Below is "Discovery" published in Issue #58 of Black Cat Weekly, October 2022
Brenda Silvan lagged behind the rest of the university group a bit. It wasn’t that she didn’t look forward to the project—she did, very much so—but she didn’t think she was going to like working with Gary Little. He had tried to sit next to her on the bus, but she managed to get next to the handsome Professor Plume. Working with this awesome guy had been a goal of hers all through grad school. And here she was, helping document an important archeology find under his leadership. Plus, she was sitting next to him on the bus.
She hadn’t gotten to say much to him, though, with Gary sitting right behind her and talking to her over her shoulder most of the way. Visions of junior high school bus rides popped up and she ignored them.
But now they were here, in this lovely wooded place north of Nashville, where incredible cave art had been found, and that was being protected by keeping the sites secret.
After a short trek to the mouth, the professor led them through several openings to a chamber far from the front of the cave, where the most important discovery was. That was the art tentatively dated at six thousand years ago. It still amazed her that some of the oldest cave art in North America was right here in Tennessee! Her own state!
“Take a look,” the professor said, as they crowded into the smallish space. “Then I’ll give assignments to everyone and we’ll come back tomorrow and start documenting.”
She knew that documenting meant mostly taking photos, but also doing careful measurements and making notes. Would his favorites be assigned this piece? There was lots of other cave art in the multi-chambered cavern.
One Feather knew this cave was not a secret. His tribe knew about it and the ancestors had been documenting their existence here for a long, long time. His project, though, was a secret. He hoped it could remain that way until it was finished. Explorations over a period of several weeks had led him to this small, pristine, chamber. No ancestors had yet put any charcoal or ochre drawings on the walls. He had the place to himself and knew exactly what he was going to do with it.
Brenda sat on the cool, hard floor of the cave. That was because she couldn’t stand up in this side chamber. With the other two people in it, the place was crowded. How did the ancient people manage to create this art in such cramped spaces?
This place wasn’t far from another cave, also in Tennessee, that had recently gained fame for the cave art discovered there. The aim of Professor Plume was to rival that discovery. The drawings in both places had almost certainly been made by pre-contact Native Americans, but not much was known beyond that.
The professor was in here, which was nice. They’d chatted after the evening meal the night before and he seemed to take an interest in her. That wouldn’t hurt the career she hoped to have as an archeologist. Brenda and the third person in the cave, Gary, of course, were tasked today with photographing everything they could find in this chamber. After that, the team, with the help of a few others in various parts of the cave, would start to interpret the drawings to discover what these ancient people were trying to convey. Why did they make these drawings? Why in such an obscure place? Did they want them to remain secret, or did they expect them to be seen by others?
For now, they knew next to nothing of what they would discover during this project.
Gary jostled Brenda’s arm as she aimed her camera at a ceiling drawing and ruined her time exposure shot. She threw him a frown and he returned an apologetic grimace. When she’d first met him, just before they left their university for this trip, she’d thought he was pretty cute, but he’d done nothing to endear himself to her since that first glance.
Professor Plume, now, was another matter. A large, solid, distinguished person. Okay, too large to share this cave with, but she thought he looked like someone you could depend on. She’d left behind her live-in boyfriend of three years to come here. It had given her a good excuse to break up with him, something she’d been putting off.
Now, she craned her neck back and took some more shots, unmolested by Gary’s elbow. The drawings were like nothing she’d ever seen before. Some were figures she recognized. Human, or partly human. Snakes, hoofed animals, and birds. But some were abstract, lines and circles, with a few repeating figures. They must mean something. But what?
One Feather had done what he could do for this day. His ancient back ached, his fingers were cramping, and even the inside of his head hurt. His torchlight was sputtering. It only lasted so long. He crawled out of the small sacred space. Only a child could stand upright there. The others would be wondering where he had been all of this time and he did not want them to know. Only one person knew the task he had set for himself.
The sky was growing dark, preparing for nighttime, but there was still more light outside than inside the cave. He stopped and let his eyes adjust. One Feather knew that the work he was doing would be important someday. There was a tale to be told, a tale that must be told, a tale that must live on after him. What had happened was important for his tribe, and his son, Tall Feather, to know.
The cave had held sacred records of the life of his tribe for many lifetimes of elders. It was fitting that his story be added here, in this smaller space, but near the other, older scenes.
Before leaving, he looked back toward the small cavern, at the work he had done that day. Yes, it was good work. Everyone would be able to see this, long after he was gone, and all would finally know the story. He ducked as he left so that the feather in his hair would fit through the opening.
Brenda stayed sitting in the center of the space after the two men left the cave. She wanted to sit alone and study the art. These formations were of Ordovician limestone, the prevalent rock in this area. It was sturdier than other limestone and the formations held well. Here, in this area, there were etchings and red ochre drawings on the rocks above ground. Inside the underground cave, the color of the artwork was mostly black. She knew that general wisdom was that the images high in the cave pertained to what she would call “the heavens.” It was the upper world, to the people who depicted these things. There were figures that looked like distorted people. Some had animal heads and some had elongated arms and legs. Were they reaching for something? What did the animals represent? For now, the meanings were lost, but Brenda was sure her team, or some other team, at some point, could figure out what the ancients were trying to tell them.
“Hey, you’re gonna miss chow.” It was clear what Gary was telling her. He was waiting outside for her. This had been happening ever since she had arrived here in northern Tennessee a few days ago. He was telling her he wanted to share a table with her, and eventually share a tent with her. That would never happen.
“You go ahead.” She turned her back, pretending she had to do something on her phone.
“I’ll save you a place.”
She drooped a little. How could she get rid of this pest? The mosquitoes were less bothersome than Gary Little.
Luckily, after she filled her tray at the chow line, there was a seat next to the Professor, so she slid in there. Afterward, when Gary asked where she’d gone, she would say, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.”
Professor Plume asked how she was holding up, his eyes kind and warm.
“I’m doing better than I thought I would, Professor. If I get outside and stand up every once in a while, or even if I stretch while I’m in the tight places, I do okay.”
He smiled and patted her hand, which was resting on her fork. His hand was warm, too. “Please. We’re all on the same team together. Call me Roger, Ms. Silvan.”
She knew he already called her Brenda most of the time, but answered anyway. “Sure, Brenda here.”
“Come on over to my tent after this. I have something to show you.”
Alarm bells went off, but only mild ones. No, he wasn’t doing the same thing Gary was. Was he? She didn’t need and didn’t want any actual entanglements here. She was serious about this study and intended to write a paper on it, as soon as she found the aspect she could use.
“Do you know what the next step is, after we think we’ve photographed everything?” she asked.
“Another group in a cave near here has had some good luck with three-D scanning. My friend, Jackson, on that project, offered to let us use his laser scanner for a day. If we have good luck with it, I’ll try to get the university to buy us one for this project. It should come in handy for other things in the future, too.”
“Is it a big, complicated procedure?” She knew what medical scans were like, requiring heavy equipment and usually lead shielding.
“No, not at all. Hand-held lasers are small, but not cheap. The enhancement is incredible and you can see a lot of detail that the naked eye misses.”
She nodded. There were certainly some markings, faint and vague-looking to her, that might be significant with something like that.
After they ate, she followed the professor, Roger, to his tent, which was a bit larger than hers. The closer they got, the more unsure she was of this. So it was disappointing when her suspicions were played out.
He sat on his cot and patted the space next to him, for her to sit there. When she did, his large, warm hand went immediately to her thigh.
She had to get out of there. Without offending him and destroying her fledging career. She bent over, pushing his hand away, and feigned retching.
“Oh my god, that stew is going to come right back up. I’d better leave.” Before it could be obvious that she wasn’t going to throw up, she ran out and sat in the darkness outside their encampment for a half an hour before making her way back to her own tent.
