It happened by accident.
Man sat at the edge of the cave, the dense canopy of trees beneath. The greenery swayed in the breeze, and the rustle of their leaves whispered like rain. Some strange beast cried out into the evening. Its screech reverberated in his belly. The sun burned the sky a diluted blood-red, streaks of orange and pink stretched off into the distance.
To his side, Boy and Woman lay. Woman slept — Boy could hear her gentle snores — and no doubt Man thought he was asleep too. Man would not sleep. Not tonight, at least. It wouldn’t be safe without others to keep watch. And he couldn’t expect Boy and Woman to do so, despite Boy’s requests. Woman wouldn’t let him. That was Man’s job. Until Boy was older, that was.
Boy watched from the bed. An animal skin covered him and Woman, and another three cushioned them from the cold, hard floor. Man had prepared the bed for them, much to Woman’s satisfaction. It was soft and warm and enveloped him. Boy found it hard to not fall asleep. Safe and cosy, with Woman by his side, arms wrapped around him. But he wanted to watch Man as he went about his task.
Boy’s eyes trailed over Man’s skin. The bruises. The cuts and gashes. The bite marks. The scars. They told a tale, that lifetime’s worth of marks. Life of a battle that never ended. The muscles beneath Man’s beaten skin rippled and swelled as he worked. Fastidious. Meticulous.
A pile of sticks in Man’s lap, stripped of their branches. Their shafts were straight and true — no offending bits jutted off the sides. Man had also gathered a bunch of vines for the job. They sat, coiled like dead snakes, on the cavern’s floor. Thick, green, and tough. In the middle of their spiral was a small tower of rocks.
Chink. Chink. Chink-chink. Chink. Man chipped away at the rock in his hand. He did this with another rock. Red and black scabs covered his knuckles. Chink. Chink. Chink. To Man’s side, one of the finished spears pointed its head out into the open world.
Man’s gaze flicked to him, quick as a sabre-tooth.
Boy scrunched his eyes shut and uttered a few quiet snores.
After a moment: Chink. Chink-chink. Chink.
Boy opened his eyes a bit at a time. Man had resumed his work. Two sharp stones banged together. One to shape the other. Into a sharp point for the tip of a spear. But there was something different about Man, now. A ghost of a smile touched the corners of his lips, beneath the bush of his beard.
Chink. Man inspected the point. Chink-chink. He brought it up to his eyes. Chink. Man held the point level. He seemed to stop his breaths for a moment, as he inspected the straightness of the edge. With a nod and a grunt, he put down the stone he used to shape the others. He set it aside separate from the others — its material was of harder stuff.
After a moment’s deliberation, Man picked up a stick. One that was not too long and not too thin. Sturdy and comfortable. With a well-practised whip, he pulled a vine free from the bundle and began to tie the tip to the shaft. He hummed as he did so.
Boy watched as Man lashed rock to stick. Over and under and round and round. A knot here, and a knot there. It was magic. It entranced the child. So much so that he didn’t notice, at first, when Man stopped and stared at him, one eyebrow raised.
A grin lifted his mouth. His eyes shimmered. Man offered a slight shake of his head — not a reprimand, but an acknowledgement that Boy took after him. After all, hadn’t he stayed up to watch another Man tie another rock to another spear? Many moons ago?
Man slowed his actions. If Woman were to wake, he’d be able to feign ignorance about Boy’s observations. Over. Under. Around. Around. Knot. Knot. Repeat. He did it again until he ran out of the vine. With the last of the string, he wove it through the rest of the bindings and pulled it taught.
Man tested the tip. It was secure. He nodded to himself and smiled at Boy. Perfect. And then he added the weapon to its brother, on the floor of the cavern. Two spears. Better than one, and a great deal better than none. But three spears were better. And four even better than that. Boy and Woman could each carry one, and Man could have several.
Man lifted up the stone used to shape the others. He waggled it in the air, deliberate. Boy nodded. Next, Man selected a rock from within the coil of vines. He held this aloft, too, so Boy could see. And then, with care and exaggerated movements, Man chipped away at what would become the point of a spear.
Chink. Chink. Chink.
Man demonstrated how to hold the shaper. How to position the would-be spear tip. How he kept his fingers safe, and how he rotated the object of his attention.
A spark flew off from the impact.
Man paused, rocks held apart.
Boy gasped. His heart jumped up to the base of his throat. He tried to follow where that little flash went, but it escaped his vision as fast as it had appeared. His gaze darted back and forth across the floor, but it was gone.
Man looked up to Boy. His eyes were wide. His mouth was an ‘O’ of surprise.
This was something new.
Man tried the rocks again, in the same gentle motions he’d done before. His hands trembled.
Chink. Chink. Chink.
Another spark. It exploded from the point of impact — a flake of glitter from out of nothing. And then it fell and faded into the air itself. As if swallowed by some invisible creature.
An odd look passed over Man’s face. It reminded Boy of the expression he got when spotted the tracks of a beast they could kill. Or when he and Woman discovered some well-hidden shelter to serve them for the night.
He grabbed the collection of branches — selected with care and deliberation. Man grunted, gripped them, and snapped the entire cluster. Boy winced, he knew how valuable those spear shafts were. Again and again, Man crunched the wood up, until he had nought but splinters. He made rough mound out of the fragments. Boy frowned at him as he did this, but Man paid him no mind.
Realisation dawned on the child. The wood. The stones. The spark. Memories of the wrath of the gods as they spat their lightning from the sky. Seared tree bark. The orange glow. The heat. The smoke. He marvelled at Man’s genius. It swept over him in one great euphoric motion. Boy’s jaw hung down to his chest.
Man picked up the two stones with hands that shook. The shaper and the spear tip. He crouched down low, to the pile of destroyed wood. Man brought the rocks together.
And tried again.