Short Stories

MOUNTAINS HIGH

     Anna sat at the table, finishing her poem.  The meal she’d prepared had grown cold, a small slice of meat, a biscuit, some potatoes and herbal tea from her garden.  The fire in the stove went out several hours ago, and she donned a jacket and turned up the heater to keep warm.

     He was late tonight, much later than usual.  He’d been late almost every day for the past several months.

     “They just aren’t out there anymore,” he said when he entered the room.  “They’ve been hunted out, or they’ve migrated north to cooler weather.”  He locked his rifle in the case by the door and trod into the bedroom.

     Tonight was the second night he’d come home empty-handed.  Except for yesterday, he’d always managed to get at least one or two of the smaller animals, and that would be enough to feed them for several days.  But tonight’s dinner used the last of the meat, and the hot weather had burned out most of the vegetables in her garden.

     As she sat at the table, the lights flickered and went out.  The generator in the windmill behind the house turned its last electricity, and she lit a candle.  She expected it; the generator had been running almost continuously for thirty years, ever since they installed the solar panels on the roof and put up the windmill to cover electricity usage at night.  That took them off the grid, but now, with the weather becoming hotter and drier during the day and the temperature plunging to below zero at night, they had to use the heater more and more to supplement the wood stove, and the little generator just couldn’t keep up.  She relit the fire in the stove, but an hour would pass before the room was warm again.

     It’s time, she thought.  She began making plans for this moment several months ago, ever since he first came home with a smaller catch than usual.  She understood the meaning, the implication, and it weighed on her like a global warning.  Her time had come, and she put that in her poem.

     Then she rose and went into the bedroom.

     “I put your plate on the stove,” she told him.  “It should be warm in a few minutes.”

     He lay on the bed on his side, away from her as she stood in the doorway.  He’d draped his dusty brown coat over the bedpost, and his tattered boots sat in the corner.

     “Thank you,” he said, and nothing more.

     She pulled her jacket snugly about her and returned to the main room that served as living room and kitchen.  She opened the outside door and stepped onto the porch.  The frigid wind pattered  at her light coat, and she plunged her hands into the pockets.

     She stepped off the porch onto the path to the river.  The moon, just past full, gave her enough light to walk by, though she knew the trail by heart.  She’d spent most of her life in this little house, and she’d developed an easy familiarity with every square meter of earth in this corner of the forest.

     But the forest had changed in the past ten years.  Most of the trees died in the parching heat, the water table dropped so low they couldn’t extract enough water from the soil.  The faint scent of the juniper, always a favorite of hers, disappeared long ago.  The leaves of the trees—the aspen, the big-toothed maple—were no longer green in summer, nor did they turn brilliant red and gold in autumn.  They turned brown and withered, remaining on the trees, giving the forest a hollow, desiccated look.

    Late summer, with its cool nights and warm days that had given her so much time to roam among the trees of the forest—time to taste the pungent scent of the pine and savor the cold freshness of the streams—had always been her favorite.  But now, with the forest dying and the disappearance of small game in the area, they would have to move.  North, probably, to a lower elevation, and that would mean cold, dreary winters and humid summers, and the prospect of leaving her ancestral home frightened her.  She tried to put it out of her mind.

     As she reached the river, she stood above the small earthen dam they’d installed to replace the beaver dam that produced the little pond where they got their water.  But only a trickle remained of the rushing, foaming waters she knew from childhood, and the river and pond were almost completely dry.

     She crossed the dam and walked to the canyon beyond.  The few creatures of the forest still remaining—a cricket here, a scorpion there—hardly noticed as she passed.  Above, the stars twinkled a starry, velvet pattern in the clear air, the only image that remained consistent all her life.  She stopped at the rim of the canyon.

     This would be the way, she thought, the one way that would leave no mark, nothing to remember her by.

     In the distance lay the mountains, still magnificent and dignified, yet nude of the glacier ice and snow that once supplied the stream near her house.  Near the tree line on the mountains some evergreens still retained color, able to extract enough moisture from the decreasing snowfall each year.  But she remembered several years ago when she shed a real tear as she looked at the mountains on the first day of summer and found them barren of white for the first time.

     Her mind turned to the poem.  He’d see it on the table when he ate his dinner.  He would eat all of it, he was good at that.  Still, he’d lost weight over the past few months with so little in the cupboard anymore, and she worried about him.  But he’ll be all right, the poem will tell him all he needs to know.

     The last line of the poem flitted through her mind.

          Mountains high, canyons deep, now I lay me down to sleep.

     The time had come.

BONES

     “What is it?” Sam asked.

     I stared at the bottom of the trench the backhoe had dug and at the gray-brown rock it exposed.  “It appears to be something man-made,” I said.  Too regular to be natural.  Let’s look at it closer.”

