my questions: “Yes this herd of reindeer alone numbers some nine million animals. We could stand here for five hours longer and still not see the end of them. This herd itself is one of ten such herds that also populate this region, and these in turn are a fraction of the size of the great herds that range the open east.”
I stand in wonder, unable to respond as I comprehend the fecundity of life even in such a harsh and forbidding landscape.
I experience a shock of recognition. We are standing on the treeless plains of ice-age Europe. The epoch I infer from the size of these herds, for I know that these numbers would be impossible in my present age, but the geography I recognize I know not how. It is as if being lost as a small child and recognizing my mother at a distance from among a crowd, a pre-verbal discovery of connection which is felt as a leaping in the chest, and likewise to recognizing one's mother, I knew my origin to be tied up with this recognition.
As I drink this revelation I realize that I have felt no cold at all for the past several hours, despite being clad only in black shorts and running shoes.
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