The thin wail twisted its way between the trees and licked the ears of interested parties. The wild pig paused its snuffling around the large roots of the western hemlock tree and gazed around it just as the spear pierced the pig’s ribs, pinning it to the needle-strewn ground. As it kicked out its last moments on the forest floor, Teco slit the pulsing throat and whispered words of thanks to the Mother as it gave up its life, spilling into the earth. Pan joined Teco looking down at the pig. She felt rather guilty; she too had been distracted by the wail but luckily Teco had followed through with the kill. It had been many hours of careful stalking and positioning before they had been able to get this close to their prey. The dog licked the bloodied ground; they both quickly gutted the pig with sharpened flints, throwing the stinking guts to the dog who received his reward eagerly.
As they threaded the stick through the sinews in the pig’s legs and raised it to their shoulders, Pan heard the cry again. This time it went on for longer, fading in and out of earshot as the breeze shifted direction through the forest canopy rich with mosses and lichens. Teco seemed oblivious to its call but it stirred something within her. She suggested that they go to investigate the sound but Teco seemed reluctant. It would mean walking further than necessary in the dripping forest with a dead pig between them, but Pan was adamant, she wanted to go and see what it was. As they were a newly bonded pair he could deny her nothing, and so they followed the sound.
As they entered the ferny clearing, they saw immediately that they were in the right place. There was a smell of putrefaction that was unmistakable. Clouds of flies rose from the corpse to meet them as they hesitantly stepped forward. The smell of death usually drew scavengers from far and wide, but they appeared to be the first larger animals to have discovered the body. It was a young woman, recently dead, her features pallid in death but still attractive. Her breasts distended. The flies were concentrating their efforts on the stinking discharge between her legs. She had clearly been dead for some hours. Another feeble wail from above made them both look up. There on a tree branch a bundle shifted in the breeze.
Pan swung up into the branches of the big-leaf maple tree, deftly shinned along the branch and cut the woven western red cedar cords supporting the bundle and lowered it down into the waiting arms of Teco. By the time she had jumped down onto the ground, Teco had already uncovered the infant. His revulsion showed itself on his face. “It’s deformed, leave it with its mother,” he said. He unsheathed the flint blade, preparing to kill it cleanly and quickly, but Pan placed a hand on his arm, restraining him. She gazed upon the child, taking in its overlarge head and the pale skin. Blue eyes met brown and a silent communion passed between them. “No,” she said, “we are taking him with us”. Teco snarled back angrily, his greater height and weight menacing her, but she stared boldly back at him. For a moment she thought he would hit her but then he lowered his gaze, his eyes softening. He could not stay angry at her for long. The dead woman deserved a better ending than this, no member of a tribe died alone out of choice and there was no one here to grieve for her. Pan stroked her face, rearranged the animal hides over her pale body and they both crouched over her in silent respect before moving away to continue their journey. The forest dwellers would return her remains back to the Mother from which she had sprung. They had retied the baby onto the stick behind the pig. It seemed to like the swaying and it settled back to sleep.
As they returned through the rainforest, automatically traversing the ferns and slippery moss covered rocks as they talked, Teco was still convinced that killing the child was the merciful option. If the child was to live, going back to their honeymoon shelter was pointless; they had no milk for the child and Pan needed the counsel of the older women. The child was deformed and to find the dead mother so close to their encampment was a worrying sign. Sometimes entire tribes were killed by diseases but otherwise people lived within the protection of their tribe. No one lived alone from choice, except for the ghosts.
As the village drew near their dog ran ahead to greet his fellow pack members. The noisy playful children were the first members of the tribe to greet them but adults soon followed with worried looks upon their faces. To return so soon from a honeymoon did not bode well. Had they fought? Were they not suitable as mates? Pan was a popular member of the tribe and with her choice of mate being Teco from a neighbouring tribe, they had seemed to be a perfect pairing. Eager hands took the stick from them, cutting down the pig and carrying it away to be prepared for cooking, whilst the men carefully tended the fire. The male magic was fire making, taught by Kanzi so long ago to the males of the tribe, using the salmonberry branch as a hand drill stalk for making friction fires, with a western red cedar bow string and tinder. The knowledge was handed down from father to son. Fire was a protector of the tribe, keeping away the larger predators that proliferated under the protection of the forest. It cooked and warmed the sick and young and raised the spirits through the long dark winter evenings.
