Thursday, December 29, 2011

Living in Clovis

Lester rapped the brass knocker a second time on the six-panel front door of the modest two-story home in White Plains, NY. The door opened several inches. A weathered and wiry white-haired man a full head shorter than Lester peered out.
“Professor Pendleton?” Lester ventured.
“Yes. You would be Lester Moran?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, come in, young man.”
The Professor swung the door open and stepped aside. He closed the door behind Lester.
“This way.”
Lester followed Pendleton into the living room. He glanced around the room. The walls were somewhere between pink and tan. Lester guessed they once had been one or the other but had faded in an odd manner. The Persian rug under his feet was frayed and stained. The wall hangings looked as though they hadn’t been changed or moved for half a century; he was tempted to peek beneath one to find the original wall color. The air smelled slightly of mothballs and sauerkraut.
“Have you lived here a long time?” Lester asked.
“Yes,” Pendleton said. “Have a seat.”
Lester settled lightly into an old wing chair. The legs of the chair creaked alarmingly as they took his weight. The professor sat cattycorner from him on a fabric couch with an ugly blue floral pattern. The couch looked comfortable.
“So, Mr. Moran, what is so all-fired important that you need to bother me at home? I told you on the phone I wouldn’t tolerate any kind of a sales pitch.”
“I’m not selling anything, sir, and I didn’t plan to bother you at home. I don’t know where you were a professor – the Wikipedia entry on you isn’t very informative. I first tried looking you up at the American Museum of Natural History. An article in the museum’s online magazine said you worked there.”
“It said no such thing. I don’t work at the museum. The museum does provide funds for my digs sometimes, which is what you misinterpreted. I no longer teach at a college either. ‘Professor’ is a title that sticks with you even after you leave the position, like ‘Colonel’ or ‘Governor.’”
“I see. Well, the article was a few years old. It was about pre-Columbian sites you uncovered in Maryland and New Jersey.”
“I know what it was about.”
“I live pretty close to the dig you did in Jersey. You said in the article that the site was contaminated: something about ‘modern refuse.’”
“Yes. It’s not unusual for anachronistic pieces to infiltrate archeological sites. Frost, water, burrowing animals, and, more often, recent human activity can move things around. Contamination makes my job harder, of course, and raises difficulties in dating sites and artifacts. Do you commonly read back-issues of the magazine?”
“No,” Lester said. "I remembered hearing about your dig years ago when it was going on – or maybe I read about it in the local paper. Anyway, I ran a Google search yesterday to find out more about it. The old article about it and about you popped up. You said the site was 13,000 years old.”
“More or less. I estimated it was just prior to the Younger Dryas, but there were anomalies which indicated disturbance of the ground, thereby making a proper excavation impossible.”
Two stoneware mugs clunked on the coffee table between Lester and the professor. They had been placed there by a gray-tressed woman about the same age as the professor, but considerably less weathered.
“I didn’t ask for tea,” said the professor.
“I know you didn’t, John,” she said.
“Mr. Moran,” he sighed, “this is my wife, who is also Dr. Pendleton.”
“Are you an archeologist, too, Doctor?” Lester asked.
“No, an astronomer, and you can call me Chloe. You can call the grump over there John.”
“She does work at the museum,” he grumbled.
“Or would you prefer something stronger, Mr. Moran?” Chloe asked.
“Uh no, tea will be fine. And I guess you should call me Lester.”
“Well, Lester, I’m sure you won’t mind if I have something.”
Without waiting for an answer, Chloe walked over to a serving tray by the wall and poured herself a glass of neat bourbon. She returned and sat next to John on the couch. Lester sipped his tea.
“What is it you do, Lester?” Chloe asked.
“I’m a backhoe operator. I have a liberal arts degree but…”
“But you couldn’t find a job reciting Shakespeare?”
“Something like that, yes. Lately I haven’t been working the hoe much either. The recession. Just the occasional septic repair and the like keep me afloat. Barely.”
“Well, well. So, to what do we owe this visit?” she asked. “Did you dig up something with your backhoe that you thought might interest John?”
“Well, not with the backhoe. But, yes, I would like Professor…uh, John, to look at this.”
Lester reached into his pocket and withdrew a black chert stone the size of a 50-cent piece. He held it out. John plucked it from him and turned it in his fingers.
“A Clovis point replica. Very nice work. You got the fluting right. How many times did you have to practice?” Pendleton asked.
“Excuse me?”
“Come now, young man. It is plainly new. There is no weathering at all. This was knapped no more than a week ago, I’d say. When did you learn to do it?”
“Never. But I’m sure you’re right that the point is new,” Lester said.
“Honesty prevails.”
“But I think it’s an authentic relic, too.”
“I’m too old to waste time on riddles.”
“Nonsense, John,” Chloe said. “That’s pretty much your whole job.”
“I’ll explain, sir. I mean John.”
Lester wasn’t sure who was more uncomfortable with the use of first names, himself or Professor Pendleton. Chloe seemed to enjoy watching the two of them squirm over it.
Lester took a breath. “You know, time travel stories are so much a part of our popular culture,” he said, “that we think of them the way like we think about vampires or Bigfoot. You know: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Back to the Future, The Time Machine…”
“I’m familiar with the genre.”
“Right.  Well, we think of them as just stories. Popular myths. We certainly don’t take the ideas seriously.”
“Nor should we,” the professor said.
“Some people take time travel seriously, John,” Chloe stated.
“No, not really.”
“Then you think time travel – I mean backwards time travel – might be possible, Dr. Pendleton?” Lester asked her.
“I told you to call me Chloe. There are special conditions where it might be unavoidable.”
John assumed a “there she goes again” expression.
“For example,” she continued, “subatomic particles skimming the twisted space-time at the outer event horizon of a rotating black hole should travel back in time and radiate away before they arrive. I know that sounds bizarre, but the math seems to work. Of course, the radiation wouldn’t be distinguishable from particles that didn’t travel backwards, so the effect is hard to demonstrate empirically, even if we had a nearby black hole to study, and no macroscopic object would survive the encounter. The object literally would be torn to atoms. So it is not a practical time machine for, let’s say, you.”
“Are conditions conceivable that would let large objects go backwards?” Lester pressed.
“Conceivable, but not likely. I think you’ll have better luck finding that Bigfoot than finding a doorway to yesterday.”
“I found it all the same.”
“Did you? Are you sure you won’t have a drink Lester?”
 “Quite sure.”
“Well, I’ll have another.”
“If I tell you both a story, will you hear me out to the end, even if it sounds outlandish?”
“I wouldn’t dream of stopping you,” she answered as she poured a shot larger than the first.
“And it already sounds outlandish,” the professor added.
Lester began.

“As I said, I live near that dig in NJ. I have a house right on Lake Hopatcong. The house isn’t much, but I have a dock for my boat, a 13-footer with a 25 horse Evinrude. There’s a dam on the lake that lets the DEP control the water level, but the lake existed before the dam. I guess that’s obvious from the Lenape name.
“I enjoy going out in my boat. Most people put theirs away for the winter right after Labor Day. Not me. I don’t mind colder weather. I’m out on the lake until it starts to freeze. Besides, the lake traffic gets pretty dense in the summertime, but by October I have the lake pretty much to myself, and that’s kind of nice.
“Anyway, a couple days ago, even though we’re coming up on Halloween, I was out on the water in the late afternoon. In order to warm up a little, I stopped for a drink at a restaurant called The Jefferson House, which has docks as well as a parking lot. I just had one. OK, it was a double, but it was one glass, because I wanted to get back before dark. The point is I was sober.
“I went back to the boat, cast off, started up the outboard, and pulled away from the dock. There was a thick fog on the lake, but I had a compass on the dash. I figured I’d just go real slowly and I’d get home OK. I was wrong. It wasn’t like any other fog. It was thick like nothing I’d ever seen before. Just a solid gray. I couldn’t see anything beyond the boat itself. I throttled down to almost nothing just to be safe.
“Suddenly, my stomach lurched. Water splashed and my spine jarred. I was almost thrown out of the boat as it bounced and rocked. I banged my head on the gunwale, which dazed me, but I shook it off pretty quickly. I wondered if I had hit another boat or a submerged log or something. The gray looked lighter to starboard, so I turned that way. Sure enough, it thinned out and I puttered out of the grayness into the clear. I looked around to get my bearings. I thought I knew every inch of the shoreline of that lake, but I had no idea where I was. What’s more, there were no lakeside houses in sight. Remember, this is Jersey we’re talking about. Where was I? Had I gotten so turned around that I’d gone over the dam? I looked in back of me. The fog bank was still there, and I couldn’t see through or around it.
“I figured it was safer to go forward than back. Besides, I smelled a barbecue – you know that distinctive smell. I decided to crash the party and ask where I was. I considered the possibility that I had passed out and drifted downriver, but my watch hands and the sun hadn’t changed position noticeably, so I couldn’t have gone far. But the oddities kept piling up. For one thing it was cold. Really cold. Much more than it had been when I left The Jefferson House. The woods were wrong. I mean, there weren’t any. That section of Jersey is full of trees wherever there aren’t houses, but most of the shoreline was bare grass and tall brush with only a smattering of trees. Then I saw some deer at the shore drinking from the lake – except they weren’t deer. I’d only seen them in pictures, but I knew what they were. They were caribou. In Jersey?
“Right about then I saw the smoke from the barbecue. It looked maybe a mile inland, but there was too much brush in the way for a view of it. I beached my boat and killed the engine. I jumped out, and pulled the bow further up on shore. I hurried on foot toward the fire while there was still some light. I didn’t want to stumble around this place in the dark. Where there were caribou there might be bear – or worse.
“My nose led me right to the fire. It was a barbecue alright, but it sure wasn’t what I expected. The fire was in the middle of a half-dozen makeshift shelters. I don’t want to give the impression this was a village because it wasn’t. The shelters looked temporary – just tossed together from sticks, poles and thatch. Nothing about the camp had a lived-in look. You know: no worn paths in the grass, no laundry hanging on lines, and no garbage. The people weren’t exactly your typical suburbanites. There were maybe forty of them or so, a mix of all ages. As soon as they spotted me they just stood or sat quietly as I walked toward them. All of them looked fit and trim with dark hair. The men were beardless. There certainly were no PETA members among them. Buckskin and furs were the dress code for men and women alike. Two men were armed with spears and had that sentry look. They made me nervous with their stares, but they didn’t challenge me. As I got close, I saw their spears were tipped in stone lashed on with leather. It looked as though these people had been waiting for somebody to show up, but not me, and they weren’t sure what to make of the switch. In retrospect, I realize how bizarre my clothing – my whole appearance – must have seemed to them.
“Several times I said hello and asked where I was, but no one would answer me. The barbecue was a roasting leg of caribou on a spit over an open fire. Next to the fire by himself sat an older man, which in this context means perhaps in his 40s. He was eyeing me carefully. I walked over to the fire and sat down near him. A couple of children began to laugh at this, but they quieted when one of the spear-wielders looked at them and tapped the heel of his weapon on the ground.
“Two women walked up to the fire. One was about the old fellow’s age, and she wore a scowl, which she aimed at me. The other was a very attractive young woman who was kind of dolled up, with necklaces and bracelets what looked like an ivory hair clasp.
“I wasn’t sure who was in charge, but the man wasn’t scowling, so I spoke to him.
“‘Excuse me, sir,’ I said. ‘Could you please tell me where I am? Can you understand me?’
"He said a something back. I have no clue what language it was. He realized I didn’t understand, so he waved at the roasting leg. This provoked a sharp rebuke from the older woman, who I was beginning to think was his wife. He looked at me and waved at the leg again.
"I thought it might be rude to refuse, maybe even dangerous, so I reached into my pocket for my pocket knife. It was just a little basic one with four folding blades, not an elaborate Swiss one or anything like that. I opened the largest blade and sliced off a little of the meat, which I have to say was pretty tasty. The old guy showed no surprise, which at first inclined me to believe he’d seen pocket knives before. But then I reconsidered. I know plenty of people who simply accept new technologies they don’t understand. So, I demonstrated the knife by opening and closing each blade. I held out the knife to him. He continued to look unimpressed, but he took it.
“I impressed someone with it though. The fancied-up young woman walked up behind the older guy and held out her hand. He put the pocket knife on her palm and spoke a few words to her. She looked at it closely. She opened, felt, and examined each blade before handing the knife back to the fellow, who I now was sure was her dad. The young woman looked directly at me and said something.
“The old woman exploded. ‘Rala!’ which I guess was her name. A tirade followed. Rala didn’t say a word. She just glared back defiantly for a few moments and then stomped of to one of the shelters. She disappeared into it.
“Right then is when the raid happened. Five young men, who had crept up silently hidden by brush and trees during the past few minutes, suddenly whooped loudly and ran into the camp, each from a different direction. They looked just like the first folks but their faces were painted up. Calling the resistance to them token would be giving it too much credit. Something like a play fight ensued with the camp’s spearmen parrying far from deadly blows the raiders. Only two attackers had spears. Two more carried smaller lances and what I later realized were throwing sticks. No one had a bow. One man was unarmed and he was painted up more than the rest.
“Rala’s father didn’t even get up from the fire. His wife didn’t move either. I was too stunned to move. The unarmed raider, a tall and muscular young man, dashed into the shelter where Rala had gone and pulled her out by the arm. She looked far from happy but did absolutely nothing to get away from him. The raiders broke off the attack and withdrew, taking the abducted young woman with them. Her father seemed singularly unconcerned about it, and the older woman, presumably her mother, for the first time was all smiles.
“The woman spoke to me, and despite her smiles, her words had a sharp tone. I got the distinct feeling I was being dismissed. I began to grasp that this whole raid had been staged. It had been pre-negotiated by the parents, or most likely by the mom, since she took the most satisfaction from it. The abduction was a stylized ritual like a prom date or something. The mom probably identified me as some alternate suitor trying to monkey-wrench her plans for her daughter, and that’s why she was so hostile to me.
 “The thing is, she was right. Rala pretty clearly wasn’t happy with her date or groom or whatever he was, but she seemed to take an interest in me, maybe just because I wasn’t the other guy. Well, I took an interest in her, too. So, I stood and mumbled something I hope sounded like thanks to my hosts and left the camp, but, once I was out of sight, I went after the raiding party.
“This was crazy. I admit it, and I don’t have a good explanation for it. I didn’t have a real plan either. I wasn’t about to tangle with those five tough-looking guys, after all. If Rala just happened to get away from them, though, I wanted to be there to help.
“I thought I was being stealthy in my tracking, but the raiders knew I was there. They laid a trap for me. While they were out of sight beyond some tall brush, four of them went on ahead, and made a lot of noise about it. I naturally thought I was hearing all six, which is exactly what they intended. So, when I pushed through the brush I suddenly found myself face to face with the heavily painted abductor. He stood there with his arms folded. Rala stood several feet behind him. He obviously wasn’t afraid to face me alone and his pals weren’t afraid to leave him. I guess I didn’t look too formidable to them. I stood still. We were having a staring contest and he was winning it. I was about to withdraw and head back to my boat when Rala picked up a rock and hit the fellow over the head with it. He went down. She really didn’t care for her mom’s pick. She ran up to me and pointed away from the scene. I agreed. I assumed Facepaint, if he was alive, would be irked when he woke up. We didn’t wait to find out. I pointed toward the lake and we high-tailed it toward my boat.
“We hadn’t gone very far before I heard the raiding party in back of us shouting. Facepaint apparently was awake and had been rejoined by his buddies. We ran faster. By now it was dark, but there was enough of a moon to see by. My boat came into view. The voices behind us were louder. I helped her in the boat, which seemed to astonish her, and pushed the bow off the shore into the lake. I splashed into the water and jumped aboard. The electric starter failed. There wasn’t enough oomph from the battery. I leapt to the back of the boat and pulled again and again on the outboard’s rope.  The engine started just as Facepaint and his friends burst through some brush and rushed toward the shore. I put got behind the wheel, engaged the prop and slammed the accelerator lever forward. I heard feet splashing in the lake as we lurched ahead.  A lance passed through the air inches from my head and lodged its point in the wood decking just in front of the windshield. I turned toward the fog which still hung on the lake back the way I had come.
“I looked at Rala and she smiled. She smiled back. We entered the fog. Once again, I couldn’t see anything beyond the gunwales. Once more, my stomach churned. Water splashed up nearly swamping the boat, maybe because of a difference in the water level. I threw safety to the wind and kept the accelerator forward. The boat emerged into the clear. Stars were overhead in a moonlit sky.
“I turned to look at Rala and saw an empty seat. The girl was gone. She had been sitting right next to me and I was sure she hadn’t gone overboard, but she was gone. I turned back into the fog to try to find her, but it was thinning out. Whatever door I had passed through twice had closed. Soon there wasn’t even a wisp of mist. I circled around for hours, but there was no sign of anyone. I realized something else was missing: the shaft from the lance that had whizzed past my head. The point, though, was still lodged in the wood. It’s the Clovis point you are holding.
“Well, that’s about it. I motored back home, and I started searching the net for someone to talk to about what happened. I found you.”

“Are you done?” Professor Pendleton asked.
“Yes,” Lester said.
“You are saying you went back in time thousands of years and returned?”
“You do understand how much easier it is to believe you are lying than to believe you did any such thing.”
“So, what exactly do you want, then?”
“I would like you to answer a question about your dig, and I want to go back to find Rala.”
“Lester,” Chloe said gently, “have you tried There are plenty of young ladies in the world.”
“Not like that one.”
“Of that I’m sure.”
“What is the question?” John prodded.
“You didn’t say in the article what the contamination of the dig site was.”
“No, I didn’t. I prefer not to reveal anachronisms publicly because the world is full of pranksters. They would salt digs with more of the same items just for fun. Look at all the trouble the fellow who planted the Piltdown skull caused, and he never was identified.”
“Could it have been a pocket knife?” Lester asked. “Mine had white plastic sides.”
“No, the contamination was not a knife or pieces of a knife. And if it had been, Mr. Backhoe Operator, that merely would have convinced me you were the culprit who planted it.”
“I see.”
“I believe,” the professor said, “that you concocted this ridiculous story in hopes of selling it to some tabloid newspaper, and that you came to see me in order to use my name to give the tale a veneer of legitimacy. You do not have my permission to do that.”
“Now, now, John,” Chloe chided.
“Chloe,” Lester said almost pleadingly, “just accept the hypothesis for a moment that I am telling the truth. Why do you suppose the girl didn’t return with me to our time?”
            “One might speculate that only a mass equal to that which went through the first time could come back – an energy balance. The actual matter that made the first transition was treated preferentially on the return trip. The pocket knife wasn’t with you so the arrowhead came back instead to make up the balance. You are lucky it was just the stone and not, say, the young lady’s finger.”
“Chloe, why are you humoring him?” John complained.
“Because it humors me to do so.”
“Is there any hope of getting back there?” Lester asked.
“You said the fog stayed in one spot relative to the surface of the lake. This suggests the temporal anomaly is gravitationally bound; otherwise it would fly off as the earth flies through space. If it reappears at all, my best guess is to look for it in the same place on the lake – perhaps at the same time of day for the next few days. Or perhaps on the same date next year if the planetary alignment has anything to do with it. Or then again the anomaly may be gone forever.”
            “Thank you. That is helpful. And thank you both for your hospitality.”
After Lester had left, Chloe said, “John, why didn’t you tell him the contamination was a fiberglass hood from an outboard Evinrude?”
“You know very well why. You realize he will quote you in some tabloid rag.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
“What do you think?”
“I think he will be spending a lot of afternoons boating into every patch of fog he sees on that lake.”