Check this essay out on my travel blog where I included photos with the text. Follow this link: Tofu for String Quartet
Honorable mention at Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference
THE GHOST OF GRAND GULCH
Ben lay awake contemplating destiny. Could there really be such a thing? It was crazy that he was out here alone in the canyon with a shovel and flashlight, not to mention the other things he carried in his bag and the necklace around his neck. The alternative to believing this was destiny was accepting that he was just a nut case. And the old man, too.
As he lay there listening to a cacophony of mysterious sounds fill the canyon, he felt his heart beat in a way he had never felt before. His blood surged through his veins with a new, unfamiliar vigor. And his head seemed somehow clear, his thoughts fresh and fragrant. Things looked brighter, noise sounded sharper, crisper. Curiosity had been awakened from its long dormant state.
What were those sounds? They must be coming from huge birds, a swarm of monstrous insects, or some bizarre prehistoric reptile. The sound had an oddly machine-like, inorganic quality to it that made it so very curious. As the last haze of light drifted away and the sounds increased, Ben knew he could not sleep without knowing what lurked so noisily in the canyon.
Armed only with his flashlight, and wishing desperately for a shotgun, he struck out for the source of the noise. His imagination unexpectedly leaped to life again from its long slumber since childhood, and clothed him in a loincloth, turned his flashlight into a long hunting spear, and grew his hair out long, thick and wild, resting on his shoulders like a lion’s mane. He compromised his posture and stalked through the bushes in plant-fiber sandals — ignoring the crackling, rustling and snapping beneath his untrained feet, letting it melt into the night air, for he was a warrior, a hunter treading silently and bravely. Stalking. Alert.
When he reached the river, crashing through the tall, stiff weeds, the noise he was tracking abruptly stopped. He was right on top of it; the creature lurked right where he was, he knew it. He stood still as a tree. Waiting, listening anxiously. He turned off the flashlight.
Nothing. Surely the great creatures would move, create a rustle. He kept his flashlight at his side, his finger poised at the “on” button. His jaw hung down stiffly, and after awhile his lungs hurt from trying not to breathe.
Then the sound came, and he focused the flashlight on the sound. There was nothing illuminated in the beam except the night air. Nothing, that is, until Ben noticed a small frog. Ben watched, incredulous, as its throat sack expanded, almost doubling the frog’s size, and it emitted one of the loud, raucous noises he had been stalking. He couldn’t believe it. He stood and watched the frog for several minutes as it continued its calling. Soon other cries started up all around him, the same sound but a different pitch, in perfect harmony. He moved the flashlight to locate them. Then a high pitched screaming startled him, like a modem or fax machine connecting. It was followed by a deep, croaking “ribbet.” All the sounds came from frogs! And each one sung his note in an intricate, organic rhythm with the others so that when all the frogs had joined in, the whole effect was a magical, joyous reverie and Ben felt his flashlight transformed into a conductor’s stick. He stood upon a rock, as though on a podium, and he could not hold back the impulse to wave it around as though he were queuing each frog.
He felt foolish amid the bizarre amphibian chorus. Then naive and childish. And a small, oily pool of regret spilled out into his soul. How could he have missed this? How could he have waited so long to come out here and discover the land, discover its secrets and treasures?
He had pursued the identification of his heritage so academically, lamely, just waiting for a revelation to come down to him all neatly packaged with everything he wanted to know and feel. How could it not occur to him, he wondered now, to go out and pursue his heritage in the place of his heritage? How had he been so ignorant of the power of place? So lazy and unaware? His first steps into the canyon had felt so foreign. The land seemed foreboding and alien. Ben drenched the air with a long, vague sigh and shuffled slowly, thoughtfully back to his camp. It had been dusk already when he set up beneath a tall juniper tree in a little grove of pinions and junipers on the flat ground below the ruin, where once his ancestors had grown their crops. He had not entered the ruin because of the failing light. A neophyte camper, he felt engaged just in the event of setting it all up. But now he felt a powerful, frantic urge to run up to the ruin, to crawl inside the dwellings and breathe the air and touch the walls.
He reached his sleeping bag and fell restlessly upon it. Logic told him to wait until morning to go to the ruin. He wondered if he had even reached the right place. The old man’s directions were based on landmarks Ben was not sure he knew how to recognize, and they were landmarks the old man knew from another time. Ben had never traveled out in the wilderness. He felt inept. But he had arrived at a ruin, nonetheless, through the directions. If this wasn’t the right one he’d have to start the trip all over from the beginning.
Beginning? What beginning? he scoffed at himself. Beginning, end. Things seemed so muddled now. Those words seemed meaningless, lost in this new hazy world he was perceiving, full of circular patterns. He had always perceived time as a great beach of blackness, a blank void upon which the wave of existence was continually crashing down, a perpetually rising tide. But now, if the old man was real, was telling the truth, there might be no forward motion, no marching of time. Perhaps it was all there, pre-laid brickwork upon which one walked a certain space of it during his existence. Was time the wild and passionate thing he had once thought? He worried now it was instead a docile footpath yielding helplessly beneath the traveler’s feet, stoic and unaffected by travelers in all directions.
Ben settled down in his sleeping bag and fell asleep before he even knew he was tired.
He awoke early in the morning, startled at first by the tree branches over his head. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” he muttered to himself to impress upon himself the reality of his presence here. He dared not assess the craziness of the situation as he had done incessantly while driving to the start of his hike. He couldn’t possibly turn back now. He had accepted this mission, accepted the premise behind it. He chose to believe. He was here at the site. Crazy or not, he knew he had to go through with it. And besides, now that he was here he wanted to explore. Even if he were to find nothing, even if the old man turned out to be a complete kook, already this trip was the most valuable experience Ben had ever had. He acknowledged this while wolfing down a cold poptart for breakfast, then he sprang for the ruin, which lay nestled against the canyon wall in a giant alcove whose protective “roof” arched magnificently fifty feet above.
Two of the structures were remarkably well intact and so was the kiva. A few more structures were largely ruined but still partially standing. The rest of the site was just a heap of rubble and discolored sand, rife with potsherds.
Ben climbed inside each of the structures with boyish excitement. These are my people, he thought as he inspected the finely-masoned walls. These are my people, as he ran his finger along the ledges of shelves built into the inside walls, imagining what things they might have kept there. My people, as he fingered the small, narrow corn cobs and the pieces of painted and corrugated pottery that lay scattered everywhere.
After a while he sat down inside the kiva, the roof still mostly present over his head. His mission now began to loom over him. Where in all this ruin could he find the four stones? The shaman’s words were of no comfort to him now. “You will know,” he had said. “You will know when you have found the right stones.”
At home under the bare kitchen light bulb in the stiff, yellow chairs, the words were so inspiring. But now, surveying the ruin, they seemed pathetic. To overcome his growing uneasiness, the sense that he was on a wild goose chase concocted by a crazy man, he ran down to his camp, retrieved his shovel, and starting digging. He turned his mind off and dug. How would he explain himself if someone came by? He didn’t know, he just dug faster.
And faster. Furiously. Maniacally. Consumed. Until exhausted, he fell into a deep pit he had dug and fell instantly asleep.
Voices were speaking to him in a language he didn’t understand. He was squatting in the kiva running sand through his fingers and the voices were swirling around him. Smoke was filling the kiva in great bellows until he started to choke, and the voices swirled angrily like a cyclone.
He awoke coughing, his coughs echoing off the walls of the canyon. Overtaken by claustrophobia, he struggled to get out of the pit he was in. Clawing, kicking, he frantically pulled himself out. He ran to the back wall of the alcove and stood panting. The voices of his dream seemed to still be in the air; he swatted at them like flies until they disappeared. It was late in the day. He had slept for several hours.
A spot in his back ached as if he had slept right on a rock. He rubbed the ache as he walked slowly back toward the pit he had just crawled out of. Then he stopped short in his tracks.
“What’s going on here?” he murmured to himself. He had been digging around all over the ruin for hours, but now there was hardly any evidence of it. The first spot he had dug, the one he had slept in, was all there was. Everything else looked just as he had found it when he first scrambled up to the ruin that morning. A breeze blew through the doorways and open roofs of the structures. The sand lay innocently undisturbed in exactly the places Ben had just today ruthlessly disturbed. How could this be? He fingered the necklace the shaman had given him nervously. Did someone come while he was asleep and put things back the way they were? How could he have slept through such activities? Why would someone ...?
Ben covered his eyes with his dirt-caked hands and tried to shut off his thoughts. He felt dizzy and hot. He reached for his canteen hoping there was still water in it.
There was water. In fact, the whole canteen was nearly full. Had he been in such a frenzy working that he had somehow mindlessly gone to the river and refilled and filtered it? He knew he had drank it nearly dry at one point.
He gulped the water down nervously, hoping his head would somehow clear and things would make sense, that he would remember what had happened.
He rubbed the aching spot in his back. He jumped into the pit to uncover the cause of this soreness, and he dug out a perfectly round stone from just beneath the sand where he had slept. It was about the size of a tennis ball and remarkably heavy. It was polished smooth as if it had once resided in a river. He could envision it sitting on his windowsill at home, where people would comment how beautifully polished it was. He set it carefully beside his canteen, then picked up his shovel again and dug idly around here and there. He tried to keep his thoughts at bay as he summoned up the motivation and energy to keep digging. He was disheartened at all his work being covered up, although in an odd way it seemed to appease his guilt somewhat for digging up the sacred site.
The day wore on in thoughtless monotony and tedium, tainted by the strange events Ben couldn’t explain, so that he seemed to exist in a dizzy wisp of smoke. The world turned black and white. At one point delirious thoughts surfaced through the haze like a dolphin on the sea, If a man digs alone in a canyon and no one is there to hear him ... do I really exist? I can’t tell. I can’t tell if I’m making sound. I can’t really tell if I’m here. And the thoughts suffocated in the open air and hurried back inside.
He realized he had mindlessly dug out a rock from the sand and was now turning it over in his hands. When he looked at it he heard the words of the old man, “You will know.”
“You will know,” Ben said out loud to himself. The rock was of no particular shape, but it was almost uniformly a dull brownish-red, covered with a pure-white pattern. The colors were so uniform and smooth, not mottled, they looked like paint. The pattern looked just like a pictograph of a lizard. Ben scraped the rock with his fingernails to assure himself it was natural and not paint. Then he set it reverently aside on the sand.
He felt his heart start to beat faster. This must be one of the stones, he thought. His lungs ballooned with excitement and pressed against his chest. The adventure was on again. The picture was now in color. He grabbed his shovel. He dug with a renewed frenzy. He dug with renewed confidence in the old man and his mission. He dug until the moonless night blinded him.
Then he gathered the two stones he had found and took them to his camp. He took his canteen to the stream to refill. As he knelt at the stream he began to discern above the sound of the water gently gurgling into his canteen an eerie, mournful howl. He removed the canteen from the water and held his breath, listening to the mysterious wail.
He felt goose bumps rising from his skin and he reflexively rubbed the back of his tingling neck. Despite his surprise last night, this was definitely not a frog. Ben capped his canteen and hurried back to camp. He desperately wanted a light bigger than his flashlight, but he felt too tired to build a fire. He laid out his sleeping bag right next to the trunk of the juniper tree, feeling slightly safer under its protective branches, and arranged his other meager items he had brought with him, including the two rocks he had found, along the other side of his sleeping bag as if they were a moat no enemy could cross.
Then he scrunched all the way down to the bottom of his bag so only the few hairs on the crown of his head touched the fresh night air. He noticed now that all was silent.
What could that have been? he wondered nervously. He laughed a “ha” out loud as he thought of the old man and the “ghost of Grand Gulch.” He had heard stories of the ghost for many years; he felt smug now knowing the truth behind it. But it couldn’t be the ghost of Grand Gulch here now because ... unless ...
A new set of bumps and chills assaulted Ben’s skin. What if others had traveled just as the shaman had? What if his enemies had followed him here? What if there was more than one “ghost” in Grand Gulch? He thought back to the old man’s story. As Ben lay trying to fall into the hands of sleep, he replayed in his mind all that the old man had told him that day out on the mesa.
“I had to save my people,” he had said to Ben. “It was up to me. Only I could do it. I had to save my people,” he had said with desperation. Ben’s heart had felt heavy as he watched the old man speak. The man’s pain was so deep, Ben could see that every inch of his body was covered with the scars of it — in wrinkles, in grayness and feebleness — and it drenched every word from his mouth. They sat under a pinion tree atop the vast plateau. Alone on the mesa. Alone in the world.
The old man didn’t speak for awhile. His eyes scanned all around him restlessly. Ben waited. They were engulfed in the broad silence of the mesa. The old man had asked Ben to bring him here; he wanted to tell his story at this spot. Ben knew the story would come, he did not push. He waited patiently, strangely content, while the old man kept his words. His silence floated like flotsam on the deep sea of stillness covering the mesa. An insect buzzed by like a steamship. Perhaps an hour passed before he spoke again, perhaps it was even two before he began his story, his words slowly bubbling to the surface. Or perhaps it was only a minute; the mesa seemed too vast for time to squeeze into a watch. It seemed to lose all context.
“We were one of the last clans of our tribe left in the Canyon, in the whole area. Most of the others had fled or had been killed by our enemy. Our enemy was no ordinary enemy. They did not just kill us. They beat and tortured us, and they ... they ... ate us.”
Ben remembered the strange, heavy hush that followed, like he was suddenly under a blanket. The words were so bizarre, so unexpected. They clung to the air with a pasty stickiness. Ben felt absurd sitting there listening to such words; he wished he could flush them back out of his ears. This was not at all what he had expected. If only he could grab the old man’s words by the handlebars and steer them in another direction.
“They ate ... my mother, and they ate my uncle,” the old man said. “Can you imagine?” he turned to Ben, his face contorted with anguish. He searched Ben’s face as if hoping Ben could answer “yes,” hoping someone could imagine, understand, explain to him. But Ben could not imagine.
“The cannibals ate many of my people, consumed my people’s very flesh into their own vile bodies. We built shelter high up in the cliffs and still they decimated us. They were powerful people. Very powerful. And there was one shaman who gave them much of their power. But I'm a shaman, too; I tried to give power to my own people. But this enemy shaman was too much. I could not battle him eye for eye. I conducted a special ceremony for our bravest warriors. I made them invisible to that shaman and they killed him with their spears. They cut him in half and dragged each half off in a different direction. But the warriors were spotted by the enemy and they left the body halves unburied and fled. The enemy tribe gathered the two halves and sewed that shaman back together! I could not defeat him.”
A queer chill rose up Ben’s spine. He had heard the stories from the elders about how powerful shamans and witches had to be cut into eight pieces and buried in eight different places or they could come back to life. But those were just hogwash tales! Was this old man actually insinuating that shaman came back to life? He closed his eyes now and listened to the old man's story.
“I knew then that the only way to save my people was for us to leave. But the cannibals would follow our trail, as they had the others. We would have to go very far away from our sacred and beloved homeland into unknown territory.
I went out into the desert on my own to find guidance for what I should do. I went to the sacred picture rock of our ancestors and I fasted. And there I had an incredible vision. The spirits showed me that I could save my people and yet remain in the home we loved so much.
This vision made sense to me somehow. We — my people — see ourselves existing more in place or in space than in time or history. This new world of yours, young friend, sees itself through the eyes of history and destiny ... people looking backward for wisdom and forward for salvation or doom. I don’t think this vision would make sense to people of today. But to me it did. I didn’t evaluate what it was actually implicating, I just accepted it. We would be in our homes, where we belong.
I knew it would take all the strength I had to make it work, so I stayed there and rested for three days. I slept through those days and nights, dreaming only of the stones and plants I needed to gather. And I was awake only to gather the things I dreamt of. I didn’t worry about my people as the spirit messengers told me they were safe, so I could rest.
I returned to my home in the morning. I held a meeting with my people and told them I could save them from the cannibals; I sent a messenger to the remaining villages to tell them, too. We would hold the ceremony the following day. Then I spent all day and all night preparing the site, a circle of stones and herbs from which we would travel. After dawn I took a break to gather my things and rest.
I was jolted from my rest by shouting from outside my dwelling. I could hear much commotion going on. People yelled, ‘They’re coming!’ I was not yet prepared! I tried to calm my people as I hurried to prepare the circle. But these kinds of things require stillness; a deep, deep meditative state must be reached – all power comes from this. The stones were merely to help me focus, they had no power in themselves; they were not magic.
I set my brother in charge of calming the others, of gathering them together at the circle, and I tried to reach the necessary state of mind. As I was involved only in this, I didn’t notice what was going on around me. Just when I felt I was ready to transport my people, when the stones were ... were sort of ... turned on, activated, so to speak — they were charged with my mental, spiritual energy — people began shrieking and pandemonium broke out. The cannibals were in sight.
I can’t blame my people for being so frightened, as the cannibals in their warrior paint looked wholly terrifying. But they should have stayed! They should have stayed with me.” The old man began sobbing, his withered frame shaking, shaking. He reached his hand out into the vast empty space before him, as if trying to touch his people.
“They should have stayed! But they ... they were so frightened they just lost their wits. Even our warriors got caught up in the terror and panicked. People ran, tried to hide, climbed to the upper level and tried to fight from there. The cannibals rushed in and in minutes were upon our village, upon me. There was no one left beside me. No one to save. They were fleeing, screaming, amidst the cannibals’ war cries. No one could hear me shouting to them. I tried! One of the cannibals came right at me with his spear. Instinctively I jumped into the stone circle and the ground seemed to give way under my feet. I was falling through blackness. Just falling, falling, and I lost consciousness.
When I awoke I was alone. I realized immediately where I was, but my village was a complete ruin. At first I didn’t understand what had happened.
I dug around with my hands, sick and heartbroken at my ruined village. I couldn’t find any of the stones from the circle. The next day I traveled down the canyon to see what I might find. And all the villages were abandoned and ruined. Every one of them. Some were hardly recognizable. All our cropland was completely overgrown with trees and bushes and weeds. It was almost as if we had never been there. Except we had! Our ruined villages, what little remained above the rubble and dust, attested to that.
When night came, I sat to rest among one of our tribe’s villages several miles away down the canyon from my own. I pondered my situation. I realized then what must have happened. In my vision I only saw that I could move my people away from the cannibals. I knew we would still be in our canyon. I guess it was obvious, but I didn’t realize until then just what I had done — that I had traveled in time. I knew it must be the future because our buildings were here but decayed. But none of my people were here. Had they all been killed, I wondered. Had they never returned from exile?
I felt so, so very alone. I cried and cried. I wailed far into the night, pouring my sorrow out against the canyon walls, only to have it bounce back to me in my echo.
I spent seven days and nights in the canyon. Each night as I sat alone in the darkness I was consumed by my sorrow. My people were gone. I was alone. I didn’t know how to get back home without the circle of stones I could not find — the stones the spirits had shown me. I wailed in mourning every night.
During the days I foraged for food. And on the third day I spotted people. I didn’t know about white people then, and I was scared of them. Over the next few days several groups of white people came through the canyon and I tried to keep hidden from them all. But I know now at least one man saw me. For when I finally made my way back here again, to find you, I overheard the tales of the ghost of Grand Gulch — of a prehistoric man in loincloth wailing through the canyon at night,” the old man stopped and chuckled heartily for a moment or two. “I knew it must have been me they saw and heard. It’s funny. But ... it’s sad, because I do really feel just like a ghost here. I don’t belong here. This isn’t my time.
I wondered, though, where all those people were coming from. I thought perhaps the road to what you call Chaco was still intact. But I found it, too, completely overgrown, although still level and wide, you could tell where it went, but it was obviously in disuse for many, many years. Parts of it were more sketchy than others. I traveled for some time on the mesa top. I don’t really know why; I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to make me think I would find someone of my people up there. But the canyon was so haunting to me, I couldn’t stay down there.
So I wandered until one day I found a paved road. The paving material was very interesting to me; I had never seen anything like it. But it was painted with bright yellow lines, and it stretched on and on. I was fascinated. I squatted down in the middle of it and touched the paint. I thought this was perhaps some kind of artwork — as we had often painted on rock surfaces. Then all of a sudden some beastly thing — I didn’t know what cars were, of course, it was just some monstrous thing out of a dream, and it came rushing toward me with a terrifying noise I had never heard before. I stood up just as it got to me and I tried to run. It began screeching and then it hit me square in the chest. I fell over backward and blacked out.
I woke up in a place that was terrifying to me. It was just a hospital, but back then, you understand, I had no way to process what was happening. I was absolutely terrified. Things were coming out of my arm, everything was all bright and white, the people were strangely colored in odd clothes with mysterious tools, prodding me, speaking unintelligibly to me. I didn’t realize then that they were there to help me. I didn’t know I’d been hit by a car!
They thought I was a crazy man because I spoke in what they thought was gibberish, because they had found me in a loincloth, because I gestured so violently trying to explain who I was, why I was here, that I had to get back, that I had to save my people. No one understood.
They sent me away to a mental house. Which really wasn’t so bad except for all the crazy people,” he turned to Ben with a grin. He was proud of his little joke. “They made me nervous. There was one other man there like me, an Indian. He was Navajo. He was a real loony, ranting, raving, cursing one minute then he wouldn’t speak for a week. But he became my friend. He helped me to learn English. Eight years I stayed in that place, learning how this modern world of yours works. And when I felt my English was good enough to venture out on my own, I escaped. They still thought I was crazy as I carried on about my home in the distant past, you know. So I had to plot an escape.
I spent several more years ‘on the streets’ as you say, just trying to find my way home. I knew the name of the place where I was, at the mental ward in Arizona, but I knew I had been taken a long way from my home to get there. I had figured out what my people were called — Anasazi — and where our civilization was located within this United States country, but it covered such a large area and of course the canyons and places are not now named what we called them. The only place I could really identify as a place I was once familiar with, was Chaco. Our culture’s great achievement, it was like a capital city. But then it became the home of the six-toed man, and the cannibals emanated from there like the legs of a spider spreading out from its body. I went there and tried to follow the road back to my canyon, but I had to give up; it was too hard. By then I am an old, feeble man, like now.
At length I came to suspect Grand Gulch as my home. I traveled again to Chaco, to be somewhere familiar, and there I met the man who directed me out here, to you, and so I came. And here I am now, with you.”
Such a tale it had been. Ben hardly knew how to take it. Could he believe such a story?
Well, why not? he finally answered himself. He had thought of time somewhat differently, but it didn’t really matter. His had been a rather listless life, his views rather plain. Ben knew his clan was small, his blood-relatives precious few, but that had only seemed to him dull and hopeless and arcane. The elders’ stories seemed too hokey to believe; the Christians seemed too oppressive to believe; other religions had seemed too inaccessible or hard to seek out. His worldview was a soupy mixture of his own limited experiences and a few random items accumulated here and there. So why not time travel?
For once Ben had come across something that just might be compelling enough to actually shape some notion of the world, of the nature of existence. Were he to take up this view, it would seem so bold to mold his view of how the world works around such a fantastic and secular notion. So much more daring, more spirited than the notion of some god, picking one from among many, would be the notion of the plasticity of time. If he could believe in that, accept that, then anything seemed possible. Even a man cut in two coming back to life. What is death, after all, but a function of time? It’s just the final point on a finite line. If time was not just a straight line, though, continually pushing forward, then it seemed like life and death need not be either. The possibilities! How adventuresome life could be, how big and grand and inviting. Ben decided he would believe. He felt like he was stepping off a cliff into the wide open air, so free, unfettered. He would believe the old man and his stories, and take whatever consequences resulted.
But when the consequences presented themselves, they were a little hard to swallow.
“You must go back. You must go back and bring my people here. Complete my mission.” Ben stared at the old man, the open air he had just been frolicking in suddenly seemed damp and sticky.
“I'm too old and worn out. I couldn't make the journey now myself. These years here have been too hard on me. I have such little time left. No one followed me through the portal so the circle must have been destroyed. You must find the stones and reconstruct the circle.”
“But if you travel back to the time when you left, won’t you be younger then and strong and healthy?”
“No. It doesn’t work that way. At least not the way I traveled. The body is unaffected. I simply opened a portal through which travel was possible; the body is not altered any more than it is walking through an ordinary doorway.”
“How can you be sure I’ll arrive at the right time? What if I arrive before you’re even born?”
“I think you can arrive no earlier than when the circle was first activated. In fact I think that’s exactly when you’ll arrive. Probably just as the cannibals come in sight. You must immediately focus only on getting the people into the circle. Throw them in if you have to; it’s all complete chaos anyway.”
“Your people don’t know me; they’ll be confused and frightened of me. And you, will you be there? How would you react to me?”
“Hmmm ...” the shaman fell into a deep silence. “We shall have to paint you up,” he said at last. “I’ll teach you how. I’ll paint you so that when I see you, I’ll recognize you as a spirit messenger. I won’t be afraid of you.”
“It’s all chaos.”
“But ... I ... I ...”
“Ben. Don’t you want to save your ancestors from the most cruel of fates? Can’t you help me save my own soul from the torture it has endured knowing I didn’t save my people from those vile cannibals? You’ve said you know some of our ancient words. Don’t you feel inspired by them, connected to your ancestors who handed those words down through the mouths of their children for generation after generation after generation? Can you turn your back on them? If you’re of my people, Ben, you must help us. You’re one of us.”
And upon those last words Ben felt some hitherto unknown empty spot fill up inside him. It was like he had suddenly grown a new limb. Yes. Yes, he would do it. It seemed impossible not to. He must do it.
And so he reaffirmed his mission as he drifted at last to sleep under the graceful juniper tree, below the ancient ruin, encouraging himself for the long day of work ahead of him tomorrow, and for who knew how many tomorrows until he found those four stones.
The old shaman was impressed by how well many of the old structures at Chaco had withstood the centuries. He touched the walls gingerly. He breathed the air deeply, contemplatively, listening for spirit voices. He cringed at the people around him, bumbling ignorantly about. The modern world of the white men was too secular for him to stomach sometimes. He felt ill watching the people swarm like mindless flies, irreverent, heedless of anything sacred.
He had listened to the park ranger’s speech, solicited by other visitors. He remained stoic through the inept and unstimulating reverie. He had learned to accept the ignorance about his culture and the world he had lived in. But he couldn’t help himself from drawing the ranger aside and asking, “Do you not mention the six-toed man?”
The ranger looked at him quizzically, then a soft, parental look crossed her face, a look the shaman had seen too many times in this modern world where he looked so terribly aged — a senile old man.
“No, I’m afraid not,” she replied gently and walked away. He walked wearily in the opposite direction.
Now in the ruins, an older man, who looked even more ancient than the shaman, impossibly old, strode steadily toward him. As he approached he locked eyes with the shaman. His voice revealed his impossible age as much as his skin.
“You know of the six-toed man,” he said.
The shaman stared back into the eyes that had locked onto his. The world seemed to stop spinning.
“Who are you?” the elder man gasped in a choked whisper.
The shaman stared hard at the older man. There was something about him. Something .... The elder clamped his withered hand around the shaman’s arm and pulled him down to the ground. They sat cross-legged facing each other.
“People here don’t seem to know about the six-toed man,” the elder said, his eyes focusing intently on the man across from him.
“How is it you know then?” the shaman asked cautiously.
Smiling a toothless, cold smile, he replied, “The knowledge has been directly passed down to me from my ancestors. Oral tradition, they call it.”
The shaman’s eyes widened. “Are you...?”
The elder merely raised his eyebrows, provoking the shaman to finish the sentence explicitly.
“Anasazi, as they call us now?”
The older man tilted his head back thoughtfully. He looked over the shaman with an intensity so penetrating the shaman could hardly breathe under this scrutiny.
“I am,” he replied at last and whispered the ancient tribal name.
The shaman inhaled sharply. “I …” he tried to contain his excitement, to keep his voice low, “I am! I am too! Your ancestor!” he practically squealed. “My brother, I thought there were none of us left!” and he began to weep.
“There are a few of us. Very, very few,” said the elder, raising a sparse eyebrow but not questioning the younger man’s allusion to his ancestry. “Many claim to be descendants of ancestors who are not theirs. We, the true descendants, keep ourselves, the truth of our heritage, secret.”
“Then you know. You know the truth about what happened to us.”
“Of course I know what happened to you,” he said, looking annoyed."To us."
“Why do you not say anything to these white people about that truth?”
“We do not say anything to anybody,” he replied evenly.
“So they did not wipe us out completely!”
“They tried,” the older man said with stale words. “They tried to kill us all and they tried to learn our sacred stories, to destroy everything about us.”
“The stories? Do you still know them?”
“I know one.”
“One,” the shaman repeated sadly.
The older man began to recite. As he spoke the first sentence, the shaman gasped, stuck out his hand and cried, “Stop!” His heart was skipping beats with the joy of hearing those familiar words mixed with alarm. He whispered through his tears, “You must not recite it here. Not without ceremony. The words are ritual!”
The older man fell silent. He appeared to be smiling, though the proliferation of wrinkles in his face and the lack of teeth in his mouth made it difficult to discern any but the most animated of expressions. The two men sat for awhile in thoughtful silence.
“So you keep your heritage silent,” the shaman finally said.
“It is the only way we have survived. It is the only way to survive. The enemy has pursued through the centuries. Now there are only a few of us and a few of them,” he grinned widely, enigmatically. “And they will still hunt us down if they find us. We are mortal enemies — that means to the death. The legacy of the six-toed man will not end until one side is destroyed.”
The shaman considered this. So there were cannibals, or at least their descendants, here. He had not expected this. But perhaps if he had all his people here with him, they could destroy the few enemy left and have peace at last.
“Do you know about the Navajo?” the shaman asked, suddenly recalling his queer friend from the asylum. “Why do they call us ancient enemy? Are they related to the cannibals?”
“You do not know?” the older man asked, raising his eyebrows skeptically. The shaman realized his line of questioning was odd, but did not reply.
The older man answered after a moment, “They refused to help us. They could only criticize us, criticize what we had become. While they didn’t ally with the cannibal tribe, they would do nothing to help us defeat them. We resented this. They moved in to our lands. We consider each other with distaste.”
The shaman could see the older man still regarded him with caution. The shaman was so moved to be in the company of his own tribesman, he yearned for the stranger opposite him to feel the same way, for them to feel united in kinship. He took a deep breath and with hushed voice revealed who he was and how he had come here. His audience listened with ever-widening eyes.
“But even if I could somehow find the stones,” the shaman concluded, “I am too old and weak now to travel back. I tried my first few years here to use new materials to open the doorway. But I could not charge them. It would seem I need those particular four stones. The spirits showed them to me and I put so much of my power into those.”
His companion seemed to have drifted off now into his own thoughts. “All these years,” the older man mumbled. “All these years ... and you came,” he smiled to himself, breathing shallowly.
“Grand Gulch is the home you seek,” the older man said to the shaman abruptly. “I have a great-nephew. He's young and strong. Regrettably, he's a creature of his time; he doesn’t know who he is, really,” the old man said wistfully. “I have taught him some words from our language. I have told him where he comes from, but he does not know who he is. He doesn’t have the will to care. And so I could never tell him. But you,” he eyed the shaman slyly, “you may be able to impress him. You ... are real. The stories, my words are flat and uninspiring to him. The past is so distant from us now; it’s been so, so very long,” he drifted off momentarily. “But you’re flesh and blood. You still smell of the past. Even he could see that you're a ghost here. He could listen to you, believe you. Young and strong, he could help you.”
“I don’t have much time,” the shaman said, indicating his feebleness and age .
“Nor I!” laughed the older man, indicating his body of even greater, unguessable age. His withered frame shook with laughter.
“You find him,” he said to the shaman. “I’ll tell you where to look. You send him back to your people.”
The shaman helped the old man up from the ground; his frail body seemed hardly able to handle the task, his legs shook like a new-born fawn’s as he tried to stand straight.
“I’ll be alright,” he assured the shaman.
When the shaman walked away from the old man, his heart was soaring so high it was almost painful, back to the tour bus which had shuttled him there. He left the older man standing on trembling legs, slowly rubbing one hand back and forth across his tiny, shrunken waist, and waving with the other.
Ben awoke at first light, the sky glowing expectantly. The tree branches over his head were welcoming this morning, no longer foreign. Only, they seemed somehow smaller. Perhaps just because he was used to them now. A light dew lay across everything. He lay in his sleeping bag, delighting in his warmth, fingering the necklace the shaman had given him. “Sacred,” he had said, “charged.” He had instructed Ben not to put it on until he had gathered all four stones into a circle, putting one in each direction and connecting each stone into a circle with the bundle of herbs the old shaman had gathered that day on the mesa. But Ben was afraid he might lose the necklace; he put it around his neck that very first day.
A bird’s cry pierced the frosty silence, echoing off the canyon walls. Ben roused himself from his cocoon and searched through his knapsack for a poptart.
All the trees in the little grove where he camped seemed different this morning. The whole world seemed to have a new twist somehow. Ben sat against the trunk of the tree, chewing his breakfast contemplatively. He felt like a new man. He knew who he was at long last. He had connected with his heritage. He thought about his great-uncle, who had been so disappointed in him. “I can’t even tell you who you are,” he had said. “You wouldn’t respect such knowledge.” Ben hoped he could find him now and say to him, “I am Anasazi. I know who I am. Tell me what our real name is. Tell me in our language.” Even the shaman hadn’t told him this. And his great-uncle could finally impart all the ancient knowledge to him, if only he could find him, participate at last in the oral tradition. His great-uncle had taught him precious few words of the ancient language: empty phrases of a juvenile nature, simple greetings, a few isolated nouns and adjectives. No stories. No substance.
He cringed uncontrollably as he thought of the cannibals, stewing his ancestors like they were the mere beasts. Even a lone bird’s cry was so powerful, so moving, deep in the canyon – he tried to imagine the war cries of the cannibals filling the air. He shivered in response.
Done with breakfast, Ben picked up his shovel. He stopped to look at the two stones he had found yesterday. He was starting to get a feeling about that round one. He decided to take the two stones up to the ruin. He dropped the shovel and picked up the stones. They made his hands tingle strangely. Perhaps it was just the cold, he thought.
He came out of the little grove of trees still focused on the stones, looking at them in his hands. It wasn’t until he was already half way up the slope to the ruin that he saw it.
“What!” he cried. He ran frantically up the rest of the slope and dropped the rocks at his feet as he gaped at the ruin.
It was somewhat less of a ruin than it was yesterday. The kiva roof was now completely intact but covered with strangely segmented heaps of sand, littered with corn cobs. Entirely new partial structures were standing; previously half-crumbled walls now stood taller. The lips of two clay pots protruded from the sand against the threshold of a dwelling.
What the hell is going on? Ben thought, too shocked to physically murmur the words. It must be a dream, was all he could reason. Yes a dream. “Wake up Ben!” he yelled in his head.
He began running aimlessly around the ruin. Just running. “Wake up!” he shouted aloud. Steps and ledges now lurked under a thinner layer of sand and debris. Ben tripped and splayed out face down in the sand. Delirious, he backed himself on to his knees.
“If it’s a dream I’ll just dig,” he said to himself. “Dig until I wake up. Maybe I’ll find the stones in my dream.” And he ran recklessly to get the shovel. Time passed; Ben didn’t notice. Dig, dig, was all he could think, all he could do. And then the shovel scraped across a hard surface that gave him such a shiver, like fingernails down a chalkboard, that he dropped the shovel.
A minute later he pulled out a large, severely contorted rock. Without even thinking he ran over and put it with the other two rocks he had dug up. As he did so, a strange sensation took hold of his body. He felt dizzy, tingly, things seemed hazy. He felt more confused than ever.
Then in a short and violent flash: he realized. He picked up two of the stones and ran to opposite ends of the ruin, depositing one at each end. Then he took the necklace from around his neck. He walked to the kiva and set it on its roof. He stooped and entered the kiva, the door still missing, and sat down against the curved back wall, panting. The heavily blackened timber beams so close to his head weighed the air with a ghostly smoke like in his earlier dream, as if releasing all they had once absorbed. Tiny corn cobs, acorns, gourd stems littered the sand at his feet.
Though completely sheltered from any weather element, Ben suddenly felt wind pushing up against his cheeks. For some reason he recalled the words of a Navajo elder he heard or read somewhere, “We do not enter the sites of the Anasazi. Only a shaman who has prepared and purified himself can set foot inside the ancient dwellings.”
Again, he seemed to discern voices whispering in the air, as he had yesterday. This time he stayed calm. He called out tentatively.
The voices again swirled around him. He spoke a few of the ancient words he had been taught. And suddenly the dust kicked up at his feet. Startled, Ben ran out of the kiva.
He stood just outside it. Spooked and unnerved, he tried to think about the stones. He had one more to find. Where should he start looking? On a whim he grabbed the necklace from the kiva roof and put it back around his neck. Not knowing exactly what to do next, he stood very still, his eyes closed.
And he thought he discerned a faint, very faint tingling in his chest. He focused on this; it seemed to want to pull him forward. It was as if a tether was attached to his chest and someone was pulling it, causing the sensation. With eyes barely slit open, so he could just make out the ground at his feet, he tried to follow the pull, emptying his mind, closing it to all but the sensation in his chest. Slowly, slowly, he walked, heeding the pull.
Then suddenly he felt he had reached the source of the tug. He opened his eyes full. He was below the ruin on the far side, down-canyon, at the very base of the midden heap. Instinctively, he dropped to his knees and began digging with his hands. He dug like a dog uncovering a previously buried bone, both hands hitting the sand at once, pulling back towards himself. His thoughts finally started to turn on, pointing out the lunacy of his state and actions. Just as he started to feel embarrassed, his fingertips hit something solid. He knew he had found the fourth stone. The shaman was right: He simply knew.
Ben left the stone in situ and ran back to his camp. He was giddy and nervous. He felt insane. He felt free. He felt like he was about to jump out of an airplane having picked his parachute from a random assortment of packs whose contents were unknown; perhaps he had a parachute, perhaps he didn’t.
He spilled the body paints the shaman had given him from his knapsack onto the ground.
Feverishly, he stripped and painted himself the way the shaman had taught him. He ran back to the ruin feeling like the most important man on earth; he alone would be the savior of the ancient Anasazi.
He decided to set up inside a ruined dwelling whose doorway lay at the edge of the kiva’s roof: the shaman’s dwelling. Ben retrieved the stones one at a time, laying out a curving line of herbs from each one to form a circle with one stone at each “corner.” It was not hard for Ben to empty his mind as the shaman had instructed, for he was so giddy and frightened, it emptied of its own accord, and he clung to the mantra-like words the shaman had told him to focus on, not revealing their meaning, like the tenacious weasel clamps on to its prey.
With each subsequent stone he retrieved and put into place, he felt like an ever-more powerfully charged bolt of lightning, until with the placing of the last stone, standing from inside the circle, he heard a great clap of thunder. His body jolted and felt completely electrified, and the ground gave way under his feet. Suddenly he was falling through a cavernous, cold tunnel of darkness. His mouth gaped open but the only sound in his ears was a fierce wind. He lost his breath; his head started to cloud with an inky blackness. He felt ice-cold. He tried to think a thought, any thought. But his consciousness was splashed away into the blackness.
Ben blinked, groggy, his eyelashes cutting cleanly through the crisp, cool air. He breathed, the smell of dust and charcoal heavy in his nostrils, like grit on his teeth. He listened, soft shuffling coming from outside. Outside what? He opened his eyes full to the charcoal-blackened timber beams above his head, bound together by small bits of rope, and simultaneously felt the hard ground beneath his back and coarse fur against his skin, his feet pushed up against a solid wall.
He looked down at his body, painted symbolically in a language he didn’t understand. He sat up and scanned the interior of the small, sandstone enclosure about him, filled with objects he had only seen in museums or had never seen before.
“This can’t be a dream,” Ben said to himself in a low voice as his eyes darted back and forth between his own body and his surroundings. I’ve done it. I’m here! I’m actually here. An intoxicating excitement ran through his veins. He moved aside a rectangular slab of rock to open a small doorway, and there before him lay a fantastic sight. It was like waking up in the land of Oz. A whole Anasazi village lay before him. Complete, neat and tidy, people milling about, a woman grinding corn.
For a minute Ben just crouched at the door, enraptured. But soon he remembered his mission and realized he had arrived in time. The village was still peaceful; the shaman sat on the kiva roof outside the circle of stones and herbs he had constructed, his eyes closed, meditating.
Ben laughed to himself, That shaman is more powerful than he thinks. The stones are already activated. They were ready for transport before the cannibals even came! Ben knew he must somehow tell the shaman this.
Ben stepped out of the little doorway, leaped over to the shaman and knelt, gently shaking the shaman’s shoulders, half expecting them to disintegrate into dust and float away like a dream. The shaman jumped up startled and stared at Ben with eyes as wide as an ocean. Ben stammered out the words the shaman had taught him to say at this meeting. They felt like giant jaw breakers in his mouth — big, round and awkward. The shaman’s eyes grew wide. He looked over Ben and indicated for him stand up and turn around. A look of satisfaction and wonder took hold of his face and he bade Ben sit down with him.
He began speaking but Ben couldn’t understand. The shaman surveyed Ben’s face as he spoke and after a moment fell silent. A woman passed nearby and stopped to ask the shaman an urgent-sounding question which he answered promptly. The woman looked at Ben wide-eyed and smiled. Then she bent her head and hurried on her way. Ben watched her approach a group of people and heard her speak unintelligibly. Then all heads turned toward Ben.
Ben was disappointed that he could not understand anything anyone had said. It suddenly made him feel very claustrophobic and he yearned desperately to make a verbal exchange, to understand and be understood. With each second that passed now he felt more and more confined, imprisoned, the feeling of claustrophobia strangling him until he choked, coughed, and in pure panic barked out like a dog, spewing forth the simple phases his uncle had taught him. Then he waited, breathless, for the shaman to reply — somehow, in some way. But he did not. He looked quizzically at Ben. And in the responding silence, Ben wilted and shrank. He suddenly wanted to go home. This job was not for him. And yet he couldn’t fail. God help me, Ben thought to himself. Anybody help me!
It occurred to him then that time must be running thin. The cry of the cannibals would pierce the air at any moment.
The shaman was still eyeing Ben intently. Ben gestured toward the circle and spoke as calmly and soothingly and as confidently as he could. “It’s ready. You can go in it now. It’s all ready,” Ben said, knowing the shaman couldn’t understand but hoping he could convey his message by the tone and inflection of his voice and the gesturing. He stood up and held one foot over the edge of the circle, but not touching it to the ground. The shaman gasped and started to push Ben away. But in reaching for him he suddenly understood what Ben was saying. He stopped and smiled up at Ben who reciprocated the smile and replaced his foot back outside the circle.
The shaman stood up and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, removing it immediately with a startled look. Perhaps he didn’t expect a spirit messenger to be so solid, Ben thought. The shaman then gestured and spoke the way Ben had, conveying meaning in the tone over the words, and Ben understood that he was to gather the villagers together at the circle. The shaman handed him a small feather and then retreated inside his dwelling.
The shaman had pointed out two sentries, probably saying, “Don’t forget them,” Ben figured. He ran to them first. At his approach, they looked suspicious and very edgy. Ben waved the small feather and beckoned them to come in from their posts. The two men glanced at each other, then began to make their way toward him. He led them to the stone circle and gestured that they were to stay. Then he turned to gather the others and he suddenly remembered how the shaman had described to him how everyone ran away when they saw the cannibals, how the shaman lamented over them not staying together at the circle. Should the cannibals come before they finished transporting, he would need to prevent this from happening again.
With a flash of inspiration, he ushered the men to the door of the kiva, whose roof supported the stone circle, and bade them go inside. They looked shocked and scandalized, and eyed Ben with suspicion. Ben suddenly realized that perhaps this was unceremonious. He bowed his head to his chest in thought, but had no idea how to perform a kosher entrance. He brought his hands together over his lips and he could feel all his thoughts cramming together at the top of his head. A panic was starting to overtake him and a sense of urgency poured out of him now in a visible sweat. The two sentries, watching him, suddenly ducked inside the kiva.
Relieved, Ben ran to a group of villagers, brandishing his feather, and beckoned them frantically to follow him. The men started gathering their weapons and the women pots and tools, but Ben grabbed these things away from them and pushed them towards the kiva. "You won’t need those things,” he tried to reassure them as calmly as he could against the rising panic in his throat. At the kiva door he beckoned them to enter. The men, startled, peered inside suspiciously and upon seeing their comrades, entered. But the women stayed outside. Impatient, Ben tried to gently push one of them in. But the woman protested and everyone who witnessed the spectacle threw upon Ben a blanket of bewilderment and shock. He realized then, that women must not be allowed in the kiva. Perhaps he had read that somewhere in the past. But now it angered him.
“What’s the difference?” he snorted, and led the women up the stone steps to the roof of the kiva where the stone circle lay. He wanted to start them transporting right away. The sense of urgency inside him now was almost unbearable. He caught a glimpse of the shaman still in his dwelling gathering things into a large pouch. Ben wanted to tell him he wouldn’t need anything. But he turned and went to gather more villagers. He stuffed the men and older boys into the kiva and corralled the women and children together around the stone circle.
Soon everyone was gathered except for the shaman. Impatient and angry, unable to speak with the ancient tribe, Ben tried to push one of the women into the circle. But she resisted, alarmed and confused. The rest of the people gathered around were very unsettled. Ben thought of jumping in himself to show them, but he feared that seeing him disappear would simply frighten them into running away from the circle. He needed the shaman to talk to them, to explain to them that everything was going to be alright.
Ben ran to the shaman in his dwelling and, reaching over the threshold, tugged at his elbow, begging him to come out, to begin the ceremony. “Forget all this stuff,” Ben shouted at him. “Forget this, forget ceremony, just jump in the damn circle!”
The shaman looked at him uncomprehendingly, and as he pulled his elbow back out of Ben’s grasp, a chorus of unholy screams exploded, piercing Ben like a knife in the back.
He had hardly leaned back out of the doorway when he was grabbed by the shoulders and hoisted up on to his feet. He understood the scene that lay before his eyes in but one ghastly instant. The cannibals had sneaked upon them in uncanny silence, with the sentries absent and the villagers’ attentions all focused around Ben and the circle. The men were all crammed inside the kiva, trapped without weapons. The cannibals were already rushing in to block the one entrance with vicious-looking spears poised in their hands. One poked his vile, painted face inside and Ben could hear the men yelling. The women on top of the kiva were surrounded by cannibals, screaming in a crazed panic. They tried to run but each one who tried was swiftly caught and punched in the stomach so she fell forward to the ground. Ben tried frantically to wriggle from his captor’s grasp, only to be held firm and spun around so that he came face to face with the savage.
Ben shuddered with terror. He felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He struggled to breathe under the frightful gaze and hot breath of the cannibal who seemed something not human. Ben’s skin crawled at the thought of this beast’s tongue sliding over it, and he was repulsed by the shining white, crooked teeth he could feel tearing through his muscle, gnawing at his bones. The cannibal’s intense eyes were like daggers and his face was painted in nauseating patterns of black, red and yellow. But it was his mouth, that dreadful maw, that gripped Ben with immobilizing terror.
Ben suddenly became aware that words were tumbling out of the mouth. Ben was overcome with repulsion at their sound, at the siren of intelligence and civilization, and then a pure and violent anger sprang up inside him. Ever since he woke up here in this time he had not felt a part of the tribe he had come to save; he had felt disappointingly outcast. But now in this terrible moment he felt completely bonded to them. He was one of them; he would die with them. In a rage of defiance and a passion of identification, he began spewing all the words he knew in the ancient language. He spat them at the cannibal like holy water on a vampire. They came gushing out, and he could not stop them. He ran out of words and began repeating them.
The cannibal inexplicably dropped his hands from Ben’s shoulders and looked quizzically at him. As he strained to catch the torrent of words, an intrigued smile slowly stretched across his barbarous lips. Then he broke into an abrupt laugh. Ben stopped speaking, horrified. The cannibal reached for him and pulled him to his chest, wrapping his hot, red arms around him.
“Brother!” the cannibal exclaimed. And Ben understood that word, the first word he recognized since he arrived here. “Brother!” Ben struggled to understand what this could mean, but suddenly the face of the shaman poked out of his dwelling and stared, aghast, at Ben. The look of betrayal on the shaman’s ashen face was unmistakable. The women nearby glared at him with the same dreadful look.
Suddenly the shaman shot out of his dwelling and, like a bullet aimed at a target, dove into the circle. His body appeared to melt right into the ground and he disappeared completely. Everyone froze, incredulous, and there was a brief moment of stunned silence. Then one of the cannibals poked at one of the stones with his spear. He rolled it towards his feet then bent down and picked it up. Everyone watched him as he lobbed it over his head, and it hit the ground with a dull thud several yards away.
And as if it were the pistol start to a race, pandemonium instantly broke out as the women all tried to jump into the broken circle. The cannibals tried to stop them; they tried to reach through the stampede of feet to grab the stones and wreath of herbs. Frantically, the women and children jumped up and down on the kiva roof. The men crammed in beneath it winced at the bowing timber beams mere inches above their heads, and glanced at each other with looks of bewilderment. The men began yelling from within, below falling chunks of dried mud; the women and children above were shrieking with panic and jumping for all they were worth on the roof over their husbands’ and fathers’ heads trying to follow the shaman. The cannibals let loose their war cry and began their macabre carnage. Amid it all, Ben stood in an eddy of stillness.
The circle was gone — a cannibal reached for the last stone. Ben could not go home. It would appear to the Anasazi villagers that he just rounded them up like cattle to be slaughtered. He had betrayed the shaman and the very people he came to save through his own ignorance. All this time he was not Anasazi but their mortal enemy; his great-uncle had never fully explained the heritage in which Ben had taken little interest. He had been ready to die with these people, as one of them, but he had not only ensured their defenseless defeat and death, he would also be made to feast with his tribe ... He wretched and fell to his knees.
From this lower vantage point he saw a pair of hands encase the last stone of the circle and pick it up. He looked up to the man who held the stone and gasped at his midriff — the skin was red, swollen and scarred, and pierced through with twine, stitching the lower half with the upper. The grisly cannibal stood a silent pillar amid the chaotic village, turning the stone over thoughtfully in his hands. He looked down at Ben, the black center of his eyes narrowing to slits like a cat’s, and turned up one corner of his mouth in a cryptic smile.
Some notes on the inspiration for the story:
I have hiked and backpacked in Grand Gulch several times, and I came up with this story based on some various facts, research and widely-circulated folklore. I think it makes the story more interesting to know some of the basis for the story, so here are a few notes:
There was found, near the Grand Gulch area (southeastern Utah), the mummified remains of a man who had been sliced in half across the hip area; the skin from the upper and lower halves of the body had been sewn back together with twine made of human hair. He is known as “cut-in-two man.”
Elders from native tribes in Mexico have been documented as saying that very powerful witches and shamans have to be cut into eight different pieces and buried in eight different places or else they can pull themselves back together and come back to life.
At the Chaco Canyon ruins, there is a petroglyph of a six-toed man. Many native tribes believe that people with extra digits have special powers. I have not found an explanation for this petroglyph, but my research has not been exhaustive, as the literature on Chaco and the theories on its phenomenon are vast.
Finally, cannibalism in the Southwest is a very controversial subject and the idea and evidence has gained public attention only fairly recently. Opinions still vary. The most exhaustive treatment of the subject at the time I wrote the story came from the book Man Corn.
Check this essay out on my travel blog where I included photos with the text. Follow this link: Tofu for String Quartet
Honorable mention at Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference
The Eye of the World
I’m lying in bed trying against the wind to fall asleep. The chiming clock in the hallway strikes out an anemic hour, the notes mangled by a low battery. There’s no reason it should, but it triggers a memory of standing on the rim of Africa. Of when I stood in the dusk at the edge of a continent; then I turned around to stand at the edge of a sea.
Awake beneath my blanket, restless on the far shore of dreams, I’m staring out into a blackness undulating with nightmares and lullabies. I think of that forlorn evening in Tunisia – our last – kicking rocks off the cliffs of Cap Bon into the Mediterranean. We were excited by the wrecked ship below us – surely a nightmare – hoping some fantastic tale would come wafting up from it, a classic drama that, just by breathing in the rusted air, would come alive in front of us. So close to shore, just beneath the land’s eyelid – moored, marooned, tucked into that boundary of sleep forever. What happened to the crew? Did they step off and swim themselves awake? Or do they lurk beneath decks, rotting and crystallizing into a salty crust?
The speakers from two different mosques were calling evening prayers into the air. It was as if the voices were searching, probing the void; searching like the SETI, broadcasting their prayers, the same over and over as if they didn’t know there was another land just across the sea. Just up the coast, at the highest point on Cap Bon, rusting cannons point menacingly outward, originally installed in World War II. A nice man opened the gate for us to walk around the base of the large telecommunications tower and down to the cannons, not otherwise accessible to the public. Peering down cannon barrels under a salty gray sky, the force of the wind nearly ripped us from the hemline of the continent as if it meant to re-stitch the water to the land a little further inland. I struggled to keep my footing.
From the speakers atop the mosque minarets, the prayers, five times daily, cry for someone to hear them, to come to shore; and the cannons insist that no one come, promise to repel anyone who tries. There is an uneasiness there at the edge, a subtle tension lining the rocky coast.
It seems that in the gathering darkness, which we had no flashlight to penetrate, when we turned to hurry back down the hills and cross the valley to reach our truck, some part inside me failed to turn around and leave. A little kernel stayed looking out across the calm water – calmer than I’ve ever seen the sea, as if it had just been abandoned like the ship … the myriad creatures and the motion – the wind and the moon – all just left the sea to idle as a brilliant, turquoise, stagnant pond. And tonight when dreams have left me, I’m standing lonesome at that eerie shore, calling out. It feels like no one else knows we’re here – we, this continent and I – like we’re lost.
Long ago, the Romans knew this part of the continent well, sailing over from Italy and founding hundreds of cities in their North African “breadbasket.” Their sticks and bones still lay about everywhere like native shrubbery; my kernel, without roots, is just a tiny pebble on the surface. I fear lying for eternity at that precipice above the sea, etched not into here or there but into the slim sill which is both, where I stopped for a moment alone, with my back to the great birthing grounds, to face a vast sailors’ tomb. The sun set on my left as I looked up at my husband on my right, climbing ahead of me, climbing east up into the darkness, becoming a silhouette, as if he were walking into the dream-sea to leave me behind with the prayers.
But this isn’t really about the sea. Maybe I put it here because everyone likens the desert to “a sea of sand.” In the interior of southern Tunisia, I stood at the shoreline of an enormous desert. And it isn’t just the desert’s vastness that is like a sea, the quantity of sand like that of water, but the sand itself is fluid. The Saharan sand is so powdery fine that it moves like a thick liquid though it is utterly dry. It’s as dry as the water is wet.
I’ve never actually journeyed across an ocean on a ship. I’ve taken day-trips on small boats, gotten a taste of what it is to leave land behind, to be surrounded by water, to be convinced that land never existed, yet plagued by the illusion of horizon. Once you step into the water, you are in the body of the ocean, and once in the body there seems to be no specificity to your place within. Driving into the desert is similar.
My husband, Erik, and I approached the Sahara in our trusty Nissan 4x4 we rented in Djerba. We drove through the delta of scrub-brush country, through sand dunes and murky horizons up to the edge of the true desert. And there is in fact an edge, razor thin. This was the most unexpected thing. Here, the sterile sands don’t just melt out into the other land, fade away gradually. There is a literal wall of sand that marks the boundary; it’s its own fence. One moment you are not in the Sahara. You take one single step, and then you are inside, enveloped, not to emerge again for thousands of miles – nearly 3,000 if you traverse toward the western edge, or 1,200 if you head for the south. It’s a tall step, that first one, for the wall is many meters high. You’ve now entered an entity as large as the United States.
There is an oasis breaking up this stretch of sand-cliff, the last oasis in many barren miles. It was the one place in Tunisia where the guidebook highly recommended a splurge. So Erik and I spent a hefty pocketful of dinars to stay in the posh comforts of a desert-side mini-paradise. Our tent was air-conditioned by a generator and furnished with a comfortable bed and a small bathroom with plumbing, and the natural water supply at the oasis afforded a swimming pool amid the tents. Trees were nourished by the natural spring, and there was a line of them at the perimeter of the oasis like a hedgerow. When we stepped beyond the last tree, we were suddenly completely inside the desert. Later we took a short camel ride further in. And even though I was barely inside the desert’s periphery, I felt deep, deep into the heart of something so vast that the heart is in fact the thing: not the pit at the center but the whole fruit, so that to step across the border is to step into the whole, just as a black hole or the universe has no center—there is no plot for your position; you are merely in or out.
As we drove toward this oasis at the Sahara’s hem, I soon understood what people mean when they say the desert is beautiful. I used to look at the photographs in coffee table books and read the photographers or authors espouse the great beauty of these lonely, barren places, and I thought the people were over-dramatic and clownish, trying to make poetry out of something unpoetic, something profound out of something mundane. After about fifteen or twenty kilometers driving through the proto-desert – the flat, scrubby, colorless sandy plain leading into the true desert – I was struck by the beauty, almost like a cartoon character being hit on the head with an anvil. It was quite sudden; I just got it, and it was overwhelming.
I’m a mountain girl. I live in them now, and I grew up backpacking through them. In the rugged mountains, especially above tree-line, you always have a sense of direction – there are monstrous landmarks all around you. You can get turned around in the forests, especially on cloudy days, but even then the trees look different from one another, there will be rivers somewhere, the land is stationary and has slope, angles, degrees. There is topography and feature to grab onto and use.
Trying to reach the Sahara, five or six kilometers after turning off the paved road at a lonely little sign pointing ambiguously to Ksar Ghilane, we came upon our first fork in the dirt road. The map showed only one … period. Eyeballing distance on the map, it would be about 30 kilometers into the 80-kilometer stretch of no-man’s land. All we had to go by was a dotted line on the map heading west through this featureless area to eventually cross the pipeline road that runs south along the desert’s margin. The single fork turned due south to curve down toward the military zone at the border of Algeria. Obviously this was not the map’s fork. Each arm here proceeded roughly west. I only knew west from my miniature compass that had been attached to the zipper of a winter coat my husband had bought a couple years ago in a department store. It’s cheap and crude, but it has served me well. The sun was completely obscured in a sandy haze – the sky was as bland as the land. There were some low hills beside us whose ridgelines meandered away from us. The intersection at this Y was a very acute angle, both roads seemed equally wide and well-traveled, both headed approximately west, neither one due west. For no convincing reason, we chose the left arm.
Four kilometers later, another fork. We chose the right arm, trying to stay west. Two kilometers later, another fork. We were slightly aghast, and glad we had started the day with a full tank in our diesel truck, ten liters of water and a couple packages of cookies. At this third fork I got out a piece of paper and wrote down the direction of each turn we’d taken so far and the odometer reading of each. Six kilometers later, another branching of the road. One and a half kilometers later, another. It was a fairy tale of mazes. I thought about dropping cookie crumbs as we drove further into the sandy labyrinth.
We had our compass and an estimation of which path looked more traveled. But the paths became fainter and fainter and soon were but slight tire tracks, perhaps laid down only once. Small sand dunes covered portions of the questionable tracks. We put the truck in low-4, second gear, and plowed through, keeping the revs at redline. Anything lower and we would lose momentum and sink irretrievably. (Afterward, I read about modern-day desert travelers who let their tires down to 15 psi and have to stay above 45 mph to avoid sinking.) At first this was nerve-wracking, but then it just became the way things were, and eventually we thought little of it, except for the really deep dunes when I couldn’t help but squeal with my knuckles bent beneath my chin, thinking “Go, go go, little truck, go!”
And so we made our way toward the eye.
It was rough, bumpy, and slow going; all the time we just tried to stay heading west. Erik had had a lot of coffee for breakfast, and he had to stop and get out of the truck regularly to pee. I got out, too, and that’s when the anvil dropped, in the middle of that maw of silence. The silence was so deep that the idling truck didn’t even penetrate it or distract from it. Normally I would want to turn the engine off to immerse myself in the silence, but we didn’t want to risk not being able to start it again, and it didn’t matter anyway … the engine could affect the silence no more than an ant could make a dent in the trunk of a redwood tree.
It wasn’t that the scenery suddenly seemed pretty, but all those phrases about beauty being inherent in the barrenness, in the vision of raw vastness, now made sense … that glimpse of eternity. It’s like a physical manifestation of a state of meditation. “Clear your mind,” they say. “Thoughts are only bubbles that float away back out, never meshing into the mind but passing through without footprints.” Like the way the sand immediately swallows yours and the breeze blows over, and you’re hard-pressed to prove you ever were there. The desert enforces the present – the past is immediately erased and the future can’t be ascertained in the shifting sands.
In the mountains you contemplate God for majesty, for the color, shape and complexity around you; in the desert you contemplate God for pure magnitude, something more cosmic, as in of the universe rather than of the earth. Or perhaps you contemplate the possibility of his absence, mulling over the phrase “god-forsaken land.” Previously, I’ve thought of the desert as crushing the earth’s spirit with its barren sterility, but in fact it has freed it.
This part of the earth is only just waking up, wiping the sleep from its eye and yawning, stretching, thereby freeing the other half to dream. For there to be dreams, there must be wakefulness; it’s the contrast that gives them definition. But we the dream inevitably fall into the abyss of consciousness. To live in the desert is to live under a cold acknowledgement, to be perceived with calculation rather than imagination. Think of how you wake up from your own dreams in the morning. You’ve been somewhere rich with imagery, symbolism and metaphor, possibly somewhere fantastical or in an improbable plot filled with intrigue, in which you have amazing powers of transportation from one location, scene or reality into another. You wake up and open your eyes to look around your bedroom, where you see furniture, ceiling, motionless objects held together by laws of chemistry and physics, which are not fantastical or improbable, but rather the most likely things to exist given the present conditions and laws of the universe. You know approximately the number that your clock will indicate as the amount of time that has passed since you last looked at it. You know approximately what you will see when you look out the window. You know approximately what you will do next as you swing your feet onto the ground. This is the sterility of waking life – when we’ve used up the imagination of sleep. When the earth has used up green and yellow and trumpeting pink, when it can no longer conjure tails or legs or ears, it must open its eye to the spare latticework of element and force, acknowledging the geological certainty of desert sand – the surface currency of Earth’s entropy.
The earth is just an egg laid by God. Huge cosmic chickens rule the universe, you see, and they run around laying planets for eggs. The atmosphere is like our eggshell, protecting us while we develop and grow inside, beneath the cusp of consciousness. It’s our destiny as a developing embryo to consume all the natural resources of our mother earth and to destroy our atmosphere, so rather than dying out we just hatch out of our atmospheric shell and we’ll be free to go wander the universe at large. Mars was indeed once inhabited, like Earth. All its canals and pyramids and technology are now sand; the planet awoke and its people left long ago. Its eye gazes at us with nostalgia while it remains in orbit, the discarded eggshell of a civilization that has hatched.
Slowly, slowly, consciousness creeps over us.
The Sahara has numerous sisters: the Gobi and Taklimakan, the Kalahari and Arabian, and numerous lesser deserts on every continent. They grow day by day, flaunting their esoteric beauty, their power of raw truth, these wastelands of planetary debris – the detritus, the flaking of the earth, like dandruff. And it builds up and up; it advances like a sentient menace, taking over, moving in like a glacier, covering villages in a fortnight and sometimes a single night. I still double check with myself: this is beauty? This brown opacity, this sludge that, when wet, sucks on truck tires like a vacuum? This bland and malevolent compound – silica?
Oddly, you could ultimately make sand a metaphor for clarity. Though it’s more like a pre-metaphor … the truth before you know it’s the truth, like unproven science that becomes fact as soon as you discover its proof. Superheated sand can turn into glass. The substance of abstract beauty, primarily silicate mineral, is the exact same substance that, when heated, represents tangible beauty, the quintessential clarity.
