Rena Willis

The End of Snow

The sun was a myth. Ona had never seen it. No one had. From the shelter of the caves, she’d watched as the world—a desolate place, gray and lifeless—choked on ash and cracked against the heat. Once, when she was small, she’d wandered too far from the caves. The Ashpox hadn’t killed her. She was lucky.

Now that she was older and she no longer watched the world or left the caves, her imagination boiled out of her. The tunnel whose cold embrace she called home was at the edge of the cave system, far below the surface and was one of the few still unexplored. She had to live somewhere, after all, and the tunnels closer in had the sticky scent of desperation and too many bodies; no space to breathe. Yet in each tunnel the cave-dwellers had claimed, the walls sang with color—handprints smeared in red, stick figures in gold, imagined beasts in brown—though she noted a distinct lack of paintings in the deeper shafts. Perhaps they’d left those walls for future generations. Whatever the reason, the sides of her cave were all but bare, a spattering of white flecks the only decoration.

Tarek insisted they must be snowflakes. Ona thought they were rock grinder scars. It was an ongoing debate between them.

“You lack imagination,” Tarek said.

“You have enough for both of us.”

They sat side by side on a worn-out prayer rug, comfortable in the familiar texture of their quarrel. Tarek was tall, dressed in a simple gray shirt and well-worn pants. Without a cloak, he appeared impervious to the frigid air, as if his attitude was all he required to stave off the cold. His cough had started several weeks ago. He brushed it off with light laughter, reassuring her that it was nothing, but they both knew the truth.

Perhaps if he was lucky…

No. She had used up her luck and Tarek never had any. She closed her eyes and let the sounds of home rub against her skin, the clang of metal and stone, the echo of mumbled conversations, jostling. She unscrewed the dented cap of their thermos, a relic from the surface, ancient yet useful, unlike so many things in their world. She offered him a drink, frowning at the rock grinder resting against her leg.

Ona had never seen the snow. No one had.

 

RECOVERED FROM NEURONET PUBLIC LINK, TAGS: BROADCAST, TO ARCHIVE

FROM: Mujabi Research Pod <mrp.4000@archeology.sci>

TO: Public Post <post@broadcast.net>

DATE: solar day 146, year 4050 (SE)

SUBJECT: Update Ozarak Valley

<BEGIN BROADCAST>

Archaeologists have dated pre-Homo-ēvolvere presence in Mesoterra to possibly as early as 32,000 years ago, at the end of the Ashfall Era (AE). This suggests that pre-Homo-ēvolvere, and not Homo-sapiens, may be our closest human relatives (although the dating of the Ozarak Valley finds on which that early date is based remains controversial). One minor occupation uncovered in a cave shelter. Evidence of simple mechanical tools and cave paintings discovered throughout the cave system.

<END BROADCAST>

 

There was no day or night in the caves. No dawn or dusk. They worked. They slept. The caves had their own rhythm.

Ona woke because of the cold. She pulled her damp cloak a bit tighter around her shoulders, a reflex. She had been warm once—when she was small, when she still ventured to the mouth of the cave. She’d since given up on warmth.

Cold was good though. Cold meant she could still feel.

She sat up and glanced at Tarek. She could see the tightness around his mouth, the barely suppressed pain as he tried to breathe. She unpacked their breakfast, efficiently yet carefully so as not to stir up dust. Cold sweat clung to her brow, a feeling of dread an itch under her skin. Ignoring it, she continued to ready for the day with dogged determination. She tightened the leather straps around her bedroll and unclipped the water sleeve from their satchel. She would let him sleep just a little longer.

The walk to the well took longer than she expected. The thoroughfare was clogged with people moving sluggishly. She moved closer to the wall, hand skimming the rock, paint-dust coating her fingers.

Tarek loved this part of the cave. The market stalls were packed tightly together on one side of the tunnel, every stall offering up something different to trade, scenting the air with need and want and color. She found it stifling.

“You never really look at things,” Tarek would say.

“Maybe. But you refuse to really see things.”

She made it to the edge of the well-chamber and stood in line behind an old woman near the half-dried-up stream. She knew the wait would be long; yet another reason she avoided the inner tunnels. Didn’t matter. She crouched down and settled in. Water trickled in the cracks and crevices of rock and dripped into the stream. She waited, breath shallow, a bitter hint of sulfur coating her tongue.

A slight ripple raced across the stream. Loose pebbles slid down the wall. A tremor. She tensed, clenched her teeth and dug her fingers in the dirt. Waited. The tremor was small.

A shake.

All around her, pebbles rained down.

More shaking. The ground bucked and rolled and pushed and curled and shuddered. She threw her arms over her head and made herself small.

A quake. Ona’s heart shook.

The quake twisted up through the walls, rattling large rocks loose. She flinched as shards of rock pelted her arms and back.

A Cave Killer.

People bounced around like stones in a can. Screams rent the air. A jagged crack opened and widened from where the stalls hugged the wall. The roof split open, spewing dirt and debris. Ona watched as a wild-eyed man held a limp child to his chest and scrambled through the crowd. Panic rolled through the cavern in slow motion.

And then all the terrifying power that had rippled through the cave was gone, the resonance vibrated through their bodies and stirred the dust in the air.

Lull.

Hush.

A loose boulder tumbled down, slamming against the wild-eyed man.

Stillness.

Despair.

Ona uncurled herself and rose. Tarek. She ran. Fear coursed through her, supplying fuel to her shaking legs. She stumbled, slipped, threw herself over rocks and bodies. She didn’t look back.

 

RECOVERED FROM NEURONET PRIVATE SERVER 6(c), TAGS: INTERNAL, TO ARCHIVE

FROM: Dr. A. Rojas <arojas.rs.5201@mujabi.sci>

TO: Dr. J. Svork <jsvork.rs.5340@oslin.sci>

DATE: solar day 149, year 4050 (SE)

SUBJECT: Possible Breakthrough

Je,

Don’t be such a pessimist! This could be what we’ve been looking for. This find definitely supports the idea that the Late Obsolesce cave dwellers were imaginative enough to produce art and perhaps even invented language.

Yes, I can hear your dry response from here, but please! Just review the attached data. Ozarek iconography is widely distributed across Mesoterra (if unevenly) and the artistic media used are diverse: monumental stone carvings, portable stone objects, cave paintings and jewelry.

I know what you are going to say: “Insufficient evidence to draw conclusions.” But, honestly when will there ever be enough evidence to convince you? Your old argument—pH.ēvolvere were simply primitive scavengers or a branch of primates post Quaternary Extinction—is crumbling. You may be sceptical, but I find this exciting... Just consider the implications!

Cheers,

Aji

 

It was dark but Ona could see the collapsed tunnel at the end of the thoroughfare.

The light from the flickering gas lamps licked at the edges of rock and clung to the dust in the air. It was hard to think through the clamour of her heart; even Ona’s breath sounded loud in her ears. She brushed her hand along the tumble of rocks, looking for purchase, something she could move, a way to get in.

Ona stared at the remnant of a handprint painted in red, bigger than hers. Her hands were covered in dust, scratched and bruised, dirt embedded under her nails. She placed her fingers flat against the rock and pressed until she could feel the grit push back against her skin.

Tarek loved those paintings. The colorful drawings dotted many of the cavern walls and were most vibrant in the thoroughfare, an explosion of imagination to enliven the market stalls. They filled her with melancholy.

“Imagination is hope,” Tarek would say.

“Hope is too heavy.”

She stood still, silent, forehead lowered, palm pressed against the wall, listening to half-remembered conversations. She closed her eyes against the sound of distant voices murmuring through tunnels that reeked with fear and loss. No movement nearby. She pushed off from the wall, turning back to the thoroughfare. The market stalls were destroyed but she would find what she needed. And then she would find a way through to Tarek.

Tarek, with his laughing eyes and easy smile.

She knew that he was gone.

No. It didn’t matter. She had to try.

 

RECOVERED FROM NEURONET PRIVATE SERVER 6(c), TAGS: INTERNAL, TO ARCHIVE

FROM: Dr. A. Rojas <arojas.rs.5201@mujabi.sci>

TO: Dr. J. Svork <jsvork.rs.5340@oslin.sci>

DATE: solar day 160, year 4051 (SE)

SUBJECT: Not Merely “Dumb Brutes”!!

Je,

I am hardly reaching! My friend, your argument that “stick figures and handprints” are not necessarily evidence of art and culture is outlandish! Have you seen the imaging? Look at the detail that remains even after all this time. It’s breath-taking. I’ll admit that the regular seismic activity during the period may account for some of the dispersion of artifacts throughout the valley—but certainly not all.

We are talking about the possible origins of humanity and of art. The cave paintings are at least 32,000 years old—likely the oldest known example of iconographic art anywhere in the world. We know that pH.ē were active in this region at that time. Why do you still insist that the paintings are more likely attributable to Homo sapiens (who I might add, predate pH.ē by at least 10,000 years)?

