Fiction – “The Tree” by C.W. Johnson
The australopith cradled the fruit in nimble fingers. The flesh yielded slightly under pressure, like female buttocks; and when he closed his eyes, he sniffed not only tingling sweetness but also earthy musk, redolent of estrus, rising from red-blushed skin.
He opened his eyes to see his companion, a female australopith, glare at him.
The male gingerly held out the fruit. “Want some?” he asked, then added, “We could rut afterwards.”
The female rolled her eyes. “Food and sex,” she muttered.
“What more is there?” asked the australopith male.
He did not say precisely that. Two million years ago, the australopithecine proto-language was a set of grunts and screeches, a jumble of phonemes with scarcely any syntax. But the emotional context was the same.
The female loped off, followed by the male. The two of them wriggled through leafy thickets like black fish in a cool sea of green forest.
“There is more,” said the female after a while. “Look. This planet has seen eons of bloody butchery and frenzied mating, leaving little more legacy than one mass extinction after another,” the female said. “So you see the problem.”
The female huffed. “No! Greed, as in hunger, and envy, sexual jealousy – the source of the world’s miseries. If we want to make things better, we have to correct those problems. And we australopiths are the key – the next evolutionary step.”
“First, greed. The forest is so bountiful we’re never hungry, right? And we have the Tree, which gives us all the fruit we need. So we don’t need to be greedy – we share everything, fruit, nuts, babies, rutting…”
“Heh, rutting, yeah,” chuffed the male.
The female glanced over her shoulder. “Are you staring at my ass?”
The male gave a small shrug.
The female said, “Rutting is more than sex, hon. When everyone gets laid, there is no hierarchy, no favoritism. When no male can pick out his offspring, all children are equally loved. Right?”
“Oh, sure,” said the male, “but what about favored foods?” He paused, nostrils twitching. “Hey, isn’t there a nut tree near here?” He crashed through the underbrush, calling, “This way!”
When the female caught up with him, he was seated beneath a tree, happily cracking nuts between his massive teeth. He had dropped his fruit, which had rolled to a stop beside a bush. The female sighed, crouched behind the male, and began grooming his fur.
Through the trees they could see the bright, hard light from the savannah lapping at the forest edge like a dry ocean. The female popped a louse into her mouth and said quietly, “Since we use sex, not aggression, to run the troop, we don’t fight among ourselves. We only need a few sharp sticks and coherent tactics to fend off predators. The leopards and other nasties all avoid us.”
The male australopith swallowed his mouthful of nuts and lifted an arm to point. “All except him,” he said. “See? That savannah hominid behind the bush?” And indeed, a small dark face only a few generations from homo habilis peered out between heavy leaves. The male australopith lurched to his feet, shouted “Shoo!” and flapped a hand at the savannah hominid, who tumbled backwards in surprise. The male chuffed in laughter. “Red, he’s funny sometimes.”
“Yeah, I call him that. See the red dirt on his face? He’s always crawling in the dust, trying to get close. Trying to steal fruit.” The male reached down, grabbed a rock, and threw it at the savannah hominid. “Hey! Go away!” The rock thudded into the bush and the scrawny hominid scuttled away and crouched down behind another bush.
The female reached up and stroked her companion’s chest. “Come on, forget him. Don’t you want to rut? Then we can go back to the Tree.”
The male australopith didn’t respond but stood still. Through the foliage he saw a glimpse of the earth-stained face. Eyes the color of rainy-season mud looked not at the australopiths but at the abandoned fruit. Nostrils flared, a thick pink tongue licked lips….
The male australopith surged forward. “That’s it,” he snarled. “No more mister altruistic!” And he grabbed up a heavy branch and crashed through the forest towards the crouching savannah hominid, whose horny, calloused fingers were just about to grab the piece of fruit. The hominid looked up and squealed in terror as the branch whistled past his head. Another blow caught Red on the shoulder, and he grunted and tried to crawl away on all fours. The australopith raised the branch high above his head. “I’m gonna teach you,” the australopith screamed, shaking with anger, “who’s the pinnacle of evolution around here!” And with a sickening crack he broke the branch against Red’s side. The hominid doubled up in pain; he tried to stagger to his feet, but stumbled back onto his hands and knees, and as the australopith searched for another branch Red dove into the underbrush.
