The gist of it is that as I’ve settled into Marionville, I’ve been recovering from a head injury due to a hike interrupted by a stumble that triggered disaster. So I don’t have expectations, other than getting through each day. When your brain feels permanently fogged in, that’s how it is. It could have been worse, everyone says. I suppose so. The surgeries tried to correct things. My right leg is healing from two compound fractures; my nose and forehead could look and feel even better. My left arm is now more useful though it was also fractured. It was a long fall down a very steep, tree-occupied hill. I lost consciousness for three days. My mind still has starts and stops three months later. It’s an intricate, slippery thing, the brain.
My dad–and others–always said that I err on the side of verbosity. So I guess that part of my brain is hearty because words are working better in my mind. It wasn’t that way at first; it was three weeks before things came back into moments of focus. And words worked their way out a little bit at a time. I came around, made better sense, sought more answers. But there were none when it came to the story of a long fall and a supposed rescue by a passing stranger. I was present and aware and hiking, and then I was not. I was given help, then said helper disappeared as EMTs arrived. No one could identify that person from what I had heard.
So, a mystery and I live inside it every day.
Marionville is not where I want to be. My parents long lived here, now only my dad. But it makes sense for a quiet road to recovery. I’m on leave from my radio show until I can demonstrate more communication strengths than deficits. I often have to wait a few beats before responding, making simple decisions. Actual words get confused. I have too many rehab appointments. So I get it that I need time, two-three more months. I hope.
Dad and I keep company–about fair to middling. He has his part of the house–downstairs. I have mine, a bedroom and bathroom, a second room with a desk and single bed to do whatever in. Maybe practice talking in a microphone again, working on a radio show script. Sometime… Right now I gaze out the window a lot. I can think, sort of, but decent writing seems a forbidden event and talking is a crapshoot.
Like this morning.
Dad said, “I’m going fishing, want to come, Sammy-boy?”
The endearing term caught me off guard. But fishing sounded hard. I shrugged as he turned to his array of poles in the garage.
“Guess to stand in water? Can’t pitch a damn.”
“No pitching, we aren’t up for any baseball yet,” he chuckled.
“Fitching, fishes, ya know, hoof– hook in…worms!”
I was pleased to get a part of it out right. Some sentences came out worse than others.
He swung around, studied me gravely. “Guess you can’t use that arm yet. Maybe you forgot how, sitting in a radio station all those years. So it can wait longer, Sammy.”
“I…it’s…” I exhaled tiredly.
As it he didn’t want to cause more embarrassment for either of us, he paused a half beat, then left. I would have stood in cold lake water all day if it made him happy–if he’d waited a minute. But I don’t hold it against him. Retired fireman Carl Garfield Thomas is a man of few words and little sentiment showing on his sleeve. And I do look more like Mom, do love language like she did. And it is true that now, at 77, Dad is going it alone pretty well. Though he cares, of course; he just seems baffled and annoyed by my recovery at his place.
Me, too. I miss Issaquah, just beyond Seattle. I’m in Michigan for the duration. A childhood place left decades ago. I am not in my element, anymore.
But, then, what was normal and “like me” is all screwed up now.
Why did it happen, this accident? I’m not unfit. A thirty-eight year old man, I do enough–hiking, skiing, cycling on week-ends. I love the mountains. I do hike with others but am confident on my own even in the back country. That Saturday I was alone. A bit tired–had been out the night before, but that’s often the case on week-ends. I still felt ready for the hike. But there was loose rock, massive roots, steep descents. Or did something else happen? What came when?
I don’t know. It happened too fast.
But I want to know exactly why. How. There is so much missing. It makes me toss and turn, bad arm and leg in the way, sweating in the quilt, eyes open half the night.
I need to know it all. But it’s not there.
Dee calls to set up a lunch visit at the Spoon and Mug for lunch, a diner at the end of Lake Wenatchee. I reluctantly agree. Dad raises unruly white eyebrows but drops me off. I haven’t seen Dee for three years. We met when my parents moved here for retirement. I visited every Christmas, some summers of falls. And we stayed friends.
