A Tale Worth Telling
Morning fog streams through the great forest like the smoke of a thousand fires. The clan forages through the mist-blurred world, gorging on succulent red and yellow fruits that dangle from the trees. They move leisurely, selecting only the ripest fruits, eating only the juiciest tidbits. The insects that swarm them are ignored, both those that bite and those that watch.
Ak is chieftain. At thirty-two summers, his fur is turning silver but he is still immensely strong. Zo is first female. She has twenty-four summers and is at the height of her breeding period. Broad and sturdy she is, with glossy black fur and all her teeth. Goe and Ze are daughters of Ak and Zo. Dah is their son. There are more females and young in the clan but only one other big male. This is Ven, who feeds on the outskirts and never approaches Ak.
Dah has twelve summers. He is almost as tall as his father but not nearly so muscled, nor so moody. His hours are full of play and hooting laughter. On this day, daring as always, Dah climbs higher in the trees than any others. He is bored with eating. His belly bulges. He flicks sticks down upon his sisters. They hiss and shriek until an irritated Ak bellows with rage and bams his huge, hairy fists against his chest.
The young scatter. Dah drops to earth and races to hide. He will not return until Ak’s anger subsides. That usually takes a while, and after Dah’s excitement fades he grows sleepy. He knows better than to rest on the ground; bigger things than he hunt this forest. A wide-limbed tree will make a perfect bed. Feeling very tired, he climbs only to the first limb, just two body-lengths above the forest floor. He nestles his head on his arms. His breathing slows and he sleeps. Dreams make him hoot softly in joy.
An elongated insect with three gossamer wings and elaborately curled antennae watches Dah dream. As the heat of the day comes strong, the whole jungle seems to sleep—until something screams.
Dah sits up abruptly, heart thundering, eyes wide. A searing agony locks itself around his lower right arm. He is jerked from the tree and hits the ground hard amid a rain of twigs. He tries leaping to his feet but finds himself anchored by some massive thing that stinks of rotted meat. A black-maned beast has vaulted from the ground to seize him off the low-hanging limb.
Shrieking desperately, Dah strives to tear free. The beast growls around its teeth where they lock in flesh. It swats at Dah; claws knife open his right leg. Dah shrieks louder. The forest joins in. Everyone in the clan has been ripped from sleep now. They add their voices to the din but there is little they can do. Dah fights. He tears at the beast’s face. He beats it with his free fist. The predator only tightens its grip and fresh agony bolts through Dah as the arm bone splinters. The hungry beast chews around Dah’s elbow.
Dah is saved by the predator’s urge to eat before finishing its kill. Muscle and bone give way beneath slicing canines. Dah is suddenly free, leaving behind a tithe of flesh. He leaps for the tree, strives to climb. Fear boosts him. With only one arm and one good leg, he swarms up and up. Bright blood paints the tree trunks red. It spatters the greenery with scarlet. The predator does not pursue. It stalks off, Dah’s hand and forearm hanging from its mouth.
Dah reaches his frantic mother. She enfolds him. His sisters join in. They hug tightly, clinging like vines. As a family, they whimper. Dah’s shrieks turn to moans. Zo licks her son’s wounds. His sisters pat him with leaves. Ak stays aloof, but that has always been his way. Gradually, Dah quiets. His thigh is furrowed deeply but blood seeps rather than gushes. His right arm is missing from just above the elbow. Shards of white bone poke through threads of flesh. But such was the power of the beast’s bite that most blood vessels have been twisted shut. He will not bleed to death.
Time passes toward dark. Ak makes away through the trees. It is a signal the clan cannot ignore. Dah follows, though he bleeds and hurts and whimpers. Luckily, it is not far to the haven where the clan sleeps while in this territory. That nest site is an eroded jut of sandstone overlooking the river. None of the great predators can climb it.
The towering stone is dotted with nooks and crannies, many filled with leaves and grass. The clan finds its accustomed beds. Dah lies next to his mother but after a while Ak pulls her away. He takes her to his own hollow and Dah hears them rutting. Dah wants to sleep but pain will not let him. He whimpers until his younger sister, Ze, who has only ten summers, curls up with him. Slumber finds him then.
Dah dreams of monsters and awakens with a shriek. A frightened Ze backs away from her brother. He beckons and beckons with his good hand and eventually she settles in to groom his fur. His mother comes but stays only a moment. It is morning and the clan must return to the forest for food.
Dah follows the others, not wanting to let them out of sight. But he is slow and is left behind. He catches up in time only because he knows their goal—yesterday’s fruit fields. His mother gives him half a fruit and grooms him a moment, then moves off to seek more food for herself. Eating is not a choice for the clan. It is a must.
Though hungry, foraging is hard for Dah even amid plenty. Moving deftly through the trees requires four limbs. He has only two good ones. Ze brings him a fruit and he eats it gratefully. Then his sister joins other young ones and they chase each other through the forest, hooting with the joys of movement and life. Dah clings to a tree trunk. He has eaten enough to thin his hunger.
The day passes. The clan returns to their rock encampment, Dah lagging behind. He sleeps deeper this night but awakens with a fever and with his leg festering. He licks the claw marks as best he can. They are hot. His mother rubs leaves on his wounds but then heads off to forage. Dah does not go along. He lies listlessly in his grass bed and dozes in and out of strange, colorful dreams. A gossamer-winged insect rests quietly nearby.
In early afternoon, a deluge pours from the humid summer sky. It feels cool and Dah drags himself into the open. It is a good decision. As he drifts in and out of awareness, the hard rain beats on his wounds. He has scratched them open in his fever and blood and pus flow away with the sluicing water. That evening, his sickness breaks but leaves him weak.
For two days, Dah does not stray from the rock shelter. No one brings him food. He does not have the words to ask. Nor even the thought. On the third day, hunger drives him out with the clan, and because there is so much fruit he feeds well enough to live.
Time runs. For most of the season, Zo’s belly has been swelling with more than fruit. Soon she bears another daughter for Ak. This one is La. Dah pays her no mind. His injuries heal but his leg never regains full strength. He limps. The stump of his right arm withers. Weight falls from him; his fur grows lusterless and dull. No one wants to groom him now, although Ze does at times. His mother is busy with her newborn.
Summer ends. Drying time begins; fruit fields fail. Under Ak’s prodding, the clan moves. They follow the curve of the great river, feeding on leaves and nuts and mushrooms now, and roots dug along the waterway. Sometimes a clan member finds a juicy grub under the bark of a fallen tree. It is a delicacy that evokes hoots of pleasure from the finder and hoots of envy from the others. Dah never finds a grub. The feeding is harder for all in this season, and hardest for him because he is never first to a food source.
The forest thins. The clan grows fearful. This is dangerous territory, where the biggest predators hunt. Most clan folk avoid Dah. Ak even threatens him, to run him off. Dah vaguely understands. He is weak and hunters seek the weak. He is a risk for them all and sleeps alone at night. Sometimes during the day he rages, tearing off small tree limbs and flinging them around. But rage passes swiftly and he is more tired than before.
Without rain, the river becomes a muddy wallow and finally a series of fetid pools separated by long gaps. At one such pool, the clan settles in a great gnarled tree where they watch and wait for a chance to drink. A massive black-maned beast like the one that took Dah’s arm has claimed the watering hole and is busy gnawing the remnants of some kill.
The clan sleeps thirsty in the tree, awaiting morning. But in that dawning, the beast remains. Other creatures come and go, afraid to face the monster. The day passes. Zo moves to leave in search of another pool but Ak growls a command. She waits.
Dah sits and thinks. He does this more and more, since he does not often feel hungry and no longer wishes to play. Now, he studies Ak and understands. His father is afraid. Afraid of the beast, of course. But more afraid of failing the clan. For the first time, Dah sorrows for his father, who suddenly seems old. He looks away from Ak and toward the beast. His mind replays agony.
With his one hand, Dah seizes a dead limb on the tree. It is leafless, about half the thickness of his arm. The tip is sharp, though he scarcely notices. Dah exerts his strength, and when that fails he throws his whole weight against the limb. It snaps loose and the clan startles. Dah does not look at the others but firmly grips the thickest end of the stake. Slowly, he climbs from the tree; he limps toward the waterhole and the beast. Dah’s mother gasps. Ze calls fearfully to her brother. He does not turn or answer.
Hearing Dah’s footsteps, the beast lifts its head. It sees only a small woodland creature whose kind it has eaten before. It has no fear of the stick in the being’s hand. It is far more surprised to see prey offering itself freely. Slowly, it rises to its feet.
Suddenly, Dah shrieks with rage and leaps forward. He brings the stick down upon the beast’s skull. A vicious crack sounds, startling every living thing within hearing. The beast recoils, more astonished than hurt. Dah charges in. Again, he brings the stick down.
The beast lashes out; its claws rake Dah’s chest, tearing away ribbons of meat to expose the ribs. Dah does not pause. He is a mad, gibbering creature now. He beats at the predator. It roars. The open mouth inspires Dah. He stabs the stake’s sharp end down the thing’s throat. The predator jerks back, tearing the stick from Dah’s grip. It coughs and chokes; it chews at the offending object. The stick breaks but one part remains lodged in the monster’s gullet.
Dah shrieks in the beast’s face. The predator has had enough of this madness. It turns and flees. Dah stumbles to the pool and goes to his belly. He drinks long, ducks his head beneath the water and raises it again, dripping. Never has he tasted anything sweeter. The clan rushes the pool. They hoot wildly; they splash; they drink. Dah lowers his head once more. Water laps against him and carries away a thick flow of blood. Ak finally pulls his son back from the pool, leaving a trail of scarlet-slicked mud. The leader grunts once, and again, as if in question. But all answers have fled Dah. His eyes are open but filmed.
The clan stays near the water two more days. They avoid Dah’s body, although everyone knows where it lies. Eventually they move on. As always, the dry season passes. Rains come. The fruit fields return and the clan once more eats its fill. One evening near the rock tower where the clan nests, Ze—sister of Dah—does a strange thing. She piles moss on an old fallen log. The others watch. Some older females hoot in fear. The log with the moss on it looks like a great maned beast.
Ze picks up a heavy stick with one sharper end and swaggers over to the log. She shrieks out a challenge and leaps upon the tree-monster, hammering and stabbing with her new tool. The others of the clan join the shrieking. The younger ones grab sticks and come to Ze’s aid in her battle with the log. They poke and pound upon it until the moss is dislodged and the half rotten wood shatters.
Thus, is Dah remembered, while an insect with three wings watches. Its antennae uncurl and stretch skyward. A message is sent:
Species 716 has achieved Stage 1 consciousness. They are telling stories. Prepare for extraction and seeding on compatible worlds.