Day 5, Wednesday, Woden/Odin’s Day …in which Rath and Willy visit an enchanting cove, a secret is revealed and made visible, and base camp dining is nothing like feasting in Valhalla…
It was then I lifted and moved Rath’s heavy backpack off the rock with my injured hand, except it wasn’t injured anymore. I removed the ace bandage. There was no mottled bruise, no tenderness. Sprains don’t heal that quickly. Had the water healed my injury? As fascinating as this trek into the mountains had been, I needed to descend, to return to civilization.
“Rath, what are you really doing here? You’ve got to get me off this mountain. Here’s a thought, if you won’t escort me, perhaps Tonkakota might be willing to show me the way back to the logging road.” This morning I was almost…”
“What you think you know about In-juns don’t mean shit. I’m half of one—that much I know. Yeah, black ol me. They let me go bout my business and I do the same. They can’t help you and I can’t explain why they can’t. Be patient; ain’t any of your philosophers teach you patience?”
“Sure, many of them, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Lao Tzu… But patience involves time, and mine’s running out. I must get off this mountain by Friday–tomorrow. Or I assure you, they will send people to find me. They’ll trample these beautiful woods. Neither of us wants that.” His reply was a head nod as he poked the grey embers and doused the firepit with water.
Rath finished the clean-up, wiped wet hands on his pants, and squatted in front of me. “You asked where I learned to cook. I got my education in foster homes, on the road, and—in prison, that’s where. If I hadn’t learned some basic skills, I’d of starved or been killed.” He came clean about how he and Vaughn actually met, in prison. He described what it was like, and how they came to escape.
“I ain’t one of anything—no one wanted me so I made my own—tribe of one; that’s the way I like it. You and Vaughn knows where you came from. He wanted—he weren’t sure what to do with you. If I let you leave, how does I know you ain’t gonna do what every other person’s done since I can remember? If I don’t let you go, yeah, I know they’s gonna come looking, winter or no.
You got a fancy job and title; folks missing you, and a husband or boyfriend that’s getting antsy. I get it.” Rath picked up a thick branch and wedged it in the stream, then he took the sack of dirty dishes and slid the drawstring tail over the branch. We watched the mesh sack wave in the stream, dishes washed by nature. He continued returning the site back to its original condition.
Wow, that was the most he’d said to me since we met. I wanted to be honest with him, come clean about Jake. Something made me hold back. “Well, I disagree; most of us don’t know who we are. You and I are more alike than you realize.” I hugged my knees to my chest, uncertain of what to say next, and slipped my socks and boots back on, though the laces were still damp and awkward to tie. I pulled two whiskey mini’s from a vest pocket. “One for the road?”
Rath accepted the small bottle. He sat on the large, flat rock, and took a sip of Wild Grouse. “We gots to head back in a few minutes. So what you think you know about In-juns?”
I pursed my lips. “It’s true, most of what I know is gleamed from books and second-hand accounts. For instance, the Hopi’s believe our bodies are formed in the earth and our spines run along its axis. They think we have two forces and two hearts within us. The Anasazi’s built roads all over the America’s, but there’s no evidence they had wheeled vehicles or rode horses. In my opinion, we have indigenous people to thank for our form of American democracy, via their League of Nations, which also influenced the General Assembly of the United Nations. There’s also quite a few words we commonly use that are Native American in origin: canoe, opossum, barbecue, and my favorite chocolate.” I think native people understood nature’s language, and perhaps even the cryptic language of birds—what the sss hiss of snakes and the whoop of cranes meant.”
“Humph,” he said. “Sorry I asked” then he chuckled and clicked the roof of his mouth with his tongue. Rath rinsed the empty mini in the stream, filled it with water, and stuck it in the bag he wore round his neck, which he tucked inside his undershirt. He finished readying the Walleye for travel, and checked the sack he’d ½ filled with wild blueberries. “So that’s all you know—bout Injuns?”
“Of course not. One of the things I admire most about indigenous people is they would never seek freedom from freedom, if you’ll recall our discussion yesterday? Many philosophers were fascinated by Indians. They inspired Rousseau, remember Rousseau?”
“Yea, the Swissy hippie who helped fire up the Revolution.”
“Ah—right. Indians inspired Rousseau to write his discourse On the Origins of Inequality. Karl Marx was entranced as well. When he died, Marx was in the middle of a massive work about the efficiency and intelligence of Native Americans.”
“Yea, that must be why they killed off the Injuns—cause they loved them so damn much. It’s coming up a cloud. We best be hoofing it. You O-K?”
