The Bramble Wolf and the Hunter
Ocanis chose his steps carefully while passing along the path toward the village. A brace of hares hung over one sun-darkened shoulder, a gazelle over the other. As he walked he moved back and forth in a way perfected by long habit to avoid touching the long spines of the scraggly plants that thrust into the path.
In the distance a howl split the air, though the dark of night was still several sunfists off. The hunter laid down his catches and bowed briefly toward the sound, his dark hair brushing the soil. The bramble wolf howled once more before whispering off into the bushes. Ocanis picked up his animals and entered the village.
He went immediately to the shrine of the bramble wolf, the great hunter animal that could become part of the very brush of the plains, and laid his day's catch on the ground. Then again he bowed down to the hard-packed dirt. A shuffling footstep brought him back to his feet as he turned to face the old shaman, Frinam.
"Well done, Ocanis. The bramble wolf is well pleased with the game you bring back to the village."
Ocanis smiled. "Yes, I know." After a pause, he added, "And I am pleased to help the village with my skill."
The old shaman smiled back, a small smile that, nevertheless, wrinkled his face into a thousand creases. As he slowly turned to walk back to the small, open shelter beside the shrine, Ocanis spoke again.
"You need to rest those old feet. When will you be choosing an apprentice? Surely one of the boys must be acceptable for the position.
"Frinam shuffled around to face him again, his eyes hiding in his wrinkles. "I do not choose. The bramble wolf chooses, and he has not sent me one yet.
"Ocanis watched the old man depart then took his catch to the village fire pots.
# # #
Later that evening Ocanis sat with the other hunters around a table in the large communal hut at the center of the village. The dirt floor supported several low tables and the rough cloths that the men sat on. In the corner sat the women, whispering quietly and pausing to refill the men's clay mugs.
The mugs emptied and refilled, the night deepened, the married men left for their homes. Ocanis remained with three others, drinking and talking, bragging.
When Tebbuel spoke, his dark hands couldn't stay still. They moved in wide arcs along with his words. "A couple of years ago I followed a bobcat into the hills. It left huge paw prints for me to follow, and finally I cornered it at the end of a draw. We feinted back and forth, but I didn't dare lose my spear without a clear stab, and he couldn't get by me. Finally in the deep morning I saw my chance. The cat was tiring, so I moved quick. I killed it, speared it through the throat."
"Why didn't you bring the carcass back then?" Lammoth asked.
"I was exhausted by then, too exhausted to carry it. I fell asleep there, and when I woke the scavengers had taken the body."
"And I bet you had a splitting headache and an empty aleskin beside you too." Ocanis laughed.
Tebbuel's protests were lost in the laughter.
Lammoth took his turn. "I went down to the lakes not so long ago. There are good furs there for trapping. But it wasn't a beaver I caught in my trap. I don't even know what it was, though it looked like a small bear...small but not young. It beat the ground and underbrush furiously. I waited for it to tire so I could kill it. But when I killed it, I couldn't get myself to skin and dress it. It seemed sacrilegious somehow, like this bear was someone's god. I built it a cairn and came home empty-handed."
"Well, you've certainly come home like that your share of times."
Lammoth tipped the table and reached out to grab Tebbuel with his long, tough fingers before Shalim pushed himself in between. Shalim and Ocanis managed to pull the two apart.
Later in the evening as the boasts continued with the drinks, Shalim mentioned something he had heard from his brother. "There's a traveler coming our way. He's been staying at the village of Rennet for a while now, and they say he's the greatest hunter ever."
Ocanis stood up, grabbing the back of his chair for balance. "No, I am the greatest hunter ever. Let him try to outhunt me." Something seemed to flash in the corner of his eyes as he said this, but Ocanis assumed it was the affects of the drink.
# # #
In the days that followed, the stories continued to arrive of a mighty hunter who could catch any animal, a hunter so skilled he alone could supply a village with all the meat it needed. The men dreamed of the things they would do if they didn't have to hunt. The ornamented weapons they would carve, the buildings they would add to the village, the women they would pursue, the beers made from hard winter wheat that they would drink. And the women dreamed of the roofs their men would fix, the walls they would expand, the cleaning they would help do, the beautiful things they would trade for.