Red – among his fellow savannah hominids he had no name beyond “let’s piss on this guy” – hid, panting and clutching his side. Despite the pain he remembered the smell of the fruit, the sharp scent of sugars turning into volatile alcohols. He imagined juice flooding his mouth, cooling his parched throat. It had been two days since he had eaten.
After a long while he staggered out of the forest and into the crushing clear light of the savannah. Several times he crumpled to the ground, ribs swimming in pain. The sun had flown to her highest point and was halfway back to her burrow by the time he had dragged himself to the edge of the hominid encampment. The air trembled with the heat of late afternoon and the only available shade, from a handful of dead, leafless trees, was occupied by alpha males and their giggling harems. Two beta males were biting and bloodying each other for the chance to sit in the sun a few steps closer to the dead trees. And in the distance some low-rank female was berating a lower-rank female, screaming and throwing dirt and wads of dry grass at the cowering creature. All of them, even the alpha males and their harems, were gaunt, with dull fur and listless eyes.
Red eased himself against a rock and was just starting to fall asleep when a forceful grunt woke him. He opened his eyes to see a middle-rank male standing over him.
“According to the org chart, that’s not your rock.”
“Got beat up,” Red wheezed. “By australopiths.”
“No one cares about your problems, buddy. Fact is, I earned that rock. See this?” The middle-rank male waved something furry and stinking of dead animal. “I invented it. It’s an old lemur skin, but if you fold it up, you can carry pebbles, bones, bits of old meat, carry them for miles. Fighting for rank is a good tradition, but some boys in upper management say tool-making is the way to get promoted.”
“My rib, I think it’s broken —- ”
The middle-rank male kicked up some dust. “You aren’t listening. I’ve got a lemur skin full of pebbles and rotten meat and I’ve got friends with nasty tempers who would do more than break ribs, friends who like how I think and I think you’d better move.”
With a groan, Red rolled away and crawled to the edge of the encampment. He lay on the ground, rocking in agony. Just to breathe was a torment. And through the sharp suffering came another, duller, pain: hunger.
A thin shadow fell on his face. At first Red curled up, fearful an alpha was about to practice rock-throwing on him. Then he saw it was one of the smallest and weakest females, one whose own low-status mother had died recently. She was so underfed her breasts were limp and deflated. Making low, whimpering sounds, and careful not to look Red in the face, she gingerly reached out to touch his side. He winced, but she had carried a handful of wet mud from a distant water hole, and she placed it on his side, gently rubbing it through his fur. The mud was cool and soothing, and the throbbing in his side lessened.
Later she brought a few pale grubs she had found, and a mouthful of water she dribbled onto his dry lips. In that manner, over the next few days, she nursed Red. “You are the giver of life,” he told her.
Only, in his weakened, pain-wracked state, the words came out, “You… gi…ife.”
She shrugged. “Okay, you can call me Gife.”
Red and Gife’s daily existence made a broad, wobbly orbit around the savannah hominid camp. As his rib healed, the two of them trekked further each day, sometimes far out onto the grasslands, sometimes sneaking into the forest to spy upon the australopiths. At dusk they returned to their own little hollow by a termite-rotted log.
Red, the most obsessive of all the savannah hominids and therefore the one who thought the most ahead, wanted to keep Gife away from alpha males when she came into heat. He hardly need have worried: when she did, so undernourished was she that her genitals barely swelled and flushed only a pallid pink. Even so, Red led her away into the brush and rutted on her fiercely, all the while staring at the green depths of the forest.
After Red had exhausted himself, he plunged back into the forest, pulling Gife by her hand. Going into the forest frightened Gife. It was dark, and unfamiliar creatures lived in the canopy: giants spiders and rainbowed birds and screaming leopards, all overhead making branches shake and leaves rustle. And then Red climbed into the trees, trying over and again to catch a lemur, leaving a terrified Gife alone on the forest floor.
But Red’s central obsession was the great Tree of the australopiths. Larger than any other in the forest, its branches were garlanded with a seemingly endless supply of red fruit, and pools of fresh dew condensed in the hollows of its roots each morning. A troop of australopiths always surrounded the Tree, curling up at night among its thick roots to sleep like children in a mother’s arms. The pain of walking away from the Tree was almost as palpable as that in his side. Red constantly schemed to get closer, to touch the bark, to eat its fruit. He said, “It’s control of resources. If I control the fruit, then the alphas have to respect me. I might even become an alpha myself.”
