In Which the Future Is a Dream
R iver City Clan remained encamped on the stone ledge as winter deepened across the valley. A few days after the arrival of the new clan members, Kit noticed that at daybreak each morning all the younger males left the warmth and shelter of the rock ledge and disappeared into the wood. They returned an hour or so before sunset, but try as he might, he received no answer to his admittedly clumsy attempts to find out what they were doing.
Very obviously, they were not hunting-Dardok and two of the women continued their hunting and scavenging forays on suitable days, as they had since coming to the winter shelter. Whatever they were up to, it was not about providing food for the tribe. Finally, when Kit had become absolutely eaten up with curiosity, he went to En-Ul, who since his arrival had hived himself up in robes and furs at the far side of the ledge, where he spent his days overlooking the fog-bound river far below.
“I am sorry to bother you, En-Ul,” Kit said, announcing his presence with a polite cough. He was learning, when speaking to clansmen, to try to make simple declarations while holding the images or concepts at issue forcefully in his mind.
The old one stirred and turned a bright eye on Kit. Be welcome here, Ghidt, came into Kit’s consciousness.
The response surprised Kit; not because it was unusual in itself, but because he had not given his name to the Clan elder, or heard anyone else speak it aloud in his presence. He must have picked it up from one of the others by way of the mental radio they all shared.
“I have come with a question,” Kit said, settling in beside the old chieftain. “The young men,” he continued, picturing the ones he meant as they had appeared that morning when he saw them leave the camp. “Where do they go? What do they do all day?”
Kit received back an image of the young males along with a sense of doing… of work… of dedicated labour- they make with purpose, was how he interpreted the concept; along with this came the notion of bestowal… of presentation… of offering allied to the personal designation- En – Ul.
Linking all this together, Kit tried out this interpretation: “They are making a gift for you?”
This received the standard grunt Kit associated with satisfaction-a yes. The old one held Kit’s gaze in his own, and with a slow, deliberate action, placed the flat of his palm on Kit’s forehead. The touch was rough and heavy, but warm. Instantly, into Kit’s mind came the image of a sort of house or shelter of extraordinary design-the most unusual dwelling Kit had ever seen: a house made all of bone.
“They are making a house of bones?” Kit said, half in surprise, half in question. “For you?”
Again, the grunt of satisfaction as En-Ul removed his hand.
They sat for a moment in silence, then Kit received the sensation he had come to associate with the interrogative-a question-and with it the concept of sight, or seeing. “Do I want to see it?” he said aloud. “Yes,” he said quickly. “I would see it.”
“E – li, ” the old one said, his voice low as a rumble of thunder, and into Kit’s mind came the image of sunlight flooding the horizon, allied with the concept of something unseen, yet present, along with expectation bordering on certainty… the future?
This kept him occupied for some little while. “Tomorrow?” Kit guessed, holding in his mind the image of a rising sun-the new day that would be.
“Unh,” grunted En-Ul. The day that is soon becoming.
“I will go with the young ones tomorrow,” he confirmed, picturing himself leaving with the group as they went out the next morning.
“Unh,” grumbled the old chief again.
The next morning, when the young males rose and made ready to depart-arraying themselves with skins worn like capes and wrapping their feet against the snow and cold-Kit did likewise, joining them in their preparations. There were four of them this morning, and they acknowledged his presence with sniffs and nods, and the leader-a large male Kit had begun calling Thag for no particular reason other than he bore an uncanny resemblance to a cartoon character Kit knew-patted him about the head and shoulders in a gesture Kit had come to understand as a sign of friendly greeting; adults often used the same behaviour with the children. As soon as Kit was ready, they picked up their stout, stone-bladed spears and set off.
The track they followed down into the valley was well trod now, the shin-deep snow crushed down by the passing of many feet over the last few days, and it squeaked as they walked. Once again Kit marvelled at the easy grace of the big creatures as they strode along. The trail led down to a bluff only a few dozen yards above the river; the ice at the edges caught the light of the rising sun and gleamed. A few more days of such cold and Kit would not be surprised to see it frozen over entirely.
They paused to rest a few moments and to listen and scent the air. At first Kit wondered about this, but it came to him that this behaviour was a simple defensive action: they were making certain they were not being stalked by one of the large predators that roamed the valley-a lion, say, or wolves. But this day they were not to be challenged, so they moved on.
In a little while the narrow track began to rise, and soon they were walking next to the sheer limestone curtain. Kit enjoyed the exertion. It felt good to stir the blood, feel the cold air in his lungs, and move around after lolling around camp. Silent as shadows, save for the squeak of their feet on the crisp snow, they moved, up and up, following the contours of the undulating wall.
