Content warning: some violence and gore
Flatnose was going to die. He knew it would happen soon, and he knew he deserved it. He'd accidentally killed his own brother during a squabble. His own father had been the one to begin the banishing-chant, and he hadn't fought it, simply walked out of camp with the clothes he was wearing and a single spear in his hands.
That was over a season ago, and he wasn't quite ready to lay down and let the cold take him. But it might be out of his hands now that winter was fully upon the land. He'd never been great at plant identification, or at trap-making - those had been skills that other family members had excelled at so that he didn't need to. He hadn't eaten anything but bark and lichen for many days, and his last protein had been a handful of moth larvae barely worth the calories expended to dig them out of the rotting stump. This hunt might be his last chance.
So here he was: on his belly on the frozen ground, crawling toward a small group of deer bedded down in some shrubs. He'd been stalking them for hours, and was almost close enough to strike. It was a desperate way to hunt large animals. The best way was to steer a herd into a ravine or bog where they couldn't escape or fight well, but that method required familiar lands, and a family working together. Nearly impossible for a lone man.
Suddenly, he heard something approaching from the hill behind him and to the east, crashing through the brush, making no effort to be stealthy. Flatnose lifted his head and watched in silent despair as the deer sprang from their beds. A pack of wolves ran past him and charged after them. In the span of a few breaths both wolves and deer had run over the next hill and out of sight.
He lay for awhile, listening to the wind and fighting the urge to lay his head on the ground. Wolves were often messengers of the Stone Mother, She may have sent them to tell him it was time to stop hunting and give up. One could never fully know the minds of the Gods, though, and there was one, small hope: if the wolves made a kill, he might be able to scavenge from it.
It took several tries to rise to his feet, he was that weak. He backtracked his own trail to where he'd stashed the small bundle of belongings he'd managed to make and collect since his banishment, and started to follow the wolves' tracks. It was easy tracking when the trail was this fresh: perfect little paw marks melted in the top layer of frost.
Within a couple hours, he saw birds circling up ahead. The wolves must have made a kill. Would it do him any good, though? Alone, he didn't have a chance of scaring them off, but it was possible that once they'd filled their bellies they would leave - the pack had looked strong and healthy, they may not feel the need to guard the carcass. If he could beat the bears, lions, hyenas, eagles and birds to it, anyway. He crested a ridge and there, at the bottom of the slope, were the wolves. The pack had indeed managed to take down one of the deer, an adult, and were were eating voraciously, the way wolves do, as if it were their last meal. Flatnose's mouth watered at the sight of all that food, so close, and yet untouchable.
He made a fire while he waited. The wolves didn't even seem to care, another jarring sign of his loneliness. A group of humans would have caused a pack of wolves to stop everything to watch them, or maybe even preemptively attack. A lone human held little threat. As long as he kept his distance, they ignored him.
Flatnose huddled by the fire, and concentrated simply to stay awake. He was running out of time. The sun was sinking, and he wasn't sure he could survive another winter night without either calories, or proper shelter. The wolves had slowed down, the two larger ones had finished, and he had some hope he'd be able to try his hand at stealing some meat soon. Just as he thought this, he caught sight of movement out in the distance. A large, dark shadow, coming down from another hill. A lion.
The wolves noticed at about the same time, and turned in unison, hackles and tails raised. Six wolves could take a single lion, but they might not want to risk defending food from such a dangerous foe when they had full bellies. If the lion took possession of the meat, Flatnose chances of getting any disappeared. A lean, lonely lion was much more likely than a fat and healthy wolf pack to guard the carcass or drag the entire remains to a lair and guard it until it was completely eaten.
This, then, must be Her test. He had to do something before the wolves decided to leave. He took a deep breath and threw off his hood and gloves. He broke off the biggest branch of heather he could find, and lit it in the fire. And then, with his only spear in one hand, makeshift torch in the other, he ran down the hill.
He kept wide and far away from the deer carcass, circling to get the lion between him and the pack. It would divide the lion's attention. Some of the wolves looked his way, but the lion was still their priority for the moment. They snarled and danced outside the range of its claws, making feint attacks as the lion was snarled back and swiped at them with deadly claws, slinking closer to the deer. Neither predator wanted to engage quite yet, and there was a temporary standoff. Now or never.
