I awake to cold and near darkness like I do every morning.
Around me is the chilled stone of the rocky cavern where I live. There is warmth from the animal furs that surround me, and it’s difficult to push myself away from them to crawl across the dirt and rock and add a log on top of the glowing coals in my fire pit. Within moments, flames lick around the edge of the wood, and I wrap my fur around me a little tighter to ward off the cool air until the fire can further warm the small cave.
The faintest glow can be seen coming from outside the crack that leads to the outside, but I can’t quite bring myself to venture out just yet. My body is weakened, and there is little inside my mind that wants to push on—to survive.
It’s been so long since I’ve eaten.
As I watch the flames grow higher, the need to relieve my bladder becomes urgent. With a deep breath, I force my muscles to push myself onto my feet and move to the ledge just outside my cave. The air is even colder on the outside, but the springtime sun holds the promise of a warmer day.
I listen to the morning birds sing for a while and wonder how long it will be before there are eggs to collect from their nests. I hope not long, though I know if I wait until that time it will be too late.
I need to eat.
Not for the first time, I consider just going back into my cave, lying down, and letting the hunger take me. I’m tired, cold, and alone. I’m not sure there is any reason for me to continue to work so hard just to keep myself alive.
With a long sigh, I decide not to give up just yet.
I look at the long, straight stick propped up against the edge of the cave’s opening and reach over to grasp it. It’s sharp at the end, but I’m not sure if it’s sharp enough to pierce the hide of a large animal. I know I can’t fail again, or it will mean my death, so I bring the stick inside and reach for a piece of sharp flint from my collection of simple tools.
With the end of the stick lodged underneath my arm, I begin to run the piece of flint over the end of the stick, further sharpening the point. I go slowly, being careful not to push too hard or work too fast—I’ve already broken two other spears with impatience, and I can’t afford to break another.
The effort takes most of the morning, and I am further delayed as I start to leave the cave because I see movement across the field of brown grasses. I position myself at the entrance to my cave and watch closely as a pack of canines trot into the valley.
They are enormous, the largest male nearly the length of two of me with his long tail. They have huge heads, long snouts, and short, stocky necks. The pack of predators moves swiftly across the field with their snouts moving from side to side as they track the scent of some other animal.
The first memory I have of hyaenodons was when I was a boy, and they came into my tribe’s area in the forest. My mother had grabbed me and two of my siblings and fled the area as soon as she saw them, and we didn’t come back until nearly nightfall. When we returned, the pack had destroyed much of the food we had stored for the winter, the meat from our recent hunt, and had killed two of the men who tried to keep them away from the rest of the tribe.
The animals are vicious predators and attack anything they encounter. Once, they discovered my small cave when the fire was low and not enough to scare them off. I had to leave my kill behind and hide in the forest until they left, but they ate all the meat from my kill, destroyed the hide, and scattered the bones.
I hold my breath, hoping they won’t notice me or my cave. Though the smell of fire usually keeps them at bay, their own hunger could drive them to ignore the odor like they had before. I grip the shaft of the spear and feel sweat from the palm of my hand collect there. The hyaenodons continue across the open area and then disappear into the trees on the far side. I let out a breath of relief to see them moving north, away from the steppes where I hope to hunt. I still wait a while longer before venturing out, wanting to be sure they will not backtrack and smell me.
Once I’m sure they are gone, I start the journey to my pit trap. The climb to the top of the plateau is rugged and difficult, but doesn’t take too long. The wind whips around me as I reach the top, and my fingers clench around the end of the pointed branch as I see the antelope herd at the far edge of the open space. I only hope the spear will be strong enough to pierce the hide of one of the antelopes coming over the horizon. Of course, they will first have to fall into the pit I spent three days digging. My mind flashes back to a time when there were others, and the hunt was much easier.
It feels like such a long, long time ago.
I am alone now.
