poison berries

Og was a fireboy as well as a runner. He was drawn to the flames and was always glad to help the women make a fire and keep it alive. He also liked caves. Whenever the clan came across a cave he would wander off and hide in it, lingering almost until dark before running back to the camp.

A girl child had been born two summers after he. Because they were close in age, they played together as children, and as they matured their bond became even stronger. Her name was Naa. One day, when they were young adults, Og took Naa into a cave and made her afraid. But she went back to the cave with him again the next day, and the next, every day until the clan left the area. The following summer Naa gave birth to a tiny girl baby, and they called her Ggu. But she died after two winters.

Og and Naa had another child, a boy they called Ta. Ta grew up to be a hunter and a killer. Og witnessed Ta’s first kill of an antelopoid. Ta and three other young men had the animal cornered between a small hill and some large boulders in a cluster of thorn trees. The boys stalked the antelopoid before ambushing it, and in its alarm it leapt straight into a shallow gorge. The fall was not steep enough to kill the animal and it landed with a thump and looked around, its eyes dazed and its legs broken. The boys rushed down into the gorge and finished it off.

Og stayed above and looked down at the slaughter. He felt a jumble of emotions: fear and grief at the sight of the animal’s suffering, and shame because for a moment he felt what was in the helpless creature’s heart. But in a moment these feelings were wiped out by the death – and a rush of pride because of what his son had done, and what it meant for the women and children. And Og was hungry. He salivated at the thought of cooked bone marrow. The boys sliced up the carcass and wrapped the pieces in leather slings to take back to the camp. One man carried the legs and another the head and organs. Og took bits and pieces.

Naa had kindled a fire, and Ta dumped the meat beside her and disappeared. Og sat down and stared into his mate’s eyes. She understood: their child had just become a man. Naa and Og now ranked among the elders of the clan. Ta had run off to find his lover, a stocky young woman with a mass of tousled black hair.

After a few more summers, Og fell ill. Naa had given him berries to eat and later he had vomited and then fallen into a heavy sleep from which he could not awaken. After two days he did wake up, but found that he could no longer use his feet properly. A woman who had eaten berries from the same plant had died, but Og did not know this and Naa had no way of telling him. Naa had not eaten from that particular plant, yet the bush looked like any other of the safe berry bushes. Naa was confused and tearful. Nobody had noticed the white fungus that grew on the undersides of the leaves.

Og survived and even learnt to walk again, but from that time on he remained thin and weak, and the skin on his face began to wrinkle up and dry out like the face of an ancestor. Whenever he ate meat, his belly ached and he vomited. Og found that by eating only roots and tubers, with a few locusts or antoids when they were in season, he could stay strong enough to keep up with the clan. But he became easily confused, too. Naa eventually grew tired of him and bonded with Ta’s new baby instead.

Because he could no longer run, Og was becoming a burden to the clan. He knew this, and wished he could disappear into the sky; he would have liked to fall upwards while the rain was falling down. He felt like one of the large flightless birds that sometimes crossed the plains. Their meat was tasty, but they were even more difficult to catch than the antelopoids because they moved so fast. It was no good chasing them off a cliff. Despite their seemingly heavy bodies and feeble wings, they could get just enough lift in the air to land on their feet, and then they would run like the wind again. The men could never move fast enough to catch them. The big birds were no good for food unless you found one already dead, and found it long before the worms did.

In the last summer of his life, Og tried to run out with the hunters again. But he became confused, and instead of shouting to scare the elephoid into the trap, he ran straight across the tusker’s path. It trampled him to death as if it had not even seen him. One of its enormous feet split the lower half of Og’s face, crushing his teeth into the ground and leaving a hole where his jaw had been. Another foot flattened Og’s leg, splitting the flesh from the bone as if it were a twig. A moment later, the elephoid plunged over the side of the mountain and went smashing down to its death.

The young men shrieked in glee. They did not notice Og’s body on the ground. It took them a long time to hack the meat from the carcass below the cliff and they had to make several trips between the site of the kill and the campsite, where the women were watching the fires.

Naa looked questioningly at Ta. It was only then that Ta realised his father was missing. He went back to the top of the cliff and found Og’s body; he saw the face had been split in half and one of the legs crushed. He went back to the camp and gave his mother the hand signal that meant someone had died: thumb placed downward into the palm of the other hand, and then both hands flicked quickly towards the sky in a symbol of release. Naa stared emptily at the ground.

Whether or not one left the corpse of a person out in the open for scavengers to eat carried some meaning; it was partly an indication of who the person had been, although it was also a practical issue, and depended on whether the clan was in a walking or sedentary phase. Ta saw a picture in his mind – the sight of a scavenger chewing the flesh off his father’s body. The image caused a feeling of revulsion and anger to rise in Ta’s chest, so he went back to the place where he had found Og. Ta felt sad as he dragged large branches to spread across the body. He did not like the way he felt.

The burial chore was good for Ta and allowed him to work off his emotions. By the time he returned to camp, he was cheerful enough and could entertain his child as he would on any other day. Og had indeed become a burden and it was better that he had died this way rather than having to be killed by younger men or simply being abandoned on the plain. There was a storm on the way, and the fires would be rekindled once it was passed. Ta rolled another boulder against the branch that supported the skins under which his mate and baby were sheltering. By morning, the storm would have passed.

The runner

Og would gladly have continued to drink his mother’s milk, but his teeth were hurting her breasts and her milk was drying up. The child was was almost in his third summer when she began to wean him. He howled in anger. She fed him mashed berries and insects, and he learned to ask for food without wailing and sulking.

Some grasses grew brown seeds that the people crushed between flat stones to make a tangy seed paste. It tasted rather like the flying antoids. Og’s mother would scoop up some of the paste on a finger and put it into Og’s mouth. He would suck on it, delighted that she was still feeding him. Soon he forgot about her milk and no longer even fondled her breasts.

Once he had begun to pull the wings off the flying antoids himself and no longer pulled a face when the insects wriggled in his mouth, Og’s mother started to feed him real meat. When the men killed an elephoid there was plenty of food for everyone. Too much, in fact, and the carcass would lie in the sun attracting scavengers of all sorts. Even a large buck fed most of the people, though the adults would take their share first just to be sure. If it was an elephoid, after two or three days the carcass would begin to stink so badly and the flies would become so many and aggressive that the people would have to leave the area. They knew: when the men killed an elephoid, you would binge for a day or two and then go on a long walk.

Scavengers would circle in as soon as the people left. More than once, a predator had snatched a baby from its mother’s arms, preferring the live young meat to a half-rotten corpse. The poor mother could only scream and run for her life.

Meat was cooked on open fires. The men used their stone tools to cut chunks of flesh and fat from the carcass while the women gathered wood and rubbed firesticks to kindle a spark. When the fire had burnt down to embers, the meat would be thrown onto the coals. The children would gather around, silent and salivating. The fat would drip and hiss on the coals, keeping the fire alive. Once the meat was cooked, the women would remove it, using bone tools made for the task. They placed the meat on flat stones until it was cool enough to eat. If there were edible plant tubers in the area then they would collect them and cook them too, to devour with the meat. They ate the flesh and fat in its entirety. Bones full of marrow were roasted whole, and then the men would split the bones with rocks so that the people could suck out the marrow.

They would wash the meal down with water which they slurped from gourds and carried in crude balloons made out of animal bladders and stomachs. Sometimes, but not often, an elephoid was killed close to a river or lake. When this happened, the people would celebrate through the night, staying awake to gloat over their food and water and fire, and the children sleeping with fat bellies and contented faces.

Boys started wearing the loincloth before puberty. By the time they began to hunt, they had to be familiar with the sensation of leather between the legs. A loincloth made running easier and kept the flies at bay.

Og was an energetic boy and joined the hunting trips from a young age. The men would set out together with the boys, but as the day wore on the boys would start to fall back and one of the older boys would stay to protect them and lead them back to camp. Sometimes the men would sleep under the stars far away from the women and children, bedding down on grass and leaves overnight and taking up the hunt again the next day. As each boy matured, he would accompany the men further on a hunting trip, each boy in his own time. Some were drawn to the actual kill, while others preferred to carry and cut.
Og was not a killer. But he was fast on foot and enjoyed chasing a herd towards the killers, or cornering an animal in awkward terrain. Sometimes the best way to trap a buckoid was to dig a pit in the ground using a flat stone with a sharpened edge, and then chase the animal into it. Small buck and monkeys could be caught and killed with the bare hands or a stone. Monkeys tried to hide in the trees, but the people were bigger and smarter and made short work of them. Of all the animals, monkeys made the most noise while dying. Og disliked the sound of their terrified screams. The killers among the men were insensitive to the sound and seemed not even to notice it, or they imitated the screams, and then laughed.

An animal larger than an antelopoid had to be turned against itself in some way. An animal wanted to survive, just as people did, and the strong ones had to be outmanoeuvred. Usually this meant driving it over a cliff or into a gorge.

dark clouds and elephoids

 

When the wind blew up from behind the mountains it brought grey clouds so huge they obliterated the blue. Then the lightning would shake the world so deeply that Og could hear the blue being torn apart. The rain would fall, softly at first and then harder and colder until it covered the world with a wetness that had neither shape nor colour but was as real as stones.

The people would wait out the storm under the cover of their reed huts or in a nearby cave. After the rain had stopped, the clouds would turn white and pink and drift away, and the sun would burst out and fill the plain with golden light that accentuated the colour of the grasses. In the long shadows of dusk, the earth turned red and the hills glowed purple, and a fragrance would rise up from the ground – the smell of flowers and wet soil.

Every day was a new world for Og.

The people felt peaceful after the rain. By the next morning there would be no sign of clouds, and the blue would be a swirl of tiny dots and empty space again.

Og was happy.

Sometimes, in the evening after it had rained, insects would launch themselves out of the ground and out of the trees, suddenly pouring out of mysterious invisible holes. The people would catch them and pull their wings off and eat the squirming creatures by the handful, by the mouthful, popping the helpless wriggling bodies open as they chewed.

Flying antoids were a delicacy. They were the size of a man’s thumb but softer, like beads of jelly suspended on wings. Og and the other children eagerly stuffed antoids into their cheeks and felt them wriggling against their tongues as they crushed open their scaly skins.

The clan did not often come across caves where they could shelter. The people moved around all the time, seldom staying in one place for more than a moon’s cycle or two. The terrain consisted of wide open plains with a few hills, and in the distance a large mountain range. There were many lakes and trees. Boulders dotted the landscape and the larger rocks gave shade to the people and animals in the heat of the day. Sometimes the people would find a place that was beautiful and abundant, where the berries and insects were plentiful and water flowed nearby and brought the animals to drink – and to be killed by men.

In such a place the people would stop and build reed houses and stay as long as they could. Sometimes they would build a small hut village along the banks of a river so that they could catch fish in their grass nets or by hand, chasing the fish backwards and forwards until they were too tired to go on swimming. When the fish dwindled to nothing the people would move on again.

On summer afternoons when black clouds rolled in over the plain, the men would hammer thick branches deep into the ground and stack large stones against them to secure them upright. Then they would stretch animal skins across the branches to give protection to the youngest mothers and children. Reed huts took longer to build. A hide shelter could appear and disappear overnight, like a storm or the wind, arising from the land and falling back into it when the people moved on.

The people trailed after herds of wild buck and elephoids, picking off the individual animals that were too young or too old or too sick to keep up with the herd. Days could go by with no sight of a herd, because once they got moving the animals could move faster than people. The elephoids’ legs were powerful and huge.

The men would move ahead together, covering easily double the distance walked by the women and children. The men would walk briskly in a small group and then split apart, each man moving out to one side, each man taking a different direction and running quietly on his own. At a strategic moment, as if by psychic intuition, they would all suddenly change direction and turn inwards to close in on the target animal. Bison and elephoids could be killed by driving them into a gorge or off the face of a cliff. Buck were easy: two men could bring down an antelopoid. They would slash the animal’s neck with their stone blades.

The invisible sky

Another woman, the mother of the youngest girl, walked over to admire the newborn. She grunted in appreciation as she gently studied his hands and feet and then opened his mouth peer inside.

“Og!” said the matriarch.

“Og!” The midwife’s wide lips parted in a grin.

“Aharee!” The young woman signalled her approval of the baby. His little body was perfectly formed.

And so the child would be known as Og. By the time his birth mother woke up, Og was already an accepted part of the clan.

The other women were preoccupied with their own children, and some of them set out to look for berries and roots. Og’s mother stood up slowly, testing whether the world was still flat and sturdy. It was. She wandered over to the cluster of reed huts, where she found the midwife sitting with the matriarch. The old lady handed her the baby with a nod of approval, and Og’s mother smiled shyly, as if she had done something great without even trying to. She instinctively held Og to her breast and he began to suckle weakly, his reflexes still new. His hands relaxed and he yawned a tiny yawn, which made the women laugh.

The mother found an unoccupied hut and lay down there and again held the baby to her chest. Soon they were both sleeping. The midwife was also tired by now, and she followed Og’s mother and lay at the entrance of the hut. Her role was not over. Only when a new mother was able to run again would she leave her alone. It usually took two or three days.

Not long before his first summer, Og started walking on wobbly legs and by his second summer he was learning to throw stones. His teeth had cut and he eagerly ate the fruit and berries gathered by the older children. In the summer season he wore no clothes, but in the cold season his mother wrapped him up in a toddler’s cloak, a ragged piece of kid leather that was passed from one child to the next. A blanket like that took time to prepare: the skin had to be taken from an animal that was no more than a baby itself.

The people were often on the move and leather was harvested only when necessary. They took what meat and bones they needed and left the rest for scavenging animals. There was no point taking more than you needed; all it would do was drag you down during the long walks.

The world was an explosion of colour to the young Og. The plants showed a rainbow of green hues, from the dull dark leaves of the bitter-fruit trees to the pale soft seeds of the grasses. The leaves were thrown around in the wind and the ripe fruit fell to the ground, where it was picked up by hungry animals and people or lay rotting in the sun. Only the thorn bushes could resist the wind and stood bustling and upright through the heaviest storms.

In the hot season, the wind would rush over the plains but its energy would dissipate as soon as it hit the foothills.

When Og looked upwards, he saw a sky so blue and deep it left him dizzy. He lay on his back in the sand and stared up at the vast bulging space, watching the air swirl around: tiny dots pouring from each side of the sky and meeting in the middle of his field of vision to create a huge swirling vortex. A huge, invisible, tangible vortex. Og could lie and watch the sky for the whole day.

The birth of Og

The young woman squatted down in a patch of green grass and began to push, hard. The midwife hurried over and crouched beside her, watching for the baby’s head and uttering small sounds of encouragement. The mother groaned, gasped and clutched her belly.

The baby’s head began to slide out and then the whole little body suddenly plopped down and landed on the soft grass, covered in blood and water. The mother took a huge breath and gave a quivering cry of relief. The midwife picked up the baby, and the mother lay down. The midwife wiped the blood from the child’s face. It was a boy and his small hairy hands were flailing.

The midwife stroked the mother’s hair. “Ai ai,” she muttered reassuringly. “Ai.”

“Uoo uoo,” the mother sighed, grateful that the pain was rapidly subsiding. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

The midwife took the baby to show the other women. Men were not allowed to be present at a birth ritual, so they had gone off hunting and had taken the older boys with them. The clan had three small children at this time: two girls and a boy. The youngest was a wildly energetic girl who was two or three summers old. She was busy playing with another girl’s hair. When she laughed, the ridges of small square teeth were visible where they were starting to cut through the gums.

The child’s mother was trying to wean her but she was resistant. When the girl was offered mashed flying-ants – a big treat for children – she would pull her head away and clench her lips angrily, staring at her mother with a betrayed expression in her fiery dark eyes. But she liked berries and luckily they were plentiful at this time of year.

The two small girls and boy were naked and tough-skinned. The older two were playing with stones and sticks when the midwife arrived carrying the newborn. The children were curious and the smallest girl left off her hairdressing and toddled over to look at the baby. The midwife let her touch the tiny face. The older children soon lost interest and went back to their game.

The midwife took the baby to show the matriarch. She found the old lady sitting in the shade of a tree, watching the clouds with a distant look in her eyes. As the midwife approached, the crone turned to look at her. The matriarch saw the bundle in her arms, the fullness of the animal-skin blanket and the pride with which the woman carried it. She observed the confident gait of the midwife’s walk, and then she felt the new life approaching and her wrinkled face broke into a huge crooked grin.

“Og og og!” the old lady shouted.

“Ahhha, aree!” the midwife shrieked back.

The women laughed, a sound of triumph that soared above the hills and swirled about in the air as if it had a life of its own. Traipsing across a plain a couple of miles away, the men stopped. They heard only a faint echo of the women’s delight. They stood, listening, unable to express or even understand this mix of emotion: awe and respect, joy and relief, but tinged as always with sadness at having been excluded.

“Ahhhh areee!” The midwife raised the baby above her head. He began to cry, but the sound was too soft for the men standing on the other side of the hills to hear.

The midwife handed the baby to the matriarch. She cradled him against her skinny old breasts.