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Thunder in the Sky
"Great Spirit...Grandfather of the People...White Giant of Many Names...hear me. I call to you, I raise my arms, I turn. I set my face toward the four corners of the world, where the spirits of the wind are born and where you, Thunder in the Sky, walk in the flesh of clouds and in the shadowing power of eagles. Behold me: I am Ysuna, Daughter of the Sun, wisewoman of the People of the Watching Star. On this dawn I bring you a gift of life. On this dawn I bring you a bride. May the blood of this people and of Thunder in the Sky be one!"
A shiver of delight ran beneath Ah-nee's skin as she listened to the wisewoman's words. Ah-nee was twelve years old and far from home. But she had been a woman for eighteen moons, and when the sun rose above the curve of the western hills and the daybreak star faded from the sky, she would become a bride.
Naked and glistening from head to toe with oil that had been rendered from mammoth fat and colored with powdered red hematite and ground willow buds, she stood trembling with excitement outside the ceremonial sweat lodge from which she had just emerged. Nai, the young woman who had been her attendant during the past four days and nights of ritual purification, emerged from the sweat lodge to stand close at her back.
"Remember, do not turn around!"
Ah-nee heard Nai's warning clearly even though drums were sounding so loudly that they shook the world.
Nai's command continued in an imperative whisper. "Do not speak! No matter what you see or hear from this moment on, obey in all things. And above all else, you must not be afraid!"
Afraid? Ah-nee found the advice preposterous. Her head went high. This was the predawn of her wedding morning. Why should she be afraid?
The drumbeat was growing even louder. She stood as tall as her meager height would allow, thinking of Nai's words and remembering that the old women of the Red World had warned her that Spirit Rat, Eater of Courage, Father of Fear, would come to her this day. But they had been wrong, completely and absolutely wrong! The sweet sadness that was homesickness touched her. If only the old women of the Red World were with her now! She had not expected to miss them so much or to long for their loving counsel.
She sighed. There was no use mourning for that which could not be. The old women of the Red World were far away to the southwest, asleep in the reed-covered lakeside lodges of her people. For love of a wandering stranger she had spurned their advice, disdained the misgivings of old Ish-iwi, shaman of her band, and resolutely turned her back upon them and their ways. It would be many moons before she would see any of them again.
She took a deep, deliberate breath and succeeded in driving away her recollections of home and loved ones. In time they would realize that she had made the right decision. In time they would nod and smile and admit that she had not been wrong to leave them. In time . . . but now the moment was as sweet as a freshly dug camas root. She savored it as she stared straight ahead, across the Village of the People of the Watching Star. The vast, circular sprawl of tall, cone-shaped, garishly painted hide-covered lodges still looked strange to her. She reminded herself that she had chosen to be there, that she was about to become the woman of the man of her choice, and that for want of him, she had voluntarily traveled north into a strange land. She had lived among his people for a moon now. As he had promised, they had treated her better than she had ever been treated in her life.
Expectation stirred within her. Lest her feet touch the earth on this sacred occasion, a rare carpet of long-haired mammoth hide had been rolled out before her. Overlaid with freshly cut boughs of artemesia, the finely combed pelage, gray leaves, and tender new stalks tickled the soles of her feet. A fragrant crown of silver-leafed purple sage circled her brow; its rich, herbaceous scent was heady. She inhaled hungrily, not only because it was sacred to the People of the Watching Star but because the smell of sage was reminiscent of home--of broad, arid plains to the west of the distant lake country where her father, brothers, and the other men of her band hunted rabbits and antelope at this time of year.
Clutched in her small right hand was a blue-berried juniper branch. It, too, was sacred to the People of the Watching Star and also carried the scent of home--of autumn treks into red-earthed highlands, where juniper woods yielded to pinyon forests. Her people gathered pine nuts there until the first snows of winter sent them following deer and small, striped horses to shelter beside ice-free springs within the foothills.
She sighed again. Her memories were as heady as the evening air; but the night was nearly over, and this was not a time for thoughts of the past. In her left hand was a gift for the man who would soon become her husband. It was a timeworn dagger, which appeared to be made of bone but possessed the weight and texture of polished stone. The medicine woman, Ysuna, had brought it to her on the morning of her first day within the sweat lodge.
