Daylight filtered weakly through the leaves of the old forest. Overhead, a slate gray sky promised colder weather to come. Morning dew ringed with frost collected in the wide fronds nearest the ground, tempting a young buck to pause and drink, putting its head down despite the tense silence. Despite the expectation in the air.
It looked up and for the briefest of moments two pairs of eyes met through the leaves. The buck was almost transfixed by the gaze lock of hunter and prey, frozen in the moment when both know that the chase is finished.
The hunter lifted the spear over her head. Still, the buck didn’t move.
But then there was a loud snap and from the thick trees stumbled the hunter’s youngest, her second-son. In his hands was a club, a small fallen branch he’d been proudly carrying around for days, hardly heavy enough to smash a field rat. At the sudden noise the buck turned to bolt.
The hunter threw her spear but had to check her aim because of the boy’s careless charge. Powerful back haunches sent the buck leaping into the trees. A moment there and then gone.
Her spear landed uselessly in the dirt.
From behind her came a cry of frustration. A guttural howl that matched the feeling in her own breast.
So close. The buck had been so close.
Exhaustion brought her to her knees, or maybe it was the cavernous emptiness in her belly, the hunger. Her first-son, Luk, stomped out of the brush behind her and growled at his little brother. Luk smacked his own head and tore at his hair in anger, while little Mok cowered beneath him in shame.
Another day without eating. What would they do now?
A wail brought her back from inside herself, and she looked up to see Luk twisting his little brother’s ear in anger. The two boys fell to the ground, wrestling, but Luk was bigger and soon had the advantage. Mok cried out again.
With a growl of her own the hunter rushed forward and cuffed her oldest son on the head. He should know better than to fight with his brother. Luk was skinny, too skinny for one his age, but he was still much stronger than his fragile sibling. He could hurt him, and then they would not be able to keep up with the others. A mother and her weak sons were barely tolerated as it was, and the tribe would not slow for the walking wounded.
Luk let his brother go and turned his anger on his mother. There was rage in his eyes, but hurt too. And hunger. Pain. He smelled sick. He smelled weak, like prey. They all did.
She wondered for a moment if he would strike her, too. She knew how hot his blood was, his shame that she did the hunting, even though he was the oldest male in the family. It was an indignity in the eyes of the rest of the tribe. Females hunted in times of need, but never in place of their weaker sons. It shamed him. But Umta hunted because she was better at it than he was, and they were too desperate to worry about shame. Luk had beat his brother for scaring off the buck but he was just as reckless. More so.
She wondered if her oldest boy would strike her, but he did not. He never had. He simply slumped down onto the dirt, eyes downcast, and rubbed his distended belly.
Little Mok, sniffling and wiping at his tears, ran to her and wrapped his arms around her legs.
“Umta,” he sobbed. “Umta.”
Umta patted his round head and cooed into his ear until he quieted, even as the forest came alive again. The birds called to one another. The danger was over. There were no predators here, after all. Just more prey.
A bright white sun peeked over the trees. The morning sky above this young forest was clear blue and cloudless, marred by occasional flashes of fire. Umta knew that the fire was really iridium flares of passing satellites—the sky was cluttered with them. On clear days like this she could even make out the blue-white silhouettes of dozens of distant space stations, which glowed bright at night but were only partially visible in the sunlight. Like the ghosts of the nighttime sky.
Umta now knew the words for all those things, she had the tools to describe them, but describing a thing was different from understanding it. She’d spent a lifetime fearing and worshipping the sky, and even now she didn’t like to look up because she was afraid of what might be looking back down. Foolish.
Funny, that in this world it had turned out her foolish superstitions were right.
So she stayed low to the ground, beneath the trees, and treaded noiselessly through this new forest. The earth was old but these trees were young—younger than she was. Regrown perhaps after some earlier catastrophe. Umta didn’t even recognize most of the plants. She wore no clothing to catch on thorns, and kept her feet bare to detect every dry twig or crackling leaf before it snapped beneath her weight. Instinct and experience served her now as she crept along the stream she’d been watching for an entire day. The fresh hoofprints in the mud told her that all she’d need was patience.