THE MAD PLANET
by Murray Leinster
June 12, 1920
In All His lifetime of perhaps twenty years, it had never occurred to
Burl to wonder what his grandfather had thought about his surroundings.
The grandfather had come to an untimely end in a rather unpleasant
fashion which Burl remembered vaguely as a succession of screams coming
more and more faintly to his ears while he was being carried away at the
top speed of which his mother was capable.
Burl had rarely or never thought of the old gentleman since. Surely
he had never wondered in the abstract of what his great grandfather
thought, and most surely of all, there never entered his head
such a purely hypothetical question as the one of what his
many-times-great-grandfather—say of the year 1920—would have thought
of the scene in which Burl found himself.
He was treading cautiously over a brownish carpet of fungus growth,
creeping furtively toward the stream which he knew by the generic title
of "water." It was the only water he knew. Towering far above his head,
three man-heights high, great toadstools hid the grayish sky from his
sight. Clinging to the foot-thick stalks of the toadstools were still
other fungi, parasites upon the growth that had once been parasites
Burl himself was a slender young man wearing a single garment twisted
about his waist, made from the wing-fabric of a great moth the members
of his tribe had slain as it emerged from its cocoon. His skin was fair,
without a trace of sunburn. In all his lifetime he had never seen the
sun, though the sky was rarely hidden from view save by the giant fungi
which, with monster cabbages, were the only growing things he knew.
Clouds usually spread overhead, and when they did not, the perpetual
haze made the sun but an indefinitely brighter part of the sky, never a
sharply edged ball of fire. Fantastic mosses, misshapen fungus growths,
colossal molds and yeasts, were the essential parts of the landscape
through which he moved.
Once as he had dodged through the forest of huge toadstools, his
shoulder touched a cream-colored stalk, giving the whole fungus a tiny
shock. Instantly, from the umbrella-like mass of pulp overhead, a fine
and impalpable powder fell upon him like snow. It was the season when
the toadstools sent out their spores, or seeds, and they had been
dropped upon him at the first sign of disturbance.
Furtive as he was, he paused to brush them from his head and hair. They
were deadly poison, as he knew well.
Burl would have been a curious sight to a man of the twentieth century.
His skin was pink, like that of a child, and there was but little hair
upon his body. Even that on top of his head was soft and downy. His
chest was larger than his forefathers' had been, and his ears seemed
almost capable of independent movement, to catch threatening sounds from
any direction. His eyes, large and blue, possessed pupils which could
dilate to extreme size, allowing him to see in almost complete darkness.
He was the result of the thirty thousand years' attempt of the human
race to adapt itself to the change that had begun in the latter half of
the twentieth century.
At about that time, civilization had been high, and apparently secure.
Mankind had reached a permanent agreement among itself, and all men had
equal opportunities to education and leisure. Machinery did most of the
labor of the world, and men were only required to supervise its
operation. All men were well-fed, all men were well-educated, and it
seemed that until the end of time the earth would be the abode of a
community of comfortable human beings, pursuing their studies and
diversions, their illusions and their truths. Peace, quietness, privacy,
freedom were universal.
Then, just when men were congratulating themselves that the Golden Age
had come again, it was observed that the planet seemed ill at ease.
Fissures opened slowly in the crust, and carbonic acid gas—the carbon
dioxide of chemists—began to pour out into the atmosphere. That gas had
long been known to be present in the air, and was considered necessary
to plant life. Most of the plants of the world took the gas and absorbed
its carbon into themselves, releasing the oxygen for use again.
Scientists had calculated that a great deal of the earth's increased
fertility was due to the larger quantities of carbon dioxide released by
the activities of man in burning his coal and petroleum. Because of
those views, for some years no great alarm was caused by the continuous
exhalation from the world's interior.
Constantly, however, the volume increased. New fissures constantly
opened, each one adding a new source of carbon dioxide, and each one
pouring into the already laden atmosphere more of the gas—beneficent in
small quantities, but as the world learned, deadly in large ones.
The percentage of the heavy, vapor-like gas increased. The whole body of
the air became heavier through its admixture. It absorbed more moisture
and became more humid. Rainfall increased. Climates grew warmer.
Vegetation became more luxuriant—but the air gradually became less
Soon the health of mankind began to be affected. Accustomed through long
ages to breathe air rich in oxygen and poor in carbon dioxide, men
suffered. Only those who lived on high plateaus or on tall mountaintops
remained unaffected. The plants of the earth, though nourished and
increasing in size beyond those ever seen before, were unable to dispose
of the continually increasing flood of carbon dioxide.
By the middle of the twenty-first century it was generally recognized
that a new carboniferous period was about to take place, when the
earth's atmosphere would be thick and humid, unbreathable by man, when
giant grasses and ferns would form the only vegetation.
When the twenty-first century drew to a close the whole human race began
to revert to conditions closely approximating savagery. The low-lands
were unbearable. Thick jungles of rank growth covered the ground. The
air was depressing and enervating. Men could live there, but it was a
sickly, fever-ridden existence. The whole population of the earth
desired the high lands and as the low country became more unbearable,
men forgot their two centuries of peace.
They fought destructively, each for a bit of land where he might live
and breathe. Then men began to die, men who had persisted in remaining
near sea-level. They could not live in the poisonous air. The danger
zone crept up as the earth-fissures tirelessly poured out their steady
streams of foul gas. Soon men could not live within five hundred feet of
sea level. The low-lands went uncultivated, and became jungles of a
thickness comparable only to those of the first carboniferous period.
Then men died of sheer inanition at a thousand feet. The plateaus and
mountaintops were crowded with folk struggling for a foothold and food
beyond the invisible menace that crept up, and up—
These things did not take place in one year, or in ten. Not in one
generation, but in several. Between the time when the chemists of the
International Geophysical Institute announced that the proportion of
carbon dioxide in the air had increased from .04 per cent to .1 per cent
and the time when at sea-level six per cent of the atmosphere was the
deadly gas, more than two hundred years intervened.
Coming gradually, as it did, the poisonous effects of the deadly stuff
increased with insidious slowness. First the lassitude, then the
heaviness of brain, then the weakness of body. Mankind ceased to grow in
numbers. After a long period, the race had fallen to a fraction of its
former size. There was room in plenty on the mountaintops—but the
danger-level continued to creep up.
There was but one solution. The human body would have to inure itself to
the poison, or it was doomed to extinction. It finally developed a
toleration for the gas that had wiped out race after race and nation
after nation, but at a terrible cost. Lungs increased in size to secure
the oxygen on which life depended, but the poison, inhaled at every
breath, left the few survivors sickly and filled with a perpetual
weariness. Their minds lacked the energy to cope with new problems or
transmit the knowledge which in one degree or another, they possessed.
And after thirty thousand years, Burl, a direct descendant of the first
president of the Universal Republic, crept through a forest of
toadstools and fungus growths. He was ignorant of fire, or metals, of
the uses of stone and wood. A single garment covered him. His language
was a scanty group of a few hundred labial sounds, conveying no
abstractions and few concrete things.
He was ignorant of the uses of wood. There was no wood in the scanty
territory furtively inhabited by his tribe. With the increase in heat
and humidity the trees had begun to die out. Those of northern climes
went first, the oaks, the cedars, the maples. Then the pines—the
beeches went early—the cypresses, and finally even the forests of the
jungles vanished. Only grasses and reeds, bamboos and their kin, were
able to flourish in the new, steaming atmosphere. The thick jungles gave
place to dense thickets of grasses and ferns, now become treeferns
And then the fungi took their place. Flourishing as never before,
flourishing on a planet of torrid heat and perpetual miasma, on whose
surface the sun never shone directly because of an ever-thickening bank
of clouds that hung sullenly overhead, the fungi sprang up. About the
dank pools that festered over the surface of the earth, fungus growths
began to cluster. Of every imaginable shade and color, of all monstrous
forms and malignant purposes, of huge size and flabby volume, they
spread over the land.
The grasses and ferns gave place to them. Squat footstools, flaking
molds, evil-smelling yeasts, vast mounds of fungi inextricably mingled
as to species, but growing, forever growing and exhaling an odor of dark
The strange growths now grouped themselves in forests, horrible
travesties on the vegetation they had succeeded. They grew and grew with
feverish intensity beneath a clouded or a haze-obscured sky, while
above them fluttered gigantic butterflies and huge moths, sipping
daintily of their corruption.
The insects alone of all the animal world above water, were able to
endure the change. They multiplied exceedingly, and enlarged themselves
in the thickened air. The solitary vegetation—as distinct from fungus
growths—that had survived, was now a degenerate form of the cabbages
that had once fed peasants. On those rank, colossal masses of foliage,
the stolid grubs and caterpillars ate themselves to maturity, then swung
below in strong cocoons to sleep the sleep of metamorphosis from which
they emerged to spread their wings and fly.
The tiniest butterflies of former days had increased their span until
their gaily colored wings should be described in terms of feet, while
the larger emperor moths extended their purple sails to a breadth of
yards upon yards. Burl himself would have been dwarfed beneath the
overshadowing fabric of their wings.
It was fortunate that they, the largest flying creatures, were harmless
or nearly so. Burl's fellow tribesmen sometimes came upon a cocoon just
about to open, and waited patiently beside it until the beautiful
creature within broke through its matted shell and came out into the
Then, before it had gathered energy from the air, and before its wings
had swelled to strength and firmness, the tribesmen fell upon it,
tearing the filmy, delicate wings from its body and the limbs from its
carcass. Then, when it lay helpless before them, they carried away the
juicy, meat-filled limbs to be eaten, leaving the still living body to
stare helplessly at this strange world through its many faceted eyes,
and become a prey to the voracious ants who would soon clamber upon it
and carry it away in tiny fragments to their underground city.
Not all the insect world was so helpless or so unthreatening. Burl knew
of wasps almost the length of his own body who possessed stings that
were instantly fatal. To every species of wasp, however, some other
insect is predestined prey, and the furtive members of Burl's tribe
feared them but little as they sought only the prey to which their
instinct led them.
Bees were similarly aloof. They were hard put to it for existence, those
bees. Few flowers bloomed, and they were reduced to expedients once
considered signs of degeneracy in their race. Bubbling yeasts and fouler
things, occasionally the nectarless blooms of the rank, giant cabbages.
Burl knew the bees. They droned overhead, nearly as large as he was
himself, their bulging eyes gazing at him with abstracted preoccupation.
And crickets, and beetles, and spiders—
Burl knew spiders! His grandfather had been the prey of one of the
hunting tarantulas, which had leaped with incredible ferocity from his
excavated tunnel in the earth. A vertical pit in the ground, two feet in
diameter, went down for twenty feet. At the bottom of that lair the
black-bellied monster waited for the tiny sounds that would warn him of
prey approaching his hiding-place (Lycosa fasciata).
Burl's grandfather had been careless, and the terrible shrieks he
uttered as the horrible monster darted from the pit and seized him had
lingered vaguely in Burl's mind ever since. Burl had seen, too, the
monster webs of another species of spider, and watched from a safe
distance as the misshapen body of the huge creature sucked the juices
from a three-foot cricket that had become entangled in its trap.
Burl had remembered the strange stripes of yellow and black and silver
that crossed upon its abdomen (Epiera fasciata). He had been
fascinated by the struggles of the imprisoned insect, coiled in a
hopeless tangle of sticky, gummy ropes the thickness of Burl's finger,
cast about its body before the spider made any attempt to approach.
Burl knew these dangers. They were a part of his life. It was his
accustomedness to them, and that of his ancestors, that made his
existence possible. He was able to evade them; so he survived. A moment
of carelessness, an instant's relaxation of his habitual caution, and he
would be one with his forebears, forgotten meals of long-dead, inhuman
Three days before, Burl had crouched behind a bulky, shapeless fungus
growth while he watched a furious duel between two huge horned beetles.
Their jaws, gaping wide, clicked and clashed upon each other's
impenetrable armor. Their legs crashed like so many cymbals as their
polished surfaces ground and struck against each other. They were
fighting over some particularly attractive bit of carrion.
Burl had watched with all his eyes until a gaping orifice appeared in
the armor of the smaller of the two. It uttered a shrill cry, or seemed
to cry out. The noise was, actually, the tearing of the horny stuff
beneath the victorious jaws of the adversary.
The wounded beetle struggled more and more feebly. At last it collapsed,
and the conqueror placidly began to eat the conquered before life was
Burl waited until the meal was finished, and then approached the scene
with caution. An ant—the forerunner of many—was already inspecting the
Burl usually ignored the ants. They were stupid, short-sighted insects,
and not hunters. Save when attacked, they offered no injury. They were
scavengers, on the lookout for the dead and dying, but they would fight
viciously if their prey were questioned, and they were dangerous
opponents. They were from three inches, for the tiny black ants, to a
foot for the large termites.
