Dinosaur skeleton in grround

The Frontier

By Sean Sam
Terrain.org 12th Annual Contest in Fiction Winner

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I stood outside their tent and tried to listen to them sleeping, imagining their colorless dreams.


I waited and studied them—the people in the pit. Sometimes they spent hours at the dig site, their bodies appearing and disappearing in the sediment, and sometimes they spent just as long in the blue tent beside their manmade chasm, no doubt analyzing their findings, pouring over bones, congratulating themselves on finding what did not belong to them. Their science existed to look backward. I knew about bones too, the depth to make them disappear.

Occasionally, a new truck appeared at the dig site, and I would monitor the vehicle through my binoculars, noting its license plate and occupants. Always, the arrivals were only more researchers. They would stay a few hours before returning the site to one or two settlers, their tent a homestead in the frontier.

They all were strangers, being bilagáana scientists in Diné territory. They were all flecks of white skin. But their dig site—right outside Chinle, Arizona—was remote. No one watched them except me. After three weeks of monitoring, I decided that it was time.

I was usually more careful. Three months or more between each self-defense was my normal cycle, four spokes in the wheel of a year. But I didn’t know how much longer they would be at the site, and I felt I had a good grasp of their schedule. Saturday mornings, the party divided and left one digger alone. That person would take a trip into town, their route a two-lane road serried by boundless desert.

After midnight on Friday, I did something stupid and left my blind, taking my .30-30, making my way to the dig site. My grandad, who I felt always resented me for being half white, went on about how full of life it was here, how Diné can feel ancestors in the Junipers on the reservation. No, that valley was empty of almost anything except me.

I stood outside their tent and tried to listen to them sleeping, imagining their colorless dreams. The night was cold and cool.

Beside the tent, underneath a tarp, its bones slipping off sediment, the skeleton of an ancient being was bubbling to the surface. I saw my hand reaching in the moonlight to raise the tarp. I had no idea what creature lived underneath, but I wanted to take a piece of it with me. Maybe the jaw. Forget the heart or brain—the soft organs don’t last. Take the teeth, right where the essence exists. Living in the act of chewing others.

Instead, I moved away from the tent and inspected their truck’s wheels. Spike strips were too dangerous to set up—a Native officer had recently died during a police chase nearby. I thought about him flailing to plant the strips, the suspect’s headlights overtaking his body, all that white before death.

Yes, a direct shot at one of their tires would work better. I would take aim between their camp and the nearest town. Anywhere open and empty.

I stepped on the gas. I would greet the stranger before any well-intentioned person could steal my good deed.

The next morning, I watched the site through the scope of my rifle from at least a mile out. A single shape crept across the desert like an ant over a table, moving with an insect’s militaristic purpose, checking their tools, their tarp, their tent. They must have believed they were alone.

The settler started their truck and drove along the road. Bringing my rifle into a tighter position against my shoulder, I steadied myself. Then I began my breathing ritual.

My brother, John, taught it to me years ago when we used to hunt elk, long before he ran away to become a deep-sea diver. John said take three deep breaths in and then hold. When you let the last breath out, you visualize a vase, like grandma’s pottery. He said the fewer colors on your vase, the better—no details to distract you. Make it bone white. Then you look inside it, see everything in there, where you are, the field around you. And then empty it. Pour it out, drink it, evaporate it so the white of the vase destroys everything. The fear will leave with it. Nowhere left for it to live.

When I took the last breath, I saw myself prone in the dirt. I saw loose dust hovering, the empty white space between, and then everything froze, congealing like bone in a tar pit. I cleared it all. Like John taught me, I squeezed and did not pull.

BANG. Direct hit on the passenger side tire, a beautiful shot on a moving target! Ripping over the lines, shooting up dust, the truck jerked across the road. One side rose off the ground, but the driver steadied the vehicle before it tipped. Gradually, the truck lost speed and glided toward the end of the asphalt. The squeal of the wheels took a second to reach me.

I flung off the tarp covering my truck and brought it to life. The initial calmness I felt when I thought of John was gone, replaced with the memory of him figuring out what I was, replaced with his judgment. I told myself to pour that out too.

I stepped on the gas. I would greet the stranger before any well-intentioned person could steal my good deed.

I was a posthumous person, my culture the figment of what it once was, an exhalation leftover from a post-apocalyptic mixture of plague and genocide.

