What do you believe? (A Spiritual Fiction Writing Contest entry)
|The first time I saw Oakridge, I wasn’t impressed. It almost looked like someone beat it up in a street fight. There were shuttered stores, an empty industrial park, but not surprisingly, plenty of bars. I thought to myself that being the new city manager would be a challenge, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement. Yet, the prospect of trying to turn the place around scared me. I thought I was up for this position, but there was always that niggling that maybe I didn't have chops. It certainly gave me pause about leaving my old comfortable employment.
The surrounding area, though, was as beautiful as you could want. The town was completely surrounded by national forest land. Douglas fir trees stood tall in those forests that also held hot springs, teemed with wildlife, and had stunning waterfalls. But it was the trail map that had me sold. It was a spider web of places to hike. I was an avid hiker and I recalled times in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, the oak and hickory dominated Ozark Mountains, and even the soggy marshes down New Orleans way. But this was spectacular!
The job offer arrived via email, but I’d several phone conversations with the local officials. I read the contract, replete with legalese I understood, and then read the bottom line. It contained some numbers that were very good, and it seemed like a good move. I would also be able to take several days to get settled in and have a little vacation.
It was a long drive out to the west coast, and I arrived on a cool fall day. My first evening there -- although I wouldn't begin work for a bit -- was set aside for a reception to meet city officials and other prominent citizens. It was light fare, catered locally, with plenty of seafood. Oysters on the half shell are a favorite, and tasted a bit like the Pacific Ocean I hadn't seen in years. I had to stop myself from being a pig with them and the local craft beer. It was a robust oatmeal stout, and it would have been easy to drink several, but men of the cloth were in attendance, so I didn’t over indulge. I was introduced to several, and one of the younger of them asked my religion. I told him that I followed none, as I was agnostic.
Showing a basic lack of understanding, he replied, “Well, perhaps we can change your mind!”
“A true temporal agnostic like myself is always searching.” I replied. “If I find it, then I do.”
The pastor scrunched his face a bit, “Aren’t you worried what will happen when you die?”
“Not really. At this point you might believe you have the answers, but I don’t. It’s that simple.”
The man of the cloth mumbled, “Well, Paul was Saul before the road to Damascus.”
“Indeed. Did you know Saul was part of the stoning of Saint Stephen?” I said.
“Book of Acts. It’s a good read.”
“How would you know that? You read the Bible?” The pastor’s face clouded.
“I read many religious texts. A little bit is my Baptist upbringing, but most is just plain research.”
He said, “Agnostics…”
“Yeah, it’s kind of what we do.” I sipped my beer and hoped he missed the slight smirk.
Douglas fir trees has a distinct odor that is pungent as it is wonderful. An early October arrival meant getting time to explore would be in the fall. The understory of the forest would be brightest in spring with native azaleas and rhododendron in bloom, but understory trees would still be quite colorful. My plan for a long weekend -- five days -- was to drive up to Waldo Lake, rent a space and park the rig. From there, it was on to the Pacific Crest Trail. While it wasn’t the most famous trail, it was widely known. Fortunately for me, it had the great views close by, and I could only hike a distance that would get me back in a short time. I had also purchased my fishing license, and carried my gear along. At least some of it, I’m not sure all of it would fit in my new garage when the moving van arrived!
Waldo Lake is one of the cleanest -- if not the cleanest -- freshwater lake in the country. Unfortunately, that means the fish population is quite thin. I intended to press up the trail and find some feeder streams that I heard were full of trout. There was a good sized footbridge over a decent sized stream, and I left trail and followed it. It widened as I moved downhill, and even though it was fast, it was shallow, and there were flashes of fish. A good sized rock made an excellent perch, and I snapped the rod together and tied up a fly. Just my third cast was struck, and without a scale I could only estimate the weight, but it was over 12” in length. In under twenty minutes, I took an even bigger one, and sadly, that was the daily limit. The good news was dinner wouldn’t just be the trail food in my pack! The bad news was that while digging in my pack, the compass had fallen out, and promptly rolled into the water. I made a good try for it, but without getting soaked, I simply had to watch it float away. At least my wristwatch was attached to my arm, and while not as accurate, I could still navigate.
Heading back, a fairly good sized animal trail led off west of me, and it was interesting. Animal tracks of many species were clearly visible. Since I kept a camera to film nature and wildlife, I was curious. Where were they going? I decided to follow it, and after maybe a half of a mile or so, I was glad I did. The view was spectacular. A small pond drew the animals, large and small, and then the outlet poured down over a hundred feet into a gorge. My maps show topography, but never could it tell the story of the place. I walked about the rim to get pictures of the splendor.
Then the iron grey clouds that began to replace the sunshine made it a photographer’s dream. However, not knowing the fury the Pacific Ocean can put on the Cascades, it could be a hiker’s nightmare. Sure, the shots of the snow blowing over the landscape would be incredible, but I didn’t realize the problem before it was too late. I tried to look on the several trails leading to the place for tracks, but all I could find was mush. With the sun still faintly visible, I reckoned by my watch, checked my topographic map, and picked the best one.
