He crouched in the dirt, makings notes on a flat, bleached piece of bark with a scorched twig. His worst fears had come to pass.
The day after the sacrifice, he and his boy had gone out into the woods with a whetstone and spent an afternoon reshaping the bone blade so that it did not appear to have been broken. Then they had returned to the village and undertaken the challenge of appearing as if nothing was wrong.
In this task, at least, they had succeeded. The People knew that something was wrong by now, of course, but they did not know who to blame. As much as he wished he could lay the blame at someone else, Jeff knew that, as the spiritual leader of the tribe, let alone the individual who broke the knife during the sacrifice, everything that had happened since was his fault.
The deer they had hunted and killed since that time looked healthy, but the meat they provided was tough and unpleasant. Small birds and animals that Jeff cut open to prophesy the next days and weeks were often diseased inside or filled with worms. He had even brought in a soothsayer from a neighboring tribe, who had brought his own duck with him, and the expression on his face when the man cut open the tribe was enough. They were doomed.
It was possible, Jeff reflected, as he sketched on his bark, that a large enough sacrifice could undo the damage. If they had the magic and talents of the People of the coast, perhaps they could sacrifice a whale and redeem themselves. If nothing else came to him, he supposed he would be forced to take a journey to the coast, to see if such a thing was even possible.
He could picture himself standing over a whale on the beach, the People of two tribes standing around him, and in a nightmare vision he saw that the bone knife would not even penetrate the flesh of the whale. The edge he had placed on the knife was false. The entire concept of the holy weapon was now a lie. The People would tear him to pieces.
The shamans had a word for this, and they shuddered between themselves to say it. Things were back-spiraling. It was a difficult concept and one not known to the People, but the energy along the posts moved in one direction, the same direction as the sun and the stars, the earth and the rivers. Now, it turned against that flow and it was destructive, pulling life out of the world where it had once pushed life into it.
This explained the three children that had been stillborn in the month since the failed ceremony. The People were not foolish, they understood something was wrong, but they had not seen the knife. They kept coming to him for an explanation and he kept delaying them, hoping that he would find a solution, even though he knew there was none.
“Master?” the boy called from outside the lean-to.
Jeff grunted and the boy came in, a squirming sack in his arms. He nodded his approval at the boy's burden.
The boy took his place before the door to catch the animal if it ran and Jeff opened the mouth of the sack, and the snapping, whipping tail of the animal emerged. It was thick and heavy, and Jeff used it to pull the young otter out of the bag. The animal arched its body, twisting back on itself, trying to reach Jeff's capturing hand.
Jeff jerked his head at the boy and he approached, holding out his hands. In a quick motion, Jeff pinned the beast's neck to the table with his hand, and the boy trapped the tail and the body in the same way.
“Hold it!” Jeff said and he watched the boy's knuckles turn white.
The more common an animal, the less high it was considered in the eyes of the powers. The same was true with the less life an animal had. The boy had brought him an animal that was rare, difficult to catch, and very young. It was the best they would be able to do.
Jeff closed his eyes, reaching into the otter with his mind, feeling its spirit struggle just as its body was. He spoke soothingly, reassuring the beast, promising him that his death would be quick and that it was, sadly, necessary.
Then he raised his closed eyes to the ceiling, mumbling and calling out. This would not be a sacrifice sufficient to change things, he was sure of that, against the irrational hope that stirred inside of him, but he thought that it might be enough to put him on the right track. He might learn that there was, at least, a solution, in the face of what he felt now.
Without opening his eyes he gave a quick jerk and snapped the neck of the young animal. After a final, spasmodic jerk the animal lay still and Jeff could smell the tang in the air that came from the animal voiding itself. He felt a tear creep from the corner of his right eye. He whispered a final benediction over the generous creature.
He heard an intake of breath from the boy as if he were about to say something, but no words came. This was good. It was not the time for speaking. He looked at the boy, who was holding out the bone knife. Jeff shook his head and nodded to the boy's belt. The boy handed him his own knife, flint with a leather handle, chipped to a perfect edge. It would not do to use the blade that had started all this trouble, not here.
