They drove silently through Port Angeles and onto Highway 101, then west on the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway. Vanoy said little on the drive and nothing about the reason Rathskill was hired. “I don’t want to prejudice your results.”
Rathskill watched the scenery. The
forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedar was a continual presence,
a shadow on the land that fell steeply from the peaks of the Olympic Mountains
to the coastal plain and into the abyss of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across
the Strait he could see Canada and the mountain tops of Vancouver Island lost
It was almost two hours before they
reached the reservation. Near the fishing camp at Snow Creek, cars parked on
the verge reduced the road to a single lane—a school bus painted with a whale
mural, a VW micro bus advertising Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop, and an armored RV that seemed
capable of surviving the zombie apocalypse. A KIRO TV van was hoisting its
People were crowding the side of the
road. They were a motley crowd, tie-dye and overalls, dreadlocks and crew cuts.
Some were carrying signs protesting renewed Makah whaling. One white-haired
woman who might have been a retired librarian held a placard that read: Save a
whale, kill a Makah.
“Damn,” Rathskill said.
“People are pretty worked up already,”
Vanoy said. “If this gets out they’ll go ballistic.”
“If what gets out, Detective?”
“We’re almost there. You can draw your
The crowd piled up against a roadblock manned by Makah tribal police. Vanoy handed his identification to a young man with a name tag that read McCarty. “We’re going to the Sail River site,” he said.
McCarty looked at Vanoy more closely,
then again at Vanoy’s ID. His face seemed shadowed by doubt.
“The Chief asked us to meet him there,”
“Let me make a call.” McCarty used the
radio in his patrol car. When he returned he handed Vanoy a map drawn on a page
torn from a notebook. There was a phone number on the page. “It’s the Chief’s
cell number. In case you get lost. I wouldn’t recommend getting lost up there.”
They turned off the main road at Agency
Creek and followed the 200 Line Road into the interior of the reservation, quickly
leaving behind houses and mobile homes as they passed through a patchwork of
woodlots and clear cut, then turned onto a dirt road. Vanoy negotiated the potholes
and washboard. Makah tribal police vehicles were parked on the ridge. Vanoy
parked behind them.
When they got out of the car Vanoy
handed him a flashlight. It was long and black and heavy enough to use as a
weapon. “It will be dark soon,” he said, and headed downhill.
Rathskill followed Vanoy across a clear
cut. The land had been stripped of trees with mechanical efficiency. The waste
from logging had been bulldozed into huge slash piles. The slick soles of his
street shoes couldn’t gain traction on the damp ground. He slipped and fell
several times. His slacks were stained with mud and moss.
“Tell me again why this couldn’t wait
for a more reasonable hour and a proper pair of shoes,” Rathskill shouted to
Vanoy, already well ahead.
Rathskill tripped and fell, again. On
his knees he noticed a raven perched on a nearby tree stump. It examined him
“What? Nothing to see here,” Rathskill
said. “Move along.” He waved his flashlight like a traffic cop.
The bird cocked its head but remained.
It irritated Rathskill and frightened him a little. It seemed preternaturally
focused. He was reaching for a stick or a stone to throw when the raven took
flight with a harsh, scolding cry.
Remaining on the stump was a stick
figure made from twigs bent and broken into a human shape. It was made
skillfully but with childish simplicity. A prickly feeling ran down his spine.
He pocketed it furtively as if someone watching might disapprove.
There was no one watching. There was no
one at all. Vanoy must have kept walking into the forest and out of sight. The
peaks of the Olympic Mountains burned with the last daylight. The moon sailed
above the eastern horizon. The forest loomed. No one answered Rathskill’s repeated
He entered the forest in the direction
he had last seen Vanoy. The light failed beneath the immense trees. His
flashlight cast a puddle of light in a sea of darkness. Tangles of vine maple
draped with moss brushed his face. He tripped over exposed roots and climbed
over fallen trees. Water dripped down his neck.
He heard voices muted by the forest and
saw lights flickering among the trees ahead. He emerged into a circular
clearing a hundred yards across. Vanoy stood talking to a man with a face so
stern it seemed chiseled from ironwood.
A handful of tribal police were scattered across the circular
clearing in small groups, their conversations hushed. The beams of their
flashlights flitted among the trunks of trees that rose like columns in a
cathedral. A small animal screeched in the darkness, its cry cut off abruptly
Something bright in the darkness caught Rathskill’s attention.
He played the beam of his flashlight on a nearby tree. A human skeleton hung
from the branches. And the next. And the next. Everywhere his light reflected
from the clean, white excellence of bone. The entire clearing was ringed by
hanging bones. It was a graveyard.
