The Human Stain
Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.
—Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man Make a chain: for the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence.
A WARM SPRING BREEZE STIRS THE STAND OF TULIP poplars, twitching their upturned, aspiring branches, their tender new leaves and delicate flowers pale in the moonlight. A stronger wind kicks up, unleashing a blizzard of blossoms, their yellow petals splashed with orange, their feathery stamens dusted with pollen.
Soon the gust subsides, settling to a soft, steady breath soughing through the foliage, undisturbed for hour upon hour. Then, suddenly, the wind’s susurration is punctuated by a series of brighter, sharper sounds: steel clinking upon steel—metallic teeth chattering, slowly at first, then faster and louder, frenzied and frantic.
A scream rends the night: a scream accompanied—or is it contradicted?—by another voice, this one deep and fearless, primitive and guttural. The scream falters, then resumes; falters, then intensifies; falters . . . and fades.
Neyland Stadium, University of Tennessee
I TURNED THE DOORKNOB OF THE OSTEOLOGY LAB—or, rather, tried to—and was surprised to find it locked. Normally by eight Miranda was long since settled at her desk in the bone lab, a half-empty Starbucks cup going cold, her eyes riveted on her computer screen as her fingertips danced and her keyboard clattered, opening some new window on the virtual world she navigated with such speed and confidence.
As I unlocked the steel door and opened it, I scanned the lab’s interior. The lights were off, but the front of the lab was fairly bright, thanks—or no thanks—to the venetian blinds stretching across the front wall, their metal slats kinked and broken in half a hundred places, allowing thin spokes and broad beams of the October morning sun to slant across the lab, the rays luminous and all but tangible in the lab’s dusty air. I still half expected to see Miranda, if not at the desk then possibly deep in concentration at one of the worktables, studying some fractured fibula or shattered skull.
But the room was empty—devoid of living humans, at any rate, though it contained gracious plenty of dead ones: thousands of Arikara Indian skeletons that my students and I had exhumed during a series of summer expeditions to the Great Plains, excavating one step ahead of rising reservoir waters. The Arikara were neatly packed in sturdy corrugated boxes, shelved like thousands of library books with spines of bone. The remains should have been returned to the Arikara tribe for reburial on dry tribal lands—and indeed would have been, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990—except for a single, insurmountable obstacle: There no longer were Arikara tribal lands. Decimated by multiple epidemics of smallpox, a contagion spread by white traders and settlers, the dwindling Arikara had been assimilated by the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes back in the 1800s. And so it was, through an odd confluence of river hydrology, civil engineering, field archaeology, and viral epidemiology, that the primary legacy of the Arikara Indians—Native Americans who had helped Lewis and Clark on the first stage of their epic expedition to the Pacific Northwest—resided beneath the south end zone of Neyland Stadium, the University of Tennessee’s shrine to college football.
The Arikara inhabited the back of the room, a vast, dark complex of shelves that marched, row upon row, toward the underside of the stadium’s concrete grandstands. I generally gave them no thought, but occasionally—at moments such as this, when the university was still half asleep, the bone lab still deserted and quiet—I could almost believe I heard the whispering spirits of the vast tribe of Arikara dead. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and with a deep breath to refocus my attention, I turned toward the front of the lab.