This story is by Philip Hone Auerbach and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Do you really believe your uncle’s stories, the archaeology one who was born in New York and grew up in Paris? Did he come for Thanksgiving this year?”
“He certainly did! He never misses my Mom’s turkey. After lunch me and Kiki always kidnap him to the tree house and squeeze out of him as many stories as we can until he stands up and says that he has a long drive before him to return to Cambridge and the Museum. It is an annual Thanksgiving ritual. This year was strange, because he started talking in the tree house about a scary night which I know he has never mentioned to Mom. It’s supposed to be a BIG SECRET. Don’t tell anybody. Promise!”
“OK… OK… OK…!”
“We did not know what to think about his story. Maybe you can do better than me and Kiki.”
“This is word for word what he told us.
“During my junior year at Harvard Professor M, who had watched me work on the Maya collections in the Peabody Museum and knew that I had supervised a small dig team in Guatemala the previous summer, invited me to join his prehistoric excavation in Southern France during the summer vacation. Four months later I was a member of an international team in Les Eyzies digging an Upper Paleolithic site next to a jovial German archaeologist in lederhosen named Wolfgang.
“Carved into the cliff overlooking the Vezere river, the Abri Pataud had been inhabited by Stone Age families for some fifteen thousand years, between 35,000 BC and 20,000 BC. Most of what we found were the remnants of ancient cooking fires, occasional traces of painting which had fallen off the cave walls, fragments of bone, and many, many broken flint tools. Professor M was brilliant, he could reconstruct an entire world out of these relics.
“Our team lodged with the villagers and dined on the rich delicious local Perigordian cuisine served in the Hotel du Centre. No MacDonald’s, no Burger King, no KFC.
“A frequent visitor to the dig was a Jesuit priest, Father G, who was the foremost living specialist on one of the legendary treasures of France, the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux. One afternoon Father G offered our crew one of the greatest gifts of our lives – an invitation to spend several hours at night exploring the Lascaux paintings after the cave was closed for the day — no tourists, no guides to push us along the narrow corridors in the cave before we had had our fill of the beauty on the walls.
“Dinner in a restaurant close to Lascaux was scheduled for the following Tuesday after we had finished our work in Abri Pataud, taken a shower, and driven the twenty kilometers between Les Eyzies and the restaurant. When Tuesday finally arrived, our neighbors at Les Eyzies were astonished to discover the normally scruffy archaeologists all dolled up in dresses, coats, and ties: “Ah, ces Américains! ”.
“French Jesuit Fathers enjoy good conversation and the glorious Perigordian cuisine and wines —a vin de noix aperitif, duck foie gras with sweet Montbazillac wine, magret de canard with Cahors red wine, Rocamadour cheese and local strawberries with sugar and crème fraîche. Dirt archaeologists are not accustomed to such rich fare but, when the miracle occurs, they do not hold back.
“After dinner we assembled at the entrance to the cave, but everything which followed was not entirely on the official schedule. A discreet visit the day before to the only hardware store in Les Eyzies had furnished me with a flashlight, two spikes tied to the lower part of my legs concealed by the long pants I had worn for dinner, and ten meters of thin rope wrapped around my upper body under my shirt and Harris Tweed coat.
“Time was on my side. It was in the interest of public safety (and private pleasure) that we spend as many hours as possible in the cave to digest all the food and wine before climbing back into our cars and driving back to Les Eyzies in the middle of the night. Equally important, none of us wanted to miss a minute of what we knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience which we would unload on our future students, children, and friends for the rest of our lives. Our eminent Jesuit guide was a human treasure with whom we wanted to spend as much time as possible.
“I also needed as much time as possible for my private project. My plan was simple. I had visited the public areas at Lascaux with my parents several years earlier when I was sixteen and I had a lifetime before me to return again as many times as I wanted. However, I might never find another opportunity again to spend hours in Lascaux when it was closed to the public. I wanted to explore the art work in the hidden areas which were difficult of access and off-bounds for tourists.
“I would have to be very careful in the narrow spots so as not to rub against the walls and damage any paintings. I also thought it prudent to be as discreet as possible, because my private exploration might cause a problem for our generous host. I did not know then that Lascaux would be closed definitely two years later to protect the precious paintings from being destroyed by the carbon dioxide in the breath of too many visitors. I never would have had another opportunity to see the original works of art again.
“The first step was simple. We all crowded into the astounding Hall of the Bulls and Father G talked about each painting animal by animal: four enormous aurochs, a red and black horse followed by stags, the bear and so forth. I stood at the back of the group and soaked up every word. He was brilliant. The bear was my signal to quietly tip toe out and head for the shaft which was my secret objective.
“There I tied the rope to the two spikes and then wedged them into a small crevice at the top of the shaft. I lowered myself very carefully into the shaft avoiding as best I could the rock wall as I went down. Halfway towards the bottom I stopped to flash my light onto a small engraving in the rock of a bear and a bird next to five red dots and a cross. How should I interpret them?
“I continued hand over hand to the bottom of the shaft and then turned towards an opening on the left sloping downward. My heart was beating fast, my knees were weakening. I heard some muffled sounds or possibly voices but I could not make any sense out of them. My head started spinning. I thought I felt a small hand on my arm and I heard a girl’s voice in a tongue I could not understand. I have no further memories.
“From what I was told the next day, Wolfgang noticed two hours into the visit that I was no longer with the group and he went looking for me to ask my opinion on a galloping horse. He found my inert body at the top of the shaft and he thought that I might have had a heart attack. He immediately alerted Professor M who came and listened to my heart beating and tried to wake me. After several minutes he succeeded and I sat up, my head still spinning. The rope and two spikes had disappeared and my body was wedged against the back wall. Wolfgang helped me stand up and after a few minutes I was able to walk and join the group with a warning not to go off on my own again. Erreur de jeunesse.
“Father G continued to visit our dig during the following weeks and he always asked to see me with the same question: “How are you feeling?” I would reply: “Just fine, thank you very much for asking.”. He would look me over very carefully, but never said anything else. He returned to his maker five years later on July 29, 1966. Professor M died on May 30, 1987. Wolfgang returned to his university in Tubingen, but I do not believe he knew anything more than what he told everybody when we were at the Abri Pataud. He died on November 29, 1995.
“Lascaux was closed forever to visitors in 1963. I will never be able to return to the cave and the shaft. I am an old man now, but every now and then I wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling that a small hand had just touched my arm and a girl’s voice is whispering in my right ear in a language I still do not understand.
“Father G, I need to talk to you!”
Anita Merriman says
Wow, quite a character, this uncle!!
I like that the children are still mesmerized by him all thee years later.
Little do they know, right?
Nothing like being transported to a different world for a bit of unease!
Thank you for posting.