Chapter 6: Bath Night
It had been a long hard walk from the landing site. I had considered lots of names for where I awoke but landing site was the best of a bad lot. Crash site was the next best thing but without a crash it was missing something – like my bike, for a starter.
In the several weeks since my arrival (I was not keeping score or a count of the exact number of days) the trees had thinned out in the areas I had walked through from thick wood to sparse coppice and open plain: also, the weather had started to change – getting cooler in the morning and just before dark. I had been heading north or mainly north. Perhaps this was the start of the autumn: a prelude to my first winter on this empty planet. No intelligent life: well, no sentient life that I could find. Some of the animals were sufficiently intelligent to avoid my traps. Possibly they were just very obvious traps. I would have to do something about that.
I had found an old dead hardwood tree – and after a time and many attempts with a hand axe I secured three good lengths of branch, which I was intending to make at least two bows out of. The biggest problem was, “What was I going to use as the string?” It would have to be very strong to take the strain. I would continue to look as I continued on my journey.
The spear I had made was an effective method of bringing down game. I remember seeing an Aboriginal spear and a hooked stick, which the Aboriginals used to add more power to the cast. It looked easy when they did it (not when I tried). I found that after I practised for several days I could hit what I was trying to nine times out of ten. At first I would only try for birds (which were in flocks of thousands) by running at them, casting just above them. Some would fly into the spear.
You can get very tired of wading bird quite quickly. Each time I attempted to hunt the small rodent-like animal, which I christened Big Rat, I lost the flint tip – or, worse, I busted the top clean off. I found that I did moderately well with just a rock. All I had to do was find a rock about the size of a baseball then find a slow big rat. Finding the rock was the easy part. The sling had broken and I had not repaired it as yet.
The game trail which I had been following for the last few days headed in the direction where I had been going – not that I had anywhere to go. A small mountain range looked like the final destination. I got glimpses of it now and then as I crested small hills, which were sparsely wooded. Crossing a small stream I saw a fish – the first since waking up on this world.
When I say, “Fish,” it was in the stream and appeared to be swimming very slowly. A change of diet sounded very good to me. I slipped my pack down on the bank and selected the longest of the spears. Keeping very low on the bank I crawled to the edge and looked down.
The fish, which now looked more like an eel with big fins (and looked to be using the fins like short legs), was walking on the bottom of the stream heading up river. I slipped back and moved upstream so as to be in front of it. I slid the spear into the water. I had judged the depth to be about three feet: it was more like five feet when the spear was touching the bottom. The spear had disturbed the sediment. As I touched the bottom the fish saw this and moved towards it. I slowly lifted the spear tip from the silt, again disturbing it. The fish stopped. Its sinuous body seemed to quiver in anticipation.
It shot forward with blinding speed – hitting the end of the spearhead on the flint tip, which passed through its open mouth. I pulled it out of the stream: it was still twisting and turning, firmly impaled on the end of the spear. It was much bigger than I had estimated: around three kg in weight and 200 mm long. I killed it with a sharp blow to the head with the butt of another spear.
It was time for dinner. Using a newly-broken flake of flint as a knife, the cleaning process was swift. Starting the fire was much more involved. After the fire had burned down to coals – and using some river mud to wrap the fish – I then placed in the coal, placed some more wood on top, and I went to look around.
I found myself in a small wooded valley covered with tall thin trees, evenly spaced, with very few shrubs or bushes at ground level. The floor had a good covering of leaf mould. The trees looked all broadleaf, and in the process of changing: again, no game to be seen and no sign of any. I had been looking for whatever had made the trail I had been following all this time. The more I looked the more I was becoming aware that I was in a park of sorts. It was just a feeling things were looked after, or they appeared to have been looked after.
After walking for half an hour following the stream up the valley I heard the call of a big chickenlike bird. It was coming from a thicket off to my left. I looked for a rock and found several about the correct size at the edge of a small pool under a waterfall. Taking one in each hand I headed for the sound. The bird was in the low branches of a large tree.
Screening myself behind another tree, which was in a direct line to my target, I advanced slowly and quietly. Reaching the covering tree, I took aim. I hurled the rock with maximum force. It missed. The bird must have seen my approach and launched itself into the air a split second before my rock would have hit. It was on target – only the target had moved when the second (and last) piece of my ammunition had changed hands. Seeing my dinner flutter on to another branch I estimated which branch it was going to land on, and pitched the best I have ever seen. Thud, and a cloud of feathers. Not even a squawk. Dead before it had landed on the branch.
Fish and chicken for dinner tonight. The fish should be cooked by now. I headed back. I could smell the fragrant woodsmoke all the way up the valley. I decided to set up camp for the night. It was time to start work on the longbow, which I hoped would improve my chances of getting game when I found it.
