J. Lemasson
La Pierre de feu [The Stone of Fire]
1943

French

The underground cave was situated on the side of a hill. Above was an entanglement of enormous blocks of stone, among which the entrance of the underground cave passed unobserved. Below, a soft slope led to the steppes that spread far northwards to the immense glaciers which spawned the rivers. Here and there, the monotony of the landscape was cut by the knotted oak woods that sheltered dangerous beasts.

The tribe had lived in the underground cave since time immemorial; they had no memory of any home except this smoky stone arch. It was very deep and divided at the bottom into three rooms. In the one to the left, the women spread sections of dried meat and the most beautiful of the skins of beasts killed in the hunt. In the one to the right, they piled wood, their reserve for the bad season, when snow and ice drove groups of carnivorous beasts of the steppes to besiege the men in their shelter. The women maintained a great fire, night and day. It was the only barrier that existed between the tribe and the beasts with teeth sharper than flint. At night, their savage eyes gleamed in the darkness, and those who stayed up before fire felt constantly spied on; they huddled together, and feverishly waved their burning brands.

In the middle room was the sacred Stone of the tribe: it was a grayish stone surrounded by a case of lead, that under the fingers of the sorcerer, possessed miraculous powers. When a man of the tribe was sick or wounded, the sorcerer addressed incantations to the Stone. He prostrated himself three times before it and, while warriors implored the magic power with their dances, the wizard covered his hands with bags made of auroch skin and took up the Stone with infinite precautions. He skimmed the injury or the sick part. And recovery came quickly. Never was the Stone removed from its case, under pain of great disaster. Since the Stone had been with the tribe, all enterprises had succeeded. Reserves of meat, skins and wood were each year abundant, and no winter had surprised the tribe by its abrupt arrival. No mysterious trouble had plagued it. Warriors were stronger than ever, and Mahu, the chief, was feared and respected in the neighboring tribes.

As to where the Stone had come from, no one knew. Even the elders of the tribe, whose tales were listened to when the rigors of winter locked everyone in the cave, even those old men didn't know anything sure on the topic. They told a story that had been taught by old men who claimed it had come down from earlier ancestors. It was, they said, at the time when snow and ice had covered everything...

The sun, then, had disappeared under heavy clouds of snow, and men and beasts died of the cold. One found their bodies as hard as blocks of ice. Desolation reigned within the tribe. One day, the chief had gathered his men and had told them:

"Since the sun left, men and beasts die, the cold weather came, and we cannot go to hunt, because the ice is everywhere. So, the sun must come back. I will go to look for it."

And he had left. For a long time, the tribe waited for the chief's return. Days passed and still men and women had crouched down around the fire. Then, one evening, a man came to them whom at first they hadn't recognized. He was at the end of his strength, his hands were blackened and he had traces of burns all over his body. With great difficulty, he had told them:

"I found the sun; it is extinguished, but it burns. It burned me and I am going to leave for the great journey. You must be careful never to touch it..."

And the man, whom the tribe had finally recognized as their chief, had died. His body had become all black and, when men had wanted to take him into the cave of death, it had collapsed like a heap of ashes. The Stone had then been shut in its case of lead.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

On this day, Mahu and his hunters had browsed the forest since dawn in quest of the bear whose fur was precious during the winter. On their return, they found next to the extinguished hearth, vestiges of a great struggle: old men lying on the ground, their bodies transfixed with arrows. The bodies of the warriors who had remained to watch over the camp were covered with wounds. They had defended themselves bravely until death. Mahu approached one of them and touched him; his body was still warm.

"Where are the women? And the children?"

Mahu, the chief, turned toward his men. But he couldn't meet their gaze. He lowered his head. He thought of his wife, his son. Nothing had foretold this disaster. The neighboring tribes were friendly; they knew the power that the Stone gave to Mahu and his warriors, and they would not have dared to take their women and children.

"Mahu... the Stone? And our sorcerer?"

Mahu went into the cave. He saw the sorcerer's body stretched out, his face bloody, his skull crushed. He didn't see the Stone.

"The Stone is gone."

The men stared and trembled; the Stone had been stolen. Who would protect them henceforth from the dangers of the forest and the steppe? Who would heal their injuries and their illnesses?

But who had dared to take the Stone? One after another, they sat down, dropping their weapons. They were devastated. They stared at the place where the Stone had been without expression. There was no sound but that of the birds of prey pecking at the bear quarters. None of men thought of driving them off. Mahu, standing before the extinguished fire, stared at the gray ashes. He lowered himself down to them, but all life had abandoned them. He straightened himself up and saw the sun that reached the edge of the big forest. They had to act before night fell. He looked at the dead warriors. Their numerous injuries proved that they had defended themselves relentlessly. They had to have killed some enemies. Mahu saw none. With a hunter's instinct, he looked for signs. They had been intentionally destroyed. He first found two tracks intended to lead them astray. He headed for the top of the hill, but the rocks didn't retain any tracks. He saw nothing. The sun had hidden itself below the horizon and Mahu was losing hope of finding anything. Already, he heard the lugubrious cries of the hyenas that, enticed by the odor of blood, waited for night to come to look for the cadavers.

Mahu searched feverishly. His infallible hunter's instinct awakened. An almost imperceptible odor came to his nostrils. He recognized the odor of blood. He bent and found, hidden under the rocks, several bodies.

"Hey! Here!"

At the chief's call, his warriors came and looked at the bodies of their enemies killed in the battle.

"Ape-men!"

They stared, stupefied, at these corpses whose skin was brown, whose heads, arms and legs were covered with frizzy hair. Never had they seen an ape-man. The old men sometimes told them stories of these ferocious and bloodthirsty men who hunted the white men to eat them. Mahu felt a superstitious terror invade his hunters. He wanted to get them back. He brought all his energy into play. He had to recapture the hearts of his men from the fear that paralyzed them.

"It was our men who killed them..."

A gleam of admiration towards their comrades appeared in their eyes.

"We will kill all those that remain. We will take back our women and children and bring back the Stone."

And the men, subdued by Mahu's look, repeated: "And we will bring back the Stone."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The white men, with Mahu in the lead, followed the tracks of the ape-men by the light of the moon . They entered the great forest of the rising sun, which they never dared to ever penetrate for fear of the dreaded unicorns that lived there. They walked for long hours in the dark, listening for noises of the forest, crunches of leaves under the paws of carnivores in search of easy prey.

The night was softening. Mahu still followed the tracks. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of a glade, knelt and scrutinized the soil carefully. "Unicorns! The tracks are fresh."

And then the sound of raucous neighing.

"They can smell us; they are downwind."

They heard an impatient and angry stamping. The hunters knew well this dangerous, volatile beast, that runs as quickly as the wind and transfixes his prey with his single ivory horn.

"Climb trees, quickly, everyone!" Hardly had the last man reached the first branch than the unicorns surrounded the trees where the hunters had taken refuge. They could see in the early light about twenty horns aiming at the sky. The beasts watched for the slightest mistake of their prey. The men were besieged. With terror, Mahu saw them getting settled at the foot of trees. He knew the obstinacy of these beasts. He knew that when they were hungry they would attack the trees and even uproot them, until the men fell. Mahu couldn't remain like that. He thought of the sacred Stone that always protected the tribe:

"Listen, Mahu, that noise..."

Yes, Mahu could hear it. It was a low sound, almost imperceptible like just a buzzing in the ears. But the noise became clearer and clearer, and he could see, below, the unicorns becoming agitated. The sound intensified. Mahu now recognized the regular hammering of the giants of the steppe.

"Mammoths!"