The good news was that I was experienced in outdoor survival, but the bad news was that I had no solid information on the land at hand. You can eat every mushroom you find, but some of them, only once. The forest and meadow did have several things I knew I could eat, and working quickly I did some scavenging, then ducked under the canopy. The move away from the cliff was done for several reasons, though. Among the giant trees, it was a shelter from the wind. I wouldn’t wander off a cliff while taking a piss in the middle of the night, and I was away from the pond where the large animals went. I carried wire as part of my gear, and snares were set. It didn’t take long to get a rabbit.
By the time I was roasting him over the fire pit with wild onions, I had another in hand. I tripped and collected all the traps, since that would hold me just fine until morning. Then I’d have to get moving. The map gave me a rough location, and hopefully my watch could lead me out. Standing dead timber was what you wanted for firewood, and there was plenty in the area. After starting a nice fire, warming up and cooking, I set to make shelter. A thin sheet of clear plastic was what I took for a tarp, and using some light cord and pebbles, I had a cover by the fire. With warmth, food, and water -- purified with a small bottle of bleach I carried -- it was very tolerable. In fact, it was quite delicious, and the water almost tasted like the very woods where I’d refilled it. Later in the night it would get worse, though.
When I set up camp, flurries had already begun. Knowing there was more weather coming I had pitched the tarp with one end close to a large rock to keep down the wind and the other was faced to the fire that was warmed me. It's very easy after a nice long hike, some fishing, and setting camp to fall asleep. I was dozing the moment my head hit my pack.
I awoke some hours later, and first thought it was morning. The fire wasn't dead, just embers, so without getting to far out of my sleeping bag, I tossed on a couple sticks of wood. It sputtered back to life, but it didn't seem that cold. It was the light that threw me as I blinked away the sleepiness and looked at my watch. The moon was waning, and there was snow falling even heavier than before. It wasn’t dawn, either, but I double checked to be sure. Yet, under the big canopy, it was nearly as bright as day.
This had to be a dream, particularly since a figured appeared in the light and walked toward me. She was dressed in white robes, but nothing warm enough for this weather. I sat cross-legged in front of the fire as she approached and knelt.
“Hello.” She said with a small smile.
“Hi there… Who are you? Or what?” I figured it was my dream, so I could say what I wished.
“I am a simple messenger.” She replied. “But I am also to ask you question.”
I paused a moment. “Okay, I’ll bite. A messenger from who, exactly?”
“He is called countless names, some you may have heard, but most lost to time. To your people, Cernunnos.”
“Okay, first. My people?” I asked.
“Yes, you are from Celtic bloodlines.” She replied. “The Horned One is god to animals.”
“Well, that’s news! Since I was adopted. Good to know...” I paused. “So that’s my message?”
“First, there is a question.” She said. I held up my arms a bit and shrugged.
“Please! I take it this is from the animal god?”
“And God of other things, yes.” She said and then looked at the fish I’d hung high on a limb.
“Why were his creatures slain this day?”
“Slain? Not a word I’d use for fishing, exactly... But really, what do you want me to say?”
“Say only that you took the life to feed yourself, and not from maliciousness.”
“Well, that should be clear, but sure… I’m out in the woods and I’m feeding myself.” I shrugged.
“Yet the rabbit carcasses are buried and heads of fish tossed aside.” She said in a chiding tone.
“And? I had fish head soup once. Hard pass.” I wondered how she knew about the rabbits.
“Use the skin of the rabbit and the carcasses to fertilize your ground! Flowers! Vegetables!”
“Well, my pack is 45 pounds already, I’m in a fix, I’m not packing it out.” I paused, “But I’ll think about it.”
“You are lost. In more ways than one.”
“Wait, is that my message?!” I said loudly.
“It is. Now, you don’t even believe in yourself. You must believe in something more as well.”
“This is one interesting dream, I have to say.” I said shaking my head.
“Yes. Go back to sleep.”
I awoke with the sun fully up, and that wasn’t a good start. Instead of having fish for breakfast, it might be lunch somewhere. I’d just broken camp, and had my map and watch out. Nothing seemed to make much sense, and I pondered the choice of a bearing course or following a waterway. My rifle was by me, and I grabbed it when I heard the noise. It was an elk entering the small clearing, and a big one. They were in rut, and this was an extremely dangerous encounter. I retrieved the .30-.30 slowly -- a very small caliber for an elk -- and put it up in front of me. When it reached me, it lowered its head to the barrel of my rifle. Perhaps the only shot that could kill it cleanly. The massive rack touched my shoulders. It was wrong. I raised the rifle and uncocked the hammer. While I stowed my weapon and hefted my pack, it waited. I followed it in a direction I would not have chosen, and he became a taskmaster. I was in shape, but he had to wait for me a few times. The final stop had me clamoring up a slope that the animal bound in one leap. As I made the last crest, I put my hand on the big elk, and the feeling isn’t one to explain. You simple see through other eyes. I was back on the PAC-CO trail, and I looked east past the beast, then west, my direction of travel. Turning back he was gone, but the bugle he released off in the distance was majestic.
