Vergängliches organisches Material wie Textilien oder Holz hat sich im rauhen Klima der Orkney-Inseln nicht erhalten, wird aber einen großen Teil der Alltagskultur ausgemacht haben. Erhalten blieben nur Steine und Knochen, und die vermögen nur eingeschränkte Antworten auf unsere Fragen zu geben. Eine geheimnisvolle untergegangene Welt zeichnet sich vor unseren Augen ab. Keine schriftlichen Zeugnisse vermitteln uns einen Zugang zu den intimeren Facetten des Lebens.
Kannten die jungsteinzeitlichen Ackerbauern die Kunst des Webens? Gab es so etwas wie Babywindeln? Die Ehe? Priester oder Häuptlinge? Und das größte Rätsel von allen: Welche Riten, welcher Glaube, welche Götter verbergen sich hinter den Bestattungsbräuchen, die auf uns heute eher befremdlich wirken?
Making the stones talk ...
Transient organic material such as textiles and wood has not been conserved in the rough nothern climate of the Orkney Isles. Nevertheless it will have played an important role in everday life. What remained are stones and bones which only can give very limited answers to the questions arising. A mysterious sunken world emerges. There are no written testimonies allowing us a more intimate glimpse of their lives.
Did the neolithic farmers know the art of weaving? Was there anything as nappies? Marriage? Priests or chieftains? And the foremost question of all: Which rituals, which belief, which gods are hiding behind those burial rites appearing so strange to us nowadays?
A translation of the following text passage was made by Katy Derbyshire and follows at the end of the german chapter.
Nachdem ich mich vergewissert hatte, daß die Wächterlampe am Eingang brannte, eröffnete ich den Sprechtag am Abend von Sihrus´ Heimholung. Er sollte später eine eigene Geschichte ergeben, die nicht nur an den Herden unserer Sippe, sondern auf den ganzen Inseln erzählt wurde.
"Ich bin die Erdfrau der Adlerleute", begann ich unsicher, denn es war das erste Mal für mich. Meine Stimme krächzte fast so wie die von Madragena. Ich hatte Angst, das nächste Wort nicht mehr herauszubekommen, aber dann hörte ich es schon, und das nächste, und das danach, und stellte staunend fest, dass meine Stimme mir gehorchte. "Seht her: Diesen Sprechstein gebe ich dem, der das Wort ergreift im Kreis der Sippe. Sechzehn Spitzen hat er. Sechzehn Menschen zählten die Adlerleute, als Ahnfrau Mewe ihn fertigte. Sprecht gut! Umhüllt die Spitzen, auf daß sie geborgen sind wie die Sippe im Haus."
Zwanzig und zwei Erwachsene drängten sich in Gorgs Haus, alle außer Madragena, Ard und Gorgs Bruder Brim, der den Frühlingstag bei den Wanderfalkenleuten verbrachte. Die Adlerleute saßen auf den fünf geräumigen Betten, auf dem Ehrenplatz zwischen Herd und Anrichte - Adlersohn -, auf der Bank am Herd - Gorg und ich - oder hockten auf der mit frischen Binsen bestreuten Erde, so daß ihnen die Steinplatten der Betten als Rückenlehne dienten.
Ich kam mir ungefähr so vor wie eins der Tongefäße auf Gorgs Anrichte, die unser Häuptling so plaziert hatte, daß man sie nicht übersehen konnte. Immer wieder fühlte ich, wie die Blicke der Sippengeschwister mich streiften oder fragend auf meinem Rücken ruhten. Nie und nimmer hätten sie mich unverwandt angestarrt; dazu waren sie viel zu taktvoll.
In dem Kämmerchen neben der Tür meinte ich eine flüchtige Bewegung wahrzunehmen. Füchschen war es also wieder einmal gelungen, sich in sein Lieblingsversteck zu schleichen.
