The Drumming

By Fred McGavran

e were lying off Buffington Island in the Ohio River on a stifling June night, much as the officers and men of Lieutenant Commander Leroy Fitch’s gunboats did on July 18, 1863, waiting for Morgan’s Raiders. After a spectacular sweep into Indiana, around Cincinnati, and through Southern Ohio, Confederate Cavalry General John Hunt Morgan planned to cross here to safety in West Virginia. As an archaeologist, it is always best to try to see the site as your long dead subjects saw it before beginning a dig. Trapped between the Union gunboats and encircling Union forces, Morgan lost 55 dead and over half his force captured.


An energy company with strong political connections wanted to dig up the unmarked Confederate graves to frack for natural gas. Nearly two miles beneath the surface, unimaginable quantities of natural gas lay waiting to be released from the Marcellus shale underlying Eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and large parts of Pennsylvania and New York. The company had already hired Gibson Trachet, my old thesis advisor from State University to say there weren’t any bodies here, or that their presence was of such limited historical value that they could endure being disturbed. When the Historical Society asked me to survey the battlefield to stop them, I agreed.


I had read everything I could find about the Battle, including the ships’ log books. Several of the Navy’s reference points, however, didn’t make sense. The log books referred to landmarks called “the castle” and “the wall” that trapped the Raiders along the River while the gunboats shelled them. Many of their shots went wild, knocking down sections of “the wall” through which the Confederates escaped. If we could find these choke points, we would find the bodies that the victors buried so hastily that hot July day.


A temperature inversion over the river valley compressed the air around us like a dry cleaner’s press. My fishing buddy Dwight, who owned the boat, had put away most of a six pack, and I wanted to tie up for the night out of the way of barges and towboats while he could still navigate. A retired high school history teacher, he was celebrating his new freedom in a way he had never expected.


After he and his wife Sally had spent their careers putting their children through school, college, and graduate school, Sally died of breast cancer. The kids moved to California, leaving Dwight to an endless succession of lonely days fishing and drinking.


I sensed something like a quickening pulse across the water.


“What’s that?” I said.


“What’s what?” he called back.


“Turn off the motor.”


Dwight cut the outboard, and suddenly all we could hear were the waves slapping along the sides and something deep and throbbing on the Ohio shore. It was a sound like a hundred hearts beating out of sync, searching wildly for a common rhythm. As they surged on, one beat became more and more pronounced, like a jazz musician who has finally found the right chord.


“It’s the drumming,” Dwight said, opening another beer.


“What’s the drumming?”


“Every year at the summer solstice, everybody in the county who claims Shawnee blood goes to the circle with their drums, and they play all night around the fire.”


How many people with Shawnee blood could there be in Eastern Ohio? I wondered.


Suddenly a brilliant white light shot up on the shore, silhouetting a dark circle beneath it like a burning tower, and I forgot the question.


“It’s the castle,” I exclaimed. “Start up again, Dwight. I want to see if we can find the wall.”


“I gotta piss first.”


Every archaeologist dreams of discovering a sacred city awaiting the touch of his trowel to return to life. Hoping the dead are only sleeping, we pry vines away from pyramids in Central America and cross oceans to uncover the tombs of ancient Greek kings. Instead of conquerors reawakened, however, all we find are broken skeletons, glyphs of magical incantations, and sheets of gold beaten into death masks.


Twenty years digging and mapping Shawnee villages in the Ohio River Valley had earned me a PhD and an assistant professorship in my College’s archaeology department, but no major breakthroughs. My most important discovery was a shattered turquoise breastplate in a burial ground about to be covered by a box store.


Carefully extracting the fragments from the earth, I stared at it for hours until, like an icon, it began to reveal itself to me. Pieces of turquoise formed curls separated by silver lines like the folds of a coiled snake. In the center was a crushed silver piece where, if you stared long enough, you could almost see the blunt head of the Toltec serpent god Quetzalcoatl.


Gibson Trachet was not interested in what artifacts of the dead could tell us when we took the time to contemplate them.


“If you want the degree and a tenure track position, drop the reference to Quetzalcoatl and say the breastplate was evidence of trade among the North American tribes,” he said.


That was how I learned that science cannot accommodate certain types of reality.


Constricted by Trachet’s science, the life of the North American archaeologist is drab and unexciting. We camp in places where ancient peoples once loved and killed and died, hoping that one of them dropped a ring or a pipe or a statuette into the privy and was too rich or too drunk to fish it out. As if to taunt them with our suffering even as they wandered naked through Eden, we study their bones for evidence of arthritis and other contemporary diseases.


Our work product is arrowheads and spear tips and shards of pottery that fill dusty shelves and entice PhD students towards still more dissertations. No one else cares about what we find, unless it lies in the way of a highway project or commercial development. Then they pay us to remove enough to show the site is clean before paving it over.


Dwight started up the engine, and we ran along the bank.


“I don’t know what you’re looking for,” Dwight said. “But there’s what they call ‘Indian hedge.’”


I could see what looked like sections of an uneven wall standing out against the light from the castle.


