Western North America, 66 million year ago.
Broken-Tail stirred. He slowly became aware that he was awake again, leaving behind the dream-world he had experienced during the long-sleep. Before he even opened his eyes, his brain was taking in information about the waking-world around him. He could feel the warmth of his mate’s body, sleeping soundly beside him. He could feel the softness of the dried ferns and other leaf-litter that made up the floor of their cozy nest. He could smell the leaves’ loamy odor. He took a deep, snuffling breath and could smell his mate’s distinctive scent. He could hear her slow and steady breathing. All this sensory input combined to imprint a vivid idea onto his mind: Home. Safe.
Then a new, overpowering sensation seized him: Hungry! His stomach gurgled softly. The last time he had eaten was just before the long-sleep, when he and his mate had devoured the last of their stored reserves before entering the state of torpor that would help them survive in safety while the bad times reigned outside.
Broken-Tail tentatively stretched his limbs; his creaking joints hadn’t moved in months. He flexed his fingers and toes and, as he did so, slowly opened his eyes. He waited several seconds for his vision to focus, then took stock of his surroundings, confirming what his other senses had told him. Then he got up and began to groom his matted fur. He reached behind himself and grabbed his long bushy tail, broken and bent halfway down from an accident in his youth, a near fatal encounter with one of the Great Ones. He rubbed his tail across his face, scent glands on his snout imparting the pheromones that would announce his identity to any member of his kind.
His stomach growled; louder this time. He must eat. He must provide food for himself and his mate when she awakes. But what of the world outside? The last time he had seen it, it was still the Long Night, a period of profound darkness after the terror of the Burning Skies. Would there be any world left to find when he left his burrow? In the end, such considerations did not matter. Any trepidation he felt was overpowered by the instinct to provide for himself and his mate, so they could be healthy enough to one day raise a family.
Broken-Tail’s burrow was connected to the outside world by a tunnel, several feet deep that emerged from a hollow at the bottom of a large tree stump. He scrambled up the tunnel on all fours and stopped short just when he reached the entrance. He strained to listen for any threatening sound, felt through his footpads for the tell-tale vibrations of approaching danger, his nose twitched as he sniffed the air outside. Bright sunlight nearly blinded him. He hadn’t seen daylight in the waking-world since before the Burning Skies. It was oddly quiet outside, so much so that it unnerved him. This should be the time when the Great Ones began to stir and roam the land. But he heard none of their telltale hoots, honks, roars, and bellows, and couldn’t feel the shaking vibrations they sent through the earth as they moved about.
The Great Ones were scaled or feathered monsters who came in a panoply of shapes and sizes but were all giants to Broken-Tail and his kind, indeed to all Furry Ones. His kind were among the few Furry Ones that dared to venture forth from their burrows during daylight hours when most of the Great Ones were active, and even then, only at dawn or dusk.
Broken-Tail took a few tentative steps from the burrow entrance. He looked around confused. The world had changed. The great forest of his home, with the trees that stretched upward an untold distance to meet the sky, was not as he remembered it. All the green was gone. The trees were dead, reduced to spires of blackened bark devoid of leaves, or withered stumps like the one that formed the roof of his home. The undergrowth was gone, the ferns and leaflitter replaced by a layer of monotone gray ash that felt soft under Broken-Tail’s toes.
Broken-Tail stood stock still, his senses overloaded with processing all these changes. But the greatest change of all was the absence of the Great Ones. His vision, hearing, smell, and vibrational sense were all screaming to his brain one confounding message: The Great Ones are… GONE.
Not just absent from the area but gone! His senses couldn’t pick up any trace of them. It was as if they had never existed.
His stomach rumbled again. Even if Broken-Tail had possessed the mental capacity to ponder this riddle, his famished body would brook no further delay. Instinct took over and compelled him to search for whatever food he could find in this ash-choked wasteland.
He searched about for what seemed like ages and came at last to a place he thought he remembered. The dead trees gave way to an open space that had once been a clearing that in the warm months was strewn with yellow and pink wild flowers and dotted with bushes that produced succulent berries. Now the ground was coated in the gray ash just like everywhere else. Although food had been plentiful, it had always been perilous to forage here. When the flowers and bushes bloomed it became a favorite gathering place for the Horned Great Ones and their calves. Broken-Tail’s brain always had to calculate the risk of whether gathering the bounty of flower buds and berries was worth the risk of being inadvertently squashed underfoot.
