Day 5: Dies Mercurii – Woden’s Day; Welsh (dydd Mercher}: Dissolution
“How awful tis be without, as blood-red races overhead
the welkin gory with warriors’ blood, as we Valkyries war songs chanted.”
Darraoarljod-Old Norse Poem
Day 5: To Anglo-Saxon/Teutonics, Woden is a god of inspiration & magic who lived in Asgard, atop the world tree. From the divine Valkyries, he receives souls of slain warriors, and feasts with them in ’Valhalla.’ He is associated with the horse, wolf, raven, and crossroads. In Romance languages, Wednesday is Mercury’s Day; he’s god of financial gain, communication, travel, thieves, and a psychopomp. He carries a magic wand/ caduceus, and is linked to the cockerel, ram, tortoise, stomach, and crocuses. Mercury (Greek-Hermes) carries Morpheus’ dreams to sleeping humans and foretells the future using pebbles.
“Wednesday’s child is full of woe …” (Traditions of Devonshire)
My first recollection was of something tickling my neck, like the furry tail of a woodland creature. As I floundered through layers of sleep, the image of an immense squirrel, with liquid brown eyes and a round, furry belly hung in my mind’s eye.
Our word for squirrel comes from the Greek. It means shadow or shade-tail; it’s part of the rodent family. In Norse myths, a squirrel being called Ratatoskr carries messages up and down the world tree Yggdrasil. It also sends out a piercing alarm when danger is near. Squirrels are born pink and hairless, with eyes closed, about six weeks after mating occurs. Fur appears in four weeks. By week ten, they have been weaned; after four months, the little critters are on their own—like I was.
The squirrels in my backyard let me feed them, and kept me company when I went outside. They were quick, greedy little thieves. If I was barefoot, and ran out of nuts, a few of the more aggressive ones would nip at my toes. I’d yip, Phaedra would growl, and they’d scatter. The rodent in my dream altered its shape, transforming into a creature with slicked back hair and small, black slits for eyes. An odor of unwashed skin and stale smoke filtered through sluggish senses. It was coming back to me, I’d been camping, was lost, in some dark place. An eerily illuminated white-grey orb floated erratically, adjacent to the ugly creature’s head. It was struggling to grow in size and brightness; the rodent creature was sucking up its energy.
I tried to communicate, to urge the orb to break away from the menacing rodent, but no words formed. I threw my energy, shooting it like pellets to the orb, which absorbed it hungrily. The orb pushed back at the rodent, which stopped hovering. The menacing creature was murmuring something about mimes and mimics…regurgitators. My back was pressed against something hard. Something equally hard had been pinning my legs. My dream self swung at the face with sour breath. It cursed me and retreated. The orb shot its remaining energy my way, and dissipated. Its strength pulsed within me and morse-coded a message “DANGER!”
My eyes flew open. The pepper spray was clenched in my hand. I smelled smoke, citronella, and pepper tange. Through dull light filtering in, I could make out the front wall of the cave. A shadow or crouched over form was exiting. Had it just been standing over me? Where was my pocket knife? I groped inside the sleeping bag. Behind me, embers spit and smoldered in the fire pit.
“Who’s there?” I croaked. I crawled from the bag and stood shakily. The knife clattered onto the stone floor. I picked it up and had a brief, unsatisfactory conversation with the atavistic part of my brain, which was in full Valkyrie mode. Bad dream, haunted cave, or worse still, bad man; which one was the reality?
I dressed clumsily, exchanging my blue silk long john for the lavender one and the green plaid shirt I’d washed yesterday and left by the fire to dry. My underwear and socks was missing and I missed a few buttons in my haste. The bald eagle feather lay atop my backpack. Should I stick the feather in my hair or reinsert it in the buttonhole like a boutonniere? I went with the later choice, raking my hair into a ponytail and awkwardly rebraiding it.
Flame from the stub of a candle cast a beam of light on a portion of the right wall of the cave. There were a dark handprints and several brighter in color, red perhaps? It was eerie. Thin fingers were reaching upwards, dark images on a rough grey background. Were the prints forming hand signals—the O of Okay, the I of an index finger? There were also pictures of what might be a pack of wolves or mountain cats, some wavy and choppy lines, spirals, and the image of what I was sure was a bear with sharp, well defined claws, standing erect. It was fascinating. I made a mental note to sketch the drawings later, took a deep breath, and left the cave.
The open fire pit area where we’d sat the previous night, talking about crime and bigotry and how to improve the world, was empty. The fire had been refueled and a big iron pot, filled with a thick brownish mixture was bubbling, spitting little eruptions of liquid into the fire. Neither of the men were around.
In the woods, at the point where we’d emerged into this camp yesterday, a pair of red eyes watched me—wolf, coyote, feral cat, or mutant squirrel? I thought again of Phaedra, the lab setter mix I’d buried just six weeks earlier. She was fearless, my best friend and trusted advisor. She would have made mincemeat of the rodent in the cave. I thought about the question Rath asked me yesterday, not if I ever killed anyone, but who had I killed.
I grabbed a cold biscuit from a tin plate, and thought about dipping it in the brown liquid. But my stomach was flip-flopping; instead, I shoved the biscuit and my knife in a vest pocket.
Around the left side of the cave, at the spring, I splashed cold water on my face. Odd, my jaw ached and my skin tingled. Had I scrapped it on something? I headed down the hillside a dozen yards from the spring. Into the woods I plunged, in search of a private place to pee.
At the bottom, Rath squatted; he was gutting one of two wild bird with brown speckled feathers. A small ax lay next to the birds and a bowie knife glittered silver and red in his hand. He looked up but said nothing.
