by Greg Stevens
10,000 years ago, a family struggles with new ideas, and with each other.
Nékti sat on the floor of his home, putting the finishing touches on his late wife's totem. He worked slowly, using a set of sticks he had been gathering since before the last full moon. He lovingly contoured the breasts, and scratched thin symmetrical patterns into the legs and body, leaving a fine spray of clay dust on the floor. His drawing-sticks were green-gray and hard, in a variety of thicknesses and oddly-shaped tips. One of the sticks had a curled tip—he had found it laying in the mud by the river to the south of town—and he hoped to use it later to draw the hair on her head. Not the way it looked at the end, he thought to himself. No. But the way it looked many summers before, when she had still been beautiful and healthy.
A shadow passed over the open portal in the ceiling, and a foot stepped down on the top rung of the wooden ladder. Even without looking, Nékti knew it would be his grandson, Mn̥tíh. He smiled. He adored his grandson. Instead of watching his grandson step down the ladder into their home, he looked over with pride to the far wall of the room, at "Mn̥téys wall."
Nékti was the best wall-painter in Çatalhöyük. So, when Mn̥tíh was born, so small and frail in the middle of winter, Nékti announced that even though Mn̥tíh may never be a great hunter, he would teach him to paint. That way, Mn̥tíh was sure to bring honor to the family, Nékti said. Nékti declared the south wall of their main room to be "Mn̥téys wall" and he spent four seasons scraping and polishing the plaster so that it was perfectly flat. He was eager to start teaching his grandson wall-painting. In his excitement, he had an idea: the first mid-winter after Mn̥tíh was born he drew a circle in the lower right corner. Then, he added a new circle each mid-winter after that. This way, he could actually watch his grandson's progression toward manhood.
Ten circles were there now, as well as a variety of scribbles, patterns and shapes that Mn̥tíh had drawn since he began his training. As promised, Nékti had been teaching Mn̥tíh to draw since he was old enough to hold a stick. His arms were not strong, Nékti observed, and his lines were not straight. But his grandson did seem to love the art, and Nékti was proud. The time for wall-drawing was a personal time that they shared together, all their own. Nékti even explained to his grandson about the ritual of adding the circles each mid-winter. Nékti was very proud of the idea. Mn̥tíh seemed only... passingly interested. That's alright, thought Nékti. Someday he will be happy to see how many circles he has on his wall.
Sometimes Nékti wished he knew how many circles would be on his own wall. There was no way of knowing, of course. Many, many mid-winters had passed in his life. It would be impossible to remember. He looked at his wife's totem, and imagined how he would have told her about these thoughts. He smiled as he imagined her voice, and what she surely would have said: "So what?" came her laughing, playful voice. Slightly teasing, always loving. "You are very old! We already know that. Why do you need circles to tell you what you already know?"
Mn̥tíh had climbed down the ladder and now stood next to Nékti in the center of the room, looking down at the raised platform with the sticks and totems lying there in front of his grandfather. Nékti put his wife's totem down on on the platform, next to his own half-finished totem. Nékti hadn't touched his own totem in days.
"You and áwijā?" asked Mn̥tíh.
"Yes," said Nékti sadly. After a few slow breaths, he forced himself to smile and look at his grandson. "And you must make yours, too! Before the Burning."
"I know," Mn̥tíh said distantly, as if he was thinking about something else. He stared blankly at the totems on the platform. He could feel the grit of the clay dust under his feet. Suddenly a smile lit his face, and he looked at his grandfather. "I drew some more vultures! Do you want to see?"
Nékti smiled, and chuckled softly. "Of course!" The vultures were a private joke between the two of them. In the last season, Mn̥tíh was drawing animals on the wall. His older brother had walked up to Mn̥téys wall, pointed at a strange triangular blob with two lines poking outward on either side, and announced loudly to the entire family, "What is that?"
Mn̥tíh waited silently, his cheeks burning so hard that he wished he would sink into the plaster floor. Sure enough, the entire family turned to look in his direction. It was obvious that his charcoal-tipped stick had gotten away from him, and the wall had crumbled slightly while he drew. He knew it, and he knew everyone else knew it as well. He had glanced at his father who was scowling at him from across the room. His father didn't approve of drawing to begin with, but Mn̥tíh knew that he would tolerate poor drawing even less.
Softly, shyly, Mn̥tíh had muttered, "It's... it's a vulture." His brother took two steps closer to the wall, bringing his face within a hand-span's distance of the mangled drawing and squinting his eyes in an unnecessary and exaggerated way. "It is not any kind of vulture to me!" he announced loudly, which got a laugh from their father and some chuckles from several of the uncles and cousins who were also in the room.
