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Time's Shadow

by J.B. East

 

Tammuz had first seen the Woolly Man two days before.  The sun, red and swollen, set the jagged peaks ablaze with topaz and vermilion.  An eagle circled and swooped, and Tammuz's eye, following it, had caught a coppery glint for just a moment. A scarcely visible speck at the mountain's edge flashed.  It shimmered a moment by the marker stones a day's walk away.  A Walker, a Woolly Man!  He rushes to beat the setting sun.  He burst into the council tent, spilling a leather bucket of fish eyes.

"The Woolly Man comes, the Woolly Man!" he shouts.

"Shish!" comes a chorus from his uncles and aunts, his older brothers and sisters.

"We know," smiles the shaman, Ham his uncle.

"Be quiet, listen." In the silence a distant flute shrills.
 

 

***

 

Killican stands by the marker stone and looks back toward the setting sun. He pulls one black knot out through the leather in his vest.  He slips nine red knots inside.  His cape's copper sheets cast golden rectangles into the gathering shadows.  He sighs.  Twelve black knots now hang from his vest.  Four moons he had traveled East.  The Homeland was less than another black knot to the North.  First to the Elephant people, then to the Weavers to add his tally to the Great Mantle.  He shifts the fringed mass of woven memories over his shoulder.  Shadows gather over the rounded hills and pastures of the Land.  Smoke drifts from a few shepherds' fires and meets the purpling sky. He can just make out the foot of the trail to the One Road from the East to the West.  So many years since he had seen the Gatekeepers.  No one he had known could still be alive.  He wondered; would his legends still live?

The valley is crossed with the trails of shepherds and goats.  Tended fields fill spaces where once, so long ago, the mighty mammoths had been stampeded to the Mouth of Bones.  He gags at the memory of the stench of it. No mammoths had been seen for generations; he still missed their musky meat.  Gently he lays his mammoth skin and Mantle on the soft grass. No wool could ever match its warmth.  He drinks from a skin and chews a bit of jerky as he spreads his sleeping roll. His eyes fill with the stars as his flute sings of old friends and distant lands. Almost home.  He would sleep well tonight.
 

 

***

 

He awakes to the bleating of goats, sitting up as they crest the hill.  A spindly boy whistles a shrill note that brings an answering bark from a small dog.  Killican rushes to gather his things before the goats can trample or chew his gear.  He watches the boy's face widen to a toothy grin as he shoulders his Mantle.

"Woolly Man you're early, the Counting is not till spring."

The boy bounces up and pulls a chunk of cheese from his bag.

"Stories for cheese, Woolly Man."  He waves the fragrant chunk of cheese before him.  He steps back as the knotted fringes of bright yarn swing over the old man's back.

"That's the heaviest Mantle I have ever seen; how far have you gone?"  The old man shields his eyes against the glare of the morning light and squints at the boy.

"I've been to the Land Beyond the Rising Sun, lad."

The boy's cry muffles as his face hits the dust.

"You have been to the Land of the Dead?"  His eyes cast about in fright.

"You bring the Orrngh?"

Killican can scarcely contain his laughter.

"What's your name, boy?"

"Jesse, sire."

"You know the First Greeting of the Wise, Jesse?"  The old man stands straight, struggling to suppress his grin.

Jesse nods.

With as much seriousness as he can muster, the Woolly One intones from memory: "The world is filled with monsters enough; let us suffer fools with shame."

The boy looks up between his fingers and chokes out: "The Sun save us from the Demon Ice."

Killican reaches down and lifts the boy to his feet. "You're getting dust all over that tasty cheese, boy!"

"How many stories do you have, sire?" The boy sputters, passing him the cheese.

"As many as the stars at new moon."  He bites off a big chunk of cheese and grins at the boy.  He laughs.  "You will have tales, my boy, but first more cheese."
 

