Tomb in the Trees

Being a tribal leader, Ban should have led the hunt, but she rather liked the animals, even the ferocious boars and bears. If they were a nuisance it was easy to send them away with a prod of her spear. She was the best flint knapper in the small tribe and hers was very sharp. And why kill animals when the nearby sea was full of fish and shellfish?

Some of the tribe picked fruit when it was in season and dug for roots in the winter. These gatherers enabled them to survive while the hunters supplemented their diet with the occasional kill of the deer or wild pig. Ban sometimes caught and ate fish, but not the meat of creatures she considered to be friends. No one tried to persuade her otherwise; she had grown into a powerful young woman without it.

But the sea that enabled the tribe to survive was also the barrier to warmer climes in the south. Winters were becoming colder and Banís people soon spent most of the time in their cave, deep in the forest where they huddled together during the evenings. One of them always kept watch for hungry bears and wolves and tended the fire at the entrance to fend them off.

It grew colder and colder. The eldest member of the small group could not remember the weather being so severe. The rivers she used to fish were now frozen over and the berries fell from trees, frosted before they had ripened.

One bitter evening their fires went out.

There was no one left to tend them.

The scavengers that might have preyed on their bodies were also dead. So Banís tribe lay, undisturbed, as a mighty glacier crawled its way across the once fertile forest, flattening all before it and sealing the cave.


Sangeeta collected tellin seashells.

She had boxes of them under her bed.

No one asked what she wanted them for, but there were now surely enough now for whatever it was.

Sangeeta was a talented teenager and had surprised many with her creative handicraft... though painting the bollards which stopped parents driving into the school grounds as minions was probably going too far. They had been done so well done, the deputy head decided they should stay. Being bright yellow made the bollards more noticeable.

Sangeeta also made a decorative border fence for the juniorsí garden using wire mesh, which was much admired. Not that any of this went to her head. Her intention was to embellish a mundane world, not attract admiration. This enthusiasm had been inherited from her mother. The garden surrounding their mobile home was filled with windmills, mobiles, plant containers and pergolas made from reclaimed materials; anything that had been discarded, even by molluscs. Living within walking distance of a sandy beach made seashells easy to collect. There were scatterings of cuttlefish, small hillocks of mussel shells, and many, many whelks...all no longer needed by the creatures that grew them and begging to be made use of.

But Sangeeta was only interested in the small tellins for her project. The tiny clam-like shells were pretty; white, pink, orange and yellow with stripes, looking up from the sand, bright-eyed as though asking to be dropped into her small canvas bag.

As she was gathering them, Sangeeta looked up and saw her friend standing on the bank of marram grass.

She waved. ďHallo Ban!Ē

The sturdy young woman waved back.

Sangeeta fastened her bag and went up to join her but, as usual, Ban had disappeared.

Sangeeta carried on as though she was still there. ďI've got enough now. Can you be sure this will stop your family from being disturbed?Ē

If it hadn't been for a recent landslip the cave entrance would have remained sealed. The secret way in Ban had shown Sangeeta would have also remained secret, deep amongst the tangle of brambles and bracken.

Sangeeta and her mother had failed to persuade the local archaeologists not to disturb the cave. These experts believed that it contained ancient remains and if people were a dead for long enough their bones could be retrieved and displayed in a museum, alongside all the other assumptions the modern mind had about their ancient ancestors. Ban was bound to be labelled as a young woman of childbearing age and relegated to minor chores while the men were out hunting. How could Sangeeta explain to these people that she was actually a tribal leader able to carve wood and knap flint with the best of them? Better her bones lay undisturbed and not libelled.

Unfortunately the cave was in common land, which enabled the local authorities to give permission for it to be excavated.

The cave had been fenced off in preparation for the dig, so Sangeeta went in through its secret entrance.

Deep inside were the huddled remains of Banís small tribe where they had lain frozen in never-ending sleep for thousands of years. In the light of her lamp it was quite magical. Although desiccated by the dry cave air, it was possible to believe that the slumbering community could at any moment get up and go about their Stone Age business. Ban had decorated the cave walls with pictures of the animals she regarded as friends, and her deer, beavers, pigs, bears and wolves danced in the lamplight.

The thought of the cave being disturbed after all this time seemed tragic, and Sangeeta wondered how Banís strange idea could prevent it. Perhaps prehistoric existence, lacking the distractions of the modern world, had enabled her to understand the elemental forces of life and death. These ancient people lived in harmony with the fluctuations of their tenuous existence.

Though Ban and Sangeeta could not comprehend anything the other might have said, they somehow understood each other. In her mysterious way, the ghost demonstrated the pattern of shells she wanted Sangeeta to arrange. It looked exquisite, but was it really powerful enough to protect people from the intruding archaeologists? They would have dismissed this magic as a primitive urge to control the elements. If these ancient people did have such powers, why had they allowed themselves to be frozen by the rapidly encroaching Ice Age? Yet archaeologists knew that many ancient humans did not believe life ended with death, the ultimate terror of the modern Western mind. Sangeeta's mother understood. To her, the true meaning of existence had slipped away from people. Life was about creating things, not acquiring them.

Sangeeta worked until dusk, arranging the tellins in whorls and ripples, forming a pattern that wended its way from the mouth of the cave back to where Banís small tribe lay in eternal sleep.

She returned the next morning and completed the pattern just as the archaeologists arrived with their trowels, sieves and lamps. As they removed the barrier at the entrance Sangeeta watched from the shadows of the cave, hoping they would not disturb the shells. They did notice them in time and seemed baffled. The pattern had not been there when they first surveyed it, yet their barrier was undisturbed.

They took many photographs before holding a long discussion amongst themselves.

Sangeeta watched with bated breath.

What would happen if they caught her interfering in the district's most important Stone Age find? She would be forever branded as the delinquent teenager who undermined the worthy attempts to investigate the lives of primitive human forebears. How could Sangeeta have explained that these people had sensitivities and intelligence the equal of anyone alive?

Should she make her way out through the secret entrance in the bracken, or confront the sacrilegious interlopers and protest that they were trampling over the graves of the dead?

But Ban was suddenly there, beckoning her to the back of the cave where her tribeís remains lay.

As Sangeeta took a lingering look at them for the last time the cold air of the cave became warmer. The still air moved as a light breeze disturbed it and an eldritch light glowed about the shrivelled remains.

She gasped as the spirits of Ban and her companions rose from their ossified bodies. The ghostly forms reached out in greeting to Sangeeta... and farewell.

Slowly frozen to death thousands of years ago, they were now released from their mortal remains into the full wonder of existence to become one with the Universe.

A small tornado swept from the back of the cave and lifted the elaborate pattern of tellin shells. They cascaded about the archaeologists like stinging snowflakes.

Sangeeta picked up the carefully tooled necklace of semiprecious stones Ban had invited her to take and left through the secret entrance.

Everything now belonged to the excavators.