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Evolved

“Kwo-oooop!”

Yuan squinted up at the skies, his hand over his thick brows. He knew the screech too well. A savage cat was lurking close by. He held on to his staff more securely, looking around with his keen brown eyes. The staff was more than a weapon. He seemed to draw enough courage from it, to vanquish a hungry cave lion. The drought had created a desperation amongst the most docile of the creatures, turning them savage. Yuan, a sound he responded to when his mates addressed him, climbed up the nearest tree he could find. Sure enough, he sighted a sabre-toothed cat crouched amongst the dried shrubbery, not more than four yards from him, ready to spring upon an unsuspecting antelope. He looked up to the skies in gratitude.

***

For a hunter-gatherer who lived off smaller mammals and fishes offered by the stream, the drought was threatening to be a fatality. Yuan and his clan of eight would have to walk miles, through the parched grasslands, to quench their thirst, while looking out for predators bigger than themselves. The stream that gushed through Inwud, the woods they called home, had originated in neighbouring hills and disappeared into the surrounding grasslands. The skies burned brightly without a trace of clouds, drinking up most of the stream. Uboe, the oldest member of the clan decided to follow the caked riverbed towards the hill, which showed green patches. Green meant water and that meant life.

Leaving Inwud, posed an inertia to the entire clan. It had them bound for years. It was simply familiar. Yuan’s ancestors had begun to give up their nomadic ways, to settle within a territory. While they were well acquainted with dry spells, the present famine had already claimed three amongst their members, Yuan’s mother included. One morning she simply failed to wake up. The clan placed her close to the parched bushes in the shade of a small mound in the centre of the wood. Uboe then gestured at everyone to move. All of them followed, except Yuan. 

He spent hours crouched beside her, trying to rouse her, caressing her hair. He had witnessed death before, but he couldn’t explain the hollowness and the suffocating breath that was caught in his chest, this time. A shadow moved, blocking the filtered sunrays and Yuan realised death, was circling overhead. He hurled stones at those scavengers, but they were relentless. They were also huge and young Yuan, who had been taught to move away from their sight, took one last look at his mother and ran into the woods. He lay on a thick branch that night, gazing at the stars. A familiar hooting accompanied his solitary contemplation and lulled him to sleep. 

The lonely Yuan in the dried-up forest struggled to get by each day. Many large mammals had moved out due to dearth of food and water. While it allowed Yuan more freedom to wander, he had to find ways to quench his thirst.

The sound of the bird was his only solace. It’s screeching signalled danger. Yuan would follow its flight in search of smaller prey and water. Yuan would gaze at the bird as it flew to the topmost branch of an almost bare tree where it nested. It was his only accomplice in the deserted Inwud.

On one occasion, Yuan chanced a closer look at the bird, when it landed on a lower branch, watching Yuan expectantly, has he prodded at a hole with his staff. It had brown striped feathers that were fluffed up, a large round face, a sharp downturned beak and bright red eyes, both positioned at the front of his head, not unlike Yuan’s. Lopsided ears gave him a cocky appearance, but those unflinching eyes seemed wise. As Yuan looked up, it bent his head to its side, at a perfectly acrobatic right angle, as if inquiring, ‘found anything good?’ 

Yuan triumphantly pulled out a field rat by his tail and banged it against the bark. The bird flinched but did not fly. With a sudden burst of generosity, Yuan held out his hand, the rodent dangling lifeless.

The bird ventured closer to Yuan’s outstretched hand its eyes on the rodent. “Cu-oopurr!” Yuan made a sound from his throat trying to imitate the bird’s cry. The bird looked up momentarily, before grabbing the kill and taking off. Yuan watched in awe it soared gracefully to its nest. 

***

Cooper, as Yuan began to address him from that encounter, found Yuan less intimidating compared to other apes and larger mammals. His enterprise in locating insects, smaller reptiles and even traces of water within cacti, benefited Cooper immensely. It was an unlikely liaison, considering both vied for similar foods, that were dwindling greatly. 

Cooper’s childhood had been blighted much like Yuan’s, having lost his mother before he could fly. But he wasn’t burdened by a memory like Yuan’s. With luck and some pluck, he began to rule the skies around Inwud.

Presently, he had nest full, with five little beaks to feed. The filial responsibilities weighed on Cooper’s mind, as his keen eyes scanned the gilded landscape. Dawns were his favourite time. His night patrol done; he’d pass over the slowly brightening plains, one last time, looking for furry little things that would begin to peep out of their burrows. A Bubo owl, his wingspan could carry him miles to the hills and beyond soundlessly, allowing him to creep up on his unwary prey.

He wasn’t too fond of sunlight though. The glare would simply strain his eyes. During the days, when not asleep, he’d amuse himself watching Yuan fiddle with stones. At first the tapping sounds had assaulted his sharp ears, causing him to hiss angrily at the silly ape. However, he soon learned to ignore his curious neighbour.