But Ocanis' friends did not let him forget his boast, that he was a better hunter than this stranger. And never did the thought leave Ocanis' head that he would have to prove his superiority. As he hunted, he always watched for signs of some giant beast or cruel monster to kill and carry home. His hunting suffered for it. Still no other hunter brought in more game than he did, but the difference shrank, and people noticed. When Ocanis drank and talked with his friends, his boasts became louder, and his drinks went down faster. And many nights he fell asleep there at the table, too drunk to stumble to his hut. And the people noticed.
Finally one night as the drinks flowed, the other village hunters challenged Ocanis."You say you're the greatest hunter. But I don't know. The stranger sounds pretty good."
"Damn the stranger. I'm the best." Ocanis slammed his mug on the table.
"You catch lots of animals, Ocanis, but he brings back giant and legendary creatures. You feed quite a few of our village, but he feeds entire villages."
Ocanis jumped to his feet. His shoulders swayed for a moment as he almost fell, but he regained himself and stepped onto a chair. The room fell silent.
"I am the greatest hunter. Let no one doubt it. And I swear by all that's sacred to prove it. Tomorrow I will hunt the bramble wolf."
As he spoke the words, he thought he saw a tall man in one corner, a hunter perhaps, but taller and broader than any man Ocanis had ever known. A smile played across the stranger's face at Ocanis's words. But when he'd made his vow, the stranger seemed to have disappeared.
No one spoke. This was too bold a claim for any immediate reaction. Only shock. Not only was the bramble wolf impossible to catch--it could fade into the brambles of the plains only to reform on a far hilltop--but it was sacred, a spirit the villagers venerated. To hunt it would be sacrilege.
Yet, Ocanis couldn't go back on his promise. His vow had also been sacred, too strong to dare to break. Shoulders slumped as he realized what he'd done, Ocanis descended from his chair and walked out in silence into the night.
# # #
The next morning the hunter Ocanis gathered his spears and set out into the brambles to hunt. He did not return that night or the next.
On the third day, early in the morning, Ocanis returned, his face and arms covered in blood, recent but already drying. He could not, or would not, speak a word. When the villagers had managed to clean him up, they found the source of the blood, a network of thin scratches that crossed his face and upper body.
When they had finished, Ocanis fell into a deep sleep.
That evening it seemed the whole village had gathered outside the communal hut when Ocanis walked stiffly up. He did not wait for anyone to ask, but immediately stepped to the doorway of the hut and turned to speak to the crowd. His voice sounded tired, but it carried a strange power that had not been there before, a sense of some unknown authority.
"Have no doubts. I captured the bramble wolf."
There were a few gasps of surprise, but many more snorts of derision and doubt. Ocanis gave no sign that he noticed.
"I heard it often the first day. But it stayed far from me, as if it knew what I was doing. I saw other animals, but I ignored them, and by midday they were ignoring me too. I could have walked the bramble paths beside a gazelle, but I kept waiting for my prey.
"Finally at sunset I heard the bramble wolf nearby. I moved silently, and there in the moonlight I saw it. And before the sunlight was gone, I watched it become a part of the tangled brambles that spread before my feet. It made no noise, but it was undeniably gone."
Ocanis stopped to take a drink, and whispers filled the room. He did not mention the other hunter he had thought he saw also among the brambles.
"Early the next morning I saw it again. I followed the wolf into the brambles themselves, and it seemed that I became a part of them as well. I chased the bramble wolf all day, weaving through the undergrowth. Each twisting branch became a trail, the twigs and stems weaving together into an endless labyrinth; the thorns meant nothing, never pierced my skin.
"The day lasted forever. I could feel the sun striking through the thorns, and it seemed to move so slowly; at the time I thought nothing could last so long. At every turn I could sense the bramble wolf ahead, and I always knew which branch to take, but I seldom saw it, could never seem to catch it or cut the distance."
Ocanis paused again, as if retelling the story brought back all the weariness of that day. The people again began to mutter, asking each other if they believed him or not.
"I think it rained during the day, but I'm not sure. That may have only been the delusions of my tiredness. But in the evening the sun certainly was back, and as it set again I saw the bramble wolf. It was near this time, nearer than I'd ever seen it. As it howled at the sky, I leaped through thorns and threw my arms around its muscular neck.
"I've hunted other wolves. I have the pelts to prove it. Their fur can be soft or bristly, but it is undeniably fur. The bramble wolf is not covered with fur. What appears to be fur is all thorn, each hair a briar that pierced my skin. I was not impervious to them at all. I nearly passed out with the pain, though surely none of them bit deep. But I held on and held tight.
