“Never to get lost is not to live.” Rebecca Solnit
“…who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Nietzsche
“The philosopher has power over the stars, and not the stars over him.” Paracelsus
Chapter 6: Dies Jovis (Thor’s Day; Welsh: dydd lau): Conjunction
Day 6: Jupiter (Roman) or Thor/Donar day (Norse/Saxon). Thor is a ruddy haired giant slaying sky god, eldest son of Odin & Jorth. Storms occur when he rides across the sky wielding Mjollni—a tool produced by dwarves (master blacksmiths); & aided by a belt that doubles his strength & iron gloves. Mjollni helps him protect humanity. Thursday is aligned with Jupiter and astrological signs Pisces/Sagittarius. Back of dollar bill features a line: Jupiter favors us in our undertaking. It’s when elections are held in UK; when thanks is given 3rd Thursday in November in US. Jewish say it’s a good day to fast. Oak tree, eagle, and stones are sacred to Thor. He is linked to thunderbird (can transform into Trickster) and eagles (linked to Ganymede), Age of Aquarius, & gavel of justice.
“Thursday: Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today” (Harry Nilsson song title)
It must have been just past midnight when I plunged down the same hill I’d traversed the previous day in search of outdoor plumbing. This time I was minus boots and jacket and crucial survival tools, definitely not dressed for success. This time I was running for my life.
A full moon hung high in the sky, though rapidly moving, restless clouds would soon obscure it. If memory served, that meant a storm was coming. Not good, not a surprise either. Thursday, named after the god of thunder and lightning, had arrived. The moon wore a milky film, and an autumn opalescence. This was the second full moon in October, often called a Hunter’s Moon. If I weren’t in such dire straits, I would have laughed at the audacity. We’ll soon see who’s hunting whom.
A few stars sparkled above. Murky strands of grey fog, resembling egg drop soup solids, swirled at treetop range. I silently begged the mist to stay where it was until I’d found the hidden path Rath and I had taken to the surreal secluded stream. There was fish there, edible roots and berries, sheltering trees, sparkling water, and soft moss. Perhaps Tonkakota would appear again and help. It seemed a worthier idea than trying to find my way back to the shelter mound in stocking feet, or to the road, which was another day’s journey beyond the peculiar mound.
I tried to muster confidence that I was making the right decision heading in a sideways direction. Conventional thinking suggested one should flee linearly, straight down the mountain. That wasn’t how my mind worked. I followed squiggly lines and favored spiral paths. Several ancient philosophers advocated thinking around corners, above and underneath. Professor Beechum, more than any other instructor, taught me how to fuse two distinctly different ways of thinking. He taught me about quantum theory and lateral thinking, mind mapping, and curving pathways.
Nainie showed me how to think in star burst fashion, sending ideas in every direction, then darning them together. This wise woman reminded me about the electrically charged current running within us, aiding our nervous system, sending messages from brain to body. She also knew we generated magnetic fields and attracted and repelled certain forces. Would their instructions be enough to ensure I survived and Vaughn was brought to justice?
There was no time to take stock or create a contingency plan. I was smack daub in the midst of a worst case scenario. I paused just long enough at the bottom of the hill to pin my torn outer shirt together with safety pins, zip my vest, button my jeans, and jerk on gloves. Removal of splinters would have to wait. How many carafes of whisky would it take to erase the memory of the past few hours?
Earlier, when Vaughn momentarily stopped grinding his pelvis against my inert form long enough to unzip my jeans and wriggle them to my knees, I managed to free my arms. In the dim light, I snaked my right arm from under me and felt for the stick. My hand brushed against the metal nail file with the plastic handle. I decided to use it instead. Now I could feel his warm flesh against my thigh, and smell remnants of weed, campfire smoke, and the sour odor of an unwashed body.
“You’re in for a big surprise, Goldifox,” he said, while roughly pushing a strand of hair from my face. Then he wedged that same hand between my legs. “That’s the way I like you best—mute and inert. We just need a little torque against your tension—tenseness—whatever.”
My eyes flashed open, startling him for a fleeting instant. Both arms were free and I grabbed hold of his shirt. My intent was to stab into his neck, just right of his larynx. I would give the blade a half turn, cut sideways, and nick or sever his jugular or carotid artery. That would cause acute hemorrhage leading to hypovolemic shock. Backup Plan B was to stick an axillary artery, located in the armpit. That would prompt blood to spurt bright red, if you aim just right, or so I’d been told.
During an exchange semester at Oxford University, I’d gone on several Jack the Ripper walks in London. One night, after chiming in with a few gruesome details about one of the victims, I was invited to join a group of Ripperologists meeting later at the 10 Bells pub. The discussion that evening centered on possible weapons used in 1888 to kill the canonical five women. I suggested it would have been easier for Jack to puncture the ladies necks, rather than slashing across. A lively debate ensued. Between mouthfuls of stout, I learned a few things about the art of knife yielding, and the likelihood the Ripper’s blade had been a surgical instrument.
In the present situation, I had no surgical instrument. I was pinned down, with only a metal nail file and a stick I couldn’t reach to wield as weapons. I forgot how tough human skin and throat cartilage is. I’d done a bit of dissecting in university lab classes, and Dads had taken me deer hunting just one time. The twins came too. Theo had killed the deer, not his first, and though he didn’t share much with his silly sister, he handed me his knife.
“Do the honors,” he said. I shook my head, then naively thought, okay, why not, the deer’s already dead. I assumed for a dreadful moment bleeding the deer was like playing slit the neck on the paper donkey. I closed my eyes and thrust my arm forward, jabbing into the deer with the knife, again and again, but couldn’t slice deep enough. The poor deer; it didn’t deserve to be hacked at like a paper mache pinata; I started to cry. In disgust, Theo grabbed the knife and bled the deer properly.
I failed with Vaughn as well. I punctured an area right below his collar bone. Before I could rip the flimsy file sideways, he jerked back, howling. A punch glanced off my jaw, and instinctively, for good measure, I kicked his shriveled, exposed man parts, and rolled off the pallet. I had no idea what, if any, damage I’d done.