I turned and glanced back up the hill, then walked towards Rath. “There you are, mighty Lord of Death; looks like you’ve been here awhile.”
Rath glanced at me again and shrugged.
“What you’re doing is highly appropriate for a Wednesday, named for Woden, Mercury, and Hermes, depending on your preference. They’re all psychopomps, conveyers of the dead to the afterlife. They’re linked to the cockerel, those poor birds you’ve eviscerating. Where did you find chickens way up here?”
“This be a wild, ruffled grouse hen. I was right lucky to get a clean shot, right through the head with the first one, while it was chomping on some fine clover near the lake. The second I just stunned; I had to wring its neck to get the job done.”
“Lake, what lake? Is there a lake nearby?” Rath didn’t reply, so I dropped the question. “Ah, a wild grouse. You know, I still have some slightly alcoholic Famous Grouse mini’s in my backpack. I visited their distillery in Scotland a few years ago. They told me they put a bit of highland peat, salt from the sea, and heather honey into every barrel.” I got a low pitched hmmm from him, and asked if I could help.
“You don’t say. I got a shine on for whisky when I was working out west at that dude ranch. Couldn’t tell much difference tween the $100 and $1000 dollar bottle, and I didn’t see no reason to add a mess of ice or a few droppers of ‘dis-tilled’ water to gussy up the drink.”
“Wonderful, we’ll have some later. Right now, I need to find the rest rooms.”
Rath used the point of his bloody knife to motion in several directions. “Look round, this here’s nature’s toilet, the n-tire place. Jus do your business beyond my line of sight. I got no interest in seeing your pasty ass.”
I ran off into a thick copse of trees, and returned to gawk some more at Rath, to pester him about leading me out of these woods. I knew better than to ask him in just what part of the Smokies we were. He finished with the other bird, and stared up at me. I crossed and uncrossed my arms, and kicked the leaves.
“You got something else to say?” He squinted and looked towards the top of the hill behind me. He cocked his head to one side and yelled. “Hey Vaughn, bout time you roused. You was gonna help me make soap today man.”
From the crest of the hill, Vaughn yelled back, “Soap’s boiling, but some of it splashed in my eyes. I can barely see, even after flushing it with water. I’m going lie down with a cold compress. I just wanted to check on our guest. Why don’t you send her back up here? We’ll finish making the soap.”
“No!” I shouted, then stammered, half whisper, half croak, “I-I want to help you, Rath, p-p-please. I can carve a holiday turkey, so I’m sure I can cut up this bird. And-and I know how to make energy cakes from wild . . .”
“You know how to shut your noise box?” Rath looked up the hill again. “Nah, I’m gonna whip her worthless ass in shape on a fishing and foraging field reconnoiter. Then maybe tonight, she’ll be too tuckered to talk at ta’ll. Give that pot of soap some stirs with the green handled paddle. It should be nearly ready to pour.”
Vaughn turned and retreated behind the trees. Rath glanced at me and made an odd, clucking noise with his tongue. “I guess he heard me. Here, gather up these feathers and put em in that net bag. I’m gonna hang these birds over the fire so’s they can smoke and clean up some. I may have to pour out the soap too. Then we’re going fishing. I ain’t laid in near enough meat. Can you fish?”
“Oh, I’m a natural. So that was soap bubbling up there?” I began to giggle and the sound grew in volume while tears coursed from my eyes. I blew my nose and stopped laughing long enough to tell Rath I’d almost dipped a biscuit into the soap. “You can cook almost anything and I’d eat it.” Nervous giggles continued.
Rath shook his head, made that funny noise with his tongue again, and sprinted up the hill. I called to him, “I’ll be fine, while you’re up there, would you please grab me something to eat?”
I scooped up the feathers lying amid the leaf and twig strewn ground; tried to keep clots of drying blood and bits of skin from touching my hands. Wasn’t this a fine pickle—collecting plucked bird feathers in the wilderness? I’ve dealt with irate heads of companies, feuding brothers, quarreling parents, jealous boyfriends, and a few crazies during my Psych 101 internship, but never fugitives on the lam. I was out of my league—a babe in the woods, literally. Still, my decade of training and trying to figure out what makes people tick wouldn’t allow me to accept my situation was precarious at best.
We all have the potential to break laws, steal, kill, be evil? If we didn’t, we would never have survived eons of human treachery and violence. Evil was everything from badness masquerading as goodness—to a cold heart, a weak soul, a vicious mind—acting in tandem, with no thought of consequences. Or was evil a void, an absence of good? Philosophers held varied opinions. Heraclitus thought good and evil were two opposing notes in harmony’s scale, which in proper combination, achieved a perfect harmony. Plato thought most change was evil; and the traveling Sophists said every person had a right to determine what’s good or evil.
Nainie never got over what dads did for the Government, under the auspices of patriotic service. Neither did I. Did I use that as an excuse for avoiding going home? The nasty, evil business my dads and brothers engaged in was probably the reason I became a Philosopher and Forensics Psychologist. It was absolutely the reason why I severed all ties with them after Nainie’s death.
I dribbled water from the canteen over my blood streaked hands. What did Socrates say about evil? He seemed conflicted; he allegedly said the highest good is knowledge; one should always seek to discover the highest good. What happens when good knowledge is used badly?
With the advent of religion, good and evil became more sharply defined. Lines were drawn through opposite concepts: black and white, light and dark, body and soul (with the body playing the villainous evil role). Heloises’ lover, Abelard, one of the Scholastic school philosophers, thought good or evil was a matter of ‘intention.’ You were evil only if you intended to be.
