When she opens her eyes she is seated on the deck of his boat again. Someone has brought cushions and a blanket. The night is cooler, it is perhaps two hours yet before the middle of night. He serves her another thin loaf of his bread, and this one has the flavor of black beans, a peppery taste to it, the spice they call pachikama in the desert, and the light texture gives her a prickly popping on her tongue as the bread gives way to the hunger in her mouth. She closes her eyes to feel it, to taste the spicy bread. It satisfies something in her deepest intellect, and she says, I have the words now.
Then you shall tell the story this time, the boatswain says, for you, too, have some ancestry with us, and you do know this place as well. You are wiser than you think.
She opens her eyes to find that they are shooting along on a raft through a narrow canyon where walls rise high above their heads. She tells the story of the place, because she finds that she does know it.
There was a time when the nomads needed a safe place to store their thoughts, to put what they knew into sealed jars, and to store it for a time when it might be needed. They came down the river and found a way to climb the cliffs, up there, to where even now we see the caves. They dwelled here many years ago, and their songs echoed through the canyon. Everything was carefully measured and jars were filled to feed their offspring for centuries to come.
Eventually they left this place for good, yet we, their children, know how to come back, to climb the steep walls, and if we need a place to stay for the night, we rest in a place where the words in the jars feed and protect us. We can come here and climb to them.
The boatswain steers them toward the edges and finds an ancient rope, tethers the raft, dips a new flask in the water at the base of the cliff, fills it and caps it, and they began to climb. When they reached the first cave, she recognizes it, knows her way about. She knows the kitchen with its primitive ring of stones, the common area where the tribe used to sing together as they sealed clay jars. She knows the deeper recesses of the cave, where they slept soundly, knowing they were safe within it. She wanders back farther, beyond where the sun reached. Her feet find the way without a light. She reaches down and finds one of the ancient jars with her fingertips. It is still sealed.
She finds a tool in her pocket and pries at the lid until it cracks.
Light oozes out, that gossamer glow of phosphorescent recollection, she tears it open completely, and remembers her great-grandmother, sitting and singing softly, her skin shriveled and her eyes soft and dim. The song was an old familiar one, one perhaps still played at funerals on ancient instruments which wheezed and whined, but this idea, this memory, this song canned so long ago by the cave-dwellers is still a brew fresh and bold and intoxicating, that spicy scent in the air brings her to new life even now. She had forgotten you could dance to this dirge! But then, she thought she had forgotten the words, too.
The boatswain finds her in the recesses of the cave, and he weeps, for he sees that she is dancing. She dances along into an adjoining room, an armory where ancient weapons sit mummified in the dry air far above the water racing through the canyon. A steel blade lies abandoned on the floor, and she dances about it, flipping it over with her toes, then she kicks it up with her heel and catches it in her teeth. She begins to giggle. I’d nearly forgotten all that we’ve left here, all that was given us by those diligent men and women in days gone past. How good it is! But in the pot which she still holds is a dust like that fresh ground pepper, so she sneezes, and when her eyes close for that moment and reopen, she finds to her surprise…
That she is again seated on the boat. She has slept for a while, and the moon is now overhead. Midnight is very near. The boatswain’s eyes twinkle from behind the brazier, his cheeks glow from the fire, and she sits up.
It is time for another loaf, she sees that he is holding it out to her, but he says nothing.
She eats. The bread is citric, almost sour, but the freshest thing she’s ever known. She runs her tongue along her teeth. They feel clean.
To be continued …