by Joe Williams
©1998 by Joe Williams. All Rights Reserved.
Hal Lantry lifted the skull from the shallow grave and brushed away the dirt that clung to its leathery skin. The skull looked almost serene, despite being pulled from its earthen bed, with eyelids closed over sunken sockets. He wondered if the eyes were still in there, dried to the size of pebbles.
That’s what he loved about the dirt of Azerbaijan. In this ancient land between the Caspian and Black Seas, the arid soil naturally mummified the treasures of the past.
It was the same trick that had preserved the mummies of Egypt. Forget the herbs and winding bandages. All it took was protection from scavengers, a stable dry climate, and burial in the right kind of dirt.
All morning he’d been digging in that remote stretch of wilderness, far up the rocky crags of the Caucasus Mountains. He’d been drawn to the spot by a pile of stones, a mound that had once been carefully stacked but had tumbled down from exposure to wind and the endless contraction and expansion of moisture--not rain, it never rained here. In this part of Azerbaijan it was so dry that raindrops evaporated before hitting the ground.
His instincts never failed him. Under the ancient cairn he found the bones of a man.
He’d been lucky and uncovered the head first. As usual, the ancients had buried the man with his head pointing toward the east, as if asking the rising sun to carry his spirit heavenward.
Hal studied the skull like Hamlet contemplating Yorick. In the days of the Persian Empire, some poor sod croaked and his friends and family had interred him under this pitiful mound of stones, hoping to keep his bones safe from jackals and wild dogs. But not from Hal Lantry. Such a well-preserved specimen would bring a tidy sum from a museum in the States or some private collector.
If worse came to worse, he could saw off the top of the head, shake out its dried contents, and sell it to a Russian tourist as a candy bowl.
In the bottom of the hole, a brown ribcage and a stump of vertebrae poked from the dirt. He’d leave those bones to the elements. Once he uncovered the head, there was no need to dig any further. A skull was worth more than a dozen decapitated skeletons, and was much easier to transport. Just try hiding a skeleton in your luggage as you passed through customs.
You had to be careful with such things. Azerbaijan had laws against the stealing of their national treasures, and for some unfathomable reason they aggressively applied those laws to dry bones.
* * *
Going from the vistas of the wilderness to the squalor of Fuzuli was like jumping from a sauna to an ice bath. Every time he drove his jeep in from the country, the shock almost gave Hal a heart attack.
In the back of Ayaz Bey’s Curio Shop, Hal placed his pack on the proprietor’s mahogany desk. Ayaz sat in a red silk chair, toying with the silver rings encircling his bony fingers. A short white beard framed his mouth. Like many Azeri, Ayaz claimed to be over a hundred years old.
He didn’t look a day over sixty.
His greedy eyes latched on the pack. Then, to Hal’s surprise, his little white mustache twitched and he looked away. “No, my friend, I do not want to know what you have in there. My stock is plentiful.”
“Come on. You don’t have one of these.” Hal started to open the pack.
“No!” Frantically he waved his wrinkled hands. “Upon my mother’s grave, do not open it.”
The urgency in Ayaz’s voice stopped Hal. He secured the partially drawn zipper. “What’s wrong? You know my merchandise is good.”
“That is not the problem.” Ayaz sat back and drew his hands across his face. When his country had been under Russian rule, Ayaz had been a devout communist. Now that the political climate had changed, he was just as devout a Muslim. The top of his traditional lambskin papaq, a high, round hat, came almost to Hal’s eyes.
Over a pear-shaped cup of tea, Ayaz carefully weighed his words. “My friend, many people come through my shop. Russian businessmen especially like my curios. But today, I have a most distinguished visitor. Colonel Surat favored my shop with his presence. He tells me this is not such a good time for a dealer in antiquities. He is looking, he says, for a thief of our national heritage. I say I do not carry such items, only replicas!”
“Well, I have a replica here you would be interested--”
“No, Mr. Lantry. I am not interested. Maybe you will listen to the advice of a friend. Think of taking a vacation. Away from the city. Away, perhaps, from Azerbaijan.”
Hal slung his pack. He couldn’t afford a plane ticket. And if Ayaz wasn’t buying, he wouldn’t be able to afford his flophouse for much longer.
