A hot day and muggy. Stifling. The surface air is absolutely still. Above, at maybe 20,000 feet, a slight breeze pushes the last of failed thunderclouds, slowly brightening the valley, nudging the heat upward. One hundred and five. Nearly one hundred and ten.
Below, a lush hardwood forest, ginkgoes and trees similar to present day pin oak, shimmers in the increased light. There is also a vast savanna and a small clearing with occasional low bushes and outcroppings of gray granite. Animals covered with thin reddish-brown fur, both individuals and small groups, can be seen on some of the boulders, but only on those in the shade, only on those near the sanctuary of the trees. Most appear to be sleeping. However, one near the edge of the troop is watching for danger and another, the larger of the beasts, nearly four feet if he were standing, is kneeling next to a rotted log. He is fingering fat white grubs from the decaying wood and checking behind him for competition before hungrily popping them into his mouth. His left hip is hurting again and he shifts his weight to relieve the pain. He has no memory of the fall from the tree three years ago and, even if he had, he would not be capable of connecting that accident to his nagging discomfort.
The kneeling animal stares at a female lying on a flat slab of granite on the opposite side of the log. She is younger than he and shorter by a good six inches. She also lacks his great muscle structure. Her hair is a little lighter, has a finer texture, and is uniform in color, whereas his is beginning to gray. Her face is a little thinner than his, but she has the same flat nose and sloping forehead. And if her eyes were open, the same intelligence would shine from her soft, brown eyes.
Male smells female's musk. He's aroused. He'd mount her, but is far too prudent. And so, he continues kneeling, woofing quietly, one hand slipping between his legs. The trace of a smile spreads across the female's small, pretty face.
Deep grunts and crackling branches cause male to push from the log and look toward the trees. Two members of the troop emerge from the woods and walk toward him. He immediately bows forward, the palms of his hands and his face between them press tightly against the ground. Male now cannot see the new figures, but he can picture them. The one in front, the one walking fully erect, alpha male, is the one to be feared. He is truly magnificent, well over four feet tall and clothed in a lush silver-gray coat, which, though long, cannot hide his massive shoulder and chest muscles. Male has never dared to look him full in the face. If he had, he'd have seen dark, hard eyes set close together and he'd have feared him all the more.
The second male, the one following alpha male, the one who is almost always trailing in a knuckle-walking lope, is not impressive. He's not especially small, but he's thin with mangy red fur. His right eye socket is empty and the ear on that side of his face is mangled, torn half away in some distant fight. He is no threat. When male sees him, he is reminded of giant birds that feed on kills too rotted to interest his troop. He thinks of him as Vulture.
The new pair walks past male and around the log. Alpha male pays no attention. Vulture snarls as he passes, but he is looking away and gives wide berth. Alpha male approaches female, lies next to her. She ignores him. He pokes her in the ribs, then roughly grabs her hand and places it on his stomach. When she merely pulls away, alpha male grunts his displeasure, pinches at her fur, and returns her hand to his stomach. She finally understands, rolls over, and begins to groom him.
When the scent of alpha male grows faint, male lifts his face from the ground, sees that he is alone, and creeps to the log. Vulture, huddled on the near corner of the granite, looks up, but quickly turns his back when male growls a warning. Alpha male is lying on his back, behind Vulture, his eyes closed. Female is picking lice from the chest of alpha male, but instead of killing them she calmly drops them back onto his stomach. And she is smiling. Her expression is one of confidence. It is as if she, not alpha male, is in control.
Male snorts in amazement. Wants to stay. But he is nervous in the nearness of alpha male. Besides, the sky is starting to dim. Lack of light is close. And so, he backs from the log, stands, and limps into the woods.
Male knows that the sun disappears regularly, but he has no idea where the light goes. It has always returned and he thinks it will again, but he isn't sure. He's frightened. In addition, he doesn't understand why he's bothered more by the dark than the other members of the troop.
