The Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira

Cave Altamira
Photo by Don Pinnock on Unsplash
Can it be this sad design
Could be the very same
A wooly man without a face
And a beast without a name
—The Caves of Altamira, Steely Dan

In the final days of the Age of Dwindling Resources, Alejandra Sánchez, as young and fearless as a latter-day Joan of Arc marching to war, led a ragtag procession of nearly two hundred women from their city of Santillana del Mar to the sandbanks of Playa El Sable where they gathered to witness the end of the world.

 Despite decades of scientific evidence and newscasts describing the increasingly disastrous global effects of climate disruption, nothing was done to change the course of history. For the most part, the daily broadcasts, blithely delivered by handsome and brightly articulate on-air personalities who, fixated solely on maintaining their program’s ratings, acted as if there were no cause for alarm, and so, Earth’s inhabitants paid little attention to the warnings. Consequently, like the other masters of the world, the arrogant governors who ruled all of Cantabria ignored the apocalyptic prophesies in favor of growing rich and fat off the ravaged land. Diseased and plagued with infertility, they eventually died one by one leaving only the women to face the grim specters of poverty and famine.

At the time Alejandra and her followers abandoned Santillana del Mar, nearly 5,000 miles of the Spanish coastline had disappeared. Throughout the rest of the world, rising seas had devastated China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan. In Europe and the Americas, hundreds of millions of people had perished from drought, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, ice storms, cyclones, and tornadoes. Those few hundred wealthy enough to shelter in elaborate underground sanctuaries soon succumbed to a succession of deadly viruses or were poisoned by the toxic smog that covered the earth transforming the light of day into perpetual night.

*

As the weather became hotter in the years before the apocalypse, Alejandra and her little brother Joaquín often visited the nearby cave of Altamira. Armed with matches and candles, they sought refuge from the sweltering days by exploring the cool labyrinth of passages that extended up to three thousand feet with vaulted chambers six to twenty feet high. They loved to lie on the cool stone and gaze up at the figures of bison, horses and deer painted on the natural contours of the ceilings so that they appeared to move in the flickering light of their candles, while Alejandra made up stories to match the ancient art created by a race of humans long extinct but hopeful enough to believe there would be a future to appreciate them.

At daybreak one day, Alejandra made the three-hour journey by bicycle to Cóbreces to check on her aunt Lucia who lived alone in an apartment complex only minutes from the seaside. The ruined asphalt highway was so littered with abandoned trucks and autos that she was forced to follow the switchback trails that took her through the foothills and past derelict farms and fields standing fallow.

The sun was setting when she reached Cóbreces. Most of the city’s inhabitants had already fled the encroaching sea to seek refuge in the inland cities of Barcelona and Madrid. She lost her way several times as she detoured around the deserted streets blocked by the detritus common to ghost towns: dismantled vehicles, piles of stinking trash, broken furniture, rotting animal carcasses, and shattered glass. Many areas were flooded and impassable. Her aunt’s apartment building looked desolate. The windows on the lower floors were missing, graffiti covered the walls with fascists slogans and the foyer, riddled with bullet holes, resembled a war zone. With no power anywhere in the city, the elevators were useless, so she climbed the stairs to her aunt’s eighth floor flat and let herself in, expecting the worse. She was not disappointed. Lucia lay face down on her kitchen floor. Her skin was yellow and cold to the touch. Even if the phones were still in service, there was no one to call for help. Alejandra had no choice but to leave her aunt behind. At first light the next morning, she returned home.

While his Alejandra was away, Joaquín became restless and bored. Although warned never to enter the cave without his sister, he went exploring on his own. Confident that he knew the way, he ventured deeper within the cave than ever before. For hours he wandered through the confusing maze of tunnels until he realized that he was lost. Hungry and overwhelmed with exhaustion and fear, he hunkered down with his back against the wall and fell asleep.

Alejandra arrived home at noon and told her mother that Lucia was dead. Elena accepted the news with quiet resignation. “I am sorry my sister died alone,” she said, “but she is out of harm’s way now.” Then, with tears in her eyes, she took Alejandra’s hand in her own. “I also have bad news, Alex. Your brother rode off on his bicycle yesterday morning and has not returned. I’m afraid he is lost in those accursed caves.”

 The search party was waiting for Alejandra at the cave’s entrance. Her brother’s bicycle lay on its side in the sand.

 “We have been here since dawn,” said a stout middle-aged woman Alejandra recognized as Gabriela Nuñez, one of Joaquín’s teachers. “Your brother must have wandered too far inside the caverns and lost his way.”

Equipped with a headlamp and a full canteen of water, Alejandra headed into the cave with the others. They separated into three teams, carrying cans of spray paint to mark their way as they delved into the pitch-black tunnels and shouted Joaquín’s name which echoed and reverberated everywhere at once. The search went on for seven days with no success despite the efforts of two Catalan Sheepdogs trained by the police to find cadavers. The searchers left bottles of water and rations with crude maps showing the way out in case Joaquín was still alive. After a month passed with no sign of her brother, the search was called off. Joaquín was presumed dead.

*

As time passed, the days became darker, food grew scarce, and the diminishing supply of potable water drawn from the city’s wells turned brown and tasted foul. Hundreds of villagers died, sometimes languishing in pain for as long as a week before they fell victim to the latest scourge. Somehow, Alejandra and her mother managed to forage for enough food to survive.

And then, Alejandra woke one night to see Joaquín standing at the foot of her bed. Three years had passed, yet he had not aged. She called his name, but he vanished. Together she and her mother searched the house in vain.

“It is a sign,” Elena told her daughter. But of what, they had no idea.

The next night, Alejandra dreamed that Joaquín was lying next to her. She heard his words, but his lips were not moving. “Alex, I bring a message from the ancient cave dwellers. In three days, a great ship will appear in the sea at Playa El Sable. Build a signal fire on the sandbanks and prepare to be rescued.”

*

As word of the ship’s arrival spread throughout Santillana del Mar, two hundred women, the town’s sole survivors, gathered in front of the great church of Santa Juliana, where many of them had taken refuge. A loud cheer went up when Alejandra and her mother appeared. Within the hour, they set off on the five-mile trek to Playa El Sable.

On the morning of the third day, they built a bonfire on the beach, working in shifts until nightfall to keep it blazing. They set up a lookout on the highest dune to watch for the ship. The day passed and night fell, but no ship appeared. To make matters worse, a terrible storm blew in from the northwest bringing torrents of rain that extinguished the fire and dashed their hopes. Left in the pitch-black void of what seemed an endless night, the women lamented their fate and prepared to die. Only Alejandra remained steadfast.

The storm abated an hour before sunrise. Calm descended. The sea became placid as a mountain lake. A flock of seagulls glided along the shoreline. As they skimmed above the water’s surface, it turned to gold as the sun rose out of the sea. And, there, only a mile offshore, Alejandra saw a huge cargo ship powered by three enormous, fixed windsails towering more than a hundred feet above decks.

By noon, the last of the refugees had been ferried to the ship, which bore the name, Noah. Its cargo was hope. Its ultimate destination and fate unknown.

About the Author

Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton is a writer and independent filmmaker living in Southern Appalachia. His most recent fiction, essays, and book reviews are featured in Drunk Monkeys, Cagibi, The Write Launch, Litro Magazine USA, On The Run, and The Atticus Review, among others. He has also written and directed two award-winning feature length documentary films as well as numerous short films for non-profit and commercials. For more information and links to his work, please visit stephenanewton.com.

Read more work by Stephen Newton.