When his hair got too long and tangled, he would cut it with the sharpstone and then he would send the clumps of fuzz flying out into the trees for the birds to use in their nests. It was tough and coarse because he couldn’t comb it, and when it was gone, he felt better. He liked to think them, the birds, closing their little birdy eyes, falling asleep in it, making use of something he didn’t need. He rarely saw the birds because it was dark in the trees, but he heard them, singing and whistling above him, and that made him feel happy.
Sometimes, when the sun was bright and the wind parted the trees just right, he could see them, with their bright feathers and sharp beaks, and he wished he was one of them. He wished he could fly up through the branches and into the sky and never come back.
When the sharpstone grew too blunt, he would hit it hard against another stone until it was sharp and dangerous again. When it was newly sharp and he looked at it in his hand, it scared him. It was a life of small things and small ways of keeping himself from falling asleep forever.
When he was lonely, he talked to Monkey. Monkey was small and squat and hairy and had a long tail and sometimes he didn’t come back for days. But when Monkey came back, he would be happy and feel safe again. He could look at the brightwater, which gathered in pools after the rain, and see the doubleface staring back at him and not jump back in fear.
He had to look at the brightwater to cut his facehair because otherwise, he would cut his skin with the sharpstone and there would be blood.
Blood frightened him. When he saw it, his heart beat hard and his hands began to sweat and he would shake all over. Sometimes, though, he wondered whether he might not use the sharpstone to make the blood come. It would be so easy to cut his throat and go to sleep forever. He was so hungry so much of the time and the little animals he caught and killed with the sharpstone were tough and tasteless to eat. It was a life of small things and sometimes, sleeping forever seemed better.
At night, he dreamed of the before time when he had a mother and a father and there was a little girl they called his sister. There was a wooden house where they all lived together and his father would make a fire, while his mother cooked. Sometimes, if he thought hard enough, he could still smell the food and his mouth would water.
She was pretty and small, the girl, and she followed him wherever he went but he couldn’t remember her name. It was such a long time ago, the before time. He tried hard to remember what happened in the time before the before time, but it was hard and the pictures were all blurred and strange. He knew his father had told him about it but the words of the story wouldn’t come to him.
There was something that happened in the time before the before time. It was big and bad and he knew lots of people died. There was something that made his mother and his father and the girl they called his sister disappear. Whatever it was made all the walls and the houses and the streets fall away. When he thought about, it made his head spin and he had to sit still to make it stop.
In his place among the trees, where he lived with Monkey when Monkey came back, he could see some of the old things, beyond the leaves and the branches. There was a hill near his sleeping place and when he climbed to the top, he could see them. They had names, the tall grey stones and the smooth clear notstones, but he couldn’t remember. They were all broken and crumbling and some of them were burned and black. He wish he knew why but there was no one to talk to except Monkey and Monkey didn’t say anything. He just stared with his big, empty eyes, and sometimes he walked away.
Many years must have passed since the before time, or so he imagined, because his skin had grown brown and hard and it wasn’t the same when he lay down because he felt the sharp sticks and stones digging into his body more and more. His facehair and the other hair were still brown though and he remembered the old people turned grey like the stones.
There was no way to mark the passing of time, but he knew when the sun was high because it was hot and he had to keep to the shade of the trees or his skin would turn red. It was hot most of the time but sometimes, the rain would come and he would feel peaceful. He would turn his face up to the sky and let the water run over his eyes and his nose and his tongue. It was cool and sweet and he could hear it softly falling on the leaves and it made things fresh again.
He dreamed of them often – of his mother and father, and the little girl – and that was the only time he could remember the before time. He imagined the little girl must be bigger now because he had grown bigger but in his dreams, she was always small.
She had lots of dark brown hair and dark brown eyes that looked like his, and his mother and father stood tall above them where he couldn’t see their faces. In his dreams, they were all together in the wooden house. It was warm there and safe, and there was always food and the food tasted good.
Sometimes, in the very deepest dark of the night, his mother and father’s faces would come back to him, hanging like smiling ghosts above him, but he could never catch hold of them. He would reach out and grasp at the empty air but they would melt away like clouds in the hot sky.
He longed for sleep to take him back to them, but he hated it, too, because they always faded. In the morning, he would lie very still, hoping he could trick his body into believing he was still asleep so that they would come back, but he could never keep them in his head when he was awake.
Later on, when the sun crept up over the tops of the trees and they were gone, he felt cold and sad and alone all over again. It was like there was a hole inside him, always there, always growing, and he could never fill it up. He wondered where they were and what they were doing and whether they thought of him, but he couldn’t bring their faces back. In his saddest moments, he imagined they had forgotten him, or worse, they were glad he was gone.
After these moments, he would talk to Monkey when he could get Monkey to sit still for long enough, and try to make him understand how he felt hollow, but Monkey was no help. He was only squat and hairy and he would swing his long tail and then he would be gone again.
