Editor’s Note: Yesterday we presented Part One of Chapter Two from Life Loves Death, the NaNoWriMo project of Geoff Micks. If you missed that, check it out first (or if you missed the first chapter, start there instead) then dive into this glorious second half, which finds our timeless hero in a Stone Age winter.
Life Loves Death
Chapter Two, Continued
by Geoffrey Micks
Our final return to the winter cave was greeted as the great triumph it truly was. We were conquering heroes who had ensured all would eat their fill throughout the winter. We had risked much and laboured mightily, but we had succeeded. What’s more, nothing had been lost to the many predators and scavengers who could have sought to rob us of some of our prize. Drew called for a great celebration, and an exhausted Natt could only nod his head that it be so.
We ate and drank around a roaring fire, enjoying all the delicacies of the mammoth that would not keep in the freezing ground. We danced, and sang, and re-enacted the hunt for the benefit of the women and children who had not been there, and then we basked in their admiration at our glorious victory.
Somewhere in that long night, it began to snow. It snowed heavily for four days’ straight, and when it was done snowing, we set out to clear our way down to the creek and broke through the ice to get water for drinking and cooking. The ice was so thick we had to use the reindeer picks. No one could deny that winter had struck early, and struck hard.
No one could deny that our wood supply was dangerously low.
Natt called a meeting, which was a much easier thing to do in the winter cave than during the summer months. Everyone gathered around the main fire, and he walked among us, speaking reasonably, putting a hand on a shoulder here, patting a head there. Every gesture was meant to be reassuring, for his words were anxious. “We have furs to work, and meat to eat, and medicine to see us through the worst that winter might do to us, but we need more wood. We must have more wood, or we won’t even make it to Winter Solstice.”
Drew looked at Natt with eyes of peace and content. I know now that he was thinking, “You won’t make it to winter solstice.”
At length, Natt proposed a plan, a laborious plan. We would work in teams of two and three. We would struggle through the snow and chop down the trees that he had suggested we cut during the autumn. We would drag them back through the snow to the cave. It would be slower and harder, but with good fire discipline to conserve the fuel we already had, we would make it work.
We all agreed, even Drew. It was what we had to do.
It was very hard work, my friends. Very hard. It was also very cold and hungry work, and so whatever anyone said about fire discipline, after a man returned from his shift, he was given a spot by a roaring fire and allowed to cook two handfuls of mammoth meat however he wanted. It was the only way to keep his strength up.
As the days wore on, most men found excuses not to go out every day. “Who wants to chop wood in a blizzard? The rest I get today will let me work harder tomorrow when the weather is fair.” You can easily imagine how it went, and there is little you can do to force a man out of a warm cave in the dead of winter.
The days were short, and the nights were long, but we were happy. This winter was easier than most, except for the wood situation. We had all we could eat, and many chores to do –working skins, making tools, braiding rope, raising children. We had each other, and it was a time of peace for all. All except Natt.
Natt worked twice as hard as everyone else. He had to, for the fire was his sacred responsibility. Even the boys who had married his daughters and gave every effort to help their father-in-law could not hope to match his dedication. He rose every morning from his sleeping robes, kissed his wives on their forehead, set aside the cave’s daily ration of wood from our dwindling pile, stuffed a handful of dried meat into a satchel, and then waded out into the snow and storm to chop more wood.
The flesh melted off of him. His laugh grew hollow, and then one day it was gone altogether. The skin around his eyes and mouth grew tight at the strain he placed upon his broad, aching shoulders. The tip of his nose grew red and angry from the cold. He started going to bed earlier, too exhausted at his labours to stay up late with the other men. We watched him in his restless sleep: His arms made little jerky movements, as if he was cutting down trees even in his dreams.
In the dead of winter, help came from an unexpected source: Drew volunteered to work just as hard as Natt. Whenever Natt went out, so did Drew. I came out more often than most, but even I stayed in on the worst days: Never Natt, though, and never Drew. They worked every day, no matter the weather, and slowly, slowly, the woodpile began to grow instead of shrink.
