Monday, September 10, 2012

Straitened Circumstances

[Modern humans left Africa about 70,000 years ago, not by following the Nile Valley north and then crossing Sinai as looks logical on a map, but by crossing the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait  at the southern tip of the Red Sea between present-day Djibouti and Yemen. I see no reason assume that it was done for any high-minded purpose. The crossing was fairly easy once adequate boats were available, since sea levels were much lower and the Strait much narrower then due to the amount of global water locked in ice age glaciers. The Arabian Peninsula across the Strait was green, well-watered, and unpopulated. Neanderthals occupied much of Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, but their remains haven’t been found in southern Arabia.]

            Carver kept his back to the water while he tugged on the fresh lashings made from twisted strips of young bark. He wanted everything secure before braving the open sea again. He kept a wary eye on the pride of lions lounging lazily on an uncomfortably close hillside. The cats paid him little attention. They were much more interested in the onagers and gazelles grazing upwind in the distance. Carver marveled at how rich this land was. Carver was satisfied the lashings were tight. They held the cross poles and outriggers firmly.
Carver was proud of the outriggers, which were his own invention. Without them he wouldn’t be alive. On the other hand, without them he wouldn’t have ventured from shore at all. Dugout canoes, if the storytellers could be believed, were as old as the very first people, but they tip easily and frequently. In a river full of crocodiles and poisonous snakes, the results can be dire. Canoeing in the waves of the salt sea was completely out of the question. It had been tried, because boat travel is swifter than walking, but the attempts always ended badly. Boats were for the relatively placid waters of rivers and lakes. Until now.

Carver’s insight had come from a piece of driftwood. As if floated toward the shore, the branches flaring out from the central shaft kept it from flipping over. A vision formed in his head of a craft with stabilizing branches. He sketched in the sand an image of a central canoe with floaters on each side held in place by cross beams. In the brush just beyond the beach he snapped off five sticks from a dried bush. He tied them together with long blades of grass. Carver carried the small model to the water waves and placed it in the lapping waves. It bobbed about but didn’t capsize. Capsizing didn’t even look possible. The sun was setting, so he returned to the encampment to sleep and to think about his idea some more.
As usual, no one paid him any attention as he entered camp. He wasn’t handsome, or muscular, or a mighty hunter like the men over whom the young women swooned. While the dominant males recognized the utility of his woodcarving skills that provided them with wooden handles, spear shafts, and throwing sticks, those skills didn’t win him their respect. Carver’s immediate family had died in the plague that nearly had extinguished the People in his childhood. Carver suspected that, if died while away from camp, no one would notice his absence until somebody wanted a new axe handle.
Only Chief Hyrax saw something in him and took the trouble to talk to him about his work. In fact, he talked to Carver more often than he talked to his own grown-up twin sons, Buzzard-beak and Buzzard-claw. Those weren’t the names given to them at birth, any more than Carver was the name given to him. A given name at some point usually was superseded by a name one earned. Some jokester had called the twins Buzzards years ago, presumably because the two seemed to anticipate with too much eagerness one day succeeding Hyrax. The names had stuck. The twins didn’t seem to mind the monikers, even though they should have. They used the names with each other.
When he awoke the next morning Carver searched for and found a suitable log for his full-scale boat. He pushed, tugged, and rolled it onto the beach near the high water line. He set to hacking at it with stone axes and adzes. At midday, the shaman woman’s daughter, a lovely girl of marriageable age nicknamed Breeze, stopped to watch Carver work. She was willowy and a head taller than Carver.
“That’s a canoe?” she asked.
“Where is the river?”
Carver smiled. “It’s for the salt sea,” he said.
“You’ll drown.”
“I have some ideas about that.”
“About drowning? Well, before you drown yourself, Buzzard-claw wants four more spear shafts.”
“I’ve stockpiled a dozen spares already,” Carver complained.
“He wants four more. If you don’t want to make them, tell him yourself.”
“Fine. I’ll bring them home tonight.”
