Once again the intrusive mirror caught me taking inventory of the familiar collection of wrinkles so persistently preserved on my face of only thirty-eight years. This confidential accounting revealed lines on my forehead keeping a precise record of every frown and glare—not to mention childlike dimples that had grown into gregarious caverns without my even noticing. Then of course there were the crow’s feet around the eyes. Smile lines they are called by those who are so pleasantly possessed; those infamous wrinkles that occasionally cooperate as the photographer coaxes you to smile, only to betray you later changing from plum-age to prune-age in the blink of an eye.
My hair, on the other hand, had fared better through the years. Having not yet abandoned me, it remained reasonably bountiful and relatively unchanged, the encroaching gray still cleverly disguised by my hair’s dusty blond color. Unfortunately, the somewhat darker hue of my beard and mustache now quite willingly displayed glimpses of several shades of gray, as did the hair hidden under my shirt. As for the rest of my wares, well, it was probably to my advantage that my short mirror did not reflect back to me the twenty-five pounds that had been added to the one hundred and seventy-five that once sprinted the local college campus.
Today, sixteen years later, I walked that campus with a slightly slower pace. For the past twelve years I had taught a variety of music courses at the local college. Teaching was a means of financial survival; the ideal place for an unsuccessful composer to camouflage himself while impatiently waiting for the uncooperative world to discover him. So far the plan had worked perfectly: my talents were still well-concealed, and no one was the wiser. Even my closest companions were relatively unaware of the large volume of music I had written and rewritten over the years. I suppose I found it to be less debilitating (not to mention less humiliating) to have created only a few undiscovered masterpieces rather than an entire trunkfull. My scheme though had not taken into account the impending dissatisfaction that had been making its daily visitations into my . . . tediously . . . monotonous . . . existence.
I took a leave of absence. The time had come to end the mundane, to perhaps find the remains of a lifelong dream that was currently somewhere over the rainbow. The spontaneity of my sabbatical was not without justification though; even now my middle-aged countenance revealed a glint of hope. One thread of the dream had made its way back through the pages of my life, rendering the wrinkles somehow less tragic, the futile efforts more vindicated. As I stared at my own reflection, my mind was already conceding that the universe was truly in its right order after all. Perhaps the passing years had been kneading the clay for the sculpture about to be made.
Today, I was to finally meet a man who was a model of the dream I had yet to achieve. In the realm of great musical extravaganzas, the name of producer John McDowell was in some way attached to each of them. Be it the theater or the symphony, the opera or the cinema, he was considered the lord of musical accomplishment, the Robin Hood of undiscovered masterpieces.
Eleven years of returned parcels and disregarded phone messages were apparently the fertile ground in which the seed of my opportunity had finally taken hold. A collection of my compositions had been delivered to McDowell by an old friend who had worked with him on a theatrical production in New York. Nine months later the impossible had been achieved. I was to meet with McDowell himself, and I was to bring all of my compositions.
For more than a decade I had reverently collected every piece of passion I had ever known. Each emotion was described and revealed through a melodic testament of my existence. My morning walks had become preludes; brief encounters danced as sonatas. My liaisons bloomed into overtures, while nightmares had borne symphonies. The whole of my life was preserved on the faded parchment in my worn leather satchel, a library of notes and staves, measures and stanzas.
The mirror released me, leaving me with the image of a timeless dreamer who had possibly found the courage to begin again.
In my studio, which also doubled as a living room, I found the television still on from the night before. Miraculously, it had changed from broadcasting an evening with the symphony to a Monday morning evangelist. A middle-aged woman, doing a bad Barbie impersonation, was drunk on—praise God, thank you Jesus. Praise God, praise God. With a click of the remote, the religious drivel was silenced.
My appointment with McDowell was for 11:00 a.m. This gave me ample time to drive to his office in the heart of the central district. Grabbing my coat and the leather satchel, I paused at the doorway and looked back into my studio. Melodies had been born there and emotions had found immortality. Propped on the brow of the grand piano was a piece of sheet music I’d been reminiscing with the night before, composed years ago for just such a day as this.
Dreamwalker, take my dream to the far side of this life.
And hold my vision in your arms,
it’s your promise of the night.
Feel my passion. Feel the wonder of all that I desire.
Dreamwalker, set my dream on fire.
As the door slowly squeezed the images out of my view, the telephone rang, pleading for me to return.
My immediate thought was to deny its persistent request—to allow nothing to distract me from my morning’s destination. As I stood outside the door, my hand still on the knob, the thought occurred to me that it might be Mr. McDowell’s office. I retraced my steps and lifted the receiver.
A woman answered, her voice surrounded by the indifferent clutter of office sounds. “Hello, is this Mr. Jared Grayson?”
“Yes,” I said, “this is Jared Grayson.”
“Mr. Grayson, my name is Sarah Neburg. I’m a nurse from the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital. I am calling to see if you are related to a Mr. Benjamin Grayson.”
Taking a quick mental inventory, I could find no Benjamins—Grayson or otherwise. To my great relief it appeared that this phone call was a mistake. The interruption would not hinder my departure. A sigh escaped as I answered her question.
“No, I’m sorry, I have no relative by the name of Benjamin Gray—” The name caught in my throat. I had a sudden memory from childhood: Uncle Ben. He never went by Benjamin. He was my father’s younger brother and, after the sudden death of their parents, we lost all contact with him. It was rumored he had moved far up into the mountains intending never to be found. Throughout the remainder of my father’s life, as well as the years that followed, my family believed that Ben was no longer alive. The voice on the phone interrupted my thoughts
“Hello, Mr. Grayson, are you still there?”
“Yes . . . excuse me . . . I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“Mr. Grayson, are you or are you not a relative of Benjamin Grayson?”
“Forgive my hesitation, but I’m not really sure. I was just now recalling an uncle I used to refer to as Ben. His last name would have also been Grayson. I have not known his whereabouts for over twenty years. Is there a problem? What is this all about?”
“Mr. Grayson, we have a Benjamin Grayson, approximate age fifty-five. He was brought in about an hour ago with a head injury. Apparently he had a bad fall, somewhere in the mountains north of here. His condition is considered critical. Our emergency room physician is running tests to determine if he will require surgery. If he does, we will need immediate authorization from a family member. So far you are the only person we have found who might be related. We got your number from the local directory. There was no identification on the patient other than a name on an envelope in his shirt pocket. Mr. Grayson, does this sound like your uncle?”
My eyes became fixed on my watch. If I was still going to make the appointment, I would have to leave immediately. My heart was pounding. I wished now that I had never answered the phone.
“Miss, to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’m related to this man or not. Could you describe him?”
“Yes,” she said. “He has a full-faced beard that, like his hair, is now mostly white. My guess would be that he is about six-foot-four and that he weighs around 260 pounds. His skin tone is somewhat dark, like he spent a lot of time out-of-doors.”
I could find nothing in her description to show that this was someone other than my uncle. However, having not seen him for so many years, it was impossible to know for sure. With both of my parents deceased, I would probably be my uncle’s only living relative. Regardless, the question remained, was I actually related to this man?
“Mr. Grayson,” she continued, “as long as there’s the possibility of locating a living relative, we will not proceed without consent. If there is no one, he will be considered a ward of the state, and the attending physician will be given the authority. I see by your address that you’re not far from the hospital. Under the circumstances, the best course of action would be for you to come immediately to the emergency room.”
The responsibility of this precise moment was inescapable. I was the only one who could quickly shed some light on this regrettable situation. Try as I might, I could find no other logical solution. She was right, I had to go to the hospital. I had to surrender to the situation at hand.
“Very well,” I said, “I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”
I hung up and slowly placed the satchel full of music onto the bench, knowing full well that along with it I laid down the dream that perhaps had made its last attempt to be realized. The truth of this stranger’s identity was as yet unknown, but the consequence of this day, and its effect on my life, was more than evident. My body sank forward and seemed to collapse inside of itself. Questions filled with disappointment and anger stumbled over each other, repeating in my mind. What kind of an explanation could there be for such circumstances? Why had I been brought at last to the table if there was no banquet to be held? What kind of a God could be so entertained by such futility? The list was unending and well-rehearsed. All were thoughts I had grappled with before. They were the familiar cornerstones of the last twelve years of my life.
Before leaving the house, I quickly phoned McDowell’s office, hoping to explain and beg fervently for some other time to meet with him. The agitated tone of the busy signal clashed with my own quickened heartbeat. Not only was I going to miss my appointment, it would look as if I had not even bothered to cancel. And, I would be unavailable if they called me. Salvaging my golden opportunity—or even a remnant of my shattered credibility—seemed hopeless. I hung up in total defeat, putting the bleating busy signal out of its misery, wishing that someone could do the same for me.
It was true that the hospital was but a short distance away. Today though, the journey seemed endless as my thoughts meandered among the emotions that now held them captive. A lifetime of disappointments accompanied me like an unwanted passenger who stared woefully out the window as I maneuvered my jeep along the city streets.
As I passed the red neon emergency entrance, I could find no part of me that cared whether or not this man was my uncle. And if he was, it was of no consequence to me whether or not he survived. He was but a stranger who had somehow attached himself to me by the common name of Grayson, a name I saw only as another legacy from my disheveled lineage, the members of which were all but deceased.
I stepped out of the warm jeep into the cold late morning air. Walking toward the sliding doors, I could already feel my face finding its plastic expression of concern, my body still searching for a more formal demeanor. I welcomed the commotion around the admissions desk, hoping that my honorable duty would be brief. With any luck I would ease by with a slight case of mistaken identity. Or better yet, the more definitive conclusion that the man had simply died in the interim. The eyes of the receptionist finally found me as did her generic question of, “Yes . . . may I help you?”
“My name is Jared Grayson. I am here in regard to a Benjamin Grayson. There was a question about my being related and giving some kind of authorization.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Grayson, I remember . . . as it turns out, we discovered after our conversation that the patient’s wife had already arrived. She made her way in to see her husband without stopping at the front desk and checking with us . . . so it appears that . . . well, I believe we do have someone from the immediate family after all. I hope that your trip to the hospital was not an inconvenience.”
Stunned, I stared at the pages on her desk. Perhaps by reading the upside-down lettering, I might decipher some secret message as to why this small oversight had been allowed to create such havoc in my life. If my efforts and personal sacrifice had been for some gallant cause, I could have found a remnant of satisfaction within this fiasco. But to have my noble gesture appear simply as some ironic jest to which only God-the-Novelist was privy was a stretch, even for my sense of humor. The receptionist interrupted my melancholy trance.
“I must say Mr. Grayson, it was rather a surprise to us as well to find one of his relatives and to learn that she was right here at the hospital all along. She apparently found her husband in one of the cubicles in the emergency area. Someone overheard her talking to him behind the curtain—even though he has yet to regain consciousness. It drew the attention of one of the nurses, and that’s how we discovered she was here. In fact, I believe she’s there with him now. Would you like to go in and see them?”
For several seconds I debated involving myself further. If I suddenly made my entrance into this dramatic scene not knowing anyone in the room, this affair would not only become exceedingly uncomfortable, but I would have discovered yet one more opportunity to be unveiled as a total buffoon. If these were indeed members of some long lost branch of my family tree, then did I really want to rekindle all of those perfectly good reasons why they had generated themselves to be long lost in the first place? Maybe I should leave well enough alone and not disturb what for some twenty years had been kept so perfectly vacant. Finding no resolution to my dilemma, I responded. “Well, I’m not actually sure that I’m even related to any of these people. Did you happen to catch the wife’s first name?”
“Clair, I believe it was. Would you like to speak with her?”
Silence followed as I hung on to her words with great hesitation. What for an instant had been clear and concise was once again murky and questionable. Cautiously, I answered.
“Ah . . . yes, I think I would like to have a word with her. . . . Yes, a word with Aunt Clair would be very . . . engaging.”
Speaking to my Aunt Clair (as I remember) was always a challenge, but I had the feeling that this encounter with her was going to be rather exceptional. Clair Grayson, my uncle’s wife, had died some time ago.
My mind began calculating the odds of there actually being some other Ben and Clair Grayson coexisting on the planet. There could be some perfectly gracious couple who just happened to be called Ben and Clair Grayson, who by mere coincidence lived in the same city as I, but were of no relation. This absurd notion was dismissed as swiftly as it arrived only to be replaced by the childhood images I could recall from my Aunt Clair’s funeral. Maybe it wasn’t really her in the casket that day, but was some imposter that just—
“Mr. Grayson,” said a cheerful voice, breaking through my jumbled thoughts.
“Yes,” I said to the nurse who approached, a small Asian woman with large glasses and a gracious smile.
“Well, of course you must be Mr. Grayson, you have such a strong resemblance to . . . is it your father?”
I fervently shook my head no and said, “I think he’s my uncle.”
“Oh . . . well, Mr. Grayson, your uncle has been moved up to intensive care, and his condition is no longer considered critical. As of yet though, he has not regained consciousness, so they are still monitoring him. He’s on the fourth floor in room 417. You can go on up and look in on him if you like. Oh, and Mr. Grayson . . . would you remind your aunt that we still need her to fill out the appropriate forms . . . as soon as possible.”
As I walked to the elevator, I noticed how inviting the exit sign looked. It glowed with that wonderful green “GO” color, and it hung over the front entrance, which led to the sidewalk—which led to my jeep—which could lead me to anywhere other than here.
The fourth floor spoke with a ghostly orchestration of beeps and tones from machines and monitors that seemed to be in every corner. As I searched the hall for room 417, I suddenly caught the features of a face that, to my own disbelief, I remembered so well. Even from across the hall and through the silence of a window I knew it had to be him. Like a child, I peered through the pane of the glass at a small handful of my history, a memory that I thought was all but forgotten. I was amazed at how well I remembered his face and how well he had aged over the years.
I stepped into the quiet of the room, greeted only by the mechanical bleeps of a sleeping man’s heart. He lay idle and frozen underneath the folded pale linen as though possessed by a spell that had yet to be broken. His hair was white, sketched with patches of gray as if his face had been brushed by the sun, his skin still bronze from the exposure. His beard was grayish-white, full and well-groomed; his nose was strong and broad on his face. Even with the frenzy of tubes that now cradled his features, he held onto that noble appearance that was so much the image of how I saw him as a child. I remembered being frightened of his size and his strength: he seemed to tower over most other men. He was a sensitive man though—too sensitive, my father would say—yet so filled with life—a quality I now searched for some remnant of. Like a great sleeping giant cast in stone, he rested perfectly still, unaffected by me or the world around him.
There was no sign of any Aunt Clair, and being alone in the room with him gave me an eerie feeling. It was a discomfort like that I had experienced during numerous encounters at funerals. I stepped closer to look for more signs of life, when a male voice startled me from behind.
“You must be his son . . . I can tell by the resemblance.” A man wearing a tweed jacket with a stethoscope around his neck stepped around the back side of the curtain. His thinning blond hair and thick mustache were accentuated by his dark tan, probably the result of a recent tropical retreat. His vibrant eyes and healthy demeanor seemed somehow out of place in this haven for disease and depression. With a strong hand he reached out for mine and spoke, “I am Dr. Stiltson . . . Sam Stiltson. I’m one of the physicians assigned to your father’s case.”
“Hello, Doctor,” I said shaking his hand, “I’m Jared Grayson, but I’m not his son. I’m his nephew and I haven’t seen him for some twenty years. They tracked me down because they couldn’t find anyone else, that is until they discovered his wife was already here at the hospital. I thought I’d find her here.”
With a puzzled look, the doctor replied, “I haven’t seen her or been notified about his having a wife. So far you are the only one to come in and see him, at least since he was moved into intensive care. . . . Is his wife here at the hospital?”
His timely question was also one of mine, but the real question was whether our dear Aunt Clair existed anywhere at all. Once again I found myself enmeshed in some muddle that was no-business-of-mine and expected to explain what was no-understanding-of-mine. Surreptitiously, I glanced toward my uncle, perhaps checking to see if he was secretly listening. Or maybe it was because I felt uneasy about speaking in front of him on the information I was about to share.
“Well, Doctor . . . there was a woman in the emergency room who claimed to be his wife, my Aunt Clair. She apparently did not check in at the desk, and no one seems to have any idea where she is now. I myself have not seen her for many years and I have no idea whether she is even a relative of his, or of mine. And quite frankly, Doctor, I don’t know that I am the appropriate person to be handling this. I hardly know this man and would really rather not be in this position. My being here was sort of a legal family obligation because they couldn’t find anyone else.”
“That’s all right,” he said, “at this point it doesn’t really matter. There aren’t any decisions to be made on his behalf. Currently he is in a comatose state that is not uncommon with someone who has had a traumatic injury, especially one that involved such a heavy blow to the back of the skull. The damage from the impact was severe, but not necessarily permanent. Our greatest concern right now is that he has several arteries in the damaged areas that are extremely narrow for appropriate blood flow to the brain. This may have been a condition that he had earlier and the accident has just compounded it. At any rate there is a very high probability of his having a blockage or clot in one of these arteries. This could result in an aneurysm or a stroke . . . even death.”
“So, Doctor,” I said, “is this the reason for the sudden coma?”
“We’re not really sure why people go into a comatose state. In his case, it could be a reaction to the trauma as well as his delicate arterial condition. His brain may be shutting down all unnecessary bodily functions in order to minimize pressure to the arteries, which could lessen any chance of a disaster. Some people believe that a coma is an immobilized state in which the body then focuses on an ailment in an attempt to repair the problem. In any case, there is no way of knowing how long the coma will last, or if he will come out of it at all.”
