like any anthropologist on mars I was dying to check out the old alien city. house after house, room by room. the early reports described them as human toddler-sized creatures who lived together in what looked like big stone hives. I couldn’t wait to sift thru the ashes and tunnel into those mountains of little hivelike bumps. I imagined what i’d find. tiny little bones. simple tools of black obsidian. slags of colored glass. just like in the reports. and yes, what i’d only seen in pictures, their paintings.
for reasons I didn’t fully understood, the reports hypothesized that the aliens were social and insectlike. despite their artifacts, despite what seemed like elaborate paintings in their dwellings. in fact, my more cynical colleagues regarded these “paintings” as cleverly arranged secretions, products of an simple brain like a termite, not an intelligent one. was it their hivelike homes? their geometric patterns too diffuse, blotchy, and layered to represent anything? was it that we’d found no written sign or language except for these paintings? maybe. or maybe it was the paint. despite any of this, these paintings are not the work of some accident. non-representational or abstract in some unknowable way maybe, but these paintings say something about this world don’t they? secretions? paintings. just what do you guys think of jackson pollack?
we arrived at the settlement and I began exploring on my own. the military had cleared away the rubble covering much of the village. some of the dwellings were damaged and cracked open in the bright daylight. their interiors seemed to be the ones from the photographs, but their vivid colors were faded. just as all too soon the systematic autopsy of this place will begin and each centimeter will be gridded, exhumed, and turned into a faded photograph trapped in some dusty filing cabinet. peering deep into the entrance of an undamaged dwelling with my flashlight. as I reached in just inside the door, my hand found six crude stone pots, each with a different colored stone inside. I knew I should return them, leave them where I found them, but the urge to pick them up was too strong. each jar had a different colored stone in it. even covered with ash and dirt it was obvious that these stones matched the color of the paintings. I stuck my head and one shoulder inside the entrance. the sweep of my flashlight displayed a maze of interiors connected to a central hallway. without climbing inside I saw the swirls of color and subtle layered patterns of their paintings covering most of the walls. another unexpected corner revealed the remains of several former residents, bones intertwined, a collision of spiny skulls and limbs.
later analysis would confirm the paint to be organic, consisting of mineral dyes mixed with plant or animal materials. it could have been shit, blood, or vegetable pulp for all that it mattered to me. in a trance I was mixing water from my canteen with the stones in the jars. each stone dissolved into a liquid, into paint. it reminded me of the watercolor paintbox I had as a child. I opened a sketchbook from my backpack and finger-painted with the rich winedark color. I repeated this with the other shades of ash, sandy reds and browns, yellows, and black. staring into the circular swirls of paint I’d made, I found myself being slowly overcome by an opaque despair. a tangle of sound, voices babbling in fear, erupted in my mind. tears welled up. what sort of paint is this dripping with unknowable sadness and voices? startled, I looked around and was relieved to find myself alone. no sounds but the distant noise of excavation and machinery. I never heard those sounds again but my sadness didn't lift either. I guess it was enough to realize that only some arbitrary amount of time separated me from a fate as faded and meaningless as the paintings by dead insects.