A T   T H E   B E G I N N I N G   O F   D A Y S

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

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First there was grass, and acacia trees, and animals with a wide variety of cunning devices for ingesting other animals. Small animals ate the grass, and larger animals ate the smaller animals, and when that disagreed with them, they ate the grass so they could put the smaller animals back where they found them.

It was a state of affairs that seemed to work out. The trick was to reproduce before you were eaten. If you could manage that, your species would survive. If your species survived, that was called "evolution", and if it didn't, that was called "libertarianism". It was a system that caused few complaints, since the victors had little to complain about, and the nutrition was no longer in a position to complain.

But then one primate learned to look about, and shout, "the world is not fair!" and the human race began.

Humans were the first to demand that the universe run itself in accordance with the interests of the humans involved. Since this universe, as perceived by these humans, consisted of only a few hundred square kilometers of savannah, and the sky was just above the reach from the tallest tree, this was merely a preposterous demand, as opposed to the utter insanity of making such a stipulation of a Universe 13 billion light years in diameter and containing 25 quintillion suns in 5 trillion galaxies.

Whether small stretches of savannah, or vast concourse of stars with magnificent and alien civilizations, the universe proved unresponsive to the unique human notion that it tailor itself to their opinions of what it should be, and more importantly, the primacy of individual human's roles in it.

So they cajoled and beseeched and genuflected and created an amazing variety of explanations of unseen causes to . . . well, to explain all this inexplicability.

Like their cousins the baboons, humans learned that they could be an implacable and frightening force on the savannah if they worked together closely as a troupe, and managed not to end up as nutrition at such a pace that they couldn't reproduce. A half-dozen primates screaming and swinging sticks wildly will deter the hungriest leopard.

The pseudoscience of animism led to certain oddities of behavior. On the rare occasion that a tribe could kill a predator, they learned to check to see if the heart of the animal had stopped beating. Failure to perform such a check had led to several on-the-job injuries at a time when nobody had medical coverage. Subsequently, they equated the heart of the big cat with its strength and courage as a fighter, and it stood to reason that the heart, if ingested, would lend its properties to the person who ate it. So the slayer of the cat would get the heart, and would gain, in addition to an appalling cholesterol count, courage. The hunter would eat the heart to gain courage, and because he now believed that he possessed more courage, would have more courage. The courage came from the person, but superstition insisted that it came from the cat, a belief that not only lead to a dangerously skewed view of how the universe functioned, but obviated the notion of self-worth in the believer. Humans took no credit for their strengths, but instead assigned their valuable features, along with any good luck they had, to an amazing variety of animist phenomena, and dressed it up in ever-deepening and convoluted layers of pure malarkey to prop it up.

It was perhaps the least productive and most expensive discovery in human history.

Humans developed despite this, and devised language. It was a bit limited at first, being used to describe the edible as opposed to the inedible, but rapidly grew a syntax. Not only were there words for grubs and melons (edible), but also for rocks and trees (inedible), but it quickly expanded to incorporate such ideas as "my foot" (edible, but probably not a good idea) or "club" (not edible, but useful for rendering cats edible). Humans learned that language could be as powerful as deeds in attaining social status, and that mysticism was a great way to brag without getting called on it, and the downfall of humanity was nearly complete.

It was at this sad state of affairs that Makes Impalas Edible Mook was found in the savannah, playing with two rocks. The evening before, he had knocked a pair of rocks together to see if they would make a pleasing noise to accompany the "We killed a gazelle" chant (they didn't), and was started and amazed to see a spark fly from the rocks as he banged them together.

Hunting had been good, and, with the afternoon spent filling his belly and emptying his testicles, he was in a relaxed and playful mood, which in humans usually means lots of trouble for somebody.

Now he was knocking the rocks together, trying to figure out what force might be causing the spark. He happened to strike the flint and iron together just right, and a satisfying shower of sparks flew onto the dry savannah carpet. Certain he was on the right track now, Mook exhaled a gust of satisfaction, and watched, bemused, as a tiny ember on a piece of straw suddenly glowed brightly, even in the late afternoon sun, and then winked out, leaving a tiny plume of smoke.

"Hey, Mook! Look what I have!" Mook, startled, looked up to see Least Hunter Ook, proudly brandishing a very fat, very dead rabbit. His flint and iron forgotten (and thus deferring the discovery of the domestication of fire for at least another 1,500 years), Mook stood up and inspected the rabbit. It met all the syntactical requirements of edibility. It was dead, and it was in their hands.

