At first I didn’t understand what I would be guarding. When they said “cave paintings,” I pictured canvases hidden underground, like art stolen by the Nazis, but they turned out to be drawings of animals, in charcoal, right on the walls of a cave.

Nobody in the village knew about the cave before then, except the tourists who found it when they were scrounging around for mushrooms in the woods. Suddenly, the Gendarmerie Nationale showed up to guard the turnoff from the main road and there were all kinds of crazy rumors about drug smuggling and dead bodies. Ancient drawings on a wall were the furthest things from our minds.

They hired me and another guy to take turns keeping watch ten hours a day, three and a half days a week each. Besides the scientists from around the world who studied the cave, Serge and I would be the only two allowed to open the bank vault door in the side of the mountain. Even President Chirac couldn’t be let in without Dr. Fontaine’s permission.

There are lots of rules in this job. We’re to go in twice each shift with our tiny headlamps on and make sure nothing’s been disturbed, no landslides or floods or anything. Inside the cave, there’s no smoking, food or drinks, photography, bright lights, or touching the walls, because the drawings are thirty-something thousand years old. We shouldn’t stay inside too long at a stretch, either, because of toxic gases trapped in there.

Most of the time I sit in the little shack outside the entrance reading Spirou comic books and listening to American hip-hop on my portable cassette player. Serge told me he naps most of his shift because he stays up half the night with his girlfriend, and he has to catch up on his sleep somehow. Who’s going to know?


When I go in for my rounds, the air smells like wet socks mixed with pencil lead. It’s not unpleasant, just takes some getting used to. There’s a thundering sound—the echo of water dripping from the ceiling—and the temperature drops a degree each meter I move in away from the entrance.

The tiny lamps don’t give off much light, and I can’t get very close, but from the metal walkway I can see the bigger drawings. There are some deer with really long horns and some rhinoceroses—animals we don’t have in France outside the zoo.

They’re called cave paintings, but there’s no paint. They look simple at first, but the more I focus, the more I see. Like the way the rhinoceroses fighting horn to horn have marks showing motion. And the shading on the horses’ heads, if you look closely, is really good.

After a few weeks, I’ve gotten to know where all the pictures are. When I first come in, I see the outlined hand prints, just above eye level, and then, around the first bend, a few of the deer. I call them gazelles, but I don’t know if that’s the right name. The next place I come to is like a room, where the walls are almost covered with animals. I’ve tried to lean out over the edge of the walkway to see better, but most of it stays in shadow.

Deeper in is my favorite place: a smaller room that I can see almost all of. It has three horses in profile, a couple of mountain lions, and a lot more gazelles and rhinoceroses. The last week or so, I’ve been spending more time here than is strictly necessary, just moving my headlamp all around. It’s like driving down the road at night, seeing a little patch at a time in the headlights. When I go back to my guard shack, I work on drawing a map of the cave with notes about which drawings are where.

On my second trip in today, I look down instead of at the walls, and my headlamp catches a glint of crystal on the floor. It’s the shape of an animal’s skull, a bear, I think, coated with the sparkly white stone that forms over time when water drops on something. You can see the holes where the eyes were, but the stone is a sort of flesh on the skull, so it looks like a bear’s head carved from white marble, with sparkling bits all across the surface. I look at that head for a really long time, wishing I could take it home with me, or at least take a photo to put on my bedroom wall. For the first time, I notice other things on the floor: a lot of bones, and also animal footprints. Back in a corner, another bear skull, just the bone this time, but with a circle of small stones placed on top, like a kind of altar. I can easily imagine a candle sitting in the middle of the stones, if they had such things.


I have Sundays off, which would be fine if my sister Marie didn’t come in the morning to try to get me to go to Mass. She used to pick up our mother every week, until last year when she died. Now Marie wants to save my soul, so every Sunday she comes banging on my bedroom door and yelling. It’s impossible to get back to sleep after that. I end up going downstairs and having breakfast with my father.

He used to be a Marxist, so he doesn’t believe in religion. In 1968 he left home to go to Paris and fight alongside the students at the barricades, all set to be a revolutionary, until he got a phone call from his girlfriend, my mother. She was pregnant with Marie, so he had to come back and get married and become a plumber. All because the Pope said no birth control and my mother was an obedient Catholic.

Once when I came back from a school trip to Avignon, my father started lecturing me about the exploitation of the people by the church. He ranted about all the wealth and labor that went into those medieval cathedrals—masses of stone to glorify the Pope. “The king was bad enough, but the church was even worse,” he said.

I went through a religious phase when I was younger, thinking I was in some kind of contact with God because I was an altar boy. When I lit the charcoal to burn the incense, I thought I saw visions in the smoke. I was named for St. Bernard, the founder of the Cistercians, and I wanted to be a monk like him when I grew up. When I became a teenager, I started refusing to go to Mass with my mother. I’m sure that made my father secretly happy.

For the past three years, since the Maastricht Treaty in ‘93, he’s been complaining about the EU, and today he’s really in a mood. “It’s the Holy Roman Empire all over again, only this time, the religion is capitalism. One European market without boundaries means workers are competing with each other all the time. You’ll see. This’ll be the collapse of labor.” He takes a sip of coffee and picks up the newspaper again.

No matter what’s in the news, for my dad, it’s the end of the world.

“I’m going back upstairs,” I say. “You’re making me depressed.”

My room is pretty much the same as when I was a kid. Some comic strips I drew a few years ago are tacked up on the wall with posters of bands I liked when I was a teenager. I take the comics off the wall and put them in a desk drawer. They aren’t half bad. I used to copy characters out of books and make up my own stories. A couple of times I won drawing prizes, but I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship to art school, so I gave it up.

Not much to do on Sundays. I lie on my bed and listen to Coolio’s album Gangsta’s Paradise for a while. It seems crazy, but I wish I didn’t have the day off work. Closing my eyes, I try to picture my favorite room in the cave, but there’s too much light in here, so I pull the curtains closed, lie back down, and try to imagine the gazelles and the rhinos all around me. Then I think about the guys doing the drawing and wonder if they’re wearing bear skins or deer hides. And how can they see what they’re doing in the dark? Do they have somebody holding torches for them or are they drawing with one hand and holding a light with the other?

Next thing I know, Marie and her kids are banging the front door open and making a racket coming back from Mass to make lunch for my father, waking me up for the second time in one day.


On Wednesday I have another day off with nothing to do. There are only so many hours I can lie in my room and daydream, so I ride my bicycle to the next town, where there’s an art supply shop. When I was younger I used to come here just to look at the different things you can draw and paint with. I walk straight past the pads of paper and stop for a minute at the pastels, but that isn’t what I want. Across the aisle are boxes of charcoal.

Next door at the bookshop I ask if they have any books about cave art, but they don’t. At the library, I look up the famous drawings from Lascaux and Altamira. Our cave hasn’t made it into the encyclopedia yet, which is good, because it would be hard to keep people away, and the place would get ruined. We’d need more than two guys from the village to guard it. I’m glad it’s not open to the public. It should stay a secret place.


The first thing is to move the furniture away from the walls. Not that I have a lot of furniture in my room. There’s just the bed, a small desk and the armoire. But still, I need space to move around in order to do the work. My father is out, so I don’t have to worry about the noise. He probably wouldn’t notice anyway because his hearing isn’t so sharp anymore.

All the posters have to come down. I roll them up and stick them in the armoire. I take a piece of charcoal out of the box and pick a spot between the window and the corner.

First, the curve of the rhinoceros horn. Standing back, I see it’s much too big, because my ceiling is lower than the cave’s. I’ll have to scale it down. I try rubbing the wall with the heel of my hand to erase the mark, but that only makes a mess. Adding a little water makes an even bigger mess. In the bottom of my armoire I have a piece of chamois that I use to shine my dress shoes, so I try that and it works. Maybe it’s the same kind of thing they used in the cave to erase mistakes, the hide of one of those gazelles. I wonder if I should sketch in pencil first, but no, that wouldn’t be right. There were no pencils or erasers thirty thousand years ago. Why is this important? I can’t say.

One problem I see right away is that I’m getting black dust all over my clothes. Marie will give me a hard time when she does the laundry. The guys in the cave probably didn’t have to worry about their sisters hassling them about dirty clothes. The obvious solution is to take everything off and shower afterward.

It feels as if I’ve been working only a few minutes, but the light is fading outside and my father calls me for dinner. The entire afternoon is gone and I’ve finished only one rhinoceros head. I put the charcoal away and stand back to look at my work, not perfect, but I’m happy with it.

After dinner, I’m exhausted, so I go to bed early. I like sleeping in the middle of the room. I wonder why I didn’t think of moving my bed away from the wall before.


On Sunday afternoon, Marie comes over and asks if she can talk to me. I assume she wants more money. All three of my younger brothers moved away, and I stay here to help my Dad take care of Marie and her family: Nicolas, who’s eleven, and the girls, eight and five. They live on the other side of the church in a little house my father and I pay the rent on, since her husband took off after the youngest was born.

