The woods are my refuse, my calm. Hand in hand the little girl walks with me. We are silent. No need to talk. Just look, listen. All around us there is life. Trees breath with the wind. Leaves rustle and twigs snap beneath our feet. We play a game and see who can walk softly, making no sound. We both lose. I wonder how the Indians did it. I don’t know. It’s a skill, maybe an art, this soundless walking. Creatures scamper out of our range of vision. They aren’t soundless either. Only the Indians were soundless, rendering homage to forest and woods.
I cock my head and listen, then tug at the child’s hand. I hear distant noises through the woods, a rhythmic thud, thud thud. I turn and strain to see. My pulse beats faster and I feel fear twist my stomach. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” And I am afraid of the unknown.
Again, I turn and look. I see it. A bear. Big. Brown. Ferocious looking. Running towards us. My hands break out in sweat and I pull the child to face me. “Don’t be afraid”, I say to her. I know how to keep us safe. Come.” I begin to run, pulling her after me. She turns to look back and I shout, “No, just run. I know the way.”
Crashing through the undergrowth I head toward the ocean, toward the rocks and the sound of surf, pulling, now almost dragging the child after me. We’ll be safe there. I feel it. I know it. We climb, jumping from one rock to another, the child at my heels. My feet are steady, I never let go of her small hand. Mine sweats, but I hold tight to hers.
When we reach the top of the rock, I push her behind me and tell her to be still. My heart is beating frantically and my chest hurts, my breathing is quick and shallow. I am sweating from head to foot. The ocean breeze chills me as I turn and face the bear.
“Stop.” I demand. “What do you want?” The animal looks at me through its small dark eyes. He opens his mouth, throws back his head and roars. Saliva drips from his wide jaws. I am terrified but I roar back. He stands on his hind legs, towering, letting me know that he can kill me with one swat of his gigantic paw. I stand my ground and look at him squarely and then, without thinking, I take a step closer. I motion for the child not to follow.
“This is my territory”, the bear growls. “Stay out of the woods. You don’t belong here.”
“The woods are in my soul. They are part of me. I need to come here”, I say.
“Then you risk death.” The bear growls, falling on all fours and moves closer to me.
I do the unthinkable. I drop down on all fours and and the bear again roars his threat and moves closer. I catch his scent. “I am part of you and you are part of me”, I say. “Teach me, and I will teach you”.
“You have nothing to teach me”, he growls.
“You have something to teach me”, I respond, my fear sharp, unsure if he will attack. I know he smells my fear.
“I will kill you”, he growls, shaking his massive head from side to side. Then he stares straight at me and adds, “Easily, and the child too.”
“Yes, you can kill us. But you can also teach me and I can teach the child. Killing me is easy. Teaching me is harder.”
The bear is curious, by wary. “Teach you what?”
“Teach me about about your strength, your instincts.”
“Why?” the bear wants to know.
“Because I am part of you and you are part of me.”
“What do you want to learn”?
“I want to learn about you, but I do not want to be killed.”
The bear shakes his massive bulk as if to shake away my words. I reach out my hand. “Teach me”, I say. “I want to learn about about what is different and the same between you and me.”
The bear stares at me. I am barely breathing. All of my senses are tuned to his next move. And while I wait for him to respond, I know my desire is genuine. This bear can teach me.
“You have much to learn”, he says. “Everything is not always as it seems. You choose to be blind, but if you want me to teach you, then you must open your eyes and see how you are like me.”
Defensively I cry, “I’m not like you. I am not a killer.”
“But you are”, the bear growls, ”Only you choose not to see it. You can not learn from me unless you are willing to see that you too are a killer.”
I want to cry, to run away. “I am not like you,” I scream and tears stream down my face.
The child behind me who has been standing still, moves closer and places her tiny hand on my shoulder. “Yes, you are”, she whispers. “You kill even though you say you don’t.”
I turn to look at her. I am stung by her words.