Flatnose only had one spear. He had to aim for a spot that was impossible to miss, that wouldn't simply glance off bone. As he got close to the lion, it stopped and turned toward him, ears pinned and teeth bared. Before it could attack, he threw the torch in its face. It flinched and swatted at the fire. In the one heartbeat that the lion was distracted, Flatnose leapt forward and thrust his spear into the lion's belly. It screamed and spun around, yanking the spear from his hands as the cat swiped wildly at him. He fell backwards, rolling out of reach, but bruising his ribs and elbow in the process.
It was a huge risk, spearing it in the gut. It could make it even stronger and angry, and now it might target him instead of the wolves. He scrambled to his feet as quickly as possible, backing away, but the lion wasn't coming after him yet; it was pawing and chewing at the spear stuck in its body, glancing back and forth between the wolves and Flatnose. In pain, surrounded by threats, it couldn't decide what to do. For a moment, Flatnose felt great sympathy for the lion. It was a gaunt young male, hungry and alone, just like Flatnose. It didn't realize that its life was already over, one way or another.
Mercifully, it didn't need to die the agonizing, drawn-out death of a gut wound, for at that moment, the wolves decided to attack after all. Flatnose stumbled away from the furious swirl of animals as quickly as his weak limbs would carry him. Back to the relative safety of his fire. He was dizzy with exhaustion and relief: he'd attacked a lion, by himself, and survived mostly unhurt.
He couldn't see the battle, obscured by brush and gathering darkness, but he could hear it just fine, and could tell it was not going well for the poor lion. Shortly, everything went quiet and the wolves came trotting back into view. Several were limping, but none seemed seriously hurt. He could swear they seemed smug. They settled in near the deer carcass, laying down to lick at wounds or curl up to sleep. They weren't leaving the area anytime soon. Flatnose wouldn't be eating any venison tonight, but he didn't need it now. He had roast lion in his future.
He made a new pair of torches and took them back down the hill, once again keeping well clear of the wolves and their food. They watched him, but none made a move toward him. Whether it was their exhaustion, full bellies, or that they still didn't see him as a threat, or maybe even that they saw him as an ally who helped them with a common enemy, or simply the grace of the Stone Mother, tonight they would tolerate him. Now that they weren't competition for a meal, he actually hoped they would stay for awhile. After being alone so many months, it was comforting, having other creatures nearby that were neither food nor enemy.
The lion's body was resting just a few lengths from the deer, in a small hollow. Flatnose used the torch to make two new, bigger fires, one on each side of the lion. It might be enough to keep away other scavengers that came in the night. It was all he had the energy for, but he was optimistic. For the first time in awhile, he had some plans to make for the future: Tonight, he would eat until his belly was swollen and painful. Then he would sleep. Then he would get up and eat some more. He would keep the fires going; he would build a shelter; he would find some water to drink; he should try to tan the lion skin, it would be a welcome addition to his pathetic bedroll of stitched-together small animal hides, or maybe he would try to make a water-tight cooking bag so he could make stew, which was a less-wasteful way to cook than roasting. His only spear was shattered, and he was banished from all the sacred yew groves, but perhaps the Stone Mother would see fit to show him the way to a different grove of trees so he could make more. She seemed to think he should live for tonight, maybe he would live through the winter after all.
While I was in the middle of writing this story, an extremely pertinent interview was published in Psychology Today: 'Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and for All' I highly recommend reading it.
'What it means to be alone' takes place 150,000 years ago. Not much has changed since the time of SmallWatcher. Although the climate has fluctuated in that time, both people and wolves have adapted with no apparent changes to their habits or tool-uses. Flatnose's people, Neanderthals, still dominate the hunting grounds of Eurasia, living in traveling family groups and sharing the landscape with wolves and other predators. The creature we know today as the dog is still 100,000 years away from being fully created, but humans and wolves still have frequent interactions that are leading up to that final domestication.
Humans and wolves share what Christoph Jung in the above interview describes as, "astonishing similarities in their social behavior, their psychology and social communication." Both are also excellent hunters. Part of being a successful hunter, especially a human with a big brain, is to put yourself inside the mind of other animals, so you can predict their moves and habits. From there, it's a short step for a social creature to sympathize and feel close kinship to other animals, especially predators that are so like himself, even when those predators are often competition for the same food.