A Western Scene in the Pleistocene
The fading sun, crimson and falling, knaps spearpoints of light into the mouth of the cave. A piece of flint strikes a nearby stone, the sound almost metallic, and ripples out, cutting a swath through the still and humid air. The two Neanderthals, the last two, stop doing what they can to tend their wounds and look up and out. I mean, they do this, but they seem to do it without moving, and all at once, they blend back, fading into the stone scenery surrounding them, blurring into shafts of darkness.
They speak to each other without moving their mouths.
"I thought you were going to cover me".
There is a pause while the shadow that she forms against the stone wall opposite him seems to shift in position slightly.
She has turned towards him. She too speaks, yet not in a way we could hear or recognize "I thought you were going to run! If I had known you were just going to stroll along..."
"Stroll..." and yet no sooner has he interrupted than he too is interrupted.
It was that sound again, now further up the ridge, running just fifty leaps away and up to the top left ledge of the cave in which they take their sanctuary. They take sanctuary but have every intention of defending themselves. That sound...what is it? Certainly it was made by humans, the humans pursuing them, and they render this agreement and recognition to one another simultaneously in a telepathic exchange that can be best described as feeling akin to the sound of a Perfect Fifth.
They follow it: a spear point scrapes across stone, runs up along the cliff edge to where it becomes lost in brambles. She sees a dark topknot of hair and a protruding spear, a dark topknot that attempts to hide itself behind a rock along the top edge of the bluff. A long thin reed is suddenly in her hand and her hand moves in a fluid arc to her mouth. His only movement is an eyeball, he glances out of corner of his left eye as she sharply draws her breath. He is, once again, amazed by her speed and accuracy. The hollow plosive and a sickly dull thud follow. The spear falls with an repeat of the flint on flint sound, clamor, tumbling, its owner's topknot disappears from behind the rock, there is a rolling and the breaking of twigs, rustling leaves, a the body falls forward, over the rock, tumbling headfirst, downward to the stone pool. The pool, dry in this hot season, now filling with the thick hot blood that pumping is expelled out of our ancestor whose soul was expelled moments before on the clifftop.
"How many are we up to today?"
She merely nods. They are not murders, they don't hate the Early Modern Humans, but rather it is these colonialists who seem to hate them, who have hunted them to this point, where they must hide at the entrance to this unknown cave, where they will perhaps be driven into it before the night is out. Where they hide against the rock face, camouflaged in an ambiguity between past and future. There is a breeze in this ambiguous present, and on it rides news of their pursuers to our fugitive's sensitive ears.
"Chief Mother..." the boy begins.
"They are there?" the matriarch growls.
The boy points to the small cave mouth were the last two Neanderthals hide themselves. The queen briefly glances at this and then back at the scout. "How many are there?" She snaps.
The boy holds up two fingers.
"Two!" She furiously sheaves her spear into the mud. "Two of them!"
She advances on the boy, grasps him by the tunic and shoves him down, in the mud.
"Please Mother," begins the young scout.
But he is interrupted. The point of the spear is planted just before him and as he recoils, he is grabbed again by her claws, which this time strangle fur tunic and upper arm in one, the nails pushing through the skin, trembling, shaking with fury. She pulls him up towards her with her muscular left arm while her right recoils out of backhand position like a spring-loaded tentacle, breaking his jaw with a snap as the back of her fist strikes his still tender face.
"Two men!" She seethes. Her hissing voice becomes a fearsome screech that echoes across the valley. She raises her face to the rising moon as her black hair runs from her head like dark clouds in a warm summer storm.
The shriek is information: the two in the cave now realize that it is the Queen herself that pursues them. Chills move up and down their spines until they form frozen standing waves of terror between them, harmoniously recoiling from two awarenesses telepathically locked into a unified embrace by their fear.
"Actually, it's one woman and one man," says the boy quietly, licking the salty blood that streams from his destroyed upper lips "animals, bandits."
"Northern bandits?" the queen asks into the air, still surveying the empty space in front of her nose, following an insect almost rhetorically, nearly reflectively, symbolic of the attitude of thought that would henceforth characterize humanities greatest philosophers.
"Two northern bandits", she says to herself, "two bloody savages..." as if an awareness where slowing knocking on her door, offering her the morning news: "well...now... that explains the mess they left back at camp."
It had indeed been carnage. For months, following the human occupation of the Neanderthal tribes' former hunting grounds, the two had remained behind, living off the land. Well, living off the land and raiding the stores of food and supplies kept by the humans. Yet it was not for this mere theft that the humans hated and feared their slightly larger telepathic cousins. No, it was that following the human surprise attack at the Neanderthal village a year earlier a strange plague swept the human population, a weeping and painful genital infection akin an especially intense form of syphilis, and one that advances rather more quickly to its final, fatal stage than its more recent historical counterpart. In this prehistoric human syphilis, the brain tissue was quickly attacked forming a membrane of holes out of which and madness ensued. A bloodthirsty, all-consuming madness that resulted in berserker behavior, in which the victim's itching was finally cured by violent death, either by attacking others, inanimate objects or, for example, from senseless leaps from the tallest precipices, or fearsome sprints directly into the horns of some animal, or even more often a rock wall.
