The Spirit and the Skull

The Spirit and the Skull

Murder is unthinkable to The People—a Paleolithic tribe crossing Alaska. For The People, among the first undocumented immigrants to enter the Americas, murder isn’t merely tragic, it’s forbidden. Murder poisons ...

About The Author

J M Hayes

J M "Mike" Hayes was born and raised on the flat earth of Central Kansas. He studied anthropology at Wichita ...

Read an Excerpt


My shadow ran ahead of me, winking in and out. Low clouds scraped the top of the rocky slope I struggled to climb, allowing occasional flashes of sunlight. I hurried, bearing important news for my band. Nightmares I already couldn’t remember had forced me from my sleeping robes that morning and sent me racing through the dwarf willows along the banks of a stream filled with glacier melt. I felt desperate to share what I’d discovered on my scout. Why hadn’t I found the band already? They should have come farther than this. What slowed them? If we weren’t well south of this tundra before another vicious winter hit, we’d freeze and starve again.

The slope grew steeper as I scrambled over weathered shale and clawed my way up unstable conglomerate. The peak stood at least twenty times my height. Not something I wanted to climb, especially as the rock on this weathered ridge crumbled beneath me as I put my weight on it. The moss-and-lichen-covered surface tumbled me back down toward the stream, even though I grabbed at it with fresh enthusiasm as the lion followed me out of the willows. He snarled and I attacked the rock face with renewed vigor, grasping any stone that might lift me higher than he could climb.

The lion was old, but still deadly enough to steal my life with one snap of his jaws. A young lion would have brought me down already, though a healthier lion probably wouldn’t have bothered with prey as ancient and scrawny as I. This fellow sported as many gray hairs as gold, tottering after me on aching joints. The wind tore at me, trying to gift me to the starving beast. A sudden burst of chilling rain stole more feeling from my frozen fingers and made the rocks even slicker before racing away to the south.

Fighting the beast was out of the question while I had the option of escaping. So I’d shoved my spear in the rolled-up sleeping robe tied to my pack and slung over my shoulders to free my hands for the climb. Now the foot of its shaft dragged on the rocks and threatened my balance. As I tried to adjust it, my bow began slipping. I grabbed for it. Releasing the cliff put too much weight on my caribou-hide boots. The niche that had held them crumbled. Suddenly, I dangled by one hand over empty air, close to falling and rewarding the old lion in spite of his clumsy stalk.

“No!” I shouted at the lion and the howling wind. “You can’t have me. I’m Raven, Hawk Talon’s son—Spirit Man to Stone’s band, translator of The Mother’s will, messenger for the spirits, and scout for my people. I’ve discovered the pass between the glaciers. Grandfather Eagle swore that it leads to The Mother’s promised land. She won’t let you take me now.”

The cat jumped for me, raking his claws across the stones far below where I hung. The cobbles failed under him, too, but he licked his lips, showing worn teeth, still sharp enough to tear me apart.

I surprised myself by laughing. What a ridiculous situation. Even if The Mother answered my prayer and directed the lion away, it wouldn’t matter. The fall would kill me. Why were the spirits allowing this when I’d learned so much my band needed to hear?

The wind slacked and I twisted back to the rock face, saw a solid-looking stone, and grabbed it with my bow-encumbered hand. My feet swung back to the crevasse that had failed me moments before. It was deeper now. It took my feet and accepted its share of my weight. My perch felt safe again…for the moment.

Exhausted, shaking from my brush with death, too many years, and too little sleep, I hugged the rock, drawing strength from Grandmother Earth. Gradually, my breathing and pulse returned to normal. I looked up. I was almost at the top. Places for hands and feet were everywhere. I would test them carefully, calm myself, and climb this last bit more intelligently than I had the first. My right foot explored the surface and found a stone it couldn’t stomp free. My left foot lifted to another. My hands felt above. Here. Here. Over there. In moments, my shadow and I lay safe atop the peak.

The sun must have grown curious to see how I was doing. I shook my fist at him. “All right, no thanks to you.”

When I looked down, the lion had vanished. I thought he might be searching the ridge for an easier way up. But there was nothing between me and its slopes to hide him. He must have crept back into the tangle of dwarf willows. They were dense enough to mask him, but from this angle, I might be able to see a beast that size moving through them.

