Gronk had been staring at the wall for some time. He was crouched on the cave floor, resting his arms on his knees, looking up at the jagged rock through a heavy brow.
In the small hours of the morning, Gronk had woken from a deep sleep. Dreams had plagued him, images of himself doing things he didn’t fully understand. Before he knew what he was doing, he had set out of the cave in a fervour. There were things he had to find.
The charcoal was easy enough, which he sourced from the remains of their fire at the mouth of the cave. He scooped it into a wooden bowl with his enormous hands.
A clay deposit on the southern side of their mountain had the ochre he needed, which he gathered into a ball and wrapped in leaves.
All that was left was some water, and the strange tool he had seen in his dream. He left his supplies at the mouth of the cave and stomped into the forest. His wife, Wonk, appeared from within the cave, rubbing sleep from her eyes and saying, “GRONK! UNH, HUH!?”
Roughly translated, this meant, “Gronk, what on earth are you doing at this early hour? You appear to have gathered useless materials that have nothing to do with either hunting or gathering, and now I find you stomping around the forest like a blind rhinoceros. I can only imagine that you are seeking even more useless items, though I would hesitate to speculate as to your reasons. So, I repeat myself: what on earth are you doing at this early hour?”
Gronk turned and said, “HUH! MUR, DAUM BABA SMERSH, HRMM A A BACH. KHUN DA BONK-BONK!”
Roughly translated, this meant, “Nothing.”
Gronk turned back to his task, picking up sticks, peering at them a moment, and then casting them away with irritated grunts.
Wonk sighed and stepped back into their cave. Their son – Donk – and daughter – Lonk – would be waking soon.
When Gronk finally emerged from the forest, his family were sitting around the fire and eating bowls of smoked termites, garnished with small pebbles.
Lonk looked up from her nutritious meal and saw the tool in Gronk’s hand, “OOOH RAH HA?!” (What’s that, Dad?)
The base was a short piece of thick branch. The other end was a bunch of thin, fibrous strips of bark, almost as fine as hair, fastened to the stick with vine and sap. Gronk looked down at it and then back up at his daughter, shrugging, “BOO AH, BA HA WOMP LONK!”
(I don’t really know, Lonk.)
He made his way on to the cave, but Wonk spoke up, “GRONK! HUH KU MAH?”
(Gronk, aren’t you going to sit with your family as we break our fast and prepare for the day together?)
“BWA WAH MEE TOR, WONK?!”
(Actually, I’m not very hungry right now. I’m kind of invested in this thing I’m doing, and I’d rather stick with that, and eat later, if that’s alright with you, Wonk?)
Gronk saw stars as a bowl struck him on the back of the head, termites exploding everywhere. The bowl clattered away with a sound that bounced off of the mountain and echoed up into the sky, causing a nest of vultures high above them to stir and take flight.
He turned around and saw Wonk glaring at him. She snarled through those jagged, yellowed teeth that he normally found so cute, “MAH WUH BAHT!”
Gronk’s shoulders slumped. “Oh.”
Gronk sat with his family and ate in sullen silence. His children picked termites off of his hairy arms and knuckles while he ate the smallest amount that he could before his wife would excuse him from the fire. Once she did, he galloped back into the cave, snatching up his accoutrements along the way.
And then he sat in front of the wall. The dream had been so clear up until this point, and now he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with all this junk.
He dipped his fingers into the charcoal bowl and then sniffed them. It made him sneeze, and the sound rattled down into the depths of the cave.
He stuck his tongue out and licked the charcoal. His mouth twisted with disgust at the bitterness, and he wiped the charcoal away on his leg. Then he frowned, furrowing his considerate brow further. He looked down at the smear of charcoal on his leg.
He made that.
With his fingers.
One long stripe.
Like a river.
Or a stick.
Or a… stripe…
He blinked stupidly down at the charcoal. It felt like something in his brain was opening, something held shut with sticky sap, that he only needed to push on a little more and it would finally shed some light on what he was supposed to be doing.
Tentatively, he used his nail to dig up a little of the ochre, and he looked down at the little piece of curled clay.
He popped the whole thing into his mouth.
The flavour wasn’t as intrusive as the charcoal. It was more of a flat dirt taste.
He spat the ochre into his hand, and it came out in a murky orange paste. The gears in his mind – the greatest mind of his old tribe, according to himself – groaned and turned as he wiped the paste on his other leg. It left a streak, just like the charcoal. He looked at the two streaks, feeling himself on the verge of an epiphany.
His son, Donk, was watching him from the mouth of the cave. He had watched his father first lick charcoal, then eat clay, and then stare at his lap with incredible wide eyes for ten minutes. He could see drool beginning dangle from the end of his father’s lip. He wondered if perhaps his Dad was dead. Many of their people were killed during hunts or feats of bravery during migrations, but there was the occasional man who would simply die in the middle of a sentence, like their uncle. He had fallen face first into a platter of spicy, live fire-ants, which had then proceeded to eat him in front of the whole family.
Suddenly Gronk stood up, making Donk jump with fright.
He had finally figured it out! He hurriedly mixed the charcoal and ochre with water in separate bowls, making them into a paste. Then he took his knew tool, dipped the bristles into the grey paste and started making lines on the wall. His arm shook with excitement and his heart thundered in his chest. Nobody had ever done this before; he was sure of it! He had discovered something! He would go down in stories as a hero, like the first man to throw a spear, or the last man to ride a mammoth!
His elation was cut short by his son’s voice.
