Skip to main content

A Civilising Influence

Rating: PG-13

Sunrise. Milky light spills over the lip of the cave. When it falls on my face I rise. The little one is still sleeping, her fist pressed against her cheek. I watch the dawn, my toes braced against the rock floor, poised above the vertical fall at the mouth of the cave, certain death if you do not know the narrow crumbling path.

A golden mist hangs over the valley, smudging trees and hills, melting into the horizon, many, many days' walk away. Silence, except for the whisper of the wind stirring the leaves in the treetops far below me.

The little one stirs, yawns, stretches her arms and legs. Her hair is thick and golden like the hazy sunlight and falls heavily to her narrow waist. The moon has been made and unmade many times since she came to me.

We eat berries and some of the eggs the little one found yesterday, when I thought she'd left me. Just as I was trying to scent her on the breeze, I heard her call from the top branches of an oak tree. She came back to me then and showed me the eggs. She'd carried them down in the strange white pouch we'd found crumpled on the forest floor when we were hunting.

I was smaller than the little one when Mama went away. I had only just learned which plants to eat and how to snare rabbits. She went to gather food one day and did not return. I waited until nightfall came for the third time, all the while calling and calling for her. Then I was alone. I took care when making a flame as Mama had shown me, for I knew it could burn and destroy as well as warm and give life. When I close my eyes and try to see her now, all I can remember is her eyes, the colour of young leaves, and the smooth river pebbles with holes in them which she had threaded on a strip of hide and tied round her ankle.

On the walls of the cave are many figures. They are those who came before. Now I know they are the same as me, but at first I was not certain as they had shown themselves like sticks with arms and legs. They are hunting big animals that I have never seen and I think they died when the animals went away. At night the stick people would come to me out of the darkness. They whispered to me of sharpening stones to make a killing stick. Then they showed me handpictures deep in the cave where the sun only licks with its tongue before it sinks behind the trees in the valley. I put my palm against the handpictures and saw that my fingers matched with theirs.

Before the little one came to me, I thought I was the last of my type. I watched the animals and plants and saw how they grew and lived together. Only I had no companions. My days were spent gathering food and breaking stones to make sharp edges for killing and cutting open fish or small animals. Bigger animals, those with tusks or claws, I let alone.

I was in the forest collecting roots and plants on one of the days before she came to me. A great crashing tore the silence and many figures burst into the clearing. They had hairy faces, but the rest of their bodies were covered in the flimsy skins of some strange animal, not brown or black but the colours of flowers. In their arms they carried long sticks, but not taken from trees. They were shiny, like light glinting off water.

They made a great roaring when they saw me. For a moment I thought they were they were like me, but then I saw their bodies were straight and hard, so I knew they were not. They circled me, slavering as they come nearer and nearer. I thought they are going to kill me for food and my head and chest pounded as if I had run a great distance. But they threw me down and each one in turn attacked me between the legs. I could not see what weapon they used. Afterwards I was alone and bleeding. I dragged myself back to the cave and slept until long after dawn the next day. When I woke I was weak and there was no water in the cave. It took me a long time to crawl down the path to the stream where I drank and slowly bathed my crushed body.

It came to me that the attack had injured me so badly that my body had become sealed, for I no longer had blood when the new moon came. After many days I noticed my belly was becoming distended. I thought the poisons of my body were gathering there. As my body swelled, I thought I would die, but death did not come, so I continued to hunt and gather food. I got slower as my size increased.

One morning I awoke to find I was lying in a pool of sharp smelling fluid. Then I was in great pain and knew the end was coming soon. I could not lie down, but paced the floor of the cave like a beast. The pain changed and suddenly my body was forcing me to squat down and expel the thing that had been growing inside me. For the first time I thought I might not die. Then, on the ground between my legs was a new creature, still attached to my body with a pulsing, twisted cord. I severed the cord with my teeth and looked at the new creature. It made a mewling sound. I picked it up and cleared away the bloody matter that was lying across its face. Then I realised what it was. Another me. A companion. A little one. I held it to my body and it nuzzled against the soft parts of my chest, its mouth searching. It found what it wanted and sucked fiercely and I was glad.

