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Near-Earth Space, Nine Days to Impact

The remnant had sailed the empty spaces between the stars since time began. Had journeyed far, far in space and time from its birth at the beginning of all things, far from its forging in the primal fires of Creation.

There was no destination on its voyage, but there were occasional ports of call. Scattered here and there throughout the void, tiny orbs clustered close around their parent primaries, huddling against the cold and the dark. Most such solar systems were bypassed without incident. Still, every once in an eternity, some unlucky world would chance to swim out into the remnant’s path.

As one was doing now.

* * *

The sun was just grazing the western rim of the world. Night, the fleeting night of high summer, would soon spill across the subarctic domain of the Evenki nomads.

Bright against the June twilight, the flames of the solstice fire were once again summoning the clans of the Stony Tunguska River to their yearly gathering high atop Mount Shakharma.

From his station beside the ceremonial drum Jenkoul watched a few stragglers trudging up the slopes from the Great Swamp below. A frown creased his flat, sun-burnished features: Fewer again this year. Over the winter three more of Jenkoul’s clansmen had set out on their long journeys up the River of the Dead, three more casualties in the endless feud between the Tunguska clans and their brother Evenki from the tributaries of the Angara.

Jenkoul sighed. The Tunguska watershed that was home to his people sprawled across a third of a million square miles of Central Siberian plateau. Yet, even eight years into the twentieth century, its inhabitants numbered no more than thirty thousand souls. Ten square miles to every man, woman, and child. In such emptiness even one needless death was a catastrophe.

But Jenkoul sensed still greater catastrophes to come.

His father’s eldest brother, Pilya, said that these formless forebodings were a gift, that it was given to the first son born to every generation of their line to see beneath the skin of the world and behold its beating heart. And Pilya must know. Pilya was shaman to all the Stony Tunguska clans.

It was a gift Jenkoul had turned his back on. He was content to tend his herds and hunt the wild elk in the valley of the Stony Tunguska. Content to keep both feet planted in the Middle World of men, and leave the Lower World to others.

Only once in the year did he make a small exception. As to that, it was tradition for the shaman’s oldest living male relative to beat the solstice drum and open the spirit-road to the Land of the Dead. But still ... could this brush with the Lower World, glancing as it was, have awakened some sleeping part of his soul?

Only a sliver of sun remained above the horizon now.

“Brother’s son,” the raspy voice grated in his ear, “It is time.”

Jenkoul turned to see Pilya standing behind him. The shaman had donned his fringed rawhide robes and hidden his leathery face behind a leather mask. At a nod from this apparition, Jenkoul bent to the drum and beat a rapid tattoo. The crowd parted, clearing a path to the dehtur, the mat of worked reindeer hide where the two worlds of the Evenki Cosmos met.

Pilya entered the dehtur’s sacred confines and readied his soul for its journey into the Lower World. He reached into his medicine pouch and withdrew a small fleshy morsel, nearly as brown and withered as the fingers that held it. Calling upon the creatures of the air to serve once again as his spirit-guides, Pilya lifted the shred of mushroom to his lips.

The drum went silent. A hush fell over the gathering. Pilya’s arms stretched out like soaring wings. His chanting rose in pitch. He began his trance-induced metamorphosis into a snowgoose. Only in that form could a shaman fly the crooked trail to the Land of the Dead, there to treat with Byanaka, its Lord. To bargain, on this shortest of all nights, for the souls of those animals the clans must slay in the coming year.

At that moment, Pilya held the life of the Stony Tunguska clans in his age-blemished hands. If the blood-price were not set at the summer solstice, the wild game would flee before the hunters’ shafts, the people would hunger in the winter snows.

And it was at that moment that Magankan, shaman to the hated Angara clans, strode into the camp.

A few tried to block Magankan’s path. He shouldered them roughly aside. Before anyone could stop him, he had set foot on the dehtur itself.

The intruder stood there ringed by his sworn enemies, huge and brooding as a thunderhead, red eyes burning in his dark, twisted face. It was whispered that, in his pride, Magankan had dared to exorcise his own khargi, the companion-spirit inhabiting the soul of every shaman. And that, in the struggle that followed, he had been driven mad.

