science fiction and fantasy writer

Boumee and the Apes

Boumee plucked a yellow marula fruit from the tree, dropping it into the bark carrying dish on the ground at his feet, then looked about for Ush.

His little sister was supposed to be helping pick fruit. Being only five, she’d quickly lost interest. He spied her a short distance away, poking a termite mound with a stick.

Boumee tore a branch from the tree to use as a switch. Ush, engrossed in tormenting the termites, was completely oblivious to her brother’s approach until he swatted her across the rump.

“Lions will get you!”

Ush squealed. “Tum!”

Boumee shook the leafy end of his switch at her face. “My name is Boumee,” he bellowed, pretending outrage. “Not Tum, anymore. I am not a baby like you.”

Ush grabbed the switch and tried to wrench it from his grasp. Boumee let her have it and skipped away. Ush pursued. “Just because you have a grown-up name does not mean you can hit me!”

Dodging her attempts to hit him back, he trod in his carrying dish. Fire-hardened wood cracked, fruit squashed. Ush trumpeted her amusement in spite of herself.

Boumee felt a shivery tingling up his legs. He stopped abruptly. With a cry of triumph, Ush whacked him on the bridge of his trunk. Boumee ignored her, listening intently.

Ush hit him again. “Boumee, play!”

“Be still,” he said, catching her trunk.

She struggled to get free, squealing in protest.

“Be still. I hear a call.”

Ush stopped and listened too. Boumee heard the cry again, an urgent blare with a deep undercurrent that tickled the soles of his feet. It was coming from the opposite direction to where the clan was camped beside the river.

“A call for help,” Boumee said. “Run to the camp,” he told her.

“Not on my own!” she wailed.

He butted her in the ribs. “Run!”

Ush fled, trumpeting shrilly. The distress cry came again. It sounded even more plaintive than before, like the wail of a lost calf, although it was made by an adult voice. As if the person who made it was under attack. But what could attack a grown person? Perhaps they had injured themselves in an accident, Boumee thought, and been found by lions or hyenas.

He cast about for a weapon, and picked up a heavy fallen branch for a club.

Boumee charged down a lightly wooded slope, heedless of how much noise he made. There was a large waterhole at the bottom, he knew. Someone must have made their camp there. The cry came again, but feebly. Boumee trumpeted a reply, hoping to frighten off the predators.

He glimpsed the grey bulk of a person through the trees. They were under attack, but not by lions. Lean, vertical creatures pranced around the fallen person, chattering and shrieking in excitement. Apes? wondered Boumee.

He didn’t stop to ponder further. Some of the apes, having heard his cry, had gathered to face his charge. They carried long, straight sticks in their hands. He saw their flat monkey faces contort in fear as they began to scatter.

Boumee crashed through them, skittling bodies with his club. He caught one on his tusks and crushed it with the underside of his trunk. Something sharp pierced his side. An ape retreated, Boumee’s blood on the end of its weapon. Boumee bashed the creature so hard he snapped his club.

More stabs assailed his hindquarters. Boumee screamed, dropping the remains of his club. His back legs crumpled. If he fell, he was dead. With a bellow, he pushed himself back up and whirled about. He caught one of the attackers by the head and used it to lash at the others, until its body came free of its neck and lobbed gracelessly into the waterhole with a resounding splash. Boumee flung the head after its companions.

The remaining apes regrouped a short distance away. One howled at him and beat its forepaw against its ribs.

Boumee’s hind legs shook uncontrollably. He thought he might not fight them off a second time. A dry dead tree stood between he and they. Trumpeting in pain, he lowered his head and charged. Boumee crashed into the tree, then stood with ears flared and knocked half silly in an expanding cloud of splinters and dust as the apes fled.

His back end almost collapsed again. Shaking, Boumee limped back to the apes’ fallen victim.

“Mahouh,” he said, recognising him. Mahouh was a bull a few years older than Boumee, who’d been travelling with Boumee’s clan. Great-nonna Eyeyo had chased him away a few days before, having run out of patience with his poor manners.

Blood ran from numerous stab wounds in Mahouh’s legs and belly. His trunk twitched, cut in several places, and there was a ragged puncture in his throat, that sucked and bubbled when he breathed. Mahouh shifted his head, eyes searching. “Little Tum?”

