~ a forgotten tale of prehistoric love
Apr 19, 2020
Forty-thousand years ago, surrounded by outcroppings of rock, there lived a small tribe of thoroughly unkempt individuals who spent their time hunting for birds and gambling for slaves. One of those slaves, known only as Limp, was breathing heavily as he pressed himself against the cliff under their encampment and peered at the jagged rocks below.
He tried to ignore the death that awaited him and instead took solace in the thought that his recent capture had given him the chance to prevent his friend from being ordered over the cliff. She was too small and weak to have survived.
His captors didn’t mind forcing Limp over the cliff’s edge instead of the girl. Slaves were easy to obtain. When two or three of the men of the group felt bored, they would hoist themselves erect and announce to their fellows that they would soon return with a new prize whom they could all kick and slap and even, if they were lucky, induce to work.
There were always tasks to be done in their settlement. Their dwellings were shallow caves in the side of a mountain, recessed behind a platform of granite upon which they gathered to argue and curse and chew on birds that their slaves or women cooked on the common fire.
The slaves did most of the labor, giving the women time to hang on the necks of the men and hiss complaints about their slaves and demand better ones. The slaves were always busy with the preparation of roasted birds or the endless task of throwing distasteful items from the cliff’s edge to the rocks below. There simply wasn’t room on their little plateau for anything unnecessary, which included slaves who didn’t work and other types of waste.
The leader of the band was a corpulent collection of vanity and scars—tattoos of conquests and sketches scraped off that were best forgotten. When he stood one day and spat in the direction of his favorite hangers on, he almost tripped over a slave girl.
He growled and kicked her and then promptly forgot all about her. It was time to venture out once more, up the mountain along secret pathways and tunnels and then over the top to a land beyond in which slaves could be won, if the gambling bones were thrown just right.
He left with his men, sent off with malodorous kisses from the women and the banging of sticks and howls from the men. The slaves looked at each other and sadly whispered the hope that the men would have no luck at all on their journey.
The slave girl whom the leader had kicked was still young enough to have a certain brightness in her eyes. If the layers of dirt had been washed off, her face would have been jealously described by the women as “not as ugly as some.” But she did indeed have a very dirty face, so much so that she had earned the name “Dirty Nose.”
She had been brought to the camp when she was a child, and spent many nights crying for her mother. Over the years, she had demonstrated unusual traits, most especially that of kindness to the other slaves. She would often try to help them when they were kicked too many times.
She had learned to avoid the caves after her body matured. The greasiest of the men vied for her, and demanded that the leader give her to them. The leader would cuff them and shout that he was saving her. Thus, she had avoided being taken by any of them, unlike the other, more unfortunate slave girls.
Still, she would retreat to the cliff’s edge to avoid the men, for she had discovered that the members of the tribe were afraid of the land below. When they threw things over the edge, they did so from many feet back, and when they saw her sitting on the edge, swinging her legs back and forth without a care, they growled and screamed in anger and terror.
Something dreadful had happened; that she knew. One night, after the men had feasted and drunk until they were almost unconscious, one of the men had started shouting about the monsters in the water—dreadful, dark beasts that had eaten the women of their tribe. The other men joined in, and told tales of how young girls would climb down the cliff and disappear forever. None of the tribe knew when the events had occurred, but it was long ago, before the births of their grandfathers.
Dirty Nose listened and marveled, and would often sit at the cliff’s edge, searching for monsters. She could see that the land below was not that far away, perhaps about the same distance as the world above where she had come from, carried through pathways and tunnels when she was a small girl.
At the bottom of the cliff, there was a long strip of what looked to her like sand, next to a vast expanse of water that stretched to the edge of the world. She had never seen water like that, and didn’t know what to make of it. For all her watching, though, she never saw any dark shapes in the water.
When she asked one of the slaves about the monsters, the old woman looked at her piteously and sucked on her teeth.
“Dirty Nose, you will meet them soon enough.”
The girl looked confused. “What do you mean, grandmother?”
The woman pointed at the rocks above their camp. “The leader always looks to the water when he returns from the land above and if he sees the monsters, he does what has always been done.”
“What is that?”