Nékti felt embarrassed and sad for his grandson. His face burned as if the drawing had been his own. And so, Nékti spoke up.
"It is just like a vulture, to me," he had said slowly, in a voice that was soft but firm with the authority of age. The room fell silent. Ever since then, Mn̥tíh drew vultures in exactly the same way: a weird triangular blob with erratic lines coming out from either side. Truthfully, Nékti thought to himself, it did not matter much that the drawing did not look like a vulture. As long as they both knew that the shape was supposed to be a vulture, Nékti thought that it was a perfectly good vulture-drawing.
Now, his grandson was showing him a whole colony of vultures that he drew on the wall. "And look, au̯o-s, I drew them to the left of the mountains, as it should be!"
It seemed like such a simple thing to hear, but Nékti's body felt warm with pride, and he felt a tingle in the back of his neck.
Nékti's greatest drawing, the one that had earned him the reputation of being the best wall-painter in Çatalhöyük, was a pattern on the short section of wall directly next to the ladder that descended from the opening in the roof. It was the first thing that visitors saw when they came by this family's home, and many visitors came just to look at it. The drawing covered the entire wall, dominated by an orange picture of the volcano that rose up next to the city. The drawing was ornate, and Nékti had been careful to use different shades of clay for the smoke, the side of the mountain, and the background. Beneath the volcano was an intricate pattern of boxes that covered the entire bottom half of the wall in interlocking shapes. The entire painting had clearly taken a great deal of thought, time, and effort, and was truly a tribute to the gods. Nékti was proud, and stood taller with the appreciation of all of the villagers that came by to praise him for it.
However, there was another reason for Nékti's pride: something that the other villagers did not understand. The people of Çatalhöyük saw the intricate pattern of boxes under the volcano the same way that they saw the patterns of lines that they drew on their totems or on their spearheads: a tribute to the gods. Everyone knows that a careful repetition of straight lines and geometric patterns is a message: "gods, we honor you with our thoughts and our work, these patterns, these lines that could not be drawn so straight or so precisely except from our deepest, most deliberate efforts. This is our creation for you."
But the interlocking squares under the volcano in Nékti's wall-painting were more than the tribute of pattern. For day after day, Nékti had stood on top of the roof of his home, next to the portal entrance, and gazed out over the town. In the distance, he saw the volcano. Under foot, he saw the plaza that was formed by the flat rooftops of the city of Çatalhöyük. Rather than a single, flat surface, the plaza seemed to be a pattern of irregular rectangles: rooftops of structures built at different times by different families, with materials brought from slightly different parts of the surrounding lands. Each structure was built directly up against its neighbors, so the rooftops formed an almost continuous floor, spotted with holes that were entrances to each home. Nékti was one of the oldest people in the city, so he could remember the names of almost every family just by looking at the entrance to their home. Three squares to the left of the volcano and one row forward was the home of the family of his second-cousin Uksénh₁e. Move two squares to the right and you find the entrance to the home of his son's best friend and hunting partner, Wérǵey. And on and on.
So this is what he drew. The squares didn't look like the plaster rooftops, to be sure. And when he tried to draw the space between the city and the mountain he made himself confused and frustrated. But still, he was careful enough that he could point to any square on his drawing, and he knew which family's home it was supposed to be.
He tried explaining this to his wife, back when he had first completed the drawing. She listened politely, smiling as she always did. But in the end she would say only, "The volcano is beautiful. The pattern is beautiful. But I don't understand how a square is a home. A square is not like a home, my dearest. It is a square."
So he quickly gave up explaining this idea to people. That is, until just a few days ago when he sat with his grandson Mn̥tíh. They were talking about his Great Painting, and Nékti leaned over to his grandson conspiratorially and said in hushed tones, "Do you want me to tell you a secret about this painting?" Eagerly, of course, Mn̥tíh nodded: wide eyed and ready to learn great secrets from his grandfather. It took all afternoon, and even at the end Nékti was not entirely certain that his grandson understood.
"You see? When you go up outside and face the volcano, you must turn to the right and walk two homes to get to Wérǵey," Nékti said again, for what felt like the hundredth time.
"Yes, au̯o-s," said Mn̥tíh in a resigned, exhausted voice.
"And so when you look at this painting, there is the volcano, and here is the center square, and two to the right... that square is Wérǵeis home!"