Yet even a madman should know better than to imperil the renewing of the mystic bond between the clans and the cosmos at the summer solstice. Stunned by the sacrilege, the clansmen crowded closer around the hide-covered patch of sacred ground. For long moments not a sound was heard.

The silence was shattered by a rifleshot. Jenkoul chambered a second round, aimed again at Magankan’s chest, and fired again at point-blank range. Both bullets struck home, visibly jolting the enemy shaman.

But Magankan refused to fall! He uttered a word of incantation, then reached beneath his rawhide shirt and withdrew two blood-smeared objects. He grinned and hurled Jenkoul’s own bullets back in his face. Truly it was said: the things of this earth held no power over a shaman willful enough to subdue his own khargi.

But, still in the grip of his avian spirit-guides, neither was Pilya wholly of this earth. Screaming defiance, he took on the aspect of a golden eagle, fingers clawed and slashing at Magankan’s eyes.

Magankan countered the shamanic assault with a bone-chilling howl, bristling as he adopted the persona of that animal the Evenki feared most, the hated wolf. None but Magankan could have warped his soul into the likeness of this wanton, craven killer, this “beast of evil heart.”

Snarling and shrieking, the two totemic animals circled one another in the firelight, careful not to overstep the fringed border of the dehtur that marked the limit of their domain. The eagle soared and swooped, seeking the throat of his skulking adversary. There! An opening!

Plunging as from a great height, Pilya saw his mistake too late. The exposed throat was withdrawn at the last instant. Instead, the eagle’s dive carried him directly into the slavering jaws. The lord of the winds was borne to earth; the ravening fangs commenced to rip and rend. Pilya tore at his attacker’s snout with his talons, but ever more feebly, as blood brightened his rawhide plumage. The beast of evil heart lifted his shaggy head and howled his triumph.

Magankan slowly shed his lupine attributes as he straightened to stand grinning over the body of his vanquished foe. Through lips stained with Pilya’s lifeblood, in a voice still hoarse from his personification of the wolf, he spoke:

“Clans of the Tunguska, you have troubled your brothers too long. You have hunted the wild game in the lands drained by the Angara. You have slain men of the Angara. You have desecrated the totems of the Angara clans.” Magankan paused, and in that instant loomed even larger: “Enough! Your own totems are broken. Your solstice fires, dowsed. Your tribe will find no path through the winter snows. Your lands, the heartlands of the Stony Tunguska, will know the wrath of Ogdy!”

Then, turning, he pointed a finger down at the dismal fens of the Great Swamp.

Down at the spot that, in future years, would come to be called The Epicenter.

Cislunar Space, One Hour To Impact

The remnant was deep inside the blue-white world’s gravity well now, having crossed the orbit of its sole satellite hours ago. A scant fifty thousand miles out, its trajectory warping infinitesimally from moment to moment, it continued to heed the planet’s insistent gravitational attraction.

In so doing, it paid unwitting homage to a deep and universal truth: Gravity, though by far the weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature, could nonetheless grow so strong as to overmaster all the rest. Influencing the path of an infalling projectile was the least of gravity’s effects. Concentrate enough mass in one place, and the resulting gravitational force could gather up the galaxies and hold the stars in their courses. Add yet more mass and gravity could do still more. The remnant’s own thirteen-billion year existence attested to that.

Right now, though, gravity was merely engaged in selecting an impact site ...

* * *

The wrath of Ogdy, Old Man of the Thunder! Nine days had passed and still Magankan’s terrible curse echoed in Jenkoul’s ears. For good reason. Mounted on his reindeer Onikan, Jenkoul was riding ever deeper into the lands lying under that curse — the heartlands of the Stony Tunguska. He shivered with more than the morning chill.

