PodCastle 694: Excavate
by Melody Gordon
The airplane hatch opened and the Pearsons, with guns on their hips and jetpacks on their backs, gathered as a family to look out at the plantation.
They were flying low to the ground. Too low. The hot air whipped at their jumpsuits and the ground rushed underneath them at a frightening speed. Danielle, the youngest and smallest Pearson, stood between her father and her big brothers who were glued to the floor like big brown pillars, watching the scene blur past. Danielle was shaking and sweating everywhere, from the bandana holding her braids back all the way down to the soles of her feet.
“Before we go, I have one more thing.” Their therapist, Dr. Greenwood, said, projecting her voice over the wind. She stood behind them in a jumpsuit with a jetpack but no weapon. A shovel protruded from the top of her backpack and over her shoulder. “We’re only a few seconds away from the fields.”
Danielle watched Vann, her eldest brother, grip the side of the hatch. Quincy, her second eldest brother, held the rectangle-shaped DNA reader with a trembling hand.
“Everyone has a very important role. Remember, once we get down there and the clock starts ticking, we have one shot. That’s it.”
How could she forget? They’d talked about nothing else for the last 72 hours. Danielle knew her job: She was responsible for the container in her hands, a two-gallon glass cylinder with a metal lid that would soon be filled with the spirit of one of their ancestors. Danielle’s job was arguably the most important job of all. More important than Dad and Vann’s job to protect them from Forresters. More important that Quincy’s job to find their ancestor. If Danielle failed, they all failed.
“If you need me, I’ll be right next to you. Reach out. Ask for help. Try not to panic.”
Her brothers couldn’t take their eyes off the ground. She looked over at her father as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. She glanced backwards at Dr. Greenwood, the only one with a smile on her face.
“No matter what happens down there,” Dr. Greenwood said. “I’m proud of each and every one of you for making it this far.”
Their trainer shouted from the front of the aircraft. “We’re here!”
Danielle blinked and the grassy green stretches of land became a fuzzy white cotton field. Overgrown rows of cotton bloomed for miles in every direction. Lights flashed on the DNA reader. They turned on their jetpacks.
“Are you ready?” Dr. Greenwood asked.
“Yeah,” said the Pearson children.
Their father stepped to the edge. He put his hand over the push-to-start accelerator on his shoulder strap. “Let’s go, y’all.”
And he jumped.
The $3,500 package included travel expenses, lodging, equipment, a DNA test, basic survival training, journals, food, drink, and unlimited sessions with licensed professional psychotherapist Dr. Keisha Greenwood. It was a four-day therapeutic retreat with the Excavation scheduled for the third day. There were photos–so many photos–of people leaping off planes, women wiping their eyes with tissues, men running across fields with guns on their hips, children learning about jetpacks. The website was professional. But it was the testimonials that fascinated them.
The testimonials were too good to be true. Families mended, relationships healed, generational curses broken, and pain lifted. That was what captivated Danielle’s father and mother and brothers. Pain lifted. The price tag was discouraging and yet the seemingly endless photo gallery of happy black families said it was worth it.
It started when Vann sent Quincy and Danielle the link to Dr. Greenwood’s viral television interview. A 30-something dark-skinned beauty with fresh microbraids spoke with passion and conviction. Danielle showed the video to their mother and father.
“The majority of plantations in The Lowcountry are National Historic Landmarks and public property,” she had said. “We African Americans, the ancestors of the people who died in those fields, have every right to be there, if not more of a right to be there, than anybody in the Broken Woods who opposes us.”
The screen cut to the interviewer, an older white man in a suit and tie. He had an indignant expression on his stony face. “How do you respond to your critics?”
“The same way I’m responding to you,” she said with a perfect smile.
Dad laughed at that part. Mama nodded and said, “I like her.”
“The people who still live in the Broken Woods believe your retreats are disruptive. With all due respect, Dr. Greenwood, those plantations are their homes.”
“Those plantations and surrounding wooded areas are homes to them, yes. But they’re cemeteries to us. We must take our dead back to heal our psychological wounds as a people, as a race.”
