Authors: Jefferson Bass
In loving memory of our mothers:
Jennie Hicks Bass
Gloria Miller Jefferson
Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.
Make a chain: for the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence.
A WARM SPRING BREEZE STIRS THE STAND OF TULIP
poplars, twitching their upturned, aspiring branches, their tender new leaves and delicate flowers pale in the moonlight. A stronger wind kicks up, unleashing a blizzard of blossoms, their yellow petals splashed with orange, their feathery stamens dusted with pollen.
Soon the gust subsides, settling to a soft, steady breath soughing through the foliage, undisturbed for hour upon hour. Then, suddenly, the wind's susurration is punctuated by a series of brighter, sharper sounds: steel clinking upon steelâmetallic teeth chattering, slowly at first, then faster and louder, frenzied and frantic.
A scream rends the night: a scream accompaniedâor is it contradicted?âby another voice, this one deep and fearless, primitive and guttural. The scream falters, then resumes; falters, then intensifies; falters . . . and fades.
Neyland Stadium, University of Tennessee
I TURNED THE DOORKNOB OF THE OSTEOLOGY LABâ
or, rather, tried toâand was surprised to find it locked. Normally by eight Miranda was long since settled at her desk in the bone lab, a half-empty Starbucks cup going cold, her eyes riveted on her computer screen as her fingertips danced and her keyboard clattered, opening some new window on the virtual world she navigated with such speed and confidence.
As I unlocked the steel door and opened it, I scanned the lab's interior. The lights were off, but the front of the lab was fairly bright, thanksâor no thanksâto the venetian blinds stretching across the front wall, their metal slats kinked and broken in half a hundred places, allowing thin spokes and broad beams of the October morning sun to slant across the lab, the rays luminous and all but tangible in the lab's dusty air. I still half expected to see Miranda, if not at the desk
then possibly deep in concentration at one of the worktables, studying some fractured fibula or shattered skull.
But the room was emptyâdevoid of living humans, at any rate, though it contained gracious plenty of dead ones: thousands of Arikara Indian skeletons that my students and I had exhumed during a series of summer expeditions to the Great Plains, excavating one step ahead of rising reservoir waters. The Arikara were neatly packed in sturdy corrugated boxes, shelved like thousands of library books with spines of bone. The remains should have been returned to the Arikara tribe for reburial on dry tribal landsâand indeed
have been, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990âexcept for a single, insurmountable obstacle: There no longer
Arikara tribal lands. Decimated by multiple epidemics of smallpox, a contagion spread by white traders and settlers, the dwindling Arikara had been assimilated by the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes back in the 1800s. And so it was, through an odd confluence of river hydrology, civil engineering, field archaeology, and viral epidemiology, that the primary legacy of the Arikara IndiansâNative Americans who had helped Lewis and Clark on the first stage of their epic expedition to the Pacific Northwestâresided beneath the south end zone of Neyland Stadium, the University of Tennessee's shrine to college football.
The Arikara inhabited the back of the room, a vast, dark complex of shelves that marched, row upon row, toward the underside of the stadium's concrete grandstands. I generally gave them no thought, but occasionallyâat moments such as this, when the university was still half asleep, the bone lab still deserted and quietâI could almost believe I heard the whispering spirits of the vast tribe of Arikara dead. The hairs
on the back of my neck prickled, and with a deep breath to refocus my attention, I turned toward the front of the lab.
This part of the room was high ceilinged and bright, its rows of worktables illuminated by the large, glass-fronted exterior wall. Atop the tables were old-style cafeteria trays, each tray laden with skulls, ribs, mandibles, vertebrae, pubic bones, arm bones, hand bones, foot bones, or some combination thereof, giving the room the look of a skeletal spare-parts shop.
“Hey, I need me a left tibia,”
I imagined a one-legged customer hopping in and saying.
“Y'all got any of them?”
my salesman-self would answer.
“What make and model you aiming for?”
The customer would look down at the stump of his leg, making sure he got the specifications right.
“A 1963 male, 'bout six foot one.” “You're in luck,”
“Got one, good as new, never broken. Installation not included.”
My imaginary spare-parts sale was interrupted by a series of three dull thuds just outside the door, each thud punctuated by a curse. “Dammit.
” I turned and opened the door just in time to see a two-foot stack of books teetering wildly in the overloaded left arm of my assistant, Miranda. As the leaning tower of books approached its tipping point, she reflexively swung her right hand over to stabilize it. Unfortunately, her right hand was clutching a Starbucks cup, which smacked against the books, popping off the lid, collapsing the cup, and sending liquid cascading over her hand and onto the three books that I had heard thud to the floor. I readied my ears for the litany of profanity that was sure to ensueâMiranda cussed frequently, creatively, and with considerable gustoâbut she simply stared at the crushed cup, the dripping hand, and the sodden books . . . and then burst into peals of laughter. And it was the laughter that
finally nudged the tower of books to its tipping point. For a moment the stackâstill a single unitâseemed to hang in the air, as if both time and gravity had been suspended. Then, slowly, the structure came apart in midair, book after book tumbling into a pile at her feet.
“You do know how to make an entrance,” I said. “You okay?”
She nodded, still laughing too hard to speak.
“Sorry about your coffee,” I offered. “And your books.”
“It's okay,” she finally managed to gasp out. “I was bringing you tea.” She howled afresh. “Oh, and they're your books, not mine.”
Now it was my turn to stare. Sure enough, the spines and covers in the puddle were familiar ones. And, in spite of myself and my love of my books, it was my turn to laugh, too.