by Sarah Giragosian
“[Paleolithic] people were sealing their own or others’ hands into the walls…the hands reached into the spiritual realm behind the membrane of the rock, though in this case paint acted as a solvent that dissolved the rock.”
-D. Lewis-Williams and J. Clottes in The Shamans of Prehistory
Between deathwatch and firewatch,
I dream in fits of our slog across the valley.
I dream of winter’s claw inside my belly,
and hyena-starvelings, mad with hunger,
who found Pabas alone. I dream of Ammama with spear,
and me, too late. I dream of Pabas scraping his nails
into shale and schist, crying out for help.
I dream of his muscle and hide all out and red,
and the death pack, playing with their kill.
I dream of Bear, unbidden, a red-tipped blaze,
who flared up on boulders, teeth bared,
and drove them away.
Pabas pulls me up from the undertow,
rouses me from sleep back to the cave.
The hyenas, he says, are braying, calling to him
from afterworld. Rest, Pabas, I say,
but he is a thrashing turtle
on a bone hook, speaking from otherwhere
of his apartness. I point to hearth, to kin,
but he sees his killers in smoke-blear and fever.
His lifeblood seeps and seeps,
and Ammama digs out teeth from his raked chest
that pierce the cave-gloom like stars.
I make a dressing from his pelt,
and sing of sun at day’s end.
I sing with throat stone-dry.
All night, Ammama scours Paba’s chest with oil.
She gives him orts of reindeer, root
of yarrow, coos of affection. When he rasps,
she warms snowmelt and mugwort,
then siphons it down his throat.
When he shivers, she wraps him in mammoth hide.
When it’s time, she makes a paste
of red ochre and binder from hard cave water,
and when his breath slows, she stencils his hand
into stone, so that what has been—
body and spirit—is knitted into what will be.
To you and me, cave wall is thick, she says,
but Paba’s hand dissolves all walls, and he will travel
to afterworld. Bear will lead him.
She knows how to coax Ibex
and Bison from rock face and shadow,
and now, finger daubed in paint,
she rubs Bear into being. First, arch of back and rump,
next hind and forelimbs, belly and face,
snout dug into a crevice. For his coat, she blows
russet paint through hollow bone,
then makes grizzle with wads of dry moss.
In last firelight, Bear slinks into a crook of wall.
He rustles back into my dreams.
Later that night, before Ammama and Bear showed Pabas
the way back, I bathed his joints in mud,
loosening them for his passage ahead. By sunbreak,
he slipped through; and I knew
the stone of his body and the stone of earth were one.
We made music of our tears and went on after burial.
Addendum: Cave Speaks
comb through me carefully enough
and you will come across the secrets
i hold in my throat: the root
of patience, the worked flints
and remains of pits dug out
for ovens, the earliest cravings
for meaning, and the blood relationship
between mammal and stone,
heartache and animal.
believe me: stone
does not equivocate.
how could i forget an age
before hands before cavefish went blind
before bedtime stories and bed-
streams before echo before rainfall
i was there
i was the hot center below