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Wild Lifeby Molly Gloss
Alone in the deepwoods, night of the 6th
What is it, I wonder, that has haunted this whole enterprise?
I had expected to spend this night lying awake in my blankets, clutching a knife to my breast — on guard against another assault — but here I lie alone in the woods with only my coat for a covering and I am on guard against other sorts of monsters — there have been screeches nearby, which must be owls, I suppose, or lions. I've built up a fire and backed it with a rotten log, and the sticks are burning well. With Willard's big knife I've cut hemlock boughs for a bed in front of the long line of fire, and recline here now writing and munching upon dried apricots. My clothes have mostly dried upon me, and I suppose I'll spend the night not uncomfortably so long as the rain holds off, and be reunited with my party in the morning. But I am low in mood, weary from worrying and from overexertion. I believe I have heard guns signaling into the darkness, but impossible to tell from which direction.
This morning we took our search away from the lava tableland, bearing off steeply downhill through the brush and trees in slipping wet boots, in a pouring rain, until we had come down upon thickly wooded, flatter ground — not a great expanse of it, but several outspread fingers and tongues hedged in by the numberless ridges. Willard's idea was that a child wandering lost would stick to the low valleys, the flattish ground, and would not be found upon the steep slopes, which idea wore a certain logic; or we had been made receptive to it by virtue of our own exhaustion. Our tents were brought downhill and pitched along the footings of the lava ridge (lying more or less at the palm while we searched up the several fingers of the glove), and the sorry horses were freed of their enormous swaying burdens and left to munch the scant grass at camp while we two-footed fools set off with our rucksacks and ditties, holding such lunch as we had need of, and little else (which of course I now have reason to regret).
Being by this time old hands at the search, we scattered ourselves wordlessly through the trees. I kept as near to Gracie Spear as could be privately accomplished and beat about the brush without any hope of finding Harriet alive or dead. I confess I had in mind only getting through the day without breaking any bones, and speedily tomorrow returning to dry clothes and stove heat and my own house, my own dear children.
The rain went on until we were thoroughly wringing wet and our boots sloppy; until every depression in the ground, every bunker in the rocks, every hollow among tree roots was inches deep with muddy water and floating detritus. Then the sky lightened to Quaker gray, and steam began to rise from the ground — a startling illusion of vulcanism — and it was the end of rain for the time being. (Why do you suppose one feels the clamminess of clothes more miserably when the rain has stopped than while it is still falling?)
Then occurred an extraordinary adventure.
There is a certain science to the spying out of larger holes and caves in a lava field, certain signs and markers I had become alert to while in the field yesterday, and though we had left the lava behind us, such awareness had not deserted me; in the late morning, after the rain had quit, I was drawn to examine a particular hemlock growing oddly askew, which investigation found the tree tilted over a cavernous sinkhole. I am still agile, or as much as can be expected at middle age, and did not hesitate to shinny along the tree trunk to a point that allowed a short drop to a sloping rock ledge, which then allowed of a careful descent, tossing pebbles ahead as I groped into darkness by the insignificant flare of matches. Quickly it was clear: this was a reverberating, pitch-black passage of huge proportions.
My first thought was that we should be prevented from a thorough search of the cave, my Ever Ready batteries being exhausted and the materials for a pitchy torch not easily to hand in this country of sodden wood. But I nevertheless went after the next-nearest person, which of course was Gracie, and when I had explained the point — cave too large, lacking sufficient light — she made a little happy chirrup and said, "I got just the thing." With a self-satisfied flourish she brought from her lunch sack a kerosene oil lamp no more than five or six inches tall, which I recognized, with a glad thrill of commonality, as a bicycle headlamp. (It was a false trail. "Oh, I ain't never rode one of those things," she told me, her mannish face rosy and artless; she had only admired and coveted the lamp's miniature stature.)
So after all, we investigated. I went ahead of her, snaking out on the tree again and jumping down to the slanted ledge, after which she reached the lamp down to me and followed my example. I should guess her to be twenty-five, and of course very strong, but built too thick and low to the ground for nimbleness: she sat astride the tree trunk and leant forward to embrace it, then dragged herself along it by inches, which got her to the necessary place for jumping down. I held the lamp before us as we began a slow progress down the slippery stone chute.
This entrance proved to be a small lava sink littered with rock rubble, which after one hundred feet or so let into the sidewall of a very long, high-ceilinged throughway grooved with flow marks and a whole succession of shallow ledges. At other places in the lava field there had, of course, been open gullies and intermittent stone bridgework, which must be the skylighted leavings and minor versions of such caves; but this one was a considerable size — entirely intact. I am no spelunker but have read enough to know: they are formed by rivers of lava which, cooling, forms a thick top crust and simultaneously eats away the ground beneath its molten stream, so that when the eruption is finished and the lava drains away, what is left is a through tunnel. The small light cast by the bicycle lantern made a circle of dim illumination that allowed us to see the tube stretching away in both directions for an indeterminate length, and the ceiling twice higher than hand's reach. I have read of tunnels thousands of feet long: Ole Peterson's Mount St. Helens Lava Cave, which cannot be more than a dozen miles from here, is a modestly famous international destination for tourists and speleologists.
Inarguably, no human child would choose to shelter herself in such a place — the vast, echoing chamber seemed, even to me, a gateway to the underworld. But the cave air was somewhat warmer than the chilly daylight, and dry despite the hard rain overnight and this morning; I could imagine a wild creature — bear or wolf, if not orang-utan — happily choosing such a cave for winter quarters.
Gracie Spear, while saying nothing of apes nor the unlikelihood of a child hiding so deep underground, seemed loath to advance any farther within. For my part, I have seen more evidence of the savagery of men than of savage ape-men, which on the one hand frees me from fear of cave monsters. On the other hand, if no phantasmal beast had dragged Harriet to its den inside, what could be the point of looking for her there? I cannot, even now, divine the answer, but something of a wordless compulsion came over me. I said to Gracie, "We shouldn't let this cave go unexplored," and gave her a firm look.
I have always felt occultism to be the realm of fools and natural idiots; perhaps it wasn't any glimmer of intuition or clairvoyance that impelled me into the depths of the cave, perhaps it was my scientific bent and natural curiosity. (Lava tubes are nothing like the limestone caves in France, of course, but they have their own interest; and a large, dry stone room holds none of the terrors of the lava rimrock, its small tunnels and chasms doubtless home to crawling creatures of slime and tentacles.) What I should report is only that something — something — drew me in. And in the event, though we didn't find Harriet hiding in the black cave, and no giant orang-utans leaped upon us from the darkness, we were certainly led to a discovery.
The left-hand of the tunnel was blocked after some two hundred feet by the rocks and rubble of its broken-down walls and ceiling. The right-hand, though, went on for as much as a thousand feet, with a sandy floor of volcanic ash and pumice, and dark walls glazed and shiny as glass from the excessive heat of the lava. The walls narrowed gradually, and the ceiling lowered until we were made to crouch, but then opened suddenly to a roundish vaulted room like the cupola of a house — it was the furthermost reach of the tunnel, sealed by the breakdown rubble of the ceiling — and when we rose erect inside this space and lifted the lamp, I was seized with wonder.
There were husks of empty nuts and fir cones on the floor, and a frightening smell which I took to be feral, but the furnishings of long-absent tenants, scattered in disarray, were specifically human artifacts: chipped and flaked bits of stoneware; fragments of carven or heat-shaped wood; a broken strand of twisted leather strung with shells or bone; the unknit remains of what had once been woven strips of cedar bark; moldering feathers fallen into pieces, which one could imagine had been joined into a sort of cape or blanket, though many were now incorporated into a wild animal's artfully arranged nest on a high ledge at the rear of the room.
Gracie, perhaps seeing only that we had reached a blind alley, snuffled through her broad nose and said, "Shee-it, what a stink."
I rate highly any woman who will freely swear and say the word "stink," but on this occasion I would rather have had a woman with an appreciation for ancient relics and mysterious rooms hidden in the deeps of forbidding caves. I held up for her a piece of flaked obsidian which she might reasonably have been expected to recognize as a spearhead, and in the other hand a bit of bone carved into something like a button. "Someone lived in this cave, Gracie — aboriginal peoples. These things are of great age, and valuable to Science."
She retreated a step and arranged her face in a disapproving frown. "They don't look old to me, only wore out; we better not go poking around in here."
I chided her for the foolishness of her reluctance — "Believe me, no one is returning to cook their supper in this room" — but when this did nothing to persuade her, I took another tack. "We have a duty to gather these artifacts and get them into the hands of Anthropology," I said. She took a dim view of this idea as well, and went on standing over me with her reproving look while I took out my knapsack and began to collect into it the partly intact pieces of implements and tools, stone spearheads and arrowheads, and twisted cords tied to bits of carved ornamentation. There were astonishing finds — a well-formed cylindrical stone pipe! — an intact, finely made awl! — and I should still be sailing on the excitement of these discoveries except for the last one, which somewhat capsized me. At the very rear of the room, in the darkness where the stone shelved away in a series of ledges, behind that neat feather bed some animal or other had made, I lifted a fragment of matting or basketry and found lying beneath it a human skeleton.
For one irrational moment I believed it was Harriet, and my heart lurched. But of course, the bones were ancient, and identified by their Indian accoutrements. "Oh, lordy, what's that you've got there?" Gracie said, and brought the lantern. It was the bones of a small person or an older child, short of leg, with the wizened rabbit-fur moccasins still on its feet; and amid the little pyramid which was the piled-up bones of both hands, a fetish of sticks and feathers which had evidently been clasped to its breast.
