On the wall opposite him, S. notices something different—a set of symbols that looks like a numbering system. It’s a ledger of some sort, perhaps, fitting into the space between two figures who are both looking at it as if it were a solid thing. (p184 in English, p191 in French)
Ostensibly, we already know the meaning of these symbols. Eric records the numerical significance of each symbol set in pencil, and Jen realizes that the first column corresponds to the PAGE, the second column the LINE, and the third line the WORD. When then using the numbers to look up the proper words in The Painted Cave (inaccessible to us), Jen determines that the message is…
WILL WAIT TEN YEARS THEN HOME
VAIS ATTENDRE DIX ANS PUIS RENTRER (French)
It is worth pointing out that the French version of “S.” has 473 pages, compared to 456 in English. And yet, despite the differences in languages and page numbers, the numbering scheme is the same in both French and English for the symbols. This is a remarkable feat, and suggests that the numbers and the symbols with which they are associated were important enough to the story to be preserved despite the translation. This means that the PAGE, LINE, WORD (PAGE, LIGNE, MOT) code contains the same message in the same location of the book…
13, 2, 6 WILL VAIS
4, 8, 3 WAIT ATTENDERE
62, 5, 9 TEN DIX
2, 24, 1 YEARS ANS
1, 4, 11 THEN PUIS
28, 19, 7 HOME RENTRER
This appears to be a message from Filomela Caldeira to V.M. Straka, in case he is still alive. Jen comments that FXC did wait ten years and then returned to her home in Brazil.
Is there, however, a deeper meaning to the symbols more organic to the story of the K— people who create the drawings?
The symbols occur at a climactic moment in the story woven by the cave paintings. Until this point, the drawings are growing more brilliant and tell the story of a spiritual people living at peace and at one with each other. And then something changes. Before we find out what exactly it is, the fleeing trio (S., Corbeau, and Pfeifer) pause in their hasty flight from Vevoda to rest. Corbeau, who is in shock after losing Stenfalk, is silent. Pfeifer and S. discuss her condition in hushed tones.
“Pfeifer shakes his head, whispers to S., “She’s gone. She’s here, but gone.”
“She’s keeping up,” S. whispers back. “She’s doing everything that we are.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t see it. She’s gone. It’s what happens. You love, then you lose, then you die. Even if you survive, you die. Think about Ostrero: couldn’t stand to be without his wife and kids. Lost his nerve. And now her. She’s not who she was this morning. Never will be.”
As S. ponders this and his own desire to be with Sola, he sees the set of symbols on the wall. He says of it It’s a ledger of some sort.
A ledger, ostensibly, is simply a set of numbers – which makes us assume that Eric and Jen have removed all the mystery and so we stop looking deeper. But there is another definition of ledger…
a flat stone slab covering a grave.
The set of symbols we see on the cave wall, placed carefully in the space between two figures who are both looking at it as if it were a solid thing, is a grave marker.
A key figure in the history of the K— died. And it changed everything. Just as it did for Corbeau when Stenfalk died.
When the K—people became disconnected from this leader or respected figure, they became disconnected from each other and from their spiritual nature. As subsequent cave paintings reveal…
The walls look different now; the lines and colors are as precise as any S. has seen, but the images aren’t as dense. Fewer hands at work, perhaps—fewer people willing to walk this far into the caverns to paint. But the narrative is changing, too; the tribe seems to be splitting into factions. One group of figures is drawn carefully, lithe and graceful; the others look dashed-off, blocky and rough, with much less detail. The two groups now hunt separately. The two groups face off again and again in some sort of tribal meeting. After a while, S. notices another, more subtle difference: the bird-wolf spirits now appear only rarely, and even when they do, they are high above the human action, made small with distance. (p184-185)
If this is true – if the symbols really do have more meaning than six rows of numbers that produce a short message from FXC, then how do we decipher them?
The clue to understanding the emotional pain the K— are feeling and what they write on this grave marker could be hidden in the physical pain of S. and Corbeau.
S.‘s big toe and second and third toes are burning with jaw-tightening pain. Simultaneously, Corbeau’s index, middle, ring fingers are suffering the same painful fate. Three toes and three fingers – suffering from the pain of Vevoda’s black stench. The attention to detail on this as the two stand by the cave symbols, which are between the paintings of two people in the pain of loss – can be no mistake.
The symbols are not just six rows, they are three columns.
So either we take the numbers that Eric has discovered and reevaluate them as three columns instead of six rows, or we abandon the numbers altogether and look for a deeper meaning behind each symbol that relates the story of loss that the K— must feel after the death of this beloved member of their tribe.
What did the K— write on the ledger of this cave wall to honor and lament their loss?