The thought of the militia driving him away from Azerbaijan infuriated him. It had happened once before, in East Africa. The Ugandan army had been after him for unearthing fragments of Homo erectus and selling them on the black market instead of donating the specimens to the government museum. Facing prison, he’d been forced to flee the country using a stolen passport.
He wouldn’t run from Azerbaijan. He was older now, too old to set up shop somewhere else. And he’d grown to love the dirt of this harsh land. Nowhere else would he find soil that held the past so perfectly.
Damn the militia. He’d show them they couldn’t keep him from their precious national treasures.
* * *
Hal’s room in the back of a native flophouse was good for sleeping and not much else. He washed in a basin of filthy water and changed into his least grime-encrusted jeans.
Cleaned up, he shouldered his pack and headed for the Hotel Georgia. In Moscow, a hotel of this caliber would have a doorman. Here a solider from the local militia stood guard, his rifle resting against his shoulder like a drunken friend.
The soldier scrutinized his clothes and the dirt under his nails, but his European complexion won him admittance to this bastion for foreign businessmen.
At the door to suite 39, his brother Edward greeted him with a familiar lopsided grin. “Hal! Here I am, looking all over Fuzuli for you, and you show up at my door! Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since East Africa.”
For the past two weeks Hal had known Edward was in town looking for him, but he had seen no reason to break the ten years of silence that lay between them. Now, with a desiccated skull in his pack, he needed someone with money and esoteric tastes.
Hal accepted the outstretched hand. In his coarse mitt, it looked delicate and feminine.
“I’ve been away on a dig.”
“Really? I’m planning an archeological expedition of my own. That’s why I’ve been trying to reach you. I might have some work for you.”
Hal settled into a surprisingly comfortable rattan chair while Edward poured him a glass of vodka from the bar. His brother, dressed in a loose cotton shirt and khaki cargo shorts, looked as much a part of the room as a model in a travel brochure. Caked in sweat and wearing stained jeans, Hal felt completely out of place.
“No need to offer me work,” Hal said, unwilling to accept charity from his brother. The vodka burned its way down his throat, scorching away the dust. “I’m doing fine on my own.”
You don’t have to sound so surprised, you bastard. Wanting to cut his visit short, Hal bent to unzip his pack. “While I was in the field, I found something you’ll like. I’m sure that museum of yours in New York will want to add it to their collection.”
Edward gave a deep sigh. “Oh, Hal.”
Hal pulled the skull from his pack and held it out to his brother. “Isn’t it a beauty? Two thousand years old if it’s a day, and you can still see the texture of the skin.”
Another groan. “Don’t tell me you dug that up.”
“Yeah. It’s local. And this brittle stuff? It’s hair embedded in the scalp.”
“Jesus Hal.” Edward sank into the opposite chair, the gulf of the table between them. “You keep doing this and you’ll end up in prison. And this time I won’t be around to take the heat while you slip away.”
Hal rocked the head like a hand puppet. “Ancient man. Perfectly preserved. What museum wouldn’t want him? And the price is reasonable.”
“Won’t you ever change? I’m not interested in your damn bones.”
It was starting to look like he should’ve left this head in the ground. “Look, Ed, if you’re still upset about Uganda . . .”
“Upset?” Edward, knuckles braced on the table, rose halfway from his seat. “You stole my passport and left me to explain myself to those gangsters in the military. For the longest time they thought I was you. Didn’t you wonder how I got out? Or how many weeks it took?”
Hal didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Smooth-talking Edward with his National Geographic bankroll would have no trouble charming his way out of a cannibal’s pot. “I always assumed you bribed your way out.”
Edward sighed and spread his unblemished hands. “I told myself I wouldn’t get into it and I won’t. That happened a long time ago. The point is, I’m trying to do you a favor.”
Hal shrugged and stuffed the head back into his pack. He didn’t need any favors from Edward.
The lopsided smirk returned to Edward’s lips. “I must be nuts for giving you another chance after what you pulled in Uganda. But Hal, I can’t stand to see you waste your talents on this junk. Come with me and meet Professor Barnes. You’ll like him. He’s very well financed.”
* * *
There had to be someone in Azerbaijan who wanted an ancient dried head. So Hal followed Edward to suite 40 and immediately saw Barnes was not the kind of man likely to buy a black market skull.
