Vati Sreiberg has always loved the written word. She co-founded and was the prose editor of Stone Walls II, a literary journal based in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where she resides with her partner and cat, surrounded by wildlife, woods, and her flower gardens. She is actively seeking an agent for the publication of her first novel. She hopes "Gorham's Cave" will inspire readers to consider our early evolution as well as how human actions can imperil those with whom we share this planet.
Grace Myerson, assistant librarian at Keyes Elementary School in rural Vermont, stands before a wall of windows, her back to the students who wait impatiently for their lesson to begin. Outside, thickening bands of dark, low-lying clouds race across the valley, forcing Caribbean warmth into the cold October air. Watching the gusts of wind sweep burnished leaves across the sport's field, Grace remembers how, as a child, she imagined hearing the voices of her dead parents reaching out to her through the wind of every storm. “A wall seems like a good idea to me,” Josie pipes up. A smart, opinionated student to whom most of the other students defer, Josie is distressed with the growing unrest in the room. Grace turns and faces the children, recalling their project on the President's border wall: an enormous structure intended to stop immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States. She grabs a notebook from the belly of her shoulder bag and sits on the floor in the center of the room. “But wait, listen to this,” Grace says with enough volume to draw their attention to her. Just then, there is a bright flash followed by a loud crack of thunder and a rumbling boom. The overhead lights flicker; the students move in closer, forming a loose circle around Grace, who feels the comfort of their presence as they do hers. “It's from an article in Science, written by a well-respected conservationist.” She lifts the magazine and reads. “With the help of several environmental groups, we are developing a project to create a continuous corridor of secured areas from British Columbia in Canada all the way to Belize. Along this route, animals will be free to migrate from one protected park or forest to the next, without confronting the dangers of highways and unsafe, privately-held land.” “I don't understand. What does this have to do with the wall?” a boy asks from a more distant corner of the room. “You will,” she says and continues. “However, if the wall suggested by the government is constructed as stated, west to east along the Rio Grande, we believe thousands of animals could be stuck on one side of their feeding range, unable to cross to the other side. Hunger would likely force many onto farms or the streets of cities and towns where they would risk being shot scavenging for food; others would surely starve.” To Grace's delight, the students immediately understand the implications of the article. As the thunder passes and the rain slows to a steady beat on the school’s roof, the children gather together at their work tables and write letters to the President of the United States. In the direct language of sixth graders, they tell him what they have just learned: the continuation of his wall is a very bad idea, even if it means that illegal immigration increases over time. Animals, in their opinion, will be the innocent victims, and some, who are already struggling, might even become extinct. And that, they write, is unacceptable. As she reads and approves their letters, Grace seriously considers for the first time in her life the concept of extinction—of a species dwindling so low in number, it no longer has a sufficient population to reproduce and survive. That night, in her apartment on the edge of town, as the storm dissipates and is replaced by blustery winds from the north, Grace is restless. She can't sleep. Her mind is troubled by images of singular animals in every shape and size, sitting or lying in their various environments, dying alone. After endless tossing in a cocoon of bedding, she throws her pillows onto the floor, wraps herself in the down comforter, gets up, and hurries barefoot along the cold pine boards. At the kitchen table, she hunches over her laptop and begins to research contemporary animal extinctions. For hours, she reads the data streaming across the screen. The statistics are appalling. All across the planet, animals are struggling in a world where the loss of habitat, changes in climate, and most devastating of all, the overpopulation and greed of human beings threaten their very survival. With her neck stiff, her lower back aching, and the shocking realization of what has clearly been happening (without her awareness) for some time now, she slowly raises her head and squints at the stove clock on which she notices specks of splashed grease. As if marking this moment in time, a shaft of light shoots through the small window above the aluminum sink, reflecting a yellow square onto the pale purple wall. It is 7:40 a.m., and she is already late for work. # Rose Pearson, the head librarian and Grace's boss, is a broad-boned, tall woman in her early sixties with short, spiky gray hair, deep-set gray eyes, and wire-rimmed glasses that sit tentatively on the bridge of her narrow nose. She is an extremely private and pragmatic person, her life outside of the library a mystery to the teachers with whom she has worked side by side for more than twenty years. Yet in Grace, Rose has found an unlikely companion. With little precaution on her part, as if mitigating some deep-seated need, Rose feels compelled, at the oddest times, to confide deeply personal fragments of her life to Grace—which is exactly what she did on the very first day they met, two years earlier, when Grace walked into the library, newspaper in hand, hoping to interview for the advertised job. It was late June and the students were on summer break, the building empty except for the two of them. After offering Grace a cup of tea, which she politely refused, Rose asked her all of the routine questions, to which Grace answered with a straightforward and almost naïve simplicity that Rose found compelling, especially in someone aged thirty-two. When Grace explained that she did not have a cell phone because of the distraction and gave the number of her landline, Rose believed she’d met a kindred spirit. As the interview proceeded, Rose felt an unexpected tenderness for this woman and an increasing urge to share something of herself, some secret she had told no one else. And so, on that day, Grace became the only person to know that several years earlier, when the doctor informed Rose of her husband's fatal illness, she disappeared for three weeks. Just before dawn on the day following his diagnosis, Rose drove up to the woods of northern Maine, where she rented a small cabin on an unpopulated lake. There she spent her days sitting