A holy woman named Atsula performs a sacred ritual with the elders of her tribe. Each elder takes turns wearing the mask of their god Nunyunnini, as the mammoth god explains that their tribe must leave their land before a great comet can strike. Nunyunnini tells the tribe to travel towards the sun for two months. Atsula interrupts that this journey is too dangerous and foolish. Nunyunnini speaks again, saying that the tribe will still reach the new, safe land, but Atsula’s faithlessness means that the tribe will not keep this land forever.
Gaiman fictionalizes what could have been the first arrival in America, when ancient tribes came over the Siberian land bridge. As the tribes’ people take on and off the mask of Nunyunnini, they in some sense “become” the god, strengthening the idea that gods exist because humans believe in them. Gaiman also incorporates a possible explanation for why so many groups come to America: Atsula’s faithlessness means that many invaders will come.
The tribe packs their things and walks east, crossing the land bridge and arriving at the base of ice cliffs. Atsula tells the tribe that she will die at the base of the cliffs, offering the sacrifice that will ensure that the rest of the tribe reaches the new land safely. Behind them, the tribespeople see a bright flash in the land where they once lived and know that they have escaped a terrible disaster. The elders praise Nunyunnini for delivering them, but Atsula slowly realizes that the gods are only as great as the human hearts that create them. A sudden roar from the west interrupts Atsula before she can say more.
Atsula provides the sacrifice necessary to get her people safely to this new land—with gods, as usual, everything has a price. Before she dies, Atsula has an epiphany that the gods are only powerful because humans choose to give them power. Should people stop believing in gods, they would no longer mean anything. Yet it seems as though some force does not want Atsula to fully finish that thought, as she is interrupted by a “roar” from the west.
Atsula dies just as she said, and the tribe reaches the new land and settles in a spot with plenty of fish and easily hunted wildlife. Generations pass, and the tribe’s descendants spread out and choose new gods, abandoning Nunyunnini. After many years, slavers come and find the valley of the First People, and they discover the cave where the mammoth mask of Nunyunnini was hidden all these years. They throw the mask into a ravine, so that their own gods will not be jealous. Nunyunnini is entirely forgotten.
From the start in America, gods were brought over only to be replaced by new gods and forgotten. The invaders that Nunyunnini promised do arrive, and they spell Nunyunnini’s downfall by keeping their own gods instead of incorporating another god. Nunyunnini joins the halls of gods who are no longer worshipped once there is no more belief left to sustain him, and no evidence that this god was ever even here.