Chapter One

The Cigar Box

My story begins with a cigar box. It’s wrapped in brown paper and tied with jute string, delivered to my office at Leeander & Co’, a moderate sized and somewhat esoteric financial organization in New York City. The package bears no return address, only a post mark from Socorro, New Mexico. After further scrutiny, the parcel gives no additional clues as to its sender. I cut the utilitarian strings with scissors I take from my desk drawer. With effort, I manage not to cut myself, though I do receive a small paper cut on my left middle finger in the process of shucking off the rough paper covering. The blood disappears with a swipe of my thumb.

The cigar box, constructed of wood rather than cardboard, looks scuffed and well-traveled. I flip up the lid and gaze at its contents and find a number of small items individually wrapped in soft leather. It all seems vaguely familiar. I experience a sudden intake of breath as I liberate them. “Of course,” I whisper. More physical effort, and within ten minutes I have disclosed all the travelers and arranged them on my desk. 

I view an array of small stone objects and a primitive stone knife. The five-and-a-half-inch obsidian blade, is bound with fine leather sinew to a smooth wooden haft. It has no sheath, only the leather wrapping. I gingerly pick it up. It seems sturdy and gleams sharp in the fluorescent light. I carefully return it to its place in the display. The objects recognizable from my youth, are Zuni fetishes, small stone animals, each with a spiritual function. I had played with them as a young child. My father collected them, and I knew them to be ancient, carved in the minimalist style of old artisans. The shape of the stone gave rise to the image, only slightly modified by the carver. The less action of the carver, the more powerful the fetish. This, I knew from early lessons by the legendary archaeologist who is my father. 

Many archaeologists specialize early in their careers, homing-in on a particular culture or geographic area, but not my father. Doug Grabil, moved from culture to culture, and place to geographical place, with an eclectic regularity that was confusing to colleagues. Although he would eventually be known for his innovative methodologies that became standard in the field, he remained a controversial figure. 

These five carvings were my early friends. Often, my only ones. I played with them on the various dirt floors or in the primitive shelters that constituted my early habitations, as I followed my father in the wake of his professional meanderings. It was a lonely childhood, but the rough lifestyle had its benefits. Learning to walk without props or assistance, albeit a crude form of bipedalism, was perhaps the first. My father made no concession to immobility, and left me to work out ambulation on my own. A first-class, though non-traditional, education was the second; Doug Grabil, was a scholar in the classical liberal arts tradition and schooled me assiduously. 

My name is Tasha Grabil; actually, it’s Tasha Kor Grabil. Tasha kor means thank you in Dari, the language of Afghanistan—the country in which I first appeared. I dropped the Kor early on as it took too much explanation for one exhibiting limited verbal facility. I was born with cerebral palsy. A disability where my brain speaks poorly to the rest of my body, causing paralysis in some instances and spastic twitches in others. My father, however, never let me use my condition as an excuse; he rarely seemed to acknowledge it, more or less made accommodations to it. Hence, if I was to get around, I would have to walk. I went through my crawling stage later than most, but learned to walk in the awkward lurching mode I employ today. If I were to communicate, I would have to learn to talk. Halting and cacophonous, I learned to speak. My father’s refusal to acknowledge my disability was his third great gift to me. A harsh but effective pedagogy.

Now properly oriented in history, I look at the five objects: there’s an eagle, or hawk, a snake, a bear, a mountain lion, and a rodent-like thing I had always interpreted as a mouse. I try to remember the names I had given my friends and can only remember two. The mountain lion was called Numa, and the snake, Hista, both names taken from the book Tarzan of the Apes, that my father employed as my first reading primer. These five fetishes were unique to my father, who always carried them throughout our treks, and I felt special that he gave me these objects to play with. My progress with language was fostered mainly through conversations with these stone animals and through stories we would create and act out on our earthen floors. 

Through a flood of memories, I look at the characters assembled on my desk, and wonder why they have been sent. And what about the knife? The fetishes are all familiar, the cigar box, maybe, but I have never before laid eyes on the knife, of that I am sure. I would have remembered as beautiful an object as this. I pick up the mountain lion with my left hand and hold it between my thumb and middle finger; I see a flash of the southwestern desert, again from my childhood. The image fades, and I put down the carving, noticing a spot of blood left on its back from the earlier paper cut.

It could only have been my father who had sent them to me—but why? I had not spoken to him for six years, the result of a savage argument over my college plans.

I remembered the conversation well, having replayed it over the years. “Tasha you should pursue a degree in archaeology,” my father counseled. “Computers are becoming important in research, important in imaging; we could continue as colleagues. You are good with computers.” Things might have been different if he had left it there, as I still sought his approval, but he chose to add, “if not with spade and trowel.” This last phrase seemed to qualify his preceding remarks and left me angry. It invoked images of my disability—of my limitations. Images of all the dirt floors of our sundry habitations and memories of all the times I was left alone on dirt floors or sitting for hours on blankets beside excavations. I was fed up with dirt floors, and dirt altogether.

In my fury, I said “I’m going into business and finance. I want something clean.” Why I said that, I still don’t know. I knew nothing of business, or what the study of finance would involve. However, I knew of my father’s disdain for paper-pushing and desk work. Of his view of academic positions as composed of officious nonsense. It accounted for his preference for field research positions. It was said to wound. I believe there was no little revenge in my remark. In retrospect, it was petty, but having said it, it crystalized into a commitment.

As our argument raged, both our resolves hardened and remained so until I left at age seventeen to take up a full-ride scholarship at the University of Michigan. It was no coincidence UM was one of the finest archaeological schools in the world.

Looking back, the arguments seemed trivial, but the result was little communication between us. But now this package.

An answer came in the form of a registered letter from New Mexico State University, my father’s current platform. He was, I believed, engaged in the excavation of a Mimbres site, a prehistoric culture known for its intricate black-on-white pottery. While we’d had no communication over the last years, I always kept track of him through the internet. Although my father ranged throughout the world, his epicenter was always New Mexico and the Southwest, where he returned regularly. 

Dear Miss Grabil, the letter began. Miss, for Christ’s sake, good thing they’re steeped in tradition.

Dear Miss Grabil, we regret to inform you that your father was found dead at the site he was in charge of excavating. The police are investigating it as foul play. 

Foul play?

Please inform us of arrangements for disposal of the remains.

Disposal of the remains! Archaeologists to the end. 

The letter was signed by the chair of the department of anthropology.