This time of year, trees can be easily identified by their vibrant hued leaves: the brilliant scarlet of the gum and sourwood, brassy gold of beech and sugar maples, the loud yellow of the goosefoot maple, and the deep orange of fingery oak leaves. Within a 50 foot radius, I recognized three different varieties of trees. The Smokies famous grey mist hovered at mid-tree level. It felt oddly dry and mild outside the mound. I scurried over to a semi-circle of burgundy and brown leaved bushes, what locals called witch hobble, and peed in privacy.
That accomplished, I attempted to make myself presentable, and routed in a vest pocket for mirror, comb, and breath mints. The men were up too; I decided to listen to their conversation before I made my presence known but there was nothing much to hear. The big man circled round the mound, presumably looking for me. Then he went back inside, returning a moment later holding a loaf sized canvas bag and a metal bowl. He performed a quick morning toilet and said something to the other man I couldn’t quite hear. He had added a dark, nubby, hand stitched tunic over his clothes and carried a bow and quiver of arrows. Before he set off into the woods, he hollered “you be careful; I be back directly.” and headed into the woods.
Typical mountain man; surely, he’d know the best way off the mountain. I needed to think and after splashing water on my face and rebraiding my hair, I hoisted myself into the old oak tree I’d eyed as a potential safe space. I munched on the rest of my bag of trail mix. Gray squirrels watched from branches above. I offered them some seeds, apologizing for not having more.
A squirrel jumped from the branch above, scurried over, and snatched several sunflower seeds, scattering shells as it nibbled. I whispered they could have their tree back soon. A few minutes later, I heard the clang of banging pots and metal bowls. He must have started a fire. The mound covering was flung back; smoke and smells of frying meat rose tauntingly. The smoke unfortunately reminded me of my earlier dream where one man stabs the other.
Twenty minutes later, the dark skinned man returned. His wilderness shopping expedition yielded three plump rabbits, already skinned, a sack of berries, and a string of silvery fish. Their scales gleamed against a sun wanly peeking from behind clouds. “Not a bad haul—considering the competition—a lone wolf and some wild pigs. After we move this stuff, I’m gonna track them pigs.” He chuckled, “we be eating high on the hog this winter!”
“Grab your plate man. There’s venison, elderberry muffins and some of that gad-awful acorn-chicory coffee inside. Shit, I’d kill for a plate of scrambled eggs and real coffee. Even that powdered shit you served at the Inferno would do. So we’re really moving to the cave? It won’t snow for weeks.”
Then he said something in a whisper I couldn’t make out. The big man pointed at the oak tree. “You might as well come down and join us.” Then he turned to the other man, whom he called Vaughn. “It’s clouding and a ripening; ol mother knows what don’t get picked and ate now ain’t gonna get ate. Just cause we have supplies and laid down our piss scents, don’t mean no bear or hellcat won’t move in. If we ain’t there, a squatter’s gonna claim it.” He added, ‘weren’t nothing to improving eggs, just a little water, flour, baking powder, milk, salt and pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg.”
“No kidding,” Vaughn replied. “You never fail to impress, Rath man. You outta write this shit down.”
“Nah, it’s all up here, but I wish we’d found more books.” He glanced at Vaughn, “That was the only good thing there — they had books I never heard of—real important books.”
“Well, I’ve had too much book learning, if you know what I mean.” Vaughn replied
“Yeah, I hear ya.”
What was this Inferno place? Was it a greasy spoon restaurant, and where was it located? Dante’s Inferno had nine levels. Theoretically, the levels were based on Aristotle’s classification system, and included a Paradise and Purgatory level. Dante’s Inferno was distinguished by upper and lower hells. Evil resided only in lower hell, below the abyss. It made for strange reading; was that really how they thought in the 13th century? I’d brought a few paperbacks—could I trade them for an escort out of here?
Dante’s Divine Comedy and my current situation weren’t so different. Dante had suffered some sort of mid-life crisis because he and his lady Beatrice weren’t getting along; then he found himself lost in the woods. He meets the poet Virgil and they troll through Purgatory and Hell so Dante can obtain knowledge to enlighten and perfect himself.
That was about all I remembered from my required college reading, except I always thought Dante’s love interest, Beatrice, was the real guide and reason he accomplished anything. Dante called Aristotle the ‘master of those who know.’ Had he attempted to emulate Aristotle by writing the Divine Comedy? Thinking about masters made me wonder again where Jake was—out searching for game and enjoying the rugged life, glad to be rid of the person he found most exasperating. Or was he missing me?
Rath dragged something out of the cave. I watched as they loaded up a hand-made litter, stacked with what might be dried meats and fish, bundles of herbs or root plants, and many neatly tied brown paper and burlap packages and sacks.
“Yoa Rath, you want the rest of this meat and bread, or should I make up a foil swan to go for Goldifox?” He laughed.
