…in which a lost, stranded Willy, and new acquaintances, Rath, and Vaughn ascend the mountain. Willy pierces the silence of the forest and Shaconage observes all. Summits are reached, but the journey is far from over…

Overhead, a pair of vultures scanned dense woods to our left. In college I read a series of books a strange man wrote about Tibetan Buddhists. He said their priests performed sky burials by exposing the dead to the elements; they coaxed vultures to eat human corpses via a ritual dance. Some Cherokee tribes predicted weather patterns by observing vulture flight patterns. Did the Cherokee ever coax vultures to feast on their dead? I doubted it. They didn’t hold this bird of prey in high regard, and considered vultures tricksters and troublemakers. Greeks, on the other hand, considered the vulture a sacred bird, as it didn’t usually kill its food, but performed a useful service. The watchful vulture hovered between the dark and the divine—as omen or corollary.

Ahead, Rath had dropped the litter and was poking around an old growth tree. He retrieved a rawhide bag from an inside pocket and sprinkled a bit of the contents around the base of the tree. Vaughn had headed in the opposite direction, I assumed to pee. What Rath told me was fascinating. He said this was an old mother tree, a nurturing tree that fosters younger trees, providing nutrients and perhaps information. Through a series of fungal networks, the mother tree can transfer water and food to other trees. It can also alert other trees about danger. I asked more questions and he seemed pleased I was interested.

Vaugh interrupted, “So we keep walking, which means Goldifox is gonna keep talking while walking, the two bents being intrinsically linked.”

      “Ah, let her ramble,” Rath replied.

I smiled and exhaled, like a bellows releasing a vent of air. “Socrates was about seventy when he was arrested and tried. He didn’t fear death. Perhaps, he was ready to be rid of his aging body, which he considered a mere shell to house his immortal soul. He truly felt he owed a debt to Athens, a city that had always treated him and his family well. Still, I don’t think he offered the right answer when he said everyone IS morally obligated to obey laws one believes to be wrong, immoral, or detrimental to ones health and well being. Socrates argued two wrongs don’t make a right, that getting even isn’t the answer.”

            “Well now, it’s no wonder he ended it.” Vaughn offered.

My breathing bellowed. I had a snappy retort on the tip of my tongue, but held it in. “In answer to the question you posed earlier, it’s assumed but not proven he had sex with his male students. If he did, it was likely consensual. And that’s an entire other topic.” I glanced over at Vaughn. His nonplused expression didn’t fool me. I couldn’t tell if he disliked my opinion or whether a stronger feeling was surfacing. I decided to change the subject.

            Judging by the expression on his face, Rath was a million miles away, which surprised me. Then he gruffly announced Vaughn was right, we needed to step it up, and added we should arrive at camp before twilight. “So who’s this Hegel dude you was talking about and this meta-psychi-physical stuff?”

            “Herr Hegel was a German philosopher; he died in the first half of the 1800’s. The old fusspot was an idealist and a deep thinker; no one really understood him. His most famous work was The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel said early humans latched onto the idea they could make ‘things’ serve their own desires. He found this gratifying. The problem occurred, he said, when we try to make other ‘people’ serve our desires through force. To take it a step further, he pointed out we become aware of our own self-mastery by subjugating others, but must be cautious. For instance, if we kill someone while trying to force them to serve us, we have no one to subjugate. The master is therefore dependent upon the slave’s recognition of him, or her, as master.”

            “I might add there’s another important point—when slaves do the work, instead of the master, slaves learn through their labor, and have the potential, through mastery of a skill, to become free and independent—smarter than the master. Karl Marx took Hegel’s idea, mulled it over, and with Frederick Engels, composed a Manifesto. Marx said, ‘Work shall set you free.’ If you can believe that.”

            “So what happened to the old fussypot? Did someone off him? Sounds like he had some real po-ten-tial.”

            “Um, I think he died in his 60’s of cholera. Epidemics were common. Today we worry about AIDS, mad cow disease, and virus bombs. Schopenhauer, his contemporary, who also happens to be one of my top ten favorite philosophers, was glad to see him go.”

            “You’re distracting me─let me finish telling you about Socrates. There were numerous philosophers and lawmakers that strongly disagreed with Socrate’s idea about not opposing rules and laws that are wrong. Socrates may have made the right decision for himself, but not necessarily for anyone else.”

