The House of Mammoth Bones
by Bill Bowler
Wolf walked around behind the house of bone and sat cross-legged at the edge of the cliff with the spirit staff across his lap. He looked down at the green treetops that spread out below him as far as the eye could see, unbroken except where the shining surface of a wide river snaked through the forest. In the distance, between two mountains, loomed a wall of ice that poured slowly, slower than a man walks, between the cliffs, spilling into the valley.
From the pouch that hung around his neck, Wolf took a piece of dried mushroom between his fingertips and placed it in his mouth. He chewed slowly, savoring the bitter taste, and swallowed. He sat perfectly still, breathing slowly and deeply, hearing the silence and feeling the breeze on his face.
“Maa... Laa... Raa... Naa...”
The wind carried Wolf’s voice down into the valley and across the treetops. Wolf repeated the mystical sounds, in order, one by one, as his grandfather had taught his father, and his father had taught him. Wolf felt his spirit leave his body. He passed through the portal and entered the spirit world.
A blue-green mist swirled slowly and gently. The river spirit, silver and glittering, flowed gently through the haze, bringing life. The spirits of the clan sparkled like points of light in the blue mist. The spirits of La, his mate, and El-La, his daughter, hovered and wound around Wolf and through him, bringing love and comfort.
The playful spirit of his grandson, Little Wolf, a bright flame, raced in circles through the blue-green mist. Wolf felt himself growing and expanding. His fingertip touched the distant mountains, and the great frozen river shook the ice from its beard and gazed back sadly at Wolf. Wolf spread outwards and upwards, touched the gray clouds, and the spirit of the sky opened its veil and Wolf flowed through, towards all and nothing.
Wolf noticed a faint, unpleasant smell, like rotting meat. From nowhere, a dark shifting mass, formless and shapeless, like drifting smoke, began to appear. Wolf did not know from what world this spirit had come. He tried to recognize this spirit, to make out its vague and shifting features. It seemed familiar somehow. He felt its closeness. A wave of fear swept through Wolf, as from the dark cloud, greed, rage, envy, and jealousy poured into the spirit world, throwing off the balance.
The racing flame of Little Wolf’s spirit stopped short as the rotten, drifting mass blocked its way and began to encircle it. Little Wolf shrieked and began to flicker and grow dim, his light failing in the thickening darkness.
Now a faint point of light in the fog, desperate and frightened, Little Wolf fled towards the river spirit, who swelled and flowed towards the dark mass and the flickering spark. But the river spirit moved slowly, broad and mighty, while the rotten mass spread quickly to engulf its victim.
Old Wolf felt Little Wolf’s panic. He watched in horror, frozen in place, as the darkness overtook the flickering spark, covered it, buried it, and snuffed it out, while the fluid silver of the river spirit slowly lapped around them, powerless. Little Wolf’s shrieks echoed through the spirit world and faded away. Old Wolf howled in grief and pain.
Inside the bone house, some noise woke La from her own dreams. She was immediately alert and her eyes scanned the interior of the hut. Wolf’s place beside her was empty. La saw the sleeping forms of El-La and Little Wolf under their fur blankets. Little Wolf’s wolf cub was trotting towards the entrance way, ears cocked.
Then La heard it, too, from outside the house. She rose, stepped softly past the sleeping figures, and followed the wolf cub out and around behind the mammoth bone house. There, near the edge of the cliff, Wolf sat glassy-eyed, clutching his spirit staff, rocking in place and moaning. La shook him by the shoulders.
“Wolf, Wolf! Come back!”
La’s face, round and shining, came into focus. Wolf felt something tugging at his cloak and heard growling. He struggled to clear his mind, rose slowly and leaned against the staff.
“I have been among the spirits.”
La heard the fear in Wolf’s voice. “What did they show you?”
“One path, one of many, one we must not follow.”
La was alarmed. Wolf often journeyed to the spirit world. Many times, the spirits had shown him what others could not see and told him what others did not know. But La had never heard such fear in her mate’s voice nor seen it in his eyes. Her heart began to race.
“What scared you, Wolf? Where did the path lead?”
“Nowhere. To nothing. We must not speak of it, or the spirits may hear and cross from their world to ours. It means death.”
La was horrified. She put her arms around Wolf and held him close.
* * *
In the distance, the sky behind the mountains was beginning to glow pink. Wolf and La walked around to the front and entered the bone house. Inside, El-La was stirring. Little Wolf threw off his fur cover and jumped up.
The wolf cub scampered in through the arched tusks, grabbed Little Wolf’s blanket of mammoth fur, and shook it in its small, sharp jaws. Wolf leaned his staff against the wall and swept his grandson up in his arms.
“Are you awake now?”
“Are you ready to eat?”
“Yes!” cried Little Wolf. “Meat!”
“Not this morning. Brun has seeds on the fire this morning.”
“Ugh!” Little Wolf made a face. “I hate that!”
“Then you’re not hungry enough,” said Wolf.
When the others left, Wolf sat down in the rear of the hut. He laid one end of the bone staff across his knee and took a large flake of flint from its tether on his belt. He held the dull flattened side of the blade firmly in his gnarled hand, and with the sharp edge, began to cut a fine, thin line near the bottom of the staff, where the mammoth’s knee had been.
Wolf carved a second and a third line, all joined together forming three corners. The lines were Little Wolf, the dark spirit, and Wolf himself. Each line was connected to the other two. By the power of the staff, now nothing would touch Little Wolf that did not also touch Wolf.
Wolf rose, still holding the bone staff in his wrinkled, veined hand, and looked out through the archway of mammoth tusks. From across the plateau, Wolf heard the crackling of Brun’s fire and saw smoke trailing in the wind. La, El-La, Little Wolf, Arch, his son Zak, and the rest of the hungry clan were gathered around Brun at the cave entrance.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler