Put the pieces back together, fit them against each other chip by chip and line by line, and they start to sing. There’s a sort of tone a skeleton gives off; Aretha Howson can feel it more than hear it, like it’s tuned to some frequency she can’t quite register. It resonates through her in layers: skin, muscle, cartilage, bone. It whispers in her ear at night, secret, liquid. Like blood through a shell.
The site they’re working on is probably Early Archaic—6,500 B.P. or so, going strictly by contents, thus beating out the recent Bug River find by almost 2,000 years. Up above the water-line, too, which makes it incredibly unlikely; most people lived in lakeshore camps back then, right when the water levels were at their lowest after the remnant ice mass from the last glacial advance lying across the eastern outlet of Lake Superior finally wasted away, causing artificially high lake levels to drop over a hundred metres. Then isostatic rebound led to a gradual return, which is why most sites dating between the end of the Paleo-Indian period and 4,000 years ago are largely under water.
Not this one, though: it’s tucked up under a ridge of granite, surrounded by conifer old growth so dense they had to park the vehicles a mile away and cut their way in on foot, trying to disturb as little as possible. Almost a month later—a hideously cold, rainy October, heading straight for Hallowe’en—the air still stinks of sap, stumps bleeding like wounds. Dr. Anne-Marie Begg’s people hauled the trunks out one by one, cross-cut the longest ones, then loaded them up and took them back to the Reserve, where they’ll be planed in the traditional manner and used for rebuilding. Always a lot of home improvement projects on the go, over that way; that’s what Anne-Marie—Dr. Begg—says.
Though Canadian ethics laws largely forbid excavations, once Begg brought Dr. Elyse Lewin in to consult, even the local elders had to agree this particular discovery merited looking into. They’ve been part of the same team practically since Begg was Lewin’s favourite TA, operating together out of Lakehead University, Thunder Bay; Lewin’s adept at handling funding and expedition planning, while Begg handles both tribal liaison duties and general PR, plus almost anything else to do with the media. It was Begg who sowed excitement about “Pandora’s Box,” as the pit’s come to be called, on account of the flat slab of granite—lightly incised with what look like ancestral petroglyphs similar to those found on Qajartalik Island, in the Arctic—stoppering it like a bottle. Incised on top and below, as Aretha herself discovered when they pried it apart, opening a triangular gap large enough to let her jump in. She’d shone the flashlight downwards first, just far enough to check her footing before she landed—down on one knee, a soggy crouch, too cramped to straighten fully—then automatically reversed it, revealing those square-cut, coldly eyeless faces set in silent judgement right above her head.
“How’d they get it here?” Morgan, the other intern, asks Lewin, who shrugs and glances at Begg before letting her answer.
“The slab itself, that’s found, not made—shaped a little, probably. More than enough rockfall in this area for that, post-glacial shear. Then they’d have made an earthwork track like at Stonehenge, dug underneath—” Begg uses her hands to sketch the movements in midair “—then piled in front, put down logs overtop, used them like rollers. Get enough people pushing and pulling, you’re golden.”
Lewin nods. “Yes, exactly. Once the grave was dug, there’d be no particular problem fitting it overtop; just increase the slope ’til they had a hill and push it up over the edge, down-angled so one side touched the opposite lip, before dismantling the hill to lay it flat again.”
“Mmm.” Morgan turns slightly, indicating: “What’re the carvings for, though? Like . . . what do they mean?”
“Votive totems,” Begg replies, with confidence.
The forensics expert—Dr. Tatiana Huculak—just shakes her head. “No way to know,” she counters. “Told us yourself they don’t look like any of the ritual marks you grew up with, remember? So it’s like a sign in Chinese, for all of us—just as likely to say ‘fuck you’ as ‘God bless,’ unless you know Pinyin.”
Begg’s already opening her mouth to argue when Lewin sees Aretha’s hand go up; she shushes them both. “Oh dear, you don’t have to do that!” she exclaims. “Just sing out if an idea’s struck you.”
Aretha hesitates, eyes flicking to Morgan, who nods. Courage in hand, she replies—
“Uh, maybe. I mean—even when you don’t know the language, there’s still a lot you can get from context, right? Well . . .” She hauls herself up, far enough past the slab to tap its top, nails grating slightly over rough-edged stone. “‘Keep out,’ that’d be my guess,” she concludes. “‘Cause it’s up here.”
Lewin nods, as Huculak and Begg exchange glances. “Logical. And down there? On the underside?”
Here Aretha shrugs, uncomfortably in the spotlight for once, pinned beneath the full weight of all three professors’ eyes.
“ . . . ‘stay in?’” she suggests, finally.
• • • •
Working this dig with Lewin’s team was supposed to be the best job placement ever, a giddy dream of an archaeological internship—government work with her way paid up front, hands-on experience, and the chance to literally uncover something unseen since thousands of years BCE. By the end of the first week, however, Aretha was already beginning to dream about smothering almost everyone else in their sleep or hanging herself from the next convenient tree, and the only thing that’s improved since then is that she’s now far too exhausted to attempt either.