The journalist said, “Your theories are fairly new, Dr. Greenwood, and the psychology and counseling communities say these types of Excavations could cause more harm than good. Some say they are unethical and extreme. What do you think about that?”
She smiled again. “All of my clients know this is experimental. I tell them all of the risks upfront. They give their full consent well before we set foot on any plane.”
“You’re air dropping people, some of them young children, into the backyards of strangers who don’t want them there,” the journalist said. “If one of your colleagues came up with this idea, say an Asian therapist or a Native American psychologist, you would endorse it?”
“Absolutely. I know it may sound radical, but it works.”
Danielle had never been on a real plantation. She’d never seen real cotton. All around her were raw white cotton plants bursting from their hard brown hulls. The vastness of it took Danielle’s breath away.
Quincy was the last to deplane, stumbling to a hard landing two rows over. They all rushed over to him. He righted himself and stuck the DNA reader up into the air.
“It’s okay,” he said.
Vann and Dad helped him to his feet. Dr. Greenwood looked to the short lining of trees three miles away on the farthest eastern edge of the cotton field.
Danielle pointed. “The Broken Woods are all the way over there?”
“Just because the Forresters all the way over there, doesn’t mean they aren’t in the fields too. Watch out for booby traps.”
Dad and Vann took out their weapons and scanned the fields. Danielle squeezed the container. Quincy pointed the DNA reader in every direction. Then he pointed it towards the Broken Woods.
Dr. Greenwood jogged towards the trees, motioning for the Pearsons to follow. “Look alive, everyone!”
“How is this supposed to work if we can only pick one side of the family?” Danielle had asked at their initial meeting with Dr. Greenwood, which was held in her plush office. Vann had been sitting to Danielle’s left with his chin in his hand. Dad was leaning forward, hanging on Dr. Greenwood’s every word. Quincy and Mama were quiet.
“That’s a great question. The chains of slavery are so deeply embedded in our histories as African Americans that if you break one, you can break many others regardless of whether you’re extracting your maternal or paternal ancestor.” Dr. Greenwood explained, “I recommend the maternal side because the prevalence of rape in the slave days means our foremothers were more likely to have roots that can be traced directly back to Africa. You can do the paternal side as well, that’s perfectly fine. It’s up to you.”
“And when we Excavate our ancestor’s spirit,” Danielle interrupted, “are we bottling up a ghost or are we actually doing some kind of necromancy or exorcism?”
Dr. Greenwood’s laugh bounced off her slave artifacts, echoing off the antebellum-era photographs, maps, books and diplomas that filled her office.
“That’s a important question now,” Mama said, frowning. “We’re Christian folks, we don’t deal with nothing that has to do with witchcraft.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you,” Dr. Greenwood said, her face serious again. “Everyone asks that question. The best way to describe it is like this. We’re not exhuming a dead body because your ancestor most likely isn’t buried there. We’re extracting a portion of your ancestor’s life force that they lost on that plantation. We’re bringing back a piece of their soul.”
“Once we’re on the ground on a real plantation, what happens?” Danielle asked.
“First, before we go anywhere, we trace your linage as far back as we can,” said Dr. Greenwood. “We research runaway slave advertisements, plantations records, the census, everything we can find until we can narrow it down to one plantation that we know housed your ancestor. On the plantation, your DNA will take us to the spot where your ancestor was robbed of their spirit. This process is equal parts spiritual and scientific. We’re going to the exact spot where your ancestor shed blood that seeped into the ground and stayed there.”
“What if there’s more than one spot?” Danielle asked.
“Then you’ll have to choose as a family which spot you go to,” the doctor said. “Once you’re on the ground you can’t split up, it’s too dangerous. Some families can’t decide. Some families quit, bicker, fight… some discover it’s too difficult on them and they aren’t able to finish.”
Danielle looked around and her family seemed as uncertain as she was, so she said what she knew they were all thinking. “What if we’re one of those families?”
“You won’t know until you get there and you try. Your strength might surprise you.”
