When Life and Death Were Simple

In my mind, I picture an ancient cave-dweller, a man in his early twenties. During the time he lived, the average lifespan of humans was only twenty-six. The rare thirty-year-old or rarer forty-year-old were considered extraordinary. And they were. They managed, somehow, to escape the diseases and infections that came from living in the face of Nature and the danger Nature presented.

But my man has managed to live into his early twenties with almost no serious injuries or illnesses. He lives in a protected cave on the sea-coast, where food is plentiful. His diet consists of an assortment of plants and the bounty of the sea: clams, fish, crabs, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and various other sea creatures. It is a healthy diet, though he does not think of it that way; to him, it is merely sustenance.

One morning, I see the man bring in from the water several blue crabs. He puts them in a shallow pit filled with glowing embers and weighs them down with rocks. After a few minutes, he pulls the cooked crabs from the fire, rinses the ash from their shells, and crack them open. He picks out large chunks of meat from the broken shells and eats it. This is not an unusual sight; he follows a similar routine most mornings.

But this morning, something is different. Soon after he swallows the last bit of crab meat, his face begins to swell and turn red.  He struggles to breathe. He stands up, looking frightened and confused, and pulls at the skin on his neck. He pants and sweats and shakes his head fiercely, as if doing so might cast off whatever demon has his throat and his breath in its clutches. It does not work. In a matter of seconds, his energy is sapped; he sits on a rock, trying to breathe; his trachea is so swollen air cannot reach his lungs. Suddenly, he stands up erect. He puts one foot in front of his body, but it cannot hold him. He collapses. After a minute or two of tremors and seizures, he stops attempting to breathe. His body goes limp. He is dead.

No one witnesses this tragedy. No one but I. And I can do nothing because I see it from the distance of a thousand miles and tens of thousands of years. I cannot send anything to counter his anaphylaxis. I could not foresee it, nor could he. He developed a deadly allergy to a protein he had eaten hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times before. The protein in crab meat suddenly, and without provocation, turned against him. The man’s death in his early twenties contributed to the short average lifespan of his brethren.

The man’s mate, a woman roughly his age or a little older, will find his body in a short while. Returning to their cave near the water, after taking a bath in a cool stream nearby, she will see his body on the sand. She will go to him and attempt to revive him, but her efforts will be futile. She will sit on a rock and cry for a long time. Eventually, her tears will dry and she will do what must be done. She will fashion a sled from palm fronds, vines, and tree branches. She will roll the man’s body onto the sled and pull the sled along the beach about a mile. There, she will dig a hole in the sand, where she will deposit his body. She will cover it with sand and put the sled on top of the mound. Distance and sand will protect her from the odors as his body decomposes. She will return to the cave and seek out food. For that’s what she must do to survive for at least a while longer.

The woman may live to be forty. Or she may suffer the same fate at her mate. She may one day discover that shrimp, too, or mussels or clams can bring on anaphylaxis. But she will never know what killed her mate. She will have no way to “connect the dots.” His death was, to her, simply an unfortunate experience with no known cause. She may find another mate or another mate may find her. She may wither away or be swept away by a ferocious storm. We have no way of knowing.

I know only that I have lost sight of her. My mind’s eye has gone blind.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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