Sunday, April 13th, 2003 4:36 pm
If you want to understand people, here's a simple rule of thumb - just pay attention to how a person views his fellow humans, because whatever they say about other people is the way they are themselves.
-- A. Matthews
Despina walks slowly and carefully through the trackless dark, heading toward the campfire she can see flickering from the level places. It felt glorious -- being CHOSEN, carried off, but not hurt... So, why did he reject me? Why did he leave? I thought things were going SO well. I didn't mind catching the rattle snakes, nor did he seem to mind cleaning and cooking them. We each did what we could do best. Where's the harm in that? The whole situation is non-traditional. Why should non-traditional roles, undertaken in private, matter?
Maybe I just tried too hard. Maybe my neediness drove him away. That's what led me to leave and return here. I couldn't face the dawn, catching another rattler, but not having him there to skin and cook it. Not having even the silent camaraderie available. And being utterly clueless as to WHAT is really going on now.
When Despina eventually wanders into the campfire, nobody comments on her reappearance at first. Finally Paul Peter can't stand it any longer. "Ah, our wanderer has returned."
Despina does not respond. She stalks to her smoky spot in the circle and drops dispiritedly into her hollow.
"Hurting that badly, huh?" Paul Peter pokes at her wound enthusiastically.
She curls away from him, closing her eyes. Her body is rigid with tension.
"So, what's your totem?" Paul Peter prods once she's settled.
He always has shown a willingness to venture where mere angels fear to tread.
She plays dumb. "Totem?"
"Most people undertake a vision quest to find their totem animal."
Rolling over, she responds, "They do?"
Doggedly, he continues. "They don't return until they've killed, or at least seen, their totem animal."
Pushing herself upright against the log, she says, "They don't?"
"No, they don't."
"Women, too?" Despina pushes right back at him.
"Not usually," he admits, then hastily adds, "But it's not unheard of," not wanting to give her any out.
"Well, if that is what I was doing, I guess mine would have to be a rattle snake."
He flinches. "You killed a rattle snake?"
"I sure couldn't catch and kill anything larger without a weapon." Pausing, she grows reflective, then continues, "Or even with one, truth to tell. I'd probably need a weapon of mass destruction, considering my skill level with bow, lance, knife, or gun."
Coming up in time to hear this exchange, the sheriff chuckles softly, "Only hand weapons allowed, eh, knives, spears... granades... I thought you did vision quests alone, not accompanied by a brave described to me as armed and dangerous. Have you seen Cu? I need to talk to him."
"Not recently. By the way, you were right. He's a horrid hunter. He was armed, albeit lightly, but every still living animal anywhere on that mountainside bears mute testimony to the inaccuracy of calling him dangerous. I captured and killed whatever we ate."
Disconcerted, Paul Peter echoes, "We? You weren't alone?"
"I promised not to wander around in the desert alone out of sight of the village or the road after the arroyo incident," Despina reveals.
"Why'd Cu restrict YOU more than they restrict their own children?" Paul Peter juts his chin out.
"Cu? I didn't promise Cu," Despina quickly denies.
Chuckling again, the sheriff said, "She promised ME. Good teachers are hard to come by. I didn't want to have to write more letters trying to replace her. Foolish young women are hard to find."
"A rattlesnake?" Paul Peter squeaks, still hung up on her totem. "You KILLED a rattlesnake?"
"A rattlesnake? Not exactly. More accurately, I decimated the entire population in that area." She drops her eyes in embarrassment.
"Wouldn't it have been more humane to just AVOID them? Why'd you KILL them?"
"I was hungry," Despina replies with a shrug.
"You ATE rattlesnakes?"
"They really do taste sort of like chicken, once you get them cooked. Got any good recipies I can try?"
Paul Peter squints his eyes, "Yeah, right. You cooked and ate rattlesnake meat the entire time."
Casually, Despina flips a clumsily stitched rabbit skin pouch and thong from around her neck, tossing them in Paul Peter's direction. When it hits, it clatters.
Opening it, he spills out an impressive collection of rattles, some impressively LARGE. The significance of the fact that SHE's wearing the pouch is not lost on him. Tipping the rattles back in with the toe of his boot, he slides the sack carefully toward her.