Marie tells me she’s worried about my nephew. He claims nothing’s bothering him, but she thinks he’s spending too much time alone. She wants me to take him fishing or something, be a “real uncle.” Feeding and clothing him isn’t being a real uncle?

As soon as I say okay, she takes off, and a few minutes later the kid’s standing outside the door. He doesn’t look like he wants to be here.

“Do you want to go fishing or something?” I ask.

“With you, Uncle Bernard?”

“Of course, with me. Who else?”

I feel bad for Nicolas, being the only guy in that house since his dad left. When he was little he used to come over and we’d build things with blocks, but I don’t see him much anymore. I thought he was busy with school and being an altar boy.

He looks at the ground. “I don’t like fishing.”

“Well, then, what do you like to do?” 

“I don’t know.” He scrapes the dirt with the toe of his shoe.

I try to remember what I used to do when I was eleven. “We can kick a ball around for a while.” He doesn’t move. “How about you come in and watch Star Wars with me?”

“I’ve already seen it.”

“So have I. Millions of times. But it’s a good movie to watch more than once. There’s a lot in it.”

He keeps looking at his feet.

“The fight scenes are cool,” I say. “Lightsabers.” I wave an imaginary weapon around. When I was younger that was my favorite part. Now I like Obi-Wan Kenobi teaching Luke about the Force. “Unless you have a better idea,” I say.

While we watch the movie, I keep looking over and it seems as if he isn’t even in the room with me. I guess I didn’t talk much when I was that age either. I don’t remember anybody getting worried though.

After the movie’s over, I tell him it’s time for him to go home. At the door, he asks, “When’s your next day off?”


By the end of the next week, we’ve watched the whole trilogy twice. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s beginning to bore me. While we watch, I’m thinking about the empty spaces on my bedroom wall and the drawings I haven’t had time to work on because I’m babysitting this kid who barely ever says anything.

“What do you do at work, Uncle Bernard?” he asks after The Return of the Jedi is over.

I start to describe the cave, and the animals, and then, why not? “Want to see something really cool? Something secret?”

There’s a flicker across his eye, but it looks more like he’s scared than excited.

“Not a bad secret,” I say. “Come on. It’s upstairs.”

When we get up to my room, he just stares at the wall, and I can’t tell what he’s thinking, but then he gets up close and nods his head while he studies the rhinoceros. Then there’s a smile. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile like that all week.

“Can I see the real cave?” he asks.

“Nobody’s allowed in there. I could lose my job.”

He looks down at the floor. It’s like I’ve shut a door in his face. But I can’t risk it. I need this job. More than that, I realize something else now: even if they weren’t paying me, I need to be able to go there. Then I think, maybe Nicolas needs to go there too.

“I’m working on Saturday morning at eight. Tell your mother you’re going to play football at the school and meet me at the bridge.”


On the way to the cave, he barely talks, as usual, and I can’t fill up all the silence, so after a while I just give up. When we get to the vault door I make him turn around so he can’t see me enter the combination on the keypad. There are no cars in the lot, so the cave should be empty, but I motion to him to wait outside until I’ve checked everything out.

In my sternest voice, I say, “Before we go in, this is really important. There’s a metal walkway. Whatever you do, stay on it. And for God’s sake, don’t touch anything. The stuff on the walls is really old and if it gets damaged there’s no way to fix it.”

He nods.

“I’m serious about this!” I don’t want to sound so mean, but I’m having second thoughts. There’s something exciting about sharing this place, but at the same time, I know it can get ruined by too many people coming here.

“I understand,” he says, serious. “You can trust me.”

I fit him with one of the extra headlamps and open the door for him to go in, but he hangs back. “It’s really dark,” he says.

"Of course, it’s dark. Are you chickening out now?”

He hesitates and then steps into the cave. As we make our way slowly along the metal grid walkway, he suddenly has a million questions.

“Why did they draw on the wall, Uncle Bernard?”

“They hadn’t invented paper yet.”

He thinks about this and then nods, making the light from his headlamp jump around on the ceiling.

I show him the bear skull altar.

“Is it really an altar?” he asks.

“I think it is.”

“But there’s no crucifix,” he says.

“There’s no crucifix because Jesus died two thousand years ago, and these people were here long before that. Do you think there was no God before Jesus lived?”

“Was it the same God?” he asks.


“The animal drawings are like the ancient people’s stained glass windows,” Nico says.

It doesn’t seem possible this could be Marie’s kid.


Nico saw the animals only that once, but his drawings are better than mine. He finishes a mountain lion and then stands back smiling. The smile changes to a frown.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

We’re both standing with rags tied around our waists, our clothes folded on the bed to keep them clean. At first, Nico didn’t want to undress, but the last thing we need is for Marie to start asking questions when she does the laundry, so finally he agreed, but he leaves his underwear on under the rag.

“It’s too flat,” he says. “Too smooth.” He touches the wall. “No shadows, no bumps. These animals look dead. The ones in the cave look alive.”

I bite my lip. “You’re right. But what can we do?”

He thinks for a minute. He has this way of stroking his chin like a wise old man. “That stuff they put between stones in the garden walls.”


“Yeah. When it’s dry, it looks kind of like the inside of a cave.”

I squint at him. “You want to put mortar on the walls?”

He looks at me, shrugs, and then looks at the floor.

“Why not?” I say, shrugging back at him.


Spreading the mortar isn’t as easy as we thought. The edge of the trowel flattens the surface, which is the opposite of what we want. Sticking globs onto the wall with our hands makes more texture. We work all day until my sister comes to find Nicolas at dinnertime. She yells his name up the stairs, and I shoo him out and lock the door behind him.

The room is too crowded with the bed and the armoire and the desk. After dinner, I move everything out into the hallway except the mattress, which I put in the middle of the floor.

My father knocks on the door of my room. I open it partway, just enough to see what he wants.

“What the hell is going on in there? Why is your furniture in the hallway?”

“I decided I didn’t need it. I like the room empty.”

He rolls his eyes. “Listen, I don’t really care, but your sister thinks you’re losing your mind.” He turns toward his room. “And, it’s blocking the hallway.”

“I’ll take it to the attic tomorrow.”

“I’m glad your mother isn’t here to see this.”


After mortaring the walls and letting them dry, we’re ready to begin our drawings again. At work, I’ve spent nearly all of each shift studying the horses—the hardest for me to memorize. I’ve tried practicing on paper, but I can’t get them the way I want. I hope Nico is right, that making the walls uneven will help the animals take shape.

At breakfast, my father is reading the paper, as usual.

“Look at this. Finally. In the United States they’re investigating priests for molesting altar boys. It’ll never happen here, though. Americans hate Catholics,” he says with a sneer. Is he jealous that the Americans are more anti-Catholic than he is?

“Nothing like that ever happened when I was an altar boy,” I say.

He snorts. “It happens everywhere. Are you really that naive? Those with power never fail to abuse it.”

Sitting on the front steps, sipping my coffee, waiting for Nico, I see Marie walking up the street in front of him. I hope she’s just coming to pick up the laundry, but no, the first thing she says is, “Nicolas, go get a pastry from the kitchen while I talk to Uncle Bernard.”

When has a conversation with her ever been about anything good? I motion to a spot on the steps, but she remains standing with her hands on her hips.

“What’s going on here?” she demands.

“Drinking coffee?”

She shakes her head. “Don’t be an idiot. You know what I mean. You and Nicolas, what have you been up to?”

I put my cup down and cross my arms. “You asked me to spend time with him.”

“But doing what?” Her mouth is hanging open and she’s squinting.

“A project. What does it matter? He’s happy.” I realize he is happy. And so am I. I rest my elbows on the top step and lean back.

“I’m worried he’s spending too much time with you.”

“First you worry he’s alone too much and now I’m a bad influence.”

“That’s not what I’m saying. He’s not playing with the other kids. He only wants to come over here and do this project, whatever it is.”

“Look, Marie, you worry too much. Just leave him alone.”

“Can I see it?”

“It’s not ready.”

“When it’s ready?”

I haven’t thought about this. Why haven’t I thought about this? I don’t want anybody to see. Not even when it’s finished. It’s not for public viewing.

“Well?” She jerks her head at me.

“I have to think about it.”

“What if I say he can’t come over anymore?”

“Why would you do that? You want to break his heart? Take away something he cares about?”

She rolls her eyes and exhales in an exasperated way. “You’re hopeless. No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Bitch,” I say under my breath. She stomps past me into the house.

A few minutes later, Nico comes out and asks if I’m ready to get started.

He works on the rhinoceroses first. Big strokes, and then smaller ones. He smudges some of the charcoal off with the chamois.

"What are you waiting for, Uncle Bernard?”


By the week before Christmas, we have one wall filled with ancient animal drawings. The fighting rhinoceroses, the mountain lions, the bears, all look exactly like the ones in the real cave.