Die verbrauchte, rauchgeschwängerte Luft war eine Beleidigung für unsere Nasen und eine Qual für unsere Lungen. Wenn man längere Zeit an der frischen Luft verbrachte hatte, warf einen der allgegenwärtige Geruch regelrecht um. Aber ich hätte ihn um nichts auf der Welt missen mögen. So, wie Luras Flöte und Nukis Trommel sich mit unseren Stimmen zum Lied vereinigten, ergaben die vielfältigen Gerüche des Dorfs ein Ganzes. Unser Geruchslied bestand aus vielen Stimmen: dem Rauch, der von den mit getrocknetem Tang und Robbenknochen vermischten Dungfladen im Herd aufstieg, dem Räucherfleisch und den Stockfischen, die von der Decke herunterhingen. Und vor allem den vielen Menschen, von denen sich einige nicht so oft wuschen, wie ich mir das gewünscht hätte, und die auch ansonsten alle möglichen, meist nicht sehr erfreulichen Gerüche ausströmten. Vor allem, wenn sie feucht waren.
Es roch nach Säugling und Muttermilch, nach Hund und Schaf und Ziegenmilch, nach ungegerbten Häuten, Käse, getrocknetem Farn, Staub und Abort - und nach Meer, denn in der Steinkiste vor der Anrichte wurden Meerschnecken gewässert; so verloren sie ihren strengen Geschmack, wurden weich und konnten als Köder benutzt werden. Ich hätte nur neben mich greifen müssen, um mir eine zu angeln, aber wer, außer den dummen Fischen natürlich, isst schon freiwillig rohe Meerschnecken?
Obwohl die Steinbank, auf der Gorg und ich Platz genommen hatten, weich mit Farnkissen und Schaffellen gepolstert war, meinte ich die Kälte und Härte des Steins durch meine Lederhose hindurch zu spüren. Es war ungewöhnlich still für einen Sprechtag, aber wir hatten uns ja auch zu einem traurigen Anlaß zusammengefunden. Kein lautes Lachen, kein familiäres Geplauder - selbst Sira und Kebro verzichteten auf ihr rituelles Balzgehabe.
Dennoch lag eine Spannung in der Luft, die fast mit Händen greifbar war. Es war, als sei die ganze Sippe auf Muschelsuche unter Wasser getaucht und warte mit aufgeblasenen Wangen darauf, endlich an die Oberfläche vorstoßen und wieder atmen zu dürfen. Ich drehte mich zu Regi um, doch sie weigerte sich beharrlich, meinen Blick zu erwidern. Ihre zusammengepressten Lippen und die Falte zwischen ihren Brauen sagten mir, daß sie noch beleidigt war.
Auf Gorgs bequemem Bett, dessen vier Steinpfosten einen Baldachin aus Lederhäuten trugen, stillte seine Frau Osi, die blutjunge Tochter von Silbermöwensohn, ihre zwei Monde alte Tochter Sonne. Lura neben ihr hielt ihr schlafendes Kind im Arm. Er würde wohl am Leben bleiben, nachdem er sein erstes Jahr überstanden hatte, eine stetige Abfolge der verschiedensten Krankheiten. Abgesehen von den beiden Säuglingen war kein Kind anwesend. Siras Tochter Müschelchen, die etwa so sehnsüchtig wie Füchschen auf den Tag der Zweiten Geburt wartete, und Luras Ältester beaufsichtigten sie.
Ich brachte der ehrwürdigen Ahnfrau Ulera, Keas Mutter, den Sprechstein, und sie wand mit ihren vom Rheuma verkrümmten Fingern den ersten Wollfaden um den Stein. "Ich wünschte, ich läge draußen auf dem Totengerüst und nicht der junge Sihrus", begann sie betrübt. "Aber Vater Himmel ist wählerisch, welches seiner Kinder er zu sich ruft. Sihrus war ein strahlender Stern, ein würdiger Sohn der kleinen Madragena. Ihr Ahngeister der Adlerleute, freut euch, denn Sihrus wird frische Kraft in euer Haus über den Klippen bringen. Wir bitten euch, nehmt ihn gut auf! Sihrus wird ein starker Ahngeist sein, der seiner Sippe Rat spenden wird." Die kleine Madragena, o Mutter Erde! Im täglichen Umgang mit meiner Großmutter vergaß ich manchmal, wie unvorstellbar alt sie war. Nun kam die Reihe an die ehrwürdige Ahnfrau Lin, Nomaks Mutter, die mir ebenfalls die Ehre erwies, in meinem Haus zu wohnen, in Anbetracht ihrer Wesensart eine eher zweifelhafte Ehre. Sie hatte ihren Faden noch nicht um den Stein gewickelt, als sie auch schon ihre Stimme erhob, die mich - und nicht nur mich - an das Krächzen eines Raben erinnerte; eines besonders alten, besonders bösartigen Raben.