To the humans, in the absence of the science it would take them thousands of years to embrace, this was a magic curse inflicted on them by the remaining Neanderthals who they knew where hidden in the hills surrounding their former village. The Neanderthals knew nothing of this at all, only that they were being hunted and that their skinnier, more monkey-like cousins where violent and crazy.
Yet another sound emerges from the queen, returning us to the present: a similar amplified hissing to what was heard before. The scout, partially distracted by a loose tooth merely nods, paling slightly. The warriors around them also feel a nervous creep within their guts. The collective thought ripples through the group, yet with nowhere near the effectiveness of the telepathy employed by their Neanderthal cousins down in the cave. Perhaps in the human condition, the message is carried from sweat glands to neighbor's nose, when movement from eye to eye is impossible. Nevertheless, it is fear and fearful all at once. The message runs something like: Yes, there are only two bandits down there, but they also have the magic, and they will more than likely take at least twenty of us with them, given what they left of us back at camp; and who among us will it be who is spared today?
These warriors, the hunters, have now spread across the ridge, and as the moon continued to set and the darkness rise and as the queen continued to hiss they thought out their plan of siege, each covering a bit of the ridge in front of them, a phalanx of people, running clear around and in front of the cave where our Neanderthal couple wait, contemplating escape. The Queen paints her face in ochre, she rubs cadmium into a bit of mud and draws lines along her arms and an X across her breasts from her bag she pulls a sort of torc wound with Neanderthal hair and places it around her neck. From her ears hang earrings from which are suspended Neanderthal ears.
And even at this moment an arrow flies through the air, flies from the cave through the night, and strikes the young scout who has risen beside his Chief Mother to look up and over the rock. Unknowingly he was silhouetted in the moonlight and our Neanderthals, aware that they are outnumbered even if they do not yet realize to what degree, have shot towards him. Perhaps, if they knew he was only a boy, and one with a broken jaw, perhaps they would have been merciful, yet for this bit of eternity the arrow flies unthinking and with force pierces through the neck of the boy, who grabs frantically at his throat, feeling the foreign shaft, the wood that is now lodged clear through it, feeling his own blood warm on his hands, his eyes wide, his mouth, he falls to his knees, then to his back, sighs, looking up to the moon which blurs...
In the cave, he feels that he should brighten things up and changes the subject:
"I've got a great idea where we should go next!" "Well I don't want to hear it, " She replies. "You'll change your mind once I tell you..." "Shup up!"
"Okay, okay" A pause. He wonders if she is really angry at him.
After a while, she knows she has to take it up with him, she turns to look at him:
"It was your great ideas that got us here."
He pushes his wooden staff into the dirt. "Forget it".
She isn't ready to forget it, in fact, she wants to let him know that this time, really, "well, I never want to hear another of your great ideas, all right?"
"All right." he mentally whispers, penitently. "Good," She says.
"Australia," He answers, aloud.
She pauses, looks away, then out into the darkness where nothing moves now, where she knows there are a lot of people pursuing them...or maybe they have gone home for the night? And then she turns to him again.
"I figured you secretly wanted to know, so I told you, " he says, "Australia, where our cousins live".
She stares out the mouth of the cave.
"That is your great idea?"
"The latest in a long line."
But her response comes quickly, and he can feel that he is in for it, the bickering session will soon begin in earnest.
"Australia is no better than here!"
"That’s all you know!" He answers quickly back.
"Name me one thing..." She begins.
"They are telepathic in Australia," he begins...
"They are?" She is becoming interested.
"That’s right, my tulip, so we wouldn't be foreigners, and they got thousands of miles to hide in and a good climate, nice beaches, you could learn to swim and..."
"Swimming is not important" she interrupts. "How do you know our cousins are there?"
"Well, you have heard of Australopithecines, right?"
"And you expect that we will go all the way to Australia and make a living by robbing the stores of Australopithecines and that that is going to be better than what we are doing here and.... aaaaargh!"
"Easy, ripe and luscious" he says. "AAAAARRGHhhh!!!!"
Yet, after a while of sitting in a silence populated by crickets in which their human pursuers have really and truly faded into a deep historical and conscious distance and upon further consideration she adds a practical objection "It’s a long way though, isn't it?"
"Everything has always got to be perfect with you".
"I just don't want to get there and find out it stinks is all."
"Would you at least think about it?"
She pauses, considering for a moment "all right, I will think about it".
Now they both pause, and after a long moment watching the moon, he begins "now, after we.." but something arrests him mid-sentence, was it a movement? Or perhaps its opposite, perhaps the air is suddenly far too still?
"How many did you see out there?" he asks, nervous.
"Just one," She replies, "and only the top of one...But we certainly heard one two, and so I expect their might be three...or even a little patrol out there trying to figure out where we are."