That was my cue. I yelled down I would gladly eat the leftover food and share what I had, but icksnay on the deer hearts’a. I inched forward and craned my neck, half squatting, half hugging the limbs and rested a foot partially on the limb opposite the one on which I’d been perched. My foot slipped on slick, wet leaves, and I jerked back, lost my balance, and tumbled out of the tree. I landed with a plop, my fall cushioned a bit by mounds of fallen leaves and a bed of thick, velvety moss. I shook my head and made a half moan, half grunt sound.
“Hello again—just flew in . . .” I looked from face to face, trying to read something in their expressions. Neither of them made a move to help me up. “So you’re Vaughn and you’re Rath. Top of the morning to you.” I stood and brushed bits of dirt and leaves off my backside, but winced when I wiped my left hand on my pants.
“Merde, I seem to have injured my left—wing. Which is interesting, because I’m a doctor, though I’m afraid I’m not of much use as a medic because I’m not THAT kind of doctor.”
Neither man commented, so I kept jabbering. “Last night I mentioned I was lost …” My brain was over processing at this point, “You see, I came here to enjoy a few days of—solitude. Unfortunately my wilderness skills are a bit rusty. I was depending on my compass, since you can’t always see where the sun is in this warehouse of woods. But I broke it. My sense of direction is kinda for the birds . . .” Not so much as a smirk or a grin from this tough audience.
“Well, Ms. Goldifox, I’m a doctor of sorts too. I was a medic; let’s have a look at your wing.”
He gently probed my wrist and hand. “Now where did you say—what the hell were you doing in that tree? We gave you a bed.” He didn’t let go.
“I was just—hanging out—getting a bird’s eye view—terrible dismount.”
Rath circled around me, like the bear had done yesterday. He drew a hunting knife from its scabbard. “It don’t appear neither one of you can form a whole sentence, hmmph.” He used the knife to cut a length of rope and turned to secure another bundle to the litter.
“You heard us talking, didn’t you?” Vaughn lowered Willy’s arm and looked directly into my eyes. “Nothing’s broken. It’s going to be sore for a week or two. Do you have some aspirin for the pain or anything like an ace bandage?”
“I have a first aid kit, bandages, and medicine in my back pack.” I ran inside and grabbed the heavy bag with my right hand and hoisted it onto a tree stump, but struggled to unbuckle the clasp.
Vaughn reached over and unfastened it for me, then drew the bag towards him and pulled out a few articles of clothing, a roll of TP, lemon scented bug spray, and a paperback before finding the first aid kit.
“I owe you both an explanation—and an apology.”
Vaughn efficiently wrapped my left wrist with a beige elastic bandage and fastened it with a small metal clip. “You see—yesterday I was headed into town; I’d had enough of the great outdoors, and then I was nearly mauled by a bear, a huge bear with hallitosis.” I gestured with my arm. “All I could think of was that rhyme: brown, lay down; white, goodnight; black, stay and fight, but it was getting dark; I wasn’t sure what color it was. Did I mention it was giagantic?” I paused and took a deep breath.
“That’s when I realized I was lost.” I made a sweeping motion with my arms and my left wrist protested. I admired my newly bandaged wrist. “All I need is a few simple directions and I’m outta here. Say, where did the big guy go?” One second he was leaning against the oak tree, then he was gone.
“Rath went to check on some traps. He’ll be back soon. Here, take an aspirin.” His eyes scanned me. “So you’re alone? What do you do back in the real world?”
“I could—embellish the truth—tell you I was part of a big camping party, and just wandered off. But why spoil what could be the start of a beautiful friendship?” I waited to see if he recognized the quote.
“So you’re not a movie fan? That was a line from Casablanca. You know, the movie set in Morocco, although it was actually filmed on Hollywood sets. It’s wonderful—these stranded refugees converge at Rick’s Bar, dodging Nazis and a corrupt Vichy Government. They’re all are trying to flee to America. I kind of feel like a—forest refugee. I can hear Tom Petty now…”
Vaughn wasn’t connecting the dots, so I searched for words he would understand. “Right, my PhD is in Philosophy. Except I question that I’m a real Philosopher because I didn’t invent—that is, I haven’t developed an original methodology, not yet. I also have a degree in Forensic Psychology. Wow, those elderberry muffins look delish. I could trade you for . . .”
“Sure thing. Help yourself. All we have to wash it down with is this gad awful coffee.” He watched me inhale the muffin, then poured hot water into a battered bowl and washed and put the items on the makeshift counter in a sack. After moments of silence, he said “I know the Petty song, the one where he thinks the girl must have been abused, kidnapped, or held for ransom; funny you should mention that song. So how unbearable was your encounter in the woods? Who are you really running from?” Vaughn snorted.
