Ogg leaned over the stream, his palms on the wet stones of the bank. The water was cold and clear, and it turned the pebbles on the bottom of the stream, rolling them slowly to the water in the lake and, perhaps someday, the ocean. Ogg touched his lips to the water and took a long, languorous sip.
He heard Whug coming before he saw Whug. While Ogg had spent years becoming accustomed to the rhythms of the forest, able to track an animal for miles or disappear from a predator’s path in an instant, perception was not Whug’s strong point. Ogg stared at a wall of dense foliage on the other side of the stream until Whug emerged, sporting a fresh mosaic of bright red scratches on his face and torso.
“Ogg!” he said. “There you are!”
“Here I am,” said Ogg. “And there you are, though I heard you coming all the way from Big Mountain With The White Top. Are you trying to get eaten?”
“Oh, you know me,” said Whug. He grinned, then leaned over and cupped some water in his hands. “Not trying as hard as I could be.” He took a sip of the water and wiped the rest on his cheeks and chest, wincing slightly.
Ogg took another quiet sip and sat back on his haunches. “Might as well sit,” he said. “The animals will all be hiding for a while now.” He shot Whug a look, which Whug either ignored or failed to pick up on completely.
“Good,” said Whug, “because I have something I want to discuss with you. A proposition, if you will.” He leaned over the stream. “There’s not anyone around, is there?”
Ogg held up a finger for silence and closed his eyes. The wind moved through the trees. The water gurgled in front of him and cascaded over some rocks downstream. Near Big Mountain With The White Top, the birds Whug had frightened landed on high branches and squawked, discussing the commotion. In the other direction, the reeds and insects of Wide Plain of Golden Plants whistled in the wind. The smells of the trees and the rocks followed the stream from the mountains down to the lakes.
Ogg opened his eyes and shook his head. “Nobody,” he said. “What do you have in mind?”
“Okay,” said Whug. He clapped his hands and spread them in front of him, like he was conjuring the stream from his palms. “The water in this stream, from Big Mountain With The White Top, this water is the best-tasting water around, right? I’ve had the water below Big Lake That Echoes, and the water from Spring Amongst Tall Trees, and I’ve even tried to gag down the water from Stinky Swamp Filled With Bugs. None of it even compares. This stream, I think we can agree, has the best water around.”
Ogg nodded, sucking some of the moisture from his fingers. He’d tasted the water from all the places Whug mentioned – except for Stinky Swamp Filled With Bugs, which he knew better than to drink – and even from some places Whug probably didn’t know about, and the clear cool water from this stream was far and away the best.
“Agreed,” said Ogg. “That’s why I travel here all the way from The Caves Where We Live every day.”
“Yes!” said Whug, as if Ogg had hit on something elusive and important, something that Whug had been waiting for him to get to. “Every day you come all the way here to taste this delicious water. But what if you didn’t have to come all the way here? What if you could get this water, fresh from Big Mountain With The White Top, right at The Caves Where We Live?”
“That would be great,” said Ogg. “And it would also be great if the animals we eat came to The Caves Where We Live, slit their own throats, bled themselves out, and skinned off their own hides.” He smiled. “A lot of things would be great, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever happen. This stream will never run anywhere near The Caves Where We Live.”
“It doesn’t have to,” said Whug. “Look,” he said, and leaned forward on his toes. He scooped up some water from the stream and ran in a little circle. He stepped across to Ogg’s side of the stream, ran another little lap, and leaned down next to Ogg. He brought the water in his hands, slightly diminished, to Ogg’s chin. “Drink,” he said.
Ogg drank. The water was cool and delicious.
“Now,” said Whug, “is this or is this not the water from the stream from Big Mountain With The White Top?”
“Of course it is,” said Ogg.
“So now you see!” exclaimed Whug. He threw his hands in the air. Droplets of water rained down.
Ogg did not see. “The water from the stream is the water from the stream,” he confirmed. “But the stream and its water are here, and The Caves Where We Live are not.”
“So we take the water from here to The Caves,” said Whug. “Not with our hands, of course. We’d need some kind of bowl or something – you’re the expert on animal skins and crafting and that kind of thing. We collect the water here, take it to The Caves Where We Live, and we give it to the rest in exchange for a modest amount of animal meats or shiny rocks.
“Bring the water to the people,” said Ogg. He shook his head, eyes wide in disbelief.
“Now you see!” said Whug. “And we tell them it’s ‘straight from a mountain stream.’ Maybe etch a picture of Big Mountain With The White Top right into the bowl! This is a real shiny-rock-maker, Ogg. A game-changer. What do you say?”
Ogg thought before he said anything. Then he stood up and put a hand on Whug’s shoulder. Whug flinched, out of habit. Ogg was his friend, but he rarely had polite business interactions with large hunter-gatherers.
“Whug,” said Ogg, “there’s no way people are going to pay for water that they can get themselves for free. Good water, bad water – it all comes right over the ground. People aren’t going to waste their pretty rocks just because it has a pretty picture of a mountain and they can carry it around.”
Whug was silent for a long moment. He looked like he’d just climbed to the top of the tallest tree to find that the nest perched there was empty. Then he shook his head, defiant.
“No,” he said. “No, you’re wrong. They will pay for the water because it has a pretty picture on is and they can carry it around. I’ll make the bowls myself if you won’t.”
“You should work on your hunting, friend,” said Ogg. “That I can help you with.”
Whug shrugged Ogg’s hand off and sat on the bank of the stream. “Go hunt,” he said. “You’ll see.” He picked up a piece of wood and a rock from the stream and began hacking away. “You’ll see,” he said again, mostly to himself.
Ogg shook his head and spent a few more seconds watching Whug before he turned and stalked silently into the woods. The animals were stirring, and Ogg had to hunt.
Originally published at www.jakechristie.com