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The Last Matriarch

The Last Matriarch

4.0 1
by Sharman Apt Russell

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the tradition of Jean Auel, this well-researched novel authentically recreates the world of the Clovis people, hunters and gatherers who lived on the Southwestern plains of North America more than 11,000 years ago. Willow, one of the clan elders, tells the story of her youth, a time when abundant bison, camels, mammoths and lions roamed. After her husband, Jak, is killed by a mammoth during a hunt, the strong-willed Willow is obliged to become the second wife of Etol, Jak's brother, who can provide for her children, Ali and Chi. Each spring, the group travels to perform tribal rites and meet with healers, shamans and storytellers. Here they connect with other camps, in friendship, trade or competition, often finding mates for their offspring. Central to the lives of these prehistoric people is an intuitive communication with the natural world; for example, Willow hears the history of Half Ear, a great woolly mammoth who is the matriarch of her herd, through a necklace made of the animal's ivory. Other tales that mirror Willow's are told through beads, bear skins and plants; these are beautifully used to diversify the narrative, making poetic, imaginative statements about the harmonious relationship humans and nature once enjoyed. But in this wild environment, the death rate is high; bears and lions snatch away children, women die in childbirth and men are killed in stampedes. Living to a rare old age of 60, Willow reflects on the changing relationship between her family and the plains. "Now the land itself seemed to ripple, shimmering with emptiness. These children had never seen a tapir. They had never seen a mammoth." Russell (Song of the Fluteplayer, etc.) mournfully but responsibly addresses the mystery of how so many large land animals at the close of the Pleistocene era became extinct, and intelligently speculates on how humans interacted with these vanished species and each other, and how they faced the inexorable transformation of the land. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University of New Mexico Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.71(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    My husband has a bad relationship with plants but a good one with animals. His skin animal was the lion. When we discovered this, we knew he would hunt mammoths. Only lions kill the baby mammoths. Only humans prey on the adults. My husband helped spear four mammoths in as many years before he died, his chest crushed by the matriarch of the herd.

    Etol told me the story, sitting by Jak's grave and letting that place know what kind of bones rested there. Four of them had gone hunting—Jak; his father, Bram; his brother, Etol; and my cousin Golden. They followed the herd for three days, hoping that one of the mammoths would wander off alone. Sometimes a female tries to find a mate. Sometimes a bull decides to leave his family group. This is what happened. When the animal was far enough away, Bram teased him into charging while Jak, Golden, and Etol threw their spears. Jak's thrust entered the rib cage behind the shoulder and went into the lungs. Golden hit leg muscle and splintered bone. Etol's spear passed through the ribs into the stomach. As the male fell, his organs collapsed under his weight. In a moment, the bull was dead.

    Bram quickly cut the hide, letting heat and gases escape. Golden felt for the fat around the young bull's kidney. This was a healthy, well-fed animal! The three hunters found their weapons. Golden's foreshaft had snapped, and Jak's point needed to be reshaped. All the while, they watched for predators and for the herd who might come to mourn the bull's death. Mammoths can speak to each other over long distances. For this reason, thekilling site should have plenty of cover as well as firewood if the meat has to be guarded.

    When the matriarch came walking through scrub brush and sweet grass, she was a huge beast, taller than a family's summer tent. Her tusks curved out and down and up, each one as long as a man. Jak and the others hid in the bushes, knowing this would be a weary time of waiting as the mammoths prodded their companion, tried to lift him, smelled his body, trumpeted, and wept. Their grief is strong as long as it lasts. Eventually they would swing their feet, a sign of indecision. Then the matriarch would rumble and the herd move away heavily, slowly, touching each other for comfort. They would make no effort to find the hunters or drive them off. Mammoths are not interested in revenge.

