Uut brought me more of the small spiral shells today. He walked the trip to the great sea, collecting them, then brought them back. Uut wants me to make him a string of them for his girl Helma before the cold so he can be warm at night. I dream of finding a girl to stay warm too, but being crippled I am lucky too not have yet gone to Sah.
The fruit picking season is almost done. Soon it will get cold again. This will be my fifteenth cold and I do not look forward to it. A few seasons ago we lost Uut’s mother and my grandmother to the cold coughing. They get hot and cough and the god Sah takes them down to him for their judgment.
Sah is the evil one in the ground. They say Sla is his sister and is the sun, but she does as Sah commands, as do the other gods. Sah keeps some souls for him to torment and he releases others to be with Sla or Dora, his sister the moon where they are happy for a time, then all return our souls to earth and torture us again.
I do not have enough light to work the shells so I hop back to the cave where mother fixed a meal of burnt Gazelle meat and some roots from the mangle bush. Strange name, but it was what caused my foot to be destroyed.
Just three colds ago I was digging the roots, not mindful of my surroundings. Next, it charged through the mangle bush and left, the huge mammoth stomped my leg running by and I can not walk right any more. Uut says he has an idea but he won’t say what. Anyway, I now make the sacred necklaces for the union ceremonies and ask Sah to bless them and ask Dora to give them the magic needed for children and ask Sla to give her blessing for a bountiful hunt and long life to the wearer. Yes, an important task, but still, any child can do it. What I can’t do is hunt, to run like the wind, spear in hand, to stab and jab, to be the one brave enough to stare down the mammoth and give it the killing jab. No, those I shall never get to do, I was so close. So close.
“Uut brought more shells I see. He is a good boy. I don’t know what we’d do without him to help, with your father gone and you hurt.” Mother praised Uut without condemning me and I loved her for that, and I guess she was right. He did a lot. His family did well, he was one of many male children so his father was rich and Sah smiled on them. If Sah smiled the other gods dared not frown, or so it is told.
I ate and looked at my younger sister. She was now thirteen winters and was showing the signs of being ready for Union. Mother said in our ancestors day the woman did Union at twelve and most were dead by twenty, but now that we all live to be old, it was felt fourteen or fifteen was better. Mother was fourteen and father was fifteen when I was granted to them by Dora one night.
To show Sah’s disfavor of us, Sah gave mother three girls in a row, two died, one from the cold, one from Sah giving her a pestilence. The mammoth crushed my foot and last cold, father and his brother went hunting and never returned. Sometimes I want to damn Sah but I dare not, for I also wish to live. Thanks to Uut, we survive.
I lay on the straw and have dreams of a grand fight, giving the final blow, receiving the tribe’s praises, and getting any girl I wanted for Union as the hero. Such are the dreams Sah torments me with.
In the chill of the morning, as Dora goes to sleep, but Sla has not yet awakened to warm us, I stare at the dark cave ceiling, not seeing it but knowing it is there. Some ancestor had long ago drawn a battle scene on it, six brave souls attacking a huge beast I have never seen, but had heard of. Something that had huge teeth and roared, it could bite a man if half while standing on its hind legs, and they said the tail could kill a full party in one swipe. We still had a couple of the daggers made from some of their huge teeth and claws, but most were broken. Uut’s father has one that is still almost intact, he wears it to the spring festival each season.
Finally, there were stirrings in the cave so I got up and built the cooking fire up a bit to take off the chill.
After Sla rose up and warmed us I took the basket of shells to my work rock and set about my task. I had spent many days chipping rock to get what I needed, often breaking them before I succeeded in getting two that worked. I carefully picked up the slender piece of rock and a shell and placed the tip inside the opening of the small shell and started twisting back and forth. It was not as easy as everyone believed, I had to develop a touch for it. To hard and the shell broke, to soft and nothing happened. Still, I broke some, which always made me mad.
About halfway to when Sla sits upon the top of the sky, Anter came by. She was Uut’s only sister and was thirteen colds old. She was one of the few would talk to me routinely, telling me her dreams and handing me shells or stringing them for me. Her favorite dream was to have eight male children to make Sah so proud of her that she would be supported by her sons into her old age and never have to take the walk of death.