Burl was hasty when he heard the tiny clickings of their limbs as they
approached. He seized the sharp-pointed snout of the victim, detached
from the body, and fled from the scene.
Later, he inspected his find with curiosity. The smaller victim had been
a minotaur beetle, with a sharp-pointed horn like that of a rhinoceros
to reinforce his offensive armament, already dangerous because of his
wide jaws. The jaws of a beetle work from side to side, instead of up
and down, and this had made the protection complete in no less than
Burl inspected the sharp, dagger-like instrument in his hand. He felt
its point, and it pricked his finger. He flung it aside as he crept to
the hiding-place of his tribe. There were only twenty of them, four or
five men, six or seven women, and the rest girls and children.
Burl had been wondering at the strange feelings that came over him when
he looked at one of the girls. She was younger than Burl—perhaps
eighteen—and fleeter of foot than he. They talked together, sometimes,
and once or twice Burl shared with her an especially succulent find of
The next morning he found the horn where he had thrown it, sticking in
the flabby side of a toadstool. He pulled it out, and gradually, far
back in his mind, an idea began to take shape. He sat for some time with
the thing in his hand, considering it with a far-away look in his eyes.
From time to time he stabbed at a toadstool, awkwardly, but with
gathering skill. His imagination began to work fitfully. He visualized
himself stabbing food with it as the larger beetle had stabbed the
former owner of the weapon he had in his hand.
Burl could not imagine himself coping with one of the fighting insects.
He could only picture himself, dimly, stabbing something that was food
with this death-dealing thing. It was no longer than his arm and though
clumsy to the hand, an effective and terribly sharp implement.
He thought: Where was there food, food that lived, that would not fight
back? Presently he rose and began to make his way toward the tiny river.
Yellow-bellied newts swam in its waters. The swimming larvae of a
thousand insects floated about its surface or crawled upon its bottom.
There were deadly things there, too. Giant crayfish snapped their horny
claws at the unwary. Mosquitoes of four-inch wing-spread sometimes made
their humming way above the river. The last survivors of their race,
they were dying out for lack of the plant-juices on which the male of
the species lived, but even so they were formidable. Burl had learned to
crush them with fragments of fungus.
He crept slowly through the forest of toadstools. Brownish fungus was
underfoot. Strange orange, red, and purple molds clustered about the
bases of the creamy toadstool stalks. Once Burl paused to run his
sharp-pointed weapon through a fleshy stalk and reassure himself that
what he planned was practicable.
He made his way furtively through the forest of misshapen growths. Once
he heard a tiny clicking, and froze into stillness. It was a troop of
four or five ants, each some eight inches long, returning along their
habitual pathway to their city. They moved sturdily, heavily laden,
along the route marked with the black and odorous formic acid exuded
from the bodies of their comrades. Burl waited until they had passed,
then went on.
He came to the bank of the river. Green scum covered a great deal of its
surface, scum occasionally broken by a slowly enlarging bubble of some
gas released from decomposing matter on the bottom. In the center of the
placid stream the current ran a little more swiftly, and the water
itself was visible.
Over the shining current, water-spiders ran swiftly. They had not shared
in the general increase of size that had taken place in the insect
world. Depending upon the capillary qualities of the water to support
them, an increase in size and weight would have deprived them of the
means of locomotion.
From the spot where Burl first peered at the water the green scum spread
out for many yards into the stream. He could not see what swam and
wriggled and crawled beneath the evil-smelling covering. He peered up
and down the banks.
Perhaps a hundred and fifty yards below, the current came near the
shore. An outcropping of rock there made a steep descent to the river,
from which yellow shelf-fungi stretched out. Dark red and orange above,
they were light yellow below, and they formed a series of platforms
above the smoothly flowing stream. Burl made his way cautiously toward
On his way he saw one of the edible mushrooms that formed so large a
part of his diet, and paused to break from the flabby flesh an amount
that would feed him for many days. It was too often the custom of his
people to find a store of food, carry it to their hiding place, and then
gorge themselves for days, eating, sleeping, and waking only to eat
again until the food was gone.
Absorbed as he was in his plan of trying his new weapon, Burl was
tempted to return with his booty. He would give Saya of this food, and
they would eat together. Saya was the maiden who roused unusual emotions
in Burl. He felt strange impulses stirring within him when she was near,
a desire to touch her, to caress her. He did not understand.
He went on, after hesitating. If he brought her food, Saya would be
pleased, but if he brought her of the things that swam in the stream,
she would be still more pleased. Degraded as his tribe had become, Burl
was yet a little more intelligent than they. He was an atavism, a
throwback to ancestors who had cultivated the earth and subjugated its
animals. He had a vague idea of pride, unformed but potent.
No man within memory had hunted or slain for food. They knew of meat,
yes, but it had been the fragments left by an insect hunter, seized and
carried away by the men before the perpetually alert ant colonies had
sent their foragers to the scene.
If Burl did what no man before him had done, if he brought a whole
carcass to his tribe, they would envy him. They were preoccupied solely
with their stomachs, and after that with the preservation of their
lives. The perpetuation of the race came third in their consideration.
They were herded together in a leaderless group, coming to the same
hiding place that they might share in the finds of the lucky and gather
comfort from their numbers. Of weapons, they had none. They sometimes
used stones to crack open the limbs of the huge insects they found
partly devoured, cracking them open for the sweet meat to be found
inside, but they sought safety from their enemies solely in flight and
Their enemies were not as numerous as might have been imagined. Most of
the meat-eating insects have their allotted prey. The sphex—a hunting
wasp—feeds solely upon grasshoppers. Others wasps eat flies only. The
pirate-bee eats bumblebees only. Spiders were the principal enemies of
man, as they devour with a terrifying impartiality all that falls into
Burl reached the spot from which he might gaze down into the water. He
lay prostrate, staring into the shallow depths. Once a huge crayfish, as
long as Burl's body, moved leisurely across his vision. Small fishes and
even the huge newts fled before the voracious creature.
After a long time the tide of underwater life resumed its activity. The
wriggling grubs of the dragonflies reappeared. Little flecks of silver
swam into view—a school of tiny fish. A larger fish appeared, moving
slowly through the water.
Burl's eyes glistened and his mouth watered. He reached down with his
long weapon. It barely touched the water. Disappointment filled him, yet
the nearness and the apparent practicability of his scheme spurred him
He considered the situation. There were the shelf-fungi below him. He
rose and moved to a point just above them, then thrust his spear down.
They resisted its point. Burl felt them tentatively with his foot, then
dared to thrust his weight to them. They held him firmly. He clambered
down and lay flat upon them, peering over the edge as before.
The large fish, as long as Burl's arm, swam slowly to and fro below him.
Burl had seen the former owner of his spear strive to thrust it into his
opponents, and knew that a thrust was necessary. He had tried his weapon
upon toadstools—had practiced with it. When the fish swam below him, he
thrust sharply downward. The spear seemed to bend when it entered the
water, and missed its mark by inches, to Burl's astonishment. He tried
again and again.
He grew angry with the fish below him for eluding his efforts to kill
it. Repeated strokes had left it untouched, and it was unwary, and did
not even try to run away.
Burl became furious. The big fish came to rest directly beneath his
hand. Burl thrust downward with all his strength. This time the spear,
entering vertically, did not seem to bend. It went straight down. Its
point penetrated the scales of the swimmer below, transfixing that lazy
An uproar began. The fish, struggling to escape, and Burl, trying to
draw it up to his perch, made a huge commotion. In his excitement Burl
did not observe a tiny ripple some distance away. The monster crayfish
was attracted by the disturbance, and was approaching.
The unequal combat continued. Burl hung on desperately to the end of his
spear. Then there was a tremor in Burl's support, it gave way, and fell
into the stream with a mighty splash. Burl went under, his eyes open,
facing death. And as he sank, his wide-open eyes saw waved before him
the gaping claws of the huge crayfish, large enough to sever a limb with
a single stroke of their jagged jaws.
He opened his mouth to scream—a replica of the terrible screams of his
grandfather, seized by a black-bellied tarantula years before—but no
sound came forth. Only bubbles floated to the surface of the water. He
beat the unresisting fluid with his hands—he did not know how to swim.
The colossal creature approached leisurely, while Burl struggled
His arms struck a solid object, and grasped it convulsively. A second
later he had swung it between himself and the huge crustacean. He felt a
shock as the mighty jaws closed upon the corklike fungus, then felt
himself drawn upward as the crayfish released his hold and the
shelf-fungus floated to the surface. Having given way beneath him, it
had been carried below him in his fall, only to rise within his reach
just when most needed.
Burl's head popped above water and he saw a larger bit of the fungus
floating near by. Less securely anchored to the rocks of the river bank
than the shelf to which Burl had trusted himself, it had been dislodged
when the first shelf gave way. It was larger than the fragment to which
Burl clung, and floated higher in the water.
Burl was cool with a terrible self-possession. He seized it and
struggled to draw himself on top of it. It tilted as his weight came
upon it, and nearly overturned, but he paid no heed. With desperate
haste, he clawed with hands and feet until he could draw himself clear
of the water, of which he would forever retain a slight fear.
As he pulled himself upon the furry, orange-brown upper surface, a sharp
blow struck his foot. The crayfish, disgusted at finding only what was
to it a tasteless morsel in the shelf-fungus, had made a languid stroke
at Burl's wriggling foot in the water. Failing to grasp the fleshy
member, the crayfish retreated, disgruntled and annoyed.
And Burl floated downstream, perched, weaponless and alone, frightened
and in constant danger, upon a flimsy raft composed of a degenerate
fungus floating soggily in the water. He floated slowly down the stream
of a river in whose waters death lurked unseen, upon whose banks was
peril, and above whose reaches danger fluttered on golden wings.
It was a long time before he recovered his self-possession, and when he
did he looked first for his spear. It was floating in the water, still
transfixing the fish whose capture had endangered Burl's life. The fish
now floated with its belly upward, all life gone.
So insistent was Burl's instinct for food that his predicament was
forgotten when he saw his prey just out of his reach. He gazed at it,
and his mouth watered, while his cranky craft went downstream, spinning
slowly in the current. He lay flat on the floating fungoid, and strove
to reach out and grasp the end of the spear.
The raft tilted and nearly flung him overboard again. A little later he
discovered that it sank more readily on one side than on the other. That
was due, of course, to the greater thickness—and consequently greater
buoyancy—of the part which had grown next the rocks of the river bank.
Burl found that if he lay with his head stretching above that side, it
did not sink into the water. He wriggled into this new position, then,
and waited until the slow revolution of his vessel brought the
spear-shaft near him. He stretched his fingers and his arm, and touched,
then grasped it.
A moment later he was tearing strips of flesh from the side of the fish
and cramming the oily mess into his mouth with great enjoyment. He had
lost his edible mushroom. That danced upon the waves several yards away,
but Burl ate contentedly of what he possessed. He did not worry about
what was before him. That lay in the future, but suddenly he realized
that he was being carried farther and farther from Saya, the maiden of
his tribe who caused strange bliss to steal over him when he
The thought came to him when he visualized the delight with which she
would receive a gift of part of the fish he had caught. He was suddenly
stricken with dumb sorrow. He lifted his head and looked longingly at
the river banks.
A long, monotonous row of strangely colored fungus growths. No healthy
green, but pallid, cream-colored toadstools, some bright orange,
lavender, and purple molds, vivid carmine "rusts" and mildews, spreading
up the banks from the turgid slime. The sun was not a ball of fire, but
merely shone as a bright golden patch in the haze-filled sky, a patch
whose limits could not be defined or marked.
In the faintly pinkish light that filtered down through the air, a
multitude of flying objects could be seen. Now and then a cricket or a
grasshopper made its bullet-like flight from one spot to another. Huge
butterflies fluttered gayly above the silent, seemingly lifeless world.
Bees lumbered anxiously about, seeking the cross-shaped flowers of the
monster cabbages. Now and then a slender-waisted, yellow-stomached wasp
flew alertly through the air.
Burl watched them with a strange indifference. The wasps were as long as
he himself. The bees, on end, could match his height. The butterflies
ranged from tiny creatures barely capable of shading his face to
colossal things in the folds of whose wings he could have been lost. And
above him fluttered dragonflies, whose long, spindle-like bodies were
three times the length of his own.
Burl ignored them all. Sitting there, an incongruous creature of pink
skin and soft brown hair upon an orange fungus floating in midstream, he
was filled with despondency because the current carried him forever
farther and farther from a certain slender-limbed maiden of his tiny
tribe, whose glances caused an odd commotion in his breast.
