It hadn’t been snowing long, but it fell thickly. The falling snow made it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. Ge-ort did not feel the cold while he lay perfectly still in his hastily constructed shelter. The snow had gathered on the old mammoth skin his father had given him. The low shelter was completely obscured from view. The mammoth skin had been in the family for many generations and it was only used during the initiation rite.
Compared to most other ceremonies, this one started out as a quiet affair. Ge-ort lay there, buried under the snow, with only a thin slit of his face visible. He felt like a hunter, waiting for prey. But he wasn’t a hunter yet. Practicing patience he tried to remember all the things his father had taught him about survival in this harsh environment. This was only the beginning. Only by completing – and surviving – the initiation rite he would become a true hunter.
Ge-ort shivered. Not from the cold, but from excitement. And yes, fear. His father had hammered into him that fear was the natural ally of the hunter. It was a valued companion that warned against rash decisions. It made a hunter reflect and judge a situation. Apart from the dim-witted ones. But the dim-witted ones died young.
Fear was also an ally you needed to learn to control, his father had said to him. Never let fear rule your decisions. Let it advise you, but never lead you.
Ge-ort concentrated on his breathing. It went too quickly. He slowed his breathing, using his belly as a bellows. This technique he had learned when he was still a little boy. He felt his fear ebb away.
He tried to peer through the thickly falling snow, but he knew it was useless. The snow obscured all visibility. He had to rely on other senses than sight to detect their coming. There was no telling how long he had to wait.
The others were observing him from a distance, using the same senses he now used. They evaluated his every movement, or even more importantly, lack of movement.
The vibration was almost imperceptible. Ge-ort would have missed it if he had not been lying perfectly still and had slowed his breath. There it was again. Slowly the vibration changed into a rhythmic pounding. The thin layer of snow that covered the tundra did little to dampen the thump of massive feet. The prey Ge-ort had been waiting for was approaching.
His heart was pounding. He tried to get his breathing under control to slow his heartbeat, but he failed. There was no doubt now: a herd was coming. The pounding of his heart merged with the vibration of the ground. They were moving at an easy pace, unworried. He could tell by the frequency of the steps and by the fact they moved as one. They were probably moving in single file, walking in step.
Suddenly he saw a dark shape appear through the curtain of snow. The shape towered over the frozen flatland. Enormous tusks, that curled intricately upwards were attached to an equally enormous head that swayed calmly from side to side. The massive trunk hung down from its face, almost reaching the ground but curling up just above it. The tip of the trunk sniffed the cold, early winter air.
Behind this gigantic shape another appeared. And another. He counted ten animals as they walked passed his shelter unaware of him. And it was as he had thought: they walked in single file. The ground now heaved with their gate.
Ge-ort detached himself mentally from all unnecessary thoughts. He needed to concentrate on his goal. His initiation stood or fell with the next few moments. And he was not going to return to the village having to spend another year among the women and children. He was not a child anymore.
Ge-ort reached for the spear lying next to him. Without giving away his presence he checked the leather strap that held the stone tip in place. He checked the tip itself. It was as sharp as he had been able to get it after a week of hacking and scraping. It had to do, there was nothing more he could do about it. He grabbed the spear tightly without letting his grip get too tense. The spear had to become part of him, as if it had become an extension of his arm. His father had taught him the technique to no longer view the spear as a tool separate from the body, but as an extra limb that moved to your will without conscious thought.
The herd of mammoths slowly trundled past. Ge-ort waited till the last had cleared his shelter. Then he slipped from under the old mammoth skin. He had picked his target when they were passing by and now he trotted as silently as he could after the enormous animals. They had not noticed him yet. Their booming footsteps masked his pattering feet. He matched their rhythm as much as he could. As he reached the hindmost animal he began to sprint.
He passed the old mammoth cow that brought up the rear. He had set his sights on the animal walking directly in front of her. It was a magnificent young bull, only just full grown. Before the animals knew what had happened, he had ended his sprint with a long jump. He had launched himself towards the flank of the young bull mammoth. As soon as he felt the impact his left hand gripped a good size tuft of mammoth hair and for a moment he just hung there, dangling by one arm. His other arm hung down and it was all he could do to not lose his spear and at the same time keep it away from the mammoth’s side. There was no sense in spooking the animal more than he had already done. Not yet anyway.
As soon as the young bull had felt the impact of the small, slender creature against his flank, he raised his trunk and bellowed. The other animals reacted instantly. Panic erupted and they started to run. They thundered across the tundra, their mighty feet pounding the frozen earth.
Ge-ort knew he couldn’t hold on much longer. Still holding his spear he brought his right hand up and grabbed another tuft of hair, while frantically holding on to the spear as well. Losing his spear would mean the end of the hunt. Quickly he used his left hand to grab a higher part of the mammoth’s greasy pelt. Slowly he pulled himself up hand over hand towards the top of this moving mountain.
Finally he reached the sloping ridge that was the spine of the mammoth. The other animals had formed a protective circle around the young bull, but they kept at a distance, unsure of what to do. The bull continued to gallop.