“What are they burning?” I called to him.


He said something about “the eye of the serpent,” but the engine drowned him out.


The only monuments our Ohio Valley ancients left are serpent mounds. No one can account for the different designs or locations, or why they worshipped the serpent. Perhaps the woodland tribes learned about the great Toltec and Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica from traders or exiles or legends passed from one tribe or generation to another, much as the ancient Germans learned there was a Rome and longed to destroy it.


Some mounds represent the serpent in motion, while others follow the natural contours of the land and served for irrigation. The one thing they all have in common is the head, which always faces west. The Shawnees believed that the Great Horned Serpent would eat the sun, so they positioned it so that the sun would pass safely over its head before the god could see it and strike. If the serpent faced east, however, it could anticipate the movement of its prey and snatch it out of the sky. Then the world would end.


“I gotta piss again,” Dwight said.


He turned off the engine, and we drifted back to the Island and tied up for the night. Somehow Dwight curled up on the floorboard between the stern and the amidships seat and went right to sleep. I listened to the drumming until the pillar of fire suddenly went out and the drums were silent.


* * *


The next morning Dwight let me off the boat below the castle, while he went to get his truck and coffee and Egg McMuffins. Climbing up the bank, I tried to imagine Commander Fitch’s ironclad Union gunboats suddenly appearing in the channel between the Island and the shore just as the Confederate cavalry prepared to cross. Cannons level with the horsemen, they swept Morgan’s Raiders from the field, leaving the broken cornstalks strewn with the bodies of his soldiers and the loot they had hoped to carry across the Ohio.


Set back from the River, the parts of the castle still standing were four or five feet high, several feet thick at the base, and looked like sediment piled up by long ago floods. The drummers had worn down the grass around a large rock in the center. At first I thought it was one of the sandstone flat rocks that litter the Ohio River, but when I went closer, I saw that it was granite. Had the Shawnee dug it out of the earth somewhere in what is now Ohio, or had they dragged it here from Indiana, Minnesota, or even the Black Hills of South Dakota?


I sat down on the rock to look over the site. The castle must have had at least a 50 yard diameter. Beer cans were lying in the grass, and I suspected other intoxicants had been used to maintain the feverish drumming all night. But I couldn’t see where they had built the fire. There had to be blackened logs somewhere. After several minutes, the stone was so uneven and bumpy I had to stand up. Turning around, I saw it just as the morning sun rose over the castle wall, outlining its ridges and bumps with little shadows. When I looked at them closer, my heart nearly stopped. I had been sitting on the eye of the serpent.


Even after centuries of exposure, I could see the head of the Toltec god with its massive unblinking eyes, stylized fangs, and tongue jutting up like a pitchfork. Nothing like this had ever been seen outside Mexico. It was the greatest single archaeological discovery ever made in the United States.

I started taking pictures with my phone. Unless I caught it just right before the sun rose too high, it would look like just another worn rock. I was so excited my hands were shaking.


“You need this more than I do,” Dwight said, climbing through a break in the wall with two large cups of coffee in a cardboard holder and a McDonalds bag.


“Where was the fire, Dwight?” I asked, too wired up to eat. “I can’t see any sign of it.”


“You’re sitting on it.”


“The rock?” I said, not understanding.


“Just move it aside and strike a match.”


“Natural gas,” I said.


“You got it. Why do you think they want to drill here so bad?”


So we were not the first to worship the gas and use it to entice the favor of the god.


“This is the most important site in the country,” I said. “We have to save it.”


“Let’s have something to eat first.”


We sat down on the sacred stone, and Dwight passed me coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and home fries glued together in a paper sheath. After we had finished, I started photographing the site with my phone and pacing off the dimensions.


“Look what I found!” Dwight called.


He had pried the porcelain face of a nineteenth century doll out of the castle wall, a toy one of the Raiders was taking home to his little girl. For a few hours in 1863, we had turned the Shawnee’s sacred space into an outpost of hell.


After I had measured and photographed everything in the castle I could see, I climbed through a hole on the east side to look at the wall. All I saw was Dwight’s truck and corn fields running down to the river.


“Not much of an archaeologist if you can’t get your directions straight,” Dwight called from the far side of the castle. “It’s over here.”


“It can’t be,” I said, but it was.


The body of the serpent stretched west from the head, following the natural contour of the land. Several feet high, it had been built as part of an irrigation system for the fields above it. I knelt and ran my hands through the dirt. It was loess soil, porous and fertile, the best soil in the world for crops, unless allowed to dry out and erode. The Shawnee had done their work so well that the soil still held water, perhaps five hundred or a thousand years after their serpent had first stretched out in the sun.


“Ow!” I cried.


A piece of shrapnel from the Navy’s shells had cut my hand. I stood up and looked at the serpent’s tail following the bank until it disappeared in a grove of trees about half a mile away. Something was terribly wrong. The body gave the serpent the wrong orientation to the sun. Instead of being placed to see the setting sun pass harmlessly overhead, it was positioned to strike. This serpent mound was more than a monument to the god Quetzalcoatl. It was a prayer for the world to end.


The world had ended here for the Confederates trapped between the River and the wall. I took pictures until my phone was full and then borrowed Dwight’s. No one would ever permit drilling on this site.


It was the hottest day of the year, and all we had to eat or drink after the McDonalds were a couple of warm bottles of water from the truck. Still the day passed so quickly I was angry when it became too dark to take more pictures. We were about to get into the truck when I saw an older man followed by a group of much younger men and women coming toward us through the fields from the East.


“I hear you had quite a party here last night,” a familiar voice called.


It was Gibson Trachet, my thesis advisor and a group of his students dressed like L.L. Bean models off for a weekend shoot in the Hamptons. The students were carrying tents and camping gear.


“How’s the project coming?” I said, recovering.


“You’re not going to find any bodies here, Dan,” he said.


“Why not? We know they’re here.”


“Because this is private property, and you’re trespassing.”


I couldn’t believe it.


“This is a state historical site,” I argued.


“The owners gave the company the gas rights and the use of the surface to exploit them. We’re just here to give the go ahead before they start drilling next week.”


I was stunned.


“And the Confederate soldiers?”


“Don’t you remember, Dan? They lost the war.”


One of the girls beside him smirked.


“You two know each other?” Dwight asked.


“This is Professor Trachet and his students,” I replied. “They’re here to prove nobody was killed in the battle.”


I was nearly ready to tell Trachet what I had found about the Shawnees, but something stopped me. A person who doesn’t care about his own countrymen won’t care about people from a different race and culture. Trachet and his students walked off through a gap in the castle wall. In the morning they would stake out some part of the battlefield away from the heavy fighting and shelling, poke around in the standing corn for a few days, and write up a report showing there weren’t any dead soldiers lying in the way of the drillers’ rig.


* * *


The sun was down over the river, and the Reds game on the TV in Thelma’s Tavern was into the fifth inning. After one of the longest and hottest days in my life, the steak and beer and air conditioning were just what I needed. While Dwight yelled at the Reds and exchanged jokes with the men at the bar about secret fishing spots, I tried to call everybody in the Columbus who had any connection with the Division of Oil and Gas. By the time my phone went dead, I had left messages with seven people on vacation, three out of town for the weekend, and six whose voice mails promised to get back to me as soon as they were in the office Monday.


“Playing the horses?” Thelma asked, seeing me working the phone.


Late forties with a figure like a college girl, she was smart and tough enough to run the best bar and grill in town, and accessible enough to keep the ignored and angry men who were too old for the drilling rigs and too young for Social Security coming back, sometimes even with their wives.


“Just trying to get somebody interested in saving the castle and Morgan’s men buried out there,” I said.


“The Shawnees buried their big chiefs in the castle. At least that’s the story.”


“Thelma, who are the drummers? There can’t be that many descendants of the Shawnee still living around here.”


“It’s one of those things where you kind of nominate yourself,” she said. “But you have to care.”


“How can I meet them?”


“You’d have to live here a long time for them to trust you enough,” she said in tone that implied that she was the same way about herself.


On the way out, Dwight bought a six pack. Somehow he kept the car on the road along the river to his house. We sat out on the screen porch looking over the black water, with only the moon and stars to set it off against the Kentucky shore. It was still so hot that I had to help him with the beer.

For a long time, all I talked about was how we had to stop the drillers, and all Dwight could talk about was how bad the Red’s pitching had been. If they didn’t improve, he would never drive to Cincinnati again for another game.


I went to bed. Just before falling asleep, I remembered the phone, and went out to my car for the charger. Maybe somebody would return my call. Maybe we did have a chance.


* * *


The next morning it felt as if enough pollen was in the air to choke out the human race like aphids being dusted off tomatoes. I found Dwight on the porch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. He had told me that he did not fish on Sundays anymore. Not that he was a Sabbatarian or even religious; in his retirement, fishing was beginning to be like work.


“Something’s happened at the castle,” he said. “Can you hear it?”


At first I couldn’t hear anything. Then at the edge of perception was a tiny wail, like a cat crying in the night.


“You want to get some coffee in the kitchen?” he said. “I think they’re headed this way.”


I never knew when he was saying something to get a reaction, so I went to the kitchen to make breakfast. As the eggs were frying, I thought the sirens were getting closer. I had just poured my coffee and sat down to eat when the Sheriff’s cruiser pulled in out front.


Dwight and the Sheriff talked for a few minutes like old friends about how the fish were running and the Reds were losing. Then Dwight said, “I’ll get him.”


I picked up my coffee and went out to meet them.


“Dan, this is Bob Mackey, the Sheriff,” Dwight said.


We shook hands.


“I heard you and Dwight were doing something over at the castle yesterday,” he said.


“I’m an archaeologist,” I said.


“That’s what I hear. So you’d notice anything strange going on.”


“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you thinking of something?”


“Did you see Dr. Trachet and some kids from State University?”


“Yeah,” Dwight said. “Don’t know if he could handle all those girls.”


“Trachet and the other survivors found three of them lying dead in their tents around serpent’s eye rock this morning.”


