Charting the Waters of the Madre Dios
Took a while, but it looks like Ive made it to the end. Or at least some end. Hope it is the right one for you. I think it is, at least, for me. Want to say thanks -- Ive been really overwhelmed at the kind words for what started as a single thrown-together dues story for SA a long time ago. By the time we got here it was definitely not thrown together which I hope its the better for but its hard for me to tell. Anyway, hope you all enjoy it.
Have lots of thanks to share to Lyn for betaing and friendship over-and-above-the-call-of-duty for more than a few years (sheesh it *has* been years) now. To the Lurkers who have come and (sadly) occasionally gone: Ive appreciated your welcome and your friendship greatly. To C for workday e-mails and always acting like shes happy to see unwanted paragraphs pop up in her in-box. To Aly for reading whatever stuff I send her (no matter how painful) and sending me much better fic in return. To everybody that got unwittingly corralled along the way, I always appreciated the help.
Disclaimer: Not mine, never have been, but I have too much fun playing with them to stop now.
Summary: Blair and Steven accompany an increasingly distracted Jim into the Peruvian rainforest in search of the temple Blair hopes to find there. What they do find is much more than even Blair expected.
And if I ever suggest titling anything with a gerund again, somebody please slap me.
Steven touches the plane down at Qosqo, the Incas "navel of the world". Like Jerusalem, Rome and Delphi, another peoples hubristic naming of the patch of soil they trod as the center of everything the known and the unknown. Only here, for the three occupants of our technically purloined plane rolling across high-altitude tarmac, the appellation might be true.
Jim has been unusually quiet, but at least as we pull to a stop and the engines shut down, his shoulders relax a little. God knows what he would have been like without the white noise generator. As it was, I had to stop him from clawing at his ears as the pressure dropped, leveling for a little while, only to drop again and send me into another bout of hand restraining. Even with rubber against concrete, we are still more than 3300 meters up. High enough for the symptoms of altitude sickness to appear: sleepiness, headaches, difficulty breathing. The tourist guide warned of lowered thresholds for pain and taste.
The high navel of the world is apparently a natural Sentinel enhancer.
Opening the outer door sweeps chilled wind into the cabin and Steven disembarks, doing whatever Ellisons do to smooth the way.
Jim is staring out the window at brown-tinged vegetation. Every so often, he draws a deep breath. The unfamiliar scent of Peruvian air, I hope, rather than the beginnings of high-altitude cerebral edema.
I take the hand he has resting on the chair arm into mine and the gaze he turns on me is a dark, deep blue, the pale light streaming in the small windows saturating his eyes with color and depth.
I wish I knew what to say.
Knew how to tell him Im only blindly following a path he may be seeing with a vision beyond Sentinel sight.
"Hungry," he signs, adding the sign for "eat" to emphasize his point.
I shake my head, grinning, and get a hesitant and slightly confused smile back.
Just when I go metaphysical, Jim gets concrete.
With a pleasant brisk efficiency, undoubtedly born of dollars slipped from Stevens ample pockets, we are unloaded onto the high landing strip and bustled through Qosqos newly refurbished airport into a waiting taxi.
Out in the near equatorial sun Jim looks a bit pale and hes become wary, his hand wrapped around my wrist in a cartilage-crunching grip. His breaths are shallower now, but faster, his too-tall form scrunched between Steven and me in the vintage compact. I look over to find hes captured Stevens arm in a similar constricting hold.
If I hadnt been focused on the concrete before, I am now.
With my free hand I reach and tap his cheek, forcing his attention to me so I can fingerspell to emphasize my question.
The cab driver watches us with dark eyes in the rear view mirror.
Jim frowns at my concern then nods his "Im okay," blue eyes gazing deep into mine. Studying. Still perplexed despite my attempts at explanation. But saying anything more will have to wait until weve reached the privacy of our room.
A room, it turns out, in the formerly hallowed halls of San Antonio Abad Seminary. A suite, actually, an Ellison having made the arrangements. We walk beneath Romanesque arches, over three-hundred-year-old tile floors, to a room fronted by a dark wooden door set in deep blue stucco. Where once walked cloistered monks, now walk the carriers of Euros and American Express travelers checks. I shudder on Naomis behalf.
"Food," I decide immediately, Jim still beside me, but his grip a little looser now. "Room service," I amend, having no intention of subjecting Jim to yet another strange space. My gaze lingers on the oxygen supplementation equipment pointed out by the bellboy, how the wealthy globetrot never ceasing to astound me.
Steven gently disentangles Jims hold after he hands me the menu a disappointingly westernized collection of entrees. Although I doubt either Steven or Jim would be up for Pepian de Cuy, the guinea pig stew I remember from my last trip to South America, the lightly-fried meat seasoned with peanuts, garlic and onions, and served hot over local brown-skinned potatoes.
I settle for three hamburgers and bottled water, and we wait, watching Jim prowl our unfamiliar confines for the night. There will be a lot of this adjusting for Jim to do, something we knew and planned for; why were staying in Qosqo tomorrow night as well, rather than hightailing it east to Paucartambo as soon as possible.
Stevens cell, previously silenced, now rings shrilly in the high-ceilinged room and you can tell by the tone he immediately adopts that William has discovered hes short two sons and a plane. I can hear Williams "what the hell are you doing in Peru?" quite clearly.
Morning comes with the surprisingly beach-like call of the Andean gull and I stagger up to find Jim unexpectedly keeping watch from the tower of our small porch. Or, maybe, not unexpectedly, given that Ive whisked him into a strange and unfamiliar land with the wrong scents and sounds, the wrong basal hum.
"Hey." I brush a hand along his arm. I slept like the dead and apparently from the snoring still coming from the back of the suite, so did Steven. So who knows how long Jims been out here.
He doesnt answer me, turning instead to resume his watch over the courtyard. Im hoping thats merely the distraction of the couple crossing it and not his answer.
The tall, willowy blonde and her companion are arguing, their words unintelligible but their tone wafting upwards. Jim follows their movements with an odd gaze Im not used to, his eyes fixed on the womans arm sweeping upward as she makes some point. I have never thought of Jim as a sexual being perhaps because Ive never really thought of Jim as an adult. But Jim is a man, in a mans body. It would be naïve of me to think that he is immune to biology.
The blonde looks up, sees Jim staring, and stops her ranting.
I have long thought of Jim as beautiful but in a soul-wise sense. The scars of his battles, the perseverance hes shown, the gentle kindness that remained despite all that he has fought through. Those things that make him most beautiful, though, do not show on his face. There is only, when you get close enough, the oddly distant look to his gaze, the shy bow of his head, to tell you that Jim is unable to tolerate the normal chaos of interaction most of us take for granted.
To find him gazing at you from above while standing in a romantically flowered courtyard could be construed as an invitation well, if this wasnt Jim, who I know would hide behind me or Steven if she actually breached the distance between them.
Im thinking of breaking up this long distance love-affair when Jim does it for me, stepping backwards into the shadow of the back of the porch and making small, wordless vocalizations that sound like a cross between a whimper and a growl. Im trying to figure out if a talk about the birds and the bees is going to be in order when his hand grabs my wrist, pulling me to him.
The woman shades her eyes against the early morning sun, trying to follow our retreat.
Maybe its just the altitude messing with his senses. I mean hes been alone with Lisa enough to have developed an attachment to her that is, as far as I can tell, decidedly non-sexual.
Maybe Im just projecting my admitted sore lack of partners lately.
Maybe the altitude is messing with me.
"Come on." I tug at his hand and pull him into the warmer suite where I find a bleary-eyed Steven blinking at us.
I decide not to tell him that his big brother was making eyes at one of the other tourists.
We venture out about noon, Steven having finished an astounding series of phone calls, some in Mandarin and Taiwanese. Im cautious about overexerting Jim. Hed seemed withdrawn all morning. Almost contemplative. Unwilling or unable to tell me what was going on. Finally Id just settled beside him on the couch and let him be, spending my time intermittently rereading the journal of Juan de Acuna and letting Jim sooth himself with a rocking stroke on my captured wrist. Every so often hed turn his head in the direction of the porch doors, hearing something or someone in the courtyard below.
The writings of de Acuna are my guide, my sole link to the ruins I expect to find in the Peruvian midlands. They alone describe the path to the otherwise unrecorded Temple of the Sentinels that only I am apparently crazy enough to go looking for. Acuna had stopped here, too, at Qosqo, less than ten years after Francisco Pizarro had claimed the city as Spains in 1534, Pizarros occupying army marching south in the wake of Atahualpas Incan warriors, the battle-hardened Incan troops too preoccupied winning their civil war to think much of the small band of foreigners dogging their path the harbingers of those who would eventually destroy their world.
We walk through cobblestone streets still buttressed by ancient Incan walls. Steven and I flank Jim, hold his hands in both of ours as if we fear he might bolt and go native among the high Andean hills. At the corner of the streets of Hatunrumiyoc and Herrajes, we stop to admire the famous twelve-angled stone, a finely-carved mass of green diorite that once supported the walls of the palace of the Inca Roca, the 14th century emperor who forced all he conquered to worship the Sun God. Jim tentatively touches the multi-sided rock, so well fitted into the wall that a knife blade cannot pass between the joints.
He palms the cool stone, closing his eyes to shut out sight, his fingers playing over it with a sculptors touch. Then, just as suddenly, his eyes fly open, his head turning in the direction we just came. I catch a glint of pale, blonde hair in the nearly perpendicular rays of the sun.
The stone of Hatunrumiyoc is a prominent stop on any tourist literature, so its not surprising that anyone walking around Qosqo should end up here. Id just feel less like it wasnt a coincidence if the woman hadnt clearly been watching us as well, her gait slowing as Steven and I snap our heads in her direction. Jim, normally shy around anyone unfamiliar, takes a few unexpected steps toward the pair, stopping in the middle of the cobbled street. Stevens giving me a "what the hell" look like Im responsible for his brothers sudden aggressiveness.
I take Jims hand and pull him back, turning his head toward me so I have his attention. "Jim?"
His eyes keep straying back towards the woman and her companion.
"Hey, whats wrong?"
Pulling out of my grip, he makes a circle with the thumb and forefingers of both hands, like hes about to spell, then proceeds to dot the signs all along his chest. I figure Ive got the meaning of this one clearly enough: spotted cat. Only what being followed by an attractive blonde woman and her companion has to do with a spotted cat completely escapes me.
"Were talking the cat, here, Jim?" I make the sign for big. "Big cat," I reiterate. "Not like Sampson."
I hate to think that whatever this conversation is, its merely over some South American mouse-catcher.
"Jim does it have anything to do with" I turn to gesture back down the street toward the blonde and find the cobblestones empty "the woman," I finish lamely.
Which might be a yes. Or a no. Or an "are you a complete idiot, Sandburg?"
Jim tilts his head like hes still seeing something, but Ive got nothing just Incan-carved stones and stucco.
We try to continue our sightseeing along the Qosqo square, but Jim is too distracted now. He has to be tugged along bodily, his gaze darting a continuous watch. I expected odd things to happen once we reached Peru, but this is a little odder than even I was counting on.
Eventually I slowly guide Jim back to the hotel while Steven goes to check on the paperwork we need to enter the interior of the Manu Reservation. Frankly, at this point, the naval of the world is not going to be a place Im sorry to leave.
That night I dream of a pacing but silent Panthera onca and wake to find Jim keeping vigil again from his lookout on the balcony.
When we board the bus that will take us to the heights of the Cusco Andes, among the hikers and birdwatchers is the couple from the courtyard. The blondes stare follows us blankly as I steer Jim to the back of the bus where I feel, oddly, that the rippled sheet metal of the emergency exit will watch our backs.
Like the rock of Hatunrumiyoc, the daily charter to Paucartambo is a required stop on the trek to the Manu. No doubt we shared the San Antonio Abad with many of the riders traveling the road passing Ninamarka. Could be Im just jumpy because so many of those seeking the fabled lost city of the Incas, de Acuna included, spoke of both spirits and all-too-real human protectors who lay in wait for anyone seeking to find the mythical Paititi: the hidden Machu Picchu waiting to be found in the "hacha hacha" the Incas exotic and terrible jungle. And we, too, are looking for the farthest presence of the Inca into the Peruvian selva.
