Charles R. Tanner The Man Who Captured Shadows

This is the story of a caveman, who lived in Europe thousands of years ago, when the ice of the great glacier still covered all of Scandinavia, and France was a land of long cold winters and violent spring floods. He did not wear fur pants, this caveman, nor did he carry a huge club, and his name was not Uk, nor Ab, nor Og. As a matter fact, he didn’t even live in a cave.

His name was Penweh-dok-absho, and his tribe was of that race which we of today have called the Cro-Magnon. His weapon was throwing spear, and when he wore furs at all, he wore them around his shoulders where they did some good. He lived in the open, as did the two score other members of his tribe, though there was a cave nearby, that served as a place of worship. His totem was the Bear.

Now this story rightfully starts when Penweh was about seven years old, for that was his age when he learned of the big magic of the shadows. It had been one of those miserable days when food was scarce and when darkness came, he crept hungrily into his mother’s lodge by the side of the big cliff, and fell into a fitful, troubled sleep, and then suddenly the lodge was gone and he was stalking a herd of horses, just as he had often seen the grown up members of the tribe do.

He had his father’s throwing stick in his hand, and when he saw a likely looking mare rise up from the tall grass where she had been sitting, he hurled the spear and was delighted to see the creature leap forward and then collapse to the ground. He hurried forward and seized the mare by the man, pleased and only slightly amazed to find that, young as he was, he had in some strange way, required the strength to drag it away. In no time at all he had brought it all the way back to the tribe’s home-place, and all the people gathered round, loud in amazed praise of the little boy who had been so bold. And just as Penweh was about to call for a knife to skin the mare he was back in his mother’s lodge and the mare was gone.

He sat up and looked all about, but the carcass of the mare was nowhere to be seen. He was sure somebody had stolen it, and set up such a howl that his mother awoke, and bowled him over with a blow that sent him whimpering out of the lodge to spend the rest of the night uncomfortably in the open, searching for his lost mare.

Next morning, when day came, he looked all about, but there was no sign of the carcass, nor, stranger still, were there any signs of a thief having been there the night before. Penweh, like any other of his tribe, was an instinctive tracker (as are the lowest types of savages today); and this lack of evidence of any human or animal thieves frightened him strangely. Trembling a little, he approached his mother and told her all of his adventure.

His mother broke into a shrieking cackle of laughter, which brought several other women around, and to them she told of Penweh’s hunt and of his wonder as to where the carcass had gone. The other women laughed as loudly as she had, but after a while they sobered down, and all agreed that this was a name sign. So the named him Penweh-dok-absho, which meant “Youth Who Loses Horse”, and from then on, until the day game when he got a new name, that was what he was called.

But his mother was not done with him. That morning she took him to Chunma, the Fire Watcher, the old wise woman of the tribe, and they talked long together; and then Penweh’s mother departed and left him with the old woman. Chunma gave him a bit of horse fat to chew, and sat and watched him until it was all gone. Then she began to talk.

She told him that while he had believed he was hunting the mare, and killing it and bringing it home, his mother had been quite certain that he had never left the lodge. She had seen him lying there, his body, his clothes, and even his father’s throwing stick and spear had never left the place.

Penweh began a tearful protest, but the old woman hushed him with a threat and went on. Events like this were very common, in spite of their mystery, she said, in effect. Everybody had such adventures, while the body staid right there, wrapped up in the slumber.

And this was the mystery of those strange dreams… the part of you which experienced the dreams was that part which clung to you all through the day, and all through the time you sat about the fire, and which left you only when darkness came down on the earth… the shadow!

It was the shadow which left you when you slumbered, and hastened to the land of shadows, where, under the great chief of shadows, it fought and hunted and lived a life very much like the waking life, until morning called it back to its owner.

“And sometimes,” the old woman’s hoarse whisper finished, “Sometimes the shadow loses its way, and cannot return. Then we take the body and put it in a hole in the ground and pile rocks upon it to protect it from the wolves, so that the shadow may find it if it ever comes back. And we go away from that place, for an angry shadow, hungry and strong, its nothing that anyone wants to meet on a dark night.”

That was what the old woman Chunma told Penweh on his name day, for it was the custom of these people to call a boy by the name suggested by the first dream he ever recounted, and to make the day of his recounting, his name day.