The day went on. Once, Burl saw upon the blue-green mold that spread
upward from the river, a band of large, red Amazon ants, marching in
orderly array, to raid the city of a colony of black ants, and carry
away the eggs they would find there. The eggs would be hatched, and the
small black creatures made the slaves of the brigands who had stolen
The Amazon ants can live only by the labor of their slaves, and for that
reason are mighty warriors in their world. Later, etched against the
steaming mist that overhung everything as far as the eye could reach,
Burl saw strangely shaped, swollen branches rearing themselves from the
ground. He knew what they were. A hard-rinded fungus that grew upon
itself in peculiar mockery of the vegetation that had vanished from the
And again he saw pear-shaped objects above some of which floated little
clouds of smoke. They, too, were fungus growths, puffballs, which when
touched emit what seems a puff of vapor. These would have towered above
Burl's head, had he stood beside them.
And then, as the day drew to an end, he saw in the distance what seemed
a range of purple hills. They were tall hills to Burl, some sixty or
seventy feet high, and they seemed to be the agglomeration of a formless
growth, multiplying its organisms and forms upon itself until the whole
formed an irregular, cone-shaped mound. Burl watched them apathetically.
Presently, he ate again of the oily fish. The taste was pleasant to him,
accustomed to feed mostly upon insipid mushrooms. He stuffed himself,
though the size of his prey left by far the larger part uneaten.
He still held his spear firmly beside him.
It had brought him into trouble, but Burl possessed a fund of obstinacy.
Unlike most of his tribe, he associated the spear with the food it had
secured, rather than the difficulty into which it had led him. When he
had eaten his fill he picked it up and examined it again. The sharpness
of its point was unimpaired.
Burl handled it meditatively, debating whether or not to attempt to fish
again. The shakiness of his little raft dissuaded him, and he abandoned
the idea. Presently he stripped a sinew from the garment about his
middle and hung the fish about his neck with it. That would leave him
both hands free. Then he sat cross-legged upon the soggily floating
fungus, like a pink-skinned Buddha, and watched the shores go by.
Time had passed, and it was drawing near sunset. Burl, never having seen
the sun save as a bright spot in the overhanging haze, did not think of
the coming of night as "sunset." To him it was the letting down of
darkness from the sky.
Today happened to be an exceptionally bright day, and the haze was not
as thick as usual. Far to the west, the thick mist turned to gold, while
the thicker clouds above became blurred masses of dull red. Their
shadows seemed like lavender, from the contrast of shades. Upon the
still surface of the river, all the myriad tints and shadings were
reflected with an incredible faithfulness, and the shining tops of the
giant mushrooms by the river brim glowed faintly pink.
Dragonflies buzzed over his head in their swift and angular flight, the
metallic luster of their bodies glistening in the rosy light. Great
yellow butterflies flew lightly above the stream. Here, there, and
everywhere upon the water appeared the shell-formed boats of a thousand
caddis flies, floating upon the surface while they might.
Burl could have thrust his hand down into their cavities and seized the
white worms that inhabited the strange craft. The huge bulk of a tardy
bee droned heavily overhead. Burl glanced upward and saw the long
proboscis and the hairy hinder legs with their scanty load of pollen. He
saw the great, multiple-lensed eyes with their expression of stupid
preoccupation, and even the sting that would mean death alike for him
and for the giant insect, should it be used.
The crimson radiance grew dim at the edge of the world. The purple hills
had long been left behind. Now the slender stalks of ten thousand
round-domed mushrooms lined the river bank and beneath them spread fungi
of all colors, from the rawest red to palest blue, but all now fading
slowly to a monochromatic background in the growing dusk.
The buzzing, fluttering, and the flapping of the insects of the day died
slowly down, while from a million hiding places there crept out into the
deep night soft and furry bodies of great moths, who preened themselves
and smoothed their feathery antennae before taking to the air. The
strong-limbed crickets set up their thunderous noise—grown gravely bass
with the increasing size of the organs by which the sound was made—and
then there began to gather on the water those slender spirals of tenuous
mist that would presently blanket the stream in a mantle of thin fog.
Night fell. The clouds above seemed to lower and grow dark. Gradually,
now a drop and then a drop, now a drop and then a drop, the languid fall
of large, warm raindrops that would drip from the moisture-laden skies
all through the night began. The edge of the stream became a place where
great disks of coolly glowing flame appeared.
The mushrooms that bordered on the river were faintly phosphorescent
(Pleurotus phosphoreus) and shone coldly upon the "rusts" and
flake-fungi beneath their feet. Here and there a ball of lambent flame
appeared, drifting idly above the steaming, festering earth.
Thirty thousand years before, men had called them "will-o'-the-wisps,"
but Burl simply stared at them, accepting them as he accepted all that
passed. Only a man attempting to advance in the scale of civilization
tries to explain everything that he sees. The savage and the child is
most often content to observe without comment, unless he repeats the
legends told him by wise folk who are possessed by the itch of
Burl watched for a long time. Great fireflies whose beacons lighted up
their surroundings for many yards—fireflies Burl knew to be as long as
his spear—shed their intermittent glows upon the stream. Softly
fluttering wings, in great beats that poured torrents of air upon him,
passed above Burl.
The air was full of winged creatures. The night was broken by their
cries, by the sound of their invisible wings, by their cries of anguish
and their mating calls. Above him and on all sides the persistent,
intense life of the insect world went on ceaselessly, but Burl rocked
back and forth upon his frail mushroom boat and wished to weep because
he was being carried from his tribe, and from Saya—Saya of the swift
feet and white teeth, of the shy smile.
Burl may have been homesick, but his principal thoughts were of Saya. He
had dared greatly to bring a gift of fresh meat to her, meat captured as
meat had never been known to be taken by a member of the tribe. And now
he was being carried from her!
He lay, disconsolate, upon his floating atom on the water for a great
part of the night. It was long after midnight when the mushroom raft
struck gently and remained grounded upon a shallow in the stream.
When the light came in the morning, Burl gazed about him keenly. He was
some twenty yards from the shore, and the greenish scum surrounded his
now disintegrating vessel. The river had widened out until the other
bank was barely to be seen through the haze above the surface of the
river, but the nearer shore seemed firm and no more full of dangers than
the territory his tribe inhabited. He felt the depth of the water with
his spear, then was struck with the multiple usefulness of that weapon.
The water would come to but slightly above his ankles.
Shivering a little with fear, Burl stepped down into the water, then
made for the bank at the top of his speed. He felt a soft something
clinging to one of his bare feet. With an access of terror, he ran
faster, and stumbled upon the shore in a panic. He stared down at his
foot. A shapeless, flesh-colored pad clung to his heel, and as Burl
watched, it began to swell slowly, while the pink of its wrinkled folds
It was no more than a leech, sharing in the enlargement nearly all the
lower world had undergone, but Burl did not know that. He thrust at it
with the side of his spear, then scraped frantically at it, and it fell
off, leaving a blotch of blood upon the skin where it came away. It lay,
writhing and pulsating, upon the ground, and Burl fled from it.
He found himself in one of the toadstool forests with which he was
familiar, and finally paused, disconsolately. He knew the nature of the
fungus growths about him, and presently fell to eating. In Burl the
sight of food always produced hunger—a wise provision of nature to make
up for the instinct to store food, which he lacked.
Burl's heart was small within him. He was far from his tribe, and far
from Saya. In the parlance of this day, it is probable that no more than
forty miles separated them, but Burl did not think of distances. He had
come down the river. He was in a land he had never known or seen. And he
All about him was food. All the mushrooms that surrounded him were
edible, and formed a store of sustenance Burl's whole tribe could not
have eaten in many days, but that very fact brought Saya to his mind
more forcibly. He squatted on the ground, wolfing down the insipid
mushroom in great gulps, when an idea suddenly came to him with all the
force of inspiration.
He would bring Saya here, where there was food, food in great
quantities, and she would be pleased. Burl had forgotten the large and
oily fish that still hung down his back from the sinew about his neck,
but now he rose, and its flapping against him reminded him again.
He took it and fingered it all over, getting his hands and himself
thoroughly greasy in the process, but he could eat no more. The thought
of Saya's pleasure at the sight of that, too, reinforced his
With all the immediacy of a child or a savage he set off at once. He had
come along the bank of the stream. He would retrace his steps along the
bank of the stream.
Through the awkward aisles of the mushroom forest he made his way, eyes
and ears open for possibilities of danger. Several times he heard the
omnipresent clicking of ants on their multifarious businesses in the
wood, but he could afford to ignore them. They were short-sighted at
best, and at worst they were foragers rather than hunters. He only
feared one kind of ant, the army-ant, which sometimes travels in hordes
of millions, eating all that it comes upon. In ages past, when they were
tiny creatures not an inch long, even the largest animals fled from
them. Now that they measured a foot in length, not even the gorged
spiders whose distended bellies were a yard in thickness, dared offer
The mushroom forest came to an end. A cheerful grasshopper (Ephigger)
munched delicately at some dainty it had found. Its hind legs were
bunched beneath it in perpetual readiness for flight. A monster wasp
appeared above—as long as Burl himself—poised an instant, dropped, and
seized the luckless feaster.
There was a struggle, then the grasshopper became helpless, and the
wasp's flexible abdomen curved delicately. Its sting entered the
jointed armor of its prey, just beneath the head. The sting entered with
all the deliberate precision of a surgeon's scalpel, and all struggle
The wasp grasped the paralyzed, not dead, insect and flew away. Burl
grunted, and passed on. He had hidden when the wasp darted down from
The ground grew rough, and Burl's progress became painful. He clambered
arduously up steep slopes and made his way cautiously down their farther
sides. Once he had to climb through a tangled mass of mushrooms so
closely placed, and so small, that he had to break them apart with blows
of his spear before he could pass, when they shed upon him torrents of a
fiery red liquid that rolled off his greasy breast and sank into the
ground (Lactarius deliciosus).
A strange self-confidence now took possession of Burl. He walked less
cautiously and more boldly. The mere fact that he had struck something
and destroyed it provided him with a curious fictitious courage.
He had climbed slowly to the top of a red clay cliff, perhaps a hundred
feet high, slowly eaten away by the river when it overflowed. Burl could
see the river. At some past floodtime it had lapped at the base of the
cliff on whose edge he walked, though now it came no nearer than a
The cliffside was almost covered with shelf-fungi, large and small,
white, yellow, orange, and green, in indescribable confusion and
luxuriance. From a point halfway up the cliff the inch-thick cable of a
spider's web stretched down to an anchorage on the ground, and the
strangely geometrical pattern of the web glistened evilly.
Somewhere among the fungi of the cliffside the huge creature waited
until some unfortunate prey should struggle helplessly in its monster
snare. The spider waited in a motionless, implacable patience,
invincibly certain of prey, utterly merciless to its victims.
Burl strutted on the edge of the cliff, a silly little pink-skinned
creature with an oily fish slung about his neck and a draggled fragment
of a moth's wing about his middle. In his hand he bore the long spear of
a minotaur beetle. He strutted, and looked scornfully down upon the
whitely shining trap below him. He struck mushrooms, and they had fallen
before him. He feared nothing. He strode fearlessly along. He would go
to Saya and bring her to this land where food grew in abundance.
Sixty paces before him, a shaft sank vertically in the sandy, clayey
soil. It was a carefully rounded shaft, and lined with silk. It went
down for perhaps thirty feet or more, and there enlarged itself into a
chamber where the owner and digger of the shaft might rest. The top of
the hole was closed by a trap door, stained with mud and earth to
imitate with precision the surrounding soil. A keen eye would have been
needed to perceive the opening. But a keen eye now peered out from a
tiny crack, the eye of the engineer of the underground dwelling.
Eight hairy legs surrounded the body of the creature that hung
motionless at the top of the silk-lined shaft. A huge misshapen globe
formed its body, colored a dirty brown. Two pairs of ferocious mandibles
stretched before its fierce mouth-parts. Two eyes glittered evilly in
the darkness of the burrow. And over the whole body spread a rough,
It was a thing of implacable malignance, of incredible ferocity. It was
the brown hunting-spider, the American tarantula (Mygale Hentzii). Its
body was two feet and more in diameter, and its legs, outstretched,
would cover a circle three yards across. It watched Burl, its eyes
glistening. Slaver welled up and dropped from its jaws.
And Burl strutted forward on the edge of the cliff, puffed up with a
sense of his own importance. The white snare of the spinning spider
below him impressed him as amusing. He knew the spider would not leave
its web to attack him. He reached down and broke off a bit of fungus
growing at his feet. Where he broke it, it was oozing a soupy liquid and
was full of tiny maggots in a delirium of feasting. Burl flung it down
into the web, and then laughed as the black bulk of the hidden spider
swung down from its hiding place to investigate.
