Monthly Archives: August 2019

618.1 Over There

Things are still busy here, the posts I had planned for this week are not quite ready for prime time, and I have one more short piece of fiction ready for you. It was originally scheduled for next week. I’m going to swap the posts and the fiction, then I’ll bow out of the regular posting business for a week and let you read Coulter and the Gray Man instead. This link will carry you to the first of three posts over in Serial

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Coulter and the Gray Man 1

Coulter and the Gray Man

The engine purred into the station, all glittering bright and new in the midst of an urban nightmare. Sixteen driving wheels the color of bronze, in four articulated sets. Smooth and slick and painted like a rainbow with a single coach following. Every driver was powered by a flux engine activated by the thorium pile that ran along behind.

Two persons were holding hands in the shadows, sheltered by fallen beams and girders. The wind that swept the platform was harsh and cold, and smelled of decay.

In the side of the pristine coach, a door appeared, with soft light and inviting upholstery beyond. The two rushed forward, darting glances behind them. The conductor stepped aside as they entered.

He looked at them carefully, but he could not tell which was man and which was woman, or even what either had been when they started out. Not that it mattered; there was affectionate touching as they stood together, and a clear mutual regard.

The conductor asked, “Where and why?”

One of the pair spoke up and said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it is earlier. Life is not worth living here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”

They were jostled aside by a young man who leaped to the platform and looked around. He was skinny, with buzz cut hair and wearing a black Westercon tee-shirt. The skin that showed was heavily tattooed. His face was a study in apprehension and wonder, but he looked ready for anything. He would need to be.

Just before the door closed, another figure, all in gray, slipped aboard and hurriedly took a seat beside a figure in buckskin. There was a whine from the pile and a hiss as the door slid shut. The train began to move, through the darkness and the smoke.

#         #         #

Morning dawned on the taiga. The rails curved between the pines. The Russian P36, 2-4-2 laid a smoke trail across the sky, and tore needles off the trees to send them spiraling down into the snow as it passed. The sky was dark with storm, and flurries of sleet rattled against the windows.

In the dim light of morning, the train broke out into a miles long clearing that flanked an icy river. Ahead was a village, onion domed, brightly painted. The brakes sent a shiver through the coach that caused the gray man to slump against his companion and awaken. The man in buckskin had been staring out the window. He said, “It looks like the Madison.”

“It isn’t.”

“I know that! I’ve seen a thousand rivers since I last saw the Madison. I would hate to leave them behind, but I would love to ride my own rivers again.” He scowled at his seat mate. “How many times have I seen you, and I still don’t know your name.”

“You don’t need to know,” said the gray man.

“I always need to know. That’s what got me into this.”

The train screamed into a station and stood panting impatiently. Three young men, bundled into anonymity, came aboard, and two more left the coach. The conductor said, “Where and why?”

The youngest newcomer said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it isn’t Russia. Life is cold and short here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.” more tomorrow

Hiatus, shortly.

Once again, Serial is going to hibernate — thankfully, I think, after all the wind and cold.

However, this time it won’t be for long. A new piece of short fiction called Coulter and the Gray Man will come to serial in about a week and a half.

============

In case you come onto this at a later date, after this was posted I decided to move Coulter and the Gray Man up a week.

618. Digging Up the Dead

I would love to show the excavations I took part in
but I have no such pictures.
This eyecatcher is an excavation of a
Roman site in London.

Last post I told about doing survey archaeology in Michigan in 1967, ending with the statement that suddenly, when the summer was almost over, everything changed . . .

We got a phone call from the University, and within hours we had packed up, left our base, and were heading half way across Michigan to Bay City.

The Sagnaw River runs through Saginaw, then northward about twenty miles to Bay City where it empties into Lake Huron. It is a major shipping channel which frequently silts up. In Bay City, a project was under way to dredge the shipping channel. An area along the river had been designated to receive what the dredges removed.

The dozers preparing to receive the outflow exposed human remains and everything came to a stop. The police came, but it was clearly not a crime scene. The remains were skeletons in what little remained of wooden coffins, surrounded by grave goods. It was an Indian burial ground.

Yes, Indian. That’s what they were called in 1968 and it was just a designation, like Dutch or French. It wasn’t an insult word. There were plenty of insult words, like redskin, but Indian was just a word. It still is.

Mr. Fletcher, who owned the site, gave permission to Michigan State to do salvage archaeology. We had two weeks to work before the bulldozers were scheduled to go back to work.

