In the afternoon, a hunter returned to camp, sweat steaming from under his fur from the heavy skiing. We sat down with him around the fire, offered him drink and dry meat. He had located Bear half a day from our camp, a lair deep in the forest by an ice-capped river. What shall he be called, we asked? Big Brother, said the hunter. I want us to call him Big Brother. From then on, we stopped calling Bear by his real name, to shield ourselves from his power, we sat up feeding the fire, talking warily about Big Brother and how the pieces would fall. Has Big Brother been circled in, we asked of the hunter? I have done so myself, said the hunter, three days I was with him, narrowing the circle around his lair every day.
At dusk we set out on skis, half a dozen of us, the rest remained in camp, preparing for Big Brother to be brought home. Light snow had settled on a hardened crust. We flew quickly over the plains once we’d reached the summit, keeping steady on our long ski, while skating with the short, gradually downwards towards the thicker forest on the other side. When the first line of solid trees appeared, we slowed down, gliding quietly in among the branches, the hunter first, the rest of us in a line following his tracks. Frost had settled on the pine needles, wrapping them in a bushy layer of white. At this slower pace, the frost smoke from our breathing became more piercing, as we advanced through the woods without a word, steering steadily towards the lair of Big Brother.
Deep in the forest, the hunter stopped by a grove of alder trees. We all took off our skies and sat down in the snow. Over us, the trees stretched out their leafless branches, grey cracks in the whiteness. The hunter took out three pieces of silver from under his fur and put a piece each under three trees. From each of the trees he cut several small bits of bark, which he put under his fur. When we got up, we continued by foot in the shallow snow, slowly walking among the trees with the skis in our hands, until we came to the river.
At a sign from the hunter, we put down our skis by the bank and started slowly climbing up a small slope towards Big Brother’s lair. At a sunken scree half-way up, we found the entrance marked by the hunter in between the rocks. For a long time, we stood looking at the opening, saying nothing before each of us moved slowly into position. Two of us took out sharpened wooden poles and positioned ourselves on each side of the opening, three positioned themselves in a formation in front of the opening, with spears hidden under the arms of their furs. When we were all in position, the hunter took forth an axe, and went right in front of the opening, hardly a step away from the exit of the lair. He nodded at the two at each side, then lifted his axe. Big Brother, he bellowed. We tightened our bodies, but nothing stirred. The hunter looked around at us again. Big Brother, he bellowed a second time. And then a third time. No movement. We looked at each other. One of the men behind the hunter nodded, he put down his spear, the other two moved in closer to one another to tighten the gap of possible escape. Slowly the man walked towards the mouth of the lair, laid down in front of it, and started crawling in legs first. The hunter lifted his axe as the man crawled further down the hole and disappeared from sight.
The wait felt long. Small flakes of snow had started falling, a light drizzle came down over us. We all stood there stiffened, staring into the mouth of the lair. Then two screams, one after the other. First a scream of rage from Big Brother, then a scream of terror from the man in the lair. We all crouched. The hunter tightened the grip on his axe. Out the mouth came first the man, crawling in panic past the men at the opening then, moments later, the head of Big Brother appeared, roaring furiously at the daylight that fell on his face. The two men on each side of the lair reacted swiftly: With all their might they drove the wooden poles into the neck of Big Brother. For a split second, he looked surprised, even puzzled, giving time for the hunter to swing his axe forcefully down on Big Brother’s head. A deep sound escaped Big Brother, he took two steps towards the retreating hunter, the men with the poles hanging on for dear life. Then he shook his head, looking around at each one of us, before he fell down on his belly and remained lying still, only breathing heavily, until the breathing also ceased.
It was dark when we returned to camp, gliding in between the huts on our skis, with Big Brother strapped onto a sled behind us. In one of the huts, the light from a fire flickered, but no people were to be seen and none came out to greet us. We lit a fire in the yard between the huts and slowly started to skin Big Brother with our knives. We put his hide back on the sled and started parting his flesh, carefully cutting chunks all the way to the bone. When the knives had done all they could, only the flesh in between the bones of the skeleton remained. Carefully, we lifted the skeleton and hung it over the fire to roast slowly. When we had done all this, the hunter sat down on Big Brother’s hide. He took forth the pieces of alder bark from under his fur and handed it to one of the men. The man walked over the yard and into the hut where the fire burnt. When he returned, we all sat down in a circle on Big Brother’s hide and waited.
Soon the women and children started emerging from the hut, slowly walking towards us with their faces downwards, none of them looking directly at any of us sitting on Big Brother’s hide. Each of them was chewing on a piece of bark. They started to walk around us in a circle, slowly increasing their speed until they were running. We eyed straight and waited. Then the first one spit in the face of the hunter, then another, and another until red bark saliva was running all over his face. He closed his eyes and laid his head back, breathing deeply. Then they turned to the rest of us and did not stop until all our faces were covered with red spit.
At daybreak the next morning, we carried Big Brother’s skeleton through the woods. The night before we had feasted on the roasted remains of his flesh. Now only bones were left. We walked until we came to a mount where a huge ledge stuck out. Under the ledge the ground was bare and brown. No snow had yet covered it. We sat down on our knees and started digging in the half-hardened ground with our tools, children digging next to their mothers, fathers, grandparents. Little by little, we opened a grave. When it was deep enough, we put the remains of Big Brother down in it and slowly scraped dirt over until he was covered.
The following night there was a heavy snowfall and gusts of wind breathed snow in over Big Brother’s grave, covering it all with white.
…for the black ox has trod upon my foot, my dear friend.
Cruel Custom of Korčula