The House of Mammoth Bones
by Bill Bowler
The clan gathered around the open hole they had gouged out of the earth near the foot of the cliff, in the shadow of the plateau. Wolf, dressed in wolf fur and boots, and wearing a mammoth skull as a head piece, carefully placed Little Wolf down into the grave, and covered the body with a shroud of deerskin and eagle feathers.
El-La, pale and trembling, spoke first to the spirits. “Please welcome my son to your world of shadows. He is small and young, and needs your protection. I beg you to care for him as we tried to do, as we tried, and...” She broke off into sobs.
Her mother, La, eyes red from weeping, cried out, “Take me instead, spirits! Turn the boy away from your world and take me. He has just begun to live and belongs here with the living. He has harmed no one. My life is bitter and empty without him. I am old and weak. Take me!“
Wolf raised his eyes and spoke to the spirit of light and warmth that shone in the sky above them, watching them in their grief. “La has spoken what we all feel. She would travel to your world in Little Wolf’s place. His mother El-La would. I would. We do not understand this death. We do not see what you are showing us.”
Wolf paused and looked around. All eyes were cast down. Little Wolf’s small body lay still in the freshly dug grave. Only his face was visible from beneath the deerskin covering.
Wolf raised his eyes to the sky again. “My grandson is ready to meet you. Take him into your care. We grieve for him here in the world of men, but he is yours now. The happiness he has taken from us, he will bring to you.”
The women of the tribe gathered around El-La and La, weeping and supporting each other and the grieving family. The men stood quietly around the open grave, thinking of the greatness of the spirits, their power over life and death, and the mystery of their ways. Little Wolf’s wolf pup lay at graveside, his front paws over the edge of the hole, crying and whimpering.
Wolf knelt beside the grave and dipped his fingertips into a tree bark bowl of red ochre. He touched two fingers to Little Wolf’s face and drew two parallel lines on each cheek, so that the spirits would recognize a newcomer when he reached the portal to the spirit world.
Wolf stood and gestured. Arch stepped forward, lifted a goat horn to his lips, and the haunting blare of the instrument announced to the spirit world that the living were sending a new spirit to dwell among them.
After three sustained notes from the horn, the last held for as long as he had breath, Arch knelt and placed the goat horn into the grave on the earth beside Little Wolf, his gift to the boy’s spirit.
Wolf gestured again. Brun, his eyes brimmed with tears, took out his flute made of the finely carved hollow wingbone of a giant vulture, and blew air softly into the small tube. A sad, plaintive note, crystal pure in tone, caught in the wind and was carried to the spirit world, so the spirits would know the newcomer had been loved by the clan in his short lifetime on earth. El-La sobbed bitterly as the beautiful tones of the flute hung in the air. Brun knelt at graveside and placed the bone flute on the earth beside Little Wolf.
Zak stepped forward and raised his eyes towards the sky. “I also wish the boy well on his journey to the spirit world. I will care for his mother here in the world of men. I...”
“Caw, caw, caw...” A flock of large blackbirds with yellow beaks and red eyes fluttered up from the branches of a nearby tree. Zak broke off as the noisy birds whirled and flew off towards the river, calling to each other.
Wolf watched the spirit messengers depart. When the cawing died down, he gestured towards El-La. With help from the others, she came to the graveside and sprinkled blue hyacinth and yellow groundsel flowers into the grave, covering her son’s shroud and the gifts beside him.
El-La was swooning from grief and barely able to stand. Supported by her mother, she took from around her neck her most treasured possession, a necklace made of pieces from a broken mammoth tusk, and placed it into the grave beside her son. She began to sob uncontrollably.
Wolf gazed around at all of their faces. “The spirit staff is missing.” A murmur went through the crowd. “I cannot finish the ceremony. I ask the spirits to understand.”
Wolf crossed his arms across his chest. Arch and Brun raked the loose earth back into the grave with their broad scraping flints, covering the body and the gifts, and filling the hole with rich, black earth.
* * *
That night, Arch lay awake in the cave near the glowing embers of his hearth. He could not sleep. The spirits filled his head with visions and questions. He rose from his bedding, left the cave and made his way across the silent plateau to the house of mammoth bones.
