The boy took almost no time at all to spear another fish, this one not quite as large as the last one, but still large enough to force him to get completely wet before he could land it on the near shore. He used his knife to gut and clean it as best he could, holding the slippery body halfway in and halfway out of the rushing water.
The cat stayed three or four body lengths from him until the cleaning process was complete, and then without a sound or perceivable movement, he was gone. The boy threw the body of the fish over his left shoulder, re-sheathed his knife, and then began walking, carrying his small but very effective spear swinging along in his right hand. He felt naked without the obvious close company of the cat. He continued to look around for the creature until he reached the dying flames licking up from the stone fire pit. He noted that the beaver was back. The cat was more understandable than the beaver. It was obvious that the cat loved cooked fish, but the beaver didn’t seem the least interested in anything edible, except the bark from their spears.
“Sipu,” is about right, the boy said to himself, feeling better, as he walked at seeing Cetan diligently working away on the lean-to. “Sipu means bark, or close enough. The beaver is to be called Sipu.”
He smiled at the thought of the beaver being named for its irritating habit. Irritating to the boy and the warrior, anyway.
The cat trailed the departing tribal warriors, to assure that they were intent upon exiting his territorial area. Once they crossed the line he’d established with scent markings the cat lay down to wait. It would take some time, but it was important the cat be assured that the humans were not coming back. The warriors, in their travel together, had been making many of the noises associated with human beings. The noises were argumentative and filled with high emotion. The cat reflected on the dawning fact in his awareness that he didn’t like noises of high emotion. High emotion in larger animal expression usually portended violence or death. The cat was a larger animal.
The pride was at work bringing itself together down the valley, he knew. The cat puzzled over what work they might be about but realized that there was no way to know. Humans wandered about, made strange structures where more noises were always present, and beavers chewed the bottoms of trees until they fell over. There was nothing else, except the feeling. The cat had been alone. The cat had been good with being alone, and then that changed. The cat knew that before the lightning strike things had been somehow the same, but different. The cat had secured its lonely abandoned territory and patrolled it from one end to the other. The north side bordered by scent markings, the west side by the canyon wall, the east side by the river and wall beyond that until finally coming to the triangular bottom of the canyon where a great waterfall plunged down into nothingness. That had not changed. What had changed, making the cat uncomfortable again, was the appearance of the pride. Before, the cat had treated his entire territory as one broad possession.
The cat tried to adjust to the change. The pride was now what he possessed. His territorial area was the place where the tribe was located. Somehow, the cat’s attention had been subtly modified. It had just happened. Now, instead of thinking about potential predators, prey and protecting the territory the cat thought about the pride. No matter how it fit nowhere in any former reality or that it involved nothing of cat existence or behavior. The pride drew his attention. The pride drew itself to the center of his care, a care he’d never experienced before. The cat moved his body slightly but uncomfortably, looking up and down his territorial limiting line, before making a decision to return to the area around where the pride was gathered, doing whatever it was doing.
“We can’t leave here,” the boy said, “but if we stay then they’ll come back and kill us. I don’t think Athesis was kidding.”
“Athesis is a young hot-headed warrior who’s dumb, on top of that,” Cetan replied, adding braided fronds to the lean-to’s limbs to prevent rain from penetrating right through. “They will get back to the tribe, pow-wow with the chiefs, and then be sent back here to convince us to leave. They won’t go against the animals. It’s a bad omen to have seen what they saw when they came this first time.”
“We are a bad omen?” the boy asked.
“Not us,” Cetan replied. “We’re living inside the omen. We are the omen and nobody, not the Shaman, us or anybody else knows what kind of an omen we are. Omens are given to consider the direction one might be going and whether one might want to change direction.”
“What direction are we going?” Tama said.
“We’ve got work to do,” Cetan replied, his tone one of exasperation.
“We’ve got to prepare for the cold weather, snow and the return of the warriors. They’re a long way from done with us.”
Tama went to work cutting up the fish and impaling large chunks on long thin sticks he sharpened with his knife, and then leaned out over the hot coals.
“We have four warrior spears and my own,” the boy said, the warrior’s tone not holding him back at all. “Two knives. We sort of have Hasti. How can we get ready for the return of those men?”
The warrior worked away but remained silent.
“And the beaver’s named Sipu,” the boy went on. “That means bark because he ate the bark off our spears. We have to keep the other spears away from him or he’ll eat that bark too.”
“Animals don’t have names,” Cetan finally replied. “There’s no need to name any animals in the tribe. How can an animal remember its own name, even if given one? They aren’t intelligent, like humans.”
“The cat warned us of the attack,” Tama replied.
“We don’t know that,” Cetan said. “He could have merely been running away from the threat.”
“He hit me in the head to alert me and let me know,” the boy argued.
There was a short silence. Tama collected some smaller pieces of wood from the nearby pile.
“Look, Tama, you can make up whatever you want,” Cetan said, his voice assuming a tired and patient tone. “You can make believe that beaver here is thinking about us right now if you want.”
Tama looked at the beaver. Sensing the boy’s attention, the beaver uncharacteristically lifted its head and looked back at him.
“It is,” Tama said. “You can’t see it but it’s true.”
“And there’s no way you can know that,” Cetan said.
“There’s no other reason he would be here, at this exact spot and ignoring us when we are close by. Animals of the forest never stay close by to human beings. They never have to me.”