Perhaps it would be safe. Why should it not be? Nine times now the sun had arced through the sky, and all was as before: The same sun, the same sky, the same noonday heat giving way to the cool of evening. Herds of domesticated reindeer, lifeblood of the Evenki, still grazed on new shoots in the thickly forested taiga. Dense veils of mosquitoes still swarmed over the marshes of the Chunya. The living world, for all that it mourned the loss of Pilya, bore no other trace of Magankan’s sacrileges.

It must be safe!

He would find out soon enough. Onikan was making steady progress down the Silgami ridge, an ancient outcropping of basalt pointed like a flint knife at the heart of the Khushmo river valley. Unlike the bogs of the Great Swamp to the southwest, here the rocky soil offered purchase for the reindeer’s hooves. And the ground was free of undergrowth. Tall stands of larch and spruce saw to that: their upper branches wove a seamless canopy that left the forest floor in a sun-stippled half-light where only mushrooms and mosses could grow.

At this pace, they should reach Jenkoul’s southern herd at Churgim Creek by late morning.

Mount and rider crested the ridgeline. Through a break in the trees, Jenkoul could see the twin peaks of Mount Shakharma on the horizon. That meant that — Yes, standing in his stirrups he could make out the brown mass of his herd, seven hundred strong, grazing on the high banks of the Churgim. The finest reindeer herd in all the Tunguska clans.

The view was lost as they moved into thicker forest again. But he was close. Deep within the heartlands now, and still no harm had befallen him.

Without warning a shadow reared up in Jenkoul’s path, a darker darkness against the forest gloom. Sudden shimmering movement revealed its form: a giant Siberian gray bear, twice the height of a man, and not six strides away.

Onikan jerked to a halt so abrupt Jenkoul was nearly pitched over its antlers. The reindeer stood frozen in its tracks, trembling, eyes rolling. Jenkoul reached out a hand to soothe his panicky mount — if the reindeer bolted now, the bear would be on them in an instant. It was only when his mount began to calm that Jenkoul could spare a glance at the enormous beast before him and ponder what to do.

Unlike the malevolent wolf, the bear was a creature of good heart. He seldom attacked without provocation, never killed capriciously, and confronted his enemies with courage when beset. His manlike mannerisms, upright stance, and evident intelligence were all signs that the bear indeed possessed something akin to a human soul. Bears might be hunted and slain, but only in keeping with observances bordering on the sacramental. In all dealings with this lord of the forest, respect was mandated.

And it was with respect as much as fear that Jenkoul regarded this bear now. He spoke aloud for the first time that day: “Grandfather, let there be peace between us. Do not bar my path.” The Siberian gray shifted his great bulk, but made no other reply.

Jenkoul saw then that he might have no choice but to kill the beast. He unsheathed his firearm and took aim at an eye. Hit him there and he might die before he could reach them. His finger was tightening on the trigger, when something in the bear’s manner made him pause. It was as if the creature was waiting for ... What? Recognition, perhaps?

The rifle trembled in his hands. Jenkoul realized what — or, rather, who — confronted him on this shadowed hillside. This was no ordinary bear at all. It was an avatar of Byanaka, Lord of the Lower World, guardian of the souls of all animals.

Jenkoul stared at the silent specter, struggled to rein in his racing thoughts. Could it be? Was it being given to him to mend the breach in the cosmic order rent by Magankan at the solstice? Jenkoul was no shaman to journey to the land of the dead and treat with its ruler. But neither did he need to, with the avatar standing here right in front of him.

He must try.

“Lord Byanaka ...” He faltered, but the spirit-bear pricked up his ears at the name. Jenkoul drew in a breath and tried again. “Lord of the Dead, the hunter Jenkoul comes before you to speak for the clans of the Stony Tunguska.”

Jenkoul had heard the shaman’s side of this negotiation through many a solstice ceremonial while Pilya still lived. He struggled now to recall the proper words. “Grant us good hunting through the snows of the coming year. Let our prey accept the arrow and the bullet gladly. Let the elk and the snowgoose and the loon yield up their lives, knowing they give life to their brothers of the Stony Tunguska clans. Do this, Lord Byanaka, and I will make you an offering of elk heart and marrow in the depths of winter, at the return of the sun.”

