The Cave of Salt
Alone in the dark, Silverhair dug at the fallen boulders until she could feel the ivory of her tusks splintering against the unyielding rock, and blood seeped along her trunk from a dozen cuts and scrapes.
But the rocks, firmly wedged in place, were immovable.
She sank to her knees and rested her tusks on the invisible, uneven ground.
The calves had been captured — perhaps even now they were being butchered by the casually brutal Skin-of-Ice and his band of Lost. What was left for her now?
In the depths of her despair, she looked for guidance. And she found it in the last orders of her Matriarch.
She must seek out her Cousins: the other Families that had made up the loose-knit Clan of the Island, a Clan that had once been part of an almost infinite network of mammoth blood alliances that had spread around the world. Her way forward was clear.
But what, a small voice prompted her, if there were no more Families to be found? What if the worst fears of Wolfnose and Lop-ear had come true?
She tried to imagine discovering such a terrible thing: how she would feel, what she would do.
She would simply have to cope, find a way to go on. For now, she had her orders from the Matriarch, and she would follow them. And besides, she had a promise to her sister to keep.
But first she had to get out of this cave.
With new determination she got to her feet, shook off the dust that had settled over her coat, and turned her head, seeking the breeze.
The cave was utterly dark.
She moved with the utmost caution, her trunk held out before her. Her progress was slow. The floor was broken and uneven, the passage narrow and twisting, and she was afraid she might stumble over jagged rock or tumble into an unseen ravine.
And fear crowded her imagination. Mammoths, creatures of the open tundra, are not used to being enclosed; Silverhair tried not to think about the weight of rock and ice and soil that was suspended over her head.
But the echoes of her footsteps, crunching on ancient gravel, gave her a sense of a passageway stretching ahead of her. And there was the breeze: the slightest of zephyrs, laden with the sour stink of brine, somehow worming its way through cracks in the ground to this buried place.
And the breeze grew stronger, little by little, as she progressed.
But the passageway took her downward.
As she moved deeper into the belly of the Earth, the air began to grow warmer. She heard the slow dripping of water from the walls, felt the channels those tiny drips had carved in the rock at her feet over the Great-Years. She licked the droplets from the wall. The water was cool and only a little salty, but there wasn’t enough of it to quench her thirst.
At first the rising heat was comfortable — preferable, anyhow, to the dry, deathly chill of the ice chasm. Suspended here in the dark, she tried to imagine she was feeling the sun on her back, rather than the soulless, sourceless heat of deep rock.
But soon the warmth became less pleasant. She felt her heart race. She spread her ears as far as they would go, lifted her tail and opened her anus flap, opened her mouth and extended her tongue — all to let her body heat escape into this cloying air.
On she walked, deeper and deeper into the dark, and still the heat gathered.
At last the breeze felt a little cooler, and the quality of the echoes from the tunnel ahead changed. Underfoot the ground sloped, suddenly, much more sharply downward.
She sensed the passage broadening into a wider cave. The mouth of her tunnel was set a little way above the floor of the cave. She extended her head and trunk into the empty space beyond the tunnel. The air felt much cooler, and she dropped her ears and anus flap.
With great care she worked her way down a shallow slope of scree to the floor of the cave.
She was still in complete darkness, but she could sense the great dome of the cave’s ceiling far above her, like the roof of some giant mouth.
The breeze seemed to be coming from the opposite side of the cave. But she felt wary of striking out into the darkness.
So she began to feel her way along the wall.
The soft, gritty rock was extensively scratched and scoured. She ran the sensitive tip of her trunk over furrows and grooves.
They were unmistakably the marks of mammoth tusks.
The scrapings of tusks were everywhere, even — she suspected — higher than she could reach herself. She imagined huge old Bulls reaching high up with their gigantic tusks to bring down fresh rock for their Families.
When she ventured a few paces away from the wall, she found the uneven floor littered with mammoth dung. It was obvious that the whole of this cavern had been shaped by the working of mammoths, over generations. But when she picked up some of the dung and broke it open, it crumbled, dry as dust. It was very old, and it was evident that no mammoth had been here for many years.
