Chapter 6: Dies Jovis (Thor’s Day; Welsh: dydd lau): Conjunction
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 beat up van we’d taken to Myrtle Beach a few years earlier, 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.
END PART I … PART II follows….
In the van, Myra tried to talk me out of walking home alone. There’d been a series of rapes both on and off campus and in the neighboring village. I reminded her we’d both taken self-defense classes, including a (for credit) semester of martial arts. She grudgingly relented but made me promise to call her once I got home, adding there was no reason to make myself a target. Like the fussy jewish mom she would become in a few years time, she adjusted my coat collar and snugly tucked her thick beige and grey plaid wool scarf inside my collar.
There were times during my whirlwind romance with Eber when I felt like his target and test subject, rather than love interest. As a Neurobiologist, his specialty was the limbic system, specifically abnormalities of the hippocampus and amygdala, the nerve center for emotions/ behavior and motivation, and what causes these areas to misfire.
Scientists, for the most part, agree on how the brain’s regions, cell types, and networks are organized. What they don’t agree on is how that influence feeling, thinking, motor patterns, and memories. The amygdala has been called our fear center. It’s the part of my brain whose pants should have been on fire as I dodged deadly arrows from this crazy man pursuing me. But it wasn’t. As Eber explained, the amygdala is an ancient nerve center that processes and tells other parts of me how to respond to threats. What is fear to one person may be interpreted as excitement by another.
Most of the cutting edge work Eber was doing related specifically to how things like brain tumors and epilepsy altered or redirected pathways in these areas. Could Vaughn’s behavior be related to a brain tumor, made worse by substances he ingested or inhaled?
Then again, perhaps it was me with the addled brain. I inhaled the heady odor of damp, dead leaves. For an instant, I felt suspended between two time warps—the long ago and the here and now. In the long ago I had just rounded a corner. My apartment unit was at the other end of the block. The street was darker than usual and I’d been taught to examine my surroundings. An overhead light was out entirely. Another was blinking intermittently.
Perhaps that’s why when I recall events from that evening, it reminds me of a scene from the Rocky Horror Picture Show where a newly unfrozen Janet performs a cabaret floor show under strobe lights. I could make out a form about midway down the block, on my side of the street. It appeared to be a man wearing an overcoat and fedora walking a medium size fur ball of a dog. The man bent down and fiddled with the dog’s leash.
Suddenly, the dog was loose, heading towards me. The man called out. It sounded like he was saying grab the dog, followed by a few words I couldn’t understand. I reached out to snag the dog’s collar, but as I did, it veered right, and headed down a series of wooden steps leading to a small playground and park between two buildings. There were jogging paths behind the monkey bars. I took off after the dog, stumbling several times on the slippery, leaf strewn steps. Despite the dark night, I could make out the furry outline of the dog sitting patiently near a teeter-totter. This time it let me grab its collar. I bent down to praise the dog and it licked my face. The man appeared on the steps. He seemed in no hurry to retrieve his dog. Perhaps he was elderly.
“Tank you,” he yelled out. I detected an accent. I should have been alerted when, instead of taking the shortest route from the bottom of the steps to me, he remained in the shadows, skirting the tree line. My fear factor nerve center wasn’t sending any warning signals. As I straightened up, while keeping one hand on the dog’s collar, the man approached me from behind. I turned to greet him. That’s when he wrapped the leash around my neck. He warned me not to struggle or scream or he’d kill me now and have sex with my corpse.
I let go of the dog’s collar and put my fingers through the space between the scarf and the leash. He jerked me back towards the tree line. I staggered and resisted then went limp, putting all my weight into falling backwards, and fell on top of him. He lost his grip on the leash round my neck and I crawled forward. He grabbed my left calf and I slid backwards on the cold, wet grass. I biked everywhere in those days; my legs were strong. I drew my right leg under me and kicked like a mule. I connected with his upper thigh or chest. He grunted and cursed.