“On the surface, it’s true that if no one believed in rules, we’d have a nihilist society, like Nietzsche wrote about. It’s also true we’re expected, sometimes, to adhere to hideous or ridiculous laws and rules. Awful rules get changed—through acts of civil disobedience, lobbying, and banding together—or by refusing to recognize their power.” My voice was rising. The woods eerily echoed back my last word. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the red fox again; it seemed to be grinning, agreeing with me. If Rath saw the fox, would he kill it? I made a shooing gesture.

            Vaughn, who’d been quiet, yelled to me from the top of the hill, “We’re all capable of violence darling. That’s why they make the damn rules. Laws, the cliché goes, are spider webs—small flies are caught while big ones break through. I forgot who the bugger was said that, but nothing’s gonna change the fact.”

            I increased my stride until I was walking next to him. “No, that’s hardly a fact. Over 200 years ago, Hegel reminded his peers they couldn’t resign from society. His words applies even more so to today’s generation. So although we’re stuck with each other, we’re not stuck with things being unchangeable. Playing the role of a victim isn’t acceptable. We’ve all been victims. You, me, even my clever grandmother.”

            “Nainie Rhyderth, my dad’s mother, was born in Wales at the turn of the century. She told me her mother’s mother—that would be my great-great nan, was nearly burnt to death in a cornfield in Northern Ireland. She was branded a witch by a group of ungrateful farmers she helped when their livestock became sick. Locals feared her; they were afraid of her ability. But still she tried to help them. An hour before they were going to set her on fire, she escaped from the old stone barn where she’d been shackled. A young man risked his life to rescue her; together they fled to Wales. He married her soon after, even though until the day he died, my great-great grandad believed she’d bewitched him. He often told her he was her willing victim. Her skills came in handy. She saved his life after he’d been kicked by a horse. She helped the superstitious Welsh farmers keep their families healthy, and their livestock and crops safe, but discretely. No one tried to harm her in Wales.”

            “Just look what’s happened to the immigrants that arrived here in the 1920’s and 30’s to improve their quality of life—the Jews, gypsies, liberals, and intellectuals of Europe who’d been persecuted because of bad laws instituted by bad people. It’s unforgiveable what was done to them, what’s been done to women for thousands of years.” I was straying into dangerous, though familiar territory.

            “The witch craze lasted over 400 years; 1000s of women, men, and children were murdered. They were scapegoats—wars, economic disasters, crop failures, and the Black Death were blamed on them. In the last two centuries, women like my nainie fought tooth and claw to regain rights we’d lost. I find it odd that in the last few decades, the enemy seems to be anyone with a criminal record. That’s criminal, isn’t it—to wear a label like a tattoo?” I was rambling again. It felt good to voice passionate opinions. My voice was getting scratchy, but I didn’t or couldn’t stop.

“Did you know a considerable number of people who settled this country were obsessed with controlling nature? When they encountered the indigenous people who lived in harmony with nature—they branded them savages and devils, whatever evil title they could invent, and sought their destruction. They were relentless. They wanted all traces of these noble people erased.” I had the sudden eerie feeling creatures, perhaps ghosts of the indigenous people I was talking about, were watching—weighing my words.

            “I’m afraid the people who’ll represent and most insidiously be defined as the criminal element in the 21st century will be—children—teens who joined gangs at age 11 or younger because their families imparted no real value systems to them. Children who were early drug users, or became liars and thieves to survive, lost boys and girls that had at their disposal tools and technologies that would blow away Fegin’s band of ragamuffin pickpockets.”

            Rath called out, “Yeah, I knows. So who be this Fegin?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

I replied he was a character from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, a pickpocket in training. Rath reminded me a bit of Oliver. He was proving to be an excellent, potential pupil. “It occurred to me that as babies, we’re imprisoned by our helplessness. Think about it—we look up and see bars on our cribs. Perhaps we need to change the design of our first home.”

I wished I could stop and write down the spin off thoughts these discussions were generating. Instead, I made a mental note to do just that as soon as we got to camp. The camp, however, appeared to be located at the alpine level of the Smokies. When I stopped talking, my muscles would scream in protest with every ascent and zigzag movement I made. My canteen was almost empty; we stumbled on. Silence made the forest feel ominous. I couldn’t shake the feeling someone or something was watching us besides the fox.