The unicorns stamp, nervous. They don't want to abandon the prey they nearly have. But they dread these fabulous-sized adversaries. Undecided, they listen to the approach of the giants. The men themselves tremble with fright. Their life hangs by a thread. The noise becomes more and more deafening. Trees crack. They can hear the powerful breath of the animals. The biggest and oldest mammoth who guides the herd, leading always alone at the head, appears in the glade. At the sight of the unicorns, he trumpets in anger and throws himself forward, followed by about ten males. With his trunk, the giant mammoth seizes a unicorn by the neck and throws him to the ground. He stomps it with rage. Another, attacking a unicorn on his side, throws him into the air, receiving him with his terrifying tusks. Three unicorns attack the same mammoth and pierce his stomach with their horns, but the beast, fatally wounded, falls before two can clear themselves, and they are crushed by his mass. The men watch with fright as the pachyderms come little by little closer to their shelter, and see that one of them, injured, is leaning against the tree Mahu is in. Another pulls up a tree and throw it at the head of a unicorn. Mahu, frozen with fright, hears two human screams.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The forest recovers its usual calmness. The big pachyderms continue on their path, abandoning one of theirs on the field of battle. The unicorns lie trampled by their adversaries. The men watch the big herd moving away. Little by little they recover their composure, and Mahu descends slowly from his savior tree. He calls his warriors; five are missing. Their chief in the lead, they return to the track of the ape-men, walking quickly. Concern grows again in their hearts. The forest brightens little by little. Mahu advances more carefully. The wind brings him an odor of smoke and noises of barbaric song. The men now approach crawling. They can see the camp of the ape-men. These had chosen for domicile a low underground cave that opened up even with the earth. Mahu can see the prisoners guarded by awful hairy women. The ape-men have lit a big fire outside. They dance around, waving their clawed hands in all directions. Their chief contorts before a table made of a block of rock.

"There, on the rock, see, the Stone!"

Mahu whispers:

"They are far more numerous than we; we must attack immediately while they are dancing."

The maneuver is accomplished silently and the attack is brutal. Disorientated, at first the dancers cannot defend themselves. But they recover when the see how few their attackers are. Mahu had leapt toward the Stone. But the chief of ape-men had already carried it away into the cave and Mahu is surrounded by enemies. Courageously, he defends himself until he is knocked unconscious by a blow to the skull. His warriors retreat to the forest.

"You thought yourself strongest, Mahu. You were taken. I will offer you in sacrifice to the Stone. And we will eat you, Mahu. Your flesh will enrich and fatten us."

Mahu remained impassive before the ape-man.

"Look at my warriors; they dance with joy, because there will be a feast today. And look at the Stone; it is henceforth ours."

"I am not afraid, ape-man. I know the Stone, it will avenge me."

The ape-man exploded in laughter. He addressed his dancers:

"Whose is the Stone?"

"Ours"

"And who will the Stone protect?"

"Us."

"Who will the Stone heal?"

"Us."

"Who will eat Mahu?"

"We will."

And they took up the dance again, more frantically than before. The ape-man turned once again toward Mahu.

"You are going to die, Mahu, but first you will see that the Stone is lucky for us. Here, watch."

The ape-man picked up the Stone and took it out of its lead case. The dancers had quit their contortions. Mahu watched, spellbound His face was covered with sweat and drops formed on his forehead. Suddenly, the ape-man started to scream. He dropped the Stone and Mahu saw that his hands had turned black, while his body had shriveled up and a burnt odor filled the air. Then the ape-man fell to the ground. He had become entirely black. The silence of death spread over the camp. Mahu, slowly, approached the Stone. He took the lead case and, without touching the mysterious block, put it back into its envelope. Then he approached the blackened body and with the tip of his finger touched it. The body collapsed into a small pile of ashes. Panic then seized the ape-men who, screaming, ran away in all directions. They were cut down easily by Mahu's warriors who were watching for an auspicious moment to save their chief.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The tribe returned to its cave. With more precaution than ever, the Stone was brought back and replaced in its middle room, at the bottom of the underground cave. On the way back, they picked up the tusks of the mammoth, wealth most valued. They also got in a stock of meat. Now the winter could come, and it wouldn't find a resourceless tribe. Faith in the Stone was stronger than ever, and Mahu proudly guided his tribe toward the glorious destinies of his race.

J. Lemasson