Boume gripped Mahouh’s injured trunk gently with his own. “Boumee,” he said. “They are gone.”

His mind was spinning – what kind of apes were these, to hunt like lions? No, not even like lions, because even lions did not attack healthy, grown people.

“They surprised me,” Mahouh murmured. His voice rattled. “Singing to myself. I heard their chatter, paid it no mind.”

And what person would give heed to the chatter of apes? What grown bull, even camped alone, would consider his safety at risk, even did he share a waterhole with lions?

A movement caught Boumee’s eye. One of the apes had been left behind alive. It dragged itself painfully across the dirt, one leg clearly broken. A rumble rose in Boumee’s chest. He released Mahouh’s trunk and hobbled after the crawling ape.

With his trunk, he flipped it onto its back. It grunted, raising its forelimbs in futile defence as Boumee lifted a foot to stamp out its life. The rumbling in his chest grew to a bellow.

He froze, leg still upraised, and stared.

Slowly, Boumee lowered his foot. He reached out with his trunk. A length of twisted palm fibre was tied around the ape’s throat. Boumee gave it a tug. The ape’s head thumped against the ground as the twine snapped. Boumee lifted it up to see what was tied to it. Pale feathers cupped a large, pointed fang, the twine bound tightly around its root end. A lion tooth, Boumee realised in wonder.

He stared at the cringing beast. An ape that kills lions and people. Boumee tucked the lion’s tooth ornament into the corner of his mouth and cast about the battlefield. He picked up one of the apes’ fallen stick weapons. Bound to its end was a long flint, flake-sharpened to a wicked point and cutting edge. Just the way a person would make an axe.

Boumee lowered his trunk. Could it be? A person in the form of an ape?

He felt the thunder of approaching footsteps, saw the clan approach, snapping branches and trampling saplings in their haste. Nonna Ngeng and Boumee’s mother, Uthathm, led the charge down to the waterhole clearing.

His mother ran straight at Boumee, butting him hard enough to make him sit. She grabbed him by a tusk and rattled his head. “What were you thinking? You left your sister on her own when there was danger about?”

Nonna Ngeng hit him from the other side. The ape’s weapon tumbled from his grip. “What’s this?” she bellowed, trying to get at the ape now lying between Boumee’s forelegs. “What’s this? One still alive?”

The ape screamed as she grabbed its broken leg. Boumee strained against his mother’s shaking and caught his grandmother’s trunk. “Nonna! Stop!”

Her good eye widened, her head came up and for a moment Boumee thought she might gore him for his impudence.

Tucking his ears tight against his shoulders, Boumee pushed himself back to his feet. He could not hold back a cry.

His mother noticed his injuries. “Oh, Tum! You are hurt!”

Great-nonna Eyeyo chose that instant to give out a great moan of dismay. The sound turned Boumee’s guts. Nonna released the ape and turned to see. Great-nonna stood over Mahouh, caressing his head and shoulders with her trunk. Mahouh was dead.

Great-nonna moaned again, rocking her head with ears spread wide. Nonna and the elder aunts all copied the gesture. Great-nonna said, “What happened here?”

“An ambush, while Mahouh sang to himself,” said Boumee.

He quailed as Great-nonna’s glare turned on him. “He lived when you found him?”

“He did,” said Boumee. “But he was already fallen.”

Nonna looked around at the litter of broken ape corpses. “He gave an account of himself,” she said.

“I killed those,” Boumee blurted, before he could think.

Nonna gave a snort of surprise. Great-nonna stared at him appraisingly, her head held high. She grumbled deep in her chest. “Young bull,” she said.

Boumee picked up the stick weapon for her to see. “Great-nonna,” he said, “these apes are people. Look…”

Nonna Ngeng rounded on him. This time Boumee was sure she would gore him. He scooted aside, almost falling again as pain shot up his hind legs. Aunt Narraar, Nonna’s elder sister, put herself between them.

“Fool of a calf,” said Nonna. “Many apes and birds use sticks for tools. It does not make them people.”

“Speak, Boumee,” Aunt Narraar said.

“Look,” he said. “It has a sharpened stone tied to its end.”

Aunt Narraar picked up the stick he had dropped and examined it closely. “So it does,” she said. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”

“And see.” Boumee unhooked the twine from the corner of his mouth. “This one hung a lion tooth about its neck.”

