Read a sample from SHAMAN by Kim Stanley Robinson
Enjoy the beginning of Shaman, an extraordinary portrayal of life in the Palaeolithic era, 30,000 years into our past, by the multi-award-winning author described recently by the Sunday Times as 'one of science fiction's greats'!
We had a bad shaman.
This is what Thorn would say whenever he was doing something bad himself. Object to whatever it was and he would pull up his long gray braids to show the mangled red nubbins surrounding his earholes. His shaman had stuck bone needles through the flesh of his boys’ ears and then ripped them out sideways, to help them remember things. Thorn when he wanted the same result would flick Loon hard on the ear and then point at the side of his own head, with a tilted look that said, You think you have it bad?
Now he had Loon gripped by the arm and was hauling him along the ridge trail to Pika’s Rock, on the overlook between Upper and Lower Valleys. Late afternoon, low clouds rolling overhead, brushing the higher ridges and the moor, making a gray roof to the world. Under it a little line of men on a ridge trail, following Thorn on shaman’s business. It was time for Loon’s wander.
— Why tonight? Loon protested. — A storm is coming, you can see it.
— We had a bad shaman.
And so here they were. The men all gave Loon a hug, grinning ruefully at him and shaking their heads. He was going to have a miserable night, their looks said. Thorn waited for them to finish, then croaked the start of the good-bye song:
This is how we always start
It’s time to be reborn a man
Give yourself to Mother Earth
She will help you if you ask
— If you ask nicely enough, he added, slapping Loon on the shoulder. Then a lot of laughing, the men’s eyes sardonic or encouraging as they divested him of his clothes and his belt and his shoes, everything passed over to Thorn, who glared at him as if on the verge of striking him. Indeed when Loon was entirely naked and without possessions Thorn did strike him, but it was just a quick backhand to the chest. — Go. Be off. See you at full moon.
If the sky were clear, there would have been the first sliver of a new moon hanging in the west. Thirteen days to wander, therefore, starting with nothing, just as a shaman’s first wander always started. This time with a storm coming. And in the fourth month, with snow still on the ground.
Loon kept his face blank and stared at the western horizon. To beg for a month’s delay would be undignified, and anyway useless. So Loon looked past Thorn with a stony gaze and began to consider his route down to the Lower Valley creekbed, where knots of trees lined the creek. Being barefoot made a difference, because the usual descent from Pika’s Rock was very rocky, possibly so rocky he needed to take another way. First decision of many he had to get right. — Friend Raven there behind the sky, he chanted aloud, — lead me now without any tricks!
— Good luck getting Raven to help, Thorn said. But Loon was from the raven clan and Thorn wasn’t, so Loon ignored that and stared down the slope, trying to see a way. Thorn slapped him again and led the other men back down the ridge. Loon stood alone, the wind cutting into him. Time to start his wander.
But it wasn’t clear which way to get down. For a time it seemed like he might freeze there, might never start his life’s journey.
So I came up in him and gave him a little lift from within.
I am the third wind.
He took off down the rocks. He looked back once to show his teeth to Thorn, but they were out of sight down the ridge. Off he plunged, flinging the thought of Thorn from him. Under his feet the broken gritstone was flecked with pock snow, which collected in dimples and against nobbles in a pattern that helped him see where to step. Go as agile as a cat, down rock to rock, hands ready to grab and help down little jumps. His toes chilled and he abandoned them to their cold fate, focused on keeping his hands warm. He would need his hands down in the trees. It began to snow, just a first little pricksnow. The slope had big snow patches that were easier on his feet than the rocks.
He tightened his ribs and pushed his heat out into his limbs and skin, grunting until he blazed a little, and the pricksnow melted when it touched him. Sometimes the only heat to be had is in hurry.
He clambered down and across the boulder-choked ravine seaming the floor of Lower Valley, across the little stream. On the other side he was able to run up the thin forest floor, which was all too squishy, as the ground was wet with rain and snowmelt. Here he avoided the patches of snow. First day of the fourth month: it was going to be trouble to make a fire. The night would be ever so much more comfortable if he could make a fire.
The upper end of Lower Valley was a steep womb canyon. A small cluster of spruce and alder surrounded the spring there, which started the valley’s creek. There he would find shelter from the wind, and branches for clothing, and under the trees there wouldn’t be much snow left. He hurried up to this grove, careful not to stub his senseless toes.
