Friday, September 3, 2010

Song from Another Time

The old matriarch stirred, then opened her eyes. She looked out past the wide beach at the dark time’s light and its sister walking across the big water. Although it was the time of the light getting smaller and coming later in the night, it was still bright enough to see the sleeping bodies of the clan and its two kin clans from up and down the coast sleeping under and around the shallow cave. She heard movement behind her and turned. One of her big sons and a male from the down-coast clan were sitting up. The whites of their eyes gleamed from under their ridge brows and she could tell they, too, were looking out over the path of light across the water. Then they exchanged grunts with her and each other and, curling up next to their mates, fell back asleep. All was well now but it hadn’t been for many light and dark times.

Three visits of the light’s round face had passed since a big cat had taken up residence on the plains above the beaches and lagoons where the clans lived. One night when the light was still growing this last time a young male had not followed the clan into the safety of the water when she and her two big sons had sounded the alarm. He had instead climbed to the top of the low rock ridge and screeched defiance into the night. They had heard his scream cut short and found what was left of his remains in a nearby tree the next day.

He had been a younger son of the next oldest female, who had just left her childbearing behind her. The clan grieved with her, howling at the sky while water coursed from their eyes. After their sorrow began to subside, the matriarch, her two sons, and the young male’s mother had gone up the coast to the next clan, bearing with them the torn arm of the victim. When they had reached the camp, the camp from which the matriarch’s last mate had come, they discovered that a cat had killed two members of that group in the recent past. Her sons joined the males of the up-coast clan in a search of the area and reached the conclusion that the same cat was marauding both camps.

The up-coast clan had journeyed back with them to their camp the following day. On their arrival, they discovered the cat had returned to the ridge above the shoreline the previous night but had not managed to take another victim. The males from the camps followed the stream that flowed gently down from the plain above and searched the area above. There they found the scattered remains of an antelope, most likely taken down several nights ago but with the cat’s distinct teeth marks through the skull. Fresher marks near the edge of the ridge indicated the cat’s presence the night before. Following the cat’s trail, the trackers soon realized the cat had headed down-coast. Older indicators showed it had done that as well as gone up-coast in the past.

The group returned to camp and a crowd formed around them as they presented their information to the matriarchs of both clans. Together, they reached a decision to journey to the down-coast clan and the following day the old matriarch accompanied by one of her counterparts from the up-coast clan as well as two of the experienced males from both groups made the journey. Again they discovered that the cat had left a trail of grief and after little discussion, the matriarchs of all three groups, remembering times in the past when this had been necessary, made the decision to join together at the central camp for safety while the males could work together to rid the area of the menace. Their sleep was again disturbed by presence of the feline hunter that night but a dash to the water prevented more carnage.

When the day’s light was just over the edge of the big water, they hurried up-coast. The impromptu gathering of the clans was cause for as much celebration as it was for concern. Families and friends came together, smiling broadly with pleasure and sharing in the food gathering for the day. Many young males and females, who had not seen each other in some time, and sometimes never, gathered in groups and couples occasionally drifted off to private places. Mothers admired each other’s infants, handing them around to be cuddled and groomed. Often, one or more of the older males would join these groups and the infants and young ones would climb on them and beg to be held up and tossed around from one set of big, safe hands to the next. That night, the rock overhang was not large enough to accommodate every member of the three clans but they piled around it, knowing they were safe in such a large group. Besides, the dark time’s light was at its biggest and nothing could have come upon them unnoticed.

As the sky over the big water began to glow with the coming day, the males from the three clans rousted themselves and each other and gathered on the beach while the other members of the clans still slept or only began stirring. Grouped together, they motioned and grunted and drew pictures and marks in the sand with their forefingers. Gradually they broke into four groups and scattering along the sand that stretched in both directions, leaving only the weakest and very oldest behind with the females and young. There was no need now for worry because the cat would not come in the day; the only concern was that everyone on the trek would be able to cope with the upcoming exertions.

Each of the four groups founds its own way up the stone ridge, one taking the streambed. The men made barely a sound as they worked their ways across the plain with its scattered trees and rock outcrops, sometimes within sight of each other, sometimes not. Within their groups they exchanged looks which carried much of the information they needed to communicate. At times whistles and calls pierced the air, only slightly off from the birds they mimicked. Then, as the day’s light reached the height of its arc, three of the groups turned toward the sound of a large bird making its kill. Quickly but silently they made their way toward the sound, taking great care to scan their surroundings as they went. Those that were not already carrying large stones or large dead branches picked them up as they went. Again they heard the bird call, very close now, and while most members of the groups crouched for cover in the tall grass, one from each search party cautiously moved to a higher place. A small bird’s territorial call could now be heard from four locations in a small area and the lookout males from each group were able to spot one another.

Almost languidly, so as not to disturb other animals in the area, they exchanged information by pointing and following one another’s gaze. Dropping down into the grass, the lookouts passed the information on to the rest in their groups. The cat had taken refuge in a low tree for its daytime sleep and looking carefully, all of the hunters were able to see its tail alongside the trunk while two of its legs draped limply from a sturdy branch. Gradually they moved closer, pausing only once when the great spotted cat showed its teeth in a fearsome yawn and readjusted its weight along the branch, certain in its supremacy in the region. But its stalkers moved closer until they were almost crowded around the base of the tree. With glances, barely motioning, they coordinated their attack.

Some of those beneath the tree helped others to reach other low-hanging limbs, handing up makeshift clubs, while the rest began screeching and throwing rocks and pieces of dead tree limbs at the cat. It sprang back against the trunk of the tree in surprise, then bared its fangs and roared with fury, its ears flat against its skull. Those in the tree climbed higher, now screeching and swinging their weapons at the cat below, while those on the ground threw rocks. Some of them grabbed at the ends of the cat’s branch and shook it violently. Facing a three-pronged attack, the cat was forced to defend itself in too many directions. It lost its footing and dropped to ground. Those in the tree followed it down swiftly and joined their companions on the ground, hitting the beast with stone and sticks.

Then it was over. Although a number of them had deep scratches and one male’s left armed hung limply, having been dislocated as he swung from the tree, they were basically unharmed. They stood silently around the body of their dreaded tormenter for a moment, then broke into ululating cries of victory and joy. Birds broke cover at the sound and four-footed denizens of the plains took noisy flight. The clans’ members barely took notice. They were many and they had conquered their enemy together. At that moment, they were invincible.

Taking turns, they dragged the cat down the streambed to the beach although long before they reached it, the others of the clans heard them and joined them on the last part of their journey. Once the body was laid out on the sand, the families of those who had lost loved ones to the cat were allowed first access to vent their fury and grief on it. Other members of the clans gradually joined in and within a short time, the former terror of the dark was reduced to pieces of skin, mashed flesh, and shattered bones. Everyone grabbed for the pieces of skin with the fur still attached, but the best went to the hunters and matriarchs. That night, with the dark time’s light still big and round, the clans did not sleep until the first light showed over the big water. They laughed and stroked each other and from time to time, groups got up to stomp and jump in time to the clapping of the rest. They splashed in the shallows just for play and throughout the night broke into periods of the far-reaching ululating cry that the hunters had uttered at the kill and during their return.

* * * * *

The visiting kin clans had stayed but when the big light came again they would return to their homes. The beaches were again safe. The old matriarch watched the partial circle of light climb higher into the light-freckled darkness, its glow overcoming the other points of light. As it climbed, its sister on the water grew smaller until it was simply a footprint. Finally, the matriarch reached out for her oldest grandchild and drew her near, then closed her eyes until the big light came again.