"Fossil evidence of human evolutionary history is fragmentary and open to various interpretations." Henry Gee, Nature 2001
Like a favonian breeze, life arrived on Planet Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. Our story begins much later, a brief two million years before present, during the waning days of the Pliocene Epoch, itself part of the 65-million-year-long Cenozoic Era. The primordial continent of Gondwana has splintered into chunks and warm-blooded, furry mammals have replaced the dinosaurs. The climate is cooling and the growing glaciers have locked billions of gallons of Earth’s water into icy prisons. South America has moved to its present position contiguous to North America and the land bridge connecting Asia with Alaska still exists.
If you telescope in, you’ll see we are in Africa.
Before becoming the seed bed for man’s future, Africa separated from South America—almost 200 million years ago—and then from India and Australia seventy million years later. The capacious tropical jungles created during hotter Miocene times have given way to dry savannas reaching like stretch lines around the Great Rift Valley. If you peer closer, you see a child. Half-ape, half-human, she peopled the landscape long before modern man arrived. She hunts, plays, eats and sleeps, oblivious to her destiny as the Father of Man. We’ll call her Lyta. That’s not her name, rather the sound she hears when her band requires her attention.
For some reason scientists will probably never agree on, Lyta prospered in this cobbled confluence of climate and geography. All we can do is study the cairns she left and ask why, out of all animal species, did she and her successors survive Nature’s challenges and spread worldwide? The physically-overpowering Great Apes are endemic to one habitat. Crocodylus, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, lives confined to the world’s wetlands. Insects, who have outnumbered man for four hundred million years, remain subjugated to nature’s whims.
So, it’s an intriguing question: Why did bipedal primates with paper-thin skin, nails instead of claws and hair instead of fur, metastize throughout the world? What crude traits made Lyta a survivor? The answer is in the stony coffin of rocks and calcified soil Earth wrapped around her fossilized remains, broken by the weight of history and gnawed by predators and rodents and in the end, bacteria.
To write her biography, these scattered clues must be matched like puzzle pieces until their morphology gives up the story of her life and death. The swell of the cheeks, the shape of the jaw and teeth, and the spread of the nasal cavity define the sensory tools. The length of the femur and its connection to the pelvis calculate height, and thickness dictates body strength. Framework established, the forensic anthropologist attaches muscles and tendons to the bones, overlays skin— thick or thin, light or dark—depending upon age and culture. Last, he adds eyes, nose, mouth, and hair, the final pieces of the phenotypic exterior. The result breathes life into the foggy detachment of technicalities.
We might be shocked by Lyta’s resemblance to us. She walks upright. Her face is well on the way to Thinking Man’s forward-facing eyes, receding forehead, and understated nose. Her skin is lightly furred and dimpled with millions of sweat glands. Her gluteus maximus has enlarged to facilitate running and her thorax has raised so she can draw the deep breaths required to fuel her cells for extended jogging. The encephalization of her brain represents a milestone in primates: She is the first species to on average surpass the cerebral rubicon set by the British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith requiring 750 cubic centimeters to delineate the genus Homo from all other species. But physical appearance tells only part of her story. To relate Lyta’s biography requires we extrapolate the intangible parts lost in the vastness of time from the archaeological remains studied by experts such as the Leakeys, Donald Johanson, Birute Galdikas, Jane Goodall, Ian Tattersall, Christopher Wills, John McDougall. How did Lyta conduct her every-day life? How did she handle illness? How did she hunt for food while stalked by predators bigger and meaner than she? How did Nature mold her life? How did she solve her problems?
For these answers, we look to a multidisciplinary assortment of scientists. Paleobotanists study plant seeds buried with her bones. Paleoanthropologists examine the condition of her teeth and calcification of her skeleton. Paleontologists study the tools she created to infer their probable use. Paleogeologists dig through the horizons in the land, the geologic content of rocks and soil, the detritus surrounding the ossified skeleton. Paleoclimatologists recreate the composition of ancient atmospheres. By melding their collective research, Lyta’s life comes into focus, as though a mist has lifted, revealing tiny hominids striding across the savannas of Plio-Pleistocene Africa.
Yet, even this fails to convey the compelling provenance of her existence. Where are the inevitable life and death struggles accompanying days and nights ruled by Nature? Where is the stress that travels hand in hand with her ability to make decisions? Where is the drama integral to existence as a thinking man? As Terry Pratchett says, “…there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber…” For with Lyta’s ability to reason came the need to take responsibility for her deeds.
This is her story. She is a scientist, forever seeking new approaches to problems. She was the first primate to use tools to make tools, to control her environment and select among choices rather than submit to instinct when making decisions about her future. She uses her capacious brain, requiring 20% of her caloric intake to maintain, to survive and multiply in the most dangerous habitat known to mammals. She spends considerable time foraging for anything edible (evolving from a plant-eating herbivore to a decidedly-unchoosey omnivore was a brilliantly adaptive move for early man), sleeping, caring for her young, and avoiding predators. Because she is so much more efficient at these jobs than any other primate, she possesses surplus time and uses it inventing tools to enhance her quality of life and communicating with her band. This is the first time in history a mammal surpassed Maslow’s broadest Hierarchy of Needs.
As tectonic forces buried deep beneath the African continent tear East from West and a series of active volcanoes bordering Lyta’s homeland clog the air with ash and wash the landscape with rivers of fire, she and her kind are adapting to the evolving environment by changing the way they do things. Her predecessors possessed no skills for recognizing a problem, realizing the need for change, and solving it. She is able to identify a crisis and wrangle an adaptation from Nature. Lyta is a mentally gifted hominid, yet modern man sees her as barbaric and crude. Someday, maybe 1.7 millions years from today, some scientific writer will try to explain the actions of the ancient species, Homo sapiens sapiens. In his lense, we will appear primeval, incapable of thoughts meriting “modern man’s” attention.
It is with this perspective I present these noble creatures. I make no claim to original investigations. To steal the words of E.A. Allen, in his 1885 The Prehistoric World, I trust “…it will not be considered impertinent for a mere loiterer in the vestibule of the temple of science to attempt to lay before others the results of the investigations of our eminent scholars.” Their manner of speaking, the primal grammar and sentence structure, has been lost, so I follow the research of Dr. Lev Vygotsky on primitive societies. He found primitive man to be a thorough communicator, his conversations filled with detail about his surroundings and even of places he only once visited.
Lyta’s communication isn’t limited to words, but includes a smorgasbord of devices to convey her message—vocalizations, body movements, hand gestures, intonation, facial expressions—skills we only vaguely understand and often discredit. I have translated her words and those of her band into a Homo sapiens sapiens-friendly language.
Additionally, primitive man had no concept of counting or numbers. To convey this in a manner more appropriate to their time, I used the research of Dr. Lev Vygotsky—again—and Dr.
Levi Leonard Conant from his 1931 book, The Number Concept. For example, Lyta will never say that her band consisted of fifteen individuals, rather she will describe a band with “enough females to gather fruit and nuts and care for the children, and enough males to hunt scavenge and protect the band”. While ‘fifteen people’ is more concise, to her it is meaningless.
Often, you will be tempted to disbelieve her life. Once again, fact is truly stranger than any fiction a creative Thinking Man brain can invent.
Prologue In the Beginning…
…it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. —Charles Darwin
Billions of years whooshed by in such a rush, it made Sun dizzy. Planetary systems formed and life evolved and still Sun couldn’t decide. This Machiavellian monstrosity who called herself
‘Nature’ cared nothing for Earth. She collided vast landmasses with such brutality that the ground buckled into crenulated piles of lofty mountains and deep valleys, or splintered into ragged continents that floated away on infinite oceans. Molten hotspots blew liquid rock through the fragile crust and splattered volcanic archipelagos like multi-layered onions. The erratic climate melted glaciers and rainforests with equal ease.
Sun sighed. Nature’s life forms were no better. They came and went, crushed by Earth’s everchanging habitat. The survivors, like the desultory horsetail ferns or the annoying chirruping insects, were boring. The first had no flexibility and the second, no mental strength. Sun turned her attention to other planets in her system, until the day a muscular, slope-shouldered hominid named Orrorin appeared. Though his head was no larger than what Nature called a ‘chimpanzee’, a human soul radiated through his eyes. Who was he? He fingered his food as though wondering at its texture. Hostility intrigued rather than frightened him. Had Nature finally done something spectacular?
One morning, when Sun began her daily duties warming and lighting Planet Earth, Orrorin had disappeared, replaced by the ape-man Ardipithecus. His clear-eyed gaze roved the land with a calculated interest. He rubbed callused fingers over the plants and sniffed their scents, even tasted the seeds and dirt around them. He cocked his oversized head up and scratched behind his ear as though he knew Sun watched—and vanished faster than Orrorin. The captivating female who replaced him was the first to recognize the concatenation of cause and affect that flowed through the land and animal life, responsible for the migration of herds and the springtime birth of babies. She, too, disappeared, replaced by a different bipedal—bigger here and stronger there.
One after another, the primate hominids came and went in a great evolving rush of kindred species, nothing more than failures in Nature’s evolutionary lab. What game did Nature play with the lives of these sentient creatures? Sun lost any but a passing interest in Earth’s parade of life.
That changed when the Homo habilis Lyta arrived. Something about this skinny primate’s mix of bravery and loyalty, her unpredictable intelligence and selfless compassion, fascinated Sun.
Nature giggled. Sun would never understand evolution. All matter must be destroyed to be improved. Sun, also, when its time came. Nature alone decided who lived and died. In other parts of the Universe, she was called god.
She giggled again. She was a god.
To make the big-brained Homo habilis more interesting, Nature gave him free will. She hoped a modicum of independence, a separation from the traditional reliance on instinct, would empower habilis to act in its own best interest
She got more than she expected. With choice came a conscience. That wasn’t the plan, but science was unpredictable. Nature had started over more times than she could count in her quest for perfection, but a conscience? How do you do what must be done if you worry about consequences?
Nature puckered her brow and studied her creation with a predator’s unwavering attention. Several minutes passed and then several more. Storms came and went. Flash floods crashed through the valleys and lightning blackened the grasslands with devastating fires. Finally, the worry lines that framed her eyes disappeared and the corners of her mouth tugged up into what might pass for a smile. There was a solution.
She cleaved her newest creation in two. One half she called ‘Lyta’ and planted in the rainforest. The half called ‘Raza’ she dropped on the savanna. If Lyta ‘wished’ or ‘prayed’ or simply asked, Nature would guide her to salvation. Raza, she left to his own barbaric inclinations. To be sure they couldn’t meet, she created a savage uncrossable fissure between their homelands. “Now I will create their opposite. He will be smart and aggressive, as are they, but without morals. His focus will be his survival without concern for those around him. “Which will succeed?”
Chapter One Lyta and Raza
Human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive. —Margaret Mead
There the Creatures squatted, grunting noisily, no further from Raza than a well-thrown stone.
Dirty clumps of hair hung to narrow shoulders. Their muscular chests tapered to pinched hips. Nut- brown skin bore only the barest layer of translucent fuzz. Their vaulted foreheads rounded high above thick rounded brows and broad muzzles—like his own, Raza thought, but flat as though Mammoth sat on them.
Raza drooped his eyes and hunkered deeper into the thick reeds across the pond from the Creatures’ camp. They were not what he expected. In fact, the only similarity to the ones he’d seen outside his home base was their movement. They glided like Crocodile through water, with a grace belied by their over-long legs and truncated arms.
How could these winter-lean, hairless creatures be predators?
He hadn’t set out this morning to actually see them. He’d only wanted to track them. He’d waked early. He covered his body in mud and dung, barked a farewell to his Primary male Hku and set off to hunt. The day couldn’t have been more perfect. An unusual scattering of clouds shaded the parched ground with splotches of shade. Smoking Mountain slept, though Raza knew at any moment it might awaken with a ground-shaking growl, much like Eagle’s cry before her death dive or Cat’s throaty snarl. Today, though, the only indication of Smoking Mountain’s presence was a slight sulfur taste in the air.
His bare feet cut quickly through the talus field that bordered home base, across a dry patch of savanna, following the prints of Man-who-Preys’. This Creature. They were bulbous at the bottom with splayed nubs on top, like his but straighter and narrower. Depth and size varied, but the scent was always sour like spoiled roots. Dust sprayed by his pounding feet tickled his nose and eyes and turned his dark feet a dinghy white.
When he caught the odor of pond reeds, he froze and let his senses explore what his eyes couldn’t. He ignored the ripening noxious cloud from his melting dung coat and focused on his surroundings. He heard water lapping against the pond’s shoreline and smelled the piquant scent of decayed vegetation crushed by hooves and paws and feet pounding to the water’s edge.
Nothing unusual, so he slid forward like Snake until he could see the watering hole. Its blue surface shimmered with heat like a watery flame. At one end, a herd of long-eared dik-dik and a lone hyaena-cat drank. Wave after wave of gentle ripples rolled from the pond’s edge as prey and predator alike lapped up the crystalline water. Cat’s cousin feasted on a bloated calf. A motley horde of flop-winged vultures squabbled nearby, hopping closer and closer to the cadaver, awaiting their turn. A mammoth family splashed directly in front of him, spraying their huge bodies with long noses. They trumpeted at something, flaring their ears and swaying their giant forefeet before trundling off to give Raza an unobstructed view across the pond.
At the face of the Creature. Man-who-Preys. So much for his plan.
Every muscle in his body tensed and his breathing became labored. He rubbed his scarred knee as he worked through this problem. Man-who-Preys was nocturnal. Raza knew this like he knew Cat attacked when she was hungry and eating meat with white worms made him sick. Were some Cousins nocturnal and others diurnal, like Cat’s cousins Leopard and Sabertooth?
He rubbed his knee harder, feeling the smooth scar left by searing lava, absently exploring the ridge where flat even skin became coarse leg fur. He’d lived his entire life on these savannas, memorized each scrub bush and boulder, every baobab and meandering border forest. He knew the carnivores that hunted him and the tricks Nature employed to prey on him. He’d felt safe until these gangly russet-colored creatures entered his life.
At that time, his band lived in a different home base, protected by cliff walls and abutting a pond. No animal bothered them there until Man-who-Preys arrived. One night, as the evening shadows deepened from blue to purple, they appeared, barely visible in the faded light, watching. They never bothered the hominids and always left before Sun’s return. Hku accepted them as friendly, like Cousin Chimp, and found comfort in their silhouettes limned against the blackness knowing predators must pass Man-who-Preys to attack the Group.
Then, when the herds left with their young to avoid Sun’s heat, the band’s children disappeared. Why would Man-who-Preys steal children? When Raza asked Vorak, his partner shrugged.
“Why do you care? We have pairmates. We will make new children for the Group.” He glanced at Raza. “It is more difficult to replace a hunting partner. I will never let them steal you.” Vorak, with his lean muscular build, strong prognathic snout and ready smile, made everything sound simple. When they returned from hunting, he sought out his Primary-Female. She sat as usual a hands-width from the stick she’d secured into the ground. Every day, the stick’s shadow circled the center. For some reason unknown to any in the Group, Kee placed marks along its path. “Are we in danger, Kee?” She stared through him, her face expressionless. He rubbed his scarred knee with the stub of a missing finger, and made his decision. “I will find out if they are a threat.” But meat scarce, Raza had to hunt every day, waiting for the sick or injured or old of the shrinking packs to fall to the great predators. By the time the herds returned and hunting eased, the memories of Man-who-Preys had disappeared with the children. Until now. “This time, I will find your Camp!” Raza crouched deeper into the reeds. Sweat dripped through his kinky fringe of black hair and etched grimy trails down his chest. As Sun climbed invisible-mountain-in-the-sky, struggling up and over the lower peaks, Raza watched the Creature. He made no sound even as a cloud of insects ate through his mud-and-dung coat and filled their bellies with his blood. Silence was his greatest defense.
Man-who-Preys made many sounds. Barks and yips and hisses. Their mouths scrunched open and slammed shut into narrow flat lines as their voices varied in tone and volume. Raza too had a vast range of sounds. The guttural noise ‘Raza’, like the hiss of silence, was how groupmates called him. When he flattened his lips and squawked ‘Vorak’, his hunting partner answered. Kee’s sign was a high-pitched monotone, like Cousin Chimp greeting a playmate. But once Raza had a groupmate’s attention, he used body movements, silent communications heard by everyone. Any sound not in Nature’s language brought with it danger. How did Man-who-Preys survive?
Nature tingled at the closeness of her two creations. Despite Man-who-Preys ‘noisiness’, they were her most dangerous creation yet.
“You will be like him in the future, when language evolves inexorably as the oddly human trait of killing your own.”
Raza waited until each hunter disappeared from sight, carrying a tree limb taller than his body and as thick as his wrist. Then, Raza returned to Camp. Hku met him, feet spread wide, mouth set in an angry line. Raza knew solo hunting wasn’t permitted, which was why he’d returned. He wilted, not sure anymore about his plan to find Man-who-Preys and save the Group.
“I will show you,” he motioned with his body and headed back to the water hole. When they got close, Hku froze and pointed out a trail of elongated prints. They lay within a stride of where Raza had been hunkered down watching the predators. The new adult gulped. Hku scowled. “Go. Get Baad.” Raza raced back along the traveled trail, his thoughts spinning. Had Man-who-Preys been watching the Group, again as before? He found Baad, barked and motioned him to follow. Baad was a handsome hominid in his prime with powerful muscles that corded the length of his legs and bulged beneath the thick fur of his chest. He had taken the loss of the children hard. The band marked the Camp’s territory as Cat did, with the urine and feces of the male members. All Nature’s creatures knew not to cross this feral boundary, but Man-who-Preys had and Raza didn’t think Baad had every recovered. Now, Baad’s jaw clenched as he bit back the memories.
When they reached Hku’s side, he pointed toward a shimmer of blue bubbling up from the horizon, where Sun slept each night. He pummeled a clenched hand into the splayed fingers of the other, blending ‘danger’ and ‘predator’. Raza rubbed his sore knee, and then forced his hands to stillness. He must focus. Hku and Baad exchanged a few words and headed out at a fast jog. Raza sprinted after them, his thick fur puffed with the satisfaction that he hunted danger. He chirped the signal that told the females to return to Camp, then screeched Eagle’s call. In the flat expanse of the grasslands, it would be heard as far away as any hunter traveled.
“Hku.” The call sign sounded like Raza clearing his throat. “How do you know it is their home base?” Who would camp at the home of a dangerous predator like Smoking Mountain? Or was Man-who-Preys so mighty, like Saber-tooth and Mammoth, they had no fear? “I once found shards of their knapping there.” Raza sucked in a sharp breath. He had never found remnants of tool-making anywhere other than the camps of his kind. None of the predators like Cat, or the herds like Gazelle or Mammoth, used stone or wood tools. Raza squared his shoulders in pride.
“These are the creatures who steal our children?” Vorak appeared at his side. Raza nodded and both dropped into silence.
The hunters followed the prints until they melted into the scree slopes of Smoking Mountain. After a futile search, they headed back. Shadows were already slipping up the rocks by the time they hooted their entry call and rounded the boulder that marked Camp. Raza was tired, hungry and discouraged. All he wanted was his mate to groom the dirt and insects from his fur and to sleep. He’d eat tomorrow.
He listened for the clack of females pounding roots, the glee of children rough-and-tumbling, and the muted mumble of males gathering whatever meat they had scavenged that day. Instead, he saw only Kee, a slight male named Ma-g’n, and a milling pack of subadults. Raza glanced toward the food areas for other females, and then along the pond’s edge where the children usually played. No one. He frowned toward Hku. Concern clouded the elder’s dark eyes. He eased down next to Kee with a crackling of joints.
“You heard the danger signal?” Hku’s face remained calm as Kee offered a quick nod. She refused to look at him, so Hku lifted her chin until their eyes met. “Where are the others?”
Kee pulled away and went back to crushing the tiny clods of dirt that pebbled the ground. Hku patted her shoulder and rose, turning to face Raza and Vorak.
“Go.” His hand movements indicated a stealthy search of the adjoining pond, the foraging fields and protective boulders and cliffs. He added a quick bark for emphasis. “Baad. We go where the males hunted. Ma-g’n. Stay with Kee and the youngsters.”
The group split. Their bodies spoke what all felt. As Wolf howled his mournful evening call, Raza returned to find Hku surrounded by a cluster of confused males, their arms spastic and breathing shallow as they absorbed the news. Hku mouthed soft words of encouragement to each, palms down and parallel to the ground: Stay calm. We will figure this out. Raza shook his head as he met Hku’s tense gaze. “We found only their foraging tools and a pile of roots.” Hku lowered his head as he scratched his upper arm. Raza never doubted Hku would know what to do. When had he not known?
From within the group, a howl sounded, deep and anguished. It was Baad. “They took our females as they did our children.” His cheek muscles bulged as he clenched his massive fists. “They are for our breeding, not theirs. Sabertooth never breeds with leopard, nor Hyaena-dog with Snarling-dog.”
Baad leaped into the air, landed, and beat the earth until the ground shook and his fists bled. Then, he threw a massive tree limb, barely missing Ma-g’n. The shock froze Baad, but for just a moment. Finally, he howled his helplessness. The youngsters looked terrified: Their belief that all in the group were safe had cracked.
Raza’s pride at his first hunt as an adult-of-the-group soured like meat rotted in the sun. What was his purpose if not to protect those around him? What mattered if not the band? Tears rolled down Ma-g’n’s frozen visage as he groomed his son Ch-hee. In this simple task, was normalcy. The child tilted his head up and offered a trusting, innocent smile. The children would recover, but what about the adults?
The next day, Hku led them to a new home base as far away as they had ever migrated. The group adopted the children-without-Primaries and the males found new pairmates from the subadults. Raza tried to forget, but no matter how exhausted his body was when he lay down to sleep, the memories intruded like rain through a canopy. Could they stop this two-legged predator? Nothing so far had succeeded. He understood Cat—when it hunted and where its territory lay. The same with Mammoth. Even with Nature, he knew how to avoid her fires and flash floods, but this predator attacked for reasons Raza didn’t understand.
“Raza. Take another pairmate. Baad took Falda. I took one.” This from Vorak as he knapped a chert stone into a cutting tool. “What do females matter except for children?”
To Raza’s surprise, Vorak had pairmated with Kelda, an abrasive, whining female shunned by all. When Raza asked about his decision, reminded Vorak she was nothing like Shta, Vorak’s first pairmate, Vorak nodded. Yes, the very reason he took her. There was no other like Shta.
Raza had no interest in finding a pairmate or raising children. In fact, he felt nothing beyond an eviscerating fury. It waxed and waned every day as he hunted with the males and played with the children of the group. At night, when his groupmates slept, he stared beyond Smoking Mountain, to the lake where his mate had been taken. He imagined what she might be doing. Did she think of the band she’d been torn from? Did she live?
In his dreams, she smiled at him across the abyss of time and distance.
When Kee could stand it no more, she sent him across the Rift, to find a mate. He agreed. It was his duty. Whoever he found needn’t know children were a distraction he couldn’t afford.
A gray drizzle filtered down from the cloud-choked sky the day Raza and Baad left. They traveled first along the forest edges, then through the copper-colored fields and toward the spread of the Great Rift. By the time they reached the bordering forest, rain pelted the ground. Every time Raza looked back along the traveled trail, memorizing a landmark for the return journey, he saw Hku. The old male moved from hillock to berm to mountain until finally, his image faded into the colors and textures of Raza’s homeland.
Nature scowled. ‘Free will’ was annoying, not unlike mosquitoes. It popped up at the most inopportune times making it impossible to be sure what her creations would do. Free will was the reason Raza now sought the female Lyta. What if Lyta joined him?
Nature shook her head. No, Lyta would never leave her homeland. Lyta felt a fascinating emotion called ‘love’ for the hominid Garv. Though he had disappeared, with Nature’s help, Lyta woke each day with the hope he would reappear.
Another odd emotion Nature didn’t understand, this ‘hope’. Why did the female cling to Garv over the competent and virile Ghael? Ghael could provide for her, create her babies and insure her place in the band. Still, Lyta only agreed to be his pairmate until Garv reappeared.
What had caused ‘emotion’? One day, the chemistry was pristine; the next, some cataclysmic combination occurred in Nature’s Lyta experiment. First free will, then a conscience, and now emotion. Surely these were flaws in her artistry, mutations that would be bred from the species over the fullness of time. Until then, Nature would use them to bind Lyta to the past rather than the hope of a new beginning.
Nature raised a cloudy finger to her ethereal chin and scratched a rumble across the arboreal landscape. Was this when Lyta would ask her for help?
Lyta saw no doomsday covey of blackbirds. No thick banks of clouds darkening the sky. No eclipse of Sun or meteors crashing to earth. In fact, the day dawned propitiously under Sun’s opalescent glow. The night rain left the ground smelling sweet and loamy. A herd of mammoth bellowed in the distance while Cousin Chimp chattered the location of his morning food. Lyta scattered the grasses of her ground nest and joined the band to forage.
This was a rich area. To the side where Sun woke was a vast pond with succulents that grew from the water. In the opposite direction, to the side where Sun slept, stretched a prong of forest that marked the edge of the band’s territory. Here, Cousin Chimp lived. With his long arms and gripping feet, he swung through the canopy as easily and smoothly as Lyta ran. She envied him. Nowhere was silence more complete than high above the traveled trails.
Today, they must travel beyond this forest, across a golden field dotted with shrubs and spindly trees, to the grasslands abutting Smoking Mountain’s rocky foothills. This most bountiful turf was also the most dangerous. The mountain often disgorged burning rivers of molten fire and shook until the ground cracked and swallowed everything in its path, but the band had scoured the corms, tubers, bulbs, roots, eggs, berries, nuts from closer areas until nothing could be found. The insects and lizards and snakes they trapped left their stomachs growling so they had no choice. Until the vegetation regrew, the hominids would travel outward.
Sun sent shining bars of light through the white clouds as the band arrived at an open meadow surrounded by rocky crevices and a meager copse of aspens. It was filled with arid scrub bushes, dying patches of grass—and food if Lyta could pierce the hard ground. She slumped as she hacked at the dry soil, watching for grubs and lizards as she worked and wondering. “Can Sun warn of danger? Does it care Garv died?” The air shimmered with heat. The mammoths grazed a long jog away, ignoring the tiny primates. The sociable Great-dog or maybe Giant-great-dog—Lyta couldn’t tell from this distance—loped across the plateau. Its enormous bushy tail swept a trail through the forbs like the slipstream following a flock of birds. Garv had felt safe around these amiable canines because they lived in groups as he did, with Primaries overseeing the pups. Garv had taught Lyta much about surviving.
Today, despite Sun’s warming rays and the hope of food, felt bleaker than most. When the group returned to Camp, the new pairmates would eat first. A female mated freely until her bleeding began, and then accepted a single pairmate. He brought food while she carried a child, and then fed both until the youngster could feed himself. Lyta would have pairmated Garv if he hadn’t died. Instead, it would be Ghael.
Lyta had never recovered from Garv’s disappearance. She didn’t smile any more at the antics of the children or the splendor of her arboreal home. She found herself staring toward the Great Rift where she’d last seen Garv.
Lyta focused on wrestling the scrubby stalks from their earth coffin and finally gave up. She breathed a sigh and duck-walked over to Old One. The elder’s thin gray hair-fur ballooned like tumbleweed around her face and her hunched back forced her gaze forever down. She grunted a greeting as she eased the pressure from her ancient ankles. When they returned to homebase, Lyta would chew the flowers of the plant with the palm-sized leaves and apply a salve to Old One’s ankles.
Here where Old One worked, the soil crumbled as though loosened by a herd of insects. Ticks bit Lyta’s skin as her fingers teased the ground. She unearthed the pale corm with the many layers and set it aside. A scorpion darted forward and paused, pincers extended. Lyta snatched it, chopped the poisonous stinger off with her digger, popped the creature into her mouth and continued to work. “At least today, the predator who lives in Smoking Mountain is quiet.” Before Old One could answer, the earth shuddered. Lyta placed an ear to the ground and then continued digging. Just Mammoth, following the matron to new forage. Lyta felt a bond when she worked beside Old One. The Elder’s skin was darker than other females, and wrinkled beneath her graying fur. Thick cracked calluses, yellowed with age, covered her fingertips and feet. When she worked, she patted the ground as she might a youngster, asking the plants if it was time. She studied insect trails and moved her foraging with their guidance. Today, she seemed satisfied. “Old One. Do you smell that?” Lyta tried to identify the odor that caught their attention.
The Elder tilted her head up as two vultures wheeled lazy circles in the air. They were so graceful in the air, the pounding beat of their vast wings a sure sign of carrion, and so awkward on the ground with their hunched bandy-legged toddle. “I’ll see to it,” she motioned with her hands and jogged toward the circling vultures.
Sun moved a hand’s width across the sky before Lyta found a mammoth cow at the base of a hillock. Mammoths ruled from Smoking Mountain to the Great Rift, moving in a slow-stepping, swaying mass identified by the rumbling earth and cracking sounds of trees being shredded, but this particular proboscidean would rule no more. A ragged white bone poked through a shredded tear in her thick hide. Crimson blood poured down her wrinkled forefoot and pooled beneath her hind leg. At the base of the cliff lay a weathered tusk, broken during her fall. One forlorn eye latched onto Lyta and then moved on.
Lyta reconstructed what must have happened. Mammoth must have been eating on that overlook across the gully, her head high, engulfed in the wealth of foliage. She must have tumbled into the gorge and broken her leg. When she tried to rise, she pushed the wrecked leg bone through her hide.
The cow snorted hot air and mucous as her head bounced in the mud with each failed effort to rise. Ants poured from a dead tree stump over her lower body in a moving mass of legs and thoraxes. She couldn’t swat them with her stubby tail and their tiny mandibles couldn’t penetrate her epidermis.
She bellowed and an answer trumpeted back: her calf. He begged Mother to rise and lead him back to the herd. Instead of his mother’s comforting low, Snarling-dog growled an answer. The calf bleated, his skin too thin and his stature too short to ward off Snarling-dog’s attacks for long. Ghael sidled up to Lyta. “There, the cow,” Lyta motioned, keeping the disgust from her face.
Where most males had a uniform coat of fur—thick and long on their heads, short and patchy on their shoulders and limbs—Ghael’s clumped in wiry reddish tufts, even in his ears and on the underside of his hands. No one would groom him, so it was infested with lice and ticks. His facial hair held rotting bits of blood and tissue from past meals, giving him a chronically-bad odor. As a result, no female would mate with him.
With Garv gone, Lyta had no choice. “And there,” Lyta pointed to the side, “…is the baby.” Ghael dismissed her with a nod. His eyes sparkled as he tagged after a group of males heading toward the calf. Each clasped a cutter flaked from obsidian that morning and ready to slice meat from bone in the moments between mammoth’s death and the arrival of Vulture and Snarling-dog. They hunkered around the calf and catty-corner to Snarling-dog.
As Sun crossed the peak of invisible-mountains-in-the-sky, mother’s calls grew feebler. She could barely lift her great head, but her legs continued their deadly thrusts, trying to give the herd time to rescue her calf before she died. The youngster stood stiff-legged, frozen by fear. Lyta started to circle back toward the cow, but Ghael dismissed her to the meadow’s edge where his sister Krp stood. Lyta tightened her grip on her cutter, but obeyed. When she reached Krp, she got only a skittish glance from huge, frightened eyes. Krp’s mouth gaped and her always-concave shoulders shook with fear. “You have never hunted?” Lyta motioned.
Lyta knew Ghael allowed his sister to do nothing except forage with the females and serve him. Their parents had been killed by wild-beasts. The Group, as was its duty, adopted the orphans.
Krp’s weakness disgusted Lyta, but her brother Feq—skinny gangly Feq who threw up at the sight of blood—realized the shy female might be his only chance to pairmate. He’d begged Lyta to care for Krp today, and Lyta would do anything for Feq.
The stench of fear and sweat pressed against Lyta as they waited. She felt faint, from hunger or heat or something else. Lyta leaned into the tree and felt a wet gooiness against her back. The trunk had bled, as Lyta did when scratched. A Chalicothere had sharpened its claws here. She broke off a piece of the sap and popped it into her mouth when Krp ignored it, choosing instead to pick a bloody scab from her arm. The sweetness would stifle her hunger until the carcass was ready. When they returned to camp, she’d spread Healing Leaf over Krp’s sore.
The trumpet of the female mammoth dragged Lyta’s attention back to the drama unfolding below. Snarling-dog had begun nipping at the cow’s thick hide and suffering her still-bruising kicks with a stoic acceptance of his part in the hunt. While he leaped in and out of the cow’s range, his pack charged the calf. Though young, power exuded from the baby’s sturdy frame. A wave of his trunk sent one canine flying, a warning that many would die before he lost this battle. The baby understood the danger he faced, but not what to do.
Sun still cast a faint yellow light through the trees when a wall of mammoth bulls answered the mother’s final howl, their ears blowing as they crashed through the trees, tromping scrub and deadwood and forming a protective circle around the youngster. There they stood, lashing the air with their trunks, daring any animal to attack.
The males now settled around the cow, close enough to Snarling-dog to challenge him for the carcass, but far enough to avoid angering the bulls. When the female died, the herd would depart with the calf in tow. It was just a matter of time.
It seemed Snarling-dog hadn’t learned that lesson. They charged the calf.
The bulls bawled as they reared up and slammed their forelimbs to the ground, then bulldozed through the pack, throwing gore and body parts everywhere. The stench of blood and feces and fear permeated the air. A red mist settled onto the human males, but only the grass’s wavering from their shaking bodies gave away their position.
The mammoth herd plodded in slow-moving gray river between the corpses of Snarling-dogs and the living flesh of the hidden males. The female had died, so all that remained was to guide the calf back to the herd. The lead mammoth slapped his trunk, telling the herd they were done. All the band’s males had to do was remain hidden until the herd reached the open savanna. Krp’s teeth started chattering like a rock on a hammerstone. Kali hissed, “Stop! They will hear you!” But Krp couldn’t help herself. “They will die! Ghael is all I have!” “Shush!” Kali hissed again, but as though someone heard Krp’s plea, a single voice called from within the herd. Another hunter? Why would he risk the bulls turning on him? The voice rang out again, ululating into the twilight. The bulls bawled, flailing their trunks and swinging their forefeet, searching for the threat.
And then Ghael stood up. “Ghael!” Lyta screamed. “Get down!” His mouth gaped. His eyes widened and he froze. The lead bull scented him on the hot wind and split the air with its scream. Eight massive heads turned toward Ghael. Sixteen ears flared and the meadow filled with their trumpeting. The rest of the males exploded from hiding like a covey of quails attacked by Cat, flailing their arms as they sprinted for the trees. Only Ghael remained, limbs rigid and mouth open in a silent scream at the approaching tidal wave of elephantine bodies. “Ghael! Run!” His head snapped toward Lyta. His eyes blinked and he fled. He pumped his legs, trying to outrun the mountain of muscle bearing down on him. One moment, he ran smooth and long-strided. The next, he fell, tripped by a half-buried root. In slow motion, he shook himself, crawled forward, and pushed up to his full height. The herd split to either side of him. If he had stayed the course, he might have survived, but he wobbled, putting himself within reach of one substantial trunk. He flew through the air and landed with a thud amidst the stampede.
Lyta could no longer watch him. She dragged her attention to the lead males. Even as their legs stretched and their arms thrust, their quarry caught them. With a mighty bray, the lead bull swung a tusk into the fragile hominid line and tossed them like straw into the rampaging herd. Crushed before they could utter a sound, lifeless eyes stared up at the receding pachyderms.
Foe defeated once more, the herd wandered without purpose. The matron swung her forefoot like the seedpod on a grassy stalk, toenails raking the hard ground. She returned to the cow, and poked the dead body gently with her tusks and feet. She caressed her with her trunk until finally trumpeting a ‘Follow me!’, and left.
Krp refused to raise her head, but Lyta forced herself to study the carnage. She hoped for some indication that life continued and found one—a shadow scurrying into the dusk, a scent she’d smelled before but couldn’t place. It made the hair prickle on her neck even more than the gore in front of her. She had to hurry. “Krp. We must go.” An inner strength greater than fear of predators controlled Lyta. She would allow no more deaths today, especially Krp’s. She would bring her brother’s pairmate home.
With one hand, she brandished a tree limb at Snarling-dog to keep him at bay while she checked each eviscerated heap of male blood and tissue, hoping for life but found only death. Lyta hung her head as she approached Old One, fresh roots still clutched in her hand. She appeared peaceful, as though she faced this end without fear.
Snarling-dog growled from the edges. Their bared canines sparkled with saliva and tails extended back. They set up a perimeter around Krp and Lyta and moved forward. With vicious snarls, Lyta backed out of the killing grounds just as Snarling-dog tore into the bellies of the dead males. The vultures started on the eyes, the easiest and tastiest morsel.
Hurrying, Lyta led Krp toward the cow. They had only a brief time before Snarling-dog and Vulture turned their attention to what had drawn them here. Lyta thrust a cutter into Krp’s unwilling hand and barked her orders. “Like this!” Lyta grabbed a haunch and slashed with all the might she could muster. The tough hide opened. Hot wet air with a sweet carrion stink pressed in, but Lyta slashed again and again until the leg broke lose. Krp whimpered, but did the same, until they both heaved dripping limbs onto their shoulders and headed for home.
The evening shadows had deepened to blue and purple by the time they approached the camp’s entry point. When Feq appeared, his face tight with fear and eyes bloodshot, no explanation was needed; Nature had spread the feast’s scent throughout the habitat.
As the days passed, Lyta had little time to wonder at the odd voice that caused the mammoth herd to charge. In the end, it didn’t matter. It was she who called out Ghael’s name. If not for that, the mammoths might have missed him in the fading light. His brown skin and dark hair might have blended into the grasses and the gloom of night.
But she had called, and now he and everyone else was dead. She drove herself from dawn to dusk in a frenzied effort to feed her group while images of blood and death haunted her sleep. When Lyta found Krp’s body dangling over a tree limb, awaiting the return of the leopard that killed her, she gave up. He had acted as Nature intended: Sought the weakest of the herd so he could eat. She sat on a vacant termite mound and stared up at Sun, wondering if Sun knew why the mammoths stampeded. Something had frightened them before Ghael stood. Ghael became their focal point, but not what drove them to a frenzy. Did it have something to do with the howl she heard? Was that why Ghael stood up? “Did you know it would happen, Sun? Did you warn me, but I didn’t hear?” Somehow Lyta drew strength from talking to this silent orb that never judged her. A light breeze whispered through the grasses and cooled her fevered brain. Her ordered world had crumbled. Females who once foraged with her now shunned her. The only thing she had left, the only thing she knew for certain, was herself.
* Lyta began tracking the young male and his old companion with the battered face when they first stepped into her territory. The youth had the most powerful legs she had ever seen. How did the other keep up with him? They grunted and signed to each other without noticing her. When they approached Feq, she squatted directly overhead. “I seek a young female who hunts like a male,” the youth motioned.
Lyta found his face intelligent and kind, despite the thin lips and dark skin. His short hair was tightly-curled and exposed cone-shaped ears that twitched at every sound. His wide sloping shoulders tapered to a narrow waist. He smiled, but his odd appearance made Feq do something Lyta had never before seen him do: He lied. “I know of no female who hunts, stranger-with-the-odd-looks. Why would a female hunt?” Feq shifted uncomfortably as Lyta dropped to the ground. The stranger’s eyes were gentle, forgiving. Lyta would have preferred to leave after the baby arrived, but the Stranger offered a new beginning where none would judge her. Feq didn’t even try to change her mind.
It hadn’t worked as Nature planned, but she reveled in the confusion of ‘free will’ and ‘ decisions’. These primates would never grasp her goals. All they could do was wiggle and squirm like flies in a spider’s web. “Soon, they will ask for help. Only I can show them how to be the fittest for survival.”
Chapter 2 Homo habilis Emigrates to the Savanna…
Suitably clothed and with a cap to obscure his low forehead and beetle brow, he would probably go unnoticed in a crowd today. —Mary Leakey, regarding Homo habilis
Lyta threw a last look at her beleaguered past. Feq’s refusal to blame her as she said goodbye only made her guilt worse. Her life had been snatched like Rabbit from its hole, the dreams shattered like the crunch of the hare’s neck. She felt as worn as the landscape. One step forward, and then another. She could do that, but nothing more.
None of them had spoken since coating themselves in mud and dung and leaving Feq. She moved like a shadow, timing her footfalls with Raza’s to mask the sound of her passage along the narrow path, hemmed in by thick-trunked trees to the side and layers of canopy overhead. Only once, when a spotted snake slithered across her traveling trail, did Lyta hesitate. Raza grunted and Baad grumbled as her out-of-sync thud reverberated from canopy to forest floor. Even Cousin Chimp screeched a sharp cry of warning.
Finally they broke free of the forest and entered a meadow laced with the scent of flowering herbs and grazing deer. They flew through the waist-high grasses, past trees laden with fruit that had quenched her thirst on hot days and around the termite mound where Cheetah slept, and she gorged on squirming white insects when Cheetah left to hunt.
I haven’t been back here since that day…
Her eyes flicked sideways to the overlook where the males had died. It looked so calm, painted in vibrant vernal colors and scented with poacea. A herd of hipparion raised their equine heads to watch the hominids, found no danger and returned to their meal of fresh new buds.
As though nothing happened…
Lyta’s vision glazed over. Her head throbbed behind her eyes. She couldn’t hear anything except that pounding. She sprinted, faster and faster until her pace matched the sound in her head, sure she could outdistance the memories. Her legs churned, feet springing off the hard-packed earth, each step pushing her forward a little farther and a little faster. Her arms pumped and lungs heaved in rhythm with her speed. Her carrying sack, made from the stomach of a gazelle and strung around her neck with the animal’s tendons, smacked against her chest in rhythm with her beating steps. Her sweat left a potent scent trail, but Lyta was beyond caring.
“Lyta!” Someone was using her call sign, someone far behind her, but she only slowed when the thumping in her chest overcame her ability to breathe. She fell forward onto her outstretched arms, heaving the tropic air into her pained lungs, hearing the pummel of approaching steps. “Don’t do that again.” Nothing more. Without a backward glance, they left the only land Lyta had ever known.
* It might be the language difference, the reason Raza ignored Lyta’s every question, though she tried endless combinations of vocalizations, hand movements and grunts. Sometimes he glanced her way, but usually he ignored her. He spent much of his time peering back along their traveled trail as though something lurked there.
His jumpiness made Lyta anxious. She sniffed, but caught no scent, nor did she see any shift in the distant shadows. What hadn’t he told her? Why did he never relax? She searched the line where earth met sky one more time before turning her attention to one of the many questions she asked of Sun, now that Garv was gone: What attached the blue above to the ground. Was it Spider’s web, in the same way it held insects for Spider’s meals? Lyta had once moved Spider and her web over a narrow crevice. She returned later and the gap remained, just as wide. When she returned the next time, the crevice hadn’t changed but the web was gone.
Whatever held sky to earth didn’t do it well. At times, herds or dust or fire would escape and hurtle forward, and at the end of every day’s light, Sun slipped through only to rise from a different fissure on the opposite side. She had tried to reach this ‘horizon’ many times, but it moved away as fast as she approached.
One truth Lyta knew: If Sun stayed at the horizon, it must be safe. With Garv gone, Sun was the one friend Lyta was sure of. It was only in Sun’s absence that the clouds cracked and sent lightening to burn the ground, and flash floods stormed through the canyons. No, Sun must be a friend that used its strength to keep dangerous predators at bay.
A grunt startled her back to present. Baad rubbed his wrists, massaging swollen nodes that rose like hillocks from his wrists. His face hardened, but she saw the pain in the lines around his mouth and the squint of his eyes. The elders of her Group had the same aching, gnarled hands.
Why did Raza bring Baad? His head-fur was peppered with grey and Lyta could see broken teeth through his parted lips. Maybe this was why he didn’t bother her with the rutting, as males did before they paired. Pain often prevented mating. Or was it because she was pairmated to Raza? Did this band, like her band, choose only one pairmate?
“Baad. This will help.” She handed him a root bundle from her neck sack. “Break the bulb with your teeth and swallow the juice.”
Baad took the dry, finger-sized root pack from Lyta and studied it a moment before biting it and slurping in the liquid. By the time they passed a hillock that had been on the horizon when Lyta first offered the herb, his jaw relaxed and the tension drained from his face.
“How did you know this would help?” Baad motioned as he searched her face. His voice was kind. Lyta guessed he had been handsome in his youth, with his huge size and thickly-haired muscular chest and back. Now, the muscles sagged and the hair had grayed, and a ragged white line as thick as Lyta’s finger cut his face from temple to ear, probably damage from a predator. It gave him a menacing look.
She shrugged. “I just knew.” Lyta couldn’t explain the healing herbs. Long ago, she noticed that sick animals sought out certain plants. She had reasoned, if Gazelle rubbed sap onto a gouge on her flank and it healed, why wouldn’t it work on Lyta’s cut? If Cousin Chimp ate the plant with tart leaves and Sun-colored flowers and pooped out white worms, why couldn’t Lyta? She tried the herbs first on herself. Some didn’t work, but many did, until she had a collection for many ills.
Baad remained at her side, jogging in Raza’s steps, and tried to answer her many questions. “Baad. Why did you and Raza come for me?” He made her repeat the question, first observing her hands, her body movements, and finally her face, before nodding that he understood.
“Kee sent us. After the Deaths. After the move.” Lyta watched memories flow through his mind like molten lava down the slopes of Smoking Mountain. He used ‘sent’ in an odd manner. One finger grazed the side of his palm and traced a path toward his body—‘return’ in reverse. She let that go, forcing herself to memorize his gestures. The other part made no sense at all. “The Deaths?” She thought he meant death by a predator, as when Krp fed Leopard’s family, but his facial expression and tone carried a rage her group didn’t associate with dying. Why would death anger Baad? Predators attacked those who violated their terrain, as Mammoth had done when the males stumbled into their territory. Lyta was not angry with the Mammoth herd that killed the males. She was at fault. They had done what they must. When she asked him to repeat his answer, he seemed to intimate ‘deaths without reason’, but that made no sense, either.
She also was confused by ‘move’. Her band described places by surroundings and what happened there—stream-where-hunters-drink, mountains-that-burn-at-night. Locations meant nothing without those descriptors. She cocked her head, hoping he would continue.
He frowned, creating great clefts between his brows and causing the puckered scar on his battered face to redden and throb until Lyta feared it might burst. Finally, he blurted out, “Why did you come?”
Pain pierced Lyta’s heart and sickness welled in her stomach. The ache she’d hoped would remain behind slithered from its dark hiding place somewhere within her thoughts. She wanted to tell him she had failed everyone that meant anything to her. The males died when she led them to undead scavenge. Garv died from the flush of their pairing. She wanted to promise she would never again place herself above others. She wanted desperately to convince this kind old male—and herself—that she was useful if given a second chance, but even that might not be enough, so she squinted her eyes and tilted her head as though she misunderstood his question.
* “Will we never rest?” Lyta wondered to no one in particular. Sun’s searing rays moved from the back of her head into her eyes. She’d consumed her travel succulents long ago and still they chugged onward past an endless panorama of sameness. She now understood the power in Raza’s legs. Lyta followed the monotonous bounce of Raza’s head. She heard nothing beyond the thump of her feet and smelled only the stuffy heat wafting in clouds from her body.
And something else. She snorted in a foreign scent. Her eyes followed it to the top of the berm they’d just passed. A lone figure stood, outlined against the cerulean blue of the sky. His head fur puffed to the side as though blown by a breeze as he stared after them. “Garv!” Lyta mouthed before she could stop herself. He is dead. I saw it.
No arm waved, and no voice howled the pain of separation. Lyta stared without varying her speed, and then turned back. “Raza!” Baad jerked his head toward the berm. “Man-who-Preys?” Raza’s gestures asked with a rigid parallel movement. Lyta understood each hand motion, but not the name. “Man-who-Preys?” If there was danger, she should know.
Raza dropped back, his face concentrating on hers. “Your males died hunting? You know nothing of Man-who-Preys?” This seemed important to him. “We don’t prey. We are prey.” Why did this confuse Raza? Who was Man-who-Preys? Did he follow Raza from his homeland? A quick tonal bark from Raza called Baad forward. “Would Man-who-Preys show himself?” Raza asked with quiet hand movements.
Baad shrugged and gripped tighter on his chert cutter, his wrist cords bulging like the roots of an old baobab. Lyta stretched her legs to match Raza’s increased pace, her powerful buttocks balancing her graceful lope. Her hand tightened around her obsidian scraper, as sharp and sturdy as the one Raza carried. Everything she passed—the beauty of the multi-colored washes and steep cantilevered arroyos, the scrubby bushes and the shallow striations etched from timeless windsblurred until all she saw was that familiar stance. Legs spread under powerful shoulders as Garv waited for her to return from foraging. Chest balanced over feet ready to spring as Garv hunted with her. Weight tipped over one foot as Garv watched her collect healing herbs.
Garv is dead. I saw him die.
Baad no longer took time to talk with her. They pounded onward and an edginess now defined both males’ bodies. They grunted to each other with an urgency that worried Lyta and diverted from the well-traveled animal path they had been following to one less trodden, but protected by jutting stone cliffs. They continued the quicker-than-normal pace across the savannas and rock-strewn talus fields, well-past the edge of her world.
She fled from her memories. No ‘Man-who-Preys’ could be more dangerous than what preyed in her mind.
Chapter 3 Changes
When it is darkest, men see the stars. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“She is strong.” Wisps of their words floated back to Lyta. They never asked if she was tired. Why would they? If she needed rest, she would stop, and they would stop.
But Lyta worried about Baad. Sun had traveled a hand’s length further up the invisible- mountain-in-the-sky. They must be far beyond whatever danger worried Raza, and still he sprinted. Every time Baad passed her to talk with Raza, she smelled his trail of sweat and exhaustion and fear, but he never fell behind and never forced the younger male to slow.
A herd of Hipparion, elegant heads high, mirrored their path until they veered off, toward a water pocket formed where the river they followed jogged around a copse of aspen trees. Their chests heaved and sweat glistened on their lustrous coats as they slowed and stopped.
This must be the area watering hole. There, a Chalicothere, with its combination of rhinoceros body and equine head, tore vegetation from the branches of an acacia with its clawed toes and stuffed it into its wide mouth. A few steps away, a short necked paleo-hartebeest, its palmate horns more antelope than giraffe, splayed its squatty legs to reach the cool water.
“Crocodylus.” Lyta stared at a smooth stretch of water, where only bulging eyes hinted at the reptile below. Once, when she was a child, Crocodylus had grabbed a child of her group, thrashed his hapless body through the water before diving and carrying him into the murky black depths. All that remained had been a trail of pink and white bubbles. Raza pointed out the distinctive claw marks bisected by the sweeping tail, showed its entry into the water.
And raced onward. Why he wouldn’t stop here, where shade and water were offered, was a mystery to Lyta, but she didn’t ask, simply snagged handfuls of succulents for hydration and stuffed them into her neck sack to eat later.
She’d made this carry sack from Hipparion’s stomach, swished it through water to remove the ungulate’s last meal and rubbed it with pond mud to tamp down the scent that attracted Snarlingdog. Then, she had strung a white tendon, separated from the fibrous sinew that connected Gazelle’s leg to hip, through the top and around her neck. It had confused Raza at first, but after he watched her store travel food and her cutting tool, leaving her hands free, he now expected her to carry as much as both he and Baad combined.
The trio jogged onward in the windless air and the baking Sun, past sag ponds plopped amidst crenulated plateaus, and through debris collected at the base of volcanic hills. They dodged boulders and bounded over outthrow scattered incongruously across the flatlands. A gale came out of nowhere, kicking up a thick billowing cloud of sand and debris and almost knocking Lyta off her feet. She barked to Raza, but the wind carried her words away. She searched franticly for shelter. On one side of their traveling trail was the endless expanse of grasslands. When she turned the opposite direction, hoping to find a baobab or boulder or even a patch of scrub to huddle under, she found a towering wall of dust and dirt spiraling toward her.
She gasped and froze. This monstrous behemoth stood taller than the trees of her homeland and extended as far as her eye could see along the horizon. It roared like mammoth thundering across the plains, and billowed like Smoking Mountain when it spit fire and smoke.
Where did that come from? It licked at Sun’s base one moment and then without warning, turned light into dark like the blackest of the clouds that brought rain on a sunny day. Ahead, she could just make out Raza as he stopped. She tried to go forward to him, but the tempest blew her back, and then the wall of brown fog was upon her. It was all she could do to hold her balance as its swirling force beat at her from all directions. She dropped her head, coughing and spitting grit and then cupped her hands over her mouth. That seemed to work better, so she panted shallow breaths while the storm raged around her. All she could hear was the beating of great wings on all sides, mixed with the taste of dust and dirt and her own fear.
When she forced her head up, she could no longer see Raza or Baad through the murky soot.
She shouted, but the storm was so loud, her voice blew back into her face. Grit and sand stung her face and made her slit her eyes, grating in her teeth and leaving its scent in her nostrils. A tree branch caught in the tempest slashed by within a hand’s width of Lyta’s head. She screamed and suddenly Raza had her hand. He motioned to his side and there stood Baad, buffeted by the winds but stumbling forward. If they could get to a tree, they could huddle around its trunk until the windstorm abated. Heads down, they pushed forward. Lyta walked blind. It was better than the stabbing pain of sand against her eyes.
A rabbit slammed into her side as it tumbled through the raging storm. She lost her balance and collapsed onto the gritty ground. Both males followed, and there they huddled in a tight mass, too tired to rise. They tucked their heads as mammoth did during a rainstorm as wave after wave of debris washed over them. At least here, she could breathe.
The dust storm passed as quickly as it started, in a rolling wall of dust and dirt, leaving them coughing and tearing. Dust hung like a fog, blocking all but feeble rays from Sun. Raza tugged them sideways, toward a lone boulder. Baad fell into a deep sleep while Raza walked to the bluff of a nearby berm and sat. Darkness settled around him until he became just a dark-grey shape among the spindled trees limned against Night Sun’s horizon.
Unable to still her mind, Lyta glanced toward Night Sun. It had already lost the shape of her tight fist. Now, it curved as though her stone chopper had sliced a piece from its edge. Lyta wondered who did that, time after time. Sometimes, it disappeared completely. Tonight, it had lost a finger-width of the size it started with when they set out. She hoped Night Sun would visit her new home.
She studied the sparkles of light filling the dark void around Night Sun. There were so many, like the grains of sand sprinkled over the barren ground. Garv had taught her how to read their trails as she read animal trails. They migrated from side to side across the sky as the rains came and went. By watching their steps, she could tell how far she had traveled.
She found a group of the brightest specks that crossed each other as her arms did to indicate danger. Despite the full day of travel, they hadn’t moved far. When the days became dryer, they disappeared entirely, reappearing with the rains when the animals grew fat with babies.
She had once thought the tiny lights were flames burning the blackness, but they never got larger than the seed from a wildflower, nor did they burn themselves out like the grass fires. Garv had told her they were openings into another land.
The memories returned. That was the day Garv had beat on a bee hive until the insects burst out and followed his bellowing form. With the hive empty, Lyta had stuck her arms in up to her elbows and scooped big handfuls of honey onto a leaf. That done, she’d shouted to Garv as she scrambled up into the forest canopy. When he arrived, they sucked and chewed the leaf sponges she’d created until they finished every bit.
Then they’d sat, satiated, surrounded by layer upon layer of verdure. He had tilted her head upward until she gazed at the rich green leaves, so close she could touch them. They barely covered the next layer of darker shaded blades and buds, which in turn shrouded the plants above them, and so on. She followed the limbs and their lush growth upward until the canopy blurred into a black- green haziness so thick that only the rare shaft of light broke through the gloom, appearing as a bright light bounded by the darkness of the jungle.
“Maybe night is like this. Maybe the bright white holes are small because we are far away, as we are from the forest’s roof,” Garv breathed to her across the boundaries of time. “That would make sense, Garv,” Lyta whispered silently.
She relaxed with the familiarity of the conversation and then rubbed her breasts and stomach with the juice from the same root bundle she’d shared with Baad, wondering what she had done that made them ache and swell.
She still couldn’t sleep. She would construct a bag for Raza—not as sturdy as one made from a stomach or bladder, but useful. She extracted a large leaf from her neck sack, smoothed it and perforated the top with her cutting tool, creating large holes spaced along the leaf’s veins. Then she selected a tendon from the collection around her neck. This one from the leg of Hipparion was long enough to encircle Raza’s thick neck and shoulders. She separated a shred as she would a section of stringy grass shoot, softened it by running it quickly from hand to hand, and strung it through the holes she’d made in the blade.
Nature could barely make the trio out in the darkness. The brindled shades of their hirsute bodies blended into the brambled scrub.
“For eighteen million years, Lyta, I pushed this land from the ice covered South Pole until it separated and migrated north. Here, I nurtured the perfect balance of environment and climate for the growth of mankind.”
Her Lyta experiment was safe here. Few animals hunted the Great Rift Valley with its moving basins and bottomless crevices. Only Nature’s newest creations were reckless enough to test their burgeoning minds against the quickness of the natural world.
“I will help you, Lyta, but you must ask! Put aside your failures and inadequacies. My demesne will be yours. I am your deus ex machina!” Did Lyta understand?
Just as Lyta completed the sack, Raza returned. He squatted at her side, being careful not to bother Baad. Even in Night Sun’s wan light, Lyta could see a sheen of moisture above his upper lip and tension around his eyes. “What do you see, Ra-za?” When he didn’t answer, she followed his sightline, searching the shadows for the danger that made him tense, and listening for sounds out of place from the nocturnal chirps and hisses. Lyta had no idea what was normal this far from her homeland. To her side, Spider worked on an intricate web.
“Go, Spider, to the horizon! Spin your web where sky meets earth. Keep us safe from what danger lurks there,” Lyta whispered to the tiny creature.
As Lyta watched its back-and-forth movements, so careful and exacting, Raza rubbed his callused knee. Finally, he grunted, apparently satisfied with his sensory search. He dropped his head and fingered the leaf sack Lyta had looped around his muscular neck. It hung higher than hers, just above the horizontal line connecting the nipples of his chest. He grunted again. “Put your cutter in it. Then your hands are free, like mine,” Lyta motioned.
Raza nodded and adjusted to the tether’s feel. After many breaths, he spoke. “Soon we cross Impassable-Rift. It is difficult.” He studied the length of her body as though judging her chances of success. Lyta nodded, trying to reassure him, but he glanced away and continued. “Once we’re across, I will show you quarry-where stones-grow-for-tools and lake- where-children-play. You will meet the big-tailed deer and its cousin Gazelle, Sabertooth Cat and its cousin Homotherium, and mammoth and Oryx. You will see Snarling-dog who stalks by day and Hyaena-cat who hunts at night.”
Raza’s hands moved with eloquence, his face expressive as he described their journey. Lyta understood ‘quarry’, ‘lake’, ‘stone’—words that described features of her environment—but any time he moved from familiar actions such as ‘stalks by day’ to intangible ideas like ‘lake-seen-byKee’, she lost his conversational thread. This, she kept to herself by maintaining a passive, interested expression.
Raza paused, as though to collect his thoughts. There was a confidence in his face that made her want to trust him. More than that, she felt kindness. “We will make it.” She stiffened and felt the blood drain from her face. These were the words she used when Garv disappeared: “You will make it!” “How do you know this?” she stuttered, struggling to calm herself. “Kee-that-sees-all sees it.” A smoothness imbued Raza’s words that hadn’t been there before. He’d noticed her agitation. “Who is this Kee?” Although Lyta flawlessly reproduced his hand movement for the name ‘Kee’, Raza responded with a quizzical tilt of his head. “Some say she came from your land.” “I understand.” Stories circled through her group, too, of those who crossed the Rift in the past and never returned. Lyta spread her lips into a display of contentment, hiding her teeth as was appropriate when she felt no fear.
Raza’s warmth evaporated as Baad jerked awake. The elder’s ears pricked as his eyes darted along the grey line of the night horizon and through the shadowy shapes. When Night-dog howled, both males leaped to their feet. Baad glanced at the leaf sack now adorning Raza’s neck, but before he could comment, Owl hooted.
“Night-dog and Owl heard the steps I heard.” Baad’s bark was soft, but urgent, and the two strode toward the perimeter of the camp. Lyta jumped up. She, too, must protect them. “Stay!” Raza snapped as he dropped his cutter into the leaf sack and then they were gone.
She drooped her head, knowing she again failed. Her fear at his words, We will make it, told Raza she was a coward as surely as Krp’s trembling jaw. Could she never be what she must be?
Lyta made a mulch from her herbs and rubbed it on her sore breasts and stomach, hoping to find relief from the tenderness, and curled into a ball to sleep. Garv’s scent mingled with Raza’s.
She walked with strong confident steps, but as she moved forward, her head tilted over her shoulder at something behind her. Something beckoned…
Raza and Baad found nothing, though they searched the full perimeter of the campsite. Still, when they returned, they built nests to either side of a sleeping Lyta.
Chapter 4 Crossing the Great African Rift
The significance of man is not in what he attains, but rather what he longs to attain. —Kahlil Gibran
Lyta stared at Raza’s Impassable Rift. Craggy walls plummeted to a deep valley floor littered with boulders and chunks of ancient earthy crust. Layer upon striated layer colored the sides, turning brown-red to humus-black in the width of a finger. Eagle nested on rocky ledges, close to Mouse, his favorite food. Lyta caught the smudge of movement as whole rodent families scampered out and back to safety, like a gentle disturbance in the airwaves.
Compared to this infinite chasm, Lyta’s homeland Rift was but a chink in Earth’s skin.
While Raza and Baad planned the crossing, Lyta scrutinized the land abutting the far side of the Rift. In place of her verdant rainforests were endless grasslands, populated with massive boulders, rolling berms and tall golden forbs. Mounds of talus encircled the distant mountain Raza called ‘Smoking Mountain’, the same name as the precipice in her territory though it lacked the rutted slopes and rounded peak.
Behind her, Raza snorted in some noxious scent. Lyta sniffed, and gasped. “Bitter-leaf!” Lyta plucked as much as she could find and stuffed it into her neck sack.
Pounded into a paste, it soothed cuts. She had found many plants rare in her homeland along the traveling trail. The aromatic Cat-ear, when chewed to a sticky pulp could be pasted over cuts to reduce swelling. She’d discovered a vast bush of Blood-weed, whose absorbent blades she used during her bleeding, but the best was the bloom of Maniese to treat stomach sickness.
“Rain.” Raza looked out over the mottled terrain as he picked out some early wetness in the air. Lyta tried to smell what Raza did…
“Are you ready?” Baad leaned over her.
Startled, Lyta grunted in irritation with herself. “Did I sleep long?” Baad seemed undisturbed and signaled something to Raza as they set out. They paralleled the Rift, stopping here and there as Raza studied the ground and stared across the Rift before ultimately continuing. Summer Sun had begun its drop down the far side of the invisible mountain in the sky before he found a sloughed section of crumbling earth that satisfied him, and they began their descent into the Rift.
Raza inched from one handhold to the next, forcing Lyta to slow her pace. This cliff with its shallow crevices and knobby stone outcrops was easy to her. She had honed her climbing skills scrambling up tree trunks and slippery boulders just ahead of danger. Maybe he wasn’t used to scaling vertical walls, or was it his damaged hand and knee that slowed him? Whatever it was, it gave Eagle too much time to study them.
“Raza! Have you crossed Rift often?” Lyta used the hand movement for ‘common activity done many times’ rather than ‘an activity that is done, but rarely’.
He glanced up, his faced filled with confusion, and shrugged. “Is it my gesture for ‘common activity’ or intonation that confuse him?” Lyta tried to recall what he called Rift, but failed. “I have done this many times,” she tried again. “I can lead.” This time, Raza ignored her. They placed a foot here and an outstretched hand there, pausing to grunt instructions or warnings to each other before moving on. Sweat poured from Lyta’s head down her back and arms, making her handholds squishy and loose and her feet slip. Tiny insects crawled over her hands, up her nose and into her ears and mouth.
Eagle squawked, his voice echoing against the chasm walls and he followed their progress through his territory. Raza tried to find his lazy circle above, but the glare from Sun blocked it. “What prey does Eagle see?” Raza shouted past Lyta to Baad. “Eagle stalks us. Why doesn’t Raza understand this?” Lyta asked herself. Instead, she interjected, “We are unusual here. We look like prey.” Lyta used the vocal cues for ‘we’ and ‘prey’ learned from the chimps who shared her rainforests.
Baad called down to her, “Cousin Chimp. He lives in your homeland?” Before Lyta could answer. Eagle squalled again, this time its danger call. Eagle was hunting. Lyta scanned the craggy walls, her eyes digging into the shadows for out-of-place movements, hoping she was wrong, knowing she couldn’t be. There, tucked into a nook, were Eagle’s chicks.
The colors of their feathers, even their beak and claws, blended with the browns and yellows of the chasm, but Lyta found them when their wide open mouths, demanding food, warped the natural colors. Their mother would teach them if they survived. “She fears we endanger her young,” Lyta barked, urgency in her voice. “We must move!” Lyta adjusted her climb and motioned Baad to follow, but it was too late. Eagle shrieked a harsh kloo-ee kloo-ee, tightened its ellipse and dove. The light-colored legs faded into the blue- white sky until she looked like a taloned rock hurtling through an aerial canyon. As she cleared the rim of the Rift, Baad thrashed his arms and Lyta flung a fist-sized rock. It thwack the raptor’s chest with an audible crack. Eagle squalled and withdrew to assess her damage.
Lyta snapped her eyes to Baad. He clung one-armed to a breach in the precipice, breath coming in ragged gasps as he flailed for purchase.
“Baad! Step down!” Lyta’s voice was tense as she pushed upward toward the male’s dangling foot and wrapped her fingers around the back of a rock bridge. Before she could reach him, he lost his balance, bounced off her meager shoulder and tumbled past. She grabbed his wrist, leaned into the wall and crooked her elbow to absorb his fall. It would be only moments before Baad dragged them down on top of Raza.
“Raza!” she screamed. Her fingers tightened around Baad’s wrist and her arm tensed until her muscles burned. Her throat tightened and her ears pounded as she struggled to hold his enormous weight. Suddenly, the strain on her fingers eased. She looked down and saw Raza. His face was a taut mask and his shoulder muscles roped as he pushed up against Baad’s solid frame. As the old male searched for a foothold, Lyta panted in and out, in and out, willing her body to hold on despite the burning numbness that spread up her arms. Just when she thought she couldn’t hold on, the weight eased: Baad had found a foothold.
No one spoke, the silence broken only by Baad’s shallow pants, until Eagle cried out again.
This time, Raza flung a melon-sized rock that struck Eagle’s wing and sent her spiraling away to find easier prey. The group clung to the Rift a moment longer and then pushed onward.
The lower they moved, the faster Sun dropped, until it was almost hidden by the steep walls. Raza increased the pace until they finally dropped to the valley floor. Baad had collapsed next to Lyta, chest heaving and muzzle dripping. He jerked his head her way and offered a slight nod. “I would have… joined… my pairmate except… for you.” He gulped, trying to catch his breath. “Next time, let me go,” and he left.
She watched his purposeful stride, shoulders hunched in memories of better times, until he disappeared around a switchback on the valley floor. Lyta imagined the full life Baad had lived with his pairmate and the wrenching futility he must have felt at her end. What wouldn’t Lyta give for more days and nights with Garv?
Raza walked to the pebbled center of the valley. “Rest before we continue,” he motioned.
Lyta scanned the rocky ledges and brush-covered slopes for predators. She found Snarlingdog’s scat left to mark his trail, but not his den nor any other scavenger.
“Eat. Drink.” Raza pointed out a small, but satisfactory streamlet. “Those who raised Baad and his sister Kee, my Primary-Female, were killed by wild-beasts. I am like his child and he like my Primary-Male. The Group would suffer from his death.”
The relationships confused Lyta, but Baad was clearly important to Raza. Only at times when his thoughts turned serious did Raza massage the stub of his finger. “Kee was right to send me after you.” The males left to explore the corridor, so Lyta crouched on her haunches to eat travel food from her bladder sack. They returned before she finished. As the males ate, Lyta left in search of succulents. She found them in the dark crevices offset from the valley floor. With her chert digger, she chipped away until the roots released and placed them in her neck sack. Next, she found a broadleaf plant, soaked its leaves in the streamlet and tucked it too into her sack. They could chew both for water as they traveled. “We go.” Raza jogged past, followed by Baad.
They stopped when Night Sun arrived. Lyta breathed a quiet sigh. The luminescent orb remained as she remembered and the sprinkled lights shone as brightly. She couldn’t see the starslike-crossed-arms, but the Rift displayed only a narrow strip of night sky between its dark walls.
She imagined Feq as he made his nighttime nest, watching the same sky. Did he wonder about her, or was he relieved she’d left?
Shaking off the memories, she wandered beyond the perimeter of the makeshift camp. Night Sun, though a hand’s-width smaller since their departure, still illuminated the valley floor. Hot plumes of steam shot into the air like water thrown on a fire. Strange colored stones were scattered around like common pebbles. She held one as dark as night with a cold ashy flavor. Another tasted brackish.
The abundant peppering of sinkholes and boulders forced her to weave her way through the terrain. She didn’t understand these deep cracks. What caused them, and what was down there?
Lyta slipped, but caught herself just in time. She’d seen groupmates fall, screaming as they caromed side to side down these openings, and never return.
Memories of the flash flood overwhelmed Lyta. It had crashed through a valley just like this and tossed Garv’s body through the foaming water like dust in a sandstorm until he disappeared. She forced these thoughts away; emotion had no place in her new life.
As she wandered, she found a trail of immense prints molded into the ground parallel to the cliff. She followed them to a scattering of pale-grey bones. Some rested on the surface of the valley floor with the dull sheen of old dirt, some were half-buried, and others just shattered pieces, their edges smooth.
The hair on her neck bristled and she melted into the darkness of the Rift’s overhang. What was it? From the shadowy darkness, she scanned the valley floor and up to the lip of the cliff, and stopped. She squinted. A tall figure—a male—stood silhouetted against the lighter night sky. He held a stick in one hand as his head swiveled back and forth through the gully. What was he hunting? She stepped further into the gloom. “Why are you alone?” Lyta jerked. “Raza.” The snap of Raza’s head told Lyta that she finally had replicated his call sound. She motioned. “Up the cliff. Do you see it?”
Whoever she had seen was gone. “A tall figure with a vaulted head. He carried a stick. He searched for something.”
Raza’s gaze swept the rock face, back and forth and back again. “We must go.” Tension ripple through his face and chest. “Next time, get me,” he ordered, and pushed her toward the protection of their Camp. Here, again, she was only a female, and Raza refused to share ‘male’ information with her.
Raza selected a canted boulder for their nest. They gathered a wall of rocks to their front, shared arms and legs as pillows, and fell asleep to the chirp of nocturnal life.
* Sun rose over the graben valley. The strip of sky overhead blossomed with fluffy clouds in a field of iridescent blue. She scoured the cliff for the stranger. Empty. No matter. As soon as they got out of this gorge, she would track him. But first, they must get out. She felt the press of moisture- laden air against her body. It hung heavily, barely stirred by a lazy breeze. “Raza. It will rain. Soon!” Raza stared into the unclouded sky and shook his head, but he barked toward Baad, grabbed the morning food and they headed away from the rising sun. Guarded words—“Man-who-Preys”, “stalks the Rift”—reached her, but the males excluded her from their plans.
They passed many ascent routes, but Raza seemed to search for a particular spot. One faded into another until Lyta lost track.
The craggy infrastructure never seemed to change as they rounded yet another of the endless zigzags. This time, without warning, Raza stopped. To Lyta, the outcrop dimpling the cliff appeared like all the others. She glanced toward Baad for some sign of recognition. He rested on his haunches, body canted forward, in the sliver of shade cast by the cliff. Sweat dripped from his face and soaked his hair. He was eating a root bulb in preparation for what Lyta hoped was their ascent. Lyta wiped a hand across her brow and pushed her straggled hair-fur from her eyes.
Raza nodded at the wall, but the jutting rocks and recessed fissures remained camouflaged until Lyta stood directly in front—and then, there it was: A natural ladder to the plateau above. “I go,” and Raza started upward. “Followed by you and you.” He placed Lyta in the middle. Lyta sprinted after Raza, but he climbed slower than he had descended. He tested each new position, tugging and yanking, before committing to any purchase on the steep incline. Eagle squawked, but kept her distance. The moment Raza vacated a position, Lyta assumed it. The slower they went, the edgier Lyta became. Sunshine was now a cloud-choked sky, drizzling wetness on the hominids. Rain would be here soon. Finally, she could keep quiet no longer. “You are slow,” she barked upward to Raza, but received no response.
A hazy cloud-covered Sun climbed peak after peak of the invisible-mountains as the sturdy hominids tested the limits of their stamina, scaling cliffs no longer climbable by primates. None of the three understood the impossibility of their effort. Cocooned by their confidence in Raza, they continued. Baad called encouragement in his odd tonal voice. Lyta often couldn’t understand his words, but always warmed to his friendly intent.
Raza at long last reached his fingertips over the precipice, followed by his hand and arm, until he breached the bluff.
“Lyta!” He stretched a hand down and pulled her up just ahead of Baad. Together, they stretched out, exhausted on the chunky ground. Lyta closed her eyes, unwilling to replace her memories of jungles and verdure and lush meadows with the ache of unfamiliar lands. She slowed her breathing, bid farewell to her past and opened her eyes.
Nature breathed a sigh that this stage ended successfully. She had been unsure that her Lyta group could transgress this, her greatest Earthly rift, but they had done well.
Flat savannas dominated the panorama, dotted with flowering shrubs, huge boulders, and the infrequent copse of trees. Graben valleys nestled between furrowed mountains and raised cliffs, everything stained in a patchwork of earthen colors. For a long time, she remained, studying her future. “We are close…” and Raza pointed toward a smoldering mountain. “The smoke signal,” Lyta motioned with her hands. Billowing, but not thick, with a few dark clouds around the blackened caldera. Lyta relaxed.
That’s when Rain started, driving squalls that flew faster than Cheetah chasing prey. The group took off at a sprint. Lyta could see no further than the back of Raza’s streaming head. He headed toward a murky hole in a murkier cliff wall. Lyta couldn’t tell how far it was until they tumbled into a cave that smelled of urine and decayed tissue. She blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The first thing that came into focus was a littering of bone shards and molted fur. “They’re old.” Raza pointed to blurred tracks covered with a thick layer of dust and rubbish. Lyta frowned and stared sightlessly into the darkness at the cave’s rear. “I’ll check,” and she left Raza grunting something to Baad. Snarling-dog used the same den over and over and could be hiding. She peered down the several tunnels she found. One was as dark as Leopard’s fur, but the other showed light. This was the canine’s escape route, used to flee predators. The prints even back here were overlaid with the wanderings of insects. She shrugged and returned to the group.
They settled onto their haunches, arms wrapped around their legs, and watched the gale turn the Rift valley into a roaring river. It pounded the ground outside, beating like a stick against a hollow tree trunk. A loud crack broke the rhythmic drumming as a chunk of the cliff snapped off and tumbled to the valley below. Bolts of light fractured the sky followed by a rumbling roar that echoed through the cave drowning out even the rain’s pounding.
They ate travel food, tipped their heads to collect mouthfuls of water that fell in a curtain across the cave’s entrance, and waited for the downpour to end. Only once did Lyta venture outside, to relieve her overfull bladder. All life sought protection from Nature. A row of birds crowded wing- to-sodden-wing on a euphorbia limb. A mammoth herd huddled, heads drooping together as the rain poured off of their bodies. A canis trotted along the edge of the plateau, tail dripping and tucked between its legs. In its mouth was a bedraggled rat.
As Lyta finished her business, a baby squirrel struggled to right itself in waters that puddled deeper than its young body. He paddled bravely with limbs not meant to swim. “Squirrel, are you a tasty meal, or does your mother miss you?” Lyta tossed the drenched animal up into the canopy and dashed back to her own shelter. At long last, Sun beat back the predator rain. Raza and Baad headed one direction to hunt, while Lyta trotted toward a cleft in the ground that, even from a distance, she could see overflowed with berries and nuts. She followed a streamlet that meandered through its base until she reached a culvert. As she bent to collect some unusual herbs, she froze. A shallow pant echoed from somewhere ahead. She palmed a rock and peeked around the hairpin.
A dik-dik lay in a muddy puddle. One dull eye caught Lyta’s gaze, but the balance of her slender head was hidden behind a heavy stick protruding from a gaping wound in her chest. She struggled to move, but every breath pumped bright red blood into a pool beneath her tiny body.
Frothy pink bubbles billowed from her nose and snout, and her hind limbs shook with pain. Lyta shuddered. She hadn’t thought of death as pain. Death was life, and it arrived quickly, before ‘pain’ could gain its foothold. Or so Lyta thought.
One more breath rattled into and out of the dik-dik’s destroyed lungs, and then, with a final collapse, she died. Lyta remained hidden. No animal abandoned its kill, and she knew of only one creature that carried a stick such as this. She struggled to recall the name. Predator-who-preys… No… Man-who-kills… No… Man-who-Preys. That was the name. Even from the safety of the Rift’s precipice, he brought fear to Raza.
