A short story by John Maberry
1190 CE The shaman looked down on the towering mountain through the eyes of a raven. She was there, in the sacred spot, her hair aflame in the bright sun burning through the oracle window. He circled lower and lower over the dusky dun rocks. Finally he traversed the hole that gave those with the gift the vision of things to come. A vision best received on those rare days in the dry Southwest when shadows danced with passing clouds on a brushy screen. A day such as this one, promising special knowledge to be shared when he reentered the man’s body resting beneath the pinion pine below. A body stilled and a mind altered by the jimson weed.
He saw the future of the people this day. As it had for the three centuries since its discovery at their new settlement, the water seeped through barely visible cracks in the scalloped green and gray stones, pooling at the base of the wall. He saw the people bringing the youth there to wash and restore them. The hard pink clay softened in the magic water–water that remained ordinary to the skin of the people and slaked their thirst. But it revived the totems that kept the people young, at the annual cleansing. Now, what once had been an abundant fountain had become only a trickle from the rocks. Less rain fell each year. A day would come, soon perhaps, when the people would have no water for their youth. The people will grow old and hard then, like they once did–like the clay as if dried in a kiln.
How can I share this with the people? The blessings we have had will be no more. I must entreat the spirits to save us from this return to mortal life. We will do whatever they ask of us. I must find hope to give the people.
“Tell me, Oracle of the People, what must I do? How can we avoid this bleak vision?”
“You can do nothing. This is the destiny of your people. You will have had 300 years without aging before the water of youth slows. You will have 20 more before the water is gone. Then your people will grow old and die. You too will die, but you will live on in the spirit world to protect them. Pray that your heart will be pure so that you will keep them safe as they enter the spirit world themselves. That is all that you can do.”
“What can I tell the people, then?”
“Tell them everything or tell them nothing. That too is something you must pray about. When the time comes that people begin to wonder and then to worry, remind them of the joys they have had in this world and the ones to come in the next. Say what you must in the wisdom you gain by the time you are called upon to speak.”
He awoke then. With a mind still clouded by the jimson he drank the tea of clarity before standing. He would share nothing of his vision today. No good would come of alarming the people with his vision of events coming years from now. He shuffled back toward the village, slumping at the shoulders and eyes downcast—until he found within the reservoir of courage he needed. Rain, despite the Oracle’s certainty that he could not change the people’s destiny; he would pray for rain to come. Rain to grow the crops, rain to fill the fountain that kept the people young. He had been the shaman of the people for nearly 300 years, ten harvests before the fountain stopped his aging.
2015 CE Jason Douglas had heard the rumors, a hidden canyon discovered by satellite images. Blocked by a rock slide from centuries ago, it has never been seen, much less disturbed by souvenir seekers, archaeologists or anthropologists. On reservation land in the Southwest the pillagers could no longer get there. Even the inhabitants were unaware of it, in a remote location on the large expanse of tribal land. This site had no religious or practical use, so far as anyone knew. But he suspected it had what he sought. There were stories handed down for centuries by descendants of those who knew of the people living there long ago. When the great drought came those ancestors moved far from the area. The descendants seldom saw those who lived on the reservation; when they did, they shared none of the stories. Stories of people who lived long lives. A fountain that kept them forever young. Most of the modern people dismissed the stories as myths. He didn’t.
“Hi, I’m Jason Douglas. We spoke on the phone about my exploration request.”
“David Whitefeather, tribal council. Yes, I remember. As I told you, although of different times, as Native Americans we are all connected. We must honor and protect the remains of those who came before us. We will not permit graves to be disturbed or the dwellings of former inhabitants to be harmed.”
“I understand completely. I hope you have had an opportunity to check the credentials I sent you. You will see that I am an experienced anthropologist, with a PhD. I have published countless studies and reports on Native American settlements throughout the United States.” He won’t have bothered checking and discovered they are fake; no one ever does.
“Yes, I did Mr. Douglas. You seem responsible, but we must be careful in fulfilling our sacred duties. You didn’t mention additional staff that will be accompanying you to explore the site.”
“Ah, well that’s the thing. When I first come to a site I like to look it over myself to confirm that it’s worth a fuller investigation before committing resources. Interns and volunteers come cheaply, but they require supervision. Paid staff cost money, money that I need to conserve until I know I can get funding for more. So for now, it will be just me.”
“I see. All right then. That may be better; one man is less likely to cause problems as several.”
“For recreational backpacking our usual permit fee is $25, but for intensive exploration like what you are talking about we must ask for a $250 fee plus a surety bond of $5,000 from an approved company. I did mention that when you called, didn’t I?”
“Uh, yes, you did. I can give you the permit fee right now and have the bond sent to you. Can I get the permit today?”
