The Chamber by Jon D Lee
The Chamber by Jon D Lee
My Dearest Stephen,
No doubt this letter will come as a surprise. It has been some years since we last corresponded, through a fault I now readily admit is my own, and which I hope with such an admission to put beyond us. What is done is done, and I can only hope that reconciliation such as this is enough to keep you reading.
I am aware that you are acquainted with my condition, and know that I haven’t much time. Indeed, I will be gone when you read this, for I’ve left instructions with my lawyers not to deliver these words until I am dead. But it is this fate that also brings me to write this final note, and to relate to you an event which transpired some several decades ago, and to ask of you one final favor.
It is a curious fate to think of one’s life ending. To think this without sadness or self-pity is almost inhuman, for there is much I hoped to achieve which I did not, despite my great efforts and age. Ars longa, vita brevis, as the saying goes: The life so short, the craft so long to learn. And to realize now, at the end of my seventh decade, that I have not even begun to plumb the depths of my craft is cruelty indeed.
I do not demand compassion in saying this. Indeed, I have spent my life in pursuit of only those answers I deemed worthy of obtaining, and count myself among the more fortunate in this respect. The accolades I have received, the numerous publications that dot my resume, and the acclaim that I have been given by my peers have more than sufficiently proven that I could not have done more with my time.
But there is one story yet to tell, and I have saved it for the last because of how I know it will be received. I send it to you, Stephen, because of the history we share—a history which, despite the unfortunate argument that transpired some years ago, was born of a meeting of minds, and bore fruit for some time before it ended. To say that I am a supplicant at your door would miss the mark, but it is certainly apt to say that I turn to you now in hopes that you will treat my words as honest. It is also a long-overdue explanation for why I took umbrage with your atheistic criticism of my scholarly theories once you were no longer my graduate student.
I say “honest” because the tale I will tell here is so fantastical as to seem fiction. I can already hear the retorts of those who will no doubt conclude that what follows is evidence of a failing and febrile mind. But while it is true that the cancer eats daily at my organs, it has not yet touched my brain. It is here that I hope you will be of some assistance—not in believing what I have to say, but in vouchsafing my faculties. You, of all my friends, will surely recognize in these sentences the mind that still remains: the acuity of perception, the attention to detail, the steadfastness of recollection. And while it is true that at the time these events transpired I did not possess the names of many of the objects and sights which I will here relate, I have learned them since, and can so more thoroughly describe what I once saw.
I know this letter already grows tiresome in its openings, but I have one last request before I continue: that you make every effort to publish these words. I admit some vanity here, for if the claims I set out are ever proven, they will upend our notions of human history. And, quite frankly, I wish my name attached to those upendings. At the same time, I suspect they will sorely test my reputation, and I do not wish to see such judgment—thus the instructions I have left with my lawyers. I have made of myself a man to be trusted for his careful and sober examinations, and while what follows is nothing but a continuation of those qualities, I know that many will respond to my tale with derision. Here at least I hope that you can at least state that my faculties were, even at the end, no less than ever.
But to the tale.
In the summer of 1962 I was an energetic and foolish young man who had decided in the weeks following high school to make his fortune in uranium. Only a decade earlier the great nuclear hunger of the Cold War had driven our government to offer the unearthly sum of $10,000 to anyone who could identify a new source of that material, and the prospect of instant riches had driven hundreds, if not thousands of men into the wilderness of the southwest, which was known in rumor, if not in actual fact, to harbor hoards of the fissile substance.
In this spirit, I packed my car one July morning and left my parents’ house, driving several hundred miles over the next few days through Wyoming and Colorado until I entered Utah, then making a slow journey through the desolate backcountry of that state to the town of Hite, which I knew had until 1954 operated a mill built for the purpose of uranium ore reduction. The mill was long abandoned by the time I arrived, and the town reduced to little more than its ferry crossing and the houses of those hardy folk who had chosen to stay. But it was my conviction that riches lay somewhere downstream, so I suffered the long and unkempt dirt roads.
Upon arrival, I parked my car upstream of the ferry crossing and unloaded my possessions, including the small rubber raft I had procured to navigate my way down the Colorado River that now lay simmering at my feet. I had never actually been on a river before, my sole experiences with boats being wooden ones on calm fishing lakes in Montana, but I’d at least the presence of mind to read through several wilderness guides earlier that summer, and felt sure that the tins of beans and packets of dried fruits and meats I’d packed would sustain me through the voyage, as well as would my rifle and fishing pole. For I’d also read the works of John Wesley Powell, whose expeditions some half-century earlier down the Green and Colorado rivers had spoken of the abundance of birds, fish, and deer that he and his crew had encountered.