She must have seen me coming in her rearview mirror. By the time I pulled up, the driver—a thin, young woman—had gotten out of her truck and was walking toward me. Her red hair bounced on pale shoulders and her dark sunglasses reflected the shrubs and road back to me. She could not have stood much over five foot four, a good foot shorter than me. I slouched a bit to reduce my size.

Unreal. That was the word you could put to seeing someone up close whom you only knew through a rifle scope. Soldiers must have felt it when they shot someone from a mile away and found their corpse later. The last time—with the tourist—the feeling had been worse because I watched him much longer before approaching. Still, with this woman, the queasy stinging, the sharp sensation of being buried by shale, settled over me all the same.

She was much younger than I expected—either a student or a prodigy. She smiled, white teeth beneath black shades.

“Hey there,” she said in a high voice.

I needed to know whether her cell phone worked, but I had already made a mistake. I took no time to get in character. She seemed ready to speak and my tongue felt like a fossil.

“Hey,” I said. My voice was too soft from talking only to myself. I tried again louder. “How are you?”

She gestured to the truck behind her. “I think I have a flat tire. And no spare either.”

I paused for a few seconds. Then I asked directly, “Have you called anyone?”

“Reception isn’t working here,” she said. Suddenly, she extended a hand. “I’m Emma.”

I shook her fingers, her touch soft, nearly imperceptible. A lie though, a gentle infection. She was irradiated by the pioneer spirit, the kind thought long gone by the naive, yet its impression could still startle a keen observer, like glancing along the hull of a mesa and spotting an abandoned uranium mine. The same spirit carried Kit Carson here.

She was dressed casually, with a flannel overshirt tied around her waist. As she moved closer, clouds crawled across the sun, and in the half light, for a moment, she seemed to disappear, her skin gone, leaving only her empty clothes floating toward me. Then she was back, and the unreal feeling hovered farther down the road.

It was around the time of the incident with the tourist that I first addressed this feeling. I dealt with the odd untethering by creating a personal philosophy—my theory of the post-apocalypse, and it helped me immensely. The theory went something like this: Anything and anyone can become untethered from time. Take these bone hunters. They were continuing their normal lives, normal culture, going to school. But I, in contrast, was a posthumous person, my culture the figment of what it once was, an exhalation leftover from a post-apocalyptic mixture of plague and genocide. I was living in a parallel world in which I was one of the last survivors of that apocalypse. They did not realize this alternate reality existed like a bubble within their own. They believed they could see and hear me, but what they saw was filtered through a membrane, a layer making my existence a plume, colorless. Only through action—violent action—could I smash my hand through that bubble, make the skeleton of my arm flesh again, and let them see me.

Emma’s lips were moving, but I wasn’t listening. When she paused and stared at me, I realized I had not introduced myself. I told her my Anglo name.

“I’ve lived around here for years,” I said, “and this area always has bad reception. I can give you a ride into town.”

The offer was out there. I would trap her in the car and drive her to the same place I took the tourist, the place where John and I grew up, a house without running water.

Emma said, “Well. I’d like to try to return to camp first if that’s okay?”

She made her voice rise at the end of her question. Maybe it was a habit women did more than men, especially when dealing with a stranger. But it surprised me coming from a white woman.

“It’s probably a shorter distance to town from here,” I said. “Is your camp back the other way?”

“Oh no, it’s not far. The others will be back soon and I think they can help.”

“Others?”

“Sorry, I didn’t explain. I’m part of a paleontology team. We’ve been digging here—it’s all approved by the tribe. We have the permits.”

That last sentence was blurted out too quickly. So they had a piece of paper.

“Wow,” I said. “A real paleontologist. I haven’t met someone like you. Will you tell me about it?”

Whenever I was forced to be social, I listened more than talked. If you spend 80 percent of the time asking questions, your guest will tell everyone afterward what a great conversationalist you are. Most want to hear their thoughts out loud and see another face react to them. And it was easier for me because I felt insecure about talking. My mother never talked to me. So, I did not learn our language.

She said, “If you’ve got an interest, I’m willing to teach. But I would like to return to the camp, if that’s okay.”

“You got a deal. My truck’s not the most comfortable.”

“No worries. I spent most of the last month digging in the dirt and sleeping in a bag.”

Having secured her desire, her voice grew steadier as we walked toward my truck. The passenger side was unlocked, and she had no issues, despite her stature, with stepping into the cabin. I took note of these things to not underestimate her later. Maybe the outdoor spirit, or whatever bilagáana called it, had invaded her at a young age. Yes, I know I am half white. But digging was a trade at its core—not an existence. We had no similarities.

I got in the driver’s seat and fished around for my keys. Then I started the truck. “What got you interested in bones?”

“You can learn so much from them. All sorts of things about the past.”

“I guess I’m more about the future. What might be or might have been.”

“A good dig can tell us a lot about that too. Someday, people might recover us the same way. Then they’ll see how we lived.”

“You think so? I’m not sure.”

“Of course they will. I suppose they’ll find me on the East Coast. I’m from Baltimore.”

“I’ve been here my whole life.”

“You planning on living here forever?”

“No choice. After I die here, I doubt anyone will find me.”

“They will,” she said. I think she was smiling as if teasing me. Agreeing to drive her to the camp must have disarmed her. “Someone will always be looking. That’s just what we do.”

“I don’t think we would stop on purpose. I’m sure the dinosaurs didn’t plan on getting wiped out.”

“One day, we’ll shoot an asteroid down before it blows us up. Hey, speaking of which, that is exactly what we found!”

I drove and thought of when I would switch directions. On a two-lane road, turning around would trigger every alarm in her body. Maybe she would pull the wheel or bite me.

I asked, “You found an asteroid?”

“No, a dinosaur!”

“A big one?”

“Ah. You know, when I used to work in a museum, no one was interested in the Compsognathus we had. It’s about the size of a house cat. The viewers were really low, which always disappointed me. I thought the little one was pretty cute. But the huge sauropod we had—long as a house—always had groups of kids around it on their school tours.”

“Damn, the little guy must have felt bad.”

“Eventually, we had to put him in storage to make way for another exhibit. Not sure what happened to him.”

I couldn’t pretend to know what a field trip was like. John and I stopped going to school around age seven to help at home. Once or twice a social worker came by, but my mom always drove them off by pretending we were nephews who were just “staying for a bit.” Eventually, their visits evaporated.

If you’ve looked into me more since everything, or been curious about my education, I can tell you that the formal aspects came from a small library an hour from our childhood home. I would take any books I could carry. Almost everything else I know came from my brother.

“Now,” she said. “What we found in our dig out here won’t be forgotten. This thing is a monster.”

I heard him breathing. I thought he was still there. But the longer I talked, the more I was not sure.

While driving toward the camp, I thought about John. It always happened like that. I would get close to making a move and thinking about how disappointed in me he was. Not even disappointed. Scared.

Our old home, where I brought the tourist—where I last saw John—had no real nighttime lighting. Every now and then we would use kerosene lanterns. When the moon was around, spots of white would drop through the holes in the roof and make patterns on my skin. It was something to watch.

The last night I saw him, I thought he was out of town—farther than out actually. He told me he was still working toward getting his commercial diver’s license. You can imagine one must travel beyond the rez for that. His brain must have traveled that far too—to want to do that, you know?

I thought he was gone, so I brought the tourist there. I only learned the tourist’s name from his driver’s license, but I won’t go over that part again, except to say that my method was young.

John came back in that silent sedan of his—or maybe all the blood deafened me—and he saw me with the tourist. There was a lot of yelling and maybe crying too. I got rid of the settler as fast as I could while John stayed inside. Afterward, my lantern was burned out and my body ached. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. That was fine. The torn off scabs from digging always seem different in daylight.

I encountered John in the doorway of our home. He was a shape without feature.

“Don’t stand there,” I said.

“Why?”

“Bad luck to stand there. You know that.”

A traditional female hogan, like our childhood home, has one entrance and one exit.

“What happened to you?” John asked.

“Nothing. This is self-defense.”

“I can’t be here,” he said.

“It’s alright.”

“I can’t be here.”

“You’re here.”

I started to tell him. Why I did it. Why I think I did it. But he said he did not understand. He said he wanted to be as far from this as possible.

I kept talking, telling him my theory of the post-apocalypse, telling him what we had to do, talking until I was no longer sure whether he was there. I heard him breathing. I thought he was still there. But the longer I talked, the more I was not sure.

There’s just nothing better than being out here doing what you love.

Emma rolled down her window, and I did the same. No point in letting the heat make her uncomfortable.

 “Yeah, this find, it’s gonna be great,” she said. “Definitely a kids-crowding-around piece. So—technically—I’m not supposed to show anyone outside of our research crew. But they won’t be back at the camp for an hour or two. When we get there, do you want to see it?”

She leaned toward me, smiling, even gently resting a hand on my forearm.

“Yeah, I want to see it.”

Soon, we reached the camp. In the dark, the tent and tarp looked like props on a film set. In daylight, sun fell into every crease and fold, and the wind coming off the canyons made the fabric bend and turn. The dead, their wounds and their expressions, often had the same habit of reanimating in white light.

“You like the outdoors?” Emma asked as I stopped the truck.

“Never really thought of it that way. It’s not much of a choice here.”

“Right, I didn’t mean to offend.”

“It’s okay.”

“Sorry, I get excited about this and say stupid stuff. This is the best though. It’s been my dream since I was little and now it’s really happening and I want to tell everyone about it.”

“I think I get it. Felt the same after I bought this truck.”

She laughed and I was reminded how young she was by the sound of her voice. “There’s just nothing better than being out here doing what you love.”

I was no longer surprised by Emma’s chattiness because I didn’t believe she was really speaking to me, as much as speaking to an idea, the idea of a true Native to whom she was reciting the ropes, educating the local with the excited air of someone who has learned a fact—a new fact—that she needs to make real by injecting it into others.

In the back of the truck, under a tarp of my own, sat the rifle and the other weapons. Did I love this? I could feel that thick barrier, the membrane of it coiling, the strange heat like craving skin. Yet, I was hesitating. The others, the ones in charge, would not approve of her showing me all this. So she must have felt some trust. She was young, maybe too young. Did she understand what she was doing—how she was invading?

I parked a good distance from the site, and we walked the rest of the way together, her leading. I decided I would wait and listen to her. Then I would choose.

She stopped by a wooden box filled with tools. “Have you used a trowel before?”

“I haven’t.”

“This is mine,” she said and lifted a tiny shovel with a wooden handle. She lifted another. “Here, you can borrow this one.”

She handed me the tool. I felt her fingers brush against mine.

“The best trowels have their point go into the handle,” she said. “If it’s welded together, it won’t last. I’ve seen those break in a day, sometimes less. Got my initials carved on the bottom of this one. Never carve your initials into the handle itself because you’ll get blisters.”

“This tool is so important?”

“Oh hell yeah. After a few digs, a good trowel becomes like an extension of your arm. I’d hate to lose this one.”

“I see. I have a few things I feel the same about.”

“You need clearance on the handle too so you don’t scrape your knuckles. A good one can last forever.”

I said, “I have things I feel the same way about.”

“Like what?”

“In the truck, I have this old war axe.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. My grandpa passed it to my brother, and he then passed it on to me. It’s made from flint and bound with rawhide.”

“You’ll have to show me that later. Man, this meeting with you worked out well. Could be fate or something. No idea what happened to that tire. But now I get to see a living artifact.”

Maybe the axe would have been better placed behind museum glass. Then, no one would ever think of using it. I could be there too.

“Now for the final curtain,” she said.

My mouth was dry and my lips were shaking. It would be too simple to describe her smile as contagious, and yet I found myself wanting to return it. Look at where she was—especially at her age, an age when I had not yet found direction. There was courage, maybe even greatness ahead, not the kind that I endorsed, but the sort that nevertheless could be admired from a distance. If I could only erase her from my world and set her back into another. She would return though. I was sure of it—curiosity can have disturbing aspects.

She had me stand on the opposite side of the tarp and together we folded it back. The sun slid into the pit and lit a massive, fractured spine, at least ten feet in length, the ribs and ridges of it poking like spokes out of the earth, its outline a pulverized question mark. At the top of the spine, a row of spiked teeth divided the dirt. As I moved my face closer toward the pit, I felt a tumbling of years inside me—as if I were time traveling through an invisible portal—a funnel sending me into those jaws.

“Amazing. How long has this been here?” My voice seemed to be sliding through that portal.

“At least 190 million years, probably more.”

“And no one has messed with it since then?”

“It’s just as it was in the old days. That’s what makes it special,” she said and looked at me. “Alright, be careful and you can come closer.”

None of her colleagues would appreciate me stepping on their bones, their stolen sacred ground. She was sharing a secret with me, and I felt some bizarre urge to protect that.

I slid into the pit after her, keeping a distance from the find. The earthy smell, deep rock strata in an enclosed space, overwhelmed.

“This,” she said, “is Dilophosaurus wetherilli. We think. We’re not sure yet. Otherwise, this place would be busier.”

I thought I saw a twitch of movement. The jaw seemed to clench as if the bones themselves had lost connection with the world, loose of gravity and time, ready to open around me.

“I remember the dinosaur from Jurassic Park. Wasn’t it smaller?”

“Yeah. They made it spit venom in that movie. Totally inaccurate. The last name came from John Wetherill—a Navajo.”

I have learned since that Wetherill was not Diné. Only a frontiersman who befriended us and spoke the language. We must have treated him well. So well that his name slid like a stratum over ours and became the one she knew, the one she thought she understood. She might grant me the same erasure. If I left without taking what I came for, no one would ever say I was a bad guy. I could become a story, a tale for her friends to study and look through.

“When we first started digging,” she began, and her voice was clear and loud and seemed to come from everywhere. It made it hard to think. “We thought maybe we’d get some trace fossils. But nothing like this. All the other stuff we have on this creature comes from the Kayenta formation. So, I felt pretty good about being on Navajo territory.”

“You didn’t worry about being on our land?”

She said, “The tribe has helped us out so much. I don’t know if they know how valuable this is. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to take.”

“Have you repaid what you’ve taken?”

I am sure I asked that.

“Here, kneel down,” she said, and I crouched beside the jaw. “Take a look at that.”

I saw little more than a black mark in the dirt where she pointed. The pit was deep enough for the sun to send odd shadows down, and I had to maneuver myself, twisting my body.

“Just there, look,” she said.

I turned again to move my shadow.

You get used to the heat here, but the enclosed space, the smell of her perfume, the sun skipping across my neck, all combined to make me sway. White streaks, like sunlight off bone, rotated around the corners of my vision. I felt that if I passed out, no one would find me for 200 million years.

I said, “They don’t disappear, do they?”

“This one is a nightmare to imagine. Probably over 20 feet long when it was alive. More than 900 pounds.”

“Even this deep.”

“We’ve never found a complete one of these.”

“My brother, John, had this thing he taught me,” I said. “Sort of like meditation. When I’m afraid, I can use it to make everything disappear.”

“This could get all of us in a book,” she said.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

I believe I said that about John. Maybe John would return when I died. He could bury me far from the hogan. Future beings would find and study me with alien eyes, catalog me beside the ones I took, the ones who took me to the limit of life.

“Who gave you permission for this dig?” I asked.

She said, “That shadow right there is the crest.”

I said, “Did they ask me? I don’t remember them asking me.”

“The crest is so beautiful. I wish I could keep it for myself, you know?”

“I think I know. Do you hear me?”

I must have said that to her.

But she didn’t respond. She continued to speak, hands moving in excitement—as if alone.

When I said nothing, she stopped and turned to me and asked with alarm, “Are you okay?”

Her pupils were dilated. I can still look into them.

And when I do, I swear—even though we were in the pit and the memory is impossible—I swear I see all the horizon flowing into her eyes.

I’m reflected there. Right at the edge.

Can you see me?

 

Judge Maurice Carlos Ruffin says...
This story is haunted by perspective. Several of them. The author commands time, space, and the reader’s loyalties. The protagonist is Native American and searching for a mixture of vengeance and legibility. I see this human and feel their concerns deeply. I won’t soon forget this story.

 

Sean SamSean Sam’s writing has appeared in Salt Hill, The Malahat Review, The Westchester Review, ellipsis… literature and art, and Potomac Review—among other places. He is a member of the Navajo tribe and has taught at the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute program. He is a founder of Ligeia Magazine, a literary website based out of Baltimore. Find him online at www.seansam.com

Header photo by Rafael Trafaniuc, courtesy Shutterstock.

  1. I felt an uneasy outpouring of emotion for both the narrator and the young woman wanting each of them to come to a closure for themselves that would serve both in a satisfactory way. But also understanding the foreign space between them was too vast to successfully cross for a simplistic outcome. Both characters felt authentic, in their very different ways; well developed and portrayed, coming to the situation from such utterly different lives learned and lived. The ending worked well for me even as I recognized there was an inevitability that could not be realistically avoided. I have already gone back to this story a few times to see what I may have missed and I am always finding interesting elements for consideration. As always, readers can put whatever they choose into the significance of the ending. I move through different conclusions, all equally believable, all deeply sad. The sons and daughters of the colonizers have a great deal to attempt to understand. The inter-generational victims of hundreds of years of genocide have a great burden of grief and trauma to carry. A worthy story for our times. Excellent choice by editors of Terrain.

Comments are closed.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.