July 13, 2020
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Evolution of Modern Man
by Karen Heslop (short, PG-13)
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. She loves writing stories that are speculative in nature.
Oopak glanced at the newcomers huddled around the small fire they had built outside their hut. He wanted to learn their true purpose through what he hoped was unnoticed observation. Their hands moved swiftly as they communicated in a foreign tongue. They had learnt a few signs from Oopak's kind but didn't use them among themselves. Still, Oopak cradled the cracked-earth mug of barely warm water in his hands and watched.
The small-headed creatures had been with them for a while but he still had not warmed to them. Secretly, he called them 'tamrawls' because they reminded him of the scrawny birds that he sometimes saw when he went hunting. Their meat was too tough to be worth the effort of killing -- something he had learnt the hard way -- and they scared away the desired prey by prancing about screeching "tam-rawl, tam-rawl" at near deafening levels.
Such were these newcomers -- they couldn't be eaten and they haven't been anything but a nuisance since they wandered into the village. It didn't matter what Leader Unpar said about a larger community being helpful in the frost, something about them was wrong.
Besides, how could they hunt beasts for food when they were so small? Their largest man barely made it to Oopak's shoulder and disappeared in the girth of his shadow. And Oopak was only average. He questioned if they were really there to help and even if they were from here at all. Oopak had seen ... things in his life and though the tamrawls arrived when the sun was high, he did not trust them any more than he did the other things he didn't know.
As he watched, the group dispersed and headed in different directions. The one who called himself Mardan nodded in Oopak's direction and hastened away. He wrapped his hands around his body to ward off the cold and Oopak chuckled. It was getting colder and colder every day. These tamrawls told of warmer lands so surely they would not survive this. Surely they would move on and take this foul air hovering over the village with them.
With the scrawny ones gone, Oopak plodded through the spreading white slush on the ground to Unpar's hut. The large dwelling of weathered wood and bleached bones creaked when he slapped against them to get the Leader's attention. Unpar looked up from his position on the floor and beckoned Oopak in.
Oopak bowed briefly before joining his leader on the ground. He slapped the ground to begin their conversation then made signs through deft finger and hand movements.
"Leader Unpar, the newcomers ... they talk in quiet. I see them."
Unpar hesitated before signing in reply. "This not strange Oopak. They not our people."
Oopak grunted and tried a different approach. "What about food? They too small to hunt. When they come, it warm and beasts many. Now frost here and beasts hide. Food not enough to share."
"I talk with Mardan about food. They lead us to fish."
Oopak scoffed. "Fish? Leader, there no fish in frost. They hide under hard water. They taking us to warm lands?"
"They can get through hard water. They show us when sun comes. You go with them. I stay here."
When Oopak returned to his hut, the ripe scent of the fire-burned meat from the last beast he had killed assaulted his nostrils. He wished he had a way to make it last longer. It was unfair that he was so hungry in the times when food was so hard to find.
He tore chunks from the remaining leg and dropped them into his mouth. It wasn't as good as when he had first held the fresh kill over the fire, but it would do. With the last of his meagre meal gone, Oopak needed a distraction from the abyss that still quaked in his gut. He went for a walk around the camp.
There were nearly as many of the newcomers as there were Oopak's kind so it shouldn't have surprised him to see one or two everywhere he went. There they were trying to learn proper spear throwing from Oopak's own mentor, Dragnat. There they were talking to Fal, who tracked hunting grounds. And there, and there and there ...
At first he didn't believe his eyes. There was a newcomer leaving the healing hut with Leader Unpar's daughter, Manni. Oopak saw no patches of beast skin on the tamrawl so he hadn't been hurt. Instead of turning away, Oopak remained in place as the cosy pair walked towards him. When they were close to him, he reached out and cupped the young woman's chin.
Her eyes widened then narrowed to a quiet defiance. It was if she was daring him to question her faithfulness to Dragnat. He moved to drag them apart but they had already untangled. As he seethed, the separated couple blended into the people milling around the village. Oopak grunted. He should tell Unpar about it but what good would that do? He didn't believe anything was wrong with the tamrawls.
