The Iceman

Bruce Ducker Click to

bducker-250The poems and short fiction of novelist Bruce Ducker have appeared in The New Republic, The Yale Review, Southern Review, Missouri Review, Hudson Review and Poetry magazine.  He lives in Colorado and is at work on his ninth novel.


Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and so on.  If the Iceman died 5,100 years ago, and we take a generation to be 30 years, then he died 170 generations ago.  The number of ancestors of each of us would then be 2170.  Therefore our ancestral lines must have crossed repeatedly in this time . . . . This view has enough to it to make it very probably that we have before us a proper forefather.

Torstein Sjovold, in The Man in the Ice, 1992 Innsbruck International Symposium

Some years ago, along the Alpine ridge that traces what is now the border between the Austrian Tyrol and the Italian province of Alto Adige, a man walked with two goats he had that day trapped and hobbled.  It was late summer, and the high grasses were yielding the last of their color.  Against the grays of the mountain, the schist of boulders and glacial ice, the black eyes and hooves of the animals and the man’s ruddy skin were the only movement, the only contrast.  The maize of his clothes matched the landscape, and indeed came from it.  He wore a coat of hide, likely the red deer plentiful in those mountains; from a leather cinch about his waist hung a loincloth and leggings from the same animal.  He also wore a leather apron, and an over-sized cape of woven grasses.  Within the seams of this cape-coat he had stuck three or four clumps of tinder fungus, an inedible mushroom valuable as a fire-starter.  His upper shoe was also deerskin, but the soles were bear, the toughest hide available, cut to measure by a skilled cobbler.  He was not unarmed.

He traveled with everything he owned.  Hunting in the high mountains, he had slept every night on the alpine tundra. The chamois goats that he led were long-haired and their pelts would bring a premium.  He was expert in snaring and tracking, and spent most of his days in the far parts of remote country.  This excursion had been successful—he would bring the goats, alive, to the encampment of shelters that gathered six or eight miles down, where the glacier turned to a fast river the color of molten lead.  He knew the people of the camp, spoke their language.  They were not unfriendly and they would trade with him.

Tonight he himself would bed down on the mountain, and be among them tomorrow.  He carried enough food so that he would not have to butcher either goat.

He had not yet decided what to seek in exchange for his quarry.  Food he could always find.  His shoes were sturdy, and he had enough flint and arrows—no need to carry more.  He knew of a woman in the village, perhaps he would ask for her, but that would bring other needs –shelter and a place to return to— and an end to the life he had lived for most of his time.  Still, it had been a long while, and if he ever were going to have a hut and a woman and a family, now was the time.

The goats had been surprisingly easy to stalk.  Chamois live high in the rock.  Because they are so fleet afoot and protect each other, they pay little attention to danger.  Their sentinels always look downhill when on guard, and are unused to an enemy who approaches from above.  That of course is what he did—set his snares where the grasses were long and ungrazed, and simply waited.

So, he thought as he closed his loop around the shinbone of first one, then the second.  They give us several lessons: rely on your kind, but not too much.  And look over your shoulder.  In his hunts he had come to think about what it meant to be a goat or a partridge or a red deer—there was no other way to succeed.  He had decided it was not very different from being a person.

He considered the sun’s decline and decided to stay the night alongside the glacier, in a flat part of the ridge.  Boulders would shelter him from the wind.  If he began the climb down, night would fall and catch him in the open.

He carried a longbow strung with a length of deer sinew.  He had sharpened one end of the bow to a point, to increase its use.  Untying the thong, he drove the shaft into the tundra and tethered his goats to it.  He bound the rear leg of each to the other, so they wouldn’t wander. Anchored now, they were content to graze.  A chalky stream came off the glacier, through his campsite, and would serve for water.  He took a birch-bark sheet from inside his cape, and curled it into a cone.  Three times he filled it from the stream and drank it off.  He had been up with the moon to get his goats.  Now he would nap, and when he woke it would be time to make the second and last meal of the day.

