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“I don’t care,” said Onion. “I’m coming with you.”
Two mothers who were chipping new stone scrapers covered smiles with their hands.
Thumb wrapped a lump of boar fat in a maple leaf and bound it with braided grass. “But I don’t want you to.” He put it with his lamp.
Onion didn’t bother to answer. She was already packing food for the trip, a handful of hazel nuts, a parsnip, salsify root, and a dried fish.
“You’re not strong enough.” Thumb didn’t like to quarrel in front of other people.
Onion liked nothing better, especially since his shyness gave her an advantage. “I’m strong enough to sit and tend fire.” She stooped to tie the sinew laces of her boots. “And that’s all I’ll do if I stay here.”
Thumb made his best argument. “It’s too far.” The long cave was a good day’s hike from the river. Its mouth was set into the stony ridge that divided the river valley from the lands of the horse people. “Besides, I might be gone all night. Maybe longer.” Thumb continued to wrap leaves around pale chunks of fat for the lamp. “I don’t know where the dreams will take me.”
When he glanced up, Onion was standing with her hips cocked to support the bulging skin she had slung over her shoulder. She smiled at him and he shrugged. He knew that smile. The argument was over.
It was not yet midday when they started out. They talked at first. He told her about his trip to the country of the shell people. They were telling stories about a new people who had come down from the ice mountains. The shell people had not yet seen these strangers themselves, but had heard about them from their distant neighbors, the sky people. The newcomers were said to have four arms. Dogs followed them and obeyed their orders.
“Then we’ll call them the dog people,” said Onion.
“That wouldn’t be very polite.” Dogs were scavengers, like crows and rats. The only thing they were good for was eating, and they were often too stringy for that.
“Then call them the ice people.” Onion laughed. “Maybe they melt in the summer and their dogs drink them.”
Thumb was pleased to see Onion keep good pace and good conversation. She was definitely getting better.
Onion told him that the mothers had decided to ask Owl’s son Bone to become the storyteller, even though he was still learning stories. He had only begun training with his father four summers ago but he a big voice and an easy laugh. His words didn’t always light the stars, but he was still young and he would have Owl to teach him.
As they climbed farther away from the river, they dropped into hunting order. Game was scarce near the summer camp, but here they might surprise a hare or a squirrel or even a deer. Thumb moved ahead, stepping quietly, spear at the ready. Onion trailed behind, picking mushrooms and stopping to roll logs over in search of grubs and salamanders.
That night they lay together as lovers. Afterward Thumb wept for their dead baby boy.
The sun was three hands from the dawn edge of the sky when they reached the cave the next day. Onion gathered tinder and kindling while Thumb pulled dead branches from trees and dragged them into a pile. The people visited the long cave regularly and had built a good hearth just inside the entrance. Thumb watched Onion take the smoldering coal she had brought from the hearthfire and set it on the tinder.
“I thank the first mother for this fire,” she said. “She makes the warmth of the world.” She blew on the coal until it smoked and the tinder caught fire.
When the pile of firewood reached Thumb’s waist, he went out to gather birch bark. He peeled what he could and cut the rest with his chert knife. He was careful not to cut a complete circle of bark, which would girdle a tree and kill it. Thumb folded the bark again and again into a wad and then wedged it into the cleft of a green stick. When he had made three of these birch torches he returned to the cave. He was surprised to find Bead, Owl’s lover, sitting at the fire next to Onion. She was rocking back and forth, as if in mourning.