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The Young Clan Mother's Tale: Short Story Excerpt (1998)

In a certain Neolithic European clan village, circa 4500 B.C.E., the Young Clan Mother's eldest daughter, just about to celebrate her puberty and approaching womanhood, has been abducted by a herding band of patriarchal foreigners from the east, led by the young girl's own biological father. The Young Clan Mother, with a search party of hunters and women scouts, leaves her native village to find and rescue her daughter, but she will need allies from among native animal clans, her foremothers in spirit, and the First Mother (Earth) Herself to succeed in this mission against the invading herder-clans.

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The young clan mother was determined to fetch her child back herself, and laid out her own plans to do so. She would leave her sister closest in age to herself to act as clan mother in her absence, and accompany the visiting hunting band away from the village, taking three women scouts with her. She knew of a very famous wise elder woman who lived alone to the south on a mountain above the treeline, who had a reputation for shapeshifting and could likely tell her where to find her daughter and how to help her escape. After much discussion, the clan decided to bless her mission and pass the Four Duties of the clan mother to her sister for the time of their leader's absence.

The young clan mother's party journeyed to the south and east for seven days before approaching the range of mountains where the old wise woman was said to live. Two of the scouts and two hunters were sent to locate the old woman's home above the treeline. They were gone two days and two nights; and they returned to their party's camp early on the third morning with the news that they had found the old woman's house house on a plateau full of heather and wild mustard, but nobody seemed to be there. They recounted as well how they were pestered by a very vocal magpie flying first above the cabin's door, and then directly in front of their faces. "It was some time before we could escape this bird", said one scout. "And then, all the way back through the woodland, there were squirrels running after us and scolding at the top of their lungs."

"Indeed", said the older hunter, "The squirrels were calling first from one direction and then another, until we were ready to stop last night. There was a strange sort of life or current around that house that made me rather uneasy."

The young clan mother was more than a little disturbed by these words herself; but the thought of her first daughter being broken down like a herd animal under the foreigners' control kept her walking along the trackers' trail. They walked all that day and well past the middle of the next, until they stood at the base of the old woman's mountain. The young clan mother did as her judgment told her, taking the women scouts with her only to the treeline and hearing from them the directions to the cabin. Then she trudged on alone, taking a gift of herbs and nuts that she had grown in her own plot.

There was indeed a difference around her on the path toward the elder's house, in the air and in the grass. It was not that anything here seemed more frightening or dangerous than in any other place; but there seemed a difference in the way the grasses moved in the wind, the ants ran along the path, and birds flew up to catch the wind. Even the ground currents seemed to vary in their usual pattern.

When the young clan mother reached the cabin, she released the hitched-up ends of her skirt so that it nearly reached her ankles, and brought her gift out of her sack which was strapped from her shoulder. As the scouts had said, there seemed to be nobody here. She walked around the cabin three times, and strayed a little way further on the path, still finding no one. Bewildered and disheartened, she came back to the front of the house and was about to knock on the door when a little voice over her head said, "Yes, do let me into my kitchen, will you? Good girl--there's no hole big enough in the roof." The young clan mother jumped several feet away from the door, and looked all around to see who had spoken in this tiny, squeaky voice. It came again--"Up here, silly!"--and she saw the thatch move with a bit of commotion, and out popped a thin silver mink. With a bit of effort, it leaped from the roof onto a young shrub, and crawled to the ground from there. Now the creature stood calmly on its hind quarters, staring at the young woman who stood as if frozen before it. "Come, clan mother!" it squeaked. "Are you going to stand there petrified like all the rest, while the whole world goes mad? I know what you've come for, so let me in and let's get to work!"

"Do you know me?" cried the young clan mother, trying to make sense of what was in her vision and hearing. For all she had heard of shapeshifters in her youth, she had likely thought they were only wise people in animal masks, taking on another creature's nature. She wondered if she had suddenly fallen into a vision and was no longer awake.

"Must I nip your ankle to show you you're awake?" snapped the mink. "I'm the old shifter woman you're seeking, and I've rambled, flown and swam within sight of every clan in Danubia! I've never met you in the flesh, but you'd swelled your mother as large as a mountain the last spring I saw her, in the Festival of Lengthening Days. I knew your grandmother and great-grandmother as well. You're obviously from a fine line, but they never prepared you for what you're to face now, and for a long time ahead. As I said, the world's doomed to go mad--and all because of one madman. Now listen: I must lay a duty on you, and then I'll show you what's to be done for yourself. Wrench the door open and let me into my kitchen." The young clan mother crept back to the door, pacing a wide circle around the wise woman now in mink form, keeping her eyes on this apparition all the time. As she began to pull on the lichen-covered door, she heard the mink's voice behind her--"If you can't get over being received by a mink and not an elder, you'll soon behold the reason."

Indeed she soon did. Before she had the door unbarred, she smelled a dead thing like the body of the scout she and her mother had once found in the woods, a young man who'd fallen from a tree and broken his neck. After two strong tugs finally wrenched open the door, the young clan mother stood facing a rush cot covered with a wild goat's-wool blanket, on which lay an elder woman's corpse reduced to bones.

1998 by Karen I. Olsen

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