This is the Smoky Mountain philosophical murder mystery I’ve posted about previously. It’s a novel in 7 Chapters, told in a 7 day flashback. This is draft 1, part 1 of Chapter 1 & front matter. Your comments and criticisms are appreciated.
Dear Dr. Beechum (professor emeritus),
I was pleased to learn that although you’ve stepped down from the university’s full time Forensic Psychology Research Chair, you’ve formed a non-profit that specializes in solving cold and missing person’s cases. Well done professor! With our current back log, we’re always in cold case crisis mode. You have my unending gratitude for the profile insight you provided to me last year when I was the VA Homicide Task Lead. Without it, we might never have solved the Robbins double homicide! I should also explain I left the VA Task Force last spring to establish a new homicide unit here in North Carolina.
The attached case file will be consigned to the department’s Cold Case Siberia in about a month’s time per our new regulations. Because Wilhelmina Rhyderth was your former student, I’m hoping you can shed some light on her disappearance and the circumstances that led up to it. I’ve provided a complete police dossier, which includes the curious manuscript she allegedly created to describe her harrowing week long experience in the Smoky Mountains prior to her disappearance. The manuscript also draws attention to impeding, catastrophic events. The writing is both fanciful and compelling, as I imagine your student was/is in the flesh. You spoke highly of her when I was your student.
Although Ms. Rhyderth was a person of interest in a homicide that occurred during the week she and Mr. Jake Hershey spent in the mountains, she was cleared of any complicity. However, that case remains unsolved. She claimed there were two additional murders committed. Our unit worked closely with local Tennessee and North Carolina law enforcement and park police, but found no evidence to support her claims. As you know, the park consists of over 522 thousand acres, divided nearly equally between TN and NC, and harbor a number of predatory animals.
I’ve provided annotations in the marginalia of some of the pages of her document, and supplemental notes and clippings. The case file includes interviews conducted with colleagues, friends, and family. Unfortunately, her family was most uncooperative. You may know more about Ms. Rhyderth’s relationship with her family than I was able to learn. She sent a copy of her manuscript to her best friend from undergrad college, a Mrs. Myra Jones.
My contact number, both cell and office land line, and email is included on an inelegant post it note, as I don’t yet have business cards. As always, I’d be most appreciative of your insight and assistance. After you’ve had a chance to review these files, please contact me to discuss your take, availability, and fee.
Your humble student and #1 fan, Police Lieutenant Canter Frankel
^_` ***** +++ ***** +++ ***** +++ *****
Professor Beechum reread the letter that lay atop the thick package. He shook his head and made a noise that was half chuckle, half dismay. He quickly flipped pages in an outmoded calendar/planner, saw his day was clear until 4 pm, and blocked out six hours of time. Then he accessed his digital calendar and did the same thing. His muscles protested when he rose and stretched before spreading the contents of the package across a stained, scratched wooden work table. He gathered collar length graying hair into a ponytail and grabbed his bifocals. From cubbyholes, he pulled a new grey lab book, some pre-printed sticky labels, and a handful of colored pens.
It was Saturday, and no one else was in the office. During the next hour, he read and flipped pages and photos that were part of the dossier Canter sent him. As a man in his 60s, he embraced both old school and high tech. Using his tablet, he pulled up several forms, printed them, tore off the bottom portion, and pasted the forms into pages 1 and 2 of his new lab book. The first form contained a spaced outline of the old laboratory method he was taught in high school: Title/Date; Problem Statement; Hypothesis & Background; Study Design Protocols; Observations & Statistical Analysis; Data Collection; Findings & Data Analysis; and Conclusions and Further Recommendations.
In the 2lst century digital world, many of his students protested keeping a clunky physical notebook, but he insisted. Professor Beechum explained it provided a consecutive, complete and rational record. Because the book was bound, there was little chance of losing pages or authenticating another student’s work. Data files can be corrupted. He did allow the pasting of supplemental digitized forms in certain sub-sections. Now that he’d relinquished his university chair, he wouldn’t have to fight that battle anymore.
He hadn’t opened Willy’s manuscript yet. Wilhelmina Rhyderth, a woman of such promise. He was her doctorate advisor and she’d been his teaching assistant for two years. After she graduated with honors, she’d kept in touch, sending him a birthday card and letter yearly, and an occasional postcard from her travels. He’d call and thank her, though they’d often exchange three or four voice mails before reaching each other in real time. She’d sent him a picture a few years ago, right after she’d bought her house. Her long, strawberry blond hair fanned out over a large dog with black fur seated at her feet. The dog looked as if it was the proud home owner, rather than Willy. Her chin rested atop the dogs head. Both dog and owner were smiling. What had happened since then?
The professor checked his watch and decided to fix an early lunch. He grabbed handfuls of pre-sliced veggies, cheese, and lunchmeat from the fridge, and added a sleeve of crackers to the plate and some parsley he tore off a planter hanging in the window. He filled a tall glass pitcher with water from the cooler and added a few sprigs of savory herbs growing in another planter, and slices of lemon and cucumber. Back in his office/workroom, he took a deep swig of water, opened the lab book, and began reading.
Samhain twilight passing, Massasaugas Mews Just seven days ago, I thought myself an educated woman, a realist, a person of value. Today, a disheveled stranger peers at me in the computer screen’s reflection and grips the sides of this worn leather chair. I’m a stranger in a room that a week ago felt so familiar. What was unknown could do no harm here. I grope for words to describe this new me—not me. What do I call her now—survivor, murderer, visionary, conjuror, escape artist . . . ? We’re all that. This flesh is unchanged, except for scrapes, bumps, and bruises. The rest—mind, soul, beingness—is foreign now—alien and undefinable and at the same time gloriously unbound, exalted.
You must think me mad. I can’t fall back on an uber philosophy, like phenomenology or metaphysics, to explain what happened. Nor would a portmanteau mashing of terms direct you to think me less mad. Death has changed and initiated me in ways I could never have imagined. Though very much alive, I speak death’s language now, its die-alogue. I am like Ma’at’s feather, and unlike the man in Appointment in Samara, I neither fled nor followed. I recklessly welcomed death’s companionship. I deceived the Moirai and restored my thread. I have killed, inhaled death’s pale flower, worn its shroud and masque, and survived once again. I challenged Satre and Heidegger, Plato’s cave, the pseudo-sages and reanimators…I challenged death itself. Perhaps that’s madness—or something else.
Impossible you think, though I’m proof of that truth. I’ve written it all down, everything that happened from the moment Jake insisted I take this wilderness trip with him though I was still grieving over Phaedra’s death. A mere 24 hours after setting up Jake’s camp, in a highly emotional, exasperated state of mind, I became utterly lost in a forest that has claimed 100s of lives, including the lives of intrepid survivalists.
We haven’t spoken recently. Our bad. Your life overflows now with motherhood and modernity, taking care of your man, and molding your ambitions to fit in with your gated community life. It wasn’t so long ago they called us madcap mavens. Remember your stunning Pulp Fiction hairdo and my crimped hair, flannel shirts, silk undies, and Doc Martens? Back then, all it took was Photoshop and a laminator to make those terribly clever fake driver licenses. The world’s turned into surveillance city and it’s so much harder to change one’s identity or disappear, though not impossible. And now it seems, I must—disappear.
It feels lame now, but to paraphrase Thoreau, I thought I was going into those woods to see if I could forge a deeper relationship with Jake, and of course, create my own philosophy. We’ve talked about the fact that despite my PhD, I still felt like such a poser. In the space of seven days, I accomplished the latter, not the former. I found an original philosophy in the most peculiar way—by objectifying death, by making it a known entity (though that’s not quite what I mean).
You see, assuming words can capture the many facets of reality is an error. In the high ground of the Smokies, I flailed and failed in so many ways while circumnavigating terrain that seemed indistinguishably harsh and brutal. But despite the woods’ wildness, there were moments of levity. At first, I swore I was trapped in Dante’s tortured, pathless suicide forest until I met a bear that didn’t kill me. A few hours later, I had a wryly humorous moment imagining I was auditioning for the role of Goldilocks, with Nainie Rhyderth looking on approvingly, until two very human bears returned to their lair. Then my sojourn morphed into a variation of one of Nan’s darker tales, The Robbers Bridegroom. And yet I persisted, despite the fates determination to snip my thread.
What began as a vexing few days in the Smoky Mountains became a week of transformation. I can picture you shaking your head. I agree; it’s nearly impossible to fathom—it’s vital you try to understand what happened in those woods because the future, yours, mine, everyone’s depends on it. I’m not being dramatic; I’m deadly serious Myra. I didn’t survive hazing week in hellacious acres to return and resume life as usual.
In advance, I apologize for the length of this manuscript. Any attempt to cursorily explain what unveiled would fail dismally. So much converged and conjoined; synchronicities formed and expanded into dynamic events. It’s difficult to pinpoint; perhaps it began on day two, Sunday, when I interpreted death as noun, verb, and objective presence. I caught a glimpse of its hidden nuances, its inbetweenness, and alchemical nature. Apologies, I’m jumping ahead and haven’t provided the context for what you’re likely thinking are the claims of a crackpot. Please be patient.
I’ve brought back instructions that can help defeat what’s coming. Dark, chaotic knowledge known only to adepts has been unlocked, clinically analyzed, experimented with, and manipulated in the 20th century by those devoid of love of humanity, by lunatics driven to destroy our techno infused world. We’ve talked about this many times. You know deep down my dads was proof of what I’m saying, still I refused to act. These masters of chaos are trying to make the revered irreverent, to condemn the divine and label it malevolent. What I learned may help reverse or neutralize their power. The future doesn’t rest in our hands, our technology, or our systems, rules, or imposed regulations. It rests in our minds and the extent to which we allow others to control our fate, our higher values…
***** +++ ***** +++ *****
Professor Beechum refilled his glass and crunched down on the last veggie. He finished reading the final paragraph of Willy’s letter to Myra, which ended with Willy asking her friend to do her one last favor, and ensure her intention was honored. He rubbed his forehead and he scribbled in the lab book. Then he turned his attention to Canter’s inserted note. It stated the original manuscript was found among Ms. Rhyderth’s personal belongings. That is, the document had been placed in a plain wooden box and left on a library table in the foyer of the house she sold two months after returning from her trip. A hand written label was addressed to To whom it may concern.
The lieutenant said the box also contained a copy of a duly executed power of attorney and addendum, which stipulated proceeds from the sale of her home and its contents, as well as balances in multiple bank accounts (after all earnest debts have been settled), were to be used to create a Smoky Mountains Wilderness Preservation Foundation. Mrs. Myra Jones was named as the foundation’s Trustee.
Myra, the name wasn’t familiar to Professor Beechum. He resumed reading.
***** +++ ***** +++ ***** +++ *****
Day 8, Saturday, November 1, All Soul’s Day
My name was/is Wilhelmina Rhyderth; I’m no longer sure. Upon my return from the mountains, the first thing I did after taking a hot shower, was to drink a quart of water, and wolf down a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon. I left my torn, soiled clothes in a crumpled pile on the bathroom floor. I didn’t contact Jake’s sister or parents immediately. Instead, I grabbed the laptop, sat cross-legged on the bed I hadn’t slept in for a week, and created this manuscript. My head throbbed and my chapped lips were pressed together so tightly at times I tasted blood. More than once I thought I should hit DELETE, or hide the file in some obscure folder, or send it to some Strange Tales e-zine. Who would understand these surreal experiences, or what I learned about evolutionary leaps and the frequency and consequences of back-sliding into primordial ooze?
Was I certifiably crazy to write about tribal ghost warriors, sociopaths, loathsome lovers, and how the past can upend the present and summon the future? Is this a manifesto for the 21st century—a warning to prepare for paradigm changes occurring as the new millennium spreads atop the old one, or instructions no one will ever heed? The old order, begun 2,000 years ago, disintegrates into the misty, contradictory annals of a history fraught with lies. These are chaotic times and tricksters abound. Will they think me just one more joker? You must decide—and act accordingly.
Mine isn’t the only voice. I join philosophers, seers, and diviners that left cryptic messages at epicenters—in ancient Babylon, Crete, Ephesus, and Tibet. At Malta, Isle of Man, Delos, Dendera, Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound, and dozens of other sacred sites. Their carved symbols and clues wait to be deciphered. These symbols have been interpreted as death pangs, ravings, and occasionally as signposts of a new awakening—the birth struggle of a new universal archetype replacing 2000 years of patriarchal dominance. A new, weaponized androgynous age takes its first tottering steps, and fear is rampant. Those who think they can control what’s coming are amateurs, elitists and fools toying with forces capable of imploding or blow up this damn darling world.
This new age bring promises of something not yet visible or describable. I have attempted to record what I learned the past seven days. Part of me feels like one of those bums in the Robert Francis poem that walked out of Eden. Part of me feels like a foreigner, an intruder in these lands, an eachtrannach.
Day 1, Dies Saturni -Θ- (Welsh dydd Sadwrn): Initiation
“Death is not an experience in life.” L. Wittgenstein
“Reality, if rightly interpreted, is grander than fiction.” Thomas Carlyle
Satern/Sadwrn/Ptah/Baal (sabbath, bath day) is the only day named for a Roman god that swallowed his children & was later dethroned by them. His festival is Saturnalia, held at winter solstice. Planet Saturn, discovered by Galileo, is a massive, gassy helium & hydrogen filled giant. Saturday is also named after Norse trickster god Loki (Laugardag). It’s associated with the Norns; the element lead; weights and measures; ears & knees; holly trees, sowing; protection charms & manipulation spells; discipline and responsibility; and the colors maroon & black.
“Come Saturday Morning” (song by the Sandpipers)
It was Saturday, far too early for me to be awake. It was too early to pretend I was eager to leave my creature comforts for a wildness adventure my man friend Jake insist we take. I had packed with methodical precision, much as a doctor would prep for surgery. I am a doctor—of Philosophy—though I rarely use the title. It feels phony since I haven’t developed a unique philosophy. I make excuses and say all the other ‘philos’ were taken—logic, metaphysics, epistemology… To myself, I admit my doctorate was based on my ability to mimic and memorize the philosophies of Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, Husserl, Berlin, Schopenhauer, Dewey, James, Jung . . . . It’s annoying that most of the famous philosophers are bloody men. It’s maddening that my dissertation was a regurgitation of ancient philosophies applied to 20th century technological advancements. I’ve published papers ad nauseam, which in turn has landed me some fat corporate consulting jobs. But I still haven’t made my mark or discovered a feminist leaning philosophy that would enable me to add my name to the illustrious philosopher registry.
I glanced at my new backpack. It was plump and heavy. I’m animus opibusque parati! The Latin expression roughly translated to better prepared than a girl scout! I’d anticipated nearly every emergency, except whether or not Jake and I were compatible enough to spend an entire week together. There’d been plenty of sex but so far no cerebral melding of minds. The diehard outdoorsman part of my lover grudgingly split his time between the corporate world, dame nature, and me. I suspected this trip was his chance to force feed me the wilderness until I felt the same way.
From an inner pocket of my vest, I unfolded a check list and ran through it one last time, patting pockets or pointing to the backpack to confirm I had packed: bug spray; Swiss Army knife; purification tablets; lightweight mess kit; matches and dehydrated and dry food in baggies, including vegetables, fruit, jerky, flour, yeast, powdered milk and eggs, condiments, herbal tea, coffee, and tang; two change of clothes, plus an extra flannel shirt; four pairs of socks and undies; flask of brandy; two foil bags of wine; two pairs of lavender silk long johns; index card sized notebook, pens and pencils; a copy of Moon Mother Wildness Guide; two paperbacks; a pocket sized radio and earbuds, low suds shampoo and soap; moisturizer, mascara and blush; a slender vial of a musk and citronella scented oil; s’more ingredients; mini med kit and flashlight; thermal hand warmer; inflatable neck pillow; comb, toothbrush, and flattened roll of TP; ball of wax coated twine and a length of nylon rope. A multi-temperature zone down sleeping bag was firmly tied to the aluminum carrier bar of the backpack, and a waterproof ground cloth, which doubled as a space age blanket, was wrapped around the sleeping bag.
