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Authors: Don Hoesel

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BOOK: Elisha’s Bones
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Nestled in the jungle in the mountainous north of the country, a stone’s throw away from the Columbian border, Quetzl-Quezo is hundreds of miles from the most southerly advances of Mayan civilization. That, the stylistic differences between it and others situated in their proper places, and the fact that the markings on the inside are unlike any we’d seen have caused many of my peers to disqualify it as a Mayan structure. Instead, most believe it belonged to another people group—either indigenous to the region or on a migratory track. The latter might be correct; the former is almost certainly wrong. The fact is, none of the great ancient civilizations native to Central and South America had influence here. The Aztecs were farther north than the Mayans, the Incans clung to South America’s western border, and even the short-lived Toltecs failed to venture this way. In my reckless youth I created a new classification for the structure: proto-Mayan. I’m older now, and I’ve learned that most of the theories espoused by the young are ridiculous, yet I’ve held on to this one. So Quetzl-Quezo is a moniker of the people who would settle farther north but already showing the discipline and skills necessary to carve a nation from the jungle.

It’s always bothered me that we were never able to finish our work, and that no other team has been able to conduct a more thorough study of the site.

“This guild, then,” Romero says. “This means they must have known about the temple at least two hundred years ago.”

“Longer,” I say. “Much longer.”

“That’s not a stretch,” Esperanza adds. “We all know a lot of the really important things found over the last hundred years have been excavated in the backyards of natives. A lot of them look at us and wonder why we’re wasting our time with something that’s been part of their backdrop for as long as they can remember.”

“So they either adopted the symbol from the temple . . .” Romero says.

“Or carved it there,” Espy finishes.

“They had to have stumbled onto the temple and found the symbols,” I say. “They’re too old for it to have been the other way around.”

“But that doesn’t explain why they would have adopted an obscure ancient carving as a guild crest,” Romero grumbles.

No one says anything for a time, but I know we are all thinking variations of the same thing. Mr. Reese’s little project has just become both much more promising and more complicated. And it will involve more resources than I’d planned.

“I wish I’d brought a team,” I say.

“We can put one together for you.” Romero closes the book and leans back until the chair creaks. “They won’t know the whys and hows, but they’ll dig where you tell them, and they’ll keep their mouths shut.”

I’ve worked more than one site with just locals, so I’m comfortable enough with Romero’s offer, although it would be nice to have someone else there who knows an effigy mound from an eolian deposit. Romero has worked alongside me more times than I can remember—before the revelation that brokering treasures required less work than finding them—but his days of traipsing all over the world in search of antiquities are long gone, and I will not ask him. He’s a businessman now, with all of the concerns associated with the designation. He would come with me were I to ask him, which is why I don’t.

“I’ll need supplies, too.”

“Anything you need, you’ve got.”

“How long?”

“A day or two to gather your team, but we have all of the equipment in town.”

Something in his expression more than suggests that he wants to forsake Caracas for a good dig. I understand. It’s something that never quite leaves the blood. And Romero has turned enough dirt with me that he coughs dust. Dress a dirt jockey in nice clothes, teach him a few manners—in short, try to civilize him—and there’s still that muted voice inside calling him back to sand and sweat and discovery. I’m more energized than I can remember feeling, like I’m waking from a long but restless sleep.

It’s a feeling I wish I could pass on to my friend, and I’m disappointed for him. There is, however, a way he can help me and, while it will not bring the pleasure of real fieldwork, it gives him something to do.

“There is something you can do for me,” I say. “Our research has the bones supposedly passing from the Chevrier family to Fraternidad de la Tierra. If we can find evidence that these two groups could have had contact with each other around the time of the supposed transfer, it would go a long way toward helping us to establish plausibility.”

Romero is thoughtful; he knows what I am doing. He also knows I’m not throwing him a bone—that what I’m asking for would be helpful. “So you want me to research this?”

“It would help. I won’t have access to anything while I’m at the site.”

He nods, accepting the responsibility. And then I see something else in Romero’s eyes—a troubled look that does not often roost there.

