The Hunter: A New Myth
By Sveta Yefimenko
This happened thousands of years ago when the floods began.
A young fisherman lived in a village by the sea. The village was small, the fisherman’s life was small. In the mornings, there were harpoons and hooks to inspect, and then to stand in the water with his brothers, laughing and diving, returning with nets bulging with silver fish. In the afternoons, they repaired the nets and exchanged shells, watching the women grind almonds and arrange cuts of meat to dry in the sun. In the evenings, he sat on the ground with the men, in complete darkness, fourth to last in a long hierarchy, and listened to the others discuss village matters, battles, marriages, and spirits.
He was glad that he couldn’t participate in these important conversations. It was pleasant to sit silently in the warm space between his older and younger brother, sucking in sweet smoke from the carved stone pipe, keeping it down before exhaling, and listening to the low roll of the men’s voices. He trusted them to make the right decisions while he held the pipe between his fingers and was free to think and to remember. He thought about his mother in the family hut, remembered how she had taken him to the reefs which clustered at the end of boyhood. She had given him a flint blade, pointed to the gray island rising from the water, and said quietly, “Prove that you are a man.” She had to be the one to do this because his father died long ago. His father had been a great warrior and his curved bow still hung in the doorway.
He remembered the fish on the shore, glinting and gasping, their tails beating weakly. He left carved beads on the sand as an offering, thankful to the sea, but very sorry for the fish. It was not real killing, his mother explained, because the fish came willingly. This was hard to understand, he thought, but he accepted it. He thought about the girl with the shark tooth headband. He saw her once on the path near the river. She had appeared suddenly from the tall grass, and her wet hair fell across her arms and her arms were full of wheat stalks. She laughed and ran from him.
He did not know her name. Among the men, only her father and brothers were permitted to know or to speak her name, but they sat much higher in the hierarchy, near the warriors, and rarely noticed him. When the evening meeting was over, the men rose, stretching and murmuring, and walked through the night to their own fires, to their wives, sisters, daughters, who sat waiting, chattering together, singing high, transparent melodies which tempted the good spirits closer. That was life until one bad summer.
Since the bad summer, there were many changes, and the changes were too sudden for anyone to explain. First, the fish stopped coming. The fishermen made wider nets and waded farther into the green water, burning offerings on the sand, but it didn’t help. Then the flooding began, and it drowned the berries and roots. Then some of the villagers were filled with unclean spirits and their bodies became sick. They lay weak and coughing in the stone house and the young girls crouched beside them, pressing cool stones against their flushed, smoldering faces.
The councilors dreamed of black water rising, black water everywhere, black water surging through the village, extinguishing the fires. The sea spirit left us, they said. The sea spirit left and took the fish with him, and the flooding was the wake of his betrayal.
The Magician stepped forward and said he will go. He will descend into the sea and he will ask the spirit’s forgiveness. The villagers prepared the Magician for the journey with amulets and precious beads. They carved protective symbols into his flesh and wound sacred grasses around his ankles. The girl with the shark tooth headband poured rainwater on the Magician’s forehead, his shoulders, his lifted palms. He bowed to her, slowly, until his forehead touched her knees. Then she poured rainwater on the big gray wisdom stone while the villagers slowly walked around it, singing it awake.
Only the Magician knew how to touch the wisdom stone. He bent forward and lifted it in his hard, brown arms and carried it to the beach. The villagers followed, chanting. Without turning or pausing, holding the enormous stone, the Magician walked into the sea and disappeared beneath the dark surface. Anxiously, the villagers stood on shore. Their wailing song broke against the waves and dissolved into the briny air.
The sun rose and fell once, twice, three times. Each night, after the evening meetings where the men spoke sharply, interrupting each other, arguing about what to do, the fisherman wandered out to the beach. He sat in the sand and waited. He waited to see the Magician emerge from the waves, his long snake body glistening in the starlight, absolved for them all. But the Magician did not return. Eventually, the councilors said it was time for a new Magician. It would be the fisherman’s eldest brother. In boyhood, the eagles had circled him. Since then, he had been carefully prepared for the role.