I thought of mother. If she could find no man willing to Union with her, when we children were unioned and she was no longer able to fend for herself she would have to take that walk too. Sah demanded it of all the old. Mostly women as they lived longer than us. They went to the great sea and prayed to Sah to forgive them their failings, then they walked out and fed themselves to the beasts of the sea, never to be a burden on the tribe.
Anter and I talked of it sometimes. It really was logical, Sah never gave us anything in abundance after spring berries died off, always we were short, some died because of it every cold cycle. Still, I felt it wrong that Sah demanded so much of us and gave so little for our efforts. Anter had warned me more than once of saying such things out loud, but she agreed, it felt wrong.
I had to laugh, if I told her no, I saw no change since yesterday, she’d get mad, we’d been down that road before. Still, without really noticing when it was clear she had passed the point of no longer being a child.
Just after Sla reached her highest point, mother called me for food, I brought Anter along, she often ate with us or whoever she was with at the time, as her brothers and father were always on a hunt or gathering wood for the coming cold and her mother had died. She used to run ahead and tease me as I hobbled and hopped to the cave, but not much recently, she usually just walks along and chats about this and that.
As we entered the cave I handed mother the two necklaces we had made and she inspected them carefully and gave her approval. I smiled, it meant they were almost perfect, no one in the tribe was more picky about Union necklaces than mother. She blamed flaws in hers for all that went wrong with our family. She called to Hepe, the Chief’s son and he came running over. Mother gave them to him and he carefully carried them to his father, someplace in the back of the cave. When he performed a Union ritual, one would be given to the female for luck and many children. It was believed if the necklace was flawed in any way, then the Union could end in any of a hundred disasters, at the whim of Sah who would be the offended one. One of the more common was to have the woman die while giving birth. Although I question, I have nothing to dispel the fact that it does happen as they say, and often for no logical reason, so something must be causing it.
After food, Anter accompanied me and strung the shells for a third necklace. She was humming as she worked and it sounded pretty. She talked about her top three picks as possible Union mates, of course, I wasn’t among them, still…She looked at Sla and said she had to go, Uut and the others would be returning soon. I told her goodbye and then she turned back and asked if I knew Uut was working on an idea for me.
“Yes, I know he has some idea to fix my foot.” I just smiled, Uut had many ideas, none worked, but he tried hard. She smiled back and was off.
If I had my pick of the eight or nine girls coming eligible for Union I think Anter and maybe Freia would be my top choices. I also suspect that every boy felt the exact same thing. Freia was the Chiefs youngest daughter, like Anter she was pretty and smart and nice to talk to, but unlike Anter, she was always teasing us boys, even me. Making us dream things that Sah says we shouldn’t until Union time.
That night it turned really cold and there was a cold rain with ice balls to punish any caught outside. The cold was coming very soon. Uut and all the males of the tribe spent the next three days building the wall of protection. I helped string and tie the logs together as we built it, It rested across the front of our huge tribal cave and when in place helped keep the cold out. They said it took many seasons but above the cave, in the solid rock were holes that we put logs into to tie the wall to then we packed the top with leaves and dirt and we were done. Some rumored that Sah gets mad when we do it, we are supposed to suffer the cold to strengthen us and it makes each cold harsher than the last, but I remember the cold before last was mild, as were a few before it, so I gave no validity to those beliefs.
A few days later Anter came by again and helped as I finished up the last of my stock of shells. As we talked she mentioned she was mad. Her father refused to let her Union with Gelk, one of her choices she had mentioned several times. I asked why and she admitted she just wanted to Union so she wouldn’t feel like she was bumming off everyone since her family was always gone hunting or fighting.
“You help me all the time, you help others. No, you earn the little bits of food and friendship you get. Besides, Mother said you women select a mate for more than just giving you food and protection. You need to look for a mate who you feel is smart too. One like Uut who is always thinking, someone who can find a solution to a problem when it doesn’t require killing or smashing. Gelk is okay for some of the women but I feel you are to smart for him, you will feel misery in the long term and I think your father senses that too.”
“Though your ideas are interesting, no, he says I am still one cold to young to Union and still can’t cook or clean fish or prepare meat.”
I had to stop and think, well, doesn’t hurt to ask. “Come Anter, I’m out of shells and I need to talk to mother.”
