Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2010
Fiction: Fossils, by Al Sarrantonio
Suddenly we are under the blackest of skies.
I have not seen this place before. Even in my visions—the bright burnings that possess me epileptic-like, searing my eyes with unasked images—no place has been like this.
I fear it might be the place we were looking for.
“Is this it?” Roberts asks, her eyes as bright with obsession as mine get with my visions. I know she felt all along that we would come on the site like this, that the fact that I was blocked from seeing it only convinced her more that we would happen on this place. She has been watching my face closely since we stumbled to the mouth of this dark valley. The vastness of it spreads out, craterlike, below us. Stepping down into it will, I feel, be like stepping into a swallowing pool of black ink.
She takes my arm and squeezes hard, a gesture absent of affection. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“You do, Van. I can see it on your lying face. There’s something different about it.”
“I don’t think this is it—” I begin, lying once more, but she cuts me off.
“We’re going in.”
I watch the faces of the others. Porelli is nervous, as always; I detect the tremble of his fingers as he adjusts the bridge of his eyeglasses. Meyer nods briefly, eyes blank. He has been unreadable, and remains so.
Anne Foreman merely whispers, her voice a tiny breath, “No…”
Roberts hits her before any of us can react—a backhanded slap across the face that sends Anne staggering back a step. She regains her footing, puts her hand to her mouth, wiping away blood.
Then she begins to cry.
“Stop that, or I’ll hit you again,” Roberts says to her.
Anne shakes her head, eyes averted, unable to stop—and then Meyer is between the two antagonists, facing Roberts.
“There’s nothing to be gained by it,” he says in a flat voice. Even his inflection is unreadable. It is the first remark he has made since sunrise, eight hours before.
Roberts retains her antagonism, then lets it go, turning to yank her backpack from the ground and heft it onto her back.
“Let her stay here, then,” she says, brushing past Meyer and Anne.
She enters the black valley.
In the moment of silence that follows, I watch Roberts’ torso, then head, seem to drop down into nothingness. The deep darkness of the foliage has engulfed her as she steps down into it. I listen for a short cry, the sounds of distress or death, but there is only the swish of moving leaves. Then Roberts’ voice rises back to us, strangely muffled, “Come on, dammit.”
The others are moved from stupor and make to follow. Even Anne, obviously torn between lonely flight and the continuance of her fear, remounts her pack and, eyes overlarge with anticipated doom, creeps ahead until she disappears into the underbrush.
Last of all, filled with dread, I follow.
The temperature drops as I enter. It feels as if the natural heat of the jungle has been stripped back, like peeled fruit, leaving the cold heart of the place exposed. There is no dampness. A hood of foliage covers us; if the sun is up there, above it, it must somehow have receded, leaving us on a farther planet, Pluto, perhaps. I feel a dry, bone chill. The others feel it too; up ahead, I hear Roberts call for a halt and have almost run into Anne, stopped in front of me, before halting myself.
Anne’s frightened face looks at me, all too readable.
She says, whispering, each word distinct, eyes, wide, “We’re going to die.”
“No, we’re not,” I say.
“Oh, yes—” Anne replies, before Roberts pushes back through a tangle of green-black vines to stand near us.
I wonder if she knows how she has drawn closer to us, because of the lack of warmth in here.
“Put your parkas on,” she orders. Already, she, along with Porelli and Meyer close behind her, is wrestling her Hollofill jacket out of her pack.
“It makes sense,” she says quickly, looking up at me before I can speak. “We’ve headed far enough north. I told you all along we’d need heavy clothing.”
“We’re in a valley, covered by foliage. It should be hot as hell in here,” I say.
“I don’t like this,” Porelli says. The worry on his face has intensified, and, once again, he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger. I wonder if he is aware of the gesture as a barometer of his thoughts.
Roberts answers quickly: “What I think we have here is a sunken glacial shelf. There may be ice fifty feet below, in the valley.” She allows herself a tight smile. “That’s one of the reasons I think we may be almost there. The temperature drop is only proof. Hillary’s report mentioned it.”