Barnes, a rotund man with round glasses like a cartoon owl, looked uncomfortable in a nylon polo shirt, as if he were more used to tweed jackets. His downy hair formed a ridge around the crown of his head, like clouds around a gentle plateau. His hand was soft and sweaty.
After Edward made the introductions, Barnes said, “Your brother tells me you have a knack for finding buried relics. A sense for the sediments, you might say.”
It was true. Hal had always enjoyed digging. Even as a child, he would take a spoon from the silverware drawer and sneak to the yard. When his mother discovered the hole, he’d blame the dog. But he never fooled her. The dirt under his nails and the bent silverware gave him away.
As a kid, he dug for coins, gems, or dinosaur bones, it didn’t matter. He’d look for the old, forgotten things held in the earth’s matrix. Secrets laid to earth by the passing ages. He usually found bottle caps and beer cans.
Cautiously Hal said, “I know how to use a shovel, if that’s what you mean.”
Edward chuckled. “I’ve seen you spot a fossil at twenty paces. Not some weathered bone exposed on the surface, but a completely buried fossil. There’s no one else who can do that.”
Uncomfortable with the compliment, Hal ran his hand over his sun-bleached crewcut as though brushing off his brother’s words. “What exactly are you looking for?”
“Statues, Mr. Lantry.” Barnes rubbed his plump hands together. “The most fabulous statues ever discovered.”
Hal snorted out a harsh laugh. “If you’re looking for fancy statues, try the British Museum. They snatched them all a century ago.” And people called him a thief.
“Show him the piece,” Edward suggested. “It’ll get him on the scent.”
Hal bridled at being compared to a bloodhound, but checked his temper. If they wanted to show him something of value, he was perfectly willing to look.
Barnes took a small metal box from the safe behind the bar. Cradled in a foam cushion was a sculpture the size of Hal’s thumb. A snake’s head, broken from a larger piece. Every scale perfect. Not even the eyes were stylized.
“Interesting,” Hal admitted.
“Even more interesting is that geochemical tests have dated the piece at over three thousand years.”
“And it came from Azerbaijan?”
“Indeed. From what we can trace, a farmer sold it to a dealer who smuggled it out of the country. It turned up in a fossil shop in San Francisco.”
“Look Hal,” Edward blurted, “I’ll be straight with you. We need to track down exactly where this came from. Find out if there’s any more like it.”
“What about the government? They have a law against exporting national treasures.”
Edward’s face twitched. “We have a special permit. Our research is fully authorized.”
Barnes looked serene. “We do not intend to export the sculptures. We are much more interested in the civilization that created them. It must have been very sophisticated. Not even the Romans came close to this level of detail.”
“I want you to come along as our guide,” Edward said. “You know these valleys better than anyone. You can help us find where this fragment came from.”
Hal continued to stare at his brother, so successful and healthy. Hands like those of a girl. Joining him would be the same as admitting defeat. It would be a confession that the last twenty years were a mistake, that Ed’s choices had been the right ones, that a guy couldn’t get by in this world without a college education and friends in high places.
No, he couldn’t join him. Hal would stick with the life he had made. It was too late for him to change.
* * *
“I saw a statue today,” Hal said to Ayaz in the back of the curio shop. “Just a fragment. A snake’s head. But so realistic! Like someone had dipped a snake in molten rock. You ever see anything like that come through here?”
“Through here? No, no, of course not. We deal only in replicas.”
“Sure, replicas. You ever see a replica of such a thing?”
“I have not. But there is a legend of a Cemetery of Stone. Statues of animals buried in the silt. Beautiful statues, unlike any made by men.”
“Where is this graveyard located?”
“It is the nature of legends to be vague, is it not? The Cemetery is taboo. No man may walk there. It is not, as you say, on a tourist map.”
Hal grinned hard. “An art collector like you would know the right direction.”
Ayaz’s smile was just another toothless crease in a face rutted with wrinkles. “If I were to search for such a place, I would look in the Valley of Tandandi. But I do not have your talent for reading what lies beneath the earth, so I would find nothing. Nor has anyone else who has come back from that journey found more than a fragment. But if you were to find something, a replica perhaps, you would know who to show it to first, would you not?”
* * *
Hal thought, I’ll show him.
