Monday, April 7, 2014

A Most Remarkable Burial

I realize that I have no physical proof to corroborate the tale I am about to tell you.  Indeed, the only compelling earthly evidence that I am aware of has been, shall we say, excavated.  Or we could say, evacuated. Or perhaps even evaporated.  The point is, it’s all gone. 

I never made an attempt to notify the authorities, for I found myself in a situation completely lacking substantive confirmation of a story possessing distinctly dubious credibility; indeed, had I not seen those things which I saw with my own eyes, and heard what I did with my own ears, I doubt I would believe it myself.  And the consequences that would doubtless enter one’s life by stumbling into the ranger station, speaking loudly and loosely of things which would seem a madman’s folly to any sane person, most likely accompanied by wild gesticulations in the air, were complications that I knew I did not need.  That much I could discern, even in the highly excited mental state I found myself in at the conclusion of my adventure.

So I leave it up to you, the reader of my remarkable tale, to make your own judgment about the facts that I will lay before you.  This is my desperate attempt to pry open the lock of the chamber of my mind where I have buried these things, that they may take leave of me—indeed, that they may take flight—and torment me no more.

I was a much younger man then, at least in mind if not in body, and did not carry the burdens I have now.  Indeed, I believe that within the short space of twenty-four hours I gained more age than I had in the several years previous.  I was blessed with a robust physique and possessed a solitary disposition that, combined with my lack of dependents and thirst for adventure, often took me deep into lonely places.

I had taken to haunting the austere desert regions of the canyon country in southeastern Utah.  I was a transplant from the noisy, urban jungle of the eastern seaboard.  New Jersey, to be precise—for geographical “precision” in the colonial region may well subsist of naming a single state; such are the sardine-like confines of the territorial boundaries drawn up there.  I left the land of my nativity, like so many pilgrims of the past, to go west in search of a change: a change of pace, a change of scenery, a change of just about everything.

And that’s what I found.  I settled in Grand Junction, Colorado, near the Utah border, on the doorstep of the towering cliffs and salmon-colored bluffs that flank the edges of the Colorado River gorge.  This area is precursor to the national wonder and treasure that has captured many imaginations—the Grand Canyon—but retains its own charm on a smaller scale.  To me, it’s more approachable, more livable, and ultimately, more likeable than its much bigger, much more famous downstream descendant.

I accepted a post at a clinic in the center of town, where my big-name credentials held their own mystique among the locals.  Ivy-league snob and East-coast big shot were phrases I sometimes heard bounce off the walls of the waiting room.  No one ever said these kinds of things to my face, but there was often an atmosphere of mild resentment that followed me like my own personal raincloud.  No one in town really understood me, not even my coworkers.  In all candidness, I can see how they might have interpreted my occasional abruptness and intentional aloofness as haughtiness or disdain for the slower, more casual way of life that they were accustomed to.

In reality it wasn’t anything like that, but simply a natural result of the slow erosion of my energy reserves that exposure to the perpetual buzz of patients, colleagues and staff exacted.  Like most physicians, my number was unlisted, and I seldom answered the door unless I was expecting a visitor.  My nature is not unhelpful nor unfriendly—quite to the contrary, my heart is full of these Boy-Scout qualities, or else why would I have gravitated towards the healing profession?—but having a highly introverted disposition, it sometimes took all I had and more to make it through the day.  My peers thought it strange that I seemed to enjoy settling into my office chair at the end of a long day to fill out forms and make dictations and sign releases and other documents—elements of the career that most of them loathed.  But for me, this was my recharge time—when my mental-emotional batteries could plug into the power source of solitary confinement and slowly warm up by the bluish light of an LCD screen and the soft tapping of my fingers on a keyboard.

So in a sense, my own introversion is a rather good analogy to explain why I prefer Utah’s canyon country to the bigger, more famous, flashier attractions such as the Grand Canyon.  It is also why I prefer the relative quiet of the Western desert to the insane bustle of the East coast.  And it explains why even Grand Junction often seemed to be too intense a climate for comfortable living by the time I reached the end of the week.

Thus, I often sought refuge in the sand and sage brush that swirled around isolated sandstone outcroppings like a vast, lonely sea.  By casting myself adrift in that sea—like the restless voyager-explorers of bygone eras, when the world was so much bigger and there was still empty space to be discovered—I could reestablish my tenuous connection with forces that were so much more than human; forces that were cosmic, unfathomable, and even occasionally terrifying.  I felt that somehow I was part of these.  I felt there was, somehow, a grand reality that connected and gave meaning to life; this transcended all the temporary nonsense such as careers and politics and social engagements.  Yes, there was something out there that I felt united humanity, birds, beasts, trees, and even the rocks and sand, in one grand, cohesive drama, in which each individual had a unique, important part to play.

