Dr. Waneta Long uncovered the rim of the vessel. Horizontal, intact, priceless. She knew how rare a find this might be, especially for a site so old. The few shards of pottery already found dated from the Woodland period, two to three thousand years ago. Long before her ancestors had come to these mountains. Long before Dr. Waneta Long was born.
As a child, she had lived in the nearby town of Cherokee, North Carolina, tourist capital of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The town provided a reasonably good museum, a way for casual drifters to touch the past on their way to the casino or a weekend of camping near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But the town had not been kind to an unmarried woman with a young child. Waneta and her mother moved away when Waneta was only five, and she had never looked back. Not until this summer. Not until an anonymous donor awarded a grant to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to explore this site.
The grant was unusual for several reasons. Not only because it was anonymous, but also because no one seemed to care about doing field work in the U.S. anymore, not since Taelon artifacts were discovered in Ireland and Peru. More unusual, the donor of the grant specifically requested that Dr. Waneta Long be placed in charge of the dig.
The request was not made because she was the most qualified?-Waneta earned her doctorate only five years ago and had yet to receive tenure. More likely, the donor specified her name at the top of the project because she was Cherokee, not realizing this could complicate matters with the local tribal government rather than improve them.
In general, Cherokees did not look kindly on archaeologists, especially women archaeologists who were fullblood Cherokee and therefore supposed to know one did not dig in the ground to find the secrets of the past.
Waneta's mother had taught her differently. She claimed Cherokees did not know the facts of their own history, regardless of their rich oral tradition. Although a fullblood Cherokee herself, she nevertheless urged Waneta to think independently, to examine the world with a critical and logical eye. She encouraged Waneta to reject the traditions, the mythology, and the narrow-mindedness of the Cherokee cliques who protected the bones of their ancestors. She always wanted her daughter to be a scientist.
Until the end. Until the sickness took away her mind.
Waneta forced away those thoughts. Her mother had been dead five years, but the pain of her passing had not yet lessened.
Pulling herself back to the dig site, Waneta focused on the late afternoon sunshine and the pine-scented air, on the rustle of trees in the soft breeze and the color of changing leaves. A glorious day atop Rattlesnake Mountain. One for which she had waited a very long time.
She leaned forward and peered into the vessel. What little fill existed appeared as nothing more than a shadowy mound of dust, which might be exactly what it was. If she wanted, she could have reached her hand inside?-the mouth of this pottery jar was a full ten centimeters across?-but she forced herself to wait. She would need to weigh the vessel's contents and possibly run them through a waterscreen, either the temporary one they had built on site or the custom-made tank back at UT.
This site had originally been the interior of a dry cave whose roof had recently collapsed. Although sediment had surrounded this jar since the cave-in, its interior had remained untouched, perhaps for thousands of years.
During the next forty-five minutes, Waneta troweled around the vessel to a depth of twenty-five centimeters, careful to stay away from its sides to avoid scratching it. The dirt went into a white plastic bucket, and like the fill, would be waterscreened to reveal tiny fragments of the past.
Most days she pulled her hair back, but today she had forgotten. Spiral-permed, it fell in black waves to her shoulders and clung to the top of her sweater as she worked. She refused to grow her hair long, in part because that made it easier to take care of while in the field, but also because it made her look less traditional. In other parts of the country, she had often been mistaken for Asian or Mexican. That never happened around here, but no one mistook her for a conservative Cherokee, either.
When the bulk of surrounding material was cleared, she removed the soil immediately next to the vessel using bamboo picks. Similar in appearance to giant pencils, the bamboo picks were homemade, cut by one of the grad students who had a knack for it. Bamboo worked best for this kind of excavation. The tips did not mar the pottery surface?-important because early North American pottery was fired but not glazed and so tended to scratch easily.
As she worked, the grad students arrived. She heard the sound of the old van?-it must be Jason's turn to carpool?-then the rustling of grass as three sets of footsteps neared, their approach curving away and back as the students skirted the string-bounded squares of the site. They gathered around her, but she did not stop to greet them and they did not interrupt her work.
She could have chased them off to sift through the wheelbarrow of dirt they had flat-shoveled yesterday, but opportunities to watch a vessel like this being uncovered were rare and should be savored. They would all learn more in the next thirty minutes than they would from days spent screening for potsherds.
Gradually the shape of the jar emerged. It resembled a spherical bowl topped by a columnar mouth. Waneta scraped away the surrounding material until only a layer of caked dust remained, then paused in her work and greeted the three grad students for the first time. Ashley and Denene smiled at her, but Jason's gaze never left the vessel.
"How much longer?" he asked. "Are we going to waterscreen the fill today?"
Waneta glanced at the shadows. The sun was already deep behind the mountain. "I'm guessing it'll be sunset in thirty minutes. Let's just record the context and get the vessel packed for the trip back. I'll run the fill through the watertank back at UT."
She stood up and stretched. "Don't worry, Jason. I'll let you know what I find."
Jason was a tough one to figure out. Most of the time, he acted as if he was here only for the small stipend she paid the grad students from the grant money, but today, staring at the uncovered outline of the vessel, he seemed more animated and interested than she had ever seen him. Perhaps, like many students, he did not see the importance of the fragmentary evidence. He was only impressed with vessels, figurines, pipes, and jewelry?-intact objects he could hold in his hand and marvel over.
Waneta took the first round of pictures that would verify the vessel's place within the grid and demonstrate the context of how it had been found. She allowed the students to take the next round while she walked several paces away and stretched. Her muscles were sore from sitting cross-legged and bending over her work.
The evening was cool and crisp, but not yet cold. The sun no longer warmed her back, but the trees around the site blocked the wind. Unfortunately, they also hid her view of the surrounding mountains.
Fall was the only time of year when someone could tempt her to move from Knoxville back to Cherokee. Mountains surrounded the small town like bright sponge paintings, the kind she used to do in Sunday school when she was only three.
Funny, the moments she could remember. Her small fingers dipping the sponge into the bright primary red, giggling as she stamped it across white paper.
Other moments, too: Pine needles beneath her feet as she walked through the forest, holding the hand of someone she could not see; her stomach uneasy as her mother's old car twisted and turned, crawling its way up the mountain?-this mountain.
Silly. She could not know which mountain. She had been too young to remember.
But since June, when they first mapped out this site in two?meter squares, more and more memories had slowly found their way into her conscious mind. She tried not to think about them. Most, like the walk in the forest, she did not understand.
She glanced back at the site, at her students hard at work, fascinated by their discovery?-an incredibly important discovery. When Waneta had been asked to lead this dig, she had a hunch she would find something remarkable, something unique, but as work on the site dragged summer into fall with no stone artifacts and only a few potsherds found, she lost her initial confidence. She began to question why anyone would award a large grant for such an unproven site and worried that all the time spent here would provide her with nothing she could publish, jeopardizing her chances for tenure. Only in the past few days had her optimistic feeling returned, steadily growing day by day, as if she were getting close.
Today the hunch had finally proven itself. The vessel provided the first evidence this site had been occupied rather than a burial site. Many times, pottery vessels placed in graves were ceremonially "killed". No holes had been knocked in the piece uncovered here, which gave Waneta hope the vessel had once served an entire community and was not part of a grave. She expected to find more pottery, refuse, and perhaps some worked flakes within this and the adjoining grid?-but to have her first meaningful evidence be an intact piece was remarkable.
She returned to the vessel and continued her work.
Her first sign that something was wrong came when she brushed the dirt away from the top of the jar and saw the pattern impressed in its rim. It looked remarkably familiar. She quickly brushed the sides of the vessel. As she revealed each new millimeter of the pattern incised on the pottery, she grew more anxious, more certain everything had gone terribly, irrevocably wrong.
When she uncovered enough of the pattern to make out the design, she stopped and the brush fell from her fingers. "Oh, God. Oh, no."
"What's wrong?" Ashley asked.
"It's a snake," Jason said.
"Snake." Waneta gripped her throat, struggling to breathe.
