Oxide and Ocher

Avra Margariti

First we hear their grunts. Little punches of sound in the quiet of our marble plaza, the cobblestone streets. We turn uneasily in our beds. It’s just the wind, we tell each other, all of us from the village, though we know our home is blessed with a mild climate. Just a stray cat, we remind ourselves or our children, never mind that no stray remains after the last adoption initiative.

In the morning, our neighborhood watch has left hastily printed leaflets on our front steps. Stay indoors, they warn. Yet we leave our houses, all of us from the village, to head down cobblestone streets to our marble plaza.

See the cavepeople for ourselves.

They greet us with bark-dark eyes blown wide, as if seeing a long-lost friend, or someone they once met fleeting in a dream. Yet when the cavepeople approach—naked but for the furs around their middles, their bird-nest hair or beards—we flinch. As if recognizing a part of ourselves we thought we’d long left behind in the rearview mirror of evolution, along the highway of the Anthropocene. Slowly, we back away, saying things like, won’t you look at the time? We need to cook breakfast, get the children ready for school.

In our kitchens, our hands tremble as we pour raspberries into the pancake mix, watching the color red over beige like iron oxide and ocher across the cave walls of Lascaux. We let the berries shimmer on the stovetop too long. Watch them burst open and liquid red, staining our perfect canvases.

Juvenile screams breach our millennia-old daze. We rush outside through doors gaping open as mouths, stumble on immaculate groomed lawns, ready to turn our trimmed fingernails into arrowheads and fight for our children. But their screams are ones of joy as the cavepeople toss growing bodies into the celestial cradle of sky. High, high, higher, only to catch the children back into wholly earthly arms.

Why did you go outside? we scold our children. Haven’t we told you not to talk to strangers?

They look from our faces feral with worry to the calm curiosity of the cavepeople as if to say, strangers? Are they really?

Over burned pancake breakfast, we form a tentative truce. How many oceans did you cross or circumnavigate? we ask the cavepeople. The earth is splintered now, the wild beasts extinct. Did you fear fording the streams where fertile soil had once been? Did the sun’s glare over metal blind you? Did cement forests scorch your callus-shod feet?

From the background thrum of morning news, museums across the world put bounties on missing human specimens and artifacts. We turn the TV volume down. Gauche, somehow, to disrespect our guests with secondhand accounts of their mass exodus.

The cavepeople inspect our coiffed, conditioned hair as we offer them house tours. Finding no parasites to relieve us of, they pluck lint from our clothes to roll on their rough-papered tongues. They snuffle wetly in our direction as if to say, the journey to you was long but now we’re here we’re here we’re here.

Was the journey worth it? we try to ask, but the cavepeople have wandered to our china cabinets. Bipedal kittens in pastel bows and bonnets; pugs dressed as lighthouse keepers; sheep carrying shepherd staffs. The cavepeople play with the little animal figurines of ground bone the way they once handled the steppe bisons, wooly mammoths, and saber-tooth tigers they had carved. Primordial stone meeting newfound tools, the cavepeople eager to share with their children and elders the wonders witnessed out into the wide world.

We have more questions for them, but the cavepeople’s attention moves with a child’s curiosity, a scholar’s stubbornness. They gravitate to living-room fairylights, dark eyes full of luminescent awe. We remember watching a movie once, about Neanderthals seeing lights floating in the dark: the distant fires of other cave-dwellers, and the constellations up above.

Neanderthals thinking the sky a dwelling; the stars, flames of the gods.

Part of us wants to ask if they ever met a maker in their deep sleep, someone who wasn’t a museum curator or private collector. However, the artful display of our fruit bowl has captured the cavepeople’s attention. We engineered apples to taste like bananas, strawberries round and red as water balloons. The cavepeople bite into picture-perfect fruits, staining their preserved furs and hides. They chew with snaggle teeth, then spit the ruddy pulp back into big, scarred palms. Present it to us as if we’re baby birds waiting to be fed.

We accept the offerings of makeshift pigment. Our fingers drip fruit guts: sunset-sienna, vermilion-red. It’s like we’ve been possessed, all of us from the village. Can’t stop laying our palms over the walls of our houses, and each other’s overlapping handprints, watching our children laugh when our red hands cradle theirs. We can’t stop grunting, we’re here we’re here we’re here.


Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).