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© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland  

Beyond the Dreamtime

Chapter Nine - Water


Under Yat's supervision the preparations for their voyage began; trees in quantity were felled in the forest, hauled to the shore and lashed together with creeper, vine and strips of twisted bark.

Whilst this arduous labour was progressing, Yat spent his time experimenting with a wide variety of tree types, leaving single trimmed branches immersed for days in the sea to find those least waterlogged. He also tested the binding materials and anything else he considered useful.
In so doing, he discovered that the cleaned bladder of a wild pig, blown up and tied off with wiry vine, would float and not be totally submerged unless punctured or forced under by hand. And this caused him to wonder about the human body; men too possessed bladders and lungs, this fact he knew from past observations of human remains and his own attempts to stay afloat in water.
From these thoughts, he reasoned that not only could men be their own floats, using their insides like pig bladders, but that the innards of animals might be in some way employed to aid a single swimmer, or even to buoy up a paddled craft.
But before he could test this theory, having not a sufficient number of bladders at his disposal, he suffered an unexpected setback; the rafts of his earliest design began to break up as the bindings disintegrated and the actual logs grew laden with sea water to the point of sinking.
It was plain enough that voyages could not last for very long periods, even if the travellers carried large amounts of fresh water and supplemented their food by fishing.
Yet how long would it take to make the journey?
Yat had no answer to this. It had never been done before. Not by his people at least.
Would it take a whole day, or many days and nights on the sea before they reached the distant smudge of land on the horizon?
And what if the rafts came adrift on the crossing?
The Tribe, unaware of Yat's misgivings, worked away at their tasks; the women fishing the shallows, the children and old folk gathering food from rock pools or snaring birds in traps and nets, the men felling, trimming and hauling.
It was an extraordinary transformation; a transition from wily inland hunter-gatherers to uncertain, light-hearted, on the surface at least, coastal dwellers about to attempt the unknown. And because it was the unknown, only those who did not trustingly, innocently, place their survival in Yat's broad-thrust hands and superior vision, maintained any sense of impending doom.
It did occur to Yat to attempt a crossing on a single raft with a few chosen men and as much food and water as could be carried; though what if they reached the far shores and were met by enemies?
Or what if wild creatures, never before encountered, beset them?
In either event, the chances of living long enough to build new rafts for the return were perilous, since the old rafts might not be fit for such journey, and there well might not be wood and vine suitable in the new lands.
Most of the answers could only be resolved at the test, but Yat was reluctant to make the voyage in that way, for he also feared that the courage of the clan might dissolve in his absence and lead them to flee back into the jungles of the past.
And in so doing, his standing amongst them would be lost for good.

So it was, that thinking, or the early form of mind activity capable of reaching conclusions beyond the immediate future, was squeezed out of him like the juice of crushed fruit. And in that fundamental distillation he saw that the migration must be total, and ruthlessly gambled that it would succeed.
However, it also prompted him to renew his vigour at invention and experimentation; and in so doing, Yat fell upon another innovation, the use of crossbeams.
These traverse logs, he found, held the craft together more rigidly than before, whilst still enabling some flexibility, even though the swelling ocean tended to wash over the structure rather than beneath.
Dimly, he guessed at what was to become the basis of freeboard and perhaps the implementation
of strakes, though his thinking could go no further than logs lashed above, at the sides and ends of the rafts. It is impossible to conjecture that, given time and scope, he may have progressed further.
Already, he was reaching far into the unknown with such simple vision; further indeed than any of his clan: though that is not to say that others in the world of Yat's time were not also working toward like conclusions. As it was, he also found that some of the bindings were still intact about his early craft: one in particular; a thin, tenacious creeper, difficult to unravel and cut with stone chips, remained in place long after vines and twisted bark had broken down.
And this material, he determined, alone was to be utilised. Bark, he concluded, was required only for jamming between the timbers to stem seepage that could spoil food, which of course
must be kept in the open with no more protection than palm leaf coverings and wrappings.
Water was to be carried in skins, where available, and gourds or any other hollowed receptacles at hand.
The idea of more sophisticated storage and packing was not to arise in these circumstances, since Yat had no real ability to gauge the length of the journey, and was too preoccupied with the actual building of such craft, and his efforts to control those around him.
As it later turned out, both goals were to claim his attention and all his energies and youthful guile.
The first object was achieved eventually under Yat's watchful eye. A raft of considerable size, some thirty feet in length by eighteen wide, complete with cross-beams beneath and shin high logs running the boundaries above, lashed together with the wiry creeper and secured where possible in the clefts of branch stumps, lay tethered and floating on the incoming tide.
Several more were in various stages of construction. Crude paddles, developed from earlier attempts, were fashioned out of split timbers, and long poles were cut and trimmed to fend each craft off sandbanks into deeper water.

