Groping his way to the front of the enormous cave and stepping around the low individual family hearths, the old shaman carefully lifted the Auroch hide hanging over the entrance. He stood for a while gazing up at the pallid full moon hanging like a gossamer orb in the pearly dawn sky. For weeks, clouds hid the sky and its stars. Now, at last, they had drawn back to reveal this glorious pale moon and her twinkling handmaidens. It was still bitterly cold and he shivered, despite his warm fur jacket, as he silently made his way over to his familiar rock. He sat down to indulge in his favourite task, watching the stars, especially the white star highway, the pathway of the souls. He smiled to himself and bowed his head to the silvery orb. She was the sign Guta had been waiting to see. In two full moons, the weather would be milder. The clan would be at the Burda, the great tribal meeting which occurred every two years. This year he had planned a special event. He would declare Chen his heir. As he sat contemplating this tremendous step, he knew there would be opposition. For as long as they could remember, the clan’s storyteller/shaman role had been a male member of his family. Now here he was about to break with tradition, but he knew it was right. That got him thinking how good came from tragedy.
As he sat, memories swirled around, taking him instantly back in time.
He remembered how the scouts had reported seeing mammoths moving towards their area. The hunters made plans and prepared their stone spear tips. The archers checked their bows and arrows and the helper's built lightweight screens to hide behind, ready to make a noise to induce the herd to stampede. They hoped a calf would get detached from its mother. The plan was to funnel it down a blind ravine. At first, all went well. Too well, two calves were thundering along the narrow ravine. Then all their best plans disintegrated. A matriarch missed her calf. She cut across the herd and followed into the ravine. The hunter helpers cowering behind their fragile barriers meant nothing to her. Her head with the massive tusks tossed all aside, bodies thrown and landing in crumpled heaps. She continued her anger-fueled charge. The hunters tried to scramble up the sheer rock walls in the face of this irate behemoth. The calves milled around, recognising their adult herd member. With her tusks, she pierced bodies or tossed others aside then, with the young ones, returned the way she had come. The trumpeting herd had passed, the noise of the hunters stopped. An eerie silence descended over the scene of devastation.
Two shamans worked with the dead while the medicine woman administered aid to those not dead yet. The rest of the clan carefully carried the three surviving hunters back to the cave. In that horrific encounter, Chen lost both her parents. Everyone was busy caring for the wounded and helping perform the rites for the dead. No-one had any time for the toddler, sniffling and crying and getting in the way.
Feeling her pain, Guta took her hand and led her away to comfort her and offer her a place at his hearth with Kitam, his wife. As the years went passed, he enjoyed the child’s company more and more. He rejoiced, for now, he too knew how a father felt watching a beloved child growing up. Kitam had also grown to love the child who eased the pain of her childless state.
There was much to prepare before they left for the Burda. As they sat around their fires in the evenings, the cave inhabitants looked across to their storyteller/shamans’ fire and begged for stories to distract them while their hands were busy with mundane tasks. Glancing at Guta, who seemed worn out after their hunting trips, Chen accepted the task, inventing stories to show what terrible retribution would fall on them if any part of their transport should fail. The next morning, with her stories still ringing in their ears, they would carefully check all the parts again and again. Now, with warnings uttered, they knew the gods would not forgive them for any flaws. Watching these reactions, Chen understood the storyteller/shaman role was as a powerful intermediary for the people and their gods. She felt awed that Guta thought she was suitable for sharing this shamanic/storytelling task.
Guta was also excited. He was rehearsing their story repertoire to ensure Chen knew all by heart. He had his secret plan for her. The Burda was not only the tribal meeting time but also the time for judgments. Only after completing the judgemental portion of the meeting would Guta be free to join Chen and the other storytellers. There he would test out the feelings of the other storytellers towards his young protégé.
By rights, the storyteller/shamans did not have to hunt for food. They received a share of everyone's bounty. He liked to keep his little family as independent as possible. Daily he went hunting with Chen and wherever they walked, he insisted Chen told him different stories from their store. He also insisted she could perform all the actions required of a talented storyteller. He never failed to marvel at his good fortune. Chen had inherited many of the abilities of her hunter parents. Using only a slingshot, she quickly brought down Ptarmigan and hares. On their lengthy hunting trips as well as storytelling, he had taught her all he knew of hunting. She was a formidable archer, but too slight to be of any use as a spear thrower.
