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Shara K Sinor writes in the somewhat broad genre of literary nonfiction. In personal essays she writes primarily about her experiences and observations gained from travels abroad. In creative nonfiction she's fond of mixing in history with her personal experiences or framing her true stories in a fictional universe (akin to magic realism). She also writes the SKJ Travel blog and is the photographer of SKJ Photography. Welcome to her strange little world ... you can read many of her published essays below.
"Mute Among the Qashqai" Phenomenal Literature Staying with traditional nomads to learn their ways [location: Iran] Reprinted in Wanderlust Journal
"Inside the Sagrada" [read full text] Burrow Press Review More on the aqueous nature of God [location: Spain]
"The Motion of Waves" [read full text] The Indiana Review Truth and legend, a Buddhist metaphor [location: China]
"Inca of the Maya" [read full text] The Florida Review History and reincarnation in Latin American tribes [locations: Peru, Guatemala]
"A Rough Guide to Astronomy" [read full text] Fourth Genre Eulogy to my dad, Jerry Sinor [location: Colorado]
"Artifact" read full text (page 16) at Chicago Memory House Another tribute to my dad, dealing with his death via archaeology [location: Colorado, archaeology survey] (byline Shara Johnson)
"Ghost of Ten" [read full text] Post Road Ancestors and daydreams
"The Fish is Mute" [read full text] Sou'Wester Speculation on the nature of God [locations: Tunisia, China, Colorado]
"Tracking" [read full text] The Bellingham Review Tracking higher powers [locations: Colorado, Utah]
"Chimps and Their Keeper" [read full text] The MacGuffin The unfortunate ironies of life in a Third World country [location: Uganda]
"Eye of the World" [read full text] New Letters Awards for Writers (contest) Deserts and consciousness [location: Tunisia]
"Riding With Rigas" [read full text] Prick of the Spindle Motorcycling with enthusiasts [location: Greece]
"Botox" Blip Magazine [location: South Africa]
"Archipelago of Eve" [read full text] unpublished [location: Brazil]
Read many more documentary and travel essays at SKJ Travel
2005 Nomination for Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction
2006 Nomination for Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction
2006 Selected as Notable Essay in Best American Essays Anthology
2008 Honorable Mention in New Letters Awards for Writers
2010 Honorable Mention in Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference
2014 Spiritual Category Winner in Wander Women Write Contest
2020 Honorable Mention in Literary Taxidermy Morrison Short Story Competition
2019 Completed three-week La Wayaka Current residency in Armila, Panama
2020 Selected for four-week Cafe Tissardmine residency in Morocco, aborted when Morocco closed its borders due to COVID-19 (after I was already in Morocco and had 24 hours notice to get out!)
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In 2007 I wrote a collection of ethnographic essays about a small peasant village in northern China. They made up a book I titled, Burning the Bank of Heaven. It was categorized in the extremely small niche genre of "ethnographic memoir." A niche it turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to publish in, for it doesn't fit cleanly into a more traditional genre of either ethnography or memoir. My experience with interested publishers was that they wanted me to either strip out the memoir part, which was important to me, or tone down the ethnography, which was the point of the book—to document these disappearing traditions, the customs and ways of life. Since I don't have an academic degree in ethnography or anthropology, my ethnographic contribution was often not taken seriously. In spite of receiving glowing compliments on the writing itself from all who read the manuscript, I couldn't find a publisher who wanted to publish MY book—if I took out one component or another, it would be *their* book. (I also got lines like these: "Beautiful writing, but I can't envision this as a movie.") It was an agonizing decision not to write and publish "their" book.
So instead I published over time a selection of the chapters as self-contained essays on my travel blog. At the end of the day, they've probably gotten more attention there than from some tiny publisher I might have finally found to agree to my book. Even better, I could include loads of photos which would not have been included in a printed book. I think the photos are a very valuable addition, and this inclusion helps soothe my disappointment in the print failure.
To read some of these chapter essays, please follow the link below to the collection I've published on my travel blog. This doesn't include all of the chapters from the book, but the majority of them, listed in no particular order. (Without the entire book's structure, I don't think it matters much)
Additionally, I published some smaller self-contained excerpts in the section of my travel blog called Tuesday Tales. Here is the list of Tales from the village, if you'd like to read some smaller snippets.
