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The Shrewdness of Apes
About the Author: Chris Wheatley is a freelance journalist, writer and musician from Oxford, UK. He has an enduring love for the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Cornell Woolrich. He has just completed his first full-length crime novel and is forever indebted to the advice and encouragement of his wife, his son and his mother, without whom he would never have come so far.

The cave is cool and quiet. Beyond the circle of its entrance the great burning Eye is beginning to chase away the darkness. The fire is dead. It has eaten all that we gave it. The others are sleeping. Fire-maker, Long-spear, Ice-Eyes, Runner and Wailer. There are many more slumbering about. More than my fingers and my toes.

At the lip of our home I look out upon the wakening land. It is very bad luck to be the first living thing that the Eye sees and so I wait until a hopper breaks its cover and comes a little way forth from the bushes. Then down the steep rock slope I go and up along the path. The heat of the Eye warms my back but the ground is cold underfoot.

I listen. I sniff. I bend down to touch the grass. There are big-tooths here and also rock-backs and so it is always best to be careful. I lift up my furs and squat. A sky-finger crawls slowly along the branch by my head. Everything hunts and is hunted and this is the way of the world.

On my return, our people are gathered outside the cave. Ice-eyes, our chief, is a head taller than any other. Long-spear stands a fist below. This is our awakening. We raise our hands to the Eye and put our arms about each other and turn up the corners of our mouths. Darkness is gone and we are alive. Now is the time to find food and fetch water.

Fire-maker comes to greet me. When Fire-maker is close I feel warmer than when the others are close. Fire-maker has a finger of white upon her shoulder where a sharp-back cut her skin. Fire-maker has eyes like clouds when water comes from the sky.

Red-hand brings down our weapons. Long-spear pushes me aside. He wishes always to be first. I take a spear and start to follow, but Ice-eyes holds up a hand. He points at my chest and then at Torn-ear and Broken-arm and then to Bird-foot and Runner and the other women. We are to stay and protect those who gather fruit. Long-spear and Ice-Eyes will hunt alone.

Torn-ear bares his teeth and shakes his head but he stays with us and we watch as Ice-eyes and Long-spear start up along the trail. Ice-eyes is a good hunter. Ice-eyes is a mother sharp-tooth with our tribe as his cubs. He knows when to fight, when to run and when to hide. He is the turn-head which sees all danger and protects the nest.

Long-spear sees the world with fire in his eyes. His heart is as the rock-back, which takes what it wants and cares not for its brothers.

We who are left pick up round-holds shaped out of twigs and go to the place where the twist-trees grow farther apart than three men lying head-to-toe. Here there are water-berries and ground-nuts and tongue-plants. Torn-ear and Broken-arm and I stand and watch and listen for big-tooths or other things that eat our flesh.

Little-eye leads the workers. Little-eye has seen more white-skies than any other. When the clouds fall and cover the ground, when the red-noses and the hoppers stay hidden, the berries do not grow and we must split the ice to find water.

Little-eye finds food where no other can.

I stand and I watch as the Eye grows higher and her light warms the land. A big-wing circles over our heads, searching for brown-legs disturbed by our gathering. Hoppers stop-start through the grasses. Curl-tails call out from high up in the trees. When the Eye has moved two hands across the sky Little-eye holds up her arms. We take up our baskets and start back for the cave.

Our shadows are short. The ground whispers. I walk behind, watching. How can a big-wing not fall from the sky? Are there lakes and rivers above the clouds? Why does the Eye sleep and what is it that eats the white eye of the dark?

I am the last to the cave. The others are gathered around the base of the slope. Long-spear stands at their centre. He motions hurt, he motions pain. He holds in one hand a lock of Ice-eyes’s hair, in the other a claw taken from a big-tooth. There is some red upon his furs.

Where? I motion.

Long-spear mimes death.

Where? I motion again?

Long-spear makes the sign for water, cupping his hand to his mouth and tilting back his head.

Fire-maker follows me down the low trail. She is crying. The burning Eye is right above our heads and a sharp-wing is calling in the sky.

This story appears in our JUL 2019 Issue
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