The Bukowski Agency - The Last Neanderthal - Excerpt

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Claire Cameron (Photo: Katrina Afonso)
Claire Cameron
(Photo: Katrina Afonso)

The Last Neanderthal

a novel by Claire Cameron


HIM LIFTED HIS HEAD for a moment and surveyed the sleeping bodies. Their breaths were still shallow. Silently, he moved to the side of Girl, the spot where Bow used to be. He settled into the impression of the boy’s body on the hide. It was nice to feel his brother in that dent. Him put a large arm over his sister and pulled himself in close. Her skin along the backside of her body was cold, a clear sign that she also missed Bow. He moved in to warm her.

It wasn’t too long before she felt very warm. She was sweating and he felt pulled to her like she was a fire that had managed to light up in a storm. She started to move under the hides and he couldn’t help but respond. He reached out with his hand and found the thick thatch of hair between her legs. With one finger, he felt she was wet. And feeling that, a signal came with an urge like a kick that sent his body into action. He found Girl’s hand and pulled on it. She followed him out into the cold.

With distance between them and the hut, Him spread out their cloaks and pulled her on top of him. Though there was some level of acknowledgement of their action in that they tried to keep from yelling, that was more to be sure they weren’t interrupted. They were led by impulse. Like hunger, the immediate needs overrode any care of what might come next. Breath was heavy, fingers found skin, they rubbed and twisted into each other with the might and strength of rutting bucks.

It wasn’t until the morning that the trouble caught up to them.

* * *

Girl had tucked back into the nest. Her brother took his place at their heads, the shame that he felt didn’t come with a flush of blood. It was more attached to the idea of his work. Since the last father had gone hunting and not returned, his kind of shame became attached to his attempts to fill the older man’s role. When he looked at Runt tucked away in the nest and listened to the whistling nose of Big Mother, he didn’t feel that he had done anything to them. Instead, he knew that he hadn’t been protecting the heads of his family. He felt guilt for that. To honor his father and them all, he needed to watch their backs.

He lay out and closed his eyes and was glad to be back in his place. He thought of Girl and what had happened, but his immediate worry was the sleeping head of Big Mother. He wasn’t supposed to touch his sister like that. He ran his fingertips along the dent in his forehead from all the rocks that Big Mother had thrown to warn him off. But what if he fell asleep and dreamed of Girl? Would Big Mother know because of that dream? Soon his body tugged at his mind too hard. He fell into a deep sleep.

When Big Mother woke it was still dark. Her eyes flicked open, she took one big sniff. That’s what woke Girl up, a sharp intake of air. The old woman sat straight up in the nest. For the first time since winter sleep, she did not need to be hoisted upright. Instead she sat up in one swift movement. The cowlick at the back of her head was shaped like a whirlpool in the river. It sent her wiry hair into a swirl at the best of times, but now the hair had become so turned around that it gave up trying to figure out which was down and only stood out.

Girl saw the large head slowly start to turn. She felt disoriented for a moment, thinking that something had changed, and was unaccustomed to focusing on such things. Then she knew: the horns. Big Mother took them off to sleep, but was quick to put them on each morning. It was strange to see the old woman with this big, bare head. Girl shut her eyes and pretended to sleep, but she made the mistake of squeezing her eyelids too tight. Even under Girl’s heavy brow, Big Mother was good at spotting a fake.

“Hum,” the old woman muttered.

* * *

More sniffing, it was loud like Big Mother was tracing a scent. Girl bit her lip. She had been told to stay away from Him. She knew that her job was to hold her urges and strength until the spring took hold. They would go to the meeting place in time for the salmon run. The other families would also be there. They would see Sun Girl who had become a Big Mother to another family. That alliance would give them status to take a better place along the river. The more connections a family had, the more likely they were to be welcomed.

At the salmon run, they would eat and watch each other and she would see which families were in need of a Big Mother. She would try and figure out which family she wanted and which family wanted her. There wasn’t an exact process around it. Sometimes there was an obvious fit. Other times, the girls were the wrong age or the Big Mothers still had a strong hold and no match was made at all. In times of peak population, when the bison herds had been full and thick for a number of seasons, the competitions could be fierce.

