Why do we need to attribute symbolic meaning to the creations of extinct cultures?
I have a picture of a squid, drawn by my five-year-old nephew. It is pink and squiggly but is clearly the thing that it is. Because he is a part of our current culture, and because we inherently understand the artistic thought process of a well cared for child, living in the United States in the 21st century, we don’t attach anything to the drawing beyond the obvious: Aw, how cute.
When I was writing a story about a Neolithic child, I stumbled around the internet to make sure I had my basic information correct, (namely that yes, there were people living here about 10,000 years ago and yes they hunted grazing animals with spears.) In my link-clicking, I wound up on a Wikipedia page about cave paintings, and what I noticed was how similar those pictures look to pictures drawn by my nephew.
But if you read the entries you will see entire sections on the symbolic nature of the paintings. Or rather, the symbolism attached to the cave paintings by the knowledgeable scientific types who study them.
One scientist, “interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.” Another states, “the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions”
Really? Isn’t it possible that on rainy days the adults sent the little kids into the caves with the leftover paint and they entertained themselves the same way my nephew does now. Is it really any more complicated than that?
For December 3rd’s Daily Prompt, I came back to this post and reworked it with what I’ve learned in the last few months. I fixed a few grammatical errors, added a picture, relevant tags and links using Zemanta – which always feels a bit like cheating to me. =)
The lad’s hammock swung below Old Fran’s in sync with the slow roll of the ship. Old Fran had expected the sound of the boy’s sobs. His own chest tightened in sympathy. The bunk was otherwise empty, the men still celebrating their victory up on deck.
“It gets better lad, I promise you that.” He said it in a whisper. The boy didn’t hear him over the noise of the men and the creaks and groans of the old ship. The ‘old’ ship was younger than Old Fran, he was forty-three or close to it, but both groaned when they moved.
Old Fran didn’t raise his voice above a whisper, not wanting to put much effort into the lies he was telling.
“Ay lad, soon you’ll forget all about home and hearth and your dear old ma, and the mates will be your whole life and family.”
It was what a man had once said to him, his first night on board, some twenty-odd years ago. The man, Saint Jean – he’d been a french priest before turning pirate – he’d been kind to a young lad, far from home.
He’d died not six months later. A nasty death, a mis-fired cannon sent a hundred pieces of flaming metal into the man’s gut. He’d lived for a week, wallowing in pain, searing the lesson of an ignominious death in Fran’s mind.
Saint Jean had lied to Fran; it never got any better. Oh there had been moments of bliss, of days when he’d have been up there with the boys, drinking and feasting on the spoils of the day’s capture. The alcohol worked to numb the visions of blood and death and the fear, the soul-killing fear that today would be the day the bullet or the sword found you.
A sound of movement and a shadow blocking the light from above woke him from a doze.
“How ya fairing there, Old Fran?” The captain stood at the entrance to the bunk, his features invisible but his outline aglow.
“Middling fair, captain, to be honest. I do believe it’s high time for me to be finding a warm port and some fat old madam to feed me into my grave.”
The captain chuckled, a sound false in Old Fran’s ears. He wasn’t cruel, this young captain, and he was the most successful captain Old Fran had ever sailed with, but he was cold and practical. A frightening combination.
“And you, boy? Yes, I hear your sniveling.”
The lad bounced out of his hammock, “Fine, Captain, sir.” His enthusiasm ruined by a hiccup.
“You’ll stop that whimpering before the men come down, or you wont last the night, boy.”
“Yes sir, captain.”
“Good. It ain’t an easy life, but it’s a fair one. You worked hard today and you didn’t falter. You earned your share of the catch. You be proud boy, and put away those tears. This is your only warning.”
Your only warning, Old Fran repeated to himself. He’d gotten a similar warning from a very different captain, ages ago, in the form of a back-handed blow to the jaw. Not as kind, perhaps, but more honest. The lad stiffened his spine and barely restrained a salute.
“Aye aye, Captain.” He said.
A glint of light caught the captain’s eyes as he shifted his stare to Old Fran. It chilled him to the bone.
The captain turned away and climbed the ladder out of the bunk. Old Fran relaxed, a shiver running up his spine. Yes it was time to retire. They’d make port in Hispaniola in a week or so, to sell off the spoils of this latest victory. With his share, Old Fran could surely find some old madam who’d let him a room and some comfort for his old bones.
“Old Fran?” a whisper came from below.
He wanted to feign sleep, but the decision to end this pirate life made him generous.
“It’s the blood, sir, on the woman – she looked like me sister back home, sir. The captain, he said to keep lighting and lobbing the hand grenades and the woman – she caught it, I saw her, she caught it right in her hands like it was a ball and we was playing catch. It exploded, right there, in her hands. I just can’t stop seeing the blood all over her dress. Her hands, I seen them blown clean off, I can’t get it out of my eyes. Every time I close my eyes, it’s there, right in front of me.”
Old Fran sighed. It was the lad’s life now, there was no turning back. It wasn’t an easy life, as the captain said, and the pay was as fair as a working man could hope for in this world. The captain hadn’t lied about that.
“It gets better lad. Memories fade. Soon you’ll forget all about home and hearth and your dear sister, and the mate’s and the ship will be your whole life and family.”
“Yeah?” the lad asked, his voice sounding hopeful to Old Fran’s ears.
Annie knelt on the rough carpet and sorted through the bin on the floor beside her, trying to remember what went where in the store. The shelf in front of her held cotton swabs and cotton balls, and the bottles of hydrogen peroxide that she’d just finished stocking. At fifteen, Annie was young enough to still cringe at the thought of those brown bottles.
To the left of where she was kneeling, the shelf held first-aid stuff and the mini travel items. To the right were the baby care items. Behind her lurked the feminine products. Annie blushed at the thought of them. So far she’d avoided stocking that section. She’d seen that skinny, blond guy, she couldn’t remember his name, stocking that section the day before and had blushed for him. He hadn’t seemed to care, and she’d felt in awe of his maturity, even though he looked maybe eighteen.
The bin had only makeup and toothpaste left in it and Annie sighed, dreading moving the still heavy bin to the next aisle. Some of the other employees used the shopping carts to move the bins around, but that was against the rules. She felt too new to start breaking the rules already.
Just as she was about to get up, she noticed a woman standing a little way down the aisle, staring at the tampons. The woman’s face was blank and she stood still, one hand on her purse and one hand on the shelf in front of her. Annie’s mind flashed to the ‘anti-theft’ training video she’d had to watch on her first day of work. The video showed bad actors pretending to steal things or scam the cashiers. Most of it was ridiculous, but one part came to mind now. “If you see someone acting strange, such as standing in one section for too long, ask them if you can help them find something.”
Annie looked up at the two-way mirror that spanned the upper half of the wall at the back of the store. The office was up there and the manager, Richard, should be looking down at the customers, watching for ‘strange’ behavior himself. He was probably just doing paperwork as the store was always quiet at this time of day.
She didn’t want to talk to a stranger, but she wanted be a good employee. With another glance up at the two-way mirror, she stood up and approached the woman.
“Can I help…” She stopped speaking at the sight of a tear running down the woman’s face.
The woman turned, startled. “Oh! I… I’m fine, I just…” Her hand flew up to the side of her face and found the tear. She seemed about to speak again, but instead she squeezed her eyes shut, clamped her hands to her mouth, and crumpled to the ground, crying. Her shoulders shook, but no sound came out of her mouth.
Annie spun and took two steps to the travel items section and grabbed a mini-tissue pack, ripped it open and pulled out a tissue while taking the two steps back to the woman. But that didn’t fix anything because the woman didn’t, couldn’t see her.
A part of Annie’s mind panicked. It screamed at her to run away and find a grown-up. But another part told her she knew exactly what to do.
Annie knelt down next to the woman and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay,” she murmured, the way her mother did the last time Annie had fallen and scraped a knee. “It’s going to be okay.”
They sat like that for only a moment before Richard appeared at the end of the aisle.
“Annie?” He looked the way she thought the skinny, blond guy should have looked when he was stocking the feminine products, eyes darting around, not wanting to acknowledge the awkward thing in front of him.
The woman took a deep, shuddering breath then pulled away from Annie. Annie offered the tissues and the woman accepted them.
“Thank you. I’m sorry.” She said, wiping her face and moving to stand.
Richard offered a hand and helped her up. “Are you alright, ma’am? Should we call a doctor or would you like some water or…”
“No, no, I’m fine, just… Really, I’m fine.” She tried to smile, but it was painful to look at. Annie moved away, back to her bin.
“Thank you, I’m terribly sorry about…” The woman turned and rushed towards the front door. Richard moved to the end of the aisle and watched her leave the store. Annie heard the familiar tinkling of the door chime.
Richard asked, “What happened?”
“I don’t know, she just started crying.”
He waited, maybe thinking there was more to the story, but Annie shrugged.
“She didn’t pay for the tissues.” Annie said.
Richard gave a little chuckle, “That’s okay. I think we can spare the 99 cents.”
He walked away and Annie turned back to contemplate her bin.