“Well, come here, Sam,” Dee says with a throaty laugh.
“Dee. Here we are.”
She gently wraps both arms about me, careful of my balance since I lean on a half-crutch wrapped about my forearm. Her plumpness warmly engulfs my wrecked frame.
We settle into our chosen booth, the one we always sit in, overlooking the lake. I inhale to my toes. Ah, fragrances of burgers, French fires and onions, fruit pies and too strong coffee. I haven’t had a venison burger in awhile, and order after she does.
She searches my face top to bottom, notes my lame arm and leg. I am not nervous with Dee and know the long jagged scar across my forehead remains deep pink; my nose is crooked despite surgery,
“Still handsome, huh?” she says. “You seem to be bearing up okay, despite the ordeal. I thought I’d meet up with a quasi-Frankenstein, but I was not–truly not!– one bit afraid, my friend. You’re still Sam T. Thomas, smooth jazz with most current commentary, right? Of course you are, just waylaid awhile.” But she blinks twice, eyes glossy. “And how’s it going at ole Carl’s? Fishing any good, yet?”
“Funny ask. No, so far. Bum arm, leg. I not a thing, he…this or that. Long days.” I’d warned her about my speech but Dee is a patient sort.
“I imagine. You’re used to being on the move in all ways. Rough, buddy. Give it the time it requires.”
We pause to check out our orders, sip hot coffee.
“So sorry you had to go through it, Sam. I couldn’t believe it when Carmela called me after talking to your dad’s friend, Sherry….”
I stop my fork halfway to my mouth–Sherry who?–but took the bite of cole slaw.
“…and it was a shock. You know your way around a wilderness trail! But accidents…that’s just the way they go. Sudden, a weird succession of events. I was relieved to hear you’re healing, though.”
“Your brains are good, your mouth just needs a little rest, I guess.”
She beams good cheer and I flood with appreciation. A real friend is just what I need. A few back home are busy; they have important lives to get on with.
“Can I ask–Lily? Ok? Sch–shoo—classes ok?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, “back at it and glad of it. Both of us. She’s eleven, going on fifteen in her deluded mind. But doing alright. Overall.” She takes a bite, glances away.
“Martin?” I ask. That’s why Dad’s eyebrows raised, maybe.
“Yeah. Gone. Left one morning without even his usual juicy poached egg and bitter espresso. Back in Grosse Pointe. It was bound to happen, right? He couldn’t stay put up here. We tried hard but had to give it up.”
I think of Lily, reach for her hand. Now comes a barely audible whimper. When she stays quiet on the topic, I attack my venison burger with barely retrained relish which gets her smiling again. I never liked Martin; his hair and Lexus were too important and resolved to tell her later that it will become a better life for Lily–a good kid, a bright one–and her.
Time goes by as we cover basic news we want to know, relaxing with another mug of coffee. I do not ask about Sherry’s identity; that’s my dad’s business. Dee talks about work and Lily, asks questions I answer with extreme brevity. We have a fair picture of each other’s present state of mind. She is sad about Martin but has been letting go. I feel angry and curious about my issues., somewhat resigned but am not letting go.
“So, you can’t remember what happened exactly. From start to the end….when you woke up. I keep coming back to this. Not surprisingly, it seems you want to recall the details…not keep it in the dark like so many people would. How like you to have to dig, find the bits and pieces. And I understand that need to know everything possible, being a librarian.”
“Yeah.” I slowly nod at her–she does get it. I like her inquisitive spirit, too. And the sooner I can part the pea soup fogginess–it can’t all be the concussion’s effects–the better.
She puts an arm on back of the bench seat, narrowing eyes at me, pondering. “Well. I keep thinking of Heaven. Of course.”
Of course. But I chortle–not that I don’t know what she means. Because I do know. And why Dee places so much faith in a woman everyone else calls a crazed hippie artist or a soothsayer or perhaps a mastermind hiding out from the Chicago Mafia, I don’t know. I’ve only seen Heaven Steele in passing and that’s fine with me. I don’t need Ms. Steele to tell me all I have endured. I just need one hundred percent recall.
