Beauty’s Enemy

An early dawn awoke the sleeping woman. She stirred from her bed of skins and furs and rose, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. She made to the cave-mouth, the entrance to her home, the light brightening with each step. She glanced back to the sleeping forms of her family – her husband snoring softly, his father nearby, a rounded shape rising and falling in the near-darkness. His mate was there beside him, there were two brothers and one young sister, familiar and comforting forms.

A cool mist gathered around the feet at the entrance, the dwelling inside still warm from the heat of bodies. The woman shivered and stepped out into the sunrise. Delicately, in small amounts, she raised her eyes to meet the sun. She felt something stir inside her then, a feeling that spread to her hands. She looked at her palms in wonder and fear. What did this feeling mean? It was almost as if the hands wanted to speak.

Her husband joined her at the central fire pit. She had rekindled the flames and was watching them intently, thinking of something. His presence startled her, but he put a comforting hand on her shoulder and pulled a small leaf out of her hair. She moved her eyes to him. He was wrapped in a skin topped with a fur against the early morning’s chill. His powerful body was covered in hair, his face no exception; his stern features softened when their eyes met. The feeling in her hands returned, the want for them to speak.

Another family started to rise and joined them. A member took a log from the fire to the small pit at their dwelling and tried to rouse his sons. The whole group slowly gathered around the fire and they all looked at each other.

They spoke simply, they all understood. They moved to a certain spot in the trees and the children collected fat grubs and dew drops and the small community began their day. The woman went about her tasks, digging for roots or tubers, guiding the young ones away from thick, fibrous vines to the thinner, tender ones.

Even with her mind set on her tasks, she managed to hear a whisper of something that echoed from the feeling in her hands. She thought of the sunrise, her husband, the children at work. Her eyes searched for signs of dangerous predators, her ears were ready to hear any unfamiliar tread or the cry of alarm.

When the woman and her group returned at the high-sun, there was already meat on the fire. The hunters were loud, calling triumphantly in the calls of the beast they had brought down. The children joined in, high-pitched, and the woman took her spot by her husband. The day was quickly successful; some of it could be squandered for play. The two retreated into their cave-house while the group sang the calls of feasting.

In the evening of this day, when the sun was gone and most were asleep, the woman was wide awake. She walked over to the fire where a few other tribesmen were watching over the night. She sat at the black soot-ring and moved her hands in the warm dirt, trying to cure them of their strange feeling.

It so happened that some fat had been placed nearby to render during the night and when the woman burned herself and jerked backwards, she knocked it into the ash. The men-at-watch saw this and made to comfort her, but she was busy and paid them no attention. She noticed the greasy fat and sooty ash created a mixture that was thick and could be spread and she was seized by an idea, taking more fat and more ash and an earthen bowl and created a paste.

The men looked on, bewildered. She stood up and placed her hand in the stuff, covering it. She smeared it on one of the men, leaving behind sooty trails smearing a pattern. She cried out loud with joy! This was what her hands wanted!

The men were still puzzled. The one who had been marked looked at the stuff and his companions touched it and smeared it further. The woman left them and scattered dirt so that it was one light shade. She dipped her fingers and her palm in the soot and remembered the sunrise. She drew a clumsy circle and was delighted. She howled into the air and it seemed that she could see more vividly the sunrise.

She pictured her husband, his hairy face. She mashed her palm downward on the bottom half of her circle, a beard! She was shouting the noise for her husband and he rushed to her side. She glanced at him, an overwhelming urge took her and she grasped his hairy legs.

She excitedly motioned to the soot-mixture, held up her hands and displayed the mess. She touched his face and left her handprints there and pleased, her crowing voice carried into the night.

The group thought she was mad! They were terrified by this behavior. It was unknown! Birds made noises as these! Would this woman fly away, too? Her husband watched her; he was unafraid. He had known this woman for a lifetime, she was not one stolen from a rival tribe. He grasped her wrists and looked at the dirt. She struggled in his grip and he released her. She bent down and drew another clumsy circle, bolder than the first. Under it a line and she pointed and made the sign for “sun.”