The DNA reader beeped faster and louder the closer they got to the Broken Woods.
Danielle brought up the rear as the Pearsons ran through the cotton fields as fast as they could. Sweat shined on her face. Her lungs burned with every breath. Her arms were getting tired. The container felt heavier with every stride.
“We’re almost there!” Quincy shouted.
The beeping turned into one loud, solid alarm. All the lights on the DNA reader began to flash. Quincy stopped at the end of a row where the ground was brown and dusty and the darkened trees were only a few feet away.
Everyone else rushed to his side and looked at the ground.
“This is it,” Quincy said.
“We start digging right here?” Vann asked Dr. Greenwood.
“Yes,” she said taking off her backpack to remove her shovel. “Who wants the honor?”
“I do,” Dad said. He took the shovel and nodded at Vann. “Cover us.”
Vann raised his weapon towards the trees in front of them. Dr. Greenwood kept an eye on the field behind them. Quincy kept the buzzing DNA reader pointed at the spot.
“Get ready, Dani,” said Dad.
She removed the container’s lid. Her stomach twisted into knots.
He raised the shovel and slammed it into the earth.
A dark, inexplicable pain had hit all five of them at the same time a year ago.
It was a week of tragedy upon tragedy. For Mama it was cancer and it quickly confined her to a hospital bed. For Dad it was a sharp, burning sensation in his joints that no orthopedic had ever seen before. Vann got a concussion playing football. Quincy was accidentally shot in the arm and a flesh wound turned into severe anxiety. And for Danielle it was all in her head: depression. A black void in her soul that sullied every good thing she touched.
For a year, nothing helped. They tried medications and herbs. They read books, they switched to a vegan diet, they exercised regularly. Their pain only compounded. It dug in deeper and deeper until they found themselves crying when they weren’t sad and screaming in their sleep.
Mama was nearing the end of her life. Dad was taking more pain pills than was necessary. Vann quit football and was then diagnosed with depression. Quincy became a homebody and there was nothing anyone could do.
Until Danielle posed a question. A very interesting question.
“Does this run in our family?”
Danielle and Vann called every auntie, every uncle. They visited all their cousins that lived nearby and all their grandparents too.
Slowly, a picture emerged of a Pearson family living in the fault lines of sickness and injury. Every generation suffered, but they suffered in different ways. They passed down their skin tones and their birthmarks and their bone structure and their wide noses and their frizzy hair, but their ancestors had passed down centuries of trauma and tragedy too. They passed down their chains. Danielle, Quincy, and Vann wanted to know why.
But over time, that question turned from why into how and then from how into what.
What can we do?
When the ground broke apart underneath the shovel, all of the assembled Pearsons had a moment of silence. Danielle held her breath and looked at the ground as a wisp of light that looked like it was made of blue smoke and glitter rose into the air.
“Dani, container,” Dad said.
“I got it.” She leaned over the spot, turned the container upside down and took a knee.
All at once a gush of blue air, shimmering in the light, shot out of the ground and swirled into the container. The cracked soil beneath her feet turned a deep red. It spread like a puddle and soon her knee was deep in her ancestor’s dried blood.
Behind them, something groaned.
Danielle looked up towards the trees. Vann shot a green-skinned slaver whose head exploded like a rotten pumpkin. Its undead body jerked before it fell to the ground. A dozen silhouettes appeared in the trees, all of them groaning and lurching towards the tree line. Towards Danielle and her family.
Vann shouted, “Run!”
Danielle shot to her feet and screwed the container’s lid shut. She spun around and screamed when she saw an undead man strapped to a wooden cross in the middle of the field like a scarecrow. The blazing hot sun had melted his pickled green flesh off his bones.
Dr. Greenwood grabbed Danielle by the arm and yanked her back towards the middle of the field. They ran around the undead scarecrow, leapt from row to row. The hard, sharp edges of the cotton hulls grabbed at their jumpsuits and scratched at their skin. Danielle ran as fast as she could with the heavy blue container pressed to her chest. For a second, she glanced back at the trees and saw a budding horde of decaying men and women in ragged Antebellum clothes coming straight for them.