It had been a good life, and had taken him across distant ranges of mountains.  Many summers he had herded sheep: he would gather them from local camps, pasture them in the alpine grasses, and during the good weather walk to distant enclaves that had skills other than husbandry. To the north was the tribe who had made his clothes, beyond them a source of flints and flint blades.  To the south, extraordinary craftsmen who fashioned him an ax with a bright metal blade, the red-orange of his campfire.  He’d found the color in only a few river stones, and in meadow butterflies.  His own ax had cost him three grown ewes and a ram.  That summer, other than what he’d given for the ax, his stock went to repay the villagers who had started his herd.  It was important to honor his word.  Otherwise he had no vocation, and was merely a thief.

The ax was a cause of satisfaction to him.  Its builder had selected the handle with great care, a northern hardwood cut from a durable joint.  The blade had been hafted into a notch and secured with what must be pitch.  Great ingenuity had gone into lodging the blade.  It had been cast with flanges, concave indents on its facets that fit between two natural bulges on the joint of wood.

Over the years he’d used the instrument almost as many ways as he’d used his hand.  It scraped for roots and, when he was hungry enough, insects.  It cut firewood.  The blunt end could dispatch a trapped hare and the sharp butcher it.  It was a weapon and after his fall last year a walking stick.  It also gave him, he knew, authority.  Wherever he visited, the ax was a pennant that everyone recognized.  Not merely for what it could do, but the effort and travel and civilization it signaled.  Pits in the ground had produced the metal.  He had seen them, men risking their bodies to extract and refine these veins of rock.  Further south, he was told, they were making an even more durable metal, combining the red ore with other rare earth.  But this blade had lasted him well.

On his journeys he’d seen remarkable sights.  To the west, a tribe had men and women skilled in drawing, and they put their pictures of mammoth and bison onto rock.  He wanted to learn about paints.  Things he knew might be of interest, how to snare, blowing an ember to flame, his thoughts on stars that chase each other like moths.

A recent injury still bothered him.  He had been driving a large herd to the east.  A young lamb became separated from its mother and got itself trapped on the edge of a cliff.  He worked his way out, through the milling ewes, and tried to calm the lamb, but as he neared its cries became more frantic.  Agitated by the danger, the sheep bunched up and pushed him first to the edge of the cliff and then off.  The twenty-foot drop had cracked his ribs, three from the feel of it though sometimes it felt like ten.  That was the previous summer.  Still he couldn’t breathe deeply and when he coughed he saw bright splashes of pain on the lids of his eyes.

Other than that his health was passable.  Wood fires had given him raw lungs, he had sharp stabbing in his spine for which a shaman had tattooed him, and his knees and hips turned on pebbles where, he knew from the many animals he had dressed out, there should be gristle.  But his teeth were sound and his sight sharp.  Winter was coming, and winters were always hard.  This would be the time to consider village living.

Village living.  If that was where he was going, he should plan for what he and a mate would need.  He could trade one goat for a batten blanket to cover a lean-to, the other for its poles, a water jar, a cooking pot.  Food came easily for him.  He was skilled with the longbow, made for him by a craftsman near the sea.  He had twice seen the sea, and its vastness chilled him the way the stars did every night.  Shore people thought that on death their Spirits went out with the tides and swam with the creatures.  Not he.  He was a mountain man, and mountain people knew that after death their Spirits went to the sky as new stars, and there waited.  At the next birth of a creature, whether a beetle, a badger, or a human baby, a star came down to become its Spirit.  The Spirit of every being demanded respect, since one day it might occupy the body of your friend or your child.  The worst thing you could do was to insult a being, for that cut his Spirit, and its bleeding was inside.
That was a thought worth a cave wall.  But how to draw it?  He had made images on a scrap of hide old apron, using blackberry juice and an antler point.  What if others would do this?  What if ten men had thoughts worth recording?  Twenty?  A hundred?

He took off his cape and aligned it on the soft grasses so that when he slept, the northern winds would blow up from his feet.  Then he lay down and watched the stars.

In his lifetime he had spent more nights outside than, and he knew the patterns of the stars.   Watching them had brought him to the sure feeling that the stuff of the universe was an infinite number of tiny bits moving arbitrarily through space.  They were like the motes in the air one saw on swatting his cloak in the first sunlight.  No difference existed between the make-up of his body and the make-up of the sun or the oceans.  These bits collided, merged together, broke apart and reformed, he was convinced, altering their form and appearance, altering their very quality—sometimes solid as stone and other times elusive as mist, a ceaseless pattern of creation and destruction.