in a rickety old rowboat that was docked on the property and fished, something she hadn't done since she was a girl. Rose spoke to no one (though she did leave a message for her husband so he wouldn't call the police) and barely ate, picking at bits of the few fish she managed to catch and fry in the rancid oil she found on a shelf. “Can you imagine, all I brought from home was a set of clean sheets?” Rose shook her head as if still wondering what she had been thinking that day when she allowed impulse to override rational thought. Rose looked directly into what she thought were astonishingly beautiful eyes: spring grass green, outlined with black lashes. It was the first time they looked at one another, eye to eye, and although each had the urge to look away, their gazes remained steady. Rose wondered with some embarrassment if she had already said too much. However, there was something about Grace, the way she sat in the chair, her body so very still, rapt attention focused entirely on her that encouraged Rose to continue, perhaps seeing in Grace, the daughter she'd never been able to have. “Somehow, I thought, or perhaps hoped, if I spent some time alone coming to terms with the reality of the situation, I would gather the courage needed to face what would happen next.” “Did it work?” Grace asked as if nothing in that moment mattered more. “I suppose, at first, when he wasn't so sick, but it took eleven long months, and in the end, in those last few weeks before he died...it was very hard. I don't think anyone can really be prepared to watch that amount of suffering in someone they love.” Rose remembered the way her husband's face became a mask of pain; the way it eventually sank into itself as his skin rolled off the sharp angles of his bones, his breath thin and raspy until it finally stopped. Rose stood up quickly from her chair as if in doing so, she might leave those images behind. She leaned against the wall, and for several minutes the two women remained unmoving, sharing in a silence that ought to have felt uncomfortable but strangely didn't. Then, as if in response to that silence or perhaps to the intensity of the story just told, something in Grace pried itself loose and burst free. Her breathing quickened; a flash of heat flushed her cheeks. Without any attempt to hold back, her head held aloft, her eyes staring straight ahead now rather than at Rose, she spoke the word that summed up all of her own unspoken grief. “Orphan,” Grace said in a thin whisper. This surprised Rose. This was something she had not expected. “I'm an orphan,” Grace repeated more resolute this time, the word more solid and unforgiving, coalescing into an image in both of their minds of a girl alone in the world, a girl abandoned, severed from all family, now grown into a woman but still carrying within her that girl. From somewhere unseen, a cold draft slipped into the warm room, and both women shivered. Rose wanted to move in closer, to touch a shoulder or a lock of Grace's feathery dark hair but sensed that like a deer spotted in an open field, she might bolt; and so she kept her arms down, her hands flat against her thighs. “I'm so sorry. If I may as ask, if it's not too painful to recall, how did you lose them?” Grace didn't turn to face Rose but continued to stare straight ahead at the wall behind the desk, her eyes resting on the warm cream color, the rough seam that ran from ceiling to floor. “It was a January night,” she began. “There had been a weird thunderstorm in the middle of a short burst of snow, creating icy hail. My parents were returning home from a symphony concert in the city when their car, which my dad was driving, hit a patch of black ice. The station wagon skidded off the road and ran full speed into a deep gulley where it rammed into a tree. They were dead before the ambulance arrived. “I had just turned ten and was spending the night with my best friend, Annie.” She paused and looked over at Rose. “I've always thought it so strange that I didn't know, didn't feel that something terrible had happened to my mom and dad, that I just slept right through the night.” There was a catch in her throat, but she continued. “After the funeral, I was sent to live with Alice, my only living grandparent. My mother had been her only child. I think she loved me and tried to give me the things a girl needs, but she was too tired and too broken by the loss of her own daughter to raise another child. For years, she cried most every night behind her locked bedroom door.” “I'm so sorry,” Rose said, not knowing how else to respond, not knowing how to lessen the apparent pain in the core of this woman. She experienced the same damn helplessness as during her husband's illness. It maddened and frustrated her, but there was one thing she could do. “The job is yours,” Rose said as she returned to her desk, her demeanor slightly more professional. “Even though I have no library experience?” “Well, you applied knowing that, so I trust you must think you can learn what is necessary. And I do as well.” “Thank-you, Mrs.?” “Just, Rose.” “Thank you, Rose. I'll try not to disappoint you.” “I know.” # Now at 7:45 a.m., after a quick shower and no breakfast, Grace rushes into the library, her wet hair stiff from the cold, circles under her bloodshot eyes. “Is everything alright?” Rose asks as Grace hangs up her coat. “I was up late doing research,” Grace offers with some reluctance as she prepares to walk into the main room, not ready to share her troubling thoughts with anyone. Not even Rose. “Well, take your time, and when you're ready, the fourth graders will be in after lunch, needing help with their project on the agriculture of central Canada. Please pull some age-appropriate materials to get them started, but let them do most of the research themselves.” Later that day, when the students have gone and Rose is in the office reading journals in preparation for the next ordering cycle, Grace pulls dozens of magazines published by various conservation and environmental groups, hunkers down on the green carpet with her back against the stacks, and reads. Scheduled to close the library, she stays well after the last teacher has left the building, lost in the mounting evidence that the earth is in grave danger, that the animals with whom we share the planet are dying off in frightening numbers. And for many, it is already too late. She copies address after address of the organizations to which she intends to send donations in order to save the whales and dolphins, polar bears and seals, elephants, eagles, tigers, gorillas, chimpanzees. The list is endless. After hours of furious writing, her hand cramping, and a profound sadness threatening to paralyze her insides, she remembers the first day of school after her parents died, the way she had to keep going despite the pain. On a scrap of paper, Grace calculates in tiny scribbles how many groups she