Tatukin removed his ceremonious headdress and bowed his sloped forehead, dipping his flamboyantly dyed robe and tightly dyed knits into the biting sterile scent of this blanketing spring snowfall. His breath wafted away as a ghostly mist as he spoke. “The chief medicine man of the Wappinger Nation is one so very young.”
“It is not for intruders to question any leader along this mighty Muhheakantuk River,” Chief Wiccopee replied boldly, sporting a stitched layer of monotonous fallow deerskin draped by a grizzly fur cape. He clutched the thin tie of cardinal red and blue jay feathers dangling from his neck. “I apprenticed under Chief Mahopac, premier sachem of our entire Algonquian Confederacy.”
“I meant no disrespect,” Tatukin countered wisely. “Please understand that to a man of my fifty solar cycles, the leaders encountered along our long and arduous journey have naturally grown younger. My message is one of peace to all indigenous people of our two great continents: a warning of an impending, and yet to you and me, a very distant disaster. We ask simply to deliver this dire prediction and then be granted a safe return to the warmth of our central homeland. I had eleven grandchildren when I departed, and hope to rejoice with many more. Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to describe the the wondrous chiefdoms encountered on my laborious trek.”
Wiccopee eyed the two-dozen young men standing at attention behind Tatukin. They were all large, healthy and athletic. Each carried strange, gordlike clubs and sported oversized copper knives hanging from thick waist sashes. Like Tatukin, they wore tightly weaved, exotically colored costumes tailored by artisans in a faraway land, though Wiccopee recognized their insulating leather leggings and coonskin caps as Delaware Native trade goods--Lenape, who like Wappinger spoke a Mahican dialect. Wiccopee gestured with authority. “Why bring warriors to deliver a peaceful tiding?”
“I am emissary to King Baakal, most revered Maya leader of the perpetually green lands to the temperate south--gatekeeper to this hemisphere’s two vast continents and bordering oceans. My entourage is over two hundred strong, with most waiting patiently outside your village walls at your sentries’ request. They exist only to protect me on this unfamiliar march, and to ensure my safe return so that I may report directly to our waiting Emperor. Any of them will gladly forfeit their lives for me at a mere command.”
This strangely fashioned man is indeed respected in his distant domain, Wiccopee pondered to himself. Yet is he testing my willingness to accept a challenge for our top warrior? A duel to the finish? His words do resemble the wild ritual challenges of the Mohicans and Iroquois inhabiting our north, south and west.
Tatukin swept his open palm backward. “If you are compelled, I beckon you to choose any of my bodyguards for a small demonstration of their unflagging devotion to our cause.”
Wiccopee cognized that win or lose, his swift selection would convey supreme decisiveness, his ominous advantage in number incontestable. He examined Tatukin’s men and astutely pointed to one bronzed-skin sentinel standing motionless in the second row.
The young escort eagerly stepped forward and removed his coonskin cap. He withdrew his knife and knelt before Tatukin, bowing his sloped head. “Thank you, Lord. My spirit thanks you for this divine privilege.”
Before him, a lineup of anxious Wappinger braves gripped their razor-sharp flint tomahawks and readied for mortal, one-on-one combat.
Then most unpredictably, Tatukin pivoted away and pointed to five other bodyguards, who promptly stepped forward and grabbed the kneeling warrior’s arms and legs. Tatukin then seized the captive’s copper blade and uttered a short prayer before swiping its glistening edge downward, slicing through the sacrificial soldier’s chest and opening his prime muscle. The steady nobleman retreated to expose a crimson and purple heart pounding frantically in its cavity, the pristine white snow at his buckling knees dripping into a puddling, brilliant red. A moment later, Tatukin again lunged forward and employed three skillful slices before gripping the warrior's beating heart in his bare hand, his bronzed victim writhing and grunting as the pulsating mass was ripped from any lingering tethers. Tatukin held the heart up high to the blue sky.
Tatukin turned his pink and teary eyes to Wiccopee. He held out the drubbing muscle, steam rising from it in the unforgiving cold, arrhythmic pulses pounding livelier and stronger as its former body collapsed flaccidly into the red and white snow. “I offer you this warrior’s spirit as proof that our mission is peaceful. He was one of my seven sons, and indeed a favorite." His voice shivered as he bowed his head. "I have instructed my remaining entourage to surrender to your people without struggle if Chief Wiccopee is still unconvinced of our sincerity.”
Wiccopee regretted this human sacrifice for mere demonstration, yet absorbed the need for intense personal forfeit in times of ultimate crisis. He questioned with awe. “You represent the fabled architects of the limestone stairways to heaven of lore? Such mountainous palaces are indeed real?”