“We will be happy to mail it to you once we receive the bond. So the sooner you send it, the sooner you get the permit.”
“Ok, thank you Mr. Whitefeather. Just mail the permit to my motel; the bond should arrive in a few days. I better get going; maybe I can still get to that bonding agency today.” Douglas offered his hand and left. Well, a little trickier with that bond; he will check it, so I have to fool them too! Oh well, a cost of doing business, he laughed.
1215 CE Despite the shaman’s entreaties to the spirits, the rains slowed. Crops were suffering. Despite the benefit of the fountain’s remaining trickle of water, the people could begin starving in another season. No one wanted to leave, not just for the sake of once again aging. The box canyon had only a narrow, winding entrance that offered safety from attack by marauding tribes. None of the people had ventured outside the canyon in a very long time. Along with a cessation of aging, the magic water made the people sterile. There were no more mouths to feed than when they first began using the water. The chief had to make a choice—divert water for crops to keep the people alive, even at the expense of once again aging, or keep them younger and let them slowly starve.
“Shaman, what do the spirits say? Can the people have children again if we leave?” The chief asked.
“I don’t know about children, but my vision from long ago has never changed. I saw the people here, getting old.”
“So we should stay then? Take what water we can from the fountain for our crops?”
“Yes, I think so. The water of the fountain comes not from the rain but an ancient spring. But the reservoir that feeds that spring must be running dry too. If you wish to follow the vision, we cannot leave. But you are the chief; you must decide.”
“Leaving may be of no use anyway, scouts who climbed the canyon walls say even desert plants are growing brown for miles in all directions. So I have decided then. But you must now tell the people of your vision. We will have a celebration. A celebration of our lives here. We will paint the canyon walls with the story of our people. Together, we will remind them of our great times.”
“Yes, that is what the oracle told me to do. I tried to defy the destiny she said was ours but failed. I prayed for rain that did not come. But as she told me, the people have had great joys here, enjoying the centuries others never experienced. We can have no regret.”
Jason Douglas sought Native American artifacts and relics he could sell on the black market to collectors. He had been making a decent living each year, having learned the trade from a father who spent too much of his own profits on alcohol. Alcohol that became a problem even on digs, and which caused the fatal fall. Jason kept the vices at bay, other than a bit too strong a desire for scoring with women impressed with his free spending. But the pickings were getting slimmer each year. The satellite imagery that revealed the box canyon also finds sites in need of review and protection by officials. While cooperation among tribal police, state and federal authorities may have been problematic at times, it worked well enough to limit his business. Artifacts and relics were one thing, but the fountain site offered much more—beyond anything he had ever liberated from the past. If he could find the secret of the fountain and restore it, he could sell bottles of water at astronomical prices to the world’s wealthy. They will pay anything to remain young—and they can afford it, he knew it. Never a shortage of women if he made this score. No need for drugs to keep it up either, using the water himself.
“You want $7,500 for a $5,000 bond? Do I get kissed too? Cause you’re sure screwing me!”
“Look Douglas, we know your credentials are not real. We checked you out. If we wind up paying on the bond, as we think we will, we want to make something on it and preserve our own reputation.”
“Well, your reputation is not so hot—which is why I came to you!”
“Yeah, well it’s a damn sight better than yours, isn’t it? Good enough that the tribe won’t blink at a bond from us.”
“All right, let me write you a check.”
“Seriously! No, I’ll take cash if you want the bond. Bring me the cash and you can walk out of here with the paper.”
“Ok, Ok. I’ll be back within an hour.” $7,500, damn! Well it’s going to pinch, liquidating that much from the Cayman account, especially with the fees the bank will charge to wire the money added on. No matter, if this fountain pays off like I think it will, I’ll be lighting cigars with $100 bills.
Jason had the wire sent to a local bank, where he had to put more cash on deposit to be able to get the wired money out in big bills. Enough for one day. I’ll go back to the reservation tomorrow.
The people began dying, first the ones who had been older when the fountain stopped the aging, then the others. They had no regrets, having lived rich lives for centuries—well beyond what they could have imagined. They had celebrations of music created over the ages. They danced the stories of their lives. They enjoyed the food and drink until gone. The shaman supervised the burial of those who died, in the old ways not needed since long ago. With only a handful of the people left, the chief directed the narrow passage into the canyon be closed. Though weakened, they levered first one then another boulder until a rock slide filled the opening.
“The people are nearly all gone now, Shaman. Preserve them. Protect them in death.”
“Do not worry, Chief, their spirits will soar even as their bodies remain bound to the earth.”