            “Would you be glad to know crime can’t be ended by talking or fighting about it—only by introducing higher quality sociological patterns that can alter biologically imbedded patterns of violence? Reformers say one way to do this is through instructions given to the courts, military, and police regarding how to improve existing laws and rules, and amend punishments. We need guidelines given by smart, prudent people from all walks of life.

We badly need instructions about how to handle our crude biological tendencies, which like habits, are easily manipulated. Can you imagine being tasked to create a new set of instructions for the 21st century and beyond? Not to mention the reinstatement of laws that give forests and bodies of water a similar level of protection. It’s mind boggling. A good philosopher could do it, could reintroduce universal principles.”

            When I stopped talking I noticed the riot of colors these woods flaunted, from jewel toned leaves and vibrant green moss carpeting to the oranginess of the fox and the rich redness of a male cardinal. The only color missing was fuchsia. “Well guys, I’m about out of spit; it’s your turn to carry the conversation.”

            Rath said nothing; he just kept moving forward. Vaughn blurted something about being relieved he wasn’t dragging the litter. We lapsed back into silence. Instead of buzzards, a hawk circled, cawing and swooping over an opening in the dense canopy of trees.

I noticed a few late blooming, furry looking flowers poking out from beneath the carpet of leaves near thick bluish green lichen that fanned around the base of a gnarled tree. I knelt and exposed the flowers and said, “Look, Michaelmas daisies! How curious.” It was more than strange to find out of season daisies here, and on a Tuesday. I added, “These flowers, which I think are starwort daisies, are enchanted.

“I ain’t never seen daisies in these mountains; why you calling them enchanted?” Rath asked.

“Nainie told me the cunning folk burned these flowers to keep snakes away, that is, if they didn’t have a snake charmer. Most star shaped blooms have some sort of healing properties. Cunning folk dried the leaves and made tisanes to treat coughs and colds. There’s a Cherokee daisy legend also; I’m not sure I can recall all the details. Let’s see, two tribes were fighting over the right to hunt big game in these very mountains. One group turned violent and killed most of the other group except for two girls that fled into the woods. They met an old medicine woman and she hid them. While the girls were sleeping, the old woman gazed into her fire. She saw their future—the girls would be hunted, and eventually caught and killed. She mixed a potion and sprinkled it over the girls. In the morning, the girls were gone. In their place were two Michaelmas daisies.”

“What were their names, Heidi and Clydie?” Vaughn chuckled. “That name Michaelmas; wasn’t he some kind of saint?”

Rath was intently studying the terrain in front of us. He stopped abruptly and gripped the litter. He motioned for us to get beside him, and follow his lead. He charged into the woods to our right. A few seconds later, the mountainside to our left trembled and released a torrent of small and medium sized rocks, and a few giant sized boulders. The larger rocks bowed or flattened saplings and bushes as they pelted towards us, but missed us by six or so feet, then continued to careen down the mountain.

The cascade of rocks stopped as abruptly as it had started. Smaller stones and pebbles had landed on or pinged off the back end of the liter but we were unharmed, thanks to Rath. He made a clucking sound and told us we needed to keep moving. The trail behind us was completely buried by debris.

  Rath must have known what I was thinking. He said, “that ain’t the only way up or down.” It ain’t even the shortest way; we used it because of the liter, and it’s less struggle for unfit folks.” He said rock slides happened all the time, and usually one came with a warning. I’d heard nothing. He told me I just wasn’t listening hard enough.

I thanked him and laid my hand on his shoulder. He flinched and I apologized and turned towards Vaughn. “My fault entirely for calling those asters by a name the church ascribed. It’s just another example how religions appropriated an established pagan quarter day that marked harvest and hunting season. In nainie’s isles, they’d slaughter a goose and bake a berry pie around September 21st. The church high jacked the tradition and said the devil, a contrived fallen angel, fell to earth and landed in a bramble bush. This made him spit and piss on the bush in irritation. The daisies, which traditionally bloom in late September, are supposed to commemorate his deeds.” Ahead, I spotted more daisies poking up from the leaves.

“I like that version better to the one about the Injuns,” Vaughn added.

“You said they use the leaves to treat colds. Guess I best be scoffing these up.” Rath pulled up every flower by its root, yanked a paper bag out of a pants pocket, and placed the daisies in the bag, and the bag in a knapsack.

I should have kept my mouth shut. Those daisies didn’t deserve to be uprooted. Neither did I, but there was little other choice. I didn’t know how to get from here to there. If it’s true that moss grows on the north side, we must be heading northeast. We seemed to gallop the rest of the way to our destination, as if we were trail horses that knew there’d soon be water, hay, and oats at the stable up ahead.

Maybe we’re traveling to an area still patrolled by the Cherokees. Who better to lead me out of here than an Indian? I asked Vaughn and Rath if they’d seen any Indians in these mountains during the sojourn from civilization. Rath glanced back at me, but said nothing

***** ### *****

We reached their base camp and the cave in late afternoon. I was out of breath and parched.  From the summit 15 or so feet opposite the cave’s entrance, I gazed at the stunning panorama. The splendid view temporarily revived me as I gazed at the glittering purple red forest below, which pulsated with its own spark of being. The sky was tinged with bands of golden-orange. Wisps of the curling, opaque blue smoke this place was famous for spiraled upward.

            The men spent several minutes rolling back and rearranging several boulders and brush that cleverly hid a keyhole slit in the towering rocky façade. At the entrance, Vaughn pointed and said you had to walk bent over for a 4-5 yards before the cave opened into an ampitheatre’esque room. Or, he added, you could slide in on your belly, as the entrance sloped downwards. Rath went inside first to check for critters and light torches.

The granite façade looked nearly impossible to climb. The towering rocks were glossy in sections, as if they’d been polished, and there were numerous sharp, jagged protrusions. I was anxious to see inside. Caves were the habitat of slumbering bears and other beasts, and the birthplace of gods Zeus and Eileithyia. Caves served as graveyards for cavemen, coalminers, and unfortunate spelunkers. It’s where you found the art studios of shamans—and buried treasure. Caves were a great place to grow mushrooms and age Roquefort cheese.

Some considered caves to be evil places. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about a Devil’s Den cave, ‘…an evil place, the chosen haunt of a fallen race…sounds of fear from its chambers swell, ghostly gibber, fiendish yells….’

Rath returned wearing a puzzled expression. He was surprised the cave was untouched, and the boxes and bedding undisturbed. He’d expected to find at least a few nests of hibernating snakes, rodents, or larger prey. “Don’t figure; don’t figure ta’ll,” he murmured out loud. He asked Vaughn to light the fire they’d prepared before they left. It was positioned towards the back of the cave and helped illume and warm the chilly area where they slept. Rath reminded Vaughn to check that the smoke drew up and out the high, slanted opening at the back of the cave. Birds occasionally built nests there or forest debris clogged the narrow slit.

Outside, Rath quickly removed foliage and several large tree limbs disguising a fire pit 7-8 feet from the cave’s entrance, and built a fire. He brought out a small axe and rinsed and cut into pieces two rabbits he’d salted down for the journey, then threw the meat into a small cauldron. He added dried ingredients he sprinkled from several rawhide bags, and placed the cauldron on a tripod he retrieved from the litter. From the cave, he brought out ears of corn and basic ingredients to make biscuits.

He saw me watching him from a waist high perch on the rocky ledge running along the left front side of the cave. “You know how to make these? Here, crumble this in your hands and add it to the biscuit bowl, then fetch more water. You’re about as useful as a can of dried worms if you’re not philosophizing, ain’t you?”

            It was a rhetorical question; I bit back a response. My aching legs and back were delighted to be still; however, I didn’t mind working for my supper.

Vaughn had showed me where an underground spring surfaced and nuzzled against rock about 15 yards from the cave’s left face and emptied into a small, sparkling clear basin of rock that slowly dribbled its contents onto the rocky ground and over the side of the mountain. He told me they’d tested the water a few weeks back.

“It’s as good as water gets. Rinse yourself off before dinner if you don’t mind using water cold as an ice cow’s udder. A trickle runs down the inside of the cave wall and flows into a nature made gutter that empties into another part of the cave we can’t get to cause it’s too narrow. Besides, that’s where the bats are. Don’t drink the inside water; it’s okay for bathing.”