Suddenly Dwight was serious.


“What the hell happened?”


“Dead in their tents. No a mark on any of them.”


“Was it drugs?” Dwight asked.


“No sign of drugs,” the Sheriff replied. “It will take several days to get the results of the blood tests.”


“Then let me tell you what to look for,” I said.


They both stared at me.


“Natural gas seeping out from under the rock.”


“Natural gas isn’t poisonous,” the Sheriff said.


“But it can crowd out the oxygen until you suffocate,” I explained.


“Just keep it between us until we get the lab results,” the Sheriff said. “Every TV crew in the state will be here in a few hours, and I don’t want any questions that I can’t answer.”


So something had awakened the Great Horned Serpent of the Shawnees. I wondered if it would be satisfied, or whether its taste was just whetted with fresh blood.


* * *


After all my calls, the only one who called me was Gibson Trachet, and I had not even called him.


“If you’d told me about the gas, those kids would still be alive,” he said. “So let me tell you this, Dan. Any archaeologist who sees Quetzalcoatl in a granite rock is as finished in this state as you are.”


He hung up.


When the Sheriff released the toxology reports showing the victims had been suffocated by natural gas, the energy company became the hero. If only it had been allowed to start drilling without all that job killing red tape, the tragedy would never have happened. Professor Trachet’s students were victims of a mindless bureaucracy that stifled energy independence and free enterprise. Under the circumstances, the Division issued a permit to begin drilling immediately to protect public safety.


I was amazed at how fast the drillers moved. Just a day after the Sheriff released his report, a bulldozer began leveling a road to the castle. Dwight and I followed a local television station crew to watch and, I hoped, point out what was being destroyed. A dump truck bumped along ahead of us pouring gravel into the freshly turned earth. We moved at a crawl.


Dwight’s air conditioning was dead, so the windows were down. Aside from the motors, there wasn’t any sound. Roundup had killed the weeds, and the genetically engineered corn had killed the insects. The corn was standing in even rows like soldiers massed for battle, each stalk with the same number of ears, each ear with the same number of kernels, waiting to be crushed like pustules into syrup for soft drinks. How different from the wild corn of the Shawnees, colored as brilliantly as their headdresses in purples and yellows and red.


Finally we reached the castle. The bulldozer stopped and backed up, as if it wanted a running start. The television crew climbed out to get a shot of it knocking down the castle wall, and Dwight pulled over beside them.


“Do you know who built that wall?” I called to a young woman with a hand held microphone. “Do you know what happened here when Morgan tried to cross the river?”


She didn’t hear me. The bulldozer had dropped its blade and was starting toward the wall.


“Stop!” she cried, running forward. “Let us get a shot from inside of you breaking through the mud.”


The operator leaned out of his cage and waved. The reporter and the cameraman climbed over the wall, and Dwight and I followed. To get a good shot they set up on the serpent’s eye. The dump truck driver climbed the wall to signal the bulldozer when the TV crew was ready. Everyone wants his moment in the sun.


“Okay!” the reporter called. “Do your stuff!”


The driver waved to the bulldozer operator. We could hear the bulldozer clanking forward and saw the wall collapse as the blade drove into it.


“Great!” the reporter said.


Then something exploded, the truck driver disappeared, and the bulldozer tumbled forward like a toy flipped by an angry child. For a horrible second I thought it was going to roll over again and crush us, but it landed upside down on the operator’s cage.


“Oh, my God!” the reporter cried to the cameraman. “Did you get that?”


“Wow!” said the cameraman.


“Help me!” the operator screamed.


The cage was slowly collapsing, bending him forward over the controls.


“Oh, God! Oh, God!” he cried, staring upside down into the cold eye of the camera.


Oil was oozing across the grass toward the serpent’s eye, where little flames were licking the base of the rock. Dwight called for help on his cell.


“What happened?” the reporter cried, running to the screaming driver.


“I’ll tell you what happened,” I said, going up to her.


The cameramen swung the camera into my face.


“He hit an unexploded shell from the battle. The Navy fired dozens of high explosive shells when the Confederates tried to cross the river.”


“What are Confederates?” the reporter asked, her face intense in its ignorance. “Why would anybody want to cross the river here?”


How could I explain the significance of a Shawnee serpent mound to someone who hadn’t heard of the Civil War? I was starting to answer, when we heard sirens across the field. Suddenly the oil went whump! and a steam of fire sprang from the serpent’s eye to the bulldozer.


“Run!” the cameraman said. “It’ll explode!”


“Oil doesn’t explode,” Dwight snapped, kicking dirt onto the flames.


Together we kicked dirt and stomped on the fire until the oil was just a stinking black residue.

“Oh, God! Oh, God!” the operator kept wailing.


The sirens stopped, and the Sheriff and two deputies climbed through the wall.


“Get me out of here!” the operator screamed.


The deputies tried to pull him free, but the cage was so crumpled they couldn’t move him. If it settled another inch, it would break his neck. The Sheriff called for a tow truck to winch the bulldozer off the cage. Then he knelt in the dirt beside the operator to try to keep him calm.