Oopak returned to his hut more worried about the newcomers than before.
* * *
By the time the sun's yellow fingers crept under Oopak's dwelling opening, he was twitching with anxiety. The tamrawls clattered and cawed in their usual noisy fashion spearing the early morning quiet. He threw the sling with his spear over his shoulder, his stomach knotted with a hunger he could barely ignore. As he left his hut he almost collided with Mardan. A low growl rattled in the man's throat but a smile graced his face. Oopak wondered if he had misheard.
Mardan signed clumsily. "We ready to go Oopak."
"Yes. We go."
The iciness of the day invaded their bones as they walked. The sun overhead mocked them with only the promise of heat. Oopak settled into the steady trudge, his bulky frame warmed by the thick skins he wore. There was a satisfying tingle in his gut when he saw the tamrawls shiver. He was torn between wanting the cold to take them and wanting the fish they had promised.
Finally, water came into view. Oopak could only see two of its curvy edges as the rest flowed out to the unseen. The surface was white but pale so it wasn't hard. He looked upwards to see how far the sun had moved. It was almost close to the middle of the sky which told him they had walked further in this direction than he ever had. He had explored that far and further in other directions in pursuit of beasts, but beasts didn't come this way. Even before the frost, there had been no plants or trees to feed the beasts.
The tamrawls moved to the edge of the water, dipping their feet in then pulling them out as if stung. Oopak and his people watched before following suit. The chill crept up his body causing an ache in the centre of his chest. How were they supposed to catch fish when they couldn't even stay in the water long enough to spear them?
As if hearing his unspoken question, Mardan unfurled the bag he had been carrying on his back. It was as long as two of the tamrawls lying head to toe and filled with small holes. Mardan called everyone closer. Oopak watched them slip the thing into the water and lower it slowly. They waited a little and then pulled it up. To Oopak's surprise, fish were flopping around when it popped up from the icy water.
"How?" Oopak signed.
Oopak grunted but asked no further questions. Even if the fish catcher was a good thing, he found satisfaction in knowing it came about because the tamrawls didn't have his stamina and skill for spearing fish. Stifling his amusement, Oopak moved forward to take the catcher from Mardan's hands. There was a fleeting spark in the newcomer's eyes and Oopak paused.
He stepped back and instructed the others with him to try the fish catcher. While the hunters fished, Oopak observed them and the tamrawls from the shore. Suddenly, there were shouts and a flurry of activity as men sprang from the water. Oopak rushed to the water and froze. The fish catcher was lying haphazardly on the ground. In the middle of writhing silver fish, there was something twice their size.
Blood-red scales covered half of its body before giving way to a solid black torso. The head was oval-shaped and covered with wispy green hairs. Eyes the colour of churning sea water peered at the people surrounding it and seemed to size them up one by one. Further behind him than he remembered, Oopak heard Mardan whimper. When Oopak looked at him, he signed.
For once, he agreed with the scrawny man.
"Yes, we go."
The hunters quickly whipped the remaining fish and the strange creature into the water. They left the fish catcher in a heap for Mardan to retrieve. Oopak couldn't help feeling as if he were still under that strange thing's watchful eye as he gathered fish into his sack. A quick check on Mardan showed that he too was still casting furtive glances at the still water. The look in his eyes was one Oopak had seen many times from men who had come face to face with something they feared. He made a note to ask Mardan what he knew about the red fish.
The men plodded home in silence, concentrating on the weight of the fish they carried instead of the creature from the sea. The quiet endured as each man dropped his sack of fish at Unpar's hut. Sensing the tension in the air, Unpar sought answers. He clasped Oopak's shoulder firmly before signing. "Something happen Oopak?"
Unpar watched him patiently as Oopak sorted through his thoughts. "A strange creature in the water. Something I never see."
"No, but ... "
The look on Mardan's face came back to him but surrounded by tangible treasure from the hunt, the look might as well have been a dream.
"Nothing. We take fish to women. Feast?"
A slow smile crept onto Unpar's rugged face. A feast wasn't something they had in times of frost. It would lift the peoples' spirits. "Yes. Yes! Feast!"