I knew even as I unpacked my car that I was racing time: that not more than a hundred fifty miles downstream, construction had already started on the Glen Canyon Dam, and the resulting manmade lake was expected to flood and destroy much of what Powell had seen. But in my youthful foolishness I had concluded that were I to find a massive deposit of uranium somewhere immediately south of Hite, that construction on the dam would be ceased permanently, and that I would be hailed as a hero by my country for saving our people against the Russians.
I can already see you smirking at these dreams, Stephen, but I remind you that I was nineteen. All I knew, perhaps all I was capable of knowing at that point, was that I had a vision, and like all young men I was following it without thought of its consequences.
So I inflated my raft and stowed away my provisions, including the handheld Geiger counter I was depending on to find my future. Last, I called to my dog, which I had brought for companionship—an intelligent mutt of indiscernible breed I had named Sandy due to the color of her fur. So boarded, I pushed the vessel into the Colorado and floated downstream.
Within minutes we passed the ferry crossing at Hite, where a man on the shore waved his arms and shouted something at us, but his words were lost in the current and breeze and were soon far behind. After that, I saw not another living soul for weeks.
I wish you had been there, Stephen; before we argued. Within but a mile or two the gentle banks with their reddish-brown sand swept up into sandstone cliffs a hundred, and then two hundred feet high, their sides plunging directly into the river that had over the millennia cut their surface so smooth that even birds could barely find purchase. The sky shrunk to a small blue ribbon far overhead, with only the occasional outreach of a tree branch over the high cliff rims to indicate any life.
There was only one harrowing moment on the river itself, and that came early that first day when the cliffs closed in around us and the water, forced by geography through a narrowing gap, increased in speed until the walls were moving past us at what seemed the speed of a car. Several times my raft scraped against the sandstone—a product of my ineptitude as an oarsman—but the rubber held fast and I quickly learned the trick of placing the oar in the water behind or to the side of the boat and using it as a rudder.
Then suddenly a large rock loomed ahead, jutting out of the middle of the river like an old man’s last tooth. Despite my best efforts, I hit it head on and the raft buckled sickeningly, reminding me that only a thin layer of rubber kept me from drowning. The bow of the raft bent back, near enough that I could have touched it, and for a terrifying moment I thought we would overturn and all would be lost. But then the river pushed against the raft’s stern, turning us in a sharp half-circle, the snaggle-tooth rock fell away, and only a few inches of water in the bow remained of what could have been.
Soon after that the sheer walls moved back away from us, and as the river widened it resumed its languorous pace. Small beaches and sandbanks began to appear at the water’s edge, and the high cliffs would occasionally suddenly retreat, revealing offshoots of thin canyons that slid slowly past, their rocky floors slowly stretching up and away from the river toward the flat plateaus that lay far above.
It was these offshoot canyons that were my intended destination. I knew from Powell that hundreds of them branched off from the Colorado’s main gorge, like feather vanes jutting out from the quill. A simple calculation of the few thousand people who had ever been down this river meant that many of those canyons would have been unexplored, and in my youthful certainty I had assured myself that it was down these niches that I would find my uranium.
Because of this certainty, those first few days on the river followed the same pattern of beaching my raft at the bottom of an offshoot and, if it appeared passable, grabbing a canteen and my Geiger counter and scrambling through the brush and over the rocks, waiting always for the needle to suddenly swing around. Faithful Sandy accompanied me always, bounding ahead over the rocks, barking at the birds, and finding the very occasional small pool of fresh water in which I would refill my canteen, and she her stomach. When we had gone as far as the canyon would let us, we would retreat back to the raft and push off back into the Colorado. And when night approached I would find a beach and tie the raft to a cottonwood or willow, light a fire from the dead branches that scattered plentifully around us, and cook perhaps some bacon and pancakes, or warm a tin of beans, or even fry up one of the large catfish I was able to pull from the river with some ease, giving always a fair share to Sandy, and then she and I would stare at the fire until we slept.
I did keep a journal during those days—a journal that I unfortunately lost at the end of the trip, for reasons that I will soon describe—and in it I attempted to keep track of which canyons we had explored, and on which days, and what I had seen while traipsing through them. Many of those memories have sadly faded over the years, or melded together until one canyon is indistinguishable from another, but what remains is an overwhelming sense of contentment, and even joy. Too often we forget the peace that comes from having nothing to do but look at the sky and watch the stars slowly wink into place, or view the great stretch of the Milky Way lancing toward the horizon.