All I could say think to say was wow, crude but adequate indoor/outdoor plumbing. As I folded the seasoning into the sticky dough and added more flour, I thought about what I knew about Smoky Mountain caves. They were likely formed by plate tectonics, the shifting of ridges along joint lines. When two plates collided, one always overrode the other; the other plate was absorbed back into earth’s mantle. At one time, this entire range may have been below sea level. It was difficult to comprehend the ‘eonic’ passage of time needed to raise this mountain to its current level.

            I dug into my backpack and pulled out cellophane packages of seasonings, which I presented to Rath after bragging I’d grown the herbs in my garden. I couldn’t stand my own body odor another minute, and asked Rath if I could heat water and take a sponge bath—in private. Rath shrugged. Vaughn, who had returned, thought it was an excellent idea. He said there was a big vat of water warming over the fire inside. I could have first dibs, and there were clean rags to dry off with after. They promised to stay outside until I was done.

            I felt along and half slid down the narrow passageway, dragging my knapsack behind me. What a find. It was difficult to get a sense the scale of the main chamber, and though two torches burned on opposite walls and flames leapt from the fire, it was broodingly dark inside. There were also a few huge conically shaped boulders dotted round the cave floor, standing like sentries though I had no clue what they guarded—now or 1000 years ago. A few of the boulders were 15 feet high. I didn’t notice any stalactites or stalagmites.

The men had lined the curved front and middle area with crates and wooden shelves. Near the left side of the fire, there were two handmade wooden chairs and a rocker that was plain, but unusually well made. It had been seasoned with wax or oil, as had a long plank table laden with some of the boxes and bags from the liter. The table also held a kerosene lamp and a rectangular object wrapped in waxy cloth.

            The row of low shelves held books in clear and beige plastic baggies. There were crates filled with clothing, wooden and ceramic bowls and cups, and pieces of twisted metal and what might have been a blow torch. There were several battered boxes filled with can goods. Dry food supplies were neatly stacked on high shelves in baskets, glass containers, and sturdier crates. On the back wall where the cherry fire danced, huge drawings of animals, people hunting and dancing, and curious symbols seemed to wiggle in the flickering fire light.

The cave narrowed at the back and split into two tunnels; one was about four feet high and five-six feet wide; the other was seven or eight feet high but barely a foot wide. That must be the entrance to the bat cave. I wondered if either of the tunnels led to rooms larger than this one, or dead ends. Glancing up, I saw a 4 by 6 foot wide tunnel about 14 feet from the floor of the cave. There was no way to access it and the light was too dim to tell how deep it was.

            Two sleeping bags were neatly zippered and rested on wooden frames. The small fire threw off a surprising amount of heat. It was banked on two sides by a silvery screen that threw heat towards the bed pallets—clever. I’d take a closer look at the drawings tomorrow. I was entranced by the way the flames mingled with the figures of animals and people, making them appear to leap, and aim for the entrance to the tunnel high above.

            I spied some empty aluminum buckets. One was large and round and could serve as a standing tub; I made a mental note to replenish the water I was about to use, and ladled hot water into a tall bucket so it could cool a bit. Was this cave anything like the one filled with Ali Baba’s stolen treasures? As huge as it was, it felt cozy; was that because caves are symbolic in dreams of a women’s womb?

            I was grateful this room felt nothing like the cave in the Shaver Mysteries, the pulp sci fi stories my brothers introduced me to decades ago. That cave contained a monster, half human beasts, robots, a damsel in distress, and a hero with a ray gun. Publisher Ray Palmer called the Shaver Mystery the most sensation true story ever told. Readers were hooked until a better true tale came along, one about unidentified flying objects or sea monsters with tentacles.

I routed in my backpack and found clean clothes and thought about underground caves and civilizations I’d read about—there was French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre’s Agartha in the Himalayas; the Cuyaju caves outside Beijing; and Turkey’s Derinkuyu underground city in the Nevsehir Province. What had this cave been used as a 100 or a1000 years ago?

I scrubbed all essential body parts. My hair was another issue. For now I bent over and poured a few cups of warm water from the nape of my neck to the tips of my hair and then twisted my hair like an old dust mop. There were puddles of water where I’d stood.

            My last set of fresh clothes smelled of lavender and rosemary. One whiff of my discarded clothes and I wondered if two washings would be enough. I dug into my backpack, made a few notes on a yellow pad, and dabbed citronella/tea tree scented oil behind my ears, on my wrists, and at my temples, and applied a generous dab of moisturizer to hands, neck, and face. I felt much better. How had the Whittier poem ended? “…something to fancy dear, in this silent cave with its lingering fear; something that tells of another age, of a wizard’s wand, sybil’s cage…fairy rings and haunted glens, the restless phantoms of murdered men…’ Whoops, better stop there.