"They won't bite you now, PP," she teases.
"Handling someone's medicine pouch in not a good idea," he says, carefully picking his words to hide his squeamishness.
"Handling an Indian's medicine pouch would be unthinkable," she corrects gently.
"Handling anyone's won in an Indian manner is not a risk I care to indulge in. Angry gods do powerfully angry things."
Rolling her eyes, Despina replaces the pouch. As the conversation lags, Despina's shoulders droop. Bruno tries to cheer her up by reporting that once the students got a feel for the types of mats and borders that attract the most attention on the alphabets from the art displays, they choose how to set up the next ones, working alone.
Jacques helps by adding, “The best have been painstakingly matted with twig borders, pebble borders, woven grass borders, or colored sand borders. Are you going to display at the county fair's science exhibit?”
“Sure.” Unable to muster much in the way of enthusiasm, she recoils herself into the depression, again facing away.
Mickey's radio demands attention, squawking news of his arrival as he strides purposefully toward the campfire.
"Despina, what's wrong?" asks a gentle voice from the edge of the firelight.
Raising her head, she peers through the smoke. "Mickey, is that you again? Are you real, or just a figment of my imagination?"
He steps forward into better light. "I'm part of your dreams?"
"You're in jeans! I rarely see you out of uniform!"
"Let's move your log over there out of the smoke."
"Can't. She already tried that," says Paul Peter gruffly.
"I'll help you, Pina."
She rolls back over, like a night blossom opening to the day. Hope fades from her face. "I wish that were a broader offer. I need far more than a log rolled."
Her head droops, her eyes staring at the fire, but not taking it in.
"Let's at least solve one do-able thing. We can put the log up wind in that bare spot."
"I had it over there before." She pauses, then continues, "I can't go back."
"Allegories?" The sheriff taps his index finger against his nose.
"Yes, and fire ants." Her normally vibrant voice is flat.
"Okay, I'll pretend I'm a firefighter rescuing a beautiful lady from a burning building." He settles in Cu's accustomed spot on the end of her log.
Despina looks at him sideways without turning her head.
"Tears? Did he hurt you? You don’t strike me as someone who cries easily.”
"Not the way you mean.” Despina struggles into a sitting position, leaning against the log. “I seem to have caused a problem."
"Problems have solutions," Mick states softly.
"I can't seem to see one. I guess I tried too hard."
"To do what, Pina?"
"Most people enjoy having their mates try to please them." Mick’s eyebrows shoot up.
"Only if they do it the right way... only if they're successful."
"Pina, he ought to be able to recognize your intent, even if the execution is flawed. Failing to please is not your fault."
"I'm not so sure. If you know you're in trouble, but are weak enough that you allow the perfectly predictable future to happen because of your unwise decisions... Even though you knew what a negative impact it would cause on far, far too many others who didn't even know they would be involved..."
"You need to cut down what you feel responsible for to a reasonable level," Mick interrupts realistically.
"Mick, I seem to be 'emitting'."
"Pheromones, memes?" he questions.
"Evidently. You've returned here in jeans, and I'm extremely grateful." She risks turning her head toward him.
"I'm glad to see you, too. So why the upset?"
"I'm not just affecting you and Cu."
Mickey makes an encouraging sound.
"PP keeps giving me 'presents'."
Sticking his unwanted oar into the already murky water, Paul Peter adds, "Which YOU keep returning, unused, when you NEED to use them."
"See what I mean? He's accepted that we're over, yet the protection, his involvement, continues unabated."
Ever the voice of reason, Mickey suggests softly, "Friendship is generally considered to be a good thing."
"He didn't deliberately cause a problem," Mick states. "Who could have predicted Cu's reaction?"
Despina lowers her voice, too. Strain as he might, Paul Peter can no longer catch their words. "I wish Cu'd talk to me. He seems to be one of those males who use words as if he's being charged $10.00 for each one he utters. Is he angry that PP gave me protection, or that I didn't refuse it? Although, as I think about the way it was done, I don't see how I could have. I wasn't consulted. Or is it that I was possibly willing to use one outside of marriage?"
"Could you have?" Mick’s eyebrows shoot up, a sure sign he doubts she could.