Doesn’t help that the rain which greeted them on arrival still continues, cold and constant, everything covered in mud, and reeking of pine needles. Sometimes it dims to a fine mist, penetrating skin-deep through Aretha’s heaviest raincoat; always it chills, lighting her bone marrow up with sharp threads of ache, the air around her so cold, it hurts to inhale through an open mouth. Kneeling here in the mud, she sees her breath boil up as cones fall down through the dripping, many-quilled branches, their sticky impacts signalled with rifle-shot cracks, and every day starts the same, ends the same: wood mould burning in her eyes and sinuses like smoke, impossible to ward off, especially since the Benadryl ran out.
“Jesus,” Morgan suddenly exclaims, like she just hasn’t noticed it before, “that’s one hell of a cold you’ve got there, Ree. Does Lewin know?”
Aretha shrugs, droplets scattering; hard to do much else, when she’s up to her elbows in grave-gunk. And: “Uh, well . . . yeah, sure,” she replies, vaguely. “Can’t see how she wouldn’t.”
“Close quarters and all? You’re probably right. But who knows, huh? I mean . . .” Morgan trails off, eyes sliding back to the main tent—over which two very familiar voices are starting to rise, yet again—before returning to the task at hand. “. . . she’s kinda—distracted, these days, with . . . everything. I guess.”
Inside the main tent, Begg and Huculak are going at each other like ideological hammer and tongs, as ever—same shit, different day, latest instalment in an infinite series. It’s been a match made in hell pretty much since the beginning; Huculak’s specialization makes her view all human remains as an exploitable resource, while Begg’s tribal band liaison status puts her in charge of making sure everything that could conceivably once have been a person gets put right back where it was found after cataloguing, with an absolute minimum of ancestral disrespect. Of course, Begg’s participation is basically the only reason they’re all here in the first place, as Lewin makes sure to keep reminding Huculak—but from Huculak’s point of view, just because she knows it’s true doesn’t mean she has to pretend to like it.
“I’ll point out yet again,” Huculak’s saying right now, teeth audibly gritted, “that the single easiest way we could get a verifiable date on this site continues to be if we could take some of the bones back and carbon-date them, in an honest-to-Christ lab . . .”
Aretha can almost see Begg curtly shaking her head, braids swinging—the way she does about fifty times a day, on average—as she replies. “Carbon-date the grave goods, then, Tat, to your heart’s content—carbon-date the shit out of them, okay? Grind them down to paste if you want to; burn them and smoke the fucking ashes. But the bones, themselves? Those stay here.”
“Oh, ’cause one of ’em might share maybe point-one out of a hundred-thousandth part of their genetic material with yours? Bitch, please.”
Lewin’s voice here, smooth and placatory as ever: “Ladies! Let’s be civil, shall we? We all have to work together, after all, for a good month more . . .”
“Unfortunately,” Huculak snaps back, probably making Begg puff up like a porcupine. Hurling back, in her turn—
“Hey, don’t denigrate my spirituality just because you don’t share it; is that so hard? Say we were in Africa, digging up Rwandan massacre dumps—things’d be different then, right?”
“You know, funny thing about that, Anne-Marie: not really. They’d be the same way anyplace for me, because I am a scientist, first and foremost. Full friggin’ stop.”
“And I’m not is what you mean.”
“Well . . . if the moccasin fits.”
At that, Aretha whips her head around sharply, only to meet Morgan’s equally-disbelieving gaze halfway. The both of them staring at each other, like: seriously? Holy cultural slap-fight with potential impending fisticuffs, Batman. Wow.
“Knock-down drag-out by six, seven at the latest,” Morgan mutters, sidelong. “I’m callin’ it now—fifty on Tat to win, unless Anne-Marie puts her down with the first punch. You in or what?”
Aretha hisses out something that can’t quite be called a laugh. “Pass, thanks.”
Morgan shrugs, then turns back to her designated task, head shaking slightly. “Your loss.”
Going by her initial pitch, Lewin genuinely seems to have thought hiring only female associates and students would guarantee this little trip going far more smoothly than most, as though removing all traces of testosterone from the equation would create some sort of paradisaical meeting of hearts and minds: cycles synched, hands kept busy, no muss, no fuss. The principle, however, was flawed from its inception: just ’cause they ain’t no peckers don’t mean ain’t no peckin’ order, as Aretha’s aunties have often been heard to remark ’round the all-gal sewing circle they run after hours out of their equally all-girl cleaning service’s head office. It frankly amazes Aretha how Lewin could ever have gotten the idea that women never bring such divisive qualities as ambition, wrath, or lust to the metaphorical table, when she’s spent the bulk of her career teaching at all-girl facilities across the U.S., before finally ranging up over the border—
But whatever. Maybe Lewin’s really one of those evo-psych nuts underneath the Second Wave feminist frosting, forever hell-bent on mistaking biology for destiny, no matter the context. Just as well she’s apparently never thought to wonder exactly what those pills Aretha keeps choking down each day are, if so.
On puberty blockers since relatively early diagnosis, thank Christ, so she never did reach the sort of giveaway heights her older brothers have, and her voice hasn’t changed all that much, either; that, plus no Adam’s apple, facial and body hair kept chemically downy as any natal female in her immediate family, even if the other team members felt inclined to body-police. But the plain fact is, they’ve none of them seen each other in any sort of disarray since they left base-camp—it’s too cold to strip for sleep, let alone to shower, assuming they even had one.