can afford to help if she sends ten dollars to each one every month. It seems so little given the enormity of the situation, but it’s the best she can do. Finally giving in to mental and emotional overload, she tips her head back and closes her eyes, but one of the photos she's just seen in a wildlife magazine has burnt an imprint on the screen of her mind and refuses to be erased: a magnificent polar bear in open water, bright white against blue, struggling to swim to solid ice. As the Arctic glaciers melt, Grace imagines all of the polar bears drowning, as this one looks to be, until there is only one left alive. The last one. She sees the bear’s black, glassy eyes searching outward, the icy sea between her and the safety of the white expanse of glacial ice at a distance impossible for her to reach. Does she know, Grace wonders, that she is the very last polar bear, that when she perishes, her species will disappear from this earth forever? Will any of them know when they are the last of their kind? And what of those already lost to us, those we have so easily forgotten? Did they know before they died that they were the last ones? # As late autumn rusts and reds are buried in the glittering white of snow, Grace spends every free minute in the library gathering the most recent data and copying it into her notebook. On a world map tacked to her kitchen wall, she writes the name of the latest recorded extinction in red ink or threatened extinction in blue. She cuts out and pins a photo of each animal in the place it last lived. She thinks of these last ones as orphans like herself. On a blustery January day, deep in thought while hiding out between the tall stacks of library books, Grace comes to believe—feels sure of it—that as the last member of any species experiences its final days, whether in the heat of the desert or the depths of an ocean, under the steady mist of rainforest or the brittle cold of mountain snow, something within its consciousness understands the truth: I am the last of my kind, and when I am gone, there will be no more, no-- “And who have we lost today?” Rose says, unintentionally surprising Grace, whose heart races as if caught in some forbidden act. Rose, however, has given her blessing to the extinction project, as long as all of the library books are shelved, the tables cleared, materials pulled and prepared for the next class—and they always are, for Grace is nothing if not conscientious. Grace looks up into the older woman's kind yet serious eyes. She admires, even perhaps envies, how physically solid Rose appears with her muscular calves and wide hands and feet, unlike her own long and languid limbs, her narrow feet. “The Western Lowland Gorilla and the Sumatran Orangutan have both been added to the Red List,” Grace says, imagining the bulk of the large primates, their all too human eyes staring back at her with grief and blame. “I'm truly sorry, though it doesn't surprise me.” Rose, having become a pessimist over the years or, as she would correct, a realist, has little hope for the salvation of the human race, and no hope at all (though she would never say this to Grace) of us saving anyone else. “Well, when you finish here, I have an exciting project for you. Take your time, not much else is happening today.” Grace picks up what she's been reading, steadies herself, brushes off her skirt, and heads for the Reference desk. In her apartment that evening, while sitting on the floor with her cereal bowl, Grace contemplates the new project: collecting articles for the sixth-grade class on Prehistoric cave art. Before leaving school, Rose handed her a recent copy of The New Yorker magazine. Grace chews as she reads. Near the end of the article, she comes across a brief reference to the last known Neanderthals and their suspected final migration from the steppes of central Europe, through France, Portugal, and Spain, eventually reaching Gibraltar and a place called Gorham's Cave. She puts down her bowl and goes over to the world map—now a memorial with hundreds of colored circles and photos upon it—and finds Gibraltar, that narrow ridge of land that extends out from Spain like a finger of stone stretching across the Mediterranean, yearning to touch the North African coast. Why would they want to go to such a warm, dry place, she wonders and then remembers that the climate would have been different thirty thousand years ago, that the area might have been fertile and green, temperate compared to the chilling cold farther north. Of all the extinctions she has imagined, Grace never considered the Neanderthals, an entire branch of early humans who died out while another branch flourished—the branch from which modern humans would emerge. What did she know about them? What did anyone know? She returns to the article. This specific cave art was not created by Neanderthals but instead by early Homo Sapiens, yet this author proposes that Neanderthals might have been the first creators of European cave art, and this excites Grace though she's not sure why. # That year, winter gives up its icy grip on the land earlier than is usual. By mid-March, crocuses, hyacinths, and daffodils are exploding blue and yellow everywhere, arousing a new generation of bumblebees. Grace doesn't notice any of this, doesn't seem to see anything outside of the library, and her small apartment that's piled high with books and magazines she's gathered during the past three months. While continuing with her extinction project, she also reads everything she can find on the Neanderthal people and learns that they had adapted well to the cold temperatures of the last Ice Age and for what must have seemed like an eternity, had survived in parts of western Asia and across most of Europe. Their population was never large, not like that of the burgeoning, more nomadic Homo sapiens, but it had remained stable. Then something happened, and slowly over time, their numbers steadily declined. Changes in climate and vegetation were proposed as possible causes as well as competition from Homo sapiens who had begun migrating into their lands. Some scientists believed that violent interactions occurred regularly between the two groups and that the tools and weapons of the Homo sapiens were superior to those of the Neanderthals who simply couldn't compete with their longer-legged, migratory cousins. Grace is unsure what she believes, but the more she reads, the more she wants to know. She thinks about the Neanderthals throughout the day, every day, like a song she can't shake out of her head. By spring, they have infiltrated her sleep. At first, she sees many of them roaming robustly across an unfamiliar landscape, a whispery place of wavering silvery greens. One night in late April, she dreams of an old man who falls to the ground and dies; the next night, two small children, running toward the forest, ignite into puffs of smoke. A week later, she