Despite such distractions, Carver made progress that day and in days that followed. As he neared completion of the task, Hyrax came to look. Without waiting to be asked, Carver explained to him the outriggers, and told how they would make scouting along the coast much quicker and easier.
“Will it be harder to row?” Hyrax asked.
“Maybe.” This thought had worried Carver, too.
“Finish it,” Hyrax said. “If anyone tells you to stop or to do something else, say you are making the boat for me.”
“I will do that.”
Two days after speaking to Hyrax, Carver was done with his boat and oars. He was pleased with the result, but the real test lay ahead. The two outriggers were as lightweight as he dared make them, but he worried that they would create too much resistance in the water. He tugged on the bow toward the water. The boat remained planted in the sand. He braced his feet and pulled with all his might. The boat moved few inches. The outriggers were digging in. This was not going to be easy. Carver collected four sticks and wedged two under each outrigger. He tugged on the bow again. The boat shifted more easily. After a few more tugs the boat floated on water. He tried to tip it over. The boat resisted the efforts and remained steady.
The sun was low on the horizon, and he knew really should re-beach the craft and wait until morning for the next test, but Carver couldn’t resist. Carver pulled himself into the boat. The crossbeams flexed a little, but held firm. Carver picked up an oar and dipped it into the water. He stroked the water. The boat moved. Paddling was harder than in a simple mono-hull canoe, but it was not impossible. With at least two oarsmen it would be fine. Even alone, Carver was made adequate headway. He paddled away from shore into deeper water. The waves posed no threat at all. He paddled out farther.
Glancing back at the shore, he noticed he was moving northward though he hadn’t paddled that way. Some current in the sea was carrying the boat with it. Carver decided to return to shore. He grew alarmed as his strokes were to no avail. The current had turned northeast away from the beach, and it outpaced any speed he could maintain against it with a single oar. Carver desperately paddled harder, but eventually tired. He despaired as the shoreline receded. The sky turned dark. Somehow in the hours that followed he fell asleep.
He awoke in the morning and saw a beach in the direction of the rising sun. This time the current didn’t fight him as he stroked his way to shore. He leapt out as the hull touched sand. He pulled the bow of craft further onto the beach. As he did, two of the water-soaked ropes of bark twine on the cross-poles snapped. He would need to replace and strengthen them.

As Carver retested the new straps on the distant shore, he wondered if it would be better to bore holes high on the hull of the boat to hold the crossbeams firmly without lashings. He would try it on some future boat, but there was no time for it now. A lioness had stirred herself on the hillside, and was walking Carver’s way.
Carver pushed the boat into the water. As he did, the lion broke into a run. Carver scrambled into the boat. He back-paddled from shore. The big cat came to a halt at the water’s edge. Carver doubted the cat would swim, but he took no chances and continued to paddle. He feared he would re-enter the current and that it would prevent him from gaining any more distance from the beach. He re-entered the current, but it didn’t push him to the east. This time he drifted south parallel to shore. The lioness sat and observed him as he receded. Carver decided not to struggle but to let the waters carry him where they would. He continued south for an hour, but then the canoe trended west. Carver pictured the current as a giant eddy, like the little ones he had seen in streams. If this was true, he might get back home. If not, he would die at sea. His time was limited. He needed fresh water soon.
The day turned to starry night. A dark shoreline was discernible in the west and he still was drifting toward it. He was well south of his starting point but he knew the way home. Carver resumed paddling, fearing he would be swept past the beach and out to sea again. Though his muscles and lungs ached, this time his efforts paid off. He edged out of the current and worked his way back to the beach. The timing was fortuitous for the tide helped him. He beached the boat on a sandy patch between two large rock outcrops. Water from a small spring barely trickled from a crack in one of the rocks. He licked the water from the surface of the rock he felt queasy.
It was dangerous to walk alone at night, but no predators stalked him – at least none that he noticed. Predators and game had grown scarce in the region thanks to the success of the hunting parties. The People would have to move soon to fresh grounds.
As he had expected, the encampment was quiet as he entered. However, Carver was surprised to see Buzzard-claw and Buzzard-beak awake and standing outside Hyrax’ shelter.
“Where have you been?” Buzzard-claw asked Carver as he approached. “I need an axe handle.”
“I tried my boat and was swept out to sea,” he said pointing east. “It took me until now to get back.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it was misleading. Buzzard-claw assumed he meant he was afloat the whole time. Carver wasn’t sure why he dissembled. He wanted to tell old Hyrax of his discovery first.
“Does your boat float away from the beach all by itself?”
“Yes, if you go out too far.” Carver wondered why Buzzard-claw would want to know. “You have to work hard to paddle back. Is Hyrax awake?”
“Hyrax is ailing,” said Buzzard-beak.
“Oh? Can I see him?”
The Buzzards looked at each other and silently considered the request. Buzzard-beak shrugged. Buzzard-claw shrugged back and said, “Go in.”
Carver lifted the hide flap and entered the shelter. In the darkness his foot connected with someone’s thigh.
“Watch it!” The voice belonged to Breeze. Carver’s eyes adjusted enough to tiny amount of light filtering through slits in the hide walls to see her silhouette. She sat next to Hyrax, who lay motionless. She dripped water on his forehead.
“I thought you drowned,” she said.
“No. I’m here to tell Hyrax something important.”
“He won’t hear you. He is dying.”
“Dying? Where is the medicine woman?” he asked.
“My mother left before sundown. There is nothing more she can do here.”
Carver had known Hyrax his entire life as his mother had known him all of hers. He seemed immortal. The storytellers celebrated how, in the dark days when plague was everywhere, he had taken command, united the survivors of many tribes, and brought them here this corner of the world together, far from other people and their illnesses. The strategy worked. Yet, here he was dying.
“What did you want to tell him?” Breeze asked.
“About my boat trip. I landed on another shore across the sea.”
“Do you mean an island?” A few small islands were just off-shore at a few places along the known coast.
“No. Not an island. There is another big land like this one across the sea, but green and full of game. I’m thinking the world may be like that: bigger than we ever imagined. Maybe at beyond this new land somewhere there is another sea, and another land beyond that, maybe forever.”
Breeze was silent for several moments say as she tried to grasp. “It’s a big idea,” she said at last. “Hyrax would have liked it.”
“Does Hyrax have the illness?” Carver asked, suddenly frightened.
“Do you think the Buzzards would come near here this hut if he did? They poisoned him.”
“They what?”
“You heard me,” Breeze said. “My guess is the beetle poison they use on their spear tips.”
“Don’t be stupid. They are tired of waiting to be chief.”
“But only one of them can be chief.”
“And only one of them can have me. They both want me, you know. I think they made a deal and that it involves me.”
Carver didn’t doubt they both wanted her, but he did doubt either would give up being chief on her account. Breeze, he decided, assessed her value too highly. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“Sure enough. I don’t want to be with either one of them, Carver. I hate them both. Is your boat really seaworthy? Can it get to this other land of yours again?”
Carver saw a glimmer of an opportunity beyond anything he ever had hoped. The Buzzards might not sacrifice a chiefdom for Breeze, but Carver would gladly give up his life as woodworker for her.
“Yes,” he repeated quietly. “There is a big eddy in the sea, like the ones in streams, but huge. It takes the boat almost all the way across.  Then we can just row the rest of the way to shore. I think two rowers could go anywhere, even against the current. It’s easier to let the waters work for you, of course.”
“And your boat can carry two?” she asked.
“Yes, you’ve seen it. No more than two though. I could make a bigger one.”
“There is no time.”
He was hoping she would say that.
“When do we go?” he asked.
“Meet me tomorrow at dawn,” she answered with an odd tension in her voice. “Where is the boat?”
“Go to the beach and walk south. It’s between the big rocks.”
She nodded. “Leave, and don’t make the Buzzards suspicious. Get some sleep. I’ll leave a little after you do, and I’ll be at the boat at dawn. Don’t come near me until then.”
Carver exited the shelter. He nodded at the Buzzards sadly and walked away. He didn’t look back to see Breeze emerge, but he heard her voice say to the Buzzards “I’ve done all I can do.”
Carver found a soft spot to lie under the open sky. Against his own expectation, he slept. He awoke as the slight hint of brightening was on the eastern horizon. No one else in the encampment yet was astir. Hyrax’ tent was unattended. He slipped away from camp and hurried to the spot between the rocks.
The boat was gone! He was sure he had pulled up far enough to be safe. How had he made such a mistake? What would he tell Breeze? Could she hold off her suitors long enough for him to build a new craft?
Carver entered an animated camp. He could see something big was up. Buzzard-beak was about to speak the assembled People, Buzzard-claw by his side.
“Old Hyrax, died peacefully in the night,” Buzzard-beak announced. “We will miss his wise leadership. Some of us remember and the young have been told how he rescued us in the bad times, uniting peoples into the People and bringing us to this corner of the world away from the land of sickness. But his labors are done and now he rests. Yet today is not just for sadness but for new beginnings. We have stayed in this place for too long. It is time to seek out newer and richer lands full of game and bounty. There also are too many of us to live and move freely as one People. Hyrax knew this. Just before he died, he opened his eyes and spoke us so with his dying breath. It was Hyrax’ last wish, that we, his sons, should divide the People between us and lead them to brighter futures. The People will now be two Peoples. I will take on the burden of chief for those who will go west; Buzzard-claw will lead those who will go north. You may choose which of us you follow, but you must choose. The shaman woman shall pick which of us to join. Her daughter Breeze will join the other, marry him, and become shaman for that portion of the People.”
Carver had to admit that Breeze was right about the two making a deal, though not entirely about her part in it. The Buzzards were to split the tribe and allow the secondary prize of Breeze to choose one of them. Apparently, choosing neither was not an option for her.
“Carver!” Buzzard-Claw shouted.
“Yes?” Carver stepped forward. He hadn’t expected to be singled out. Had the Buzzards caught wind of his escape plans with Breeze?
“Hyrax brought us here to the edge of the world. We think it fitting to send him on a final journey beyond the edge. Is that boat you built ready to receive his body for a burning at sea?
“Uh, no, Buzzard. It’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“I don’t know. I thought it was securely beached but it must have washed out somehow.”
“Where is Breeze?” Buzzard-beak asked loudly.
For once, Buzzard-beak’s mind had been quicker than Carver’s.
“Where is Breeze?” he repeated. Met with silence, Buzzard-Beak asked, “Where is Long-Toes?”
Long-Toes was the handsomest of the warrior-hunters, though too young to be high in tribal politics.
Buzzard-claw pointed his finger at the shaman. “Where is your daughter? Where is Breeze, old woman?!”
“Where she chooses to be,” she answered.
 “This is an affront to Hyrax!”
The old woman laughed. She was the only one in the tribe who dared.
A deep sense of betrayal overcame Carver, He wasn’t proud of it, but there it was. Had Breeze asked him openly to help her and her boyfriend, he might have done it, but she had played him for a fool.
“I know where they went,” Carver spoke up.
“We’re listening,” said Buzzard-claw.
“There is another land across the sea, rich and full of game. I’ve seen it. I went there in my sea-craft.  The land is vastly richer than here. She heard me tell Hyrax about it.”
“How soon can you build another boat?” Buzzard-claw asked.
“If I can have the help of the hunters, I can build several in a matter of days.”
The Buzzards consulted each other quietly. Carver knew what the result would be. Buzzard-beak never liked the water.
“Do it!” said Buzzard-claw. “You are my second in command from this point onward.”
Carver nodded.
“We will go after them,” said Buzzard-claw, “and we will teach them never to affront the memory of Hyrax. My brother will go west as planned. My portion of the People will live across the sea – if this land is as rich as Carver says.”
“It is,” Carver assured him.
Buzzard-claw was eager to exact revenge, not so much on Breeze as on Long-Toes. Besides, the two brothers never did trust each other, and both would view a sea between them as safety against future warfare and raids.
Carver was satisfied with the turn of events. He was a big man at last.