Saturday, April 24, 2010

[Mythos XI] Geas, Ghosts, Ghastliness, and Grim

With apologies to HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Charles Stross, and Peter Watts. Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

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Some people feel that it's simply impossible that a place, a geographic location, could actually be evil.

Strictly speaking, it's not so much the place, as its history. It's not so much the location as what has happened there.

We've all seen those movies about Really Stupid People who take a bet that they'll survive the night sleeping over at a notorious haunted house where there's reputedly been a bit of the old necromancy and definitely more than a bit of murder most foul. You know, everyone thinks its going to be one big old party, folks get a bit tipsy, at least one couple sneaks off to the back rooms to get frisky, and next thing you know, poof, cue the scary music and cleverly framed shots of an undefined someone sneaking up the stairs with a meat cleaver in one hand and a severed head in the other.

Well, usually it's not that bad... usually. It's more commonly the case that people have no idea that they've just rented a room at the haunted house, or actually bought a real property with a real history of real carnage. They think they've bought a tidy cottage where they can spend a lot of time doing a bit of relaxing gardening, and the next thing you know, they're headline news on the front page, above the fold.

Before I was born, the family lived out west at the edge of the Navajo nation. Fascinating people, the Navajo, with fascinating beliefs which have really reasonable basis when you look past the tales they'll tell damn-fool Easterners who ask stupid questions to which any sensible person should already know the answers. The thing is, what makes perfect sense to the Navajo may not make sense to people who believe themselves to occupy the pinnacle of scientific culture and enlightened rationality.

If you ask a stupid question, you will get a stupid answer, or they might just stare at you as if they doubt your sanity. The stupid question a lot of Easterners asked - -after they'd built some nice government-funded cinder-block house complete with plumbing and central heating, and the residents knocked a hole in the northward wall and moved out and refused to return -- would be "now why the heck did you go and do that?" -and the Navajo would just look at them like they were crazy for asking such a question.

Well, to the Navajo, you must be crazy to ask such a question and actually expect an answer. When a person dies, until and unless really time-consuming and expensive rituals are performed, an angry part of their spirit will probably linger and even if it's not angry enough to harm you, it will unsettle your own harmony and that can have bad consequence. It's bad enough that an angry spiritual force might be hanging around in a house, waiting for someone to fall asleep there so it can disturb their harmony by infesting their dreaming; for that you can warn people not to sleep (or even enter) there by knocking a hole in the north wall. Everybody knows that when you see a house with a hole in the north wall, someone has died there and it's unwise to enter. But who but a damn-fool Easterner would actually speak about it? To name such a thing is to call such a thing... to confirm its existence to it.

This may sound like so much poppycock to the damn-fool Easterners... they come from humid places. The Navajo live in the desert, much like the Arabs, and its astonishing how similar are certain aspects of the Arab beliefs about the Djinni and the Navaho beliefs about the Chindi.

When the Navajo entered the lands they now call their home, they entered lands freshly vacated by a variety of calamities, although mostly they seem to have been unaware of the particulars. Then again, perhaps they simply prefer to not speak of it, at least not to damn-fool Easterners.

It seems that the Ancestral Puebloans, ancestors to today's Ute people, had a pretty well-developed agricultural and trading civilization, one that endured and genreally prospered for a timespan of nearly 800 years, a duration surpassed only by the Roman Empire and Imperial China. Then, practically overnight, they vanished.

There are a host of reasons for this, ranging from soil exhaustion and climate change to exhaustion of the vast but slow-growing desert forests they burned to fire their pottery which they traded as far away as Ohio and southern Mexico. And it may well have been that trade with Mexico which was their ultimate undoing: the same climate changes that deepened the desertification of the Sonoran Desert and the surrounding lands also caused significant failures of agriculture in the Aztecan culture to the south.