The tarantula, peering from its burrow, quivered with impatience. Burl
drew near, and nearer. He was using his spear as a lever, now, and
prying off bits of fungus to fall down the cliffside into the colossal
web. The spider, below, went leisurely from one place to another,
investigating each new missile with its palpi, then leaving them, as
they appeared lifeless and undesirable prey. Burl laughed again as a
particularly large lump of shelf-fungus narrowly missed the
black-and-silver figure below. Then—
The trap door fell into place with a faint click, and Burl whirled
about. His laughter turned to a scream. Moving toward him with
incredible rapidity, the monster tarantula opened its dripping jaws. Its
mandibles gaped wide. The poison fangs were unsheathed. The creature was
thirty paces away, twenty paces—ten. It leaped into the air, eyes
glittering, all its eight legs extended to seize, fangs bared—
Burl screamed again, and thrust out his arms to ward off the impact of
the leap. In his terror, his grasp upon his spear had become agonized.
The spear point shot out, and the tarantula fell upon it. Nearly a
quarter of the spear entered the body of the ferocious thing.
It struck upon the spear, writhing horribly, still struggling to reach
Burl, who was transfixed with horror. The mandibles clashed, strange
sounds came from the beast. Then one of the attenuated, hairy legs
rasped across Burl's forearm. He gasped in ultimate fear and stepped
backward—and the edge of the cliff gave way beneath him.
He hurtled downward, still clutching the spear which led the writhing
creature from him. Down through space, eyes glassy with panic, the two
creatures—the man and the giant tarantula—fell together. There was a
strangely elastic crash and crackling. They had fallen into the web
Burl had reached the end of terror. He could be no more fear-struck.
Struggling madly in the gummy coils of an immense web, which ever bound
him more tightly, with a wounded creature shuddering in agony not a yard
from him—yet a wounded creature that still strove to reach him with its
poison fangs—Burl had reached the limit of panic.
He fought like a madman to break the coils about him. His arms and
breast were greasy from the oily fish, and the sticky web did not adhere
to them, but his legs and body were inextricably fastened by the elastic
threads spread for just such prey as he.
He paused a moment, in exhaustion. Then he saw, five yards away, the
silvery and black monster waiting patiently for him to weary himself. It
judged the moment propitious. The tarantula and the man were one in its
eyes, one struggling thing that had fallen opportunely into its snare.
They were moving but feebly now. The spider advanced delicately,
swinging its huge bulk nimbly along the web, paying out a cable after it
came inexorably toward him.
Burl's arms were free, because of the greasy coating they had received.
He waved them wildly, shrieking at the pitiless monster that approached.
The spider paused. Those moving arms suggested mandibles that might
wound or slap.
Spiders take few hazards. This spider was no exception to the rule. It
drew cautiously near, then stopped. Its spinnerets became busy, and with
one of its six legs, used like an arm, it flung a sheet of gummy silk
impartially over both the tarantula and the man.
Burl fought against the descending shroud. He strove to thrust it away,
but in vain. In a matter of minutes he was completely covered in a
silken cloth that hid even the light from his eyes. He and his enemy,
the giant tarantula, were beneath the same covering, though the
tarantula moved but weakly.
The shower ceased. The web-spider had decided that they were helpless.
Then Burl felt the cables of the web give slightly, as the spider
approached to sting and suck the sweet juices from its prey.
The web yielded gently as the added weight of the black-bellied spider
approached. Burl froze into stillness under his enveloping covering.
Beneath the same silken shroud the tarantula writhed in agony upon the
point of Burl's spear. It clashed its jaws, shuddering upon the horny
Burl was quiet in an ecstasy of terror. He waited for the poison-fangs
to be thrust into him. He knew the process. He had seen the leisurely
fashion in which the giant spiders delicately stung their prey, then
withdrew to wait without impatience for the poison to do its work.
When their victim had ceased to struggle, they drew near again, and
sucked the sweet juices from the body, first from one point and then
another, until what had so recently been a creature vibrant with life
became a shrunken, withered husk—to be flung from the web at nightfall.
Most spiders are tidy housekeepers, destroying their snares daily to
The bloated, evil creature moved meditatively about the shining sheet of
silk it had cast over the man and the giant tarantula when they fell
from the cliff above. Now only the tarantula moved feebly. Its body was
outlined by a bulge in the concealing shroud, throbbing faintly as it
still struggled with the spear in its vitals. The irregularly rounded
protuberance offered a point of attack for the web spider. It moved
quickly forward, and stung.
Galvanized into fresh torment by this new agony, the tarantula writhed
in a very hell of pain. Its legs, clustered about the spear still
fastened into its body, struck out purposelessly, in horrible gestures
of delirious suffering. Burl screamed as one of them touched him, and
His arms and head were free beneath the silken sheet because of the
grease and oil that coated them. He clutched at the threads about him
and strove to draw himself away from his deadly neighbor. The threads
did not break, but they parted one from another, and a tiny opening
appeared. One of the tarantula's attenuated limbs touched him again.
With the strength of utter panic he hauled himself away, and the opening
enlarged. Another struggle, and Burl's head emerged into the open air,
and he stared down for twenty feet upon an open space almost carpeted
with the chitinous remains of his present captor's former victims.
Burl's head was free, and his breast and arms. The fish slung over his
shoulder had shed its oil upon him impartially. But the lower part of
his body was held firm by the gummy snare of the web-spider, a snare far
more tenacious than any bird-lime ever manufactured by man.
He hung in his tiny window for a moment, despairing. Then he saw, at a
little distance, the bulk of the monster spider, waiting patiently for
its poison to take effect and the struggling of its prey to be stilled.
The tarantula was no more than shuddering now. Soon it would be still,
and the black-bellied creature waiting on the web would approach for its
Burl withdrew his head and thrust desperately at the sticky stuff about
his loins and legs. The oil upon his hands kept it from clinging to
them, and it gave a little. In a flash of inspiration, Burl understood.
He reached over his shoulder and grasped the greasy fish; tore it in a
dozen places and smeared himself with the now rancid exudation, pushing
the sticky threads from his limbs and oiling the surface from which he
had thrust it away.
He felt the web tremble. To the spider, its poison seemed to have failed
of effect. Another sting seemed to be necessary. This time it would not
insert its fangs into the quiescent tarantula, but would sting where the
disturbance was manifest—would send its deadly venom into Burl.
He gasped, and drew himself toward his window. It was as if he would
have pulled his legs from his body. His head emerged, his
shoulders—half his body was out of the hole.
The colossal spider surveyed him, and made ready to cast more of its
silken sheet upon him. The spinnerets became active, and the sticky
stuff about Burl's feet gave way! He shot out of the opening and fell
sprawling, awkwardly and heavily, upon the earth below, crashing upon
the shrunken shell of a flying beetle which had fallen into the snare
and had not escaped.
Burl rolled over and over, and then sat up. An angry, foot-long ant
stood before him, its mandibles extended threateningly, while its
antennae waved wildly in the air. A shrill stridulation filled the air.
In ages past, when ants were tiny creatures of lengths to be measured in
fractions of an inch, learned scientists debated gravely if their tribe
possessed a cry. They believed that certain grooves upon the body of the
insects, after the fashion of those upon the great legs of the cricket,
might offer the means of uttering an infinitely high-pitched sound too
shrill for man's ears to catch.
Burl knew that the stridulation was caused by the doubtful insect before
him, though he had never wondered how it was produced. The cry was used
to summon others of its city, to help it in its difficulty or good
Clickings sounded fifty or sixty feet away. Comrades were coming to aid
the pioneer. Harmless save when interfered with—all save the army ant,
that is—the whole ant tribe was formidable when aroused. Utterly
fearless, they could pull down a man and slay him as so many infuriated
fox terriers might have done thirty thousand years before.
Burl fled, without debate, and nearly collided with one of the
anchoring cables of the web from which he had barely escaped a moment
before. He heard the shrill sound behind him suddenly subside. The ant,
short-sighted as all ants were, no longer felt itself threatened and
went peacefully about the business Burl had interrupted, that of finding
among the gruesome relics beneath the spider's web some edible carrion
which might feed the inhabitants of its city.
Burl sped on for a few hundred yards, and stopped. It behooved him to
move carefully. He was in strange territory, and as even the most
familiar territory was full of sudden and implacable dangers, unknown
lands were doubly or trebly perilous.
Burl, too found difficulty in moving. The glutinous stuff from the
spider's shroud of silk still stuck to his feet and picked up small
objects as he went along. Old ant-gnawed fragments of insect armour
pricked him even through his toughened soles.
He looked about cautiously and removed them, took a dozen steps and had
to stop again. Burl's brain had been uncommonly stimulated of late. It
had gotten him into at least one predicament—due to his invention of a
spear—but had no less readily led to his escape from another. But for
the reasoning that had led him to use the grease from the fish upon his
shoulder in oiling his body when he struggled out of the spider's snare,
he would now be furnishing a meal for that monster.
Cautiously, Burl looked all about him. He seemed to be safe. Then, quite
deliberately, he sat down to think. It was the first time in his life
that he had done such a thing. The people of his tribe were not given to
meditation. But an idea had struck Burl with all the force of
inspiration—an abstract idea.
When he was in difficulties, something within him seemed to suggest a
way out. Would it suggest an inspiration now? He puzzled over the
problem. Childlike—and savage-like—the instant the thought came to
him, he proceeded to test it out. He fixed his gaze upon his foot. The
sharp edges of pebbles, of the remains of insect-armour, of a dozen
things, hurt his feet when he walked. They had done so ever since he had
been born, but never had his feet been sticky so that the irritation
continued with him for more than a single step.
Now he gazed upon his foot, and waited for the thought within him to
develop. Meanwhile, he slowly removed the sharp-pointed fragments, one
by one. Partly coated as they were with the half-liquid gum from his
feet, they clung to his fingers as they had to his feet, except upon
those portions where the oil was thick as before.
Burl's reasoning, before, was simple and of the primary order. Where oil
covered him, the web did not. Therefore he would coat the rest of
himself with oil. Had he been placed in the same predicament again, he
would have used the same means of escape. But to apply a bit of
knowledge gained in one predicament to another difficulty was something
he had not yet done.
A dog may be taught that by pulling on the latchstring of a door he may
open it, but the same dog coming to a high and close-barred gate with a
latchstring attached, will never think of pulling on this second
latchstring. He associates a latchstring with the opening of the door.
The opening of a gate is another matter entirely.
Burl had been stirred to one invention by imminent peril. That is not
extraordinary. But to reason in cold blood, as he presently did, that
oil on his feet would nullify the glue upon his feet and enable him
again to walk in comfort—that was a triumph. The inventions of savages
are essentially matters of life and death, of food and safety. Comfort
and luxury are only produced by intelligence of a high order.
Burl, in safety, had added to his comfort. That was truly a more
important thing in his development than almost any other thing he could
have done. He oiled his feet.
It was an almost infinitesimal problem, but Burl's struggles with the
mental process of reasoning were actual. Thirty thousand years before
him, a wise man had pointed out that education is simply training in
thought, in efficient and effective thinking. Burl's tribe had been too
much preoccupied with food and mere existence to think, and now Burl,
sitting at the base of a squat toadstool that all but concealed him,
reexemplified Rodin's "Thinker" for the first time in many generations.
For Burl to reason that oil upon the soles of his feet would guard him
against sharp stones was as much a triumph of intellect as any
masterpiece of art in the ages before him. Burl was learning how to
He stood up, walked, and crowed in sheer delight, then paused a moment
in awe of his own intelligence. Thirty-five miles from his tribe, naked,
unarmed, utterly ignorant of fire, of wood, of any weapons save a spear
he had experimented with the day before, abysmally uninformed concerning
the very existence of any art or science, Burl stopped to assure himself
that he was very wonderful.
Pride came to him. He wished to display himself to Saya, these things
upon his feet, and his spear. But his spear was gone.
With touching faith in the efficacy of this new pastime, Burl sat
promptly down again and knitted his brows. Just as a superstitious
person, once convinced that by appeal to a favorite talisman he will be
guided aright, will inevitably apply to that talisman on all occasions,
so Burl plumped himself down to think.
These questions were easily answered. Burl was naked. He would search
out garments for himself. He was weaponless. He would find himself a
spear. He was hungry—and would seek food, and he was far from his
tribe, so he would go to them. Puerile reasoning, of course, but
valuable, because it was consciously reasoning, consciously appealing to
his mind for guidance in difficulty, deliberate progress from a mental
desire to a mental resolution.
Even in the high civilization of ages before, few men had really used
their brains. The great majority of people had depended upon machines
and their leaders to think for them. Burl's tribefolk depended on their
stomachs. Burl, however, was gradually developing the habit of thinking
which makes for leadership and which would be invaluable to his little
He stood up again and faced upstream, moving slowly and cautiously, his
eyes searching the ground before him keenly and his ears alert for the
slightest sound of danger. Gigantic butterflies, riotous in coloring,
fluttered overhead through the misty haze. Sometimes a grasshopper
hurtled through the air like a projectile, its transparent wings beating
the air frantically. Now and then a wasp sped by, intent upon its
hunting, or a bee droned heavily along, anxious and worried, striving in
a nearly flowerless world to gather the pollen that would feed the hive.