Great-nonna took it from him. She looked at the ornament, then down at the ape. “Strange indeed.”

#

Two of the younger aunts were sent back to fetch the remaining members of the clan from the river. Great-nonna and Nonna and most of the older aunts stood around Mahouh’s body, swaying and giving the deep, deep calls for a gathering of clans, that travelled for miles through the earth and made Boumee’s bones tickle. Aunt Narraar waded into the waterhole and fished out the headless ape. She carried the living one over to sit out of the way against the trunk of a tree. The rest of the clan arrived with much fuss and commotion, bearing cooking stones and pounding stones and bark dishes piled with the day’s forage. Aunt Narraar rounded up the calves to keep them busy with a game of tossing ape corpses as far from the waterhole as they could.

Boumee’s mother made him lie down while she fussed over his wounds, pressing chewed poultices into the cuts with clumsy tenderness. Ush shyly touched his trunk.

“Big brother,” she said. “You were very brave.”

Boumee tugged her ear, but gently, embarrassed and pleased at the same time.

Vultures and jackals squabbled over the ape carcasses. Hyenas paced impatiently a distance away, smart enough to know that the clan would chase them off if they approached, where they would not bother with lesser vermin. Boumee noticed the living ape, rocking itself gently as it watched the scavengers, making low noises that appeared to have nothing to do with its injury. Everyone else seemed to have lost interest in it. Does it grieve? Boumee thought.

“Where are these apes from?” he wondered aloud.

“Be still,” Uthathm said. “Be still.” His mother’s tail swished in agitation as she turned away from him.

#

Cookfires were finally built after nightfall. Ush and another calf squabbled over who would hold the flint and who got to hit it with the striking stone. Nonna chased them off and lit the fire herself with one of the younger aunts to hold the flint. Flat cooking stones were set over the flames to heat, for baking hard tubers and tough plant stems.

Lions coughed in the darkness. Hyenas yipped and giggled. Aunt Narraar and Boumee’s mother fussed and bullied the rest of the clan into preparing and eating an evening meal. Great-nonna and most of the elder aunts seemed barely interested, though they were normally the most enthusiastic for fire-softened food, all of them on their last sets of teeth or beyond.

Egrets fluttered down to strut between the clan’s legs, or perch on their backs, hunting insects. Few words were spoken, tension thrummed in every adult. The calves were skittish, sensing the unease of their elders. Their mothers and aunts swatted them in irritation.

Boumee observed the living ape. It did not seem perturbed by the proximity of the campfire. In fact, it was staring into the flames as though entranced, just the way a person would. Its eyes shone red in the shadows.

Do they make even fire? Boumee thought.

The tree that the ape sat against bore a large oval scar on its trunk, as did many of the trees growing near the waterhole, where bark had been removed with tusks and flaked-stone blades to make a carrying dish. The various ages of the scars recorded the waterhole’s long history of occupation by people.

Great-nonna stepped abruptly away from the meal. Boumee doubted she had really eaten anything. He watched her pause before the ape, gazing down at it for a moment, before scooping up one of the stick weapons and walking away into the dark.

Mothers started gathering up the youngest calves and herding them into a circle for sleep. Nonna and Aunt Narraar and a few of the other elder aunts talked with heads close together nearby.

Disregarded, Boumee picked over the leftovers of the meal. He tossed a few morsels of fruit together onto a dish, then curled and uncurled his trunk indecisively until he saw Nonna shoulder her way into the sleeping circle. Boumee scooped up the dish and took it over to the ape.

The ape started when it noticed Boumee’s approach, and watched warily as he placed the fruit at its side. Boumee backed away a few paces. The ape stared at him, then down at the dish. Cautiously, it reached out with a clever forepaw to examine the steeply curved sides of the dish, the bark made malleable over a fire and then shaped and propped in place to harden. The ape hesitated, then picked up a broken piece of melon. Boumee watched it eat for a time in silence.

When the ape had finished the melon, Boumee raised his trunk to touch the tip against his forehead. “Boumee,” he said. “Boumee is my name.”

The ape’s eyes were fixed on him, but it didn’t respond.

“Boumee,” he said. “Boumee.”

Slowly, the ape raised a forelimb and touched its forehead.

“Boumee,” Boumee said. “Boumee.”

The ape said nothing. After a while, still watching him, it picked up another piece of fruit and took a bite. Disappointed, Boumee turned to rejoin the clan.

