The Sorcerer’s Bargain
by JM Williams
I met the Sorcerer once.
It was after my womb rejected the second unborn child that the shaman of our little tribe said I must go to him. “You are cursed, Sahmi,” she said to me one lifeless morning. “Some dark spirit haunts you, keeping you from the joys of motherhood. Only the Sorcerer can help you.”
Fortunately, we were camped in a barren clearing near the Sorcerer's cave, waiting with the great herds as they grazed on the green along the river. Unlike the rest of us, he always kept the same home, and every tribe knew where to find him when the wisdom of our own shamans proved insufficient.
Tomma — one of our hunters — walked with me, since my mate was away with the hunting party. It took almost a full day to reach the cave: through forests, and up rocky hills, far up and away from the life of the valley. As we approached the entrance, the sun was setting behind the hill, leaving the Sorcerer's home shrouded in shadow.
The cavern looked all but empty, only the faint flicker of a fire dancing on the inner walls. Ominous shadows gathered all around us. The forest was dead except for a few wild voices that could be heard from the distant trees. I instructed Tomma to stay outside, since this was a private meeting between the Sorcerer and me.
I made my way slowly into the cave, hesitant but needy. A slight wind greeted me as I entered, as if the breath of some great creature resting within. I could hear awful sounds coming from the direction of the fire — howls and hoots and beastly noises of all sorts — but they were muffled and scattered in echoes.
The glow from the inner flame illuminated the wet, gray walls and I could see what was drawn there. I saw pictures of animals of all sorts, drawn in blood red, all gathered in a circle as if dancing some timeless dance of the spirits. They fed a lively energy into the dimly lit cavern. I could smell the smoke of burning blackbone root, a smell that manages to be both sweet and bitter at the same time.
Rounding a corner, I could finally see the fire in all its savage glory. What looked to be a stag stood over the twisting flame. It was strange to see such a creature here. As I stepped into the wide chamber, the beast rose, and I realized it was not a beast at all.
The Sorcerer was wearing the antlers of a great stag on his head, long horns that branched out in a half-dozen places. The hide of the creature was draped down his back so that the fluff of its tail rested at the Sorcerer's rump. Except for the skin of the deer, and some black paint on his chest and face, he was naked. His spear hung freely between his legs, a polished white bone piercing the loose skin at the top.
He opened his mouth and growled softly at me as I closed the distance between us. “Why do you come here, child?” he hissed, circling me and looking me over like a hungry predator.
“I am cursed,” was all I managed to say.
His rough, blood-stained hand grabbed me by the chin and he pulled me close to his face. His breath smelled of burned meat, and the paint on his cheeks was dry and cracked. The fur of his face was roughly cut, as was the hair on his head. His appearance seemed the result of an odd battle between tradition and wild ambivalence.
He pulled me close and stared into my eyes; shadows lurked in the corners of his, giving him an almost inhuman presence. After a moment he cocked his head and smiled, letting out a deranged laugh. “What is it that troubles you, girl?” he asked, returning to the fire. “Should you not be with your tribe, caring for a child?”
“That is why I have come,” I said quietly, still unsure of this man who was prone to sudden moves. “My womb has rejected my last two attempts to create life.”
“Ahh...” the Sorcerer said knowingly, throwing another thick piece of root into the fire, which hissed and began to smoke. “You think the spirits forbid you motherhood?”
“Yes... I do not know.”
“Tell me. Was the blood of the loss red or black?”
“Hmm...” The Sorcerer pulled at his facial fur as he considered my answer. “It is the spirit we call the Herdmaster who has his grip on you.”
“The Herdmaster is the protector of the balance between the herds and people. He is angered by many things.” The Sorcerer tossed another root into the fire and waved his hands to drag the smoke into his nostrils. “Your mate has eaten the heart of a mammoth and become a man in the eyes of the spirits?”
“Yes. Many, many moons ago. Long before we came together.”