And then, there he was, bolting from the willows on the other side of the stream. Moving faster and with more determination than when he’d chased me. Another gust of wind rolled across the willows and I saw why. A great bear stood near the stream’s bank, head raised, his eyes looking straight at me. The willows closed back over him and I watched the lion flee toward distant green hills, the pain in his joints forgotten in his eagerness to avoid the great bear.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so upset with the spirits. If I hadn’t needed to avoid the elderly cat I might have run straight into the bear. I’d been scraped, scratched, and badly frightened, but I was alive.

I checked the willows again, hoping to see which direction the bear was going. Upstream, I’d thought. But if I was wrong, I’d have a far better chance of living long enough to deliver my messages by staying on this ridge.

I spun in a slow circle searching for some sign of my band and found nothing, not unless some of those distant clouds were smoke from our fires. I couldn’t tell, but the band had to be somewhere in that direction. I scrambled over a few prominent boulders, found the gravel surface that topped these ridges, and began running again.

Grandfather Eagle’s visit to our camp is among my first childhood memories. The famed old Spirit Man traveled among The People during my fifth summer, persuading us to make this journey. The Mother had appeared to him in visions and shown him a new land where rolling prairies lay, filled to overflowing with the herds that grazed them. There, we’d find mountains rich in game and beauty, lakes and great rivers bountiful with fish and fowl. Grandfather Eagle told us that land had gentle winters and warm summers. Rains watered abundant grass, fruit and nut trees, and bushes hung thick with sweet berries in their season. The Mother, he explained, had told him The People should go and claim it. We would grow fat, raise many children, and dominate our enemies. The land she showed Grandfather Eagle was nearly empty—waiting for our arrival. The journey would be difficult and take many years. We must travel north and east across country that was cold and unforgiving before finally turning south and eventually reaching the place of her bountiful gift. Grandfather Eagle explained that we had no choice. The Mother would no longer smile on us if we failed to accept. She’d abandon us then and give her promised land to another tribe. Well, I’d lived more than forty summers and we were still on our way. But now, within reach. I’d found the pass between the mountains of ice. Finally, we could go south, leave this cold, cruel, but hauntingly beautiful land.

The cloud’s mists chilled me as my running shadow came and went. The rocks bruised my feet, even encased in my tough skin boots, freshly stuffed and padded with soft grasses that morning. Rolling, deceptively beautiful meadows surrounded my path on every side. They seemed an inviting place to run. Up close, I knew they were harsh and uncaring places.

The meadows below, stretching from horizon to horizon, were sedges. Great clumps, tussocks that grew like the spray that forms when a heavy stone is thrown in water. Only the center of each clump could be walked on. The earth beneath never fully melted. In between lay mud. Or deep holes where frozen ice wedges melted—hidden traps to catch the careless. They might only swallow a man’s foot and fill his boot with chilling muck, or they could use his momentum, grab a leg, and snap bone.

From the path along the ridge, I could see the ice wedges, regular multi-sided lines around segments of grass. But from the height of a man’s eyes, the wedges and their holes, as well as the weak edges of clumps that might merely trip you, became nearly invisible. At least until you started crossing the tundra and the meadow revealed its true nature. If that wasn’t sufficient, the tundra housed enough mosquitoes to bleed a man dry, or drive him mad, in moments.

Our band tried to avoid traveling across these tundra prairies. We preferred the twisting courses of streams and adventures encountered among the willows. At least their groves supplied edible plants and small game as well as hiding the beasts that hunted man. Where the willows grew, no more than half again a man’s height, the soil drained and we could walk rather than stumble. They couldn’t hide mammoths or mastodons. Nor great bears, if they stood on their hind legs. But great bears traveled on all fours.

A great bear is surprisingly nimble and can move with hardly any sound. Not enough to be heard by a man absorbed in the conversation between wind and willows, or of water and stones. I might step around a clump of bright green leaves and find   a bear, even a small bear, and die quickly. Safety among the willows could only be achieved by traveling in a well-armed group. Then, we might stop a bear. Or better still, persuade it to search for easier prey.

We traveled these ridges when they went where we wanted. The rocky soil drained well—no mud and rare ice. Best of all, the wind swept away most of the mosquitoes, making ridges near streams ideal camping spots. This ridge curved a little, but offered a surprisingly even path in the direction I wanted to go.

