Droog sprints around the campfire before the six members of the gang he hangs out with. He whistles and puffs, pounds his chest and leans over the crowd. He flashes a toothy grimace, gestures wildly. He can’t count how many folks are there but he knows by their faces and smells if one is missing. Droog is the very first human being, a creature different from the monkey hanging by his tail in the tree overhead. He isn’t threatening his gang in a power play or forcing anyone to submit to his demands. Well, not now, anyway.
Droog, you see, is telling a story. The gang he hangs with is mesmerized because they can’t wait to learn what happens next.
The monkey is used to Droog. He’s seen him before and senses when it’s time to high tail it out of there – before Droog grabs him by that long tail and slings him over the fire, making crispy monkey tenders out of him. Monkey acts from instinct and experience. Self preservation is a big deal to him. If monkey is female, she’ll protect her baby with everything she’s got. Hanging overhead of Droog and his gang is fine as long as the ground hoppers leave monkey and her crew alone.
When the big water rushes toward them, they all run – monkey and human. When the big mountain spits fire, they all run. When the giant animal with dagger teeth leaps at them, they all run. Monkey and human run from threats when instinct and experience declare their lives are imperiled. Fire mountain, flooding water, and bounding predator all plan to end their lives.
Monkey and human run and run and run. They climb and hide and cower and watch to make sure they’re safe. When the all clear bells sounds, they go back to doing what they like. Eating and mating and hanging around with each other in a safe place, pulling off ticks and fleas. Monkey and Droog are much the same in these ways. Food, sex, safety. Except this is where it ends with monkey.
Droog stepped over the threshold of humanness, one level further along the evolutionary tree. Maybe we should call it a bramble bush, given how erratically that tree spread its experimental developments. Mab, Hund, Wurf, and all the rest of the human gang do one thing that monkey never does. They tell stories.
Mab scrapes ocher from the river bank and smears it onto rocks, making images that tell stories.
Hund pounds on a dried gourd in a rhythm that quickens and ebbs, making sounds that tell stories.
Wurf hauls a stone out of the earth and carves shapes into it, making forms that tell stories.
After years of watching the very youngest children play, I noticed that all kids tell stories. Putting rocks and leaves in patterns, jabbering to plastic blocks and stuffed animals, toddling outside to hug a roly poly, they tell stories the whole time. The narrative, even if gibberish, infuses their activities with meaning. They tell stories even before they can talk or have the ability to understand the craft of storytelling, Yes, parents read to them, but even the littlest ones are compelled to tell their own stories.
Telling stories is one of the big differences between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Droog excels at retelling the run from danger. Bellies fed, sexual desire sated, and safety guaranteed for the next few minutes (even though they can’t count and have no concept of time,) the gang raptly listens and watches while Droog scrabbles, tumbles, waves his arms, wiggles his rear, spits and grunts to tell the story of the fire, the flood, the capture they all just evaded.
Monkey strips bark from the tree and chews. He’s aware of the manic nonsense Droog pulls every once in a while – he’s seen it before but can’t make anything out of all that wild gesticulation except to know that he’s safe in his tree, tail looped around a branch, eating bark. Monkey can’t figure out why Droog is cavorting in the firelight, and he can’t improvise a routine either. Monkey not only can’t tell stories – he can’t perceive when they’re being told.
The gift of free time allows monkey the luxury of hanging around the branches fluffing his neighbor’s fur. That same wealth of time grants Droog his moment of theater. The story of the chase, of the hunt, of birth and death, of visions, of the promise that it will all happen again tomorrow because it happened yesterday, and they all lived to tell about it today.
So here I am, a few evolutionary levels advanced from Droog, a few years older than the kids I observe, telling stories. One day my stories will be available in print and you’ll see they aren’t much different from Droog’s or the toddler’s. My characters run from fire, flood, and monsters with big teeth.
Sharon tells a story.
Prehistoric cave art image courtesy Pixabay