drifts off to the rhythm of rain and dreams of a woman standing over several bodies, wailing. As she lays in bed the following morning, unable to get up for work, Grace is overcome with a sense of doom. She takes a sick day, telling Rose she has a bad cold. Throughout the day, as she moves from the sofa to the bed and back again to the sofa, one thought permeates her mind like a prophecy or a warning: more are dying than are being born. And though logic tells her this must be a reference to the present-day animals in peril, she can't let go of the recent images from her dreams and convinces herself that it's a statement about her Neanderthals. A couple of weeks pass without dreams; work sparks her interest once more as the students busy her with research for their school year's final projects. Piles of books, maps, and magazines are spread across the tables on subjects from the goddess statues of early Greece to the accumulating garbage circling the planet in space. Many of the students ask for material on climate change. After a particularly exhausting day, the air thick with pollen and moisture, Grace returns home and falls asleep on top of her bed. As waking consciousness gives way to a hypnogogic state, she finds herself standing at the edge of a vast plain. At a short distance from her, in the waist-high swaying grasses, stands the wailing woman, sunlight bouncing off the bronzed skin of her broad shoulders, muscular arms, and wild auburn hair. Grace yearns to hold the woman, to try and soothe her pain, but when she stretches out her arms to touch her, she wakes up. Disoriented and unsure where she has been, Grace wonders if it's possible to cross over into another world—a world long disappeared into the past. # A few days later, during their lunch break, when the library is empty of children, and the two of them are sitting together chatting about new books, Grace tentatively broaches the subject of a trip to Gibraltar and asks Rose for a small loan. “Why, Gibraltar?” Rose asks. “I have to find out more about her...about Ultima.” Her fingers fidget, twisting the buttons on her cotton dress. “Ultima? That's Spanish, isn't it? The last or final.” Rose looks up from the catalog page, where she has been circling the titles of books. “Yes. It's what I've named her, the last one. Ultima, the last Neanderthal. I need to find her, and I believe she's there.” “Where?” “In Gibraltar.” “But Grace, the Neanderthals died out, what, 40,000 years ago?” Rose tries not to raise her voice in concern. “You know this, right?” “Yes, of course, I know that,” she answers, unsettled that Rose doesn't seem to understand. “Are we talking about archeological remains?” “Not exactly. They haven't yet found any bones in Gorham’s Cave, just implements.” “I'm sorry, but I still can't quite make sense of what you're hoping or expecting to find in Gibraltar?” “I can't explain it.” Grace says, remembering the torment of trying to explain to her grandmother how she heard the voices of her parents during storms. They're dead, gone, not floating around in the wind, Alice would scream and walk out of the room. “Well, you need to try.” “OK.” Grace steadies herself and decides to tell Rose everything, trusting it won't be the wrong thing to do. “I’ve been having dreams of them, Ultima and her people for a while now. At first, they were always alive, but then I watched as they died: the old ones, the children. All of them all except her. In every dream, she is alive, and we have this…connection, as though I am with her some of the time. I’ve read everything I can find, which isn’t much. I want to go there to see the place where she lived. To find who she was. It's as if the trajectory of my life has led me to her, to Ultima, the last Neanderthal.” Grace takes a deep breath. “I know it sounds crazy, and maybe I’ll go and find nothing, but I have to try. And I promise I'll pay back every cent.” “My concern has nothing to do with the money. I know you'll pay me back. The truth is, I'm worried about you. The way you've focused on these extinctions, and tried to do something to save the dying animals is commendable. A bit obsessive, but full of compassion. I can understand that. But now this Neanderthal, this trip to Gibraltar…I think, perhaps, it's just too much.” “I have to do this.” “I can see you believe that.” “I'll be fine.” “Will you?” Grace says nothing and turns to look out the window. The day is summery, the sky a patchwork of blue and gray. Thunderstorms have been predicted later that afternoon. Rose stands next to her, aware that Grace is slipping away. Against the rising tide of her anxiety, Rose quickly attempts a hook she hopes will pull Grace back. “If you think you really must go, then I insist on two conditions: You take only two weeks off from work, not one day more, and you stay in touch with me while you're gone. Hotels have public phones,” she adds, knowing Grace will refuse a cell phone. “I promise. Two weeks and not one day more and staying in touch. Thank-you. I can't...I...” Grace can speak no more. Every inch of her skin is hot and tingling. She feels suddenly light-headed as nausea rides up her throat. “Why don't you go home for the rest of the day,” Rose says. “It's quiet today, and you look like you might be getting sick. I'll bring you the check tomorrow.” As Rose heads into the main room, the pressure over her eyes already spreading out into a full-blown migraine, she stops, turns, and faces Grace, “Please don't make me regret this.” “I won't,” Grace says as she hurries out of the office, past Rose, through the stacks, and out onto the school lawn where she gulps at the fragrant air, steadying herself against the flag pole. Blood pulsates along the sides of her head; a low hum permeates her ears. I'm going, she thinks, I'm really going, and this both excites and terrifies her. She walks dizzily along the edge of the parking lot and hears the rushing stream, swollen from late melting snow further north. A few feet from her car, she bends down and throws up her lunch. # When the day comes to leave, Grace packs lightly. More critical than clothes are her notebook in which she has drawn a map of the places she—on Rose’s strong suggestion—plans to visit, her Spanish-English dictionary, solid walking shoes, her water bottle, journal, and several new pens. She drives herself to the airport (refusing Rose's offer), leaves her car in a long-term lot, and sticks the ticket in the glove compartment with seventy dollars, enough for the parking fee if the rest of her money gets spent. She has never flown out of the country before, and with rumors of long lines at security, she arrives at the airport with two hours to spare. She's nervous, the underarms of her white silk blouse quickly smelling of sweat. Just before boarding, she dashes into the Women’s bathroom, changes into a fresh, sleeveless t-shirt, washes her hands and face for the third time. She finds a bookstore and buys a best-selling thriller, something Rose would surely consider junk. The flight is comfortably unremarkable. She attempts unsuccessfully to ignore the teenage boy under headphones to her left who has a blue tattoo snake that crawls out from his shirt and slithers up his neck, its cobra-like head partially hidden under his earlobe. When she is not sneaking looks at him, she stares dreamily at the vertical clouds that float like weightless worlds beneath the plane, easily imagining them as the domain of beings who look down upon the earth, watching us. She wonders if the spirits of the dead have a physical place where they live or if we reincarnate soon after death, back on the fast track to yet another life. She hopes for the former, a realm where all who have been lost will be waiting for her, the way her mother once waited for her, no matter the weather, sitting on the front porch every afternoon when she returned home from school.