As I endured the pressures of the day-to-day grind this became my doctrine, and the desert became my sanctuary, my temple of learning these great truths.  In that refuge I would drink deeply of these metaphysical waters until my soul was filled and I could bear to return again to "normal" life.

And yet, by the time a week or two of association with the multitudes of my own race had elapsed, I would find myself itching uncontrollably for the solitude of the canyonlands again.  It was with such skin-crawling anxiety that I found myself at the Elephant Hill trailhead of the Needles late one November.  High season was long gone, and there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot whose occupants had long since dissolved into the shadowy crags that separated the white, mushroom-capped towers that flanked the small valley of red sand and juniper.

I remember the exultation of having the whole scene to myself.  I closed my eyes and cocked my head heavenward, feeling the penetrating warmth of the sun’s rays on my face, though it strayed toward the southern horizon at this season.  I concentrated on the cool air swirling about my ears and neck like the whisper of a mountain stream.  I was back in my place.  Back, and wonderfully, deliciously alone.

Except for the raven, that is. 

I was well-acquainted with these creatures.  In my pre-medical study of zoology I had learned that the common raven is a bird of particular intelligence, possessing a large brain and mischievous demeanor that manifests itself in odd behaviors that seem to serve no purpose other than self-amusement; for example, the use of twigs or small bones as toys.  Many a desert coyote has been tormented by a persistent raven that will tease it mercilessly, swooping down upon it and back up again, always staying just out of reach of its angry jaws.  They do it for the pure sport of it, as if their ability to defy gravity alone weren’t enough of an advantage over their earth-bound, half-starved targets of ridicule.

I had been warned again that morning by the Needles District park ranger issuing my back-country permit about the pernicious way they also pester the humans that invade their world.  In the past I had used the visitor center’s stock Kevlar food bags, for experience proved that Kevlar stopped both bullets and raven beaks.  The first time I went into the back-country without one, ravens pecked my backpack apart and ate a good portion of my food during a single twenty-minute lunch break when I had the audacity to drop my pack at camp and take my meal to a cliffy perch.  Several subsequent visits to the area convinced me that I preferred a slightly bigger bag to hold my aromatic provisions; thus I had a newly acquired bag with me for this trip, still free of the bite marks that marred the frequently-used loaners.  The viciousness of how they dispatched my backpack during that first experience, and the tenacity with which they always seemed to attack the Kevlar, had made me a little wary of my black-feathered desert companions and their hammering beaks that could inflict such destruction in such a short time. 

Not that this particular raven was threatening, or exhibiting any propensity to torment me like a coyote.  In fact, the element of its behavior that caused me first to take notice, and upon further scrutiny, gradually advanced itself into an object of vague apprehension, was its remarkable stillness.

The bird sat perfectly motionless, perched high on a juniper branch, not ten feet from where I stood fastening the straps of my pack, and stared at me.  I beheld no movement of its head, no ruffle of its oily feathers.  Only its eye, that left eye that was so singularly ringed with the thinnest stripe of snowy white, twitched slightly, as it looked me up and down repeatedly.

I had never seen such a bird.  Most ravens, upon making eye contact, would comprehend a threat and take flight.  But this one held its ground, staring me down through that unmistakable and unique white ring around its eye, the like of which I had never seen before, nor have since.

I ceased my gawking back at the beast, and proceeded up the trail.  I could perceive its eye following me, in utter silence.  The only sounds in the air were from my own footfalls on slickrock and the scrape of the sides of my pack on the sandstone walls of a long crack that ascended out of the trailhead canyon.

I soon forgot the bird and found myself relishing the varied topography: the enormous mushroom rocks scattered about the trail; the twisting, red canyons that dropped off the white plateau I traversed; the dark gray pock-marks in the bedrock that filled with water each time it rained, only to evaporate into the arid sky within a few hours of the storm clearing; the majestic needles jutting heavenward on the varied horizons of each direction I looked.  Each rocky ridge or ravine I traversed afforded new panoramas to enjoy in this labyrinth of geological wonder.

It wasn’t until I stopped in the shade of a large overhang cut out of a sheer sandstone bluff that I noticed the raven again.  Whether it followed me or went ahead, I do not know—only that when I looked up and noticed with some delight a tiny pinyon pine tree defying the unforgiving elements by growing directly out of a miniscule crack in the otherwise sheer rock face, the bird was suddenly also there, perched on the tree’s only branch, staring fixedly at me with the same white-ringed eye.  A chill in the November air seemed to catch my nerves and tingled down my spine to the soles of my feet.  Again, it sat perfectly motionless, save that twitching eye which looked me over and over.

I found myself scurrying down the trail, descending the switchbacks into Elephant Canyon with a rash burst of unnecessary speed.  When my boot skidded over some loose sand and I caught myself against a boulder on the edge of a switchback, I had to remind myself that I was very much alone—just as I preferred to be—and would likely have to hobble out of this canyon on my own two feet were I careless enough to sprain an ankle or sustain a tumble down the cliffy slope.