Now the selection of materials required became of utmost importance to Yat, and this in itself engendered a smouldering aggravation amongst the labourers, as much of the earlier wood and bindings were discarded in favour of new stuff.
This aggravation grew, kindled in secret by his opponents, as the workers were forced further afield in search of suitable commodities to meet Yat's demands: demands that began to seem unreasonable.

However, before that unrest could develop into open hostility, an incident took place that unified the clan under Yat's wavering power.
During one such distant foray, a party of the younger men, led by Tharta One-eye, now considered a hunter, if somewhat surly and rebellious, was at work pulling down the precious creepers for Yat's rafts, when they were suddenly set upon in a surprise attack.
The enemy fell on them amid the entwining thickets, killing two youngsters outright with fire-hardened spears and piercing a third through the thigh before Tharta and the rest could break away to vanish into the forest.
These survivors managed to make their way, unhindered, arriving at the thorny redoubts and the pickets set beyond them just after dark.
The news of sudden, unexpected violence brought by Tharta redoubled Yat's energies and determination, and indeed, swayed many of his people toward the chance of escape across the ocean at need.
Cros, once an outsider of another folk, though now Warrior Leader, bound by child-birth to Yat's mother, and in turn The Tribe, had the awkward task of stretching too few over too far. Since the men were required not only to hunt and protect, but also to provide the raw materials and labour in the building of the rafts.
This problem, to some extent, was solved by the women and older children, who took over the assembly of the craft under Yat's supervision, whilst the Elders applied themselves vigorously to trapping, fishing and grubbing out enough to maintain a slim, but ongoing food supply.
In this way, the men of the clan were freed to continue the cutting of logs and their transportation through the forest whilst others of their number, armed with clubs and spears, mounted an ongoing watch, both at the tree-felling sites and at the margins of their coastal hold.