For Lyta to protect her group—her group—she must learn from the greatest hunters. She hid until the natural savanna sounds returned and then followed the dik-dik’s path. Lyta sniffed for foreign scents, but found nothing. It had been eating alone when it fled. Where was its herd and what startled it? When the dark shadows began creeping up the sides of the rocks, Lyta gave up. Dik-dik’s death would have to remain a mystery. Lyta had been gone too long. She shucked the ungulate over her shoulders using the stick as a handle, and returned to the campsite. “Here. Eat.” Raza pointed without turning when Lyta’s footsteps announced her approach. “Dik-dik.” Lyta dropped the carcass into the communal pile and squatted at Raza’s side. Raza touched the stick and barked something to Baad. Together they sprinted along the traveled trail left by Lyta’s prints in the soft ground. When they returned, their voices were low, their cutters ready in their hands, and their steps brisk. Lyta looked up as she finished reworking a rough stone into a chopper: It would have to do until better tool-making stones were found. “You—you hunt with a stick?” Raza stuttered. “She was already killed. I found no trail, as though the predator disappeared into the air like Eagle.”
Her words turned Raza’s face pale, and Baad gulped. The two males left again and this time didn’t return until after she had settled in to sleep. Even then, they placed their ground nests well apart from each other, walled in by thick brambled bushes that would alert them to trespassers.
Hyaena-dog called his brothers and Owl hooted at some forlorn mouse not quite tucked in for the night. All seemed normal in the rest of Nature’s world, but as Lyta drifted off, she caught Raza wide awake, staring beyond the perimeter of their campsite.
Chapter 5 Life on the Savanna
“…the speech of primitive man…resembles an endlessly complex, accurate, plastic and photographic description of an event, with the finest details.” —Lev Vygotsky
A rumble shook Lyta awake. Night’s shadows were disappearing and Lyta could see the first faint yellow light of dawn through the mouth of the cave. Raza had just risen.
“Hipparion. We are off their path.” Raza stepped out onto the flat grassland as a high-pitched snort vibrated through the thin morning air.
“Argh!” He screeched as he dove backward, almost toppling Lyta as wave after wave of frenzied hooves pounded past the narrow cave opening. Sharp neighed commands of the lead stallion split the air and a choking dust filled the tiny cavern. Lyta pressed her palms against her ears until the cacophony receded to a dull roar of thundering feet and colliding bodies. When she finally cracked her eyes, she saw nothing but dust.
“Raza!” She batted at the blinding cloud, but could find no sign of either Raza or Baad. Instead, as her vision returned, she faced what looked like a wraith—a spindly-legged, brindle-colored foal standing knock-kneed in front of her. It was taller than Baad with liquid brown eyes under a fringe of dark lashes. Its elegant head canted sideways as though weighed down by the thick flood of glossy main. Its mouth hung open and it emitted a heady scent, part sweat and part fear, as it stared wide-eyed at Lyta.
“Raza—” Before Lyta could finish, the entrance darkened with the feral presence of an enormous ebony stallion. Powerful muscles rippled under his lustrous hide. His hooves were planted wide under strapping shoulders and his damp breath clouded in a wet mist before vanishing in the dust-laden air. He whinnied and shook his head as though to warn the hominids they wanted no part of him. The colt snorted, turned with a swish of her silken tail, and the two dissolved into the clamoring flow of the herd. By the time the three ventured out, all that remained of the equines was the insidious memory of wanton wildness.
Raza barked to Baad and they sprinted toward a distant overlook. Lyta started to follow, but stopped at the trampled remains of stick-that-killed-dik-dik. She had not had time to study it and now it was too late. A few steps further, she found the crumpled body of squirrel. “You’re mother should have taught you better.” Lyta tossed the mangled flesh into her sack and hurried after the males. By the time she caught up, the Hipparion were nowhere in sight and Raza had switched to a jogging pace used to track herds. Lyta found the reason across the clearing: A family of Snarling-dogs loped, tails aloft. They must have spotted some injured paleo-horse, or a youngster not quite protected by its parents, and hoped with time it would become dinner. Lyta was used to following Snarling-dog’s lead. What he didn’t eat, she would, even if it was only marrow hidden deep in the long bones.
The hominids and canines trotted onward, effortlessly and tirelessly, as Sun crested the invisible mountain range. Their pace was steady, heads raised, ears tweaked to every sound, eyes scanning the shadows for danger, until finally Raza veered toward a distant forest while Snarlingdog continued across the flat plains, now hunting alone.
The trio stopped to sleep when Night Sun appeared, but started again with Sun’s first shaft of light. The closer they got to home, the more Raza shared about his Group. His barks and grunts were foreign, but Lyta had learned much from talking with Baad. Raza’s Group used hands and faces to describe what their voices spoke, and there was an order to the words and thoughts that made sense. She had grown to appreciate the clarity communicated by a mixed polyglot of signals, but wondered why they were so vocal when quiet hands were safer. In the end, it didn’t matter. All she wanted was a home for her child. “Lyta. Tell me about the herbs you collect.” Lyta was surprised he noticed. She removed a hairy root bundle from her sack and handed it to Raza. He rolled the plant between his fingers and puckered his nose. She smiled. “It stinks, but swallowed, it cures stomach cramps.” She extracted herbs one by one from her sack and described their healing properties. While he listened, he focused on her body. Garv swore she was more hunter stalking prey than female foraging roots. It was something about her weight balance over her front foot, the bend of her arms to catch a fall or reach for her cutter, the turn of her head as she subconsciously scanned the horizon, her ears searching out every noise. He had said it with pride, but others spat the words out like spoiled meat.
“You listen for every sound. Do you think you are in danger?” Raza used Lyta’s gesture for
‘danger-predator’ with the vocal sound for ‘food for scavenge’.
“Danger? Why would I hunt scavenge where danger lay?” A quizzical look engulfed Raza’s face. She shrugged and asked, “Is your home base safe?” He cocked his head as he unraveled her question. “Primary-Male always finds a safe Camp.” Lyta didn’t understand ‘Primary-Male’. While Raza’s voice grunted the sounds, his hand rotated open-palmed over his chest, a clear indication of that rarest of ‘friends’ who required two hands to describe—one to form a circle with an open-palm over the stomach and another to cover the first as it climbed the invisible mountain over the abdomen. This kind of trust was earned by few. She gave it to Feq, the only one who accepted her departure without questions. “You will be pleased with him.”
Night Sun had just appeared as a yellow sliver over the horizon when Raza’s hoot was answered by a whoop from beyond a towering cliff. Lyta edged closer to Raza and gritted her teeth as hominids appeared first singly and then in a vast milling throng. Suddenly, her plan felt wrong. What had she been thinking? Why would they welcome her, a stranger with a child?
The travelers entered a flat barren area, littered with the boney remnants of scavenge on one side and debris from tool knapping on another. Beyond that was a darkening pond, shimmering with Sun’s last warm rays before it dropped to sleep below the horizon. Now hominids spilled from behind trees and boulders like ants scurrying from their hill, and forced the trio to move ever-more- slowly forward. Excitement overflowed in a babble of spacious hand gestures and expressive facial movements, but paused at Lyta. Even the children, giggling over whatever game they had created for the day, shot sly glances her way before chasing happily after each other and ending up in a wriggling mass of arms and legs in the warm dust.
Lyta breathed in shallow pants as her gaze careened through the quiet crowd. Broad muscular shoulders topped squashed trunks and truncated legs. Leering eyes faded into skin as dark as the kinky black fur covering their heads and bodies. How odd she must look with her huge eyes and skin the shade of Dik-dik’s fawn, her thick wealth of straight black hair glistening and swaying against her shoulders with her every step. “Raza never said anything… Nor Baad…” She slumped against Raza, but her head stuck above the crowd as though she’d mounted an overlook. This group would never welcome her. Where would she go? In her horror, she barreled into an old female hurrying toward her. Thin hair billowed around a kind face lined by untold migrations in the searing sun. Her eyes crinkled with pleasure as she reached her arms forward. “He found you!” She touched bent fingers to Lyta’s face. “You are different. That is good.” Lyta struggled with the movement for ‘different’. Like Chimp? Or Cat? “ ‘Different’?” The elder ignored her comment, as though her mind had moved on. “The one on the berm— that wasn’t your child’s Primary. Garv has lost his way. This was another.”
Lyta gasped. How did she know? “I saw him again, after. He came with stick-that-killed-dikdik. He had no fear.”
Kee nodded, sadness flitting across her face and settling into the fine wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. She folded Lyta into a warm embrace as a ropey, winter-lean male approached. He had long curled fingers and arms that dangled down to knobby knees. Kee barked what sounded like
“You have met Raza’s Primary-Female, Kee.” His voice was mellow and smooth as he tilted his head up to meet her eyes. She struggled with his words. “Primary-Female?” Raza and Baad had used this strange term. “ ‘Primary-Female’ is the one who birthed Raza and cared for him until he became a child of the group. He values her above all females.” He cocked his head as a smile spread from his full lips to sunken cheeks to laughing eyes. “Do you have such a person in your group?” “Yes. We call her ‘Mother’.” Baad grunted Ma-g’n’s call sign and motioned him to where he stood with Raza. “I must go.” Ma-g’n paused, as though wishing to say something. “Your stride speaks of strength. I welcome you to our group.” He squeezed her arm with a warm soft hand and left.
As he joined Baad, a young male approached Raza. He had powerful shoulders and thick muscles over his chest and back. Dark fur sprouted just a hands-width above his brow line. His eyes were hooded and his shoulders drooped. He glanced toward Kee and she gave a slight upward nudge of her head. That’s when he noticed Lyta. A mask snapped over his face hiding whatever bothered him behind a welcoming smile. The din of conversation hushed when Raza greeted the male. “Vorak…” Raza’s hunting partner. Raza had spoken of him. “Raza, your Primary-Male…” Vorak’s youthful hands faltered.
Raza’s skin paled and pain rolled across his face. As quickly as it came, it disappeared, and his eyes became the flat black of obsidian staring from the inscrutable façade Lyta had become used to during their travels. He patted Vorak’s shoulder and turned to greet the rest of the group. “Kee…” Lyta wanted to return to Raza’s side. “His Primary, my pairmate Hku, died peacefully. Many don’t.” Raza’s Primary-Male Hku was lucky to have lived out his life. “Come.” Kee guided Lyta to a small group of females, just enough to forage food and watch children. “We have work.”
Lyta squared her shoulders and forced her mouth into a smile as each female was introduced.
They would become the essence of her days forever more, as important to her as food. Despite the friendly greetings, Lyta felt separated by more than just appearance. The memories that shaped her every breath, that made her old though she had barely passed her first blood, none here would understand. Who in this group had come close enough to death to smell its pungent scent? Who had lost everything except a second chance at life, whose very price came too high for those they loved. As she scanned the short compact bodies, with their wide faces and white-rimmed eyes, she had no doubt each had a past, but did it haunt them with a cacophony of memories? She felt like a water-mammoth she’d once seen, driven from his herd, limping laboriously through the riverain trees bleeding from a deep open gash on his hind-quarters, glancing back in a vain hope to rejoin old friends until he finally melted into the low trees and chest-high grasses. Did he recover before death’s arrival, or did the vultures scavenge his carcass before he recovered? Was that her end?
Before beginning the work, she needed to release her water. Kee barked to an older, frowning female to show Lyta where this was done. The female glared, turned and disappeared. Before Lyta could follow, a younger female Kee called Falda took Lyta’s hand and led her to a separated location hidden within a sandstone cliff. Here, she silently took care of her business and returned to begin preparations for the meal.
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