The slave woman sighed. “I have never seen it, and I have been here for a long time. But I was told by an old woman, when I was a child, that the only way to stop the monsters from climbing up our cliff and devouring us all is to give them what they come for.”
Dirty Nose looked at the woman, who was staring at the ground, and began to feel afraid. “What do the monsters come for, grandmother?”
The woman looked up and stared at Dirty Nose. “For a young girl like you, my child. For you. That is why the leader is saving you. For when the monsters return. You will climb down the cliff and give yourself to them, to devour you.”
Dirty Nose started to tremble and cry as the old woman took her in her arms and stroked her hair. After a long while, she stood up and kissed the woman’s cheek and thanked her.
The girl went about her duties over the next few months, wondering when she would have to climb down the cliff to a gruesome death. She had seen death more than once on the plateau. Two slaves had tried to escape one night and were caught in the maze of tunnels. They were both thrown off the cliff immediately. The next day, when she sat at the cliff’s edge, she looked for their bodies, but saw nothing, not even bones.
On a trip coming back from the land above, one of the men was carried down the path, bleeding from a wound in his stomach that he had received in a fight with a gambling opponent. She had heard the men report that he had cheated. The wounded man died shortly after, groaning as one of the women tried to stop the bleeding.
Dirty Nose wondered if she would groan or scream as the monsters tore into her flesh. Her examination of the land below took on a heightened urgency as she sat on the cliff edge, but day after day she saw nothing disturbing the placidity of the water.
The leader came and went on a number of gambling expeditions, but she dared not speak to him about her fate. She thought that perhaps he didn’t realize that she knew of his plans.
When he kicked her just before he went on his latest mission, she winced, but said nothing. Her hope was that he would never see the monsters in the water, but then, if he did not, would he give her to the men as their plaything? She shuddered, and went back to her duties, carrying slop to the cliff over and over again.
She was sleeping when the leader and his men returned, dragging a slave behind them. They yelled as they came down the path, and woke everyone with their noise. The leader strutted around the fire and thrust out his chest, pulling the slave behind him, shouting how he had won him from a tribe of very large men. But the leader had been cunning and had been victorious.
Some of the women went to the slave and pushed him next to the fire so all could see. He was a young man, with long, blond hair and an air of strength about him. Standing in the light of the fire, he frowned and stood very straight until a woman kicked one of his legs. He stumbled, and then Dirty Nose could see that his left leg was crooked. She could see scars below his knee.
He recovered from the kick and as he did, he limped, favoring his leg. The woman who had kicked him screamed and laughed, and pointed at his leg.
“Limp!” she cried. “He limps!”
“Limp! Limp! Limp!” the women shouted, laughing as they poked him.
They soon got tired of him, and shoved him away from the fire. He stumbled into the dark and stopped in front of Dirty Nose. In the darkness it was difficult to navigate on the granite shelf, and it was clear that he had no idea what to do next.
Dirty Nose reached out to him and said, “Take my hand.”
Limp, for that was now his name, complied, and followed the girl as she showed him the cliff edge, warning him not to climb down, and then led him to the caves where he was soon gratefully asleep.
Limp and Dirty Nose became friends as the days passed. They would sit on the edge of the cliff together, looking at the land and water below. She told him of the monsters in the water and her fate to be eaten by them, if it came to that. Limp wanted to confront the leader and defend her, but the girl shook her head.
“No, you cannot. Any slave that causes trouble is thrown off the cliff. They do not care, because it is so easy to get more.”
He ground his teeth, but agreed.
“We should escape from here,” he whispered.
Dirty Nose shook her head. “Some have tried, but they are always caught by the guards as they make their way up the path and through the tunnels. And then they are thrown off the cliff.”
Limp looked over the edge. “Why cannot we escape this way? We could climb down, I think.”
She looked horrified and replied, “But then we would die, eaten by the monsters. They have told many tales of those who went down, never to return.”
The young man studied the cliff and the land and water below, and said, “I do not see any monsters.”
Dirty Nose shuddered. “They are there. They must be. When they threw a slave to his death, the very next day his body was gone. Not even bones were left. I am afraid to go that way.”
She sighed, sadly, and said, “We will grow old and die here, I think, like so many have before us. Unless the leader sends me to die below. But I do not want to speak of it anymore.”