“I’ll fix them when I get more shells. Umm, Mother, Anter wanted to Union this cold with Gelk so she didn’t feel like she was bumming off us and others. Her father said she was still to young. I ask your feelings as she has no mother to speak with.”
“Gelk? No Anter, Gelk is not for you, surely you know that. He is right for Sanda or Ella, but you are to smart for him. No Anter, your father is right, wait. Jalk or Ram are boys better suited to you. As to bumming food, you don’t. You work with my son on the necklaces and keep him company, you help Frea tend her children, you pick up the cave with Kileia so none get hurt, you carry fruit back to the cave. You don’t bum food, you earn it. Wait for another cold, there is no rush and Sah will not frown if you do not bring a child to him right away. He may even smile since we are hard-pressed to feed what we have already.”
I felt Anter was going to protest but I intervened before she could say anything. “Another point she has brought up in our conversations is she can’t cook, or clean fish, or know how to identify food from poisons. These are things her mother would have taught her.”
Mother looked at me then Anter, “Sah does not hand us anything without work, he only allows us to survive if we are strong and we work hard. He took your mother, so be it, think of it as a test of you. Are you strong enough to survive his test? He took my mate, he killed some of my babies, and he injured my son, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him win!”
I’d never seen mother so vocal and so violent in her wrath against Sah. Maybe it is where I got my questioning of our beliefs from, maybe not.
She calmed down and apologized to us and Sah for her outburst. “Anter, come before Sal is at peak each day and early before she sleeps and I will teach you the things your mother could not. We shall start now, I have some meat your brother gave me that needs preparation.
“Muld, go find Frea and ask for a bit of jilp herb for me? Thank you.”
Took me a second to realize she was talking to me. My name was seldom used. I took off to see if she had any of that spice. When I returned Anter had cut the meat and laid it on the rock mother used for food preparation. I handed her the herb and following mothers instructions she rubbed it into the meat and they put it on sticks and placed them near the cooking fire, soon the air smelled wonderful. Around the fire others had their meats or fish cooking as well. I liked the communal living, with all of us in the big cave we felt safe from wild animals and another tribe trying to raid us for our food and women would be hard pressed to succeed.
Every few generations one tribe or other would raid another for food to survive and for women. Chief said it was sometimes necessary to bring fresh people into the tribe to strengthen it and the general rule was you only took those who were not in Union. Mother explained to me long ago that the reason she wore the leather strip around her waist with the flap hanging in front was a symbolic notice that she was no longer available for Union. All the tribes did it. She no longer wore the strap, but so far none had offered her Union. She mentioned that both Uut’s mother and Frea had come to the tribe that way and I had asked Frea about it once. She said she had no complaints, her mate was wonderful and a good provider, what more was needed? My understanding was seldom were people killed in the raids, but it was part of living if it happened.
It hadn’t dawned on me, I remember the last raid we had, three girls were taken, two of the men were beaten senseless at the time. That was before we moved into the huge cave. If they came again Anter could, and probably would be taken as well as the others. I decided I probably needed to find some way to protect them, just in case.
Usually, if they were to raid, they would come the first or second Dora cycle of the cold season if that tribe had a really bad food year and dried fruit was not enough to last. I felt I could, and would kill someone to protect Anter and the others. That night I asked mother about it.
“Kill? We do not really try to kill each other, but often people die. If a tribe loses to much food they starve. If to many women are taken they die out or are required to attack another tribe. It is an evil that Sah has placed in our way to overcome. Yes we have raided and been raided and it is painful to lose one of your children or friends, but it is part of our life and I don’t see a better way. There are sicknesses you don’t yet understand, sickness of the body and of the mind and the chiefs walk a fine line trying to keep their tribes alive and well. We once stopped a raid, captured them all. We traded them back for two females. The mother of Uut’s father and another were traded to us for their men, so there are other ways to stop the sickness as well.” She smiled.
“Would you like to be traded to another tribe for Union?” I asked. Wrong question at the wrong time.
“To get a Union I would be honored to be traded!”
“But your family and friends, me!”