It was only when he slept that he could see them and they would bring him peace. Most of the dreams made him feel safe and loved and whole again, but there were other dreams, too. In the other dreams, it was dark and loud and there were people everywhere, running and screaming, their eyes big and wild and afraid. There was fire behind them and all around them and some of them were bleeding. He was running too, trying catch up with them, but his legs wouldn’t move fast enough. They felt heavy and hard, like something was weighing him down, and the harder he tried, the heavier they got.
He was grasping for his mother’s fingers but his hands were too slippery and he couldn’t hold on. He could see her face, all twisted up with fear, and he wanted to cling to her, but someone else was pulling her away, telling her it was too late. Too late. Too late. Too late. The words bounced and bumped inside his head, making him dizzy. Something was chasing them and they were heading for the woods, where one of the men said they’d be safe. The little girl was ahead of them, in their father’s arms, getting smaller and smaller as they disappeared into the night.
In these dreams, his head would always clear up. There were no ghosts – only sad, scared faces, streaked with dirt and dust. In the middle of the screaming, he could see all of them, all crying as they watched him stumble and fall. In these dreams, he could always feel the sharp, raw pain shooting through his fingers when he hit the hard ground and put his hands out to break his fall. In these dreams, he was small and weak and left behind.
In these dreams, he was alone.
There were other animals besides Monkey and the birds and the little animals he was able to catch and kill to eat. They walked silently among the trees and some of them had big, sharp teeth. Sometimes, they came out of the trees and they would chase him because they wanted to eat him. He remembered some of their faces from pictures he'd seen in the before time, but these animals didn’t look proud or beautiful. They were bony and their fur was ragged and rough and he knew they would kill him if they caught him.
Once, one of them came very close. It was a hot, dry day and he was sitting under a tree, waiting for night to come when he heard a crash in the trees. Then it was there. One of them was coming right towards him, creeping closer on its four powerful legs, with big yellow eyes and thick yellow fur and wide, snapping jaws, full of awful teeth. It was growling, coming closer and closer, ready to rip him apart. He knew he had to run, but he was afraid – more afraid even than in his terrible dreams – and his legs seemed soft and they wouldn't do what he told them. He picked up the sharpstone and threw it as hard as he could at the animal, hitting it above one big yellow eye. It made a horrible sound, full of anger and hate. Then at last he was running. The branches and the vines caught at the animal skins on his back and scratched his arms and legs until the blood ran down them, but he knew he couldn’t stop. He ran and ran and ran until he was far away and he couldn't see the animal anymore.
When he stopped at last, he didn't know the trees or the rocks around him. His heart was beating too fast and the air was hot and painful in his chest. He looked all around him, trying to find something he knew, but there was nothing. He could hear water somewhere and the air felt colder. The stones beneath his feet were bigger and smoother and the trees were further apart. The dark was drawing in and there was nowhere for him to shelter. He knew he must be far, far away from everything he’d come to know and he didn't know how to get back.
His home, his real home, was long gone, but he had begun to love his new one. He had spent a long time making it better, with the animal skins he didn’t wear to use for blankets and soft dry dirt to sleep on in the little cave where he sheltered from the rain. He had never strayed far because he was afraid of the other animals and he didn't want to be lost again. He dropped down on the hard, cold ground and began to cry. He hadn't cried for a long time, but he was so tired and lost that he couldn't stop himself. He didn't know if Monkey would ever find him or if he would ever find his way back. For a long time, he sat there, his chest heaving, wailing out loud for the first time in years and years.
He must have slept at last, but not peacefully. When he woke up in the grey, cool morning, he felt sore and stiff and his skin felt tight where the blood had dried. His heart felt sad and heavy inside him, and it was a long time before he felt he could get up and begin to walk. He wished he knew some bad words so that he could curse the other animal that had caused his sadness, but he couldn't remember any.
For days and days, he walked, following the changing trees and the sounds of the animals. He slept little and dreamed horrible dreams when he did. Sometimes, he thought he heard the other animal again, but he never saw it. He tried hard to keep from giving in to the big, horrible aching in his heart, but it would rise up and make him want to lie down, and let the other animal come and eat him whole. He had to live on the berries he could find among the roots of the trees because he didn't have the sharpstone anymore and it was like a terrible game. He couldn't remember which ones would make him sick and he grew frightened every time he needed to eat. Days and days and days, he walked, until he thought he would die from his sadness. He stopped to rest only when he was so tired that his legs were about to give way, and when he closed his eyes to try to sleep, he thought maybe he would be lost for good.
It was a long time – weeks, he thought – and he was almost ready to let himself fall asleep forever, but finally, finally, he began to know the trees again. When he began to see some of the trails he had left and the places where Monkey used to sit and watch him, he thought his heart would burst. The aching faded away and everything – the leaves, the stones, the dirt, the bugs – seemed bright and wonderful. He started to cry again, but they were happy tears and he felt glad for the first time in as long as he could remember. Then he could see his little cave and his animal skins and he was home.