"Yes, au̯o-s." It was clear that Mn̥tíh simply wanted to go to dinner, so Nékti sighed and waved his hands.
"OK, OK... enough. Go now."
This memory was fresh in Nékti's mind. That is why, today, when Mn̥tíh said that he drew the vultures to the left of the mountains "as it should be," Nékti's heart was lifted higher than he had felt it in a long time. Mn̥tíh's volcano-painting might be crude and simple, his vultures may be terrible... but he understood! He understood the painting! Because it was true: to go to the place where the vultures lived, you did indeed have to hunt in the plains that were found to the left of the volcano.
Before Nékti could praise his grandson, however, a great slam exploded from the other side of the room, followed by grunts and creeks coming from the wooden ladder. Mn̥tíh's father—Nékti's son—was home from the hunt.
"The gods see you home safely, Kerwoitā," said Nékti softly. Nékti was always slightly disturbed by his son. Large, muscular, hairy, the master of the hunt; honestly, he saw very little of himself in his offspring. He was proud of his son, of course. How could he not be? Kerwoitā had the best reputation of any hunter in the entire city, a strong arm that every man wanted at his side, and adored by all the women. So very different from myself, thought Nékti, with a small amount of sadness. But although he admired his son's strength and reputation, he still found the physical presence of his son off-putting. The loudness, the sweatiness of constant physical activity, his large frame that took up two spaces when the family was eating. He was like a walking winter storm, causing chaos and deafness where-ever he went.
"Hello, p∂tēr" said Mn̥tíh in a tone that only a child can accomplish: meek, hopeful, and pleading for approval all at the same time.
His father grunted in return. Kerwoitā's eyes scanned the central room, as he took in his father and his son sitting next to the drawing wall, the tools and totems laying on the platform. Kerwoitā made a "hmph" sound again, and turned to the bulky pack that he had thrown down onto the floor when he had entered. A large mass enclosed in cloth and wrapped tightly with twine, it would be a portion of the spoils from the hunt today. Already drained, cleaned, and dismembered outside and away from the living areas of the town, the large slabs of flesh and bone would be hung in the air in the back room of the home. Kerwoitā got to work on the twine.
Mn̥tíh looked anxiously at his grandfather, but Nékti only widened his eyes and made a pushing gesture with his hands, as if to compel Mn̥tíh physically to go and help his father. Mn̥tíh hated the smell and feel of the carcass, and working with tools always made him feel weak. Relucantly, he walked over to his father's side. Without turning his head to acknowledge his son, Kerwoitā simply moved aside slightly to make room for his son next to the carcass so that he could work.
Nékti saw his grandson fumbling with the strings, and felt sorry for the boy's awkwardness. Keeping a wary eye on Kerwoitā, as if monitoring a dangerous predator, Nékti said loudly, "Mn̥tíh drew impressively again today."
Kerwoitā froze, and drew his hands back to his sides. Without turning around to face his father, he spoke. "So? You know the Burning is soon."
Nékti simmered with a quiet anger. Of course his son, Kerwoitā the great hunter, was being stupid on purpose. He knew very well the importance of practice. Small children hunt small animals, even though the animals will not feed a single person. It makes them better hunters. Just as drawing on Mn̥téys wall made Mn̥tíh a better wall-painter. The wall and the painting would be destroyed in the Burning, of course. But the skill would live on.
Nékti thought all of this, but said nothing. What would be the point of saying what everyone in the room already knew?
"Does the Burning have to destroy au̯o-sys famous painting, too?" asked Mn̥tíh.
Nékti's stomach went cold. He knew, more than Mn̥tíh did, the way that this would provoke Kerwoitā. Nékti knew that his grandson was simply trying to give him honor. But he also knew his son.
"Did your au̯o-s ask you to say that?" Kerwoitā spat venomously. "Eh? Hasn't he taught you better than that? Maybe he doesn't know better?"
"I know better," Nékti said quietly, deliberately speaking softly to offset the over-large sounds from Kerwoitā that threatened to fill the room. "I was alive for the last Burning. You were not."
"You were an infant," Kerwoitā said dismissively. "Well, while you sit here with your paintings and your... sticks that do nothing... maybe you should do a better job of teaching the young one why we need the Burning."
Nékti sat in silence. What was there to say? In all honestly, Nékti may not have spent as much time as he could have teaching Mn̥tíh about the ritual. It was a ritual that stretched back for more generations than anyone could remember. The gods taught the people of Çatalhöyük to value their skills more than their things. And they reminded the people in a way that they could not ignore: if they went too many generations without burning the city to the ground and starting over, the sickness came and spread and could not be stopped. Already now, it was beginning again.
