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The Crossing

 

 

 

          From a distance, the small band of hunters seemed insignificant.  To Cloud Mover’s tired eyes, they formed a thin arc, moving imperceptibly toward the herd.  Their fur clad and hooded bodies, with the antlers still attached, had deceived the caribou in the past.  The great effort in skinning the animals and leaving the face and antlers intact had been left to the women of the band.  They would skin the game, cook it, and prepare the hides.  Then they would sit in the background, with the others, as the hunters feasted on their kills, waiting for leftovers to be thrown their way.  Life was brutal on the taiga.  He had been the patriarch.  Like all Reindeer Hunters, the families had been under his absolute lordship.  Now, the time drew near when he would be too old to follow the band.  Like all old people, he would be abandoned to his fate.  For him, the ancient charade was a haunting reminder that he once wore the antlers on his head but now must stand watch as the younger men played the game. 

          Each time that they donned their hoods and grabbed their spears, a ritual would begin, in which the wives, sisters, little brothers, and old ones, like himself, would stand in a circle around the hunters, dancing and singing as they waved their barbed spears.  As he looked down from the cliff, the ancient charade performed by his people filled him with nostalgia.  And yet he was satisfied with the way things were.  He had his time as a leader and hunter in the band.  Now it was their turn.  Soon a younger hunter would take his place, and, after being left behind as the band moved on, he would join his ancestors, whose spirits also followed the herds.

          He could see Running Calf and Fire-In-The-Bush, his sons, among the arc of men.  On the periphery, still strong enough to keep up, he could also see his younger brother Three Stags slowly beginning the circle they would try to make around the unsuspecting reindeers.  Several summers ago his older brother Black Wolf had died, leaving him as leader.  It would not be long before Three Stags, his younger brother, would also be too feeble to join in.  The old ones were passing away to make room for the young. 

The tactic of the Reindeer Hunters was an old trick used by bison and deer hunters throughout the Siberian taiga.  A segment of the herd, as it spread out over the ground, would be singled out.  As soon as the masquerading hunters had singled out enough games and completed their circle, they would begin slaughtering the reindeer trapped inside.  This time, however, the watchman could see the dreaded outline of a wolf pack in the horizon.  Hidden on the other side of the great herd and with the wind blowing at their back, they were unaware of the hunters.  They would, within the next few minutes, attack the weakest members on the far periphery, causing a stampede upon the unsuspecting men.  Many good hunters had been gored and trampled in this way, turning a would-be success into a frightening rout.

          Realizing the difficult situation they were in, Cloud Mover stood up and waved cautiously to Three Stags.  They would not see the wolves on the other side.  Only he, high on his cliff, could see this threat.  They would, as a consequence of his signal, lose this important opportunity to attack the herd.  It would be much more difficult to sneak up on them the next time, if they were scattered by wolves, which was going to happen regardless of what he signaled or not.  Confident that he was doing the right thing, however, he waved at Three Stags again and this time signaled with his hands, “Wolves are attacking the herd!”  But at such a distance sign language, which in this case was the forefinger and small finger raised straight up, was useless.  Carefully, to avoid spooking the herd, he threw pebbles at their feet, until finally one of his sons looked up.

          “What is father trying to do?” Running Calf whispered in disbelief.

          “He is warning us of course!” Fire-In-The-Bush frowned. “The question is why?”

          “Let us disband quickly!” Five Eagles was the first to back away.

          Suddenly, to his dismay, the band bolted for the meadow nearby instead of moving from the scene slowly and cautiously, as they should.  At that very moment the watchman witnessed a terrible scene, in which the wolves attacked the western edge of the herd, as he feared, only to drive them upon the hunters, as they ran east.

          “Your crazy old father has spooked the herd!” Five Eagles cried, as he fell near the onrush of hooves.

          Fortunately for Five Eagles, a second wave of wolves were coming the other way, driving the caribou back.  It was a great mystery to the others as to why they didn’t attack him.   He had been left by himself, as they scrambled up the hill.  Eight of the hungry beasts seemed to charge right at him, presenting an even more terrifying scene to his stunned mind, as he seemed to be surrounded by wolves.  But then Cloud Mover, their onetime leader, raised his weak eyes up to the sky and prayed as he had never before prayed in his life.

          “Oh please, don’t let Five Eagles die!  Let them eat me; I am old, and he is young.  Please Wind Spirits, don’t let him die!”

          At the point as the first group of wolves brought down a great stag, the remaining members of this large pack began to circle Five Eagles as he jabbed at them with his spear.

          “Throw your spear!” Running Calf cried, hurling the barbed shaft in the direction of the wolves.

          “You missed them,” Fire-In-The-Bush groaned. “You never could throw straight!” “Keep poking at them” he said, unleashing his spear “don’t try to run!” But because of a sudden stiff breeze Fire-In-The-Bush missed too.

