Beringia (Part I)

Beringia (Part I)

Tanyo Ravicz’s “BERINGIA” is presented in two parts.

The bear had already charged Ellen when they heard her screams and ran out of the Quonset hut. He had her by the head and was dragging her across the tundra while she kicked her feet and beat him with her fists. They turned back into the Quonset hut for the siren and pepper spray, and Janet grabbed the shovel, too, and they ran across the tundra and tried to drive him away from her by shouting and waving the shovel and blowing the siren. The bear let her slip but then he clamped his jaws more firmly on her head and neck and there was a difference this time. Ellen fell silent. Her hands and legs went limp and she was dragged unresisting across the tundra.

“No, my God,” Dr. Platte said. “She’s playing dead.”

“I’m not sure,” Janet said.

The two women panted, watching the bear back away with Ellen. Dr. Platte, shaking the canister of pepper spray, complained that it didn’t work, and Janet took it out of her hands, unlocked the trigger by breaking the plastic tab, and gave her the can back. They rushed at the grizzly bear again and assailed him as before, but he drew up over his forelegs and glared at them with unmistakable animal malice and they abruptly stopped, the pepper spray discharging with a feckless hiss into the tundra. They were too close by half and they backed away now. It no longer mattered.

Ellen’s bloodied face, its redness, riveted the eye, her dark hair swirled in the moss. Janet saw no life at all in her. The bear nuzzled Ellen and stepped over her, blocking their view with his broad hindquarters, and they couldn’t see what he was doing. They didn’t want to see.

A forlorn howl spread over the Arctic plain and dissipated, and Janet threw the discharged siren into the surrounding waste. Her eyes watering, she looked back at their camp, at the Quonset hut and the trio of small tents frailly erected against the gray horizon. Dr. Platte sobbed quietly beside her. After the screaming, after the siren’s howl, the tundra pitched weirdly with echoes. Blood drops hung in the moss like ripe cranberries.

They recovered Ellen’s wristwatch, and near the start of the drag trail they found the satellite telephone bitten through. Bitten clean through. The antenna end of the phone was missing. Janet, gazing across the tundra at the grizzly bear, pictured Ellen fending him off with the satphone in her hand. The bear had dragged her a hundred yards to the west, to the biggest of the limestone tors that overlooked Brazier Lake, and he was digging the moss up around her.

“Come on,” Janet said. She laid her hand on Dr. Platte’s shoulder and they turned back to the Quonset hut. “We’ll figure something out.”

They propped the aluminum door open, and in the Quonset hut they sat at the table facing the open door. They hadn’t been on site long and much of their equipment remained undelivered. The graduate students would arrive next week by helicopter and they would bring a second satellite phone. Burt Newcastle, the geophysicist from Toolik Lake, would return to Brazier Lake in three days to gather soil samples for his research. Realistically they should not expect help before then. They were well north of the Arctic Circle, remote even by Alaskan standards. The Haul Road, the supply road to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, was a three-day hike to the east. There were other archaeological digs scattered across the immensity of the North Slope, but none was nearby and none was active this early in the summer. In truth there was nothing more they could do for Ellen Banning.

Their happiness of last night seemed a painful embarrassment, and neither Janet nor Dr. Platte acknowledged the collection of spear points, eight of them, laid out on the table by the broken satellite phone. To move the spear points, as Janet wanted to do, would only draw attention to them. An hour earlier, when Ellen had risen from breakfast and gone outside to telephone her boyfriend in Albuquerque, something which she did every morning, Janet and Dr. Platte had exchanged glances whose meaning could not have been plainer. They did not quite trust Ellen not to leak the news. The discovery of fluted spear points in Alaska was too momentous to be leaked to an ignorant boyfriend in Albuquerque by the junior member of the team. No, there must be painstaking documentation and third-party corroboration; the right people had to be notified; there must be a press conference striking the correct balance of fanfare and humility. In retrospect Janet was ashamed of herself, knowing in her bones that Ellen, still young and committed, would not have betrayed their confidence. In any case, the screaming had begun almost at once, and Ellen did not have time to put a satellite call through.

Janet carried the binoculars outside and watched the grizzly bear from a distance. She was a good shot with a rifle and it irked her that one of the conditions attached to their annual funding at Brazier Lake was a firearms prohibition in camp. To be honest, it had never been an issue until now. In all her years of excavating in Alaska, Janet had never been harassed by a wild bear. On the open tundra you normally saw a grizzly bear from a distance, and if you stayed alert and kept a clean galley, you normally didn’t have a problem.

On the other hand, they obviously had a problem. The bear didn’t leave the vicinity, and as the minutes went by and they watched for an opportunity to recover Ellen’s body, they became more fearful. In the vastness of the tundra a squirt of capsicum seemed rather an understatement. Janet picked up one of the newfound spear points, a heavy one, a five-inch Sluiceway point, and running her thumb up and down its edges, casting her mind back ten thousand years or so, she imagined a Paleoindian with the spear point lashed to a shaft of bone or wood holding at bay an attacking grizzly bear or a sabertooth or advancing to kill a wounded bison or a human adversary. The thought gave her an idea for a makeshift weapon, something to reach for in an emergency, and she knelt and opened one of the hinged aluminum carrying cases that belonged to Burt Newcastle.

“What are you doing?” Dr. Platte said.

Janet surveyed the steel tubes and couplings and the selection of auger bits set into the foam padding. She screwed two of the tubes together to a combined length of six feet and threaded a bayonetlike bit onto the end of it. Then she rose with the soil auger, pivoted and twice jabbed an imaginary bear with it. “You never know,” she said.

“Now we’re ready for anything,” Dr. Platte said.

“Myrka, are you all right?”

“Should I be?”

Janet laid the spear aside and heated a pot of tea for them. As the lead archaeologist at Brazier Lake, Janet would have taken it on herself to draft the necessary report, but Dr. Platte needed something to occupy her, something dull but meaningful, and insisted on it, and Janet agreed she would sign her name to the report when it was done. The scratching of Dr. Platte’s pen was interrupted by her sobs and her broken breathing. They kept the hot tea coming all morning and talked their grief out. It was hard not to blame themselves for failing to save Ellen, but everything had happened so quickly. Still, it was vexing. You make the find of a lifetime and the next day one of your team dies. There was a pagan irony in it—the proverbial mummy’s curse. In spite of herself, Janet eyed the fluted projectile points on the table, a trio of them lying among the more ordinary spear points, and as she did so, yesterday’s exultation came back to her. “The find of a lifetime” was no hyperbole. The discovery was sure to roil the archaeological community, a thought which Janet regretted as much as she relished it. She sought knowledge, not controversy, but so much remains unknown that archaeologists and paleontologists inevitably substitute models for facts, and where models are involved, egos are involved.

“Did you notice if Ellen took her granola bar with her?”

“I think she’d finished it.”

“Do you know if she had her period?”

“Not sure.”

“Something’s very odd,” Janet said.

“What is?”

Janet walked out on the treeless tundra, eyes toward the bear, perplexed by the circumstances of its attack. The damp moss spread underfoot in every direction and the overcast of clouds pressed down. To the south, in the Brooks Range, the alpine valleys were white with snow, and even on the plain they found pockets of dirty snow between the tussocks and in the shade of overhanging banks. Janet didn’t recall ever seeing a grizzly bear at Brazier Lake this early in the summer. He was large, not a fully grown bear, cinnamon in color. He may have emerged from behind one of the limestone outcrops that arced around the south and west sides of the lake. Ellen may have startled him, but a startled bear normally bolts, and even when a bear charges a person, he seldom kills and he less often eats. No other bear was involved in the incident, there was no sign of an earlier kill in the area—no provocation whatever.

The bear uprooted the willows and the berry shrubs around Ellen, and he marked the surrounding tundra as his own. He maintained a possessive presence around her, and though he sometimes dropped out of sight beyond the great limestone tor, he always returned to inspect her remains. His behavior seemed bizarre at first, somehow macabre, almost tender in its protectiveness, but Janet, lowering her binoculars, knew that she was overcomplicating what she saw. The truth was simple. Ellen was being consumed. She was being eaten for meat like a caribou or a woolly mammoth.

Among grizzly bears, mankillers and maneaters are said to be rare, but by most accounts they exist, if only as atavisms, and this bear was one of them. This explained his uncanny aura, those frissons of fear she had felt all morning. His terribleness was elemental. He may or not have stalked Ellen, but his predatory opportunism in killing her and his appetite in consuming her were undeniable.

Joining Janet, Dr. Platte looked on with reddened eyes, but she didn’t grasp the explanation as Janet did, or if she did, it was without any horror or light of revelation. Dr. Platte, offered the binoculars, declined them. Janet forced herself to watch, but when she saw the bear vigorously pulling at some indeterminate part of Ellen, she turned away with a shudder and walked down to Brazier Lake alone.

She stopped on the limestone ledge where twenty-four hours earlier she and Burt Newcastle had stood over the south shore of the lake. A climate change scientist, specifically a geophysicist who studied permafrost, Burt had been returning from an aerial survey in the western Brooks Range when he noticed the evidence of a significant thaw below on the tundra, an enormous thermokarst that had opened on the south shore of Brazier Lake, and in curiosity he had his pilot put the chopper down at their camp. Janet introduced herself and guided him to the lakeside, though the thermokarst hardly needed pointing out. Where the ground ice had thawed, the lakeshore had imploded. The mat of vegetation had collapsed and the meltwater and lake seep were slowly filling the crater.

Smaller subsidences showed on the far shores of the lake. The North Slope of Alaska naturally teems with ponds and lakes, and the sheen of many waters was visible in the distance, but Burt assured Janet that if she were to compare the present view with a photo taken from the same spot ten years earlier, the difference would astound her. “I’ve done aerial recon in this area for years and I’m bowled over by what’s happening,” he said. “I’d like to come back and take some soil samples and soil temperatures if it’s all right with you.”

“By all means. It’s not my lake,” she said.

“Brazier Lake and Janet Arroyo go hand in hand, don’t they? You’re a one-woman army with a double-bitted ax. You’re famous on the Haul Road.”

“Hardly famous,” she said.

Toolik Field Station, the research station at which Burt worked, was at mile 285 on the unpaved Haul Road, roughly a day’s drive north of Fairbanks.

“Well, I’m glad to finally meet you,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in your way. I’d like to get a read on the methane here. We’re starting to realize that the methane bubbling up from these lakes isn’t just from the lake rot, it’s got to be venting from deeper formations. If you don’t have an ice shield under there, just mud and liquefaction, it stands to reason the gas will filter up at every opportunity.” Burt used hand gestures to illustrate his meaning, holding his right hand horizontal and perpendicularly butting its palm with the fingers of his left hand. Janet found herself watching his hands and noticing how lovely they were.

“The greenhouse consequences can be huge,” he added. “Even where the ground is frozen, the soil’s as warm as I’ve ever seen it. That’s just me talking.”

“You and your thermometer,” she said. And as they walked around the east shore of the lake, Janet shared her observations with him. One of the seasonal birds, a nesting sparrow, had arrived at the lake earlier this year than in years past. And in general she felt warmer than before. She was wearing duckcloth pants with a long-sleeved T-shirt under a sweatshirt, but in the old days this early in the summer she would likely have worn a light jacket or an insulated vest as well. Granted, today was a mild day. The June solstice was weeks away yet, and although a snowstorm was certainly possible at this time of the year, on a day so mild it hardly seemed possible.

Janet sheepishly laughed because in drawing Burt’s attention to her clothing—and he paid attention—she had abandoned hard science for anecdote, and anecdotal evidence, as one of her professors used to say, is more anecdote than evidence.

“Still, it amounts to something,” Burt said. “What about the flora? Any early blooming? I’ve heard freakish reports from Britain and Norway.”

“Not sure,” she admitted. “I should be more observant. We only got back four days ago. I’ve been coming to Brazier Lake so many years, it all blends together. Sometimes I see things in time lapse. A leaf unfolds or a bud fills out, and by the time the wind reaches us from the mountains, new sedges have sprung up.”

Burt glanced at her and nodded his head, stepping around a puddle, and Janet wished that she hadn’t spoken. It was an odd thing to have said. She was grateful that Burt went on talking as though she had said the most natural thing in the world. Carbon, a mind-boggling amount of carbon, was frozen into the northern tundra, and if only a fraction of this soil carbon escaped into the air as carbon dioxide, a disastrous imbalance in greenhouse gases would result. And while certain models held out hope that microbial activity in the newly thawed soil would soak up the extra carbon by boosting high-latitude plant growth, the atmospheric CO2 concentrations were already hitting 400 parts per million, not just in the Arctic, Burt said, but at Mauna Loa in Hawaii—“and that’s the highest level in four million years,” he said, smiling. “I don’t believe in global warming, do you?”

They laughed and started back along the east shore of the lake. Janet would have liked to take his arm. His enthusiastic objectivity reminded her why she had chosen science to begin with. Burt discussed climate change with intelligence and with a kind of indifferent joy. The changes would be radical, he said, unprecedented in human civilization, and people had better prepare to adapt. “What they call an apocalypse is just the revelation of an effect when they’ve ignored all the causes,” he said. “Science is prophecy in our day and age, but nobody wants to listen, only to beat up on us. Seriously, Janet, all I see is question marks. Everybody’s suddenly a polar researcher or a tundra ecologist. We focus on pollen or aquatics and we think we’ve found the key or the crystal ball. At Toolik Lake we’re like a team of medieval doctors trying to decide whether or not to bleed the patient. That’s how much we know.”

“It’s the same in my field,” she said. “Global warming’s the best thing to happen since King Tut. Mummies and ice men are turning up everywhere. I’ve just been invited on a high-altitude Canada dig.”

“You’re not going?”

“Every summer at Brazier Lake could be my last,” she said.

“I thought the money didn’t run out until the oil ran out.”

“No, we don’t get oil money, we’re not with the feds. I was talking about Brazier Lake. Brazier Lake is where my heart is.”

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Burt said, and he turned with her and gazed over the blackwater lake. The south end of the lake was clouded by the new sediments. “It really is like a brazier,” he said, “a brazier full of black coals.”

“Wait until it takes fire,” she said. “That’s when it’s beautiful. The evening sun glows on the water. If you stay into August you can see the aurora in it.”

“I would like to see that,” he said.

They were quiet for a minute, for Janet a fully conscious minute, and she was sure that Burt felt what she felt, the pleasurable affinity a man and woman can feel in each other’s company. She seldom felt this with a man. It was something similar to what she felt for the land itself. The trickle of slurry and the slurp of the mud seemed to echo inside of her. Above the settling mud, where the newly formed bank had crusted, Janet’s eye picked out, lodged sideways in the bank, a lanceolate shape, the shape of a worked stone, what looked very much like a spear point, not a small one, but although she noted its location, she didn’t stoop to dig it out or even mention it because Dr. Platte had just then stepped onto the limestone ledge above them and was calling them to lunch.

Janet stood over the lake recalling yesterday’s lunch and the sequence of events that preceded it: the wonderful dizziness she had felt in Burt’s company, her glimpse of the exposed spear point, and her instinct of secrecy when her old friend and rival Dr. Platte arrived. Nothing was the same after Dr. Platte called them to lunch. For whatever reason, Dr. Platte had decided to be friendly with Burt Newcastle, and it didn’t prove difficult for her to win him over. By the time they reached the Quonset hut, Dr. Platte and Burt were walking abreast, Janet trailing them by a step, and in the course of the meal Burt completely shifted his attachment from one woman to the other.

She was no femme fatale, Myrka Platte, but she was slimmer, taller and smoother in manner than Janet, and although she wore eyeglasses, the frames were of a fashionably bold make, and she spoke lightly, more off the cuff and animatedly than Janet, with a patter of mockery about everything she said, smiling and leaning in with an appearance of spontaneity so that a man needn’t feel pressured to take her or her words too seriously. Janet didn’t assume Burt was deliberately being rude to her. He probably didn’t know what he was doing. A primitive response kicks in, a sexual tropism, and like most men in the fat belly of the bell curve, Burt naturally turned to one stimulus over another. Others might not notice it, but to Janet the pattern was achingly familiar, one that had recurred throughout her life. To her the cues were obvious, but if she were to put it to Dr. Platte, if she were to say to her, This is what you are doing to me and you have done it before, Dr. Platte would probably open her mouth in a speechless protest of her innocence.

Meals at Brazier Lake were normally prepared in a canvas cook tent apart from the Quonset hut, but the cook tent hadn’t been erected yet, a chore that would fall to the graduate students when they arrived next week. In the meantime, Ellen and Dr. Platte had prepared a stew for lunch using dried soy meat and the remainder of their fresh vegetables. The helicopter pilot, a veteran flyer named Avery Garstin, joined them in the Quonset hut for lunch, and it was he who suggested that Burt leave his core-sampling kits at Brazier Lake until they returned in a few days to take the soil measurements, not merely for the convenience of leaving the kits but also for the helicopter fuel they would save by being relieved of the weight of the equipment. It was a trivial matter, really, but Janet, her pride wounded, nearly pulled rank and refused to allow it. The Quonset hut, a barrel-vaulted structure of heavy-duty vinyl stretched over a frame of interlocking ribs and struts—it had taken them a day and a half to assemble it—was as secure as could be desired, or strong enough to withstand the winds that jetted out of the Brooks Range, and covering an area of two hundred forty square feet, it offered plenty of room for Burt’s equipment, but the decision whether or not to allow Burt to store it here was Janet’s to make, and it stung her that both Burt and Avery addressed the matter to Dr. Platte, who of course assented before Janet had been heard from.

Janet would have looked petty to object, and she refrained from doing so, but in light of Dr. Platte’s loose conduct and unprofessionalism, the matter displeased her. Even the gray-haired Avery wasn’t immune to Dr. Platte’s flirtations. Dr. Platte tended to play to men on the basis of their sex whereas Janet—this was a point of pride with her—refused to do so, but she may have paid a social cost for it. As for Burt, he enjoyed the attention of Dr. Platte and held forth at length on the minutiae of soil depths and temperature gradients. Ellen had the grace and perceptiveness to flash Janet a smile during the ordeal. When Avery had brought Burt’s equipment into the Quonset hut, Dr. Platte insisted on a demonstration, and Burt, very much in his element now, opened one of the aluminum carrying cases and assembled a soil auger with a spiral bit, a tool he used for boring holes into the ground. At this point Janet, sufficiently piqued, withdrew from the Quonset hut, and she returned to the lakeshore to recover the spear point which she had spotted before lunch.

She was there an hour later when she heard the helicopter depart and Burt Newcastle with it, but she barely raised her eyes. She was afraid to look away from the object that she held in her hand, what appeared to her to be a fluted spear point. The ground swayed underneath her and she spread her feet to steady herself against the vertigo. The weight of the stone in her palm, its crisp arrowhead shape, her shocked gratitude for its artistry, her consciousness of its significance, her own physical trembling, the heft of the moment—these were her sensations, and her emotion was something between desolation and triumph.

It was the third projectile point she had unburied in an hour, but the first two were Mesa points, already amply represented on the North Slope. This one was different. A classic projectile point of a type found widely dispersed in the lower latitudes of North America, it was technically associated with the early American culture known as Clovis, but Clovis points had never been found this far north. Janet cleaned the point by dipping it into the lake and she drew her thumb over its gleaming faces. Was she wrong? It had the distinctive fluting of the Clovis point, a vertical groove chipped up from the base to facilitate its bonding to a shaft and to improve its adherence at impact. To Janet’s eye the fluting looked definitive, but Ellen, though still a year shy of her doctorate, was their Clovis expert, and Janet was keen to have her analysis. A single spear point proved nothing. Janet’s reputation could be ruined if she publicized the discovery only to be accused of a hoax. What she feared was that they wouldn’t find corroborative evidence, but that afternoon and evening, excavating the opening that she had made in the side of the bank, she and Ellen and Dr. Platte found five more Ice Age points, two of which were Clovis points.