 

***

 

The village is filled with barking dogs and dancing shadows.  Smoke and the sounds of sputtering grease and laughter fill the air. The Hunters carve strips from heaps of skinned carcasses and boast of a good hunt.  A young girl, Mara, sits by a fire and wonders at the stories the men tell; how whole herds of gazelles would run into a pit. Some shouts and rocks to set them running, some men in lion suits jump and roar, and the whole herd runs to their deaths.  'Just another story,' she thinks to herself, 'like the Woolly Man who brings the Orrngh'.

She chews her charred jerky strip and moves away from the smoke that now reaches her from the sputtering fire.  All about her the fires burn.  Strips of meat and fish stretched over racks are drying.  Denan, the old woman who kept the Counting Strings, had said to dry much meat; the Ice would be bad this season and the Elephant People must move beyond the Gate Stones to the pasture lands in the south.

Mara sits next to Jesse, the chief's youngest.

"What is an elephant?" she whispers, and looks down to gnaw her meat.  Jesse wipes his mouth on the back of his arm.  He shuffles his fur cape up over his head and grabs a cracked leg bone from beside the fire.  Poking it from the cape flap, he hunches and looms toward her.

"Orrngh!" he bellows in his lowest voice.  Mara gleefully shrieks and prods the lumbering creature with her crusty steak.

"You don't scare me," she squeals in glee.

Across the fire Denan the Medicine Woman looks toward the Fire Keeper.  He nods.  The old woman rises slowly on her stick.  The scar across her wrinkled brow glistens in the evening light and the flickering flames.  Her fringed shawl flutters with knots, colored yarns, bright stones, and carved bones -- the memories of the Fore Mothers. She bends her knobby frame and smiles at Mara with the few teeth left in her head.  Mara looks up and scowls at the old woman.

"And I'm not afraid of you neither," she says, biting her crispy meat and baring her teeth.

"You're going to meet the Orrngh tonight, Mara," the old woman rasps. Her nearly toothless face opens into a gaping maw.  She lunges at the little girl and snaps her teeth at the tip of her nose.  Mara drops her bone and leaps behind Jesse.

"You won't let the Orrngh eat me, will you, Jesse?"  Still in his hunched skin he turns and bellows: "Not if I eat you first!"  The child scurries giggling from the tent.

Jesse stands up from his skin.  The old woman pets his cheek. Her wrinkled face a maze of light and shadow.

"Good boy," she whispers.  "Gather the children. Tell Mara's mother to sit close to the fire.  She has been chosen to receive the Mark."  He hurries into the twilight.
 

 

***

 

Tammuz, Mara's brother, had been born just after the last visit of the Woolly Man eleven summers before.  Most of the young men and women of the village proudly wore a white stone of Naming from the Walker's last visit.  Each one had a story they would tell again when the Woolly Man came.

"Will I get a white stone, uncle?  Will I get a story, too, will I get a Name?"  The grin on his shaman uncle's face made his next words seem strange.

"Beware the Orrngh, Tammuz; he may eat you."

"That's just a story to scare babies."  Tammuz scoffs, poking the fire.

"We'll see tomorrow night, won't we."  Ham spins the rack of drying fish.

"He swallowed my sister, Denan, the Medicine Woman; that's why she has that awful scar."  A mischievous grin creeps into the corners of his mouth.  He reaches his burn-scarred arm into a bucket and smears his cheeks with fish guts and ashes. He leans into the boy's face.  "He might make you as pretty as she," he says, goggling his eyes at the boy.

"Too bad he didn't fix your ugly mug," Tammuz giggles, swinging his poking stick at his uncle's dripping mask. Ham's face takes on a fierce grimace.  His arms swing wide as he lunges toward the boy.

"Beware the Orrngh," he hisses. He holds his scarred arm under the boy's nose.

"Look at it boy. Who did this to me?"  Tammuz cringes, almost whimpering; he shrinks back and his eyes widen.

"H-he's not just a story?" He stammers.  Ham looms over him.  His eyes glare; his bared teeth glint in the fire light and shadows.

"No story is just a story!" He hisses between clenched teeth.
 

