Turtle of the World (jtb-2)

by Mickey Hunt

“Where’s Mrs. Barefoot?”
Those were the first words radio celebrity and paranormal investigator Jonathan T. Barron said when I collected him at the Asheville airport. If you don’t know, he’s the famous host of the syndicated program, Strange Days Radio.
“Umm,” I said. “My wife divorced me last year on my 27th birthday. No kids. Ahh… Oh, my aunt teaches at the Cherokee reservation. She couldn’t find a substitute for her classes, so, I’m your driver. I’m Carnley Barefoot. May I have your autograph?”
He pushed aside my notebook and pen. “Carnley, later on, please. Help with my luggage, will you?”
“She ain’t never married.”
“My Aunt Ilana. Miss Ilana Barefoot.”
On our drive to my home turf of Robbinsville, south of the Great Smoky Mountains Park, I was in awe. Jonathan T. Barron in my 2010 Ford pick-em-up truck—it’s my Aunt Ilana’s actually. Me and her are his biggest fans in North Carolina. You wouldn’t believe—
“Barefoot,” he said. “Is your last name traditional Cherokee?”
“Everybody thinks so, but it’s Scots.”
“Ms. Barefoot wrote to me about the strange happenings at the Swan Mountain Retreat Center. She said they portend the end of all humanity.”
“Holy Moley! The end of all humanity?” I pulled off to the side and a car blared its horn as it flew by. “She never told me. It’s worse than I guessed.”
“You don’t think she exaggerated?”
I shook my head. “Mr. Barron. Be real careful there. My aunt never exaggerates. The end of humanity. Whew.” I put the truck in gear and resumed our drive.
“O-kay,” he said. “Trash raided, dogs and cats eaten, mangled birds lying on the ground, the larder broken into and food stolen. Wild screams in the darkness.” He removed a photograph from his pocket and flashed it to me. “What do you think this is?”
“Well. I took that picture—I work on the buildings and grounds at the retreat center. We thought it might be bears, or maybe possums or a mountain lion, so I set up a game cam, a hunter camera. I believe it’s a product of a government experiment, mixing humans with animal genes.”
“Really? A chimera? You don’t think it’s a cousin to Bigfoot, maybe a heretofore unknown native ape, an ape with these large white eyes?”
“No sir. It’s a government conspiracy—to breed human weapons, better fighters. Some escaped from the federal compound in Andrews. The place is still down there, and fully operational. Black helicopters flying in and out all the time. That whole Eric Rudolph bomber deal? They made everyone believe their phones was tapped. But it was cover for building their laboratories. It’s all on the shortwave broadcasts. Did I tell you I’m a ham radio operator?”
Mr. Barron glanced at me sideways and went dumb for a time. Later on I chanced, “I’ve got photographs of the fed’s compound. I could take you there.”
“We’ll see,” he said, and I heard skepticism. Dang. I thought he’d be different from other people.
On the curvy road along Fontana Lake, just past the yellow warning sign that says, “Fallen Rocks,” we rounded a bend, and ahead was an old Indian guy standing beside the road. As we neared him, a stray gust full of leaves and swirling roadside litter hit him in the face. He tried to step away, but flipped backwards over the guardrail and disappeared on yonder side. I quick pulled over at a wide spot on the shoulder, before the rocky cliffs. Mr. Barron ran to see what became of the man, and I did, too. He was lying on his back.
“Chief Fallen Rocks, himself,” I said over Mr. Barron’s shoulder.
He looked back at me. “What are you talking about?”
“The road sign?”
Mr. Barron frowned and then helped the man to his feet and asked how he did.
“Not bad, not bad,” the Chief said. “It was a comfortable place to rest. The world feels empty.”
A smell of digested alcohol wafted into our faces.
“Can I take you someplace?” Mr. Barron asked.
“I live up the road a way.”
It’s forest and water everywhere around there. We drove a short bit and turned up a dirt drive to a well-kept double-wide, a nice Toyota Sequoia SUV parked beside it. Mr. Barron and I walked him inside.
“I never got your name,” Mr. Barron said.
“Chief Fallen Rocks.”
Mr. Barron turned cherry red. “We’re sorry,” he said, glaring at me. “We thought you were unconscious.”
“My name is George Mankiller, but falling rocks have killed men at those cliffs above the road. My ancestors were hereditary chiefs.”
“You’re Cherokee?”
“You don’t live on the reservation.”
“I moved away a year ago. The reservation—it’s private land called the Qualla Boundary—and the casino money were stealing my initiative. I want to set a better example for our people. Do you know about the epidemic suicide rate among Native American young people?”
“I see. Well, Mr. Mankiller—”
“I’m George.”
“George, we must be going.”
“Wait, wait a minute.”
The Chief stepped to a rough shelf piled with carvings and lifted one of them, it the size of a salad plate. The carving was a turtle with a woman creature on its back. “I make these to sell to tourist shops, decent shops that carry authentic Native American stuff, not cheap China trash. The quality of my work isn’t exquisite, but the grain and color of the wood is elegant, elegant enough. Take this as a gift.”