Crouching down, I move slowly and carefully, trying to hide myself behind the rocks and stay downwind from the animals. My heart begins to beat faster in my chest when I see how close the herd is moving to my pit trap. I move into position and hunker down behind the protective boulders.
Before long, I can hear the scratching sounds of the herd as they approach. I duck a little lower behind the boulder where I hide, tense and anxious. My stomach has long since stopped growling, but the hunger is still there, reflected in the weakness of my body. In the back of my head, I know that failure this time means death—it has been too long since I have eaten. I am quickly losing my strength, and once that is gone, I will not survive much longer.
The dry air whistles around me and blows the grasses of the steppes back and forth. I tense as the herd passes me slowly, trying to hold in my breath so as not to alert them to my presence. If they are frightened too soon, they may not run in the right direction.
I time myself as perfectly as I can, and jumping out from behind the rock, I run. My throat aches as I scream and wave my arms at the beasts. Startled, they all begin to flee from the sound of my screams. I chase after them, taking in air quickly so I can yell at them again as I circle around the back end of the herd and try to force them a little closer to the cliffs. Their hooves pound the dry grass as they run, many of them swerving away from the hole I have dug even though I have covered it with long, thin twigs and leaves to hide it.
I cry out but in frustration this time. I race around to the right, hoping to at least push one or two toward my goal. They aren’t going in the right direction, and I feel a sob of desperation lodge in my throat. Just when it seems I will spend another night hungry, one of them tears away from the rest of its herd and scampers toward the hole.
A second later, it disappears with a bleat.
I breathe a sigh of relief and almost drop to my knees. Nauseated and dizzy from the exertion, I half stumble, half jog to the side of the pit. The tips of the animal’s antlers are visible as it screeches and tries to jump to freedom, but I have dug the hole too deep; it has injured its leg in the fall, and it cannot escape. Cautiously, I move to the edge of the pit, take careful aim at the animal’s throat, and thrust my spear as hard as I can.
The antelope screams again and kicks at the walls of the pit, causing a shower of dust to fall on top of it and then lies still.
As tired as I am, I can’t allow myself to rest. As the animal bleeds, its scent will attract other predators—those that are larger than I am. I have no time to waste. I jump down into the pit and carefully extract my spear from the neck of the antelope. I am pleasantly surprised the weapon is not broken, and I may even be able to use it again. I toss it up and out of the hole and then heave the carcass up and over my shoulder. My knees try to buckle under me, and another wave of dizziness hits. I try to ignore it as I shove the body out of the hole and then climb out myself.
Once I am on flat ground again, it is easier to grasp the animal’s legs and toss the whole thing over my back and shoulders, and I’m glad the harsh winter didn’t completely deplete my strength. Once I get the carcass properly positioned, I start back toward the cliffs and begin the descent to the valley below. It’s difficult to keep my footing holding the animal, but I’m driven by my hunger. Once I reach the bottom, there is only the short trail up to the opening in the rock left to overcome. I pause for a moment as my thighs and arms burn with pain and then push on. As I reach the crack between the boulders, I realize I can’t walk into the cave while carrying the beast. I have to shove the antelope through the rock first and then follow.
Just inside, the coals from my fire burn brightly though there is no longer any flame. I quickly rebuild the fire—it should keep any competition away from my kill—and sit back on my heels for a moment to breathe. My rest is short-lived, and I quickly start working on my dinner. I roll the carcass over, slice it open from throat to belly with a chip of flint, and waste no time cutting off a few strips of meat to lie across the spit over the fire. I have to force myself not to eat it raw though my stomach implores me to do so. I will only be left feeling sick if I do; I’ve been in this position far too many times not to understand the benefits of patience.
After the first few pieces are set up to cook, I immediately skin the beast and lay the hide over two large rocks on one side of my cave. I will clean and cure it another time when I have more strength. I need something to help hold the rest of the carcass up off the floor, and I look around for my spear, knowing it will be the perfect tool for the task. I do not see it, and I realize I have left it next to the pit trap.
