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 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 wanderer, and now none. 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, compared with the recent anguish of mourning the love of one’s life, cradling the dear body in swaying silence long after the warmth had slipped away? The eventual fate of the species could have been foreseen. Pushing aside the outnumbered Neanderthals had come gangs of Cro-Magnon rowdies, so confident the world was theirs for the taking and not inclined to share it with any who might have been here for thousands of generations already. An aggressive lot, what did they know of the tragedy of life? How all that once had seemed Neanderthals’ natural strengths turned out to be their undoing, and nothing you tried, in ritual or sacrifice, could hold off the moment when there would be no saving the species from dismissal as a “dead-end,” fixed in posterity’s dim understanding for all time. Had these upstart Cro-Magnons suffered deeply enough yet at the hands of life to understand any of that? In a shallow grave nearby, the Neanderthal’s beloved now slept, wreathed with flowers in the dark soil. During the couple’s last days together, as death stood back awhile, they looked only into one another’s eyes, 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 grateful acceptance of a gift to be returned at the end in full. No protest of injustice, no beating of the breast in self-pitying “Why me?” lament, but rather a sacred vigil kept hand-in-hand until one of them faded with the light while the other was left behind. What if, in fact, no other Neanderthals did remain? Would the parting of this last pair have to stand for all the farewells their ancestors had bid each other in the past? As if each earlier goodbye was a rehearsal for this final leave-taking? But to be the one on whom it all had now fallen, to stand here in place of untold others who’d thought their descendants were destined to live on forever—a single individual now bearing the sum total of Neanderthal experience down the millennia— And millennia hence, would the grave so lovingly made for one’s beloved perhaps be dug open by some Cro-Magnon descendent to find what lay within and guess at the life now over? The thought of the loved one’s bones disturbed and their time together brushed aside with the dust caused the last Neanderthal’s heart to knot with sorrow for them both. And for all previous generations, come down now to this single one on the point of vanishing. Turning abruptly and striding back 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 wake at love’s whisper. But instead of disturbing this deepest of 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 pledge that their bones would be forever linked or else scattered as one, whichever fate awaited them. The first Neanderthals to have ventured into this place, what prospect or need had caused them to risk everything they knew and trusted 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 the earth’s waiting hands. And not a day would pass when it wouldn’t offer lessons that had to be learned to the bone, to the point 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.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans