The cat lay erect, able to give over a good portion of its living existence to sleep without ever having to slip into a languid defenseless slumber. His eyes filmed over, his translucent third eyelid drew across his eyes for protection, and to moisten them while still maintaining his excellent visibility. It was not required that he blink his outer lids and possibly reveal his position. Vaguely, his mind wandered past the damage to his ear and how his position might always be less secure than it once was, but he spent little time thinking about it. The small human was too interesting, and his movements drew all of the cat’s remaining attention, or at least that part of his mind that hadn’t slipped into its slowed and drowsy waiting period.
“It all started,” the boy began, “when my father decided that he would make a better chief than the chief.” The boy went silent for a while, stoking his small fire and getting the stripped cut pieces of fish flesh adjusted over the fire.
The cat watched inattentively, finally sliding his muzzle down to rest atop the crossed paws before him.
“The chief, upon finding out that my father wanted his position, promoted him to become the tribe’s lead hunter. My father was very proud. The first hunt he led was a great success, with plenty of game found and killed, but my father never came back from that hunt. He either fell, was accidentally speared or an animal attacked and killed him. The stories of the hunters were as indistinct as they were plentiful. The chief decided that the different stories didn’t matter. My father was a great hunter and had died for the tribe.”
The boy pulled back a stake he’d angled in over the flames and began biting away at the cooked flesh of the fish, still steaming with the heat of evaporating juices.
“Now this is how advanced creatures eat,” the boy said, between bites.
When he was half done he tossed the thin stick toward the cat.
The cat knew he should have jumped away, but having instantly gauged the trajectory of the thrown object as not being properly launched to strike him, he ignored the stick and fish until it thumped onto the ground beside him. But the act brought him out of his comfortable state of half-conscious reverie. He blinked his outer eyelids, then sniffed the air. He wasn’t hungry, what with the big chunk of raw fish he’d already consumed distending his belly. But the aroma of the cooked fish was too much to ignore.
Turned his head to the right side, he sniffed the cooked fish more closely and thoroughly. He could not help but take a sample bite.
“Not too bad, that cooked stuff, huh?’ the boy said, eating from another strip he’d pulled from the fire.
The cat came to his feet, bent his neck and went to work wolfing down the remainder of the fish, before slowly turning around several times and assuming his former position.
The boy watched while he ate. The cat was allowing his back to be turned and exposed each time he made one of his small slow circles before settling in.
There had to be some trust involved in that series of movements, but the boy couldn’t figure out whether that was true or not or if the wildcat was trusting him at all. And then the question, why was he trusting him?
“My mother was taken from our tent and made to live with another warrior. I have no brothers or sisters, so the whole burden of responsibility for me rested on the warrior that had taken her in. The chief quickly took care of that warrior’s displeasure by declaring my own membership in the tribe null and void.”
The boy breathed in and out, his gnawing hunger for more of the wonderful fish flesh dissipating faster than the membership in his tribe had.
“I was still allowed to serve the needs of the tribe, however, I wasn’t allowed to hunt for tribal game, associate with others of my own age, or do much of anything other than menial errands normally reserved for those being punished, or performed by women and girls.”
The boy breathed in and out quickly and deeply, emotion racing back and forth through him.
“I have no place to sleep, get out of the weather, store what little mess of things I have left, or any of that. I have no people. I have nobody to talk to except you. Finally, I have to wait until the Anita come wandering down to occupy these lowlands and kill me off when they find me unless the weather or some great hunting wild animal does that first.”
“The cleft isn’t big enough to stay alive in for the winter, for either one of us or both,” he concluded, more to himself than the cat.
The cat’s one eye remained slit, with the nictating membrane closed and assuring that it would never have to be fully closed.
“And there’s no real top on it to guard against the coming snow,” he said, “not to speak of, anyway.”
The cat remained unmoved and unmoving.
“We need a small cave or something like that,” the boy said, conversationally.
While he continued to think and talk he worked another small pouch loose from his belt. He untied the pouch very carefully and spread the square of leather out in front of him. On top of the square, fully revealed by the flatness around it, was a half-fist sized chunk of gnarly tobacco.
“I don’t rate a pipe and, like the spear tip, I don’t know how to make one,” the boy said, wistfully.
He leaned forward to pull a small flat branch from the red-hot small fire. He coaxed a pinch of tobacco onto the heated end of the branch and then inhaled the smoke that came off when the tobacco burned.
The boy coughed, repeatedly. “They say you get used to it,” he murmured to the cat between coughs. “I have to do this to become a warrior, I mean if some tribe comes along and is missing one or two.”
The boy knew there would be no tribe. Warriors were born, grown, taught and then selected by tribal chiefs, shaman, and senior warrior councils. They didn’t just turn up by the side of some river or path. The boy stared longingly at the cat. The cat had fur. It didn’t need a top for its cleft, a cave or even the fire. The cat was alone and happy to be alone. Without a tribe, a human being was as good as dead but not dead, and would die, with the eventual death would be long and painful.
“And that’s my story,” the boy finished. “I said it was a good story, not that it has a happy ending.”
The young human looked up to see how the cat was reacting to the telling of his story, but the cleft was empty. The cat had disappeared without a whisper or any hint of movement in its departure.
“A wise move,” the boy murmured while stoking his little fire.
