The Light, a Blade, and the Mystery of Pages
Last we read, Will faced off with a pack of wolves that surrounded the dead bear near the property’s edge. He inspected the carcass of the dead bear after the wolves ran off and that’s when he saw it.
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Will’s Journal Continued
A sword lay stuck in the muddy snow off to the right of the spot where I found the girl. The only reason I saw it was because the sword was half pulled from its scabbard. To the left of the sword, I saw a large leather rucksack.
I stood and stared in disbelief at the scene.
A dead and now mutilated bear, still steaming. A half-sheathed sword half-buried in the snowy muck. A soaked bag, containing who knows what.
I turned and looked at the cabin. I could barely make out its outline, the snow fell in furies now. The wind, constant and harsh. But I could see the light from the great room. I could smell the smoke of the hardwood burning in the fireplace.
It felt like one of those nights that socks you in with rain, then pins you down with snow. Just a feeling you get, I guess, when the air feels wet but vacant like something’s moving behind it, pushing.
Something was pushing. And it was more than this snow. I could smell the blood lust in the air. I could feel the fury of winter beating on the shabby shutters of autumn. And the fury of my insides—my blood—pounding through my heart. A freight train of emotion, heavy with speed and power, sending me a message I could not understand. Or did not want to.
I took her “things” back to the cabin. I laid them both by the hearth to dry and noticed the book she handed to me before she passed out. It was in her hand, dangling from the couch.
—It must have fallen out of my pocket, I thought. Did she grab it and pass out again?
I carefully pried the book from her hand and sat back on the hearth. It was a thick leather journal lined with pigskin, with pages sticking out everywhere—like a book with deckled edges, the kind you’d buy at a specialty bookstore. By the looks of it, her boot cobbler and journal maker were friends.
I turned it over in my hands, staring at it. I remembered her face when she handed it to me out front in the rain and mud—she looked so desperate. Her eyes looked so hard into mine. As if she was searching for them or waiting for me to speak. Eyes alive, yet heavy with something—not fear, something else. Melancholy?
“Only melancholy folks like yourself go to the mountains for some exaggerated alone time because they can’t seem to get things together?” Duffy, that quirky old preacher down the street, always had some jibe for me.
He’d brush me away with a wave of his hand and say, “You artsy musicians … you blah blah blah” and prattle off something about going off into the woods to be at one with nature, live deliberately and all that nonsense.
I suppose he was right—and I never took offence—because, well, here I was off in the woods trying to deal with a year of rejection letters from publishers, a couple botched client writing projects that were doomed before they began, but, hey, I have to eat, and the reality that this writing thing might not work out—at least if I wanted to get married and have a family someday.
Oh, and the burnout. Let’s not forget that.
I was trapped in a job, and in a world, I thought I wanted and then it turned on me. I was so busy churning out shallow articles and books no one would read—pushing myself to be seen, that I didn’t see the cliff in front of me.
I’d gone off and got myself into a big hurry. I thought I could make a difference. Tell a beautiful story, change the world.
And now? Not sure. What did I think? A couple of nights at Uncle Joe’s cabin was going to set me straight, slow me down?
I could hear Duffy now. “I told you Mr. Artsy Fartsy—you have to be lucky and a little stupid to try the artist route.” Or maybe that was just me sinking into a melodramatic sense of despair. Thank you, Kierkegaard.
I wonder what Duffy would say when he found out I’d finally finished my PhD in Literature. “I thought you were a writer. Writers don’t move to Oxford to get PhDs. They write. Get your head checked.”
I was a mess, I guess. Finishing a degree, I’d spend the next four hundred years paying off with the $14 a year I made from writing. Sadie was right. I was a poor candidate for a husband. I didn’t blame her for moving on. Everyone seemed to know more than me, about me.
But I just couldn’t escape Bernard’s words at The Turf pub that night in Oxford. “We spend our time reading, writing, studying to discover what it is we want to say, Will. Then, we spend the rest of our lives saying it.”
What did I want to say? At 32, I felt like I should know. I should already be saying it.
I set the journal on the hearth and then made the strange girl as warm as I could, hemming her in with more blankets. Then I walked to the kitchen and made some tea—a splash of milk and squeeze of honey in my Earl Grey usually does the trick. The cabin wasn’t extravagant. Uncle Joe would never have that. The vaulted beams were his one splurge.