When One Feather returned to the village, he was careful to pause, quietly, to see who was present, either inside the circle of dwellings, or lurking around the edges. He tucked his spent torch into a dirt hole beside a tree. He would get a new one for the next day. The tribe knew about the cave and its records, but the chief and shaman were the only ones now, aside from him, who usually went there. His work would be revealed to all, eventually, but one of those being depicted might not be pleased.
Right now, he, One Feather, and his mate, Deer Eyes, were the only people who knew anything about what he was doing, and she didn’t know exactly what his subject was. Most of the tribe knew the cave was there, but never went inside it. The opening was small and sunken, well hidden behind an outcropping and dense growth. When he and Deer Eyes had come upon it gathering berries, he had decided on his plan.
When he crept up behind Deer Eyes now, she slid him a private look and a small smile. No one could have a better mate than she was. He was almost certain no one noticed him enter, late, as everyone was starting the communal meal. Deer Eyes had prepared enough for both of them and he gratefully shared the portion with her. Then they smoked together with the rest of the adults while the children played games with sticks and balls, and sometimes small carved figures of animals and humans. He closed his eyes in pleasure as Deer Eyes stroked the wisps of hair that escaped his top knot. It was the style of most of the hunters in his tribe and he had always worn his hair this way. It was how you could tell that a male was a Koasati.
The next day, Brenda left for the cave before anyone else had finished eating breakfast. She loved to have the place to herself. It was quiet, serene, and she wished no one else would ever come there. Had the ancient artists felt the same way? Most people thought that these caves, with their petroglyphs and red ochre drawings, were regarded as gateways to the place beyond life. That’s why they chronicled the achievements of their people here, so that the gods would know what they had been able to do.
Some art depicted massive animal hunts. Some were drawings of people who were probably important, high-ranking members of the tribes. For instance, the one in front of her, that she had photographed yesterday, was of a person with a distinctive head. She surmised this was a headdress, or possibly an animal head put over his own. Horns stuck out at the sides and his arms were raised, his hands holding what looked like an axe, or tomahawk, and the other some type of drum. Maybe the axe was actually a drumstick. So much was lost in time, clouded by years of change, with some customs left behind and others adopted.
A small niche lay beyond the large drawing of this person. She shone her phone light into it and could see, faintly, something else that was not natural to the rock. She crawled into the small space as far as she could go. This was something completely different. There was nothing like this in the rest of the cavern.
It was several days before One Feather could return to his secret work. His presence was required for a decision on the next hunt, and to help restring bows, repair and make new arrows, and sharpen flint blades on axes and knives. These were the tools they needed to hunt, so they could eat.
Several days passed, rising and working, smoking and eating together in the evening, and having private time with his mate.
So far, he had been able to conceal his malady from everyone but Deer Eyes. On the morning of the day he wanted to return to his work in the cave, he woke up, as he did many mornings, spitting blood. Since he and Deer Eyes lived alone in their thatched house, no one knew of this yet. One Feather had seen this disease in others before him and he knew he would not survive it. He was fairly certain that he did not have too many days left. He was still fairly strong and could still work and move about, but he was getting weaker and it was hard for him to breathe. He could not get enough air. And sometimes the blood came gushing from inside his throat.
Deer Eyes gave him a worried look and handed him an old piece of cloth to clean himself, but he turned his head away after he took it. It distressed him that his condition caused her worry. He never wanted her to suffer for his sake.
Brenda had finished all of the photography she was assigned two days ago, so now she was free to devote her attention to other things for at least a week. And that other thing would be this tiny side chamber she had found, when the rest of the team overlooked it. She heard the others come in, talking quietly among themselves. The professor’s deep tones, Gary’s lighter voice, and the two summer interns, sounding as young as they were, one guy and one woman. They were chattering about the newest find, which was deep in the cave, in an isolated dry cavern that had to be entered through a narrow window in the rock. It had now definitely been determined that featured drawing had been created at least six thousand years ago. They were all pleased that that made it as old as the oldest one yet discovered in North America, which was in a nearby cave. That drawing of a being that seemed to be half snake, half human, was the one they were all excited about this year.
Brenda had told them about the side cavern she was now in, but there wasn’t much interest in it. It couldn’t be proven to be older than two thousand years. It wasn’t old, but she felt that this one was different, important somehow. The depictions were not of the usual hunting and dancing scenes, or of the drawings that seemed to be about important people, or of the many gods. The figures here were modest, more realistic, and thoroughly human-looking.
That was what had first drawn her interest. They were different than the other, grander petroglyphs and drawings. She hadn’t had a chance, until today, to devote uninterrupted hours to her pet project. Although, any minute, she expected to be called off of it and told to join the others in the important part of the cave. The reason she hadn’t been, was maybe because of the small size of the dry cavern they were in. Hers was small, too, much smaller, but she was the only one interested in it. The mud floor might have had something to do with why they didn’t like to be in it.
What they didn’t know, was that the entrance was muddy, but it opened into a dry chamber that, right now, only she was interested in. Dry chambers preserved everything much better than dripping, moist places.
On the smooth walls, several scenes seemed to lead up to a larger one, with two dramatic figures, using more space. Should she start trying to interpret what looked like the main figures, the large ones? Or was there an intentional progression, from small to large? To be sure, they were laid out in a row, as if telling a story. That was what excited her. The other art in this cave and the pieces she had always worked on before this, usually held a complete idea in the one depiction. This one was more like—all she could think of was a comic book. Or a picture book. A tale told in several scenes.
After all of her dithering, she decided to start with the ochre drawing at her left. She knew that left-right reading wasn’t universal, but she was sure to have fifty-fifty odds.
On the far left, there were two figures drawn close together, to make a scene, it appeared. A female with long braids and a necklace that was made of some kind of large teeth, maybe elk teeth, and a male with a topknot and a feather stuck into his hair.
One Feather knew that his time was limited. But he was almost finished with his project. If he could just get the last touches done, he would feel good about this and could die in peace. The story he had to tell started with the young couple, him and his first mate, Clear Spring. If he was alone, he always wept at least slightly when he thought of her. Deer Eyes knew about Clear Spring, that she had been his first mate and the mother of his son, but did not know much more than that. She had never seen him weep over her memory.
He had been careful to never let anyone see the depth of his feelings, his anguish, his guilt. The story was nearly complete. He had only the final figure to draw, the mate to the largest one on this wall. After that, there was an important object to put here. For anyone who saw his work, everything would be explained. His guilt would be revealed. His son would know the truth. And he could die with his mind unburdened, this series of pictures, this story serving as his confession.
It was getting dark, and Brenda knew she needed to leave the site soon, but she hadn’t heard the others leaving yet. She could stay until she heard them going out. In her head, she went over what she had discovered. There were four distinct people portrayed here. They looked like two adult men, one adult woman, and a child. She was sure that’s what they most certainly were.
The first scene showed the woman with one of the men, standing very close together. The woman had the two long braids and the necklace of large teeth around her neck. The man wore a topknot with a feather coming out of it at an upward slant.
The next scene might have been x-rated, if such a thing existed a couple thousand years ago. The same two were horizontal, having sex, she assumed. The sex organ of the male was obvious. There was another scene nearly identical, but with the other male, this one with a sidelock and a striped garment on his lower half. Even though they were horizontal, with his upright penis visible, too, it was plain that this male was much taller than the female. He would thus be taller than the first male, the one with the feather.
Then some symbols took up space, until the fourth set of figures. Maybe the squiggles denoted the passage of time. Here, the woman, the first man, the one with the topknot and the feather, and the child stood together, as a family, it seemed, with the child between the other two. The child wore the same topknot and a feather stuck into it, but his feather was much longer than the man’s and stood more vertical.