A crooked broom helped me sweep the excess water towards one of the back gutters. I grabbed my mess kit, the buckets, into which I’d crammed my dirty clothes, and one of the foil bags of wine I’d totted up the mountain, and went outside.

            I would have eaten boiled bugs if they were offered. The rabbit stew smelled wonderful, spicy, and rich. The roasted corn was succulent and needed no drawn butter. Rath accepted a cup of wine and I thought he might have smacked his lips once while slurping it. I promised to make S’mores for breakfast. The men looked at each other with raised eyebrows. I asked a few questions about the cave but mostly got shrugs from Rath and Vaughn.

            Rath passed out more stew and biscuits and I refilled our cups. The moon rose round and pearly pink. Stars glittered so brightly they seemed newly polished and I said so. Although the night air was chilly, there was no hint of approaching snow or rain. I felt peculiarly content sitting here with these strange, dangerous men under a clear night sky, part of something infinitely grand. If only I could put those feelings into philosophical words, or discover abilities or resources I forgot I had. One of those resources, apparently, wasn’t an attuned sense of direction. While Rath soaked the empty stew pot, I added warm water and a dollop of shampoo to the clothes bucket and stirred it with a stick stripped of bark.

            “Did you know there are 88 constellations, and on a clear night, you can see up to half of them? The Little Dipper—”

            Vaughn interrupted, not wanting to hear about one more damn ‘ology or “omony.’ “Hey Rath, tell her about that place out west where you managed the ranch for those weekend cowboys and little ladies flush with cash and between husbands and face lifts.”

            “Now don’t cha expect me to spout off like you ‘de-greed’ people. I know what I know; there ain’t that much to tell.”

            “So tell her what you know about dude ranching, and darling, pour us another round. You clean up nicely. What’s that fragrance you’re wearing?”

            “Eau de skunk, a man repellent—mixed with citronella, a bug repellent. I’m really interested Rath. Tell us about the dude ranch.” I rinsed, twisted, and squeezed my clothes, then threw the still sopping mess back in the bucket; I planned to hang them near the inside fire when we turned in. Then I took a seat nearer to the fire’s heat, opposite to where the men sat.

            “Like I said, not much to tell. I had this job as a glorified ranch hand. It weren’t too hard, and city folks tipped good. Then one went and got himself killed. Hell, they found him all butchered up, picked apart by some big ol vultures. The worst news, I come to find out, was he’s the 5th or 6th dude killed within 50 or so miles of the ranch that year. There was worser news too—them men was missing their, well, their private parts were gone—they’d been dismembered.”

Vaughn interjected, “I love that description man, their members were dismembered.” Vaughn slapped his knee and took another gulp of wine.

Rath scowled and continued, “It weren’t long before they started pointing fingers, so I packed up my gear and left. Ain’t no how they was pinning a crime on my hide. Besides, I coulda been victim number eight or nine. I’d go back there just like that if circumstances weren’t so del-i-cate.” Rath snapped his fingers several times and pronounced the last word with the same unique accent he’d used to say ‘de-greed.’

            “That’s horrible. All those men savagely killed; picked apart by vultures. Did you see the vultures today? I wonder what poor animal they were making a meal of…” I stared into the flames, not sure what to say next.

            Vaughn shifted his seat and mumbled something like sure did. Through the flickering flames, he appeared to be grinning.  

I shivered involuntarily, the feeling of well-being replaced by uneasiness. “You know, since the dawn time, when we huddled round fires to keep warm, we’ve gathered in circles to tell stories and ponder mysteries. There’s even a few etymologists that say the word church is derived from the word circle or from the Greek Witch Goddess Circe. And here we are, gathered round a circle of fire, an open air cathedral of sorts. The witching hour approaches.” Not a comment or question from either man. “Okay, back to the subject of murder and crime solving. Rath, do you think those men were killed by wild animals, or by bad humans? There was a…”

            Rath interrupted me in mid-sentence. “If you’re gonna do another one of your ‘mon-o-logues,’ you best pour us another round.”