Leaving the TV crew to shoot the driver’s agony, Dwight and I started back to the wall.


“My God,” Dwight said.


The bulldozer had peeled off the top layer of soil when it flipped, exposing what looked like a cracked bowl. He stepped into the depression and picked it up. It wasn’t a bowl; it was a human skull, a few yellow teeth still sticking to the upper jaw. The bulldozer had ripped open a Shawnee graveyard. For centuries they had brought their most honored dead here to wait for the serpent to strike at the sun and bring them resurrection or eternal darkness. No wonder the drummers returned every year. They were here to commune with the dead.


The next corpse we found was fresh. Sliced apart by the first shrapnel to buzz through the summer air in Southern Ohio in 150 years, the gravel truck driver’s body lay in the dirt. Dwight placed a handkerchief over the dead man’s face. Was this how the dead extracted vengeance, a death for every grave disturbed, or would the calculus be much greater?


Half an hour later, the tow truck arrived. A deputy directed it through one of the old holes in the wall, hoping to avoid another 19th century IED. Before Dwight or I could stop it, the truck drove into the Shawnee grave, crushing the skull.


The reporter and cameraman were the only TV crew to broadcast live coverage of the dramatic rescue. She was so excited to have a story that would be broadcast state wide that she even let me tell about the serpent mound and what had happened here to Morgan’s men. After all, Dwight and I were heroes for putting out the fire before the bulldozer operator was burned alive.


“There’re Shawnee graves here, too,” I said, pointing to the tow truck with the bulldozer partially suspended from its crane.


All the camera caught were some tire tracks until Dwight crouched down and held up a piece of the skull. How could I have warned them of what would happen? The last time Europeans had suffered for violating a Shawnee grave was over 200 years ago.


I got so carried away that I nearly missed the point of what had happened. The god had given us a second warning that not even I had understood.


* * *


The Governor sent a squad of Iraq veterans from the National Guard to search for other unexploded shells. They didn’t find any more; the farmers had dug them out of the fields in the early years after the battle. Only that one six inch shell had remained buried in the castle wall, waiting 150years for the bulldozer’s tread.


They did find the shattered remains of several of Morgan’s men who had died in the cannonade near a gap in the wall. To avoid criticism for tearing up their graves, the energy company quietly paid Union Cemetery to inter them among Ohio Volunteer Infantry veterans who had fired volleys at them during the battle.


I was talking with a graduate student in my office when the president of the College called and asked me to drop by. The president had never called me before. At the few functions where we had met, he always had to glance at my name tag to place me. Telling the graduate student I would return in a few minutes, I walked across the campus to the administration building.


The president had a spectacular picture window overlooking the campus and an office so immense it seemed to recede before his massive desk into a cave with a couch and circle of chairs at the back. Here he shared intimacies with trustees, implored faculty to understand the delicacy of his position, and begged state legislators for more money. He offered me a bottle of water and told me I was fired.


Gibson Trachet had deflected any possible criticism of himself for clearing the site for construction by telling the Governor that I was the one charged with identifying any present dangers. After all, he had only been asked to look for bodies. When I tried to explain that Trachet had ordered me off the site before I could even begin, our president said he had fired a number of people, and I shouldn’t make it more difficult than it already was.


“No one besides us has to know why you’re leaving,” he said. “Gibson asked me to continue your salary and benefits for another semester to keep you from being hurt.”


He gave me the rest of the afternoon to clear out my office. The graduate student called some friends, and we made the deadline.


It was too close to the new academic year to look for another job, so I decided to spend the rest of the summer with Dwight documenting the destruction of the site. Of course no one in archaeology or anywhere else was going to listen. After all, who could take seriously anyone who saw serpent’s heads in rocks and thought the Shawnees worshipped a Toltec god of universal destruction? Sometimes, however, when I was at Thelma’s or walking down the street in town, I noticed people looking at me as if I had stood up for something that mattered to them. Then they looked away, and I was alone again.


“Any chance I can meet some of the drummers?” I asked her one night as the Reds were losing again.


“What is it you want to know?”


“What’s the attraction,” I said.


“It’s all we have left.”


Fifty miles from an interstate on either side of the river, the town was as isolated as one of the 19th century river towns that the railroads had passed by. It was slowly starving, and a way of life as out of place as the Shawnee’s would be gone in another generation.


“What’s anyone have left?” I asked.


“I don’t know, Dan,” she said, staring at me intently, and then looked away.


I wanted to talk with her by ourselves, but I couldn’t think of anywhere to take her.


“Tell me about Thelma,” I said to Dwight as we drove back along the river road to his house.


“What do you want to know?” he said. “She got the two boys and the tavern in the divorce, and he got the McDonalds here and in Cambridge and Zanesville.”


“She got the short end of that,” I said.


“Not with those two. They were both good enough basketball players to get scholarships to the University of Kentucky.”


So Thelma and her sons had not collapsed into hopelessness and despair when the father had deserted them. No wonder she had that self confident smile, even when she was holding something back.


“But I wouldn’t be thinking about her too much,” he added. “She always seems on the verge of opening up, so people trust her and like to talk to her. But nobody’s been able to get close to her since the divorce.”


I hadn’t been able to do anything with anybody either since Joyce’s death. Yet I kept thinking there was something in her beyond the hardness and the distance across the bar, something that maybe some day I could touch.


* * *


Because the site was off limits now to everyone except the drillers, I borrowed Dwight’s boat to watch them from the river. The first thing they did was to bring in a bulldozer with a crane to lift the rock and cap the eye until the derrick was erected over it. I watched the drillers put chains around the rock and then step back. A man in a hard hat signaled the operator to raise the rock. As it rose from the hole, the man backed up, gesturing to the operator to move toward him and dump the rock over the bank.


Suddenly the chain slipped, and the serpent’s eye dropped from horizontal to vertical.


“Watch out!” the man cried, just as the rock toppled out of the harness, bounced once, and landed on top of him.


Drillers in hard hats ran forward, wrapping chains around the serpent’s eye to free him. Then they stepped back, waving. The operator raised the rock, wet with blood, and dropped it over the bank. This was the third warning, but again no one understood.


* * *


Not even OSHA could stop them now. Anyone who got in the way would not last long in any state job. Like a thunderstorm on loess soil, draining the Marcellus shale of natural gas would give the depressed counties of Eastern Ohio a few years of surface prosperity. Then the water would evaporate or sink down to bedrock, leaving only gray, gritty poverty behind. The bright new trucks and boats purchased with down payments from gas money would be repossessed, and half finished homes would be abandoned as the jobs moved away for good.


In just a few days the drilling rig, tanks for the chemicals, trailers for the crew, and piping for the gas circled the serpent’s eye. They raised a 170 foot high derrick like a giant erector set to drive the pipe two miles into the earth. By the end of the week, Dwight heard they were ready to drill. Once they started, the crews would work 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts. The only time they would stop would be when they had to load more pipe onto the drill as it drove deeper and deeper. Dwight went with me to see the end.


It was like those awful hours I spent in the hospital waiting room during Joyce’s operation, not knowing the cancer had spread so far all they could do was sew her back up and apologize for what they had seen. I had to be there, even if I couldn’t help. So Dwight and I tied up along the Island to see the drill begin its inexorable plunge.


Men in hard hats and heavy work clothes loaded the first sections of pipe over the drill head, placed the bit, and drove it into the serpent’s eye. For an instant I thought I could feel it in my own eye. Looking through my binoculars, I saw the drill going down easily. After only three hours, they had to stop to load more pipe.


We stayed until late in the evening, when electric lights came on to guide the drillers through the night. Suddenly a bright sheet of white flame shot up and then fell back, hovering beside the derrick like a sacrificial fire on a brazier. They had inserted a pipe to flare off gas escaping from the well. From the size of the flame, they had hit a very rich deposit.


The insects were getting bad, and we were about to cast off from the island, when two boats appeared in the channel from the North.


Night fishermen, I thought.


Then I saw several boats coming in from the South. When I looked back north, I saw powerboats, rowboats, even a few canoes entering the channel. I opened another beer and sat back to watch.

The power boats cut their engines, and no one spoke. I heard an anchor go into the water, then quiet again. The canoes held steady in the stream on silent paddles. I felt like a monk waiting in the choir for the service to begin. Slowly the evening spread out along the riverbank and dissolved into dark shadows, and then into nothing. That’s when the drumming started.


Like that first night, they started slowly, a few at a time, syncopating the silence over the water. Then more and more drums joined in, as if the choir were filling with worshippers in black cowls, and the chanting was penetrating the heart of God. The channel compressed the sound, so I felt as if every beat were focused on me. It wasn’t ordinary drumming; it was the sound of the god approaching, the sound when the earth was first formed out of chaos, the sound we would all hear when the world finally ended.


Then something started to moan. At first I thought it was an animal, like a dog howling at a siren. But it was too taut and metallic to be from any living creature. Suddenly I understood: the derrick was vibrating with the drums, ringing like sheet steel struck by a hammer.


The flare off pipe began to tremble, spewing the fire like a giant sparkler into the night. Then the rig swayed, as if it wanted to dance with the drums. With a loud crack! the well head broke open, and unseen clouds of gas billowed out of the serpent’s eye. As the drumming reached a crescendo, the flare off pipe shivered and collapsed. For a second the castle was as dark as the night before Morgan tried to cross the River. Then the gas burst into a bright white flame that flickered up and down the derrick like a serpent’s tongue. Across the water I could hear the drillers shouting. Then they were piling into their trucks and racing away.


For a few minutes, the river was quiet except for the rush of burning gas. The derrick glowed red, then yellow, then orange, then white. Far away, sirens and headlights were approaching across the fields. When the steel turned bluish white, the derrick disintegrated like a burned out log struck by a poker, and the well exploded. With a rush like a tornado, a huge ball of fire engulfed the castle and surged into the night like an army of devils breaking out of hell.


