In the Tendaguru Beds
I worked in this middle of nowhere place made of one color and no water, no water stubborn as a forty-day flood in reverse. Made of one color upon one color, one shade of brown pressing into another shade of brown, sifting through a floor of earth so starved from leaching the mantle bones became visible.
This middle of nowhere is where I saw the ghost of the Kentrosaurus. In life, only an animal like anything else. One in a family of many other stegosaurian dinosaurs. But in that single moment it was an absolute truth, an actual shimmering miracle-ghost moving slowly amid bones of its kind. Shuffling up and down the dark and light browns as a vapor made up of pure sadness.
I told this one and I told that one. I told anyone who didn’t immediately turn away, and for a time they hardly listened. People didn’t seem to care. But finally a few came to this middle of nowhere and that all changed.
They brought Tanzanian cicerones, camped, and held vigils from three in the morning until daylight. In large white hats and new boots with loads of supplies and Range Rovers, they came. The scent of their mixed sweat rose on the air in a musk, a plea for action, a kind of mating call. Week after week, the groups kept coming until the Tendaguru Beds could hold no more. And still the vigils, still the stories, and all of them asking me to tell them again of the poor animal’s lumbering sadness. When I tried to tell them how I felt when I saw the ghost of the Kentrosaurus, their faces were as fixed as knots along a tree trunk. But what did it look like, they asked. They asked and asked.
Every evening I told the groups what the ghost had looked like: A long tail with spikes, a long neck with a flat head at the end, a mouth with only one tooth. Its skin, its armor, was colorless in the shimmer, more like a fog taking shape over a knoll and then lifting into the air and separating on its way toward the sky. It made no sound, and moved not a single stone, and only stayed for about ten seconds.
When the groups realized I had little else to tell about what the ghost did, they began to split into even smaller groups for the nightly vigils. But I stopped them on the last night, the night before everyone had agreed to move camp deeper into Tanzania and search elsewhere. No one asked how seeing it had made me feel, so I started telling them.
I felt like the cosmos, billions and billions of years old and evolving one second after another, my thoughts spread out in a rosy plume of residual radiation from some universe explosion, my body an elemental collection, building blocks of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium.
I felt like photosynthesis, a song of the warm plant stem brought to life by the sun, like the first organism and then again like the first flatworm to have sight, an array of darks and lights, shadow patterns.
I felt like part of an enormous spiritual secret, the smallest part, but powerful and important
But most of all I felt like the dying hours of the Kentrosaurus, sad and defeated and so alone, surrounded by others already dead. I felt this sadness in my throat as it dropped to its knees and hit my heart, and I started to cry.
It was revelation, the revelation of a revelation, and now they all wanted to feel.
At least they believed me and believed there was something to feel. They wanted to know what I already had, the absolute truth that, after any given day, and after the last day, if a Kentrosaurus can live on, so can we.
The vigils went longer and longer, lasting all day and all night. You could see people’s minds changing from the outside inward as their body parts shifted – the eyes shining more brightly, lips parted in constant eagerness, the whole of their bodies leaning forward as if pulled by a new gravity.
The renewed excitement lasted for a time, but soon a rumbling started throughout the crowd. I heard parts here and parts there. They mentioned a Chinese man who wrote an account of finding dragon bones some two-thousand years ago. They speculated that Greeks and Romans may have found bones of their own which inspired their stories of griffins, ogres, and other mythological creatures.
Myth. The word slowly gained power. Ghosts? Feeling like the universe, like a flower? The longer the people went without seeing the Kentrosaurus ghost the more likely it was for them that I had seen nothing more than an eruption of pale gas from some pocket within the earth shimmering in the moonlight. A kind of fog, just as I had first described it. Or any number of other possibilities, no matter how improbable. I became the myth maker. Myth maker soon became charlatan and charlatan then became liar. At best, those who didn’t dismiss my account entirely saw me as no different than the Chinese man from two-thousand years ago or the Greeks, someone creating a story to match evidence he couldn’t explain, an experience he had no means of understanding.
They moved out more quickly than they arrived, with their white hats and broken in boots, their luggage in tow and the cicerones leading the way. Within a few days, I was alone again in the Tendaguru Beds with the half-skeletons and the thirsty earth and the cheerless variations on brown. The silence was a newly fallen snow at the edge of the world, and, having nothing better to do and no reason not to, I continued my work.
I worked for what must have been five more years, mostly alone. An occasional crew would travel through and work out a week’s wages and leave. Even the university stopped getting in touch. My body stiffened and slowed and my mind closed in on itself. The ghost, the miracle, all those feelings from inside like a well filled with a million joyful tears, scattered outside the boundaries of my memory until I could only recall that something special had happened once, had happened to me and only me.
I held to this last bit of knowledge and resigned to stay in this middle of nowhere place. I held on for something special, wandering every inch of land in a dry whisper, waiting to discover something more than the bones of a long dead lizard. I watched and I listened and I waited, moving not a single stone, ten seconds at time.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His stories have appeared in Unbroken Journal, Gravel, New World Writing, Pank, Monkeybicycle, and other places. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016. If one sentence defines him it is, “The Atlanta Braves will have a winning season again.”