He slapped Oopak on the shoulder and grabbed two of the sacks himself. Seeing their leader join in, the others hefted their sacks with a bit more confidence. Their footsteps were lighter as they walked to the cooking hut. The women roared with laughter when they saw the fish. They slapped the beaming men on their shoulders then shooed them away.
"Feast?" Unpar's wife, Negeata asked.
"Feast!" Unpar confirmed.
The women grabbed fish from the sacks and removed the scales with practiced speed. Tools thunked and pots clunked.
Before long, the aroma of sizzling fish filled the camp, calling everyone from their huts. As the sun dropped lower, the chill in the air grew. Still, everyone settled in around the large fire waiting for the feast to begin. One of the younger girls started to hum in a low, lilting voice. Others joined in until the blended harmony of voices rose above the camp in waves.
Soon, large wooden platters with crispy fish were being placed around the fire and Unpar came forward to address the crowd. He stood to the side so the fire would properly illuminate his hands.
"Frost here but we have feast because of new friends!"
His pause on the word 'friends' was not lost on Oopak. Until this point, even Unpar had called the tamrawls newcomers. They had not yet shown what they could contribute to the group. That changed today. Now they had worth. Mardan waved away the compliment from beside the hut he occupied with the rest of the tamrawls. Unpar continued.
He grabbed a handful of fish from the nearest platter and moved aside so the others could dig in. Oopak approached one of the platters slowly, looking around to ensure everyone had started eating. He locked gazes with Mardan. The tamrawl was watching Oopak so intently Oopak's hand paused above the platter. Gradually, Oopak became keenly aware of everything around him.
The chill of the air bit at his left side even as the warmth from the roaring flame toasted his right. The crispy flesh of the fish filled his nose with an enticing aroma but still there was an underlying rot burning his stomach. It reminded him of the before days when he had left the beast meat in his hut for too long. He stared at Mardan more openly now. The head tamrawl had not moved from his spot outside the hut. It was possible he was waiting for everyone to eat but ...
As if reading Oopak's thoughts, Mardan rose and walked away. Oopak kept pace with him easily and grunted to get his attention.
The tamrawl turned slowly, a tight smile chiseled unto his face. "Yes Oopak?"
"No, not hungry. Feast for you. More next time."
Mardan turned away and hurried to his hut. Torn about the next course of action, Oopak loitered for a bit. Finally he ignored his growling stomach and traded the festivities by the fire for the solitude of his hut. Someone raised another tune. It was a song Oopak hadn't heard in a while. The melancholy song was a tribute to the gods of fortune and a plea to the gods of plight. It was a stark reminder that while their numbers grew during the warm times, the frost culled almost as effectively. His mind was on Mardan as the voices lulled him to sleep.
A dull pounding echoed through the night, nudging Oopak from a deep sleep. The ground beneath him shivered with each thud and his brow crinkled. The thuds grew louder and closer, raising the dust on the hut's floor each time. Oopak pushed the rough beast skin away and peeked outside. There were others cautiously seeking the noise's source but nothing appeared.
Stepping out, Oopak peered around under the dim light of the moon. The sounds were now close enough for him to recognize them. Footsteps. Whatever was approaching was larger than any beast he knew. He went back into the hut and retrieved the torch leaning against the back wall. He forced his hands to remain steady as he clicked two fire stones together. He muttered words of encouragement to the sporadic sparks. Finally, fire sputtered from the clashing rocks and leapt unto the waiting torch. He slipped the sling with his spear over his back and dashed from his hut.
He was running towards Unpar's hut when he saw the leader standing at the campfire area. He stood with his hands hanging limply as if transfixed. He grunted to get the leader's attention.
Unpar didn't turn so Oopak approached him. As he reached out to touch Unpar's shoulder, something glistened under his torch's light. Curious, Oopak held the torch aloft. The creature became clear. It was twice as tall as the tallest man in the village. Its legs were as thick as the trees they had used to build their huts and seemed almost as dense. The creature's bottom half was covered in closely packed rows of silvery red scales while its upper half blended into the ebony blackness of the night.
