finished his breakfast, nearly the last of his food, and walked
to the stream emanating from the cave. He washed thoroughly, even
removing his shirt in the chill, forty-three degree air. He left
his backpack and sleeping bag beneath the gnarled curtain of Jeffrey
pines and entered the cave he'd discovered nearly a half-century
was a young man then, a rookie associate professor of Anthropology
at the University of Oregon when he first explored this region.
He had theorizedflying in the face of anthropological tenets
and the oral history of Native American tribesthat the Kalmiopsis
had once been inhabited. This southwestern Oregon wilderness is
a vast, largely unexplored expanse of shrub, scrub, and stunted
conifer. It is ringed by the lush western fir forests of the coastal
range. Even though the Kalmiopsis receives the same amount of
rainfall as the surrounding woodlands, plants can't reach maturity
because of the underlying peridotite. This coarse and porous scarlet
soil is composed of calcium scavenging nickel, chromium, iron,
silica, and magnesium; and it's the reason that all mature trees
and shrubs in this area are dwarfed. And as the vegetation is
stunted the fauna is sparse: fence lizards, insects, snakes, chickadees.
The Kalmiopsis is a thicket-from-hell to hike through and too
formidablerocky and roughfor quads, motorcycles or
so it remains a wilderness, its secret revealed only to Geoff.
The cave seemed, today, the same as
it had in 1954. The weak April sun, filtered through high clouds,
barely illuminated the antechamber's overhang. He stopped and
closed his eyes. Geoff felt the crisp air rising from the cave's
frozen inner chamber. He breathed slowly through his nose, the
air warming as it filled his lungs. Geoff opened his eyes on the
exhale and flicked on his maglite. The first time, I'd used
that ten-pound waterproof job I'd stolen from the surplus store
cuz I was broke. That was the year James was born.
The path twisted steeply, immediately,
upwards into the cave. He placed the maglight in his mouth and
extended his arms, touching the sidewalls for balance. Slower
than he had been in previous years, but constant; one foot in
front of the other. And cautious; a falla broken leg or
hipat his age would be fatal. So steady, old man , steady.
of use had rubbed the walls and floor of the cave smooth as burnished
copper. Geoff could hear the stream's trickle echoing through
the chamber as it grew, drop-by-drop, from the permafrost icepack
at the cave's core.
the cave perhaps one-quarter mile, it narrowed into a fissure;
a constricted thirty-foot-long stone canal that Geoff knew from
awkward experience must be traveled head first, arms extended.
On his first foray into this chute he went feet first and he'd
been wedged like a doorstop. Not to be denied, with the infinite,
careless curiosity of youth, he dove in headfirst. Then, as now,
his breath was stifled and constricted until he reached the grotto
and was shocked by the palpable thickness of the cold. He pulled
his wool cap over his ears; rubbed his hands together. The maglite's
beam, shrouded with fogged breath, cut the darkness like a sheathed
knife. The end of the underground complex, the source of this
frigid, shallow, meandering Styx loomed. The monolithic block
of bluish ice had receded maybe three feet in the decades Geoff
had visited, but it still seemed ponderous and eternal as the
cold of outer space. The year's dead, including two infants, were,
as was the custom, spread-eagled face-up on the ice. They would
be kept frozen until the time came for the proper, communal burial
rites. At dusk, seven days after the first full moon of spring.
Geoff clapped his hands together for
warmth and sat. The moist, nearly frozen boulder he chose sent
not altogether unpleasant icy-spasms through his arthritic left
hip. He traced his light across the petroglyphs carved into the
curved dome of the grottosymbols he'd struggled for years
to understand, to interpret; to render into sense. Petroglyphs
which had become painfully obvious this January. At first I
just wanted her to live, though in pain and scarred from the mastectomy.
This must be the import of the first half of the petrogylphsthe
moon, sun, stars, trees, and mountains. Life. Then I realized
I wanted Janice to live for me; until I let go and allowed her
to die for herself; to be done with this particular coil of existence.
That's what the second part of their symbols entails: dissolution,
decay, and death resulting in a seed from which rises not a flower,
not another life, but a mere emanation.
understood, finally. Not through a textbook study of comparative
anthropology, but in an overwarm room at a Hospice in Beaverton,
where his wife went to die. And Geoff smiled, knowing that this
trip to the Kalmiopsis would be his last.
Omah sat silently in the darkness. Geoff huddled in the back with
two elders; white-haired and stoopedfamiliar with Geoff. The
entire groupdwindled to thirty-one from the two-hundred strong
they had been forty years priorfaced east, the front row just
feet from where the glacial Styx exited the ice cave. The entire
group, one-by-one, had bathed in the icy rivulet before sitting.
The year's dead had been removed from the cave and ritually bathed.
Still frozen, they were set to one sidemute, gelid observers
of the ensuing rites.
the sun settled into the Pacific, three female Omah rose and each
lifted a large, shallow bowl. They carried these pinewood bowls
through the small assembly; a group where children and adolescents
were the clear minority. Each Omah presented with the bowl dipped
their fingers, then drank noisily from cupped hands. The bowls,
Geoff had learned years earlier, were made only from pines that
had been hit by lightning. The charred trunks were hauled to the
Omah's permanent homea moist, hand-excavated, nearly-invisible-until-you-enter-it
subterranean dwelling, about a mile from the caveand smoldering
fires were lit in them. They, men and women and children alike,
blew on the flames so they burned in a circle. Eventually it formed
a bowl that they rubbed smooth with the gritty peridotite. Then
the phases of the moon were burned in with a heated stone. They
were sealed with the oily sap from a native, low growing shrub.
his 1954 encounter Geoff had returned at least three times a year
to visit the Omah. They tolerated him, but it wasn't until 1983
that they invited him into their home; their culture. At the time
he didn't realize he'd been allowed entrance because his beard
and hair had turned white that yearthe year James had gone missing.