(Dad, you said you would take me climbing today.)
Gronk looked from his son to his new thing on the wall.
(Well son, the thing about that is, Daddy’s kind of doing something…)
Gronk saw Wonk getting up from the fire outside and walking towards the cave. If she caught him weaselling his way out of this climb, she would turn him into a rug.
(Alright, let’s go Donk!)
(Thanks Dad! You’re the best!)
(Great, cool, hurry up!)
Gronk and Donk climbed about halfway up the mountain, watching great birds wheel and soar through the sky, a herd of mammoths crossing the plains and the great lake nestled next to eastern base of the mountain.
Gronk was watching the sun, and as it neared closer to the top of the world, he grew impatient.
(Okay, son, time to go back down!)
(Aw, but Dad, you said-)
(No buts! Let’s go!)
They climbed back down and Gronk eagerly returned to his work. He added more lines to his magnum opus, feeling the shapes taking form as the things he saw in his mind began to appear in the physical world, artfully cast across this rocky wall.
Lonk was suddenly at his side.
(Dad, you said we would go berry tasting!)
Gronk didn’t even look down at her.
(Not today, sweetie.)
Lonk stomped her foot.
(But Dad, how am I supposed to learn which one’s are poison?)
(Just try a couple yourself, you won’t get too sick. Just don’t eat the black ones with yellow stripes…)
(… or is it the yellow ones with black stripes?)
Wonk came in from outside, carrying an enormous pile of chopped wood across her shoulders for the fires, sweat running down her dirt-streaked face.
Lonk started running over to her and Gronk made to intercept.
(Mum, Dad just said-OOF)
Gronk knocked Lonk over as he stepped forward, beaming.
(That her and I are going to go berry picking now! How else is she going to learn which ones are poison?)
Wonk deposited the wood with a grunt and eyed him suspiciously. But when Lonk got up, knocking dust off herself and beaming up at her father, she relaxed.
(Alright. But stay away from the yellow and black ones.)
Gronk frowned, thought about asking which yellow and black ones she meant, and then thought better of it. He was fairly sure it was the yellow ones with black stripes that were bad.
An hour later, Gronk was bent double, throwing up the meagre meal of termites and pebbles he had eaten that morning. He wiped his mouth while Lonk cheerfully gathered berries, knowingly avoiding the black ones with yellow stripes. After her woven basket was filled with the berries they had confirmed were safe, they returned to the cave.
Gronk returned to his work, ignoring the cramps in his belly and the weakness in his legs. This time he was able to work for several hours, alternating between black lines and orange filling. He mostly used the brush, but sometimes a finer touch was necessary, and he would use his fingers to do the more intricate work.
He was nearing completion, he could feel it; his dream had almost come to fruition.
His wife’s voice broke his concentration.
Gronk yelled out in anger, throwing down his brush and stomping outside.
Wonk, Donk and Lonk were all at the top of a tree, yelling and waving as he came towards them. Gronk was fed up! He had enough of these constant interruptions, and he was going to lay down the law. After all he was the cave-man of the cave!
(Alright, that’s it! I have only wanted to do one thing today! All I wanted to do was try this thing I dreamed about, this thing that might change everybody’s lives, but all I got from everybody else is ‘Gronk, do this,’ and ‘Gronk, do that!’ Well no more! I am taking the rest of the day for me! I am going to have some serious Gronk-Time!)
Wonk pointed over Gronk’s shoulder.
(GRONK LOOK OUT!)
Gronk turned and saw the enormous, sabre-toothed cat crouched down, seconds away from launching at him.
Rather than fear, he felt further enraged.
(Oh, great! Another distraction!)
He bent down and picked up a rock, just as the tiger leapt at him. Its jaws were open, baring it’s teeth. Its claws sliced through the air, coming straight for his throat. Its roar filled the forest.
Gronk threw the rock as hard as he could, putting his entire day of frustration behind it. It struck the tiger right between the eyes and it hit the ground with a thud, tumbling in a heap.
Gronk turned back to his family.
(Now can I please have some time for myself!?)
His, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, family nodded wordlessly.
Evening fell, and as Wonk, Lonk and Donk sat down to feast on roast sabre-tooth, Gronk finally emerged from the cave, streaked with charcoal and ochre.
Wonk looked up at him.
(I didn’t want to disturb you.)
He sat down next to her and kissed her prickly cheek.
(It’s alright. I just finished.)
(What were you doing?)
They ate together, laughing in the warmth of the fire and under the comfort of the stars. Then, as they tossed the stripped bones into the fire, Gronk ushered them inside.
There was no light in the cave, but Gronk could see well enough to put his family right where he needed them. He crouched down, struck some flint, and the little fire he had built inside sprung to life.
He turned to look at his family’s faces as they finally saw what he had been working on.
Depicted in greys and oranges, was a family of four. A young boy and girl, a beautiful woman and a big strong man.
After a moment, Donk exclaimed.
Gronk smiled and nodded.
Wonk slipped an arm around his waist.
(It’s beautiful, but it’s just… I don’t even know what to call it.)
Gronk replied with:
(Making it was the most painful process I’ve ever gone through, so I’m calling it… a Pain-Thing.)
Wonk nodded her approval.
The family continued to gaze up at their flat, rocky counterparts, and over the years they added more and more images to the wall, until the day came, generations later, when it was time to leave for richer lands.
And while Gronk’s family would no longer explore the cave or climb the mountain, the Pain-Thing remained so that the land would always remember them.