Secrets in the Earth Evading the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
The Road to Jia Xian Is it better for a traveler to have a tale or a smooth ride?
The Foreigners Are Washing Their Hands! The town officials of a small Chinese village show us amazing hospitality as guests of their annual rain festival.
Mystery in the Riverbed Creepy and intriguing ... how and why did this end up in the sand at my feet?
An Abandoned Past An old man has a sudden burst of pride in his past home.
The Tree A memorable incident that happened one morning while I was living in a traditional peasant village in China.
Revelation on a Rainy Day My friend's family sacrificed so much for him, more than he even knew.
A Simple Joy The smallest gifts provide such joy; whether it's more joyous for the receiver or for the giver is hard to say.
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A small book about my time spent on my grandparents' farm. My adolescent memories, and my grandma's memories from the 1930s and beyond, from dryland farming during the Dust Bowl era all the way to the 1990s.
Please view this on my SKJ Travel website, complete with photos, by following this link: SKETCHES
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The Thin Place
It was a two-day hike in. Lenny had the money; he could have arranged for a chopper to fly them in closer, but Gerald Two Bear’s avid warning made him decide to be discreet. His wife dropped him off with his three mates and their gear, then drove away, so no parked vehicle would betray their trek across the meadow and up into the hills.
Lenny was skeptical of legends, and Gerald’s rendering of “the thin place” was a classic example of Native legend. “A place where time is thin.” People killed themselves, bad energy, yadda yadda; beyond that, Gerald provided few details except the ones that made Lenny salivate with visions of collectibles, ancient artifacts neatly encased and displayed around his living room.
Lenny had been chastising Gerald Two Bear for years about his drinking, telling him to quit, to take charge of his life. But after Gerald mentioned the thin place, Lenny, with a twinge of guilt, treated him to a night out until Gerald was sufficiently drunk to loosen his mouth about the location. Lenny dropped him off at his house and drove away to form the scouting plans, now that he knew roughly where to go.
Lenny knew Nelson and Robyn would be keen with curiosity, and he wanted a backup crew. He liked them, as well, and though they were only honest hobbyists, he felt a particular companionship with others who had the same interest. They neither one approved of the way Lenny selectively donated his finds to museums. They’d never been in his living room, but they knew well enough it wasn’t decorated with modern art. Bernie, all he needed was a little prod in the form of cash. He knew the place Gerald Two Bear spoke of. The money, he told Lenny, wouldn’t convince him to enter the place himself, but it was enough to persuade him to lead “you three suckers” there.
“So there it is,” Bernie announced as the sun was beginning its arc toward the horizon on the second day of hiking. He pointed toward a clearing in the high forest at the edge of a bluff. He took off his pack and leaned against a tree.
“I ain’t goin’ any further.”
“Oh come on, Bernie,” Lenny chided.
“No way. A tribe of people kills all their own selves, that’s some bad medicine. Don’t want nothing to do with that.”
The other two took off their packs to sit with Bernie.
“That was a long time ago,” said Robyn. Her long black hair wisped around her face in the breeze until she finally gathered it in her hand and held it at the nape of her neck.
“Don’t matter. Things are thin here, it all leaks through.”
Bernie pulled a fruit-rollup from his pack and chewed thoughtfully on it. Lenny fished around in his own pack and withdrew a can of Coors Extra Gold. He pushed in the tab and a spray of foam coated his thick brown beard. He held the can up to Bernie and winked a bright green eye.
“Cheers, my friend.”
“I wouldn’t cheers me ‘til you know what I’ve brought you to.”
Lenny chugged half the can in two gracious swallows and stood.
“Come on, let’s have a look,” and he walked toward the clearing.
Bernie abruptly stood up and swung his pack to his back.
“See ya, Lenny,” he said and walked away toward home.
Lenny waved a resigned hand, even though it was Bernie’s back that faced him, and continued to the clearing.
“Whoa-ho!” he exclaimed shortly. “Just look at it all!”
Robyn and Nelson dropped the snacks they had been eating and jogged over to the clearing. Their trained eyes were immediately overwhelmed with surface artifacts.
