The Omphalos of Pritchard McCovey

By Daniel Owen Sayers

This small room has an ancient reek, and I cannot think clearly in it. The little hobgoblins within the penetralia of my mind are restless. They have once again led me to His eyes and that damned Creek.

***

Long ago, the 10-year-old boy awoke in an unsettled state, one that drove him to his favorite place, the Creek. During the night, his dreams had unfolded as a tormenting and surreal pastiche of images from school. The boy needed the Creek’s calm. Without even thinking of breakfast, he was out the front door and hurrying down the wide streets of his neighborhood.

He passed by familiar houses, all of which were the typical red-brick, two-story boxes with steep-angled roofs. Lawns were green and trim, chain-link fences clearly defined possession, and cars were parked in long driveways. A few people were out and about, walking on the sidewalk or puttering around in their beds of ornamental plants and bushes.

After a few tedious blocks and crossing through the busy traffic of the Avenue, he came to the rear parking lot of the church, with a secret path originating at its far back corner. The asphalt had been recently resurfaced, causing a peculiar suction-smack sound from his sneakers as he walked across its shiny, hot blackness. Looking back across the lot as he reached the path, he saw the rising waves of heat, the brick church, the crucifix steeple, and cloudy, blue skies as sweat stung his eyes.

On the path, surrounded by tall grass, he passed by a few rusty, red swing sets used years ago by church-school children. Leaving the trail that wound through the woods toward town, he picked up his pace as he headed toward his place at the Creek. There, a sheet of glacial pebbles and stones comprised the water’s course. Though the water had relentlessly ground and rounded them, the resiliency of the rocks across incomprehensible time was apparent as they peeked through volatile Creek waters. To the boy, the submerged field of stones was a world of its own, a raw and perfect one.

The boy squatted down at the edge of the Creek as he stared at the roiling flow in the center of the channel. He saw that little trout swam lackadaisically, while little insects skittered from rock to rock in the little placid eddies of the bank. Stubby grasses stood a few inches from the water, and spider webs that had caught dust more than anything else spanned between them. He inhaled deeply, very aware of the air, as he moved to his log at water’s edge. With sleepy eyes, he examined the green and yellow canopy of the surrounding trees. A delicate breeze set the leaves to chattering, a soothing accompaniment to the sublime sound of the flowing Creek.

***

Pritchard McCovey woke up in the middle of a dream about the Parturition at the Creek.

He felt cold. Rising to a sitting position on his army cot, Pritchard looked with a convict’s contempt at his only relic from the Creek: the three stones. They were in a water-filled fish bowl that kept their colors alive: jade green, blood red, and doll’s-eye black. Divertingly, he looked around the room and began shaking off the dream residue, while he examined his mementoes from 38 years of living. Brittle posters hung on the cracking beige walls, while trinkets and baubles were stationed neatly on a few small tables. His small library of dog-eared books sat in unmanaged stacks along the wall beneath the window.

Pritchard lumbered over to his card table and lit a cigarette. His green eyes were assaulted by accursed smoke, but through the mild pain, he saw the static, red light of his answering machine. Pritchard looked around the room and, seeing nothing out of place, felt the morning warmth through the window.

***

It had been a little over a year since the Parturition, which had been Pritchard’s last time at the Creek. He had never wanted to see the Creek again, but his life had since taken on the complicated configuration of a fractal image. Pritchard needed the calm. Just days before, a friend had been ruthlessly dispatched in a car accident. There had been no warning, no time for bracing, just life at one moment and then nothing. It had left Pritchard feeling as though unknown hands were mixing him with this nothingness, as a hurried potter might mix two clashing colors of clay.

Two days later, Pritchard’s Bassett Hound, Cisco, had an epileptic fit that left him unconscious. The eyes of the hound closed halfway to the clinic, never again to open. In the clinic, there had been tears of disbelief and thoughts of the loss of one who had long been taken for granted. And, the doctors observed all of this with stolid eyes and that detachedness that only they, and perhaps executioners, can get away with.