I am sometimes forced to admit that my childhood inclination toward romanticism remains stronger in me than my adult study of the sciences; and this was one of those occasions. As we two women stood and looked on those bones in silence, I believed I could feel a very old sorrow creep into the room. The arrangement of the body, lying undisturbed on the basalt bench, had a touching posture of peace, and I was struck by the realization that this rock room was no longer someone's dwelling place but had become someone's tomb; I'm afraid my enthusiasm for collecting the ethnological scraps and fragments of a person's life began, in those moments, to desert me.
"I never have heard of the Klickitats, the Cowlitz, and them burying their dead people in caves," Gracie said in a low, somewhat affronted tone. (It's the Western way to pretend a serious acquaintance with local Indian custom.)
"No, I never have heard of it," I said, being Western myself, and also on the firmer ground of scholarly knowledge.
This opened the door to several speculations — the sort of thing at which I am particularly adept. I told Gracie: These could very well be the bones of a suitor who had been traveling with his entire dowry to the village of his betrothed — he had sought shelter from an ancient volcanic eruption — had composed himself to die alone from horrid wounds received in the showers of flaming rock. Or the only survivor of an ancient tribe decimated by disease — her desperate parents had sequestered her in the deep cave, safe from wolves and weather and their own horrid plague — had furnished her with every tool necessary for her survival — she'd lived alone for months or years until at last succumbing to loneliness. Or a feral boy raised by bears — he'd later been killed by an arrow from his own human tribe, but his mother, recognizing her long-lost son, had tenderly returned his body to the bear den for interment, along with certain items for his use on the spirit-journey.
Gracie received these possibilities eagerly and supported them, one after the other, with an embroidery of her own details — a desirable tendency in a companion. When we had thoroughly satisfied ourselves that the anomalous cave burial was capable of explanation, we considered what we should do with our discovery — a brief and agreeable discussion which led to our leaving the bones exactly as we had found them, except that I placed on the stone ledge beside the body a respectful array of the artifacts I had gathered into my sack.
I suppose I should consider this a loss to Science, and a foolish surrender to sentimentality. Had I been with Pierce, or Willard, or especially Norris, the photographist, I don't doubt I would have behaved differently. But we were two women — they are disgracefully sentimental creatures, after all — and Gracie, having her own particular devotion to privacy and the natural rights of ownership (even as regards the dead), may have been an undue influence. I find it difficult, now that I'm removed from the moment, to explain or defend my performance. At the time, not only did I feel in a particularly weakened emotional state due to recent events, but I felt myself inhabited by a strange and intimate awareness of the ancient past as it related to the present — something of a spiritual nature — something which does not readily yield itself to words. If related to my gender, I shall hope it was not womanish sentimentality but intuitive reason, which Science allows is a woman's natural and creditable inheritance. And I should say, as well, that my mind had made a kind of premonitory leap from the bones in the cave to what must be Harriet's dire fate; I blame this on an inclination toward literary metaphor.
When we came out of the lava tube into the daylight — no resumption of rain, as yet, but a cold overcast and an ill wind — we resumed our search without remarking on the futility of it, simply tramping on through the deepwood, zigzagging around the ruins of logs and poking into thickets of hawthorn and thimbleberry.
Shortly we sat to eat our lunch in a lightly forested glen where some others of our party were already stopped. Earl Norris fussed and fiddled with his camera and tripod from the vantage of a mossy rockfall, while Almon Pierce and E. B. Johnson and an old ox logger by the name of Edward Stanley huddled in gloom around a smoky bonfire which had not even the advantage of rain cover from overhanging evergreen boughs; they chewed dry crusts of bread and hard jerked meat while submitting to their photograph.
It occurred to me that Gracie and I had made no decision as to whether we would share our news — our discovery of the lava-tube cave and its furnishings — with the men. I suppose if Gracie had blurted out the story, I'd have readily joined in; but she did not. I held off, myself, from an indefinable reservation, and perhaps also from grudgingness — not wishing to share our sentimental, private knowledge with the villain in our midst. In any case, due to the general mood of the day, hardly a one of them gave us the benefit of a greeting.
Gracie and I carried our lunches off somewhat from the others and ate together in silence. Our association was transformed, of course, to one of friendship — we were easy in each other's company — but the truth is, I was not in a conversational frame of mind, and our differences are profound. While we sat together eating our crackers and cheese and washing all down with the liquor from Gracie's tin of peaches, we exchanged only a few private words on the subject of the local distilled spirits (the Amboy prune brandy, which by now I thoroughly lamented not buying) and, of course, the weather, which is always a safe topic. I was briefly troubled by a wish to confide in her the specific events of the night before, but I suppose such things are best dealt with sub rosa; and in any case, no occasion for intimacy arose from our discussion of fruit wines and rain.
We did discover a common habit: Gracie, having finished off her lunch, brought forth a twisted black pigtail from her shirt pocket, carved a thumbnail-sized plug, and deliberately seated it in her cheek; which encouraged me to do the same. While half reclined against our respective blowdowns, we each gazed upon the other's vile and un-ladylike tobaccoism with solemn, if unvoiced, admiration. (And inasmuch as spitting women are evidently newsworthy, we were hurriedly made the object of Norris's yellow-journal picture taking.)
In the afternoon, having suffered through a resumption of showery weather and a rising westerly wind, I became much in the mood to quit the search, but slogged on — I admit — for the sole reason that the others were seemingly unremitting, and I would not be the one to suggest our discreditable surrender. My affrighted need to keep Gracie in my sight gradually subsided (I blame increasing lethargy), and though I glimpsed one or another of my party or heard them hallooing to Harriet in a hoarse monotone through the long afternoon, I often labored alone and in silence. I peered into the dank shade along the corpses of old trees and climbed onto the thrones of their rotted stumps; from time to time I poked a stick into a thicket of wild raspberries. But I'm afraid I became more and more perfunctory, doing as little as could be managed without seeming to have given up the search entirely.
I am not as a rule a startlish person, but may have been brought to timidity and trepidation by recent events; I cannot, otherwise, explain what occurred — two events within minutes of each other, and in large part to blame for my present situation. In the mid-afternoon, after I had not seen or heard others of my party for a good interval, Almon Pierce arose suddenly from the brush behind me, which provoked me to a wild-Indian yelp and my constitutional defense against surprise, which is a malicious glare. This astounded and mortified the boy more than might have been expected — his face flashed crimson, and he was gone — had turned and fled into the wet shrubbery before I had quite recovered my poise. I confess, I stood for some little while afterward in frozen apprehension — knew instinctively and utterly that Almon Pierce had been my midnight assailant and that I had just saved myself from a further assault. I cannot account for this now except to plead the overwrought mind of a beleaguered and exhausted woman.
Which must also be blamed for what followed. Having recovered myself (so it seemed), I went on through the trees some few hundred yards, examining the root flares of thousand-year-old cedar trees, and simply became aware, with absolute and sudden certainty — the heaving over of my heart in my breast — that evil eyes were upon me; became sure of the presence of someone else glimpsed only as a shadow, a heaviness, a shape behind the trees, which vanished as I turned my head. I am half ashamed to admit I took out Special Agent Willard's deer-foot-handled knife and brandished it in the air, while fiercely calling out, "Halloo, damn you, who is there?" to which I received in reply the faint resounding of my own rabbity tremolo. Here is the truth, which can only be told in the privacy of these pages: I quite lost courage, believing someone was there — Almon Pierce again, or a beast, and in either case breathing death; and I plunged off through the deepwoods like a deer.
It is humiliating to realize one's base fear lies so near to the surface.
When I had got over my blind flight (not long) and got hold of my senses, I surrendered to a weaker impulse and made off directly for camp, with every hope of finding at least one or two of the others waiting (shameful if I should be the first to call it quits), and the comfort of hot soup, as well as a tent to get in out of the rain. It was at that time just past two o'clock.
In the neighborhood of four o'clock, having struck no sign of camp nor indeed of the lava ridge, and no glimpse of Gracie nor any of the men, I began to fall prey to a certain anxiety and restlessness. I had been holding the terrain lightly in my mind, which is a coherent enough map, and I am usually unerring in the matter of orientation; but we had been keeping to the flattish troughs, and the whole of our traverse was gradually uphill, which I suppose had led me into a kind of complacency regarding which way was "back" — that is to say, downhill. I may also have gotten turned around somewhat, while bolting from shadows. Further, this is a jumbled country, no less so than the lava tableland — a muddle of ravines and gullies and ridges which give upon one another in a confusing way. In any case, subsequent hours were spent casting back and forth deliberately along the low ground until I became aware that, in the darkening shadows, injury was ever more likely.
I am not worried in the slightest — have certainly spent many nights alone in the woods and have sufficient flesh on my bones to stand the loss of one meal (or two, I suppose, in case I do not find my fellows in time for breakfast; but I have hardtack and cheese in my pockets). And here is an adventure, after all, and a story to embellish for the boys when I have regained them as an audience.
On the Columbia River I have found evidence of the former existence of inhabitants much superior to the Indians at present there, and of which no tradition remains. Among many stone carvings which I saw there were a number of heads which so strongly resembled those of apes that the likeness at once suggests itself. Whence came these sculptures, and by whom were they made?
— James Terry,
Copyright © 2000 by Molly Gloss
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