Field Notes Part 3, Week 6: Zhoukoudian

Week 6, DAY TWO

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Is this how it ends?

Dearest Pia,

I have always prided myself on my facility with writing. Spoken language is messy, unpredictable, and unfixable. How easy it is to say the wrong thing or be misinterpreted even when you’ve said the right thing! But writing: it is slow, methodical, clear. The sentences can be polished till the only ambiguities are those the writer chooses to leave behind. I like the heft of written words, and their pliancy—the way they’re warped by their neighbors.

But what good is this ability if I no longer succeed in persuasion? At this most crucial moment, my writing is not powerful enough to change the minds of its readers.

Mission Control refuses to send back further assistance for Andi. I set her ankle several days ago, with the help of local anesthetic. She experienced little enough pain, though noted the sensation of “crunchy bone splinters.” The swelling ought to be further reduced by this point, but it is not. This may mean torn ligaments or tendons—but how can I say without the proper medical equipment? It’s possible a trained professional would decide to operate and insert screws and plates; the fracture was fairly severe. Yet here, in the Pleistocene wilderness, I can do no more than realign the bones, brace the ankle with a makeshift cast, and supply Andi with ice, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories.

The weather has been cloudy for days. Our power supplies are running low. Electricity in the Dome comes entirely from solar energy and the sky has been too gray for adequate recharging. I anticipate a storm, even a blizzard, on top of everything else. Fewer chances for research outside, an increasingly cold space in the Dome. At least I have the use of both my legs.

Andi and I have gone back and forth repeatedly, as if we are riding a carousel and changing our minds with every revolution. We need to stay, she says at first. Our work isn’t done yet. We’ve barely made it through the first three locations—what about the Hobbits on Flores?

But your ankle, I respond. You won’t be walking for at least six more weeks. What about the dangers that face us? How will you respond if you need to run?  

She grows glum. You’re right. Screw it, we should leave early. This is stupid, the choice is obvious. I’d be putting both of us at risk.

How can I help but answer with encouragement? But your ankle might heal more quickly than you expect, and we can take precautions. We’ll be more careful in the future.

If only Mission Control would offer some guidance or assistance! But they’ve left the decision entirely in our hands, and support whatever we choose. I knew there would be difficult choices for this mission. I knew we might be injured, even killed. But knowing something in a classroom—even when that classroom is the 21st century wilderness—is not like knowing something 600,000 years in the past. I did not even truly know Andi at that time; we’d only lived together for training excursions. Now, she is the only other human in my world.

More than anything, I wish for your consolation and support. If you were here, the decision, I believe, would be clearer.

All my love,


To: Deborah and Michael Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: It’s not all bad

Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s been snowing for almost three days now. Inside the Mystery Box, our breath turns to fog. We’re both wrapped in blankets and our warmest thermal gear. Evie keeps doing jumping jacks and pushups and high-knees to warm herself up, then looks all guilty when she sees me sitting here on my tablet or with a sketch pad. I’ve been doing one-legged squats and lifting weights to keep my upper-body active, but that’s about all I can manage right now. Still, no reason for her to stop exercising. How could I be jealous or resentful of the person who saved my life? Would I even have been able to do the same if she’d tumbled down into that cave?

Things have been better, but they’ve also been worse. My ankle is finally starting to deflate a little bit. It’s cold, but the snow means some two-legged hominid might leave behind visible tracks when the blizzard clears. We have enough food for the rest of our stay in Zhoukoudian, and there’s no chance of getting chased by any megafauna now that I’m cooped up indoors!

I’m trying to stay on the positive side of things, but sometimes it’s a struggle. I’ve had setbacks in research before. That one time I got malaria wasn’t great. And then there was that run-in with gnathostomiasis. Parasites are nasty no matter their form, but to see something moving around under my skin like that—ughghh, it still makes me shudder just thinking about it. But even that debacle was easy enough to deal with once doctors realized what they were looking for. So that’s why you’ve had a fever and vomiting for several weeks! Well at least it didn’t get to your eye and cause a loss of vision.

Basically what I mean to say is that I’ve had close calls in the past, and they always turned out alright. But back then, I had the whole of human society to rely on. (Is it weird calling it the past when I’m living hundreds of thousands of years before then? Let’s not get wrapped in the chronology, I’m looking at this from the straightforward timeline of my own life.) Now it’s just me and Evelyn, and even though I trust her literally with my life, I also know she’s human and liable to error.

So here we are debating whether or not to come back early. I’ve been distracting myself by carving wooden tools. If I think too hard about the prudent decision, it makes me cry. I don’t want to go home yet! There’s so much more for us to see! But is it worth walking with a limp for the rest of my life?

For now, we’re waiting till the end of the blizzard. We’ll see what’s out there when the snow has settled, if we can find anything worth staying for. And then—who knows.

Lots and lots of love,