After the eternal return home from the clinic, Pritchard stood shaking in disbelief near the outside wall of the house. He vomited the meat eaten that morning on the cracked driveway—death was everywhere. Staring at that half-digested mess, Pritchard had his only crystalline thought of the past few days: a dark-edged vision of the flowing waters of the Creek hovered before him for only an instant before it was gone. He sweated heavily. The waves of pain and memories gave way to an obsession with the Creek. The temptation to go there gnawed at Pritchard with the unbearable tenacity of a piranha driving its enameled razors into a gasping cow that had chanced the wrong river.

Pritchard walked down the narrow trail, passing obliviously by the rusty playground equipment. The Creek was a roaring point of focus only a few steps onto the trail and became deafening as he neared it. Before the Parturition, relief usually struck Pritchard as he approached the water. This time, it was different. Pritchard was repulsed. He nervously grabbed a cigarette, a new habit, and headed toward the Creek. Pritchard saw his old sitting log. Then, the familiar turbulence of that water captured his attention as it rolled over the bed of rocks. Pritchard McCovey was at the place he had avoided for so long. Were he to turn his head slightly to the right, he would see where he had crawled out of those frigid waters and into a new world.

***

Yawning, Pritchard filled his lungs with the air of the northern night. As he stood at the second-floor rail of the motel, the moon shone just above the trees. Pritchard stared for a moment at the lit plastic sign that was framed by the two-lane highway beyond it: a cabin surrounded by tall pine trees, the arcing words “Northwinds Motel” floating above and the word “vacancy” just below it. Home, he thought sarcastically.

Pritchard was in a small town, brought here by his employment with a logging company.  Since the age of 21, when he dropped out of college, he had been wandering. He had washed dishes, landscaped, pumped gas; he had done just about anything that came his way that would help him keep on the move. But, it was all becoming underwhelming. He stood chilled and thoughtful as he looked at the three glistening stones that he had wetted and placed side by side along the rail.

Earlier that afternoon, he had taken a long walk in a remote forest and stumbled upon a log cabin. With its rotted wood and broken windows, it was apparent that no one had lived there for some time. Though a steady breeze moved through the cabin, there was still a musty cedar smell to the place. Dust covered the floor and dishes lay in the washbasin. Pritchard noticed that a crate of empty milk bottles sat under the eating table, a dried out fish bowl sat on a shelf, and several old fishing poles stood in a corner with desiccated bait dangling from rusty hooks. An Army-surplus cot with a fuzzy blanket and flat pillow suggested that only one person had lived there.

There was a shelf on the wall, a few feet above the foot of the cot. The wood platform was draped with a green towel upon which stood two candles on either side of a framed black-and-white photo. The image depicted a man, two dogs lying to his right, and a woman to his left. Just above the picture and candles, a pair of creased, pointy-toed boots hung on the wall by long laces that ran through many eyelets. A folded piece of paper stuck out from the upper opening of one of the boots. It was a story from the local newspaper, dated some fifteen years previous, that told story of how a woman from town, Millie, had committed suicide on a January evening. She did so by jumping off the bridge outside of town. Pritchard was familiar with that bridge. Her husband, who went by the name of Two Dog, was the only one to survive her.

After reading the paper, Pritchard folded it and put it back inside the boot. He looked more closely at the picture and then looked around the room once again. Pritchard imagined Two Dog lighting the candles at night so he could see himself with Millie until the very moment he fell into restless sleep. Now feeling pangs of intruder’s guilt, Pritchard closed the front door behind him, reaching through the broken pane to secure the lock.

Standing against the motel railing, Pritchard finished a cigarette and carefully picked up the three stones. In his room, he impatiently stuffed his backpack with his belongings, including the stones that he placed in a clear plastic bag along with a few drops of water. He pulled out of the Northwinds Motel in his beater truck. Rolling slowly east down the highway, he looked out over the silhouettes of trees that lined the moonlit ravines. Pritchard thought of how, at that moment, the old cabin and shrine stood unobserved by any living person in the chilly fall darkness. They were not real now.

