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.

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