Had I been there fifty years earlier and suffered such a fall, I might have sought help from a lonely rancher or two, who brought their cattle occasionally to feed from the relative lushness of Chesler Park, which borders Elephant Canyon to the immediate south and west.  This anomaly in the landscape is a valley of meadow grass and flowers, several miles in diameter, sitting high up and unbroken relative to the canyons surrounding it on all sides.  The park is flanked by tall sandstone cliffs and needles, and from the air looks a little like an impact crater.  The unique properties of Chesler Park must cause rainwater to seep into the sand and collect there in quantities unusual for the region.  Thus, the ranchers who chose to brave this harsh landscape would bring their herds there to graze in the relative oasis.  An old cowboy camp is still preserved along the rock island in the middle of the park, near several of the back-country campsites.  However, no cattle have been there for decades.  Whether this is because of new restrictions, or the fortitude of the hardy ranchers finally evaporating into the parched desert air, I do not know.  What I do know is that in Chesler Park, the lush green of spring and the golden fields of summer turn even more spectacular in November, when white, yellow, and lavender wildflowers fill the red soil under the watch of monolith sandstone sentinels that flank its borders.  I could hardly wait to see it.

First I needed to setup my camp in the canyon.  I had an affinity for the Elephant Canyon campsites because of the panoramic views they afford of the chaotic country.  My favorite site was perched relatively high up on the southern side of a bend in the canyon, where I could see a 270-degree view up and down the fragmented gorge.  Sunrise and sunset are both spectacular there, as shadows of needle spires from one side of the canyon march vertically along salmon cliffs on the other side, eventually swallowing up, or being swallowed by, the earth, depending on the time of day.

At length I ascended the southern edge of the canyon and arrived at my campsite.  I took off my pack under the familiar old juniper tree that afforded the only shade at this site, at least during the heat of the day.  Being up on a rocky ledge, there wasn’t much shelter, but this tree made it a home.  Having learned the hard way through prior experience, the first thing I did was pack the food I brought into my new Kevlar stuff bag, which I hung from a high branch of the juniper.  I had no sooner finished tying it up when I noticed again, on a tree some twenty feet away, the same ring-eyed raven, perched motionless, and boring into me with its twitching stare.

I must confess, though it may seem like some small thing to you, that at this point I felt a degree of real alarm.  I had never known any beast of the desert to behave this way, and I knew not what it meant.  The thing had been watching me for who knows how long, had seen me pack up my food sack and hang it, and doubtless was forming nefarious plans to relieve me of my provisions the moment I left camp.  The bird reeked of mischief. 

But there was also something else, some deeper meaning in its eccentric actions that unnerved me.  The way that it conducted itself with such patient stealth of motion, with such silence, with such an air of ambush such that I had never yet seen it actually change position in the slightest; and yet, here it was, miles from the first sighting.  And though I had only consciously perceived it thrice, I suddenly became aware that subconsciously I had been cognizant of its presence all day; that wherever I had been it had been also, ever since the trailhead, as if it were tracking the progress of every footprint I made.  It stared at me with such intensity that I felt there must be some connection we shared, some reason why this solitary raven had chosen to torment me.

I resumed setting up camp: I pitched the tent directly on the slickrock, weighing it down with large rocks I placed in each corner, and laid out my sleeping quarters within.  When I emerged, much to my relief, the raven was gone.  Under the juniper I ate a silent lunch of salami, cheese, crackers, and dried apple, and readied my day pack with the necessary provisions for my hike up the canyon.  I needed to filter water if I could find it in any of the upstream potholes.  The ranger at the entrance told me there should be some available with the recent rains in the area, though I had seen no evidence of moisture thus far.  After double-checking that my food sack was secure, and scanning the site one last time and finding no trace of the bird, I descended to the rocky streambed below.

I enjoyed a marvelous hike in utter silence the rest of the afternoon.  My soul dissolved into the alien landscape, becoming part of the remote austerity of the place.  I soared in spirit among the needle towers, and plunged into the shadowy crags.  Wherever I looked, I found strange forms and mysterious passages to delight the imagination.  Only once was my reverie interrupted, when I crossed paths with the driver of the other vehicle at the trailhead, near the ascent to Druid Arch at the top end of the canyon.  He was hiking out that evening, which meant that by nightfall I would have the entire wilderness to myself.  I relished the thought and bid him an eager farewell.

I returned to my tent just before sunset, having spent a full two hours or so transfixed with the Stonehenge-like pillars of towering Druid Arch.  This delay necessitated a bit of a hurried descent back down the canyon to my camp.  I wasn’t so much concerned about the dark, as I was about getting my dinner eaten and everything ready for my after-hours entertainment.  It was to be a nearly full moon tonight, and I had a mind to explore the area in the monochromatic glow of the heavenly orb.  Everything changes in the moonlight, and you perceive things—subtle details—that remain hidden in the harsh light of the noon sun.  I eagerly anticipated the revelations this night would bring.

When I retrieved my food sack from where it hung from the juniper tree, the raven had been hard at work: it had been thoroughly pecked, poked and pried.  The top of my box of crackers had been torn slightly, where it was exposed by the dime-sized opening at the drawstring mouth of the bag, but otherwise, everything had been well protected.

I ate my meal in haste as the last fiery rays disappeared behind the western canyon wall.  I removed several of the water bottles I had filled earlier from my day pack, adding them to the bag and tying it up to a high branch of the juniper again.  It was bulging with its contents, the various containers within pushing out in strange, lumpy shapes.

It wasn’t until the nearly full moon broke over the eastern horizon a few minutes later, shining horizontally against the bag, that I suddenly noticed that the bumps and forms pushing out from within the bag seemed to create the shape of a face.  Yes, there was definitely a face inside the bag, pressing hard against it so that I could see the contours of the nose, the cheekbones, the forehead, the hollow indentations where the eyes were, and the chin.  As a physician I had studied the anatomy of the human skull in great detail over many years, and I was amazed at the remarkable structural accuracy of the visage that I now beheld.  A perfectly-proportioned human face was there, upright and inside the bag, pressing to get out.

I simply gawked at the thing, so fascinated by this strange phenomenon that for a long moment I did not notice the raven perched on the very branch from which the sack hung.  When at last I beheld the moonlight spilling over its inky feathers, its staring, white-ringed eye shot through my own with an icy coldness that spilled down my spine and extended to the ends of my limbs.  I trembled violently and cried out at the thing, waving my arms wildly in the passion of the moment, prompting it to take flight with a loud, cawing cry.  The juniper branch was left swaying in the moonlight, with the face in the bag slowly rotating beneath it.  At last, for the first time, I could plainly discern that the raven was not just a shadowy apparition, but in fact was a tangible being that possessed full capabilities of locomotion like any other bird.

I had begun to wonder about that raven.  Folklore had often claimed that ravens were incarnations of restless souls who had been cheated of life, or harbingers of death or doom.  To many they were a dark and ugly omen.  I had never been superstitious and thus had never put any stock in such rubbish.  But being a spiritual being, and having my own unique brand of transcendentalism which, though never understood by others, to me served a palpable purpose (as I have described in this account), I had to concede that such legends often possess distant roots in some form of truth.  Like the juniper tree that stood before me, sometimes the manifestations of tall tales visible to us in the present have grown gnarled and twisted on the surface; yet at their core they draw real sustenance from historical facts, just as this tree could mysteriously draw water from soil that appeared, to my ignorant eyes, to be as arid as the dust on the moon.

With the disappearance of the feathered beast into the night sky, my thoughts returned to the present and I suddenly became aware of how very fatigued I felt.  The thought of a moonlit stroll among the silent stone monuments and shadowy places of the canyon had utterly lost its appeal, and I found myself distressed by an acute malaise of some unspeakable source.  The food bag continued its slow rotation in the moonlight, and I was greatly relieved to see that the face in the bag had disappeared entirely and it was, again, just an ordinary sack containing the lumps and bulges of my provisions.  No doubt, the phantom vision of something more had been just a trick of the eyes resulting from the dim, ghostly light and the black shadows of the tree from which it hung. 

I retired to my tent at once and lay in the dark with my eyes closed.  I expected to drift off immediately into the heavy slumber typical of days when I had hiked miles through the wilderness, much of it with a loaded backpack.  But instead, I found that even while my body felt ill at ease, my mind was fully alert and my other senses seemed to be heighted to an unusual degree. 

With my eyes closed, I seemed to be able to comprehend the movements of everything around me in the desert night—for it is in the darkness that the desert truly comes alive.  I discerned the scurry of a ground squirrel as it investigated my camp, running up the length of the juniper trunk, then out along the branch, finally sniffing at the top of the food sack.  I could tell the exact moment when it abandoned the pursuit of what was inside, and could sense it retracing its steps, at last retreating back into the shadows of its hole, many yards away.  I could hear the flutter of bat wings as they chased insect prey through wild loops in the air, sometimes swooping to just inches above my tent.  To my astonishment, I found that I could also smell them as they passed, their mammal scents leaving trails and arcs in the sky like long kite tails.  And then, in a feat wholly outside the range of normal human sensory experience, I found myself being able to locate, far above and around me, the individual insects that they feasted on—each set of tiny wings fluttered just loud enough to be audible to my ears through the mesh roof of my tent.  The more I tried to ignore my senses the more intensely they inundated my consciousness.  I found that I could hear the distant march of a beetle across the sand.  I could hear the faint croaking of toads in the marshes of the next canyon over.  I could even—in an achievement all my years of medical training would have told me was not humanly possible—discern the individual steps of the ants exploring the slickrock around my tent.  The cacophony of the wild menagerie outside my little piece of human shelter swirled about me like the din of a marching band.  I had never felt so alert, so awake, so alive!

And then the whole of the commotion was at once swallowed up, as my attention honed in on a single sound—a different sound; not an animal sound; but something that caused my blood to run cold in my veins.

I could hear the subtle, yet distinctive noise of drops of fluid hitting the rock.  They started occasionally, but grew more regular.  Soon it was a pounding of droplets, each one splattering onto the sandstone.  I could tell by the sound they made that it was not water dripping, but something more viscous.  I could smell it—it was an earthy, salty smell.  I plainly detected the direction of the noise, for it came straight from the branch of the juniper tree from which hung the sack with the face.

Yes, though my eyes were shut tightly, I knew that the face was there again, its delineations protruding obscenely from the interior of the bag.  And it was the bag—yes, plainly the bag—that was dripping the viscous fluid onto the uneven rock below.

And lo—what was this new sound?  It was the sound of something slowly, stealthily, almost silently, snaking its way towards the door of my tent.  Back and forth it coursed across the irregular sandstone surface, always flowing through the low spots, pooling when necessary until it could spill over into the next depression, working its way steadily down the almost imperceptible slope that lead to the zippered opening of my tent.

My ears burned with the noise.  My hands turned cold as I clenched them tightly over my ears.  My heart pounded in my chest as I listened to that great, black snake extend itself from its originating pool underneath the sack, drop by drop and inch by inch, until it at last made contact with the nylon of my tent.  Unable to keep my eyes shut any more, I sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag and—to my horror—stared at a dark shadow in the front corner of my tent that began to spread like a fungus across the floor and creep up the side.

All at once I sprang to my feet, my head colliding with the roof of my tent, my eyes popping with horror as the inky blackness spread further towards my feet, in a pattern like grasping, shadowy fingers.  In desperation I reached out and fumbled with the door zipper, finally managing to rip it open.  I sprang out of the constricted space just in time to see the ring-eyed raven take flight from the roof of my tent, where its great, extended wings had cast their black shadows in the moonlight. 

Stunned, I looked about.  There was no stain on my tent.  All was as it had been before.  There was no inky rivulet on the rock, no pool under the sack; in fact, the bag looked quite itself, with only my foodstuffs bulging out its sides.  All was in perfect order.

And yet, the raven had been here again.  Somehow, in the midst of all the motions of the wild creatures I had discerned with my heightened senses, I had failed to detect it landing mere inches above my head.  The thing was surely some hybrid mixture of both physical creature and supernatural phantom.

I looked in the direction that the raven had departed—for this I had plainly observed—and was dumbfounded to notice something remarkable that I am almost certain had not been there before: following the bird’s path in a straight line across the canyon, on the wall of the north side, was a large, vertical white slab of sandstone.  This I had undoubtedly observed without taking particular notice previously, as the banded red and white colors interchanged frequently in the towers of the canyon rim; but now, in the moonlight, it had taken on such distinctive characteristics that I found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief.

There, staring at me from the huge rock face, was a face—and not just any face, but the selfsame visage that had moments before been protruding from the inside of the food sack that was hanging from the juniper tree, just feet from where I stood.  I could not have mistaken it; as I mentioned with the sack, I could discern every contoured detail of the face, laid out in perfect human detail.  And just like the sack, it looked as if the face was inside the rock, straining with all its might to get out.

As I stared at the apparition, I saw the moonlight shadow of the raven rise from the canyon bottom, shooting up across the white face until it vanished at the apex, as the raven flew into the shadows just above the top of the cliff. 

I fixed myself with a sudden determination to investigate the spot where the raven had disappeared.  I felt a strange compulsion, as if I were being called to the spot by some irresistible urge to know what was there.  Almost without hesitation, only taking time to put on my shoes and grab my headlamp and twenty feet of coiled webbing from my backpack, I descended from my campsite to the shadowy bottom of the canyon and crossed to the north side where the rock face stared down at me.

I have always loved exploring the craggy cliffs and spires in canyon country, in part because there is so often a way to get to where I want to go—not always an easy or obvious way, but it seems that Nature has, in her playful way, provided just enough of a path to make it possible to penetrate to whatever heights or depths the human mind sets its sights on.  So it was with this canyon wall.  Starting from the canyon bottom, I was several hundred feet below the white rock face that was my objective to ascend.  But using my headlamp to illuminate the topography, I was able to pick my way around the alternating layers of rubble and cliffs and slowly work my way up towards my goal.

My meandering path took some time to forge, but after thirty minutes or so I found myself at the base of the great white cliff.  Here was the real challenge.  I traversed the base back and forth a dozen times, but could find no weakness, no obvious path that would lead me up to my destination.  Flustered, I sat down with my head in my hands and began to assess my own mental state for being out here, looking for a way to the top of a sheer sandstone cliff in the middle of the night.

