Sunday, January 30, 2011

Modern Times

The thicket wall was taller than the height of a grown man. It made slightly more than one complete circuit around the Village. An easily guarded entrance was formed where it overlapped itself. Originally intended as a barrier against predators, the wall also protected against raids by nomad tribes. The Village didn’t need another name. It was the only village in the world, so it could be mistaken for no other. The diameter of the misshapen circle within the wall averaged some 80 meters, though the meter would not be invented for another 100,000 years. The village was only a few days walk from the end of the world – the southern end. The world ended at the salt sea by the big flat topped mountain.

The Lion stood outside the entrance of the Village, fingering a lion’s tooth that he wore around his neck. It was an heirloom from his father. He was the chief of his people. There were other men named Lion, but he was The Lion, and everyone knew the difference. He was respected by all except the Sorceress whose remarks to him always could be interpreted as insults if he thought about them. He wished the People could do without a sorceress, but the Villagers were a superstitious lot. If he challenged her openly, the Villagers more likely would oust him than her. They both knew it. Besides, whether or not there was anything to her spells and potions, she did have some practical knowledge that was useful. She knew how to treat some illnesses and wounds, and she always knew when the dry and wet seasons approached. Still, at the very least he wanted to tip the power balance away from her and in his direction. In truth, he wished the Villagers would do without the Village itself. The old nomad ways were better.

The Lion had found one way to undermine the Villagers’ trust in the Sorceress at least a little. The way was her son, Meerkat, an absolute fool of a boy. The Lion made it a point to demonstrate the boy’s incapacities whenever possible. The fact that the Sorceress couldn’t produce a son of even modest attainments was evidence to the people of the limits to her magic. He often wondered who the father of the boy might be. If the Sorceress knew, she wasn’t telling.

The boy couldn’t keep his mind on anything. Once, he walked up on Meerkat when the boy was chipping a hand axe out of chert as an older craftsman had taught him to do. When The Lion’s shadow fell across Meerkat, the boy stopped working, looked at up at the sky, and then turned to ask, “Why doesn’t sun’s fire burn out?”

“What? The chert, boy!” The Lion roared.

“The sun is made of chert?”

“No! I mean, I don’t know! Don’t ask foolish questions. Pay attention to the stones in your hands, boy!”

The Lion then looked at what was in the boy’s hands. The tool was an irregular

“Fix it!” he ordered.


“No buts! Fix it! “Make the tool the way you were taught! Bring it to me when you are done, and I want to see it with a proper shape!”

The boy later had shown him a normal axe, which may or may not have been the same stone. The boy’s fingers had bled on it on account of some clumsiness,

Yet, for all the boy’s backwardness, at times he would say things that unsettled The Lion for days. There was one night when the moon slowly turned a deep dark red and then changed back again. The boy said something about a shadow on the moon, a notion that disturbed The Lion because he almost understood it.

Today, he could see Meerkat sitting by the stream below the Village. The Lion couldn’t tell what he was doing, but no doubt it was frivolous. The odd young girl called Mosquito was standing next to him. He didn’t think that was the girl’s real name, but everyone called her Mosquito for her annoying ways; he even had heard the girl’s mother call her that. It was another sign of Meerkat’s backwardness that he would keep company with her. The boy was due for his ritual of manhood. The Lion himself didn’t much care for women of any age, but if the boy liked their company he at least should be looking at older ones – anyone except his own daughter Cheetah, of course. Cheetah was his sole offspring. Her mother had died in childbirth, which relieved him of any further necessity of performing marriage duties; he had gotten through those only by thinking of strong young hunters. 
**** ****

Meerkat sat next to the cedar tree by the stream. It was away from the places along the stream where the villagers liked to wash themselves and fill water skins. No one ever bothered him here except Mosquito, who seemed able to find him anywhere. As her words buzzed in his ear, he instinctively waved his hand as though in fact fending off her namesake.

His fingers were still sore from when she had distracted him a few days earlier. On that day, rather than just copy the same old tools he had been taught to make, Meerkat made something new. It was a combination axe, knife, and scraper with three distinct edges. The Lion saw it. After saying something about the sun being chert, which Meerkat doubted was true, the chief had ordered him to fix the axe. Meerkat had tried to explain it wasn’t an axe, but the chief would have none of it.

“Fix it!” he had shouted.

When Meerkat sullenly turned to the task of turning the tool into a conventional one, Mosquito had startled him by saying, “I like it. Give it to me. Make another axe for The Lion.” Meerkat hadn’t heard her approach, and he smashed his fingers.

Today, it was clear she would give him no peace by the stream. Meerkat felt Mosquito poke him in the ribs.

“I said, let me see it,” Mosquito buzzed. “I promise not to laugh. I didn’t laugh at the tool you made.”

Reluctantly, Meerkat showed her the figurine he had made out of blue clay from the stream bed.

“It’s just like a little zebra! I’ve never seen anything like that before!” she exclaimed.

“As far as I know, no one ever made one before.”

“Have you made any others?” she asked.


“Why didn’t you show them to me?”

“I showed one to my mother. She said that unless I could mold a new brain for The Lion, I should keep my clay works a secret. I’m not sure what she meant by that.”

“I’m sure. The Sorceress may be right. The Lion doesn’t like anything new. I’m glad you showed me, though. Why a zebra?”

“My solo hunt – my manhood ritual – is tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“I was planning to get a zebra.”

“So you made the figure as magic to help you?”

“No, I never thought of that. Zebras were just on my mind, so I made it.”

“Why are you after zebra in particular?”

“It’s big enough game to be respectable without being unduly risky.”


“Besides, I have a plan. There is a small valley to the south near the end of the world. I noticed a herd always enters and leaves it the same way.”

“So you are going to set up a trap or ambush,” she deduced instantly. “Don’t tell the others about that either. They might not think it is sporting.”

She spotted a small bulge under a patch of hide next to Meerkat’s knee.

“You’re hiding something else,” she said. “Show me.”


“Oh, come on.”

She reached down and pulled away the pelt. Before Meerkat could stop her, she picked up the female figurine it had covered.

“Well, there is no mistaking what else is on your mind. The question is who. This is too full to be me, isn’t it? Oh no, it can’t be! Yes, it is. It’s Cheetah, isn’t it?”

He snatched the figure from her. “What if it is?”

“Meerkat! She has her pick of anyone, and the only ones she likes are big, dumb, muscled idiots, just like the ones her father likes. She doesn’t understand dreamers. Don’t be a fool!”

“And you wish you could be just like her, don’t you?”

“No, not just like her.” Mosquito lowered her voice and looked serious. “Meerkat, don’t give that to her. She won’t appreciate it and her father will act like a crazed rhino.”

“We’ll see.”
**** ****

The Lion laughed. At first he had been outraged, but he soon realized Meerkat had done him an enormous favor. When Cheetah showed him the clay figure given to her by Meerkat, he saw genuine fear in her eyes and heard the quaver in her voice. She was terrified that the son of the Sorceress was working some magic on her with the image. Cheetah normally would have laughed rudely at any flirtation from Meerkat, but she had been so taken aback by the gift of the statue that she simply had accepted it quietly and listened to the boy announce his intentions to call on her after his manhood ritual.

The Lion showed the statue to the handsome young hunter Wildebeest, who was foremost in Cheetah’s affections at present, and told him Meerkat was bewitching Cheetah. The man was frightened, horrified, and angry. The Lion knew at once that the other Villagers would respond similarly. For once, he could turn the Villagers’ fear of sorcery against the Sorceress and her son. It possibly was a chance to turn them against Village life itself.

Even as a youth The Lion didn’t approve of the Village. He considered it a perverse deviation from natural nomadism, which he so much had enjoyed as a boy. Founding a permanent settlement on this kop had been the work of his father, a self-described “visionary,” which The Lion believed was another word for “fool.” The old man was in all too many ways like Meerkat, a thought which bothered him for some reason. By the time The Lion had become chief in his place, the Villagers had grown accustomed to their homes and didn’t wish to leave them. Now the Sorceress was suggesting raising animals rather than hunting them, an appallingly decadent notion. The Villagers had lost their way. Meerkat, of all people, might rescue them from their rot.
**** ****

After dark, under the full moon, and by the fire in the central plaza, the Sorceress announced the names of the boys who would begin their manhood ritual at next daybreak. The list included her son Meerkat.

At the mention of Meerkat’s name, The Lion interrupted her, evoking a collective gasp from the Villagers.

“Meerkat won’t be doing anything tomorrow,” he said as he walked up to her and faced her. “Both of you will leave the Village now and forever, or suffer the consequences.”

“I’d say you’d taken leave of your senses, but you can’t leave what you’ve never had, can you?” she replied.

“Do you think I’m joking?”

“It doesn’t matter. I remove you as chief. You are no longer The Lion. Sit down.”

“I do not acknowledge your authority over me or over the Village.” He held up the lion’s tooth from his necklace. “This talisman protects me from your witchcraft and from the spells of your demon child, too! It protects all of us!”

Still not recognizing the deadliness of his challenge, she answered, “‘Demon child’ is a trifle harsh, at least since his second year. Put down that silly tooth before it bites you.”

“You wish that I would, don’t you?” He addressed the Village crowd. “Look at the black arts this woman has taught her son!” He held up the zebra figure he had taken from the Sorceress’ hut a short time earlier when he went in to look for more evidence. “Meerkat planned to hunt with magic. If you think that is a minor offense, what of this?” He held up the figurine of Cheetah. “He fashioned this image to control my daughter. Come here, Cheetah. Look what happens when I squeeze the middle.”

