Today’s Short Fiction Friday even is brought to you by TQP contributor Ryan Crutchfield. It’s in two parts, enjoy them in order or out of order, at your discretion. (But “in order” is best.)
They found the cemetery shortly after lunch, exactly where it was not supposed to be. It was slung low and wide across the southern shadowed side of the small hill that they stood upon, stretching out of sight down into the murky edges where the forest became the swamp. The headstones where scattered like dominoes after a knife fight and a number of them were broken or knocked over. The cemetery looked ancient.
“What in the fuck,” said Patrick as he angrily yanked off his backpack and ransacked it, pulling out his maps and notes. “Nobody said anything about a damn cemetery out here! We don’t have the time for this.”
Jeff stood rooted in the moment, had not taken his eyes off the cemetery since they first spotted it. Patrick threw the roll of maps at Jeff, bouncing them of his head. “Hey, wake up! Check the quads again. Both the ‘47 version and the photo revised one. I am going to double check the soil survey.” He paused for a second when a sickening thought crossed his mind. “Shit, get the GPS too and make sure we are even in the right spot.”
This was supposed to be one of those “nice and easy” single day projects as a reward for the three months Patrick and his team had spent on a whirlwind tour of the worst parts of Fort Benning. It was a quick 40 acre survey of land under consideration for being added to Panther Mine, only two hours east of the home office; they would be home in time to catch happy hour with the rest of the office.
Their job was simply to identify anything of cultural relevance in a given area. They were archaeologists for hire, keeping companies and the government in line with the Preservation act of 1974. Usually, especially in this part of Alabama coal country where much of the land had already been compromised, very little of cultural significance was found. The plan was to traverse the area systematically in two teams, document and photograph the area, and head back home.
Up to this point the project had seemed like a joke. Most of the northern portion of the project boundaries had already largely been destroyed. A large swath of the eastern border lay under waste rock and rotting equipment littered the landscape. Jeff and Patrick had even documented an abandoned dragline excavator, lingering on the edge of a pit that stretched down into dark waters. The dragline had been used to remove massive portions of the surface at once, but being hard to move, when this area had been mined out the machine had been left behind. The boom stretched 300 feet into the sky staining rust across the blue and the bucket was easily 50 feet wide
They had stepped out of the truck and Jeff had started to photograph the dragline and landscape as evidence for their report. An ominous persistent buzzing filled the air as thousands of paper wasps and mud daubers filled the sky, floating in and out of the metal skeleton. Long abandoned by humans, the insects had claimed it
The ruinous state of the landscape had convinced them that they would find nothing. The landscape had conspired against them with the cemetery. They could not simply just report the cemetery, they would have to map every last headstone, make etchings of a representative sample, and document any engravings.
Jeff was spreading out the maps on the ground. “Which quad was it again?”
“Brookwood. There are two.”
Patrick examined the soil survey maps starting in 1911. Nothing. Not a single building, structure, or road listed anywhere near where they were supposed to be. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a cemetery noted anywhere within 50 miles of this location. Jeff was walking back to the top of the hill holding the GPS unit over his head with the maps rolled back up under his other arm.
“Come check this out,” Jeff shouted from uphill. “We are definitely in the right location.” Patrick sighed and shoved his notes into his backpack. He climbed the hill back to Jeff’s location. Jeff spread the map on the hood of the truck and indicated a spot on the map. “Look, this is that hill over there, down there is the swamp, and this is the hill we are on now. The photo revised version has the power lines right there that stretch up the western side of the hill. There is no way we are in the wrong location, but there is no indication on any map that there is a cemetery here.
Jeff handed the the GPS to Patrick. “Also? Yeah, we got a lock on eight satellites at once. You know how often that happens. Welcome to exactly where we are supposed to be.”
Patrick frowned at the unit, tossed it onto the hood of the truck and looked down the cut on the western side of the hill to where the transmission lines hung low and thrummed with unseen energy. “How in the hell did they put a power line right of way in over there and not notice or report this cemetery?” He sighed again, and felt the beginnings of a headache creeping up the back of his scalp. “There is nothing on the county soil maps, the historical maps, and nothing on the Google map printouts either. I am going to try and reach the office. See if you can get a rough estimate on the size of that bastard down there.”