I had just determined to go back to camp, when I heard a faint sound coming from above.  I thought it was the wind at first, but then it came into focus and I could tell that someone or something was up there, speaking.  I strained my ears to hear it, and then heard a second voice responding:

“…this is my place…”

The first voice answered with something unintelligible.  As I listened, I began to distinguish the qualities of the speakers’ voices.  The first was an older man, with a lower tone and gravelly timbre.  The second belonged to a man who seemed to be much younger.

The old man accused, “…and now I find you up here, with your own little camp.”

“I ain’t never done any wrong by coming here on my own time,” protested the younger man.

“Well, we’ll see about that,” replied the older.

There was a distinctive quality of the voices that was hard to discern; they were certainly real, yet they sounded not quite human.  It was as if the volume of their speech rose and fell with the gusty breezes that raced down the canyon.  My heart raced with a keen interest in the midnight conversation of these two visitors in this barren place that I had previously been convinced was deserted.  Frantically, I paced back and forth again, looking for some way up that I had not seen before.

I rounded the corner opposite where I had climbed up to the base of the cliff, and, following a narrow ledge and proceeding further than before and looking up, I noticed a small crack behind a boulder on a ledge above.  It didn’t look even wide enough for a child to squeeze into, but knowing how deceiving the crags in a rock face can be, I climbed up to the next ledge to investigate. 

Sure enough, immediately before the part of the crack that was visible from below, there was an opening in the ledge floor, about three feet deep and three feet wide, which penetrated through the boulder directly under the crack I had seen before.  The opening extended some twenty feet to the far side of the boulder, running beneath the crack I had seen from below, where it opened out into a space that was perfectly hidden from the base of the cliff face.

“I knew something was wrong,” cried the younger voice, “and now I know exactly what’s going on.”

“You don’t know nothing,” shouted the older, his pitch rising in anger.

“I can prove it.  It’s all right here, in my space, which you can leave now!  You don’t own me up here!”

Though I could only hear snippets of the argument, it was obvious that some great drama was unfolding above.  Frantically, I looked around me, and could now see the answer to my problem of ascending the cliff: there was a vertical chimney, about two feet wide without much variation, extending from where I stood, all the way to the top of the rock face.  I estimated that it was probably a hundred feet high, which meant that if I climbed rather quickly, it would take me the better part of an hour before I reached the top.  I wished that I had brought some bolts with me; as it was, I would have to free-climb carefully.

I began my ascent, finding strong enough holds in the minor variations of the chimney walls for my back and feet so that I could push myself up with my legs and sometimes pull with my hands.  Every few feet I would pause, and when I did, could often make out the conversation above.

“I have records of everything.  All the ones that died, and all the new calves, all the ones you took from Christensen’s herd.  Don’t think you can hide it from me or anyone else.”  The young man’s voice was shrill with energy as he accused the old man.  “I know what you’ve been up to, Quincy, and I’ve got all the proof I need for the sheriff.  It’s all up here, safely out of your reach!”  There was the sound of metal patting soft earth.  “The game is up!”
There was a long silence.  Then, barely audible, like the low moan of a breeze, I heard the old man slowly reply, “You’ve got nothing, Jake.  I’ll see to it that…”

A series of grunts and moans erupted as the sound of blows spilled down from above.  With wild excitement, I accelerated my progress up the chimney.  I could hear no more words between the two men, but imagine my horror when I heard at last the sharp clang of metal striking something hard, and a loud scream of a man in desperation: a piercing, unearthly shriek that rose in pitch until it became the shrill cry of a raven.  The sound echoed across the canyon walls, coming at me from every direction at once; then it abruptly ceased and its reverberating ring dissipated into the black night sky.

All was still.  I inched my way higher and higher, pausing to listen every minute or so, but could hear nothing, until a new sound began: the dull thump of a metal shovel digging in soft sand.  I could hear each shovelful of dirt being thrown aside as the digger made progress: first in one spot, then another, then another.  It sounded as if he were digging a series of holes, perhaps working systematically; perhaps looking for something.

I continued to make my way upward, and the digging continued from the top.  After thirty more minutes or so, I heard a thump of metal on wood, and then the scraping sound of the shovel clearing sand off of wood.  Then a series of grunts, all made by the older man’s gravelly voice, followed by a single thud, and the sound of a lid being pried off of a box. 

I hurried as much as I dared to.  My arms and legs were beginning to shake under the exertion, and looking down, I saw that I had over fifty feet of open air between my body and the bottom of the vertical chute.  This was not the time to behave rashly; I needed to concentrate on the task at hand.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a sudden, terrible series of sharp blows, as if the shovel were being used to hack at something furiously.  The old man’s grunts and murmurs indicated his exertion at whatever task he was about.

