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In Weather Like This

Sometimes disbelief requires more faith than believing

by Roger Pinckney

Published in the May/June 2005 issue of Orion magazine



Painting by Sally Lesesne, used with permission

YOU CAN’T FISH IN WEATHER LIKE THIS. The bigmouth bass have panicked to the bottoms of the swamp-water ponds. Out on the beach the surf will wear you out, surging around your legs, scouring the sand from beneath your heels, roughing you, throwing you, rolling your cut mullet and six-ounce sinker back upon the sand as fast as you can sling it to the waves. You can’t hunt either. It’s too early for ducks or turkeys and the deer are all down in the canebrakes, huddled against the wind. If you could stand the ticks and chiggers, you could scare one up easy, but you could not see to shoot in this horizontal rain.

After half a lifetime of roaming, I’m back home, lying low in this season of winds. The house is all boarded and the porch furniture lashed down. There’s a generator and gas to run it, a propane hotplate, a couple of jugs of good whiskey.

My neighbors are similarly equipped. There are just two hundred of us on five thousand acres and it’s the last of the last. Last island before Georgia. Last island with no bridge. Last place the way things used to be down here, dirt roads, deep woods, folks still wresting a living from land and sea. Last place for folks like us to stand. Hilton Head to the north, Tybee Island to the south, and we’re right in the middle, a sore thumb against the Atlantic.

I will stay because I have been gone too long. My neighbors will stay because they have always stayed. But the tourists have no stake in this place other than what they have charged to their Amex cards. They have all fled inland and the freeways are stalled bumper to bumper outbound, the world’s longest parking lots. There hasn’t been a ship in the Savannah channel for days, and the shrimp boats and charter fishers are battened and double-anchored against the surge, when the waters come rolling from the face of the deep. The 1893 storm drowned two thousand black farmers and fisherfolk in South Carolina. After the waters went down, they untangled the bodies from the tops of cypress and sycamores and lay them in mass graves, fifty and sixty at a time.

The ocean will not surge this time, but it’s doing the best it can. The surf is roaring, the rain coming in sheets, rattling off the roof like hailstones. The sea is way up into the dunes, and the wind moans soft and low around the eaves—awhoo, awhoo—like doves when they go to roost on a hot September afternoon, like the mournful ghosts of ancient ancestors.

We know something about ancient ancestors on Daufuskie Island. We know the clusters of oblong depressions along the riverbanks—slave graveyards—and the sad and careening stones of their free children and grandchildren in amongst them, all facing east, spirits poised for Africa and That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’. Their masters and mistresses are buried separately, beneath the grieving oaks dripping their long tears of Spanish moss, the doors of their brick crypts broken with rifle butts and their bones scattered back when the Yankee army went looking for their wedding rings.

And from before that war, before cotton and bright blue indigo and slaves, before the English, even the Spanish, deep in the woods are the burial mounds of the Cusabo, the People of the River—Native American fishermen and deer hunters who lived on these sunny islands when Europeans were just figments in folk tales of white gods rising from the sea.

Down on the south end of the island is a place called Bloody Point, a beautiful and windblown spot, a battleground from long before anybody remembers. Raiding Indians sailed and paddled their great pirogues creek to connecting creek, but when they got here, the creeks ran out. Next was a nasty stretch of surf. When the weather was mean, and it most always was—and still is—they would camp awaiting safe passage. And this is where aggrieved parties would finally catch up with them, other tribes at first, then the colonial English. There were three fights here in historic times, likely many more before.

The cotton barons built a great house overlooking the sea at Bloody Point. High on pillars of bricks shipped from England, framed with local oak and heart pine, it survived war, hurricane, wildfire, and flood, but not the relentless ocean. After a century, the house crumbled into the surf. Locals descended upon what was left and today when you’re out sneaking on a deer, you can still find English bricks from the Bloody Point big house in the chimneys of abandoned shanties buried in the great thickets of huckleberry, wild rose, and devil vine.

And there on the Bloody Point beach, in this great litter of time, among the wave-worn brick, the shattering of fine bone china, among the bullets and buttons and shards of Indian pottery and the occasional bone from the slave burying ground, is where Ed Peckles found his knife.