With only seconds to spare before he came after me with a vengeance, I picked up the ash bucket and threw it in his face. A few still smoldering coals singed him and burrowed through his shirt. He fell back, cursing me, landing on top of my backpack. He screamed exactly what he was going to do to me, to gut me like a feral pig.
Adrenaline pumping, I grabbed a skinny log from the firewood pile and smacked the side of his head. He stopped cursing me but I couldn’t tell if I’d hit him hard enough to knock him out or if he was just momentarily stunned. Rath made a moaning sound. Vaughn had tied both his hands and feet, and there was a dark stain on his tunic. I squatted and laid my hand on his forehead; it was cold and clammy.
Rath said something that sounded like pouch and I felt under his tunic for the rawhide bag I knew he wore, and pulled it loose. Then I worked on freeing his hands. He was mumbling and I learned over.
He managed to whisper “Get yourself gone, go …” before passing out again. He was free of his bonds but unconscious.
Vaughn groaned. I scooped up what I could, an orangy cotton scarf, the woolen socks I couldn’t find earlier, and a length of rope lying on the ground as I scrambled outside. The remains of one of the birds was cooling atop a tree stump next to a small, untouched onion. I grabbed a hunk of breast meat and wrapped it in the scarf. I wasn’t sure why, but I grabbed the onion as well, and a large metal spoon.
Professor Beechum exhaled. Oh course you escaped from that vile, wretched man. Though for a moment, I was afraid your plan would be to try to reason with him. There was nothing to be done for the injured man. You were always resourceful Wilhelmina, sometimes too resourceful. You were always an improviser. Against all odds, you found two men that had been successfully hiding in the wilds. He made a throaty sound and mused he could have saved himself a bit of tossing and turning if he’d just read a bit further last night. His forehead wrinkled as he tried to recall how many times Willy had been accosted or nearly raped? There was the near miss you described in the Georgetown parking lot, the mugging attempt you wrote me about, the rape attempt Eber thwarted, which also ended your ill-advised relationship with him, and now this. I still don’t know if my old friend from Bar-Ilan University actually worked for the Mossad. You were sure he did. I wonder what he’d make of your wilderness trek? In a personal notebook, he wrote a reminder to give Eber Garaz a call soon.
The professor poured another cup of green tea and pushed aside his half eaten plate of scrambled eggs and toast. What am I supposed to deduce from an escape on a Thursday during a full moon? And you added the word conjunction. If memory serves, an alchemic conjunction involves the recombination of existing elements into an entirely new substance. As when a specific union of fire, water, and air produces earth. Or are you being metaphysical, as in body, mind, and spirit producing a whole human? Actually, the alchemical process produces potassium nitrate, thought to be a lesser Philosopher’s Stone. It’s typically the fourth of seven operations. This is your 6th day in the Smokies. Are you adapting the operations to explain what’s happening to you in the order it’s occurring to you? In astronomy, a conjunction is a matter of perspective, not reality. All I recall about Thursday is it’s unlucky for Royals—Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queens Mary and Elizabeth all died on Thursdays.
He chuckled. The Russian Nobel prize winner the Western world ignored when he was alive and Willy despised died on a Thursday. She said she disliked him because he tortured dogs in the name of science and his work was adapted by Watson, Skinner, and other ‘sadist thugs,’ as she put it, who developed dastardly indoctrination techniques. She accused Eber of being one of them. Was Thor, with his lightning bolts and hammer on your side Willy, or will you be describing events from a modern Malleus Maleficarum for hunting and persecuting those who refuse to be manipulated?
I felt a moment of exuberance as I half slid, half charged down the hill, free of the lecherous caveman. However, after fumbling through dark, dense woods for nearly an hour, my stocking feet were mostly numb and probably bleeding. The air felt frosty. I stopped and stripped bark from a tree and pulled loose some soft moss. I stuffed these pilfered goods inside the woolen socks I’d grabbed from the cave and pulled them over my existing ragged socks. Much better. For good measure, I riffled through a thick layer of brown leaves and found a few dry handfuls to help insulate my scanty attire. I padded my front, back, and sleeves, adding fallen pine needles and wild grass that had turned to straw. How many hibernating no see ems had hitched a ride? I didn’t want to know. What a weird looking scarecrow I must be.
With the imagined skill of a side show contortionist, I reached into the velcro’ed back vest pocket and extracted my all weather hat. Survival 101: keep head and heart insulated, feet dry. The pine needles and grass made me want to scratch, but I resisted. In that same back pocket, I found a tightly rolled 30 gallon trash bag, a flattened neck pillow, a handful of rubber bands, and my old slingshot, which I’d forgotten I had. If it rained, the trash bag would do as a makeshift raincoat. The neck pillow I sawed/tore in half with nail file and hands, then slipped between my socks as additional padding. I had to reach the shelter of the cove and stream. I could rest there and follow the stream out.
Did I have the personality of a survivor, the ruthlessness required to survive no matter the cost? Did I rely on reason more than emotion, and was I willing to consider outlandish actions? Check. Could I stay calm, see humor where there wasn’t any? Check. Did I know how to live off the land? Half check.
My thoughts were interrupted by noise in the distance, a sound of rustling brush. Was that Vaughn or a hungry polecat foraging? I wasn’t waiting to find out what or whom was making the noise. The moon peeked out again for a brief moment. It was long enough to spot an oddly sideways bent tree Rath had pointed out to me yesterday. He said ‘this here’s a marker tree forest folk bent when it be a sapling.’ Next to it was a prickly gooseberry bush I’d admired. I was heading in the right direction, but would have to do it in stealth manner so Vaughn, if he was stalking me, couldn’t pick up my trail. I had to make haste, in stealth mode, in a pitch black forest, aided by an occasional appearance by the moon and an obstacle course designed for triathletes, before I froze to death or was eaten by a pack of hungry wolves.