The ceiling vaulted well over 25 feet—I’m no carpenter. The great room included a simple kitchen tucked over in the far corner to the right as you walk in from the front door, with a staircase immediately to the right that led to a loft that had two bedrooms and a bathroom. A short hallway cut down in front of the kitchen and under the stairs; a small walk-in pantry immediately to the left, followed by the master bed and bath and Uncle Joe’s “study” on the right side of the hallway.
I say “study” but it was more like a gun and book room than an office. The couch sat in front of the stone fireplace and chimney, with a few old chairs that I always remember just being there. I loved the great room. I wrote and slept there on the green couch whenever I came to the cabin.
I returned to the hearth, grabbed a pillow from one of the old chairs, rested it against the stone, and reclined with my warm mug and her journal. It felt wrong to read her journal. But I couldn't escape her gaze that had burned itself into my brain. And those eyes. They looked through me like she’d known me my whole life. And besides, maybe her name was in the journal or her address or the name of her cobbler.
—Where’s my pipe? The porch, I muttered to myself.
I got back up and walked out to the porch, grabbed my pipe—tossed a quick glance behind me just in case—and returned to the fire.
I sipped my tea and packed my pipe. Uncle Joe said, “You can use the cabin this weekend, Will. But no pipes indoors.” His winking grin buried in his raggedy auburn beard always confused me. Was he serious? Or putting on a show for my aunt?
Sorry, Uncle Joe. I’m lighting up.
Snap—snap—snap my lighter sounded and then the tobacco lit, and a great cloud of smoke puffed out of my mouth and the bowl of my pipe. If Tolkien could see me now.
I opened the journal. Inside the hardened leather cover, it looked as if someone had jammed loose pages at the beginning. So, I straightened them.
—I’ll read these pages first.
She wrote in verse, lines stacked upon one another. I felt like I was back in grad school reading Milton or “The Prelude.”
It felt nice on my eyes to read something that didn’t scroll and wasn’t backlit; pages I could turn; words I could read with no rush, no bold print to remind me it needed to be emphasized; no insipid contemporary tropes and clichés; no modern slang. Just honest words; human and searching.
I could have done without the blood, though.
First Pages of the Young Woman’s Journal
NB: The following verse I include here in its original unedited form. I can’t help but interject my hearty accord for Will’s note about how nourishing it was to read the young woman’s poetry. Poetry has fallen out of the modern consciousness. Oh sure, modern poets still exist, but no one knows what they’re writing about except the poets themselves. Seems to defeat the purpose of poetry altogether.
The young woman’s writing possessed a passion seldom encountered in our age. I do hope you will take the time to read her words carefully. They helped me not only assemble the contents of Will’s journal but fed my heart.
What: The young woman’s journal
Entry: First found; no obvious chronology in the loose pages (at least to Will).
For so long—minutes,
I could not remember who I was.
I woke and brushed off the forest,
My clothes, matted and wet.
But what I did remember …
It was close, I could feel it.
My way out.
But the weather blocked my way.
And a fir tree lay
Splintered and blackened over the pathway.
It forced me mountain high
For what I thought would be
But I was wrong.
A great and terrible wind tore at the mountain.
The rain fell like darts.
I pulled my cloak close,
And kept running.
The rain fell
Harder, but snow was coming.
Where was he?
Beast and reviler.
I escaped him before,
In times and places long past,
With leaping and running:
But I knew,
He’d find a way down.
A way to get at me.
The fight in him had grown.
He wounded me before
Burning cuts that never heal,
Deathly dealt moments of pain
And now in the cold and rain
I run I run I run
Gaining on my refrain.
He may overtake me,
But my rapier will find its home.
I heard a sound behind me.
Then a run.
He was upon me
—Or was he?
One of his minions.
He roared onto the path.
Black and wet, he gained.
I smashed through the thick forest,
Surprised, gasping, hoping.
Running in the dark
For my life.
The fir limbs blinding and cutting
Then, I heard a blast: Tchik-awww—
Caught in the limbs and rain,
Finding my ears
The bear fell quick
Into the soggy peat.
I too hit the earth,
Hoping to dodge the blast.
In front of me
A cabin light, distant and orange.
A dead beast.
Warm and steaming.
I rolled over in the mud,
Pushing me to
I’d only read the first few lines when the journal trembled briefly in my hands.
My eyes widened but I kept reading. And as I read the words, a web of crystalline light rose from the page.
I wanted to drop the journal, but the rising light possessed me and forced me to keep reading and holding it.
Each word leapt off the page, quite literally, and formed an image—the exact image or scene I was describing. I saw the girl being chased by a dark animal-like figure. It was as if she was running towards me, looking back over her shoulder through dense woods.
Then I saw her escape the beast by leaping off a cliff and into a deep river below. I gasped as I read.
The words controlled me as the scenes gathered more detail. I saw the rain hitting her face, the fir trees cutting her arms, the pain in her face, and the figure I could now see was a gigantic bear—unearthly in its size, with terrible eyes aflame with rage.
Tchik-awww—I heard the gunshot. My gunshot.
And then the scene shifted. I was seeing through her eyes, lying in the mud, looking up into raindrops. I could hear her shivers. And then, there I stood.
I reached down and picked her up, and then the scene dissipated. As quickly as the crystalline web appeared, it vanished.
“What?” I shouted, throwing the journal to the floor, and standing up so fast I nearly fell into the now dying fire.
I looked down at the sleeping young woman on my uncle’s couch in unbelief.
“This isn’t possible. The light, the images—I mean, that whole scene just happened!” I was still shouting. “How—? No way she wrote this between the time I shot the bear and walked out to her shivering half-awake in the rain. And the wolves—I was gone mere moments. There’s no way she … And the journal—no way, there’s no way.”
I looked at her balled up on the couch under Grandma’s quilt. She did not move nor shiver. The tension in her face was gone. At least she was warm now.
“Who are you?” I said to the sleeping girl, trying to calm myself down. I walked around the couch and paced the room still processing out loud.
I remembered Uncle Joe once called Tower Mountain “Springer’s Pass,” but he quickly corrected himself. At the time I thought he confused two different geographic locations. These mountains go on and on—as the Appalachians tend to do; it’s easy to get lost and just as easy to confuse the names of the peaks and passes.
My brother Jon and I got turned around in these mountains once. We never told anyone, because it’s not masculine to get lost in the woods with a four-wheeler. So, we camped that night under a pine grove beneath a cold harvest moon. We woke to an early snowfall. I suppose we learned our lesson.
I stood up and walked over to the front door, pipe in hand. Then onto the porch. I relit and blew out a Cavendish cloud and watched the smoke dissipate into the snow.
The wind had picked up. The flakes flew in all directions, like an angel army flying in a frenzy. The temperature had dropped too—but the cold never bothered me.
—This. Yes, this. Exactly why I came. I thought, finally calming down after the journal nonsense. And, not this. Not this eerie snow, this mutilated bear, this naked half-alive girl from nowhere clearly on the run. And now these loose pages—her “poem thoughts” somehow instantly appearing stuffed in her journal and lighting the room up with, whatever that was.
My thoughts ran together, and I began thinking out loud again.
“I had just shot that bear and by pure chance I saved her. And that was no small feat. I hadn’t shot a rifle in a decade. The last time I even went shooting was on a skeet range at some sketchy gun club in the backwoods of South Carolina. I hit four out of twenty-five targets with a shotgun. Not exactly American Sniper,” I said in between draws on the pipe. “Maybe I missed something. Everything happened so fast.”
I played the scene again in my head, more engrossed in figuring out the chronology of how the words got in the journal than the light show and the scenes that suddenly rose out of the pages—suppressing the magic-ness of it all as much as possible.
When I heard the bear bellow from the cabin porch where I was smoking my pipe something snapped inside of me. I didn’t think. I reacted. I knew Uncle Joe had left the old .270 bolt-action on the bedroom wall. It only took me a few seconds to aim and shoot. At least it seemed only a short time. It’s a miracle I hit that cursed bear and didn’t blow the girl’s head off.
—But how could these words have found their way to these pages in the span of time between the gunshot and me finding her?
I tapped out the glowing ball of tobacco and smashed it with my foot, walked back inside, locked the door, and pulled the shades down behind me. Then I walked across the great room, locked the back door, and pulled the blinds on the windows in the dining area and kitchen. I picked up the .270, walked into the pantry for some rounds—Uncle Joe thought it convenient to keep his ammunition next to the granola—loaded it and leaned it against the fireplace next to the sword. Just in case.