A tank of drilling fluid detonated, spinning sizzling pieces of white hot metal into the water around me. When I looked up, the drummers had set down their drums and were watching amazed as the serpent’s tongue darted into the sky, trying to devour the stars. The fields were as bright as if someone had turned on a huge overhead florescent light. Two cruisers and an ambulance moved towards the well and stopped, blocked by the heat. Through my binoculars, I saw a TV truck pull up beside the Sheriff’s cruiser, and the reporter and cameraman climb out.


Fire trucks joined the cruisers, and the deputies and the firemen talked and gestured, but no one knew what to do. I could see the Sheriff waving to them to pull back. As they were getting into their cars, another white pillar of flame spouted into the night sky several miles away. The people on the shore hadn’t seen it yet, but I knew what it meant. Miles beneath the surface, the whole gas field was on fire. Dwight started the engine and raced through the channel. The drummers had started beating on their drums again, although no one except the god could hear them.


We were the first to arrive at Thelma’s to watch the fires on TV. At first there were just two, the serpent’s eye and the other near by well. Then there was a report that another well had exploded ten miles inland. Nobody knew how to put them out. The other regulars were coming in and taking their places at the bar, and one of the waitresses took Thelma’s place behind the bar.


“What’s the closest well to here?” asked Jack, a friend of Dwight’s.


“About five miles west of town,” Dwight said.


“I guess we’re safe,” Jack said.


Within an hour, the national news had airplanes circling the area, sending live coverage of wells going off like missile silos in a nuclear war. Instead of arching up in a silver parabola toward a distant enemy, however, these missiles were firing into the ground, igniting billions of gallons of gas and chemicals. Ahead of the explosions, a latticework of white fire erupted as the pipe lines to carry the gas away ignited and exploded. When Thelma returned, she came around the bar and sat beside me to watch.


“How far west does the shale go?” she said.


“It stops the other side of Columbus,” I said, knowing what she was asking. “Your sons are safe.”


We spent the night at Thelma’s, watching wells explode all across Eastern Ohio. When the well five miles away went up, we lost power. For a few minutes it was dark, except for a false fluorescent dawn to the West.


“Maybe we should get out of here,” Jack said.


“Where to?” Dwight said. “The roads are all closed.”


“There’s the river,” another man said. “I’m getting my boat.”


Dwight pointed out the window to the south. A bright streak of flame had appeared across the river.

“How far south does the gas go?” he asked me.


“All the way to Charleston,” I said.


“We’ll never make it,” Jack said.


That’s when the electricity went out.


“We have to stay,” Thelma said, touching my arm. “We have to see it out.”


She found a battery operated radio and set it on the bar where we could all hear. That was how we learned that Cambridge and Zanesville had gone up in flames within an hour of the serpent’s eye well.


“Oh!” she gasped.


I had never seen her look so hurt.


“Thelma, I’m sorry,” Dwight said.


Then I remembered the man who had left her and his sons for another woman and three McDonalds.


She nodded, shook her head, and wiped her eyes with a cocktail napkin. The last tie to her wrecked marriage was gone.


“Are you all right?” I asked her.


“Just gotta keep busy,” she said. “The boys are safe. That’s what counts now.”


By the time she was taking orders for breakfast, three more wells had exploded in West Virginia.

“They can’t be all connected,” expert after expert assured National Public Radio. “It has to stop somewhere.”


It didn’t stop. Talking heads speculated that the formaldehyde the drillers had injected to dissolve the shale had broken down under extreme heat and pressure, releasing enough oxygen to keep the gas burning underground until it reached the next well. When the underground fire reached a new well, it turned the drilling pipe into a giant tracheotomy tube to suck air into the earth and keep the fire breathing.


No one knew how to reverse the process. Famous well fire experts were flying in from Houston, from Oklahoma, from Saudi Arabia, from anywhere anyone thought they knew how to put out the largest gas fires in history. Military aircraft flew in special equipment. Within just a few hours they would be ready to work the problem. The problem, however, kept spreading.


Dwight and Thelma rigged a generator so we could cool the beer, cook, and watch TV again. By the 5 o’clock news, more than 3,000 wells had exploded; by 11 PM the National Guard was evacuating Pittsburg. Mayor Bloomberg assured New Yorkers that they were safe, even if Albany were consumed. The president and the owner of the energy company disappeared when they tried to fly over the flaming wreckage of their wells. The stock market dropped 10,000 points, and the largest traffic jams in history crawled from Columbus west into Indiana and down the East Coast from Albany to anywhere away from the Marcellus shale. Just outside Dayton, a mob of angry drivers recognized our Governor trying to escape, pulled him out of his car and beat him to death. The President spent the day with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only to announce that there was not a military solution. Prayer services were held across the nation, but the god of the wells did not listen.


I was so exhausted I didn’t think I could go on. Everyone at the bar who had somewhere to go in town went home, and the others curled up on the floor. Dwight left to see if his house was still there. Thelma and I turned off the TV so we wouldn’t have to see Charleston explode. There wasn’t anywhere else to go, so we went upstairs together.