I gazed at the sky through the lace of tree branches. I was beginning to understand something I couldn’t yet put into words. “I’m better than Okay. So will the clouds hold off for a few hours or will we get soaked?”
“Depends on what moves across the sky the next hour. Now hustle.”
“I hate to leave here. This is better than what I imagined Walden Pond must have looked like to Thoreau. Better perhaps than my home, with its many creature comforts. Rath, promise me you won’t leave me alone with Vaughn.”
We left the calm little cove and moved quickly through the trees. I looked back once. A curtain of thick grey smoke had descended again, obscuring the sparkling stream and the sideway slanted beams of golden light. To continue the conversation, I knew I’d have to keep pace with Rath. I inhaled. “Is Vaughn your friend, your good friend?”
“We’ve helped each other out.”
“He’s not my friend. He…you must get me out of these woods tomorrow.”
Rath’s forehead furrowed. “Tomorrow, tomorrow. I’ll sees what I can do. Just hang near me; you’ll be fine.”
That would be Thursday, dies Jovis, Thor’s Day, god of thunder and lightning, slayer of giants. Damn, the nursery rhyme said Thursday’s child had far to go; and the last supper was held on a Thursday. And I’ll never forget that nainie died on a Thursday. No matter, I can convince him. I practically have a degree in persuasion, logos, ethos…I just need to work on pathos. I can do it. Rath just needs to see escorting me out is in everyone’s best interest. I continued talking as we hoofed it back to camp. My voice echoed strangely in these deep woods, bouncing off trees and rocky outcrops.
As we seemingly leaped over small hills and fairly easily scaled larger ones, I told Rath the sad tale of W. J. Sidis, boy genius/misunderstood man, born on April Fool’s Day. He called indigenous tribes ‘people of the bow & arrow.’ He said each tribe of the red race was its own nation. He provided remarkable insight regarding their opinions on war, property ownership, and slavery. Sidis also thought Atlantis was likely inhabited by a red race. In fact, his manuscript The Tribes and the States covered a 10,000 year history of the red race.
“Who says he was a genius?”
“Lots of people, starting, I suppose, with his parents. Unfortunately, they viewed him as a live science experiment. He completed grade school at age 8 and entered Harvard at 11; he graduated at age 16 if memory serves. After that, it was weirdly all downhill. He took a series of menial jobs hardly commensurate with his abilities and died in his 40s of a cerebral hemorrhage.
We spoke a bit more about crime and justice, but Rath grew silent when I brought up the word tomorrow again. I told him the word that earlier he’d repeated twice was part of a famous speech in the Shakespeare play Macbeth. He asked me to relate the short version of the speech and I did, without embellishing too much. He laughed when I recited the ingredients the three witches were stirring into the cauldron. But when I delivered Macbeth’s often quoted words about how ‘tomorrow creeps in this petty pace…and our yesterday’s have lighted fools to dusty death …’ he stopped talking or responding to my questions. He remained silent for the remainder of our journey.
*** ### *** ###
When we arrived back at base camp, the sky was a deep lavender; silver and pink wispy tendrils rose from the forest floor far below to create an eerily beautiful backdrop. The outside fire had been recently stoked. Two grouse roasted on a spit above the fire. I momentarily forgot about what had happened in the cave that morning. With my cold backside to the fire, I gazed out at the intensely stunning panorama, and struggled to remember something terribly important. The memory eluded me. It was a thing hiding in the haze, like the two boxes Piet Heim described in his poem, where ‘each locked box contained the other’s key.’
This had been an extraordinary day. I’d made, theoretically, an enemy and several new friends. I’d glimpsed things I didn’t think possible, and experienced a near miraculous healing. From inside the cave, raised, muffled voices resounded. What were they arguing about, me overstaying my welcome, eating up their precious stock of food? Thursday would be my sixth day in these mountains. Have I sufficiently convinced Rath I wouldn’t tell anyone about their whereabouts? What else can I do? What else must I do?
Rath emerged with a small cauldron full of vegetables. He added to it a few items he’d gathered on our trip today, and stuck the pot atop the coals, asking me to keep an eye on it and give it a few stirs. Then he retreated back into the cave.
With my backside toasty, I turned and faced the fire as Vaughn popped his head out. We locked eyes but his expression told me nothing. He walked to the spit, and turned and basted the meat. Then he poked a line of corn still in husks, which lay at the outer edge of the fire atop flat stones. He stirred Rath’s pot, sprinkling something into it—herbs or salt. From the firelight, I could tell Vaughn’s eyes were slightly red rimmed, but otherwise, he gave no indication of how he was feeling or what he was thinking.
