Too many times.
Life is like that, though. Peng didn’t know much, but he knew that. The good things were as rare as… well, as rare as a smile from his wife, Glunda. Meanwhile, the bad things fell over themselves on their way to make Peng’s life worse for him.
Too many things.
Too many bad things.
Too many bad things all at once.
Peng could hear his father’s voice in his ear every time one of those bad things happened. ‘Don’t worry, it could be worse,’ his father had always said. Even in his last minutes of life as the blood poured from his side where the cave lion had almost tore him apart.
Peng’s father lay there on the dust of the mountainside as his blood turned the earth red, then brown around him.
Belk had looked up at his son, smiling through the pain. ‘Don’t worry son, it could be worse,’ he’d said, forcing a smile through his grimace as his hand squeezed Peng’s hand harder than anything had ever squeezed it before.
Then the grip relaxed and then its strength had gone completely.
Peng didn’t know how long he’d sat there holding the now lifeless hand and looking into his father’s face, waiting for….
He didn’t know what he’d waited for.
But it took him the rest of the day to drag his father back home on the makeshift litter his father had taught him how to make on their first hunt together.
Usually, they bought back some animal they’d caught, and the family would celebrate.
This time, when Peng returned home, there was only mourning.
For three days.
Then Peng and the rest of the men from the tribe had returned to the spot where the rains had washed away all traces of his father’s blood. Together the men tracked down the cave lion.
They had all stood around in a circle, watching as Peng faced the lion alone. He had to fight it for his family’s name.
He had won, even though in the end, he’d collapsed and – they said – almost died from the injuries inflicted by the cave lion.
Peng sat up straight. Even though it was only days after his father’s death, he knew it was the last time he ever felt that life was going his way.
The last time he’d felt good.
He had his pick of the unmarried women after that.
He’d chosen the best of them – so he thought.
Glunda thought she’d done well too, snagging the then hero of the tribe.
But, soon after Peng had discovered that being the hero didn’t last long. You were only as good as your last kill.
He, Peng, was chosen to lead the next raids against the neighbouring villages. They needed more food, more women, more of everything.
So Peng the brave, Peng the bold, had led the village warriors into battle.
Then lost again.
Now, Peng sat in the smoking ashes of what had been his village. The only survivor – except one – wondering what to do next.
Wiping the ashes of their dead relatives and tribespeople from her hands, Glunda stood in front of Peng.
‘So, now what?’ she said.