Tristan Marajh
Finalist

Beyond their time

The fossils caused a variety of speculation: was it a parent with a child, was it a pair of star-crossed lovers, was it two siblings or cousins, even? The speculation, as expected, were from lay-people, people who did not know about anthropology yet had no difficulty anthropomorphizing. Which was not to say that the bones aren’t Homo sapiens. One skeleton was, for certain. Even the other was close. Homo sapiens, adult female, in a dying moment with Homo neanderthalensis, adult male. They faced each other, foreheads touching, arms across each other, as the blanket of demise had covered them. Sixty thousand years later, nothing had changed, except the rest of their bodies had decomposed. What remained despite the eons of decomposition, to Freida Borovsky, was their two hearts that were devoted to each other: that metaphorical and metaphysical organ, in anyone, could persevere through millennia and planetary upheaval. It would indeed be timeless. Freida knew this, because she knew her own heart is able to maintain a devotion like Lina and Jabs’. Those were the names Freida gave the two hominid skeleton fossils found in Brughendommel, Germany.

Freida’s colleagues would likely guffaw at her. They, and she, were all anthropologists, focused on factual matters of archaic human behavior, society, religion. Romance among their fossil people ages ago would have been nonexistent: people were intensely occupied with fending off predators, searching for food and for a place to live. In fact, it likely was the failure to achieve any of those endeavors that led the fossil couple to their death. Maybe, in fact, they weren’t actually lovers but the oppositeenemies, in the throes of combat, hands on each other not because of adoration, but animosity as they strangled each other. It was plausible: she was human, he was Neanderthal. In all Freida and her colleagues’ scientific research, the two species of hominids did not exactly like one another in spite of their proven interbreeding. But that was likely out of coercion and aggression; hardly, if ever, consensual. Mostly, we were the antagonists: male humans raped Neanderthal females. Jabs was Neanderthal, though, and the male one. Male Neanderthals did not bother harassing Homo sapien women since it was too deadly: humans had strange weapons that the males used to spear mammoths, oxen, ibex, bear. Neanderthals had seen many of their people die by human spears and arrows, even if human men were physically less robust and weaker than Neanderthal counterparts. It was as if what they lacked in ingenuity, they made up for in virility: a male human would not be successful in producing offspring with a female Neanderthal, yet a male Neanderthal could with a female human and that offspring would be fertile. Whatever descendants arose from such a union then, the vast populace of Eurasia were from what Freida accepted was a consensual, mutual union between Neanderthal male and human female.

Science, anthropology especially, was afflicted with constant reinterpretation and revision and, often, drastically different scenarios would take the place of those which were accepted for years prior to it. The most known example, of course, was evolutionary origins. Unless Adam and Eve were hairy bipedal primates, no “first man” and “first woman” ever existed. We slowly, arduously came to be, as we are today, over the course of different ape-appearing forms and over millions of years. Quite a different scenario from the previous one where we were formed as we are today in a beautiful garden, a mere six-thousand years ago.

If, Freida figured, science was allowed to entertain constant reinterpretation and retelling, then she too could allow herself to imagine the story behind Lina and Jabs’ final moment. The fossils came to her to pore over and study. She had it in her laboratory, which in this case wasn’t an actual sterile, stainless steel, fossil-filled room but the actual location itself where Lina and Jabs were found. They were discovered a mere two weeks prior, but the speculation swirled and her colleagues murmured as to what was the truth. Freida opted to just stick to the excavation and form her own opinions as more details were uncovered. She speculated as well, though her version would better suit a romance novel than a scientific journal.

Freida was, if her colleagues liked to use classification, an introvert. She didn’t have anybody in way of intimate partners; her focus consisted of her work. She thought this the luck of the draw regardless: in university and as far back as high school, many of her friends were “in love,” yet mere months, even weeks, later that love would turn to dislike and one person would suffer. “Love” was inconsistent, always tumultuous and never what it was purported to be: joyfulness, devotion, everlasting. Her friends were hurt, lost weight, dropped classes, went absent. They became unstable, indecisive and paranoid. She observed behavior even then with an anthropologist’s perception, before even knowing she’d end up deciding to undertake Anthropology at university. She stayed the academic route, did not get blindsided as her old friends did, and became a tenured professor at her university, one of its youngest. Now, she bemusedly thought, she could afford to entertain dramatic scenarios of love. If not yet in a partnership, then at least through her time with Lina and Jabs, who, it seemed, were already actual partners of some kind of relationship. Not only did Freida accept responsibility for pursuing the scientific truth behind the Homo sapien with Homo neanderthalensis discovery, she also accepted responsibility for the relational imagination behind it. The former might never reveal the latter, she knew, so she may as well have a try at it, even if fictional. Indeed, former scientific explanations, and even prospective ones, were currently just that: fictional. The work of the present was what was relevant anyway, and she was under no fictional illusion about that. She was a professor, after all, and she owed it to her students to not contribute to romantic notions that, if her own experience of studenthood was accurate, they were indulgent of anyway. She would reserve her imagining to herself, maybe publish in a romance anthology. She wondered if she’d use a pseudonym – it would be amusing if her publication list, amongst The Anthropological Quarterly, The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Evolutionary Biology Review, et cetera, included Cupid’s Diary.