In the best times, when the families were full, the fights between the women for a position could be to the death. They told stories of the legendary battles between potential Big Mothers. Though those years hadn’t come in a time that any of them could remember, there was a certain kind of luxury in those stories. Like it was a point of pride to be well enough equipped with bodies, food, and tools to afford the risk of a fight.

At first, Girl didn’t really attach what she had done to Big Mother’s sniffing. She didn’t think she had a dream about Him and didn’t think they had been caught. In her inexperience, what Girl didn’t account for was Big Mother’s good nose for the smell of semen.

Girl was born down the line and so had always known Big Mother to be an older woman who only mated when absolutely necessary. It seemed more like chewing a hide than something her mother did with pleasure. Of course a child born later only sees their parent in the later stages. What Girl didn’t account for was that Big Mother had been quite something in her prime.

Big Mother had sought out the semen of the strongest men and made sure that lots made it inside. She had all sorts of elaborate theories about the way it smelled and how likely that meant she was to conceive. There was no laboratory test required to know when a man was drawing a blank, or when her eggs were ripe to receive. She held all this knowledge and her sense of smell was the key to it. Using it wisely was the reason she had managed to spread her eggs as far as she had.

Big Mother looked right at Girl. There was no need to ask. No questions were barked, as the answers were abundantly clear. She knew who owned the semen and where it had gone. She knew what this meant too as she had lived for much longer than the others, almost twice the time. She had delivered enough bodies from between her own legs and seen the babies of her sisters at the salmon run.

She knew what was the same from one generation to the next. Sometimes it was a cowlick, sometimes a nose and sometimes a bow in the arm. She saw things that were the same got passed down from one generation to the next. To Girl and Him, who had only seen a handful of families at the meeting place, who had lived with very few relatives around them, things that were the same were thought of as good. In a vast land, seeing something a body recognized filled it with the warmth of familiarity. And this was so much part of the family’s strength. Looking for similarities and valuing them so highly meant they were a relatively peaceful people who lived light on the land.

So many times the greatest strength can become a weakness. Though there is danger in seeing differences as we do, Big Mother knew that life had to be in balance. There was also danger in things that were too much the same. With a limited capacity for speech and no other means to pass along the fear, she relied on taboo. But to work, for a taboo to place fear inside a body, it takes a larger population of families as had been before. Now that the family was small and there were only a few families that lived around the mountain, the younger generations hadn’t experience the outcome of breaking the taboo first hand.

All the knowledge Big Mother had accumulated in her large frontal lobe now gave her the unique ability among them to override her instincts. In this case, it was her complete love and devotion to Girl that she pushed aside. The old woman saw a young version of herself in that body. She knew that the family was thin and that the others were struggling too. In Girl, she saw the makings of a woman who was clever and kind and quick. She would make many babies. Where others were failing, here was a girl who would keep a family on the land. Just the thought of this girl’s work on the land made her chest puff and her heart throb.

The next thing Big Mother did was brutal. It gnawed at her until just before her last breath, like a parasite living under her skin. But she did it anyway. And the reason she did was that she believed with all her being and experience that when a brother and sister got a taste for each other, as sometimes happened when a girl came into season before the salmon run, there was only one way to keep the body of the family safe from things that were the same, like bent arms. She was still Big Mother. Until the salmon run, she was in charge. She would be until she passed the family to a new woman of suitable strength.

Big Mother pointed a finger at Girl. She hissed and spat so hard that her cowlick bounced. Runt leapt up in surprise. He grabbed at Girl out of fear, but Big Mother reached out for his arm and pulled him to her. She looked at Him and gave a short hiss. He quickly lowered his head to show submission.

Gengan,” Big Mother growled at Girl in a voice so low that the rumble ran through the pine boughs underneath the nest, “GO.” She raised her long arm and pointed a gnarled finger. The crooked joint stretched in the direction of the front of the hut, where the flap shook with their trembling. “Gengan.”

Breath caught in her throat, Girl couldn’t move nor grunt. She was completely at a loss for what to do. Her mother was telling her to leave. In her life span, she had never heard that word spoken. There had been stories told by the light of the fire. Shadows cast by Big Mother’s body into the night that told of the threat of this word and what it meant, but it never felt like a word for them. With their numbers low and her work so important to the hunt, it seemed impossible. Or Girl thought so until then.

When uttered by a Big Mother, gengan meant that the body must leave the land of the family. And it must not come back. It meant that she was being shunned.



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