    Only this time, the matriarch must have felt differently. Perhaps it was a favorite son lying on the ground with his stomach open, his body already cut and eaten. Also, as I say, my husband has a bad relationship with plants. Perhaps the grasses parted to show his trail or the scrub brush refused to hide his face. Certainly the matriarch saw him—and still she did not attack. Later Etol worried about that the most. If the mammoth had charged then, Jak would have stood with his spear and Etol with his atlatl. With luck they might have brought her down, escaping in the herd's confusion.

    Instead the matriarch cried, shuffled, and moved slyly closer to Jak's hiding place. The sun rose two fingers in Old Man's sky. Mammoths cannot see behind them without turning, and the matriarch kept her back to Jak so that he chose to stay hidden, like the fawns of black-striped antelope. When she suddenly swung and came at a rush, he was surprised. She killed him in a gallop, her feet on his ribs, his heart pushed into the earth.

    Bram and Etol carried back the body, which we covered with red ochre and buried with Jak's spear and atlatl, his bone shaft wrench, his ivory, and fluted points. As my son watched, I added two cores of good-quality chert from a quarry five days away. I could have struck flakes and points from those cores all winter. My son, a few summers past weaning, wanted me to give a tusk from the dead mammoth, since one of these was now mine. But I kept this prize, thinking I would need it to trade for more chert and the lost bone shaft wrench.

    My daughter, who was older, understood. She went to the smallest hill near our camp to gather yucca leaves. Cleverly she wove a loose basket to sit by her father's shoulder. Into that we put sage, pine needles, and willow bark.

    My son could have chosen to make his own gift. Etol and I explained this to the oak tree by my husband's grave. We explained it to the bones themselves, who listened patiently, more patient than the man they had once carried. My son did not behave well at the burial. Crying, he ran from his uncles and his grandfathers. His tantrum was his only gift.

    We look at our life as though it were a journey and we try to see those trails again, remembering where we chose to turn here or there. I have often thought about the anger my son has toward me now. Sometimes I think it started when I would not give the mammoth tusk to my husband's body. I kept that to trade for a bone shaft wrench.

    But this is too simple an explanation. Why, after all, was I so stingy?

    My skin plant is willow. Not all of us know what plant or animal or stone we carry under our skin, and most of my relatives wait for their death to find out. Still, I am willow, my husband was lion, and no one thought we would be a good match. We coupled when I was barely past menses. My daughter was born two years later, a strong, healthy girl from a man who was also strong, healthy, and well respected. I stayed with my husband because I wanted these things for my children. Also, there were not many men to choose from, only two younger boys from the people across the big river. My son does not understand the problems we buy with a marriage gift, or maybe he understands them too well. At that time, he saw it clearly. I was at fault because I did not love his father enough.

    Soon after Jak's death, I began hunting for meat and skins. I could have gotten these things from my brothers and father, but that would have meant obligations, trading, perhaps another marriage. I preferred to live alone in my summer tent. Willow likes me, and my aim is good. Because of the children, I did not hunt dangerous game. Instead I went after deer, antelope, tapirs, peccaries, rabbits, armadillos, and the slow-moving tortoise. I traveled always with a partner or in a group, often with Etol and my cousin Golden. For practice I killed the bad-tasting ground sloth. I worked hard to find the right length and weight for my willow spear, holding that little tree through the night, talking to it in the morning when the animals also begin to think about food.

    All this was good because my children and I continued to have the status of hunters, with meat to cook and skins to sew. Today I see this was possible because of my sister, Sage, with whom I traded to watch my son and daughter while I was gone. I also gave hides to her husband, Bram, my father-in-law, to help carry our supplies when we moved camp. Sometimes my son, Chi, would pretend to feel neglected, especially when he wanted a treat or extra food. In truth, he loved his aunt, who had no children of her own. My daughter took on the task of gathering our plants, the lamb's-quarter, acorns, plums, and yucca root. Most girls do this, but Ali was especially industrious. She gave me even more freedom to hunt.

