The House of Mammoth Bones
by Bill Bowler
Brun had risen earlier than Wolf. Before first light, he wrapped himself in warm fur, hung a leather sack and a bison bladder over his shoulder on a long leather thong, descended the path to the foot of the cliff and disappeared into the forest. Brun knew the way by heart.
When he reached the fork, he caught scent of a fragrant aroma hanging in the air. He followed the scent, and soon emerged into a clearing. On the far side grew a large bush covered with small white flowers. Brun took a deep breath of the perfumed air, crossed the clearing, and with careful precision, he collected the delicate petals and fragrant leaves, filling his leather sack.
As he worked methodically, his thoughts drifted. Wolf’s daughter, El-La, came to mind. Her yellow hair shone like the spirit of light. She was quick and graceful, like a wood deer. She was beautiful, and so sad now. Brun admired her, though he had never said a word and kept his feelings hidden. She had mated, borne a child. Brun had no part in her life.
And then her mate had been mauled by a big cat. His body was buried in the earth and his spirit dwelt in the other world. El-La was not the same as she had been. She had wilted. Her light had grown dim, her movements slow. And now her spirit came to Brun as he worked quietly in the clearing.
When he had filled his leather sack, Brun went down to the river, to a spot where the water eddied, forming a deep, still pool. He filled his bison bladder with fresh water and started back home.
He had climbed the path back to the plateau and was crossing to the entrance of the cave when he heard a voice chanting. He saw Old Wolf sitting cross-legged behind the house of bone with his long staff across his lap. Brun smiled to himself. The old man was up early paying the spirits a visit. Brun saw that the grey sky was growing lighter and the edge of the earth was turning pink. The spirit of light and warmth was coming to show its face.
Inside the cave, the clan was beginning to stir. Arch threw off his covers, Zak rose, and the others began to move. Brun placed dry wood chips and peat into the rounded stone basin that held his embers just outside the cave entrance. He blew across the surface, and the smoking embers leapt into flame and began to consume the fresh wood and peat.
Across the fire, Brun placed his wide, thin stone platter, supported on stacks of flat rock that left space for the flames underneath to breathe. From an animal-skin storage sack, Brun scooped handfuls of dried pine nuts and spread them with a broad flake of flint across the hot surface.
He placed a large mammoth-skull bowl onto the hot stone platter, filled it with water from the bison bladder, and stirred in petals and leaves from the flowering bush. Soon the aroma of warm drink and roasting pine nuts drifted in the air.
From inside the cave, Zak, Arch and the others moved towards the entrance. From the house of mammoth bones, La, El-La, and Little Wolf emerged and crossed the plateau towards where Brun stood tending his fire.
Brun smiled as El-La and Little Wolf approached the hearth. He spoke to the boy. “You like seeds from the fire, Little Wolf?”
“No! I like meat!”
“Here,” said Brun, blowing across a handful of pine nuts to cool them for the boy, “try these. They are not as good as deer or bison, but they will take away your hunger for now.”
Little Wolf put a warm pine nut in his mouth and chewed.
“What is mine, is yours,” said Brun, “any time.” He gestured towards El-La and then towards himself.
El-La’s face clouded over and she looked down at the ground.
Brun tapped his chest with his fingertips. “I understand.”
Zak was watching Brun and El-La, watching and listening. He stepped between them and shook his head no. “Not Brun.” He touched his own chest. “Zak. Zak and El-La.”
Brun turned to tend his fire. He was not looking for a fight. El-La said nothing, took Little Wolf by the hand and moved away.
Wolf emerged from the house of bone carrying his staff, crossed the plateau, and joined the others. Arch saw the troubled look on the old man’s wrinkled face.
“Wolf, something bad?”
“Very bad. A warning from the spirits.”
“What did they show you?”
Zak stood beside his father and looked intently at the staff. Zak knew what power the staff gave its owner in the world of spirits and the world of men. Zak wanted that power. He wanted the staff. He wanted the respect and admiration that the possessor of the staff commanded, and the fear it inspired. He wanted to travel to the spirit world to learn the secrets and mysteries, and the staff led the way there. And if he possessed the staff, El-La would not ignore him. She would desire him. Why couldn’t he just reach out and take it? Why not just rip it from the old man’s hands? Who would stop him? He was stronger than Brun. And Arch would not stop him. He’d be proud to see his son strong and powerful. Once Zak had the staff, Wolf would be powerless, just another old weakling.
