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The shaman of my tribe, a man of power, straddles the shoulder of the fallen bison, one leg slung on either shaggy side. The hair on the shaman's legs is as dark and coarse as the hair on the bison's side.
I stand in the circle of hunters that surrounds the fallen beast. I am young; I have only ten winters. I stand between my mother and my uncle.
Today is a good day. The tribe found a few bison grazing in a small meadow tucked between two hills. The snow has melted here and the grass is green. At one end, the meadow flows into a large valley; at the other, it drops off abruptly in a cliff. With shouts and spears and thrown stones, the tribe frightened the animals into stampeding and drove this old bull over the edge. The bison broke a leg in its fall, and my uncle and the shaman finished it off with spears.
Now the shaman raises his knife. The stone blade glitters in the sun. With a steady hand, the shaman plunges the knife into the throat of the bison. The blood that spills over the shaman's hands steams in the cold air and the shaman calls out in a voice of power. He says that the hunt was good, that the tribe will waste nothing of the bison's body and bone. He calls out to the spirit of the beast.
The mist that rises from the flowing blood swirls in a cloud above the shaman's head. The cloud darkens and forms a shape—a shadowy bison stands in the bloody grass.
The gray shadow of a bison raises his head and stamps his shadow feet and becomes more real, more solid. He glares at the shaman with eyes that glitter like the stone of the blade. The bison tosses his head and steps forward, threatening the hunters who surround him. My mother puts a hand on my shoulder, a reassuring touch.
The shaman reaches out to the spirit, laying a hand on the beast's shadowy back. The shaman speaks in the Old Tongue, the language used to talk to the spirits. "You are a good spirit," he says. "You will be one with my people. You will nourish us and make us strong. We must have your spirit, your strength."
Does the shaman grow larger in the afternoon sun? Does he grow as the spirit dwindles? I cannot say. The misty spirit changes and flows as the shaman speaks. "You will make us strong," the shaman says, and the wind puffs through the misty body of the bison, tattering it. The spirit is gone.
So it always is, after a hunt. The spirit of the hunted beast makes the people strong.
My people butcher the bison, carefully skinning the beast, cutting up the meat. The sun is setting by the time we are done, and we make camp by the edge of the meadow. My mother starts the fire—she is the best in the tribe at using the fire drill to start an ember burning. My sister and my young cousins and I search among the bushes and trees at the foot of the cliff to find wood to burn.
Tomorrow, we will carry the rest of the meat back to the cave where we take shelter in the winter. We have traveled far from the cave this day, searching for game to hunt. It has been a long, cold winter and our stores of food are exhausted.
It is dangerous to travel at night—hungry beasts are hunting. But it is also dangerous to spend the night in the open. We will need fire to protect us. Tonight, the shaman and my uncle and my oldest cousin will keep the fire burning, using the flames to chase back hyenas and other beasts who try to take our kill.
We cook the flesh of the bison over the fire and eat well, huddled around the flames. When the moon rises over the meadow, I sleep at my mother's side. In the moonlight, I dream.
In my dream, a shaggy, gray-muzzled she-bear leans over me. Her great head blocks out the moon. She speaks to me in the Old Tongue. "Follow me," she says. Her mouth is open and I can see her teeth. Her breath smells of earth; she has been tearing apart a rotten log to get at the grubs in the decaying wood.
She sits back on her haunches and I see the mighty paws that can smash a log with an easy blow. "Follow me," she says again. "You are no more than a bite, but I have need of you."
I am frightened. In my dream, I shake my head. "No," I say to the bear. "You do not need me. The shaman is the one who speaks to the spirits. Not me."
Her dark eyes shine in the moonlight. "You are the one I need," she says.
I wake in the moonlight, startled to see that the bear is not there. My mother's arm is around my shoulders. She is watching me, awakened by my movements.
"What did you dream?" she asks me. "What spirit came to speak with you?"
I tell my mother of the she-bear and what the spirit said. Then I lie down at her side and I sleep, wondering what the bear could want of me.
In the morning, my mother tells the shaman of my dream. The shaman studies me with his dark eyes. The shaman is an old man by the counting of my people. He is nearly forty winters old and few live through forty winters. He is a wise man with much power. He asks me to tell him of my dream and I do.
"You could feel her breath on your face," he says.
I nodded, remembering the smell of earth, remembering the gleam of the moonlight on the bear's teeth.
"A true dream," the shaman says. "A good dream." He studies my face.
"You are afraid of the bear," he says.
I nod. My mother sits beside me, listening to what the shaman has to say. I see my mother frown when I nod, but I know I must tell the shaman the truth.