“Why aren’t there any pictures of people?” Nico asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe they’re too hard to draw.”

He looks at me skeptically. “Not harder than those horses. Must be another reason.” He strokes his chin, a gesture he’s been doing more and more, leaving black marks on his face in the shape of a goatee. “What do the scientists think?”

"No idea. I never talk to them.”

He wrinkles his nose. “I think it’s because they were around other people all the time, but they mostly saw the animals from far away.” He looks at his hands and wipes them on one of the rags we keep for this purpose. “So they were more mysterious, or magical or something.”

I don’t know how to answer.

“Putting them on the cave wall was a way of capturing them, maybe,” he says.

“Maybe. That makes a lot of sense.” I take the rag from him and wipe his face.

“It must have been scary living around wild animals without guns or anything,” he says.

“They had spears or some kind of weapons.”

“Still.” He throws himself down on my bed. “Uncle Bernard, can we have a campout here tonight? I don’t feel like going home.”

“A campout? It’s my bedroom. I sleep here every night.”

“But I don’t. Can I sleep over?”

I can’t help grimacing. Marie won’t like this a bit.

“I’ll get a blanket and pillow and sleep on the floor next to your mattress. I won’t be any trouble, I promise.”

“That’s not it,” I say, shaking my head. “I just don’t know if your mother will let you.”

“It’s almost Christmas. There’s no school tomorrow. I’ll talk her into it.”

Miraculously, Marie agrees.


After Mass on Christmas morning, the one day of the year I let my sister drag me along, Nico pulls me aside. “I have a surprise.”

“What is it?”

“You have to come with me.”

“Now? What about lunch?”

“After lunch.”

Soon we’re tramping through the forest on the truffle hunters’ path. Nobody’s out today, though. Without leaves on the trees I can hear the main road faintly. I follow Nicolas off the path, down into a shallow ravine. He points to the ground at some bones. Small animal bones—some legs, a few ribs. He picks up a skull.

“I think it’s a fox or a dog or something.” He grins and holds it out to me.

I can’t help stepping back. I feel a look of disapproval creep over my face.

“I couldn’t find a bear,” he said. “I looked. But I don’t think we have them in the forest anymore. This was the best I could do. For the altar.”

He’s so excited, I have to smile. I take the skull. “Thank you.”


A few weeks later, Nico asks if we can go to the cave again. He isn’t sure we have the horns of the gazelle right.

“It’s risky. It’s not my normal day to work,” I say. “If somebody sees me, they’ll wonder what I’m doing there.”

He sighs. “OK.” He stares at the wall, lifts the charcoal to make a mark and then puts his hand down again, shaking his head. He lies down on my bed with his face in the pillow. I hear muffled noises.

“Hey. Don’t cry.” What am I supposed to do now? The fox skull is looking at me from the corner of the room. This place belongs to Nico as much as it does to me. “All right. One more visit.”

He turns toward me, wiping the tears from his cheek with a black-smudged finger. “Are you sure?” he asks.

“Let’s go.”

On the way, he’s quieter than he’s been in weeks. I’m afraid to ask what he’s thinking. He told me yesterday that he wanted to quit being an altar boy, but he wouldn’t say why.

I expect Serge to be sleeping in the shack when we get there, but he’s nowhere around. I call his name a couple of times, thinking he might be pissing in the woods, but he doesn’t answer.

“Wait behind those trees while I check inside,” I tell Nico.

I call into the cave a few times but get no answer.

“Hurry and look at what you need to. I don’t know when Serge might be back.”

Inside the cave, Nico runs ahead of me to the spot where the gazelles are. Each time his feet land on the metal grid the echo sounds like a gunshot. I stop to look at the handprints on the wall near the entrance, outlined in red powder.

Behind me, the door swings open, metal sliding against metal. As I turn to face Serge, the light from outside blinds me for a moment. Then I see it’s not Serge. It’s the boss, Dr. Fontaine.

He tilts his head, confused. Then he says, “This isn’t your day to work.”

“No, sir.”

“What are you doing in the cave?” he asks.

“I left something.”

“You’re not supposed to bring anything in here. What was it?”

“Um, my gloves. It was cold the past few days.”

“Why would you take them off in here?” he asks. But he doesn’t ask in an accusing way, like my mother used to when she caught me doing something. He’s a scientist, investigating.

“I . . . I don’t know.”

“My God. You too. First we catch the other guy sleeping on the job and now you’re trespassing.”