“If he does come out of the coma,” I asked, “will he be alright? I mean, will he be able to function in a normal way?”
“The brain is a complicated mechanism,” he said. “It’s impossible to know the extent of the damage. He may already have some mental or physical dysfunction. We will be able to know more after further testing. He might regain consciousness and be perfectly normal. But he will then have to live with the threat of the aneurysm. With even a small amount of mental stress or physical strain, perhaps even for no apparent reason at all, the aneurysm can occur . . . and without any warning.”
“In other words, Doctor, if by chance he does return to some kind of normal activity, he will always be a walking time bomb ready to explode at any moment?”
“Yes, that’s about it.”
“Is there any chance for surgery or some kind of treatment?”
“We can give him some medication to thin the blood, which will help minimize the clotting. As far as surgery, with the existing arterial problems, the risk factor is extremely high, and the odds for any kind of success are not good.”
The doctor rambled on about my uncle’s condition, compounding the reasons why I wished I had never gotten involved in the first place. After he finished, he gave me his condolences, which left me feeling that it was unlikely my uncle would survive for very long. I suppose I was relieved. After all he had been through so much, and the quality of his life would be restricted. Maybe it would be best if he just never came out of the coma and simply died in his sleep. Of course, I could not deny my more cunning notion. If he would just go ahead and die, I would not have to take up any responsibility in the situation and could quietly go back to my mundane life.
The doctor and I slowly wandered towards the hall. To my surprise, as Dr. Stiltson passed through the door, he leaned back into the room and said, “Well, goodbye Ben. We will stop in and see you again tomorrow.” At that particular moment, a verbal gesture seemed rather odd, since for the last twenty minutes the doctor and I had been carrying on as if Ben weren’t even in the room. Not to mention that I now appeared to be the coldhearted bastard who didn’t even bother to say goodbye at all. Surprisingly, he added, “There is something about this one, your uncle.”
Before leaving I stopped at the nurses station, reluctantly giving them my name and number and what little knowledge I had about their patient. Again I asked about the woman who had claimed to be his wife, but there was no more information. I told them to please notify me if they had any further communication.
As I again passed by the doorway of my uncle’s room I heard what I thought was a part of a conversation from inside. “Well, I’ve got to go now, but you have a mighty fine rest, Mr. Grayson, and we’ll be talkin’ with you again real soon,” were the closing remarks of a woman’s voice. Startled by the possibility that Uncle Ben had awakened and was talking to someone, I slipped back into the room. My abrupt entrance nearly caused me to collide with a short Black woman carrying a bucket and a mop, the handle of which did clap me on the side of the head.
“Well, hello there,” she said, in an outspoken fashion, unaware that she had just assaulted me with her mop. She then turned toward my comatose uncle and exclaimed, “Ya see there, Mr. Grayson, now here is someone else whose a comin’ to talk with you, and I’ll bet that this is your son, too . . . the resemblance and all.” As I secretly searched for a fresh gouge on my head, the woman glanced back towards me from her exit out the door and said, “Well, you two have a real nice visit now.”
I stood there feeling pressed into the scene as though an audience of ghostly bystanders were now expecting me to strike up some lively conversation with a man that was completely nonresponsive, in a room that, except for my presence, seemed as vacant of life as the city morgue. I felt ridiculous and uncomfortable, having been launched by this crazed cleaning woman into the opening lines of some artificial conversation that I thought was totally pointless. My body throbbed with a silent animosity as my participation in this senseless drama continued to escalate.
For the life of me I could not understand what possessed any of these people to talk with him. He couldn’t hear them, and he was unable to respond even if he could. It seemed deranged to me that they would behave as though they could cleverly communicate with him in some emotionally-disturbed language only they could decipher. Furthermore, I had no appreciation whatsoever for their insightful observations of how I so strongly resembled this frozen figure. After all, he was a half a foot taller, sixty pounds heavier, had stark white hair and a beard, a big nose, giant ears, and looked like he’d been dead for at least a week!
Just then, I heard a chuckle from the direction of my uncle’s bed. My heart jumped; I gasped for a breath of air. When I first turned to look, I saw nothing. Then with a series of clatters someone pulled open the curtain between my uncle’s bed and the bed next to it. A young man in green hospital scrubs appeared holding a tourniquet and a syringe full of blood. Lying in the adjacent bed was a very small man, a midget compared to my uncle, but just as silent and equally comatose. The attendant laughed and tried to reassure me.
“Don’t mind Emily, our maintenance woman,” he said. “She tends to act . . . just a little touched sometimes. . . . Up here, you know.” He tapped the side of his own head affectionately. “She always jabbers on that way with everyone. In fact, tonight she said that your friend here even spoke to her. But, of course, as soon as I walked in the door, well, he immediately stopped talking and went right back into his coma,” he said with a self-satisfied laugh. “Well, like I said, Emily’s a little touched. She’s probably the only one that he would ever talk to, and no doubt she is probably the only one that could ever hear him. . . .” He chuckled again, “If you know what I mean?”
At this time, I had to admit I wasn’t sure what he meant, nor had I any desire to find out. I lamely smiled and left the room, once again maneuvering down the hall towards the elevator,
trying to wash my mind of a solitary phrase that kept popping up. Just a little touched . . . just a little touched.
That evening I drove into the central part of the city. I longed to regain some part of my everyday existence that was at least vaguely familiar. A gray, misty rain seemed to saturate the pavement as I walked along Seventh Avenue, observing people who were pretending to be unaffected by the cold and wet. A few buildings down, at the Regency Theater, a performance was letting out. Three or four limousines out front signalled to onlookers that it was probably opening night for some aspiring writer or the miraculous debut for the works of a newly discovered composer. Perhaps I would pretend that it was me and slip into the open door of one of the limos. I would tell the driver to pull away and then masquerade with the success of another composer’s life, no one ever knowing the difference. I smirked at the thought and then glanced up at the marquee to read the letters that would come to haunt me yet once again.
THE TIME KEEPER
Produced by John McDowell
The name taunted me like a relentless ghost. Not only had I bungled my private meeting with John McDowell (one of the greatest producers in the country), but I did it on the same day his latest production opened. He would have been excited and inspired—looking for something new to take on. He would have been happily searching for some raw undiscovered talent he could bring into the spotlight and—BUMP.
My body was jostled by an awed and excited crowd of people pouring out of the theater. They quickly filled the sidewalks and overflowed into the wet city streets, some of them peering into the many limos that began to receive their long-awaited passengers. One of those passengers was undoubtedly John McDowell, although I had no idea which one. People said he was very much a pacesetter and ran with the richest and most stylish people in the country. Undoubtedly, he knew only the right people and was invited to all of the wildest and most glamourous parties. He was outrageous and eccentric, and had more than enough money and popularity to get away with it. He was the epitome of my most extravagant dream personified, and he was probably in one of those last limos that had just disappeared into the darkened street.
I spent the majority of the next morning dancing aimlessly with my idle furniture, trying to reorganize the pieces of my life to see if at least two or three of them might still fit together in some logical fashion. So far I had managed to dismiss the notion that I was a complete failure. I had all but decided that my life had simply fallen into the hands of one of God’s court jesters, and that before the end of time the scoundrel would be caught, and that all would be put back into good order. I had also managed to avoid contact with the hospital all morning and was fervently pretending that the situation would just handle itself. By mid-afternoon though, I was beginning to realize that not knowing what was happening with my uncle might mean that others (unbeknownst to me) could be plotting to involve me with him even deeper. I finally decided to call and see if there had been any change.
“Hello,” I said. “This is Jared Grayson. I’m calling in regard to Benjamin Grayson. . . . He is in room 417.”
“Yes, Mr. Grayson. I’ve been working with your father this morning. There really hasn’t been any change since last night. He is holding his own though, which at this point is a good sign.”
“Nurse, has he shown any signs of regaining consciousness?”
“No, but he did have a visitor today. A very nice, young woman who has been talking to him most of the afternoon. We have all been hoping that he might respond to her. In fact, I think that she is still with him now.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “Who is she? What is her name?”
“I believe she said that she was his niece or something,” she replied. “Would you like to speak with her?”
“Yes, I . . . I mean no,” I stuttered. “Just ask her to stay at the hospital, and I will be there in a couple of minutes.”
“All right, Mr. Grayson. I’ll tell her.”
“And nurse,” I continued after a short pause, “that man is not my father . . . I’m just his nephew . . . a distant nephew.”
I made my way to the hospital as quickly as possible, realizing now that, with all of the strange occurrences, I should have taken the time to speak to the mystery woman on the phone. Once inside I maneuvered through the crowded lobby and catapulted myself through the closing jaws of the empty elevator that was, according to the green light, going up. I pushed the button for the fourth floor and leaned back in the silent isolation that the elevator briefly provided. I pondered the recent visit from the other woman who was claiming to be my Aunt Clair.
If she had known Ben or had been related to him, then why wouldn’t she leave her real name and number? Or for that matter, why would she bother to say she was his wife if she had no intention of playing out the role? Is it possible that this was just some strange old lady wandering through the hospital, one who had simply misplaced a few of her own faculties and was chronically grieving over some lost husband that she probably never really cared for at all?
My mind continued its relentless pedaling for the misplaced logic in the situation. Within the confines of my privacy, I spoke to myself out loud. “Besides, who’s to say whether any of these people who have been carrying on lengthy conversations with my nonresponsive uncle are even in their right minds. Perhaps what is actually called for in this situation is a little psychiatric intervention with each and every one of the these mysterious visitors.” DING. The elevator chimed.
My words were interrupted as my private chamber came to a stop. Like the eye of some great dragon, the elevator doors opened to look once again into the world. An onrush of light and sound came flooding through the opening. In the midst of this flurry, a young woman stepped up to catch the moving doors. She had long, straight auburn hair that hung down around her shoulders. Her light peach colored garment draped all around her like an invitation to the wind that might at any moment take her up in a dance. Her attire looked Mediterranean, or perhaps East Indian, but very modern as though she had just come from some gallery opening on the far side of town.
“Are you going down?” she said. Her voice surprised me as did the intensity of her light brown eyes. Without thinking I quickly answered her. “Ah, yes.”
She struck me as being very beautiful in a modest way, with a soft milky complexion and very little makeup. Her naturally high cheekbones accentuated the almond shape of her eyes which seemed to smile somehow, even during a mundane ride up the elevator. There was a pleasantness about her, everything simple and balanced. She felt familiar to me, although I would venture to say that this observation was likely just another example of my middle-aged roguery surfacing to be noticed.
She reminded me very much of a young woman that I knew years ago by the name of Katherine . . . “Katherine with a K,” she would so often announce. In fact, I had intended to marry her had she not decided one afternoon to depart for Nepal, following some infamous guru, whose name I could never pronounce. I can still remember the last letter I received from her:
“Dear Jared, I have decided to live in Nepal with my true guru and mentor. I believe this to be the path of my ultimate destiny. Being pregnant may also be a part of my destiny since there is a possibility that I may be. Even though you are more than likely the father, I want you to know that I assume full responsibility and that I release you of any parental obligations. I am leaving no forwarding address so that we can both start our new lives without any historical difficulties. Sincerely, Katherine. . .” or something to that effect.
Such were the scenarios of having lived through my unstable youth. I was never to hear from her again. Throughout our relationship she had been adamant about never having children. Whether or not a child had been born, there was no way of knowing. At the time, I had neither the finances nor the passion to pursue finding out if I had become a father. I reluctantly allowed all such speculations to fall from me, as I did in time the memories of my life’s dawning romance.
As my mind wandered within the past, I noticed the elevator had begun to fill with the scent of roses. It was a subtle aroma, not that of a perfume, but more natural, almost edible somehow. I glanced up at the elevator numbers to refocus myself. The red light reading 5 had just gone dark. A charge of my own electricity jolted my body back into the awareness that I had just missed my stop. Needless to say, though, the fourth floor had not gone by unnoticed. It was undoubtedly the floor where the attractive young woman had gotten on. In addition, the elevator was obviously not going down as I had told her. It was going up on what appeared to be a ghost run, since no other buttons on the board had been pushed.
I could feel her awareness of the situation as if she too was now wondering who I was and whether I was really trying to get anywhere at all. I decided that if I was to leave this elevator with some semblance of dignity (not to mention the appearance of some sanity), I would simply get out on whichever floor the doors chose to stop at next. I would step out with great assurance as if I were in total control of my situation and knew exactly where I was going and what I was doing. As the light beamed 7, the elevator stopped. I stepped confidently out through the doors onto the tile floor, only to bring myself two steps later to a complete halt.
The elevator had opened to a small area, which was barricaded with waist-high countertops. Glass extended above the counters, completing the enclosure to the ceiling. Behind the glass, off to one side, was a security guard who promptly stood up as I stepped out. A woman dressed in a gray suit sat at the counter and peered through a large hole cut out of the glass. At first, the space had the appearance of a small but rather secure bank lobby, that is except for the large black letters mounted safely behind the glass: psychiatric ward. The security guard’s voice echoed through the hole in the glass as he leaned towards the woman and spoke.
“Were they sending someone up to be admitted?”
My shadow turned and leapt for the elevator door, but my body surrendered and sank back onto its heels, knowing full well that it was too late for any such escape. There was a slight giggle from the elevator as its doors closed firmly behind me. I glanced again at the lettering on the wall, hoping I might have read it wrong the first time. To my grave disappointment, this was not the case. As I looked back at the security guard, I noticed that his left eye was now open slightly larger than the other, its accompanying eyebrow had likewise raised for the question.
Caught in this scene, with all of its irony, I could not help but laugh in spite of myself. What began as a chuckle more closely resembled an abrupt outburst, which probably did not help my present situation. I took a deep breath to regain my composure, preparing myself to cope with the truth of my absentmindedness.
I informed the guard that I was not paying attention, and I simply waltzed out onto the wrong floor. Then the guard informed me that the elevator does not stop on this floor unless they are sending someone up to be admitted. He also said that new patients are always accompanied by, and are under the watchful eye of, a security guard, who in my case now appeared to be missing. Although this new information helped explain why the elevator had stopped on a floor that had no button to push on the panel, it did not explain why the elevator had randomly chosen this floor and spewed me out into the world of straitjackets and padded cells. My puzzlement was shared by the security guard, who then cautiously guided me to a small wooden bench alongside the counter. There I was to wait while he made some phone calls to find out if anyone had been sent up to be admitted or if anyone had been reported missing.
As he made his call, I directed my attention to the skeptical features on the face of the woman behind the glass.
“This is all just a simple mistake,” I said. “My uncle is down in intensive care on the fourth floor, and I was on my way to see him. I missed that stop, and for some reason the elevator stopped here and I got out in error. In fact, I called the nurse on the fourth floor just a short while ago and arranged to meet with someone. They are waiting for me at the nurses station.” After a slight pause, I persisted, “You can call them and verify it.” She motioned to the guard who was just finishing his call, and then repeated to him what I had just said. She then stiffly addressed me through the opening in the glass.
“What is your name and the name of the patient you were here to see?” I gave her the names, and she continued. “And what is the room number of that patient?”
I answered. “It’s room 417.”
She started to write it down, but then slowly turned to the guard and said, “Isn’t that the room that you went down to last night? You remember, the Indian guy with the long ponytail who was ranting and raving over that patient, the big white-haired guy in a coma. Wasn’t that 417?”
The guard clasped his chin with a squeeze of suspicion and said, “Yeah . . . that was 417—” Before he could complete his sentence, both he and the nurse rotated their faces simultaneously to fix their eyes on me. Behind the blank and bewildered look that I was sure now possessed my own face, my mind shouted into every vacant cavern within to awaken me from this metaphorical nightmare. To no avail—the echoes came back leaving me with the inescapable conclusion that this was no dream, and as this drama unfolded, I was to have the next line. It was a classic case of speechlessness. I was caught in the clutches of some cosmic hospital melodrama with no idea which part I was playing. Striving to portray some innocence, I questioned their last response.
“There was someone in my uncle’s room last night?”
The guard shifted his eyes and caught the gaze of the woman as he answered. “Yeah, it was about two in the morning, and he was making some kind of voodoo over the old guy, trying to wake him up. The night nurse called and said he was chanting and waving feathers around—which had them all in a panic. When I dealt with him, he started acting like a wild animal. So, I put him in restraints, and he soon found himself admitted to the Psychiatric Unit.” He chuckled sarcastically, revealing a pirate-like grin. “He’s here for a 72-hour observation until they find out what’s going on with him.”
To the guard’s uneasiness, I came to my feet and attempted a lively but feeble defense. “I don’t know anything about this man, but if you would just call the nurses station, I assure you that they know who I am.” At this the woman behind the counter picked up the phone and called the fourth floor. The nurse there apparently verified who I was and that she had been expecting me for some time.
With this the guard ushered me back into the elevator, and I was delivered to my original destination. He escorted me to the nurses station as though I were a child in tow. Then he made a sluggish about-face, in the direction of the elevator. At last the steel doors swallowed the fine constable and transported him back to the psychiatric ward, where he was probably better suited as a patient than a security guard. Turning to the nurse I asked, “Could you tell me where I will find the young woman who came to see my uncle?”
Looking up from her clipboard, she said, “Oh, she couldn’t wait for you. Perhaps another time, I think she said.” At this, my patience all but gone, and with the nurse walking away, I knew I would have to be more persistent.
“Excuse me,” I said, “did she understand that I was on my way to speak with her?”
“I’m sure she did,” she replied. “She ran out of here like she was in an awful hurry.”
I remembered the woman who had dashed into the elevator, the young lady who had been the catalyst of my seventh floor psychiatric detour. She would have been leaving the hospital about that time. I called to the nurse as she continued to walk away.
