Bit I

In the very young days of the world, before the toothbrush or the television were invented, there weren’t as many People around as you find today. Nothing like as many People – so few indeed that there were no rows of houses or blocks of flats, nor for that matter streets or schools or even shops. You could walk all day (it was only walking or running then) through the forest or across the grassy plains and very likely not meet another soul, unless you knew exactly who lived where, and how to get there.

What you would meet, however, were other animals. People were just one kind of animal among all sorts of animals. The difference nowadays is that People have grown so clever (or think they have) and so many (that is a fact) that they have taken charge of everything everywhere (or nearly everywhere). But we are telling about the young and sprightly days, when People knew they were animals and by no means in charge, least of all of the animals that ate you up (like Leopards) or squashed you (like Elephants) or gored you (like Bison) or hugged you (like Bears).

The only kind of animal with nothing special to keep it safe was People. For instance, People couldn’t run all that fast (like Antelopes), were none too brilliant at climbing trees (like Monkeys), and absolutely no People wore prickles (like Porcupines). People lived in caves or houses made of leaves and twigs which anyone could burst into or sneak into when fancying a quick dinner, or a bit of squashing, goring, hugging, et cetera. When People sallied forth to hunt for meat they sometimes found another animal was chasing them. Even when they got home they never knew if they might not find their children had been carried away and their wives had fled for their lives. At night, especially, they were afraid. 0ooh, how afraid they could feel, with all the rustling, snuffling, sniffing, snarling, hissing, howling and wowling going on around them in the forests or the grassy plains. Life, in short, was altogether too dangerous. So…

The idea got around (beginning with the Most Exalted) to call a Serious Palaver. Word went out to where the grassy plain ended and nobody lived for lack of love and water. Each family sent their wisest. Sometimes the person chosen was the white-bearded Grandpa of limitless experience, sometimes it was the long-faced Auntie of few words and much thought, sometimes it was the Big Daddy who-may-have-had-his-faults-but-being-wrong-wasn’t-one, sometimes it was the fussing Mama who-had-brought-up-more-kids-than-she-dared-to-count, sometimes it was the Precocious Teenager whose claim to wisdom was knowing the meaning of all sorts of long words like precocious (which is being-grown-up-before-you-are-ready).

They all made their way to the Serious Palaver, some of them taking several days and requiring a whole sequence of picnics. Others had to take a long detour to skirt the Snaky River, too broad and deep to cross. They all came in their best fur caps and leaf bandanas and one auntie arrived in a bark-cloth toque of an entirely original design. Various People carried knobkerries and flint-head clonkers since you never knew who you might meet on the way or be interrupted by when you got there. They met in a glade on the edge of the forest which opened upon the grassy plain. They sat on the ground in a less-than-half-a-circle, chittering and chattering. The Most Exalted presided. In days lost in the mists of time, this small and shrinkly person (so old that no one could say whether a he or a she), wearing a sacerdotal owl-in-a-tree hat and a wildcat cloak, had invented and carved the only Chair in the world, and now consequently sat on it, facing the less-than-half-a-circle. ‘Order!’ called the Most Exalted quaveringly but severely, raising a gnarly-handled stick. ‘Who will tell us how to make life less dangerous?’

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