“What are those things?” Danielle asked.
Vann, leading the group, shot another dead man wandering into their path.
“Forresters,” Dr. Greenwood spat. “Their ancestors owned your ancestors.”
Dad and Vann fired on any dripping, undead Forrester that got a little too close for comfort, but Danielle didn’t know how much further she could run with the container. Her arms and shoulders were burning, cotton was in her eyes, her legs were throbbing.
Then a plane flew over the trees and across the field.
Quincy shouted at the top of his lungs, “Hey!”
“He’s turning around,” said Dr. Greenwood. “Just keep running!”
“I don’t know if I can make it,” said Danielle, out of breath. She slowed down. She glanced behind her and saw more dead people walking around the wooden cross and coming straight for them.
The sweat on her hands and arms were making the container slip from her grip.
“Help!” Danielle screamed. “Help me!”
She cried the first time she held the container.
Danielle couldn’t picture a person’s soul housed in such a tiny space. She couldn’t imagine someone’s spirit could be so small and supposedly have such great power at the same time.
Dr. Greenwood rubbed Danielle’s back as she cried. Her father and her brothers left the room. Mama was on speaker phone listening to her training session from the hospital. They were 24 hours away from the Excavation and she had doubts. She was terrified and mystified and absolutely horrified at the mere thought of failure.
“What if I can’t capture their spirit?” Danielle asked. “What if I lose our ancestor?”
Mama said, “You have to try, baby.”
Dr. Greenwood agreed with a nod. “Don’t think of it as capture. You’re not bottling them up, you’re setting them free.”
The plane came back around the field again as Danielle’s sweaty palms slipped on the glass container. She stopped, the one thing Dr. Greenwood and the trainer told them not to do. Once they captured the spirit, once they’d drawn the attention of the Forresters, they couldn’t stop.
But Danielle knew if she didn’t stop, she was going to drop it, and what if she broke it? What if something terrible happened to the spirit? What if they lost their chance to get free? She couldn’t risk that.
“Help,” Danielle said, eyes wet with tears. The groaning grew louder.
Quincy came to her with the shovel and swung at the Forrester creeping behind her. He smashed it’s head in as Danielle flinched and ducked. Quincy took the container and dropped the shovel. He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward.
“I got you. C’mon, we’re almost there!”
The plane began its descent casting a wide shadow over the field. The Forresters drew in closer.
Vann and Dad fired their last bullets.
Dr. Greenwood shouted, “Jetpacks!”
The plane got as low as it could. Cotton flew in the air and fluttered all around them like snow. The hatch opened and Vann was the first to push-to-start. He rose from the ground, kicking a cotton crop as he ascended. They watched him lean forward to propel himself inside the safety of the aircraft.
Dr. Greenwood was next, Dad was third. Danielle ran hand-in-hand with Quincy.
“Go!” Quincy hit her push-to-start accelerator.
Danielle tried to hold onto his hand, but she was ascending too fast. Her sweaty fingers slipped away.
She glanced back and saw him push-to-start just as a crowd of Forresters dived for him. The container was tucked safely under his arm. Danielle landed in the aircraft and stumbled into the open arms of her father.
And just like when they reached the plantation, Quincy crash landed beside her. The trainer closed the hatch.
Quincy held the container up over his head.
“It’s okay,” he said.
Vann and Dad helped him onto his feet and slapped his back and hugged him. Dr. Greenwood clapped. Danielle, doubled over, wiped tears from her cheeks.
“Remember, in our first session together I explained the difference between thoughts and feelings,” said Dr. Greenwood.
She gave them ten minutes to catch their breath before herding them into their passenger seats. Vann had unzipped his jumpsuit and pulled it down so it could hang around his hips, Quincy pulled up his pants legs, and Danielle and Dad poured water down their throats and over their heads.
Dr. Greenwood stood up in the aisle. “Feelings are one or two words. Happy. Stressed out. Sad. Pissed off. Thoughts are more than one word. I feel like shouting. I am a loser. This makes me want to hit something.”
