Dawns rise high over the cliff and green tinges the branches when her people feel the urge to move again. The furred who live nearby have grown wary, leave no prints to follow. The tiny body that she pushed herself inside out to birth stayed thin, sucked only weakly. Eventually it stopped, went rigid like dried tendon. Yet still she carried it, as skin shrunk around stick-like limbs and stretched over shoulder blades. Now the group gathers things to leave, and she feels the pull to join them. But putting down her burden is frightening. Inhaling her infant’s heady birth-smell, still caught in its dark hair, she crouches at the shelter’s edge. The clutched bundle is lowered to the ground and, for the first time, lies apart from her body. The others approach curiously, reach out to prod, pull, stroke; to know. Yet beasts will come later and this precious thing must be protected. She scoops a hollow, slides the already dusty form down, covers it. Embraced by the soft dirt full of their stony leavings, she draws back and joins the people to walk on.
Skies flicker as the days, years, centuries pass. Soils condense and hold the delicate bones tight. Others come and go above but eventually the vibrations of footfall stop. Even icy tendrils from heart-aching cold cannot penetrate to the tiny skeleton. Tens of thousands more winters, then deep thumpings murmur downwards. The weight lessens. Voices come: new people are building a house where none have lived for so long. Patten-shod feet clatter up and down wooden stairs over the small remains, a lullaby of life above death. In a blink, the house too is gone, then sediments shiver and shift as hands pull at the dirt. Clods crumble, and a chink of early summer sunlight grazes the white shatter of eggshell-thin skull. A voice shouts out, ‘Arrête! Os!’ Rough yet gentle hands – like those that last touched this lonely little one – reach down, after so long, to pick it up.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes is as far away from the common preconception of an archaeologist as the Neanderthals are seen as – in her own words, ‘Shambling around in bearskins waiting to become extinct already.’ Her scholarly but highly readable Kindred has each chapter prefaced by a piece of creative, yet relevant, fiction. Ms Sykes reminds me exactly how I fall short as a writer. I’m only part way through but this book is hypnotic. Get it here or at your national Amazon store.