I woke to a pounding torrent of rain. Its drumbeat was relentless on the bark shingles of the smallish longhouse.
The darkness was absolute. Instinct kept me close-mouthed and motionless as intuition sent flares through my skull—there was someone or something lurking nearby, hidden inside the pitchy shroud.
I remained as still as stone, and mentally recalibrated. It was my first night in the Iroquois medicine woman’s dwelling, which was situated on the edge of a village alongside Buffalo Creek. She’d welcomed me with a palpable hesitancy—only Shamish vouching for me provided a hide-pallet and pelts for cover. She tolerated my presence—I had the distinct impression that, if necessary to protect hearth and home, she’d bash my head or slit my throat in a heartbeat.
Thick maple scented smoke mixed with sweat made the air heavy. Smoldering coals from last evening’s cook-fire cast a tiny pinkish hue that was barely perceptible. A seedy sweetness permeated the poorly ventilated room.
My vision had adjusted to the inky blackness—I searched through it, attempting to distinguish the features of my surroundings. A raw certainty puckered my lips into a grimace—I was being watched. Eyes were focused on me—I could feel them.
I intensified my probing, but could see nothing or no one—no trace or even the hint of a shadow. Muscles constricted in my stomach as downy follicles of hair on the nape of my neck prickled.
Alert and wary, I quieted my breathing to settle into calmness and be prepared for action. Time ticked with steady slowness as tension became a tangled granny-knot of the aromatic threads—the odors tightened into a sickly stench that clawed at the back of my throat.
From the far side of the open space, the hitch-like snoring of Shamish came in spurts that were almost unnoticeable above the rat-tat-tat racket nature kept stirring up. The wind was tumblimg in a backbeat rhythm that heightened the cascading crescendo of rain.
Suddenly she was standing over me—how long she’d been that close was unknown. A solid wedge of firewood was clenched in her right hand. My eyes bulged, threatening to disengage from the sockets. We stared at each other—bewilderment tumbled out of me while skepticism rolled off her in waves. The emotions came together like dovetail joints to build an absurdly real wall between us.
“The storm will pass,” Bernadette said in a blunt whisper. “Dawn will be blue and beautiful. We’ll visit the strange woman before the sun reaches the top of the sky. After that you will leave us.”
It was not a request or command—it was a flat-out statement. And with that she moved away with a stalker’s nimbleness. The easy softness of her steps made for a surprising contrast—she was a broad-shouldered, big-bosomed, wide-hipped wintertime woman.
I watched her fade into the gloom—she crouched low near the fire-pit and stirred the coals, fed in loose bits of kindling, placed the log in a strategic place, then was gone from my line of sight. Night was still in command. I stayed awake, anxiously awaiting the sunrise. My mind perplexed its way through the puzzle of Bernadette. What was it about me that set off misgivings and animosity in her?
I gazed at the tongues of flame while wondering—when a drawn-out stretch didn’t satisfy the curiosity swirling inside, I wondered some more.
Jitterbug Of Anticipation
The forest was green, silent and wet—leaves were dripping steamy droplets. Warmth was burning off the morning chill as the sun crept above the treeline, a dazzling jewel in a crystalline blue setting.
We moved single-file through the dense foliage over an ancient trail that wound its way along jagged contours of a ridge. Bernadette led the way with Tineek securely strapped in a cradleboard on her back—his chub-chub arms and legs were free, and he was pumping them vigorously, dark eyes laughing and a monstrous smile expressing pure joy.
I was in the middle, with Shamish behind me. We’d been hiking wordlessly through the woods for over an hour. The stress and agitation of Bernadette’s state of mind was a moody aura that kept our tongues tied. I wished I could be as carefree as the infant boy beaming at me.
Sunlight was cutting through an opening at the crest of the narrow slope we were climbing. We were close—a jitterbug of anticipation doing a crazy dance along my spine told me so. The border of the clearing had no ambiguity—the brightness was like a beacon calling us out of the gray overhang of towering trees.
Bernadette stopped and half-turned to communicate in sign language. Her hands moved with a swift expertise, which generated an agreeable grunt from Shamish. She spoke so rapidly that I couldn’t glean every word, but I got the gist of the message. The strange woman who had my look was camped on the plateau ahead. Intrigued and anxious, I felt a weird sensation of danger surge through me, which didn’t quite fit but nonetheless it had my attention.