She used her own tusk to scrape free pebble-sized lumps of rock from the wall. She picked them up, tucked them in her mouth, ground them to sand with her huge teeth, and swallowed them. The rock’s flavor was deliciously sharp: perhaps born from an ancient volcano, this loose, ash-like rock evidently was rich in salt and other minerals the mammoths needed.
The reason for the mammoths’ presence in the cave was clear. Mammoths need salt and other minerals, as do other animals. But their tongues are not long enough to reach around their trunks and tusks to reach salt-licks, exposed outcroppings of salty minerals. So they dig them up, using their tusks to loosen the earth. This whole cavern system might once have been a simple seam of soft, salty rock into which the mammoths had dug, until at last they had shaped this giant cave and the tunnels that led to it.
Silverhair held fragments of the rock on her tongue, relishing the salty taste and the rich, ancient mammoth smell of the place, as if she were tasting the living past itself. She walked on, surrounded by the workings of her ancestors, obscurely comforted.
At last she came to a heap of scree. The fresh breeze seemed to spill from a hole somewhere above her head. It must be another tunnel.
She clambered onto the scree. Her feet scrabbled to get a foothold in the unstable mass; it took several efforts before she had raised herself sufficiently to get her forelegs over the lip of the tunnel. Then it was a simple matter to pull herself all the way in.
She turned her back on the salt cave and marched on, into the darkness.
She felt the tunnel floor rising. The walls closed around her uncomfortably; if she took a step to either side she brushed against warm rock. But, as she climbed, she felt a delicious, welcoming chill return to the air. The breeze she had followed continued to strengthen.
And, ahead of her now, she made out splinters of green-blue light.
Gradually, as her eyes adapted, she saw that the pale green glow was outlining the walls and floor and roof of her tunnel. She could even make out the larger boulders on the floor, and she was able to press forward with confidence.
At last she came to a new chamber. Like the first she had found, this chamber evidently had been hollowed out by mammoths. But this one was flooded with light. The low rocky roof of this cavern had collapsed. She could see great slabs of rock scattered over the floor, gouged cruelly by the ice, and only spires and pinnacles of rock remained. The cave now was enclosed by a roof of ice.
In some places the ice was smooth and bare. Elsewhere the roof was made of snow, with thick white pillars and balls of ice crusting its undersurface, all of it glowing blue-white. Some of the roof ice had broken off, and chunks of it lay scattered over the floor with the rock chunks. Perhaps this was an outlying tongue of a glacier, strong enough to bridge this hole in the ground, thin enough to let through the light.
But the light was very dim. The sunlight was scattered by the ice and turned to a deep, extraordinary blue, translucent, richer than any color she had seen before. Silverhair wouldn’t have been surprised to see Siros, the water-loving calf of Kilukpuk, come swimming through the air toward her, her legs reduced to stubby flippers.
She worked her way around the gouged walls. Most of the scouring was functional: simple scrapes and gouges, some ending in a ragged scar where a chunk of the salty rock had been prized away. But some of the gouges were strange: small marks grouped in compact patterns that seemed to have been made with a great deal of care. At the base of the wall she found pebbles — and even a chipped-off piece of tusk — that looked as if they had been picked up and used to shape the gouges just so.
As she stared at them, the patterns were somehow familiar.
Here was a simple series of down-scrapes — but, for a heartbeat, Silverhair could see, as if looking beyond the scrapes, a dogged mammoth standing alone in a winter storm, thick winter hair dangling around her. And here, two little clusters of scrapes became a Cow with her calf, who suckled busily.
Then she lost the images, like losing her grasp on a lush strand of grass, and there were only crude gouges in the salty rock.
The markings came from a richer time: a time when there were so many mammoths on the Island, they were forced to dig far underground in search of salty rock; and they were so secure, they had the time and energy to record their thoughts and dreams in scrapings on the walls. It must have taken a Great-Year to make these caves, she thought; but the mammoths (before now, at any rate) had never been short of time.
If only she understood what she was seeing, she thought, she might find the wisdom of another Cycle here — not songs passed down from mother to calf, but messages locked forever in the face of the rock. Lop-ear surely would have understood these images: she remembered the way Lop-ear had scraped at the frost, making markings to show her the Island as a bird would see it. Lop-ear would have been happy here, she realized: happy surrounded by the frozen thoughts of his ancestors.
