Friday, October 30, 2015

Nyuck Nyuck Nyuck

Them Bones, pages 10-25, continued

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Our main man, Madison Yazoo Leake, having passed through a time portal at the beginning of this chapter, finds himself separated from his Army companions and much further in the past than he had planned. Setting out, after several days of fruitless waiting, for the site of Baton Rouge, he is bathing in a stream (cleaning off several days of dirt and passenger pigeon poo) when a group of local people happen upon him.

The encounter, like so many first encounters between very different people, goes poorly. The three men who stumble upon Leake are obviously indigenous Americans, as their breachcloths, adornments, bows, and facial tattoos indicate. Their hairstyles remind Madison of the Three Stooges, so he names them Moe, Larry, and Curly, giving an air of absurdity to what becomes an anti-climactic exchange.

The three travelers are startled by Leake, and more so by his horse. They try to communicate with him by repeating simple stock phrases: "Nah Sue Day Ho" and "Cue Way No Hay." I don't know from what Native American language Waldrop borrowed these sentences, and Leake doesn't know either; the only non-English languages he speaks are Spanish and Greek, the latter learned during the Cyprus War. He tries English and Spanish greetings out on Moe and Co., then tries gestures, and at last, worried that one of them will hurt his horse, fires a warning shot. The carbine shot does not startle the Indians - perhaps they have heard such weapons before? - and with an air of disappointment, Moe says a short closing phrase ("Ah muy nu-ho") and he and his companions depart.

Waldrop did well to make this encounter disappointing but non-threatening. Leake now has an incentive to follow the Three Amerindian Stooges, and he trails them back to their village. This proves a small town near the Mississippi River, with a palisade enclosing fifty houses and two high mounds. A building, probably a temple, surmounts one of the mounds. Outside of the settlement stand fields of beans and corn, planted in rows. This is an unrealistic detail, by the way; Native Americans generally planted different crops together on raised hillocks, to avoid soil  depletion. Waldrop did get the crops themselves right.

It appears that the inhabitants are expecting M.Y.L. Nearly all of them have taken shelter inside the town palisade, watching Leake approach with their spears handy. One Indian man, however, remains out in the fields to welcome the stranger. He is simply dressed, has no tattoos and only one small earring as adornment, and is carving some sort of stone with - another anachronistic detail - a metal blade. The anachronism, I suspect, was one Waldrop intentionally included. The greeting is obviously an odd person, not only in appearance and disposition, but also in how he greets Leake: not in an indigenous American dialect, but in one of the languages Leake knows, the one he learned in Cyprus.*

Coming next: Warrant Officer Smith reports.

(Above image courtesy of the National Park Service:

* The greeting was most likely "Chairete," the Greek word for hello.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Storm of Pigeons

Them Bones, 10-25:

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Madison Leake, the viewpoint character for much of Waldrop's novel, first appears on the stage leading a horse through a time portal, from the war-ravaged future (the early twenty-first century) to the relatively undamaged past. He stumbles at the outset, landing with his horse in a meadow several unexpected inches below their old datum level. Leake expects to arrive sometime in the mid-twentieth century, right before construction began on the military base from which he and his human companions would later depart. He expects his 140 well-armed colleagues and their horses and gear to arrive shortly. He at least expects the landscape to look the same as it did back home, with some evidence of human habitation and a bayou nearby. (He finds neither.)

Leake doesn't expect a great roaring cloud to come out of the south, traveling at 60 miles per hour. He initially fears it is a tornado, but quickly realizes the cloud is a massive flock of birds, a kilometer wide and 120 miles long. They fly overhead for more than two hours, filling the sky with sound and covering the ground below – and Madison – with bird poop, thick as snow. And Leake realizes something has gone very wrong with his time-travel jaunt. The birds are passenger pigeons, extinct since 1914, and no-one has seen a flock this large since the nineteenth century.

Good for Waldrop, by the way, for including this detail in his book. Few people realize the density of wildlife in pre-Columbian North America, a feature Waldrop underscores later in the chapter when Leake, exploring a bit, sees countless deer, small mammals, and several other species of birds. No author writing about the passenger pigeon, incidentally, has reflected on the experience of standing beneath one or two billion of them (not an uncommon number in their heyday). Leake realizes he will need a bath fairly soon, and so will the other members of his Special Group, if they ever show up.

They don't.

Madison supposes he would find his separation from his team more alarming if he hadn't already seen some harrowing things, first in the Cyprus War (1992 – the author's near future) and then in the nuclear war that destroyed his world. But after waiting four days near the time portal exit, and deciding then to search for his companions at an alternate location (Baton Rouge), the scout heads eastward and finds something that does rattle him: the Suckatoncha Bayou, which has flowed southeastward since La Salle's day (1680), is “presently” flowing due eastward. Bayous flow slowly, and take centuries to shift their course. Madison Leake has accidentally traveled very deep into the past – not to 1942 as planned, nor to the 1880s, but several hundred years further back. Whoops.

After so many shocks, Madison seems unfazed when, a few days later, he comes across a human footprint, or more precisely moccasin-print. Not his own people*, apparently, but American Indians.

Coming next: is it Moe, Larry, and Curly, or Manny, Moe, and Jack?

* A relative term here. Leake tells us he has Choctaw and Chickasaw ancestors and appears phenotypically Indian himself, but notes that his own predecessors assimilated into the American mainstream in the nineteenth century. He himself speaks no Native languages.