Finally, the big fish stopped directly beneath his eyes. Burl thrust straight down with all his strenth. This time the spear, entering vertically, did not seem to bend. Its point penetrated the scales of the swimmer below, transfixing that lazy fish completely.
An uproar began. The fish, struggling to escape, and Burl, trying to draw it up to his perch, made a huge commotion. Excited, he failed to notice an ominous, approaching ripple on the water.
The unequal combat continued. Burl clung desperately to the end of his spear. Then there was a tremor in Burl's support; it gave way, falling into the stream with a mighty splash. Burl submerged, eyes wide open, facing death.
As he sank, he saw waving before him the gaping claws of the huge crayfish, large enough to sever a limb with one stroke of their jagged jaws. Burl was sure he would die, for he could not swim. The only question was whether he would drown or be devoured first.
But the section of the shelf fungus that had collapsed beneath him was lighter than water. It rapidly surfaced, with Burl still on top. The crayfish, deprived of its prey, wandered off.
Burl's situation seemed scarely improved, however. He was floating downstream, perched--weaponless, alone, and frightened--on a soggy, degenerate fungus. In the water lurked death unseen, on the banks stalked peril, and above, danger fluttered on golden wings.
He finally recovered his self-possession, and looked for his spear. It was floating in the water, still transfixing the fish whose capture had endangered Burl's life. The fish now floated lifelessly, belly upward.
Burl forgot his predicament upon seeing his prey just out of reach. He gazed at it, mouth watering, while his cranky craft went downstream, spinning slowly in the current. He hastened to the edge of the raft.
It tilted and nearly flung him overboard. Experimenting, Burl soon found that it remained stable if he lay flat across it. He wriggled into position, and waited until the slow revolution of his vessel brought the spear shaft near. He stretched his fingers and arm, and grasped it.
A moment later he was tearing strips of flesh from the fish and cramming the oily mess into his mouth with gusto. He had lost his edible mushroom, yet Burl ate contentedly of what he possessed. He happily visualized the delight with which Saya would receive a gift of part of the fish he had caught.
Burl suddenly realized he was being carried farther and farther from Saya. Stricken with dumb sorrow, he lifted his head and looked longingly at the riverbanks.
A monotonous row of strangely colored fungus growths. No healthy green, but pallid, cream-colored toadstools, some bright orange, lavender, and purple molds, vivid carmine "rusts" and mildews, spreading up the banks from the turgid slime.
In the faintly pinkish light filtering down through the ever-present clouds, myriad flying objects were visible. Now and then a giant cricket or grasshopper made its bulletlike flight from one spot to another. Huge butterflies fluttered gaily. Bees lumbered anxiously about, seeking the cross-shaped flowers of monster cabbages. Occasionally, a slender-waisted, man-sized wasp flew alertly past. And far above soared dragonflies, their spindlelike bodies thrice the length of his own.
Burl ignored them all. He sat, an incongruous creature of pink skin and soft brown hair on an orange fungus floating in midstream, despondent because the current carried him forever farther from the slender-limbed maiden whose glance caused an odd commotion in his breast.
The day wore on. Once, just beyond the riverbank, Burl saw a band of large, red Amazon ants, marching in orderly array, to raid a city of black ants, and steal their eggs. The eggs would be hatched, and the small black creatures enslaved by the brigands. Amazon ants live solely by the labor of their slaves; perforce they are mighty warriors in their world.
Later, etched against the pervasive steaming mist, Burl saw strangely shaped, swollen branches rearing from the ground. They were a hard-rinded fungus that grew on itself in mockery of the vegetation that had vanished from the earth.
He spied pear-shaped objects above some of which floated little clouds of smoke. They, too, were fungi, puffballs, which when touched emit what seems a puff of vapor. These would have towered above Burl's head had he stood beside them.
As the day drew to an end, he saw in the distance what seemed a range of purple hills. Some 70 feet high, they were the agglomeration of a formless growth, multiplying its organisms upon itself until the whole became an irregular, cone-shaped mound. Burl watched them apathetically.
