Journal Archives - October, 2003
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He walked back and forth between his car and the pay phone as I pumped gas, as if I wasn't there. He would occasionally stop and turn around, or stand still -- as if he were looking for something, or listlessly pacing.
In a small town like Auburn, where the streets roll up at sunset, there's really only two reasons to be pacing randomly around a deserted gas station shortly after 1 a.m. (At that time of night, nobody was on duty, and the pumps were strictly self-serve credit card swiping.) One, waiting around for some person that you wouldn't want to be seen in public with. Two, and hopefully more likely, a car breakdown of some sort -- and although the white Ford Contour looked fine from here, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a car that don't show up from 80 feet away.
If you're going to get stranded in the middle of a strange city, of course, 1 a.m. is not the time to do it. In a relatively rural region like the Sierra foothills around Auburn, hitchhiking doesn't seem quite so threatening -- the person you pick up is likely to be a neighbor whose old, beat-up car gave up the ghost and who is scrambling to make do in an area where just buying groceries involves a 15-minute drive. People (myself included) are a little more inclined to be charitable to strangers. You can generally get a pick-up if you need to hitchhike somewhere and still do better than taking the bus, if the experiences of the passengers I've picked up are any indication. But in the middle of the night? You can sit for minutes at a time without even seeing a soul. If you need to get somewhere without owning a vehicle, forget it.
Which makes me all the more inclined to help someone in the middle of the night. If I don't stop for someone at mid-day, there will probably be someone else within minutes to an hour. If I don't stop for someone after midnight, they may be walking the rest of the way to their destination.
I wasn't certain about this pacing around the phone thing, but there were a lot of situations in which it could have been legitimate. I wasn't ready to write off my bad vibes, but I wasn't going to let them stop me. So after the tank topped off, I drove over to the pay phones -- locking my car doors, rolling my window down slightly in advance, and when I got over there, leaving the engine running and in gear. He turned to me and watched my approach as I got near.
"Hey," I called out from inside my safe metal box. "I couldn't help but notice you over here. You have a car breakdown or something? Anything I can help with?"
He was dressed in a plain T-shirt in the 60-degree night air, but didn't seem unduly fazed by the cold. As he walked over to my car and bent down to stare in the passenger side window, I caught the faint scent of alcohol. "Yeah, I'm stuck here. I can't get the car to go," he said.
If he _was_ drunk, which seemed the natural conclusion, I didn't want to let him drive home anyway, even if the car was usable. "Man, that's a pain," I said. "Who were you calling? Is anyone on the way to pick you up?"
"I kept calling my wife, but she wasn't picking up the phone," he said. He got a desperate look on his face, and fumbled for his wallet. "This has $75 in it," he pleaded, waving it at me. "It's all yours if you drive me home."
"Whoah," I said, uncomfortable with being bribed into a good deed. "Let's worry about you first and take care of settling up later. Which direction are you headed?" Meanwhile, I assessed his condition; he was weaving a little bit, but didn't reek of alcohol -- he had probably gotten drunk some time ago, and there were no beverage containers around the area to indicate otherwise. He was speaking fairly coherently, although taking the standard drunken pause after questions to focus his mind on the replies. Importantly, his desperation seemed real -- and he seemed so lost, in between his confusion at the phone booth and his pleading with me, that he posed no real threat to me.
"Grass Valley," he mumbled, or at least something sounding like it.
I brightened. I wouldn't even have to go far out of my way to get him home safely. "That's right on my way, actually," I told him. "I'm heading up north. I drive through Grass Valley on 49 on my way to work every day --"
He shook his head. "No. Garden Valley." He pointed somewhere vaguely southward.
"I'm not familiar with that. How far of a drive is it?"
"About an hour," he said sheepishly.
I glanced at the clock. It wasn't quite 2 a.m. yet. Oh, what the heck; I could still get enough sleep for work the next afternoon if I spent two hours on the drive, and I wasn't going to do anyone any favors by leaving a drunk man wandering Auburn in the middle of the night looking for help. "Okay, I can help get you home," I said, then glanced at his car. "Err. Are you going to have a way to get back into Auburn tomorrow to pick the car up?"
"Yeah, my wife can drive me in with the truck."
"If you're going to leave the car here overnight, we should probably move your car over against the wall there. Here in front of the phones, it's blocking the driveway."
He looked confused. "But it won't go anywhere."
I got out of my car. "Shift it into neutral. I'll push it."