If the data I’ve sent isn’t enough to sway you, why don’t you bring your team out and see for yourself.

Cheers,

Aji

 

“Tight space,” said a man’s voice.

“Big enough.”

Ona turned to regard the onlooker. The man stood, arms crossed over his chest. Older than herself. She didn’t know him.

Ona took a deep breath and pulled the goggles down over her eyes, flicking her headlamp on. She double-checked her pack, her supplies limited. She frowned at her gloveless hands. Nothing she could find was suitable for maneuvering tight spaces or climbing rock. Ona had shoved a pair of grinder’s gloves in her pack, a pair big enough for Tarek. Maybe they would be useful. She shouldn’t take them. They took up too much room in the small pack.

“No one survived that,” the man said, tilting his head at the collapse.

“Maybe.”

Ona folded the small map she’d drawn and shoved it into her wristband. She’d stared at it so long over the past hour that the route was etched into the back of her eyelids. She knew it wouldn’t do much good as the quake had most likely rearranged the cave system. There were hundreds of intersecting shafts. She would find a way through.

“Suicide mission,” the man said.

He waited a moment as if he expected no response. Shrugging, he cupped his hands to boost her into the crawlspace. She grabbed the ledge and hauled herself into the dark.

Ona lost all track of time, nothing but a sense of urgency to mark her progress. Fear worried at the edges of her focus, magnified in the unforgiving darkness. She tilted her head and tapped the headlamp against the rock, the light flickering and leveling out. She wiped her brow. Sweat and grit slid across her arm and dug into her skin. It was slow going. She slid forward a few inches, wriggling her hips and using her elbows for leverage against the rock.

The pipe-like shaft, barely big enough to squeeze through, gradually sloped up, taking her nearer to the surface. The silence was broken by the drip-drip-drip coming from somewhere deep within the mountain. She crawled and slid and sometimes crab-walked through the bastard of a tangle. The air crackled across her skin. She reached a junction and stared up at the vertical chute she would need to climb. She dropped her head.

“Someday we’ll see snow,” Tarek would say.

“Nursery stories.”

He had laughed and regaled her with word-pictures, his nose wrinkled and his hands waving—how the snow would feel and taste and sound.

Optimism. She was always borrowing his, in sips, keeping her from drying up.

The rocks shifted between her shoulder blades as the mountain breathed a sigh. She raised her head and shuffled forward, pushing her thoughts aside, focusing on the next inch.

 

RECOVERED FROM NEURONET PRIVATE SERVER 6(c), TAGS: INTERNAL, TO ARCHIVE

FROM: Dr. A. Rojas <arojas.rs.5201@mujabi.sci>

TO: Dr. J. Svork <jsvork.rs.5340@oslin.sci>

DATE: solar day 165, year 4051 (SE)

SUBJECT: Enough!

Je,

How can you ignore the implications of this find? The art alone—it’s everywhere! What do the drawings mean? They are definitely proof that pH.ē thought in the abstract. We must rethink everything we thought we knew. We must rethink pH.ē!

It is not enough to accept that the data is intriguing, yet insist that it is hardly conclusive and not sufficient to overturn decades of science. PH.ē were not simply an evolutionary dead end! They were more likely an evolutionary link to modern humanity.

Your team’s belligerent refusal to accept the evidence and to continue to question the dating of the Ozarek finds is outrageous.

I am at a loss. Why are you ignoring the data?

Perplexed,

Aji

 

She slipped an inch and tensed every muscle in her body.

Sucking in air, she wedged herself harder between the rocks. Time had become her enemy. The small chute should have been an easy climb. She hadn’t counted on the amount of time she would need to hang suspended, arms and legs pushing out against the rock like a warped spider web. She could feel the sting of stray ash flakes as they drifted into the shaft. The roof in the chamber overhead had collapsed.

Her arms burned. Her legs shook.

She didn’t dare move until her next turn was clear. She pictured her map, the cavern directly above her. She was almost there—Tarek was trapped just beyond that cavern—yet with the ash poisoning the air between them… a world away.

Focus.

 Ash was survivable, in small doses. She visualized herself holding her breath and racing across the cavern to the sweet embrace of safety, to Tarek. Twenty or thirty breaths was survivable. She pushed up with her legs and readied herself. Big breath, released. Twice more.

She pushed up, launching herself over the shaft lip and into the chamber. Her arms collapsed and her cheek scraped against the surface of the cavern floor.