“The detail and finish are very fine,” Mr. Barron said. “It’s too rich to give away.” He took out his wallet.
“No, no. You’ve already paid.”
They argued around and around. In the end, however, the Chief was stronger.
Back in Aunt Ilana’s Ford pickup, Mr. Barron scowled. “Don’t ever refer to him as Chief Fallen Rocks again. It’s degrading. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
The Swan Mountain Hipster Center was up a narrow hollow that followed the curves of Rattlers Creek. We passed the carved sign along the highway and continued up the narrow asphalt road. Where the creek meandered through a wide flat cove surrounded by high ridges, we pulled up to a log building labeled “Office”. Mr. Barron looked up toward the rock-boned ridges and I said, “Yes, sir, there’s ginseng all over them woods, and behind the hills, the wild Russian boars roam.”
A woman with a long grey ponytail stalked out of the office. “Hello Carnley,” she said. “Run over any squirrels lately?”
“No ma’am, squirrels are-n’t in season right now. It’s spring. They’re having their babies.” Ms. Haversham doesn’t like country-boy rednecks like me, and I give her a hard time. “Miss Haversham, this is Jonathan T. Barron.”
“Mr. Barron, I don’t know what you’ll find here in the way of the supernatural, but you’re welcome to enjoy our natural retreat center. Carnley will give you a tour. Make sure he shows you the meditation pool farther up the creek.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, “you don’t want to miss that.”
“And Carnley, while you’re there, remove the Clemson ball cap from the Buddha, and please be sure to haul the recycling to the landfill, and finish the brush cutting. We have an Herbal Healing Conference coming in for the weekend. Mr. Barron, we have you in Cabin 9 at the top. Please, please do not disturb our other visitors. Silence is powerful.” And with that, she turned on a dime and retreated into her office.
“She’s really sweet,” I said and stretched my back.
“I’m sure of it,” he said, with that skeptical look of his. “A Clemson ball cap?”
“My alma matter. Go Tigers.”
“What was your major?”
“Ummm… art. But I had to quit my first semester. Partied too much.”
Someone was shaking me as I slept on my cot at the old maintenance building. “Carnley… Carnley… wake up.”
I cracked open my eyes to see Jonathan Barron looming over me in the pale smudge of early morning light.
“What do you want?” I asked surly-like.
He flicked on the overhead, and as groggy and blinded as I was, I saw that he weren’t afraid, but excited, elated even, and wearing his jacket. I asked, “Did you find my jar of moonshine in your cabin? I heard the ladies hid—”
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “We need to see George Mankiller.”
For a man who makes his living by talking, Mr. Barron was constipated as to words while we drove to the Chief’s house. The sun remained hidden behind the ridge and pinked the springy clouds to the west. He refused to answer my questions and asked if I had faked the photograph of the mountain ape.
He shook his head and muttered, “She’s beautiful, so beautiful, but sad. A forlorn succubus.”
A what? He couldn’t have meant Ms. Haversham. Had she been sleepwalking in her nightie?
The Chief was not at his double-wide when we arrived, but an Indian in a police uniform pulled up in the nice Toyota Sequoia as we were about to leave. When he got out of the vehicle, I noticed the holstered gun at his side.
“Good morning Mr. Mankiller,” Mr. Barron said, “Your carving. A turtle with a feminine form reclining on its back. What can you tell me about the carving? Its meaning.”
I hadn’t recognized the Chief—he’d been transformed. He saw me staring and gave a severe look and said, “I’m an on-call security guard. Usually I work at a pawnshop in Murphy, but last night I did an extra shift in Franklin. All night. Son, when you picked me up along the road, it was my first whiskey drunk in 43 years—since Viet Nam—and it will be my last.”
The Chief now turned to Mr. Barron. “There’s a reason you want to know about my carving.”
“Look at these photographs. Carnley set up game cameras at the Swan Mountain Retreat Center, thinking that a wild animal was attacking and killing their dogs and cats, and was stealing food from their kitchen. Instead he captured these images.”
The Chief nodded wisely as he shuffled between the pictures.
“And last night,” Mr. Barron continued, “I took these other photographs of this ghost-like being. She bears a resemblance to the creature on the back of your turtle.”
The Chief held the second group of photos in his steady hands, and as I peered over his shoulder, my knees quivered. For what I saw scared me. One of the new pictures showed a form, like a dark-haired girl, clothed in a silky, shaggy nightgown. And then, as if my eyes were playing tricks, or like them holographic anatomy posters at the doctor’s office that change when you move your head, the figure turned into a seven-foot hemlock tree. Then it transformed back into a girl again.
“Is there any relationship between the girlish being in this photo and the monster with white eyes in the first group of photos?” Mr. Barron asked.
The Chief walked up the steps to his double-wide and sat on a rocker on the deck. He glanced up to where sky showed through the trees on the ridge, which had no leaves out yet, but I knew he wasn’t seeing. As I watched him, his mystery expression cleared like a muddy, disturbed pool does when the fresh water pours in.