"For the bride," the wisewoman had explained. "Bathe it in the sweat of your body. Polish it with your hair. Keep it close to your flesh in these hours of purification. Then bring it forth to him."
"I thank you, Ysuna, but I have made gifts for him in the manner of my people: a new sleeping robe of twisted rabbit fur, sandals of brushwood, and--"
"No. Nothing from the Red World. You must give him this sacred stone dagger, my child. It has been with my people since time beyond beginning. Can you make out the carvings on the blade? It is said that they were incised by magic in days when the White Giant roared, the mountains walked, and all the people of this world were one. The stone is old, so very old. Touch it, Little Sister. It is a portion of the scattered bones of First Man and First Woman. When all the bones are found, mammoth will return to the world in great numbers, and all the people of the Four Winds will be one again as they feast upon the sacred meat that once sustained their ancestors."
Ah-nee remembered running a finger down the strangely textured blade and informing Ysuna softly: "In the Red World, whence I came, the meat of the mammoth is forbidden. Such stones as these are sacred relics. Old Ish-iwi, shaman of my band, possesses one that is no bigger than an acorn. It has these same marks. The wise man has said that they are the marks of Life Giver. Ish-iwi has told my people that it is our link with the past and with our ancestors. Without it our band would lose its strength and hope."
The expression upon Ysuna's ageless, extraordinarily beautiful face had gone as blank and smooth as an unused drumskin. "Life Giver?"
"Yes. Great Ghost Spirit. Grandfather of All."
"Ah, yes, of course. Life Giver. Great Ghost Spirit. Thunder in the Sky. It is the same then. Are there sacred stones to be found among other bands than yours in the Red World?"
"Oh, yes. As many stones as there are tribes. What do the marks on the blade mean, Ysuna?"
"That is not for you to know, Little Sister. The meaning is best left in the care of wise ones. When the time comes, bring the dagger forth to the one you have chosen. He will understand its significance even if you do not."
Ah-nee's heartbeat quickened now as her memories faded. She could see him--Maliwal, the one they called Wolf. How she loved him! He was clad in a grotesque hooded leather cape that made his head look like a tuskless mammoth's, complete with elephantine ears and a trunk. The well-preserved mammoth's trunk flopped in front of his face. His body was painted gray, and his arms and limbs were resplendent with the colors and patterns that symbolized life to his people. He ascended the broad stone steps of the enormous platformed dais before which the wisewoman stood with her arms raised skyward and her head thrown back.
How beautiful she looks, thought Ah-nee, distracted from the sight of Maliwal's bizarre raiment. Even with her back turned, Ysuna commanded attention. Among the People of the Red World it was unheard of for a woman to be one with the spirits. But Ysuna was not of the Red World; she was a daughter of the People of the Watching Star and no ordinary woman. It was rumored that she had borne witness to the beginning of the world. Yet, despite her years, Ysuna's hair was as black as the wings of a raven and so long that had she stepped backward, her bare, tattooed heels could have trod upon its feather-tasseled ends. Now, as always, the wisewoman was clothed in her astounding robe of skins taken from the small, yellow-backed brown birds that always rode high upon the head and shoulders of the mammoth.
Taller than most men and as straight backed as a fire-hardened spear shaft, Ysuna was the focus of her people's lives. Men worshiped her, women feared her, and children were forbidden to walk within the fall of her shadow. Dogs that crossed it were clubbed to death. Nevertheless, from Ah-nee's first tremulous moments in this great camp of strangers, Ysuna had taken her under her wing, calling her Little Sister and doting upon her with a tenderness that could only be described as motherly. Ah-nee's heart swelled with love for the wisewoman. Ah-nee's own mother was long dead, and she had found in Ysuna a cherished replacement.
The girl smiled. The crinkling of her eyes caused mammoth oil to seep into the corners of her lids. Remembering Nai's warning not to move, Ah-nee tried to blink it away, but it was no use. Through a filmy red haze she continued to stare ahead, past Ysuna to the dais.
It was the largest, most amazing, and completely terrifying structure that Ah-nee had ever seen, and it had taken the People of the Watching Star four days to construct. Bonefires burned on either side of two huge, four-man drums, which flanked the stairway. The dais was framed entirely by mammoth bones and elaborately adorned with long strands of eagle feathers, multicolored tubular beads, and disks of bone. It towered above the ground, a monstrous replication of a living mammoth.