Some more symbols separated the next scene, with the same people, but with the child taller. In fact, he was much taller than the first male in this scene.
The next picture was the tall child, complete with vertical feather, and the second, sidelocked man standing together, but facing away from each other, almost in silhouette. They were the same height.
The last picture was the one with the two largest figures. It seemed to be the climax of the story, in every sense. Depicted were the original couple, the man with the slanted feather and the woman. This scene had some real action. The man with the feather stood over the woman, who lay on the ground. He held a round object, maybe a rock, and looked down at her. Drops fell from the rock. She seemed to be either weeping or bleeding. It also appeared that her necklace was broken, or had a break in it. The bottom of the picture, the floor, was littered with objects. Some, the shape of the teeth from the broken necklace, some round. Maybe those were drops or blood.
Brenda had no idea what the feathers or garments meant. But this was obviously a human story. She thought she mostly knew what the story was. The others went past noisily, discussing what might be served for the evening meal and she followed them out.
She halted outside the main cave entrance when she saw Gary, talking quietly on his phone.
“I know. I won’t do this again. I had no idea this was the bastard. Love you, sis.”
He heard Brenda behind him and turned to face her, a look of anguish on his face.
“Are you okay?” She had to ask. The man was in distress.
“I am. My sister isn’t.” He walked away before she could ask him anything about his sister.
She ran after him. “Wait. What’s wrong with her?”
“She just found out who is leading this expedition.”
“She knows Professor Plume?”
“She was an undergrad under him. Literally. She didn’t even know he was married and he got her pregnant.” He shook his head and walked away.
One Feather took great care to pick his way carefully. He had become weak and had more and more trouble breathing. He muffled his cough as he left the village and was able to get away without anyone noticing. Deer Eyes had been asleep and had not roused when he had crept out of their house. Their son, Tall Feather, no longer stayed with them, but with the other young men in their communal dwelling. He would live there until he found a mate, as it should be, as it always was.
The burden of One Feather felt heavier with each step. He was able to make his way into the chamber and over to the wall where he had been working. When he placed his heavy burden on the ground, he gave a great breath out and almost collapsed on the floor. That would not do, though. He could not collapse and remain here. He must return to the village. He could not die here.
After everyone ate, and some of them had settled down to work a jigsaw puzzle by kerosene lantern, Brenda sat on her own cot and studied the sketches she had made of the drawings. She would assume she was right about the horizontal figures having sex. That was something universal to every culture and it was hard to mistake what that was. As a confirmation of that thought, the Professor appeared in her doorway, which was a tent flap.
“May I come in?”
She didn’t think it was a question, but she would answer anyway. “Not now, please. I have a few things to do.” She was getting tired of trying to avoid his attentions.
As she expected, he came in and sat beside her. “You don’t want to get dull do you? All work?”
Knowing what she now knew, she thought that everything about him was cliché. Hitting on the younger females, being married, the way he talked. She turned her head away. Was bad breath also a cliché for lechers?
“Please go away. I need to get some things done.”
Just as he reached for the back of her neck, Gary appeared in the doorway.
“Gary!” She almost shouted. “Please come in. I need to show you some things.” She turned to the old man. “You can leave now.”
His look was rather hostile. She knew she would never get another assignment under him, but that was a good thing.
After Professor Plume stalked out, with the younger man backing up to give him room, Gary tentatively stepped inside. “Hey, what’s up? What was that?”
“That was an old man thinking he’s attractive to every female in the world. An old man who is mistaken.”
Gary smiled. “I’ve seen him coming in here. I hung around in case he was getting nasty.”
“He’s been bothering me almost from the start.”
“Where have you been? You haven’t been working with the rest of us on that awesome discovery.”
She grabbed her phone to show him the photos. “I made another discovery. I think this will be my dissertation.” Then she set her phone down before showing him. Maybe she shouldn’t share this with anyone.
“Where is it?”
Brenda hesitated. “I can’t really tell you yet. But I’ll make a presentation when we’re back at the university.”
