The night is as soft as a black bear’s pelt and syrup thick. I am alone.
‘You’re Sky-Talker, yes?’
I scramble to my feet, fear swelling my throat. A man stands before me: Sharp-Spear, the chief’s elder son, the fleetest of foot, the strongest of arm and the keenest of eye. Or was—until the day he slipped and plunged from the high cliffs into the big river, his body torn and broken. Now, he sleeps and sits by the fire with the women, carving bone needles and trinkets for barter. I see them sneer. What use is a man who cannot hunt?
‘I am. That is the kindest name they call me.’
We remain silent. A shower of star-arrows streak across the heavens as swift as cats.
‘The gods are hunting tonight,’ I say. ‘They will feast well.’ Hunger and the memory of plenty gnaw my stomach.
‘They are fortunate,’ he says. ‘It’s all over for me.’ Another bright arrow burns a path through the darkness. ‘I have been watching you.’
And I watch him but I do not tell him this. ‘Why is that?’ I ask. ‘Had your mighty father not spared me, I would have been taken at birth to the place of wind and stones and left to die. They say I am cursed. ‘My limbs are too weak to cure a pelt or push a needle through leather. I fall to the ground. My eyes roll and my tongue babbles nonsense.’
‘I have seen this.’
‘You do yourself no good talking to me.’
I see shadows cloud his eyes. ‘You’re troubled,’ I say. ‘But take heart. You stood on the threshold of death. You could have drowned had your brother not dived into the river to save you.’
‘Indeed. I owe him my life.’ His lips are as taut as a bowstring.
I now understand. I have seen, when no one else sees, the way his brother looks at him; his eyes burning with hatred and jealousy. It is whispered that he was side by side with his brother when he fell. But men do not tell their stories to women nor do the women share their gossip with me.
‘What does the sky tell you?’ he asks.
So I speak of what I know and have told no-one before: that when the world sleeps I see aurochs, horses and bears in the stars and men with bows and arrows in pursuit. They stalk the beasts that gather by the sky rivers and I see the mighty winged horse rears up from the horizon when the first frosts of autumn touch the earth and watch it sink back when the leaves return to the trees, only to rise once more as the seasons turn. The heavens are restless. They are water running through my fingers; they tumble like a rock down a mountain and spin round and round like branches in a whirlpool. They tell me stories. ‘Do you see,’ I ask, ‘the man with his pack of hunting dogs leaping over above the mountains? And that shining bull auroch over there with his females sheltering behind him? I know exactly where the sun will set when the grass begins to grow and where it will place itself when the blizzards roar down the plains, the ice river advances and the wolves’ snouts are rimed with frost. I know when the moon will defy the sun and shadow his glory until he roars at her effrontery and she flees.’
I tell him how I long to learn all the secrets the sky withholds but the ice is too cruel in the long winter nights and the wolves too hungry and I retreat to the fire.
He says, ‘What if I could bring the heavens inside the caves and fix them above your head so you could see them in the flicker of the flames?’
Surely he raves in madness? But his eyes are steady.
‘I will use blood, crushed stones, charcoal and berry juice. Feathers and flint make more than arrows.’
‘You will paint stories on the cave walls?’ I ask, ‘like the men paint their chests and faces before the Days of Sacrifice?’
Then, tears, as sharp as dogs’ teeth, sting my eyes and mist the stars. ‘Oh I see. You mock me. You despise me just like the others.
‘You are wrong. We can do this together.’
‘But your body will heal and you will hunt again. And you will be Chief.’
‘I think not. My brother is impatient. He failed once but will not fail again. But until then…trust me.’
He takes my hand and places it on his heart. I feel its steady beat and I am no longer afraid.