“How am I a killer?”, I whisper to her.
Her eyes are solemn and I feel her look straight through me. “ When you are afraid”, she says, “you kill. You kill what frightens you.”
I was on all fours looking up at her. I couldn‘t speak, could scarcely breath. The bear rumbled deep in his throat.
“The child speaks the truth. This is what you must acknowledge. Then I will teach you about my strength and the wildness of the woods, but not until then. When you learn about instinct and the life of wildness, you will belong to the woods. You will walk the earth a free woman. Till then you are living half a life. The choice is yours.”
The bear stood on his hind legs again and roared. It was deafening. Then he dropped his front paws to the ground and walked away.
“Wait”, I called. “Where are you going?”
“Come and find me when you are ready to learn”, he growled and disappeared into the thickness of the woods.
I stood silently and watched the bear as he lumbered into the forest. I felt lost and alone for a moment in spite of the fact that he had frightened me.
When I turned to look for the child, she too was gone. I peered this way and that, calling her. Silence. Where had she gone? It was as if she vanished like a wispy cloud. Not a sign of her was left in my forest world.
Feeling exhausted I found a patch of moss next to a large oak tree and lay down. The sky was azure and the leaves whispered softly in the breeze while birds twittered one to another.
I feel into a deep sleep and dreamed I was in a dark cave that lie within the boundary of a cemetery. The walls of the cave were hewn of chiseled rock, the floor was hard dirt. The only light was by candles scatted among the varying levels on the rock walls. I smelled the dank air around me and watched as a woman appeared before my eyes. She was tall and ethereal looking, and with her were two other women, smaller in stature and rounder in body. Around her she wore a dark cloak. Her hair too was dark and long and I could see her features, high cheek bones, an aquiline nose and deep penetrating eyes.
It was then that I noticed several small plants which she held in her left hand. When I looked at them she explained she was about to plant them to appease the dark spirits. I held my breath. She looked at me and offered some plants. I reached to take them. I was mesmerized by her presence. She both attracted and repulsed me. I sensed a danger in her that was mysterious yet appealing.
When I took the plants, two little people appeared at my side. Where they had come from I didn’t know. I neither feared them nor was I particularly drawn to them. They stayed close to me as I fastened eyes with the woman’s. Witch Woman. She was alluring in her presence which drew me and simultaneously frightened me. In spite of this, or because of it, I allowed myself to open to her until I felt a burning intensity and then drew away in confusion and fear.
“I won’t help you plant flowers to your dark spirits”, I told her. She stood silent, her eyes not wavering from mine. I tore my eyes away from her and standing, I threw the flowers to the dirt floor and turned to flee the cave calling to the two little people to follow me. I shouted, telling them I would protect them. “Just follow me”, I gasped, as I ran this way and that into the darkened cemetery, looking for the way out.
I have no idea how long I ran with the little people in tow. I only hoped it was far enough away from Witch Woman, her cave and the graveyard. I entered a small town and looked frantically to find refuge, for I feared that Witch Woman would kill me should she find and catch me.
Across the road, I saw a large picture window with a number of religious icons on glass shelves. They beckoned me. I walked to the door, opened it quickly and entered, leaning my back against the hard polished wood, slamming the door shut. My eyes took in row after row of glass and ceramic crosses and statues of saints. A strong odor of incense assaulted my nose and I coughed. Looking out the window, I searched the road for Witch Woman and her minion but saw nothing of them.
I closed my eyes for a moment and sighed. Perhaps I would be safe here. When I opened my eyes and peered between the shelves I saw no one attending the store and although I cried out for help no one came. In my fury and fear I turned and with outstretched arm began knocking to the floor and smashing as many crosses and statues as I could. Once I began breaking the glass and ceramics icons I couldn’t stop. It was as if I was possessed, so furious was my rage.