We walked over to his car; he stumbled over to the open driver's side door and sat down in the seat. "It won't shift into neutral."
"Some cars won't let you do that unless the brake pedal is in. Try that," I suggested. He did, and reported that the automatic's gear shift lever still wouldn't budge.
I pondered for a moment; that little tip had just about exhausted my useful mechanical knowledge about cars. "Well, fine. If you're going to come get the car in the morning you'll probably be OK. We can leave a little note on the dashboard or something. But, um, you should still roll the windows up before we leave." The driver's side window was completely open.
"Those won't go either," he said.
"They're probably power windows. Try turning the key to the on position."
He looked at me helplessly. "I can't find the key."
I groaned inwardly, but helped him sift through his fanny pack in search of the elusive ignition key -- "the big black one," he pointed out helpfully, after ineffectually prodding at the bag's contents. I sat down in his car and checked the ignition -- nothing there, at least, or on the dashboard. (I double-checked the gearshift; it was, indeed, locked into Park without the key in the ignition.) That would certainly explain the "won't go" part.
While keeping up a sporadic monologue to keep him focused on the task at hand -- a useful drunk-person-herding skill that I learned from occasionally attended parties in my Seattle days -- I managed to dig a tiny, only marginally useful flashlight from my own fanny pack, the better to search for the missing key with. The man followed me around, trying to help, or at least to helpfully follow my instructions.
I stopped after retrieving my flashlight and looked straight at him. "I don't think we've had a chance for introductions yet," I said, and extended my hand. "I'm Bax."
(Throughout the remainder of the story, names and some personally identifying data have been changed to provide anonymity.)
"John," he said, giving me a handshake. It was loose -- his arm flopped around despite my efforts to be gentle -- but with a surprisingly persistent grip, not letting go for several seconds after I stopped. He looked at me pleadingly. "I'll give you money for driving me home," he insisted. "I've got 50 bucks." Alcohol, my experience with its users has shown, is a wonderful short-term memory inhibitor.
"Let's worry about that later, John. Right now I want to try to find your car key." I would make a point over the course of our drive of addressing him by name as often as I could when talking to him. Despite this, we introduced ourselves to each other twice more before the night was out.
He looked confused by my attempts to avoid taking the money. "Why'd you stop to help me?" he asked.
"I'm just trying to help my fellow man out," I said. "I try to make the world a better place."
He seemed to accept that for the moment. "I need a cigarette," he muttered. "Smoke?"
"Uh? No, thanks."
"No, I mean, have you got one? I ran out."
"Oh. No. Sorry," I said.
I switched on my flashlight and started poking around inside his car. No key, not on the seat, not on the floor, not under the seat, not in the back. I walked over to the phone booth; nothing there. I crouched down and looked underneath the car. No key, but there was a checkbook on the ground just underneath the driver's side door. I flipped it open, and the man's name, "Johnny H. Paycheck," greeted me from atop the topmost check.
I glanced around -- John had apparently wandered halfway across the gas station's lot while I was searching his car, and appeared to be poking around the side of the mini-mart building. Fair enough; maybe he'd been over there earlier and was looking for his key there. Although his absence did give me a chance to hedge my bets by taking a few notes for later in case there was trouble. I fished my voice recorder out of my shirt pocket -- its permanent home -- and quietly dictated the full name into it before slipping the checkbook back into his fanny pack.
That having been accomplished, I circled the car. One thing immediately leapt out at me: The right front tire, which I had not yet been at an angle to observe, was dead flat. The paint on the right front end had some marks and scratches. It was too dark to tell much more, but it certainly seemed there were deeper problems than it "not going." None of which explained the missing key, or how he'd gotten it to a gas station after whatever incident had occurred, but at least it was a start.
I was in the middle of quietly dictating the license plate number into my recorder -- again as a hedge against trouble -- when John stumbled back up. He looked suspiciously at me and the recorder, which I quietly slid back into its pocket.
"Why'd you stop?" he asked me. "You don't know me from Adam."
"I told you, I'm just trying to help my fellow man out," I answered. "Especially in the middle of the night, I know how hard it can be when something like this happens."
"You a cop?" he asked.
"No, John, I'm not a cop."
He looked at me suspiciously. "People don't stop like this for total strangers. You sure you're not a cop?"
"I'm not a cop, John. I work down the street for the Journal. I just got off work. I was just stopping for gas and saw you and decided to help."
He gave me a horrified look. "You're a reporter?"