“You’ve got a point there,” the warrior replied. “I’ll give you something about the intelligence thing. The truth is, I don’t know. What l do know is that those two animals, Hasti and this Sipu, gave us life when we might have lost it, and they might also allow us to at least attempt to make it through the winter without leaving to go somewhere else because we have no somewhere else to go.”
The cat appeared out of the forest, reaching the area of the fire ring by leaping straight over the leaning slabs that formed the cleft. The cat landed not far from where the beaver sat, balanced slightly forward by pressure from its expansive flat tail. The beaver was unmoved by the sudden return of the cat, but not the boy.
Tama fell from his knees backward onto the flat ground.
The cat walked silently to his side, sat, and then peered down into his eyes. He was so close the boy could feel his warm breath, but it was the huge unblinking eyes that kept the boy nailed to the ground, flat on his back.
“Sorrowful eyes of death,” the boy dared to whisper up at the powerful animal.
The cat backed up a few body lengths as if he’d understood until it appeared like he was going to re-enter his cleft, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned and slowly sank down to his usual sitting position, both front paws extended forward toward where the fire burned and the fish had begun to sizzle on the vertically upended sticks.
“I’d get to finishing that meal you’re cooking,” Cetan said, from the interior of the developing lean-to, which was beginning to resemble something more substantial than a few sticks thrown over a fallen tree trunk.
The cat gave the warrior not so much as a glance, his attention on the slightly bobbing sticks, with pieces of fish meat on their ends.
“Wouldn’t anyone coming downriver notice the lean-to now?” Tama asked, slowly climbing back up to crouch before the fire.
“There’s no point in trying to hide anymore,” Cetan replied. “The tribe knows exactly where we are, as does every predator normal to this area. We’re not going to make it hiding out from any or everyone, and we aren’t going to make it by warring with the tribe either. We have to stand and hold our own, hoping that my analysis of what the tribe will be forced to do is accurate. I truly fear what might happen if Athesis brings a war party back on his own, however.”
“My tribal leaders teach the warriors how to build traps for large animals instead of chasing them with spears,” Tama offered.
“Your tribe has many grown men and women to dig and fashion such traps,” Cetan replied. “We must spend our time and energy protecting ourselves from the elements, and also doing what we can to make sure the Hasti and Sipu stick around us while we work.”
The boy’s old, torn and very worn leather coverings were steaming on the front of his body, as the fire’s coals began to put out more radiant heat from the wood he’d thrown on when he’d returned with the fish. He looked longingly across the flames, and between the cooking sticks, to admire and envy the wonderfully smooth, deep and very rich fur that was natural to the cat’s entire body.
“Naaki,” the warrior said, continuing his work in the lean-to, noting the boy’s disheveled condition. “If we’re not lucky enough to hunt and kill animals large enough to make a tunic and trousers, then there is plenty of Naaki in the forest. We’ll gather stalks, beat them, and then use the strands knit together to fend off the first winds of winter. And we have more spears now, which means we can throw many times at one target.
The boy watched the cat’s intent stare, pinned to the slightly moving chunks of flesh held over the fire by the slightly waving sticks. The cat’s head adjusted itself slightly to angle out and up over the running river waters nearby. Tama turned to follow the new direction of the cat’s gaze. The sun was high, possibly one finger past the top of its travel in the sky. The top of the canyon was visible, but the glare was so extreme that the boy had to shield his eyes with one hand. He focused on the very top edge of the high, but nearby, cliff wall. What he saw caused him to jump to his feet and twist around, as if he’d been burned by a hot coal from the fire.
“What is it?” Cetan asked, unable to see from his place deep down at the far crease where the lean-to wall stretched over the ground, but instantly aware that something was wrong.
“Up on the ridge,” the boy breathed.
Cetan crawled out of the lean-to and moved to Tama’s side, blocking the glare with one hand, the same as the boy was.
“My tribe never goes or climbs up there,” Cetan said, bringing his hand down. “How many do you count?”
Tama stared at the file of humans standing at the very edge of the high ridge, no doubt looking down and seeing their camp.
“I count two hands worth,” the boy said. “Not a full hunting party. More like the group that just visited us from your tribe.
“Your people?” Cetan asked.
“Not anymore, but once, yes,” Tama replied.
“Why would they come back?” Cetan said. “Why come this far back, since their wintering is far south, a long march for any tribe.”
“Something must have gone wrong,” Tama replied.
“There’s going to be real trouble if your tribe is coming back to winter here,” Cetan murmured.
“Yes. They are of greater size than your own people, and they don’t respect animal life like your tribe, either.”
Suddenly, the warriors strung out along the top edge of the canyon were gone. Tama turned and walked over to the fire. The cat’s gaze was once more only upon the fish. Tama pulled out some of the sticks and tossed the impaled chunks over in front of the cat.
Hasti stood up and advanced the short distance to where the fish lay in a pile before him. He ate standing, each chunk of fish pulled from a stick and then consumed in one bite.
“Try this,” Cetan said, tossing a bundle of fresh leafy branches over to where Sipu, the beaver, still stood waiting. The beaver instantly collapsed into the pile, voraciously consuming the green branches with great noisy relish.
Cetan joined the boy next to the fire. Both sat down, their backs set downriver so they could watch the area to the north that ran out from the river bank, and also take in the high canyon wall. Each held a single stick of the steaming fish, taken from the fire’s edge.
“Winter may be the least of our problems,” Cetan said, before filling his mouth with small bites taken from the hot tasty flesh of the fish.