Ancient Shores

Ancient Shores

by Jack McDevitt

For Roseanne and Ed Garrity,

with whom I’ve always been able to think aloud.



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 rail, watching, and Lasker felt good about the world. The shark fin interested him. Hard to imagine what it was or how it had come to be buried on land his family had owned for sixty years. More important, it provided a temporary puzzle that bound him a little closer to his son.

How deep did the pole go? He measured off a few feet in a straight line from its point of entry and began throwing up soil in his methodical way. Will joined in, and after a while they struck metal. The pole was at least six feet long. They continued digging until Will had to leave for school. Then Lasker went into the house, had some coffee and toast, and came back for another go. He was still working on it when Ginny called him for lunch.

She came back with him afterward to see what the fuss was about. Ginny was tall, clever, a product of Chicago who had come to North Dakota as a customs inspector, with the primary objective of getting away from urban life. She’d fallen in love quickly with this guy, who in turn had started making trips to Canada, hoping she would clear him when he returned. Sometimes he’d even bought things, stuff he could pay duty on. She remembered the first time he’d tried that approach: He’d spent thirty dollars in a Winnipeg bookstore for a history of Canadian aviation and had clearly been disappointed when she’d waved him through because books were free of duty.

His friends had tried to warn him away from Ginny. She’ll get tired of the harsh winters, they’d said. And small-town life. Eventually she’ll go back to Chicago. They’d talked about Chicago more or less in the tone they’d have used for Pluto. But twenty years had passed, and she was still here. And she and Tom thrived on snowy nights and roaring fires.

“Is it creating a problem?” she asked, puzzled, standing over the trench that Lasker had dug around the thing. It was about six feet deep, and a ladder stuck out of it.

“Not really.”

“Then why do we care? There isn’t any reason to tear it out of the ground, is there? Just cut it off and don’t worry about it.”

“Where’s your sense of romance?” he asked, playing back a line she used occasionally. “Don’t you want to know what it is?”

She smiled. “I know what it is. It’s a pole.”

“How’d it get here?”

Ginny looked into the trench. “There’s something down there,” she said. “At the bottom.”

It was a piece of cloth. Lasker climbed down and dug around the fabric. Tried to free it. “It’s connected to the pole,” he said.

“This seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“It shouldn’t be here.”

“Okay. But we’ve got other things to do today.”

He scowled and chunked his spade into the soft earth.

It looked like a mast. Complete with sail.

Connected to a deck.

The Laskers invited their neighbors, and everybody dug.

The deck was part of a yacht. And the yacht was of not-inconsiderable size.

The revelation came gradually during a week’s work by a growing force of friends and high-school kids and even passers-by. The shark’s fin appeared to be a decorative piece atop one of two masts.

The yacht itself was a substantial piece of marine architecture, complete with pilothouse and cabins and full rigging. They hauled it out of the ground and laid it on its side, propping it up with stacks of cinder blocks. Lasker’s younger son, Jerry, played a hose on it. And as the muck washed away they saw bright scarlet paint and creamy white inboard paneling and lush pine-colored decks. The water created a fine spray where it struck the hull. Cables dangled from the starboard side, front and rear. Mooring cables, probably.

With every hour the crowd grew.

Betty Kausner touched the keel once or twice, tentatively, as though it might be hot.

“It’s fiberglass, I think,” said her husband, Phil.

Jack Wendell stood off to one side, hands on his hips, staring. “I don’t think so,” Jack said. He’d been in the Navy once. “It doesn’t feel like fiberglass,” he said.

“Tom.” Betty Kausner’s eyes found Lasker. “Whose boat is it?”

Lasker had no idea. The boat was gorgeous. It gleamed in the shrunken Dakota sun.

At least once every few minutes, someone asked whether it was a joke.

Lasker could think of only one reason someone would bury a boat like this, and that was that it had something to do with drugs. He fully expected to find bodies in it, and, when they went inside, he peeked reluctantly in each cabin.

He was gratified to find nothing amiss.

The boat looked different from anything Lasker had seen before, although he couldn’t have said why. It might have been, that first morning, the shifting texture of the light beneath dark passing clouds. It might have been the proportion of bow to stern, of tiller to mainmast. It might have been some subtle set of numbers in the geometry of the craft.

Will glanced toward the east, in the general direction of the Red River of the North. “It’s a long way to the water,” he said.

“It looks in good shape.” Ray Hammond, who owned the land to the east, along Route 11, scratched his head. “It looks like you could run her out tomorrow.” He touched the sails with the tip of his boot. “These might need a little soap and water, though.”

A car pulled into the driveway. Ed Patterson and his wife and five kids climbed out. Ed ran the Handy Hardware in Walhalla. He inspected the boat, shaking his head, and his wife looked at Lasker as if Lasker had family secr ...