Richard Girling
from: Ielfstan's Place
1981

WILD HORSES

The tundra grass lay smashed and sour where the animal had lain. Already the bed was cold, although the body that had warmed it was still only a tree's length distant. Slowly, a creature of great bulk was dragging towards the lower terrace, its heavy movements made clumsy by the dead weight of a wounded foot. On its back, long red hairs glistened coldly, clogged with dew; on its hind leg, where the tendons had been cut, the wool was tarred with old blood.

It was early. The sun's rays were still flat and pale, but already the life was draining from the animal. At each wrench of the limb, his head pecked a little lower and the body twisted more acutely across the path. As the strides shortened to half-strides, and the half-strides shrank to nothing, he plucked for comfort at a bush, nudging his shoulders into the damp fronds and greening his tusks on the leaves. Distantly inside him, a warning sounded. As sharply as he was able, he raised his head and spread his ears. Far below, on the rim of the marsh, there had been a movement.

On the plain, it was the day of the mares. At the end of their journey north to the summer ground, their bodies were heavy with new life. Within a circle of stallions and maiden females, they had settled on the dry earth to wait. From the flat mud-pan that cradled the tail of the estuary, the country was theirs to command: no move-ment could escape the eyes of the sentinels, nor scent evade their nostrils. Yet their composure was as brittle as horn. The first whimpers of unease had stirred small eddies of alarm on the fringes of the group, quickening inward when the mammoth turned the hill. As the reek met them fully on the wind, sharpened by the taint of wolf, a young stallion rose up and screamed a warning that choked in a tumult of hooves. Exposed in the wake of the herd, the pregnant mares, too, struggled to their feet and threshed themselves to run.

The mammoth watched as the horses swept along the riverbank, then sank back dully into his bush. Further away than he could see, the mud-spurts had turned dangerously to spray. As the leading animals felt the first tug of the deepening marsh, the stampede piled up and flooded back on itself, torn by the conflict of perils. In a mist of hot breath they turned to face the empty plain behind them. By the time the sun had risen above the high terrace, their eyes were calm again; their flanks no longer heaved and they were on solid ground, bending to their food. At the heart of the group, the mares had settled at last to sleep.

* * *

A soft rain gathered in the roof shadows and beat down gently on the rock. When the man stretched out his hand to catch it, the silver droplets broke across his palm, ice-cold and heavy. Beneath his fingers on the cave floor, the water was beginning to stand in points, building the tiny limestone nipples that could draw blood from careless feet. He caught another drip and extinguished it between finger and thumb; then carried the moisture to his lips and returned again to the hard studs on the floor. The question was still there in his eyes when the woman touched him on the shoulder.

The people were ready. They stood at the lower entrance to the cave, waiting for him. This great vault in the rock was where he had led them, many winters ago, when the first headman had died for want of food. Here they had found the wintering bears and had speared them as they slept, thankful for the flesh and the fur. But now the new year's bears had been awakened by the warmer weather and could not be approached even by the bravest hunter. The bones of the last kill lay blackening in the fire that still filled the cave with its spicy tentacles of juniper. A new season had come. The same sun that had fed the bears would also feed the people. The softened earth would more easily give up its roots; and soon the bushes would yield their seed-filled fruits. But still the people needed meat.

A wisp of breeze cooled the skin and fluffed the men's furs as they turned towards the high ground that lay between the cave and the river. The headman numbered them: a man for each finger on both hands, a boy for each thumb; and himself, an old man. He had lived many years, and the weight of leadership was heavy. But the people were young and needed his wisdom as they needed food. He must not deny them. Before the sun had touched the top of the sky, he had found the track of the mammoth.

A furrow of churned earth on the bed of a dried cataract showed where it had fallen and split its foot against the rocks. The blood had soaked into the silt, leaving a ragged stain from which a broken trail led upward over the hill. Where it passed over hard ground or rocks the blood was still sticky, and the men dabbed their fingers and carried it to their tongues. In their bellies the appetite stirred and they willed the old man to hurry.

At the mammoth's sleeping-place he prodded the warm dung and shaded his eyes to the sun. The animal was close: before their shadows grew long, they would be upon it. But instead of following the trail directly, the headman led his people behind the hill, away from the river. They would cross the ridge higher in the valley, so that they would be ahead of the weakened animal, and downwind. Then they would take it by stealth.

But when they did break the skyline the men found themselves further upriver than they had wanted. There was no mammoth; not even the mark of a mammoth. Only a herd of horses, peacefully grazing. The young men grinned and jabbed their fingers, but the headman signalled his tiredness and pulled his fur about him to sit. His legs hadn't the speed for horses.

