Toth was a giant of a man. Standing astride his domain, a yards-tall heap of steaming, decaying animal dung, he prompted fear and awe from lesser men. They had to crane their necks to gaze up at his towering four-foot-eight frame on those rare occasions when they dared get close enough to do so.
As she stood atop the dung heap and watched the thin clouds slide across the cold, gray skies, his sleek, oil-soaked loincloth flapped about his stout and hairy loins. Toth had seen many a terrifying winter, months of frigid temperatures, heavy blankets of snow, and relentless freezing rain just when he had gotten used to the first two elements. For as many winters as he could remember, his only defenses against the sharp, strangling cold were his inadequate loincloth, the thick, matted hair that covered most of his body, and the heat generated by the decomposition of the dung on which he dwelled. Usually, these basic facts satisfied him. It meant he had all that he needed.
Recently, however, he had started to think something was missing. Not that he could have put his finger on it, but Toth had a new and confounding problem. Not the crunchy crust of ice that encircled his feet from where they sank into the soft peat heaped on his pile of dung. Not the vicious running sores caused by severe vitamin depletion now that most of the plant life had died off and the herds had fled south. Not the fact that he believed his whole tribe to have been whisked away many winters ago by Grntltl, the mighty winter hare with teeth sharper than splintered bone. Not even the fact that he was completely mistaken about this, as his tribe had in fact abandoned him in the night when he’d suddenly become insanely obsessed with protecting against all reason the massive heap of reindeer dung the tribe used for fertilizer and fire.
No, Toth’s problem was more elusive. And to his mounting frustration, it was approaching him now.
Out of the pass through the high, red hills came Depthana, the woman who passed this way every few weeks as she gathered things for her own tribe. Toth watched open-mouthed from where he stood. She was very small from this distance, but he enjoyed watching her small figure stride across the blasted landscape from the pass on one side of the narrow valley to the next, where she always faded from sight. To an objective eye, Depthana did not so much stride as lope awkwardly, half-bent and skittering on rickety legs. Over her thin shoulders she bore a ragged, torn pelt holding together a collection of several score pounds of dried peat. The burden accentuated Depthana’s natural shuffling gait and made her appear even more sickly and infirm than did her poor wintertime diet. As always, Toth’s heart was inflamed with love at the sight.
Toth knew he must do something, but he had a limited supply of reactions to most things. She wasn’t prey, so he couldn’t approach her that way. He had tried that once, charging down the hill of dung, waving a club over his head, and shrieking at the top of his strangely high voice. But then Depthana had fled as quickly has her spindly, calcium-deprived legs could carry her. At the time, Toth at first thought there was something promising in the fact that she left her burdens behind her, that they were gifts of some sort, but it had never happened again.
Ever since, Depthana put a much greater distance between them. She walked well out of her way to give herself plenty of time to run away. So Toth started to think maybe she had been frightened the same way prey would be. It had taken him some months to work out these details. Ever since, he had simply stood and stared. Sometimes he made involuntary noises of longing in the back of his throat, but that was it.
Toth knew he knew he needed a new approach. But that was the only one he’d ever had. It had carried him through hunts, through raids on villages, through one-on-one combat over choice hunks of meat and gourds of fermented grain and spittle. It had gotten him everything he ever wanted. But it didn’t seem to work on Depthana. This was Toth’s problem, and he had only recently begun to understand its broad outlines.
He needed a new tactic. Something that would get Depthana’s attention without sending her screaming over the horizon. Toth reluctantly put down the club he had absent-mindedly been gripping. He picked it up again. Then he thought very carefully and very deliberately put it down. A weapon might frighten her. He would simply call out to her.
“Aaaaaggghhh!” Toth shouted cheerfully, waving his heavily-muscled arms over his slope-browed head. Depthana didn’t appear to react. She didn’t look at him, but she didn’t flee either. Toth considered it a minor success. But then he noticed that she gained speed as she passed the closest approach to his mound of dung. He wanted her to stop. “Uragh!” he ventured. Still she kept her eyes on the pass and hurried along. “Uragha ah!” Toth elaborated, trying to make his point clearer.
His beloved, the long strands of her greasy, sulfur-colored hair obscuring her fearful, wide-set eyes, still seemed to be in a hurry. She had just passed as close as necessary to him as she traversed the valley. Soon, Toth worried, she might not be able to hear him at all. How could he make himself clear? He had to get her attention.
Rooting around in the icy clods of dung surrounding his feet, Toth selected a hefty chunk of frozen feces and tested its weight. If his voice wouldn’t reach Depthana, maybe he something else would. He gauged the distance to her shrinking figure through squinting, watery eyes, then spun around a few times to build up some power and finally let fly with the missile in his adored’s general direction.
It soared through the crisp air, trailing a cloud of debris, and struck heavily on the hard, bare ground over which she was making her trembling way. The icy clod shattered only a few dozen feet in front of her. She tried to jump back at the impact, but her burden still weighed her down. A small avalanche of dried peat spilled from her pack. But rather than looking Toth’s way to witness the wild, over-the-head waves with which he greeted her, she shifted her sack and pressed on even more quickly.
Toth was dumbfounded. He was, however, generally pretty close to being dumbfounded on any average day, so he soon looked to further refine his courtship of the fair Depthana. He stooped to select a particularly round, hefty, and solid piece of dung, then steeled himself for a better throw. She would be impressed with his strength. She would see that he was presenting her with these gifts. She might realize that instead of walking to further valleys for dried peat, she could come to him for all the dung she could carry. Toth took four full spins, then sent the brown, crumbly sphere into the sky with all the might his mighty but malnourished body could muster.
The dung ball traced a gentle arc across the slowly darkening sky, seeming to defy the relentless pull of gravity. Toth followed its path with his whole body, bending himself to aid in its journey to the one who unknowingly held a fierce grip on his heart. Depthana trudged along as fast as she could, thankfully putting distance between herself and the fetid, steaming mound and its hairy, horrible protector. From his vantage point, Toth quietly grunted and tried to nudge the dung ball on its way with jerking movements of his head. Finally the clod reached its apex and began its rapid descent toward the point where Depthana picked her way across the blasted ground.
When it at last came into contact with her unshielded skull, it struck her instantly to the ground. Her massive bag of dried peat landed on her like a massive earthen pillow.
“Ooohhaalaa!” Toth shouted joyfully. He could not have been happier if a mastodon had wandered into the valley on the coldest day of winter and died of a brain hemorrhage at his feet. His heart spilled over with endless waves of excitement, love, and victory. He picked up his club and scrambled down toward the ground so he could rush out and introduce himself to the woman destined to be his bride.