A milky opalescent luster set over the dying day as Lucija, a Neanderthal, watched from the brush this Early Homo sapien. He, the Sapien, was plucking leaves and wiping his ass, hissing at Lucija. Neither had any desire for classification and so only was aware of the other as a foreign shape. No reason to use her hyoid bone and speak the word predator aloud. But as an abstract thought, connected with a look in the eye, a whimper in the throat, the Neanderthal came to think of the essence of the word. She had witnessed a creature like this before, two years ago when she was fifteen. It had fed on her first child.
To say times were harsh throughout the land would reveal a lack of imagination. Her lover tried to convey to her once the power and glory of a second child, a third, the surprise of coming across a cave littered with a fresh carcass, how all the moments that made up a life offset the terrible moments. Yet, like all conscious beings, this Neanderthal tended to focus on her negative experiences. If she spoke any of our current languages, she would triumphantly agree with the disparagers that these moments did not outweigh the bad, did not, and in no way, even out the score. The word Neanderthal derives from the name of land they were first discovered downstream: Neander Valley. Germanically: of the valley of Neander. She, though a representative of her species, was not of Neander but what would soon be present-day Croatia. And this land demanded choices be made, or so she supposed it. No illusion between her species and the other held about the certainty of what the day would bring—food, warmth, security—or even future events. No concept existed of the terrors happening to her species as being only “for now”, because “for now” implied a certainty of changes to come, which could not be predicted.
She turned from the brush, retreating to her family in their cave. This cave, known by the Sapien’s descendants as Vindija Cave, and thought of only in the abstract by her family, had been home to cave bears, other Neanderthal, Homo sapiens, and many other creatures over 150,000 years. A paleontological and archaeological goldmine.
Upon approach, long after sundown, Lucija caught the stench of blood. Heart quickened. Cautiously, she entered the cave. Her mate and two sons splayed on the floor in motionless, awkward positions: beaten, flesh ripped off their bodies revealing muscle and bone, flesh missing—amounts of flesh gone from the belly, neck, thighs; deep-rooted teeth marks on the forearms, wrists, chest. Blood bathed the floor.
Having found this sad, familial display, Lucija knelt and reached for her two sons with massive arms, lifting, pulling them toward her. Nestled in each armpit, their heads lobbed dead. She placed her youngest son’s mouth on her nipple, hoping he would suck it and be filled with life. This method had worked when he was a baby. When the boy would not suck, she screamed their names. Through wet eyes, she watched her man’s chest, that once comforting source of rest. Dead. She dropped the children, caterwauling, slammed her head with her palms, pulled at her hair. She pounded her chest.
At the edge of the cave, facing the exterior, one brown-haired hand held onto a rock as she looked back at her family. She turned away. Animated large eyes blinking away tears gazed at the sun’s embittered cousins, indifferent to happenings below. She wailed, yelled. When a flock of birds sprang forth from a nearby tree, fleeing her screams, she calmed herself. Not a drastic change to the face of the Earth, but this minor impact would be acceptable tonight.
Lucija buried her lover and two sons not for herself or out of any religious spark, but so the Sapiens would not come back and finish what they had started; so that her family would not continue their final days as meals; so that their remaining flesh and muscle would not find complete annihilation in the bellies of beasts; forever they would sleep underground, where the scent would not reach any predator; they would be protected dead as they never could have been alive. She kissed the necklace of eagle talons her mate had worn, strung it around her own neck.
Three months later, venturing through rocky terrain, longing for the past, fueled by the hope of new days to come, Lucija found herself feasting on the remains of a killed deer. Sporadically, she ate pulled plants between the rocks, climbed fruit trees, hunted. Of the digested deer in her belly a few hours later, an upset tummy and so she retched it out.
A Sapien sat at the river. Lucija hid behind a bush, as she had months previous scouting for a predatory creature that had been stalking them. The thing, then, must have been a diversion: for you know what happened as she was away. They were clever, these things that vaguely resembled her own self. This one wearing an elegantly sewn hoodie of wolverine fur was female: though, young. Lucija broke the silence and beat her chest. The young foreigner ran away. Lucija grunted, proudly drank of the river.
Her head cocked to the right, watching ripples distort her reflection. She could have just realized her own vanity or saw the faces of her sons within her own. Lucija’s finger touched her eyelid, dragged on skin to her lips. She softly pulled at her hair, caressed the eagle talons displayed against her neck. She cupped a breast. This river flowed like time around her, ever forward. Could she know her kind was on the verge of extinction in less than ten kiloyears? Of course not. Did she realize that Homo Sapiens were migrating northward, and, in fact, had not lived these lands as long as her ancestors had? Nope. She only knew the reflected sun on the surface of this humble river. She craned her cranium upward, toward the source of all she could see, recognizing its power—this light of the world. Lucija wondered why, if it was so powerful as to light all around her, did it lose to the ferocious dark every night? But she was certain it would rise again, marking the beginning and the end to cycles of her life. With feelings of great adoration for this star, the light of all lights, the alpha and omega, she stood and studied the terrain around her. All this, she knew deeply, she saw because of it. She shielded her eyes as she tried to see its face. She had heard about a great teacher, somewhere southwest of her, proclaiming a creator. Lucija understood those teachings now.
The question edged its way inside her, not in words but as a twisting of her stomach and a speck of confusion in her heart. Curiosity sprung upon her about the light, about the alpha and omega. Herself, even. There, in the river: her big eyes wet.
She grabbed a sharpened bird bone, carved bison meat off its abdomen. Lucija felt more in control of what was happening to her since the river. Missing the thrill of the hunt, relief and rejuvenation mixed in her blood as she watched the meat burn on the fire. She accepted her lack of destination, directing herself at whatever challenge reared. Behind her, the cave held pictures. Bison, deer, other creatures resembling her shape, reminding her of her lost children, gleaning from her a sigh.
Her gimlet eyes caught sight of massive light shooting across the night, burning in the darkness. Common knowledge would later decree this wonderment Halley’s Comet, encircling the sun for possibly a hundred millennia before her eyes’ observation, and, naturally, long afterward. She felt small and without knowledge. She couldn’t grasp exactly what she lacked, this knowledge, but knew she lacked something. Straightening her back, she felt she could be so much more, that she could do so much more. Her eyeline followed the comet until it disappeared, as many other hominids would do, until another question solidified in her mind: “Of what was the universe made?” A question thought to be asked first by the Greek thinker Thales, but stretching back so much further, across species—an echo of the past in the future. Reaching for the vanished rock, her mind, without words, expressed itself openly. Awareness questioned itself, began to seek answers. Her body swarmed with emotion for her lost family, the greatest of love. She asked if one of those specks of light were her child or some other, her lover; sky sentineled with eyes for all things, knowing life could not be for nothing—it wasn’t simply a struggle; that there was some… purpose. Terror gripped her.