THERE ARE THINGS HERE THAT SPEAK TO US, here where salt eats iron and termites eat wood and our elders pass too soon. The pitted spike from the logging railway, the great rusted molasses kettles, the ox-cart tire, the oyster shucker’s token are treasured and few. Stones from earlier also remain and they are everywhere—conch-shell hoes and points and flakes, loaf-sized ovals for grinding corn, fingermarks worn into the rock—so many that you will think this place was some ancient Manhattan, lots of people living here for a long, long time.

Ed Peckles was just passing through, a short-term manager at the local pub, and why he was walking the beach after weather like this I cannot say. But Ed was walking where the river scallops into the old slave graveyard when he saw what looked like a bit of bone sticking from a clump of blue river clay.

If I had seen bone there I would have passed by on the other side, as the Good Book says, fearful of disturbing sleeping spirits. But Ed Peckles was not from here, so he picked it up.

When we met on the road after the storm had passed, he waved me down. I turned off my truck and he turned off his and we leaned from the windows and he said, “I found a bone-handled knife in the surf.”

I asked if it was a Boker Tree brand, a Barlow—fine folding knives someone might have lost forty years ago.

“No,” he said, “it’s stone.”

“Stone?”

“It looks like an arrowhead. It’s lashed to a deer-bone handle.”

There was a great flowering of indigenous hunting culture here about fifteen hundred years ago. Archeologists call it Mississippian, as these natives were coastal cousins of the Mound Builders of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. They had towns and trade routes, astrological observatories, pottery making, wood carving, flint knapping, boat building, basket and net weaving. This had to be one of their knives.

I asked Ed if he had it with him. He said he’d left it at his place but I could have a look at it later. I thanked him and went on my way, but before I started my engine, I gave him some advice. “Take it to Bobby Burn,” I said, “he knows more about Indian stuff than anybody.”

I will tell you about Bobby Burn but I hardly have space to do the man justice. Born in Charleston but raised here, he’s the grandson of Papy Burn, the keeper of the Bloody Point Light. He’s strong, wiry, and sixty, and he’s got stories to curl your hair. Now he’s a potter who homesteads in an A-frame made from a salvaged pulpwood barge and a railroad trestle.

Ed Peckles took the knife to Bobby Burn and instead of just letting him see it, he gave it to him. “I’ve got to leave the island,” he explained. “Maybe this should stay where it belongs.”

Now this was just too good for Bobby to wait till he passed me on the road. He called me on the phone. “You’ve got to see this.”

And it was something to see, a broad stone point the color of a wild rose, still sharp enough to draw blood, an intricate weaving of sinew where stone met bone, the bone itself yellowed with age, stained with blue river clay.

Seeing was one thing, holding it another. Perfect fit, perfect balance. But there was more, harder to explain. An immediate and electric connectivity, a communication with the past. Like watching an October moonrise, when the Lord’s great night-light slips up over the edge of the world, round and gold as a pirate doubloon. And yes, even like orgasm, when for one instant you are soaring among the stars, and you are every man who has ever lived and she is every woman and you are doing what the eons compel you to do. I felt I knew the hunter who had made the knife, and somehow I felt that now he knew me.

“But it’s fake,” Bobby said.

“Who said?” I asked.

“The university,” he said.

I stroked the handle with my thumb. “Could you fake a patina like this?”

“Oh the point is real enough,” he said, “and it’s old.”

“Mississippian?” I asked.

“Times ten.” Bobby paused like he was dredging up the courage to say more. “That’s fifteen thousand years.”

I lay the knife on his table. He had been keeping it in a wooden box with a velvet lining. Though I no longer held it, the electrons still flowed.

“Pre-Clovis,” Bobby said.

Clovis points are the most delicately worked points from antiquity, from a late Ice Age people who hunted mammoths, mastodons, and elk in the very shadows of retreating glaciers.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as Pre-Clovis,” I said.

“Well, you’re looking at it,” Bobby replied. “Something called Taylor Notched.”

“If the point is real, how come they think it’s a fake?”

Bobby picked up the knife and held it in his right hand. “Cause nothing like this has ever been found before. Archeologists are a strange bunch. They try and work a puzzle when nine-tenths of the pieces are gone. They get all itchy when something comes along that don’t fit. One time I showed them a piece of pottery with a perfect outline of a mullet. They called it fake, too, ‘cause there were no Christian Indians.”