A movement near his right shoulder caused the boy to place his right hand on the haft of his spear. The boy sat frozen, wondering what predatory creature had gotten so near without alerting him until the very last moment. Why wasn’t the creature attacking, he wondered, but he still made no move. Fire, even one as small as the boy’s, was avoided by almost all animals in the wild. When an uncommon fire swept through a forested area most animals living in that forest perished, in one way or another. What predator was ignoring the potential threat of fire?
The cat had moved upriver, but not far. His curiosity was just too great, and also his hunger considerably lessened, so he lacked the motivation to go out on the hunt for prey. Smaller prey might be toyed with for a while but, in almost all cases, prey was to be discovered, chased, killed and eaten. Hunting wasn’t done to satisfy curiosity or out of boredom. The cat sat erect, his back to the waters flowing downstream. The sound of the water might mask the approach of some threat but most other predator animals didn’t attack in or very close to the water’s edge, with the exception of bears. Bears would attack anywhere, but their massive size also allowed them to be detected by the vibrations their movements caused to flow through the ground. The cat neither felt nor saw any predators. His head peeked up over a rock, about ten of his body lengths from where the boy sat unmovingly.
The cat watched the beaver sitting directly behind the boy’s back, its head pointing toward the boy, not more than a paws length from his left shoulder. The cat wondered why the boy didn’t react, but he didn’t.
The boy suddenly moved by jumping backward and sprawling himself out toward the water, and then rolling over to bring his spear up before turning to meet what he presumed was a stalking predator.
The beaver sat and stared, as the boy got himself vertical and stood facing it with is spear outthrust.
“A beaver,” the boy breathed out. “What is a beaver doing here, and why would a beaver walk up to my fire and sit there like that?”
The cat came to its feet and moved silently down the river bank, staying low enough not to be seen. When he was near the boy’s right side he stopped and turned.
“I’ve never eaten beaver,” the boy said, looking at the substantial animal that continued to do nothing in front of him.
He watched the beaver look into the small flames of the fire. After a few seconds, the beaver moved closer to the fire and laid down, turning its back and tail toward the boy.
“So, you’re giving up,” the boy said, feinting at the creatures back with his short-hafted spear. “That’s my good fortune. What a pile of meat you will make. The tribe would likely make me a warrior for bringing your body and pelt in.”
The beaver ignored the boy’s comments and presence behind it.
“Don’t think I won’t stab you right through the back,” the boy said, hunching forward, getting ready to attack. “One swift strike and you’ll be spitted like a pig.”
The cat walked past the boy and sat down next to the beaver, not more than a body length away. The beaver turned its head to look at it briefly but made no other move. The beaver returned its head to lay down. It stared back into the flames. The cat’s back was also to the boy. For some reason, he couldn’t think of, the cat felt no hostility from the young human, just as he’d somehow known that the boy wasn’t going to do anything to the beaver.
“Oh great,” the boy said, pushing his spear back onto the ground, as noisily as he could. “My tribe. A crazy wildcat and an even crazier beaver. The Anita are going to show up, eat the beaver, kill me, and chase the cat off into the deeper wilderness if there’s any about.”
The cat looked back at the boy over his shoulder, glanced at the beaver near his right side, and then walked around the fire and went to work on one of the chunks of cooked fish the boy had left on the ground.
“What to do?” the boy said, knowing he was talking to himself but not caring.
The cat seized a big chunk of the meat in his mouth, turned his back on the fire and leaped over the canted stones and back into his cleft.
“Social mannerisms of a cat, I see,” the boy said, looking downriver where a collection of driftwood had gathered.
He slowly arose, picked up his spear and walked down to where the pile of dry wood was jammed together at a slight bend in the river. The nights were growing colder, although still not uncomfortable. Wood was vital for warmth, cooking and for defense. The boy put his spear down and gathered up a pile of sticks and small logs. As quickly as he could, he made his way back to the fire, noting that the cat wasn’t visible in the cleft and the beaver had disappeared, as well. On his third trip to get another double armload of wood, he noticed that the beaver had moved downriver to crawl up on the bank not far from where the woodpile was. He frowned at the strange thick beast but continued his work. Only when he returned to retrieve his spear did he notice that the beaver was swimming away, out toward the center of the river, as the water widened and the speed of the passing it was substantially reduced. The sun was passing its high point, so he shaded his eyes with one hand. In the distance, further downriver, the beaver swam toward a high round pile of what seemed like a formed mound of mud-plastered wooden debris. Just before the beaver got to the pile it disappeared below the water and didn’t come back up, even though the boy waited for some time.
The boy looked around for his spear but it wasn’t where he’d left it. A slight panic came over him. The spear wasn’t only irreplaceable if someone or something had taken it the situation could be extremely dangerous, if not terminal.
The boy backed up to the water and looked up and down the bank. He saw what he thought was his spear laying in the mud but it was too light to be that. He walked down the bank, staying low and watching the forest closely. When he got to the object he identified it as his spear, although the shaft was almost pure white. He realized that there was no bark on the wood of the shaft. The boy picked up the spear and examined it closely, discovering small teeth marks all over its surface. What ate wood bark, he thought?
“Beaver,” he concluded in shock and then laughed. “The beaver ate my spear!”