Jeff grunted and headed down towards where trees melded with the headstones. Patrick leaned against the truck and pulled out his phone. NO SERVICE. Not one bar, not no bars, not SEARCHING, the damn thing actually said NO SERVICE. He started zigzagging across the top of the hill, searching for a signal when his two-way crackled. Jolie and Matt were checking in.
“Pat, we are done with our area!” Jolie’s voice sounded tinny and distant. The range on radios was decent, but it sounded like she was miles away and underground and there was a dirty low pitch hum overlaying her voice.
He grabbed his radio, smacked it, and then spoke into it, “Jolie. I need you guys to meet us up here on top of the hill in the southeast portion of the project area. We need your help with something strange we found.”
“We found something strange too! We are bringing it back with us.”
Patrick frowned. Jolie was a solid team member but was a strange character. She had single-handedly incited that bar fight in Morgan City over what she claimed later was a miscommunication over the sale of a dog statue. On cold, damp days his head still ached where the pool stick had shattered. Not to mention that she was a remnant of the Ouchita crew, and only God really knows what happened out there that day; Jolie sure never talked about it. Matt was the gasoline to Jolie’s flame. Together, they could raise some hell if they got it in their heads.
“Jolie, I don’t have time for bullshit. You had better not be bringing us a dead raccoon or anything stupid.”
“I am not kidding,” said Patrick as he smacked the radio again, but was only answered with silence.
Jeff walked back up to the truck and leaned on the hood. Patrick put the radio away and glanced over at him, “What’s the damage?”
Jeff groaned, “I am not really sure where it ends because the headstones continue into the swamp, but from the part that is on the hill in the forest, I estimate that there are probably 250 headstones and it probably stretches about 1000 feet east to west along the hill.”
“Jesus. This could take days.”
Patrick checked his watch and drummed his fingers across his thighs. It was 1:15 and the sun was not scheduled to set until right after 7:00. The trail they taken up to the top of the hill was fairly sedate and it wouldn’t be a problem driving the truck back down, even if the sun had dropped. Patrick grinned sardonically; he thought that they might just be able to knock this out. “Listen, Jolie and Matt finished early on the northern half and are on their way over here now. The rest of our area is basically swamp, so we can write that off. If the four of us work together on mapping, I think we can still get out of here before it gets dark.”
“I guess,” Jeff said glumly, clearly displeased at the turn of events.
“Grab the graph paper and measuring tapes from the truck. Meet me at that closest headstone,” Patrick said indicating a spot just downhill. Jeff started gathering equipment from the truck and Patrick headed down towards the marker.
The headstone was worn, far beyond what he would have expected. It was slightly askew to the left and stood waist high. The side border panels were heavily pocked, but a pattern of vines stretched up towards the tympanum, which depicted what appeared to be a sprawling battle. Hundreds of tiny humans, skeletons, and horses vied for supremacy on a plain surrounded by stylized mountains. The battle itself was overseen by giant creatures which watched the battle from the clouds. In spite of the intricate detail of the battle scene itself, the figures in the clouds were hard to focus on, the sandstone marker was just too corrupted. Anytime he tried to focus on the clouds, he felt his eyes drawn elsewhere and a hum in the back of his head. He stood back up and realized that the vines on the border were actually snakes or possibly tentacles.
“All of the ones I checked are pretty similar to this,” said Jeff as he dropped the mapping equipment and sat down in the leaves. “Check out the dates; this place is really old.”
Patrick had been so preoccupied with the artwork on the headstone that he hadn’t even thought to look at the inscription. He stepped back and cold fear washed down his neck.
“Jeff.” Patrick said quietly.
“Yeah?” Jeff looked up from sketching.
“This guy died in 1732, but this area wasn’t settled until the early 1800’s and that settlement was about two hours east of here on the Black Warrior. This area was Creek and Choctaw land.” Patrick sat down, visibly shaken.
“Yeah, so what?” Jeff continued sketching. “Now we have a cemetery that doesn’t belong here in both time and space. We still have to map it.” Jeff glanced sideways at Patrick and said, “Hey, maybe we will be famous.”
Patrick laughed and rubbed his eyes with his hands. He took a couple of deep breaths and stood back up. “OK. I will map everything from here east and you grab everything to the west. Hopefully those two slackers will be here soon to help on the lower area and we can finish this and go home.”