          “Go away, Yellow Fang!” Five Eagles was shouting, looking askance up the hill. “Three Stags, it’s your turn.  Don’t fail me now.  I will come back from the Land of the Dead and haunt you all your life!”

          Although Three Stags’ spear came down directly into the hungry wolves, it missed them entirely.  Momentarily scattered, they quickly regrouped as Five Eagles tried to run.  But then, the feisty little hunter began poking and jabbing every which-way until the group again stopped.

          “Wind Spirits!” the watchman whispered again. “Turn the yellow fangs away.  Push them with your unseen hands.  Kick them with your unseen feet.  Don’t let Five Eagles die!”

          “What is our father doing now?” Running Calf turned to Fire-In-The-Bush.

          “Praying.” the other shook his head. “Lately that is all he does.  As if the Four Winds ever listen!”  “Sometimes,” he searched for the words, “… I think we are alone!”

          “Five Eagles isn’t alone.” Three Stags said grimly.  “Those yellow fangs will wait as long as it takes.  I’ve never seen that many at one time.”

 

******

          Suddenly, right after Five Eagles had slipped on a pile of Caribou droppings and was lying helplessly on the ground, something incomprehensible happened.  The darkening mantle of clouds, which hung over the taiga, burst forth with rain.  Even though the droplets by themselves would not sway a hungry yellow fang, the sudden shafts of lightning striking the nearby ground sent the entire pack as well as the hunters running for cover.

          While they retreated, however, the watchman held fast, looking with rapt attention at the deluge pouring from the sky.

          “Now you’ve done it!” Running Calf shouted at Fire-In-The-Bush. “You’re unbelief angered the gods!”

          “It was your father’s fault!” Five Eagles cried. “This evil is all his doing!”

 

******

          As the hunters ran back to camp, Cloud Mover—the onetime Reindeer Hunter leader straggled far behind.  In spite of the redemptive power of the storm, which had saved them from the wolves, the younger men paid him only a begrudging respect.  None of them even looked back or waited for him to catch up.  Because of their failure to kill reindeer, they would be trapped in their mammoth hide huts and forced to wait until the weather cleared and they were able to once again to track the herds.  Cloud Mover’s wives, children, and grandchildren were happy just to have him back safe and sound. When they were able to reflect on what happened, most of the hunters were thankful for the storm, but not all of them were convinced of the patriarch’s alleged miracle.  Though thankful that it had rained, and lightning had chased the wolves away, the men were divided on whether it was caused by Cloud Mover’s prayer or due to mere luck.  Among his advocates, who saw it as a miracle was Fire-In-The-Bush and among his detractors was Five Eagles, whose life had been directly saved by the lightning but believed that Cloud Mover had brought the hunters bad luck. 

For reasons no one understood, there was bad blood between the old man and young man.  After seeing Cloud Mover pray and watch the lightning scatter the wolves, however, Fire-In-The-Bush believed Cloud Mover had great magic.  Though there were no shamans in their culture, men, such as Cloud Mover, could be touched by the Wind Spirit and perform magic to help family and friends.

 

******

As they sat around the fire recounting today’s abortive hunt, Fire-In-The-Bush rose dramatically and pointed to Cloud Mover.  “You have the Wind Spirit’s ear.  He listened to you.  You are old Cloud Mover, but you have great power.  Hawk Nose, who had the gift, is dead.  I think you should take his place.”

          “I don’t agree.” Five Eagles jumped up angrily. “Cloud Mover brought us bad luck.  Wind Spirit wouldn’t listen to that old fool.”

          Running Calf flew into a rage at for Five Eagle’s insult against his father, but knowing Five Eagles prowess with a knife, both his father and friend Fire-In-The-Bush restrained him.

          “No, Running Calf,” Fire-In-The-Bush whispered in his ear, “don’t challenge that fool!”

          “Your friend is right.  He’s not worth it,” murmured Cloud Mover. “If Wind Spirit did, in fact, touch me, it’s my gift and none of his business.  Five Eagles has bad blood for me.  I think he’s touched by the Dark Spirit.”

          “You think so?” Running Calf looked at his father.

          “Yes, my son.” He frowned. “Now please sit down.  I know my mind.”  Turning to the others now, he exclaimed solemnly, “The Wind Spirits saved the hunters!”

          “So,” Three Stags raised an eyebrow, “Cloud Mover speaks for the Wind Spirits.”

          “No, I speak for myself,” he spoke with great authority. “I listen to the Wind Spirits.  I have their ear!”

 

******

That night the Reindeer Hunters went to bed hungry in their mammoth hide tents.  The women were able to feed themselves and their children from a meager store of jerky in their tents, but it only dulled their hunger.  The unexpected storm had changed everything.  The following morning found the hunters searching for the herds that had been dispersed by the storm.  After dismantling their tents and packing up their belongings, the bands, numbering many hundreds in Eastern Siberia, continued to follow the herds of reindeer, ox, mammoth, and bison.  

