“We’re crazy to be freezing. Out in the wilderness, miles from home,” my little brother complained. “I should be playing World of Warfare with my friends.” Joey tried to pull the zipper of his coat higher. He had started complaining as soon as Father insisted that Joey should have his first winter campout with me.
I shot Joey a disgusted look. And what about my time? Did that even cross his mind?
It was above freezing. How much easier did he need it? Perhaps a distraction. “Build up the fire. If I’m warm enough, I just might remember a story to help pass the time.”
Joey built a three-log pyramid, underlain with thin branches that we’d gathered before dark. In short order, the burning embers singed the bark until a loud pop was followed with a burst of yellow flames. I poked the covering log back just a bit, so that the flames licked its bottom and shot heat out toward us.
“Better,” I said. What story I should tell him? Not a scary one. That’s for sure. That’s for cocky kids. No, Joey needs one that’ll make him think, make him forget his discomfort.
“Many years ago,” I began, “before people numbered years, two cavemen warmed their hands, very much like we are,” I placed my palms up, forward towards the fire, “But they faced the start of an ice age winter. Sleeping in the cave behind them were Selo’s wife. The only words they had were people’s names and kinship relations. Selo and Ugo, the cavemen, had returned that afternoon with two small rabbits. That was their meager results from three suns of hunting. It took the edge off the little group’s hunger, but a long winter was coming. Fusa nursed a baby born during the winter storm. Today had been the little cave’s first meal since the first snow, four suns ago. Although they had eaten meat, no one had gathered nuts and berries before the sun set on the day of the snow. Gathering was woman’s work and Fusa had to care for her newly born. The day’s little meal fended off starvation, but they needed more food to make it through the moons that reflected off snow.”
Joey raised his hand.
I laughed. “This is not school. You may ask your question whenever. Of course, I might refuse to answer it.”
“Those cavemen were stupid,” my little brother said. “Why didn’t they go out and get the nuts and berries? And roots too?”
I nodded and smiled, glad to see the concentration on Joey’s face. “I don’t really understand that myself,” I admitted. “You’d think they would do that, but it was so long ago that people did things in different ways. Ugo needed to get a wife, to split the work with his older brother’s wife. It never occurred to the men that they could gather nuts and berries outside their cave. That was women’s work.”
“So they just starve to death!” He shook his head, unbelieving of the cavemen’s stupidity.
“Joey, set a couple thick logs upright on either side of the fire. Drying them out now will make them burn better later.”
Joey picked up two halves of a tulip tree trunk that had been struck by lightning. One side had a flat surface where it had split. Nonchalantly he placed that side away from the fire. I shook my head. He grunted and flipped the piece about. Satisfied, I went back to the story. “Selo was the hunter. He could hit a goat with his spear at fifty feet. Ugo flushed animals into the open. He tried to be a hunter, but Selo always ended with the kill.
“In the cave that night, Selo lay next to the mother of his child. He placed his arm around her and murmured, Fusa, his woman’s name. He sighed with contentment, his stomach happy for the first time in days. He uttered a sigh of satisfaction, “O…ma.”
My little brother leaned forward. “What does O…ma mean?”
“Be patient. You’ll find out.” I continued with the story, “Ugo heard the sound too, O…ma. He stood by the cave entrance, an animal cloak about his shoulders, his feet warm inside rabbit fur. Ugo watched the first deep snowfall of the ice age winter.
“Joey, do you think Ugo was pleased by the snow?”
My brother wrinkled his forehead with thought. “No, that would make him unhappy. It’s getting colder.”
I tilted my head slowly one way then back across to the other, pretending to weigh a difficult problem. “Well, consider this. They would follow tracks in the snow as soon as the Sun God lightened the morning sky. That might lead to game to kill. That would make everyone happy.”
“Sun God!” Joey put his fingers in his ears. “Father warned me against strange religions.”
I grabbed a puffy, white marshmallow from the knapsack and tossed it at him. It bounced off his chest and fell into the campfire. Joey grabbed a stick and speared the little white treat, forgetting father’s warning.
He was so simple to distract.
“I am not asking you to believe in the Sun God, Joey. I’m telling you that cavemen believed in a Sun God, many thousands of years ago.