“That would be nice, I guess,” Gife said.
Red petted her. “Don’t worry, babe, I won’t forget you. When I become an alpha I’ll have a harem of females, of course, it’s expected, but you’ll always be my favorite.” As he stroked her he added, “Besides, I got big plans. After I get the Tree, we move on to the next tree, and the next, until we control all the fruit in the forest.”
Gife said, very quiet, “But won’t the australopiths hurt you?”
Red frowned in frustration. Then he grabbed her hand and dragged her deeper into the shadows.
Underneath the broad, sheltering limbs of the Tree, three australopith males were lining up for Mama Mama, a senior female of the troop whose skillful promiscuity made her the most influential. All of the males, and most of the females, were in love with her.
Off to one side, a male and a female australopith watched. The female sighed and said, “I have to say, Mama Mama’s plan is going well.”
The male, who had been biting into a piece of fruit, said, “Mmphnn?”
“The plan Mama Mama is always talking about. At the meetings.”
The male swallowed. “I, uh, missed the meeting. I was busy.”
“Yeah, I saw the grin on your face when you came back from the forest with her. Fortunately, I don’t get jealous,” the female said, crossing her arms. “Of course, Mama Mama talks about the plan at all the meetings.”
The male picked at his ear. “I suppose I ought to come to the meetings. But it sure would cut into my rutting time.” He sniffed his finger and made a face.
The female said, “You know how, twice a day, we go out onto the edge of the savannah to void our bowels? That’s Mama Mama’s idea – actually, it was Mama Mama’s mama’s mama’s idea. Mama Mama says our droppings contain seeds from the fruit we eat, making new trees.”
The male scratched his head. “Mama Mama said all that?”
“Yes – you should pay more attention to her words than her ass. If you paid more attention to your surroundings than to collective asses, you’d’ve noticed the forest is growing larger each season, overtaking the savannah. Mama Mama says with time, and enough australopithecine droppings, the whole world will be a lush forest full of fruit. It will be a paradise, a peaceful paradise.” She yawned and settled down on the massive roots of the Tree for the afternoon nap. “Of course the price we pay is the loss of the savannah.”
The male shrugged and sprawled beside her. “I won’t lose sleep over the savannah. What good ever came out of it?” He stretched and snuggled up next to the female. “Sounds like a good plan to me. Don’t see how it could go wrong – do I still have to show up for the meetings?”
Red and Gife crawled slowly through the underbrush. The australopith troop napped in crude nests among the snaking roots of the Tree. Red pointed at the very base of the tree, where a female slumbered surrounded by three snoring males. The hair about her black face had gone silver, floating like a circle of light.
“That’s her,” he told Gife in a tremulous whisper. “She’s the matriarch. Like an alpha, only female.”
“Her?” Gife frowned. “I watched her. She doesn’t yell or throw things. She just ruts with a lot of them.”
“I know it doesn’t make any sense,” said Red, exasperated. “That’s my point. They are so stupid, I’m surprised they know how to walk. They don’t deserve the Tree. Look at ’em! They’re all sleeping! No work ethic! It’s not fair.” Red looked Gife straight in the face, until she turned away, disconcerted. “I want some of that fruit,” he whispered harshly. “I will get some of that fruit.”
Gife’s eyes widened. “You know, I think I don’t really like fruit. How about some nice grubs? Umm, yummy…”
Red silently bared his teeth, making Gife flinch. He pulled himself closer to the Tree by another body length, glanced back at Gife, then forward again -— and the matriarch was standing, looking directly at him. Red didn’t move, didn’t even breathe, but the matriarch’s gaze did not move either.
With agonizing slowness Red began to back away. His foot touched the soft flesh of Gife’s arm and he nudged her backwards, too. He winced when Gife scraped against some leaves, as loud to his terrified ears as a leopard snarl, but the matriarch stood still as stone.
They had almost completed their toelength-by-fingerhold retreat when the matriarch bowed her head. Red, his temples pounding, let out the breath he had bottled up.
But then the matriarch lifted her head and loosed a long, howling shriek. The australopiths boiled out of their root-nests, grabbing branches and pouring into the forest as the matriarch raved encouragement.