"The bear is a powerful spirit," the shaman says. "It is good luck that she has come to you. The tribe needs her help."
He leans back and looks out into the meadow where my sister and my younger cousins are playing. My aunt has spread the bison's hide on the grass and she is scraping it with a stone scraper. My eldest cousins are working with my uncle to bundle the meat into packages that we can carry to the cave.
"The great bear connects the world of the people and the world of the animals. She runs on all fours like a beast and she stands on her hind legs like a person. She asks the Master of the Animals to send animals for us to hunt."
I nod. I know all this. In the cave on the long cold, winter nights, the shaman tells stories. I remember the story of how the tribe came to hunt beasts for our food.
Long ago, there were no beasts to hunt and the tribe lived on roots and berries gathered from the forest. The people were always hungry. One day, when the shaman was gathering berries, he met a bear. The bear asked the shaman why he was gathering berries and the shaman told the bear that his people were starving. The bear told the shaman to kill her and take her spirit.
The shaman killed the bear, took her spirit, and made a robe from her skin. With help from the spirit of the bear, the shaman journeyed to visit the Master of the Animals and asked the Master to let the beasts run free in the world so that the people could hunt them.
And so it happened. The Master of the Animals told the shaman how to hunt and how to treat the animals with respect. The people became hunters and the tribe grew strong.
"The bear came to you because we must speak to the Master of Animals," the shaman says. "The tribe is hungry again."
Yes, we are hungry. We ate well last night, but hunting has been bad, very bad. I have heard my uncle and the shaman talking about the Others, the people who are not like us. The shaman told my uncle that the Others do not take the spirit when they kill a beast. The shaman says that the Animal Master is angry and that is why the hunting is bad.
Now the shaman is looking up at the mountain. The slopes are still white with snow. "It is time to hunt the bear," he says.CHAPTER 2
"You must approach the Great One carefully," the shaman tells me. "She will be sleepy and slow."
I nod, listening respectfully. We have returned to the cave and the shaman is telling me how the tribe will hunt the bear.
The shaman knows the cave where the bear sleeps during the long winter. She has not yet awakened from her long winter sleep, and that is good.
The shaman tells me what will happen in the hunt. The tribe will gather at the bear's cave and build a fire. The smoke will blow into the cave and the bear will come out. The people of the tribe will tease the bear, shouting and waving torches and spears. The bear will rear up on her hind legs, standing on two feet like a man. Only then will I rush in and place the point of the spear on her heart. If I move too slowly, she will bat the spear aside with a great paw. If I am quick, all will be well. I do not know that I can be so quick, but I will try.
I will put the spear on her heart and the bear will charge toward me, driving the point into her chest. The great bear—the one the shaman calls the Hairy One, Great Grandmother, or the Great One—will kill herself with my spear.
Then, with the shaman's help, I will take the spirit of the bear. I will need the shaman's help to embrace this great spirit, becoming one with the bear without being overcome by her. If I can do that, I will have the bear's power and I will use it to help our tribe. The Master of the Animals will send beasts for us to hunt, so that the tribe may be strong again.
We will place the bear's skull high on a boulder, placing it so that the eyes look to the east where the sun rises. We will take the bear's skin and I will wear it as I learn to become a shaman. The bear's spirit will make me strong.
That is what the shaman says will happen. I think of the bear's sharp claws and gleaming teeth, and I hope that he is right.
The shaman prepares for the hunt with ritual. I prepare by sharpening the bone tip on the end of my spear.
The third day after my dream, the shaman mixes a paint from red clay and marks my face with magic symbols that will give me strength in the hunt. I close my eyes and I feel the shaman's fingers on my forehead as he makes jagged lightning strokes, symbols of speed and power. He traces a circle on my left cheek, the sign of the sun that warms us and gives us strength. On my right cheek, he marks a crescent moon. Like the bear, the moon grows lean, then fat, then lean again.
When the shaman is ready, we go up the mountain to hunt the bear. The shaman sings as we walk up the trail that leads to the bear's cave. I walk behind the shaman, listening to his song. I know that all the tribe follows us. They carry the wood that we will need to build a fire. I carry only my spear.
I can feel the paint drying on my face and it itches, but I do not scratch. I must not wipe away the symbols that will help me in the hunt.
On the slopes of the mountain, the snow lingers. The wind blows cold, and crystals of snow hiss across the boulders. The sky is very blue; far below us, the grass in the meadow is very green. I look at the tip of my spear as I walk. The bone point is clean and white and I think of how very sharp it is. Sharp enough to pierce the heart of the bear.
