Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Them Bones: The Poison Serenade

Them Bones, 74-78, 89-90, 97-98:

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

First contact, again.

Madison’s separated Army companions finally meet some of the inhabitants of the era into which they have traveled. A party of Indians, drawn to the soldiers' camp by "Moonlight Serenade" (they call the newcomers "the Music People,") has come in to say a cautious hello. Warrant Officer Smith, who is keeping a diary of the time travelers’ experiences, tells us that “they don’t look like movie Indians.” They wear abundant tattoos, of animals and lightning bolts and more dangerous-looking images; some wear large ear spools, while a few have flattened heads, the result of head binding as infants (a common practice among some southeastern Indians). Smith and CIA officer Splevins determine that the visitors belong to a “proto-Muskogean” confederacy of villages, each led by a Sun Man, with a “Sun King” presiding over the whole. They farm, build large temple mounds, and have a small “death cult” within their larger Sun-oriented religion. In short, they strongly resemble Took-His-Time’s people. There are some subtle differences: these Native Americans have no contact with mysterious “Traders,” none speak Greek, and as far as we know none have met mammoths. Splevins believes that his company has traveled to the pre-Columbian past, but a different past than the one Leake fell into.

Finding themselves at least 400 years* further back in time than planned, the company’s officers decide to prepare a contingency plan, and task Smith and one Specialist Kilroy with the first draft. We remember that Waldrop served as a draftee in the U.S. Army, and acquired considerable familiarity with its foibles, its bureaucratization and tendency to pile dirty jobs on middle management. Kilroy has taken a lot of officerial chickenshit in his time, and he refuses to take the order very seriously, drinking and flirting with Smith while asking when, between “bunker guard and shitburning detail,” he’ll have time to work on the report. Smith expresses similar pessimism: 

"What are we supposed to do, kidnap Indian kids, brainwash ‘em, set up an operation that will elect Stevenson instead of Eisenhower in ‘52?"

Perhaps so.

Relations with the Mississippian Indians remain friendly for a few days, but when Smith writes her next journal entry she reports dire news: an epidemic has broken out in the nearest village. Three people have died from an illness characterized by fever and “running bloody noses,” and many others have fallen sick. The survivors have fled in haste, not even stopping for a proper burial. Smith notes that she and her companions received multiple vaccinations before leaving 2002, but someone might have brought an infection to which the indigenes lacked immunity. (The symptoms suggest influenza but could indicate a number of respiratory illnesses.) Nothing much happens in the Army camp for the next couple of weeks, but the silence is ghostly and apprehensive. What will come of the newcomers’ contagion none can really say, but we doubt it will lead to a good end.    

Coming next: the expedition to Pipe Hill.

* That is, no later than the 1530s, before De Soto’s entrada. Waldrop is pretty careful with his chronology.

(Image above is a 1735 drawing of the Creek chief Tomochichi and his son.)

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