“Was she wearing something of a peach-colored dress that draped everywhere?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” she said, disappearing into one of the rooms.
I had more questions, but allowed the conversation to come to its natural end, having noticed that I was standing by myself— talking to myself—in the middle of the empty hallway. Having so recently made my escape from the comforting arms of the psychiatric ward, I thought it best not to create any more commotion. For now, I would be silent, even though I had not yet asked about my uncle or inquired about the mad late-night crier with whom I had nearly become roommates on the psychiatric floor.
I strolled down the hall and slowly entered my uncle’s room. Again I could smell a light scent of roses lingering among an assortment of sterile and therapeutic odors. My uncle, ever so still and silent, appeared unaffected by the commotion from the recent visitations. I moved closer to study his private and peaceful expression. Standing in the dim light of the open doorway, I spoke to him out loud.
“For someone who is so silent, you surely do have a barrage of visitors. And lady visitors at that. The nurse said that—” I caught my own words as they merged into a murmur of laughter. I smiled and shook my head. Perhaps the deranged halls of the psychiatric floor weren’t so inappropriate after all. Here I was talking out loud with him as the others had done, making light of a situation tangled with confusion and grave uncertainties. I suppose I should have been more melancholy, but try as I might, I could find no grief inside me.
I looked at the gentle lines around his eyes, curious as to how his skin could appear so soft and alive amid the deeper wrinkles of a face that had always placed itself into the wind. I thought about how full of life he had once been and could not help but wonder just how near that life was to me now. Was there some presence here that I had previously allowed to slip past me undetected? Or had my imagination simply been triggered by the day’s circumstances and the collection of strangers who had come to visit him? Had I allowed some possibility to make its way into the annals of my mind? I could not be sure what I was truly feeling, but as I stood over him, I knew the feeling was different than before. For the first time, I very much wanted to be there. I wanted to come in and find him sitting up, making jest with some young lover with whom he had recently had an ecstatic affair. I wanted him to reminisce, telling me of those missing years that had passed and of all those summer days that had been so good to him in his life. My hopefulness frightened me, yet it seemed to have found some place inside me where it was now most welcome.
My eyes followed the many shades of his silvery white beard down below his chin. Around his neck I noticed pieces of red and orange color. As I pulled back a part of his garment I discovered vibrant rose petals scattered about his throat and nestled in the white hair on his chest. Again I could smell the sweet scent I had noticed when entering the room. I called the nurse to show her what I’d found. We discovered that Ben’s entire body had been covered with the fragrant petals. Like a bouquet scattered by the wind, a delicate array of orange and red adorned him from head to foot.
The nurse quickly began to remove the petals, trying to restore some order to her domain. A bewildered smile overtook me as I walked into the hall. I could still remember the spirited face (as well as the giggle) of the young woman in the elevator who had witnessed a small sample of my disoriented behavior. I could easily envision her as the artful maiden of the rose petals. Quite possibly she was not only the ghostly reminder of a tarnished memory, my first love Katherine, but she may have also been the painter of this most auspicious portrait of my uncle in his ever-so-floral attire. I had no concept of the purpose behind the scattering of the petals and could not help but wonder just what manner of visitors had been drawn to the bedside of my silent relation. As I took my leave, I glanced back through the doorway to say goodbye.
“Well, Uncle, what do you have to say for yourself now?” I smiled and again shook my head as we both started to laugh—I mean, I started to laugh.
The next morning I was roused by the insistent and repetitive whine of the telephone. I could tell by the shadows in the softly lit room that night had not yet surrendered to the day. Darkness still harbored my mind as it slipped in and out of any conscious awareness. The telephone’s relentless ringing was accompanied by the familiar sounds from the awakening streets, sounds that played the prelude of dawn slowly making its way into my comfortable slumber. Then I remembered Ben and the hospital. I grabbed the receiver as the other half clamored helplessly to the floor.
“Hello.” My mouth struggled to make the word.
“Hello, is this Mr. Grayson?” The obtrusive clear voice of a woman entered uninvited into my still-sleeping thoughts.
I hesitated as if I had forgotten my own name. Then finally I replied, “Uh, yes, this is Jared Grayson.”
“Mr. Grayson, well, this is Emily Hewson from St. Anthony’s Hospital.” Her speech had an urban Black character about it. Her words were hurried and difficult to understand.
“I apologize bein’s I’m callin’ you at such a late hour and all, but it’s about that uncle a yours.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Your uncle, Benjamin Grayson. That is your uncle?”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Well, Mr. Grayson, I thought it was important to let you know as soon as possible, with you bein’ the only living relative of your uncle and all—and even though Dr. Stiltson said he would notify you in the morning about what’s happened, I felt that with this situation—that time was of the essence. I felt that you would want the information firsthand. And since I’m fixin’ to leave the hospital soon, bein’s that I work the night shift and the night shift is nearly through for the night, well, I thought that you would want to hear it from someone who was actually there when it happened, you know someone who actually—”
“What is it! What’s happened!” My questions broke through her wandering words in an attempt to rescue the critical information drowning within her explanation. After the bombardment of disjointed rhetoric, the empty space that followed my interruption seemed equally endless. Despite the momentary lull, she resumed her monologue with the same intensity as before.
“Well, Mr. Grayson, although it is true that at this present time your uncle is appearin’ to be, or perhaps we should say has returned to bein’ his comatose self, and accordin’ to all of these talkin’ machines, well, they show no indication of—”
“Nurse, what happened with my uncle? Is he alright? What’s going on?” My random questions echoed my frustration. This time, with no delay, she continued.
“Well, Mr. Grayson, that’s just it. To look at him now, why he’s as still as a statue, and sorta elegant like one too. But it was not two hours ago that me and Melissa—Melissa, she be one of the nurses on the night shift. Anyway, me and Melissa, why we had the nicest conversation with your uncle, and we even got ta laughin’ too. All of us, even your uncle. And I mean to tell ya, that man, he do be havin’ a way with words. He must be some sorta philosopher or somethin’. Why he not only answered some a our questions, but he even turned one of them into a story. That’s right, Mr. Grayson, he even told us a story. Why, alls I asked him was, why did he talk to me and not to anyone else? And do you know what he said?” There was a slight pause and the sound of paper rustling. “Just a minute, Mr. Grayson, I had to write it down bein’s I didn’t understand it at first.”
After a moment or two she continued. “He said that he talked to me and not to anyone else because, I allowed the possibility to be, and because I believed that life was present even in the most silent of situations. That’s it, that’s what he said I did. Well, ya know Mr. Grayson, I always talk to all of the patients on my route. It don’t matter to me whether they answer me back or not. I still talk to all of them just the same. Even these real quiet ones. The doctors say they’re comatose, like nobody’s home. Well, they’re not foolin’ me. Just cause they’re not talkin’ for a while doesn’t mean that they don’t got nothin’ to say.”
I was truly at a loss for words; my tongue had taken refuge and was off somewhere in hiding. I’m not sure which I found more unbelievable, the information I was just given, or the manner in which it was presented. As I listened to her explanation, my mind had created the image of a very stout Black woman strategically squeezed into a very tight, white nurse’s uniform. This may or may not have been the reason for the rapidness of her speech. In any case, her creative use of the English language gave me cause to question the reliability of her information, not to mention her status as a nurse.
In an attempt to sort it all out, I ventured to ask, “Nurse . . . what you are telling me is that my uncle not only regained consciousness, but he also went so far as to carry on a conversation—which by and large became the telling of a story—after which, he promptly fell back into a coma?”
“That’s right, just like you said it, word for word. Except for the part where you called me the nurse. I’m not no nurse. I’m the maintenance person that works the night shift. You know, the cleaning-type person. Don’t you remember? I bumped into you the other night in your uncle’s room and quite frankly, Mr. Grayson, this is the second time that your uncle has spoken to me. A course the first time I mention it to the others, well, they didn’t much believe me. But this time when he starts to talkin’, why I ran to the nurses station to get Melissa. When I told her . . . why, she not only goes in to see for herself, but she grabs one of the doctor’s dictation recorders. You know, one of those little machines that they talk into all private-like, like they was tellin’ a secret or somethin’. Anyway, she records the whole conversation with your uncle and—”
“What!” I blurted.
“That’s, right Mr. Grayson, the whole conversation and the story, too. Ya see, Melissa, she knows I’m no fool, and she believed me when I told her about it the first time. So she thinks to bring in the recorder. You know, just in case that after he’s done talkin’ he decides to slip away again. She records the whole thing, and now she’s got proof that perhaps Ol’ Emily here do know what she be talkin’ about after all.”
An undeniable satisfaction had found its way into the voice of this woman, undoubtedly referred to by her most reliable friends as Ol’ Emily. With this, our conversation ended and I hung up the phone. In the silence that followed, I tried to gather my thoughts. Was it possible that someone could move in and out of a coma, being so alive in one moment, and yet so dormant in the next? I thought about what she had said, that he had told a story and appeared to be some kind of philosopher. From what I could remember, my uncle had a very limited vocabulary. He was a man of few words, and he used most of them to talk about fishing. Nothing that I had heard reminded me of the uncle I had once known.
Later that morning, I received yet another phone call from the hospital giving me similar information about my uncle, but in a far less colorful manner. This call included an apology for the early morning ramblings of the maintenance woman, as well as an invitation to come and see one of the hospital’s resident psychiatrists. The caller, a Dr. Schultz, had been assigned to my uncle’s case. I was to meet with her to review the tape the nurse had recorded. She was hoping I might know something from his past that could shed light on the confusion that was now brewing.
The only clear memories I had of my uncle were the late summer visits with him and my Aunt Clair at their lake cabin. These encounters, the only actual contact I had with my uncle, were due solely to my father’s insistence that I spend at least a few days a year with Ben. I never really understood the importance of this annual event for it was more than obvious that my father’s interaction with him was even less frequent than mine. The two of them seldom communicated. Still, my father always spoke highly of Uncle Ben, saying Ben was one of the finest men he would ever know.
Trips to my uncle’s lake cabin were designed to be great excursions for a young city boy, adventures into the wilderness (or so I thought). Ben had built a cabin from timber off the land. There was no electricity, and the nearest access road was a quarter-mile hike away. Far from being shortcomings, these circumstances had been well-planned by my uncle, for he loved solitude and to live simply with what nature had provided. Because surviving off the land was a great passion of Ben’s, I made it a point to never question the supply of store-bought goods we consistently packed into the cabin every three or four days.
Aunt Clair, on the other hand, was not so fond of this rustic lifestyle. Quite often she would stay in the city, leaving me the sole survivor of some of Ben’s most famous fishing tales.
Fishing was Ben’s first love, and, although I was fond of fishing with my uncle, I could never really muster up the passion he had for those cold, wet mornings. Nor did I relish the idea of any morning that started with any activity other than eating. Ben always insisted that a man needed to catch his own breakfast. Of course, this did not explain the large helping of sausage and eggs that accompanied his ever so small lake trout. Not to mention those frequent mornings when there was no trout at all.
In keeping with Uncle Ben’s lake-side traditions, all fishing expeditions began with the raising of his coffee mug (and whatever the liqueur for the day) and his proposing a toast to the noble trout that would be his breakfast. He would swill down most of the drink and toss the remaining splash over his shoulder into the lake.
“That half is for the trout,” he would say, even though it was never anywhere near half, I always thought. “For with such a fish I will share my drink. After all, we are very old friends, the trout and I.” Ben respected all the creatures of the lake and believed that each one had a spirit like his own. He said that the fish all knew which one of them was to have the honor of dining with him that morning. I remembered how much I believed those words and how much I loved those early days with him on the lake.
The lake itself was small, more like a large pond, I suspect. However, it provided Ben with a fish now and then and a place for the moon to shimmer on clear summer nights, his sleek wooden canoe sliding through the sky’s reflection in the cold, still waters.
The only other distinct memory I had of my uncle was an image of him and his rocking chair molded into one ghostly silhouette. Together in the evening hours, they would sway and haunt the rough-wooded porch that extended like a small pier out over the edge of the lake. Gold and orange embers from his pipe tobacco gave out a glow that generally signaled the end of one of his stories, the substance of which I have no recollection. Ben always said that when it came time for him to leave this Earth walk he wanted to slip away, sitting in that old rocking chair at the end of the dock, surrounded by the water and the pale moonlight.
Arriving at the hospital, I was promptly greeted at the elevator by the resident psychiatrist who had spoken to me on the phone. Dr. Schultz was a tall stately woman, probably in her mid-forties. Her dark brown hair was cropped far shorter than mine and in her navy blue suit (with uneven shoulder pads) she could have easily been mistaken for a man—even from the front. For that matter, from the front she more than likely would have been mistaken for a man had it not been for the bright crimson lip gloss that resided underneath her not-to-be-noticed mustache. She spoke with a firm clear voice and attempted to make an equally firm impression with her handshake, which clenched my unsuspecting paw, her bony fingers digging into my flesh.
“Mr. Grayson, is it?” she began. “My name is Dr. Hedda Schultz. We spoke on the phone this morning.”
“Yes, Doctor,” I replied, gracefully trying to retrieve my perforated hand.
“I’m glad you could come so soon. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about your uncle. I thought we would begin by having you listen to the recording that the nurse made. I’ve arranged for you to review this tape in your uncle’s room.”
“Doctor, has he been conscious at all since that incident?”
“Mr. Grayson, I need you to understand that we’re not exactly sure your uncle ever regained consciousness at all. Even though the nurse on duty has a reputation for being reliable, according to our technical people there was no change in the machines that were monitoring him. There is some concern about the validity of this recording, as well as the lengthy conversation between these two women and your uncle.”
Sliding back into my familiar state of frustration, I asked, “Doctor, why would they create a recording that was a fake? What would anyone have to gain from that?”
“Well sir, that’s why we’re still giving these two women the benefit of the doubt. We’re also hoping you might be able to recognize if it’s your uncle’s voice on the tape.”
Timidly, I replied, “The last time I heard my uncle’s voice I was about nine years old. I hardly think that I will be a very good judge of this.”
Unwilling to satisfy me with any response, the doctor allowed a lull to form in our conversation. My initial impression was that she had taken this time to tug aggressively at her suit jacket in order to adjust the inanimate shoulder pads, which up to now had been quite mobile and alive inside her apparel. Having little success, she remained quite crookedly cocked as she then led me down the hall and into my uncle’s room.
“Here we are, Mr. Grayson.” Abruptly she pulled closed the curtain between the two beds, giving as little cognizance to the comatose man in the other bed as he likewise gave to her. “You can sit right here alongside your uncle and listen to the recording. With these headphones you will be able to hear the voice more clearly, and no other noises will distract you.”
I was sure she had some psychological reason for plopping me down right next to the coma in question. Had I been allowed to arrange myself, I could have easily found several other less conspicuous places to sit while my memory was coercively probed. Although it appeared that my uncle was now lying in an altogether different position than I had seen him the last time, it was obvious that this new posture was the result of being puppeted by the nurses who had left him in a most awkward pose. Before I sat comfortably by his side, I courageously rearranged his appendages by putting his arm back into his shoulder and reattaching his head to his spine, so that he no longer resembled some game hen about to be plucked.
“Mr. Grayson,” Dr. Schultz continued, “the recording only lasts about ten minutes. I will leave you alone during that time, then we can discuss it when I return.”
Having issued her final commandments, she marched out of the room and intently down the hall. I stayed . . . imprisoned by the situation, bound by the task before me.
As I slowly placed the headphones over my ears, the dissonance of hospital sounds was smothered by a blanket of silence. For a moment I felt stunned. It was as if I had somehow joined my uncle in some other time or dimension, one that I was sure had long since been forgotten. I glanced over at his face, nervously expecting to find him conscious in this silent place. To my great relief he remained quiet and empty, completely unaware of my imagined intrusion. As I closed my eyes to shut out the lifeless expression that enveloped his noble features, the recording began to play.
“. . . but when you were a child, something else happened. For you not only stepped away from the magic—the spirit of your true being, you also stepped away from your freedom. You lost the passion—the fire and the drive to create from infinite possibilities that were once inherent in you as children. It was then that you unknowingly began to be programmed to be the adult who followed limited rules, who allowed the altered truths to slowly pull you away from the purity of your spirit.
“Now . . . you surround yourselves with so many others who are ignorant of this understanding, but who are most willing to enslave you in their world of probabilities. As a result, your own world of possibilities lies abandoned, a forgotten garden longing for you to come and be in it.”
As the words entered my head, it was as if my mind became divided. One half was remembering clearly the low gruff voice with its slow gentle words that rang so true as my uncle’s. The other half was bewildered by the way the words were arranged. The voice was like a Shakespearean sonnet, so eloquently spoken, and yet the accent or the dialect was impossible to trace. It seemed to be Old English and French, Italian and Greek, but also broken as if from a foreigner who was Tibetan or Chinese. It embodied every accent and was loyal to none. And, while the words were English, the content was from beyond.
“When you were a child, you did not walk about chanting to yourself that anything was possible. This was an understanding that was so innate to you that you did not have to contemplate that which was already in motion. You simply played in your garden of possibilities and were so satisfied with the moments you created. You walked in an unlimited understanding where your footsteps were blessed . . . always.
“And so, my dear woman, when you would ask, why I would speak to you and not to any others? It is because you allowed the possibility to be, and because you believe that life is present even in the most silent of situations. Perhaps I will tell you a story about such possibilities and the child in you. All right?
“There was once a small boy whose papa had taken him and his younger brother to the temple or church. Like most young boys who are confined in such a place, he was restless and fidgety, and not particularly interested in what God, or what anyone there, had to say.
