Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Neander Valley Girl (or Cavemen Behaving Badly)

Hare slinked away from the fire, choosing the comfort of shadows over warmth. The free-form beat Lapwing tapped on his new drum made of hollowed spruce and reindeer hide annoyed her.
It wasn’t just the music. Hare was angry with her parents – angrier than when they had burdened her with the adult name “Hare.” For months she eagerly had anticipated the solstice, the day when youngsters in their twelfth summer received their adult names. When the day finally came her parents sprang “Hare” on her. An adult name was supposed to express some special personal characteristic, but sometimes parents couldn’t resist playing jokes. Within the band were a towering fellow named Mouse, a short girl named Elk, and a dimwit named Fox. Hare strongly suspected her parents picked “Hare” not because of her swiftness of foot but because of her big ears, which she covered with her hair whenever possible. There had been snickering aplenty within the band on that awful day. Not that she hadn’t laughed when the boy with the child-name Sprig, who was terrified of water, was dubbed “Otter,” but he deserved it.
The naming ceremony was a negligible offense compared to this new blow. Her parents had announced they would pair her with Boar, and so far her loud objections to the plan had gotten her nowhere. Boar was as ugly as his namesake and only half as smart. His only recommendation was that he belonged to the Birch clan. The chieftain of all the bands of the Folk always was a Birch, and Hare’s parents wanted some of the family prestige to rub off on them. Hare couldn’t bear the thought of what would rub off on her.
Hare sometimes wondered if Boar was part ogre. He didn’t look much like his supposed father. He had a squat broad frame much like the creatures. Could his mother have dallied with one? If so, he wasn’t a Birch; he wasn’t one of the Folk; maybe he wasn’t even human. At the tribal meets, there were whispered stories of occasional mixed-bloods, who were killed at birth. The fate of mixed-bloods, if any, born among the ogres was unknown. No one knew exactly what the ogres were, but they had occupied this land first. They fell back toward the ice to the north and the sea to the west as the Folk steadily infiltrated from the Southwest.
Hare had never seen an ogre up close though she had seen their silhouettes on ridges. They kept their distance from the Folk, and for good reason. The Folk didn’t hesitate to attack them. The ogres were incredibly strong, and they were deadly up close with their heavy spears and axes, but they had nothing to match the throwing sticks and darts of the Folk. They could be killed or injured at a safe range. Even though Hare’s band was virtually isolated at the farthest edge of the Folk’s range, the ogres had not dared to cause any trouble.
Whatever his origins, Boar was ugly, stupid, and clumsy. He stank. She seriously weighed fleeing her band and her family. Young women always could find a place, but it was a hard choice. She looked toward the fire where Boar sat. Even at this distance she could see him sweat. Maybe it wasn’t so hard a choice.
She espied a glow in the shaman’s cave. Old Owl, the shaman, was orating by the fire as Lapwing continued to play, so the person in the cave had to be his apprentice, an albino named Ghost. She climbed the rocks to the cave entrance to join him. She liked Ghost, who was no more than a year older than she. Nearly everyone was afraid of him, and his name didn’t help. If the shaman hadn’t chosen him as apprentice, he might have been expelled. Hare wasn’t afraid. In truth, she would prefer him as a mate to Boar, but he had more of an interest in the hunters. He was a gifted artist who painted striking cave murals of animals.
She found Ghost tending to the brew deep within the cave. In the flickering torchlight his wall paintings appeared to move. Ghost had shared with her a secret of the brew: despite all ritual associated with its creation, the task really was simple. Mix grains, honey, and the juices of fruits and let the whole thing froth. The special qualities of the elixir developed with little or no intervention. The resulting grog did not always taste good, but the effect was powerful. On special occasions it was provided to the band to promote spirituality. In Hare’s observation it did more to promote carnality, though Old Owl said the two were intertwined. Old Owl was a dirty old man.
Hare sat across from Ghost, who looked especially eerie in the half-shadow.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“You always say that but you never tell me to leave.”
“What do you want?”
“Give me some brew.”
“Aren’t we demanding? I’m not supposed to do that.”
“So you always say.”
He dipped a wooden ladle beneath the froth. He held out the ladle. She sipped. It tasted sweeter than usual.
“Have you done something different?”
“We have the tribal meet coming up, and Old Owl wanted to bring something special to outdo the other shamans. So, we used up nearly all our fruits and honey making this batch. I’m afraid the next batch will be sour unless we find a lot more honey.”
“It looks like you made plenty of it.”
“So we did.”
“I’d like some more.”
“Better not. Your parents will notice.”
“You mean I’ll be spiritual?”
“I mean you’ll be drunk.”
“I thought you didn’t like the term.”
“I don’t like a lot of things, especially when they’re true.”
Despite his warning, Ghost passed her another ladle full. Hare drank quickly.
“I always liked you, Ghost. Remember that.”
“Thank you, but don’t make it sound like a goodbye. You’re only getting married, and not for another month.”
She returned to her family shelter. Like most, it was made of tanned animal skins wrapped around poles. Folded, it could be dragged easily – or carried less easily – to another location. The portability was a more theoretical than practical advantage. The band hadn’t moved in three years, even choosing to remain for the winters rather than debate transit rights with other groups to the south. There were no plans to move in the near future.
Hare’s parents were still at the fire where the hunter Aurochs was taking his turn bragging about his own prowess, so she entered the shelter unseen. She removed a lance, a throwing stick, and two darts. She also took an ivory knife; it was too soft to be much use as a tool, but it was sharp enough to be an effective weapon of last resort. Keeping to the shadows, she furtively hurried over the hillside toward the Southwest.
Ghost’s elixir helped provide her with the courage to travel alone at night. She would gain an insurmountable lead over anyone inclined to follow the next morning provided she didn’t get eaten in the interim. It was a trek of days to even the closest neighbor. Snow lions and wolves were not as numerous as they once had been, at least according to the old folks, but enough of them still stalked the countryside to be a serious threat.
Hare was so concerned about predators that she failed even to consider other dangers. So, Hare was caught totally unaware when she rounded a large rock and faced an ogre at scarcely the distance of an arm’s reach. A half dozen more ogres of both sexes silently surrounded her. Outnumbered and outflanked, she knew neither fight nor flight was an option, so she stood completely still. She wondered if the ogres had been spying on the Folk encampment.
The pale skin and blond hair of the ogres were striking. They were almost as pale as Ghost. Their faces were broad and flat, as though smashed with a rock, but they shimmered in the moonlight. Hare had heard the ogres’ clothes were untanned and unsewn, but this wasn’t quite right. The animal skins they wore almost surely were tanned. If not, they were fresh; they had no scent or other manifestation of decay. The ogres had a definite aroma, but it was not that of rotted pelts. The clothes were not sewn together, properly speaking, in the manner of her own well-tailored leather. Instead, they were tied together with strips of hide through eyelets. The effect was surprisingly neat. 
She and they remained immobile for what seemed to her a very long time. At last, one of the female ogres uttered odd sounds formed in the back of her throat. She turned and walked away. One by one the others followed leaving Hare alone. She watched them retreat. On a whim she would not have been able to explain even to Ghost, she followed. Their lack of aggression had aroused her curiosity. The ogres looked back at her as she tagged behind, but did nothing to encourage or dissuade her.
The ogre band reached their encampment far sooner than she expected. She had no idea they lived so close to the Folk. They occupied a cave half-way up a rocky outcrop. From below, the narrow entrance looked like a mere shadow, which helped explain why her people never had discovered it. The Folk had seen smoke in this direction on occasion, but never could determine its precise location. Still, Hare realized that, in order to remain unobserved for so long, the ogres actively had to have hidden from passing Folk hunting parties.
Hare’s hands were cold and sore from the climb to the cave entrance. The entryway turned sharply to the left and then opened up into a large room. The bend at the entrance largely had hidden the light from the fire burning in the back of the cave from outside observers. The fire vented to an opening in the cave ceiling that the ogres apparently had dug out themselves.
All chatter inside the cave ceased as the ogres stared at her. She took in the residents. They lived in a cruder fashion than the Folk, but they weren’t beasts. She saw women on one wall gnawing on hides to soften them. In front of them were small piles of leaves, buds, and bark: the same ingredients used for tanning by the Folk. There were a handful of children, but fewer than there should have been. Two of the children looked seriously ill. On one she recognized the facial blemishes of a mild childhood affliction. The children of the Folk shrugged off the disease in a week, but this one looked in danger of dying.
A murmur arose and sounded menacing. Some of the looks in her direction were focused on her weapons. These people probably knew the Folk sometimes killed ogres. Hare hoped they didn’t know the Folk always killed them whenever they could. Hare nodded her head and retreated slowly out the cave entrance. She heard arguing, probably over whether or not to intercept her and kill her. She climbed down the rocks and hurried back to her people’s encampment. All the way she anticipated a spear in her back, but it never came.
An idea was forming in her mind. An alliance or accommodation with these people was possible. As the person to make contact, she could serve as liaison – not just for her band but perhaps for the whole tribe. She thereby could satisfy the status-wishes of her parents without marrying Boar. Perhaps she would have high status men from multiple bands competing for her.
She entered her family shelter. Her parents were there. Feigning sleep, they ignored her. They likely assumed she had been hiding somewhere in a sulk. She had done it before. It wouldn’t surprise them she was armed. It was a wise precaution if she was going to keep to the edges of the camp.
She passed the next day in a daze. Her parents were relieved when she didn’t start the day by complaining about Boar. Her mother didn’t even reprimand her when her mind seemed to wander during her chores.
After dusk, she waited by the shaman’s cave until Old Owl left for the campfire and Ghost again was alone.
“Back again, are we?” Ghost greeted her as she entered.
He held out the ladle.
“I want enough for twenty people. No, fifty.”
“Don’t be crazy. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“I don’t plan to drink it all tonight.”