The trail grew narrow and steep, and soon they had climbed out of the valley altogether and onto the thick-wooded plain above. Thag paused at the rim of the gorge to scent the cold air and listen. The forest stretched before them, draped in heavy blankets of snow, softening all sound to a muted hush. From somewhere in the dark wood’s depths Kit heard the keening cry of a hunting hawk and the soft plip-plop of snow dropping from branches.
Assured that there was no danger, the group continued, following the deeply entrenched trail into the wood. Here and there Kit spied animal tracks crossing the trail: the small traces of mice and rabbits and the larger tracks of ferret, marmot, and some of the smaller antelope-like animals. Once he saw what must have been the tracks of one of the larger predators they were trying to avoid-either lion or wolf, he could not tell, but his companions would know, and they did not seem to pay them any mind.
If not for the ribbon of beaten-down snow, Kit would have quickly lost his way; the wood was dark and wreathed in hoarfrost and frozen mist. Abruptly, they arrived at a crease in the land-a little canyon formed by a tributary that carried spring melt and summer rain into the larger valley. Here the canyon formed a cliff with a sheer drop of fifty or sixty feet. The group did not linger at the edge but continued along the rim for a way until they came to a defile leading down to the bottom of the dry streambed. They followed the defile as it curved around and back to the cliff.
And there, directly below the sheer drop, lay a fantastic heap of bones. Devoid of flesh, and partially covered with snow, they made a stark white-on-white mound at the bottom of the streambed. All at once, Kit understood what he was looking at: a crude but brutally efficient method of hunting that consisted of driving the fleeing prey over a cliff, where they would either be killed by the fall or injured and finished off by the hunters. Judging by the massive tangle of carcasses, the River City Clan had been using this kill zone for some considerable time.
There were bones of all kinds: some big as dinosaur bones-though Kit was fairly certain there were none of those around… mammoths, then?… or mastodons maybe, were those the same?-all jumbled together with those of elk, deer, and antelope; and some that looked like they might have come from giant oxen or buffalo-definitely bovine in nature-and even some from horses.
Without any discussion-there never was any, in fact-the clansmen began dragging the larger bones from the heap, disentangling them and reforming them into a smaller, more ordered heap. Why some bones were chosen and others discarded, Kit could not readily tell, but he joined in all the same. The work party soon sorted out a number of sizeable piles; then, using the ropes made of braided hemp they had brought with them, they bound the bones into bundles. These unwieldy collections were then heaved onto their shoulders and muscled up out of the defile.
When all the bones had been trundled up out of the graveyard, each clansman hefted a bundle or two onto his back and trudged off into the wood once more. Kit could only manage to lift the smaller bundle he himself had made, but picked that up and followed his companions walking single file into the dark, snow-clotted forest and to a clearing that was suspiciously circular in nature-an almost perfect circle, which Kit concluded had been made somehow by the clan. He could not determine how they could have achieved this, lacking anything but simple stone axes. Yet here it was: an almost perfect circle sixty feet or so in diameter, surrounded by tall pines and larches, but offering a clear and unobstructed view of the sky overhead.
And in the precise centre of the clearing: the Bone House.
Kit recognised it at once as the dwelling made of bone that En-Ul had pictured for him-a simple, mound-shaped hut formed of the interlocked skeletons of all manner of animals. There were no windows as such, and but a single low tunnel for a door, over which hung the entire skull of a giant elk with splayed antlers big as palm branches. The lintels of this door were solid ivory in the form of two enormous curving mammoth tusks. More elephant tusks lined the foundation of the house, whose framework was made up of the most fantastical conglomeration of skeletal fragments: pelvises, spines, leg bones, vertebrae, and rib bones by the score; there were skulls from more than a dozen different creatures-deer of several kinds, as well as bison, aurochs, and horses, sheep and antelope, what looked like dog or wolf, and even that of a horned rhinoceros. These were the ones Kit thought he recognised, but there were as many more that he could not readily identify.
Taken as a whole, the bizarre structure possessed a distinctly eerie, alien air. The work party began untying their bundles and fitting the bones they had brought into chinks and gaps in the structure, and Kit imitated their example, finding places to work in what he had brought. They laboured with purpose and in silence. When one or the other got thirsty, he would go outside the clearing to eat handfuls of snow, then return to continue working. When the last bone from the bundles had been placed, it was back to the kill zone for another load.
Three more trips to the bone heap for materials brought them to the end of their labours. The short winter day was hastening on, and the workers were growing hungry-at least Kit was starving, and he imagined the clansmen, who appeared to require more than twice as much to keep them going, must have been ready to eat the trees.