As Penweh grew older, he learned more and more about the power and importance of the shadows, until at last it seemed that the shadows held a more important place in his life than the things of matter. It was an angry shadow that caused the sicknesses, the fevers and the pains in the belly; it was the big chief of shadows that caused the flashing lightning and the loud roll of the thunder; and it was small evil shadows that lay in wait for a man on his return from the land shadows, making him lose his way so that he never found himself back in his body. But… there were good shadows, too, though there weren’t many of them… the Master Horse, for instance.

If one was careful not to eat a horse’s heart, the master horse would not be angry, but would send more horses your way, and so you would always have plenty to eat. But woe to the man who ate the heart, for it was from his that the Master Horse made a new horse, and if this was eaten there would soon be no more new horses. The Big Bear was another good shadow for the big Bear was not only the ancestor of all the bears in the Great Wood; he was the ancestor of Penweh and his people too. His temper was short, but if he was kept propitiated he could do much for you.

Now if I have seemed over long in telling of the many things Penweh believed, you must be patient with me, for it was because of the things which he and his tribe believed that Penweh became the great man which he finally became, and it is the story of how he became great that I want to tell you now.

When Penweh was seventeen, and curls of dark hair were beginning to darken his chin, he knew he was a man, and began to think of mate. If his father had been alive, there would have been wealth in the family of Penweh, and his father might have bought him one of the maidens of the tribe, but his father had died the year before, and his mother had promptly mated again, taking with her all of his father’s furs and stones and bone implements for a sort of a dowry.

So Penweh thought for long on the subject of his mating and decided at last that there was but one woman for him, and that was Didi-mar-misidi, the daughter of a man who, though at one time a mighty hunter and a bold warrior, was now blind and hence worthy to be nothing more than the singer and story teller of the tribe.

Didi was a pretty little thing, but her father’s sad handicap was a handicap for her a well… it was not good to marry into the family for a man who was not more than a singer. So the cost of this girl would not be too great and even poor Penweh might hope to buy her.

One day, Penweh took his wealth and went to the place of Didi’s father and there was much talk of songs and hurts of the old days and many compliments were passed and at long last, Penweh, as though by accident, spoke of his desire for a mate. And then there was more talk, and when it was ended, Penweh went home with glistening eyes and a song in his heart, for it had all been arranged and Didi was to become his mate when the moon was full again and the night was clear enough for the Great Bear to look down and see them

But when the day’s full moon came, there was a very bad omen in the skies; evil shadows had pushed clouds around until they entirely covered the skies, and the Great Bear could not look down on the living place of the tribe. So the wedding was postponed, of course, and many of the tribespeople muttered to Penweh that it would be well if he never married Didi at all. Penweh had come to love his little fiancée and made arrangements to marry her at the next full moon. As the time approached, and the days seemed clear and bright, he came, bringing his little wealth to her father, and was met with a frown.

“The Shadow People do not like this wedding,” the old man began hesitantly. “They have frowned upon it once and… I cannot accept your gifts, Penweh. My daughter is not going to be your mate.”

Penweh thought he was going to forbid the marriage because of the shadows and he at once set about to convince the old man that the shadows had no real objection to the marriage, but the old man held his ground and at last the truth came out. Natsumnak-nimmi had also asked for the daughter, Didi.

This Natsumnak was the medicine man of the tribe. He alone of all the tribe knew all about the shadows, and how to control them, frighten them, and even, occasionally, punish them. He had a hundred ways of chasing them away, of calling them to him, and indeed, if he could be believed, there were many shadows who were his servants and would do anything he said. Of course so powerful a man was called upon often to perform his work, and so he had become very rich, and, after the Chief, was the foremost man in the tribe. Penweh was much disheartened, for if this man had desired after Didi, there was little chance that Penweh could keep her. It was most unfair, for Natsumnak already had two wives, but Penweh cold think of nothing that he could do about it.

He might appeal to the Chief. It was a small chance, but he ought to take it. The next day he approached Bor-palamki, and told him his whole story. He spoke of the necessity of a young hunter having a wife, of the fact that he was not able to buy any wife but Didi, and of Natsumnak’s other wives… Bor was impressed, but diplomatic too. He desired the friendship of Penweh, but most certainly he feared the enmity of Natsumnak.

“The people have spoken, the shadows have spoken and the father of Didi has spoken,” said Bor. “All these have spoken for Natsumnak, and shall Bor-palamki, then, speak for Penweh? You are young, Penweh, and Natsumnak is old. Soon his shadow shall wander away and he shall know no more the pleasure of women. Buy you can wait and take other women when other moons shine down upon us. Perhaps there will be war, and you will win women of another tribe. But Natsumnak… Natsumnak cannot wait. Didi must be his, Penweh.”

