cave

Earlier, in measurements labeled "centuries" by those for whom Time is a calculation, Mung wended her feeble way through unfamiliar landscapes. Held in (discretionary) thrall for so long at Chan Ling’s mountain hermitage, she had all but forgotten how to fend for herself. Nothing was as she remembered it: smells less pungent (markings left by her long lost peers were so negligible she doubted their reality), sounds duller (the impact of a perfectly ripe persimmon used to attract Mung’s ear before the tree itself was within sight), colors fuzzier (already she had mistaken a hornbill for the fruit on which it feeds), sweet indistinguishable from sour (as if her tongue were clad in a flannel mitten), and she felt cold (despite protracted naps in patches of unobstructed sunbeams). It occurred to Mung, at last, that she, not Earth, had changed… grown old… lived beyond the limits commonly set by conditions on a Planet exposed to Elements. Chan’s had been not only an isolating environment but a protective one—this truth made painfully plain by Mung’s first night at large, when Wind conspired with Rain and Darkness to keep creature comforts at bay. The banyan’s humid hollow, in which she had finally taken refuge, provided a poor accommodation indeed, compared to her cozy skullcap in the Chinaman’s toasty workshop. Soaked to her shriveled hide, age-worn molars aching from recurrent fits of frigid chattering, her spine unwinding creakily from its collar to coccyx curl, she had greeted the break of day with a broken howdy-do.

That was a while back. Moon and Sun had traded places several times since. Frailty notwithstanding, Mung’s knack for survival had returned, her sense of mission serving to conceal an unmistakable stench of insecurity. Predators were everywhere: vipers gliding through the underbrush, eagles soaring overhead, a boundless zoo of sharp-fanged prowlers in between. Meat-eaters hunted at all hours (daytime, swing shift, graveyard), making Mung’s expedition a constant test of luck and wilderness wiles. This, too, she had forgotten; the eat or be eaten (eat AND be eaten) balance of Nature.

No wonder the Uprights, with their psychotic fear of Death, did everything within their power to guard against it. Death, the Last Inevitable, was a frightening prospect, even to a wizened little ape the likes of Mung—who knew better. Or thought she did, before cohabiting with the Scrivener, lo those countless seasons. Had industriousness remolded her untamed spirit? Had domestication atrophied her feral independence? Had chronic contact with Humanity insinuated values in ruinous contradiction of Mung’s inestimable Code? To be Primitive was not to be unenlightened; quite the contrary. To be Primitive was to cultivate indigenousness, an unequivocal Knowing of what it meant to belong. This had been Mung’s birthright. In reclaiming it—step by step—she learned to relax.

Which is not to say she proceeded with any less caution. To accept that Life is transitory is different from tossing it away; rare does a fly tempt the frog’s sticky tongue, save through recklessness. Still, Death reassumed its proper place, enhancing Mung’s immediacy by promising no tomorrow. She would find her brethren, or die in the attempt. Chance (the only-child of Chaos), after all, was the Crown Determiner.

On she went, mostly via treetops, chancing fatal encounters with birds of prey in exchange for intermittent overviews of the jungle’s sprawling territory, hoping to gain her bearings, foiled by elderly eyesight and a nose stopped up, evidently, with the stink of Man. Time and again Mung tried to clear her sinuses, only to have Chan’s odor re-invade, until she feared her escape route was merely a series of unavailing circles. Then a more unsettling insight dawned; all these stinky whiffs were not from Chan but rather his genotype’s, drifting across the canopy from every direction, causing Mung to ricochet, pinball-fashion, on a zigzag course. To where, she could only guess. To wherever the stench of Humanity no longer fouled the atmosphere, for Mung was certain her relatives maintained a healthy distance—hidden in the farthest enclave the Elders could secure.

But what report would Mung make, if and when her troupe and she were reunited? Days were too few already to pass on all the knowledge she had gained. How condense a life span of consorting with an Upright into one, comprehensive, planet-saving revelation? It was not enough merely to forecast Earth’s overrun by the creature called Sapiens; that much had been known for generations. Nor would it do any good to expound on the Upright’s double-edged mind (an anomaly capable of doing damage, enormous damage, whether or not it malfunctioned). What was needed was an antidote. Earth was beset by a wondrous-woeful pestilence, one pre-destined to subjugate (and eventually supplant) each and every other living thing. What Mung must distill from her years of intelligence-gathering was a remedy. For this, she referred to the last work Chan transcribed (in her eavesdropping company); a study of maladies and cures as set down by China’s most revered apothecaries, a compendium of ordinary and arcane compounds known to alleviate disorders. Or, if read counter-offensively, known to inflict them. Satisfied that therein lay her species’ salvation, Mung proceeded to rack her brittle brain. Something must divert Man’s genocidal course.

After journeying day and night and night and day, sleep a seldom-sampled luxury, progress a laughable lesson in the retardation of age, Mung came upon a sure sign that Others were in the vicinity. A nest (hammock-like in appearance and structure, the kind her fellows wove when on the move) spanned a branch’s crook like an idle slingshot. Unmistakable, by virtue of its dainty scale and intricate design, the bantam cradle rocked in a gentle breeze… stirring, within Mung’s bird cage of a bosom, retroactive yearnings:

for her mother, her sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles,

even for her orbiting father (the troupe’s dominant male),

and for the Elders, whose patience and humble sagacity were treasured unto second childhood, when care and tenderness redoubled out of respect for longevity’s closing its gums on Life’s fragile tail.

Mourning these losses, another came to mind, as Mung nuzzled the abandoned handicraft, sorry, of a sudden, for having sacrificed maternity in her quest for erudition. Many a season she had come into heat, only to extinguish the flames, stamping them out like a brush fire under scorched palms and footpads. To what end, she now asked—nostrils in the grip of a sniffling nostalgia? What was Spring without offspring? Mung rued her dearth of descendants; she had bred a dubious substitute, a mere chemical formula to be thrust upon those unschooled, as yet, in science.

She consoled herself with a slightly overripe mangosteen salvaged from the forest floor, jaws more muscular than hers having split its leathery husk, each luscious section close enough to fermentation that eating one sufficed to make her somewhat tipsy. She thanked both fruit and proffering tree (more profusely than was necessary), grateful for feeling reconnected by sinews of symbioses… accepting a lift from an overhanging liana… ascending its undisclosed length… proceeding onto its source or termination—suddenly a distinction of dizzy indifference… paths to pass the time… Here as good as There… Mung’s objective less determined, more a matter of orientation… reverting, as she was, to the Wild’s eccentric anarchy… adjusting her pulse as a bass player modifies tempo… to keep herself apace with the all-pervasive Now… however long it might last… eons, to date; Mung’s genetic memory stretched past the Past, predated History, called to mind the Granddame of Yesteryear, echoing unto Pangaea and the very origin of her circumspect clan.

 

Things crawled...

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