“Then it must be you who has angered the great spirit. What have you done child?”
“Nothing... I haven't done anything.”
The Sorcerer cocked his head again wryly. “Then why are you cursed?” he said, raising his arms in a sarcastic questioning gesture. “Think girl.” He poked me on the head. “I do not help the stupid here.”
And I sat before the fire, trying to remember what I had done to anger the spirits. The Sorcerer sat across from me, silently continuing his rituals. I breathed in the blackbone smoke, wishing it to open my mind. After a long while, a thought came to me and I jumped to my feet.
“Remembered something, child?” the Sorcerer asked.
“Yes... Yes, I remember what I have done.”
“A long time ago, when our tribe was higher in the mountains, our men went out to hunt the mammoth. Everyone was joyous and expectant because it was the day our brother would eat from the heart and become a man. Our father was particularly eager to witness this victory. The men left in high spirits and did not return for many days. When they did, it was as if the joy had been sucked completely from their bones. The hunters returned with neither meat, nor our father...”
I had to pause my story for a moment, the winds of grief rising in me. The Sorcerer came to me and placed a firm but kind hand on my shoulder. It was a surprising shift in character, and yet I found it comforting.
“Go on,” he said. “Face your sorrows.”
“You see,” I struggled to begin again, “our father had been killed, trampled by the mammoth he was trying to subdue. I wept for him for many days, but it was not enough. My sadness would not subside. I was without parents, and our brother was constantly away with the hunters, who still failed to bring home anything of substance. One night I wandered out beneath the stars and screamed my vengeance at the spirits, cursing them for my troubles. After that night, I felt better.”
“I see...” the Sorcerer said, rubbing his furry chin. “It was a bargain.”
“What do you mean?”
“The spirits gave you the peace you requested, but took their payment as well.”
“How can I get it back?”
“There is only one way to get back what you lost,” he said, placing his free hand on my other shoulder and nodding confidently. “Another bargain.”
With those words he disappeared into a darkened corner of the cave, squawking to himself like a hawk on the prowl. He returned with a clay jar, filled with a black liquid.
“Here. In this jar is a pigment mixed from river clay, blackbone root, and mammoth blood. You will need this.”
“What for?” I asked.
“I hear you are good with pictures. Is that true?”
“Maybe. I draw the hunt in the dirt from time to time, to impress the children.”
“Good. Add a drop of your own blood to this pigment and paint the hunt on the wall of a yet unmarked cave. If the Herdmaster and his kin accept your offering, they will return your motherhood as payment.”
“Are you sure that will work?”
“Nothing is certain with the spirits; their mood is ever-changing.”
Those were the last words he offered me, shooing me to the door and offering Tomma an overly generous smile that seemed to shock the big man.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to do as the Sorcerer instructed. Our tribe was forced to move station, following the rambling herds. It was many moons before the winter came and we settled down again. But I kept the jar of pigment fresh as best as I could, remixing it as we traveled.
Now, finally, I find myself in the cave I have seen many times in my dreams. I am sitting in a small sanctuary up and away from the main chamber. Here I have begun to paint the hunt, as masterfully as I can manage. I have also drawn the Sorcerer, as best as I can remember, in his antlers and hides, standing watch over the gathering beasts. The pigment sticks like old blood to the walls, filling this room with life, as it was in the Sorcerer's cave.
I say this to you, young one still in my belly, to assure you I have done everything I could to carry you safe into the world. I only hope the spirits will accept my bargain.
[Author's Note] This story is a dramatization of the character known as the “Sorcerer of Trois-Frères,” a cave painting discovered in France. Dating to around 12,000 BCE, the image represents one of the oldest depictions of magic and religion in human history. The depiction of the Sorcerer has been interpreted in many ways: as a spirit, as a human-animal hybrid, as a master of animals, or as a shaman. This story has gone with the more realistic characterizations.
Copyright © 2018 by JM Williams