"Uh, no, I --"
He waved his hands at me and started walking off. "Uh-uh, man, I don't need to be in no newspaper, I don't want you reporting on this --"
I cut him off. "I'm not a reporter, John. I'm not on duty. This is all off hours. None of this will go in the newspaper. I'm just here to help."
He still looked troubled, but had been at least reassured enough to stick around. I changed the subject. "I don't think we're going to be able to find your car key, John. We're just going to have to leave your window open and hope for the best. I don't think it's going to be a problem -- Auburn is a small town, and your car isn't going to get stolen in this condition anyway. But let's clear all of the stuff out of your car so someone doesn't just walk by and grab it through the window."
So we put his personal effects in the front seat of my car. He popped open the Contour's trunk, and I transferred some fishing equipment and a toolbox into my own trunk, separating it from my own stuff with a blanket so I'd be able to unload his gear efficiently when I got him home.
That accomplished, there was nothing more to be done. I ushered him into the passenger seat of my car, helped him get untangled from the automatic shoulder strap of the seatbelt, sat down in the driver's seat, and turned the key. My engine roared to life, and with one last glance at the white car sitting wounded at the dark far edge of the gas station lot, this drunk man with the mysteriously crippled car and I headed out into the night -- a pair of mutual strangers on a quest to bring one home.
(To be continued in next entry)
It having been a week since I last posted anything, I really should just let people know that I'm still alive and in good health. I'm just going through one of the longest, most severe writing dry spells since I started keeping a journal.
As hinted at by the adventure write-up -- which, incidentally, is one of the contributing factors to my writer's block; it's on top of my priority list, but it's such a daunting, significant task that inertia works against me -- it's not that my life has been boring. I've just lacked my usual motivation to set it all to words.
I also ended up buying -- as my first relatively costly impulse purchase in literally several years -- a "hard pad" for Dance Dance Revolution. It weighs over 30 pounds, is built of solid metal, and transforms the home game into an experience basically indistinguishable from arcade play. No more getting frustrated when the soft plastic mat (think a "Twister" game board, except a little thicker) that is standard for DDR play bunches up underfoot or shifts around the floor during frantic play! This will provide me a wonderful incentive to stay in shape over the winter, when I can't randomly wander out into the backcountry for weekend hiking.
As a California resident, of course, I feel obligated to say something about Tuesday's election. I voted -- not that it did any good; Arnold Schwarzenegger still easily captured the state's top spot.
I'm not particularly disturbed by his victory, politically speaking.
The state could do worse than a centrist with no experience -- I suspect
(or at least hope) that the first week or two will be a severe reality
check, and he'll work on building coalitions with the majority Democrats;
it's the only way he'll get anything at all accomplished. Of course, if
he swings rightward, or tries to crusade around the Capitol, that will
basically paralyze the state, and ... um ... I guess we could do worse
But there is one thing that has me in fits about "The Governator"s victory.
I work at a newspaper. I am a copy editor. I write headlines. Now that Mr. Schwarzenegger is governor, my job has suddenly taken a nightmarishly complex twist.
Hey, you try to fit "Schwarzenegger" into a two-inch-wide gap in 36-point type.
There's a reason the media refers to him as "Arnold" or "Arnie."
("The midnight forest"s next installment is still being written. Please bear with me.)
Those of you who aren't closely following the news might have missed this one: Supreme Court agrees to hear Pledge of Allegiance case. (backup link)
I have to admit that this worries me.
Not in any immediate or panic-inducing sense. The pledge isn't in itself such a vital thing that a decision either way will destroy the fabric of society, and the mere fact of the Supreme Court stepping in doesn't have any ominous implications.
But, well ... it's like staring at a speeding train coming north along the tracks when you know the southbound express is five minutes overdue. There are better and worse outcomes to the case, I'm sure, but I can't actually imagine a single good one.
Full disclosure here: My sympathies lie with the man bringing the suit, and the forces that have brought the "under God" objection this far. I have previously explained why (and followed up the next day), and my opinion is still the same, so I'm not going to rant about that again.
What has changed is watching the popular outrage boil over, and continue to simmer, in the year since. I really should have been tipped off by the unanimous vote of condemnation in the Senate on the day of the decision, but it took a move to a more conservative area to really catch my attention.