Lina would be introverted as well; she wouldn’t have hated her tribe, but preferred to spend her time near the stream that flowed close to her tribal dwelling. Close, though, did not equate to being easily accessible: she would have to pass through a dense thicket of forest to reach the waters of the stream, pushing aside low-hanging branches, disentangling herself from vines, swatting away insects, moving through the leafy forest floor and occasionally stubbing her toe on a rock embedded in the ground or tripping on a tree root that exposed itself above the earth. She never minded this trek. As she entered the thicket, the stresses and preoccupations of the tribe dissolved away as she smelled the earthy pines, the fragrant tree flowers, the fresh bogs. She looked at the mists that lingered above ground, imagining she was in an earthly sky. She imagined the birds she heard chirping were not whistling from branches above her, but were soaring around her in her sky. When she arrived at the stream, she was at ease. Leafy bed gave way to a rocky shore. The stubborn, fallen tree trunk lay waiting; she sat down on it, dug her toes into the stones and picked up a flat one. Using another stone, she started to whittle at the flat one. She has done this countless times before; countless, she feels, as the amount of stones by this streamside. She stays until the sky turns dark. Time was a precious and fearsome method of measurement: it measured when and where the animals would come and leave, it measured when it was time to get inside the dwellings, it measured when the storms would arrive, when the ground would burn, when the bright yellow circle in the sky turned into a cold gray one. Everything the tribe did depended on those happenings; they were often the reason someone lived another while or fell to the ground, never to wake again. Time dictated to the tribe yet Lina, to the tribe, was before and beyond all time’s dictates: she would arise while all still slumbered, remove the frozen meat from the ground and leave it in the dwelling for all to eat when they arose, then she would leave for the stream. Long after the sky blazed orange and yellow in a fire that signalled that the tribe should soon start their own, Lina would return as they sat around the flame, bearing new arrowheads for the hunt and fish for that fire. That was why no one insisted Lina stay at the dwelling, or return early. She was clearly productive in whittling stones by the stream; the arrow and spear heads she made, the stone cutters she produced were top-notch: they brought down bears, buffaloes, mammoths. She tested the stone heads on fish that swam in the stream. The weaponry was successful: satchels of fish were brought to the campfire each evening, her stone cutters slicing through skin and flesh of dead animals the men brought as easily as a harpoon through water. Lina’s stone weapon-heads and cutters helped feed the tribe and clothe the tribe; it was as if the woman who was before and beyond time’s dictates was, in turn, able to dictate time to allow more of itself for her tribe to survive.

Jabs encountered Lina when she was at the stream. They looked at each other, steeled expressions on their faces hiding fear and trepidation. He was barrel-chested, thick-legged, wide-headed; his skin lighter than hers, his height shorter than her brother’s and the other men in her tribe. He was also carrying a spear. Despite her concern, Lina could see his stone spearhead was rudimentary; perhaps it was worn away from overuse. She paused her stonework; he had also stopped in mid-step. Either could kill each other in that moment: Lina, too, had her shaft and numerous superior spearheads handy. In his eyes, she could tell he was considering the brutality and aggression her people had done to his. There wasn’t much else that would convince him that she, the bearer of honor in her tribe as a young woman, would refrain from telling her men that she encountered one of Jab’s kind. Her brother, she knew, would be eager to hunt this figure down, and perhaps eventually even wear his skin. The figure knew it too. It would simply take one hurl of his spear, as quick as a flash of light on the water before them, to silence her. The flint stone was in her hands without a rod; she would be too slow to draw first blood. She figured she would try to look in the direction of the forest as she died, the gurgling water of the stream the sound to which she would lull herself to final sleep. She held the stare of the man; he would not see her cower – that’s what made leopards attack. If the animal’s stare was met, it’d hesitate and likely not even attack. That’s what the men said, at least.

