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Chapter Three - The Plains
What manner of life is this, that darkens her veil over your eyes?
What would make her bend and sweat even a drop of blood onto your tongue?
A spirit which burns so bright, yet dormant and buried lies;
The sun will blacken; a howling pack; no prayers for the young.
Killing an animal is much harder than you think. Not a little thing in a trap or a bird, but something with eyes bigger than your own, breath exhaling in steaming clumps. We had rites for asking the deer and calves to give themselves up to us, but we were still boys, on our own, and we knew only what we had gathered by ear.
“easy, she might bolt yet”
My brother motioned for me to step forward in unison. The female was huddled into the crack between the boulders, her eyes watching as she shifted her rump backwards, feeling for space. We had tracked her for days. I’d like to say we had caught her first with a spear, but she was already injured when when we started following her. A limp, no appetite, no real fear as such, perhaps a stubbornness to accept fate, in the only way a beast could. Was it shameful of us? Perhaps, but we needed to eat. It had been days and the provisions and lizards and insect larvae and grass seeds had done little to fuel the fires in our bellies.
The jagged edges of these strange cliff-like apparitions, which appeared every few days like islands in a sea of grass, were often a good place to regroup and gain some height advantage. The grasslands were so flat and so constantly on the move, it felt like you were always on the surface of a huge shimmering lake, with no way to know where you were. The stars had their uses of course, but we had never been told how to travel with their knowledge over such vast distances. Just the comforting childish tales of constellations for us.
“get closer to those rocks there” he pointed “we’ve got her trapped now”
Her head bent low, the female snorted twice, her glassy dark eyes unfocused. Suddenly she reared up and tossed her head back - a bellow like the wind through a hollow log came forth, creaking at the edges, pure in the middle, strong and determined. We stepped back instinctively and raised our spears. Neither of us could throw properly, we had been humiliated enough out here to risk trying that again. This would be done by hand, one thrust at a time. Once the first few stabs had sunk home it felt like a weight had been lifted. After a few more it felt numb, the life quickly draining. Her spirit was so weak, it was like snuffing out an ember between your fingers.
We clumsily butchered and separated the useful meats and organs. Her liver looked pale and we left it, a thing of weakness, not to be eaten. We sawed off the antler and arranged the legs and hooves as we’d seen the elders do before, that she may run again and return to her herd. That night over a dim fire we cooked what we could and sliced the rest into thin ribbons, filling our skins with the lean muscle. We scooped out the thick wet chyme and ate it with our fingers, the bitterness nicely following the savoury meat and blood. We felt full.
Of course they were unhappy we had left. That first night we saw little fires in the distance, warming the trackers who were pursuing us. Although we huddled in the cold and tried doubling around to cover the path, it was futile against men who could stalk animals for weeks. That they didn’t catch us and drag us back suggested their hearts were not in it - dare we even hope they sympathised? One night I swore a figure had been watching us, clouded by the inky blackness, but after a while that feeling of being observed lessened, as if to say ‘go on then boys, you may yet make it after all’.
This kind of silence was absolute. Although our people were few, there had always been an infant bawling, a dog barking, the noise of daily chatter and activity. Here there was nothing, an empty space of total freedom. It was almost crushing in its absolute hermetic sealing-in of sound. You felt like you could scream until your chest cramped but the cry would only swirl around yourself and not even the little flitting birds would care enough to raise their heads. Freedom like this demands a road, lest you be cast out to become nothing but mouldering bones and idled with by toothed cats and brutes. Our road was just a spider’s thread, a gossamer of a plan which drew us further and further into the grass. Death out here was preferable to a life of stooping at home, but when you put flint in the fire it either cracks or become stronger. This was our fire, and there was certainly time enough to crack.
He was bent over a patch in the grass, concentrating intently.
“it was here again last night”
The paw print was huge, with four thick toes and a triangular pad. There were many as well, pacing up and down. Here and there the claws were visible, the rest were retracted. It was easy to picture in my mind’s eye the great feline, annoyed, proudly raging, flexing its paws.
“the first night we don’t manage to make a fire…”
He smiled grimly, but beneath the humour was a deadly seriousness. Hunters like these do not like flames or smoke, but this was the third night now we had been watched. It was uncomfortable to think that we had become the prey.
“it must have picked us up when we left the carcass back there”
“we have to kill it”
A momentary look of shock quickly melted into a broad grin and a slow nod.
“how do we do it?”
Laying out our supplies in front of us we began the preparation for war. Triangular blades create wounds, enough to sap the great hunter of his strength. My brother was the better of us with flint, he could coax any shape from that stone. But our supplies were low, so we needed all the blessings and focus we could muster. The best core was as big as his palm, smooth and glossy, with scars from its first shaping. Talking to stone is not as a child imagines - it does talk back, but through the language of noise, texture and edge. He chose his favourite antler and rounded cobble to start work, running his fingers over the flint, feeling every angle and minuscule fracture which might disrupt the flow. First - the Tortoise. He exhaled sharply and swiftly took off the first flake - crack - a perfect ringing singing snap, the tune of the stone. Working efficiently now he took off the edges, rounding the piece like a shell. Then carefully trimmed the butt, leaving one exposed edge for the final strike. He ignored me watching him, scrutinising every facet of his platform. Then in one fluid motion he delivered the blow, and a perfect triangular piece fell away, like it gave itself up to him.
