This is the seventh year in a row I’ve run this series in April.
Today’s story: Graves of the Dead: A Mysterious Mound and What Was Inside.
After starting in Pittsburgh, the Ohio River heads north and then quickly loops south, as if realizing the error in its ways. It is a place to get lost and to get found. The river bends and twists here with energy, like a snake caught by its tail. There is an optimism in the current, movement and ambition, married with the skeletons of our built world and those worlds that came before that rise out of the fields and hills along the banks. Sometimes in the grace of dawn these structures appear as nearly flesh and blood. But that hope recedes as the sun climbs over the hill, past the chestnuts and maples. Time and gravity wait to do their parts.
It’s hard in these settings not to think about the end of cultures, of species, and of ways of life. Maybe it’s the times we live in, with the polar bears trapped on their shrinking ice floes or the Amazon rain forest slowly succumbing to the chainsaw of development. Hard to say. It’s not just animals, of course. Extinction, the end and the uncertainty and mystery that come with it, covers a lot of ground. You know where it leads, but you are never really quite sure where you are on the journey.
What’s needed is a guidepost, which is both more and less than a mileage marker, meaningful and maybe a little muddy, like the river itself. That is the best way to approach the Grave Creek Mound, which is in the middle of the city of Moundsville, W. Va. It is in the state’s northern panhandle, with Ohio just across the river. Sometimes called the Mammoth Mound, it is the largest conical burial mound in the United States: 69 feet tall and roughly 900 feet in circumference.
Burial mounds are an unusual type of antiquity, beautiful in a way that an engineer can appreciate. By one measurement, Grave Creek contains 55,000 cubic yards of dirt. A standard wheelbarrow holds perhaps a quarter of a cubic yard, so you get the idea that this is a lot of earth that has to first be dug somewhere, then moved somewhere else and not just dumped willy-nilly on the ground but in the right spot at successively higher and more difficult-to-reach places.
These mounds dot the Ohio River valley, and they were among the earliest oddities encountered by explorers traveling the river in the late 1700s. A man named Joseph Tomlinson is said to be the first settler to come upon the Grave Creek Mound. In 1770, Tomlinson had moved from Maryland to the area, which at the time was the westernmost reach of the state of Virginia. He chose some promising land a few miles south of Wheeling and built a small cabin. One day, he was out hunting and shot a deer. His dog tracked the animal and Tomlinson skinned the deer. Heading home, he came to a rise. He walked up the wooded knoll and realized he was atop an enormous conical-shaped mound. Although the mound was only a quarter-mile or so from his cabin, it had been hidden there all along.
What if you were a family man. Doing pretty well for yourself. Looking for a getaway place out in the country where you could take the wife and kids for long weekends. Two hour drive from where you work in an urban environment, but deep in rural woods.
You’ve been scouting real estate listings for months, looking for a great deal. Then you spot it. A rustic cabin on a couple hundred acres. Incredible deal. You drive there to check it out. On your own. Want to surprise the family if the place checks out.
The cabin is a bit more rustic than you had hoped, but certainly livable. A little elbow grease and some touch-ups, it’d be fine as is. Can always remodel down the road after you make partner with the firm. The real estate agent is a bit odd, keeps glancing over her shoulder, this way and that. Nervous chatter. Something about “pay no attention to folks ’round here, what they may say, old wives tales is all.” You’re not really paying attention as you circle around the house, breathing deep the fresh air, taking in the thick, verdant woods.
You’d like to check out the rest of the property and start off heading south, but the agent… months from now as you try to remember every detail that led you into this trauma, you will have forgotten how she clamped a bony hand around your elbow and steered you in another direction.
So you buy the place, the agent accepting the deal without hesitation when you offer $20,000 under the sales price. What a great deal!
The family loves it. Kids race around outside. No worries. That night with your son and daughter fast asleep, you and your wife make love to christen the place. Smart guy, you think. This was a great idea.
The next morning, you get up early. Tiptoe outside, don’t want to wake the family. Want to check out the property. A king and his domain!
Ten minutes into your exploration, you see it. The Mound. A huge ass steep hill sitting in the south side of your acreage. How did I not see this before? And what the hell is it?
You circle around the Mound. It’s just… bizarre, out here in the middle of nowhere, flat everywhere, then… this.
What’s that? A tunnel opening, almost entirely covered by overgrowth. You yank at weeds and vines. It’s a tunnel, all right. You pull out your cellphone. Gonna call the wife. Honey, you gotta see this. But that’s odd. No reception here. Works everywhere else on the property. Not here.
You turn on the phone flashlight app. Shine it into the tunnel. Hard-packed dirt floor, walls, and ceiling reinforced by wood support beams. Somebody went to a lot of trouble with this tunnel, though judging by the age of the wood, it’s been decades since it was built.
You should turn back. You should go home, get the family, show off this damn thing. But curiosity gets the better of you. Kneeling down, you creep inside the tunnel…
I think I’ll pretty much stop there. Don’t want to get into the name you see scratched into the wall: “R.L. Mickey, by God, here this day, April 19, 1825.” Or further on how you find walls streaked with red. Could that be dried blood? Or the odd clay tablet you find on the floor. Weird runic lettering. Not to mention the strange smells or that weird whistling sound like wind blowing… but this deep in the tunnel, not a trace of wind.
I can say this. You were really stupid — and you know this now as your life is being hacked out of you — to have ever taken a shovel to that tunnel and dug deeper into that goddamned Mound.
My twenty ninth story idea for the month. And it’s yours. Free!
What would you do with it?
Each day this month, I invite you to join me in comments to do some brainstorming. Gender bend, genre bend, what if. Take each day’s story idea and see what it can become when we play around with it. These are all valuable skills for a writer to develop.
See you in comments (hit Reply to join the conversation). And come back tomorrow for another Story Idea Each Day For A Month.