This is typical paranoia, though, and she knows it; the reason everyone here knows her as Aretha is because she is. That’s the name under which she entered university, legally, and it’ll be the name with which she graduates, just like from high school. She’s a long damn way away from where she was born at this point, both literally and figuratively.
Aretha looks back up to find Morgan still looking at her and blushes, sniffing liquid, with nothing handy even halfway clean enough to wipe the result away on. “Sorry,” she manages, after a second. “So gross, I know, I really do. I just—sorry, God.”
Morgan laughs. “Dude, it’s fine. Who knew, right?”
“Yeah.” A pause. “Think it would’ve been okay, probably, it just hadn’t rained the whole fucking time.”
“. . . and yet.”
Morgan has a great smile, really; Aretha’d love to see it closer up sometime, under different circumstances. But right now, the little moment of connection under pressure already had, the only thing either of them can really think to do about it is just shrug a little and drift apart once more—Morgan back towards the generator array, which is starting to make those worrying pre-brownout noises yet again, while Aretha heaves herself up out of the pit and stamps slushily towards the tent itself, planning to sluice her gloved hands under the tarp’s overflowing gutter. This brings her so close to the ongoing argument that she can finally see what the various players are actually doing through that space where the tent’s ill-laid side gapes open: Begg and Huculak squaring off, with Lewin playing referee. It’s not quite at the cat-fight stage yet, but if Morgan’s placing bets, Aretha’s at least setting her watch.
“Look, Anne-Marie . . .” Huculak says finally. “I know you want to think these are your people outside, in the grave—but I’ve been studying them hands-on for weeks now, and I just don’t think they were at all. I don’t think these were anybody’s ‘people.’”
“Jesus, Tat! What the hell kind of Othering, colonialist bullshit—”
“No, but seriously. Seriously.” Huculak points to a pelvic arrangement, a crushed-flat skull, and as much of the spinal column as they’ve been able to find. “Pelvis slung backwards, like a bird, not a mammal. Orbital sockets fully ten mL larger than usual and side-positioned, not to the front; these people were barely binocular—probably had to cock their heads just to look at something in front of them. Twice as many teeth, half of them canines, back ones serrated: this is a meat-eater, exclusively. And that’s not even getting into the number of vertebrae, projection processes to the front and rear of each, locking them together like a snake’s . . .”
“You’ve got three bodies to look at, barely, and you’re already pushing taxonomic boundaries? Phylogenetic analysis by traits is a slanted system and makes it too easy by far to mistake clades or haplogroups for whole separate species—”
Ooh, bad move, Dr. Begg, Aretha thinks, even as that last sentence starts, and indeed, by its end Huculak’s eyes have widened so far, her smile-lines disappear completely. “Oh really, is it?” she all but spits. “Golly gee, I didn’t know that, please tell me more! Hottentot Venus what?”
“You know what I’m saying.”
“I know exactly what you’re saying, yes; do you know what I’m saying? Or did you just start shoving your fingers in your ears and singing lalalala I can’t HEEEEAR yooou the minute I started talking, as usual?”
Begg snorts, explosively. “You’ve seen the dig, every damn day for a month—it’s a grave, Tat, you just used the word yourself. Full of grave goods. Animals don’t do that, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Of course I’m not saying what’s in there is animals, for shit’s sake; an offshoot of humanity, maybe—some evolutionary dead end. Like Australopithecus.”
“You’re telling me Australopithecus had snake-spines?”
“No. But just because we haven’t found something yet doesn’t mean it never existed.”
“Good line, Agent Mulder.”
“Oh fuck you, you condescending, indigenocentric fuck—”
Lewin raises her hands and goes to interpose between them, but they ignore her roundly—both wider as well as darker, more built for the long haul, able to shrug her off like a charley-horse. Huculak glares up as Begg stares down, hands on hips and braids still swinging, and demands: “Seriously, is that what we’re down to, right now? The black girl and the Indian, calling each other out as racists?”
Huculak twitches like she’s about to start throwing elbows, trying to divert the urge to punch first and answer questions later; the movement’s actually violent enough to rock Begg back a micro-step, make her start to flinch involuntarily, right before she catches herself.
“You first,” is all Huculak replies, finally, voice flat.
And: “Ladies,” Lewin puts in again, a tad more frantically. “We’re scientists here, yes? Professionals. We can differ, even quarrel, but with respect—always respect. This is all simply theory for now.”
Now it’s Huculak’s turn to snort. “Forever, she gets her way,” she replies. “And she will.”
“Bet your ass,” Begg agrees. “’Cause this is Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation land, and that’s not a theory, so those bones go right on back in the ground where we found them, just like your government promised. No debate.”
Lewin looks at Huculak. Huculak looks away.
“Never actually thought there would be,” she mutters, under her breath.
The grave goods Huculak finds so uninteresting are typical Early Archaic: a predominance of less extensively flaked stone tools with a distinct lack of pottery and smoking pipes, new-style lanceolate projectile points with corner notches and serration along the side of the blades suitable to a mixture of coniferous and deciduous forests, increased reliance on local chert sources. What’s odd about it, however, is the sheer size of the overall deposit—far more end scrapers, side scrapers, crude celts (stone axes), and polished stone atlatl weight-tubes than seem necessary for a mere family burial, which is what the three bodies Begg talked about would indicate: one male, one female, one sexually indistinct adolescent (its pelvis missing, possibly scavenged by animals before the capstone was laid).