This contentment would follow me during the days as well, and not just because of the constant susurration of water on rock, nor the wheeling cries of the birds overhead. For on several occasions while Sandy and I were exploring yet another side canyon, I would look up and find, nestled in a high cave, a series of small stone houses left uninhabited since their builders—presumably the Anasazi—vanished hundred of years before. I was never able to access one of these ruins, the intervening years of rain and weather having rubbed away any footholds that might have been carved in the rock, but in looking at the land around me, with its plentiful water and bountiful wildlife, it was obvious always why someone would have chosen to live here.
I know I wander, Stephen, and that my story could much more quickly arrive at its climax. But I provide as much detail as I have to prove the veracity of the tale, to provide directions to those who wish to recreate my voyage, and to show that, even without my carefully-kept journal, there is enough of a mind and memory left in me to evidence that the last part of my story is not an hallucination, nor the deranged musings of a man torn asunder by dementia. What I saw was real, Stephen, and even now, some fifty years later, I can recall the incident as clearly as if it happened last hour.
The morning the world began to upend itself began as any other: with coffee and bacon and pancakes on the shore of yet another canyon offshoot. It was a Saturday, and I had been on the river for seventeen days. My food was running somewhat low by this point, but I was less despondent about that than I was of my utter failure to locate any uranium. At one point a week or so earlier I had even come across the opening to an abandoned mine shaft near the entrance of one of the larger canyons, and had plunged in with my Geiger counter and a Coleman lantern in case of an overlooked deposit, but had found nothing. The experience had left me shaken, sure that the area had already been thoroughly surveyed, and its mineral contents assayed and stripped of their value.
I also knew that morning that I was rapidly running out of not only food, but also space and time. Only a few days earlier I had—following the directions of Powell again—located the mouth of the Escalante River, which my maps indicated was roughly halfway between Hite and the Dam. Two days later I passed the mouth of the San Juan. As best as I could tell, I had only some fifty to sixty miles left on my journey.
But still, there was hope. My topographical maps seemed to show that some of the largest canyons were still ahead, and it was at the mouth of one of these that I had stopped for the night: an extended offshoot of several miles in length divided by a small tributary with the fitting name of Last Chance Creek. It was my plan to spend at least two to three full days exploring this canyon, as its central path was itself further expanded by multiple lesser ravines and gulleys that spread to the east and west.
And so, after Sandy and I had eaten our breakfast, I slung my canteen across my shoulder and, Geiger counter in hand, proceeded roughly north along the canyon floor.
Almost immediately I realized that the scale of what stood before me was larger than I had realized. One of the first major subdivisions of the main canyon alone, located on my right, was in itself perhaps a mile long, and because of its overgrowth and fractured landscape, took most of the morning to fruitlessly explore. Others farther up on both the left and right of the main canyon were of more than a half-mile each, and their passage proved no less exhausting.
Slowly, however, I became aware in my wanderings that the number of petroglyphs around me—a figure I had ceased to mind some days earlier due to their abundance along the Colorado—was slowly increasing. Indeed, it seemed by early afternoon that I was hardly able to round a boulder without encountering a wall of etchings. Moreover, it dawned on me that a certain figure was appearing with a greater frequency in the carvings: a beastlike anthropoid that stood on two legs, but had a tail and an elongated face that in its crudeness resembled a dog or horse. Had I the materials and presence of mind, I would have taken rubbings of several of these panels to preserve this image.
But of course I had neither, so continued to stumble through the weeds and rocks, sporadically fording the small creek at the canyon’s center to examine a crevice on the other side in case it led to a larger opening. I checked my Geiger counter constantly, but never did the needle vary beyond the vague flutterings that had marked its movements since Hite, and so my despondency grew deeper by the hour.
By late afternoon I had traversed some three-quarters of the length of the main canyon, and thought I could see not far ahead the walls closing in, signaling the end of the passage. But at least one or two larger offshoots branched off a short distance ahead on my right. I decided to forego the smaller and nearer, but once I faced the larger, its scale became clear: a canyon that was itself at least a mile long and perhaps a thousand feet wide at its entrance, and whose reddish-brown sandstone walls climbed some four or five hundred feet above my head. A small trickle of water bisected the floor and joined the main creek, meandering from there out to the Colorado.
Faced with such a large area, and with no idea of how many further offshoots could emerge from this new main canyon, I decided to move to the right and walk the length of what I could see, then cross the trickle of water and come back down the opposite side. For the better part of an hour I followed this plan, stopping to examine the occasional curious rock formation—for a few giant pillars of sandstone jutted out magnificently from the main floor—and furthermore taking increasing notice of the quantity of petroglyphs, which now seemed to occupy every available surface, always seemingly centered around the man-horse anthropoid I had seen earlier.
I eventually reached the end of the canyon and began my return, keeping the high cliffs on my right. The sun had sunk low against the horizon, but still shone hotly on my face, and as Sandy was as boundlessly energetic as ever, I did not see a need to hurry my pace. My Geiger counter had registered nothing, but the walk was pleasant enough that I had decided to simply enjoy my surroundings.
I remember stopping roughly halfway back down to look at yet another wall of petroglyphs, this one the most vast I had yet seen, stretching perhaps two dozen yards in length and rising high enough above the canyon floor that I wondered if those who had etched it there had used ladders, or had simply been dexterous enough to climb. This specific panel was also notable because its center was dominated by the now-familiar man-horse anthropoid, this time carved to be perhaps thirty feet in height, making it the largest single petroglyph that to this day I have ever encountered.
I did not know at that time much about the mythologies of ancient peoples, but it occurred to me that I might be looking at a depiction of one of their gods, and I remember wondering what kind of people would worship such a being, and how they had decided what it looked like.
Then I noticed that Sandy was not by my side, and a quick scan of the canyon revealed nothing of her whereabouts. This was not an unusual occurrence, but still I called to her, and in response heard a muffled bark on the other side of a pile of rubble that had long ago separated from the high cliffs and crashed to the floor. Rounding this, I found a small crevice between the largest of the fallen slabs. I called Sandy’s name again, and heard her response inside that small crevice, but simultaneously far off and muffled, as if she had fallen down a hole. Cautiously, I knelt and wormed my way through, finding it barely wide enough to navigate, and was surprised when it opened almost immediately beyond into a darkness I sensed was vast.
I called for Sandy a third time and heard her nails clicking ahead of me in the darkness, then felt her nose against my face. I patted her head, then wondered at the space in which I stood. Was it a shallow cave? A mine shaft? The exit of a river that had once carved its way through the sandstone?
I began to crawl slowly forward, groping always for rocks against which I could have bashed my skull, or cavities in the floor into which I could have fallen. But there was nothing: only a steady progression of smooth floor retreating into blackness, growing ever colder under my touch.
At some point I turned and saw that the small shard of light that signaled the entrance had retreated to a distant pinprick. But this also brought to mind the fast-setting sun outside, so I begrudgingly began to make my way back, not wishing to be caught in darkness while making my way back to my boat.
I reached the entrance without issue, but before I squeezed my way back into sunshine, was overcome by a sense of curiosity and so picked up a small rock and hurled it back down the passage. It bounced several times before distantly skittering to a stop, but did not seem to otherwise hit anything. I then called into the darkness, and the echo that eventually returned was dampened and faint. For no other reason than the sheer adventure of exploration, combined with the chance to relieve the monotony of exploring yet another canyon, I resolved then to return the next day with my lantern.
And so, as soon as the sun began to glint off the Colorado, I made a hasty breakfast, grabbed my canteen and lantern, and set off. As is the way with such retracings, even the larger several-mile-long canyon I had to first traverse seemed smaller than it had yesterday, and when I stood only an hour or so later at the entrance to the lesser offshoot where my mysterious cave waited, its thousand-foot-wide mouth seemed a mere gap.
In only a few more minutes I stood before the pile of rubble, and then Sandy and I were inside and I was lighting my lantern’s mantles. Their warm glow was somewhat dim, but enough to reveal that the space in which I stood resembled nothing so much as a large lava tube, though even my rudimentary knowledge of geology told me that no such structure could have appeared here. Holding the lantern high, I could see perhaps a dozen meters down the tube, and was instantly struck by the smoothness and regularity of the walls and floors: not only did they progress straight and levelly back away from the opening, but did so with a uniformity of ovoid shape as to resemble what would happen if a hot metal egg were stood on end and shoved through a block of hardened foam.
Clearly marked in the dust were the marks I had made the day before, joined by Sandy’s paw prints. Nothing else had recently disturbed the dirt, which at least left me reassured that we were alone, as several times in recent days I had seen the tracks of coyotes and large cats, and had once even seen what I thought a mountain lion silhouetted atop a cliff.
In only a few steps I found where I had turned around the day before, and laughed in noticing that I had barely made it thirty feet into the tunnel. In another dozen or so steps I found the limits of Sandy’s previous explorations. Beyond that the dust was utterly undisturbed, and stretched into the darkness.
We thus fearlessly walked down the tunnel for several minutes, the air growing ever colder and staler the further we went, as if no breeze had disturbed the surroundings for years.
At some point I naturally began to wonder about the nature of that through which I moved. Was the tunnel a natural phenomenon, for instance? If so, what geologic activity or event could explain the continuing uniformity of the walls and floor, and the manner in which they proceeded with apparent perfect levelness through the surrounding rock? Or did that uniformity mean that it was manmade, and thus perhaps the remnants of a mining expedition, as I had previously wondered? If so, what machine was brought here to make such a tunnel, and how had it been carted through the hundreds of miles of desert I knew lay atop the surrounding cliffs?
Eventually the sheer distance we had walked dawned on me, and turning around I found no visible evidence of the entrance. I had come at least two or three hundred yards, and still there was only the continuing tunnel.
But as there was no sign of danger, I resolved to walk further, paying this time even more attention to my surroundings and the staleness of the air. Sandy seemed to not mind the experience, which calmed me, for I had read that animals are more attuned to their environments than are humans, and surely she would have turned around had there been a hint of anything untowardly.
And still just the tunnel, the tunnel, stretching ever onwards, by this point surely some four to five hundred yards in length, its walls as smooth and unmarked as if they had been carved by water, much like the canyon walls that had surrounded us as we made our way down the Colorado.
And then an opening! At first a vague shadow at the edge of my lantern’s reach, but then resolving into a hole in the wall to my right, roughly the size of a standard doorway, but in the same oval shape as the main tunnel. Intrigued, I stepped inside and held up my lantern, and found myself in a small chamber, at the center of which stood four stone jars, each roughly four feet in height and large enough around that I could not have clasped my hands around them, and each topped with a simple stone lid. In what now horrifies me as an utter disregard for proper archaeological methods, I grasped the handle on one of these lids, but found it stuck fast, and a closer examination revealed a line of black tar or pitch around the edges, sealing in the contents.
As I had not brought my pocketknife, I was forced to abandon opening the jar after several attempts, and moved instead to look at their design. They were rather plain in appearance, being rather columnlike in their bodies, with a slight reduction of diameter at their base, and a small lip at their top. No handles protruded from their sides, nor did I immediately see any designs or carvings on their exterior; merely a smooth stone surface.
There was nothing else in the room, but even absent the ability to ascertain the jars’ contents, the discovery had left me buoyed. Manmade or not, the passage I was walking through had been used by man—by primitive man—and could potentially hold further secrets down its length. Almost immediately my dreams of finding uranium were abandoned in favor of a more immediate reality in which I would return to civilization and announce the remnants of an undiscovered tribe, which in my naiveté I thought would surely result in my being heralded as a protector of history. For I had of course heard even then of construction workers sinking their metal blades into the soil only to uncover the remnants of an ancient pyramid or gravesite or temple, and the project being halted so that archaeologists could examine the discovery.
So enamored with my vision, I returned to the main tunnel and walked further down its length, vowing to return again and again over the next few days to more thoroughly document my discoveries in my journal, which only at that point did I realize I had left at the beach by my raft.
And then, even before I could see it with my lantern, something about the way my breathing and footsteps changed in their echoes told me that the tunnel opened directly ahead into a larger chamber. And indeed it did, the now-familiar ovoid walls suddenly giving way to a wall of darkness that my feeble light could not penetrate. In vain I stood at the edge of what I sensed was a vast room, but was able to see neither ceiling nor opposite wall; only the level floor sweeping away in front of me, its thick layer of dust undisturbed.
I resolved immediately to follow the same pattern as I had with the outside canyon: to head to the right, keeping the wall close at hand. It momentarily occurred to me that I could quickly become lost, but then I remember that all I needed do was retrace my footsteps in the dust.
So I turned, and within a few footsteps noticed that my lantern had revealed the outline of an alcove in the wall.
Shining my lantern into this alcove, I found myself staring at a dead man.
I will admit that I took several steps back and almost disastrously dropped my lantern, these being the first mortal remains I had ever encountered. But reason soon returned and assured me there was nothing of concern.
The man—or at least I assumed it was a man, as I looked again—was wrapped in a rotted blanket that had partly fallen away to reveal that his chin rested on his knee, and his hands were wrapped around his shin. Only a loincloth otherwise stood between him and me. The body was mummified, no doubt due to the cold and arid air, but so well preserved as to give me even with all my subsequent study no inclination as to its age. But I distinctly remember noticing the fineness of eyelashes and the long braid of hair that fell over his left shoulder, the still-clear brownness of his skin, and the whiteness of his teeth against his slightly parted lips. The eyelids were closed and shrunken, and while the musculature beneath the skin had atrophied in death, it was nevertheless obvious that in life the man had a pronounced fitness.
And then I noticed the rope that wound around his neck and legs, entwining them in a manner that I now associate with the gomtag, or meditation belt of certain Buddhist monks, who starve, poison, and slowly suffocate themselves to induce a state of self-mummification, the gomtag serving the dual purpose of choking the body, but maintaining its posture even in death. Such mummies, which can be found to this day in Tibet and Japan, can be in excess of 500 years old, but are still believed by their followers to be not actually dead, only meditating.
I did not of course know of such practices at the time, and merely found the rope grotesque, its purpose unknown but likely sinister. I seem to remember wondering if the man had been murdered—a conclusion I now doubt.
Regardless, I then noticed a small axe or tomahawk on the alcove’s floor, consisting of a blade that revealed itself to be obsidian once I had blown away the dust, and lashed to a wooden handle. I attempted to pick up the axe to examine it more closely, but the handle and its lashings disintegrated at my touch, and dismayed by this, I resolved to not also attempt to touch the man’s remains.
But there was, I knew, much more to see in the vast chamber, and so with some regret I moved on. Only to encounter some ten feet away another alcove, inside of which sat another mummy, this one in the same rough position as the first, though in this case with what remained of a bow and arrow resting by its side.
Ten feet further sat another mummy, this one with an obsidian knife, and ten feet beyond that a fourth with another axe. And then with some curiosity I held my lantern up as high as I could and found a second row of mummies some ten feet above the first, each spaced at similar distances, and the shadows of what seemed a third row of alcoves ten feet above that, the walls of the chamber slowly arcing inwards towards an unseen ceiling far overhead. Whether a fourth row of mummies existed was beyond the light emitted by my lantern.
Shaken, I stood there for several minutes, attempting to digest what I had seen: the bodies of perhaps twelve men, all beweaponed and with ropes around their necks and legs. Had I stumbled into some sort of ancient graveyard? Were the men who surrounded me warriors? Or were they the losers, and therefore sacrifices in some long-lost intertribal war? And how old were these mummies: a thousand years? Ten thousand? How long could a body last in the dry, cold air that suffused the chamber?
Eventually I moved on, keeping the wall always to my right—a wall that I slowly realized curved slightly ahead of me, so that I seemed to be moving counterclockwise around a vast circular chamber—but every step I took revealed more alcoves, more bodies, more warriors. And then another opening! Another tunnel! This one being again ovoid and roughly the size of the one through which I had entered the chamber, and extending levelly into the darkness.
I opted at the time to not explore its depths, and instead continued my navigation of the main chamber, thinking that I could always return. And so following the curvature of the walls, I encountered yet more alcoves, more mummies. Then some distance later, another tunnel, which I again forewent in favor of exploring the main chamber. Then more mummies, then another tunnel, then more mummies…
Ultimately my own footprints in the dust revealed that I had returned to the tunnel from which I had entered, evidencing the room as roughly circular. Moreover, the chamber was obviously of impressive size: by my count I had passed some seven further ovoid tunnels that sunk further into the rock, branching off like spokes on a giant wheel. And because I had begun to count the alcoves after the fourth tunnel, I knew that ten alcoves nestled between each tunnel. A quick calculation thus revealed that, assuming the third row of alcoves overhead also held mummies, the bodies of some 240 men surrounded me, each garroted and beweaponed. And that number would only be multiplied if there were a fourth row of alcoves, much less a fifth or more.
Again the thought occurred: where was I? Into what chamber had I stepped, and what was its purpose? Who were these men around me, and how old were their bodies?
And then I heard a sound that raised the hairs on my arms and neck. For the only time in her life, Sandy—whom I had completely forgotten about—growled in the darkness. It was not the growl I have subsequently heard of a dog warning of the mailman, or telling a small child to stop pulling its ears, but the low, insistent snarl of a dog in fear.
I called to her immediately, but in response only heard a continuation of her growling. Reassuring myself of my security—after all, there were only our two sets of footprints in the dust—I moved toward the noise, holding my lantern out before me and, despite myself, feeling my hand begin to shake.
I knew I was walking toward roughly the center of the chamber, but it was still a surprising several dozen steps before my lantern’s light fell upon Sandy. In the interim I had passed at least two large piles of what looked like ash, as if the remnants of a giant fire. When I finally reached her, Sandy stood on all fours, tail tucked between her legs and hackles raised, nose pointed directly at something just outside the fall of my light.
I moved the more quickly when I saw her, and wrapped my arms around her neck and shushed her, more for my benefit than anything else. She soon complied and ceased to growl, but refused to sit, and instead whimpered and licked my face.
It was then I noticed that at which she had growled.
Directly in front of me, barely lit by my lantern’s cast, was a long stone slab that rose out of the ground, carved from the very floor on which I stood. It stretched to my left and right farther than my light permitted me to see, and atop it glinted something dully in the rough shape of yellow lines suspended in the air.
I stood, urging Sandy again to sit, and walked forward. And almost immediately, even in the strange circumstances in which I had already found myself in this chamber, was at a loss for words.
What lay on the table was a massive cage. But not a normal cage of square dimensions. No, this one was formed in the shape of what my lantern immediately revealed to be an arm and a torso. And it was not made of steel, but some yellowish material I now believe to be bronze, forged in wide strips the thickness of my thumb and held together with primitive rivets, the bands both circling the limbs and torso and running up and down their length.
And the cage was not empty. What rested inside was clearly dead, and not only humanoid and mummified in the same fashion as the warriors that lined the walls, but also grotesque in its length and size. The wrist alone, on which my lantern light fell the most immediately, was the thickness of my thigh, and the upper arm faded into darkness some ten feet away.
Beyond that, encased in a separate series of bands, lay the torso, whose ribcage stood out clearly against the obsidian-black, mummified skin. Just below the lowest ribs, the abdomen sunk into itself, forming a concavity until several feet away it met the protuberance of the pelvic bones.
But even as I stood there, shaken and utterly incapable of comprehending that at which I stared, what caught my attention were the hands. Or rather, the lack of hands, for I noticed across the torso that the other was missing as well.
No, not missing. Amputated. The flayed and dried skin at the end of the wrist was still visible, as were the saw marks in the jagged wrist bones that jutted out from the wound.
Not only that, but the cage in which the being was bound had no room for a hand. The thick strips of bronze curled around immediately beyond the wrist, as if the cage had been manufactured in advance to incorporate the severed limb.
And yet, I also noticed that the bronze strips around the elbow were slightly warped and buckled, and the section of the cage that encapsulated the forearms rose slightly from the table.
Moving to my right, I found the cage bifurcated at the pelvis into two sections to accommodate the legs, each thigh of which in life would have been several times larger than my chest, according to the dimensions accommodated by the bronze bands. The rotted remains of a loincloth covered the genitals.
At both the hips and knees I found further evidence of the cage being bent and warped, the bronze strips evidencing the buckling stress typical of great pressure being placed against them, and the legs as a whole, measuring easily fifteen feet long, bent slightly at the knees.
As with the hands, there were no feet: only the sawed-off remnants of ankle bones emerging from the shreds of obsidian skin, and the strips of brass closing over the absence of feet as if the cage had never intended to hold them.
I rounded the table and moved up the other side of the figure, my lantern playing across the leathery skin and, for the first time as I noticed them, the innumerable small contusions and scrapes where the being had rubbed against its cage.
Through my shock I slowly began to wonder: good god, what was I looking at? What was it that lay before me? What creature could have possibly reached such proportions? And why was it in the shape of a human?
And then I reached the head, and all thought ceased.
Stephen, I cannot possibly expect you to believe this.
But please. What I tell you is true.
The head was not that of a human, but of a dog.
To this day I can see the lips pulled back in a snarl against the white canines, the desiccated tongue lolling out of the mouth, the eyelids open and the eyes beneath shrunken and raisin-like in their sockets, the pointed ears perched high atop the head but pressed flat against the tight bronze bands…
This was a god, Stephen. I can think of no other explanation, no other physical or elemental presence on this earth that could otherwise explain what I saw.
A god that was bound in bronze alive, its hands and feet cut off, and left to struggle against its cage until it died.
And I remember then realizing that there were four stone jars in the small room I had entered earlier…
And then I heard a crash and a yelp, and I rushed toward the sound and found myself at the entrance to the main tunnel, and then inside the small room, where Sandy had somehow in her investigations pushed over and broken one of the stone jars, and its contents had spread across the floor…
And how those contents consisted of a thick black paste that smeared tar-like across the stone, carrying in its viscosity a series of bones that looked like the tarsals or carpals of a giant…
And how, in kneeling down, I slipped in the tar and lost my balance, and the lantern shattered against the floor…
And how the room and everything in it was suddenly ablaze, including Sandy and me, and how I sucked the fire into my lungs and felt it burn inside me, and how Sandy yelped and ran out the door in a ball of fire, and how that was the last time I ever saw her, though I heard her screams echo up the hall…
And how I vainly beat my hands against my enflamed legs, and then my shirt until finally the fire went out and I was in darkness…
And how I crawled in that darkness out of the room and back up the tunnel, the pain from my legs and torso so fierce that at every movement I thought I would pass out…
And how I somehow made it to the entrance to the tunnel, and half-delirious in pain squeezed through the crevice into the canyon and felt the sun on my face, the horrible afternoon sun that burned hotly against my seared flesh…
And from there on I have few memories. What remnants linger include staggering drunken-like through the tumbleweeds and boulders, attempting to follow my own footsteps back to camp, permanently on the verge of passing out from the pain, and continually surprised at my own conscious state. I cannot even say that at any point during that period I thought of Sandy, despite what must have been her cruel and short demise. Such was the pain that I only focused on myself, and perhaps it was that focus that kept me alive, for I stumbled for hours through the canyon, thinking always and only of reaching my raft.
And then it was within sight, and I think I even gasped in joy. But in that same moment I felt the world begin to spin around me and stumbled and fell off a low cliff onto a rock some fifteen feet below, and shattered my left shin.
It took every ounce of strength I still possessed to drag my body the last hundred yards to the riverbank, and I vaguely remember that the sun was low against the horizon as I reached up and untied the raft from its willow tree and pushed it into the current, leaving all of my possessions behind me on the beach. I somehow pulled myself over the side and onto the bottom and felt the cool river seep its temperature up through the rubber against my skin, and then exhausted and wounded beyond comprehension, I fell into blackness.
And should have died.
But I instead woke an unknown quantity of time later in a hospital in Las Vegas. I discovered later that the Colorado had carried me downstream to the site of the dam’s construction, where workers had hauled me ashore and carted me to the nearest hospital, which had in turn promptly sent me several hundred miles down the road to better facilities.
I have no idea how long it was before I woke. The burns I had suffered—both internal and external—had damaged over three-quarters of my body, and the severity of my shattered leg left me with the permanent limp you have often commented on. It was weeks before the nurses removed the bandages from my legs and hands, and months before I was discharged from the hospital. And after that, I had to suffer the well-intentioned, but interdictory orders of my parents, who of course had been the first to be contacted upon my admittance into Las Vegas, and who took me back to Montana for recovery.
In short, while my mind returned quickly, my body took considerably more time, and in the end never fully regained its former strength. The damage to my lungs alone left me largely incapable of any subsequent athletic activity, instantly reducing my breathing capacity to that of an old man.
I of course struggled against such constrictures, but was largely powerless against them.
And so the months passed, during many of which I was bedridden, and the rest closely monitored. And in that time the dam only rose in height, as did the lake it had created and now contained—a lake cruelly and without comprehension of irony named after John Wesley Powell, who would have abhorred its existence.
By the time I was able to walk, the water had already begun to rise.
Then it was winter, then spring, then summer.
And I knew from the radio and the newspapers that all was lost.
Can you imagine, Stephen, what it is like to have discovered something that would have changed our perception of history, mythology, humanity, religion, and morality, only to have it ripped away from you? Can you imagine what it would be like to know that what in all actuality would have been the single most important archaeological discovery in human history was fast disappearing beneath a tide of rising water while you were forced to stay in bed? Can you imagine the madness that would ensue from the struggle?
Can you imagine, Stephen, what might have been down the seven other tunnels that radiated out from the god chamber?
You once asked me what drove me: what energized me to so fanatically study the native peoples of the southwest; what inculcated in me the desire to know so much about a people with whom I have no immediate connections; what pushed me to spend my spare time interviewing the Dine’, Paiute, Shoshone, and other such tribes.
I think you now know the answer. Just as you know why I so often spent my vacations on and around Lake Powell. Alas, my reduced lung capacity made it impossible for me to take up scuba diving, and the injury to my leg left me largely incapable of even moderately strenuous hiking. And of course I could not tell anyone of what I saw, for fear of not only someone else finding it and claiming discovery, but also of the ridicule I would face from my colleagues for suggesting that I had once found the remains of a god.
And so I sought answers in academic work, hoping that somewhere, in some ancient text or story, or in some interview, I would find my clues. But for all my efforts, I have never been able to satisfactorily find an explanation for what I found in that canyon. Nothing in my extensive studies and interviews has led me closer to understanding what I saw; nothing in the five decades I have spent on this task has led me to a comprehension of the being I saw bound in bronze.
But it is nevertheless real.
I saw it, Stephen. I touched it. I reached out a hand and stroked its ebony skin, and felt its leather against my fingertips.
It is there, Stephen. A god. Somewhere in that canyon beneath Lake Powell, in that offshoot which used to hold the Last Chance Creek, submerged beneath what can only be a few hundred feet of water.
I touched it, Stephen.
Please believe me.
17 June 2018
Copyright Jon D Lee 2019