The creature's bleached white face shone under the torch's light. Familiar sea foam eyes siphoned the courage from Oopak's spine. A low hiss slithered from the creature's maw draped in a stench that reminded Oopak of the slime that coated the bottom of the water. He touched Unpar's shoulder and signed carefully.
"Unpar, we move."
Unpar finally struck the fire stones in his hands and dropped them on the camp fire. The creature did not flinch as the fire flared but continued its approach. A steady crunch of footsteps behind them heralded the arrival of people behind them. Oopak could hear whispers and whimpers but could not look away from the creature. He had to be prepared if it meant harm.
Still keeping the creature in his sights, Oopak reached for his spear. Warmth built at his back as the light from more torches shone. The night air filled with the shallow, expectant breaths of hunters. This creature might be their next feast. It stepped closer, its eyes on the villagers when there was a crunch of tiny bones under its feet. Both the creature and Oopak looked down. Fish bones.
A screeching wail tore from its throat as it stared at the crushed bones.
Glaring at those gathered, it brought its thick arms together pulsing a gust of air through the village that blew out most of the torches. Oopak had turned away so his torch remained lit. The creature moved purposefully, ripping through the huts that were closest. Oopak gripped his torch as if it were his lifeline. The creature grabbed those who ran from the huts, tearing them apart like leaves.
It charged forward, flattening huts and crushing those within. Blood ran from the rubble to the campfire, filling the air with the hiss and sizzle of boiling blood.
Oopak stepped back and let loose his spear. Others joined in hurtling their spears at the monster, none of which pierced its flesh. Instead, each made a resounding clank when they came in contact with its body and a dull thud as they embedded themselves elsewhere. Men, women and children still rushed from their huts. They no longer tried to attack the creature but were running away towards the closest camp which was still many suns away.
The creature stood tall, its stomach ballooning with a deep intake of air. As Oopak watched, it bent forward and expelled a bellyful of fire at the retreating dwellers. Screams and wails ripped the night as everyone was enveloped in flames. The creature stepped past a shivering Oopak. It ignored the tamrawl's dwelling altogether. Oopak followed the creature on numb legs. He wondered why he and the tamrawls were still alive.
In a daze, Oopak followed the creature's blood-soaked and limb-littered path. It stood at the end of the village with its head high in the air. He could hear brief sniffing sounds. It was as if the creature was trying to find anyone who was still alive.
The night had gone quiet and Oopak approached the creature slowly. His fingers had gone numb from gripping the torch. All his friends were dead. He had nothing to lose. He could take the chance. When he was close, he signed his question.
The creature fixed him with its tumultuous eyes sending shivers through Oopak's still frame.
It shuffled towards him and Oopak fought to keep his legs grounded as the creature approached. The ground wavered beneath him but he remained still. The creature bent and touched his forehead with a cold, wet finger. It made a fist over the centre of its chest then dragged its arm to the right.
Oopak's lips parted and slapped shut again. The creature walked away, the thud of its footsteps echoing through the almost empty village. A hand gripped his shoulder and Oopak spun around, brandishing his faltering torch. It was Mardan. Manni was a few steps behind the tamrawl, wrapped in beast fur.
"Why?" he asked Mardan.
"They ate fish."
Mardan's words ignited Oopalk's gut. He dropped the torch and lunged at Mardan with clenched fists.
The tamrawl sidestepped him easily. "Yes. We took fish but only some ate. It killed them."
"There more of you?"
"Yes. Others go all over."
Mardan shrugged. "Food not enough for all."
The matter of fact answer doused the flame in Oopak's gut. He should kill him. He knew he should. But then what? Where would he go afterwards? He did not know how to live on his own and if what Mardan was saying was true, who knew which villages still existed?
Sensing Oopak's conflict, Mardan placed his hand on Oopak's shoulder again. "We build huts back. Stay?"
Oopak glared at the tamrawl. He would repay the heartless creature before him. For that, he needed to be in the village. He forced his scowl into a more neutral expression.
Mardan nodded and walked away while Oopak sized him up from behind. The tamrawls would get their payback one day. One day.
* * *
Article © Karen Heslop. All rights reserved.
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~ Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. She loves writing stories that are speculative in nature.