    During these years, I often saw the mammoth herd, not as a hunter but as someone who shares the plain. The first time, one late afternoon, Etol and I lay on a rise overlooking a green marsh. Mixed among a herd of small horses were four-horned antelope flashing patterns of yellow and black. Camels grazed on the herd's edge, not liking the horses, but using them to watch for saber-toothed cats, cheetahs, lions, and us. Briefly in the blue sky the wings of condors blocked the sun. When the big birds found a dying animal or a dead one, they would be joined by red-necked vultures and teratorns. Rich in grass, rich in meat, we are a chosen people in a chosen land. It was not always like this.

    Trying to ignore the ants and flies, Etol and I wormed forward on our stomachs, planning the hunt. Sweet-smelling grass rustled above our heads. A little behind us, Golden kept watch.

    "You are lucky," Etol suddenly whispered, and then I heard them too, a large group of mammoths trumpeting down a nearby hill. They ran sloppily, trunks flopping, little tails swishing, heads held high. When they reached the marsh, the calves wriggled in the mud until their brown, red, and gray coats turned glistening black. The older females also came running but behaved more delicately near the water. In silence, they went to the clear stream that entered the marsh, dipped the tips of their trunks, and squirted liquid down their throats.

    The group was happy to find such a nice mud hole. One calf fell to her knees, and another climbed on her back and head. This became their favorite game, climbing and tumbling until they made a messy heap. The younger females acted frisky while the bulls began to spar, pushing each other, their tusks knocking. The horses, camels, and antelope had already rushed away. Now, at some distance, they turned to stare. In a moment they were grazing again, safer than before, so close to the mammoth herd.

    Etol touched my shoulder. Walking at the rear of her family group, the matriarch moved slowly down the grassy hill, past clumps of pine and jumper trees that she made seem smaller. Discreetly the others stood aside when she came to the stream and dipped her trunk. These mature females were her daughters and granddaughters. Five or six adolescent males, her sons and grandsons, also lived with the herd. Then there was the heap of wiggling babies, each one descended from her line.

    "We call her Half Ear," Etol whispered.

    Mammoth ears are not large, but watching carefully, I could see that the old one's ear had been partly cut, perhaps by a spear. She was the largest female on the plain, higher than one man standing on the shoulder of another, thicker than five men linked together.

    We waited while the herd fed, twisting their trunks around the water grass, ripping it free, stuffing it in their mouths, and reaching for more. After a long time, the matriarch rumbled and walked away from the marsh to higher, dry ground. From a patch of soil, she scooped up the dust with her trunk and blew it over her back. The others followed and did the same. Standing close, they gathered together with hindquarters touching. A reddish brown mammoth lightly rubbed against the matriarch's shoulder. The calves suckled their mothers, until one by one the babies lay down. A few big females looped their trunks like vines around the ivory tusks. Others let their long noses hang down. Hardly a tail moved to scare off the files.

    Etol wanted to leave.

    "It's good to watch them," he said, "to see who is here. We don't find mammoths so often. But they are asleep, and I am bored. This place is ruined for hunting."

    "How long will they stay?" I asked.

    Etol shrugged. "Six fingers."

    I wanted to know more. "Have the hunters named them?"

    Etol nodded. The matriarch had four daughters, Big Ivory, Little Ivory, Red Fur, and Gray Fur. Her other children were grown bulls, enormous creatures larger than the matriarch, who grazed separately in a bachelor herd. In this group, Big Ivory had an unnamed full-grown daughter, an adolescent male named Little Penis, and an unnamed calf. Little Ivory had an adolescent male named Big Penis, a young unnamed female, and an unnamed new calf. Sometimes other females also joined the group.

    I wanted to show Etol that I had been listening closely. "Which are the children of Red Fur and Gray Fur?"

    Etol squinted at the sleeping mammoths.

    "Just like a hunter," I teased. "Look at these names. You are only interested in ivory and penises."

