Backs on Grass – A Short Story


Where did we come from? I don’t mean life. That’s been documented already; the pale curtain of lightning; the dense seas—Venusian, black like boiled leather; the first spark that tethered us all to water. Roger Gray was the first one to record it on video. He won the Nobel Prize for it about a decade ago. He guessed the right year, the right hour, the right minute, the right second, out of all those billions and trillions of moments. He guessed the right few nanometers out of those bare starscape-plains of water, and he witnessed the genesis of all things. He was lucky. He was called upon by God. This is what it’s for, we all thought when we saw the microorganisms writhe into being. This is what time travel is for.

Gray now lives in a mansion in Italy, and goes back to Rome and to Greece to do what he calls “research”. We all know that the reason he really goes is because the ancients think he’s a god. I mean, the engravings of Dionysus and Bacchus look suspiciously like him. That doesn’t just happen.

But there is more to know. More to show people. We’ve seen the first life, but what about the first us? The first hominid who became truly human?
“You’re bringing me back something, right?” my sister asks.
“Something? Yes. I’ll bring you back a jar full of pond water.”
“Ew!” she laughs. Her eyes pull wide as her mouth, wider still; straight lines.
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you something.”
“Something good?”
“Something good.”

I hug her and she inhales deeply, which means she’s going to cry. She knows I’ll only be gone one day. It’s always one day. We can’t be gone more than twelve hours or we’ll run out of battery. That’s it, that’s all you get; it’s too expensive to carry a spare. She knows that, but she cries anyway.

I say goodbye to my parents, to my younger brother, and to the family cat, Lyra. I always leave them with these big goodbyes because you never know what will happen. They’re used to the uncertainty, I think; they’re used to it more than I am. They brag about my job to their friends all the time. Our daughter is an archaeologist, they say. She’s going to the Pleistocene next week.

It’s not any more dangerous, really, than flying on a plane. Before every trip you must prepare yourself for the small possibility of a life where you become an old woman at age forty, a life where you step barefoot on twigs and stink like mud for the rest of your days.

When I step out of the time machine, the sun feels dim, polluted. I look up at the haze. At first I think there might have been a small volcanic eruption a few weeks past, but then the rain shivers down, a muted, felted click against leaves. Rain clouds, then. I live in the desert. It hasn’t rained in years. It hasn’t rained on a trip in years, either. This is a sign, I think. A sign from the God or Goddess of this era that I’ve come to the right place.

The pond is big enough not to be stagnant, but small enough not to be a lake. The trees feel heavy, the lianas hanging down like tangled hair. I clutch my extra-zoom camera and sit near the water. My pants soak through immediately with mud. I feel completely naked, like I am one of these trees, and a sense of panic shivers through me. I have done this so many times, but there’s something different now. The grasses wheeze with insects and rain. All the birds sound far away, as though they’re chanting at me from mountaintops.

“Hello?” I say, just to hear my own voice. The birds pause, and then they sing louder than ever, faster, quicker, the staccato of a heartbeat.

I think about the present I’ll bring my little sister. A rock? A flower? What would she do with such things? Nothing here will interest her. The picture will have to be enough.

Any moment now, I think. Any moment I will see the first human amongst her tribe of ape people. She will be different from them—slender, taller, less hairy. Her clever, mutated genes will pass on through millennia, shifting and growing, but recognizable. The original mother. The original Goddess. How will I know if she’s the first? I will know, I think. Somehow, I’ll just know.

The sun is veiled, doused by cotton balls, but I can tell that it’s almost evening. Maybe this moment was not the moment. Something crunches behind me, and I stoop silently behind what is either a small tree or a tall bush. A pack of hominids squat and cup their hands and bring water to their mouths. The sun is setting quicker than I thought, but there’s still time to watch. None of them stands out. They look like classic Homo heidelbergensis; flat foreheads, eyes positioned within brow bone caves. They look human but they also look disfigured, lumpy. In this lighting, completely naked, they appear silhouetted; remnants, untouchable; they are ancientness embodied. There are many pictures of them at home, but I take a few anyway. I am breathlessly quiet. Their hearing is better than ours. I go on taking pictures, shifting my weight, ready to run back to the machine.

The sun is almost gone. I’m halfway to the machine when I glance over my shoulder. There is a woman I hadn’t noticed. Her back is turned, but even from behind, I can tell—she is slender, with long, straight hair. She is different. This is it; my picture, my Nobel Prize, my sister’s gift. I run toward them. “Hey!” I yell to get her attention. She is lumpy. Her teeth stick out. She is not me.

I sprint to the machine but it’s too late. The battery is dead. They walk toward me, hunched. I understand their faces. In their eyes I see my own pupils. I see all the millions of moments, the learning of unthinkable languages, the cold fireside nights, our backs on grass; I see my own self—the goddess eternal, the very first strand of humanity, the first and the last, a birth and death in one swift motion.


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