Death Stories: Fossils

Ah, Lightning! How many times the shoals of terrified dolphins and the huge tuna were seen to flee before your cruel fury, to escape; while your fulminations raised in the sea a sudden tempest with buffeting and submersion of ships in the great waves; and filling the uncovered shores with the terrified and desperate fishes which fled from you, and stranded, remained to become the abundant prey of the people in the neighbourhood. . . How many kings, how many nations have come undone since the wondrous forms of this fish perished here in this cavernous and winding recess. Now destroyed by time, it lies patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare, serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.
 -- Leonardo a Vinci

I made an appointment with a man who was said to know about the archaeology of the region. He had been there when the mummies came out of the caves some sixty years before. He had dug for some of them himself. It was said he had written on the subject, though he had never found a publisher. He was said to have a collection of artifacts.

Local people told me I should interview the man before it was too late. His only pleasures in life, they said, were ringing the church bell Sunday mornings and showing off his fossils. It was five in the evening when I reached his driveway, and the man’s wife rushed out the door to remonstrate with me for my tardiness, though in fact I was on time. She was a second wife, a seventy-year-old bride a generation younger than her husband.

She brought me inside, her talk all hurry and worry. She wore a cardigan and a long skirt that whipped in the wind until she wrestled the screen door shut. Barrettes ordered her gray hair. She brought me into the living room and hurried the old man in to meet me. His eyes were rimmed with a boiling pink, his skin spotted. He wore an oxygen tube, itself yellowed with age; his wife pushed the cylinder beside him on wheels as she urged him on. His shirt was buttoned off-kilter. The woman arranged us on a love seat so that I was on his right, next to his good ear. His memory was uncertain, but I gleaned a few of the details I wanted. Dusk came on as we talked; the single floor lamp lit only the far side of the man’s face, so that he faded out of my sight and became merely a silhouette and a smell of age.

The Crossing (from Gilgamesh)
In the Boatman's barge repose
living things of stone.
I seize the barge,
I fight the writhing things I find within,
I feel their venomous saliva on my hands
as they turn and turn within my grip,
as they try to strike. I bend them to my will.
I pin their wings behind their backs.
I kneel and trap a writhing heart
beneath my knee. The Boatman
surrenders to my will.
He takes me across wide waters;
we move the barge with shafts
I've cut from the ancient cedars,
the wood white within the bark
and red within the white.
The splinters scratch my hands.
We cross the waters
no one can cross.

“Show him your collection before he goes,” the woman said.

The man rose, supporting himself on a cane and my arm; his wife hovered with advice. They led me to an alcove, separated from their living room by a curtain.

“These are fossils he’s dug up over the years,” she said.

I cast my eye over the collection, which occupied a whatnot shelf and a dresser and a few adjacent bits of furniture. There were trilobites in shale; a geode sawn in half to show its crystals; a huge water beetle, obviously contemporary, pressed into tar. I had seen these tarred beetles sold as fossils at roadside stands; the seller could manufacture more when his inventory ran low.

“I found this one last week,” he said. I fingered the scrap of bone he handed me. It was, I thought, a beef-bone; my fingernail detected the scorings left by a sloppy butcher. “It was in our driveway,” he added. He rotated his entire body ten degrees to his left, a laborious movement that seemed to have no immediate purpose.

“What’s this one?” I asked.

“Which one?” he said.

“That’s an Indian’s foot,” the woman said, handing me the oblong stone. “He was going along, probably running away from a dinosaur, when he stepped in some lava. The dinosaur probably ate the rest of him, but his foot was preserved in the lava.”

“I got six of these,” he said. “Where are those other feet?” His eyes tried to scan the shelves, but only twitched ineffectually. The woman’s veined hands flittered over the shelves like moths and came to rest on another vague lump of stone.

“That must have happened pretty often, then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s why the good Lord killed off the dinosaurs before the white man got here. To make it safe for us.”

“Praise the Lord,” she said.

Mary Magdalena and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought aromatic spices to embalm the body of Jesus. Early in the morning the day after the Sabbath, they came to the sepulchre at sunrise. And they said among themselves, who shall roll away the stone that seals the sepulchre? For it was a heavy stone. But when they looked, they saw the stone already aside.

They entered the sepulchre and saw a young man sitting to the right. He wore a long white robe. They were afraid. He said to them, “Don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was killed on the cross. Look where they laid him out: He’s not there. He has risen.

“Now go and tell his disciples and Peter that he’s gone before you into Galilee. There you’ll see him, as he promised.”

They rushed out; they fled from the sepulchre, trembling and amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8


  1. I wasn't done reading. What happened? ;) Thanks for the beautiful writing Gordon. Nice to see you are so prolific still.

  2. Being chased by a time-traveling dinosaur and then stepping on lava... bad day for that poor Indian

  3. Hi Pam, good to hear from again, and thanks. How's your writing going these days?

    Nothing else happened, actually! I just left. But there were further discoveries about the Kenton Mummies--see that little box labeled "Death Stories" on the right.

  4. Croconut--yeah, those time traveling dinosaurs were a problem! I also encountered people who thought the Vikings had visited Oklahoma long before the Indians arrived. The one remaining Kenton Mummy, which I wrote about in an earlier installment, had red hair, and some folks seemed to believe/hope that meant he was European. The early published work on that mummy, which came out around the discovery of Clovis Man, had him belonging to the Basket-Weaver II culture, which is also pretty far-fetched. Just layers and layers of misinformation and misunderstanding around the archaeology and paleontology of that area.


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