The two characters, age 15, are exiles in an low-tech society. He has been practicing for two days with her spearthrower (atlatl), proving as incompetent at it as he is expert at bringing down rabbits with stones.
She bites her lip, turns away, and says in a voice I strain to hear, “I made you something.”
Dinner? I don’t say it aloud, and then I’m glad I've kept my mouth shut when she reaches into the smaller cave and pulls out her spearthrower.
It’s different, somehow. It takes me a dozen heartbeats to realize it’s more than changed. It’s new.
“For you,” she mumbles.
“A….” I can manage no more. I thought the world had barred all presents to an exile, allowing no rewards beyond the bare price of survival we eke out each day. My eyes hurt. I turn away so that she doesn’t see me rub surreptitiously at them.
“Do you like it?”
A weight falls across my heart. I have nothing for her, nothing to offer in return except – at best – yet another rabbit.
“But that’s what a present is,” she says. “Otherwise it’s just trading.”
“Well, then…. Thank you.”
“See,” she says, laughing, “You did give me something. A thank-you is gift enough.” I don’t believe her, but she points to the cave. “You’ve given me a lot. You saved my life.” She whispers the last part.
We’ve saved each other’s lives. No bartercounter keeps track, but I suspect there’s not much owing either way.
The next day I hurl spears at two more deer. I might have hit the second one if a tree hadn’t gotten in the way.
("Bartercounter": accountant, sort of. )