It's been approximately 15 months since the ruling. Since then, every time the case has come up in its tangled travels through the legal system -- most notably, at the end of February, when the Ninth Circuit refused to reconsider -- there's been an incredible outburst of passion. From the predictable archconservative sources, of course, but also from ordinary people, deeply troubled at what they see as an attempt to start on the slippery slope to neatly trim God out of society.
A lot of ordinary people. Some polls put the support for "under God" as high as 90 percent. And a significant number of those 90 percent feel vehemently enough about it to take to the streets, if what happened here in February is any indication. The decision launched off a letters-to-the-editor war eclipsed only by the Iraq war in rhetorical ferocity. Even without the recent Supreme Court decision to get involved, the Pledge seemed to be resting on the raw nerve of the Christian mainstream -- the immediate example every time the nation's increasing godlessness was discussed.
My support of the decision -- on its constitutional, logical and fundamental merits -- hasn't changed. But this is such a hot-button issue that ... well, I'm not willing to say that we'd see open rioting if the Supreme Court upheld it, but there would be an immense backlash, make no mistake.
Any backlash would push the pendulum far, far in the other direction. If nothing else, the same Congress that condemned (unanimously condemned!) the original decision would find a very fast way to "fix" the "problem" ... and, with the backdrop of a Supreme Court decision against the Pledge, it would not surprise me at all if a constitutional amendment were to result.
That would be an immense tragedy -- not only for the religious-freedom forces, but also for an entire country pushed one step closer to a state-sponsored religion, and all the politics and prejudices that come along with it.
So supporters of religious freedom are in the unenviable position that winning means losing. (Some might argue that a "win" really is possible, on some technicality that doesn't get people so upset ... but, no. With unanimous Congressional support and 90 percent popular support, you just don't yank away a policy by judicial fiat. It would be even worse than suddenly outlawing the Democratic or Republican party. That only pisses off half plus the civil libertarians.)
The problem, of course, is that losing still means ... well ... losing. It wouldn't be as bad to have "under God" upheld, but it would still be wrong.
Still, wrong or no, this is the outcome that I (along with 90 percent of Americans) am hoping for, because at least the furor would subside; I'm not in a position where I'm forced to say "one nation under God," so I'm willing to grit my teeth and wait a while for attitudes to shift before fixing the laws.
(Again I'll emphasize that I have no problem with people calling this "one nation under God"; read my position statement if you haven't yet. The problem is in giving this an official seal of state approval, and forcing people to say it.)
According to the news articles linked above, the Supreme Court will start taking arguments in spring 2004, and are expected to issue a ruling by July. That will give the issue just enough time to cool back down to a simmer again -- so people who, like me, support the original decision may forget just how passionate the opponents are. We shouldn't. We need to brace ourselves for the worst, either way, and resign ourselves to, at best, a resumption of the status quo. Because the overwhelming majority of Americans won't settle for anything less religious.
In the meantime, there's a quiet nine months coming up. Enjoy them while you can.
I had a very full but genuinely entertaining weekend -- Delcan dropped by Northern California for a visit.
The weekend went something like this -- and I'll keep it short, because I understand he's writing a trip wrap-up I can later link to, and laziness is a virtue:
There's one other interesting and vaguely disturbing angle to the weekend --
As it turns out, I have had two overnight visitors here in the last year. First was Erin, back in May, when I invited her down for BayCon. When she returned home, she left behind a single sock. I haven't yet had a chance to return it and probably won't for a while.
Delcan, when he departed, forgot a pair of socks.
If I don't start being careful with my visitors, I could start to amass quite a collection here.
Well, that was anticlimactic.
Daylight Saving Time ended a few hours ago. (For those of you keeping careful track of dates -- I run on Baxil Standard Time. Days don't go from midnight to midnight; they go from wake-up to get-to-bed. So even though technically it's not "October 25" any more, the end of DST happened during my 25th waking-period in October, and I'm still awake, so that's how this entry gets dated.)
My grand and clever plan was to goof off for a few hours by surfing the Web, then get home and get to bed -- and use the happy fact of "spring forward, fall back" gaining me an extra hour to catch up on some shut-eye. It's been a long (not too stressful, just long) work week.
So I surfed ... and started packing up at a not-quite-sunrise hour of the morning. "I'll just set the clock on the computer back an hour before I leave," I thought, feeling happy that I'd catch that little extra wink of sleep.
Except the computer clock -- by which I was keeping track of time -- had already reset itself, promptly at 2:00 a.m., when DST ended.
