Day 4: Dies Martis (Tiw’s day; Welsh: dydd Mawrth): Distillation
The poster with my picture on it is hanging on the bulletin board in the Post Office I stand by it hoping to be recognized, posing first full face and then profile But everybody passes by and I have to admit, the photo was taken some years ago I was unwanted then; I’m unwanted now. Ah guess ah’ll go up Echo Mountain and crah… Unwanted, by Edward Field
Greek Ares/Roman Mars was a fearsome warrior god; Tyr/Tiw was the Teutonic equivalent—a left handed god of justice who bound monster wolf Fenrir (Loki’s offspring) with magical chain Gleipnir—sacrificing his hand. Ares/Mars has been called a coward—as well as valiant & destructive warlord─exerting undue influence over agricultural and war efforts. Festivals were held in March & October. Roguish planet Mars is smaller than Earth or Venus (his lover/ruler of Friday). One of his sons, Romulus, founded Rome. Mars/Ares is associated with the spear, a symbol of justice; sacred places like mountain tops; the color red; the skull/brain; sacrifices; and vultures, venomous snakes, and woodpeckers.
“Ruby Tuesday” (Rolling Stones song title)
In the chill dawn, we shared my donated Colombian coffee, gussied up with powdered milk and packets of sugar, and ate the rest of the corn cakes. The journey to their main camp, I was warned, would be more challenging than yesterday’s trek. The hellacious acres survival course I endured the previous day had taxed me to the limit. There were rips and tears in my clothing, burrs and briars around the Sherpa fur that crowned the tops of my boots, and dried bear saliva on my Barbour jacket. I’d had no opportunity to even change my underwear.
The further up I traveled, the more everything ached, especially my head, which wasn’t feeling very philosophical. Would I survive the altitude and attitude of my designated escorts? I had no Plan B¾except to use my wits to reason with these men and secure my freedom. Where could I run to anyway—further into the woods? How far was half-way? Perhaps more talking would help dispel an encroaching feeling of doom.
My early morning toilet consisted of using fingers to rake my hair into a messy bun, splashing an ounce of canteen water on my face, and brushing my teeth with mouthwash poured over the toothbrush. In the five minutes allotted, standing behind an ancient oak, I removed yesterday’s top and donned a clean, dark green plaid flannel shirt sure to make the faeries jealous. Vaughn acted like a gentleman when he saw I was struggling with my hair and backpack. My injured wing was still smarting. He rebraided my unruly locks and gently hoisted the backpack onto my shoulders. He even offered me an aspirin, which I politely declined. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the backpack felt a bit lighter, easier to carry. What’s that expression, it’s not the weight, it’s how you carry it?
A half hour into our Tuesday morning climb, there was no reply when I asked Vaughn to tell me what he’d done since he stopped teaching. I decided to return to a subject I was intimately acquainted with, philosophy. I introduced them to Rousseau’s spirited views about social contracts and freedom, and Vaughn responded to a few questions. However, he made it clear he didn’t agree people were ‘born free but everywhere remained in chains.’ He thought people were born helpless and most stayed that way their entire lives, chained and bound by an overwhelming compulsion to survive at any cost. I had my work cut out to convince him otherwise. Rath remained silent.
***** ***** *****
Professor Beechum glanced up from his reading, removed his glasses, and cleaned them with a square of tissue-like paper he pulled from a shirt pocket. “Oh dear, Tuesday, War Day,” he said aloud. Is she inferring she’s Tyr with the injured hand symbolism or am I reading too much into the introductory words? Is she providing misdirection on purpose with the Ruby Tuesday reference? She’s also referenced the alchemical term Distillation, which really is part of all the critical alchemical processes. Is she telling me she or one of these men will be discharging some sort of volatile element? He frowned. Rubedo is the final alchemical stage, one denoting success. Rubedo/ Ruby—is there a connection?