He’d find the Cemetery of Stone and steal Ed’s prize right out from under his nose. He’d show Ed who was the better man. And he’d show Colonel Surat how easily their national treasures could disappear.
The Tandandi valley was the most desolate region of Azerbaijan. His jeep rattled over rough ground, battering his kidneys until his insides ached.
Two hours up the valley from the last black-robed goat herder, he parked the jeep and continued on foot. Only on foot could he sense the land, and the hidden shapes it concealed. He carried the sixty-pound pack easily, using his shovel as a walking stick. Years of digging had carved away his body fat, leaving only muscle.
When the terrain gave him a choice of which way to go, he always took the most difficult route, marking his way with chalk. The easier path would only lead him where others had already gone. If you wanted to find that which no one else could find, you had to look where no one else had looked.
His trek carried him to the top of a plateau where the wind tore at the bare earth. No plants grew here, not even the scrawniest weed.
Hal scanned the gray plateau, not even glancing at the white haze above. A bulge drew him. He put his shovel to dirt and in a few minutes uncovered a scorpion. For a moment he mistook it for a living creature, the only one he had seen atop the plateau, but by prodding it with the blade of his shovel he saw it was a perfectly carved likeness no bigger than his hand.
Trembling with excitement, he picked it up. It was so perfect he almost feared it would come alive and sting him.
The Cemetery of Stone.
Hal scratched his head and glanced about. The plateau held no sign of ruins. Temple or tomb, time must have completely buried the site.
He wrapped the scorpion in bubble wrap, taped it securely with duct tape, and put it in his pack between the head he had found yesterday and his spare water bottles. He had brought the skull along because he didn’t want to leave incriminating evidence where Colonel Surat’s soldiers could find it.
The scorpion safely stowed in the pack on his shoulders, he resumed his patrol of the plateau, searching the ground in a deliberate grid. This time he stopped at a shallow depression more than four feet across. He sensed something under there. Something big.
Excited, he set aside his pack and started to dig.
He loved the sound of the shovel striking the earth. He once considered being a farmer, but he wasn’t interested in growing things on the surface. He was drawn to the hidden things within the earth.
The hole deepened at his feet. This wasn’t a quickie like the last one. This was work.
Work he loved.
The same movement over and over, the same muscles flexing. The breathing regular and measured. His heart beating a steady rhythm. He was a machine. He could dig forever.
Spade to earth, spade to sky.
As the mound of dirt grew, the hole deepened. The rut widened into a trench, and he stepped inside. This is what his lived for. This is why he lived.
Sinking into the earth, the soil around him rising to his shins, his knees, his thighs. The earth consumed him bit by bit.
Spade to earth, spade to sky.
No idea of time, just the mechanical monotony of his work, motions he no longer controlled so automatic had they become. His callused hands hardly felt the ash handle of the shovel.
Then the “tink” of metal on stone.
He dug carefully now, probing the area where he felt stone. With his hands, he uncovered a rock. Not a rock. Fingers, carved in a Rodinesque knot of agony.
There in the bottom of his hole, he examined the stone hand. Such perfectly formed fingernails. So lifelike.
Heart quickening, he returned to digging, scooping out heavy shovelfuls of dirt. Loose soil, eager to reclaim its secret, slid back into the hole.
He excavated around an arm. Dug deeper until he uncovered a naked shoulder. Muscular and masculine. Working from there it was easy to uncover the head.
The sculpture had the oval face and high forehead of a young Azeri. The man looked upward, as if supplicating God. Striving toward heaven. And yet the eyes were rounded with fear and the lower lip drawn back in terror.
The uncanny resemblance to life he had seen in the other statues hit him with a tremor of dread. What seemed like profound artistry in animals now struck him as somehow unnatural. The face was too human, the expression of fear too compelling. The story of Medusa flashed through his mind, a creature that could turn flesh to stone with a mere gaze. Gorgons. He straightened waist deep in his hole. Desolation stretched around him. White sky, gray earth.
The sight of his pack nearby gave him comfort. He felt dangerously dehydrated so he took a drink of water. He needed to stop and drink more often or he would dry out.
To make it easier to get to the water bottles, he took out the leather skull and placed it on the rim of the hole. The face leered down at him. “Don’t look at me like that,” Hal said with forced good humor. “Once I finish here I won’t need to carry you around anymore. I’ll turn you into an ashtray and sell you at the bazaar for a few manat. How do you like that?”
