He picks the flake of grey flint from the pile. He stares at it for a moment. He runs his finger along its sharp edge.
He feels pain, sees blood.
The elder reaches out and takes his hand. He guides the bleeding finger to Jun’s lips. The boy begins to suck.
The man reaches down and chooses a piece of flint. He cradles it in a piece of leather, and hits it with another stone. He presses off tiny flakes with an antler tine. A point takes form.
Next morning, they hunt. By this time, Jun’s wound is gone.
Around the fire, he listens to the story. The flames flicker, casting shadows on the cave walls. Drawings of animals appear to move in the light, as if trotting, racing, moving.
An older man points out each animal, and explains their suspected location. He explains how best to kill each animal. He illustrates the most effective weapons.
A woman pulls a burning stick from the fire, and waves the flames at the man. He jumps back. Everyone around the fire laughs. She points to a mammoth, and explains the art of ambush.
Jun listens, and nibbles on a biter tuber.
Their leather pouches, once filled with dried meat, are lighter. They collect nuts and berries and roots where they can in the snowy landscape, but it is the mammoth that will refill their purses.
They spot the herd.
He attaches the shaft of the spear to the atlatl. Its shaft extends the length of his arm, giving his throwing arm more power.
“I am young,” Jun whispers. “But I can hunt.”
His wrist flicks, hurling the projectile. He makes the kill.
There is food for all. But the mammoth herd is gone.
So they move on.
It is warm by the fire. He sees the stars outside the cave’s entrance, perhaps for the last time.
A gray-haired healer is called over. She offers root and ochre to the fire, and then tends to his wound. Her fingers reach into flesh. She extracts a fragment of tine. He exhales, the pain excruciating.
She looks up at the paintings on the cave wall. She focuses on the deer, and mumbles. With each word, his pain eases.
He falls asleep next to fire. She checks his side. The bleeding has already stopped.
A healer has done her job.
Gurar paints images on the cave walls. Horse, bison, stags, and cattle.
“We will be successful in the hunt. They will come soon.”
The animals never do.
The hunter has miscalculated. Or misled. Either way, he can no longer be trusted.
Five men hold him down as another stomps on his teeth.
For a while, he survives. He is cared for by all, despite the hunger he has left them with.
Jun helps him chew his food, when they can find it.
In the end, his face swells. He grows weak, and sits down.
But no one waits with him.
Some children do not live to walk. There are sons who die in the hunt. But few in the group see their child grow, to have his own children, and their children, too.
The hair of old men turns white, and their skin turns to leather.
His does not. And they notice.
“Your fur coat keeps you warm, Jun! But it also hides the skin and hair of a much younger hunter!”
“Perhaps he skins men, like we skin the mammoth!”
“He must go! Before it is us.”
The shaman tosses a knuckle bone into the fire.
“He must go!”
Hair turns white if you walk the ice long enough.
At least that happens to others.
He is different. Like carpets of snow and ice, he is frozen. He is constant.
His hair does not turn, nor does his skin crinkle with age. He has no scars on his face to tell stories about.
He wonders if the stories he hears - of a hunter who feeds on men instead of animals – are really about him.
He wonders if he did something wrong to never die.
He wonders if he did something right to outlive them.
Then, he stops wondering.
“I am old,” Jun whispers, “but I can hunt.”
His wrist flicks, hurling the projectile. He makes the kill.
There is food for all. But the mammoth herd already moves.
So they, too, move on. Just like every group, and every group before them.
“My new brother, you say you are old,” the leader of the band inquires. “Do your people not live as long as ours?”
Jun walks along his side, holding spear in one hand, and fixing his thick fur coat with the other.
“My people are gone,” Jun replies. “I am alone.”
“Then stay with us.”
He wanders alone in snow and ice. Full moons come and come again. Sometimes he meets others. He stays for their hunts. It is his choice.
Sometimes it is not.
He offers strange objects as pretext. A trader.
He offers stories of his past. They are ironically short.
Sometimes he stays. He learns their words.
Sometimes there is a mate. Sometimes children.
When he has stayed long enough to be an elder, he prepares for a hunt.
He leaves, alone.