“I’m glad to hear it. But you are asking for our whole stock. It’s absurd. We’d have none for the tribal meet.”
“You can make more. If you don’t give it to me, I’ll go down to the fire and tell Aurochs you bragged about what you two do together.”
“How did you know?”
“You mean it’s true?”
“He might kill me.”
“Yes, he might at that.”
“I used to like you, Hare. But I just can’t.”
“Then I can’t be quiet. Ghost, just tell them I stole the brew. I won’t be around to contradict you.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“You’ll learn soon enough,” she answered.
“They’ll come after you. They’ll know you went southwest. There is nothing but ogres everywhere else.”
“OK, then don’t tell them I ran away. Tell them ogres stole me. Tell them ogres stole the elixir, too.”
“They’ll want to kill all the ogres.”
“They want to do that anyway. Look, Ghost, I’ll be coming back. I’ve got something special to do, but I need the elixir. All of it.”
“To buy friendship, I hope.”
“Apparently a friendship that means more to you than mine did. Hare, I’m leaving the cave now. This is the last favor I’ll ever do you and it will cost me my hide. If you do come back, don’t even think of asking me for anything again. Ever.”
“Thank you, Ghost.”
He said nothing as he left the cave.
She filled as many wineskins as she could carry and strapped them on. As an afterthought, she also took a small drum used by Old Owl in some of his ritual chants. She didn’t dare stop by the hut to retrieve her weapons; there was no way to explain herself if she were seen like this. She was too laden to carry or use them anyway. Traveling unarmed at night was reckless, but she preferred to take her chances with a boar than with Boar. It was near midnight when she arrived at the ogres’ lair. Climbing the rocks with her luggage was a daunting challenge, but, aching and panting, she succeeded.
At the entrance to the cave a guard with very bad breath and a disturbing resemblance to Boar blocked her path. She slipped one of the skins off her shoulder, untied the pouring end, and drank. She held out the skin to him. The ogre put down his massive spear, took the skin, and examined it carefully. He sniffed and then sipped. As Ghost had told her, this batch was unusually fruity and sweet; even so the ogre appeared puzzled by the taste. Hare wondered if he would have spat out the usual grog. Perhaps suspicious the stuff was poisonous, he handed the skin back and indicated she should drink more. She did. Satisfied, he took back the skin and entered the cave. Hare followed.
The guard grunted some kind of announcement, and the sleeping band stirred. One of the ogres leaned toward the small fire and added sticks, causing it to flare up. Cracked and clean bones of small animals were in and around the fire. All eyes were on Hare as she found an empty space along one wall, put down her remaining wineskins, and sat. She looked around. She didn’t see the boy with the facial blemishes.
 The guard already had passed the grog to another ogre. Hare opened another skin, sipped from it, and passed it to the woman closest to her. The woman tried it warily. Hare opened yet another skin and passed it the other way. Before long, it was clear the beverage was making a hit. The chatter rapidly grew more animated. On impulse, Hare put Old Owl’s drum between her legs, beat it, and chanted. She believed herself to be a terrible singer, but her performance captivated the ogres.
It was clear the ogres were much more susceptible to the grog than were the Folk. They quickly phased from merry to uproarious. One especially affected woman grabbed the drum from Hare and tried to copy her singing. She had no rhythmic sense and her voice sounded like a wounded wildcat, but Hare danced to the sounds anyway. This evoked laughter and finger pointing. To cheers and jeers, one young couple openly began to make love. This prompted a male to approach Hare. He made garbled sounds and gesticulated. If Hare understood him correctly, he was offering sex. Hare was spared answering when one of the women grabbed the fellow’s arm and noisily pulled him away. Hare got the impression the woman felt the man was being perverse. Hare wasn’t sure whether or not to be insulted.
The wineskins eventually emptied, as they always do, and one by one, the ogres fell asleep – or, more properly, passed out. They were still sleeping it off when the hunters of the Folk arrived.
Had not hangovers slowed the ogres’ response, the Folk wouldn’t have stood a chance in such a close quarters fight. The Folk were ruthless, swiftly killing even the children. Only one ogre, the guard from the night before, got to his feet in time to put up a serious fight. He tore a lance out of Boar’s hands and impaled him with it. Two other hunters finished off the ogre. The massacre was over in minutes. 
A cheer went up as the attackers reveled in what they believed to be a heroic rescue. Hare was too stunned to do anything but allow herself to be to be led back to camp. She was welcomed deliriously. She knew it was the victory that excited everyone. She herself was not popular enough to inspire so much emotion otherwise.
“We thought you were gone forever!” Hare’s mother said, hugging her. “When Ghost said you were abducted we sent out scouts. One of them heard the ogres celebrating at their secret base. They probably were plotting an attack on all of us. Are you hurt at all?”
“No. The killing was horrible.”
“Yes, I heard Boar was killed, but don’t worry. We’ll find you someone else.”
She hadn’t meant Boar, but she let it pass.


  1. Generation gap. Social climbing. Buying friendship with alcohol. How did they think of these things so long ago? Oh yes, because they're mammals!