Shao Xuan sat in the modified bus, watching the rolling mountains outside the window. Summer had just passed, the mountains were green and teeming with life. After living in the city for such a long time, his frustrations at work were long gone upon witnessing such beauty. Shao Xuan had initially intended to get a few friends out for a vacation but he hadn’t expected to be dragged to an archaeological dig after he coincidentally met an old classmate, Shi Qi.
They were on the way to an out-of-the-way little village, saying they found stuff from the Stone Age there. There was already a group of archaeologists there, they were the second batch.
Shao Xuan listened as his old classmate explained from the skulls of human ancestors, to ancient stonewares, to cave drawings-- even showing him a few pictures for good measure. Researchers are like that, they couldn’t stop once they started talking about their interests. Although Shao Xuan didn’t understand, he respected his friend enough to listen.
On the sheets of paper were discovered cave drawings. He looked at them. His nephews and nieces in kindergarten could draw better.
The line drawings were simple, you could almost tell they were of hunters hunting, then there were several animals. As for the rest, Shao Xuan didn’t know what they were.
“This is a goat? That’s too big,” he said, pointing at one of the pictures.
In the picture was the drawing of a goat with long, curved horns. There was a person holding a bow and arrow next to it, though the proportions were all wrong. The human was only as tall as its back. The next few drawings too, the rabbit’s proportions were like a lion’s, and the man riding a horse on the left-- its tail was too short.
Not every drawing had odd proportions though. Different drawings from different areas, different eras had different drawing styles. The next picture was one of a group of men hunting with their dogs, this one had more realistic proportions.
He flipped through the pages. A few more coloured photos with higher resolution.
“Hehe, this one’s more dramatic. The deer’s antlers are too big, and these people, they’re heads only reach the goat’s back. And the people in this one are only as tall as the deer’s legs… And what’s this in the right corner, an eight-legged crocodile?” Shao Xuan could not bring himself to appreciate cavemen drawings.
“Ancient humans might not have placed emphasis on this,” explained Shi Qi.
“So you mean ancient humans did not draw ‘realistically’, and they drew dramatically?”
“Maybe,” Shi Qi scratched his head. “At that era, humans did not place much emphasis on artistry, these might have been symbols. An archaeologist once speculated that the people drew drawings of hunting perhaps as an instruction to warriors to scout before the tribesmen went hunting. As a reference. Or perhaps it’s a ritual we don’t know about, especially the drawings depicting ‘shamans’.”
“Shamans…” An image of an eccentric, old psychic appeared in his mind.
“Sigh, why are you making that face? Let me tell you this- shamans might not have been ranked low among their tribesmen. In fact, they could have been highly respected.”
“I know. ‘Psychics’.” Shao Xuan nodded.
Shi Qi wiggled a finger and brought a folder over. There were pictures of drawings and symbols. He turned to Shao Xuan, “If these totems are the personification of natural elements, a symbol of human and nature as one, then shamans are the ‘naturification’ of humans. The job of being a ‘shaman’ has been around since the Stone Age…”
Shi Qi continued his monologue on ‘shamans’, the development of research, jargons and their stories. Shao Xuan could feel a headache coming.
Shao Xuan did not know much about this, nor was he interested. If it wasn’t for this old friend, he wouldn’t have been here at all. In the past, he used to think of expensive antiques when archaeology was mentioned. Shi Qi’s research was more ancient than that though, so ancient no one would be interested. A few days ago he’d heard a debate on the radio about whether Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or Ancient Aliens Creation Theory was right? Shao Xuan was bored so he listened for a bit but did not dwell much on it.
On the other hand, he knew this guy was obsessed with ancient humans. His friend often talked to people about ancient human bone remains when they were in high school.
“You wouldn’t understand if I use jargon anyway. Let’s talk about something simpler. Here!” Shi Qi pointed at a point in the picture. “Oracle inscriptions and bronze scripts mention the word ‘shaman’, though they look like this.”
Shao Xuan peered at the point he was pointing at. It was a symbol, it looked like two overlapping ‘gong (工)’ characters.
“This symbol has appeared on several ancient pottery and statues. Shamans were also involved in stuff like hunting, prayers and rescuing. You could say that shamans were scientists of their time. However, it’s all speculation. Records from ancient times may not be true either. People like to exaggerate after all. Isn’t there a saying, ‘there is never truth in history’? Archaeology only scrapes the surface, who knows what it was really like?”
“The cave we found this time is related to shamans too, they’re in the last few pictures here. The first batch of people sent us pictures of cave drawings and also found the overlapping gong characters. They think it might be a shaman’s residence. There was a short earthquake last month at the village, that was how the cave was exposed. No one had seen it before.”
Upon arriving at his point, he snapped his folder shut and looked around him. When he was sure his supervisors and fellow researchers weren’t paying attention, in a mysterious tone, he said in a low voice, “I heard a child was the one who first found the cave. From what a junior researcher said, the kid saw a peculiar bug as big as a watermelon crawling into his backyard. The kid was a brave one, he followed the bug but it disappeared into the cave. The kid then told the adults about it and that’s how they discovered the cave.”
“A bug as big as a watermelon?” Shao Xuan thought it was ridiculous. Anyone who’d heard it for the first time would too. “The kid might’ve been lying?”