I managed to flip myself over. I wanted to see his face, but I couldn’t make out any features. He was wearing pantyhose over his face. The furry dog was nipping at the man’s pants leg. He swatted it away using the back of his hand and the brave little dog yelped. It felt planned, like he’d done this before. Was he the rapist we’d read about? His only weapon was a dog leash, no gun or switchblade. I didn’t have a weapon either, just a wallet with a driver’s license, cash, credit cards, and pictures. My pepper spray was in my handbag, which was in my apartment.
I crab legged backwards. He had picked up the leash again and came at me. I managed to kick him again, right below the throat, and scrambled to my feet. What was that self-defense technique we were taught in class, DANCE? No, SING: attack the solar plexus, instep, nose, and groin. With your fist or using a sold object, aim for the area below the ribs and above the stomach. As he came toward me again, I directed an elbow at his solar plexus. I hoped I had knocked the wind from him, but I hadn’t. I did manage to put a few feet and the teeter-totter between us.
“You’re a monster,” I squealed at him self-righteously, “hurting your dog, using it to lure women to lonely places where you think you can abuse them.”
“That’s not my dog; it’s a mutt I found, soon to be toter koter.”
“Toter, that means dead in German. So you’re German?”
“I’m many things, none concern you weiblich.”
For the next few minutes we sparred verbally while I dodged his lunges and the snap of the leash. Like the straw spinner in Rumpelstiltskin, I tried to engage him in conversation. I asked if his name was Fritz or Aldolph; if he taught German on campus. I said that since he was going to kill me, he might as well tell me who he was. When that tactic didn’t work, I flipped it. I told him who I was—that I had a brown belt in self-defense, flashing back to my previous encounter in the empty parking lot in Georgetown.
“I know all about you weiblich.” He proceeded to reel off personal data, former addresses and phone numbers, even the name of my dad’s company. I inhaled, gripped the cold metal of teeter-totter stand.
Then like a cobra, he struck. His arms snaked across the wood and metal bars; he grabbed a hunk of my hair and the collar of my jacket with one arm and looped the leash around my neck with the other. I tumbled over the playground equipment and fell forward.
He somehow maneuvered behind me. Though my arms were free, I couldn’t hit him in any of the SING areas. He struggled to move the leash to the bare flesh area right beneath my chin. I tried to insert my hand between flesh and rope again and turn around. I was able to turn around and made a fist, then tried to punch his face. The blow glanced off his nose and he cursed me again.
Though it felt like minutes, it was likely only seconds before I was able to aim a blow at his groin. He sank to his knees groaning, but before I could stand, he jerked on the leash and I found myself face down, nose buried in the dirt. While he withered and muttered, I clawed at the rope round my neck until I was able to lift it over my head and toss it. Sitting up, I kicked at him again and connected with the side of his head. That must have enraged him. He lunged at me and climbed on top. I felt his gloved hand round my neck, pressing with all his might.
Everything got quiet and clear. The stars above glowed brightly and my chest burned from lack of air. I lost strength in my limbs but could feel a stream of tears run down the side of my face. So I would die with a whimper, not a roar. My eyes closed.
When they quivered open a few seconds or a moment later, Eber was standing behind the man, who now lay besides me. Eber’s hand held what looked like a cattle prod. He bent over me and kept repeating my name as his hands prodded my neck. He pulled Myra’s scarf off, and brushed my hair back.
Eber spoke sharply to the man in German; other plain clothed men arrived and handcuffed him. Police and medics appeared and loaded the man on a cot. In the distance, red and blue lights painted the trees and playground equipment in garish shades.
Eber extended his arm and I climbed to my feet, at least that’s what it felt like rising from the ground to upright stance. I shakily brushed leaves and twigs off my pants, and pulled bits of debris from my hair and mouth. “That’s your rapist,” I croaked.
