Category Archives: Whistlepig

Darkness Rising

Friday, March 18

It was too early to knock on Blavatsky’s door. She could be irritable early in the morning. Her irritation was formidable. Sully went to the Eagle Café. 

The Eagle opened early to feed fishermen and dock workers. The food was simple but sturdy, like the building itself. Since 1905, the year of the Chicago Teamsters strike, it had accumulated a think rind of white paint, layer after layer, one shade or another, but always white.

He sat in his favorite booth, the red Naugahyde patched with duct tape and molded to the shape of his buttocks, the classified section of the Peninsula Daily News spread on the table.

Hattie Malept arrived to take his order. She was attractive in an uncomplicated way, fair hair and sun browned skin and a ready smile. Sully was enamored.

“Looking for work?” Hattie said.

“Thinking about it. Not a lot of growth potential in my job.”

Hattie laughed. Her laughter sounded like wind chimes to Sully. She brushed aside a strand of hair that had strayed. “Did you read about the boy kidnapped from Forks? Stolen from his bedroom in the middle of the night. Someone jimmied the back door. Parents didn’t know he was gone until the morning. I’d die if someone took Aurora.”

Aurora was Hattie’s daughter. Sully was generally uncomfortable around kids but Aurora specifically. She spooked him. He had the feeling she knew a lot but wasn’t telling, at least not to him.

He ordered his usual breakfast of poached eggs and dry wheat toast. He couldn’t concentrate on the classified ads. He couldn’t taste his meal. He couldn’t even manage to flirt with Hattie. He kept seeing motion flitting at the edge of his vision and remembering the inkwell darkness clutching his heart. When he had finished he paid the check and left a tip he couldn’t afford, then went to call on Blavatsky.

There were no street names or house numbers in Shantytown. Like English cottages, each residence was named individually. Blavatsky lived in Riddlepit, a place designed in Swedish modern—stainless steel, mahogany, and glass. Blavatsky had chosen the design but Sprout Lebowski named it Riddlepit out of spite.

Sprout was H.P. Blavatsky’s roommate. He stood 4’ tall in stockinged feet. Sully found him hiding behind a dock box with a slingshot and a cache of water balloons.

“Something happened to me last night,” Sully said. “Something I can’t explain. I need to talk to Blavatsky.”

“Go away,” Sprout said.

“Why?”

“Can’t you see I’m waiting in ambush?”

“Who are you ambushing?”

“That damned tour truck.”

Qwackers?”

Qwackers was a war surplus amphibious truck Sandy Crab used to haul tourists around the bay. A headless duck was painted on the side of the truck followed by a string of headless ducklings. Through an error in perspective, the tourists’ heads looked grafted on the ducks’ bodies.

“Yes. Now, will you go away? You’re blowing my cover.”

“Sandy Crab won’t be here for another 45 minutes. I saw the truck driving up Hill Street to gawk at the rich folk. He always follows the same route. Predictable little pissant. Why do you want to water bomb Qwackers? Never mind. That’s obvious.”

Life was lived visibly at Riddlepit. Sandy Crab liked to point out to tourists the dwarf behind the glass in various stages of undress. Sprout took offense being pointed at by rubes from Idaho in an amphibious truck.

“I need to talk to H.P.,” Sully said again.

Sprout relaxed and hoisted himself onto the dock box. “Why?”

Sully described his night.

“Were you high?” Sprout asked.

“Stone cold sober.”

“Stoned, I believe.”

“Maybe H.P. can make sense of it. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Not going to happen,” Sprout said. “She’s still pissed. The dead crow.”

The dead crow remained a mystery in Shantytown. One morning it appeared perched on the wind vane atop Riddlepit, stiffened by death, its claws welded to the metal vane by rigor mortis. Some claimed it was a fluke, a natural death, but death rarely imitated art as a sculpture rigidly poised, pivoting to face the wind. Strangers thought it part of the design until the corpse began shedding feathers and white patches of bone became visible beneath black feathers.