“That’s selfish.” Was he going to leave in a snit, too? It wouldn’t bother her in the least.
One Feather returned from the last of his mission, satisfied. There remained only one task. He found Deer Eyes at the stream washing the fish they would eat that night. He squatted beside her.
“I will be going soon.”
“Oh no, maybe not.” She reached for his face.
He caught her hand. “Wait. Let me tell you this. This one last thing. You know that my first mate was Clear Spring.”
She nodded. “Yes, the mother of Tall Feather.”
“And you know that she was found in the woods after she was killed.”
Deer Eyes widened those big eyes and nodded again. Slowly. “No one knows what happened. Do you know if she fell?”
“They will soon find out. After I am gone, not before then, you must take everyone to the cave over there.” He pointed toward the thick brush that concealed the opening from where they were. “You know it?”
She nodded. They all knew where it was.
“There is a narrow inner chamber off to the side, soon after you enter. It is small. It leads to another chamber. Take our chief and go there with a torchlight. There you will see what happened. The whole story.”
She shook her head. “No, you are not going yet.”
“Promise me you will do this. But that you will not do it before I am gone.” He knew he could trust her.
She nodded. “I do promise you. I will honor your last wish. But not until after we have held your vigil and your spirit has been released to the Afterworld.”
One Feather bowed his head. Maybe that would help him in the afterlife, to have it be known that he murdered his first wife for having the son of a man from a tribe who wanted, always, to take their land, and for never telling him. Whatever would unburden him after he was gone, would be good. He probably should have slain the dirty man. He had never liked any of them. They were crazy people. Like the rest of the men from that tribe, he shaved one side of his head and gathered the hair on the other side. It made them always look off balance. It made this one easy to depict, though. That hair and his height. He was very tall. One Feather had only seen this man once, sneaking away from the village. When his son grew tall, then he had known that the tall one had lain with his own mate.
There were only two days left on this site. Brenda made one more surreptitious trip to her private side chamber. She was glad she did, because she saw something she hadn’t noticed before. Under the last drawing, of the two large figures, one slaying the other, lay a large rock. Stepping close to peer at the artwork, she stubbed her toe on it, then shone her light downward. It revealed everything. It was stained with something dark, probably blood, on the top, as it lay. It also held what would today be called evidence. Forensic evidence. The rock was studded with fossils and also had several fissures in it. At the top, in the area where the stain was, some items were caught in the crack.
Brenda dropped to her knees to see it better. There were long strands of hair, the color lost after all these years, and two large teeth stuck there, trapped by the cleft. This was the actual rock that the feathered man had used to kill his cheating wife. She would never know the whole story, but this was the important part. It had to be a confession, an unburdening.
Yes, this would be her dissertation. She would never need to go on another cave outing with Professor Plume.
She photographed the rock thoroughly, from all sides, not touching or moving it, laying her ruler next to it. This was the crown of this cave, the object that made her know the story had been real. The artist was no fiction writer. Somehow, she knew he was the one with one feather. This was his story, his autobiography.
Brenda couldn’t wait to return to campus to get this story told properly, in her PhD thesis. She smiled all the way back to her tent with her sketches tucked under her arm and her phone with its precious photos in her pocket. As soon as she was in her tent, she transferred the pictures to storage.
That night, at dinner, she was composing the first few sentences of her dissertation. She broke off when Gary came to sit beside her. She thought she could get used to this guy.
She gave him a smile and they chatted easily about everything and nothing through the meal. The professor was across the mess tent, sitting next to one of the very young undergrad students. Brenda would be sure to warn her about him.
On the return trip, she sat next to Gary this time, but her mind kept straying to the Indigenous man with the feather. She felt she had gotten to know him. He had committed a crime, the worst one of all, taking a life. And the cave wall was his confession. She hoped he had gotten some absolution, some relief from that. She hoped the drawings had done him as much good as they were going to do her, with her PhD paper. It was going to be awesome.