“Look at this,” Bobby turned the knife over in his hand. “Bones come in all sizes. This bone came first. See how the stone was knapped to fit the bone.”

I looked and he was right.

“And there’s something else,” he said. “This ain’t a deer bone. The neighbors killed a nice buck just before the weather blew in. I snagged a foreleg just to see what it might take to build a knife like this. Whatever bone this is, it sure ain’t white-tailed deer.”

“What then?”

“I’m not sure.” He paused. “I know it’s not scientific…” his voice trailed off. “But I think it’s cat.”

“Cats are light-boned.”

“Maybe not a saber-tooth. Remember, this country was wetter and colder then.”

“Who were these people? Where did they come from? Where did they go?”

Bobby shrugged. “Nobody knows. They’ve studied their skulls. They didn’t look like Indians. More like Polynesians, more like us” He fondled the knife and closed his eyes.

“I can tell you one thing, this guy didn’t lose this knife. And he didn’t give it up easy.”

We believe in ghosts down here. You could not live here and not believe in them, here where history and prehistory sometimes roll over you like hurricane surf. His words bounced around in my head. We have not given up easy and we never will. We will weather the storms and the tourists, the tax men and the real estate wizards, who seek to work their own kind of magic in this place.

Bobby passed the knife back to me again. “Can you feel it working?”

“Yes,” I said, “I can.” I might not know this man’s genetics, but I knew he was a hunter. And I knew that I hunt because he hunted and right then that was all I needed to know.

“I’m going to send it off,” Bobby said.

“Send it where?”

“To a lab. They will test it for carbon-14.”

I knew something about carbon-14, the radioactive isotope present in all living things. Cosmic rays set it to cooking and when the man or beast or tree dies, the carbon decays at a known rate. Measure the percent of radioactive carbon, and you can get a vague fix on age. But they would have to take a sample.

“It’ll be okay,” Bobby said and pointed to a natural indentation at the bone’s knuckle. “Right here, only half a gram. We can epoxy the hole shut again.”

“No,” I said, “you can’t let them. This could be the most significant find here in twenty years.”

“The most significant find ever. That’s why I got to know. Gonna cost me eight hundred bucks.”

“Gonna put your money where your mouth is?”

“Gonna put my money where my heart is,” he said.

“You just can’t let them drill it,” I said. “You know it’s real. I know it’s real. To hell with what they think!”

But Bobby would send the knife off anyway and the lab sent back a long cipher of a print-out that none of us could quite understand. There was a polite note telling us the bone showed an unusual radiation spike, fallout from the atomic tests back in the ‘50s, it said, when government poisons—strontium 90, plutonium, uranium 235—filtered down upon us all. And since the bone tested modern, and was securely and expertly connected to the point, the point was pronounced fake as well.

The knife created quite a stir in some circles. Everyone talked about it and those who had never seen it, never held it in their hands, joked about it. Eventually, the Department of Natural Resources archeologist got wind of the story and wrote: “It now appears the whole thing is a fake, both point and handle. Whoever found it played a joke or was duped themselves.”

So the experts would have us believe this instead: Fifty or sixty years ago, an unknown flint knapper working on a little island where everybody has known everybody for the last two hundred years, fashioned—in secret—an exquisite Ice Age replica from a bone nobody can identify and cleverly hid it in a slave cemetery among bones washing into the sea.

Bobby and I got together again and pondered all of this over good whiskey. Who was this Ed Peckles and where did he go? I chased him on the internet, found one Ed Peckles serving pizza at a golf tournament, another MIA in Vietnam.

The knife went MIA, too. It was shipped from the lab first class mail, insured for five thousand dollars. Or maybe it was not shipped. But one thing’s for sure, it was gone.

“Shouldn’t never have let it out of your sight,” I said.

“I wanted to know if it was real. Now I do.”

Bobby smiled as he poured us each another dram. The whiskey was getting low and the jug glooped like an old-time percolator fixing to draw prime, like a grouse ready to take wing. And way out on the beach we could hear the surf, trying hard to mumble up another storm.

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ROGER PINCKNEY is the author of five books including The Right Side of the River: Romance, Rage, and Wonder, The Fish Crow Chronicles, and Signs and Wonders. He lives on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, where he weathers storms, natural and otherwise.

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