This is the story of the last time I saw my grandfather. It was the summer before I started college, and a group of my high school buddies and I were on an extended road/camping trip. One of our camp sites was within a few miles of my grandfather’s hunting cabin, where he was living for the summer. I decided to make the drive and spend the evening with him. I’m still not sure whether or not that was a good decision.
I arrived early in the morning, unannounced. He turned as he heard my truck make its way up the long drive. “Tommy!” he roared with glee when he saw me. “What in the hell are you doing here junior? I thought you were Clarence.”
“Who’s Clarence?” I asked as I stepped up onto the porch. It was clear he was expecting someone. There was an extra coffee mug set out as well as some bagels and oranges. I helped myself to an orange and tried to hide my disappointment. It never occurred to me that my grandfather would have visitors out there in the middle of nowhere. I had been looking forward to an evening of stories and good conversation. My grandfather was always good for staying up half the night, ready to debate or discuss anything. I had been hoping for some sage advice, some words of wisdom before I headed off to school. Be careful what you wish for I guess. I sat down in the chair next to him. He was staring thoughtfully out at the meadow in front of his property.
“In some ways I have no idea who Clarence is,” he said. “None of us really ever did. But I do know that he’s brilliant. Maybe a genius even. I met him when I was in college, about the same age you are now. He was an anthropology major, obsessed with American history. And he was a tough customer boy,” he chuckled. “He couldn’t accept the account of history we were given. It was unbelievable to him that no great civilization existed here. The native people were 10,000 years behind the rest of humanity when the Europeans arrived. The world had complex systems of mathematics, sciences, had built large scale cities, developed ways to keep records. Here there was none of that. No innovation beyond the basic needs of life. It bothered him immensely. There was no evolutionary difference to account for it.
“He rejected all the usual explanations: No contact with other cultures – Bull, Clarence said. There had long been evidence of occasional brushes with explorers, but they were few and far between and deemed insignificant by historians. Different religion or value system – Rubbish, he said. There are always those who question, who act against the status quo, who desire to leave a legacy behind. Clarence didn’t buy for one second the stereotype of the Native American Indian, a people who lived in such harmony with the land and each other that they had no need of anything else. ‘When has that ever worked?’ he would ask. ‘Utopias are an idealistic dream. They are not reality. Sure everyone agrees that they are a good idea, but human nature will not allow for it. There is always somebody who wants more. Then there is someone else who wants even more but wants to do less. It’s the story of us, of humans.'”
“The mystery consumed him,” my grandfather continued. “It became all he ever thought about. He worked tirelessly on solving it. It wasn’t easy work. Most of the history of Native Americans was written by Europeans. Their writing had all kinds of motive, and truth was almost never on the list. At graduation he got an offer from the Smithsonian to join their anthropology department. Clarence was the top student in the country, and they were prepared to give him free reign; expenses paid and government permission secured to study, research, and dig wherever he wanted. He would have teams of people working under him. Wouldn’t you know the crazy bastard turned them down. Instead he headed west to the remaining reservations, to attempt to speak to natives and learn whatever he could. He was aware they might want nothing to do with him. He told me he turned down the job because he was afraid that if it was discovered who employed him, any chance he had to learn the truth would be crushed forever.”
“And then he was just gone. No one ever heard from him. Until last week. He got in touch and wanted to know if he could come by to talk. I was surprised to say the least. He was not the social sort. But age changes our priorities I suppose.” He gulped down the last of his coffee and looked at me, eyes sparkling. “I am curious about him,” he confessed. “When I spend time out here, in the middle of nowhere,” he paused to wink at me, “I think sometimes that this right here is what this country used to look like long ago, before war, and revolution, and progress, and destiny, or whatever they’re calling it these days. Every now and then I would wonder about old Clarence and if he ever got anywhere with his research.” He stood up and began to gather up the remains of the breakfast he laid out. “I hope he makes it. You’ll get to meet a genius. Or a madman, who knows?” We laughed, and just then a car turned up the drive. My grandfather whistled. “Well now we will see, won’t we.” My disappointment vanished, replaced by curiosity. Whether this guy turned out to be brilliant or bonkos, it would at least be entertaining.
