She decided to take the tour of the Black Creek Indian Mounds because she thought it might be a good way to get out of the house. The divorce was over a year old, and her therapist said it would be a good idea to get out there—not “out there” in the sense of being a divorced woman who’s out there, but “out there” in the sense of not sitting around her living room watching old reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond or clicking through endless loops of pictures on social media sites.
She thought about joining a gardening group or a Jazzercise class, but those things would require ongoing commitments, while touring the locally infamous Indian mounds would require only the better part of a morning: just go, look the place over, take in some fresh air, and back home—no major life change, no broadening of horizons, just out there and back.
She had visited the Black Creek State Park once before, although she couldn’t remember it. She’d been a girl of five and the family had stopped there on a trip to the Six Flags Amusement Park. The amusement park she did remember, the cotton candy and sodas and the giant cookies and the rides. She vaguely recalled her father standing beside her as she rose on a yellow and pink plastic horse, while her sister Anna, atop her own blue stallion, rolled her eyes, sighed theatrically, and demanded to ride the roller coaster.
She knew she had been to the mounds because her mother reminded her of the trip so many times. “You remember them, don’t you, Jenny?” her mother would say. “You found a part of an old rusted soda can. Anna said it was a piece of Indian pottery and took it home and tried to sell it to the museum.” Her mother had been a great source of memories, until she had died about a year before the divorce.
It was pancreatic cancer. The demon had crept inside her mother’s gently aging body and over a period of weeks had drained her life away, replacing it with a fading glow of terrified suffering and resignation. It hadn’t been right. Her mother had been a kind and gentle soul. She hadn’t deserved the death she got. But she was gone now, and Jennifer could not remember the Indian mounds.
She arrived at the Black Creek State Park Visitor Center at 9:00 on a Saturday morning. The sky hung low and gray and the air was balmy, not quite cool, with a rushing, lively feel. She parked her car and made her way inside where a blond teenaged girl in a dark green Polo shirt took her five dollars and handed her a brochure and a map.
“Alan will be here in a little while,” she said.
Jennifer did not ask who Alan was. Instead, she made her way to the small museum where she saw an elderly couple standing before the flat glass pane of a display case. He was tall and thin with a baseball cap and a golf shirt tucked firmly into his cargo shorts, while she was short and round with curly gray hair and a pair of huge sunglasses parked on top. They were staring intently at something beneath the glass, and she noticed the man was holding a map and a brochure in his hand as well.
He reached over and touched the woman’s shoulder, pointing at something in the case. The small gesture made her think of her ex-husband. James wasn’t tall or thin and he didn’t even own a baseball cap, but there was something about the way the man pointed and spoke to the woman that made her think of him. For many months after the split, most things reminded her of James, but lately she thought of him less and less often. She thought more of the child than of James, ironic, she thought, since she’d known James for the better part of two decades, and she’d never known the child.
The pregnancy, while it lasted, had never truly seemed real to her. The thought of becoming a mother never settled into her. It had hovered above her mind like a memory, like a fictional situation in a novel, until she lost it. Then, it had all seemed real. A child that was coming—she could never grasp that thought, but the child that was to come but did not, this idea had slipped inside of her, had taken up permanent residence in fact. She and James had stayed married for another ten years after she lost their child, but they were one couple before the loss, a different pair of people afterwards. Now, they were neither a couple nor a pair.
Over the next several minutes, a few more people came in: an incredibly round and dapper man with a bright blue vest and a gray fedora; a pair of college-aged girls, glancing up from their phones as they made their way through the museum; and a middle-aged couple, or at least she thought the pair was a couple, until closer examination revealed a dramatic age difference that convinced her they were more likely mother and son than husband and wife.
“Sorry I’m late. That traffic is something. We get much of a turn out?” She heard a loud, busy voice carrying into the museum from the lobby outside. A moment later, a young man no more than thirty strolled into the museum. He was tall and wore a dark green windbreaker with a state park insignia over the left breast and a pair of black, large-frame glasses. His hair was dirty blond and short but still had a rumpled look to it.
“Hey folks,” he said. The folks in the small museum turned towards him and drifted his way. Once everyone was more or less gathered around him, he went on. “My name is Alan. I’m with the State Parks Commission. We’re really glad to have you all today. How many of you have been here to the Black Creek site before?”
Jennifer did not raise her hand. She believed her mother, believed that the family had come here four decades before, but she didn’t think it counted if she couldn’t remember it. Besides, suppose Alan asked her some questions to verify her story. That wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to seem like a fraud, so she figured it would be best to keep what she did or didn’t remember to herself. Beside her, the round man in the fedora raised his short walking stick, smiled, and looked around at the group as if he expected questions himself.
Alan did not ask him any questions but said, “Mm-hmm, that’s good. Well, the rest of you are in for a real treat.” Mr. Fedora lowered his cane as Alan began giving a speech about the site, about how the land had been donated in the 1950s by a wealthy oil magnate who lived in New Orleans and about the Parks Commission had partnered with the nearby university to establish the park as it stood today.
Jennifer watched him, his hands before him about a foot apart, gesturing or bouncing in unison as he spoke. He wasn’t handsome—cute maybe, in a “someone should comb his hair and get him some nice clothes” kind of way. His hair reminded her not so much of her ex-husband but of her first real boyfriend, Chase Broughton, but Chase was wild natured, prone to violent tempers. They had been scarcely more than teenagers, but they had been in love, had lived together, had been engaged, but somewhere along the line it had all fallen apart, just as well, for Chase was not a kind soul.
She noticed her fellow tourists were following Alan out a glass door onto a rock-lined path that led into the woods a short distance off, so she fell in behind them. She could see Mr. Fedora making a clumsy attempt to chat up the two young ladies, who looked awkward and not very talkative.
“The Black Creek Indians,” Alan was saying, his voice less resonant in the blustery outdoors, “came into this area around 1,000 years ago, but there is disagreement about where exactly they came from.” The tall, elderly man in the baseball cap slipped past Jennifer to get up closer to the front of the group. His wife came up beside her and said, “You’ll have to excuse him. He’s just really excited to be here.”
Jennifer wasn’t sure what she was supposed to excuse him for but said, “Oh… it’s fine.” She watched as the gray-haired woman hurried along to catch up and thought of James again, of his constant preoccupation with his work, his car, his friends, his clothes, with everything, it seemed to her, except his wife. But that wasn’t entirely fair. He was not a bad husband, and she was not a bad wife. It was just that one day she had come home and he was not her husband anymore. He was someone else. Now he was someone else’s husband. The wedding had been exactly three days before the one-year anniversary of their divorce. She wished she did not know the exact number of days, for she doubted that he did.
The group moved down the walkway through a dense but narrow belt of woods and underbrush. Alan was describing the way of life of the Indians: the large-scale corn agriculture, the deer and turkey brought in by the hunting parties, the chiefs and priests, the ceremonies and festivals, the clay pots and figures that had survived the centuries. Jennifer drifted along with the others listening to Alan’s talk and to the soft wind in the trees. After a moment, the path led out from the woods into a huge, wide area, and there were the Black Creek Indian Mounds.
There were five of them, two of which were quite large, the size of three-or-four-story buildings. They sat together at one end of the wide field like a husband and wife, the smaller one closer to the creek, hemmed in and protected by the larger. The other three were the size of houses and lay in a neat row closer to the woods. Far off to the left, she could see a smattering of houses in the distance with farmland beyond. An enormous flock of small, black birds fluttered all over the place, crowding into a tree one minute, diving and settling among the long wiry grass the next.
There was definitely an energy about the place, a history that still echoed beneath the great expanse of sky.
“This,” Alan called to them, his voice strong as he gestured to the flat grassy fields, “was the central plaza. This was the public space where people gathered, especially for celebrations or ceremonies.” He strolled out into the tall grass, which was still wet with dew, while the group stayed on the relatively dry walkway. Jennifer thought that the great open area seemed emptier with a sole occupant standing alone in its midst, the wind riffling along the ground and in the distant trees.
