THE CAVE FAMILY
A sharp sound crackled in the quiet of the morning, and the hairy creature snoring and sleepy near his cave came to waken quickly.
In one swift movement, he was to his feet.
He quick checked his youngster lying on deerskin within the cave. Good, his kid was sleeping peaceful without any danger being near.
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 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 terrifying 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. he had smashed in a deer's head in with it the evening before, and slaughtered that slimy slithering thing which hissed at his cave opening 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
Glancing about himself once more, he went back to be near the
child. There he squatted down; and almost at once his eyes closed again.
The man sighed as he lay in the sun because he had fed to his full the night before,
and there was more raw meat in the cave. Coming back empty handed from the hunt,
he had chanced upon a saber-toothed tiger's chewed leavings a moment after the killer cat strolled off to take a nap. He pulled the torn
carcass of deer to his cave home, and the woman cooked burnt gobs of
sweet tender flesh on the fire they always kept burning.
They gorged until their bellies could not hold more.
Waking up at dawn the man was still hungry. A cold marrow
bone and a few small worms he found underneath brush had sufficed to
break the long night's fast.
So he sat motionless in the sunshine,
except for his fingers that explored the mat of hair covering his
chest and belly Now and then he would rout out some lice;
these he cracked between powerful jaws and
swallowed: despite his doubt, the morsels were quite tasty.
Then beside him, the young critter woke. It moved, waving its tiny little
hands and kicking its feet.
It spewed out little gurgling sounds. The man listened quietly to the liquid syllables.
"Wa wa, wa," the small one moaned: Then "Coo, coo," it piped; as the man thought about the birds in the tall trees
calling one another in nightfall.
Suddenly, the child's noises changed to fretful, lips, loosely moving
over toothless gums, made a new sound,
"Ma, ma." Again and again, it
moaned and whimpered, "Ma, ma; ma, ma."Disturbed, the man jumped to his feet. But the woman was there in a flash before him,
swift and silent on bare feet, she took the child up from the deer skin, holding it close to her breast. At once, the child's wailing stopped: there was the soft slup slup of its lips as it suckled.
In the man's brain, memories spun around rapidly. Dimly, he recalled another child--the child a fierce saber-toothed tiger 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 his trusty sharp stone again and began scratching aimlessly at the rock of the ledge. Something about the pictures his brain created both disturbed and excited him. They roused in him the same uneasiness he had known the day he climbed all alone to the top of the highest hill and gazed out over the un imagined vastness of the plains beyond the river. In his
perturbation, he got to his feet, tossing lank clumping 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 also were empty, the saplings stood still in the tranquil morning; in the canebrake, nothing moved at all.
Behind him, the woman lay the child down and, quietly, she moved back into the cave.
The child burped, gurgled and cooed and at last went silent.
The man turned to look at it. It was sleeping peacefully 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 hairless little critter like this one, that loudly wailed when it was hungry and fed at a woman's breast.
He wondered idly if he had made the same noises that this critter made,
and the other made when they hungered. Tentatively, silently, he shaped his thick lips to try creating the sounds. . . .
He heard a rustling leaf behind him. He wheeled, in sudden prescience of danger.
In a low thicket beside the cave mouth, a huge and wild wolf crouched. It was mangy, skinny from hunger. Its red-rimmed eyes were fixed on the sleeping child.
Stealthily, belly to ground, the fierce wolf inched upon its tiny prey. In the
instant after the man turned to see, it was near enough. It gathered for the spring.
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 wolf 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 hungry wolf started.It jerked bared fangs at the man.Then it's eyes went back to the child; it tensed again. But as it did, the woman appeared in the cave mouth. Old practice of peril had schooled her well. Instantly, she scooped up the child and stepped back to safety. The wolf' moved toward the now empty deerskin, then quickly pounced instead off into the forest's thickness.
The woman returned, carrying the little child.
The man's brain had at last come to the end
of the thing that had disturbed it. He put out one hand and pointed it at the woman.
"Mama," he shouts, "Mama"