I poured hot water from a battered tea kettle into a metal bowl, and washed my face and hands, then went to the spring to refill the kettle. Now that my writst was as good as new, perhaps I should detangle my hair? Rath was still inside the cave. I walked towards the entrance. Vaughn was leaning against an overhang of rock.
“I’m mighty surprised you haven’t said two words to me since you returned. Here, I was looking forward to your—monologue, or should I say travelogue?” He ran his hand along the side of his head. There was an odor about him that smelt familiar, was it grass, maui wowie?
“I’d rather hear from you Vaughn—explanations, reasons, excuses—whatever you’d like to say.”
“You’re on. Pick a subject.”
“Okay, let’s talk about human rights, or women’s rights, respect, sacred space?” I replied as I backed towards the fire.
“How bout crime Goldifox? You just spent the day with my man Rath. Did he tell you how many people he’s killed? Did he share that little piece of information during your romp in the woods? I’m happy to enlighten you. He’s killed three people; one was a woman. At least that’s all I know of—the number could be higher, much higher.”
I tried not to show any emotion, though I was taken aback. “He was forthcoming with me. He told the truth. You see, I can recognize a liar a mile away,” I replied, staring directly at him.
He edged towards me until he was almost in my face; his body blocked the cave entrance. “You wouldn’t know the truth if it walked up and kicked you in the ass, which I have a mind to do.”
“Really, I know I wouldn’t trust a thing you said, and I know how to kick back. You’ve been smoking silly weed, you know reefer, pot? If you’ll stand aside, I’ll go get Rath. I’m sure he’s hungry.” Despite the tantalizing aroma of smoking meat, I suddenly wasn’t hungry. I slipped my hand into my pants pocket, feeling for my pocket knife. Then I remembered I’d given it to Tonkakota. I stared into Vaughn’s irritated eyes. “Kindly move.”
“What’s the magic word, Foxidoc?”
Dark thoughts surfaced; this skunk had shown his stripes. I felt disgust for this man, who only yesterday had seemed the epitome of civility and learning. My fingers groped in another pocket for the pepper spray. “The magic word is ‘magic.’ If you don’t move, Woden’s magical, flaming wand just might kick the left side of your skull.”
“Oooo, hostility and threats about unleashing your pagan gods. Not impressed; you better lie down on my cock, I mean couch; we’ll work out all your kinks.”
Vaughn was about to grab my arm when Rath emerged from the cave with a tray laden with wooden bowls, cups, and other items.
“What’s this? I leave you two alone for five minutes and you’re spitting like feral cats.
“Apologies Rath. Someone’s manners are a bit wanting. Wouldn’t it be fun to teach a course in nonsense and lies, and be graded on who told the biggest whopper?” I shot Vaughn a look I intended he’d perceive as watch out. “I’ll be right back.”
I ducked through the keyhole slit in the rock and entered the cave. My backpack was right where I’d left it. I hadn’t brought a spare pocket knife, but I had packed a metal nail file, that was about it for weapons, unless you counted making a mini Molotov cocktail from my dwindling booze supply. My eyes wanted to linger on the magnificent cave drawings, instead I searched for items that could be used as a weapon, if needed. There were a few dull butter knives in a bucket; I could sharpen one. Perhaps there were items in one of the sealed cans that could serve as a sort of homemade pepper spray. There was an axe by the outdoor firepit.
I spotted a tangle of whitish berries and greenery on a plate. It looked like mistletoe. Nainie had pointed it out hanging from poplar trees near our New England house. She told me it was one of the Druid’s seven magical herbs. I’d also seen this kissing herb in cellophane packages with red bows, ready for hanging over a doorway during the holidays. Every time people kissed under the mistletoe, they were supposed to remove a berry.
Mistletoe was part of Friday lore. Freya, Friday’s goddess, extracted an oath from all persons and things to not harm her son Baldur. She forgot to ask mistletoe, a parasite that sponged off oak and other trees, stealing water and nutrients. Trickster god Loki fired a dart laced with mistletoe at Baldur, who died as a result. Mistletoe berries are poisonous, although the lectins in it were being tried as a treatment for certain cancers. It was an important part of Native American and Appalachian folk medicine. Its leaves have been used as a purgative, oral contraceptive, and heart tonic.