Someone had come to see what he was up to. His heart thumped. But then he saw that it was Aunt Narraar. She curled her trunk, beckoning him.

“It understands,” he said, approaching her.

“I saw,” she replied, then added: “It killed Mahouh. Be mindful of that when Mahouh’s clan arrive.”

“It was a mistake,” he said.

Aunt Narraar regarded him seriously. “What if it was you and Ush the apes found, and not Mahouh? What if Ush lay dead? Would you be so forgiving?”

Boumee lowered his gaze. Aunt Narraar swatted his shoulder. “Go. Sleep.”

He hurried away towards the sleeping circle as fast as his injuries would allow.

#

The clan of Mahouh’s mother and sisters were first to respond to the gathering call, arriving in the morning of the next day. With them came an enormous old bull called Aamanang, the biggest person Boumee knew, half again the size of Great-nonna Eyeyo. Dark lines of stained sweat marked Aamanang’s temples and cheeks, signalling that he was in musth and not to be trifled with. Boumee lurked behind his mother and Aunt Narraar.

Mahouh’s clan gathered around the corpse to moan and stroke the dead flesh. There would be a funeral dance this night. For now, Great-nonna left them to their grief, her tail swishing impatiently as she bathed in the waterhole.

Boumee slunk back to the ape. It had finished all the soft parts of the fruit. Boumee touched his forehead. “Boumee,” he said.

There was a pause, then the ape touched its fingers to its own brow. It made a complex noise, monkey-chatter that Boumee could not hope to imitate.

“Boumee,” he said again.

The ape answered, tapping its forehead for emphasis. Its utterance sounded to Boumee the same as the first. It names itself, he thought. His skin prickled. It speaks.

He jabbed his trunk towards the tree at the ape’s back. “Tree,” he said.

The ape twisted to look, then looked back at him and reached over its shoulder to tap the scarred bark. It said a different word.

Boumee picked up a piece of melon rind. “Melon.”

He tossed it to the ape, which caught it deftly and squawked a syllable. Boumee pointed to the bark carrying dish. “Dish.”

The ape hesitated. Boumee lifted the dish up, tipping out the other leftover fruit rinds. “Dish,” he repeated.

Still the ape hesitated, its face scrunching. Boumee lowered his trunk. It does not know dish.

The ape’s gaze shifted past him. Boumee turned.

Great-nonna had gathered up the matriarch and elder aunts of Mahouh’s clan and was bringing them over to see, along with her own sisters, and Nonna Ngeng and Aunt Narraar. Aamanang was with them too. Boumee dropped the dish and scuttled aside.

“Never have I known such a thing,” said Mahouh’s oldest great-great-aunt, matriarch of her clan, peering down at the cringing ape.

“Nor we,” said Great-nonna.

Aamanang tapped one of the stick weapons on the ground. “I have heard tell,” he said, twining his trunk around the stick. “From the great Rift to the north. But I did not imagine this.” He squeezed his trunk, snapping the ape weapon into splinters. “Apes that are people.”

“What kind of people?” demanded Nonna Ngeng. “Mahouh carried his bags and tools. They must have known that he, too, was a person when they attacked.”

“Do they make war with us?” murmured Mahouh’s great-great-aunt.

“It knows that we do speak of it,” said Great-nonna, thoughtfully.

It can speak! Boumee wanted to cry. Aamanang’s presence, the reek of his musth-sweat, made Boumee quail.

“It does,” said Aunt Narraar. “Might it understand?”

“Understand, it must,” said Aamanang, reaching out. The ape shrank back, but Aamanang curled his trunk about its middle and lifted it into the air. For a moment, Boumee thought the old bull just wanted a closer look, but then the ape began to struggle in Aamanang’s grip, clawing frantically at his trunk as he squeezed. It gave a choking cry.

Boumee rushed forward. “Stop!”

Aamanang dropped the ape and rounded on him, ears flaring, his eyes sunken and red with the musth rage.

Great-nonna crossed Aamanang’s tusks with hers and spread her own ears. “Boumee has earned the right to speak,” she said. “He drove the apes from Mahouh.”

Several of Mahouh’s aunts raised their trunks.

“Young bull,” the matriarch said.

