Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Ron Wetherington

His skull rests on my desk with others from his family of fossils.
The Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, ill-fated,
misinterpreted among the Neanderthals.

Cruelly symbolic, still:
a dim-witted approximation of humanness, they say,
too primitive for language, they say,
unprepared for sophisticated thought.

I examine his braincase—larger even than ours—
and ask what hungering images arose inside.
None that we would recognize, I suppose.

The pain he must have felt was long-endured:
arthritis had deformed his vertebrae
and bent him forward when he stood,
crept to his right shoulder, painful when he raised his arm.

His left hip joint was failing, and he shuffled his way along.

He had lost most of his teeth:
molars that once chewed tough foods long absent,
the bone that held them withdrawn,
his jaw thin and fragile.

I can almost feel the agony in a fractured rib,
the grinding sockets of his shoulders,
the abscessed right canine.
his heavy face thrusts forward defiantly,
his legs still strong and sturdy,
stamina evident where robust muscles once flexed.


He died in his third decade:
young by our standards,
old, for him.

I do not know how well he lived—
either before or after disease edged up his back,
across his shoulders,
into his skull.

There is no sign he suffered any loss of mental presence.
I trust there was no decay in self-esteem
but I have no intuition about his loves and regrets
or if he had any.

We, privileged in the present, are prone to follow Hobbes:
that life then was nasty, brutish, and short.
But my conceit stops short of this judgment.

Every age has its stories of hope and dread:
brains, large and small, are capable of great cruelty
as well as supreme kindness.

They buried the old man in a shallow grave,
remains of an animal placed beside his head
perhaps to guide his spirit.

Someone cared for him enough to do that:
I like to think they wept at his passing,
that their magic tried strongly to bring him back.

Some of his genes mingle with mine:
sixty thousand years have passed
but a fraction of his DNA
still replicates across our species.

Its silent influence lingers in my distant cousins,
trickles down the braided streams of my lineage,
peeks through my private curtain.

I stare intently at his skull on my desk
yearning to see through eyes once sheltered there
to hear the muted sounds once gathered there.

I close my eyes and mingle
among trudging mammoths across the snowfields
and feel his breath in the frozen air.


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