The House of Mammoth Bones
by Bill Bowler
When the hunting party reached the foot of the cliff where the narrow path led up to the plateau, La ran up to them, panting and screaming.
“Little Wolf! Little Wolf is missing! He’s gone!” She buried her wrinkled, gray face in Wolf’s chest and sobbed. “Brun is searching for him!”
El-La dropped her spear. The blood drained from her face.
Zak stepped forward and said loudly, “Don’t worry. We’ll find him. He can’t have gone far.”
The hunters fanned out into the forest and began searching for the missing boy. Zak took the lead. Still limping, he followed the path, stopping frequently to kneel and study the ground and brush for footprints or any sign that Little Wolf had come this way.
Wolf held La in his arms. When she stopped crying, he spoke to her softly. “Be brave, my mate. We will find him, but I must speak to the spirits. They tried to warn me.” Wolf turned to his daughter, who had not said a word, a look of fear and pain on her ashen face. “El-La, be strong. Stay with your mother.”
El-La gathered her strength and took her mother’s hand. “We will search for Little Wolf together. The spirits will guide us to him.”
Old gray La, her round wrinkled face stricken with fear, and her yellow-haired daughter, El-La, pale and shaken, supported each other as they started down the path.
Wolf feared the worst. His mouth set in a grim line, he climbed to the plateau, crossed to the house of bone and entered through the arched tusks. The wolf cub nipped at his heels as he walked to the rear of the interior, knelt down and slid away the wooden plank. The fur-lined trench was empty. The staff was gone. Wolf slumped to the ground, feeling overwhelmed and defeated. Who was at work here, spirits or men?
Wolf emerged from the bone house with a gray, blood-drained face and cold eyes. Little Wolf’s wolf pup pranced along behind him, but he paid it no mind. He walked slowly back down to the foot of the cliff and found Arch there alone.
Arch was morose and gloomy. His forearm bulged and his knuckles were white as he held his spear in a crushing grip. His broad chest heaved. He barely contained his rage at this mischief of the spirits, against which, he knew, his strength was no match. They could hear voices in the forest calling Little Wolf’s name.
“Anything?” Wolf asked Arch.
“Nothing. Not a trace. I don’t understand.”
“The spirit staff is missing.” Wolf saw that Arch was shocked. “A missing boy and a missing staff. Two mysteries or one? The staff is searching for the boy and will bring us to him. Let us look together. Your eyes may see what mine do not. The spirits will guide us.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Arch. “I’d like to break someone’s neck, but whose? If I could get my hands on these spirits of yours.”
“I’ll deal with them,” said Wolf. “And if the evil one crosses over to our world, you can have him.”
The two men started down the path. The wolf pup followed. When they reached the fork, near the clearing of the flowering bush, the wolf cub started barking. It ran off, yelping, down the other branch, the one that led to the river.
Arch and Wolf ran behind the wolf pup and came to the bend where it opened up on the high bluff. The wolf pup sat in the midst of the clearing, crying and whimpering. Arch’s keen eyes swept the scene. He walked to where the wolf cub sat whining and examined the ground. The earth had been furrowed and trampled recently. Arch stood and slowly walked the perimeter of the clearing. He stopped when he saw brown stains on the leaves of a broken branch near the edge of the bluff.
“Wolf,” Arch spoke softly, “do you think an animal attacked Little Wolf here?”
Wolf saw the trampled earth and the blood stains on the broken branch. His mood grew even darker. “Hyena, wolf, wolverine, lynx. The boy would be easy prey.”
Arch nodded. “Where is the body? The animal could have dragged it off. We’ll have to search the brush.”
Wolf and Arch went back into the forest and called to the search party. El-La, La, Zak, Brun and the others followed Wolf and Arch to the high bluff at the river’s edge. The two men showed the others the trampled earth and the broken branch with the blood stain.
El-La knelt on the ground and began to weep. La knelt beside her daughter and tried to comfort her, though she herself also felt deep pain and grief.
“It seems an animal attacked Little Wolf here,” said Arch, “killed him and dragged off the body.”
“A hyena,” said Zak, “or maybe the same wolverine that attacked me!”
“We have to find the body,” said Arch.
As Arch spoke, Wolf’s eyes moved from face to face, studying each one. Which one could tell him where his staff was?
El-La rose from the ground, grey and pallid. She looked around with tear-filled eyes and then walked slowly to the edge of the bluff that overlooked the river. Wolf came up beside her, afraid that she might throw herself over the cliff, but El-La just stood silently, staring down at the rocks and the rushing waters.
The clan searched the brush along the high bank and around the clearing, but there was no sign of Little Wolf’s body. As the spirit of light dropped beneath the edge of the earth, they gave up their search and trudged sadly back towards home.
