Watching Over the Pleistocene Epoch

by Jeremy Broyles

It Will Follow You Endlessly Even Onto Death by Silas Plum

When the planetarium at the Adams County Museum of Natural History burned down—arson, no doubt, the greatest boon for the few remaining heathen criminals in a freshly depopulated and unregulated world—it devoured most of the building’s west side. The local flora invaded on the tide of the Great Plains wind along with dust, dirt and debris, sleet and snow. All welcomed themselves inside and made a mess of Dr. Petrovsky’s Pleistocene epoch exhibit.

“Not ‘ice age,’” he said, pushing the broom across the tile floor of the main hall where the encroachment of the elements was always the worst. “Earth has experienced periods of global warming and cooling from the start. There have been multiple events that could theoretically be qualified as an ‘ice age.’” Dr. Petrovsky was not responsible for taking care of any number of cooling events experienced within the geologic timeline of planet Earth. He was responsible for taking care of the Pleistocene epoch, and that meant constant maintenance at the burned-out hole where the planetarium used to be.

At his exhibit hall’s southern entrance, he used the tail of his withering shirt to wipe down the glass case containing genuine Megaloceros antlers which measured a full twelve feet from tip to tip. Beyond, in the shrinking shadows unlit by electricity for longer than Dr. Petrovsky could remember, the Pleistocene—as told in seventeen unique displays of dioramas, plaster reproductions, and authentic animal skeletons—awaited his caring touch, and his alone. The world would be remade in one way or another, and, when it was, Dr. Petrovsky intended to make certain this age was remembered in all the ways it deserved to be. Today, however, something had gone catastrophically wrong.

Mammuthus primigenius’ tusks were pink.

The magnificent mammoth, with its heavy winter coat and large sensitive eyes, now had its most striking physical feature painted pink. This was profane. This was sacrilege.

“Maynard,” Dr. Petrovsky said. The man had no sense of propriety, and he had always lacked even a scrap of integrity. “You bottom-feeding lout. Do you think this is funny? Do you think I will turn the other cheek?” Where had the man even found pink paint?

Dr. Petrovsky walked past the woolly mammoth deeper into the hall, as his toes punched out the front of his laceless shoes. It was lucky he held Willy cradled against the safety of his own thinning body because Maynard, stomping underfoot all that should be sacred, had proved willing and capable of doing unspeakable things to full-grown mammoths. Why would he revert to decency if he found a baby one all alone without a matriarch mother for protection?     

Dr. Petrovsky hurried to Coelodonta antiquitatis and was relieved everything looked in order; two proud horns, clean and white, arced from the rhino’s face. He was frantic to inspect every last animal to see if Maynard had defiled them as well, but he forced himself to remain calm for Willy’s sake. He was such a timid little mammoth.

“Did you know,” he said, using the opportunity to feed Willy’s insatiable curiosity, “that the woolly rhino’s horns were made of keratin, and the anterior horn grew up to three feet long? That’s right. You weren’t the only woolly one.”Past the herbivores, the teeth sharpened and the claws replaced hooves as the carnivores claimed the domain. “Ah, the cave lion. Magnificent, isn’t he? No, he didn’t live in caves. We call him that because prehistoric man drew pictures of him on cave walls.” He had been a beautiful beast—seven feet long without the tail and weighing almost nine hundred pounds—and had earned his immortal place within those cave-wall effigies.

“That’s a good question. We all agree on the genus Panthera, but there’s some debate whether he is a subspecies of the modern lion, as in Panthera leo spelaea, or if he is an altogether separate species, Panthera spelaea. Oh, yes. Scientists disagree all the time.” Not in the way he and Maynard disagreed, but that man did not qualify as a scientist. He never had.

“Here we are at Canis dirus, the dire wolf. Sturdy, this one was. And big. About five feet long and well north of two hundred pounds. You know what’s even scarier though? He almost never traveled alone. He moved in packs, so if you saw one dire wolf, there were several more close by, watching and waiting.

“I’ve just remembered something. It’s lucky we came over here.” The janitor’s closet tucked behind the display still housed a mop bucket. All the cleaning agents had long ago disappeared, along with the mop itself, but the empty yellow bucket remained. “We can use this back home. Everything else looks okay. You didn’t see anything I missed, did you? Good. Let’s go tell the tribe. We’ll all need to be watchful over the next few days.”

