Prelude to the History of Music – Westen Gesell

Short Stories

Prelude to the History of Music
by Westen Gesell

She stands there, watching the inert forms of her troop as clouds of flies settle over them, without any hope that the bodies of her family will stir, crushed by the choking stench of their emaciated limbs.  The gaping sockets of their eyes lock onto her, beseeching her to save them, accusing her of not having done enough. Once again, she sinks to her knees in despair….

… and snaps her eyes open, her breath squeezed between the cold, hard earth and the bottomless predawn sky of the savanna. She has dreamed enough to distinguish between the worlds of sleep and wakefulness, but nonetheless, she strains her senses for reassurance.

No flies.

No stench.

The sound of eight others breathing in the dark begins to soothe her, but she knows there is truth in the dream. Their bodies have grown weaker and thinner during the dry season, with fewer opportunities to forage or scavenge and predators growing increasingly desperate. They are still emaciated, and she can still feel the foreboding weight of their empty stares.

Sometimes, Leader can taste the strength and pride she felt when the old Leader, her mate, was grabbed by a crocodile, leaving her to guide the troop. Though she had not been the strongest, she possessed an intelligence and foresight that her troop had recognized. They became hers, and she theirs, in a relationship that mixed kinship, ownership, and protection. That new sense of possession had energized her once, but now it only shakes her from sleep in the early hours and tugs at her fears throughout the day.

She lies there, knowing that sleep lies beyond her reach, and after several heartbeats, gently rolls her offspring away from her and slips out of the granite-enclosed space. As she steps out into the open, something in the pinkened sky moves her to climb atop one of the boulders of their kopje, where she sits, still unsettled by worry for her troop.

The Serengeti lies shrouded in fog, with the dark forms of acacia trees and other kopjes intimating at what could lie in their shadows. Light brims on the horizon, spilling across the pale haze and lending it a golden solidity even as it melts away. Above, the formless grey faces of clouds slowly catch the sunlight and burst into fiery texture. To the west, the cool, dark blue of night gives way to the fresh warmth of a new day.

A pebble skitters down one of the boulders, and the female turns to see her daughter as she climbs up to join her. The sense of responsibility that Leader feels for her group is strongest with her, and the child’s presence fills her with a quiet satisfaction. Together, they watch the landscape in silence as color is restored to their world.

Leader has been awake during the sunrise before, but never before has she placed herself at such a vantage point and simply soaked in the visual display. There is something in the regularity of this dramatic shift that makes her feel small, and yet comforts her. The world is heartless, yet dependable in its rules and patterns, and that is somehow enough to provide the female with the calming resolve she needs. She stretches an arm around the thin shoulders of her daughter and pulls her close as the final wisps of mist disintegrate in the growing warmth.

Today is a day worthy of change.  

* * *

Eight figures step through the grass with stones in hand, enjoying the brief respite from the beating sun provided by the splayed canopies of the acacia trees. On some days, the younger ones split away from the adults, peering up into the trees and laughing with delight when the birds are startled into flight, but today there is a grim set to Leader’s jaw that quiets the troop. One of the younger ones skips a few steps away, breaking out of their synchronized gait, but is cowed by an older female, who roughly grabs them and hauls them back into the center of the group.

It is not abnormal for the troop to start their day traveling in the direction of the river, as they are now, but the focus of Leader is still unsettling for many of the older troop members, though they lack the linguistic faculties to question her. They reach the river by late morning, which they approach with their senses on high alert for predators and rivals. At the water’s edge, they each drink their fill with a watchful urgency, fearful of the crocodiles that have claimed troop members before. Across the river, a small group of zebras engages in similar behavior, with the same caution as their hominid neighbors.

Once they have hydrated themselves, Leader resumes her deliberate gait, leading the group along the riverside. The uneasiness of the troop grows, and many of them tighten their grip on the stones they have brought with them from the kopje. Their eyes flit back and forth between the searching gaze of Leader and their surroundings. They learned long ago the dangers of lingering near the water, and the increased foliage near the banks of the river screams of lurking predators.

They walk in this state until early afternoon, the stink of their fear surely heralding their passage before Leader stops at the edge of a thicker copse of trees. Kneeling, she points through the brush into an open area away from the river.  An involuntary hiss escapes one of the males as they see the goal of their journey: a lion stands over the body of a zebra, growling, deep and guttural, as he senses the approach of other animals.

Deliberately, the lead male turns to face the troop’s members. In mute disbelief, they watch as Leader stretches her arms out, a sizeable rock in each hand, and brings them together with a percussive clack. Despite seeing her prepare for the action, many of them jump at the sound, watching in horror beneath her arms as the lion looks up from his prey and stares at the copse of trees with another growl.

Again, Leader brings her hands up, and again she crashes her two rocks together.  By now, the group recognizes what she is doing, and her daughter joins in this time with her own smaller rocks. With the next crash, several more members have joined in, accompanied by the stomping of feet. With several more crashes, the entirety of the group has joined in, and they sway to the beat, their fear somehow leached from their bodies by this unifying activity.

A cry bursts from Leader’s mouth, the high pitched collection of nonsense syllables eliciting a response in kind from the troop, with different members finding their pitches to create a wild, hair-raising harmonic cacophony. As they gain confidence, their volume and range increase, with some members singing a growling drone of their own beneath the accelerating rhythm of stones and feet.

Leader turns and steps out into the clearing, followed by the rest of the troop, still singing and swaying as she crashes the rocks together. Together, intoxicated by their music, the group is unstoppable, and they slowly advance on the lion from the trees.