Thag stood back, coiling his hemp rope and regarding the Bone House, his big shaggy head held to one side in the precise manner of a carpenter inspecting his handiwork. It was such a classic pose, Kit smiled to see it. Thag gave a grunt that signified satisfaction and turned away. Now that the official verdict had been received, the others grunted too, and the group departed, making their long way back through the forest. The returning labourers ate a hearty meal and, exhausted with the good fatigue of useful work, went to sleep. Kit drifted off too; but if he imagined a restful day to follow, he was mistaken.
For just before sunrise he was awakened by a touch on his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see En-Ul crouching beside him. Into his mind came a possessive urging he understood as: Attend me.
The old chief turned away and Kit followed, moving silently through the sleeping camp. The night’s fire had burned to embers, and the sky still held a sprinkling of stars sharp as ice crystals in the cold, cold heavens. They picked their way carefully down from the ledge and found the well-marked trail leading up out of the valley. Within a few minutes of leaving the settlement, Kit realised their destination was the Bone House, and for one who had been carried into the camp, the aged En-Ul surprised Kit with his stamina. They paused only twice to rest and catch their breath-once halfway up the trail and once at the top of the gorge-and arrived in the forest clearing as the sun rose above the trees.
In the thin winter light the strange edifice glowed with a pale and alien pallor-a white mound set in a snow-white field-taking on a ghostly, almost ethereal aspect as if constructed not of bones but of the mammalian spirits of the creatures themselves. A profound apprehension crept like the stealthy cold into Kit’s soul. This curious shelter had been erected for a purpose, and it was for that purpose they had come.
En-Ul turned to him and, gazing into Kit’s eyes, willed him to understand. Kit received an impression of immense importance, of an unfathomable weight of consequence, a significance of unimaginable magnitude-as if whole worlds of significance converged in this place. There was no single word for it, but the force of the concept struck him with an urgency that was as powerful as hunger and thirst.
Kit, trying hard to understand, was overwhelmed by the thought that had been conveyed. “Why have we come here?” he asked aloud.
The old one tilted back his head and looked at the pale white sky for a moment. Then, returning his gaze to Kit, breathed into Kit’s mind the image of living things of many kinds-the creatures of the forest, the entire forest itself, whole Stone Age tribes-combined with a feeling of swimming against the strong flow of the river, or struggling against a powerful grinding, uncompromising force bent on mindless destruction: survival.
Their presence at the Bone House had something to do with the survival of themselves and their world, was how Kit explained it to himself; and although he could not see how this was so, he did not doubt En-Ul’s sincerity.
As soon as this thought had passed through Kit’s mind, the ancient chieftain turned and walked to the entrance of the Bone House. He paused at the low doorway and stood for a moment, then raised his hand and placed the palm on the forehead of the skull of the giant elk, and bowed his own head in a gesture Kit had never seen one of them make before. Then, bending low, he entered the bone hut, beckoning Kit to follow.
Inside, the bones formed a dome-shaped room of weird, undulating design lit only by the watery winter daylight that found its way through the chinks and crevices of the interlocking bones. The floor was packed snow over which pine branches had been spread, and these piled with skins and furs. Kit saw that a small cache of food-dried meat and berries-and little heaps of snow for water had been set aside.
En-Ul crawled in and sat himself cross-legged in the centre of the room. He looked around and gave a grunt of satisfaction, as if approving of the finished product. Then, when Kit had sat down across from him, he addressed himself to conveying what was about to happen.
In imitation of the old one, Kit crossed his legs and pulled furs around him as into his mind came the image of himself asleep-as seen by one of the clan, perhaps-and then immediately, a sort of curious sensation of flying, of actually having wings and soaring high on the wind… dreaming?
This thought met with a satisfied grunt, and instantly Kit felt once again the immense, bottomless ocean of consequence-only this time it was an ocean, a vast tidal stream in endless flux… time?
“Dreaming time,” Kit said aloud, although strictly speaking, this did not make any sense to him at all.
The mental contact faded, evaporating into the ether, and En-Ul closed his eyes. His breathing altered, his body relaxed, and soon Kit realised that the old one was asleep.
When nothing more happened, Kit crept from the Bone House and went out to the perimeter of the circle to relieve himself. The day was growing blustery; a sharp wind, rising out of the north, was soughing through the tall pines all around. The pale sky was darker now with heavy, snow-laden clouds. There was a storm on the way; he could smell the metallic tang on the air. They would have to go back to the shelter of the rock ledge soon, but he was reluctant to disturb the Ancient One’s sleep. Kit did not know what to do, but one thing was certain-he did not care to be out in the forest alone. It was not safe.