Blavatsky blamed Sully. Sully protested his innocence. Blavatsky was psychic. That settled the matter for most of Shantytown.

“That wasn’t me,” Sully protested again.

“She thinks it was,” Sprout said. “That’s all that matters. I wouldn’t ask her any favors for a while. Anyway, it sounds like you need a shaman.”

“Why a shaman?”

“The animals, the Indian graveyard? That shit’s mythic.”

“You know any?”

“Myths?”

“Shaman.”

“What am I, a job board? Ask Umber Schist. It’s her sort of shtick. She’s been banging on about the dead rising from Tse-whit-zen and spectral emanations. Why can’t she just call them ghosts?”

“Pompous dike,” Sully said.

“See, it’s that sort of comment gets you kicked out of the sandbox. You need to learn to play well with others.”

Sully didn’t need life coaching from a former midget wrestler in the Lucha Libre. “What ghosts?”

“I don’t know. Ask Umber.”

“I don’t suppose shamans advertise in the Peninsula Daily News,” Sully said.

“None worth a damn, I should think. Why do you care anyway? People see stuff that’s not there all the time.”

“This is different. Acid, peyote, mescaline…I always knew I’d wake up and it would be the same shit, different day. This wasn’t like that. This was real. I need to know what it means.”

“The game is fixed. That’s all you need to know. The rules don’t matter.”

“You’re a dour little man,” Sully said.

Sprout shrugged. “I’m a dwarf. We have a history. Now go away. I have an ambush to execute.”

It took Sully several hours to scrounge the courage to approach Witchfold Cottage and only after he had exhausted every other source. No one knew of a local shaman. People were happy to refer shamans in the Amazon rainforest or Himalayan foothills but none in Port Angeles.

Witchfold was a calculated effort to accurately reproduce something that likely never existed, something plucked from the imagination of the Brothers Grimm and floated on salt water, a low roof of artificial thatch and a chimney that belched foul smelling smoke and small creatures that scurried in the rafters. Umber called them her familiars. Most people called them pests.

A wicker pentacle hung on the front door. The door opened before Sully could knock. His fist hung suspended inches from Umber’s nose. She was broad and dense and dark and filled the doorway.

“Umber,” Sully said. She didn’t reply, just stared at him. He swallowed. “I’ve come to ask your advice. Something happened last night, something I can’t explain. At Tse-whit-zen.”

Umber’s expression softened. “Spectral emanations?”

“I suppose so. Animals, mostly. Cougar, coyote, wolves. But they were ghostly.”

Umber snorted. It sounded like a buffalo in a dust wallow. “Everyone else sees the ghosts of dead Klallam. You see the ghosts of dead dogs.”

“I need the name of a good shaman.”

“Why a shaman? We have plenty of talented psychics locally. Why do you always choose the more difficult path?”

“It’s my nature.”

“I’ve heard of a shaman among the Makah. A man named Winsome Clapanhoo. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly so he probably won’t speak to you.”

“How do I find him?”

“Take Highway 22 and drive to the end of the world, then ask anyone on the side of the road. They can give you directions if they’re inclined. I’m told he lives in a cave.” She closed the door in his face.

Sully left immediately for Neah Bay.

His old Dodge van, a 1978 Tradesman, trailed a cloud of smoke and burnt a quart of oil in the 60 miles between Port Angeles and the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay. There was a line of cars stacked at the entrance to the reservation and a crowd of protesters with signs. They were passing out leaflets to drivers in the queue. The exhaust fumes dissuaded them from approaching the Dodge.

At the checkpoint a tribal policeman asked his business on the reservation. The cop looked more closely when Sully said he was visiting Winsome Clapanhoo but waved him past.

He pulled alongside the first pedestrian he saw walking on Bayview Avenue and stuck his head out the passenger window. A cloud of unburnt hydrocarbons enveloped them.

“Where can I find Winsome Clapanhoo?”