“Daydreaming, his eyes wandered until off in the distance he saw this beautiful figure. At first it was like glitter that seemed to fall in specks of white and gold light. Then it swirled and turned, creating substance and shape. It materialized into an image that was of such sparkle, and color, that it made him laugh and giggle at how it danced about the place. This was not uncommon to him, for he had seen such things before. It was an angel or some sweet spirit that had simply glided through the wall—for walls gave it no boundaries and doors were even less. And this filled the boy with such pleasure that he could not hold on to all that was his bliss. He shouted, ‘Look, papa, look, at that bright spirit, there!’ and he pointed to an alcove dressed with colored windows.
“His papa, quite disturbed by the boy’s outburst, shushed him and said in a harsh whisper, ‘That is not a real spirit, it’s just a statue of an angel. Now be quiet and pay attention.’
“The boy, quite aware that his papa had not seen the real spirit that frolicked above what was a statue of an angel, persisted. ‘No papa, there in white and gold light, the real angel.’
“Hearing this, the littler brother, now drawn to the excitement, joined in with a voice of such innocence and unbridled enthusiasm that his words echoed throughout the temple. ‘Where is the spirit . . . where, papa, where?’”
“The littler brother squirmed and turned, looking all about with an anticipation and a desire that could only be quenched by the sight of such a being. Then this little one saw the bright spirit and became silenced solely by his awe of the sweet vision.
“The papa, now aware that his children had drawn the attention of the surrounding people, put a roar into his whisper. ‘Be quiet! It’s not a real angel. Young boys cannot see such things. Only great beings like saints and wise sages can see bright spirits. It is just your imagination. Now stop your pretending, and pay attention to what is truly here.’
“Well, the young boy continued to watch the bright spirit and began to contemplate what his papa had said. The more he thought about the words, the more he believed what the words had told him. As these words solidified inside the mind of the boy, the image of the bright spirit began to dissipate. Before long the image was gone from his vision, and the boy became convinced that his papa was right. Never again would he see such a spirit, for through the words of the limited thoughts, his mind would begin to close. He would lose the ability to see such things and would now limit his thoughts to the probabilities of what he had been taught. He would leave his world of possibilities, never to return to the garden, to play in the magic of its truth . . . .”
I searched the archives of my memory for a time or a place where I had heard my uncle tell this kind of story or speak so eloquently. I could not. Perhaps it was simply madness as a result of the accident or the pressure on his brain. Yet no explanation seemed to account for his unrecognizable dialect or his unusual use of the language.
Scattered among these conflicting thoughts were glimpses of my own childhood memories—impressions that seemed to have been triggered by the story. They danced in and out of my awareness paying no heed to my rational mind. In an attempt to block them out, I once again concentrated on the recording.
“. . . all of you have had moments in your lives when you were told that the bright spirits and the visions that you saw were not a reality in this world. You were taught that it was your mind in its imagination that had created such things. You became programmed into an understanding that gave you reasons to dismiss everything that had once been magic in your lives. You were convinced of this, at a time when you were nigh two or three years old.
“Even now, if you try, you can remember some time or place where all of these things happened. Perhaps it was your home. You can still see yourself there in your play clothes, or perhaps you had lost your garments along the way, and now you are wearing nothing upon you. You are outside of your house under a warm sky, because you so loved to be there.
(Insert CD play track 1)
Out amongst the trees and the flowers
of your garden.
It was your kingdom,
and it was the world that went on forever.
You used to sneak out to the garden,
into the flowers and tall grasses.
You can still feel this little one inside you now,
with small hands,
and feet that longed to run.
You dance about the wildflowers,
and the puppy or the kitten
is running around your feet
with unconditional love.
Always doing whatever you want to do.
And now a butterfly lands upon your hand,
tickles your palm, and wriggles out to the ends of your fingers.
You are in awe of its beauty.
It flies from your hand,
so you chase after it,
through the garden you run, ever so free.
Then you see in the distance a shimmer of light,
like a tornado of tiny stars being spun by the wind.
Excitedly you watch as the sparkles begin to take form.
You remember the feeling of this one who comes in the white
and blue glitter,
and you are delighted to—
Suddenly you hear a harsh voice calling you from the house.
The voice says, “You must come immediately.”
You do not want to.
You keep watching for the sparkles, the spirit that approaches.
The voice becomes louder than before,
and you recognize whose it is.
The voice says,
“You have been very bad.
Come here to me now.”
Sadly, the sweetness breaks,
and the sparkles slowly fade.
The voice frightens you,
a heart-wrenching emotion
you remember even now.
With trembling anticipation,
you step up to the porch.
The door has been left ajar.
You can feel the anger that waits just inside.
An uneasy silence lingers all around.
Slowly, you step up to the opening.
With your small hand you push at the door.
It creaks once . . . then twice.
Suddenly you see—
“Mr. Grayson . . . are you all right? Can you hear me? Mr. Grayson. . . .”
A muffled voice came flooding into my thoughts, causing them to collapse as though they had been suspended just above me. This same intruder began to paw at me, taking the player out of my hands, dragging the headphones away from my ears, and pulling me from my tranquil shell of words and music into a conscious place of chaos.
“Excuse me, Mr. Grayson . . . I believe you fell asleep . . . Mr. Grayson. . . . It’s Dr. Schultz. I’m sorry I was delayed. You must have dozed off after the recording stopped.”
I paused for a moment to catch my breath and then firmly said, “No, I was not finished. The recording was still playing when you stopped the machine.”
A peculiar expression settled on the good doctor’s face accompanied by a welcome display of speechlessness, which was genuinely pleasant in comparison to her usual abrasive manner. However, as her silence stretched to the point of discomfort, I too became concerned.
“Mr. Grayson,” she said in a more cautious tone, “when I came in, I asked the nurse if the recording had finished. She said the machine clicked off about ten minutes ago. Because your eyes were closed, she chose not to disturb you. According to my calculation, I also anticipated that the recording would have been over about ten minutes ago. And Mr. Grayson . . . the tape recorder was already off when I took it out of your hands.”
I turned toward the nurse on the other side of the room and said nervously, “Well, someone here must be mistaken, because I was still listening to the words when I was interrupted.”
The nurse shifted her eyes toward the doctor. With this one silent, blank stare, she was able to telegraph her opinion to the doctor and avoid embarrassing me by saying what she had seen.
Turning again in my direction, the doctor said charitably. “Well, Mr. Grayson, you probably just dozed off in the middle of the tape and were dreaming or something when I disturbed you. That sort of thing happens all the time when people wear headphones. . . . It’s perfectly alright.”
What was less then perfectly alright, and more than perfectly obvious, was that I was now being addressed as the Village Idiot. Oddly enough though, under the circumstances, I could not be absolutely sure that I had not become the Village Idiot. I reluctantly smiled at the doctor as if in agreement, knowing full well that by doing so I was condemning myself to playing the fool. The nature of my conscious experience of the event made me painfully aware that for about ten minutes some part of reality had gone askew, and my mind had followed in its footsteps. I was also aware that any attempt to address the good doctor with a more psychological approach to my experience would have entitled me to hours of grueling mental mayhem, which at all costs I intended to avoid. So the Village Idiot I decided to be—at least for however long it would take me to find my way out of my hospital-of-horrors and back to my complacent world of Oreo cookies and reruns of Star Trek.
“So, Mr. Grayson,” the doctor continued, “what is your perception of this recording?”
Unable to find even one analytical bone in my depleted and tired body, I answered her as bluntly as I could. “Dr. Schultz . . . I have no idea what any of this is about. All I can say is yes, that is my uncle’s voice on the tape, at least to the best of my recollection. And no, I have no idea what he is talking about. At the age of nine I knew him only as a fishing fanatic, not as a philosopher. I don’t believe there is anything I can tell you to make this any clearer.”
Accepting my somewhat rude response, she continued. “Father O’Brien, our resident priest, suggested that there may be some other reason for your uncle’s strange behavior and for the unusual content of his ramblings. Even though I myself don’t really give this concept any credence, he believes that some spirit or demon may be taking control of your uncle’s body while he is in this weakened condition. Father O’Brien says that he’s seen this kind of thing before and that these demons can be deceiving, speaking quite differently than the person they are possessing. If this is the case, he suggests some sort of an exorcism or something . . . if you believe in all of that. . . . Anyway, he asked to see you. He has an office on the second floor next to the chapel.”
The doctor then gathered up the tape player, shook my hand, and disappeared into the hall. The nurse followed closely behind, leaving me alone with the two comatose bedfellows.
In the quiet of the room, I tried to figure out what had just occurred. I stared at my inert uncle wondering who he was and what had truly happened to me during that brief lapse of time. Was this simply my own insanity coming to the surface or was the voice that I had experienced not really my uncle’s? Could the priest be right? As unbelievable as it sounded, I actually considered it a possibility. Strangely enough though, I distinctly remembered how disappointed I felt when the recording, about the field and the garden, had abruptly ended. If the voice I heard was a demon, it surely was a pleasant one.
Then there was the music that had graciously filtered its way into my head about half way through the story. It was a sorrowful melody, not actually on the recording, but something I had written many years ago. My brain had started playing it as if in reaction to the words I was hearing.
I could make no sense of this puzzle, the pieces of which lay tangled in my mind. Was there some underlying theme here longing to surface? Or could the design of this puzzle be extracted only by some poetic madman whose mind had been quite properly disengaged, granting only him the privilege of its true understanding? Was my uncle such a madman or had he designed the puzzle, the solution to which he held captive within his silence?
I allowed my eyes to wander about the room, searching for a distraction from my confusion. On a side-table, partly hidden by the curtain, I saw a small vase with three roses that I had not noticed before. I lifted a small card from under the vase and opened it.
This new discovery only heightened my befuddlement. Who is Shankara? My uncle? And Sharee, is she his secret love? Is she the older woman, or perhaps she’s the young woman with the rose petals? Given the bizarre occurrences so far, nothing seemed out of the realm of possibilities. Feeling the need to gather evidence, I stashed the small card in my coat pocket. Then, remembering the rose petals that had been scattered on my uncle, I carefully checked to see if he had again been so adorned. I was almost disappointed that he hadn’t. I started to laugh at myself when suddenly a male nurse entered the room.
He said hello and went about his business with the patient in the next bed. He pulled open the curtain, revealing the other man, who appeared to be comatose like my uncle, but was about half his size. He was barrel chested with a large head and stout features that seemed to be out of proportion with the rest of his body. He had several days’ growth of beard, and both his hair and overall appearance were mangy and ill kept. The nurse spoke to the man in a lighthearted and therapeutic way. As the nurse was the only one in the conversation, I decided to interrupt.
“Excuse me,” I said, “is that man also in a coma?”
“Yes,” he said cheerfully, looking up from his patient. “He was in an accident and never regained consciousness.”
“What’s his name?”
“To tell you the truth, nobody really knows. He is a transient, one of the homeless. He came in with no identification, and no one has come to claim him. Just one of your basic John Doe-types, I’m afraid.”
“What kind of an accident was it?”
The nurse allowed a chuckle to surface before he began to explain. “Well . . . according to the policeman on the scene at the time, this small, but very theatrical fellow, was perched on the top of a parked car. He was giving instructions to some unfortunate woman who was desperately trying to park her Rolls Royce in the space behind. The woman evidently was not skilled at driving her expensive car, or parking it for that matter. The man standing atop the other car was merciless with the woman and her predicament. The officer said that he carried on like a Shakespearean actor, reacting and playing off of each of her attempts to move the car forward and then back. The police were called to the scene because the man’s spontaneous performance had begun to draw a crowd, which of course had this poor woman in a total frenzy.”
We both started to laugh as he continued. “Anyway, the officer said he believed that, in her panic, the woman lurched forward and then, desperately trying not to hit the parked car, tried to hit the brake. Unfortunately, she hit the gas instead and slammed violently into the parked car. The impact was so hard that this little guy,” he said, pointing to the man in the bed, “went airborne and did a perfect swan dive off the parked car. He landed head first on the hood of the Rolls Royce with a gonk and a major groan. The momentum carried his body forward, bringing him to rest with his butt staring through the windshield at her and his feet resting comfortably on her roof.”
We launched into a fit of laughter. When the nurse regained his composure, he continued. “Well, the woman . . . of course, she faints dead away and this unfortunate fellow here . . . well, he just never came out of it.”
“And he’s been this way ever since?” I asked, chuckling.
“That’s right,” he said. “Evidently he couldn’t believe it either, and he has yet to recover from the shock.”
As my laughter finally gave way to a semblance of poise, I had to admit that the scenario I had just heard about was even more unbelievable than the one I was presently caught in. Before he left the room, I asked, “Where did this accident take place?”
“Down towards the waterfront, near the old square. I guess the merchants say this guy’s theatrics are pretty common. He never hurts anything, and he gets the people laughing now and then.”
“Well, if people see him around all the time, why doesn’t anyone know his name or know where he lives?”
“Like I said, he’s probably homeless . . . moves about a lot. When the officer asked the local merchants for the man’s name, they all affectionately referred to him as the Village Idiot.”
The nurse then promptly walked out into the hall, leaving me alone to look for my jaw, which I assumed had probably landed somewhere between my size-ten feet. I sat on the end of the bed and started to laugh again, unable to believe my own ears. Village Idiot was a name that, up to now and through an entire lifetime, had never been a part of my conscious reality. Today though, I not only heard it in reference to another, I contemplated it as a reference to myself just moments ago. Could it be that I had just witnessed a strange premonition of my own future? Was it my destiny to end up as some spread-eagled hood ornament launched head first from the roof of a parked car?
All two hundred and three pounds of me seemed to shake with delight at the thought. Perhaps losing my mind was going to be a lot more fun than I had ever imagined. There was a certain synchronicity to this mock madness, which teased my sense of humor with its collection of coincidences that were rather obvious once I began to notice them.
I felt giddy about these coincidences, like the child on the recording who had run wild in the garden. I suppose that’s also why I found myself scouting the room for even more mischief to entertain me. My mind seemed open to all kinds of prankish possibilities. Then I spied the poor forgotten little man in the next bed, which gave me a wonderfully devilish idea.
Reaching over, I plucked the petals off one of the roses, carefully discarding its plundered stem. I then pulled back the bedding covering the fellow in the other bed and sprinkled the petals all over his body. After all, just because he was poor and nameless, he did not deserve any less treatment at the hospital than anyone else.
Perhaps this stunt was a bit childish for a gruff ol’ guy like myself, but why should I be the only one in this situation always in a state of confusion. I think delirium should be shared by everyone who is participating, especially the nurses and why not . . . of course! Dear Dr. Schultz. She would thrive on this sort of bizarre incident. Why, it would occupy her for hours.
I pulled up the sheets and tucked the small man back in with my final words of encouragement. “It did wonders for my uncle,” I said. “He came back to life, spoke out loud, and even told a story.” I chuckled at my juvenile behavior as I began to imagine this stout little fellow suddenly awakening. In his most theatrical mode, he would stand up in the middle of his bed. Like some crazed elf, he would leap to the floor and scamper out the door in a fit of giggles and cackles. I could just see him jumping up on top of the nurses reception counter, being as waggish and merciless with them as he had been with the woman in the Rolls Royce.
At this point, there was nothing left to do but to make my escape before I was discovered. As I hurried out the door, I whispered goodbye to the both of them and jetted down the hall. I aimed for the elevator and that bright green exit sign that would lead me to the front entrance of the hospital and to the garden—I mean my freedom.
The elevator doors opened slowly as I quickened my step to catch the vacant compartment. Pushing the L button for the lobby, I noticed that the indicator for the tenth floor was lit even though no one else was in the elevator. Attempting to defy the intent of the great sluggish machine, I pushed urgently at the L button trying to change the elevator’s mind, for I had no interest in riding all the way to the top, just so I could then ride all the way back down to the bottom.
To my great surprise, the elevator finally stopped at my insistence. I leaned back against the brass railing extremely satisfied with my accomplishment and waited for the steel beast to start down as I had instructed. To my even greater surprise, the elevator instead simply opened its doors as if to rid itself of me without any further adieu. I started to chuckle at the elevator’s obstinacy when as the doors stretched wide, I saw the black letters on the wall: psychiatric ward.
My heart jumped as I was engulfed by panic. I slammed my body to the side of the elevator as though to paper myself to the wall, my legs and arms spread wide, my cheek smashed up against the cold panel. I reached frantically for the “close door” button, poking it several times in the hope that it would please save me from yet another spontaneous encounter with the Mental Morgue. I waited frozen, second after excruciating second, praying wildly to the doors to assist me in my most well deserved escape.
The doors though, while cleverly disguising themselves as inanimate objects, defiantly left me helpless to be discovered by the first person who might peer into this entrapment. Slowly, a set of light footsteps approached. They were gentle clip-clops, not like that of the security guard, but more like that of a nurse, or perhaps like—
“Mr. Grayson. . . can I help you with something?” said a voice from a navy blue jacket with uneven shoulder pads.
“Dr. Schultz! What are you doing here?” I gasped, quickly leaning back, folding my arms and trying to cross my legs.
She answered in her usually cold and authoritarian tone, “Well, I’m a psychiatrist and this is a psychiatric ward. What are you doing here?”
“Well, I guess the elevator must have just stopped here by mistake, but I’m so glad that I ran into you again,” I said rambling. “I wanted to ask you earlier if it might be possible for me to see the man who created so much commotion in my uncle’s room the other night. You know, the one admitted to this floor for observation. I thought that by chance it might be some old friend of my uncle’s or some distant relative I didn’t know about.”