 

***

 

The children whimper as outside the darkened tent the drums throb and the men call upon the Orrngh with chants and rattles.  A pipe shrieks, a crashing of branches.  A warning cry pierces the night.  The drums rumble; a warrior's call is answered by the thud of a falling body.   A wail ends in the cough of death. The drums fall silent.  The men shout; arrows and spears swish though the night. An ear-bursting "Orrngh" shakes the air.  With screams of fear and pain the men run; their cries grow distant, then stop. The wind whistles in the trees; the fire sputters. A wolf howls in the distance.

From outside the tent's edge the jagged shadow reaches.  It rattles with dry bones and it smells of stinking meat.  The children scream.  A hand reaches out to stifle each of them; they struggle.  Suddenly, a piercing shriek echoes in the night, and in jumps the Ornngh!

Flashing eyes blaze from its entire body.  Its long fangs drip with blood; its trunk swings down across a belt of skulls, each with glittering jewels for eyes and tinkling, piercing tiny bells.  A puff of smoke comes from its trunk and the fire roars into a raging blaze.  Suddenly, two gigantic eyes on stalks gleaming with red and black terror swing up over the tusked beast.  Its trunk flies up and more dust flies as another ear-bursting "OHNNGGRRN" erupts from the beast. Mad with shivering horror, a few children squirm from their captors' grasps. Their screams shrill out against the rocks and the bellowing of the great beast.

It lurches forward and swallows one of the shrieking children, Mara.  The girl's muffled cries grow dim and disappear.  A great shooshing escapes the beast and fills the room with a foul stench.  A halo of twinkling stars circles about it.  A very human hand rises to its lips.

"Quiet," it whispers.  The children stifle.

"Be quiet or I will eat you!" It whispers.

"Be quiet or I will roar again!"  A frightened child lets out a sob.  Suddenly the beast's human hands become the claws of a great bear.  It spreads its arms and the flutter of bats fills the room as wings and wings and skulls and skulls of bats wither and woosh about the room.  The fire roars; cinders crackle.

The figure spins its great wings in a spiral about it.  A piercing whistle cuts into the ears. A hide flies from the beast and covers the fire.  Darkness fills the room. Mara screams; her voice muffled as if still living in the great beast. The smell of burning flesh fills the air; a dull glow upon the floor. A wooshing  of bat wings, the whistles of birds, and buzzes of flies fill the air.  As the creature circles the glowing circle of dark ocher its eyes begin to grow fierce.  A loud belch fills the room with the odor of blood and vomit.  The child's shriek pierces its muffling for just a moment. Another child shrieks. The giant clawed foot of a huge monster fills the dull-red glowing circle that had been the fire.  The footprint bursts into flames. By its light a great claw reaches into the horned beast, pulling out the blood-covered, dung-caked little girl. She is thrown into a leather bucket.  As she gasps for air her screams become a mockery of frogs. The bucket is held before the fire.

"Listen," says the creature; lifting its elephant ears one by one.  It dumps Mara at the fire's edge. She squeals as the embers brand her hand for life, a living testimony.

The monster is gone.

The children are released; they rush to comfort their stoic hero, Mara.

"Did it hurt mu--," Mara's brother Tammuz voice is cut short by a whispered, "Quiet, listen! he might come back!" The women and children huddle together, shivering with wild eyes piercing the night.
 

 

***

 

Outside, Ham leaves a haunch of smoked meat beside a tent.  He peers within at the elephant's head on a stool beside a basin. Ivory tusks glow in the firelight.  A woolly mantle rests behind, its knots and strings a blaze of colors.  Killican, a wizened old man, winks at the hunter.  "Was it a good show?"

Ham nods his head.  "I won't have to say 'Quiet, listen' for a whole year!"  Their laughter echoes into the night.   *

 

Story © copyright 1999 by J.B. East <marz@pacbell.net>

Artwork "From Whence the Woolly Man" © copyright 1999 by Nicola Stratford <ncstrat@camtech.net.au>

 


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