The lion roars, stepping over its prize as it confronts these strange ape-like beings. He, too, recognizes this display, but has only seen it in a defensive setting, when this species is threatened by a predator. This new, aggressive use, is an entirely new phenomenon. He roars again, his hackles raised, and takes another step towards this newly aggressive group of hominids. Under ordinary circumstances, such a strange show of force would be enough to force it away from its food, but resources are scarce now, and he too can feel himself weakening in the heat of this dry season.

The singing falters, with members of the troop recalling the strength and danger of the apex predator they are approaching, but Leader continues her chant with more urgency, animating her gestures further to refocus her comrades. With each call and response, they inch closer to the lion until they are no more than three body lengths away from it, and it feels as though they are singing directly into its gaping maw. The dissonance of the music, and of this bizarre upheaval of the food chain, is a physical thing now, mixing with the furious roars of the lion. For several seconds, they stand there, two species, screaming at each other, disputing a hierarchy that has remained in place for tens of thousands of years.

One of the rocks that a male is holding actually shatters from the repeated impact. With a scream, he hurls his remaining stone at the lion, striking it on the head and cutting off its roar. Before the beast can recover, other members of the troop are launching their stones with as much strength as they can muster, striking the predator on the head and sides as it backs away. Their screams grow stronger with this escalation, and the tension seems to break.

With a final, perfunctory roar, the lion retreats from the clearing with blood dripping from its muzzle, jogging away through the acacias beneath a further onslaught of stones.

Their singing continues for several seconds, until they are certain that they are alone, after which they turn to each other, elated by their victory and still feeling the rush of adrenaline. With the ferocity of the constantly hungry, they tear into the flesh of the zebra, struggling through the tough hide to get at the meat beneath.

Leader sees the broken pieces of rock that the male discarded lying in the grass and stoops to pick them up. One of them is very sharp, and she carries it over to the carcass, remembering past troop members cutting into the hides of scavenged animals with rock shards. With short, vicious strokes, she splits the hide around the wound, allowing for easier access to its muscular frame.

* * *

For two hours, the troop remains in the clearing, eating their fill before beginning the trek home.

The two children play as they walk back, accompanied by hisses and barks from their parents when they stray too far, or too near to a stand of bushes. Overall, though, the group is more relaxed, and members communicate contentedly with each other. Though they lack specific words, the past few generations have seen the development of an emotive, tonal verbalization, with certain patterns of syllables beginning to describe experiences. One adult mimes the throwing of a stone, chattering excitedly as he recalls their victory earlier that day.

Early evening is setting, and Leader allows herself a rare instance of satisfaction as she watches her daughter skip from curiosity to curiosity. There is an intelligence in the child that fills her with pride and gives her hope for the troop in years to come.

A soft, golden haze seems to fall over the Serengeti as the sun nears the horizon, and the bugs come out beneath the acacias, catching the sun with their lazy motions and appearing to be more light than nuisance. Other members of the troop sense that something fundamental shifted today, and there is an accompanying sense of surrealism as they enjoy their lack of hunger.

Letting her eyes wander, Leader can feel the weight of those empty stares from her dream lightening.

A scream rips her focus back to her daughter, and her environment snaps into horrifying clarity. A lion, blood dried on its snarling muzzle, has leapt from within a thicket of taller grass. Clasping the child’s kicking leg between his teeth, he yanks her brutally off of her feet, and begins to drag her away from the troop.

In defiance, she twists and slams a rock into the lion’s nose. For a brief moment, the impact is startling enough that he lets go, and she begins to crawl away.

The sight of her daughter’s arms flailing in the grass gives Leader’s maternal instinct the strength to smash through the barrier of her survival instinct, and she finds herself bounding after the lion, screaming uncontrollably as she hoists a stone above her head. Behind her, several other members break into pursuit as well, matching her cries with their own.

Although desperate for food, the lion once again finds itself to be no match for the concerted ferocity of this group of Homo ergaster. The leading ape-like being actually bludgeons it on the snout with her stone, followed by a further barrage of stones from other members of her troop. With yet another frustrated roar, he releases his prey and retreats again into the savanna.

This time, the mother halts her aggression immediately, falling to her knees beside her child and cradling her head in her lap. Shakily, Leader coos to her, as she did when her daughter was an infant, uncaring of the blood that gushes over her thighs.

Within minutes, the child lies dead, her mother’s tears mixing with the blood as it soaks into the dirt. The Serengeti stands motionless around them as the sunset bathes the sky a deepening red.

Surrounding the pair, many troop members find tears spilling down their own weathered faces. The sun has completely disappeared by the time the mother looks up at her troop with a look of both utter exhaustion and resolve.

Breaking the rules of the Serengeti comes at a price, and this species has come to know that price intimately since they were forced from the forests uncounted years ago. Slowly, the group gathers more tightly around the child’s body, tears still glistening on their faces.

It is far past the sunset when the troop has finished and resumes their journey back home, the blood of more than one species coagulating around their mouths.

* * *

In the morning, the empty gaze of her daughter alone is enough to drive Leader atop their granite shelter, where she sits and continues to weep before the lightening sky. As she looks out at the misty forms of the acacias, and the distant darkness of foliage around the river, she finds herself hating this land that demands so much for mere survival. A scream begins to force its way up her throat, fueled by the pain and frustrations of a mother whose greatest fears have been realized, but she chokes it down for fear of waking her troop.

The skitter of a rock draws her attention, and she whips around to see another member of her troop, a male who she recognizes for his smaller form and missing pinky finger on his left hand. He freezes as their eyes lock, but the softening of Leader’s gaze as she sees the pain mirrored in his eyes allows him to make his way to her side.

Moments later, the other three females climb atop the rock, followed by the other two males and the only remaining child.

Sitting together, they share their pain and watch the world return to golden clarity.

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