Spent, I looked around at the damage. The two little people stared at me, never once participating in my rampage. Then they clapped their tiny hands and high pitched laughter rang from their throats. I felt proud and powerful and without another thought of Witch Woman or her helpers, I the opened the wooden door we had entered through and walked out into the fresh air and gleaming sun.
No sooner had I taken two steps that I felt two strong arms tighten around me and my face and body were cradled deep within the soft folds of a dark cape. While surprised and frightened I struggled briefly but soon I felt my body relax and slumber came swiftly.
When I awoke I found myself again in Witch Woman’s cave. A moment of panic caused me to rise quickly to my feet, but I couldn’t move. I looked down to find garlands of flowers and vines woven around my ankles making movement impossible.
Witch Woman stood before me and then pointed her finger at me. “Sit”, she said. I stood defiantly until her minions and the two little people took me firmly by the shoulders and arms and pushed me into a stone chair behind me.
“What do you want”? I demanded.
“It’s not what I want, the question is what you want” she replied.
I stared back at her in silence.
“I am told that you wish to learn about the bear’s strength and the forest which you say is alive in your soul.”
My eyes narrow and I felt my heart increase its beating. “Who told you that”? I snarled.
Witch Woman slowly circled the stone chair in which I sat and came once again to stand before me.
“You wish to learn and yet you run. First from the bear and then from me. What do you expect to learn when you run from that which lies within you? Did the bear not tell you he would teach you when you were ready to learn?”
I looked at the Witch and responded slowly. “I told the bear and I will tell you, I am not a killer, like the both of you.”
“You asked the bear to teach you about the forest, about his strength, his nature, his instincts, and you came of your own will to my cave. You cannot learn from the deep instinctual nature of the bear, nor can you learn from my dark wisdom. You can not take from others when you refuse to enter your own forest.”
Her words stung me. I was afraid she had spoken the truth. I had feared the bear yet challenged him to teach me, while I denied the truth he knew about me. I had refused to acknowledge that the dark power of his nature was also in my own. I feared the power of the bear and Witch Woman, each to both live under the sun and within the darkness.
Looking up into Witch Woman’s face tears flowed from my eyes. I realized I was a sham and a coward. I wanted to live only in the sun. To that end I persevered in seeing myself in only the best of lights, helping others and showing kindness. And yet in my blindness, I judged and feared those whose spirits were freer than my own. I refused to accept that as the day ends in shadow and dark night, so too must I be willing to embrace the shadow and dark night within myself.
And then I remembered that before Witch Woman returned me to her cave, I had run and found a shop which I thought would offer me comfort and protection. And instead it was empty except for cold glass and ceramic crosses and statues of saints. I recalled the wicked pleasure I felt in smashing as many icons as I could break. And it was only after I had created all the rubble that I felt no fear and was able to walk away from the store and breathe fresh air.
I was stunned. I looked at the Witch and for the first time she smiled at me. It was as if she could read my mind. “Yes” she said. “You took your first step.”
“It felt wonderful” I cried. “I felt free from the old dead fear but I didn’t know it then. I only understand that now. What do I do now to learn what lies within”?
“Decide if you are truly ready to make this journey,” Witch Woman responded. “I will show you the door but you must make the decision to enter. And if you do, no matter what you find, the discoveries are yours to make, no matter what they are.”
I took a deep breath and nodded my assent.
“Then close your eyes and wait” she said. “When you are ready, open them and always remember that this is your journey, your choice and you must decide how you will travel through its darkness.”
Again I nodded and then closed my eyes and waited. I heard nothing. I continued to wait. Nothing. Becoming somewhat impatient I opened one eye and looked around. Witch Woman was gone as were her minions and the two little people. I opened my other eye. I was alone in the cave. The candles still burned casting flickering light around the dark walls. The dank air had turned warmer and as I looked down at my ankles which had been bound by garlands of flowers and vines, I began to see movement. Replacing the garlands and vines were all forms of snakes, small and large twisting and slithering. I felt them around my ankles and moving between my toes. Their bodies were dry. Some were smooth while others were rough.