They were stunned. None of them needed to be told the significance of these artifacts. The conventional wisdom about the first Americans—who they were, how they got here, when they got here, where they came from—it was all put into question by the presence of Clovis points on Alaska’s North Slope.

They smiled out of their muddied faces, their excitement muted by an instinctive humility. Somewhere on the lake a water bird chortled, and the late-night sun glimmered on the water. The mother planet breathed around them, the warm, heavy mud, the undercut tundra and the buckling vegetal mat. Water seeped from the softened earth. The things that must be buried here, she thought.

They didn’t dare to leave the spear points in situ but photographed them and carried them back to the Quonset hut, where they huddled over them by lamplight. They celebrated their discovery by drinking a bottle of the champagne that had been meant for the end-of-summer party with the graduate students. The cache of spear points included Sluiceway and Mesa points, the familiar North Slope styles, but the Clovis points signaled a radical departure. As lithic technology the Clovis point was commonly described as a New World innovation, something the first Americans didn’t bring with them across the Bering isthmus from Asia. The discovery of fluted spear points in northern Alaska threatened this conception, to say the least. How the points got here was debatable, and late into the night the Quonset hut resounded with their shoptalk. A jubilant camaraderie united them. Among them they had worked on every continent on the planet and they drew on an unequaled range of knowledge. They drank a second bottle of champagne, and despite an occasional extravagance, their speculations generally comported with Janet’s well-known if controversial contention that Brazier Lake—a circular formation partly ringed by limestone tors, a site which over the years had yielded numerous spear points and cutting tools, an abundance of mammoth and other megafaunal remains, and the charcoal evidence of sustained bonfire activity—had in ancient times been, for a period of a millennium or more, a crossroads or gathering place for the far-flung Paleoindian clans who inhabited this region, a theory that had met with skeptical and sometimes contemptuous resistance by those who saw our Ice Age forebears as being too busy killing their food and their enemies to have any care for communal meeting grounds and ritual assemblies.

Ellen Banning was too young in years to be called a career archaeologist, but she understood what her role tonight meant for her professional future, and without being asked, unbefuddled by the champagne, she gave the close examination that Janet had wanted, and she rejected as unserious the idea that the fluting of these projectile points was accidental or incidental, that not artisanship but wear and usage, the erosion of repeated flaking, accounted for the channels that had been driven into the stone.

“I’ll believe in process over intentionality once,” Ellen said, “but not three times. There’s no need to call this a Clovis point,” she turned one of them in the lamplight, “because our understanding of Clovis points obviously has to change, but this fluting is the real deal. If you want to call it Clovis,” she smiled up at them, “this is Clovis all the way, yes, and frankly if it wasn’t for the coloration I’m not sure I could distinguish this from the Blackwater Draw points in New Mexico.”

In a way Janet had fallen in love with Ellen at that moment. She wanted only good things to happen for her. She cried quietly now, looking across the lake and reflecting on events. She had been young like Ellen once, and today she stood at the pinnacle of her career, guaranteed at least a footnote’s fame as an archaeologist. The Brazier Lake funding would pour in now, but Ellen was dead and it was so unfair. Janet had seldom found herself in the position of being a doctoral candidate’s favorite adviser, but Ellen had embraced her as much for who she was as for the repute of her achievements, had respected her in every part, and Janet had looked forward to working with Ellen for many summers to come.

She wished now, in a fit of bitterness, that the grizzly bear had killed her or Dr. Platte instead of Ellen. Janet would not mind dying here. She identified so closely with this country that when she was away she wearied of being apart from it. She had worked here so hard for so long that all she could do now was to cry for Ellen and for the dead parts of her own youth that Ellen reminded her of. She would give it all to Ellen if she could. Janet no longer felt the personal ambition of her early years. Only to dig for the truth she wanted. She knelt and pressed her palms to the tundra, feeling the earth to be moist and pregnant with secrets. Yes, she would give it away to Ellen if she could. There was still a way to make it happen. The tragic death of Ellen Banning, a promising young archaeologist . . .