Aamanang faced Great-nonna, his whole body vibrating as he struggled to keep the musth in check. With an obvious effort, he brought his ears back to his shoulders.

“Speak, then,” he grated.

Boumee tucked his ears and trunk in tight, making himself as small as possible. The ape lay face-down at Aamanang’s feet. It breathed rapidly, plainly further injured than it had already been. “It spoke to me,” he said, and then the words all came in a rush: “It spoke its name, and it has words for ‘tree’ and ‘melon’, but none for ‘dish’. I saw it grieve for its fellows that I killed. It understand that we grieve for Mahouh. It does not fear our fire. It understands that we, too are people, but I do not think it knew when it attacked Mahouh.”

Nonna snorted. “These apes killed a person.”

Aamanang shook his ears in agitation and said in a near shout, “People are not hunted!”

Boumee saw, then, behind his affront and the madness of the musth rage, that Aamanang was afraid, an adult who had thought he had nothing in the world to fear but accident and – one day – a bull younger and stronger than he. He saw the same feeling reflected among the other elders. I am not yet a season into my adulthood, Boumee thought. I remember being small enough for lions to hunt. It does not yet hold the horror for me.

“Fool of a calf,” said Nonna Ngeng.

Great-nonna regarded him seriously. “These apes speak. They are people, this is plain. And they are hunters, too.”

Mahouh’s great-great-aunt reached out to touch the fallen ape gently with her trunk. “A mistake,” she murmured. “An accident.”

“War,” said Nonna Ngeng.

“The cost is fearsome when clans war with each other,” said Aunt Narraar. “People are hurt. Killed, even. What cost when one whole people wars with another?”

“We must look to the safety of our clans,” said Great-nonna Eyeyo.

The elders walked away to confer. Aunt Narraar put her shoulder into Aamanang and turned him away from Boumee.

Left alone with the ape, Boumee gently flipped it onto its back. It whimpered.

He waved his trunk close to its face, then touched his brow. “Boumee.”

The ape turned its head away.

#

More clans arrived through the afternoon, and a small bachelor herd. Like Boumee, the other bulls stayed well clear of Aamanang. The waterhole was too small for such a crowd, and the matriarchs decided to move at least the calves and the younger mothers and aunts over to the river, once Mahouh’s funeral dance was done.

Elders from the newly arrived clans came to examine the ape. Boumee hovered nearby, flaring his ears nervously whenever any of them prodded at the injured creature. “It is hurt,” he would say, and they would either withdraw their trunks or regard him with heads held high while they considered whether to discipline him for his impudence. Evidently his role in events had been recounted, though, and even the bachelor bulls let him be.

Aunt Narraar came to him as he stood brooding beside the ape, idly kicking rocks into the brush. “Help me,” she said.

Boumee hesitated, about to refuse, but Aunt Narraar was already walking back to where a row of aunts from the various clans knelt, with calves of varying ages opposite them. The trunks of the adults rose and fell as they crushed hard tubers and plant stems to bake for the very oldest and youngest of the clans.

With a reluctant glance at the injured ape, Boumee followed to where Aunt Narraar was lowering herself beside a set of pounding stones and a pile of tubers. With a groan, he got down on his knees, his injuries stiff with his mother’s poultices. Aunt Narraar picked up a river-stone pounder. Boumee placed a tuber in the centre of the flat mortar stone, indented from generations of use, and with a couple of deft blows, Aunt Narraar rendered the tuber to fragments. Boumee swept the smashed tuber off the mortar stone and into a carrying dish with his trunk, got another tuber, and the process was repeated.

They worked in silence for a time, before she said, “Aamanang might have killed you, if Mother had not stepped in.” Her mother, she meant – Boumee’s Great-nonna.

An egret strutted up her neck and stood like a conqueror atop her head. It bobbed about as it searched for insects among the sparse red hair at the base of her ears. Seeing the direction of Boumee’s attention, she waved her trunk to shoo the bird away.

“You agree with me,” Boumee said.

“That these apes did not know Mahouh was a person when they attacked him?” she said. “I do. But Mother is right, we must look to the safety of the clans.”

“It is war, then?”

She didn’t look up from her pounding. “Yes.”

“Will war make us safe?” Boumee said. “Wars are for fools, you told me when I was Tum. If we make war, will they gather their clans, as we do? What will they decide for us? How many have come south from the Rift? If they are few, might more not come from the Rift to make war with us?”