This was long ago. The moon has been made and unmade many times and I have seen the little one learn to walk upright, to eat the things I bring her and to hunt for herself. She becomes more like me and now begins to take on my shape, bleeding with the full moon as I now do. We are complete.

But now she hunts further and further away from the cave. Sometimes it is nearly dusk when she returns to me and I begin to fear she has gone forever. She brings back things that she finds. The strange white pouch, made from thin shiny stuff. It is big enough to carry two rabbits. On it are marks in many colours, brighter than I have ever seen. It is becoming torn now.

And one day, a thin silvery blade, much finer than I could make out of stone. I think it is made from the same material as the shiny sticks carried by the hairy face creatures. I have sharpened the blade and use it to divide skin from flesh, flesh from bone.

As the sun sinks into the trees, she sits at the mouth of the cave and gazes at the place where the distant line of the forest meets the sky. She scratches crowds of stick figures in the sandy floor of the cave, and presses her hands into the cold fire to blacken them so she can match the handpictures on the walls.

I do not like to go far away from the cave but I am becoming fearful that she will leave me. Then, after many days of her returning after sunset, I follow her into the forest the next morning. We travel further and further from the safety of the cave until I can only follow or be lost. She moves silently, seeming to float over fallen logs and great boulders green with moss. She pauses in a place where the sun cuts through the leaves and lets the warmth flood onto her upturned face. As I stop, crouching behind a tree to conceal myself, my foot dislodges some loose soil to reveal a deep, narrow cleft between two rocks. I manage to throw my weight back onto my other foot just in time to avoid plunging into the crevice. As I look down I see, partly covered with soil and rotted leaves, a round skull and many other bleached white bones. The largest of these are long and straight like those I can feel in my legs. Then I see the lower part of one of the long bones is wedged between two sharp stones. I can see how it has become twisted and smashed with the effort of trying to free it. Scattered on the rocks around it is a rough circle of river smooth pebbles with holes in them. I do not move for a long time. Something inside me that had been silent for a long time begins to cry out in pain.

Then I am aware that the little one has started to move again. She still does not know I am close behind her. Not a bird or animal is startled by us.

She stops by the stream and drinks, then bathes among the swaying weed. I see her trying to catch fish in her hands as I have shown her. I crouch on a stony shelf jutting over the bank. I watch her just below me. She lies among the grass at the edge of the stream, snatching at butterflies, crunching up the ones she catches with her sharp little teeth.

There is another watcher. From where I crouch I can see a figure approaching from upstream. It passes under my hiding place. It is wearing the same thin brightly coloured skins as those others, but its face is not hairy. It does not slaver. The little one springs to her feet and I think she is going to run. But she does not. The other sits a little distance away from her and she slowly squats down again.

The other puts out a hand. In it is something brightly coloured. The little one wants it. Very slowly she approaches on all-fours, her body tensed to spring away. Her hand darts out and the next moment she has snatched the object from the hand of the other and is back in her place.

They watch each other. I watch them. This other could be like us. Then it removes the top part of the brightly coloured skin it is wearing and I see that it is not like us. It has a hard chest and has hidden its hair under the skin it was wearing. It starts to move slowly towards the little one. She does not move.

I lift both arms into the air and use all my strength to smash a heavy rock into the back of its skull. It crumples like the thin white pouch. The little one backs away at first, then comes closer to look at the creature as it lies bleeding. Her hand clutches a string of red and blue stones made of rock as transparent as water.

In the cave after dark, I am planning the best way to remove and carry the meat from such a large creature when we return to the stream the next day. The little one stands at the entrance to the cave, her form black against the light of the full moon. Then she is gone into the night. I watch for her until the sun comes up but she does not return. I wait for her call from the treetops but I do not hear it.

I wait until the day is fully come and then I go down to the stream with the silvery blade. The other is still lying there, too big to have been carried off by any of the night creatures. As I sharpen the blade on a rock, I notice the string of transparent blue and red stones laid on the creature's forehead.