Edition 24: Kai by Ellen Denton
Sometimes the dream feels so real. John is on his first adventure as a budding archeologist. Both he and the Professor dream of Native Americans, long gone. However, there’s a piece of the past that won’t rest until uncovered once more. Ellen Denton placed second in the Unlikely Partnerships Story Quest Competition with the unlikely partners of long-since gone spirits and a university student. SY
John woke up screaming out loud. In his nightmare, he was someone named Kai Longbow, and strips of flesh were being ripped from his body by the claws and teeth of a rampaging bear. Now, as he sat up wide-eyed in the darkness, he could still smell the pungent animal odor of the creature’s fur and its hot breath, and feel its saliva dripping against his face.
When the perceptions from the dream faded, he lay back down, but the bed sheet was damp with sweat; he would sleep no more this night.
Fifteen minutes later, he sat looking out the window with a mug of coffee warming his hands. He had an exam at the university today and needed to be at his best, but felt too distracted to focus on the notes spread out on the table before him.
He was stressed out about the dreams, which were more vivid with each passing night. Things were happening to him, spawned by these nighttime horrors, that he couldn’t bring himself to even talk about. He feared they were only illusions woven out of his own declining sanity.
He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. On his arms were long, jagged, angry red furrows, which when he first lurched up out of bed and turned on the light, had started fading to a vein-colored purple. He knew that in a few more minutes, just like the blood stains on his sheets, the claw marks would vanish altogether.
Professor Joyce Meisner was so beautiful that there was probably not a single archaeology student in her class that wasn’t infatuated with her to some degree. She had a striking, exotic appearance—green, cat-like eyes, inky black hair, high cheekbones, aquiline nose and a broad, serene face that led to much speculation about her nationality. The general consensus was that she was of mixed ancestry—all fodder for speculation.
She never spoke about herself and was all business when it came to lecturing and teaching. She ruled her classroom with an iron hand and an acerbic tongue.
Pacing back and forth in front of the classroom, she clasped her hands behind her back. “Most of you have done fine on your exams, which only tells me you know how to memorize things. But you’re studying to be archaeologists. Your life’s work should involve more than poring over dusty tomes that extol the merits of relics and dead civilizations. Most of you will end up as glorified stock clerks, sorting and labeling shards of history in some university basement, or worse, as exalted museum tour guides.”
A soft ripple of laughter ran through the room, but there was a fair amount of uncomfortable shifting in seats. John leaned forward, sensing by the Professor’s unusual monologue that this class would be taking a different direction.
“Archaeology isn’t just about the dead and gone. It’s more than sifting dirt within the walls of some eighth century latrine, looking for interesting, decorative shit. It’s about bringing the past back to life and giving it a voice.”
She went to her desk and grabbed up a sheaf of papers. “The semester ends in six weeks. In three weeks, you’ll take your final exams, but only half your grade for the year will be based on test scores. The other half will depend on what you do with these.”
She gave out the papers in bunches. The students each took one, before passing them back to those behind them.
“There’s a different map for each of you. All the sites are within a five-hour drive followed by a two to four hour hike. All loosely pinpoint an area containing a cache of secrets waiting to be told.”
“Your assignment is to go to the site on your map in the next five weeks, and put to use everything you’ve learned. Using the tools of an archaeologist, uncover a buried truth and bring it back to life. Good luck.”
At almost four, this was the last class of the day for most students. They gathered up books and bags and headed out the door to the stairway.
Moments later in her emptied classroom, Professor Meisner walked to the window, raising a slat in the blinds. Silently she watched her students pour out of the building and down the university steps, out into the sunny afternoon.
Friday evening two weeks later, John had finished loading up his VW bug for the trip. His plan was to sleep now so he could get up at 3:00 AM to drive and then hike. Get to his dig site early enough on Saturday to give him most of the weekend to search.
