The cat reacted in shock, the unexpected recovery of the hominid, from what seemed like deep sleep, surprising him to the point of near shock.
The cat froze in place, its own eyes staring into the dark, shiny and unblinking eyes of the human. The meatball was forgotten.
“It’s up to you,” the boy breathed out, his words soft, but also forced. The cat was a substantial animal and a predator of some renown. The boy knew he wasn’t the cat’s preferred prey, but he also knew that he was no contest for the cat, not without some distance between them and a good grip on his hunting spear. The spear was only a hand’s length away, but the boy made no move for it. The big round and unblinking eyes of the cat allowed for no movement at all.
The cat stared for what seemed like an eternity. The cat’s tail swished twice during the minutes of full scrutiny. Finally, the cat blinked once, very slowly.
The boy somehow knew, from the single long blink, that the cat was not going to attack, although he could not say why. It was true that the boy wasn’t natural prey for the great predator, as it was also true that by bodyweight there was no comparison. If the cat wanted to attack, being so very close, the boy would have no chance of survival, and he knew it.
Backing up slowly, the cat turned and then moved silently to where the ball of meat lay. He distended his jaw a bit, picked up the ball and leaped nimbly over the rocks into the cleft. He turned in mid-air to land facing the human. Slowly he lowered himself to the bare ground floor of the cleft. He stared at the boy out through the triangular cleft opening while he consumed the ball of meat. The human was more interesting than the beaver but much more likely to be a problem around the area of the cleft if he were to remain in the vicinity. It was obvious that the boy only had a rudimentary capability to hunt since it appeared that all he could catch were small balls of fine-tasting meat in very small amounts.
The cat watched the boy closely. The human had fallen back asleep again, which wasn’t wise in the area of the forest around the cleft, and certainly not more than a few body lengths from one of the forest’s more feared predators. If the bear came along, even though it was not a nocturnal hunter, the hominid would be killed and consumed in a very short time. The ball of meat wasn’t totally satisfactory for true sustenance but the cat felt that it was sufficient to get by through the night. Since the young human didn’t appear to be going anywhere through the night the cat would take the time to rest, make sure nothing gathered to the sleeping human, and then see what the dawn brought when the sun came up.
The night was uneventful. Dawn came with day sounds before the light of day. The cat yawned. The human roused himself slowly and somehow started a small fire from the coals of the night before. The cat stared into the strange but welcome flames and then at the boy.
“You probably want to know what happened to my tribe and why I’m really here, intended to die when the weather changes for the worse,” the boy said, bringing his sharp stick out, and then working to tie a long thin piece of leather to the blunt end.
The cat watched, mystified, understanding nothing of the boy’s mouth sounds, except the tone of them seemed somehow comforting. The cat decided to wait and see what the boy did next.
“It won’t make any sense to you, I know,” the boy said, working carefully to wrap and tie off the leather thong. “My father died hunting, the hunters said. My mother was given to another hunter because her parents died earlier. I could not go to the new group because I’m too old. But I’m too young to be a warrior. So, that’s it. There’s nothing in the middle. Here I am.”
The boy spread his arms and laughed.
The cat yawned again, not having slept well because of having made the decision to watch over the boy through the night. And the night, prime hunting time, was gone. The cat licked its lips and waited for something to happen.
“Okay, so you’re not sympathetic,” the boy said. “I get it. And you seem to like the fire. And you stayed all night. And you’re not running off now. You deserve some reward for listening to my comments.”
The boy got to his feet, removed his leather leggings and soft moccasins, placing them close, but not too close, to the small fire. The boy turned toward the nearby edge of the fast-moving river, held the stick up parallel to the ground, well over his shoulder and stepped into the water until it flowed up over his knees. He stopped and peered down at the seemingly cloudy water before him. In seconds, and without warning, he plunged the point of the sharp stick down and thrust it into the water.
“Yes, the river gods are kind,” he yelled, pushing his spear forward and then up.
The tip cleared the water but there was no tip, only a large struggling fish, the size of one of the boy’s thighs. The boy swung the stick over his head and the fighting fish came thudding down between the small fire and the opening to the cleft. The cat jumped backward in shock and wonder. A big fish lay flopping just outside the cleft and he’d seen it come up out of the water and be flung through the air by the stick.
The boy placed his spear carefully down on the river bank, the tip pointing toward the river. He coiled the leather thong he’d so carefully prepared and tied to the weapon.
“The thongs tied to the haft because I can’t afford to lose the spear,” he said, walking slowly and carefully around the fire to encounter the still living fish. “My father made the spear for me and I don’t know how to make one of the sharp points out of the magical black stones. Just so you know.”
The cat stared out at the fish. Fish was a preferred food source over almost any other meat. The cat wasn’t equipped to catch fish. Fishing required getting wet, which the cat preferred not to do unless his life was in danger. In winter, exposure to water could also be very deadly very quickly. His ability to move fast was severely hampered by being in a near frozen state. His one dive into icy winter waters had been his last, or so he hoped.
The small human went to work cutting up the fish. He hummed while he worked, which caused the cat some discomfort. At first, the cat thought the human was crying, which was prey behavior. It took some time, watching the fish being dissected, until he realized that the boy was making sounds simply to make sounds while he worked.
The cat waited, expecting nothing except the passing of time until the daylight would be gone and hunting would continue. The boy was much more entertaining than the beaver, as, when not sleeping, he moved about continuously and made many of his strange noises. The noises coming from the boy’s mouth made the cat edgy. He knew the sounds had something to do with something but he couldn’t think of what. The cat put his head between his paws, hoping to quiet the things that were beating back and forth through his small mind.