With no clock and an undependable moon, it was hard to judge time. To indigenous people, time was part of the natural order, measured by markers authenticated by shamans. Passing time was gaged by seasons, sunrises and settings, and dawn, noon, twilight, and night. A day began at sunset. They would say ‘I haven’t seen you for three moons’ or ‘we will meet again when Green Corn Moon is visible.’ Their lunar calendar had 13 cycles. Guatemala Mayans still use several ancient calendars, one has 260 days, another 365 (solar) days. Their long calendar notes events from mythic times. Nothing primitive about that. A turtle shell with its distinct patterns or other meaningful object was used to determine cyclical events. By studying their surroundings, early people knew when to hunt, plant, travel, harvest, and hunker down.
Could I do the same and access skills and senses second nature to the ancients? Perhaps it wasn’t that difficult. Nainie and I had talked about tools and clues removed from old documents but not forgotten. In the 1560s, for example, ley grid lines began disappearing from maps. The Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, allegedly to correct Julian calendar errors; leap years were added. But were the people in control introducing something new, or performing slight of time prestidigitation and restoring information successfully used 1000s of years ago?
I gave myself several you can do it pep talks during the next few hours. The first was about my ability to survive this midnight walk in the woods, with a bare minimum of gear and inadequate clothing. I equated surviving boarding school in England with my current predicament. I was sent abroad without any warning after getting caught playing hooky and stealing a horse from the local public stables. I was 14, about to enter ninth grade. The twins had committed far worse sins, but they’d never been caught. Mother, who I always suspected was indifferent where I was concerned, packed one small suitcase with clothes, adding I wouldn’t need much as the school provided uniforms. In light of the crimes I’d committed (and related rebellions I’d staged), I wasn’t being given an allowance, nor permitted to bring more than a few books and tasteful items of jewelry, and a small carved box nainie had given me.
Ironically, my brothers supplied me with a secret weapon in the form of a care package containing a stack of Marvel comics and a sling shot. Nainie sent a box of 100 Hershey candy bars, several pairs of jeans, sweaters and tie dye tees, and a pair of brown leather boots and matching hobo bag. I bartered the comics and candy bars until the mean girls stopped harassing me. They, in turn, shared a few survival tips. It would have been difficult to have endured the insipid food, drafty corridors, stern instructors and mind numbing lectures without their help.
I did make one friend, rather I was befriended by an older student, a loner like myself. I quickly discovered she was someone you didn’t mess with if you valued your health and sanity. Her name was Dea Brentain. She’d lost her mother when she was eleven. Her dad had remarried within a year, and shipped her off to boarding school when she was thirteen. She was convinced her family was somehow complicit in her mother’s death. Stranger still, she said she still sensed her mother’s presence.
My highly accurate bullshit meter told me Dea was being truthful, though neither of us knew then the real truth about her mother. When I asked nainie to shake the aether and get a sense why her mother wasn’t moving on, she said the oddest thing, which I repeated to Dea. Nainie said this wasn’t my mystery to solve nor my story to tell. In her native Welsh, she wrote ‘a big lie can’t hide beneath a bride’s gown.’ Neither Dea nor I knew what that meant then.
Unfortunately, she and I stopped writing when she entered university. Years later, I discovered Dea became the producer of a popular, controversial news program Eyes on Everyone. Sadly, last year I stumbled across Dea’s obituary. It briefly mentioned she’d died in a suspicious fire—in her garage. Suicide was hinted at, as was foul play. Her death was listed as ‘indeterminate.’
I would slow my pace when the moon disappeared and the landscape turned inky black, otherwise there’d be head on encounters with trees and rocky outcrops. The 2nd talk I gave my chilled, scared self was about the importance of finding the Red Road indigenous natives follow, the road that maintains balance. Did trying to kill another person remove one’s ability to walk on that road, to tread the soft earth, and be buoyed, not battered by the four winds?
Would I only find reminders of the wars and acts of violence perpetrated along its route? Was I walking a warpath, full of signposts dating back to the French & Indian Wars, War of 1812, Indian Removal and Homestead Act, dozens of broken treaties, and the Trail of Tears? Unfortunately, as I struggled to recall more details about the red path of wisdom and suffering, I stopped paying attention. The moon illuminated a partially trampled area in front of me, a resting place for deer? I didn’t see the wild pig until I was within eight or nine feet of it. It grunted and tossed leaves; I suspected it was preparing to charge. Its pointy tusks looked far more dangerous than my crooked walking stick.
Pigs aren’t native to North America. Early visitors likely brought them over. Those that escaped from captivity quickly adapted and learned to fend for themselves. Aggressive, wild boars were imported here by wealthy hunters in the 1800s, and interbred with feral pigs. They formed both small and large groups called sounders. Both males and females grow tusks, used for rooting and fighting, and could weigh 300 pounds when fully grown. This was a youngish pig, as best as I could tell, weighing perhaps 130-140 pounds. It was alone, and looked hungry. What was it doing up here in the alpine region? Rath told me pigs prefer the lower levels. Perhaps this one had been tracking a deer or wild turkey?
I reached inside my vest for my pointy stick, but instead found the hunk of grouse breast I’d wrapped in the scarf. I was hungry, but had hesitated to eat the breast meat, wondering if Vaughn had doused it with poison. Without a further thought, I threw the hunk of meat towards the pig; the bright orange scarf clung to it. The pig tossed my bundle into the air and meat separated from fabric. I backed away as rapidly as I could, and clawed my way through a jumble of saplings and prickly bushes. I think that’s when I lost the trail to the stream.
I kept thinking about Rath. What had Vaughn done to him? I’d become fond of the big guy. He said his birthday was January 1st because he didn’t know the real date, but if New Year’s Day was good enough for thoroughbreds, it was good enough for him too. He had a vague memory of his mother, a Creole, whose Barbados born mother had groomed her from childhood to be a fancy lady, a high end prostitute. She had other ideas. She said she named him Rath after seeing a movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He couldn’t recall why the movie made an impression on her. She died when he was barely four years old. The system put him in a series of foster homes. His mother never mentioned who his father was, only that he was part Native American, Sioux or Apache, and his parents were Berbers from North Africa.
