hunting tree

He stood in back between his brother and his father, but he really wanted to be nearer to the edge of the cliff. On the journey he’d caught a couple of glimpses of the spectacular view through the trees. From up here they could probably see all the way to where the big rivers came together – the place they would meet with the other families at the end of summer. On his toes, he could at least spy the fuzzy, purple horizon. At sixteen, Crooked Tree already stood taller than any of his relatives. He was even taller than his brother, Running Deer, who was the strongest and most popular youngster of their whole extended family.

Crooked Tree flexed his legs. His muscles were sore from the travel. Their four-dozen family members had walked for days to arrive at this cliff on a warm spring day, but Crooked Tree had run most of it – back and forth between his father and Talking Bird. Talking Bird led the group and his father brought up the rear. The tall boy was their messenger, repeating each string of words verbatim.

At the front of the group on a black rock, at the very edge of the cliff, Talking Bird explained their duty: “Our people were once herded by the Snake. He kept us as his pets; he watched over us. When we turned sour he culled with a swift bite and a tight coil.”

They had left in a hurry four days before, collecting meager rations and water along the way. Talking Bird had surprised everyone with this trip and had only conferred with Big Bear, who was the natural leader of the clan. Such a trip wasn’t completely unprecedented. As they began their journey, several people remembered another spring day when Talking Bird had uprooted the group and sent them up the hillside just before a flood washed through and destroyed their home camp. The old man was wise and trusted. When his voice broke the still morning everyone straightened and listened.

Crooked Tree tried hard to focus on the old man’s words. Whenever Talking Bird would begin his low, slow cadence, it was all Crooked Tree could do to pay attention. His mind would wander and he’d always miss a crucial part of the message. He’d wait for his father to explain it later. The rest of the group seemed to sense something important. The extended family stood as still as the rocks that dotted the rough clearing. Even the children and babies knew that it was time to stay perfectly quiet.

“When the Man Who Created Himself opened this valley, he stood before the Snake and said ‘We will decide now,’” said Talking Bird.

{pullquote position=left;margin=0em 0.5em 0em 1.5em}Crooked Tree and Running Deer watched their father gather his legs and leap; their elder folded his arms back to his sides and smiled.{/pullquote}

Several heads nodded. At Crooked Tree’s right, Running Deer whooped, punctuating the story.

“But he really meant that he would decide who should come together to bring more children,” Talking Bird reminded the group. “It as much later that we bore that burden.”

“Now our mothers and fathers choose the wisest unions,” said Talking Bird. This was met with more nods from the clan. “And we alone are left to decide when our blood has become poisoned. This is the dream I’ve had.”

Crooked Tree saw less nods at this last line, and many heads dropped. Mothers with young children hugged them close. His own mother wasn’t among those standing in the perfect spring sun. She had died just after Running Deer had weaned. Crooked Tree and his brother had been raised by many of the women standing in the group, and that had made it awkward for him to find any of their daughters attractive. They seemed like his sisters. At the next gathering he planned to find a young woman from another clan and follow her home. That would leave Running Deer able to step into his father’s role eventually without being blocked by him, the older son. He closed his eyes, thought of the approaching summer, and inhaled the beautiful wet edge of the air from the forest behind them.

“We have come to this moment,” said Talking Bird, “when Sun Bringer tells us through our dreams that dark spirits are in our blood, and in the blood of our children. We carry the mark, and it will always be.”

Talking Bird had to raise his voice to be heard over the wails of some of the women. “We may weep, but we have a duty, just as it would be our duty to fill this valley with our children if we ran strong.”

Crooked Tree snuck a glance at his father, Big Bear, to his left. His father’s face showed a mask of grim resolve. He wanted to ask his father what was happening, but Talking Bird wasn’t done with his speech.

“So I ask you to follow me. I will lead the way. Step with me now,” ordered Talking Bird. With his eyes moving across the crowd, Talking Bird took a small half-step backward and then leaned way back until he was almost overbalanced over the cliff edge.

The women’s wails drew to a crescendo as the group began to move.

Before Talking Bird could fall backwards over the edge of the cliff, his extended family rushed forward and threw themselves over the edge. Some mothers clutched their children to their chest before jumping over the ledge. Others threw their babies, tossing them in high arcs past the tumbling bodies.

“Help them,” Big Bear said to his sons.

Bringing up the rear, Big Bear, Crooked Tree, and Running Deer herded the group to their death and waited for stragglers or cowards to bolt away from the edge. Their family was strong and proud and took their duty seriously. In the end, the father and two sons reached the cliff and found no stragglers. Their family lay dead in a bloody heap, hundreds of feet below the black rock where Talking Bird had delivered his final address.

“We are strong,” Big Bear told his sons, “this is a proud day.”

Crooked Tree and Running Deer watched their father gather his legs and leap; their elder folded his arms back to his sides and smiled.

“Let’s go, brother,” said Running Deer.

He still hadn’t figured the whole thing out, but his heart told him that he belonged with the rest of his family, and he should follow them.

They jumped together, feet first, and fell at the same pace. Just over the edge their eyes locked and Running Deer whooped for the last time in his young life.

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