“Be still,” she said. “It is decided.”

Boumee gestured to where the injured ape lay curled on the dirt. “They speak,” he said. “They can understand. We need not make war. If there is war, then Ush might lie dead, after all.”

“They can understand. They might understand,” Aunt Narraar said. “We must be certain that Ush, that others, will not lie dead if we do nothing but speak.” She hit the tuber in front of her hard enough that bits of it struck Boumee in the face. “It is decided.”

#

The clans painted each other’s faces in red ochre and white ash for Mahouh’s funeral dance. When all were done, Great-nonna Eyeyo gave a gruff harrumph, and all of them, from the matriarchs down to the youngest calves, still holding their mothers’ tails, began circling in a ring so large that it had to go around the far side of the waterhole before coming back to Mahouh’s body. They swung their heads from side to side as they went, moving with short, shuffling steps, kicking up dust that hung red in the dull light of the fires. Pain shot through Boumee’s injured legs with every exaggerated shift of his weight. Mahouh’s great-great-aunt broke from the circle and walked past his still form, running her trunk over him from his brow to the base of his spine. Her sisters followed, each one rejoining the circle when they had done, then Great-nonna Eyeyo and Aamanang and the matriarchs and elders of the other clans, and so on, from oldest to youngest through the whole clan.

When Boumee’s turn came, he approached the corpse gingerly, dreading the feel of cold, stiff skin. He let out a small cry when he had done, shaking his ears vigorously as he re-entered the flow. Nonna nudged him with her tusk, but not ungently.

“Little Tum,” she said.

Aunt Narraar’s words rang in Boumee’s head as he continued around the circle. What cost, for a war between peoples?

     How many more funerals? he thought. How many more if we make war?

His path took him to the outer edge of the circle, as those younger than he were coaxed inward to take their turns. Boumee noticed the ape, lying on its side where Boumee had left it. Its small monkey features were unreadable, in the shifting of light and shadow, but its eyes glittered as it watched the dance.

There was a better way than war, Boumee was certain.

#

He waited, fidgeting and impatient, occasionally shooing small vermin away from the ape, while a belated evening meal was finished and the clans gathered around to sleep, the adults forming loose rings with calves in the middle. In the morning, most of the senior aunts from all the clans, along with Aamanang and the other bulls, would be setting out in search of the apes.

When all was still, and moving as silently as he could, Boumee picked up the ape. It gave a weak cry of alarm, then stilled as he cradled it with his trunk and snuck off into the darkness. Boumee circled wide around the camp until he crossed the path of the apes’ flight the day before. He followed the scent, bending down awkwardly every now and again to bring his nostrils close to the ground. His ears strained for any inkling of a threat, or disturbance from the camp to indicate his absence was noticed.

In the distance, a lion roared. The scent continued in a straight line across the savannah. Boumee’s wounded legs throbbed with the strain of walking. The injury in his side re-opened. He felt thick blood or pus trickling down his ribs.

He smelled smoke, and paused to set the ape down while he cast about for its source. He spied a flicker of red, a distance off and away to the left of the direction he was tracking. Near the river, Boumee thought, but a distance along the bank from where his clan had camped before Mahouh’s death. Another clan? he wondered. Or was it?

Boumee dithered only a moment before scooping the ape up again. He left the scent trail and set out towards the firelight.

He slowed as he drew nearer. The wind told him that the fire’s keepers were indeed apes, their scent a curious mix of carnivore and harmless monkey. Almost certainly they were the same group who had attacked Mahouh – to whom the injured creature lying limp on his trunk belonged. Those he had driven away must have taken a switchback route to their camp, to give them time to see any predator that found their trail.

They do not know that there are others who do not fear fire, Boumee thought. Otherwise, they would have kept their camp dark.

Boumee moved stealthily between moonlight and shadow. The ape he carried tried to call out, but it could make only a feeble croak. Its kin remained unaware of Boumee’s approach until he stepped into the light of their campfire. Males shouted in surprise and scrabbled for weapons. Females shrieked, smaller than the males, with pendulous teats on their chests. They grabbed squirming infants and older juveniles and carried them to the far side of the fire.

A pair of males advanced on Boumee, waving flaming torches. Boumee set down the injured ape. He flared his ears and stood his ground, his attention divided between these two and the others fanning out to either side.