He found Wolf smoking his pipe beneath the arch of mammoth tusks. In the shadows inside the house, La and El-La were sound asleep. The wolf pup trotted over and licked Arch’s hand as he sat down beside Wolf.
“I will never understand the spirits,” said Arch with a deep sigh.
“I understand them less and less,” said Wolf.
“Why would the river spirit take Little Wolf?” asked Arch.
“Did he take Little Wolf or bring him back to us? It is not clear.”
Arch said nothing. The sound of the spirits rustling and whispering around them filled his ears. “I don’t understand, Wolf. What do you mean?”
“First we thought an animal had attacked Little Wolf. Then we thought the river spirit took him. These could be lies planted by the dark spirit that killed Little Wolf, to hide the truth.”
“But you pulled his body from the river.”
“Yes. I thank the river spirit for that.” Wolf paused and then began to speak again very slowly and distinctly. “Near the fork in the path, I found a large footprint and a small one, a grown person’s and a child’s.”
“Are you sure?”
“On the bluff above the river, the ground was trampled, but there were no claw prints or animal prints. There were broken branches and blood stains. And in the clearing near the fork, I found this.”
Wolf reached into the small pouch that hung around his neck and took out the piece of hide. “This was torn from a mammoth fur cloak.”
Arch took the piece of fur. “Whose cloak?”
Wolf was silent for a moment. “The spirit staff is gone.”
Arch nodded. Without the staff, Wolf had lost much of his mystical power. Without the staff, he would find it difficult to make his way past the barriers into the spirit world or to understand what the spirits were showing.
Wolf went on. “The staff is searching for the spirit of Little Wolf’s killer.”
Both men fell silent and stared into the glowing embers, where shimmering spirits seemed to dance.
* * *
Brun shouldered the strap that held his leather sack. His own sadness, and El-La’s deep pain and grief, weighed heavily on him. The best remedy was an herbal drink, a secret recipe only he knew. He crossed the plateau and headed down the path into the forest. He turned at the fork and went to the clearing where the great bush flowered, to replenish his supply of petals and leaves.
Zak watched Brun head down the path and became fearful. The fire keeper was always digging around for herbs and roots near the bush where the staff was hidden. What if he found the buried staff? They wouldn’t know who put it there. How could they? How would they know? But maybe someone saw something? Zak became alarmed.
He followed Brun down the path from a distance and stayed out of sight. He hid and watched, and his worst fears were realized. Brun made straight for the flowering bush and began to gather petals and leaves, standing on the very spot where the staff was buried. Zak’s heart was racing and he broke into a cold sweat. What if Brun felt something in the soft earth beneath his feet?
* * *
The wolf pup was dozing in Wolf’s lap. Morning had come, but Arch and Wolf had not slept. The two men sat silently smoking Wolf’s pipe, and watched as Brun came out of the cave with his leather sack and headed down to the forest.
When Zak came out and started down the path behind Brun, the wolf pup growled, scrambled to its legs and trotted off after him. Wolf and Arch looked at each other, rose, and joined the chain of spirits heading into the forest.
Brun reached the fork and turned off into the clearing. He filled his sack with leaves and petals from the great flowering bush, and dug for mushrooms that were growing in shade in the moist earth beneath the bush. When the sack was full, he turned and retraced his steps along the path back towards the plateau. When Brun had disappeared around the fork, Zak stepped into the clearing and ran to the bush.
Zak looked around, his jaw clenched, his heart pounding, and his eyes wide with fear. He was sure now that Brun would find the buried staff. Zak had to move the staff to a safer spot farther from the plateau. But he was afraid to dig it up, afraid that someone would come and discover him holding it, and begin to ask questions.
Zak stood immobilized, torn between digging up the staff or running from the spot as fast as his legs would carry him, and never coming back. As he stood before the bush, unable to move, he heard the snap of twigs behind him in the clearing. He turned to face his father, Wolf, and Brun. The wolf pup stood between Wolf’s legs, its little fangs bared, snarling .
“Why did you follow me here?” Brun asked Zak.
“I did not follow you.”
“We saw you, son,” said Arch.
“I did not follow Brun. He came and left, and then I came. There is nothing wrong with that. Why are you looking at me?! I have done nothing wrong!”
Wolf took the swatch of torn fur from his necklace pouch and showed it to Zak. “Your cloak is torn.” His voice was leaden and cold.