***

The teenaged Pritchard saw the Creek for what it really was—an ugly and polluted tributary of a poisoned great lake. Things Pritchard had never been able to notice before the Parturition came to the fore. There was a horrible stench of rot around the Creek, while bricks, shopping carts, and cinder blocks dotted its course and body. Stringy, puce-colored Creek slime was caked on fallen branches, and the water that once seemed clear and pure was now a depressing brown, reminiscent of the viscous oil of a burned-up engine. Even the graceful little trout were now mere minnows.

The Creek itself was an illusion. Long ago, it was a powerful river, and the water that roared through then was not the same as that which dripped across the stones, pebbles, and litter now. And the stones, so colorful and numerous, were once all part of an immense sleeping rock of differing layers.

Pritchard was walking back from town on the secret path one summer day, and he stopped in the little clearing to sit on a swing. After a few minutes, Pritchard found himself wandering back through the woods and to the Creek. Without really thinking, he walked up to the water and squatted, looking down at the flow while ignoring the noxious smell and the memories of the Parturition as much as was possible. He stared at the rocks along the edge, a few peeking out of the water and others lying right outside the water in saturated sand. He lifted a red rock from the water and stared as the outline of the rock disappeared as water and sand filled it. Pritchard picked up a black rock that was just outside the flow of water. He watched as seepage slowly caused the walls of the hole to slump. After some time, the outline of where the rock had been was scarcely noticeable. With anger rising, Pritchard McCovey picked up a green rock just outside of the water and, not waiting this time, obliterated the remaining depression with his pounding foot. He took those three rocks home with him. Each step was heavier than the last.

***

During his eleventh year, the boy asked his first love in life if she would be his steady. She said yes. The boy was as blissful as he had ever been. Love was a pounding miracle. He spent the night listening to the heavy rain that fell outside his bedroom window. The next day he floated into school, his heart pumping like never before. Before lunch, she broke up with him.  She had found another love. The boy walked out of school feeling like he was sinking slowly into the earth. He passed houses, walked the church parking lot, and shuffled along the grassy trail without noticing anything.

The rain-swelled Creek was loud that morning. There was no movement or noise to the air. His sitting log was now in a few inches of water, so he stood, just taking in the sounds, the energy, and the simplicity. He saw how soil had been torn from its banks because of the evening’s storm. Curious, he scanned the newly exposed soils of the Creek bed.

He spied something sticking out of the wall. He stepped over to it and pulled a gray stone arrowhead out of the soil. His grandfather had shown him several that had been collected in farm fields, and he knew that this little stone triangle was left here long ago. He placed it back down right where he had found it. Then he saw something else that was smooth and tan barely peeking out of the soil. Reaching to pull it out of the ground, he met resistance. With thoughtless excitement, he rubbed away the dirt around its edges until he got two fingers underneath the item. With a solid tug, he freed it from the ground, but he lost his footing on the rocks. He fell backwards into the churning waters, letting go of the object to brace for his fall into the water and onto the rocks underneath. The boy opened his eyes while shaking his head.

He looked down. He sat mortified in the rushing waters.

A human skull stared back at the boy from his lap.

The Creek water rushed through His eye sockets and around His globular cranium, carrying with it ancient dirt that streamed from a gaping hole in the side. It was a madness that emanated from those black orbital voids. The boy sprang backwards only to land on the bank with his legs still in the Creek. The skull fell into the clamorous flow of the channel, settling between two large rocks. He stared back at the boy through the water.

The boy met the stare of those eyeless orbits: the arrowhead, the unnatural hole in the skull, murder. He was being watched by a person who had been abandoned to rot at his Creek. His sinister eyes penetrated and consumed the boy through those waters. He had been under the boy’s feet all this time.

Pritchard McCovey crawled away from Him and out of the Creek, with backside hovering just above the ground and saturated by a dripping, foul afterbirth. Pritchard stood up in pain. He walked home at a mourner’s pace, weeping and nearly frozen by His pressing gaze and those deathly waters.