From the first moment the hot dry air assaults her lungs, through the long day of dusty train rides out of Madrid and across the plains of Spain, Grace senses the presence of Ultima urgently pressing her southward. She spends her first night in Cordoba in a warm, dark hotel room, fitfully tossing on the hard bed, never reaching a state of deep sleep. The next day she visits the number one place on Rose’s must-visit list: the Mezquita—the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba—where she wanders for hours in the cool shade under its high vaulted ceilings and red and white stone arches. From there, she sends Rose her first postcard and heads back to the hotel. Her second night of sleep is no better than the first. On the morning train to Granada, she falls into a semi-conscious state, lost in the blur of passing blues and browns; and later, in the glow of dusk by the reflecting pool of the Alhambra, she lays down and surrenders to the fatigue. Standing to her left is a group of English tourists, who listen intently as their tour guide tells the story of the Alhambra's near-destruction in 1812. “After looting and damaging large sections of the palace, Napoleon's retreating forces set explosives to blow up the entire complex and would have been successful, had it not been for the bravery of one man. A soldier, crippled in the war, chose to remain behind and despite his disability, removed every fuse, saving what could still be saved.” Hypnotized by the rhythm of the storytelling, the heat, and the blue water that spreads out before her like a reflected carpet of sky, Grace closes her eyes. Soon the guide's male voice is replaced by a woman's, not a familiar voice, not speaking in words exactly but rather in waves of sound or song and within its flow come images of a distant horizon of blue-green sea; of a vast, wet, grass-covered plain dotted with dunes of sand; of a man and a child bending into the tall plants, pulling them up from their roots, the movements of their bodies sharp and precise. That was before, the voice somehow tells her, before I was alone. With a bundle of greens in one arm and the child lifted up into the other, the man walks to the sea. Grace wakes with a shudder. A man is standing over her. “The palace is closing,” the guard says, then moves on and continues his announcement in Spanish and English, “everyone, please leave through the front gate.” # On the fifth day of her journey, Grace wakes to another dry, cloudless day and eats a light breakfast of coffee and toast in the hotel café. At the front desk, she buys a postcard of the Alhambra's Fountain of Lions, its alabaster basin held up by the backs of twelve white marble lions, jets of water streaming out of their mouths. She mails it to Rose, noting a reference to the poem by Ibn Zamrak that was carved onto the rim of the basin, knowing full well Rose will enjoy researching both the history of the fountain and the poem. Making her way to the bus station, she conjures the smell of stacked books and magazines, the hushed voices of the children and Rose, surprised by how much she misses them. When she finally reaches the bus station, she secures a window seat on the bus to La Linea de la Concepcion, the border-crossing town to Gibraltar on the Spanish side. Once there, she intends to spend the remainder of the day resting, perhaps walking along the beach, using the time to plan the critical, next few days. Hoping to break up the monotony of another long bus ride, she opens her journal to the last entry and realizes with a shock that today is the first of July, her mother's birthday. Had she lived, she would have turned sixty-six, making her dad sixty-nine. How did she not realize that this day would fall during her trip? Every year, on the anniversary of their death, she has taken out the one envelope of photos given to her by her grandmother and stared, sometimes for hours, at the fading images, trying to recapture the few memories not yet lost with time. But today, the envelope is not with her; it lies as always in her top bureau drawer at home, wrapped in the violet silk scarf her mother wore the night of the accident. Disturbed by the break of this ritual, she presses her face against the window glass and stares out as the world grows hillier and greener, reviewing in her mind the photos she can remember. Hours later, as the bus nears La Linea, Grace summons to mind her favorite photo of the group. In it, she is two years old, dressed in a pale blue pinafore and white shoes. Her mother is wearing a buttercup yellow, sleeveless sundress; two braids of chestnut hair fall like coiled ropes across her chest. Her mother kneels next to her, looks up at the camera, and smiles as Grace grabs for a braid. The metallic squeal, as the driver hits the brakes, lurches Grace into the present. Before the bus comes to a full stop, people clutch their belongings and scramble to the front. Remaining in her seat, she watches the sweating bodies push past her, scrutinizing each face as if searching for that unexpected someone she just might know, but she recognizes no one, and so with a plunge into the familiar waters of aloneness, she collects her things and stands last in line, finally stepping down and out into blindingly bright sunlight which penetrates through her sunglasses and half-shut eyes. For the next hour, Grace rambles aimlessly through La Linea. She doesn't recognize the town—the buildings and streets—but there is something about the smell in the air that reminds her of the white sandy beaches of Cape Cod, where she spent two weeks every summer with her parents when they were alive. Meandering along the narrow streets, a few blocks from La Playa de Levante, she eventually finds her hotel, which she recognizes from the brochure: a white stucco building with baby blue shutters, one block from the sea. After getting her key from Miriam, a dark-eyed, dark-skinned woman who sits at a