“I know; we’ve been tracking him for some time. His last victim wasn’t as lucky as you. What were you thinking, walking home alone? She didn’t survive, you did, and for that…”
“Survive?” Another croak issued from my mouth. It hurt to speak but I did anyway. “That’s a word a frightened person uses. Where were you five minutes ago? I fought the bastard; I didn’t cower. I just knee’ed him in the groin and was about to tie him up using his murder weapon of choice, that damn leather dog leash. At least that was my intention.”
I bit my lip to hold back tears. “How long did you know who he was; what he’d been doing?”
“We knew he was a computer technology consultant from Estonia, here on a work visa. He’d been troubleshooting firewall issues on campus and helping some local businesses modernize and integrate their systems. We guessed that’s how he got access to personal information and the online calendars of several of his victims.”
Eber stepped forward to remove a stray leaf from my hair. I could sense more explanations were forthcoming. Instead, I pushed his hand away and turned as the police approached. I gave them a brief statement.
“Let me take you home Wilhelmina. You’ve had a bad shock. Your emotions are raw…”
In a voice I tried to make as monotone as possible I said “Thanks for the rescue, but spare me the lecture Dr. Garaz; I’m not your shickza any longer. I’m aware emotion triggers adrenaline, which creates a telling trail of chemical along neural pathways… My senses are still heightened, muscles tense, pulse still racing, and pain receptors are signaling. That sound about right? Nonetheless, I’m going home. You can interview me tomorrow, inbetween classes and my assistant teaching gig for Professor Beechum.”
He continued to talk, but I tuned him out. The walk to the steps seemed to take forever; my legs felt leaden. Eber’s voice faded to dull noise as I ascended. The wind picked up. Police and ambulance lights whirled, and halfway up the stairs, the strobe’ish overhead street light above made me burst out laughing. It must have sounded similar to the guffaws Mr. Halloway emitted in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes when he discovered a key to defeating Mr. Dark and the Dust Witch.
The flickering street light also reminded me of the grim ending of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. People had eaten cannibalized human body parts. Janet was turned into a nude stone statue, then redressed and unfrozen. Rocky plunged to his death. A few survivors crawled away. I, however, was walking away, I’d more than survived. Without an actual weapon, I’d turned a desperate situation into a win. At least, that’s what I told myself that night. In truth, if Eber hadn’t shown up when he did…if Myra hadn’t secured her woolen scarf round my neck… Though he called and left flowers, notes, and requests for a meeting, I refused to see him. His teaching gig was over, and a week later, the professor mentioned Eber returned to Israel.
At this moment in time, it was Death 0; Willy 8 escapes and counting. Had my numbers run out? Was the roulette wheel going to stop now? I wanted to think we’d been stalking each other but who was I kidding? Vaughn had weapons, food, a home advantage, a killer’s honed, predatory shrewdness. All I had was Willy-wiseacre, an ability the twin’s teased me about, a wonky foundation of determination, and a wobbly pile of perseverance and resourcefulness. Was that enough to best a ruthless adversary?
Was Vaughn serious when he said one of the drugs he’d given Rath was a deep lavender color? Was he referring to deadly nightshade or Monkshood? The dying, spicy sour smell of fallen leaves, the wild wine scent of overripe fruit and berries, and my own body odor, composed of three types of sweat mingled with screaming hormones and neurons, merged and mated as I considered my narrow options. I wanted to trust I was the forest and it was me. Could I best the depraved murderer hunting me, and make these mountains his coffin and shroud? Could I, with arrow, not bow, brain, not brawn, end this chase by ending him? Aye, aye, said my inner sparrow, shall we dance a final bolero?
Professor Beechum closed the document he’d been reading and paused to consider if Wilhelmina was recalling real experiences or a long, lucid dream that took the place of painful memories. At the university, she’d volunteered to demonstrate her ability to lucid dream. Eber hooked her up to machines that attempted to measure a neural signature of (lucid) self-awareness during her sleep cycle. He hoped to use these distinctive pattern to determine which patients in comas were experiencing lucid dreaming. She was very good but wasn’t always able to summon a lucid state in a clinical environment. Eber wanted to give her a drug derived from snowdrop flowers, Galantamine, to help induce lucid dreaming. She refused it and they argued. She accused him of caring more for science than for her.
“The problem with science,” Wilhelmina once stated, “is it’s an overly ambitious, institutionalized discipline that wants to rationalize everything, including its ignorance.”
Oh dear, eight encounters with death, eight great escapes. That’s enough to alter anyone’s sense of the sublime. The professor was hungry and rummaged in his cupboards for sustenance. He settled on a can of tomato soup, oyster crackers, and a baggy full of celery, radishes, and slices of raw zucchini. While the soup simmered and kettle bubbled, he added a blend of tropical dried fruit and Mamaki tea to his prized ceramic teapot and squeezed fresh lemon and a drizzle of honey into a large mug.
“Then again,” he said aloud and repeated himself. When I was finishing my grad degree at Stanford, those treks I took into the Santa Lucia Mountains revealed things I could never explain. I wrote it off to exhaustion and not getting enough good carbs. Were those bones and painted skulls left, presumably, by native Esselen tribes, or were they bones of explorers or earlier inhabitants? I shouldn’t have been poking around old ruins. The fall I took should have ended me. I never discovered who patched me up and laid me under the tree near the footpath that led back to hippie campgrounds. Then again, Eber did catch that rapist, and my dear girl, you sported an awful colored necklace of bruises for several weeks. The professor entered more notes into his lab book.
I realized I’d lost half of my forest scarecrow stuffing, though I wasn’t cold. I considered that I might be suffering from hyperthermia, then dismissed the idea. I had no desire to strip naked. That was a sure sign one was in trouble. Perhaps it was adrenaline, or something even more basic. Our subliminal instincts and bodies are designed to help us survive hard times. Eighty billion neurons constantly process billions of bits of information. We still subconsciously react to ancient conditioning: we compete rather than cooperate; act on fear signals, jump and squeal when we see a harmless snake or bug. Was my PhD educated brain/body any different?
Vaughn’s last round of taunts were among his most revealing. “Silly Willy,’ he’d shouted. “Now you just knew I wasn’t gonna let you leave here and spill the beans. No woman can be trusted. You lack what makes a man great.” Then he cited Aristotle, who allegedly had said women were a deviation of nature—creatures deprived of defining genitalia.’
From a sheltered space behind a row of walnut and ash trees, I grimaced and clapped back with a quote from Epictetus, who’d been born a slave. I told him the founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy knew we couldn’t control life or other people, only our response. I added Epictetus wrote a manual with 93 instructions for living well. It was a shame Vaughn hadn’t read the Stoic’s wisdom on control and humility. There was only silence from his side of the chasm.
Switching tactics, I summoned up one of the many Aristotle quotes I knew by heart. It was his admonition that we shouldn’t ask whether anger was good or bad but how it should be directed and used, as it was a manifestation of our intent. I added, “That means I care Vaughn; I care what happens to you. Your anger is your response to your inner helplessness. I can…”
“Well then,” he interrupted, “if I’m helpless then you’re unconscious, and like old Aristotle said, lacking certain anatomical necessities.”
It was no use trying to reason with or cajole him. The terrain dipped sharply and I gingerly gripped the shaft of the arrow to ensure it didn’t stab me as I slid down the hill. Just as I done with Eber that awful night, I tuned Vaughn out and quieted my growling stomach with remaining bits of the pemmican I assumed the Indians had left me. My plans A and B were turning into something full of outer spaces but no solution.
I’d reached the end of the stream’s waterway. Below the more placid waterway we’d been following flowed into a wider, robust river, which one I didn’t know. I could hear the river gush and thrash debris trapped in its greenish, brown waters. It was too agitated and turgid to tell if it was five or twenty five foot deep.