Recently, the weight of his concerns over his mental state had been pressing on him like suffocating smog. This trip would be his first chance to apply his training out in the real world, and he was relieved to have something else momentarily absorbing his attention and distracting him from his own chaotic thoughts.
He went over his checklist of tools and supplies one more time, and satisfied that everything was now in the car, went inside and to bed. Although it was barely 7:30 PM, and despite being wired by anticipation, he fell asleep within ten minutes.
John woke shivering, standing barefoot in his pajamas in the woods. Then he realized it was Kai who, hearing the bear lumbering and crashing through the brush, spun around and crouched, weapon at the ready. John was awake enough now to sense himself panicking behind this doppelganger’s eyes, feeling his own inner efforts to tear himself away before—
“I’M PICKIN UP GOOD VIBRATIONS! SHE’S GIVING ME EXCITATIONS! I’M PICKIN UP GOOD VIBRATIONS! SHE’S GIVING ME—”
John slapped his hand down on the clock radio. It was 3:02. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and got up. He looked back at his sheets and down at the sleeves of his pajamas, and was relieved to see no bloodstains.
Barefoot, he made his way to the bathroom. By the time he came back to the bedroom, the damp trail of soil, pine needles, and leaves, had already faded away.
By 3:45 AM, he was barreling down the freeway toward his destination. It would be at least four hours before his first turnoff onto Old Blackthorn Road.
Sunbird, sat by the stream, running her fingers through the cool, rippling water. She came here often because it had been their favorite place.
As always, she reached out and spoke to him quietly with her mind and wept for the loss of him. It had been months since Kai had failed to return from a trip into the woods to hunt.
The Elders of the tribe pronounced that he had gone to be with the spirits of his ancestors, and they assured her he would watch over her always, but Sun Bird could not accept that he would never again return in his human form. There was too much left unsaid, and the future that had once stretched out before them like a ribbon of golden sun, now lived on only in the small and aching box of her broken heart.
She knew she should wash her face well before returning to the village, to conceal that she’d been crying. She got to her knees and leaned down toward the stream, lifting up as much water as her two cupped hands would hold.
It was crystal clear in the daylight, but when she blinked, night fell. She could feel the cold water dripping through her fingers in the dark as she lifted it to her face.
The water became a silk sheet sliding through her hands as she kneeled on the king-size bed she shared with her husband. Now, fully awake, Joyce Meisner looked around the room. She was on the second floor of their house in the suburbs, and it was 3:45 AM.
Professor Meisner, a brilliant researcher, had done her homework well. She had combed through and correlated records for certain areas going back hundreds of years. All the sites she had chosen for her students bore signposts that, at one time or another, earlier indigenous people had lived there.
John, after a fifteen-minute jolting drive down a narrow dirt road, stopped and looked at his map and landmark list. This was the place he would need to get out and hike.
He packed up his work tools—items as fine as a watchmaker’s jewelling kit—for a journey into far-flung times past.
Feeling like a true explorer, John set off down a barely discernable path into the woods.
After two days of futile digging, tapping, and sounding, John gave up. Only on the first day had he uncovered anything; an unusual, opalescent artefact that he could see was quite old.
He had gently brushed away the clinging threads of dirt from its surface, and turning it this way and that, soon realized it was a fragment from an early Coca Cola bottle.
Travelling deeper into the woods, John unearthed the remnants of an ancient fire pit; its blackened stones had been completely buried under generations of fallen leaves. The Lucky Strike cigarette butts, pale among the pine needles, the empty condom package that proclaimed the contents were “ribbed, for her pleasure”, and the benevolent smile of Colonel Sanders on the half-crushed Kentucky Fried Chicken container, quickly made it clear what century it was from.
By late Sunday afternoon, dejected and empty handed, John started the long and arduous hike back the way he came. Wanting to get the whole ordeal over with, he stopped only long enough to occasionally take a swig from his canteen.
At one such pause, a strange, black, zigzag at the bottom of a towering rock face caught his eye. It was almost concealed by a wall of brush.