In the little copse around the spring he tore at live spruce branches and broke several off, cursing their wetness, but even damp their needles would hold some of his heat against him. He wove two spruce branches together and stuck his head through a middle gap in the weave, making it into a rough cloak.
Then he broke off a dead bit of brush pine root to serve as the base of his firestarter. Near the spring he found a good rock to use as a chopper, and with it cut a straight dead alder branch for his firestick. His fingers were just pliable enough to hold the rock. Otherwise he didn’t feel particularly cold, except in his feet, which were pretending not to be there. The black mats of spruce needles under the trees were mostly free of snow. He crouched under one of the biggest trees and forced his toes into the mat of needles and wiggled them as hard as he could. When they began to burn a little he pulled them out and went looking for duff. Even the best fire kit needs some duff to burn. He reached into the center of dead spruce logs, feeling for duff or punk. He found some punk that was only a little damp, then broke off handfuls of dead twigs tucked under the protection of larger branches. The twigs were damp on their outsides, but dry inside; they would burn. There were some larger dead branches he could break off too. The grove had enough dead wood to supply a fire once it got going. It was a question of duff or punk. Neither spruce nor alder rotted to a good punk, so he would have to be lucky, or maybe find some ant-eaten wood. He got on his knees and started grubbing around under the biggest downed trees, avoiding the snow, turning over bigger branches and shoving around in the dirt trying to find something. He got dirty to the elbows, but then again that would help keep him warm.
Which might matter, as he could not find any dry punk, or any duff at all. He squeezed water out of one very rotten mass of wood, but the brown goo that remained in his hand resembled dead moss or mullein, and was still damp. The firestick’s rough tip would never light such shit.
— Please, he said to the grove. He begged its forgiveness for cursing as he had approached it. — Give me some punk, please goddess.
Nothing. It became too cold for him to keep kneeling on the wet ground digging in downed logs. To make some heat in him he got up and danced. With this effort he could warm his hands, and it was important they not go numb like his feet had. Oh, a fire would make the night so much more comfortable! Surely something could be found here that would burn under the heat of his firestick’s tip! Nothing. His belt contained in its fold many little gooseskin bags in which there were spark flints, dry moss, firestick, and base. Dressed and carrying all his things, he could have survived this night and the fortnight to follow in style. Which was why he had been sent out naked: the point of the wander was to prove you could start with nothing but yourself, and not just survive but prosper. He needed to come back into camp on the night of the full moon in good style.
But first he had to get through this night. He began to work hard in his dance, throwing his arms around, spinning his hands in big circles. He sang a hot song and wiggled all over. After doing this for a while, everything but his feet began to burn. But he was also getting tired. He tried to find a balance between the cold and his efforts, walking in a tight circle while also inspecting the forest floor for likely punk and duff shelters. Nothing!
In every grove some wood will burn.
This was one of the sayings that Heather often repeated, though seldom when talking about fire. Loon said it aloud, emphatically, beseechingly: — In every grove some wood will burn! But on this night he wasn’t convinced. It only made him mad.
He went at the underside of a log which had broken over another one in its fall, a long time ago. They were two crossing mounds of dirt, almost; not an impossible source. But at this moment, wet through and through. And cold.
When he saw how it was, he beat his fist on the soft wet logs. Then he had to start walking in circles again.
Later, more digging into another log gained him only a knot that was still hard, with two spurs extending away from it at an angle much like the angle needed to make a spear thrower. He replaced his first firestarter base with this flat knot, which was better. His alder firestick still looked good. All was ready, if only he had something dry enough to catch fire.
And if only it would stop raining so hard. For a while it pelted down, cold enough to be a little sleety, and all on a gusty wind. In the hard gusts it was like getting hit with cold sand. He simply had to take shelter, and so he crawled under a spruce with big branches right against the ground, where he could snuggle in tight around the trunk and feel only a few drips on him, a few tickles of wind. The spruce needles were scratchy and the ground was cold, but he flexed his shoulder up and down, and sang a hot song and swore vengeance against Thorn. Talk about bad shamans!
But all boys have to become men one way or another. Their wanders had to be trials of skill and endurance. Hunters’ wanders were just as bad. And other packs’ shamans insisted on even harder trials, it was said.
Loon banished Thorn again. He tested all the branches at the bottom of the spruce. If a dead one could be broken, a dead one well dried but still a little resiny, possibly he could pulverize a spot in it with a rock point and make a mash of splinters fine enough to catch fire under the spin of the firestick. Worth a try, and the effort itself would help keep him warm.