             I shot Rath a perturbed look, but poured the last of the wine. “As I was about to say, there was a Russian thinker born towards the end of the last century named Peter Ouspensky; he traveled the world and wrote several fascinating books about the problems of man’s existence and how crime was a form of barbarism. In A New Model of the Universe —”

            Now Vaughn interrupted, “Is this going to get interesting or should I take a piss? I thought you were going to tell us about some fascinating crimes?”

            “I’m getting to that. Anyway, in this book, Ouspensky wrote history is nothing more than a recitation of all the crimes ever committed.” I paused and took a swallow of wine. I had their attention. “Visible history is what we’re taught in school and read about in books—how Julius Caesar died, betrayed by his closest friends; how Henry VIII got rid of a wife that couldn’t bear him a healthy son; how Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed and onward—to the present day. It’s being written as we speak, with increasing amounts of violence and crime. Agreed?”

            Rath pursed his lips, an action I interpreted as agreement. “Ouspensky talked about a hidden history; he asked us to consider who built Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and Notre Dame Cathedral. He asked why were these monuments and places built and how old are these structures really? He said at the beginning of the 2nd millennium many knowledge systems went underground, when Western and Eastern religions took control over most people. He concluded plain truth can’t stand the harsh visibility of time. Fortunately, esoteric truth and quality can—because these systems include the study of not just a person or a place where an important event took place; it encompasses all people and relationships connected with the event, as well as interrelationships of the event to the entire world.”

            “Say what?” Rath waved his cup in the air.

            “Similarly, understanding the difference between truth and goodness is critical to being able to restructure future history so it’s centered around human achievement and evolution, rather than being a regurgitation of hate, power struggles, violence…. History shouldn’t be a biography of criminal events—we can’t alter the past. We can change or redirect the future. We can make it achievement oriented; we can allow all kinds of people an equal voice.”

            Vaughn stumbled to his feet and clapped mockingly. “Ain’t that sweet. Are you gonna follow that up with Martin Lucifer’s I Had a Dream speech? I have a story for you to top the bear story you told us yesterday. A bear and a rabbit were taking a shit in the woods. The bear asked the rabbit if shit stuck to its fur, and—”

            Rath reached over and grabbed Vaughn’s cup, which was empty. He stood up, told Vaughn to “dummy up,” and pulled Vaughn to his feet.

            His eyes didn’t look like they were focusing but Vaughn managed to say, “I gotta take that piss,” and wobbled into the line of trees. The fire crackled and hissed. Hoot owls called to each other in the dark, and a lone wolf howled.

            “Guess he can’t hold liquor in his head or his bladder.” Rath poured water in the empty stew pot and covered it with a large stone. “This here needs to soak till morning.” Rath sat back down and tamped the fire.

            I helped gather and wash the plates and utensils, then plopped down one log over from Rath and leaned in, half whispering, “Is he a racist?”

            “Who ain’t?”

            His reply puzzled me. “I thought we were making headway discussing crime and society, and there was some consensus. I do talk too much, but I think a background needs to be laid on any subject, so there’s a level playing field.” I finished my drink and dipped it in the wash bucket.

            “Rath, why do you think I’m a racist.”

            “I didn’t say that.”

            “Yeah, you said ‘who isn’t one.’  I’m not; I’m almost militant in my defense of all people, sexes, and life styles. There’s a piece of esoteric wisdom that in effect says: As above, so below─and do no harm. It implies everything you do or say reflects back. It’s an ancient version of the golden rule, and even though I don’t believe in gods, if everyone would follow that wisdom, we’d have a much better world. He shrugged his shoulders.

“I may be infuriating, but I have to know why things happen. Take grief, for instance—it’s a form of trauma—an actual injury. We can see ourselves as victims or as initiates. We can go through the trauma or wallow in it. Grief feels so bad because everything comes to a halt. When we’re happy, we move, we vibrate at a higher level, generate endorphins; we literally glow. Happy tears taste different than sad tears because it contain different chemicals. See, there’s a why for nearly everything, even though it makes me ask questions people don’t want to answer.

            “So, you’re for turning the cheek, sticking a daisy in a gun barrel?” Rath’s voice held a trace of frustration.

            “Well, no. If someone’s intent is to harm you, then you’re free to stop that person. Just like—”

            “So you mean an eye for an eye?” Rath’s tone implied a weary impatience with my words.