His curiosity got the better of him, and after making his way down a precipitous incline and pushing through the vegetation, found the dark spot was actually an opening to a cave. John pulled out his flashlight and stepped inside.
Starting on the left, he slowly and methodically swept the flashlight beam up and down the walls, hoping to see some crude drawing or other sign of early human habitation. There was nothing but stone and bat shit.
He continued to play the flashlight beam along the walls until it swept the far right-hand side. He almost leaped out of his skin when the light encircled a grinning skeleton sitting upright against the wall of the cave.
At that moment, several hundred miles away, Joyce Meisner lost her grip on the tray of roast beef and mashed potatoes she was carrying. It went ringing and clattering to the floor, spattering gravy onto the walls and sending peas rolling to every corner of the dining room.
He could tell from the color of the bones that this was not someone who died recently, but he had no idea how old the skeleton actually was. He had seen enough CSI TV programs to know that it could possibly be the remains of a murder victim, so didn’t touch it. He would need to get into cell phone range and call the police.
As he kneeled by the skeleton, looking it over as best he could, he noticed a disk-like stone just inches away from its hand. Pulling a clean handkerchief from his pocket, he picked the stone up.
It was a half-circle with tool marks along the edge. It had been chipped away in a line along the center of what had probably once been a circular stone. The part he held in his hand contained a half sun carved into the rock, with rays of thin lines radiating out from it. The half sun contained one eye. There was a hole in the top that he guessed was for a strip of material that would enable the object to be worn around the neck. He turned the medallion over and saw what he knew was an ancient, Native American symbol for a bird painted onto the stone.
He looked up into the darkened eye sockets of the skeleton. He was not going to be returning to class empty handed after all.
It was not everyone who found, not just a genuine artefact from an earlier culture, but human remains as well. The latter was turned over to the university’s on-site museum of antiquities; the former, bagged and labeled, John now held out to Professor Meisnor.
Eyes wide, she stared at it, and then slowly rose from her chair and took it from him. She didn’t say a word, but finally looked up at him with an expression he didn’t quite understand, nodded, and smiled. He left her office feeling like he was walking on air, if a little bit puzzled.
“I love you Kai. I never stopped searching for you.”
“And I you. I have walked through the dreams of so many strangers seeking a way back to you. The more time that
went by, the more people upon this land, until it seemed like trying to find a single green leaf among a forest of trees.”
“I knew we would somehow find each other again.”
“Fate that two who shared our blood came close enough to pull us both here. Our blood has traveled far down the long road of the past.”
“And what of our future Kai?”
“I don’t know Sunbird. All I know is I love you. That will be forever.” Kai now reached out and touched her face with his fingertips.
The feel of her sun-warmed skin caused John to rouse slightly. He smiled, reached down and took her hand, turned over, and soon fell back into a peaceful sleep, as did Joyce Meisner in her house 10 miles away.
It would only be years later that John would develop a dabbling interest in genealogy. It was then that he would discover the Native American blood in his distant past. Due to the lack of written records, he never would find out that those forebears descended from a brave hunter named Kai Longbow.
Native Americans have a long and honorable tradition of passing down both lore and treasured objects to preserve for future generations, and so it was with a round stone medallion, hewed in half and shared by two.
Sunbird had passed on her part of it, along with its story, to her own daughter Moon, the child she conceived with Kai before he left this world. Moon passed it along to her son, Laughing Loon, and so on down the line.
The front was half a smiling sun, the back a hunter and bow. This family artefact now lay nestled in silk in a jewelry box in Joyce Meisner’s house. She would soon place it on display in the university museum with its mate, united again after all this time.
Ellen is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two demonic cats who wreak havoc and hell (the cats, not the husband). She’s had an exciting life working as a circus acrobat, a CIA spy, a service provider in the Red Light District, a navy seal, a ballerina on the starship Enterprise, and was the first person to ever climb Mount Everest. (Editorial note: Some of the above may be fictional.)