There was more, much more. The full ritual lasted through all the space of a short subarctic summer night. But this was all Jenkoul could remember. Was it enough?

Byanaka inclined his great head. Jenkoul let out a breath: The blood-price was acceptable.

Then the Lord of the Dead drew himself up to his full height. He sniffed the air, took a step forward, waved his huge paws. Jenkoul was sure he heard the avatar speak then, growling “Mot! Mot!” — the command an Evenk rider gave to his reindeer to goad him into a run.

Byanaka was warning him back the way he had come.

His Churgim Creek encampment beckoned. If he pressed on through the morning, the shady interior of its birchbark choum would offer respite from the midday heat. Must he turn back now, with his destination so near?

But only the foolhardy man ignores the counsel of a god. Jenkoul bowed his acquiescence and steered Onikan through a half-circle with the pressure of his knees. He twisted in his saddle to look back, but the Siberian gray was nowhere to be seen. In the place where the spirit-bear had stood, a single beam of early morning sunlight fell upon the mossy forest floor.

What danger could threaten in this sacred place? The curse? Magankan had called down Ogdy and his thunderwinged minions upon the clans of the Stony Tunguska, had invoked the god of the storm. Yet the day had dawned bright and clear, not a wisp of cloud in the sky.

Yet ... Jenkoul was the only one who knew the clans’ compact with the Lower World had been renewed. If a storm was coming, he must survive it, if only to bring back word.

Loathe to desecrate the earthly abode of Byanaka with a shout, he bent forward and pressed his lips to Onikan ’s ear. “Mot! Mot!” he whispered.

The reindeer began to run.

* * *

Fifty-seven miles southeast of the soon-to-be Epicenter, on the outskirts of a ramshackle of sod-roofed wooden huts that styled itself the Vanavara Trading Post, Semyon Borisovich Semyonov was sitting on his porch, finishing his meager breakfast. A coincidence of time and place that conspired to make him the only European to witness the Tunguska Event at first hand.

Calling Semyon a European might be stretching a point. Gruff, blunt, thick-bearded and hard-handed, he had long since gone native. Born into serfdom in 1861, freed by tsar Aleksandr’s emancipation decree while still a toddler, and evicted from his ancestral village by greedy landowners before he was out of his teens, Semyon had fallen in with the army of tramps who, as Chekhov wrote in 1890, “promenade all over the Siberian plain without hindrance.” Always one step ahead of the law and the draft, he had finally gravitated here, to Tunguska — about as far as a muzhik could get from imperial police officials and military conscriptors yet still hear Russian spoken, albeit half the time with an Evenki accent.

Going on twenty years here now. Semyon, much to his surprise, had put down roots. He could hardly have chosen a less propitious place for it. In Vanavara, whatever you couldn’t wrest bare-handed from the poor soil or the impenetrable forest was in short supply, or none.

Semyon’s first chore of the day was a case in point: Breakfast done, he was trying to snug an iron hoop onto a cask full of flour using nothing more serviceable than an axe.

“What are you doing there, Papa?” Petya Kosolapov had come clumping up onto the porch.

Semyon Semyonov sighed and grounded the axe. He didn’t much care for his son-in-law calling him “Papa.” Didn’t much care for anything the fat moocher did, truth be told.

“What does it look like?” he said finally. Then, rather than wait for Petya to guess, he hefted the axe again and brought the butt-end down on the hoop. Rather too hard. The hoop sprang off the cask and rolled around on the plank flooring.

“Watch it, Papa! You’ll split that cask wide open. Don’t you have a hammer?”

Semyon bent to retrieve the hoop. He sighed again and looked up. “What brings you by, Petya?”

“Uh, a board has worked itself loose on the hay-wagon. Katya sent me over to borrow a nail.”

“Did she, now? And where does that daughter of mine suppose I would get such a nail? Do you see any nails around here, other than the ones holding this shack together? Those you may not have.”

