by Ada Mantine
[ fiction - may 07 ]
A thing Iíve noticed about homo sapiens: they love to categorize. They trend toward absolutes. This observation struck me a few years ago when I was shooting an archaeological dig in the Rift Valley. A redheaded male grad student discovered the remains of a skull buried in the 3.5 million-year-old Pliocene layer. He shouted, ďA. afarensis! No, boisei. No, robustus!" His female professor ran over and corrected him. She was a fox-eyed blonde with a broad brow and high Scandinavian cheekbones. She bent over, stared at the fragment, and turned to her student and said, ďNo, youíre wrong. It would be A. garhi, I believe. The specimen is much more fine-boned.Ē The redheaded male student stepped back in mock deference to his professor. I caught him gaping at her from behind.
For the duration of the trip I had been tracking the scent of the redheadís pheromones: sharp, sheepy, lustful. They werenít for my benefit, alas. They were for the foxy blonde professor. She seemed unaware of her studentís lust for her. But I wasnít.
The sun was barely shining through a thinning haze. The light was poor. Worse, there wasnít enough room around the pit for me to take proper photos. Five others had joined the redhead and the professor. Their shadows loomed over the specimen, submerging it in the darkness that was its fate. The paleontologists were standing spread-legged, a few with hands on hips. I was repulsed by their casual selfishness. In a maneuver that began with a running jump, I squeezed myself between two of the scientists and shot a few frames. The shadows were cast upwards, eastward. My short yet undeniably masculine shadow stood next to that of the redhead, and when I leaned toward him, our shadow bodies fused. I shot my entire roll and slipped into something like a post-coital trance.
The shadows were fading into the sunset. I rested on a canvas bag, sipped calvados from a flask, and observed the commotion at the pit. The shadows grew very excited. Frenzied. They shouted, waved their fists, stuck out their jaws, stomped about on stiff legs. They argued: The specimen had been bipedal, but what was its genus and species? Was it our ancestor or was it a cousin? The old hominid skull was the cause of all these hoots and hollers and displays of dominance.
Another problem with modern humans is that they have discontinuous minds. By this I mean that they are terrified of blurriness and vagueness, of intermediates and shades of shadow. Names and labels are the crude tools they use to make sense of the world, and they canít live without them. But the obsessive act of naming, sorting, and categorizing imposes absurd barriers. When does a kettle cease to be cold and become hot? When does a growing child cease to be short and become tall? When does an embryo become a fetus, and when does a fetus become a human being? Here were these Ivy League homo sapiens fighting over whether or not their particular specimen was A. africanus or A. afarensis or A. garhi. Why couldnít these people learn to live with the possibility that the specimen might be between two species? Or even be a thirtieth of the way between A and B, with the understanding that A and B are completely arbitrary points? Thatís how evolution really happened, in the muck and muddle. Absolutist minds will end the human race.
The air grew suddenly dim, as if something had dirtied it. The shadows had kicked up ancient dust. My mood darkened. My brilliance was going to waste and it depressed me. As a young boy my slumps terrified my parents. I inherited my motherís laugh, her stinginess, and her sense of entitlement. She, unlike me, hid her pain. My father was curiously passive, and so was the Y chromosome he passed on. Mother and I would throw glasses at the television as he watched it. The only time he reacted to something I did was when I told him I was gay. ďGet out of my house, fag,Ē he said, and I did.
I suspect that I am subtly different from other homo sapiens. Iím between species, somewhere between A and B. I have school smarts, but what I mean is more than that. I am able to carry multiple conversations in my head at one time. My sense of smell is keener than anyone elseís, perhaps an ancient trait that resurfaced in my genome. I can be very kind or very wicked, and always very deliberately, never by accident. I am dangerously intuitive. Evolution has no design, no direction, so I canít say if my powers will ever coalesce in what would become another so-called species. But I suspect they could.
Back at the dig, the ruckus continued until nightfall. Eventually the blonde professor laid a plastic sheet over the site, leaving the specimen for one more night in its 3.5 million-year-old grave. After dinner I stayed outside and watched the lanterns illuminate the foolscap tents. The air had cleared. I gazed upward at starlight that had taken millions of years to reach the earth. It originated when our ancestors had tails and pointy snouts, and now it was processed by my newfangled retina and visual cortex. The thought was pleasing, but I was still unsettled by the dayís events. There was only one thing that would calm me: the redheaded male.
I approached his tent around 2am. The bird-and-monkey chatter obscured the sounds of my footsteps. I planned to act moment-by-moment, beginning with a simple grope. I lifted the flap and heard heavy breathing. Then, rather unexpectedly, my ears channeled two separate yet synchronous gasps. The blonde professor was in the sleeping bag with my redheaded male! I froze there, my two hands spreading apart the labial folds of the tentís entrance, and it occurred to me that I instead should attack the blonde. Engage in fornication with her. It wouldnít be for me, of course, but for my postsapien genes. It would be a selfless act to benefit the human race.
In a light sweat I calculated the odds. Impregnating the blonde was possible, but not certain. I had a ten percent chance or less. The problem was the redhead. He was two feet taller, fifty pounds heavier, and ten years younger than me. He would defend his mate. I would have to think about this carefully.
I walked away with a raging headache. The birds were maddening, ringing in my ears, mocking me. I stopped at the pit, kneeled, and directed my light on the bones that had received so much attention. A. Garhi? A. africanus? Who cares? My right hand snatched a fragment of the skull. I turned it in my hand. A simple brain had been there. Perhaps it had been the brain of a bad animal, a rapist or murderer. But when does good cease to be good and become bad? Itís impossible to say. I squeezed and the skull crunched pleasingly. With my left hand I picked out the rubble. Then, quickly, I slammed my flattened palm to my open mouth. I delicately chewed.
The specimen tasted dull, but I savored it.