by Rob Loughran
forum: Twilights
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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           Geoff 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 ago.

           He was a young man then, a rookie associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon when he first explored this region. He had theorized—flying in the face of anthropological tenets and the oral history of Native American tribes—that 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 formidable—rocky and rough—for quads, motorcycles or mountain bikes.

           And 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 fall—a broken leg or hip—at his age would be fatal. So steady, old man , steady.

           Millennia 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.

           Into 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 grotto—symbols 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 petrogylphs—the 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.

           Geoff 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.



           The Omah sat silently in the darkness. Geoff huddled in the back with two elders; white-haired and stooped—familiar with Geoff. The entire group—dwindled to thirty-one from the two-hundred strong they had been forty years prior—faced 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 side—mute, gelid observers of the ensuing rites.

           As 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 home—a moist, hand-excavated, nearly-invisible-until-you-enter-it subterranean dwelling, about a mile from the cave—and 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.

           Following 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 year—the 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 matter—where 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.

           Except 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 and beard.

           Which 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.

           The 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.

           They were, now, all he had.


           The bowls were circulated, finally reaching Geoff in the back row. He slurped the fermented, slightly hallucinogenic brew using a rapid movement of his cupped hands—as 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 dead—who have been preserved on ice—will 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.

           That's 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 bonemeal.

           And, at last, they brought Geoff his knife.



copyright 2006 Rob Loughran.

Rob Loughran:
Rob's first novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He's been published, fiction and non-fiction, 200+ times. His freewheeling comic sci-fi novel Teenaged Pussies From Outer Space will be released on 06.06.06: Yes that's correct: The Invasion of Teenaged Pussies begins on 6.6.6.

Check out Rob's new young adult novel Norman Babbit, Scientist at Check out his nasty jokebooks at

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