“Unbelievable,” murmured Robyn, and she dropped to her knees to sift through a pile of jasper projectile points. Nelson and Lenny fanned out to opposite ends of the clearing, yelling out from time to time some of the items they found at their feet. “Bone utensils!” “A cache of beads!” “Grinding stones!” “Looks like remnants of a sleeping mat!”
“And this is just what’s on the surface,” Lenny pointed out while they ate their dinner as the sun fell behind the ridge in the west and the light dropped a shade.
“What’s odd,” Nelson mused aloud, though his voice was never much more than a whisper, “is that the artifacts — the styles of projectile points and pottery, the materials and such — represent three distinct time periods here, each separated by about a thousand years, like little capsules of history rather than a continuum.”
“Another thing that’s odd,” commented Robyn, “is there are no signs of human remains. If everyone in the last settlement killed each other, as Gerald claims, there should be human remains everywhere. There are none.”
“Well, you can’t necessarily take Two Bear literally,” said Lenny.
“Oral tradition is rather extraordinary in Native cultures,” said Nelson, taking his glasses off to rub his eyes. “I think you have to consider the legend very likely seeded in truth. Consider also that no one else will even talk about it. You know that indicates something, Lenny. If something is just trash, if it’s something these Native Americans don’t really believe in, they’ll make something up for you just to please you, make you think you’ve learned something of Native culture so you can go off all happy and smug and spread the lie. It’s how they keep sacred truths to themselves. But this, the people won’t even touch. They won’t touch it, Lenny.”
“Hm. Well, let’s keep looking until dark, maybe we’ll find some clues.”
The three set their dishes to soak in a pot of boiled water. There was a stream not far from the clearing beneath the bluff, from which they had hauled up the water to the camp they set up outside the perimeter of the clearing in a sparse stand of trees. Now Lenny and Nelson pitched bivvy sacks in preparation for nightfall, while Robyn simply unrolled a Thermarest and threw her sleeping bag on top. It was late July and the night was forecast to be clear. There was no moon; the stars would be brilliant, and Robyn intended to look at them in her bed until she couldn’t hold her eyes open any longer.
After each person had arranged their personal nest, they hurried to engage themselves in different areas of the clearing before it got too dark to see. Suddenly Nelson cried out an uncharacteristically loud string of profanities followed by a demand for help. Robyn and Lenny rushed over to find him in an extremely awkward position, with his left leg disappearing into the earth. All around him on the ground were large pottery shards, obsidian flakes, and small jasper clasps.
“It must be a badger hole or something,” said Nelson. “I was just standing here and suddenly the ground felt all mushy under my foot and then whum! Down I go, like falling through soft snow. I can’t seem to pull my leg back up.”
“OK, Nelson. Just relax. Has your foot hit the bottom? Is it resting on the ground?”
“No, I don’t think so. It feels like it’s just dangling in the air. But the dirt is very tight around my leg down near my ankle – the hole’s like a funnel. I can move my foot around freely, though.”
Robyn and Lenny sat down beside Nelson. He was able push his other leg out from underneath him so that he sat squarely on the ground with one leg straight out in front of him and the other down the hole, as if sitting at the edge of a pool with one leg in. They tried pulling up on the leg, all three of them together, but each time Nelson’s boot would hit the lip of the hole and could not be persuaded to fit back into it, like trying to pull your foot up through a tapered pant leg without being able to hold onto the bottom of the pant leg.
“Jesus Christ!” Nelson suddenly yelled.
“What?” Robyn was alarmed.
“It feels like … I swear it feels like there are hands touching my ankle and my foot.”
“Yeah. Fingers poking me. Ow. They’re pinching. Ow! Something is trying to pull my foot off.”
“Is it a badger?” Lenny said, still trying to pull up on the leg.
“How the hell should I know?”
The three sat silently for a moment, unsure how to proceed.
“I guess we’ll have to dig your leg out,” said Lenny at last, and he hurried over to their camp and retrieved the small shovel he had brought, strapped to the top of his pack.
“Let’s clear away all the surface artifacts before we start digging,” said Robyn.
“Hold the damn phone!” Nelson cried suddenly. “What in god’s name!”
“What? What?” Robyn and Lenny panted. “What?”
Nelson winced and slowly his leg came up out of the hole. He set his stocking foot on the ground at the lip of the hole.