But it turned out there didn’t seem to be a branch around the bottom of this tree that he could break.
When the rain let off, he squirmed back out and crawled around under the other spruces looking for such a branch. His hands were so cold he could scarcely grasp the branches to test them.
After a while he had broken off a few likely-looking branches. If he could get a fire started in one of them, the others would be good wood to feed to it.
He found an adequate hearth rock, and a better smasher rock. He took the best one of his dead dry spruce branches and placed it on the hearth, then hit it with the smasher. It resisted, and it was clear it would take a while to get it right, but it seemed promising. Smash smash smash. He had to be more careful than usual not to catch a finger, his hands were so clumsy. Once two years before he had smashed a fingertip, and it was still fat and a little numb at the end, its flat claw lined with grooves. He called that finger Fatty. So he hit his smasher on the side of the broken branch very carefully, once or twice hitting the hearth instead. A spark or two from those accidents made him long for his flint firestrikers. A few scattered sparks were not going to be enough to do it on a night like this. The wet wind whooshed its laughter at him, loud in the trees.
Eventually a spot on the side of his target branch was squashed into a splay of splinters, perfectly dry. He sat cross-legged with his body arched over the branch, and it seemed like the mash of splinters might burn. Breathing hard, warm except for his feet, he crawled under the best of the spruces in his grove and arranged his new kit around him. Smashed branch on the hearth rock, held there between his feet; firestick placed almost upright in the mash of splinters on the branch, held at its tilt between his palms. All set: spin the firestick back and forth.
Back and forth, back and forth between his hands, gently pushing the point of the stick down into the branch. Back and forth, back and forth. His palms ran down the stick with the force of his pushing down, and when they reached the lower end of the stick he had to grasp it with one hand, put the other against the top, and move up and catch it and begin over again, with as little a pause as he could manage. Meanwhile it kept raining outside the shelter of the spruce, and under it, even right against the trunk, drips were dripping. Really it began to look impossible, given the conditions. But he didn’t want to admit that. It would get an awful lot colder the moment he admitted that.
After a long time, maybe a fist or more, he had to give up, at least on this branch. The mash of splinters was a bit too massy, and after a while, a little damp. He could get the spot just under the firestick so hot that it slightly burned his fingertip to touch it, and the splinters around that spot had even blackened a little, but they would not burst into flame.
Loon sat there. This was going to be a hard thing to tell Thorn about, assuming he survived to tell the tale. The old sorcerer would flick him on the ears for sure. You had to be able to start a fire, anytime, anywhere; the worse conditions were, the more important it got. Thorn, like most of the shamans at the corroboree, was exceptionally good with fire, and had spent a lot of time with Loon and the other kids, teaching them the tricks. He had put a firestick to their forearms and spun it, to teach them how hot the spinning got. Eventually Loon had learned how to make fire no matter how the old man complicated the task. But there had always been some dry duff, one way or another.
Now he crawled out from under the spruce and stood up, sobbing with frustration, and danced until the cold was held off him by a thin envelope of sweat. When the rain let up a little, he steamed. Already he was hungry, but there was nothing for it. Time to chew on a pebble and think about other things. Chew a pebble and dance in the rain. Cold or not, this was his wander. When daylight came at last he would find better shelter, find some dry duff, find an abri or some smaller overhang. Begin outfitting himself for his return at full moon. He would walk into camp fully clothed, belly full, spear in hand! Clothed in lion skins! Beartooth necklace draped around his neck! He saw it all inside his eyes. He shouted the story of it at the night.
After a while he sat again under the best spruce, his head on his knees, arms wrapped around his legs. Then he got back out and shuffled around in the grove, looking for a better tuck, finding one after another and testing them. If they were good, he added them to a growing little round of camps, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. He chanted for long stretches, cursed Thorn from time to time. May your pizzle fall off, may a lion eat you . . . Then also from time to time he would shout things out loud. — It’s cold! Thorn would sometimes howl his thoughts that way, using old words from the shamans’ language, words that sounded like the things themselves: Esh var kalt! Esh var k‑k‑k‑kaaaal-TEE!
He stubbed a big toe and only felt it in the bone; the flesh was numb. More curses. May the ravens shit on you, may your babies die . . . Lie on the ground under one big spruce, only his kneecaps and toes and the palms of hands and his forehead touching the earth. Push himself up and down with his arms, staying rigid. If only he could fuck the earth to get warm, but it was too cold, he couldn’t get his poor pizzle to antler, it was as numb as his toes, and would hurt like crazy when it next warmed up, prickle and burn till he cried. Maybe if he thought of that girl from the Lion pack, a raven like him, therefore forbidden to him, supposedly, but they had made eyes anyway, and it would warm him to think of plunging her. Or Sage, from his own pack.
