They Use Knives in Their Mouths

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It was a rare defect in the sex gene that had made them identical, even though, when the egg split, one twin was XY and the other was XX.

The XY twin was a master’s student in theology, and his PhD thesis was on fourth century Christianity in Ethiopia. More specifically, it was on the Ge’ez translation of the New Testament, credited to Saint Frumentius of the Kingdom of Aksum, and even more specifically, the Saint’s preference for syllables over consonance during the reign of the Holy Roman Empire, as a spiritually evolved mode of speech.  

The XX twin was a geologist and paleoanthropologist, who happened to be doing field work at the East African Rift, very near that former kingdom, excavating the ancient dirt and unburying the oldest hominid skeletons on the planet.

In this way, their minds could be believed to have split from one egg, one whole, but that’s where their similarities ended.

The XY twin, William, was the weaker of the two. He was sickly in appearance, as though he were meant to be the other sister, but had been unsuccessful. He had a congenital disfigurement that had deformed his hands to appear claw-like, splitting them into V-shaped clefts. Ectrodactyly left only three of his fingers to do the work of five, but the ring and little finger were a syndactyly of the two, webbed together. The third was his thumb, bent and inept so he really only had the use of two.

His hair was long, with tight yellow ringlets that pulled his gaunt scalp up into a high forehead; his face oblong; the flesh of the skin, sore with eczema, held a violet undertone. When he was cold he turned a deep blue that unnerved most people. His thinking face screwed up his eyes until they disappeared behind cheap spectacles. When this happened, together with the crease of his cheeks that revealed an unseen connection between his upper lip and nostrils, the trace of an ‘X’ formed, seeming to cross out all the other features of his face.

The monotone in his voice rarely touched on excitement; it seemed to say ‘I don’t intend to talk long’. When it did hit on something, he always had an excuse for why it should, taking gratification in his stoicism, which had granted him the reasonable emotional responses to get him by. Enjoyment of the emotions themselves was not what he was after.

William thought of himself as the defective ‘X’. His sister, Lucy, was always there to tickle him out of his somber moods as children, moods that would eventually gain the upper hand in defining him as a serious person. While she laughed sadistically at him laughing forcefully, she would say curiously cruel things, things she would grow out of saying, like that their parents had, “brought up the afterbirth instead of the child,” or, “Ectrodactyly is derived from the greek ektroma (abortion) and daktylos (finger) — I guess that means that you were only partially aborted.” And she was right, in a way. His bluish-purple hue made him look more like a placenta than a child, and his parents hadn’t really been expecting twins.

But this was also what may have led him to his interest in spirituality. For, taking everything literally, he looked into the the figurative tradition of afterbirth and found meaning in his sister’s mockery.

Lucy, the XX twin, had enough health for the two of them. Where his tied up hair was as coarse and dry as a bail of hay, hers was dark and short and springy, cut into asymmetrical angles (though during digs she sported a black ball cap that she pulled down low to make her look more boyish than she really was). Her hairstyle offset the perfect symmetry that ran its course from her head to her feet, like she had been divided by planes of biological mirrors.

The only defect she had was a birthmark that spread out like a star cluster between her shoulders, resembling a stick-and-poke tattoo more than a permanent blemish. The cluster spread out and became less dense over her shoulders, reappearing below her high and round moonlike eyes in a shock of freckle-like points all gathered together, giving them the same aspect as the dark-light of the stars in the night sky.    

Two years before William finished his thesis, Lucy left for Ethiopia to look into the Afar triangle, and the widely contested dating system that had arisen from digs in and around this area at the World Heritage Sites. She needed to go there to re-examine the preserved excavations that had began in the 70s.

According to her, Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam, the most recent common ancestors on the matrilineal and the patrilineal side of the modern human, did not begin together in the genetic garden of paradise. Though hypothetically they may have eventually found each other throughout the stages of their evolution, and through all the different individuals that they may have and may not have been. She thought Eve had lived in the genetic garden much earlier than Adam and because of this, underwent an almost continuous mutation cycle before reaching a stable sexual dimorphism. Eve may have come second in becoming bipedal, but was likelier the first to carry the enlarged brain that transitioned the hominid form and behaviour into hominin form and behaviour.