“Like all before us, you would survive without me.” She grinned. “We have no eligible males for Union my age except Uut’s father and he is not interested since his fathers father was my mothers fathers brother, or some such, anyway, chief said it probably wasn’t a good idea.”
“So If I wanted Anter I couldn’t?”
She stared at me for a second but finally said, “No, that would be fine, you are more than far enough apart, but now you see why we raid and killing really should not be an option, harsh as it seems.”
“Well, I’ll never get someone to Union with, I can’t hunt and barely can gather, but I would die to protect Anter, I think she should have the right to decide who she Unions with.”
“Very noble son, noble indeed, but Sah makes sure noble ideas get little fertile ground to grow. We are little better than the animals we eat. We live and die, we multiply and we dream, but I feel it is the dream that sets us apart from the rest of the animals yet I have no way of knowing if it is true or not. Maybe they also dream the dreams of being safe from the evils of man hunting them.” She seemed reflective and deep in thought. Finally, she looked at me, “Muld, there are three girls in our tribe that are smart enough, we don’t talk about it much, but the elders do and sometimes the chiefs will. We know that smart people giving Union to other smart people tend to produce others. They better the tribe over time. You, Uut, and Redgal are the smartest males and Anter, Freia and Cynda ar the smartest females, but I feel Freia may someday be sacrificed to Sah through fire for breaking the vows of Union, she just seems the type.”
If in a Union, until it is broken by a death, you can be burned by fire for committing union with another. It is well known that sometimes the men find and rape women of other tribes that are out gathering, but I am told nothing is ever said of that as it is part of our tribal life as well.
“Well, there are parts of it I do not like, mother.”
The next day as Sal was still waking, Anter brought a few more shells, just enough to finish the last necklace, so we went to my work rock and I started the hole making. Anter said, “I talked to Uut, he showed me some animal bones and what he wants to do. I don’t know, I think he may be wrong but Muld, if he is right, if he can make you walk better, to be a hunter, it would be so wonderful.” I looked at her, I guess my curiosity showed. “No, I said to much, he still thinks hard on it and is trying idea on a Gazelle he has caged someplace, says a week, two maybe, and he will know for sure.”
“Anter, if I could hunt and gather, would…Never mind. Here string this one.” I handed her a shell I just finished.
She strung it and until it was time for her to see mother for her lessons she said nothing. Finally, the necklace was done. She took it with care and walked away a bit then turned and said, “I will take this one to your mother then to chief for the okay.”
I was all mixed up and didn’t know what to do. For the next few days, I saw Anter every day but we said nothing at all to each other. Me because I was afraid to, her because I am sure she felt she had said all that needed to be said by saying nothing at all.
I prayed each day to all three gods, though I felt they didn’t listen or care of a crippled boys wants. I went to my rock early one day to try and make a new hole maker when Uut and three others were there waiting. I started to say something but next I knew Uut and the rest had me held down, then Uut raised a big club as one held my bad leg on my work rock. I saw him swing and felt blinding pain then nothing.
When I woke I was in the cave, it was later, not sure how much as I remember the bits and pieces through the pain. He told someone, “Pull…” Then, “harder,” then, “okay, now twist, no other way, now hold it all right there.” I saw stars like Dora puts in sky, I felt pain like Sah gives to the bad, and felt heat like Sla gives on warm days. Now I felt pain and my leg was tied to sticks and wrapped in Falup leaves. Anter was there with a Dult leaf and water, so was mother.
Anter smiled weakly. “He did not say he would do that, just twist your leg. He said it hurt you more than he thought it would, but he also said he thinks it right, we will see Muld, we will see.”
I don’t know how long, many days went buy, the Dult leaf makes you see visions. Some see Sah and the torment that waits, others say they see Dora placing the twinkles in the sky each night. I didn’t see anything like that. I saw meat roasting, I saw Anter feeding me and mother and Uut putting new leaves on my leg and I saw I didn’t care.
One day Uut and the Chief were there, Uut was explaining something and the Chief was waving his staff and chanting something over me. Mother wore the strap again and I was confused. Had father returned?
That was the last day I got Dult leaf and the next day I saw a new face, it was Halum, from the other side of the cave. He smiled as he saw me. “Muld, good that you’re awake boy. Your mother is my union. Sorry, you been away studying the gods. My Tania died the same day Uut fixed your leg trying to give me a boy. Sad day. Your mother is a wonderful cook and she said yes to taking care of my baby girl so we union now. Uut and she will be here soon. She will move to my spot in the cave later.”