Footsteps splashed behind her and Janet started to her feet. “God, you scared the hell out of me.”

“I’m sorry, I should have said something.” Dr. Platte gestured with the can of pepper spray. “I think he’s gone.”

“No, he’s out there.” To west of camp, the limestone tor jutted dark and oblong against the sky, and birds darted and bickered in the middle ground. “We shouldn’t sleep alone tonight,” Janet said.

“Agreed. We’ll sleep in the Quonset hut. And we need to stake this place and string it, Janet. We need to take pictures and get methodical about digging.”

Dr. Platte was right, of course. The sky had darkened and the overcast thickened. A heavy rain would flood the thermokarst and muck up their dig. At a certain point ambition and professional conscience must converge. They descended to the lakeshore and stopped before the excavated bank. Ellen’s distinctive bootprints were molded into the mud. “She would want us to get to work,” Dr. Platte said. “We’ll start this afternoon. Let’s walk a bit and have something to eat first.”

Much work lay ahead, and they talked about this as they hiked the east shore of the lake. At issue was nothing less than the human heritage, and Ellen’s misfortune didn’t outweigh that. The cache of spear points might extend deep into the permafrost. They needed to determine whether the Clovis points had been flaked from the local chert. They needed to locate the nearest organic material for radiocarbon dating. Their footpath was the same by which Janet and Burt had walked yesterday, and Janet didn’t like to be reminded of it. She couldn’t stop thinking about Burt because his presence had been instrumental in her finding the Clovis points. An hour earlier or later and she might have seen nothing but mud. There is always a fatefulness when you meet someone you care about. There, there, Janet, you’ll get over it. Their affinity had come to nothing once Dr. Platte inserted herself between them, in an episode disturbingly reminiscent of one that had occurred many years earlier in Spain. Dr. Platte came into mental relief, Janet glancing sidelong at her as they hiked the lakeshore. Do I know you? Do we know each other? Do you know yourself?

They had met as college students working on the International Megalith Project at Peñas de los Gitanos in the south of Spain, a Neolithic burial ground located a little east of Montefrío in Granada province. It was Janet’s first foray into archaeology, a scrapping through the prehistoric tombs in the rich hill country later populated by Romans and Visigoths and Arabs. The simplest scenes from that summer were impressed on her memory. She had fallen in love with a Brazilian boy named Mauricio, a brown-skinned, light-eyed, quick-smiling student from São Paolo who spoke four languages and knew all the meats and cheeses of the country and helped her to order tapas her first time at the rail station. On a day very much like today, chilly and damp, but with a rainbow fleeting in the sky over the Sierra de Parapanda, she and Mauricio had lost their way while searching for the stone tomb assigned to them, and hearing dogs barking on the ridge above, they had climbed the slope and met a shepherd in a beret and patched jacket whose herd was browsing among the scattered oak trees on the far side of the ridge. The shepherd knew the dolmen they wanted and he pointed the way with his shotgun, beyond some junipers or small pine trees, but noticing how they smiled and held hands, smiling not at him but at life itself, he smiled, too, and said, “But why do you look for the dead? What do you want with the dead when you have each other?”

The tomb was situated at one edge of the necropolis, and by the time they had photographed and measured it, a hard rain was falling. They crawled in through the stone portal and sheltered under the capstone during the downpour. It was an hour’s squall and they kissed and touched each other throughout, oblivious to the storm and to everything but their petting. It was all very youthful and romantic and forgettable, but not really forgettable, and there was always a little ache in Janet’s heart when she thought of Mauricio, the boy from São Paolo. His lips were like those candied egg yolks in the confectioner’s window in Almería, and she entered and pointed at what she wanted and ate them in the doorway looking out at the strolling couples while the sugar spilled from the corners of her mouth.

The student program included excursions of historical and cultural significance, and during the side trip to the Montefrío castle, Mauricio fell in with a girl named Myrka Platte from Cincinnati. As the leader of their coed study group, Janet commanded a certain advantage over the other students, but she was powerless to stop the change in Mauricio’s affections, and after the program ended, Mauricio and Myrka said goodbye to their fellows and traveled together to the Alhambra and the beaches of Málaga. There was a local legend about a Gypsy woman who had murdered her faithless lover and hidden his body in one of those Stone Age burial tombs, and Janet, though resilient in the way of youth, was shaken enough by the experience that she sympathized with the Gypsy woman, or she understood how one could be driven to distraction by one’s passions.