    My brother-in-law laughed. We often shared an easy joke. At the same time he shifted slightly so that I could smell the crushed flowers under his thigh. Etol had already asked if I would become his second wife. My father wanted it too and hoped I would agree. But Etol's first wife, Dipper, was a hard woman to live with. For this and other reasons, I asked my father to say no.

    The story of the mammoths made me think of my own family. I also come from a strong lineage, the product of two sisters, my mother and aunt, who married two brothers, my father and uncle. My mother gave birth to my sister, Sage, my brother Vole, and me. She died when my brother Wolf was born. My aunt and uncle had two boys, Golden and Tit, and a girl, Dipper. That made us two hands joined together, all related by blood.

    One day at a gathering by the big river, another group asked to join us. Bram was the father of Jak, Etol, and Crane. Their mother, like mine, had died in childbirth, and they were unhappy living with her relatives. They also needed husbands and wives, as did some of us. No one spoke of this at the time. Instead we welcomed them for a season of hunting. That summer I coupled with Jak, Etol courted my cousin Dipper, and Crane looked at my brother Vole.

    The biggest surprise was Bram and Sage. My sister's first marriage had not produced children, and this husband divorced her when he left our group. Although Bram was as old as my father—and a poor hunter—he carried chert and flint under his skin. Most important, he had children already and did not seem to want more.

    So, rather quickly, this family joined ours. It turned out as well as anyone could expect. Now we were strong with many adults. In addition, I had Chi and Ali. Vole and Crane had two children, Etol and Dipper had three, and Crane was pregnant again. Our biggest problem was finding wives for my brother Wolf and two cousins Golden and Tit. They wanted to marry, but they did not want to leave our family group.

    That day I was not a good companion for Etol. We say that thinking is bad for hunting, which is why storytellers and old people get their meat by trade or obligation. To kill game, a hunter's awareness must become a thin net. In this way he will catch all the life around him. We believe that the world is curious about human beings. This land, in particular, loves to listen to our thoughts and catch us suddenly in its net. When we die, we enter the land, and so we are generous about sharing our stories. But when we hunt, those voices inside us can scare the animal we want to eat. When we hunt, we do not tell stories. Our thoughts live in the willow spear or, for a man like my husband, in the animal's flesh.

    Etol, my cousin Golden, and I left the mammoths bathing in the mud hole, scrubbing their skin free of pests. We went to a valley close to our summer camp, where Etol speared an antelope and I wounded a long-nosed peccary, which got away. This was not much meat for our families. If my uncle or brothers had done better, Etol knew they would share with him first, for he was an in-law and in-laws must be kept happy, joined to the group. Golden could still eat with his father. My children would fare less well since I had to share with Sage and Bram. Because of this, Etol let me carry the antelope and take most of the meat home.

    After that, I watched mammoths whenever I could. One day, I saw this herd meet with another. First, Half Ear's group burst through a wood of large-needled trees, screaming and trumpeting, heads lifted, ears flapping. Now the second family also rushed forward from their place near a small muddy pond. The younger animals clicked tusks, spun, farted, and urinated. Half Ear went straight to the other matriarch, a smaller female with two beautifully curved ivories. Both mammoths held each other's trunks and rumbled.

    Hidden in the scrub brush, I watched Red Fur, the favorite daughter of the matriarch, who was nursing a new calf as she tried to wean her second youngest. That husky male had two tiny tusks just beginning to emerge. Following his mother, he hooked his trunk around her leg as a signal that he wanted milk. In the past, Red Fur would have stopped and stretched a leg forward so that her son could easily reach the teat. Now she moved on, gently shaking off the male, who squealed in protest.

    Soon both herds began feeding. All this reminded me of my people when we meet at a gathering by the big river. At first our excitement is extreme. We scream and cry and greet friends and relatives, arranging a dance that will go on all night. At my first big dance, clapping with the men and women in a circle, I thought I would die from such strong emotion. So many strangers! So many possibilities! Everyone seemed to feel the same way.