She was a young woman with braided black hair. She looked at Sully, at the Dodge, and turned away without a word. The next two attempts were less successful. An old woman flipped him the finger and a burly man with work boots kicked the door panel. “Hey,” Sully shouted. “That’s going to leave a mark.”

He tried a fourth time, a kid with dirty hair and a Thrasher Magazine t-shirt. He offered a joint in exchange. The kid gave explicit instructions. “Take the Cape Loop Road, then left on Ginger Bill. If you get to the Cape trailhead you’ve gone too far. Park at the bend in the road beside the big cedar. There’s a path that leads uphill from the tree. He lives at the top of the hill. It doesn’t sound like he’s expecting you. I’d be damned careful. He’s not someone you want to mess with.”

Ginger Bill was a dirt road passing through an old growth forest of yellow cedar and Douglas-fir. The Dodge groaned and bucked across the ruts. There was barely enough room to park beside the big cedar tree without blocking the road. At the top of the hill he found an old man sitting in a camp chair whittling a stick. There was a pile of wood shavings at his feet and what looked like a pedestrian underpass covered with graffiti at his back.

The old man looked up from his whittling and smiled. His white teeth were brilliant. “Good. You’re here. We can begin.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Schrödinger’s Rat

Thursday, March 17

Sully Marlybone sighted down the barrel of his air rifle and held his breath in the failing light. His view commanded the length of the dock. Like a Russian sniper in the ruins of Stalingrad, he waited for movement, chewing his limp mustache.

There was the flick of a whisker beside a pile of garbage, a movement so insubstantial it could only be perceived subconsciously. He aimed slightly into the future, leading his invisible target. Like Schrödinger’s cat the rat existed, alive or dead, only after he fired. The wave function collapsed and left behind a dead rat, or not. Quantum rat hunting was inherently paradoxical.

Sully released his breath and set the gun aside. It was time for work. He would leave the rat in a state of superposition, both dead and alive, to hunt another day.

There was a flourishing population of rats scampering across the docks of Shantytown—Batavian rice rats, Norwegian wharf rats, roof rats—rats big enough to best a cat in a fair fight. The fights were rarely fair. The rats were organized. It wasn’t safe for an honest alley cat to be out alone at night.

He packed his evening meal—peanut butter and jelly, Cheetos, a flask of rum—in a Roy Rogers lunch pail he found at a garage sale. The homeowner hadn’t realized there was a sale. It was late at night, everyone was asleep, and Sully didn’t want to bother them. He left a dollar on the garage workbench.

He found a good deal of useful stuff at garage sales when he didn’t have to wait for a posting on Craigslist or a cardboard sign on a street corner or compete with professional rag pickers and neighborhood hoarders. The best deals were between 2 and 4 AM. He haggled with himself like a gypsy. Sometimes he got a great deal, sometimes he paid full price, but he was always scrupulous about paying for his purchases. Sully was no thief.

He carried his lunch pail and an anchor light down the docks, careful to stay near the center. Shantytown’s docks, precariously balanced on too few Styrofoam floats, wobbled at the edges. Residents regularly plucked drunken neighbors out of the cold water. This far north the water never warmed. Canada was visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The docks were mostly empty, people busy with their evening meal or getting stoned. The smell of garlic and Thai Stick mingled with the music of Ravi Shankar and Frank Zappa.

Shantytown, officially named Slee’s Bay Marina, didn’t officially exist. It had no postal address, no electricity, no fresh water, no sewage. It also had no rent. It was a loose aggregation of houseboats and aging wooden boats settling deeper in the water, slowly becoming an artificial reef. Its survival was largely a matter of convenience. It was less aggravation for the City of Port Angeles to ignore than police.

Sully worked as night watchman for the dead. It was a temporary gig until the next big thing. The work wasn’t demanding and didn’t require a background check.

Tse-whit-zen was a short walk from Shantytown but it was already getting dark. Sully set the anchor light on a picnic table. The parks department donated the picnic table for use by archaeologists and volunteers triaging artifacts dug from the sandy soil. The anchor light he found at a late-night garage sale. The glass, shaped in ridges like a Fresnel lens, amplified the light. The kerosene wick was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane.

Because of Tse-whit-zen’s reputation, there was rarely anything to watch at night. Vagrants and young lovers and even gothic types who favored graveyards avoided the place. Sometimes a drunk returning to Shantytown wandered from the path. For the most part, he sat alone and listened to the bullfrogs croak in the lagoon by the abandoned paper mill or sang old songs or walked in the darkness or dozed on the picnic table, earning minimum wage in his sleep.

He wasn’t especially troubled by the trove of bones buried beneath him. Sully wasn’t sensitive in any sense. The world was whatever he expected. On the rare occasions when it surprised him, he adapted his expectations.

He spent several hours singing every song he could remember by the Beach Boys, starting alphabetically from “Add Some Music to Your Day.” He never finished “Honky Tonk.” His head was nodding. He lay down to make it easier to remember the lyrics and promptly fell asleep.

Something woke him with a start. He had the reflexes of a feral cat or a homeless person sleeping rough. He went from a dream of someone seeding corpses in cities across the country to alert consciousness with nothing between. He sat crouched on the table, listening.

Ripples broke against the shore, frogs croaked on the lagoon, somewhere a door slammed. Normal night sounds. He let himself breathe again.

There was a dry rustling like a breeze stirring last year’s leaves but the night was dead calm. The frogs stopped croaking abruptly. Shadows seemed to crowd the darkness at the edge of the lantern light. Motion flitted at the edge of his vision, then vanished when he looked directly.

They moved like creatures painted on a Paleolithic cave wall, animated by flickering firelight—the shapes of wolves and coyotes, lumbering bears, elk and otter and the silky motion of cougars, and winged shapes, raven and eagle and something impossibly large with wings that spanned the sky. There were howls and barks and grunts and roars and the skirling cries of raptors. An impossible bestiary encircled him, creatures made of shadow and sound.

His heart raced. His breath whistled through clenched teeth. A dream. He was dreaming that he was awake. He could feel the salt air on his skin, see the rotating light on Ediz Hook, hear the blood beat in his ears. Asleep? Awake? What difference?

“Sully.” Something whispered his name. It sounded like a voice made of dust and cobwebs. “Sully.”

A deeper darkness seeped into the night like spilled ink. It blotted the shadow creatures and spread across the sand. It drained the light from whatever it touched. Sully suspected the stars themselves would drown in that darkness.

It was reaching for him. It knew his name.

There was a faint rhythm, almost inaudible, the rhythm of an irregular heartbeat staggering like a drunk between lamp posts. He felt an intense pain grip his chest. It gripped so tightly he couldn’t expand his lungs to breathe. The pain was crushing him.

The darkness lapped the edge of the light cast by the lantern. The flame in the lantern guttered. It couldn’t fail. It was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane. There wasn’t a breath of wind.

The flame couldn’t breathe in so much darkness.

He felt his consciousness flicker like the lantern’s flame and grow cold. He felt his memories unravel and dissipate in the spreading darkness.

He steadied himself against the picnic table, certain he was dying. He looked at his hand. The skin collapsed between the bones, brittle as old paper. Veins mapped the back of his hand like the braided strands of a river delta. His fingers were thin and hooked like talons. It was the body of a 70-year-old man, not his 35-year-old flesh and bone, but it burned. It burned with such brilliance he had to squint.

He held his hands outstretched. His body was radiant. He could probably be seen by ships at sea. He burned so brightly there were no shadows cast even beneath the picnic table, as if the light were liquid and flooding the surrounding space.

In the next moment air filled his lungs, the anchor light burned as before, the balance of shadow and light was restored, and the bull frogs croaked without concern. His hands looked like his own hands again. Nothing moved on the edge of his vision.

“What the hell?”