A throb of regret, a synching of past and present, a kind of motion sickness in time oppressed her. Looking back Janet saw in the Spanish affair a prototype of her relationship with Dr. Platte. Of course Dr. Platte had a right to her past just as young Myrka Platte had a duty to her youth. The women had kept up a correspondence and they became colleagues and sometimes coworkers. In the early years Dr. Platte’s identification with her doctoral degree was so total—Dr. Myrka Platte on the return address label; You have reached Dr. Myrka Platte on the recorded telephone greeting—that Janet affectionately came to address her as such, and with time “Dr. Platte” acquired the force of a nickname. They had helped each other, they had fallen out of touch and reconnected with the readiness of old friends. They had envied and resented and admired each other. Where their professional paths had crossed, where advancement had been a function of personality, Myrka had frequently come out ahead, and her recent East Coast appointment, a visiting lectureship, was a case in point. But in authentic regard and scholarly contribution, in the quality of the work, Janet’s achievements were superior and they both knew it, and the discovery of fluted projectile points at Brazier Lake was surely the capstone of Janet’s career.

They had no appetite for lunch, but not knowing where the grizzly bear had bedded down, they didn’t stray far from the Quonset hut. They again searched for the missing half of the satellite telephone, but without success. Ellen’s remains were no longer discernable on the tundra, but it was unclear whether the bear had concealed or consumed them. Their only relief from the gloom of their position was to talk about the Clovis points. Dr. Platte, chewing on the cap of her ballpoint pen, watched Janet pace the Quonset hut and said, “You know, Janet, there won’t be any satisfying the naysayers. We could match the stone perfectly, we could get a clean carbon date, they’ll still want your head for this. Get ready for a bloodbath. The ones who argued that Agate Basin migrated north to Alaska will argue that Clovis moved north the same way—”


“—and the Atlantic migration faction—”

“Give me a break,” Janet gestured in irritation, pacing by the open door of the Quonset hut. There was a matter that she wished to discuss with Dr. Platte.

“Imagine the outcry,” Dr. Platte went on, “if we floated the possibility that Clovis originated right here in Alaska.”

Janet stopped in the doorway and gazed across the tundra at the ravens hobbling in the middle distance. Smaller birds jumped and flew at them. “I want to give Ellen the credit,” she said.

“Ellen? Of course,” Dr. Platte said.

Janet turned and repeated herself. “Ellen should have the credit. All of it.”

“Ellen was part of the team,” Dr. Platte said agreeably.

“You don’t understand. I want it in Ellen’s name. She found it.”

“Except that I found one of them myself,” Dr. Platte said. “I’m not sure I understand you, Janet. You’re the project head, you call the shots, but . . .”


“Honesty is a two-way street. What difference does it make to Ellen?”

Janet shrugged her shoulders and looked out at the tundra again. A bold idea came rather suddenly to her. She reached back and scratched the tattooed skin above her right buttock. “Her parents, her kid brother and boyfriend, I guess it matters to them,” she said. “And to me.”

“And it matters to me to see my named printed in bold, Janet. There, I’ve said it. I won’t get another chance like this. You might, because you’re damn good, but I need to get what I can. This discovery is a coup.”

“I see.”

“I’m a Platte, not a Leakey. My father worked a drill press all his life. I know you think I’m superficial. I guess I don’t care what you think.”

“That was obvious yesterday.”

“Look,” Dr. Platte stood from her chair and walked around the table to her, “I definitely like the idea of starting a memorial scholarship in Ellen’s name—something useful like that. We’ll crowdfund it. We’ll champion her. But to me it doesn’t seem honorable to suppress myself in the way you’re asking. I think it’s wrong of you to ask and I won’t do it.”

The idea would not leave Janet. It was to murder Dr. Platte.


BERINGIA” concludes in Part II.




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