The Beginning

by Henry Hasse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Relentlessly, a narrative as old as time drives forward to a climax as old as man--and points a finger as grim as Death.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

In the purely cerebral sense, there was no particular point-of-sequence at which Gral could have been said to Know. The very causality of his existence was a succession of brute obedience to brute awareness, for it was only thus that one survived. There was the danger-sense on those days when the great-toothed cats roamed the valley, and the males-who-will-bring remained huddled and sullen in the caves above the great ledge; there was the hunger-sense when provender was low, and Gor-wah drove them out with grunts and gibes to hunt the wild-dogs and lizards and lesser beasts; and not infrequently there was the other sense, the not-hunger, when the bring had been exceptional and there was somnolence after the gorging.

Gral could not remember when he had experienced the latter, for it was the dictate of Gor-wah, the Old One, that who did not bring did not eat--not until the others had gorged. Gral was small, and weakest of all the males. Not often did he bring. Once on a spurious moment he had scaled the valley-rim, and came out upon the huge plain where it was rumored the little three-toed horses roamed. And he had seen them, he had seen them! He pursued, armed only with blunt shaft and a few of the throw-stones such as Otah used; but he was less swift than the tiny horses, and his throw-stones fell wide, and it was rumored that here roamed the long-tusked shaggy ones that were larger than the very caves ... trembling, Gral had retraced his way, to arrive at the ledge and meekly await Gor-wah’s word that he could partake of the sinews that night.

... Point of sequence. Causality in action. An atom is dissected, a belly rumbles in hunger, a star blooms into brief nova; a bird wheels in futile escape, an ice-flow impacts, an equation is expressed in awesome mushrooming shape. These are multitudinous, apocalyptic. They are timeless and equal. These are things whereby suns wheel or blossom or die, a tribe vanishes, a civilization climbs or a world decays.

Or an earlier sun, hot and soft-stroking against leaves. Or a Pleistocene man, smallest of all the males, whose supine acceptance had devolved into laziness...

Gral would not have called it laziness; his crude synapses could not have contained the thought, much less given it relevance. Even later--as Gral-the-Bringer--his only point of relevance was to the Place where the great thing happened.

The Place was a small rocky cleft above the river, not easily accessible ... Gral found it one day because he dearly loved to climb, though all to be found here were the lizards, stringy and without substance. But this day he found more. It was warmth, a warmth immeasurably more satisfying than the caves-above-the-ledge. Here for perhaps an hour the late sun stroked directly in, soft and containing, setting the narrow walls aglow with bright-brushed patterns.

To Gral it was an hour apart. He gathered leaves and placed them here, and here he paused in the lateness of each day though his bring was frugal and his belly would rumble that night. But to that he was accustomed, and this was pleasurable.

It was the time of the thaw. Gral huddled in his Place and welcomed the stroking warmth. He was weary, his forage had been fruitless, his throw-stones wasted ... would he never master them as Otah and the others? He had confronted a wild-dog and pinned it snarling against rock, he had employed his shaft and got it fairly into flesh, only to have the beast slip off the smooth point and escape. Smooth points--they were useless! Briefly, his mind groped with that but could not sustain it.

So Gral burrowed into the leaves, his anger diminished as he watched with drowsy delight the sun-patterns stroking. And his eyes must have closed, half closed...

It was no snarl that brought him back--it was a tread, soft-shod and cautious, very close. The snarl came an instant later, deep-throated with anger and meaning.

Another had found this Place, this warmth, these leaves that were fine for burrowing. Gral came erect and stared into the visage of Obe the Great Bear; just six feet away he saw the great head that swayed with deceptive gentleness, the amber eyes burning, the twinned mountainous muscle of shoulders ... and in that quick moment Gral saw something else. Obe stood directly astride the pointed shaft which Gral had left too far distant.

Gral did not breathe. He did not move. Only his hand crept slowly, but already he knew his throw-stones were gone. Once more Obe snarled, and Gral saw those great shoulder muscles slide. His hand encountered the wall, groped desperately; then his fingers found something--a stick, a root, some gnarled thing that protruded...

In one rearing flow of motion, Obe launched out in a mighty reach. Gral caught part of that sweeping blow; stunned, he managed to gain footing, and now both his hands were on the protruding object. He wrenched and the thing came free, seeming strange and heavy in his hands. Obe was upon him again, the great paws ready to crush ... pure terror sent Gral stumbling back, but it was a different instinct that brought his arms once up and then down in a great arc...

Once only. He felt a wondrous impact that jarred him to the shoulders--and then it was a miracle. Obe was no longer upon him. Obe lay half sprawled, roaring with rage, and from Obe’s massive head came the crimson life-stuff!

Gral did not question. Avoiding the destructive paws, he leaped in and away, and then in, all the while employing the thing in his hand until Obe’s life-stuff had run its course in crimson ruin.

Acceptance came slowly, as Gral sagged in weariness against the wall. He could not believe this thing! Timorously, he approached the great carcass and prodded with his foot. Then he accepted.

