The older man stood a little taller than Sean. They were looking up the trunk of a pine tree when the boy realized this. The beard of the man was as dark as his hair, but it glinted with red and occasional speckles of gold and silver as he surveyed the many branches. The boy was almost glaring at the wrinkles around the man’s squinting brown and green eyes when suddenly they turned to him. “Yes, sir?”
Had Sean been holding anything right then he would have dropped it. He hadn’t realized he was staring, but he also wasn’t prepared to be addressed so respectfully. “Um, sorry?”
“You were obviously grading me somehow. I was just wondering if I passed.”
“Oh.” Sean caught his breath, then coughed. “I just wanted to know…who you are?” He fiddled with his sleeve awkwardly, and finally looked up the trunk of the tree.
“You can call me Grey. Now, do you see the ladder the tree forms?”
The boy stumbled with the quick redirection, but – determined to not let this odd man down, in case he was the hero he sought – he did his best to pay attention to every shift in conversation. He quickly climbed the pine tree – easy, except for the puzzle-box effect of the limbs’ dense growth. Only when he was 60 or so limbs up and the view cleared did he find himself overwhelmed. He was asked to continue to go as high as he could manage, which exceeded his own expectations. The limbs were thin and springy when he finally paused, and bellowed a victory cry into the wind.
It was only midafternoon when they finished, so they returned for some delicious roast beast and fresh greens, which they gathered on their way back. Before the sun set, the older man showed the younger the use of a strop to sidle up the sheer side of a tree. While smoother bark caused the boy to slide like water down the trunk, by night-fall he had managed to master the rougher bark and even thicker trees.
The next day had him climbing maples high into the canopies, looking at baby birds and checking health as they harvested sap. He also collected young apples – thinning the growth and allowing a rough, potato-like starch for their evening meal. The tartness paired well with the fish they caught, and only his hunger let Sean know how long of a day it had really been.
The days ran together as he explored the third dimension of the forest there, and he scarcely realized that he had accomplished his goal until one day he awoke to the man sitting by the doorway again, sketching. Sean’s makeshift mat on the floor was quickly rolled up without a word and stowed beneath the cot, but then he looked hard at this older man, stymied. “So, ARE you the shapeshifting warrior?”
The man studiously returned to his scribbles, grinning mischievously. “I just do things. But if he were here, what would you ask next?”
The boy pondered. He looked at the man’s thick arms, at the walls hung with skins and weapons. “I would want to be able to be a fierce warrior, able to fear no man or beast.”
“No tall orders here! And how would you do that?” He set aside his paper, and gave the boy his full attention.
Sean hemmed and hawed, staring at the bow and arrows closely. “Well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be seeking help. But I suppose I would start by making a solid weapon, yes?”
The man disappeared out, returning with a hot bowl of porridge made from grains and honey they had gathered. “Well, eat up and we will see about doing that.”
They wandered up the mountain that day, just past the treeline, and found a nice bed of what Grey called chert. The stone had an odd, matte finish considering the glassy look of it, and had ripples of beautiful colors. Sean was almost sad as they began to break it apart into thin layers, but when he saw the sunlight glinting through the grey, brown, and white, and learned how to turn his first chunky failures into honed arrowheads, he became elated.
When he was taught how to find an ash tree for a long bow and cedar for the arrows, he thought he was nearly done, but not the case. He had to smooth and shape both bow and arrows, and felt victorious at his triumph. However, when his master gave him a long, smiling look, he knew another step was in order. Indeed, the search for sinew had to commence.
Working with Grey closely, he managed to find a quiet corner of the woods to seek out a deer. Once the buck was stalked by them both, the older man quickly dispatched it. The body was prepared, its heart laid to rest so that the majority of the body could be carefully processed with all due respect. Many items were prepared, including months’ worth of jerky that could be reheated later for stew or other delicious entrees. Meanwhile, the sinews were dried. The tendon had to be hard to be pounded out into threads, then the threads had to separated, gathered, and wound together. Sean was astounded at the work involved, but did every step of his weapon’s crafting with his own two hands, with gratitude in his heart.
Finally, a moon later, he was able to go out for his first hunt with his own bow and arrow. His heart was alight as he found and protected his perch, but was startled when his teacher suddenly appeared.
“I could smell you a mile away, so I guarantee that they could too.”
Sean shook his head in astonishment, then cocked it to one side in confusion. “Who could smell me?”
“Everyone. All our neighbors.”
Sean cast his gaze widely, searching in confusion for the people who hid there. “Did we get neighbors? Am I bothering them somehow?”
The older man laughed and crouched into the hunting blind the boy had constructed of nearby fallen branches. “Now lad, I’m not referring to the people who wear clothes and have silly names. I’m talking about the neighbors who were born in their rightful clothes – the birds, the deer, the squirrels and more. You cannot hunt them unless you learn their home as though it were your own. You need to recognize all the People of the forest as your neighbors, and learn their habits as you would Mrs. So-and-so down the road.”
Sean pondered for a moment, thoroughly unwilling to embarrass himself further in his response. It had not occurred to him that feathered and furred creatures could be called People. And he had certainly never thought to ask how they take their tea!
The man laughed quietly. “I think you have this all wrong in your mind. They are not people like you and I. They are People like, well, like they ARE. You have to walk into it with a clean slate, and allow them to speak to you directly.”
The boy sat next to his teacher for hours, quietly watching the nearby chipmunk feed his nursing wife, while the woodpecker cleaned the trunks of ants and termites. He began to learn the songs of the night birds, and simply forgot to go to bed as he watched the raccoons forage. He found himself wakened not by a sound but by heat, when the sun reached down through the trees and into his hiding place the next afternoon.
He sought shelter back in the hut as his mentor laughed uproarious at his exhausted state, but woke up aglow and ready for the rest of the lesson early in the evening. He was barely patient enough to wait for steak and berries to cook up before wanting to head off into the woods again.
He learned how to control his body’s smell, as well as his use of the wind. He learned the hunting and life habits of their many beautiful and varied neighbors, and how to be patient in watching them. In fact, he learned to love them all, just as much as his neighbor Mrs. So-and-so back home. They were even nicer than she had been, pointing out where to find the best roots and berries. If anything, what he really learned was that he never wanted to have to hunt any of them!
Luckily, the buck they had caught would likely hold them off, and he was happy to simply finish preparing the materials that remained. He finished boiling the marrow of the last few bones, then removed them to bleach in the sun. That’s when he found the wolf.