(Originally aired 2021/12/18 - listen here)
Since I started the fiction series in this podcast four years ago, one of the most exciting parts of the process is when I read through the submissions and have a story reach out and grab me. It’s especially exciting when the setting is completely unexpected. I know I’m always saying that I want to see stories set outside of the overly popular 19th century, but I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d receive one set 15 thousand years before the Common Era—or that it would blow me away with the lyrical, sensual language I found in Kat Sinor’s story “Abstract”. Kat evokes what archaeologists call the Magdalenian culture of Europe, the people who created the stunning art in the caves of Altamira and Lascaux. And it is that art that forms the focus of today’s story—the art and the artists who created it.
We can only speculate about the sexual attitudes of human beings that far in the past. This story doesn’t dwell on how same-sex desire may have been understood in that era, but simply assumes it as a possibility and tells a story of individuals and of the power and mystery of artistic creation.
Kat Sinor has been writing stories that center hope and queer voices for nearly a decade, exploring those very themes that allowed her to survive. She has published short stories for a variety of projects and is an alumna of Tin House’s 2021 Writing Workshop for her debut novel. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she spends her time working in museums and dreaming up stories to share.
The first time I read “Abstract” in the submissions pile, I was utterly lost in the beauty of Kat’s prose. And when the contract was signed, I knew exactly who I wanted to have narrate it. Jasmine Arch did the narration for a pair of stories we presented back in 2019. She has a lush, haunting voice that I think works perfectly for the otherworldly quality of this story. In addition to her narration work, she is a writer, poet, and artist. Jasmine lives in Belgium and her creative work can be found at jasminearch.com.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
By Kat Sinor
We do not let her enter the cave hungry, although it is the hungry season. She is chosen, she is divine, and the whole of us sing a song of praise as she nears the mouth of it. She strips down, her furs falling to her feet, and she is left bare for us, although it is the cold season too. Her hair is a tangled twirl down her back, and I take a step forward, as if I can see the intricate tendrils better from a breath closer. In one hand, she holds a brush—holds it in the same way that we hold the points of our spears after they’ve been carved. Precious things. Precious, wonderful things that were not meant to last. In the other hand, she holds a flat piece of bark. Color is smeared on the brown. There are reds and blues and more blacks than I knew existed.
Choose one, is the only thing asked of her. Choose one to accompany you.
She is scarred, mud-speckled, raw and tortuous. In the instant before she speaks, I become a thing that wants—that wants to hear her say my name, that wants to feel the weight of those black eyes on me, that wants to carry her furs behind her. In the instant before she speaks, I am in agony. It will not be me, but I hope. It will not be me, but I look at the images painted on the outside of the cave, ready to greet her. There is a herd of horses, one imprinted over the other. There is a man-shaped thing, a soul, near a bison. There is scene after scene of hunts. I look at them, and I ask them this one thing, the only thing.
I ask them to make my want solid.
She chooses me in a breath of fate, and I believe again in the things my mothers and fathers taught me. Hidden, unspeakable things. I pick up her clothing, grasp a torch, and cast my eyes on the heels of her feet as she enters.
She has been here thrice before, our divine painter, and so she does not enter as I do, with awkward steps and squinting eyes. Instead, she dances into the darkness, dances until she arrives at where she wants to be. The torch shadows lick up the sides of the walls, hungry for her. (I do not like this image of her, twisted and otherworldly. I do not like understanding the hunger of the shadows.) She presses her hand into the color mixture and touches it to the wall in greeting. When she removes her hand, an imprint is left.
I do not.
I have always been afraid of the dark.
We stand just past the entranceway, just where the light from the sky fades.
“I have seen you paint the outside before,” she says, almost laughing, teasing in a way that shocks me. With the simple ease she carries, we may instead be kneeling by a bush, side by side, two women attempting to find the first berries of the season. There is excitement to her, as if she does not understand the situation, even as she understands it better than I do. We act as two women who are becoming more. “You do not create beast or man or any known thing. Why?”
“I do not like to,” I answer. My finger twists into the loose knot of my hair, tugging at the split, slick end. We would not let her be hungry, but I am not important here. My stomach aches, and I tug my hair tighter, hoping to focus.
“You place dots in patterns I do not see elsewhere,” the artist states. There is something in her eyes, something black and something belonging to me. “Are they stars? Are they children?”
“I haven’t done that in seasons.”
“Yes, and I have not seen you since then.” She clicks her tongue. It echoes. Her joy has run itself through, and she is sharp again. I think: sharp like her shoulder blades, pressing together as she lifts a child to her chest. I think: sharp like the corner of her hip as it curls against me, not in sleep, never quite in sleep when she is that close. The artist tilts her head to the side, holding out her mud-caked hand. Once, I ran because of that sharpness. “Why did you come back this season? Is the cold too lonely?”
I try to listen for the singing that guided us inside, but it does not exist in the cave. Silence. An echoed silence, a holy silence. The cave rids us of the outside completely; truly, there is nothing else in all the world. The torch makes her handprint move. There are truths here that rip my voice from my throat.
“Yes,” I whisper. “I could not survive alone.”
I take her hand.
She is satisfied with my answer, but I realize that we are just beginning our descent into the cave. She pulls me deeper, and the entrance vanishes. Caves are truthful things, the others warned me. Caves are devourers of art, eating the scenes of our world with a greed inspired by it. They told me that these caves had been visited by generations, and in my bag, tucked beneath the supplies and the herbs that our artist needs, there is an offering to the cave. If it is not good enough, they laughed, then I would be the offering instead. I did not believe them until now.
