Ancient shores


Pretty, in amber, to observe the forms

Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms;

The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,

But wonder how the devil they got there.

—Alexander Pope, “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”

“If that ain’t the damnedest thing.” Tom Lasker had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind. Will paused with his spade full of black earth to see what had drawn his father’s attention.

A triangular plate, not unlike a shark’s fin, stuck out of the ground. It was tough. Metal, apparently, but not corroded.

They were on the low ridge that bordered the west side of the farm, working late under a string of light-bulbs, trying to put in a system that would pump water uphill from the well. Lasker played his flashlight over the object, and Will pushed at it with the tip of his boot. The night smelled of approaching winter. A cold wind chopped across the rise and shook the lights. Lasker knelt and brushed the soil away with gloved fingers. The object was bright red. Smooth and hard. When he pulled, it had no give.

The house was about a quarter-mile away, a two-story frame building set back in a thick growth of trees. Its lights were warm and cheerful.

The fin was attached to a rod of the same color and texture, all of a piece. It angled down into the soil at thirty degrees. Will wedged his spade under it, and they tried to lever it up. It wobbled but wouldn’t come loose. “On three,” said Lasker.

He did the count, and they yanked together, lost their balance, and fell laughing over each other. “That’s enough for tonight, Pop,” said Will. “Let’s go eat.”

The Pembina Escarpment was visible through the bedroom windows of Tom Lasker’s house. The escarpment consisted of a line of rounded hills and ridges and jutting rocks, a fairly impressive feature on land that was otherwise pool-table flat. Ten thousand years ago it had been the western shore of an inland sea that covered large areas of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The spot where the house now stood would have been several hundred feet underwater.

Lasker was a big man: awkward, with thinning brown hair and wide shoulders. His features were sharp, raw-edged, carved by too many unforgiving winters. He’d lived his entire life in the Fort Moxie area. He thought of himself as basically uninteresting, just a farmer who worked hard, didn’t socialize too much, and took care of his family. He was happily married, his two sons seemed to be developing into reasonable adults, and he enjoyed flying. Like many of the local farmers, he had a pilot’s license, and he owned a Katana DV—20. He also owned a World War II—era Navy Avenger and was a member of the Confederate Air Force—a group of enthusiasts dedicated to restoring antique warbirds.

Shortly after dawn on the morning following the find, he and Will were back atop the slope. October on the northern plains tends to be bleak and cold. This day was typical. Lasker was half buried in his down jacket, not having yet worked up enough sweat to shed it.

The fin stuck several inches out of the ground, mounted on a support pole about two inches thick. Lasker was thinking about the damage it might have done had he run a tractor over it.

Will sank his spade into the earth. “Well,” he said, “let’s get rid of it.” He turned the soil over, and even this late in the season it was heavy and sweet.

The air was still. A blue jay sat on a fence