I would like to say Natt and Drew closer during their efforts. Certainly Natt invited Drew and the rest of my family to join him at his personal fire more often. Drew spoke less about what Jazi wanted, and Natt let my father have the last word at council more often. I even caught them singing together as they came back from the distant trees, hualing piles of wood behind them. The Jazuz warmed to the thought that their augur and their chief were growing so close.
Then one day, Drew came back to the winter cave alone, waving his arms from a long way off to attract our attention.
“Help!” He called over the howling winds. “Help! Come quickly!” When he saw that we had heard him, he turned and began to retrace his steps back towards the distant trees.
We ran from the cave, but after a hundred paces or so we had to pick our way slowly, for the snow was never trampled flat very far from the shelter of our stony home. Too much snow fell for us to ever have a permanently beaten trail to the thicket where we all worked, and today was a blizzard: Only Natt and Drew would work among the trees in weather as bad as this.
“What is it?” We cried, chasing Drew’s struggling form through a world of swirling white.
“It’s Natt! He’s trapped under a tree!”
We struggled on, chasing our augur, until finally we came to the scene. Natt and Drew had been cutting down a tree. They had trimmed the branches as high as they could reach, and then set themselves to work against the trunk, taking it in turn to smash their heavy flint axes against the bole. Their long practice had made them experts at this, but something had gone wrong this time: The tree had come down in an unexpected direction and trapped Natt under the weight of the branches above. He was buried in the snow with much of the tree above him. We could make out an arm, already partly covered in new fallen snow. The snow was pink with blood.
“Help me!” Drew cried, and we threw ourselves against the tree’s bottom, dragging it away from our fallen leader. One of Natt’s wives was our healer, and she rushed to her husband with her medicine bag, frantically digging to clear the snow away from his arm, then his shoulder, then his neck. Within moments her busy hands stilled.
“Why have you stopped?” Drew demanded.
“One of the branches must have hit him in the head. The back of his skull is caved in.”
We stood there, frozen in the snow, then the women started to howl.
I have seen many deaths in my long life, but that was the first one I ever cried over. The tears streamed down my hot face and dripped off the wolverine hair trim of my parka to freeze as little dots of sadness upon the front of my heavy coat. Natt was dead. Natt was dead, and there was nothing to be done about it but to take him home and wait for spring thaw to give him a proper Jazuz burial.
So we did.
That night we sat around the great fire, and we spoke in low tones about what the future of the Jazuz would hold.
“Drew should be our chief,” one of the women muttered without much enthusiasm.
“I am too old,” my father shrugged, holding out his arms as if his age was there on his sleeves, obvious to all. “The fires will only keep going if we have a chief who can work like Natt worked. I have tried, but I can’t keep it up forever. It must go to one of the younger men.”
We debated names, but all had seen how the effort of collecting wood had drained Natt. What man would want to be chief, knowing that he would either work himself to death or be put to death? Being chief was not like being a king in later times: It was harder work and more responsibility, and there were no luxuries that came with the title other than an authority that was earned, not given.
“What about Keer?” Drew finally suggested. “He’s still very young, of course, but Jazi loves the young! He’s strong, and willing. He’s worked harder than most of us already. If he can keep our woodpile stocked throughout the winter, he will have proven himself worthy as chief of the Jazuz. Plus, choosing a young man means we will have the same chief for many years. In just the way Natt was chief since Keer was a baby, so might Keer be chief until the infants of today are ready to take his place. Stability like that is good for all of us. Where he is inexperienced now, I will guide him until he knows the way of things.”
The decision wasn’t reached that easily, of course, for a winter spent in a cave gives much time for talk and debate, but no one else wanted to work as Natt had worked. No one else had the augur’s backing. I did not decline the offer, and so I was eventually elected chief of the Jazuz.
I was only sixteen.