“Do not be angry, Papa. I only asked —”

But Semyon was warming to his subject. “Do you imagine that a man who has no hammer, as you have just now so cleverly observed — do you imagine that such a man would have a nail? You are not in Tomsk any longer, my boy. Out here on the taiga you must learn to make do with what is to hand. ‘If a man has no plow, he’d best furrow with a stick,’ as the saying goes.”

“Make do? But how?”

“See that broken window frame out in the yard? A resourceful man, a real Siberian, would be out there now, looking to see if he could salvage a rusty spike or two from it.”

Petya nodded in that slow-witted way of his and shuffled back off to “make do.”

Semyon watched him go, then returned his attention to the cask. He had to fumble with the hoop for a bit. Hard to get this right. There.

He was just raising the axe for a final blow, when the sky brightened directly overhead.

Ground Zero, 60°55’04”N, 101°56’55”E, June 30, 1908, 7:14 a.m.

The forest falls silent. Even the ceaseless susurration of the Great Swamp’s insect life fades. Far off in the southeastern skies, clearly visible in broad daylight, a bright blue star appears.

The remnant is close now. Four hundred miles out and a hundred miles up, just beginning to brush the lower edge of the ionosphere. The resulting shockwave fluoresces in the ultraviolet. The thickening atmosphere absorbs the radiation and re-emits it at longer wavelengths. Trailing a plasma column of cerulean blue, it descends.

Scattered outposts throughout the sparsely-inhabited Tunguska region awaken to a cannonade of sonic booms echoing down from the cloudless sky. Villagers pour into the streets to watch in amazement as a blindingly bright blue “pipe” bisects the heavens. Old women burst into tears, crying that the end of the world has come.

In Vanavara, Semyon Semyonov arrests his axe in mid-swing and looks up. The sky — the sky splits in two! A broad streak of impossibly brilliant blue cleaves it from south to north. Semyon struggles to his feet. As he watches from his porch, the blue line touches the horizon.

Fleeing Magankan’s curse through the Silgami highlands, Jenkoul is the closest human being to the Event this summer morning. Yet, because his view of the southeastern heavens is obscured by dense forest canopy, he is the last to see it coming. Nor can he hear any warning of its approach — its speed far exceeds that of the thunder generated by its trailing shock wave. He urges Onikan on through the eerily silent forest, looking back over his shoulder.

A patch of sky glimpsed through the empty arms of a blighted birch suddenly flares blue-white. Jenkoul halts Onikan, begins to dismount, and nearly falls out of the saddle as the first in a series of thunderous concussions hits him.

Ogdy! The Old Man of the Thunder has unleashed his terrible winged minions at Magankan’s behest! Peal after peal deafens Jenkoul, as all around him ancient stands of larch and pine crash to the ground, uprooted and smashed flat by the hurricane-force blast wave. The morning chill is gone. Beyond toppling trees, a mountains-high tongue of flame reaches up.

Ogdy is kindling his lodge-fire in the heartlands of the Stony Tunguska.

Only the lore of the Evenki saves Jenkoul now. Pilya has taught him how a hunter caught in the open by a blizzard can survive by hunkering down alongside his mount, using the reindeer’s body as a shield against gale-force winds. Perhaps this will work for fire as well as ice. Jenkoul yanks Onikan to the ground and cramps his wiry frame into the lee of its torso. The thunder is one continuous roar. Jenkoul exhales and holds his breath, lest his lungs be seared by the superheated air now washing over him.

At Vanavara Station Semyon watches the blue line touch the horizon. A flash too bright to look at, and the whole northern half of the sky is aflame. The axe falls from his hand. The sky has split open, and, in opening, has disclosed not the heavens, but the fires of hell!

He turns to Petya out in the yard, but that idiot, worrying away at a spike in the window frame, has seen nothing. Semyon opens his mouth to speak. A monster wind stirs the trees in his peripheral vision. Suddenly he is running off the porch, tearing at his clothes. His shirt is smoking, so hot it burns his skin! Petya howls and slaps at his head, as if it too has caught fire. As Semyon clears the stoop, the blast wave hits. It picks him up like a rag doll and flings him three man-lengths across the yard. Fissures open in the ground around him. Flat on his back, fading in and out of consciousness, it is all he can do to throw an arm across his face and block out the sight of the sundered sky.

