Death Stories: More Mummies of No Man's Land



In 1950, a certain traveler found himself near the extremity of Oklahoma. As he drove west, the rolling short-grass prairie gave way to a sea of sunflower, which in turn yielded to a terrain of buffalo grass dotted with scrub pine and red cedar.  From this landscape rose grotesquely beautiful rock formations.  Around dusk the road began to skirt the rocks in broad sweeping curves.  A gigantic human face loomed in the gathering dark.  It was only sandstone, but its appearance unnerved the traveler.  Further on, his headlights gave apparent motion to four pillars of eroded stone.  They seemed like huge women walking in a solemn procession.

Rounding a curve, the traveler suddenly found himself in a little town posted as Kenton.  It was an orphan town, remote from everything, literally within a stone’s throw of New Mexico and Colorado.  When he stopped to ask about lodging, the traveler found he’d gained an hour.  The town claimed allegiance to a different time zone than the rest of the state.

The only hotel was a turn-of-the-century building that looked like something from a western movie.  A covered boardwalk ran in front of it, leading no further than the corners of the hotel itself.  Inside, things seemed more modern--sleek brass lamps, chairs covered in fake vinyl.  The burly desk clerk, a man named Tharp, was happy to chat with a road-weary traveler.  The main attraction of the area, Tharp said, was fossils.  He told about the time his own nephew, a fossil enthusiast, had been driving a road grader for the county.  The blade of his machine snagged on a bone six feet long, which turned out to be the femur of a brontosaurus.  That was the first of many dinosaur finds in Cimarron County.

But dinosaurs weren’t even in the running when it came to interesting fossils, Tharp continued.  A few miles south of Kenton was an ancient lake bed.  The flint weapons unearthed near it showed human habitation stretching back ten thousand years.  A prehistoric people hunted there, taking the bison that inhabited the region at the time, broad-shouldered hulks much larger than their modern descendants.  On the shore of the ancient lake, the people butchered their kills.  The place was still littered with scrapers and broken arrowheads.

The traveler remarked on the eerie rock formations.  The clerk said the odd geography was riddled with caves.  On the walls and ceilings of the caves, and even on the bare faces of the rocks, were the graffiti of several ages.  Traders who passed through on the Santa Fe Trail in the late 1800s wrote some of them.  The rest were pictographs, painted in red or pecked into the stone.  They showed humans, snakes, birds, deer, and quadrupedal animals that might have been dogs, all in crude strokes.  Some of the drawings formed patterned circles of uncertain meaning--scientists claimed they were sun, moon, and stars.  The pictographs had been on the stone walls hundreds or even thousands of years.

“Since you’re interested in this stuff, I’ll put you in the fossil room,” Tharp said, presenting the key.

Soon the traveler retired to “the fossil room.”  It seemed an ordinary hotel room except for a few dozen arrowheads and scrapers arranged on the writing table and some fragments of basketry tacked to the walls.  After he had settled in, he noticed an odd ornament hanging on the door.  It appeared to be a chunk of stone about the size of a watermelon, and it had been carved into the shape of a human fetus.  The traveler deduced that this homunculus must be some graven idol made by ancient Indians.  He went to bed.

In the morning, as he shaved at the sink, the mirror happened to frame the image of the homunculus behind him.  Certain details he hadn’t noticed before began to impress themselves on him.  For example, the thing’s hair was not carved from stone.  It seemed to be real hair.

He examined the thing closely.  It felt like rough stone.  The dark-red hair was real, though it might have come from a horse’s tail.  Then he looked into the face, and all doubt died.

The eyes squinted tightly.  The lips pulled back from the teeth in the snarl familiar to anyone who has ever stumbled on a dead and desiccated animal.  No one would, or could, carve such a face.

At the front desk he confronted Tharp with this information.  Tharp laughed.

“I guess I should have mentioned that to you,” he said.  “Most people think that’s kind of a neat deal, but some don’t care for it.”

“What is it?” the traveler said.

“It’s a mummy of a little boy.  About 2000 years old, they say.”  He told how the thing had been discovered in a nearby cave.  The traveler allowed that it was, in fact, pretty interesting. 

“Want to see his mother?” Tharp said.


*

In the attic, the traveler held a flashlight on Tharp’s thick arms and hands, which were digging into a steamer trunk.  A heavy quilt lay in the trunk, and beneath it another and another.  The clerk lifted them out one at a time, sliding his arms beneath them gently as if they were sick children.  The quilts seemed to occupy the entire depth of the trunk, but when the last was lifted out, the traveler shifted his flashlight, and the beam picked out a mass of gray and sepia.  The traveler brought the light to the grimacing face, then down to the torso.  Unlike the first mummy, this one was imperfect.  Great gouges marred the rib cage and one thigh.

“The rats got to her,” the clerk explained.  “Not here.  We run a clean establishment.  I mean sometime between when she died and when we found her.”

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