small desk exuding the smells of garlic, fish, and cigarette smoke, Grace climbs the endless flights of stairs. Once inside, she drops her belongings on the narrow bed and opens the French doors to the fourth story balcony attached to her tiny room. Before her is a panoramic view of the sea. A light breeze leaves a briny taste in her throat. In a flash of memory, she sees her father, tall and tan, the summer he taught her to swim, making it a game as he did with so much in their life, his patient laughter, so loud and infectious. She looks down at her hands and remembers that like her, his fingers were long and slim with oval nails. All the travel finally catching up with her, Grace spends the afternoon napping and wakes to find her body burrowed under a mound of damp sheets. She steps back out on the balcony and sees that it’s dusk. Mist blows inland like an exhalation from the sea, condensing on her skin and hair. As the wind strengthens, the sun bobs atop the waves, coloring them golden green, the sky indigo blue. She wonders if this is what the sea looked like thirty thousand years ago; if this is what Ultima might have seen. Grace goes back in, closes the doors against the bright sounds of local nightlife beginning to bubble up from below, undresses, and slips her body back under the sheets. The next day, her Sierra Club pack secured on her back, Grace walks with renewed determination across the border into the British Territory of Gibraltar just as the sun is rising up its eastern face, suffusing the stone with pinkish light. A shuttle bus takes her to the first stop on her list, the Gibraltar Museum, where a young woman describes the most recent findings from Gorham's cave: chunks of charcoal and flakes of stone from tools recognized to be Neanderthal, possibly from as recent as 32,000 years ago, though she admits that the date is still in dispute. “But if the date is accurate,” she adds with subdued excitement, “this changes the Neanderthal timeline and means they survived longer than anyone thought, though perhaps it was only a small group, and only this far south. By that date, we believe that the south of Europe had become inhabited by the ever-encroaching Homo sapiens coming from the north and the east, and the ability of the Neanderthals to survive much longer, with so much competition, was probably quite slim.” The woman answers a few questions, and then, as she turns from the group and begins to walk away, Grace catches up with her and lightly touches her arm. “Is the cave open to the public?” she asks. The woman takes a step back. “Oh no, it's much too delicate a project to open to the public. Really, they have only just begun their work in this archeological layer. But you can go to St. Michael's cave, up on top. It's not the same as the lower caves, certainly, but it will give you a feel of being inside the Rock.” “Thank you,” Grace says, but the woman has already turned and is walking away. The visit to St. Michael's Cave is fascinating yet disappointing. Inside, surrounded by enormous stalagmites and stalactites, the air is cool and wet and smells like boiled eggs. Tourists fill the cave. Several young couples hide in shadowed corners kissing. Grace walks around the cavernous space and tries to imagine Neanderthal families finding shelter in these caves, protected from heat and cold, rain and snow, making a last stand against whatever forces had pushed them here, but the echoing cacophony of so many voices is too distracting. Irritated, she leaves, emerging from the soft coolness, out into the sharp heat. Under the hot haze of sun and sky, she sits and reads the pamphlet she was handed at the museum. Gorham's Cave, discovered in 1907 by Captain A. Gorham, is one of many along the eastern face of Gibraltar and the southeastern coast of Spain. It is one of eight caves in Gibraltar believed to have had a Neanderthal occupation. The ocean, which now comes right up to the mouths of these lower caves, was once considerably farther away; for miles, a fertile plain filled with wildlife and plants had lain between water and rock. Could that fertile plain be the place where she saw the man and boy foraging for plants or hunting for small game? The place she saw Ultima standing alone, crying out to the world? To answer these questions, to answer all of her questions, Grace knows she must get closer, for why had she come all this way if not to see Gorham's cave—and that, according to the pamphlet, can only be accomplished by boat. Early the next morning, she bathes, dresses, and heads to the port side of Gibraltar, both mesmerized and appalled by the excesses of its modernity. Multi-decked cruise liners glide past just beyond the inner bay while ropes and masts of the many docked yachts bob bright white against a bleached out blue sky. Along the coast, tall narrow houses with orange tile roofs face the bay, greeting those who come from the sea and watching those who sail away. It disturbs her how easily humans can live in the pretty shine of all these possessions and forget the actual state of crisis in a world where so many species are dying. Refusing to be side-tracked, she hurries past the marina, the outdoor cafes, the tourists lined up for pleasure cruises until she discovers a partially obscured side cove where a handful of men sit on folding chairs drinking coffee and playing cards. Scattered among them are hand-painted signs stating the fees for tours around the peninsula and up the Spanish coast to the posh beach towns. To her left, a middle-aged man with longish thick black hair pulled back into a ponytail stands up and approaches her. When he smiles, she sees that he has two gold front teeth. “My jewels,” he says to her, broadening his smile. His schooled English accent surprises her. She imagines his ancestors might have been Moors from Spain. “Can you take me to Gorham's cave?” “I can take you in close, but we aren't allowed to dock there. It's a Restricted Area.” “How much will it cost?” she asks, wanting to settle the price first. “Just to the caves? No beaches or joy rides out to sea?” “No, just Gorham's cave.” “Not my usual run, “but for you, thirty pounds.” Grace knows he is overcharging, taking advantage of her, but urgency allows her to accept it without protest. She follows him, like a child behind a father, to a brightly painted, four-seater motorboat. Fifteen minutes later, with everything damp from sea spray, the boat slows as they approach the east face of Gibraltar. Grace is drawn to several large openings, gaping mouths of rock barely above the level of the sea, and immediately she knows which one is Gorham's cave. Her hands shake with excitement. She believes this was Ultima's final home. “That, Madame,” the boatman says, “is the infamous Gorham's Cave.” He stretches out his arm, fingers pointing to the cave she'd mentally chosen. “The spot of recent archeological findings that have led some to believe that the very last of our ancestral cousins, the Neanderthal, lived and eventually died out on our beloved rock.” “Yes, I know. Actually, that's why I'm here,” Grace says, needing to tell someone why she has come. “I believe they are right, that the last Neanderthal did live here before she...I mean, before they became extinct.” “And are you an archeologist?” Suddenly she feels foolish in front of this strange man, and though she hears the condescension in his words, his face softens when she looks straight at him and implores confirmation that she hasn't made this whole story up. “You wouldn't be the first nor the last one to come here, drawn by the caves, hoping to discover the secrets of our distant past.” “Thank you. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by what I imagine and the actions I—” “No need to explain,” he says, brushing his hand through the air as if giving her absolution. “We all have our unique obsessions that drive us to do strange things, sometimes with unexpected and surprising results.” “Yes,” she says slightly calmer but embarrassed still. She turns away from him and faces the sea; the sun, now almost overhead, whitewashes the landscape, cleansing it with its heat. Grace feels the man's dark eyes on her back as the boat sits rocking in water that once was a rich, grassy plain teaming with life. “And to your right,” he says, returning to the more impersonal tone of tour guide, “we have the coast of Morocco, our other long-lost cousin. Did you know that we were once connected at the hip until the earth shook, and we slipped apart, no longer able to touch? Yet even after so much time separated, we still feel a profound connection.” “Exactly, a profound connection,” she says quietly, mostly to herself, as her body twists to face Africa. Grace feels the boatman's eyes following her movements, then lingering when she stops. She turns back to Gorham's Cave. “Are you certain I can't interest you in a longer trip?” he says. “There are some very romantic beaches further north along this coast in Spain.” Grace does not answer because she is not listening to his words. Instead, she is seeing what Ultima would have seen standing out on the edge of the plain, all sea and sky in myriad shades of blue, the shadow of Africa in the distance. As the sun nods past its apex, beginning its descent to the west, the man turns the boat, and after a clearly audible sigh of disappointment that he won't be taking her further on, and silently returns them to port. On her way back to the hotel, Grace buys several postcards of various sights on Gibraltar. She scribbles a few words on one and addresses it to Rose, insisting to the postal person that despite the cost, it be sent airmail express. # For the next three days, Grace remains in her hotel room or takes walks along the beach, the rock of Gibraltar always looming in sight. With little appetite, she nibbles on buttered toast and drinks a mild brew of English Breakfast tea which Miriam offers to guests in a small downstairs café. Sleep, like a capricious friend, overtakes her randomly at unexpected times. She wakes from dreams of her parents waving to her from a car just as it is consumed by a dark storm cloud; of polar bears paddling endlessly in the open water; of Neanderthal women cradling dying babies in their arms. Of Ultima singing into the wind like one of Odysseus’s sirens. Sometimes when she wakes it's dark outside, sometimes it's light. For hours at a time, she sits on the balcony, struggling to regain her composure from the emotions stirred up by the disturbing dreams and from the disappointment of not being able to get closer to Gorham's cave. Her trip almost over, she still is doesn’t understand what she had hoped to discover, what Ultima wanted her to know. On the last night before her scheduled trip back to Madrid, while staring out over the rippling expanse of sea—the sky moonless and black, stars tumbling across the darkness like thousands of pinholes of cold white light—the world around her dissipates, and another fills the space. A small clearing; in the center, fire burns in a deep pit. The air smells of meat and smoke. She sees the familiar man and boy as if they are right there in front of her. Soon they’re joined by several men and women, and children of different ages, and for the first time, she sees their faces, each with the recognizable brow ridge, broad nose, and full lips; the bright eyes and prominent lower jaw. Only this time, she is not just watching but is with them, as if inhabiting one of their bodies. All around her, they are laughing and singing, holding rocks and sticks with which they are making rhythmic sounds, some of them dancing. They are no longer strangers but her family, her tribe. She claps her hands in delight until, in a distant shadow, hidden behind a clumping of low trees, she first hears then sees them: the Other ones with their high foreheads, narrow necks, and long limbs; the ones who have been seen hunting to the north. As she watches them, they watch her people...and she is afraid. And then they disappear, all of them, except one tall man who comes out from behind the trees. He looks at her, not with hate or fear but with curiosity. In a flash of comprehension, she knows that he is not looking at her but at Ultima. And with that understanding, shapes and colors waver and then go dark. She is back on the patio; the man and Ultima gone. The world grows cold. Silent. A bank of fog settles in and obscures the sea. She wraps her arms around her legs and gathers them to her chest. Shivering, she pulls her sweater on, and with her head slumped down upon her knees, sets each face she saw to memory before falling asleep. In the early hours of the morning, Grace wakes suddenly and knows that she must go back to Gibraltar one last time before leaving. She looks at the small, round, silver-bodied clock that sits ticking away precious time. It’s 4:30, the sun not yet up. She rustles through the papers in her pack and pulls out a map, unfolds it on the floor, and kneels down to get a closer look. Her eyes are repeatedly drawn to the peninsula's east coast and the complex of ancient caves. She feels both anger and longing for that which has become impossible to attain: entering Gorham's cave, stepping into the ancient darkness that once surrounded and protected Ultima and the ones she loved. Their last home. But if not the cave, then where should she go? Where else did Ultima go? Where did she walk? Where did she stand and stare out at the sea? Her index finger runs across the length of the map as if it were her childhood Ouija board, her hand the planchette. Her eyes concentrate as her fingers trace the squiggly line from the caves southward, and there at the very tip, she sees it and knows it’s right. She quickly gathers a few things into her pack, grabs a jacket, and runs down the four flights of stairs