Or he says goodbye. “I will return, with stone from a valley I remember as a child.”
He never does.
Of all his mates, his favorite is Mart. Her white hair is the color of snow. Her two daughters joined other bands of hunters, long ago.
He grows accustomed to her voice, her touch. She seems to understand him –he has seen more hunts than any other. He understands she would see only a few more.
One morning, she leaves with the other women. They carry Mart back in their arms.
Soon after, she says “Jun, you should leave soon.”
They spend the rest of her days near the fire, looking at cave paintings and planning his next hunt.
He doubles back, not remembering his path after years of wandering.
Each group he encounters is new.
This time, twenty stand firm, spears in hand. Men and women and children.
“Who are you?” the eldest demands.
“Just a lone hunter,” Jun announces. “I will go, to the next valley.”
A spear lands next to Jun’s foot. It misses on purpose.
“I remember you!” The eldest yells. “When I was a child, you hunted with my father’s father. Did you steal his breath, so you can live?”
Jun pulls the spear from the ground.
“I will go, and take only this.”
He moves with the animals, with people, with the patterns of stars in the sky.
Once he lived in caves. Now he lives on subterranean floors – with a single step down. Drawings of mammoth on cave walls are replaced by their ribs and tusks standing as posts. They are covered by skins.
When the ice melts, people come together to fish. He sees more people in one camp than he could ever remember. They gather at the same river banks.
Some remember his face. So he moves more frequently – farther and faster than before.
He walks towards the sun’s home.
The days grow ever warmer. His fur coat no longer appeals to him, except at night. Instead, he wears leather pants and a cloak.
Soon, he trades his thick furs for the company of a dog. It keeps him warm, and warns of approaching footsteps at night.
One night he shares his fire with another lone hunter. He trades a piece of black glass from the east for several strands of his hand carved beads, made out of bone.
The stranger points to a necklace of bear teeth around Jun’s neck.
“How can a young man kill so many?”
“I am a patient man.”
“There is a river, beyond the next valley,” Jun offeres. “With fish.”
“Oh,” the elder replies, saddened. It is not the answer he wanted.
“Have you seen them?” He is not speaking about the fish.
“No,” Jun answers. “I have not seen the mammoth for many years.”
“Nor have I,” the elder agrees. “And my son does not believe me. He thinks they are a story told by old men around the fire.”
“It is not a story,” Jun assures his son. “I remember the taste of their meat.”
“From when you were a child?”
“No. Not that long ago.”
“There was a time when snow was everywhere,” Jun explains. “The animals stood three men high.”
Old men scoff. Children laugh.
The great game are gone. The stories of great hunts are replaced by stories of great camps.
“Where the sun rises, people do not move to follow animals. The herds of animals follow them!”
“Like dogs?” Jun asks.
He sees sheets of ice melt, and cold turn to summer. His handaxe and spear are replaced by arrows, and then a whole stone toolkit.
And he never dies.
Herds of animals following men like dogs is not hard to believe.
It is warmer now. He does not see snow for many, many days, except sometimes in the highest mountains.
He moves east, and forests thin.
Once snow covered the ground – uniform, like white fur of fox, interrupted only by the white of ivory. Now the landscape changes.
Even stone on the ground looks different; thinner, and decorated in patterns. It shatters when dropped.
Not far away, a woman places a large vessel on a fire. It looks like a basket, but doen’t burn.
“Hello,” Jun calls out.
Startled, she stumbles, and tips over the vessel. It shatters to pieces.
She offers him food and drink from hollowed out stones. She introduces him to what might be her family. There are more than he expects.
Their words do not match. He finds no commonalities.
“My name is Jun.”
It is close enough, but different. It deceives. It suffices.
Their house is one of seven, clustered near a lake. They are long and made of trees, branches, twigs and reeds. Satchels of leather and baskets hang from the high vaulted ceiling.
Animals gather. Children mind fences, and tie some animals to posts.
The smell of close living offends his nose.
Once he thought he saw magic, as the shaman saved him from death. When older, he thought he was magic, as he continued to escape that fate.
He ultimately decides he has little use for magic.
Yet, he almost believes, as he watches women turn wet dirt into stone.