He googled the Rolling Stone ballad Ruby Tuesday. One source said the song was about someone absent from their group on a Tuesday, one of the Stones’ girlfriends. He hummed a few stanzas but couldn’t recall the words. Wilhelmina’s boyfriend was missing. Perhaps that was it. The professor also discovered there was a restaurant chain called Ruby Tuesday’s, which was headquartered in Tennessee. In fact, the office was located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, in a town known, during the civil war, for its underground railroad, caves, and hidden trails. Oh dear, he said aloud. This is most confusing.
***** ***** *****
I was aggravated; after such a good start in the wee morning hours, Vaughn was being obstinate. I gestured with my arm—as if that might impress them. “We ARE free, that’s the easy part. We’re also still animals—that eat other animals. We readily respond to things like territorial imperatives and hierarchies. Despite 21st century advancements, we’re not equal. Women are less free than men─though not for the reasons you might guess. We should be spending our time thinking about issues related to freedom, like apathy and negative optimism. Americans especially seem to be obsessed with power. We feel we’re failures if we aren’t being competitive, selfish old farts. Those that don’t start out skeptical too often become resigned. They subsist on a diet of bland mediocrity.”
The subject stirred my hunger for lively, meaningful discourse. I forgot about my predicament, and the foreignness of these woods. “In Western society, just a few hundred years ago, people literally were fettered by institutionalized chains kings and churches used to hold their minds captive; chains forged with prejudices, lies, and false claims—all daisy-chained together to keep the masses ignorant and fearful. But advances in science and technology, and our imaginations, our hunger for knowledge and truth—and an overwhelming desire for freedom—helped break the chains.” I waited for a response. All I heard was the men’s heavy breathing as they lifted and manipulated the litter around a minefield of deadwood and jagged rock formations. Since neither protested my banter, I continued.
“Once you’ve broken free, Vaughn, you can’t ever be chained anymore, unless you allow it. Sure, some people are still in shackles, those that can’t or won’t exert a sufficient amount of independent thought to break free. We are free; the struggle is to refuse to let anyone or anything re-shackle us.”
Vaughn made a guttural snort. “You think you know about freedom—that if you use your brains, if you think you’re free, you are? You don’t know a damn thing.” Rath shot him a piercing look. Vaughn pursed his lips.
“Look darling—I mean Willy, where there’s lust for power, and men who’ll kill for sport, there’s no damn freedom. Believe it—etch it into your pretty little skull. I know. Freedom’s no universal given; it’s meted out to precious few. And remember, Frenchie’s introduction of the ‘age of enlightenment’ brought the Reign of Terror. It brought the sharp blade of the guillotine down on those free-thinking heads.” Vaughn wiped his sleeve across his forehead.
“Rousseau was a pompous, arrogant aristocrate. His Social Contract guillotined the individual—literally.” Vaughn made a dramatic cutting motion across his neck, and fanned his hand in a gesture that meant: I rest my case.
I shook my head enough times to wipe clean an etch a sketch screen and groped for the right words. “No, you’re misinformed. The French Revolution, like freedom, was a paradox. If you look at the big picture, you’ll see the revolution introduced remarkable freedoms and inventions—as well as perversions and utterly mad new rules. The guillotine was the brainchild of a doctor trying to humanely improve existing methods of execution—which up to that time included hanging, drowning, gutting, dismembering, and beheading with a rusty ax.”
Rath interjected, “Don’t be forgetting poisoning. Stop jabbering and pick up the pace people.”
I opened my mouth to say something, then thought better of it. He’d been listening; he just didn’t have anything to offer pro or con. We skirted round a steep hill ahead and carefully picked our way along a narrow, overgrown trail that wove zig zag through adjoining hills. I wondered if this was an old Cherokee hunting trail. I somehow doubted he’d confirm or deny my guess.
His comment also startled me. Vaughn and I were puffing from the exertion of climbing and perhaps from the effects of the rarified air. Nothing seemed to affect Rath. “I admire your stamina,” I told him. That was a clever alternative route around the hill, but I don’t like this skinny trail. It has a weird vibe; I swear I keep seeing glowing red eyes peer from the prickly shrubbery. And I swear I heard flute music. Are we near a hiking trail?” He gave me what I’d describe as a thoughtful sideways glance, then shook his head.