“You got it out!” Robyn clapped. “Where’s your hiking boot?”
“I swear, something in that hole untied my shoe and pulled it off.”
“Untied?” said Lenny skeptically.
“Yeah. Definitely. Untied. Then pulled it off. Then my foot fit back in the hole and I pulled it up.”
There was a muddy silence.
“A raccoon, maybe?” ventured Robyn.
Nelson knew it wasn’t a raccoon. He also knew that it was impossible for it to have been human hands. But what he knew most of all was that it was a human hand touching the bare skin above his ankle and untying his shoe.
“I don’t know,” he said to Robyn. He looked at Lenny and shook his head. He was scared of putting his arm down the hole to feel for the shoe. “We’ll dig the shoe out tomorrow,” he said. “It’s nearly dark. Let’s call it a night.”
They walked back to their camp together, Nelson stepping gingerly on his stocking foot. No one spoke much as they all bedded down. Nelson and Lenny squirmed into their bivvy sacks. Robyn brushed out her hair 100 strokes and laid down, her eyes open to the stars.
When Lenny awoke several hours later, Robyn was snoring softly. He was about to turn over on his other side and drift back to sleep, but he saw in his memory’s sluggish eye Nelson shaking his head. “Definitely untied,” he had said.
Lenny’s curiosity began steadily heating up until finally, in a great roiling boil, he unzipped his bivvy and climbed out into the moonless night. He grabbed his flashlight and picked his way carefully and quietly to the hole where Nelson’s leg had fallen through. There he switched on the flashlight and peered down into the hole.
Almost at once he thought he could hear some kind of noise swirling around inside it. It didn’t sound like any kind of animal he knew. It sounded almost musical, lyrical. He pushed his ear into the hole as far as he could and held his breath. A sort of murmuring tickled his eardrum. He’d been up and down through this country and encountered about every kind of animal he knew to exist here. Suddenly his mind flashed to thoughts of aliens. He recognized these thoughts as preposterous, and yet no thought he could come up with was sufficiently un-preposterous. His curiosity built to a fever pitch.
“What on earth?” he murmured to himself, not very quietly, so that he had to remind himself that he didn’t want to wake up his companions. Lenny shone the flashlight into the hole again and tried to follow the light to its terminus, but he could see nothing. Nothing but a narrow tunnel of dirt. Maybe where the light ends, he thought, the tunnel might bend a bit. He stuck his arm down the hole but could feel nothing at his fingertips. He tried to widen the hole with his bare hands, but the ground was hard and unyielding. Feeling desperate, he shoved his hand down the hole holding his flashlight. But the hole narrowed down too small for him to be able to look down the length of his arm and see what was illuminated at the end of it.
Admitting defeat, he pulled his arm up with exasperation. His knuckles scraped sharply against the rough side of the hole and in a reflex of pain, he lost his grip on the flashlight. “Damn!” he whispered, barely contained. “Dammit!”
He shoved his hand back into the hole as far as he could, his feet flailing at the ends of his legs with the effort of trying to winch himself down. But he could only detect air. There was no light coming out of the hole; the flashlight must be lying face down or broken. He thrust each of his arms down the hole flailing his hands frantically, but could feel nothing. With a pitiable resignation, Lenny finally tiptoed in the darkness back to his bivvy sack, where he lay awake until dawn.
In the morning, Nelson took up the small shovel and went to the hole that had swallowed his shoe in an effort to get it back. His sleep had not been restful; he had felt haunted all night. And now he felt little energy in his body, but he pushed the shovel into the ground with his one shoed foot. The metal head fell in a few inches and then stopped cold as it hit solid rock. He moved the shovel out to a wider perimeter and tried again. After an hour, he was left with nothing but defeat. The top soil was only six or eight inches thick, supporting the small, low growth of the clearing. Beneath lay a solid rock mantle that appeared to be the size of the entire clearing. Solid everywhere except for that hole. That very strange hole.
Another two hours were spent with all three of them working together trying to fashion probes and hooks and anything that might help them retrieve the shoe. And Lenny, unknown to the other two, was also hoping to find his flashlight. But the trio was finally overcome with the passion to do what they had come to do, and gave up their belongings as lost. They spent the rest of the day in a silent rapture, sifting through the debris of the past.
The next day they headed back home. Robyn and Nelson, by way of democracy, had ruled against Lenny taking anything home. They knew they were powerless to stop him from coming back to the site alone, and rather considered it an unfortunate foregone conclusion.
The trek home was a little slow with Nelson hobbling along with only one shoe on; but he fashioned a decent booty for his other foot from his rain pants. They made it to the designated pickup spot, where Lenny’s wife had fallen asleep waiting. She dropped Robyn and Nelson off at their respective homes, and when Lenny got out of the car in his own driveway, he saw Gerald Two Bear sitting on the step of his front porch.
“Bernie tells me you’ve been to the thin place.”
“I’m really tired, Bear. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“OK,” Gerald said. He took a small flask from his shirt pocket and lay back on the wood porch.
The next morning, Lenny opened the front door to fetch the paper and found his friend stretched out on the front door mat, his eyes open.
“You tricked me, Lenny,” Gerald said without malice.
“Yeah. Sorry, Bear.”
“Well, that’s the way it is. Now I understand. You left something there, didn’t you?”
“What do you mean? I didn’t bring any artifacts home, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No. Something that belongs to you. You left it there.”
Lenny was silent for a moment. He knew that Gerald couldn’t have spoken to Robyn or Nelson yet to hear about the shoe. And he hadn’t even told the other two about losing his flashlight, only he knew about that.
“Who told you?”
“What? Your grandfather’s in his grave. He sent you a dream or something?”
“Nope. He told me while he was still alive, Lenny. Years ago. I didn’t know then it was you he was talkin’ about.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
Gerald Two Bear sat up, silent. Lenny felt very uncomfortable. He felt something seep into him, something dark, filling his veins, something he could not stop. He felt that he had suddenly stepped into a trap, and it was only a short matter of time before the hunter came to collect him.
“Why is it called the thin place?” Lenny finally asked.
“Boundaries are very thin there.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“No. I don’t suppose you do. You don’t believe in the things I know. I couldn’t explain it to you.”
“Spirits,” Gerald said pointedly, “are not just dead people.”
“Things, even things made from stone, have a kind of … you might say a signature … of where they belong.”
“Well, there’s places that are kind of like … well, kind of like tracing paper, like tissue paper, you know. So thin that signatures can transfer from one side of it to a different sheet.”
The two men fell silent for another moment. Then Gerald said, “All that stuff you found just lyin’ there. There was tons of it, right?”
“Well, all that taken together makes a sort of pencil, see. A sharp enough pencil, mind you, can poke right on through a thin piece of paper.”
Gerald laced his hands behind his head and lay back on the porch thoughtfully.
“I shoulda known,” he said. “I shoulda known the moment I met you.”
Lenny waited for more, aware of his own breathing. He waited.
“Dammit, Gerald. That’s what you’re going to tell me? You slept on my porch all night to tell me some kind of cryptic gobbledygook?”
Gerald raised his eyebrows.
“I slept on your porch because it was comfortable.”
Lenny huffed and went inside the house. He didn’t understand anything Gerald was saying, which annoyed him. But worse, he had the distinct impression that he really shouldn’t understand, that more questions would only bring him pain. He put a pot of coffee on and went to nudge his wife awake.
Gerald Two Bear closed his eyes.
His grandfather spoke the old language. Gerald had been brought up listening to it, but it was not as intuitive to him as the English that surrounded him everywhere, and he seldom spoke it. So he didn’t always understand his grandfather completely.
But now as he lay on Lenny’s porch, Gerald knew he had, in fact, understood the story his grandfather had told him. At the time, twenty some years ago, some of the words didn’t make sense, and Gerald was sure that the story he got out of it was not the story his grandfather had really told him. But he didn't wish to question his elders.
Gerald had heard his grandfather call certain people by the name Kettle Bone. They were always people whom his grandfather regarded as bad people – wicked, mean or dangerously stupid, and Gerald understood the name to be derogatory. One day Gerald finally asked what that meant. His grandfather hesitated, then took him outside. They sat on the shady side of Gerald’s father’s pickup truck, their backs against the two tires.