What about these wilderness warriors? How much did Rath know about Vaughn? Was he of the same mold? Why did they stay together—were they thick as thieves? What a terrible metaphor. I’ve really done it, I thought—forged ahead without regard to the consequence of my actions. There was no magical bear, no Jake, no mystic knight on a stallion, no big brothers coming to my rescue. The only thing I was sure of was that twice on this trip I’d saved my own ass.
During this field reconnoiter, as Rath charmingly called it, I had an opportunity to convince him to lead me from these woods and back to what—civilization, the yoke of work, the ball and chain of relationships? I kicked the leaves again to make sure I’d collected all the feathers, then I added a grouse feather to the buttonhole sporting the eagle feather, and looked up. A shadow wavered in front of me. Silently, Rath had reappeared.
He threw a wet rag at me. “Use this to wipe your paws, then tie that bag to this pole and follow me. We’ll wash them feathers after we hook some trout.” He took the pink smeared rag from me and hung it on a high branch. Then he handed me a firm, unbruised yellow apple and a hunk of dried venison. “Day’s a burning—we best hustle.”
I suspected, were I to pull a few Tarot cards from my deck right now, I’d draw the Hermit, the Hierophant, or the Devil as Rath’s signator card. As for me, it was easy; with a bundle of bird feathers dangling from a pole slung over my back and surrounded by mountains, I was The Fool.
Professor Beechum tongue tapped the roof of his mouth, making a clicking sound not unlike the one Rath made. As a man who spent a good deal of time alone, he found it soothing to hear his own voice occasionally. He said aloud, oh my dear girl, philosophy isn’t the way, science is. Naturally, you’d disagree, perhaps even claim there was a scientific philosophy behind every technical theorem and premise. You might even quote one of your favorite authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind. I think he said “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Then I’d remind you Mr. Fitzgerald was a drunk, and you’d counter with anecdotes about woozy Sir Isaac Newton, Crick, Leary, and Lilly’s mind bending exploits. You are missed Wilhelmina, sorely missed.
He grabbed the magnifying glass so he could read Lieutenant Frankel’s annotations in the margin. Then he thumbed through the case file Frankel had sent him until he found the paper he wanted. It was nearly 3 pm, hardly enough time to read another chapter before his weekly meet up with a few former students at the local pub. He wondered if he should cancel, tell them his work load prevented his attendance? No, he’d make a short appearance, and have a hard cider instead of several pints of the dark stout he liked. He’d order a chicken cobb salad to go, and then finish this and the remaining chapters and note taking in the quiet of his flat.
The professor marked the file with a neon orange post it note, and scribbled a question ‘any medications prescribed?’ In his lab book, he made a few cramped notes in the proper fields on one of the forms. On a blank page he wrote ‘check last letter from Wilhelmina; no mention of dog’s death? Check psych experiment she initiated. Let Frankel know she was good at handling stress, risk taker, but not usually reckless.’
We walked in silence for about twenty minutes; I devoured the apple and mashed the venison jerky into tiny bits before swallowing. I listened to forest noises, and a keening wind that slapped brightly hued leaves in multiple directions. It reminded me of French apache dancing, but with leaves and twigs. I heard intermittent bird caws, and my own occasional panting as I struggled to keep up. Through the trees, wisps of saffron tinged clouds stood out against the umbrella of a cornflower blue sky. It was all so vivid. I suppose I should have wondered whether the jerky or flour used to make the biscuits was tainted with ergot or some other hallucinogen. My nonchalance was astounding now I reflect back.
I daydreamed about being perched on a stool in my newly remodeled kitchen, baking loaves of pumpkin zucchini bread while sipping spiced cider laced with Applejack Brandy. My bi-level kitchen, with its new, cheery solarium/dining area, was a place of bliss. According to the Feng Shui consultant I’d used during planning stages of the remodel of the old Georgian townhouse, the kitchen was the pleasure center of the house. So was my bedroom one floor above. I bought the house using substantial fees I’d earned after completing three long, rather unpleasant consulting jobs, and a chunk of the money from nainie’s trust fund. She would have liked the stately old house. She would also have felt entirely at home in these mountains, and reminded me to pay attention to what I wasn’t seeing. Was it Schelling that said nature is visible spirit, and spirit is invisible nature? We can’t understand the second part until we realize it’s all one huge interconnected process.
The main level of my sanctuary had just three rooms: the kitchen/solarium at the back, a galley-like, narrow bathroom along one side of the house, and a formal great room at the front. There was also a small detached garage/laundry room behind the house, accessed by an alleyway, and a cellar I never visited. The great room was furnished with a plump, tuxedo style sofa and wingback chairs; a dinged, but highly polished player piano; a set of stacked cherry wood tables and ottomans; two matching curio cabinets, and half a dozen built in bookcases. One curio cabinet held a collection of ornate, decorative eggs—Faberge imitations, painted wooden eggs, and fragile Venetian glass and glazed porcelain eggs from the Ukraine. The other cabinet contained a whimsical collection of tiny music boxes and glass snow globes I’d brought back from trips abroad.
The kitchen spread across the entire back of my manor. A curved oak butcher block counter swept around half of the room, and butted against a stainless steel, industrial size refrigerator/freezer and double sink. Low backed bar stools were tucked under the counter. A walnut and marble topped built-in desk held a computer, art supplies, and a ceramic vase containing a jumble of cooking utensils.
