Moss was intent on the work before him as he sat among the roots of the Mother Tree, using a bone scraper to de-hair a soaked skin stretched out on his stretching rack, when he grew aware of the sounds of a drum. Tam-tam-tam-tam-tam. It was a light, hollow sound, more of a gentle question than a confident beat. Moss was aware of the sound, but it was just another piece of the familiar background pulse of the tribe’s daily life, and he didn’t actually hear it. The supple raw hide in his hands was speaking louder to him, whispering its possibilities as he rendered it clean—
Then the tenor of the drumbeat changed; two heavier thum thum beats, then an accompanying clang and crash. Pottery broke, someone yelped, and there was a scrabble of claws. A four-legged gait galloped down the Mother’s Tree’s central stairway, and a muddy-brown blur burst out of the treehome, vaulted over Moss and the wide frame of the hide-stretcher, and careened out of sight around the bulk of the Father Tree.
Moss untucked from the reflective duck, all concentration for his work vanished. He listened with his ears now, and heard only silence from the depths of the Mother Tree above him.
‘Muddypaws.’ He registered that belated recognition of the wolf-friend who had fled the hometree. Moss winced and gathered himself to his feet. The silence up in the Mother Tree continued, growing furtive and suspicious as Moss headed up the shadowy stairs toward his den.
“**Crackle.**” He sent as well as spoke the name, and felt the girl’s guilty mindtouch. Suddenly there was noise again, a furious rustling. Moss had raised his own cub – he knew the sounds of trouble trying to cover its tracks, even if his son Longshot had never, not even at his worst, been Crackle’s equal in spawning mischief. Moss took the stairs three at a time to the door to his den.
Crackle rebounded off of the tanner’s chest, outbound at speed. He caught her by the scruff and lifted, so that her feet were left churning the air. Then he looked around his den in dismay. It looked as if someone had caught a badger in a sack and swung it around until it was good and dizzy as well as raging pissed, then set the beast loose. The colorfully painted walls of his den looked the same, but everything else was in disarray. Moss’s rack of crafting supplies had been knocked down, spilling baskets of beads, quills, deer hooves, polished elk teeth and river stones about the room. When it fell, the rack knocked down two wall-shelves worth of keepsakes, so that the debris underfoot included the flute Nightstorm had carved for him, his mother’s knife with the scrimshawed elk-antler hilt, and the stuffed toy wolf he had made for his son when Longshot had been a boy, so well-loved that the fox fur was rubbed bare in places. The fur blankets were dragged across the bed and piled in a strange fashion, and the dappled snow-cat hide had been pulled down from the wall so that it drooped limply on one side like an empty husk. And over it all, an entire basket of goose down had been upset, the jar broken into three large pieces and feather down left to drift over the debris like a gentle snow.
“I-didn’t-do-it-it-wasn’t-my-fault,” Crackle said in a rush, the words one long exhalation. There was goose down in her hair, and even as she protested innocence, one feathery flake drifted down to land on the nub of her snub nose. There-was-this-treewee-it-ran-through-the-window-of-mama’s-den-we-chased-it-an-it-ran-in-here-and-it-ran-up-and-
The girl ran out of air. Moss swept another look across the wreckage of his den. He was grateful to see that his treasured harp, Heartsong, was still on its ledge far up above the bed, well out of a cubling’s reach – but his stomach sank when he noticed a bare spot on the wall beneath the harp’s resting place. Still carrying Crackle at arm’s length, he stepped into his den and reached for the pile of furs on the bed. Crackle gave a groan as he pulled the top bedfur off.
“A treewee did this?” Moss said, scowling down at Crackle. Hidden beneath the blanket were the remains of his favorite drum, the painted drumhide split down the center.
“A really, really big one?” Crackle offered that lie with her sweetest, most sincere smile and a doe-eyed look of innocence.