I gasped and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came. My heart raced as if it would burst from my chest and my mouth felt as dry as desert sand.
Breathe, I commanded myself. After all, I said I was ready to undertake this journey, but my God, snakes?
In spite of my brave willingness when the Witch was present I now felt terrible fear and horror. I looked again and saw the snakes began to weave and wind their way up my calves and behind my knees. The sensation was unbearable.
Breathe I told myself. BREATHE! I took one breath after another, gulping and trying to deepen each and every inhalation while exhaling in shaky spurts. Slowly, slowly, I told myself as the serpents wove their lithe bodies around my waist and breasts and then my neck. When they reached my face the panic returned full blast. I closed my mouth tight, pressing my lips together and clenched my jaw until it ached. Although I wanted to close my nostrils too I knew I couldn’t and so I squeezed my eyes shut as I felt a serpent slither close to my left ear.
“Remember”, the snake hissed.
“Remember what?” I croaked, my voice a whisper. The snakes stopped moving. I felt their bodies reposition encircling around my own from head to toe, and then it was as if a great wind fell upon me and in unison they hissed, “Remember.”
At that moment my body went limp within the snakes’ embrace and I felt the sweet sensation of floating. I breathed deeply and the memories began to surface. One by one they came. Words from the past. Harsh words from painful times.
If you leave you will find yourself in the muck and mire of life.
You think you’re smarter than me? You’re not. You’re nothing and you’ll never be anything, so accept it and shut up.
You know what’s wrong with you? You’re.... and the litany of my faults, real and imagined, poured forth like poison.
The memories came fast and furious, and the words spoken to me long ago became more cruel, vile and hateful. I remembered faces contorted in contempt, spitting out words and feelings that struck as quick as lightening. I remembered feeling shocked to my core. I felt as if my body had dissolved and melted into the ground where I stood. I couldn’t speak. It was as if I were struck dumb.
I clamped my eyes tight and felt my throat constrict. How long had it been since these words were spoken? Years ago, but as the memories surfaced it was if they were happening in the moment. Heinous words, spoken in anger and in
the attempt to inflict pain, humiliation and fear. Why is it that the people who are supposed love us say such terrible things?
Tears trickle from the corners of my eyes and spill down my cheeks onto the snakes covering my face. And as I struggled to control my tears the snakes spoke to me again in unison.
“Do not fight your tears. Let them flow. Be brave. You must remember. We are here to hold you.”
I was stunned at their words and yet found a strange comfort in them. Had not Witch Woman told me that I must choose to follow where this journey lead me? Had I not told her that I would?
The snakes moved again, as if to encourage me to stay with my memories. I felt their embrace give me strength. And with that the dam broke and I began to sob. My body shook and my soul trembled as I felt the pain of those memories hit me full in my soul. I felt as if my heart were breaking and that if I weren’t held by the snakes I would dissolve within the flood of tears I could not stop.
I don’t remember how long I cried, but it must have been a long time. I was wrung out, exhausted. I opened my eyes and took a deep shuddering breath. It took a while before I could breathe normally again.
“Sleep now,” the snakes whispered. “When you wake we will be here.”
And with that promise I fell asleep.
When I woke, I stretched lazily and the snakes repositioned themselves around my body. How strange to be comforted by such primal creatures. How could this be I wondered again.
“I wish to stand and move”, I said and with that the snakes began their slow easy unwind from my body and once again curled themselves around my feet and ankles. I reached down and gently touched them, one by one. Their black tongues flicking, they swayed facing me. As I stood, they crawled a small distance away, watching my face. I stretched my body, my arms high over my head, my muscles relaxed. I began to dance slowly, winding my body around the walls of the cave, moving my arms and legs and hips to some interior music. My body felt free and almost weightless.
When I looked at the snakes, they were slithering back into the deep crevices of the cave walls.
“Wait”, I cried. “Where are you going?”