Across the hall, in the Early Pioneers exhibit, Dr. Petrovsky returned to the home he had made within the mock log cabin designed to resemble the kinds used by nineteenth century homesteaders. The distinct mustiness of the one open room closed down the air. Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, as usual, lounged nearest the nonfunctional wood stove. Dr. Petrovsky sat on the narrow bed—cloudy puffs of stuffing grew through several holes of the leaking mattress like button mushrooms.              

   “Maynard painted the mammoth’s tusks pink,” he said without bothering with the pleasantries of any greeting.“That’s not even a real mammoth,” Cro-Magnon said. “It’s just a reproduction.”

Together, Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal had hunted the wonderful and weird Pleistocene megafauna into extinction. Sharing such intimate spaces with them often felt uncomfortable, but they were the only company left, and mankind, after all, was a social creature. Neanderthal kept his thoughts to himself most of the time and didn’t speak until he had something worth saying. Cro-Magnon, however, seemed never to run out of ideas he thought worth chattering about.

“Yes, I realize that. Thank you.”

“What’s the problem then?” Cro-Magnon asked.

“Reproduction or not, no mammoth should suffer pink tusks. Maynard went too far this time.”

“What do you plan to do about it, Dr. Petrovsky?” He hated when Cro-Magnon used his title in such a mocking tone.

“Some native islanders studded their weapons with shark teeth. I could use one of your oars as a club and line it with the teeth of his precious T. rex. Then I could bash him over the head with it. That would teach him some manners.”

“You plan to pull the teeth from T. rex?”

“Possibly. Why not?”

“No reason,” Cro-Magnon said. “It’s just that rex’s jaw is twelve feet off the ground. Unless you plan on spontaneously evolving into a bird, getting that high might prove difficult. Besides, there is the other more pressing issue.”

Whoever had manufactured Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal had got most everything right. The widened nasal passages on Neanderthal so he could warm the air he breathed were a skillful touch. But the eyes, flat and bovine, were all wrong on both of them. They belied the intelligence waiting just behind—especially Cro-Magnon. He was altogether too smart.

“Do continue,” Dr. Petrovsky said, mustering what patience he could through the pause he knew Cro-Magnon took with purposeful effect.

 “Doesn’t it strike you as a bit hypocritical to bemoan the defacement of your cherished animal while plotting to deface another?”

“It’s not as simple as that.”

“Isn’t it?” asked Cro-Magnon.

“To begin, that man is an outrage.” Dr. Petrovsky pointed then wagged his finger toward a random direction of the museum he shared with Maynard. “He is an embarrassment to the name of paleontology. He’s no scientist. Such a man deserves a little defacement. Besides, he will continue to sabotage the exhibits if I do nothing. I have a hard enough time maintaining this place as it is, and it’s not like I get much help from you.”

“You said you didn’t want our help.”

“I don’t. I’m sure you’d just eat the animals all over again and make homes out of their bones once you’d sucked out the marrow.”

“What do you suggest we should have eaten instead?” Cro-Magnon asked. “The restaurant industry was still ten-thousand years in the future.”

“Don’t give me that. I take no issue with predation. But over-predation is inexcusable. When you realized the mammoths were almost gone, did it ever occur to you that eating what was left would mean they would never come back, therefore, depriving you of meat, wool, and tusks for the rest of time?”

“When your people launched fishing boat after commercial fishing boat, filled the waters with long lines and hooks, cut up all the sharks for soup, washed all your toxins and plastic poisons into the seas, did it ever occur to you that once you killed the oceans, they would never come back?”

“That was inadvertent. We didn’t mean it.”

But the intent was moot. Homo sapiens had done exactly what Cro-Magnon charged. Dr. Petrovsky remembered the days of the planet’s fever. When entire pods of gray whales or spinner dolphins washed ashore and bloated on the beach, popped open beneath the superheated sun. Then what was left of the coral reefs bleached so as not to witness the die-offs that floated so much dead animal mass to the surface that a colleague had joked it was now possible to walk to Hawai’i. The scavenger birds feasted in what must have been the halcyon days for them, but they too ran out of things to eat and took their turn starving. Mankind, so long removed from the food chain, thought himself beyond it, but life on land was not sustainable with nothing but death in the water. All these years later, life—such as it was—dragged itself along as the fever ran its course. When Earth again woke, Dr. Petrovsky did not care if it remembered him or not; he cared only that it knew its lineage and the crucial part that had been played by the Pleistocene.