During this time I had gained another twenty feet or so towards the top of the cliff.  Above the sounds of my own body scraping the sandstone walls of the chimney as I worked upwards, I heard the sound of the lid being pounded back onto the box.  This was followed by a large thump, as if the box had been dropped, and then, pausing for a moment, I discerned the distinct sound of sand being dumped onto wood, followed by the softer sound of sand on sand, as the old man replaced the earth he had previously dug out.

I had almost reached my goal, and he was nearly finished!  Somehow, I knew that I needed to hurry in order to see the terrible conclusion of this mysterious chain of events, or I may never know the truth behind it.  The desert, for all its fragility and unforgiving habits of showing the scars humanity has inflicted on it, yet has a remarkable way of swallowing certain secrets whole; of sweeping clean the traces of some events with the sand and stillness that pervade it.  I ascended the last twenty feet or so of the chimney, hand over hand, foot over foot, in a remarkably smooth rhythm, until at last, I pulled myself up onto a ledge at the summit of the white rock face.

Once on top, I scrambled further up a steep incline and found myself peering over a sculpted sandstone border of a circular depression some thirty feet in diameter, whose bottom was filled with sand and strewn with desert vegetation.  Most of the pothole was bordered by vertical sandstone walls, almost perfectly smooth, varying from a few feet to over fifteen feet in height.  The only variation was on the far side, where the wall was broken by a dark crack, some four or five feet across, marking the boundary between two red towers that rose high above the circular wall.  I could see in the moonlight that there was a slight drainage in the sand towards the opening, so that it must be at the low point of the depression.  It was from the black space of that chasm that I heard the final sound of the fantastic events I had climbed up to witness: the distant clang of a shovel bouncing on sandstone.  Then all was again still.

I strained for more, but my ears discerned nothing.  Shining my headlamp around the perimeter of the pothole, I looked in vain for the obvious signs of the digging I had overheard.  I was astonished to observe that the whole area was completely undisturbed.  There were no footprints, no evidence of a shovel having been at work, nothing at all but windswept sand, desert shrubs, a few small, hardy trees, and some patches of wildflowers, gently fluttering in the light breeze.

Perhaps somehow, incredibly, the noises I had heard came from beyond the crack.  I circled the perimeter of the pothole until I reached a point where the wall was low, and I jumped down and ran to the place where the chasm broke the otherwise smooth wall.

Pausing to adjust my headlamp, I stood at the opening and shone my light inside.  I could see that this crack was indeed the boundary of two towers that not only ascended high above the pothole, but also appeared to extend down some fifty feet or more, nearly vertically, marking the outer border of this side of the little plateau.  From here, I could see moonlight and shadow on a rock wall across a gaping void.  But there was no trace of any human activity, nor any glimpse of the bearers of the voices I had so plainly heard.  Mindful of the drop-off at my feet, I ensured my hand- and footholds, and carefully stepped into the blackness of the crevasse to get a better look.

All at once I was barraged by the deafening din of a hundred shrill raven calls, as a cloud of the oily birds rushed at me, and through me, from the darkness.  They brushed by my face and limbs as they poured out of the inky blackness like a swarm of angry hornets.  I cowered in the gap, my arms shielding my head from the onslaught of chaos.  I covered my ears with my hands until the last bird had disappeared into the sky behind me. 

I found myself, extraordinarily, still with firm footholds that prevented me from plummeting down the crack to my doom.  Deeply shaken, but otherwise unharmed, I regained my bearings and peered down the crevasse beneath me.  About fifteen feet below, the beam of my headlamp caught an object wedged in the crack between the towers.  The shovel!

I backed out of the chasm to see if there might be an anchor I could use with my webbing to fetch the shovel.  The only thing I could find was a pinyon pine log that was long enough to extend beyond both sides of the opening, and appeared solid enough to hold my weight.  I anchored my webbing to it and laid it across the opening, hoping that it would stay put with my weight pulling against it. 

I descended the crag until it became too narrow, and then, relying on the integrity of the pinyon log, worked my way to the outside edge of the towers and dropped a little further to where the shovel was wedged between them.  I was astonished at its condition: it was rusted completely over and showed no signs of having been recently used.  There was no sand clinging to its blade; no sweat or oil on its rough, warped wooden handle; no sign of having been touched by human hands for a very long time.

With some effort, I wriggled it free with one hand while I held myself in place with the other, and, with some exertion, managed to climb back up.  When at last I emerged from the chasm again, I beheld an amazing spectacle. 

The birds had formed a swirling mass in the sky above and were holding steady in a uniform pattern.  They seemed to circle around and around a central point just off to my left.  I stared in awe at the singular display, and noticed that the shadow of the birds on the sand almost completely blocked out the moonlight, except for one small spot of brightness in the center, about three feet across, which shone brightly about ten feet from where I stood.  It was here that I knew I had to dig.