“Dee, I not all–“
“Not all about that kind of thing, I know, I know. But what is there to lose?” she says. “Let’s go see her–she has helped people. Please?”
I grunt, hold my hands up in the air, screw up a nutty face at her.
Maybe it’s the happiness of a full belly, good talk and shafts of honeyed light drifting through the streaked windows of down-to-earth-wonderful Burger and Mug Diner. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m bored out of my fuzzy brain. And my daily headache is ramping up. But I give in.
How can I rule out something Dee recommends if I haven’t tried it? I trust her. Why not trust her artist-clairvoyant?
Heaven Steele’s house is nothing spectacular though apparently she has money from her Chicago life chapter. I can hear a sweet jangling of glass wind chimes she makes by the dozens to sell to tourists and online. A narrow flagstone walkway winds down the hill to an older modern one-story set above the town. I expected a full glass mini-mansion so she could view the world, maybe keep track of us below. At this moment, anything can apparently manifest per gossip about the woman. I suggest a mystique equating very little.
Dee rings the doorbell, a sound of sonorous bells. When the door opens Heaven fills the space with her height, clothed in a deep blue tunic, dark loose pants. Barefoot. She steps forward to take Dee’s hands into hers, lightly takes my one free palm.
“Hello folks, welcome to my place.”
I wonder what that means–inner sanctum, hill temple, chimes studio, crystal ball room?–but decide to withhold judgment. There is a pleasant living room with large paintings on walls and richly colored upholstery, but she leads us into a dining area, past the kitchen then through French doors–I see a partly glass walled studio to the left and big paintings– and into a large courtyard.
I pause to rest my swinging, heavy leg and take it all in. Flourishing plants, brightly hued flowers, a gurgling fountain, rainbow of lights strung from tree to tree…who wouldn’t come here and expect to hear their fortune told? Or whatever she did. It smells good, feels tranquil. It surely offers sanctuary,
When we sit down, Heaven Steele eases into a seat across from us. Her silvery hair glistens in the dappled light. Her strong hands–they just appear strong–are resting on the chair arms. She inquires after Dee and Lily. It seems they know one another better than social friends might. But I’d had no cause to think of her one way or another. Before now, to perhaps learn…something. Or nothing at all.
Taking her space in I failed to really see Heaven Steele’s face, her eyes. But now mine catch hers and it’s clear what people have noted: one eye is blue, the other greenish-amber. I know this is hereditary–a childhood classmate had the same rare condition–but this doesn’t dampen the effect. I want to look away, yet she easily holds me in her steady gaze. So I look right back, give her a semi-fake smile.
“So recently Dee informed me of the situation. Maybe I can help. I sometimes snag experiences from others. You don’t have to believe in anything I say or do. I’m sorry it happened, Sam. But it was not to be avoided, no matter what you did. Your body took over, it likely tried to save you and then…”
I am taken aback. “Save me? About k-killed-ended me…” I gesture to my face, leg, arm.
“Yes. But wait.”
She keeps me in the thrall of her gaze even as I glance at Dee’s encouraging expression and back. Heaven lowers her eyelids, breathes out a really long exhale.
Please, I thought, no mesmerizing antics.
“What did you hear before you slipped? A sharp sound? A brush of the air? Close your eyes now, follow the path.”
I think back, eyes wide. I’m not closing them, I recall so little, looking at empty blackness behind my lids won’t show me one thing.
“I know you’re anxious. But there is a slight rustle in the underbrush, among the pine trees. You hear it but think nothing of it, a squirrel, a snake, a beaver along the silvery creek. A small clearing, then deeper woods. you tire…”
There was a creek, true. A rustling, but even tiny birds rustle. Lots of things. A creek I stopped by just before taking a turn in the trail, a clearing before I went on. She must see where I was. I close my eyes.
“You feel something out there, then a shot of energy along your spine, neck prickling, but you are soon to descend the trail, head to your car. You’re tired, warm. Almost out of water.”
I am on the trail, legs pumping dutifully, feet getting sore, throat parched as water is low so I wait it out longer. The light dims as I enter a thicker grove of cedars and pines, and if I hear footsteps I think they are far behind. The birds…they are now still as I push on after four hours of hiking narrow rocky trails. Out of the corner of my eye–the barest glimpse… of what? I keep on.
“What do you see, Sam?”
I feel my heart race, look around, see another pale streak, step slightly off the trail as i pivot, enough that I lose my footing, the steep side of the mountain suddenly like a magnet so I am going down, sliding, my legs catching on a stump, hands grasping and missing plants and branches, flesh tearing, leg hitting rocks and roots all the way down, trying to avoid tree trunks, arm catching on a thorny bush and yanked, then I roll over and over and over, head hitting hard places, arm shrieking with pain, then my god my leg, my leg… but…nothing. Hard stop.
Then a terrifying screech.
Me? or is it a woman? What’s happening? I am overcome, engulfed in pain. I’m out.
Dee is crouching before my knees, shaking me gently and I am back as fast as I fell into the past. Heaven is leaning forward, breathing hard and almost breathless, her face alert and open, eyes finding me. Compassion.
“W-wh-what?” I say, suddenly sure of what it was out there.
Heaven speaks carefully. “Yes, a cougar.”
My skin prickles, jaw drops. How can I be surprised? There are bears and cougars and deer and so much more in forested mountains. I have heard the bears, carry bear spray; have seen great elk, sidestepped a rattlesnake once, felt I saw a wolf vanish between the trees. I know cougars stalk their prey a long while, with no sound.
And that they scream. Like a screeching woman. An entirely wild thing unlike me, us.
“Surprised by one,” I say. “Oh.” I rub hands over my face, lean back and run fingers through my hair. But then: “Why…how can I be…h-here?”
It might never have been me. But it was too close to ignore or finally forget. That I am one small human being in a world of other creatures.
Heaven says, “There was another, a mountain woman who realized your danger. She trailed you and the cougar. It was her body you saw that time before you fell. Moving with a rifle in hand. The first time you saw the cougar. I barely can capture a cougar running off, then her arms and hands thrust high, her voice deafening, almost like that of the fierce cougar. What happened? Not sure except she got to her cabin to call for help. And then she went back to wait until she saw their lights. Remarkable.”
We all fall silent, considering it all.
“Sometimes we get lucky–rescue comes at the right moment.” Heaven spreads her hands out, barely shrugs. “There is nothing more. Thank you for letting me witness your trial.”
Heaven makes tea for us. I am still shaking some, as if it all just happened, unsure if i was alive. Dee puts both arms about me, reassuring me. My skin and brain feel tumbled inside out. I can still feel the sensations of rolling down head over heels and the pain and the mindless fear. Was this possible? That I might even have died one way– or the other? That a ghostly wilderness woman saved me?
The burbling water calms me. The hot tea has lavender and other things that taste soothing and feel better going into my body. All three of us are quiet. The fountain splashes and colored lights brighten in the fleeing glow of an October afternoon. After our cups are emptied, we tour her art studio. I study the immense precision of her work, take in the jewel-toned hues, clean designs. I purchase one, but she insists on giving it to me. It will be beautiful to behold as the race toward winter begins, and snowfall comes. A crystalline background for the mobiles of tinkling glass asway in the biter winds.
“Wait and see what winter brings,” she murmured as we left.
But it isn’t a matter of believing in Heaven Steele. She definitely has her skills. But it’s more a matter of facing my fears and believing in myself again. With some help.
I have to manage the coming months, the work it will take. I can heal up from inside out. Become stronger than before if I do it right, find my way to the next good thing. I will accept this country my father loves. I hope to go ice fishing with him. And then there’s the gift of language from my mother who, though long gone, seems to call me to greater renewal. Maybe that was the reason for the fall. Maybe not. I’m digging my heels in for as long as it takes to find out.
Maybe I’ll even get a chance to say: “Heck of a good morning to you, Radio Marionville, hold on to the moment because Sam T. Thomas is here and coming at ya!”