Tatukin nodded. “I see that your mentor Chief Mahopac was indeed a very learned shaman. Yes, I have hiked for over five solar cycles from such a place, and testify with my life that the monumental pyramids do indeed exist.”
Wiccopee asked reverently. “And the interlocking stone wheels that predict the movements of the heavens? These magnificent cogwheels actually grace the fabled cities of the Great Blue Gulf?”
Tatukin smiled with pride. “Preserved from ancient cultures swallowed ages ago by our enduring jungles. These circular stone calendars are the very reason I travel to this frigid northern land, for they will be smashed and ground into sand by my waiting citizens if I do not return--their true significance lost to time. I thus ask a special burden of you and your people.”
“My people? But there are many mightier tribes that grace this brinish waterway that flows both ways.”
Tatukin assessed several neat rows of log cabins: dozens of long, wooden apartments housing forty citizens apiece, and said admirably, “Your dwellings are by no measure mere hide tents. And you are the only northern tribe inclined to construct tall timber palisades to surround and protect your villages. Your avenues are also well organized, unlike the nomadic campgrounds of your neighbors, extending far outside this central village and long past your tribe’s wigwam settlements. I even understand that your people oversee a path stretching over three-hundred miles from the fertile island of Manahata to our south and up to the Five Giant Fresh Lakes demarking the icy northern abyss. You and yours will better understand the imposing task at hand. Do you have access to the highlands rising approximately a two-day hike eastward as the crow flies?”
“This powerful creek named for my people collects many fertile tributaries before gushing into this tidal Muhheakantuk River,” Wiccopee offered proudly. “Wappinger oversee most of these eastern woodlands, all the way to the salty shore, with outlying residences which I assure you are anything but simple. Our tepees can be moved in minutes, by woman and children, yet they keep entire families comfortable throughout the bitterest of winter nights.”
Tatukin bowed gracefully. “Again, I meant no disrespect, and wish only to sit in peace and deliver our exclusive gift. Kindly allow my remaining bodyguards free passage to wait outside your palisades for me, where they will surrender their weapons as further collateral until we depart.”
Wiccopee felt the agony of this noble messenger’s touching sacrifice. “I trust you, friend. Return your brave’s heart to his body, and treat him with respect.” He nodded to several aides. “Secure their weapons for safe return when they leave, and see that their people are comfortable, with stitched beaver shawls and plenty to eat for all.”
The aides dispatched promptly.
Wiccopee continued. “This merging of waterways affords my people not only replenishing fish and shellfish, but bountiful inland cultivations of squash, beans and maize--preserved year round in underground cellars. Our deep forests are also rich in trapping and hunting--venison, bear, and turkey abundant. We will appease your personal tastes. You may choose your three finest men to keep here with you, whom I will allow unrestricted passage to your waiting entourage--personal couriers of your safety and comfort. You are my guest.”
Tatukin made his selection, after which Wiccopee signaled that the three chosen bodyguards should retain their armaments.
Hours later in the dark, three blaring orange bonfires crackled in large circular pits excavated into the village’s main courtyard. A collage of observant elders gathered on the encompassing slopes to watch and listen.
Tatukin presented Wiccopee with a twelve-inch-long, rectangular, granadillo-wood box. He slid a secret latch and opened three internally hinged panels, exposing a finely crafted onyx sculpture. It was a model of a man sitting and staring into a torso-sized, convex disk.
Wiccopee studied the magnificent carving and asked, “And this polished crystal platter waiting outside our gate, when set in its granite holder as this prototype demonstrates, will magically reveal your grim secret to any person who gazes into it?”
Tatukin manipulated his teak pointer and tapped the sculpture’s miniature head. “Precisely. But not for another four hundred years, and only one nearby locale. At such a time, I’m afraid to say, when neither of our peoples, nor any of our indigenous enemies, will preside over our own ancestral homelands.”
“And what does my noble visitor imply by this grim prophecy?”
“As we speak, invaders from a far-away land, crafty navigators of the perilous ocean void to our east, infiltrate our half of this brilliant blue marble in the heavens. They are a crude and dirty lot, yet somehow gifted in innovation. Pale-faced with bearish beards, these hairy ogres nonetheless master the boundless saltwater swales with the finest crafts and most advanced instruments imaginable.”