As the Chacoans abandoned their extensive settlements -- many of which rivaled the constructions of the ancient Greeks -- they were abandoning what had been fertile lands and cities that originated wealth for trade, open cities that invited the traveler to stop and do business, cities full of artisans mass-producing useful things of beauty such as clay jars and bowls. To this day, even fairly small fragments of Chacoan ceramic art trades at high price on the black markets of antiquarian fancy. You'd need to know very hard-to-find people to do any sort of dealings that could bring you a good price for any object without a pedigree of license. For those who don't have a special interest in collecting these things, they're pretty but pretty worthless; for those who do have that special interest, they're few and far between and increasingly difficult to obtain. Frankly, the inheritors of the lands -- and to some degree the culture -- of the Chacoans, want their relics back and Federal law supports this with significant legal penalties. After all, the way the natives see it, if you're getting the property of their ancestor by digging in their ruins, effectively you are robbing graves. In recent years, the Federal authorities have also taken this position... but they didn't always think that way.

Before I was born, places such as Chaco were pretty much buried in the dust of 500 years, as the Navajo didn't much like the place, it being full of ruins and there being no way to know in most cases whether or not (or how) anyone had died there... though it served well enough as a retreat and hiding place when the Europeans came, first the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and at last the Americans. When the damn-fool Easterners came, they thought that they'd dig around in the ruins to see if they could find anything interesting. For what it's worth, my dad had a part-time job on the weekend, helping to excavate various archaeological sites.

One of the things they found in profusion was bones. No wonder the Navajo didn't like the place much.

In 1999, a theory was put forth which was not widely accepted, to say the least, that the Chacoan culture had been conquered and terrorized by a marauding army of Toltec thugs who cowed their captured cities full of peaceful artisan industrialists and traders by butchering and devouring them. This notion shocked the academic community into an uproar of frantic denials. Previously the academic community had responded to emerging evidence with deafening silence. Yet other discoveries occurred over time and it became fairly clear that the original Chacoans had fled their fine cities to dwell in fortified caves in defensible cliffs such as Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, digging in and holding their own until even more drought left them without any sources of water. Subsequently, it seems, they scattered into higher country, evidently moving frequently and settling only in small numbers. At one such site, known as 5MT10010 in southwestern Colorado, at least seven men, women and children were killed, dismembered, cooked, eaten, and shat out. At least one definitely human fossilized scat ("coprolite"), definitely containing partially digested human remains, was found there.

It seems that the invading Toltec weren't satisfied with invading the Chacoan civilization and driving off the inhabitants. It seems that they pursued the Chacoans everywhere they went, and then ate them when they captured them.

In 1976 I turned 18 and the local economy was lousy and in oil-rich Texas it was booming. 'Go west, young man," is what people were saying and it's what I did for a few years.

It's probably good that I did. The folks I hung with back in the day all seemed to have drifted into lifestyles which, as it turned out, wouldn't last long for them in all too many cases. A lot of them had been heading that way even before getting out of highschool. Heck, smalltime theft and daytime burglaries were practically the neighborhood sport and pastime. People would go steal something and get to talking about it and the "donor" would hear about it and go steal back whatever had been taken, and often anything else lying around. Of course, my own house had been burglarized several times, with police suspicion settling on various individuals, all of whom were at least acquaintances. The detectives were no doubt aware of this more-or-less fad for teen burglaries, and refused to prosecute on the grounds that they couldn't tell whether or not this was a case of someone borrowing something for longer than expected, or actual crime with criminal intent and actual victimization.

After having left all of this behind me for the three years I spent Out West, somehow my friends who had remained in the neighborhood culture of sociopathy remained mostly behaving like sociopaths. As I said, they never grew out of it and the majority of those wound up as do most people who don't grow out of being sociopaths: dead, disabled, or behind bars. Somehow, despite my upbringing, I did grow up out of my teen sociopathy just as you'd expect from any normal human being. And somehow, so did a lot of other people -- the majority, actually -- and more and more I started hanging out with them rather than with the folks who seemed clearly destined for careers as jailbirds.

One night I was hanging out, and drinking a few cold beers, with some neighborhood kids who were back from college for the summer. We hadn't ever been buddies back in the day, we knew each other on a nodding basis but that was about it. They ran in different circles than I did, not surprising since they had been studying hard towards the end of getting into school and making a success of their lives.

"So, did you ever get that stuff back?" asked one friend, who shall remain nameless.