I could hear Rath calling me to come get dinner, and to bring my mess kit. Quickly I unbraided my hair and ran a comb through the tangles. I grabbed a book, slid the metal nail file into an inside pocket, and scurried outside.
“Hey man, how about some of the cider I made last month to go with this fine meal? I already sampled it; not bad. I was real good at brewing white lightning for my college buds, but I didn’t have the finest equipment to work with here. It’s still mighty fine.”
Rath replied maybe later. Vaughn poured him a cup anyway. He poured us all cups.
I handed Rath the book, one I thought he might enjoy. I also gave him a paper bag of small cellophane packages of dried food and a few treats I’d squirreled away in my backpack. I added my humble donations might add new flavors to his cooking, not that he didn’t already do a marvelous job.”
“You okay, it must be half past seven? You haven’t said a danged word about being hungry.”
“Sure, I’m starved, like usual. What’s on the menu?”
Vaughn jumped to his feet. “I’m glad you asked. The culinary creativity of yours truly has produced, for your eating enjoyment, a tantalizing array of succulent fare…”
Rath interrupted. “We be having fowl, corn, veggie stew, and all the spring water you can hold.
“Damn Rath, I see you put tomatoes in the stew again. Luckily, I added mushrooms, my special contribution.”
All I had to do was get through one last night with these men. I tried to appear positive. “The stew smells delicious. It reminds me of an old Irish dish nainie used to make called Slumgullion. And we can make s’mores for dessert. All the ingredients are in the bag I just gave you.”
Wednesday night dinner by firelight was the opposite of a feast in Valhalla; it was quiet and dragged on. Rath seemed deep in thought. I barely touched anything, just a spoonful of the veggie stew and an ear of roasted corn. Vaughn seemed to be the only one with a hearty appetite. Towards the end of the meal, he started chatting. He asked us about our little field trip and who caught the fine looking fish.
It was as if he’d toked several lines of coke. He went from mellow to fidgety and a bit too animated. For twenty or more minutes, we listened to him ramble on about the fine art of vertically scaling a mountain, of conquering an unyielding slab of rock. He expounded, we listened. Then his banter stopped abruptly, and his words took on a much different tone.
“Now earlier, Willy and I were about to talk about crimes and justice. She asked me how many people you’d killed, and I told her Rath. I told her you killed those three people, maybe more. Hell, I don’t know, could be lots more. But I think she’d like you to . . .”
“No, that’s not true,” I blurted. My plate flipped upside down and the toe of my boot knocked over my untouched cup of cider. I didn’t ask him about you. I don’t want to know either; it doesn’t matter.” Then I turned towards Vaugh, “On the other hand, it might be interesting to know what crimes you committed.”
Rath scowled at Vaughn, then at me, but said nothing.
“Oh don’t look so flustered Goldifox. Fair enough. I’ll tell you about me, but first let’s have some more of that cider I uncorked. That is, right after I take a whiz.” Vaughn hurried off into the woods.
“Something’s wrong Rath. What did he get into while we were gone? You smelled the weed, right? What else does he have stashed in the cave? I’m not sleeping a wink tonight. Tomorrow, we’re leaving at first light. Or just point me in the right direction. I’ll figure it out.”
“I knows; tomorrow it be. So he told you I killed three people? I did; there’s no changing the fact. But it weren’t no murder; it was an accident. I gotta ask you bout what you said earlier. You said most people are here to do some good, and that included me. You said when I understood the value my being here had, I’d evolve to something new, something of higher quality. What’d you mean?”
“I talk a lot, don’t I? I meant every word. Morality’s nothing more than doing or feeling things that supposedly preserve or improve life. For days, we’ve been talking about value systems, crime, and prejudice. We can’t change our race—our biology, although we can adopt a new race—or tribe as you said earlier. To that end, people have had their skin chemically lightened or darkened, donned contact lenses, dyed their hair, and blended their DNA to create hybrids—Eurasian, Creole…
We can more easily change our values, especially cultural values. You say you grew up in a culture of one. I’m guessing that because you rejected traditional cultural values, the justice system punished you. There’s a saying from the Spanish ‘Se obe dece pero no se cumple.’ It means ‘one obeys but doesn’t comply.’ The world demands lip service obedience as a minimum. However, you can obey without complying with many stupid laws and rituals. That’s what I do most of the time.
Crime is a form of disobedience or deviation. We break laws for many reasons—because we feel neglected or unimportant, or we’re simply unaware or certain we won’t get caught. You’re a man of value. Taking a life doesn’t change that. Since we met, I’ve felt there was something you knew and something I was supposed to tell you. It’s becoming clearer why we met. Why is Vaughn taking so long?”