Suddenly, rather than being an hour ahead of the game, I was an hour behind, because I'd been factoring that "extra" hour in all along while idly goofing off. So now I sit at home, hurriedly typing this out and trying to get to bed at a still-vaguely-reasonable time, and meanwhile the sun is up outside, because now that DST has given up the ghost, it rises at a ludicrous 6-ish a.m. and sets around 12 hours later.
All that lovely sunlight wasted. What brain-damaged baboon designed our timekeeping system? There's hours of sunlight in the morning that any sane person sleeps through, and then approximately 20 minutes of afternoon sunshine once people get out of work and can properly appreciate it. ... But anyway.
The DST miscalculation, for some reason, got me thinking about a longer-term view of the year. My 2001 was basically a long string of suck; 2002 was a year of upheaval ... but this year, a theme has so far been elusive.
What I realized tonight, though, is that the lack of defining events is really just part of this year's theme. I'm wavering between "Procrastination" and "Shuffled Priorities"; both get the point across adequately -- that I've put many goals or activities on hold or on the back burner while I try to deal with important-seeming things in the foreground.
The Web surfing that held me up at work was just another example of this. I don't need to keep emphasizing how full my to-do list is. It's just that I can't really work up the motivation to throw myself at it -- not when immediate distractions like catching up on political blogs or on friends' lives call. It's not a particularly good excuse to procrastinate, but it's pretty immediate when you're at a fast computer with a good 'net connection, and so it gets a higher priority than it should just by default.
On the other hand, some of my shuffled priorities have had good effects. I've been working at the Journal for a year plus pocket change -- and that pocket change has rolled in steadily, to the point where just a week ago I paid off the last of the credit cards on which I carried debt with me when I moved to California. I didn't quite meet my earlier resolution of ending 2002 out of debt, but I kept my nose to the grindstone -- and I really have made work a priority this year; financial stability was a major stressor in years past -- and I've pulled it off, late but triumphant. (I still have some medical bills to resolve, but that debt is owed to my parents, and should be cleared by March at latest.) This is something to be proud of. As much as I'm getting increasingly restless with work's extreme impact on my schedule and social and spiritual life, I did get the one most important thing done this year that I wanted to do.
And make no mistake, I'm getting restless. I'm neglecting my writing (especially since June). I'm neglecting my spiritual connections (especially since June, although I'm pulling back up there). My social life has moved almost 100 percent online (and there geography plays a leading role). I'm doing fine for now, sort of coasting along on momentum without them, but this isn't a pattern I wish to stay stuck in.
I may have to make 2004 my year of reconnecting with myself -- or, perhaps, taking greater charge of my life and charting out a course for myself rather than reacting to what life throws at me. I'm finally building myself back up again to a point where I have the room to start making large life choices without desperately worrying about the consequences. With a little foresight, I could leverage that into a far more interesting year next year than this one.
Long-time friend and fellow outdoors addict FC dropped by for an act of spontaneous camping -- it's late October, the weather's sunny and summer-warm, and he knows this great spot in Lakes Basin, about an hour's drive north of where I live, in the Sierra high country ...
We pulled in at about 1 a.m. The campground was literally completely deserted. They'd shut down operations for the season and just hung a little shingle out front saying "No services available -- You pack it in, you pack it out." We set up our sleeping bags and marveled at the stars and an unexpected meteor shower.
Then, the next day -- today -- we got up. I broke down and, for only the second time in my adult life, deigned to wear a pair of jeans ...
... which made sense on a practical level, because of their sheer durability factor. And it made a great deal of sense when we ended up doing a significant amount of rock scrambling and some actual climbing. (FC estimated our toughest climb of the day, a free climb, as a 5.4 to 5.5 -- i.e., no ropes or protective gear, on an exposed rock face with moderately difficult hand- and foothold positions.) You wouldn't believe what granite does to fabric.
Once suited up, we hiked up Mills Peak --
-- and scrambled cross-country to make a circuit around Lower Sardine Lake --
-- both of which proved very rewarding.
Then we climbed uphill to Upper Sardine Lake, past a waterfall, and my camera's batteries died just as we got to the interesting part.
It felt somewhat strange to be out hiking in the last week of October, but it was a perfect coda to a wonderful season of reconnecting with nature.
I hit a feral cat on my way home from work tonight.
She emerged from some brush and dashed straight into my path. By the time I processed the situation, all I could do was think, "Oh, please, let it have just cleared the tire." But it wasn't to be.
