Discovered by reindeer herders in Siberia, the near-perfect mammoth—frozen for 40,000 years—holds clues to the extinct species.
The mammoth herd approaches the rushing river. A calf ambles close to her mother’s huge legs, brushing their long, glossy hair now and then with her trunk. The sky is brilliant blue, and a dry wind hisses through the grasses, which billow like oceanic swells across a steppe 10,000 miles wide, spanning the northern arc of the Ice Age world. The long winter is over; birdsong and the scent of damp loam fill the air.
Perhaps the warmth of the sun makes the mother careless, and for a moment she loses track of her calf. The baby wanders toward the water. She stumbles on the slippery riverbank and slides into a slurry of clay, sand, and fresh snowmelt. She struggles to free herself, but every movement drags her deeper. The mud gets in her mouth, her trunk, her eyes; disoriented, she gasps for breath but gets a mouthful of muck instead. Coughing, gagging, caught in a riptide of panic, she makes a dreadful high-pitched shriek that brings her mother running. Inhaling with all her force, the calf sucks the mud deep into her trachea, sealing her lungs. By the time her mother reaches the bank, the baby is partially submerged in the ice-cold mire and flailing feebly, rapidly sliding into shock. The mother screams and mills on the soft bank, drawing the rest of the herd. As they watch, the calf sinks beneath the surface.
Night falls. The herd moves on, but the mother lingers. Yellow moonlight throws her humpbacked shadow across the glistening mud. The moon sets, and stars glow in the chill heavens. Just before dawn, she takes a last look at the spot where the earth swallowed her baby, then turns and follows the herd north, toward summer pastures.