As we near the bear's cave, the shaman stops his singing. We must be quiet now, The bear has keen ears and we do not want to wake her before we are ready.
My mother crouches by a boulder and works the fire drill until she has a glowing ember. She coaxes the ember into a flame. With this flame, my uncle builds a fire and piles it with rotten wood to make smoke. My cousins and my sister fan the fire with blankets made of bison hide, blowing the smoke into the bear's cave. The shaman begins to sing a hunting song that will bring the bear out of the cave.
I stand beside them, watching the entrance to the cave. I peer into the smoke, waiting to see the bear. I feel that I do not belong here. I am not a hero; I am not a shaman. I should not be the one to kill the bear, to capture her spirit.
I feel strange, as if I am not really here. I breathe deep of the cold air, smelling the smoke from the fire. A hunter must be calm; a good hunter is one with the land around him. I try to be a good hunter. I clutch my spear, waiting to rush in.
I see movement in the thick smoke and the great bear charges from the cave. She stops in the entrance, blinking and shaking her head. My sister and my cousins back away. The shaman is shouting at the bear. My uncle is on one side of the cave and he is jabbing at the bear with a burning stick. Confused by the noise and the smoke and the fire, the bear rears up. I rush forward then, and she looks at me with her small, angry eyes. I bring the spear forward to place it on her heart. But before I can do that, the air around her becomes suddenly alive, shimmering just as the air above a fire may suddenly shimmer. The bear stares at me through the dancing air. And then she is gone. Gone like the spirit of the bison.
I cannot let her go. I am not a shaman, but I must follow her to save the tribe. I stumble after her in the smoke, holding my spear ready to meet the bear. I step into the shimmering air.
And the world goes away.
I open my eyes, but a darkness lies over my mind. The world is a gray place, filled with edges.
Edges—in places on the mountain, rocks have fallen in knifeledged sheets as long as I am tall. But the world where I awaken is all edges. Flatness meets flatness in stiff lines.
I cannot move. My arms and legs are stiff and dead. I blink, but I cannot move. The flatness beside me is marked by cracks. As I watch, the piece of the flatness inside the cracks shifts.
The woman who steps through the gap in the flatness has eyes the color of the sky at night and skin the color of the bark on the trees in the forest. Such a strange woman. She is not like my people; not like my people at all. Her eyes are not protected by brow ridges; her forehead is high and her nose and chin are sharp. She has so little hair on her arms that her skin seems smooth. She is wearing a garment made of something that I do not recognize—not fur, not leather.
A man is with her, but I watch the woman. In this gray world of edges, these people move like shadows. What is this place? The world of the spirits? A vision of truth? I try to move again and I manage to lift my head slowly to watch these people. They are, I think, the people who are not like my tribe; they are the Others.
The woman speaks. Her voice is soft and her words run together, sounding more like the babbling of water over stone than the language of a people. She speaks to the man and as I listen I can hear pauses and noises like words in the babble.
She looks at me and points to herself. I catch at the flow of words. What does she want, this woman of the spirit world, this woman of the Others? With an awkward tongue, I try to repeat some of the sounds I hear. "Amanda," I say. But the sounds are strange and do not feel complete. Again, I say, "Amanda." I look at her eyes, the color of the sky at night, and I add the word from my language that means darkness. "Amanda-dark," I say slowly.
I lift my hand slowly—moving is very difficult—and I point to myself. I say my name, the name that my tribe has given me. Amanda-dark starts to repeat the sounds, tripping and stumbling like a child learning to talk. She stops and starts again—then shakes her head. "Sam," she says, pointing to me. "Sam."
"Sam," I say softly. Is this to be my new name? Did the spirit of the bear bring me here to give me a new name?
Amanda-dark turns to speak to the man who stands beside her and I study his face for the first time. His hair is the color of river mud; his skin is pale. His eyes are restless. My tribe once killed a mother saber-toothed cat near her den. The eyes of this man look like the eyes of her kittens. Shifting and cold. "Roy Morgan," says Amanda-dark.
I repeat the sounds but I do not change this name to improve its sound. I do not trust this cat-eyed man.
"Sam," says the man. Then in a babble of words, "Sam, the last of the Neanderthals." Then he laughs, an empty, hollow sound like the wind in the mountains. When he laughs, I watch the face of Amanda-dark change, closing in on itself, her mouth tightening and her eyes growing darker.
I cannot hold my head up any longer. My eyes close against the shimmering gray world of edges. I sleep.
Excerpted from The Shadow Hunter by Pat Murphy. Copyright © 2002 Pat Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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