Directly above ground zero a pillar of fire punches a path twelve miles up into the stratosphere, creating a partial vacuum at the blast site that sucks thousands of tons of earth and ash skyward. A churning black pyroclastic column ascends fifty miles into the sky, pumping tons of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere, to an altitude where the mesospheric air currents can sweep it up and circulate it around the world.

Sunlight scattering off the high-altitude debris will paint the night skies with noctilucent clouds. In London on the night of June 30th the air-glow illuminates the northern quadrant of the heavens so brightly that the Times can be read at midnight. In Antwerp the glare of what looks like a huge bonfire rises twenty degrees above the northern horizon, and the sweep second hands of stopwatches are clearly visible at one a.m. In Stockholm, photographers find they can take pictures out of doors without need of cumbersome flash apparatus at any time of night from June 30th to July 3rd. These strange “white nights” will continue, gradually fading in intensity, throughout the month of July 1908. Scientists across Western Europe, unaware of events thirty-five hundred miles to the east, are at a loss to explain the phenomenon.

But here in Vanavara, where the cause is clear, the sky is far from bright. Darkness descends at mid-morning, as the heaviest clumps of dirt and ash precipitate out in a black rain. A dazed Semyon leans on his wife and son-in-law as they half-carry him back into his cabin, out from under the hideous sky.

The force of the blast continues to propagate outward, though it must traverse hundreds of miles of taiga before coming into contact with the first outposts of twentieth-century science. At the Irkutsk Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, the free-swinging weights of the hermetically-sealed Repsold balances chart the onset of a massive earthquake five hundred fifty miles to the north. Instrumentation as far west as the eastern seaboard of North America will soon follow suit.

But it doesn’t take a seismograph to detect these seismic effects: Close in, the isolated camps of the Stony Tunguska Evenki are smashed flat or sent flying as the subterranean pulses slam into them. Further out houses sway and windowpanes craze throughout a circle two hundred and fifty miles in radius, centered on ground zero. On the newly-completed Trans-Siberian railway line three hundred seventy-five miles southwest of The Epicenter, a locomotive screeches to a halt lest it be thrown from the tracks by the tremors; the terrified engineer tells the conductor to get out and check for signs of a boiler explosion.

At Germany’s Kiel University, six time zones to the west, Herr Professor Doktor Ludwig Weber is midway through his nightly observation run. A short run, as is usual in high summer. Soon dawn will come and bring the night ’s viewing to an end. Meanwhile it is time to check on his little riddle again. It is a small thing, perhaps, but a welcome distraction nonetheless, and (who knows?) perhaps worthy of a mention in the Astronomische Nachrichten. Beginning on June 27th, and continuing over the past several evenings, he has noticed unusual, periodic deviations in the needle of the observatory’s compass. The fluctuations begin around dusk and last well past midnight, their peak coming perhaps an hour later each evening. Almost as though some highly magnetized object were approaching the earth from far out in space. Yet when Weber points the telescope at the likely region of sky, he sees — nothing. What could be so close and so powerfully charged as to interfere with the magnetic field of the earth itself, and yet remain invisible?

Weber checks the observatory chronometer: 1:17 a.m. The phenomenon, already especially strong tonight, should be nearing its height. He sets down his notepad, rubs his eyes, and strolls over to the compass, yawning. That is curious — the compass needle has stopped performing its little trick. Perhaps it is stuck? He taps on the glass to free it. Nothing: the needle refuses to budge. The “Weber Effect” is gone, disappeared. What could have happened?

Closer in, the magnetodynamic effects are not so subtle. Magnetometers at Irkutsk Observatory, five hundred fifty miles due south of ground zero, record the raging of an unprecedented geomagnetic “storm,” beginning at 7:23 a.m. local time, and lasting nearly five hours. Echoes of the storm are picked up at the observatory at Pavlovsk, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg two thousand five hundred miles away. Even as far west as London, the Times will report “a slight, but plainly marked, disturbance of the magnets on Tuesday night.” The next time the world will witness disruptions of the earth’s magnetic field on such a scale will be in 1958, following the detonation of an H-bomb at Bikini Atoll.