But this man just slowly looked away and bent down to the stream, taking a handful of water to his lips, then another and then some more, caring more about his thirst than enemy presence. He was in position for her to shoot an arrow into his skull, and she was skilled enough to do it. She continued scraping at the stone. At this sound, he raised his head slightly and looked at her, but he did not detect any threat in her behavior. She knew they were quite good at that: they didn’t have the weapons her people had, and needing to be close to animals to kill it required an awareness of animal behavior so that his people would not be killed instead.

Or maybe, Freida thought, Lina didn’t know that. Maybe Freida was just, she wondered, inputting her own anthropological knowledge of Homo neanderthalensis behavior into Lina’s brain. But if Lina and her people were the same species of Homo as Freida, then Neanderthal behavior would be known to them. We might have more elaborate weaponry now than our Sapiens ancestors, but our brains remain the same. This, to Freida, isn’t necessarily a positive: we still distrust “other people”; we still learn their ways so as to catch them unawares when we want to fight them. It is one of the instances when the statement “Evolution doesn’t always necessarily mean progress” rings horribly true. Her childhood pastor often uttered those words and he was right about that, if not about much else.

That unaggressive, unthreatening dynamic between Lina and Jabs softened into a more quietly accepting one over subsequent viewings of each other at the stream; Jabs coming on occasion when prior to their first sight of the other, he had never been there at least, not when Lina was around, which was most of the day. He sat at the edge of the stream, singling out bigger fish to spear. Sometimes, he managed to spear and take a few; sometimes he did not get a single one. On one unsuccessful occasion, Lina offered him one of the spearheads she had made. He fastened it onto the shaft of his spear, waited for a target and cast his new spear into the water. The spearhead bored right through the fish. He looked in surprise at the fish skewered by the long, narrow stone for a few moments. His own spearhead, before Lina’s replacement, was only effective in disorienting or injuring the fish enough so that he could make a grab at it with his hand. This woman had made his work much easier. He gave the spearhead back to her; Lina shook her head briefly. She gestured, pointed to the loose spearhead, to his spear handle and then to him. She put her hand up, palm facing outward. Jabs, comprehending, gave her some tubers from his fur pocket. Lina knew those varieties of root; they made good accompaniments to ibex meat when boiled. She put the tubers into her own deerskin pocket. She looked to Jabs, but he’d already turned to take the fish back to his people. She imagined a group of them sitting on the ground, taking apart the fishes’ flesh in eager, ravenous bites, finally falling asleep satisfied and satiated. They deserved it; life is difficult in this unpredictable land.

Freida thought Jabs was masculine in the best sense of the characteristic. Had he existed today, she would have chucked preconceived gender behaviors and tried to get with him; he was worth the effort. Lina would have known that too; after all, she and Freida were both the same gender of the same species, evidently wise enough to recognize a quality male when in the presence of one. Jabs let Lina be and Lina never revealed his presence to her tribe. Hours were spent in each other’s immediate vicinity at the stream; Lina felt secure enough to continue working on the craft of her life: producing spearheads, arrowheads, cutters, shapers, jewelry. Jabs would sit by the river, stoic, bursting to sudden movement when he spotted a fish or wandering ibex. Together, they ate berries, fish and the streamside mollusks they pried opened with Lina’s stone instruments, grunting distinct sounds to each other that became a language of their own.

Men hardly acted like Jabs today; masculinity had been twisted into a subdued, uncertain and mythical trait, not perceived as trustworthy and beneficial to modern life and relationships. Indeed, Freida had seen it in her school life up until now: men in relationships acted like, for lack of a better word – sissies. They were always pandering to their or their girlfriends’ arbitrary emotions. Freida was a woman, yes, and a human being, but she could not in objective conscience side with such behavior.