Limp and Dirty Nose spent their days together after that, as much as they could, between their different chores, so much so that the women noticed, and tittered at the site of “slave love.”
The leader ignored them both, and left on multiple trips, but returned empty handed and irritable. His luck at gambling had evaporated, and the women of the tribe began to question his abilities. He was convinced that there was a dark sign in the air, and always made sure to scan the water below the cliff as he marched down the path from the lands above.
Dirty Nose was pushing a mound of slop over the edge of the cliff when the men came back from their latest expedition. The leader was bellowing as he ran down the path.
“They have come!” he yelled. “They have come back!”
He stood at the fire and motioned toward the cliff.
“I saw the monsters in the water at the high path on the mountain,” he said. “The water is dark with their evil, and they will come for us unless we give them what they want.”
Some of the women turned toward the cliff edge to look, but the leader shouted, so loudly that the women next to him covered their ears.
“No! Do not look at them! Never look at them! They will see us and know that we are many. They will not be satisfied with one, and will pursue us until we all have been ripped apart by their teeth.”
He collapsed on the granite rock and started rocking back and forth. For all his bravery, he was now a man ruled by panic, for he had seen what they had not.
“Their teeth!” he exclaimed. “Their teeth are larger than all the teeth in the world.”
One of his women held him against her breasts and stroked his head, murmuring in his ear. The other women turned back from the cliff with their noses in the air. They would not be the foolish ones to bring the monsters crawling into their camp.
Gradually, the leader started to breath more slowly, as his woman held him tightly. He grunted at her, and carefully stood up, aware that he had displayed unfortunate weakness in front of the tribe. As a gambler and a skilled trickster, he knew of an easy way to turn their attention away from his failings.
“Dirty Nose!” he bellowed. “Bring me Dirty Nose!”
Dirty Nose tried to hide, but was lifted up by two of the men and carried to the leader, and dropped on the stone without a word.
She glared at the men, and nursed her arm that had been scraped. She tried to make herself very small, but it was no good. The leader stood her up and pointed at her, looking at his assembled followers.
“This slave will quench the monsters’ hunger, and our good fortune will return.”
The men and women of the tribe laughed, relieved that they would not be devoured, and started to dance around Dirty Nose, hurling insults and grim tidings quite ungratefully.
“Dirty Nose is a meal for many! Dirty Nose ripped limb from limb! Dirty Nose with no nose left! No bones, no skin, no fat, no muscle! Dirty Nose to the monsters!”
Their songs and shouts were interrupted by Limp, who strode up to the leader and loudly proclaimed, “No! I will go in her place!”
The leader was taken aback, since slaves were not supposed to do anything other than be slaves and exhaust themselves at their tasks. His mouth opened and shut more than once before he laughed, and said, “Idiot slave. I will send you both to the monsters.”
Limp shook his head, and replied, “No. If you do they will know that we are many and come for all of us. If you send only me, they will have their meal and depart. I am bigger than the girl, and will satisfy them well.”
The leader stared at Limp, and then looked at the other members of the tribe and the assembled slaves. It seemed that he was counting and weighing things, as if he was throwing bones in a game. After a moment, he nodded, and declared, “Yes! This slave will fill the monsters’ bellies more than the girl. He will do!”
Without a pause, he and his men took Limp by the arms and walked toward the cliff, taking care to not get too close. The leader looked at Limp and pointed toward the edge. “Go! Go down the cliff to the monsters. If you do not, we will send the girl.”
Limp turned and gazed at Dirty Nose and smiled. His long, blond hair was filthy from his work, and his face and nose were dirty too. But his eyes were warm and filled with light as he looked at the girl. Without a word, he lowered himself over the cliff and disappeared from view.
Dirty Nose screamed and sobbed and was going to run to the cliff to follow him, but the women held her back and scolded her.
“We cannot let the monsters know that we are many.”
She hit at them and cried, but they held her until she grew calm. They finally let her go and went back to their cooking. The men had brought new birds to roast and they were hungry.
Limp was a few feet below the edge, standing on a small outcrop of rock, looking for the best way to climb down. He heard Dirty Nose crying, and closed his eyes for a moment, breathing heavily. He had not thought it would come to this.