Folded beneath a blanketing layer of grave goods so large it almost appears to act as a secondary grounding weight, the three bodies nevertheless take pride of place, traces of red ochre still visible on and around all three rather than just the male skeleton, as would be customary. Weirder yet, on closer examination, the same sort of ochre appears to have been painstakingly applied not only to the flensed bones themselves but also to all the grave goods as well, before they were piled on top.
In burials from pre-dynastic Egypt to prehistoric Britain, Aretha knows, red ochre was used to symbolize blood; skeletons were flensed and decorated with it as both a sign of respect and of propitiation, a potential warding off of vampiric ghosts: take this instead, leave us ours. With no real sense of an afterlife, the prehistoric dead in general were thought to be eternally jealous, resentful of and predatory towards the living . . . but particularly so if they’d died young, or unjustly, and thus been cheated of everything more they might have accomplished while alive. Like the Lady of Cao, Aretha thinks, or the so-called “Scythian Princess,” both of whom died in their twenties, both personages of unusual power (the former the first high-status woman found in Moché culture, the latter actually a Siberian priestess buried in silk and fur and gold), and both of whose tombs also contained the most precious grave good of all, startlingly common across cultures from Mesoamerican to Hindu to Egyptian to Asian: more corpses, often showing signs of recent, violent, sacrificial death.
Retainer sacrifice, that’s what they call it, Aretha thinks, her head spinning slightly, skull gone hot and numb under its cold, constantly wet cap of skin. Like slaughtering horses so they can draw the princess’s chariot into the underworld, except with people: concubines, soldiers, servants, slaves—maybe chosen by lots, maybe volunteers. Killing for company on that final long day’s journey into whatever night comes next. In Egypt, eventually, they started substituting shawabti figures instead, magic clay dolls incised with spells swapped in for actual corpses; an image of a thing, just as good as the thing itself. Unless it’s not.
Text taking shape behind her eyes, wavering: she can almost see it on her laptop’s screen or maybe even a page somewhere, whatever reference-method she first encountered this information through. How in Mound seventy-two at Cahokia, largest site of the Mississippian culture (800 to 1600 CE, located near modern St. Louis, Missouri), pits were found filled with mass burials—fifty-three young women, strangled and neatly arranged in two layers; thirty-nine men, women, and children, unceremoniously dumped, with several showing signs of not having been fully dead when buried, of having tried to claw their way back out. Another group of four individuals was neatly arranged on litters made of cedar poles and cane matting, arms interlocked with heads and hands removed.
Most spectacular is the “Birdman,” a tall man in his forties, thought to have been an important early Cahokian ruler. He was buried on an elevated platform, covered by a bed of more than 20,000 marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon with the bird’s head appearing beneath the man’s head, its wings and tail beneath his arms and legs. Below the Birdman, another corpse was found, buried facing downward, while surrounding him were piles of elaborate grave goods . . .
Cahokia was a trade centre, of course, the apex of an empire; makes sense they’d do things big, lay on the bling. This, meanwhile . . . this is different: smaller, meaner. The faces of the three prime skeletons have been smashed, deliberately, as if in an attempt to make them unrecognizable, a spasm of disgust or desecration; God knows, Aretha’s spent more than enough time piecing them back together to know how effective that first attack was, how odd that it should be followed up with what reads as an almost equally violent avalanche of reverence. But then there’s the capstone, the lid, the flensing, and the ochre, plus the ochre-saturated grave goods pile itself—all added later, at what had to be great cost to the givers. Like a belated apology.
No retainers, though. Not here.
Not where anybody’s thought to look, as yet.
This last thought jolts Aretha out of half-sleep at last, making her sit up so sharply she almost falls over, a blinding surge of pain stitching temple to temple; she holds herself still on her sleeping bag, breathing as slowly as possible to thwart nausea. She presses her fingers up against the edge of her eye sockets until white dots flicker behind her eyelids, forcing the pain back by pressure and sheer will, until—gradually—the agony recedes. The minute she’s able, she slips her boots back on, grabs her excavation spade and trowel, and ducks out of her tent.
The mist, cool on her flushed face, brings a moment’s relief. Not sure if her giddiness is inspiration or fever, Aretha heads for the grave pit as fast as she can.
The light is dimming; she won’t have long. She can’t see anybody working, which suggests they’re at dinner in the chow tent. But no, not all of them, it turns out. Because as she pauses by the main tent, she can hear Dr. Begg arguing with someone yet again—over the sat-phone this time. Who? Curiosity gets the better of her. She edges up to the tent’s outer wall, holding her breath.
“. . . don’t know who she knows, is my point, Gammé,” Begg says. Aretha frowns, translating: Gammé for grandmother, the elder who helped swing the tribal council towards permitting this dig in the first place; Aretha’s never heard Begg sound this uncomfortable with her. “But if it’s somebody with enough clout, somebody who decides they don’t want to honour the arrangement any more—” She stops, sighs. “Might be more money involved, sure. Maybe not. And maybe money’s not what we should be thinking about right now.”
A longer pause. “Well, you saw the pictures, right? Yeah, they’re the ones Tat already sent. So if people start agreeing with her—” A beat. “Okay, what? No, I’m not going to do that. No. Because this is science, not story-time, that’s why, and by those standards, what Tat says makes sense. Muddying the waters with mythology isn’t going to—hey, you there? Hello? Hello?”
No reply, obviously; the receiver slams down, bang. Sometimes the phone cuts out for no reason, even with satellite help—vagaries of location, technology, all that. “Oh, fuck me,” Begg mutters, and goes trudging away, still swearing at herself under her breath.
There was a moment, back in Week One . . . yes, she remembers it now. Sitting around the one smoking camp-fire they’d ever risked as the tarp above dipped and sloshed, Lewin asking Begg to fill in the tribal history of this particular area and Begg replying, slightly snappish, that there wasn’t one, as such: Lots of stories, that’s all; heroes and monsters, that kind of shit. “We don’t go up there much, that place, ’cause of the—”
—and a word here, something Aretha’d never heard before, clipped and odd: buack, paguk, baguck. Something like that.
Bakaak in Ojibwe, pakàk in Algonquin, a version of Begg’s voice corrected, from somewhere deep inside. It’s an Anishinaabe aadizookaan, a fairy tale. They split the difference, usually, and call it Baykok.
Like the Windigo, Morgan suggested, but Begg shook her head. The point of the Windigo, she replied, was that a Windigo started out human, while the Baykok never was.
It’s a bunch of puns stuck together. Bakaak means “skeleton,” “bones draped in skin”; thus bakaakadozo, to be thin, skinny, poor. Or bakaakadwengwe, to have a thin face—bekaakadwaabewizid, an extremely thin being. Not to mention how it yells shrilly in the night, bagakwewewin, literally clear or distinct cries, and beats warriors to death with a club, baagaakwaa’ige. Flings its victim’s chest open,baakaakwaakiganezh, to eat their liver . . .
Why the liver? Aretha asked, but Begg just shrugged.
Why any damn thing? It’s a boogeyman, so it has to do something gross. Like giants grinding bones to make their bread.
You could do that, you know, as long as you added flour, Huculak put in, from the fire-pit’s far side. Just a flatbread, though. Bone-meal won’t bond with yeast.
Thank you, Martha Stewart.
Is that what Begg’s grandmother just said, over the phone? That the skeletons look like Baykok—Baykoks? That Huculak’s right, and also wrong? That Begg—
Oh, but Aretha’s head is burning now, bright and hot, like the Windigo’s legendary feet of fire. So hot the raindrops should sizzle on her skin, except they don’t; they just keep on falling, soft-sharp, solid points of cold pocking down through the sodden, pine-scented air. And the pit gaping open for her at her feet, a toothless, mud-filled mouth.
She drops to her knees, scrambles over the lip, slides down messily inside.
By the time Morgan comes by it’s . . . well, later. Aretha doesn’t know by how much, but the light’s just about completely gone, and she’s long since been reduced to scraping blindly away at the grave’s interior walls with her gloved fingers. She looks up to see Morgan blinking down at her through a flashlight beam, and smiles—or thinks she does; her face is far too rigid-numb at this point for it to be any sort of certainty.
“‘Lo, Morgan,” she calls up, not stopping. “How was dinner?”
“Uh, okay. What . . . What’re you doing down there, Ree? Exactly?”
“I have to dig.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Are you okay? You don’t look okay.”
“I feel okay, though. Mainly. I mean—” Aretha takes a second to shake her head, almost pausing; the pit-walls blur on either side of her, heave dangerously like they’re breathing. Then: “It doesn’t matter,” she concludes, mainly to herself, and goes back to her appointed task.
“Um, all right.” Morgan steps back, raising her voice incrementally with each new name: “Tat, Dr. Huculak, c’mon over here for a minute, will you . . . like, right now? Anne-Marie? Dr. Lewin!”
They cluster ’round the edge like flies on a wound, staring in as Aretha just keeps on keeping on, almost up to her wrists now in muck. “Aretha,” Dr. Lewin begins at last, “you do know we mapped out that area already, yes? Since a week ago.”
“I remember, Doctor.”
“You took the measurements, as I recall.”
“Okay, so stop, damnit,” Huculak orders. “You hear me? Look at what you’re doing, for Christ’s sake! Anne-Marie—”
Begg, however, simply shakes her head, hunkering down. “Shut up, Tat,” she says, without turning. To Aretha: “Howson, Ree . . . it’s Aretha, right?” Aretha nods. “Aretha, did you maybe hear me, before? Up there, on the sat-phone?”
“Yes, Dr. Begg.”
“Uh huh; shit. Look . . . the Baykok’s just a story, Ree. It’s folklore. You’re not gonna find a, what—separate bunch of human bones in there, is that what you’re thinking? Like a larder?”
Still scratching: “I’m not thinking that, no.”
“Then what are you thinking?”
Aretha wipes mud off on her cheek, gets some in her mouth, spits brown. “Sacrifice,” she answers, once her lips are clear again. “Like at Cahokia; slaves for the underworld, not food. But then again, who knows? Might’ve been both.”
“Uh huh. How long you been down there, Ree?”
“I don’t know. How long did they co-exist, Neanderthals and Homo habilis? ’Cause they did, right? I’m right about that. Lived long enough to share the same lands, even interbreed, enough so some people have Neanderthal DNA . . .”