As if summoned, Vaughn appeared out of the darkness, holding three cups. “It’s gonna be a nipper tonight. Here, drink up. I bet we’ll hear some crazy beasts howling; full moon does that.”
“Ol moon be hiding behind clouds tonight; maybe we should be hiding in our beds.” Rath offered. “I don’t want to hear about goblins or werewolves or the past.”
He took a few sips of his drink, and set it down, then picked up a few logs and arranged them tepee fashion round the fire. Rath sat back down and took another swig of cider. “I gonna fetch my jacket,” he announced. “You both best behave.”
As Rath turned, he knocked over my cup of cider, and sent me a subtle signal I took to mean don’t drink the cider. I nodded and watched Rath duck into the cave.
“You’re both clumsy fools. Here, let me fill that up again. So doc, you wanted to know if my criminal exploits came close to equaling Rath’s. Hell yes. You never did buy that tax collector story, did ya? Our boy Rath only admitted to killing three people, but I heard he carved up a few more at that dude ranch. Let me tell you bout the night he sent three cons to the hospital.” Vaughn spent the next ten minutes relating some of the fights and close calls they’d had at Icy’s Inferno.
“You buy that story he hightailed it off that dude ranch after them men were killed? Or do you think he did all that carving up and left before they caught him?”
“I killed, let’s see, there were five in prison that just didn’t recover from their injuries, and not a soul cared. Then there were two that got something extra in their meds, which didn’t sit well with them… There was eight, no nine, one was a woman, in the mining office when the bomb blew up the entire facility. I guess we have to count the two sluts whose throats I slit cause they thought they could tease their way through a date and let me foot the bill. Or maybe not; those two murders were blamed on another guy. What do ya think? Do they count?”
All I could manage was an icy stare. I held the cup to my lips and pretended to take a sip. I hoped it hid the involuntary sounds originating deep in my throat.
Vaughn continued. “Oh yeah, there was the nursing home. I guess I gave three or four senior citizens a short cut to the pearly gates. How many’s that? Damn, it feels good to confess.”
“Twenty something. I was wrong to think you’re simply despicable. You’re much worse.” Annoying him was not a good idea, although he seemed relieved, proud of his accomplishments. He took his cup and plate around the corner, presumably to rinse them in the spring water. I used the opportunity to pour the cider on the ground, to mingle it with what had already been spilled. Then I poured some water from the tea kettle in the cup, rinsed it, and added more.
I glanced toward the cave and thought I heard something thump inside. Was Rath rummaging for something, a crossbow, an axe…Or had he fallen? Should I check on him or run into the woods? Then what?
I gathered up the rest of the dishes and let them soak in a bucket of water. I was scouring the campsite for anything I might use as a weapon when Vaughn returned.
“Guess ol Woden isn’t coming to your rescue; he just can’t hold his liquor. Let me refill your cup.”
“No thanks, I’d prefer a cup of tea, got a special teabag in one of these pockets.”
“So you don’t like my cider? I made it from god’s own apples. Try some more; you aren’t going anywhere else tonight. Maybe you should have prayed harder to St. Christopher, heathen.”
I ignored him and added a teabag to my cup. “Funny you should mention Woden. He conveys the souls of warriors to the afterlife. Fat chance he’d consider yours. It’ll be midnight before long, Thor’s Day. Perhaps he’ll send a thunderbolt your way. Or, I can do what nainie taught me, and draw down the moon, using my mystical skills. I could turn you into a cold, hard pebble.”
“Did I mention my nainie killed a few people in her lifetime? Thing is there’s a world of difference between the lives she took, and the ones you bragged about taking. You took pleasure in your deeds.”
I don’t know how I managed to make my words sound more confident than I felt. Perhaps it was because I thought the big guy in the cave was on my side. Or that Jake was out there searching for me.” That hope was soon dashed by what Vaughn said next. I was loath to believe him, and yet, something deep inside knew he was telling the truth, telling it for maximum effect.
“Oh dang it, I forgot again. There’s another couple of folks to add to my tally. What was the number, 22 give or take? Now again, not sure if this one officially counts. I came across a lady in a rental cabin a few months back. She wasn’t into sharing, so I took what I needed. There was a bit of a scuffle and she hit her head real hard on the sharp edge of a pot-bellied stove. Her husband found her and next thing you know, he’s accused of killing her. Seems they hadn’t been getting along. Go figure.
Now this one might interest you. A few hours before we met doc, I met a man wandering around our neck of the woods, tracking critters. He was a strapping big buck, decked out in outdoor duds right out of a fancy sporting goods magazine. He said he was looking for a woman. If he didn’t find her by daylight, he was heading down the mountain to get help. Now I couldn’t let him do that, could I? So I gutted him like a pig and rolled him into a hollow. Then I took his knife. It was bigger than mine, a real beaut. I think they call it a Bowie knife. Did you know it’s illegal to carry one in several states in the South? Maybe they’ll find his bones next spring.
I blurted, “You killed Jake, you evil bastard…”
“ That his name, Jake? He was one dumb bastard. Killing’s kinda like a religious act. Getting caught is hell. I’d do anything to ensure I never get caught again.” Vaughn reached up and rubbed his neck. He grabbed his cup and reached for a smaller jug of cider and filled it up. You must have some constitution, Ms. Goldifox. I put enough sedative in the other jug to fell an elephant—or two.
My sharp intake of breath must have sounded like a sucker punch to the gut. Vaughn snorted.
That’s why Rath hadn’t returned. I thought he’d only taken a few sips. What kind of sedative had Vaughn put in the cider? My brain was working overtime. Had he poisoned any of the food? We sat opposite each other. I had a clean line of sight to the cave’s entrance and a clear view of an admitted killer.
“I do have a cast iron stomach, and there’re antidotes for every evil. Wickedness, you know, is an ethical problem.” If I kept him out here talking long enough, perhaps Rath would wake up. Take war; it’s good and it’s evil Vaughn, wouldn’t you agree? On the plus side, it’s a great population reducer; it offers an opportunity for some people to rise to a higher level of visibility. But war tries to make violence a virtue, disguised as courage, purpose, and discipline. Like the saying goes, it decimates commoners and kings. It scars the earth, and steals its energy.”
“Ah, come on, Goldifox; one of those philosophers you’ve been quoting ad nauseam said the highest good was to ‘realize one’s self to the fullest.’ That’s all I’ve been doing. Nothing evil about that.” In the distance, an owl hooted. A sharp breeze rustled leaves, stirred the fire, and sent shivers through me. I took another sip of tepid tea.
“I think you’ve quoting Aristotle—out of context. Right, so you’re almost a boy scout, lovely. I’m going to see what’s taking Rath so long, if you really sedated him.” As I started to rise, Vaughn removed the Bowie knife from the sheath, and motioned for me to sit back down. He sliced off a hunk of grouse meat from one of the birds and crammed it in his mouth.
“Sit back, enjoy your other drink. I’ll go check on him, but let me make you more comfortable first. I insist.”
He lunged towards me and I threw my tea in his face. He punched me in the jaw and I saw stars—in front of me, not above me. I grabbed a hot stone from the firepit and tried to smack him in the head but it glanced off him. It was too hot to hold. He grabbed my arms and pulled a length of rope from a pocket. He tied my arms behind me.
“I’ll be right back. Now don’t go anywhere, darling.”
Despite dropping temperatures, a clammy sheen of perspiration formed across my forehead and upper lip. Things had escalated quickly—and badly. I stood and searched the area for a weapon. Both the carving knife and axe were gone. There were some jagged, rocky edges next to the spring. I managed to slice through the rope, though not without slicing a bit of skin as well. I dipped my burnt palms into the cold spring water. The moon’s reflection was mirrored dead center in the stone basin of water. Swirls of my blood formed patterns similar to those on the cave wall before dissolving and running over the edge.
Should I leave Rath in the cave to fend for himself? Or hightail it down the mountain and hope for the best in finding civilization before I froze to death or became a bear’s last meal before hibernation? My survival gear was in the cave. Vaughn thought I’d drank the cider. An idea formed. I could pretend to pass out then jump him. It was a bad plan, but the only one available.
I sharpened a stick on the jagged rock and slid it under my clothing. I pieced the rope together and reinserted my hands. Then I crept inside the cave and tried to conceal myself in the shadows. I saw Vaughn drag Rath over to his bed. There was congealed blood around one of Rath’s eyes. Odin had sacrificed an eye to gain vital knowledge.
I couldn’t help myself. I think I screamed what did you do?
“You don’t listen to a damn thing. We’re gonna work on that. He’s just tired; you plum wore him out. Now it’s my turn to wear you out. We’ll let him sleep.”