Now, when this last hope of Penweh’s failed him, and he knew that Didi could never be his bride, a feeling of sorrow and anger fell upon him that was so great that it was as if an evil shadow had seized his mind. He withdrew from the tribal fire that night and sulked in the dark, and his mind was teeming turmoil of thoughts of hatred for the tribe, of longing for Didi and of pity for himself. And when, one by one, the people of the tribe left the communal fire and sought their lodges, he watched them go, and hated each one, individually. At last, there was none left save old, old Chunma, the Firewatcher, who, because of her helplessness, had been appointed to watch the fire to see that it never went out. And when Penweh saw that all the others were gone, he rose cautiously from his hiding place and stole around the camp to the place where the lodge of Didi lay. For a plan had come to him, a plan at once daring and disgraceful, for it consisted of nothing less than kidnapping Didi and leaving the Tribe.

With the care and caution that a man of today would find utterly impossible, he stole around the camp. Not even suspicious old Chunma heard a sound. He reached Didi’s lodge, and stood for a moment, uncertain just how to proceed. Had he been certain that Did would acquiesce to his plan, it would have been easy to awaken her, but he was not at all sure that she loved him sufficiently to leave her father and the safety of the tribe.

So he stood there uncertainly for many minutes, until at last he heard a sound from her direction, a softly whispered, “Penweh!” In a second he was in the lodge and kneeling beside her bed, groping for her in the dark. He found her at last and clasped her to him, rubbing his cheek against hers and fondling her with all the caresses his tribe indulged in.

She wept! She told him that she did not want to marry Natsumnak. She wanted to marry Penweh and no one else. She buried her head on his shoulder and whispered that statement over and over again. And Penweh held her closer and closer.

At last Penweh remembered his plan. Didi was willing to accede to anything he proposed, now; so they set about to get together as much of Didi’s property as would be advisable to take with them. They had made up a bundle of fairly sizeable proportions when Didi, glancing toward the doorway, gave a sudden frightened scream.

Penweh whirled about and saw a frightful painted, horned face in the opening. For a second, the thought of monsters, of shadow-demons, flashed through his head and a wave of horripilation ran up his back. Then he realized that the watcher was human, but his fright was not lessened by the realization. Framed in the doorway was the medicine man, Natsumnak.

He let out an unearthly screech as soon as he saw that he was discovered. Didi’s father awoke at once and began squalling questions to find out what was the matter. But it was not the old singer whose awakening precipitated the ensuing turmoil. Natsumnak’s screech had awakened the whole tribe and in less time than it takes to talk about it, a half dozen warriors had arrived and made Penweh a prisoner. They led him to the fire, tied him hand and foot with strips of hid and set Chunma to watch him till dawn.

Serious were the faces of the men who gathered around the fire, the next morning. The tribal group was not large in those days and a healthy warrior was a pretty large unit, large enough, sometimes to tip the balance one way or another in a battle or in the hunt; so it took a pretty serious charge to bring punishment on one.

But this time the charge was serious, not only because of the importance of Natsumnak in the tribe, but because of the almost certainty that Penweh had violated the will of the shadow people.

Old Chunma, the only woman who was allowed at these meetings, stood almost alone in her defense of Penweh. She was the only one in the tribe who ever dared to oppose Natsumnak, and it was only because of the fact that she was alone in her opposition that Natsumnak tolerated her in the tribe. So now, her shrill cackle rose in opposition to the medicine man’s falsetto screech, and it was not until the old woman was exhausted that the council decided that Penweh must be driven from the tribe.

He was dragged forth, then, and the entire tribe lined up, armed with sticks, spears, rawhide thongs and stones to speed him on his way. At a signal from Bor, he was released and given a shove toward the forest, and then the entire tribe, squalling with sadistic delight, took after him.

They were out to kill him. He was no longer a member of the tribe, so he was an enemy. And to have an enemy near the tribe was a very dangerous thing in those days. Once, it was said, a man had been driven out and had lived near the tribe, carefully biding his time and five warriors had died at his hand before they finally found him and slew him.

So all day long Penweh fled frantically through the forest, sometimes pursued by squalling demons who had once been his friends; sometimes hiding, holding his breath, trembling, lest he feel a sudden spear in his back. And then, all toward dusk, a cold drizzling rain began to fall.