“You have no right to question me!” Zak shouted at the top of his voice.
The wolf pup walked out from between Wolf’s legs, sniffing the ground, and headed towards the flowering bush. Zak watched in horror as it began to dig. He wanted to kick the pup away with all his might, but he stood frozen in place.
The pup used its forepaws to clear away the loose earth, pushed its muzzle into the hole, grabbed something between its jaws, and pulled out the bone staff. The pup looked at Wolf, at Arch, at Brun, and then dropped the bone staff at Zak’s feet.
Arch picked up the staff and handed it to Wolf. Wolf felt its power course through him once again. He felt the spirits crowded around them. Through the portal, he heard Little Wolf’s voice call “Grandpa!” from the spirit world.
Zak was thunderstruck. He wanted to kill the wolf pup. He wanted to run. He wanted to get rid of Wolf and Brun. He wanted his father to help him. Zak turned to Wolf. “I did not know it was there! How could I? It wasn’t me! You know I was bit by the snake, my foot was injured, I could not walk. I was waiting for you in the forest when Little Wolf disappeared.
“Brun did not hunt. He was guarding the cave. It was Brun! Brun always comes here. Is it only for leaves and flowers? Hahaha! Brun killed Little Wolf and hid the staff here! He hates me because El-La wants me!”
Suddenly Zak went into a fury and struck out at the nearest enemy. He raised his spear and stepped towards Wolf with a piercing scream.
Zak was quick but Arch was quicker. He moved in front of Wolf, wrenched the spear out of his son’s hand, pushed him to the ground and pinned him down with his knee on Zak’s chest.
Zak struggled to free himself, but his father’s full weight was on him. Zak’s motions grew slower and weaker, and then ceased. He lay still and quiet. His body went limp and he began to whimper. Arch stood up and gazed sadly down at him.
Wolf wanted to kill Zak on the spot and send him to the spirit world. He wanted to hurt Zak the way Zak had hurt Little Wolf. He wanted Zak to feel pain, to suffer what he and La and El-La had suffered. He wanted Zak dead and gone.
But seeing Zak on the ground, shivering and whimpering like a lost child, Wolf lost the stomach for it. Wolf felt, through the staff, that the spirits had already taken hold of Zak, that his life in this world was ruined, that his punishment had already begun.
Zak looked up at the men standing around him, tears running from his eyes. “Kill me. It was me. Kill me!”
Wolf spat on the ground and turned his back.
“I did it,” Zak screamed. “I didn’t want to kill him. It was an accident. I wanted the staff, I wanted its power. He saw me take it. Then he ran...”
Arch’s face was clouded and grim. He looked to Wolf, and Wolf shook his head no. He turned and left Zak lying in the clearing, sobbing and mumbling incoherently at his father’s feet.
* * *
Wolf and Arch sat cross-legged in the rear of the bone house, beside the fur-lined trench where the bone staff lay.
“I owe you my life. You spared my son,” said Arch.
“I wanted to kill him,” said Wolf, “but the spirits already had him in their grasp. His body is just an empty shell. I hate him for what he did, but I pity him. Little Wolf is not coming back. Let the spirits have Zak.”
“My life is yours. How is El-La?”
Wolf smiled sadly. “The spirits are slowly healing her grief. They have already brought her a new happiness to carry her away from sadness.”
“What do you mean?”
Wolf pointed through the arched mammoth tusks at the entrance. Arch looked out across the plateau towards the cave. El-La was standing beside Brun’s hearth. Brun had his arm around her and was whispering to her.
“Brun is bringing life back to her after the visits of death. She has lost both her mate and her son. The spirits are guiding Brun to her.”
“I cannot understand their ways,” said Arch.
“It’s not for us to understand,” said Wolf. “We watch and listen, and try to see what the spirits have placed before our eyes.”
Outside on the plateau, El-La sighed. Brun’s arm around her made her feel safe, less sad, less alone. He ran his hand gently through her soft, yellow hair. She raised her eyes from the ground and looked up into his kind face.
“I’m going now.”
Brun nodded. “I will come to you later. I will bring you a warm drink of flowers and leaves.”
“I will wait for you, Brun.”
El-La smiled sadly, walked across the plateau, and entered her home, the house of mammoth bones.
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler