That which does not kill us makes us stronger
-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
A Question of Doubt
Crossing the river, Sebastian ran towards the heavily wooded part of the forest, stopping as he entered the darkness there. Pushing Patricia behind him, he peeked through the forest cover at the river, where three of the hooded individuals were splashing through the river, moving towards the forest in their direction.
Sebastian and Patricia moved deeper into the forest.
Suddenly, he came across a clearing, with big boulders on the other side and the dark forest continuing beyond. Dragging Patricia with him, Sebastian crossed over and stationed himself behind one of the boulders. He had a good view of the forest and the clearing in front of him, and he settled down to watch the clearing and the dark forest beyond.
“They’re coming,” Patricia whispered in his ear.
Sebastian didn’t speak. He just nodded his head, turned back and put his finger to his lips indicating to Patricia that she should be silent. Looking ahead across the clearing, he saw the shadowy figures of their pursuers. They stood in the darkness of the eaves, scanning the clearing and beyond. Then they slowly stepped out into the clearing, still looking around urgently.
Suddenly, one of them gave a terrible screech and the others turned towards the screaming figure. He seemed terrified or excited about something towards the right of Sebastian, staring fixedly into the forest in that direction and pointing with his finger. The others stared in the same direction, seeming alarmed and terrified by whatever was emerging there. Sebastian and Patricia stared nervously in the same direction, just as the hooded figures called out again, this time more urgently than before. The reason for their anxiety became apparent as the figure of a man stepped from the darkness of the forest.
He was a striking figure, well built and appearing to be in his mid fifties. He had the dark skin of an American Indian and was clean shaven, with a bandana around his forehead. He wore no clothing except for a loin cloth and had moccasin like shoes on his feet. There was a staff in his right hand and a leather bag hanging from his shoulder; overall a majestic figure of a man. Sebastian could hardly believe his eyes.
Within seconds a pack of wolves walked out of the forest behind him, all of them magnificent creatures and one of them, definitely the leader. Sebastian could not tell how many there were, possibly a dozen or more. They stood around the man casually, some playing, some sniffing around, but the alpha male stood erect and stared directly at the three hooded figures. The man too stared directly at them. The terrified figures began to scatter fleeing in different directions and the man raised his staff with a cry, striking it forcefully on the ground. As the three figures disappeared back towards the forest the man touched the head of the alpha wolf with his staff. The wolf looked up at him and he gestured in the direction of the retreating figures. The wolf leapt away in pursuit, followed by the rest of the pack.
The man turned and looked directly at Sebastian and Patricia, startling them both by addressing them from where he stood.
“You can come out now,” he said. “They will not come back. Go now. Your friends are in great danger.”
With that he turned and walked back into the darkness of the forest.
Sebastian didn’t move, couldn’t move, frozen by the absurdity of what he had just seen, like the Arizona desert two summers ago. Days after a desert rave, high on Peyote extract, seeing the colors of the rainbow reflected in the hot sand, amorphous shapes swirling around him, imaginary or real, ghosts of the future, phantoms of the past, speaking silently to him, commanding him.
What do you want? Why me? He had demanded then, confused, just as he was now, struggling to understand the evidence of his eyes, things his rational mind balked at accepting.
He scanned the surroundings and blinked, distracted by an oblique ray of sunlight that fractured his concentration. No sign of anyone, no savior or pursuer, an absence of anything but themselves, surrounded but alone, and behind him Patricia whimpering, a lonely sound in the silence of the clearing. The quiet was unnatural, a stepping out of time; Arizona time, lips moving, limbs beckoning, gesturing, his ears drowned like a face underwater, everything observed through a watery lens, eyes to water, without goggles, all clearly obscure.
In Cuidad Juarez, the dead girl’s eyes looked like that, opaque, unseeing, accusing.
Why didn’t you do something? Where were you when they were killing me?
He shook his head, trying to shake off responsibility. Not me. It wasn’t me. I’m trying to help but you’re already dead. I’ll do what I can.
He had done that, used his blanket to cover her poor mutilated limbs. Poor dead senorita, don’t look at me like that. I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.
Cover the accusing stare, the marks of her desecration and his shame. So young, so innocent, just like the girl back at the river. He was too late for her also, too late to help, too late to prevent the shame, the tearing, the mutilation. He wanted to scream. Why me? It wasn’t my fault.
Mouth open, the O of a silent scream frozen on bloodless lips. A record of final agony endured, the rictus of her desperation morphing into the silent accusation of the girl in Cuidad, same O of surprise, desolation and pain, behind him Patricia’s mouth forming the same O of helplessness, O, the omicron in the center, the omicron of despair, the omicron of disaster, the omicron of despondency.
Standing immobile, rooted, frozen in time and space, all the desperation of all the lonely souls robbed of life and love pressed him in that sunlit clearing. Alone, that’s how you died. Alone; a solitary journey; a solitary experience, and he was a solitary man, even with Patricia beside him he was alone.
Sweat dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He didn’t notice. It ran into his eyes. He blinked, trying to release it but his eyes stung. Sweat or tears? He didn’t know, didn’t care. What now? Why did he see dead people? The silence around him answered. Even a fool knows, only in retrospect is anything ever obvious.
In Cuidad, he hadn’t moved the body of the girl. She was fresh, like a newly killed deer, the strange sweet smell of blood strong in the air; an unforgettable smell. He had done nothing then, self preservation his paramount instinct. Monsters were nearby, probably watching him as he covered her with his blanket, watching him sit astride his softly muttering Harley, contemplating what to do next. He had ridden away then, the omicron of her grimace imprinted on his vision like a ghostly afterimage. And in the flitting edges of his vision, the ghostly shapes in the Arizona desert. He saw them again now, fresh in his mind, a haunted background for the omicron of the dead girl in the river, an endless circle telling him something he couldn’t yet figure out. In the desert he had run from the collective consciousness that beckoned him. He had run from the girl in Cuidad too, run from faceless and unseen retribution, and he was running now, running from the nameless something that had come out of the forest for him, running from the unexpected help he feared even more.
The stinging in his eyes blinded him for the shame. In spite of his sputtering resolve the omicron called to him, beckoning, so many times now, and he had dodged every time. Go back to the girl on the river bank. See what had happened to Tom and Roger. Patricia? She was falling apart. Get back to Jason and Jude. Complete the circle. Face the O, the omicron.
Sebastian shuddered, shook himself out his reverie. “Focus, focus,” he reminded himself, He noticed that Patricia seemed shaken and confused by the strange turn of events. Wordlessly they came together, Sebastian placing his arm around Patricia’s shoulder and guiding her through the forest.
She’s like a terrified little bird, thought Sebastian. He could feel her heightened breathing as she held his hand in a firm grip.
“I am so scared that this is going to turn out real bad,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I am sure Tom and Roger are back at the campsite having a good laugh about what happened.”
Coming out of the forest and into the daylight they found a scene oblivious of recent events. The river flowed gently, the sun glinting off the water, and there was no evidence of the flash flood that had just hurtled through their lives.
Together, Sebastian and Patricia scoured the opposite bank for any signs of their friends, but all they found was an eerie silence punctuated by the gentle gurgling of the river.
Patricia began to sob. “I think something awful has happened to Tom and Roger.”
“Pat, please stop worrying. You don’t know what has happened so don’t assume the worst.” Sebastian gripped her by the shoulders and made her look at him. “Come on, let’s cross the river at the next shallow and if you like we’ll back track and see if we can follow their tracks, okay?” He smiled at her reassuringly. “That should put your mind at rest.”
“I am so scared Sebastian, do you mind if we walked back to the campsite instead?”
Sebastian realized the recent events had really shaken Patricia up. He acquiesced. “Okay, let’s go back to the campsite and if Tom and Roger haven’t come back I’ll ask Jason to come along and we can backtrack and see if we can find them.”
That seemed to comfort Patricia somewhat, and they walked along the riverbank keeping a lookout for the red circle and cross that Tom had marked out on a boulder earlier.
More than an hour of walking and the sign still eluded them. Patricia broke away from Sebastian and loped ahead examining the boulders by the riverbank frantically. Sebastian quickened his pace to catch up, but he could see that Patricia had seated herself on one of the boulders and her shoulders were shuddering and convulsing, she had her face in her hands and she was crying inconsolably.
“Hey, hey Pat, come on, pull yourself together. It’s not the end of the world. We simply have to walk a bit further to find the campsite. It can’t be that far away?”
“Stop trying to gloss over everything Sebastian. Think about it. Anything could have happened to Tom and Roger.” Patricia was distraught. “They could have been kidnapped and murdered like that poor girl. We’re probably miles from the campsite and the flood has washed all our tracks away.” She began to sob again. “I feel awful. I wish I hadn’t come on this damn trip!”
Sebastian sat by her side and looked at Patricia seated on that boulder, holding her knees together with her forehead on her knees. She looked extremely stressed. Sebastian knew such body postures, postures that created negativism in the human body, bringing down the human spirit. He knew that no matter how the mind felt, the inner self, the core personality needed to be calm and undisturbed by the turmoil and depression the mind was experiencing. He believed that good body posture helped in elevating the mind, and therefore he always sat erect, never allowing the negativism of the mind to influence his body.
He touched her gently. She did not move but her body relaxed, and Sebastian felt it. Sebastian began to stroke her hair, speaking gently to her.
“Patricia, at moments like this, panic is unbecoming of a person like you; actually for people like us, such panic and despair in the face of danger, evil and even sorrow isn’t right. We aren’t here to live our lives like rest of the herd, trembling at danger. No, we cannot be like that. Think of the inspirational things we spoke of so many times. Are we going to forget all that when faced with danger? No, we will not. We will fight. We will stand up to what we want to be, heroes.”
Patricia raised her head and looked at Sebastian with a look of admiration, realizing that her current mood was unacceptable. She sat up, wiping her tears and turned towards Sebastian, ready to listen.
Sebastian continued. “We will not panic Patricia. OK, Tom and Roger are not here. As you say, anything could have happened to them. They may be in danger or they may have got out of that danger and are safe. That is an unknown. To panic, feel sorrowful and nervous about an unknown situation is irrational. It’s foolish. We must get out of such thinking. I don’t say it’s easy to change the course of your mind, which is heading towards such negativism, but we can do it if we try. Yes, the mind can be controlled and made to change direction. The mind isn’t independent of us, it is within our control. In my opinion, it’s the only thing that’s within our control. So Patricia, give up this mind driven negativism and get hold of your self. Activate your inner self and give it the right direction, the right kind of medicine and it will destroy such negativism. If you sit like that and brood, you help the mind go down further, into panic and depression. Wake up from this negativism and sit right. That is the first step. Then we will take a deep breath and meditate upon our inner strength and become our true selves. Do it now. You know how to do it. All of us know how to do it.”
Saying this he sat cross legged and erect, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and while holding his breath he concentrated on the spot between his two eyebrows, keeping his right palm on top of his left palm on his lap as he recited “OM.” This was a method their friend Caroline had taught them. As he concentrated, Sebastian felt his inner strength return, his mind becoming calm.
Patricia watched him, the panic clearing as her memory came back. “Yes,” she said to her self, “I will not give into this panic and desperation. I will not give into fear.” She sat erect on the boulder like a yogi and did exactly what Sebastian did. The change in her was instantaneous. A form of dynamism immediately entered her, as if a power descended upon her. Her mind became calm. The panic was gone. She was now in meditation, in prayer towards serenity, mediating upon the infinite and letting go of everything, fear and fearlessness, desires and the state of no desire. Yes, she knew that the lessons they had learned taught them to give up duality, because reality was beyond duality. As Patricia became absorbed in her meditation, she became a totally different person, calm, serene of face and totally fearless. It was a complete transformation.
They sat there, totally changed from their personalities of a short while ago, changed into two calm souls, like two Zen monks or yogis, meditating in the silence and serenity of the forest. All that happened before appeared unreal to them at that moment.
They were two serene souls, immersed within their inner selves, while the forest watched them in silence.
A movement in the sky caught Sebastian’s attention, bringing him out of his meditative state. Far above, almost invisible against the cerulean sky, a speck circled almost directly overhead. Sebastian focused, straining to make it out. In front of him Patricia stirred, and though he wasn’t looking at her he knew she was aware of the speck too. The pinpoint spiraled down on the thermals, growing larger as it descended until Sebastian could make out the spread of wings and realized he was looking at an eagle.
“It’s an eagle, Seb.” Patricia had recognized it too. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Sure is.” Sebastian shaded his eyes, watching the majestic glide of the bird. “It seems to be looking for us.”
“What do you mean?” Patricia’s voice sounded strained.
“Don’t worry. It’s not going to attack us. We’re too large, but it’s not hunting. See, it’s just following that current down towards us.”
“Let’s get under those trees. It looks awfully big to me.”
