Sunday, July 18, 2004

In This One Wall (part 1) -- by Elliot Bougis

A black Hummer slowly pulled up to the dark-mouthed cave. Small flurries of dust swirled under its rutted tires. The Hummer stopped next to another dark green Jeep facing the cave mouth, and gave a quick salutory beep. The muffled sound of the gears crunching into PARK thumped under the hood.

Suddenly, a stringy Englishman in khaki shorts and a white polo shirt hopped out of the cave waving his hand over his wispy head. A few streaks of brown dust clouded his sleeves and chest. Behind him, a very tall black man in jeans and a white T-shirt jogged out of the cave. Both wore dull metal miners’ helmets, whose lights shined onto the Hummer as the dim, orange sun set.

As the helmet lights bobbed on the Hummer’s windshield, both doors opened and two nicely dressed men climbed out. Their new leather boots creaked in the dust.

“Hullo, chaps!” said Givens, the Englishman, in his impetuous tenor voice.

“Givens! Good to see you after so long,” answered the larger of the two men in the Hummer, Timothy Hunt. Hunt was the head of the Homo sapiens department at the Nevada Institute for Archaeological Studies. He had worked with Givens on a Malaysian find a few years earlier.

“Is that Wells I see?” asked Hunt, pointing to the tall, black man.

“You bet it is. It’s about time you guys got here, there’s some great stuff in here,” answered Richard Wells, as he jerked his thumb behind him toward the cave. Wells had never worked with any of these men before, but he had read their works and debated with them extensively. Wells, the second youngest of the group, next to Steven Tibbon, was in charge of this dig.

Meanwhile, Tibbon rubbed his hands anxiously on the hot fender of the Hummer. He was a second-year graduate student at the Nevada Institute, and had won a number of awards for his research in “early cave-bound and nomadic Homo sapiens lifestyles”. None of these awards did much for his personality, though. He was terribly shy, and could barely express himself without a wave of illegible hand motions.

“This is Steven Tibbon, one of my best students. He’s on a summer internship with us. He’s young, so let him keep believing this is fun. Smile!” shouted Hunt cheerily.

All the men laughed wisely, and even Tibbon managed a shy chuckle as he and Hunt walked toward the cave.

* * *

Wells led the group into the cave, which was about forty feet long, thirty feet wide and sloped gently in the middle. Orange light from outside streaked and thinned into the cave, like a giant tiger’s hungry claws. Givens handed Hunt and Tibbon two new helmets. The sun was quickly setting and the cave was getting cooler.

“Check those lights, lads,” advised Givens, nasally.

“Thanks,” they said in unison.

Hunt and Tibbon, whose helmet sat crookedly on his sweaty head, scribbled notes while Wells debriefed about the cave, named W-23, in honor of Wells’s first lead dig.

“It’s one of the most well-preserved caves I’ve ever seen,” Wells explained.

“On the first day alone, we found a half dozen tools, probably domestic. A tight-knit basket, maybe for carrying or eating. A couple of short thin tools, probably weapons or eating utensils. Et cetera, et cetera. Sorry for the disorder, gentlemen. There’s so much, we haven’t been able to catalog it all too well.”

“We’ve got time for that, worry not,” butted in Givens, a little insulted. He was in charge of the information. He’d get it ordered in time, bloody Wells.

“You mentioned a cave wall or something in your last letter, I thought,” said Hunt inquiringly.

“Patience, my man. We’re saving the best for last,” answered Wells, with a smile.

“Here it is,” Wells said as they came to the best.

All four heads turned right. Four light beams darted over the wall. Quick glimpses of ink and images showed up wherever light happened to hit.

“This is what I wrote about. I wanted to keep it a surprise till you got here. A fifteen-foot panorama of almost twenty distinct cave drawings. We suspect some are scenes in bigger stories. But some are just by themselves,” said Wells.

“It’s tremendous, eh, boys,” chimed in Givens.

Hunt’s jaw was hanging open, his eyes slowly moving back and forth across the wall.

“Fasci– nating– simply fascinating” he whispered.

Obliviously, Tibbon walked up to the wall, and ran his fingers over the highest drawing in the upper left. He had seen this kind of sketch a few times before, only in books of course. It was a dark maroon little stick figure brandishing a narrow spear over his head. A few inches lower, to the left, another stick figure, with what looked like long hair or a cape, was squatting. Both of these figures were inside a thick, dark purple arc, probably representing a cave they were in. It looked like the standard hunting tableaux Tibbon had read about a dozen times.

But what caught Tibbon’s young eye was the faint yellowy stripe that covered half of both the figures. It was like they were dipped into a can of light yellow paint and were stuck there, one brandishing a spear, the other crossing his hands in a feeble shield. And just a little lower, to the left, Tibbon saw a thin womanly figure. Despite the rudimentary lines and simple pigment, the figure radiated an aura of delicate beauty that stopped Tibbon’s breath a moment. The woman’s head was bent into her hands, as if she were crying. He blinked a few times, and gently touched her inken shoulders. Near the woman was a smaller figure, probably a boy. Tibbon noticed very thin, very faint stripes of black paint that trailed out from behind all of the figures, and weaved through the yellow square. They were almost like…

“Tibbon, let’s go! Let’s eat. You need your sleep, too,” Wells shouted merrily.
Tibbon didn’t say anything, he just looked undecidedly back and forth between Wells and the little figures.

