In Which Kit Embraces the Stone Age
Ignorance may be bliss, but it is still ignorance, and Kit, hoofing through the night-dark valley, had not the slightest twinge or premonition of the danger into which he had blithely wandered. To give him a little credit, Kit saw the three black humps beside the river, but took them for stones-one large, two slightly smaller: boulders in a field of boulders strewn along the river path. It was not until an unseen fourth stone, off to his right, reared up on its hind legs that he realised his mistake.
By then he had already passed the point of no return.
It was a bear, black as an ink stain, beady little eyes glinting in the wan light of a fading moon as it swung its head left and right to pick up the human scent that had aroused it from a midnight snack of crayfish and clams. There were, as Kit now understood, four of them-a mother and three half-grown cubs. And without knowing it, he had made the most elementary error-the one transgression every schoolkid on a field trip is warned against committing in the wild: never get between a mother and her young.
Scenting him, the bear gave out a half-strangled cry of alarm as it stood motionless. A scant few-dozen paces across the field of stones, the mother bear’s massive head came up sharply in response to her bawling infant. The great dark muzzle swung first one way and then the other as the creature homed in on him, nostrils twitching. Then, rising on its hind legs, it spread its massive arms, opened its toothy maw, and loosed with a roar to shake the stars from the heavens. The raw, feral snarl of an enraged meat-eater loosened Kit’s bowels, instantly giving the animal a new and more pungent scent to follow.
The great beast shuffled forward on its hind legs-a move Kit missed because he was by then frantically searching for a tree to climb. Unfortunately, the only trees near enough to offer sufficient shelter were behind the bear that was even now gathering itself to charge. When the animal roared again, Kit was already backpedaling, making for what he imagined was the safety of the wood behind him- too far behind him.
There was no better option. He turned around and within three steps was in full arm-flapping retreat.
Kit ran with the abandon of the truly desperate, scrambling over rocks large and small, stumbling, splashing, banging his knees and shins, picking himself up and floundering on over the lumpy, treacherous ground. The bear had no such difficulty. It surged ahead with the fluid momentum of a runaway freight train, gathering pace with every step. The smaller bears joined in the chase.
A stand of slender white birches stood shimmering in the moonlight a few hundred paces away. If he could make it to the grove, Kit imagined it just might slow the animals down long enough for him to find a tree big enough to climb. Gulping air, he drove himself to greater speed, willing strength to his legs and fleet to his feet. And for a moment it seemed as if he actually gained some ground on the pursuing beasts.
Alas, whatever imagined advantage Kit might have enjoyed was instantly lost when, skittering over the uneven surface, his foot slipped on a moss-slick stone and he fell hard, whacking his chin on the river rocks. Mother Bear was on him before he could get his feet under him again. Squirming onto his back, he faced the beast, kicking and screaming as if that might drive the enraged animal away.
The bear, seeing its quarry helpless on the ground, reared for the final assault, jaws wide, claws extended. It made a mighty sweep with one great, death-dealing paw. Kit anticipated the blow and rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding having his entire stomach ripped open.
He shouted and kicked out blindly. The toe of his shoe struck a leg solid as a tree trunk.
Astonishingly, that kick appeared to confuse the bear. It paused midlunge and shook its shaggy head. Emboldened by this unwarranted success, Kit kicked again. The blow was accompanied by a loud, meaty chunk. The bear reared back.
Before Kit could launch another kick, there was another thunk, and another. The bear swiped at the empty air, and fist-sized stones began to rain all around. Thick and fast they came. Striking, glancing, bouncing as they smacked mercilessly into the animal’s bulky frame.
The bear staggered back in confusion, and Kit heard a sudden loud cry erupt behind him; he twisted his head around to see three primitives break from the birch grove, all with fist-sized river rocks in their hands, and all shouting and heaving stones as they ran, throwing with unerring accuracy; every missile struck home with a satisfying thump.
The great ferocious beast cowered under the attack. After being struck a few times on the head and chest, it turned, lowered itself to all fours, and beat a hasty retreat, crying for its cubs to follow. The young bears did not wait for the stones to begin falling on them. They hightailed it after their mother, mewling all the way.