A few more of these and we would be done. To create a whole weapon though was another matter. The rest of the afternoon was spent converting our spears into something new - instead of the narrow blades for killing horned-ones, we needed to bring down a titan. The wood was reworked, the strips of bark heated in embers until the acrid tarry pitch bubbled out, the upgraded spear-heads slotted and adhered into place. We looked at them and we felt a fire spring up in us both, something vital pulsed between the spears and us, the birth of a spirit, a new world of possibility where only our wits and muscles counted. Life up until now felt like a milky root, pounded flat, bland and listless. Now life was keen, our eyesight only forward, I felt like an eagle, a thing coiled up with anticipation. Tonight we would either kill or be killed, there was nothing else, a struggle of wills for the ultimate prize - to feel your blood surge and watch theirs flowing.
How had we lived up until now?
That night we took our food as usual, stoking a fire and stretching out on our furs. We piled on additional wet branches, some turf sods, bone and dung, to build a strong smoke cloud. Once the sun fully retreated and night engulfed the light we propped up our makeshift mannequins and edged away from the hearth. This was the hard part now, waiting, hoping our scent would not be obvious amidst the billows of heavy fumes, coming in little waves like the fire itself was breathing.
We crouched in our nooks and waited, eyes straining into the gloom. Time seemed to pass thickly, as a drop of pine resin, slowly stretching out. I gripped my spear, my knuckles white with tension. I looked over to where I knew my brother was hidden, which of us would see it first?
I saw it move from the corner of my eye, almost unnaturally fast. A shape, nothing more, but with heft. Then again it came, flickering in and out of my vision on the other side of the fire. It seemed everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. I cautiously turned my head and scanned our camp - nothing.
A roar harmonised with a yell split the air, the world seemed to crack in two. He staggered and fell backwards from his hiding spot, his spear gone. Everything became compressed and heightened now, like the final moments of a dream where you’re falling to your death. Running on instinct, I leapt up and ran to him, the dark sticky blood glinting slickly in the firelight. The beast let out a howl of rage from behind the rocks, the fury rippling the smoke. It was an otherworldly noise, ethereal and horrifying, the cry of a wounded thing gathering up a storm, or a mountain, or a colossal wave of water, or a glacial wall, something so powerful it rendered us like ants or mayflies to be obliterated through its will alone.
“has it gone?”
He was sat up, holding his chest, a redness seeping through his fingers.
I shrugged and kept my eyes on the rock, then crept forwards.
Everything was so quiet, the menace of earlier had drained away. Now the air felt empty, a blank rock face.
I inched my way over the boulders and looked downwards. A broken spear shaft - a patch or two of dark blood - churned up earth. I looked for any sign of broken grass or a trail leading away, but the pawprints just stopped abruptly, as if it taken flight, or disappeared.
“maybe he jumped onto another rock?”
His voice was weak, his face pale, peering over the crag back to the scene. Not ten minutes ago he had been crouched in here like a winter mouse, the beast had torn through as lightning and vanished, taking a spearpoint to the thorax with it.
I settled him by the fire and examined his wounds. Not as bad as I feared, one deep claw mark and several smaller gashes. He was lucky. But we knew that cats were clean animals, with one exception - their claws. A cat scratch can kill over a few days. I took my spearhead and rustled out a few coals from the blaze. Nestled in the warmth the tar quickly softened. I took dried moss, clay and mixed it with the black mastic into a paste. He barely flinched when it smeared it deeply into the wound, then bound it with hide.
“we’ll stay here a few days, to recover”
“what if it comes back?”
“it won’t come back”
I didn’t say anything. I gripped his forearm with my hand and put my other hand on his shoulder.
“its gone, in a cave somewhere, licking that wound you gave it”
He smiled weakly and gripped my arm in return.
“I was lucky you know? In that split second after I heard something I turned my spear, and when it pounced his weight bore down on me, but the spear end wedged into the rock and he landed on it”
We both laughed. He was downplaying his own courage, I knew that he wouldn’t have curled up, he held that spear tight.
Two nights passed before we broke camp again. Feeling somehow older and wiser, or maybe just less childish, we both took pride in that simple act, of defending our hearth. We were not men yet, but now we had the scars of our first test on the road to manhood.
The sky was a brilliant shining blue when we finally spotted mountains beyond the plains. We had hunted and been hunted in turn, we were hungry but satisfied and we grinned at one another as the grass slowly gave way to sprinkles of rock underfoot, warrens of little furry things, a stream here and there to slake our thirst.
We stood for a moment at the foot of a slope, watching gathering clouds in the distance. It was time to find a cave.