In the far distance, in the direction in which I’d come, I heard crunching, thrashing sounds. Was this my end as well? Had I’d walked into my very own Hobson’s choice. Would I die like Butch Cassidy without the Kid or Thelma sans sidekick Louise? Was the proverbial tiger from the story The Lady or the Tiger about to appear, or its forest equivalent, a panther or bear? Would I plunge off the cliff like a lemming? What would falling feel like?
It wasn’t helpful a song lyric had pushed its way to my mind’s auditory center, shoving aside notions of self-preservation, the consequences of the calculated murder of another human being, and a strong desire to sprout wings and fly away. It was a misremembered Beatles song, ‘…the life you save is equal to the life you take.’ “Out, damn song,” I muttered.
There was a wall of tangled tree limbs, large boulders, and thorn bushes that ran southward along the steep river worn cliff. I was somewhat trapped. I retreated back the narrow path that had brought me to this confluence, and tried to peek over the precipice, hoping to find a way down to the stream bed and some solid footholds to help me climb the opposite bank. In doing so, I nearly fell through a U-shaped indent that had been disguised by haphazard piles of long, rotting tree limbs, newly fallen leaves, and withered vines. My soft shoed feet alerted me to the lack of firm ground. I skirted around it, then crouched down to examine. I marveled at the cleverness of nature’s trap and backed away.
A bird of prey squawked and I gazed skyward. Was there a tree I could climb that hung over the cliff. Could I then make a leap to ground on the other side, on the side where Vaughn waited for me? Why were the hardest decision the best ones?
I didn’t have to ponder the thought for very long or run other scenerios. Whatever had been thrashing in the woods made itself known to me. My knees nearly buckled. Vaughn had found a way across. The glint of the knife in his hand made his intention clear. He seemed pleased, or it might have just been a maniacal grin. He stood about 15 yards from me.
“Thank you mother damn nature; ain’t nowhere left to go bitch. Bring your ass over here and I’ll make it quick, which is a damn sight better than you deserve.”
He edged forward and cleared half the distance between us, muttering about how I always liked it the hard way. I had to draw him to the edge. I inched backwards. “Why are you so hateful Vaughn? What did the world ever do to you to make you so mean? Rath was your friend. You said he saved your life.”
“The world didn’t do nothing for me. The Government’s to blame and the fucking folks that make the rules. I don’t owe that black injun or whatever he is nothing.”
Vaughn hadn’t moved closer. Maybe he wanted to talk, confess, or at least explain? Here we stood, at the summit of our journey. To buy another minute, should I tell Vaughn a summit was both the highest point and an early name Frank, Dino, Peter, Sammy, and Joey used to describe their singing, swinging band of brothers? I doubted he cared. What I wouldn’t give for a double bourbon neat and a jukebox tune from ol blue eyes…
There was nowhere to run, unless I fancied doing a dead man float in the frigid waters below. I was badly in need of one of Thor’s lightning bolts. The arrow pressed against my shoulder and I wanted to smack my forehead. I should have made an atlatl, a primitive tool for launching a spear or arrow. It was too late for shoulda, coulda, woulda.
He waved his knife and the clouds parted long enough for a ray of diffused sunlight to glance off the blade. I was blinded for an instant. He took advantage and closed the distance, grabbing my arm and stabbing at the air near my head and neck. I moved erratically, like a bobble headed dashboard figure, and saw the edge of a square bandage. That must be where I’d injured him in the cave. Could I grab my pocketknife and open it in time? In what pocket was it, right or left, inner or outer?
Vaughn must have seen the arrow peeking from inside my vest. He let go of my arm and grabbed it. I sidestepped and turned towards the ridgeline to check my bearings. I was a foot from the edge.
My shirt ripped as he grabbed for the arrow, and tried to stick me with it. I ducked and stepped closer to the U-shaped trap. Vaughn came toward me with the arrow in one hand and the bowie knife in the other. A glazed look had replaced his gleeful look from a moment ago.
“Stop” was all I managed to say. It was more of a gravel and grit, pleading sound than a word. I thrust my arm forward, hand raised flat in perfect imitation of a traffic cop. The next instant felt like how it must feel when a magician perfectly executed a magic trick or a mystic worked a miracle. Vaughn indeed froze in mid-motion.