Here and there Burl saw flies of various sorts, some no larger than his
thumb, but others the size of his whole hand. They fed upon the juices
that dripped from the maggot-infested mushrooms, when filth more to
their liking was not at hand.
Very far away a shrill roaring sounded faintly. It was like a multitude
of clickings blended into a single sound, but was so far away that it
did not impress itself upon Burl's attention. He had all the strictly
localized vision of a child. What was near was important, and what was
distant could be ignored. Only the imminent required attention, and Burl
Had he listened, he would have realized that army ants were abroad in
countless millions, spreading themselves out in a broad array and eating
all they came upon far more destructively than so many locusts.
Locusts in past ages had eaten all green things. There were only giant
cabbages and a few such tenacious rank growths in the world that Burl
knew. The locusts had vanished with civilization and knowledge and the
greater part of mankind, but the army ants remained as an invincible
enemy to men and insects, and the most of the fungus growths that
covered the earth.
Burl did not notice the sound, however. He moved forward, briskly though
cautiously, searching with his eyes for garments, food, and weapons. He
confidently expected to find all of them within a short distance.
Surely enough he found a thicket—if one might call it so—of edible
fungi no more than half a mile beyond the spot where he had improvised
his sandals to protect the soles of his feet.
Without especial elation, Burl tugged at the largest until he had broken
off a food supply for several days. He went on, eating as he did so,
past a broad plain a mile and more across, being broken into odd little
hillocks by gradually ripening and suddenly developing mushrooms with
which he was unfamiliar.
The earth seemed to be in process of being pushed aside by rounded
protuberances of which only the tips showed. Blood-red hemispheres
seemed to be forcing aside the earth so they might reach the outer air.
Burl looked at them curiously, and passed among them without touching
them. They were strange, and to him most strange things meant danger. In
any event, he was full of a new purpose now. He wished garments and
Above the plain a wasp hovered, a heavy object dangling beneath its
black belly, ornamented by a single red band. It was a wasp—the hairy
sand-wasp—and it was bringing a paralyzed gray caterpillar to its
Burl watched it drop down with the speed and sureness of an arrow, pull
aside a heavy, flat stone, and descend into the ground. It had a
vertical shaft dug down for forty feet or more.
It descended, evidently inspected the interior, reappeared, and vanished
into the hole again, dragging the gray worm after it. Burl, marching on
over the broad plain that seemed stricken with some erupting disease
from the number of red pimples making their appearance, did not know
what passed below, but observed the wasp emerge again and busily scratch
dirt and stones into the shaft until it was full.
The wasp had paralyzed a caterpillar, taken it to the already prepared
burrow, laid an egg upon it, and rilled up the entrance. In course of
time the egg would hatch into a grub barely as long as Burl's
forefinger, which would then feed upon the torpid caterpillar until it
had waxed large and fat. Then it would weave itself a chrysalis and
sleep a long sleep, only to wake as a wasp and dig its way to the open
Burl reached the farther side of the plain and found himself threading
the aisles of one of the fungus forests in which the growths were
hideous, misshapen travesties upon the trees they had supplanted.
Bloated, yellow limbs branched off from rounded, swollen trunks. Here
and there a pear-shaped puff-ball, Burl's height and half as much again,
waited craftily until a chance touch should cause it to shoot upward a
curling puff of infinitely fine dust.
Burl went cautiously. There were dangers here, but he moved forward
steadily, none the less. A great mass of edible mushroom was slung under
one of his arms, and from time to time he broke off a fragment and ate
of it, while his large eyes searched this way and that for threats of
Behind him, a high, shrill roaring had grown slightly in volume and
nearness, but was still too far away to impress Burl. The army ants were
working havoc in the distance. By thousands and millions, myriads upon
myriads, they were foraging the country, clambering upon every eminence,
descending into every depression, their antennae waving restlessly and
their mandibles forever threateningly extended. The ground was black
with them, each was ten inches and more in length.
A single such creature would be formidable to an unarmed and naked man
like Burl, whose wisest move would be flight, but in their thousands and
millions they presented a menace from which no escape seemed possible.
They were advancing steadily and rapidly, shrill stridulations and a
multitude of clickings marking their movements.
The great helpless caterpillars upon the giant cabbages heard the sound
of their coming, but were too stupid to flee. The black multitudes
covered the rank vegetables, and tiny but voracious jaws began to tear
at the flaccid masses of flesh.
Each creature had some futile means of struggling. The caterpillars
strove to throw off their innumerable assailants by writhings and
contortions, wholly ineffective. The bees fought their entrance to the
gigantic hives with stings and wingbeats. The moths took to the air in
helpless blindness when discovered by the relentless throngs of small
black insects which reeked of formic acid and left the ground behind
them denuded in every living thing.
Before the oncoming horde was a world of teeming life, where mushrooms
and fungi fought with thinning numbers of giant cabbages for foothold.
Behind the black multitude was—nothing. Mushrooms, cabbages, bees,
wasps, crickets. Every creeping and crawling thing that did not get
aloft before the black tide reached it was lost, torn to bits by tiny
mandibles. Even the hunting spiders and tarantulas fell before the host
of insects, having killed many in their final struggles, but overwhelmed
by sheer numbers. And the wounded and dying army ants made food for
their sound comrades.
There is no mercy among insects. Only the web-spiders sat unmoved and
immovable in their colossal snares, secure in the knowledge that their
gummy webs would discourage attempts at invasion along the slender
Surging onward, flowing like a monstrous, murky tide over the yellow,
steaming earth, the army ants advanced. Their vanguard reached the
river, and recoiled. Burl was perhaps five miles distant when they
changed their course, communicating the altered line of march to those
behind them in some mysterious fashion of transmitting intelligence.
Thirty thousand years before, scientists had debated gravely over the
means of communication among ants. They had observed that a single ant
finding a bit of booty too large for him to handle alone would return to
the ant-city and return with others. From that one instance they deduced
a language of gestures made with the antennae.
Burl had no wise theories. He merely knew facts, but he knew that the
ants had some form of speech or transmission of ideas. Now, however, he
was moving cautiously along toward the stamping grounds of his tribe, in
complete ignorance of the black blanket of living creatures creeping
over the ground toward him.
A million tragedies marked the progress of the insect army. There was a
tiny colony of mining bees—Zebra bees—a single mother, some four feet
long, had dug a huge gallery with some ten cells, in which she laid her
eggs and fed her grubs with hard-gathered pollen. The grubs had waxed
fat and large, became bees, and laid eggs in their turn, within the
gallery their mother had dug out for them.
Ten such bulky insects now foraged busily for grubs within the ancestral
home, while the founder of the colony had grown draggled and wingless
with the passing of time. Unable to forage herself, the old bee became
the guardian of the nest or hive, as is the custom among the mining
bees. She closed the opening of the hive with her head, making a living
barrier within the entrance, and withdrawing to give entrance and exit
only to duly authenticated members of the extensive colony.
The ancient and draggled concierge of the underground dwelling was at
her post when the wave of army ants swept over her. Tiny, evil-smelling
feet trampled upon her. She emerged to fight with mandible and sting for
the sanctity of the hive. In a moment she was a shaggy mass of biting
ants, rending and tearing at her chitinous armour. The old bee fought
madly, viciously, sounding a buzzing alarm to the colonists yet within
the hive. They emerged, fighting as they came, for the gallery leading
down was a dark flood of small insects.
For a few moments a battle such as would make an epic was in progress.
Ten huge bees, each four to five feet long, fighting with legs and jaw,
wing and mandible, with all the ferocity of as many tigers. The tiny,
vicious ants covered them, snapping at their multiple eyes, biting at
the tender joints in their armour—sometimes releasing the larger prey
to leap upon an injured comrade wounded by the huge creature they
battled in common.
The fight, however, could have but one ending. Struggle as the bees
might, herculean as their efforts might be, they were powerless against
the incredible numbers of their assailants, who tore them into tiny
fragments and devoured them. Before the last shred of the hive's
defenders had vanished, the hive itself was gutted alike of the grubs it
had contained and the food brought to the grubs by such weary effort of
the mature bees.
The army ants went on. Only an empty gallery remained, that and a few
fragments of tough armour, unappetizing even to the omniverous ants.
Burl was meditatively inspecting the scene of a recent tragedy, where
rent and scraped fragments of a great beetle's shiny casing lay upon the
ground. A greater beetle had come upon the first and slain him. Burl was
looking upon the remains of the meal.
Three or four minims, little ants barely six inches long, foraged
industriously among the bits. A new ant city was to be formed and the
queen-ant lay hidden a half-mile away. These were the first hatchlings,
who would feed the larger ants on whom would fall the great work of the
ant-city. Burl ignored them, searching with his eyes for a spear or
Behind him the clicking roar, the high-pitched stridulations of the
horde of army ants, rose in volume. Burl turned disgustedly away. The
best he could find in the way of a weapon was a fiercely toothed hind
leg. He picked it up, and an angry whine rose from the ground.
One of the black minims was working busily to detach a fragment of flesh
from the joint of the leg, and Burl had snatched the morsel from him.
The little creature was hardly half a foot in length, but it advanced
upon Burl, shrilling angrily. He struck it with the leg and crushed it.
Two of the other minims appeared, attracted by the noise the first had
made. Discovering the crushed body of their fellow, they unceremoniously
dismembered it and bore it away in triumph.
Burl went on, swinging the toothed limb in his hand. It made a fair
club, and Burl was accustomed to use stones to crush the juicy legs of
such giant crickets as his tribe sometimes came upon. He formed a
half-defined idea of a club. The sharp teeth of the thing in his hand
made him realize that a sidewise blow was better than a spearlike
The sound behind him had become a distant whispering, high-pitched, and
growing nearer. The army ants swept over a mushroom forest, and the
yellow, umbrella-like growths swarmed with black creatures devouring the
substance on which they found a foothold.
A great bluebottle fly, shining with a metallic luster, reposed in an
ecstasy of feasting, sipping through its long proboscis the dark-colored
liquid that dripped slowly from a mushroom. Maggots filled the mushroom,
and exuded a solvent pepsin that liquefied the white firm "meat."
They fed upon this soup, this gruel, and a surplus dripped to the ground
below, where the bluebottle drank eagerly. Burl drew near, and struck.
The fly collapsed into a writhing heap. Burl stood over it for an
The army ants came nearer, down into a tiny valley, swarming into and
through a little brook over which Burl had leaped. Ants can remain under
water for a long time without drowning, so the small stream was but a
minor obstacle, though the current of water swept many of them off their
feet until they choked the brook-bed, and their comrades passed over
their struggling bodies dry-shod. They were no more than temporarily
annoyed, however, and presently crawled out to resume their march.
About a quarter of a mile to the left of Burl's line of march, and
perhaps a mile behind the spot where he stood over the dead bluebottle
fly, there was a stretch of an acre or more where the giant, rank
cabbages had so far resisted the encroachments of the ever present
mushrooms. The pale, cross-shaped flowers of the cabbages formed food
for many bees, and the leaves fed numberless grubs and worms, and
loud-voiced crickets which crouched about on the ground, munching busily
at the succulent green stuff. The army ants swept into the green area,
ceaselessly devouring all they came upon.
A terrific din arose. The crickets hurtled away in a rocketlike flight,
in a dark cloud of wildly beating wings. They shot aimlessly in any
direction, with the result that half, or more than half, fell in the
midst of the black tide of devouring insects and were seized as they
fell. They uttered terrible cries as they were being torn to bits.
Horrible inhuman screams reached Burl's ears.
A single such cry of agony would not have attracted Burl's attention—he
lived in the very atmosphere of tragedy—but the chorus of creatures in
torment made him look up. This was no minor horror. Wholesale slaughter
was going on. He peered anxiously in the direction of the sound.
A wild stretch of sickly yellow fungus, here and there interspersed with
a squat toadstool or a splash of vivid color where one of the many
"rusts" had found a foothold. To the left a group of awkward, misshapen
fungoids clustered in silent mockery of a forest of trees. There a mass
of faded green, where the giant cabbages stood.
With the true sun never shining upon them save through a blanket of
thick haze or heavy clouds, they were pallid things, but they were the
only green things Burl had seen. Their nodding white flowers with four
petals in the form of a cross glowed against the yellowish green leaves.
But as Burl gazed toward them, the green became slowly black.
From where he stood, Burl could see two or three great grubs in lazy
contentment, eating ceaselessly on the cabbages on which they rested.
