The Language of Ice by David North-Martino ©2011, 2019
The Language of Ice originally appeared in Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever.
She wakes while the rest of the tribe is sleeping. Yet she knows she’s in a dream. Lucid dreaming? Is that what they call it? But the world she has entered is so real, 360 degrees of sight and sound, temperature and smell. She huddles with the group, their body heat providing most of the warmth, while a low-burning fire, sputtering at the lip of the entrance, provides the rest. There is muskiness to their presence, but it is not an unpleasant odor, and she feels comforted by the fact she is not alone.
Carefully, so as not to waken the others, she rises and stands above them. She has seen them before, but the symmetry of their faces and the angles of their bodies are so much more beautiful, so much more robust, than a modern human could ever imagine. In the dream, she realizes she, too, is one of them. She pads across the frigid rock, every muscle fiber speaking of the latent power coiled within her limbs.
When she reaches the fire, she feeds a few pieces of wood into the flames; they pop and crack as the fire sears off bark, searching for the pulp inside. She does not want to leave the warmth, but something compels her to move on.
Outside the cave, the winter stillness greets her. The bloated moon sits atop the hills. She has never seen the moon so large.
Another crack, another pop registers in her ears, but not from the fire this time. Something or someone moves in the darkness, watching her from somewhere out of sight.
There is a moment between sleep and wakefulness when an alarm clock creates a vacuum, a ripple in time as the alarm prepares to sound.
Cassie opened her eyes at that moment, just before 6 AM, caught in the confusion between her dreams and waking thoughts. Then the alarm rang out, clearing the muddle as she scrambled to shut it off. She buried her face in her pillow, resentful at how exhausted she always felt after a lucid dream. It was like she lived a full day in her dream world and now, without rest, had to pull another shift in this one.
She forced herself to rise and face the morning chill. The old brownstone could be a brick oven in summer and a freezer during winter. During the two years she had lived in Boston, she had upgraded the appliances and even had the floors refinished, but for heat she still relied on cast iron radiators. Since the chinked walls and single-pane windows didn’t retain heat, she was left with a symphony of banging and clunking every time the hot water flowed through the radiators.
Like every morning, she showered quickly and ate a soggy bowl of cereal. The TV droned in the background. The weather reporter made her usual prediction for cold, and what else could there be in January? Cassie was just happy the snow had held off.
No one looks at you in the city. Eye contact has been banned by some unwritten rule. During the walk to the T-station, she kept her gaze to herself — watchful but not focusing on anything in particular. She had memorized this walk; it was the same repetitive journey she could have traversed in her sleep whether her dreams were lucid or not.
The trick to riding the subway, she’d found, was to pick a spot, any spot, somewhere between her fellow passengers’ heads or somewhere above them and stare at that location for the remainder of the ride. Today, she chose a spot above and to the left of a guy who stood in the stairwell and just a little to the right of a sign advertising Harvard Extension School classes. She’d tried other tricks, like the business woman, diagonally to her left, absently paging through a newspaper, or the young guy with his eyes closed pretending to listen to an iPod. But no matter what she did, she could never lose the uncomfortable feeling of sitting with strangers and pretending not to look at them.
In the small town in Vermont where she grew up, the winters were colder but the people warmer. Here, people advanced and receded silently, like glacial ice.
Once the subway train reached its destination, Cassie exited. The routine was so ingrained in her now she no longer saw the sign for Science Park, only moved like an automaton into the throng of morning travelers.
The nameless, faceless people of the street became the nameless, faceless patrons of the Boston Paleontology Museum. The only difference Cassie could see was that she had a special duty to serve the ones on the inside.
“I brought coffee,” Jonathan Frost said by way of greeting. He was a twenty-one year-old graduate of Boston College whom she had accepted as an intern mostly because he was intelligent but also because he was cute. He handed her a large, clear cup with a straw.
“Iced?” She arched her eyebrows and swirled the cup to emphasize the clacking of the cubes.
“Everyone likes iced coffee,” Jon said, deadpan serious. She could never tell when he was joking or if he ever got her sense of humor. Not unusual for an anthropology major. Depending on her mood, she thought it either annoying or charming.
Armed now with caffeine, she unhooked the rope that kept the general public from entering the exhibit area and ushered him in.
The rest of the day was filled with the final preparation for the grand opening of the Neanderthal exhibit. Through collaboration with the Boston Museum of Science, the pieces came on loan from the American Museum of Natural History, the Chicago Field Museum and the Natural History Museum of London. Two weeks ago, the crème de le crème had arrived: a complete skeleton of a woman from the Ice Age.