He was no longer allowed to run and splash in the sea with his brothers, or huddle with them on the pallet and tell stories. He was too busy learning about herbs and flowers, the calls of birds, the textures of different soils. When the boys wrestled and shouted, their mother pushed them outside, pointing to their eldest brother in the corner, his head in his hands, intently studying a small, broken, bloodied wing. While they played, he learned to recognize scents and omens. He could predict monsoons from the direction of ivy on trees. He learned the language of wind. The wind visited him, sometimes, and he left his bed at night and sat on the roof of the stone house and talked with it until dawn. At the evening meetings, he was placed near the councilors, above the warriors.
The fisherman missed his brother. He had grown far from him, always occupied with rituals and conferences. Once, leaving the house for the evening meeting, the fisherman saw his eldest brother sitting near the fire, a stick in his hands. He was dragging the tip of the stick through the dirt, back and forth, tracing a strange symbol.
The fisherman stopped. “Will you come to the meeting with me?”
His brother’s face was thoughtful and sad. “I dreamed of wolves. White wolves. They were asking me to tame them.”
The fisherman did not understand. “Is that good?”
His brother did not answer. He rose, dropping the stick into the fire, and went inside the house. On the way to the meeting, the fisherman saw his brother walking ahead, but he didn’t dare catch up to him.
When the sea falls again, the councilors announced, the future Magician will leave his father’s house. A procession of young girls will lead him to the reed hut near the river where he will put on the headdress made of owl wings. He will become an owl. He will fly to the place where the sky and the sea become one. There, he will meet with the ghosts of the ancestors. He will be told all things. Then he will return and become the Magician. The villagers smiled and whistled when they heard this news. The fisherman’s mother was very proud of her eldest son. The fisherman did not feel proud. He felt like he was alone in the village, and he did not know why.
But the sea did not fall. There were no fish and no rain. There was only the dark water rising, moving closer to the village. They pushed stakes as tall as men into the sand to measure, and two of the stakes were soon underwater, with the third halfway. The sickness was spreading. More and more villagers lay coughing in the stone house. Some of their bodies had already been carried to the sea. With no food and no Magician and death stalking, the councilors surrendered the village to the warriors. As far back as anyone could remember, this was the proper solution when the village was in danger.
The warriors sat together after the evening meetings, smoking and talking, their voices deep, their phrases short and sure. Finally, they decided. One morning, the eldest warrior stood on the platform beside the stone house and shouted for attention. He was tall, with a big, dark head of matted hair. His chest was scarred, and the hair did not grow where the scars were. The villagers left their work and gathered around him. There is no fish, he said, and the roots of wheat and other plants rot in the soil. Many of our people are dying or dead. The wisdom stone has not been returned. The villagers nodded and murmured. They knew all this.
The old warrior looked at the villagers and his eyes were yellow like a lion’s. His voice was a lion’s voice. “If the fish do not come any more, we must find something else to eat. We must find animals to kill.”
The villagers were frightened at first. Then they became angry. To kill animals was forbidden. Animals were past ancestors or future children. They were part of the village family. Shaking fists and sticks, the men threatened the elder warrior. The women fell on the ground, crying out. The fisherman, who stood in the back with his brothers and mother, did not know what to do. He looked around for a stone or a stick to join the other men, but his eldest brother held him back.
Then the other warriors leaped onto the stone platform. Their bodies were painted with red ochre invocations to the spirit of anger. They held bows and daggers. They were ready for battle. Their eyes, too, were yellow lion eyes in their red painted faces. The villagers fell back. They were afraid. The warriors had never turned against them before.
The oldest warrior raised his arms and shouted. “All the fishermen will kill animals now. We will eat animal flesh until we defeat the wicked sickness and the floods leave and the fish return. We will survive.”
The male villagers threw down their sticks because they were afraid of the warriors. The councilors clasped one another and wept and wept and wept. But they could do nothing. The village was in the control of the warriors now.
Soon, the fisherman learned to be a hunter. With the other men, he made spears for throwing and practiced using bows and arrows. They dug trapping pits and wove snares. They held the sharp, lithe objects awkwardly in their hands, and could not imagine forcing it into the flesh of a living animal. The hunter thought of the deer he often saw in the forest, their soft glossy noses burrowing into grass and tree bark, snuffling and snorting. How could he hurt a deer? How could he eat a deer? It might be his father.