She looks to Meyer, whose face remains impassive.
“Anyway,” she says, letting her smile become tighter, “this is all we have.”
“Yes,” Meyer says, a steel trap of a remark.
We make camp four hours later. The cold has intensified. The air is thinner, and there is some difficulty starting a fire; and, once started, sustaining it. Roberts has a theory for that, too: perhaps we are not in a bowl at all, but have risen in elevation; the bowl effect is an optical illusion. Conveniently, the altimeter has been left at our last base camp, so her conjecture is met only with silence.
As I watch the curls of weak smoke drift and dissipate into the tangle of suffocating vines above us, I feel a vision flow over me…
I see a vast, true valley, bright sunlight above it, hear singing, see the smoke of a robust fire and a circle of dancing near a silver tail of river. There are animals, the hunt’s catch, lashed to long poles, rows of tended crops, a sky above so blue-bright it hurts the eyes to look at it. The sun seems larger, brighter, more robust. The animals are strange, armored, reflected in the skins the natives wear. Bordering the valley, beasts look in with dull eyes, excluded, the hunted. Their tails snake from side to side, brushing the ground.
In the far distance, above the gentle rise of the valley, the vast silver lake which feeds the valley’s river glints like a huge coin beneath the hot sun.
A far-off bellows is heard; there is the long rise of a reptilian neck in the midst of the water—
“Listen to me,” Roberts’ harsh voice says, instantly bringing me back. I focus my eyes and expect to see her face looming over me. But instead I find that my neck is craned back, staring hard at the canopy of hard, slim, blackened vines overhead. The fire has gone out.
I lower my head to see Meyer and Porelli eating cold beans from a can, perched comically around the dead embers.
“Anne has run away,” Roberts says.
I finally focus on her. There is, I am amazed to see, a measure of worry on her features.
“She’ll come back,” I say.
“No,” Roberts says. “I said some things…”
“You’re a fool,” I answer. “You’ve been riding her for days, taking out your frustrations on her. You know how weak she was to begin with. Why did you take her with us?”
“Can you find her? In one of your visions?” she asks, ignoring my question.
“I can try. But I don’t think so.”
“What were you seeing just now?”
“Nothing,” I begin, but the intensity of her look prevents her from having to say I’m lying.
“The same,” I answer. “A valley, the natives, the saurians and the lake.”
She almost smiles. “I know this is the place.”
I say, a whisper, “Yes. I think it is.”
“I knew it,” she cries, almost a whoop of joy, and she squeezes my arm. With effort, she returns her expression to one of mock concern. “Please find Anne.”
“It wouldn’t do to lose a play toy, would it?” I snap. My stare is even. “Bad for tenure.”
True anger flares on her face, instantly recedes. She is a remarkable study in control. “If you like,” she says. She removes her hand from my arm as if I am diseased. “Just find her.”
“I’ll try,” I say, and close my eyes to bring on a vision…
A vague ghost, a running figure seen in silhouette, the sound of muffled weeping. But nothing more. I sense she ran further into the bowl, instead of out of it. I cannot even be sure it is her: the figure is grayish, indistinct, not unlike Anne herself.
Instead, using Anne as the fulcrum, my vision angles down into memory. I have told Roberts this is unavoidable, and out of my control…
We are all in the dark walled, mahogany chaired staff room at the University. The blinds are drawn, but wafer-thin slats of sunlight have burst through, striping the far wall where the screen is mounted. Cursing in frustration, Roberts finally has to get up and drape a sweater over the venetian blinds, making most of the offensive light lines disappear.
“Now then,” she says, returning to her projector. She is attractive, in a voracious sort of way: white, clean features, shoulder-length hair, brunette and straight, parted away from the center of her cranium. Her eyes are a startling brown—nearly copper colored, hard and intense. I have never seen her tired, or tire at anything she has set her mind to do. Her students find her invigorating and fierce, and it is obvious she is headed for Full Professorship. They have had no one like her in the paleontology department ever, and the dust she has stirred up has enlivened everyone around her.