I had absolutely no idea where this absurd notion came from. Nor, after having said it was I at all sure that I wanted to see this man or get more involved in any part of this scenario. My request, though, had managed to catch the doctor off guard. She proceeded to stumble into the conversation without pursuing her own interrogation of me about my sudden appearance in the world-of-the-bewildered.
Looking mildly puzzled, she said, “Well, under the circumstances I suppose it would be all right for you to take a look at him . . . . Yes, I believe that it might actually be a good idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself.”
Her words gave me very little confidence. If I was now conjuring up ideas the good doctor wished were hers, then my rational mind could be in a lot of trouble. At this point I knew that I had to proceed with extreme caution, contemplating more deeply my own spontaneous inspirations before just blurting them out. As usual, the doctor then took up the reins in the situation. She led me out of the elevator like a jockey guiding a sauntering horse back to the stable, still wondering aloud why she hadn’t come in first on that particular notion. With little resistance I clopped along, receiving an education on this, the seventh floor, a place that had already become far too familiar.
Early evening, having crept into my long exhausting day, was now apparent on the psychiatric floor. Very few lights were kept on during these hours, giving the long hallways—bare but for a smattering of straight-back chairs lurking at each end—a dark sorrowful atmosphere. As we slowly approached one of the wide steel doors, Dr. Schultz suggested that, at least for now, I should just view the patient through the window to see if I recognized him. Then later, if I wanted to speak with him, she could perhaps arrange a meeting.
Gazing through the framed glass mounted in the door, the doctor commented, “He’s pulled his bed away from the wall again. For some odd reason he insists on having the bed directly under that window. See for yourself.”
I carefully walked up to the small opening, its checkerboard wire securely reinforcing the double-pane glass. Inside, a gloomy resonance seemed to saturate the space that harbored only a single bed, which resembled an army cot with a mattress thrown on top. Lying with his feet aligned towards the tall barred window was a man probably in his late twenties. The moon, as though standing watch, filled the room with an iridescent light. It streamed through the bars in the window, casting long narrow shadows that appeared to cage both the bed and the man in an illusory prison. He wore only the pants of his hospital clothes leaving his upper torso bare, the dim light sculpting the contours of his smooth chest and arms. His hair, which was black and straight, hung over the edge of the bed. He looked to be Native American or, perhaps, part Latino as evidenced by the black mustache that cradled his broad nose. Balanced on his stomach, looking up towards his chin, was an open pair of oval wire-rimmed glasses. His arms lay out evenly at his sides with both hands draped slightly off the bed, his fingers unfurled as if something had fallen from them.
As I looked more closely at the glasses resting on his body, I noticed two sets of scars grooved into his chest muscles. These parallel markings were identical and were the only markings of any kind on his body, which appeared to be very strong and fit even in the midst of his slumber. Turning towards the doctor, I said, “He looks rather harmless now.”
“Yes,” she said, “he has been quite cooperative for the last couple of days. When our security guard first tried to restrain him, he went off like a wild animal, clawing and growling. Do you recognize him?”
“No . . . he doesn’t look familiar. What’s his name?”
“When they first brought him up he referred to himself as Shadow Wolf, but the next morning after he calmed down, he said his name was Michael Talon. He apparently has no criminal record and hasn’t been admitted to any of the psych units before.”
“Do you have any idea why he was trying to see my uncle?”
“Not really, the guard heard him say something about trying to free the man who was asleep inside the coma.”
“And why was he committed?”
“As I said, when they tried to get him to leave your uncle’s room, he lashed out at the guard and the nurses like an animal.”
“Do you know what caused those scars on his chest?”
“No . . . but as out of control as he gets, it’s really hard to say. He may have even stabbed himself at some time or other.”
“Then what is his story? I mean, does he say much?”
“He won’t talk at all about the incident on that first night, but he did ask to see some kind of competency lawyer who came in to visit him yesterday.”
“Really,” I said, with some disbelief as I again glanced down at his peaceful figure in the gray light. “And so what happens now?”
“As of tomorrow they move him out to South Providence, the long term care facility. Because there have been other complaints, he will be there for a few more days of observation.”
A page for Doctor Schultz interrupted our conversation. “Well, Mr. Grayson, I must be on my way. Thank you for your time. I will walk you back to the elevator so that I can key you down.”
“Yes, Doctor, thank you for allowing me to take a look.”
Once back at the elevator, the doctor placed a key into the panel and then waited patiently until she had seen me safely off the seventh floor, which was most definitely to my satisfaction as well. By now I was more than anxious to leave these premises, having had ample hospital calamity, at least for one day.
I stepped through the sliding front doors of the main lobby and out into the cool night air, the fresh smell-of-nothing filling every part of me. Totally soothed, I closed my eyes and gave a satisfying sigh. I was finally free at—
“Excuse me, Mr. Grayson . . .” said a female voice from amid the subtle noises of the outside world.
I opened my eyes to find a woman, probably in her late twenties, standing directly in front of me. She was wearing a denim jacket over a blue hospital uniform. Her dark shoulder length hair was straight, and she wore glasses that accentuated the size of her eyes. She seemed a little shy; her mouth crimped slightly to one side as though she were nervous about what she was going to say.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Mr. Grayson, I’m Lela Carrow, and I work here at the hospital. I am doing my practical experience on the psych unit, you know, on the seventh floor. I was wondering if I could talk to you for just a few minutes. It’s about the man Dr. Schultz took you to see.”
Though I was not ten steps from the street, and perhaps fifty steps from the parking lot, I agreed to sit with her on the nearby bench and see what else could possibly be added to this memorable day’s impressions. She pulled some wrinkled papers from the side pouch of her purse and began to tell me her story.
“Mr. Grayson, I need you to know that I could get into a lot of trouble for what I am about to share with you, but I believe you should have this information. What I have to say may seem pointless, or maybe even crazy, but still I think you should hear it.
“The man you observed on the psychiatric ward is Michael Talon. He is, or was, a professor at Northwest University. He is well-known for his study of altered states such as dreams and hypnosis. However, others at one of the rival universities strongly disagree with his work and have done everything within their power to discredit him. This type of psychic research with altered states has always been a touchy subject, especially with all of the studies that were done during the LSD experiments back in the Sixties.”
“Professor Talon’s work does not involve drugs. His approach is really more from the opposite point of view. He believes that the real doorway into our psychic or subconscious states is through combining both science and spirit. He teaches that without some sort of spiritual knowledge, we have no true means of understanding who we are on a psychological level, or any other. He adheres to no particular religion but believes that—”
Abruptly, she stood up and started pacing about ten steps from the bench as several doctors and nurses came out through the sliding doors. A couple of them nodded to her as they passed by.
“Sorry about that,” she said returning. “I really have to be careful with this. It could mean my job here and at the university.”
She cautiously sat back down on the bench and continued. “Anyway, I had better make this quick. Late into the evening, several hours after Professor Talon had been admitted, I was doing some work in the room across the hall from him. He was, of course, locked in his room, but I saw him motioning through the small window for me to secretly speak to him. I’m sure that he remembered me from one of his classes. So I spoke with him through the glass. He asked me to bring him several sheets of paper and something to write with. When I asked what he wanted them for, he said that he needed to write down everything that had happened to him throughout that night. It was as though he somehow knew that I would do this for him and also keep it confidential. All I could find was this brown butcher paper that we use to line the shelves of the cabinets.” She held up several torn pages of tan-colored paper with intense displays of writing on them.
Feeling her deep need to hand me the scraps of paper, I said, “This is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with me?”
“This is an intricate description of a meeting that apparently took place with your uncle up in the mountains. It also tells what happened the night he went into your uncle’s hospital room. Mr. Grayson, Professor Talon obviously had a specific reason for being there and for trying to contact him. I believe he was on some sort of a vision quest with a wolf spirit to help him. And even though what is written on these pages may seem like a wild story, I feel it’s very important.
“This evening,” she continued, “when you were looking at the professor through the glass, you asked about the scars on his chest. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I said. “What are they from?”
“Professor Talon is part Lakota Indian. In the Lakota tradition there is a ceremony done by the young men called the Sun Dance. Its purpose is to renew the spirit of the man and to bring back his power and his union with the Creator. In this ritual the men have their chests pierced with two pieces of bone so that the tips are protruding on either side of the flesh. It is very painful and requires great emotional preparation. They then take twine or a thin piece of hemp, one end of which is tied to the two ends of the bone on both sides of the chest. The other end is tied to a tall pole. Generally several men go through this piercing process at the same time, and all are tied to the same pole. They form a circle facing the pole so they can lean back with their weight putting tension on the twine. This pulls hard on the bone that has been pierced through their chest. They then dance in a circle around the pole and stare directly at the sun. Occasionally they lean back to put pressure on the twine and the pierced flesh.”
My entire chest was quietly aching from her graphic description. I longed to reach inside my shirt to massage my own flesh. “Why would they do such a thing?” I asked.
“Through the intense experience, they go into an altered state where it is said that they give up their human forms and become one with spirit or the Creator. Professor Talon has participated in this dance, perhaps many times. He is a warrior of the heart, Mr. Grayson, a man of great courage and unwavering character. He should not be locked up in this place.
“I also believe that Professor James Wilkes, one of his rivals from Stratton University, is the reason they were able to keep him here. Wilkes uses the hospital for practicum work with some of his students. Each year there is a psychology grant given to one of the universities. Professor Talon and James Wilkes have always competed for this, and Michael Talon generally wins. That is also why when Dr. Wilkes saw him, the morning he was admitted, he took the liberty of telling the attending psychologists that he felt Michael Talon was a danger to himself and others. He encouraged them to lock him up for as long as possible.
“I saw Michael Talon when they brought him in, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had been in an altered state. This was a vision quest that had started out in a spiritual place, but ended in tragedy because of the guard’s abrasive handling of the situation.”
Holding up the pages in her hand, she said, “This will help to explain why he was there. If placed into the wrong hands it could be very incriminating for the professor.”
“Why did he give these papers to you?”
“The following morning, they took him out of his room and, after several interviews, they put him into a different room. When I found out, I immediately went back and found the papers stashed under his mattress. While I was reading his description of the experience, something told me to pass it on to you. I have transcribed a copy for myself, which I will return to the professor whenever that is possible. I hope that by giving you this I’m doing the right thing.”
“How did you know who I was?”
“I was behind you in the hall when you asked about the professor’s scars. I could tell by the way that you phrased your questions that you were not just another intellectual there to analyze him. When I learned that you were related to the man the professor was trying to see, I felt that you should see this.”
Carefully she handed me the torn pages, looking intently into my eyes as if we were subliminally exchanging some sort of secret vow.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “It’s really just a story about a wolf that gets caught in a steel trap and how the professor was asked to save it. In the writing, Professor Talon refers to a vision or spirit that he calls Iyokipiya.”
“What was that again?”
“Ee-yoh-kee-pee-yah, I think is how it’s pronounced. Anyway, according to the admitting report, it was the name the Professor was shouting in your uncle’s room that night. I myself am not familiar with this name, but it may come from his native Lakota dialect. In his description of the vision, this spirit instructs the professor to free the wolf from the steel trap—the entrapment of humanity with all of its disharmony and dysfunction. The wolf, like all creatures, still lives as a spirit that holds the knowledge of the original plan of the Creator. Iyokipiya tells the professor that he must become like the wolf so that he can truly understand his union with the Creator. He was to use this knowledge to teach others how to become like the animals, to once again be in harmony with the true laws of nature. He said that if the children of the planet did not heed this warning, the dance of the human experience would soon be over, and the music of the wind around the world would play no more. He said that, to save the dance, the children would once again have to sing the original song, that is the song of the Earth, of the Creator.”
Amid her many words, the phrase save the dance seemed to catch in my brain. It circled around and around, longing to not be filed away in the crowded archives of my mind. Somewhere I had known this phrase before. The faintest of memories, it had an existence of its own, and yet it seemed to have no other references attached to it.
“Mr. Grayson,” she continued, “I realize that all of this may seem very strange to you. Most people would probably just disregard it, not ever really understanding what it means. Perhaps you will do the same. Or perhaps it will help you to know more about what may be happening with your uncle. . . . Anyway, I must be going now. I’m sorry I don’t know more. It’s all still a puzzle to me as well. Please don’t mention this to anyone.”
With this, she said goodbye and ran out into the street, carefully dodging a slowly passing car. Mysteriously she disappeared from the sidewalk, swiftly moving out of the spray of light beaming down from the last street lamp. I looked at the tatters of paper she had given me. The tan pages were crowded with a scribbling of tiny words. In the dim light they resembled hieroglyphics intricately etched on some ancient parchment, its sepia-brown writing still waiting to be deciphered.
I stood there motionless as if someone had pushed a pause button, allowing time to continue on indefinitely without me. I was overwhelmed by all that she had said, not only about this Professor Talon, but about my uncle, and her assumption that he (or some aspect of him) had been at the core of this. Although there was a certain intrigue to this adventure, the seriousness of how these scraps of paper were dropped into my hands made me very uneasy. She had taken a tremendous chance trusting me with them. I was emotionally torn between the unbelievable circumstances that had created this information and the sincerity with which the woman shared it with me.
I was greatly moved by her description of Professor Talon’s story, about the wolf and the welfare of the Earth. Once again I was shamefully reminded that, as a people, we have been very poor stewards of this planet. Perhaps these ideas would naturally strum the awareness of anyone who was conscious of these concerns. Nevertheless, her descriptions of it in the story felt almost intimate to me. The words save the dance seemed to slosh back and forth in my thoughts, constantly trying to wash ashore a familiar memory or two. I was haunted by their presence and still somewhat apprehensive about reading these pages now staring helplessly back at me.
One thing was certain though, if there was a river of curiosity rising inside of me, its flood waters would have to wait until tomorrow. If I did not rest soon, I would most assuredly drop where I stood. I carefully folded the papers and tucked them into my coat pocket. In doing so, my fingers rediscovered the card with the signature that had been with the roses in my uncle’s room. I pulled the card from my pocket and slowly turned it over. Once again I read, To Shankara, from Sharee.
Shankara, I assumed, referred to my uncle. Yet, the professor in his story had used the name Iyokipiya. These totally different names didn’t even seem to be from the same language. This made no sense to me. If there was some logical correlation in all of this, why would the names be so different. There must be some—
All at once I felt my thoughts rudely nudged out of focus by my exhausted mind. I shook my body like a dripping wet dog who had been left out in the rain far too long. I could not think about this any more. I had to rest. I placed the card back into my coat pocket with the scraps of paper, vowing to my collapsing carcass that both would remain there until morning. My mind was well past its saturation point, and before I could take in anything else, my body would require massive amounts of sleep.
Arriving home, I gave credence only to my drooping eyelids, coaxing me to close out the world for the night. As my ragged
Dreams (from my perspective) have always been
involuntary stumblings in that, if they were not at least inviting (or at best erotic), they were easily dismissed and eventually forgotten. Now however, as I woke in this unknown hour, I knew none of these circumstances would apply, for my slumber had been far from empty. In the dream from which I was returning, my subconscious self had managed to waltz me through several of our history’s most bloody confrontations. In the course of a few hours, I had been given a world tour of the chronicles of war. Six or seven scenes of explosive battlefields reeled past me, each with its weaponry, flags, and regalia characterizing the era in which it had taken place. And, strewn amid the military ruins were the remains of all plant and animal life that had innocently fallen in the devastation.
Woven within the gore and mayhem, I witnessed a woman wandering through these war-zones. Step by step she walked, aware of the brutal combat, but somehow immune to its destruction. Stepping through the carnage and debris, she spread handfuls of some sort of herb or leaf, which she broke from a small tied bundle. This tiny wrapped bale, like the fishes and the loaves, appeared to be infinite in its abundance, never changing in its size or shape. The image of this woman’s angelic procession dominated every scene. Her devoted action seemed to have some great significance, yet I, in my limited understanding had absolutely no understanding of its purpose or of the reasoning behind any aspect of this woeful dream.
As I lay in the dark staring at the ceiling, I found but one consolation as to why this nightmare had not been immediately banished from the boundaries of my bed curtains. The woman who walked through the destruction was the same woman I had encountered in the hospital elevator. Perhaps she was also my maiden of the rose petals, and there was some correlation between her spreading of the rose petals on my uncle and her spreading of the leafy substance in the dream. At any rate, in both cases her peaceful expression and the charisma of her presence were striking and unforgettable.
I rolled over in my bed and began a blind man’s search for the table lamp. If I could light the familiar space of my ill-kept room, I could rid myself of the dramatic images. With a subtle click, the soft shapes of my surroundings slowly returned, bringing me home to a more recognizable clutter. I welcomed the feeling of security and sat back against the headboard, still baffled by the dream from which there seemed to be no escape.
I was haunted by the image of the woman passing through mass destruction. I had never imagined warfare that could be so devastating as to make the bare ground burn or to fill the sky with black smoke so dense it turned day into night. I thought about the terrain where the battles had taken place—unrecognizable, its ecological balance changed forever. I also thought about the professor’s story, about the wolf and the spirit who had foretold that to save the dance, the people of the Earth would have to—
Startled by the alarm of that single thought, the words save the dance again became caught in a loop, circling inside my head. I had stumbled on this phrase before, but this time there were the scratchings of a melody line and surrounding music. These were not just words, but lyrics to a song, some lyrical score I had begun to compose years ago. One solid theme with its haunting voice rolled and churned this phrase over in my mind. I could feel all of the notes, but the melody and its remaining lyrics stayed just out of reach. Like a faint whisper, the scattered words called out for me to remember them.
My growing frustration only hampered my memory’s search. With a long deep breath, I tried to relax into a space of clarity. Slowly, I surrendered, half-conscious and half in slumber, to the revelation that finally emerged in my mind. The words save us a dance gently tumbled into place.
I rocketed from my bed, intrigued and excited. Throughout my life I made a habit of keeping the remains of any uncompleted creation. Beginning with the humble seat of my piano bench, I rifled through every piece of manuscript, every notation that might arise as the reincarnation of this work. It had to be among these forgotten compositions, gallant causes, once washed ashore, unfinished and unfulfilled. Having exhausted all possibilities in the bench, I next tried the filing cabinet. Then it was on to the bookcase, as my studio floor began to fill with the discarded debris of undiscovered masterpieces. Possessed by this melodic excavation, I sprinted up the stairs past the second floor and into the attic, where no compartment was exempt from my search.
As my quest continued, so too did my memory’s relentless attempts to piece back together some recognizable rendition of this neglected melody. Patches of the music and lyrics kept starting and stopping, like an old engine trying to catch fire, hoping to once again spin and roar down a deserted highway.
Page after page, I feathered through the titles until at last, preserved on the parchment’s faded ocher face, I found the words that had teased both my anticipation and my longing. Save Us a Dance, handwritten above the lines and staves, was drawn out word by word, as though it had been penned only the day before.
To my surprise, the enthusiasm of my search was soon swallowed by a decade-of-disappointment as I stared down at the page with its display of notes and words.
It’s the hour of all tomorrows.
Shadows cross this land.
The balance has been broken,
and now time slips out.
And the dreams of all tomorrows.
In an hourglass of tears.
Hoping there’ll be time enough, for those dreams to appear.
With time enough to reason.
Time to understand.
Time to walk upon the land.
Save us a dance . . . on the crystalline waters.
Save us a flight, on the breath of the wind,
through a clear blue sky.
Save us a ride . . . through emerald forests.
Pilgrims of Earth . . . . Hear my prayer . . . . Save us a dance.
These were the poetic words of a fiery young man who had an enormous passion for life and all its creatures. They were thoughts born out of a truth that had no fear about being written, completely unaffected by the opinions of others. They were phrases filled with spirit, immune to the competition for the almighty dollar. They were the words of my heart, which for the past decade I had forgotten to write.
I felt myself slide into a great sadness. I reminisced with many of these unfinished songs, each reminding me of a specific event. While it was difficult to remember the exact circumstances under which each of them had been created, I was very much aware that they had come to me at a time in my youth when passion was my motive and anything was possible. There was a purity in these memories, an innocence that even now sifted through this lamentable history that had been so neatly filed away in one cardboard pouch.
Long faced, I plodded through the sheets of music. Somewhere along the way, I had stopped writing lyrics to my music. I guess I had come to a place in my life where I no longer believed in words. So often I had seen them used as but a convenient tool for altering the truth, some phrase or sentence cleverly arranged to serve someone’s ego. For me, words had become the property of politicians and salespeople who catered quite shamelessly to the rhythm of propaganda and profit.
Was it possible that by abandoning my belief in words, I too had become numb and complacent? Had I lost my own desire to explore and experience this world? Yet somehow, I was sure that through my instrumental compositions, the essence of truth had survived, at least in my private, speechless world.
Now though, here in my hands were reflections of that truth, inscribed with the strongest of words: paper remnants of my passion as well as its shadows, melodically colored both light and dark and all shades in between. At this precise moment, I felt both empowered and frightened. I was not sure whether to treasure these forgotten lyrics for their innocence or to purge them in some ceremonial fire. Perhaps I could rid myself of the attending disappointment once and for all by setting ablaze my studio floor and its carpet of compositions. Or better yet, with a little encouragement, the entire house might catch fire. Then I could become one of the homeless and take on my new identity as the Village Idiot, leaping atop parked cars, delivering extraordinary orations on the more aesthetic properties of forward and reverse. If madness was to be my deliverance then I welcomed it like an old friend, as long as that friend kept me from living a life that was diluted and mundane.
I wanted to free myself from the stagnation that cocooned me, from the frightened attitudes that were in me and around me. I wanted to know my passion again, to find the words and the lyrics, and to sing again, for no other reason than to do it. I wanted to revive every lyrical piece that I had ever written, bringing them back to life along with my own passions. And most of all, I wanted to dream again.
Anxiously, I looked down at the pages in my hand, at the many choices from which I could begin my expedition back into the living. Among them was a song I had written after Katherine, my first love, had left me and gone to live in Nepal. Skittishly, I skimmed over the words, girding myself for my return back into the rawness of my emotions.
So if you
catch me watching for those ocean breezes,
Oh stormy vision . . . of a lonely heart.
Always waiting for that setting sun
to cast a spell on the wind
and sail you home to me.
Though slightly painful, these words were real and resonated with feeling. Difficult or not, they felt alive and whole inside me. Turning the page, I found the letter Katherine had written after her departure for Nepal. It was safely tucked inside the music as if I had known so long ago that I would one day remember to find it here.
I have decided to move to Kathmandu,
With Master Ramya Shankara Ananda
My greatest desire is to become a student of
this teacher. I know this is difficult for you to . . .
Abruptly, I was jarred out of the writing. That name . . . Master Ramya Shankara Ananda was intently familiar. In fact it was strangely similar to the name on the card with the roses. Slowly, a wave of anxiety began to swell inside me as I whispered to myself, “Oh please, let it not be so.” At this point, I was somewhat afraid to compare the card and the letter. But in view of all that had been happening, I was even more afraid not to.
Trudging down the stairs, I waded through the rubble of my studio to the closet. Retrieving the card from my coat pocket, I held it next to the letter. For a second I was stunned. The name was the same. Shankara.
Every cell of my body collapsed into the sound of my response, a long and exasperated, “Oh-h . . . No-o . . . .” Feebly I drooped like a leaking inflatable toy until my rump came to rest on the white-papered floor. Perhaps a diluted and mundane life wasn’t such a bad concept after all.
I sat there among the disarray of pages with the letter in my hand, wishing now that I had put a bit more volition into my notion of an indoor bonfire. I felt like a two-hundred-pound babbling infant who had been plopped back into his playpen, back into all of the coincidental confusion that, in my fleeting moment of passion, I had temporarily forgotten.
I hadn’t minded so much all of the drama with my uncle or the strange adventure that warranted a visit to the (shall we say) committed professor. I was even quite intrigued by the coincidence of the professor’s words save the dance and the lyrics of my own song “Save Us a Dance.” But to have my long-lost comatose uncle receiving flowers from some mysterious young woman who referred to him by the same name as the deranged guru who whisked my fine Katherine off to Nepal over twenty years ago—never to be heard from again—was more than my poor brain could handle.
My mind staggered around in this information hoping to fall over some reasonable explanation. Perhaps the name Shankara was just a title like Reverend or Your Holiness. Or maybe it was just a— RING RING.
I scanned the room to regain my bearings and locate the phone buried under the fallout of paper. Four or five rings sounded before I found it behind one of the piano legs. My search had not only revealed to me the whereabouts of my phone, it also informed me that morning was patiently waiting for me to draw open my curtains and welcome in all that cheery sunlight. Whoever was calling at this hour had most certainly not been briefed on my usual morning’s agenda of sleep, sleep, sleep. Moreover, calls that arrived before I opened my curtains were always calls with a problem. As I picked up the phone, I closed my eyes and spoke through the haze of my reluctant anticipation.
“Hello, is this Mr. Grayson?”
I could tell by the background noises that the caller could be nowhere other than the hospital. Mingled in my mind, with my more generic responses, were irrational remarks. Just say no and hang up, they won’t know the difference, or sorry, there is no one by that name at this number. Then, of course, I would actually have to change my number or move to a different city. I might even have to relocate to another state or foreign country where I could change my name and just—
“Hello, is there anyone there? Are you there, Mr. Grayson?”
I put my hand over the receiver and spoke softly like a ghost, “No . . . No . . . No one lives here anymore . . .” Before she could hang up, I unwillingly replied out loud, “Yes, this is Jared Grayson.”
“Mr. Grayson, I am calling about your uncle. We seem to have run into some problems with him. Well, not actually with him, I guess it’s more about him.”
“Yes,” I groaned. “What is it?”
“Well, Mr. Grayson, we’re not exactly sure how it happened, but all of the outward signs give us the indication that, well . . . your uncle appears to be missing.”
While I could have anticipated innumerable words to finish that particular sentence, by no stretch of the imagination was the word missing one of them. Words like improving or weakening would have been appropriate, while other words like conscious or talkative might have been most agreeable. Even a word like dead would have been tolerable. But the word missing was totally unacceptable. I wrestled with my anger, like a snake trying to devour the phone’s receiver.
Regaining a morsel of my composure, I cynically replied, “Excuse me . . . can you tell me exactly how you misplace someone in a coma?”
“Well, Mr. Grayson, we’re not really sure. You see, it isn’t just your uncle who is missing. The small man who was in the bed next to him—who was also in a coma—well, he is also missing.”
“What! What kind of a hospital are you running? Don’t you keep any account of your patients? Especially the ones who can’t even move?”
“Well, Mr. Grayson, like I said, we’re not exactly sure how it happened since there seems to be no one here at the hospital who witnessed anything unusual. We are currently addressing our suspicion, though, that they may have been stolen.”
“Stolen?” I said with a mixture of anger and sarcasm. “Stolen . . .” I repeated the word as my voice then exploded from inside of me. “For Christ sakes! Who in the hell do you think would want them? I mean there’s not a tremendous market for comatose bodies these days. Like they were going to put them in a display window or something, for crying out loud. . . .”
“We are very sorry, Mr. Grayson, but we notified the police, and they are presently here doing an investigation. They have requested an interview with you as well . . . that is, now that you have been notified. They asked if you would come to the hospital as soon as possible. Mr. Grayson . . . is that possible?”
Is that possible? I said to myself. Is that possible— If it was possible for a hospital to misplace two full-grown carcasses without anyone noticing, well, then it was now obvious to me that anything was possible. Perhaps the two of them just got up, unplugged themselves, and went for a little stroll.
Then my own internal fury was interrupted by a thought that was as ghastly as it was comical. I saw myself just the day before, dusting that poor helpless man with rose petals, babbling about their rejuvenating properties and of the miraculous affects that he might encounter. This notion, although wonderfully absurd, was also rationally terrifying. I rubbed my forehead like a sleepy child trying to rid myself of this nightmarish thought. Then my mind was bombarded by the memorable words of Emily, the maintenance woman, as she quoted my uncle, “it was because I allowed the possibility to be and because I believed that life was present even in the most silent of situations . . . .That’s it . . . that’s what he said I did . . . that’s what he said I did . . . that’s what he said I did . . . that’s what—”
“Mr. Grayson!” The woman’s voice came screeching in like the sound of a welcome scratch rescuing a stuck phonograph needle. “Mr. Grayson . . . is that possible?”
“What?” I blurted.
“For you to come to the hospital . . . is that possible?”
“Yes!” I shouted, “As soon as possib—Yes, I will be there as soon as I can.”
Before beginning yet another frantic expedition to the hospital, I needed to pull over and spend just a minute puppeting through my morning routine. Uncle or no uncle, missing or not, I had to do a check and balance on my cereal-box existence to see if I was indeed alive and well. Examining the memory bank of my phone machine, I discovered that (as usual) it was empty. So was my refrigerator, my butter dish, and my sugar bowl. My garbage can was full, though, along with my dishwasher, which often doubled as a cupboard while it waited to be relieved of its miraculously spotless dishes. Wandering to the front door, I found the offerings on my porch were a bit more abundant than usual, with not two or three, but four daily newspapers. In the living room, my cat Jethro, whom I generally referred to as Mouzzer, was most comfortably contoured to the (absolutely-forbidden-to-be-on) couch, having just returned from one of those long and arduous nights of being a cat. Aside from the extra newspaper or two, everything else seemed quite normal.
I gathered up the papers and threw them into the recycle bin. Then I walked out to the street where a single post with a beam supported three mailboxes for myself and my two neighbors who lived on either side.
In the house to the west of me was a very private sort of fellow who simply went by the name Marshal. He carried a rather stocky frame and wore a full-faced beard with a long draping mustache that nearly concealed all of his teeth when he laughed. The stoutness of his facial features and the shape of his furry smile gave him a grizzly bear appearance, though he was more of a teddy bear in his demeanor. I often saw him out working in his yard wearing a pair of army fatigues, which made me think that he might have spent some time in the service. While he was not unfriendly, he basically kept to himself, limiting our communication to comments about what was growing in each other’s back yards, about which, of course, I knew absolutely nothing.
The house to the east was an entirely different story. That is why I now strolled nonchalantly out to the mailbox so as not to draw the attention of my more meddlesome neighbor, Mrs. Nurple. She often took such an opportunity to rendezvous with me for a little neighborly chat. If she had already spotted me today, she would no doubt be out of her house and on her way to the mailbox allowing her screen door to slam shut behind her at precisely right about—(SLAM) now.
Naomi Nurple and her husband Fred had been my next door neighbors for the three years that I had owned my house. Actually, I can’t say that I remember Naomi’s real first name, but with the last name of Nurple, I figured that her first name had to be Naomi or something like it. She was a robust woman with puffy round cheeks, short curly brown hair, bright smiling eyes, and a double chin that was about six times larger than her real one. When she talked, which was always with a rapid tongue, this excess around her jowls became quite active, making it difficult not to stare.
Without fail, she wore a cotton dress printed with the tiniest of pastel flowers. There was usually a white apron tied tightly around her waist, which not only accentuated her watermelon breasts but also framed her bountiful hips into an impressionist painting—the tiny pastel flowers jiggling into a blur while she busily waddled about her front yard.
Mrs. Nurple was an excitable woman who filled the majority of her exciting days living vicariously through the boring lives of her neighbors, whom she intruded upon with uninhibited regularity. In the past three years, I had become quite skillful at avoiding her, which I am sure made me one of her primary targets. Today though, I had not been so fortunate.
“Jaaared . . . Oh Jared,” she yodeled, as she caught up with me at the mailbox.
“Good morning, Mrs. Nurple,” I said smiling through my rubber face.
“Now, Jared,” she scolded, “don’t be so formal. . . . Call me Nadine. After all, we’re neighbors, practically family. Speaking of which, is there maybe going to be a new addition to your family . . ? Hmm . . ? Hmm?” she pried, with her eyes open wide and grinning like a Halloween pumpkin.
I chuckled politely. At what? I’m not really sure, since I had no idea what she was talking about. Perhaps she was referring to my uncle, although I was sure I had not told anyone about him. “What do you mean?” I asked, hoping not to give away the fact that I was obviously dumbfounded.
“Don’t be silly you cagey old bachelor—that darling girl who has been coming out to your mailbox for the last two days. Why she’s just as pretty as she can be. Where have you been hiding her?”
Needless to say, I was startled by her announcement that someone had been scavenging through my mailbox. I stood there numb in my puzzlement, searching for an appropriate response. Mrs. Nurple, who was now leaning out over the ends of her toes with her ears fully flared, waited impatiently for my answer. Although I definitely wanted to hear more about this culprit (especially being that it was a darling girl), I didn’t want my babbling neighbor to know just how baffled I really was. Nor did I want to give her any more information to chew on than she already had. Taking a chance, I played along with a bluff. Smirking, I said, “Why, whatever darling girl would you be talking about?”
She quickly cupped her hand over her mouth trying to suppress the string of giggles bubbling out of the small oval shape. Scooping up her mail, she said through her laughter, “Oh Jared, you are a crafty one. I know, I know . . . it’s none of my business.” She pawed her hand towards me as if to say pshaw and started back towards her house. Gleefully, she added, “Well, when you get ready to show her off, you bring her right on over, ya hear . . . And I mean that!”
So much for my bluff. She climbed back up her porch steps and through the front door allowing the screen door slam behind her. Now I not only had some darling girl ransacking my mailbox, I was too embarrassed to ask my nosey neighbor for any more details. I pulled three days worth of mail from the box and headed back towards the house. If there was something missing from this arm-load of papers and envelopes, I would never know it. In any event, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go through my mailbox. There had been nothing of interest in it for the past decade.
Mrs. Nurple had said she saw a young girl. Perhaps she really meant a young woman. After all, she made such a blatant jest about this darling girl and my middle-aged mischief. She had to have meant a young woman. Of course, I suppose that I should be more concerned that someone may be spying into or robbing my mailbox rather than wondering if that spy or robber might be an appropriate dinner date. I was actually somewhat surprised that I wasn’t more disturbed about this incident. I guess in view of the rest of my unfolding drama, it didn’t seem that serious. Besides, with my uncle and his four-foot-tall roommate now missing, I had plenty to think about for one morning.
Grabbing my coat, I jumped into my jeep and sped out of my driveway. Mrs. Nurple, who was watching me from her window, pretended not to notice as I drove past. Regardless, I waved obnoxiously and continued on my way.
The scene on the fourth floor of the hospital resembled an amusement park ride. Like a dozen or so talking bumper cars, the doctors, nurses, police detectives, and a priest or two, ran about bouncing questions off each other with no one coming up with any answers. They had no idea what happened to the two men who had apparently vanished in the night. I deduced this from all of the reassuring anecdotes that, one by one, they offered me. Although there were several theories, no one seemed willing to commit to any of them. The situation reminded me of those wonderfully absurd multiple choice questions on the written part of a drivers test.