“Death?” Arch replied to Wolf. “Death is all around us, here and in the spirit world, too. Death takes who he wants and when he wants. There is little we can do except be ready. Now let us eat what Brun has prepared. And then, we hunt. Do you like mush, Zak? Ha ha!” Arch slapped his son on the back.
Zak made a face and spat. “I’m sick of nuts and grass. I’d rather starve.”
“Eat something. Kill your hunger. Then we hunt.”
* * *
Wolf returned to the bone house and laid the spirit staff in its fur-lined resting place, a long, narrow trench near the rear wall. He replaced the carved plank cover, and then rose and joined the others.
Arch was speaking to the clan. He was the strongest among them. His broad shoulders and bulging, muscular arms commanded respect. And he was intelligent and observant, like Wolf, always alert. He had never been to the spirit world and never learnt their ways. He left that to Wolf, who knew the spirits well, but Arch was a natural leader in the world of men.
Arch raised his strong hand and spoke to those gathered around him. “La will stay here to watch the young ones. Brun will stay in case an animal or stranger comes. The rest of you, follow me.”
Wolf, El-La, Zak and the others, armed with short spears and clubs, set off down the path behind Arch. The hunting party descended to the base of the cliff, followed the path to the fork, and one by one, disappeared into the woods. Little Wolf lingered at the head of the path, watching until the last of the hunters had disappeared from sight. Then he turned and ran to join the others.
“Look what I’ve got! Who wants it?” La shouted to the children and showed them a ball woven from strands of gut.
“Me! Me! Me!” The children crowded round La, trying to grab the ball from her hands. She used it as a lure to herd them to an open space at the far end of the plateau. Brun stayed by his fire, adding more chunks of slow-burning peat to keep the embers glowing. Then he spread out a mammoth fur hide at the entrance to the cave and stretched out on the soft fur.
The hunting party spread out through the forest and headed away from the river, towards the open plain. They made their way, treading softly through the trees and brush, each hunter always in sight of one other. The forest seemed still, silent and deserted, as the birds and animals watched them pass.
Zak positioned himself behind El-La and stayed close. She moved quickly and silently, like a wood deer, her yellow hair catching the light that filtered down through the treetops. He stared at her from behind, watching the back of her supple thighs as she bent to pass under a low hanging branch. He had to hurry to keep up. El-La heard a twig crack and turned to see Zak creeping up on her. The look on his face revolted her.
Zak took hold of her arm and said in a harsh whisper, so the others could not hear, “Your mate is dead.”
“His spirit lives,” said El-La.
“He is dead.” Zak puffed up his chest. “I am stronger than he was.”
“He is an eagle. You are a worm.”
Zak’s eyes went wide. He raised his spear and held the blade before El-La’s face. El-La spat on the ground and shook her arm free. Zak threw his spear down, turned and kicked a clump of moss with all his might, dislodging a large, half-buried rock. Zak felt a terrible pain in his big toe, which only increased his rage. As the cover of its hiding place flew off, a snake coiled underneath darted forward and sunk its jaws into the soft, exposed flesh of Zak’s ankle. The snake pulled back and slithered off through the ferns on the forest floor.
Zak hopped on his good foot. “Ow! Ow! I’ve been poisoned!”
Wolf and the others heard the commotion. Zak dropped down to the bed of pine needles that covered the forest floor and pulled off his fur foot covering.
“Ow,” groaned Zak. “My foot!”
Wolf and the others ran up to them.
“What happened?” asked Wolf.
“One snake bit the other,” said El-La.
Wolf knelt beside Zak and examined his foot. There were two bloodless pin pricks in his ankle and his big toe was red and swollen.
“Did you see the snake?”
“Not poisonous,” said El-La.
“How did this happen?” Wolf repeated his question.
“I heard the snake hiss,” said Zak. “It was going to bite El-La. I kicked the snake, but my foot hit a rock and the snake bit me.”
“He is no good for the hunt,” Wolf said to Arch.
Wolf turned to Zak. “You wait here. Stay off the foot. After the hunt, we will take you back to the cave.”
“I can hunt,” said Zak. He stood up and brandished his spear, but winced from the pain in his swollen toe and had to lift his leg to take the weight off.
“No,” said Wolf. “You will only slow us down. Wait here.”
“I won’t!” said Zak angrily.
“You will,” said Arch in a tone of voice that ended the argument.
Zak threw his spear to the ground and sat down on the pine needles, muttering to himself, angry and scowling, as the hunters moved out.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler