The old man moaned. So low, so feeble came the cry that the others never heard it over the whistling and howling outside the cave.
But the boy squatting near the old man had tuned his senses for the slightest breath. He glanced at the mound, unmoving beneath the bear pelts, and drove the stick between his palms into the plank at his feet, spinning it with a speed that made his palms burn. The wolf fur slipped from his shoulders, but he poured all focus into the wisp of smoke curling from the dry grasses tucked into the notch. Within moments, flames twisted and danced, casting a glow on the craggy walls.
He ran to a woman at the far end of the cave who was bundling bones into deerskin in preparation for the next day’s journey. The boy held out a small turtle shell, uttering tones understood only among their people. She dipped the turtle shell into a hollowed stone that held water collected from the mountain’s springs.
The boy balanced the shell with both hands and crouched by the old man’s head, trying to prop him up so he could sip. Parched lips clamped shut and the man withdrew a bony arm from beneath the pelts, a weak movement indicating that the boy, instead, should drink.
Stillness filled the alcove where the old man lay and the fire crackled. The boy peeked around the stalagmite that reflected the fire’s heat, watching, listening. Clinks of stone on stone echoed throughout the cavern as two boys, muscles just beginning to form on lanky arms and legs, slammed flint into basalt, flaking away razor-sharp pieces that would serve as the most basic of tools. In another part of the cave, older men, skin grizzled and toughened, bent over a deer carcass, preparing the bones, skin and meat for the journey. A young mother nursed a newborn while other women tied skins and grasses into bundles for easy carrying.
Several adult males had left the cave days earlier, trekking down the mountain to scout the way forward and hunt.
The boy knew not where they were going or why they were leaving, but he sensed an urgency among his people. He could not remember an earlier time, a time when his mother had strapped him against her chest and trudged over tundras, through forests and up this mountain to the cave. He knew only these jagged walls and the scrubland surrounding it. The incessant howling that comes from living on top of the world, that pushed clouds around and into the cave, both lulled him to sleep and chilled his small bones. He learned how to start fires before he could walk.
The old man grunted, more force in his tone this time. He opened cloudy eyes, which were no more than slits and turned to the boy, hand searching for him. Contorting his body, he shifted under the pelts. The boy understood he wanted to sit up and braced his small body against the old man’s. But the old man did not stop there. Rasping and panting, he leaned heavily on the boy and pushed himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily.
Alarmed, the boy shouted and three women came running. Their voices rose as they waved their arms and tried to bring the old man back to the ground. But with unexpected strength, he pushed them aside and gestured for his spear.
Steadying himself with the spear, he allowed the boy to drape a bear skin around his brittle shoulders. Though the boy stood only as high as the old man’s chest, he wrapped an arm around his waist and supported him as he shuffled to the cave entrance. The others watched in silence as they moved.
At the mouth of the cave, the boy guided the old man to a rock, which he collapsed against. The boy pulled the bear skin tighter around his shoulders, trying to shield him from the blasts that whipped his few strands of grey hair wildly around his head.
The boy snuggled against the old man, looking into the night. Millions of stars blinked back at him, feeling so close and so thick that he imagined reaching up and plucking a fistful right out of the sky. Far below their ledge, shadows of bushes and trees, frozen in the night, appeared no bigger than an ant he had tracked earlier that day.
The old man stirred and reached for a small stick. He began scratching it into the dirt on the ground. The boy peered closely.
Rough figures appeared. He recognized them as the animals they hunted. Behind them, the old man scratched out another group. He grunted and pointed from the drawing to the others in the cave. Yes, the boy understood those lines were their people.
The old man lifted a trembling hand toward North. He mumbled and gestured to the air whipping past them, tightening the bear skin around his shoulders. He looked at the boy to see if he understood. Yes, the boy did. The air, with such power and ferocity, came from the direction of the old man’s hand. Satisfied, he indicated his drawing on the ground, again pointing North suddenly scratching out the animal figures. Then he scratched out the people figures and the boy knew why they were leaving.
The animals wouldn’t be able to survive what was coming. If they animals couldn’t survive, neither could his group.
The old man began moving the stick on the ground again. His entire arm quavered and he breathed heavily. The boy laid a hand on him and murmured gently, willing him to rest. But the old man jerked abruptly and focused on his drawing with insistence. When the boy looked again, he recognized the outline of the cave. At the bottom of the mountain, he saw the lines representing his group. But outside the cave, he saw a lone figure. The old man pointed to group in his drawing and then to the others working behind them. He touched the stick to the shape at the cave and then pointed to himself. The boy looked from one to the other, eyes widening as he began to understand. Low moans emerged from his tiny mouth.
The old man rubbed out the outline of himself and scratched in a figure lying down in the same spot. The boy’s moans turned to wails and he threw his arms around the old man’s shrunken frame, digging his fingers into his skin and bones. The old man held him, stroking his head and murmuring.
The others ran over and surrounded the pair. The old man nodded at one of the adult males who squatted down and helped them up. He allowed the boy to cling to the man as he half-carried, half-walked them back to the dwindling fire.
They drew the animal pelts over the old man and the boy. Though exhausted, pain radiated through the old man keeping him awake. The boy refused to let go, kicking and whimpering throughout the night.
When the sun rose, the group said solemn good-byes to the old man, wrapped their pelts tight around them, gathered their packs and set off down the mountain, the boy at his mother’s side. They descended the steep slope slowly and carefully.
Partway down, the boy looked back up at the cave and saw the tiny figure of the old man bent, yet standing at the cave’s entrance leaning heavily on his spear. The boy stopped moving and continued to stare until one of the women barked at him.
They reached series of jagged boulders and a near-vertical drop. The group’s progress stalled as the men moved painstakingly, helping the women and then the children, knowing the tragedy that would come from one misplaced step.
Another group would one day find themselves traversing those same boulders. Climbing up 9,000 feet toward the cave with nylon ropes and steel carabiners, over rocks cracked, smoothed and reshaped over millenia. Chattering in a way indistinguishable to those who lived before the dawn of modern language. Outfitted in Gore-tex hiking boots, moisture-wicking cargo pants and wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. Archaeologists who would make their way into the cave and unearth – with their specialized tools - the shards of 30,000 year-old-stone and remains of ash. Researchers who could expound upon survival techniques of the Upper Paleolithic, the Last Glacial Maximum and early human migrations.
But none of that mattered in the moment the boy made it safely over the final boulder. Because when he looked back to the cave entrance, the old man was gone.