Red stumbled to his feet. “Why don’t you rut each other?” he screamed. He grabbed Gife’s hand and they crashed blindly through shrubs and vines, ducking as leafy branches slapped at their faces. Behind them australopiths hooted and jeered.
“Is this the right way?” Gife called out between panting breaths.
“Shut up!” Red wanted to turn toward the open savannah, where the australopiths would not follow far, but he was disoriented and did not know the way. His heart thumped in his chest, about to burst, and his lungs burned with exertion. And Gife, whimpering in terror, lagged behind, tripping every few steps on underbrush.
Red scrambled on top of a fallen log, took a moment to scan the forest. He did not see any australopiths, but spied the shudder of motion in bushes and branches far off. He pulled Gife atop the log and shoved her down the other side, then hopped after her.
At that moment Gife made a startled screech; she jerked away and ran three hobbled steps before collapsing. Red caught a glimpse of a thin, gray-green snake gliding away from the spot where Gife had landed.
He ran to Gife, who was curled up and clutching her foot. Mindful of their pursuers, Red dragged her to the shelter of the log. On her foot he found two small black marks. Already the flesh around the wound was swollen and turning an ugly purple.
Gife grimaced and began to cry out in pain. Panicked, Red put his hand over her mouth. “Screaming is not a good plan right now,” he whispered hastily, as he did his best to stroke and soothe her.
The leg swelled rapidly. Gife panted and her eyes glazed over. She grunted, trying to keep her own mouth clamped shut. But after a while the waves of pain were too much and she shrieked aloud. “That isn’t helping!” Red cried, trying to hush her even as her howls echoed through the forest. But it seemed the australopiths had abandoned the chase. They were alone.
After a while, Gife stopped shrieking. Her swollen face had taken on a grayish tinge, and her whole body shook like a leaf in a heavy rainstorm. Her eyes were open, unseeing. Her final breaths came as shallow, rapid sips, then faded away. Red lifted her hand, let it go. Her arm fell limp. He tried again, then shook her shoulders.
He stayed overnight in the forest, even after her body was as cold as the ground. He tried lying down and rocking her, the way he had seen mothers rock their infants, the way he dimly remembered being rocked by his own mother. But Gife was dead.
The next morning a grieving Red stumbled out of the forest back to the savannah encampment. In a daze he sank down beside a large rock. Almost instantly the middle-rank male popped up and began to harangue him. “I don’t see a lemur skin full of pebbles, or anything else that looks like a tool —- we have a crazy guy banging rocks together but you aren’t even trying that – so you better not settle down there.”
Red didn’t even look at him, but just hugged his knees and shuddered. “Gife… A snake bit her…”
The middle-rank male bared his teeth at Red. “If you don’t follow protocol you’re going to get bit –”
He did not finish his threat before Red launched himself up and at the other’s throat. They tumbled in the red dust, kicking up a choking cloud. The middle-rank male managed to free himself just long enough to swing his skin of pebbles against Red’s left shoulder. Red cried out and bent over in pain, but as the skin came swinging at him again he snatched at it and pulled hard. The skin came out of his opponent’s hand and a shower of pebbles flew everywhere.
“You’re in trouble now!” howled the middle-rank male. He grabbed a fistful of earth and threw it at Red. “You’re really in trouble now!”
Red dropped the lemur skin and crouched in the dirt. His fingers, hidden by the dust, curled around a large stone. A second later he threw himself at the middle-rank male and brought the stone up and under the other’s jaw. His opponent staggered backwards, spitting out blood and bits of teeth, and slumped down onto his buttocks.
That should have ended the fight. So the middle-rank male, his head lolling, clearly expected. But Red, lit with rage, dove on top of his tormentor, bashed him in the face with the rock, bam bam bam! and then, with a sickening crack, against his temple.
The middle-rank male shuddered violently, went still. Red, panting hard, picked up his opponent’s arm, let it fall. He limped around the body, snatched up the raggedy skin, then stood over the corpse and pissed on it. For good measure he shat on it, too.
The rest of the camp watched in shocked silence for a long while, broken only by a voice singing out: “Looks like someone’s bucking for a promotion!”
