I drew the Ace of Spades this morning for my short story reading project. This meant I was to read Jack London’s story, “A Relic of the Pliocene.” The first order of business was for me to learn/re-learn just when the Pliocene was. (I remember once, on a road trip, recruiting my Mom and my brother – both geologists – to help me learn the geologic eras and their order. Today I only remember them incompletely. Time for a refresher course!) Here’s a summary. There’ll be a quiz next week.
Turns out it’s in the Cenozoic Era just before the most recent period (the Pleistocene). It doesn’t help that those two words are very similar, does it? Anyway, the Pliocene was home to prehistoric man and some giant creatures, including the Saber-toothed Tiger and the Great Wooly Mammoth. It is about the latter that London’s story deals with.
The story’s narrator is camping “in the far north” where he surprisingly plays host to a campfire visitor, a fellow human with the most curious mukluk boots. The visitor tells our narrator that they are made from Mammoth hide, which our narrator scoffs at. Mammoths have long vanished from the earth, after all. Not long vanished, explains the visitor. Only recently so, for he killed the last one with his own hand…
When asked where this singular event occurred, the visitor “waved his hand vaguely in direction of the northeast, where stretched a terra incognita into which vastness few men strayed and fewer emerged.” He then tells the narrator the tale of his hunt – “…a hunt such as might have happened in the youth of the world.”
The strange visitor finishes the tale and afterward, in exchange for some tobacco the narrator has given him, leaves him the mukluks as a gift and disappears into the night. Though the narrator’s rational side tries to convince himself of the impossibility of such an encounter, chalking it up to the fevered imagination of isolation or a dream, but the physical evidence of the mukluks and his missing half a pouch of tobacco confirms that he didn’t dream it all.
Another interesting tale of the north from a master storyteller. Of course, we already knew from the poetry of Robert W. Service, that “there are strange things done in the midnight sun…”
Have you read this story, or others by London? What are your favorites and recommendations for further reading?
(Below: Jack London. This is the picture that graces the cover of my volume of his “complete works.”)