     This early March day was overcast and dreary and a drizzling rain soaked my jacket as I zipped it to the top.  It wasn’t a particularly attractive day to be digging in the muddy ground, but with the Vernal Equinox only a few days away, Dr. Sam St. Clair was impatient to get started.  Ground-penetrating dual-wave interference radar suggested a rectangular structure filled with debris about two meters below the surface, though distinguishing it from all the other rocks in the ground was more an exercise in judgment than in outright discrimination.  Dr. Sam and his graduate students in early third millennium anthropology and archeology—that’s me, Guy Té, a second-year student, and Sally Lee in her first year—had gathered in these mountains in the eastern region of the continent to begin the excavation.

     I dropped a ladder into the two-meter deep hole and stepped down four rungs.  Sally guided Sam to the ladder and I helped him place his feet on the second rung.  He couldn’t see the rungs but he could feel them with his feet, knowing one was always below the other.  He made his way down the ladder and stepped onto the soft soil at the bottom of the hole and turned around.

     “Show me,” he said.

     “Here.”  I squatted and guided his hand to the stone.  He rand his thick nimble fingers along the course of stone, straight for about two meters.  He felt the outer surface of the rock and worked his fingertips into the indentations.

     “Yes,” he said after about five minutes.  “Man made.  See?  There’s an inscription.  It seems to be a date.  I’ve run across this before.  The Watauga people always dated their buildings.”

     I couldn’t see what he was describing; the darkness at the bottom of the hole and the mud that caked the inscription made it impossible to read anything.  But Sam didn’t need light, his experienced hands did what his eyes couldn’t—read in the dark.

     “What’s the date?” I asked.

     “It’s several hundred years ago.  Twenty-one hundred something—wait a minute—yes, here—”  He flipped some mud from the numbers and they became clear to him.  “Twenty-one thirty-four, two hundred fifty years ago.  This clearly was constructed after the warming.  I’m not surprised.   They had few construction materials other than stone and rock then.  I’ll bet there’ll be graves nearby.”

     I raised an eyebrow.  “Graves?  How far away?”

     “Could be as close as three to four meters.  Run some more scans out away from the building.”

     We retreated to ground level and ran several radar scans at right angles to the building.  About three meters from the west edge of the foundation we found a regular pattern of rectangular shapes stretching away from the building.  The backhoe operator began a trench, and about two meters down struck rock, an obviously man-smoothed rock.  I climbed into the hole and began to work out the mud that caked the stone.  As I cleaned off the surface I realized it was a simple flat headstone about twenty by thirty centimeters with a single name—Julia—scratched crudely into it.  It belonged to the same group of stones from which the foundation had been constructed.

     We dug out the stone, then continued down into the grave area.  There we found the skeleton of a small human, without a coffin.  “This region was heavily forested before their time,” Sam said, “but the forests were destroyed by the wildfires and infestations of the late warming years and into the famine wars.  They had almost no wood for buildings or for coffins.”

     Over the next two days, we removed the skeleton and re-assembled it on a table in Sam’s trailer parked near the stream at the bottom of the hill.  I had noticed the signs of dietary deficiency in the bones as soon as they were exposed, but to my inexperienced eye the skeleton seemed to be that of a child since it was only 1.2 meters long.  But with his expert hands Sam studied the entire structure, paying particular attention to the pelvis, and said no, it was a young woman, eighteen to twenty years old, her growth stunted by the poor nutrition in the famine years.  We also found a small metallic object, round like a ring, about two centimeters in diameter, near the body.  “Probably a binding ring from her bridal bouquet,” Sam said, fingering it carefully.  “There were plenty of wildflowers around.  If we dig nearby, we may find the husband.”

     “Are you saying she died shortly after being married?” Sally asked.

     “Most likely.”

     Sally paused.  “My gosh,” she said and turned away from the table.

#

     I first heard of Dr. Sam at the University of Pavonis, in the shadow of Pavonis Mons and not far from Noctis Labyrinthus, the far western end of the Valles Marineris.  I grew up on Mars just as the terraforming was beginning to take full effect, but my attention turned to the third planet as I began to read more and more about its long history.  Dr. Sam was the first to set up a program to study the disintegration of Terran society after the warming and the wars of famine and disintegration, and I asked him early in my college years if I could study these people.  He granted my wish and I joined him on the third planet in 2383.  Those who visited this planet usually decided to remain on the surface rather than make the exhausting trip back and forth, so Sam and his earliest colleagues erected safe buildings on an obscure island in one of the southern oceans, relatively free of the radiation that contaminated large areas of the continents.  By the time I arrived, though, radiation levels were low enough to work without the bulky safe suits.

     Sam didn’t have that advantage.  He lost his eyesight slowly.  He refused to wear the eye guards that would have protected him against the radiation that eventually seared his corneas and damaged his retinas beyond repair.  He wouldn’t have anything to do with eye transplants or electronic visual systems that might have returned his vision—they weren’t accurate enough for him.  He needed “true” eyesight, eyesight that only natural eyes could provide, and he preferred to rely on someone else to see for him because they discriminated so much better.  Sally and I now fulfilled that role.

#

     The next day the backhoe began elongating the trench and we uncovered several more head stones, each with a single name.  We found a roughly equal number of males and females, and over the next few weeks as they were removed, Sam examined every one.  Except for one he estimated had lived about thirty years, all were younger than twenty-five and several were infants.  “Infant mortality was high,” Sam said.  “But the adult women likely weren’t very fertile and few infants were born at all.”

     All the adults showed the characteristic signs of dietary deficiency, usually rickets.  In none of the males, however, did we find anything that could indicate the first female’s husband.  And none of the other females had had a bridal bouquet as we’d found with the first.

     One of the females, at the far end of the cemetery from the structure, had been buried less than a meter below the ground level that existed at that time, well above the others.  “It had no stone,” Sally asked.  “Just a body in the ground.  What could that indicate?”

     Sam pondered for a few seconds but turned evasive.  “I’m suspicious.  Let’s excavate more.”

     As the digging continued into May and June and excavation of the building foundation was enlarged, the final shape of the building became known.  Eight by ten meters, with a door in one side, it had a dirt floor.  Only the bottom one meter of each wall remained.  The walls had fallen inward, but the remaining rocks in the interior of the building couldn’t account for the missing walls.

     “Scavengers,” Sam said.  “Taken by others in later years.  After the building filled in with all the mud and dirt we’re digging out now, newcomers to this area removed many of the stones from the top of the pile.  They probably didn’t know they were taking them from a previous structure.  Probably thought the stones were natural.  Look around.”  He swept his arm in a broad circle around where we stood.  “See all the rocks?  That’s where the Watauga people got their stones.  That’s what drew me to this area in the first place.  I knew we’d find stone structures here.”

     Later in June the backhoe began removing the stones from the interior of the building.  One day, as the backhoe picked out one stone at a time, Sally called for Sam and me to come over to the northeast corner of the building.  Below the rocks, buried in the mud of the building floor, was another skeleton.  This one wasn’t intact; the bones had been shattered and scattered from their original site, probably, Sam theorized after he spent a good hour examining the position of the fragments, by the force of the wall when it fell in.

     “I’m getting a better picture of what went on here,” he said when he realized the skeleton was a young boy, thirteen to fifteen years old in spite of being only about a meter tall.  “The boy died here long before the wall fell.  Remember the one skeleton in a shallow grave only about a meter below ground level?  That female was the next-to-last person to die and the boy buried her.  He probably dug her grave under her guidance several days or weeks in advance, and when she died, he placed her body in the grave, then retreated to the building.  He would have had limited food after all the elders were gone, so he lived only a short time.  He died lying in the corner of the house, alone.”

     “Oh, my God,” Sally whispered.

#

     We spent the summer finishing the excavation of the building and cemetery, and by autumn had uncovered everything in a fifty meter radius of the building that told us anything about the life of these people.  A few other gravesites appeared, as did the latrine—you’d be surprised what you can learn by excavating a latrine.  This was an exciting time, more so to me than to Sally.  I was in my element and I felt invigorated in the study.  I never shared Sally’s melancholy, almost grief, for these people; I always thought her a bit melodramatic.  But I learned something new about the Watauga people almost every day, and my skills in excavation and discovery improved enormously.  I felt ready to continue to study these people and learn as much as I could about the warming years and famine wars.  Little real information existed about those tumultuous times; the vast destruction of society and infrastructure by man-made and natural forces prevented much recording of events.  We would have to piece it together, building by building, gravesite by gravesite, and everything we learned would constitute the largest part of my PhD dissertation.

     Sam had named these people the Watauga after a political name of this region from three to four hundred years ago.  We were struck by the ability of these impoverished and destitute people to exist in the desolation that followed the warming years and famine wars.  Clearly they were survivors, living by their wits and meager agricultural skills far away from the major population centers of the previous civilization.   But in the open wilderness of these denuded mountains they couldn’t survive indefinitely.  The soil was rocky and unyielding, agriculture problematic, the weather unpredictable, the storms incessant.  Spring floods, cascading off the bare mountains above their home, must have ravaged them repeatedly.  Their population eventually died out, as we saw, one person at a time.

     “It’s conceivable,” Sam told us one evening in late autumn as we sat in his trailer, ready to break camp and head back to the lift-off area, “and in fact it’s likely that the boy in the house was the last member of the Watauga.  All other sites pre-date this one.”

     “What became of their civilization?” Sally asked.  “Was there any interbreeding with other humanoids?”

     “We’ll check existing civilizations by finescale DNA hybridization with the DNA we get from these bones,” Sam said, “but I don’t hold out much hope.  I suspect they died out completely.  There’s no evidence for them after about twenty-one fifty.”

     “Seems a shame,” Sally said, “that such a great civilization should succumb to forces they could’ve so easily controlled.”

     Sam nodded but didn’t say anything.  He warmed his hands at the warm-air vent of the trailer’s heating unit and stared into space.  I’ve always wondered what else he saw with those old, blind eyes of his.

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  1. #1 by S. S. Bazinet on January 22, 2014 - 2:52 PM

    Very moving story, Roger. Beautifully told, it drew me in very quickly and carried me along the woman’s powerful, but tragic journey, right to the end. Bravo!

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