Before the Cave, part 15

Ilara had a moment of dislocation. It felt for all the world as though she were looking down at a set of tiny carved wooden figures.

There was a little figure of a mammoth, small enough to pick up in one hand. Facing that an even tinier figure, of a human girl. They were just sitting there on the ground, as though some child had been called to dinner and had forgotten to put away her toys.

Then the very next moment she was staring down into her own face. Except her face seemed too small. Everything seemed too small, about half as big as it was supposed to be.

The smaller version of herself gazed back up at her, with a look of complete astonishment. There was a moment of silence.

The silence was finally broken when the other Ilara said “I seem to be you.”

Ilara had a sudden flash of understanding. “And I,” she answered, “seem to be you.”

Before the Cave, part 14

It felt as though they had been talking for hours. Finally they were both caught up on each others’ day.

“It’s incredible,” Ilara said. “You and I are going through the same thing.”

“Yes,” said the mammoth, “except that you’re going through the human version, I’m going through the normal version. No offense.”

“None taken,” Ilara said, “You know, neither of us is going to figure this thing out on our own.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

Ilara laughed. “Yes,” she said, “of course you were.”

The mammoth made a noise that in a human would probably have been a laugh.

On an impulse Ilara reached out her hand and placed it on the mammoth’s massive trunk. She wasn’t sure that would be ok, but the mammoth just stood there, making no move to stop her. It felt surprisingly warm to the touch.

They just stood like that for a moment, the girl and the mammoth, in a moment frozen in time. It was just about then that the world started to spin.

Before the cave, part 13

“I am glad you asked,” said the mammoth. “Since we last spoke, I have been having a very difficult time.”

“Oh?” Ilara said, intrigued. “Difficult how?”

“Well, as you may know, mammoths have wonderful memories. So one of our favorite things to do is to tell the old tales. Tales of great migrations and of narrow escapes, of loyalty and courage, of triumph and despair. We are quite the tellers of tales.”

Ilara found herself just staring, amazed.

“I’m sorry,” the mammoth said, “I realize such concepts would make no sense at all to a human.”

“It all makes perfect sense,” Ilara said, too interested in what she was hearing to act insulted. “Tell me more.”

“Well,” the mammoth continued, “suddenly the stories seem wrong. They’re all about making fun of humans, or killing humans, or killing humans and then making fun of them. Everybody around me seemed to be having such a good time, but I had to leave. It was awful.”

“Wait until I tell you,” Ilara said laughing, “about my day.”

Before the cave, part 12

There is the feeling that something is familiar, because you’ve known it all your life. Like that stupid little carved wooden mammoth you played with when you were little, maybe kind of chipped and worn around the edges now, but still able to take you right back to your seven year old self, the moment you pick it up.

Then there is the feeling that something is familiar because it just feels right, because this is who you are, and where you are supposed to be. Even if you never knew it before.

In that moment, Ilara knew that second kind of feeling. She had only heard that voice once before, but it felt more familiar than the voice of her mother or her father, more familiar even than her grandmother’s beautiful raspy old woman voice.

She turned around slowly, enjoying the pleasure of dragging out the moment, savoring it. Nothing had made sense since she had gone back to her village, but now, here in this clearing, everything felt like it made perfect sense.

She took in the sight of the mammoth, this strange, magnificent creature, towering over her, waiting patiently for her response.

“Well,” she said, “where have you been?”

Before the Cave, part 11

Ilara couldn’t remember ever feeling so angry. The whole thing was wrong, the ceremony, the way the tribe responded to it, everything.

And the thing was, the ceremony was something she’d been watching her whole life. Why hadn’t she realized any of this before?

She kept running, trying to burn off the fierce rage she felt inside. Before she knew it she was far from the village.

She stopped in an open clearing, breathing hard, trying to catch her breath. Gradually she calmed down enough to start thinking about what had just happened. What was she going to do now?

Suddenly there was a voice behind her. “Hello again,” it said.

Before the Cave, part 10

Ilara looked on with excitement as the ceremony started. This had been going on for as long as she could remember, and there was something comforting in knowing that some things never change.