“Are you ready to understand the turtle and its burden?” he said at last.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Barron said.
“I didn’t think so.” After a pause, Chief said, “The turtle is carved from hemlock wood, from the hemlock tree.”
I was fearful to utter a word, and the Chief said, “You don’t know the hemlock tree? You drive and I’ll give directions. I’ll buy you some coffee. You want coffee?”
The Chief fetched a duffel bag and we drove in Aunt’s truck to Robbinsville and stopped for coffee. After that, the road passed through brown forest tinged with red and gold of tree buds, and the green of swelling leaves until we arrived at the Kilmer Memorial Forest. From the parking lot we followed a path along a creek until the Chief stopped and pointed. Our gaze traveled up.
“It’s dead,” he said about the towering, bare-branchy column before us, its mahogany inner bark exposed, outer bark lying in heaps around its base.
“It can’t be.” Mr. Barron craned his neck up and down. He took a camera from his pocket and shot some pictures. “How many people would it take to reach all the way around the trunk?”
“Five of your wingspan. But look.” The Chief swept his arms in a panorama.
Mr. Barron and me turned and saw dozens of red trunks.
“They’re all dead,” I said.
“The world feels empty. No one thinks about how much we’ve lost. No one cares. This forest has never been logged, and these trees were centuries old. I often come here to collect wood for my carvings—the Forest Service downed a dead tree for me.”
Mr. Barron sat on a rock and considered for a long while. The Chief pulled out a knife and began carving a stick of ironwood he had in his pocket. I watched three squirrels playing tag on a giant Tulip Poplar trunk. Finally Mr. Barron said, “Have you ever heard of dryads? Spirits associated with living trees?”
“I’ve seen them,” the Chief said. “We call trees ‘the Standing People’, but they are more. When I was a child in the Qualla Boundary, our school teacher brought us here for a field trip and I saw them. No one else did—they were like clouds of flower petals swirling with the wind during a rainstorm. Not only hemlock spirits, but of the other trees, too. This forest was full of life. In all my walks since then, in the Smoky National Park and elsewhere, I never saw them again, but I felt their presence and heard them. They gave me joy.”
I worked up the courage to ask, “What about them white-eyed monsters?”
The Chief glowered and said, “Woolly adelgids are like white eyes. They’re an insect that covers the stems of hemlocks with tiny cottony, woolly balls. They invaded from China and are killing all the hemlocks—the ones not treated. That’s why these trees are all dead, Mr. Barron, Carnley. I didn’t fall over the guardrail. I was pushed by a monster with white eyes and hair like horns.” He let out a big sigh. “Let’s leave now. I can hear the Tulip Poplar, those huge trees are alive, but the forest is half dead, half silent, and I’m depressed.”
“We have live hemlocks at Swan Mountain,” I said, expecting the Chief to take my scalp off. “I treated them for woolly adelgids myself. It was my job. Poured the chemical on the roots of the big ones. Sprayed the small ones with insecticidal soap.”
Mr. Barron and the Chief looked at each other like they thought the same idea at the same time.
“Will you take me to the retreat center?” the Chief asked.
“Why not?” I said. “My Aunt Ilana told me you can grow medicinal mushrooms on hemlock wood. I should tell Ms. Haversham. She’ll love hearing it.”
Back at Swan Mountain, the Chief walked around and said the place swarmed with hemlock spirits, but they were sick—they’d been poisoned by my chemical treatments. After that, he slept the rest of the day away in Mr. Barron’s cabin. I had chores because of the group coming in.
Mr. Barron talked with Aunt Ilana on the phone. It was a Friday and she planned to come over Saturday morning and bring materials we might find helpful. In case you didn’t know, she volunteers at the Cherokee museum. Mr. Barron set up more night video cameras to catch another tree spirit or one of them monsters in action.
Later in the afternoon, the guests began arriving for their Sing for Peace Rally, or whatever. Herbal Healing. That’s it. The Chief woke from his nap and asked me for a ride home so he could get ready for the pawn shop, but the shop called to say they were locking up early—some kind of trouble there. They needed him right away.
When driving to the Chief’s double-wide, two cars overtook us, a van and a sedan, actually, and passed us on a curve at a high rate of speed, the van riding close to the sedan’s butt. I shook my fist out the window and shouted unprintable remarks about inbred livestock. When we rounded the curve, the van was in the ditch on its side, and two jackasses from the sedan were popping at it with a rifle and a shotgun.
I stopped dead in the road right there.
Someone clambered from the van and started firing back at the other men, who dove for cover.
“Oh my Lord,” the Chief exclaimed. “Let’s get out of here.” I noticed he had his pistol in hand. I backed up 100 yards and we heard and felt an explosion.
“We’d have to drive clear around Santeetlah Lake to get to your place by another route, Chief,” I said, trembling like a beech leaf in winter. “It’d take another hour.”
“I know,” he said, now calm. (He’s a funny guy.) “I’m calling 911.” The phone to his ear, the Chief took on a blank look.
“What’s happening?”
“A recording. It says there’s civil unrest in progress in western North Carolina. What does that mean, a war? ‘Everyone should stay calm, stay home and protect yourselves. The government will restore order by Saturday morning.’ I’ll bet.” He then looked at me sternly. “My name is George Mankiller.”
“You said that before.”
“You just called me ‘Chief’.”
“I did?”
“In Vietnam I killed men for less.”
For a second I thought he might kill me, then he laughed. “Don’t worry, son. ‘Chief’ doesn’t bother me. Have you got a gun and ammunition with you?”
I wobbled my head up and down. “A shotgun. Why not? But don’t tell them hipster ladies.”
“Get it out.”
“It’s the end of all humanity.”
We reached the center without further trouble, meaning, at a stop sign when Mr. Mankiller brandished my black tactical shotgun, a pair of likely fellows who might have robbed us, reconsidered.
Ms. Haversham greeted us with a worried, twitchy expression—she almost appeared human. “Your aunt arrived a few minutes ago,” she said. “She’s quite upset. School let out early. Apparently there was a riot in the town of Cherokee and she decided to come now. She’s resting in Mr. Barron’s cabin. If you’re staying, Mr. Mankiller, I’m afraid you’ll have to bunk there, too. We are at capacity this weekend for the Herbal Conference.”
The sky had taken on a strange subdued glow, with thick lowering clouds overhead. “I believe we’ve lost an hour of day,” I said.
“There’s a storm approaching,” Ms. Haversham said. “A tornado watch is in effect. We’re serving dinner in the dining hall for a few more minutes, so if you want to eat, you should hurry. Carnley, you have your radio?” She meant my handheld, not my ham, which is housed in my storage shack above the mental blankness pond. I have a power generator, too, in case of a zombie apocalypse or whatever.
“Do you have your radio?” she repeated.
“Yes sir, I mean ma’am.”
We loaded up carryout boxes from the main kitchen and took them to Cabin 9—more a bunkhouse than a cabin—sleeps 16, in fact. But it has a cooking stove. Aunt Ilana was lounging in a cozy chair near the fireplace, with her eyes half-closed, a blanket over her legs, a mug of tea beside her. Her dark hair, usually done in a bun, was let down. Mr. Barron was bent over the big dining table with maps or charts, and photographs spread before him.
He came up to us and spoke in a low, exultant voice. “We know more about the connection between the dryads and the white-eyed creatures. Your aunt brought rubbings from Jaducal… “
“Judaculla Rock,” she said faintly from the chair.
“Judaculla Rock,” Mr. Barron repeated, then whispered, “Your Aunt Ilana is so young, younger than you, Carnley. Not yet 30, for sure. And pretty. Brown eyes. Is she married?”
“No, she’s not,” I breathed out with true respect. “I told you already, but we’re not so certain of her age. She eats a seed diet and ain’t nobody smart enough for her.”
“Where would she find an intelligent man around here?” Mr. Mankiller whispered.
“Or, one with good manners,” she said robustly.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We thought you was asleep. Aunt Barefoot, may I introduce Chief, I mean Mr. George Mankiller—you’ve already traded names with your hero, Mr. Barron, I presume.”
She jumped from the chair and shook the Chief’s hand. She was still wearing her teacher’s outfit—a skirt and blouse topped by a green sweater and tailored for her slim figure—but not too slim. “George and I are already acquainted. He’s helped out a great deal at the museum, and we sell his carvings at the arts and crafts store.”
“From putting our heads together about Jad— Judaculla Rock,” Mr. Barron said, “this is what we concluded. Let’s sit down. Carnley, would you mind bringing us coffee? I made a pot.”
When I appeared with full coffee cups, Aunt was saying, “So, Judaculla is the name of a legendary monster who leaps from mountain to mountain. The rock of talc stone supposedly marks his territory. Possibly he is pure invention, or possibly he’s based on true stories of a Sasquatch-like being. Stylized engravings on Judaculla Rock resemble the monster in the photographs, but the fascinating part is, we also find engravings showing the Standing People spirits transitioning into the monster. In other words, the monsters are the tree spirits in another form.”
“Judaculla is the name Sequoyah gave to the giant Goliath in the Cherokee translation of the Bible,” the Chief said.
Everyone stared at the confused carvings in the photos for a few moments, moments that stretched into minutes of mental blankness. At last I said, “Would anyone like popcorn to go with their coffee?”
When the storm fell on us like a dam bursting, not only was I in the dark because the electric quit, the racket was so loud I couldn’t hear the popcorn popping. We cook with profane gas at the Center, so, I just kept shaking the pan and knew on instinct when it was done. Turned out a fine batch.
Just as I handed bowls around with the help of a flashlight, Ms. Haversham’s voice screeched over my handheld radio.
“Carnley, get your rain clothes on and walk our visitors to the Great Hall. One cabin at a time. We’re distributing LED lamps down here. Nobody has power, and the ladies are scared.”
“All of them? Walk all them ladies? How many?”
“We have 83 guests. A few will need to be driven.”
“I’ll use the bus, for everyone. It’s too wet for walking.”
If the ladies—and the men guests, too—were scared by the dark, they were petrified by the lashing squalls of rain and the torrents of muddy water running over the road as I drove them load-by-load to the Great Hall. Even with umbrellas, many were soaked to the bone. The Chief lit a fire in the yawning fireplace and I pulled out blankets and old sleeping bags and mattresses from the basement. Aunt and Mr. Barron settled into rockers, a thick blanket a piece.
Storms in the mountains follow a pattern. Unless they’re hurricane fed, they kick up a fuss for a while and they’re done. This storm started loud and heavy and grew worse. Thunder exploded over our heads and crackled on and on. The ladies, and men too, screamed and then after awhile only moaned in anguish. And I thought they loved ole Mother Nature. The lightning strobed with the thunder, taking on a cadence like a fire and brimstone preacher does, and I dozed off until new sounds disturbed my suede unconsciousness, sounds from outside, like of battle. The wind surged, thrashing the trees, and we heard roars, long shrieks, wailing, and keening. Then came a colossal crash which jarred the whole building and renewed the screaming from the guests.
“Carnley, see what hit us,” Ms. Haversham said, shaking where she stood, though I didn’t know if it was her or the floor. I threw on a poncho and, happening to see a bicycle helmet, I put that on, too, and went outside. The whole universe seethed in motion, the air full of flying water, unknown objects—leaves and branches, I guess. Raindrops stung my eyes. I immediately slipped and fell. The ground was covered in slimy things. Fish. Dead fish.
Holy Moley!
Hanging on to the shrubbery, I worked around to the uphill side of the Great Hall, where the crash had been, and found a gigantic rock braced against the wall, now partly caved in. The rock had rolled or slid there. I breathed for a minute and was picking my way back to the door when some running thing slammed into me, knocking me flat, my face mashed into a fish. I rose up to hands and knees, and looking around I saw animated shadows, hairy upright shadows with glowing white eyes stalking amidst the chaos, rolling dumpsters, uprooting small trees, and tossing boulders. Nearby, three of them was wrestling in a heap. They smelled like rotting corpses. I crawled to the door and banged on it to be let back in.
When Ms. Haversham opened up and saw me and the mayhem, she grew pale, then paler. She jerked me inside, slammed the door, and ordered dry clothes and blankets. She put her arm around my back and guided me to the fireplace and then brought some hot cider. When the clothes arrived, I changed somehow, made it back to the hearth, and fell asleep on the floor.
In the morning when I woke up (a pillow under my head), I smelled coffee, bacon, and eggs. Well… if truth be told, I only fantasized the bacon. Ms. Haversham and a few intrepid guests had contrived to cook. She brought me a tray with the breakfast that I wolfed down. About then Mr. Barron and Aunt promenaded into the Great Hall. Ms. Haversham pulled open the curtains of the big windows and I recoiled at the bright light. Except for threads of fog and scattered broken clouds, the sky was as blue as blue. I put my tray down and stepped closer to the window. The trees on the long slope up to the ridge had mangled and broken tops. The ground—the planted areas and grass—as much as I could see though ripped leaves and sticks, looked like it had been plowed by a herd of wild pigs—pigs which had partly eaten the fish from the sky.
Aunt Ilana came and stood next to me. “We can’t find Mr. Mankiller,” she said. “Nobody has seen him since he built the fire last night.”
“Then, who’s that?” I asked.
A reddish male person wearing leather leggings, a kind of loincloth, and no shirt was picking a path across the flotsam toward the Great Hall. His skin was dyed bright red except for a painted black band across his face like a raccoon. A couple wild turkey feathers waved from the top of his head and he carried an odd knobby club. Aunt, Mr. Barron, Ms. Haversham, me, and a few guests ran outside to meet him.
“Mr. Mankiller,” Ms. Haversham said, “What are you wearing?”
“My clothes. What are you wearing?”
She looked down at herself, at her ordinary blouse and pants, but she couldn’t think of nothing to answer.
“I talked to them,” he said. “I talked to the Tsuga spirits… to the Tsul’Kalu’. The storm washed woolly adelgids from the tree branches.”
Oh my. Brandishing his wooden club and defying Goliaths in the middle of the storm? I was impressed.
But Chief wasn’t willing to explain more, and besides we had other stuff to think about. Nobody was getting cell phone reception and Rattlers Creek roared and tossed across the road, so we couldn’t get out. One of the men guests was having chest pains, so Chief had to see about him. Aunt went to help the Chief.
Me and Mr. Barron walked up towards my quarters to crank the apocalypse generator and see what news we could hear on my ham rig. As we neared the meditation pond, we heard the rap, rap of helicopter rotors beating over the ridge, then one bird appeared and two more. I looked at Mr. Barron feeling self-satisfied and vindicated.
“I told you,” I said. He took no notice.
The black choppers whistled overhead and across the opposite ridge, and as the last one ranged nearly out of view, it blew up in a ball of flame. We couldn’t believe it. Mr. Barron staggered to a bench and eased himself down. I sat next to him and we stared out over the pond full of floating branches. Clouds of lacy bugs hovered over the water, a few dipping and touching the surface.
We both sighed at the same time.
“Your aunt wrote that this was about the end of humanity. I can see it happening, but I don’t understand why.”
“No idea, myself. What do you and Aunt Ilana discuss, anyway?”
“Not this. She won’t elaborate about what she meant in her warning. How did she know what would happen? She’s been giving me a history of the region. Logging and the forced exile of the Cherokee Nation. The early naturalist explorer, William Bartram.”
“When it’s the right time, she’ll tell you.”
We went on up to my shack. My antenna had been knocked down, so I strung up some wire and tried reaching first one and then another of my radio buddies who lived in the area, but they didn’t answer.
“Should I call Earl?” I asked.
“Who’s Earl?”
“He’s my ex’s beau, her fiancé. He’s in Robbinsville. He usually won’t talk with me.” I got on his favorite radio frequency, or band. “Earl, are you out there? What going on? Earl?”
I waited. Even when the world was normal, it took a minute for Earl to stop being jealous.
“Hey Carnley,” Earl said finally, but he was mumbling. “You still alive? I guess you’re in an isolated area out there. How’s it goin’?”
“I’m well, considering. You?”
“Same. Did you know Susie is havin’ her baby? We’ve set a date to get married, finally.”
“You better marry her, then, you son of a bitch.”
“Carnley, please,” Mr. Barron said and touched my arm. I don’t know why, but I had an impulse to blast my ham set with a shotgun.
“Earl…” I said. “Earl, you still there?” There was another minute of silence.
“Carnley, we’re here in my bunker. Susie and me. She’s havin’ a baby—she’s havin’ it now. Right now. I mean right now!” To make his point stronger, Susie panted in the background and groaned.
Earl went on. “We’re scared to make noise. I’m afraid to run my generator—and batteries won’t last. There’s a war going on, Carnley, a damn war. People are runnin’ around with guns and axes, lightin’ fires and lootin’. It’s a feud, or a massacre, one outrage escalates to another far worse. It started at the casino, I heard. Breathe, dear. Even police went berserk. There are foragin’ gangs. The governor activated the National Guard and even they became involved. Units are fightin’ among themselves. Helicopters, Carnley, your spooky black helicopters. As far as I can tell, war’s engulfed the western counties.”
“How’s your food and water, Earl?”
“Good, good. I need better ventilation. Hey Carnley, how’s it where you are? Susie just said we might join you, if that’s okay. We can’t stay hunkered down here forever. We need to get out of town. Maybe we’ll try at night.”
“Sure, Earl. Sure.”
“Wait,” Earl said. We could hear muffled gunfire over the radio behind him. “Gotta go. If we show up, we’ll wave a white flag from the edge of the woods. Don’t shoot us.”
“The creek is blocking the road, Earl,” I said, but he was gone already.
We scanned through the frequencies and heard narration after narration, and it pretty much confirmed what Earl said. The only new thing was the feds had mobilized regular military to invade, more or less, to restore order. But they wouldn’t arrive for a few days.
“Which might make it all worse,” Mr. Barron said, and I agreed.
“There’s one thing I wanted to ask Earl,” he said. “I don’t understand why he and your ex aren’t affected by this madness. And why aren’t we? Is it we’ve not been provoked? What kind of person is Earl?”
“Just an ordinary mountain redneck, like me. He does the same kind of work I do, sort of, and we used to have a business together.”
“What kind of work?”
“Tree removal, firewood cutting and sales.”
“Why not?” I said.
“What does he do now?”
“Same thing, only more advanced. He’s got an Associates Degree in Horticulture. He does landscape design and installation.”
“Does he treat hemlocks for woolly adelgids?”
“Why not?”
“Does he have any healthy hemlocks around his house?”
“The last I seen, why not? Some big ones. He lives next to a park.”
“The city park has hemlocks?”
“Nope. It’s a memorial park, a cemetery. He treated the hemlocks there.”
“Is your radio still on?”
“Nope,” I said.
“I’m still hearing gunfire.”
We both listened.
“Dang,” I said. “It’s below the Great Hall.”
We ran outside and the noise grew louder. Then I went back in and pulled out two gun bags, one with a carbine—the Chief still had my tactical shotgun—and a pistol with high-capacity magazines. I gave the carbine to Mr. Barron.
“What do I do with this?” he said.
“Okay…” As we trotted along, I gave him a 15-second shooting workshop. He looked at me with his trademarked skepticism and I said, “Point in safe direction until needed. Squeeze trigger. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m joking, Carnley. If you listened to my program you’d know I saw combat in Afghanistan.”
“Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot in the hurry.”
By the time we reached the Great Hall, it was quiet and we saw the Chief walking up the hill from the trees that are toward the entrance, club in hand, with a fierce face. Aunt Ilana emerged from some bushes next to the Great Hall and she had my shotgun.
The Chief sat down on a retaining wall along the sidewalk and said, “I snuck behind them.”
“Monsters?” I said.
“No. Human beings with weapons. Two raiders.” He motioned to my carbine in Barron’s hands. “You heard them. I think they were scouts.”
Ms. Haversham had by then come out of hiding inside the Great Hall and joined us. “Anyone hurt? Will they be bringing others?” she said anxiously, but then, “Mr. Barron, put that rifle away! Ms. Barefoot, you too? What is this, a militia? We don’t allow them on campus. I don’t approve of firearms. Carnley, is that a gun?”
“Miss Haversham,” I said. “I don’t think you should worry about guns or about invading scouts, because I believe Mr. Chief Mankiller knocked them guys on the head with his funny war club.”
That was Saturday. More storms was on the way, and they continued off and on with added intensity overnight, peaking Sunday morning with a tornado which ripped by the edge of campus and tore the roof off the Great Hall. Everyone had been hiding in the basement, and the place was a grubby, smelly mess and we were all hungry, if not thirsty. We did have water, more than we liked. Meanwhile, between the tumultuous tempests I listened to outside broadcasts about battles everywhere in the region. I never did raise Earl again. I hoped the baby was okay.
Mr. Barron and Aunt Ilana got cozy—they huddled in a corner together much of the daytime and sort of slept in their sleeping bags snugged up to each other… like everyone else did all around, there being no floor space and no privacy. I heard her tell him that she was adopted from a foster home, which I knew already.
So, by Monday morning we had peace from the sky and we begun to hope the storms were done and they were. The battles and riots ended, too.
We spent the week taking care of people and cleaning up the campus. The flooded creek shrunk to normal and the main roads out of the damaged area of the state got cleared, so by Thursday we ran guests out to the Asheville airport. Most drove themselves away as soon as they could. Everything was a mess out there. Burned buildings. Wrecked cars. Drowned people.
On Saturday afternoon, we (Aunt, Mr. Mankiller, Mr. Barron, and me) drove to Franklin to a professional radio studio to do Mr. Barron’s program live, his once-a-week program called Strange Days Radio. I told him we could broadcast from Swan Mountain Retreat on my ham rig and have it relayed to FM, but he said he needed more credibility than that would afford. The guests each had a piece to contribute to the program—I just sat in the engineer’s booth wearing headphones—and we took some interesting calls from locals, but Mr. Mankiller’s words were most shocking of all, to me, anyway.
Aunt Ilana’s indeed were shocking, but not surprising for someone who knows her, if that makes sense.
I got the transcript later on and this is what they said in the interview, the important parts. I’m skipping the intro and the parts I’ve already told about—all the weird stuff that had happened before.
MR. BARRON: Mr. Mankiller, George. When we first met, you offered me this carved turtle as a thank you gift. The wood is hemlock. On its back rests a lovely dryad. What’s the significance of the turtle in Cherokee tradition?
MR. MANKILLER: In the beginning, the world was covered by water, and the Creator tended the Tree of Life in Heaven. He made a daughter for himself to keep him company, and then he created a man for her. The woman talked a lot and liked to play. She got rambunctious and fell through a hole at the base of the tree. She fell and fell. The Creator asked all the creatures for a volunteer to catch her and none stepped forward, none but the turtle. The birds and other creatures brought mud from the sea bottom and piled it on the turtle’s back because it was not wide enough for her, and so he caught and saved her. The turtle represents the Earth, the Turtle Island.
MR. BARRON: Dryads, or by the Cherokee name, Standing People. What are they? Their relationship to the trees.
AUNT: Some believe that Standing People are spirits of trees and this is true, but not entirely true. Standing People spirits are separate beings that are associated with trees, living in symbiosis with them. They and the trees live in dependency with one another. When a tree dies, a Standing Person may die. That is, slowly fade into nonexistence—she blows away like dry leaves, or she may connect with another tree. The tree spirits have the ability, not always within their control, to alter their appearances, even taking on a human form, but they must always be in relationship with their tree species, as for example, by simply consuming the hemlock’s inner bark.
MR. MANKILLER: [clears throat] Oh, my word. I never knew the meaning of the engravings on the Judaculla rock—not until now, until Miss Barefoot explained. The Standing People turn into monsters when they are separated from their trees, or when the trees die and no others are near, or when they consume human chemicals, or garbage.
AUNT: You had to learn this for yourselves.
MR. BARRON: Well, um… I don’t know what to say. So, do humans become monsters, too? Is this the explanation for the violence?
MR. MANKILLER: I have felt the loss of the trees. It’s why I got dirty drunk the other day. There’s a spiritual connection between us and the natural world. Moral decline results in environment degradation when we lose touch with the natural world. Our spiritual poverty pollutes nature, nature then abandons us and we become poorer. It spirals down and down.
Chief Mankiller gathered himself and spoke the next words as a tuneless chant: “There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, killing and stealing and committing adultery, they break all restraint, with bloodshed upon bloodshed. Therefore the land will mourn; and everyone who dwells there will waste away with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; even the fish of the sea will be taken away.”
MR. BARRON: Is that a Cherokee prophecy?
MR. MANKILLER: It’s from the Bible. You know, I never said that the feminine figure on the back of my carved turtle is a hemlock spirit. She’s not a Standing Person at all. She’s human. She represents the human race that fell from the tree of life.
Awkward silence followed.
The engineer in the booth beside me leaned forward into his microphone. “Somebody say something. We are live. I’m breaking in four, three, two—”
MR. BARRON: Um, you say it’s an environmental issue. It’s connected. What, what can we do? Will these insane incidents continue or spread elsewhere? What can we do to prevent them in the future?
AUNT: There’s work in progress to preserve the eastern and Carolina hemlocks from extinction. Volunteers collect seeds and grow them in conservation banks. There’s one in Chile, South America, others in North Carolina. Some people tell of a giant hemlock hidden away in the forest. She’s unaffected by the woolly adelgid. She has developed a natural toxin that makes her unpalatable to the little beasts. If we could collect seeds from her and propagate them, her resistance would pass on to her offspring and thus, in time, we could repopulate.
MR. BARRON: What a fascinating surprise. Our guest is not only expert on Cherokee culture and history, but she’s a botanist as well.
AUNT: Another idea is to harvest the dead giants before the lumber decays. You’d have to create a non-profit organization to donate the proceeds to the hemlock conservation bank and to the nursery program of growing resistant trees. The organization would educate the public about the tragic loss of our trees, one as significant as the loss of the American Chestnut. The lumber should be stockpiled because with so many dead, it will take a century for new trees to be replenished. Hemlock lumber from eastern trees will be a rarity, and when people buy it, like in Mr. Mankiller’s suburb carving work, they’ll know they’re contributing to the tree’s preservation.
MR. MANKILLER: This is all fine, but what can we do now? The storms and monsters will return again, and soon. There will be more collapses. They’ll spread throughout the whole Turtle Island.
AUNT: The momentary suspension of human conscience was triggered by the rage of what you call monsters, the Tsuga spirits. If they could be moved, moved to where hemlocks are healthy, it would leave our region spiritually depleted, but it might prevent violent outbreaks.
MR. BARRON: Where would that region be?
AUNT: The Pacific Northwest. It’s a different species there, but still in the genus Tsuga. Some Standing People could go to Japan, too.
MR. BARRON: And how does one transport tree spirits? By train or airplane? Would they ride in cargo, or would they insist on first class?
From here on the transcript doesn’t catch the drama, so I drop it entirely. Mr. Barron had made his last comment with that rude skepticism which so annoys, and he also wore a sarcastic smirk on his face. I had warned him. He had not treated Aunt’s idea with respect, something I learned to do long ago—after all, she lets me drive her pickup truck.
And this is where things got truly shocking. First, the humidity jumped and my bones begun to ache. I felt oppressed, like when a storm nears. The glass between us and the studio steamed over, so it was hard to see, but it seemed like I was looking into a greenhouse stuffed with plants. I heard a deep rumble from outside the building. I jumped up and peered through the glass. There was Aunt Ilana… and I’ll say it plainly… she was fading in and out between her self, a tree spirit in a silky shaggy gown, a conifer tree, and the white-eyed monster.
Holy Moley!
Seeing how no one had been talking sense during this event—I heard a loud inhuman whisper mixed with my aunt singing—the unfazed engineer cut to a commercial break.
We ran around to the studio, and when we opened the door, a musty smell both rank and fresh hit us. Maybe of decaying leaves and sweat, a mix of that and the perfume of Clammy Azaleas. Mr. Barron, Aunt, and Mr. Mankiller was sitting around the table as they had been. Mr. Mankiller looked shocked, but wise. Aunt appeared vibrant and seductive. Mr. Barron looked bewildered, but happy. Mostly happy. In fact, he and Aunt was holding hands until I said, “What’s going on here?”
The engineer said, “Whatever just happened, we’re going back on air. Callers are waiting. Compose yourselves.” He ran back to his booth. “In three, two, one…”
“Good evening, folks,” Mr. Barron said, “Strange Days Radio is back.” (He’s a professional.) “We’ve been talking about moving hemlock dryads from western North Carolina to the Pacific Northwest. Ms. Ilana Barefoot and Mr. George Mankiller are our guests tonight. Ms. Barefoot has an idea she told me about during our break.”
“The wind, Jonathan,” she said. “The prevailing winds, of course. We will sail from west to east around our planet, the Turtle Island, in vessels made of hemlock wood.”
“Sailing ships on the ocean?”
“No, my dear sir, helium windships in the air. What else could they be? Mr. Mankiller, will you carve their decorations for us?”
He saluted. “It would be my pleasure.”
Okay. So, I thought, that solved the mysteries of my Aunt Ilana and the monsters. There was always something eccentric about her and now I knew why. I suppose I’ll be collecting her tiny, winged hemlock seeds deep in the mountains. And they’ll become… my what?

No comments:

Post a Comment