Presently, he ate again of the oily fish. The taste pleased Burl, a rare break from his diet of insipid mushrooms. He stuffed himself, though the size of his prey left most uneaten.
He kept his spear, despite the trouble it had caused. Burl, unusually stubborn for his tribe, still associated the weapon with the food it had secured rather than with his current difficulties. He examined it again; its sharpness was unimpaired.
He next stripped a sinew from the garment about his middle and hung the fish from his neck with it. That left him both hands free. Then he sat cross-legged on the soggily floating fungus, like a pink-skinned Buddha, and watched the shores go by.
Time passed, and sunset drew near. Burl, never having seen the sun, did not think of this as "sunset". To him it was the letting down of darkness from the sky.
Far to the west, the thick mist turned gold, while the thicker clouds above became blurred masses of dull red. Their shadows seemed lavender, from the contrast of shades. The river's still surface reflected faithfully the myriad tints and shadings, and the shining tops of giant mushrooms aside the river glowed faintly pink.
Dragonflies buzzed overhead in swift, angular flight, bodies glistening with metallic luster in the rosy light. Great yellow butterflies flew lightly above the stream. Here, there, everywhere on the water appeared the shell-formed boats of a thousand caddis flies.
Burl could have thrust his hand down into their cavities and seized the white worms inhabiting the strange craft. The huge bulk of a tardy bee droned heavily overhead. He glanced upward and saw the long proboscis and hairy hinder legs with their scanty load of pollen, the compound eyes with their expression of stupid preoccupation, and the sting that would mean death alike for him and the giant insect, were it used.
The crimson radiance at the edge of the world dimmed. The purple hills had long been left behind. Now the slender stalks of 10,000 round-domed mushrooms lined the riverbank and beneath them spread fungi of all colors, from rawest red to palest blue, fading slowly to a monochromatic background in the glowing dusk.
The buzzing, fluttering, and flapping of diurnal insects died slowly down, while from a million hiding places there crept soft and furry bodies of great moths, who preened themselves and smoothed their feathery antennae before taking to the air. Strong-limbed crickets set up their thunderous noise--grown gravely bass with the increasing size of their sound organs--and there began to gather on the water those slender spirals of tenuous mist that would presently blanket the stream in a mantle of fog.
Night fell. The clouds above seemed to lower and grow dark. Gradually, now a drop and then a drop, the languid fall of large, warm raindrops that would drip from the moisture-laden skies all night began.
Great disks of coolly glowing flame appeared along the stream's edge. The mushrooms there were faintly phosphorescent (Pleurotus phosphoreus) and shone coldly on the "rusts" and fake-fungi beneath. Here and there a ball of lambent flame appeared, drifting idly above the steaming, festering earth.
30,000 years before, men called them "will-o'-the-wisps" but Burl simply accepted them as he accepted all that passed. Only a man attempting to advance in the scale of civilization tries to explain everything. A savage or child is content to observe without comment, unless he repeats legends from wise folk possessed by the itch of knowledge.
Burl watched a long time. The beacons of fireflies as long as his spear flashed intermittently, illuminating the stream for yards around. Softly fluttering wings, in great beats that poured torrents of air onto him, passed above.
The sky was full of winged creatures. Their anguished cries, mating calls, and wing beats broke the night. Above and all around the intense life of the insect world went on ceaselessly, but Burl only rocked sadly back and forth on his frail mushroom boat because he was being carried from his tribe, and from Saya--Saya of swift feet and white teeth, of shy smile. This, after he had dared so greatly to bring her a gift of fresh meat, captured as never before!
Homesick, he lay on his floating atom all night. At last the mushroom raft struck gently and remained grounded on a shallow in the stream.
At daybreak, Burl gazed keenly about. He was 20 yards from shore, and the greenish scum surrounded his now disintegrating vessel. The river had widened until the other bank was barely visible through the haze above the surface, but the nearer shore seemed firm and no more dangerous than the territory his tribe inhabited. He tested the water's depth with his spear, then was struck with the multiple usefulness of that weapon. The water would come but slightly above his ankles.