Now things were happening inside him--a great turmoil, a throbbing within his chest. Gral straightened; he brought his arms quickly up and around, and the thing-that-slew felt wondrous in the arc. Even better than the throw-stones! It was like--he struggled for the meaning--like an extension of one’s self! One threw the stone and yet retained it!

But alas, it was not a stone at all, Gral discovered. He placed the gnarled thing in sunlight and crouched to survey it. This thing-that-slew was but a length of rotting root, frozen at the end with clay and encrusted ice. And already the ice was shattered.

The sun did the rest, as Gral watched in despair; soon there was only soft melting mud and a gnarled stick that would never slay again.

For a long time Gral crouched there, trying to understand. Dimly he perceived, but his mind would not reach. He scowled angrily and flung the useless stick away. There was a thing inside him he did not like, a strange new thing that gnawed and nagged and brought anger again.

It was anger at being robbed of a priceless thing--but the gnawing went deeper.

Wearily, he rose. He began his trek back to the great ledge, to make announcement that his bring this day would be Obe.

Otah came, and Lak and one other, and together they brought Obe back. No one made remark on the slaying; it was enough that Obe was here! And when Gral came forward at the gorging to take the bringer’s share, he merely took and retired, disdaining the great show of prowess and exaggeration which the others used to demonstrate their kill. But he saw that Gor-wah, the Old One, was pleased. Even Otah the Thrower-of-Stones looked at him with envy; it was not often they had Obe the Great Bear; only twice before had it happened, and both times it was Otah who brought.

Gral gorged voluptuously that night. This too was new to his experience, and this he liked. But newer still was the thing he did not like, the thing that continued to gnaw and nag and would not let him sleep.

And next morning, with the valley still gray and murky before the dawn and damp with bitter cold, Gral was gone in advance of the others. He clambered down to the river and there he pursued his way--far along toward the place where it widened into shallows. No thought of bringing today! Instead he searched. He searched the rocky shallows as the sun came shafting, and he was still searching later as it climbed high.

He found the place at last, where the stones were plentiful and of proper size. There he paused; the thing was still angry and prodding within him; Gral could not have known that this “thing-that-prodded” was not anger but a churning impatience, a burning nameless need--that he was in very truth a prototype, the first in the realm of pure research!

But he applied it, knowing remotely what he must do. It was long; it was irksome; he ached all through with the effort but still he persisted. Until at last, from all the stones in the shallows, he had gathered a dozen that pleased him.

These he seized eagerly. He spread them out; he examined; he grunted and grimaced and paused in perplexity. It was difficult to choose when each might do! But he chose, weighing each in his hand before discarding, until finally one remained.

He grunted his pleasure, knowing purpose now. The vines! Again he selected carefully. Tight, said the thing-that-prodded, it must be tight or you will have only a throw-stone.

And so began the long task of arranging stone to shaft, as he brought the vine round and round again. It was crude; his fingers were clumsy and unaccustomed; the vine tangled and tore, and there was no way of fastening. But with each failure he found new ways, until at last it was done.

It was done! A thing of extended strength and weight, at once so wondrous that Gral could only place it before him and stare. He felt a pulsing at his throat, his thoughts went leaping. Obe the Great Bear! Now he could bring Obe many times! Even Otah the Thrower-of-Stones would be in awe!

Gral lifted the thing of his creation ... and just a little way distant, his glance caught the bole of a tree. Now this will be Obe the Great Bear ... then Gral leapt forward, arm outflung in the arc he remembered.

Truly and without effort the weight went to the mark. It made impact that jarred him from arm to shoulder, but this he did not mind because his weapon’s edge brought a great gaping wound to the weathered bole.

... the first sound of isolate words across a wire. The initial shock of mushroom-shape above an atoll. The fierce clutch of a weighted shaft newly fashioned ... man stands always FOR A MOMENT in awe of what man has wrought.

For a moment only. And so Gral stood stark in his moment of awe, truly frightened as he visioned what such a blow might have done to Obe. But Gral was truly man, truly prototype; for the time of one deep breath he felt it, then awe and fright were gone as he exulted.

Once more he brought the shaft up in smooth swing and down in the arc...

Alas for Gral--alas for research. Alas for all the effort and application and the prodding-thing within. It was Gral’s destiny yet to know that a mere day’s effort was only the beginning.

For his second mighty swing did not reach the bole-bark. It reached nothing but air. He felt a sudden lightness as the stone fled from shaft, and he was left holding a stick trailing vines at the end.

Undaunted, he tried again, and again it happened--the stone went plummeting. A third time he tried, and a fourth. He chose the more pliant vines and strove to make them stay, sought a new way to fasten. The stone would not stay.

Gral mourned, and from the mourning came anger and then a bitterness that rose to blind him. For the rest of that day he tried--he could not have counted the times. A factor was missing--dimly he knew that. The sun was dull red along the valley when he desisted; his hands were raw and bleeding, and seeing that, a sound rose in his throat like grating gravel.