“That’s the current theory,” Lewin agrees, sharing a quick, dark look with Begg. “The hell’s she saying?” Huculak demands of Lewin, at almost the same time. “Elyse, don’t you vet your damn volunteers? We need to get her out, back to the Rez at least, get her airlifted somewhere—”
“Just shut up, Tat,” Begg repeats, still not turning.
“Morgan, you’re her friend—on my count, okay? One . . . two . . .”
But that, precisely, is when the wall of the grave-pit finally gives way. Releases a sudden avalanche of half-liquid earth that sweeps Aretha back, pins her under, crowns and crushes her alike on a swift, dark flood of roots and stones and bones, bones, bones.
Here they are, I was right, she barely has time to think, reeling, delirious, her arms full of trophies, struggling to raise them high. See? See? I was right, they’re here, we’re
But who’s that, back a little further beyond her team’s shocked rim-ring, peering down on her as well? That tall, thin figure with its cocked head, its burning, side-set eyes? Its featureless face carved from jet-black stone?
She hears its scream in her mind, thin but distinct, a far-flung cry. The wail of every shattered skull-piece laid back together and set ringing, tuned to some distant tone: shell-bell, blood-hiss. Words made flesh, at long last.
(as we always have been)
(as we always will)
Aretha comes back to herself slowly, lying on a cot in the main tent, pain-paralyzed: hurt all over, inside and out. The out is mainly bruises, scrapes, a general wrenched ache, but the inside—that’s something different. Like the world’s worst yeast infection, a spike through her bladder, pithing her up the middle and watching her writhe; her whole system clenched at once against her own core, a furled agony-seed, forever threatening to bloom.
She’d whimper, even weep, but she can barely bear to breathe. Which at least makes it easy—easier—to keep quiet while the others talk around her, above her, about her.
“Baykok, huh?” Dr. Huculak’s saying, while Dr. Begg makes a weird snorting noise. “Looks more like a damn prehistoric serial killer’s dump-site, to me. And how’d she know where to dig, anyhow?”
Morgan: “She said she had a dream. Whispered it, when I was taking her vitals.”
Dr. Lewin sounds worried; Aretha wishes she thought it was for the right reasons. “Yes, as to that. How bad’s her damage?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Huculak mutters, as Morgan draws a breath, then replies: “Well . . . she’s fine, I guess, believe it or not. Physically, anyway.”
“What about the—”
Morgan’s voice gets harder. “Those scars are old, not fresh. Surgical. And none of our business.”
Lewin sighs. “If they mean what I think they mean, I’m not happy with . . . ‘her’ choice to misrepresent ‘herself,’ on the project application form.”
“Can we not use bullshit scare-quotes, please?” Morgan asks. “I mean—check the University rules and regs, Doc. Pronouns are up to the individual these days.”
“Is biology? Aretha is—is female, just because ‘she’ says ‘she’ is?”
“Uh, yeah, Dr. L, that’s exactly what that means. Just like a multiracial person’s black if they say they are, or anybody’s a Christian if they say so, even if they don’t go to church.” The fierceness in Morgan’s voice puts a lump in Aretha’s throat. She cracks her eyes open, tries to find words to thank her with, but her lips won’t work; all that comes out is a dry clicking, some insect clearing its throat from inside her mouth.
But Huculak’s already moved into the pause anyhow, adding: “Like those things in the pit’d be human, if they could say so.”
At this, Begg turns, confronting her. “Excuse me, things? We’re back there again? What the fuck happened to parallel evolution?”
“Oh, I don’t know—tell me again how your elders think of them as ancestors, Anne-Marie. Tell me they don’t call them monsters.”
“Sure, okay: this is Baykok country, like I said that first week, which is why somebody non-tribal—some hiker from Toronto—literally had to stumble over the capstone for us to even know it was here, and why we had to cut our way in after. But all that proves is that superstition’s a powerful thing. My Gammé’s in her eighties, and frankly, when it comes to archaeology, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Huculak scoffs. “Yeah, and Schliemann never found eight different versions of Troy by looking where Homer said to, either.”
“Oh, so what—folktales are fact disguised, is that the song we’re singing? Schliemann using The Iliad as a guidebook was the exception, not the rule; he got lucky, and what he found was not what he’d been looking for, either. Which is exactly what’s happened here, all over.”
“A pile of bones that don’t look human, with a much larger pile of bones attached that do,” says Huculak, voice heavy with sarcasm. “Yeah, sure, no big mystery there.”
“Well, in point of fact, no. You heard Aretha: retainer sacrifice, like in a hundred other places, and do you really think we need monsters for that?” For once, Begg sounds more exhausted than angry. “It’s classic Painted Bird syndrome, Tat. Whatever makes a person different enough from the herd to be rendered . . . pariah, alien, monstrous: this little family with their wide-spaced eyes and their snake-spines, or my Gammé when she came back from Residential School, hair cut and wearing white kid clothes, barely able to speak her own language anymore. Or Aretha here, for that matter, once Elyse got a look at her chest . . .”
Lewin lifts her hands. “Don’t bring me into this, please.”
“But you’re already in it. We all are.” Now it’s Huculak’s turn to sound uncharacteristic, all her usual snark gone. With some difficulty, Aretha turns her head, sees the woman bent down over something long, greyish-brown and filthy: one of the freshly-dug bones, plucked from a teetery, cross-stacked pyramid of such, off the gurney she stands next to. “I mean, I’d need to do a full lab workup to verify, but some of these remains—they still have flesh on them, under the muck. Like, non-mummified flesh.”