Besides those things close relatives are obligated to say to one another, regardless of whether they like their relative or not, the topic of human origins interested both twins, albeit in completely opposing styles. And although they argued endlessly, it wasn’t so much that they disagreed with each other but that they just couldn’t possibly agree more.

  It always came down to the where, when, why and how of the anthropocene’s occurrence. They often agreed on ‘where’, since the ark of the covenant was supposed to have landed at the region’s most powerful navel and trading center at the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum, and the East African Rift had evidence of the earliest human-like fossils and activity. ‘When’ was too biased to answer honestly. And ‘why’ had always made the talks slow burning until they evened out into compromise. However, the real genius that came about as a result of these conversations was saved for ‘how’, and in a sense that was what they both strived in equal and opposite directions to answer.

William’s belief did not corrupt his reason – actually, his opinions were rather secular and most current science was not an impediment for him. He believed that everyone was entitled to be educated about their culture and their place in the cosmos, and that this education should be intended to protect the educated for and from the plurality of other perspectives. In other words, religion should not only be seperate from the state, but science should be, too.

Nearing the day Lucy left, William told her about an antique document that probably had never appeared in common print, but that he had come across with no indication of authorship to be found. It was a real storybook stranger in a crowd of documentary types, that was probably destined to remain unknown had he not found it entombed in the library archive, during a fortunate day’s dreary labor.

“So, what was bizarre about its contents?” said Lucy.

“Well, what is bizarre is that I didn’t know about it before. It opens with a religious hallucination that was experienced by Saint Frumentius after returning from his homeland of Tyre to Aksum. This would have been near the time when he had the most influence on the Kingdom’s religious views.”

William creased his dry, violet face into an ‘X’, as if the ‘V’ wrinkling his forehead was shadowed in the inverted ‘V’ of the grimace his mouth now made. He continued, an uncharacteristic throbbing persisting in his still monotonous voice.

“The vision was of an enormous army storming the Aksumites’ Empire.”

“That’s it?” said Lucy.

“No, it’s not. The army was composed entirely of women, pregnant women, their revealed stomachs bulging with life as they raced towards their deaths, exposing their breasts like a banner, and holding their ironwork swords to the sky. Their faces, when they had gotten close enough for him to make them out, bore little resemblance to any woman, let alone human, that the saint had ever seen.”

“How did he interpret it, then?” She queried.

“He thought they came from the rift. Possibly from Erta Ale, or the gate of hell, a volcanic pool of mantle plume. A lava lake in the desert’s badlands, understood then to led to the underworld. It said that he sought to depict the nameless monstrosity in a dream-sculpture made in clay. The manuscript mentioned that this was a recurring malady of his hypersensitivity, and that the icon eventually yielded simultaneous pictures of a spidery crustacean. It was a human caricature, with the clenching arms of an infant and an oddly shaped skull protruding at the back of its head, like the carapace of a  great deformed crab.”

William looked at his own malformed hands; words such as ‘deformed’ and its synonyms had always been triggers for him. Shoving them into the pockets of his armpits, pulling his torso into his stomach and above his crossed-legs, he closed his posture into his own carapace, concealing the V-shaped clefts as if shielding a football before a tackle, rocking back and forth slightly as he spoke on:

“This explains why he ended up convincing the king to make it especially hard for women to have equal rights with men, though it was an egalitarian region prior to this. Women’s rights were practically erased by one man’s paranoia and the patriarchy that followed.

“Before his death,” said William, his voice twisted like an old root, an old dying root,“a healer of the !Kung people diagnosed him with star sickness, described by them as a loss of place in the cosmos. He may have caught it, so the entries read, on a trip to some of the villages around the Afar Triangle. He had invented all kinds of stories about the alien skulls and footprints that he encountered in and around the rift. The bones of creatures that god did not intend.”

Lucy thought it through and then, half-laughing, dismissed what he’d said, “There’s no way he came across those fossil beds. They were undisturbed when they were first discovered, and since then the area has been well mapped out. If there were other locations, we would know about them. That all must have been part of his dream-induced illusion.”

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In a house of many other post-graduate students, he was the quietest. He burnt candles for light, practised veganism and was an active member of his school’s scholastic community potlucks. They would probably say, as they do about the life of most theologians, that he was born, thought about god, and died.

He was constantly trying to hide his hands. When he engaged in conversation with his roommates in the shared kitchen, boiling lentils or multi-colored carrots or some other root vegetable he’d acquired from the farmer’s market, he would be careful not to use them to animate his speech. This was partly why he came across as lacking vitality. Most people didn’t notice it, but they did notice his nervousness; he seemed to be withholding something, they thought suspiciously, not knowing that what was hidden were his claw-like hands.

Every so often he corresponded with his sister by email, who had, after two years in Ethiopia, visited all the notable sites along the Afar depression and its triple junction: she saw the rounded braincases of skulls that lacked sagittal crest, gnaw-marked stone tools and animal remains at the Olduvai Gorge, the footprints in ash at Laetoli. She’d seen the yellow flowers of acacia trees and the wild sisal plants that grew in the gorge, and so grew over the spots, their delicate root systems threatening to damage the preservative qualities the soil had on the reburied findings.

Now she was heading to a cave outside of Enfraz, a cave that was supposed to be the secret learning place of Zera Yacob, Africa’s Rene Descartes. She was following a rumour that she heard in that Afro-Asiatic language, which she had been gradually picking up over those two years, that there was legend of traces of something, long known by the town, in the caves. ‘Who made those traces’ was what Lucy needed to uncover.

As if through that distance-less psychic bond that twins are said to share, William had also been led to the caves outside of Enfraz, but as usual, for religious reasons, and through a different medium.

Against his sister’s advice, which was for him to have forsworn off any further indulgence in the weird reading material by that authorless text, he instead made it a side project of his research.

Back in the pages of the book’s old and voluminous manuscripts, within the delicate, crinkled script, whose ink’s discolouration had taken on a greenish black color over the years, he found a strange tangent of thought. He figured that it had been written in the 17th century, and that whoever the author probably was (William assumed it to be Yacob’s successor Walda Heywat), was most likely one of Zera Yacob’s student.

It recorded much of the unknown later years of Yacob’s philosophy, which strove farther and farther from the Christian Orthodox of his time. Not only had Yacob managed to establish an entirely original methodology in metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics, but he began to reinterpret biblical scriptures, rejecting many of the points in the New Testament, all of which were translated consonantal-free into the Ge’ez language by Saint Frumentius, and blindly accepted by its followers.

Reason, not faith, drove him; for Yacob, doubt indicated a lack of something that only a proper concept of god could provide.

Walda Heywat’s account of paradise found, and the parable of Adam and Eve, was perhaps the most disturbing of the entries. It read like a treatise in prose, describing both the life and thoughts of Yacob, though mutated into a chronicle of sinister enchantments:

“Did who created our ears for hearing themself have ears?…I am now convinced that the answer is no. For my teacher has lost his eyes to that infinite substance whose knowability does not depend on human intelligence, giving the power and reality at once to our purpose, and is nothing if not god.

“There is a cave within a cave near Enfraz. The outer cave is made naturally by the growth of the stone, and this is where our lessons were regularly held, for the House of Ewostatewos had no tolerance for any philosophies at odds with the church fathers who forcefully advocated observation of the Sabbath.

“I had gone there for lessons as always; ever since I was a boy I have done this. But my teacher was not present. At this my heart darkened the door of worry that I had for my teacher. Last I saw him, he seemed unable to situate himself in the cosmos in any meaningful way. He had been afflicted with the star-sickness that has spread to other members of our community, with a noticeable display of jealousy and hostility toward the gift of life provided for them to share through their thanks, by and for the Christian God.

“There was the flame of a lantern nearest the back of this outer cave, shadows and voices echoed from there. As I went deeper into the outer cave, the cave made of stone became a cave made of flesh. Not the skin but the dead color of the flesh itself looked like it has been molded and baked in a fierce oven, still and deadly regular, the molting shells of long-legged things littered the ground.

“There were skulls and bone fragments in heaps all around; they looked human but they were not. Some I recognized to be hyenas, wild cats, baboons, wild boars, giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, antelope, buffalos, elephants, hares and birds – the rest were both mistakably human-like and unmistakably non-human.

“It is here I find my teacher kneeling before the inner cave, as though prostrated in prayer. Above him is a cavity at the pelvis of what appears to be an idol sculpted in the image of a spider and a crab together, with the breasts of a woman and the strong arms of a child holding him at eye-level with the pelvic gap.

“I watch as it takes his eyeballs from their sockets and slips them into a little cloth bag with its infant sized hands.

“Paradise found! The eyes go to heaven! said my teacher in jubilance.

“The great deformed crab, scuttling in the the black ocean of the dripping cave walls, spinning with lantern light, crawling with innumerable bodies upon the bones of those unknown animal remains. In that dark recess where it had retreated, a litany of disembodied eyes opened wide. Among them were my teacher’s.

“It had wanted him to see it. Normally it remained camouflaged; normally when it appeared no one could distinguish it from the ground. It was proof that a higher form of mimicry exists, similar to the lower forms of mimicry in insects but far superior.

“My teacher turned to me then, the light from the lantern touching his eyeless face, and spoke a parable that made me wish my creator did not give me the ears to hear it:

‘Do you know whose bones these are? They are Adam and they are Eve, they are Eve and they are Adam. Not two but many. Many, many, many.

If I say that my father and my mother created me, then I must search for the creator of my parents, and of the parents of my parents, until they arrive at the first who were not created as we are but who came into this world in some other way without being generated. But this argument of first cause, is flawed.

‘There was always a mother to bear the born bearer; the discovery of the gynaecological garden of the eternal mother’s uterus, Eden, was to be followed by an expedient exile from it by the establishment of the taboo, the original act of sin, the secret of all secrets…That the adamantite bond that Eve shared with Adam was not woman to man, but mother to son, an incestuous act. The non-experience of the mother’s vagina is then the experience of the uncanny world without paradise, an outer cave at the expense of the inner cave, where the strongest bond still exists — the bond between a pregnant god and its child.’

‘A utopian-movement from the things we were before,’ he gestures at the shadowy things at his feet, ‘and the things we have become,’ motioning now at himself and I.

‘And what better indication of the things we’ve become, than the mysterious faculties of human language. We often wonder about language, you and I, my student. I’ll tell you what language is and what it isn’t.

‘Language is a dark-workshop, to be sure. Language as ordinary convention does not exist but language as a fundamental convention does exist. It is the figurative mapping for the things we know. A metaphor for the human mind is that it is like a spider’s web, delicate and intricate and invisible. Eve wandered into this web of connections, and she invited Adam into it. Soon this metaphor caught many more meanings, developing social interactions and community activities in its infinite relations to the world, in the dark cobwebbed corners of the mind.

‘Language isn’t the body’s movement into this web, but the movement of the web over the body, mapping the body in all its parts. You see, as strange as it sounds, they use knives in their mouths — they use knives when they cut open these creatures they know not, and they use them in their mouth when they point out the pieces to each other: This we will eat, that we will fashion, the skin we will save. The sound of a knife buried in the skin of aliveness surrounding aliveness eventually becomes a common exchange of words around the primordial hearth fire.

‘By way of that muffled lung of language forming, Adam and Eve wore the creatures that were no longer them, living the metaphor that would become the words we use to find truth, to find god. Look through their eyes, skin through skin, give them your eyes, horizon through horizon, and through skins and horizons, they will give you thousands of evils.

‘Exits are not entrances. To return to where the exit was is to enter another exit, there is than no entrance besides the entrance into exit. To be exiled is much the same thing, a forced exit that makes no room for the return. The diaspora of humanity emerges through a crack from the inside but it does not return to it, instead it finds where the crack has spread into a gaping, sucking void of nothingness and falls into the abyss. Only where there is no meaning can meaning arise, only in nihilism can nihilism be overcome. The taboo of incest has prevented the gynaecological wisdom of the born to understand its origin. This secret place is the genetic garden. The paradise that had been climbed out of on all fours, walked feebly on two legs and floated away with no wings, this paradise was now found.’

End of manuscript.”

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New Message


to: Lucy (





I went against your wishes. I read the book and now I am worried.


Maybe I am being irrational, but the caves you said you are set on excavating may not be what you think they are.