I followed it, settling into an easy pace that ate the distance I’d traveled on my scout.

I carried good news, important news. First, the pass between the glaciers. Then I’d found a family. They’d paused in The People’s great migration, waiting to see whether their child, who’d slipped and fallen into a deep pool, would live or die. Die, I feared. Still, I’d bent to sprinkle him with pollen and blow good air into his tiny lungs. He hadn’t responded. He still breathed, but when I peeled his eyelids back, no one remained behind them. I thought his spirit had already left his little body. I didn’t tell his family. I gave them my sympathy and left them with good wishes. They already knew better. They just weren’t ready to admit it to themselves.

They’d fed me, both food and information. Their own band had gone ahead two days before. Their scout had also found the place where the herds moved south through the mountains and the ice. A passage, they thought, and so did I. Summer still ruled the tundra. The sun burned all day, though sometimes behind clouds of icy rain and snow. Before long, the sun would desert this land, giving way to winter. Then the sun would leave for what seemed like forever. Our band had lost four elders and six children to last winter’s long cold night. And a woman in childbirth. We suffered, with never enough to eat or enough fuel to keep us warm.

Two elders, Sings While He Works and Hungry Woman, chose to “go hunting” in the snowy dark because they were no longer productive enough and because we didn’t have sufficient food. Both those elders were younger than I.

A boy and a girl went with them, One Arm and Walks in Darkness. Those children left because one had a withered limb and the other could hardly see. They also drained us, failing to earn their keep. Though what child ever did? Or what adult, on every day in every season? Our band leader, Stone, spent long hours staring at me, considering my worth and age as he made his choices—deciding who to not-so-gently persuade that the time had come to die for the good of the rest. Another hard  winter on this tundra and he might decide I should go scouting in the frozen night, even if my skills hadn’t begun to desert me. I was old, so it might not matter whether I was the band’s best scout and still a skilled hunter. I could no longer outrun the young men, but I could run farther. I knew herbs and potions. Best, I read the signs the spirits sent us. I cajoled them, or appeased them, or caused them to look on our band and do us good instead of harm. But Stone had begun to doubt me last winter, when the storms wouldn’t stop and our food was nearly gone. That was when Stone walked among the band considering who should live and who could be done without.

It has always been the custom of The People to cull themselves when necessary. Stone and his followers argued that they, the ones who produced the most, needed more food than the rest of us. There was truth in that, but I always felt we should have shared more equally and then all of us could have survived the winter. Those elders and crippled children hadn’t reached a point where they contributed nothing. I spoke up about it. I told stories of heroic sacrifice and remarkable deeds from unexpected sources. It didn’t stop the four from going into the snow, and it made Stone complain openly about what I provided for the band. After finding the family, I came across a lone mammoth. She grazed among the willows, a huge old cow, injured and unable to put weight on one of her rear legs. I looked her over closely. She raised her trunk and bellowed, demanding I stay away. Angry in her pain, she threatened me. But her leg and age prevented her from charging. Gray and scared, she could only shamble. If we took her before some other band found her, before she fell and couldn’t get up and wolves or a great bear claimed her, we could harvest all the meat we could carry. Enough for us to push ahead. To push south, without needing to pause so often to hunt to feed ourselves. She might speed our arrival in the land of which Grandfather Eagle spoke.

That mammoth, though her meat would be tough, would also provide her hide to make us another great tent. We needed it. We  were crowded. We’d  lost tents to the savage winds of winter. Many of the remaining were thin and tattered. The cow’s ivory would make fine spear points and arrowheads. Perhaps I could carve a piece in The Earth Mother’s image to honor how she shared her abundance. If so, she might finally notice me again, hear my prayers. She might even smile on me and send me women, as she had before I lost my first carving of her, and the woman who wore it.

By the time I reached the end of the ridge I knew where our band had camped. The sky had blown itself clear of clouds, and smoke blew from a ridge on the other side of the river.

I scrambled down, weaving through the willows to the stream’s bank, stripped off my skins, bundled them with my bedding and weapons, then waded into the icy water.

I shook uncontrollably by the time I emerged from the stream. My manhood had shriveled to nothing and my sack was empty, its contents having gone to hide in the warmth of my body. I was glad Blue Flower and the other women couldn’t see me like this—skinny, old, covered with as many scars as the mammoth cow, and, worse, sexless. Even though I remember more than forty summers, I still wanted young women to smile at me. But I didn’t want them to laugh.