Dr. Lewin, blinking: “You mean they’re—”
“But they were buried. How—?”
“You tell me. Anne-Marie?”
Begg opens and closes her mouth. “Well,” she starts, “that’s obviously—um. Okay. I mean, that’s . . .” She deflates, slumping. “I don’t know what that is,” she says at last, near-inaudibly.
You’d think Huculak would be proud to have thrown her chief rival off so thoroughly, but no; she looks equally taken aback, almost scared. Lewin just stands there, studying the tent’s tarp floor, like she’s misplaced something; above, rain drums the roof, incessant, a dull cold tide. Morgan’s gaze flicks from one to the next as the silence stretches ever more thin, disbelieving, ’til it finally falls on Aretha, and her eyes widen. “Shit—Ree! You’re awake!” She hurries over to the cot and kneels down, stroking Aretha’s forehead. “How you feeling, babe?”
Babe. In Morgan’s mouth, the word sounds good enough to make Aretha cry, or want to.
“Hurts,” she husks instead through chapped lips. “All through my groin, lower abdomen . . .” She tries to move and hisses, agony spiking her joints. “Elbows and knees, ankles, too.”
Morgan puts the inside of one wrist to Aretha’s forehead then takes her pulse; Aretha’s creeped out by how pale her own wrist looks when hefted slackly in the tent’s lantern-light, its veins slightly distended and purpled. “Fever feels like it’s gone down, at least,” Morgan tells her, attempting an unconvincing smile. “But since that’s as far as my Girl Guide first aid training goes, all I can tell you beyond that is you need a hospital, like now. Dr. Begg, is the sat-phone working again?”
“Um, no, not yet.”
“Fine. You know what? It’s half an hour back to the access road; give me that damn thing and I’ll get it to where it can get a signal out, then call an airlift to get her down to Thunder Bay.”
Lewin puts a hand to her mouth, Victorian as all hell. “Oh dear, not at night, in this rain! What if you get lost, slip and fall, or—?”
“Ma’am, I’ll be fine, my boots are hiking-rated. Seriously.”
“No, Morgan, trust me, bad bad idea,” Huculak says, Begg nodding agreement. “Wait for daybreak, for the weather to clear, that’ll free up the signal link—”
Both stop as Morgan, already bent to lace her boots tighter, slashes one hand across the air.
“I have a compass and a map,” she tells them, not looking up, “a flashlight, a knife, and I’m not gonna melt. Plus, it’s safer on foot than trying to drive when it’s like this. Anybody wants to go instead of me, I’m amenable, but you better speak now or forever hold your peace: Ree’s my friend, and I’m not putting her through one second more of this than we have to.”
Straightening, she glares ’round, hands on hips, but no one objects. So she stuffs the blocky sat-phone away and ducks down with a shrug instead, planting a swift kiss on Aretha’s forehead—too light to fully track, here and then gone, almost hallucinatory. Like a promise.
“See you soon,” she murmurs, swinging her knapsack onto her back.
No, that same voice hisses, from inside Aretha’s mind. I—
• • • •
Aretha doesn’t remember falling asleep. When she wakes, the pain has diminished astonishingly; not gone, still twinging through her hips and knees when she swings herself into a tentative sitting position, but so much less, it’s near-euphoric. She feels light-headed, insubstantial; even the forest’s damp pine-reek doesn’t burn the way it used to. For a few moments, she simply enjoys breathing with something like her normal ease.
Then she sees the light, or lack thereof. The similar lack of company. No sat-phone on the table, just dirt and bones. No Morgan.
Wrapping the sleeping bag around her like a puffy cloak, she stumbles out into open air, for once blessedly free of rain; no visible sky between the trees, but there’s less sinus-drag, cueing a possible shift in air pressure. Lewin, Begg, and Huculak are huddled around a Coleman stove maybe ten feet away, clustered gnats and moths flying up like sparks; Lewin turns as Aretha nears, almost smiling as she recognizes her, which is . . . odd but welcome. Things must be bad.
“Aretha!” she calls out, voice only a little strained on the up-note. “You look—better. Than you did.”
Aretha clears her throat, even as the other two shoot Lewin looks whose subtext both clearly read are you fucking kidding me? “. . . thanks,” she manages finally. Then: “Morgan?”
Lewin sighs. “No, dear. Not yet.”
“Two hours, maybe three,” Huculak replies. “Anne-Marie went out looking, but—”
“I didn’t find her,” Begg says, a bit too quickly, too flat. “Not her.”
Aretha nods, swallows again. No spit.
“What did you find?” she asks.
Tracks, that’s the answer; about five minutes’ walk from the camp. They’re narrow but deep, as if carved, each a slipper full of dark liquid, welling up from underground. The soil is saturated here, Aretha can only suppose, after a solid four and a half weeks of precipitation—but there’s something about the marks, both familiar and un-. They look . . . wrong, somehow. Turned upside-down.
“They’re backwards,” she observes, at last. Bends closer, just a bit, and wavers, not trusting herself to be able to crouch; the water throws back light, Huculak’s beam crossing Lewin’s as Begg hovers next to them, holding back, waiting to see if Aretha can eventually identify that particular winey shade without prompting.