“I wonder where we are? The Smokies have a bunch of strangely named places. There’s Boogertown, named not for the stuff we blow from our noses, but for a spooky feeling people got when passing through that particular neck of the woods. Or perhaps we’re near Akwetiyi, a Cherokee word for ‘place of the lizard monster.’ There’s also a bunch of places named Devil’s something or other.” There was no response. Where we actually were was anyone’s guess.
“Right, returning to our discussion of freedom, you’ll like the next part. A truly marvelous thing occurred during the late 1700’s—reason began to replace ignorance, although it was soon replaced by self-righteous frenzies—mayhem and murder—not unlike what we see today.” Tough audience, not a word of encouragement.
Still, I persisted. “I’m not overly fond of reason; it’s a cunning double-edged tool. Think about it¾it’s often employed to subordinate one good thought for a lesser thought; it seems to appeal to those who don’t really want to think.” Continued dead silence from the men, but a wise owl did hoot and I decided the clapping of wind tossed tree branches was actually applause.
“That reminds me Vaughn—Rousseau wasn’t an aristocrat or even French. He was Swiss. In some ways, he was the first hippie; I’m grateful he wasn’t a realist.” I turned around to see if Vaughn was paying attention and almost tripped over a gnarled root. “Merde!” I had to readjust the backpack. “Anyway, just as we’re doing here, Rousseau and his mind wandered as a sort of mental tour de force, until he was in his mid 40’s. Then, thanks to a rich woman’s patronage, he was able to travel in style. How fortunate for this starving artist/ philosopher—no? He began devouring the world’s great books.
Rath said something like, “ummm, all those books.” Encouraged, I continued.
His ideas for a Social Contract were derived from Locke, who made the assumption that violence and crime came from social deprivation, which was caused by the wrong environment. Rousseau embraced the noble savage—figuratively that is. He, and later Thoreau, one of my favorite ‘airheads,’ shared a vision of a race of people naturally smarter and freer through studying nature and living simply. So that’s my take on Rousseau.” Rath had slowed his pace as we ambled downhill. He either was interested in what I was saying or there was some unseen danger ahead. I assumed it was the former. I was wrong.
“Here’s another peculiar thing about the French Revolution. Although I personally was all for lessening church power, the leaders of the Revolution tried, in one swift stroke (no pun intended), to destroy all religion—literally yanking the prayer rug from under the feet of the masses. Unfortunately, when the god fearing people got to their feet again, they went straight for their leader’s jugulars.”
“Them leaders shoulda waited till Mr. Marx came out with his famous ‘religion is the poppy of the masses’ statement. See what I mean—poison’s the way to go.”
I’m sure I blinked in amazement. Although Rath had gotten the quote slightly wrong, he knew interesting details about subjects I would never have thought he would be interested in, let alone might have studied. Was there a message for me in his poison comments?” I decided it was just his way of appearing menacing, while being just a big bluffer.
“I think Rousseau initiated multiple freedom revolutions: sexual, educational, political, and personal. The problem was too many people took him literally. Most of his life, he rejected ALL authority, and most traditions and prevailing value systems. That’s one of the reasons why I identified with him.”
Vaughn’s single comment was “Amen.”
“Because he rejected everything with equal, good intentioned sincerity—for years he was forgiven his eccentricities. His admirers and imitators weren’t so easily forgiven.”
“Some of his biographers felt he ran from a narrow Protestant upbringing all his life. A few years before he died, Rousseau wrote what many consider to be his finest work, ‘Confessions.’ For those that didn’t understand his writings or his actions¾he pointed out that a person who sincerely confessed his (or her) crimes turned into a victim of sorts, and before long a hero, or something like that. What a trend he started, what revolutions in thinking!” I had to smile, remembering those rousing sessions at the University when I’d defended similar notions and rebel rousers.
I stopped talking long enough to notice our surroundings had changed. We were in the middle of a tangle of interlacing trees and branches. Sunlight sporadically conveyed itself to our location via curious spotlit beams. For the next half hour, it was slow going. The weight of the backpack seemed to have increased, become almost crippling again.