But it was Yat, chancing to leave the work of construction to those he had instructed, who stole alone beyond the limits of the cutting areas to spy the interior.
And it was there, in those gloomy haunts, early one morning, that he sighted the camp of the enemy.
He viewed them, entranced and curious, from the dizzy heights of a jungle giant; a tree so ancient that its first springing from the moist soil spanned many generations of human development.
And there, hidden amid a spray of greenery, he observed whilst the faint sound of their activities droned beneath.
From that distance, they appeared much alike to his own folk; lighter skinned perhaps and possibly taller in bearing, and yet there was a difference that set them apart: the males, without doubt, were the dominant force amongst them.
They strutted about the camp, aggressive in their manner toward children, women and elders; barking out commands in a language unknown to him, though from their stance and tone he sensed menace and, if needed, brutality.
And, though Yat could not be considered civilised in modern terms, such bullying toward their own seemed alien to him.
Here, he witnessed a male dominated society, clearly warlike in attitude, who tolerated their offspring, females and elders as little more than slaves.
Making his stealthy return through a riot of undergrowth toward the safety of his people's camp, Yat's curious mind turned over the images and impressions of that morning; the men of the enemy, he saw, went away into the forest in small hunting parties.
They greased their bodies in fat from the cooking fires and coated them with soil and leaves before departure so that they blended with the jungle colours.
Upon their feet were layers of bound bark, and these he guessed left no marking to tell of their passing, a thing of less import to the hunting of most animals, other than men.
Also of note were the objects they carried with them; strange bent sticks hooked into their girdles, and long broad sections of split timber large enough for a man to crouch behind.
As well, they hefted bundles of light spears instead of a single-blade shaft designed for stabbing at close quarters.
And there were the animals; four-legged, whimpering, snapping creatures that hovered about the outskirts of their camp, and trailed away; slinking and sliding into the shadows of the forest at the heels of the outgoing men.
The women too were different; timid, smaller breasted and leaner than those of Yat's folk.
The hair of their heads was cut close to the scalp, as was that of the children and elders, in sharp contrast to the long, stringy locks of the males.
However, the thing that surprised Yat above all else were the little buildings, made of sticks, that held birds captive. The birds were not unusual; his own people hunted and ate wild fowl and scrub hens, but he had never seen them penned before.
The memory of this queer sight interested him for a time, though it was difficult to understand its significance.
Surely it would be better to slaughter the creatures and eat them all at once.
That would mean a day of rest for the hunters, and the next morning, or the morning after, they could set out refreshed. That made more sense to Yat than the keeping of living food which might get away and have to be caught all over again. His reasoning in this was sound enough from the nomad point of view, and though he guessed there must be a meaning to the strange custom, it was an innovation that had simply never occurred to him or to his particular group.
The fact that The Tribe had inadvertently invaded the far reaches of another people's territory; a people, more or less stationary over some seasons past, was not, and could not be known to him. Any more than the offshoot of such static behaviour; which in this instance was a basic form of animal domestication.
Here, selection of concepts played a part; groups contemporary with each other, though not in contact, adapted to situations in varying manners and speeds.
Some remained wanderers longer than others, or when encamped for lengthy periods, such as at the great cave site, relied purely on the roaming hunt as a source of food supply. But there were those who had discovered the advantages of keeping food at hand, especially food that could produce more food by multiplying, in the right conditions.
And there were the emerging camp scavengers; numerous strains of wild dogs, long ago descended from the canine species that numbered wolves foremost.
These animals, at first merely opportunists snatching at bones tossed into the darkness, cunning and difficult to kill, gradually insinuated themselves at the semi-permanent fires of certain groups; and eventually, in return for scraps, worked their way in the hunt, alongside of men.
In such manner, the long process of human imposition upon other animal life had its beginnings.
To Yat's mind however, none of this had meaning, since he had only glimpsed afar and briefly things that, to him, were puzzling and disturbing.
And so, putting these questions from his mind, he concentrated on finding his way back without detection by the roaming bands of the enemy.
Coming upon softer ground, where even his slight weight left impressions, he disguised them by trailing a leaf-laden branch, though now he began to see how much more effective were the bark bindings on the feet of the unknown warriors. This was at least one thing of worth to impress upon the clan.
But more pressing was their peril. Yat was now certain that the enemy were greater in number, and that if and when they found and moved against his folk, there would be no peaceful meeting, as with that of the people of Cros, but rather a fight to the death. One in which his tribe could not possibly be victorious. His fears were enforced when he stumbled upon the scene of carnage that had befallen Tharta One-eye and his young followers. There in the tangled thickets lay the remains of the pair who had not escaped; their bodies were stripped of flesh, the bones split open, skulls smashed. Yat viewed this gruesome sight with little emotion; death was a part of life. What was of importance to him was that he and the clan should not meet death in a similar fashion. For to be eaten by an enemy, man or beast, was to give them the inner strength of the victim.
'Soul' was implicit in this supposition, although Yat had no means to convey that abstract notion into words or even into an idea.
He felt only that it was the right way of life's cycle that the earth should reclaim its own. Felt, rather than knew. Such feelings, after all, were the best that he and the others of his time often had as guide; and often as not governed them day to day, and generation to generation.
But the actual confrontation with this savage act of brutal murder and ensuing cannibalism provoked another reaction; and that was a rising revulsion against such practice.
True, cannibalism, and the later ritual of it, whereby men ate not out of need but for the inner strength of the victim, was not so very distant in his own people's history; but Yat determined that it must never be resumed.
This notion was not founded so much on the premise of right and wrong, good or evil, as on a more universal principle of nature and Man's place in the general scheme of things.
Men, Yat suddenly, clearly saw, were stronger than all the other creatures presently known to him, if not in body, at least in their own minds. They used weapons and tools, they could make fire, and united in groups, they were capable of confronting and defeating each predator of the wilds: those same predators who would kill and devour them if given the opportunity.
To this extent, it was Man's right to hunt and feed off such animals of land and air and water; but not off each other, for only in union could Man stand and survive against the terrors that dwelt in the world at large.
Here, bound in this fundamental idea shaping in Yat's brain, was a simple truth; one that came early or late, and in the case of some societies not at all, even into the twentieth century.
But now, on the instant, he embraced it as if this knowledge had been as plain to him in the past as the representative drawings he had made on the walls of the Great Cave.
Man was bigger than all others, bigger than the animals, than the mountains, perhaps bigger even than the wide oceans.
That test was soon to come, he was certain; and if the clan risked perishing at sea, surely it was better than the death that led into the belly of a savage foe. Shivering where they crouched about their rings of benighted fire, the clan learned of Yat's journey as he acted it out in mime and dance, roaring in and out between the flames, his feet wrapped in bark, his body coated with fish oil, mud and leaves.
This was not a warrior, hardly a man before them, but it was he who had crept close to the enemy and lived to report his sighting.
It was he alone who had done this, and once again his hold over the people was confirmed and enlarged; at last Yat's power had become authority.
The enemy was greater in number, he told them, and fiercer: so much so, that the blood, which would run like rain would be their own.
Gesturing urgently, Yat indicated the shells held in his eating hand. Earth and leaves clutched in his faecal hand.
New water, or old land?