At twenty-nine their only child had been through a tumultuous
co-dependent, mutually destructive marriage and an horrific divorce.
Geoff, working at UO, knew colleagues and students involved with
cocaine and James showed all the same signs: erratic behavior;
only optimism or pessimism, and the compulsion to lie about everything;
small things that didn't matterwhere you ate, which movie you've
seen, anything. Too old to make the milk cartons and too obscure
to make the seven o'clock news, James slipped through unnoticed.
by his parents. Janice turned into a cyclone of activity. Candlelight
vigils, distributing flyers, a monumental phone campaign. All
in vain. Geoff disappeared into his work; the loss of a child
evident only in the brownish-red color that drained from his hair
allowed him entrance into the life of the Omah. Instead of the
bland and benign acceptance he'd been accustomed to, the white
haired scientist had been welcomed in 1983. The only hierarchy
in Omah society was age: white-haired Geoff was now perceived
as a worthy elder. That year the Omah made a concerted effort
to teach him their language and customs. Their language consisted
mainly of straightforward signing. Pointing for "me",
"you", "he", "she", "moon"
"tree", "food". Pantomine for "eating",
"sleeping", "we go" and all other verbs. There
was an important olfactory element to their language as well;
their names were their smells. As Geoff aged, he could distinguish
and appreciate this particular channel of communication: his hearing
dimmed and his glasses became thicker but his nose had improved.
For the past ten years he could distinguish the Omah apart in
the dark and distinguish a family's "clan smell". The
verbal element in Omah communication served mostly as punctuation.
Their short, guttural verbalizations, accentuated and refined
their gesticulation. With the exception of the utterance Omah.
Which meant People.
Omah weren't Bigfoot, Yeti, or the missing link. They were a hominid
species specific unto themselves. These diminutive people of the
Kalmiopsis had their own language, art, culture, and religion.
Geoff never published a word about them. As a result he languished
in his professional advancement; spending all his research grants
on a subject he decided never to disclose. His son had vanished.
His wife had just died. Geoff rejoiced in the fact he'd never
mentioned the Omah to a soul: professional or personal.
were, now, all he had.
bowls were circulated, finally reaching Geoff in the back row.
He slurped the fermented, slightly hallucinogenic brew using a
rapid movement of his cupped handsas he'd been taught. The
bowls were refilled and emptied again as the moon ascended out
of the black eastern forests. One of the few remaining Omah children
carried a woven wreath of leaves and placed it around the neck
of the elder who had initiated the bathing. He stood in front,
facing the assembly. A smaller pinewood bowl materialized and
found its way to the elder. He drained the intoxicant and was
handed another bowl. Starting with the smallest, the Omah approached
and sprinkled the wreathed elder with white powder until he glowed
pallid in the dappled and scattered moonlight. When all, including
Geoff, had dusted the slightly swaying figure, another elder removed
the wreath and placed a bone knife in the white figure's hand.
If Geoff had ever published, his article would begin: The Omah
celebrate the first spring moon and ensure another year of life
for the community by this sacrifice, one week after the first
full moon of spring. They consider the moon their source of life.
The sacrificial victim is colored white to resemble the moon;
that's where half his soul will spend eternity. The dusty
white Omah drained a final bowl of brew and tossed the bowl aside.
The Omah rose in unison as the elder knelt. He smiled at the community,
then plunged the knife into his abdomen. With both hands he opened
his viscera. Steaming blood ran to his knees and pooled, commingling
with the frigid stream. He smiled, dropped the knife and inserted
both hands into the incision. He leaned forward until his forehead
settled into the pool of blood. In this position, silently, he
died. It is an honor to be chosen to die in this manner.
You are given extra portions of a fermented, mildly alcoholic,
hallucinogenic "hooch" made from roots, wild yeast and
dried mushrooms. They say the victim doesn't feel any pain.
You are sprinkled with bone meal;
ground from the bones of last year's victim, and the bones of
all who have died during the previous year. A portion of this
year's Omah deadwho have been preserved on icewill
be consumed the week following this ceremony. For the Omah, consuming
their dead is simply a method of ritual burial. They believe the
bodies of their ancestors remain alive through them, as they will
live through each successive generation. That's why half the soul
travels to the moon; the other half stays here; literally alive
within their people. The concept of "cannibalism" is
absolutely foreign to the Omah; this is a refined and ritualized,
mythically effective burial system: the mortality rate gives them
enough protein to supplement their mostly vegetarian diets, and
has kept them out of the anthropological record. Nothing is buried
or discarded; neither bone nor teeth. But Omah numbers have dwindled
over the last two decades. They are in the twilight of their existence.
what Geoff would have written, by way of introduction to his thesis.
It's what he should have written. Instead he chose to revere and
respect the Omah way of life. Geoff accepted the Omah way. Which
is why, when he walked to the front of the assembly and stroked
his white beard, and mimed the story of James and Janice, an Omah
child placed the wreath around his neck. They brought him several
bowls of hooch. Then the congregation began sprinkling him with
at last, they brought Geoff his knife.