I immediately turned the car around on the deserted road. I thought I saw her moving on my return approach, but by the time I had parked, fumbled through my fanny pack for a flashlight, and snatched a blanket from the trunk, the brown tabby lay still, staring blankly into the forest from which she came.
The second car to pass by turned around and idled in front of me, standing guard as I put her body on a garbage-bag sling and moved her across two lanes of traffic to the shoulder by my bumper. The driver and I exchanged a few words. He expressed both his distaste for feral housecats -- non-native hunters of native birds -- and his sincere regret. I thanked him for stopping and we went our separate ways.
I took her body home, driving the remaining mile down the road to Penn Valley. I hadn't been able to provide any comfort or aid while she was still alive. The only thing left to do was give her an act of post-mortem compassion with the conviction that it counted for something.
One of the roommates looked up as I entered the house, still numb.
"You look dead," he said.
"That was exactly the wrong thing to say," I replied tiredly.
I briefly explained the situation and asked for a shovel. I obtained general agreement that it would be okay to bury her in the backyard.
I set her down on the ground next to me as I dug, shovel making little headway on the parched, packed dirt, occasionally hacking through a root or chipping out a fist-sized stone. I tracked down her weakened, shock-fractured spirit, offering her a little energy to stabilize and reorienting her to the world she had just left behind -- pulling her out of the sensory-deprivation panic of immediate post-death by showing her the stars.
I rolled her body into the grave, and coaxed her away from it, helping her understand it was time to move on. The ancient stars shone, distant and bright, the only other witnesses as dirt covered her transient form.
It wasn't a peaceful or a clean way to die. But I take some comfort in the fact that it was quick, and that I was able to help guide her along in the darkness beyond, and that I was able to in some small way atone for our unfortunate pact of causality.
Please take a moment today to wish her good fortune in her next incarnation ... or to celebrate her reunion with the divine, depending on your personal belief system.
And please take a moment to pray for, or send comforting thoughts to, all of the roadkill victims whose drivers didn't stop afterward.
Last night, on my drive home from work, I hit a feral cat, and ended up burying her in the back yard.
Tonight, as I was driving through the dark on my way home again, I hit another cat.
It was already dead, and that's why: I mistook it when I saw it for a piece of random road debris, not worth swerving over. Then its still shape resolved as I drew near, and by that time it was too late to change my mind.
About the only harm I could have done at that point -- its status was quite obvious -- would have been to add insult to injury, but it still didn't help my mood any.
I didn't stop (I felt I owed something above the call of duty to my victim, but not to random roadkill, especially old and messy ones). But I did stop, as I neared Penn Valley, when I saw a truck pulled over to the side of the road, hazard lights steadily blinking. The cabin was dark, and I couldn't see the driver, nor figure out why it had stopped.
The kicker is that the truck -- the single vehicle pulled over on the shoulder of the 30-mile drive home -- was within fifty feet of the site of the cat's death.
... If this keeps up, I have no idea how I'm ever going to get my nerves back to normal.
Tuesday night, on my drive home from work, I hit a feral cat, who died. It was an unexpected and -- obviously -- unwanted loss, but I did my best to cope with it and make amends for my role in the tragedy.
I carried her home, spent nearly an hour chipping through the hard earth with a shovel, and placed her in a grave. I felt like I had a duty to. For all I knew, I might have been the only one who cared enough to do so, and I couldn't live with the idea that I could play a part in her loss of life and then so callously deny her the respect of a proper send-off.
And it hit me while I was casting the earth over the tabby's body:
That's more than Glineth ever got.
* * * *
"Halloween" is descended from the name "All Hallow's Eve," a Christian tradition originally designed to overtake the pagan festival of Samhain -- the beginning of the winter, the season of death. Samhain is a night of spirits, a night of those passed on. The Mexican version of the festival -- on a different day, but from the same Christian All Saint's Day roots -- is refreshingly direct: Dia de los muertos, day of the dead.
So there's no better day, then, to talk about both spirits and death.
Please let me lay down a few disclaimers before I continue. First things first: I am a mage. In the magic sense. I believe in, and participate in, many things which are unrecognized by science -- and are generally outside of the realm of today's science to explore. The majority of my magical efforts are not spent in trying to change this world but in trying to reach out to others, to experience things beyond our immediate physical surroundings.
I spend a lot of that time interacting with "spirits," souls, what have you. Disembodied -- or elsewhere-embodied -- essences of people. What I'm about to describe all takes places in that elsewhere realm. That doesn't make it any less real, to me if not to you; it just means that some of the rules governing the things of which I speak may be different from what you'd immediately expect. I will try to point these out where possible.