He chased me around the circumference of the cave. We must have looked like characters from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Our shadows danced and flickered off the cave walls. Perhaps it was just my imagination—the cave images seemed to run with us. Try running over uneven terrain with your hands tied behind your back. Eventually, I lost my footing and Vaughn grabbed me, dragging me by my hair across the floor. My knees buckled and I collapsed half on, half off my sleeping bag. I moaned and slumped onto my side. I could only hope Vaughn bought my act—that I’d finally passed out from whatever was in the cider. I also hoped I was a good enough actor to wait until the right moment to deliver a knock out punch to Vaughn.
He flipped me onto my back and searched me. Vaughn found the pepper spray, which, judging by the clatter, he threw the length of the cavernous room. He didn’t find the sharpened stick, and he hadn’t bothered to check my restraints. Rath made a noise, a kind of low growling sound, and Vaughn went to investigate.
From my position, I couldn’t see what he was doing to Rath. Time passed; I concentrated on feigning a deep, drugged sleep. Then I heard a muffled, scraping noise and opened my eyes a crack. Vaughn was rummaging in a crate a few feet from where I lay. He pulled a long length of rope out and a piece of rag. He was going to tie Rath up. Then he half turned and foraged through other boxes. I couldn’t see what he took out, but whatever it was, rattled. Hair had fallen over my face and I opened one eye a crack. I observed him popping something into his mouth. He washed it down with a swig of water from a pitcher. A few moments later, he did a macabre little dance across the room, stopping at the fire pit to add a log. Locoweed, I thought, he must have smoked locoweed earlier. Now what had he ingested?
More time passed. I could hear the fire crackling. Flames were leaping up the side of the back wall. How lovely, a cheery fire. I wondered, had something else driven Vaughn mad—ancient cave spirits or entities, guilt over the people he’d murdered, or an unhealed bump on the noggin? Could a descendent of the ancient mountain goddess Cybele, whose name means ‘cave dweller,’ have sought refuge here and possessed him? As a baby, she’d been abandoned. Legend said she was raised by leopards and a lioness. One could summon her by drumming and dancing. To enter a cave was to enter Cybele. The men in her cult, her ardent followers, were castrated; that seemed a fitting penance for Vaughn, followed by gutting and beheading.
While I fanaticized about how I’d incapacitate Vaughn, I remembered there was another Bell that haunted a cave. This one was located near the Tennessee/Kentucky border. A decade ago I’d visited the Bell Witch Cave. It was October and the strange, angularly shaped cave was open to tourists. A bonfire crackled outside the entrance. We gathered round it while the tour guide recited the story. He said a witch, summoned by a neighbor named Kate, was sent to haunt the Bell family. The witch was successful, and took up residence in a nearby cave afterwards.
It really shouldn’t have been called a witch. It must have been an entity, an irate genius loci, a spirit of that particular place that was summoned. Locals speculated it could have been the spirit of a Native American, whose bones had been disturbed, a spirit that resented the creeping signs of civilization. However, the story that stuck was the one about John Bell’s neighbor, Kate, a poor, rather eccentric member of the community, with whom John had quarreled. She had a habit of begging brass pins from the women in town. After her husband became paralyzed, she (and the slaves she kept) were forced to do the hard labor. Resentment grew. She conjured a witch spirit to plague the Bell’s and a legend was born. After years of being haunted by what sounded to me like poltergeist activity, John Bell grew ill, and died at age 70. His son found a vial of poison under his bed. The Bell Witch was blamed.
The witch, the tour guide said, now turned its attention on Bell’s newly engaged daughter. The witch insisted they break up, and tormented the girl until she broke off the engagement. Satiated by the family’s misfortune, the entity disappeared for seven years—presumably it returned to the cave. Then she reappeared and talked to John Bell Jr. for several nights. She told him she’d return again in 107 years, in 1935. Sightings of strange animals, like a black dog with the head of a rabbit, and peculiar noises continued to be reported. Tall tales persisted as well, and questions remained unanswered. The entity supposedly liked John’s wife Lucy. Why? If Kate sent the witch, how did she come by her powers? What did she do with the brass pins—voodoo? Those were questions nainie could have answered.
She had taught me many things not found in the most serious esoteric tomes or grimoires. Some of the talents I developed you’d call sleight of hand tricks, or feats of mentalism, as old as memory itself. I initially discounted the charms and rhymes she made me memorize, that is, until I had need of them, until I realized that simple words, spoke with concentrated intent, worked in ways I couldn’t explain. The truest thing she ever told me was to trust my ability to outwit or outmaneuver an adversary. Nainie said all that’s known is waiting to be shown. What clever charm from her playbook could help me best Vaughn? Was there one she taught me I could use to summon the spirits of this cave? Or make visible the peculiar orb from my dream? Unfortunately, there was no time to find out.