One of the torchbearers lunged directly at Boumee’s face. Boumee whipped out his trunk and slapped the burning branch from the surprised ape’s grasp. The others froze. Boumee picked the torch up, then flipped it over and stubbed out the flames in the dirt.

Gently, he nudged the ape lying at his feet with the tip of his trunk. Slowly, he stepped back. The apes stared. Boumee retreated a few more paces.

For a time, the apes did not move.

Then the foremost male took a step forward. When Boumee made no threatening gesture, he took another. Suddenly, a female gave a cry and broke from the fireside. It dashed past the hunters, dropping to the ground with a wail to embrace the injured ape.

The hunters looked up at Boumee. Their round faces seemed solemn. Boumee lifted his trunk to his forehead. After a moment, the nearest hunter copied the gesture with a forelimb. Several of its fellows followed suit.

Slowly, Boumee retreated into the night.

There were people standing in the dark, their faces still painted in funeral ochre and white.

With a bellow, Aamanang charged him.

Shocked, Boumee raised his tusks in hopeless defence. The impact drove him from his feet. He fought to get up, but the larger bull caught his trunk in a powerful grip and threw Boumee onto his side. Boumee kicked frantically as Aamanang lunged, tearing open his shoulder with a tusk. He screamed.

Great-nonna Eyeyo crashed into Aamanang’s side, staggering him. Nonna and Aunt Narraar followed, driving Aamanang back. He trumpeted in rage.

“Enough,” Great-nonna boomed.

Aamanang bellowed, his musth brought to a frenzy by combat and the smell of blood. Boumee could hear the apes shrieking. With an effort, he got himself up onto his knees.

Great-nonna pulled hard on his ear. “Fool of a calf.”

“They understand,” Boumee said, trying to rise. “We do not need to make war.”

“It is not about understanding, young Boumee,” said Great-nonna, softly.

Boumee twisted to follow her gaze. The apes clustered around their campfire, weapons pointed fearfully in all directions. People loomed at the edges of the light. Boumee knew, then, with sick horror: this was not to be a brutal lesson, the survivors to carry word that people were dangerous and not to be attacked. This was an extermination, and it would not end here.

“But they are people,” he said.

“People that eat meat,” said Great-nonna.

Aamanang blared a charge. The attackers surged inwards. The apes screamed and scattered, trying vainly to evade swinging tusks and stamping feet. A person crashed through the fire, sending sparks flying up into the night. An ape cartwheeled through the air, broken limbs flailing, and bounced along someone’s back before tumbling back into the melee.

Aunt Narraar returned and wrapped her trunk around Boumee’s to help him up. He put his foot down gingerly. The fresh wound in his shoulder was excruciating, but the leg held his weight.

“We must be certain,” said Great-nonna.

Boumee turned away from the slaughter.

#

Dawn broke as Boumee hobbled down to the river. Antelope and zebra bobbed their heads nervously: drink and look around, drink and look around. Hippos flicked their ears, their eyes and nostrils the only other parts of them visible above the surface of the water. Vultures circled down out of the sky to the ruin of the ape’s encampment.

Boumee wished he could shut his ears to the carrion-eaters’ squabbling. He stood in the shallows to suck up a trunkful of water and sprayed it over himself. He felt queasy and lost, his thoughts scattered and disjointed.

A bull hippopotamus decided it had had enough of him and surfaced to belch a challenge, yawning its oversized jaws to show him its tusks. Boumee threw a rock at it. The hippo belched again and rushed up to the shallows. Boumee stood his ground and threw another rock. The hippo stopped short, its blubbery hide quivering as it belched and yawned. Boumee regarded the dumb animal in exasperation, then turned around and limped back out of the water.

“Boumee!”

Ush and his mother approached, his little sister breaking into a gallop as she called out. He raised his trunk to touch hers, then tug her ear. He wanted to cry like a calf.

“Boumee! You are hurt more!” Ush exclaimed.

Uthathm arrived and bustled about. She made him kneel while she prepared mud poultices for his injuries.

“It is not deep,” she said, examining the gash Aamanang had put in his shoulder. “It will heal, but scar.”

When she’d done, she shuffled with the content of the carrying dish she’d brought, then scooped it up between tusks and trunk to set it in front of him. Boumee smelled ripe fruits.