They roll red and grey mud into long coils, then pile them up, into the shape of a basket. They sit in the sun. They turn leather hard, like the faces of the men he watches grow old, and always outlives.
On fire, they turn to stone, and shatter when unattended.
Words come quickly, especially for what is new.
Soon, he can understand everything they say.
He finds his place amongst them, knapping the sharp stones that fit into their sickles. He learns to reap and sow.
He prefers tending to the animals. As a shepherd, he is constantly walking. He is accustomed to the movement.
He still hunts, from time to time. He is never alone.
“Why do you join me in the hunt?” Jon asks. “You have everything you need, here.”
“There are more uses for a bow and arrow. For this we must be prepared.”
Jon stays to sow the fruit of ten summers, or the birth of ten generations of sheep. Ten crops seems like a good amount of time.
Any less, and he does not learn the lay of the land, nor the complexity of new words.
In ten generations of sheep, Jon accumulates more than he ever expected. If he has no wife, nor child, he trades seed and animals for tokens, pretty stones, and other prestigious items. Without burden, he moves to another village.
Sometimes he yearns for the woman he leaves behind. But there is always another, if he desires.
Villages, plots, and pastures expand, laying claim to wilderness. It is harder to find hunting bands to join.
Now, even village space seems dear.
“There is no land here to reap,” the old man warns, as Jon holds out tokens for barter. “There is no room for your crops.”
“Then I can tend to animals.”
“All our lands are spoken for.”
“That cannot be,” Jon says, laughing.
“Then talk to the chief. He can tell you. He will decide.”
When the world was covered with ice, Jon could be convinced. But his decisions were his own.
So he moves on.
After an exceptional season or two, Jon trades for a horse.
Jon watches men ride. Like dogs, or sheep, this animal is now transformed – into beast and companion.
At first, he is hesitant.
Why trade for something I can hunt? Jon thought.
A dark haired man approaches with a white mare in tow. She appeals, like the shiny metal found on spears, breastplates, ingots, and even the yoke itself. This is something completely new.
On horseback, Jon can make quick work of travel. And escape.
And with spears and breastplates, ingots and yokes, there is now evermore reason to move.
He approaches the summit of a hill. Below is a coast, lined by water different than any he had ever seen. Blue waves crash, and foam rises to the surface.
A boat approaches.
“Ioannes, is this what you wanted to see?” His companion points to the coastline below.
“In all my years, I have never seen such water.” Considering his years, the strength of his words are lost to his companion.
“Cross the water by boat. You will see great cities. Go quickly. There is no time to waste.”
“I have nothing but time, but still, I can leave today.”
Could a king be a king, even if he did not know it?
Could a king be a king, if no one else knew?
Sometimes he wonders.
From the time he crossed the great water, he hears many epic stories, of gods and kings.
“They have been here, since the beginning of time.”
“They are immortal. They cannot die.”
“They are gods.”
“They are from gods.”
Each story makes him feel both welcome, and alone.
At home, in a land of immortals, he waits for a sign.
Alone, in a land of new beliefs, gods of kings pass him by.
In the city crowds, there is anonymity amongst scrutiny.
Yahnn moves from one quarter to the next. He changes his name. He avoids meeting anyone he ever knew. He avoids bureaucrats, with their obsessive record keeping and cylinder seals, and attention to detail.
Moving outside the city limits, he provisions the city as a shepherd, or a farmer. Moving inside, he becomes a merchant, a potter, a stone mason.
One lifetime, he settles and marries. The next, he joins a caravan, moving goods from Eshnunna to Eridu, and back again. He minds the seals on packages, to avoid close inspection.
The two great rivers feed the world.
For their control, the city-states wage war on one another, to lay claim over the fertile land. He had seen it before, as chief battled chief, and villages were sacked and burned.
But it was never like this. With the strength of gods behind them, the priest-kings of Ur, Lagash, Eridu take prisoners and lands that stretch farther than most people have ever known.
He flees to the Zagros mountains, to escape. At times of peace, he descends. During war, he moves up to the hills, and finds caves to bide his time.
A word comes from a local shepherd who passes by often with his flock.
“The cities are at peace.”