He returned to digging and the hole deepened. Sweat coursed off his face. He uncovered the neck, the naked chest, the other forearm. Never had he seen such work. It was the greatest discovery since the terra cotta soldiers of China.
When he finished excavating around the statue’s other hand, he stopped. The hand held a carefully crafted figure of a bird.
Dryness clicked in Hal’s throat. What kind of people would carve such an odd tableau? Did it have some religious significance? Stranger still, the stone that the bird was made from looked older and darker than the man. Brushing away the dirt he could see where the two pieces joined, as if the hand had been sculpted around the bird it held. He’d never seen anything like it.
A stone man. An amazing find. Ed would weep when he learned what Hal had uncovered.
He’d been working for hours and he now stood in a hole almost as deep as he was tall. He wouldn’t have been able to do it if not for the soft consistency of the soil. But what speeded his digging also made the sides of the hole unstable, allowing dirt to slide in almost as fast as he could shovel it out. He wished he’d brought materials to shore the sides of the ditch. That way, he could catch his breath without watching the ditch slowly refill itself.
Maybe he could speed things up.
He pushed the statue, trying to loosen it. The dirt held it fast.
Even if he dug it all the way out, it would be impossible for him to hoist a life-size sculpture from the hole, much less haul it back to his jeep.
The head was where the money was at. Rather than excavate the statue he would simply break off the head and take it.
He braced himself against the side of the hole and kicked the head, trying to snap it off. The more it resisted, the more he struggled, carelessly pushing against the wall at his back.
The dried skull teetered on its perch above him, then tipped over the edge and bounced down the side of the hole. It landed at Hal’s feet. He looked down, heard the hiss of sand falling behind him, saw the rain of fine grains dropping on his shoulders. The unshored sides of the hole collapsed, starting where the skull had hit and radiating outward until dirt poured down like water from all sides. It piled against his legs, rapidly reclaiming the partially exposed statue. Within seconds Hal was knee deep in soft, sandy soil and still more continued to pour in, piling against him.
He tried pulling his legs free. They were pinned.
Hal calmed himself. It wasn’t too bad. His arms were free, and with patience he could dig his way out. He was angrier about the work that had been undone. Hal stretched for his half-buried shovel and pulled it from the ground. He awkwardly held it close and dipped it into the dirt. The shaft banged the lip of the hole, knocking a shower of dirt into his hair.
He carefully loaded the shovel, raised it to the edge of the hole, and dumped it as far away as possible. The dirt tumbled back into the hole, bringing even more dirt with it.
No matter how he tried, Hal couldn’t get the leverage to throw the dirt out of the hole. Every shovelful he removed just slid back in and more trickled in every second. The dirt was already up to his waist and climbing quickly.
As the hole collapsed, it widened. It touched the mound of dirt he had excavated and the entire pile poured down on him in a terrible avalanche. Hal started to scream, but as the dirt washed over him, he sucked in air like a diver going for a deep plunge. Dirt slammed against his body. Its weight against his chest nearly crushed the air from him. He closed his eyes and braced himself.
When the dirt settled, he opened his eyes to a ground-level view of the sunken area where his hole had been. The collapse was nearly complete.
He tried to move, but the only part that responded was his neck. He feared the landslide had broken his spine. But as his vision cleared he realized that he was buried up to the neck. He could see the tips of his fingers to his left, sticking up like three ugly worms. He wiggled them and they moved. The little movement reassured him that his spine wasn’t broken.
The shovel stuck up from the dirt like a grave marker, casting its shadow across his face. He could move his head, but what was the use?
When he took a shallow breath, the dirt shifted and pressed tighter around his chest, constricting him even further. He could exhale, but inhaling against the weight of dirt was a struggle.
Damn damn damn.
The pack lay nearby. Turning his head, he could see the tightly wrapped bundle that held the scorpion and next to it, the radio.
No way to reach it.
His lungs burned. He grabbed another breath and again the dirt squeezed him tighter.
Gray dirt surrounded him. No animals. No plants. It was as if they knew this was forbidden ground and were smart enough to stay away. He was alone.