She thought her father would appreciate the natural beauty of the place. He was the nature lover of the family. She had visited him down in Florida, where he had moved after her mother died. His home stood in a neat row of other homes, but there was no nature nearby, only dollar stores, strip malls, and chain drug stores. She thought that the next time he came to visit, if he ever did come to visit, she would like to bring him out to this place, to stroll with him through the woods and over these grassy fields.
Alan turned back toward the small group. “Over there, on the other side of these smaller mounds were most of the houses.” He gestured towards the largest of the mounds a hundred yards away. “The chief and his family and the other important leaders lived on top of those mounds. Usually, they would be hidden from the common folk down here, but when there was some ceremonial function, the chief or the head priest would stand up there so that everyone could see him.”
He took a few steps parallel to the path. “The archaeologists believe that at one time there were over a thousand people living on this site with another five thousand or more in the surrounding countryside. All of those folks would come here for important occasions, into this area right here, between this row of smaller mounds and those larger ones.”
The group moved slowly along, drifting in the direction of the largest mound. The man who had accompanied his mother called over to Alan, “So, where did all of these people go?”
The round man in the fedora spoke up in a high-pitched but strong voice. “They must have all died of smallpox when De Soto and the Spanish came through.” He glanced at Jennifer, a smile on his face.
“No,” Alan said, “this site was already abandoned at the time of the De Soto expedition. De Soto did have a recorded encounter with the Coosa Indians at a place fifty miles from here, but that was about hundred years or so after this site was abandoned. As for these folks, the Black Creek Indians, we don’t know any more about where they went than where they came from.”
Jennifer forced herself not to look at the Fedora-man. She followed the group towards the large mounds, each of which had a long wooden staircase leading to its summit. Everyone started climbing the stairs on the largest mound, “Mound A” she’d heard Alan call it, but she kept walking past to the other large mound, the one closer to the creek. She climbed to the top before realizing she was alone.
The top was larger and flatter than she had expected, thirty yards to a side. The side opposite the stairs overlooked the Black Creek as it curled through the woods. She could see its waters shimmering and rippling through the trees. She stood for a minute gazing over the tranquil scene and then made her way back to the top of the stairs. A square, wooden plaque explained that this mound had been home to several different buildings over a hundred-year period, but little was known about them because, unlike Mound A, Mound B had never been excavated beneath its surface.
She looked over the area and was struck by how cozy and contained it was, a little world unto itself, just the size for an extended family. She thought of her own family—or families. She thought of her mother, dead and buried, of Anna far away in Nevada with three kids her own, of her father down in Florida. She thought of the old kitchen table where the four of them had eaten their suppers, of the black leather couch where she and Anna had watched the massive console television. They were scattered now, but they had not been her only family. There was James, who she thought would help her grow old. She and Chase had even been a family, at least for a year or two, even if they had never thought of themselves that way, their relationship consisting mostly of smoking pot and eating pizza, having sex and watching movies. She remembered the old oak tree outside their apartment, the beat-up BMW they shared, their cat Marco.
She looked over the countryside that spread out before her all the way to the sky. In the distance, she could see power lines and cell phone towers, the fleck of a house, the glint of a moving car. Acres of woods smudged the landscape and low hills bent and turned the horizon. Below her, the three small mounds seemed tired and unimportant, just a row of rumpled bulges on the earth below. She looked to her left and slightly upwards where she could see the rest of the tour group milling around on the top of the largest mound. She could see Alan, in his dark green windbreaker, talking with the elderly couple. The two girls stood on the backside of the summit holding their phones out in front of them, allowing the small gadgets to appreciate the beauty of the place. The man in the fedora stood in the front looking out over the plaza and the small mounds.
A huge flock of the black birds swarmed out of the trees, lurched in one direction, twisted, turned and then settled into the grassy area between the mounds. She watched the small creatures flitting and hopping along the ground, their presence giving it a lively, animated quality. She felt a light drizzle beginning to form in the slow steady wind and then she could see Alan leading the group down the long wooden staircase. She felt it was time to go, to head back to the small building with its gift shop and museum, but she lingered for a moment longer, watching as the gray sky lowered over the empty fields. Just as Alan set foot off the stairs and onto the ground, the flock of birds surged into the air in a pulsing and twirling mass, swirled together for a moment, and disappeared into the trees.