Out of seeming nowhere a big tail chunk of the fish sailed over the rocks forming the cleft and slid down to land with a distinct ‘plop’ in front of the cat’s feet. The cat looked over the chunk of wonderful smelling fish to see the boy stopped and facing him.
“Go ahead, it’s breakfast time,” the boy said. “Might as well eat before the winter comes and your supplier freezes to death.”
The cat stared, first at the boy and then at the fish chunk. The chunk was huge, and almost, but not quite too large to be consumed in one go at it. The cat considered as he looked back and forth. There seemed to be something vaguely discomforting flowing through his mind about taking the offered piece of fish, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. It was the same feeling the cat had registered when he’d twice taken the balls of meat. There was something wrong with the arrangement.
But the chunk of fish emitted the most divine aroma, and the cat had not enjoyed fresh fish straight from the river since he could remember. He pounced forward, all fragmented thoughts disappearing from his head as he bit deep into the fish muscle and shook the whole thing off the ground. The cat shook the chunk violently from left to right, all thoughts of his being lured into a trap gone from his predatory mind. He shook the fish to make it his, and also by automatic forces deep inside him requiring that he make absolutely certain the meat was dead and no threat to his own safety. When he was satisfied, he dragged the piece backwards and assumed the same position and spot he’d vacated before moving to claim the prize.
The cat began to consume the wondrous fresh fish, biting off one big chunk after another, chewing briefly, and then swallowing the piece that was close to being too big to get down. While he ate the fish the cat’s eyes never left the boy. But he couldn’t hold that level of attention for long. The fish meat was simply too good. He adjusted to pointing his ears at the boy, the damaged one not pointing very well, and then glancing up every once and a while to make sure the small human hadn’t done something unpredictably dangerous. All animals were dangerous, he knew. The flight from one tree into another to avoid the bear attack had simply proven once again that animals ate other animals and the process of doing that was filled with pain and death. Intrinsically, the cat knew that getting hurt in the forest almost invariably led to death. Any injury causing the cat to have an inability to hunt, with his physical digestive system that required meat every few days or more often, could be quickly terminal. Movement was everything.
“You know,” the boy said, dragging the body of the fish back to the edge of the water, “if you had the least bit of patience, you could enjoy this fish cooked over the fire, which makes it taste better and also might give you greater energy without having to eat a ton of it in one sitting.”
The boy turned his back on the cat and went to work gutting the fish and then filleting the sides to shave off the thickest portions remaining.
The cat stopped eating to stare at the boy’s back. Predators never turned their backs on other predators in the forest. Prey would sometimes do that, but only to attempt escape by running away. The boy’s behavior was peculiar enough to alert the cat’s sensitivity to danger.
The boy turned to look back at the cat and saw that the animal had stopped eating to stare at him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the boy said. “You think I’m an idiot for turning my back on a cat that could kill me in short order since I don’t have my spear close at hand.”
The cat relaxed at the sounds of the boy’s gibbering sounds and went back to work consuming the chunk of fish.
“The truth’s a bit harder to accept,” the boy went on, his laughter fading away.
He pulled the meat close to the fire while he looked at the cat, who was enjoying probably the largest meal he’d had in some time.
“The truth,” the boy whispered out. “I’m not at all sure that I care whether you attack or not.”
“I’m from the Domingo tribe, or at least I was,” the boy said, his voice becoming more audible, and his tone moving from wistful to flat and measured. “The Anita tribe will be coming down to occupy this part of the valley for the winter. They hunt the beaver, the deer and anything else that lives through the coldness, which will probably include you. The Domingo head south to enjoy warmer weather and also collect the berries, roots and other things that make the endless hunting much less necessary. The Domingo are smarter than the Anita, except for the fact that they didn’t want me anymore, that is.”
The cat stopped eating again. He’d consumed more than half the fish and was feeling better than he had in a long time, although not like wanting to run out under the forest bed of thick dead needles or climb any of the great whispering pines. He sat up, keeping his right paw on the remaining chunk of fish. He stared at the boy, his eyes unblinking. The tone of the boy’s sounds had changed. The cat’s fear and natural paranoia had disappeared as the young humans had changed.
“What?” the boy asked, stopping his work on making an assortment of spits to impale the fish chunks on.
The cat and boy sat and stared across the short distance at one another. The boy waited. The cat waited. The fire flickered in the slight wind and the pines above them sang, while the river’s ever-present noise was more of passing burbling pressure than a real series of sounds at all.
“Okay,” the boy finally said. “I can’t stare for that long without blinking. You have a talent. You can outwait me. I know, I know, you want more detail, so I’ll tell you the whole story, not just the part where I was treated so poorly.”
The boy went back to work spitting the fish slices, took a few seconds to get his thoughts together while he worked, and then began talking, as he glanced at the cat to make sure he still had the fierce predator’s attention.
The cat still sat waiting, not really understanding why he was still sitting and waiting, instead of gobbling down the rest of the meat, or doing anything else at all. For some unknown reason, the boy’s mouth sounds, offering no understanding as to their meaning, had some sort of meaning that had to have significance.
The day was long. The cat wasn’t going anywhere. He’d wait to see what happened. He let his body slide down into a prone position, his paws straight out before him and his ears directed forward.
“It’s a good story,” the boy began.