When he opened his eyes, he saw his way, and slowly moved down the cliff, from rocky point to root to crack to edge to rocky point. He was so concentrated on his work that he was quite surprised to find himself standing on the sand. He had made it, just as night began to fall. The moon was full that night, which fortunately gave him light to creep across the sand toward the water.
He moved slowly, peering at the water nervously. He was on a strip of sand with trees on his left and the water on his right. He had never seen water like this. It kept coming toward the sand as if it were alive, and then, just before it reached the sand, it would dissolve with a splash into whiteness. He dipped his fingers in it and put them in his mouth and then spat. It wasn’t like the water of the river where he had grown up, swimming and fishing with his brothers. They could drink that water, but this new type of water had a sharp taste that he couldn’t identify.
He kept looking for movement in the water and the dark shapes of monsters. As he crept forward, sometimes standing, sometimes on his hands and knees, he tried to reconcile the awful fact that he would soon be ripped apart and eaten.
As the moon broke out from behind a cloud, he saw them.
There were long, roiling shapes in the water, some moving rapidly, while others simply floated, waiting for him to arrive. As he stared at them, he realized that he could run. He did not have to be eaten. He could run down the sand, past the monsters and be gone before the moon went behind another cloud. He stood up and started to walk along the sand, as far away from the water as he could, when the terrible thought came to him that if he ran, the monsters would turn their attention to the cliff and to the tribe, and most of all to Dirty Nose.
He wanted to cry at that thought, but simply shook his head fiercely, and wiped his eyes and continued walking toward the monsters. As he got closer, he paused, and dropped to his stomach, pressing himself against the sand. There was something strange in front of him, lying at the edge of the water.
It was a monster, with half of its horrible body in the water and half on the sand. As the moon came out, he could see it more clearly. It was not dark colored at all, but rather a shade of gray like the granite of the encampment. His dread of being eaten was now tinged with curiosity. Perhaps the monster was dead!
He crept forward, on his hands and knees, until he was directly in front of the monster. It was breathing slowly, and its eye was looking at him. It had a wide mouth, and an eye on each side of its head. It had no arms with claws like most monsters. Instead it had what looked like wings on each side of its body. Its mouth was partially open, and he could see its teeth. They looked rather small, and he was perplexed that there was no blood dripping from them.
He crouched in front of the monster, studying it. He could see the other monsters in the water, swimming back and forth, some frantically. Some of them were screaming and whistling in a frightful way. The monster in front of him wasn’t making any sound at all, except for the sound of its breath.
There was something about it that gnawed at his thoughts, something he couldn’t understand. He was thinking so hard that he inadvertently pounded his forehead, and then fell backward onto the sand in shock. Someone had touched his shoulder.
He turned, crouching, ready to fight a new monster, to die without tears or fear, and then sat down with a gasp. It was Dirty Nose, standing over him, smiling.
“No one was watching me, so I crept away and followed you down the cliff.”
Limp opened his mouth and shut it again and then stood up and with one large stride scooped up Dirty Nose in his arms and hugged her. She giggled and hugged him tightly in return.
After a moment, she pointed at the monster on the sand, and said, “I do not think it is a monster.”
He carefully put her down and turned and looked, and then he finally understood what his mind had been trying to get through to him.
He looked at Dirty Nose and said, “It is like a fish! I kept thinking that it seemed like a fish. But not exactly like a fish.”
Dirty Nose looked up at him. “What is a fish?”
Limp thought for a moment, and said, “It is like a bird, but it swims in water.”
“Oh,” she said.
She didn’t feel afraid of it, for some reason, so she walked up to it and put her hand on its nose. She ran her hand along its snout and then bent down and looked at its eye. After a moment, she sat and placed her forehead against its head between its eyes. It seemed to Limp that she was listening.
She stood up and looked at him and said, “It wants to go back in the water. If it does not go in the water, it will die.”
Limp looked at the monster that was not a monster and not a fish, and went up to it and looked at its eye. The monster looked at him, and then let out a very tiny whistle. It was an exhausted, on the point of death whistle, and it reached into Limp’s heart and pulled at it.