"Uh, what stuff?"

My friend detailed the "haul" from a burglary that took place in maybe 1974 or so. That one was never "solved" by the detectives, who by this time had pretty much washed their hands of even responding to complaints of burglary of homes where teenagers lived.

"Let's see. A bunch of minor jewelry, some this-and-that, and um... a gold plated pocket watch. It had a railroad train embossed on it".

"Fuck! Goddamn it, that was my grandfather's and I was supposed to inherit it. I didn't even know it was missing."

"Well, it is."

I was starting to get pretty pissed off, I guess, so they handed me another beer and told me a story. A certain person we all knew had said that he'd got some swag and wanted to know if they wanted it. They had said they might, and decided to meet up someplace without adult supervision and where nobody who saw them would be surprised to see young guys hanging out. They met, and the swag was presented for possible fencing.

"I had to turn him down, since the little stuff wasn't worth anything to me, and the watch was too recognizable. Traceable, I mean, had the man's initials engraved inside it, fer Christ's sake. Everything was either worthless or too hot and we told him we wouldn't buy it".

I swallowed hard on the beer. I was contemplating some courses of possible action.

"Do you think he still has it?"

"Uh, no. He got all pissed off when we said we wouldn't buy it, and he threw it all into the woods."

"He. Threw," I said. "It. Into. The. Woods."

"Well," he said, "We all called him an asshole and gave him a bunch of shit and said we were going to beat him up, and he started crying and said he'd get it back for you."

"Why didn't you make him get it then?"

"It was getting dark. He said he'd go back for it the next day. I guess he didn't, eh?"

I was definitely all pissed off. "Goddamn it. That was my grandfather's watch. And my grandmother's earrings. Fuck."

I got up to go home and work out a plan of action.

"Oh," said my friend, "and one other thing."

I grimaced and asked, "What's that?"

"A doll."

"A doll?" I asked, goggling at him. "What, like a GI Joe or something? Not mine."

"No," he said, "A little wooden doll. Looked really old. Had these little white dots all over it, like little flecks of bone, or, what's that stuff, mother-of-pearl. Oh, and a piece of, like, red glass or something for a heart."

"No shit," I said. "Thanks for telling me," I said, as I stood up and left. More than oncoming autumn should have done for me, I felt a chill getting into my bones.

I first saw that doll when I was maybe four years old. My dad's boss was showing it to my dad. My dad's boss wasn't exactly a scary man, but he was a boss and I was supposed to be seen and not heard, in any case.

My dad's excavation work at Chaco came after some other excavation work done to prepare the way for the building of Navajo Dam. This was another reason my Dad's boss was scary. He was not a bad or mean man, not to me, but the last time he'd come by, he told my Dad that I had to go to the hospital to get shots. I did not like getting shots, although this one had not been so bad. They just scratched and poked me a little bit with the needle, on the side of my upper arm. They said I'd get a scab there, but I did not. This caused more than a bit of curiousity from the doctors, so they tried it again. This time I did get a scab, a big ugly nasty one that itched like hell but I was not permitted to scratch. My dad's boss was something I associated with annoyance and irritation more than anything else.

I found out only later that my Dad was one of a very few whites in the area that the natives trusted to show enough cultural sensitivity to deal properly with certain matters in certain affairs where the natives didn't want something done but the whites and the government insisted on. For example, to impound the waters behind Navajo Dam it was necessary to find and relocate all cemeteries and burial grounds because of a very real risk of a release of smallpox into the water from any corpses the waters might expose. For the natives, smallpox was pretty much swift and sure death, not that it would have done any good for any non-vaccinated whites. Smallpox resurrection was considered a possibility rather than a likelihood, but some was in fact found and thus I had to be vaccinated, even though that practice had been falling into disuse in the years since the successful eradication of that bane from North America. Sometimes when you go digging in places you shouldn't go digging, bad things are brought into the light. That's what happened. It happened more than once.

"The natives are restless," the man told Dad. "They are shutting us down."

"It's the house of bones, isn't it," said Dad.