We settled ourselves in the kitchen. Clarence seemed to be unsettled by the woods. “Boy you really are far out into the wilderness here Jack,” he said. When he first got out of the car he had peered around nervously. My grandfather laughed and made jokes about the city boy meeting the country.
“Don’t worry, I haven’t seen any bears since yesterday.”
Clarence didn’t seem to hear. He looked at us, and said hesitantly, “Have..have you ever seen anything, you know, unusual out here?”
“What do you mean unusual?”
Clarence looked down and kicked the dirt with his boot. “Nothing I guess,” he muttered. My grandfather and I exchanged a look. The eccentricities of a genius, I thought. Now that we were inside, he seemed only slightly less on edge. He would constantly glance out the window. My grandfather tried to keep him focused.
“I was telling Tommy here all about your research,” he said. “But I’d bet he’d rather hear it from you. Go on, tell us, did you make any big discoveries?”
He sighed deeply and looked around again. “Do you like it up here Jack? I mean, do you plan to spend a lot of time out here?”
I could tell my grandfather was tiring of humoring our visitor. “Well, yes. I’ll head back to the city in a few weeks, but I come out here every year. Have done for a long time now. Ever since this one was a boy,” he pointed to me.
“Well then, I suppose I have to tell you. Even if it puts you in danger. Because it might be more dangerous if I don’t tell you.” He looked at me. “What do you plan on studying in college son?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I replied.
“Do yourself a favor. Study something sensible. Technology or medical, or something like that. Don’t get it into your head to start running around the world and asking questions. You never know what you’ll find.” He ran a hand through his wiry gray hair. His thin frame shuddered a little, and I wondered if he had completely lost it. I found myself watching and listening very closely, mentally cataloguing every word and movement. Which way would the scales tip, sane or insane?
My grandfather was similarly transfixed. “You found something didn’t you? How come you never published anything? I looked in the journals all the time.”
Clarence snorted sarcastically at that. “I was never taken seriously enough to get published. My entire objective was deemed ridiculous, racist even. I was too much of a pseudo-scientist for academia, and too much of a scholar for the mysteries of the unexplained rags. Not to mention the fact that all my evidence was anecdotal.”
“Evidence!” my grandfather said. “So you did find something!”
He nodded. “I was on to something. I know that now. Damned if I can’t un-know it.” His gaze shifted suddenly. “What’s that!” he cried in fright, pointing out the cabin’s back window.
“It’s nothing, it’s a decoration, don’t worry about it.” My grandfather gestured to me and I rose to close the curtain. When I came back I saw that he had given Clarence a beer. His head was tilted back, downing nearly half the bottle. I looked questioningly at my grandfather, but he just nodded at me and I sat back down. I wasn’t sure giving alcohol to a crazy person was such a good idea.
“My original question,” he began, “was why had the typical progress of civilization not occurred in North America? I had several theories in mind to follow. One was the possibility that there had indeed been a great civilization here, but all physical evidence had been destroyed over time. In such case it was possible that indigenous people had preserved evidence in the form of oral traditions. It would further be possible that they saw no reason to share their history with the Europeans. I believe they view that sort of thing as tarnishing the sacred memory of their ancestors.”
“A second possibility was that the records we have are in fact true; that factors such as isolation, the environment, and the availability of natural resources all contributed to the delay in development. Yet another possibility hinged on the superiority of their culture. Beings at once behind in time, yet so far advanced that they had no use for material matters.” He looked at my grandfather. “You know well Jack, that I never accepted that last one. It’s an apologists story. It’s white people bestowing a kind of saintliness to a group that suffered immeasurably at their hands.” He shook his head. “I dislike it because it robs them of their humanity. The natives were no worse and no better than anyone else. I believe among their number existed great men and women, intelligent leaders, mothers and fathers who loved their sons and daughters, as well as those who were difficult, lazy, prone to temper, jealous, power driven, murderous.” He paused and rubbed his hands over his face. “I just wanted the truth. Their truth. Not the version written by their conquerors. And I would understand if they didn’t want to give it to me. But I had to try.”
“So off I went, west into the unknown. It took so long to gain the confidence of the people I met. But I had expected this and I was persistent. The trouble with myths and legends is that they change over time. After several years among the natives I heard hundreds of versions of the same stories. I discovered only that their history was shaped by all of the influences previously theorized. Just like the history of any people anywhere. The only question that remained unanswered was Where were all the great thinkers? I was stubbornly convinced that there had to be someone who looked up at the stars like in ancient Greece, someone who shirked off their responsibilities to draw and make art like early man had done in the caves of France, someone who tried to explain, to make sense of the world in which they lived. But no one seemed particularly interested in my question. Or they acted as if they didn’t understand.
“I was completely dejected. I had wasted years of my life out here. Academia thought I was a fool, I had passed on one of the biggest opportunities anyone could ever hope to get.” He paused and finished the rest of his beer. He pushed his chair back from the table and hung his head in his hands. Then he breathed in deep and raised his head. He continued. “And then one day everything changed. I met the grandchild of a highly respected medicine man. He agreed to talk with me. He said he was going to tell me so that I would stop asking. I was putting people in danger by continuing to ask about forbidden things. He would speak to me only under the condition that once we spoke, I had to leave and never come back, and I could never again set foot on Indian land. It would be too dangerous.”
Clarence looked at me, then at my grandfather. “Jack, have you ever looked back on your life, all the changes you went through, and tried to pinpoint the exact moment you’ve changed course? He looked at me again. “You can’t recognize them when they happen. It’s only later that they become the most important moments of our lives. My life changed forever the day I agreed to talk to that man. I can never go back to being who I was before. So I want to tell you both that I’m sorry. Because a few months or a year from now, you might look back and realize that this, right now, is one of those moments you cannot come back from.”
“I’m an old man Clarence, I’m pretty sure I can handle it. Tommy’s young yet, he can bounce back from anything, isn’t that right Tommy? Now go on and finish your story,” my grandfather said. He had a beer as well now, I noticed, and he placed another on the table in front of Clarence. He sat down and looked at me. “Aw hell,” he said, “go on and grab yourself one too.” I hurried to the cooler. The ice was cold, and I felt that strange cold-burning sensation on my hand as I fumbled through, feeling for a bottle. Clarence waited until I was seated to continue.
“The man I was to meet called himself Whitewolf. He was adamant we meet off the reservation. I had to drive an hour to some little diner. When I arrived I asked him why he wanted to come so far away. He said that we were being watched. By who, I asked him. The trees he said.” He looked at my grandfather who had started to laugh. “Exactly what I thought Jack. But I had come all that way. So I decided to stay and listen. And pretty soon I forgot about any urge I’d had to get up and leave.”
“This man Whitewolf explained that from the beginning, the native people had lived alongside a presence. It had always been there, and it always would be. Calling it a presence was not exactly accurate. It was a struggle to explain these things in English, he said. To them it’s an ancient fact, so ingrained it does not need explaining. All attempts to put such a concept into words falls ridiculously short. Which is the point, he said. The presence wants to exert its influence unnoticed. It desires control, and it goes about it’s work by any means necessary.”
“Is it malevolent?” I asked him. I was thinking this would be a great story to scare my friends with when I got back to camp. Except I would say evil instead of malevolent when I told them.
“It can be,” Clarence answered. “It seems to enjoy chaos. Many of the earliest people succumbed to the influence. It whispered things in their ears, made them afraid, jealous, or angry. People couldn’t get along with each other. Groups were split, and it made survival very hard. So the wise men, the medicine men decided they had to do something. They tried to figure out ways to ignore it, to block the influence. Whitewolf claimed he was a descendant of one of the first men to battle the presence. It was very difficult and took much time to achieve the skill. It became an essential part of every child’s upbringing. Before they were taught how to hunt, or how to collect and grow food they learned about the presence and how to fight its influence.
“Soon the elders discovered that their efforts weren’t enough. The presence was evolving, growing stronger. A few courageous medicine men dedicated themselves to learning all they could. Their task was very dangerous and they knew they may not survive. Some never came back. Some returned changed, given over to evil pursuits. The presence had turned them from goodness. And whatever knowledge that person had, the presence now had.”
“Sort of like possession,” my grandfather mused.
“Yes, exactly. Silence became a way of life. Languages became complicated in order to confuse and mislead the presence. Names became carefully guarded secrets. The medicine men who survived continued to discover more. The presence played on desires. The overly ambitious were eyed with frightened suspicion. Were they under the sway? After awhile it mattered little if they truly were. It was socially unacceptable to have or to want more than anyone else.”
“So it seemed that I had my answer. It was the combined effect of belief and social conditioning that had arrested the development of their society. Because of course I believed none of it. I began to get depressed as I sat there listening to Whitewolf. I wanted the truth to be different. I wanted stories of remarkable individuals who had made great advances in learning. I was sure I would find them here. Their achievements perhaps lost to recorded history, but living on in memory. Stories and legends so sacred they were never shared with the white man. But it seemed that the greatest minds were caught up in a ghost story. All their energy was devoted to shadows. Whitewolf kept talking though, and I kept listening. Maybe it was because he was a good storyteller. Maybe it was because he was the only one who would talk to me at length. He had gotten to the point in his tale when the colonists began to arrive.”
“At first the natives wondered how to go about warning them about the presence. By this time it was instinct for them. They knew how to guard themselves mentally and emotionally from the dark influence. But it was becoming rapidly clear that the colonists had no interest in learning the native ways. They had strange ideas about ownership and conquest, and they were desirous of everything. And they talked non-stop. Words were scattered about, dropped carelessly, trampled on. They would say one thing and the next day say something completely different. It shocked the natives, who had long used words with the utmost care. So there arose among them an informal agreement to let the colonists fend for themselves. They would learn soon enough about the dangers posed by the presence. The more pressing matter was how to co-exist with these new people whose numbers never seemed to stop increasing.”
“What happened next caught the natives by surprise. The clash between the cultures reverberated like a shockwave. Loved ones were lost, food became scarce, violent uprisings occurred over ownership of land. High levels of anxiety, grief, and anger weighed upon the natives. The mental strength that protected them from the presence began to weaken and splinter. They knew it, and they were afraid. But they didn’t have to be. Because the presence had discovered the colonists. And it liked what it had found. These new people were full of weaknesses. They were so easy to manipulate and bend. The presence no longer needed to try and turn the natives, who were too good at resisting anyway. How could the new people resist when they never knew they were under attack in the first place?”
I looked at my grandfather to see if he saw it too. His eyes met mine in conformation. Something was happening to our guest. He was no longer the meek, anxious man he was when he first arrived. His eyes had a sort of glaze, and he was swaying to and fro in his seat. He took on the aspect of a southern preacher spewing out a fire and brimstone sermon. My grandfather cleared his throat. “Well Clarence, that’s an amazing story. We should invite the old gang over sometime and you can tell them. Say you ever hear what became of Frank Delacroix?”
