Place of the Paintings and Other Stories
Book Sample

The Place of the Paintings

Unlike the others he had never been afraid of the place of the paintings. Yet this day was different. His body shivered even in the sun and gave off a smell that did not belong to him. For the first time he felt something like disquiet as he approached the place of rocks where he would paint the men who had died.

It was a feeling he had carried since morning. The sun was already hot by the time he woke. He lay on his back and listened to the muted sounds of the day. There had been a dream, but all he recalled of it was an oppressive darkness and a sudden overwhelming urge to wake himself. Somehow he’d forced open his eyes and was startled by the brightness. He closed his eyes again. There was something he’d forgotten. Something had happened when he was asleep, but many hours ago, when he was asleep and it was still dark.

He slowly became conscious of the pain in his side, the strange smell which covered him. And the feeling began to grow despite himself, the inexplicable feeling that his body was not really his own anymore, that somehow his own body no longer entirely belonged to him; that some part of him had been taken away in his sleep, taken far away and left in the open to be devoured by sun or animal. He sat up and scoured his torso for a tiny smearing of ash or semen, a sign that he had been visited in the night by an enemy or by the dog-faced spirits beyond the river. He stared at his palms, then ran his fingertips carefully over the soles of his feet. He rocked himself on his haunches, gently backwards and forwards, and the pain seemed to die down a little.

They all watched as he dragged himself down to the mudflats. He lay in the faintly warm mud and looked up at the cloudless sky. He caught himself waiting for a flight of birds to cross his vision. Long ago he had taught himself to fix their passage in his eyes, to see the vanished sweeps and arcs of many birds in the sky as if they were being traced out by his own hands across a smooth rockface. But nothing disturbed the deep blue stillness. When it was empty like that, with not a cloud or bird anywhere, the sky was almost like a blindness. That blue, there was no name for it, no colour on his earth to mirror it; it was almost like a huge breach in the constant world of the visible.

Once, when he was a boy, they’d stood on a rocky outcrop which had towered high above the surrounding land. They’d arrived there after many days of hard walking. Perhaps they were fleeing, he no longer remembered. But for a short time they had all gazed across from the heights at a vast blue stretch of plain on the horizon. He had cried out in something like fright to see this blue that wasn’t sky. He was exhausted and had hardly trusted his eyes, hardly recognised the joy that escaped in his cry, a searing joy even stronger than his small boy’s fright of the unseen. But they had not gone towards it. They went back across the sparse grey plains towards the sunrise. No longer a boy, he’d tried to ask one of the old men what they had seen that day but he could not find the words.

No one came to him as he lay there in the muddy warmth and after a time he felt some of his strength returning. Yet still the unfamiliar smell was with him. Even the sharp smells of mud and weed and wallowing animal could not disguise it.

But now, many hours later, the worst of the journey was behind him. It had taken much longer than usual to follow the steep rock ledge. He was often forced to stop and catch his breath, and yet the deep gasps of air gave him no relief. It was as if something far off, some furtive and implacable will, was working against his progress. He edged his way along and tried to cast his mind back to the night. For a moment he thought he remembered: strong fingers pressing down on his eyelids, keeping him there in darkness. But there was nothing before or after.

He crawled through the narrow cleft of rocks that led to the place of the paintings. Then he stopped and listened for the voice, the voice that told him again the reason of his journey. He listened for it above the pounding of his heart and the quick rasping swallows of breath. Since he’d set out the voice was with him, telling him the ordination of the three figures. He heard it as he heard the sound of his own footsteps, constant and reassuring, at the threshold of thought. But whenever he stopped to catch his breath the smell of his own body was suddenly very strong again, and he realised that the voice was almost lost to him. It was only the faintest murmur.

He rested his back against the cool rock and wiped the sweat from his face. He closed his eyes and felt himself falling into the sudden quiet. A sour taste, like mud, rose up into his mouth. He spat it out. In his mind he saw the old woman carrying the girl’s severed finger, wrapped in dry grass, towards him. He saw the girl being led down to the river, whimpering and faint. She held her mutilated hand out in front of her. It was bloodreddened and trembling. The women comforted her and made a poultice of mud and leaves. The old woman stopped in front of him. She knelt and laid the small ball of bloodied grass on the earth. She looked up at him with her white, clouded eyes. Grown slowly sightless, she had somehow taught her hands to see beyond the reaches of gazing. Somehow the shape or weight of a stone in her hand could reveal the coming of a storm or a snake’s hidden closeness.

Then suddenly he was no longer seeing her in his mind. It was the three figures. They had all seen them, at dusk the day before, the bodies of the three men floating down the river. The strangeness of it had defeated recollection, defeated the wordless voice that carried the seeds of their depiction. And yet they’d all recognised them soon enough. The three were borne along on a log. They seemed bound to it in some way, and their limbs had coiled together. The log sometimes dipped over in the calm current, submerging them. But always they returned to the surface, still held fast to one another in their placid lolling embrace. It was a long time passing out of sight. They had all gathered on the bank, their sorrow briefly stilled by confusion or foreboding at the inexplicable bonding of the three men and the great ravages to their bodies. The three had only set out that morning and yet their flesh was greatly broken, as if they had drifted the sleepy waters for day upon day. They grieved into the night that the bodies of the three men would not pass through the fire. Instead they would journey on and on down the river, unresting beneath the sun and the stars, on and on to the edge of the world.

His progress had been so slow he had missed the light. On other days the sun slanted down through an opening in the rocks high above. The light fell directly across the rockface. But today the sun had already passed the zenith and the paintings were shaded and strangely sombre. He had never seen them like that before. It was cool here in this outer rock chamber, and the quiet was not within him anymore but in the air, in the dimness. He felt his breath come more easily. Many times he’d searched among the rocks for such a wall, for a surface as smooth and sheltered as this, but he had never found one. Many had been here before him and their faded paintings were still visible beneath his own. The ones who had made them were long gone from the river. He ran his fingers over the dull ochre lines which those vanished hands had once traced. Always he felt a strength come to him when he touched the lines; felt some sleeping part of himself stir and come to life like a sudden hunger. Yet this time there was only a solitude and a deep weariness. The alien smell of his body crept back. He began to shiver.

Above him, well out of his reach, were the striped gazelles, creatures made solely of lines winding across the contours of their bodies. From the beginning they had fascinated him. Their markings were a great mystery. He wondered at the men who could have painted them there, so high on the rockface. But perhaps they weren’t men at all. Perhaps they were only the shadows of men – the sleepless ones from far away – who had made those paintings so unlike all the others on the wall.

Once, after a day of heavy rain, he had sat in the mud with a twig and tried to trace the lines of the striped gazelles, just as he had seen them on the rockface. He’d closed his eyes. In his mind he saw the simple, faded lines come to life. The contours of the gazelles coursed swiftly in the darkness, and their lines hummed and sang. He opened his eyes and tried to trace them in the cold mud but the lines would not be drawn. He sat there until the rain returned to wash out his lifeless marks.

And once, when the sun was setting in a red sky, he’d lain stretched out in the long grass and watched the gazelles drinking at a waterhole. The light was thick and yellow, and the water darkest green, trailing silver at their hocks. He remembered how still they were, silhouetted against the dark water, each a single line of sinew and bone, a bright line full of darkness. Today, because the light had passed, he could barely make out the lines of the gazelles on the rock, only the deep red outline that contained the swift darkness of their flesh. Yet still it was not as he had seen them in the dusk. He remembered the taut arch of the gazelles’ necks as they dipped to drink, the invisible power that surged within them like the hum of the wind through the rocks.

He opened the skin bag and dug his fingers into the fat, slowly kneading in the reddish ochre. The familiar smells soothed him. He listened for distant sounds. It was very quiet, the face of the land hardly moving in the afternoon heat. For a moment he wished he’d brought the boy with him, just to be watched by curious eyes as he made the preparations. He sensed the boy was somehow like him; recalled how he sometimes looked at things, held them in his small hands, staring with a dark curiosity, almost as if he were on the verge of anger.

With a shudder he thought again of the three men and their deaths that still had not ended. He thought of the river. The river that was lines. The river that drew all creatures to its banks in the fading light. He wiped his hands and ran his fingers over the lines of the river he had once painted, and over the figures of the bathers, the women and children running from the water. As he touched the dry ochre lines their laughter came back to him, the glistening wet brightness of their limbs. His own figure was there, a tiny dot of yellow clay beneath the feet. It seemed to him strangely still among the careening women; stiff and weighted down by some invisible burden. He began to paint a body beside it, a small body, walking as if hand in hand. He gave it the head of a dog. The sour taste came into his mouth again. He felt dizzy and his legs had begun to ache. He let himself sink down onto his haunches. The rushing figures blurred above him and he wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes. He could feel himself falling asleep, giving in to the heaviness of his body. He was at the river again. The splashing arms and swaying torsos of the bathers filled his vision. They stood against the sun. It broke through their bodies in blinding flashes. For an instant he would recognise one of them but then the face was swallowed up in the swishing water or lost against the sun. The figures seemed to be swirling around him in the water. Then, as if she had called out to him, he turned his vision to the water’s edge. She was standing quite still, her feet sunk into the wet mud. She seemed rooted in the earth. She held a small child in her arms and stared out at him. Her thighs were splashed with mud, moist and glowing. The familiarity of her body made him feel inexplicably helpless. She was always at the threshold of his thoughts. Sometimes the others seemed hardly living at all, just mute unseeing presences, but she was never like that. She was always agonisingly, tremulously alive. Suddenly her face was very close and she looked at him as if from another world, a hidden and forbidden place that would never reveal itself in red ochre lines, never submit to the will of seeing.

He shook himself awake and struggled to his feet. The light had grown much weaker. He peered up at the wall but the striped gazelles had vanished from sight. The voice was louder, recalling him to the three lost men journeying still. He began to paint the figures of the three men low down on the wall. He painted them standing side by side. The one with the twisted leg, the weakest, he placed in the centre. He drew beside them the lines of the fire. When he’d finished he stared at the ochre figures and tried to summon up their faces as he had known them in life. The three men were so familiar to him and yet now he saw in his mind only their dimness and their agony, their eyes breaking in death. He shuddered, sensing somehow their panic and the last helpless threshings of their bodies, the savage futile strength that must have entered them. For a moment it was like a roaring scream in his ears, a scream that seemed to swallow him up, like night swallowing up the land. But now the three dead men stood in the warm shadow of the red ochre fire. Their bodies were no longer ravaged by the river’s endlessness. Their journey was almost over.

He began to make his way towards the inner rock chamber where he would paint them again. A narrow sloping shaft led down to this inner chamber. He tried to move quickly, groping for handholds on the rock to pull himself along. He knew the chamber would soon be in darkness. Sometimes his shoulders swayed heavily against the narrow walls, grazing his skin. His body felt huge and trembling. Several times he stumbled over rock shards, blindly pushed out his arms to break the fall. He felt the sweat coating his whole body in a sickly smothering warmth. He felt himself rushing blindly through the eye of a dream. The walls seemed to be moving, crushing in on him. He was conscious of the tearing pain in his side. Perhaps it was there they had wounded him. He pressed his fingers against the spot and the pain leapt through his body. The dog-faced spirits must have wounded him there in the night and the dark had swallowed up all trace. And then they had confused his dreams so that he would not remember their coming.

He felt his legs give way under him and let himself sink down onto his knees. The sour muddy taste came into his mouth again. He tried to spit it out, heaving for breath. He closed his eyes. A voice echoed around him, strangely loud. He was calling her, making the sounds only she would recognise. He saw her again, standing by the water’s edge. But this time there were no others. It was like early morning. He saw her only distantly, through the river haze of early morning, as if he were standing on the other side. She was carrying the child inside her, and the women had covered her body with red ochre and kept her apart. He remembered that time, those nights when she was not near him, when he’d called to her silently through the night and she had not come.

He forced open his eyes and walked on. The passage widened out and the stones grew smoother under his feet. He entered the inner chamber. There was still enough light. He knew the place on the rockface where he would paint the three men. He laid down the small ball of blood-matted grass and picked out the girl’s severed finger.

For the first time he wondered how he would find his way back when he had finished. He wondered what would happen to him if he fell asleep in that half-light, there, among the secret images of the dead. He daubed the severed finger with ochre and began to draw with it the three figures lain side by side on the earth. As he painted the figure with the twisted leg he felt a sudden pity for this man who had often been in pain and did not laugh like the others. He drew a line across the three men. They would remain together even in death, bound by the line as their bodies had been bound by log and river, and by the strangeness of their recollection.

He decided to rest briefly before making his way back. The pain had subsided a little and he felt calmer. He listened for the distant sounds of duskfall, and pictured to himself the weary herds drifting towards the river in the last tepid light. The smell of his body seemed even less familiar now. The sweat had begun to dry on his skin, almost cold in the faint hum of breeze. The unaccountable urgency he had carried with him since morning had gone.

He squatted down close to the wall, peering hard at all the figures, the many dead, watching them vanish in the last glow. The slender ochre figures seemed to shimmer against the dark rock, hovering at the tremulous edge of stillness, as if they somehow struggled against their vanishing. Only the tall profiled figure of the reed player seemed at rest, stilled against the darkness of the rock. Dots of yellow clay danced around the tip of the reed in a mute semblance of its sounds. He’d only ever heard those sounds once and had never forgotten the mystery of it.

There had been no rain for months and fires had blackened much of the land. That day they’d watched a fire roar through the grass on the other side of the river. They’d seen many fleeing animals and the smell of scorched carcasses filled the air. Then they heard the sounds. Two figures wandered through the coils of smoke and smouldering stubble. The two stood in the far shallows and gazed at them with hollow eyes while the sound of the reed floated across the water. The two men had huge heads and the expressions of their grief did not change. They walked away through the smoke, soon invisible. Slowly the sounds were swallowed up in the silence.

When he woke again it was dark in the chamber. He had dreamt of snakes. He was beside the river, walking upstream. He carried a heavy stick. The snakes were coiled together in the mud, a thick writhing mass. He watched them in terror and fascination. He beat out with the stick, thrashed out at the swarming mass. A dark sinuous shape flashed at him, and another, but he no longer felt any fear. He let the stick fall from his hands and stepped into the water.

Only when he stretched out his arm in the darkness and touched the rockface and the small mound of ochred fat did he recall where he was. His body shivered with cold and the pain in his side made him cry out. His mouth was filled with the choking sourness and his whole body heaved to be rid of it. He stared with wide-open eyes into the huge smothering darkness. He felt as if he were lying on his back in the mud, sinking slowly through a muddy gaping darkness that would never end.

He dug his hand into the fat, kneading it into a lukewarm paste. Without memory or hope of seeing, he rubbed the red paste over his side and chest, rubbed it across the risings of his face and the lengths of his arms. Then he lay still. He let himself sink painlessly through the warm, blindly churning mud, deeper and gently deeper.

At the end of the falling he found himself on the earth again, in the body of a boy, standing in the dizzying brightness of the plain where he had once seen a white leopard stalking through the watery waves of heat, shimmering at the will-less edge of seeing.

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