My bedside clock said 4am. I grabbed the flask and thermal warmer from the bulging side pocket of the backpack and transferred the items to a vest pocket. The flask and warmer joined tins of hard and chocolate candy; mini deck of tarot cards; tissues; a baggy of sugar cubes; and a dozen (or more) plastic whiskey miniatures; a compass, small mirror, and dog whistle; pepper spray; and a pair of leather gloves. I grabbed my waterproof, fur lined Australian Bush hat, and wedged it on my head while I finger combed straggles of reddish blond hair and added a few bobby pins. I grunted as I heaved the backpack over my broad enough shoulders and jammed my billfold and a set of keys in the last available vest pocket. While I wouldn’t say my 5’8” frame was prepared to carry this load far, I pronounced myself fit enough to lug it to and from our camp site.
As I exited, I glanced back and used my best Bette Davis impersonation to mouth, “What a dump,” and kicked a scarf across the floor. Then I panicked briefly; that line came from the movie Beyond the Forest, which was about an affair, the shooting of a tattler, and Davis’ death at the end of the movie. That’s not how I wanted this adventure to go. I’ll have to suck it up for the next week, no creature comforts or hot water from a tap, no high thread count sheets or cable TV. There might not even be cellphone reception. Jake insisted I leave all electronic devices at home anyway. In the hallway, I snaked my arm backwards and flipped some lights on, then clumped awkwardly down a double flight of curved stairs.
Outside the softly lit Georgian mid-18th century townhouse, Jake honked, his shorthand for me to get ‘buns in gear.’ I jabbed the round button on the wall by the front door. The entryway chandelier went dark, and out I scurried. The tailgate of the jeep was gaping open.
“Loaded for bear? Think you can keep up with that extra weight? How much of it is booze? Where’s your jacket woman? It’s already winter in the Smokies.”
Despite his lack of greeting, I gave him a big, wet kiss, and smacked my forehead. “Sorry Jake,” I called over my shoulder, “I’ll be back before you can say tuchleedeen.” The word was one my Welsh nainie used often. The approximate translation was ‘horses behind.’
On a brass hook inside the front door hung my new English Barbour jacket, a rather extravagant purchase of an item I doubted I’d ever wear again. I wondered if Jake had remembered to ice the cooler and the gourmet provisions I’d given him yesterday? Outside the horn blew two short blasts again.
“Geez, I was coming. It’s barely 4 friggin o’clock. All the neighbors are fast asleep. By the way, how are you?” I scrunched my face until my eyebrows arched like a pair of raised drawbridges and bussed his cheek. By the chill, diffused light of a three quarter moon, I stared at him until a half grin spread across his face. He planted two fingers on my mouth to serve as a return kiss. I thought, hmmm, that’s was an inauspicious way to begin a seven day trek into untested territory.
An hour and a half into the journey, I begged Jake to stop at a fast food joint off the interstate. I loaded up on egg and sausage biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and cartons of coffee. Before I’d pulled the first biscuit from the bag, we were back on the interstate heading southwest. Cautiously, I pried the lid off the first steaming cup of coffee, added cream, and handed the cup to Jake. I placed two egg and sausage biscuits, partially unwrapped, in his lap. “You’re welcome.”
Jake put the coffee into the car’s cup holder, grabbed one of the sandwiches and finished it in three bites. Then he threw the empty wrapper back in my lap.
“Manners,” I stated, then unwrapped my own sandwich. With a paper napkin tucked under my chin, and another on my lap, and my sludge tasting coffee laced with the rest of the cream and five tiny packs of sugar, I uttered a small ahh. The warm, gooey rolls resting atop the heating vent gave a sugary cinnamon sigh. From a vest pocket, I removed a brochure describing the Smoky Mountains and read aloud, selecting sentences I thought worth repeating:
The rugged, magnificently forested Smokies spreads out over 500,000 acres…These forests comprise some of the oldest known land formations, and harbor within its blue gray mists ancient coves and mysterious wonders…Over 15 peaks rise more than 6,000 feet. Nearly three quarters of the park is wilderness, with over 900 miles of hiking trails. Mists ascend from valley floors to its loftiest tops to do justice to the name given these mountains long ago by the Cherokees, “Shaconage, Land of the Great Smoke.”
About 40 per cent of these spacious acres remain in its native, untouched forested state, a living reminder . . .
Jake interrupted and scowled. “Got it.”
To be continued…rest of Chapter 1 to be posted 9/1/20; thanks for journeying with Willy to the Smokies