She sits down next to me, the projector in front of her like a weapon, and continues her presentation. Her eyes never leave the screen as slide after slide snaps smartly into place, inevitably building her thesis with mortar and solid blocks, piece by piece.
We are all mesmerized, eyes glued to the screen. Three or four slides have gone by before I realize that Roberts has put her hand on my thigh under the table, moving her fingers down behind my blue jeans and panties, and is rubbing my labia. Out of the corner of my eye I steal a glance at her: her eyes are intense, facing front, but the slightest of smiles has come onto her face. She squeezes my thigh quickly to acknowledge my notice, and the fact that I have not removed her hand.
The rest of the presentation goes by in a blur.
Later, in her apartment, after feeling her hard nipples against my own, letting her rough lovemaking wash over me like a cold ocean tide, she wraps a robe smartly around herself and makes tea. The whistle of the kettle is a warm memory to me—my mother long ago in New Brunswick. There is a short vision, an intense memory, really: chilled mornings, the hiss of tea kettle against the ice-bright window, steam against frost, me turning in bed under the double quilt to watch the push of steam melt a line of ice on the glass, letting in a bright, startling shaft of sunlight—
“Are you all right?” Roberts asks, snapping me out of my vision. She stands before me with a tray, two steaming cups of tea, a neat, fanned row of biscuits. I see her look of concern, and, this first time, take it for the real thing.
“Yes,” I say, smiling, moving up in the bed so that she can sit beside me and lay the tea tray down. I push my short blonde hair back out of my face and turn to the tea. But her hand stops me before I touch the porcelain of the cup.
“What were you doing just now?” she asks, quietly intense.
I shrug. “Dreaming, sort of. A kind of trance. It’s nothing, I’ve always done it.”
“There was something in your file, a hint of…ability. Paranormal?”
I laugh, shortly. “Call it that if you like. To me it’s just something I do.”
But she is still staring at me, that intensity both invigorating and voracious. I suddenly realize that if I needed her, the need has vanished. She is a carnivore, and I don’t want to be eaten alive. “I’ve talked to people,” she says, deliberately. “They…say you have visions.”
I am reddening with embarrassment, but can’t control it. I shrug, reach for the tea.
This time she lets me take it, but her eyes pin me while I sip from it.
“Is it true?” she asks, finally.
“I suppose so,” I answer, wishing my voice was stronger. Suddenly I do find control and give her a straight, unflinching look. “I call them visions. But I don’t have much control over them, and I don’t know what they mean.”
She stands, throwing her hands up, and laughs incredulously. “Weren’t you listening to my lecture?”
“Yes, well…” I say, and when she turns, teacher facing grad student, for a moment there is a cold look which she immediately replaces with warmth. This time I recognize it for the false gesture it is. Suddenly I am chilled, and wonder how I ever thought of this cold room as my mother’s house. I pull the plain covers up closer around me, wishing they were clothes.
“It’s all right, I understand,” she says. “You are my most promising student, you know. But if the Tunkata find does exist, don’t you see how valuable you might be?”
“Frankly, no,” I answer, afraid of my answer even as it leaves my lips.
“You are invaluable!” Again she tempers her anger, but cannot hide her exasperation. She suddenly kneels before the bed, reaches quickly out, takes my two hands in hers and looks into my eyes. “You are living proof of the evolutionary line,” she says earnestly. “The next step on the ladder.” For a moment I am afraid that she will dart away from me, whip charts and graphs from some hidden place and resume her lecture. But she only continues to hold my hands, too tightly, perhaps afraid I will flee. “Like I said in class,” she repeats slowly, as if to a dumb child, “the Moravian find two years ago nearly proves that a race of true subhumans existed well before the development of Homo Erectus. There were, to all extents and purposes, humans in the Jurassic Period, concurrent with the dinosaurs, who were wiped out with them.”
“But the Moravian remains were so scanty, a bit of skull—” I find myself saying, responding to her lecture with the standard refutation.