Like me, Rath had the gift or curse of second sight. His outdoors skills blew Jake out of the water. Jake, damn, I moaned aloud, and as if in reply, an owl hooted. I estimated it was approaching 3 am, the witching or writer’s hour, also the iciest hour. The hour you knew, if you were still awake, you weren’t going to get any sleep. Was Rath still in a drugged sleep? Was it caused by the cider or something he ate that I didn’t ingest? Rath had eaten the grouse, and had two helpings of the veggie stew, which I also ate, without adverse effects. The mushrooms! He’d eaten a bunch of mushrooms. Surely he would have known if they were poisonous? Or had Vaughn mixed a noxious marinade for the birds?
Perhaps now was a good time to see what supplies I’d brought. I needed tweezers to remove a few thorns from prickly bushes I’d backed into and the splinters in my hands from the wood I’d clobbered Vaughn with. There was a small vial of bug spray; a box of matches; three tea bags; a plastic, hotel size moisturizer; pieces of hard candy and chocolates; mini sewing kit; piece of yellow chalk, a silver hand warmer filled with a few hours of lighter fluid; three alcohol mini’s; and the spoon and onion I’d grabbed. What good were the matches when I couldn’t risk making a fire? Ditto for the sewing kit since I couldn’t afford to stop and sew my ripped clothing. Mother Moon’s Guide said I could make a compass using a needle rubbed against my clothing. If I floated it in a leaf or puddle filled with water, it was supposed to point north. But which direction led to the stream and which led to the logging road? What I didn’t have was more telling—no real weapon, canteen, flare gun, weatherproof boots, coat, or heat source except for the hand warmer.
I used the needle to remove the splinters and plucked the thorns from the upper part of my arm and thigh, then dabbed alcohol on the extraction points. The chill temperatures quickly enveloped me now I wasn’t moving. Some of my stuffing had leaked out; I needed to find more dry insulation. The weather seemed to have frozen my shaky sense of direction. I wasn’t heading towards the stream, and fought back a panicky feeling of lostness. It was tempting to look for a tree to scramble into. But this high up, leaves were sparser, offering little cover. If Vaughn spotted me, I wasn’t sure what he’d do—climb up after me, set the tree on fire, or chop it down?
The disorienting feeling was compounded by another realization. This forest was indifferent to my plight, to any creature’s plight. While I defined this vastness by what I could see, smell, touch, I suspected it defined itself by what I couldn’t see, by an intangible presence that hid itself, and waited.
I hugged myself and trembled. This hollow filled with broken tree limbs and jagged rocks might be my grave if I didn’t keep moving. I routed in my shirt pocket and found an unwrapped, lint covered piece of candy. The tart sweetness trickled down my throat, and I gulped—in gratitude or fear? What had Thoreau said, something about staring down fear, and walking out in fierce weather to keep ones spirits up—become the cold, the storm?
Someone else said fear was a gift from Dame Nature, a built in security system evoking a fight or flight response. I’d taken enough science courses to know you could trace this emotion to two clusters of neurons. Theoretically, a person can be trained to adapt—to not fear fear, and its siblings anxiety and stress. The Constitution gives us a right to pursue happiness; nowhere does it say we should pursue fear. Good enough. I’d soldier forward, in search of something that would make me feel happier—a dry cave with a cheery fire, a bed of thick green moss.
In the distance, there was a rumble in the sky, followed by an unmistakable voice, Vaughn’s, cursing and calling my name. Somehow he’d tracked me. His voice should have made me shudder in fear; instead, it roused a feeling of rage. A song snippet pinged in my skull, ‘if I had a hammer…’ I scoured around until I found a sturdier hard wood branch I could use as both hiking stick and weapon. I must pick up the pace, no lollygagging. Nature has no sympathy for flunkies. It’s also indifferent; Vaughn wasn’t.
The lemonness that lingered in my mouth helped clear my muddled brain and enabled me to focus on my surroundings. Thimblefuls of water puddled in upturned leaves. I sucked up every drop. I scooped up a few hickory nuts, and grabbed several withered rose hip fruit from a bush that got my attention when it snagged my shirt. What I’d read in Moon Mother Wilderness Guide was registering. I saw white oak acorns, and recalled it was a nut to be avoided unless I wanted stomach cramps. I came face to face with a crop of half buried mushrooms when I tripped over an exposed root. The book said avoid mushrooms, even if it looks familiar. There are faux morels and chanterelles, and death cap mushrooms in these mountains. Still, the fungi looked tempting. Would I have survivor’s remorse in a few hours—if only I’d trusted that the fungi was okay, if only I’d pushed a bit harder…? No, I was in nature’s drugstore and emporium. I needed to find the right survival edibles.
Blundering on, I searched for a familiar indicator. Vaughn’s voice echoed again. It sounded further away and I slowed my gait, trying to determine where he was. Echoes can be deceiving, like the view in a rear view mirror. Then it began to sleet. Tiny, hard pellets rained down. I tucked my loose hair under my hat and regretted the loss of the grouse greasy cotton scarf I’d grabbed from the cave and tossed to the pig. Was that the old growth oak with the funny u-curved branch we passed by yesterday? I decided it was as I approached a clearing that felt more familiar than it looked in dead of night.
No matter how dire a situation, when the universe sends you a message, you tend to rejoice. It’s like that joke about the bird flying south for the winter but gets caught in a snowstorm. Its wings freeze; it plummets to the ground and lands in a field. Then a cow takes a warm dump on it, thawing the bird. For an instant, it’s glad, then it starts squawking, complaining. A bird of prey hears the commotion, swoops down and swallows the bird. The message is when you’re safe and warm, even if it’s in a pile of dung, don’t complain.
As I was about to step out and cross the small clearing, I noticed a glimmer, a bobbing orb of yellowish light in the woods to my left. It was about a football field’s length from where I stood. Long ago, nainie told me and the twins about glowing, greenish-blue will o the wisps that haunt marshy areas in Wales and Ireland. Rational folk explain that the lights are caused by the oxidation of naturally occurring gases, such as methane and phosphine, from decaying swamps. Cunning folk knew better. The lights were elemental spirits of the land. For a time, my brothers called me Willy the Wisp because when we played hide and seek my wispy red blond hair sometimes gave away my hiding spot.