Then hands were thrust beneath Kit’s shoulders, and he was hauled to his feet by his armpits. While two other primitives continued to hurl stones at the fleeing bears, Big Hunter patted Kit around the body as if feeling for wounds.
“I’m okay,” Kit told him, knowing full well he would not be understood. “I’m only a little skinned up. It’s okay.” He gripped the heavy hand. “I’m all right.”
This brought a response from Big Hunter, who ceased pawing at him. “Gangor,” he said, plain as day, his voice coming from somewhere deep inside him. It was the first word, if word it was, that Kit understood. He said it again and pointed to the bears.
“Gan-gor,” Kit said, trying to repeat the sound of the word as near as he was able.
Big Hunter’s eyes went wide with amazed delight. He called to the other primitives, and when they had returned and gathered around, he said the word again, looking at Kit with an expression of anticipation. “Gangor,” said Kit, eager to oblige.
The effect was electric. All three primitives began jabbering at once and patting him-stroking him like a dog that has just learned a new trick. Kit endured this enthusiastic buffeting. “No, really. It was nothing,” he told them. Turning to Big Hunter, he pressed the primitive’s hand. “Thank you.” He gazed into the bearded faces around him and, with all the sincerity he could muster, said, “Thank you all for saving me.”
The celebration finished and the primitives started back to the settlement. Through gestures and proddings they gave Kit to know that they expected him to accompany them. But Kit had a better idea.
“No, wait!” he insisted, planting his feet. Stepping quickly behind the nearest bush, he removed his soiled underwear and, with some regret, left them. He washed as best he could in the shallow stream, then emerged from the bush to rejoin the party. Pointing up the valley, he indicated one of the tiered ledges of the gorge and said, “I need to check on something.” He knew full well that there was not the shred of a chance that any of them would understand him, but it was a relief to talk and he harboured the small hope that he might make them understand-in the manner of British tourists abroad who, not knowing the local patois, just speak English-but loudly. “Up there. I have to go there. Won’t take a minute.” Kit spread his arms and then drew a circle that included them all. “You can come with me. In fact, I hope you will.” He turned and made a show of starting off. “Come on!” He made a sweep of his arm as if calling the start to a marathon. “Let’s go, chaps!”
He stepped off a half-dozen paces and glanced back to see them still standing there watching him. On a sudden inspiration, Kit made the gesture Big Hunter had made with him earlier-the curved hand “come along” motion. Then, with a single grunt of command, Big Hunter started after him, and the rest fell into step. As they walked, the sky began to lighten, and Kit was glad to see that he remembered this region of the gorge. He walked with purpose, urging on his new friends at each turn.
The sun was rising by the time they reached the cutting Kit recognised as the ley trail leading down into the valley. “Here it is!” he cried, pointing like a wild man at the long, sloping incline. “This is the place!”
He made such a show of his excitement that the primitives stood bewildered by his odd behaviour, murmuring among themselves. “Wait here,” he told them, holding up his hands. “Just wait right here.”
With that, he turned and started up the trail. His entourage followed, so Kit had to repeat the “Stay put” gesture-as one would with a dog determined to follow its master to school-until they at last got the message. As soon as he turned away, he took the ley lamp from his pocket and made a quick survey of the site. The device was dead. No warmth. No little lights. Nothing at all to suggest the ley might be active.
Thinking that perhaps the instrument had been knocked around so much it had stopped working, he shoved it back in his pocket and instead took a few running steps down the centre of the ley. When he failed to raise so much as a tingle on his skin, he stopped, drew a deep breath, cleared his mind, and then with deliberate steps began walking swiftly up the inclined ley, fully confident that this time he would be transported.
Again his expectation was confounded. Kit closed his eyes and tried again. But upon opening his eyes he found he was still in the same place, same world, same time as before. If he had travelled at all it was only the few paces between the place he started and the place he stopped. Growing frustrated and a little desperate now, he tried three more times in quick succession before finally admitting defeat. The ley was not open and not active.
He gave up and walked back down to the valley to join the waiting primitives, who were watching him with undeniable expressions of concern on their broad, hairy faces. “Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he said. “I’ll try again later.”
