The Pecos Bill Museum is in trouble. We’ve got great stuff here—old saddles (the early Mexican is my favorite), Navaho silver jewelry, fifty years of rifles, and two Remington reproductions. Heck, there’s even a stuffed buffalo. Too bad only a few visitors show up each day. Some buy items in the gift case—postcards, spoons, little Remington horses and cowboys, tapes and CDs of western songs. Some actually put money in the old spittoon by the door. That’s what keeps the museum going and that’s the problem. Not enough money.
Our Pueblo pottery is spectacular and includes pieces from Tewa-, Tiwa-, Towa-, and Keres-speaking villages. There are even Hopi polychrome and Zuni black-on-red bowls, all neatly labeled and displayed in their own alcove. I’m surprised that the collection is not more of a draw. Maybe it’s because we lack a standout piece, something to advertize. I have this in mind when I go looking for an addition to the collection.
I find the black vase at a garage sale. It isn’t old, but it’s Pueblo and it sure is pretty. The woman says she found it in her mother’s attic and isn’t sure where it came from. The storyteller figure is exceptional and the black-on-black finish unusual. I buy it, figuring I can track down the history later.
I put the vase exactly in the middle of the pottery exhibit, secured to a display pedestal, with a card claiming it’s local Indian art. Fact is I have no idea of its provenance.
For two weeks not much changes. The vase does seem to attract people. They stop and examine it from front, back, and sides. I catch a few touching the vase, something not allowed.
In week three it starts. The touchers act surprised, as if tickled by an electric current. They leave with a dazed, confused look. Every one of those visitors returns a week or so later, smiling. Always going to touch the vase again. And when they leave each drops a donation in the spittoon. Not the usual dollar or quarter, but big bills. Fives, tens, twenties, even a hundred now and then.
One woman, a grandmotherly type, tells me her story.
“I’d been looking for a lost photograph of my son,” she says. “I knew I had it somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. The picture was special because it was the last one taken before he went off to war and never returned.”
I expect her to tell me she found the picture in a drawer somewhere. Great.
“I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself. I touched the vase, and I saw where the picture was, someplace I never would have looked—my son’s toolbox.”
Interesting, I think, and smile again.
She points at my name tag. “His name was Joseph, just like yours. You’re very nice. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, ma’am,” I say, wishing it wasn’t true.
“Well you should.”
She leaves, dropping a twenty in the pot. I suspect finding the photo is a coincidence, but it gets me thinking. What if we have something special—like a vision vase. It would suck people in who don’t give a damn about branding irons, spurs, wagon models, and Pueblo dioramas. It just needs advertisement.
So I take a color picture of the vase, blow it up, and put the prints on sale in our gift shop, calling it The Mysterious Vision Vase. Sure enough, people start buying the picture and keep buying it even after I double the price.
Developing a vase story slips my mind until the brunette comes in again. I’d noticed her on the first visit, even daydreamed about her because she is my fantasy type. But I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.
“Hi, I’m Summer. Can I tell you something?”
Her liquid eyes and come-hither smile banishes my voice, so I nod.
“That vase in the center of the pottery exhibit. Is it special?”
“Well, it’s Pueblo. And beautiful.”
“I think it’s magic.”
She could have told me it was from another dimension and I would have accepted the notion.
“I confess I touched the vase. It wasn’t intentional—I was preoccupied with a serious problem. My boyfriend wanted to get married but I just didn’t trust him. With my fingers on the vase, I got a picture of him.” She hesitated before continuing. “He was stabbing someone with a big knife. Me.”
She goes on to relate how she hired a private eye to do a background check. Turns out the guy was suspected in the murder of a girl in the next county. She scuttled the marriage and got him out of her life. A week later he was arrested and charged with killing the old girlfriend. Later he was fingered for murdering three women in another state.
“Thanks for listening, Joseph. You’re nice.” She plops a wad of bucks in the spittoon. “For the magic.”
When Summer leaves, I head for the vase. It sits high on its pedestal, like the apex of a pyramid. The three equal-length pottery displays and the open entryway form the base. If it causes visions, I sure didn’t feel any when I set it up, so maybe it gets its power from the other pottery and that took a while. Now it draws me close, urging me to touch. I flee.
I start my vase research by talking to local art dealers. They peg it as a piece done a half century earlier in the county. The local newspaper files don’t say much about potters, but on a whim I check papers in nearby towns and find a note about a Pueblo woman whose pottery often had the black-on-black color. Her pottery was supposed to be good but that’s not why she was in the paper. She was a witch.
I search her name in the phonebook and get a hit. A woman of the same name is listed as the owner of a ceramic workshop. Armed with pictures of the vision vase, I find a young woman with Native American features and shiny black hair.
She examines the pictures and puts on a wistful smile. “My grandmother made that. The storyteller figure is hers. She was the only potter around here who made the storytellers with their mouths closed.”
“Anything special about this vase?” I ask.
“All her stuff was special. She was a witch, you see. Local ministers said she practiced black arts and put curses on people. At one point she told them to stuff their religion and even cursed them. Disappeared a short time after that incident and was never heard of again. Her shack in the woods was filled with pottery, including a large flower holder that went missing. Until now.”
This is all I need. I can write the history of the vase and link it to a mysterious devil-worshipper who was probably dragged off into the woods and killed. The tale has everything: magic, murder, and, with a bit of literary license, an object with strange powers. I put the story on a poster board in the museum window and get the local paper to print it. Visitors flock in to see the mysterious object. Many touch the vase and get that strange look. They return and put money in the spittoon.
I don’t find the courage to touch the vase myself until another believer comes in, a guy in his fifties.
“I was a bachelor for years,” he says. “But I had my eye on a neighbor widow. She’s a bit younger than I am and, well, sexy. I was just too shy to approach her—until the vase showed me something.”
“This one?” I ask, pointing to the photo on the counter.
“Right. That vase showed my neighbor visiting. With a green bean-and-almond casserole. She took everything into her own hands. Pushed me onto the couch and had her way with me. It was wonderful.”
He leans closer and winks. “With that image in my head, I invited her to dinner. I grilled the steak and she brought the casserole. Sauce to die for. After dinner, I discovered she’d also brought dessert, the kind you have on the couch. Things only got better from there. We got married last week and now I’ve got both a life-mate and a housekeeper.”
He gives the museum two hundred dollars from the sale of the woman’s house.
That’s it. I can’t resist. I have to touch it. When I do, I feel a tingle and a clear and disturbing picture comes into my head. I’m in a dark place I know is a cave and there’s a body there. Now I’ve got Indian heritage and have always had an interest in archeology. That’s why I work in the museum. But I don’t do caves, so this vision makes no sense.
Strangely, I feel compelled to go hiking on my next day off. In the hills I find a strange rock formation. A large, almost vertical slab seems to hover above the ground. I investigate the tiny space below the lip of the rock and discover my cave. I don’t want to, but I scramble in, flashlight in hand. Ten yards from the entrance, I see it.
The object, about five feet long, looks like a roll of carpet. Turns out, it’s deer hide. I peel it back and discover a masked mummy. Climate here is dry, so it’s not surprising a body would dehydrate rather than decay. I lift the mask and a shriveled face with black eyeholes and a toothy grin looks at me. Facial features say this is an Indian. Long black hair and jewelry says woman. Maybe killed. But important enough to be dressed in ceremonial garb and put to rest in a cave.
I probably should alert authorities, but I don’t. The vase led me here for a reason, and the mummy will make a super exhibit. We have all kinds of Indian stuff and now we can have an Indian. At least the authentic dress of an Indian. I probably don’t want to call it a mummy. Leave that to the imagination.
I rewrap my friend and manage with a bit of sweat and swearing to tote her the half mile to my car. In my garage I fix her up with a stand. At the museum I set her in front of the vase pedestal and call her Keeper of the Vase. My finger grazes the vessel and a picture flashes in my mind: the mummy putting finishing touches on our glazed black treasure. I change the sign to “Maker of the Vase”, feeling a bit uneasy about exploiting a murder victim.
Visitors seem to love the new display and the number of daily visitors doubles. They touch the vase, come back, and donate.
At least until the old guy wanders in, looking like a cowboy in boots and a too-big hat. He finds the mummy and spends time with it. I step into the back for a moment and, when I return, he’s touching the mummy. He has that dazed electric-current look the vase people get.
“Hey, Mister, please don’t touch that,” I say. “It’s fragile.”
Grim-faced, he leaves.
And takes our good fortune with him. Suddenly no one gets the dazed look. They still touch the vase, but nothing happens. They don’t come back and donations dry up. We’re in deep trouble.
When the cowboy returns, he has a story. “I found my daughter,” he says. “Just like the mummy foretold. Nadine’s been missing for ten years, every since she ran off with that low life country singer. Never heard from her. Last week I had a vision while I was touching the mummy.”
“It’s not a mummy, Mister. Just Indian clothes on a dummy,” I lie.
“I’m a forensic pathologist. I know a mummy when I see one. The Indian showed me where Nadine was outside Cheyenne. I found my girl there with two bullet holes in her head.” He wipes a tear away. “I don’t know why she died, but at least I found her.”
I am without words. When the man leaves he puts some paper into the brass collection vessel. Turns out to be a cashier’s check for enough money to keep the museum going for years. We are saved. But I’m confused. I go to the mummy and pat her forehead. Nothing. I finger the vase. No tingle. I touch them both at once. Still nothing. That’s when I notice that the vase has been moved. It’s no longer the center of an equal-sided pyramid. It’s been pushed back. Maybe when the cowboy was checking the mummy.
I return the vase to its special place. As soon as it’s centered, I get whumped with a vision. It’s Summer, looking delicious, frowning and pointing at me.
She arrives next morning and, without so much as a howdy, heads for the pottery. She ignores the vase and goes to the mummy. A minute later she’s back with her index finger aimed at my head. “You have an Indian burial artifact. Without a permit. I’m with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and that’s a serious no-no.”
“I can explain.”
“Good. I look forward to hearing the whole story. We’ll be spending a bit of time together. Shall we get started over dinner?”