***

I am now 44 years old. I know that rocks, skulls, and turbulent waters dwell in all corners of the world. I am tired but I look up at my omphalos, my three Creek stones detained in a glass cage on their shelf. The water in the bowl has evaporated so that the tops of the rocks are now exposed to the air of the room. I only have to fill it every few months. But, in those moments, I am keenly aware of the fact that the omphalos is weak; it is dependent on me. This power excites me. I imagine things.

I am very much nervous but I have a purpose so exciting that I can scarcely walk in my normal heel-dragging and scuffling manner. I am wearing a trench coat, a tattered old thing that was grabbed long ago out of a motel lobby. Three rocks in the deep side pockets weigh it down. My black beard hangs just over the collar of my threadbare t-shirt, and my green eyes impolitely scan the sleepy hollows of the city around me. My walk follows a dark route. I pass through the old industrial section of the city that is lit only by the occasional flickering light above a door or a car passing down the road. Here stand the cracking and weathered buildings that growl aloud for those who would hear the histories of thousands of men and women who labored hopeless hours at machines in their concrete and rebar bellies. Those people, too, were abandoned by this world. My thoughts stay constant as I look for ne’er-do-wells of the night who haunt this territory.

I emerge to lightened streets and constant traffic, the unmistakable signs of urban life. I cross a large park, crunching over fall leaves and kicking an occasional bit of refuse. Just outside of the park, the street is dark again—the shadows of robust trees blocking the streetlight. I walk toward a bridge that spans a creek that cuts through the city. This creek is surprisingly devoid of litter and thick with tall, green grasses and little trees along its edges. It is beautiful.

Faux antique lamps line the tall railing of the bridge and barely illuminate the creek below me. I breathe in a bit of the cool air. It is a rare and precious treat this night out. My hands go into my pockets, and I pull out one of the rocks, the red one. I stare at it, like I have done many a time since I gathered it up from the Creek, with a look that stands between a glare and a wince.  I rub it with my thumb and roll it ever so slowly in my palm. I then hold the rock out over the rail and drop the red stone to the creek below, and a second later I hear the loud splash and the muffled sound of it hitting the rocks already submerged and embedded. I pull out the black one and with a similar ceremony, I drop it into the water. I then pull out the green one, and can really not stand the look of it. I grip it like a baseball. With a generous windup, I hurl it out into the night beyond and hear it tear through the brush at the creek’s edge. I draw a more than ample breath, and a slight smile erupts on my face as I feel the adrenaline of freedom begin rushing through my veins again. I stand there for a few moments more and then turn to walk back home, unburdened.

But, I know I will get up from my table and walk over to the sink and grab the pitcher I have always used to fill up the bowl and keep the omphalos alive. The pitcher will fill slowly, the pipes will shake and grind, and I will feel the growing weight of water. I will turn and walk toward the fishbowl and the lithic trinity within it. I will see the faded, dried-out surfaces of the stones and will not be able to recognize which stone is which. I will feel a twinge of delight at the confusion. After this blessed hesitation, I will feed the omphalos its heavy water. While the chaotic ripples above the omphalos subside, I will think of Millie hovering above her final waters on that old northwoods bridge, the last of her fingers letting go of the rail, her skull now in darkness somewhere. I will wonder what Millie thought as she fell alone from the bridge into timeless null-space. I will then walk over to my chair and sit with an uncanny sense of being watched by Him.

About the Author

Daniel Owen Sayers is a Michigan native, an internationally recognized archaeologist, and a professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington D.C. His research publications are numerous and have covered topics as varied as 19th Century Midwest farm life, African and Native American swamp communities before the Civil War, hobos and the Great Depression, gun control, and Critical Animal Studies. As an archaeologist, Sayers has made regular appearances in a wide variety of media, including the Smithsonian and Travel Channels, Archaeology, New Yorker, and Smithsonian magazines, National Public Radio, and in podcast programs such as 99% Invisible. As a fiction author, this is his first appearance.

A photograph of an unnamed creek in South Australia.



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