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It’s hard to believe but Fox Sparrow says it’s best to fly in the darkness of night. Thousands of miles in just a few weeks. He might already be gone by the time I return.

The birds are named differently here, and are very wary. I follow their calls but cannot see them.

Before the war, some boys went into the forest nearby and climbed down a tunnel in search of a rumored treasure, in the days when one could dream of backyard buried treasure. When they reached the floor of the cavern and raised their lamps they saw a spectacular herd of bison and rhinos and horses running overhead from a time before history, as if it were yesterday. How most treasures are indeed accidental.

There are differences of 2000 years between one painting and another on the same stone wall. And no other change in style of line or pigment. One can compare in contrast how much the same Annunciation scene changes over 300 years. In those paintings, the perspective shifts immensely, as do the colors, and how the bird overhead goes from contour to volumetric realism. But in these caves, the paintings are almost exact, as if done by the same painter, even in caves 400 miles by foot and 20,000 years apart.

Chauvet painting, 37,000 years ago. (Photo by Jean Clotte)

What is more dystopic: life on the freezing tundra on the brink of starvation, living to kill by rudiment tool; or our tired, cynical eyes fixed trance-like to LED screens, where an unmanned drone can drop a bomb on a coordinate, our own child’s life. 20,000 years in between us and us. It is an impossible stretch to imagine a bison or wooly mammoth in this over-farmed field in front of me, but the painters were us, after all. We share some deep part of humanity, maybe if only just the underground place where we go momentarily to dream. And what is there for both of us is those paintings.

Nearby, I saw her there, in her medieval castle home of 30 years, because she found a way to never leave. Even if she had been a starlet and philanthropist, her money had been drained and they dragged her away from her castle at the end of her life. There is a photo of her in that moment, sitting on the ground of the porch like a beggar, with a few belongings and some bottles of water. It was her fall, but also her protest. Because even to the end we made her perform, the exotic caged bird, singing and dancing, sometimes to our low tastes. The castle feels spent now, as if folded up after an epic performance, breathing only memories of the high days of celebrity-filled theatres, greying sequin gowns, and used toys from a line of adopted children (where did they go?). Eventually, the princess offered her a new home, and Jackie O funded her final farewell/revival show (those women understood), then she died a few days later. In Paris. But for now she prevails in that castle. Not unlike an outline of a gorgeous creature fading on an exposed cave wall.

It didn’t ring while I was here, a small 9th-century bell on the ceiling of a chapel carved into the rock of a cliff. The chapel could seat maybe 30, but receives innumerable pilgrims, for a thousand years now. Some climbed the long stairs on their knees, as if life itself weren’t cut and bruised enough. In the dark space, a black virgin carved by a hermit tenderly watches us. And we watch that little bell that is only rung when there is an incontestable miracle. A list on the wall begins in 1385, mostly for miracles at sea. The sea is a fantasy to most who lived here then, 200 miles from this little chapel. And who decided what was deemed a miracle, she asks me. I don’t know but it always involves suffering. And how miracles are also under the auspices of the accidental.

Fox Sparrow

(Fox Sparrow, when I first met him.)

It becomes obvious here that along these little roads and stone villages there are little sauvage patches of forest left, under which are other undiscovered caves full of prehistoric paintings, so beautiful because they will never be seen. Never to be paraded in front of lustful eyes. Like the birds here who continue to call and flit around, always outside the reach of my eyes.

Darkness, Fox Sparrow says. And I believe him, because all of this unfolds when words fail to contain it. How far these little words go though, sore and tired pilgrims of the darkness, in search of the miraculous.

“The true entrance into us will not occur by an act of will.” George Steiner