The caves are cavities in the teeth of the earth, hollowed out by creeping rivers. In their bellies, what some would consider beautiful is powdered over with darkness. The wing-rats rustle and click, hanging with delicate claws. The rocks shed teardrops that make small, pure indents in the soundscape. The rocks are impassive. Their troubles are not human troubles.
In the harsh desert light, there is a frantic patter of feet. A dry wheezing. The boy’s eyes roll desperately in their sockets. Looking, hoping, he darts over the hot sand. He scrambles up the slope, and stones roll to catch in the roots of the tough grey bushes. A cry echoes below. He pulls himself onto a jutting ledge and lies flat to conceal himself from the hunters. His teeth click together uncontrollably. He fights against a mind freezing over with numb despair.
An overhang of crumbling clay shades the limestone ledge. Between the striations in the rock is a crack just large enough for his dusty, nut-brown body. He worms his torso through, and feels cool, still space behind the rock-face. He pulls his little daeka-skin bundle after him and feels his way across the serrated ground. The pain does not register. He cowers against something solid, watching the chink of light.
The approaching bestial cries evolve into human voices, accompanied by clacking spears. He feels his flesh parting before a chiselled spearhead. Their teeth tear at his tender skin; his fingers bake in searing embers; his skull is a bowl from which to sip. They are on the ledge. He retches sour bile. The tails of their guttural cries catch in the crevice. He spasms and presses his forehead against his bloodied knees. Their feet pound mercilessly as they pass.
He trembles. Anonymous in the dark, he clings to that elongating pool of light. He clings to it. All around, the blackness presses against him, oppresses him. There is a faint rustle, before a flock of wing-rats screech and chitter out into the liquid-gold sunset.
Soon his blindness is complete. But to move would somehow be to call them back. His smallness and aloneness overwhelm him. His tribe is running too. He feels their warmth and protection, he runs in stride. He sees his father’s creased smile, they share the thirst, the hunger, the fear. Together. His blood dries and crusts the rocks like lichen.
The ocean invades without meeting resistance. Forests that had sprung up suddenly in a burst of life drown in the brine. Spires of stalactites and stalagmites snap and clink against each other in the current. Waves break on mountain peaks.
Human feet cross again what was once an ocean bed. They belong to a woman and a man who have cast themselves away from their village and the self-righteousness that festers there. The man carries a child on his hunched back. No-one will follow them deep into these hills that carry tales of misfortune and malignant spirits.
It is the woman who finds the cave. As they pass, she tastes moisture and senses a sudden wave of coolness emanating from the hillside. They push through the thick bushes, protecting the child from the groping branches. They hesitate at the cave's opening. She strikes her flint and lights the oil-lamp. A dark shape skitters across the rocks, racing the expanding tendrils of light. She grimaces apprehensively, gums grotesque against her smooth skin.
I suppose we’ll have to befriend them, says the man. The child pulls at his grey beard. Pa-pa, she gurgles. He slides her out of the animal-hide sling and spreads it on the ground for her. He straightens but remains hunched, the consequence of a life spent in front of a loom. He almost feels at home on the tongue of this toothless mouth. The woman sets her pack on the ground and steps into the withering daylight to collect dry wood. Her heart aches.
The man rummages in the bundle while the girl picks at her doll of woven river-grass. He kneels awkwardly in the circle of lamplight, picturing the heaving mass of spiders on the surrounding rocks. He extracts a gourd filled with fat, white worms. He turns to the child, but her attention is on the spiders skulking towards her. They hover in the area of half-light. Their bodies are as big and fragile as the child’s head. A mother protects a thousand small lives in a bulbous sac.
The man’s forehead creases. He reaches forward with the gourd balanced on his palm. He places it ceremoniously on the ground. The worms wriggle steadily over and under each other. Wems, Pa-pa, the child says, reaching – No, no, they’re not for you. He strokes her mussed hair as they watch the spiders bundle away their prey.
This could be our home, he thinks.
Now that the woman has returned and they have roasted their last ground-roots, they huddle under their only blanket, the child cocooned between them. The spiders skitter out cautiously to settle themselves on the blanket, until a delicate lace of hooked, many-jointed legs shrouds their sleeping forms.
In the city centre, the rumbling, rattling, chattering bounces off hard surfaces: beaten-down flagstones; brittle glass; suspicious glances.
The young man takes the auto-bus to the city’s edge, where the huts lean like sleeping drunkards on the bank of the river. His hair is combed over with lard and he is wearing his older brother’s shoes. He descends from the bus, which grumbles back towards the city. He stubbornly battles his way over snaking roots and gingerly balances on rotting stair treads. His nose is fixed in a wrinkle, fighting the stench of putrefying eggshells drifting from his satchel.
The narrowing track forces its way upwards and now he must clamber like a crab, undignified, clinging to the rope to keep his footing. His shirt sticks to his skin. He longs to scratch where the twigs scrabble insistently at his pale calves.
He emerges onto a flat area of rich soil in front of the cave mouth. Fighting towards the opening through the tangle of low vegetation, he crushes a young falsberry into the dirt..
Hello, he calls. He shuffles inside. For a moment the sun’s impression is left on his vision, and all he can see are kaleidoscoping white shapes. His irises widen and his breathing shortens. He looks back quickly, as if half-expecting a boulder to roll across the entrance.
He jerks around. A tall woman stands behind the battered gas lantern in her hand. The weak light coaxes forth the wrinkles in her translucent skin. Her filmy eyes are fixed on his neck.
You have come for my syrup.
Air hisses around the corners of her words, rounding and softening like ancient desert winds.
Yes, he says hesitantly. My old neighbour has an ulcer in the stomach.
I have many syrups.
She limps across the cavern to an adjoining chamber. Her gleaming white hair trails down her back to brush her ankles. The young man follows cautiously and peers inside. The arching walls are laced with luminous trails that pulsate gently. Snails of all sizes and colours ponder along the damp surface, their shells swaying, rhythmically, delicately.
He shudders discreetly as the woman interrupts the journey of a snail as large as a human brain. Its eyes shoot back within its stalks and it cringes away. She cradles it and scrapes a phial along its sticky length. The viscous liquid dribbles into the glass container like wild honey. Replaced, the snail hesitates before progressing once more towards the heap of succulent mushrooms. The woman collects the juices of another golden-brown snail, and then a sapphire-blue one, until the phial is brimming.
She turns to him. You have payment?
Yes, he says, and hands her the satchel. She unfastens it and tips the pale eggshells over the mushrooms.
And for me?
He produces a round of hard cheese and biscuits wrapped in waxed paper. She places them on a chiselled shelf beside a bone whistle and a gourd filled with miniscule snail shells. She hobbles into the aching bright light of the outside world, and she begins to tug weeds from her garden, murmuring to herself. She has already forgotten him. He holds the phial up to the sun. In the daylight, it resembles river sludge. He considers it.
A group of New Age scientists chisel away the earth's muscle to analyse it for a valuable mineral. Gargantuan trucks of workers are driven, like floats in a mechanical procession, through the timber yard where the forest used to be. The rocks remain unflinching as the boring and hacking begins. Ancient stalactites and columns shatter. Fragments are piled into carts by rough hands to be removed for processing. Dust clouds the vibrating air.
Within a month the miners have taken what they want and moved on to the next site. The air is unnaturally still and the river is sluggish, a slurry of chemicals and dirt. The caves are crumbled open, their mysteries exposed and accounted for.
Chalky powder settles like ash on the bald hill.