I place my head in my hands and push against my eyes. There is so much pressure in my head that it causes my temples to pound. I can’t believe I have been so careless as to leave my weapon behind. At the same time, I’m too exhausted to even consider going back for it. I rub at the hair on my face and neck and shake my head at my stupidity.
This is the kind of mistake that has nearly cost me my life many times since I have been alone.
Wetness falls from my lashes as I lean back and wrap my arms around my legs. I stare at the fire and let the tears fall, trying to convince myself that I will feel better and think more clearly once I have eaten the meat cooking on the spit.
Memories flood my mind.
It is early morning, and I sit wrapped in furs and my mother’s embrace as one of my older sisters grinds grain against a rock. My mother’s arms are warm and comforting, but I push away from her, anxious to join the other boys and men as they practice with spears and hammer-stones.
I reach up with my hand to wipe away the tears. I have no idea how long it has been since I felt the comfort of another person’s presence, only that many cold seasons have passed since then. Though I had already become a man before I was left alone, the memories of the woman who birthed and cared for me are the hardest to keep at bay.
A pop from the fire pit draws my attention, and I go to check the cooking meat. Some of the thinner pieces seem warm enough, and I devour them quickly before adding more strips of meat to the spit. I drink out of a water flask made from the stomach of an antelope I killed the previous summer and eat a few more strips of meat.
With slightly renewed energy, I rise to my feet and head back down the path toward the steppes to retrieve my spear. With the thought of more cooked meat waiting for me, I run lightly toward the pit trap but stop abruptly before I reach the edge.
There is an odd sound coming from the hole—high pitched and terrifying. I freeze as I try to understand it. At first I think it is another antelope—a straggler who fell after I left—but the noise is not that of a beast. It is like nothing I have ever heard before. I move a little closer, and the sound becomes louder and somewhat frightening. I take a step back away from the hole, intending to turn and flee, when something about the sound triggers another memory.
Flames are all around us, the heat licking my skin and the smell of burning hair in my nose. There is a young girl—I recall her from a neighboring tribe—trapped between the wall of flame and her terrified mother. Before the mother can try to reach for the child, flames encompass them both. The forest is too dry from the drought, and the flames are spreading too quickly. The mother cries out in fear and hopelessness. A moment later, there is only the sound of the crackling fire as it covers the trees.
I shake my head to make the images go away, and I hear the sound again. I’m sure it is not an animal, and my heart beats faster as I take a few steps closer to verify my suspicions. There is movement inside the hole, a flash of pale skin and what looks to be slender fingers poking out of the hole and then disappearing again.
I peer over the side, and I see it.
I see her.
At the bottom of the pit, there is a young woman not far from my own age, with shining brown hair that flows over her shoulders and down her back. She sits on the ground and leans back on her hands, staring up with wide eyes that go even wider as they meet mine. I feel a tightening in my groin at the very sight of her, and my tongue darts out over my lips.
Though I recognize her femininity immediately, the strange coverings on her body do not show her to be female. In fact, they are the strangest furs I have ever seen. I can’t determine what kind of leather might have been used to make them, and the color of the clothing around her torso is like that of the setting sun—deep purple and bright pink. On her legs is even stranger stuff—dark blue and wrapped so closely around her, I can see the outlines of her thigh muscles and calves. She wears coverings on her feet as well, and there are cords wrapped around holes in the material. Like the rest of her coverings, I can’t figure out what it is either.
My eyes move back to hers, and I tilt my head to one side to get a better look at her.
She opens her mouth and screams.
I have to take a step back from the shrill sound. It hurts my ears. I narrow my eyes and grunt sharply, but she doesn’t stop. If anything, she gets even louder. I can’t allow her to continue, or she is going to attract attention—possibly from predatory animals. Deciding to ignore her strange appearance, I step to the edge of the pit and jump down.