The last thing he expected was a ghost. It was irritatingly illogical, but even months later he could think of no better explanation.
Pedro dumped his textbooks in his locker and took the back way. It was faster. On a verdant soccer pitch past the university, Girona FC practiced for next Saturday’s grudge match against a better team from the bigger city of Seville. He’d be there with Anna of course, with their faces painted red and white, for their opponents were Iberians from the Spanish-speaking south, not Catalans, meaning both ethnic and provincial honour were at stake. He passed the Roman walls. Even from afar, in the modern city centre, the gangly student heard bullhorns and the rhythmic chanting of thousands. The protests often grew violent nowadays, and he planned to keep away. He’d gone once and it had been exciting at first; but he was a sensitive young man, and the tear-gas and water cannon, the riot-police and the beatings, unnerved him still.
The rumbling discontent grew fainter as Pedro cycled over the medieval bridge and turned toward the hills. He sympathised with the angry crowds that every month grew more numerous, and bolder; now only a very lucky graduate found a job anywhere in Spain and some of the older pensioners went hungry. The suffering, imposed by German bankers and their politicians, was a form of conquest; and as the saying goes, the Krauts are always either at your knees or at your throat. Pedro quickened his speed up into the hills. To his special place. Somewhere private that he hadn’t even shared with Anna. Maybe he would take her there. Someday.
As the twisting road steepened and the pines thickened, the only landmarks were tall rectangular towers atop the highest hills; the abandoned ruins of austere Romanesque churches. They’d been built chiefly by volunteers eight centuries ago, Pedro realised; by people his age or at least fit enough to lug the blocks of local dove-gray stone up to the very top. They must have been devout, and the work exhausting over scores of years, for similar relics dotted the hilltops as far as one could see.
When he saw the ancient steeples the student felt guilty, but only mildly and momentarily. It was his Patron Saint’s Day; he’d been named for St Pedro Nolasco who had come to Cataluña in the 1200s to battle the Moors. The ruined churches, some built by the saint’s followers, stood atop even older foundations of forts protecting the local Christians long before Pedro’s martial namesake came from France. The young man shrugged and carried on. His parents didn’t mind, but were his granny still alive and the 6th of May passed without him going to Mass, there would have been complaints at home. Besides, he thought, his special place felt more holy than any church. Pedro glanced up; the steeples had guided pilgrims and other travellers through the forests, but he didn’t need churches for that reason either. He knew his way.
The cave was high above the road. Pedro chained his bike and then climbed easily, up the steep path between the trees, around the larger rocks and over the smaller ones. As wondrous as it was, few people bothered to go there; they preferred the international tourist attractions. Pedro had gone once, spending a day on the bus to reach Altamira on the northern coast. He escaped the waiting list thanks to his student card and it had cost him only three Euros, but that was just to see the plastic replica. The real cave had been closed for years, protected from the moisture exhaled by thousands of visitors each day. That made sense, and inside of the life-sized fibreglass cavern everything had been copied perfectly. It was unforgettable, but still fake. Pedro’s was not.
His special place was puny; not spectacular like Altamira with its vast rock walls and naturally vaulted ceilings of galloping prehistoric horses and thundering bison, sketched in still-visible charcoal and painted by human hands 35,000 years before. His humble cave had only a part of a bison, or what sometimes looked like one. But to Pedro’s delight, in only one example, unlike more in Altamira, there was the silhouette of a human hand. Some anonymous artist of the Upper Palaeolithic had filled his mouth with red pigment and water, pressed his hand against the wall of the cave and then spat like a can of spray-paint; leaving a negative image of what was effectively the artist’s signature. Neanderthals lived alongside us then, as both species hunted woolly mammoths further north. Pedro knew this image had been rendered almost twenty times further into the past than the time elapsed from now to when the Romans built Girona’s walls.
His little cave wasn’t grand, thought Pedro, and Spain’s best archaeologists had no doubt mapped and photographed it sufficiently, but it was his. Hardly anyone ever went there, and for all he knew it could have been painted for his own Catalan ancestors, people who may have hunted game and gathered food in the same places over which he bicycled to classes. The artist might have resembled someone he knew, someone alive today. If there was any reason for pride in being human, if there was any holiness hidden in Time, Pedro found it there.
He grew alarmed when he neared his cave and smelled smoke. He felt for the mobile phone in his jacket pocket; the Girona police could arrive in minutes but Pedro chose to look first. So much firelight flickered in the mouth of the cave that he didn’t need the flashlight in his other pocket.