I had seen mother come up behind him. “I told you I would tell him, by Sah if you do it again I will kill you in your sleep and dissolve the union, Halum.” By her look, she meant it too. He visibly jumped and I felt like laughing, probably the remnants of the Dult leaf.
I rolled a bit and saw Anter and Uut coming from that side. After they arrived Uut said, “Should be okay by now, be easy, no muscle yet, to long being useless. I think we should keep the sticks on a few weeks until the leg is stronger.”
With that Halum raised me up as Uut and Anter took off the leaves and I saw my foot. It was straight, it looked like the other one. Uut had me slowly put pressure on it and as I did I felt a little hurt, but almost nothing. He smiled then tied the sticks back. “Walk when it does not hurt only. Take the sticks off at night and bend the leg, maybe push lightly against something for a while to build strength back. Not sure, you are the first, we see what is needed and adjust.”
The next days were a blur. I would hobble around on the sticks and found it didn’t hurt anymore. Each night, as Dora put the twinkles of our ancestors in the sky Anter would come by and cook me food like mother taught her, mother went to be with Halum. I would take the sticks off and Anter and I found if I used her stomach as a place to push with my leg she could just lean and I soon could push her as she leaned hard against my leg.
One day Uut said okay, throw the sticks away, time to see the truth. As Anter helped untie them I leaned against a rock. Slowly I put weight on it, it held. I took a few cautious steps and still wanted to drag it behind me as I had spent years doing. I started to fall and Uut laughed. “Walk normally.”
Well, what to say? I could walk. You could see the bad leg was now good, just needed more muscle to match the other. Anter said, “With time.” It felt strange to walk normally.
Two days later I was surprised as Mother, Halum, Anter, the chief, and Uut all came up. Mother said Anter had a present for me, to celebrate my return to manhood.
I watched her, curious. A knife maybe? She opened her fur bag and withdrew the last necklace I had done, I recognized it because of the two red shells that she had brought that we finished it with, highly prized and rare. “Muld, I saved this, Chief checked and blessed it and now that you are declared a man of the tribe I give it back to you that someday you find someone to give it too.”
She handed it to me and I took it carefully in my hands. Mother smiled and said, “See? Sah can be kind on occasion.”
I had been sitting down but stood and went and hugged mother, then Halum and so on. I hugged Anter and slipped the necklace over her head and stood waiting for the answer. I had asked her for a union.
I waited for some reaction but got none for a long time, then she looked at me and said, “We will not be cold tonight.”
I almost choked as I started to laugh. She just smiled and said, “You don’t know how hard I prayed every day that Uut was right.”
Many colds have passed since that day. I am almost as good a hunter as my father was. Dora has given me many wonderful children that mother comes to spoil each day. Four boys and two girls. All strong and curious about our world. Anter has taught the girls what is needed and Kalea is now old enough for union. Uut is now the Witch Doctor since his father died two colds back. He told me he felt the Dolmo tribe might raid us and he felt Kalea probably would be taken. It was thought it was needed.
“Uut, none may take my daughter unless she says it is okay. I have pondered long and there is a better way,” I told him.
Several weeks later, as yet another cold starts we find ourselves standing in a field, the chief of the Dolmo tribe, Uut, and five girls and two boys from our tribe. They have seven boys and three girls.
As the chiefs talked the boys and girls did too. I watched as Kalea seemed to zero in on a certain tall boy. I lost my Kalea that day. But Anter visits her. Our males are forbidden in any other tribes area. But now we hurt no one, and for some food to the fathers family, a girl may give union to another tribe boy and Uut thinks it is a far better system. He says it is catching on.
That night, as Dora placed our ancestors in the sky, and I hugged Anter in the cold, she said, “All the gods smile at you and Uut. You have done well for our tribe and I am content with our union.”
What better praise could a man receive?
Author note: This story takes place as far back as 65 million years ago, who knows for sure? Place? Probably along the North American border with Africa. The original language was likely little more than grunts or guttural sounds so this is a translation as I believe it took place.