    Yet in a few days, the gathering by the river is just another gathering and we behave as we always do. The adults are here to do business. We take care of the children, worry about marriage gifts, and make our trades. We are happy enough to leave when it is time.

    In the grassy clearing before me, Tiny Tusks squealed until Red Fur gave up and let him nurse. The new calf, twice my weight, suckled on one side. Her smug brother suckled on the other. In the end, Tiny Tusks would be weaned. Still, I recognized in Red Fur a certain weariness. This son would take all her patience.

    In the evening, as fresh meat cooked over the coals, I told these stories about Red Fur and Half Ear to my son and daughter. I did not always talk about the mammoth herd. I also showed them lion scat and pellets from the horned owl. I described the play of dire wolves and measured out the length of the giant insect-eater. But it was the mammoths who interested me the most, and this angered Chi.

    "Half Ear," he said one night, "killed my father."

    Our small fire lit the walls of the tent, made of horse and camel hide. Smoke escaped out the top hole, where three poles met and where I could see the stars. Around me, our furs and tools were stored neatly in their places. I loved these times alone with my children in this flickering light. Our food was peccary and prickly pear fruit. The meat was greasy. The fruit was sweet.

    "Yes," I said to Chi. "Half Ear is the matriarch. She killed your father, I think, because he killed her son. Do you want to hear that story again?"

    "Yes." Chi stared at me, his jaw jutted, his lip pushed out in a familiar expression. "No, not really!" Now he shook his head so that the short black hair lifted and fell. "I know the story. The mammoth killed our father, yet you," he accused me, "seem to like her."

    Now my daughter, Ali, interrupted. Close to her menses, she had many opinions. "Mother doesn't like or dislike the matriarch. Half Ear is a mammoth. We don't like or dislike mammoths."

    This wise girl was not often wrong. But in truth, I did like Half Ear even though I could not say this out loud, just as my son could not say out loud that he hated her. Something in my chest hurt, yet I knew there was no injury there. My son would never be a good hunter if he carried these feelings onto the plain.

    "Ali is right. Hunters do not think like that," I said sharply. This only shamed Chi, and his lip pushed out further. I did not reach over, but I wanted to comfort him.

    I see now that this was a fault. I could never take my son's anger seriously. I loved that mouth turned down or up. I loved those eyes shaped like a black cactus seed, the smooth brown skin and perfect flat nose, the small ears and high cheekbones. From his birth, this boy overwhelmed me with his beauty.

    Ali gave a loud sigh. "Do you want more meat?" She picked from the ashes the last strip of peccary.

    "No!" Chi grunted in triumph as though denying himself meat would make us suffer.

    "You eat it," I told my daughter. "Then we will cover the fire and sleep."

    Over the coals, I sprinkled sage and a dried yellow flower. The strong good smell made us shiver. My children lay beside me under a bearskin that kept us too warm in the warm season. Jak had killed that bear when we were newly married, and the animal had many stories to tell. She whispered of white grubs and the insides of certain trees. She dreamed of fish so that I might wake in the morning wanting a meal impossible to get at that camp or in that time. More rarely, the bearskin remembered her death, and then I caught the sour odor of Jak's sweat. I saw his dark arms and heard his voice calming the bear, helping her die. I know that Chi loved this skin too, perhaps for these same memories. So we slept under it summer and winter.

    These are the moments I carry in bone. Ali lay on one side of me, a woman nearly grown, her hand resting in mine. Chi lay on the other side, as far away as he could get, because he was still angry and wanted me to know that. Sometime in the night he would creep closer to put his head on my breast, just as he did every night when he was a child still nursing. Chi had not nursed now for many years. But when he felt strong emotion, when we had fought and he wanted to make up, he would come close and push his face against me. You are mine, his skin would say, I belong to you.

    We slept, the three of us, lightly touching each other for comfort. The eye of Old Woman rose in the sky.

    Uuuuuaaaawaugh. A lion hunted in the east.

