In the beginning, it was the fire that brought them together. The man, who was not quite a man, but no longer a beast either, sat hunched over the embers, his face singed red from the glowing coals.
It was in the forest that he had found the fire, through the trees, its green orange flare a shock. He quickly hid himself, crouching down, watched with concentrated fascination, with suspicion. When it crackled and jumped, he too jumped. Backing away. Circling. He was completely drawn to it, but uncertain of its intention.
There had been more of it before he arrived for it had moved inward, leaving behind a gray excrement. He stretched out his arm. Scooped the ashes into his palm. It was soft, like moss, then disappeared into his skin when he rubbed his fingertips together. He sat for a long time, staring into the glowing orange wind until finally he summoned the courage to reach out and put his hand inside it. His eyes smarted from the pain. In retribution he beat it with a stick and was surprised when it leaped up and began to consume the instrument of its punishment.. As dawn seeped
through the forest, he found a very long branch, ignited it, and took it with him.
The man, who used an arm to propel himself along the ground, had brought the fire inside his cave. He spent the light time, the dark time, building a stone wall to surround the fire, protect it, and himself. Still, he was afraid to leave it alone. Because if it left, he had no way of getting it back.
He took it with him when he went out wandering, holding on to the cool end of the wood as if it were his child’s hand.
Then he’d put it down somewhere and give it more sticks to eat as he himself went in search of food. Sometimes he would look back over his shoulder, to make sure it stayed where he had left it.
There were thoughts that drifted about inside his head as he moved along; not thoughts exactly, fragments; crooked white stones against cave dark from when he looked up at night, a hand turning in half shadow, faces that made him feel calm, sure footed, a part of something once. Four others like him, his father, and the ones he lived amongst when he was a child, had been crushed in a rock slide. He and a girl had been by a stream, their palms turned up inside a pool of water, catching the spray as it splintered off the rocks. When they wandered back to the others, there were no others. They stayed by the bodies in the light time, the dark time, in the light time, until the smell drove them away.
The girl knew about finding berries and leaves. The boy eventually caught a smaller creature which they both tore apart and ate immediately before it could escape them.
They never missed a sunset. She would scurry off in the fading light and he would follow. There was a ridge she liked to perch on top of, the giant orange sun sinking in the distance. If she could watch the light disappear, the darkness did not frighten her.
After many of these sunsets, there came a time when his mate did not feel well. Both of them had moments like this. Something they ate perhaps that their body could not use. She rolled on to her back and moaned. He stayed beside her. She did not see the sun disappear that day and when the darkness came, she pushed a smaller version of herself out into the world. Amazed by her ability to do such a thing, he sniffed the new creature and for a long time afterward, curled himself around to look up his mate’s hole to see if anything else might come out of there. He even rubbed his own stomach, wondering if a new life might come from him as well.
And so it went. They moved through time the way others had moved before them. The boy and girl grew larger, into a man and a woman, then stopped growing. Their baby grew into a child.. There was not much to distinguish them from all the other animal forms around them. Up in the morning. Out looking for food. Asleep at night in their home, a stone cave the earth had formed from rain, from wind, from a wearing down. Except for the sunsets. And the feeling of something more, out of reach. And the pictures in their minds of before. With the others. With themselves.
The child could run fast. She climbed a tree better than her mother. Her father. She made sounds that they did not make. Pointing to water she’d say, yaaa. Pointing to a tree, she’d say, looo. Mother and daughter were always together, the mother letting her little one suck off of her whenever the need arose. When food was scarce, this milk sustained the child..
And then one day, the mother and child did not return. The man sat waiting in the mouth of the cave, staring into a puddle of water the full moon’s glow illuminated. His child loved the water that fell now and then from the cave’s ceiling. He had seen her more than once, lying underneath, her mouth open, catching the drips. First light entered the cave like soft white feathers and drifted across his sleeping face. He opened his eyes, sat up, and felt as if the darkness were still around him, unaffected by the rising sun.
Out on the plains, a rainstorm could be seen way in the distance. He went towards it as if it were a hand beckoning. His child also loved the rain. When she heard thunder, she would run towards the sound as if she could discover its creator, learn how to make the sound herself. And now the man raced along too, feeling certain he would find her, her face upturned to the sky water. A look of wonder in her dark brown eyes.
