Neolithic young man struggles to fulfill a dream.
|Word count: 1780
Natock jerked back out of the dark hut as if avoiding the swipe of a bear. The stinking old man inside cackled, and called out to him, "What? Am I not a beautiful fragrant maiden?" The shaman cackled again. Natock took a deep breath. The fresh air mixed with some of the stench coming from the doorway, and caused his stomach to heave. That decaying corpse could not possibly help him with his nightmares. Natock turned to leave.
"I know why you dream of drowning," called out the shaman.
Charging into the hut, Natock stopped. It was too dark to see anything. As his eyes adjusted he made out the glowing coals and small flame of a weak, smoky fire in the center of the room. Beyond it he could vaguely see a shiny spectral form seated upon the dirt floor. Soon the apparition solidified into an ancient medicine man. His sweaty torso reflected the fire light.
"The Gods give me visions. They have given you a vision too. Is it not so?" He cocked his bald head at Natock giving him a toothless smile. "Come, sit. I will help your tender nose." Smoke puffed up from the plants and herbs the shaman laid upon the flames.
The fragrant smoke did help a bit. No longer fearing his unstable stomach would humiliate him, he sank into a cross-legged position and glared across the fire at the old man.
As he added powder to the flames, the fire went out. Blowing gently the shaman said, "The Gods have given you labor pains.”
Natock snorted. "Labor pains? You speak like one raving from a festering wound."
"Perhaps. But you must give birth to your vision." With another puff from the shaman, a single flame reignited. "You also dream of ice cliffs. They call to you like a maiden's embrace. You desire to run to the rising sun."
Natock was stunned. It was true. Softly he asked, "If you know this, then tell me why my nights are filled with drowning."
"It should be obvious," the old man said merrily. He sprinkled the strengthening fire with more grass and twigs. "The Gods call, but you disobey. You feel you must stay. This sense of duty is drowning you. Look into the fire. The God's may show you your path."
Natock's field of vision narrowed. Staring at a section of flames, he saw movement. It grew in size as he watched. A miniature mammoth was fighting off a group of tiny hunters. Natock's vision zoomed down to merge with one of the hunters and looked out of the hunter's eyes - his own eyes. As he watched, several of his clan members ran up to the beast thrusting spears into its sides. The monster roared in agony. He remembered this hunt. His father ran forward. "No," Natock yelled." But he could not change a memory. A sudden twist of the mammoth’s head gored his father and tossed him high into the air. In a flame flicker the scene changed. He saw his mother crying over his father's broken, cold body. Through bleary eyes he watched the strongest hunter in the clan, Tamrid; draw her up into an embrace.
Natock broke out of the trance. That never happened! Tamrid had never comforted his mother. Natock was there. He saw. Now only Natock provided for his family. That was why the one time he sought the ice cliffs, he returned. He had gone on a three day journey toward the new day. He had tried to obey the Gods. But the guilt of abandoning his mother and younger siblings to hunger turned his heart towards home. He performed his duty, his obligation, and dreamed every night of drowning.
Natock scrambled awkwardly to his feet as the room spun. Where was his balance? That old skunk had bewitched him. "Old man you show me lies. This was a mistake." He tossed his payment, a freshly killed marmot, at the shaman. Cackling followed Natock outside as he left with staggering steps.
By the time he reached the village, the last traces of bewildering magic had left him. . Approaching his mother's hut, Natock saw his mother seated before their home hut sewing animal hides. Into what, he couldn't tell. She was watching some village activity, a slight smile on her lips. Following her gaze, he frowned. His mother's attention was upon Tamrid who was walking nearby. Tamrid already had two wives. Did his mother hope to be a third? It was an outrageous betrayal. He marched up to her. "Wife of my father, how deeply I see you mourning."
"Son, what a strange greeting. Have not five seasons passed since your father went to hunt with the Gods?" She looked at him more closely. "You're angry. What's happened?"
"You smile after Tamrid. Your unfaithfulness shames you. You dishonor our family."
His mother rose from her task. "Natock, are you blaming me for seeking a husband? No one will ever replace your father in my heart, but I need a man to hunt and to provide for us. Tamrid is a great hunter and a good man. He is well able to provide for many wives."