As we emerged from the dense growth, the sun disappeared and within a few minutes, fog descended that was so thick I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. My voice echoed as I called out to the men and asked if this was normal. Rath replied it was and would lift in a few minutes. He told me I best stay where I was.
From somewhere in front of and to my right, he asked, “So what’s this gotta do with freedom? Do we or don’t we got it? And who’s this noble savage you was yapping about?” I was surprised how welcome the sound of his voice was. The questions he threw out spun me in several directions.
He had been listening, and though he couldn’t see my face, it was grinning. “You might not like my answer—it depends” I replied. “We’re always free to make limited choices. Many rely on religious beliefs to answer question of freedom. I have none, so it’s not an option. Do you have religious convictions?”
“All I want to know is are we or ain’t we free?” His voice echoed in the forest.
“I see, then yes, I still agree with Rousseau. We have the ability to not be influenced or coerced by another person or by life’s circumstances. That’s sort of John Dewey’s definition of freedom. Dewey was both philosopher and psychologist. Another wise person, whose name escapes me, said we may have to comply, but we don’t have to obey. . .”
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “Here, let’s get this backpack off you while we’re in a holding pattern.” It was Vaughn.
I couldn’t see his entire face, but I was sure he was scowling at me. His hands slid down my hips and lingered over my butt. I thanked him, moved a few feet away, and carefully phrased my next words. “To each of us, freedom means different things. To the Stoics—two millenniums ago—freedom was a sort of rational self-determination. They said a person’s thoughts could be free, whether one is a slave or a noble. However, if a person is fearful, then he or she isn’t free. Perhaps songwriter and Rhodes scholar Kris Kristofferson was thinking of the Stoics when he wrote that Bobbie McGee song. And that’s why, gentlemen, though I may be an unwelcome guest, I am also an ‘unintentional’ witness in these ancient woods. I’m both your burden and my own.”
As rapidly as it had descended, just as Rath predicted, the fog lifted. He made a sound reminiscent of a splutter or perhaps a chuckle. Vaughn said ‘amen’ again. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the majestic, cathedral’esqueness of these mountains. A focused beam of light filtered through trees ahead, then vanished. It was a wonderful to note there were no signs of civilization, no discarded trash, trail signs, telephone wires, not even a cigarette butt. An unaccustomed feeling of wellbeing and purpose permeated my body. I was in nature’s auditorium, and though somewhat a captive, I also had a captive audience.
In a near whisper I said, “Philosophically, I’m lost in a dense thicket of—too many men philosophers—too many tree trunks. Thoreau said ‘not until we’re truly lost do we begin to find ourselves.’ I can’t imagine being any more lost …”
A pure white feather floated earthward and landed on the toe of my boot. I picked it up and turned it over. The feather was about seven inches in length. There was a curious notch carved out of the right side of the feather. Without thinking, I inserted it in the third buttonhole of my shirt. “I wonder what bird has pure white feathers?”
Rath grabbed my flannel shirt, but didn’t remove the feather. “This be a bald eagle tail feather.” He ran his thumb over the notched area. “How’d you…you claiming this? Only ones allowed to own eagle feathers are native to these woods, and you ain’t a native. You know what this notch means?”
Vaughn stepped nearer and inspected the feather. His hand brushed my breast, and I stepped backwards. “No, what does the notch mean?”
“It means one kill—you killed one person. Sky spirit speaks the truth. Who’d you kill?” Rath asked, adding “You can answer while we’re walking.”
“I’m flabbergasted,” I blurted. “I don’t even kill spiders or bugs in my house; I escort them out. Well, I suppose I nearly killed myself after swimming drunk in the Atlantic and getting caught in an undertow. My beautiful dog died a few months ago. She was old and in pain; I authorized my vet to euthanize her. No, I’ve never killed anyone. Do thoughts count?”
“Ponder on it some more; it’ll come to you.”