“Anyhow, the next morning, Selo and Ugo left the cave, taking the path for a long walk. The Happy River lay far away from the caves that lined the Cold Water. People in the Cold Water caves, Selo and Ugo’s clan, had killed the easy prey of that area. Selo hoped that the distant hunting ground would be better, rather than dangerous this year.
“A day later the hunters entered the wooded slopes of the mountains that ran to ever snow. Selo and Ugo split paths. Ugo walked high above, on the wooded ridge. His brother followed the bank of the Happy River.”
Joey looked about to the shadows of tree trunks around us. “Why did they do that? Why did they separate? I wouldn’t want you to leave me.”
I answered his direct question, ignoring Joey’s fear. “Ugo flushed the animals. He drove them down towards Selo. At the water, the animals would be vulnerable.”
“Why would Ugo not kill them himself?”
“Good question. You’re thinking like a hunter now. He wanted to, but if he missed, they still need the meat. The kill was more important than who made it. If the animal escaped his attack, it must be directed towards Selo. Understand?”
Joey nodded his head, then demanded, “Only if I can hold the marshmallows.”
I took a big handful for myself and tossed him the bag. Five years my junior and I still have to babysit him!
“Later in the day, Ugo stopped at a ridge clearing, surveying the hillsides. To the left ahead, several very large boulders headed an animal trail down the slope towards the river. Beyond the first two boulders lay a good gap until the next boulder. Ugo gathered branches and twigs of various sizes. He laid a branch trap atop the rock gap.
“This done, Ugo returned to the ridge trail. When the Sun God carried his daily fire lower in the sky, behind the snow clouds, Ugo finally found what he was looking for. A fresh hoofmark of a large three-toed goat on the river side. The tracks crossed the crest and led into the woods and the thickets.
“Ugo struck the nearest small sapling sharply with his spear.
“At the sound of the strike and the whipping of the little branches, an adult shegoat jumped out from behind the faded green leaves of a late autumn fern. The goat scurried down, out of Ugo’s view, towards the river, towards Selo.
“Only then did Ugo realize there was another sound in the air—the breaking of small bushes, some distance away on the far side of the ridge. He stood still, waiting. A black bear emerged, trampling bushes. It crossed the ridge path just two spear throws ahead of him. It tore through everything in its way, looking for its last meal before a long winter sleep. The bear gamboled up the ridge, until it found the shegoat’s path. It stood on its rear legs and sniffed the air.
“Although Ugo feared the black bear, he feared not just for himself, but for Selo, for Fusa, for the new baby, for the cave, if they didn’t return. He yelled as loud as he could, the first thing that came to his mind. ‘O…ma.’
“The bear stopped, turned toward the new sound, toward Ugo. The black bear charged toward him. Ugo ran back down the ridge.
“He turned off the ridge at the boulders and leaped across the trap. He stopped, turned and leveled his spear with its fire-sharpened point directly in the bear’s path.
“The black bear followed Ugo, its padded feet barely touching the granite boulders. But its weight was too much for the thin layer of brush Ugo had laid across the gap. The bear fell through.
“It roared and tried to scramble out of the pit. Its leg was broken or wedged deep between the rocks. It roared in pain and anger. Ugo thought, this kill would make him the hunter!
Ugo ran forward and thrust at the flailing bear with his spear.
But the bear was quick and strong. It grabbed his spear and yanked with enraged strength. Ugo fell into the trap with the bear.”
I stopped and took a small sip of water from my canteen.
“Then?” Joey asked.
“What do you think? Ugo was no match for the bear.” I said the simple truth.
“And then?” He asked again.
I considered then improvised. “Ugo’s spirit floated past the Happy River hunting grounds. It flew as light as a hummingbird to his cave above the Cold Water. The satisfying smell of roasted goat made him happy. He saw Fusa leaned back, baby at her nipple. On her lips were juices of a recent meal. Fusa looked over at Selo and sadly sighed, ‘O…ma’.”
When I didn’t continue, Joey looked over with confusion. “And? What does it mean?”
“I guess I must tell you everything. O…ma became the caveman word for home. Ugo gave them their first word for something.”
Joey blew out a snort of derision, even though he didn’t know the word “derision”.