“We have done what we came to do, you must travel the rest of your journey alone now”, they said.
“I will miss you. Thank you.”
Without another word they disappeared.
How strange, I thought. Snakes were the last thing I ever thought I would feel comforted by. What was it about those primitive creatures that caused me to recall such painful memories and release them through tears. And had I really released my feelings or were they still lodged within my heart ready to burst forth
unbidden and overwhelm me again? What do I do with all this? I wasn’t sure but I knew my journey would continue.
I sighed and gathered myself and walked out into the sunshine of the cemetery, strolling along the paths, looking at the headstones and wondering about the people buried beneath them. I wondered what kind of lives they lead and if they had been meaningful. I wondered if they had been happy and what was important to them. I wondered how they died and who missed them. I wondered who loved them and whom they had loved.
Looking around to see how far I had wandered from the cave, I noticed the end of one path open to the forest. I hesitated. I didn’t know if I was ready to meet the bear should he find me, but I was hungry and so I moved into the forest to look for berries and nuts.
Sitting on a large rock in the sun and eating the sweet fruit and nuts I had foraged, my mind wandered back to the incidents in the cave. The snakes had taught me something about myself. Their embrace and injunction to “remember” had somehow allowed me to recall memories long forgotten. The thing that surprised me was how easily the memories came and how real they were. My memories were as primitive as the snakes themselves. They rose from deep within me and I wondered if what I had asked the bear and Witch Woman to teach me had something to do with them. I remembered part of my conversation with the bear.
“I’m not like you. I am not a killer.”
“But you are, only you choose not to see it. You can not learn from me unless you are willing to see that you too are a killer.”
I lay back on the rock, let my mind wander, and welcomed the warm sun on my body. The more I thought, the more confused I became. Frustrated, I sat up and began the slow walk home. Suddenly very tired and wanted to go home and get some much needed sleep.
That night I slept and dreamed.
I was standing in a circle with the faces of those who had hurt me in life jeering at me and poking at my body with their fingers. I turned slowly within the circle and felt impotent to stop them. Blood trickled from the corners of my eyes and I screamed. Their faces contorted, ugly, accusing, and their hate filled words rose in frenzied screams.
Several huge rats crept up my pant leg and settled there and on my left hip, their yellow teeth clicking in anticipation, eyes staring fiercely at the faces surrounding us. Rain hammered on a bedroom window and turned to clots of blood.
“Get them!” I screamed. The rats jumped amidst the jeering faces circling us and began tearing them to pieces. The room was full of blood. It smelled like copper. I stood and looked around me at shredded skin ripped in chunks laying on the floor, plastered to the furniture and splattered on the walls. Disembodied eyes stared back at me. I smiled.
Three hawks flew through the stained window into my room and began feasting on the dead and bloody flesh of my enemies.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I screamed, sitting up in bed clutching my hammering chest, my body trembling, soaked in sweat and fear.
I sat in bed, running my hands over my face and gasping for breath, I thought, My God, am I going nuts?
Slowly I calmed myself and slid out of bed. I was a bit unsteady on my feet as I walked into the shower and turned on the water. Leaning against the back wall I felt the hot water hit and run over my body washing away my sweat and calming me from the terrible excitement of my dream.
I dressed, took my journal from my desk and went to the kitchen to make coffee. As the coffee brewed I closed my eyes and inhaled its strong scent of comfort fill the kitchen. When it was ready I poured a large mug and sat for a while, pen in hand, sipping my coffee. I wrote five words in the middle of the next page in my journal:
I looked at the words for a long time. The coffee in my cup grew cold. Somehow I felt felt relaxed and comfortable. But I also felt something else. Anticipation. There is something else. There is much more.
I have met the bear and he has promised to teach me when I am ready. Witch Woman has offered me the door to open and the choice to make the journey. The snakes have given me great comfort in my terror. My dream has shown me the depth of my rage and pain and longing. I pick up my pen and write:
I am ready. I can change.