"And I don't? Have I not provided enough for you?" Her implied insult burned in his chest. Not able to tolerate another word, he pivoted to leave. He stopped when her hand touched his arm.
"Natock, you should start your own family. To try and replace your father as my husband is an abomination."
His mouth fell open in surprise. "What?" Her horrific words staggered him. "What?"
"Son, why don't you flirt with the maidens as the other young men do?" Her voice faltered. "Some in the clan are noticing this odd behavior. Gossip is beginning. When I become a wife of Tamrid, it will end."
Scanning the village, he could see many lifelong friends and family. Some were looking at him. They didn't appear any different than usual. Were they really thinking and even speaking such depraved things about him? Looking again at his mother, he wondered whether despite her claim she harbored a fear that it might be true. He closed his eyes in humiliation. A groan escaped his lips as he bent his head back. Hide. He had to hide.
Natock dashed into his family's hut. Once inside, he stood in confusion. This familiar space was the only place he had lived since his birth. Could he hide in here forever? Of course not. Nor could he stay for even one more night. This was his mother's home now, not his. He grabbed his pack and started stuffing it with his belongings. As he rolled up his bedding furs, his mother entered. She watched as he grabbed a spare cooking bag and wrapped a fire pit coal in a bag of dirt.
"Where will you go?" she asked.
The tightness in his throat prevented him from speaking. Snatching up an ivory toy wolf his father had carved for him, he stared at it until he got himself under control. He pushed the tiny predator into his pack, and then drew it out again. It was precious to Natock. Setting the toy on his little brother's sleeping furs, he knew the gift would be precious to him too.
Finally, he felt he could speak, "To the ice cliffs."
"All you need to do to put this behind you is to move to one of your friend's huts. You don't have to leave the village."
Natock stopped packing and considered her words. "No," he said stuffing his flaking stone into his bag. "I am free to obey the Gods now." He stopped again and looked at his mother. "Do you remember the time I fell into the glacier crevasse? How I dangled from the safety ropes which bound each of us together?"
"That rope is not saving me anymore. It’s like a snare. I need to cut it. I'm ready to fall. I'm ready to obey the Gods."
"Once the Gods are done with you, come back," she commanded. "The people will no longer think of you as they do now."
A fresh wave of humiliation flooded him. Snatching up his spear and pack, Natock exited her hut. He kept his head down as he strode through the village with shame reddened cheeks. All his muscles were tense and gave him a stiff-legged stride. He tripped on a clump of grass. Jerking his head up and around, he looked to see if anyone was laughing at him. No one was. They were not even looking at him. Did anyone even notice his departure? Natock relaxed and continued walking.
Beyond the village perimeter the land was a vast rolling grassland. Crossing over a hilltop and descending into a shallow valley, he looked back. The village was out of sight. But coming down the hill was his mother. He stopped to let her draw nearer. As she drew close, he thrust out his spear in a one handed blocking motion. The horizontal shaft formed a wall between them. She jumped back in surprise.
"I could not let you leave without this," she said and held out a charm sized fur bag. A leather cord would allow him to hang it from his neck. "The medicine man gave it to me several moons ago. He said it was a protection charm for you. I was to keep it hidden until the Gods told me it was the right time. I think that time is now."
Natock lowered his spear, accepted the necklace, and put it on. He noticed with relief that the charm didn't stink.
Natock promised her, "I will return if the God's will it." He watched a tear trickle down her cheek. "I never realized the impression I was giving. I am so sorry I have shamed you."
"Oh, Natock." She kissed his face which was also wet with tears. They hugged for a long time. Finally, she said, "Are the God's still calling to you?"
She stepped back from him and gestured as if shooing him away.
At the top of the next hill crest he looked back. She was still there watching him go. It was time to cut the rope. Turning away he sought the dawn.
Perhaps someday someone would follow him. Perhaps someday he would return. Perhaps the Gods wanted him to lead his people to a new land meant just for them. Perhaps. But for now he would explore what lay beyond the ice cliffs. If he died, so be it. He was ready to fall. He could hear the Gods calling to him.