Archway – Short Story

Archway, by Erik Christensen and John Newsom
(previously published in Fall 2016 Issue of Poplorish Magazine)

As she climbed the bare rock slope toward its rugged crest, she wondered if this time they would find what they sought. Reaching the top, she paused, caught by the grandeur of the scene. Ahead of her, in the far distance, mountains sat impassively, their rounded peaks flecked with lingering snow, and closer in, her gaze followed the course of a long valley of red rocks that lead towards her from the far left. The ridge on which she stood framed one side of the shallow depression in which the valley ended. On the opposite side–she froze, noticing the impossible shape. In the foreground, perched at the very edge of this little bowl, loomed a solitary, copper-colored arch of stone. But what an arch! One pillar had been thinned down to a point one could reach around, and seemed to support that side quite precariously. But it held firm. Had the rock melted unevenly in some past eruption? Or had there been some erosive action at work? Judging from the stratification of the stone, this partial window of rock had maintained itself perfectly in balance for millennia. Neither the survey maps nor the aerial photos had given any hint of the true nature of this landscape.

Her team now stood behind her and were also transfixed, enveloped by the dramatic interplay between the dizzying spaces and the specific landform of the arch. A moment of pure stillness. A light breeze stirring the dust covered ground. Finally, the crunch of heavy bags and equipment being put down.

We camp here, she said quietly, regaining control of herself. As the newly appointed leader of this archeological survey, she needed to show her team that she could be decisive in the face of strangeness. She motioned to the more sheltered side of the bowl and the momentarily stilled figures came to life, picked up all the gear, and slowly descended the few steps to the surface of the long shelf above the bowl. As if honoring the eerie silence, they made little noise as they set up the domes of their camp.

Later, as she lay outside against the hard ground seeking sleep, she stared up at the constellations. When she turned a little to one side, she could see the dark shadow of the arch obscuring a few billion stars. Was this portal a sign that their search was nearing its conclusion? It was not the anomaly she had spotted in the images. The formation she had seen in the tortured tangle of flat-topped hills and ravines was much larger, only visible from above. But to find this. It was too close to home. She forced herself to keep her expectations modest. So many leads had led nowhere.

At dawn, they made their way down into the bowl of the valley, their goal the unusual U-shaped hill that formed the other side of the concavity. Her assistant had suggested that the hollowed out portion in the crook of the hill was a likely entrance to what they hoped was the structure beneath.

For a week they worked to carefully remove the layers of debris. They had to blast away the hard packed ash fall that covered the actual hillside itself. Rocks, pebbles, and ash also kept sliding down the upper slopes. It’s a good thing we had the earth movers available, she thought, at the end of one wearying day. The weather hadn’t been cooperative either, cold slanting rain that turned the ash into a slimy substance hindering all movement. Finally, they broke through the last sandstone barrier, and were rewarded with a pungent odor that hissed out of the opening. She recoiled a little, then realized it was another sign they were on the right track.

She motioned the diggers to widen the opening enough for entry. She was not surprised by what they found. It had been a small settlement, with only a few chambers. The bones indicated a few dozen inhabitants. Most of the skeletons were piled neatly in the corner of one of the caves. The rest of the enclosed space contained only the detritus of suffering and extinction. In a narrow alcove toward the rear of the complex, she found what she was looking for.

Crumpled over a small metal table sat a skeleton, still dressed in decaying leather garments, finely decorated with elaborate beadwork. A rusting lantern lay on its side, the glass chimney cracked. From the fall, she thought. There was also a small book, held open by a skeletal hand. She gestured to one of the crew to bring up a more powerful light source. She peered down, satisfied. Very carefully she slid the bony fingers off the page. A writing implement rolled away onto the table. Scrawled text covered all but a small portion of both open pages. Excellent. She blew on the page. It rustled, demonstrating that the paper had not lost any of its integrity. However, many pages appeared to have been ripped out, leaving only the early leaves and some later ones. This was discouraging. She hoped nothing of critical value had been lost. She gingerly lifted one cover, closed the book, and deposited it into an evidence bag. This was the real prize if it proved the end of their search.

Back at camp, she put the decoders to work on the text. They had found similar artifacts, and most had been simple to decipher. This too was language meant to be read, not hidden. By the next day, the translation was complete. It took her several hours to read through the narrative, since some of the words were strange, and she had to struggle within the context to guess at their meaning. But the gist was clear enough. Here was a chronicle of the final days of this settlement, and the best depiction so far of the rapid series of cataclysms that had led to its demise. She took images of the most pertinent sections. The journal began with a brief overview.