The entrance was small and low, and the tall young man crouched to enter. He took but a few steps inside, where the ceiling was higher, and saw that someone had left an old-fashioned torch burning in a natural niche in the rock. That was reckless and surely illegal, he thought angrily. The smoke could ruin the art inside. Wondering if his phone would work in the cave, Pedro heard a voice behind him. He thought he was alone and lurched in surprise, almost cracking his head against the low ceiling.
“Hey! You! Numb-nuts! Look where you’re standing!” the voice complained. Pedro glanced down at a large leaf smeared with reddish goo, and he stepped back. He apologised even before he turned to see an elderly man pointing at him angrily; a very naked elderly man.
“Of all the inconsiderate young idiots I ever saw! All mashed up, your brains ain’t enough to cure a deerskin! Think that red ochre is free? Think it just lies on the ground?” Then he paused and scratched his scraggly gray beard; “Actually it does just lie on the ground, but not around here.” He turned his face to the wall and his bony backside to Pedro. “Don’t dare touch anything,” he barked over his shoulder, “or I’ll pull your ears off and feed ‘em to my dog! Honestly! What’s a man to do?”
As the youngster’s eyes adjusted to the flickering firelight, the old man seemed to deface the prehistoric artwork! The Palaeolithic bison no less! Pedro shouted at him to stop. The art was old and priceless, he cried. The old man set down his makeshift palette and brush, scratched his lower anatomy thoughtfully, and clearly wondered what to make of the intruder.
“Think you can do better? Then try it yourself, snot-face!” the man exclaimed in irritation. Then he shrugged. “Yeah, it’s old. I started last autumn but you know how it goes. The bison moved early, we followed, and I just began again last week. As for priceless, I get three times the goin’ rate! My best competitor’s horses got too many legs; they look like centipedes to me. Well, you gets what you pays for, I suppose.” He had stopped defacing the art and otherwise appeared to be a harmlessly eccentric old nudist.
Pedro looked over the man’s shoulder and gasped. Instead of showing merely flanks, the prehistoric bison was restored to what must have been its full Upper Palaeolithic glory! And it was huge, bigger than he thought from the original fragment; now nearly two metres long. Usually, archaeologists hesitate at even a minor restoration, but such genius and authenticity must have justified the rare exception and the expense. Wordlessly dazzled, the young man beheld the work of a modern master.
The bison’s vast shoulder-muscles rippled, and its massive head and mighty horns prepared to charge. Its lips narrowed in a sneer of malevolent rage; its enormous thighs clenched as its great hooves scored the ground beneath, almost preparing to take flight. The artist’s command of colour rivalled his control of line, for even within a limited palette he worked daringly and effectively. The great beast’s hairy hump, daubed black with only a few brush strokes, merged seamlessly into its earthen-red body, before darkening again in the shadows of its limbs. Unexpectedly, and using authentic materials no less, the painter had added an unconventional streak of yellow right across his subject’s back, like a shaft of sunlight, as if the bison were caught in motion. This new work rivalled Altamira’s finest prehistoric treasures. It surpassed any equally modern art in the Girona Museum, Barcelona or even Madrid.
“”It’s brilliant!” he exclaimed, and the artist winked at him over his shoulder. But the cave was cold. “Do you want to borrow my jacket?” asked Pedro. “You’re, um, not wearing anything.”
“Wimps!” the man exclaimed in disgust. “Same as my people! Goat-piss on rock-salt! I’m uncommonly old, almost thirty-five: youngsters today are all whimperin’ babies. First lick of snow and they wanna build a fire! Look over there, sonny,” he pointed. “I painted a damn good cave for that bearskin. Best in the valley!” A furry lump lay in a corner. “At winter festivals the young women can’t keep their hands off it,” the old man smirked, “which is partly why I wear it. Think I wanna get paint all over it? Great gobs of sour owl-crap! What’s wrong with you young people today?” But he paused and squinted; “Say, kid, what kinda skins are you wearing?”
Pedro was lost for words; “Um, Gore-Tex I guess.”
The artist resumed his brushwork. “Ain’t never killed or skinned me a gortex before,” he mused. ”Don’t think they live around here. Are they solitary, or do they run in herds?”
Parts of the old man’s talk made no sense. “Who’s paying you? Barcelona?” Pedro asked. The old man looked puzzled. The committee, he said; where the four rivers meet. Pedro had just cycled across one of them. The old man meant Girona.