Chapter Two

    That spring, flowers covered the earth like snow. Above our camp, the long flanks of hills turned white. In the other direction, west and south, we looked down from our tents on a pink bluff to a riverbed green with willow, alder, and narrow-leafed trees. Our thoughts moved over the wooded valley floor to the next fold of hills, glimpsed through patches of juniper and little pine. To the north, spruce began where the valley rose into real snow. Directly south, the fang of a sharp-toothed mountain pierced Old Man's sky.

    South, too, the long-season grass spread out in the shape of a buffalo robe, furry with growth, swirling in the colors of bull thistle, poppy, and aster. When my children came back from gathering seeds, daisies wreathed their black hair. As serious as if they were working stone, they made necklaces of yucca thread strung with orange, purple, red, lavender, and blue. At night the fragrance filled our tent.

    "Mother! Put this on!" Ali held up a circle of yellow.

    "Have you been gathering food or flowers?" I waved her away. I wanted to think.

    That spring, my father killed a mare and did not see the stallion rush from a gray rock at the canyon's mouth. Fortunately Father turned in time to run a spear through the animal's chest. Even so, one hoof caught him on the shoulder. My aunt nursed him in her tent, grinding herbs and sending Ali to get willow bark for his pain.

    In early summer, I approached my uncle. First I waited for Etol and Golden to sit beside him at the central fire under the face of Old Woman. The night was clear and moonless, and the stars told many stories all at once. The beginning of the world glittered above us. Our journey to this land rose in the north.

    I had a purpose here, and as I talked I tended a stew at the edge of the embers, salting the meat from my own supply.

    "Uncle," I said, handing him a wooden bowl, "I would like to go with you on the next mammoth hunt."

    Now the other hunters had their chance to speak. Etol and Golden were silent, which was good. Wolf glanced at me. I had already warned him, my younger brother. I had waited until my older brother, Vole, was in his tent. That left my cousin Tit, who was also silent, only because he was slow with words.

    Finally Tit challenged me. "Why would you want that?"

    I tried not to sound impatient. "I need marriage gifts. Ali will need a husband soon. I have a son as well."

    "Ivory in fall to carve in winter," Etol quoted the old hunter's saying.

    Tit frowned. Even he understood that my father would not be able to help me now. Most likely, my father would never hunt mammoths again. Vole had to prepare for his own children and Wolf for his own marriage.

    "Ivory is not the only gift," my uncle murmured.

    I was careful to keep my voice low. "I want the best."

    The cooking fire had died, and I could see my uncle's face dimly in the starlight. He was dressed in undecorated leather pants and shirt, his long braid also plain and undecorated, hanging down his back. The dark creases in his cheeks seemed to deepen. Perhaps he wrinkled his nose. Men do not like to share the mammoth hunt.

    Respectfully I kept my eyes down. My uncle and I were not close, but he had lived a long life, and he knew me well. I could plead further or be quiet and let him think. My father had advised me to choose the second.

    Secretly, when the women went out to gather plants, they complained about the mammoth hunters. Yes, the meat was tender and tasty. But in this land we had plenty of other meat. In a good season, the herds of grazing animals shook the ground. In a bad season, we killed small creatures in our traps and snares. We killed voles, squirrels, and mice. We ate fruits, nuts, seeds, and roots. When the men hunted mammoths, they were gone for days, leaving their chores for others to do. They risked injury and death and on their return sat talking for hours around the central fire.

    Of course men hunted mammoth for ivory, and women also valued the white tusks. We made them into beads, which we strung as necklaces and sewed onto clothing. We made ivory needles, ivory awls, ivory combs, ivory buttons. Sometimes we carved animals and figures, marriage gifts to show off our talent and wealth. We made gifts because we were proud—and the men hunted for the same reason. Only lions and humans dared to kill the shaggy mammoth. In their dances at night, the men sang, "Lions, mammoths, and men. We are the muscles in the body of the land."