Mook felt some surprise. Ook, as a hunter, was a dead bloody loss, and only his good nature and willingness to help the women with construction of night nests prevented him from being kicked out the tribe and sharply demoted on the food chain.

"You de Man", Mook said, saying the ancient prayer chant Praising Success in Slaying a Fat Rabbit, "You de Man." Ook beamed and looked insufferably pleased with himself. Mook was the only accepted male tribal member who would speak pleasantly to Ook, and even then, praise was rare.

Mook gave Ook an admiring glance (which then, as now, meant, "I don't know how you pulled this one off, you lucky bastard!") which quickly turned to concern when he saw Ook was bleeding from his left ear. "How'd you do that?"

Ook put a hand to his ear and examined the stain on his fingers. "Pure carelessness on my part, I'm afraid. I was swinging my spear around in the ritual to Make It Fly True and Far, and I managed to hit my ear with the point of the spear." Mook frowned, trying to imagine that.

"Then, moments later, I spotted this big fellow. I was so excited, I forgot all about my owie until you mentioned it. Say, I really clipped myself, didn't I?"

"You better put some leaves on it or something. Evil spirits might get in."

Evil spirits did not get in, which, given the course of things, showed religious observers that they were, indeed, quite evil.

Over the following week, Ook's ear healed. Unfortunately, the improvement in his hunting skills proved even more transitory, and he returned from his next three expeditions empty handed. He even managed to break his spear once while performing the ritual to Make It Fly True and Far, something he really needed to work on a bit more.

Even worse, the hunting turned sour for the rest of the tribe. Mook, too, returned empty handed, and discovered, to the dismay of his testicles, that the women of his tribe had little interest in hunters who didn't bring back at least a rabbit or two.

Unease was just settling into desperation after ten days when Ook showed up, two rabbits in hand and bleeding from his left ear. Even the tribal guardsman, Believing is Seeing Look, deemed this worthy of a victory dance and holler to alert the tribe.

The tribal shaman and keeper of memories, Persistence of Olfactory Book, noticed this time. "We're all very pleased, of course," he said to Ook, "and I'm particularly happy that you're starting to show some promise. I always knew that if you only applied yourself . . ." Book tailed off, noticing a patch of acacia leaves on Ook's ear. "What's with the leaves?"

Ook gingerly peeled back his wrappings, and Book sniffed at the wound. "It looks like you hurt your ear earlier, here."

"I did, and it happened the exact same way. I was doing the Make It Fly True and Far Ritual..." he picked up his spear and started to demonstrate in slow motion. Mook, who had sidled up behind Book to listen to the discussion, prudently pulled the shaman back a couple of paces. The two men watched with some bafflement as Ook twirled the spear, ending up with the point passing through where his earlobe would have been, had he not had time to pull his head to the side this time.

Book shook his head in disbelief and looked at Mook. "Can you do that with a spear?" He asked.

Mook stepped forward. "I see the problem, Ook. When you get to the part where you are showing the spear what a rib looks like, you are waving it toward the spine, rather than away. After that, the whole thing is running backwards, and you end up with the spear in your aureolas labialis, rather than pointed at the animal. Do you see?" Syntax had made amazing progress over the past few weeks.

Book looked thoughtful. "Didn't you tell me that when this happened last week, you caught a rabbit, Ook?" At Ook's nod, he continued, "And that was your first rabbit in nearly two dry seasons of trying, wasn't it? No, don't look like that. I understand some people develop faster than others." He turned to Mook. "Nobody else caught anything today, did they?"

Book tapped the bridge of his nose, always a sign that he was having big, ponderous thoughts of the sort nobody else could support. The hunters waited respectfully. After all, there was no better knowledge than secret knowledge.

"Let's let things play out for a few days. Maybe the tribe will start catching some chow. Maybe it won't. If they don't, I want to be prepared. Ook, you're on leave for a few days until that ear heals. I don't see how you can hear anything out of it anyway. I want you to practice that ritual you've developed."

"Er, the ritual I've developed?"

"Precisely. See if you can find a way to perform it that does somewhat less damage to your ear." Preferably no damage at all, Book thought to himself, but with this lout, I'll settle for minor scratches.