If it was so that Spirits ascended and that everything consists of the same stuffing, then we were all tied together, stones, trees, hawks, goats, men.  More than related. Interchangeable.

Others looked up at the same night sky and found the fabric for myth: gods and motives and schemes, stories that children loved.  But he puzzled why adults found greater dignity in these stories than in the remarkable truth to which he had come.  In his way of thinking the miraculous family of the universe was one, mountain and goat and the grass that bound the two, river and fish and man who lived off them.  He had heard of the lands where conquest drove the inhabitants, where men struggled in ambition to subjugate others and then struggled in fear to maintain their slaves in servitude, and he saw its futility.  Those men were chasing dreams, and before their death they would see that they had chased a path that missed the beauty and pleasure the world afforded.

Smiling at his deliberations, he closed his eyes and thought about nothing.

He woke with the sure knowledge that some animal force was within feet of where he lay.  The ax was by the camp fire, too far.  One hand slipped down inside his jacket to find the flint blade that had been wrapped in a rawhide handle, lest its edges cut his hands.  It was of no match against a large mammal, but a wolf or badger might be discouraged by a slice.  Once he had it in his palm, he opened his eyes.

Three unkempt and dirty men sat around him.  He recognized the dirtiest, a swarthy youth whose deformity had given him the name of Rabbit: his upper lip was split and shortened at its midpoint, leaving his teeth exposed in a permanent sneer.  He was from the camp on the river.  That same warp had given the lad a split hard palate and odd speech.  Everyone assumed he was dimwitted, and the lad played the part.

Now with a point of reference, the man recognized the other two as well, also locals.  One, perhaps Rabbit’s age, had a single eyebrow that crossed the slope of his forehead and gave him a menacing look.  The third was albino, fluttering blond eyelids and white hair, a grown though slight fellow who in his village was called Little Pink.

The three men waited for him to sit up, so they could determine whether he was someone they would kill.

The eldest, Little Pink, spoke first. He admonished the man for sleeping in the open, unguarded.  He used the language that had come up from the south.  The man knew this tongue quite well.

“Postin viam videmos `tranges da lontano valle.”  On the road we are seeing strangers from a remote valley.  At the verb he waved one hand backwards over a shoulder to signify he was speaking in the past.

The man shrugged.  “I have nothing to hide,” he said.

“It is not what you hide but what you have,”  Little Pink answered, and the man knew he was right.  Friends might kill you for the provisions in your rucksack.  Strangers needed no reason.  The man nodded.  He had been thinking about the very predicament before he lay down to sleep: how might humans rediscover the self-protective urges he’d observed in so many of the animals?  To kill only what you would eat, so that there would be more when you grew hungry again.  To look out for the others of your kind: the sheep who were agitated over the imperiled lamb, the two goats who quieted down immediately when bound to each other.  Even ants seemed to understand how to act for a single purpose, cutting food and storing it in their nests for lean times.

His musings were interrupted.

“Have you any food?” One Brow asked.  He looked up the hill where the two goats stood, rump to rump, chewing and blinking.

“You are hungry?”

“We’ve had nothing to eat all day.  Yesterday Little Pink stoned a skinny hare and we cooked it with some roots.  Bitter roots.  We’ve seen nothing more.  The village sent us out hunting and we can barely feed ourselves. ”

The man knew the deer herds were still up high—he had seen them, but decided not to harvest any because he was so far from any settlement.  They were grazing on the Alpine humus that snows would soon cover.  These men were village dwellers, not competent hunters.  They had failed because they sought animals that slept while they searched, and grazed while they slept.

“We will butcher one of my goats and make a feast,” the man said.  He asked Rabbit to gather firewood from the pine forests that had sprung up at the glacier’s drainage.  To One Brow he gave a birch-bark cone and told him to go with Rabbit and collect June berries from the bushes he would find on the floor of the groves.

The man stripped off his coat and leggings so he could more easily work.  Standing in loincloth, apron and shoes, he noticed Little Pink’s curiosity.  One by one, he untied the several buckskin pouches from his belt and laid them on a large, flat-topped boulder.  Little Pink shyly came over, and the man explained.

“These are arrow holders.  These arrows,” two of the heads were bound with bone and the one a finely shaved stone point with flutes, “are finished.  These others need work.”  The second sack held shafts of ash, bone and stone points, crow feathers, their barbules stripped on one side from the vein, ready to be attached as fletching. A third sack contained various tools.  A slender antler tip—the man demonstrated—it punched holes in hide to allow the binding of edges.  There was a thick roll of maple leaves gathered from a valley floor.  The extra flints Little Pink recognized.  But he did not understand another tool:  a hollow bone, the length of a hand, into which the rending bicuspid of a carnivore –a wolf or a wild dog—had been jammed.  Without words to explain, the man took out a two-inch length of flint and patiently began to demonstrate.  Pressing the tooth point forcefully into the stone, he broke off a tiny flake.  Then moved centimeters down and repeated the step.  In minutes he had given what Little Pink assumed to be a fire starter a second life—a razor-sharp, scalloped blade.

The next sack held grains of finely ground einkorn.  The man gave Little Pink the sack and made him to understand he was to stir it into a paste—bread for the evening’s meal.
Finally the last leather pouch—a miscellany.  Bits of batten, unused buckskin patches and bark shreds, a short strip of sinew and the mandible of a small rodent, which, Little Pink realized, could be used as a saw.  He pointed to the last item and gave a questioning look.  A marble disk, perhaps a hand’s width across, had been threaded through with leather strips, knotted on one side.

The man nodded idly while considering an answer.  Finally he responded, first by describing with his arm the expanse above, which his pupil took to mean that he was abandoning all tense and time.  Then he used the words for creating and beast and Spirit, but for that last he used the suffix that signified the Great Spirit.

Little Pink listened carefully, then pursed his lips and put a hand to his new friend’s shoulder, to thank him for the lesson.  But in fact he did not believe the man.  How could this toy turn the stars?  It appeared to be simply a spool on which the man kept spare rawhide strips, and it was clear the man did not want to share any extras with him.
Only when he was demonstrating the blading tool had the man let go of his remarkable ax.  Now he reclaimed it and used it as a cane to walk up to the captive goats.

Together they untethered the smaller goat and untied it from its mate.  The man led it to the large boulder.  He placed his hands on the animal by its withers, leaned down and whispered in its ear to apologize and to alert its Spirit.  Then, the man dispatched the goat, a crisp blow with the heel of the ax-head to its forehead, and as cleanly slit the goat’s throat.  Together they hoisted its hind legs over the rock, and set about its skinning and dressing out.

The two youths returned from the glade of trees.  The man chose the thinnest branches in their bundle, sliced in some mushroom as tinder, and built a pile in the shape of a lean-to.  He unrolled his stash of leaves and placed an ember from yesterday’s fire at the heart.  Flames began to crackle.  The young men gathered rocks from the surrounding scree and heated them.  The man severed all four haunches so the meat would cook more quickly.  Soon the goat carcass was roasting underneath the stones, its aroma filling the breeze, and the flat einkorn cracker was baking atop.

The man noticed Rabbit over by the large boulder, inspecting his tools, and went over to ask if he could explain.  But Rabbit seemed embarrassed and rushed away.  The man was sensitive to this sullenness, but laid it off to youth.  He’d found that people, boys in particular, were uncomfortable about learning.

His guests gobbled down the meal.  The goat was succulent, the einkorn welcome.  He had shown them how to mash the berries with leaves from wild rose and goose-foot that grew on the tundra, how the herbs took away the sourness.  The sun was now below the mountain tops and its heat was spilling quickly from the thin air.  In the faint light he noticed that Rabbit had acquired a new accoutrement: the man’s second quiver, the one with the finished arrows, hung from Rabbit’s belt.

“That’s a well made pouch,” the man said.

“Yes,” agreed Rabbit.  “It is like the one you have.”

“It is, indeed,” the man said.  “I can see that one edge has been patched with grass.  That patch will not hold.  I’ll give you some gut to sew it.”

