This here’s my message in a
bottle. It’s gonna be a race to see who’s gonna die first, this phone or me. Looks
like this thing is recording, so when and if somebody finds me, they’ll know
why I’m here. Only person who might know where I am is Cletus, and he ain’t
gonna say nothin’ to nobody.
Best way to begin is to talk
about the Mississippian people. You ever heard of ‘em?
Betcha haven’t. And you probably
call yourself an educated person!
Here in Mississippi and
Crittenden counties even dumb asses know the native peoples that lived by the
river. We live in a particular part of Arkansas. Cross the river in Memphis and
you’ve got tourists, Beale Street, and dry-rub barbecue. But here we walk the
fields and stumble over old Indian potsherds.
Mississippians were the first
folk who grew corn in our part of the US before there was a US. Let’s say 800AD
until the Spanish showed up. Lived by the river and ate well: fish, duck,
squash and beans. They built large towns and were ruled by chiefs who got buried
in mounds with lots of pretty decorated pottery.
And that’s where me and Cletus
come in. Don’t nobody know how and where these Indians lived like Cletus Wright.
Black as the night that fella, and he’s got himself six kids. He gotta hustle
to make a living. His people been workin’ these fields by the river since before
the war between the states, so maybe that’s how he knows every inch of land.
Certainly knows more than all those holier-than-thou archaeologists claiming what
he and I do is bad business. They call it grave-robbin’. I say the opposite.
You see, Cletus finds me pottery
from what’s left of the old burial mounds, and I put it in my museum. We’ve
been working together now going on 25 years, and thanks to me he’s done bought
himself a house and some land. And
thanks to him I got the finest Mississippian collection in the world. Period. That
state archaeological museum over there by Wilson ain’t got nothin’. Plus, at my
museum they get to see real burial mounds. I got two of ‘em right on my
property. You climb up ladders and when
you get to the top you can stare down a hole I dug right to where the skeletons
are. I rigged some lights inside so the people can see ‘em.
Not sure whether it’s the graves
that bothers the archaeologists, or it’s my collection that makes ‘em jealous. Whatever…there’s
I was real generous to that
state archaeologist Dr. Wooters. He came over to study my artifacts…said he was
goin’ to publish ‘em in this or that journal. Instead, he wrote somethin’ nasty
in the Democrat-Gazette. Guess he reckoned me a redneck fool who don’t
read the newspaper. Wrote there was dust
and dead flies in my museum display cases. Well, maybe there are! Bastard
doesn’t realize museum’s my second job after I finish my mail route. I’m a
one-man show, ticket-taker and tour guide.
Maybe ‘cause I don’t have
degrees like him he don’t respect my life teaching about these Mississippian
people. I’ve lived and breathed their history since I was seven years old and
my pap plowed up arrowheads and potsherds by the hundreds. Cletus jokes I’m the
reddest white man he knows!
Then Wooters goes and calls my
burial mound display “ghoulish” or some such nonsense. Embarrasses me in front
of all my neighbors! Me! A tax-payin’ educator! Well, let me tell you Dr.
Wooters, in these United States I get to do with my property what I want. If the
Lord gives me a way of makin’ a little extra money off my land, I’m takin’
Another thing: That pottery ain’t
doing nobody good buried. Worse, those chisel plows and land-levelin’ machines
farmers use around here chewin’ it all up. Even the archaeologists say so. Every
year there’s less and less to dig.
So it was peculiar when Cletus appeared
two nights ago with a head pot. He’d been digging that evening, knees of his
overalls all covered with mud. Cletus now got gray on his temples jes’ like me,
but his gray likely come from havin’ six kids. My gray come from jes’ bein’ old
and livin’ alone.
Now, head pots are the rarest Mississippian
pottery. Most are busted up in some way
‘nother, and I’ve collected a few that are all cracked or missin’ an ear. But this
one’s in perfect shape, still dirty with moist, black earth.
I stand with Cletus in my
doorway lookin’ at the pot, turnin’ it over in my hands. It’s bigger than a
softball and was painted, though now most of the paint’s gone and jes’ its
terra-cotta color remains. It’s a portrait of an old chief. It’s got wrinkle
lines traced on his forehead and under his eyes. They’re five piercing through
each ear, like a display rack for the earrings that must’ve dangled from each
side of his head!
“This thing real?”
Stupid question. I trust Cletus
“Fuckin’ crazy! Where’s you
“Next to 44, jes’ south of
Helena. Road done destroyed the tomb,” he says. “But part of it still there.
Sunk my probe in deep, hit somethin’ solid. Then started diggin’.
Cletus’ probe is an old
automobile antenna. Now and again I come with him. He likes goin’ out at night,
after it rains and the earth is soft. But mostly he jes’ rings my bell nighttime
and if I like what he’s got I pay him cash. It’s a dance we been doin’ for
“Well, well… Cletus, man, this
your lucky day!”
We both know he’s hit the
jackpot, but he don’t look happy. In fact, he look shaken up.
“Probably more there,” he says.
“But I jes’ left it alone. Somethin’ didn’t feel right.”
He must be jokin’ me. Cletus
Wright, pass up a loaded tomb? Never!
“What’s wrong with you Cletus?
Think that burial has a hoodoo curse?”
smilin’ at him and even through his dark
skin I can see him blush.
“Nah…I’m jes’ not goin’
“Well alright. That’s your call.
What you want for it?”
He don’t wanna bargain. He’s
makin’ like he jes’ wanna unload the piece. Strange. I go to the strong box
under my bed and return with $5000 cash. Now I know you thinkin’ that’s a lot
of money for a postman to have lyin’ around but let me tell you this: I live
simple. My house is nothin’ but an overgrown trailer. Cletus’ house is bigger
and nicer than mine. And anythin’ less than $5000 for this pot would be
robbery. He knows it and so do I. I don’t want to mess up a good business
relationship by bein’ cheap.
Cletus gets in his truck and
I can’t believe this perfect
head pot is sittin’ right here on my kitchen table.
Incredible. It’s like it’s got a
life of its own! I don’t wanna touch my old chief. So, I jes’ let him sit
there, right where I eat breakfast every mornin’. And I imagine his little slit
eyes watchin’ me, and his little bump nose breathin’. It’s like havin’ a little
friend around, so I talk to him. Crazy, I know, but nobody’s around and it’s
what I feel like doin’. It’s how we become acquainted.
I don’t move it over to the
museum, even though I keep everythin’ there. This pot I want for myself. And it
sits on my kitchen table until one late Monday afternoon, not two weeks from when
I bought it from Cletus, I get a knock at my door. And who’s standing there but
some slim little man jes’ a hair over five feet tall. He’s dark complexioned,
has long, straight jet-black hair braided into a ponytail.
the fella with that beautiful head
pot…the one Cletus sold you?”
How he know this? Cletus don’t
go blabbing our business, that’s for sure.
“Well, if I am, what’s it to
you?” This little brown man’s freakin’ me out. He talks like we do ‘round here,
but I’ve never seen him before.
“I can see the pot right there
on your table,” he says. “Glad it’s safe. But you and Cletus gotta put it back
where you found it.”
“Who’re you?” I ask. “Somebody
from the government?”
“Oh no!” He shakes his head. “Jes’
a neighbor. We’ve never met, but I’ve lived here all my life.”
“You tellin’ me you been livin’
here and I don’t know you? Impossible. I know all the white and black folk ‘round
“I’m neither,” he says, smilin’.
“Like I said, I’ve always been here, and you jes’ never seen me!”
If he lives ‘round here I would’ve
seen him. He looks different from everyone, would’ve stuck out! The man’s
wearing a neat khaki unform like he some sort of repairman or work for a
national company. He’s younger than me and Cletus, but I can jes’ see crow’s
feet at the corners of his eyes.
“Why you want me to return the
“’Cause it ain’t yours. Belongs
a chief dead 800 years.”
“How you know?”
“I know lots of things.” He’s
my gaze nice and steady.
“Well maybe that’s true. But I
got lots of stuff in my museum belonged to chiefs. Why you care about this
“‘Cause I think you know it’s
got power. ‘Cause it belonged to the most important Mississippian chief. ‘Cause
certain things need to stay buried.”
“Aw c’mon man,” I say, waving
hand. “You an’ Cletus fillin’ my ear full of hoodoo shit. What’s goin’ on? This
a great piece. People deserve to see it.”
“But you ain’t showin’ it!”
says. “You don’t wanna show it. ‘Cause you’re feelin’ something different, same
“How you know Cletus?”
“Like I said, I know lots of
I’ve about had enough of this,
tired of him not telling me how he know what he know.
“Look…appreciate you comin’
‘round. Appreciate your advice. Let me do some thinkin,’ talk to Cletus.
“I know you gonna do the right
thing,” he says. “You have yourself a good day.” He makes a little bow and
walks away. I can’t see a car parked anywhere. He jes’ walks out my driveway
and onto the state road.
So after that I call Cletus. No
surprises there. Cletus ain’t never seen a little brown man. Cletus not spoken
to anyone about the pot. Cletus feelin’ strange about the pot. Then I ask him
where precisely he found it. He says jes’ after the mile marker on 44 headin’
into Helena. I tell him I’m goin’ over there to check it out. He says go ahead
but says he ain’t comin’. I goof with him and tell him he’s chickenshit. He
I ain’t too keen to go stompin’
on state land in broad daylight, even though most of the traffic on the road is
tractors. Like I said, I know everyone around here and the one thing everyone
have in common is they nosey. They see you and they wanna come ask what you
doin’ and why you doin’ it. So, I aim to go at night. But that means other
problems: I’m gonna need to use my high beams and flashlight to check the place
Simple curiosity drivin’ me. Why
everyone freakin’ out about this head pot? Damn thing feels different,
like it livin’ and
breathing. I got nothin’ like it over at the museum. Except I still ain’t put
it in the museum. Little brown man is right: I’m not puttin’ it there.
You see, these relics is all I
got in the world, a little slice of ownership of this place. Every day I see
evidence Indians were here, so every day I live the past. And by now I feel
Well, a day later I’m drivin’ in
my old Ford pickup on 44 at nine-thirty in the evening. It’s a black, black
night. No moonlight, the crickets soundin’ like they some loud, drunk
orchestra. I pass the mile marker and pull over onto the shoulder, which isn’t
much on these state roads. Forty-four is a raised up about four-five feet on
this stretch, so my truck is leanin’ a bit. I cut the engine but keep the high
beams burnin’ and snap on my flashlight. I stumble down the incline into a
field overgrown with Leadplant and walk maybe 100 yards by the side of the
road. I can see up ahead where Cletus been diggin’.
I pass my flashlight over the
holes. Cletus went at this place like a gopher. There’s earth and lots of
potsherds everywhere in a semi-circular area stretching about 30 feet from the
road. I start feeling a little stupid, like I jes’ wasting my time out here in
the dark staring at holes. But I see a big hole in the center and a way of walking
around the other pits to get to it. I want to see what’s inside that big hole. So,
I make my way, careful as I can. This here tomb is way bigger than those I got
on my property.
I’m getting’ closer, but then
the ground gives out under me. I must fall 10 or 15 feet into the ground. I
hear this low woosh sound of movin’ earth and I feel it coverin’ my body like
some kid bein’ buried in sand at the beach. It don’t feel that bad, to be
truthful. The earth is heavy on my body, but not too heavy. Sort of like a
I must be in some sort of air pocket ‘cause I’m still
breathin’. Ain’t much space to move and the oxygen’s gonna run out soon. I can
pull out my cell phone. I try callin’ Cletus but there’s no reception under 10
feet of earth. Flashlight app’s workin’
though. I’m in the old chief’s burial chamber, and he’s laid out right next to
me, like we husband and wife settlin’ in for a long sleep. His bones are shiny
and white, jes’ like the skeletons in the burials at my museum. And he feels
familiar ‘cause we’ve met before, and I know what he looked like.
Harrington's fiction has appeared in The Nonconformist, Night Picnic, The Lowestoft Chronicle, and Pangyrus.