Cheetah screamed, grabbed her stomach and fell to the ground.

“It’s alright child,” he said bending over her. “Touch the tooth.”

She touched the tooth and recovered, getting back to her feet. “Thank you, father.”

“What else can Meerkat do to you with this image?” The Lion asked her.

“He made me think wild thoughts,” Cheetah said. “He ordered me to come to him tonight to make love to him and to join him in some wicked ceremony! If you hadn’t broken the spell with the tooth I would have gone! I had no choice!”

“Oh, this is nonsense,” the Sorceress said. “The girl is just playacting for attention.”

“If only that were true!” The Lion barked back. Addressing the Villager again, he warned, “These two fiends will make images of us all if we let them!” He pointed at Meerkat. “Imagine what this beast will do to your wives and daughters!”

Meerkat was stunned by what he was hearing. He saw that all the Villagers had moved away from him. Even Mosquito had vanished from sight.

“Seize them! Gag them both so they cast no spells!”

A small troop of hunters led by Wildebeest, obviously by prearrangement, rushed forward. They grabbed the Sorceress and Meerkat, and gagged and bound them with strips of hide.

“Throw them into their witches’ den!” The Lion ordered.

The two were tossed inside the Sorceress’ thatch hut, which had been built against the north wall of the Village. Wildebeest closed the entry with more thatch. The Lion tossed a torch on the roof.

Smoke quickly filled the interior of the hut and the flames began to lick inward. Meerkat felt his skin burn where an ember fell on him. He struggled fiercely but couldn’t loosen his restraints. He heard his mother thrashing, too. Suddenly, someone was cutting the thongs binding his hands. Mosquito had appeared out of nowhere and was using his multi-tool. She freed him quickly and the two unbound the Sorceress.

“This way,” Mosquito said.

She pushed herself into the north wall of the house, which was also the wall of the Village, and the others followed. The passage through the wall was blocked only by loose tendrils which were easily pushed aside.

“I found this rabbit hole to your house months ago,” Mosquito said once they were outside the Village and running for the nearest cover.

“That’s why I built against the wall,” the Sorceress said. “You never know when you will need a back door. I thought it was well hidden, though. Apparently it wasn’t.”

“It was, to anyone who wasn’t looking for it.”

“We’ll leave aside the question of why you were looking for it. Hurry, we need to get away as far and fast as we can.”

As they ran, Meerkat looked back. He saw that the fire had spread out of control.

“Is The Lion crazy?” Meerkat asked. “The whole Village will burn down.”

“No. he’s not crazy,” the Sorceress answered. “He wants it to burn. He wants no more Village. But he is stupid. He didn’t realize the fire would spread so fast. He trapped himself and everyone else inside. See, the fire already has spread along the wall. The entrance is blocked by flames.”

They stopped to catch their breath behind some brush.

“What do we do now?” Meerkat asked.

“You two are going to make yourselves scarce," said the Sorceress. "If there are any survivors, you won’t be popular with them.”

“But I didn’t burn the Village.”

“Trust me, they will hold you responsible.”

“What about you?” he asked.

“I can handle myself and turn blame where blame is due, but only if I’m alone. You two don’t need me. These people do, if any are left. If not, a Sorceress always can find people somewhere who will take her in. In one way, The Lion got what he wanted. None of the survivors will want to live in a Village again after this. Someday there may be another one, but not now.”

“But where should we go?” Meerkat asked.

“Anywhere you like. Be careful of other tribes, but not all will be your enemy. Go.”

“Goodbye mother.”


“So where do you want to go?” Mosquito asked as they walked side by side away from the flames.

“How about the end of the world?” Meerkat suggested.

“I’ve been there.”

“No, I mean the other one. If there’s an end in the south it stands to reason there is an end in the north.”

“I suppose it does. You wish you were going with Cheetah, don’t you?”

“No, her charms have worn off somehow.”

“Good. OK, the northern end of the world it is. It’s probably a long way off.”

“We have time.”


  1. This story was better than Quest for Fire, which was criticized for having too many human advances in one lifetime. It seems to capture everything about primate thought that's immutable for millions of years: the quest to find new and better ways to promote survival, to need to weigh risk and reward, the quest to challenge old orthodoxies. It's fun to hear these thoughts put into a neanderthal mind because it reminds you that our angst is nothing new.

    1. Well, thanks for that, and, if any producer is peeking, recall that the film version of Quest was a moneymaker.

      My favorite Plei-fi (thanks for inventing that term, too), by the way, is the very tongue-in-cheek Evolution Man by Roy Lewis. It is more than just silliness.