Past, Present & Beyond – And no birds sang, Part II

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly stories of inexplicable mysteries.

The uncanny tales that I’ve written for the paper over the last two months have prompted a few people to ask me whether they’re based on facts, or are pieces of fiction. The answer is that they’re a bit of both. All of the stories are set in real places, and all (with one exception) are based on accounts that I’ve either read about, or been told, and which those involved believe to be true. I’ve added a few fictional flourishes here and there, but have otherwise not tampered with the facts.

The one exception is the story about the pictographs up Oregon Jack Valley. The pictographs do exist, but nothing like what I describe in the story has actually happened to anyone, as far as I know. Even then, though, the story was based on – not facts, precisely, but my own experiences in that area, and stories I’ve heard about it.

The truth is that that part of Oregon Jack Valley has an aura about it, something that makes some people feel uneasy. I felt it myself, one day many years ago, when I had driven up there to visit the pictographs. It was a bright, hot summer day, the air tangy with pine and grass and that thin, sharp, dusty scent that sometimes catches at the back of the throat. The sunlight filtering down through the trees was soft and warm, and in the canopy of boughs overhead could be heard the faint rustle of birds, their occasional squawks and cries carrying on the light breeze.

I set off up the trail that leads to the pictographs, and was about halfway up it when I rounded a rocky outcrop and came to an abrupt halt. There in front of me, in the middle of the path, was the skeleton of a small animal, about the size of a raccoon. It had been picked clean, and all that was left was bone.

Well, the sight brought me up short, as you can imagine, although finding a dead animal in the woods should hardly be a surprise. What was surprising was the realization that the skeleton was perfectly intact. It was laid out on a bed of moss, the bones gleaming dully against the green, as if someone had taken it whole from a museum and placed it there only moments before.

That struck me as odd, given that when something dies in the woods it usually doesn’t take long for it to become part of the food chain, and usually in a fairly messy way. If the animal in front of me had been eaten by anything else after it died, then whatever snacked on it hadn’t so much as dislodged a single bone. Either that, or the animal had died and simply been left untouched, for however long it takes for a good-sized creature to be reduced to nothing but bone.

It was then that I noticed the silence. The sounds I had heard on my way up the trail had stopped, as suddenly and completely as if someone had turned off a radio. No birds chirping and fluttering, no insects clicking and chittering, no animals scampering up and down trunk and branch. Even the breeze had fled.

It was, I’m sure, merely one of those moments when a number of things combine to produce, completely naturally, an unexpected effect; just as I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation that accounts for the intact skeleton. I can’t remember how long the silence lasted; long enough for me to be relieved when a bird finally cheeped from a nearby branch. I stepped over the skeleton, and continued up the path to the cliff, where I took some pictures of the pictographs.

As I said, that was some two decades or so ago, and I think that between then and this past June I’ve only been up there once. In June, though, I found myself in the area, and decided to pay a visit to the pictographs. The day was overcast and grey, with the sky threatening rain, so I decided it would be a quick visit: up the path, take a few pictures, then back down to the van. No skeleton on the path, which was a relief. I got to the end of the trail, and looked for the pictographs, which I remembered as being more or loess right at the head of the trail.

They were gone.

And I do mean gone, as in vanished. There was barely a trace that they had ever been there. I walked along the base of the wall a short distance in each direction, thinking that I had mistaken the location of the pictographs on the cliff face, but they were nowhere to be seen.

I considered walking a little further along the cliff, but since I hadn’t planned on going for a hike I wasn’t wearing very suitable shoes. So I turned and headed back to the car, thinking on my way down the trail that I hoped it was still there, and hadn’t vanished as the pictographs had appeared to.

It hadn’t vanished, but it wouldn’t start; something I wrote about in an editorial back in August. I’m sure it’s a pure coincidence that the car chose that spot in which to (temporarily) play dead. It’s funny, though; whatever the problem was, it hasn’t occurred anywhere else in the months since. And I’ve been assured that the pictographs are still there; I’d simply misremembered where they were, and didn’t walk far enough along the cliff to see them.

Is there something uncanny about that area? Or does everything I’ve described have a perfectly rational and natural explanation? I’m sure it does. I do know another story about the area that doesn’t seem to have a rational and natural explanation – but that’s a tale for another time. . . .

Barbara Roden

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