The underbrush was being trampled. I heard a low rustling sound as a wild pig charged out of the thicket to my left. Was it the one I’d thrown the hunk of grouse meat at? It began squealing. Vaugh stepped backward. The pig leaped at him, proving the saying ‘when pigs fly…’ When they do, it’s a marvel to behold.
His knife glanced off the bristly neck of the pig and his heel caught the soft, loose earth of nature’s U-shaped death trap. The arrow flew upwards and both the pig and Vaughn fell through the forest debris. On my belly I peered over the edge. The pig landed in the swirling river, bobbed to the surface, and was swept downstream. Vaughn lay twisted, face up, on a muddy patch of bank and small rocks. Several gnarled tree roots had broken his fall 3/4 of the way down and embraced him. One jagged branch protruded through the fleshy part of an arm, or perhaps his chest. Blood dripped from a gash on his forehead into the turbulent waters. His eyes were closed.
Could I trust what my eyes saw—that Vaugh Pitkin was definitely done dancing, stalking, killing, being a menace to society—gone most sincerely and certainly to the unknown kingdom of death?
Other now forgotten kingdoms existed here once in these mountains. A year after America’s Revolutionary War ended, a territory called Frankland formed in the Smokies. It was allegedly named for Benjamin Franklin and dedicated to principles of independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Its people, unfortunately, were constantly at war. North Carolina (NC) claimed the land and expected tax money to be paid to NC. The denizens of Frankland would spar with local Cherokee tribes and our fledging Government; insisting it be granted sovereignty. After four years of fighting, Frankland was absorbed into and became part of North Carolina and Tennessee. Now Vaughn would be absorbed in nature’s kingdom.
I took another look. He certainly looked dead. Although—in the animal world, there are clever creatures that feign death via a state of catatonia and by exuding chemical defenses. The most famous is the opossum; it can assume a death pose for minutes or hours. Scientists have observed most animals steer clear of the dead, and are adverse to the smell of decay and stages of advanced putrefaction. The official term was necrophobia.
Was I innocent of causing his death or guilty by design, having wished for and plotted to kill him, having neglected to warn him? What was that idiom: If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets… If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride… If you wish it, can you throw it back? Not likely, especially when the alternative is your own demise.
What did they call it, premeditation, willful forethought? Was his open grave fitting? To Tibetan Buddhists and several indigenous American tribes, a sky burial was an honorable rite. This day was also named for Jupiter, lord of the day lit sky and master of birds of prey. Scavenger birds would feast on Vaughn’s remains. Had Jake’s body met the same fate? I suspected he didn’t mind being shared with the mountains inhabitants: birds of prey, wolves, perhaps even a family of opossums. They were all Thanatos practitioners. Now that Vaughn was dead, how was I going to find Jake’s body?
This certainly wasn’t a movie of the week ending. I was still lost in the Smokies. Jake couldn’t rescue me and Rath, who’d been alone in the cave for nearly 12 hours, needed my help. I tore a strip from my tattered plaid shirt and tied it to a tree branch near the spot where Vaughn fell. Then I headed in the direction from which I’d seen Vaughn emerge.
Ten minutes later, I saw how he had crossed the chasm. He had presumably tightrope walked across a fallen tree trunk at a spot where the gorge was much narrower. I wasn’t confident I could do the same. I was a tree climber, not a trapeze artist. But I couldn’t afford to waste time and take a long route around.
This was one of those What Would Nainie Do moments. If I failed I’d plunge into the frigid waters below. I didn’t have the layers of fat the flying pig had. Nainie would cross the proverbial Rubicon, without hesitation. Therefore, I would do the same. I got across by a combination of scooting, crawling, and for the last five feet of the perilous excursion, by leaping and reciting a short poem by Marianne Moore I May, I Might, I Must.
