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The next morning, Blue asked Thumb and Oak to walk with him to the river for a hunting council. Although Oak was Thumb’s half-brother, they had never been close. Oak was younger than Thumb. Their mother had died giving birth to him and their luck had been tangled ever since. But with Quick and the others tracking the reindeer herd, Oak was the best hunter in camp.
He was a simple man, better with his hands than his head. He could throw a spear farther than any of the people, but he could scarcely tell a story straight through. He had no lover and so was always restless. The mothers said that he would leave the valley some day.
The three men carried water skins down the path to the river. Since Blue had called the council, Oak and Thumb waited for him to begin it. At the river, instead of filling his skin, he hung it on a branch. The others did the same and then the three sat facing each other.
“So, do we hunt it?” said Blue.
Oak snorted in disgust. “The question answers itself.”
“We could,” said Thumb, “if it’s just an animal.”
“What else would it be?”
Blue frowned. “You think it is?”
“My thoughts are thick as mud,” said Thumb. “I heard a voice in my head. But as soon as I saw the beast, I knew that we could kill it.” He shrugged. “You can’t kill a spirit.”
Oak touched Thumb’s knee. “How many men would it take, brother?”
“Five and five, at least. It was feeding, so I’m not sure how fast it charges. More would be better. It’ll be dangerous.”
“So we had better wait for Quick to come back,” said Blue.
Oak made a sour face. “And let it wander off? Blue, this is a mammoth. Think of what people will say of the ones who bring it down. You want to give those stories to the shell people? The horse people?”
Blue shook his head. “Men may die unless we hunt at full strength.”
“You could die on the way back to camp if you trip over a stone. I’m not afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, either. I’m just not stupid.”
Thumb’s attention drifted. Their argument was like the chitter of magpies. There was something that he needed to understand about the mammoth. Something that he couldn’t talk or think his way to, something that hid underneath words. He began to clear the ground in front of him, pulling grass, sweeping away rotted leaves.
“We’ve got Horn and Quail and Bright and Rabbit,” said Oak. “And you two, if you both agree,”
“Bright is still a boy.”
“He has his name.”
“He was born the summer before Onion came to us!”
Thumb fluffed the exposed dirt and then began to work with his drawing thumb. The lines were swift and sure. Round head, sloping back, trunk, long tusks.
“What is it?” Oak’s voice came from a great distance.
Thumb opened himself and a dream found him.
“Quiet!” said Blue. Thumb could barely hear him over the blood pounding in his ears.
In his dream, the mammoth was already dead. It was lying on its side in a clearing. Flies buzzed the wounds on its neck. Two spears stuck out of its broad chest. The blood was dry.
Thumb was alone with the mammoth. There were no other hunters, no one to thank the mammoth for giving its life to the people and to speed its soul. He knelt beside the mammoth and put his hand on its flank. “I thank you, great one, for the sacrifice you have made. Your death is as precious to us as your life was to you. We needed you and so we killed you. We will use your flesh and bones to make our lives better. Someday when the spirits come to take us from our bodies, we will see you again in the belly of the earth.” Then he got up, his nose full of the stink of the mammoth. It was already beginning to rot.
He walked around it once, then walked around it in the opposite direction. In his dream, Thumb was uneasy. It was bad luck to waste any kill, and this was a mammoth. Where was everyone?
An elm tree stirred at the edge of the clearing. In a dream moment, its roots gathered into two legs and its branches became the arms of a man. Leaves grew into long gray hair and a beard. The tree man was wearing a deerskin shirt and leggings. He did not speak but held out open hands to show he meant no harm. Thumb thought this might be the stranger who had saved Onion.
Man, I am. It was the voice Thumb had heard by the river.
Singer approached the mammoth. He touched one of the dark eyes and the lid closed. He whispered to the mammoth and its trunk twitched. When he shouted, the sound staggered Thumb and he fell backward.
The mammoth shivered, rolled over, and got to its knees. Thumb let out a strangled cry of joy and surprise and fear. No animal had ever come back from the dead. The mammoth stood and shook the spears out of its side. Thumb’s eyes burned.
Singer loomed over Thumb and started kicking at the ground. He bent to uproot grass, clear leaves. The mammoth trumpeted and lumbered into the forest as Singer squatted. He began to draw in the dirt.
The lines were swift and sure. Round head, sloping back, trunk, long tusks.
“Thumb, are you all right?” Oak was trying to sit him up.
“You shouldn’t touch him,” said Blue, but he didn’t interfere.
Thumb’s ears still rang with Singer’s shout. He tried to focus on Blue and Oak. They shimmered like they were under water.
“He’s crying,” said Oak. “Brother, what’s wrong?”
Thumb wiped at the wetness under his eye and touched the fingertip to his tongue. In the taste of his tears he saw mammoths flickering on the walls of the long cave. The vision shook him. It was dream knowledge, but the dream was over. The spirits must be very close. They had come to push him to his luck.
Thumb struggled up and pulled his water skin from the tree. “No more talking.” He dipped the skin into the current and let it fill. “I’m going to the long cave.” He slung it over his shoulder and started toward the camp at a trot. “I’ll know what we should do when I get back.”