When it was decided that the Etowah would be dammed in 1949, forming Lake Allatoona, there was a brief panic in the anthropology community. A mound site, including several massive ceremonial and burial mounds, was to be in the path of the new lake. These were not the famous Etowah Indian Mounds, which still lie along the river beyond Allatoona. These were different ones, upstream and near the Cherokee line.
For Professor Jeffrey Fitzgerald, getting a chance to excavate the ancient mound site near his hometown and his family’s longtime fishing spot was both a stroke of luck and a curse. He knew he would likely be the only anthropologist for some time to have the chance. Economics dictated that. Even though the water would be partially drained every winter by the Army Corps of Engineers, the main channel would never be without ample water, still plenty enough to cover the mounds in tremendous depth. The professor knew he would never have a chance to retrace the steps of this excavation, which due to its time crunch would be underfunded and shoddy. He would never have a chance, either, to walk with his only grandson one day down along the old mounds. As a boy, the professor had spent lots of time around the same mounds, climbing them and rolling down, while his family (and I) watched him. By the time his grandson came along, eventually the professor’s main purpose for existing, the old man was only able to see the old mounds in his distant memory. Meanwhile, the ghosts of the Mississippian people had begun to swim around each night in the deep, dark waters surrounding the mounds.
I watch the ghosts and don’t know what they think when they see me. I’d like to think they know that I know all that’s taken place out here, and I’d like to tell them it will soon be over.
When the professor was young, I watched him and his father from a rock in a cove that blended with the shade of my slippery wet scales, staring up at them as they chiseled at the trilobite fossils on the red cliff side. One time, I had been pretty sure Jeffrey had seen me. His eyes remained fixed, gazing out towards the water. But I swore I caught my own reflection in them, if just for an instant, dancing on their surface, though he never seemed too sure of what he saw and went back to hammering along the cliff side. My crystals glistened just like many other polished stones might out in the light of that much sun.
I first appeared to Jeffrey where I was sure he could see me, when he was an old man, many years after he undertook his rushed excavation of my old mound city, years after the river here was covered over by lake. He was bespectacled by then and had a long, white beard. He was at the water’s edge fishing alone for crappie. I rose up on a rock far away from him. I said, “Jeffrey, do you know what I am?” The wise, old man said nothing for a moment, and then he said, “Yes.” He walked closer with a knife and sprinted, old as he was, into the water and I swam away. He knew the scales and crystals of my body gave men the key to divine wisdom.
The next day when the professor came back to the same spot with a wetsuit and an oxygen tank, I was waiting. He followed me down into the water, we went deeper and deeper, and I wrapped myself around him, forcing him down into the underworld, past all the wicked creatures that lie in the depths near the old mounds. There were sea beasts that were gator-mouthed, Pliosaurs and Plesiosaurs, giant swimming dinosaurs, thought by everyone to be long extinct. Over the eons they had evolved to even more monstrous proportions than the books speak of such animals. They had hid from the time the land out here had been covered over by ocean and when the land had been reduced to just hills and rivers, they took to the rivers, and now in the stagnant waters of the man-made lake they’ve flourished more than they have in any time since the trilobites died off.
As we were sinking, I could see past the oxygen mask on the professor and saw it was clearly the ghosts of the Mississippians at the lake’s bottom that haunted him most, the stunning realization of the messiness of mortality, of existence, of inconstancy, and of a world that had passed us both by millennia ago. The spirits swirled around their old burial mounds in the black water. The professor got all these brutal insights of his without requiring my scales and crystals, and didn’t seem any longer to be trying for them. I didn’t feel him tug at my skin as so many past younger warriors had tried. In fact, the old man no longer seemed to be moving at all, so I swam him up to the surface.
Each time I see the ghosts of the Mississippians I can’t help but think of the last great warrior I knew from this vanished place. I remember watching that warrior’s chest heave as he breathed his last breaths on the shore of the Etowah, not far at all from where the professor and I were. The Cherokee are another tribe that has heard of my kind, calling me Uktena. For a time, they too lived nearby. The Cherokee had a saying that even to see me asleep is death, not to the hunter himself, but to his entire family. Professor Fitzgerald’s last mortal words to me, as he struggled for his breath flat on his back on the shore, was a quiet “Thank you,” and he then joined all the others who were lost to time.
The Mississippians’ descendants, the Creeks, believed that the world began with the earth lying entirely underwater, except for a single hill, known as Nunne Chaha, and on the Nunne Chaha was a house where the Master of Breath, Esaugetuh Emissee, lived and molded men from clay. The hill where the Master of Breath lived and created men was one of these hills out by the water here now. I won’t say which one. It’s best to go on thinking of each of these hills as sacred. Professor Fitzgerald knew all of these things even before he completed his doctoral thesis. He also possessed a knack for patience, which was what any true expert in Creek myth needed by necessity. The patience required for all the digging, and for all the times this or that government agency confused his specialty field on grant applications for Greek myth. The Creeks believed the underworld was a place of both chaos and odd creatures.
I watched the professor out here all his life. He would come and go through the seasons. This was his family’s sacred place, and not long before he died, he had come a few times with his grandson, Josiah, telling him as best he could from the lakeshore what lies below the water, the ancient city with its temples and meandering old footpath that had once welcomed many tribes of various other men, even Hernando DeSoto and his band of Spanish treasure seekers, who rode up on horseback, armed with crossbows, and after a few nights, continued trudging westward off into more of the unknown. Josiah would come to the lake often and fish and play with his friends in the summers, even after his grandfather died, and think often of his grandfather. Josiah is not a boy now, but a young man. He is the one getting ready to jump off the cliff now as I speak to you, one of the cliffs with all the trilobite fossils scattered all over the reddish carved-away hill right up there. The young man has his arms outstretched in front of him as he prepares to leap. He bends his long legs. He plans to land feet first as his grandfather had told him to do if ever he jumped. He starts to lunge forward and leave the cliff behind. Meanwhile, young women and men stare at Josiah and each of his movements. They laugh and tease, mostly in fun. All of them will jump sooner or later. Some of them already have and have dried off and climbed back up again to be back with the others, way up on their cliff. They are out here every summer when the weather’s hot, even in August, when it’s regularly in the hundreds. Yes, they worship the same exact sun god, in their own way, as the people of this place always have, where some built mounds in part to build a buffer from the underworld, which they just couldn’t quite escape in the long game.
In older times, I was the sort of god who would appear to young boys on their way toward becoming great warriors or chiefs and would counsel them. But the old warriors who’d roamed these lands are long gone. If a boy growing up in this newer age, of this newer race, saw my serpent body with these great stag horns, what would he say? He wouldn’t have heard the stories of what my coming to him meant. It would jar such a boy not expecting my revelations. But without the people who worshipped me, who am I left with? So I watch these leftover boys become men. I watch the waters here rise and fall. I watch the cabin cruisers move about in their long orbits on the weekends and listen to the cigarette boats let out wails as they rip off into the horizon, passengers sipping whisky from plastic cups inside the seats of inner tubes, trailing off in lines of wake, trying to hold their drinks steady as their boats accelerate.
Greg Sullivan’s fiction has appeared in The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Writing on the Edge, and other journals. He is an MFA candidate at Rutgers-Camden, where he serves as founding editor of Cooper Street.