Kit returned to the Bone House. En-Ul was, if possible, even more deeply asleep than before. Kit settled down to wait, but after what seemed like an age of doing nothing more than listening to the old chieftain’s deep and regular breathing, he grew too anxious to put off leaving any longer. He took the furs he had been using and wrapped those around En-Ul’s body. Wishing his sleeping companion well, he departed.
Running, jogging, floundering through the snow, Kit scrambled back to the safety of the valley encampment, arriving as the last light faded into twilight mist. The River City Clan greeted his return with grunts of recognition and seemed to accept his absence as a matter of little interest. Kit sought out Dardok, thinking to gain an explanation of what had taken place that day. Holding an image of the Bone House firmly in mind, he said, “En-Ul sleeps there.”
This appeared to be understood-as least so far as Kit could discern-for it met with a snort of gruff acknowledgement.
“He says he is dreaming time,” Kit continued, pushing his luck. “Is that so?”
Dardok’s expression grew opaque, and he grumbled low in his throat-a sign of dissatisfaction. And that was that. The discussion went no further. It confirmed what Kit already knew: whatever faculty En-Ul possessed that allowed him to communicate with Kit, the others did not have it, or at least not to the same degree.
Later Kit ate and, unaccountably tired from his exertions, crawled off to sleep in his customary place. But sleep eluded him. For a long time, he lay pondering the possible meaning of the concept dreaming time. What could it mean?
Wrapped in fur against the cold, Kit stared past the glowing red embers of the dying fire into the fathomless sea of darkness beyond as into a daunting future. His mind, filled with the strangeness and wonder of the Bone House, conjured a vision.
He saw a full moon rising over a high windswept plain, its silvery light illuminating a curving slice of river cradled in a shallow bowl of a valley. The great round moon poured down its light as it passed overhead, and the stars wheeled slowly in the sky until it sank again below the western horizon.
All was dark then… but only for a moment. Before Kit could blink, the moon rose again, faster this time, passing over the bend in the river once more. The moon soared and sank, only to repeat the process again and yet again. With every repetition the moon flew faster, its rising and setting merging into a single fluid tracery of light, a shining arc across the limitless star field. This bright arc widened, expanding into a luminous band encircling the wandering earth.
Out on the plain he saw a mountain rising in the distance, white and ghostly in the silver moonlight. The mountain rose higher, and Kit saw that it was moving, slowly, inexorably, following the course of the river, which now ran with chunks of ice. With the mountain came snow. Kit could see the drifts deepening over the landscape, spreading, merging, covering the land, covering the rocks and trees, filling the valley, covering everything. And still the snow fell-as if the inexhaustible vaults of winter had opened and poured out their unending store upon the world below.
And all the while the mountain lurched nearer, a glacier on the move, growing even as it came, driving all before it: trees, rocks, boulders, entire hills. On and on it came, tearing, grinding with the low rumble of constant thunder, annihilating everything that fell beneath the massive wall of its leading edge, gouging the land, carving deep into the soft soil of the river valley, its stupendous weight forming new hills on either side, shaping landscapes as it passed.
And still the ice mountain grew, spreading as it came; it stretched now from horizon to horizon, gathering cold, draining the rivers, lowering the seas, leaching moisture from all it touched, from the very atmosphere until the air became dry and brittle, and still it grew, shimmering with a terrible majesty beneath the brilliant band of light that was the ever-racing moon: a continent of ice on the move, pushing up mountains, slicing out canyons, tilting the earth with its passing.
More images wheeled before Kit’s unblinking eyes: an endless line of enormous woolly mammoths staggering across a plain drifted high with wind-whipped snow… fire falling from the sky in burning chunks the size of boulders, setting the hills ablaze… an ocean locked tight, its waves thrashed into hard, motionless peaks… bony carcasses of starved creatures piled in a frozen bog… a bear on its hind legs gnawing at the bark of a tree… a man, woman, and two infant children dressed in wolf skin and forever huddled in a frozen embrace… a high mountain pass leading down to lands yet green, lands that had not felt the bitter sting of killing cold… and more, faster and faster until one image could not be distinguished from another.
Reeling from what he had seen, Kit closed his eyes, but the images persisted, flickering through his consciousness in a mist of motion and light: fusing, swirling, all detail muted and lost, merging into a dense, luminous fog that resolved into the Milky Way, the measureless star path of the galaxy. The shining mist slowly dissipated until at last it was swallowed in the end by the eternal darkness of empty space.