Jabs had been a different kind of masculine, but he wasn’t unkind or self-absorbed, as the men of Lina’s tribe had been. He persisted in bringing back the arrow and spear-heads Lina had given to him. Lina understood that only meant he saw the effort, time and concentration she took to make the tools. He offered them back to her, so she could give it to her people. Lina knew the men in her tribe simply left the heads wherever they landed, that was why she was always making more. Her creations were better appreciated by Jabs. It must not, he knew, be easy to strike stones for hours and shape them into a weapon, a tool so precise, effective and beautiful, even. Lina, in their grunting understanding punctuated with vocal sounds, relayed to Jabs that he should keep the stone instruments. Jabs would acquiesce and return her generosity with berries, tubers, strips of meat and red dirt and water mixed for her to paint mollusk shells. It was the first series of documented non-hostile exchange between Homo sapien and Homo neanderthalensis, not published in any scientific journal but in the mind of Freida Borovsky, Professor of Anthropology at Bagsden University in Germany. Freida counted this scenario as valid: anthropologists were forever documenting group behaviors and overlooking individual traits within a group. People, of course, lived and perished for the tribe; she knew that. But they were all people regardless.

Jabs bent Lina on a grassy bed near the forest, their intercourse lasting beyond the constraints of time, as Lina was known to be and Jabs knew time to have. They spent the evening lying on that bed, eating elderberries, blackthorn and wild blueberries. Subsequent joinings would see Jabs go to gather honey from a wild beehive he had come across a short distance from the stream. His hands were tough-skinned and rough; hands that did not feel the stingers of bees turned gentle when he turned Lina to him. She fed him the honey, taking it off his fingers onto hers, offering it back to his mouth.

It was on a day following an evening like this that Lina’s tribe – and Jabs’decided to search for their missing members. One of the dangers of being beyond time is that those bound to it expect its constraints to be honored.

Freida knew Homo neanderthalensis had more acute hearing capabilities than Homo sapiens, and Jabs knew also that Lina’s tribesmen were approaching before she did. He quickly rose, placing Lina’s arm on the grass. He did not have the time to gather his spear: the first arrow pierced his shoulder and when he turned, two more arrows pierced his chest and upper leg. In agony, he still restrained himself from uttering a cry; it would wake Lina who might be caught in the arrows yet to come. He was expecting this in some deeper recess of his mind: hostility from these other people came to be written in the story of his own. That this sleeping woman one of those peoplehad given him tenderness, love and assistance had also given him the notion that these qualities could be found in her people toward his own. But as more arrows pierced his body, he knew this was not so.

Lina had by then woken up by the angry, hostile language of her tribesmen. They pointed to her in aggressive gestures. They understood what had been happening between their target and her. She had shamed them; she had brought dishonor and pollution to the purity of their clan. She now had that stain, that impurity in her.

But even so, the spear that punctured Lina’s back was not from one of her own. She turned, saw Jabs’ tribe, four of those thick-legged, wide-faced people: one woman, two men and a young boy, looking at her. That shot was their defiance. She fell to the ground. Jabs was still standing, barely, speaking in his own language to his people, telling them to leave: these other people had better weapons, they could kill from a distance. Lina looked up at her tribe. Her brother and the tribesmen all had bows drawn and narrowed eyes, aiming at the others. She opened her mouth to say something to her tribe, but all that came out was the distinct grunts and vocal sounds that only she and Jabs understood. She did not want to bother wasting her remaining moments on her tribe; whatever efforts she could still muster would be for Jabs. She turned and edged closer to him, he was slumped forward on his knees, his hands too weak to remove any arrows. His own tribe had fled when they heard what he told them. Lina’s people, seeing her turn to the stunted, grotesque man in death, left her to die along with him.

Neither Jabs’ nor Lina’s tribe saw what their targets did in their final moments, but sixty-thousand years later, many more people on the planet did. Lina had twisted and edged her weakening body to Jabs’, who had by then fallen completely on the ground. She reached out an arm and touched his stomach. Jabs, who all his life had only known the cold wind, the roughness of earth at his feet and the spear in his hand, felt soothed when he sensed the grasping then staying touch of Lina. It was tender, placating, devoted, even if from a body itself near death. They turned to each other, both bodies enduring their own separate pain but both hearts not wanting to burden the other with the agony. Their foreheads touched, arms sought out some part of the other. They breathed in each other’s breath; the air around them had been hostile, rife with hate. Their inhalation of each other brought peace as they died, a peace not shared between the two tribes that they came from. They were denied burials by either tribe, for his life was expendable because of fear, hers was because of dishonor. Both tribes felt survival was at stake. It was only the Earth that gave Lina and Jabs their due: as the land shifted and changed, as ice covered continents and melted away, as animals died and new ones rose, their two bodies remained interred by the Earth until conditions again changed and people saw their embrace thousands of years later. It was as if, having survived all those upheavals, ages and epochs, their love, their devotion, was beyond all time.

 

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