Maliwal was standing on a raftlike platform of mammoth ribs positioned between two halves of a severed mammoth skull. On either side of him, the skull's hollow eyes stared sightlessly ahead while its massive tusks extended forward like two polished white tree trunks.
Every man, woman, and child of the People of the Watching Star assembled in two long columns on either side of the dais. Even their mangy, quarrelsome dogs were with them as, in ceremonial paint, feathers, and garments of pigmented skins, they stared at her and shouted her name.
She flinched, startled. Maliwal did not call her name; he trumpeted it in as good an imitation of a mammoth as any man could hope to make.
"Ah-nee!" The people echoed him in unison, chanting her name, trilling their tongues, shaking animal-scrotum rattles, and whistling fiercely through hollow bones as the dogs barked and howled and the beat of the drums intensified.
Overwhelmed, Ah-nee stared at the drums, unlike any she had seen in the land of her own people. They were suspended above the earth from upright posts of concentrically arranged mammoth femurs. Nai had called them thunder drums. Six feet in circumference, they were great circles of bent willow wood, over which mammoth skin had been stretched taut, then warmed over sacred fires until all moisture had been removed. Each was struck by four men who wailed in cadence with the pounding of their fur-padded bone beaters, but Ah-nee barely heard them.
Ysuna had turned toward her. The wisewoman was no longer alone before the dais. He--Masau, mystic warrior of the People of the Watching Star and younger brother of Maliwal--had joined her.
Ah-nee's body sang whenever she looked at him. Her mouth went dry. She swallowed; it did not help. Masau looked at her, his dark eyes narrowed with speculation within the black mask of tattooing. He had recently returned to his people from a hunting trek to the west.
Without doubt, he was the most magnificent man she had ever seen. Did Maliwal suspect how attracted she was to Mystic Warrior? she wondered. And if he did, what must he think?
In the glow of the ceremonial fires that had been heaped high with dried bones, precious wood, and baskets full of sagebrush, Ah-nee looked guiltily away from Masau and focused her attention upon Maliwal.
Her man-to-be stood tall, a solitary figure against the fading night. Maliwal was strong and clever and exceedingly good to look upon--even when he was dressed as a mammoth! Not one man among his own people came close to equaling him in stature, wisdom, or consideration of her every whim. Despite her attraction to his younger brother she had no regrets about becoming Maliwal's woman. Soon she would make a gift of herself to him. The thought made her shiver with pride and anticipation.
"Come!" With outstretched arms Maliwal was gesturing her forward. His teeth showed white in his gray painted face as he held up the trunk of the mammoth so that she could see his wide and winning smile--a smile just for her. She nearly swooned with pleasure and was sorry when he allowed the trunk of his mammoth mask to fall before his face.
Now he began to dance. He swayed, he beckoned, he trumpeted. He turned his buttocks toward her, shaking them as he flicked the tufted mammoth tail that was attached to the back of his loincloth; then he turned again, leaped high in the air, and faced her. Working his hips, he jerked up on a cord that erected the ankle-length front half of his loincloth. It was no ordinary groin cover; long and pendulous, it was a remnant of a male mammoth, which could never serve a human female, except in her nightmares.
The people roared with laughter, and Ah-nee felt her face flush. For all her eagerness to become the woman of this handsome big-game hunter of the north, she was still a virgin.
"Come!" Maliwal trumpeted again, hoisting his loin cover high to reveal his fully erect and engorged tattooed penis beneath it. "Come, Daughter of the People of the Watching Star! Come, Ah-nee! Come to Thunder in the Sky! It is time!"
Maliwal's mammoth dance had gone beyond the subtlety of symbolism. His male part was big, very big, and Ah-nee's thighs tightened defensively. And yet, deep within her loins, the fire of receptiveness was ignited by the sight of him. She was moist, throbbing, and eager to receive that for which she had longed since the first moment she had set eyes upon him.
"You must go to him," Nai whispered at her back. "Now!"
"Come!" he called again. "As the mammoth has at last returned to feed in the marshes of Eagle Lake, so now must Ah-nee come to Thunder in the Sky!"
