When, in my first year as a doctoral student at the University of California, I had been invited to serve as the research assistant for the eminent anthropologist Dr. Terrence Schaffer. My work involved pouring over texts, finding citations, and doing literature reviews. Boring as hell, but I knew that this was only the beginning. By my second year, I would be working on my pre-candidacy paper, and by my third year I would be traveling with Dr. Schaffer to various sites throughout the Southwest, visiting the ancient adobe homes of the Anazazi.
The Anazazi abandoned their homes around 1000 years ago for no obvious trace. Theories abounded, but Dr. Schaffer had his own. He never shared it with me because, he believed, he needed proof before he could confide in anyone. So he traveled routinely to the Four Corners region.
In the middle of my first year, he came back with a small box overpacked with straw. I knew enough to know that it was some sort of artifact. He locked himself into his room.
He missed classes. He wouldn’t return phone calls. But Dr. Schaffer was eccentric, and as his research assistant it was my responsibility to cancel his engagements until he was ready. But he was never ready. I stood by the door of his office and would sometimes press my ear against the heavy wooden door. For the first few days of his self-inprisonment I heard loud breathing. Then I started to hear muttering, which I assumed was the professor reasoning aloud. The breathing grew faster and more labored, like someone hyperventilating or doing heavy exercise.
Then the smell from his office started to permeate the lab where I worked. It was subtle at first, but then it stank of urine and excrement and something else. I could taste ozone in the air. Dr. Schaffer did not like to be bothered, but I was having trouble coming up with excuses for why the custodians at night couldn’t go into his office to clean. I didn’t have a key to his room, and I worried that he would be angry with me if I allowed anyone else to see his work. So I borrowed a key from the anthropology secretary and pushed the door. It was obstructed by something–books, maybe? I pushed as hard as I could, and eventually the books gave way and I was able to stumble inside.
The stink of the office rushed past me, and I struggled not to vomit. It wasn’t urine I was smelling–or perhaps it was urine also–but it was primarily the smell of rot. Inside, against the door, was the professor, piled up against the door. There were scratches on the door, and Dr. Schaffer’s fingernails were gone, only dried blood covering the jagged bits of bone that protruded from the tips of his fingers. His mouth was wide open in terror, and his face was sunken in as if he’d been drained. His skin was leathery and gray, and small white maggots wormed inside his mouth and had eaten through the black raisins that were once his eyes.
But the breathing and the light muttering was still present in the room. It was coming from the muddy brown statue that lay on the professor’s desk, facing the door and Dr. Schaffer’s slumped body. It grinned a wide, toothy grin, and its wild eyes seemed to dart around the room. And as I looked at it, I wanted nothing less than to touch it.