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Shield bugs and Ears and Caves

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Shield bugs and Ears and Caves

The way of the world is strangely serendipitous and synchronous. I made breakfast in the guest house kitchen, using six eggs for my omelette because of an ominous instruction to guests to throw away all unused food from the dilapidated fridge before checking out. I cooked the prosciutto first, to add into the omelette, and it was better cooked. Perhaps it was smoked bacon after all. I added the gouda, made myself a cup of strong black coffee, and settled into a table on the terrace, where there was a breeze.

A young woman emerged onto the terrace also, and asked if she could take the ashtray from my table. She sat on the bench nearby, and lit her cigarette. I can’t remember who started the conversation, but her name was Ana, and she was from Zagreb. She asked where my home was, and I told her as well as I could, though I hardly know any longer where home was, or is. She asked where I was heading, and I said that I was taking the ferry to Split in the afternoon, but after that my itinerary was open. She asked if I was holidaying or working, and I told her I was writing a novel.

‘What is it about?’ she asked, and I told her that it was about an academic who realises his life has become increasingly tame and structured, and he decides to seek his wilder artistic self by exploring the wildest woods of Europe, living day to day without a fixed plan. The girl laughed. ‘I am doing the opposite to your character,’ she said. ‘I was an artist, painting wildness, and now I am following the path of academic research.’

She asked me what happens to Richard, and I told her about his trance-induced encounters with animals he knows to be extinct. ‘It’s not a fantasy novel,’ I told her. ‘Perhaps his encounters are molecular memory, something in his DNA.’

‘Does he take substances which cause hallucinations?’ she asked, and I told her no. ‘Cellular memory has been proven with rats,’ she said. ‘There are ethical problems with experimenting deeply with humans, so who knows?’ She paused. ‘My research degree concerns cellular microbiology. It’s very dry, compared to my art.’

‘Did you paint?’ I asked.

‘Oils.’

‘Landscapes and portraits?’ I asked.

‘Only for commissions,’ she replied. ‘Mainly I painted bugs, especially shield bugs. They’re intriguing, and beautiful.’ Her face reflected her longing for a passion she’d set aside.

I thought of the shield bug I had watched two nights before, eating grapes while the sun set over the great dolomite boulders of Kocje above the ancient town of Korčula.

‘I painted big pictures of shield bugs,’ Ana laughed. ‘Their beauty is most obvious when they are painted huge.’ Again that longing. She drew on her cigarette.

‘I had a friend who painted giant images of his wife’s ear,’ I said.

‘I too,’ she said, ‘had a painter friend obsessed with ears.’

‘This man’s obsession was with only his wife’s beautiful ears. We lost touch, and when I found him again, he and his wife had divorced.’

‘It happens,’ she said, simply, and that made me wonder about her own story. ‘Tell me more about your novel,’ she prompted.

‘My character Richard is reliving experiences lived by a cave-artist fifteen thousand years before.’

‘I wonder if that would be possible, with cellular memory,’ she said, and then, ‘Have you seen the cave up on the hill outside the village? It’s fascinating.’

She was the first person to tell me anything good about the cave. ‘Everyone I have asked told me it’s not worth seeing.’

‘Oh, they’re wrong,’ she said, ‘it’s amazing. It’s not deep, but people have lived in it continuously for over twenty thousand years. I would go.’ She had finished her cigarette. ‘Can I have your name, and what you are going to call your book?’ she asked, and I gave those to her. She wished me all speed with finishing the novel, and I her for her studies, and then she was gone.

I ate the rest of my breakfast, lingered over the coffee, and then I went to the cave, and Ana was right, because it was fascinating enough to keep me there for half an hour – a shallow cave open to the sky, without cave paintings and with archaeological digs cordoned off. I thought of the time of Richard’s cave artist, and read that the people of the Vela Luka cave were making clay figurines of animals between seventeen to fifteen thousand years ago, and they fired them to preserve them. Later generations made necklaces of seashells, and then there must have been generations of cave inhabitants who watched the sea rise and rise so that it reached almost the entrance of their mountainside home. I knew that Ana was brought to me, to deepen my understanding of my own characters.

On the path down to the village, I smelled the sweet heat-smell of the new figs, and the dry pepper-aroma of the olive leaves, and I thought about how paths intersect at the right time with the right people, if we open our hearts to connect.  

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