The Pearsons watched and waited.
“Tell me your thoughts,” she said.
“We did it,” said Quincy.
“I feel like a badass, real talk,” Vann said laughing.
“I’m still tryin’ to catch my breath,” Dad said.
Danielle didn’t know what to say. They watched and waited.
“I don’t know what I think, but I know how I feel,” she said.
Dr. Greenwood smiled. “Please. Tell us how you feel, Danielle.”
“Relieved,” said Danielle. “Light and heavy at the same time. Emotional. Strong. Weak. Everything. I feel a little bit of everything.”
“Where is the container?” Dr. Greenwood asked.
Quincy held it up. “Right here.”
“How do you feel about that container? How do you feel about what you just accomplished? Don’t hold back,” Dr. Greenwood said.
“Messed up,” said Vann.
“Yeah. Was the point of that to experience what it was like for our ancestors trying to escape slavery?” Quincy asked.
“No,” said Dr. Greenwood. “Let me explain. Quincy, open the container.”
Danielle’s eyebrows shot up.
“We can do that?” Dad asked.
“We’re in a confined space. We don’t have to worry about anything adverse happening,” said Dr. Greenwood.
Quincy placed the container on the floor in the aisle.
“Our research and your DNA led you to Sarah Pearson.”
Dr. Greenwood motioned towards the container. Quincy took off the lid. Danielle, Vann, and Dad inched closer to the aisle.
“A survivor of rape, abuse, depression, anxiety, torture, trauma, isolation, arthritis, and migraines. She died from breast cancer at age 82. But according to our research, she was so much more than that,” said Dr. Greenwood, a smile coming on her face.
They watched the blue air rise from the container like fog. It expanded and shimmered as it spread.
“She had five beautiful children. She was married twice. She was a healer. She taught herself how to read and sew and sing.”
Tears filled Danielle’s eyes as the smoke began to take shape. A woman’s shape.
“She was born into captivity, but she lived as a free woman in her old age. She saw her children have children. She saw the war end. She felt great pain but she felt happiness too. In her happiness, she caught glimpses of the future.”
The smoke formed into a woman, her body partially transparent, her edges soft and shiny, pinpricks of light in her tightly coiled hair.
“You’re her future,” Dr. Greenwood said. “You share her pain, but I guarantee you, you can share in her joy. You can have your own joy.”
Sarah Pearson stood before them in simple clothes, standing on a cloud of smoke in the middle of a sparkling mist. She had Quincy’s copper colored skin. She had Vann’s smile. She had Danielle’s face. They were all crying and wiping their tears away.
Dr. Greenwood took a step back and sat down. “I did this because I wanted you to meet the only person who truly understands your pain.”
Danielle stood up and moved into the aisle. Sarah stared as Danielle walked up to her. Tears ran down her face. She stopped and bowed her head out of respect for her foremother.
Sarah reached out and cupped Danielle’s cheek. A cooling sensation spread across Danielle’s skin and made her face tingle. She raised her head. Sarah smiled and brushed Danielle’s tears away.
About the Author
Melody Gordon is a fiction writer and proud Southerner. She lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee. She has also worked in media as a journalist and digital producer. She loves herbal teas, road trips, mental health advocacy, and buying new books she doesn’t need. Her work has appeared in FIYAH: The Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Black Girl Magic Lit Mag, and the official blog of To Write Love Her Arms.
About the Narrator
Cherrae L. Stuart
Cherrae L. Stuart has directed several projects available on Amazon Prime and lends her voice talents as a regular guest narrator for the Nightlight Horror Podcast. Cherrae has recently acted in NCIS-New Orleans and Return to Sender with Rosamond Pike and Nick Nolte. Currently she’s busy working as Writer, Producer and Narrator of the compelling and unique Podcast experience Good Morning Antioch, a science fiction black comedy and Co-Host of TCAD (Theatrical Conjecture and Dissertation) an “Unfancy” Entertainment News and Movie-Review show, both available now on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.