Screaming wouldn’t help. One shout and the dirt would settle against him and he wouldn’t be able to take another breath. And even if he did scream, no one would hear him.
He was going to die out here.
Hal shook his head with grim amusement. He had dug his own grave.
A quick breath. The dirt settled. Head throbbing, he watched the edges of his vision turn black. His empty lungs ticked as they drew in just enough air to keep him conscious.
The dirt held him suspended. A thousand years from now, a treasure hunter might find his fossilized body and sell it to a curio shop.
Fifteen minutes had passed since the hole collapsed. He was almost out of air, and he was no closer to extracting himself. He couldn’t do it alone. He needed help.
With his least breath, Hal screamed for help. The dirt collapsed against his chest, keeping him from inhaling.
The burning in his lungs slowly faded. He no longer felt his body. He felt only a curious calm as endorphins flooded his dying brain, alleviating pain and fear. His oxygen-starved brain lost its eye-level view of the world and turned to the birds-eye perspective of dreams and memory. He saw himself from above.
A head in a hole.
Misfiring neurons that once processed his visual cortex flooded his mind with a white glow. As he slipped into the terminal stages of cerebral anoxia, the tunnel of light broke into a patchwork of spirals and lattices. His dying mind mistook them for the pearly gates of heaven.
Cold water splashed his face. He sucked in just enough air to pull back from brain death. He blinked, saw the dirt almost up to his chin. He was trapped in his body again.
He also saw boots, knees and unblemished hands digging frantically at the dirt around his neck.
Lacking the strength to lift his head, he rolled his eyes upward. It was Edward digging. The water dripping from Hal’s nose had come from his canteen.
Sound clicked on as it sometimes did when he woke from a deep sleep.
“Good Lord,” Edward muttered as he pushed aside handfuls of dirt. “We’re lucky we heard his shout. We never would have found him up here.”
Hal’s shovel, wielded by Barnes, joined in the work. He dug with the sloppy technique of a weekend gardener. “This was a dreadful plan. I should have never let you talk me into it.”
“He led us here, didn’t he? I told you even if he didn’t join us, he couldn’t resist the bait. The transmitter we planted in his jeep worked perfectly.” Only then did Edward notice Hal’s open eyes. He grinned and gave him a thumb’s up signal. “Hold on!” he shouted as if it were Hal’s ears not his body that were encased in dirt. “We’ll have you out in a jiffy.”
Even though they pulled the ground away from him, Hal’s breathing came no easier. Against the pressure of dirt, his chest felt as stiff as a sack of concrete. He still couldn’t move his arms or legs. The feeling of confinement drove him crazy. He wanted free of the earth. He wanted to breathe deep and move again.
Somewhere in the dirt below him stood the stone man. An incredible discovery. His head humming with pain, he forced air through his lips. “Found . . . it.” The effort of that gravel whisper dizzied him and brought black specks to his eyes.
Edward’s smile slipped to one side. “Yes. We know.” He looked past Hal and Hal followed the gaze to where his pack lay open.
An armed soldier knelt by the pack, unwrapping the scorpion statue and shaking his head.
“I’m sorry,” Edward said. “It was the only way we could get a permit to do research here. I tried to warn you. If you had joined us, it might have been different. But when you refused, I knew you were the same Hal who had screwed me in Uganda.”
Hal laughed, a dry brittle sound. His Judas brother had used him to find the Cemetery of Stone and then turned him over to the militia. But despite the betrayal, Hal didn’t care if he went to jail. The ache to draw a full breath into his lungs drove out all else.
They had dug far enough to expose the buttons of his shirt, and still his chest felt solid.
Barnes hammered the shovel into the dirt right next to Hal. The blade bit deep.
“Careful!” Edward warned. “You’ll . . .”
Barnes gasped and the shovel stopped its digging. Edward rocked back on his heels, and his eyes widened in horror. Even the soldier goggled.
Following their stunned eyes, Hal looked down into the hole they had dug, at where his shirt had been torn open by the shovel. His chest was caked in a layer of gray dirt.
Then he realized he would never take another deep breath. He would stand forever, one arm raised to ward off the falling dirt, his lungs burning with pain.
He tried to scream, but all that came from his gray chest was a thin hiss. From the neck down, the dirt of Azerbaijan had turned him to stone.