“Ah, no, it won’t. I used to take solitary walks though. It was unusual if I didn’t find a feather. I developed a theory about the types of feathers I’d find, but I never found one with a notch out of it like this one. Native Americans put much stock in feathers; they represent honor, strength, bravery. Do you suppose this one contains the power of the eagle?” The men had gone quiet again. I was left to ponder about killing and the magic of feathers.
We continued climbing; my musings continued though I should have been bothered by Rath’s question. We entered a section of the mountain with less deciduous trees and more evergreens. I began experiencing a feeling I can’t describe as anything other than an eerie shimmering. Was it the filtered light or something else that made me think time and space were stuttering and my body was as well. There were moments when we seemed to stop in mid step, or mid word. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the fog had dispersed some sort of intoxicant.
I watched a glistening drop of moisture cascade off a fiercely orange leaf and be absorbed by a patch of soft moss camouflaging parts of a tree. I smelled crushed sage and oozing resin from nearby spruce and pine trees. And in a wild rhododendron bush, I observed tiny black beady eyes gazing at me. Had we stumbled into faery territory? While my sight and smell was sharpened, my hearing felt muted, except for an inner morris code whisper of warning and an odder still squeal of glee.
I realized it was a blackbird peering at me, with white zig zag stripes on either side of its head. How curious. Then the gears of times clock resumed. Reality returned, but everything felt too bright, too loud, too full of woodland scents. I shivered.
Rath had shouted something, and I asked him to repeat it. What he said made no sense. He slapped the palm of his hand against his head; the motion was exaggerated. His head tilted to one side. His eyes seemed focused on some distant vista. Had he also experienced the time slip too?
Vaughn brought us back to reality. “Well, shit darling. Your dillydallying is gumming up the works. Take a swig of water or better yet, pop one of those fairy minis. Giddy up now.” He traded places with Rath and we picked up the pace again.
When we stopped briefly about 45 minutes later, Vaughn took a deep swallow and poured a trickle of water onto his head. He checked and adjusted the litter ties, then we were climbing again. This time, he led the conversation. “Now we have a real damn topic—unintentional freedom. I’ll grant you we all might have some freedom, intentionally given by the way—by the frigging government, the people we elect, the damn judges, lawyers, police… Freedom that limited is worth buppkiss. Otherwise, neither of us would be residing currently in these cursed woods.”
I thought he would say more. Instead he gnawed on a twig. I tried to picture how I must look in my damaged, fancy wilderness get-up, pockets and backpack bulging, straggles of hair flying everywhere, and no makeup to soften my angular lines. Looks are just an exterior mask—a non-existential, er, non-essential part of what we are. Seven billion people on this rock, sharing resources, but not many are able to imagine what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.
After three days without a phone, tablet, TV, or social media, my mind, which had been constantly drenched by data, had dried out. It felt beyond marvelous. It was inebriating, illuminating. The flip side now felt horrible—pressure to be available 24×7, be bombarded by marketing calls and junk mail, monitored and surveilled by the NSA. We allow our email to be mined so we’re transparent and predictable. We allow movies to be recorded of our every move. In these mountains, I was unnetworking, uncoupling from the rat race, easily identified by its corporate or government logo and bouncy, bubble-headed nods.
In-between an expanse of trees with roots as deep as the trees were tall, amid the chattering of squirrels and caws from birds of prey, I caught glimpses of solutions to problems, and began truly bonding with the natural world. Nainie would have been so proud. Jake would be impressed. I think it was Joseph Campbell that said ‘philosophy is thinking in slow motion.’ I was almost doing that, though I’d never had such an intense physical workout while slowing my thoughts. What day was it; yes, Tuesday. Tomorrow was Woden’s day. I could almost apprehend why he was willing to hang from the world tree for days, reimaging the world, inventing grander alternatives…
We the people, yeah, we the people need to be forthright, discuss crazy, new ideas; figure out long term effects of the Internet, global warming, bio-weapons… We must do better, be smarter, less biased and susceptible to crap. Even if we can’t all get along, we can agree to disagree, reshape old stories, and integrate the past with an ever changing present. We can learn how to think around corners, laterally, sideways, and upside down like the hanged man in the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Is that too quantum theory’ish? Is it too much to grasp that some truths can’t be processed by our 21stc brains yet? When they can, will that make our minds star-like, and cause them to splinter or explode?