Ge-ort knew what he had to do. After catching his breath for a mere second or two, he scrambled along the heaving back of the animal towards the front. He had to use extreme caution to not lose his balance or grip. The back of the animal was surprisingly thin and bony. It was a far from comfortable ride. He scrambled on until he reached the shoulders of the animal. There it was easier to use both his legs and his arms to gain purchase. He positioned his legs on either side of the young bull’s neck and then he pressed as hard as he could. One day this animal would become the leader of this herd, Ge-ort thought. It was a large animal, and although young and inexperienced, he already had the muscle tone and attitude to one day become the undisputed head bull. Ge-ort’s legs could only barely hold on to the thick neck of the animal.
He held on, precariously, some 14 feet above the hard tundra floor. With his left hand he grabbed the thick pelt of the mammoth while his legs squeezed the neck of the animal. He readied his spear which lay firmly in his right hand. For a moment he almost lost his balance but he managed to regain it. His heart was pounding and he took a few seconds to calm himself. Breathe! He instructed himself. Concentrate!
The first jab was not noticed by the young bull mammoth. The spear hadn’t even penetrated the thick woolen undercoat of the animal. Ge-ort used a little more force on his next jab into the right side of the animal’s neck. He had to judge the jabs just right. He had to use enough force to cause pain but not so much that he would actually wound the animal.
With a frightful roar the trunk came up. The animal shook with the force of it. Ge-ort hit the trunk with his spear and the trunk moved down. Again he stuck the spear in the mammoth’s neck. Again the trunk came up. This time Ge-ort used all his strength to hit the trunk. The mammoth had to learn not to try and swat this musquito off his back.
At the fourth stab the mammoth changed course. It veered left to get away from those annoying stabs to his neck. Ge-ort stabbed again. A little less forcefully now to reward the animal for veering left. The bull mammoth went to the left a little more.
The other animals, confused by the erratic behaviour of the young bull, ran on in a disorganised rout. Then they stopped at a distance to watch what was happening.
The young bull also stopped. His eyeballs almost fell from their sockets, he was that afraid of the strange creature on his back. A sabretooth or some other predator would have administered the killing bite by now. This two legged monster seemed to have other plans. A sharp pain in his back, near to his spine, forced him to start moving again. The mammoth tried to shake off the pesky bully on his back. But the bully was hanging on.
A jab in the left side of his neck made him move right, and right again. They were now galloping back to where they had come from. The animal was wild with fear. What ever he tried, the pest on his back was impossible to get rid of. Another jab in his spine made him run faster. The mammoth wanted to run back to the safety of the herd, but at every attempt to turn towards his companions, he felt a sharp pain on the opposite side. He decided to run straight as this seemed the least painful.
Suddenly the young bull saw more two legged animals standing on the tundra. At first they were hard to distinguish through the thick curtain of snow. But quickly the mammoth and his rider closed in on the group of figures, who were shouting and waving their spears excitedly. Suddenly the group dispersed and a path formed between them. The mammoth went for it and at full speed he thundered through the gap between the two groups of creatures. He forced a little more speed out of his exhausted body to leave the group behind as quickly as possible.
Ge-ort had left his lofty position as soon as the mammoth had reached the other hunters. They had all seen how he had directed the mammoth left and right and how he had navigated the young bull through the gap they had formed. He felt he had shown his worth and the excitement and the physical strain of holding on to the mammoth in full gallop had exhausted him. He had scrambled back to the back of the animal. This was to be the least elegant part of the initiation. There was no elegant way of dismounting a mammoth at full clip.
Luckily the young bull had slowed a little. He was winded and almost at the end of his strength. He still moved at a respectable trot though. Ge-ort threw his spear on the ground and he watched as the spear tumbled over and over in a wild, uncoordinated dance. Finally the spear came to rest. He swallowed. That would be him in a few seconds. He knew of initiations that had gone well until this moment, many still ending in mutilation or death of the aspiring hunter.
Ge-ort tried to judge the right moment. He tuned his body to the movement of the mammoth. At the next downward move of the trot he closed his eyes and let go.
The moment he hit the hard tundra floor he tried to roll away and did his best not to think of the massive legs of the mammoth and what would happen if a hind leg would hit him. The forward speed made him half tumble, half roll. Finally he lay still. His breathing came in erratic gasps. But he was alive! Slowly it dawned on him what he had accomplished.
He sat up, still dizzy from the tumbling and rolling. He touched a few painful spots but his limbs all seemed to work. The first to reach him was his father, who carried his spear. Ge-ort got up, painfully and groggily. His father beamed at him and presented his spear to him. Then they hugged. The other hunters followed suit. With every hug, Ge-ort’s face grimaced in pain while his aching body was squeezed and prodded, but he felt pride swell in his chest. He had become a hunter! In the distance he saw the mammoth. A vague, nebulous form that blew white clouds into the freezing tundra air.
“You are both exhausted,” his father said as he placed an arm around his son. “Come, let’s go home.”
They walked off, followed by the excited troupe of hunters. They went back to their village. A village that had gained a hunter.