"Yes, it is. But they're shutting down the excavations at Cliff Palace, too, and they want everything back that anyone found there. So, since you're the one who found this, you can be the one to decide whether to give it back to them. If you didn't tell them about it, I doubt they know you found it."

They talked a bit more, after the man handed my dad a cylindrical glass jar. I couldn't see what was inside.

Days or months or weeks later, I came upon the cylindrical glass jar, and saw what was in it. A doll, a little wooden doll, all dried and hardened, with little white flecks all over it, and a garnet in its chest like a little glass heart. My little hands were not strong enough to open that jar. That is a good thing.

Years later, I came across it again, and asked some questions and learned some things. My Dad was not exactly superstitious in any real sense of the word, but he told me it was probably best to just leave the doll alone, buried in a drawer as it had been buried in the sands of time in that old Anasazi cliff dwelling.

"What," I scoffed -- me being only about 13 or so -- "It's maybe going to give me an old Indian curse or something?"

He took the jar from me rather gingerly, and thought a long time, it seemed, before putting it back in the drawer.

"Do you really want to find out?" he asked.

I felt like being sarcastic, being the teen brat that I was, so I asked, "Won't g_d and Jesus protect me?"

He could be sarcastic right back: "First, you'd have to actually believe in g_d and Jesus. And they'd have to believe in you."

Then he softened up a bit, thought for a moment, and spoke.

"From what I've heard about it from the folks who study that sort of thing, Indian curses don't have much to do with g_d and Jesus. Whole different thing." He slid the drawer shut with a soft finality.

Many years have passed since I last saw that doll, and much has come to light about the circumstances in which it was likely created. Until the Toltecs and their bloodshedder ways invaded the open cities of the Chacoans, they'd been there for a long long time, trading with many other cultures, and the rituals and understandings of their descendants are complex and powerful indeed, and we can reasonably presume that their vast body of lore is but a shadow of what it once was before the invaders came. In the modern day, their descendants are known as a very peaceful people, yet even the warlike nations that surround them generally leave them in their peace, because it's well known that when you fuck with people who know the right kind of magic, they do not need warriors nor weapons to make Bad Shit happen to you.

In the modern day, the descendants of the Chacoans are famous, in part, for their dolls representing Kachina. Yet the modern Kachina dolls -- a few of which we keep in the house for various reasons -- are a far different thing from any dolls that might have been made back in the days when the Chacoans fled and scattered from the ritual cannibalism and brutality of their Toltec conquerors.

If you were an escaped surviving member of the priest class of the Chacoans, and you were hiding in an inaccessible cliff fortress hoping that the enemy wouldn't find you, but fearing that they would, and knowing what the Enemy were, and how they lived and what they ate, if you were an adept at the arts of the Indian Curse or related dark workings, don't you think you might leave behind something that your enemy might keep for their own, something that would do worse to them than they could possibly do to you? Something, perhaps, that they might carry away with them, carry back to their own people?

I don't know enough about this sort of thing to suggest that this is the function, the purpose, the intent and the power of this little doll, nor do I know that g_d and Jesus have nothing to do with an Indian curse. I do know one thing, though.

While I was away Out West, subdivision and development occurred where, sometime around 1974, a neighborhood juvenile delinquent met with others to try to sell them the proceeds of burglary, and unable to sell, disposed of the swag. For some years, until subdivision and development, that swag might have been just lying there on the ground where anyone could have picked it up. But if nobody came along and picked it up?

If my friends weren't lying to me for some reason I can't fathom, and were totally accurate about their description of where this meeting took place, then the subdivision and development and construction almost certainly paved over and buried what may have been the locus of an Indian curse meant to wipe out -- and for just cause -- an entire population. And where exactly would this... thing... be buried?

Under the back parking lot of the US Mail Handling Facility at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Grand Pre Road... right behind K-Mart, right next to the Aspen Crossing Apartments, right across a rather narrow street from North Gate Park.

Remember, if a place can't be said to be cursed, perhaps it's not the place itself, but the history of the place, the things that have happened there. Do the spirits of the foully-murdered linger where they were slain? Could other spirits be lingering as well?

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