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  • Loeka Discovered
  • Seth Fried (bio)

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Mountain photo by Christina Bendini. Microscope photo by Marcelo Terraza.

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Whether or not it had been his intention to impress anyone, Loeka, the lab favorite, had managed to climb four thousand feet without modern mountain-climbing equipment—and those of us on the research team had to admit that was pretty damned impressive. Objectivity is important, but we liked Loeka. What was the matter with that? The ice had kept him in good [End Page 135] shape for over seven thousand years, and in his wrenched-up face the flesh was warped into this total, excruciating grimace. The pathos of the whole thing was unshakable. After our third day of working on Loeka, Doc Johnson (who was somewhat of a relic himself and who until then hadn’t shown more than an ounce of emotion in his forty years as director at the Institute) started the day by reading aloud from a poem he had written about Loeka. The poem focused on what were presumed to be his last moments, shivering on the mountainside. In the poem, Loeka is determined to get back to his family but is too weak to move. In the end, he looks up at the stars and feels warmed by their distant light. His last thoughts are of the fate of his poor family, huddled together in some primitive, thatch-roofed dwelling. He bravely attempts to stand and keels forward, taking on the prone, abject pose in which he was found by Norwegian tourists more than a half-dozen millennia later.

The poem wasn’t very good. It rhymed too much, and Doc Johnson’s voice warbled in a way that made us feel uncomfortable. However, most of us were still somewhat touched. We watched Doc Johnson’s hands shake a little more than usual as he folded the sheet of notebook paper with his poem on it and returned it to the pocket of his lab coat. Gathered in a circle, our eyes misty, we began to get the sensation, a swelling in our chests, that what we were working on was important—that it was bigger than all of us.

There was something spellbinding about it, peering down the vast well of time at Loeka’s small, puckered face. While extracting a tissue sample for analysis, it wasn’t uncommon for any one of us to sing to Loeka sweetly or to talk to him as if he were an obedient child. Something about it softened us. Whereas before we would march down the sterile, artificially lit halls of the Institute, nodding to one another as we passed, the air around us a cold flutter of clipboards and clicking pens, we now began to stop and greet one another, laughing. Two weeks with Loeka, and some of the men started showing up to the lab in more brightly colored shirts and gag neckties. Some of the women traded their slacks for skirts that ended just below the knee, traded their sensible loafers for something with a heel; their vibrant, exciting clacks echoed down the corridors, which, once gray and subdued, now seemed charged with untold possibility.

Every day there were more newspapers and magazines clamoring for interviews about Loeka. We tried to be as calm and plainspoken as possible, but the fervor of the moment quickly overtook us. We delivered our interviews breathlessly to an unending bank of microphones. Yes, his leather boots were being developed commercially. Yes, they were surprisingly comfortable. No, [End Page 136] his ax was made of copper. Yes! Yes! We gave the reporters large, toothy grins and finished one another’s sentences. We winked wryly at one another when a question was broad or obvious. When leaving the interviews, we took one another by the arm, walking back to our posts with a sense of privilege, a kind of giddiness.

There was an excitement building in us. The isotopic analysis of his tooth enamel, as well as the paleodontal staining, determined Loeka’s point of origin to be a small village in northern Italy near modern...


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pp. 134-150
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