She wished that Maliwal would use his own name. She wished that he would speak of the joining of man to woman, not of woman to mammoth. She could not understand his preoccupation with the animals. Everything his people did was associated with the great tuskers. Mammoth were totem to her people, too, and rare in the lakelands to the south. In these hard grasslands of the north, where mammoth were more scarce than even giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and long-horned bison, Ah-nee could not understand why Maliwal's people hunted them. Even now, in this sacred ritual of marriage, her man-to-be was acting out some strange display on behalf of the great mammoth spirit, Thunder in the Sky--as though Maliwal and the spirit were one. It was a disturbing thought. What would the old women of the Red World say if they could see and hear him now? Ah-nee wondered.
I told you so.
The girl gritted her teeth. She would not let her memories of the well-meaning but easily frightened old women ruin the most wonderful night of her life. When the ceremony was over and Maliwal and she were alone in each other's arms at last, he would know soon enough that it was far more enjoyable to be a man than a mammoth.
Nai was twisting the knuckles of her fist in the small of Ah-nee's back, urging her on. It was time to ascend the dais, to take the husband of her choice. Ah-nee began to walk forward. She moved slowly, as though in a dream. The faces of the People of the Watching Star seemed to float by . . . such serious faces, mouths set, eyes full of secrets. Why were they no longer smiling?
"Behold!" they cried as one.
The beat of the drums quickened, pounding in her head and heart.
"Behold the bride!" the men shouted in unison, extending their hands and shaking their scrotum rattles close to her face so their fingers touched her as she passed.
The beat of drums grew louder.
"She is beautiful! She is perfect! A worthy bride!" proclaimed the women, trilling their tongues as they reached to touch her.
And still the beat of drums grew faster, louder.
"She comes!" echoed the children as they, too, reached out.
It seemed as though not a portion of her skin had not been host to questing fingertips. Then the drums abruptly stopped. Startled by the sudden silence, Ah-nee stopped, too, at the base of the dais.
High above her on the platform, Maliwal was standing still now, arms out, loincloth down, his face freed of the mammoth mask, which he had flung over his back. How handsome he was. How welcoming as he smiled and spoke her name with infinite love and admiration.
Ysuna stood before her. Masau, the mystic warrior, magnificent in a robe of eagle feathers and a plumed headdress such as Ah-nee had never seen, was at the wisewoman's side. One of his spears was in his hand. Briefly she wondered why, and then pondered the meaning of his name. Mystic Warrior. The word mystic was familiar enough, but the term warrior was alien to her. It did not matter, not now. His cold, dark eyes, like obsidian in moonlight, were on her. She flinched as though cut by them. She did not like the look in his eyes. She caught her breath and averted her gaze, grateful now that she was to be for Maliwal and not for his younger brother.
"Little Sister! At last the moment comes!" Ysuna was radiant.
Ah-nee sighed with pleasure as the wisewoman swept her into a loving embrace. She could have stayed close to Ysuna forever, but the moment passed, and Ysuna stepped back.
"How young and perfect you are, Little Sister. Will you name me Sister as well?"
"Yes, and gladly, for truly you are the sister and the mother that I have sorely missed."
Ysuna's chin went up. Her nostrils expanded, and her long eyes narrowed. A pale blue vein pulsed in the exposed length of her throat. "And will you now call yourself forevermore a daughter of the People of the Watching Star and come consenting to this moment of union with us?"
Ah-nee hesitated. It had occurred to her that even though marriage would make her a woman of Maliwal and Ysuna's tribe, she would nevertheless always be a daughter of her own band, a child of the People of the Red World. But if she spoke her thoughts aloud, Ysuna would certainly be offended. Ah-nee wished only to please the wisewoman in all things. And so she said openly and without regret, certain that Ysuna had never honored anyone as she was being honored now, "Yes, my sister. I will call myself a daughter of the People of the Watching Star. Yes! I do come consenting to this moment of union with Maliwal and with your people!"
Ysuna lowered her head. Her eyes were very wide now, her features composed. Her skin appeared translucent in the light of flames and fading stars. "And with the Great Ghost Spirit? With Thunder in the Sky?"