“The single largest extinction event in all of Earth’s history,” Cro-Magnon said, “did not come courtesy of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. No, the gold medal goes to modern man in the Holocene. Lament the megafauna of my era if you must, Dr. Petrovsky, but there’s never been a killer like you.”

“I suppose we learned from our ancestors well,” Dr. Petrovsky said. He placed the bucket on the floor. “Here. Use this when you need to make water. Willy and I are going to look for something tall enough to reach rex. You stay here.”

“You don’t want us around your fossils?” Cro-Magnon asked.

“Not even a little.”

“Dr. Petrovsky?” said Neanderthal. His voice, through a measured enunciation, sounded like the calling of huge, flightless birds. “The one good thing about going extinct is that a species only has to do it once.”

Dr. Petrovsky brushed dust out of Willy’s coat and left without another word.

Maynard hadn’t used paint at all; he’d used bismuth subsalicylate. How many bottles had it taken him? The stuff flaked from the tusks in a chalky dust when scrubbed. But even now with the worst of it scraped away, a distinct rosy hue remained where the liquid antacid had dried into the tusks’ imperfections.

It hadn’t rained in days, so no water washed through the leaking ceiling to erode the exhibits and spirit away—bit by bit—the last traces of the grandest of ages. But no rain meant no ready supply of water to clean the tusks. The yellow mop bucket contained the only option. A few days’ worth of stinking urine that skinned over with colorful auras like a puddle of vaporing gasoline.

A large swath of Neanderthal’s faux-fur clothing, which never would have been able to keep him warm during the worst of the Pleistocene winters, taken from the torso doubled as a rag, and three dunks in the bucket saturated it. Dr. Petrovsky squeezed out the excess and fought down the gag in the back of his throat. The rag, too fragile, lacked the abrasiveness to scour deep enough. The only strategy was more cleaning agent to wash out all the tiny pores pocked into the reproduction plaster.

“Maynard, this is unforgivable.” Dr. Petrovsky was halfway done with the first tusk when he first worried they would hold on to the smell of frothed, dehydrated urine. “I will make sure you suffer. From now on, I’m only peeing on the Triceratops skull. Or maybe I could talk the tribe into slinging their feces at T. rex until he is covered from snout to tail.”

Dunk. Wring. Gag. Scrub until the rag went dry. Repeat.

 “Speaking of Tyrannosaurus rex, let’s talk a little about him, shall we? Weak, beady eyes and embarrassing, vestigial arms. He was a scavenger. You hear me, Maynard? Your famous rex was nothing but a Cretaceous-era garbage man. The proof is in that big empty skull of his. Look at all that room for his olfactory lobes. Know why they were so big? Because the only thing rex was any good at was sniffing out carrion from miles away and then using those gigantic, cumbersome legs of his to lumber to a half-eaten, abandoned meal that some other smarter, more capable animal had brought down. Rex was no hunter. He lived off table scraps.”

 One more tusk to go. The rain needed to come soon.

“Now if you want to see a real predator, take a good look at Smilodon. An animal doesn’t evolve those saber-teeth to pick at leftovers. Those are the weapons of a killer.”

Smilodon populator, pack animal, probably socially organized much like modern lions. Ambush hunters that relied on camouflage and cover—tall grasses, low vegetation, the play of light and shadow that could fool the herbivores into believing nothing was there—then pounced when the opportunity presented itself, using claws and sheer size to drag prey to the ground. Once the animal was down, the famous sabers got put to use. One clean bite to sever the major arteries in the throat meant the end, no doubt, came fast.

 “But if you’re partial to scavengers, and it makes sense why you would be attracted to such animals, you could at least have the decency to pick a good one like Arcdotus simis. Now that’s an impressive animal, scavenger or otherwise.”

His shoulders ached for a rest. He lay back onto the floor, pulled Willy close, and set him on his chest using his clean hand.

“Have I told you about the short-faced bear before, Willy?”

“Yes, but tell me again. I like to listen to your stories.”

Dr. Petrovsky laughed. “I suppose I like to tell them too. This one in particular is good. The short-faced bear was huge. Even with all four feet firmly on the ground, he would have been tall enough to look me dead in the eyes. When he stood up on his back legs, he would have cleared eleven feet.”

 “He was that big?”

 “He was indeed. When scientists first discovered him, they let their imaginations get away from them. They hypothesized that he was designed to tackle full grown versions of you and wrestle them to the ground.”

“But he couldn’t do that, right?”