Suddenly first one and then the other began to jerk spasmodically. Burl
saw that about each of them a tiny rim of black had clustered. Tiny
black motes milled over the green surfaces of the cabbages. The grubs
became black, the cabbages became black. Horrible contortions of the
writhing grubs told of the agonies they were enduring. Then a black wave
appeared at the further edge of the stretch of the sickly yellow fungus,
a glistening, living wave, that moved forward rapidly with the roar of
clickings and a persistent overtone of shrill stridulations.
The hair rose upon Burl's head. He knew what this was! He knew all too
well the meaning of that tide of shining bodies. With a gasp of terror,
all his intellectual preoccupations forgotten, he turned and fled in
ultimate panic. And the tide came slowly on after him.
He flung away the great mass of edible mushroom, but clung to his
sharp-toothed club desperately, and darted through the tangled aisles of
the little mushroom forest with a heedless disregard of the dangers that
might await him there. Flies buzzed about him loudly, huge creatures,
glittering with a metallic luster. Once he was struck upon the shoulder
by the body of one of them, and his skin was torn by the swiftly
vibrating wings of the insect, as long as Burl's hand.
Burl thrust it away and sped on. The oil with which he was partly
covered had turned rancid, now, and the odor attracted them,
connoisseurs of the fetid. They buzzed over his head, keeping pace even
with his headlong flight.
A heavy weight settled upon his head, and in a moment was doubled. Two
of the creatures had dropped upon his oily hair, to sip the rancid oil
through their disgusting proboscises. Burl shook them off with his hand
and ran madly on. His ears were keenly attuned to the sound of the army
ants behind him, and it grew but little farther away.
The clicking roar continued, but began to be overshadowed by the buzzing
of the flies. In Burl's time the flies had no great heaps of putrid
matter in which to lay their eggs. The ants—busy scavengers—carted
away the debris of the multitudinous tragedies of the insect world long
before it could acquire the gamey flavor beloved by the fly maggots.
Only in isolated spots were the flies really numerous, but there they
clustered in clouds that darkened the sky.
Such a buzzing, whirling cloud surrounded the madly running figure of
Burl. It seemed as though a miniature whirlwind kept pace with the
little pink-skinned man, a whirlwind composed of winged bodies and
multi-faceted eyes. He twirled his club before him, and almost every
stroke was interrupted by an impact against a thinly armoured body which
collapsed with a spurting of reddish liquid.
An agonizing pain as of a red-hot iron struck upon Burl's back. One of
the stinging flies had thrust its sharp-tipped proboscis into Burl's
flesh to suck the blood.
Burl uttered a cry and—ran full tilt into the thick stalk of a
blackened and draggled toadstool. There was a curious crackling as of
wet punk or brittle rotten wood. The toadstool collapsed upon itself
with a strange splashing sound. Many flies had laid their eggs in the
fungoid, and it was a teeming mass of corruption and ill-smelling
With the crash of the toadstool's "head" upon the ground, it fell into a
dozen pieces, and the earth for yards around was spattered with a
stinking liquid in which tiny, headless maggots twitched convulsively.
The buzzing of the flies took on a note of satisfaction, and they
settled by hundreds about the edges of the ill-smelling pools, becoming
lost in the ecstacy of feasting while Burl staggered to his feet and
darted off again. This time he was but a minor attraction to the flies,
and but one or two came near him. From every direction they were
hurrying to the toadstool feast, to the banquet of horrible, liquefied
fungus that lay spread upon the ground.
Burl ran on. He passed beneath the wide-spreading leaves of a giant
cabbage. A great grasshopper crouched upon the ground, its tremendous
jaws crunching the rank vegetation voraciously. Half a dozen great worms
ate steadily from their resting-places among the leaves. One of them had
slung itself beneath an overhanging leaf—which would have thatched a
dozen homes for as many men—and was placidly anchoring itself in
preparation for the spinning of a cocoon in which to sleep the sleep of
A mile away, the great black tide of army ants was advancing
relentlessly. The great cabbage, the huge grasshopper, and all the
stupid caterpillars upon the wide leaves would soon be covered with the
tiny biting insects. The cabbage would be reduced to a chewed and
destroyed stump, the colossal, furry grubs would be torn into a myriad
mouthfuls and devoured by the black army ants, and the grasshopper would
strike out with terrific, unguided strength, crushing its assailants by
blows of its powerful hind legs and bites of its great jaws. But it
would die, making terrible sounds of torment as the vicious mandibles of
the army ants found crevices in its armour.
The clicking roar of the ants' advance overshadowed all other sounds,
now. Burl was running madly, breath coming in great gasps, his eyes wide
with panic. Alone of all the world about him, he knew the danger behind.
The insects he passed were going about their business with that
terrifying efficiency found only in the insect world.
There is something strangely daunting in the actions of an insect. It
moves so directly, with such uncanny precision, with such utter
indifference to anything but the end in view. Cannibalism is a rule,
almost without exception. The paralysis of prey, so it may remain alive
and fresh—though in agony—for weeks on end, is a common practice. The
eating piecemeal of still living victims is a matter of course.
Absolute mercilessness, utter callousness, incredible inhumanity beyond
anything known in the animal world is the natural and commonplace
practice of the insects. And these vast cruelties are performed by
armoured, machine-like creatures with an abstraction and a routine air
that suggests a horrible Nature behind them all.
Burl nearly stumbled upon a tragedy. He passed within a dozen yards of a
space where a female dung-beetle was devouring the mate whose honeymoon
had begun that same day and ended in that gruesome fashion. Hidden
behind a clump of mushrooms, a great yellow-banded spider was coyly
threatening a smaller male of her own species. He was discreetly ardent,
but if he won the favor of the gruesome creature he was wooing, he would
furnish an appetizing meal for her some time within twenty-four hours.
Burl's heart was pounding madly. The breath whistled in his
nostrils—and behind him, the wave of army ants was drawing nearer. They
came upon the feasting flies. Some took to the air and escaped, but
others were too engrossed in their delicious meal. The twitching little
maggots, stranded upon the earth by the scattering of their soupy broth,
were torn in pieces. The flies who were seized vanished into tiny maws.
The serried ranks of black insects went on.
The tiny clickings of their limbs, the perpetual challenges and
cross-challenges of crossed antennae, the stridulations of the
creatures, all combined to make a high-pitched but deafening din. Now
and then another sound pierced the noises made by the ants themselves. A
cricket, seized by a thousand tiny jaws, uttered cries of agony. The
shrill note of the crickets had grown deeply bass with the increase in
size of the organs that uttered it.
There was a strange contrast between the ground before the advancing
horde and that immediately behind it. Before, a busy world, teeming with
life. Butterflies floating overhead on lazy wings, grubs waxing fat and
huge upon the giant cabbages, crickets eating, great spiders sitting
quietly in their lairs waiting with invincible patience for prey to draw
near their trap doors or fall into their webs, colossal beetles
lumbering heavily through the mushroom forests, seeking food, making
love in monstrous, tragic fashion.
And behind the wide belt of army ants—chaos. The edible mushrooms gone.
The giant cabbages left as mere stumps of unappetizing pulp, the busy
life of the insect world completely wiped out save for the flying
creatures that fluttered helplessly over an utterly changed landscape.
Here and there little bands of stragglers moved busily over the denuded
earth, searching for some fragment of food that might conceivably have
been overlooked by the main body.
Burl was putting forth his last ounce of strength. His limbs trembled,
his breathing was agony, sweat stood out upon his forehead. He ran a
little, naked man with the disjointed fragment of a huge insect's limb
in his hand, running for his insignificant life, running as if his
continued existence among the million tragedies of that single day were
the purpose for which the whole of the universe had been created.
He sped across an open space a hundred yards across. A thicket of
beautifully golden mushrooms (Agaricus caesareus) barred his way.
Beyond the mushrooms a range of strangely colored hills began, purple
and green and black and gold, melting into each other, branching off
from each other, inextricably tangled.
They rose to a height of perhaps sixty or seventy feet, and above them a
little grayish haze had gathered. There seemed to be a layer of tenuous
vapor upon their surfaces, which slowly rose and coiled, and gathered
into a tiny cloudlet above their tips.
The hills, themselves, were but masses of fungus, mushrooms and fungoids
of every description, yeasts, "musts," and every form of fungus growth
which had grown within itself and about itself until this great mass of
strangely colored, spongy stuff had gathered in a mass that undulated
unevenly across the level earth for miles.
Burl burst through the golden thicket and attacked the ascent. His feet
sank into the spongy sides of the hillock. Panting, gasping, staggering
from exhaustion, he made his way up the top. He plunged into a little
valley on the farther side, up another slope. For perhaps ten minutes he
forced himself on, then collapsed. He lay, unable to move further, in a
little hollow, his sharp-toothed club still clasped in his hands. Above
him, a bright yellow butterfly with a thirty-foot spread of wing,
He lay motionless, breathing in great gasps, his limbs stubbornly
refusing to lift him.
The sound of the army ants continued to grow near. At last, above the
crest of the last hillock he had surmounted, two tiny antennae appeared,
then the black glistening head of an army ant, the forerunner of its
horde. It moved deliberately forward, waving its antennae ceaselessly.
It made its way toward Burl, tiny clickings coming from the movements of
A little wisp of tenuous vapor swirled toward the ant, a wisp of the
same vapor that had gathered above the whole range of hills as a thin,
low cloud. It enveloped the insect—and the ant seemed to be attacked by
a strange convulsion. Its legs moved aimlessly. It threw itself
desperately about. If it had been an animal, Burl would have watched
with wondering eyes while it coughed and gasped, but it was an insect
breathing through air-holes in its abdomen. It writhed upon the spongy
fungus growth across which it had been moving.
Burl, lying in an exhausted, panting heap upon the purple mass of
fungus, was conscious of a strange sensation. His body felt strangely
warm. He knew nothing of fire or the heat of the sun, and the only
sensation of warmth he had ever known was that caused when the members
of his tribe had huddled together in their hiding place when the damp
chill of the night had touched their soft-skinned bodies. Then the heat
of their breaths and their bodies had kept out the chill.
This heat that Burl now felt was a hotter, fiercer heat. He moved his
body with a tremendous effort, and for a moment the fungus was cool and
soft beneath him. Then, slowly, the sensation of heat began again, and
increased until Burl's skin was red and inflamed from the irritation.
The thin and tenuous vapor, too, made Burl's lungs smart and his eyes
water. He was breathing in great, choking gasps, but the period of
rest—short as it was—had enabled him to rise and stagger on. He
crawled painfully to the top of the slope, and looked back.
The hill-crest on which he stood was higher than any of those he had
passed in his painful run, and he could see clearly the whole of the
purple range. Where he was, he was near the farther edge of the range,
which was here perhaps half a mile wide.
It was a ceaseless, undulating mass of hills and hollows, ridges and
spurs, all of them colored, purple and brown and golden-yellow, deepest
black and dingy white. And from the tips of most of the pointed hills
little wisps of vapor rose up.
A thin, dark cloud had gathered overhead. Burl could look to the right
and left, and see the hills fading into the distance, growing fainter as
the haze above them seemed to grow thicker. He saw, too, the advancing
cohorts of the army ants, creeping over the tangled mass of fungus
growth. They seemed to be feeding as they went, upon the fungus that had
gathered into these incredible monstrosities.
The hills were living. They were not upheavals of the ground, they were
festering heaps of insanely growing, festering mushrooms and fungus.
Upon most of them a purple mould had spread itself so that they seemed a
range of purple hills, but here and there patches of other vivid colors
showed, and there was a large hill whose whole side was a brilliant
golden hue. Another had tiny bright red spots of a strange and malignant
mushroom whose properties Burl did not know, scattered all over the
purple with which it was covered.
Burl leaned heavily upon his club and watched dully. He could run no
more. The army ants were spreading everywhere over the mass of fungus.
They would reach him soon.
Far to the right the vapor thickened. A column of smoke arose. What Burl
did not know and would never know was that far down in the interior of
that compressed mass of fungus, slow oxidization had been going on. The
temperature of the interior had been raised. In the darkness and the
dampness deep down in the hills, spontaneous combustion had begun.
Just as the vast piles of coal the railroad companies of thirty thousand
years before had gathered together sometimes began to burn fiercely in
their interiors, and just as the farmers' piles of damp straw suddenly
burst into fierce flames from no cause, so these huge piles of
tinder-like mushrooms had been burning slowly within themselves.
There had been no flames, because the surface remained intact and nearly
air-tight. But when the army ants began to tear at the edible surfaces
despite the heat they encountered, fresh air found its way to the
smouldering masses of fungus. The slow combustion became rapid
combustion. The dull heat became fierce flames. The slow trickle of thin
smoke became a huge column of thick, choking, acrid stuff that set the
army ants that breathed it into spasms of convulsive writhing.