I’d fallen behind and sprinted to catch up. Between huffs and puffs, I said it might help if we talked about the Existentialists. Rath was looking at me as if he’d read my recent thoughts. Did he nod his head, or was it just a play of shadows? I continued, “The Ex’s thought there aren’t any universal values or truths, that every action, our basic essence, is based on free choice. Unfortunately, the Ex’s also said our anxiety about this knowledge cages us. Sartre’s famous quote about being ‘condemned forever to be free;’ still resonates. By the way, Vaughn, Sartre WAS French.” With my good hand, I grasped a side of the litter and helped him pull it over the next few steep inclines.
When I got my breathing under control after that workout, I continued, “In a way, what Sartre believed makes freedom sound like an indictment. It’s really an immense power, many shrink from it; that is, they refuse the accompanying responsibility. Sartre also said something like ‘being a conscious being is being a free being.’ For him, power was the real issue—not freedom. What’s beautiful about that is our conscious freedom is unlimited, only we can make it small, like when we try to limit ourselves by being a thing—whether that’s a female or male, gay or bi, a violinist or a grave digger, instead of just ‘being.’ Isn’t that what you’re both doing here? You’re being free by acting freely—only you are responsible for your existence.”
I waited for a reply. A forest scented breeze that made the branches click clack and leaves flutter, and the resounding sqwack sqwach of a bird didn’t provide answers, so I continued.
“Freedom begins at the point religion departs; that’s why I asked Rath if he had religious convictions. Phew, can we rest for a few minutes. I need a sip of water and to remove a layer of outerwear. How bout it guys?”
The sun was high and the air sharp with rich, rotting earth and the resin of pine. Though I got a peculiar, saturnine gaze from Vaughn, we took a ten-minute break, and shared water, some tasty smoked fish, and pressed cakes of nuts, berries, honey, and seeds that Rath pulled from a sack. I hoped the effort I was expending babbling like a deranged Scheherazade would help convince these men the only honorable decision they could make was to get me back to civilization as quickly as possible.
At the base of a clump of young wild crabapples and Appalachian hollies, a red fox watched us. In a nearby tree, a pileated woodpecker with vivid red, black, and white plumes peeled bark off a tree—in search of a meal, I suspected. This was a male woodpecker, distinguished by a red mustache and a full-red crest on its head, one of five or six species that inhabited the Smokies. Esoterically the woodpecker was a harbinger of meaningful communications, the rhythm and harmony of Mother Earth, and good fortune, provided you paid careful attention to accompanying signs. I took its presence as a good omen. But if I wanted these men to really talk to me, I’d have to find a topic that interested them.
I devoured the food and wondered how much these men were hiding from me. What was concealed in the litter they carried? Something moved in the distance, over by the prickly holly bushes. Was Jake searching for me, or celebrating my absence? I wanted to stretch out, watch the light slant through the trees, and pretend I was in my own back yard, but it was time to move again. Soon we entered a high plateau area, an area where I could imagine tents or teepees might once have been positioned, with campfires burning.
“So you’re an a-theist?” Vaughn asked rhetorically, saying the word slowly and deliberately. “Now that’s criminal. These mountains are proof there’s a god, though he’s hardly a philanthropic one. He’s a vengeful, god-awful god, and . . . well, for a lady with your learning, you’re damn dense. Are you one of the heathen whores, I mean hordes?”
My heart fluttered. I’d struck a nerve. Was that an intentional slip? With no comments forthcoming from Rath, I mounted an offense. “Heathen hordes indeed. That’s what they called the noble indigenous people that lived here in the millions and meandered through these mountains. Heathens are what the establishment called witches, gypsies, and anyone that doesn’t fit the Puritan mold.”
“In fact, the heathen whores of Europe were considered sacred beings. Yep, promiscuity was once an honored rite. They had their own temples, sacred groves, shrines, and omphalos centers.” I paused to consider how much more to say. Rath was paying attention again.