“I thought that you would not want to come back,” she said. “You are Boumee, and grown.”

I do want to, he thought. But his mother was right in her oblique way. It was doubtful Nonna would let him back, even if Aamanang did not attack him on sight, no matter what Great-nonna Eyeyo might say. And Boumee did not even know that Great-nonna or Aunt Narraar would argue his case, anymore.

“There is a pounding stone, flints and a cutting stone in the bottom,” his mother said, nudging the bark dish with her foot. She stood in front of him and regarded him with uncommon directness. “Ah, Tum.” She was silent a moment, then: “I am sad.”

“I am afraid,” he replied, standing gingerly.

“Yes.”

Boumee looked at his little sister, leaning against their mother’s leg and worriedly sucking the tip of her trunk.

“I wish that you were not going,” Ush said.

“Silly. I am a bull,” he replied. “This day was always going to come.”

“But not on your own.”

He stroked the fuzzy hair on top of her head.

“Will you come back?”

His eyes strayed to their mother.

“One day,” she said. Her trunk touched Boumee’s on top of Ush’s head. “If a lion spoke, would you trust it? If it said that it would not hunt Ush, could you believe it?”

Ush looked up at them, from one to the other.

Uthathm released him.

“We must return. Come, Ush,” she said to Ush as she turned away.

Ush dithered, her stubby trunk reaching uncertainly.

“Go,” he said.

With a plaintive cry, she spun and hurried after her mother. Boumee watched as she caught hold of Uthathm’s tail and fell in to step behind her, half turning to jog along crab-wise every now and then to look back at him. Boumee watched until they were small in the distance, then painfully stooped to slide the carrying dish onto his tusks with his trunk.

He limped slowly along the riverbank, away from the camp of his clan.

The whooping and yapping of impatient hyenas caught his attention. A pack of them had something caught up a thorn tree. Boumee peered into the sparse canopy.

He loosed an angry trumpet as he lurched into a crippled gallop. The hyenas scattered, giggling in fear.

Boumee approached the tree. Three apes clung to the branches, a male and two females. One of the females clutched an infant to its chest. The male had the broken shaft of a stick weapon in its forepaw. Its torso was bloodied, the sparse hair matted red-brown. They stared at Boumee with their wide monkey eyes.

Lions that speak, he thought. He could not see it in them. Monkeys.

“You are safe,” he said.

No sign of comprehension touched their faces. Were these all that escaped? Boumee thought it likely. Something bothered him about the way the infant lay in its mother’s grasp, utterly still.

It was dead, he realised.

What story would they tell when they found others of their kind? What would the reaction be? He imagined hunters gathered around a campfire, the female holding out its dead infant, “What if it was yours?” A dominant male would follow, shouting and beating its chest in the way apes did, a mimicry of Aamanang’s posturing.

What if it was Ush? And Boumee’s mother swaying over her?

Could Boumee change the story? Slowly, he raised his trunk and touched his forehead.

After a moment, the childless female lifted its forelimb in imitation. The others remained motionless. He wondered if this was the one who’d grieved over the injured ape he’d returned. He couldn’t tell. Did it recognise him? Boumee had no way to know that, either.

He backed away a short distance and set down his carrying dish. He beckoned for them to come down. “You are safe. I will not hurt you.”

They stayed in the branches, staring in silence.

Boumee took a few fruits out of his basket and put them at the foot of the tree, then backed away again.

He watched them for a while, but the apes didn’t shift. Boumee went back to the tree and picked up a yellow marula fruit. He offered it to the female who’d returned his wave. The male gave a cry and stabbed at his trunk.

Boumee pulled away. He paused, considering, while the male gabbled angrily and shook its broken weapon. Boumee coiled his trunk, then tossed the fruit up to the female ape, who caught it deftly.

The male lunged. The female shrieked and tried to beat it off. They scuffled, and the female lost its balance on the branch and fell, landing heavily.

Slowly, watching the male, Boumee moved over to the fallen female and extended his trunk.

The female lay for a moment, panting. Then it reached up a forepaw and helped itself stand. The two in the tree shouted. Boumee ignored them, watching the one on the ground while he backed away.

Holding its gaze, he slowly turned to pick up his carrying dish and leave. The female ape scurried to gather up the rest of the fruit.

Boumee heard the patter of footsteps, coming after him.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2009

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