A flashback? He had never experienced something so vivid on any hallucinogenic. His heart was still racing and sweat pooled at the base of his spine.

First light was already beginning to color the sky above the Cascade Mountains to the east. His watch was almost over. For 30 minutes he sat on the picnic table with his head between his knees, breathing deeply, trying to steady himself and stop shaking.

He needed help understanding what he had seen, what he had felt. If anyone was likely to know, it was Blavatsky.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.


The Skeleton Forest

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 in clouds.

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 satellite dish.

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 own conclusions.”

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,” Vanoy said.

“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 intently.

“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 shouts.

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 Police.”

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 upturned collar.

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 translation.

“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 impatient.”

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 a moment.

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 Chief Johnson.

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 him.

“You look sick,” Chief Johnson said. “Would you like some water?”

“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.

“Of course.”

“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 lunatic.

“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 record.”

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 between worlds.”

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. 

Note

This is the beginning of a book-length project. After the first few, additional chapters will be password protected. You can request a password by emailing me at charles.thrasher@gmail,com. There’s no charge for access but comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

Follow the “Next post” link at the bottom of the page for additional chapters. You can subscribe to be notified of new posts by email in the upper left corner of the page.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Whakapohane

Thursday, March 17

Rathskill stood at the front of the lecture hall, looking anywhere but at the old man sitting third row center. The old man was naked except for a deerskin cape. There were patches of hair still clinging to the hide.

“Please take your seats,” Rathskill told his class.

The old man sat as if sculpted in stone, sharp edges and hard angles, his skin weathered almost black and deeply eroded. He looked like the photograph of a Siberian shaman published by the Franz Boas’ North Pacific Expedition of 1894. Rathskill was pretty sure he didn’t exist.

His students continued to mill about like wildebeests at a watering hole. He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Now would be an appropriate time,” he said. “Phones down, heads up.”

He didn’t know why a non-existent old shaman was auditing his introductory class in Cultural Anthropology. Sometimes he saw things that didn’t make sense: visual noise, information without meaning. Those things were largely responsible for him teaching community college in Port Angeles, Washington, after a long and bloody retreat from the Ivy League of Harvard, Princeton, and Vassar.

He delivered his last lecture at Vassar on the Dani, a tribe of New Guinea highlanders who still practiced ritual cannibalism, dressed only in a traditional penis sheath made from a gourd. It had been wildly popular with the undergraduates, less so with the administration.

Rathskill clasped his hands behind his back as the class settled. His wild hair and unruly mustache resembled Samuel Clemens or Friedrich Nietzsche. It was a cultivated likeness.

He dimmed the lights remotely. The opening slide appeared on the screen behind him, a photo of an oblong object the color of sandstone with a hole in the middle. The caption read: “Spindle whorl made from a whale vertebra.”

“Everyone living in Port Angeles is keenly aware of the Klallam graves found at Tse-whit-zen during the construction of the graving dock,” he began. A cell phone rang near the back of the class. He took a deep breath and glowered at the offender. “Please silence your cell phones and sit upright in your seats.” He deplored bad posture.

The next slide was a panorama of the excavation site at Tse-whit-zen. Massive earth moving equipment sat idle. Holes in the ground were ringed with yellow tape as if a crime scene. People in hard hats and bright safety vests clustered around the holes.

The next photo zoomed in on the hard hats and orange vests bending over a long trough, sifting through dirt and gravel with trowels and brushes.

“Construction unearthed 335 intact bodies and countless bone fragments,” Rathskill said. “The discovery of so many artifacts eventually halted construction.”

“And 200 jobs.” It was a young man near the back of the class. “Two-hundred families could have lived on those wages.”

Rathskill stopped and pivoted. “You have an opinion, Mr. Broadcutt?”

“It’s hard enough to find work these days but to lose jobs because of some bones?” Martin Broadcutt said. “The Indians didn’t even know those bones were there. If no one told them, they still wouldn’t know and the rest of us would be better off. We should be making decisions that benefit the living, not the dead.”