From a dozen points the flames burst out. A dozen or more columns of
blinding smoke rose to the heavens. A pall of fume-laden smoke gathered
above the range of purple hills, while Burl watched apathetically. And
the serried ranks of army ants marched on to the widening furnaces that
They had recoiled from the river, because their instinct had warned
them. Thirty thousand years without danger from fire, however, had let
their racial fear of fire die out. They marched into the blazing
orifices they had opened in the hills, snapping with their mandibles at
the leaping flames, springing at the glowing tinder.
The blazing area widened, as the purple surface was undermined and fell
in. Burl watched the phenomenon without comprehension and even without
thankfulness. He stood, panting more and more slowly, breathing more and
more easily, until the glow from the approaching flames reddened his
skin and the acrid smoke made tears flow from his eyes.
Then he retreated slowly, leaning on his club and looking back. The
black wave of the army ants was sweeping into the fire, sweeping into
the incredible heat of that carbonized material burning with an open
flame. At last there were only the little bodies of stragglers from the
great ant-army, scurrying here and there over the ground their comrades
had denuded of all living things. The bodies of the main army had
vanished—burnt to crisp ashes in the furnace of the hills.
There had been agony in that flame, dreadful agony such as no man would
like to dwell upon. The insane courage of the ants, attacking with their
horny jaws the burning masses of fungus, rolling over and over with a
flaming missile clutched in their mandibles, sounding their shrill war
cry while cries of agony came from them—blinded, their antennae burnt
off, their lidless eyes scorched by the licking flames, yet going madly
forward on flaming feet to attack, ever attack this unknown and
Burl made his way slowly over the hills. Twice he saw small bodies of
the army ants. They had passed between the widening surfaces their
comrades had opened, and they were feeding voraciously upon the hills
they trod on. Once Burl was spied, and a shrill war cry was sounded, but
he moved on, and the ants were busily eating. A single ant rushed toward
him. Burl brought down his club, and a writhing body remained to be
eaten later by its comrades when they came upon it.
Again night fell. The skies grew red in the west, though the sun did not
shine through the ever present cloud bank. Darkness spread across the
sky. Utter blackness fell over the whole mad world, save where the
luminous mushrooms shed their pale light upon the ground and fireflies
the length of Burl's arm shed their fitful gleams upon an earth of
fungus growths and monstrous insects.
Burl made his way across the range of mushroom hills, picking his path
with his large blue eyes whose pupils expanded to great size. Slowly,
from the sky, now a drop and then a drop, now a drop and then a drop,
the nightly rain that would continue until daybreak began.
Burl found the ground hard beneath his feet. He listened keenly for
sounds of danger. Something rustled heavily in a thicket of mushrooms a
hundred yards away. There were sounds of preening, and of delicate feet
placed lightly here and there upon the ground. Then the throbbing beat
of huge wings began suddenly, and a body took to the air.
A fierce, down-coming current of air smote Burl, and he looked upward in
time to catch the outline of a huge body—a moth—as it passed above
him. He turned to watch the line of its flight, and saw a strange glow
in the sky behind him. The mushroom hills were still burning.
He crouched beneath a squat toadstool and waited for the dawn, his club
held tightly in his hands, and his ears alert for any sound of danger.
The slow-dropping, sodden rain kept on. It fell with irregular, drumlike
beats upon the tough top of the toadstool under which he had taken
Slowly, slowly, the sodden rainfall continued. Drop by drop, all the
night long, the warm pellets of liquid came from the sky. They boomed
upon the hollow heads of the toadstools, and splashed into the steaming
pools that lay festering all over the fungus-covered earth.
And all the night long the great fires grew and spread in the mass of
already half-carbonized mushroom. The flare at the horizon grew brighter
and nearer. Burl, naked and hiding beneath a huge mushroom, watched it
grow near him with wide eyes, wondering what this thing was. He had
never seen a flame before.
The overhanging clouds were brightened by the flames. Over a stretch at
least a dozen miles in length and from half a mile to three miles
across, seething furnaces sent columns of dense smoke up to the roof of
clouds, luminous from the glow below them, and spreading out and forming
an intermediate layer below the cloudbanks.
It was like the glow of all the many lights of a vast city thrown
against the sky—but the last great city had moulded into fungus-covered
rubbish thirty thousand years before. Like the flitting of airplanes
above a populous city, too, was the flitting of fascinated creatures
above the glow.
Moths and great flying beetles, gigantic gnats and midges grown huge
with the passing of time, they fluttered and danced the dance of death
above the flames. As the fire grew nearer to Burl, he could see them.
Colossal, delicately formed creatures swooped above the strange blaze.
Moths with their riotously colored wings of thirty-foot spread beat the
air with mighty strokes, and their huge eyes glowed like carbuncles as
they stared with the frenzied gaze of intoxicated devotees into the
glowing flames below them.
Burl saw a great peacock moth soaring above the burning mushroom hills.
Its wings were all of forty feet across, and fluttered like gigantic
sails as the moth gazed down at the flaming furnace below. The separate
flames had united, now, and a single sheet of white-hot burning stuff
spread across the country for miles, sending up its clouds of smoke, in
which and through which the fascinated creatures flew.
Feathery antennae of the finest lace spread out before the head of the
peacock moth, and its body was softest, richest velvet. A ring of
snow-white down marked where its head began, and the red glow from below
smote on the maroon of its body with a strange effect.
For one instant it was outlined clearly. Its eyes glowed more redly than
any ruby's fire, and the great, delicate wings were poised in flight.
Burl caught the flash of the flames upon two great iridescent spots upon
the wide-spread wings. Shining purple and vivid red, the glow of opal
and the sheen of pearl, all the glory of chalcedony and chrysoprase
formed a single wonder in the red glare of burning fungus. White smoke
compassed the great moth all about, dimming the radiance of its gorgeous
Burl saw it dart straight into the thickest and brightest of the licking
flames, flying madly, eagerly, into the searing, hellish heat as a
willing, drunken sacrifice to the god of fire.
Monster flying beetles with their horny wing-cases stiffly stretched,
blundered above the reeking, smoking pyre. In the red light from before
them they shone like burnished metal, and their clumsy bodies with the
spurred and fierce-toothed limbs darted like so many grotesque meteors
through the luminous haze of ascending smoke.
Burl saw strange collisions and still stranger meetings. Male and female
flying creatures circled and spun in the glare, dancing their dance of
love and death in the wild radiance from the funeral pyre of the purple
hills. They mounted higher than Burl could see, drunk with the ecstasy
of living, then descended to plunge headlong to death in the roaring
fires beneath them.
From every side the creatures came. Moths of brightest yellow with soft
and furry bodies palpitant with life flew madly into the column of light
that reached to the overhanging clouds, then moths of deepest black with
gruesome symbols upon their wings came swiftly to dance, like motes in a
bath of sunlight, above the glow.
And Burl sat crouched beneath an overshadowing toadstool and watched.
The perpetual, slow, sodden raindrops fell. A continual faint hissing
penetrated the sound of the fire—the raindrops being turned to steam.
The air was alive with flying things. From far away, Burl heard a
strange, deep bass muttering. He did not know the cause, but there was a
vast swamp, of the existence of which he was ignorant, some ten or
fifteen miles away, and the chorus of insect-eating giant frogs reached
his ears even at that distance.
The night wore on, while the flying creatures above the fire danced and
died, their numbers ever recruited by fresh arrivals. Burl sat tensely
still, his wide eyes watching everything, his mind groping for an
explanation of what he saw. At last the sky grew dimly gray, then
brighter, and day came on. The flames of the burning hills grew faint as
the fire died down, and after a long time Burl crept from his hiding
place and stood erect.
A hundred yards from where he was, a straight wall of smoke rose from
the still smouldering fungus, and Burl could see it stretching for miles
in either direction. He turned to continue on his way, and saw the
remains of one of the tragedies of the night.
A huge moth had flown into the flames, been horribly scorched, and
floundered out again. Had it been able to fly, it would have returned to
its devouring deity, but now it lay immovable upon the ground, its
antennae seared hopelessly, one beautiful, delicate wing burned in
gaping holes, its eyes dimmed by flame and its exquisitely tapering
limbs broken and crushed by the force with which it had struck the
ground. It lay helpless upon the earth, only the stumps of its antennae
moving restlessly, and its abdomen pulsating slowly as it drew
Burl drew near and picked up a stone. He moved on presently, a velvet
cloak cast over his shoulders, gleaming with all the colors of the
rainbow. A gorgeous mass of soft, blue moth fur was about his middle,
and he had bound upon his forehead two yard-long, golden fragments of
the moth's magnificent antennae. He strode on, slowly, clad as no man
had been clad in all the ages.
After a little he secured a spear and took up his journey to Saya,
looking like a prince of Ind upon a bridal journey—though no mere
prince ever wore such raiment in days of greatest glory.
For many long miles Burl threaded his way through a single forest of
thin-stalked toadstools. They towered three-man-heights high, and all
about their bases were streaks and splashes of the rusts and moulds that
preyed upon them. Twice Burl came to open glades wherein open, bubbling
pools of green slime festered in corruption, and once he hid himself
fearfully as a monster scarabeus beetle lumbered within three yards of
him, moving heavily onward with a clanking of limbs as of some mighty
Burl saw the mighty armour and the inward-curving jaws of the creature,
and envied him his weapons. The time was not yet come, however, when
Burl would smile at the great insect and hunt him for the juicy flesh
contained in those armoured limbs.
Burl was still a savage, still ignorant, still timid. His principal
advance had been that whereas he had fled without reasoning, he now
paused to see if he need flee. In his hands he bore a long,
sharp-pointed chitinous spear. It had been the weapon of a huge, unnamed
flying insect scorched to death in the burning of the purple hills,
which had floundered out of the flames to die. Burl had worked for an
hour before being able to detach the weapon he coveted. It was as long
and longer than Burl himself.
He was a strange sight, moving slowly and cautiously through the
shadowed lanes of the mushroom forest. A cloak of delicate velvet in
which all the colors of the rainbow played in iridescent beauty hung
from his shoulders. A mass of soft and beautiful moth fur was about his
middle, and in the strip of sinew about his waist the fiercely toothed
limb of a fighting beetle was thrust carelessly. He had bound to his
forehead twin stalks of a great moth's feathery golden antennae.
Against the play of color that came from his borrowed plumage his pink
skin showed in odd contrast. He looked like some proud knight walking
slowly through the gardens of a goblin's castle. But he was still a
fearful creature, no more than the monstrous creatures about him save in
the possession of latent intelligence. He was weak—and therein lay his
greatest promise. A hundred thousand years before him his ancestors had
been forced by lack of claws and fangs to develop brains.
Burl was sunk as low as they had been, but he had to combat more
horrifying enemies, more inexorable threatenings, and many times more
crafty assailants. His ancestors had invented knives and spears and
flying missiles. The creatures about Burl had knives and spears a
thousand times more deadly than the weapons that had made his ancestors
masters of the woods and forests.
Burl was in comparison vastly more weak than his forebears had been, and
it was that weakness that in times to come would lead him and those who
followed him to heights his ancestors had never known. But now—
He heard a discordant, deep bass bellow, coming from a spot not twenty
yards away. In a flash of panic he darted behind a clump of mushrooms
and hid himself, panting in sheer terror. He waited for an instant in
frozen fear, motionless and tense. His wide, blue eyes were glassy.
The bellow came again, but this time with a querulous note. Burl heard a
crashing and plunging as of some creature caught in a snare. A mushroom
fell with a brittle snapping, and the spongy thud as it fell to the
ground was followed by a tremendous commotion. Something was fighting
desperately against something else, but Burl did not know what creature
or creatures might be in combat.
He waited for a long time, and the noise gradually died away. Presently
Burl's breath came more slowly, and his courage returned. He stole from
his hiding place, and would have made away, but something held him back.
Instead of creeping from the scene, he crept cautiously over toward the
source of the noise.
He peered between two cream-colored toadstool stalks and saw the cause
of the noise. A wide, funnel-shaped snare of silk was spread out before
him, some twenty yards across and as many deep. The individual threads
could be plainly seen, but in the mass it seemed a fabric of sheerest,
finest texture. Held up by the tall mushrooms, it was anchored to the
ground below, and drew away to a tiny point through which a hole gave on
some yet unknown recess. And all the space of the wide snare was hung
with threads, fine, twisted threads no more than half the thickness of
This was the trap of a labyrinth spider. Not one of the interlacing
threads was strong enough to hold the feeblest of prey, but the threads
were there by thousands. A great cricket had become entangled in the
maze of sticky lines. Its limbs thrashed out, smashing the snare-lines
at every stroke, but at every stroke meeting and becoming entangled with
a dozen more. It thrashed about mightily, emitting at intervals the
horrible, deep bass cry that the chirping voice of the cricket had
become with its increase in size.