Pan grasped the smaller bundle and clasped it to her protectively. Teco stood silently, hesitantly, as they were bombarded with questions. He stood, his eyes avoiding looking at Pan or the bundle she carried. Finally he loped off to rejoin the other young men leaving Pan to cope alone and answer the questions. Now that she was here back amongst her tribe she felt bewildered. She was less certain that she had made the right decision bringing the infant home with her. Everyone knew everything that went on in the close-knit group but nothing like this had ever happened before to her knowledge and once the baby was discovered it might be killed before she had a chance to explain. People were fighting to see what she carried, sniffing at the unfamiliar urine scent mixing in with the odour of pig blood and rotting flesh. She held them at bay with her body language; rigidly upright walking on stiff legs she carried the bundle and the responsibility to the wisest woman in the tribe.
Salvia sat in her shelter and listened to the noise and excitement bubbling round the village. As the oldest female she had inherited the mantle of leadership, whatever that meant. To have survived childbirth, starvation and disaster so many times ensured that the leadership was self-selecting. It was she who knew the best places to gather food. She had experienced the vagaries of the changing climate and knew the best waterholes and campsites. She ensured that the tribe moved their territory slowly but unremittingly northwards where rain fell frequently and the lush growth of the advancing forest provided for their needs. She had seen storms and disease come and go and had met more members of neighbouring tribes than anyone else. She knew the lineage of all of her tribe and their parents and grandparents and was a good matchmaker, ensuring that family lines did not become too entangled. She had overseen the transfer of skills through the generations and she held the history of her tribe and the magical means of communication it required in her head. When her time to return to the Mother was close she would pass on her knowledge to a younger female, so that the history and knowledge would never die.
Pan scratched on the hide shelter to alert Salvia to her presence and then bent to enter. Her eyes took a while to adjust to the darkness within. The scent of Salvia filled the shelter, daunting yet familiar, mixed with dried herbs and wood smoke. Salvia’s nose wrinkled at the scent of the bundle in Pan’s arms. She drew back unconsciously: out of all the tribe she alone knew what Pan carried.
“Is it alive?” she asked.
“Yes,” was the soft reply.
This could change everything, the old woman mused to herself.
Pan held the deformed baby out to the old female. The baby fussed and sucked on its fist. Salvia instructed Pan to get some milk from one of the bitches who had recently given birth and bring it back in a bladder for the baby. Until they decided the baby’s fate she would not ask one of the nursing females from the tribe to feed it. The dog’s milk would do for now. As the baby sucked hungrily from the bladder Pan told her story, trying to remember everything she had seen. Salvia listened intently, watching the way Pan held the child protectively, and then made her decision.
“All life is sacred, it is part of Mother Earth; we do not take life lightly, we thank the Mother after we kill for meat, and we leave part of every food for the Mother and all of her children. The mothers of this tribe must decide the future of this baby, for it is they that will need to order its death or feed and raise it to adulthood. Leave the child here and go and tell the mothers that we shall meet at sunset for a storytelling.”
The mature females gathered, hailing the full moon as it rose at the twilight's last gleaming, it frequently rained in the temperate rainforest that now covered most of what once was called North America but tonight was still and clear. Bats flitted above their heads, catching the insects that were drawn towards the firelight. The fire was built up so that all could see the ancient communication reserved only for storytelling sessions. To tell stories special words were needed, words that did not refer to the immediate hunter-gathering needs of now but to abstract events of the past and future. Words made of hand gestures, like a dance weaving and shimmering. Salvia sat close to the flickering fire, its light reflecting off her so that all of her could clearly be seen. Pan sat with the women feeling uncomfortable and the subject of curious glances. She was only allowed here because of the extraordinary circumstances. All of the other women had given birth to life and her premature passport to this meeting was the bundle in her arms, sleeping quietly.