The word snake conjured up horrible memories of her mother in the last month before she died. In those final days, as she grew thinner, wasting away, she had become obsessed with snakes?-terrified of them. She spoke constantly of her Cherokee heritage, especially as it related to snakes, and how she was dying because she had offended one.
"It's my fault," she would claim, rearing up in bed and grasping Waneta's sleeve. "I should have buried it. Now I'm too weak. I can't do it. You must go to the mountain. Tame the snake before it escapes and destroys the world."
Waneta hated it when her mother spoke that way. Her mother had been so proud, so logical. To see her reduced by illness and fear to the point she quoted ancient myths was in some ways more painful than her death.
Now Waneta could not look at a snake without thinking of her mother?-and this snake disturbed her more than most. Portrayed in the classic two-dimensional Cherokee style, rows of fangs protruded from both upper and lower jaws and tentacles or horns sprouted from the top of its head. An impossibly long forked tongue extended from its mouth?-or perhaps the long tendrils represented twin flames, like those from a fire-breathing dragon. An unusual pattern of lines radiated from a circle on the creature's forehead, and lines decorated the long thin body asymmetrically, as if the front half of the beast served a different function than the back.
Waneta recognized the drawing. She had seen many similar works before. It was an Uktena, a mythical serpent common in Cherokee artwork.
Cherokee. That meant Mississippian, not Woodland.
She stood up and backed away. "We can't dig here."
The students looked at her, dumbfounded.
"The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act," she said irritably.
Denene shook her head. "This site's too old for that, isn't it?"
"It's a mixed site," Waneta said. "We can't continue work here until I contact the Cultural Resources Office in Cherokee."
"What does that mean?" Ashley asked.
Waneta did not answer. She stormed a few steps away, then stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. Desperately, she wanted to find a way to keep digging, but the law was clear on this. This artifact belonged to a living, identifiable aboriginal group. She had no choice but to surrender control to them.
"Damn," she said. "Damn it, anyway."
Denene took a step forward. Her voice trembled as she spoke. "We haven't found any bones. This isn't a grave site."
"It doesn't matter," Waneta said, pacing now. "Look at the serpent incised on the pottery. That's an Uktena. It means this bowl may have been used for ceremonial purposes. It certainly means we can't proceed without permission from the Eastern Band of Cherokees."
Ashley was staring at the vessel as if it were a dissected rabbit. "That's still okay, isn't it? We can just ask, can't we?"
Waneta laughed for several seconds, then pressed her hands to the sides of her face and groaned. "We can ask. We can always ask."
Jason bent low and reached for the vessel with both hands.
Waneta watched, unbelieving, as he lifted it off the ground. She croaked several times before she managed to get the words out. "What are you doing? Put the vessel down, Jason. Put it down now!"
Jason lifted his head and looked at her, his expression cold, unfeeling, then his lips turned up in the slightest of grins.
For Waneta, that instant remained frozen, forever clear in her mind. Jason's hands were tight around the vessel?-she saw the pink of his fingernails, the tension in his wrists?-then his grip loosened . . .
. . . and the pot slipped free. Waneta lunged forward. She was five steps away. Much too far. Helpless, she watched it fall.
The vessel shattered against the ground and the fill inside exploded in a cloud of dust. Pottery fragments sprayed across the loose earth and bounced on the green grass next to the grid square. One large, dark object rolled free of the rubble, something from inside, something that had been buried beneath the dust.
Waneta's mouth worked silently and her fingers clenched and unclenched in dying spasms. A groan escaped her lips as she lifted her face and stared at Jason.
"What the hell are you doing? Have you lost your mind? You've just . . . shattered a piece of history. It's gone. Forever. I can't believe it."
He said nothing.
"What were you thinking?"
"You startled me," he said. "I didn't mean to drop it."
"The hell you didn't. You did it on purpose. Your days in this department are over. You're out. You're gone."
Waneta started toward Jason. To poke a finger in his chest or to pummel him, she never knew. Before she drew close enough to touch him, movement to one side attracted her attention.
Ashley had bent forward and was reaching for the object that had rolled free of the destruction.
Waneta said the words the way she would scold a dog or a small child.
Ashley did not stop. She picked up the object?-what looked like a round ball of dusty rags?-and started to unwrap it.
"No!" Waneta tried to grab it from her, but Ashley jerked away at the last instant. Instead of taking it away, Waneta only knocked it from her hands. Ashley kept a grip on part of it and the rest unraveled. A shiny crystal fell free, sparkling, its red surface catching the light as it dropped to the ground with a thud.
Waneta shoved Ashley away and reached for the sparkling red stone, but Denene was already there, her hand outstretched.
What was going on? It was like a scene out of a horror movie.
"Stop!" Waneta growled. She slapped Denene's hand away and grabbed the gleaming gem.
It burned, and she almost dropped it, but it cooled so quickly, she questioned her senses. She transferred the gem to her other hand and looked at her palm. No red marks. No sign her initial impression of heat had been real.
Puzzled, she stared at the stone. It filled her small hand. Clutching it tightly, she spun to face the students. "Which one of you wants to explain what's going on?"
Ashley and Denene lowered their chins and stared at the ground. Jason met her gaze at first, but after a moment, even he looked away.
"You could all be thrown out of the department for this. You've tampered with a site that I just told you was protected by NAGPRA, you've ruined the context of the find?-hell you've destroyed the artifact itself. All of you know better, especially you, Denene. You're one of the best students the department has."
Waneta fought to keep the tears from her eyes and her voice even as she spoke. "Why didn't you stop when I asked?" She held up the stone and shook it. "Why did you even touch this in the first place?"
"I'm sorry, Dr. Long, I?-" Denene paused, swallowing hard. "I didn't want to, it's just that?-well. . . ."
"It made me."
Waneta frowned. "What do you mean?-it made you?"
Waneta held up the gem. "Are you saying this rock forced you to pick it up?"
Denene lowered her gaze and nodded.
Waneta sighed and shook her head. "That's the worst excuse I've heard in a long time. What about you, Ashley? I suppose the crystal made you unwrap it, too? Is that what happened?"
Ashley folded her arms protectively across her chest. Her eyes, wet with tears, glinted in the fading light. "No. I don't know why I picked it up."
"That much I believe." Waneta nodded and turned to Jason. "What's your story?"
Waneta put up her hand as if to ward off a blow. "Let's not get into that. We both know better. Just tell me why you picked it up at all."
"We had our context pictures. We measured and recorded its position within the grid. What else did we need to do? Or are you mad only because you weren't the first one to hold it?"
"It has nothing to do with that. An archaeological artifact is not a toy."
"Isn't it? Isn't that why you got into this business in the first place?"
"It's not a business."
"Really? Then who's paying for us to be here? Who sponsored this dig? You think they did that out of the goodness of their hearts? You think you're going to get to keep anything you find here?"
"Don't even go there, Jason. That's not the issue. The point is, you don't pick up an ancient artifact just to look at it. Even if you do, you need to understand that holding a piece of the past is like holding a life in your hands. You certainly don't drop it."
"Maybe it's better I did," Jason said smoothly. "What we've dated so far says this is a Woodland site. There's no law that says you need to date every potsherd you find, and without the design on the vessel, no one can claim we aren't allowed to dig here. We can pretend none of this happened."
"The hell we can."
Waneta's whole body shook. She tried to control the tone and volume of her voice, but failed. "Get out of here! Get off this site! If you aren't gone in the next minute, I'll do more than throw you out of the department, I'll have you dismissed from the university for ethics violations!"
"You can't do that."
"The hell I can't. Now get out of here. All of you. Now!"
Waneta took a step toward them, still holding the crystal in her hand. They scattered and re-grouped at Jason's van, climbing inside without looking back. The old Ford rumbled to life and its headlights snapped on. With creaks and groans, it slowly rocked over the rough ground to the trail. After a moment, it disappeared into the trees on its way back to the main road.
Waneta was alone.
She swallowed. Tears ran down her cheeks as she turned in a slow circle, looking at the devastation, knowing the full ruin of what had happened.
Not only would she need to convince the Cherokee nation that she had accidentally disturbed what she now believed was a ceremonial site, but she also faced the long ordeal of proving Jason had acted inappropriately. She was sure he would deny his comments about ignoring what they had found. Although Ashley and Denene were witnesses, they were also Jason's friends. Would they tell the truth?
No matter what, she could not allow a person with Jason's lack of scruples to graduate with an advanced degree in archaeology. He was nothing more than a modern grave robber. It now made perfect sense why he only showed interest in intact objects. It was hard to sell a flint flake or a fragment from a figurine to the highest bidder.
How had he ever made it this far?
She knew the answer to that?-at least the simple answer. Dr. Messmore, her department head, had forced her to hire Jason for this dig. She did not know why, but assumed the boy's family had money.
Ashley and Denene were a different story. She felt especially bad about Denene, but the girl's excuse was maddening. It was like saying, "The Devil made me do it." Not that Denene had done anything wrong?-Waneta had grabbed the stone before she could. That was Waneta's mistake. It was just that by the time the crystal rolled free, all the students were acting crazy. She was merely trying to regain control before any more damage was done.
Waneta covered the site using thick black plastic, which she anchored with heavy stones. Perhaps she had chased off the students a bit too soon. Darkness came quickly in these mountains. Night had already fallen before she managed to secure the site and put away her tools.
The work went more slowly than it might have, because she carried the crystal in her free hand, stubbornly refusing to put it down or put it away, even after she retrieved a jacket and a flashlight from her SUV. She was being silly, she knew, but the crystal was the only good to come from today. If she let it go, it seemed she would lose everything.
Fortunately, the flashlight was unnecessary. The moon, nearly full, provided more light than many of her friends in the city would ever believe it could. Low in the sky, just over the eastern trees, it cast long, eerie shadows across the small clearing as she located the largest pieces of the vessel and placed them in a cardboard box lined with tissue paper. Tears formed again on her cheeks as she thought about what had been lost.
All she had left were pieces of the past. Memories. Like those of her mother.
Waneta finished packing everything into the back of the SUV, then made a final pass, walking around the site and shining the flashlight across the black plastic that covered the squares. The white strings at their edges stood out in the beam of the light. Normally, she removed the strings from the squares they were working on so no one would trip over them, but she had been distracted by the discovery of the jar and the idea of what might be inside it. She would remove the strings tomorrow.
As she turned to go, she spotted the dark, rumpled mound of wrapping that had contained the crystal. It still lay in the grass where Ashley had dropped it. Waneta retrieved it, but did not bother to look at it now. It felt soft and slick with dust. She would examine it tomorrow in the lab.
As she walked to the SUV, the beam of her flashlight darted among the vegetation like a frightened rabbit. At the vehicle, she turned off the light and shut it and the dusty wrapping in the back with the cardboard box. Keeping the crystal with her, she walked around the side and reached for the driver's door.
Suddenly she stopped, frozen, her heart pounding. In the window, the reflection of a face hovered above her left shoulder.
Waneta let out a small cry and spun to face the stranger. She backed against the SUV, ready to fight or flee, depending on who it was.
She did neither.
A stocky old woman stood a step away, the moon bathing her in milky light. She wore a simple print dress. A red kerchief bound her white hair behind her head and a corn-bead necklace arced across her upper chest. Wisdom had worked its way into her bronze face, visibly etched in the wrinkles along her forehead and imprinted at the corners of her eyes, which were deep-set and kind. She had high cheekbones, a shallow, wide nose, and fleshy skin flanking a small, rounded chin?-a face like many Waneta had seen in the nearby town and along the roadways leading to the dig site, a face Waneta might see in the mirror forty years from now.
Waneta's heart quit pounding, but her words still came out more quickly than she would have liked.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"Do not be afraid, Sgilisi. I have come to help."
The woman's speech bore a heavy Cherokee accent. Waneta had heard stories of people who spoke mainly Cherokee, preferring to live out their lives clinging to the past. They resorted to English only when necessary. This woman sounded like one of them.
"Help who? I don't need any help."
The woman smiled indulgently, the way old people do at young children. "You must put Uluhsati back."