Again, Rabbit grew agitated.  It was too dark for anyone to see a seam on the pouch.
“Yes,” Rabbit murmured.  “I’ve been meaning to do that.”

Rabbit’s companions watched the ground during this exchange.  The fire burned lower and the man raked through its ashes and salvaged two thumb-sized lengths of charred branch to wrap in his leaves.  Then, leaning on his ax, he limped over to the grass mat that served as both bed and shawl and lay down.

Silently the guests fell to sleep.  But the man was restless and in pain.  His side hurt, his hard day of tracking and climbing had left every joint throbbing, and he knew something was wrong with his insides.  He had seen whipworm in the entrails of animals he had butchered, and suspected he had one himself.  A Spirit may inhabit a body, but it must sometimes share the space.

It was a good thing to have shared the goat with guests.  He had no need for trade, he was too sickly to start thinking of a family.  Instead, this day he had made three friends from a village, and passed on a bit about skinning and preparing berries.  One of them, Rabbit, was worth a picture.  Without correction, Rabbit’s spirit would sour and grow sullen, and he’d make cruelty in the world.

A million million stars came out, and gathered across the sky into their banded community.  He found the four or five brightest—Spirits, he knew, now spiraling to earth to occupy their next creation.  From under his greatcoat he took the marble disk and, as he did most nights, began tracing the turns of the bright stars by weaving loops.  He had first thought that the Spirits of the sky were distant and static, and the wheel they described every night was like the smoke from a fire.  They simply went up and came down in a helix.

But after charting their epicycles for many nights with his astronomical invention, he knew better.  Disembodied Spirits behaved in the sky just as we did below.  Some went in tandem with each other, some intersected and drifted off, others like him lived a life on the outside, describing their own orbit.  Still he had traveled widely, had spun about settlements, tended herds, slept alone and occasionally twinned.  And so, he came to understand, bodies were not important.  They were like the antennae of beetles, they receive signals, they translate pleasure and pain, but they are not what link us to the heavens.

Eventually the man slept.  When he awoke he realized from the brightness that he was well into the day.  Little Pink sat cross-legged nearby, watching him.

“I need to rise, to water the goat.”

“I do that while you sleep,” Little Pink said, indicating the past.  The man nodded his thanks, rose and began to shake out his cape.

“Why are you letting Rabbit take your pouch?” Little Pink asked.

The man explained.  When they first asked for food it was because they were in need.  When Rabbit took the quiver, perhaps it was because he, the man, had two, and Rabbit had none.  Perhaps Rabbit had a child or a sister who had been snatched by robbers and he needed something to barter in ransom.  Or he needed arrows to find food for his family.

“If he couldn’t tell me, it was because he would embarrass himself and wound his Spirit.”

“What if he just wanted it?  What if he wants to have things just to have them?”

“Then he has a sickness,” the man said, “and that too would embarrass him and wound his Spirit.”

“I can get it back for you,” Little Pink offered.

The man smiled and shook his head.  “From the moment Rabbit appeared at the fire wearing the pouch, I put it out of my mind.  Now it belongs to him.”

Here is a man, thought Little Pink, who is close to the stars.

Just then five men appeared over the ridge.  The suddenness with which they arrived meant they had approached in stealth.  Three carried thick cudgels and one a long bow although no arrow had been notched in the string.

The man realized his ax was in hand but his flint knife and bow were on the rock, out of reach.  The visitors were from a far valley.  They had yellow hair and blue eyes.  He had stayed once with such a tribe, to the north, and knew a little of their tongue, an old European dialect not used in this valley.  The man welcomed them in all the languages he knew, and pointed to the ground to say, “Sit with us.”

Their leader was disfigured–the skin on one side of his face scarred to look like the scales of a snake.  He wore a bearskin cap and a primitive pelt that tied about his middle.  The man knew they were scanning the rock where his possessions lay, exposed, estimating the villagers’ armament, measuring the weight of the remaining goat.

“Stay a while,” the man said.  “We have meat and biscuits to share.”  One Brow fetched the leftovers and the three villagers sat in a semi-circle.  Slowly the man with the snakeskin face sat as well.  The goat carcass went around and each man tore off handfuls of meat.  Throughout, the man stood leaning on the head of his formidable ax.