“It’s enough!” she shouts, throwing my hands away from her, standing up angrily. “Why don’t all of you see that! The dating is beyond question, and the structure is completely different from Homo Erectus.” Again she kneels before me, looks earnestly into my eyes. I almost feel sorry for her. “There was another race of humans which died out, and I’m convinced the Tunkata site will produce a fossil record. And I’m positive it will prove my theory.”
I merely look at her, because she doesn’t want me to speak. Abruptly she cups my face almost gently in her hands and looks into my eyes.
“Don’t you see, Vanessa?” I’m on the verge of proving that the male of the species is vestigial! If the Tunkata site proves out, we’ll find fossil evidence that Nature tried the human species once before with the male as the stronger component—and failed! If that race developed along with the dinosaur, they had millions of years longer than our own species to evolve. They would have been at the height of their development when the Yucatan asteroid hit 60 million years ago, wiping them out along with the saurians. Nature would never take the same course twice.”
She reaches a gentle hand around to the back of my head, where the small knob that has always been there is located. She strokes it almost tenderly.
“This is what proves that our own species, Homo Sapiens, is evolving differently, toward a female-dominant race. There’s part of my research I haven’t told anyone about, yet. I’ve found a number of females with this protuberance. It’s what makes you different, Vanessa—what gives you your, as you call them, visions!”
Still gently, she guides my own hand to the back of her own head to feel the much smaller knob there.
“My own is so small that it does almost nothing for me. But there are others just like you!”
Her copper eyes nearly glow with need.
Nearly whispering, I say, “But if the Tunkata find doesn’t exist, what then? Hillary’s account is nearly a hundred years old, a mere passing reference to a place he may have stumbled across and didn’t have time to fully explore…”
She nearly explodes with indignation.
“I’m sure the Tunkata site exists! And I’m sure I can find it.” Now she takes my hands in a very tight grip, all the while staring into my eyes. “With your help.”
“When we get there, you’ll be able to visualize it. You’ve done it before. Don’t deny what’s in your file, Vanessa. Don’t deny me…”
Now her eyes are half-closed, and she leans up over me, like a vulture, pushing me back, pulling the covers away from me and I feel myself pinned like a butterfly by her strength…
“No!” I shout, breathily, somehow loosening her grip from me and rolling from the bed; and as I draw my clothes to me and put them on, she sits regarding me from the bed, her eyes hooded and indecipherable. I think she is enjoying my flight. She waits until I am dressed and opening the door before saying, quietly, without emotion, “You know how much power I have in the department, Van. You’ll come with me, and help me—or….”
I think I hear her give a short, sharp laugh as I slam the door loudly behind me.
When I set off to find Anne, kerosene lantern in hand, the camp is quiet. The fire is as dead as if a giant had stepped on it, though Porelli is curled up next to it in his sleeping bag, his hooded parka still on beneath. Perhaps he is dreaming of warmth. There are no nightsounds in the black bowl, but then I do hear something at the edge of the camp, a grunting that gets louder as I approach.
I am nearly on top of Meyer and Roberts before I see them, Meyer silent, his stoic, broad buttocks on top, Roberts spread businesslike beneath, head angled slightly back, eyes closed, letting out short puffs of ungiving breath at each rhythmic stroke.
I angle away from them and into the forest, stopping by a thick-trunked tree and angling the curve of my shoulders into it.
I close my eyes and try to see.
Nothing comes. Perhaps it is this oppressive place. Perhaps the very atmosphere has been sucked away, leaving us in a cold vacuum. My mind is blank. I cannot even think true thoughts. All I see is blackness without depth, an airless, inhuman place—
Then, something flares through my head.
I am blinded for a moment, then adjust. This has never happened before. I am sure that what has happened did not come from my own head. Then the burst comes again, less bright, almost focused, and I am suddenly aware of what has happened.
“Anne?” I say, tentatively, and the image of Anne rises in my head, tightly focused. I hear her answer, weakly, “Yes…”
I see where she is.
It takes me twenty minutes to find her. She has gone deep into the bowl, and I have the feeling that she ran part of the way. The wavering image of her, like a compass needle, stays in my head. I finally come upon her, curled at the bole of a huge tree, nestled into a curl of vines, seemingly asleep. When I turn her gently over I see her wrists open flat and see the deep lengthwise slash marks on them and the twin streams of blood. She seems too light, almost insubstantial as I turn her over.
Her eyes flutter open and she says, “All…die…”
“Why did you do this to yourself?” I ask, stroking her hair. I feel like a mother. She smiles and moves her right hand, tepidly. Already, we both know, it is too late for her.
“You called me,” I say.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Suddenly I feel very much like a mother, and hug her to me, moving my hand to feel the protuberance at the back of her head. It is even more prominent than mine.
“Roberts’ insurance,” she whispers. She feels, sounds ethereal. “I suppressed it, too strong…”
“You don’t know…”
I feel her relax in my arms, and her eyes turn to look glassily at me before fixing there, and her mouth begins to whisper: “You…haven’t seen…”
I lay her down into her vines, closing her eyes.
I am suddenly very tired. I know I should get back to the others, tell Roberts what has happened, but I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I belong here now. Filled with weariness, I lay down beside her, nestling into the vines, and rest my head upon Anne’s dead shoulder, and sleep, and dream.
The others find me in the morning. I know it is day because the merest hint of sunlight flashes through the overhang and darts into my eyes as I open them.
Then the sunlight is gone, blocked by the form of Roberts, who stands over me like a statue.
“Get up,” she orders.
I rise, as Roberts bends to examine Anne’s body.
“There was nothing you could do?” she demands, turning her inquisitor’s eyes to me.
“She was nearly dead when I found her.”
“Don’t cry,” she commands, seeing how upset I am on the verge of becoming. We both know that I am her only resource, now. “She did this to herself. She was never strong enough to make this trip.”
“But you made her go anyway,” I say.
“It was her choice,” Roberts answers. She turns to Meyer for support; he nods shortly. Porelli, ever the toady, adds, “She didn’t have to come.”
“It’s over,” Roberts says. “For her family’s sake, we’ll soften the report.” She turns to me, daring me to say something. Then she repeats, as Meyer and Porelli pull foldable shovels from their packs and begin to dig a grave, distinctly separating the words, “It’s over.”
By midafternoon we are on our way. Perhaps it is only my imagination, but our descent has leveled. Also, it has grown warmer. Soon our parka hoods have been thrown back, then our parkas unzipped, and, finally, removed and stowed. The trees have thinned. I watch the faraway sun move in a high, airless blue sky. Underfoot, the soil has grown sandier.
Wordlessly, the others follow me, Roberts just behind to urge me on if my pace falters. Occasionally I close my eyes to visualize a place that is growing more distinct. There is a growing tension of anticipation. All of us feel that we are close.
Finally, as the sun is lowering, I top a short rise and see the trees thin completely away in front of me. The ground turns abruptly to bare rock and windblown sand.
Roberts pushes past me and begins to run, stopping fifty yards ahead. She gives a whoop of joy and motions us to follow. When we catch up she is standing on a short shelf of rock. The Tunkata plain stretches before us—a vast, Martianlike expanse of desert rock and glacial remains. In the deep amber sunset, I must admit, it is magnificent.
Roberts, beaming, turns to hug me. “Tomorrow,” she says, “we go down. At first light.” Turning away from me, she says to Meyer and Porelli, “Let’s make camp. It will be a long day tomorrow.”
Soon camp is made, cold food eaten, Porelli curled, parka-less, in his sleeping bag, Roberts and Meyer off behind a shelf of rock copulating—and I lay back on the ground, watching stars shine out of a black sky, and dream the dreamless vision of Jurassic beasts, human and saurian, out on the very plain below me.
Before a hint of dawn has come, Roberts has us up breaking camp. Porelli protests, and Roberts kicks him playfully in his sleeping back, rousing him. Meyer looks like he got little sleep. When Roberts looks at me her smile from the previous night has not faded. It is a smile of triumph, and I think I see the barest hint of thanks in it for me.
