Sunset over the sea painted Tulimak's face in soft shades of salmon and peach. It was cold but not unpleasant on the ridge line overlooking the water. Small gauzy puffs of smoke marked the cook fires being kindled below in the settlement. The old shaman rocked back on his haunches, breathing deep and filling his lungs with salt tang and cedar. The corners of his mouth lifted, the cracked leather of his lips bending in a smile. It was good, he thought, to breathe so clean an air on his last day on earth.
A black-backed gull hovered on the wind almost level with Tulimak's head. The gull studied the human with a beady eye. The shaman returned the seabird's gaze, grunting a low greeting to what would soon be a fellow traveler. Soon, the shaman reminded himself, if he had marked his days properly and according to the lore handed down to him by the great Uqalik. Uqalik the Great, who himself had given his body to the earth so that the tribe would know and be reborn. Tulimak smiled again as his fingers absent-mindedly touched the totem hanging on the sealskin thong tied about his neck.
The totem was yellowed bone, taken from a mighty elk many summers ago and carved into the shape of a hare. The shaman drifted into reverie, a waking hallucination of the day Uqalik had given the totem to Tulimak, on the great man's last day on earth; before Uqalik walked into the forest to dissolve into the earth. Through the oculus of his mind's eye, Tulimak watched the broad back of the man recede into the green shadows, becoming smaller and smaller until finally the man had disappeared and in his place stood a large hare. The hare turned to stare at Tulimak, the marbles of its eyes glossy black in the twilight. It sniffed twice before turning back around to lope into the cedars.
Tulimak understood that on that day, he was no longer an ordinary man. The totem had grown warm in his hand as if to signal the transfer of power.
The old man would have continued to dream had it not been for a cough behind him. The dream cedars wavered and faded. The cold air of the approaching night stung the shaman's cheeks. His blocky head, which many in the tribe compared to an iceberg, swiveled on a neck corded with sinew as he turned to consider the young apprentice, Anuniaq, waiting for him a few paces away. Tulimak smiled and beckoned the young man closer. He reached into his anorak and pulled out a small, intricately carved bone flute. Anuniaq's eyes widened at the sight of it. Tulimak spoke.
"This flute is now yours, Seeker. It is time for me to return to the earth, to dance with the hare and the raven. Do you understand, boy?"
Anuniaq swallowed, too nervous to speak. He nodded his head.
"Good," the shaman said. "I go now to the cedars and the stones. Remember me in the season of new life, when the rivers run high. Remember me, so that the tribe may remember the earth." Tulimak turned away before the lad could say anything, striding unhurriedly but with purpose towards the waiting cedars. As he approached the trees, the transformation begin. His skin slid over his bones, forearms and thighs shortening and bending. He fell to all fours. His fingers began fusing together, the nails dissolving into sharp black claws. Speech slipped away on a lengthening jawbone, cracking and popping. His new muzzle felt heavy, but good.
Tulimak grunted as he slipped away into the feathery shadows under the gently waving fronds of cedar. He did not look back at Anuniaq, who had brought the flute to his lips. The faint strains of the bone flute bade the wolf-man farewell. Tulimak sped into the forest and the soil closed in around him. The music would be different in the next cycle when the mineral earth cast him up, wearing a new skin to call home.
Anuniaq played on under a sky gauzy with aurorae, slowly making his way down the hill. The flute grew warm in his hands. His heart was full of the earth, sky and sea, complete and eternal.