Some thought floating orbs marked where a treasure was buried, or where the bones of a murdered person rested uneasily. Nainie warned us to beware of and never follow a bluish-green orb. She said it could be a pwca, a goblin’esque sprite that lured strangers away. I’d managed to get lost without a sprite’s aid.
The orb I’d seen in my dream nights ago wasn’t a pwca. It had sent a warning message. But this one might be. The sleet had tapered off and the moon reappeared. A form emerged from the woods, a man swinging a lantern, like the one from the cave. Impossible, Vaughn was still tracking me. The rat, who was about my size, was wearing my waterproof Barbour jacket. He cupped a hand to his mouth and bellowed. “Come out, come out Goldifox, slut. Let’s play.” The universe was sending me another signal, all right. Was it to the victor goes the spoils, or revenge is a dish best served cold?
I exhaled loudly as he blended into the woods to my 12 o’clock. I headed right, four o’clock on the figurative clock, half grateful my wool socks stuffed with moss and bark didn’t make the noises Vaughn made with his boots. My head was full of unanswered questions. How had he found me again? Had I been wandering in circles? Did I give him only superficial wounds? He and Rath said they’d been hiding out in the Smokies for nearly six months. Rath told me Vaughn knew nothing about the secluded cove. Had Rath lied?
After perhaps 30 minutes more of stumbling between trees and laced together saplings, while avoiding fallen lumber and rocky ledges, I reached a ridgeline. If I’d been running, I might have overshot it, as it was well disguised by clumps of tall brush and a jumbled, multi-sized group of fir trees. Could I use that to my advantage and lure Vaughn here—and over the cliff?
Water was rushing below me, the same water, I assumed, that ran through the stream I was desperately searching for. I was loath to admit it, but I must be too far south. I needed to head the way Vaughn went. Hours ago, I was in escape mode. Then I was lost, and now I was stalking my stalker.
Cautiously, I followed the ridgeline. The underbrush was slippery from the sleet. Then it began to snow, quite furiously. The heavens were emptying 1000 giant bags of feathery snow onto the ground. Any sense of familiarity I’d had with yesterday’s autumn decked landscape quickly vanished. The ridge climbed and I considered abandoning my idea to follow the edge of cliffline. The trail ended abruptly again, with a 50 foot drop. I made an L shaped turn and stumbled on.
What felt like an hour later, but was likely only 15 minutes of labored walking, I admitted I could go no further. I needed shelter from the storm, literally. I wanted to climb up into the wide limbs of a tree and be rocked to sleep. It wouldn’t take much. Trees don’t lecture, they embrace. I did it often as a kid. My parents were amazed I never fell out. I’d bring a book, which in itself was a sliced up gift from a tree, and before long, I was dozing and dreaming. The leaves fanned me and kept bugs away.
A tree’s life is coded within it—age, times of thirst, sickness, storms endured—it’s a book of nature. Until we moved to California, we always lived in houses surrounded by trees. They provided sanctuary and solace when my mother complained about my lack of social and domestic grace, or I questioned the nature of my father’s work and he yelled that it put food on the table, and helped keep our borders safe.
I backtracked and climbed a small hill encircled by large, sheltering pine trees; it gave off a welcoming vibe. At very least, the thick oval of pines offered temporary refuge. Amazingly, there was a dry, protected patch about six feet in diameter with many layers of pine needles. I donned my trash bag poncho, burrowed under the needles, and retrieved the card sized hand warmer. I managed to pull the fuel tab and with shaking hands, felt for the tiny on switch. Immediately, there was heat. I tucked the heater between my vest and shirt and curled up in a ball. I must have fallen asleep immediately.
In my dreams, lost figures from history paraded past me. There were sailors from a ship that looked like the Mary Celeste, which disappeared in 1872. Someone that might have been Jimmie Hoffa, missing since 1971, slung what looked like globs of concrete at me as he floated by. A village of fur clad Eskimo’s waved, and most curious of all, a bronzed, minimally clad tribe of Indians, perhaps Zuni or Hopi, beckoned me. They pointed to a dusty road that disappeared between two craggy hills. Or could they be the Anasazi that vanished over 1,000 years ago?
I also sensed nainie’s presence. An ethereal green and brown woolen shawl, similar to the one she once wore, covered and insulated me. A hand brushed my forehead and she intoned words I couldn’t understand. The falling snow hid my tracks and long needled boughs folded their limbs over me—such kindness. The forest spun around, revealing life cycles of existence, and time’s many stretch marks. Most trees were amazingly resilient, others were struck by lightning, attacked by beetles or suffered prolonged periods of drought or ice, and eventually succumbed. Their decay nurtured new growth. Rocks tumbled and filled chasms, trapping moisture. Streams dried and left wrinkled mud skin beds behind. Wild creatures rubbed against trees and ate the fruit or nuts that hung from laden branches. The forest breathed, bled, burned, and bellowed; its wizardry fashioned an uncanny alchemy.
In another dream fragment, from a distance, I viewed Rath in the cave. He was groggy and seemed confused. Slowly, he realizes he’s been trussed up like cattle. Vaughn must have tied him up again. He wiggles, turns sideways, and retches violently. Though the fire was dying, a bead of cold sweat was evident. After an undetermined amount of time, he frees one arm. He sprinkles something from his rawhide bag into his mouth, and drains the mini bottle filled with water from the stream. He pours the last drops over his injured eye, and searches for something sharp to saw through the remaining ropes. Finding nothing, he crawls across the cold floor to the fire pit and uses a jagged rock to free his legs and other arm before doubling over—cramps? He retches again and lies prone on the cold stone floor.
The final vision was of an Indian sitting at my feet, massaging out the cold, pouring a silken liquid onto my feet, then cleaning and bandaging cuts. When I woke, hungry but warm despite the chilly temps, there was a pair of moccasins on my bandaged, stocking feet and a small bundle of what looked like Pemmican wrapped in waxed cloth next to my head. Next to it was my Swiss Army knife. What parts were a dream, what wasn’t? I have no explanation. I woke with a strong sense Rath was alive but in trouble, unable to come to my aid, needing my help.