Moving at the speed of sound, a massive airborne shockwave thrums the coda to the event. Thirty minutes after and two hundred miles downrange of the impact, the barometers at a backwoods meteorological station in Kirensk record its passage. It will reach Irkutsk Observatory a quarter of an hour later. Attenuating with every mile, the concussion still retains enough energy to be heard as distant thunder a thousand miles away.

And even after dropping below the threshold of audibility, the pressure wave travels on. When it finally dies out twenty-five hours later, it will have circled twice around the globe, and left traces of its passage on barographs in Potsdam, London, Washington DC, and Djakarta.

Miraculously, the event has expended the brunt of its fury on one of the most desolate places on the face of the globe. Had the impact occurred a mere five hours later, the earth’s rotation would have shifted the epicenter to the outskirts of populous St. Petersburg, and the death toll would have climbed into the hundreds of thousands.

As it is, the only human casualties are from secondary effects: heart attacks and strokes suffered by a few of the Evenki tribesmen closest in. No one has died as a direct result of the catastrophe’s hellish violence. Not even ...

Jenkoul uncoils from his crouch. Moving slowly, so as not to inflict further torment on his parboiled flesh, he braces himself and rises shaking to his feet. In so doing, he attains what is now the highest vantage on the ruined Silgami ridge. The old-growth forest that had soared above his head has been leveled to the ground. He can see the whole of the sky!

And, in that sky, a towering black column shot all through with lightnings — the lodge-pole of Ogdy! — rises up and up forever.

Onikan does not get up along with him. The reindeer remains lying on the ground, sides heaving in agony, lowing piteously. The animal’s hindquarters, which had been directly exposed to Ogdy’s fiery breath, are burnt through to the bone. The stink of scorched hide and meat in his nostrils, Jenkoul draws his rifle from its singed sheath to administer the last mercy. One final, shuddering breath, and the great heart stops. Onikan’s soul is released on its journey to the Lower World, to join the thousands of its brethren — all seven hundred reindeer of Jenkoul’s southern herd among them — that have perished in this day’s holocaust.

Jenkoul limps down the tree-tangled hillside, moving north out of the blasted heartlands once sacred to Byanaka, now accursed of Ogdy. Every step brings pain — pain he disregards. His thoughts are no longer on his battered, burned body, nor on the smoldering ruination all around him, but on the insight he has been vouchsafed this prodigious morning.

He knows what his clansmen will soon learn: He, brother’s son of Pilya, who has treated face to face with the Lord of the Lower World, who walks unscathed out of the devastation wrought by the Old Man of the Storms — he, Jenkoul, is destined to be shaman of the Stony Tunguska clans.

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.


[Notes and Further Reading]

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The portrayal of Evenki culture given here is drawn from a variety of sources, including:

Innokentiy Mikhaylovich Suslov’s Materials on Shamanism of the Evenki Tungus on the Middle and Lower Tunguska (Wiesbaden 1983, in German — Joachim Otto Habeck’s English translation is available here).

Arkadiy Fedorovich Anisimov's Religiya Ehvenkov v Istoriko-Geneticheskom Izuchenii i Problemy Proiskhozhdeniya Pervobytnykh Verovanii [The Religion of the Evenki in a Historical-Genetic Perspective and the Problems of the Origin of Primordial Belief Systems] (Moscow, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1958) was very helpful for details of the Evenki religion and worldview.

Ivan Lissner’s Man, God, and Magic, translated by J. M. Brownjohn (New York NY, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961) provided general background on the cultures of Siberia, as well as the “beast of evil heart” and the name of Jenkoul’s reindeer.

Morton Friend’s The Vanishing Tungus: The Story of a Remarkable Reindeer People (New York NY, Dial Press, 1973) contributed the folktale from which the story of Jenkoul’s encounter with the spirit-bear was adapted.


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copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.