Salla sat and watched the stars.
He was the only one of the clan who noticed them, the only one to ponder their origin, the only one who wished he could touch them. The clan leaders, including Maruk, his Father, chided him for it.
“You should be sleeping!” his Father would growl. “Tomorrow you must hunt and you cannot hunt without sleep!”
Still, the stars, and the moon, and the sun, and everything heavenly, held a fascination for Salla that was irresistible, even compelling and he could not ignore it. Even though the guilt he felt from his father was very strong, and his clan believed him insane. Others his age called him names behind his back as he passed by (none would dare call him names to his face – Salla was the best hunter among them), and ostracized him. Except of course for Suka.
Suka had first met Salla when the clan gathered for the year end feast during Salla’s tenth winter. When the sun was low in the sky and the nights began early and lasted long, the wisest and oldest of the clan (which had no name, indeed needed none, for as far they knew there were no others like them in the world and that world ended at the horizon) would gather much firewood and in the center of the village build a gigantic fire, the flames leaping and dancing as high as the shortest trees, the entire clan leaping and dancing with it, casting merry shadows and making much noise, for this was a time of celebration, a time which said, “We have lived another season and a new season is upon us!”. It was during that tenth winter that Suka had taken Salla’s hand, led him to the edge of the great fire and began dancing, pulling him along with her, whirling and spinning and leaping high, the heat from the fire drenching them in sweat, their laughter the music to which they alone danced. They had not been apart a single day since that night.
Now, six winters later, Salla sat staring at the midnight tableau, unhindered by clouds and brilliant. He heard a soft shuffling beside him.
“Your Mother will not like you sneaking out in the middle of the night.”
Suka giggled. “No more than your Father.”
The thought made Salla wince.
“My Father only wants me to be what he has become, as his Father was before him.” He looked at Suka, and she could see the anguish in his eyes. “I want to be what he wants, Suka, to lead the clan, to lead our people and pass on to my son what he has passed on to me.” He returned his gaze skyward. “But I cannot help myself,” he said, “I wonder what is beyond the horizon. I want to know if there are others, others like us, somewhere far away from here. I wonder if there is another Salla in another village watching the same
stars as I,” he turned back to her and smiled, “as we are.” Suka pulled herself close to him and wrapped her strong brown arms around his waist, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I think there is,” she whispered. “And I think he is as good as you are, as good a hunter, as good a dancer,” they laughed together, “and as good a son.”
She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Do not let these things worry you, Salla. You will find yourself.”
They laughed together at Suka’s joke and above the stars wheeled and the full moon bathed them in perfect white light.
The hunt began at first light. Their quarry varied depending on the season; they hunted the mammoth during their yearly migration; they hunted deer, and wild boar, and tapir year round; when food was scarce during the frigid winters they subsisted on whatever they could chase down and kill. Of course there were the roots, nuts, berries and wild vegetables, but seventy percent of their diet was meat and there were close to fifty mouths to feed.
Salla smiled to himself as thoughts of Suka, warm and willing under the wooly blanket they shared in their secret meeting place under the stars. Her Mother and Father were worried about their coupling, worried about their daughter mating with a stargazer, but Salla was the son of a clan leader and an excellent hunter. He knew they could do a lot worse.
Suddenly, directly in front of him, a huge boar, thickly muscled and covered in coarse, matted hair, stepped into the pathway. Startled, Salla stood frozen, knowing that the boar was too close to bring down before it reached him and knowing that the two, foot long tusks that curved from either side of the giant muzzle were razor sharp and instant death. For a long, long moment hunter and prey sized each other up over the fifty feet between them. Then, with an ear splitting squeal that turned Salla’s blood to water, the boar charged.
As the boar quickly closed the distance, reflexes finally took control and Salla cast his spear. For a split second, he thought he had made a miraculous throw, but the boar’s gait made it duck its head at the last second and the spear head missed, glancing from the muscular shoulder and ripping the skin only. The boar screamed its animal rage and aimed its tusks directly at Salla’s midsection. Salla leaped as high as he could in an attempt to vault the enraged animal and twisted his body in an arc. The tusks grazed his hip drawing blood and the boar’s head slammed into Salla’s left thigh, spinning him wildly and knocking him sprawling. The boar skidded to a stop and turned, head lowered for the slashing move that would first disembowel, and then eviscerate. Only yards from Salla now, it snorted loudly and charged. Salla waited to die.
Again the boar closed the distance quickly and squealed loudly as it bore down on its helpless victim. Salla closed his eyes and turned his head away from the blow that was
sure to come when suddenly above him he recognized the loud swoosh of a thrown spear and then the boar’s scream was cut short in a loud yelp and he heard the concussion as the animal fell to the ground. Turning, he saw the boar lying only inches from him, a spear impaling it through the shoulder just left of the neck and buried deep, cleaving its heart.
Salla struggled to his feet to see which of his clansmen had saved his life and was for the second time that day stunned into immobility; for standing at the edge of the forest was a man he had never seen before, a man who was not of his clan, a stranger.
He was shorter than Salla and powerfully built, his face covered in dark hair from his jaw to his high cheek bones and his eyes were two twinkling shadows set deeply into a lowered and bony brow. He was dressed in animal skins but wore nothing on his feet, which were also covered in thick hair.
Salla’s clan had no word for stranger, did not believe in them, yet here was proof, here was a man from beyond the horizon and this man had saved Salla’s life. The implications swam in Salla’s head. The clan elders were wrong, had been wrong for generations. Everything they had been taught, been brought up to believe, was wrong. Despite himself, Salla was overjoyed. He must return this man to the clan and show him to them, show them that he was right, prove to them that there were others in the world. He spoke to the stranger.
“Thank you!” he said. “Thank you for saving my life!”
The stranger said nothing, only looked at Salla from beneath his shaggy brows, his expression at once apprehensive and curious. Salla tried again.
“I am Salla. What is your name?” He took a step forward.
As if awakened from a nightmare, the stranger howled at Salla and bared his teeth, then whirled and fled back through the forest. Salla started to chase after him, but the beating he had received from the boar stopped him short and gasping in pain he sat down against a tree and inspected his wounds.
The hunting party found Salla and hour later and carried him and the boar back to the village. No matter how convincing he sounded, no one would admit that a man from another clan had saved him; no one would admit that they believed his story of the stranger with the bare feet. Finally, Salla quit trying to convince them. He knew that one day, the people from beyond the horizon would come, and he would be vindicated. He knew what he had seen and he didn’t care that no one believed him.
And of course, there was always Suka.