The Feng Shui consultant recommended I line the wall behind the desk with a long, horizontal mirror, which would reflect the outdoor light and greenery. I added clear glass shelves and an eclectic assortment of exotic recipe and gardening books, as well as paperbacks on herbal lore and tea leaf reading, and some antique mortar and pestles I used to grind herbs.
An island in the center of the room sported four gas burners, and a small open grill. A brass pot rack hung above the island and held my prized copper and French enamel pans, bunches of dried herbs and flowers, and strings of garlic. A narrow pantry was tucked into a recessed area under the stairs.
The new lower kitchen level served as a solarium and informal dining and entertaining area. A tall glass cabinet contained a mad hatter’s assortment of long and short stemmed glassware, in all colors and weights. Terra cotta and mosaic tiled pots filled with herbs, blooming flowers, and lush tropical plants dangled from hooks next to the windows. The bar was a converted flower cart; small flags from the many countries I’d visited were clipped to a black and white striped awning. A trestle table that comfortably seated 12 spanned most of the space and straight backed wood and plump, boldly tapestried chairs were tucked round the table.
When weather permitted, I’d open the windows and let the breeze tease the wind chimes that dangled from exposed beams. I’d roll the booze cart onto the slate gray flag stone patio and park it under the weeping willow. The back yard was a small contained wilderness, crammed with dwarf fruit trees, a six foot high hedge of holly and boxwood, and squares and triangles of flowers, vegetable plants in season, and topiary creations, which my stoned, forever 60’s hippie gardener tended, uprooted as needed, and re sculptured.
There was little room for an outdoors table. Guests sat on collapsible lawn chairs and shared small foldable tray tables. This was where friends preferred to be, many of whom lived in small apartments or condos in the city. It had taken a handful of contractors a year to complete all the renovations, and mold the ninety-year old property to my personality and specifications.
The top level included a small guest room and adjoining bath at the front of the house. The rest of the area was my inner sanctum. The architect had exposed part of the attic. I lined the upper area with bookshelves, leaving just enough attic floor to form a U-shaped gallery supported by pillars below and enclosed by a graceful, sturdy wrought iron filigree bannister. You accessed the gallery via a circular, wrought iron staircase that gave the illusion of hanging suspended in air.
The bedroom/sitting area contained a heavy Victorian period four-poster bed, a plain, but beautifully made antique dresser and two matching highboys. I put a overstuffed love seat at the foot of the bed and added a small trunk to serve as foot rest and coffee table. The trunk was always cluttered with books, half completed needlework projects, plates of dried cheese, crusts of bread, and empty glasses of wine. At least, it was since Phaedra’s death. I kept most of the cool green moiré wallpaper someone else had installed, and added curtains and a comforter in a green and lavender paisley print. Ornate mirrors reflected light from back facing windows.
My computer looked askew atop the heavy, ornamental Chippendale desk I’d brought from nainie’s. When not in use, I draped the monitor with a fringed piano scarf. Jake kept some of his clothes in one of the highboys, and avoided the cozier areas of the room. He liked rummaging through the books, using my computer, and stretching out across the cushy window seat to enjoy the woodsy view from the bay windows. I liked using the window seat too. I could be communing with literary nature right now—if only I’d stayed home.
My ‘step up and climb into’ tub seated two easily and was decorated with Egyptian icons and hieroglyphics. I’d overindulged here—everything was gold gilt, black enamel, and royal purple. A long, compartmented closet ran along an inside wall, hidden from view by sliding glass panels. The toilet was in a tiny throne room of its own. The vanity had two sinks, though Jake complained he lacked space for his toiletries and chose not to use the drawer I provided. To resolve the issue, I bought matching medicine cabinets, but was in no hurry to tear up the wall and install them. Jake seemed way too comfortable lately; he wasn’t spending much time at his sparsely furnished condo.
I could be arguing with him now, instead of traipsing through these imposing mountains, hostage of Mother Nature and two criminal elements. How does one reason with felons? Should I spend more time discussing good and evil concepts?
Free from the encumbrances of litters and backpacks, Rath was absorbed in studying the woods. Several times he’d stop, scrap something off a tree, or pick a handful of what looked like weeds after he gently cleared leaves around the base of a tree. I saw him put delicate flowers or stunted mushrooms into a canvas sack. Afterwards, he’d sprinkle something, tobacco perhaps, onto the ground.
We’d been walking for several hours; I wondered where the heck this trout stream was. I was hungry again. Perhaps Rath would cook another hearty meal over an open fire when we reached the stream. The blue sky was no longer visible. Instead, a damp fog was settling over the area where we tramped. It rose from the ground and descended from above, leaving a small, curious mid-level gap through which I saw flashes of terrain before it was swallowed up. It was like walking among the clouds. What was that word—tenebrous or was it just plain spooky? Peering from an old growth tree, I’d catch a flash of red eyes every so often.
The air and the smoky fog made my head felt peculiar. I began to wonder if I really owned an old Georgian townhome, or had I just imagined it? Had I daydreamed while walking, just as Steinbeck had done while driving cross country in Travels with Charley? He wrote about houses he’d never build, books he’d never write, and gardens he’d never plant. I even considered that the red eyes that had been following me were Phaedra’s, my ghost dog.
Several times Rath would point out barely discernible animal tracks and scats. I learned a raccoon leaves its crumbly, flat ended scats at the base of trees or rocks; wild cats usually cover theirs up; and skunks often leave scat near their dens. When Rath offered to tell me about the composition of other animal scats, I thanked him but said I wanted to retain an appetite and some of the mystery. I was, however, curious why owls were hooting in the daytime.
He said they were telling us this was their territory and we best keep moving on. They saw us as predators. The hooting was likely coming from a great horned owl.
I offered to tell him what I knew about owls. Thoreau had said they “represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts we all have.” Rath declined my offer, and we lapsed back into silence.
He was right. Owls don’t usually migrate; this is their home. The hooting sounds were coming from multiple directions. A family of owls must live here, though I couldn’t spot a single glassy eyed owl in the surrounding trees. Damn that Jake. It was doubtful we’d ever be a family. Our relationship consisted of fierce competitiveness, selfish sex, and petty squabbling. Why did I feel more alive with strangers—despite being cold, hungry, and clueless—than with the man I thought I loved and might one day marry?
I almost stepped on what I was sure was an owl’s feather, half hidden amid a carpet of leaves and pine needles. It was perhaps five to six inches in length, with intermittent stripes of white down and brown. I tucked it in the buttonhole, between the eagle and grouse feather.
I met Jake shortly after landing a plum consulting assignment at the company where he worked. He’d recently been promoted to the rank of junior executive. My contract involved developing and deploying a program whereby rising executives could be interviewed, analyzed, and groomed or discarded for top senior level slots. My findings would ultimately either help or hurt their careers.
Jake’s hostility to the program I’d designed was entirely predictable. He was the least cooperative of the corporate climbers. That made me more determined to find out what made him tick. His uncooperativeness was screwing up my overall positive results; I intended to fix the problem.
Jake and his team were meeting at a local bar for beers and darts after work one Friday. I got there early, and took a seat in a dark corner, with my back to the wall. I could observe everything this exasperating man did—under the trawl of alcohol.
It was a neighborhood hangout, not one of those pretentious yuppie establishments where only lite beer and immature wines were served to bored boomers trying to conceal their age, upbringing, or mind-numbing jobs. Most were there to get laid or drink enough so it wouldn’t matter. People were casually dressed, and there seemed to be far more men than women. Three large 50 inch flat screen TV’s blared news about the local and national sports events planned for that weekend.
I went to the bar, a huge wood, brass and glass lined square in the center of the main room; it resembled the bar in a popular sitcom. I ordered a pint of stout and a shot of Irish whiskey, and left the bartender a generous tip. He thanked me and made small talk. I steered the conversation to the clientele, and discovered this pub was Jake’s regular hangout. He was an excellent and competitive dart player, and he liked his brew. It was amazing what a bit of flirting could accomplish. I rummaged in my large, mailbag sized purse for my hand-made set of darts. I hadn’t forgotten them.
Jake and three other employees arrived and quickly downed several pitchers of amber beer. Jake was every bit as good at darts as the bartender had said; he won two out of the first three games. I ordered a pitcher of premium draft and a round of Irish Whisky shots. I’d arranged for the bartender to deliver the order to Jake’s table. Before he did, I strolled over to where the men sat.
“If I buy the next round, may I play? I bet I can beat you sticking those fat little metal tipped pins in that big cork disk.”
Jake set his mug down slowly and leaned back in his chair. “Ms. Rhyderth, what brings you to this humble establishment? Who are you psychoanalyzing tonight? Wait, let me guess.”
“Philosopher’s don’t psychoanalyze people; we examine life and meaning, hidden and otherwise. If you’re referring to my current consulting job, well—a girl’s gotta eat—and drink.”
The bartender handed out shots and several of the men at Jakes table rubbed their hands together in mock excitement. A rotund young man, who looked like he might have played center tackle in high school or college let Jake know his glass was empty by holding his hand to his throat and flailing his arms in midair. He croaked, “Come on, man, let the little lady pay, I mean play. Oop-see, did I make a Freudian slip Ms. Finedirt?”
I glared at him, then smiled, reached for a shot glass, and dispatched its contents. “Call me Willy,” I told them. “Drink up.”
Jake accepted a beer, but not a shot. He gestured to the bartender, then stood up. “There won’t be any peace until I let you play, will there? We’re playing Cricket; if you lose, you buy a round; if you lose two in a row, you go away, and,” he added, enunciating the last word, “you’ll stop pyscho-babblizing me at work. You’ll write a favorable report, and go stalk some other employee. Deal?”
The bartender returned with a bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon, which he plunked down. Then he lined up an assortment of thick, square rocks glasses. “That work for you?” he asked Jake.
I cleared my throat, “Actually, bring over the rest of the bottle of Irish whisky, and draw another pitcher. And I’d like whatever your house burger is—rare—plus a side of fries. I sat down at the table and carefully positioned my bag on the floor.
“OK, I accept your bold terms. Now here’s mine. If you lose the first game to me, you buy my food; if you lose two games to me, I could be cruel and make you pay my bar tab too, though I won’t.” I leaned over, and located my darts, but didn’t pull them out yet. I also positioned an open mouthed plastic jar in the center of my bag. “Finally, you’ll cooperate 110% with the study I’m conducting, and you’ll be at my beck and call the entire time I’m at your company. Deal?”
Without any hesitation, Jake replied, “Deal. I assume you brought your own darts?”
I was slightly surprised he showed no surprise when I pulled out a custom-made set of darts. I busied myself smoothing the feathery heads of the darts.
Hours later, I stood outside, helping support one of Jake’s tipsy buddies while Jake loaded another friend into a waiting cab. “Do we call it a night, or keep playing? I’m two games ahead,” I added.
Jake placed the last man into a cab, and through slightly bloodshot eyes, shot me an appraising look. “I’m rather tired of darts—we seem to be—fairly evenly matched.” The words seemed as difficult to admit as to say without slurring. “I live a few blocks from here. There’s a game room and a fitness center in my building. We could play tennis, racket ball, billiards, pin ball . . .” He reeled off a list of games and sports.
“Fairly evenly matched, hmmm, no seduction ploy? No, that wouldn’t be your style. If I learned anything tonight, it’s your idea of fun is—very simple. Sure Jake, I’d love to see what other games you like to play.” I ran back inside and retrieved my bag and the jar full of shots I hadn’t drunk. I dumped the contents into a nearly empty pitcher of beer and threw the jar in the trash.
That was a nearly a year ago. Jake was true to his words; he cooperated with and aced the program. I turned in my report a few weeks later and we started dating. We went out four or five times before we had sex; I suspected that only happened because I’d let him win a round of miniature golf and plied him with tequila, an alcohol for which he had little tolerance. Over the last several months, he’d spent every other weekend at my house. I’d learned he’d been an Eagle Scout, played tight end in college, and preferred the great outdoors to anything else in the world, including me.
His free time consisted in playing competitive sport, hiking, or biking. I tried to improve Jake’s chances to move into a senior level position by inviting his Corporate Vice-President and Division heads to one of my parties. Senior Fortune 100 managers hobnobbed with diplomats, college professors, and an eclectic assortment of artists and professional people I knew.
I’d learned little else about him in the past year. Both of his parents were living—one state over; he visited them twice a year. He also had a younger sister I’d met once. It was a Saturday morning—Jake was uncharacteristically lazing around his apartment. His sister and her seven-year old son appeared at his front door to ask ‘Uncle Jake’ about coaching at a summer baseball camp the boy wanted to attend. His sister seemed curious about me; she was full of nervous energy. She’d recently separated from her husband. She treated Jake as if his word was gold and his time was a precious metal. I volunteered to make a fresh pot of coffee, and looked forward to chatting with her, but she left without explanation. I was left with a full pot of coffee and a non-committal shrug from Jake.
“This be the spot,” Rath said in a near reverential tone. “This here’s a holy place, so don’t go littering, or digging things up. You see the grace of that water, don’t ya?”
I gave Rath a dimpled smile. “Absolutely, it’s beautiful, and I don’t mind holy, I mind hypocritical, religious theatre, and the pompousness of faith.” In a near whisper I added, “I would never trash this place; it is special.”
Above me, a canopy of green, orange, and gold leaves waved gayly. The sun sparkled and highlighted the jeweled tones. Golden sunshine glinted off the clear water and shiny stones in the wide stream to my right. Perhaps it was a trick of the light that made this spot feel ethereal. This bucolic cove echoed the grandeur of nature in its most patience, enduring form.
The bank was covered with thick, furry moss, cattails, and low lying plants that resembled lamb’s ears and a riot of wild flowers. When I stepped on what Rath said was a bed of wild sage, it released a clean, pungent scent. Along the stream’s edge, smooth ostrich egg sized stones in hues of gray, pink, and a creamy beige lay contentedly. I recalled reading that among the Gaul’s, stones similar to these were thought to convey second sight if touched on certain days of the wheel.
Rath sat on a huge quartz-crystal rock and assembled a fishing pole. I stepped to the stream’s edge and dipped a hand into the water. It felt cool, not cold, and surprisingly soft. This protected little cove projected such a magical, peaceful aura. On the opposite bank, pink and blue wild flowers bent towards the water though it was the end of October. I removed my vest, rolled my sleeves, and splashed water over my arms.
“Since you already got your boots wet, you best take em off and wade in slowly with this pole. Cast into the deep section yonder. I’ll go scurry up some worms.” Rath pointed to a darker area a hundred yards upstream.
I shook my head and told him no, then grabbed a hand-made fishing lure from an inside flap of my discarded vest. “I prefer to use this. I know how to fly fish. It’s one of the few things dads taught me.”
“Let’s see what you catch then. Meanwhile, I’ll set a fire and get out the fixings we’s gonna have with them trout you gonna catch.”
I grinned at his quaint use of words, and gave him my boots. Rath said he’d dry them once he got the fire going. “Your language’s very soulful, honest, almost lyrical.” I waded in knee deep, and cast off expertly. I couldn’t help blurting, “Heraclitus said we can’t step in the same river twice. What do you suppose he meant?”
“I’ll ponder on it awhile,” he called back.
On the opposite bank I was delighted to see a doe and two small fawns delicately sipping water. They showed no fear of me. I hoped Rath hadn’t seen them; I made several attempts to shoo them away. The crystal clear water emitted a quality I can only describe as a gleaming radiance. I could see every pebble, every stray bit of nature’s debris—fine sand, twigs and sodden leaves. My eyes could almost penetrate beneath the stream’s bed—and envision layers of rock, ancient soil, and the petrified bones of mastodons. It was one of those incandescent moments—heightened because my unconscious mind realized there wasn’t one speck of civilization present here—not a single cigarette butt, or discarded bottle cap. Or perhaps I was just deliriously hungry.
In the next twenty or thirty astonishing minutes, I hooked four trout; only one had to be released because it was too small. Rath asked me to keep fishing until I’d hooked six. He even gave me a high five when he collected the fifth trout. Amazingly, the cold water hadn’t numbed my legs. It was invigorating. It felt as if the callouses I’d recently acquired were melting away, and my bruised muscles were regenerating. There was a process in alchemy called dissolution; corrupted or injured systems were transformed in a caustic bath. Powers were released. I glanced down. Everything looked normal.
