DUNG AND THE WOUNDED MASTODON
by Rob Rosen © 2004
Professor Phillips had just returned from a fruitless day of digging when an assistant of his ran into his tent and said that he had just uncovered an unusual set of fossils. Well, nothing gets a paleontologist's juices flowing more than that. He was up and out in no time flat and within minutes was viewing what truly was a strange and miraculous sight.
To be sure, he had seen his fair share of mastodon bones before. He'd even been lucky enough to discover several rare remains of prehistoric humans. But what immediately caught his eye on this particular dig was a complete set of both; and each was nearly perfectly intact. Separately, this would have made for a good find. Together was unheard of. After all, the two didn't exactly get along. One had pretty much pushed the other into extinction, right? So how on earth did both end up together like this?
Maybe they had both gone down in a fight to the death, he thought. It did appear that the animal had some kind of trauma to his rear, right leg. But the idea that they both perished right next to each other seemed an unlikely occurrence. Maybe the bones got washed there together over the eons. Professor Phillips knew that vast fossil deposits ended up this way due to massive flooding. But these bones were side-by-side, not tangled up like usual owing to this kind of event.
Oh well, he thought, a great find is a great find regardless of the circumstances behind it. He never could have guessed just how unusual a discovery it truly was. Centuries of dust and decay had hidden the truth. And truth, sometimes, is far stranger than fictionů
Dabalungabung, Dung to his friends, was out on the savannah hunting for his dinner when he came across a wounded animal: a boon for your average prehistoric hunter. Meals rarely if ever fell into their laps. If anything, their meals frequently sought to eat their laps. Naturally, Dung was elated and did a happy dance. Dung's was a joyous display: his hairy arms flailing over his heavily ridged brow, his bowlegs bouncing up and down. In other words, your basic happy dance; which, by the way, have not changed much over the millennia. Still, it was a marvelous thing to behold.
And the sight wasn't lost on the wounded mastodon. With what little strength he had left, he managed to open his eyes to watch the spectacle. Even a mastodon new joy when he saw it. Much like today's elephants, mastodons truly were an intelligent species. The mastodon was glad to behold Dung's elation. At least his death was causing someone some happiness. It wasn't doing much for him, after all. And so, the mastodon shed a tear: one large, wet drop that ran from his bleary eye and down his thickly haired cheek.
So sad, thought Dung as he witnessed this. Dung didn't know much, for unlike today's modern man his species wasn't so bright, but he did know sadness. His dancing stopped as he watched the mastodon wince in pain. He knew the animal was in pain because he never saw one cry before. Dung hated pain. All his life he had experienced it. Life for Dung was one constant pain, actually. He was always cold, always hungry, always in fear for his life. And so he felt for this animal that now lay sprawled out in front of him.
Then he noticed the wound on the animals rear leg. It was a particularly nasty looking gash and the animal had apparently already lost a considerable amount of blood from it. Dung crept slowly around the beast to get a better look. He had never been so close to a live mastodon before. Mastodons and men were natural born enemies, so Dung was especially cautious. Though he could tell that this particular mastodon wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
The mastodon tried lifting his head to see what Dung was up to, but didn't have the strength. Besides, why watch the inevitable. He had seen too many of his brothers and sisters slaughtered by these strange two-legged creatures to not know what he was in for. He would have been surprised to see that Dung had set the spear on the ground rather than in his belly. He waited for that spear to pierce his thick hide, but that sensation never came. Instead, he felt a strangely warm feeling around the wound. His pain noticeably diminished after several minutes.
Dung, besides being an excellent hunter, was also somewhat of a pioneer in the burgeoning field of prehistoric medicine. Like his father before him, he knew which local plants held magical powers for healing and which ones were good for numbing wounds; these plants he deftly crushed up into a mud salve and then gently placed onto the mastodon's hind leg. He knew he had mixed the concoction up correctly when the animal let out a sigh of relief. Good, thought Dung, the pain was abating.
But now what? Wouldn't it be cruel to save an animal only to kill it? Life for Dung, until that moment, had always been very black and white. You're born, you die. You eat, you starve. You kill, or are killed. Now he was faced with a gray area. His tiny brain ached from actually having an option for a change.
Once the animal fell asleep, he knew which choice to make. There was no sport in killing a sleeping animal. He would let the animal live. Then, tired himself from the chance encounter, he too laid down for a rest and allowed his mind to go peacefully blank: an easy achievement for Dung.
He was surprised when he awoke several hours later to find the animal now standing to his right instead of lying by his side. He jumped up and quickly reached for his spear, but knew instinctively that the mastodon meant him no harm. The animal just stood there, his wounded hind leg lifted slightly off the ground, as he peered down at Dung.
Dung did the age-old ritual of flinging his arms up and away from his body, what we today would call "shooing", but the mastodon seemed oblivious. Dung tried a threatening stance with his spear held mightily aloft, but again the animal stood his ground. Dung was perplexed. Fine, he thought, you stay and I'll go.
Which he did. He headed back towards his village. And he was none too happy when the animal started following him. His tribe would surely be upset at seeing him returning with the dreaded beast in tow. But what was he to do? The mastodon outweighed him twenty to one. (Though, of course, the concept of ratios would have been pitifully lost on Dung.) So he let himself be followed. Maybe the animal would tire from the walk and decide to go back to his own kind instead.
No such luck. Even injured as it was, the beast easily fell in step with Dung's pace. With little choice Dung neared his tiny village, the mighty mastodon only a few steps behind him. He imagined his fellow villagers charging at them with their spears. He pictured the poor animal trying desperately to outrun them, only to be savagely slaughtered. He tried to shake this image from his head, for he now felt a sort of unlikely bond with the mastodon. As he walked ahead he glumly awaited the charging footsteps of his friends and neighbors.
