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.

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@ 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.

Shelter From the Storm

Most osprey nests are built high in the forks of cypress snags, ideally one rooted in the water to avoid snakes and raccoons from raiding the nest. A moat is an adequate defense from terrestrial enemies but the water itself can become an enemy.

This nest was built less than six feet above Chocowinity Bay’s normal level. From its size, the nest had been occupied for successive years. Then the storm came, driving the water before it. 

Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.
Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.

After Hurricane Florence, nothing remained but the bitter end of some roots.

The nest after the storm.

The osprey that inhabited the nest had already migrated south for the winter. If they return, they’ll have to begin again…or steal another bird’s nest.

Salt Marsh

I live now on the shore of Chocowinity Bay beneath Bald Cypress and Longleaf Pine. From my garret window I can see through the trees across the bay to the far shore and Whichard Beach.

The bay is a shallow dint in the land that empties into the Pamlico River which empties into the Pamlico Sound. The Sound itself is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.
Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.

The Japanese have a word for the reason you get out of bed in the morning: ikigai. In the wonderful economy of the Japanese language, ikigai refers to the source of value in your life, the things that make your life worthwhile. It includes the mental and spiritual circumstances you feel makes your life valuable. Whatever your ikigai, it’s personal and specific and faithfully reflects your inner self.

The salt march at the head of Chocowinity Bay is my ikigai, the place where I return time and again. It’s miniscule, bounded by a perimeter of less than 3 miles containing 3/10 of a square mile of surface area, and yet it feels infinite. The Bald Cypress standing like congregants beside the water, the morning light filtered through tendrils of Spanish moss, and the meadows of saltgrass carved into islands seem to exist outside of hectic, human time. The whistle of the Norfolk Southern locomotive approaching the railroad bridge at the head of the bay feels unstuck in time.

Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

I paddle to the salt march each morning, sometimes before first light. It’s a short distance, half a mile, but a world apart.

There is a boundary to the marsh. Beyond a vaguely defined edge there is a deepening quiet and sense of reverence. Certainly, I may be guilty of projecting my internal landscape but maybe I’m perceiving something projected by the landscape itself. It’s arrogant to think we stand apart from the ground beneath our feet. Our rationality was always a thin disguise.

Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC

The light is always changing within the marsh. There are moments of stunning beauty as the bones of a ghost forest are silhouetted by the rising sun or clouds plunge the marsh into a patchwork quilt of sunlight and shadow. Then the light changes, the moment passes, and I’m distracted by the skirling cry of an eagle or the indignant squawk of blue heron.

Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

The Deadly Storm

[Originally published as “A History of Hurricanes” in the Waterway Times.]

Galveston, 1900

It was a day of sullen heat and stillness, the sky colored with iridescent scales. Ships steaming through the Gulf of Mexico rolled on an oily swell, their crews sprawled in the scant shade of bulwarks and ventilator cowls. Smoke hung around the ships’ stacks and rained soot on the upper decks. Below decks the engine room gangs worked stripped to the waist, their bodies oiled and sweating in heat approaching 120 degrees. It was September 8, 1900.

The swells broke heavily against the beach at Galveston. Through the morning many of the city’s residents had gathered to watch the thundering surf. They were like spectators at a stranger’s funeral, curious but uninvolved, as the pier crumpled into driftwood. Then the waves climbed the shore, splintering bathhouses and the boardwalk. Several onlookers weren’t quick enough to escape the advancing storm surge. They were the first to die in the Galveston hurricane. Within 18 hours the dead would number more than 6,000.

The surge was the precursor of the storm. The water advanced relentlessly, rapidly, as much as 2.5-feet per hour, until it stood 15 feet above mean sea level. The whole city of Galveston, built upon a barrier island, was nowhere more than 10 feet above the normal height of the sea. The entire city was soon wave-swept.

Surf 10 to 12 feet high battered beachfront houses whose residents had climbed into attics to escape the flooding. Currents generated by the storm surge scoured the sand from around the foundations. Debris—timbers, beams, entire walls—became rams driven by the weight of the storm. Their houses collapsed beneath them.