Once I had made sure the guarding lamp was burning at the door, I opened the council on the evening of the return of Sihrus’s body. Its own tale would later come to pass, told not only at the hearths of our tribe, but everywhere on the isles. ‘I am the earth woman of the Eagle Folk,’ I began nervously, for it was the first time for me. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the next word out, but then I heard it, and the next and the one after, and realized with amazement that my voice was doing my bidding. ‘See here: I give this speaking stone to whoever wishes to speak in the circle of the tribe. It has sixteen corners. There were sixteen Eagle Folk when our ancestress Mewe made it. Speak well! Wrap the corners so that they are hidden like the tribe in the house.’ Two and twenty grown men and women were crowded into Gorg’s house, all but Madragena, Ard and Gorg’s brother Brim, who was spending the spring equinox with the Falcon Folk. The Eagle Folk were seated on five large beds, in the place of honour between the hearth and the dresser Eagle Son on the bench at the hearth Gorg and I or crouching on the ground spread with fresh rushes, leaning their backs on the stone slabs of the beds. I felt a little like one of the clay pots on Gorg’s dresser, which our chief had placed so that they couldn’t be overlooked. Again and again, I felt the eyes of my tribe brothers and sisters glance at me or rest questioningly on my back. They would never have stared at me outright; they were far too tactful for that. I thought I made out a fleeting movement in the closet next to the door. So Wee Fox had managed to creep into his favourite hiding place again. The air was heavy with smoke, torture for our lungs. If you had been out in the fresh air a while, the ever-present stench was almost enough to knock you over. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Just as Lura’s flute and Nuki’s drum joined with our voices to make a song, so the many different smells of the village formed a whole. Our smell-song was made up of many voices: of the smoke rising from the dung cakes mixed with dried tang and seal bones in the hearth, of the smoked meat and fish hanging from the ceiling. And especially of the many people, several of whom didn’t wash as often as I would have liked, and who let off all sorts of other, usually none too pleasant smells. It smelt of babies and mother’s milk, of dogs, sheep and goat’s milk, of uncured animal skins, cheese, dried fern, dust and privy and of the sea, as limpets were kept watered in the stone box in front of the dresser; that way they lost their strong taste and turned soft to be used as bait. I could have just reached in next to me and fished one out, but who’d willingly eat raw limpets apart from dumb fish? Although the stone bench where Gorg and I had taken our seats was padded with soft fern cushions and sheepskins, I thought I could feel the cold, hard stone through my leather trousers. It was unusually quiet for a council, but then we had come together on a sad occasion. No noisy laughter, no cosy chats – even Sira and Kebro forewent their usual ritual mating displays. Yet the air was so tense you could have touched it with your hands. I turned around to Regi, but she doggedly refused to return my gaze. Her lips were pressed together and her brow furrowed, telling me she was still offended. Gorg’s wife Osi, the youthful daughter of Silver Gull Son, was feeding her two-month-old daughter Sun on Gorg’s comfortable bed, its four stone posts bearing a canopy of leathers. Next to her, Lura held her sleeping baby in her arms. It would probably stay alive now it had survived its first year, with its constant stream of different illnesses. Apart from the two babies, no other children were in the house. Sira’s daughter Wee Shell, who was looking forward to the Day of Second Birth just as longingly as Wee Fox, was looking after them with Lura’s oldest son, Deer Calf. I brought the speaking stone to our honourable ancestress Ulera, mother of Kea, and her crooked fingers wound the first thread of wool around the stone. ‘I wish it was me lying outside on the scaffold of the dead, and not young Sihrus,’ she began, distressed. ‘But Father Sky is choosy about which of his children he calls to him. Sihrus was a shining star, a worthy son to young Madragena. You ancestral spirits of the Eagle Folk, rejoice, for Sihrus will bring new strength to your home above the cliffs. We ask you, treat him well! Sihrus will be a strong ancestral spirit and give his tribe good advice.’ Young Madragena, oh Mother Earth! Seeing my grandmother every day, I sometimes forgot how unthinkably old she was. Now it was the turn of our honourable ancestress Lin, mother of Nomak, who also paid me the honour of living in my house a doubtful honour considering her character. She had not yet wound the thread around the stone when she raised her voice, which reminded me and not just me of the caw of a crow: a very old, mean crow. ‘That is true, honourable ancestress Ulera,’ she replied with a pinched look, so that the slits of her eyes shrank to thin lines in the wildly rugged landscape of her face. ‘Father Sky is choosy. And Mother Earth also decides very carefully whose flesh she takes to feed her tired body. Yours and mine must be too tough, that’s why she always spits us out again. Ha ha ha! But Sihrus he’s fresh, juicy flesh for the Man-Eater.’ She coughed. ‘She takes the best of us early.’ Eagle Son’s face showed just as much disapproval as Lin’s great age allowed. He only had to slightly raise his hand, and I jumped to Lin, took the speaking stone from her gnarled fingers and passed it to him, so that he could wind the third thread of wool around it. As usual, he paid great attention to this task, so that his first words came as a welcome release for the tribe. ‘This is a day of grieving and of suffering for the Eagle Folk. We are crying for the death of Sihrus, son of Madragena. Tonight, Lasra has called this council instead of Madragena. We all understand that the pain makes it impossible for our earth woman to honour us with her presence. And so we will honour Sihrus by holding a council on the day of his return home, just as it once was on Nap’s death. Let us honour him in dignity.’ His carefully chosen, but shallow words stirred up the unrest that had taken hold of the group. The men and women around me seemed as if they were choking on their questions but as if they would rather have choked than have them said out loud. Young Gorg was absent-mindedly chewing his fingernails, Eno, crouching next to him on the ground, was tracing circles in the rushes with a stick and wiping them out again. Lura was rocking her baby jerkily back and forth, which I wasn’t used to from such a usually calm, sensitive woman. But her son carried on sleeping regardless. Old Bun sniggered to himself. His unfitting behaviour didn’t bother anyone, as we all knew he had become a child again.
Gorg, his successor, cleared his throat. Eagle Son passed him the speaking stone, carefully pressing the first three threads to the stone ball with his thumb and middle finger. I was grateful that he never used his right hand, with its long fingernails, at our councils. Gorg cleared his throat again and wound his thread of wool around the stone. ‘Our tribe brother Sihrus will be sorely missed. When it came to slaughtering a cow with a single cut to the throat, releasing a huge stone slab from the quarry or fetching young sea birds from the cliffs, he was always one of the first. He was handy at weaving rushes and carving bone and wood. No one could match him with a bow and arrow, no one steered their kerrag so bravely through wind and waves. He never denied a tribe brother or sister his help.’ No, I thought, especially not a tribe sister! ‘His advice and his voice were valued at our councils, and he could tell of the strange lands he travelled to like no other. His last great journey lasted four long years. Sent out by Madragena and Eagle Son to find out more about the New Way threatening the isles, he returned with invaluable news.’ Passing the speaking stone on to Illib, I secretly admired Gorg’s speaking skills. No one else could have so ambiguously couched in praise the fact that Sihrus had many talents and was actually good at everything, but had never decided on a special skill. Most of the time, Sihrus wasn’t there anyway. There was no one amongst the Eagle Folk who could have taken a hero and traveller as an apprentice. Illib wrapped the next brown thread around the stone. ‘I can still see our tribe brother Sihrus coming towards the village from the kerrag path, four moons back now. In the rough storms with which the winter drives out the autumn, he returned home from his great journey. No other would have dared to challenge the sea at that season. He bore a high leather creel on his back. Errill followed him a little further behind. They had to haul themselves with all their might against the wind, and the strange black dog he had brought with him from the great island in the southern sea looked like it was about to learn to fly. Sihrus’s hair was flattering behind him, making waves like yellow brittlegrass seaweed in the water. It was as if a strong tide was pulling him back to the sea. He was as clean-shaven as ever. After all the trials of the sea journey! Well, perhaps he had a bit of stubble on his chin. He just looked so good like he always did.’ She blushed and went to give the stone back to me, but added quickly, ‘I ask the tribe’s forgiveness for my sister Ard’s absence. The lament exhausted her so much that she’s sleeping now.’ My face felt as red as hers looked. Not Illib too? Our amply built corn mistress with her big heart and her hot temper? Why not? Sihrus didn’t seem to favour any special type of women. No two women could be less alike than sensuous, well-padded Lele and serious, slender Ard. Illib’s twins weren’t? No, I recalled, Corn and Sheaf were just two years old, and Sihrus had been away for four years. And anyway, I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t thought him handsome. Twirk, sitting to my left on the bed next to the doorway, was trying to catch my attention; judging by his urgent waving he had been trying for some time. I mustn’t let myself get distracted. After all, I was acting on Madragena’s behalf. Twirk’s thread of wool fell off again no wonder with his constant fidgeting. He had to fix it back on, which made him even more nervous. ‘Well, what really interested me was how he told us how the people in the south build their houses their palaces’ you could hear him almost chewing on the new word ‘how many of them live together there in one place’ he shook his head incredulously ‘well, the way he could talk, well I can still see him before me, how his eyes shone this great hall, where the chief sat and they bury their ancestors in clay jars Father Sky! Well, it’s unbelievable really, but.’ No one had ever said Twirk was a master of words. But layering stones artfully and lastingly, that he could do. Ibbe, sitting behind me on the bed, tapped my elbow to ask for the speaking stone. ‘I always admired our tribe brother Sihrus for his travels and his daring, and, well, I envied him a bit too.’ I saw Young Gorg, sitting opposite me at the feet of my grandmother, nod so vigorously that he forgot his fingernails for a moment. The look his father gave him was none too friendly. ‘And then,’ the voice behind me continued a little hesitantly, ‘he brought the axe made of that new material as well, the bronze axe. Never before was anything like it seen on the isles. It’s not stone, it’s not wood, it’s not bone and not felt either,’ he added with an unfitting giggle. I could practically feel my poor sister stiffen with shame behind me. Ibbe was a nice guy, but his world seemed to be made up of mainly wool and felt. To distract from her husband’s foolish remark and because she was itching with curiosity by now Regi reached out for the speaking stone. ‘Where is the axe, anyway? He always carried it with him since his return. Was it not with him, where he?’ Gorg turned around and took the speaking stone from my sister. ‘No, it wasn’t’ he told her. Then he had fastened his thread. ‘Our tribe brother Sihrus brought us great honour before the tribes of the isles. He was respected in the Stone Circle on Nap’s Day, and even the Bull Folk invited him to their village and sought his advice. Our dead tribe brother told us of many new things when he returned from his travels, which took him further than anyone from the isles has ever been. He told us of things we do not know on the isles. Now it is up to us to decide whether these new things are good for the Eagle Folk or not. As long as they don’t contradict our customs and laws,’ he rushed to add as he noticed Eagle Son’s disapproving look. ‘Our brother Sihrus was too modest when he said he hadn’t fulfilled his task,’ Eagle Son declared. ‘His stories showed us what a frivolous life those people lead who have strayed from the Old Way, and how the gods have punished them for it. The folk of the island in the southern sea may not be the source of the New Way, but they serve as an example warning us against mistakes of the like. Worshipping idols, polygamy, breakdown of the tribes, disrespect of the ancestral spirits and the laws of the gods, burial customs that would put dread into any upright person Sihrus’s tales warned us of all these terrible things. Let us thank our tribe brother that he risked his life to bring us knowledge of these outrages!’ A short silence fell after our shaman’s passionate speech, and then everyone wanted to say something in praise of Sihrus. It was best if everyone in the room wound at least one thread around the speaking stone before anyone spoke for a second time, except for Gorg, Eagle Son and Madragena. I told of the time of the band of bairns and that we had all seen the future chief in him, because I was annoyed that no one mentioned this well-known fact, out of respect for Gorg. After all, we were honouring the dead Sihrus at this council had it been Gorg lying outside on the scaffold of the dead, I would certainly not have mentioned it. Young Gorg finally gave in to his father’s wordless nagging and put up his hand. How could he be such a sack of skin and bones when he had Gorg for a father? But he was only fourteen years old and would probably turn to fat yet. Now he told haltingly how Sihrus had taught him to climb the cliffs. Gorg’s face revealed that he wished his son’s words had been a little weightier. Lele, sitting on the bed to my rear, lamented something like, ‘I don’t want to make too much of how much we meant to each other,’ and couldn’t help harking back to that spring equinox five years ago, on which ‘Oh, you know how much I’ve suffered since then,’ her daughter Moonchild was conceived. We knew, of course, that Sihrus was Moonchild’s father. What we hadn’t known, though, was that she’d suffered. I’d love to have seen Wibo’s face. ‘I didn’t know him very well,’ Osi started, not shy despite her tender years and coming from another tribe. ‘For me, he was more a legend than a man of flesh and blood. But I do know one thing: many of you may have seen the future chief in him, but he obviously had other things on his mind.’ A confused silence followed her words, and Gorg felt forced to explain: ‘Osi is right. His fate was to travel. And on his last journey, he fulfilled that fate.’ He shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows, presenting his opened palms to us, a strange gesture that seemed almost like a prayer, and almost as if he wanted to say: ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ ‘He drowned and was washed up on land,’ he added casually, continuing briskly: ‘Tomorrow morning, I will send my son out to our neighbours, to tell them of our beloved tribe brother’s death in the name of Mother Earth. He shall stay with the Falcon Folk and walk on to the Bull Folk on the next day, so that all Nap’s heirs hear the sad news. From there, it will spread around the isles.’ I suddenly felt so hot I though my face must be the colour of a shelduck’s beak. Everyone was staring at me. The tension within me had to come out somehow. They expect something of me, I realised at that moment. I couldn’t help it. With the certainty of a sleepwalker, I knew I had to speak now, even if I didn’t know quite what to say. I reached out my hand for the speaking stone I had to practically wrench it from Gorg’s fingers and added my thread. By now, the speaking stone was a brown ball of wool with stone corners. ‘He can’t have drowned,’ I said. ‘We haven’t had a spring tide lately, and he was a good way from the water; at least ten man’s lengths, I’d say.’ ‘Then he must have crawled a bit,’ Gorg replied without thinking, even before he had wound his thread around the stone. Sira raised her hand. ‘So after he drowned, he crawled a bit!’ Eagle Son stood up and took the stone from the sea huntress. ‘Our chief is more occupied with the grief over our beloved tribe brother in his mind than with his tongue. That honours him. I’m sure what he wanted to say was that Sihrus must have been shipwrecked and injured, but was able to swim to land and die there. That must be about how it happened. It is true, Sihrus’s great passion was for the sea. Or rather for the places where the sea could take him. And there he met his fate. Brother Water must have envied him, as a rival for his mother’s affections. That’s why he took back the mercy he had granted him for so long.’ Honourable ancestress Lin was waving her arm impatiently and crowing: ‘To me! To me!’ so loudly that Eagle Son could no longer avoid bringing her the speaking stone himself. ‘First Father Sky and Mother Earth! And now Brother Water’s supposed to have taken him? Have the gods whispered to Eagle Son that they were quarrelling over Sihrus?’ she cackled. ‘You should decide on one of them. I’m for the Man-Eater!’ I’m sure she only repeated this bad word because it had had such an effect on Eagle Son the first time. Not that she loathed him more than anyone else; she just enjoyed winding him up. ‘He couldn’t have crawled a hand’s breadth with that hole in the back of his head,’ I picked up again. I suddenly felt quite calm. ‘Ibbe. Eno, Kebro, you two Gorgs and you, too, Eagle Son! You all saw it. His wound was like the hole that remains in the head of the sacrificial bull once Eagle Son has killed it, smashed its head with the ceremonial axe. With a single blow. The bull’s legs give way, and it’s dead before it hits the ground. The hole in Sihrus’s head is that kind of hole!’ Eno, Kebro and Young Gorg all discovered the irresistible magic emanating from their feet at the same time. I turned around. Ibbe’s gaze seemed to be fixed on the blanket on which he, Lele and Wibo were crouched. He should have known it well enough, as he’d woven it himself. ‘Eno!’ He jerked. ‘You’re a hunter; you’ve caught many a deer in your time. You tell us what the wound in Sihrus’s head looks like!’ I walked around the hearth and pressed the stone into his hand. He took it, avoiding my eye. ‘Well, if I don’t kill an animal straight away with my arrow and have to finish it off myself, I cut its throat with my knife,’ he avoided my question. ‘My father sometimes smashed a deer’s head with his stone axe, but he was a great bull of a man. And I was so young back then, I can’t really remember it too well.’ Sira took the speaking stone from her neighbour. ‘Can he not have fallen?’ she considered. ‘He could have fallen from the cliff. The cliffs have cost many of us our lives before now.’ Her comment earned her nods of agreement. I had trouble finding the patience to wrap my thread around the stone before I contradicted her. ‘Cliffs that are as high as my shoulder? Cliffs that are twenty, if not more, man’s lengths away from the place where he lay, as well as that? Our hardy egg-collector would have had to be very clumsy to do that! So he falls off a cliff the height of Gorg’s bed, smashes his head in, gets up again, crawls all the way to the edge of the wood and then dies there? Or maybe he was standing on the strand with his back to the cliffs, fell onto his knees, hit his head on the edge of the cliffs, got up again and the rest we already know. Sira, I’d have expected you to be shrewder!’ She had the decency to blush. Kebro, still head over heels in love with his older wife even after two years of marriage, tore the speaking stone from my hand with burning eyes. ‘Spare your ridicule, Lasra! I won’t stand for you making a laughing stock of Sira. Apologise to her!’ Eagle Son jumped up. He simply stretched out his hand. Was it a coincidence that this time it was his right hand? Kebro brought him the speaking stone, sighing, and when he sat down again his eyes were anything but burning. Carefully, our shaman wound his thread around the speaking stone before saying in a firm voice: ‘Young Kebro, you must learn to follow our customs, even if you do come from the Bull Folk. You did not wind your thread around the speaking stone. That was a mistake. But it was a far greater mistake to speak disrespectfully to the earth woman. The New Way may allow the Bull Folk to send their earth woman to grind corn, but the laws of the ancestors still hold here with us!’ Kebro cowered over to him like a handsome, beaten dog, took the speaking stone, sat down and obediently wrapped a thread around it. The corners could barely be seen any more. I had to hurry. When the last shimmer of stone had disappeared under the layer of brown wool threads, the speaking gathering would come to an end without fail. ‘Earth woman Lasra, please accept my apology,’ he said. I gave him an impatient smile. ‘I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.’ Gorg had held himself back since his misjudgement of the possibilities open to a drowned man. Now I noticed him busily exchanging glances with his young wife. Through the column of smoke rising from the fire in the hearth to the hole in the roof, I could only guess at the look on her face, but she waved to Kebro to bring her the stone. ‘Would it not be possible that Sihrus fell from a tree, Lasra? You said he was lying right next to the edge of the wood. If I remember rightly, you mentioned yesterday evening that you’d seen the great eagles?’ Had I? Perhaps I had; I didn’t know what I’d said any more at the hurriedly called gathering yesterday evening. ‘Perhaps he was trying to find the nest to collect feathers. Perhaps he wanted to pay his respect to the Eagle Folk’s tribal animal? We’ll need another dead eagle some time to lay in the House of the Ancestors.’ Osi’s words were the best try so far. If the shaman died or a member of the tribe drowned out at sea and we couldn’t find their body, an eagle was laid in the House of the Ancestors in their place. That was how it was when my husband Nomak died. I began to realise why Gorg had taken the daughter of the neighbouring tribe’s shaman as his wife. I wanted to stand up and get the stone, but Kebro was faster. He came towards me and handed me the speaking stone with a winning smile. I used the winding time to polish up my reply. ‘Well spoken, Osi,’ I began. ‘But the trees of the isles are, as you all know, neither high nor strong enough to bear a man of Sihrus’s build. The meagre hazels and birches there would have snapped like blades of grass under the weight of a bird. And anyway, you might break your neck or your back if you fall out of a tree. But the floor of the wood in the grove is soft and well padded with dead leaves and moss. And even if we assume he fell on the back of his head, he would have been lying in the wood.’ Eagle Son could be amazingly fast. Before I could blink, he was standing before me asking for the stone, and had returned to his seat of honour. Then he had all the time in the world again. ‘Earth woman Lasra,’ he said with a dangerously quiet voice, ‘you have rejected all the explanations so far as to how our honoured tribe brother Sihrus might have died. It is not for me to judge whether you are right and all the other tribe brothers and sisters are wrong. Much of that which you have said makes sense, but some of it seems to be pure speculation. But now tell us, what do you mean to say? You tell us how Sihrus came to die!’ The moment I’d been afraid of all along had come. If I held my peace now, I would never open my mouth again. If I didn’t speak the word now it would fester inside me until I burst. I was the granddaughter of Ulera, daughter of Kea and the next earth woman of the Eagle Folk. I stood up, and Eagle Son himself brought me the speaking stone. Only three tiny corners poked out of the soft ball of wool. ‘It was murder,’ I said, and all I could feel was hot rage. ‘Sihrus was murdered.’