That’s when my dreams began, Cassie thought as she touched the glass case that held the remains of a simpler time.
“Did I tell you I’ve been having strange dreams?” Cassie asked, staring into the brightly lit case that cast harsh shadows in the half-light of the exhibit area.
“I don’t think so, Ms. Caldwell,” Jon said absently as he arranged plant fossils in another case.
She hated when he didn’t call her by her first name; it made her feel old. Plus, at twenty-nine, she was only eight years older than him.
“Since the remains arrived, I’ve been dreaming that … that I’m a Neanderthal woman.” Cassie felt her cheeks redden. She tried to laugh it off. “Sounds kind of silly saying it out loud.”
“Your mind’s been on this for weeks,” Jon said as he carefully arranged a delicate fossil. “Seems normal to me.”
“These dreams are different. I don’t know how to describe it. They feel real.”
“The human mind can’t differentiate between what’s real and imagined.” Jon unpacked another fossil. Cassie looked at him. The low light pulled at his flesh adding, in that moment, ten years to his face. Sometimes she wondered who was older, who was more experienced.
“Sometimes they feel like another reality.”
“Your brain’s just sifting through all your short-term memories, storing them, trying to make sense of them.”
“Okay, professor.” Cassie tried to smile. This was one of those times when Jon went from charming to annoying.
“I took an undergrad psychology class,” Jon said as though that gave him all the authority he needed to render a diagnosis.
“Well, you’re probably right,” Cassie said not wanting to talk about it any longer. “I’m going to head out a little early today. You mind finishing up?”
“That’s what you don’t pay me for.”
She thought she caught a hint of a smile.
“No. Unfortunately. I’m just tired.” She was tired, and distracted, and maybe it was more Jon than her dreams. She knew he got together with some of the other interns for drinks after work. She hadn’t been so lucky with her peers. It seemed when it came to working on a business level with colleagues things went pretty smoothly, but she had trouble bridging the gap between business and friendship. Her boss had told her she’d need to do that before she would ever be considered for a director position.
On the way home she stopped into a Portuguese convenience store. Under the fluorescent lighting, the fruit looked darker, less appetizing, but she picked some apples and a bunch of grapes anyway. Experience had taught her they had some of the best fruit in the area despite the presentation. A box of ostrich jerky also went into her cart along with a package of trail mix. When work was busy, they could stand in for lunch — or even dinner.
The Indian man behind the counter spoke to her as he rang her purchases. She smiled to feign understanding, even though his thick accent rendered his words unintelligible.
Under leaden skies, she gnaws on meat from the bone of a freshly killed elk. The warm flesh tastes gamey but satisfies her hunger. Men, women and children squat with her, filling their bellies with life-giving nourishment. Some speak between mouthfuls or laugh in delight about the hunt. When she opens her mouth to speak only a shrill animal cry rings into the air. The others shuffle away from her, cocking their heads in confusion. Not knowing what else to do, she continues chewing and stares into the fire.
She doesn’t remember beginning her meal but she does remember the hunt. The women who were not with child or had none to care for joined the men. They had trekked through the snow with spears at the ready, waiting for some creature to offer itself to them.
A man they called Jimal had the gift of calling animals. He contorted his face and pursed his lips and made the sounds of prey. It was another language she couldn’t speak. She wished for the power of speech — not to call for food, only to call for a mate. She felt a terrible loneliness. Because she was not quite like them, her tribe kept her at a subtle distance, fearing what they did not understand.
Jimal hunkered down pulling his furs closer to his skin and gave another call to the wind. Like magic, an elk appeared and snorted steam from its nostrils. They rushed it, impaling the animal with their sharpened spears. And they praised it as it wailed in its death throes, soaking the ground beneath in blood.
Now, they treat the meat like the luxury it is and feel blessed that on this hunt no one has been injured. Many hunts ago, a man called Ugathar had been mortally wounded by a mammoth’s flailing tusk. They had buried him with all the items he loved in life to comfort him into the great sleep.
Fresh meat is always welcome, but they have also mastered the art of smoking and salting so they can survive during times of least abundance. In milder temperatures, they pick berries and sometimes larger fruits, drying and curing them much like they do animal flesh so their skin does not turn yellow in the winter.
All her memories of the hunt flee when she hears the snapping of twigs and the rustle of something just beyond her vision. The others hear it too. The strong grab for their spears and prepare for whatever is about to come.