Burl timidly stepped down into the water, then made for the bank. A soft something clung to one of his bare feet. Terrified, he ran faster, and stumbled ashore. He stared down at his foot. A shapeless, flesh-colored pad clung to his heel, and as Burl watched, it swelled slowly, while the pink of its wrinkled folds deepened.
It was simply a leech, sharing in the enlargement nearly all the lower world had undergone, but Burl did not know that. He scraped frantically at it with the side of his spear, and it fell off, leaving a blotch of blood on his skin. It lay, writhing and pulsating, on the ground, and Burl fled.
He found himself in another toadstool forest, and finally paused. He recognized the type of fungus growths around him, and began eating voraciously. In Burl the sight of food always produced hunger--Nature's compensation for his lack of an instinct to store food.
Burl's heart was small within him. He was far from Saya and his tribe. Just 40 miles separated them, but Burl did not think of distances. He had come down the river. He was alone in a land he had never known or seen.
Food was plentiful. The mushrooms surrounding him were edible, a supply of sustenance Burl's whole tribe could not have eaten in many days, but that very fact made him think of Saya. He suddenly remembered the large oily fish he had caught for her, still hanging down his back from the sinew about his neck.
He took it and fingered it all over, getting his hands and himself thoroughly greasy in the process, but he could eat no more. The thought of Saya's pleasure at the sight of it gave him renewed determination.
With all the immediacy of a child or savage he set off. He had come along the bank of the stream. He would return along the bank of the stream.
Through the awkward aisles of the mushroom forest he moved, eyes and ears open for danger. Several times he heard the omnipresent clicking of ants on their multifarious businesses in the wood, but he ignored those shortsighted foragers. He feared only one kind of ant, the army ant, which sometimes travels in hordes of millions, eating all in its path. Ages ago, when they were tiny creatures not an inch long, even the largest animals fled from them. Now that they measured a foot long, not even the gorged spiders whose distended bellies were a yard thick dared challenge them.
The mushroom forest ended. A cheerful grasshopper (Ephigger) munched at some dainty it had found. Its hind legs were bunched beneath it in perpetual readiness for flight. But a monster wasp--as long as Burl himself--suddenly dropped from the sky and seized the luckless feaster.
The battle was brief. The wasp's flexible abdomen curved delicately. Precise as a surgeon's scalpel, its sting entered the jointed armor just beneath the head of its prey. All struggle ceased.
The wasp grasped the paralyzed--not dead--insect and flew away. Burl grunted, and passed on.
The ground grew rough, impeding Burl's progress. He clambered arduously up steep slopes and cautiously down their farther sides. Once he climbed through a mass of small mushrooms so densely tangled that he had to smash them with blows of his spear to clear a path. They shed torrents of a fiery red liquid that rolled off his greasy breast and sank into the ground (Lactarius deliciosus).
Overconfidence now possessed Burl. He walked less cautiously, more boldly. The fact that he had struck something and destroyed it lent him foolhardy courage.
He climbed to the top of a red clay cliff, 100 feet high. Erosion from the river had carved it ages ago, but now the riverbank came no nearer than a quarter-mile.
Shelf-fungi, large and small, white, yellow, orange, and green, in indescribable confusion and luxuriance, covered the cliffside. From a point halfway up the cliff the inch-thick cable of a spider's web stretched down to an anchorage on the ground. The geometrical pattern of the web glistened evilly.
Somewhere among the cliffside fungi the huge creature waited until some unfortunate prey should struggle helplessly in its monster snare. The spider waited motionless, implacably patient, invicibly certain of prey, utterly merciless to its victims.
Burl strutted at the cliff's edge, a silly little pink-skinned creature with an oily fish slung about his neck, a draggled fragment of moth's wing about his middle, and a minotaur beetle's nose in his hand. He looked scornfully down on the whitely shining trap. He had struck mushrooms, and they had fallen before him. He feared nothing.