"Probably not. My morality seems to be internal, not imposed by religion or society. Not that the heat of the moment couldn't overwhelm me..." Despina winces as her eyes roll Paul Peter's way.
"Maybe he left to honor that idea -- it's my impression of you, too. If I felt inclined to wear down your resistance, thought I was succeeding, and respected you, leaving might be the best solution. Even leaving abruptly, while I was still noble enough to get it done..."
Despina sits up, twisting around until she faces Mickey fully. She can read what delivering this reassurance to her has cost him in the flickering firelight. She understands instantly that it is true and fitting.
"Great,” Despina sighs. “We're still a triad."
"A triad? You've lost me," Mick says, running his fingers through his hatless hair.
"Remember how I told you flat out the first night that I started to fall in love with the writer of the letters, especially the English ones? I've seen NOTHING from either of you to indicate that the PAIR of you aren't my ideal man. I initially thought I was only dealing with ONE person."
"You want to share us both?" Mickey reiterates incredulously.
"No. I can't. I'm monogamous, or at least serially monogamous. I can't accept parallel hookups; they're morally reprehensible to me."
"You react to Cu on a gut level."
"I don't deny that. You see it plainly. But what you don't see is that I also react to you. He's mercurial, incandescent, then frigid; you're a warm fire in a comfortable pair of slippers. You're good conversation and contentment. And, possibly, unexplored fireworks without the constant fear of being burned or consumed."
Mickey's eyes widen, his face even ruddier in the glow of the fire.
"Now I've embarrassed you. I’m sorry, Mick."
"I think of myself as unflappable. I've seen it all, heard it all."
"Ah, but LIVING it... now, that's different." She contemplates the fire until Mickey regains his composure.
"Trouble in paradise?" interjects the ever-curious Paul Peter loudly.
"Uh, not really. You've got to get there, first." Despina looks toward Spirit Mountain, out of sight in the darkness except for the absence of stars on the horizon blocked by its bulk.
"So, what's impeding the journey?" Mick inquires softly.
"I guess it's that I over-value conversation, or maybe I'm not Indian enough."
"The only way you could get MORE Indian than you seem to me would be to stain your skin. Vision quest..." Paul Peter breaks in.
"Jacques is afraid of being seen alone with me for fear of damaging my chances with Cu, afraid that if we become friends, I'll be judged unsuitable."
Glancing around the circle at the faces avidly following every word of the discussion, she nods to Horst, "Horst wants to have a romp, a fling while his wife is tucked safely away in Germany where she'll never hear of it."
Smiling fondly at Bruno, she continues, "Only Bruno seems to be able to handle it with dignity and respect. He's a wonderful friend."
"May we all age with his grace," adds Mickey.
"He is honorable and recognizes that trait in others. Like Cu. He once told me 'He is honor.'" Her smile fades ruefully into sadness. "Incandescence is nice at the time, but it burns out. I know that. Once the fire dies down, the companionship becomes even more important. I've never put much faith in unsupported pyrotechnics. I'm at sea, not knowing if I'm reading the right meaning into the cut of his jib and the amount of top sail he's carrying."
Paul Peter interrupts, "Maybe a quote will help. 'Speak for yourself, John Alden.'"
"I've thought of that, I admit. I can't decide which is in sway at present -- that, or 'When you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with'. I met them thinking they were one, and seem stuck there." She reaches over and touches Mickey's hand tentatively.
Grasping her hand, he stands, pulling her up with him. "I think a walk would be a good idea."
A companionable silence settles as they walk.
"Silence doesn't seem to scare you."
"No. I value conversation, but I don't need or want idle chatter, noise to fill a void. I value shared experiences, verbal and otherwise."
The last time I took someone's hand and followed them into the desert, Cu and I... No. Mickey is his own man. If I can't even focus on him when we're alone together, get to know the man behind the badge, then I at least owe it to him to let him know it.
A long sigh escapes Despina.
Giving her hand a gentle squeeze, Mickey misreads her, "Yes, the desert can be healing."
Shaking off her introspection, doubts unspoken, Despina returns the squeeze, "This was a good idea. Thank you."
Turning toward her, he catches her other hand as well. "Did he leave, or did you?"
"He left first."