But then she started to notice something odd. The reenactments were looking different this time. For one thing, the man in the mammoth costume didn’t seem so funny.

Everybody laughed at the part where the great hunter from the tribe came at the mammoth with his spear, and the mammoth ran around in circles trying to run away. And when the hunter finally caught up with the mammoth, everybody cheered.

But Ilara didn’t feel like cheering. Not at all. This was all wrong.

Of course a mammoth would never run from a human hunter. Why didn’t everybody see that? What was wrong with everybody?

Ilara ran from the ceremony just as fast as her legs could carry her. She wasn’t sure where she was going, just as long as it was anywhere but here.

Before the Cave, part 9

Ilara pondered the conversation she had just had. She hadn’t actually revealed her secret, but she was pretty sure her grandmother had figured it out.

This had been the first real confirmation that her encounter with the mammoth had really happened, and wasn’t just something she’d imagined. But now what was she supposed to do about it?

She suddenly realized how weird it felt walking through the village now. It was the same village she had walked through yesterday, the same people she’d always known, but now everything was different. It was like they were all in a different world. Or maybe just she was.

At last she arrived at the gathering, and was happy to see that she had gotten there just in time. The familiar drumbeats were starting to play, and she could see the men in their costumes gathered on one side of the clearing.

She had always loved this part, ever since she was little. It was the only time she ever got to see grownups wearing silly costumes.

Although she knew better than to tell anybody how silly the costumes looked. Dressing up and acting out these old make-believe stories seemed to be a big deal to grownups, a very serious thing. She once asked her mother why, but the only answer she got was that she would understand when she was older.

Great introductory books

I will from time to time interrupt our ongoing tale to talk about something else. Think of these liminal posts as the breaks between Acts at the theatre.

Today I was at a party, and the topic came up of introductory books by great experts. These books are, by definition, not geared toward one who is practiced in the field. Generally speaking, you can pick up such a book and read it from cover to cover with no preparation whatsoever.

The best of them not only give you insights into some field of intellectual discourse, but also convey the immense love of that field by its practitioners. As far as I know, no systematic compendium exists that lists the best of such books.

At the party today I got to talking with another NYU professor on this topic. She studies neurology, so of course I mentioned Oliver Sacks’ classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It turned out that reading this book had profoundly influenced her decision to enter the field.

We started to list books that have had a similar impact in other fields. There is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Anyone reading that book will surely fall in love with Evolutionary Linguistics.

There is Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life for Paleontology, Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting for theater acting, Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye for film editing, and many more. It would be wonderful to create an authoritative list.

We decided that there should be an option for an NYU professor to take an extra semester sabbatical, with the proviso that he or she read twenty books from that list, and then lead an undergraduate seminar on what has been learned.

I think such a program will improve the level of scholarship at NYU. I wonder whether the University administration will go for it.

Before the Cave, part 8

“What can you tell me about talking to mammoths?” Ilara was genuinely curious now. Maybe she wasn’t the only one.

“I saw it with my own eyes when I was just a little girl. My mother would take me with her when she would go to visit her mammoth guide.”

“Her mammoth guide?”

“Yes, that’s what she called it. I think the mammoth thought of her as a human guide. It all seemed to go both ways.”

“Did you speak to mammoths too?”

“Oh no,” Ilara’s grandmother laughed. “My mother had the gift, but I didn’t. The legends say that her great grandmother had it as well.”

“Does my mother have it?”

“No, she doesn’t even believe it’s real. Most people don’t in these modern times. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it.”

Ilara’s grandmother leaned forward, peering into her granddaughter’s eyes. “I’m guessing you didn’t come here to talk about old legends. Is there something you want to tell me?”

Before the Cave, part 7

Ilara stood outside uncertainly. She could see her grandmother sitting quietly within, apparently asleep. She hovered near the entrance, not really sure whether it would be polite to walk in.

“Well?” she suddenly heard a familiar from inside. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand out there all day?”

Sheepishly Ilara entered. Her grandmother, sitting exactly as before, seemed to be still asleep.

She suddenly opened one eye, then the other, then grinned at Ilara mischievously. “I hear I have been telling my granddaughter tales of talking mammoths.”