“Christians built their astronomically aligned churches over ancient, sacred sites, and oddly enough, covered these buildings with astronomical and astrological symbols. Their festivals were astronomically derived as well. Easter arrives the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the vernal equinox. Christmas occurs right after winter solstice. Don’t get me started on the church. They turned daimons into demons and knowledge into dogma.” I stopped to catch my breath.
“I could also counter, Vaughn, that anyone that believes in a god, churches, and miracles is rather dense—or primitive. But I won’t because that creates a ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc logic’ flaw.” Vaughn scowled at me.
“Post hoc what?” asked Rath.
“Literally, it means ‘after this, therefore because of this.’ Since event B occurred after event A, a person arguing tries to assume event B was caused by event A—that’s flawed reasoning. These mountains exist; that doesn’t prove anything. That’s what metaphysics is all about, the investigation of ultimate realities, one of my favorite subjects!”
I was tired and becoming frustrated, but didn’t want to anger anyone. Perhaps I could explain one of my least favorite philosopher’s view about freedom, Hegel. However, I jumped into Metaphysics without explaining what led Hegel down that path. “After a long absence as an issue worth any serious philosophical concern, he revived the branch of Philosophy called Metaphysics. It’s hard to talk about him objectively; I disagreed about the definitions he used.”
Vaughn signaled to me to grab one end of the liter while he used his free hand to choke down the last bit of fish, squoosh a mouthful of water, spit it out, and grimace. I offered him a hard candy, which he refused; in fact, he grimaced. In the shadows, his face seemed to be wearing black and grey stripes. Maybe I was oxygen deprived. Talking was preferable to thinking so I kept hammering points about the existentialists. Or perhaps I needed to explain that freedom is possible only when the idea of the existence of a god is dismissed.
The look Vaughn gave me wasn’t encouraging, but Rath had drawn closer. “There’s the Koran, Bible, Ten Commandments and on and on, but no where are there written or implied words of moral conduct that everyone would agree on. The Ex’s concluded there aren’t any universal values or gods. They said a god doesn’t make moral rules anyway; he (or she) can’t be seen or otherwise sensed; ergo gods don’t exist. But we do; we make up our world. We create our human nature; therefore, we are free.”
“I’ve always liked the Zen idea of freedom; it’s partly achieved through mastery of a task or discipline. I can master how to alter my breathing, my feelings, temperature, skills¾and through controlling a discipline, I become free. Think about it¾we ‘breathe freely’ when we don’t have to think about a task.”
Rath signaled we needed to stay on the barely discernable trail, but didn’t explain why. He grabbed the litter. Vaughn made an odd, waving motion with his hand. “Breathing’s instinctive, so’s surviving, and so’s not wanting other people to be free. THAT’S what causes the world’s problems.”
He smacked his lips and spit. “I’ll take one of those candies. I can’t get rid of the fishy taste. It’s worse than a girl I once . . .” Vaughn reddened as I handed him a wrapped piece of hard candy; I waited for him to make more sexist remarks. He positioned himself on the other side of the litter.
Rath was struggling to form another question. I took a swig of water while walking and spilled half of it. Perhaps I should talk about other philosophers big on the subject of freedom. I tried to recall exactly what Socrates, who had a limited view of freedom, had said. How could I introduce these other ideas into the conversation? Rath presented me with a perfect opportunity.
“So are you saying a slave can be a master and still a slave—because his mind, just his mind, is free—or has got potent-a-lity for being free?” Rath asked.
“Yes. Sure—that’s the paradox of freedom; it’s a state of mind more than a condition of existence. The body¾most people’s bodies—is seldom free of pain, or degeneration, or gravity. That applies to ‘puppets, paupers, pirates, poets . . .’ like Sinatra’s song.” I resisted the urge to sing. “Our minds are free and it’s our most important—organ, no matter what the ‘sexperts’ say.” I looked directly at Vaughn, who was staring at the toe of his boots. “Sinatra also sang that the best things in life are free.”