“You have been hunting?” the man asked, mostly by pantomime.  He learned from their answer they were seeking the herds of red deer.

The man told them that he had seen large herds in the high country.  Also packs of wolves that fed on them.  He pointed out the way, drew the mountains in the dirt, and with circles for suns counted the three days’ walk.  When they finished eating he handed them the remains of the goat.

Before they left, the snakeskin man produced an amulet, a clouded garnet the size of a walnut.  He showed it to the man, then knelt and rubbed the stone on the man’s crippled knees.

The man took the stone and placed his hand on the donor’s shoulder.  The five men trudged off in search of game.

“I have another question,” Little Pink said as they packed up.  “You share food with us because we’re from your tribe.  I understand that.  You visit us and trade in our village.  But why do you share food with them?”

The man shrugged.  “We have another goat.  They had none.  They came thinking they might take everything from us, and they left as friends.  What is a good trade for the scraps of meat they ate?   Some cloth and a pot for cooking, or five friends?”

All of this Little Pink attended with solemnity.  The man donned the rest of his clothing, tied in his pouches, and said his goodbyes.  Before starting on his hike down the hill, he needed to relieve himself.  The great glacier was only steps away, and the man believed in privacy and modesty.

He climbed onto the glacier, and, ax in hand, stepped forward.  The glacier, he knew was a marvelous sieve.  It purified the waters that all animals, including he, spilled on it.  On top the surface was striped with deep abysses, and its snows had melted and refrozen again a thousand days.  The crevasses were not monochrome but grays and browns and various shades of ivory—nut-grown and wax and cream—all whorled like the bandings of marble.  The man smiled, because the designs echoed the complexities of the world he’d observed.
Below he saw Little Pink talking earnestly to Rabbit.  Little Pink held what had been the man’s quiver.  Good, thought the man.  He is explaining my thoughts.  So my few words go first to Little Pink and then to Rabbit and, then, who knows where?  We do the work of the glacier.  It scatters rock and seed and plants throughout the valley, and it breeds rivers that will water life so far away we cannot imagine.  Who can say what this glacier will bring down to people that are not yet here, whose stars seem frozen in the highest sky?  Before the men left, he told himself, he would salve Rabbit’s spirit.  After all, it was only a hide pouch and some trinkets.  He turned his back to the conversation and began to pee.
In fact Little Pink was scolding Rabbit.  Whatever he was saying made Rabbit flush with shame and anger.  The older man finished, called to One Brow, and they moved off, expecting that the chastened Rabbit would follow.

But the words had wounded Rabbit’s Spirit.  Glum and humiliated, he went to where the man’s long bow still tethered the remaining goat.  He pulled the bow from the ground.  Unaware of his new freedom, the goat continued to graze.

Rabbit pulled an arrow from the pouch he had been told to return.  He chose the one with the stone point.  Bone was used for distance and speed, it shot further and could bring down small game.  For stone, the bowman needed to be close to his target.

He nocked the arrow into the string, and loaded the bow with his weight.  It was a simple matter to take aim and let fly.

The arrow entered the man’s back at his shoulder blade.  Its edges, each bearing the tiny c’s of chipped flint like the mark of a child’s fingernail, cut and severed the man’s left axillary artery.

Now Rabbit climbed up onto the glacier.  The ax was still in the man’s hand, the man himself still breathing but life leaking out from him.  It would be a simple matter to wrest it from the man, but Rabbit knew he could not take the ax.  Any tools, for that matter.  They would give him away.  Little Pink, who had befriended this man, would be angry.  Fit and strong, Rabbit had pulled the bowstring back its full measure, had loosed the arrow with force.  Its head had come out the other side, by the man’s shoulder, underneath the collarbone.  Rabbit grabbed the shaped stone and with considerable effort pulled the shaft through.  Then he put his foot under the man, at the stomach, and rolled him into the crevasse.

The ax lay on the edge of the trench.  Rabbit kicked it after the body.  He stared in thought at the longbow and arrow, and reluctantly threw them in.  The stolen quiver as well.  Then, his Spirit lifted, he turned and hurried down the mountainside to join his fellows.


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