A week of general privation passed. Worse, the rains had ended early this year, so there wasn't as many berries and grubs for the taking. Book was annoyed to have to explain this state of affairs not once but twice to the tribal leader, Url of Dook. Dook, who had a free-floating but acute desire to see the definite article applied to names, knew that his leadership qualities were in direct ratio to the fullness of the bellies of the people below him, and was dissatisfied with Book's performance in bringing home the bacon. Book, in turn, was looking for someone to Make An Example Of.

Other hunters, who should have known better, were beginning to view Ook as their potential salvation. Mook watched the diminutive Ook flail his spear about wildly, and knew the poor little guy was toast if he didn't come back the next time with at least a rabbit.

Bellies were growling, leaders were nervous, and hunters were disparaged in the local media. There was talk of attacking other tribes in the area and eating their hunters in order to gain their competence, but it stayed just loose talk, since, being better fed, the other tribes were stronger.

With ceremony, Book handed Ook a new spear, and commanded that he go forth, and with the new juju that Book had bestowed upon him, save the tribe from starvation. Trembling, stuttering, and barely able to avoid spearing himself, the tiny Ook shambled off across the savannah. Mook shook his head sadly, and left the tribal patch, moving in a slightly different direction.

Ook went to the area where he had found both the rabbits, and crouched in some brush, and waited patiently. After several hours, he heard rustling in the brush about 200 feet away. It was a large rustling, like a tapir, or maybe even a gazelle. Moving as quietly as possible, Ook performed his variation on the Make It Fly Straight and True maneuver, whimpering only faintly as the obsidian edge sliced his outraged earlobe. Squeezing his eyes tightly against the pain--they were flooded with tears and wouldn't have been of any help anyway--Ook let fly. The spear flew straight and true and into the bark of a sequoia tree.

Ook rubbed his eyes and stared in dismay at his spear, still vibrating in the soft trunk of the huge tree.

Suddenly, to his side, there was a trashing, and the death scream of a gazelle. Ook pulled at his spear, and when the sequoia wouldn't give it up, ran barehanded to the location of the commotion, in brush about 50 feet away. There he found a gazelle lying on its side, feet still kicking ineffectually, its life ended by a spear jutting from the side of its chest. Ook stared, his bleeding ear and stuck spear momentarily forgotten.

Grinning, Mook stepped from behind a tree. "Boy, I still got it, even at the ripe old age of 24."

Ook stared. "What are you doing here? I thought you were going to hunt up by the cliffs!"

"Well, I kinda wanted to keep an eye on you. You're under a lot of pressure to perform right now, thanks to that idiot Book." Mook took a meaningful glance at the giant sequoia. "A good shot, but we're going to have a hell of a time dragging that back home. I suggest we just settle for our upside-down deer here".

Ook struggled with his emotions. "But this was my hunting area. I scouted it out, I found the rabbit warren..."

"So you did, so you did!" Mook waved his palms at Ook. "I'm not here to steal your thunder. I'm here to help. Look, this is your deer. You did your thing with the ear--get something on that, by the way--and Book and Dook expect results. You bring this back, the tribe eats, and then you're off the hook. You can quit gouging your ear, and the rest of us can quit worrying so much about game being scare. Mook poked at the now-still gazelle with his foot. "Besides, it looks like the game have returned, anyway."

But the game hadn't returned. Mook was wrong. The gazelle was all they had for the next week. Day after day, hunters returned empty handed.

Ook's ear, by now distinctly tattered and no longer very good at receiving sound, healed, and he was called in to see Dook and Book. "One more time, Ook." Book said, while Dook looked on avuncularly. "For the team." The next morning, the slightly crestfallen Ook went out, his ear already tingling, and prepared to do his cockeared ritual. He did so, and then he speared a rabbit. Then another, then another. He prepped and tied off the corpses, using the ear from one as a bandage on his ear, which was now not bleeding so hard because wasn't much left to bleed from.

Mook burst from the trees, out of breath. "I say, Ook, did you see a pair of rabbits come through here?

Ook pointed to the carcasses. He had already split and gutted them.

"Three of them? That's marvelous! I flushed two of them, and hoped you might get one! Where'd the third one come from?"

Ook shrugged. In his mind, the rabbits were further apart, each from the other and from him, making his feat all the more heroic. He would have quite the tale to tell upon his return, and this time, the credit was truly his.

But damn, his ear hurt!

Mook, too, was happy. Not for his friend, but because it would keep the elders satisfied, and off his back. The last two expeditions had now assured that if hunting failed in the future, Ook, and not he, would be blamed. Mook looked forward to the day when everyone would be well-fed, and such politics would not go on.