Afterwards the savannah hominids avoided Red. He did not acknowledge their existence, only sat on the ground and howled out his pain. Such behavior should have earned a shower of rocks and dirt, but even the alphas, wary of another murderous outburst, glowered in silence from the far side of the camp. For days Red did not eat, only rocked and whimpered, and at night he hardly slept, staring at the cold black sky and the cold hard stars.
By the fifth day, however, he was hungry, and he had made plans for revenge.
At dusk Red entered the forest. Clutching in one hand the folded lemur skin, he clambered up a tree, up and up into the high canopy. As quick as he could —- not very, hampered by the burden of the lemur skin —- he climbed from limb to vine to branch. Atop the canopy, so dizzyingly high he dared not look down, a branch swayed beneath his calloused feet. He swallowed, held still, closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he saw silhouetted against the bruised purple sky the crown of the Tree, rising above the canopy like a giant finger frozen in mid-beckoning-gesture.
As Red crept along his precarious path, he saw the sky turn from purple to black. There would be only a sliver of moon tonight and darkness would be his ally.
Slowly, sliding from branch to branch, his heart squeezing in his chest, he drew near his goal. When he finally was able to reach out and touch the trunk of the Tree, his excitement gifted him an erection.
From far below came the sound of the australopiths returning to the Tree, chattering and hooting among themselves. Red waited on his high perch as the air cooled and the australopiths settled in their nests among the roots of the Tree.
And when they had grown quiet, when the only noises were the snuffle sounds of breathing, and trees creaking, the wind rustling the leaves of the canopy, and distant night birds calling to each other, Red began his long, slow descent.
He slid down to the lowest limb, which was as thick as his waist and three times Red’s height off the ground. Peering through soupy shadows, he could see nothing distinct. But soft snoring rose from a huddle of darkness, where, if he squinted, he discerned a thin circle of paleness. This was, he thought, where the australopith matriarch slept. Of that he was confident.
Of the next step he was not so confident. Slowly, cautiously, Red hooked his legs around the limb and swung upside down. Then with tender, almost loving care he lowered the lemur skin. Inside was a green-gray snake he had caught in the forest, seized right behind the head and cloistered in the folded lemur skin. It had writhed in fury, opening and closing its black mouth, but eventually it tired and in the cool night air became sleepy. Red had been more afraid of killing the snake than of it killing him, and had practiced for days catching green-gray snakes, holding them and climbing through the trees, and then releasing them, to watch with satisfaction as they slithered away.
And now, holding his breath, he aimed carefully, shook open the skin —- and the pale curl of the snake tumbled out, to be swallowed by the dark.
His heart thudded, on and on and on. If the snake merely fled, his work would be wasted.
A moment later he had his answer: a yelp from the darkness below, an intake of breath, followed by a shattering shriek. The rest of the troop woke up, hooting in surprise, then fear, then shock.
His heart brimming with satisfaction, Red clambered laboriously to the top of the canopy, where he waited beneath squinting stars. And as the sky paled to morning, the australopith troop was screeching and howling with such pain the hair on Red’s back stood up.
The light was bright but the air was still cool when Red, followed by a cloud of dust, loped into the encampment on the savannah. A few males frowned and picked up rocks, but Red waved his arms.
“Listen, I’ve got a business plan you’re gonna love,” he said.
Grief and shock convulsed the australopiths. The males screamed and broke branches, while the females tried to groom and rut with any and all.
As the australopith troop writhed in mourning, one of the savannah hominids came rustling through the underbrush. Not Red but another scrawny, low-rank male. He looked terrified, and he advanced slowly, one arm behind his back. An australopith female stepped forward. “Shoo!” she said. “This is a bad time for us! Go away! Shoo!”
The savannah hominid took another shaky step forward. His eyes bulged large; he shrieked in pain and flailed his arms wildly, turned and started to run away, only to collapse into a moaning heap.
The australopiths looked at one another, puzzled. Another savannah hominid crashed out of the forest. With a fierce grimace on his face he charged the australopiths and in a moment he was among them, panting, spittle flying from his mouth, something writhing in his horny fingers: a snake, gray-green and with a black, hissing mouth.
One of the male australopiths picked up a heavy branch. The savannah hominid shrieked in fear and threw the snake at him.
“Get it off me!” the australopith shouted, staggering back and dropping the branch. Another male grabbed the branch and clubbed the hominid wham wham wham until he collapsed. A whiff of blood and bowels and piss rose from the body.
