A Short Story
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 they discovered the fountain, water seeped through barely visible cracks in the scalloped green and gray stones, pooling at the base of the wall. Throughout the year, the water remained ordinary to the skin of the people and slaked their thirst. But once a year, it did something more. On that day, the magic water revived the totems that kept the people young.
He saw the people bringing the youth there to wash and restore them at the annual cleansing. But what once had been an abundant fountain had become only a trickle. Less rain fell each year. A day would come, soon perhaps, when the people would have no water for their youth. The people would grow old and hard then, as they once had–like clay dried in a kiln.
How can I share this vision 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.
The raven opened its eyes then, as the vision ended. The shaman looked upon the oracle, resplendent and serene. She wore the ancient robes, desert hues of brown and gold with brilliant red trim at the cuffs, collar and them.
The raven spoke the shaman’s words, “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 have had 300 years without aging. The water of youth will slow from this day forward. You will have twenty more years before the water is entirely gone. 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?”
“When the time comes that the 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, using the wisdom you have gained, when you are called upon to speak.”
The oracle departed and the raven resumed its own journey. The shaman 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. As he put one foot after another, a reservoir of courage welled up from within. With courage came hope. He straightened up, eyes looking at the bright sky. 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.
Jason Douglas had heard the rumors of a hidden canyon discovered by satellite images. Blocked by a rock slide centuries ago, it had never been seen, much less disturbed by souvenir seekers, archaeologists or anthropologists. Now part of a Native American reservation in the Southwest, pillagers could no longer get there. Few reservation dwellers were aware of the canyon located far from any tribal settlements. For those who had seen the exterior collection of boulders, it appeared as just another remnant of the geologic past with no religious or practical use.
But Douglas suspected it had what he sought. Stories were handed down for centuries by descendants of those who had lived in the vicinity. When a great drought came at the end of the 13th century, their 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. The stories told of people who lived long lives. Tales of a fountain that kept them forever young. Most of the modern people dismissed the stories as myths. He didn’t. He planned to find out. But first he needed permission from reservation leaders. He made a call to get the process started and packed his bags.
Douglas arrived midday for his meeting with a reservation official. He passed through an open door into a modern office looking as much like an insurance or real estate agent’s office as something he’d expect on a reservation.
“Can I help you,” said a man seated behind a desk that might have been made from alligator juniper.
“Hi, I’m Jason Douglas. I spoke on the phone to a David Whitefeather, from the tribal council, about an exploration request.”
“That’s me,” said Whitefeather, shaking Douglas’ extended hand. “Please have a seat.”
“Thank you. I hope you have had an opportunity to review 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’re fake; no one ever does.
“Yes, I did look at the papers you sent, Mr. Douglas. Your education and accomplishments suggest you are responsible, but we must be careful in fulfilling our sacred duties. Although of different times and different tribes, we Native Americans 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.”
“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 than several.” Whitefeather nodded. “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.” Whitefeather shrugged, his lips curling upward nearly imperceptibly.
“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 on the way out, which Whitefeather squeezed hard enough to hurt just a little.
Fooling him with the fake credentials was one thing, but I can’t possibly pass off a fake bond as real. This is going to get expensive. Ah well—the cost of doing business. He laughed.
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. But the pickings were getting slimmer each year. While Douglas located the box canyon via satellite imagery, that same imagery is used by government and tribal officials to find sites in need of review and protection. Cooperation among tribal police, state and federal authorities worked well enough to limit his business more each year.
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. I’ll never have a shortage of women if I make this score. No need for drugs to keep it up either, if I’m using the water myself.
1208 CE Despite the shaman’s entreaties to the spirits, the rains slowed. Crops were suffering. With only a trickle of water coming from the fountain, the people knew they could begin starving soon. Yet no one wanted to leave. 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 nearly a century. 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.
The chief took the shaman aside one day, asking, “Shaman, what do the spirits say? Can the people have children again if we leave?”
“I don’t know about children, but I’ve had no further visions changing what I saw long ago. I saw the people here, getting old.”
“So we should stay and 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. Scouts who climbed the canyon walls say even desert plants are growing brown for miles in all directions. So I have decided. 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.”
2015 CE Douglas traveled far from the reservation to get his bond, only to find that the agency wanted 100% cash for the full face amount of the bond, plus a 10% fee.
“You want $5,500 for a $5,000 bond? You’re kidding!”
“Look Douglas, we know your credentials are fake. You want the bond or not?”
“Ok, Ok. I’ll be back shortly, I need to get some cash wired here.” $5,500, damn! Douglas had the money wired from his Cayman account 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. No matter. If this fountain pays off like I think it will, I’ll be lighting cigars with $100 bills.
“Here’s the money,” Douglas said to the man at the bonding company.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Douglas. On the off chance you make it back here without the tribal police locking you up, we’ll give you back all but $500,” the man laughed as he handed him the bond.
“Guess I’m not the only chiseler around here,” Douglas scowled and turned to leave, as the agent’s laugh followed him out the door. From there he went to his motel. It’s enough for one day. I’ll go back to the reservation tomorrow.
1216 CE 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 for 300 years. With only a handful of the people left, the chief ordered the narrow passage into the canyon closed. Though weakened, they levered first one boulder, then another 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 the others were gone. When his time came, he took the jimson weed and crawled into a niche high atop the canyon mouth to await 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.
2015 CE 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 roadless 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 hot. 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 rockslide obstructing his vehicle. A demolition expert might have been wise, but I can handle this; I’ve blown stuff up before. Drill here, insert a stick of dynamite and a wire. Drill there, add 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. 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 give the time to enjoy those riches. I just have to find it.
He passed fallow fields and empty pens where the tribe once held animals. Then 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 that might once have been adobe were now covered with something 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, which was 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 around the door. Here there were shelves inset on the rear wall, with a stone pedestal—an altar, perhaps. On the shelves 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—no, someone. Not just in the room with him, but much closer. He saw himself as if looking in a mirror, but in a room without one. No, not a mirror—but through the eyes of another. 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 created, to enrich himself. He will defile the remains of our people—the people I have sworn to protect. I will do my duty.
“What the hell! What was that? Douglas said out loud, shaking his head to break the vision’s grip. I need some water. Been out in the sun too long. Need to sit down.
He cleared the candle holders and incense burner from the altar with 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’d climbed 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. Although not a demolition expert, some part of him knew this would set off way too big of an explosion. He found that he couldn’t stop himself. An unheard voice insisted he wire it all up. He obeyed. Dark clouds were rolling in 30 miles away, so he had to finish before the rain came.
After finishing, he headed back to the truck to connect the wires to the detonator. All set. Ready to blast me a road! Again, something or someone told him he should check the wires on the charges one last time. Got to make sure it all blows. He was on his way back to the canyon wall 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 his hand around a hard shaft. The perfect size. I’m not done for yet. Soon, more brittle bones tumbled around him and a powerful voice echoed through his head.
No, you are not done for yet, said the long-dead shaman. But you will be, in another ten days without water. I will keep you company, here in the dark. We will become closer and closer as your bones dry and mingle with mine.
Jason Douglas screamed—again and again until he had no voice.
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.