Jim has the pinched look of the hyperaware. His darkened eyes fix on the back of the blondes head. Her male companion leans in and strokes her cheek -- a clearly comforting motion not unlike the stroke Jim is using to sooth himself, his thumb lightly caressing the skin above the point of my pulse.
The bus jerks forward and we all lurch clumsily. The trip up the ancient Incan route has begun.
Bumping up the eroded dirt road I remind myself I am not a superstitious man. The myth of Paititi is just that a myth. A lost Incan city dreamt up by Juan Santos Alahualpa and Tupac Amaru, the eighteenth-century insurrectionists who thought to give heart to a dwindling native population with a story of the last Quecha emperors last laugh on their Spanish conquerors.
I do not think anyone knowledgeable climbs the slope of the Andes in search of buried gold these days.
But neither do I think, watching the odd movements of the pair, that theyre here for the macaws.
The bus rattles to a stop at Ninamarka, passengers obediently stepping out like school kids on a field trip to exclaim over the Funeral Towers, cameras clicking in rhythmic profusion. Jim blinks against the thin air, oblivious to the rocky remains of the northern Titicaca kingdom. He sniffs the air, upper lip curling in a snarl weirdly reminiscent of a cats Flehmen response.
Several yards away from us, the blonde lounges, equally oblivious to the tourist wonders, in the shade of the buss bulk. She leans, languid and long, against the steel side; her eyes drowsy like shes been tranquilized.
At Atalaya we will go our own way, leaving our fellow passengers to the care of the tour-boat operator, Sentinel temples being a form of esoterica not on any standard tourist agenda.
Atalaya can not come too soon.
I try to coax some conversation out of Jim but he is stuck in some kind of private repetition.
I unsuccessfully fight the feeling that, instead of bottled water, I should have brought a thermos of Ayahuasca.
The bus jumps and grinds in a bone-wearying descent from the crest of the Andes, tossing us with bruising strength against the ill-padded seating. Jim grows even paler, lightly sweating in the feeble heat. We are headed to the river valley, to the port where we will catch the flow of the Madre de Dios. Steven and I exchange glances over a clearly suffering Jim, Steven shaking his head. Im at the same loss, only able to get Jim to accept sips of tepid water from my bottle.
I wet a bandana and press it to Jims forehead, lingering the damp cloth over his eyes, which even closed are squinted against the light. He leans into my touch, almost pre-verbal: the Jim we found months ago in the abandoned hospital, not the one I was conversing smoothly in sign with only a few days before.
A similar roadsickness seems to be affecting the blonde. Steven points it out to me as I fuss over Jim. The rest of the passengers ride undisturbed, chattering contentedly in a dozen languages.
Regression. Withdrawal. Ive seen it before in Jim. And neither Steven nor I thought this would be easy.
Movement, the glint of light hair catches my already half-focused attention, as if Jims watchfulness has somehow been transferred to me. He whimpers softly, leaning more heavily into the makeshift compress. And there is another movement of the blonde head when he does, as if the woman hears the soft sounds of his distress.
She turns to look back at us, her blue eyes suddenly piercing and sharp. And Jim, as if in response, draws a sharp breath, his muscles tensing in sudden constriction. He drops heavily against me, his eyes rolling upward, the bandana falling, forgotten, to the floor. Steven is the one who manages to hold his dead weight, wrestle the now convulsing body to the floor.
I hear the sharp intakes of breath from our fellow passengers, hear the word "epilepsy" echoed in multiple accents. I fall with them both, taking Jims head into my lap, trapping his arms across his chest so he will not do more damage to himself. The bus shutters to its own convulsive halt as the alarmed murmuring of the other passengers has reached the driver.
I find myself surrounded by a growing dimness; Jim, alone, somehow still visible in my private dusk. His teeth are clenched, little grunts escaping between the rhythmic stiffening of his muscles. Where the backs of my tightly clasped fingers rest on his chest I can feel the fast pounding beat of his heart. The remainder of the bus has faded to almost pure darkness. I can barely make out Stevens face as he leans over his brother, cupping Jims check in his curved palm. He murmurs softly that I am here, that he is, that everything will be all right.
Then sound is fading, too, replaced by the incessant dripping of water, the soft click of claws, the huff of breath puffed from beneath whiskered cheeks.
Only this is a double symphony.
A fur-clad flank brushes against me. Indistinguishable black against the darkness. A deep growl rumbling like shaken earth, the white flash of fangs just visible as the heated body sweeps by me, the head butting my arm. A display I take as a warning to the smaller, paler, spotted jaguar glowing by its own incandescent light in the distance.
Sound returns first, a mélange of words I understand, and those I dont, all of which seem to be debating whether theres a doctor in the bus.
"You okay?" Steven is still hovering over Jim.
Jims weight no longer anchors me, but I seem to be miraculously upright.
"You shuddered and kind of blanked out."
Hes keeping Jims head off the grubby bus floor with a hand, his other hand still cupping Jims cheek. The convulsions have stopped and Jim blinks dazedly at the equally grimy ceiling. But he turns at the touch of my hand, his dilated pupils making his eyes look innocent and young.
"You okay, big guy?"
Although if hes not, theres not a hell of a lot I can do on a bus clinging to the steep side of a Peruvian mountain.
In broken English the driver tells me theres a doctor in Atalaya and I nod at the message, my hand clasped in Jims. But my eyes are searching the faces around me, looking for the blonde. I find her, standing and facing us, but somehow missing some vital animation reflected on all the other faces gazing over our little trio.
Jims gaze follows mine and his hand tightens its grip on my fingers, pulling slightly like hes trying to draw me closer. He struggles to sit up and Steven helps him, hands moving to steady his back.
"Hes okay," I assure the gathered crowd, hoping this will send them back to their seats.
Together we haul Jim to his feet.
The bus driver goes to the front to start the engine, the motor rumbling to life with a puff of smoke that comes in the open bus windows, swallowing the back seats in a gray haze. The blonde disappears in the cloud of oily droplets, obscured from view. When it dissipates, she is seated, facing away, the man next to her speaking quietly into her ear, his own face intense, almost angered.
I repeat the signs Jim has been making.
His eyes follow the little ok-signs I dot along my chest and he nods. It is all the conversation I get as the bus jerks its way toward the muddy waters below.
Steven is ready to climb back over the Andes. To him this looks foolish. Which is understandable. Jim is withdrawn, pale and ill-looking, as we rock on the seat. The brother who he had been conversing with suddenly taken away, replaced by this silent wraith-like man who looks deeply entrapped in the autism hed long been diagnosed with.
I can parse this. Find logical reasons that a change in environment alone could cause all the symptoms Jim is displaying. But what I find myself repeating silently is that, here, it is not my intellect, but my belief, which is important.
At Atalaya, we support Jim between us down the now-empty aisle of the bus. As we wrestle him down the stairs, the driver helpfully points us toward a worn, concrete block building, repeating in careful patois, as if I didnt speak a bit of Spanish, that the medico can be found there.
I waver between the fear of again exposing Jim to the invasiveness of western medicine and the hope that maybe, here in Atalaya, in the terrible jungle, the medico might be open-minded enough to accept that the seizures Jim seemed to suffer were not the result of an electro-chemical imbalance but of a cosmic one.
Steven, looking out of place even in his multi-pocketed khakis, still the businessman, wants to head to this nearest bastion of modernity and turn Jim over to professionals. But the sight of the pair from the bus going into the clinic stops us all.
Whatever they want with the medical professionals inside, we want no part of.
Instead, we slowly approach the river, green-gray in the shadow of the tall forest, and look down on the water flowing toward Bolivia, twining toward its date with the Beni.
To go off in search of our own version of Paititi, we have had to procure documents saying we are conducting research on medicinal plants. We have been told that our guide, Arturo, will meet us at the "authentic" Amazonian lodge but I am hesitant to take Jim inside. Im hoping, away from the crush of excited eco-tourists, that Jim will come out from wherever hes retreated.
He does seem interested in the life of the forest, fingering the ornamental brackets of Heliconia that dot the banking in pendent, yellow-trimmed blossoms. Craning his face toward the overhang of the sky, Jim searches the break of blue, rewarded within the space of a minute with a flock of small birds passing from one side of the river to the other. The crisp flapping of their wings audible only to Sentinel ears.
Hes relaxing, if only minutely. Connecting. If not to me, to the cacophony of life rhythms around us.
Sounds unheard by either Steven or me compel him into sharp, directional swivels of his head. But this doesnt seem to overwhelm him. Its more that hes cataloging: observing and setting aside.
Steven keeps his back to the river, his attention not straying far from the medicos office.
If I am going to get a coherent answer out of Jim this may be my best shot. "Jim?"
As compelling as the edge of the jungle is, Jim draws himself away from its sensory riches. His eyes are clearer, paler in the shadow of the lupuna and tornill and the muddy lap of the river.
"Hey, big guy, what you thinking?"
The question may be rhetorical even to Jim, because he cocks his head and observes me with the same intense gaze as he was giving the flora.
/See?/ I prod. /Hear?/
So much for my skills at drawing him out.
I repeat the sign and add the modifiers.
/Cat. Spotted. Big./
Jim frowns a kind of surprised frown. He turns and mirrors his brothers posture, his gaze directed at the small cinderblock building. And then, having answered my question, he turns back to his communion with the banks of the Madre de Dios.
Crackle of leaves under precise clicks of chitinous legs.
Soft huffs of small lungs.
Liquid lap of water rings.
Expanding into the void.
Whisper of feathery wings.
Empty open blue.
Sixteen. Brown. Gray.
Flap. Twist. Fold.
Empty open blue.
Scent. Heartbeat. Identity.
"Hey, big guy, what you thinking?"
Sixteen. Grey. Brown. Flap. Twist. Fold. Across the space of blue.
/Cat. Spotted. Big./
"They havent come out," says Steven almost conversationally, as if we were talking about something less odd than a stakeout of our fellow travelers.
"We should find Arturo." Im almost reluctant to tear Jim away from the riverbank and lead him back into the confines of the lodge. I look again at his intense observations. "Maybe you and Jim should stay here and Ill go find him."
Steven nods, his gaze finally moving from the medics office to rest on his brother.
I start up the slight rise of the dirt path to the lodge and am within feet of passing the cinderblock clinic when a hand latches onto my elbow strongly and I am yanked backwards and to the side by an intense-eyed Jim, Steven jogging in his wake.
Apparently well all go find our guide.
Arturo is the multi-lingual son of a Danish archaeologist and a Quechua weaver. Taller than most Quechua-speakers, thanks to the influx of Danish genes, he stands out in the knot of native Atalayans smoking at a corner of the lodge.
He draws us to the side, away from the smoke that has Jim coughing dryly.
"It is strange," he says, drawing out a wrinkled map, tracing the path of the Madre de Dios to the spot on the midlands where I hope the Sentinel temple lies. "Such a path is rarely followed." He nods toward the group of men hazed in tendrils of blue-gray. "Yet Pedro has also been hired to go into the midlands of the reserve."
Steven and I, without exchanging so much as a glance, both look toward the squat cinderblock building.
Steven is the one who voices our question. "By a man and a woman?"
Arturo motions one of the men over: a slight Quechan in a well-worn red shirt and a faded cowboy hat. He nods at the question. Rich Americanos. Bird-watchers.
"The woman," Stevens mouth is thinned, "she has blonde hair?"
Pedro spits thoughtfully on the ground before leering a smile. "Como el oro, como una puta."
The ways in which this new, deeper worry is handled differ widely by culture. Steven turns to his satellite phone and begins making inquiries into the San Antonios recent guests. Having seen the Western avenues are covered, Arturo takes a more spiritual approach and Jim and I are quickly dispatched to the market to round up a rather eclectic list of delicacies: coca leaves, llama fat, incense, beer, candy. An emergency offering to Mother Earth. Just in case the more modern remedies fail. Arturo assures me hell procure the necessary llama fetus himself.
This is a task I would usually find fascinating, except its been too long a day and, away from the river, Jim is tense and wary again. The few market stalls are being shut down, the discarded remains of the trading day littering the dirt paths between them. I hold Jims hand through the purchases, negotiating half-heartedly with one-handed gestures. To find beer we enter a dark hut whose door is festooned with sticks holding a red plastic bag tight like a stiff flag the Quechan equivalent of a neon bar sign. Jim balks a little at the damp, slightly fetid interior. I had tried to leave him with Steven, even going so far as to have his brother lock a restraining grip around his wrist, which only resulted in near-panicked writhing from Jim who had clearly decided where I went, he went.
With our handful of offerings, we meet Arturo again at the side of the lodge. He holds something small but solid in a fiber sack the promised fetal offering. Jim wrinkles his nose at some scent I, thankfully, cannot make out. He is not communicating. Has not signed or even so much as nodded his agreement since we started on our shopping excursion.
"Come," says Arturo, urging us toward a cluster of huts set off from the bend of the river.
It is growing dusky and, from somewhere, a generator coughs then settles into a mechanical growl. The hut he gestures us toward is lit dimly by the fire glowing in its center, the walls smoked to a deep, gloomy gray. The shaman is an elder, his gray hair long and wispy; his wife, stooped over her loom, is traditionally dressed. A basket, labeled "Tips" in several languages, greets us as we enter. Apparently this show is largely for the tourist trade.
Arturo and the man exchange words, the shaman not even glancing at us. Probably once youve seen one American tourist who wants blessings for a safe trip, youve seen them all. He might, in fact, have completed the whole shamanic offering, showering leaves and fat into the sparking fire without even so much as giving us a glance if Jim hadnt suddenly released the iron grip he was holding on my hand to go and kneel beside him.
I do not know the word Jim whispers: pawi, but his tone is pleading and he bows his head in a kind of supplication and the old man looks up, his wrinkled face folding into a look I dont know how to read. Dropping a few of the coca leaves into the fire, he brings both hands to rest on Jims head.
"Thultu uj. Cahuac"
Arturo translates the words automatically, though not clearly for my benefit as his gaze has not strayed from the shaman and Jim. "Ancient one. Sentinel."
The shaman fixes his gaze on me, his hands still covering Jims bowed head. There is no hope I can follow the torrent of Quechua that follows. As I stand silent through the tirade, Arturo flinches occasionally. I can only assume Im being chewed out for my failings, my self-flagellation such a daily occurrence that this untranslated tongue-lashing is almost amusing.
"Pusaj!" is finally lashed at me when its clear the entire point of the lecture has gone over my head. He repeats it, his tone disparaging, and I wince on general principles. "Pusaj!"
Thats when Jim rises in one smooth motion and steps between us, blocking the line of sight between me and the offended shaman. "Sonqo pharaqey," he whispers softly, his hand reaching back to wrap familiar fingers at the point of my pulse. "Sonqo pharaqey."
I step closer to my self-appointed protector and turn my head back toward Arturo. "What is he saying?"
"He says you have failed in your duty. That the Ancient One, the Sentinel, has been harmed by your inability to properly guide him. He says you do not deserve the title of pusaj."
"Tell him I dont understand what the title means, but that I agree I have failed." I move closer to the fire, hunkering down in the flickering light. Jim moves with me, sitting down, my wrist still trapped in his circling fingers.
"Pusaj it means leader," Arturo informs me, "or guide." He relays my reply to the shaman who has filled his hands with more coca leaves, spilling the vegetation on the packed dirt of the huts floor. The old man nods at the words, but his dark eyes are scanning the smooth, lance-shaped leaves,
He mumbles indecipherably as knurled fingers point out conjunctions of tips and stems, shaking his head at overlapping patterns of dark green. Jim is rocking now, rhythmically keeping some internal time or beat. The words the shaman speaks to me share the same cadence, as if he, too, is attuned the same spiritual metronome.
Arturo translates hesitantly, as though he is having trouble finding the right words to convey. "He says," there is a pause, "they will not both survive, that the time has passed." He pauses again. "He says you must hurry."
"Who will not survive?"
"They both " again Arturo struggles, "he says their blood calls to each other as one likened to another. I am sorry, I dont clearly understand."
My thoughts disturbingly rest again on the blonde and her companion, on the threatening feeling they evoke even in Steven.
"What do I need to do to protect Jim?"
To me, my questions seem clear, concise. I have worked long and hard to get the vitals of my chosen subject across as quickly and succinctly as possible. I am not used to language failing me, to concepts existing that cannot be expressed in syllables and punctuation marks.
When this is translated, the shaman reaches stiffened fingers toward the living binding of Jims grip. He covers Jims hand in his, the pads of his fingers brushing the skin of my arm. "Mayt'uy alma. Kedakuy." He repeats this last word several times, his grip tightening.
"Your souls are bound. You must stay together," supplies Arturo.
"I wouldnt leave him," I whisper.
In the space of a second this is translated and replied to, "The call will grow stronger. He is unprepared."
"He will not leave me," The strong, steady grip on my wrist gives substance to my assertion. To tear Jim from me when he does not want to go requires strength I cannot imagine the mysterious pair having.
The shaman, undeterred by my surety, takes a long narrow strip of cloth from his wife, a narrow belt she is weaving with the image of a frog, symbol of rain and growth. Not moving Jims hand, he weaves it under and over Jims clasp, tying it first around Jims wrist, then around mine. When he is done, he takes his knife and severs the woven strands, freeing us, but leaving our wrists twined with matching bracelets, their frayed ends exposed like twin wounds.
"He has done all he can," reports Arturo. "The journey is yours alone."
Jim examines the fabric wrapped around his wrist; his eyes are closed, his fingers read along the woven cloth like Braille.
"Can he " I hesitate, " Jim is having trouble communicating but he spoke to him." I gesture toward the shaman. "Can he ask Jim if hes hurting, if he needs," I verbally stumble, hating the helplessness this is revealing, " if he needs anything."
The old man, when told of my request, traces a reverent palm down the side of Jims face. A touch Jim remains stilled under, his eyes still closed. When the shaman murmurs in Quechua, Jim replies with the same two words he said before: Sonqo pharaqey.
The shaman turns back to his fire as if this self-evident. I look up at Arturo for a translation.
"He needs," our guide says, "your heart to beat."
As Steven takes Jims hand into his, his fingers brush the woven loop of cloth and he raises an eyebrow at me.
"What did you learn?" I distract him, not wanting to attempt to explain what happened in the smoky confines of the shamans hut. I feel the beat of my own pulse inside my head. It reverberates along the roadways of my veins and arteries. I feel it echoed in Jims gaze which hasnt left me since we bowed through the huts low door.
"They registered at the hotel as, get this John and Jane Smith. Paid in cash." Steven nods toward the wood lodge. "Same here."
"They still in there?" The concrete block office looks dark.
"They came out and took off with their guide to look at his boat."
I look down toward the river but see no sign of them. It has been too long a day and we are too far from Cascade for me to be playing police detective. Whatever they are after, they, like us, will have to until the dawn.
Steven seems a bit reluctant to let go of his observation post. I sometimes underestimate the protective streak running through all the Ellisons. But its this same protective streak that finally draws him away, Jims clear exhaustion driving us all toward the artificial lights of the lodge.
He shoots me serious glances as Jim uncharacteristically stumbles over his own feet. Both our hands shoot out to stabilize him. That same distant, glazed look that overtook him in the flicker of the shamans fire still hangs over his gaze.
It is, of course, Ellison dollars that exempt us from the shared quarters of most of the lodges guests. I wonder if the suspicious duo has likewise procured the rainforest equivalent of an upscale suite basically an isolated pair of bunks beneath mosquito netting. Jim rallies enough to silently examine our new quarters, though the faraway look never quite leaves his eyes.
Finally acclimated, he settles next to me on a bottom bunk, but he wont accept the powerbar thats subbing as the evening meal, wont be coaxed into accepting anything from the stash of American delicacies we brought, knowing the closer we could keep Jims experience to something he knew, the better. Steven finally sleeps. Jim breathes steadily, evenly, but I dont think hes sleeping. Even if I could lull myself into slumber, I fear the dreams that may meet me there.
We greet dawn red-eyed and weary. Wary, too, if the truth be told. Jim paces a rectangular path around the mussed bunks, refusing to eat. Steven and I pack, gathering our goods in silent, orderly fashion.
That Steven is refraining from demanding I take his brother back to civilization is a tribute to a trust I fear I may not deserve.
At the bottom of the lodges steps I look into the dark interior of the rainforest across the riverbank - the edge of the Incas terrible jungle. In its depths, if my research is right, we will find a small, stone temple, its trapezoidal doorway guarded by twin jaguars, its interior containing a complex stone channel that captures the bubbling of sacred black water. The real Kunil, the true place of sacred dreaming.
I think Jim is fasting, knowingly or unknowingly following the ancient dictates in preparation. Jim, alone, seems more sure here. I watch him move faster toward the river, leaving us both steps behind. Driven. Drawn.
He stops midway, circling a small path in the dirt. His mouth again opens. He scents something, nostrils flaring, and his head whips in the direction of the rivers bend. I somehow do not have to look to know that, if I did, I would see the blonde.
Even with the seemingly astronomical chance that two peoples genetics would combine to create a Sentinel, with a population of over six billion, it is unlikely that Jim is the only Sentinel alive today. If Jim is drawn here, then should another Sentinel exist, he or she also would feel the pull of the temple of dark waters.
That this call might also be a mating cry
Sensing the skip of my heart, Jim moves back to my side, his hand seeking the point of my pulse.
"Sonqo pharaqey," he whispers, eyes meeting mine in a kind of desperate searching.
Steven wraps a hand around my other arm, a silent questioning.
"It means heartbeat," I say, nodding assurance at Jim. "Hes speaking Quechua."
Steven opens his mouth but then shuts it again, finally nodding some kind of acceptance in the face of the deep impossibility of Jim speaking a language hes never been physically exposed to.
As far as Steven and I can tell, we are alone in our trek up the Madre Dios. If John and Jane (as good a thing to call them as any) are ahead of us there is no sign available to our non-enhanced senses.
Gliding along clay banks under the South American sky, we might as well be alone in a primordial world. I find Im keeping the GPS locator in my hand just to reassure myself that somewhere above me satellites continue to triangulate my position with man-made, computerized precision.
Jim is not alone in his silence. Neither Steven nor Arturo has said much of anything since we pushed off of the muddy banks. There is only the call of the riverside birds, the muted purr of the outboard in the water.
It is the kind of silence that gives you time and space to think.
It would be nice if my thoughts were not mainly uncharacteristic regrets that I talked Steven out of bringing a weapon.
We land near another nameless bend in the river, the deep shadows of the retreating sun blanketing the muddied water. There is a feeling of quickening, of ownership of the jungle in transfer: the relative safety of the day giving way to the darker, more frenetic pace of the night.
Camp is made quickly, a fire lit. We hunker around it, though Jim keeps a kind of watch, his back to the illumination, scanning the jungle. The lack of sleep from the night before catches up with me, the air seems thick and distorted and I keep blinking at the afterimages of the crackling flames. As I jerk myself back to semi-alertness, I feel Jim moving closer to me. His arm rubs against mine. No words are exchanged between us, but I know what is being offered: that Jim will watch over me on this night as I have watched over him in so many dawn hours.
Reaching up, I put my fingers lightly under his chin, turning his face so I can see his gaze in the flickering firelight. I am overwhelmed by the calm control I see there. In this world where there are no words or need for them, no civilized confusion of crowds and reverberating noise, Jims senses are free to reach as far and as deep as he needs.
I cannot imagine what this reassurance must have meant to early tribes whose settlements dotted this landscape. How Jim would have been a gift from the gods, perhaps even an avatar an incarnation of a protective deity made flesh and bone. I reach out to touch his cheek and he leans into the caress, momentarily closing his eyes.
Then he is alert again, his gaze sharpening to scan the dark interior of the wooded land surrounding us.
And I am curling in my blanket by the fire, yielding to the persuasion built by the lifetimes of my ancestors into the marrow of my bones.
In rare moments, the discrete sensations could blend into a whole a single integrated instant of sight and sound and touch.
Like his whole being breathed and felt, saw and heard, as one.
There was the distinctive murmur of the precious heartbeat, the soft sighing of Stevies sleeping breaths, even the lifebeats of the nameless other who traveled with them. The dirt was hard and cool and smelled of the rich scents of decay. The flowing water shushed and lapped. Chiton wings produced an endless buzz in the night. Padded feet stepped carefully through fallen leaves.
Jim held tenaciously to the whole, unwilling to release even his tentative hold on the experience which threatened to fragment with each sensation added or subtracted by the night.
Plop. A single leaf dropped from the heights of the canopy to the barren floor.
Snap. Prey was caught in pointed claws, dismembered in the crush of pointed teeth.
From the direction of the fire, the precious heartbeat rose and fell. There were soft, snuffling movements against the confines of the sleeping bag.
Jim closed his eyes.
A frown just began to form, a thin line between the eyes, when the fog of white noise rolled inward, contracting the space of sensation into a tighter and tighter circle. The jungle blanketed in a dampening, encroaching whiteness.
But he could still hear the heartbeat, could still hear Stevies sleeping breaths. So he settled deeper, concentrating on the call of the dream.
He did not hear the soft whoosh of the released dart. Did not even register the sharp stab of it as it pierced the tender skin of his neck.
When I dream, its of water and warmth and darkness. I free float, the inhabitant of some natural sensory deprivation tank. Child of a cosmic womb. Then, my eyes acclimated, there appear pinpoints of light, as if someone has pricked the velvet cloth of the night above me and slowly the dreamworld resolves itself.
In the moonlit circle of the clearing, the thin layer of topsoil has been swept free of the debris that normally feeds its fragile, fertile depths, leaving a smooth, barren patch. Around me, the jungle breathes in short, huffing respirations and the soft falling of leaves. The pale beams of blue-tinted moonlight catch in the leafy depths and are reflected back by the bright carpet of the tapetum lucidum in the watching, nocturnal eyes.
No jaguars of any coat color.
Just me and, when Ive turned a full circle and am back to where I started, what appears to be a raven, its black body about the size of a hawk. Bigger when it fluffs its slightly pointed, iridescent feathers before settling to consider me with one sparkling dark eye.
I voice the one thought that pops into my mind. "You do know South America is the only continent that has no crows?"
The head makes a quick, jerky series of tilts as the bird tries to perfect its view.
"And before you inform me that youre a raven and not a crow, you are a member of the genus Corvus and, therefore, a member of the crow family."
Exactly why Im explaining this, I have no idea. In response, the thick, black beak is lowered to push at a grain of corn resting on the thin soil.
Not just one grain, I notice as I squat for a better view. I draw my finger above the dotted line formed by the kernels. Fifteen of them. Plus the four grains heaped together at the side. I pick one up, turning it in my fingers to reveal the other side is burned to a shimmering black.
I meet the steady gaze of the shining, black eye. "Im here to play Bul?"
The feathered head merely twists to point the beak in the direction of a small pile of what, at first, I take to be small pebbles. When I take one, pincering it between my thumb and index finger, I see it is a small fetish a minutely and intricately carved effigy of a standing jaguar.
"Look, if this is a test, I have to tell you I was expecting something more along the lines of the six tests of Xibalba. Not," I hastily amend, "that this isnt good." A quick turn at the Mayan game of chance decidedly beats six nights in the house of Xibalba with the threat of execution looming if you fail to complete your tasks. The Iords of Xibalba were basically the masters of all the nastier ways to die: swelling, starvation, blood loss, decapitation. I should probably really shut up now, while Im ahead.
Well, if I am ahead the life and death symbolism of games was literal for the Olmecs and Mayans and Aztecs.
The birds gaze is still set flatly on me.
"Okay, Bul. My five black jaguars against your five " I put one of the tiny fetishes at the end of the row of corn. Fifteen kernels away, a similar carving in yellow-flecked stone appears, " spotted jaguars."
Bul, played by two, is not a difficult game: shorter and easier to follow than the Aztecs 52-squared Patolli. The corn, burnished to a black shine on one side, provides four simple dice, a move being made for each oxidized side landing upward. Five moves if all four kernels turn up blank. When a game piece reaches the opposite end of the board, it re-enters at the end where it started, the game board circular, only appearing linear in its earthbound representation. The point of the whole thing being to land on a space already occupied by your opponent so his warrior may be captured: dragged to your side of the board and marked as sacrificed.
In my cupped hand the grains of corn rattle, sounding dry and brittle.
I move the carved stone four places toward the center and roll again as is the rule on the first roll.
Five more moves. I am past midway and breach my opponents side.
With a roll accomplished with nothing more than a ravenly caw, he meets me four spaces in. The stone jaguars face each other across a single empty space.
With a second roll: two burnished, two blank, I am captured. The black effigy kneels before the jaguar of flecked stone before disappearing.
I place a second jaguar at the boards end and am taken again on the ravens fourth tossed of the dice. Again I place an effigy at the end of the row of grains. And, again, I am taken. Then, finally, my last piece captures the first of the spotted stones. Then another kneels. Then another. Once more we trade pieces before our last two tokens
face each other across the kernels.
Two burnished. Two blank. Four blank.
The raven rolls: Four blank; two burnished.
And we face each other again.
We pass, standing side by side.
Time stretches out, becomes unimportant. The blue-tinted light never changes. The jungle breathes and clicks around us: the dry, brittle sound of the corn dice; the short, sharp movements of the black-winged bird.
Once more my roll brings us to face each other across the distance of a single space.
The raven rolls: two black, two blank.
The ravens eyes are dark in victory. I make my final move, the onyx carving transforming into a posture of supplication. From somewhere in the hidden depths of the foliage comes a ragged-edged snarl, low and vibrating.
As if I feel the actual oscillations of it against my skin, I start awake to the dampness of the rivers edge, swiveling my head to pick out the empty sleeping bag.
"Jim?" The rough whisper sounds discordant and loud even to my ears. "Jim!"
Would he have left the campsite, succumbing to the obvious lure the jungle held on him? Would he have left me?
"Jim?" I take a few steps in no particular direction. "Jim!"
We search as far as we can in the poor glow of the lanterns; realistically, there is little we can do until dawn. Steven is the first to return to the light of the campfire, where he sits, head in hands. It is a while before I can bring myself to join him. The jungle may be impenetrable, but I am convinced there has to be something that links Jim to me and me to Jim, something that gave me guidance in the concrete landscape of the Cascade docks.
But at this moment I feel nothing but silence.
And I thought I knew how to panic over the usual modern worries. The usual existential anxiety is nothing compared to this chilling fear if Jim is scared, is hurt, is in danger because I let my guard down, because I left Jim on his own.
Steven looks up, blue eyes drawn in worry. Awash in the firelight, Arturo looks from one of us to the other, awaiting guidance. He has stopped me at the edge of the jungle swearing fretfully that he has never lost a churiykuna his awareness of our behavior toward Jim, of the charge of the shaman, causing him to refer to him as a child a son.
"Its them," says Steven flatly.
"You think he went with them? Why would he "
I think of the blondes gaze from the flowered courtyard, how Jim drew me back into the shadows.
"go willingly?" Steven finishes. "I dont pretend to understand exactly what my brother is, but I know that he wouldnt leave," Stevens eyes gleam with both pride and fear, "he wouldnt leave you."
The warmth I feel from this statement is brief.
If Jim did not wander -- then he is incapacitated maybe deliberately zoned, maybe injured. Either way, if he is at the mercy of someone who knows the inner workings of a Sentinel. I think of the woman and the blank look in her eyes on the bus, the man always speaking in her ear, leading her, guiding her.
We no, I I brought Jim here seeking healing.
And instead I have found fear.
Drone of the outboard. Retreating ripples of water.
In the outward push, the fog of white noise surrounds him, blankets the world in a muted haze.
Unfamiliar hands press him back and he arches away. More hands join them. Disparate sensations assail him. Cool press of his arm against the metal sides of the boat. Hot grasps of fingers, each a burning line against his skin. Grating cacophony of voices. His head is held over the murky, green rush of the river: watery, living scents invading his nose. His own voice, when he finds it, is too loud, too rough and rasping. "Sonqo pharaqey."
Cloth -- rough and sweet-smelling -- is held over his nose, his mouth.
With no alternatives, we go on, following the only heading we have, fueled by the presumption that we are, indeed, seeking the same goal. Our silence, this time, not for Jims benefit, but for our own. My hands shake where they grasp the sides of the boat. Beyond the implied custodianship of Jim that the Ellisons have graced me with, beyond my responsibility for his presence, for his innocence -- it as if someone has sheared away part of my soul and I tremble with the chill of shock and loss.
Steven notices this and mouths concerns at me. In response I shake my head, not willing, either, to breach the silence of the jungle.
At yet another unremarkable turn in the Madre we breach the thin sandy soil and leave the canoe behind, setting out on foot, our path shaded by the upper story of green. I stumble along behind Steven, my eyes fixed on his sweat-stained back.
Legend has it that the Incas, trying to avoid the savage, untamed Antis said to occupy this region, took to trekking north from Qosqo over glaciated mountains, moving across the lowlands and forging the rapids at the Urubamba just to avoid them.
The spot we move toward, the X on my mental map, is described in de Acunas writings as near the formal meeting place between the Incas and this wild Manu tribe. The "Place of Truth" on the shores of a lake of black water, its buildings guarded by an immortal Amazonian creature who will weigh the balance of your soul before you are allowed to pass.
The question of Jims soul has never been in doubt. And, now, I also place my faith in some sort of cosmic destiny -- that we have been directed to this place, been led here by forces past my limited understanding.
It is not much.
But it is the only thing I have.
Hearing returns first.
Grating cacophony of unfamiliar voices.
Rough prod of unfamiliar fingers.
He sinks beneath the waves.
The jungle is dusky, dimming as the sun slips below the level of the dense cover of vegetation, yet we plod on, none of us wanting to quit. According to Arturo, we are nearly there. If so, we trod on sacred land and I find myself looking about for the Temples guardian of old.
But the only guardian we find is the companion of the blonde -- with a semi-automatic rifle in his hands. He has probably had us in his infrared sights for some time.
His greeting, already easily predicted by the point of the weapon, is, "You go no further."
Behind him rises a single building of mortarless Incan stone, flat-roofed and squat. The twin jaguars that further guard its trapezoidal door with stony silent snarls wear crowns of jungle vine.
"Dont you feel it?"
The only thing I feel is my heart careening about in my chest.
"Where," I annunciate each word with crystal clarity, "is Jim?"
His head jerks slightly backward toward the darkened maw of the temple door, the gun likewise jerking in a less-than-friendly manner when I take a step forward. I focus on the circle of metal of the weapons tip, the small, dark ring of the guns barrel. The mans hands on the grip of the stock and the dangerously triggered finger are whitened at the knuckles and tip.
"Who are you?"
The weapon doesnt waver, but the mans eyes and tone take on a feral amusement. "In lakech."
I am another you.
I palm a sweaty hand over my open mouth, the breath on my skin hotter and moister than the jungle air. Steven and Arturo shift uncomfortably behind me but they seem to be retreating, the jungle darkening. The temple takes on a kind of glow, a familiar bluish nimbus. The vine-wrapped jaguars shake themselves free of their crowns of greenery, their stone jaws become gracile, frozen flanks morphing with huffing breaths into shifting, iridescent black and rosette-spots of tawny gold.
Another flank, of black-tipped silver, flashes at the corner of my sight, comes to press, panting, against the calf of my leg. The wolfs snarl, a vibrating vocalization, draws my gaze downward to the object of its ire. A shining black eye returns my stare. The feathered head is cocked, the black beak curved in an unfriendly grin. The wolf crouches a bit on tense haunches, tail held stiffly level with its spine.
Scraping its beak in the poor soil, the raven uncovers four grains of corn, head again cocking up in my direction and, in response to this provocation, the wolf leaps, is met by a flurry of black wings. Beak and talon meet with teeth and claw, the bird diving for vulnerable blue eyes, the wolf nipping at fragile wings, their battle a luminous whirl of black and silver-gray.