The rafts, five altogether, began the voyage toward the low, grey smudges on the horizon some Yat-fingered days later. The enemy had remained unsighted during that twelve-sun period and the clan broke camp and took to the sea unhindered, leaving behind only the refuse of primitive peoples; bones, broken tools, dung-holes.
They simply moved on as all hunter-gatherers did, except that in this venture they were setting out across open water upon flimsy, uncertain craft.

The journey actually took five days.
Four fearful nights, floating, paddling, tiny fires carefully tended aboard each raft.
Only the black fright of the unknown to ride with each pair of eyes; straining into the darkness beyond.
The sea lapped about their feet, washing up through the bark-soaked gaps, which soon came apart with the slow movement of the logs. Yet the small fires, raised on slabs of flat timber and set within banked mounds of earth and sand, remained alight, so that the welcome twinkle from each craft gave the seafarers some little comfort.
Through their ordeal the ocean remained placid, and the night sky, moonless, was clear enough for them to follow the star path without steering too far off course.
On land, the peoples of Yat's clan, as well as others, were familiar with these heavenly patterns and could travel, at need, by them; and so the feat of such a trip over a relatively short distance upon the water was by no means beyond them.
The greater feat was that of pushing the ungainly craft in the direction desired; for though the ocean was calm enough and warm, the currents did not always favour them.
Consequently, every one of the able-bodied on each raft were hard pressed to maintain direction; working away through day and night in shifts ordered by Yat, Cros and several other chosen captains: Tharta One-eye amongst them.
There were many problems to surmount; fresh water was all too quickly consumed, so that by the closing of the third day their supply had diminished to the point where only the youngest and The Elders were allotted more than a few mouthfuls. Food was not so pressing.
Even in the haste of their departure, Yat had ensured that as much as could be gathered was evenly divided, and further, by the time of the leave-taking, the clan had already developed into a reasonably skilful fishing folk.
The evacuation of bladders and bowels was accomplished in full sight of everyone, though casually ignored as no more than a minor inconvenience.
Sleep was another difficulty not easily overcome. Yat, like everyone else, had not foreseen this.
The only place to sleep was in the midst of each raft, and there, as everywhere else, water constantly sloshed about, so the sleeper, head elevated upon another's belly or thighs, was continually immersed in the wash.
Seasickness too overcame many, including those who had laboured upon the trolling platforms inshore of their seaside camp. Yat himself, the second morning out, took on a green hue overlaying his dark colouring, and that night heaved until his entire body cramped with pain.
By the dawning of the forth day there were signs of exhaustion from exposure amongst the infants and the elderly; the nights were cold and the constant immersion in water, tepid as it was, caused some hardship and loss of morale.
The daylight hours of sun beating down and reflecting up from the gleaming ocean added to their general trauma. For even though land, before and behind, was never out of sight, the spirits of the majority waned increasingly as the orb burned across the sky, to sink beyond the horizon of open waters that lay westward.
To many aboard those lumbering platforms, the sun appeared to fall into the sea, and not the land that they had known all their lives; and uncertainty plagued them.
This alteration was a phenomenon totally outside their experience, and therefore to be feared.
Women, wearied of holding tots above the encroaching sea swirling about their ankles, began to wail and the children added to this clamour.
Eventually, so did the Elders, until the wail became a kind of dirge that the menfolk, bent to steering with their crude paddles, echoed in the grunting of their exertions.
Yat began to feel that his power was ebbing; slipping through his fingers as the powdery sands had done upon the heights above the Great Cave.
On the open sea he had less control of events amongst the dispersed rafts; two drifting further south-east of the others, and seemingly unable to make correction against the swell.
And then there were the sea-monsters; huge bodies beneath the surface that slid through the ocean's eddies, upright fins flashing amongst the clan's fragile craft.
Yat had never before seen such ferocious creatures of the depths, but instinctively he knew their terrible nature; and he also saw that he and his people had invaded their realm. The grinning rows of teeth, jaws wide enough to chop a man in half, haunted Yat and his folk throughout their ordeal, and long after.
In fact, if the people had been aware of what horrors the sea harboured, they might never have followed their Young-Elder, Spirit Leader.
As it was, The Tribe were given a comparatively easy passage, if judged by the circumstances of the times; four rafts made landfall on the coast of their new world, not too distant from each other.
The fifth, driven further and further south-east, with Muk, Mother Elder of The Tribe aboard, vanished.
And was never seen again.

Chapter 10 to follow
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