“Not water,” Aretha says, throat clicking drier yet, and Begg shakes her head. “No,” she confirms, and Aretha dips further, sniffing hard. Smells rust, and rot, and meat.
Lewin recoils, almost tripping, but Huculak stands her ground, demanding: “And you didn’t think to tell us? The fuck, Anne-Marie!”
Begg stays where she is, rooted fast, as though every ounce of protest in her has long since drained out through her heels. Doesn’t even bother shrugging.
“Not much point,” she says, simply. “You’d’ve found out eventually, too, once either of you thought to ask. But Aretha here’s been a whole lot better at that than most of us throughout, hasn’t she? Which is sort of interesting, in context.”
“Things my Gammé told me over the years, that’s all, about this area. Stuff I discounted automatically, pretty much, because—well, you know why, Tat: because science. Empirical data vs. subjective belief, all that. Because I’ve tried so fucking hard to never be that sort of Indian, if I can help it.” She pauses here, takes a ragged breath. “But what do you know, huh? Sometimes a monster isn’t a metaphor for prejudice at all, plus or minus power. Sometimes it’s just a monster.”
Huculak stares at her, like she’s grown another head. “What?” she asks, yet again.
“What I just said, Tat. We should probably get going, if we’re going to.”
“Going to—?” Lewin apparently can’t help prompting, carefully.
Begg sighs, windily, as though about to deflate. “Try, that’s what I mean,” she says, after a long moment’s pause. “To leave, I mean. Before they get here.”
“‘They,’” Lewin repeats. “They . . . who?”
Now it’s Begg’s turn to stare, even as Huculak—possibly just a tad swifter on the uptake, or simply paranoid enough to connect the dots without being asked—draws a sudden in-breath, a choked half-gasp; hugs herself haphazardly, grasping for comfort, but finding none. Lewin just stands there, visibly baffled: it doesn’t make sense to her, any of it, and can’t, really. Not in any scientific way.
“They were here first, that’s what Gammé always told me,” Dr. Begg—Anne-Marie—remarks softly, as if to herself. “Hunted us like animals when we came into their territory, because that’s what we must have seemed like to them, the same way they did, to us; things with some qualities of people, not people who just happen to look like things. So we fought back, because that’s what we do, but there were more of them, and they were—stronger, fought harder. Started out taking us for food, then for slaves, then for breeding stock. Changed so they could hide everywhere. Hide inside of us.”
“Neanderthals,” Aretha says. “And Homo habilis.”
Begg smiles, slightly. “The current theory,” she replies, echoing Lewin. Not looking ’round as she does, even to watch how Lewin—her cognitive refusal suddenly punctured, sharp and clean and quick—begins, at last, to buckle under her own words’ weight.
Behind them, the grave-site still gapes uncovered, rain-filled, ochre seeping. From above, Aretha muses, the unearthed cache of grave goods must look like a huge, slightly layered blood-blotch, all that remains of some unspeakably old crime. An apology made on literally bended knees, pot sweetened with a pile of tools and corpses, yet left forever unaccepted.
Huculak—Tat—clears her throat, knuckles still knit and paling on either elbow. Complains, voice weak: “But . . . we didn’t know.”
“You never said, though.”
“No, ’course not, because I didn’t want to think it was true. I mean, c’mon, Tat; seriously, now. Would you?”
“Well . . .”
Deep twilight, now, under the trees, overlaid with even deeper silence. Deep enough Aretha can finally start to hear it once more, rising the same way her pain does, threading itself through her system: the song of the bones, set shiver-thrumming in every last wet, cold part of her; that note, that tone, so thin and distinct, a faraway cry drawing ever nearer. Like blood through some fossilized shell.
And oh, oh: Anne-Marie was right, not to want to, she thinks, faintly, as she feels her knees start to give way—as she droops, drops, ends up on hands and knees in the mud, the blood-smelling earth. I’m not even Native, and I don’t like that story much, either. Not at all.
Not at all.
“Who’s that?” Aretha can hear Lewin—Elyse—call out, faintly, squinting past her, into the darkness. Adding, hopefully, as she does: “Morgan? I—is that you, dear?”
To which Anne-Marie just shakes her head, while Tat begins to sob. And Aretha, looking up—seeing those familiar features hanging flat against the thickening curtain of night, mouth slack-hung and eyes empty, set ever-so-slightly askew—doesn’t even have to wait to hear the bones’ answer to know the trick of it already, to her sorrow: that skeletal shadow poised behind, head cocked, holding Morgan’s skin up like an early Hallowe’en mask with the scent of fresh-eaten liver on its breath. That line of similar shadows fanned behind, making their stealthy, back-footed way towards them all, with claws outstretched.
Don’t worry, the bones’ song tells her from the inside out, as the Baykok sweep in. This darkness is yours as much as ours, after all: a legacy, passed down hand to hand, from our common ancestors. Where we are, and were, and have been. Where you are, now, and always.
The only place any of us have left to be.
Not so different, then, after all: cold comfort at best, and none at all at worst. Not that it really matters, either way.
Every grave is our own, that’s the very last thing Aretha Howson has time to think before the earth opens up beneath her. Before she falls headlong, wondering who will find her bones, and when—what tales they’ll tell, when dug free . . . what songs they’ll sing, when handled . . .
How long it’ll be, this time, before anyone stops to listen.
Spread the word!