Penweh cursed his luck as he huddled at the bold of a great oak tree, but, had he known it, this rain saved his life, for one by one the hunters drifted back to camp and into the cave to get out of the rain, each leaving it to the others to continue the hunt for Penweh. And at last he was alone in the woods.

For quite a while, he had heard no calls from one hunter to another such as had been so common during the afternoon, so while there was still enough light to see by, he crept out of the hollow of the oak and began to look for some better form of shelter. It was quite plain that there was going to be rain all through the night, and already he was chilled to the bone. He crept cautiously at first but when it began to be certain that all his pursuers had abandoned the chase, he grew more careless and before long he was trotting along, his keen eyes darting this way and that, alert to find a decent bedding place for the night.

It was just about dark when he came to a cave. It was by the sheerest accident that he found its vine covered mouth, and for some time he hesitated about entering it, for fear that it might be already inhabited by some wild animal, or, worse, by shadows. At last, however, his discomfort triumphed over his fears and he crept inside and, searching about for a dry place, fell into a sleep of exhaustion.

He awoke in the morning when the sun, already risen high, sent a bright beam through an opening in the trees and directly into the mouth of the cave. He was still stiff in every joint from the ordeal of the day before, but he was alive, and apparently the pursuit had been at least temporarily abandoned and for this he was duly grateful. He realized now, that the rain of the day before had saved his life, and he wondered if the Great Bear had sent it to save him. If this were so, it was very important, for it meant that powerful spirits were on his side, and that he might yet hope to win Didi and, perhaps, even be taken back into the tribe.

He rose to leave the cave, with the half-formed intention of seeking some sort of breakfast. He glanced uneasily into the darkness of the back of the cave, where light, reflected from the front walls, lighted the gloom dimly. And then, with the hair at the back of his neck prickling erect, with his heart pounding in his throat, he began to sneak cautiously toward the door. For, plain no the wall, covered with unnumbered layers of mud that had dripped down from cracks overhead, were the outlines of the back and part of the head of a great bear!

There is no room for coincidence in the mind of a savage. The idea that, by accident, he accumulated mud had taken the form of a bear’s and head never entered Penweh’s mind. To him, this was a bear or, worse still (and he trembled as the idea came to him) it was a Shadow Bear!

He had almost reached the mouth of the cave and what he considered safety, when he realized that the bear on the wall had not moved. He wondered why… and then it dawned on him that it couldn’t. Its feet and legs were invisible; so were its tail and its under parts. This Shadow Bear was deeply mired in the mud that covered the wall, mired do thoroughly that movement was quite impossible.

Had it been any other animal than a bear, Penweh would have went on his way, as fearful as ever. But his totem was the bear, and the bear and he were brothers. So, trembling a bit at his own temerity, he turned and slowly retraced his steps into the cave. He watched carefully, ready at any moment to turn and flee for his life to the sunlight without; but the Shadow Bear never moved nor gave any notice that it was aware of him.

He studied it carefully. He approached it and spoke. “I am your little brother, Oh Bear,” he said. “I am Penweh-dok-absho. I, too, am one of the children of the Great Bear… do not hurt me, I have come to help you.”

The fact that the bear still made no overt move although he was not within six feet of it convinced him that it was not angry. Perhaps it even was hoping that he would help it. He wondered if he dared. Then he wondered how he could help it. A thought came to him and he picked up a sharp piece of stone from the floor of the cave and approached the bear even closer.

“Do not hurt me, Brother Bear,” he pleaded. “I am here to help you.” He hesitated again, but still the bear on the wall made no overt move.

Then Penweh began, with great caution, and not a little trepidation, to remove the mud from the bear’s legs and belly. He worked long and carefully, stepping back every now and then to study and results, trying to imagine just where to scrape, fearful lest he scrape away a portion of the shadow bear itself thus arouse its anger, yet knowing, too, that he could never free the creature unless he removed every bit of the encumbering mud.

Slowly, bit by little bit, the bear emerged. As the sun rose higher, outside, it ceased to shine into the mouth of the cave and Penweh found the light bad, the work slower and more difficult, but by the time the afternoon began to lengthen into evening, the entire creature was free of mud and stood on the wall, legs tail and belly as distinct as the head and back which Penweh had first seen.