As soon as the rising sun offers enough light, we are off. Roberts take the lead, a brisk pace until she is slowed by the roughness of the trail down into the plain. It takes us a good two hours to get down off the shelf, and by the time we reach the bottom Porelli is huffing for breath.
“We won’t stop,” Roberts warns, and before Porelli can even regain his breath we are off again.
Roberts has studied my vision and seems to know it by heart now. Except for the fact that the glacial lake has vanished, the crops and most other vegetation swept millions of years before from the face of the Earth, the landmarks are remarkably close to what I saw in my mind. The lake bed exists; and once Roberts orients herself, discovering that we have actually come in behind the viewpoint of my vision, she is unstoppable.
“We’ll cross the lake bed,” she says, consulting a compass. “The village should be north-northwest of where we are.”
Around noon we stop at a particularly large saurian find. Since this is his field, Porelli is beside himself with excitement. Even Meyer, an anthropologist, shows interest.
“This may be a supersaurus!” Porelli coos, but Roberts has barely stopped. “We’ll have plenty of time for that,” she says, and soon she has lost patience and is trudging on ahead alone.
Reluctantly, after marking the spot, Porelli, Meyer and I follow.
Roberts does not wait for us to catch up. An hour later, still ahead of us, she has mounted the cry far shore.
Then, abruptly, she shouts and begins to run.
By the time we catch up with her she is on her hands and knees, gently lifting a slab of sandstone and peering at what lies revealed beneath.
“A hand…” I hear her say.
I am overcome by a vision. I think I have fallen down, and vaguely feel hard ground come up to meet me. Then I am lost. I see the shining silver glint of the lake, very close. There is the swish of vast movement. A long, tapering gray saurian neck rises from the water near the shore; two bolt-black eyes in a reptilian head stare blankly before the head turns away, lowering to snatch at a mass of rushes front the lakeshore.
The humans are there—closer than I have ever seen them. Still, I cannot make out their faces. Their circle dance is in progress; their saurian pelts make them look like so many small, capering dinosaurs.
Suddenly they fall to the ground, covering their eyes—
A scream from Roberts cuts through the vision.
My head is torn between now and then. Roberts’ angry, hellish cries overcome me and the picture in my head becomes gray and fuzzy, like a bad television screen. I turn my face and the world of now comes into soft focus: Roberts on hands and knees, wailing, “No!” She throws her pick viciously into the earth beside the long, uncovered length of sandstone she has uncovered. “This cannot be! I won’t accept it!”
Meyer stands stoically nearby, unsupportive, arms folded, watching Roberts’ antics with blankness.
“I won’t accept this!” Roberts wails. “They’re the future—not the past!”
She rises, kicks her tool in disgust, pushes past Meyer who still stands unaffected before turning laconically in Roberts’ direction.
In the near distance Porelli has retraced his steps to the bone dry lake and stands whooping over a new discovery, his own pick held aloft in triumph.
I stand, unsteadily. The now world begins to turn gray, giving me partly back to the vision. I feel myself stumble forward. In the now world, I stand before the full-length skeletal outline of the human form Roberts has uncovered, bent in an oddly sad fetal position.
The world grays, the vision rises fully back into me, and I fall.
The figures in my vision lay thrashing, in a circle, on the ground. They are wailing. The titanic, long-necked saurian has paused in his eating, a drip of wet vines suspended in his jaws, to lift his dull black eyes to watch the sudden flash in the sky.
Abruptly, I am very close to the circle: I see the faces, the visions the humans see in their own heads: the asteroid crash, the air on fire, the huge billowing of water and dust covering the sun, blotting oxygen, cooling the earth to temporary inhabitability. I see with them their own fate: the death of food, the drying-up of the lake, their own forms curled upon themselves, sucking their own female bodies, shielding their own breasts from coming death, unable to move on, crying, knowing that nature had tried their race along with the dinosaurs and failed.
I cry, too.
I awaken toward darkness, still crying, curled into the form of rock-formed bone, my head resting perfectly, including the tiny knob at the back of my skull, into the form of dead rock bone.