Before indexes and index fingers. Before rings and ring fingers. Back before thumbs and pinkies and fuck-you fingers (but not before fucking)—before back-hand, hand-me-downs, hand-it-to-you, handy, handheld, handcart, hand pie, handle, handshake—that is, before hand meant a hand, we simply had these things at the end of our arms, which were not even called arms.
You had one body part—the body. You moved without knowing you had muscles. It was a miracle, without god, grace, or church. Pure being, like undiluted sex. The body in the prairie, the body in the cave, the body at the top of the rocky hill, looking for anything in the distance that moved, that might be threatening or food, or, more likely, both.
Water was water—all there was to drink—and it was good and cold and wet, and as far as we knew, without bacteria or amoeba or ciliate. And it tasted like dirt, it tasted like leaves, it tasted like ice or like grass. We only knew that it was sometimes cloudy after a storm or when we stirred up the mud walking along the shallows of the lake.
After we were in the water, we lay in the grass, which was not one species or another, but just grass, sweet in the nose and ticklish on our body, and sometimes hot under the sun. It was hard to chew, but it was something to eat that didn’t make us sick, that held us until the next fish or bird or hare we could kill.
We saw the hare die, the deer die, and sometimes one of our clan die. The colour left the body, a trickle of blood or a paling of skin. We held these things in our hand. The animals we skinned, took apart, separated muscle from guts and threw them on hot rocks around the fire. We ate their bodies, their cooked fat and blood sticky on our hands.
The bodies from our clan, when they lost all colour, we took to the mountain-top, away from the cave, and offered them to the sun and the birds, which seemed like messengers from the sun.
Over the days, our bodies—though mostly our feet and hands—were cut, punctured, bruised. They swelled, crusted, turned red and hot. Or a tooth ached and ached, then fell out. Or an eye pussed and was lost or got better. We itched, and ached, and hungered, which reminded us that we had bodies.
At times, something overtook us and we grabbed another one of our clan and pressed ourselves into her or him. They ran away or pushed back, touched, dug in, and the two of us became a larger body trying to be one thing. Ravage, pulse, sweat, salt, wetness, then the body disappeared. And that made the world disappear.
At night, I sat a long time by the fire.
What was it? What was fire?
A small piece of sun? Something dropped by birds?
Light in night, brighter than moon. Draw your hand through it quick, and nothing. Draw your hand through it slow, and pain. Pain like the tiger’s teeth that day I lost flesh.
I killed that tiger with a rock and my clan took it apart and ate it as I screamed for a sun and a moon and a sun in pain.
After I did not feel well, months of hand in river, blood trickling into water, blood going to the beyond. Then scabbing, then scarring, then it was better.
The days went on. That was how it was. The sun never failed to rise, though sometimes it hid behind the cloud or mountain or seemed to trail off for months and not be warm enough. The river never failed to flow from beyond the mountains, through the land we lived on, down to beyond the plains. Though sometimes it turned hard and we had to throw rocks onto it like I had thrown a rock onto the tiger, to break it and find the water beneath.
Only, the moon changed, like a thin baby getting fat and then thin again, bright, then sad and dark, like it was chasing something and then ate it, and then grew hungry, and chased it again. We never felt its heat, though we watched its light in the night, like it was an eye trailing across the sky, searching for us.
We didn’t know whether to fear it or love it. And then some nights it turned red or disappeared like it was being eaten by shadow and we were afraid.
But shadows were everywhere—ghosts on the cave wall, afraid of the fire, animals that trailed us on the ground in the morning and afternoon. Sometimes I bent to the ground and tried to kick my shadow away, but it never disappeared.
The moon came and went, came and went, and then some of the clan began to grow like the moon, and then a body came out of their body, violent and bloody, furless, like the hares and deer we killed and skinned. But they lived, mostly, and the small bodies, which we knew we could not eat, fed off some of our clan’s bodies until they grew to look like us, and ate like us, and then hunted like us.
At times I stared at them, the small ones, thinking I remembered being a body like that, that small, but I could no longer find that body that I was, so maybe it was a dream.
One day, I saw a small one of us take the dark dead fire stick and touch the cave wall. It left black lines and the small clan person made the lines look like me, with one large hand and one small one. I took the black firewood and made a tiger on the wall next to my small hand, so it would understand how my small hand got small, but it only cried, so I gave it back the stick.
It stopped crying then—and that’s when I felt something toward it, as though it was me from before, a smaller me. I wondered if it wondered about fire like I did. I wondered if, many days from now, it would fight a tiger and kill it with a rock, and lose blood and have to stay by the river to put its hand in the water and watch the blood flow away.
The days were like this. There is no story really, no beginning, middle, and end, until we come to an end, our bodies losing colour and becoming no longer bodies, when all becomes still, like in the cave after the fire goes out and even the stars are asleep. When I raise my hand into the air, I cannot feel anything because there is only darkness and nothing to touch but space, which has no feeling at all.
Story copyright © 2022 by Nathan Alling Long
Artwork copyright © 2022 by P. Emerson Williams
Nathan Alling Long’s collection of fifty short fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist and his work appears in over a hundred journals and anthologies. Other awards include a Truman Capote Literary Trust Fellowship, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to Sewanee, and four Pushcart nominations.
P. Emerson Williams is a multi-media artist delving in music, art, writing, and video. More people listen to the sounds of P. Emerson Williams every day than realize, for many of them are embedded in extensive associated pseudonymous projects past, present, and ongoing. A visionary artist and illustrator, his projects span physical and digital media, genres, and modes of performance to strange realms.