The old woman stepped closer. Her brown eyes, hazy from cataracts, focused briefly on Waneta, as if studying her. She held out her hand at a height just above her waist.
"The last time I saw you, you were only this high. My, what a woman you've become. Your mother is so proud of you."
"My mother's dead."
Waneta said the words without thinking. The woman probably thought she recognized Waneta and would now believe one of her good friends had died.
"I'm sorry," she said, wanting to repair the damage, "I'm Dr. Waneta Long from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I'm in charge of the dig site behind you. I was surprised to see anyone, especially after dark. This place is very hard to find."
Waneta scanned the clearing and the trail leading back to the main road. She had not heard a car and could not imagine someone walking around on this mountain at night.
The woman stared at Waneta, and her eyes seemed to clear somewhat, a trick of the light. "You have removed Uluhsati from his resting place. You do not understand the danger that lives inside him."
Waneta shivered and folded her arms. In her hand, the crystal felt like ice. She closed her eyes long enough for a deep breath. This was more than mistaken identity. This poor old woman sounded confused, perhaps senile.
"Please. Let me give you a lift somewhere. It's late?-and it's getting cold."
Waneta opened the door of her SUV. The dome light popped on, creating a small brightly lit square that pooled at her feet.
The old woman shuffled quickly backwards, and Waneta spoke in a soft voice, trying not to alarm her further.
"It's all right. I'll take you home."
The old woman clucked softly to herself. "You have the power in your blood to control Uluhsati, but you do not have the experience?-or the desire, just as your mother never had the desire. That is why she left."
"My mother's dead," Waneta repeated coldly.
The old woman spoke quickly now, the voice sharp-edged and scolding. "When she took you away in the night, she had not yet found her faith in the old ways?-just as you have not. I was wrong to force them upon her before she was ready. I know that now."
Waneta swallowed. She recalled a flash of memory: her mother, almost in a panic, rushing around their small house, packing boxes, loading them into a U-haul trailer. She could remember later, being carried to their old car, a blanket wrapped around her, stars twinkling in black velvet overhead.
"Who are you?" Waneta asked. She backed up until the door frame of the SUV pressed against her legs.
"You must decide," the old woman said sternly. "I cannot protect you once you leave this mountain."
"Decide if you are ready to take my place."
Waneta paused, torn between confusion, anger, and apprehension. Something about this old woman was familiar. The words she spoke made no sense, but deep inside, a part of Waneta recognized them, knew the choice?-and was terrified of it. Boundless, uncontrollable fear welled up within her.
Without a word, she scrambled into the driver's seat and slammed the door. Quickly, she switched the crystal to her other hand and turned the key in the ignition, then stepped on the gas even before she threw the SUV in gear. The truck lurched across the clearing, bouncing and jerking over the rough ground. After Waneta's head hit the padded ceiling the third time, she slowed down, but did not stop until she reached the old trail that led to the gravel road and back to the highway.
Waneta glanced in her rear?view mirror, ridiculously expecting some kind of chase, but the old woman had hobbled out of sight and back down whatever mountain trail had brought her to the dig site in the first place.
Even so, Waneta did not feel safe until she was completely off the mountain and back on highway 441, twisting north through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park toward home. Only then did she feel guilty for leaving the crazy old woman stranded on the mountain.
She should go back, she knew, but she could not force herself to turn around.
"You must decide," the old woman had said.
Waneta could not understand why those words terrified her, but she had no energy left to think about them tonight.
The crystal had finally warmed in her hand. She cradled it while she drove, already starting to theorize what it may have been used for and why the ancient Cherokees might have kept it buried in a cave on the mountain. She would have to surrender it to the Cherokee Cultural Office and wondered if it would end up in their museum.
Until then, she would have the chance to study it and perhaps publish a paper. But for now, holding it in her hand would have to be enough, its secrets beyond her reach until tomorrow.
Copyright © 2002 by Tribune Entertainment Company and Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc.
|Note: This chapter is the way I originally wrote it. I did not have an electronic version of the copyedited manuscript. I apologize for any difficulty this might have caused.||Back|