Mammoth: The Story of Iron Shaggy
Updated: Feb 26
Adirondack Fulton Chain of Lakes region, March, 2023, late night-early morning,
The Clan lumbered west in an irregular line. Ton-ton the matriarch led them. Her directives were rarely questioned. Their steps stayed on or near the abandoned railroad tracks they followed.
Occasionally the girth of their bodies snapped back overgrown tree limbs or broke them outright. Late in the month that the “smooth-skins” call March, a light snow muffled their steps. A crescent moon set behind the mountains. The wind swirled the snow before settling on the ground, as if the snow itself were drifting off to sleep.
As they walked, they sang in preparation for the ritual ahead. Any trace of their eight sets of footsteps would disappear within thirteen seconds, as if waves washed over them at the shore, a by-product of the sub-sonic vibrations of the song they were singing. In their language this principle/action was called Kau-um-to-nabi. It’s rough meaning in smooth-skin language is alignment with the universal sound, as if one could hear the sound of space itself expanding or contracting.
Hairy mammoths could run up to twenty-five miles per hour, when properly motivated but rarely choose to do so. Their pace was more of a steady, nearly silent dawdle. The largest terrestrial animal on this planet takes their time.
As the Clan skirted the edge of a bog, the distant call of a howling-black-nose stopped them. All trunks rose to smell what they couldn’t see. That first howl still echoed off the mountain when another black-nose answered, approximately a quarter of-a-mile away. All the mammoths knew that the howling-black-nose were on both ridge-lines above them. Not a cause for alarm, yet.
Coyotes, even hungry ones (and at that time of year they were all hungry) would never try to take down an adult mammoth but if working as team, they could separate and kill one vulnerable member from the Clan, and take it down. A kill might sustain their entire pack for weeks.
Responding to Ton-ton’s directive Iron Shaggy - the youngest male member of the Clan moved up in the line to just behind Ton-ton. Iron Shaggy, named for his coat which looked like shag-bark hickory recently completed his fifth full winter. If the howling-black-nose attacked, he would braid his trunk onto Ton-ton’s tail, and she would act as his battering ram and body guard.
Na-Trusk, the patriarch of The Clan, was always within one-mile vibrational distance of the song-cycle. Though he only occasionally sang, his presence at the perimeter was vitally important. His various roles carried an aura of mystery but highly valued for protection, procreation, and the occasional wisdom that came from his deep stillness. As The Clan approached the cave, he tracked them and maintained his distance on a higher trail. When he reached the peak of the ridge line he scrapped the snow, ice, sticks and leaf litter from a flat slab. Then backing himself into position and pushing with one foot and all his might, he revealed a small opening from above to Crism’s cave. A triangular shaft of light from a hundred feet above shone on the floor below. A few snow flakes fell, wafting their way down, in and out of the light shaft to a large green garnet slab..
First light bled into the eastern sky behind the other members of the Clan. After walking all night, they arrived at the blocked entrance of Crism’s cave. The snow still fell, heavier now, up to their ankles. The woods were quieter than any they could recall. The coyote pack trailed them still but out of range. All of the Clan knew they would have to pass through howling-black-nose territory to return to Margery’s farm.
After exchanging a volley of head shakes and ear flaps, Ton-ton and Kurn wedged their heads into the small spaces on either side of the enormous boulder that blocked the cave’s entrance. Ton-ton snorted, and she and Kurn began to lever their heads and trunks to bear on wedging the boulder to the side. Their knees bent and shook, nearly buckling under the strain. The giant pads of their feet gripped pushing their toe nails, like studs on snow tires. The two behemoths slipped, slid, and then re-gripped and pushed harder. Ton-ton snorted and the other adults started to pull with their trunks or shovel with their tusks into the side of the boulder. Even Iron Shaggy and Cinder, the youngest female, lodged their backsides under Ton-ton and pushed between the massive rock and the entrance. Working together, rocking ferociously, from side to side all eight of them rolled the giant boulder aside. When it cleared the doorway they panted in exhausted relief.
A blast of cool, stale air with a hint of something dead wafted from the open mouth of the cave. The squawking protestations of a porcupine (which the mammoths call A’a-A’a) startled Iron Shaggy. The little creature hobbled passed him, out of the cave to search for new lodgings.
Ton-ton shook her head once, signaling the others to wait, and went in alone. The sides of her massive body squeezed through the entryway. The three-ton hairy mammoth, seemingly swallowed by the dark.
Ton-ton’s eyes adjusted as she crossed the threshold to a spacious rock cathedral illuminated from above by a single shaft of white light. She paused to take in the majesty of Domed Rock—the Clan’s holiest sanctuary. Standing posed, the tips crossed in equipoise against the back wall of the cave were two enormous tusks of brilliant white ivory,
A pile of enormous bones rested on a flat slab of green garnet in the center of the cave. Mammoth mythology had it that the Great Spirit made this cave at the beginning of time so that they would always be safe to honor their ancestors.
Her trunk working like a broom, Ton-ton brushed aside a few small stones and then loudly hoovered out of her trunk to blow the accumulated dust off the ivory colored skull of Crism-the-White.
Crism-the-White, the anointed one, the foretold one, the albino mammoth who, 10,000 years ago, taught the ancestors of the Clan the secret song-cycle of shadow-making.
All night, as the Clan walked to this cave, they sang parts of the cycle in a register so low no smooth-skin could hear it. At least two of them always sang for the others. The sub-sonic vibrations shook the twelve cranial nerves inside atlas vertebra any smooth-skin within one mile blocking any and all sensory perceptions making the Clan imperceptible. Crism's discovery of the song-cycle and the power it gave the Clan to hide in the shadows allowed them to survive into the 2020s.
Ton-ton trumpeted. The echo extended for minutes, until even the mammoths couldn’t hear it. With one massive foot hoisted in the air, she listened to the innuendo of silence until Hinton, the second eldest female, rumbled into Domed Rock, taking her place in the center of the stone platform. From Hinton’s swollen cheeks dropped a few dozen black walnuts still in their shells. Ton-ton swaddled them with the end of her curled trunk and crushed them under the giant pad of her fore-foot.
Six other members of the Clan entered in a formal procession trunk-to-tail. They made an evenly-spaced half circle around the stone platform. Ton-ton and Hinton surveyed from atop the altar. Kurn rumbled her lowest tone. Following this signal the others stopped, s-curled their trunks in salute to Ton-ton and Hinton. Na-trusk peered down on this ritual from his perch, through the small opening high above and outside the cave
Then Ton-ton the matriarch's trunk rolled the skull of Crism-the-White in black walnut oil. With the prehensile “finger” of her trunk, and the most sophisticated olfactory system on the planet she examined every cavity and corner of the skull, lingering slightly longer in the eye sockets and holes for the tusks. She devoured that unique smell of antiquity, like a sun-bleached, weathered saddle, now drenched in darkness, hoping to absorb some faint trace of Crism-the-White’s revered wisdom. Ton-ton's temporal glands streamed, and her breath stuttered out in short bursts.
Encircling the skull with her trunk, she hoisted it up high so the others could witness. Then, standing only on her two back feet, she reared up and trumpeted. She hung suspended in the air with her two fore-feet reaching in counter-balance. Her scream reverberated off the walls of the cave and vibrated the stone platform on which she stood. The Clan shuffled quickly from side to side, occasionally bouncing off of one another while still remaining sensitive enough not to knock over the smaller members—like Iron Shaggy.
Ton-ton had survived sixty-two winters. Now that she and the others had connected to their shared past, her attention turned. Her obligation, and the reason for this rare trip: to pass the leadership of their clan to the next linage holder, the next matriarch. After Ton-ton’s passage into forever-time, whomever she chose now would be the new matriarch.
Ton-ton, still carrying the skull, swept past her two younger sisters Hinton and Kurn and placed the skull on the ground directly before Devalar (her niece). She was significantly younger than the other two but a wise choice nevertheless. Even Kurn tilted her head and rhythmically flapped her ears to acknowledge that the best decision had been made.
Devalar would make a good matriarch. The largest female, almost as big as Na-trusk, she held all the promise of a clear-headed, strong and fearless leader. She sang the song-cycle well and demonstrated to be it’s most respected improviser.
Devalar cradled, sniffed and fondled the bleached white skull of Crism. She rose up on her two back-feet and trumpeted, accepting responsibility for leadership of the Clan when Ton-ton passed. The entire clan’s collective ear flaps, signaling loyalty and agreement, looked like gigantic fluttering bats. Then Devalar passed enormous skull along to the next in the circle. As each member of the Clan held the skull, they lifted one leg in the air, paused, then trumpeted.
By the end of this ceremony, they all knew their parts in the newest installment of the great song-cycle.