There was no accurate measurement of the wind strength. Measuring devices were carried away by the storm. Dr. Isaac Cline, meteorologist for the Army Signal Corps stationed at Galveston, estimated the wind more than 100 miles per hour. Terracotta tiles ripped from roofs were fired like shrapnel into the streets. Many of the dead were later found decapitated.

Heavy debris collided with those struggling to stay afloat—to stay alive—in flooded streets where the dead were more numerous than the living. Weakened from exposure, injury, and the relentless hammering of waves, people lost strength, lost hope, and finally lost their grip on whatever piece of flotsam kept them alive. Children were torn from their parents’ grasp. Wives sank from the view of their husbands. An entire orphanage drowned. The bodies of the nuns and children were afterward found still tied together in a futile effort to save themselves.

In the darkness and the driving rain, it wasn’t possible for the suffering to see their own outstretched hand until the lighting illuminated the devastation in fierce and unforgiving detail. Beneath the caterwauling of the wind was another sound like Arctic ice fields breaking in a spring thaw. Entire blocks of houses were splintered stumps. Timbers were grinding in the waves.

After 10 hours the wind began to ease and the storm surge, driven inland, turned back toward the sea. Tons of water hurtled like a freight train into buildings already weakened by wind, waves and battering from the opposite direction. Many of those who had survived the worst of the storm and thought themselves spared died in the final surge of destruction.

Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the days following the storm, rescuers found 3,000 bodies in the wreckage of buildings, 1,000 scattered in streets and yards, 500 on the bay shores. Another 500 may have been carried out to sea. On the railroad bridge between Galveston and the mainland, 48 corpses were counted, the bodies embedded like buckshot in the girders. Farther down the barrier island another 1,200 may have died. Almost 18% of Galveston’s population didn’t survive the night.

When the water receded, the dead weren’t only human. Rotting fish littered the streets. The bodies of drowned rats, dogs and cats were piled in windrows. The stench became unbearable in the oppressive heat. To avoid epidemic disease, disposal of the dead was imperative. Anyone capable of working, willing or not, was impressed into service collecting the dead for mass burial at sea, (there was no place ashore to accommodate so many graves), the bodies loaded onto a barge and stacked like cordwood. Many of the corpses were stripped of clothing by the force of the storm. They were counted but never named.

When the barge had put to sea the crew discovered there weren’t enough links of chain and scrap iron onboard to weight each of the bodies individually. Some 700 were thrown overboard tied two and three together. Others weren’t weighted at all. The incoming tide washed many of them ashore again.

Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The grisly work of collecting the dead continued by torchlight. Generous rations of bourbon and strong cigars were issued to the workers. They breathed through handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol and smoked cigars to mask the smell. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, decomposition was rapid. The bodies soon lost the rigidity of rigor mortis and had to be shoveled into carts. The fixed bayonets of the militia were all that kept many of the men at their work. Superintendents of the work gangs finally gave permission to torch the wreckage wherever they found bodies rather than extricate them.

“It was like living in a battlefield. The fuel-oil smoke hung over the city, day and night, and the heavy air was never free of the smell of carbolic acid, of line, of putrefaction.” (Death from the Sea: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.) despite the presence of so much death, there were no vultures. The carrion eaters were also victims of the storm.

Looters found despoiling the dead were summarily executed by the militia—stood against the nearest wall or pile of debris if no wall was handy and shot without the hindrance of a trial. The same brutal justice was delivered to amateur photographers. “Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends were being shot down like thieves. Two, it was stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.” (Dallas News, September 14, 1900.)

Flight

Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.

Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.
Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.

Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.

The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.

There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.

Osprey nest in drowned tree stump, Chocowinity, NC.
Not all Osprey nests are inaccessibly high in trees. Chocowinity Bay, NC.

The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.

Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.

Osprey diving with talons extended.
Osprey diving with talons extended.

Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.

Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.

Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

Osprey gaining altitude with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

 

Growing old or aging?