As the time to depart drew closer, the days lengthened and tempers shortened. Chen spent most of her time with Guta, but in the evenings, she helped Kitam. Each night, exhausted, she would flop onto her bracken bed and fall asleep wrapped in furs. Even in her sleep, her mind was actively dreaming about story plots and wondering where she could fit fresh twists to old favourite stories to make them come alive for the audience. When she repeated these ideas to Guta, he felt a warm glow of satisfaction. He was right. She was showing the signs of a gifted storyteller/shaman, not just a repeater of old stories as the less gifted of their number did.
Days of travelling took its toll. Kitam rode their sledge. Guta looked haggard. Out of concern, Chen stayed close. Eventually, one child spotted a hint of smoke in the sky. Fresh energy whipped through all the clan. Now everyone knew they were nearing the end of their journey. Soon they would see the site of the Burda.
It never failed to thrill Chen. As they neared the edge of a cliff, a faint pathway leading down to the left was visible between high gray, black rocks. The young children loved this part, running down and shouting and listening to the reverberating echoes as they made their way along the narrow pathway.
As they emerged at the bottom, it was as if they had stepped into another world. Icy cold, crystal clear waters flowed past, glinting as it flowed over grey and brown pebbles. Best of all was the unexpected verdant green grass and the small, scrappy shrubs that tried to pass as trees. A pleasant change from the endless grey and white of the plain they had crossed. Arriving at the grassy knoll at the entrance they looked around, the only other group already there rushed over to meet and greet them. Chen knew that their campsite was in the first row around the campfire area. It did not take her long to help Guta and Kitam set up their leather tent and unpack the luggage.
Each clan brought their fuel for the minor cooking fires, but they also all had to contribute to the central bonfire once the Burda was officially open. Chen carried the dried Auroch dung cakes over to the hearth. For a long time, she had been in charge of lighting the fire as her nimble fingers were able to rub the sticks quicker and longer. Soon a wisp of smoke appeared and she could light their cooking fire.
On the fourth day, as the weak sun sank behind the hills, excitement mounted among the crowd. Everyone anticipated the coming feast. After the food, the tribes sat quietly, expectantly looking at the fire and knowing the entertainment was about to begin.
Slowly the drums started beating, boom, boom, boom, slowly increasing in volume and pace. A sudden crash, then the storyteller leapt into the circle. The entertainment had begun. The stories were wild and exciting, each storyteller leaping, crawling and swirling to enhance their words and the impact that they would have on the audience. Guta no longer took part in these public spectacles, preferring to sit at the side beating the drum. He could regulate the pace of the story until the audience experienced the event through all their senses, hearing, feeling, seeing, even smelling. It mesmerised the audience. At the height of the excitement, the dancing storytellers suddenly stopped. For a moment, silence reigned. No one wanted to move or even glance at their neighbours. They were so excited they could feel their hearts pounding and yet the silence grew and grew. At the point when attentions were about to snap, Guta stepped into the circle to a deafening crash from the drum.
Smiling and clapping, the audience settled down to the most exciting part of the evening, Guta’s stories. With his slow chanting voice, he began the story, unobtrusively Chen stepped into the circle with him. They told their stories, old and new. Chen illustrated them with all the movements they had prepared and rehearsed before. No one noticed the passage of time until the great drum beat stopped.
In the sudden silence, the camp lit only by the flickering flame coming from the dying bonfire, Guta put up his hands and wished them all a good night and dismissed them. He nodded to Chen. They walked to the edge of the encampment and looked up at the sky, noting the white starry river cradled between the curve of the land between the mountains called the two brothers. As they stared up at the Milky way and its bright star Deneb he said, “That is the path for souls to travel. I will join them soon. You must take on the job of storyteller/shaman.”
She looked at him, her eye large as he solemnly removed his black-feathered shaman cloak and draped it over her shoulders.
They sat gazing into the twinkling sky. His breathing slowed. She knew he was moving towards that starry highway, the pathway of souls.