I found my way back to the cave unaided. After nearly a week in these woods, I discovered there was a braille to reading the landscape, and a shorthand as well. It involved paying attention to lines, scents, and squiggles as you went and looking backward to take a snapshot of how the squiggles appeared different from another vantage point. It included using senses beyond the five we take for granted…an itch in the palm of the hand; goosebumps and changes in temperature; a barely perceptible ache or tension in joints, muscles; an awareness of vibrational energy.
Though the sky had darkened again and another chilly night was approaching, my eyes were attuned to the tiniest nuances. I did no backtracking and seldom stumbled. When I was within half an hour of the cave, I felt almost giddy. Was it simply because I’d barely eaten or drank anything on this memorable Thursday?
As I approached the hill I’d slid down around midnight, my being filled with joy, a genuine sense of joie de vivre. I’d been figuratively and literally lost in the wilds for five days. In less than four hours, trekking through tangled trees and encroaching gloom, I’d found my way back to the cave. It all felt so familiar.
Joy and jour, the first half of the word journey and the French word for day, and Jeudi, the French word for Thursday, were the odd salad of words that competed for my attention as I poked the cold ashes of the outside fire pit. Thursday proved to be a most unlucky day for Vaughn and for my nainie. J was a letter in the shape of a hook. In the middle ages, the letter J meant ‘I’ or the number ‘1.’ My senseless ranting was putting off the inevitable. What would I find in the cave?
Before I entered, I drank deeply at the spring and splashed cold water on my face. There was plenty of firewood piled outside to start a fire so I scooped up several pieces and ducked inside. Vaughn had taken one of the lanterns with him to search for me. I’d likely need to build a fire to see anything inside.
I needed have been concerned. At the far end of the cave, a small fire burned and shadows danced off the back wall. A figure lay covered. Rath, I presumed, had pulled his pallet nearer to the fire.
The reclining figure made a grunting sound and used an arm to prop himself up. He reached for a large stick or piece of metal on the floor next to the pallet. Rath’s voice quavered. “You come one step closer, I kill you like I should of done.” Though his voice was low, the words echoed mightily off the cave walls.
I dropped the firewood. “Rath, it’s me, Willy. He’s dead; Vaughn’s dead.”
He called me Wilela, as the Indian Tankakota had, and I strained in the dim light to make sure it was Rath on the pallet. I picked up the wood and half chuckled as I told him to relax, I was just going to add fuel to the fire.
“You survived. I knewt it.” He made a clucking sound. “I knew you was special. You sure he be dead?”
“As sure as I can be. You might appreciate that the man I considered to be one gigantic chauvinistic pig was killed by one. You’re hurt, how can I help”
“What I need, I can’t ask for from you. I’m troubled to say I’m not gonna be able to lead you off this here mountain, like I promised. But I can tell you how.”
He fell back and his eyes closed. Or rather his other eye closed. The one Vaughn had injured was swollen shut and crusted with blood. I felt for a pulse, called his name over and over. Then I grabbed a bowl and raced outside to the spring. He was awake again when I returned and called my name.
Rath allowed me to give him a few mouthfuls of water. “What is it you need me to do, just tell me? Is it blood? I’m O negative, a universal donor. You can have my blood.”
He waved his arm feebly, “Not blood, magic.”
While I pondered what he meant by magic I told Rath I asked Vaughn what he dosed him with. I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said the poison he gave you came from a purple plant, no, it was a deep lavender color. That could be deadly nightshade or monkshood, aka wolfsbane. Are you feeling like you want to howl at the moon?” My terrible joke only elicited a guttural moan of pain from Rath. His arm hugged his ribs.
I checked his extremities for bleeding wounds, which was no easy task. “There must be medicine, an antidote I can give you?”
He shook his head. “It be too late. If I had some more of that water.”
I leaned over and held the bowl to his lips again. He pushed it away. “Not that water, from the stream. I can’t ask you to go; not enough time.” He grabbed my arm, “How’d you manage to stay alive?”
