The neck of an eroded volcano stands alone in the open desert of northwest New Mexico. It is called Shiprock, and it rises 1,500 feet like a grotesque and beautiful castle on the dry plank of the Navajo reservation. I once taught a weeklong field course in archaeology around its base, where hard igneous walls lead toward the rock like the strands of a spiderweb.
Will Tsosie, a Navajo archaeologist, taught the course with me, and as the morning sun stretched across the desert, he talked to the group—from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, just over the border in Colorado—about a time of monsters when the Earth was not safe. He had recited the legend once already, and now asked if one of the participants could finish it. An older white gentleman explained how a pair of monster birds nested atop Shiprock, flying out every day to snatch people and feed them to their young. These enormous, gruesome birds clutched in their talons people wearing regalia, feathers, and face paint: a Zuni man one day, an Acoma child another. The top of the rock was made of spear points, and when the birds dropped each person, he was impaled, his blood streaming down to the skeletons and partially defleshed bodies of those who came before him, food for the monster birds' chicks.
While the story went on, I noticed two ATVs on the horizon. Farther away, a chain of people marched across the desert. They were walking a grid pattern. We'd seen an army of them earlier: the local community, banded together in a search.
An 11-year-old girl had been kidnapped the day before. The Amber Alert had woken me at 4:27 a.m.
San Juan Co, NM, CHILD: 11-
Native American, Female 4'8"
80lbs Bro/Blk VEH: Maroon Van
I'll tell you what happened to the girl, but not yet. I am still at the base of Shiprock listening to the story of Monster Bird, and all I know is that she's gone and that for some reason they think she's here, which means they don't know where she is right now.
That's all I know.
The archaeological sites around here go back a thousand years or so, barren hilltops rubbled with Pueblo fortresses, roads beaten into the earth where more than 200,000 pine trees were chopped down with stone axes in the mountains and then carried to Chaco Canyon to build corbelled roofs and the posts of big, prehistoric rooms. Broken pottery is strewn across the ground, so much of it that you are walking on eggshells, every step a choice, a decision, feeling your way among ghosts. The smooth, fired pieces are decorated with painted designs, black on white, and still pressed with fingerprints of people who have been dead for 10 centuries. Bowls, jars, dishes.
Back then, the land was more populated. Almost every butte and point of rimrock is mounded with collapsed walls. Ten stories of structures crawled up the side of a mesa, belonging to a civilization of corn growers, people who imported live tropical macaws from Central America. There were graves filled with turquoise and seashells, now windswept and driven back to sand and greasewood. Time swallows everything.
On the slopes beneath volcanic spikes, we find the footprints of ancient houses, littered with flaked stone and arrowheads, places where Monster Bird may have snatched that Zuni man in full regalia, that Acoma child, flying them up to their deaths on the daggered summit of Shiprock, which rams up from the earth, sky-piercer, spindle of molten rock turned hard.
I know when they find her. The human chain breaks apart. People disperse. A short distance away from us, her body is on the ground.
Her name is Ashlynne Mike.
When the students were away from us, Tsosie and I spoke about what was going on. He seemed to carry in his face not only distress for what had happened here, but also knowledge that the murder of a girl at the base of Shiprock is more than meets the eye. We talked about sporadic evidence of human sacrifice that happened in the Four Corners region centuries ago, acts of barbarism and horror: caves littered with bodies that a thousand years ago were chopped, mangled, burned; ruined pueblos where human skeletons were found without hands or feet; a collapsed masonry tower filled with the burned remains of infants and children. According to the old stories, child sacrifices were reserved for only the worst times, as last-ditch efforts to save the world.
The Tohono O'odham people of southern Arizona have a legend: A hole opened in the ground, and water gushed out of it as if an artery had been opened in the earth. In the desert, water is a blessing, but then it wouldn't stop. The elders decided to send four children into the hole. They disappeared inside, and the water ceased. The children did not return. Stones were stacked on the hole to remember where it happened.
I once stumbled onto a shrine in the Arizona desert where these four children are said to have been sacrificed. There is no trail, and no sign marks the way. It is out among saguaro cactus and creosote bushes. There, I came on a circle of dried, thorny ocotillo branches bound together to form a boundary. I stepped into the middle, where rocks were piled near toys bleached by the sun. Dolls and toy cars. Jacks and rubber balls. Some were fresh. Who knows how old this story is, how long ago this water is said to have sprung from the earth, and still people are returning to mourn those four children. The sacrifice was so great, so powerful and unforgettable, that people keep coming back.
Tsosie and I talked about the state of the world. Had the human condition gone so far out of whack that we were back to the sacrifice of a child?
We didn't think so, but the brutal, senseless death of a child is hard to carry.
The news report the following morning was unusually precise. The tire iron, a description of Ashlynne's clothes, how she was still moving when he left her on the redbrick earth.
The killer, a 27-year-old Navajo man named Tom Begaye Jr., from the nearby town of Waterflow, New Mexico, was arrested at a sweat lodge not far from Shiprock. He didn't try to run.
I've been in these sweat lodges, huddled inside a bubble of steam on a desert floor: cramped space, legs folded, glowing stones in the middle hissing as water is thrown upon them. I've gritted my teeth in the scalding heat as poisons are pulled from my body and beaded into sweat. I imagine he was doing just that in the hours before investigators arrived, sweating out the horrors he had inflicted. He had molested, beaten, and strangled Ashlynne. He later pled guilty to federal charges of murder, aggravated sexual abuse, and kidnapping.
For all the stories and memories on this ghostly reservation, it's impossible to see her as a sacrifice. Her murder was the result of Begaye Jr.'s twisted malice, and only that.
But in the old legends, Shiprock is where the blood of innocent victims spilled in a time when the world was terrifying, when shadows appeared in the sky, and talons tore through your shoulders, carrying you away. Something about our present moment feels oddly connected to this eerie past. I wonder whether evil has again bubbled up from the earth, catching humans in its web.
The starkness of the rescuers stands in my mind, their forms moving back and forth against the horizon. I saw Navajos and whites among them, a community spilling out of the desert, each person carrying the hope that the monster might have missed this one girl. But it did not.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.