For untold millenia the pack of Homo Erectus had clung to the river flowing through the savanna. To them the river was a living thing as were the animals, the sky, the land and the mountains. When the river was angry its waters would roll down into the valley spilling over its banks forcing the pack to retreat. Sometimes it would shrivel until it became just a muddy trickle. Then the pack would move south to the great lake. The marshes were rich in birds and fish but in its depths crocodiles lurked. From the mountains to the lake it offered life in a dry land. The lands out of sight of the river could offer only death so their pack clung to the river side.
Scavengers they survived on whatever could be found, with sharpened sticks and flaked pesr-shaped stone hand axes they stabbed and sliced up small mammals and reptiles. They picked berries and gathered birds eggs. Insects, grubs and whatever else they came across, nothing was turned away. As night fell they crept into small huts of brushes and leaves pinned by rocks huddling against the dark and roaring of larger predators than they. Unable to see they could only huddle together until the light should return. In the day time they could chase away a lion from its kill by screaming at it and pelting it with stones and sticks but night belonged to the big cats.
Not one of the twenty-three brow-ridged ,brown skinned members of the pack had a name or even the sense of what a name was. They lived with one another as other animals would to survive, sharing, fighting, playing and reproducing. When death claimed a member they would prod it, feel puzzled and sad and then move on. So it had been. So it would always be. Occasionally the pack would encounter groups of creatures such as themselves. Each group would screech and holler at the other fling stones sticks and clumps of dirt until one or the other would move off.
The eighteen adults and five children of the pact lived in an eternal now. Their past extended no further back then the earliest memories of its oldest member, the prime male, who at thirty-odd years was now edging into old age. As for the future, the pact new that dark followed light and that light followed dark. Anything beyond that was useable and unknowable. They flaked crude stone axes and erected small circular huts out of whatever brushwood was available. These skills over the millennia were all that marked them out from the other animals with which they lived.
For the past five days they had been encamped along a small stream trickling down from a cone-shaped mountain that rose behind three tiny huts about a meter high. Here free of spike grass that cut their brown, leathery skins, they chased fish in the river and gathered fruits. The remains of a wildebeast corpse discarded by lions had provided them a feast. They had eaten well but soon they would have to move on.
Four feet tall, dark skinned at twenty he had attained over two-thirds of his lifespan. He and his mate had birthed three children. The eldest had been taken by a lion, the second had taken ill and had died in the spring. The other, three years old, lay besidethem. In the dawn they and the rest of the band would follow the stream bed into the mountains searching for water and trees. He and his mate lived on the fringe of the pact, part of it yet not strong enough to challenge others for a larger share of food.
The creature stirred in the dark. He reached out for his mate lying on her, feeling her comforting warmth. Then beneath his head he could feel a strange trembling of the earth. Then came hooves pounding and something else, a deep rumbling. He opened his eyes. Through the opening of the hut he could see that the darkness had been streaked by a red glare.
On his hands and knees he scrambled out of the hut. As he stood he spied the other members of the pact staring at the mountain. Once lost in darkness it now glared above them, its summit reddened with fire. Fire meant danger. As the glowing deepened the ground shook. Then came the explosion great gusts of flame shooting out of the mountain. A crimson burning river of lava spilled down the mountain streaming towards the grasslands. Screaming in terror the pack fled across the burning plain dodging firebombs as they ran. Around them bushes ignited in flame.
The prime male snsiffed the smoke filling the air. For the pack there was only one escape, to find the one foe that could stop the burning predator, water, not just a trickle but enough to give the pack protectionhe prime male only a little way down the stream lay a waterhole big enough to give them shelter but to get there meant a mad blind dash through the grey half-light.. A mad scrambling over burning grass and wet rocks would follow, many being hurt or worse before they reached safety. He grunted at the pack and turned to sprint for the water.
Following behind his mate and their wailing cub the younger male ran In the dim light of the early dawn he could not see the protruding root. Over it he stumbled pitching to the ground. As he rose to his knees he found himself looking at the broken branch of a leleshwa tree, it’s olive green bark charred by fire. He did not call it a leleshwa tree of course. He did not call it anything. The only thing about the plant that interested him was that its leaves and stems were edible. Now it offered not food but danger. A red flame burned at the end of the branch. Fire he knew to be a more dangerous a predator than a lion or a jackal. Instinctively he shrank away from it.. tempted to leap up and flee with his mate and cub. Yet he remained watching the flame. Around the flame formed a small pool of light on the ground.
The prime male snarled as the younger male approached a burning stick held above its head. Then the snarl softened. It could sense no threat in the young male’s stance. It had never liked the youngster or his mate. Every other member of the pack he understood. He could read what they were thinking in their eyes. Nothing was hifdden, anger, lust, tiredness, distaste. Everything was there but with these two. Their eyes were sometimes restless, sometimes still. Always behind them something hidden. He had never sensed a threat in them.Nor did he feel it now.
It gazed in muted fear at the flame. When the young male held the burning stick out to him he stepped back. Then he checked himself. To show fear would be to show weakness. How could he not refuse it? With a trembling paw he took hold of the firestick. Thre younger male then knelt down and picked up another burning branch. He rose and stood next to the pack leader. A pool of light surrounded them. The pack leader now understood why he had been given the branch. He waved the flame above his head watched by the other pack members. Another male shielding his face from the flame picked up another brand.