Wiccopee retorted, "The Cherokee to our South and the cod-fishing Wampanoag on the hooked-Eastern Cape have traded with such aliens for generations, my friend. But we Wappinger have only recently seen their steepled linen sails gliding up our mighty river. Just a few seasons past, a pinkish, smelly and surly explorer, calling himself Hudson, spent one day and night with us, referring to his creaking wooden fowl as the Dutch Half Moon.”
“I did not believe these swine had ventured this far north already,” Tatukin replied sadly. “Yet as I have said, they are an innovative lot. Regardless, their habitual filth has delivered devastating disease and pestilence to my people, scourges to which they are somehow immune. Even more fearsome on the battlefield, they tote flashing thundersticks that magically fell attackers from several hundred feet away, and charge and retreat upon robust, yet incredibly swift and tireless antelopelike creatures obeying their every command, alien and magnificent beasts called horses. Their swords are also modern marvels, forged from steel, a most durable alloy unknown to any metallurgist of our hemisphere.”
Wiccopee gazed at the onyx model pasted inside the open box and sadly bowed his head. “So, you travel all this way to relate that we must hide this miraculous disk for the progenies of these furry invaders to unearth?”
“It is something we fear inevitable. A sacrifice our peoples are compelled to suffer for all humanity’s sake. Our blood will intermingle, so it is not an unmitigated loss, but unfortunately, it appears that only the unflagging ingenuity of these greedy newcomers might one day harness the power needed to overcome this otherwise unstoppable cataclysm.”
“And the far-spreading network of fieldstone walls we are to construct on our lands,” Wiccopee requested humbly, pointing to a map spread on the dirt before him, “must endure centuries of untold turmoil, yet will somehow expose this grim secret to humanity’s distant descendants?”
“Exactly why I trust your judgment in assisting us with this noble deed,” Tatukin said, his words reaching deep. “For if I did not believe you and your people capable, I would journey to this nearby locale and attempt to construct the heart of these stone directionals unassisted. If we do not, our entire planet, and thus all of our children, may one day revert to an insignificant puff of brimstone and cosmic dust.”
Wiccopee lifted the onyx model and studied its unparalleled artisanship. He closed the granadillo-wood box and engaged its clandestine lock, reluctantly nodding his cooperation.
Jeb Robinson rubbed his muddy hands along his sweaty denim overalls and aimed a piercing blue gaze up to the crest of the open field he worked. Upon the horizon, he noticed the silhouette of a young woman sitting on a horse and spying on him from behind a row of shaded oak and chestnut trunks.
Jeb snapped his frayed leather reigns and shouted, “One more Bessie. . . . Just one more tug on this heavy iron plow and I promise it’ll be the last dig for today.” He braced and flexed his tapered muscles to apply the proper leverage.
Bessie whinnied and gave it all she had.
The stump’s roots finally cracked. . . . Loudly!
Jeb wiped salty wet beads from his brow and peeked up to the crest. He spun and released his mule’s worn ties, then caringly slapped her backside.
Bessie trotted to her troth, an ash log cutout set against a fieldstones wall of unusually large, six-by-six-foot boulders, stacked to over four-foot high and spanning a girth of sixteen feet.
Jeb glanced to the horizon. He dipped his hands into a bucket of cool water and again peeked to the wooded crest before cupping his palms together and wetting himself clean. Strong fingers slicked back wavy brown hair. He chewed the parsley and peppermint leaves Victoria had packed that morning before sucking its juices and spitting, at last ladling another gulp of fresh spring water. He stood tall, staring at the shapely profile.
Her horse ambled seductively from behind the distant chestnut trees. Once exposed, the engrossing hourglass figure kicked off and into a downward gallop.
Jeb spread his arms to capture the setting sun, highlighting his sinewy tan.
Victoria pulled her reigns just a few yards from her husband, her trusty appaloosa halting smoothly as she dismounted. She rushed him wildly. Her silky black hair bounced in the draft as she leaped into his waiting arms. “It’s time to come home, honey.”
“Why wait ’til we get home,” Jeb responded, staring into her soft brown eyes. He glimpsed to a fluffy leaf pile shaded beneath a knurly hickory tree and hugged her as if for the first time.
She playfully resisted. “Little Jeb’s sleeping.”
“He sleeps through it when we do it in the cabin.”
She smiled and pecked his cheek, then whispered into his ear. “We can’t leave him alone that long. It’s been real dry lately . . . and the kettle’s on.”
“Okay, sweetie, okay.” Jeb sighed and relented, and then reached back into his pocket. “But first, lookie here what me and Bessie plowed up today.”
Victoria grabbed an oversized tarnished knife from Jeb. “This is copper, honey.”