Moss fixed her with a hard stare, letting her know without question that he wasn’t about to believe her story. The girl wilted and tried a new track. Tears welled up in her moss-green eyes, then slid down her round cheeks. “I didn’t mean to,” she said. “I just wanted to look at it. And then Muddypaws had to sniff after the bones-basket, and then everything fell down and Muddypaws ran and jumped all over the drum and tore it up. But I didn’t mean to make a mess. I only wanted to look at it.”
Moss set the girl down on her feet. “You maybe didn’t mean to make trouble, but you’re better at it than a coyote. You made this mess; you get to clean it up.” Cradling his damaged drum, he caught the reed basket with his toes, and kicked it up toward her, so that Crackle had to catch it to keep it from hitting her. “Get started,” he said sternly. “And maybe if you do a good enough job at it, I won’t be telling your parents about it.”
Crackle eyed him, weighing her options. Then she nodded once, crisply, and set to work.
Luckily enough, most of the spilled containers had either been of woven reeds or of stitched hide; besides the goose-down jar, Moss’s treasured drum was the only casualty, and once the blankets were spread back onto the bed and the snow-cat skin re-hung, the worst of the work was picking up and sorting the spilled beads, bones, stones, quills and the rest back into their original containers. Crackle was as fast a worker as she was a troublemaker, and her young fingers were quick and nimble.
Moss sat on his bed and cradled the torn drum, running his fingertips over the smooth wood of the drum hoop. The old wood felt silky to the touch, and with a smile, he remembered how he had worked with his mother, Cider, to carve each segment of the frame before she had guided him through the process of clamping the pieces together, gluing them and shaping them so that the finished instrument sounded as strong and sure as a heartbeat. The ruined drumskin had once been a single piece of petal-thin elk skin, stretched to a creamy translucence over the cedar hoop by a knotted web of sinew. He had painted the drumskin with a dozen colorful wolves following a single blue stag, the whole string of prey and predators running in one long, fluid endless circle.
“I got the last of the feathers,” Crackle said, holding up her down basket hopefully. She put it back on the place it had fallen from, then picked up the drumstick that had fallen under the bed-shelf. It had broken in two, and she offered both halves to Moss mournfully. “I’m sorry about your drum,” she said, the apology in her eyes heart-felt. “I didn’t mean to break it. I just wanted to see it up close.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself. You hurt her pretty bad,” Moss said, still stroking the cedar frame.
“Her?” The snub nose was wrinkled, and Crackle’s expression had gone dubious, as if she smelled a trap. “Your drum is a girl?”
Moss nodded. “Yes. And she was a lovely one, wasn’t she?”
Crackle watched him, her expression mixed fascination and suspicion. “How’d you know it was a girl-drum?” she asked.
Moss’s smiled at the child. “Because she told me so, the first time I played her.”
Crackle’s red eyebrows rose like bird wings. “What was her name?”
“Thunder-sweet.” Moss grinned at the child’s look. “I swear. She told me so the first time I played her, just as easy as speaking to an old friend. Each drum has its own voice, you know,” he murmured, giving the cedar hoop a final stroke before he began to strip off the ruined drumskin.
Crackle was frowning; looking as though she figured her elder was making fun of her. "Yes, but they don't talk."
“Oh no,” Moss grinned. He winked at her. “Don’t make that mistake. Each drum is different and has its own personality. Just like every wolf-friend you ever take will have its own personality. And just like with every lovemate you will someday take, you’ll find every drum speaks to you in a new way, and if you listen to that drum’s voice, she or he will teach you something new about yourself.”
The girl’s snub-nose was still wrinkled, and her gaze was dubious. Moss smiled at her and reached out to ruffle her chestnut curls. “Come on. You’re not done making things right yet. You have to come help me give this friend her voice back.”
Moss selected a fawn hide from the den-stores, and they started with that, soaking the skin in the cold water of the river to make it soft. Then, working it with a clean doeskin stretched beneath them, they stretched out the wet hide with its grain side down. They placed the hoop frame down and cut a circle of hide half again the hoop’s diameter. Then, with the hide circle put back into the water to soak again, they cut up the rest of the hide in spirals for lacing. “Wet rawhide can be difficult, and it slips out of knots easily,” Moss warned Crackle. “You always want to have the laces too thick, rather than risk them being too thin. Later, when we tighten up the drum, we’ll be pulling hard on the laces, and you’ll see how they stretch and get thinner.”