Wolf lingered on the bluff. With Little Wolf’s disappearance, the barrier between the spirit world and the world of men seemed to be broken, and the spirits seemed to be pouring through the breach. He felt the spirits were calling to him, trying to guide him, but without the staff, he could not understand them.
Wolf walked slowly back along the path. When he reached the fork that led to the flowering bush, he paused to breathe in the sweet fragrance that hung in the air. A feeling of weariness came over him. He felt old and tired. The sadness and pain he had been forcing from his mind now entered his being and crushed him like a heavy weight. He sat down on the grass at the edge of the path to rest.
Beside him, a butterfly perched on a stalk of clover slowly opened and closed its wings. The brilliant colors caught Wolf’s eye and he thanked the spirits for sending their messenger to remind him in his grief of the beauty of this world. The butterfly took off, fluttered a short distance, and landed in a shallow impression in the soft earth where the path forked.
Something held Wolf’s eyes on the butterfly. He stood and walked to where the butterfly rested and saw that the shallow impression was a footprint, and there were two prints, one beside the other, one large, and one small.
In the failing light, Wolf followed the fork back to where the flowering bush bloomed. He crossed the clearing, looking down at the ground each step of the way. Not far from the bush, where the earth was trampled, he stopped and knelt.
Something had caught his eye, a small clump of something. Wolf picked it up and looked closely. Fur. It was dark and wiry, and attached to a small patch of dried skin torn from a pelt of mammoth fur. Wolf put the swatch of fur into the pouch that hung from his neck and started for home.
* * *
El-La and La were both wracked with guilt. Each felt responsible for the loss of the boy, each felt at fault for not having watched him more closely. The grandmother, La, wept inconsolably. The mother, El-La, lay still on the floor of the house of mammoth bones, numb from pain and loss, eyes open but not seeing.
Wolf was worried, for El-La especially, but after the spirit of light had risen into the sky and dropped back beneath the earth, and risen and fallen again, El-La rose from the floor and looked around the interior of the bone house as if she had never before seen it.
“The spirit of the river has called to me,” she said to Wolf.
Wolf was relieved to hear her voice after her long silence, and to see she was returning to life again.
“The river also spoke to me,” said Wolf. He remembered the swirling silver spirit that fought for Little Wolf in the spirit world. “Let us go to the river together,” Wolf said to El-La. “The water has healing power.”
As Wolf and his daughter emerged from the bone house through the arch of mammoth tusks, they encountered Zak crossing the plateau from the cave entrance.
“I am sorry,” Zak said to El-La. He put his hand over his heart. “I feel pain.”
El-La nodded in acknowledgment.
Zak thumped his fist on his chest. “With Zak, El-La forget pain. No more pain.”
El-La waved him off as tears filled her eyes. Wolf studied Zak’s face. It looked like a mask of wood. Wolf tried to read Zak’s thoughts, but they remained hidden behind the mask.
Wolf and El-La went to the spot downstream from where Little Wolf had been attacked, the spot where the current eddied and a deep pool had formed. As Wolf sat on the grassy bank, El-La walked to the water’s edge, stood beneath the overhanging branches, and gazed at the still surface.
Wolf watched his daughter. The spirits had struck her two blows, the death of her mate and now the loss of her son. She was growing thin and frail, shrinking into herself. Her shoulders were hunched. Her strength was sapped. Only her yellow hair glistening in the soft forest light reminded Wolf of the bright quickness of spirit she had possessed. He wished there was something he could do to help her.
El-La screamed. Wolf leapt to his feet and ran to her. He followed her gaze and saw something in the water, floating just below the surface. Wolf saw it, and knew. The spirit of the river had given them back Little Wolf’s body.
Wolf walked waist-deep into the icy water, took Little Wolf in his arms, and carried him to shore. He laid the body gently on the grass. El-La covered her face with her hands and cried.
Wolf put his arm around his daughter. “Now we can return his body to the earth.”
El-La tried to repress her sobs. Wolf held both her hands and offered thanks to the river spirit.
Little Wolf’s body was swollen and disfigured from its time under water. Wolf saw the scratches left from the boy’s struggle with the animal that attacked him, and the deep bruises from his fall to the rocks. Wolf touched Little Wolf’s face, brushed aside the boy’s long hair, and on the boy’s neck, he saw a hole in the flesh, a deep puncture wound. Wolf’s eyes narrowed. He recognized this type of wound. He had seen it countless times. It had been caused by a spear.
Wolf said nothing to El-La. She was suffering enough. But Wolf himself was filled now not with sadness but with fierce, bitter rage.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler