by Ken Perlin
Ilara knew she wasn’t supposed to wander too far from the tribe. But then, she did a lot of things she wasn’t supposed to do.
In this case, the whole idea of “supposed to” seemed unfair. After all, it wasn’t as though she really had a choice. This was where the sighting had been, so this was where she needed to be.
And right now what she really needed to be was very quiet. The tall grass was dry, and easily rustled. If she made any noise that would ruin everything.
She was so busy being quiet, and trying very hard not to move, that she didn’t realize she was no longer alone. Until she felt, more than heard, the giant presence behind her. Startled, she whirled around.
She knew she was supposed to be afraid. But oddly, she felt no fear at all.
The mammoth was looking at her curiously. It didn’t seem afraid either. That was a good start.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” said the mammoth.
This puzzled Ilara. As far as she knew, mammoths don’t talk. It seemed to her that this mammoth was breaking some fundamental laws.
And what’s the point of having laws if you’re just going to break them? In any case, the mammoth clearly wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.
Still, the would try to be reasonable about this. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be talking,” she said. “You’re a mammoth.”
“And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be talking,” the mammoth replied. “You’re a human.”
“You’re the one whose mouth isn’t moving,” Ilara pointed out, trying to sound polite, and knowing she was not doing a very good job of it.
“My mouth isn’t moving,” the mammoth replied, “because I am not eating. I do not eat when I talk, and I do not talk when I eat. Besides, your nose isn’t moving. Of course with such a tiny nose, like whatever that little thing is on your face, I am not surprised.”
Ilara was starting to get very annoyed. She was about to respond with a really great insult when she had a thought. “Do you talk by moving your nose?”
“Doesn’t everybody?” The mammoth sniffed, eyeing her suspiciously, and paying especial attention to her tiny nose, which had not moved even once during this entire conversation.
“I don’t think,” Ilara said, “that this has anything to do with my nose or with your mouth.”
“You mean,” the mammoth replied, “with my nose or with your mouth.”
“Yes, that too.”
“You mean that either.”
“Yes, that either, um, too.” She didn’t see any point in quibbling. “I think we just sort of can tell what each other is thinking.”
“You mean we read each others’ minds?” The mammoth looked intrigued.
“Yes, and no. Only the stuff that we would say to each other if we were talking.”
“Well that’s good. I wouldn’t want my privacy invaded by a lower creature.”
Ilara was too excited by this new development to be offended. “You think of humans as lower creatures?”
“Well, yes. As a rule you are puny and small, you have tiny ears and feet, no tusks, and no noses to speak of. It’s a wonder you survive as a species. I expect you will all die out soon.”
“And yet here you are speaking to me.”
“I suppose I am, in a manner of speaking. You as an individual seem pleasant enough. There may be hope for your species.”
Ilana found herself oddly pleased by this. There was something satisfying in being the hope for one’s entire species. She bowed ceremoniously. “The hope of my species, at your service.”
Before the mammoth could reply, there was a loud rumbling in the distance. Ilara could just make out a cloud of dust. As she strained her eyes to get a better look, the cloud grew larger, and the rumbling became louder and more distinct.
“They will be expecting me I suppose,” the mammoth said.
“The herd. They don’t like when I go missing. Particularly mother.”
“My herd doesn’t like when I go missing either,” Ilara nodded sympathetically. “Particularly mother.”
They looked at each other with a look of quiet understanding. Then the mammoth slowly turned and lumbered off.
On the walk back to the village Ilara was lost in thought. She was nearly home when she was startled out of her reverie by her mother’s voice.
“Where have you been? Have you been wandering away from the village again?”
“Why would I do that?” Ilara answered innocently. Technically it wasn’t a lie, so it was ok.
“Well, just don’t go wondering off. Especially now. The Elders say a herd of wild mammoths is passing this way.”
“What do you know about mammoths?” Ilara asked, trying her best to sound casual.
“Well, they are good to eat, but very hard to catch.”
“Do they ever talk?”
Ilara’s mother gave her a strange look. “Has your grandmother been telling you stories?”
Ilara stood outside uncertainly. She could see her grandmother sitting quietly within, apparently asleep. She hovered near the entrance, not really sure whether it would be polite to walk in.
“Well?” she suddenly heard a familiar from inside. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand out there all day?”
Sheepishly Ilara entered. Her grandmother, sitting exactly as before, seemed to be still asleep.
She suddenly opened one eye, then the other, then grinned at Ilara mischievously. “I hear I have been telling my granddaughter tales of talking mammoths.”
“What can you tell me about talking to mammoths?” Ilara was genuinely curious now. Maybe she wasn’t the only one.
“I saw it with my own eyes when I was just a little girl. My mother would take me with her when she would go to visit her mammoth guide.”
“Her mammoth guide?”
“Yes, that’s what she called it. I think the mammoth thought of her as a human guide. It all seemed to go both ways.”
“Did you speak to mammoths too?”
“Oh no,” Ilara’s grandmother laughed. “My mother had the gift, but I didn’t. The legends say that her great grandmother had it as well.”
“Does my mother have it?”
“No, she doesn’t even believe it’s real. Most people don’t in these modern times. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it.”
Ilara’s grandmother leaned forward, peering into her granddaughter’s eyes. “I’m guessing you didn’t come here to talk about old legends. Is there something you want to tell me?”
Ilara pondered the conversation she had just had. She hadn’t actually revealed her secret, but she was pretty sure her grandmother had figured it out.
This had been the first real confirmation that her encounter with the mammoth had really happened, and wasn’t just something she’d imagined. But now what was she supposed to do about it?
She suddenly realized how weird it felt walking through the village now. It was the same village she had walked through yesterday, the same people she’d always known, but now everything was different. It was like they were all in a different world. Or maybe just she was.
At last she arrived at the gathering, and was happy to see that she had gotten there just in time. The familiar drumbeats were starting to play, and she could see the men in their costumes gathered on one side of the clearing.
She had always loved this part, ever since she was little. It was the only time she ever got to see grownups wearing silly costumes.
Although she knew better than to tell anybody how silly the costumes looked. Dressing up and acting out these old make-believe stories seemed to be a big deal to grownups, a very serious thing. She once asked her mother why, but the only answer she got was that she would understand when she was older.
Ilara looked on with excitement as the ceremony started. This had been going on for as long as she could remember, and there was something comforting in knowing that some things never change.
But then she started to notice something odd. The reenactments were looking different this time. For one thing, the man in the mammoth costume didn’t seem so funny.
Everybody laughed at the part where the great hunter from the tribe came at the mammoth with his spear, and the mammoth ran around in circles trying to run away. And when the hunter finally caught up with the mammoth, everybody cheered.
But Ilara didn’t feel like cheering. Not at all. This was all wrong.
Of course a mammoth would never run from a human hunter. Why didn’t everybody see that? What was wrong with everybody?
Ilara ran from the ceremony just as fast as her legs could carry her. She wasn’t sure where she was going, just as long as it was anywhere but here.
Ilara couldn’t remember ever feeling so angry. The whole thing was wrong, the ceremony, the way the tribe responded to it, everything.
And the thing was, the ceremony was something she’d been watching her whole life. Why hadn’t she realized any of this before?
She kept running, trying to burn off the fierce rage she felt inside. Before she knew it she was far from the village.
She stopped in an open clearing, breathing hard, trying to catch her breath. Gradually she calmed down enough to start thinking about what had just happened. What was she going to do now?
Suddenly there was a voice behind her. “Hello again,” it said.
There is the feeling that something is familiar, because you’ve known it all your life. Like that stupid little carved wooden mammoth you played with when you were little, maybe kind of chipped and worn around the edges now, but still able to take you right back to your seven year old self, the moment you pick it up.
Then there is the feeling that something is familiar because it just feels right, because this is who you are, and where you are supposed to be. Even if you never knew it before.
In that moment, Ilara knew that second kind of feeling. She had only heard that voice once before, but it felt more familiar than the voice of her mother or her father, more familiar even than her grandmother’s beautiful raspy old woman voice.
She turned around slowly, enjoying the pleasure of dragging out the moment, savoring it. Nothing had made sense since she had gone back to her village, but now, here in this clearing, everything felt like it made perfect sense.
She took in the sight of the mammoth, this strange, magnificent creature, towering over her, waiting patiently for her response.
“Well,” she said, “where have you been?”
“I am glad you asked,” said the mammoth. “Since we last spoke, I have been having a very difficult time.”
“Oh?” Ilara said, intrigued. “Difficult how?”
“Well, as you may know, mammoths have wonderful memories. So one of our favorite things to do is to tell the old tales. Tales of great migrations and of narrow escapes, of loyalty and courage, of triumph and despair. We are quite the tellers of tales.”
Ilara found herself just staring, amazed.
“I’m sorry,” the mammoth said, “I realize such concepts would make no sense at all to a human.”
“It all makes perfect sense,” Ilara said, too interested in what she was hearing to act insulted. “Tell me more.”
“Well,” the mammoth continued, “suddenly the stories seem wrong. They’re all about making fun of humans, or killing humans, or killing humans and then making fun of them. Everybody around me seemed to be having such a good time, but I had to leave. It was awful.”
“Wait until I tell you,” Ilara said laughing, “about my day.”
It felt as though they had been talking for hours. Finally they were both caught up on each others’ day.
“It’s incredible,” Ilara said. “You and I are going through the same thing.”
“Yes,” said the mammoth, “except that you’re going through the human version, I’m going through the normal version. No offense.”
“None taken,” Ilara said, “You know, neither of us is going to figure this thing out on our own.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
Ilara laughed. “Yes,” she said, “of course you were.”
The mammoth made a noise that in a human would probably have been a laugh.
On an impulse Ilara reached out her hand and placed it on the mammoth’s massive trunk. She wasn’t sure that would be ok, but the mammoth just stood there, making no move to stop her. It felt surprisingly warm to the touch.
They just stood like that for a moment, the girl and the mammoth, in a moment frozen in time. It was just about then that the world started to spin.
Ilara had a moment of dislocation. It felt for all the world as though she were looking down at a set of tiny carved wooden figures.
There was a little figure of a mammoth, small enough to pick up in one hand. Facing that an even tinier figure, of a human girl. They were just sitting there on the ground, as though some child had been called to dinner and had forgotten to put away her toys.
Then the very next moment she was staring down into her own face. Except her face seemed too small. Everything seemed too small, about half as big as it was supposed to be.
The smaller version of herself gazed back up at her, with a look of complete astonishment. There was a moment of silence.
The silence was finally broken when the other Ilara said “I seem to be you.”
Ilara had a sudden flash of understanding. “And I,” she answered, “seem to be you.”
As she wandered among her fellow mammoths, Ilara was surprised at how familiar everything seemed. Not familiar in the usual way, just strangely normal.
Ilara and her mammoth friend had agreed to take this opportunity to learn about how each other lived. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now she wasn’t so sure.
For example, what would she do if somebody tried to talk to her? That might not end well.
Fortunately, everyone in the herd was pretty much ignoring her. If any of the mammoths sensed anything out of the ordinary, they weren’t showing it. That, at least, was a relief.
Suddenly, to her great surprise, she heard somebody call her name.
Ilara wt wasn’t her name exactly. In fact, it didn’t really correspond to any sound she had ever heard. But she knew he was talking to her. Anyway, in her mind the name translated pretty much as “Ilara”. She decided that was ok.
“Hey Ilara, have you gone deaf? What’s the point of having those big beautiful ears if you’re going to be deaf?”
She turned to look, and realized she was looking at a very attractive boy her own age. Well, ok, a mammoth, but her mind easily made the translation. And the way he was looking at her was unmistakeable. He was trying to be casual about it, but she could tell he liked her. And that was ok too.
But what was she supposed to do now? She felt that any moment she would give herself away by doing some stupid human thing.
“I heard you the first time,” she heard herself answering. “But maybe if there’s a problem, it isn’t with my ears, it’s with your trunk.” Without thinking about it, she gave her ears a little swish.
The boy mammoth blushed. She knew he wasn’t literally blushing, but if a boy mammoth could blush, she was sure that’s what it would look like to another mammoth.
This was starting to get interesting.as deep into conversation with the cute boy mammoth before she realized that she had no idea what to call him. She was enjoying the conversation — and learning a lot about mammoths — but she was essentially talking to a stranger.
The boy mammoth was walking along beside her and chatting away as though it was the most natural thing in the world. He didn’t know, she realized, that they were strangers. In fact, he kept acting as though they had known each other all of their lives.
And it was probably true that he had known another version of her. But that other version, she thought, was probably in her own village right now, impersonating a human. Impersonating her!
She was so lost in contemplation that she didn’t realize where they were going until they were already there. Looking around, she was startled to realize that they were now surrounded by other young mammoths.
“Now children,” came a voice from somewhere in front of them, “settle down. Class is about to begin.”
It didn’t feel like any school she had ever been to. The teacher seemed a little scary to her.
She had never seen such an old mammoth. He moved slowly, but each movement seemed to contain a kind of coiled power. The teacher took his time looking over the class, staring each student in the eyes one by one, until his gaze came to rest on Ilara.
“You seem different today,” he said. He said it simply, without particular emphasis, but still, she felt her heart drop through her stomach. She hoped in that moment that the earth would swallow her up. Unfortunately, the earth was not cooperating.
She decided that the best defense was a good offense. “Today,” she said, “I encountered a human.”
It seemed like an innocent enough statement. After all, it wasn’t really a lie, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.
But then she realized that everyone in the class had gone completely silent. All the other mammoths were now looking at her.
“I assume,” said the teacher, “that you killed the human.”
“Well actually no.” She decided it wouldn’t work simply to lie, because he’d know. Maybe she could tell him just enough to talk herself out of this.
The teacher seemed surprised. “But you said there was only one of them. An individual human is puny and weak. They are only dangerous when they swarm.”
There was something about the way he said “swarm” that Ilara found chilling. She pictured a huge horrible cloud of insects, all coming after her. Was that really the way they thought about her kind?
She was about to answer, when suddenly there was a commotion. Mammoths were running about in every direction, and the look in their eyes told her that something in the mammoth village was definitely not ok.
Whatever was causing the commotion, she was hoping it wasn’t what she thought it was. But that hope died as soon as she heard the cry go up.
It was just one word, but it was enough. “Humans!” There was a feeling of general panic. Yet that was quickly replaced by a sense of organization.
The entire herd moved in unison to a large open plain, with the grownups prodding the little ones along. At first she was confused by this. Wouldn’t they want to seek shelter?
But then, as the herd began to organize itself, she started to see the logic. The youngest within the moving herd were placed in the very center, then the young of about her age were organized in a ring around those, together with the very old.
In the outermost ring, ready to face outwards in all directions, were the warriors, the fully grown males and females of prime fighting age.
If they had tried to seek shelter, they might have been cornered by the humans. But this way, the herd had maximum strategic mobility.
No matter which direction the humans could try to attack, they would come face to face with several fully grown woolly mammoths. And there are few things more fearsome in all the world than a woolly mammoth protecting her herd.
There was a long pause. Ilara started to wonder whether the enemy had just given up.
But when the humans finally came, they came in force. And they came from all directions at once.
In a flash she understood. In response to the mammoth herd’s defensive strategy, the humans had modified their own strategy. Rather than attempting a frontal assault, they had taken the time to spread out, to form a vast circle.
The human tribe could afford to do this, because they far outnumbered the mammoths. All they needed was find a single weak point in the mammoth herd’s defensive ring. That would be enough.
The humans ran inward toward the herd, spears raised in the air. Their war cries, familiar and yet strange at the same time, filled the open plain.
Ilara had a moment of dislocation. These humans were all impossibly small. To her mammoth eyes they looked less like mighty warriors than little monkeys carrying tiny pointed sticks.
The sight was almost comical.
What happened next was not comical at all. As if with one mind, the humans released their weapons.
The spears flew high, tracing graceful arcs through the air. In that moment all was silence.
But in the very next moment the spears hit their targets. Suddenly the battlefield was filled with the howls of rage and anguish erupting from the warrior mammoths.
This first attack had clearly had its intended effect. The thick hide of each mammoth warrior was pierced through in many places, and each mammoth on the front line was clearly in intense pain.
But the next moment, the mammoth warriors began methodically to pull the spears out of each others’ hides. The extraction of the barbed spears was painful, perhaps more painful than the initial attack, but the simple act of helping each other seemed to create a new sense of resolve in the mammoth army.
As one, the mammoth warriors turned toward the humans and charged. And then all was chaos.
The invading humans were nimble, but not all moved fast enough to escape the deadly swipes from the mammoths’ mighty tusks. The mammoths were determined, and tireless in their defense of the herd. Soon their tusks were coated in red.
Yet for every human that fell, more kept coming. And in the distance, another group of human warriors was forming a circle.
These new arrivals were biding their time, spears in hand, waiting for a signal to attack. The mammoths fought on bravely, but deep down they knew their defensive line could not withstand a second assault.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ilara could see a tiny figure streaking toward them. The girl was smaller than any of the other humans on the field, yet her speed and agility made her stand out.
The mammoth warriors ignored the little intruder, as they were busy fighting off the larger humans. They knew the mammoths in the inner circle could easily dispose of such an insignificant threat.
Ilara watched, mesmerized, as the girl bobbed and weaved, apparently running to her doom. She ran between the legs of the mighty mammoth warriors, easily broaching the front lines.
Once she was through, the mammoths on the inner lines turned to face this little human. Now that she was in their midst, it would take mere seconds for them to kill her.
But the girl was now finally near enough for Ilara to see clearly, and suddenly she understood. “Wait!” she shouted, and the mammoths around the girl hesitated for just a moment. It was enough.
With sure strides she covered the distance between her and the little human, until the two of them stood face to face.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
The girl smiled. “It’s good to see you too.”
Suddenly they realized that the fighting around them had stopped. Both the humans and the mammoths were just standing there, staring at the two of them.
Ilara was confused. Why, just in a moment, did everyone stop fighting? And why was everyone looking at the two of them?
Then she saw the chieftain of the mammoth herd making her way toward them. The chieftain was old, very old. When she walked, she walked slowly, and with deliberate care. But now she was heading straight toward the two of them, the other mammoths parting to make a path for her.
The chieftain was about to speak, when suddenly she swung her head away, and stared off into the distance. From the human tribe two figures were approaching.
Ilara strained to see who they were. At first they were hard to make out. But then she realized that they were the Elder and the Shaman from her own human tribe.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the two small figures made their way toward the mammoth herd. When they arrived at the perimeter, none of the mammoths tried to stop them. In fact, the mammoth warriors stepped deliberately aside, making way for the humans.
Suddenly Ilara realized that the human Elder and Shaman were heading straight toward her. But not just her. They were heading toward her and her friend.
The human Elder and Shaman took a long moment just staring at the two of them. Ilara felt odd. Only a short while ago, she would have been thrilled simply to get their attention. But now everything was all mixed up.
Both of them were looking at the girl they thought was Ilara, who was actually a mammoth. And here she was, the Ilara they really knew, except they thought she was a mammoth. Could this get any weirder?
She could tell that the human Shaman was speaking, but she couldn’t understand any of it. And then, all of a sudden, everything started to spin. Except this time she was ready for it, and she knew what to expect.
She could see the entire scene, as if from a great distance, as though all of them, the human and mammoth army, were all little toys carved in wood, stuck in the sand. And then all at once it was done.
She realized she was looking from her own eyes. It felt good to be back in her body again. Ilara gave her mammoth friend a significant look, and received one in return.
The Shaman was still speaking, and suddenly she could understand. And she was astonished at what she was hearing.
“The prophecy that was foretold,” the Shaman proclaimed. “It has come true.”
There was complete silence. Ilara figured this was a good a time as any to speak up. “What prophecy?” she asked, genuinely curious.
The Shaman gave her an odd look. “You of course. You are the prophecy. You and your … friend.”
Ilara must have looked confused, because the tribal Elder waved the Shaman away and came over. “There are things you do not know. About our tribe, about their tribe.”
“It is said the human and the mammoth used to be allies, in a time when we could communicate with each other. But those times are long gone, and many no longer believed. Until you.”
She smiled down at Ilara, and for the first time Ilara noticed that the Elder had a beautiful smile.
Ilara smiled back. “But what did I do to change things?”
“It is not what you did,” the Elder replied, gesturing to both her and her mammoth friend, “it is who you are. You are the bridge, the way for human and mammoth to finally be able to work as one. To communicate is the greatest gift the Spirits can give us. And the two of you have given us that gift.”
Ilara was humbled. She looked into the eyes of her mammoth counterpart, the other Ilara. For a moment she saw herself looking back.
“What now?” she asked the Elder.
The Elder gestured to the Shaman. “She will show you.”
The Shaman stepped forward, and to Ilara’s surprise removed her sacred necklace. Ilara could not remember a time when the Shaman had not worn that necklace. “You must take it now,” the Shaman said.
Solemnly, Ilara took the necklace from the Shaman. She hesitated for a moment, and then she put it around her own neck.
And suddenly found herself in a different world.
Well, not exactly. It was the same world, only it looked different. For one thing, it had extra people in it, and mammoths too.
She looked at them more carefully. No, they weren’t people and mammoths exactly. They were something else. But what?
And then she had it. They were Spirits! She looked at the Shaman with surprise.
The Shaman smiled back. “You can see them, can’t you?” Ilara nodded, words failing her.
“You have the sight,” the Shaman continued. “I’ve never had it, and neither has anyone in our tribe for a long time. It comes back only when our people need it.”
“Actually, it comes back only when both of our tribes need it,” she heard another voice say, a much older voice. She turned to look. It was the mammoth Elder, speaking to her. And she could understand!
Then she heard a far more familiar voice. It was her mammoth friend. “And I can understand your humans too. It looks like you and I have a lot to figure out. Now that we are both Shamans.”
Ilara smiled. “Well, we can always ask the Spirits. I have a feeling there’s a lot they want to tell us.”
She reached her hand up affectionately, and touched the trunk of her fellow Shaman. Today was the end of a chapter in both their lives. But the next chapter was still waiting to be told.
End of Book I