But Nékti wished that the Burning were not needed. He mourned the loss of the paintings that so many people created throughout the city. He mourned the plans and well-traveled paths that would have to be re-created. He glanced over at Mn̥téys wall, and the circles on it. He mourned the loss of that, as well. Not the bad drawings that his unskilled grandson had produced... but the ideas and memories that they represented. The idea of the circles. Will we be able to remember how many circles should be on Mn̥téys wall, when we create a new one after the Burning? Will there even be a new wall for him to draw on?
As if reading Nékti's mind, Kerwoitā went on. "You think we will miss your painting, and your ridiculous wall. You think Çatalhöyük will miss this?" He walked pointedly up to Mn̥téys wall and pointed at the row of circles there. "This is not pretty. This is not a tribute to the gods. This does nothing for us. What is this? This is nothing... it should be burned." And with that Kerwoitā gave the wall a vicious kick that flaked and cracked the plaster, causing one of the circles to crumble almost entirely into pieces on the ground. Only a short segment was still visible on the wall, the rest taken over by the rough patch of newly exposed plaster.
Nékti's anger rose within him. A part of his mind knew that wisdom would be to remain quiet, but he could not. He tastes a bitterness in his mouth, like eating gray rocks from the mountain-side. His legs were filled with energy and he took a step toward his large, angry son. "You.... think..." his voice trembled with anger and age, "You think I would resist the Burning for this? You think I don't know what it's for?" He reached out his hand into the air in a helpless grabbing motion, wishing he had the strength to strike something. "You think I don't know why we have the Burning? After seeing.... after seeing your mother...." His voice trembled again, but he was determined to push through. His eyes blinked with salt. "After seeing what happened to her... and seeing the sickness of everyone in the city... After seeing so many drop, losing hair and skin and turning unnatural color.... How dare you? How dare you think I would question the Burning?"
Kerwoitā was shocked by the strength of emotion that his father showed, but it was not in his nature to withdraw or show remorse. Instead, he stood motionless, the expression of anger frozen on his face. He said nothing for several moments. Finally: "The world is changing, p∂tēr. Do you know what we did today, out in the field?"
Struggling to regain control over himself, Nékti took two deep breaths, staring at the wall next to his son without really focusing on anything. The texture of the wall doubled, tripled, and danced in a circle while he blinked the moisture from his eyes. Still without looking at Kerwoitā, he whispered, "What did you do today in the field, my son?"
"We trapped aurochs to the west of the mountain. We kept them in the same place all day. We were talking about felling trees and forcing them to feed where we want them, so we don't have to waste time chasing after them day in and day out. Can you imagine!"
Nékti liked the idea, and thought it was clever. But his resentment at their recent argument made him combative and contrary. "What will happen when they have eaten everything where you have trapped them? They will die."
"Then we will move them to a new place, old man!" bellowed Kerwoitā, raising his arms up to the ceiling in frustration. "Can you really see no progress? This is what will help us! This is something that will out-live the Burning. Not like your... your paintings," he spat the last word as if he had tasted poison.
Nékti sat without speaking for a long time, and eventually Kerwoitā turned back to the bundle on the floor. Mn̥tíh had moved back to the wall during their exchange, and now just sat, wide-eyed with his legs bent, his knees pressed to his chest, and this arms wrapped around them. He watched silently as his grandfather eventually un-froze from where he stood, still not speaking, and picked up his wife's totem once more.
Nékti knew that he probably wouldn't live past the Burning. So much change, so much progress. He really was proud of his son, even though his son did things he didn't care about. No, that's not true: but he cared in a distracted, distant kind of way. He cared because he knew that food provided life, and his son brought the food. But Nékti was not a hunter, so his heart didn't get louder when his son talked about the "progress" they made.
But now, Nékti smiled. His heart did get louder, but for a very private, very secret reason. Nékti just had a thought. He would help his grandson make his totem. He would tell Mn̥tíh that when he drew the lines that encircled the legs of his totem, he should draw one line for each circle on his wall. That way, he would be sure not to forget after the Burning. Then, when he built a new home, he could claim a new wall, and he could look at his totem and—if he wanted—he could create the circles again. His totem would be truly a tool of the gods. For each circle, one line on the totem... then for each line on the totem, one circle on the new wall. And maybe, just maybe, Mn̥tíh could keep up the tradition of drawing a new circle each mid-winter. Then he could always know exactly how many mid-winters of progress he had seen in his life.