The deer had melded back into the woods. Something else was watching us. In this peaceful cove, I would have welcomed the black bear I’d encountered a few days earlier. I sensed movement on the opposite shore, and stepped downstream to catch a better glimpse. There was a flash of bare arm and shoulder, and something long and dark like hair or fur as s figure retreated back into the woods. At the same instant, I hooked my largest fish, a Walleye. It was a real struggle to keep my footing. My toes dug into the stream bed and dislodged pebbles and mud as I attempted to reel in the fish.
From the bank, Rath watched it splash, and asked if I needed help. “Bloody blazes,” I replied, “Get your tuchledeen over here before Moby Fish pulls me under.”
Rath had removed his shoes and quickly rolled up his pant legs. His strong arm reached out and took the pole from my quivering hands. For what seemed like forever, I watched the fascinating play of man and fish. Finally, the fish stopped leaping, and could only feebly smack its tail. Rath reeled it into shallow water, then scooped it into a homemade net. “You did real good. That’s about a seven pounder.”
I caught one more fish before leaving the stream, and then started rinsing the feathers. There was movement again in the trees and another flash of bare skin. Locals? Rath expertly gutted several of the fish and speared them with a skinny metal rod he produced and positioned the fish atop the hot coals. Then he showed me how to ring dry the bag of feathers. He added I could rest a spell after that.
There was a spot dense with moss that seemed perfect. It also provided a narrow view of sky between overlapping trees. I lay on my back, but instead of seeing a bright blue sky, I saw the cave wall, illuminated or backlit somehow, sporting the handprints, spirals and symbols, and strange creatures of a vanished or forgotten people. Was this a story in pictures? I recalled that an archaeologist at Lascaux caves said he deciphered a story on a wall. The message was that the sun and the herds people depended on for food would disappear unless a man was sacrificed to the moon goddess.
In one of our dingier college rooms, to hide an ugly, pitted wall, Myra and I stretched and glued sheets over large lengths of cardboard joined together with duct tape. She sketched a Mediterranean street scene from memory, and added a few clever trompe l’oeil effects using paint I stole or borrowed from campus art departments. A handy friend made an elegant box valence for the window and we draped a barrel with a flowered skirt. Under Myra’s skilled hands, our dented door became a cobbled alleyway leading to a boat dock. The room went from drab to fab. I always wondered, did the next students that occupied the room understand our message, Myra’s vision?
I must have dozed off. The sky and brightly hued canopy of trees was overhead again. I sat up and decided to tell Rath what I’d seen on the opposite bank. He was adding something tuber shaped to the pot. “I swear there’s someone at the edge of the woods. How often do you come across hunters, hikers, or better still, indigenous natives? Have you wondered what story is painted on…”
“What—what did you say?” Rath grabbed my arm. “You saw someone watching and didn’t say nothing?” Show me where.”
“Don’t get your drawers in a wad; I think I saw an Indian—a nearly naked Indian cause I don’t think bears wear human skin. It was just for a flash of a second.” I rubbed my arm, and sat back down. I also noticed my wrist wasn’t sore. “Do you think it was a Cherokee? These mountains were their hunting ground, before the damn Government forced them to leave and stole their land. Do you suppose they’ve been hiding out here like you and Vaughn? They’d be friendly; wouldn’t they? This is the 21st century.”
“An Indian—you’re sure it weren’t the back side of a deer?” His tone was serious.
I laughed at his cock-eyed comparison and told him I hoped the Indian wasn’t in earshot. “I also saw a doe and a fawn earlier, but I wasn’t about to let you hurt it. Anyway, you said this place was sacred. How did you find it? It resonates with, I don’t know, some otherworldliness. It’s just like the places nainie described in Wales. It’s magnificent.”
Wistfully, I added, “This cove might just be filled with powerful natural magic, strong enough to counter technology’s influence and misuse. There’s still magic hiding in plain sight in towns and cities, but it’s much harder to spot and harness, unless you know how. Nainie showed me a few tricks—like how to study date/time occurrences, location toponomy, and the peculiar art of naming. It helped me identify what lies beneath the surface of things.” I had his undivided attention.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Indians guarded huge secrets here. Secrets clothed naturally, in something as simple as a counter clockwise swirl of water or unusual rustling of leaves. Or, it could be wrapped inside the incense like smoke that inhabits these woods.” I lowered my voice, “At night, perhaps the wee folk dance around the wild flower rings to keep the cone of power strong, to protect this unsullied sanctuary. Nainie could see the fey folks. I still refuse to accept they were only stories.”
Rath seemed deep in thought. “It was no coincidence you brought me here, was it?”
“You really saw an Injun? Was he wearing feathers? What else did you see?”
“Perhaps I saw a bow or a spear. Feathers might have been dangling from the bow.”
Rath slapped the side of his leg. “What did I tell you?” he made a strange, wild animal noise by cupping his hands and blowing, and spoke a few words of gibberish. Three tall Native Americans emerged from the woods on the other side of the stream and crossed over. “You do got the sight; mebbe you can help. I thought you did. I was right.”
I wasn’t sure what he was right about. Did he mistake me for a seer, or were these woods turning me into one via boot camp calisthenics, fasting, celibacy, madness…? They were handsome men, with high cheekbone; dark, almond shaped eyes; and silky black hair. They greeted Rath in a strange language, looked directly at me, and nodded in a rather formal, almost oriental manner. Then they sat ‘indian style’ on mossy ground near the fire. Rath told me to sit next to them.
They had brought gifts: A fat glob of honeycomb in a gourd, covered with what looked like waxed cheesecloth; dried cranberries; and a small, cracked open geode wrapped with a thin piece of rawhide and a braided leather lanyard.