Should I thank nainie or the Cherokees? Both, I decided. Part of her still remained. Was she able to reach me because it was Thursday and she’d been killed by lightening? The day she died was bright and blustery. Though she was 91, she was remarkably spry. When she discovered I was between assignments and had a week off, she took an overnight train from New England. There was something she wanted to talk to me about. Regrettably, I never discovered what it was.
She arrived late so we didn’t have much time to catch up; she said she wanted to get a good night’s sleep to be at her best. I had just started my house search, and needed her opinion on several potential options. None of the properties I showed her met with nainie’s approval. She suggested we go antique hunting, and though I had another place in mind, she suggested I follow the billboards she pointed out. We discovered a charming, tiny town lined with quaint shops. Over a leisurely lunch about 35 miles from my much disliked high rise condo, she explained why the houses I’d shown her weren’t right. I had to agree. Then she produced a local real estate guide and turned to a page featuring the old Georgian townhome I currently own.
“Now that’s a grand old lady of a home, wouldn’t you agree? That’s the sort of home you need, but don’t be in a rush to renovate. Call the realtor, make an appointment.” I promised her I would.
Next, we wandered through several antique shops and the hours slipped away. I had accumulated a handful of bulky packages, and nainie was ready for afternoon tea. I told her I’d just sprint to the car, drop off the packages, and swing by to pick her up. I knew of a lovely café, The Brown Betty, tucked a block off a rambling road that would take us back to the city. The owner was British; she baked an assortment of luscious scones and cakes daily.
Nainie sighed and at the time I thought I’d misheard her. She’d said something like ‘that would have been lovely my dear.’ This was followed by her touching my cheek and telling me to hurry to the car; it was going to storm. Hurry my dear, she repeated.
Half way to the car the sky abruptly darkened. The wind began to blow, making awnings flap and the traffic light spin. Nainie’s internal radar was accurate once again. I’d left her standing in the protected alcove of a jewelry store. I saw the first bolt of lightning as I got into my car. It was followed a few seconds later by a high pitched whine and crack of thunder that made me jump. The hair on my arms stood on end and my ears crackled. A sense of foreboding engulfed me. I laid rubber tearing out of the parking lot, then realized the street where nainie was waiting was one way. It took me several minutes to whiz round the block to reach her.
As I approached the jewelry store, set midway in the block, I could see nainie step out onto the sidewalk and gaze skyward, then raise her arm. The lightning sparked and seemed to dig into the macadam that ran parallel to the street I was on. Thunder roared and I leapt from the car after grinding the gears and abandoning the car in the street. I counted aloud and screamed to her to get back. My 91 year old grandmother turned towards me, reached out, and with surprising force, spun me round. I staggered back.
Lightning cracked the sidewalk where I’d just stood. It coursed through Winifreya Rhyderth’s body, lifting her off the ground and throwing her sideways against the building. The thunder bellowed again, like the amplified echo of 1000 maddened lions. Nainie collapsed in accordion fashion. I was frozen in place—useless—and yet, instead of feeling pain—I felt a warm glow—a second of what I call cosmic consciousness. Nainie knew her time here was ending. Was that what she wanted to talk to me about? Was the price for foreknowledge nothing less than a flesh and blood sacrifice?
Then the rain pelted down, drenching us in seconds, freeing me. I leaned over nainie, and felt for a pulse. Across the street, a neon sign fizzled and hissed, then went dead. People poked heads from shops and someone shouted call an ambulance. Her pulse was as faint as her last words to me, Damnio Mjollnir, angen un diwrnod arall, roughy, which roughly translates to ‘Damn, [Thor’s hammer] needed one more day.’
Her fisted hand opened, palm up, and I began CPR. Two men appeared and lifted her up while I continued to try to revive her. They laid her across a bench inside the jewelry store. Medics arrived and told me what I already knew. She was dead. The rain slackened; clouds blew westward. I scooped Winnfreya Rhyderth into my arms and wept. No one said a word.
When I finally released her and stood, I said to no one in particular “I don’t understand. Zeus and Odin required human sacrifices; Thor never did.” As I drove out of town that evening I passed an battered sign that said, You are leaving Odinsburg. Come back soon.
##### *** #####
Dawn opened its Smoky Mountain palm, and scribbled a purple-brownish beige water color sketch across the horizon. Which dawn is this—geometric, nautical? How long had I been van Winkling? The clouds had disappeared and the moon was a pale imitation of last night’s self, receding backwards, being absorbed by gathering daylight. A few stars were still visible. Was that the last of the Pleides, stars connected with pine trees and an old Cherokee tale? The snow had stopped and soon, I hoped, it would melt. I stretched and scooped up a handful, and emptied a vodka mini on the ground—as offering or necessity. I packed it with snow and swallowed some powdery ice flakes.
Among the Greeks, Aboriginal, and Nez Perce, the Pleides represent a group of sisters. Among the Cherokee, they represent a group of boys, the Ani’tsutsa. I included the tale in an Astronomy paper I submitted in college. Six hungry boys performed the sacred feather dance and ascended to the skies. The seventh boy was pulled back with such force he sank into mother earth. Grief and guilt stricken, his mother visited that spot daily, and muddied the ground with her tears. Eventually, a green shoot appeared, which grew into what we call a pine tree.
Greedily, I tucked into the Pemmican and let another wad of snow dissolve in my mouth. There would be no sun this morning. Plan A was still waiting for me to execute, though Rath needed my help badly. I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to the cave or pick up the trail to the stream. I could follow the ridge in a southerly direction. Perhaps I could lure Vaughn close enough to the edge.
