THE LAST NEANDERTHAL
Once the last Neanderthal looked out from the mouth of a cave, lost in thought. Having just buried a beloved mate of many years, the Neanderthal wondered who would do the honors when the time came to bury the sole survivor now of a 400,000-year-old line. No other Neanderthal had passed this way, even at a distance, in a very long time. A full clan hadn’t been seen in many seasons, and since then, fewer and fewer families, and finally only a solitary male or female, and now nothing. Though did it matter that the last Neanderthal would be alone at the end, curled up in pain or numb with cold, far from the cave perhaps? How could it matter, beside the desolation of mourning the love of one’s life, cradling the body in swaying silence long after the warmth had slipped away? The eventual fate of the species could have been foreseen. Pushing aside the vanishing Neanderthals had come Cro-Magnon rowdies, so confident the world was theirs and not inclined to share it with any who might have been here for a thousand generations already. A noisy, aggressive lot, what did they know of the tragedy of life? How all that once had seemed a species’ power turned out to be its undoing, and nothing you tried, in ritual or sacrifice, could hold off the moment when there would be no saving you from dismissal as a “dead-end,” fossilized in the world’s understanding for all time. Had this brash young species suffered deeply enough yet to understand any of that? The first Neanderthals to have ventured into this valley, what need or impulse had driven them to leave everything they knew and trusted in exchange for the uncertainties of life here? How many had been left behind, and how many lost along the way? And all the generations since, the trials they’d endured and the discoveries they’d made—you don’t spread across continents, towards the morning and towards the night, without learning everything the land has to teach. When you were born, it was into nature’s waiting hands. And not a day would pass when she wouldn’t offer lessons that had to be learned to the bone, where even death could not wrest them from you but must lay you back whole into the arms of the earth when the time came. Like the Neanderthal’s beloved now wreathed with flowers in the dark soil. During the last days, when death stared both of them in the eye and they looked back through it into each other’s, recognizing there the full play of memories they shared and vows made without the need for words, those final moments were as their life had been, the acceptance of a gift to be returned in kind. No protest of injustice, no beating of the breast in lament, but rather a sacred vigil kept together until one drifted away, the other remained behind. What if there were in fact no other Neanderthals left? Would this parting have to stand for all those farewells the species had bid one another since their rise so long ago? As if each time were a mere rehearsal for this final bow. But to be the one on whom it all had now fallen, to stand here and look out across this broad valley in place of untold others who’d thought their descendents were destined to call it home forever—a single individual the sum of experience over millennia. And millennia hence, would the grave so lovingly dug and then filled be dug up again and pawed through as a clumsy bear might to find what lay within? The thought of the loved one’s bones disturbed and their final moments brushed aside caused the last Neanderthal’s heart to knot with sorrow for them both. For every generation come down to this. What happened next might be understood regardless of the age. Turning from the valley below and striding back over the ground to the burial site, the last Neanderthal scooped out the soil in steady handfuls until the familiar face and body lay as if in sleep again, ready to awake at love’s call. But instead of disturbing this ineffable peace, seeking only to join it, the living knelt in the narrow space of the dead and then gently, quietly, found room to lie close and insure their bones would be linked or scattered as one, whichever end time brought them.
Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Grosshans