The sun’s rays streamed through cracks in the heavily overcast sky. Down below, the moist earth waited for more showers from heaven. This time when it came, probably it would be white and soft, like flowers. A chilly breeze whistled through the branches that were steadily going bare. Howling of wolves in a distance mingled with the whistle, and attracted Maya’s attention.
Maya stood by the fire. Thick matted hair covered her hunched back. Rotten, black teeth filled her mouth. She strained to see beyond the circle of trees, but her eyes returned only blurry images. Her ears caught no sound of footsteps. The men were yet to return. She drew a white leopard fur tightly over her naked body. It was getting colder, colder than she ever felt before. Underneath it, a dinosaur bone necklace, strung together with a thin vine, spoke of her elevated status in the tribe. No other woman wrapped herself in such thick fur nor wore such a necklace. No one but Oolunga. But then Oolunga had a swollen tummy. And her mate had been killed fighting the one-horned creature. The creature’s meat had fed the tribe for a couple of full moons. Oolunga fully deserved the bear-fur she lay under, warming her aching limbs by the fire. But, only that fur, Maya thought with scowl.
It was the fire that kept those creatures away. Those animals, whose bright eyes shone through the thicket of bushes and whose sharp claws and fangs could tear any human into pieces. Maya shivered at the thought and searched around for her brood. Her youngest was yet to start walking. No one knew better than her how fragile children could be. She found her younger ones nibbling on fruits they had pulled off trees. The tribe had gone hungry for three days now. The clouds were looming over, threatening a downpour. The men had to make a killing today. For, once the heavens poured white flowers on them, animals would go in hiding and trees would bear no fruits. To make the situation worse, the last of her food reserve had been given away by none other than her own mate.
Maya grunted with anger and grimaced. Seemingly unaware of her eyes upon him and unperturbed by her annoyance, her eldest one, Mako-Ugh continued to sharpen a piece of flint. But his gaze kept straying away from his task towards Oolunga – this, despite his father’s warning. Did he not fear his father? Only the other day Samik-Ya had chased Mako-Ugh into the trees and almost killed him for this. Today morning, Mako-Ugh refused to go hunting in retaliation. Samik-Ya had chortled and thrown the last piece of meat from Maya’s reserve at Oolunga’s feet. Maya could do nothing but snarl with rage.
Samik-Ya wasn’t that tall for an alpha male, but he was strong. He had once wrestled the mighty big-toothed Sabre alone and came out unhurt. And as long as he favoured Maya, she knew she would be fine. This wasn’t the first time Samik-Ya showed his interest in another female, but he always returned to her – Maya. And Maya had let him wander that little bit. Maya, however, ensured no offsprings survived. She wasn’t willing to feed more mouths with her family’s share. Babies were tender and vulnerable, you see. They tended to pop anything in their mouths – even poisonous berries.
Maya had an urge to shove a few berries down Oolunga’s throat too. But that would be too dangerous. There were people looking out for her – her own son too. Maya would be chased by the tribe and stoned to death.
Few days later…
The ground slept under a thick white blanket. A half-moon sailed through the clouds. The men and children were already asleep inside the cave, having feasted upon a mammoth’s meat. Women crouched by the fire, some half-asleep, others grunting and gesturing while listening to the moans and groans coming from outside. Oolunga had gone off to the other cave, the smaller one, even before sunrise that day. The moon was half-way across the sky and yet, her pain saw no end. Tired and bored, the women too began dozing off. Maya rocked herself to-and-fro, forcing herself awake.
Hurried footsteps alerted her and her eyes popped wide-open. Presently, the girl tending to Oolunga appeared at the cave’s mouth and plopped her broad, cold bottom to the ground, rubbing her hands in the fire’s heat. She appeared dead-beat to Maya. Maybe somewhat frightened too. Oolunga’s moans had not been heard for a while.
“Is she…?” Maya began thinking when a sudden sharp scream pierced the stillness.
Maya jerked herself up and ran to the smaller cave – a wood torch in one hand and clutching some berries in the other. The baby was only moments away. Maya helped Oolunga through the final pushes and tiny cries filled the air. But Oolunga’s suffering did not end. She continued to writhe and cry. Maybe she was indeed dying, after all, thought a pleased Maya. She clutched the baby to her chest, inside her leopard fur. Unexpectedly, the baby reached out and suckled Maya. Amazed and taken aback, the berries slipped out of Maya’s grasp. She stared at the baby and then at Oolunga, her moans getting weaker now. Oolunga was exhausted and her eyes were droopy. Burning, red eyes gaping at them through the bushes caught Maya’s attention. It was the fire that kept the creatures away. It was fire that kept them warm. Without another thought Maya threw a handful of soil on the fire, picked up her torch and hurried back to the tribe with the baby at her breast. Neither Oolunga’s last terrifying scream, nor the first gurgles of the second baby emerging from Olunga’s belly could stop Maya. She had a sad story to narrate, afterall.