If his aim was to make me uncomfortable, I’d show him. I grinned. “I can fix your coffee problem. I have some genuine ground Colombian Mountain blend. It’s yours, but it may take a moment to find. It’s my thank you for diagnosing my injury, and pointing me back to civilization. That ol bear just sniffed, drooled on me, and ate some of my trail mix. Strange, no?” Vaughn’s eyes crinkled in delight. Finally, I’d reached him.
Rath returned and motioned to Vaughn to join him. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I didn’t like Rath’s raised tone. After several more minutes of muffin munching and venison chewing, I cleared my throat, and approached the men. “So, Gentlemen, can you direct me to the logging road or just tell me what direction is south? I can pay you, and give you some great camping gear. I’ll never use it again. This hat I’m wearing was specially designed . . .”
“Lady, I’d just as soon put you on the next express bus stead of hearing more babbling, but it ain’t gonna happen. This here’s high backcountry; it’s more than a day’s walk to any road. You already met one predator and you’re injured. How you gonna defend yourself against Mr. Wolf or a hungry bobcat? We ain’t gonna let you roam round lost. We gots to get these supplies to camp. So no one’s walking you back to civilization today—not no-how. After we get our supplies over yonder, I guaran-damn-tee you I’ll take you to the logging road. Vaughn, check her. I’ll do her pack.”
Uncouth, barbaric, dangerous creep floated on the tip of my tongue. Instead of responding, I stuffed my mouth with the last muffin.
Rath shook his head while rifling through my backpack, but didn’t tear it apart. “Just checking for contraband, or if you’re carrying an IRS or one of them forestry badges.” He rolled a few items tighter, reinserted them, fastened the clasps, and handed the bag back. Then he picked up the string of fish and a bladder of water and headed downhill to clean the fish.
Vaughn’s body search only extended to a few of my outer vest pockets, then slowly moved down my legs. He wedged a few fingers between my socks and boots then resumed patting down the area between my neck and groin. “I don’t feel anything dangerous; you packing a gun anywhere darling? What’s this Goldifox—fairy sized whiskey fifths?”
“Funny, ha, ha, the minis are for medicinal purposes¾and my name’s Willy, not darling or Goldifox. Listen, could you just point out a few markers—like turn left at the big blue spruce and continue until you see the rock shaped like a camel’s hump—and I’ll be outta here?”
“Not unless you can run like a gazelle. It’s Rath’s mind, not mine, you need to change.” Vaughn pressed his nose to my ear, “Don’t let him know I told you, but we’re tax evaders—we skipped bail. Rath and I had a business—yeah, we had a—diner. The Government took everything, so we’re passing the winter up here. Call it a low profile stay-cation. We don’t need any attention, especially since no one supposed to be camping off trail or spending the winter here. Stand still and I’ll attach your sleeping bag.”
Vaughn’s story had a certain Gertrude Stein’ish syrupy constitution, but it just didn’t pour. I decided to use a different approach. “Listen, if you don’t help me get out of here, people WILL be all over these mountains looking for me. This is ridiculous. You’re an intelligent man. I’m not cut out to rough it. I haven’t been camping since college.” My voice rose in pitch; it must have sounded shrill. I took a deep breath and concentrated on a big neon sign in my head that blinked CALM DOWN.
“We’re both professionals, right? I don’t fault anyone who refuses to pay the bloodsucking Government. In fact, I know some alarming things about fascist dogmas being taught in a few schools, which I was telling . . .” I stopped myself before saying Jake’s name, and fought to keep tears from forming. That’s when I noticed the small tear in the corner of Vaughn’s flannel shirt. An image from last night’s dream flashed before my eyes. Coincidence or just what you’d expect to see after going off the grid?
Vaughn secured the sleeping bag and tugged on the straps. “So who’s looking for you? You married, or some big Wall Street Executive?”
“No and no; I guess I won’t be missed.”
He must have seen the wariness in my eyes. He changed the subject. “Yeah, I’ve got degrees; I was a college professor. Now just look at me. The damn Government did this and—you need to be patient. Besides, I’ve heard 100s of folks have vanished in the Smokies in recent decades, despite the best efforts of law enforcement and seasoned trackers.” Vaughn threw up his hands, “shame on me, I’m beginning to sound like him.”
He was testing me. “OK, let’s be accurate,” I bantered back, refusing to appear intimidated. “Actually, there’ve been over 460 known deaths since the 1930s, when the Smokies became a National Park. There’s probably hundreds more not reported. I found it curious that the leading cause of death around here is from auto mishaps. That’s followed by drowning, overexposure, plunges off cliffs, and suicides. I did my research.” I had his attention.
“The numbers aren’t particularly high for a park that draws over 10 million visitors a year. What is curious is that among the missing, most vanished right under the noses of family, friends, lovers, rangers, and guides. The missing include kids, old folks, foreigners, and experienced hikers.” For good measure, I added, “but not a single philosopher appears among those that disappeared.”
I put an arm on my hip and drew closer. “It’s funny you mentioned fairies earlier. These mountains are rumored to be full of mystical beings that fled the old country and have lived here in peace (for the most part) with Native American tribes—Cherokee, Chowanoke, Pamplico, Tuscarora, and Atasi. In these splendid old hills there’s a bunch of Indian, pioneer, and civil war graveyards and bones off trail. Have you ever seen park signs with a picture of a person on horseback with a red line across the image?” I’d lost him again.
Vaughn rolled his eyes, and adjusted a cinch on his backpack.
Rath had returned, silent as a ninja, and the laden homemade litter rested at his feet. The fish, and a few rabbits would air dry during the journey today and be smoked over the fire tonight. Rath bent and attached smooth wooden, treadless rollers to the underside of the litter.
“Let’s truck; you pull the litter for an hour Vaughn, I’ll take over when we get to higher ground.” Vaughn nodded. Rath carefully replaced the underbrush camouflage covering over the mouth of the mound and threw leaves and loose branches around the entrance. He used a bushy branch to wipe out traces of our footprints in the clearing.
A milky sun darted in and out of pillowy clouds. Despite my precarious position, I felt far less fearful than I expected. Perhaps I was in shock, or when I fell from the tree, I broke my bloody neck and none of this was real because I was dead like that woman in the movie Carnival of Souls. Vaughn seemed to be a misogynistic like Jake; I didn’t know what to make of Rath. And I wondered how they could be in such trouble—if Vaughn was so smart? His torn shirt pocket was disturbing.
Rath pulled a black and white bandana from his back pocket and said maybe he should blindfold me. Vaughn saw the alarm on my face, a combination of real apprehension and a realization I’d seen a similar bandanna in my dream. “This is just till we get over the next few hills. We wouldn’t want you selling maps to the feds.” His joke was weak; he likely didn’t know what else to say.
The fear I hadn’t fully embraced before engulfed me. The muffins I’d consumed rose like hot mercury in my throat. Bitter berry bits scraped against my windpipe. I forced it all back down and inhaled. “Tell you what, I’ll put on my sunglasses and I’ll keep my eyes on the ground until you tell me otherwise, deal? You wouldn’t want me tripping over a witch hobble bush and crashing on top of your litter, would you?” I asked Vaughn to pull a pair of folding sunglasses from a side pocket of my backpack. He grinned as he fitted them over my eyes.
“Never mind, take off the fool glasses” Rath barked. Just keep them eyes pointing down. Humph.”
We scrambled up through a tangle of trees; I allowed a few tears to slide down my cheeks while I concentrated on walking with a full backpack and controlling my breathing. I gazed back once, near the top of the next hill, and tripped. Rath turned around and shook his head. It wasn’t quite like staring at the abyss. It was more like glancing at a familiar place for the last time, before departing into the unknown. Or was the abyss in front of me, staring right back? What was it the intrepid Einstein said, something about there being a great opportunity in the midst of a crisis?
I thought about a brush I’d had with danger in a poorly lit enclosed parking lot in Georgetown at 2am. I refused a colleagues offer of an escort to my car, which was parked several blocks from the nightclub where they’d been celebrating someone’s promotion. The club was packed with young professionals and college students. I’d tossed down several gin and tonics, then switched to still water with lemon to quench my thirst after hours of dancing. So I was mostly sober.
I turned into the alley and noticed there were only two cars in the lot, my tiny five speed sports car towards the center, facing towards the exit, and a beat up shark finned sedan parked along the far side of one of the buildings that enclosed the parking lot. Along the right side of the lot ran a 10 foot tall chain link fence.
I sensed his presence before I saw the man step from behind the sedan. My keys were in my hand and I shoved the car key between my index and middle finger. It was a warm night but I had goosebumps. I was wearing a lightweight pink pastel midi skirt and matching body clinging tank top, and flimsy black Maryjane slippers.
He was wearing dark sweat pants and a lightweight hooded jacket, though the temperature was a balmy 85 degrees. He shouted I had to pay him to get my car out of the lot.
I had already paid the attendant earlier, and glanced at him while calculating distances between myself and my car and the man and my car. I reasoned any explanation or argument would be useless. There was no one around; nearby windows were darkened. Would anyone hear me if I screamed?
He continued to saunter towards me, mouthing something I couldn’t understand, and then shouting again that if I couldn’t pay, we could work something else out real satisfying to us both.
Professor Beechum rolled his neck from side to side and shifted in his chair. Are you daft girl, he wondered. There’s no comparison. This is no controlled science experiment; you’re in the wilderness. There’s no way to objectively measure, observe patterns, and analyze when you’re part of the research. The professor scribbled in his notebook and underlined a few words, like clarity lost, lack of empirical evidence, impossible truth. Her actions made no sense.
He tried to imagine how she would counter what he always insisted was the only way to proceed with any task. She might tell him if you want to win an argument and solve a problem, you have to be willing to go where others would not–-into dark woods and unfamiliar places. She’d quote artists and poets, dare devils and mad scientists that had done that very thing and beaten the odds. He made a sound, half hmmm, half humph, recalling a poem by John Moffitt she once quoted, “To look at anything, if you would know that thing, you must look at it long…be the thing you see.”
Without thinking, I adapted a karate pose I recalled seeing in one of many Kung Fu TV reruns I’d watched as a kid. I yelled back, “My sticker receipt in the dash proves I already paid. I have a brown belt—back off bozo.”
The man hesitated for a second or two, then let loose a wicked laugh. I sprinted for my car and unlocked it without fumbling. The air inside was hot and cloying. Unfortunately, my hand shook as I groped for the ignition switch, and I lost precious seconds. Did he intend rape, robbery, murder, or all three? My small car roared to life, and I shifted into first, then second gear. The man ran to his car. His engine screamed to life and rolled forward. He wasn’t heading towards me, but to the exit to block me from leaving. There was no other way in or out. The lot was enclosed on three sides by commercial building walls and sturdy fencing, and along the back by a 9 foot high concrete graffiti sprayed wall and a line of trees.
I punched the gas pedal, and whispered a defiant no, which grew in volume as the car accelerated towards the exit. If his larger, heavier car blocked the exit or hit me, I would be pinned and trapped. The building’s windows were high up, and the trees at the back were tall and bushy, not climbing trees. The right hand corner of the man’s car kissed my rear bumper as I exited the lot, screamed down a short, narrow alley, and made a sharp right onto M Street. My entire body was shaking, causing my foot to pump the clutch like an accordion. The car jerked down the street, which was relatively free of traffic this time of night. It took several minutes for the shaking to stop. The man didn’t pursue me. I didn’t file a police report or ever park there again.
The men’s silence made me nervous, though the forest abounded with noise—birds chirping, leaves rustling, twigs crunching beneath our feet. There was also angry squirrel chatter, and somewhere to my right, the trickle of water over rocks. “There must be a stream nearby; do you know what it’s called? I asked. “Do either of you know any tales about the pioneers that passed through the Smokies on their way West?”
Rath told me to save my breath, though he did mention he knew what the sign meant I’d asked Vaughn about earlier. It indicated there was a cemetery near the trail. He guessed I’d read about it in the Brown Book. I was impressed. It was the book I’d wish I’d brought. It showed major hiking trails, elevations, location of streams and campgrounds, and much more. Was Rath sending me a message he knew what I was doing by asking questions about the terrain?
Prior to the 1930s, small communities, mills, churches, and burial grounds were sprinkled throughout the landscape. People were forced to leave their homes so the land could be reclaimed as a national park. If I could find or identify the remnants of one of these abandoned places, I reasoned, I could orient myself and get back to civilization. But Rath said he didn’t have a copy of the Brown Book, he just knew about its contents.
Vaughn wasn’t a gabber, but offered that if he thought of anything worth saying, he’d share it. Both men maneuvered up and over the forest terrain and ridgelines as if they’d been doing it all their lives, as if they were part goat. The litter was heavy to pull up the steep inclines, but Vaughn managed, with an occasional assist from Rath. I helped when I could with my good arm to get the litter over particularly rocky ridges. Mostly though, I flailed about as we traipsed through uneven, tangled terrain. Finally, Rath told me I could stop pretending to look down. I was surprised I was able to keep up with them at all.
I knew I had to establish a relationship with one or both men. I asked if they came across many hikers or park rangers and got no reply. Cautiously, I asked Vaughn if he was a Math or Botany instructor. He didn’t answer my question directly, but did share a few anecdotes about his college years and the antics of some school chums. He was careful not to identify the state or the city where he attended or taught college.
I kept at it; open communications might help open doors and ensure my freedom. I countered his stories by relating a few madcap adventures I’d enjoyed with best friends Myra, Casey, and Jonsey.
I talked engagingly about the time we rigged a few lab computers by switching cables so that when their lab partners tried to enter data, nothing appeared on the screen. Then the four of us, stationed strategically in different rows, typed HAL-like commands from our keyboards onto their screens. Two gullible students were convinced their computers were possessed; even the lab teacher doubted his sanity.
While the computer lab went into utter chaos mode, we quickly switched the cables back. The mystery was never solved. Nor were any of us ever suspected of having caused the Computer Lab mishap.
Another escapade involved getting even with our Economics Professor. Twice weekly for the past decade, he’d spewed forth the same boring lectures to multiple generations of students. The year the four of us graduated, this Economics Professor put his lectures on tape. He would walk into the Lecture Hall, take attendance, switch on the tape recorder, and leave.
Jonsey had the brilliant idea to bring a portable tape recorder to class. As soon as the professor left, he turned it on. Then we’d go to the Brew and Chew, the local student cafe, to drink coffee and kick back. Jonsey would return just before the end of class and retrieve his recorder. Myra would make copies of the tape, or if she had time, would type the notes and give a copy to us. During the following weeks, other students began copying Jonsey’s bright idea.
This plan could have continued indefinitely except for one small hitch. One day the professor returned to class about half way through his usual session and only three students were in attendance. All the other seats in the Lecture Hall were empty, except for the various makes and models of tape recorders blinking and whirling on desktops. No one ever turned Jonsey in as the ring-leader; the entire class got off with a mild reprimand. The professor may have also been chastised because for the rest of the classes that semester, he was present, and read his boring notes from the podium.
I kept adjusting the backpack to shift the weight and lessen the rattling. This prompted a discussion about snakes. Rath, the cryptic one, as I had dubbed him, actually contributed to the discussion.
I started it off saying, “Did you know, there’re only two known varieties of venomous snakes in the Smokies—copperheads and timber rattlesnakes?” I made an undulating motion with my arm. “These flesh eating reptiles hang out around rock piles and fallen logs. While neither type is as aggressive as a cobra or a diamondback rattler, both will kill to eat, grow, and ensure they reproduce.” I wiped a bead of sweat from my brow and shouted to Rath. “So what do you know about snakes?”
“You mean like how you reckon you’ve spotted an ‘indadu utsa’nati’ by the yellow-gray or gray-brown markings and wavy lines or a reddish-brown stripe on its back? Like when their tails are dark, they got a shiny rattle inside, one still prized by the Cherokee. Or how you notice their rattling kinda sounds like the whirring noise that bug makes that only appears every seven years?”
“Wow, I’m impressed you know the Indian name; that bug is a cicada. Vaughn, did you know snakes are part of the supernatural world, or that each time the timber rattlesnake sheds its skin, its rattle grows?”
It was Rath’s turn to pull the litter. Vaughn kneaded his shoulder, and said, “Nope.” He took a long swallow from a water bladder, and asked me how I came to know about snakes, since it made most girls squeamish.
“My nainie was a Welsh snake charmer and herbalist. When I was six, a herpetologist came to my school—in New England. He had a crazy collection of snakes, toads, lizards, and other creepy things. I was the only kid to volunteer to let him put a snake around my neck. It was amazing—cool, dry, and very still. I was hooked, even had a greedy King Snake as a pet for a few years—until my brother set it free. I named it Naga.”
Rath slowed his pace. “Why’d you name it after a danged cobra? Ain’t it a shame you can’t be quiet like a snake. ”
I grinned, “Oh, but I can hiss. So you know the Rudyard Kipling story! I guess I really liked it. Cobras and other creatures also guard treasures. When I was a teen, my mom would snoop in my room and read my diary, then I’d get in trouble for what I wrote. Can you imagine? So I put the diary in a plastic bag and hid it under the liner in Naga’s glass house. Mother never snooped in my diary again because she wouldn’t go near Naga.”
Vaughn cleared his throat, “So where’d you hide the diary after your brother set the snake free?”
I beamed. We were having a real conversation. “Well, I got another brilliant idea. I knew certain creatures act as guardians of human booty, like swans, ravens, doves, owls, dragons, salamanders… Luckily, there were lots of other things my mother didn’t like, like rock n roll and disco music, long hair, and trashy books. I wasn’t home much, so it wasn’t practical to get another critter. But I had an old record player; there was a cavity underneath the turntable large enough to hide several diaries and some of my treasures.”
“Sounds like you’re skilled in deceit,” Vaughn quipped.
“Resourceful, I was and am resourceful. Back to snakes, what do you know about the copperhead Rath? It’s smaller than the timber rattlesnake, with more distinctive markings. I think around here it’s a light brown color, with darker reddish-brown hourglass shaped blotches on its back, and a unique copper shiny head. I’ve read its bite isn’t usually deadly if first aid’s promptly applied, though there can be extreme tissue damage around the bite area.”
Rath concentrated as he hauled the litter over a particularly steep hill full of protruding, jagged rocks, fallen trees, and soggy rhododendron bushes. Once over the hill, we paused. “Let’s see here, symptoms of the timber’s bite—raging thirst, nausea, numbness, respiratory distress, kidney shutdown and death—sound about right Vaughn?”
Vaughn shrugged his shoulders, adding poison wasn’t his bailiwick.
Rath huffed. “Damn, remind me to go round that mine field next time, “To a bunch of critters, death by snake’s a good way to go—one sharp bite, paralysis, and a quick death. All nice and tidy; then it uses fangs and backwards slanting teeth to pull a critter through its pie hole into its stomach. Over the next couple days, it digests. What do ya think Doc?”
“I think you’ve well versed on the subject. Isn’t it amazing the snake can digest an animal while being immune to its own venom?”