“It bit me, it bit me!” the first male australopith wailed as he sank to his knees.
“Here comes another one,” said a female, peering into the green curtain of the forest. “Everyone, grab your sharp sticks!”
“Who put you in charge?” muttered one of the other females.
“It hurts!” exclaimed the bitten male, who pitched forward and vomited.
“Listen,” said the first female. “Mama Mama trained me for this…”
“Yeah? And while you were busy training and licking her old ass, who was rutting with all the males and keeping them in order? Me!”
“You!” exclaimed a third. “The only reason a male would rut with you is because the line for me was too long already!”
“Here comes another one!” the first female called out.
“If you want to be a bossy monkey, why don’t you and your pale-genitaled ass join them?” the second female said, turning away only to face a hominid holding out a writhing gray-green snake. She screamed, and the first female lunged forward and plunged a sharp stick into the belly of the savannah hominid. He doubled over, gurgling, but as he did he flung the snake in a low arc. It landed in the midst of the australopiths, who scattered and scrambled over each other, trampling elders and babies alike.
“Look out!” a hoarse-voiced male shouted, and from between the trees materialized a half-dozen more savannah hominids drifting like morning mist, each clutching an angry snake.
“Stay together!” one of the females cried. “Remember you’re more evolved!” But her voice was lost among the cries of terror and pain.
The australopith male, like the rest of the troop, fled. As he galloped through the forest he looked with longing at the safety of branches overhead. “Only monkeys climb trees,” his mother had said when he was small. He wished he hadn’t listened to his mother.
He blundered over and through small bushes. At last he stopped in a small circle of trees and leaned over, panting, his pulse thundering in his ears.
A twig snapped, with a sound like bone breaking.
The australopith spun around and squinted at the savannah hominid sidling toward him. The face and chest were smeared with reddish-brown dust; black fingers held a heavy branch, while the yellow eyes held only hatred. The australopith frowned. Three, no, four other hominids melted out of the forest from all sides. One held a snake, while the others clutched rocks in their hands. The australopith looked down but saw no big branches with reach.
“Stupid monkeys!” he screamed in defiance, and was rewarded by a shower of rocks, sticks, and one unfortunate toad who’d been accidentally scooped up in the excitement. The australopith staggered back, his skull ringing from a stone, his chest and hip bleeding. The hominids, encouraged, crept closer.
“This isn’t fair!” the australopith shouted. The hominids gargled at him in return. “I’m fitter than all of you! I deserve to survive! ”
And heavy branches and stones rained upon him; he curled up in a ball, arms around his head; blows thudded against his back and limbs, breaking skin and bones, until blood flowed from his mouth and nostrils, and darkness swallowed his vision.
Red strode up the massive roots of the Tree. The only thing the australopiths had left behind was the inert body of the matriarch, dark eyes still staring up into the canopy. Red stood over the corpse and pissed on it, grinning back over his shoulder at his fellows, who tossed up handfuls of leaves in triumph.
Shortly thereafter they found food stores left behind. The nuts and tubers were too tough to eat with their small teeth, but they also found piles of fruit, juicy and sweet. Red greedily ate the first few, then handed out the rest to the group as they begged.
By evening one of the young females, who was just coming into heat, shyly approached Red and began grooming his fur. Red closed his eyes, enjoying the pleasure. Then he abruptly sprang up and raced around to mount her from behind. Red’s gaze traveled over his fellow hominids, especially the alphas. They watched, but none moved to chase him from his prize.
When he finished, he turned her around and stroked her face. “Gife,” he crooned softly.
A few years later the forest verge, now occupied by savannah hominids, caught fire, the result of experiments, encouraged by Red, in banging rocks together. Many of the savannah hominids, and all of the forest australopiths, perished. But of those who emerged from the smoking ruins, singed and coughing, one was Red. His new Gife had burned to death in the fire, but he named yet another from the survivors, one of many in his harem.
Red was no smarter than his fellows, no larger or stronger. But any who dared to dream of defying him had only to look off to the horizon, to the blackened ruins of paradise, to be reminded of all that had happened, and then to bend in trembling submission.
And so Red’s descendents became lords of the rift valley, and then the continent, and then the world.
About the Author
C.W. Johnson lives in Southern California and has previously published stories in Writers of the Future, Realms of Fantasy, Analog, and other venues.