The walls of the cave are not even, and the ceiling reaches for us in waves. It scratches at my palms as I brush it, desperate for some guidance in the dark. The artist laughs at my clumsy feet, and it is not a cruel laugh, not something that causes me embarrassment—it is an echoing sound, a sound that both grips me and calms me. A sound that kills loneliness and robs fear. She is feral when she laughs, and it turns me feral too. When I grab at the wall next, when the cave sees fit to pick away at my skin, I do not grimace. I smear my blood with pride.
“Come nearer,” she finally says. She steps forward herself and reaches her hand into my bag, exchanging her pallet for a tube of hollowed, hallowed bone. She gestures to the rock face before us—the tallest part of the cave so far, it stretches up and up, of a different sort than what we have seen. On the surface, there are endless handprints, some on top of each other, some red and some black. They glow, they whisper. The cave is no longer silent, it is alive. The artist continues, “These are the first. A reminder, I am sure you heard. You leave part of yourself here when you place your hand on the smooth face of our past.”
“Who are they?”
"Mothers, fathers, children, artists, those chosen and those not. The guardians of the cave.”
“I am not fit to be a guardian.” My teeth have rotted, my leg has not healed as it was. I am aged and stripped of splendor. No children, no mates. I returned because of the cold. Because I could not stay away. Because of her. “I am not even a mother.”
She presses a kiss, gentle and true, to my cheek. I love her for it. I love her in the way of our wild youths. She cups my neck. “If you are not, you will die, and your spirit will be the guardian then.”
I move my hand onto empty stone, next to one handprint that has two crooked fingers and another that is small, too small, so small it makes my eyes fill with tears and my breath come shaky. The artist holds the hollowed, hallowed bone to her lips and blows, spraying a shock of red across the back of my hand. When I pull my flesh away, an imprint is left behind, and I join them, I become them. I am left on the wall of my ancestors. I stand with their spirits.
“What will you paint?” I ask my artist.
She takes me deeper into the cave.
(My secret, the one lodged so neatly between rib and heart, beats faster.)
The artist takes me past the flickering memories that were left behind on the walls, the light of our fire turning all the art into dancing, driving, deadly memories. The black and red birds are not trapped in flight, but instead, they soar along the top of the walls, they disappear to shadow, they reappear in terror. I can hear them, I think. The sound of our breaths might be the coos of the birds as they feed their young. The figures dance, hunt, love one another on the walls as we walk; they watch us with no curiosity. The shapes of animals stalk us, and I realize we are meeting one another—they step off their walls, and we step into them.
I know we have reached her canvas when she stops suddenly, her breath catching in her lungs.
“It is so empty,” she says. I ignore that her cheeks are wet and her hands now shake. I have not thought that she might be frightened too; I have not thought of what it means to come into this cave and face these terrors year after year, to bring them to life to torment our descendants and to save ourselves. She gives breath to her own nightmares, and, still, she comes back. She cries at the emptiness, and I step forward to stand beside her, both understanding and not.
“What will you paint?” I ask again.
She takes the bag from me and brings out her supplies, mixing new browns and blues and reds. She balances a brush in her hand and dips it into the colors, the only colors that exist in the cave. The world here is muted, and she becomes the only point to hold onto.
“I want to paint the things that you do. The things that are not beast or man or any known thing. The things that exist only to you.” This one a plea. Her back stays to me, and she stares at the wall in front of her. This one a demand, “Tell me about them.”
“I don’t know,” I answer.
She is not satisfied, I know she is not satisfied. In the flickering light of the flames, she has become as fluid as the paintings. Her hair falls in thick layers around her, black and heavy and twined with fabric and flowers—the only other living things brought with us. Her scars are in motion, her past injuries intent to live on in the present, and her eyes, her black and lively eyes, see more than I am willing to give. She turns, and they focus on me, on what I am not saying. On my secret heart.
She dips her fingertip into the blue paint and reaches forward, drawing a strange swirl on my arm. Where she drags her touch, bumps appear, marring the swirls she leaves behind.
“The sky,” she says. “What would you have me do for the sky?”
“Any color than what it is,” I answer, closing my eyes. She continues her patterns, swirls blending into swirls. She is the one meant to be nude, but I feel on display for her. “The shape of it being what you feel. When you have visions of the sky, what do you see? I see a womb. And in the place where the sky sets and changes to nightmare, I see a birth.”
The finger halts. I keep my eyes closed, suddenly afraid.
My artist returns her touch to me, fingertip setting on my lips. I can taste the animal fat, the charcoal. I can taste the dirt. She drags the color across my lips, and I part them for her. In secret. In something else. She spreads the color to my cheeks, tracing a design as if it was in familiar practice.
“You don’t create what you see,” she says suddenly. “You create something else, don’t you?”
My hand moves to match her, catching her against my cheek and keeping her there. I turn my face toward her palm, my painted lips against her painted skin.
“Yes,” I answer. “Yes.”
I take her hand, lead her to the wall again. My hand over hers, I guide it to the blank space. Press her hand to the surface, feel the coldness radiate through us both. I drag her hand across it, feeling it, feeling us. And so we paint together, the two of us, creating shapes that have never existed before, creating new ideas between the images of hunting beasts and dying prey, dying people. Us, the goddesses of them all; us, the creators, the artists.
When she catches the flow of the movement, I remove my hand and begin painting her skin instead. Swirling spirits between her shoulder blades, strange shadows on the sharp bone of her hip. I paint her bare, for me. No one else will ever see us like this, no one else will know the truth of who we are in this cave. Both of us painted, and when I press my lips to the top of her spine, to the place where speckles dot her skin, I know that we are painting more than thoughts, more than ideas.
The two of us together paint all things unspoken in this cave.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Abstract” by Kat Sinor, narrated by Jasmine Arch.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Kat Sinor Online
Links to Jasmine Arch Online