He knows that peace is no longer a word to be trusted.
He ventures down again, to find a new king, new buildings, new defensive walls. In his internal timeline, centuries mean nothing, and are but a fleeting moment.
The temples expand, and the words of priests echo with the stories from the era of bygone kings.
For the moment, there is the chaotic order and the calm of a city at peace.
The strong hand of an empire demands it.
"Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land."
Each day, he listens to the words read off the tall, black stele.
Two hundred eighty two immortal laws, carved in stone. Each is both brutal and just.
“If a man puts out the eye of an equal, his eye shall be put out.”
“If a man knocks the teeth out of another man, his own teeth will be knocked out.”
He wonders if Hammurabi once lived in a cave, and wanted to hunt horse and bison.
Hammurabi sent forth his armies and conquered other lands. He cut down his enemies like dolls of clay.
He wonders what might have been, if he had settled instead in the land of the enemies. Might he have finally met death?
He watches the heavy hand of kings, of governors, of bureaucrats. They offer protection and knowledge to some, and misfortune to others.
But he and his family, and his family after that, are safe.
He lives among contradictions, in the shadow of empire.
Even a just king siphons from jars and silos, and eats from the trough of mortals.
“I think I have grown tired of this world.”
His wife looks up from her spindle, and asks why.
“I am tired of watching others die. And I am tired of waiting for death.”
She understand, but not in a way he intends.
“Yes. There are too many crimes,” she agrees. “Perhaps you can help our king secure order. A governor, even!” She smiles at the thought, although not seriously.
“Imagine if there were no kings. No governors,” he offers.
“The world would end.”
“Perhaps that is why I am tired of this world.”
The next morning, he heads east.
Prince Siddhartha ventured outside the palace. He saw sickness, old age and finally, death.
"How can I enjoy a life of pleasure when there is so much suffering in the world?"
On his next trip, he saw a wandering monk who gave up everything to seek an end to suffering.
Thus, he chose the path to Enlightenment.
After his Awakening, he met another wanderer, from the west.
“If one wanders all the time,” the stranger asked “can he ever find his way?”
The Enlightened One replied, “If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your path.”
He explains to the Enlightened One - he does not like what he sees. And as a wanderer, he sees more than most.
The Enlightened One explains the truths. Suffering is common to all. We cause all our suffering, through ignorance and greed. End ignorance and greed, and suffering ends. Live a natural and peaceful way. Everyone can be enlightened.
He moves north, then spends years in solitude, contemplating the teachings. He avoids administrators and soldiers – the source of great suffering.
In snow, he moves up and down steep mountains, finding comfort and solitude.
He longs for years of ice.
He hears stories of cities built inside caves.
Persians to the west.
He stays away.
He knows it is not the cave that brings peace, but the solitude.
Instead, he finds caves, uninhabited. He builds small fires for himself. He makes note of the graffiti and inscriptions of travelers before him. Words he cannot decipher, or deciphers incorrectly.
How different were they from the paintings of deer… of horses… of hunters?
Perhaps not much at all.
Sometimes people seek him out. They call him the oracle.
Through them he learns of the world he tries to escape.
He moves west. He hopes for the places of his memories. They are no more.
Instead, he finds village after village, and cities.
So many languages. So many gods.
He heads towards the mountains.
From a fading Etruria, he watches Rome rise.
News moves quickly within empires. But it trickles down slowly when you choose to live in its margins.
Like the flow of goods to the herding camps off the beaten track - it comes, but it comes slowly.
He realizes life in solitude is selfish.
Life bound by the metal yoke of empire is worse than he remembers.
He slips into the empire. He takes work as a trader, as a sailor, and at a vineyard at the edge of the empire, in Gaul. He grows olives. He leads horses around a press, making oil for export.
It took months to hear of the massacre. Twelve thousand in Judea at the hands of Pompey. Priests of the Temple struck down at the Altar.
He remembers the teachings. Perhaps it was time to light the path to Enlightenment.
He pours the last of his oil into a small clay lamp and heads for the port.
One dissident against Rome.
He teaches to any who will listen of ways to end suffering. From mountains and temples, villages and ports, he speaks from lifetimes of experience, from many traditions, from endless stories.