She looked up, into the bright darkness of the sky. The moon shone fiercely and the woman traced it next to the sun, copying the phase. The tribe murmured as one. The woman ran to the rendering fat and added more of the black ash, chittering like a hungry birdling. A few of the children moved closer and she offered them the bowl.

The kids dipped their hands in and smeared each other with soot. They giggled and rolled and the adults relaxed. A few of the husbands moved forward to mark their wives with their handprints and the air around the tribe rang with their song of discovery.

In the morning, the soot-covered people resumed their normal duties, except the woman. The excitement last night had kept her awake and she was afraid for all the noise inside her mind. Even though her hands were sore and burned they felt that same feeling, but it was stronger now. She went to the cool-water to soothe them, soaking them in the shallows. She saw that the mixture did not run much in the moving water.

She was unwilling to let her bowl of mixture leave her side. She was so proud and somehow she knew the cure to her hands lay within. The sunlight played off the moving water and cast a glare, removing some of the detail from the woman’s sight, allowing her to see the simple lines in the foliage.

She hurriedly put her hands in the mixture and traced out the lines she saw. It was leaves and grasses! She put the circle above and even though she was pleased and excited, her hands were burned and pained. She sat back and saw a herd of creatures come by for a drink. She yelled the call for “hunt!,” scattering the beasts and bringing some men to the stream. In their hurry to give chase, they trampled her design on the ground and she wailed when she saw this.

She left the men and returned to the village, a heavy feeling in her belly. She took a stick from the central fire pit and made for her cave-house, starting a fire in her dwelling. Her hands pained her and she worried that the strange feeling meant sickness… or worse.

Her rough hair fell into her sight. Her vision focused on it and she noticed the bowl of mixture. She grabbed a fistful of hair and plunged it into the mixture, coating it. She moved to the smooth part of the cave wall and used her hair to make another sun. It wasn’t sturdy enough; the mixture didn’t leave much of a mark at all.

She cast around for a small stick for the fire and wound her hair around it, as if tying a spear-head. She dipped the pointed end of her hair into the mixture and again tried to make the sun.

The extra weight provided control and the woman was thrilled, her cheek against the cold stone wall. She drew the sun; the line below; it was the world! Her body quaked with excitement. She drew another circle, traced the hairiness of her husband’s face. She squealed!

The tribe heard her wild cries of elation echo from her cave and they moved in. They found the woman pressed to the wall, drawing circles for all the tribe members. She turned to them, waving her arms hurriedly, holding the stick of her hair.

They looked at her, confused. She was making too much noise, like a wounded animal. She was doing things they didn’t understand – she had created the world outside…, but inside the cave-house.

It was too much for some. They bellowed angrily! They gestured to the woman, one seizing her by the arm and dragging her outside. They motioned towards the dark clouds gathering overhead, they smeared their hands on the soot on their own bodies, they made noises of disgust.

The woman was afraid. She was surrounded. Where was her husband? She cast her eyes to the sky to find the sun as a fierce blow to the back of her head caused her to sleep.

She awoke by herself, the bowl of her mixture overturned beside her in the forest. She saw the bowl and cried and wailed, lamenting the loss of it more than the loss of her tribe. She stood up and saw that she could not see the smoke from the tribe-lands. She was lost.

She heard a crashing sound in the leaves brush nearby. She stiffened, made to flee, when the familiar voice of her husband reached her. She called for him and he appeared before her, his face still streaked from her hands. They looked at each other and the husband saw the mixture in the dirt. He rubbed his hands in it and placed them on his wife’s face and cradled her, marking her and bringing her to his chest.

Their wails of loss resounded in the sky. But then, the tone changed. The husband placed his sooty hands over his wife’s belly, marking it with his strength. His eyes shone and he met his wife.

They howled in the night, their proud voices carrying on the wind. They nestled under the same skin, watching the sky overhead, each with a hand on the woman’s belly.


Justin Lehman

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