The other day my friend and I were watching a glass blower at work. Looking into the kiln from which the glass emerged all gooey and malleable, my friend said, “Look at that color, the color of heat.” That incredible yellow-orange, the visual expression of the tactile intensity. While we watched the blower twirl the molten glass around at the end of his blowing rod, I wondered: If the planet continues with desertification, currently converting millions of hectares into desert each year, if it turns completely to sand, when our sun goes supernova will Earth turn into a glass ball? I picture a ball like the one Glinda the Good Witch of the North rides around Oz in, floating serenely through space.
Apparently, meteors that fall to earth in the desert can turn pieces of it into glass. Now there’s something I’d like to see. You’re standing in the desert, feeling oppressed and melancholy at the sand, sand everywhere. Five days yet to go with your camels until you reach Timbuktu or whatever your destination, and then wham. A blinding flash of light, a pain in your ears so intense you’re not even sure if it’s sound, an impact that shakes the ground like an earthquake; you’re momentarily stunned, confused. Sand rains down upon you, blotting out the sun; you have to cover your face. When you can breathe again, you gather your senses and look around, and there is a shard of glass sparkling in the sand. You wonder, Have I really gathered my senses?
There’s a field of green glass chunks in the desert in Egypt: “Libyan glass.” Some are confused by its presence, finding no immediate evidence of a large meteor impact, seeing no explanation for the heat that could have fused the silicate material into glass. But the earth is a master of secrets; sometimes her whisper takes a long time to reach deep enough into our ears for us to hear it. The explanation here doesn’t stem from space, but from biology: Every eye needs an iris. The earth’s eye is green.
When I look back on my trip to Tunisia, in which we saw so many cool and interesting things, driving to Ksar Ghilane with our pickup truck across the scrubby desert country with only our mini compass as a guide was the most appealing part. Navigating right along that eyelid, so near to tucking underneath it. We could have driven up the sandy ridge of the bony eye socket. We could have even driven across the giant eyeball itself over to the cornea and parked right on the colorless abyss of the pupil. We would have run out of gas by that point and died there in the wistful glare of the sun, with the earth staring right at us.
As we neared the pipeline road, at which point we’d found a wide braid of parallel paths – a well-traveled route across the land – a Land Rover came racing up the “road” behind us and passed us. Then after a minute it stopped and the driver got out. We pulled up to him, stopped and rolled down the window. My French is passable for only the most minimum of communications. But as he stuck his head inside our car and looked around, surprised that we were just two white tourists by ourselves in a truck, he traced his finger all around the dash area and rearview mirror. It was obvious he was asking where our compass was. I showed him my tiny one in the palm of my hand, and he burst out laughing. He took the compass from me and stepped back inside his vehicle to show his passengers what a foolish thing we were using to navigate the desert with. Few people transport themselves across this country; most hire guides, and I’m presuming most independent travelers are a little better equipped. The guide told us we were the first people that day to cross through the dunes, which had rearranged themselves since yesterday. He was obviously impressed.
The next day, after spending the night in the oasis, we headed back north along the pipeline road, from which we could see off to our left that improbable wall of sand rising up and comprising the horizon. Large herds of camels wandered about the land between us and the wall. We turned off onto another dirt road to head toward Matmata. When it turned out to be a well-maintained dirt road with only a few sudden car-destroying pitfalls to be avoided, Erik and I found ourselves a little deflated. We yearned for more adventure that necessitated focus and concentration singularly on our present. We wanted to know how stalwart we are. Like many people, we thought we might discover the extremes of our limits within the extremes of nature.
But the desert isn’t a mirror to look in and see your reflection. It is, actually, the piece of glass its silicate material suggests it to be – a window to look through and see things on the other side. Cupping your hands over your eyes and looking into the Sahara, you can see the ethereal freedom, see beauty redefined and released. Similar to looking through the glass windows in the zoo at the animals on the other side, the glass a metaphor for not being able to touch that part of our past or common ancestry, that distant, distant history. Whenever I put my hand up to the window at the gorilla exhibit and the toddler gorillas put their hands up to mine, I’m overcome with chills and shivers. I’ve nearly fainted at our proximity. But more distant than that, before we were life, we were mineral; when life runs its course, we will eventually be mineral again – maybe terrestrial dust on this or another planet, maybe cosmic dust, maybe with some luck a glass ball formed in the kiln of a supernovae. Though, some say our sun will merely wither into a brown dwarf with no spectacular exit, and the earth will just become colder and colder; night will descend endlessly. The eye will have nothing to do but scan the heavens and watch the stars bloom.
Now with our sun providing us cycles, the other stars beyond are only seeds at night – tiny seeds furrowed into the fertile acres of space. The star-seeds are sprinkled around the heavens by the cosmic ranchers who own the cosmic chickens who lay the planet-eggs. Anyone who spends any time with the night sky arrives at explanations, stories and destinies for the stars. The problem is that those explanations are mostly anthropomorphic. This is what I’ve deduced: The stars bloom with the morning glories, with each new revolution of our planet, unfurling each day in the deep woods of our unawareness, blooming in the voids left by our daytime inattention, by our affair with the sun. They bloom and die and re-seed themselves by dusk each day, and the sun goes down as water into the well of night. The stars drink the sun into their roots –when they twinkle, that’s them slurping up the water – and they sprout again at dawn.
I wanted to see the stars in the Sahara on a moonless night. I left my shoes in our tent, and Erik and I walked away from the oasis, which was flooded with electric light keeping the swimming pool bright and a light outside each tent for the people staying there in the isolated paradise. We wanted to get out and sink down behind the dunes, use them like a blanket to throw over the coursing electricity. The terrain alternated between stretches of flat, pebbly plain and super-soft, dense sand dunes. It was difficult to navigate in the dark; I couldn’t tell when a dune was imminently ahead, and suddenly my bare foot would hit the slope of a dune and I’d almost fall forward on my face from the sudden impact, for it instantly absorbed all of the energy and momentum propelling my legs forward. The pebbles on the flat ground were pokey on my tender soles, but the sand that enveloped my feet as I climbed up and down the dunes was like silk.
Slowly losing our sense of direction, we stumbled into the Sahara in the darkness. I wanted to keep going and going, staggering into the void, but alas we stopped and sat down, and stretched out our toes into the great, wide silence, looking up into the great, wide beyond. As we sat looking up, the stars began to drop from the sky one after another, as if the universe was falling apart. We sat wide-eyed and quiet. The universe was unbelievably simple: sand and stars. One was falling down into the other. Maybe meteors were forming glass all over the desert. But I’m just sure these weren’t meteors. The stars themselves were raining down upon us. That night it was the end of time: all the sand had run out of the hourglass and piled up on the earth’s floor, and when that last grain of sand fell at our feet, the sky began to fall after it. All the stardust everywhere poured down through the waist of the hourglass, coating us with nanoseconds and hours, millennia and eons.
Then the eye closed and we walked back to the oasis, back into the dream.
If the African jungle is the heart of darkness, you could say the Sahara is the heart of light. Blinding, searing light that’s just as oppressive as darkness, barren openness that’s just as cumbersome as dense, machete-dulling jungle. Inhospitable, impenetrable. For a time it was “easier to map the surface of the moon with a telescope than to produce a detailed map of Africa.” We really were lost that one night in the dusk, Africa and I, when I stood on the cliffs of Cap Bon. The voices from the mosques had only just reached the Mediterranean shore from centuries ago, calling out from the barren heart of the desert, “Does anyone know us?” Riding the current of galactic thoughts as they occur one by one to our burgeoning planet.
Several millennia ago, when this Saharan land dreamed, while it was still in the watery womb, it was filled with savanna animals – hippopotamus, giraffe, crocodile and elephant. People hunted the animals and swam in deep lakes. They drew sophisticated paintings on rock walls and overhangs, depicting the details of this life. It was such a violent dream of paradise that even now, in consciousness, the eye carries the scars deep in the retina. Two hundred miles from any water source today the detailed art remains on the stone, stone that has managed to stand up to the scouring power of the wind. Those sketched memories are the deepest tissue in the ancient wound. Now when humans pass through, peering into the cold, wakeful eye of the earth, searching for those scars, they are heroic in their survival; where the living was once easy, in the dream, it is now nearly impossible. To walk this far in is to shed your leg for an albatross wing.
The morning that we awoke in our tent at the Sahara’s edge, we awoke covered in sand, a fine layer all over our bodies, like frosting on our hair; it infiltrated into our suitcases, into the pockets of our clothes, coating the words written inside my journal. After only one night, one step before the event horizon, we were assaulted with this silt as a caution from the heart of light: if we cross the wall of sand and walk back in, we’ll lose the strength to fly back to the dream-shore. We’ll lie beached like the ship off Cap Bon, lodged in the undulating sand dunes that froth in the wind like waves, while the prayers drift over us, searching for the consciousness which we already lie within.
Licking our gritty teeth in the dawn, self-conscious and nervous now that we’ve been made manifest, now that the eye has seen us, we’re compelled to wade ashore from the fecund dreams of infancy, to leave behind our bag of fantastical stage costumes and accessories. We must carry only the essentials into our dromedary dream.
Steadily we inch our way further into the paradox, into the profound absence formed by the only material tough enough to compose our eternal freedom – the silken silica that drafts the earth’s portrait in time, element and motion. In the very place where nothing seems to exist, if we lie down, existence will cover us up, smother us and lead us back to the starkness from which we came – back down the pipeline through biology and chemistry, back through physics, back through math and probability, back down to that single, naked, undeniable point, one step over the line that separates us from nothingness.
Honorable mention in New Letters Awards for Writers
Chimps and Their Keeper
I saw a thick layer of gook in the bottom of the bucket when I finished feeding the patas monkeys. The overly ripe papaya and avocados had concocted a sludge with pineapple juice, wilted cabbage leaves and the seeds of watermelon and bell pepper. I turned the plastic bucket upside down and gave it a good thunk against the ground to dislodge the goo. This produced a louder sound than I expected. When I turned it back over, I saw a three-inch crack leading down from the rim. My heart sank. I’d just broken the only bucket neither missing a chunk nor glued back together into a misshapen bucket-esque container.
It was about three weeks into my month-long volunteer stay at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC) in Entebbe, Uganda. Incredibly, there are only a couple wildlife rescue sanctuaries in this country teeming with phenomenal wildlife which includes many endangered species, and no facilities to rehab orphaned or injured animals back into the wild. A small plot of land on the shore of Lake Victoria shelters rescued animals of all species, displaying them in lush, semi-natural habitat enclosures after they are nursed back to health in quarantine. I overheard numerous Ugandan visitors ask questions such as, “What are the striped horses?” (i.e. zebras) and “What time are the gorillas fed?” (meaning the chimpanzees). The center was definitely providing some education. School children visited in droves, calling to the chimpanzees on their island by name, “Zacky!” “Sarah!” “Shaka!”