But all the dung was dry and odorless, very old; and the wall markings were coated by layers of hardy lichen, orange and green, the ice-filtered light fueling their perennial growth.
It had been the scraping of mammoths that had opened up the passages she followed, even the underground caves she had found. Now it was the patient work of those long-gone mammoths that was providing her with a means of escape from the Lost. Had they known, as they dug and shaped the Earth, that their actions would have such dramatic consequences for the future?
Encouraged by the presence of her ancestors, she walked on into the dark, and the gathering breeze.
And after only a little more time, she emerged from a rocky mouth into summer daylight.
The fresh air and the light brought her relief, but no joy.
She clung to Owlheart’s instructions about seeking out help, about joining with another Family, if it could be found. So she began a wide detour toward the southeast of the Island. There was a place she had visited as a calf, many years ago, where the land was hummocky and uneven, and there were many deep, small ponds. Here — held the wisdom of the Clan — even in the hardest winter, it was often possible to smash through the thinner ice with a blow from a tusk and reach liquid water.
And there, she hoped, she would find signs of the other Families of the Clan: if not the mammoths themselves, then at least evidence that they had been there recently, and maybe some clue about which way they had gone, and where she could find them.
If not there, she thought grimly, then nowhere.
But as she worked her way south, still she saw no signs of other mammoth Families.
She walked on, doggedly.
The tundra was still alive with flowers. There were bright purple saxifrages, and mountain avens and cushions of moss campion studded with tiny white blossoms. Silverhair found a cluster of Arctic poppies, their cup-shaped yellow heads turning to the sun; they were drenched with dew from a summer fog that had rolled over them, bringing them valuable moisture. Even on otherwise barren ground, the grass grew thick and green around the mouths of Arctic fox burrows, places fed by dung and food remains perhaps for centuries.
All the plants were adapted to the extreme cold, dryness, and searing winds of the Island. They grew in clumps: tussocks, carpets, and rosettes, and their leaves were thick and waxy, which helped them retain their water.
But already the summer was past its peak.
The insect life was dying back. The hordes of midges, mosquitoes, and blackflies were gone; the adults, having laid their eggs long ago, were all gone, leaving the larvae to winter in the soil or pond water. Spiders and mites were seeking shelter in the soil or the litter of decaying lichen and vegetation.
Birth, a brief life of light and struggle, rapid death. Silverhair sensed the mass of the baby inside her, and her heart was heavy. Would she be able to give her own child even as much as this, as the short lives of the summer creatures?
Through the briefly teeming landscape, oblivious to the riot of color, Silverhair walked stolidly on.
Seeking to build up her strength for whatever lay ahead, she took care to feed, drink, and pass dung properly. Feeding was, briefly, a pleasure at this time of year, for the berries were ripe. She munched on the bright red cranberries, yellow cloudberries, midnight blue bilberries, and inky-black crowberries that clustered on leathery plants. But there was a tinge of sadness about this treat, for the ripening berries were another sign of the autumn that was already close.
After a few days she could hear the soft lapping of water, smell the thick scummy greenness of the life that gathered in the deep ponds of this corner of the Island.
But there was still no sign of mammoth: no stomping, no contact rumbles, no smell of fur and milk.
And at last she came to the place of the ponds, and her heart sank. For she found herself treading on the bones of a young mammoth.
When he died he — or she — must have been about the same age as Croptail. The scavengers and the frost had left little of the youngster’s skin and fur, and the cartilage, tendon, and ligament had been stripped from the bones, which were separated and scattered. Some of the bones bore teeth marks, and some had been broken open, she saw, by a wolf or fox eager to suck the nourishing, fatty marrow from inside.
He must have been dead for months.
She touched the scattered bones with her feet, in a brief moment of Remembering. But she knew she could not linger. For ahead of her, she saw now — between herself and the glimmering surface of the ponds — was a field full of stripped and scattered bones.
She walked forward with caution and dread.
Soon there were so many bones, so badly scattered, it was impossible even to pick out individuals. Still, she could see from their size that most of those who had died here had been youngsters — even infants. As she approached the ponds, the bones were larger — just as dead, but the bones of older calves and adults.