Vaughn jumped in, “I watched him kill, gut, and spear a rattler that had slithered onto a rock where I was sitting; guess it didn’t take kindly to my presence. Rath sliced it in two, then he grilled it. Snake’s not my favorite food—kind of a cross between fish and fowl, and too many tiny bones, but it appeases hunger. Ask him what he did after that.”
Rath shook his head and said, “Enough jabbering. You both best pay attention. A snake is the least of the challenges hereabouts.” As if to emphasize the point, a huge branch splintered from a sad looking tree to our left and crashed to the ground.
I got quieter as we went higher and further into the woods. My wrist, back, and legs ached; I wanted to rest. When we finally stopped for the night, I was numb with exhaustion. My intellect reminded me I was in grave danger. My intuition told me I was in the middle of a Tolkien’esque adventure, from which important answers would materialize. I wanted to side with my brain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in command in this great expanse of forest. It was as if I was tuning into a frequency nainie knew explicitly. Here, with these dangerous men, I felt close again to my grandmother, and to the forest’s hidden secrets.
Vaughn built a modest fire in a small clearing that must have been one of those abandoned places cited in the Brown Book. I was dying to know which one this was. There was pile of stones that might have once been part of a chimney, but now served as fire perimeter. About 50 feet away from our campsite, rotted boards and a twisted section of metal protruded from the ground. Next to it grew several wild rose bushes. I reasoned we weren’t far from a trail, however, I also knew many of the homes built by pioneers weren’t near any known trails.
I dug into my backpack and found several foil bags of coffee and some powdered milk and sugar, which I gave to Vaughn, and an onion and two small baking potatoes, which I handed to Rath. He didn’t thank me but he did nod, and resumed food preparation. There were rabbits on a spit, fish steamed and wrapped in wilted leaves, a pot of black beans and rice, and corncakes. He basted the meat with a dark, wild fruit marinade.
“Delicious Rath, you’re a marvelous cook,” I said as I mopped up the last of the stew with a wedge of corncake. Again he nodded.
Vaughn and I had done most of the talking during dinner, though Rath did volunteer a few more fascinating snake facts. He said African snakes don’t bite, they spit venom, and for thousands of years, African hunters and Native Americans, including the ones in this very forest, used venom tipped arrows to kill or paralyze prey.
“You’ve seen Indians here?”
“Maybe—you can best believe they’ve seen you.”
Vaughn said Rath was just having some fun and I should ignore him.
“Makes sense; it feels like someone is watching. However, I remain skeptical until I actually see a native of these woods.”
“My nainie,” as I was saying earlier, “was a serpent charmer in her native Wales. She also had quite a reputation in the New England town where she lived after the war. Once I saw her feed a snake a thin, milky broth to which she added some raw honey. Then she picked up the snake, and put it in her purse. Later, she let it loose in the local doctor’s office. She said the doctor had been abusing his privileges. This would remind him what the emblem stood for…” My voice trailed off and I popped the last crumbs of corncake into my mouth.
Rath stared at me curiously, “Yeah, and some folks think they can kill people putting venom in their drinks. That’s not the way; there ain’t enough—tox-i-city. The best way to kill someone using snake venom is to inject venom into a vein. You don’t need a syringe, a small, hollow reed works just fine.” Rath held up a short, straw colored reed, and blew into it. It emitted a piercing note, and he chuckled.
Not to be outdone, I asked if they knew people used snakes to help achieve certain—carnal desires. In Latin, the words poison and potion come from the word ‘potare,’ meaning ‘to drink.’ The venomous aspect didn’t develop until love potions evolved. The word “venom” comes from the word “wen,” which means ‘to wish or will.’ A love potion was called a venin.” I paused, wondering if I should even be talking about love and venom.
I offered a wane smile, and changed the conversation to ancient philosophers, like Plato, who wrote about the lost continent of Atlantis—a topic I thought might arouse their interest. Vaughn became animated for a few minutes, quoting Aristotle and stoic philosophers Zeno and Diogenes, although his memory of their lives was hazy. Then he asked me to summarize the philosophy of a few of the ancient gurus, as if he was testing my knowledge. Although Rath remained within earshot, he seemed disinterested in the discussion.
I beamed, “Gladly! You see, Plato’s ideal society—ruled by a philosopher king—isn’t so different from what we have today, although it’s not my idea of a good or just government. Plato developed these myths so people would be less inclined to tamper with the shaky structure of his republic. He knew myths didn’t have to be rational.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not a philosopher’s purpose. Our real job is to explain myths, place it in the context of civilization, and find better solutions for big problems we face—like why are we here and is death the end of us? But that’s another subject. Geez, don’t let me get distracted.” I fumbled in my pocket and retrieved a few pieces of chocolate and offered candy to both men. Rath shook his head. Vaughn grabbed a chocolate, thanked me, and said he’d take Rath’s chocolate too.
