PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity, violence, mature themes, and mild adult situations. Reader discretion is advised.
To me, she was beautiful.
By today's standards she'd win no pageants, that's true. Back in those days we liked our women womanly -- lumbering hips, pendulous breasts, belly of plenty -- and by that metric she was a goddess. In fact, on more than one occasion she was used as the model, or at least the inspiration, for hand-sized carvings in bone or stone meant to incarcerate the spirit of fertility for our admiration.
She could snap a boar's neck with one hand. She'd smile while she did it, barely breaking from her gathering song. Her teeth were like little pebbles, each one irregular, unique and brown like bark.
I feel light-hearted just thinking about her. Even all these many years later.
Today it's all waifs and scarescrows, whisps of girls made of sticks and beef collagen, coat-hangers for the gay art of fashion designers and greedy textile merchants. It seems like only yesterday women were seen and not heard whereas now their reedy, demanding voices babble on from slices of matter so thin they can be lost to the eye at the wrong angle.
Of course, we were all more self-reliant back then. Tougher. Romantics imagine we also had a much deeper understanding of community, but that's bunk -- we were each of us islands in a way modern people can't fathom without suffering a debilitating head injury or going berserk on drugs.
We knew we were animals. And there was no shame.
But there was fear. It brought us together, backs against backs, sure in the comfort that the indigent or injured or old on the outer periphery would absorb the night's predation. That's what darkness was all about in the old days: keeping warm and wondering who wouldn't be there in the morning. Wondering idly, because it really didn't matter much. We didn't used to miss the departed the way people have taken to doing these past dozen millennia.
We weren't philosophical so much as indifferent. We didn't used to think of things in terms of how they may have been, but instead only as they were.
Death was constant, which is one of the reasons we had a lot of babies. These days people have babies for fun, but back then it was more than serious business: it was our profession and our obsession. After eating the only thing left to do was screw.
(It brings me no end of shame that my overstuffed and much abused memory cannot, no matter how squeezed, be induced to recall her name.)
We used to screw, she and I, whenever it struck our fancy. Most often we'd just roll over by the fire and get to business, but occasionally she liked to make me chase her around a bit first. That got everybody hot so if we wanted to play that game without it becoming a team sport we'd wander off from the group.
The day that it happened to me, the day I became the long man, was on just such an occasion.
I had followed her into a low grove, panting as the branches slapped against my face. I caught a flash of flesh in the foliage ahead and charged onward, getting hard and happy. We had a merry chase across a grassy plain and then I tackled her before she could dash into the next glen. With the momentum of impact we rolled and slid through the glen and down into a ravine.
At the bottom we lolled, clods of dirt and shredded leaves catching up with us in a dusty slurry. We didn't talk, but that wasn't unusual -- talking idly wasn't nearly as popular back then as it is today. It was a moment of smell and feel, of the mutual craven need to fulfill our aching instincts. I was just starting to roll her over to paw for access when we were both frozen by the startlingly nearby roar of an angry bear.
We switched modes without so much as a look. We skittered across the floor of the ravine, our bellies scraping the stones. She raised her head and sniffed, then frowned. I pushed past her and climbed the next rise.
And there they were -- the strange people, cornered by the bear.
They were small, like children, which probably explains how I acted so quickly. I've always found children getting eaten to be upsetting. My body moved of its own accord, pouncing into the fray and swinging a loose branch menacingly at the creature's foamy muzzle. I shouted and screamed, jumping up and down.
And, as they more often do than don't in the face of such enthusiasm, the bear reconsidered her options, turned around and ambled away with a percussive snort.
I watched her go. My heart slowed down. I took a breath and surveyed the scene: one of the strange people had been broken and partially devoured, its entrails steaming and crackling in a way most dead things did not. The other two were huddled against a rock, holding one another with thin little arms and staring at me with big, dark eyes.
I retreated a step and stooped my posture humbly. Almost immediately the funk of their fear began to dissipate in the air. They released one another and considered me.
I tossed aside the branch.
My impression of them has been smeared by time and emotion. If I had seen them today I could probably do a better job of understanding what they looked like, but back then, without a wider context, my brain did a fairly loosey goosey job of committing the incomprehensible to memory. They looked like men to me because they stood on their hind legs and held their faces up. I'm pretty sure their eyes were on the front.
They did not wear anything I recognized as skins, but their bodies did have a different texture than their wan, pale faces. If I'd known about clothes back then I probably would've done a better job of noticing.
Like I said, they were strange.
When I came to, lying on my back and feeling tingly, nobody was around but my girl, patting my face, muttering sadly. She noticed I had awakened and she began to sob. I sat up, rubbing my dizziness away, and held her close for reassurance. After a time our hearts beat as one, and her fear ebbed.
I noticed that the strange little man who had been partially eaten had been removed, along with any signs of his weird leakage.
She had not seen the strange people or the bear. She said there had been a big fire but no heat and great draw of stinky wind. She had run to find me collapsed. I patted her dreadlocked hair and kissed her brow. That made me hard so I rolled her over and pushed my way inside her.
Afterward we walked back to the group and ate some berries. We didn't talk about the incident. As I mentioned, chatting wasn't something we did a lot of when I was young.
And before too long I had mostly forgotten about it. Frightening events happened frequently and each incomprehensible act of nature more or less merged into the next one. Meeting some strange people in a ravine and then passing out faded over time when incorporated into a group's history along with flash floods, lightning storms, forest fires, sudden fogs, mudslides, funny birds, foreign people with painted faces and bizarre wares, caves that whistled, groaning glaciers, and that time the top blew off a mountain and the sky turned orange and the rain turned black for a whole season.
All strangenesses are equal when you understand nothing.
I didn't figure it out until she died. It was a death that meant everything to me. Her absence after so many years of comfort caused me to take tally of those in the group with whom I had grown up, and I realized none remained. She had been the last. Everyone else around the fire had a childhood I could remember -- a childhood occuring well after my own.
Yet I lacked the white hair and feeble strength of elderhood. Though I had acquired lines in my face and hands they were not the complex etchings of seniority. I was still interested in hunting and screwing and singing, just like the young people.
When our hunting party was trampled by the furious mammoth and I alone survived I began to recognize what had happened to me. Though my bones might break they do so only under extreme stress, and even then they knit quickly. My skin will tear under a knife, but it takes a sharper knife than will cut any other man. I do not sicken. I weather, but I do not wither.
As even more seasons passed, one blurring into the next, I came to appreciate my unique position within our group. Something had happened to me on that day in the ravine and it had changed me forever. Though I knew not the extent of my difference, I knew that death was reluctant to take me.
I had become the long man. And so am I still.