“Kettle Bone,” his grandfather said, “is the name of a chief.” The old man picked a stalk of wild grass and chewed on it briefly.
“His tribe once lived up there,” he pointed west toward the hills. “In the thin place.”
It was several weeks before Lenny was able to take off some work, throw a pack together and head back into the wilderness. Only his wife knew about it this time, again dropping him off. He already knew pretty much which artifacts he was going to bring back for his private collection. The collection that only his wife knew about. Others speculated. But since his actual “living room” where he sat happily among his finds, lay on the other side of the cellar door, no one had ever seen any real evidence to support their speculation.
He’d been thinking about the strange hole, and whether he should try to fish out his flashlight, bring some tools that might be useful. In the end, he shivered over the bizarre conversation he’d had with Gerald on his porch, and decided to just let it be.
Now that he knew the way, he was able to reach the clearing in only a day at his own quick pace. He set up his bivvy in roughly the same place as last time just as darkness fell. In the morning he got up and sat in the middle of the clearing, trying to picture the busy camp that had occupied this spot in the past. He remembered what Bernie had said, “A tribe of people kills all their own selves, that’s some bad medicine.”
Lenny felt a sharp pain in his chest. As littered as the ground was with artifacts, Lenny thought they must have killed each other in one fell swoop; maybe they killed themselves like a mass cult suicide somewhere away from their camp, leaving all their possessions to decay or preserve in place. And what explained the similar profusion of artifacts from earlier time periods?
Lenny squashed down a rising, undefined fear. “Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered to himself. It didn’t take long to gather up what he wanted; he had remembered pretty well where everything lay. His wife wasn’t expecting him back at the rendezvous point for a couple days yet. He had allowed himself ample time. But he couldn’t dissipate the unpleasant taste in his mouth or the jumpy tension in his muscles. He decided to pack up and take a few days to return home leisurely.
With his pack on his back and ready to leave camp, he cursed himself when he realized what he was about to do. Somehow, he just couldn’t help it.
He walked over to the hole, set down the plastic water bottle he always carried while hiking, and took off his pack. He stared at the hole for some time. It looked perfectly benign. Then he lay down on his stomach and pushed his arm down in as far as he could. He wiggled his fingers but could feel nothing around them. There must be a chamber down there, Lenny thought.
Then he felt something with his index and middle finger. Something soft and fleshy. It was warm and a little sticky. He rolled to his side, pulling his arm out of the hole. His fingers, he saw, were covered in what appeared to be blood. Lenny was unnerved, but decided there must be an injured animal in the chamber. He hesitated. Then, with no real reason to do so, because there was no way he could help the animal and it might very well attack him, he put his arm into the hole again and flailed his fingers around trying to feel for the creature.
After a minute, something touched the inside of his hand. He instinctively closed his fingers down. As he did so, he brushed over what felt distinctly like a human hand —fingers with fingernails pinning something into his palm. He realized that he was now clutching something. Though he didn’t know what it was, he shivered violently. It was a very strange thing. He thought briefly of dropping it, but could not quell his curiosity and brought it up out of the hole.
He sat up and opened his hand in his lap. For a minute he could not recognize what it was. Then his eyes widened in horror. There was no mistaking it. He screamed. There, in his paralyzed and bloody hand, lay a freshly severed human ear.
“Kettle Bone was too young for a chief. He was impulsive, short-sighted, even childish. He ignored the warnings given to him about staying in the thin place,” Gerald Two Bear’s grandfather said, his legs stretched out in the shade of the truck.
“He made camp, and for two moons they were very happy. They feasted enormously, the hunting was so good. They stuffed themselves every night with meat. They had berries by the basketful and there were no other tribes nearby to pick them. Kettle Bone thought he’d made a good choice.
“Then one day just after the hunters returned, there was a sharp noise in the middle of the clearing where they camped. Everyone was there, having gathered to greet the hunters. A noise, and then a human-like leg was thrust up out of the ground. Just the bottom part of it, with the foot. The skin was extremely pale, like no skin ever seen. And on the foot was an enormous moccasin made from a hide they'd never seen, the bottom was nearly as hard as a rock.
