The Caves

Photo by Louis Vest
The Caves by Jody Azzouni

The father blithers now. No one understands him. It’s not just that he has lost his last tooth. More is missing than that.

I translate for the tribe. Go this way, I say, pointing confidently through the trees. Stay put, I tell them other times. Fruit that way, I say. Meat this way, I add. Use your noses, I sometimes say.

I translate for us. I lie his noises into something meaningful. For the rest of us.

Once upon a time, our ghosts traveled with us. The dead were near and they spoke. They guided us. But not for a long time now. Not for months. Not since my oldest fell down, blood gushing from his face and head. When he died, we were afraid to eat him. He was the first. To get sick.

We were strong once. We ate meat, real meat. Sometimes we cooked it on the fire we made ourselves. Sometimes we ate it fresh, just as it had fallen in the field. Taken down by us. We could choose because we had strong teeth. Once upon a time, we killed the others we found. Except for their women. Their young women that could make children for us.

The father had no gray in his hair. Then. When his beard first showed, it burst forth from his face. I loved the father then.

I love the father now. I sit next to him in the evenings. I chew his food for him. Hold it out to him, in my palm. Dripping. He licks it greedily. He can still groom, he can still pick insects from us and pop them into his mouth. I look at his beard, scattered white and dying on his face, how it is coming off in patches. I remember his face hairless, how we loved each other. How strong we were. How strong we were.

I know we are going to die. Soon. We sit in the sunlight, its yellow mixing in with flickering shadow. All of us. We try to dry up our skin. Make it healthy again. We rub ourselves with rocks, with leaves, but it doesn’t help. Nothing helps. We’re sick, we’re all sick, except for my last daughter. And one or two of the young men. The weak young men. A nephew. A cousin. Their family is sick and dying. We are sick and dying. All of us.

The caves, my daughter whispers to me, we’ll find the caves. It’s a question, not a statement. Yes, I say.

But the caves are stories I tell. No one remembers them except me.

We had many brave children once, strong sons, but they sickened and died. I keen for them. I keen for all of them. I keen in my head, where no one sees it. The brothers and sisters of the father, their many brave children. Angry and powerful. Like our ghosts. Like our ancestors. Back when.

Our ghosts hate us now. Our ancestors are gone. I can no longer hear anyone. I no longer have dreams. I lead alone, with no one to help me. I am leading us back to where we can die. Like the pink fish my mother would tell me about. That travel up rivers to die.

I remember the father’s sisters. Pregnant. And me. Pregnant. How safe we were. Moving. We were always moving. And surrounded. We were always surrounded by our powerful family. How often we made fires. Killed the cats that stalked us. Ate the game we hunted ourselves. I cannot allow new children now. We cannot protect them anymore.

I let no one near my daughter. I bark, snarl, imitate boars and hyenas. I curse and yowl, act beside myself. I shriek all of them away. I am the only elder who is still intact, who is not dead, whose blood is not running rotten into the ground. I’ve not been eaten. I’m the only elder they can still understand. They have no one but me.

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Jody Azzouni has been writing (one way or another) pretty much forever. His fantasy life, he’s frightened to report, is mostly (made-up) interviews, diary jottings, and other wordy things. There’s occasionally an image or map—but rarely. He has recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review. Some previously published work is on