Arches National Resettlement Center, July, 2025

We have come here in the hope that we can eke out a living until the atmospheric disturbances have settled down. This is one of the few areas that escaped the major calamities, although even here the ash fall was substantial. The lovely reddish brown sandstone has turned grey and ugly, and I am glad we are safe in our cave dwelling. But I get ahead of myself!

I am setting down this account for the future, if there is one. Who am I? I am Hastin Hayoi, of the Diné, the Navajo people. I write in our language, so that I may use the proper terms to describe the terrible events of this year. Two years ago I was professor of Geology at the University of Albuquerque, living a comfortable if somewhat mundane life. I had followed the White Man’s ways, and as a scientist had little interest or faith in the old tales of my people. But now I have seen that I had followed a false road! Where to begin? How to portray the vengeance (I know of no other word) that Mother Earth and Sky Father have visited upon us, The Surface People?

I suppose it started a few years back, when across the world men and women came to power who had no love for the land, or for each other. A long but unstable peace broke down, and nations saw only their own self-interest. Governments worked for the large multi-national corporations who had little use for long term thinking. Drilling and digging. Dismantling the costly health and infrastructure services so the rich could keep even more of their wealth. In hindsight it is all too easy to see how this paved the way for what came next: a global outbreak of a super virus for which we had no counter. Research labs had been shuttered, and even science as we had known it had come under increasing attack. So we had to rely on our own overwhelmed immune systems, and many many died.

Just as the world began to stagger out from underneath this tragedy, the sun [text here is blurred and indecipherable] coordination of recovery efforts came to a halt. More dead as resources could not be brought to where they were needed. But the worst was still in store. A meteor struck near Yellowstone Park, triggering a massive eruption of the supervolcano that lay underneath the Wyoming plateau. A series of related earthquakes leveled large parts of the midwest and west coast. Our gods are angry at us, and we have paid the price. The White Man’s Bible describes a flood that was supposed to cleanse the earth of wickedness. But at least there was hope that human beings would survive. Now, I have little hope. Maybe somewhere in Asia, or in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, people are rebuilding our civilization. I do not know. There is no way to get news. No radio. No television. No Internet. No telephones. Not even [text following is blurred and undecipherable]

October 2025

It has been a month since my last entry. The news I have to report is [rest of page is missing, along with several following pages]
[text begins toward the bottom of this page fragment] in this cave are all that is left of the proud Diné. And our numbers dwindle. I have stood by, helpless, as friends and distant relatives have died of preventable diseases. Malnutrition has [rest of page is torn out]

November, 2025.

I fear that this is the end. I alone am still alive, surrounded by the dead. We were attacked by scavengers and mad men, who murdered many before they were overcome. Even this book was ravaged for its paper. Our food supply was ruined, and the little water that was left has kept me alive until now. Soon I will go to the spirit world. I am not afraid, for the Diné have been faithful to the end. [Here the journal ends.]

The light was falling, and as she stepped outside from her makeshift dome, she could see the other small domes from their camp becoming silhouetted against the glow on the horizon. She lit the main lantern at the center of the encampment, and sat down in its soft illumination. Leaning back, she gazed towards the cradle of rock that encircled them, looked again at the silent, fragile arch, and then raised her sights higher up to contemplate the endless scatter of stars in their quiet vigil. Soon, she assured herself. This place had been the final possibility.

The next morning, she left her team with a few instructions and headed down by herself into the valley to take a last tour around the site. Each body had been labeled and encoded, and all the artifacts had been marked and cataloged for future retrieval. Their work was finished. Ultimately, it had been conclusive.

By the time she returned again to the camp, the last of the mobile dwellings had been taken down. She examined the ground carefully for traces of their presence. The team had made sure there were none. She did enjoy competence, especially in such fraught times. Besides, the next rainfall would wash away the slightest anomaly.

Hers was the last survey team to report back to the Council of Leaders, and there could now be no more doubt. Time to return. She walked up to the crest of the ridge and looked down the other side to where the vehicles were parked. The rounded metal shapes glistened in the afternoon sun. Beyond them thunderheads constructed their intricate looming towers. She stared back at the arch and noticed with a shudder of recognition that it now reflected with patient fire the violent colors of her own aging sun.

This planet, though, with its young star, will make a good home.