“I’m not sure you’re fully aware of what you’ve gotten yourself into, my friend.”

I don’t have an immediate answer, principally because I know there is something behind the question to which I am not privy.

“Your little excursion has made you a popular man,” the Venezuelan says. He leans forward in his chair; his posture suggests worry. “You were not gone thirty minutes before I had a visitor.”

My initial response is a confused frown. I’m well aware that there are people in this country who would not be cordial were I to run into them, but I can think of no one who dislikes me enough that they would have designated resources adequate to monitor the airports—because that’s the only way someone could have zeroed in on me in the few hours I’ve been in-country.

In response to my unasked question, Romero says, “He was a foreigner. Perhaps South African; I’ve never been good with accents.”

“What did he want?”

“To look at my merchandise.”

I consider this for a moment and stop myself from asking the obvious questions. Most of Romero’s clientele do not call this country home. They’re a community connected by money and enlarged by recommendations at lavish parties. To find someone from the other side of the world interested in his wares, then, should not have caused him any concern. Even so, I will not question my friend’s belief that this visit intimated something else.

“He purchased one pre-Columbian jade axe god pendant— for which I charged almost double my normal price—and then he left. And he paid in cash,” Romero says.

“That’s all?”

He nods.

“It was reconnaissance—fact-finding. Evidently he decided that asking questions would not have accomplished anything beyond causing suspicion. But I don’t believe in coincidence, my friend; this man visited me because you came here.”

Romero’s words roll around in my head, and I’m left not knowing how to respond, because there are a great many thoughts vying for position amidst the gray matter. Chief among them is worry that I’ve entangled one of my oldest friends in something that might be more dangerous than I’d anticipated. Just beyond that, though, is an uneasy feeling that I don’t have time to process, but I know it’s connected to what happened in Egypt. The seamy underside of this business; the politics that had Will’s death classified as an unfortunate accident, despite the fact that even someone with an untrained eye could see a blast pattern radiating from the trench. Dirt thrown upward. Guilt threatens to resurface; the self-directed accusation that I did not force a more thorough look into what happened at KV65 before retreating to Evanston.

I stop such thoughts at the threshold. I don’t have the time for such self-indulgence right now.

“Then I guess I better do this as quickly as I can,” I say.

Romero smiles. I think he knows what small battle I just fought with myself.

“Do you need a good historian?”

I’m not sure who is more surprised by Esperanza’s question—me, her, or Romero. His eyes are wider than they were when Espy and I walked into his store together. I know he thought there was a small chance she would kill me, and a very good chance that she would inflict some type of injury on my person. He’d never entertained the thought that our meeting would end with the two of us eating a nice lunch and then traversing the city together. Sometimes Romero can miss subtleties. The body language in the room is tense, the silences half pained. Espy and I both know that there are things we need to deal with. She won’t let me forget it. For now, though, I’m glad she’s invited herself.

“I could use one.”

“En serio?” Romero asks, his eyes still wide.

“Sí,” I say, hoping my smile masks the sick feeling roosting in my stomach.

C
HAPTER
7

T
he Andes are immense and verdant—as if color were a tool, focusing all of the world’s mass into a landmark spanning seven countries, towering over national lines. In Venezuela the Andes split into two ranges: the Sierra de Perijá that run the border between Venezuela and Colombia, and the Cordillera Mérida that spread out along the east coast of Lake Maracaibo. It’s this latter range we’re crossing, on the way to San Cristóbal.

I’m amazed that we got everything into the small plane—a plane vibrating with the violence of a wet dog shaking the rain from its fur. For a while I thought we might have to leave a good portion of our equipment behind and pick up as much as we could when we reach our destination. But the pilot, a man named Raphael, directed the loading of our gear with an expertise born of years with this or similar planes. It’s cramped quarters, with eight people wedged into whatever free space there is, and I’m growing more aware that bathing frequency is a subjective value, but I’m buoyed by a sense of purpose and, if truth be served, of being in charge of a team again. They don’t look like much, but I have faith in Romero. He wouldn’t provide me with subpar performers. At least three of them speak some English, and all of them took to loading the plane with an urgency that speaks of their pleasure at having a job. I know they will work hard when we arrive at the dig site, and yet I’m glad that Esperanza will be around for conversation and as a sounding board. There are other reasons too, but I’m still working through those.

