Millenia before the invention of the screw, he screwed his perceptions down, tightening and focusing all the sensory pressure he could bring to bear on the essentials of the moment. His eyes locked onto the pig, willing the arrow to go to that one spot behind the animal’s shoulder. Nerve endings were shut off except in his fingertips, which retained the feeling of the string just released, and its tension, through which he knew the strength of the arrow shot he had just released, its range, drop and penetrating power.
He smelled and tasted the creekside forest in which he hunted, its humidity reflecting both effect on his bow and arrows and the weather he’d face bringing his kill back to the clan and its lush growth of plants on which the animal fed creating anticipation of rich, fatty meat. His ear, cocked toward the game and hoping to hear the thwunk of his arrow, had brief leisure to enjoy the melodic, decaying vibration of his bowstring, settling back into rest after propelling his arrow.
She, too, was narrowing and aiming all her senses at that moment. Her eyes searched for the best shade of gray green and the best height for picking mallow stalks among the various creekside reeds and weeds, and they abetted her bare soles, on which she concentrated to judge a firmness of mud that allowed for easy plucking of plants and decent footing.
Pulling a mallow up from the muck slowly, to keep roots attached, she cracked the stalk, smelled the break, then licked it to test its quality as an herbal medicine. As she did so, a rising breeze blew across unevenly snapped reeds she’d used to pull herself forward through the mud, and she heard a combination of discordant notes.
He, another he, pulled a crude coracle onto a sandbar. Surveying his possessions and the little world in which he would overnight, he saw the round vessel, skins stretched over a wooden frame and covered with fat, the extra fat and provisions wrapped in other skins and animal bladders, a large hide used as a blanket, his paddles and stone tools, sand, mud, driftwood branches, sticks, and stumps.
Like the aforementioned woman, he judged the earth with his feet to find the driest spot on which to sleep. Arranging his property, he smelled the meat and berries on which he would dine for freshness, then dropped his paddle against the upended skin boat to hear good tautness to test the craft’s soundness for the next day’s journey.
The pig’s scream, the deep beat of the paddle against the skin boat and the reeds’ haunting wail coincided, more or less, up and down the creek, making them aware of one another. The hunter’s success being the loudest and most dramatic sound, and he being the middle of the three, he became the center of attention for all. As he finished his kill, he looked around and prepared to defend it, at need, from the strangers he knew were nearby. They warily approached, the boatman wading near the shore and the medicine woman approaching warily down the opposite creek bank.
Out of bowshot, they sized one another up in relative safety. There were no tribal differences then, nothing greater than fighting over food, and since the pig was more meat than the lone hunter could possibly carry back to his own clan, that was not an issue. In innocence and pragmatism, they accepted without any barter, threat, or palaver that they would eat and camp together that night.
Only the boatman had anything like a camp. The sandbar was fairly dry, open enough to let the breeze blow insects away and possessed of old, easily ignited wood for a fire. They could make fire.
Using simple syllables and gestures, they agreed to gut the pig together and push the carcass into the creek, then wade together, allowing the current to wash the creature’s blood away, taking it to the sandbar, where further butchering and then a roasted meal could take place.
Once there, they displayed their resources to one another in dusk light, gradually replaced by firelight. Both men had striking stones for making fire. The woman had a collection of gathered herbs, both medicinal and culinary, as well as salt, as well as the snapped, hollow reeds she had snatched up out of curiosity when the three had accidentally announced their presence to one another. The boatman had an assortment of shells and brightly colored stones, some strung on leather cords as necklaces.
The coracle was a marvelous, magical thing to the other two, who walked around it, rubbed their hands across its surface and, with permission, hit it tentatively with the boatman’s paddle. All tested the hunter’s bow, after he bragged on its potency, and enjoyed testing the string by plucking. The men tried to imitate the sound they’d heard from the woman’s starting position and pointed at her with hands outstretched at waist level, palms up, to ask her what had caused it. She held up her handful of uneven, hollow reeds and passed her hand over it in the sign for wind, but her explanation was unclear, and so she blew across them, and another near-melodic noise came forth.
The trio’s conversation was necessarily limited by paucity of vocabulary and mutually understood gesture, but they could and did seek for explanation of the world around them, the little world of the fire-lit sandbar, with the tools available to them. They took turns plucking the bow, beating the coracle and blowing the reeds.
They experimented and learned that the bowstring, pressed with a stiff finger or pig bone at different places along its length, yielded different sounds from the plucked portion beneath the blocking device. They noticed that the reeds could be rearranged into different combinations of exposed lengths and that blowing over them in those different combinations produced higher or lower sounds. The coracle, beaten mainly by the boatman, it being his property and greatest treasure and he living by the rhythm of his paddling day in and day out, was incorporated for rhythm.
Percussionists tend to believe that the first manufactured instrument was a drum. String players are confident theirs was the first tool of music. Wind instrumentalists are certain reeds and wind were our earliest cultural inspiration. Perhaps, after all, it was a band.
dedicated to Hossam Ramzy
Author: Arthur Shuey
Arthur has been reviewing music for publications since 1976 and began focusing almost exclusively on world music in 2012.
His musical background includes past presidencies of the Cape Fear Musicians Association and Blues Society of the Lower Cape Fear, founding membership in nine other blues societies, service on 17 music festival planning committees, two decades of teaching harmonica to individuals and groups, operating a small recording studio and performing solo and in combos for 30 years.
Arthur has written professionally since 1975, pieces ranging from short fiction to travel articles, humor to poetry, mainly for local and regional entertainment media. His blog,” Shuey’s World,” is featured at www.accesswilmington.com.