Mary Strachan Scriver

Dec 2, 2021

4 min read

HUMAN MEETS NEANDERTHAL

She had been left behind at the home camp while the rest of the family went off on an exploratory trip in a direction they hadn’t taken before. Their pattern was a hub with spokes, some of them well-known and used and others that had never really been explored. She was old enough to be the hub, to keep the fire going and gather food from plants and traps nearby. The place was marked by an old bear cave, but it was shallow and showed no signs of being occupied.

When the big dark shape showed up by the campfire, her first thought was that the bear had returned and every force in her body went on alert. Rather than fight, she meant to fade into the gathering twilight and climb a tree she had marked out and learned earlier. But the bear-like shape stood still. Next to him was a not-quite-wolf that looked up at the face for instructions. The animal was not afraid and the bear — or man, she saw — patted the animal’s head and it licked the man’s hand.

The man held out his other hand to the young woman. It held something dark and small. Cautiously she took it and held it to her nose. He pantomimed eating, so she bit it and it tasted good — dried meat and something else that was sweet and sharp. Maybe berries.

In return she gestured him to the fire. It was dark now so even though he was sitting close to the light, it was flickering too much to get a good idea of his face. He sat quietly and the dog lay down a little distance behind him, not trusting the fire. She had no food, but offered spring water she had collected. He was pleased. So was the dog.

They sat quietly, just building awareness of each other until he began to cry. The dog came forward to lick his face and he put his arm over the animal to hold him close.

She was disconcerted by this emotion out of nowhere but didn’t say anything, tried not to look at his face because it seemed intrusive.

Finally he began to tell a story with his hands. It seemed to be about a fire like this one and individuals sitting around it but gradually she realized that he was talking about his own family and that he was separated just as she was. She was not accustomed to sharing someone else’s thoughts, especially since they were like hers. It was a powerful sensation.

The night before she had slept in the tree, knowing how to arrange herself among the branches so she neither fell out nor was obvious to whatever passed below. But tonight with the man and the dog there, she felt somehow protected. She would wake to feed the fire but this time the man was already up and adding wood.

The second night they sat side-by-side. He had caught rabbits and their carcasses were roasting on spits while the dog ate the guts. The man had peeled off their fur, found a sandy spot, and flattened them under more sand to dry.

Now, shoulder to shoulder in human contact both had badly needed, they began to truly relax. Then the man began to sing in a low hoarse voice, a wandering but coherent melody. In a moment the young woman captured the repetition enough to join the song in her strong soprano voice. They blended and repeated. Then the man somehow knew how to sing slightly differently in a way that harmonized. When the dog began to howl with them, they dissolved in laughter and didn’t sing again until the morning.

Then she demonstrated a skill the man did not have— she could whistle! He was startled and at first looked around for a bird until he realized it was her. It took him a few days to learn how to do it because his mouth was so big that it was hard to pucker around teeth that size. He never did get good at it.

But they were good campmates and kept order without arguing about how to do things. She explained about the hub and spokes, drawing little maps.

Then one day he came back from a long exploration and excitedly told her what he had found, which was a path to the sea. He hadn’t seen water but he could smell it. This was what his family had been looking for when a landslide killed all but himself. He wanted her to go with him, to set up a new camp there.

But they wouldn’t know what was living or growng there, they wouldn’t have even the shallow shelter of the bear cave in a storm, there were things she had accumulated, furs and digging sticks, that would be hard to transport or replace. But the biggest problem was that if her family came back — it was still possible — she must be there for them. It came down to a known but limited past — she had to seek farther and farther for food and wood — and an unknown but unfolding future.

Hormones and nature decided. It was sex, a drive to merge and then to swell with a new family. And so this old and self-propelling story pulled more people into a future that has stretched this far. We don’t know what will happen next. Can anyone smell the sea?