60 paces before him, a shaft sank vertically in the sandy, clayey soil. Carefully rounded, lined with silk, it descended 30 feet, then enlarged into a chamber where the owner and digger of the shaft might rest. An inconspicuous trapdoor, camouflaged with mud and earth, sealed the top of the hole. Only a keen eye could have perceived the opening. But a keen eye now peered out from a tiny crack, the eye of the engineer of the underground dwelling.
Eight hairy legs surrounded the creature that hung motionless at the top of the shaft. Two pairs of ferocious mandibles stretched before its fierce mouthparts. Two eyes glittered evilly in the darkness of the burrow. Rough, mangy, brown fur covered the huge misshapen globe of its body.
Implacably malignant, incredibly ferocious, was the brown hunting spider, the American tarantula (Mygale Hentzii). Its body was over two feet in diameter. Its hairy legs, outstretched, would cover a circle three yards across. Eyes glistening, jaws slavering, it watched Burl.
And Burl strutted at the cliff's edge, puffed up with a sense of importance. The white snare of the spinning spider below amused him. He knew the spider would not leave its web to attack. Using his spear, he shoved a chunk of fungus growing at his feet down the cliffside into the colossal web. The black bulk of the hidden spider swung out to investigate. Burl kept pace with it, knocking more lumps of shelf-fungus loose, and laughing as they narrowly missed the confused, black-and-silver creature. Then-- The trap door clicked faintly, and Burl whirled. His laughter became a scream. Approaching with incredible speed, the monster tarantula opened its dripping jaws. Mandibles gaping wide, poison fangs unsheathed, the creature was 30 paces away, 20, 10. It leaped into the air, all eight legs extended to seize!
Still screaming, Burl thrust out his arms to ward off the impact. In his terror, his grasp on his spear became agonized. The spear point shot out, and the tarantula fell on it. Nearly a quarter of the spear entered the body of the ferocious thing.
Transfixed on the spear, the monster writhed nightmarishly, still struggling to reach Burl, who himself was transfixed with horror. Mandibles clashed, awful sounds came from the beast. One of the attenuated, hairy legs rasped across Burl's forearm. He instinctively stepped backward--off the edge of the cliff.
Down through space, eyes glassy with panic, the two creatures--man and skewered tarantula--fell together. With a strangely elastic crash and crackling, they hit the web below.
Burl could be no more fear-struck. Struggling madly in the gummy coils of an immense web, ever binding him more tightly, with a wounded creature still striving to reach him with poison fangs--Burl had reached the limit of panic.
He fought madly to break the coils about him. His arms and breast were greasy from the oily fish; the sticky web did not adhere to them, but his legs and body were inextricably fastened by the elastic threads spread for just such prey as he.
He paused, exhausted. Then he saw, five yards away, the silvery and black monster waiting patiently for him to tire. It judged the moment propitious. The tarantula and man were one in its eyes, one struggling thing that had fallen opportunely into its snare. They moved but feebly now. The spider advanced delicately, swinging its huge bulk nimbly along the web, paying out a cable after it, coming inexorably closer.
Burl's arms were free because of the greasy coating they had received. He waved them wildly, shrieking at the approaching, pitiless monster. It paused. Those moving arms suggested mandibles that might wound or slap.
Spiders take few hazards. This one was no exception. Its spinnerets became busy, and with one of its eight legs, it flung a sheet of gummy silk impartially over both tarantula and man.
Burl fought the descending shroud, striving vainly to thrust it away. Within minutes he was covered in a silken cloth that hid even the light from his eyes. He and his enemy, the giant tarantula, were beneath the same covering, though the tarantula moved but weakly.
The shower ceased. The web spider had decided they were helpless. Burl felt the cables of the web give slightly, as the spider approached to sting and suck the sweet juices from its prey.
Burl froze in an ecstasy of terror, waiting for poison fangs to be thrust into him. He knew the process, having seen the leisurely way giant spiders delicately stung their prey, then withdrew to wait patiently for the venom to take effect.