The next sound I heard chilled me to my core. Vaughn must have been standing directly above me. I heard a zipper unzip and his jeans thump on the floor of the cave. He ungracefully sat down next to me. As if he had all the time in the world, he unlaced and removed his boots. Then he must have removed his denim jacket. It took every ounce of willpower I could muster to resist gagging at his grouty smell. He reached over and inelegantly removed my boots. Then the pawing began. He was on top of me, ripping open my vest and shirt, pulling my lavender long john top up around my neck. My arms were pinned underneath me. I couldn’t reach the pointy stick.
I tried to put myself in another place. The painted stick character from a Tom Robbins novel wavered in my mind’s eye. This particular book was about an artist that worked as a waitress at an Arab Israeli restaurant in NY City. Robbins’ also wove in the sad tale of a belle of ancient Phoenicia, Princess Jezebel, and artifacts from a pagan temple, including an animated conch shell, a can of beans, and painted stick hewn from a gnarled fig tree. The waitress first encountered the painted stick on a ledge in a cave. Jezebel was a devotee of the goddess Astarte, aka Demeter, Freya, Kali, Ishtar, Cybele… But in Robbins’ story, painted stick was not a weapon. Can of beans spouted philosophy; conch shell and painted stick longed to resume their ancient temple duties.
His bare flesh colliding with, grinding into my bare flesh brought me abruptly back to reality.
*** ### *** ###
Professor Beechum gripped the worn to a sheen fabric of his favorite wing back chair. He’d resumed reading the chapter at his kitchen counter, but found the bar stool uncomfortable, and had retreated to the living room as soon as he finished his take out salad. Though he winced, he reread the last two pages. He kept repeating foolish, foolish girl in his head, though his subconscious was thinking something entirely different. For the next 20 minutes, he wrote furiously in the lab book. Then he walked over to a glass cabinet and grabbed an unopened bottle of Cognac. He poured two, then two more fingers of the fiery amber liquid into a short rocks glass and took a sip, then another.
He made a new entry in the lab book. Had her grandmother, her nainie, been a bad influence, filling her head with nonsense? They were close until her unexpected death. He seemed to recall there was a freak accident—an electrocution? He foraged among his books until he located a Who’s Who that contained a brief bio of Henry Z. Templeton, with an even briefer mention of his wife Winifreya Rhyderth, Willy’s grandmother. Henry had founded a strategy and prestige accounting and consulting company in the late 1930s. Together with his stepson Edwin Rhyderth, ZRTronics grew to become a billion dollar international business by the mid-60s. They produce an award winning annual report highly sought by investors, and are well known for their philanthropic work. Mr. Templeton was a leader in what would become known as forensics accounting, and the automation of bookkeeping and statistical analysis. The professor made another note: Why did Willy disown her father? Would her brothers know?
Perhaps as a further distraction from the task at hand, he pulled a book by a favorite author, Robert Pirsig, and searched for the passage where the author talked about William J. Sidis. Wilhelmina would have appreciated what Pirsig wrote. He said ‘you can’t just tell folks about Indians and expect they’ll listen. They already know.’ They’ve formed prejudices and perceptions. It was such a shame because indigenous Americans were the hidden root of its culture. What did you stumble upon, Willy? Are you the genius I suspected you were when you were my student, or did you become a foolish, impulsive woman? All this talk of Bell Witches and Cybeles makes me wonder.
The Professor realized he could go no further with the reading tonight. There was too much to digest. Uncharacteristically, he chugged the remainder of the brandy and left the manuscript on the round table next to his wingback chair. What he needed was a hot shower and a good night’s sleep. He set the alarm for 4 am. His Sunday, his Dies Solis, was free, though he did need to review several ongoing case files. He’d need the entire day to finish reading and make sense of what she’d done and why, to understand how she’d gotten so utterly off track. He sighed. She would tell me to trust my gut instinct, to trust the ability of a genius to pull a rabbit, not out of a hat, but out of a roaring fire, without singeing an inch of its fluffy fur. I’d say where’s the evidence? How can I possibly measure or quantify such a thing? She’d reply, ‘remember Edison said ‘genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.’ Remember when I pulled an A grade from you despite missing five classes?’