I returned to my seat and held my mug. The smell of the tea warmed my mind and relaxed me. I needed to relax. I settled in once again, picked up the journal from the floor, stuffed the loose pages in the back, and turned to the first real page. But after reading those first pages, I was reticent to continue.
—And what of the sword? Nothing was making sense.
I placed the journal face down on the hearth and turned, picked up the sword, and stood up. I glanced back at the journal just making sure, well, I really don’t know what I thought I was checking. I stared blankly at the sword.
It was heavy—heavier than Uncle Joe’s splitting maul. And long but not longsword long. More like a cross between the length of a short sword or rapier but with the heft of a longsword; menacing and unwieldy, at least for someone as naive as me when it came to evaluating swords.
Though sheathed it did not look like a work of art —the kind Hollywood likes to peddle in fantasy films. And for such a slight girl the sword seemed oversized. But what did I know?
I pulled the blade halfway out of the sheath. The muted silver shone in the firelight. The bottom of the blade, near the handle, was marked up with runish-looking inscriptions.
I wanted a better look, so I unsheathed it.
The moment the entire blade left the sheath a sharp ringing sound filled the cabin along with a brilliant blue translucent light. Not the kind of light that blinds you like the sun’s light but the kind of light you can walk into. The kind that illuminates. I felt like I was looking through glass into an aquarium.
I could see so much detail in the room. I felt heavy and strangely strong but not in my muscles, another kind of strength. I held the blade in front of me transfixed but could not make out any of its details for the brilliance.
My eyes surveyed the room. The blue saturated everything. The succulents in the ceramic bowl on the kitchen window moved within the light. More alive. Like they were almost breathing.
The fire leapt.
And for a moment I thought I heard it singing. No words, just a melodic dance that blended into sound. The sound grew louder. The cabin quaked in the light. I reached out with my free hand towards the blade and the whole room rippled as if I had pushed on the light itself.
My mind raced with thought. Not confusing thought, but ideas. Wonderful ideas. I felt like I was seeing my surroundings for the first time. The mundane of the cabin brimmed with life. The room moved and grew. It pulled on the light.
I couldn’t breathe. At least not with my lungs. My eyes breathed for me, drinking in the blue light, the blue air, the gossamer reality all around me.
I couldn’t move. The blade shook in my hand; heavier than when I picked it up. I felt like I was sinking into the floor. The heat of the fireplace pushed on me from all sides. My eyes widened, unable to close.
—I must close them.
I squinted. The muscles in my face tightened and quivered. Finally, I shut them. As soon as I did, I was able to move. I clumsily thrust the sword back into the sheath.
My eyes opened. Immediately the blue light vanished, and the kitchen lights popped, bulb glass shattered, and the cabin went dark.
Just the low glow of the fire.
I fell to my knees exhausted.
Scared and amazed, I ran across the room and pulled the blind up to look outside.
Just blowing snow and darkness.
I opened the door and stuck my head out trying to see the power lines.
—All that rain, then the snow. Something snapped. It must have. A tree on the line? The line itself?
I couldn’t see anything.
I grabbed my coat again and walked out into the snowy night leaving the door open behind me. I was frantic. I walked down the gravel drive that leads out to the main road. It was a mile long so there was no way I was walking all the way out especially knowing there were wolves about.
Then the sky lit up all around me. And then a rumble.
That was my made-up name for when it stormed and snowed simultaneously. But even though it was thundersnow, there was no sign of a downed tree or power line, at least from what my limited vision could decipher.
—Maybe a power surge from the storm.
I kept making up excuses for why the power blew in the cabin. I didn’t want to admit out loud to myself that it was the sword. The blue light from the sword, that was the surge. I knew this but refused to admit it to myself.
If the crazy journal surprised me, the blue light from the sword frightened me.
I walked back to the cabin, up the steps, kicked the snow off my boots and walked into the room. I threw my hat and coat on the bench near the door and stepped into the great room.
And there she stood, draped in Grandma’s quilt and the fire glow.
She stared at me with deep unsettling eyes. Her black hair, now dry, fell crazy and dishevelled down her shoulders. Her shadow danced on the backdoor wall.
I stopped dead in my tracks, shaken and unprepared.
To be continued …
Join me for the next instalment, “Chapter 5: The Time for Fire,” in which Will comes face to face with the young woman’s true identity.
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