* * *

Within the herd, the first foals had come. On soft wet legs they struggled to meet the demands of life. By nightfall, any animal not strong enough to move with the herd would be meat for a cat, or for the hyenas that skimmed the plain for placentas. Again the lookouts were restless. They lashed their flanks with dark muddy tails, and seldom lowered their heads. On the air came something too faint to recognise. But something, all the same, that was foreign. A threat.

When at last the men revealed themselves, making wild mouth--noises as they ran from cover, the herd broke inwards upon itself. The animals barged and wheeled in a thickening swirl of dust. Some were trying to run from the men: others fought back to escape the marsh. A pale stallion, the colour of wet sand, punched the air with his forelegs and was at once swept aside by the pressure of the pack. Beneath him as he squirmed, a gritty, sticky foal was silently crushed. And then the tide was flowing again, nose to tail and flank to flank, back along the bank downriver. Only one full-bellied mare, staggering with her burden, was too heavy to rise before the hunters had closed their cordon.

For a moment she stood her ground, hooves splayed wide and forward, as if she were pulling against some unseen powerful force. Her head plunged angrily, and a foreleg nagged at the mud. The nagging quickly became a pounding, and she snapped at them with her teeth. But still the men came on. Overlaying a sweet, strange smell, they bore with them the terror scents of bear and cat. Knowing her peril, the mare shuffled her hind legs and stammered anxiously back, a small step at a time, until she felt her hooves beginning to cut into the moistening ground at the marsh's edge.

She was racked by the weight of the foal, yet fear multiplied her strength. Like a cat she gathered herself: one last effort, to pummel the air at her challengers' heads. Down she splashed, then up a second time, to fall with a jolt that brought a sudden movement from inside: a flutter, like a bird, then a tearing and a fork of pain. Before even the first stone had struck her shoulder, the choice had been made. Her rump, palely encrusted with dried earth and dung, darkened in the storm of water flying from her hooves. And then she was wallowing, belly deep, in the marsh. Up she went again, hooves flailing; then up again, until exhaustion stilled her to a tremble, beyond hope. Behind her, the water slapped and sucked as the men thrashed into the shallows with their spears and flints and sharpened bones.

It was a flint axe that calmed her, splitting against the bone and flooding her eyes. The pain soaked out of her, and she stretched her neck quietly along the water, as if to sleep. Once, only once, she looked back at the froth of yellow and pink that billowed into the water from her belly. Beneath her tail, like new buds, the front hooves of the foal hung limp and wet, the birth arrested by the shaft that had fastened it through the mother.

The mare felt nothing as the men began to drag at her hooves. On the firm ground, in the crimson dew where another mare had dropped her foal, a boy picked up a strand of something, sniffed it, and tried it in his teeth.

* * *

On the ridge, the headman drew himself up. The men were looking to him, and he clapped his hands and chattered. They had hunted with skill. Soon, he knew, they would be able to find food on their own, without him. He had shown them the magic. Now they must return with the meat to the women in the red cave. For himself, hunger was nothing to be feared. He would journey alone to the far rocks, to see what food lay in the new lands beyond. Here, in other summers, the men had drunk the blood of ox and reindeer. At nightfall he would turn his face to the river again. He would sleep at the hunting cave in the green country, and at sunrise he would return to his people.

The climb was long and steep. The length of his shadow told the headman also that it was slow. Behind his legs, where the muscles gathered in small hard bunches, there was the pain of a whole winter's march; and his chest cried out in its craving for breath. At a stream he drank and rested, and suffered the disobedience of his body. From some bitter depth within him, he spat up the morning's bear-meat, clutching his fingers to his belly as the spasm racked him. He sensed the weakness in himself, and felt the thinness of his limbs. In his head, he numbered his summers. One each for the fingers and thumbs of his hands; one each for the fingers and thumbs of his woman and their son; and one each for the fingers of the one-armed man.

From the river, the far rocks had seemed small, a bony ridge like the brows of an ox. When the headman reached them, they looked down on him like a mammoth at a cat. From the high summit he could see the broadening of the river, and the red-stone ridge that hid the people's cave. Behind him, where the sky was pale as ice, he saw nothing that he knew. No animals moved, and there were no food plants; only thin sharp grass and rock. The headman looked to the green country where the hunting cave lay, and he understood that night would be there before him. For an instant, he hungered for the home cave, and for the warmth of the woman. But then he opened his fur and looked down at himself, and he knew that the woman no longer stirred him. His body was cold, like a fallen deer, and there was sleep in his heart. As he stretched along the rock shelf, careless of the wind, he carried a picture of warm stone and summer terraces long ago.

* * *

From the pinnacle across the valley, the mammoth caught the last slight movement of the man. And then he slept.