In fact, over the next days he did try again-four times, twice more in the morning, and twice in the evening-each time making the arduous trek from the place he called River City Camp to the ley. Four times-with no better result than before. Though he resisted the idea that he was now trapped here, he had to admit that something had gone very wrong. To keep despair at bay, he immersed himself in observing his little community of primitives, all the while trying to remember what he knew about the Stone Age.
Like most people, what he had gained had come from jokes and B-movies. Were these the cavemen of cartoon fame? Were they heavy-handed dullards who hunted such things as mastodons and dire wolves and giant sloths? Were they subhuman ogres that eked out a nasty and brutish existence in a world of dinosaurs and spewing volcanoes? Were they hairy, monosyllabic troglodytes that lived in holes in the ground? Were they any of these things?
The first discovery to surprise Kit was that he could no longer think of them as primitives, much less call them creatures. Since the night they had risked themselves to save him from the bear, they were people-albeit of an alien race and species. Kit spent a considerable amount of time trying to determine the blood relationships and hierarchy among the members of the River City Clan. Big Hunter seemed to be the chief, though he was not the eldest; there were two females that Kit pegged as the oldest members of the group of sixteen individuals who ranged in age from three or four years to, well, whatever age the oldest ones were-sixty, seventy? That is how old they appeared; though, the privations of a hard-graft hunter-gatherer life being what they were, Kit doubted the aged ones were anywhere near that old.
The clan consisted of seven males and nine females. In appearance, aside from the primary sexual characteristics such as beards and breasts and such, the two sexes differed little: both were of stocky, muscular build, thick-framed and sturdy; both more or less the same height, with the males only a couple inches taller on average and females slightly less bulky; both dressed in the same skins and furs-some of the women chose to cover their upper chests, but others did not; both possessed the same long, dark, coarse, wiry hair that they either plaited into thick ropelike braids or bound in leather bands into which they stuck interesting leaves, feathers, or other found objects.
As the days gave way to weeks, Kit gained a more rounded appreciation of their habits and means of survival. The world was their larder, and they ate whatever came to hand, bolting down many things Kit would not allow past his lips-insects, worms, and larvae included. For the most part, they ate with their fingers, but used sticks to sear raw meat in the fire. But the thing they seemed to relish most of all was marrow from the bigger bones of the larger animals they hunted.
One day the hunting party returned carrying an antelope or sheep-Kit could not tell because they had already gutted and skinned it, leaving the entrails far from camp so the scent would not draw predators. The carcass was roughly quartered with flint hand axes and then cut up in smaller chunks, which were put onto the reed skewers. Later, when the meat was cooking, a special cracking stone was fetched and the larger bones expertly broken open to allow access to the dark jellylike sweetmeat. Kit watched as the treat was doled out-Big Hunter first, and then the others in turn. Though one or two got bigger pieces than the others, no one appeared to complain. Kit, too, was offered a piece.
He lifted the broken shard of bone to his lips and sucked, imitating the clansmen. The congealed substance tasted of blood and meat, and though not altogether distasteful, and undoubtedly healthy in any number of ways, he could not work up the enthusiasm for it that the clansmen seemed to share. He ate some out of a sense of politeness, but did not ask for more.
The clan’s mostly carnivorous diet was supplemented by roots, berries, and various greens, most of which he enjoyed, though he began to miss simple seasonings, especially salt. He made a mental note to remedy this situation at the first opportunity. But all in all, they ate well enough-some days better than others, as determined by the hunt-and Kit reckoned that if he did not grow fat on the primitive regimen, neither would he starve.
One of the more arresting features of their society was how very quiet they could be, and most often were. They could speak, but usually became talkative only when excited. Kit marked an entire day when no one spoke. From the moment he opened his eyes in the morning until he crawled into bed that night, not a single vocal utterance had been made. He wondered about this for a long time, until it occurred to him that perhaps it was a basic survival tactic, an inbred desire to keep from drawing unwanted attention to themselves by passing predators. Despite this innate reticence, they were extremely communicative in other ways, employing a full repertoire of facial expressions that would have done a professional mime proud. Added to that was a range of gestures that bordered on sign language. In combination, the gestures and expressions were often all that was necessary to get surprisingly complex messages across.