When we arrived on the site, we found a flat basin a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, of mostly pure sand. Those are “close enough” figures from memory. Bulldozers were impatiently poised to return to work.

The site was surrounded by dikes, perhaps twenty feet high. Once we were finished, the dredgers would pump a slurry of sand and water from the river bed into the basin, the water would make its way out through the sand dikes, and whatever remains we could not remove would be lost forever under twenty feet of fill.

There were four archaeology crews out that summer. Three of them had specific tasks that could not be abandoned. Our survey work could be done any time, so we were elected.

It was frantic work. The site, we learned eventually, dated from about 1750. The Indians were in contact with traders and settlers, both English and French, and the graves were full of trade goods. There were a lot of copper pots. Other than bone beads (well preserved) and furs which were barely recognizable, most of the grave goods were of European origin. That did not mean that these were westernized Indians, only that they had trading relationships.

We found a lovely silver cross, but that did not mean the deceased was a Christian. We found a flintlock pistol — or rather, a lump of rust that had once been a flintlock pistol. We found the remains of a musket, badly preserved; the wood was marginally better preserved than the iron.

One of the skeletons we found had a row of brass buttons down its sternum and scattered in the dirt in the belly area, along with tarnished epaulets above the points of the humeri. There was no fabric, but he had clearly been buried wearing a military great coat. That didn’t mean he was a scout for the French or the English (there wasn’t enough remaining to know which), although he might have been. He might also have traded for it, or have taken it off a dead European after combat.

Despite the hype about pyramids and Schliemann finding Troy, there is much that can be implied by an archaeology site, but much less that can be proved.

When I say skeletons, you should not picture the dead happy pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean. Bones do not last well in moist ground, and not all bones are created equal. Skulls and femurs last better than pelvi and ribs. The bones of the hands and feet don’t preserve even that well. Tiny bones hardly last at all. There were miniature coffins for infants, but they were pretty much empty, with maybe a few grave goods and a few flakes of skull.

I have to touch on the morality of all this. These were Indians buried by their own people. How would you like to have someone digging up the graveyard where your grandmother is buried? There are valid complaints to be made which I understand and have no intention in arguing against.

This particular case, however, was salvage. To me, it was no different than salvage of European bones. If during the construction of a modern building, a two hundred year old white folks cemetery was discovered in the basement excavation, the bones would be removed and reinterred. You may not realize it, but those bones would certainly pass through the hands of physical anthropologists who would study them for what they had to tell about the history of disease in early America, before being returned to the earth.

We were careful with everything we found because every piece had a story to tell. I spent hours drawing the remains in situ before they were removed, and hours with an alidade (described in post 586) making sure that the locations were well mapped.

We were careful with bones and copper pots, but we didn’t treat either as sacred objects. A pot is not a meal, and a bone is not a person. Everything went to the museum and the bones were, I believe, eventually reburied.

There are a few more personal bits to this story. My future wife was also on archaeology crews those two years, but not with me. She lived in Saginaw, and when she came home for the weekend during our salvage operation, she drove up to the site and volunteered to help.

When someone asks me where I met my wife, I say we met in a graveyard. Then I explain further. The following winter, she and I worked together upstairs in the MSU museum cataloging the results of the dig. Two years later, we were married.

The site was so rich that the land owner had it diked off. The dredging went on, but the fill went elsewhere, and the site was not lost. I spent the following summer there, this time accompanied by my college roommate. The site later became a field school, and my roommate wrote up the results as his Ph.D. dissertation. It is on line. The site ended up on the National Register of Historic Places, and has its own brief spot on Wikipedia.

Archaeology wasn’t an occupation I could continue, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

The Gods of Wind and Air 9

5.

When the pot is broken on the hearth
       and the fire is out;
and the cold, north dragon wind
       is riding on the clouds.

When there’s howling in the smokehole
       and snuffling at the door;
when that beast is storm and darkness,
       and endless, biting cold.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion.

He stood under the fury of her countenance; not brave, not bowing, not defiant, not cringing. Numb.

She looked long upon him, and then was gone.

The wind still howled. The snow still swirled, but less fiercely because he had reached the edge of the valley and the beginning of the forest. He even knew where he was, or thought he did. If his strength held out, he could reach his hartwa in an hour.

And once there, he and his wife and child would die together, for there was nothing left in him.

