A most unique thing to find in the dirt. Twenty-some river stones, each inscribed with a person’s name, age, and mystery glyph. The collection is carefully laid out so all the written-on surfaces are upright, readable, and may be consumed from a single vantage point. Like the work of a patio builder, the flat stones have been arranged to interconnect gracefully with a minimum of negative space, but also just barely touching so as to avoid any awkward overlap.
Someone wanted these totems to be found, to be read, to be thought-about. But they didn’t want to make them too obvious either. Far enough off the bicycle trail, camouflaged against the stone foundation of a bridge support, darkened in the underpass, and dusted with months (years?) worth of grime, we only stumbled across them because there happened to be a new piece of intriguing stencil graffiti just above on the adjacent wall.
From any distance, the only legible names are the big ones out front: Raymond Maat and Viola Sayre. Written in white paint pen, each of names appears on its own, larger, burrito-sized brown stone. Even from several paces, the ink/background contrast was enough to catch this blogger’s ever-roving eye.
The Orbitmobile (Orbicycle?) never goes far without a couple bottles of water and it’s lucky we had them on this day. It would take gently emptying both containers to rinse off the thick layer of blown dirt and dropped bridge debris to get the stones to a point where they were reasonable to read (and photograph). Even so, we still could have used another bottle.
It was only getting up close that would reveal the many other details. Henry McCallum (age 11), Catherine Krueger (age 61), Eduard Raven (age 24), Dennis Girvin (age 27), and a dozen or so more like them, each with one of a couple different symbols. Some have what appears to be feather; others an invented rune, shaped like a capital letter U with an extra wavy line bisecting the verticals. Two of the stones simply read unknown.
And then, there it is! Placed right in the center of the pack, its painted-on text further worn away than the rest of its buddies. A single stone has what appears to be an explanation for this obscure rock group: Victims of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood.
With that, it seemed so obvious. Stones–likely pulled from the river just feet away and smoothed by its waters–placed just at the riverbank like a sacrificial altar. This spot is well within the flood plain if (and when) the big one ever strikes Pittsburgh again. What a delightful, hidden, reverent memorial to one of worst natural disasters to ever befall the region.
… or is it?
We don’t know what bloggers did before the computer Internet came along, but luckily The Orbit is well-acquainted with The Google Machine and we worked our index fingers to the bone hunt-and-pecking around for info.
It turns out “Raymond Maat”, “Viola Sayre”, and “Seth Jormundgander” (at least) were all characters created for an alternate reality game/immersive theater production called Serpentine put on by Uncumber Theatrics in 2016. It is entirely unclear from Uncumber’s web site what actually happened in the game or how these painted stones may have figured into it–but that’s likely on purpose. I guess you had to be there, man…and we weren’t. [Yes: we have added this one to our lengthy list of life regrets. Readers: if you played/participated in Serpentine we’d love to hear about the experience in the comments.]
Regardless of whether we got had or had the hadders, we love the fact that Uncumber made the unlikely choice to just leave this elaborate handmade prop right out in the open–hidden in plain sight, as it were. Those of us who might happen across it, scratch our heads, and take the time to think about the plight of poor Roland Mars (age 31) and Nathanial Peterson (age 39) can still get a little contact high off Serpentine‘s medical-grade Maui wowee. Does it matter if real people’s names were used for theatrical sport? What if they were simply invented entirely as color elements to move along the game’s narrative?*
We don’t have the answers to the questions. In the spirit, however, The Orbit has made the decision not to tell our readers any specifics on where to find the Serpentine stones. There are plenty of clues here (and elsewhere) if you want to go looking for them yourself. Or, just go out–anywhere–poke around, and keep the peepers open. Something will come into view soon enough.
UPDATE (24 July): Like this blogger’s waistline, the plot has officially thickened. Astute reader–or perhaps, inside operative–“Fourth River Fortean” pointed us to a 1981 Pittsburgh Press article that details the death of one Dennis Girvin (age 27) who “drowned while partying and swimming” in the Allegheny River.
* We were unable to locate an actual list of the victims of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood to compare these names against, nor did Googling the names from the stones reveal any connection to the flood of 1936.