The town has a history of sickness. Historically, they have seen more exorcisms in their district than anywhere else in all of Christendom. I know that this is your life’s work and that you’re set to find the 60% of the Lucy specimen they never found, but just trust me when I say don’t go to the caves outside of Emfraz. It would be crazy if I told you the reason why, so don’t ask me, just trust your brother. Fly back and we can talk about it more in person.


I know you’ll take offense to this as a scientist, but it’s religion’s place to draw the line of sacredness somewhere and put up the off limits sign where its been drawn. Maybe it’s O K that we don’t know the origin of humans. I don’t mean to sound ignorant but maybe the skin covers what should not be uncovered.


Why bother to send this email? It will probably come off as the same old things I say to you all the time. Writing it down won’t make a difference. Besides, you won’t read it anyway, just like you don’t read the Bible.





Your message has been discarded.  Undo discard

Lucy <>                 August (30 days ago)

to me


My dearest brother William,


You don’t know how much I miss you and how much I’m looking forward to coming back home when I can. I should never have agreed to such a long work visa. Two years in the Great Rift Valley is too much time away from the ordinary.


That being said, I can’t consider leaving now. We have already done an initial survey over the grounds near the caves and we really think that, based off the past vegetation of the highland regions, with its close proximity to Lake Tana, feeding into the Blue Nile and other rivulets, that it would have been likely for tree-dwellers to show early signs of tool-making — hunting and foraging with them in a place as rich in biodiversity as this. Not only that, but the rapidly eroding highlands quickly filled the valley with sediments, creating a favorable environment for the preservation of remains.


Actually, the bones that we found near the cave, which some of the town’s people have know about for centuries (which concerns me of the state the beds are in, for they seem to have been disturbed by something), have some interesting features. The ribs indicate that it was actually eating more than just a plant-based-diet; and there is no curve in the finger bones, so this species must have been as at home on the ground as they were in the trees.


Bone fragments of birds, fish, amphibians, and large mammals were found at the site, many of which were scarred with marks and broken open, probably for the marrow and to strip the bones of meat with various tools. Since Lake Tana had been volcanically active in the past, some of the footprints have been left in the sediment and there are tell tale signs that suggest whoever left the prints were burdened on one side. Possibly pregnant. What’s weird is that this has become a common feature of the bones in this area. We haven’t found a single male of the species.


Usually you don’t get tools and footprints and animal remains as over-represented in one site as this site has — this should hopefully confirm that this was where some of the first social hunting and gathering took place.


I like to think that it was the tools themselves that let out novel behaviours, the hand connecting the eye to the imagination. To see and feel the horizon in each tool.


I’m writing from Aksum. I was just here to report our findings to the university. I have to go back north now. It’s been raining for months — on account of it being a particularly bad rainy season. No earthquakes yet, though.


I was told that in the short time I have been gone, the rest of my team have already found more specimens in the cave. It seems like some of them are hard to date, and the shapes of the bones vary more than you ever find in one spot. They think the caves were a kind of early mourning place, and so that would be why it might contain some overlap in the bones of several hominid ancestors of modern humans. I almost don’t want to say it, it’s far too early to make claims, but the gene pool that transpeciated into us might have taken place here, at least some of it, anyways.


William, this could prove that humans interacted with non-humans of a similar kind! For what reasons, and how they did so, I don’t know. They may have even mated with each other, the mutants with the non-mutants: what we weren’t breeding with what we were, eventually becoming who we are. Only love burns incompletely, only love would turn them into bone collectors. Do you think they were intelligent enough to not want the bones to be found? Why else would they horde the dead?


I know what you’re probably thinking but I have to do this. Ten million years from now, when the Horn of Africa is a peninsula, and the Somali Plate breaks off, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will join to form a new ocean basin and flood the evidence that links us to our past, to the only chance we have at an explanation besides the biblical account. I know ten million years is a long time, but that was about the time it took apes to evolve into us, and the Afar depression is as vast as 22 to 25 million years of continental spread.


Well, it’s time to go back to Emfraz. I’ll write you more in a couple of weeks.


Love you, my twin soul,


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8 thoughts on “They Use Knives in Their Mouths

  1. The possibility that these two might have really existed is horrific enough. The craziness of religious zealots, also horrific, was, and is, very, very real!

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