He started forward, stumbled and fell. Something lay beneath the snow, frozen hard, and it had tripped him up. He moved past it, still intent on his goal, but there was just one spark left — hope perhaps, or maybe only curiosity. He brushed aside a bit of snow and found coarse hair. He dug deeper, faster, and exposed the carcass of a deer, wolf-killed, much mangled and partially eaten. On a day in spring, he would not have touched it. Now he ran his hands over the frozen body and tears came to his eyes.

#             #             #

When he had dragged the frozen carcass home, built a fire and made a stew to feed them all, Pellan settled in under the furs with his wife and child. The chill took a long time to leave him. Sleep tried to claim him, but he fought back because he wanted to stay awake long enough to savor this feeling of safety and repletion. These moments didn’t come often between first snow and final melt.

Gods, he thought — real or not, we need them. Poor men especially need them when the Lord and his soldiers, and his tax collectors and the priests, all stand with their hands out. When the crops fail, and the cow dies, and the woman is sick. When there is no food in the larder and only a whistle of wind where the chimney fire belongs, men need to believe that someone still cares.

And some men, pushed even harder than that, need gods to blame and gods to hate. When they are forced back up against death, left with no hope — when it would be easier to give up than to live — that’s when a certain kind of man needs his gods more than ever. He needs to curse them, to revile them, to scream at them when the night and hunger and cold and storm come all at once. He needs to hate them for what they are doing to him, whether he believes in them or not — to hate them so badly that he will walk barefoot through hell before he will let them see him fall.

Sometimes that hatred is all that keeps a man alive. So, thank you, Gods. But don’t get cocky. This mood won’t last long.

finis

The Gods of Wind and Air 8

Pellan trudged on, heading back toward his home by the feel of the wind. The sun had gone down and the darkness was complete. The few leathers of bitter melon Pellan had eaten near noon were long gone from his body. He was moving on nerve and anger, but the anger was fading in the storm.

He wished the priest was with him, so he could have someone to lash out at. If not the priest, he thought, then let some god appear, so he would have someone to curse.

The snow burned his face; the wind tore at his clothing and all but overturned his hearing. Then there was light, faint light, small in the distance. As he headed toward it, thinking of fire and warmth and food, it resolved into the figure of a man, strong, heavy, wide in the shoulders, dressed for battle with a sword drawn.

God or illusion? Does anyone ever really know?

Pellan spoke his name, “Simicababar,” and the figure nodded. Then he said, “How is it that you are here?”

“You called me and I came.”

“But it is said that you cannot leave your pocket universe, that the Changer locked you there forever.”

“I am here for you, because you called me. I stood through siege of war, unwavering, to protect my brother’s wife. That endurance is what you sought.”

“Can you give me strength to reach my own wife?”

“I can give you nothing. I can only show you what you lack.” And he was gone.

The storm, the cold and the darkness remained. Pellan began walking again, into the storm, toward his hartwa, and his wife and child. He wondered if they were still alive.

Encaritremanta appeared before him next, but he didn’t even acknowledge her presence. He had no need of a beautiful woman, scarcely clothed, to inflame his desire. He had a woman; plain faced, skeletal from hunger, holding his child to her breast. She was the one he wanted to reach. He growled, “Step aside, you glorious bitch, and let me go on to the one I love.”

Next Elmirandel stood by to watch him, but Pellan trudged past without even looking up.

There were other gods in the storm that night, less known to him, faint and half perceived. They surrounded him as he trudged onward. He could see them from time to time out of the corner of his eye. They meant nothing to him, except that he sometimes turned to curse them. Hunger walked with him; death walked by his left hand. He knew that this time he might not defeat them, but he knew that he would never stop trying.

The last goddess was the oldest of them all. She was there before Man was born. The Weathermistress in a green cloak, open to show her breasts, remained unaffected as she stood in the middle of the storm of her own creation. She was not cruel, although many call her that. She was not kind. She poured out the sweet honey of life with one hand and the icy stream of death with the other. She could be beseeched, but she never listened. She was neither kind nor cruel, but she was capricious.

Pellan stopped still before her. Here was the goddess he feared, for she had all power and no mercy. She looked him through with calm eyes. Her names were life and death. Whichever name she answered to tonight, was not his to command. He looked deeply into her eyes of ice and said, “I will not beg.”      Final post tomorrow.

617. Raiders Before the Ark

Ground penetrating radar used in survey archaeology.
I’m jealous; in 1967, we just walked and looked.

Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.

When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.

My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?

My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.

It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.

I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.

1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.

The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.

Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.

Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.

My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.

We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.

If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.

Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.

Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.

So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.