“It’s a valid point, Mr. Broadcutt, but a narrow perspective,” Rathskill said and resumed pacing. “The Klallam may not have known the location of the graves because they abandoned the village abruptly. So few were left alive after first contact with Europeans that transmission of the knowledge from generation to generation was broken. Having lost something doesn’t make it less important when you find it again.”

He paused for a rebuttal. The young man remained silent.

The slide changed to a litter of bones and broken skulls on a rough wooden table. His students studied their laptops and tablets and cell phones. He doubted they were taking notes.

“The burials at Tse-whit-zen are anomalous. Can anyone identify why?” There were no replies. “Extra credit for the person who can answer correctly.”

Heads snapped back. Faces brightened with sudden interest, then clouded with uncertainty. He suspected they were trying to remember the question.

Finally, a girl with a pitted face in the 12th row braved his ridicule. “They seem haphazard?”

“Exactly. They were buried without ceremony. A gold star to Miss…”

“Avery,” she mumbled to her desk.

“There’s a story told by the bones,” he continued. “Traditionally the Klallam buried their dead in cedar boxes or wrapped in cedar mats, accompanied by their most valued possessions to use in the spirit world.”

“When the dead began multiplying at Tse-whit-zen, corpses were piled layer upon layer, without ceremony, without possessions. Bodies were left on refuse heaps. There were so many dead the living couldn’t cope.

“Some bodies were decapitated, buried on their stomach. They may have been shaman or healers held responsible for not stopping the devastation.”

Rathskill looked directly at the shaman in the third row for the first time. Was that why he was auditing the class, representing the failure of his profession to stop the apocalypse at Tse-whit-zen?

“Skeletons and burial boxes were found dusted with red ochre. Since the Neolithic ochre has been used in funeral rites. It’s thought to symbolize a return to the earth or rebirth. It was also used as spiritual protection against ghosts.”

Martin Broadcutt folded his arms and laughed.

“Don’t be too smug, Mr. Broadcutt. We still bury our dead in sealed caskets to slow decomposition because we expect them to rise from the grave when called by God. The Klallam were trying to keep their dead from rising uncalled.

“Over 80 percent of the indigenous population in the Pacific Northwest were dead within 100 years of first contact with Europeans. Smallpox, influenza, measles—it was near genocide. Imagine the impact on their culture. It took Europe 150 years to recover from the Black Death and that killed less than half the population.”

 “Over 80 percent.” He stopped pacing and looked intently at his students. “There are maybe 100 of you in class today. Look around. If disaster struck again on the same scale, only 20 of you would survive. Everyone else?” He shrugged his shoulders.

“Tse-whit-zen is the physical record of a culture in collapse. The Klallam lived here for 27 centuries, before Christ was even a gleam in God’s eye. Then they were gone. We’ve been here only a few hundred. How much more permanent do you think we are?”

He paused for breath. His students had mostly returned to their laptops and tablets and cell phones. Some were nodding off in their seats.

Pointless. It was pointless trying to teach kids who were only occupying a seat for transfer credits. He finished the hour talking about tools found at the gravesite. When the bell rang his students rose like Pavlov’s dogs and emptied the classroom. The old shaman waited until they were alone, then stepped into the aisle, turned his back on Rathskill, bent over and bared his ass. It was an old ass, boney and wrinkled.

Culturally, it was an ancient form of insult. Still effective, Rathskill thought. In 80 A.D. a Roman soldier bared his naked ass and farted at a crowd of Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. The resulting riots killed ten thousand according to Yosef ben Matityahu. The Abenaki tribe of Maine mooned the Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524. And in 1983, a Maori exposed his tattooed buttocks to Charles, Prince of Wales, in a classic gesture of contempt they called whakapohane.

“Dr. Rathskill. Dr. Rathskill?” He felt someone’s hand on his shoulder.

“What?” he snapped and turned sharply. He was alone in the classroom except for a man with a chin sharp enough to break ice.

