Today, as ten millennia ago, a naked man walks through mist to a tall pine tree, and embraces it as if it was a long lost brother of his.
In a way it is.
The pine is worn smooth, the rough dark red bark gone, the pale flesh underneath sticky with sap, where the naked man embraces it; the sap makes a tearing sound as he pulls away.
Above him, where the first branches of the pine spread, long and heavy with needles and water, there is a branch-stump on which is a skull, looking downwards, at the naked man and the worn path behind him.
It is the skull of a great bear, with teeth as knives, whiteness as fresh snow, dark eye-holes as the dark river of death herself.
It is not the tree that the naked man greets, but the skull; and it is not the skull that he greets, but the spirit of the great bear, brought down and nailed to its high perch; the great king of animals and men, the star-born old god of the forest, whose skull, with roars given, flesh in the feast eaten, with piety up put, makes this a place of silence and holiness.
And as the man pulls away from the bear-tree’s embrace, shadows near as tall as the pines round him move, round him. They are shadows of hair, and teeth, and claw. They are memory, and future, and sideways in place as well as in time; they are a whisper of the bear, that walks this dark wood as it always has, always will.
The man is not afraid.
Some day the bears will come for him, in a line that pours out of the dark door of night. Some day the forest-army will come for him, and he will gladly go with it; to live as a shadow among the stars, where the father of bears came from, long before the birth of the fathers of man. The Sun’s a drop of honey, the Moon’s a splash of water; every star in the hall of night is a bear-eye, watching. One day the man will walk with those stars.
But this is not that day. Not the bear-day; not the dark door-day; not the day that the endless looping column of kings in pelt and bone come for him.
This is just a day in a shaman’s life, much as any other day.
He sighs, and goes to fix himself breakfast.
The night is still dark; the forest ever darker still; but there are no terrors there for the brother of the bear.
* * *
Ethnological hogwash? Why yes. Horribly mauled and misinformed distortions and lurid inventions of pseudo-Finnish paganism? Absolutely.
Was fun to write, though.
(“And the bears; bah, fear not the bears, small one. What know ye of fear? Fear is for the long winter, when the white walkers come, and bears sleep forever. Fear is for when the albino moose come…”)
(Er, apologies to George R. R. Martin for that.)