“No, not at all.” He scratched behind Willy’s left ear—the place he loved to be scratched most. “Hard to blame them for such fanciful thinking though. How could you not get carried away digging up a bear like that?” He could file T. rex’s teeth flat like he was an herbivorous cud-chewer. Better still, pull the teeth altogether to leave nothing but a gaping, impotent mouth. That would put Maynard in his place. “See, the short-faced bear had long, slender legs and light bones. If he hurled himself against a mammoth like you, he would have broken apart like when a wave hits a rock. He was tall so he could smell rotting meat with his perfectly designed flat face and wide nose.”

“Like T. rex?”

“Yeah, kind of like T. rex.” Such a smart one. The smartest one yet. “He wasn’t built for tackling. He was built to walk to meals at a leisurely pace.”

“He still sounds pretty scary though.”

“Yes,” Dr. Petrovsky said, “I suppose he does.”

He moved Willy aside where he would be safe from any urine splatter and set back to the task of cleaning. Daylight ran out. He couldn’t see the pink on the tusks anymore, but he knew the rhythm of the work and how much effort and urine it took for it to be done. When he finished, he dropped the rag into the bucket where it landed with a splash.

“Come on, Willy. Let’s go get some sleep.” He tucked the little mammoth under his arm. “Maynard? Paint any of my exhibits again and I’ll smash your skull into so many fragments that when they dig you up in a few million years, they’ll never be able to put you back together again.”

Climbing atop T. rex hadn’t been easy. He had first gone up the thick legs then over the hipbone, turned backwards like a bird to sit on the spine. It had proven trickier than expected, but now he inched vertebra by vertebra toward the massive head and the mouthful of famous teeth it contained, holding his hammer in hand.

“This will put Maynard in his place, won’t it, Willy?” he said. The mammoth waited below on the solidity and safety of the ground.

“It sure will.”

Dr. Petrovsky sat on the base of the skull where it fused with the spine, dangling his legs over either side of the most famous dinosaur—the tyrant lizard king perhaps not in the flesh but at least the fossil. Flattening himself across the top of the head, Dr. Petrovsky held on with his left hand, hugging the skull, while he leaned right to swing the hammer. A few tentative taps at one of the prominent teeth curving like a short sickle from the upper jaw inflicted no damage. It felt like hitting rock. Of course, it was. The animal’s bones had been replaced by sediment eons ago and compressed over time. The rocks had come to take the exact shape of a T. rex, fossilized and preserved, but they were still rocks all the same. He hit the tooth harder.

“Be careful. Don’t fall.”

“Don’t worry, Willy. I have a good grip.” He swung harder, but the tooth didn’t so much as loosen from the socket. A few strokes more changed nothing.

Dr. Petrovsky repositioned himself to sit above the right eye socket so he could bring the hammer down with both hands between his legs and into the tooth. The sharp ring of metal to rock ricocheted through the dinosaur exhibit hall. With each blow, the tooth loosened. He felt it give a little through the feedback in the handle. He brought the hammer high over his head and swung down, slicing through the air. Under the hammer fall, the tooth snapped backwards into the open mouth. The momentum of the swing, however, pitched him forward, and, with no handholds to grab, he somersaulted off of rex.

“Dr. Petrovsky!”

The impact, feet first, crumpled his legs and compressed his spine. He lay splayed on the floor like a meteorite dashed to pieces without even bowling an impact crater into the earth. The fractured end of his right fibula jutted from torn skin. The peeking bone was pink.

“Willy, you have to help me. Go get the tribe. Tell them I’m hurt.”

“I will. It’ll be okay, Dr. Petrovsky.”

“Hurry.” Willy did just as he was asked. Such a good little mammoth.

It would be all right. Willy didn’t know his way around the dinosaur hall because they never came here, but he was more than clever enough to find his way. He’d then tell the tribe what had happened and they would come help. Dr. Petrovsky let the shock of his injury carry him into unconsciousness where he dreamt of whittling mammoth tusks into a short spear sharpened at both ends.

He woke to the pain in his leg. Not the screaming shock of the initial impact, but a steady throb radiating up into his sweating body. Up on this floor, it was difficult to tell time, but he knew it was much later. Willy hadn’t come back yet. Something was wrong.

He pulled himself along the floor, moaning as he dragged the useless right leg behind him and hating himself each time for his frailty. Every movement, however, heralded fresh new anguish. By rolling onto his back and sliding backwards, he found enough relief to quiet his moaning into mere whimpering. The stairs proved almost unbearable. There was little he could do except pull the leg along and let it bounce to the floor one step at a time.

