“Stay away from the geyser.”
“Yes Tata,” Noni and Tooq replied in unison. “We will.”
When they passed the dead tree that looked like a yeti, Tooq pulled his hand away from Noni’s. “Don’t treat me like a kid.”
Noni shifted the salt-gathering baskets to one hand, cupped her free hand over her brother’s ear and whispered, “I heard Tata sooth away the fuglies last night.”
“They weren’t fugly spirits. I dreamed of the Great Sher.”
“Snow leopards,” Noni said as she started up the mountain path, “only eat kids.”
Tooq ran after her. “Do not.”
“Sometimes, I wish the Great Sher would sneak in and eat you.”
“Do you…” Tooq stopped on the trail. “Do you really mean that?” His sister turned back. Tooq cast his gaze down the cliff. She traipsed back toward him.
“Why do you hate me?” Rather than face her he lifted the sheepskin and scratched where it chafed beneath his armpit.
“You know why your cape itches you? It’s because it’s new. Do you see mine?” Noni held out her own. “Tata has made me wear this rotten thing forever. Did I get the soft bed with new grass? When the fuglies…” Noni spun around and resumed their hike. “We have work to do.”
Just over the granite ridge, a flat opened up and before them, mud pots, geysers and hot springs boiled and spat. The multi colored salts they’d come to collect ringed the pools of boiling water.
Tooq caught up and held out his hand for a basket. Noni pulled one free, but, rather than hand it over, threw it near an unpredictable grey stew of caustic mud.
Tooq remained silent. Rather than risk a quick snatch, he scanned the skeletal trees that encircled the caldera and dashed off to retrieve a branch. Returning with a long one, he hooked the basket, brought it close and grabbed it. With the basket securely in hand, he began to scrape pink crystals from around the edge of a steaming pool of water. Struggling to free the salt with his fingers, he broke the stick which gave him a tool to free the encrusted nodules.
Noni stood and watched her brother. She’d seen him solve similar puzzles before. “I don’t hate you.” She picked up the remainder of Tooq’s branch. “Can I use this?”
“You can use this one.” Tooq grabbed up the remaining limb. “I’ll make another one.”
He lifted the heavy end and smacked it against a boulder at the edge of the springs. A piece broke off, went spinning, and landed straight-up in an area set off from the rest of the thermals.
“Look at that, you made it stick.” Noni walked over and inspected the muddy plot. “Let’s get more branches.”
Before long, leaning as far as they dared over the steaming mud, they had arranged a mock village in the goo.
“This is where Chooba lives. When he limps around he leaves holes in the dirt, like this.” Without thinking, Tooq removed his sandals and stepped into the ooze.
“No, Tooq, it’s too hot.”
Tooq stopped and froze in place. “Mmm, feels squishy, and warm.”
“What?” His sister slipped off her sandals and dipped a cautious toe into the sludge. “It’s not hot. It’s… nice.”
“Watch this, Noni.” Tooq carefully marched to where the mud was smooth, bent and pressed his hands into it leaving perfect boy-sized prints. He made others in a pattern. “Come try.”
They stepped and mushed circles of hand prints, borders of footprints all the while chattering about the village, the elders and the other children. Tooq laughed when Noni pretended to be Chooba’s wife, Ba’a. “Where is that old man, now?” Eventually the pair would cover the area in childlike art. Tiny feet and hand imprints made into a wild mosaic.
“Thanks for not hating me.” Tooq said as he hugged his sister. “I don’t hate you either,”
Noni returned the gesture and swallowed hard. “I wonder how long our artwork will last?”
Tooq shrugged. “I don’t care. It was fun.”
“You are such a kid.” Noni smudged her brother’s nose.
“So are you.”
“You’re right.” Noni wiped her feet clean. “And I’d like to stay a kid. But we have work to do.”
In the highlands of Tibet archeologists discovered 200,000 year old footprints and hand prints—of children. The prints’ layout was determined to be unlike any known normal behavior. And so was deemed artwork created with intent. Can you imagine a couple of Sapiens or Neanderthal or Denisovans or even Erectus children discovering such a place and happily, joyfully dancing around rejoicing in their existence?
It seems that in two hundred thousand years we haven’t changed all that much.
This was for Mike, who wondered if I could offer a piece without so much anguish and sorrow in it. Here you go Mike.