Sometimes, I'll refer to things which only fully make sense if you remember the context. For example, I am a dragon. You can parse this statement any number of ways, and hold any number of philosophical viewpoints on it, but when I describe myself as a dragon here it means that my spirit's form is that of a dragon and I consider that to be more truly representative of me than any body my spirit may inhabit. I don't run around trying to jump off buildings because I have wings. Likewise, when I say I have fathered a child, the reason you've never heard me ramble about making trips to the supermarket for baby formula in the middle of the night is because the child in question was born and raised in this realm of the spirit.
If you have a hard time accepting some of the things I say, fine; I don't expect it all to necessarily be taken at face value, especially since I'm being forced to give such abbreviated context for so much of this. If I lose you somewhere, then please just take it as a story, and remember that it is a story that is -- on some level -- true.
I didn't plan for any of this to come out this way. I've been silent on the issue for five months, and probably would have quietly let this fade into obscurity if the tabby hadn't shocked me into realizing something needed to be said. The date was just one of those coincidences a mage learns to expect. As we descend into the darkness of winter, the Day of the Dead becomes my dia de las sombras, Day of Shadows, a time to lay bare the darkness in my heart.
* * * *
Glineth was a shadow dragon. She flew into my life in late 1996 -- literally; I was out riding on a motorcycle, there was a sudden flurry of wings, and this spirit was clinging to me, beginning for my assistance and sanctuary. I and some friends, an online mage circle, helped her deal with her pursuers. She then bounced around, staying with a few of us, for several months after that, but ultimately -- having nowhere else to really go, and perhaps enjoying my company, and perhaps feeling a debt of gratitude or sense of greater destiny -- settled back in with me, and ended up staying for the long haul.
It's been seven years since she came into my life. In that time, she had grown into one of the pillars of stability of my spiritual world -- she was one of only three spirits (the other two being Thea, my soulmate; and Raja, Thea's dearest friend, and my house-ward go-to guy) who stuck with me through moves, major events, traumas, and life's general ups and downs. I have mentioned her several times in my journal -- never really much more than a name-drop, but I'm not used to talking about these things publically. We've been friends, lovers, mates; we've had our rough times, too, when our relationship fell apart to such an extent that she was on the verge of walking away. We'd both pretty much resigned ourselves to parting, then -- but we both separately had last-second epiphanies, and between those and a deep desire to not give each other up without a fight, we went back to our stable if fragile relationship. We patched things up. Or at least, so I thought.
Cobalt was a shapeshifter. This is because Thea is a shapeshifter, and I have shapeshifter blood in me. Shortly after Thea and I first Joined -- Joining is the spirit equivalent of sex and marriage, rolled into one; the best analogy for it is to mash two balls of Play-Doh together, knead, and separate back into two halves -- we decided we finally wished to have a child together to celebrate our reunion and union. After a slightly hurried gestation period (there was some astral drama going on at the time that's really not relevant to this story), I became the father of a beautiful young spirit on August 14, 1996.
Shortly after he came into the universe, we decided to get him started on the cycle of incarnate life, and guided his spirit to his godparents, Len and Tychem, who live in physical form on a distant planet where magic is a much more immediate, powerful, and unsubtle force. They were in the process of having a physical child, and our Cobalt became that child. Had his age been tracked in Earth years, December 8, 2002 would have been his sixth and final birthday in a physical body. He was growing up into a wonderful young child when his life -- and not just his physical life, but his spirit, as well -- was cut short.
Years of experience as a storyteller mean very little when it comes to the rest of it: My son, Cobalt, was killed. Glineth, my dear friend of many years, snapped one day near the beginning of June and killed him. There is very little to say about the incident beyond that; there is very little worth saying. She travelled to the world where he lived -- of course she knew where to look; she'd accompanied Thea or I on several visits -- tracked him down, and before Len or Tychem could react, slew him in a grisly and permanent way, leaving not only his body but his spirit destroyed.
She returned to me shortly thereafter and broke the news. She was pleased with herself, and shocked at her monstrosity. She begged me to kill her; she spoke nonchalantly of her crime. She asked for forgiveness and for retribution; and when I balked and could not find it within me to give either, she attacked me, perhaps hoping to goad me into action, or perhaps trying to possess and consume me the same way she had my son.