I’m unusual. Most of our band seldom bathed on the tundra. I hated the cold, but I loved the feeling of being clean. Normally, I would have found a warm place on a rock or in the soft grass at the side of the stream where I could stretch out and let the sun dry and warm me, if the mosquitoes cooperated. But not today.

I stacked my possessions on a boulder and briefly considered daubing myself with mud and letting it dry to keep the mosquitoes away. The day was growing warmer and there’d be more of them, especially down here. But I couldn’t afford to sweat and let dried soil revert to grit and gravel that rubbed me raw. Still damp, I struggled into my skins and leather boots, packing them with soft fresh grass for padding. Wet grass, though, cold and not so comfortable. I settled my pack over one shoulder and my bow and quiver on the other.

For a moment, the wind paused. Instead of its moan, I heard another…coming from the ridge that smoked. Human voices. Not moaning, wailing. Crying out in mourning for the dead.

I threw myself through the willows to the place where the sedges began. By then, the wind returned, masking what I’d heard. I used my spear like a walking stick, testing the tussocks and the holes between them. I was in luck. The smoking ridge rose from the false meadow only a dozen bow shots away. I probably shouldn’t have run across it, but what I’d heard added yet another reason to reach my band as soon as possible. I threw myself across the sedges, picking my path.

The mosquitoes found me. Eyes narrowed, mouth closed to keep from inhaling a cloud of them, I danced across the tundra. By the time I reached the bottom of the ridge, I was a mass of welts.

# # #

The band mourned for Tall Pine, one of our leaders. The girl, Down, told me after seeing me cross the spine of the ridge above our camp. Her sharp eyes caught my silhouette against the sky and recognized my gait. She left the wailing women and raging men and met me on the first shelf above camp. It should have been Stone or Bull Hump or Takes Risks—our other leaders. Or at least another competent warrior. Instead, Down’s was the observant eye that picked me out and knew I was no threat.

“It’s Tall Pine,” she told me.

“Dead?” I frowned. “You know better than to name the dead.” “Tall Pine,” she said again.

I shook my head but didn’t repeat my warning. She’d heard me use the names of the dead often enough and was no more frightened of their spirits than I. In fact, I’d never known Down to show less bravery than the most courageous member of our band.

“Murdered,” she added.

I took a deep breath. According to the spirit’s rules, murder made it even more important not to name him. But how could it be murder? The People didn’t kill each other. Not that way.

Men sometimes fought for power or women, though rarely to the death. According to The People’s laws, a formal challenge had to be issued first. And accepted. Then, if someone died, that person had given permission for their life to be taken.

Bands occasionally quarreled and fought and, sometimes, people died as a result. But, again, only after the issuance and acceptance of a formal challenge.

We warred against members of other tribes when they trespassed on our territory or raided. Killing Enemies, who weren’t Persons, wasn’t murder. It was defense of yourself and your band—defense of The People against evil beings whose souls weren’t blessed by The Mother.

The People believed murder—any killing outside of legitimate challenge—was the ultimate crime. The only exception was when the survival of the band required it. Sometimes the old, the ill, or the crippled had to walk away or be ejected so the rest might survive. That had happened in our band last winter, but no one had been forced. Pressured, yes, but they weren’t murdered. They agreed to leave. Nothing was done secretly. Only under the most extreme circumstances would Stone have forced them to go rather than persuaded them to do what was necessary. Under similar circumstances we sometimes put out babies who couldn’t yet care for themselves. But they weren’t People yet. Not until they were old enough to walk and talk and be ceremonially accepted into the band.

Any other killing of someone who hadn’t been challenged, except in self-defense, was murder. Murder rarely happened among The People. I’d heard of only one instance in my lifetime. But when murder did occur, the murderer ceased being human, and thus became fair game for any revenge. And revenge wasn’t an option. It was necessary. While a murderer remained among The People, the spirits would no longer bless us. We would experience hunger and disease and accidents. We believed we would continue suffering until the killer was punished or we, The People, were destroyed.

Down interpreted my silent thoughts as doubt. “Really. He was murdered. Someone stole Tall Pine’s life.”

Mystery Delivered Weekly

The Poisoned Pen Press Newsletter