Rath asked, “You not gonna break out singing, are you?”
“No worries, I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Right, just as death is a state of ‘un,’ freedom’s a state of choosing ‘yes’ over ‘no.’ The only thing we’re not free from is death—and taxes, I suppose.” I giggled and thought the men might enjoy the joke. They waited for me to continue. “Okay, I won’t bring up the sore subject of taxation. You’ve been through enough.” I noticed Rath looked at me puzzled. Vaughn staggered and steadied himself, after tripping over a rocky outcrop.
“To complicate things, some of us choose to die—at least the where, when, and how. By existing, we choose to live. That’s a heavy concept—no? Philosophy’s purpose, sages say, isn’t to answer questions, but to question answers. That’s what one of the greatest philosophers—Socrates—did. One of the last questions ever posed to him, according to his pupil Plato, was this: is one morally obligated to obey laws one believes to be unjust?”
Vaughn switched positions again, standing between us, and scowled. “What the hell are you two talking about? Let’s get the lead out. You’re giving me a hellacious headache. Look Willy, I took advanced Philosophy and the psychobabble crap. So here’s my quickie bio on ol SockKrates. He liked to boink his male students, and taught them ideas the state said were subversive. When he was finally thrown into prison, he had opportunities to escape, or defend himself. The crazy old bugger refused all help, because, well, he WAS guilty. Then he drank hemlock and died as he lived—an interfering old queer.”
My intake of breath was audible. He paused, then continued, “Then Plato, who had enough imagination to invent that tale about mythical Atlantis, hell, maybe he even invented ol SockKrates, wrote these dialogues supposed to be real conversations ol SockKrates had with the citizens of Athens. He made the ol dead bugger immortal, end of story.” Vaughn puffed out his chest and grinned.
“Well I never,” I drew the ‘I’ sound out and shook my head slowly, “That’s certainly a fascinating interpretation. To me, he was remarkable. Your brief, dark Cliff Notes bio hardly does him justice─though I see why you might not have liked the occasionally irritating gem of a man. I have some problems with him too.
Specifically, Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth and being impious and somewhat atheistic; he recommended abandoning the old gods. It’s true he had opportunities to escape or at least lessen his sentence; instead he faced his fate, saying he was okay with either outcome: immorality or oblivion.”
I turned and looked at Rath who had slowed the pace again and was straining to follow the conversation. The terrain was uneven, but not as steep as the hills we’d been traipsing across; there was a small clearing ahead filled with a bright carpet of leaves. A few orange-berried bushes dotted the edge of this meadow. If you were particularly observant, you’d notice a dozen grass rings of varying shades of green, about the size of hula hoops, scattered around the clearing. I smiled—faery rings! How lucky to find one of their homes. Legend says, however, that if you’re spotted near a ring around Samhein, the fae will spirit you away to their world. Should I share that info with them?
***** ***** *****
Professor Beechum pursed his lips, mumbling to himself don’t incite them, psychoanalyze them Wilhelmina. What did I tell you over and over about philosophers—they tended to blur lines and buck systems in place. They create controversy and far too often, they die early. Be their advocate; don’t annoy these men, these law breakers. Less Kierkegaard and Hegel, more Jung. Practice what I taught you. Then he chuckled. His former student would pursue her own path, whether in a classroom or foreboding forest. She did survive this ordeal. Was it sheer dumb luck or a woman’s cunning? But something happened in that tangle of trees, something serious enough to radically alter the course of her life.
Has she left enough clues in this manuscript to enable me to figure out what the detective couldn’t? As a non-profit start up, I should be working on other cases, he mused. As she once pointed out, there’s no scientific formula to calculate good versus bad luck, or if luck is self-generating or accidental. She seemed to think we had the ability to develop antennas and train our mind to spot patterns and embrace uncertainty. She always harked back to the existence of magic, literal magic. No doubt, that was her grandmother’s doing. He refilled his water bottle, cracked his knuckles, and continued reading.
To be continued, along with Chap 2 of Remains to be Seen and Chap 2 of Coached in Death…