That line of thought trapped some time: seeing it all inside his eyelids, seeing her spread her legs to him. Be there inside her kolby, forget this cold rain. Her kolby, her baginaren, her vixen. Start a little fire behind his belly button, get his prong to spurt. But it was too cold. He could only mash the poor flesh around and make it burn a little, warm it in the hope it would not get frostbit. That would be so bad.
After a time the rain relented. The sky’s cloudy dark gray seemed a bit lighter. No moon, no stars to tell him how close dawn was. But it felt close. It had to be close. It had been a long, long night.
He stood and swayed. It was surely a lighter gray overhead. He sang a hot song, he sang a song to the sun. He called for the sun, the great god of warmth and good cheer. He was tired and cold. But he wasn’t so cold he would die. He would make it to dawn, he could feel it. This was his wander, this was how a shaman was born. He howled till his throat was raw.
Finally dawn came, wet, gray, dull, cold. Under the storm the colors of things did not quite return, but he could see. Low clouds scudded in from the west, cutting off the ridgetops. The undersides of the clouds hung in fat dark tits. A sheet of rain fell on Lower Valley downstream from him, a black broom standing in the air between cloud and forest. With the big snow patches everywhere, the ground was lighter than the sky.
Then in just a few blinks everything got much lighter, and a white spot glowed in the clouds over the east ridge. The sun, wonderful god of warmth, over the ridge at last. Cloudy or not, the air would almost certainly get warmer. Only the worst storms had days colder than the previous night. And now the sky didn’t look too bad to windward; the clouds tumbling over the gray hills had little breaks between them that were bright white. It was still windy, however, and the rain began to come down in little freshets.
Whether this day proved to be warmer than the night or not, he was going to have to keep moving to stay warm. There would be no relief from that until he got a fire lit. So he gathered his unsuccessful fire kit and held the two pieces of it in his left hand, and clasped a good throwing rock in his right hand, and took off downstream. He wanted a bigger copse of trees, with a good mix of spruce and pine and cedar and alder. The ridges and hillsides and valley slopes, and the upland behind and above them, were mostly bare rock dotted with grasses, and now covered by old snow; but in the valleys against the creeks, trees usually grew, making ragged dark green lines in the palm of any valley. Downstream a short walk, where Lower Valley’s creek was met by a little trickle down its eastern flank, a flat spot held a bigger clump of trees, surrounding a little oval meadow and climbing the slopes to each side.
He made his way around the wet part of the little meadow and went to the thickest part of this grove. He slipped between the trees, grateful for their shelter. It was windier now, and there was more rain falling than he had thought when he left his night copse. In this larger grove things were very much better. He was well protected, and now that it was day he could see what he was doing. A broken cedar at the center of the grove had exposed a big curve of its inner bark, which he could pull free and use to make some rough clothes. A couple of snow-rimmed anthills spilling out of the end of a decomposed cedar log gave him sign of potential punk. There was a small hole at the end of the log; he bashed it in with his rock and tore the hole deeper, then reached in and up: on the underside of the still solid wall of the log was a section of punky duff, quite dry — Ah mother! he cried. — Thank you!
He pulled out a big handful and carried it quickly to the lee of a gnarled old pine. — In every grove OF SUFFICIENT SIZE some wood will burn, he said aloud, shouting his correction. He was going to tell that to Heather in no uncertain terms. She would laugh at him, he knew, but he was going to do it anyway. It was important to get things right, especially if you were going to make sayings out of them.
He left the dry duff well protected in a cleft at the base of a broken old pine tree, and quickly gathered a bunch of branches and broke off several more. He stashed these with the duff and then broke off ten or twenty smallish live branches and arranged them around and behind and over the broken pine tree he had chosen, making its wind protection even better. Bush pines like this old one had multiple trunks, and were thickly needled; this one was a great tuck to begin with, and with his branch walls added, hardly any wind or rain was making it through to his fire area.
After that he gathered the pile of firewood next to him, then sat down with his back against the trunk, curled in a crouch to make his body the last part of the windbreak. He crossed his legs and placed his unfeeling feet against the sides of his base.