Clarence was having none of it. “Do you know what became of Whitewolf? On the way back from meeting me he was killed in a car wreck. Witnesses say he lost control when he swerved to avoid a deer that ran out in front of him. Well some of them said it was a deer. Others saw a coyote. Others swear it was a man. Think of it though,” he hissed. “What if it’s true? There are stories that personify temptation as the devil on your shoulder, we all know that one. Where did that story come from? Wherever did man get such an idea? Especially those who, like the natives, had no exposure to Christian belief, to the idea of Satan the tempter? And yet these people believed, they believed more strongly than certain churchgoing folks I know. What horrors did they see to convince them this was real? Whitewolf told me some of them. They are awful stories. Stories of men who set their sleeping villages ablaze. Mothers who skinned and roasted their babies. The hunting party who stopped hunting animals and began to hunt each other. Three of them were discovered in the woods chewing on the entrails of a man still alive. And yet, if you added up their crimes, their offenses, the natives capacity for evil was nothing compared to what just arrived.”
He stood and began to walk aimlessly around the cabin. He shook his head violently, as if he were trying to shake loose the horrible imagery lodged in his mind. “Keep an eye on him, I won’t be a minute,” my grandfather said. I nodded and tried to look brave. This man was really starting to scare me. I could hear my grandfather rustling around in the other room. Why had he agreed to let Clarence come here? He didn’t really even know him. Now we had to deal with him. How were we gonna get him out of here? Should we call an ambulance? It would take them forever to get here. I was watching Clarence as my mind ran through these options. Suddenly he whirled around to face me, and I jumped.
“What if the presence whispered to those weary colonists? Showed them all this country could give them. Led them on with promises of prosperity. And why not? What would it whisper? Would it say to them, look what you’ve been through? You deserve better. Never mind these people here, look how they live. All the potential that lies in this land, and they don’t know what to do with it. But you, you know what to do. You shouldn’t have to do the work. You’ve done so much already. You’ve nearly starved coming here. Why don’t you sit for a moment. Rest. Think. You’ve suffered so much. Look at these folks here. They are so strange. Let them do the work. Look at those funny looking ones. They don’t know anything. Can they even take care of themselves. What’s that? They can’t even read? Put them to work. They can labor and toil. You have more important work to do.” He turned from me abruptly and made for the window. He pulled back the curtain, and let loose an earth shattering howl. My grandfather was at my side in a flash.
“What is that? What is that?” Clarence screeched. He pointed out to the backyard along the edge of the woods.
“It’s nothing Clarence, it’s a decoration, calm down,” my grandfather said.
“I can’t be – I’m not supposed to be here!” Clarence screamed. “You tricked me! Why didn’t you tell me – ” He collapsed in a heap onto the floor.
“Some sort of panic attack I guess,” my grandfather said. “C’mon, help me get him to bed.” He had been busy making up the guest bed, anticipating that Clarence would probably need a few hours to calm his nerves after getting so worked up telling his story. “I don’t want him leaving here in the dark in such a state. God knows what could happen to him.” We lifted him onto the small spare mattress. “But then that means I don’t have room for you. You better get a move on kiddo. I know you know these roads in and out, but it’s still not good to be on your own after dark. Give me a call when you get home from your camping trip alright? Send my love to your mother.”
I walked out to my truck. I felt drained. It was near sunset now. I had spent all day listening to this crazy tale. I started the engine and took off down the drive. I honestly can’t remember now if I really did hear screams in the distance as I turned on to the road or if my imagination is making up that memory. In any event I kept going, a decision that probably saved my life, and one I know my grandfather wouldn’t blame me for. I still can’t understand how it happened. It was my grandfather’s hunting cabin, he had all kinds of guns and knives up there. He should have been able to protect himself.
I went back to the cabin once, a few months later with my father. The mess of blood, broken glass, splintered wood, flesh, and bits of brain had long since been cleaned up. I pretended not to notice the dark stains on the wood when we entered. My father pretended not to notice too. My grandfather did not own the cabin. He rented it from a woman who was now selling it. She said it freaked her out to go there after the murders. So my dad and I were summoned to gather up my grandfather’s belongings. The woman met us there with a key and waited outside while my dad and I loaded up the van. She refused to come inside. I remember seeing her wander around the backyard. She stopped and looked up at the totem pole that stood at the edge of the property. Her black hair shone in the sun.
Credit: N. Hitri