“Can the laces break?”
“They can. You don’t want them to, though, so always cut the laces thick.”
When they had their laces, the long loops of rawhide went into the river again, to keep them soft and supple. As the laces soaked in their turn, Moss showed the girl-cub how to punch holes in the drumhead, using an awl to put the evenly-spaced holes where the lacings would thread. “We have to be sure to spread the tension evenly across the drum’s frame. If we fail to do that, then the skin will split, or the hoop will crack.”
When the drumskin was ready, they began to lace it to the frame. “Take up the slack,” Moss advised, guiding Crackle’s nimble fingers in the task. “Work the lacings from one end to the other, pulling gently as you go. Good – see how taking up that slack stretches the lacings? Yes, that’s good, tighten that - good. Now do it again. And again. Until you feel you cannot get any more slack. Good. Don’t be afraid to pull hard – harder – good. That’s good. Be careful not to break the lacing, or the holes in the drumhead. We have to start over from the beginning if that happens.”
The lacings were drawn together over the empty side of the drum frame. They wove them into a complex web, making the drum both easier to hold and play, while increasing the tension on drum itself.
“Are we done?” Crackle asked anxiously, her green eyes bright with anticipation.
“Not yet,” Moss answered, as they hung the drum to dry in the hollow trunk where One-Leg liked to smoke meat for winter.
“But if we put it on the rocks in the sun, she’ll dry faster,” Crackle said.
“If she dries too fast, the frame may warp. Let her dry evenly, and she’ll thank you with resonance.”
As the drum dried, they found a stick of birch, as straight and long as Crackle’s arm, to shape into a drumstick. Moss carved the bark away, and then they rubbed the stick smooth with river sand. One end was wrapped with strips of rawhide to serve as the grip. Then they curried fistfuls of hair from their wolves and stuffed them into a small rawhide pillow twice the size of Moss’s palm, which they fit on the end of the drumstick to serve as the beater. “When those bindings dry, they’ll hold as tight as a bowstring,” Moss promised, as Crackle wound the wet leather thongs.
“Nightstorm pretties her flute up with feathers. Can I add feathers to the drumstick?” Crackle asked.
“If you wish,” Moss replied.
The girl gave him a flash of a grin, then darted away in search of just the right feather.
Moss took down the dried drum.
“Is she done? Is she done?” Crackle asked breathlessly.
Moss curled the fingers of his left hand through the lacings at the drum’s open back. They held taut and firm. He tapped the fingertips of his right hand over the drumskin in a quick, questioning roll, and was satisfied with the warm resonance of sound that came as an answer.
“Done,” he said with pleasure. “Here,” he said, offering the drum to the girl.
Crackle glowed as she took the instrument. She held it gingerly and tapped it with her new drumstick. Her green eyes widened with delight, and then she found a steady beat and played it.
“Now I’ll have to make me one,” Moss said, smiling at the girl.
“But—“ Crackle looked at the hunter in confusion. “But I thought Thundersweet was your friend.”
“She was. But listen to her. She’s telling me she wants to be yours. Do you hear her say that as well?”
The cub’s smile of gratitude was like a rising sun. “Is she telling you that? Really?”
“Sure as the moons rise. Just so long as you’ll treat her with respect. If you abuse her or leave her out in the rain, or forget her outside for a day, then she comes back home to me. But if you’ll treat her with respect and protect her, she wants to go with you.”
“I promise!” the girl swore, as earnest and sober as Moss had ever seen her.
He tousled her hair again, grinning. “Then she’s yours, until she tells you or me otherwise. Now, you willing to keep me company while I start carving the frame of another drum?”
Crackle grinned, then started up a rhythmic beat to work to.