Ah-nee was keenly aware of every eye in the band upon her. Even the dogs were staring, waiting breathlessly. Masau's eyes were half-closed with speculation. A muscle worked high at his jawline, but he did not speak. Ah-nee was glad; the man put her on edge, and it was obvious that her response would be of great importance. She wanted to say the right thing. The People of the Watching Star were her people now, and she wanted to make them happy with her. She wanted the moment and the night to be perfect so that her marriage to Maliwal would be flawless, too. She swallowed. "Yes. I come consenting to Thunder in the Sky."
The sigh of relief that went out of every month was obliterated by the sudden frenzied beating of the drums Ysuna's features expanded into a mask of triumph as she flung up her arms. But it was Masau who spoke clearly and coldly and loudly enough for all to hear:
"So be it! Ah-nee comes consenting to Thunder in the Sky! Let no man or woman or child ever say otherwise!"
Ah-nee almost laughed with pleasure as Ysuna cried out in joyous ecstasy, "Go then, my little sister! Go to that which you seek of your own will! Thunder in the Sky awaits his bride!"
As the People of the Watching Star cheered she obeyed eagerly. The daybreak star was fading in the west. Soon the night would die, and the sun would be born again. Ah-nee held the juniper bough in one hand and the dagger in the other as her small, bare feet carried her quickly up the steps to her waiting man-to-be. Breathless, she stood before him at last.
Maliwal grinned when he took the bough in his left hand and accepted the dagger with his right. Ah-nee smiled when she passed the gifts to him. He traced the contours of her body with the juniper branch, forcing Ah-nee to suppress a giggle. Ultimately she failed; the bough tickled her skin. She was relieved when he tucked the branch into the waistband that supported his loincloth. His strong arm suddenly drew her close, and she gasped with pleasure. The dagger was in his right hand, and the girl could feel its blade pressed flat beneath her breasts.
Maliwal bent close and spoke in a low, rattling purr. "I saw the way you have looked at him ever since he came back to the village. Four days and nights of purification have not wiped the wanting of my brother from your heart."
The words struck her dumb, as did the dark glint of murderous intent within his eyes. She tried to twist away, but it was no use. His lips twitched as he snarled and drove the dagger deep.
She screamed, not loudly. It was a soft cry of incredulity. As she stiffened in his arms he twisted the knife, then pulled it out and jabbed deep again, searching for her heart.
"No . . . don't . . . noooo . . ." The protest bled out of her as she went lax in his arms.
At last he let her fall. Confused, unable to speak, she lay on her back, staring up at him. The knife was in his hand. The sun was rising behind him, but the world was growing dark.
Ysuna appeared above her, and hope flared bright and real. Ah-nee stared upward. Ysuna leaned over her and smiled. Now, for the first time, Ah-nee noticed that beneath the shaman's feathered cloak was a heavy gorget woven of sinew and tufts of human hair. Small, irregularly shaped bones dangled from the collar and clicked in the wind. No! Not bones! Stones--sacred stones--one of which was the size of an acorn. Although Ah-nee's vision was failing, the little stone somehow loomed large in her misted eyes. She had seen it before, in the Red World, around the neck of old Ish-iwi, shaman of her band.
Ah-nee reached up with one small hand. "Sister...Ysuna...Mother..." Ah-nee was not certain if she spoke the words or thought them.
Ysuna did not move. She stood tall as the dawn wind lifted her hair. Her smile lengthened into the long, sinuous smile of a sun-warmed serpent. "Yes, Little Sister. It is Ish-iwi's sacred stone. I will have them all in time." Her brows expanded across her unlined forehead, and she said in a low, throaty voice to the brothers, "All is not lost. Did you hear her words? She still names us as her own. Finish her quickly, Masau, before she speaks again and offends the god. Thunder in the Sky is awaiting his bride."
The shadow of death fell upon Ah-nee. She saw its face as the mystic warrior ascended to the platform, hesitated for a moment, then raised his spear. Weak from shock and loss of blood. Ah-nee felt no pain when the lanceolate spearhead sliced through her breastbone and found her heart. There was only light--a bright, explosive light followed by a cold, terrible pressure, which suddenly expanded, then collapsed inward into darkness.
Ah-nee could no longer see the wisewoman. Her spirit was leaving her body. She could feel herself drifting away. "Why?" The question sighed out of the dying girl with her last breath.