His partner was very particular about the food they provided for the babies, who still looked like soft, little cotton balls with beaks. He doted on their mother but cursed his timing of starting the family, that coincided with the terrible drought. He looked forward to the time the kids would begin to branch out.  However, he was extremely protective of his family. Yuan had been at the receiving end of his sharp beak when he ventured up the tree that held Cooper’s nest.

***

It took just one spark to undo all that Cooper had built so far. He left the nest at dusk, leaving a sleeping partner and the owlets. Yuan was under a nearby tree, hunched among the bushes, tapping away as usual. Cooper silently took off and was soaring over the plains. He sensed a draught that dragged at his wings. His heart leapt as he rode on the winds, happily anticipating showers. He’d have to stock up his nest for the wet days.

He wasn’t the only one looking around in anticipation. Yuan sensed the change in the air too. He pictured Inwud of the bygone days, teeming with life. But that would also mean return of the larger cats and he would have to be prepared. He sat feverishly shaping the stones, to ready his armamentarium.

He didn’t notice the first spark but the second one flew right before his nose and landed in the parched grass. Intrigued, he rummaged through the dried-up strands, when a slow breeze passed through and ignited them, startling Yuan. He looked in wide eyed wonder and felt the heat of the flare on his skin. The fire was rooted like a magnificent plant but sent out tentacles and smoke like some angry serpent, making unusual crackling sounds. Yuan stared at the warm glow, like he was in a trance, trying to fathom this sudden apparition. Was it a friend or foe? Was it a drop of that blazing sun? 

He put forth his hand to feel the soft warmth which instantaneously rose and singed his fingers. This was a foe surely. Yuan scampered back and begun watching from a distance. It didn’t move at all. But it spread its base leaving a blackened centre. Like it was feeding off the ground itself.

He looked up at the sound of familiar screeches. Not Cooper, but his partner. The demon had spread to the root of the tree holding Cooper’s nest. Yuan stared in horror but didn’t dare to venture closer. He watched as Cooper replied to her calls from afar. Yuan grunted heavily, waving his hands to shoo her away.

Cooper could hear her from a mile away. It boded ill. He flapped frantically, covering the distance as fast as he could. He could easily see her flying up and down through thick clouds of smoke that hid his home. It was terribly hot. He reached the top branches, but it was impossible to breathe. Flying up for a breath he dived again and again, hissing angrily. The babies had coughed into silence. The heat was unbearable. He realised it was a lost cause. But his mate wouldn’t let go. She was screeching her heart out, diving towards the nest again and again. He hovered above soundlessly.

A flame suddenly leapt up to catch her wing. She hissed in pain, flapped and spiralled away lopsided, to land near Yuan, smoking and writhing. Cooper was still hovering around, screeching himself hoarse. Yuan bent to lift her, but his fingers sank through her burnt flesh and they seared yet again. In a flash, he dropped her and put the burnt fingers in his mouth to assuage the pain. He backed off. Even through all the horror, chaos and panic that filled his mind, he sensed that he was salivating.

***

Inwud was a green patch again, amidst the yellow grassy plains. Almost a decade had passed. An aging Uboe was hobbling, his staff supporting his weight, following a procession of his progeny. His eyes moved over the landscape taking in the changes, till his feet stopped at the scent he had learned to dread. Smoke. He looked around at the members of his group and signalled them to stop. He ventured ahead through the undergrowth, cautiously, among new trees and stopped before a strange sight.

A fully-grown Yuan sat hunched in a clearing, stirring something among flames with a small stick that was giving out enticing fumes, almost beckoning Uboe forward.

AUTHORS NOTE;

Human involvement is a major contributor among the causes of wildfires around the world. (Wikipedia)

REFERENCES

Wikifeeds and connecting articles on wildfires, Pithecanthropus erectus, Bubo leakeyae (Horned owls) and Pleistocene epoch.

***

Photo By: Chracker Heller

***

This is an entry for #InnsWoods, #Artales18, A Room8 writing event. Checkout the event guidelines here:  https://writers.artoonsinn.com/artales18
The event is sponsored by Manoj Paprikar, Author of Death at Midnight by ArtoonsInn room9 publications. Manoj Paprikar is a doctor by profession and a writer at heart. Through his latest venture with room9publications, he earnestly brings forth the plight of the medical profession that affects both the healthcare providers and patients at large.
Get your copy of Death at Midnight here:
www.artoonsinn.com/shop or
https://www.amazon.in/dp/8194132649

Room8 appreciates your rating of the story out of 10 in the comments.

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Sai Surve-Rane
Sai Surve-Rane
Sai Surve-Rane is a periodontist and a mother with unspent literary energies.
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