The cave was enormous: eight hundred feet wide, two hundred feet to its ceiling at the entrance. It appeared empty of human occupation.
It was as yet early morning when Yat made his discovery, and the coals he carried in the socket of bone still glowed dully, kept alive by constant feeding. Yat's fire, to him at least, was dozing, but very much alive; a creature to be tended so that it would grow strong when awakened. Now, on the fringe of the shadowy jungle that fell away at his back he searched about for enough dry matter to do just that. Soon he had the coals eating, little tongues of flame flickering blue and red and yellow. He did not have names for the colours, but he recognised each one distinctly and vividly; and he understood them, they were the beginnings of his creature's arousal from slumber. Choosing some dead branches suitable to his purpose, Yat stole forward across the broken stone, leaving the cover of moist greenery behind. In his ears there was only the sound of the wind rushing across the roof of the forest and sighing into the depths of the vast hollows before him. And too, he heard his own panted breathing coming in solid gulps as his brown, hardened feet hit the stone.
Within the shadow of the entrance he stopped, and for a long time stood motionless, sniffing, listening: waiting for his eyes to grow accustomed to the gloom. His nose told him that animals and birds used the opening; he could smell dung and knew the difference between that of both kinds. But he also began to see signs of other habitation: old grey mounds of ash, scattered by the wind and the trails of snakes or monitor lizards. From deep within he thought he heard the faint rustle of wings, or maybe the scrabble of claws across rubble, and yet he was sure that no human being was now dwelling there, and in that sureness, awoke his creature. The fire licked at the dead leaves of the first branch and sent shadows playing across the depths; smoke drifted before him as he took his initial steps forward. He dared not look back to the light of day, too afraid that by averting his gaze some unknown thing might launch itself upon him, and thus kept on for some little distance, the torch lifted in his faecal hand, the horn and spare branches clutched in his other arm.
What he saw, on that first terrifying morning, filled him with awe. For here lay not only the evidence of wild creatures, but also that of Man; the walls attested to that in mute, yet grave sign. In the contours and ridges, where the light of Yat's torch probed, were strange patterns and a confusion of images, though one at least Yat recognised as that of an antlered deer. The colours were what astounded him; red and yellow as fire, but also black and white: colours without names that drew the eye because of starkness and clarity. And there was one example that undoubtedly marked it as the work of a man; it was the imprint of a hand, outlined in red, superimposed over a faded image of what appeared to Yat to be a pig with long spears sticking out of its mouth.
However it was the hand that held Yat spellbound. He felt a crawling sensation all over his body. His arms and legs began to tremble as vague thoughts tumbled across his imaginings: logical enough to him considering his situation. The outline on the cave wall was a hand, and the hand belonged to an arm, and the body of a creature like himself. The hand was another human being. It was there in the cave with him. He was not alone.
Eyes bulging, he began to back away, his feet sliding through the dust of ages and animal dung. It was not until he emerged into the sunlight that he ceased shaking. Smoke and sweat blurred his vision and he sank down, releasing the objects that he carried so that the coals rolled out of the bone and glowed on the rock at his elbow, and the branch, sparking and crackling slowly consumed itself.
Indeed Yat was barely in time to save his precious fire from extinction, brushing leaves against it until the embers pulsed into red life. Then, in great daring, he crept again into the yawning abyss. Thrusting the next lit branch as far forward as his arm could extend, Yat traced the markings and wild drawings that tumbled across the walls until he came again to the hand. After a space of time, standing trembling before it, his breath coming in raw gasps, he set down his bundle of spare branches and propped the bone against some stones to keep it upright. The eyes of the coals glowed within the hollow, watching him, or perhaps over him, as he slowly reached up with his now freed hand to place it into the red impression. Having shaken off his first fears, he thought to draw out the strength that had been left behind by the unknown artist, for by then he had come to the realisation that the artist had long ago departed. But still he did so in a kind of reverence, since it seemed to him that there was yet a part of the man captured in the stone. His hand, the hand of a child, was smaller of course, and he could barely reach the imprint at full stretch. But when he placed his fingers upon it he saw, at first with some mystification, that they did not fit; and no matter how long he tried he could not make them fit.
Then the dawning of truth stole over him: he would never make them fit. The others of The Tribe, his father and mother, or any of them for that matter, would be able to do what he couldn't. They had enough fingers.
He had too many.
Once, when he was very small, something had been made of this, yet as the seasons had passed the adults and even others of his age had come to accept the fact; dismissing it as a part of Yat's strangeness. That he was six fingered and six toed became absorbed into the entire being that The Tribe knew as Yat. Some, such as Tharta, hated and feared and dwelt upon revenge against Yat, but they too saw him as a whole: more of a creature linked with fire, than a child with too many fingers and toes. Familiarity by long association can often outweigh physical peculiarity, especially when the force of personality is strong enough, and in this instance, even in one so young, Yat had made his mark.