He placed the point of the flint at the throat of the otter and cut down, sharply and quickly. The blade did the job, opening the soft belly of the animal. Blood squirted and oozed from various locations. The blood had to stay in the animal until it was opened so that the signs could be read. You could not slit the throat of an animal when using it for soothsaying. It was messier, of course, but it spoke the truth. Throat-slitting was for animals that you would eat, or for sacrifice.
The blood was still spattering, and Jeff begin to push into the animal's guts with the knife point and his fingers looking for information. The heart had stopped beating, but the innards were still warm, moist and slippery against his skin.
Suddenly, the otter jerked, startling Jeff, causing the knife point to slip. He severed the animal's intestine, and a sharper, riper smell filled the room. Then the otter jerked again, and just as Jeff was about to pull his hand away, its head snapped up, its eyes furious and blazing and it snapped at the hand that held the knife.
Jeff dropped the flint knife into the animal as its needle teeth sank into his hand. He felt, rather than heard or saw, a tendon in his small finger pop, one end of it retreating far into his hand, and in a small corner of his mind he knew the use of that finger would be difficult, if not impossible, for the rest of his life.
The animal was silent, which was somehow much more terrifying than if it had been growling. The boy had frozen, was clearly useless, so Jeff reached into the animal's guts, found the leather handle of the knife, brought it out.
He gritted his teeth in pain as he used the bitten hand to hold the otter's head still. With his other hand, he drove the knife into the beast's head. The glow immediately left the otter's eyes. Jeff was drawing ragged breaths, his chest heaving, when the muscles in the animal's mouth finally unclenched and released his hand. All the movement had made ugly, torn wounds, instead of the neat, tiny holes that the otter's teeth should have punched. He looked down at the animal, its ruined body, torn open, a knife in the head, and he knew, a broken neck. He had done it himself.
There was a cry from outside and the boy's head whirled around, fast enough that it popped. He brushed the curtain door aside and stared out into the clearing. He dropped to his knees in the doorway and began praying, loudly. The curtain fell back, covering the boy and the view, so Jeff left the otter and pulled it open again.
It was snowing. It was the end of the summer season, the days still starting early and lasting late, but it was snowing. This was a rare enough occurrence here in the winter, but now...
The fat, wet flakes drifted slowly back and forth, silently falling out of the air like a drift of death. And death, Jeff knew, was what it would bring. The back-spiraling, the unwinding of the world, was complete or near to it. The world would crumble around the People until they starved or turned on each other. And, as unfair as it was, he knew it was his fault.
He reached down and snatched the bone knife from its place on the boy's belt and began to follow the line of the stone posts. They did not camp at the apex, it was too dangerous, but they were always close.
When Jeff reached the central post, the Mother post, as he sometimes thought of it, he stood looking at it. He wanted to be able to blame it. To say that it decided that the knife would chip during the last sacrifice, and who was to say that it wasn't true? But it would not matter, at all. The responsibility rode with him.
He dug the knife deeply into his left wrist, pressing and pressing with the blade until it broke down into the flesh. He put the knife in his teeth then, tasting his own blood, as he began to take blood from his wrist and dab it into the runes on the stone. Different runes, this time. The right ones, he hoped. This had never been done before. This was, he supposed, something new, in the face of all the old gods. He hoped they would understand. He hoped they would accept a new sacrifice.
Snow struck the pillar and melted into the blood, causing runnels of pink water to streak the sides of the stone. Jeff reached up, stretching, and placed his hand on top of it. He mumbled his last prayer and then he dropped to his knees.
He took the knife from between his teeth, marveling a little at the fact that the last thing he would ever taste would be his own blood. Then he realized it did not have to be so. He leaned back and opened his mouth. He was transported, for a moment, to a time many years before, an easier time, a time before his responsibility crippled him. A snowflake, damp and heavy, burst on his tongue. He felt its texture, the crystals falling apart on the hot pillow of his tongue, but there was no taste. He still only tasted his own blood, metallic and salty.
He held the knife before him, in both hands, and looked at the post. He began to mutter the sacrificial rites and when he was finished, he would drive the knife into his heart, just as he always did with the sacrifices. Yes, this time the knife was going into him instead of away from him, but how different could it really be?
Jeff knelt in the dirt, with snow building up around him, and continued to pray as the snow flakes spattered on his body and dissolved.