He speaks of Enlightenment.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
He makes a mistake, and demonstrates healing powers. His wound disappears.
“You are immortal?!”
“No,” he says. “Just old.”
His story is rewritten.
“This is not what I had in mind,” he confesses to one who calls himself a disciple. “I am only a teacher.”
“Yahshua, your words speak to the many. They offer hope of peace. An end to suffering.”
“These are not my words, but words of our fathers. And fathers before.”
“You speak truth.”
“I say many things, but the words are changed before they reach the last one in the crowd.”
“Yahshua, you are king of kings. You speak of eternal life.”
He looks again to truth.
“I will be here always, even unto the end of the world.”
It’s not that he couldn’t die. Or even that he wouldn’t.
Perhaps he just didn’t.
Perhaps he could finally meet death.
He goes willingly when soldiers come. The days of silently slipping away were long gone. That was the prerogative of anonymous men.
Stabbed, then hung from a cross, he blocks the pain, as he learned from the monks of the east.
He meditates, and slows his breathing.
They carry him away, and place him in a cave.
He waits for his chance to move on, until he hears no one waiting.
A miscalculationon his part.
Christ is risen.
To escape from his label, and the stories mistold in his name, he makes his way north. He stays ahead of the Apostolic teachings, but they follow him.
The ceremony, the rituals, the procession. He is sad to watch them.
Acknowledging karma’s bitter sting, he repents.
Priests and monks rise to power, using seduction and terror.
Still, he spends many years as in and out of monasteries.
Monastic life offers time to reflect and learn. He tends gardens. His mastery of Latin is superb.
When Urban calls for crusade, he refuses.
His time in the east caused damage enough.
In Anno Domini 1314, the autumn rains come with ferocity. There is ice and cold for years on end. It is a cold that no one has seen, aside from one.
He silently rejoices in the bitter cold of winter - until the famine sets in.
When plague and pestilence appear, and animals die, he volunteers to tend to the sick. When no one remains, he tends to the dead.
Lesions appear on his skin, only to disappear by the morning.
He escapes death.
For years, there is no need to change his name. There are few left to remember.
He stands at the port, and watches as barrels and crates are unloaded.
Trade fascinates him – how people give value to things.
He thought he’d seen it all. The silks and riches from the far east, and amphorae of the fine wine and olive oils stacked in the belly of ships. Precious metals and stones, each valued more than the lives of people.
This cargo of leaves and fruit, however, surprises him.
Crates of tobacco, from a land farther than even he imagined. Birds with bright plumage. Slaves.
“Riches from the Indes!” an excited merchant shouts, as he inspected crates.
He notices that the lone traveler is out of place for a tavern such as this – a slashed doublet with fine paned sleeves, and breeches. His tall narrow boots with turned-over tops are pristine, as if newly acquired, never worn.
Their eyes meet half-way in the middle of the room. As if old friends, they take a table and order food and drink.
“You seem familiar,” he asks the stranger. “Have we met?”
“Perhaps. I have travelled for more years than I can count.”
“As have I.”
The two exchanged vague stories of their pasts, casting lines as if fishing.
For two days, they both spoke with authority - of history, and distant places and distant times.
The stranger spoke of Pharaoh, as if the bible left out whole chapters.
He filled in tales of Roman senators.
They both huddled, and spoke blasphemies about immortal souls, the origins, and the creation.
They pointed to imaginary scars on their body.
They banter like children.
He is unsure whether he has found another of his kind, or if echoes and ale make for fine verbal sports. There is no way to tell.
They swap stories or lies, without any hope of verification.
They speak of wives - too many to count. They mock the Church for its dictates on marriage. The stranger speaks of Luther, as if he is family.
“Wives no longer interest me.”
His companion pauses. He misunderstands.
“What if I find love? Or even love for our child. There is no future together.”
“Do you expect… love?”
“No,” he says, after careful consideration.
“Well, neither do they. They expect to go forth and populate the earth, as the Lord commandeth.”
The two toast to their heresy, before they part.
“How can I find you again?”
“You will. In time.”