When their victim ceased to struggle, they drew near again, and sucked the sweet juices from the body until what was once a creature vibrant with life became a shrunken, withered husk--to be flung from the web at nightfall. Most spiders are tidy housekeepers, destroying their snares daily to spin anew.
The bloated, evil creature moved meditatively about the shining sheet of silk it had cast over Burl and the giant tarantula. Now only the tarantula moved feebly. Its body, outlined by a bulge in the concealing shroud, throbbed faintly as it struggled with the spear in its vitals. The rounded protuberance offered an obvious target. The web spider moved quickly forward, and stung.
Galvanized into fresh torment by this new agony, the tarantula writhed in a very hell of pain. Its legs struck out purposelessly, in horrible gestures of delirious suffering. Burl screamed as one touched him, and struggled himself.
His arms and head were free beneath the silken sheet because of the grease and oil coating them. Striving to escape his deadly neighbor, Burl clutched at the threads about him. They did not break, but parted, and a tiny opening appeared. One of the tarantula's attenuated limbs touched him again. With the strength of utter panic he hauled himself away. The opening enlarged, Burl's head emerged into open air, and he stared down 20 feet on an open space carpeted with chitinous remains of his captor's former victims.
Burl's head, breast, and arms were free. But his lower body was held firm by a gummy snare far more tenacious than any birdlime ever manufactured by man.
He hung a moment in his tiny window, despairing. He saw, at a little distance, the monster spider, waiting patiently for its poison to take effect and the struggling of its prey to cease. And the tarantula was weakening, only shuddering now.
Burl withdrew his head and thrust desperately at the sticky stuff about his loins and legs. The oil on his hands kept it from clinging to them, and it gave a little. In a flash of inspiration, Burl understood. He reached over his shoulder and grasped the greasy fish; tore it in a dozen places and smeared himself with the now rancid exudation, pushing the sticky threads from his limbs and oiling the surface from which he had thrust it.
He felt the web tremble. To the spider, its poison seemed to have failed. Another sting seemed necessary. It would again inject its deadly venom where the disturbance was manifest--into Burl!
He gasped, and drew himself toward his window. It felt as if he was pulling his legs from his body. His head emerged, his shoulders--half his body was outside the hole.
The colossal spider surveyed him, and made ready to cast another silken sheet over him. The spinnerets became active, and the sticky stuff about Burl's feet gave way! He shot through the opening and fell sprawling to the earth below, crashing onto the shrunken shell of a flying beetle which had fallen into the snare and had not escaped.
Burl rolled over and over, then sat up. An angry, foot-long ant stood before him, mandibles extended threateningly, antennae waving wildly. A shrill stridulation filled the air.
In ages past, when ants were tiny creatures fractions of an inch long, scientists knew they possessed a cry. Grooves on the body of the insects, like those on the great legs of crickets, enabled them to generate sounds.
Burl knew the stridulation emanated from the insect before him, though he had never wondered how it was produced. The cry was used to summon others of its city, to help it in difficulty or good fortune.
Clickings sounded nearby. Reinforcements were coming. Normally harmless--except the army ant, that is--the whole ant tribe was formidable when provoked. Utterly fearless, they could pull down a man and slay him as so many infuriated fox terriers might have done 30,000 years before.
Burl fled, without debate, and heard the shrill sound suddenly subside. The ant, shortsighted like all ants, no longer felt threatened and went peacefully about the business Burl had interrupted, that of finding among the gruesome relics beneath the spider's web some edible carrion to feed the inhabitants of its city.
Burl ran a few hundred yards, and stopped. It behooved him to move carefully. Even the most familiar territory was full of unexpected dangers; unknown lands such as these were doubly perilous.
Burl too found difficulty in moving. The glutinous stuff from the spider's snare still stuck to his feet, picking up small objects as he went. Old ant-gnawed fragments of insect armor pricked him even through his toughened soles.
