It’s been several months since I’ve posted stories about my post apocalyptic cave dwellers. If you missed earlier stories and want to catch up, just click on “post apocalypse” or “Dissonance” in the word salad along the righthand side of this blog. This is an origins story and a bit of a cliff hanger. I think it stands alone quite well, or at least it will stand well alongside the second half once I publish it.

Public Domain

Public Domain


(Origins of the Cave People)

During the Dissonance, the children of Saleena’s village learned to gather wild edibles for their families to eat. Cultivated gardens had failed, but things like lamb’s ear, edible mushrooms, tree nuts and even a few lichens could be found in outlying areas.

As difficult times wore on, shipments of provisions to the village became less reliable and more infrequent. Some of the villagers died after eating poisonous plants or the tainted meat of local animals that had been affected by fallout radiation. A few of the very old and some of the young died of malnutrition. If nothing changed, the village would soon be no more.

One day, while the children were gathering food, Saleena wandered farther from the village than anyone had gone in years. Near the base of a rocky structure, she found an opening. Hoping to find some worms or edible mosses, she crawled on her belly for a short distance and emerged in a wide cavern, dimly lit by phosphorescent growths along the walls and ceiling.

Public Domain

Public Domain

Saleena had heard stories of caves in the area and how they contained great underground lakes full of fish. If this cave contained such treasures, her village could be saved, but the sun had already begun to sink in the afternoon sky before Saleena had entered the cave. She wriggled back through the opening and made marks in the dirt to help her remember where the entrance was. Then she gathered a few handfuls of sour grass and some stray berries as she trotted back to the other children.

Over the next several days, Saleena returned frequently to the cave. It was hard to gather her share of wild edibles while exploring the cave, but she knew that if she found an underground lake, the sacrifice would be worthwhile.

In the cave, Saleena found several new forms of life—both plant and animal. Some she knew could be used for food. Others were questionable. She used a heat-powered flashlight that she borrowed (without her father’s knowledge) from the family storage unit in town. The heat from her hands produced a thin ray of light, enough to allow her to navigate through the tunnels that branched off the main cavern. Her compass, a gift from her grandfather, kept her from losing her sense of direction underground.

On her fifth trip to the cave, Saleena noticed moisture on the walls of the passage she was exploring. Soon, she heard a dripping sound. The passage narrowed, but she kept moving toward the sound. Finally, she had to proceed on hands and knees. Just as she thought she wouldn’t be able to go any farther, the passage opened abruptly. She almost fell into a second cavern. Below was a dark expanse. She dropped a pebble and began to count, “One . . . two . . . “ Splash! The surface of the water was close, she flashed her light around the room, searching for outcroppings or other ways down to the water. A few possibilities occurred to her, but she would need help. Now that she had found the water, she could tell the rest of the village. Maybe they could even move underground, into the little rooms and tunnels of the cave. Living here they would be protected from surface effects of the nuclear fallout as well as from air attacks, and the food and clean water would be sources of life for the struggling villagers.

Public Domain

Public Domain

Saleena carefully turned around and crawled back through the narrow passage. She ran through the main cavern, squeezed through the cave entrance and emerged on the surface where the sun had nearly sunk from view. She sprinted back to where she had left the other children, but they had all returned home.

Panic rose in Saleena’s throat as she headed toward the village. Her discovery wouldn’t be of help to anyone if she got stuck outside overnight. Her skills were in foraging, not hunting, and large, carnivorous mammals would eagerly pick her off if she stayed out in the open after sundown.

For Survival’s Sake

Creative Commons, photo by Eugene Zelenko, share alike 3.0

Creative Commons, photo by Eugene Zelenko, share alike 3.0


“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mirjam’s weak voice echoes through the cavern.

Swallowing the bitterness rising in his throat, Jan nods and coaxes a flame to consume the dry wicker of his dead son’s bassinet. His responsibility is now to Mirjam and her children. He discovered them here after the village collapsed, killing his family. Resisting tears, he makes funny faces to entertain two-year-old Noah, who is starting to fuss.

Their colony in the Outskirts had been founded during the Dissonance by those choosing to dwell underground rather than battle the dangers on the surface. After 300 years of subterranean life, the inhabitants couldn’t endure exposure to the sun. Although the surface war had ended, evolutionary developments rendered most surface vegetation and the meat of surface-dwelling animals inedible to Jan and his four companions. The colony’s old storage cave provides shelter and a limited cache of supplies.

Bartholomew and Nathaniel, Mirjam’s twin boys, clamor into the cavern from the tunnel where they were searching for supplies. “Find anything good?” Jan asks.

Nathaniel shakes his head and holds out a nearly empty knapsack. Jan wonders at the maturity that has aged the child beyond his eight years.

“I found water,” Bartholomew, the more adventurous of the twins, announces. “Nate wouldn’t let me climb down to look for swag fish though.”

“Good for Nate,” Jan replies. “And good for you for finding that water, Bartholomew.” He tousles the boy’s unruly locks.

Jan feels a knife twist in his soul as he watches the pride brighten Bartholomew’s dark eyes. He misses his own son deeply.

The knapsack holds a few lichens and a handful of gurba, cave-dwelling worms that have become the group’s primary source of nutrition. The twins help Mirjam sit up near the fire so she can turn the few edibles into something comparable to stew. She insists on preparing the meager meals, despite her illness.

Jan’s stomach rumbles as he eats his portion. Their supply of biscuits ran out a week ago, and the boys are finding less on each foraging trip. He worries that they might get lost in the passages or, worse, that an earthquake might crush them as the first quake crushed his family and the rest of the village. The high-ceilinged cavern is safer—although not completely free of danger—should another quake occur.

“I’m going with the boys tomorrow.” Jan addresses Mirjam abruptly.

The woman stares at him blankly. Usually Jan spends his days searching the surface for other survivors.

“The water—the boys aren’t strong enough to climb down to it. I am. If there are swag fish living in it, that water might save your life.”


Jan squeezes along the tunnel behind the twins. After a couple hours of clambering through twisting passageways, Jan begins to feel anxious. The boys have been exploring farther into the cave than he knew.

Suddenly, the passage begins to shake. The tremor isn’t strong enough to cause structural damage, but falling debris pins Bartholomew’s left leg to the passage floor.

“How much farther to the water?” Jan asks.

“Just a few meters, where the passage heads right,” Nate responds.

Jan quickly clears the debris from Bartholomew’s leg. It’s broken, but the boy’s cuts and scrapes don’t look serious.

“We might have some trouble on the way back, but your mom needs us to check that water. You stay here while I go down.”

Jan leaves the boys and soon emerges into an open space. Directly in front of him, the cave floor falls away. He grabs a loose rock, tosses it into the empty space, and listens for a splash. After evaluating the depth, he takes the rope from his knapsack and secures it to a stalagmite. Tying the other end around his waist, he prepares to rappel down the cave wall.

At the bottom lies an underground lake with a gravelly shore and space to camp along the far side. In the murky depths, Jan can make out the ghostly forms of swag fish, and he knows his new family won’t be dying—at least not today.