Caribou House

by Stace Dumoski

Domar the Potter squatted on the floor of the mission house, his hands clenched together in an empty prayer, and asked to hear once more the tale of how his bride had been stolen by a god. It wasn’t that he needed to hear the tale again–the details were already ingrained within his mind. What he needed was time, time the telling would allow him, time to consider his course before taking action.

Sirc told the tale, his grief-thick voice barely audible over the mourning of the women. Called by an early-morning chore into the darkness before dawn, he was the only witness to the departure of his sister Antea. None but he saw the sled that glided out of the shadows, drawn not by dogs but by wolves–four wolves the size of horses, with silvered fur that shone with an unearthly light. The sled moved noiselessly, gliding upon a track of snow it cast before itself onto the summer ground, and as it passed the trees shivered and bent as if laden with snow and ice.

Only Sirc saw the sled that came to rest before his parents’ home, and only Sirc watched as Antea emerged from within, to climb without hesitation into the waiting, driverless sled. Only Sirc saw the wolves speed off, pulling the sled and his sister away into the night. Into the north.

Domar thought of the new bearskin he carried home from the hunt and asked, “Why didn’t you stop her?” He would have wrapped Antea in that skin on the night he took her from her father’s house and made her his wife.

“Ice,” whispered Sirc, and Domar forced himself to remember that he was but a boy, still a full year and more from manhood. “It was like ice gripped my heart and hands. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I could only watch.” The boy lowered his head in shame.

“She was chosen,” said Iban, crouched across the fire. His words drew a new wave of mournful wailing from Antea’s mother and sisters, but Domar felt only disgust. The old wizard’s toothless mouth’ dribbled spit when he talked, and the stench of the uncured skins he wore made Domar ill. If it were up to him, Iban would be sent away, along with his superstitious babble.

“She was chosen!” the wizard spoke again, as Domar tried to ignore him. “Chosen to go north, to live among the caribou. She will be their queen now and their servant. Their overlord has chosen her. He has taken her to the north, where no man walks, and there she will be his bride, and he will make her the mother of caribou. This is the price we pay for eating the caribou. Antea pays this price for us.”

The room grew quiet as Iban spoke, the grieving families drawn in by the spell of the wizard’s words. His hands, one grasping a withered stick and the other a bag filled with old bones, moved in counterpoint to his words. Even Domar felt his eyes pulled towards the wizard against his will, mesmerized by the combination of movement and voice. He was surprised to find Iban staring at him with an uncomfortable intensity.

“Uschak, the great water. The frozen fields of Tarabos. The White Mountains, shoulder of the world. Places we know only in stories. No one walks there to see these wonders now, for the Master of Caribou House allows none to approach. Death waits,” the wizard paused, rattling the bag of bones for emphasis. “…for one who travels north.”

Iban abruptly upended the bag, and the bones spilled onto the ground with a soft clatter. In the silence that followed, Domar knew what he would do.

“I will have to go and bring her back,” he said.

“It’s a long way to Caribou House.”

Domar did not look up from his packing but he recognized the voice of Tuk the Hunter. He offered no acknowledgment. He was tired of arguing. All morning, as throughout the previous night, villagers had come to the door of the hut where he lived and worked, trying to dissuade him from his plans to rescue Antea.

“It’s best to grieve, son,” his father had said in the wake of his decision. “Grieve, and then move on.”

Her own father agreed. “You can find another bride. Ena, Antea’s sister–she is nearly of age…”

“No,” Domar had insisted. He thought of Antea with her dark-as-midnight eyes and feather-soft kisses. “No. I’ll go. I’ll find Antea, and I will marry her. I swear it.”

Only Iban had seemed unsurprised by Domar’s decision, nodding to himself as he scooped the scattered bones back into their bag.

Now, Tuk’s shadow shifted across the floor as he stepped further inside. “Do you know the way?” he asked.

“North.” Domar tightened the loops on his pack. “It lies to the north.”

The hunter nodded, then was silent for a while, fingering the bone handle of his knife.

Domar turned to the single shelf in the hut, high along one wall, and considered the row of vessels carefully aligned upon it. These were the heart of his craft, a score of small clay pots each hardly larger than an egg, with a lid to close it. Choosing three, he wrapped them with a cushion of thick wool and deerskin, then slid the precious bundles into the lining of his coat, close to his heart.

“I have never been to Caribou House,” the hunter said when he was done. Unnecessarily, Domar thought. If Tuk had been to Caribou House, he would not be here to speak of it now. “But I have been as far as the White Mountains and seen the path that leads there.”

Domar looked up at last, taking in the hunter’s lined face and wiry form, the remote, inscrutable look he wore. He was old–not so old as Iban the wizard, but still old. Yet despite failing knees and eyesight, he remained the finest hunter of the tribe. He noticed that Tuk carried a pack of his own on his back, his bow and quiver strapped to it within easy reach. Like Domar, he was dressed for travel, with strong boots and a fur-lined coat despite the summer warmth.

“I’ll take you there,” said Tuk. “I’ll take you as far as the mountains. If you want.”

Domar did not need to think about his answer, though he stumbled over his reply. The truth was, he knew very little about traveling distances, apart from the regular movement of his people between winter and summer camps. His only experience alone in the wilderness had been his own rite of manhood. Afterwards, the intense training of the potters’ craft had kept him from the usual hunting pursuits of the other young men in his tribe. He had been prepared to travel alone, anyway, knowing that it was too much to ask any others to join him on this quest. Tuk’s offer caught him off-guard–no one in the tribe had traveled as far or wide as Tuk the Hunter. His guidance and companionship would be more than welcome.

At his wordless assent, Tuk reached to help him lift his pack and settle it onto his back. The hunter made no comment about the bearskin strapped to it, for which Domar was thankful. Its excess weight would be a heavy burden on this long journey, but a necessary one. Without exchanging another word, the two men strode from the hut and walked away from the village. No one came out to observe their departure, but Domar felt he could sense their eyes upon his back, peering out from the hide-covered doorways or from behind the screen of cooking fires. He did not look back, though, and neither did Tuk. It was as if, Domar thought, the village already thought them dead.

The journey to Caribou House was longer than Domar could have imagined. A week’s travel through sparse woodlands brought them beyond the lands that were familiar to him. In a month, they were beyond the places that even the far-ranging Tuk knew well, though he assured Domar he was certain of their course. Occasionally, he would point to some lump of rock or a twisted tree, and he would say to Domar how he remembered it from his earlier journey.

As weeks passed, Domar had more cause to be grateful for Tuk’s presence. Even had the hunter known nothing of the way to Caribou House, Domar quickly became dependant on Tuk for seeing to their daily needs of food and shelter. It was all he could do to keep his thoughts in order. He knew he should be thinking about what he must do once he reached Caribou House, but each time he tried to concentrate on what was to come, he found his thoughts slipped away and dwelt instead upon Antea. He was lucky, he knew, that she had chosen him. Respect he had from their people for the power of his craft, but it would never bring him wealth.

Each night he took from their padded safety within the lining of his coat the three small, earthen jars, the products of his craft. The first was made with a pale clay and had been fired with a golden glaze; painted on its side was the symbol Domar had made that meant Antea.

The second was his own, brown and uneven, the first he had made with his own hand. The mark on it had been put there by his teacher, a foreigner who had built the mission house and brought the people a new wisdom of the world. Domar was his apprentice, and when he had taught Domar all he could of the craft, he had gone away to find others he could teach.

The third, white as snow, or bone, was unmarked.

When he laid them all out, seen that each one was whole yet and ready for its sacred purpose, then he would wrap them up once again and put them safely away.

Domar and Tuk spoke little, only the barest communication needed to establish a camp each night, and to set their path each morning. It never occurred to Domar to ask Tuk what had brought the hunter so far north before, not until one storm-filled night when they huddled beneath the meager shelter an overhang, too wet and too cold and too bothered by the roaring thunder to sleep.

“It was a night just like this,” the hunter said. Domar heard his words curiously but did not speak. After a time, Tuk went on. “I had just brought down a stag, a big one. When the storm hit, I didn’t want to leave him behind for the beasts to devour, but the rain had made the paths too treacherous to try under its burden. So I waited.

“It was a dark night. No moon, even behind the clouds. I tried to stay awake, but I must have slept, for I remember opening my eyes to see it standing there. The caribou. White as the snow itself and taller than any other I had ever seen.

“There are stories about such things, hunters’ tales, ages old. But that is all I ever thought they were–stories. I’m sure you’ve heard some yourself.” Domar nodded, though Tuk was not looking at him to see.

“I forgot my stag, the weather, everything…and followed the Caribou into the night. It didn’t move fast, just quick enough to stay ahead of me, to keep the track clear in the falling snow, and every once in a while I caught a glimpse of its shining hide through the trees ahead.

“I followed it that whole night and the next day. In the darkness of the next night, I could follow no more and lay down to sleep where I was. I woke the next morning, certain that the trail would be gone, the white caribou lost to me.

“But no, it was there, a track clear as a child’s in the snow, and less than an arm’s length from where I had lain asleep. So I followed. For days I followed that caribou’s track, days that turned into weeks. Sometimes I would go days without seeing a sign of the beast and would be on the verge of turning for home when suddenly I would happen upon a hoof print, or a tuft of white fur caught upon a shrub. Then my strength would be renewed, and I would pursue. After that first day, I rarely saw the beast, and then only glimpses, a shadow of white on the horizon.

“North it led me, for more than a month, maybe two. We were far from the lands of our people when I found myself at the foot of the great White Mountains. The path of the caribou led right over the them, but I knew better than to follow. I knew where the caribou was going, who it belonged to, and I knew that no prize was worth following it there.

“So I came home. It took me longer to come home, for I no longer had a guide. My family rejoiced to see me, thinking me months dead, but I never told anyone where I had gone or the reason for my journey. Iban knew, I think, but I never told anyone.”

For a long time after Tuk finished his tale, there was only the blowing of the wind, and the steady beating of the rain upon the ground.

So they came at last to the great White Mountains of the north, and beyond lay that which is unknowable. The crest of mountains sprang from the plain like a jagged line of teeth, without any rising ground or foothills to soften the way. They were just there. And it was not for the unmelting snowcaps at their peaks that the mountains were so named, but because the stone itself was white, like the bones of the earth thrust up to mark this final boundary.

Tuk brought Domar to the very foot of the mountains, as he said he would, and he pointed out the trail that led the way over, though he did not need to, so plain was the dark gash that crossed the lowest pass.

“I’ll wait until the first snow comes.” The hunter sank down to his haunches, relaxed yet alert, and said no more.

Domar, his eyes fastened on the peaks, said nothing either, did not so much as nod in farewell or thanks, so focused had his thoughts become. First, these mountains. Then Antea. He wondered why all life’s problems could not be so easy.

The path Domar took over the mountains was well-trodden, but not by human foot. This was the way of the caribou, the shelter they came to in the winter, the bare rock worn away by countless hooves. It was not a climb meant for man. Domar’s feet struggled for purchase on the slick white stone as he climbed upward through a wide channel, higher on the sides than his head. Chill winds whistled through the pass, numbing his limbs. At frequent intervals he was forced to stop and kindle a small fire to warm himself. There was no snow in the pass, but he could see it capping the mountaintops that were growing ever nearer. The sunlight was scarce where he walked, and shone above only for a few moments at midday, leaving him in the shadowy depths the remainder of his climb. He was taken by surprise when night fell. Not knowing how far he had to travel, and fearing to halt for long in the cold, he kept climbing through the night. The path, though steep, had been free of debris, so he did not fear making a misstep that would cause him injury. With his shoulder to the wall of the channel as a guide, he trudged onward through the night.

He had no sense of time; his only thought was that, with each step, he was closer to Antea.

He stumbled when the wall dropped away beneath his hand. Before him, the quality of darkness changed, gained a depth that it hadn’t had before. The cold wind touched his face.

Domar dropped to his haunches, sensing that his long climb was over. What was next, he could not tell, so he waited–waited for the dawn to come and light his way.

The first crisp rays of dawn woke him from a light slumber. With a start, he leapt to his feet, but was frustrated to find the way before him still swathed in shadow. With anxious eyes he waited for the illumination he needed to proceed. He noted the cold, but was not bothered by it as he had been all through the previous day. It is Antea, he thought. Being near to her warms me. But another part of him, which he did not want to acknowledge, told him that cold meant nothing in the land of the dead.

The sun climbed slowly higher, cresting the mountaintops and casting its rays upon the valley that lay below him. The blackness gave way to a startling whiteness–a field of snow that stretched unbroken below him. As far as he could see, the floor of the valley was empty save for a scattering of twisted, barren trees and far in the distance, distinguishable only by the slight shadow it cast in the early morning light, a white mound.

Domar’s eyes fastened on that distant mound. He had no doubt that it was his destination. There he would find Antea. Without another moment of hesitation, he started down the easy slope of fresh fallen snow towards the valley floor.

Plunging through the knee deep snow banks, he soon lost site of the mound and had to rely upon the position of the sun and the shadows of the strange trees that dotted the field to guide his course. North, always north.

The trees, he soon came to realize, were not trees at all, but rather the cast-off antlers of the caribou, though far larger than any antlers he had ever seen before. The beasts who had shed these must have been magnificent creatures, though he saw no other signs of them upon the plain.

It was late afternoon when Domar was once again able to discern the mound lifting above the horizon. Caribou House, he thought to himself. A shiver ran through him, and the warnings of his family and tribesmen surged through his mind.

It seemed like no time before he was standing before Caribou House itself. Now, faced at last with the object of his quest, he felt for the first time that his goal might be impossible. Not because he was afraid, or because he was tired, but simply because he could see no way to go on. Caribou House was little more than what he had seen from a distance–a low, snow-covered mound. There were no doors, no windows, no way to enter that he could see. Stumbling through the snow, he circled the entire mound, but found nothing but more blank snow. As darkness began to fall, he scrambled to the top of the mound, hoping desperately that he would find entrance there. There was none. He collapsed to his knees, heart choking with anguish. He could not believe he had come so far only to fail now.

“Antea!” he called out, though the wind whipped away his words so quickly that he could barely hear them himself. “Antea.” he repeated, again and again, until the word ceased to have any real meaning to him and was nothing but a sound of frustration and despair. He turned to other words then–the names of people he knew, places he been, objects he had touched–but they too were meaningless there, upon that windswept mound in the land of death. He kept calling until his throat was raw and his lungs burned, until exhaustion took him and he collapsed face first into the snow.

When he woke, his first thought was that it was night, for the world was dark. His throat and mouth were parched, and when he reached for his water skin to drink, he realized he had left it and all his gear at the base of the mound. Only as he pondered the effort of going down to fetch it did he noticed the silence. The wind that had accompanied him across the plain had stopped. He sat up slowly, peering around him in the darkness. That he was indoors was now apparent to him. He could see the walls of the chamber not far off, bathed in a silvery light that they seemed to generate on their own. The walls themselves seemed woven of countless sticks, or rather, Domar realized, more caribou antlers. It was a long, low, room, and looking up at the dome shaped roof made Domar realize that he was inside the mound. How he had gotten there, he could not guess, nor did he wonder long for seated at the far end of the room, bathed in the eerie silver light…

“Antea!” Domar scrambled to his feet and across the room. She was more beautiful than he had remembered, he thought as he threw himself down next to her and seized her hands. “Antea, I’m here! I’ve come to take you home! You don’t have to worry anymore, Antea. Antea…” He paused. Antea had not reacted at all to him or his words. She sat unmoving, her eyes staring off over his shoulder. Her hands, cold as ice, were limp and unresponsive in his own.

He took her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Antea?” Still nothing. “Antea, please. It’s Domar.” He shook her harder, resisting a surge of panic. Antea’s only response, if it was even that, was to blink her eyes once. He raised his hand to slap her cheeks, but froze instead as a cold chill swept over him.

Something was behind him. He knew instinctively what it was, but ten years of training fought against his speaking the name, even within his own mind. In some small corner of his mind he recognized the inevitability of the presence he felt, had known all through his journey that it would come to this moment. Still, he denied it with every ounce of strength left to him. Gods do not walk the earth, he told himself. There are no gods.

Slowly, he lowered his hand to his side, the fingers coming to rest on the bulge within his coat and the precious burden it contained.

She is mine.

The voice surrounded and penetrated Domar’s being so that he could not tell if it came from without or within and resonated with authority. It did not threaten. There was no anger in the voice, no fear. Only strength and surety.

She is mine, and you may not have her back.

Domar’s eyes remained upon the vacant face of his beloved, recalling the way she had smiled up at him when he had kissed her for the first time. In all the weeks since she had been taken, he had never once allowed himself to doubt that she would look upon him with that same smile when he found her. He had never considered any possibility but that he would bring her home and wed her, as he had always planned.

But there was truth in the words he heard; the same truth that was written on Antea’s face before him. Even if he could somehow win her from the thing that held her, could he ever hope to see Antea smile again? Or would she remain forever lost to him, her heart as barren as the mountain he had crossed?

With that sliver of doubt came the touch of cold upon his heart, a shattering pain that sent him reeling to his knees as blackness wavered on the edges of his vision. It was killing him now. No one ever returns from Caribou House.

Release your vow to her and your death will come to you quickly, the voice spoke to him. There need be no pain.

Domar could not speak, his entire being an agony. But he refused to give up the one thing that had sustained him thus far. He shouted his denial into the darkening void of his mind.

The pain wavered, and then the presence he felt was gone. Not gone, he realized, just receded, with the acknowledgement that he would have time to reconsider his choice. The pain began to drift away, and Domar began to breathe again. He was lying on his back, one leg bent awkwardly beneath him, hand thrust haphazardly into his coat. His gaze went immediately to the place where Antea had been, but she was gone, hidden from him by shadows.

His first instinct was to find her, but as he pulled his hand from his clothing, the wave of pain assaulted him once again, only to stop when he once more found the cloth wrapped bundle he had grasped unconsciously before. He knew what it was, and he was not surprised at its power.

First things first, he realized. He would find Antea, yes, but not until he had dealt with her captor. Slowly, for his body still ached with the memory of pain, he rolled to his knees and extracted the wrapped bundle that he clutched from inside his coat. With gentle fingers, he peeled back the layers of skin and fur to reveal the pot within. White as snow, he thought. Or bone.

Never releasing his grip on the small pot, he dropped the wrappings to the ground and reached inside an outer pocket with his free hand to produce a short stick, its end charred and sooty. At home, he had dozens of paints and glazes to work with and the symbols he worked upon his vessels were intricate and colorful. It was strange to think that the most power marking he would ever make would be with such a crude tool.

His fingers shook as he brought the tip of his burned stick to the side of the urn. Around him, the presence of the Caribou Master gathered, fierce and angry, but also afraid. It was a powerful thing, but Domar held power in his hands too. And so he forced his hands to stillness and executed his art upon the vessel he held, scribing the single symbol upon its side: Death.

The stick crumbled to ashes as he finished. With tender care, he lowered the pot to the ground, and removed the lid.

The result was instantaneous. One moment the air was thick with the looming aura of the Caribou Master; the next it was gone. And Caribou House began to fall.

Antea, thought Domar. But before he moved he made himself replace the lid of the urn. It fit tightly and would not shake loose, though it would need to be sealed with wax later. Dirt fell onto his head as he picked up the wrappings and nested the now icy vessel within, moving quickly, but ensuring the bundle was placed safely inside his coat once more before stumbling to his feet.

The walls of Caribou House were tumbling. Openings in several places along the wall showed the world without and through one of these, Domar glimpsed a large, white beast take flight.

“Antea!” he called, and made after it, scrabbling through the falling stone and bone in pursuit of the white caribou. Outside, the air trembled with the rush of hooves. Caribou, thousands of them, streamed by. Among the drab brown fur, the gleaming white fur that was Antea’s stood out like a beacon. Domar followed. He was oblivious of the danger until he was in the midst of the stampede and saw how the beasts swerved around him. If he was not so worried about losing sight of Antea in the rush, he would have laughed. I killed your god, he thought to himself. Of course they would fear to trample him.

Like the wind must part for tree or boulder, the wild herd swept around and over and past him, and though he could feel the vibration of their passage in his soul, he heard not a sound-with his mortal ears. His eyes remained fastened upon Antea.

Across the great white plain he followed her, ignoring his own pain and fatigue as she danced always just at the far edges of his vision. By the time he reached the pass, the herd had left Domar behind, bounding up the snowy incline with hardly a pause. Domar did not pause either, until he reached the summit and looked down the far side to catch yet one more glimpse of her snow-white hide. The climb down was treacherous, but he did it with a light heart singing in his breast. She waits for me.

And so he came to the foot of the pass, and stepped onto the plain that gives birth to the White Mountains. Three things he saw at that moment. The white caribou, as still as if it were frozen so. Tuk the hunter, bow raised as he sighted towards the magnificent beast. And the arrow that sped across the distance between the two.

“No!” Domar shouted. He never saw Tuk’s startled look, for his eyes were fastened on Antea and the blood that flowered across the breast of her snow-white gown. When she fell, it was no caribou that lay upon the ground, but a human woman, one loved by a very human man.

In the moment it took him to reach her side, it was too late. Already the light of life was fading from her eyes as Domar lifted her hand, stiff with death. It was the touch that brought him to acknowledge at last what everyone in his family had told him from the beginning. Antea had died the night she stepped into the Caribou Master’s sleigh and rode away. His quest had been futile from the start.

A wave of despair swept over him, and he barely heard Tuk’s stammered pleas of apology (“I didn’t know it was her! How could I have known?”). Domar pressed his face against Antea’s body and for the first time felt the tiredness of his long journey, pain lingering from his battle with the Caribou Master, the heart-rending knowledge that it had all been for nothing.

But not for nothing, he reminded himself. The Caribou Master was dead, and Antea had fled his house before it fell. And he had brought her his gift, the bearskin, as he said he would, though now it would wrap her in her grave instead of their marriage bed.

And there was one more thing he could do for her, something that had nothing to do with being a lover or a husband. Lowering her hand gently to her breast, he found the pale golden vessel that would hold Antea’s soul safe until the foretold time. As Tuk looked on in repentant silence, Domar uttered the prayers that would bind clay and spirit into one. As he completed the brief ritual, he was gratified to feel the familiar glowing warmth beneath his fingertips.

With a sad but peaceful smile, he placed the lid upon the jar and leaned down to her. As his lips brushed her cold ones, he whispered her name for the final time. “Antea.”

Years later, Domar the Potter took the bone white pot down from the shelf of his workshop next to the mission house, where he had placed it upon returning home from his long journey. His young apprentice watched, perplexed, as his old teacher sifted through the smoldering remains on the hearth and pulled out a stubby piece of charred wood before taking his seat by the open doorway, where the light was better for his failing eyes.

The pot was cold, still, as if packed with ice and snow. Neither had the mark on it faded or smudged, as one might have expected of a simple charcoal drawing, after so long. Domar was not surprised. There are some things change cannot touch.

He lifted his burned stick to the blank side of the pot, opposite where he had inscribed the symbol for death so long ago. It was too late, he knew, even as he scratched a new mark upon the surface of the pot. Those who had not died in the years of famine had gone away in search of new game to feed their families. Even if the caribou came back, the people would not.

“What is that, teacher?” his apprentice asked, peering over Domar’s shoulder at the symbol he had made.

“Life, Medru,” said Domar, heaving himself back to his feet with the weary sigh of the old. “That is life,” he said, and would say no more, but sent the boy scurrying for more kindling to warm up the fire, while he went to put the small white pot back on its shelf.

One Response to “Caribou House”

  1. […] short story “Caribou House” is the featured story at A Fly in Amber this month. • • […]

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