She’s in the back of the plane, in easy conversation with the laborers. I can’t hear what they’re saying over the engine noise, but she’s laughing, and one of the men looks pleased at having amused her. I’ve always thought that Esperanza was the sort who could fit right in at a construction site anywhere in the world, unfazed by crude language or innuendo. She can take care of herself, and keep a smile doing it.

I sense that we’re descending. Raphael gives me a thumbs-up and I notice the plane isn’t shaking like before. Our pilot speaks decent English. He looks to be about fifty and has the hands of a farmer, someone who is used to hard work. His eyes squint even when the sun is not on them, like they are fixed that way.

He asks if I want a drink. I don’t and tell him so and then watch as he pulls a flask from a compartment between us. I don’t know what’s in it but he seems to appreciate it as he takes a long draw. He offers it toward me and I again decline. Maybe I should be nervous about watching him drink as we get closer to landing, but I’m not. There’s some understanding here that this is Raphael’s world, his plane. His hands are steady. And it’s not my first inebriated ferrying.

San Cristóbal slides into view from out of nowhere as Raphael guides the plane over another ridge. The small city occupies a valley, like many hubs of human activity in this mountainous region. Had we not flown directly over the place, I might have missed it entirely. Looking down, I take in the city’s buildings, streets, its muted whiteness.

Raphael is concentrating now and I see the sliver of land on which he plans to drop the Cessna. I watch his hands as he works the controls, noting the confidence on his face, and I feel at ease as I watch San Cristóbal grow larger. In what seems just a few seconds later, we touch down and Raphael hits the brakes.

The next several minutes are a happy blur as I slip back into a role that is almost free of cobwebs. And I’ve got Espy to help with the particulars, such as working with the crew and coordinating the equipment transport. As I stand back, chatting with Raphael, I watch Espy, amazed at how much she resembles her brother in the way she manages the men.

We have two SUVs, both of which will be loaded down with equipment. I’m not sure what we’ll need, which is why we’re packing heavy. I’d thought about a backhoe, a dozer, and a few other pieces of earthmoving equipment, but that would have meant a larger team and a lot more time than I’ve got. I chuckle at that; Esperanza is right in that it’s looking less likely I’ll make it back to Evanston for the start of the new semester. Still, I’m not yet ready to give up on the original plan. For all that I’m enjoying myself, I’m not prepared to dismiss my role as educator. I have a whole life, stunted though it may be, waiting for me back in North Carolina, complete with friends, a paycheck, and my much-abused cactus. It might not seem like much, but it’s what I’ve got. And I kind of miss my cactus.

As the last of our gear is off-loaded, I say good-bye to Raphael. I paid him on the front end with my magic card—the same one that bought our equipment. I’d joked with Romero that it was the first time I could remember having paid for supplies he procured for me. He’d frowned and then made a notation on the invoice.

“What now?” Esperanza asks, suddenly appearing at my side. “You want to find someplace to eat before we head out?”

“I’d rather not. The less time we spend here, the better.”

I feel uneasy out on the tarmac, as if eyes are watching me. One of the gentlemen who would not be pleased to see me resides in San Cristóbal, and my chances of avoiding an unfortunate meeting are slimmer if we don’t linger.

“If the men are hungry, have them break into the rations. We can restock in Rubio.”

Before long we have the trucks leaving the city, turning onto a road that winds up and around the mountains. Esperanza is driving one vehicle, while one of the hired hands pilots the other.

The airport is situated near the outskirts of the city and so I don’t see much of it before both the mountains and the jungle, in a way that’s uniquely South American, swallow us up.

BOOK: Elisha’s Bones
3.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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