I covered my mouth and yawned discretely, “Plato said everyone had their place in society and people were born with iron, brass, gold, or silver in their souls. Gold souls ruled, out of a supposed superior sense of responsibility, guided by lofty principles of justice and morality. I call this his ‘playdough rules,’ because he tried to mold everyone to assume one role, so Plato and his cronies could keep everybody in line.” I paused for effect and was surprised to see Rath was waiting for me to continue. Vaughn was staring out into the noir of night.
“The myth Plato discussed that most intrigued me was the legend of Atlantis. Countless people since him tried to elaborate on and discover this lost place, where godlike people lived incredible lives—beyond what most could imagine.
There are dozens of explanations about what and where Atlantis was—or is. I have a few peculiar theories myself.” I leaned in closer; the fire and smoke seemed to make everyone’s head grow in size. “One popular theory’s Atlantis was it was an advanced civilization that existed over 9,000 years ago. Some have speculated they were advanced because ULF’s had visited them and imparted technological knowledge. Also, there was speculation Poseidon, god of all waterways, was worshiped by the Atlanteans. In appreciation, he gave them special knowledge of the cosmos.”
“ULF’s?” Rath’s question caught me by surprise. He was paying attention.
“Oh, sorry, Unidentified Life Forms. According to the ULF theory, our present moon wasn’t our moon yet, however, in just one day, our earth captured it. Or as others conjecture, threw it off—some think the moon was once a chunk of earth that broke off. This caused a cataclysmic event at the polar ice caps, which in turn caused massive floods and tidal waves. This might be one of the deluges talked about in creation myths. Anyway, the entire continent sank, although a few of the Atlanteans reached the America’s or Europe or Africa, where they were declared gods. They taught the primitive people they found what technology they could—technology the ULFs had taught them.”
“Think about it. How else can we explain that the Egyptian civilization started at its peak, then went downhill over ensuing centuries? It’s a fascinating theory—one of many fascinating conjectures.” I yawned again; my tired eyes squinted at the fire.
“What’s your other theory?” Rath asked as he poked the fire and tidied the camp.
“My second favorite, and possibly the most important theory is Atlantis isn’t in our past; it’s in our future.” I glanced at Rath; it was too dark to see if my words made any impression.
“Peek through the keyhole for a moment. We landed on the moon in 1969 and immediately tried to claim the rock as ours. The longest battle we’ve faced is the hot and cold relationship between the sexes. It may be men and woman—not technology—that cause the downfall of civilization by trying to best each other and harness what the moon hides and controls. As a result of our meddling, we could cause another cataclysm, like the one that occurred way back when. We could become a tiny footnote for a future race. What I mean is–we could be the people the legend speaks about—through some boomerang effect in the time/space continuum. I’m so tired; I’m not explaining this very rationally. Old Plato would be impressed, though, that 2000 plus years later, we’re still talking about Atlantis.
“Consider also that one of our oldest nervous disorders is epilepsy, a disease closely associated with the moon. The Greeks said it was a sacred disease, sent by moon goddess Selene, daughter of Titans, to punish those who forgot to honor her. She might have destroyed Atlantis too, since they were fonder of technology than nature and the gods. Now I’m babbling. There’s so much more I should add to tie these theories, these topics together—the moon, utopian civilizations, and snake venom. But not tonight.” I removed my boots and exchanged smelly socks for a fresh pair and burrowed into my sleeping bag, which was aligned parallel to the fire.
Rath added a few more logs, arranging them in tepee fashion, removed his boots and positioned them above his head. Silvery ash from disintegrating firewood rose, swirled, and settled atop my bag and hair. I was too tired to care, too tired to check that my swiss army knife and pepper spray were in my vest pocket.
The big man crawled into his bag fully dressed and turned sideways. Into one boot he slid a dark handled hunting knife. He drew a sweet, smoky breath of mountain air, and watched a serpentine trail of stars glow and glimmer above him. Vaugh, in his bag on the opposite side of the fire pit, was snoring.
Rath called to me and said he remembered something else about the timber snake I might find interesting. He said it uses its nostrils and a sensing device in the roof of its mouth, the Jacobson organ, to smell. Its forked tongue helps it analyze things. When I didn’t reply, he assumed I’d nodded off and added “It’ll keep.”
My last waking thought wasn’t about snakes. It was about a term used in alchemical transformation, calcination, the intense burning to ash of attachments to worldly things; all part of the purification process. We slept soundly; no spirit forms or cavorting little people entered our dreams, perhaps because the moon stood sentry, showering us with radiant moonbeam light. The prowling creatures of the night never ventured into the clearing, not even when, towards dawn, the fire was nothing more than a pile of grey and glowing embers.
Next, Chapter 4, P1: Dies Martis, named for Greek Ares, Roman Mars, Nordic Tyr/Tiw…in which Willy aces role of a Sherwood Forest Scheherazade, our lawbreakers on the lam reveal certain talents, and we catch a glimpse of things primeval …