Grimly, he buried his stone there beneath the bole and made his way back to the great ledge. His share of Obe would last yet a day or two. The thought of food was only fleeting, because the anger was still inside him, larger now, demanding now ... that thing-that-prodded.

Obe was gone at last, both Gral’s share and all the rest. Three days were gone and Gral did not try to bring again. But each day he went from the ledge in advance of the others, he went in a hunger he did not heed--to the place of the buried stone.

On the third day he thought that Otah followed, keeping discreetly behind; but he could not be sure. This was not Otah’s usual direction. And later, on the far shore across the shallows he saw one of Kurho’s tribe from Far End. It was not often that Kurho’s people foraged this far, and Gral could not say how long the man must have stood there bold and brazen. When next he looked up, the fellow was gone.

Ordinarily he would have reported this to Gor-wah, but the incident was soon forgotten. He continued doggedly with shaft and stone. It was something wild and febrile that drove him now, and he could not have wondered at his own incredible quixotism--he was a million years removed from that! But inevitably his synapses took hold, the neuronic links grooved, and to Gral one thought emerged: the vines would never do.

And so he came to know where the missing factor lay. He knew it dully and was helpless.

More than helpless, he was hungry. It came with a great gnawing need. On the fifth day it was Otah who noticed, and more out of contempt than pity tossed him the remnants of a wild-dog he had brought: the portion was little more than stripped bones and sinew, but Gral accepted without question, crawled to his place on the ledge and partially assuaged his hunger...

The ways of discovery are most wondrous--yet who will dare to say they take precedence over the wondrous ways of the stomach? And the ways are ironic; is it not conceivable that the two should align in devious fruition? For Gral found answer, not in his groping hands, but tangled about his clumsy feet!

The sun came high and hot. Gral emerged from his sleep-place on the ledge, faint and hungry but knowing he must try yet again. He took a step, his feet tangled, and growling deep he reached down and tore at a tough twining substance.

Sinews. Sinews stripped bare by his own hunger, all that Otah and others had tossed him these past days; they were taut and clinging now, unresilient, like the vines of the young trees and yet strangely unlike.

Unlike! Gral stared, as his throat went pulsing. He reached out and touched; one had twined about a rock, was now so fast that his fingers could not cause it to move. For a long time he crouched, perplexed, growling deep as his fingers explored. He glanced up at the sun, and then back, and with that glance two things came together with searing shock...

For the very first time, man--a Pleistocene man--had made a clear cerebral distinction of cause and effect.

Gral arose. There was a wild new urgency. Quickly he searched and he found, across all the great ledge, sinews from the gorging which the sun had not yet touched. Some among the tribe stared with immobile contempt, thinking Gral the scavenger was yet hungry. But Gral gathered quickly, and departed, and was soon at the far place by the great bole, where he retrieved his stone and set feverishly to work.

Indeed it was not like the vines! It was easy now, but he was doubly thorough; he made his fingers be strong as he followed the pattern he knew so well. The sinews held, they held! His part done at last, he went out from the trees and placed his shaft where the sun’s hot stroke could reach.

And this was perhaps hardest of all--the waiting. Most of that day he crouched and waited and watched, as the sun’s work was done; that great bright orb, his ally; he had known times when it was beneficent and times when it was cruel, but now in his need Gral’s thoughts were kindly.

Soon it became as if his own kind thoughts and the sun’s hot strength were one. The thing-that-prodded now was different, now it outpoured, gracious to meet his need. He could not have known that this was prayer! And so, by degree and small degree Gral saw the sinews grasp and tighten.

Not until the sun was low, at valley’s Far End, did he dare reach out and take his shaft and put it to test. But already he knew! The stone held, and it held, and would continue to hold after many tries. He had fashioned a thing and it was wondrous--his own sole possession--a weapon beyond anything the valley-people had dreamed of--and it was his alone.

A stirring of vague alarm made him pause. He growled deep. The thing-that-prodded churned in a new way, a cunning way, and once again Gral was prototype. This thing must be kept secret! Not yet would he share--not until he became known as Gral-the-Bringer!

... he could not have known. Could not have known that this thing he wrought spelled at once Beginning and End: that no such shocking departure remains long sole-possessed, either shaft or fire or mushroom-shape: that with each great thing of man’s devising comes question and doubt and challenge and often disaster...

Or knowing, would not have cared.


So now he was known as Gral-the-Bringer! He went alone each day, taking throw-stones which he discarded in favor of his new weapon from its place of hiding. He brought the wild-dogs for a time, but soon he disdained them. Three times more he brought Obe the Great Bear, but would not demonstrate his method of kill. Sometimes he scaled the valley-rim to the great plain, where he slew the three-toed horses whose flesh was sweet and different.

And each time at the gorging Otah watched him--watched sometimes sullen and brooding, sometimes with secret knowing.

And then came a day when Otah brought Obe the Bear. Three times in as many days he brought Obe, and on the third time he brought back also the shaft-with-stone, bearing it boldly to make sure that Gral and all the others saw.

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