John P. McKnight
A sharp sound crackled in the quiet of the morning, and the hairy man-
creature drowsing before his cave came abruptly awake.
In one swift movement, he was on his feet. He swung to the young one,
where it lay on the deerskin at the cave mouth. But the child slept
peacefully, no danger near it.
Ungainly, the man shambled then to the lip of the narrow stone ledge and,
blinking against the spring sunlight, peered out across the tall trees to
the river below. There at dawn and at dusk the animals came to drink. But
now, its bank was deserted. In the glade . . .
In the glade a sapling bent. A moment after, the crack of its breaking
reached the man. A great, dark shape bulked momentarily in the dappled
shade. The biggest beast was feeding.
Instinctively, the man reached for the sharp stone he had found at the
river bank two winters ago. He cuddled it in his hand; his palm fitted
snugly against it; his fingers found good purchase. It was a good thing,
this stone. With it, he had flayed the deer the evening before, and killed
the creeping thing coiled before the cave this morning. In some ways, it was
a better thing than a club. If he had a club, with a stone like this at its
The man looked about him once more, and went back to his place near the
child. He squatted there; and almost at once his eyes closed again.
The man idled in the sun because he had fed to his full the night before,
and there was yet meat in the cave. Coming back empty handed from the hunt,
he had chanced upon a saber-toothed tiger's leavings a moment after the
gorged killer lazed off to a canebrake to sleep. He had packed the torn
carcass of the deer up to the cave, and the woman had charred gobbets of the
sweet tender flesh over the fire they kept always burning, and they had
eaten until their swollen stomachs would hold no more.
Awaking in the bright dawn, the man was still surfeited. A cold marrow
bone and some grubs he found under stones at the brookside had sufficed to
break the fast of the night. So he sat somnolent in the sunshine, motionless
but for his fingers that ceaselessly explored the mat of hair covering his
chest and belly. Now and then the searching fingers routed out lice; and
these the man, grunting in sleepy triumph, cracked between powerful jaws and
ate: despite his satiety, the morsel was tasty; and satisfaction at
disposing of an old enemy sauced the titbit.
Beside him, now, the young one woke. It moved on the deerskin, waving its
hands and kicking its feet. It made little gurgling sounds. Across the man's
mind as he listened sleepily to the liquid syllables, there flitted pictures
of the brook that bubbled from the hillside high above the cave to go
chuckling down to the river. "Wa wa, wa," the child babbled: the man thought
of the clear cool water plashing over the big rock where he sometimes sat to
watch the slender fish skittering about the green depths of the pool below.
"Coo, coo," the child piped; the man thought of the birds in the tall trees
calling to each other at nightfall.
But then, the child's noises changed. They grew fretful. Its lips, moving
loosely against toothless gums, made the sound, "Ma, ma." Over and over, it
whimpered, "Ma, ma; ma, ma."
Disturbed, the man made to rise. But the woman was there before him,
swift and silent on bare feet, taking the child up from the skin, holding it
to her breast. At once, the child's wails stopped: there was the soft slup-
slup of its lips as it suckled.
In the man's brain, memory stirred. Dimly, he recalled another child--the
child that the great soft-padding saber-tooth had carried off before their
eyes. That child, too, had fretted and whimpered, and made the sound "ma,
ma" when it hungered. And at the sound, he remembered, the woman, leaving
her tasks in the cave, had gone to it and given it suck.
The man took up the sharp stone again and began scratching aimlessly at
the rock of the ledge. Something about the pictures his brain made excited
and disturbed him. They roused in him the same vague uneasiness he had known
the day he climbed all alone to the top of the highest hill and gazed out
across the unimagined vastness of the plains beyond the river. In his
perturbation, he got to his feet, tossing lank black hair back from his
sloping forehead, and went to the rim of the ledge to stare down toward the
river. But its bank was deserted; the glade too was empty, the saplings
still in the tranquil morning; in the canebrake, nothing moved.
Behind him, the woman put the child down and, noiselessly, went back into
the cave. The child cooed, and burbled, and was at last silent. The man
turned to look at it. It was sleeping again.
In the growing warmth the man mused. On a time many winters past, memory
told him, he himself had been a child; and so he must once have been a tiny
helpless creature like this one, that wailed when it was hungry and fed at a
woman's breast. He wondered idly if he had made the same noises that this
baby, and the other made when they hungered. Tentatively, silently, he
shaped his thick lips to form the sounds. . . .
A leaf rustled behind him. He wheeled, in sudden prescience of danger.
In a low thicket beside the cave mouth, a great wild dog crouched. It was
mangy, gaunt from hunger. Its red-rimmed eyes were fixed on the sleeping
Stealthily, belly to ground, the dog inched upon its tiny prey. In the
instant after the man turned to see, it was near enough. It gathered for the
The man's eyes measured quickly. He was too far away.
He could not reach the child in time.
Before he could traverse half the distance, the dog would pounce, clamp
slavering jaws on the infant, and be off into the underbrush.
A moment the man stood frozen, in the paralysis of helplessness.
Then his lips shaped to remembered sounds. To his surprise the great roar
of his voice shattered the stillness.
"Ma, ma!" he bellowed. "Ma, ma!"
The dog started. It jerked bared fangs at the man. Then its eyes went
back to the child; it tensed again.
But as it did, the woman appeared in the cave mouth. Old practice of
peril schooled her. In an instant, she scooped up the child and stepped back
The dog's spring fell on the empty deerskin, and at the man's rush it
skulked off into the thicket.
Carrying the child, the woman came back.
The man's brain at last reached the end of the thing that had disturbed
He put out one hand and pointed it at the woman.
"Mama," he said. "Mama."
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