“Strange fruit, doctor,” Vanoy said.
“What is this place?” Rathskill asked. It felt like the air had
thinned. He couldn’t catch his breath.
The man with the stern face answered. “We were hoping you
could tell us.” He had a voice like gravel churning in a stream bed.
“This is Chief Johnson. He’s head of the Makah Tribal
Rathskill turned to Vanoy. “Why me? I mean, why do you need an
anthropologist at a mass murder site?”
“We’re not sure it’s murder,” Chief Johnson said.
“If not murder, then
what?” For the first time Rathskill looked closely at Chief Johnson. “You think
these bones were exhumed and used in a ritual? You think this was done by one
of your own?”
“We need an expert opinion not affiliated with the tribe,
Doctor Rathskill,” Chief Johnson said. “That’s why we need you.”
“To do what?” Rathskill asked.
“To tell us what you see.”
Rathskill began with the nearest of maybe fifteen bodies hung
from the trees. It was probably half of a complete skeleton. A length of animal
sinew was threaded through a hole drilled in the top of the skull. When he
touched the clavicle, the bones began turning independently like a mobile.
There was evidence of a hard life—old wounds, fractures that had healed imperfectly, but nothing that definitively caused death. The heavy, heart-shaped pelvis indicated a man’s bones. Rathskill couldn’t tell what killed him but he was relatively old when he died, at least fifty.
Rathskill worked his
way from one set of bones to the next. Mist draped the overstory like a shroud.
It snagged on branches and tore, falling to the ground in a slow drip that
always seemed to find his unguarded neck despite shrugged shoulders and
Movement flitted at the edge of his vision. Repeatedly he
turned to catch the movement but whenever he turned to look, however abruptly,
there was nothing. His spastic movements attracted the attention of several
policemen nearby. He calmed himself, breathing consciously, focusing on the
bones at hand.
A mournful breeze sighed among the branches and roiled the
mist. There were shapes in the mist that formed and dissipated within
heartbeats, a suspect bestiary of gryphons and basilisks, dragons and flying
monkeys. It seemed all the terrors of a medieval imagination had been loosed
overhead, made of nothing more than air and water.
The bones turned gently in the breeze. They looked like
cadaverous art hung in the woods, performance art or a Dance Macabre.
Flashlight beams skittered across the white bones, animating them with the
illusion of motion.
He could hear their voices, the voices of the dead like a
breeze among dry leaves, voices whispering in the darkness beneath the trees. They
were an insistent whisper, words drawn taut with emotion—longing, regret, rage and
retribution, loss, love, fear. There were so many voices. He tried to
concentrate on the work at hand, but the voices persisted and pestered like sand
in his shoes or the hum of cosmic background radiation.
He pressed the palms of his hands against his temples,
trying to quiet the noise.
Someone spoke to him, laid their hand on his shoulder.
Rathskill looked for several seconds at the man without a face standing beside
him. The concern in the man’s voice was obvious, the syntax seemed right, the
rhythm and inflection familiar, but he had no idea who the man was or what his
words meant. He could have been speaking in tongues. Rathskill waited for the
“Are you alright, doctor?”
It was as if Rathskill’s perceptions rotated a quarter turn and
the disconnected pieces fell into place. The man’s face was no longer a
featureless mask. It was Vanoy.
“You look unwell.”
The whispering voices hissed and moaned, wailed and barked,
whimpered and cajoled. They tugged at his attention like needy children. He
knew Vanoy expected an answer, but Vanoy was only one among many demanding an
answer. Rathskill knew he was taking too long.
“In these circumstances, how should I look, Detective? Chipper?”
“Point taken. How’s it coming? The Chief’s getting
It was difficult to concentrate with all the chattering
voices. They were cajoling and coercing, pleading and threatening, pitiful and
belligerent. They filled his head with the noise. It was difficult to connect
his thoughts, like wading through a bayou, hip deep in the muck, each step so
labored it seemed unrelated to the next.
“You can assure the Chief it will take no longer than
necessary but not a second less.” It was a bluff. He had already given up any
pretension of academic rigor. He was stalling for time.
The voices abruptly fell silent. It reminded Rathskill of a
chorus of bull frogs on a pond ending all together. A defensive silence. A
defense against what? The forest was again quiet enough to hear the hushed
conversation of policemen and the splat of condensation falling in fat drops
from the trees.
There was a woman in the trees behind Vanoy. It was only the
wisp of a woman like an imaginary animal seen in the clouds, there and gone in
Correlation is not causation, he reminded himself. The
appearance of the woman and the sudden silence of the voices could be merely
coincidental. Hell, it was all in his head anyway. Why worry about causation?
He saw her again, between the trunks of two massive Douglas
fir trees, just the briefest moment caught in the moving beam of a flashlight.
She seemed fuzzy at the edges and trailing tendrils of mist like the train of a
wedding gown. She was looking directly at him.
Vanoy turned to look behind him. “What?” he said.
Rathskill realized he had been fixedly staring at the
apparition. “Nothing,” he said, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of
his nose. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day and a strange night.”
“We’re all tired, doc. Can you wrap this up so we can all
get some sleep?”
“It is what it is,” Rathskill said and immediately regretted
it. He had always hated the phrase, a meaningless restatement of the obvious, a
placeholder for people who couldn’t be bothered to think.
“Until it isn’t,” Vanoy said, then dutifully returned to
Rathskill continued to the next tree, the next set of bones.
They were much the same but different. The back of the man’s skull had been
crushed by a blunt weapon. The blow would certainly have been fatal but it
might have been delivered post mortem. Even the dead had enemies.
He saw her a final time while he was examining the last of
the bones. He had come full circle to a man whose legs had been broken, perhaps
to keep him from walking the earth after death. She was floating at the edge of
the forest. Only her face was fully formed. He saw a depth of pain and
compassion in her expression that stole his breath away. He wanted to surrender
himself and drown in her eyes. Then she was gone. Chief Johnson stood beside
“You look sick,” Chief Johnson said. “Would you like some
“I could use something stronger. A lot stronger.” Rathskill
kept his hands behind him. They were still trembling.
“Liquor is illegal on the reservation,” Chief Johnson said.
“So, you never got this from me.”
Johnson passed him a metal flask. Rathskill took a long
swig. It was a surprisingly good single malt Scotch. It helped steady his hands.
There was still a chance he could escape this place without being recognized a
“What’s your opinion, Doctor Rathskill?” the chief asked.
Rathskill took a deep breath. “I can reach some tentative
conclusions,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t sound like some small animal
screeching in the dark. “The width of the pelvis suggests all the bones belong
to men. Whoever they were, they led a hard life. Several may have died
violently. Others probably died of old age or disease.
“The oldest bones are probably a hundred and fifty years
old, possibly much older, strung together with animal sinew. The more recent
bones are mounted with mono-filament, the kind of fishing line you could buy at
any sporting goods store.”
“How can you know the age of bones?” Vanoy said.
“The deer sinew that holds the older bones together was
beaten by rocks and chewed to make twine. It’s an old technique replaced by
factory products early in the 19th Century.
“The condition of the sinew used to thread the bones
suggests they haven’t been hanging in the weather long. Probably stored in a
dry place for years. Otherwise the deterioration would be more pronounced. This
place,” he said, waving his hand in a circle, “was probably resurrected as a
ritual site only recently.”
“Why?” Vanoy asked. “Why go to the trouble of saving old
bones and then hanging them in the trees?”
“The dead served as messengers,” Rathskill said. “They
carried the prayers of the living to the spirits.” He swept his flashlight
around the clearing. The bones danced in the light. “My guess these bones
belonged to powerful men who could intercede with the spirits to ensure a
desired outcome. Successful hunters, heads of families, that sort. There are
instances in the anthropological literature of Northwest coast whaling tribes
using necromancy to influence the success of the hunt. The Makah haven’t gone
whaling in over a hundred years. This could be a revival of the practice.”
Chief Johnson said nothing. Rathskill had the feeling he
wasn’t telling the chief anything he didn’t already know. “Chief,” he said,
“what am I really doing here? What do want from me?”
“I need you to document the scene as you see it. I want it on
Rathskill suspected he was also there to provide the chief with
leverage in whatever political wrangling was going on within the tribe.
“There may be more.” Rathskill hesitated. Was it a genuine
risk? “The literature indicates necromancers went further than just stealing
bones. They sometimes killed slaves to carry their message to the spirits and
return with the reply. Always young boys. The young could most easily pass
Chief Johnson looked intently at Rathskill. “There’s
something you should see,” he said and walked to the edge of the woods, distant
from any of the bones. Rathskill followed and almost stepped into the hole. The
Chief’s arm restrained him, then turned his flashlight on the ground.
A child’s body lay in a shallow grave. He was five, maybe six years old, dressed in a Sea Hawks t-shirt, blue jeans worn white at the knees, and scuffed tennis shoes. One eye was open, staring blindly at the sky.
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