onto the empty street. Hours before dawn, in a mist that seems to rise up through cracks in the ground like steam from the center of the earth, Grace makes her way to the border crossing, her goal clear—to reach the southernmost tip of Gibraltar: the lighthouse at Europa Point. Her train doesn't leave until early afternoon though she is no longer sure she will be on it. She feels mildly feverish; sweat dampens the neck of her cotton shirt. Too early for the shuttle bus, she walks across the border, across the open airstrip, and into the center of town where the only person she meets is the night guard at the museum who gives her directions to a taxi that will take her to Europa Point. Past the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque and the Shrine of Our Lady, the taxi stops at the base of the red-striped lighthouse that seems to jut into the middle of the sea. Grace steps out of the taxi and onto a walkway of flat stone. Seeing no other people, she follows the path just beyond the lighthouse, climbs over the railing, then over a small stone wall and onto a ledge that faces southeast. Though she has never been here before, she knows this place, remembers the feel of the stone ledge, the force of the Rock of Gibraltar rising up behind her like a sentry. To her right, in the distance across the Straight, the Riff Mountains are a vague purple mystery that divides sea from sky in the predawn light. Seagulls lift and dip along the edge of the surf, and in front of her, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea, the early ferry to Morocco sends up its first-morning call. Around the bend of land to her left, she imagines Gorham's cave opening to the warm African air. She is convinced that Ultima will join her, that one last time she will see them all—the man and boy, the men by the fire, the dancing women and children, and so she waits. And waits, but they don’t come, not in vision or dream. They are gone. Everyone she has loved is gone. And suddenly, it is so clear to her that this is how it feels to be the last one. Abandoned. Desolate. Alone. Without connection to the past or the future and with no reason to remain. Grace stares out, forlorn, hardly seeing the immense beauty that surrounds her. When the first rays of morning light blaze across the water, without warning, as if rising up with the warm wind, the urgent presence of Ultima surrounds her. Her vision blurs, and she is there at Gorham’s cave. Next to her, Ultima sits and across from Ultima is the tall man, his right-hand palm up, offering a piece of cooked meat. Ultima takes it, chews it, and he offers another, this time inching closer to her. They begin to waver, to fade. Against mounting vertigo, Grace focuses, and they return. This time Ultima is handing the man a wrapped bundle which he refuses, so she places it in his arms against his chest. Ultima turns away, tears in her eyes, and runs. The sea returns. Grace is standing on the ledge, the back of her legs pressing against the stone wall. She feels Ultima so close now, it’s as if she is under her skin. This is the place where Ultima came when she could no longer bear the loss and survive alone but wanted to follow her husband and son, her daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends. When the time of her people—her time—had come to an end. Together now, they stand and watch as the quickly rising sun lavishes surreal colors across the east. The wind picks up and sings to them, a song they both recognize. They breathe in slowly, deeply, as if testing the substance of the air. Grace feels Ultima lean forward-- “Grace?” a voice says. “Ultima?” “No, it's Rose. I'm here with you.” —her body now unhinged from all that sorrow-- “I have the last postcard you sent me,” holding up the photo of the striped lighthouse, aiming it at Grace like a magnet or a wand. Rose moves cautiously to Grace and takes hold of her hand. —her arms wings, her heart reaches out-- “If I don't return, forgive me,” Rose recites, having memorized the postcard’s words, “perhaps I will have found what I came for.” Rose wraps her arms around Grace’s waist, snatching her from the grasp of the open space. —and she flies. “Ultima!” Grace cries, reaching out, pulling against the unexpected restraint. “Wait!” and again, “wait,” and then the enormous silence and the same wrenching ache she felt when her parents died. Grace moans and weeps, and then as if announcing her certainty to the world, “She’s gone.” “No, she is not gone,” Rose says, still holding onto Grace, who turns in her arms. “Rose?” Grace says, finally seeing her. “Come,” Rose says and helps her climb back over the stone wall and the white railing. They fall onto the hard ground under the shadow of the lighthouse, both breathing heavily. A faint smell of lavender intermingles with the sea air. “You're here?” Grace says, confused. “Yes, I came to find you. I went to the hotel and the museum, then I remembered the last postcard. “But why?” “To tell you something astonishing. They discovered Neanderthal DNA in human beings. They’re not gone because we carry them in us. They are part of who we've become. The very essence of who we are.” Something like wonderment fills the hollow inside Grace's being. She remembers the man and the bundle. The bundle was a child. She sits up and reaches for Rose's hands. Rose's mouth hints at a smile. “It seems that you were right. Ultima and her people have been with you all along.” Rose gives Grace a few minutes to absorb this. All around them, the world is awakening with heat and sunlight and the sound of a bus coming along the coast road. “There’s something else I’ve brought you.” She pulls a card out from her shoulder bag and hands it to Grace. On the face of the card is a watercolor print of a small elephant. Inside is written in neat cursive: To Miss Myerson, for all that you taught us, the sixth-grade graduating class raised $200.00 this year and adopted 4 orphaned elephants living at the Sheldrake Trust Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, in your name. One day, they will be released into the wild. Perhaps together, we can save them. Josie and the sixth-grade gang. # That night in the hotel room, as Rose’s breath lifts and falls in the rhythms of her sleep, Grace lies restless upon a cot, her bed given over to Rose. Quietly, she gets up and goes out on the balcony, the night sky tremendous and grand, stretching out into a mysterious eternity. For the first time since the death of her parents, Grace doesn’t feel alone but senses her connection to something larger, something expansive that includes everyone she knows and has known, including her parents, the lost animals, and the Neanderthals. So much has happened that remains difficult to understand, but for now, it’s enough. She lies supine on the balcony floor and stares up at the beating starlight of Gibraltar one more time and feels almost whole.