This, surprisingly, is not what happened. As he entered the village he was stunned to see all its members kneeling on the ground bowing at him. How strange, he thought. These people must have gone mad. It appeared to Dung that they were, of all things, praying to him. But I am no god, he thought. Then he turned around and saw the mastodon, with his head hung low, timidly following him. It was a peculiar site to behold, even for Dung, who was already now accustomed to having the animal so close by. What must his village be thinking? Ah, but Dung now knew exactly what they were thinking. Who was this Dung to have tamed the mighty killer? Dung truly must be a god. The idea swelled around Dung's head, not too unenjoyably.
Dung, now sensing his own power, stopped and raised his hands high above his head and with a powerful roar shouted, "Dung! Dung! Dung!" The villagers quaked in fear. Even the mastodon trembled and relieved itself right there on the spot. (Which is where the term "dung" got its origins from in the first place.)
Dung stood in place and swelled with pride at his newfound fame. The villagers, one by one, got to their feet and began to chant his name, which again caused the mastodon to relieve itself. Dung's people saw this as a sure sign that Dung indeed was a god among men, even prehistoric men such as themselves.
Cautiously, his tribe approached him and his newfound, well, pet, for lack of a better word. And the mastodon, which now held no fear of these strange creatures, allowed Dung's people to admire him. Actually, he too fairly enjoyed the attention. It was far better than his usual encounters with them; which more often than not involved fear and dismay, for both parties.
One by one, Dung's family, and friends, and neighbors approached the enormous beast and, for the first time in their lives, pet an animal. (Skinning and animal, after all, is not the same thing as petting one.) The mastodon liked this immensely and even let out a prehistoric purr, if that's what you could call the noise he emitted. It sounded more like a badly played tuba. The villagers were in awe of both Dung and the tamed mastodon that made strange noises.
Once the fanfare died down, and the villagers went back to their daily routines, Dung was left with a new problem. What do you do with a mega-ton mastodon that clearly wasn't going to leave on its own accord? Where would it sleep? Who would feed it? Dung had what must be deemed as man's first headache.
With no answers coming to mind, he decided to try and go back to his old routine of doing what most hunters and gatherers do; which was, obviously, hunting and gathering.
Dung realized right away that hunting was out of the question. How do you sneak up on your prey when you have a giant mastodon following right behind you? Besides being big, they were quite loud and smelled just awful. And whatever he gathered the mastodon promptly ate. You try taking food from a mastodon and see what happens. The proverbial white elephant came into Dung's life and was, sadly, ruining it. Adulation, after all, didn't put food on your table or clothes on your back. What was he to do?
With nightfall fast approaching, and with no options in sight, he returned to his village empty handed and dejected. His friends and neighbors offered him food, but pride was one of man's earliest vices. No, he'd think of something or die trying. At least he found solace in sleep. Dreaming, for better or worse, did not occur for man until his brain got a few sizes larger, so Dung was able to forget his sorrows, however temporarily.
Sometime in the middle of the night he was jolted out of his sleep by the loudest sound he'd ever heard. He knew almost immediately what it was. Rushing outside his shelter he spotted the mastodon, with his large trunk raised straight up in the air, emitting a noise that today would sound something like a trumpet rendition of Revele. It wasn't until his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness that he realized why the animal was acting so peculiar.
A rival tribe that had often raided the village for its food and women was now cowering in fear at the edge of their enclosure. Dung ran for his spear and prepared to fight, but was pleasantly surprised to see the neighboring tribe run off in horror. When he turned around and saw the mastodon lumbering behind him, he knew why. Such a sight was indeed terrifying to the unknowing eye, but not to Dung's. Actually, to Dung, the sight was a joy to behold. Without shedding one drop of blood, his village got rid of a menacing foe.
For the first time in his life, possible any man's life for that matter, a smile appeared on Dung's face. The villagers, who had all seen the commotion and were equally as thrilled at the results, watched as Dung's mouth went from its usual scowl to a strange, upturned configuration. And then, one by one, they each learned to smile: a strangely enjoyable feat, mind you, if you've never been privileged to achieving one before.
At last, Dung had a new purpose in life. To be sure, hunting and gathering was a noble profession. History, after all, was built upon it. But it did have its obvious drawbacks. Many actually: death and dismemberment being but two of the notable ones. Tribal Protector was a lot more important, and far safer. Plus there were the perks.
Dung, who had spent his whole life unsure of where he was going to get his next meal or adequate shelter, was now paid, if you will, for services rendered. As long as he had the mastodon, the village would see to both of their needs. He would never again be cold, hungry, or in fear for his life. And now he'd never be lonely either: a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one, and one that Dung relished with pride and joy.
Luckily for Dung, mastodons lived as long as men. Longer even, given early mans' constant day-to-day struggles. And Dung and the mastodon, neither of which encountered much of any obstacles from that day forward, lived to very ripe old ages. The village prospered during these years as well. Having a mastodon for a watchdog afforded them much peace and tranquility, after all.
So it was no wonder that when the mastodon passed away, Dung fixed himself one last herbal potion. In life he was privileged to call the beast his friend. In death he would surely follow him. And the village, which understood the power of their unique friendship, buried them side-by-side in a sacred plot deep within the valley floor so that they'd be able to spend all eternity together. Hidden so well for the ages until such a time that all could once again marvel at their amazing bond.
Who knew it would take so long?
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