The shovel worked quickly, and within a short time I hit something solid.  It wasn’t rock, but it didn’t sound like the wood I had overheard earlier, either.  It was softer and denser, and made a duller sound when I struck it, like an axe in rotting timber.

I anxiously widened the hole until I could clear away enough sand to find the edges of an old, wooden box, about two feet by three feet.  On the lid of the decaying box I could still make out a large “Q” that had been painted on it.  I feverishly worked the sand around it until I was able to pry off the lid.  Much of the wood crumbled under the strain of the prying shovel.

At the exact moment I cleared the hole of the pieces of the lid, allowing the circle of moonlight to spill down into the white and jumbled contents of the crate, the swirling raven cloud above dove upon me in a body, with a sudden, deafening clamor.  As in the crack, they paid me no heed, but brushed past and went straight for the box in the bottom of the hole, each one picking up an object and then disappearing into the sky.  At first I could not see what they carried away, but then I noticed the familiar shapes I had studied for so many years: a femur; radius and ulna; a clavicle; an angled, flat scapula; a hand, with most of the fingers still attached; pieces of spine; ribs; and every other part of human skeletal anatomy.  I even saw two ravens ascend together, carrying a hip bone.  It seemed that after the bones had been removed, they started flying away with rags or scraps of clothing, trailing grey dust in the night air.  The birds rushed upon the crate with such intensity that within a minute or so it appeared to be entirely devoid of its former contents.

I looked up into the sky to see where these mysterious birds were carrying their loads, but could find no trace of any of them.  For a moment I simply marveled at this paranormal wonder, and then I peered down into the shadowy recesses of the box, where there was one item that was yet untouched.  I flattened myself on my stomach and reached my arms down into the crate to remove a smallish, canvas sack from the corner.  Standing, I examined it: its mouth was tied tightly and a faint, but legible “Q” matching the one on the lid of the box was printed on it.  Its bottom was stained with a sickening black ooze.  Its sides bulged with the unmistakable marks of a face—the same human face I had seen before—pressing against it from the inside.

I recoiled at the thing and leaped back, dropping it to the ground.  Upon impact the bag split open and the skull rolled out onto the sand, stopping at my feet, its hollow eyes staring up at me.  A lone raven with a white-ringed eye swooped down silently from the air and picked up the skull in its claws.  I watched it ascend towards the stars until it disappeared into the blackness from whence it came.

I picked up the stained sack and found a lone object which the birds had left behind.  It was an eyepiece; a monocle.  The single lens was framed by a silver ring, which, remarkably, was untarnished and shone brightly in the pale moonlight.  This I pocketed.

I had plenty of time as I carefully descended the chimney and made my way back to my tent to ponder this most extraordinary adventure.  I knew not what to make of it.  Upon reaching my camp, sleep had long since fled as a possibility for the night.  Consequently, I hastily packed up my things in the darkness and was back at the trailhead by sunrise. 

As I mentioned at the commencement of this narrative, I declined to share what I knew with any of the local authorities.  I have no plausible proof of any part of my strange tale, and I would not expect any sane person to believe it.  I found myself over the following weeks and months withdrawing even further from the society of mankind which seemed to throng me at every turn.  What I had experienced weighed upon me like a great burden.  I began to lose hope of anyone ever understanding what this extraordinary manifestation had done to me.

And yet, the monocle served as a tangible reminder of what had happened, high in the lonely cliffs of the canyonlands.  Ever after, my dreams were frequently haunted with the sound of black, fluttering wings and the discovery of bulging sacks in strange locations. 

These visions eventually drove me to launch an investigation in the microfiche reserves of the Grand Junction library.  Therein is a relatively complete set of local newspapers, spanning from the early 1930s to the late 1970s.  After months of searching, in the June 14, 1968 issue of the Grand Junction Times, I finally stumbled across a two-page spread chronicling the history of ranching in the Needles area of what is now Canyonlands National Park.  A few paragraphs of particular interest told the peculiar story of how in 1914, while off with the herd in the Needles, a young ranch hand by the name of Jacob Hamilton had come down with a desert fever and had wandered off into the wilderness, never to be heard of again.  His employer, one Martin Quincy, had already had a difficult year with the sudden onslaught of a cattle disease that wiped out a good portion of his herd.  After this final misfortune, Quincy had sold the remaining cattle to the Christensen ranch, whose herd often grazed with Quincy’s lot, but had somehow been spared the disease that had so crippled his neighbor’s headcount.

Underneath the article was a photograph with a caption that read “Martin Quincy and Jacob Hamilton at the Quincy ranch before it closed.”  The grainy picture showed a gruff old rancher standing next to a young man with a silver-rimmed monocle.  They stood by a gate painted with the same “Q” I had seen on the lid of the crate and the canvas bag.  I can only conclude that the slain young man could never rest at peace while buried in a box bearing the mark of his murderer.

As for the raven with the white-ringed eye, I have never seen it since.