I thought that a bath might be nice, so after my very nice steamed fish and roast chicken I went downstream to a small but deep pool, stripped off and jumped in. It was very cold: much colder that I had expected. My scalp contracted violently and I almost involuntarily inhaled underwater. I exploded out of the pool, gasping for air. My body was so cold that my limbs were in shock and not responding. I remembered lectures regarding hypothermia and how a sudden shock could kill – and how exposure to very cold water could chill the core temperature – and that it would be fatal in most cases.
I got out, shaking, and tried to run back to the fire, but I was shaking so much I could hardly hobble. Using my bedroll to rub some life back into my legs and exposed skin, the feeling slowly came back. It was very painful as the blood started to flow into my frozen limbs. I made a mental note: check the temperature before jumping in next time. The best thing now was hard work and plenty of it: get some heat back into my frozen extremities.
After getting dressed and retying my moccasins, wood for the fire was my first thought. Anybody watching would have thought me mad, seeing me running around pulling large branches and broken limbs from dead trees and piling them up in the small clearing by the fire … first breaking them up into convenient lengths, then separating them into size for convenience. I was quite hot by the time I had finished: quite sweaty, so even if I had a bath it would not have been beneficial.
I started to notice that there was an odour that I had not noticed before. It was me, and the clothes I was wearing. I was reminded of an old expression, “Nobody smells on a submarine,” which is incorrect. It should be “Nobody smells different on a submarine.” A bath was definitely required soonest.
I did not relish the thought of jumping back into the stream. What I required was a bath, a hot tub (which I could heat somehow) – and some bubble bath and a sponge and a loofah – and why not a couple of handmaidens to scrub your back? Why not? That would be nice. Not possible, of course, but it would be nice. First thing in the morning I would start looking for a small rock pool that I could use. Above the cold pool with the waterfall looked good. I would start looking up there.
Tonight … the bow, as the sun was setting in what I hoped was the west. I started by chipping off a flake from the flint nodule which I had found so long ago. There was a plentiful supply of hammer stones by this stream. I must take one or two with me when I move on.
With the flake made I could start work on the bow shaft. Picking the best-looking of the three blanks at my disposal, I made the first cut. The length was my first decision. It had to be long enough to accept an arrow that would be longer than the distance from my closed left fist to the point of my nose when I pulled the bow. Using a spear to measure the distance required – and transposing twice the length on to the blank – the length was set. Holding the shaft in my left hand I found that it was huge: much too long. It did not feel correct to me so I removed four hands’ worth: two from each end.
This was a better length. It was time-consuming, using stone tools. How I wished for a spokeshave plane or some power tools. I could have made it in less than an hour. As it was I had only cut it to length when the light had got too poor to work by.
Time for sleep, after building up the fire. I was still cold inside. I settled down in my bedroll and watched the stars move across the sky, wondering if one of them was home.
An explosion and an earth tremor awakened me just before true dawn – an earthquake of some kind. The ground was shaking violently. I could not stand up. It only lasted for seconds but felt longer. Afterwards, everything was back to normal. I could not sleep so started to pack up camp. I had a bath to find.
Heading upstream I passed the pool in which I had almost died from cold and found exactly what I was looking for on the ledge above the small waterfall. A small deep pool – a natural tub, which was fed from the main stream by a small tributary running over a flat rock. It was perfect. I could divert the supply and heat the pool; have a bath and wash all my clothes, letting them dry in the sun. To heat the pool I would have to start another fire. I had collected a lot of wood the night before: all that was required was to bring it all up to this point. To make some soap I could use some animal fat and the alkaline deposit found in some burnt wood after soaking it overnight. So all I had to do was render some fat, for which I would need a biggish animal with a lot of fat on it.
Not having this, I looked for a plant that could be used as a soap substitute. First the wood and then start the fire. It took several trips to haul all the wood up to the new site. I managed to save some coals from the old fire: using a small branch with a hollow in its end the fire was transplanted to the new site.
It did not take long to get it up and going. When it was well established I started placing rocks of all sizes into it, with the bigger ones on the outside. When they were up to temperature into the pool they went. I had to use a branch with a fork in it to manhandle the hot rocks into the water. It was a long, thankless task. The pool was too deep to retrieve the rocks, but as I tried I was able to test the water temperature. When it was getting up to a tolerable temperature I went to collect some of the plant I had seen and thought was the correct type. I was soon armed with as much as I could cut with a very blunt stone.
The main stem of the plant was very tough with long fibres: it resisted all my efforts to break it off. I could break the stem but could not separate it from the plant. To get at the soap-like stuff I had to grind the stem part between two flat rocks and extract the pulp, which would lather up like soap when worked.
When the water was hot I got in. It was so nice I did not want to get out. I had a good wash and managed to work up a good lather in my hair, which was squeaky-clean when I finished. Reluctantly I got out and added more hot rocks and then each of my clothes, working up to the bedroll. It was well into the evening by the time I had finished, and I had not eaten all day. My stomach was starting to think that my throat had been cut.
The fish was finished, the chicken almost gone. Time to go hunting in earnest. With two spears and several rocks in hand, off I went.