The tundra here was badly trampled, and all but stripped bare of grass and shrubs; even months of growth hadn’t been enough for it to recover. The bones, too, were badly scattered and trampled. She found crushed skulls, ribs smashed and scored with the marks of mammoth soles. And she saw snapped-off tusks, evidence of brief and bitter battles.
There had been little Remembering here, she saw with sadness. It was as the Cycle teaches: Where water vanishes, sanity soon follows.
It was becoming horribly clear what had happened in this place.
As the pressure to find water had grown, so the discipline of this Family had broken down. Probably the youngest — pushed away from the water holes by their older siblings, even their parents, and too small anyway to reach the water through thick ice with their little tusks — had gone first. Then the oldest and weakest of the adults.
The diminishing survivors had trampled over the bodies of their relatives — perhaps even digging through the fallen corpses to get to the precious liquid — until they, in their turn, had succumbed.
It had been a rich time for the scavengers and the cubs of Aglu.
The destruction was not thorough; few of the bones close to the water had been gnawed by the wolves, she saw. But then, there had been no need to root in rotting corpses for sustenance; the wolves had only to wait for another mammoth to fall and offer them warm, fresh meat and marrow.
At last she reached the ponds at the heart of this grisly tableau. The ponds brimmed, their surfaces thick with green summer life, swarms of insects buzzing over their surfaces. Their fecundity mocked the mammoths who must have come here in the depths of the dry winter, desperate for the water that could have kept them alive.
Silverhair realized that, but for the wisdom of Owlheart, her own Family might have succumbed like this.
Silverhair stood tall and surveyed the tundra. The land was teeming with life, the hum of insects, the lap of water, the cries of birds and small mammals.
But nowhere was there the voice of a mammoth.
With these bones, Silverhair knew at last that the fears of Lop-ear and Wolfnose were confirmed. Ten thousand years after Longtusk had led his Family here, there were no more mammoths on the Island. The winter’s dryness had taken the last of the Families — the last but her own.
And now those few survivors were in the hands of the remorseless Lost.
She was alone: the only mammoth in all the world who was alive, and still free to act.
She shivered, for she knew that all of her people’s history funneled through her mind and heart now. If she failed, then so would the mammoths, for all time.
…And yet, hadn’t she already failed? In her foolishness she had ignored the teaching of the Cycle, and had gone to seek out the Lost. By doing that she had made them aware of the existence of her Family — had caused the deaths of Eggtusk and Lop-ear and Snagtooth and Owlheart, and the trapping of Foxeye and her cubs — all of it was her fault.
She sank to the bone-littered ground, heavy with despair.
Alone, desolate, with no Matriarch to guide her — as she’d been trained since she was a calf — she turned to the Cycle.
Mammoths have no gods, no devils. That is why they find it so hard to comprehend the danger posed by the Lost. Instead, mammoths accept their place in the great rhythms of the world, their place in past and future, as Earth’s long afternoon winds through the millennia.
But mammoths have existed for a very, very long time; and, the wisdom goes, nothing that happens today is without precedent in the past. Somewhere in the Cycle lies the answer to any question. Everybody alive is descended from somebody smart enough to survive the past: that is the underlying message of the Cycle. But you must not worship your ancestors. The sole purpose of your ancestors’ existence was your life. And the sole purpose of your life is your calves.
Somehow she felt comforted. Even in this place of death, she was not alone; she had the wisdom of all her ancestors back to Kilukpuk, the growing heavy warmth of the creature in her womb, the promise that her calves would one day roam the Sky Steppe.
And that promise, she realized, could be kept only if Foxeye and the calves were still alive. For it seemed there was no other mammoth Family left anywhere in the world, no other Family that could populate that fabulous land of the future.
In that case, it was up to Silverhair — the last free mammoth — to save her Family from the Lost. She would make her way to the south of the Island, to the foul nest of the Lost. And this time she would enter it, not as a weakened, starved captive, but strong and free. She would destroy Skin-of-Ice and all his works. She would keep her promise to Foxeye and free her Family. And then…
And then, the Cycle would guide her once more into the unknown future.
Treading carefully between the scattered heaps of bones, she resumed her steady march south.