The villagers, however, soon grew used to eating the animals. The women cut strips of meat and put them on the coals or strung them on sticks like beads and cooked them over the fire until they turned brown. The fat sizzled and popped, but the smoke smelled very good. The children had forgotten all about fish and nuts, reaching happily for their share of animal flesh.
Once, when the new hunters were gathered to practice spear throwing, the women came with water and almonds. They stayed to watch the practice. The girl with the shark tooth headband was with them. She had grown thin, and her mouth was sad. She did not laugh and sing with the other girls like she used to. She stood among the women and looked at the glinting spears and her sad mouth twitched.
Later that evening, the hunter heard the women talking. “She will not eat the deer meat,” one of them said. The hunter understood that they were talking about the girl. A different woman asked, laughing, “Where does she think she got that headband she is so proud of? Her grandfather wrestled with a shark for three full days to get those teeth. Brought it onshore and squeezed it in his arms until it suffocated. My own mother saw him. Is a shark worse than a deer?” The other women shook their heads and laughed, too.
When the hunter walked home with his mother, he asked why the girl refused to eat.
His mother sighed. “Some villagers think there is more life in a deer or a rabbit than there is in a fish. But that is foolishness. A deer, a fish, a root, a nut—it is all life, same as you or me.”
“Then why do we eat living beings?”
“Foolishness! We would starve if we did not.”
When she saw that the hunter was troubled by this simple truth, his mother put her arms around him and asked, “Why must life take life? The question is very old. I do not know the answer. Ask your brother. He is the Magician. He ought to know.”
When they returned to the hut, the hunter found his brother near the hearth, looking at the stem of a plant. He held it carefully in his fingers, first turning it toward the light, then away.
The hunter addressed him. “Tell me, brother: why must life take life? Is it better to kill the deer and live, or to spare the deer and die?”
His brother raised his head and smiled gently. “This is not a question but a riddle. I am not quick enough for riddles. Ask the warriors. If their minds are as swift as their spears, they will be able to answer.”
After the evening meeting, the hunter approached the warriors. They sat together, discussing village matters and tearing dried meat with their strong white teeth. When they saw the hunter, they stopped talking and waited to see what he wanted.
The hunter asked, “I have found a very old question that my mother and my brother, who is to be the Magician, cannot answer.”
The eldest warrior leaned forward. “What is your question, hunter?”
“Tell me, warrior: why must life take life? Is it better to kill the deer and live, or to spare the deer and die?”
At first, the warrior said nothing. There was a silence in the group of men as each glanced at the other. When this moment passed, the eldest warrior began to pound his scarred chest and shriek with laughter. The others laughed too, though less certainly. They looked at their leader and waited for him to tell them why they were laughing.
The eldest warrior said, “This is a question that only a woman would ask. We kill because we must live. Let that be your answer. You are a hunter, and you should understand something so simple. Now go and bother the girls with your questions.”
That night, the fisherman lay in a breathing pile with his brothers, but he did not sleep. He thought maybe the warriors were right. Maybe taking life is the only way to sustain life. The girl with the shark tooth headband was so thin. What if the bad spirits filled her with sickness, too? What if she died? This thought was so frightening that the hunter pulled his knees to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut and wished for it to go away. The hunters were right: questions were for Magicians and women. They were bolder about not knowing.
Time passed and the new hunter became good at trapping rabbits, spearing, and sometimes even outrunning the deer. He was often the leader of ambush parties, and his arm rose in a graceful curve when he thrust the wooden spear into a deer’s hip. He held the animal down while it struggled, frantically raking the ground with its hooves, its heaving body hot beneath his hands, its eyes rolling back in bewildered pain. At first, it was very hard to do this. Sometimes, he woke up sweating and weeping because he remembered how the dying deer had looked at him. Then it became easier.
His mother praised him. His eldest brother, prevented from becoming the Magician until the sea fell, watched the hunter with a new respect. The villagers ate the animal flesh but they avoided the hunters. Hunters were killers, they whispered. Hunters were unclean. Killing deer and rabbits was necessary, maybe, but it was an evil deed. When the black water stops rising and the fish return, the hunters will be punished.
Sveta Yefimenko is a writer and researcher based in Boston, Massachusetts and Exeter, England. After receiving her PhD in classical reception from the University of Exeter, she has been working as a Creative Director in a writing agency. Her poetry, short stories, and scholarly work appear in literary and academic journals.