THE FLOWERS OF SHANIDAR CAVE • by Gerald Warfield

Our winter cave is on the mountainside. Mam is there. My brother Dar and I abandon her when we move to the river lodge.

We cannot leave her, I say.

Dar cuffs my ears. But I see water in his eyes. He does not want to leave her either.

The sun comes back, he says, and soon the trees and game. We move into the summer lodge to hunt and catch the river fish.

How do you know the sun comes back, I say? The trees? The game?

He looks away.

We hunt at dawn. I am not a man, but Dar takes me. He wants me to grow and be strong.

Beneath the trees I see flowers where once is melting snow. They are blue. Mam says they are pieces of sky fallen down. Mam often sees a thing that is another thing. I am that way, too.

Dar looks back and signs the forest pig is near. I bend down to see the flowers, but my eyes see Mam. I pick up the flowers. Dar is angry. He signs for me to go away. He tracks the forest pig without me.

Mam says our mountain is the breast of the earth. There the winter cave is high, where snow remains behind the rocks. On the path the snow is melted, and mud gets in my mammoth feet.

Mam makes feet for me in winter and stuffs them with rabbit skin to keep out the cold.

The climb is hard because I do not eat.

Near the cave, I come to Dar’s chipping rock, and I sit down to rest. Dar makes sharp things here. Once, I see him make an ax.

One of my mammoth feet has a hole in it. I reach down and take them off so Mam does not see the hole. A long time is gone since the mammoth hunt.

I struggle to get up. Dar says if I do not eat, I can never get up. But my mouth does not want food.

When I come to the cave it smells of people gone away. At the opening, I touch the guardian rock and creep inside. Shadows blind me, but I wait and light comes to my eyes. I see the fire pit that blackens the floor, and then, against the far wall — the pile of rocks. When they lay her there, I cannot put the stones on top of her.

I smell death, the long-time death, but I go to Mam, anyway. I bring the flowers fallen from the sky. I put them on her rocks.

But the flowers do not look up any more.

Dar says when I am older I want a woman to birth my children. Dar finds a woman. She has breasts that blossom like the flowers. But I want mam.

My legs give way, but my knees catch me. I spread my arms and lie down on Mam’s rocks. They are cold. Water from my eyes drops onto the rocks. I do not get up.

Darkness falls. In the stillness I hear the cave insects walk. I hear the bat wings whisper secrets and the hoot bird cry.

When I hear a sniffing sound, I know who it is. Dar says if you die without the tribe, the bear goddess eats you. She comes to make you into earth again.

She stops at the opening of the cave. Her smell enters before she does. I open my eyes and my chest thumps. Stones crunch beneath her weight. I turn my head to see her. She raises up. Her body fills the entrance of the cave.

I tremble and rise from Mam’s rocks. The bear goddess thrusts forward her head, opens her mouth and roars. The sound fills my head. Her breath surrounds me.

I see her teeth in the dim light, saliva hanging from her mouth. She huffs and scratches the rocks. I die without my tribe, and so she comes for me. I take a step toward her.

She rears again and shows her claws. Her head touches the top of the cave. She roars. I am the goddess, she says.

I take another step and reach for her. She pulls back her head and swings her body, one way and then another. She huffs. She backs away.

I stand, my arms outstretched, but the goddess turns. Her tread is heavy. Her feet tumble stones outside the cave. Only her smell remains — and silence.

I walk to the opening of the cave and lean upon the guardian rock. The path is empty.

I look back, but I do not see the flowers in the darkness. I do not smell them, only death.

My head is light as I walk back to the chipping rock. My mammoth feet are dry, and I put them on.

Clouds pull back and moonlight shows the summer lodge below. Fires glow along the river to dry the fish and meat of the forest pig. Smoke rises pale in the moonlight.

I start down the trail, but the sky tilts around me, one way, then another, and I fall.

Stones bite me, and the world turns over and over until I strike a tree.

My cheek is against the earth, and I taste the dirt. But I smell flowers.

I open my eyes. The flowers are near. They look up to the sky. If I could move my arms, I could touch them.

I hear a heavy tread behind me, and I cry out. I do not want the bear goddess to take me now, but it is Dar. He picks me up. He is angry, but I tell him the flowers come back. He carries me down the mountain. I tell him that if the flowers come back the trees come back and the fish and the game. I see water falling from his eyes. He tells me he does not care. He wants me to come back — and I do.


Gerald Warfield has published a number of stories set in Neolithic times. In the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq, a number of Neanderthal burials were discovered. A sufficient concentration of pollen lay next to the skeleton Shanidar 4 for us to speculate that flowers were laid with the deceased. We are not certain. It could be contamination by burrowing rodents. But he likes to imagine that that was the point when a humanoid saw a connection between flowers and a promise of the return of life, just as flowers are used at funerals today.


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