Dr. Petrovsky collapsed at the bottom and dreamt again, this time of shoving a long torch into the face of a mammoth he and his tribe had backed against a cliff ledge. Working together, they pushed the bellowing beast ever closer to the edge. Ingenious. Hunting a mammoth with spears was inefficient and dangerous. This way, they could use gravity as their weapon and butcher the kill below. They tightened their circle of fire, and he used his tusk spear to stab at the mammoth’s eyes.

He woke to thunder and pain. Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal hovered above him. With such chunky facial features, Neanderthal was impossible to read. Cro-Magnon, however, was worried. “Dr. Petrovsky? What happened?” he asked.

He sat up on the bed within his pioneer home. Willy had succeeded after all. “I had an accident, but it’ll be okay.” It was daylight again, and the flickering strobe of lightning promised rain.

“Your leg is badly broken,” Cro-Magnon said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“Where’s Willy?” Dr. Petrovsky asked.

“We haven’t seen him since the two of you came back here yesterday for the hammer.”

“You mean he didn’t send you after me?”

“No.”

He stood on his good leg and did all he could to ignore it as he hobbled toward the door.

“Dr. Petrovsky, what are you doing? You need to lie down.”

“No, I have to find Willy. He might be in trouble.”

“We need to figure out how to help you.”

“You can help me find Willy.”

“Dr. Petrovsky,” Cro-Magnon said.

“Please,” Dr. Petrovsky said. They were a tribe of four, and they needed every member. Even the littlest one. “Help me.”

Cro-Magnon sighed before looking to Neanderthal who nodded. “Fine.”

He opened the door and limped into the main hall. “Willy? Willy, where are you?” He steadied himself on the Megaloceros antler case. Beyond waited a scene Dr. Petrovsky could not have dreamed even in the throes of the hottest fever. The entire floor of the Pleistocene hall had been covered in a shallow sea of stuffed animals. Monkeys and teddy bears, puppies, kittens, little owls and big horses, and countless dinosaurs too. A Pangaea of fuzzy creatures, and every last one of them brown.

“Maynard.”

Dr. Petrovsky cleared enough of a path to sit down at the tip of the mammoth’s tusks, stretching his legs out into the space he’d made. Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal joined him at either side.

“Know what I like best about fossils?” he asked the two of them. “They’re a kind of immortality. When something dies out, its story goes on for thousands of years, maybe even millions, so that someone else, like me, can know it. None of us animals last, but our stories do.”

“There is no story, Dr. Petrovsky,” Neanderthal said. “There are only bones, and bones can do nothing more than whisper and echo.”

Dr. Petrovsky closed his eyes and tried to imagine the silence of the seas where no fish splashed and no whales sang. How quiet must the tundra have been ten thousand years ago when there were no more mammoths rooting through the snow for the vegetation beneath? “What am I going to do without Willy?” he asked.

“Don’t worry.” Neanderthal gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll find him.” Dr. Petrovsky leaned into the animals stacked two and three deep around him and swept them up to his body. A bull with a silver ring through its nose. A smiling grizzly bear with upturned playful paws. An American bison. A duck-billed platypus. He tossed each aside and collected more. Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal kicked through the layer of fuzz searching for a little mammoth who was all alone and must have been terribly scared.


Jeremy Broyles cut his literary teeth on hand-me-down sci-fi novels starting at the age of ten, and he’s been a goner ever since. Since then, his work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Santa Clara Review, and Pembroke Magazine, among many others. He is a reader/writer/professor/whatever. But more than anything else, he is a devotee of story. He consumes them voraciously, and, every now and then, creates one of his own.

At age 12, Silas Plum won the East Coast POG tournament. The prize was 500 POG’s, small collectible cardboard circles, each with an identical red and blue design on the front. From that moment on, he became obsessed with the question of Value. Why were these important? How could anything not necessary for survival be worth more than anything that was? Does artistic sentiment have value? The POG’s are gone, but the questions remain. Through assemblages of defunct currency, discarded photographs, and long-forgotten illustrations, Silas Plum challenges the idea of objective vs subjective value. He believes strongly in the tired old maxim that the true value of an object is more than the sum of its parts, that the gut is a truth-teller, and that the Aristotelian notion of learning-by-doing is the best teacher around. Judge his worth at silasplum.com.