          After following the migrating herds, the land began to change.  The forests disappeared, replaced by a bleak and increasingly frigid landscape, and yet the hunters were drawn further and further along, dependent upon the beasts.  Several of the old ones, who couldn’t keep up were now left behind.  Because of his special status among the Reindeer Hunters now, Cloud Mover wouldn’t suffer the same fate as Hawk Nose and other old men and women.  Once more, after hastily rising and putting on his camouflage hood and grabbing his walking cane and knife, he had joined the men of his band, who, in turn, joined the other bands heading east, moving ahead of the baggage train of women, children, and elders able to carry their own weight.

          Cloud Mover had never seen a sky so cloudless and a land so barren.  Had it not been for the dark dots ahead indicating game and the outline of distant hills, he would have been fearful.  It was, complained many of his people, not too late to turn back from this unfriendly land.  But to a seasoned hunter and trapper as himself, it was both practically and logically too late.  The herds were in motion.  Without them, his people would starve.  To stay behind meant death.  So they must move on.

          Their course—due east—was set.  Several weeks ago the Wind Spirits saved the hunters from disaster.  Only just yesterday, as they reached the reindeer herd, one of them—in the form whirling dust, had risen on Cloud Mover’s path.  Unlike before, in the taiga, where there were trees, streams, rain, and snow and where the wind blew were it wished, the tundra on which they moved, was often still and lifeless, with sparse grass, scrub pines, and little moisture.  A cold wind came from the north.  It was nothing like the land they had left.  Over generations, the nomads who began their journey in the Russian Steppes, found themselves thousands of miles from their homeland.  Since Cloud Mover’s people worshiped the four winds, the appearance of the north wind, which had been blowing all day, was portentous. 

During a brief encampment beside scrub pines, haunting reminders of the large fur and hardwood trees growing on the taiga, Cloud Mover prayed to the Wind Spirits for guidance.  Many of his people wanted to return west.  Surely, they reasoned, they could find more herds.  But this was madness.  Cloud Mover was certain that the spirit he recently saw, whom he identified as Great Spirit, was leading them.  He also took it as a sign when strange lights, as those burning from a great fire, had danced low in the sky.  He sensed a medicine more powerful than even the winds or his bands totem, the cave bear.   Now the lights were gone, and there were no clouds in the sky.  They had not seen a bear for several months.  They were moving in a land of endless day because of the appearance of so many herds.  The Great Spirit was guiding them, but where?  He wondered now 

Cloud Mover felt chosen, a feeling hard for him to grasp let alone explain.  It wasn’t magic this time; it was something else.  When asked by other hunters how he was so certain, he found it difficult to explain. Why did the Great Spirit only talk to him?  He kept asking himself.  Most of the weary hunters and their families saw the migration as a practical matter, which had nothing to do with religion…. But Cloud Mover knew better.  A word for their trek east he couldn’t define in his language grew in his mind…destiny.

Today he felt his seventy winters all at once it seemed.  He was far behind the hunters.  Behind him was the baggage train—the bands straggling for over kilometer, dangerously vulnerable to predators.  Not knowing that their footsteps were the first aimed in the direction of a new world, Cloud Mover forced his weary legs with little inspiration now.  Staggered at times by their folly, he was acutely reminded of the striking difference between this wasteland and his past home in what would one day be known as Eastern Siberia.  Blank curiosity, more than illumination, prickled him now.  They had begun descending into a great flat valley: the westernmost edge of the Bering Strait.  A great wall of ice had been their western boundary for several days, but now it had vanished finally behind a low lying crest of clouds, which were the only reminder of the tundra they left behind.

Ahead of Running Calf, who would lead the hunt today, were straggling reindeers—the calves and weakest of the herd, which would be the first members of the herd killed.  Running Calf wasn’t the actual leader of his or any other band.  With Cloud Mover’s change of status, that hadn’t been decided.  Running Calf was merely in charge of the hunt today.  He felt no honor it, only a sense of duty.  Shielding his eyes from the merciless sun, he searched the trail behind for Cloud Mover, his father.  He was slowing down increasingly, becoming a drag on the hunters, so typical of old men.  Because of his apparent magic, however, he wouldn’t be abandoned.  Cloud Mover would keep walking until he dropped dead.  On this fateful day, all of the foot worn and hungry people seemed to be a sorry and misbegotten lot.  Because his race hadn’t yet developed the epicanthic folds that would protect his eyes from the arctic glare, the sun smarted his eyes.  Shutting them reflexively, he turned away.  Not knowing that he was the first human to cross the strait, he drew his hood down and adjusted the antlers on his head, rose his barbed spear, and lead his people toward the new world.