Displaying lithe grace, the spotted jaguar jumps from the stone pedestal, long tail swishing as she watches the furious proceedings through round pupils. An extended paw swats at the wolf as it reels within striking distance. From the other perch, the black jaguar watches her movements, the delicately pink interior of his mouth revealed as he breathes in her scent. He stands on thickly muscled legs, dispatching his remaining green bonds with a surprisingly dog-like shake before bounding down on the ground, the commotion of raven and wolf unattended. A soft mewl comes from the ebon throat, almost a supplication, a plea.
My move toward them is aborted, my feet forcibly grounded. My voice silenced. I can only watch the vision play out in front of me, feel the brush of the furious wings, hear the snap of white teeth. The soft mewls continue and the paler jaguar roars her call back, circling the dark, compact body before folding spotted limbs, pressing her belly to the ground. Dark legs encircle her, the weight of his body rests on her back and he positions himself, hind limbs arching.
The wolf leaps and snaps, the quick duck of the silver head evading the reach of the heavy beak. Move and countermove form a dangerous dance. Parry. Thrust. The black-winged bird arcs itself aloft, folds its wings and dives, seeking blood with the dagger of its beak. It is a fatal error. The falling form, dark and compact, is taken in a sharp snap of gleaming white, suffocated by the press of jaws meant to render thicker bones. The body drops, a heap of limp, disheveled feathers and the dusky jungle crashes back in on me. Humid air is heavy in my heaving lungs. Lying where a second before lay only the carcass of the bird, is the body of the Temples self-appointed guardian. Steven is beside me in an instant, kneeling, sure hands retrieving the weapon from the downed mans waxen fingers. He touches the neck beneath the jaw and finding nothing, presses deeper, only to shake his head.
Passing through the trapezoid archway, I am surrounded, covered in a darkness too complete to be natural. A darkness meant for Sentinel eyes. The familiar impermeable dark of the cave, the place of dreaming. In my futile spin to recover the dusky jungle that should be visible through the open door, my flailing hand hits the slimy, dank stone of the channel.
The sound of running water is overlaid by the frantic huffs of breath I recognize as Jims. The panicked respiration overlaid by a repeated whisper of Quechua.
"Mana!" My command to stop is in the same tongue. The words unbidden, unshaped. My thoughts in neither English nor Quechua. Perhaps this is how Jim senses nonverbally. Sudden flashes of intuition in which I simply know. The splashing grows louder and I follow it sightlessly, my path born of some new inerrancy, as if I have gained Jims sensitivities. Growing accustomed to the darkness, my eyes begin to make out patches of murky gray in the shadows.
"Munaywanki-ma!" The blondes declaration echoes desperately in rough tones. Nude, her body is feline-like in the grayness. Her skin is luminously pale in the waters sheen. Multisided, unmortared, the flat stones dam the shallow channel of dark water into a shallow pool. Lean legs straddle a body lying recumbent, floating on the calf-deep water.
His eyes are closed, his arms float limply, but a whimper escapes from his clenched mouth as the blond goes to her knees, her hands stroking him, positioning his hips. She settles herself over him
My own voice is choked and raspy in its protest. "Mana! Sayachiy-ma!"
That this is neither consensual nor painless is apparent in the grimace that greets her movements.
My lunge is blocked, the sudden pale halo of the spotted jaguar lighting the murky interior. Jims cry choked and low whips my head around and, in that moment, the jaguar springs toward me. And is met, mid-air, by the snap of silver jaws.
In the narrow confines, the tumbling bodies block my path and I scramble over the blocks of diorite and forge the black water. To be thin and small-boned, the blonde is incredibly strong. Splashing from the pool, spurred by the strength of the mad, her strike sends me backwards, my head hitting the stone blocks, the force dazing me. Pale fingers wrap around my throat and push me backwards, under the shallow water. My hands slip futilely on watery flesh and eventually, in rebellion against the airlessness, my lungs force me to gasp. Water fills my mouth, seeps into my burning lungs.
My last conscious thought is the bleak knowledge of my utter failure.
I wake wet and cold and uncomfortably naked, lying in a patch of spiny-stemmed Ilaulli, the trumpet-shaped flowers a startling pink in the blue light. Rolling gingerly out of the painful protection of the thorned jungle greenery, Im shivering. So far, the afterlife, if this is what it is, is disappointingly tepid and damp.
The black jaguar lies on his side, weakly huffing a soft greeting. His flank is striped with crusted blood and when I lay a hand on the square jaw it comes back wet with pink froth.
I press my face to the top of the dark head.
"Im so sorry, Jim. So sorry."
There is a weak rumble in reply and my wrist is rasped with a warm tongue. At this frail comfort, my tears spill freely.
I lift my head to meet a pair of familiar eyes.
He is strong and solid, squatting down next to me. A hand palms my cheek. His eyes are a deep, searching blue.
"The time has past."
"I know, Jim. I failed."
His touch leaves my skin, his hands signing so fluidly that it is past my understanding, past any skill level Jim ever accomplished. "You gave me the words," he translates. "You are my voice."
But beneath my hands, the big cat is dying. The proud head hangs heavy, the flanks pant in shallow gasps.
If Jim has words, then mine have failed me. I can only whisper the litany of my apology. Can only allow myself to be wordlessly soothed in the press of Jims arms. How he can feel so strong and alive when, beside me, his spirit is ebbing
"Hes dying," I mouth, my words having no volume.
"He is alone," observes Jim quietly, holding me even tighter. "He waits as I did. He has waited just as long. Longer, for the wolf is wary."
Jim reaches and gingerly parts the short hair of the jaguars ruff, revealing a woven cord, ancient and raveling. The shorn ends softened by age. His fingers ruffle the softness, his eyes even here lose some of their sharpness as his senses converge inward.
"Pay hamuyn," he says softly, nodding toward the jungle interior. "He comes."
Limping, gashed, silver fur tipped in red, the wolf moves hesitantly in painful steps, circling in an ever tighter spiral. In recognition the cat huffs weakly, struggling to rise and meet him, failing as formerly powerful legs fold inward. At the sight, the wolf gives a small, soft, cry, coming to nose at the now-gaping mouth, small, whining vocalizations accompany gentle swipes of the pink tongue.
"Too late," I whisper in empathy.
"It is not too late." He nods toward a dappled patch of shaded soil, making out easily what my eyes only see after acclimating. The spotted jaguar, too, lays grievously wounded, eyes dulled and lifeless. A similar woven strip hangs loose from her neck, the knot unbound.
At our side, the wolf is nudging the jaguar, silver head beneath the blood-stained belly, pushing upward until the cat stands on trembling legs. Barking a soft dog-like yip, he backs up, still facing the cat, vocalizing almost musically as the cat takes a mirror step backwards.
Jim covers my hand in both of his, our braceleted wrists crossing. I know he feels my heartbeat and I feel the strength of his hand in mine, resilient and steady.
Still staggering, the jaguar manages a few more shaky steps, distancing itself from the wolf. I dont understand this separation and turn to look at Jim, but he merely gazes forward as if waiting. Then, with a leap that belies its injuries, the cat springs, the wolf leaping to meet him and, for a moment, they appear posed mid-air, blue light arcing between them until they meet in a brilliant flash of white-blue and are
And I am still damp and cold, but this time surrounded by the dim recesses of the temple. The drowning sensation in my lungs instinctively doubles me in body shaking coughs. Arms fight to hold me upright as I try to twist on the algae-slicked paving stones.
Then I am face-to-face with deep blue eyes and one of the very solid and very real hands restraining me releases to palm down the side of my face.
"Sonqo pharaqey," murmurs Jim.
"God, Jim, are you all right?"
A distraught Steven kneels beside us, a hand on each of our shoulders. "Blair?" He nods toward the sprawled body a few feet beyond, where Arturo kneels, his fingertip search for life resulting in a shake of his head in the dimness. Stevens gaze falls on his brothers hands.
Practical evidence of a fight that was far from spiritual.
Jims knuckles are bruised and bloody, there is a bleeding cut at his temple and one on his shoulder, but his eyes are clear. He seems with us as we haul him to his feet, anxious to get him out of the stone chamber. Outside, he lets me dry him off, lets me coax him into a shirt and pants. He is still barefoot. Extra boots are not something we packed and neither mine nor Stevens will fit him.
When given the chance, when not being examined or forced into dry clothing, he looks deeply into my eyes and says my name as if he cant believe Im really there. A confusion I second.
With hands and a short-handled shovel much too small for the job, by the light of a campfire, Arturo and Steven begin to dig graves for the bodies while Jim and I rest with our backs to the base of an available tree. I shut my eyes, battling the coughs that come in waves, spasmed by my bodys attempt to rid itself of the black water that has seeped into my lungs.
When my last waking memory was of the watery visage of the blonde, that I somehow came out of this still breathing seems just another trick of the ever more capricious cosmos. Eyes still closed, I reach a hand out to make sure that Jim still sits beside me, warm and solid.
He does, and, satisfied, I relax into a dreamless sleep.
I wake with my chin on my chest, the adrenaline rush long gone, aches now furiously telegraphed from various parts of my body: my bruised throat and arms, a knee that feels like its twisted, the swollen knot on the back of my head. Most ominous is the strained, congested feeling of my lungs, the painful coughs that still resonate through my ribcage.
Jim is deep in equally exhausted sleep, pale except where pink splotches his cheeks as if he has the fever to match the resonant hacking in my chest. Steven has patched him up, sometime in my slumber, butterfly-clipping the cuts on his temple and shoulder. Im surprised my coughing hasnt woken him and when I put a finger to the point of his pulse, the beat is a little slow. Worried this is some kind of zone, I tap his cheek lightly but his eyes open, glazed and distant.
He whispers the now familiar Quechan phrase and I take his hand, wrap it around my wrist. "Its okay; Im here, Jim."
At least half of my statement is true. As to whether anything will ever again be okay is much shakier ground.
Steven, a shade whiter, too, than Ive ever seen him, comes to lean over us both. Dawn has come, graying the patches of sky that can be seen between the leaves, but the sun has no chance of penetrating the leafy covering for a least a few more hours.
"Arturo wants to leave. He keeps crossing himself and muttering in Quechua."
"I dont think the ritual is finished." Besides whatever esoteric academic knowledge Ive gained over the years regarding the process of shamanic ritual, there is, more simply, the intense feeling of incompletion. "There should be more."
This inarticulate explanation gets the reception it deserves. "Blair, theyre dead."
"I know." I struggle to my feet, Jim quickly following, neither of us exactly steady.
"The man, he just--" Stevens arms gesture helplessly, "he just dropped. And the woman " This time he trails off, closing his eyes.
"She would have killed me, Steven." I find myself tightening a reassuring grip on his shoulder. "She would have killed me."
Whether hes asking for her motives or for how his gentle brother could have taken a life, any life, he must find answer enough in the grip Jim has again on my wrist.
"Ill talk to Arturo."
It wont be alone, though, as Jim has no intention of me being out of grasping distance.
Our guide, weary and sweat-soaked, leans against the trunk of a cedar, smoking one of his hand-rolled cigarettes in nervous plumes of gray. He looks at me with a kind of wary exhaustion this trip having been way more than he bargained for -- before nodding his head in Jims direction.
"They say the demons of Supay come in many forms."
Despite his European education, years of local superstition has apparently provoked a kind of fight-or-flight response
I rest my hand on my hips, bending slightly forward to ease the strain on my waterlogged lungs and Jims hand moves to my back, palming a comforting circular massage over the spot where the worst of the discomfort lies. I imagine he can hear the straining of my alveoli, knows somehow where the congestion sits most heavily.
"Theyre not demons." The assertion causes me to lose my breath and I cough again, reawakening the dulled ache that Jim had just settled. "The woman was like Jim, a Cahuac, a Sentinel, but from a world that now has no place for them. This is their place. It calls to them."
Scanning the surrounding jungle, Arturo takes another drag off his pucho. "It does not call to me. Manchachimanchi." At my confused frown he translates, "Such things are to be feared."
A comment I can easily accept, for you can feel the dark press of the history of this place, sense the ghosts of tribes long dead still haunting the temple stones.
"Look, Im sorry, but we cant leave yet. Were not done here."
His dark-eyed gaze settles on me. "It calls to you as well."
This admission, one Ive fought against making, merely evokes a weary laugh. "It is Incacha who should be here, not me."
I roll the Quechan name along my tongue. "Incacha?"
"The old shaman." Arturo reaches out and flicks a finger at the woven strip still bound around my wrist.
"Thultu uj. Paq'o," says Jim, bowing his head in respect.
Arturo responds in equally indecipherable Quechua, then flicks the butt of his cigarette carelessly onto the jungle floor. "My father was right, I should have stayed in Copenhagen. Ill wait until the morning, but you should tell the gods to hurry."
Right. Like theyll listen to me.
Jim will take neither water nor food. He speaks only in his adopted native tongue, prowling the outer walls of the temple. From the way he tilts his head, following things unheard by the rest of us, the way he stops every so often and stares into the jungles recesses, I know his senses must be singing.
Steven watches his brothers elegant, athletic strides. He has, several hours ago, given up pressing questions that are answered only in a language he does not understand, has given up his attempts to halt the sentry-like pacing.
I roll my head, trying to ease the tightening strain on my neck, only to gasp as I reawaken the pulsing pain of the swelling along my skull. Alerted, Jim comes to kneel before me, sure fingers running through the tangled strands of my hair, circling the heated swelling, easing the pain. Psychic Naprosyn. I begin, almost hysterically, to wonder if Jim is capable of psychic surgery, if Sentinels could do what your average local witchdoctor only fakes with palmed chicken livers. Such is the state of my possibly concussed mind.
After noon, Jim begins tracking the path of the sun, lifting his head every few minutes to triangulate its distance from some internal reference point. At some precise moment, no different to Steven or me than the moments just before or just after, he bows in the dirt in front of the open door and draws a spiral, bisecting its tight curves with a fingertip in the soil. Radiating from it, he etches a line around the width and breadth of the temple.
As Steven and Arturo dont seem at all concerned with the black jaguar striding calmly out of the jungle, I can pretty much assume this is a cat of the spiritual variety.
The cat walks the line Jim has just scratched into the temples hallowed ground, stopping occasionally to sniff at the hard-packed dirt, the huff that follows bringing up small clouds of soil particles. For the most part, the cats wounds are healed, the few raw places left correspond to the cuts on Jims own body: shallow lacerations on the head and one on the muscular shoulder.
The jaguar raises its head suddenly from its examination of the forest floor, fixes blue eyes on a point somewhere past my left shoulder.
I feel the wolf. Feel the strength of striding four-legged. Feel the heightened sight and sound. Breathe in the rich decay of the jungle and its cycle of life. The pungency of birth and death and the days lived between.
I marvel in the chance to share in Jims gifts, to sense this interconnectedness with such startling clarity. To know what Jim is capable of when not overloaded beyond his tolerance by the artificial world that the West spent the last two thousand years building.
He is bowed again before the door, his neck offered, pale and vulnerable. The striking fragility which we all seem burdened with here is magnified by the approach of the jaguar -- my body recognizing, even if my mind knows better, the predatory nature at the heart of the wild. The big cat stops to sniff at the pale curve of the exposed flesh that covers the narrowing vertebrae of his spine, an examination under which Jim remains perfectly still. I am also frozen, both frightened and entranced by Jims ultimate trust. He reaches back and scratches the big cats ears, and like a wildly overgrown kitten, the jaguar gives a rumbling purr, rubbing his chin against Jims hair: an enticingly familiar, friendly gesture that seems out of place in the formal ritual Jim has seemed to be enacting.
With a final encouraging head-butt, the cat trots into the temple. Jim rises smoothly and follows. In a half-run, I lurch after him. Not that I want to go back in there, but Im not under any circumstances going to let Jim do whatever this is alone.
Just inside the door, I come to an abrupt halt, the interior of the temple, now lightened by the reflective waters, not the dark, foreboding space it was before. Light ripples alive in cresting waves. Dappling. Ebbing. Merging into overlapping shards of brightness. Jim strips matter-of-factly, leaving a chain of discarded clothing across the tiles, stepping over the stone walls of the canal and sinking back into the shallow depths of the nearest pool. He closes his eyes, his expression serene.
I suppose I was expecting guidance. Expecting something to tell me what to do, hoping for a kind of cosmic Sentinel Temple instruction manual, but there is only the jaguar standing guard before the pool. When I get too close, he produces a warning growl. Clearly, this is Jims experience, not mine. I think about the blondes companion standing guard outside. Perhaps my role in this is merely to guide, to provide the stability needed to allow Jim to access his gifts. Maybe, aware of my skepticism, the universe only lets me glimpse the whole under duress.
No heat. No cold. No sound. No light. No scent or taste.
Slowly, in this absence, Jim became aware of a pulse, a soft background rhythm. The familiar whooshing flow of his blood, the contraction of his heart, the sighing intake and expiration of his lungs.
Still there was no heat, no cold, no light.
Only the pulse.
And then another beat, entwining with his. Familiar respirations sighing in tandem.
And then the light seeped translucently through the thin, flesh-tinged lids of his eyes, the patterns ebbing and retreating, reflection of the movement of the waters. Jim moved his hand through the liquid nothingness and the light rippled against his closed eyes. He breathed deeper taking the temperate air in slowly, recognizing variations in the flow of its slight currents. The relative warmth of the exhalations. The faint trace of coolness against the exposed skin of his face.
Attending to the sensations one by one, he examined them and put them away.
He remembered this.
This was control.
Jims eyes blink open, then blink again at the pattern of light rippled across the ceiling. A nudge on the back of my knee from a wolfish black nose is apparently my permission to finally near the pool where Jim floats, arms slightly spread away from his body, legs slightly parted. He turns his head, blue eyes distant, but not blanked as they would be in a zone. One of his hands closes, almost experimentally, as if he can catch and hold the living water.
"Jim?" The jaguar exchanges another friendly forehead-butt this one with the wolf, who promptly hunkers down at his feet, pink tongue lolling in a yawn as if he can now rest from a job well done. I am feeling less exuberant. "Hey." I lightly touch the hand still trying to sift the water.
Having gotten his attention, I urge him up, get his feet under him. Haul him upright to step over the stone barrier then sit him down on the same blocks of diorite. Bending down beside him, I turn his face toward me.
"Hey, you okay?"
His right hand raises to point at his chest then he touches thumb to forehead.
"You remember what?"
Reaching out, he palms down the side of my cheek before going on to gently touch an outer corner of my eye, making the sign for "V" and pulling away. /See./ A light touch to my ear follows. /Hear./ Then a finger ghosts along the outline of my lips, briefly parting them. /Taste./
He briefly draws his hand back to his own chest, retouches his forehead.
Two days later, we straggle back into Atalaya: dirty, exhausted, looking like Steven notes with ill-timed humor something the cat dragged in. Ive spent most of the long boat ride hunched over, easing the sharp pains of the coughing fits, Jim solicitously wrapping his hands around the strained muscles of my sides.
When the canoe bumps to a stop, grounding its nose on the sandy-soiled shore, the impact jars me to half wakefulness. I blink, bleary-eyed, at the gaggle of children who run up to greet us, but am too far gone to do more than shudder from the fevers chill. Steven, kneeling down, tries to assess the chance Im going to make it to my feet but Jim is way ahead of him. I push weakly at the arms that encircle me but another round of coughing, this one bringing up heavy, thick secretions, leaves me speechless and gasping. I feel myself lifted, balanced competently in Jims arms, my head knocks against the solid stability of his shoulder.
Following Steven, he carries me up the hill.
My wavering consciousness barely registers our entrance into the cinderblock building or the sheet-covered bed Im lowered into, but the cool ease of the oxygen suddenly pumped through the plastic mask someone holds over my face is soothing. A mix of Quechua and Spanish floats untranslated around me. A quick, sharp stab at the skin of my inner elbow is enough to bring me momentarily to dim awareness again but even this fails to muster enough resistance to the waiting dark and I am engulfed.
My abused throat, hoarse from the paroxysms of coughing, is still enough to get Jims attention.
His eyes are weary but calm. He still wears the same sweat-stained chambray shirt that belongs to this brother. The fingers that clasp mine are dry and rough, the now worn woven strip is still tied around his wrist, its frayed ends matted twists. Pulling up my own hand, Im surprised to see Im still in possession of my own bracelet.
"Usted es despierto."
I nod at the white-coated medic that comes to stand behind Jim. Oh yeah, definitely awake.
"¿Cómo usted se siente?"
Licking my cracked lips I consider the question a second. Lungs are still working, albeit a little sluggishly. I stretch out stiff fingers, testing. Wiggle my toes. Give a brief thought to sitting up until my stomach muscles make it known they do not approve of the idea at all.
"Better," I finally answer. "I feel better." There is light streaming in through the window.
The medic smiles, trying out his heavily accented English. "Youve been here two days." He puts a hand on Jims shoulder. "And so has your companion. He has been most uneager to leave your side."
I stretch out fingers which Jim takes with a careful lightness. "You okay, Jim?"
His response is a brief massage of his thumb along the back of my hand.
"Not much of a talker, your friend," observes the medical man.
But thats just because he doesnt speak "Jim". The deep blue gaze that meets mine is serious in its reassurance, doing all the speaking I could possibly want.
"But he makes himself quite clear," the medico concedes, nodding toward the dirty bracelet circling my arm. "He was quite insistent that we not remove the khuya."
It seems a stretch to refer to the knot of dirty fabric as an amulet, but it doesnt escape my notice that he switches to from Spanish to Quechua in order to describe the band. I dont know quite what to make of the amalgam of old and new South American tongues that have floated through my dreams for months. Dont know if Ive found the historical font of South American lingual cross-pollination. Dont know if Id care if I had. Curious, I raise up just enough to scan the tiles of the floor. "No big kitty?"
Not bothering to look around, Jim gestures his free hand to his head and his heart.
I lay back against the pillows with a smile. I think this is where we started me getting metaphysical and Jim getting concrete.
Im released only after a thorough going-over from both the local doctor and Jim. Jims exam being no less intense than the more official one: pads of fingers linger over the bend of my elbow, bruised and tender from the IV site; they dance with incredible care over the hard swollen knot on my head; he presses a palm against my chest, judging the health of my lungs. The medico looks on in bemusement, but Steven seems to realize how serious, how necessary to Jim this examination is and he allows his brother all the touch-time he needs, only cajoling him up when Jim finally rests his hands on the rough sheet, apparently satisfied.
Standing makes me lightheaded, but the twin grips of very similar hands steady me between Jim and Steven and, once more, we move slowly up the packed dirt of the Atalayan street, towards the lodge, this time it being me whos tripping over his own toes.
Leaving me to the comforts of a lower bunk, Steven steers Jim toward the communal showers. A lead Jim only accepts after a glance back in my direction. I know Steven will be the epitome of patience, that he will guide Jim in his ablutions, anoint him with hypoallergenic soap and shampoo that hes tested, that will not send Jim into a scent-induced zone, will not scour his body with allergen-produced rash. To watch Steven shave Jim is to see the perfection of their affection and trust. Jim with his eyes closed, slathered in white foam, completely still under the scraping of the blades; Steven moving with rare grace, performing the rite of adulthood he performed on his brother long before even peachfuzz graced his own cheeks.
Cleansed, dressed in Stevens remaining fresh clothes, Jim sits companionably on the bunk. When Steven comes, travel scissors in hand, Jim willingly offers his arm, allowing the frayed band to be snipped. He catches the sundered cloth in his other hand, examining carefully along its length, rolling the newly severed ends between his thumb and forefinger. I hold out my own arm toward Steven and am freed with another brief clip of the shears. Not as quick as Jim, the woven strip slips my grasping fingers and flutters to the floor. Steven kneels to retrieve it, then offers an open palm to Jim, who surrenders his own unhesitatingly.
I look quizzically at Jim, whose fingers move to replace the band against my now-bare skin. In the living warmth of the encircling touch I feel the true strength of the bond between us, the depth far past any symbolic joining the khuya might have represented.
Thus protected, I fall into sleep.
We reverse the trek up the Andean heights, topping them to return to Qosqo - the same ramshackle bus heaving its way beside the Funeral Towers, belching its oily, gray smoke.
Jim has begun to sign, slowly, almost gingerly surfacing as we leave behind the Madres waters, has begun to take some interest in his surroundings. Stopping before taking the final step into the confines of the bus, he takes a final look back toward the riverbed.
