Finally the plane shot free of the clouds into a harsh dazzle of sunlight, and I took a deep breath, squinting past the wing’s edge.
Islands scattered below, lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The shapes varied — long, short, angular, smoothly rounded, or bent and twisted — but they were all the color of yellowed parchment edged with the deceptive white lace of waves breaking on hidden reefs. Midday sunlight flattened the Caribbean to the two dimensions of an antique map.
I leaned closer to the window. My fingers itched to pluck those cookie-cuttered pieces off the turquoise sea and fit them into a coherent picture. Read their tales of hurricanes, sacrifices to greedy gods pagan and Christian, waves of pillage and pestilence. Did our histories make us what we were? Only flotsam driven by the wind?
An anthropologist wasn’t supposed to ask melodramatic questions, just observe. Island after island, they slid off toward the horizon. Hieroglyphs, spelling out a secret message, slipping away before I could translate it.
But I was going to break the code. My research grant was my ticket, and the petroglyphs would give me the breakthrough I needed.
“Right.” Tom Farber had chuckled when he ran into me outside his Philosophy 101 classroom and joined me to wend our way through drifts of fallen maple leaves and bewildered freshmen. He’d squinted at the dog-eared photo I passed him of the boulder with its ancient carved designs. “Truth is one slippery bugger, so don’t get too obsessed with this. I heard about your run-in with the Anthro Chair. You didn’t accuse him of fossilized thinking in front of all the committee members?”
“Right before God and the committee.”
He rolled his eyes. “Still the precocious windmill-tilter of the department.”
“No one’s precocious at thirty.” My chin lifted. “Maybe they need their cozy little cages rattled.”
Or was I the one who’d gotten too snug in my teaching position? After I’d broken all the rules by heading solo into the field with my camping gear and almost-PhD, mapping lost Pacific Northwest petroglyphs and documenting indigenous subsistence skills by living them with the help of native elders. That old-fashioned brand of hands-on anthropology was considered suspect by the current academy.
“So maybe you don’t blink an eye at cougars and bears and chewing salmonberries and raw whale blubber with your Eskimo cohorts up in the wilderness, but I’m telling you the thorny thickets of academia can be deadly. You’d better work on your survival skills. Like diplomacy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tsimshian, not Eskimo. And they don’t chew whale blubber.”
“Avoiding the issue, Susan?” He tsked. “And now you’re going out on a limb with this pre-Columbus contact theory. Why?”
I’d only shrugged as he handed back the snapshot John had sent in his frantic letter from the Caribbean.
John. Like those islands spinning with the globe below the plane, he always came around again. If my colleagues inside the ivy-covered halls had known the petroglyph photo was from John, they’d have accused me of worse than radical theories. Dr. Susan Dunne, guilty! The ultimate academic sin: allowing emotional factors to influence a scholarly thesis.
Not true. I was a professional anthropologist, trained to look past personal issues to see the big picture. John was not going to interfere with my research.
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