“Kettle Bone went to it. The rest of the people were terribly frightened, but he reached out and touched it. He touched the hard foot and the leg. He told the others it felt just like his own leg. Some of the elders stepped forward to touch it as well, and they concurred. The foot squirmed, trying to retreat back into the earth, but the bulky moccasin on it prevented this. Kettle Bone got the idea to pull it off. He fiddled with some strings then grabbed hold of it and pulled. He immediately reeled backward with the thing in his arms, and a cloth-covered human foot was indeed revealed. Immediately it fell back down into the earth, leaving a hole in the ground.”
Gerald was sure he was not hearing this correctly. He wanted to ask his grandfather to go back and repeat it so he could get it right. But he didn't want to upset his grandfather by admitting he didn't understand. He decided he’d ask his father, who had surely heard the tale also, about it later. To his confusion and disappointment, though, his father would confirm as the true story what Gerald repeated to him. The story had been handed down for generations, as told, his father said, by the one surviving member of Kettle Bone’s tribe to an ancestor of Gerald’s tribe.
“There was endless discussion over this strange event,” the old grandfather continued. “The huge moccasin that had held the foot inside of it was inspected over and over by nearly everyone in the camp. The hole in the ground was inspected, but no one was brave enough to put their hand in it. However, a fire was built nearby and many people sat in vigil next to it. Sometime in the middle of the night, a yellow cylindrical object came flying out of the hole and landed on the ground. Everyone jumped up yelling and Kettle Bone came over.
“Again there was much discussion and physical inspection of the strange item, and the most remarkable thing about it was that it cast out light as though a fire were inside of it, and everyone yelled in confusion and excitement. Kettle Bone took the cylinder. Everywhere he pointed it, it was light. It was not hot like a fire. The light could be made to go on and then off, on and off over and over again. Kettle Bone took it and ran into the forest. He came back some time later and said it provided him with light the whole way. ‘It’s a gift from the spirit world,’ he proclaimed.
“The tribe went wild with excitement over being so gifted by the great spirits. Kettle Bone convinced them it must have been a spirit foot that got stuck in their world, and that by freeing it from the strange moccasin so it could go back into its own world, they had won themselves favor and were now being rewarded.
“They decided to call a feast immediately, right then, in the middle of the night, their bellies still full, to celebrate. They set the cylinder of light on the ground and danced around it, singing, as it illuminated a patch of the night. No one went to sleep and throughout the next day they celebrated. But as the sun went down that second night, they noticed that light no longer came from the object. They tried everything. Everything they could think of, and still no light came. They stayed up all night again, this time in sadness, waiting for the light to shine.
“Now there was tremendous confusion and disagreement in the camp. Why was the light taken away? Kettle Bone secluded himself for two days, and when he emerged, he convinced his people that he knew why. He refused to consult the elders about his dreams. He was young and brash and thought he could interpret them himself. He said the cylinder was given to show them what gifts the spirits could give. That they were indeed grateful for freeing the foot, but that they needed a sacrifice in order to grant this gift permanently.
“So a sacrificial ceremony was arranged next to the mysterious hole in the ground. They killed a small animal and piled berries all around the hole. And they waited. But nothing. 'A bigger animal,' Kettle Bone insisted. More berries, and bread, too.
“Again they waited. They killed an entire herd of game and piled the bodies on top of and around the hole. They cut off their hair and threw it into the hole. They were delirious. Kettle Bone had them convinced that, having been shown such favor and good will from the inhabitants of the spirit world, they could not fail to provide a sufficient sacrifice.
“Soon enough there was but one thing left to sacrifice: one of themselves. They chose a young warrior, healthy and strong. They laid him out at the lip of the hole and slit his throat. The blood ran out of his neck onto the ground and spilled down into the hole.
“Suddenly a pale hand sprang up out of the hole. Everyone jumped back. The hand seemed to be feeling around for something. Kettle Bone cried out, ‘What do you want?’ He pushed the warrior’s body to the hole until the pale fingers could reach it. Then the hand disappeared back down the hole. The whole tribe waited in silence. Then the hand came back, again flailing around as if it were looking for something. In a frenzy, everyone started yelling out things to give it. Impulsively, Kettle Bone took the knife that had slit the warrior’s throat and sliced off the dead man’s ear. He pressed it into the palm of the pale hand, and it withdrew back down the hole. The tribe waited tensely.