Just then I see through the metal grill a flash of something moving under us, crawling toward the door, like a small animal. A rock rolls into another rock. I pretend not to have heard it, but Dr. Fontaine looks down.

“Who is that? Come up here.”

Nico freezes.

“I said come up here.”

Nico climbs up onto the walkway.

“Is this your kid?” the boss asks.

“Uh, yes.” I hope he doesn’t figure out I’m too young to have a kid this age. I can’t have him go looking for Marie.

“That’s it. You’re done. Plenty of people would appreciate having a job in this economy. Out. Now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nico darts out the door. I follow quickly, but he’s already down to the river by the time I catch up. He throws his arms around me, trembling.

I just stand there. My job is over. I’m never allowed in the cave again. Ever.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Nico’s head is buried in my jacket.

“Never mind. Now I’ll have more time for drawing.” I don’t know what else to do, so I put my arms around him.


“What the hell? You got fired for going to work? That doesn’t make any sense!” My sister’s done screaming and crying and now it’s my father’s turn to apply logic.

“I thought I left something. It wasn’t my shift, and the boss said I was trespassing. So . . .”

“I told you! The worker has no rights anymore. Everything we fought for—gone!”

I stay in my cave for the next two days. Nobody tries to come in.

Nicolas doesn’t show up for the next two weeks, and I don’t have the energy to work on the drawings by myself. Finally, one Sunday afternoon, he knocks on my door and we pick up our charcoal and continue.


Nicolas insists on “camping out” the night we finally finish. My sister makes me swear I’ll get him home to get dressed for Mass the next morning. I feel bad because he’s told me so many times how much he hates going there.

“I have something for you,” he says when he comes into the room, his hands behind his back.

“Not more dead animals, I hope.”

He shakes his head and holds out one of my old sketch pads. Inside is a drawing, not of a prehistoric animal, but a live fox, on his way somewhere, pausing to look back at us over his shoulder. It’s a better drawing than I’ve ever done, or ever will do.

“I copied it from the drawing book you gave me.”

I walk around the room, holding up the sketch and pretending I’m trying to find an empty place on the cave wall to hang it. We both laugh until I give up and lay it on the floor near the door.

When it’s finally dark, we light candles all around the room so we can see the walls in firelight. The animals run and rear their heads in the flickering of the flames. Nicolas pulls six small stones out of his pocket and puts them in a circle on top of the skull. In the middle he puts a tiny candle, but it won’t stay upright. I hold a match to the bottom and drip wax on the skull so the candle will stick. He waves his hands over the whole thing a few times and mumbles some Latin-sounding words while he lights the wick.

“What was that you said?” I ask.

“A prayer I made up.”

“What’s the prayer say?”

“I asked God to send the animals to watch over us. You and me. Because I don’t believe in Jesus anymore.”

My sister’s going to kill me. That small comment I made in the cave and now the kid’s a blasphemer.

“Why not?”

“Jesus doesn’t protect us. These animals are fierce and dangerous and they won’t let anyone hurt us.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt us,” I say. “Not anymore.”

“You know what’s the best thing about our cave?” asks Nico.


“We make the rules,” he says. “And we’re allowed to touch the drawings.” And then he goes over to the wall and traces his finger around the mountain lion.


The next morning, I wait on the front steps for Marie, with my coffee and a cigarette.

“Where’s Nico?” She’s in a hurry. “Why didn’t you bring him to get dressed? We’ll be late for Mass.”

“He’s still asleep.”

“What? You swore!”

“He doesn’t want to go near that place, and you shouldn’t force him.”

She points at me and says, “So, you’re telling me how to raise my child, now?”

“Look, he’s a good kid. The church isn’t going to help him any. Let him be.”

Marie’s face twists into a grimace, and I think she might burst into tears. Then she looks down at her feet and exhales. She motions for me to move over on the step so she can sit, and then she reaches for my cigarette and takes a long drag.

“Can I see what you’ve been working on?” she asks, expelling a cloud of smoke with her question.

I shake my head. “Sorry. It’s a sacred thing. Just between Nico and me, at least for now. But here’s something you can see.” Reaching behind me, I open the door just enough to put my hand inside and grasp the textured paper from the sketch pad between my fingers and bring it out onto her lap. The fox’s eyes lock on Marie’s and she claps her hand to her chest.

“We have to make sure he goes to art school,” I say, putting my arm around her shoulder.

We sit side by side, Marie holding the cigarette until almost the whole thing has turned to ash. The chunk of grey powder drops to the sidewalk. I draw a face in the ash with my finger.