Patricia was right. It was the largest eagle Sebastian had ever seen. Soundlessly it spiraled down towards them and now he could make out the glint of bronze feathers as the bird banked around. The head swiveled, watching them as it turned, and in spite of the weirdness of the situation Sebastian was struck by the majesty of the soaring raptor. It was a golden eagle, the nape of its neck glittering in the sunlight and fully eight feet across its wingspan. From the size of this one Sebastian guessed it must be a female. She was now so low he could clearly make out the white band on her tail and the pale plumage on her ankles and wingtips.
Patricia broke his attention, tugging at his sleeve.
“Come on Seb. I don’t like the look of this. Let’s go please?”
Sebastian was about to follow her but something made him pause.
“Hold on Pat. That bird is acting really strange. Look.”
Patricia turned, holding on to his hand, and they watched the eagle. The raptor was low, about three hundred feet above them, but no longer descending. Instead she flew in an elliptical loop anchored at one end by their position. As they watched, she turned again above their heads and headed downriver with lazy strokes of her giant wings. In less than a minute she was a couple of miles downstream. Sebastian watched as she banked sharply and flew back towards them. She still hadn’t made a sound but he was convinced the eagle was trying to tell them something.
“Pat, I think she’s trying to tell us to go that way,” Sebastian pointed to where the eagle had turned, exactly above a bend where the river turned left and curved out of sight. “She wants us to go downstream.”
“Are you sure? Maybe it’s just looking for something after all.” Patricia sounded skeptical but Sebastian felt her grip loosen on his palm.
Good, she’s considering what I said, he thought.
“Okay, let’s watch her for a few more turns and see if she changes her path.” Sebastian lowered himself back to the rock and pulled Patricia down beside him. She put her arm around his waist and he hugged her to him as they watched the eagle turn above their heads, following its unwavering path.
For twenty minutes they watched the raptor fly languid ellipses from their location to the river bend and back, always maintaining the same height and always swiveling its head to watch them on its approach. After a few circuits Sebastian was convinced he was right, and after two dozen loops above them, even Patricia had to agree. The eagle wanted them to go towards the bend in the river.
They stared at each other a long moment, recognizing the inevitable. Sebastian stood up, pulling Patricia with him.
“Come on, Pat. Let’s do it. We don’t have any better way to go, and I’m starving. It must be after noon by now.”
Patricia smiled and squeezed his hand. “I’m with you. Let’s go then. I’m hungry too.” She rubbed her belly and Sebastian heard it growl in reply.
“I heard that Pat,” he said laughing. “Here’s to luck and lunch then, and a nod to whoever’s watching over us.” Taking her hand in his, he started off downstream, keeping his eye on the eagle following them overhead.
The day had taken on a lazy and languid feel as they walked along the uneven surface of the river bank. The water flowed by gently, its voice a soothing whisper. The foliage and the scrub was motionless, still as a photograph, belying the events that had unfolded since dawn. Sebastian and Patricia felt the hypnotic pull of this strange place.
As they approached the bend they looked at each other quizzically, deciding if they should trust their intuition and take the offered path.
Sebastian broke the silence. “This is it Pat, let’s head into the forest from here. I only hope Jason and Jude have had the good sense to rustle up something interesting for lunch.”
“They better have Seb. I am absolutely famished.”
The forest enclosed them in its cool and fecund embrace. Sebastian and Patricia walked along cautiously, avoiding the gnarled roots that snaked over the forest floor and stepping around collected pools of water that reflected the green canopy in their still surfaces.
After a while they emerged from the forest to meet by a gradual incline, which looked familiar to Sebastian, and he quickened his step. Patricia had to jog along to keep up. As they approached the crest of the incline they noticed the wind had blown some paper and plastic bags along in its wake.
“That’s odd,” said Sebastian, “these look familiar.”
As they ran up the escarpment and approached the campsite they noticed that all their things were strewn about. Their folding picnic chairs seemed to have been smashed up, the cooking utensils flung on the ground. Their backpacks had been ransacked and emptied out
“What the ……” was all Sebastian could blurt out as he broke into a run searching through the campsite hollering “Jason! Jude! Are you guys alright? Where are you? Can you hear me?”
Patricia joined in too, yelling “Jason! Jude! Jason!” as she went past the campsite towards a further incline where they had parked their vehicle within a grove of trees.
Sebastian heard Patricia scream, and ran up the incline to where they had parked, seeing all the doors flung wide open and the tires slashed. He could see a look of terror and confusion in Patricia’s eyes as he moved towards her.