            “No,” I replied a bit too loudly. “Let me back up.”

            “Oh shit.” Rath looked skyward. “She’s backing up; you better share the last of that wine if you expects me to hear a second time what I didn’t want to hear the first time.”

            “Oh, you’re a scream. Here, help me squeeze the sack. We should be able to siphon off another cup. I’m just backing up to this morning, so relax. Oh, and Vaughn’s joke about the bear and the rabbit. It’s as old as—my bones feel tonight. Thanks, though, for acting like a gentleman.”

            “Shit—I ain’t no gentleman.”

            “You’d be surprised. Remember when we were talking about freedom and you asked if we were really free?”

            “Yea—I recollect your half-ass answer. So?”

            I was suddenly very tired, and aware my words sounded like congealed breakfast mush. I had a small chance to reach Rath and perhaps discover what he really thought, what his true intentions were.

            “The root of racism has the same root as freedom; that is, the problem occurs when we identify any person as an object, without attributes or quality, or the ability to express or feel emotions. We all have value. What other people think about us can’t be the focus of our life. The importance of freedom is much grander than a need for power—to control someone or something. I think it was Harriet Rubin, a writer I admire that said, ‘Freedom is about what you can unleash.’ She also…Rath, I’m exhausted. Can we talk about this again tomorrow, on our journey back down the mountain?”

            I glanced his way; he sat erect and cross-legged. His face bore a thoughtful, intent look, although his forehead was slightly crinkled. “Tomorrow,” he said almost as if it were a question. After several minutes of silence he added “You best get some sleep.”

            I rose creakily to my feet and went off into the woods to relieve myself. I was a bit disappointed Rath hadn’t mentioned exactly when he was going to escort me to the logging road. I was pleased some of the things I’d said seemed to have registered. A few more discussions and I was sure he’d realize I only wanted to get out of these woods and forget this adventure. But was he convinced I would never squeal on them?

            Inside the cave, the firelight at the back threw off just enough light for me to see someone had put a third pallet near the fire, opposite the two existing pallets. A two inch thickness of newspaper and some blankets were laid atop the pallet to lessen the chill from the rocky floor. Vaughn was already sawing logs; I resisted the temptation to go over and pinch his nose. Odd, I hadn’t seen him return to camp. He must have walked around the perimeter.

As quietly as possible, I shook my clean, soggy clothes, and hung them to dry. Then I spread my ground cover and sleeping bag atop the blankets, inflated my pillow, and carefully placed a few logs on the fire. I watched them catch, and warmed my hands over the brightly dancing flames. After tugging off boots, vest, and a scarf, I stretched out in the bag and allowed myself to relax.

            The flames reminded me of little mountain ranges. Over half of Tennessee was covered with forests and mountains that represented earth’s billion year old erection. I grinned. This crazy day and long climb was over. I’d survived Tiw’s war day and arrived on a mountain top far from civilization, a mountain sacred to the Cherokees.

What would tomorrow be, a white or black letter day? Long ago, Romans marked lucky days with white chalk, and unlucky days with charcoal, hence the phrase.  Woden’s day was almost here. He led the wild hunt and guided newly dead souls. How appropriate! That’s why some confused Woden’s day with dies Mercurii—he was also a guider of dead souls, god of communication and eloquence, and wearer of a winged hat and shoes. I’ll get through to both men tomorrow and be on my way home.

            Before sleep overtook me, I slid my Swiss Army pocket knife from my pants pocket and nestled it under my hip. From another pocket I retrieved a small container of pepper spray and placed it next to my bandaged hand. Shadows leaped and flickered. My last reliable thought was of mountain tops favored by gods of myth because humans couldn’t thrive where the air was rarefied and the wind raged. Or was I myth-informed?

            I had a vague sense of Rath entering the cave and banking the fire. He stood behind his pallet, gazing at us or into the fire before sitting, removing his boots, and placing them above his head. He slide something into one of the upright boots and in stocking feet, padded over to the the bucket next to the fire and ladled hot water into a metal bowl. He removed his vest and shirt, crossed an arm diagonally over his chest, and massaged his shoulder. The tips of his fingers touched an inky horned figure, a tattoo or a bizarre shadow reflection from the artwork on the wall. It shrank and expanded across his caramel colored back as he splashed water and sponged his upper torso. My eyes closed like the door of a heavy duty safe.