Better still, during their return home, Mook spotted fresh spoor in a number of places. The game were back, and hunting would be good.

Book was delighted, and called together all of the hunters, and had Ook demonstrate his Make It Fly True and Straight ritual. Then he had all the hunters practice it, and after only a few moderate injuries, commanded that each hunter, upon reaching his chosen ground for hunting each day, perform the ritual exactly as Ook did it. There was minor grumbling, but everyone knew that Book had Secret Knowledge, and it was indisputable that the tribe's worst hunter, Ook, was the only one who was getting out and scoring, so obviously a couple of ears was a small price to pay.

Hunting did get better, and Ook even attracted a female, Uwana Fook, with whom he spent several deliriously happy weeks before succumbing to an ear infection.

Over the next few weeks, the tribe suffered several losses. The always amusing Practical Jook died when he failed to hear a boar crashing through the brush toward him. The secretive Hidden Nook was clumsy in his ritual and severed a carotid artery. Rightwing Kook died of blood poisoning. And so on.

Book gave the matter much secret thought, and decreed that hunters avoid such afflictions by cutting their right ears to match. It even seemed to help for a while.

ONE YEAR LATER

JimBobwa, elder son of the tribe of Skipperies, a small, dark-haired people, appeared in their camp with his hunters, four of them, and two bedraggled and emaciated women who clearly were from the Shook tribe.

The Chief of the Skipperies, Elron, regarded the women with distaste. JimBobwa had been sent to trade with the Shooks and bring new women to the tribe, but such tatty specimens! If his son had offered anything more than a handful of salt for the two of them, he was going to ream the little idiot with a giant sequoia.

But it turned out that nothing had been traded to the Shooks for the women, because there were no Shooks. The two young women were all that were left.

The story was simple, although perplexing. The hunters all died of a variety of ailments, all related in some way to their ears, or hearing. With the hunters all gone, the women had to rely on gathering to survive-and the past year had been a tough one. Those two were all that were left.

That evening, Elron sat outside the clearing with his shaman,  Huberd, to discuss the matter. The Shooks were not the biggest tribe in the region, but they were capable and not prone to being wiped out by invaders. Not in such a way that the Skipperies wouldn't have heard about, at any rate.

Which meant the women were probably telling the truth. Huberd had the two women brought to where the two men were, and made them repeat the story, stopping to question them closely on the ear-jabbing ritual that seemed to have been their downfall.

After they were sent back to the clearing, Huberd mused for a moment or two. Elron had been known to question the established religious order, and he needed an explanation that would work to his advantage.

"Well," he said at length, "it seems clear enough. The Shooks worshiped false gods, and they were punished by the one True God by the vehicle of their own false and blasphemous worship."

"One true god?"

"Oh, yes. Oh, there's plenty of lesser gods in the grass and trees and animals and whatnot, but this is The God. He reigns over all the other gods."

"That's some god. When do I meet Him?"

Huberd paused to give Elron's incredulous tone the disapproving stare it deserved. "You don't. He only speaks through His representatives on earth, and it's His will that I should be one of them. He does not appear to regular mortals."

"And this invisible god is speaking to you?"

"Even as we sit here having this conversation. Oh! Elron! I wish I could share with you the bliss and joy of His presence! He is majestic, and pure love, and fills my stomach with fine food and my heart with bliss!"

Despite himself, Elron looked impressed.

"But Elron, He is an angry god, one who was mocked by the false worship of the Shooks. That's why He destroyed them."

"Why didn't He just talk to one of them like he talks to you?"

Huberd glowered. "Perhaps He did. Perhaps He spoke through Book, but Book's fellows were silly and evil people, who didn't believe Him."

Elron paused. Certainly, he didn't want to be vulnerable to an accusation of being weak and vulnerable, and even though he thought Huberd to be full of something other than fine food and bliss, his political instincts told him to go along on this one.

As if reading his mind, Huberd winked. "Don't worry too much about this one omnipotent being that destroys non-believers," he said. "Pretty soon everyone will have forgotten the Shooks, and the story will fade. But for now, it's not only a great way to assert our authority, but maybe, just maybe, it will stop some of our young fools from sticking their spears in their ears!"

Elron knew a political winner when he heard one. The two men guffawed, and went back to the clearing to spread the Word.



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Swagazine 9
Winter 2001




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