“Don’t worry, the wall’s not going anywhere. It’ll be here tomorrow. Man, it’ll be here forever. It’s getting cold in here, let’s go,” shouted Wells, a little less patiently this time.

“Sure… yeah, I’m coming,” mumbled Tibbon, his eyes still on the crying woman.

Wells was walking carefully out of the cave, and Hunt and Givens were unloading the Hummer. Tibbon walked backwards slowly, staring at the wall the whole time. Just before he fell backwards and ran out of the cave, Tibbon glimpsed a figure he was sure wasn’t there before. He saw a stocky dark figure running across a triangle of black paint, forever frozen with one leg pumping above the other.

* * *

Orthok sprinted across the shimmering sand like a drop of brown oil skittering across a hot black pan. He ran like any glug: bent at the waist, neck looking forward, much like a speed cyclist on an invisible bike. His gargantuan thighs pumped into the ground at a staccato speed. Dry volcanoes of black, gritty dust erupted with every step, sparkling in the setting sun. In his hands, he held a knobby brown spear, headed by a four-pronged disk. All that he wore was a truvet skin shirt. These truvets, which looked liked pillowcases open on both ends and with a hole cut in the middle, and had dozens of pockets all over them, hung over a glug’s shoulders. A few inches from the bottom of the rectangular skin, the shirt was cut into several strips off of which various tools dangled.

As he ran, his flat, broad forearms swung back and forth like hairless flounder attached to thick cables. Orthok’s skin was darker than most glugs, because he wandered the deserts so much, but all glugs had dark skin like a bullfrog’s. Glugs were not, however, reptilian. If you saw a glug, you’d think you were seeing a human – a four-foot dwarf actually – with an impressive tan. Orthok had more hair than most glugs, too. A dozen wispy clumps of shoulder length white, gray and black seal-like fur trailed from Orthok’s scalp as he ran. From the front, a glug had a rolling skull shaped like a very shallow club in a deck of cards, or a long coconut with inch deep channels carved in it. With every breath, Orthok’s glug nose, like an inverted human nose, clamped shut and snapped open, spewing small strands of dusty phlegm.

Orthok’s granite eyes kept a steady bead on the dark green horizon. His thick, pimply eyelids blinked a few times to wash out dust. He knew he had to make the Stro caverns by dusk. If he didn’t make it in time, he would risk “the moistening,” the regular but troublesome metamorphosis that happened every night on Geveldar. At dusk every day, as the planet cooled, a clear condensation oozed up the black sands, and transformed the entire desert into a deadly black quicksand swamp. Of course glugs throughout the years had tried occasionally to build swamp boats to somehow traverse the deadly desert sea. Unfortunately, the moisture transformed the sands into a sticky, tar-like consistency, which dragged a moving object – a glug, a downed wallal, a boat, perhaps – down. The more the boat moved, the more moisture clung to it, weighing it down below the sands – forever. Sometimes when the winds shifted the sands, a travelling glug would come across the smoothly eroded prow of a botched glug boat.

Now, Geveldar’s deserts weren’t completely without favor. There were a sporadic number of oases across the dunes. But these oases, if the word even applies, weren’t more than deep muddy wells, vertical rivers, really. Oasis water tasted like simple sugar water, but tingled electrically in the mouth. Pressure from the few oceans and lakes farther in the south sent water throughout the desert. If this subterranean river met a buried rock face it would surge up to the surface, and pump fresh water for a while until the water eroded into a new horizontal tunnel, and the oasis drained away to somewhere else. Although most glugs lacked the patience to think about it, the moistening was a result of oasis backflow. Some fortunate glug wanderer or trader or messenger might find an oasis one day, but it could be gone for the next traveler within days. You took your chances in the desert.

The “moisture,” on the other hand, because it was oasis water that had stewed in the desert sands for months, had a sweet chalky taste, like confectioner’s sugar mixed in baking powder. It was also some of the slickest stuff on the planet, before it evaporated under the rising sun. A favorite game of young glugs was sneaking out of their caves while their parents slept, climbing onto boulders, and sliding down at whipping speeds. All glug parents hated this game (even though most had played it in their day). Glug giggling was always cut short by the same parental warnings: “Don’t ever play near the moisture again!” – “Don’t you know it’s dangerous!” – “This is a dangerous place, you could die!” The occasional welts from the rock sliding were only a scratch compared to the beating his father had given him one morning after a game of rock-sliding.

Orthok remembered all of this with a glint in his gray eyes and a grin on his rough thick camel-like lips. But, when he noticed the quickly condensing fog rising across the desert, he remembered how right the parents were: this is a dangerous place, you could die.

Fortunately, dozens of caves were scattered throughout the deserts, and these became the communal nighttime shelters for any traveling glugs. Picking up his pace a little nervously, he squinted and spotted the Stro spikes on the forest green horizon. He was safe for the night. Well, safe for some of it. It would be a long night.


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