John Shepherd’s pack weighed him down, straps cutting into fleece, water bottle digging into his hip. The hike had taken longer than he’d anticipated. The light was fading. The Cimarron River flowed by. He reached into his pack and pulled out his headlamp. At least he’d brought that. The side of the mountain against the darkening sky loomed closer each time he glimpsed it through the tangle of forest. Then a break, and the headlamp beam caught stone. Shepherd traced the cliff face ’til he came upon a cave.
Inside, he slipped into his sleeping bag and ate an energy bar. The headlamp was off, and he hadn’t bothered with a fire, even though the late fall night chill was already beginning to build. It was still only early evening, but Shepherd was tired.
He’d worked early that morning in Albuquerque and hadn’t slept well in weeks. The strain of his studies—his dissertation, “Revising the Narrative: Why the Ancient Ones Left Chaco Canyon”—had taken its toll. Days spent waking the past meant nights alive with it. He dreamt of hungry children, women searching the rocks for water, dry gourds. He saw skeletal men, ashamed they could no longer provide, long processions of people leaving their stone homes, bodies bent under the weight of their burdens, thirsts, defeats.
And so, hoping the dark embrace of the cave would afford him a full night’s sleep, he skipped the fire, huddled up in his sleeping bag, and, sure enough, soon drifted off.
But he awoke to darkness pressing against his chest. He fumbled for his headlamp and, half-expecting to see someone there besides himself, illuminated the cave. It was empty. But something had changed: the stone walls, he realized, were no longer bare.
Here, it wasn’t drought or lack of game that drove people from their dwellings but—he shuddered—terrible beasts, towering creatures.
He arose and shined his light on a dense quilt of petroglyphs. They seemed to show an ancient people engaged in a struggle: hungry men, women, and children forced to abandon their homes. But while he recognized some of the pieces, the images told a story that coincided only up to a certain point with the story his research had unearthed. Here, it wasn’t drought or lack of game that drove people from their dwellings but—he shuddered—terrible beasts, towering creatures. The petroglyphs showed them snatching babies, tearing men and women apart, ripping, eating, ripping, feasting. The Ancient Ones did not leave to find food, Shepherd saw as he followed the paintings deeper into the cave. They left because their world had been destroyed. The giants dammed rivers, devoured the canyon’s animals, and picked the farms clean of crops. The people had had to flee. Flee or die.
The petroglyphs led him deeper and deeper, until what he’d thought was the back of the cave gave way to a narrow passage into another chamber. There, the beam of his headlamp illuminated, piece by bewildering piece, the ash-white remains of what must have been enormous, seemingly hominid animals: rib cages arching toward the ceiling, sharp teeth lining long jaws.
Shepherd shook his head in confusion.
He should have stayed longer. He should have stayed to see if what he saw he actually saw, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. The terror was too great. He was already back beside his sleeping bag, stuffing it back into his pack, already hiking back through the forest to his car, already wondering if what he’d seen could possibly have been real, already back beside the gentle gurgle of the Cimarron River, when he realized that the secrets of the cave would have to remain just that—secret.
Power hidden, he thought, was power submerged. So long as the giants slept, the world was safe. Dreams had led him here, not to uncover a secret, but to learn how to keep it hidden.