Sal Brooks watched monsters dance on the wall.
She recognized the shapes of bulls and deer and antelope, though the beasts on the walls had different names. These were ancient creatures, gone now, or diminished, like elves in those Hobbit books. You never saw aurochs any more. That thing with the branching brain-cell horns, like a reindeer drawn by someone on a bad trip, was apparently a Megaloceros, which Liam claimed meant big horns. Sal felt that being unable to think of a better name for a monster reindeer than big horns suggested there was something wrong with the scientific imagination. She could not deny, though, that the horns were big.
The creatures circled the cave, huge and vital. Red horses pranced; a white bull squared off against a herd of smaller cattle. A man with a bird’s head hefted a spear before a shaggy bison. Long-gone artists had woven the rock’s colors and striations into their work. Ruddy iron stains framed the earth, and paler limestone the sky.
The tour guide spoke French, which Sal had come to accept, this being France. Since he wasn’t ordering coffee or talking about pain au chocolat, she was lost, but she might as well make up her own translation. “Thousands of years before Christ, before Rome and Egypt and, like, Gladiator and Kull the Conqueror and all that other stuff your kid brother used to geek out over, early humans descended into this cave with brushes they made themselves from bits of actual horse, with paints mixed from dirt and berries, and, in the middle of what was no doubt a gross, hard, short life, they made all this, down in the bowels of the Earth. And you think this space is claustrophobic now? Imagine what it would have been like without lights. Imagine what it would have been like not knowing what waited deeper in these caves, or what used them when you weren’t around.”
Liam, beside her, at least confined his disgust to a whisper. “Milton Keynes prehistory, is what this is.”
“Shhh. I’m listening.”
“You don’t speak French.”
“This guy does a good spooky voice.”
“And so,” her imaginary translation continued, as the pock-faced tour guide reached for a light switch set beside the cave door, “we must not look upon the paintings of Lascaux only with the eyes of our, um, our normal eyes—” Sal would be the first to admit her melodramatic speechifying needed a lot of work. Have to work on that if I intend to keep at this whole world-saving thing . “—but with the eyes of our minds and hearts. To understand the genius of these long-dead artists, we must see them in their intended light.”
The tour guide flipped the switch, and the world went dark.
“Oh, come off—”
She shushed Liam. “Don’t ruin this.”
In the dark, from the tour guide’s direction, Sal heard the unmistakable sound of someone failing to operate the safety wheel on a Bic lighter, followed by a curse, a few sparks that did not relieve the velvet dark, and a second, more muffled curse. Liam chuckled; she ignored him and waited. Other tourists breathed around her. She could feel them without touching them. Their bodies radiated warmth. Ten thousand years, twenty thousand, before, they would have clustered like this in winter, against the dark and cold. They would have breathed the same air.
The flame took.
Sal had turned away to save her night vision. She and Liam stood with their backs to the fire, surrounded by sparks in other tourists’ eyes, and on the walls by shadows that were almost gods. Between the flickering lighter flame and the rock wall striations, the beasts moved. She had thought they danced before, but that was only a trick, a suggestion of movement. In firelight they lived. The aurochs drew breath. The Megaloceros shook its heavy horns. She felt herself with another body, shaggy, ancient, leather-clad and hungry and full of strength, the root and backbone of a world.
“It’s only a model,” Liam said, and she elbowed him in the ribs.
“I’m just telling the truth,” he was still protesting two hours later, as they wandered through the museum zoo. Two kids ran up to the pony enclosure and plastered their faces against the fence. The clunk of their colliding skulls spooked the ponies, not to mention Sal. Their parents didn’t seem to mind. The kids laughed.
“You don’t have to be such a tool about it.”
“My point, and I don’t see why this does not bother you as much as it does me, is that it’s silly to pretend you’re seeing something magical when you’re not. There are real Lascaux caves, not far, let’s see, thataway.” He pointed dramatically, and two passing college girls executed a noticeable head-twist to follow the muscles working under his T-shirt. “That cave wasn’t even a real cave! It was a bloody concrete bunker!”
“They don’t let people in the real cave anymore.” Sal opened the brochure, and guided them back toward the museum. A cow mooed behind a fence, and she thought it lacked a bit, compared to the aurochs in the cave. “They let people into the...