The storm eluded him. It seemed to be playing a game. No matter how fast he traveled, it was always further away. He let out a kind of loud moan which scared him. It was best to be quiet out on the plains. He did not want to alert some creature mightier than himself, to his presence.
On the way back, he gathered red leaves and mushrooms, ate them absently until there was nothing left when he returned to the cave. Again, his mate and child were not there and he did not know what to do.
It was in the forest, many days later, that he found them. In a gully, their chests ripped open, their hearts exposed. The rain that had been in the sky was now in his eyes. It trickled down his face as he gazed upon his dead child, his mate, the beings who had shared his world for the last five winters.
He sat down next to their bodies and looked away, as if the answer to this life puzzle were hidden somewhere in the trees beyond. Hours turned to days and days to nights and still he remained with them. A signal went out into the air, drawing in the other creatures, on wing, on paw; they crawled and flew to the bodies, taking their share of them.
He wanted to stop it or at least not witness it. With both his hands and his feet, he dug into the earth of the forest floor, digging and digging, the dirt flying backwards and landing on to his child’s body, his mate’s, landing on their exposed skin until their decay could be seen no more.
But still he did not leave them. He patted the earth that covered them. Lay his head down on the mounds until he fell asleep. In the light, he went in search of food. And it was when he was returning to the graves one night that he found the fire. The fire that would accompany him everywhere from then on.
Finally, a new chill in the air, sent the man back to their cave. When he stepped inside, he looked around at all those things his child had left behind; five small red hand prints bright upon the cave wall, a pile of mice bones clean and white as the inside of her palms, the large mound of dirt in the rear of the cave. She had spent an entire day once pounding some stone she found into a powder, adding water, pounding, adding water until it all turned it into a red thick liquid that felt to him like the coating on rocks beneath a river they often crossed together. Then she hollowed out an animal bone and placed her hand on the cave wall; poured the red water into her mouth and spit it through the bone leaving the imprint of her hand on the stone. The mice bones were part of a game she played. The mound of dirt at the rear of the cave she had worked hard to form and when she had enough of mountain building, she had climbed up a rock ledge, jumped into the dirt below, letting out a loud shriek. Her mother and father had watched with furrowed brows. She had been a mystery to them. The same as them but different somehow.
* * *
Whatever it might be inside the man that made him who he was, rose through the corridors of dreaming, wind song sounding an alarm, delivering a message he could not understand as a figure – his mate? his child? waved for him to join them, to wander down and see what was there in a place that was too dark for him to tell, but he did not want to go there, did not want to be there as he awakened and thought his mate and child were beside him, then slowly realized they were gone, forever gone – a desolation thick filling him with a heaviness near the inner beating, as if a large stone had dropped from the cave ceiling during the night and landed on his chest..
He stood up, feeling something had changed, a kind of silence that had not been there when he went to sleep. He stepped through the cave opening.
Outside, the world had been transformed Snow was everywhere. The mountains in the distance that had always looked like roaming beasts to him, seemed tamed now by their new white covering. Weeks before, he had found such a beast, dead but still warm and had taken a sharp rock and cut its skin fur carefully away. He put his arms through where its front paws had been, his legs through the part that had covered its back paws; so hot inside it, he had taken it off, blood smudges left behind on his own skin. But now the cold reminded him of that unwanted heat
and he put the skin back on. The fur was yellow, dirt matted, the smell of old blood rising up to greet him like the metallic smell of some earth he had dug into behind his cave.
He took the fire outside with him. Watched it turn the snow to water. The water like mini streams forming rivulets, exposing the wet dark earth beneath.
Yaaa … the man said.
And then he heard it. Or sensed it anyway. Something there with him, to the rear. When his heart had settled, he spun around, hand raised high, a stone cupped in its center. Just the edge of a bushy tail was visible, a kind of white
streaked fluff disappearing through the woods beyond. The man inspected the footprints in the snow. Smaller then his own, each digit slightly crooked but slender like a twig. Still he felt the being’s presence. Like it was watching him. Waiting. He went back in his cave but kept the fire’s brother outside, to protect him.
The next light, the man emerged from his cave and found two small dead creatures by the embers, lying side by side as if placed there. He picked one up, felt its warm furry body, turned it this way and that, inspecting it, bit into it. The taste was new. Having been by the fire.