“The city council?” Pedro clarified. The old man squinted harder.
“Dunno,” the artist answered. “Nine stuffy old farts hired me. Offered two stone fishhooks but I held out for three. They can afford it, the stingy bastards! There mus’ be altogether fifty people livin’ ‘round there.” Girona’s population topped 90,000.
Pedro glanced at his watch; it was still working. The light outside looked unchanged. Either he was stuck in a cave with a lunatic, he had travelled 35,000 years back in time, or the artist had come forward just as far into his future. If so, Pedro hadn’t seen a masterful replica; he watched the original prehistoric cave-art being painted for the first time! He questioned the man more closely, asking where he lived. No fixed abode, the artist replied; he had relatives nearby but he mostly worked wherever his customers required. He’d even been up to the northern coast once, about three weeks’ walk through the forests.
“To Altamira?” the student demanded breathlessly. “To the famous painted cave?”
“Dunno what they call it now,” the old man mumbled as he worked. “But that sounds ‘bout right. I did ‘em sixteen bison in full colour, twelve more in outline, nine horses an’ a whole load o’ tiny hunters. I remember the list from my invoice. They wanted the whole works. Prob’ly copied my art an’ added some since then, but they sure paid for it! Sonny, my wife and kids boogied in bearskins! That was my second wife. She’s a miserable bitch, so I went travellin’ again.”
Just to be certain, Pedro asked if the old man was really the legendary artist of Altamira. “Not just me precisely; I hired two assistants on a job that big,” the artist replied. “One to mix paint and another to fill in my outlines. But the second guy was a moron, so I fired him.” It took the young man minutes to overcome his astonishment, before asking why people paid for the work.
The old man looked puzzled. “You ain’t never had it done? Steaming hills of horse-apples! Are you for real?” The old man wet his fingers and partially extinguished the torch until the cave grew dim. “Look up yonder!” he commanded but all Pedro could see was a dark patch of wall.
“Watch this! See how a master works!” the man commanded. He moved the torch very slowly. There was another painted bison that Pedro hadn’t noticed before. In the shifting firelight its menacing horns and eyes, and then its full head, seemed to emerge from the living rock, gradually taking life and form from the earth itself. Then its vast body came into majestic view, painted three-dimensionally over a hump of stone. He moved the torch vertically instead of horizontally as before, and the great beast flickered or shuddered and almost seemed to sigh as its image dissolved back into the wall again.
The artist lit a fresh torch from the stubby old one, the flames spread and the cave grew brighter. “I’ll sketch in the huntin’ party later,” he explained. “They’ll come out of that crack there as I move the torch, attack the bison an’ disappear again. Then I’m spraying in three hands; plenty for a cave this size. I’ll keep ‘em low, so the kids can put their own hands on top of the handprints; kinda’ like joinin’ the hunt. This interactive art is new, an’ it works. Now watch this!”
Grasping a twig of charcoal at his feet, he swiftly sketched a horse onto a piece of bare wall, and then another. “I’ll colour ‘em yellow,” he explained as he drew more and more horses. “Yellow’s almost invisible in firelight except from certain angles. The little bastards will think they’re caught in a stampede.”
Pedro asked why. The artist took a few walnuts from his bearskin and sat down, offering some to his young admirer. “Where you from, son? It ain’t around here, that’s for sure. No offense, but your kinfolk must be dumb enough to piss on campfires and sit downwind!”
He scratched his groin again, reflectively. “Back when my grandpappy was a boy, there was nobody here but us. Then outsiders came. Ate our bisons, scared off the rest, then gobbled up the nuts and fruit before we could. When we followed the herd, whole other clans was hot on our heels. My grandpappy’s grandpappy led war parties and killed ‘em off, on the trail and back here in our summer camp, but more kept comin’. They was breedin’ like head-lice. Then one of my great-uncles wouldn’t even fight ‘em! He had eyes for some floozy from another clan, who filled out her goatskins right nice. Know what I mean?” He winked lasciviously. “So we started takin’ our young ’uns up into these caves. Get it now?” Pedro shook his head.