But that was not all. In the first few days, Kit observed that the entire clan appeared to possess an uncanny instinct for empathy within the group-a sixth sense that told them what the others were thinking. At first he imagined that perhaps it was due to the fact that they lived so closely and in such harmony with one another that they had simply developed a fundamental understanding that did not need words. But as time went on he saw that it was something far more subtle and specific than that: it was a sort of telepathy. As Kit got to know them better, he came to believe that the clan did not talk much because each just instinctively knew what everyone else was thinking.
The most potent demonstration of this came late one afternoon a few days after he had come to River City. An early dusk was settling on the camp, and some of the females were chopping a haunch of wild pig in preparation for cooking; a few of the males were chipping flint to make scrapers or ax blades. Everyone was busy, working away quietly, when all of a sudden one of the males dropped his flint stone and stood up. Instantly he was joined by the three females. Not a word was spoken-not even a grunt-but all four disappeared into the wood. Those who remained behind also stopped working and began preparing a bed of fresh reeds and rushes by the fire ring.
Intrigued, Kit watched as they heaped the reeds high and covered them with skins; they then built up the fire-clearly in anticipation of something that was about to take place. And only a few minutes later, the group that had gone into the wood returned carrying one of the younger males-scratched and bleeding and obviously injured. They laid him on the reed bed and nursed him through the night.
All this took place without so much as a single syllable breathed aloud. The more he thought about it, the more convinced Kit became that at the moment of the young one’s injury, they all knew that he was in trouble and had gone to rescue him. They just knew.
Yet, as extraordinary as that was, the thing that impressed Kit most was how very gentle they were with each other. In those first days with them, he did not witness any angry or aggressive behaviour. Indeed, they seemed to tolerate one another very well, if not to enjoy being together. The older ones definitely doted on the younger-at least in camp, for the smallest of the clan were not allowed to wander very far into the surrounding woods unless an adult was in tow.
There was still much to learn about them, of course, but Kit was content to allow that learning to take place naturally. In the meantime, he tried to be a good guest and not bother his hosts or make a nuisance of his presence. Nevertheless, the clan appeared as fascinated by him as he was by them. For their part, they missed nothing he did, following his every move-from the way he washed his hands and face, to brushing his teeth with chewed hazel twigs, and taking off his shoes to sleep-which drew great excitement the first time he performed any of these activities.
The younger members of the clan tried to imitate him, the older ones merely watched from a polite distance. The thing that produced the greatest amusement for the clan was Kit’s attempt to wash his clothes.
One morning, awakening to the fact that his shirt and trousers were filthy and that he had not had a proper wash for more days than he cared to think about, Kit decided that the time had come to take the plunge-literally. He took himself to the river and found what he imagined to be a secluded spot where the stream ran deep and slow, and then waded out. He dove in, swam around a bit, bobbing up and down to thoroughly soak his garments, and then waded back to the bank and disrobed.
All this splashing about drew a crowd, of course, and he was soon the object of intense observation. For although they understood that his clothing, while different from their own, served the same function, the younger ones reacted with the same mixture of fascination and disgust he might have felt upon seeing a businessman shedding his skin like a snake. They jabbered excitedly at the first glimpse of the extreme white hairlessness of his skin-at least that was what Kit assumed they were remarking on, and not on his inconsequential and wholly unimpressive physique.
Despite his initial qualms, he found he did not mind being naked in front of the clan-any more than a farmer might baulk at being caught naked in front of barnyard cattle. Not that he thought of them as cattle, but the sense of species separation was so great that once he had wriggled out of his sopping shirt and trousers and was slapping them against the smooth, flat river stones, he simply did not care anymore.
In any event, the exercise proved mildly successful; after drying on a sun-facing bush, his garments did seem fresher, if not cleaner. But, lying in the sun on the riverbank, he felt the chill that was never far from the air even on the warmest days, and knew that he was enjoying the last gasp of a splendid autumn. The days were already drawing in, the nights growing steadily cooler. Often now the morning air held a frosty note, and days were overcast. He wondered what the River City Clan did for the winter-where did they go? He did not think they would stay camped by the river, and he was right.