The shaman’s strong will and spiritual power kept him alive until all others were gone. When his time came, he took the jimson weed and crawled into a niche high atop the canyon mouth awaiting death. One final vision carried him to the spirit world. I will protect you my people. I could not save you in life but I will keep your bones from harm. I will protect all. Those who view the history of our people will find a great story. Those who disturb our rest will find great pain and sorrow.
Jason Douglas made the grueling journey to the box canyon in a large pickup with 4-wheel drive. An ATV might have made more sense over the road-less terrain, but then he could not bring all the equipment he needed nor have room for all he hoped to be hauling back. By the time he got there his hemorrhoids were flaming. Hah, I’ll soon have enough money to pay a doc to make me a new ass. Hell, they’ll do it for free for a shot at getting some of the water. He took only a backpack on his climb over the slide. Once he explored the site, he would come back for the explosives to clear the obstruction. A demolition expert might have been wise, but I can handle this; I’ve blown stuff up before. Drill here, insert a stick and a wire. Drill there and another charge. Just have to make sure they go off in the right sequence to open it up, not block it worse. No need to cut someone else in on this.
A long but beautiful walk awaited him. Mural after mural covered the canyon walls. As great as any in the world’s best museums or the greatest architecture. Wow, if the ceramics are anything like this, I’ll be rich just from those—even before getting to the fountain! But the fountain will be what will gives the time to enjoy those riches. I just have to find it. He passed the fallow fields. The empty pens where animals once were held. An open area, with stone seating in a circle. A meeting area? Performances? Whatever; no artifacts here and no fountain. Finally, after an eternity of walking, he approached enclosures. Rooms of what might once have been adobe but had at some point been covered with something—something that looked almost like modern stucco. Impossible; they didn’t coat buildings in anything like that in the Southwest back then. Art, construction techniques—amazing. He entered the first room then, surprisingly large—nearly 12 by 20 feet. The interior walls were a bright blue hue, where could they get dye that color? As the murals hinted, niches in the walls contained pots with decorative art that could have been found in the Metropolitan Museum, the Louvre or the Smithsonian. Ah, the fountain can wait; I have plenty of time.
He passed through a doorway to a smaller room. This one had pale green walls with a golden border at the ceiling and the inside of the doorway. Here there were shelves inset on the rear wall, with a stone pedestal, an altar perhaps. On the shelves there were bones, the remains of the inhabitants. Around their necks were jeweled necklaces. On their fingers were jeweled rings. Outstanding! I will be the richest man since Midas! I must get a closer look. As he pried a ring off a finger, the bone broke. A shudder went through him then, not unlike what happens when one touches a live wire. He felt something then—no, someone. Not just in the room with him, but much closer. He saw himself then, from outside himself. As if looking in a mirror, but in a room without one. A memory came to him then, a memory that was not his.
A man will come one day, seeking the fountain. He will see the wonders that the people left behind. He creates nothing himself; he only takes what others have done to enrich himself. He will defile the remains of our people—the people I have sworn to protect. I will do my duty. He held the last vision of the shaman in his mind. “What the hell! What was that? He said aloud, trying to break the grip of the vision. I need some water. Been out in the sun too long. Need to sit down. Douglas cleared the candle holders and incense burner from the altar in one sweep of his hand. He sat down on the stone pedestal and took a large gulp from his canteen. All right, I’ll find the fountain and the rest of the stuff later. It’s all here; everything I have ever wanted. I need to get back out to the truck and blast open the way into this place. I’ll never be able to haul all this stuff out without the truck. I need a BIG opening. He headed back the way he came—past the arena, the animal pens, the fields and the murals. Although he started into the canyon in mid-morning, it was late afternoon by the time he got back over the slide. He kept turning to look back, slowing his travel. There is nobody following me. I am here by myself, dammit!
He set the charges using all the explosives he had, enough dynamite to open a mine or knock down a building. He didn’t know that, not being an expert, but he couldn’t argue with himself. The unheard voice that insisted he wire it all up. Dark clouds were rolling in 30 miles away, so he had to get this done before rain came. He had the detonator all set in the truck. He was on his way back to the canyon wall one last time to check the charges when the dry lightning struck. It lit the truck up like a Christmas tree. The canyon wall fell around him, pinning his left leg but leaving him in a small, dark cavity. He felt around for something to pry up the rock pinning his leg. Relief washed over him as he wrapped a hand around a hard shaft. The perfect size. I’m not done for yet. He screamed then, as more brittle bones tumbled around him and a powerful voice echoed through his head. No, you are not done yet, the shaman said.
David Whitefeather put the word out. No more explorations to the box canyon. He had a dream one night. A shaman told him to let no one go there.
Note: Some portions of this story appeared as posts on John Maberry’s Writing blog.