Reassured by the light surrounding the three males the pack gathered. The pack leader led them through the burning grass and fleeing herds to the shelter of the river. There they waited, the adults waist high in the water children clinging to them as the grasslands burned.
The prime male watched the morning light spread over the plain. . Through the night they waited, the adults up to their waists in the warm briown water, parents holding their young ones against them asd the grasslands burned around them. The torches no longer needed had burned out. The leader glanced over at the fire bearer. The gift of the fire had saved their lives and yet. Why had he not thought of it? Why the runt. Something about him made the prime male uneasy. Sooner or later he would have to be killed. First he would have to find food for the pack. In the morning the pack waded ashore unto the blackened land. As they stepped over the cooling ashes they could see a half-burnt corpes of a young antelope. The pack fell upon it. First thr prime male, then his mates and cubs. Last to eat was the fire-bearer, his mate and cub.
The pack tore at the sweet half-cooked meat gorging themselves. Then, hunger satisfied, the pack rested beside the leader, except for the young male. He and his mate were searching for something amidst the scorched grass. The pack leader watched them through half-closed. If they were looking for fruits they would find nothing. Perhaos some eggs. He turned his thoughts to a greater problem. The pack would have to move on. Meat they had but fresh vegetation had been destroyed. Worse, come night they would have nothing to build shelters with. There would be no protection from the lions.
The fire bearer had found what he had been looking for. Beneath a layer of ash live coals still glowed. He brushed the ashes away and blew upon the embers. A wisp of smoke curled up between the young male’s hands. He had found embers still glowing beneath the ashes. He fed it with bits of dried sticks and leaves, blowing on it until it glowed, Then carefully he placed it in the bottom half of a broken ostrich shell. His stomach full, his mind elsewhere, the prime male paid him no mind.
As rhey marched along the river that day he would stop every so often , bend down and feed it more grass anhd leaves. So he kept it alive until they stopped in a yellow copse of trees that had escaped the flames. In the clearing the young male placed the living embers on the ground. On it he placed grass and twigs. Soon a small red flame appeared. Only then did the other pack members notice what he was doing.
Amidst mutterings and fearful glances they backed away from the fire. The young male took little notice of them. The afternoon edged into evening. As his mate erected a small hut he sat beside the fire trimming a sapling with a stone axe. Having narrowed one end to a point he held it over the fire.
As he watched the fire bearer the leader felt troubled. The young male threatened him and yet he did not know why or how. In a later age the leader would have had the threat killed but among this small pack of Homo Erectus the concept of one killing the other was inconceivable. Each member was too vital to the life of a pack. Yes the leader had fought other males to become leader but once her had fought the others withdrew No one had been killed.
He chewed a slice of fish the prime male watched his two mates erecting a small hut. He then glanced over at the young male and his stick. What was he doing, poking at the fire? The fire bearer pulled the stick out and looked at the tip, He placed a finger on it as if testing it. Then apparently satisfied he stood and strode over to the prime male. The prime male rose, his lips sounding a defensive snarl. The fire bearer knelt and pointed the blunt end of the stick at him. Puzzled the prime male looked down at him and wondered what he wanted. Then he took the end of the offered stick. Ignoring the kneeling fire bearer he examined it. The fire-hardened tip was firm and sharp. A good hunting weapon he thought. He clasped the stick, grunted and sat down again. The fire bearer rose and returned to tending the flames. Other tribe members came up to the prime male and examined the stick. Then they went off to search for similar sized sticks. Soon they were grouped around the fire hardening their sticks.
In the past as evening settled the creatures would crouch in their tiny huts and wait for the morning. Now they sat around the fire cooking, making tools and staring at the flames. The fire bearer sat beside the lake With a small stone he had made a small opening at the top. Then he and his mate had drunk the fluid. Instead of throwing the shell he had kept it. Now he dipped the egg into the lake letting it fill with water. Once it was full he plugged the hole with a clump of grass and placed it on the shore.
Somewhere far off a lion roared. The camp fell silent. Then came another roar one of the young males mimicking the lion. Another seizing his spear jumped up. Dancing around the fire he pretended to hunt the lion. The other members of the pack hooted and laughed.
The prime male sat down beside the fire bearer. He looked at what the fire bearer had been working on, an ostrich egg, the hole at the top plugged by grass. Inside he could hear the splashing of water. Running through every memory of his was the river. Not once had it ever been out of his sight. He put the egg down. Useless. Why did one need water from an egg when there was the river. Besides, carrying the egg meant one less hand, a hand that could used for defense. What was the good of it?
The Prime male looked up. In the past when dark fell the pack members would huddle in their tiny huts, waiting for the dawn. Now beside the fire sleep could wait. As he looked up he saw the fires in the sky. They were so many. Who had lit them. Other creatures such as he? He touched the fire bearer by the left shoulder and pointed at the sky.
The fire bearer looked up. He thought for a moment. “The dead?”
The prime male grunted and turned back to the pictures dancing in the fire.