“Whoa, that’s a long, terrible story.” I gave him the short version and he nodded, adding Vaughn must have found a stash of drugs in one of the vacation cabins he broke into. “What did you mean ‘had some more?’ You brought the water back. I remember. You put it in the mini whisky bottle. Wasn’t it enough?”
“It weren’t enough, just postponed the end.”
“No, I won’t accept that. Maybe we don’t have antidotes for either of those poisons, but there’s an entire stream of magical water. It fixed my sprained hand and blistered feet.”
Rath nodded off again. I rummaged in the wooden boxes and found a dozen cans of food. If anyone would have told me previous to that moment I would eat an entire can of cold beans (which I loathed) and like it, I’d call that person a liar. As I looked for the bin to put the empty can in, I spied the other lantern and the litter Rath had used to bring supplies to the cave.
I had a new plan, Plan S for Save Rath’s life. All I needed to do was pull him from the cave to the stream, a mere 4 or so hours away. It wasn’t a matter of if I could do it. I must do it. I brought the litter over to where he lay and after a bit of maneuvering, got him on it and covered him with a blanket. For good measure, I placed his woolen cap on his head.
There was no time for me to change into clean clothes, other than to toss the remnants of my flannel shirt on the floor and don an oversized ribbed navy sweater I found, then my vest, then a moth eaten jacket. My feet still felt tender. I wasn’t sure if I should take off the moccasins. When I unwrapped the bandages, my feet looked fine. I opted to wear my firmly broken in boots and secured the moccasins in the back pocket of my vest, along with a flashlight and the last of the trail mix from my backpack, and a few other necessities I wish I’d had earlier.
The full moon felt glaringly bright as I maneuvered the litter and myself free of the cave’s twisty entrance/exit. Rath’s good eye opened as we passed the outdoor firepit. He flailed and waved his arm, and tried to grab my leg.
“No, little sister, you can’t. Just let me die here.”
He called me little sister. The twins called me that too, even when I was full grown and as tall as them. I turned my back and pulled the litter forward so he wouldn’t see the blubbery tears running down my face. In a firm voice, which might have sounded harsh to disguise the emotions I was feeling, I ordered him to lay back and enjoy the ride. I had no earthly idea if I had enough strength to pull this litter for hours. I just knew I must. I called on the spirits of the woods, reciting aloud every name I could recall: the Dryads and Oreiades, Moss Folk, Meliai, Aigeiros, the Morea, and Pitys. I called to Freyja, whose day was nearly here. Friday was supposed to have been my final day in these mountain.
Rath had settled down again, or passed out. I got us down the first hill without tipping Rath out of the litter or sprawling headfirst into a pile of leaves. I can do this I murmured. The moon seemed to be illuminating the way. There was the marker he’d pointed out on our earlier trip.
Friday was one day before Saturday, and last Saturday had been a grand day. Jake was alive. I’d built a fire and cooked a meal. This particular Friday came at the end of the month. It wasn’t a mid-month unlucky Friday the 13th. Long ago, it wasn’t only Friday the 13ths that were unlucky. All Fridays were once considered to be luckless. But not anymore.
For the ninth time this week, I wanted to smack myself in my forehead. I deduced Freyja’s Day had come early. Pigs were sacred to her and she often rode a golden bristled pig on land and in the air. I’d found my way back to the cave. Rath was still alive. I could help him. This was my lucky day.
“Freyja,” I said aloud, to Rath if he was listening, to the many creatures that inhabited the Smoky Mountains, and to her 12 handmaidens, “today is going to be epically magical, a true seior-fest of a day.”
### Please stay tuned for the concluding chapter, Day 7 Dies Veneris (Venus/Freyja/Frigg’s’ day; dydd Gwener): Transformation, as well as Chapter 5 An Act of Ambition and more of Remains to be Seen, Grave Goddess, and Coached in Death, as well as seasonal blogs and upcoming Histoire of Magical Luminaries and Secret Keys