He looked at Dirty Nose and then without a word, they started to push the monster into the water. It was very hard to do, because the monster was very heavy. After struggling to push it, they decided to lift it and pull it, one pull at a time. Dirty Nose was stronger than Limp had thought, and managed to lift the monster just enough for Limp to pull and coax it toward the water.
The monsters in the water were whistling as they worked, but their whistles sounded different, and less frantic. The moon went in and out of the clouds many times, observing their labors, until finally, with a great splash, the monster’s heavy body was completely in the water. It looked at Limp and Dirty Nose, and rolled over and over in the water, splashing its tail, and just before it turned away, it whistled, a beautiful, piercing whistle that said, “I am alive, and thank you.”
At least that is what they thought it meant.
The monster swam out to the others and, in a flash, they were all gone, bobbing and weaving and jumping as they swam away from the shore.
Limp and Dirty Nose were exhausted, and sat on the sand watching them go. She put her hand in his and placed her cheek against his shoulder.
“I am very happy that we were not eaten by monsters.”
Limp laughed, and agreed. “Yes! I also did not want that.”
They sat for a while, and then Dirty Nose jumped up. She tugged on his hand, until he stood up.
“We have to scream and yell as loudly as we can so that the leader will think that we are being eaten. I am sure that they are listening.”
Limp looked toward the cliff. “Do you think they are looking, too?”
“No,” she said. “They do not want the monsters to see them. They will be afraid because I am also gone, but they will hear us, and think that we are dead, and then we will not have to go back.”
He looked at her and grinned. “We do not have to go back!”
She laughed and nodded, and then they screamed—horrific screams of bloody carnage and limbs ripped and stomachs gouged. They ran wildly up and down the sand, waving their arms crazily and screaming until they both stopped and let out one gigantic scream.
They listened carefully for a moment and heard the tribe shouting and laughing. They could imagine the leader grandly puffing out his enormous stomach and announcing that he knew it would work all along.
Limp took her hand in his and they turned away from the cliff and walked along the sand. The moon was still lighting their way, and they could see a meadow at the far end of the sand.
They quickened their pace, and Limp looked at Dirty Nose, and said, “You know that Limp is not my name.”
She gazed up at him fondly, and squeezed his hand. “Dirty Nose is not mine.”
They walked for a moment in silence.
“What is your real name?” he asked.
She smiled shyly, and said, “My mother always called me Flower.”
She put her arm around his waist, and asked, “What is your name?”
He looked abashed, and said, “Lion.”
He looked at his leg, with its scars, and said, “But now it is Broken Lion.”
She stopped, and touched his leg, and then stood on her toes and kissed him. They suddenly realized that they had never kissed. It was very interesting, so they kissed some more.
Catching her breath, she started to walk again, holding his hand.
Looking up at him, with her face bright under the moonlight, she said, “I will just call you Lion.”
He smiled down at her, and kissed her again. He pointed at the meadow, and then at the sea.
“I will teach you how to swim, and to bathe, and you will show me how to cook.”
Flower just sighed and smiled, and squeezed his hand tightly. She was very, very happy, but she was always curious, so she asked, “What does it mean, to swim, and to bathe?”
Lion lifted her in his arms and walked into the water, and gently lowered her so that only her face was above the water. She had never been in water, and if it were not for Lion’s strong arms, she would have struggled. But he was gentle, and his eyes gleamed as he smiled, so she relaxed, and felt soothed by the water.
He dipped his hand in the water and rubbed her face gently, and washed the dirt off her nose. Her face had a lifetime of dirt embedded in it, but there was some improvement as he stroked her face.
He smiled at her, as she floated in his arms under the moon. He kissed her, and said, “No one will ever call you Dirty Nose again.”
Flower was extremely pleased to hear that, and looked up at Lion, resting in his arms and thinking. She wasn’t quite sure what to say, but decided on the very best thing that she could think of.
She smiled—a wide, glorious, bursting smile—and asked, “Can you kiss me again?”
Drawing: “Life Among Prehistoric Cave Dwellers,” from the book Woman Triumphant: The Story of Her Struggles for Freedom, Education, and Political Rights, by Rudolf Cronau, published in 1919. Image in Public Domain.
Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to his favorite motto: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”