On board, we are quiet. Steven and I still unable to discuss what went on in the Temple. The depth of it unplumbable, for me no less than for him. Only Jim seems more comfortable, more at ease. He covers his brothers hand with his own and Steven looks down at their twined fingers, then back at Jim.
Last night, stirring in the mosquito netting, slept-out, I tossed and turned until eventually Stevens whisper crossed the humid air. "He killed for you."
This is beyond refute and instead of forcing denials I do not feel, I ask back, "Do you think I killed for him?" An answer I do not know myself whether I controlled the bite and snap of white teeth.
"No, I was there. The man just collapsed. Stroke," he ventures, "or heart attack. Coincidence," he says, but there is no strength behind his conviction. "But the woman"
"Her neck was snapped," I say bluntly, none of Naomis peace and goodwill in my tone. It makes me blunt, the thought of what she was about to do, the knowledge I was nothing more than an obstacle in her path. "I think " I know too many of my sentences to Steven have begun this way, but it is all I have to give, "I think that there is a boundary, an amount of territorial space that can only hold one adult Sentinel. In too close proximity they are like two fighting fish in a bowl, two jaguars at a jungle crossing. If they meet, they will fight or mate."
By all rights Steven should point out that I, not biology, brought Jim here. I am torn between believing I just have the timing of the damned or that I, too, was somehow directed toward this confrontation.
"I cant get it through my mind that Jim could" Stevens voice trails in the darkness.
"To save a life, that Jim would take one?" I finish for him, my voice lilting up at the end, making my own question of it.
"An innocent life," agrees Steven, but Im not sure he believes its a category I fall into.
But now, on the swaying bus slowly climbing toward Ninamarka, he catches my eye, exchanges a slightly amused glance at the ecotourists happily chattering over bird counts, sharing the cosmic joke of possessing a decidedly deeper understanding of the Peruvian hinterlands than the macaw-happy hikers will ever know and I think I have, somehow, been miraculously graced with forgiveness.
It is not until we put tires to Cascade soil, though, that I realize Steven has decided to present a united front. I am still sitting in the cabin, watching Jim reacclimate when William rushes in to take over, to wrest control of his son or possibly his sons from my questionable influence.
And is stopped.
Who directs Williams attention to his brother, posed in mid-sign.
Jims hands (previously relaying to me in a vocabulary far too simple the way the Cascade air smells of oil and fish and water) quiet for a moment before he glances up to greet William, the thumb of his open hand gracefully tapping the side of the forehead. Father. He smoothly continues on, until, with a rare, shared smile, he realizes he can spell the final word he is looking for and his fingers curl and point the letters in his description of the missing element in his description of the Cascade air.
Then he makes what is no doubt a normal connection between fish and salt and, perhaps, con-artist Siamese cats, but it leaves him frowning slightly, as if he was just now aware of it.
He frowns in my direction as if he can sense whether my stomach is likewise empty. Giving up, he switches to a more (or less) direct method.
"Come on, Dad," says Steven, bodily turning his father back toward the door. "I think were buying lunch."
I wake to find the loft dimly lit, the light spreading out from the small lamp beside Jims bed. He has turned off the white noise generators and I can hear the soft whisper of pages being turned.
Freed, Jim is as curious and intelligent as I imagined, but the fragileness that is the legacy of his gifts still remains. The zones are less frequent, easier to dispel, but they still lurk, springing the jaws of their trap in the bright, the loud, the rhythmic, in pain and in pleasure. I think it is this that has lead to Jims compulsion to rediscover the world in the safety of a softly turned page.
When Jim was last able to fully integrate his senses enough to view the world as a truly coherent whole, Watergate was breaking news, Patty Hearst had just brandished a carbine in the Hibernia Bank and Joni Mitchell was singing Free Man in Paris.
And I was a five-year-old running naked through Peru.
Climbing the stairs, I know that Jim is expecting me, had, no doubt, heard me wake. Had already measured my heartbeat, cataloged my breaths. My role in this is still often a passive one. I supply stability, steadiness. I am still, too often, the barometer to which Jims inexperienced emotions are tuned. Its for this reason that I force Jim on unsupervised outings with Steven and his father. Better yet, with Simon and the Major Crimes guys: non-family with whom I feel comfortable that he is safe, protected, understood. Gradually, I have extended these moments of separation until I am free to return to work, to return to my dissertation on closed societies. The diss I truly believe in, the one that I should be writing, the astonishing tale of genetically-gifted but now fragile guardians, is encrypted and locked behind Jack Kelsos finest CIA-sanctioned passwords on my laptop. For the good of science, it deserves to be released. For the good of Jim, it wont be.
I sit on the edge of the bed, tilting the spine of the book up so I can see the title Hairstyles of the Damned, Joe Menos novel about growing up punk in the early 90s, that Jim has lifted from one of the leaning towers of books in my bedroom under the lofts overhang where Sally, helplessly perturbed at my lack of organization, continues with pointed efficiency to straighten and dust.
I realize with a sudden strange pang that Jim missed punk: missed the Ramones, missed London Calling, missed the Dead Kennedys sending up My Sharona.
I pull the book from his grasp, read the first words that my gaze falls on.
Out of nowhere we were making out and I felt her lips against my mouth and her tongue against my teeth and were leaning forward uncomfortably, and as she grabbed me by my T-shirt the soft baby-powder smell of her cheeks and the sweet peach schnapps in her kiss and
Jims eyes are drowsy and half-closed and I palm a hand along the short-trimmed nap of his hair. I do not know if Jim, the man who can be zoned by the simple delights of natural peppermint and the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, can ever experience the multi-leveled pleasures of a summer evenings fumble in the backseat. I try to imagine who would have the gentleness and patience to teach Jim how to handle the breadth and depth of physical love.
I pull the covers over his shoulder as he settles on his side, knees slightly bent, his hand stroking the weave of the sheets William has specially flown in from Europe and I watch Jim put himself into the mini-zone that seems to be necessary before he can relax into sleep. The hypnogogic space where, I suspect, he converses with a dark jaguar on a monochrome and barren plane.
He sighs softly, once, before he stills entirely.
Its rest he needs. Tomorrow Simon plans to take him down to the lab and see what a potential walking sensory crime lab can do. An invitation that Jim embraced with surprising exuberance.
Padding down the stairs, I take a detour by Jims latest creation: a leaping jaguar caught bounding in mid-transformation. Well-muscled back legs and sinuous tail on a body that morphs as it springs into a wolfish muzzle and erect dog-like ears. What Steven teasingly calls Jims "wolfuar." The clay is cool and dusty like a freshly-erased chalkboard.
Part of me fears that Jims sudden interest in detective work is his way of earning acceptance to the only peer group he knows, the only one I introduced him to, and I wonder why I couldnt have been studying a nice knitting circle instead of Cascades finest. But then I think of Jims genetic heritage, of the protective drive that comes along with Sentinel senses and, perhaps, given that, this identification with the men and women meant to serve and protect isnt that farfetched.
I give one last pat to the sculpture and go back to bed.
It is, oddly, Steven who is most concerned over his brothers current law enforcement fascination, the years of role-reversal still painfully apparent: Steven still, in experience, the older and wiser and therefore -- more fearful of the pair.
"I dont want him doing this."
I point Steven in the direction of the table where Jim is carefully dissecting the cruller Steven thoughtfully provided. Sugar and fat two of Jims favorites. I saw the grin when the waxed bag was passed over, Jim savoring his escape from fruit and yogurt.
"Tell it to Jim."
I have yet to completely stop any interest Jim has displayed. Slow it down, possibly, but not stop. And Jim can speak for himself now, albeit it sometimes hesitantly, sometimes resorting to sign when stressed.
Steven gives a nod, straddling a chair to wait for Jim to finish his last enraptured bite.
"Bro, we need to talk about this police thing."
Jim nods seriously. "Simon said I could help them."
"Okay," agrees Steven cautiously, "but, Jim, police work is dangerous."
"No guns," says Jim in earnest reply.
Jims fascination with anything intricate and metallic does not extend to the sharp percussions of the firing range.
Steven draws his hand across his mouth in clear brotherly frustration. "But the other people have guns."
"Dads security guys have guns," notes Jim with a dismissing shrug.
Jim can still display all the stubbornness he showed tugging my duffle across Williams guestroom bed.
Steven groans, his hand now rubbing his tense neck, head tilted back to give me that persuasive blue-eyed, pleading look he shares with his brother. "Blair "
"No help here," I confess. "He wants to try it. Hell be with Simon, nothing is going to happen."
"Why am I talking to you," grumps Steven, "youre one of them."
Somewhere, Naomis falling with a thud out of her astral levitation.
Jims easy distraction, his shyness around unfamiliar people still leave a very different man in public from the Jim we see at the loft or at Williams. At least the bullpen is a familiar enough area, and its inhabitants well trained enough by previous visits, that Jim can meet and greet with a modicum of eye contact, can manage a few handshakes. As always, its Joel who draws Jim over to the quiet of his desk, sits him down, acclimating him with gentle teasing, with brief touches to his arm.
This is a far cry from the man who would previously spend hours, if Id let him, examining his visitors badge.
Simon, on the other hand, is a man with both a mission and a schedule to keep. And the floor has started reverberating with the pacing of a Major Crimes captain getting antsy. Not that well over six-feet of Simon Banks has anything in common with the tiny, marching lives best known for disturbing picnics. Simons quiet way to move the recalcitrant is a glower and a raise of an eyebrow. Both of which are currently directed at me. So I gather Jim from Joels extra chair and head him toward the elevator, Simon belatedly offering a friendly hand on Jims shoulder in greeting.
In the elevator Jim silently stares at the shifting floor designations, his right hand clasped over not mine but his own left wrist, his palm sweeping up and over the knob of bone, fingers gliding along the pulse point. More aware, he has become unwilling to touch me as often in public, relying instead on this repetitive self-calming. A loss of innocence I find myself mourning.
"You sure you want to do this?"
Despite the uncertainty revealed in his body language, Jim nods.
It is not that I dont believe Jim is quite capable of matching the performance of Carolyn Plummers machines. I just dont think he has the experience to describe what he senses. His vocabulary, though growing, is still fairly limited and revolves mostly around art and music and hearth and home. Unless Carolyn likes to talk philosophy in Quechua, we may have a problem in shared technical language.
"This your sensory genius?"
I like Carolyn, dont get me wrong. She has an analytical mindset, likes chewing the scientific fat with geeky observers. But I can tell she thinks were wasting our time.
"This is Jim." I give a slight push to the small of Jims back, forcing him a step forward because I know hes about to play duck-and-hide behind me.
"Well, come on, Genius," she says, crooking a finger in Jims direction. "Simon wants you to take a look at this water sample."
"Come on, Jim." Its me who takes his wrist this time, hauling him along, garnering strange looks from the lab staff.
He does hold out a hand for the vial Carolyn is skeptically brandishing, fingers examining the cool glass and small plastic top tactilely before he deciphers the mechanics and twists it open.
Carolyn shoots me a quizzical look like she now doubly doubts that someone who apparently has to work out how to get a screw-cap off could possibly have anything to say about whats in the vial its covering. The gaps in Jims experience are still being filled in, will undoubtedly be being filled in for quite some time to come. It is difficult to comprehend that almost everything about 21st century life has to be explained to Jim, that the man spent most of the past twenty years having everything done on his behalf because all his energy had to be spent just trying to cope with what his senses were telling him.
Jim wrinkles his nose, frowning in concentration and I find myself putting a hand on his arm, fearing hell go too deep.
The vic was found drowned and still dripping wet in the middle of Littlefield Park, barely an acre of green in the middle of the downtown business district with not a puddle, a fountain or even a water sculpture in sight. It took Carolyn a little while to ID the particular chemical mix but Simon assures me she has its an answer she purposefully hasnt shared with me. Either she doesnt trust me, or she knows about Clever Hans the Wonder Horse, too.
He still tends to tune everyone out when he focuses.
"Whats in the water?"
Here is where vocabulary will undoubtedly fail us. Im sure Carolyn has identified it down to the molecules making up its chemical signature.