Burl breathed more easily, and watched with a fascinated curiosity. Mere
death—even tragic death—as among insects held no great interest for
him. It was a matter of such common and matter-of-fact occurrence that
he was not greatly stirred. But a spider and his prey was another
There were few insects that deliberately sought man. Most insects have
their allotted victims, and will touch no others, but spiders have a
terrifying impartiality. One great beetle devouring another was a matter
of indifference to Burl. A spider devouring some luckless insect was but
an example of what might happen to him. He watched alertly, his gaze
traveling from the enmeshed cricket to the strange orifice at the rear
of the funnel-shaped snare.
The opening darkened. Two shining, glistening eyes had been watching
from the rear of the funnel. It drew itself into a tunnel there, in
which the spider had been waiting. Now it swung out lightly and came
toward the cricket. It was a gray spider (Agelena labyrinthica), with
twin black ribbons upon its thorax, next the head, and with two stripes
of curiously speckled brown and white upon its abdomen. Burl saw, too,
two curious appendages like a tail.
It came nimbly out of its tunnel-like hiding place and approached the
cricket. The cricket was struggling only feebly now, and the cries it
uttered were but feeble, because of the confining threads that fettered
its limbs. Burl saw the spider throw itself upon the cricket and saw the
final, convulsive shudder of the insect as the spider's fangs pierced
its tough armour. The sting lasted a long time, and finally Burl saw
that the spider was really feeding. All the succulent juices of the now
dead cricket were being sucked from its body by the spider. It had stung
the cricket upon the haunch, and presently it went to the other leg and
drained that, too, by means of its powerful internal suction-pump. When
the second haunch had been sucked dry, the spider pawed the lifeless
creature for a few moments and left it.
Food was plentiful, and the spider could afford to be dainty in its
feeding. The two choicest titbits had been consumed. The remainder could
A sudden thought came to Burl and quite took his breath away. For a
second his knees knocked together in self-induced panic. He watched the
gray spider carefully with growing determination in his eyes. He, Burl,
had killed a hunting-spider upon the red-clay cliff. True, the killing
had been an accident, and had nearly cost him his own life a few minutes
later in the web-spider's snare, but he had killed a spider, and of the
most deadly kind.
Now, a great ambition was growing in Burl's heart. His tribe had always
feared spiders too much to know much of their habits, but they knew one
or two things. The most important was that the snare-spiders never left
their lairs to hunt—never! Burl was about to make a daring application
of that knowledge.
He drew back from the white and shining snare and crept softly to the
rear. The fabric gathered itself into a point and then continued for
some twenty feet as a tunnel, in which the spider waited while dreaming
of its last meal and waiting for the next victim to become entangled in
the labyrinth in front. Burl made his way to a point where the tunnel
was no more than ten feet away, and waited.
Presently, through the interstices of the silk, he saw the gray bulk of
the spider. It had left the exhausted body of the cricket, and returned
to its resting place. It settled itself carefully upon the soft walls
of the tunnel, with its shining eyes fixed upon the tortuous threads of
its trap. Burl's hair was standing straight up upon his head from sheer
fright, but he was the slave of an idea.
He drew near and poised his spear, his new and sharp spear, taken from
the body of an unknown flying creature killed by the burning purple
hills. Burl raised the spear and aimed its sharp and deadly point at the
thick gray bulk he could see dimly through the threads of the tunnel. He
thrust it home with all his strength—and ran away at the top of his
speed, glassy-eyed from terror.
A long time later he ventured near again, his heart in his mouth, ready
to flee at the slightest sound. All was still. Burl had missed the
horrible convulsions of the wounded spider, had not heard the frightful
gnashings of its fangs as it tore at the piercing weapon, had not seen
the silken threads of the tunnel ripped as the spider—hurt to
death—had struggled with insane strength to free itself.
He came back beneath the overshadowing toadstools, stepping quietly and
cautiously, to find a great rent in the silken tunnel, to find the great
gray bulk lifeless and still, half-fallen through the opening the spear
had first made. A little puddle of evil-smelling liquid lay upon the
ground below the body, and from time to time a droplet fell from the
spear into the puddle with a curious splash.
Burl looked at what he had done, saw the dead body of the creature he
had slain, saw the ferocious mandibles, and the keen and deadly fangs.
The dead eyes of the creature still stared at him malignantly, and the
hairy legs were still braced as if further to enlarge the gaping hole
through which it had partly fallen.
Exultation filled Burl's heart. His tribe had been but furtive vermin
for thousands of years, fleeing from the mighty insects, hiding from
them, and if overtaken but waiting helplessly for death, screaming
shrilly in terror.
He, Burl, had turned the tables. He had slain one of the enemies of his
tribe. His breast expanded. Always his tribesmen went quietly and
fearfully, making no sound. But a sudden, exultant yell burst from
Burl's lips—the first hunting cry from the lips of a man in three
The next second his pulse nearly stopped in sheer panic at having made
such a noise. He listened fearfully, but there was no sound. He drew
near his prey and carefully withdrew his spear. The viscid liquid made
it slimy and slippery, and he had to wipe it dry against a leathery
toadstool. Then Burl had to conquer his illogical fear again before
daring to touch the creature he had slain.
He moved off presently, with the belly of the spider upon his back and
two of the hairy legs over his shoulders. The other limbs of the monster
hung limp, and trailed upon the ground. Burl was now a still more
curious sight as a gayly colored object with a cloak shining in
iridescent colors, the golden antennae of a great moth rising from his
forehead, and the hideous bulk of a gray spider for a burden.
He moved through the thin-stalked mushroom forest, and, because of the
thing he carried, all creatures fled before him. They did not fear
man—their instinct was slow-moving—but during all the millions of
years that insects have existed, there have existed spiders to prey upon
them. So Burl moved on in solemn state, a brightly clad man bent beneath
the weight of a huge and horrible monster.
He came upon a valley full of torn and blackened mushrooms. There was
not a single yellow top among them. Every one had been infested with
tiny maggots which had liquefied the tough meat of the mushroom and
caused it to drip to the ground below. And all the liquid had gathered
in a golden pool in the center of the small depression. Burl heard a
loud humming and buzzing before he topped the rise that opened the
valley for his inspection. He stopped a moment and looked down.
A golden-red lake, its center reflecting the hazy sky overhead. All
about, blackened mushrooms, seeming to have been charred and burned by a
fierce flame. A slow-flowing golden brooklet trickled slowly over a
rocky ledge, into the larger pool. And all about the edges of the golden
lake, in ranks and rows, by hundreds, thousands, and by millions, were
ranged the green-gold, shining bodies of great flies.
They were small as compared with the other insects. They had increased
in size but a fraction of the amount that the bees, for example, had
increased; but it was due to an imperative necessity of their race.
The flesh-flies laid their eggs by hundreds in decaying carcases. The
others laid their eggs by hundreds in the mushrooms. To feed the maggots
that would hatch, a relatively great quantity of food was needed,
therefore the flies must remain comparatively small, or the body of a
single grasshopper, say, would furnish food for but two or three grubs
instead of the hundreds it must support.
Burl stared down at the golden pool. Bluebottles, greenbottles, and all
the flies of metallic luster were gathered at the Lucullan feast of
corruption. Their buzzing as they darted above the odorous pool of
golden liquid made the sound Burl had heard. Their bodies flashed and
glittered as they darted back and forth, seeking a place to alight and
join in the orgy.
Those which clustered about the banks of the pool were still as if
carved from metal. Their huge, red eyes glowed, and their bodies shone
with an obscene fatness. Flies are the most disgusting of all insects.
Burl watched them a moment, watched the interlacing streams of light as
they buzzed eagerly above the pool, seeking a place at the festive
A drumming roar sounded in the air. A golden speck appeared in the sky,
a slender, needle-like body with transparent, shining wings and two huge
eyes. It grew nearer and became a dragonfly twenty feet and more in
length, its body shimmering, purest gold. It poised itself above the
pool and then darted down. Its jaws snapped viciously and repeatedly,
and at each snapping the glittering body of a fly vanished.
A second dragonfly appeared, its body a vivid purple, and a third. They
swooped and rushed above the golden pool, snapping in mid air, turning
their abrupt, angular turns, creatures of incredible ferocity and
beauty. At the moment they were nothing more or less than
slaughtering-machines. They darted here and there, their many-faceted
eyes burning with blood-lust. In that mass of buzzing flies even the
most voracious appetite must be sated, but the dragonflies kept on.
Beautiful, slender, graceful creatures, they dashed here and there above
the pond like avenging fiends or the mythical dragons for which they had
Only a few miles farther on Burl came upon a familiar landmark. He knew
it well, but from a safe distance as always. A mass of rock had heaved
itself up from the nearly level plain over which he was traveling, and
formed an outjutting cliff. At one point the rock overhung a sheer drop,
making an inverted ledge—a roof over nothingness—which had been
pre-empted by a hairy creature and made into a fairylike dwelling. A
white hemisphere clung tenaciously to the rock above, and long cables
anchored it firmly.
Burl knew the place as one to be fearfully avoided. A Clotho spider
(Clotho Durandi, LATR) had built itself a nest there, from which it
emerged to hunt the unwary. Within that half-globe there was a monster,
resting upon a cushion of softest silk. But if one went too near, one of
the little inverted arches, seemingly firmly closed by a wall of silk,
would open and a creature out of a dream of hell emerge, to run with
fiendish agility toward its prey.
Surely, Burl knew the place. Hung upon the outer walls of the silken
palace were stones and tiny boulders, discarded fragments of former
meals, and the gutted armour from limbs of ancient prey. But what caused
Burl to know the place most surely and most terribly was another
decoration that dangled from the castle of this insect ogre. This was
the shrunken, desiccated figure of a man, all its juices extracted and
the life gone.
The death of that man had saved Burl's life two years before. They had
been together, seeking a new source of edible mushrooms for food. The
Clotho spider was a hunter, not a spinner of snares. It sprang suddenly
from behind a great puff-ball, and the two men froze in terror. Then it
came swiftly forward and deliberately chose its victim. Burl had escaped
when the other man was seized. Now he looked meditatively at the hiding
place of his ancient enemy. Some day—
But now he passed on. He went past the thicket in which the great moths
hid during the day, and past the pool—a turgid thing of slime and
yeast—in which a monster water snake lurked. He penetrated the little
wood of the shining mushrooms that gave out light at night, and the
shadowed place where the truffle-hunting beetles went chirping
thunderously during the dark hours.
And then he saw Saya. He caught a flash of pink skin vanishing behind
the thick stalk of a squat toadstool, and ran forward, calling her name.
She appeared, and saw the figure with the horrible bulk of the spider
upon its back. She cried out in horror, and Burl understood. He let his
burden fall and then went swiftly toward her.
They met. Saya waited timidly until she saw who this man was, and then
astonishment went over her face. Gorgeously attired, in an iridescent
cloak from the whole wing of a great moth, with a strip of softest fur
from a night-flying creature about his middle, with golden, feathery
antennae bound upon his forehead, and a fierce spear in his hands—this
was not the Burl she had known.
But then he moved slowly toward her, filled with a fierce delight at
seeing her again, thrilling with joy at the slender gracefulness of her
form and the dark richness of her tangled hair. He held out his hands
and touched her shyly. Then, manlike, he began to babble excitedly of
the things that had happened to him, and dragged her toward his great
victim, the gray-bellied spider.
Saya trembled when she saw the furry bulk lying upon the ground, and
would have fled when Burl advanced and took it upon his back. Then
something of the pride that filled him came vicariously to her. She
smiled a flashing smile, and Burl stopped short in his excited
explanation. He was suddenly tongue-tied. His eyes became pleading and
soft. He laid the huge spider at her feet and spread out his hands
Thirty thousand years of savagery had not lessened the femininity in
Saya. She became aware that Burl was her slave, that these wonderful
things he wore and had done were as nothing if she did not approve. She
drew away—saw the misery in Burl's face—and abruptly ran into his arms
and clung to him, laughing happily. And quite suddenly Burl saw with
extreme clarity that all these things he had done, even the slaying of a
great spider, were of no importance whatever beside this most wonderful
thing that had just happened, and told Saya so quite humbly, but holding
her very close to him as he did so.
And so Burl came back to his tribe. He had left it nearly naked, with
but a wisp of moth-wing twisted about his middle, a timid, fearful,
trembling creature. He returned in triumph, walking slowly and
fearlessly down a broad lane of golden mushrooms toward the hiding place
of his people.
Upon his shoulders was draped a great and many-colored cloak made from
the whole of a moth's wing. Soft fur was about his middle. A spear was
in his hand and a fierce club at his waist. He and Saya bore between
them the dead body of a huge spider—aforetime the dread of the
pink-skinned, naked men. But to Burl the most important thing of all was
that Saya walked beside him openly, acknowledging him before all the