Grok stirred. He pulled the tattered animal skin up closer around his neck to ward off the early morning chill, exposing his rough, calloused feet in the process. He scrunched his nose stiffly at the wet dusty odor from the dead fire sitting in the opening passage to the cavern.
Scratching at the tangled mat of a beard growing on his cheek with blackened fingernails, he ran his slightly swollen tongue over his chipped and worn teeth. He then tried to work up some saliva to take the taste of night out of his mouth.
The sounds of morning were starting to come awake outside of the family’s cave shelter. The old ones would be mad at him for sleeping in again, but Grok figured he would cross that path when he came to it. He stretched his legs out and slowly opened his eyes — the crust of sleep cracking open like the marrow from a meal bone. He snorted in the remnants of smoke and dust in his nostrils and then expelled it onto the ground.
He croaked a morning salutation to the unknown day ahead with a grimace brought on by a throaty discomfort, if not a bit of pain.
A lazy morning breeze knocked about gently through the trees outside of the cave. Grok stepped gingerly down from the opening and made his way across the uneven rocky clearing. He headed purposefully to the softer ground around the wooded area over by the little river.
The other family members were already up and moving steadfastly and determinedly into their day. Grok sidled up to the largest tree on the slope away from the water and then proceeded to relieve himself against it. There was still enough chill in the air that he could feel the soft, warm updraft against his legs from the hot stream. He got a slight shiver up his back and he cracked his lips slightly as he felt a relieved smile try to break through.
His morning routine was pretty standard by this time of the season. They had already been at this spot for several weeks and the hunting was still decent. It had been a good year so far, they had only lost a handful of family members, and most of them were old ones.
There were the little twins, though, only a couple of years on and taken in the night by something that they did not talk about. The parents still wailed their grief at night — Grok wished they would just get over it already. Enough was enough, life was tough and then you packed up and followed the temperate weather to new food.
That was how it always was. How it would always be.
He shook his head in irritation at himself. Patience should be the rule — only the patient hunter survived the cold season, but some days it could just be so hard to maintain that quiet and cool collection of instincts and let natural processes take their natural time.
An angry yell reached his ears and he looked around to see his father motioning angrily at him to hurry up. So much for the patience of a hunter… his father was the best hunter in the entire family and he had no patience whatsoever.
The morning hunt was only marginally successful. That meant there was enough food for everyone to have some, but not enough to get them through into the next day, or even through the rest of the day. It was a constant and endlessly annoying effort of trying to build up a store of food only to start eating into it almost immediately.
Grok looked over at the women as they gathered by the stream to start preparing the food for everyone and his heart started to pound faster as his insides tried to clamp down his fight or flight instinct.
There she was.
She had come to his attention when her small family group joined in with the main family during the height of the cold season. He vaguely remembered her from several years ago when they were both small children, but she had dropped from his attention shortly after. Now, it was like she stalked his thoughts… stalked them like a giant night not-food creature with big long sharp ripping pointy teeth.
Grok shivered at the thought and broke away from watching her. This could be very dangerous. He let out a long belabored sigh and pulled absentmindedly on the muddy knots of dirt hanging in clumps from his hair. He tried to focus on the needs of the afternoon hunt, but his heart just wasn’t in it.
His father had given him a very difficult time over the morning hunt. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and bellowing, and that helped make the food scarce. Grok wasn’t sure why he should bear the sole blame for the incident. It wasn’t he who had stomped back and forth and waved his long pointy stick at the sky and scared off all of the food.
The males started to gather in order to head out for the afternoon hunt. Grok kicked his calloused and dirt encrusted toes at the ground and looked at the group absently. He then stole another glance over to the females and felt that familiar tightening deep in his core. He shook his shaggy head and rubbed at his knotted and extended brow to help ease the stress building there. With a final kick at the ground he picked up the long pointy stick his father gave him and made his way over to the other males.
Grok tried to sit quietly, hidden slightly by an overhanging brush from the quickly greening growth, as his stomach roiled angrily with hunger. He didn’t understand why he always had to sit in the rear. Someone else could just as capably make sure the food didn’t double back during the chase.
He held his right hand out in front of him and turned it slowly from one angle to the next. The speckled shade from the green alternating with the tender pinch from the waning late afternoon sunlight made him feel like there was a soft slow current brushing delicately and purposefully across the hair growing profusely on his knuckles. In his mind he imagined a hazy dream version of himself with his hand held buried in a still pool of water waiting for food to swim lazily by.
He rocked his head back and forth enjoying the feeling on his hand and then began to absently pick at the tiny food crawling through the hair there and popping them into his mouth. As he savored the coppery salty taste, the female came back to mind and he tried to picture her sitting quietly next to him with her hands buried in the water too — the two of them catching food together.
He was pulled back from his reverie by the distant sounds of yelling. The others had caught something and would be returning soon to head back to the cave spot. He closed his eyes and tried to recapture the image of him and the female both arm deep in the water, but it was gone.
Grok huffed in mild frustration.
The fire had been moved to the cave entrance from the gathering area outside. The hunt had ended with relative success — all had eaten and there was enough left over to get them into the next two days without too much discomfort.
Grok had tried to mingle — but his father had barked at him in anger when he had tried to contribute to the recounting of the day’s events. He had started to scratch out in the dusty ground next to the fire, with the tip of his long pointy stick, the image of the food they had caught and the males that had helped kill it.
The family never seemed to understand him at times like these and he needed to learn to keep those kinds of things to himself. He did catch the eyes of the one female. He saw her staring intently at the image he scratched in the ground. When he finally caught her eye, she looked away quickly and started fiddling with the skin of the food with some other females.
Now they had all started to retire to the cave for the night’s sleep. Grok looked up into the night sky at the distant pinpoints of light twinkling down at him from on high.
One day, maybe, he would know who made those fires. One day, maybe, he would take the female by the hand. One day, maybe, he would understand…
One day, maybe…