Her expression perks up when Jim shakes his head and Simon slouches just a bit well, as much as a man his size can slouch. Im sensing theyve been betting on more than the Jags point spread lately.
"Red sign, big windows," says Jim. He rubs the pads of his fingers together on his right hand. "Sharp fence. Cold."
Carolyn frowns, and sensing impending disaster, I tug his attention back to me. "We dont understand, Jim."
Simon chuckles. "Oh, yes we do. You owe me twenty, Caro."
"Okay," I admit, "then I dont understand."
"He just described the Roman Chemical plant down by the docks. Its where the victim was drowned."
Steven has been in no particular hurry to hear how Jims day at the crime lab went. He seemed relieved to walk in and find his brother in deep communion with his sculpture. Helping himself to a beer, he settles down on the couch, clicks on the TV and proceeds to lose himself in Sports Night.
But his dont-mention-it body language isnt enough to keep me from bringing the subject up, if only obliquely. "Hey Steven, that night at the docks, did you walk Jim down Buena Vista? Down near Roman Chemical?"
Steven ponders this for a minute. "Yeah, I think we did. Place with the big, red sign, right?"
I shake my head in amusement at finding Jim possesses another extraordinary trait. "Hes eidetic."
"Eidetic?" echoes Steven.
"You know how some people have a photographic memory? They can pull a picture back up in their mind, complete to the smallest detail. I think all Jims senses may be that way. He recognized all the components to the water sample in the Crime Lab, but he didnt have the references he needs to describe it. So instead of a chemical formula, it came out as a list of his other sensory impressions. But if we get him some training "
"Like what? A chemistry degree?"
This sarcasm is not directed at Jim, its directed at me. Payback for me not taking Stevens side, for involving his brother deeper in the lure of police work.
"If he wants one," I acquiesce amiably, "he can have any damn degree he pleases."
Stevens look turns thoughtful. "You really think Jim could go to college?"
"Sure. The way hes reading his way through my library Im figuring that may be a necessity. Arent you, Jim?" I say louder, knowing the small confines of the loft make privacy impossible even without Sentinel senses. Steven blushes a little, realizing that Jim would have heard the little crack about the degree in chem.
Jims hands are slightly damp and the touch he bestows on my forearm when he comes to sit between us on the couch is smoothed by the gloving of clay still clinging to his agile fingers. When the phone rings, he reaches a dusty hand toward it, handing it over to me. He still wont answer it unless he thinks Im the one on the other end.
Through the directions Simon is giving me over the phone, I hear Steven entreat once more, "Youre sure you really like this, Jim?"
"Yeah," he admits softly. "I do."
Stevens "okay" is lost in the bark of Simons final instructions.
"Hey," I prod, when I put down the phone, "you want to go put some of those skills to use? Simons got a crime scene he wants you to look at."
Steven grimaces, shaking his head and sinking further into his chair. Jim merely shrugs an apology in his direction and stands up, wiping his hands against the fabric of his jeans.
Simon comes out to meet us as I pull up behind a bevy of black-and-whites, all with their lights blinking hypnotically in primary bursts of red and blue. I have a hand on Jims knee to anchor him against the distraction of the pulses and, when he leans into the open window, Simon frowns down at the grip. Not that I havent explained this to him before, that hell have to take Jim as he is and that includes accepting a bit more touching going on between us than the PD normally likes to see in their employees. Jim may be refraining from touching me in public, but Im not going to let him zone just because some patrol officer might get his boxers in a knot if I happen to lay a hand on another man.
I grimace at the light spilling unnaturally from the open doors of the suburban home. At least its not a murder scene, something I drew a firm line about but this is just as bad -- a kidnapping, a sleeping child snatched from her room.
"Come on, Jim." My voice sounds thin and shallow. The flashing lights make the night seem flat and two-dimensional.
At the front door, Carolyn just shakes her head at me, letting me know theyve not found anything.
The bedroom is pink and white, delicately decorated in little girl furnishings. The officers in Cascade blue and the lab techs in white coveralls seem too heavy and solid to mix with the posters of ballerinas and kittens on the walls. Id seen Naomis bedroom once, the only time Id seen my grandparents. It was this kind of room, theyd kept it like a shrine after shed run away the canopy bed, the soft pastel pictures. I didnt want that to happen here.
"Everybody out," orders Simon, helping them along by a sweep of his hand. When the room is suitably empty he shuts the door, his parting words are a concise "Sandburg, do your thing."
Only this is Jims thing and I have very little to do with it.
The curtain billows from one open window, obviously the escape route. Jim studies it for a moment, turning restlessly between it and the bed before going to run a hand a few inches above the tumbled bedding. One pink-checked sheet lies across the floor like an arrow, pointing at the window. He ghosts his hand above one of the posts of the headboard.
"She held on here."
I dont like the flat, detached sound in his voice.
"Sweat," he explains, "her hands were sweating."
I want to tell him that I wasnt questioning his perceptions but, instead, I merely lay a hand on his arm. "You okay?"
I only get a terse nod in reply as hes already headed toward the open window. Before I can get there, hes bent his tall frame through it, landed with a small huff on the mulched ground below. I have visions of explaining to Carolyn why her crime scene is contaminated by size ten footprints.
"Whoa, Jim, where are you going?"
Whether he hears me or not, he doesnt stop, and with the long strides hes taking, Ill lose him if I try to go through the house to the front door. Praying to the gods that protect you from irate forensics officers if there actually are any, I add my size eight-and-a-half tracks to the mulch.
"Sandburg! Where the hell is he going?"
Simon, with those long legs of his, has no trouble catching up to me.
"Dont look at me, Simon. He just took off."
I double my speed to try and reach Jims side but if he hadnt stopped abruptly, I dont know that I would have made it. As it is, I nearly plow into him, my hand shooting out to catch an arm practically vibrating with tension.
Im not at all sure why were standing in the dark in someones backyard staring at the shrubbery hiding their heat pump. And Jims talking with his hands, impatiently making the double-handed gesture for "here" which I can barely make out in the dimness.
"Sandburg?" growls Simon, somehow packing the syllables of my name with a demand for an explanation.
"Give me a minute, okay?"
I dont have time to explain the inner workings of Jim. When hes stressed, he signs. Gestures are still more natural to him than talking. The problem is our ASL vocabulary is even more limited than our spoken one.
I have no doubt Jim has no trouble making out my gestures.
An impatient hand grips me at the waist and, surprised, I start to twist out of the touch. But Jims only reaching for the cell phone. He snaps it off the clip and opens it, holding the dim glow from the screen in the direction of an untrimmed branch of the holly bushes screening the pump. Just enough light that I can make out the scrap of thin blue fabric caught in the pointed leaves.
"Way to go, man."
Simon is already calling for Carolyns team. Im still basking in the success when the cell is pressed pointedly into my chest. I take it clumsily, juggling it, and by the time I get it under control, Im chasing after him again.
"Wait, Jim, talk to me!" This is all said in a whisper, which I have no doubt he hears. But which has no impact as I am once again struggling to catch up, cutting catty-cornered across lawns and flower beds and fences. "Damnit!" I struggle over a waist-high picket fence and pray theres no Doberman lurking behind it. "Jim!"
Thank God hes squatted down, studying the brick rancher lying still and silent in front of us.
"Jim?" The hand I lay on his arm is shaken off.
"You hear her?"
At the terse nod, I scramble for the cell, cutting in on Simons conversation. Where am I? Good question. Im somewhere a few blocks further into suburbia staring at a brick rancher. "GPS me, Simon, Im in the goddamn backyard."
"Well, while were triangulating, could you give me a clue. North? South?"
I rise from my crouch, looking for a landmark in the dark. By the time Ive made my three-sixty
"Get here now, Simon!" I drop the phone on the ground and scramble after Jim, whos already halfway to the houses sliding glass doors, hissing in panic. "Jim! Stop!"
He picks up a wrought iron lawn chair and succinctly hurls it through the plate glass.
We were, Ill tell Steven later, lucky.
Eugene Cole was a coward. The first time he fired the gun scared him as much as it scared me, and a simple tackle, something Jim obviously remembered from his Pop Warner days, brought him down and kept him down. The cavalry, in the form of twelve fully-armed officers, burst in about two minutes later. By then I was coaxing the little girl out from under the bed where shed wisely scrambled. Smart kid. An alive kid.
"Sandburg?" Simons voice is low-pitched and concerned. "I think you better get over here."
"Its okay," I reiterate one more time to the shuddering child. "Were the good guys." I switch places with a female patrol officer who has produced a teddy bear from somewhere.
"Sandburg " This time Simons tone finally reaches me.
Its not a bad wound, just a through-and-through, Simon reassures me as he squats down holding a bloody towel to Jims shoulder. Whats worrying him is that Jim is non-responsive, staring with blank eyes at the ceiling of the dingy bedroom. Hes zoned. Most likely on pain. Although the shock surely didnt help.
"Dont let the ambulance guys in here."
Simon nods, getting to his feet, and I take over pressing down on the wound. From my brief look toward the door I can see the officer with the teddy bear has a crying seven-year-old balanced against her hip. I can feel the aftereffects of the adrenaline rush in my shaking hands. I know my fingers are ice cold as I clasp Jims chin, direct his unseeing stare. Sight is out. Touch, too, the pain undoubtedly taking up every available tactile pathway.
"Come on, Jim. I know it hurts, but we dont want them treating you for catatonia."
I thumb gently along his upper lip, but I think its probably my pounding and slightly arrhythmic heartbeat that finally brings him back with a dazed blink.
The real problem is facing Steven in the ER waiting room. Not like we havent been there before and every time it somehow had to do with me. I can see him trying me on his mental balance gauging whether a talking, interactive brother is worth the physical pain I indirectly have put Jim through.
"Steven, I had no intention" The bleak look shuts me right up.
What it comes down to is this Jim is his own man. He could no more hear the sounds from inside that house and not go in -- any more than his brother or I could.
"Either we accept Jim as an adult or we relegate him to a kind of forced childhood where hes safe. But, youve got to ask yourself, what is safe worth? He has an innate drive to help, Steven. Its just who he is, how hes wired."
"There are safer ways to help than being some kind of self-appointed superhero."
Im thinking Steven sees him getting food down off the shelves in the food pantry or something equally innocuous, but Im not sure Jim will go for that.
"Jim" an exasperated Steven just gives up and flails his arms in a kind of capitulation. "It doesnt always work, justice doesnt always prevail. That asshole from the docks you testified against only got probation. Was it worth it?"
"Ask him if a shot in the arm was worth saving a little girls life," I put in defiantly. I dont want Jim hurt. I, too, am tempted to put him somewhere hed never be hurt again, but that isnt living. Living is this rollercoaster of good and bad. You wouldnt be able to know one without the other.
"I want to help," says Jim simply, half gesturing the word with his good hand. He settles his shoulder, nestling his arm deeper in the sling.
"And it has to be this?"
Jims gaze, clear and calm, is Stevens only answer.
He groans and engulfs his brother in a hug. "Okay, fine. Get them to teach you the concept of backup, though."
"Blairs my backup," supplies Jim, clumsily returning the embrace with his free arm.
"I dont think thats gonna reassure him, big guy."
"I dont know," Steven returns, releasing Jim with a pat, clearly relishing even this argumentative brotherly interaction, "youve done a hell of a job so far."
You think youll find answers to your questions and, it turns out, you only get more. Sometimes I think about the thousand little things on which the future hinges. Ive always taken some comfort in the theory that every time a decision is made, every time you turn right or turn left, that another universe pops up where you did the opposite. That somewhere my mistakes werent mistakes. That, maybe, a universe (or, possibly, an infinite number of them) exists where Jim didnt have to wait this long to find control. That on the flip side, that there may be universes where I never found Jim or he never found me, I try not to contemplate.
So, yes, I found my Holy Grail. And found it wasnt anything like Id thought it would be. I didnt expect Jims fragility or his beauty or his inner strength. I didnt expect an ancient glitch in nucleotides would somehow lead to a blue jungle stocked by jaguars and wolves.
I started with a small question and got bigger ones.
What is body and what is mind? What is mind and what is faith?
I still dont know.
But I know Jim. And I know what hope is, the last thing left in Pandoras box after evil winged its way into the world.
And thats enough.