THE CAVE PAINTER

Crouch sat in the door of his cave, looking out over the valley of the wide shining river. The sun was high so there was very little movement. Most animals slept in the afternoon and Crouch would normally do that himself, but he kept dreaming and the images were disturbing enough to wake him up. The advantage was that he kept the fire going, but it was only needed for cooking now that it was summer. The smoke helped discourage insects though.
Everyone always told Crouch that he thought too much. “Thinking” was quite different from what it would come to mean later. It’s just that he sat alone, staring into space, and cared nothing for what the others were doing. This offended them a great deal, but especially his friend Squat. If you could call him a friend. They were hunting partners and would defend each other, one acting as “driver” to push the hoofed animals past the other waiting with spear in hand, joke around, get drunk together. But if they were drunk enough, they would turn on each other. And Squat always took as much of the meat as he could get away with, though Crouch’s family was bigger.

Until the day the big-fanged cat got into the cave and killed his woman and children. In Squat’s opinion, Crouch took it too hard. Women and children were easy to come by. The reason his own children didn’t live, Squat claimed, was that they were weak. Had nothing to do with him. It was his woman’s fault. Now he had his eye on a new woman, a new KIND of woman. He tried to describe these new people to Crouch, but Crouch just wanted his family back. He was accustomed to them, he knew what made them laugh, what they liked to eat, how they slept together at night all tangled together. He hadn’t dreamt terrible things then. Now when he dozed, he saw the curled skeleton of his littlest one.

Crouch dozed and the memories, so scarlet and white, blood and bone, came back. If only he had been there, he might have defended them, but it had happened when he was gone. There had been a long shortage of rain which meant that the game had dwindled and he had to go farther to find them. Along the nearby river Crouch and Squat had just about taken all the animals that wore a network of paths through the brush down to the water, even before the big cats moved in. Normally the cats stayed up in the forests where they could drop from the limbs of big trees to bite through the backs of necks.

Something nudged him and he screamed, leaping to his feet. It was Squat, who had kindly brought up a skin of water from the river as an excuse. He knew he wasn’t exactly welcome and he didn’t feel badly about it, but he was curious. Curiosity was the one trait the two men shared. Squat threw himself down, slopping water around.

“What’s this?” Squat asked Crouch, picking up a stone with incised crosshatches on it.

“Dunno.” Once Crouch had taken two smooth stones, marked one and not the other, and the two men invented a game of guessing which hand held the marked stone in it.

“Is it a game?”

“NO.” Rude and hoarse. Crouch didn’t want to say that the memory of his family was somehow involved in the crosshatches. Reminders.

“Oh,” said Squat, and threw the stone out the cave opening so that it rattled down the scree and was lost in underbrush. Crouch felt the rage rise in him.

Squat saw it, but didn’t understand. “Those pale striding people are out there along the river at the big curve, the spot where we killed a tusked wooly one.” Nothing from Crouch. “Let’s go back and kill them.” That was the real reason Squat had come. It would take two. “We could keep the women.”

At first Crouch resisted but Squat kept pestering and the prospect of possibly capturing a new family was a happy one. They went, they crept up, and they succeeded. The tall ones fought harder than expected. They were clever more than strong. In the end the only ones left were Crouch and one woman, badly wounded. He brought her home. It wasn’t much use. She died. He spent a long time with her body, turning her over and looking closely. She WAS different.

Crouch tried to turn his attention to the river shining and curving through the valley below him. He didn’t think of it as beautiful. He wanted to know the pattern of it, not straight lines like the ones he made but rather like a snake. It reminded him of something but not a bright curving thing — rather a dark dangerous thing, the curving labyrinth of cave behind him through the limestone, also carved by water but in the blackness, forcing through the cracks and dissolving the weaker sediments back into sand and gravel. Maybe he would feel better back in there.

Until then Crouch hadn’t explored very far into the cave because the water rushed through before it plunged into an underground crack to join the river below by seeping through the land, but now it occurred to him that he hadn’t heard water rushing for a long time. His woman had used to go back there with a child carrying a torch for her to get water. It wasn’t the sort of thing he remembered. His thoughts were more feelings, impulses, and gut reactions.

Now he felt as though somehow his woman might be back there, though she was mixed in his mind with this slowly decomposing body at the side of the cave. In the old days they would have eaten her, since she wasn’t quite human, but he didn’t feel like it. Instead he took up a torch and started back through the cave, at first recognizing the way. After the dried-up watercourse, his owlish eyes gazed around him with intensity, focusing on the strange pointed stone forms like ant hills and the others that hung down in points. There were passages where the walls sparkled and others that were subtly colored, which made him remember the bag of red ochre dust he always carried. Sometimes the walls pulled away into huge chambers and other times they squeezed in until he could only go forward by pushing the torch ahead of him and then crawling after it.

Crouch was rarely afraid and if he were, he countered it with rage, but rage didn’t work down here and he became aware that he might never emerge. It was like standing under the clear night sky full of stars — he felt the need to assert his right to live, his identity. He felt he should make a mark of some kind but he had no sharp obsidian or antler point for incising his cross-hatches.

He put his hand on a flat place in the wall. In the past he had experimented with blowing the red ochre, not quite red as blood, on top of something so that it left a shape around the edge. Filling his mouth with the dust, he blew quickly and carefully through his big gappy teeth. Sure enough, the shape of his hand was made on the stone.

His torch kept flickering almost out. Then it DID go out. Returning to the mouth of the cave was tricky, but he had a memory for paths and he knew the logic of waterways. In fact, over the coming years he was able to return to the same spot to add more hand prints.

Then one day he mixed the red color with fat and soot so he could paint one of his dreams on the wall. It was not his dead family, nor the tall pale woman, but rather the thing it was most important to keep in mind: aurochs, meat. Survival.

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