“Bear-poop stew! Such ignorance! Caves is pitch-dark and that scares them boys right good, but the elders jus’ talked in the dark,” he explained. “They weren’t modern like now, with what we specialists call information technology. Now, after a good fright an’ some talkin’ to, an elder brings in a torch. The young initiates understan’ instantly. How the Maker brung us up out of the earth; us an’ the animals o’ course. How we all return to the soil to come back again. Why to respect our animal kinfolk what feeds us. What it means to be human and a member of this special clan. This clan or another one, it don’t much matter,” he added, “lotta big families got a small cave nowadays. And mostly they hires me to paint ‘em. Or guys like me who ain’t as good.”
He stretched his arms and yawned. “People thinks I’m jus’ the world’s best painter,” he muttered immodestly, “but I teach timeless values. Rites of passage turn young ’uns into men. Words and movin’ pictures make it unforgettable. Next when we cuts into ‘em, makin’ the clan scars, it hurts but it builds pride. It also fills a spiritual need; a sacred part of every man. Womenfolk don’t need it. All instinct! Their guts do their thinkin’ for ‘em. But men gotta know who they is! Stay loyal to their own kin. Be willin’ to fight; even die and follow our animal cousins back into the earth. Be ready to kill the other clan. Crack skulls! Beat the livin’ brains out of them no-good interlopers disruptin’ the Maker’s divine order. Go for their bellies with a spear. Works good, too! Lotta dangerous hombres protectin’ these parts, so be careful goin’ home.”
“Say, kid,” he added. “They’re bringin’ me a grilled horse-steak right about now. Ain’t got many teeth left, so I got me one of them high-tech imported flint blades to cut ‘er up. Sharp? You could sneak up, circumcise a woolly rhino and escape undetected! Anyway, there’s horsemeat enough for two. Stick yer head outside an’ see if they’s here yet.”
Hungry, Pedro stepped out of the cave; he heard motorcars on the road below and it recaptured his attention. When he went back inside the cave was dark, just as it had been on earlier visits. Even the smell of smoke was gone. He switched on his flashlight and the great painted bison was again merely a fragment of rump. The hand-print remained, but old man had vanished and Pedro never asked his name. Still anonymous after thirty-five millennia, the greatest artist of the Upper Paleolithic may still be waiting for his steak.
Sunlight was fading as Pedro scrambled down to the road; he’d been in the cave much longer than he thought. Was the old man a ghost? Or alive but caught in a temporary short-circuit, a crossed connection in Time? Pedro didn’t know. He unchained his bike and cycled towards home. He felt that he should have been more puzzled by the strange experience, or dazzled by what he saw and learned. Instead he felt depressed and that surprised him.
Long before the old man lived, the need to divide, motivate, and kill lay burrowed deep in the human genome, the student thought. This encoded behaviour must have contributed to survival; but even if unneeded anymore it still remained. It lived in German bankers and the violent protests against them. It breathed in the tribalism of team sports; sublimated into peaceful pursuits, apart from when soccer hooligans killed one another.
The malign legacy lives on in race-hatred spanning the globe, he thought, in bloodthirsty nationalism within continents, among vicious sectarian or provincial rivalries, in cities and on local streets. It survives in a hundred wars and a thousand gang-fights and neighbourhood killings. Big or small, out of control or contained temporarily, it never would be any different. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change, Pedro lamented as he cycled home. Even our spiritual need conspires with our ancient drive to divide, conquer and kill. The thoughtful and sensitive young man felt a lump rising in his throat.
The late afternoon sun had already dipped behind the hills. But sometimes things did change, Pedro realised. The descendents of the old man’s warring little clans, grown far more numerous, gathered together throughout the valley and maybe from across all of Cataluña, to create what now loomed above him in ruins. They had come voluntarily and stayed, working together over two centuries and maybe more, building churches on every hilltop. There had been no clans, no territory to defend, no fighting and no killing; just a purposeful peace generation upon generation. For awhile the old genes were silenced, and in Palaeolithic terms it happened almost yesterday.
Pedro looked up. The green hills were now black and the last rays of sunset illuminated only the hilltop towers. As the old man’s torchlight revealed life emerging from the sacred earth, the dying sunlight slowly turned the dove-gray steeples into ivory pillars against the heavens. They became a row of candles soaring up over the mountains, framed by the still-darkening sky, stretching as far into the distance as one could see. He stopped to stare. Were they mere relics, or shining markers on a pathway leading high above the hills themselves? The young man’s eyes grew moist, but for another reason.
Do saints mind, he asked himself, if their namesakes come to church a day late?
As Pedro resumed pedalling the night sky turned deepest midnight blue, while anointed by emerging stars and glowing ever whiter in moonlight, the candles seemed to lead him home.
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