The one thing she would not do, in her anger, pain and fear, was give me a straight answer why.
I have my guesses. I was aware, broadly, of her dissatisfaction with our relationship, and I am aware, specifically, of some events that may have been the catalyst for her incomprehensible actions. But, regardless, nobody in contact with her in her finals days -- not me, not any other spirits here -- had any clue to her upcoming actions. Any deep pain she may have been feeling, she kept to herself. As such, I'm inclined to think it was a crime of passion, but that doesn't make it any less painful, or less shocking.
In minutes she destroyed everything we had so carefully built up over our seven years, and everything we had fought to salvage. She took from me the son I had fought so hard to create and fought so hard to give a safe place to grow up. She betrayed a trust I thought I could take for granted. She attacked me personally, moments before Raja peeled her off me and left her splattered over the front lawn. And yet ... maybe I'm a fool. Maybe I'm a poor, deluded fool, but I still love her, and miss her.
She meant so much to me, and (at least at one time) I meant so much to her, that I can't feel any differently.
* * * *
Her actions, and her passing, brought many emotions. Thea, Cobalt's mother and the dearest person ever to grace my life, called Glineth a "gutless shade of a sewer-spawn" in one of her kinder and more lucid moments. Those to whom I have previously told this story have reacted with anger, outrage, shock, and sympathy. But I think that I am the only one who felt sorrow at her death.
Thea -- as closely linked to me as she is -- does allow that she can think of Glineth as a victim of this, too. Glin did, after all, pay the ultimate price -- and there was definitely something in her past, something I'll probably now never know about, that drove her to become the person she was, the person capable of such monstrosity. Like Thea, I feel sorrow for that, yes, but that's just a sort of intellectual sympathy, and emotionally, there's far more. I also feel some measure of responsibility, the standard "If only I'd"; if nothing else, she wouldn't have been in a position to kill my son if I hadn't maintained such close and extensive relations with her through the years, or if I hadn't tried so hard to keep her here. And most of the possible scenarios which led to Cobalt's death involve an action of mine as the catalyst which drove her over the edge. (Which doesn't make it my fault -- nobody but her made the decision to react in as extreme a manner as she did.)
But beyond even that, I'm sorry she's gone. I wish there was more I could have done, some way I could have averted this, and I'm sorry she had to undergo all of that -- and had to die.
Cobalt's loss was a shared loss; he had not only his two parents in spirit, but also his two parents in body, along with a vastly attended funeral packed with friends and well-wishers. (Len is something of a popular figure on the world where he lives.) The cat who I struck and killed on the road on Tuesday night at least had a funeral -- the burial by and good wishes from the one person who had a reason to care. But Glineth ...
I was the only one who felt sorry for her, and I did nothing. Nobody else could be expected to care for a murderer and traitor; and why should they? But day after day, I stared numbly at the spot where she died, watching the fading of the traces of her passing, the black stain on the ground. I cried out "Why?" and got no reply; I wished to somehow change history and undo the horrible damage done. But for all the time I stared at her remains, I never could work up the nerve to properly see her off, to offer one final act of forgiveness and compassion and give her the respect in death I gave her during her life.
That thought hit me as I buried the tabby. I walked back over to the site of Glineth's death, but all but the merest traces of her are now long gone. My chance has passed.
I cried more for Glineth on Tuesday than I did for the cat.
* * * *
I have been carrying this around with me for five months. I found myself unable to talk about it except to some trusted friends; for a long time I didn't have the strength to admit what happened, or deal with the possibility of people finding out about my tragedy that might not understand it or try to mock it. But tonight is Samhain, beginning of the season of the dead. It has taken a long time, but I think I'm at peace with her loss, and Cobalt's ... not over them, by any means, but willing to acknowledge them and to talk about them as the profound influences on my life they've been.
This is, if it isn't obvious by now, the singlehanded reason for my virtual journal shutdown since June, and the mood swing and anti-social turn I'm only in the last month or so really starting to recover from. I've at least, thank goodness, had bursts of productivity to compensate, so that I haven't become a total recluse, but everything has seemed like much more of a chore since the deaths.
I hope that this can be a turning point on that -- one of many landmarks, steps I've taken toward recovery. I will move tomorrow into my third annual BaMoJoEnt (albeit with a twist -- you'll see). Life goes on. I will cope, as I've been doing ... and, maybe, let the dead have their peace, and find a way to make mine.
Really, that's what this holiday is all about.
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