I’m closer now to 70 than 60 and the end of my life is looming like a winter moon over an empty field. I’m not frightened of my death but thankful I still have some time to make sense of my life.

I’ve rushed headlong through my life, rarely taking time to look at the patterns that recur, again and again, like the turning of a screw or the ascent of a spiral. I suppose reflection is the purpose of old age, if there is a purpose, and there must be. Everything born will die. In Robinson Jeffers brutal phrase, “lopped at the ends by death and conception,” which makes death no less important than birth. They are events entangled like particles, defying the distance between.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. What then of the unexamined death?

Most people don’t grow into their old age, they fall into it while obstinately looking the other way. They live as if they’ll never die; death always takes them by surprise.

I think old age is a gift not given to everyone. For those of us fortunate to live long enough, it can be a quiet place before nightfall where we can look across the span of years at the pieces of our lives, turn them this way and that and puzzle out the patterns. It’s a time to remember what was forgotten in the rush to grow up, a time to reconcile the harm done to us and the harm we’ve done others. And somewhere find forgiveness.

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi-sabi, that values the beauty of imperfection, the old, broken, and worn down. It’s an aesthetic shadowed by a sense of melancholy for the flawed beauty of life. But melancholy isn’t pathological. It’s an appreciation of the beautiful transience of the wind through the pines. Old age can be wabi-sabi or it can be ignored, denied, resisted, and terrifying.

In Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Death is the crack that allows the light into life.

Growing old requires paying attention. It requires acknowledging our mortality, our finiteness, our frailty. And it requires living with a pensive sadness for what is no longer, what never should have been, what never was. And in the lengthening shadows, to recognize there never was a need for forgiveness, only understanding.

Advent

Chocowinity, North Carolina, has ever been a village, since before the revolution and now, but not without its small tragedies. September 22, 1711, the first house to burn in the Tuscarora Indian War was owned by John Porter, Chocowinity.

It’s small, even by the measure of villages. Chocowinity had a population of 820 in the last census. It sits near a bay by the same name. People find both difficult to spell. Without consulting the villagers, in 1917 the Norfolk Southern Railroad decided to rename the place Marsden. Easier to spell on a telegraph line, apparently, and toadied to one of the railroad’s investors, Marsden J. Perry. The railroad didn’t return the proper name to its place until 1970 when 2-way radios replaced the telegraph.

The fact that a railroad could arbitrarily change an historic place name says something about the callous use of power. That the Norfolk Southern Railroad was still using Morse code and a telegraph in 1969 says something about the loss of power.

Sitting in an attic room overlooking Chocowinity Bay, I can hear the Norfolk Southern locomotive as it snakes through the wetlands, whistling at bridges and railroad crossings. Eventually, the sound of the train’s diesel-electric engine drifts across the water like the churning of boulders in distant surf.

I came to Chocowinity as a refugee, although I didn’t know it. I’ve lived my entire life in the United States, never realizing it was a foreign country.

I’ve long since abandoned the religion of my parents and grandparents and generations before them. And now I’ve lost faith in politics and progress, even human rationality. Where is there left to stand?

Perhaps there has always been only one place to stand. On the earth, feet planted in the dirt, enveloped by an ocean of air. I’ve thought too much and felt too little. I’ve lived inside my head, staging endless dramas and bloody retributions, all no more significant than a tempest in a teacup.

Joseph Conrad had it right in The Mirror of the Sea. “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

To see the sun rise like thunder over the Pamlico Sound or the sawgrass wreathed in fog, to see still water stippled by the tail flips of bass feeding on insects, to see the tide rise and fall in a rhythm older than time—those are things that help me feel less competitive, less belligerent, less human.

I’m not certain being human continues to carry an evolutionary advantage. What served us well in small, naked bands on the savannah may not serve on a planetary scale. And I don’t think technology will be our deus ex machina, plucking us from the inevitable consequences of a bad script. This is who we are, who we’ve always been. Unless we can become something else.

What comes next?

To see! To see!

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."