Then Penweh stepped back and waited to see what the bear would do, he was still a little fearsome, still uncertain that the bear might not decide that Penweh would be a good meal after his long fast, mired in the mud of the cave, but to the young man’s surprise, the bear still made no move, either to devour him or to take advantage of his freedom and leave.

“You are free, Brother Bear,” called Penweh, striving to bring the bear’s attention to what he had done. “You are free now and can go back to your shadow land. Will you not go and leave this cave to me?”

But the bear was silent and by neither sound nor movement did he betray the fact that he heard Penweh. The caveman stood there for long, talking to the bear, and even becoming so bold as to touch it, but still it did not depart. So at last, when darkness fell, Penweh left the cave and spent the night in the crotch of a great tree.

When morning came, he returned to the cave, and, wonder of wonders, the bear was still there. Penweh sat down in the sun, outside the cave, determined to solve the mystery of this wonder before he rose. And because his imagination was great, and because after all, there was really but one answer that could be conceived, it was at last forced on his mind that the creature was remaining out of gratitude.

So he arose and went back into the cave.

“I am your friend and brother, Brother Bear,” he said to the creature. “I will make this cave my home and yours, if you will remain here. And I will bring you many servants from among my people, and you shall have much meat from our hunts. The maidens of the tribe shall care for you and keep the mud from covering you again and we shall be brothers and members of one family. Will you live with me Brother Bear; or will you go back to the shadow land from which you came and leave this cave to me.”

The bear made no answer, he remained as silent as ever… but he made no move to go, and Penweh was satisfied. He left the cave and set out in a slow lope toward the other, larger cave where the tribe made its home.

Old Chunma dozed before the fire on the rock outside of the big cave. Because the night was cool, most of the others had retired to the cave to sleep where it was warm. The night was silent save for the occasional call of a night-bird or the squall of a cat far away. Most large animals carefully avoided the vicinity of a man-tribe, so the quiet was greater here than it might have been in some parts of the forest or the prairie beyond. Thus it was that old Chunma dozed, and thus it was that she started suddenly awake at a faint noise nearby her.

She opened her eyes to see Penweh, flint in hand, leap suddenly and threateningly to his feet beside her. She started to let out a squall of fear, then something in his attitude reassured her and she pulled him down to the rock beside her.

“What brings you back here, young man who is always a baby? Do you want to die so bad that you cannot wait till the wild ones of the forest eat you? Get away, quickly, before someone less foolish than old Chunma sees you.”

Penweh shook his head. “I do not flee away, anymore. I am not afraid of the tribe now. I am a great one. I am a friend of the Shadow People, and greater than even Natsumnak.”

Hastily, quietly and in as few words as his limited vocabulary would allow, he told of his adventure and of the Shadow Bear that had agreed to live with him. Chunma was dubious, but he convinced her at last, and then she was fearful.

“You must not try to tell the tribe yet Penweh,” she said. They would slay you as soon as they saw you, and seek to find out if you had spoken the truth afterward. Best that you take me to see the bear, and then I can tell the tribe and bring them to see it.”

So Penweh helped her up, and they departed into the forest, and all night long they wandered, and part of the next morning, and finally they came to Penweh’s cave. The bear was still there, standing as Penweh had left him, and great was Chunma’s surprise and awe.

“Never has such a thing as this been in the tribe before,” she whispered hoarsely. “Not in my memory of the stories my mother’s mother told me.” This is very great medicine, Penweh, and in it I see a way to vengeance on Natsumnak, for both you and me.”

So it was agreed that Penweh should remain at the cave with the bear, while Chunma went back and prepared the tribe for the wonder and brought them here to show it. She departed about noon, and told Penweh to expect her back the next day, then she left him with the bear, and so true was the saying that familiarity breeds contempt that Penweh spent the whole afternoon in the cave, chattering to the bear and stroking its back, telling it of his love for Didi and his hate for Natsumnak, and promising it all kinds of rewards if it would only take sides with him against the evil medicine man. By nightfall he was quite convinced that the bear had accepted his offers and that Natsumnak’s days were numbered.

The next evening the greater part of the Tribe arrived, led by old Chunma. Long before they were visible, Penweh could hear the voice of old Chunma, raised in shrill altercation with the medicine man, who’s alternate bull’s rumble and shrill falsetto was as loud as hers. They came into sight at last, and when they saw the cave, and Penweh standing in the entrance, they halted uncertainly, a hundred yards or so away.

Penweh stepped out of the cave and called to them. They came forward hesitantly, the old Fire Watcher alone having the temerity to come up to him.