(Multiple choice, A B C D E or F)
1. What could have happened to the two men who, although both comatose, disappeared from the hospital without a trace?
A. They were victims of a very dangerous prank by a group of medical students who stole them as part of a fraternity initiation.
B. They were taken by some left-wing, anti-establishment group holding them hostage until the hospital lowers its medical fees.
C. They both had miraculous spontaneous awakenings at exactly the same moment, leaving the hospital immediately, without any clothes and without anyone noticing them.
D. One or both of them became possessed by the devil or other assorted evil demons who have stolen their bodies in order to carry out their dastardly deeds.
E. They were both picked up by mistake and taken to either the hospital morgue or to the center for organ donors where they are presently having selected body parts removed.
F. None of the above.
Needless to say my first choice was F. None of the above.
After hours of endless interviews, my patience fully exhausted, I asked the officer in charge if I was through for the time being and could go home. Reiterating one last apology, he said that it would be fine. I confirmed my departure with the nurses desk, where I was handed the personal belongings of my now missing uncle. The bundle was made up of a pair of well-worn hiking boots, some heavy black trousers, and a dark green and red flannel shirt. Obviously the hospital had dismissed the thought of finding my uncle, at least anywhere on the grounds. It was as if I had been given the clothes of the deceased, an action quite final and complete. I thought about his condition, of how an artery in his brain could so easily burst. I wondered if I would ever see him conscious and alive again.
Passing by my uncle’s old room, I noticed a woman sitting at the end of the bed of his former roommate. Standing next to her was the hospital’s resident priest. He appeared to be consoling her as she sat slumped over and sobbing in a very emotional state. I thought of the male nurse who days ago had told me that this nameless man was probably homeless, so I was very curious about who this woman might be. She was dressed far too well to be a fellow transient or some personal acquaintance. Remaining in the hallway, I stepped closer to the door to see if I could find out who she was.
It was difficult to tell, but she looked to be in her mid-thirties. She had an overabundance of bleached-blond hair that at one time must have resembled a well-constructed bird’s nest. Now though, with her head lowered into her hands, her hair was matted and coming unraveled. Her eyes were puddled with tears that caused streaks of black and blue color to run like tiny brush strokes down over the heavy makeup on her cheeks. Her face reminded me of circus clowns I had seen who painted on lines of tears as part of their mask to accent the illusion of their sad harlequin faces.
Noticing me near the doorway, the priest whispered something to the woman and began to walk towards me. The woman, unaware that he had left her side, quietly mumbled, “I know that God is punishing me, Father . . . he really is. I was tempted by Satan and now God is punishing me.” She again started to sob as the priest joined me in the hall. Gently he guided me by the arm further away from the doorway.
“She’s taking this pretty hard,” he said sympathetically. Then reaching for my hand in a more formal manner, he continued. “My name is Father O’Brien. I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“Hello, Father, I’m Jared Grayson.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied.
“Father, who is she . . . I mean, is she a relative of his?”
“Do you recognize her?” he asked.
“No, not that I know of . . . should I?”
“Not necessarily. She does have quite a recognizable face though. Her name is Jessica Williams. She is a singer and, for lack of a better title, a television evangelist.”
Looking back through the doorway, I could see her more clearly as she began to wipe her tears and attempted to mend her appearance. I did recognize her. She was the woman I had verbally slain after clicking on the religious channel a few mornings ago. Needless to say, she looked quite different now, but it was definitely the same woman. “Does she have some personal connection with him,” I asked, “that short fellow who is also missing?”
“Yes, I guess you might say so. She’s the woman who was driving the car that caused his accident, putting him into a coma.”
“This was the woman that slammed into the parked car?” I exclaimed. “The one that was trying to park her Rolls Royce?”
“Yes, and she’s still quite distraught. She is feeling responsible not only for the accident, but for his disappearance as well. She sees it as a chain reaction of events in which God is punishing her. For what exactly, I can’t really say. I’ve tried to convince her otherwise, but she is still too emotional to hear much of anything right now.”
We both stood there in a kind of mournful silence until the priest spoke again, changing the subject. “Mr. Grayson, I know that you may not put much credence in my explanation of what may be happening to your uncle, but I wish you would consider it.”
Then I remembered that he had asked Dr. Schultz to have me contact him, which I never did. From our joint participation in the investigation, he knew that I was aware of his theory that the two men may be experiencing some sort of demonic possession. Knowing full well that he was putting me on the spot, he continued.
“I imagine that without ever having witnessed such an occurrence, the concept of a person being possessed by a dark spirit would be very hard to believe. Perhaps, in the future if you have the opportunity to interact with your uncle, you might see signs of this. My office is next to the hospital chapel. I can be reached through the service at the front desk at any—”
“Father O’Brien,” I interrupted. “I don’t really know what to think about all of this. I can’t say that I know enough about my uncle to recognize just how he would act. But I will consider what you have said.”
Pressing me one last time, he reiterated, “Mr. Grayson, I truly believe that your uncle is in need of an exorcism.”
Staring at the floor seemed to be the only response I could find. It was hard to conceive that either of these men were even conscious, let alone ravaging the countryside attacking Christians. Feeling my uneasiness, he finally ended the conversation by saying, “Well, you know how to reach me.”
I briefly looked up again and politely said, “Yes . . . thank you.”
He patted me on the shoulder and walked off, leaving me stalled there in the middle of the hallway. I waited motionless, like a statue in the center of the town square, as nurses and hospital workers maneuvered around me, going about their duties.
Then, for a second, I thought I heard someone whisper my name.
“Psst . . . Psst . . . Mr. Grayson,” said the same voice a second time. Looking all around, I could find no face among the human traffic trying to get my attention. I thought perhaps it was just another hint of my own madness creeping in. Then, with an abrasive and piercing whisper, I unmistakably heard, “Psst . . . Psst . . . Mr. Grayson . . . over here.”
I followed these words to the voice of a woman who was hiding in what appeared to be a janitorial closet just off the hallway. Even from where I was standing, some twenty feet away, I knew who it was. With that Cheshire cat smile and those large brown eyes peering out from behind the half-open door, it had to be Emily, the maintenance woman.
“Psst . . . Psst . . . Mr. Grayson . . . in here,” she said, motioning incessantly for me to come and hide with her in the closet.
I stopped briefly to truly consider what was happening in that instant. It was as if my life had become some bad drugstore novel complete with the possessed uncle who needed an exorcism and the hyperactive cleaning woman with a secret in the janitor’s closet.
My real problem, though, was that this crazed cleaning woman usually knew more about what was going on in this hospital than anyone else. Yet, I had to be out of my mind for even considering climbing into that confining cubicle with her. During our last encounter, she not only compared me to a half-frozen corpse, she assaulted me with a mop handle. Now she was frantically waving for me to leap into that janitorial dungeon filled with menacing mops.
“Psst . . . Psst . . . Mr. Grayson . . .” she whispered impatiently, jerking her head several times to one side without breaking her insistent stare. “Psst . . . in here . . .” she insisted.
I cautiously turned, looking over one shoulder and then the other to see just how incriminating my next insane act was about to be. Then, as it appeared that no one was watching, I took three brisk strides into the closet and shut the door behind me. To my surprise, as the door closed, the light inside the small space went out causing total darkness.
The woman reacted immediately by bumping into me several times saying, “Oh no, Mr. Grayson, you can’t be shuttin’ the door. It automatically turns out the light.” In her attempt to get past me to reopen the door, we collided in the dark. Suddenly, a chain reaction of mop handles, cleaning bottles, and whatever else (I’m not sure), came tumbling down on top of us. Or I guess I should say on top of me, for when the light finally came back on, the woman was standing up against the door, and I was bent over in the center of the cubical half buried by the fallout.
By dislodging several brooms and mops, I received two or three fresh cracks on the head. In addition, while stepping lively to dodge the flying mops, I also managed to kick over a small bucket that, to my relief, was only slightly filled with soapy water. Grateful that I was now standing in only a small puddle of soap, I attempted to pull myself together as she nervously tried to help.
“Are you all right?” she said, trying not to laugh while showing her deep concern. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Grayson, I should have warned you about closin’ that door . . . the light and all.”
Attempting to cover my embarrassment, I reassured her. “It’s really not a problem,” I said, lying with my every breath. Receiving this verification, and with the closet nearly back in order, she continued with her fast and panicked monologue.
“Well, anyway, Mr. Grayson— Can I call ya Jared?”
Before I could answer she quickly rattled on.
“Well Jared, I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Emily Hewson. I was the one that called that morning your uncle got ta talking. You know, when me and Melissa made that recording . . . you remember?”
I nodded regrettably, remembering the early morning phone call. Trying to stay focused, I listened to her story, which she delivered like a high speed chase.
“Anyway, I need to tell ya what I saw, and let ya know that it’s not my fault that your uncle and that other man are missing. I mean, it wasn’t like I just woke um up and told um to leave. I can’t help it if your uncle keeps comin’ to life and talkin’ to me. Besides, he talks ta me every time I see him, so how am I supposed to know that he’s supposed to be in a coma? Why, the doctors around here, they don’t tell ya nothin’. And anyhow, when your uncle, he starts to talkin’ ta me, well, what the hell am I supposed to say? Don’t you be talkin’ to me, ’cause you is supposed to be in a coma! I mean it’s not like they told me they was leavin’ or anything.”
“Wait a minute!” I interrupted. “Slow down, slow down . . . what are you saying . . . that my uncle and that other man just got up and walked out?”
Standing defiantly, she stuck out her chin and said, “That’s right, just like you said. But I didn’t say a word to make um do it!”
“Wait . . . wait . . . just a second,” I said. “First, calm down a little. Then start at the beginning and tell me exactly what you saw.”
“Well, Jared, that’s just the problem, I saw um both up and walkin’ around and I didn’t tell nobody. It all looked perfectly natural to me. But if the hospital was to find out that I saw um just before they walked outta here, well, I’d be in a world a trouble. I’d probably lose my job, I would. They’d say . . . ‘Oh that ol’ Emily Hewson, well, she probably just stood there and watched um both walk bum naked out the door, and didn’t do a thing about it.’ Now, Jared, that isn’t entirely true. Ya see, once they turned the corner at the end of the hall, they weren’t even headed for the door, so I went back to my work. After all, it’s none a my business what a body do. Like I was expected ta be nosey or somethin’. But I had to tell you, Mr. Grayson, ’cause he’s your family and all.” Stepping closer, she lowered her voice and added, “You won’t tell the hospital will ya? I mean it’s not like we was breakin’ the law or anything.”
“No,” I replied. “It’s all right. Your secret’s safe with me. But tell me what happened with my uncle, I mean, what did he do? Did he talk or anything?”
“Yep, he did. In fact, the both of um did. Well, it was actually your uncle first. I was in their bathroom cleanin’ the potty bowl, when through the crack in the door I heard someone talking. When I opened the door just a little, I could see your uncle in the dim light. He was standin’ up, leanin’ over that short fella in the other bed. I think he was sorta singing to him a little bit. Then your uncle, he touches the man’s forehead with his fingers all funny-like, and kinda brushes his hair back. He says to him ‘Mohan . . . it’s time to come back now.’ That’s what he called him, Mohan, I remember. Well, that little fella he starts to stir and pretty soon he looks up at that great big white-haired man and says in a his dry, raspy little voice, ‘Who are you?’ Then your uncle, he does the strangest thing. He starts to tell the man his name, but right before he says it, he turns and looks through the crack in the door, directly into my eyes. He says, ‘My name is Raha Muumba.’ He said it like he was meanin’ to tell it to me and not to no one else. Like that other fella wasn’t gonna remember it anyway.
“Well, I mean ta tell ya, it gave me sweet chills when he said it. In fact, I was so beside myself that I had to shut the bathroom door and sit right down on the pot for a minute ’cause I felt so funny. It all seems kinda peculiar to me now. Never heard that name before. I told it to my grandmother later, and she said that it definitely sounded Swahili. She always said that Swahili was her great-grandfather’s native language.
“Anyway, when I come out a the bathroom, why they were both gone. So I stepped out into the hall. Just when I found them, right at that very second, your uncle turns and looks back at me with the most peaceful smile, like he was lettin’ me know that everythin’ was all right. And that’s about it.
“Then off they went down the hall, the big tall one with the little one by the hand, sorta helpin’ him along. They was movin’ kinda slow the both of um, their furry white bottoms just a waddlin’ back and forth—showing through the back of their open hospital gowns. Well, I thought it was just the sweetest thing I ever saw, them takin’ a little stroll together. Like two little naked children, they was. Now how could I be findin’ anything wrong with that?” Her voice began to swell again in her nervousness. “And after all, they didn’t have no shoes on. So how’s I supposed to know that they was fixin’ ta leave? It’s not crime just to be takin’ a walk now and then. I mean, it’s not a prison, Mr. Grayson, if ya know what I mean?”
I held myself suspended, searching for some kind of response. I was excited that my uncle was conscious and alive. I was also terrified that he might be out of the hospital walking around in some irrational state. He would have no way of knowing about his dangerous condition, the high possibility of a brain aneurysm. I’d have to somehow notify the hospital and the police that the two men were conscious and on the loose. But, I didn’t want to get Emily fired. After all, she was a comrade to my fumbling reality and, as crazy as it sounded, the information she had given me felt most like the truth.
Feeling somewhat overwhelmed and extremely claustrophobic, I decided it was time to end this conversation and figure out what I was going to do.
“Well, Emily, thank you for coming forward and . . .”
“Oh no, Jared, that’s not all,” she expounded. “There’s more.”
I felt like scolding myself. What was I thinking? Of course there was more.
“Do you remember the morning that you were listening to that recording of your uncle?”
“Yes,” I said, “what about it?”
“Well . . . now believe me when I say that I know it’s not right to listen in on other people’s conversations, but sometimes ya just happen to be in the same vicinity and ya can’t help but hear what’s bein’ said. And, well, if you’ve overheard the first part of what someone is sayin’, well, don’t ya think a person ought to keep listenin’ to the second half? I mean so that you get the whole story exactly right in case ya need to repeat it later to someone else? Don’t you think so, Mr. Grayson?”
I chose not to share my initial response. Yes well, of course, I believe that we should always hold the highest of integrity when we eavesdrop. That way, when we gossip about it later, we will be sure not to miss any of the details. Instead I simply replied, “Well, yes, I suppose so.”
She continued. “Well, it just so happens that on that same evening, I overheard Dr. Schultz talkin’ real private about how you sorta went off somewhere in your mind, while you were listenin’ to your uncle’s story. You know, the one that was on the recording about the garden. Well, to tell ya the truth, Mr. Grayson, it really wasn’t much of a secret. I mean the entire fourth floor was talkin’ about it after you had that experience. Anyway, what I’m wantin’ to tell ya now is that you weren’t the only one that it happened to.
“Ya see . . . the morning that Melissa and I made that recording of your uncle, well, I sat down and listened to it right then myself, before we ever showed it to anybody. And I mean to tell ya, the exact same thing happened to me. At first I was just sittin’ there with my eyes closed, enjoyin’ the story. I could just picture myself out in that field, chasin’ that little butterfly. As the story went on it got more and more real. In fact, it got so real that I thought it was actually happenin’ to me right then and there.
“It was like your uncle took me on a journey back to when I was a little girl. And do ya know who I run into when I was there . . . ? My Grandma Sadie. Now mind you, runnin’ into Grandma Sadie—who passed on some twenty years ago—was not such a big thrill for me. I mean, we hated that ol’ bitch, all of us kids. Why behind her back we always called her the Hag-from-Hell. She used ta beat our butts somethin’ fierce. But this time when I was in that field of flowers and started to see all those sparkles a comin’, why all that glitter turned into my Grandma Sadie. It was like she was alive and well. Why it was the damnedest thing I ever saw. And this time she was beautiful, and real nice, too. I almost didn’t know who it was ’cause she was so different. At least that’s what it all looked like in that dark place behind my eyes.
“Well, she come on over to me with a whole bunch a flowers and told me that she wasn’t just my imagination—she was real. And she said that all those sweet visions I used to see when I was a little one, what people used to say I was just imaginin’, well, she said that all of them were real, too. She also said not to let anybody tell me different. Why, I remember when I used to get walloped somethin’ awful if I talked about what I saw in all that sparkly light. And do ya know who used to beat me the worst of all for doin’ it? Why, it was my Grandma Sadie. Do you believe it?
“Well, Jared . . . ever since then, I have been walkin’ round in a most wonderful feelin’. Like some burden has been lifted from me. That’s why I had to tell you, that I know it’s all right to take a little walk on the outside now and then, if ya know what I mean.”
I shuddered to think that I did know what she meant. I suppose it was true; I may have experienced some of what she had. Perhaps if I hadn’t been interrupted by Dr. Schultz, I might have seen even more. Her account also reminded me of Professor Talon’s story and of the pages I had forgotten were still in my coat pocket. One thing was certain however, I had to get out of this closet-of-claustrophobia before I lost whatever sanity I had left.
I thanked Emily again for all of her information and maneuvered towards the closet door. She asked if I could please send her word if I heard anything more about my uncle. I assured her that I would.
I backed out of the closet so as to not be recognized. Not that my reputation at the hospital could be any more tarnished. I simply wanted to make my escape without further complications.
I tried to imagine where my uncle and the other man might have gone. As for my uncle, in the years that I had known him there was only one place that he ever wanted to be—in the mountains as far away from people as he could get. The only other place I could think of was his lake cabin. I didn’t know if he still had it or if it was even standing. I heard many years ago that the state had run off many of the residents in that area who had built cabins on old homestead sites because the area was zoned as national forest. Whether or not my uncle’s cabin had been torn down, I had no way of knowing. He had built it far from any road on a plateau surrounded by a fairly high ridge. It was a difficult hike in, as I well remembered having dragged many a backpack full of groceries up the hill’s craggy face.