Now he was suddenly aware of his difference from every other human being he had ever known; and he began to remember and understand the faint, long ago dreaming of rolled eyes in the women of The Tribe and the muted mutterings of men and Elders. Yat could not know then, nor at any future time, that polydactylism was the name given to his condition, and that otherwise all was normal; that mutated genes had caused this oddity. He was merely acutely aware. The awareness stunned him until fire burned his fingers. He had felt it before. It was nothing new to him, but it brought him back out of the pain of realisation into the pain of his own searing flesh. Snatching away his hand he dropped the almost spent branch, sucked rapidly at his fingers, and bent to light the next. He spent the rest of the morning, and well beyond, exploring the mighty, vaulted cavern; leaving only to gather more timber, and eventually lighting a roaring fire on the dry floor some distance within. This, he soon discovered, was a good and a bad thing to do. To begin with, it was good; the flames leaping from the wood spread light across the vast spaces and up into the distant ceilings, but after a time even that great space around him began to fill with smoke. Birds and bats, disturbed overhead, flapped and whirred through the cavities, and he glimpsed the form of a monitor larger than he, slinking away toward the light of day beyond. Eventually, he allowed the fire to dwindle and go out. And aided only by single branches he probed all the areas of the entrance and some caverns further in.
By late afternoon he determined to return to camp, and upon arrival, kept his discovery a secret, warming his body by the night fires, hugging his new found knowledge to himself; for in truth, he was astounded and confused. There was the cave. There were the signs of peoples of long ago. There was a place of shelter and a source of food for his folk. But there was also Yat.
Yat reminded himself that he was unlike the others in body, and also in mind. He was of The Tribe, yet set apart; partly by his own doing, his cunning, though now he grasped that it was also because of his difference. He saw his extra fingers and toes etched starkly, and did not see that others had long since overlooked them, and wondered absently, why he had not been killed at birth or cast out. And he could find no answer. And this chilled his body and bones.
The answer was that he very well might have been killed at birth except for the intervention of Tun, the Elder woman who had died later, during the night of his arrival. Even whilst she lay close to death, the women had brought her news of the child and she, still lucid, and drawing from her store of memories, recollected an ancient of The Tribe during her own childhood, who was as Yat: six fingered and toed. Her last words and signs, as she sank toward death, preserved his entrance into the world: a precarious existence at best for the strongest, or the weak, willing enough to fight for survival.
Finding only uncertainty, Yat passed on to his secret; here was a way, the cave was his alone. He thought of it as a prize, a power, won by him alone. The cave was his alone. But in what way could he best make use of it? To keep the secret would not be to win admiration. The cave could not be of use unless others knew of it. And soon, Tharta One-eye, or someone else might discover it. All at once Yat knew what he should do.
The fires of the camp were ebbing low, food brought in by the hunters had been half roasted and mostly consumed; the people were settling, some to lie with new born, others to copulate and sleep. Yat; eight hot summers of age, climbed slowly to his feet before Yat, his fire, and swaying, began to chant, at first in a low hum which gained in volume as he gained in confidence. After all, had he not something important to tell?
His exhibition was not new, and yet it was new. The men of The Tribe often hallooed their catch on return, and sometimes relived the hunt wearing the skins of the animals and birds they slaughtered, and by sign and voice won the admiration of their women and of The Elders. And yet to stand forth as a mere child sounding out meaningless noises was a bold step indeed; and one that affronted and startled them all into wakefulness. Heedless, Yat stamped amidst the stones that held the fire at his back, his feet landing on live coals, his arms waving, gesturing, his voice, a child's voice, lifting over the crackling flames. Bird-call, beast noises, a few words of his own limited language, stretched across vocal organs that, in later generations would become the vehicles of all kinds of ranges in many tongues, spilled from Yat's mouth. As he endeavoured to confront and gain The Tribe's attention, before they howled him into a submissive posture. And as the coals made him hop, not daring to flee his station, so did The Tribe gape; confounded by a child leaping upon fiery stones.
Yat leapt, because now Yat was a prisoner to his ritual, bound by the fire of his name; almost unheedful of the flames searing his feet, but aware that he was watched. He knew that it was too late, that he was committed, that he must continue; and give reason for his display. And so, stepping in and out of the fire, feeling the scant hair of his shanks flickering and the tough hide of his soles slowly scorching deeper into softer flesh, he captured them. By mouth and hand he created the whirr and chitter of bats, the crackle of branches held aloft to light the way, even the slither of lizards hidden in the darkness. Eventually, he created a picture so vivid before them that The Tribe saw it as if they had been there, and they were dumbfounded.
Yat ended as suddenly as he had begun, limping away from the fire and sinking to the bare earth, his voice descending to a whimper. Soon he lay still, feigning exhausted sleep, but alert to the mutterings all about him; The Tribe now knew of the cave, or at least his vision of such a place. Some considered him sick in the head, crazed by an unknown illness, others argued that he had always been mad and should be cast out. A few, including his mother Tahi, were undecided. Banta, his father, spent a long time in earnest discussion with Banji and The Elders. They knew of caves of course, had found shelter and refuge in them before, but such places were small and useful only as temporary dwellings; food close by became swiftly exhausted and the people were always forced to move on. This cave was claimed to be as wide as the horizon, as high as the sky. This cave harboured living food. This cave was filled with strange things made by strangers. This cave was a wild dream that filled the head of a child who was an idiot: a child of too many fingers and toes, a child who should not be left alive. But could they not wait until the next sun? Let him prove his claim? Let him show them the horizon and the sky?
Yat drifted into sleep, the pain in his feet throbbing into blisters. He had no certainty of waking, but he was too tired, too worn by his own cunning and the exertions of his body, to care.Chapter 3