Cassie opened her eyes. Not at the insistence of the jarring tone of the alarm clock, but to the sound of static buzzing over a talk radio personality, the white noise so overpowering it made his voice unintelligible.
Impatiently, she shut off the radio alarm, thinking she must have hit the wrong button when she set it the night before. Looking around, she saw that drab walls had replaced the wide expanse of Neanderthal territory. But she was still cold.
Jon was right, it seemed. While the realization saddened her, it also left her relieved. Shopping for food yesterday had informed her dreams. No matter how real they seemed, that’s all they were — dreams. How long she would have them she didn’t know, but she could rest assured that her memory wasn’t regressing somewhere in time. She only had the real world and her real challenges and struggles to deal with. And wasn’t that enough? Did she really need more than her day-to-day life?
Yet the emotional remnants of the dream, that feeling of icy loneliness, continued to haunt her.
During the familiar bout with cold cereal, she tried to watch the morning news. Static whispered through the speakers. She flipped through every station — all the same. She couldn’t even listen; white noise captured all the sound. She worried about sunspots and mused to herself about Mercury going retrograde, but reasoned in the end that it was only the cable company messing up the signal again.
The subway train shook and rattled, hummed and screeched, vibration communicating from the track into the passengers. This time Cassie found a spot above and to the left of a rider facing her. In her peripheral vision, his eyes appeared to be looking right at her even though they were not, yet she couldn’t seem to vanquish the feeling.
At the exhibit, throngs of patrons entered while she watched from a dark corner. She buttoned her sweater; even all the body heat that radiated from the crowd couldn’t take the chill from her bones today.
The cacophony of voices echoed off the walls and the ceiling. She couldn’t understand them; all she could do was watch. Children ran from mothers who scolded them, couples held hands and strolled through the bedlam trying to reach the brightly lit case, and all, no matter how bored some looked, marveled at the woman who had traveled from another age to be with them today.
Jon walked over to her and gave her a knowing smile.
“You were right,” Cassie tried to say over the din.
Jon just motioned to his ears and shrugged his shoulders.
A group of five men more refined in their looks than the males in her tribe approach them cautiously. Like them, the strangers are similarly dressed in skins and furs tanned from animals that had provided them food and now provide them warmth. Their faces hold a regal symmetry and are painted with what her waking self would recognize as manganese dioxide — brownish-black streaks beneath each eye to catch the glare of the sun. They hold spears as agile as their bodies must be, and whether they are friend or foe, no one in her tribe can tell.
They call out, but neither side can understand the other. That doesn’t matter to her, though, and for perhaps the first time in her life she isn’t afraid.
One man stands out to her and his eyes compel her to approach. The others in her tribe call out to her. She hears them only dimly and can’t understand their words — but even if she could, she wouldn’t care. Dropping her spear, she trusts that simple act of supplication to convey the understanding that she means no harm. In acknowledgement, the men lower theirs as well.
The man with the compelling eyes watches her as she walks toward him, and she can’t tell if it is confusion or recognition that shows on his face. The same face with dark eyes; narrow nose; and thin, inviting lips that she, having now found, can’t imagine being without. And she finds the ability to say these words that mean nothing and yet mean everything that she has ever wanted to say and has ever wanted to express:
“Unka sabo uv.”
And all he can do is stare.
She watches her life unfold from this moment as her tribe integrates with the early humans. Love blossoms in the spring and grows stronger in the summer. The birth of a new spring also brings the birth of her child — one, like so many others, that heralds the birth of the modern human race. For the first time, she is alive, so alive that the heartache intrinsic to a harsh existence is as fully realized as her new-found joy. She allows it all to wash over her; at least she isn’t cold anymore.
Cassie sat, enjoying an iced latte in an outdoor café. Spring had arrived and today the weather was as idyllic as it had been in her childhood. She wasn’t cold or warm but in that perfect place between extremes. Looking out at the passers-by, she thought she caught a glimpse of someone familiar walking down the far sidewalk. But his features were obscured by distance, telephone poles and other walkers.
Cassie left her cup on the grated metal table and walked past the partition that corralled the patrons who drank their drinks and continued their conversations. She hurried across the street, approaching the man at an angle.
He dressed similar to her in a navy suit and dark shoes. In his face, she saw familiar dark eyes, narrow nose, and thin lips, although this face was slightly fuller and the beard had given way to a clean shave. And she found the ability to say these words that meant nothing and yet meant everything she had ever wanted to say and had ever wanted to express:
“Unka sabo uv.”
And the man in the suit could do nothing but stare.