Rooster crow dawn, even without a beaming sun, would expose me like bacteria on a petri dish. Could I camouflage myself, don pine branches and a wreath of autumn leaves? I knew a girl in grade school called Daisy Dawn, a rather silly name as Daisy means ‘day’s eye,’ another word for dawn. She always wore flower embellished clothing. Even her headbands and sneakers featured floral motifs. I don’t recall in which state we were living; dads moved us five times during my early school years, before I got shipped abroad. I never minded changing schools, and loved to explore new neighborhoods—learn the history of a place. I was more at home then outside sniffing around; I roamed where I pleased. Dads was often absent; the twins ignored me. Mother didn’t work, but belonged to countless social and community cliques. We weren’t close. I doubt it ever occurred to her women could be so much more than good girls and obedient wives. If it hadn’t been for nainie…
While I was deciding what to do, I rummaged around and found a bough I could use to blur my footprints. I sharpened one end of the hiking pole with the knife, and let a piece of chocolate melt in my mouth. Something small was moving through the brush to my right, a rabbit? Go in peace, bunny. A large winged bird called to another bird. The sound was a half high pitched whistle, half gawking noises. One of Thor’s eagles? My feet felt tender; I was grateful for the moccasins and yet annoyed whoever cleaned my feet had slunk away. I found the L shaped part of the ridge I’d been walking along hours ago. There didn’t seem to be any way across, and across was the direction I needed to go.
Seconds later I heard a loud thrashing sound, then Vaughn cursing. He stepped out into the open on the opposite side of the ridge. I ducked down but not soon enough.
“There you are, Goldifox, you whoring moo-cow. So you survived the night. Why aren’t I surprised?” He stood at the edge and glanced left and right. He wore a wool skullcap and my jacket. I couldn’t tell if the side of his face was bruised or just ruddy from the cold temps. His breathing seemed labored. Where had he spent the night? Where was his lantern?
“Red rover, red rover, make Willy come over. On second thought, stay there; I’ll come over.” He disappeared back into the woods.
My heart thumped in my chest. Did he know of a way over I didn’t—a felled tree, a rudimentary causeway? The irony wasn’t lost on me. We needed to trade sides. I thought of the puzzle of the fox, chicken, and sack of corn a man had to get safely from one side of the river to the other without the fox killing the chicken or the chicken eating the corn. The man’s small dinghy can carry only him and one other thing. I was the first to solve the puzzle in grade school. Take the chicken across. Then bring fox across and bring back the chicken. Take the corn over, come back for the chicken and voila—problem solved.
I wasn’t sure why but I hurried along the ridge in the direction I suspected Vaughn had taken. Perhaps if there was a fallen limb I could reach it first, cross it, then hide while he crossed to the side where he’d last seen me. Then I’d dislodge the limb and high tail it to the secluded cove. My side of the woods had clumps of cover and lots of bare, open sections. Clouds of frosty air swirled in front of me as I sprinted along my side of the ridge.
As the last vestige of night dissolved above, I thought of the alchemic step called conjunction, the merging or union of two things. Nope, not going to happen here. However, in astronomy, conjunction didn’t mean the joining together, only that two objects were ascending in the same direction. That worked for me.
The distressed cry of an animal being attacked boomed through nature’s loud speakers. The forest could be as noisy as it was silent, though it seemed to speak aloud, in ominous tones, more often than it purred or uttered joyful noises. A chosen few could hear a forest growing, decaying, evolving…rearranging itself, exhaling and cleansing. A forest, the world’s bellows, never stopped working, absorbing, exchanging.
There was an exposed area on his side and he was standing there, near a clump of wild grass, with arms folded across his chest.
“Hear that Goldifox? I doubt you’ll be making such pretty sounds when I gut you. Besides, if you try to spoil the music of my moment, I’ll slice your tongue off.”
“What did your mother do to you to make you hate women?” I shouted over the chasm.
He warned me not to psychobabble him, and articulated each word of you leave my mother out of this. He repeated his words several times.
“What did you do to Rath, and why? He was your friend.”
“Maybe I gave him a dose of Socratic oath potion. It grows all over these infernal woods. You knew that, didn’t ya doc? Maybe I gave you some too. It can be real slow acting on some folks.”
“Doubtful—the type of hemlock that grows around here usually burns the mouth. It causes heavy salivation, sweating, rapid heartbeat, tremors, muscle weakness. But you knew that, didn’t you Vaughn? So what brilliant concoction did you use?” You’re the one that should be worrying. You should flee while you can, before Thor’s hammer reigns down on your pathetic skull.” I gulped, grateful for the yawning gap and rushing waters between us.
His arm snaked behind him and he threaded an arrow onto a bow that had been draped over his shoulder. I hadn’t noticed it. Before I could react and retreat, it whizzed across the chasm and sped past me, an inch or so from my shoulder and the side of my head, lodging in a tree a few yards behind me.
His tone was mocking when he yelled, “How ya like them apples, Goldifox? Next time I’ll score a bulleye, right between your moo cow boobs. Red rover, red rover, let this cow jump on over.”
Momentarily shaken, I continued to back up, and took cover behind a gnarled tree, angry more at myself than him. I wanted to yell he gave new meaning to the term junk in the trunk. But I doubted he heard me and it obviously wasn’t good to incite him. I ventured forward. He had disappeared again. I’d touched a nerve with the mother comment. How could I use this to my advantage? I wiggled the arrow free of the tree, and inserted a bit of moss into the hole where the point of the arrow had embedded itself. Hmm, the arrow was a larger version of a dart, and I was an excellent dart player. I wondered if I could use my sling shot to launch this metal tipped arrow.
What had he mentioned previously about his mother besides that she had lived in Florida near his sister and was dead? His parents had put him through college and left him some money. He said he never married and didn’t think much of his sister’s traditional life. During our hike to the cave, we mostly talked about value systems and ideas. Had she shamed or shunned him for some unknown reason?
How could I dig into this wound as his arrow had dug into the tree without enraging him? Philosopher Bertrand Russell said we are all ruled by desire, and some desires, originating in adolescence, can never be gratified. Desire manifests as vanity, rivalry, acquisitiveness, or love of power. Vaughn didn’t want to parade me or for anyone else to know what he had; he wanted to gut me, to end me. He was favoring the last option, the most dangerous and insatiable desire.
As the morning progressed and the snow was absorbed into earth, my stomach growled and felt as if it too was melting. I found another lemon drop in a vest pocket. This one was lint free. I hid behind foliage when I could as I continued my journey in tandem with Vaughn’s. My senses were in hyper mode. Before I saw it, I could smell the sweetness emanating from a dozen high hanging persimmons. Rath had pointed some out to me yesterday, saying the more wrinkled the fruit, the better it tasted. He gave me one to try; it had brown seeds, and was mushy gooey sweet. These puckered fruit were too high to reach. He also told me about how tender chickweed was but to avoid buckeyes. He used something he scraped from cattail roots to thicken the stew we ate. And he cautioned to never mistake an Iris for a cattail.