“Are you alright? You seemed in a trance,” the man said.

“And who are you?”

“I’m Detective Vanoy, Port Angeles Police Department.” Detective Vanoy wore a generic brown suit too broad for his shoulders.

“I’m fine,” Rathskill said gruffly. “I was simply following a train of thought. Did you see an old man in a cape when you came in?”

“What kind of an old man?”

The naked kind, Rathskill thought. “Never mind. What can I do for you, detective?”

“We need your expert opinion,” Vanoy said.

Vanoy pulled a piece of polished obsidian from his pocket. Rathskill thought it might be a piece of evidence until Vanoy began rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. A pacifier.

“It’s not an official investigation of the Port Angeles Police Department. I’m unofficially representing the Makah Tribal Police. You’d be working as a consultant for them. I can’t provide you with any details until you sign a non-disclosure agreement, but I can say you’re the most qualified.”

“An expert opinion on what, detective?”

Vanoy rubbed the black stone hard enough to spark tinder. “It’s a sensitive situation. The information needs to be contained. There can’t be any leaks.” He removed several sheets of creased paper from his breast pocket. “You’ll need to sign a confidentiality agreement. You won’t be able to talk about this to anyone outside of the investigation.”

“Secrecy isn’t a selling point to an academic, detective. Is there anything you can say that would interest me?”

“It’s on the Makah reservation and it might have a significant impact on the tribe’s future. I know of your professional interest in the Makah.”

“Anything more specific?”

“Not until you sign.” Vanoy laid the papers on the podium. “Here and here.”

“You know I’m not a credible witness, detective. I can’t take the stand.”

“I’m aware of your…” Detective Vanoy hesitated “…medical history, Doctor Rathskill. We want your expertise, not your testimony.”

“If I was a more circumspect man I’d have my lawyer review this first,” Rathskill said. “But then I’d have to have a lawyer. And some circumspection.” He signed with only a cursory reading.

“We’ll need to leave immediately if we’re to reach the reservation before dark.”

“Now? I still have an afternoon class to teach.”

“Can you make excuses?”

Rathskill left a note on the door. “On an adventure.” He was fairly sure the dean of Peninsula Community College wasn’t a fan of whimsy.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Preface

In a circular clearing among the trees a naked man danced in the dirt.

His dark hair was tied at the nape of his neck and fell to his shoulders. His arms and legs were corded with muscle. His dance was long and undulating as if diving through air, then rising to breathe. With each rising he beat himself with a scourge made of twisted thistles. Drops of blood fell into the dust.

A dry gale drove clouds across the face of a full moon and bent tall trees—hemlock, Douglas-fir, and red cedar. Broken moonlight illuminated a landscape of black mountains that rose abruptly from the sea like stone waves breaking against the shore. A thin ribbon of water threaded between the hills. A rock fall formed a narrow lake.

He circled the clearing, dancing and singing in a language remembered by only a few. The forest danced and sang around him. Among the trees the bones also danced.

Human bones—skulls, femurs, ribs, long bones and short bones threaded together and hung from tree limbs, bones yellowed like old ivory, bones clean and white. They circled the clearing and danced like the dead, disjointed.

The man stood upright and cast aside his flail. His back was wet with blood. From the shadows he retrieved a pack made with deerskin and sinew and settled it on his back without flinching. He carried the pack to the water’s edge. Small waves broke against the shore. The lake darkened with cloud shadow as he plunged into the cold water.

He surfaced, blowing water out of his mouth, breathing loudly. Wind waves broke over the pack on his back. He dove again and again, a sinuous progression around the lake, rhythmically breathing.The flap on his pack loosened with successive waves. As he rose from a dive,breaching the surface like a whale, the moon sailed clear of the clouds and awave opened the pack to reveal the face of a boy. He had died recently. Theskin was only beginning to decompose. One eye was open,staring blindly at the sky.

The water closed over his face.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.