Now the place was empty except for the ash covering the ground and one large object that loomed in the distance, in the center of the clearing. Sensing no immediate danger and curious to see if any food was to be found here, Broken-Tail scampered out from the shadow of the dead trees and towards the mysterious object. He came to within a few body-lengths of it, and beheld a massive bleached white structure of pillars, arches, and cavernous spaces. Broken-Tail couldn’t possibly have known it, but he was looking at the skeleton of one of the Horned Great Ones, caught in the conflagration that followed the Burning Skies. Despite not fully comprehending the sight, Broken-Tail could fathom that he was looking at large bones, and that registered in his mind a vague feeling of fear. Large skeletons such as this had become associated in his memory with the lairs of Gluttonous Great Ones, hulking monstrosities with gaping maws filled with massive teeth and huge feet tipped with giant claws.
Broken-Tail froze in place, listened intently, and sniffed the air. The Great Ones are GONE.
Satisfied that he was in no danger, Broken-Tail crept among the white pillars that formed the ribcage of the former Horned Great One and there came upon a glorious sight indeed. Growing up from the shelter of the titanic skeleton were several saplings of the berry bushes that once grew here in abundance. And on the top-most twigs, Broken-Tail could descry the new bright red berries perfectly ripe for the taking!
Broken-Tail set about collecting the berries, first eating a few to assuage his own hunger, then stuffing his cheek pouches with as many of the tasty fruit as they could carry. He felt satisfied. His first foraging trip since the Burning Skies was a resounding success and he would be returning home with enough food for him and his mate to enjoy a feast together.
But as he focused on stuffing his cheeks, Broken-Tail’s danger-scanning senses were dulled just enough that he didn’t notice the scaly terror creeping up behind him. The constrictor snake had been aware of Broken-Tail’s presence for some time. It had awoken in its own underground lair just a few days ago and had taken up residence underneath the giant skull of the Horned Great One. The constrictor could go without food for nearly a year if need be and had entered its own long-sleep once the temperature dropped during the Long Night. It had spent the last few days basking itself, absorbing energy from the newly returned sun. Now it was time to feed again. The snake’s heat sensitive pits underneath its eyes had detected the presence of the warm-blooded mammal. The serpent tasted the air with its forked tongue, the specialized organ on the roof of its mouth identifying the scent of Broken-Tail’s kind, sending a simple message to the snake’s brain: Prey.
The snake inched forward slowly, patiently. It knew that Broken-Tail was distracted by food but also knew from experience not to underestimate the sharp senses of Furry Ones. In a few more moments, the constrictor would be within striking distance.
Broken-Tail’s check pouches were now filled to bursting with the tasty red berries. As he prepared to leave, he thought he heard a soft rustling behind him. Instinct took over instantly. DANGER! Flee! Flee!
He darted forward and juked hard to his left, leaping between the pillars of the Great One’s massive ribs and through to the clearing beyond. He risked a glance behind him and saw that he had just barely escaped with his life. If he had waited another instant, he would have been caught in the jaws of the creature his kind most feared; a coiled scaly horror that had been imprinted onto the psyche of his species simply as: Enemy.
Despite knowing that his foe would most likely give up the chase after a short distance, Broken-Tail did not stop running until he reached the cover of the blackened trees. His cheeks still stuffed with berries, he paused only a few moments before scampering home. He soon reached the familiar tree stump, entered the hollow at its base and clambered down the tunnel to the sleeping chamber. Home. Safe.
His mate was there and had just begun to stir. Broken-Tail nuzzled her snout and she opened her eyes. Broken-Tail triumphantly disgorged his cargo of berries. His mate ate heartily as Broken-Tail began to groom her. All was well. The terror of the recent encounter with the Enemy faded from his mind. He still couldn’t quite fathom the total absence of the Great Ones, but in the end, he and his mate were safe and there was food to be had in the world outside. That was all that mattered. Broken-Tail couldn’t possibly have known it, but he and his descendants were to be among the first pioneers of a new world.
Author’s Note: Our story takes place at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, the present “Age of Mammals,” mere months after the cataclysmic asteroid impact that many paleontologists believe wiped out all of the non-bird dinosaurs. Our hero Broken-Tail would have vaguely resembled a squirrel or perhaps a weasel, but is in fact one of the first primates, belonging to the genus Purgatorius. As such, he is a member of the lineage that will eventually lead to the emergence of humans as the dominant vertebrate life form on the planet.
©2019 Thomas J. Salerno. All rights reserved.