Salvia started the tale of the tribe from the beginning of known history, earlier than any of the women had ever heard before. She had chosen to start at a place that only wise women spoke about to each other, passing on the knowledge and the signs for unfamiliar concepts from wise woman to woman down the generations. She told of Kanzi and his sister Panbanisha, the first amongst them when tribal life had changed so long ago in the south that was called Oregon, now desert. She spoke of their teachers Sue and Nick who had introduced them to a different way of thinking and communicating. The many lessons learnt so well together with their natural gifts had allowed them to survive when so many other creatures had perished, and thrive on a planet which was metamorphosing into a new future. She spoke of the gradual flight northwards over multiple generations, following the great forests as they spread ever northwards. Their rapid evolution, tool making, shelter building, living lightly upon the earth, moving around with the seasons never staying anywhere for too long. She spoke of the female magic of creation and birth. She continued to speak even as the young women brought the roasted pork, fruit and vegetables to them and retired again. They all ate as she continued to speak of lessons learnt over time, the art of preserving food for future use when food was scarce and drying the medicinal herbs which instinct told them would cure sickness, and the tribal habit of leaving their environment clean as they moved on, their dung fertilising the regrowth and spreading the seeds of edible plants for others to consume. Pan listened entranced: it was her first female gathering and as the story unfolded she thought she never wanted it to end.
Once the meal was over the mood changed. Salvia spoke of Pan and the circumstances surrounding the baby’s discovery. Pan stood up and held the infant for all to see, naked, its pale skin, blue eyes and large misshapen head gleaming in the moon and firelight combined. The cold air chilled it and it started to cry again. The women drew back in horror, voices raised in fear and loathing. It was a beast, ugly, stupid and violent like its parents. It could never be taught; it would destroy them all as its kind had always done. Salvia let them speak, pouring out their fears real or imagined. They spoke of the ghost that would have fathered it, remembered or imagined. Infants were taught to be good or the ghosts would get them. The tribe’s women rarely roamed alone for fear of rape by ghosts who lived alone in the forests. The ghosts had no formal society; they lived by eating carrion or stealing what they needed. They were pale, naked apart from the skins they wrapped around them. No one had ever seen a female ghost. That this child’s mother lived without the safety of a tribe and gave birth alone was shocking to the women, incomprehensible and yet…. They had all felt the pull of mother-love. That moment when the bond is made, when the baby kicks inside, when nature wells up so strongly within her that she would fight tooth and nail for the new life within her. Eventually the tirade lessened and then stopped; all seemed to be in favour of letting the child die but no one had offered to do the deed to ensure a quick and painless death. Pan clutched the baby more tightly to her as the night grew colder and waited with bated breath.
Silence descended and women started to think of bed; the sounds of the night became audible and the moon shone on the central clearing and Salvia within it. For a moment, bathed in silver, Salvia looked like a ghost herself. Perhaps she was imbued with the spirit of a long dead ghost of a different era. As the women strained to hear her words she raised her brown eyes up to them as she spoke, her voice cracking and deeper, hoarse after the long evenings telling.
“The teachers Sue and Nick were ghosts,” she said. The gathered women gasped in shock. Pan couldn’t take her eyes off the old woman. “They called themselves humans. Once they were like us, thinking and speaking and manipulating the world around them, but where their soul should have been was a hunger that they could never satisfy. They ate and they ate until they consumed the whole world and yet it was never enough.”
As she spoke her sobs welled up unchecked for the death of a race they did not know, Homo Paniscus weeping for its lost brother Homo sapiens. Weeping for the countless creatures that died with them. For the destruction and the violence and the murder, for the hunger that never went away and the humans tortured by it, who lived with plenty but who were blinded to it. She mourned for the human race as it once was, and was now, scattered remnants, ghosts from the machine, slowly and painfully dying.
The women shared in Salvia’s pain, they rose one by one and comforted her, they touched her, they held her and murmured comfort to her. Within the tribe you were never alone to bear pain: it was shared. Pan held the infant to her and gazed into its strange human face again, the pale skin so different to her own thick black fur, its curious blue watery eyes meeting her brown ones. It started to fuss again, its strange cries becoming more insistent; gently a lactating bonobo female took the baby from Pan and held it to her breast to feed. They could do nothing for what was past but whilst there was still life, this baby would be given her chance to survive.
Initial genetic studies characterised the DNA of chimpanzees and bonobos as being 98% to 99.4% identical to that of Homo sapiens. Further information is here:
- Kanzi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanzi
- Panbanisha: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panbanisha