    I would sing that song too if my uncle agreed. I would have my own tusk to carve this winter so that my daughter could go to the people at the big river and offer them a strong camp. Although she had no father, she would not be ashamed. Although he had no father, my son would not be tempted too early on the plain. Unready, untried, Chi was eager to hunt in Jak's place. I would stand in that place a little longer.

    Around the fire, the younger men shifted, curious to hear my uncle's decision.

    "What does my brother say?" My uncle spoke at last.

    I held back my triumph.

    "Go ask my younger brother," my uncle continued. "If he says yes, what can I do? I would never oppose him."

    The old man lied shamelessly.

    As the wind blew from the north, I spread my net thin to catch it, my shoulder blades stretching out like wings. I smelled with my ears and listened from the corners of my eyes. We had been two days tracking a female, her baby, and an adolescent male. Such a small group was unusual. My uncle believed these mammoths were strangers separated from a distant herd, for they wandered aimlessly past good grazing meadows. I was anxious to prove myself, and the other hunters took advantage of that. At the end of each day, I gathered all the firewood and kept the longest watch. I packed extra supplies and endured the jokes of Wolf and Golden, who saw the sexual parts of men in every hill and rock cropping. In my right hand I carried a new spear, heavier than the old, balanced all summer to my weight.

    We followed our prey to a water hole in the curve of a pink canyon. Mammoths need a lot of water, and these animals drank thirstily. As we looked down at them from a ridge, the pink cliffs at the water hole hardly seemed higher than the female's great hairy back. My uncle motioned the way we should descend in the shelter of an arroyo, through the scrub oak and juniper trees. He told Etol, Golden, and Wolf to attack the mother. He and I would strike for the male.

    "Your bull will panic," Etol explained to me. "The female may charge, but the others are too young. This is a good hunt. A lot of meat and not much danger." Etol quoted another hunter's saying. He was fond of them.

    As thick as my body, the female's tusks curved down and up in a dizzy swoop. With these she could crack a lion's skull or batter a pine tree to the ground. With a toss of her head, she could cut me in half.

    "Remember," Etol suddenly warned. "Mammoths can run, as fast as a horse."

    Then we were moving from the ridge, creeping over the rocks and sand, smelling leaves and wet earth. As planned, Etol, Wolf, and Golden burst from the thorny bushes and raced toward the drinking mammoths, their spears held high, parallel to the ground. Wolf threw first and hard and swerved back to whatever cover he could find. Etol and Golden took time to aim for the chest and head. One spear hit the animal's shoulder and drove into muscle. Another went through her ear and neck. The third bit into her heart. She screamed. The noise echoed against the rocks.

    Some of this I learned later. At the time, I was also jumping from the bushes, finding the young male, and throwing my spear—careful to avoid hitting my uncle! His weapon struck the male's leg and quivered there. My thrust went between two ribs.

    The male panicked just as Etol predicted. Squealing, he stumbled to his dying mother, then away from her in horror, back and away before he turned and fled deeper into the canyon. The female screamed again and fell, her legs in the water hole. Nearby her child had been playing happily in the mud. Frantic now, the baby ran to her mother's side and pushed against a hairy thigh. Pathetically she tried to nurse.

    The men came out of the brush. Bright red gushed from the female's mouth, and she lay still. I stood where I had rooted. If the male had charged, I would be dead now. Etol wrenched his weapon from the mammoth's neck and used it to quickly kill the child. The air smelled of hot blood and fresh dung. A blue sky glowed behind the pink walls. I quivered like the spear in the male's flesh.

    Some part of me grieved for these mammoths. Their cries would enter the crumbling cliffs, and this is one of the stories the canyon would tell, how the humans came to kill the mother and her children.