“Ever so faintly, a sound came out of the ground. And then another cylinder came shooting out of the hole. Everyone jumped back and Kettle Bone picked it up. This one was made of a different material, and on inspection was found to hold what looked like water inside of it. They assumed the water to be magical, that it was the water the great spirits themselves drank and it would provide some kind of supernatural power or healing.
“Well, Gerald, that was the end of Kettle Bone’s tribe,” his grandfather sighed. “Now they believed that human sacrifice would induce the spirits to send them gifts from the spirit world. So they killed another warrior. But this time nothing came out of the hole. So they killed several. They lost their minds trying to earn themselves gifts. Nothing else ever came from the hole, but they slaughtered each other in their greed. All dead but one, who ran for days without stopping.”
Lenny threw the ear out of his hand. Shaking his hands out violently, he jumped up, knocking his water bottle into the hole. He ran out of the clearing as fast as he could. He ran toward home for several straight hours until he was exhausted. He had only a snack bar in his pocket. Everything else was back in his pack still in the clearing. He walked the rest of the way to the point where he was supposed to meet his wife, walking through the night, having nothing warm to put on or sleep in, nibbling occasionally on his meager snack.
Since he arrived early at the rendezvous point, he went on and walked the rest of the way home. As he stumbled down the road into town, Gerald Two Bear caught sight of him and picked him up in his truck.
“Lenny!” he exclaimed.
“I’ve got to cover that hole, Bear,” Lenny said.
Gerald drove him to his house.
“Pick me up tomorrow, would you?” Lenny asked Gerald.
When Gerald came to get Lenny, he was standing in the driveway with a new pack on his back. Except for some food and his wife's sleeping bag, it was filled only with a 30-pound sack of cement mix and a small shovel, a 5-gallon bucket strapped to the outside.
Gerald drove Lenny to the spot where his wife had dropped him off twice previously. As Lenny reached for the door handle, Gerald patted him on the back.
“Good luck. You’re probably doin’ the right thing, Lenny.”
Lenny smiled meekly and walked away from the truck at a brisk pace, unaffected by the extraordinarily heavy weight on his back. Upon reaching the clearing the next day, he lowered his pack and went to the nearby spring to haul up water. Immediately he began mixing cement in the bucket. He shoveled it down into the hole, pulled in some rocks into a wide circle around it, and filled it in with cement to form a large cap much wider than the diameter of the hole.
As he was bent over low pouring the last of the cement from the bucket along the very edge of the cap, something struck him on the side of his head with terrible force. He reeled and fell forward into the cement. He struggled to push himself up, but his vision clouded, his thoughts receded. He went limp, and lapsed into unconsciousness.
When he came to, much later, in a hazy confusion, he awoke to find himself immobilized. The whole upper half of his body, including the left side of his head, one whole arm, and all but the elbow of the other, was imbedded in cement. He remembered vaguely, the way one remembers things from a dream, the severe blow to his head as he was capping the hole. It seemed to him that he had been kicked with a heavy boot. He quickly assessed the situation, and mercifully, the panic he suffered was so severe that he almost immediately passed out again.
No food, no water, exposed to the elements of hot sun and cold night, only occasionally conscious, wild animals sniffing ever closer, Lenny lay encased alive in the cement cap. Two packs of his belongings lay only a few feet away. It would be a couple days yet before his wife would worry and call Robyn and Nelson, not understanding the haste in which the trip was intended, for he had arranged it with Gerald, not her.
As Lenny slipped eventually into irreversible unconsciousness, he wasn’t aware when, just outside of the cement, a few inches away from where his head lay near its edge, an arm poked up through the ground. It felt around tentatively until its hand brushed Lenny’s nose, one nostril sticking up out of the cement. The hand drew back slightly, as if surprised. Then it came forward again.
Angela Wilson felt around and found the fleshy knob again. She didn’t know what it was, but she could feel that it was faintly pushing out air in erratic bursts. She kept her hand there until finally she thought she recognized the moist warmth, the strange rhythm, as breath. She gave a yell to her companion who came over and knelt next to the rusted shovel.
“Oh wait,” Angela said, disappointed. “It’s very faint now. No … wait. No, I can’t feel the air anymore.
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