He removed them, took a dozen steps and had to stop again. Burl's brain had been uncommonly stimulated lately. It had gotten him into at least one predicament--due to his invention of a spear--but extricated him from another. Reason had led him to oil his body to escape the spider's snare.
Cautiously, Burl looked about. He seemed safe. Then, deliberately, he sat down to think. Never in his life had he done such a thing; his tribesmen were not given to meditation. But a powerful idea had struck Burl--an abstract idea.
When he was in difficulties, something within him seemed to suggest a solution. Would it do so now? He puzzled over the problem. Sharp pebbles, remnants of insect-armor, and other things hurt his feet when he walked. They always had, but never had his feet been sticky so that the irritation continued with him more than one step.
He gazed at his foot, and awaited inspiration. Meanwhile, he slowly removed the sharp-pointed fragments, one by one. Partly coated with the half-liquid gum from his feet, they clung to his finger, except where the oil was thick.
Burl's reasoning, before, had been simple and of primary order. Where oil covered him, the web did not. Therefore he would coat the rest of himself with oil. But to apply knowledge gained in one predicament to another difficulty was something he had never done.
A dog may be taught to pull a latchstring to open a door, but the same dog coming to a high, close-barred gate with a latchstring will never think of pulling it. He associates a latchstring with opening the door. Opening a gate is another matter entirely.
Imminent peril had stirred Burl to invention. That was extraordinary enough. But reasoning in cold blood, as he now did, that oil on his feet would nullify the glue there and enable him to walk in comfort--that was as much a triumph of intellect as any masterpiece of art in the ages before. He oiled his feet.
It was an infinitesimal problem, but Burl's struggles with the mental process of reasoning were real. 30,000 years earlier, a wise man declared that education is simply training in thought, in efficient and effective thinking. Burl had received no such training, but now, sitting at the base of a squat toadstool, he reexemplified Rodin's Thinker for the first time in millennia. He was teaching himself how to think.
He stood up, walked, and crowed in delight, then paused a moment in awe of his own intelligence. 35 miles from his tribe, naked, unarmed, ignorant of fire, wood, or any weapons save a spear he had experimented with the day before, abysmally uninformed concerning the very existence of art or science, Burl stopped to assure himself that he was very wonderful.
With touching faith in this new pastime, Burl sat down again and knitted his brows. His questions were easily answered. He was naked. He would fashion garments. He was weaponless. He would find a spear. He was hungry. He would seek food. He was far from from Saya and his tribe. He would go to them. Puerile reasoning, of course, but valuable, because it was conscious reasoning, conscious appeal to his mind for guidance, deliberate metal progression from desire to resolution.
Even in the high civilization of ages before, few men had really used their brains. The great majority had depended on machines and leaders to think for them. Burl, however, was developing the habit of thinking--a leadership quality, and an invaluable asset to his little tribe.
He stood again and faced upstream. Gigantic butterflies, riotously colored, fluttered overhead through the misty haze. Sometimes a grasshopper hurtled through the air like a projectile, transparent wings beating frantically. Occasionally a wasp sped by, intent on its hunting, or a bee droned heavily along, anxious and worried, striving in a nearly flowerless world to gather pollen for the hive.
Here and there Burl saw various flies, some no larger than his thumb, others the size of his whole hand. They fed on juices dripping from maggot-infested mushrooms, when filth more to their liking was unavailable.
Far away a shrill roaring sounded faintly. It was like multitudinous clickings blended into a single sound, but was so distant that it did not gain Burl's attention. He had all the strictly localized vision of a child. What was near was important; what was distant could be ignored.
Had Burl listened, he would have realized that army ants were abroad in countless millions, deploying themselves in a broad array and wreaking greater destruction than so many locusts.
Locusts in past ages had eaten all green things. Only giant cabbages and a few such tenacious rank growths survived. The locusts had vanished along with civilization, knowledge, and most of mankind, but army ants remained as an invincible enemy to men, insects, and fungi alike.
Burl did not notice the sound, however. Preoccupied, he moved forward, briskly though cautiously, searching for garments, food, and weapons. He confidently expected to find them all shortly.