My cheeks felt as cold and withered as a winter persimmon. My hunger was momentarily curved when I nearly stepped on the remains of a reeking animal carcass. I didn’t linger long enough to determine what it had once been. I did stop long enough to grab my sling shot and insert the nock of the arrow into the elastic rubber band. It fit but the devise wasn’t designed to release a long projectile. I inserted the shaft of the arrow into a front pocket of my pants and hid the arrow under my vest. The tip poked through the fabric of my vest. To skirt the carcass and foul odor, I walked along the exposed part of the ridge. Vaughn spied me about the same instant I spied him.
He shouted, ‘Ouuu-e’ or some similar farm cliche. “Ollie, Ollie, oxen free. You got nowhere to go; you must be famished. Tell you what, I’ll share mine if you share yours. Red rover, red rover…”
“I have plenty to eat.” I rummaged around a vest pocket, pulled out the onion, took a nibble, and gulped it down. I silently hoped I had another lemon drop to suck on. “Women are far more resourceful than men. We’re better problem solvers, have greater stamina, and we live longer.” He and I stepped along the ridge like two large cats balanced on wires. I held the onion in one hand and reached for my sling shot with the other.
“In fact, Vaughn, we’ve been feeding, clothing, and taking care of ourselves since the Pilocene. I bet women taught men how to hunt and gather food, not the other way round.”
“That’s bare ass funny, and as stupid as anything you’ve said the last few days. Even if it were true, men rule; we lead the world; always have, always will. Our war gene will fight your let’s be friends gene and win every time. Dragging this out is pathetic. Although…” He paused and I scanned for something to duck behind if he reached for another arrow.
“Although,” he repeated. “I like games. I like playing with my victims before I kill them; it’s much more rewarding. Besides, you already admitted you’re utterly lost. See what I did there moo cow with ‘utterly?’
“That’s one of your many flaws, thinking killing is a funny game. Men do fight and kill other men. You even boasted about it, you sick son of a . . .” I calculated the distance and range of my sling shot, and lowered my voice so he’d draw nearer the edge. “As Oscar Wilde reminded, men ‘kill the things they love.’ Did you kill your mother Vaughn? Is that it?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. He moved his head side to side, like a bobble headed dashboard dummy. I brought the slingshot forward, loaded it with the onion, and let it rip. It hit Vaughn smack in the middle of his forehead, knocking him sideways, then backwards. Damn, I’d hoped he would have fallen forward. I turned and dashed back into the tangled brush.
What I needed was a good climbing tree to get a better idea regarding how long and wide the ridge chasm stretched. Was there a place to cross and if so, could I beat Vaughn to it? I found a suitable tree, and a perch about 15 feet up. Unfortunately, the ridge line curved to the right at about ¼ of a mile away and hills and large boulders hid any further views.
The last lemon drop was the lintiest and perhaps the sweetest tasting. A trickle of water from the mini I’d filled with snow helped clear the sulfur taste in my mouth. I climbed down and continued.
The next time I spied Vaughn, he was standing in the shadow of a large pine tree, snorting or stuffing something into his nose or mouth—dried fruit, cannabis infused gummy bears, chewing tobacco? He was too far away to tell. From the cover of a huge poplar, I called out to him. “Which poison did you use on Rath? Was it deathcap mushrooms, devil’s porridge, mountain laurel, or perhaps Horse Nettle?”
He bellowed back, “Now Doc, what makes you think I gave him just one poison?” His words echoed eerily across the chasm.
I ran through a list of possible poisons that might cause the symptoms Rath exhibited: stomach pain, lethargic, dizzy… A variety of poison mushrooms topped the list.
“Ah, Goldifox, think of it as more of a farewell love potion. He was my buddy until you came along. But, tell you what, I’ll give you a hint. One of the special ingredients is something that grows a bit brighter than that silky undershirt you were wearing. That’s all I’m saying.”
I ventured out from behind a covering of knobby shrubbery. I decided to appeal to his vanity. “Right, so it’s a poison, not venom. Doesn’t poison almost sound like potion, whereas venom has a wider meaning? Bits of it are found in the words Venus, venerate, and venue—words once linked to love, until it becomes toxic. Poison and venom are handled best by insects and reptiles, don’t you think Vaughn?
“Poison, bosoms, chemicals, shemicals, all the same to me.”
Was he slurring his words? Had he been chewing wacky weed or raw tobacco? If so, why now? What had triggered him? He’d acted fairly normal on the trek to the cave. In college, I’d encountered students (and a few faculty members) with alcohol and substance abuse problems. In fact, I’d inadvertently help catch a campus rapist and drug peddler while working on my grad school Psych degree.
I’d just ended an affair with a married man, an Israeli, Eber Garaz. He was a colleague of Professor Beechum’s—a man of many talents—suspected Mossad agent, a fan of impressionist art, and a walking encyclopedia on the subject of Neurobiology. His reputation preceded him; as a visiting professor, he was known for giving inspiring, hands on lectures, and was popular with students despite being a stern taskmaster.
What might have become a serious relationship came to a screeching halt when I learned that in addition to a wife, he had two adolescent children back in Israel. The Professor had tried to warn me, so had my best friend Myra. Several nights after breaking it off with Eber, Myra had a fight with Jonsey, her long-time boyfriend. She’d just moved into an off campus duplex with him and realized her disorganized slob expected her to clean up after him. He inferred his course load was heavier than hers and she had more free time.
We opted for a girl’s night out and general bitch session at a popular local hangout. A new band was playing classic rock hits. But it was crowded and noisy, overrun with freshmen classmates and locals. We called it a night after the band’s second set. Myra was driving the same van we’d taken to Myrtle Beach a few years ago, and wanted to drop me off at my apartment. I insisted I would walk home from her place. It was only 2 ½ blocks from where she lived. I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head.