"Odd hour to try that. It's more as if he bolted. Your feeling about his sense of honor fits, the more I think about it."
"And now that you have?"
"I'm still content here, now, with you, even with you being so blooming noble. If Cu saw me now, the translation would be 'betrayed by my best friend'. What bugs me is that I don't know. The fireworks, or the comfortable shoes. I think you must be the only man in the country I haven't danced with yet. I don't know if you have fireworks. This is a true Catch-22. If you had it all, and truly offered it to me; if he has it all and is truly offering it to me -- how do I choose correctly? You're both such honorable men. Am I destined to be wrong, no matter what? Be haunted with 'if only's' or face you, or he, plagued by doubts? The wheels just keep spinning endlessly. I want to act honorably. Once, I even thought I knew how."
Dropping hands, they return to the campfire.
"Where'd you last see him?" the sheriff picks up the conversation.
"I could take you there in daylight, I'm pretty sure."
"I really need to see him sooner than that."
Her eyes widen. “It seems that you’re on duty even when you’re out of uniform." Her eyebrow arches. "Officially? As, in connection with that armed and dangerous description?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"It took me half a day to walk this far. When did this armed and dangerous incident allegedly occur? Before that, or afterward?"
Smiling broadly, the sheriff inquires, "Would you be willing to testify to that?"
"How long was I gone?"
"You don't know?" bursts in Paul Peter.
"You know what they say, 'Time's fun when you're having flies,' er, rattlesnakes."
"Five days," supplies Bruno solemnly.
"I can testify to his continuous presence for that long, minus my walking back time."
Drawing an audible breath, "Continuous, Despina? As in, all night?" Paul Peter prods, eyes wide.
"You have a dirty mind, PP."
"Thank you." He gives her a Cheshire cat grin. "If you were asleep, how would you know?" he continues in his best barrister-spinning-his-trap-to-ensnare-t
"I'm a light sleeper. It would have disturbed my beauty rest."
"Ah, I think I can use my imagination from there. Sufficiently documented to stand up in court, sheriff?" he inquires drolly.
"I'll need to take you in and file a formal deposition," he informs her, embarrassed.
"Can I shower first?" she inquires, heading toward the parked patrol car. Lifting her arm, she sniffs, then staggers.
Appreciative laughter breaks the tension.
Once they are to the car, the sheriff opens the passenger door for her, emphasizing that she is 1) going voluntarily, 2) not a prisoner or suspect.
After he shuts his door, she turns serious. "Fallout from the death of his wife?"
"Possibly. He won't follow you to town, will he?"
"I don't think he's clairvoyant. I doubt a soul other than his mother knows where he is at present, and she's pretty fussy who she'll talk to."
Last updated 3/7/10 Moved alone in in the desert alone; added a close quote in I'm extremely grateful.” 2/28/10 Added "tells". 2/13/10 Added or guns; Changed I’ve never seen to I rarely see you; they are to they’re; added Sticking his unwanted oar into the already murky water, Paul Peter adds, and Ever the voice of reason, Mickey suggests softly, Also, problem," Mick states. "Who; Despina lowers her voice, too. Strain as he might, Paul Peter can no longer catch their words.; Mick’s eyebrows shoot up, a sure sign he doubts she could.; Despina winces as her eyes roll Paul Peter's way.; interjects the ever-curious Paul Peter loudly.; Mick inquires softly.; Paul Peter breaks in.; Her eyebrow arches. “It seems that you’re on duty even when you’re out of uniform." 12/30/09 Changed It was glorious to It felt glorious; 12/17/09 Changed to I think of myself as unflappable. 8/5/08 changed drol-ly to drolly. (7/23/08 - added "I promised not to wander alone“; Mickey's radio demands attention, squawking news of his arrival as he strides purposefully toward the campfire. correct spelling on grenades, recipes, at least one more... added material from Alphabet Soup. Bruno tries to cheer her up by reporting that once the students got a feel for the types of mats and borders that attract the most attention on the alphabets from the art displays, they choose how to set up the next ones, working alone.
Jacques helps by adding, “The best have been painstakingly matted with twig borders, pebble borders, woven grass borders, or colored sand borders. Are you going to display at the county fair's science exhibit?” 9/14/04.)
Word Count: 2955