Many darknesses later, two eyes appeared at the opposite side of the fire. And somehow he knew it was the fire that had drawn this animal to him. To its warmth maybe. Or perhaps, like him, it had been curious. The man looked into its eyes but did not feel threatened this time. The creature had two ears on either side of his head, sticking into the air like the tiny animals it had left for him days before. Its eyes were slanted, dark as the stones his child liked to polish. Fur that looked soft, short down the back, long off its legs. The man looked to its belly. Nothing protruding
there. Not like him but like his mate. Like his child. His child, yes. She had seen this quadruped. Called it Wu. He tried to say it but it came out more like tiny gusts of wind pushing past his lips. Wu dropped another rodent and backed away. The man came around. Picked up the offering and sniffed it. Then he put it by the fire. For the different taste.
This went on for some time. Wu came to the fire at night. Looked across at the man. Dropped his offering and went away. The man eventually retired to his cave and went to sleep.
The first time the man saw Wu in the light, he was not sure it was her. She was running across the plains, chasing something smaller than herself but big enough for the man to see from a distance. Wu pounced on it and tore into it quickly, killing it instantly. She looked different in the light, longer, thinner and very fast. Much faster than he could run.
That night, the man waited by the dying fire. He kept looking through the flames trying to see the polished stone eyes, the bushy tail. But Wu did not appear and the man felt the same way he had when his family had not come back that first darkness. The heaviness in his chest.
Inside the cave, he lay by the fire and listened to the noises of the night. There was wind through the trees and hooting, twig crackling. Slowly, his eyes began to close and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Before dawn, he was awakened by a growling. He opened his eyes and waited for them to adjust to the darkness within darkness, this cave of his that squatted in the night. In the entrance of his home was Wu, her teeth fully exposed to the moonlight. Growling. The man sat up and quickly grabbed a log, held it high. But Wu was not looking at him. Her head was
lowered, her eyes peering out into the woods. The growl growing louder in her throat. And then he saw it, larger than himself, coming through the woods towards the cave. It was dark furred with a huge round head. He had seen this life form before. Had always avoided it. Wu stepped out further, the growl exploding into a series of barks. He jumped back, frightened. The dark furred animal seemed frightened by it also, stopped where it was and waited. Wu lowered
her head forward, the growl again growing in her throat. The two creatures faced each other. When the man stepped behind Wu, the log club raised above his head, the dark furred beast backed away.
The two of them stood by the mouth of the cave for a long time. Waiting. Would the animal circle round. Come back. Was there anything else out there ready to pounce.
It was Wu who relaxed her stand first. She sat down and scratched behind her ear. The man put more wood on to the fire. Together they took their positions on the earth floor. The man on his side, fully extended, eyes closed. Wu curled in the cave opening. She would awaken many more times in the night, circle round and lay back down. She never fell into a deep sleep like the man. Never for very long, anyway.
* * *
When the creatures in the air returned again, and the snow had disappeared into the earth, Wu and the man were with each other day and night. They hunted together in the forest, the man sharing what he killed. When the darkness descended, Wu often dragged some dead thing back to the cave. Through many tries and misses, the man had finally come up with spearing their kills and turning it over the fire. But he came to realize that Wu did not like her meat cooked. He’d throw her a leg, a liver, a heart, before he brought the rest to the fire and she would take it away into a corner, gnawing and growling as she ripped the limbs and organs apart.
There were times when Wu did not come back at night and the man would look for her. He did not like it when she was not in the cave with him. As he walked from the forest in to the open range, he looked up at the enormous yellow roundness suspended in the sky. And then he heard it. A sound like wind moaning through branches, low, melodic, that made him feel the way he did before water came into his eyes and spilled over his lids. But the water did not come. Just the feeling. Wu was on an opposite ridge. Her head back, her nose in the air. The sound emerging from her, from some deep place in the earth of her body.
Leaves again began to turn their many colors. Dying. The one thing the man could count on. The world around him always changing, rearranging. As he and Wu wandered the plains, a memory came back to him. Of his mate. How she always ran to see the sun fall down slowly behind the hill. He climbed up and Wu followed, the orange ball partially hidden already by the opposite ridge. Wu sat down, the wind rustling the fur around her ears. The man sat next to her. And for the first time, Wu rested her chin on the man’s shoulder. Their faces soft in the sunset.