He sat across from the merchant, who sipped coffee from a small translucent porcelain cup from Cathay. The air filled with smoke, as men puffed on white kaolin pipes. Blue tiles framed a fireplace.
“You seem a curious mind.”
Johannes nods. His lips curl around his pipestem. It’s a fashion that doesn’t appeal, in a setting even less appealing.
“I have a magnificent cabinet. Curiosities - from around the world!”
Later, the merchant welcomes him in.
Johannes notices the tusks along the wall. He checks his pockets, as artifacts remind him of ones he used to carry very long ago.
The types you meet in coffeehouses! Scoundrels and subversives, all of them! Still, the atmosphere lent itself for learning the latest news, if not gossip.
“The colonies have revolted!”
“The aristocracy, beheaded!”
“News from distant lands, of a great discovery!”
Newspapers were passed around from table to table. Images to supplement the imagination, especially for those who could not read.
He hated the crowded coffeehouses, and their suffocating air. He coughed up phlegm through the thick smoke. It made him sick just to breathe.
Perhaps that is why he returned. In sickness he felt human, and part of the world.
An introduction is in order.
“This is Jacques. His father was a fine assistant. I am sure you will find him a fine helper, too.”
Jacques enters the library, and makes note of the curiosities encased on the walls.
“You have a fine cabinet…”
“These are specimens!” the scholar argues. “Geology… anatomy… fossils… All from God’s creation.”
Jacques is now used to seeing his past on display.
“To what end, Monsieur Cuvier?”
“To prove god’s greatness,” the new master states. “Perhaps you should begin with some reading. Can you read Latin?”
“Yes. I know most languages.”
He spends hours buried in books. Unlike his years in monastic study, this time he spent in exploration.
Soon, he moves on to Oxford, for his own degree in Biology.
He teaches for a while. He takes another degree, in Geology.
He wonders if he is practicing science, or attempting to reconstruct his own geneology.
“Have you seen the latest issue?” His colleague drops the paper on his oak desk. “It’s fascinating, really.”
“Another species of fly?” John replies, uninterested.
“Another species of man!”
He picks up the journal, and looks carefully at the line drawings of an unfamiliar skull.
John Oldman piles his books in cardboard boxes, and unplugs his laptop.
His resignation comes unexpectedly. But little warning means little fuss.
He remembers when it was possible to slip away in the night. Now and again, he is still able to do just that, when he works menial jobs with few loose ends.
The rancher. The train conductor. None are missed.
But there are times when he collects obligations that must be tended to. In those cases, it seems only fair.
He had made friends at the university. Intelligent people, with inquisitive minds. Now he will leave them, too.
The gathering is unexpected, but not unwelcome.
He has never done this before. In one hundred forty centuries, he has never really said goodbye.
On a whim, he makes a split decision. He divulges his true nature, to an audience of scholars.
But even inquisitive minds can only stretch so far, even over plastic cups of Johnny Walker Green.
Imagine it’s the plot of an intellectual’s novel. Suppose it were true.
“What would keep him alive?”
“In science fiction terms, I would say…” Harry, a jolly biologist, plays along. “Perfect regeneration of the body’s cells, especially in the vital organs.”
The biologist contemplates the hypothetical.
“The pancreas turns over cells every 24 hours. The stomach lining in three days. The entire body in seven years… But the process falters. Waste accumulates, eventually proves fatal. Now if a quirk in his immune system led to perfect detox, perfect renewal… Yeah. He could duck decay.”
It took 140 centuries for an explanation.
Still something is missing.
Sandy senses it might be her.
He wonders if there is a reason, or a plan for his existence. Or is he nothing but a genetic mutation?
She does not care. She accepts what he is.
No religious quests. No midnight exits. No enlightenment.
She simply grows old, and he remains by her side.
In the Adirondacks, they are young entrepreneurs, renovating the dilapidated Inn.
In Burlington, they are a couple suffering, her biological clock ticking.
In Johnson City, he is her mid-life crisis.
In Ruidoso, he is a cub to her cougar.
In Lincoln, he is her grown son, helping her live out her retirement years.
In the Upper Peninsula, he is her grandson, refusing to let her die in a home.
Finally, he remembers what it is like to be alone.
He moves on.