“That’s what I reckoned. From what we learnt in the schoolhouse. But there weren’t no mountain men blazin’ trails through these here woodlands back fur ’nough to drop something this ancient. I mean, our grandkin only started settlin’ these here hills ’bout a hundred and fifty years ago, just ten decades before the Date of Independence.”
“Maybe not your ancestors,” Victoria uttered carefully, peeking around despite their mountain seclusion. “But . . . but--”
“Don’t you ever worry, sweetie. No one in these here parts’ll ever find out your momma was a full-fledged Wappinger. Probably the very last of her kind.”
“I’m not ashamed.”
“Neither am I. Don’t yer ever forget that little Jeb and all my youngens’ll be part Wappinger too. But we’ve gotta keep it hushed for now. Okay? One day that’ll change, I promise. But for reasons I can’t never figure, everyone insists your people hada be eliminated.”
“I’m part white, too,” Victoria said understandably, and then held out the copper blade. “But my mother’s people never forged anything like this. Where’d you find it?”
“I’ll show ya,” Jeb projected, and then mounted the whinnying appaloosa. He extended his hand and lifted Victoria behind himself, shouting, “Yee-ha!”
Within seconds, they trotted beside a massive fieldstone wall shadowed from both sides by overhanging trees and dangling entanglements of branches and vines. It was stacked with moss-laden, six-by-six-foot boulders and built a full sixteen-feet thick.
“I ain’t never seen any stone divider this enormous.” Victoria gasped.
“Neither’s any of the boys,” Jeb said. “Two of Lee’s rode up here to check it out yesterday. Grandpappy Allen was even with ’em. He figures this here rock wall ta be three times thicker than the thickest he’s ever seen. And he says these dividin’ walls get wider from every direction on up ta here. And just like my pappy, he swears lots of ’em was already here when their grankin first started settlin’ and cordonin’ off their own fields. But no one knows who built them. . . . And look at this here stretch.”
“No denying it, love. Those two bends are exact matches for the angles carved into the flooring of the onyx model inside my mother’s secret old granadillo-wood box.”
“And here’s somethin’ else: These three sections line up with the plantin’ and harvestin’ equinoxes. I’m a certain of it. And this here slim rock wall intersectin’ the main span points due north-south. That’s all gotta mean somethin’?”
Victoria blew on the back of his neck. “I think it means we’d best rush right home and make sure we have a bunch more kids to help insure our secret stays up in these hills where it belongs. My mother always insisted I was here for a reason.”
“Yee-ha!” Jeb hollered, their trusty appaloosa blazing for the cabin.
“Hey dude,” Victor Padilla blurted to a lifelike, 3D replica of himself staring back, minus his burly brown beard. “Tonight’s the night.”
“You say that every night,” twin brother James replied, peeking about as if he could actually spot a cyber spy. “But I’ll admit things are suddenly getting mighty weird up in this NORAD substation, especially over the last few hours. Still, I’d better not yak too long.”
“Like what kinda weird?”
“Well, some national weather maps are way off from what’s actually happening. And a simple old-fashioned Google Earth scan is fuzzy. Then there’s that miniscule surface blip on one classified radar scope, but nothing’s there.”
“An electromagnetic focus,” Victor realized. “Something’s penetrating deep space. Headed this way. And you’re on Level One watch tonight, eh? We’re doomed.”
“Don’t worry, bro,” James countered just as facetiously. “My equipment’s a tad better than back when 1989FC snuck by even this cutting-edge observatory.”
Both brothers recalled watching a live 1989 newscast reporting about a large asteroid, 4581 Asclepius, which had missed the Earth by a mere 400,000 miles--less than twice the distance to the moon--pinpointing Earth’s position in space a mere six hours earlier, but more significantly which was first spotted only after it had already whizzed past.
“Hopefully,” Victor replied, his eyes flicking to a small, charred rectangular box resting on his mantle. “But that one couldn’t escape our eyes.”
“Thank God it missed on its own.” James said, smirking toward the same burnt, granadillo wood. An ancient copper knife rested beside it. “Have you been in the backyard today?”
“It just got dark enough a few minutes ago. Sure is cold and clear enough, though. Tonight is the first day of winter. Only eleven days until Twenty-thirteen. Imagine. Tonight’s the night. I can feel it.”
“You say that every night,” James whined, and then blurted. “Oh shit. Not now.”
“No way. Don’t tell me you’ve got orders to scan elsewhere?”
“Orders to focus elsewhere. Constellation Program lunar landing. All nonessential communications will be nixed any secon--”
“But what if tonight really is the night?” Victor pleaded.