The next day exhausted reporters looked for anyone who had ever been near the castle. Gibson Trachet, in corduroy jacket and bow tie was interviewed in his office at State University. He was the first to blame the catastrophe on “green power maniacs,” who had sabotaged the greatest drilling effort in our history.


“Can you name names?” the breathless reporter asked.


“Yes!” Trachet cried, staring into the camera as intently as he had at me at that dissertation conference so long ago.


“Here it comes,” Dwight said, turning to me.


Everyone at the bar stopped talking and stared at the TV. Thelma had that “I’m still here for you” look. Before Trachet could speak, however, the screen went black. That was when the east side of Columbus went up, incinerating over half a million people.


Aerial surveillance showed huge cracks in the earth’s surface, exposing flames oozing with the drilling fluids through fiery crevices like newly dredged slits into hell. Inexplicably, some areas were spared. The entire Akron-Canton area was incinerated, but Steubenville survived. In the country individual farms that had not sold their mineral rights to the drillers sometimes escaped, trapping the farmers in green oases surrounded by raging fires.


Once the largest interchange in the world, the I-77 interchange with I-70 near Cambridge, Ohio, cracked apart and collapsed like a broken yang symbol near the ruins of the city. The interstates themselves melted into the blackened earth. Perhaps someday another people would find the wreckage and wonder what god had compelled anyone to build such a useless structure. Even if every person in the world became an archaeologist, however, they would never be able to gather and identify the ashes of the 47 million Americans who had died.


Weeks later, after half of Ohio and New York and most of West Virginia and Pennsylvania had been consumed, the surface fires started to burn out. The heat had been so intense that for months it did not rain. The ground was so hot that rescuers could not get out of their helicopters until winter, long after there wasn’t anyone left to rescue. Most of the people in the enclaves away from the fires starved to death or died of thirst. Deep within the earth, the experts assured us, the fires were still raging.


There are a few small towns left along the river, spared by the shale and the fires. They stand out like nearly forgotten dreams against the blackened landscape. The water, however, was poisoned. Huge shoals of dead fish swelled up during the inferno and drifted downstream to jam the navigation locks and pollute the water all the way to Cairo, Illinois, where the stinking mess finally washed into the Mississippi and dispersed.


Our McDonalds was resupplied by air and never missed a meal, not even when the smoke was so thick they would only serve through the carry out window. At first they sent Thelma and the rest of us supplies by air. Now that the shoals of dead fish are gone, a boat comes once a month from Philadelphia or up river from Cincinnati. They always ask who wants to leave, but for most of us, there isn’t anywhere left to go. I work the bar in the afternoon until closing time, while Thelma manages the only kitchen besides McDonalds still open. When her oldest son graduates from UK in June, he wants to come back home and manage the last of his father’s McDonalds.


On the first almost warm afternoon in the spring, Dwight and I took the boat out to look at the river and see if any fish were running. Although there was a row of blackened trees facing the Ohio shore, Buffington Island was still green, one of the few green spots within a radius of 150 miles. Dwight dropped the anchor near the shore, and we wasted several precious worms, hoping something would bite.


“Look,” Dwight said, pointing to the shore.


At the top of the bank, just above where the eye of the serpent now rested, was something green, the first spring shoot drawn up by the sun. I felt a thrill as if I were witnessing the birth of a child. Maybe Roundup hadn’t killed everything. Maybe the land would come back, dressed once again in uneven rows of blue and yellow and red and black corn, as bright and magnificent as the days and nights of the long summer growing season.


Just as it was getting dark, Dwight grunted. Reeling in his line, he took a four inch small mouth bass off the hook, held it up for me to see, and then dropped it back into the river. So the fish were coming back. After all that we had done to it, the river was still alive.


When we told the crowd at Thelma’s, they said they wanted to go out and see the river, too. It was a little cooler the next afternoon, but not cold enough to stop them from taking the tarpaulins off their boats and dropping their canoes into the water. I talked Thelma into going along with us.


“Wait,” she said before we closed for the afternoon. “I have to get something.”


When she came downstairs, she was carrying a bodhrán, a small Irish drum.


“You finally get to meet the drummers,” she said.


It was as if everyone who had survived the inferno was out it a boat or canoe, heading down river to the Island. Entering the channel, we passed Jack’s boat close enough to see a drum beside him in the stern.


We anchored off the Island again as we had that first night nearly a year earlier. This time, however, the drummers played to a blackened shore. Maybe they were trying to make everything come back, or maybe they were celebrating the death of the god. Or maybe they were playing out of sadness for a land that had once been theirs but had been lost to them long before anyone discovered how to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale. Someday, if the earth becomes fertile again, they may revert to subsistence farming. Then they will scrape away the earth like the Shawnee and build a serpent mound to hold the water in their precious soil. This time, however, the serpent will face west, so that it will never again be able to snatch away the sun.




I am a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. I practiced law as a litigation partner with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio, defending psychiatric malpractice cases and litigating business cases. In June 2010 I was ordained a deacon in The Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, where I serve as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Homes. The Ohio Arts Council awarded me a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser,” a story that appeared in the Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector,” my award winning collection of short stories. You can find more about me at

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