"We wrestled. All night long I tried to pin the wolf to the ground, and all night long it tried to escape me, either by breaking my grip or by wounding me. Its claws also were thorns, but sharper and longer and far more deadly. Many times they cut through my face or ripped into my arms and back. But I didn't let go. At times it seemed to become almost human, though a giant even to my size, and it squeezed my chest until I could hardly breathe and beat my head until I nearly passed out. Even then it did not break free, and it shifted back to its wolf form. I thought the day had been long, that time had passed so slowly. That was nothing to the night. Ages crawled by, generations of our people came and went, and the moon had scarcely moved. I grew old and died a thousand times, but I never let go.
"Then as morning came and birds began to sing, the bramble wolf stopped. I did not see it move its mouth, and yet I heard a voice. 'Ocanis, you have wrestled me and not given up. You are a mighty warrior. And yet, I will not allow you to kill me. Instead, return to your village with my blessing.'
"With those words, the bramble wolf tore itself from my arms and disappeared into trails I could no longer follow. I returned home."
The whispers erupted; a lava of shouting filled the room. Finally Tebbuel quieted the others and spoke. "It's a story like we all tell, a boast and nothing more. You've come home unable to catch the bramble wolf, but to save face you've invented this story. Prove me wrong if you can."
"My proof is these scratches that came from the bramble wolf itself. That and its blessing, which you will surely see in the days to come."
Tebbuel stepped beside Ocanis and looked at his face. "They are merely the scratches of thorns and prickers. You could have tripped and scratched your face on the bushes."
Tebbuel's accusation did nothing to break Ocanis's calm. "How else would you expect the scratches of the bramble wolf to look?"
The hunter did not wait for any other questions or accusations, but calmly walked away from the communal hut to find his bed and sleep.
# # #
At sunrise Ocanis made his way to the hut of Frinam, the village shaman. When the old man stepped out nearly a sunfist later, Ocanis stood to greet him. The shaman's eyes shone with genuine pleasure.
"I have heard something of your adventure, Ocanis. Is there some part of it you wish to elaborate to me? Something I can help you understand?"
"Only this, old friend. I have been blessed by the bramble wolf, the scratches on my face proclaiming its favor. I have come to tell you that I am now the shaman of this village."
"Has the bramble wolf chosen you as my apprentice then?" The old man's quiet voice wavered on the final words.
"No. I am no boy to be an apprentice. I am the village shaman. You may challenge me for it. If I lie, surely the bramble wolf will not choose me, and you will live. If I speak the truth..." Ocanis shrugged. "Or you may become my assistant."
Frinam walked up to Ocanis and looked directly into his face. With his fingers he traced the still-bloody scratches down to his neck where his loose shirt covered the rest. Finally after a sunfinger had passed, he stepped away.
"So you see now? The scratches on my face--they tell you the truth of my words?"
"It doesn't work that way. I don't know the truth of what you say. The writing of the gods is never so easy to read, so clear to interpret."
"Then you will fight me? Try to prove whether the god has appeared to me or not?" Ocanis ran the fingers of one hand over the scratches on the back of the other, up his wrist and forearm, as if their pattern could speak through his fingertips.
Frinam's eyes narrowed, and he held a finger as if to touch the scratches again, but instead it simply hung there in the air between them. "What does one do when someone claims to have seen the divine? That is the question, is it not? Your proof is not proof, your words are merely words.
"Ocanis drew in a breath, his chest swelling as if to emphasize his strength, but Frinam smiled at the sight and continued. "Yet I know that the bramble wolf has been preparing you for this. I will help you for now. In a year or two I may challenge you, or I may serve you until my death."
Ocanis released his breath and grabbed the edge of the tent, leaning against its central pole. Then he stood straight again, seeming to take the mantle of the bramble wolf back onto himself, its power and authority, and clasped the arm of the elder shaman.
And so Ocanis became shaman, and his children after him, but not a quiet shaman as the those of the past had been. A hunter-shaman, a priest worthy of the hunter god itself. Yet there were those who still wondered, those who argued he never did meet a god, those who remembered--or remembered stories of--a braggart who drank too much. They murmured these things only in private, and the bramble wolf himself did not enter the village to denounce the hunter-shaman.
A few in the village who remembered that fabled hunter from afar claimed to worship him instead of the bramble wolf, but the hunter-shaman would only smile at their attempts, a secretive smile as if his knowledge of the bramble wolf was knowledge of that hunter as well. And for many years, the villages all around would recall the mighty hunter Ocanis who had once wrestled a god.