“Godammit,” Victor sighed, aware of the mandatory prison time James faced if he dared breech his top security level. “Not now.”
Victor stood and exited the French doors off his playroom, treading due north alongside a narrow stone wall that intersected a massive sixteen-foot-thick rock divider at ninety degrees. He approached the main stretch of six-by-six-foot fieldstones stacked to over four-feet high and climbed atop, then slid a mattress-sized cover off a rectangular stone pit built seven feet deep and topped by an open, modified corbel arch.
Being Wappinger was once banned in these parts, Victor thought proudly. But it’s sure been a novelty for James and me. Few know that our indigenous ancestors built complex villages protected by wooden palisades on the Hudson as far back as the year zero. Some scholars in my historical society even insist that the fate of the vanquished Wappingers was intermingled with the Mohicans in Early American lore, because Wappingers spoke Mahican, an extinct tongue, while Mohican remains a nation to this day.
Victor lowered himself into the rock pit where a peculiarly carved granite bolder held a body-sized crystalline lens angled upward at the eastern horizon. Chiseled approximately four feet beneath it rested a recliner-sized, granite slab.
Regardless, Victor thought as he settled back onto the seat and fit his head into a cranial scoop, James and I might never have excavated this camouflaged stone compartment in time for our virgin sighting had we not played in this backyard as kids--and had Grandma’s hidden onyx sculpture to help guide us, of course.
Victor viewed the twilight. His eyepiece revealed magnificent shades of indigo observed only in digitally enhanced imagery. Soon after, he relaxed. His consciousness melded into one deep-blue area, when he spotted a white-hot dot.
That’s it! Victor thought as his stomach knotted. Gotta be. It looks exactly like 4581 Asclepius did through this secret crystal back in Nineteen Eighty-nine. Only fainter! Back then, we kids didn’t figure out until afterward what it had actually been, but that’s not the case tonight. Experience is indeed the best teacher. He spoke deliberately. “James, talk to me, bro. Tonight’s the night. . . . Really!”
He can’t do this to us. Victor panicked, and shouted, “James. . . . Please. . . . Tonight really is the night.”
Grandma always said things never came easy up in these hills, Victor thought. She must’ve told us a thousand times how her own grandparents had rushed home one parched afternoon to find their log cabin ablaze, rescuing only her father, Jeb Junior, and their smoking granadillo-wood box in the nick of time. And just days before Jeb Senior was drafted into the Union Army and killed at Gettysburg.
Victor spoke hastily. “James, talk to me. Please. Tonight’s the night!”
He’d never risk hard prison time by breaching his level of protocol, Victor rationalized. We’ve had plenty of false alarms before. So why should he chance it now? Maybe because this is December twenty-first? Regardless, he blurted. “James!”
I’ll text him! Victor realized. Nah, that’ll be blocked too. Only my brother knows that if I did spot something, NASA would only have hours to deflect it.
Unexpectedly, Victor’s wrist hummed.
James’ vivid 3D projection blossomed and conversed uneasily. “Okay, bro, tell me I’m not gonna be doing hard time with a three-hundred pound ex-NFL lineman named ‘Shirley’.”
“I see a flare! Just like last time! Tail and all!”
“Hold on, let me do some quick ciphering.”
“You call that quick? Victor quipped.
“It all calculates. If you can see a speck skimming your eastern horizon right now, the setting sun from here could hide it from routine scans. I’m gonna nix the lunar surveillance and focus a special radio scan. I’m even gonna grab hold of a secure satellite.”
“If we’re wrong about this, I’ll start arranging your bouquet for Shirley.”
“Grandma always said we were here for a reason,” James said confidently. “And tonight, we’re gonna prove it. Tonight’s the night.”
“ . . . See anything?”
“Thar she blows!”
“Whatever you wanna call her.”
“How big is she?”
“A mile around,” James said. “She’s been camouflaged by the Sun and some tricky inner-planetary alignments. And . . . and . . . she’s all metal.”
James tapped his keyboard before replying. “Oh, no?”
“Don’t tell me it’s gonna hit here.”
“Nope. But you’re getting warmer. Same spot as that phantom surface blip. Directly for the Yellowstone caldera.”
“But if it slams anywhere near that supervolcano, Earth’s ecosystem will collapse in days, no doubt, completely, for centuries, ensuring humankind as just another classic extinction.”
“Exactly why we’ve been told that any near Earth object of this size would be kept secret from the public, forever, and why I’d better alert the right people. Pronto. We only have a few hours. Looks like I might be getting some flowers, but from the president.”