The police report said he had been found by a hiker not too far from a road in the Echo Ridge Reserve area. They brought him in by one of the forest service’s helicopters. I wasn’t great with the geography of the local area, and trying to locate him with no clue as to where to start seemed pointless. My only logical choice was to see if I could find his old cabin. Maybe it was still standing; perhaps he would return there. Besides, a few days in the mountains and away from this hospital looked far more than just inviting. It would give me a chance to sort things out, time to read the story that the professor had written.
I had a strong desire to find my uncle, but an even stronger desire to find out how all of the pieces of this puzzle fit together. I was becoming more aware that this was no ordinary situation and that there were obviously no rules and apparently no logical guidelines. In the course of only a few days, my entire reality had taken on the characteristics of a three-ring circus, and it was now emphatically clear that I, beyond any shadow of a doubt, was not a spectator.
My decision to go on a mountain expedition also
seemed to usher in an end to the many days of fog and drizzle that had been escorting me back and forth to the hospital. Today the sun was shining, and the morning air was cold and clean. The spring rains had brought out several fresh shades of green that made the old dry pines of the area appear newly dressed for another season. Occasionally, tiny wild flowers crept up the side of the road, while puffs of steam from the patches of wet grasses were slowly finding their way back to the sky. Even my old jeep seemed more than happy to be climbing the winding mountain road that was guiding me into the canyons of my past.
I had not been on this road since I last visited my uncle some thirty years ago. What I might find, I couldn’t imagine. It felt good though to once again be surrounded by the shale and granite mountains that allowed only the most insistent evergreens to grow. Because of the rough and rocky terrain, very few people built dwellings in this region. The road, which was now primarily used by the forest service, was poorly maintained, its ruts and boulders becoming larger and more treacherous the higher I climbed. This gravel passage and many of the landmarks were surprisingly familiar, reminding me that I too had been young and adventurous.
Appearing just ahead was a deep blue sign with crisp white letters. The sign looked obtrusively modern against the dark green majestic forest: echo ridge mountain reserve. A jolt of excitement raced through my body. Just beyond the cul-de-sac in the road was an old rickety building that looked well-inhabited with a junk yard display of assorted rocks, rusty tools, and antiques. There was also a half-decayed wagon that had probably sat in that very spot for the last quarter of a century. In fact, I believe this building may have been the local supply store my uncle and I used to visit. An old wooden sign hung at an angle crooked with the roof: echo mountain trading post. Although there was no one in sight, the front door stood wide open like a permanent invitation to come in and wander about.
Parking my jeep, I accepted the open door’s invitation. As I stepped over the threshold, I found a bountiful museum of junk, the value of which could only have been fully realized by the most devout of hermits. Numerous streams of sunlight filtered through the fine haze of shimmering dust that had been suspended, flickering in the afternoon air. The breeze of my entrance, though, sent the dust into a flurry, causing much of it to surrender and fall, joining other layers that had settled on the shelves and tarnished articles of this forgotten room.
The only object not yet so dusted was the hermit in question, who appeared to be sleeping in a straight-back chair leaning strategically against a window ledge. The front legs of the chair, about two inches off the ground, waited patiently to return to the roughly planked floor, as did the nervous mug full of coffee cradled loosely in his calloused hand, anticipating his waking and its precarious fate.
His thick coarse hair, beard, and eyebrows were a confused patchwork of color varying in shades from coal black to a silvery-white and seemed to grow unattended in all directions. A large tuft of white hair on his chest protruded through the open buttons of his red long-johns, while his perfectly round belly stretched tight the few buttons that were actually in use. More relaxed were the buttons on the lower part of these crimson drawers, which had stealthily crept out of the widely opened fly of his jeans. His pants, worn for especially high waters, revealed the last of his red suit. A band of red hung down below each pant leg just above his boots, which appeared to be rooted to the floor.
Being careful not to startle him, thereby upsetting his well-balanced pose, I quietly said, “Excuse me.” After a second or two I tried again in a louder voice, “Excuse me.”
Then with both eyes still closed, through a half-snoring mouth, he mumbled what I thought were the words, “Myrtle . . . now don’t be messin’ with me again. You know that once is all you get. Now go on.”
Obviously, his response was intended for someone other than myself, although I was more than a little curious to know if Myrtle was his wife or his mule. Giving it one last effort I raised my voice slightly and repeated, “Excuse me!”
One eye opened and circled the room as though sent out as a solitary scout to see if there was really any reason to rouse the rest of the body from its comfortable slumber. His one eye eventually found my two, which caused him to start as the chair legs hit the floor and a wave of the cold coffee bathed his lap.
Pretending not to notice the spill, he took a quick sip from the cup and said, “What can I do for ya?”
Trying to hide my smirk, I replied, “I was wondering if you might know of a man by the name of Ben Grayson. He used to live around here years ago and had a small cabin on a pond somewhere on the other side of this ridge.” I pointed out the door in the direction I thought it might have been.
“No, never heard that name, but you’re probably talking about Lake Cameron. I haven’t been up there in a long while. I see a few hikers heading that direction. They say, though, it’s pretty hard to get to since the stream flooded and washed out the old foot bridge and part of the trail. Now you gotta climb around the back side of the ridge. It’s a good long hike, take ya two or three hours.”
“Do you know if there is a small cabin near the lake?”
“Can’t say as I remember. It’s been a lot a years since I was able to climb up that far.”
I followed him as he limped through the door and out into the open parking area. “Just follow the stream up that direction,” he pointed off to the left. “When you come to the adjoining creek, look up towards it and you’ll see a ravine and two granite peaks. Climb between those peaks and the lake should be just below on the other side. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Never been that way myself. You think you might be going up there?”
“Well, I think I might head that direction.”
“Need any supplies?” he asked, anxiously.
I looked around wondering just what he had that I could possibly need. Perhaps an old wagon wheel or maybe part of a plowshare. Top that off with thirty or forty pounds of his assorted rocks for my backpack and I’d be all set. “No thanks,” I said, politely, “but is it alright if I park my jeep here for a while?”
“Suit yourself,” he said, hobbling into the old shack and presumably back to his afternoon nap.
I followed the stream as best I could for there was no trail to speak of, and the brush was prickly and dense. The turbulent water having washed its way along the narrow gully revealed a bed of logs and jagged boulders of varying shapes and sizes. I could tell that the stream was still young because the older trees had remained standing in the center of the flowing water, the soil yet to be eroded from their shallow roots.
It was not long before I found the adjoining creek and, as the old-timer had said, up its ravine I could see the two granite peaks. These, unlike myself, were now heavily shaded by a thick blanket of dark clouds. It was obvious that these clouds were headed in my direction, giving me the distinct impression that I was going to be on not only an interesting expedition, but also a wet one. However, the peak’s summit wasn’t far, and there was a chance I could make it over and down to the lake before any real deluge started.
Although I intended to pick up the pace of my hike, the climb soon became more difficult, with the massive rocks creating a much steeper terrain. My muscles stretched and pulled as I slowly found my way up the ravine’s jagged face. Some of my attempts were in vain as sheer rock walls or huge boulders forced me to backtrack and try alternate routes. I could feel my body becoming fatigued as the dark mask of clouds now shaded me and my surroundings in an illusion of nightfall. A chill wind accompanied this shadow, and the smell of an oncoming rainstorm filled my nostrils.
A distant rumble of thunder greeted me as I pulled myself up through the last crevice to the summit. Like centurions, the granite peaks stood on either side of the opening as though guarding the entrance. The view was still hidden by the tops of pine trees and a gray forest of fog. This dense layer of clouds had already claimed the small valley below. It now rose to blow through me, the cold wet breeze misting my face, then continuing down through the ravine I’d just climbed. A quick flash of lightening lit the billowing mist followed by a loud crack and a heartfelt rumble that seemed to vibrate the surrounding rocks. Its roar echoed back into the gray nothing of the terrain before me.
Panic was becoming a reality, as I could now feel my pulse in several parts of my body, my breath becoming more rapid to support this new flow of adrenaline. A few heavy drops announced the rain’s arrival as I scampered along the rocky terrain trying to find safe passage down the other side. I squinted hard to see through the dark thick fog. Dread slowly crept down my spine as the rain made small spattering noises all around me. I knew I had to get down off these rocks and under some shelter in the trees below. Soon the boulders would be too slick to climb, and I’d be stuck up here with no cover.
Unable to see what was below, I finally aimed myself in the direction of the treetops I had seen just before they disappeared into the mist. I climbed out onto a smooth rock face, the incline of which seemed less treacherous than the sharp vertical formations on either side. Not trusting the smooth slippery surface of the stone, I used the large horizontal cracks along the rock face like a ladder. With every step the rain seemed to come down harder, the sky becoming even darker. I knew I had to hurry.
Finding the remains of a fallen tree, I stepped down onto a branch that was wedged into one of the rock’s crevices. Suddenly the branch gave way and disappeared beneath my foot. A wave of shock filled me as I fell sharply two or three feet. I lurched my body forward, reaching to grab any part of the rock’s face. The entire front of my body finally made contact with the granite surface, but I was still sliding down. The incline was now much steeper than before. I had no idea what was below me. There could be more rocks and trees, or a hundred foot drop-off. Like a straining hand with its fingers stretched out wide to grip the surface of a globe, I molded myself to the round wet surface.
Slowly, I continued to slide, my feet searching frantically for any crevice or ledge, my arms and legs reaching out as far as they could. I clung to the massive stone like a child being pulled from its mother in despair. My fingers clawed wildly at the slick hard granite, frantic to find even the slightest crack or hole to dig their way into. I pushed every part of myself into the rough stone as my face painfully scraped the harsh surface, my mouth biting savagely to grasp anything that came in its path. I was sliding off the edge of the world, and I was sure that there was only a great black emptiness below me.
Just then I stopped sliding. My fingers had found a solitary crack traversing the face of this sphere. I held as still as possible, my fear gripping madly to the massive rock with only one or two joints of my fingers able to penetrate the merciless wet surface. I could feel my heart beating against my chest as my lungs rhythmically betrayed me over and over, pushing me out away from the stone with my every breath. My feet dangled helplessly, feeling only the torrent of rain that was now shelling me like endless gunfire. I wanted to cry out, but I was too frightened to move.
I could feel my clothes and backpack steadily being saturated by the rain, making my body heavier and heavier. A layer of water flowed over the surface of the rock. Like a waterfall it streamed underneath me and around me. I could feel my fingers weakening, and I knew the inevitable: In a very few seconds I would be forced to let go.
I wanted to turn my head and look down to see what, if anything, was beneath me, to find out if there was to be any hope of survival. I also knew that moving to look was a luxury I couldn’t afford. In this closing moment, time was precious and, one way or another, I would find out soon enough. Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t know.
I had never experienced this kind of overwhelming fear before. Nor had I ever been brought to look at the face of my own death. Desperation seemed to fill every cell of my body. I felt my fear slowly consume me, washing away my passion for life, drowning my dreams of the future. I hated this feeling of terror, and I despised that it had now come to own me. If my death was at hand, I wanted to die taking in one last triumphant breath, not crying out in fear, never to be heard from again. If this was my last moment, then let it be one of passion, an explosion of emotion greater than any I had ever known. Let this not be some tragic fate that was thrust upon me because my helpless fingers had finally given up, but let it be a moment of my choosing, to be the beginning of my next adventure, not simply the fearful end of this one.
The rain, as though having heard my thoughts, gently began to subside as did the frantic pounding of my heart. Trying not to move, I carefully took a deep breath and then let it out, hoping to rid myself of some of the fear and desperation that, like the hand of death, reached for me, grabbing at my life. As my body relaxed I felt a kind of euphoria come over me, a peacefulness I had never known before. I knew that this was it, the moment of my choosing.
I closed my eyes and took another long breath, breathing as
much of life as I could. Then letting out an exhilarating bellow, unencumbered by any word, I relaxed my fingers and let go.
How long had I fallen? I couldn’t be sure, for time truly does stand still when there is only you and the infinite air space around you. With no reference to any physical reality, it’s as if there’s no reality at all. The ultimate freedom I was experiencing in the here and now transcended physical reality. It was pure feeling, pure emotion with no mental perception attached to it. The first cognitive thought that finally intruded on my experience was my total disgust that I was again having a mental thought and that the experience of pure emotion was about to be over.
My second thought was the mental identification of tree branches and how harsh they felt sliding along the more tender parts of my body. Not to mention an even faster recall of what a rather large branch feels like when it is thrust up between my legs, connecting most unmistakably with my buttocks, my tailbone, and my groin. Beyond any doubt, reality had returned as my body was unexpectedly consumed by the long wet needles and the rough scraping branches of a very large pine tree.
Having made contact again with the physical world, I began an immediate inventory of which part of my body hurt the worst. Then I realized that this reality was still moving as the top of the pine tree in which I was now perched swayed back and forth. I grabbed on to any and all parts of the tree, resembling a well-worn flag that had wrapped itself around a pole so tightly that it could only be retrieved by the courageous someone who might climb up that pole and rescue it. I swung back and forth until the momentum of my weight subsided, bringing the tree back to its silent stance.
Just how long I clung to the top of that tree was difficult to know. It must have been a while though, because the rain had long since stopped and it was dark by the time I climbed down.
I remember staring blindly at a soft white glow above me, wondering if it was the moon or something more hiding just beyond the thick layer of haze. Then quite miraculously, the clouds pulled apart. Like the fingers of two hands that had been woven together, they slowly divided, unveiling the luminescent sphere. This most compassionate moon, which followed so soon after the storm, was like a beautiful maiden who now searched the dark misty terrain for her lost and fallen lover.
Lost and fallen, so was I, but very much a survivor of this storm. I felt humbled and grateful. . . . To whom, I wasn’t really sure. Perhaps to God?—whatever that is. Or maybe to this lady of the moon who had so graciously lighted the way for me to climb down out of that tree and find this sheltered alcove in the rocks. Within this solitary refuge, I felt safe and very honored to be alive. I was in awe of what had just happened. From the moment of my greatest fear, I had slid off the side of this cliff into the vast nothing and fallen some twenty feet. Then I was caught by a single tall pine, a noble tree who chose not to grow next to all of the other trees just below, but here, alone, pushed up against the side of this rock wall, looking down on the others.
The moon, having climbed high enough to clear the nearby branches, beamed down on me filling the alcove with a white-blue light. Life had never seemed so precious to me as in this instant. My whole being felt more content than ever, as if it were now filled with a soothing bell-like sound that resonated throughout me. I wanted to gather in every nuance of this scene that I might remember it on some less auspicious night. The sky had never been so clear, nor had this lady of the moon ever looked so bright. She moved carefully across the indigo sky, as though waiting for some response as to what she might have whispered to me, more than likely a question that could only be felt but never really understood. I stared into her white light and allowed a medley of thoughts to gather for our silent conversation. Like prose the words fell from my mouth. Spontaneously and without effort, they blended with music I had written some time ago—a melody that had been waiting for just such a moment.
My lady . . . of the night sky.
Sister to the sunrise.
Guardian . . . of the mountain.
Companion to the sea.
My lady . . . dressed in white light,
Won’t you talk with me this night.
Tell me of all . . . that I’ve forgotten.
Tell me all the secrets . . . that I long to know.
My lady . . . how I’ve wondered,
of the sparks that dance about you.
And of the voice . . . that calls unto me.
Whose face I’ve never seen.
My lady . . . send them to me.
All the secrets of my dreams.
Light the way home . . . so I’ll remember.
How I long to be there.
Tell me . . . tell me everything.
Tell me when the whole of life began . . .
was there such a fear that life could end.
And is to bring an end to such a fear . . .
to know the end . . . is to begin.
And rise above illusions.
Creations of our own.
And soar into your twilight.
My lady of the moon.
Twilight . . . dark night . . . moonrise.
A cold calm chill pulled me from my trance, reminding me that my clothes were heavy and well-soaked from the rains. Opening my backpack, I took out some matches and a few half torn pages, which I crumpled beneath some twigs and branches that had been sheltered by the overhanging rocks. I struck a match and blew gently on the dry tangled nest trying to coax a little fire to join me in this darkness. As the paper began to catch, the small flame illuminated the tiny intricate writing on the burning pages.
Suddenly, I was jolted by the realization that I had just set fire to the professor’s story. I dove forward, placing both hands over the fire. Frantically, I pushed on the burning mound until all signs of the flickering light were out. My heart pounded rapidly in its attempt to nurse me back from the momentary shock. My hands, warm and blackened by the soot, were still shaking, leaving me unable to tell whether they had actually been burned.
Carefully, I retrieved the charred pages and unfolded the creases as best I could. From what I could tell in the dim light, there appeared to be little damage, that is to the story. My nervous system was not so easily repaired. I sat back with the pages in my hand, breathing steadily to calm my rattled bones. I felt panicked, not just from the burning pages, but from a pressing need to read this story immediately. I could not put it off any longer. Something was telling me that I had to take it all in before morning.
I scavenged through my backpack to find some less valuable scraps of paper, which soon caught fire, igniting the twigs I had gathered. I fed the fire with what I could find until it began to thaw my cold fingers and dry the edges of my wet beard. I placed my damp jacket on a nearby rock and slid my backpack underneath my head laying myself as close to the fire as I could. The tiny flames could warm only one side of my face but gave out a soft glow across my chest and hands lighting the now ragged pages I was about to read.