Shamish unsheathed his flintlock rifle from its buckskin carrier. He checked the load, then satisfied that it was ready to be fired, slipped past to take the lead.
I followed him. Bernadette was now behind me. We crept along, careful that our footfalls mimicked those of a panther. Bad vibes were coursing through my veins, making my skin crawl with a clammy coldness.
Unbeknownst to me, with each stealthy step, a staggering convergence was imminently approaching—a crisis that’d rattle and rock me. I was about to get unceremoniously knocked on my gluteus maximus.
Stunned & Flabbergasted
When I first saw her my heart squeezed itself so hard it took my breath in one huge hissing gasp. My reaction caused Shamish and Bernadette to regard me with wide-eyed astonishment.
We were crouched on our haunches at an isolated spot beside a granite boulder. Their faces were etched with suspicion—Bernadette gave me a snarky glare as Shamish nodded knowingly. A persistent ringing grew louder and louder in my ears.
The woman’s campsite was nestled in the lee of a pair of majestic cedars on the other side of an expanse of grassy pasture. Even from that distance, and with her back to us, recognition was alive and well—even from across years and miles, this was no case of mistaken identity.
It seemed like ages since I’d reconciled to never seeing her again, but there she was—her toughness, fiery red hair, dark and mysterious eyes, along with the enchanting lines of her body were tattooed in memory. We were far removed from Delancey Street, but time and space realities couldn’t change the fact of her appearance.
Confusion slashed at me—it simply wasn’t possible. A volley of questions slingshot through my brain, but were thwarted by an overwhelming excitement that jumpstarted a rush of adrenaline. I stood tall and walked boldly out of the woods to the murmured protests of my companions.
The sun was bright and hot, making me squint. Behind me I heard Tineek squeal a burst of laughter. She heard it too—she whirled and immediately saw me. Her shoulders stiffened and her mouth formed a sly smile as she strolled straight toward me.
There was a flurry of movement on my heels—my friends coming to my aid. The redhead and I stayed on task—we slowed as we advanced, then stopped face to face. A yard separated us—a mere thirty-six inches. Stunned and flabbergasted, disbelief mocked us as we explored the depths of each other’s eyes.
We set-off a series of supercharged sparks that ignited all kinds of feelings—some of the heat shimmering between us had nothing to do with the ball of fire in the sky. Comprehension rippled in the air like an electric current—we grasped the wonder of our secrets.
“Jedediah Jodat,” she said slyly. She smiled, head tilting inquisitively.
I managed a crooked grin. “Fancy meeting you here, Beka.”
We stood like statues, a pair of silhouette cut-outs outlined by shiny sunrays. The sheer shock of our reconnecting, and all the mindboggling complexities unleashed had immobilized us.
I wanted to hold her—there were a gazillion things I desired to tell her. I had words to say that could only be formed within the deepest recesses of my heart. Some of those phrases began to take shape, then without warning or notice, it happened. In plain sight, a flash swallowed her whole and she disappeared—Beka Steele was riding the lightning.
A gasp wrenched out of me. My mouth twisted, teeth grinding and lips peeling back like a rabid beast. Realization was a rusty spike stabbing my innards. I dropped to a knee, wobbled bonelessly and collapsed on my backside. I slid into myself.
Doors slammed open inside my head. Haunting questions rushed out of the past to skewer me: What am I? Who am I? Why am I? What’s my mission? Am I an angel or demon? Am I an instrument of God? A secret agent, an interventionist cast upon the flotsam of time and space to do his bidding?
I was unmoored and demoralized—utterly alone, but yet not so. There was as least one other like me—a woman known as Beka Steele.
A hand was on my shoulder. Words of prayer and petition were being chanted—a primal incantation delivered with a cadenced tenderness that was somehow soothing.
I looked up and through tears saw it was Bernadette. She was crying too. In that compassion drenched exchange the wall between us toppled—her manner and bearing conveyed acceptance and understanding.
Tineek teetered beside her, clinging to the fringes of her buckskin skirt, while Shamish stood stiff and erect, his eyes full of alarmed worry. I got up, dusted myself off, and took several trudging steps toward someplace where forgetfulness supposedly healed all wounds.
“Jedediah, wait!” Shamish said, reaching for me.
“Let him be,” Bernadette counseled quietly. “He must be free.”
I paused momentarily, and then, without ever casting a backward glance, I left them—pain slashed at me as I abandoned friendship. I hoofed it into the dense wilderness, coyote lonesome and completely unglued.