While the fish fried in my little apartment, I tilled the tails into the little garden herb garden left to me with my apartment. The herbs and butter made that the best fish I’d ever tasted... I would get to know some good people in that small town, and many of them were hunters. They had already invited me to their hunting camp for the fall bow hunt season. Also, there happened to be an older gentleman who was a bonafide bowyer. I’d hunted with firearms before, but that somehow didn’t seem quite right anymore. So, it was very pleasant to meet someone local who could make a hunting bow. I managed to convinced him to teach me how to make one, too. I’d bought one of his nicer pieces to practice, but I wanted to try and have my own by the fall. He charged me for awhile, until I brought good yew out of the woods.
“Can you make glue from deer hooves?” I asked.
“I know what you’re doing.” He said and looked at me sideways.
“You want to use all your kill, and you don’t look native. Wiccan? Pagan?”
“Got me,” I replied. He snorted and continued showing me how to fletch an arrow.
“You don’t know what you believe?”
“I do, even though I’m still learning.” I replied. “Just never thought it needed a name…”
“I’ll bet you’ll start tanning leather and tooling, too!” He said with a chuckle.
“You’re slow, old man, I already have! But not with my leather… yet!”
The four point bucks hadn’t run far. My arrow caught him just above the heart, which was tough for me. I thought I’d made a clean kill. I reached him and could almost feel the terror in his eyes. I said, “Thank you, my brother, and know I’ve taken your life only for sustenance....” Even though it can be dangerous to use a blade on a wounded buck, I gave the coup de grâce he deserved. I then made an invoking sign over the animal, and even though I heard someone coming in the distance, it was important to continue. "Horned One, take this brother in Your arms to the afterlife, knowing his innocence. Also know I killed him for need, and not for blood lust or pleasure." I slit the throat of the deer to drain the blood, and as it trickled out, I dipped two fingers in it. The taste was like licking a salty penny, and after pressing it to my lips, I flicked the remained on the ground. Then I stood.
“What the hell was that?” Paul, one of our hunting group asked.
“Oh, just an old tradition.” I said. He accepted that easily enough and looked at the buck and whistled.
“Nice! And you took it down with that homemade shit of yours, too…”
That was the kind of statement which a man might take umbrage, and I did. I told him that his $2,000 compound bow was very pretty, but even with such a fine piece, it’s the man behind the string. I figured I had been about 50’ from my quarry, and pointed to a good sized tree at about the same distance. When I asked, he said he could hit it. He drew back a bow that probably had twice my draw, aimed and fired. He caught the tree, but it was left of center by a foot. I pulled an arrow from my quiver, nocked it and drew. It hit no more than an inch from his. His jaw dropped.
“Well, it’s all about practice.” I said. “How often do you?”
“Maybe once every month or two… you?” Paul replied.
“Twice a week.”
“Well, you’re good, but I prefer they get closer to me for bow shots!” He fired back.
“So you drive a noisy vehicle to a stand, climb it immediately even though the game you scared away for a mile won’t be back for hours, and wonder where they went.” I said with a chuckle, “But to each their own.”
“So… you want me to get my four-wheeler?” He asked after a bit.
“No, but thank you. I’m going to field dress it, make a litter, and take it up to camp.”
“Over a quarter mile mostly uphill? Why?”
“It’s just kinda my thing.” I shrugged. “Keep in shape!”
It was still light when I got back to the camp, and the smell of cooking venison with decent local seasoning was pleasant. There was also a hint of booze and beer, and everyone was in good spirits. They razzed me a bit while I was hanging the buck, and eventually I ended up at the communal fire. They asked questions while I put fresh liver on a spit to grill -- It’s hunter’s choice on fresh organ meat -- though I really couldn’t give them good answers. Finally one asked if I would be dancing around the kill tonight.
“I don’t dance.”
“So, what are you gonna do?” Someone asked.
“Well, the only thing I can do in this light is take the antlers. I’ll skin it tomorrow.”
“Take off the antlers?” One of the camp members cried, “That buck is a trophy!”
“Well,” I said calmly, “Not to me, no… not to me.”
“He’s crazy.” Paul added. "I've seen it!"
“Perhaps.” I said with a smile.
I never did hunt with them again. It wasn’t because their way of hunting was so different from mine, I just preferred solitude. I’d managed to whittle down my time at work and spent most of it in the woods. It wouldn’t have been possible had I not believed in myself the way I now did. I became very introspective and realized my strengths and weaknesses. It was powerful stuff. I’m not certain I’d have ever done this if not for one very strange night in the Willamette Forest. Also, even though I would forever hope to see another messenger, I still believed in something else, too.