FIVE… SIX…

She’d lost track of the count. How long were twenty breaths? She struggled to stand. Disoriented. She wasn’t sure which way to go. Turning in a circle, she searched for the entrance to the correct shaft. The shaft that would lead her to Tarek.

TWELVE…

Nothing but debris. The quake had blocked the entrance to the passageway.

No. She hurled herself across the cavern towards what should have been the tunnel entrance.

FIFTEEN… SIXTEEN…

She scrambled along the jutting rock, looking for a way in. Her heart jumped and skittered in her chest. Her lungs burned.

EIGHTEEN…

She turned a small corner and saw it. A narrow cleft in the rock. Barely there. She angled sideways and tried to wedge herself into the space. But the gap was too narrow. She shrugged out of her pack, leaving it on the floor at her feet and tried again, sucking in her stomach and pushing with all her strength, forcing her way through.

TWENTY… TWENTY-ONE…

The ash stung, tiny burns marking her skin. Ona closed her eyes tight, wriggling further into the crawlspace. Her palms slick with blood, her shirt shredded, she clawed her way to the other side, emerging like a baby being birthed, eyes shut tight and gasping for air. She rolled onto her back and fumbled for the water sleeve at her belt. It was gone, knocked loose in the push through the rock. She began to shake as the wind from the collapsed cavern whistled and keened through the passage. Ona forced her breathing to slow and move through her diaphragm up to her skull and back. Tarek would never make it through that space. They would need to find another way back.

“You worry too much,” Tarek would say.

“I worry enough for the both of us.”

He had smiled and kissed her, wrapping his arms around her, sharing his warmth—her sun.

Ona leaned against the rock, trembling and sweating, and focused on her breathing. It would not do to find Tarek and collapse at his feet. She blinked the hair from her eyes. She was in a narrow passageway, cluttered with small rocks and rubble. She recognized it: A keyhole entrance to the tunnel they called home. It was partially blocked, the air stiff with dust.

“Tarek,” she called. The tunnel swallowed her voice.

Ona cupped her hand to the side of her mouth and shouted. She edged into the chamber, careful of loose rock, climbing over small boulders. She paused to listen, her voice an echo as she picked her way through the aftermath, turning away from the lifeless forms at her feet.

Not Tarek.

A rustle.

A sigh.

She scrambled over a pile of rubble, glimpsing something... something worse. 

Tarek lay wedged between the wall and a fallen boulder, his lower body trapped under the debris. A shelf of rock pinned him down. Blood, turned muddy in the dirt, pooled around his waist. In the shadows, the dust nearly camouflaged his ash-colored skin.

She crouched down, her hands dancing from his neck to his chest. Back and forth. She didn’t know what to do.

“Tarek?” she whispered.

His eyes did not open. His lips did not form her name. He did not reach for her.

She couldn’t let go of his hand. Time slowed. She curved her body around him, talking to him, holding both sides of the conversation, the air pushing against her, getting harder to breathe.

“We have an argument to finish,” she said.

“The snow is beautiful, don’t you think?”

He would smile and tilt his head up.

Ona squeezed her eyes shut and let her head fall back.

“Yes,” she said.

She shifted his head onto her lap and brushed his cheek.

WHITE, GRAY, BLUE. A nursery rhyme of color. He would laugh.

Ona blinked back her tears, swallowed them down until they were nothing. She stroked her fingers across his brow.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

She gently closed his eyelids.

“It’s just as you imagined.”

She lifted their hands and placed them on the wall, fingers spread, her hand cupping his, dirt and blood mixing, leaving a streak of color on the surface.

“Now someone will know we were here,” he would say.

She pressed harder.

“That we saw the snow.”

She touched her forehead to his.

“They can argue about it,” she said. “They can argue about what it means.”

 

RECOVERED FROM NEURONET PUBLIC LINK, TAGS: BROADCAST, TO ARCHIVE

FROM: Dr. J. Svork <jsvork.rs.5340@oslin.sci>

TO: Public Post <post@broadcast.net>

DATE: solar day 271, Year 4051 (SE)

SUBJECT: Update Ozarak Valley

<BEGIN BROADCAST>

Although pre-Homo-ēvolvere was a resilient group and may have looked something like us, it is yet unclear whether or not they thought like us.

<END BROADCAST>         

 





Rena Willis

Rena Willis is a writer and an educator. Her fiction work has appeared in New Flash Fiction Review and The Ekphrastic Review. She loves new ideas and encourages different perspectives. She is the Founder and Director for an International K-12 school in Costa Rica where her passion for writing and her love for learning intersect. She strives to make a positive difference in her community and in the world. She believes we succeed together.