What did Rath mean, did I see them? Of course I saw them; they were dressed in what I imagined Indians might have worn hundreds of years ago, before flannel shirts, imported silk from China, and Levi Straus jeans. Their hair was longer than mine, and one of them had two thick Willy Nelson pigtails bound with a length of calico fabric. Beautifully tooled quivers and bows rested next to them. I could see the shiny steel hilts of hunting knives peaking from leather sheaths dangling from a belt. They placed the braided loop of leather over Rath’s head and he grinned like a Cheshire cat.
They had a gift for me too, rather they brought a gift for Nanabusha; that’s what they called me. Rath translated, it was an honor to be given a tribal name. Nanabusha roughly translated to trickster hare, given second sight via its big ears and devotion to the moon. They presented me with a beaded bracelet interwoven with bits of shells and tiny, polished chunks of wood. It was beautiful; I was momentarily embarrassed, and oddly tongue tied. What could I give them in return?
I rummaged in my pocket and found my swiss army knife. I pulled it out and asked Rath to whom I should present the knife—I had only one. To my surprise, he addressed them in a language that sounded nothing like what I’d heard on the countless westerns I’d watched as a kid.
Rath said no gift was necessary. When I insisted, he told me to hold it out on my open palm and offer it to Tonkakota, the Indian seated closest to me. I opened several blades and explained what each did. They nodded. As I leaned over with opened palm to present the knife, nainie’s necklace bobbed forward. They began talking excitedly. I put the knife on the ground in front of Tonkakota and pulled the necklace over my head, holding it out to them, insisting they take it. They wouldn’t touch it.
“Oh dear, what did I do? Perhaps they’d prefer one of my feathers. I…”
Rath motioned for me to shut up. He was having a hard a hard time understanding what they were saying. Apparently, they thought nainie’s hag stone possessed great power, and as I was wearing magical feathers, they had misnamed me. I must be a powerful medicine woman—or a witch. Rath used the word Didanawisgi, which means medicine man, to describe me, that confused them more.
I chuckled and explained the hag stone’s supposed abilities, and Rath translated. I’d forgotten what the squiggly lines and symbols meant. I said I liked the name Nanabusha, except for the part about the big ears. Rath replied that made sense as Nanabusha was deemed an untamable creature.
While I was loath to part with something nainie had given me, I felt strangely compelled to offer it to these men. Rath related to them my nainie would want them to have it as there were venomous snakes in these mountains. Tonkakota bowed his head and accepted my gifts. He put the hag stone round the neck of the Indian next to him. He was one of their medicine men. He gave the knife to the one farthest away from me, the one with the beautiful braids.
Rath grinned after the men pointed to the feathers in my buttonhole and asked questions. The grouse feather, they said, indicated my willingness to preserve a youthful curiosity. That made perfect sense. They asked how I’d acquired the eagle feather and Rath explained.
Their medicine man, whose name translated roughly to Standing Bear, said Great Spirit was telling me I was being watched over—strong medicine. Rath was surprised I’d found an owl feather. Standing Bear said it normally meant someone had bad power or the potential to abuse power, but because it was placed between the grouse and eagle feather, it indicated I was a person that could summon great power to change the world—this was even stronger medicine.
Tonkakota said long ago, shamans knew how to shapeshift by donning a cloak made of owl feathers. He added once a feather found you, it must be taken care of. My responsibility was a sacred one. It made sense, kinda like reading a deck of tarot cards scattered in the woods.
I had no gift for Tonkakota. Rath rummaged in his knapsack and pulled out a miniature, delicately carved and stained totem pole, about 5 or 6 inches in height. I saw the face of a bat, bobcat, toad, wolf, and jackrabbit, animals of the Southwest. Tonkakota must have been very pleased by the gift. He wrapped his hand round Rath’s arm and they did this head nodding thing again.
Rath reminded us the food was getting cold. Tonkakota produced a few large scallop shells and Rath pointed to the assembled food. I wondered from where had they gotten shells found only in the ocean? We feasted on delicate, herb scented fish, corn cakes replete with fat berries and nuts, and a delicious vegetable stew made from wild onions, pumpkin, squash, mullein leaves, and pine nuts.
“Wherever did you learn to cook?” I asked as I helped myself to more stew and another corn cake. Rath kept eating. Had he not heard me? Our guests also ate in silence. I was burning to ask them questions, and awed by their presence.
When the food was gone, they said something to Rath and stood up. From a pouch, they withdrew a longish, simply carved pipe and stuffed tobacco into it. They used an actual match pulled from a cardboard box to light the pipe, which they passed first to me, then to Rath. I took a wee toke—didn’t inhale. At least I didn’t think I did.
Tonkakota brushed my cheek with the side of his hand. “Thank you, Nanabusha Willela.” Then he said a few words in his own language. I turned towards Rath to translate.
“He wondered if there’s not a bit of Cherokee in you, with the high cheek bones and funny shaped nose. He said only witches, er shamans, have hair your color, and such pale skin. The rest I won’t translate. I think it might have been an indecent proposal.”
I was about to ask Rath to elaborate, but they turned, gave a half wave, half crossing guard signal and splashed through the water. In mere seconds, they’d sprinted up the opposite bank and vanished into the woods. I was speechless, but somehow managed to help Rath clean up and pack our gear.
“Who were they? Are they descendants of the tribes the Government tried to banish? What if they never left the Smokies? Did they help you find the cave? I’m guessing Vaughn doesn’t know about this place, does he?”
to be continued…old Smoky will earn its name…. Part 2 in July