Shi Qi shook his head. “What’s more, the first batch of people said there were fossils of ancient organisms in the stones used to build the yard’s wall. Shi Qi paused for a moment to rub away the goosebumps on his arm. “The kid who found the cave showed people the rock where the bug came from. They found ancient fossils on it but they were incomplete, just a part of the organism. According to professional speculations, if this creature were alive, they would be as big as a watermelon and look similar to what the kid described.”
“...That sounds awesome but only the kid saw it? Why didn’t other people see it crawl from their walls?” Shao Xuan was interested now.
Shi Qi shook his head. “I don’t know, we’ll ask later. We’re arriving soon anyway.”
It was already eleven, almost noon, when they arrived. Shao Qi ate a simple lunch with Shi Qi and the rest, then went back on the bus.
Shi Qi and the rest were excited. They did not rest after the meal, planning to start work immediately.
He had briefed Shao Xuan early on about things he had to take note of- what he couldn’t touch, where he couldn’t go, the people in charge, etc.
“I’ll talk to you after my work’s done. Go take a walk, this is a nice place with green hills and clear water. It’ll cleanse your lungs of the dust from the city.”
As he spoke, Shi Qi packed his tools and left with his supervisor. Shao Xuan wasn’t allowed to follow, and wasn’t interested to.
Shao Xuan was left alone on the bus. It was quiet once the windows and door were closed. He hadn’t been able to sleep well these past few nice, and he’d been listening to Shi Qi along the way. Now that it was quiet, he felt sleepy.
When he woke, it was already two in the afternoon. Shao Xuan planned to take a walk, only to see Shi Qi returning in his work clothes. He took a document, then left hurriedly to work once again.
However, before he got off, he dug a rock as big as a chicken egg out of his pocket and tossed it to Shao Xuan. “I picked this up from the cave when no one was looking. I don’t think it’s anything important. I can’t give you any ‘antiques’ but this rock’s from the cave. Quite smooth, I think someone left it there. A souvenir for you.”
The rock was picked up near the cave, far from the centre of the cave. It was obviously made of a different mineral composition from the rest of the rocks they dug up but there was no marking on it. The first batch of people were all focused on the Stone Age ‘antiques’ and cave drawings, no one paid attention to this piece of rock near the mouth of the cave. It caught Shi Qi’s eye though, so he picked it up and put it in his pocket.
Catching the rock, Shao Xuan peered closely. It did not feel any different from other rocks. It was dark green, shaped like a chicken egg. Its surface was smooth and shiny as if it was smoothened on purpose. It did not look very old so it wasn’t counted as an ‘antique’. Nice thing to have for fun though, maybe as a decorative item.
Shao Xuan did not put much thought into it. He played with it in his hand, realising it didn’t seem to get any warmer. He’d been holding it for ten minutes in his palm now, it was still cool as ever. After a moment of thought, Shao Xuan took out his lighter and burned the rock. Theoretically, the rock should be hot where the flame touched but after he did, the rock was still as cool as before.
After looking around, Shao Xuan took a knife used to cut fruits from the table, placed a piece of paper underneath and planned to shave off crumbs to bring to the researcher’s mobile lab for tests. However, when he scraped the rock with the knife, there was not even a scratch, not when he sliced with the tip of the knife.
A rock that cannot be heated by fire, and cannot be scratched by a knife… This is an odd rock indeed.
Shao Xuan held on to the rock as he got off the bus, planning to show Shi Qi later.
The bus was parked quite near the village but the path there was not easy to walk on.
The villagers were either at work or the freer ones checking out the newly discovered cave. That was why he only saw very few people when he entered the village.
There was a mud-and-stone wall more than two meters tall around the village, they said it was built decades ago to keep out the wild animals. The rocks were from the mountains, though recently they never saw many large-sized beasts in the area so no one paid any attention to the stone wall.
It was easy to tell that the huge rocks were old, they were mysterious too.
Shao Xuan played with the rock in his hand as he stared at these rocks. He heard they found fossils in the rocks in this wall and he thought about the ‘watermelon-sized bug’ Shi Qi mentioned.
Just as he was about to look away, he noticed something that looked like a snake appearing on the wall. It was moving, thick as a water pipe, a shiny scale-like pattern reflecting coldly. Although he was a few meters away, Shao Xuan felt a chill down his spine. He almost jumped in surprise. However, when he looked again, he found nothing. The wall was still the same weathered, ancient wall.
Was it his imagination?
He looked at other spots on the wall, his gaze falling on a hole in the wall. There was a huge rock there, fallen from where it used to be on the wall. The little pieces had already been taken away by villagers to build their own houses’ fences while the larger boulders were left here. Shao Xuan saw a green sapling peeking from this rock. The sapling was growing at an alarming speed, at the same time several vines creeping from all directions. The three-meter long hole was covered in vines and leaves in the blink of an eye, he could smell the petrichor from here.
Shao Xuan took a few steps back, inhaled deeply and looked again only to realise the plants had vanished. The stone wall was as usual, there was nothing on the rock.
He felt movement in his palm, he looked down at the rock in his hand.
The rock, invincible to fire and knives, crumbled into dust in one second, falling through the gaps between his fingers.
And when the last grain of sand fell, Shao Xuan’s vision turned dark.