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.

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