I came to the UWEC because I could realize a lifelong dream – working with chimpanzees – at an affordable price. The zookeeper, Kayondo, I learned later, had sized me up immediately with perfect accuracy when I arrived, and knew I would not enjoy cleaning the cages – the nighttime enclosure for the chimps, the two enclosures for the psychotic baboon, Ngugi, and the small cage for the injured patas monkey, Maria. Instead, I made porridge for the chimps’ breakfast and dinner, and cut boatloads of fruits and vegetables to feed all the primates.
When I tell my acquaintances I volunteered at a zoo in Uganda, many ask if it’s like the Denver Zoo, a state-of-the-art facility near my home in the U.S. While it’s a perfectly reasonable question, I’m at a loss as to how to answer. Where do I even begin?
Let’s start with, “No.” No concrete, only mud paths, washed out and crumbling. No lighting. I could walk around the entire zoo in 10 minutes. Animals escape, animals die without explanation. Food supplies are erratic, and no scales or measured containers to divvy it up from the food depot into milk crates. Padlocks are old, get stuck, and sometimes enclosures have to be abandoned because they are inaccessible. Only one knife with a handle still attached for cutting bucketfuls of produce for the primates. One spoon to stir the pots of porridge. All pots were dented and scorched or leaking. The gas cook stove had only one working burner. The observation chairs were broken and rickety. The hose to the baboon cage was punctured in numerous spots, patched with strips of rubber glove. And I had cleverly broken the one fully intact bucket in the chimp house.
The UWEC website touts the center as a “model institution” and one of the most “respected” of its kind in and beyond Africa. But they can’t even get an egg incubator to work – electricity cuts out daily in rolling black-outs, no generator, no batteries.
Every day we made porridge sweetened with sugar for the chimps and poured it into their eager open mouths. It wasn’t that they couldn’t figure out how to drink from a cup, they simply couldn’t be trusted not to throw porridge all over one another and fight viciously over the cups.
I begged my new friend, Robert, who was working as an intern zookeeper without pay, to skim off the chimps’ food, to serve himself a cup of their porridge, eat one of the bananas, but he never warmed to this idea. Instead, he often went without breakfast, cleaning cages, hauling crates of watermelon and cassava with his skeleton arms, raking and bagging cut grass on an empty stomach, maybe a little tea sloshing around in there to curb the hunger with caffeine.
I never understood how the zoo expected him to work all day for days on end and live without pay. He is one of the rare Ugandan souls to complete a university education. Yet this honor isn’t enough to land an honest job, he is to have several years experience first. A chicken and egg. Experience comes by providing free labor, which is a ticket only to a roulette’s chance for a paying job, as long as you have the right allies. He has no one to help him. This is Uganda. His parents barely feed themselves, sometimes they ask him for money which he cannot supply, hanging his head in self-punishing shame.
If I arrived early at the chimp house before the zookeepers, I sat outside next to the night enclosure where I could interact with the chimps through the metal caging. One of the first things that surprised me about the chimps was the feel of their bodies. The adults could fit their frighteningly strong, thick fingers with razor sharp fingernails through the caging, and five-year old Nepa could still fit her entire hand past the wrist to shake hands with me and play.
I didn’t expect their hands and feet to be so tender on the palms and soles. The tops of their fingers are calloused, but the insides are like calf-skin leather. I could reach in with my fingers and scratch the ears and backs of the chimps who pushed their bodies against the caging to receive my grooming. Their hair was coarse and thick, but did not, as many people have wondered, have any particularly strong smell.
Sometimes they would elongate their lips to reach my finger through the caging and suck gently (crosswise, no sane human would poke a finger straight toward their teeth, for they could bite it off) and their lips were indescribably soft, their warm tongues occasionally taking a tentative lick. This is when I could look directly into the chimps’ eyes as they sat waiting for porridge. I was surprised at how long they would hold my gaze as I looked into the brown depths of evolution.
An older chimp, Ruth, was fascinated with my tennis shoes. I put my feet up to the caging and she poked them with her finger, moving her head side to side rapidly with intense excitement and curiosity. One day I took my shoe off so she could access as much as is possible through the square holes of the caging. I was prepared for some damage to the shoe, but not for how difficult it would be to get it back … a human is lucky to win a tug-of-war with a chimp! When I told Robert about it, he widened his eyes, shocked that I would risk something so valuable.
After a few weeks, Kayondo asked me to write a couple paragraphs about what I had learned volunteering at the UWEC. I know he wanted me to say something about zookeeping, about handling the animals or the chores and logistics. But I only witnessed and participated in those things. What I learned about was chimpanzees. I learned to recognize them first by their idiosyncratic behaviors rather than by their faces, which takes a while to tell one apart from another.
Onapa, for example, the youngest male, is full of curiosity. If a chimp is playing with a turtle or a stick, or sugar cane, it will be Onapa. He strikes the most relaxed and most human-like poses, crossing his arms and legs. Aluma is habitually solitary on the island, passing the afternoon in the shade of a particular bush. Pearl is easy to spot because she is always clapping her hands to get attention. Nepa is always the chimp in the tire swing. As the littlest chimp in the group of eleven, she is often chased and harassed. One day I tickled her in the ribs and under her arms; she panted and laughed like a little girl.
Sarah is a champion hoarder. She fills her hands and folds a hairy arm to carry food in the crook of her elbow like a basket. When her arms are full, she walks along picking up carrots and chunks of cassava with her feet, tucking them under her toes until she can hardly walk, hobbling back to the bushes on her heels. She and Nepa were brought to the UWEC at the same time. Sarah was confiscated at the airport in terrible condition. She had been kept tied-up with a rope around her waist in a witch doctor’s house. Sometimes Sarah and Nepa romped around the night enclosure wrestling with each other, the sound of their heavy feet slapping on the cement floor echoing through the chimp house.
Few enrichment items existed for the chimps. We fashioned popsicles from plastic water bottles scavenged from the trash cans, filling them with sweet porridge and freezing. The chimps then had to extract the treat. (Zookeepers removed the discarded plastic from the island the following day.) We would make 13 bottles for 11 chimps, knowing that Matoke, the alpha male, would secure more than one for himself. I considered him the most beautiful chimpanzee in the group, so muscular and defined, with a gorgeous shaggy coat. And to think he arrived at the UWEC emaciated and covered in lice. He could be terrifyingly intimidating, but also tender with little Nepa. I was frightened by his raw power as he slammed open the metal door to access the island each morning, yet when sitting alone, he seemed to be the one most seriously contemplating life and his existence and what all these items around him in the world could possibly mean. He could stare holes into anything, waiting for enlightenment. Onapa was the most experiential chimp; Matoke was the most thoughtful.
At the late afternoon feeding, I would again beg Robert to skim a little off the top. Just a couple pieces of fruit or vegetable. Who would notice? Instead, he walked home on his pencil legs and lay in bed exhausted, many nights with an empty stomach, listening to his only personal enrichment item – a radio. The zoo provided lunch for its employees, which was often his one and only meal of the day. I still message him sometimes and say I hope he found a good dinner. Many times he replies, “My answer would only upset you.”
I told him once about an unfortunate incident that befell me. He said, “How I wish this could have happened to me.”
“I would never wish this upon you!”
“But you are too delicate to handle this circumstance. Whereas I can handle any situation life can throw at me.”
“Too bad it is not throwing you sweetened porridge,” I said. I couldn’t explain as I stood next to him that I wanted to chuck everything I owned into the moat around the chimps’ island to sink to the murky, mossy bottom, along with all the opportunities in America I can pick off branches like blossoms. Sometimes monitor lizards swam in the moat leaving beautiful, glassy ripples in their wake. One time Robert and another keeper caught fish in the moat to feed an injured pelican. They threw a net in the water, slowly hauling it back to shore. Robert’s dark black skin lay on the water’s surface, quivering as the net approached. He grabbed the trapped fish and threw them out onto the ground where they flopped around, restlessly suffocating. We found one with a mouthful of teensy tiny fish, smaller than lady bugs. A birthing ground right there in her mouth. What a world, I thought. Chimps sloshing porridge in their mouths; a fish’s mouth sheltering baby fish; and Robert’s as hollow as his reflection. We threw the mother back to the water.
Before I left, another American volunteer and I went to the outdoor market to buy clothes as enrichment for the chimps. We had read that primates love to play with clothing. When we stopped at a display where the ladies offered reasonable prices to the mzungus, we asked simply for the largest sizes they had. They scrutinized us, a couple of 120-pound girls, and held up more petite items until we explained the clothes were not for us. We selected two skirts in the largest sizes, and as we pointed to some blouses, the vendor ladies cautioned against our choices … that didn’t match at all, what about this one? We didn’t have the heart to tell them we were purchasing these clothes for chimpanzees and didn’t care whether or not they matched. On the side, I searched for a raincoat for Robert who showed up late for work any morning it rained, for he couldn’t afford to buy protection from this condition in a country with two rainy seasons.
Back at the zoo, we threw a shirt and skirt across the moat onto the chimp island. Onapa and Nepa rushed to claim and investigate them. Nepa held the shirt up to her face, and seemed to know immediately she should pull it over her head, though she first selected the arm hole rather than the neck hole. Soon Sarah leapt at Nepa, grabbed the shirt and sprinted toward a tree. Nepa chased her and they spiraled up the tree trunk. They fought up in the branches, and eventually Sarah disappeared across the treetops and down into the bushes. Nepa stayed up in the tree and cried. She cried and cried, her forlorn voice traveling far across the zoo grounds. The one toy she’d ever been given, stripped away.
Despite her sadness, Robert and I couldn’t stop laughing at Onapa and his enamored play with the pink skirt. We called to our favorite boy, “Onapa!” who was rolling in the grass on the island, imprisoned, some would say, in this dilapidated zoo that might garner pity or disapproval from Westerners. He had been rescued from near death and dehydration and nursed back to happy health; neither broken knives and padlocks, leaky porridge pots, power outages, nor emaciated zookeepers were of concern to Onapa. He kicked the skirt in the air, somersaulted beneath it, and caught it on his feet as it fluttered down.
We had saved some fresh mangoes, one of the chimps’ favorites, for a special afternoon snack for them. Robert fetched the fruit from the kitchen, shooing away the pesky vervet monkeys that roamed the UWEC grounds. He thrust his malnourished arm into the broken bucket, the crack now threatening the entire rim, felt the roundness and heft of a large mango, and threw it to Onapa, who caught it in mid-air like a baseball. We cheered. “These chimps,” he said to me, “they can do one thing that brightens your whole day.”
Published in The MacGuffin Volume XXIX No. 3
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