The light does return, but only after a truly terrifying period of dark. Cold, heavy rain chilled male to the bone. Jagged flashes of lightening, accompanied by nearly simultaneous crashes of thunder, had terrified him. And gale force winds had nearly blown him from the safety of his tree nest.
Male climbs to the ground at first light. He pauses for a refreshing drink from a puddle at the base of the tree, then walks toward the meadow, but stops to urinate at the edge of the woods before stepping into the clearing and woofing a thankful greeting to the sun, which is just now rising above the waist-high field of golden grass.
Male sits on the log that provided grubs the previous day and warms himself in the sunlight. He takes pleasure in watching the wet grass sway back and forth in the gentle morning breeze and he waves his hand in front of his face in a crude imitation of the motion. A giant bird near the horizon enters his line of sight and he follows the flight with his hand. He has no idea how the bird can stay in the air, nor has he evolved to the level that this question occurs to him. A smaller bird flies in front of him, lands in a bush a few hundred feet away. Male shades his eyes, staring at the bush. Grunting excitedly, he runs forward, flushes the bird, and discovers a nest with four tiny eggs, which he devours, shells and all, in one small mouthful.
The eggs serve only to whet his appetite and male moves back to the woods, spitting shells as he walks. Ten minutes later, pausing only to gather a few berries and once for an unsuccessful attempt to catch a baby ground squirrel, he comes to the grove of fruit trees. Most of the troop had the same idea. Some are moving beneath the trees, gathering fruit that had fallen during the storm. Others are ripping at the tough rind with their teeth. Still others are enjoying the soft juicy internal flesh.
Vulture is running back and forth, frantically picking up fruit, sometimes grabbing from weaker animals, and stacking them in front of alpha male on a pile so large it couldn't be eaten in a week. Female is on the side of the grove distant from the alpha male. Male walks over, grunts a quiet hello. She smiles, hands him a half-eaten fruit, then selects another from the ground.
The two lean back against a giant tree, not quite touching, enjoying the sweet fruit and the cool of the morning. Above, some of the younger animals are chasing through the trees. Two of the older youngsters, orphans from a recent lion attack, race directly overhead. They leap simultaneously, realizing too late that they are targeting the same small branch. It snaps from their combined weight. They squeal in fear and, wrapped arm-in-arm, still clutching the broken branch, plummet to earth.
The pair hits the ground just behind Vulture. The tip of the branch slaps the face of alpha male. The bottom youngster lies dazed. The one whose fall had been cushioned by the body of his brother jumps up unhurt. Alpha male leaps forward and sends the standing animal flying with a vicious backhand and then slams his fist down onto the head of the unconscious youngster. Blood and gray material ooze from the broken skull. Alpha male licks his fist, then leans down and tastes the gooey mass that had been the young animal's face. He picks up the corpse and carries it away, licking at the blood and brain matter as he walks.
The body of the first youngster had flown ten feet in the air and slammed into the trunk of the very tree from which he had fallen. He lay whimpering for a few moments and then pulled himself along the ground, his legs dragging uselessly behind.
During this time, male had jumped to his feet, his half-eaten fruit falling to the ground. He had paced quickly back and forth, while stuttering short nervous woofs and pulling the hair of his chest. When alpha male had disappeared with the body of the dead youngster, male walked quickly but cautiously to the wounded individual. He looked carefully around and then picked up the youngster and ran deeper into the woods.
Half an hour later, male is sitting on the bank of the great river, the westernmost boundary of the troop's territory. One hand rests on the leg of the wounded youngster lying in front of him. The young animal whimpers softly, tears running down his cheeks, fear mixed with pain creasing his tiny face.
A twig snaps in the woods. Male jumps up and scampers into the brush, abandoning the youngster. He returns, head down, embarrassed, when female emerges from the woods and walks to the riverbank. Female places one hand on her chin, the other on male's wrist and emits a low, high-pitched wail. She walks to the youngster, kneels at his side, and woofs softly as she pulls at his arms, urging him to stand. When the youth doesn't respond, she lies at his side, places one arm around him, hugging him and crooning softly.