He chopped at his firestick’s tip until it was a little cleaner and sharper, then placed it in the dent on the knot base, very near his new duff. When all seemed right, he began to spin for dear life, back and forth, back and forth, feeling his hands sliding slowly down the stick, feeling also the pressure of the stick against the base as it spun, trying to hold the combination of speed and pressure that would make the most heat. There was a feel to that, and a dance with each return of the hands from the bottom of the stick to the top, a quick little move. When he had it going as well as he could, and had made several swift hand shifts from bottom to top, he toed some of the duff closer to the blackening cup spot, a little depression in the knot which was what had caused him to pick this base in the first place; it was just what you would have cut with a blade in a flat base.
He watched the duff blacken, holding his breath; then some of the newly black spots glowed yellow and white at their edges. He gently blew on these white points, contorting so his face was closer to them, breathing on them in just the way that would push the white away from the cup into the bigger mass of duff. He bent his backbone like Loop Meadow and blew as gently as seemed right, coaxing the white heat to grow, feeding it a little wind that would not blow it out, giving it just what it needed, emptying himself out to it, puff puff puff, pufffff, this he could do, this he knew how to do, puff puff puff, puff puff puff, pufffff
and the duff burst into flame. FIRE! Even this tiny flame lofted a little waft of heat into his face, and he sucked in a breath and blew even more ardently than before, still very gently but with a particular growing urgency, like blowing in a hole on the flute when you want to make a wolf ’s cry jump. As he did this he also shifted to his knees and elbows, using his face as the closest windbreak for this gorgeous little flame, and breathing on it in just the way that made it bigger, making love to it, oh how he wanted it to feel good, to be happy and grow! He gave it his breath, his spirit, his love, he wanted it to spurt, to leap up like the spurtmilk out of a prong, to burn in his face: and it did!
When he saw that the little spurt of flame was holding, he began placing the littlest and driest twigs over it, in a way that would catch as much of them alight as possible without harming the blaze below. It was a delicate balance, but one very well known to him; something he was good at, Thorn having forced him to practice it twentytwentytwentytwenty times. Oh yes, fire, fire, FIRE! Almost everyone was pretty good at fire, but Loon thought of himself as exceptionally good at it, which was part of what made the previous night’s failure so galling. He was going to be embarrassed to tell the story of that first night. He would have to emphasize the terrible power of the storm, but then again, as his pack had spent the night just one valley over, they weren’t going to believe much of an exaggeration. He would just have to admit he had had a bad night.
But now it was morning, and he had a fire started, and the first twigs were catching and adding their burn, so he could add more, including some bigger ones. Soon there were ten or twenty twigs alight in a fiery stack over the first burn, and their flames were a tangible yellow. Very soon the moment came when it was safe to put a pretty large handful of dry twigs gently atop the little blaze, and they would all catch almost immediately. He did that and said — Ha! Ha! and put on some larger branches. Finger sticks, then wrist branches. Happily he watched as the growing flames blackened the rounded sides of so many twigs and branches. A fire makes all right with the world.
Smoke now flew up, and the hiss and crackle from the wood showed how hot the fire was getting. The heat smacked his naked chest and belly and pizzle, which burned horribly as it warmed, in the usual agonizing tingle. He squeezed it in one hand to hold the pain in, and felt that it was a good pain, so good it was easy to feel it as a harsh form of pleasure; ah, the too-familiar burn of numbed flesh coming back to life, the itch deep under the skin, the painful tingle of being alive! Now he was going to be able to warm up even his feet! They would burn like mad as they came back to him. Ah fire, glorious fire, so friendly and warm, so beautiful!
— Such a blessing, such a friend! Such a blessing, such a friend! One of Heather’s little fire songs.
Now things were really looking good. The previous night was put in its place as a mere problem, a dark prelude. With a fire lit, the storm still blowing overhead did not matter anything like as much. He could keep this fire going for the whole fortnight, if that seemed best, or he could take it with him a certain distance, if he wanted to move, and reestablish it elsewhere. He could focus his efforts on food, shelter, and clothing, and no matter how those went, he would always have the most important thing. And it was only the first day of his wander!
He sat on the windward side of the fire and stretched out his legs around it, held up his arms over it. Hands catching the heat from right in the smoke. Oh the tingle of life coming back: — OW! It
was a very different howl than the ones of the night before. Like the wolves, like his namesake the loons, he had a whole vocabulary of howls. This was the happy one, the triumphant one: — OWWW!