    Mostly, however, I shook from excitement. I had never faced death so closely or deliberately. Relief turned to delight shivering up and down the skin of my arms. Growing stronger, a fierce greed hollowed my stomach. This meat was mine, tender and tasty. I would eat this mammoth fresh, not half spoiled, the leftovers dragged back by other hunters. I would eat from the liver and fatty hump, cooked right here. We would cut open the feet and I would eat the fat that cushions the mammoth when she walks. The ivory was also partly mine! I would have beads to carve, a necklace for my daughter.

    I barely heard my uncle talk to the mammoths, explaining to them their deaths. As Wolf and I cut into the hairy coat, through joints and muscle, Etol made a fire. We would take home the tusks and as much meat as we could bring on our backs and two litters. The trunks were especially easy to carry, good sources of fat. Some of the meat we would eat tonight. Some we would cache in a pine tree. If the weather stayed cold, Tit and Vole could return for it later.

    Unfortunately these mammoths had not been feeding well.

    "She's not old," Etol remarked of the mother, "but she's thin."

    "And the male?" I asked. "Will we track him?"

    "He's traveling too fast. Later he will die from infection. Your spear hit deep."

    Etol knew that I lusted for the male's two tusks. As one of the hunting party, I would get a share from this female. But with my spear in his ribs, I would get more from the male. Also I wanted my spear back.

    "You will do better next time," Etol promised me.

    That night lions came to steal our meat. These lions were not from the pride who shared our hunting grounds. They were two young brothers cast out from their family group, searching to take over a new pride. Our fires kept them back although I could see the tawny shapes uncomfortably close, moving in the shadows under the trees.

    They roared at us, Uuuuuuuoooooowaugh! Uuuuooo! Uuooo, uaoooo, oooogh, oooogh, oooogh!

    We roared back! Our meat! Our meat!

    They showed us their teeth, and we shook our spears.

    If there had been more than two lions, we would have left. Lions often steal from people, although I had never heard of people stealing from lions. Tonight we had too many fires and too many spears, and the males went away angrily, swishing their long tails.

    Carrying the meat back was harder than I expected. But when we arrived at the summer camp, my son's face made me feel less tired. Yes, I thought, this is the right thing to do. In this way I am keeping him safe.

    My children were happy with mammoth in their stomachs and ivory in our tent. Over and over Chi asked about the hunt, his voice loud and impatient. My fears rose again. There was a rock in this boy I kept pushing against. He had run crying from his father's burial, and I did not know why he was running or where.

    "Can I help make your new spear?" he asked me now.

    "I need chert from my father-in-law," I said. "We must think of a good trade."

    Ali was proud to tell me the news of camp. Crane had finished sewing a winter parka for Vole. Dipper wept when she broke an ivory comb. Also, the pride of lions who shared our summer grounds had come to hunt near us, by the river. We had an agreement with this pride, led by a male marked by a jagged scar on his back. We avoided the lions' favorite resting areas and they avoided our noisy tents. In the mornings we waited past dawn to get water, and we never went to the river after sunset. On their part, the lions drank and killed at night.

    I thought of the two males we had seen on the mammoth hunt. If they followed us here and defeated the leader, they would destroy the young cubs and upset the lionesses. It was a good time to be careful.

    For that reason, the next morning Tit and Vole decided not to fetch the meat we had cached. I did not mind, for I had eaten my fill. But some of the other women were annoyed.

    In our camp, Dipper was a woman who often complained. If she had peccary meat, she wanted antelope. If she had antelope, she wanted mammoth. One evening as clouds turned red over the long hills, Dipper spilled a gourd of water. It was too late to send a child to the river, and now she had to borrow from my sister, Sage. Dipper grumbled although Sage was generous.


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Last Matriarch 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Captive in flow and vivid in descriptions, this book was a quick read. In some areas, though, I question the accuracy of the information with respect to the prehistoric southwest and the time period in which the story is set. Some of the events that took place and lifeways described may truly be literary embellishments. The parallels between the two matriarchs is quite astonishing. Russell's inferences as to the origin of the clan and the demise of the megafauna rings true with many of the present-day theories. All-in-all a good read.