A small trickle of blood seeps from the youngster's mouth.
Male watches for a minute or two and then walks into the woods. Soon he is back. He shakes female's shoulder and motions with a wave of his hand for her to follow him. She hesitates. He shakes her again and waves his hand more vigorously. She rises slowly, gently picks up the youngster, and follows him into the woods. He stops after about twenty feet. Points into the air. She looks up, confused, then smiles as she spots the nest he has built. Female woofs a thank you and, carrying the youth in one arm, deftly climbs to the nest.
Male spends the rest of the day gathering fruits and nuts and a half dozen clams, a new treat he discovered on the river bottom. Most of these foods he carries to the nest. Near sundown, he climbs up and lies next to female.
As always, the dark bothers him, but somehow the night is less fearful than before.
In the morning, the youngster is dead.
Male has to slap female to get her to release the youth. He carries the body down, leaving her sobbing and rocking in the center of the nest. Male lays the body on the riverbank and sits back on his haunches, elbows on his knees, chin in his hands, staring at the youth for a full minute. Finally, he walks over and scoops a deep depression in the soft sand.
Male places the body into the grave and begins covering it with sand. Female appears at his side and reaches toward him with one of the fruits he had gathered. Male angrily slaps it away and returns to the burying. She runs to retrieve the fruit, walks timidly back to his side, grunts to get his attention. When he looks up, she points to the fruit and then down at the dead youngster. He frowns. After a moment, he woofs approvingly, accepts the fruit, bites through the rind, and places it next to the body. Male mounds the rest of the sand onto the corpse, then stands and walks into the woods.
Female catches up to him as he passes the tree in which he had built their nest. She grabs his arm and tries to pull him back. He shakes her off and continues walking. She grabs him again, points to him, to herself, into the sky. He cocks his head to one side, looks up, looks back at her. Then he smiles. And quickly follows her back to the nest.
It is three days before they return to the rest of the troop. No one acknowledges their return. Nobody noticed they had been gone. They spend the day together, but build two nests and separate when it begins to become dark.
Male spends a restless, nearly sleepless night. At dawn, he sees female climb out of her nest and he stretches his painful, arthritic leg and follows her down.
Male wanders through the trees sniffing and looking for female. He catches her scent a few minutes later. At the same time, he hears a scuffling at the edge of the meadow. Stepping out of the woods, he finds Vulture with a full erection clawing at female while she cries and tries to back away.
Male rushes Vulture, hits him from his blind side, and shoves him into a tree. Vulture's head slams into the rough bark and he falls onto his back, dazed.
Male woofs loudly, jumps up and down on all fours. Then, with lips pressed tightly against his teeth, he picks up a fruit-sized chunk of granite and smashes it down onto Vulture's skull.
Male jumps up, screams loudly, runs quickly back and forth, beats his chest, runs in circles, pulls grass and tosses it in the air, runs back to Vulture, spits on his body, throws clumps of grass at him.
Male's frenzy gradually slows, dies out. He stands still and looks around. Some of the animals have walked into the meadow and are watching nervously. Male takes small steps to the right, to the left. He kneels, presses his face to the ground. He stands, shoulders hunched, woofing short nervous bursts. He looks to female, makes eye contact, lowers his head, tears dripping from his eyes. He then turns and sprints into the meadow.
Female watches, raises both hands to her mouth, squeals in alarm, and rushes forward, following the trail of bent grass made by male.
David A. Stelzig is a retired professor and Chairman of Agricultural Biochemistry at West Virginia University. Stelzig has numerous research publications in refereed journals, including Science, Plant Physiology, and Phytochemistry. He also has short fiction published in Boston Literary Magazine and DiddleDog, and stories accepted in Midnight Showcase and an anthology of MD authors.