"Good, for a minute, I thought we were in trouble"
"Well, if there are more, I mean, if they storm us, we can always run down the cave tunnel." She suggests, optimistically.
"But its dark and wet and we have no idea where it goes" He replies. She pauses a while then replies: "Maybe Australia"
On the ridge surrounding the cave there is suddenly activity, to our two Neanderthals huddled within the cave it looks like the entire top of the ridge is moving. A slow motion avalanche, a wave of sickly activity left in the wake of the Queen who now races across the top of ridge striking her own solders in turn with the flat of her spear waking them to readiness, kicking and stepping upon them in her increasing fury. They immediately begin moving, first crawling forward, then once over the edge of the bluff, running downwards, crouched, naked, covered in crimson paint and dung, rising to their full height as they reach the bottom of the cliff face, running forward towards the mouth of the cave humans with spears in their hands and the Queen is now screaming with the voice of a million cicadas: the repeated and shrill cadence: ""ataque- ataque-ataque!"
Suddenly the situation is clear, as the first warriors enter the pool of moonlight by their bloodied comrade and storm toward the cave entrance.
Zwing! Thwack! THWACK!! An arrow and two blow darts, and their corresponding human hosts fall to meet their shadows on the moonlit floor of the dry pond where they will lie forever to be mud-buried as fossils, after their skin and sinew are ripped from their bones by first primitive hyena and then prehistoric vulture. There are simply too many, too many to fight, however, for our two Neanderthals to hold out..
"So," she says, and catching his eye and gesturing down the dark shaft of the cave "Australia!" she yells, both mentally and verbally.
They peel themselves from the cave walls and stream into the darkness ahead of their pursuers. The floor is slippery and sharp. The way unknown. They run on and on, not daring to stop or look back. Spears and arrows pursue them and slam into the walls, the walls which seem to close around them, becoming one with the floor, circular and slippery, they feel they run forever in a kind of mobious strip. They might even be on the ceiling now. They might be running in a circular passage, but no, the light does not return. They must be running onward, towards the center of the earth. The shower of arrows, the impacts of spears on the walls around them have long stopped. There are no shouts from their pursuers. Still there is the feeling of a must enclosure. They cannot judge how fast they run or how long they have been running for. It seems a miracle that they do not slip on the wet floor, but on they go.
He is ahead, he can hear her running, her footfalls on the wet cave floor behind him. They keep together, they can hear each other's breathing in their minds, they can
feel each other's fear, but it emboldens them, they run on, pursued by ghosts, running towards their ancestors. They wonder now how close the humans are, and why they cannot hear them, they wonder if they cannot stop now, rest, turn about, perhaps evade their captors who they could see before streaming after them, down the hill and into the moonlight, who they now know must number at least 100, but who seem now to have fallen silent. Are we still being pursued?
There is no light here, the sounds of their feet echo from the cave walls, come back to them, multiplying, "is it their feet, the humans?" he asks himself.
She, hearing his thoughts begins to answer, for she feels they may be saved. She is convinced, as they move on that they only hear their own echoes now, the humans being fearful, cowardly, not wanting to enter the cave, the depths of which are the domains of the wrathful gods, and of course of mountain lions and bears, and other flesh eating beasts.
And yet, at the very moment she is about to ask him, she cries out, out loud, she stops. A sudden weakness, what we might recognize as vertigo takes over. She is spinning, completely nauseous. She feels she is falling, yet knows herself to be stopped on the wet cave floor, lying down. She wants to be sick. There is a horrible pain across the side of her face, no across all of her body.
She can hear again, through the pain, that all at once seems to fade like a dying flame. His footsteps have stopped too, but even before hers. What does it mean? Is she still moving, walking? No she lies of the floor, that much is certain. Why then, this feeling of movement. She is calling to him, she calls out. She shouts out loud.
Only echoes answer and now she feels quite still. He is no longer running, yet he is not there, his is cold, his face is broken, he has fallen, he is in some hole in front of them. There is water, a great body of dark and cold water at the bottom of the hole and he has faded into it. Or something, the feeling is fading now, like a waking dream. She is exhausted, breathing heavily in breathes evolving to sobs, she slumps down against the wet floor, her head on her arm, weeping. Her hair flows out over her arm and over the edge of the rock into the darkness in which she is lost and into which she cannot see or think.
There is a small pool of water close by that her hand locates. She rubs some on the side of her face. She is paralyzed, she cannot advance further even though she now desires to fall to her own death into the hole he fell into. That bastard!
And yet, about to drink from the pool, she stops. It isn't the sound she recognizes, though there does seem to be movement now, suddenly, and all around her. This sound, this movement, it comes with a strong musty smell. It advances towards her and recedes into shadows. There is a warmth, a breathing. She realizes then, this breath, this smell, this movement has sharp claws and teeth attached. And so, she rises and runs forward blindly, towards Australia.
2020. Jorge Boehringer.