Friday, February 28, 2014

Elephas sapiens

Dear Ellie,

I’ve always been interested in the idea of alternate history.  There are certain defining moments in our past, tipping points, where two very different outcomes could have been realized.  Most stories involving this theme pertain to some battle that unfolded differently or some person that was never born and how it changes the outcome of human civilization.  One of the biggest tipping points in our past, I think, is the moment when Homo sapiens almost went extinct.  Granted, the outcomes favored us because we humans are still here, but I wonder what might have happened if fate were not so kind to us.  I wonder if some other creature might have plucked up the mantle of intelligence.  What would they think of us, if they had?  So I’ve written you a story about such an alternate history.  A very alternate history. 


Bandoola was bored.  He tapped the tablet with his trunk, absently.

“Bandoola, pay attention!” Annabelle tooted.  “I’ll never finish this book report on Homo brevis all by myself!”

Annabelle’s brother threw his trunk in the air and blasted in exasperation.  It startled their pet dodo bird, who flapped his knobby little wings in protest. 

“Poor Mauritius!” Annabelle cooed, drawing the flightless fowl closer with her trunk.  She wrapped it in a wreath of her prehensile nose.

“Ugh, who cares about Homo brevis!  Apes are so boring!” Bandoola said.  “Especially extinct ones!  Matriarch Toofi let us pick any animal we wanted, but you had to pick Homo brevis!  What is there to know about them?  They were obviously too dumb to survive, so now they’re extinct.  Book report over.”

Annabelle was patient, as most Elephas sapiens girls her age tend to be, but when it came to her brother, she always had to exhaust her will to keep her ears from flapping.  She didn’t like to hear him talk about Homo brevis that way.  She had a special affection for those scrawny little apes.  She even had the cast of a brevis skull in her room.   

“That might not be true, Bandoola.  A lot of scientists are debating now about how smart Homo brevis really was.  If you look closely at the new fossil evidence found in Africa, you’ll see that they actually had very big brains.  Some scientists even want to call them Homo sapiens instead of Homo brevis.  There is evidence that they used stone tools, too, before they went extinct.”

Shocked, Bandoola raised his trunk in the shape of a question mark, then tooted hysterically.  Mauritius squawked with him.

Smart apes?!” he bellowed.  “Anna, how you imagine things!”

Annabelle’s ears began to flap.

Bandoola grabbed his tablet and typed “Homo brevis” into Tootle.  He turned his tablet around and showed her the first image the search engine came up with. 

“Does this look like a smart ape to you, Anna?” he said.    

It was a black and white illustration of a male brevis: bucked tooth, eyes crossed, hunched over, grubby.  His body was bony and gaunt, like a sick animal.  His skin was shriveled.  He was very, very hairy.   

Annabelle sighed.  It was a picture she had seen many times before.  An unfair artistic rendering by the famous naturalist--- Otto von Tusque--- after the very first brevis skull was discovered.  Brevis, according to Tusque, was the perfect example of the fact that nature makes mistakes.

“Everything about them was just wrong, Annabelle,” Bandoola said.  “Just look at them.  They are nothing like us.”

“But their brains,” Annabelle said.  “All of the scientists now say that they had big brains.”

“So what?  Maybe they had big heads like us, but look at that tiny, skinny little body!  And walking on two legs?  They look ridiculous!  They must have been falling all over themselves!  If it was such a good thing to walk on two legs, why don’t other animals do it, too?  We don’t walk on two legs, do we?  No!  The Divine Matriarch must have made them as a joke, or something.”

It was not the first time Annabelle had heard these prejudiced remarks.  She was ready with a retort.    
“But what about their hands?” she said.  “They have two hands to use tools.  We only have one trunk.”

Bandoola paused for a moment.  Scratched his head with his trunk as he thought.

“Does it really matter if they had two hands…” her brother finally said.  “If they didn’t have a soul?”

Annabelle rolled her eyes.  Her brother was only ever pious when it suited him.

The Divine Matriarch made us in her own image, and the trunk is the channel to the heavens,” Bandoola said, reciting scripture.  “The trunk is the one thing that no other animal on Earth has, so how could Homo brevis ever pray without it?  How could they link trunks with the Divine Matriarch if they didn’t have a trunk at all!”

Bandoola demonstrated, raising his trunk--- his divine appendage--- into the air to link with the Divine Matriarch in the sky, “Divine Matriarch, forgive my sister for her stupidness.”


“What?  Tell me how they could pray without a trunk?” her brother insisted.

“I don’t know,” Annabelle said, shrugging her heavy shoulders.  “Maybe when they wanted to pray, they put their two hands together?"

Her brother bellowed in a second round of laughter at the absurdity of the thought.

“Look Bandoola, all I’m saying is that maybe things might have been different.  Maybe they could have lived.  Maybe instead of elephant cities and elephant societies across the world there could have been human cities and human societies.  Or maybe we might both be here together.  Elephas sapiens and Homo sapiens.  Living together.  Thinking together.  Praying together.  Just think about that for a moment.”

Her brother did.  There was a kind of contemplative expression on his long face that Annabelle didn’t see very often.

“Well, they might have made good pets,” Bandoola said, patting Mauritius's feathery head with his trunk.

“Okay, well, let’s take a break for now,” Annabelle said.  “We’ll start up later, after dinner.  Mother made bamboo and bananas for dinner.”

“And tulips for desert?”

“Yes, and tulips for desert.”

With one enthusiastic bound, Bandoola jumped to his feet, snatched up Mauritius the Dodo in his trunk, then stomped away to the kitchen.

Annabelle didn’t follow him, at first.  Instead, she lumbered toward her room.  She imagined for a moment that there was a brevis walking along side her.  She reached aside to take his hand in her trunk, so that he wouldn’t get ahead of her.  She didn’t want to accidentally step on his frail little foot, imaginary or not.  Once behind her door, in privacy and dimness, she reached for the brevis skull on her desk.  Lifted it up in the air to meet her eyes. 

“Hello, there, little brevis,” she whispered, but then changed her mind.  “No, little Homo sapiens.”

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