by Cat Wyatt
A howling nor’easter bore down on my small town, winds gusting and blowing so hard that trees were bending over, their branches scrubbing the ground and shredding all the leaves on the abrasive, grooved concrete along the long driveway. The trees lined that driveway like sentinels that surrounded my home; the air, heavy with moisture-pungent creosote smoke, hung low in ghost-like wisps.
A sleeting rain pelted the windows and the old-growth cedar wood shake siding of the house. From beyond the back porch door, I heard a kitten meowing. I wasn’t in kindergarten yet, but I knew what the meow meant—that the kitten was in distress and out alone in the storm. Although the noise of the storm was frightening, I despaired for that poor kitten, all alone. He was crying for help, my help.
Sneaking out through the utility room door in the back of the house was easy. No one—not my absentee parents nor my grandfather, who was asleep in his “Kennedy” style rocking chair—would know I was gone. I left the house without a jacket, afraid I wouldn’t get to the kitten in time and knowing that if my grandfather awakened, he would forbid me to go out in the storm. From the stilted house to the ground level, I navigated the steep, 45-degree angle steps, slick with green and sage slime-colored moss. Past the root cellar, toward the woods, I felt the chill, the goose bumps, as the sleet pelted and stung my face, my curly hair tangling and matting from the wind and wet. The kitten continued to call to me, but the meowing seemed to be growing weaker. Or maybe it was farther away than I first thought.
The mewing drew me deeper into long-thorn blackberry brambles and pucker brush, a thicket more than four feet high and so dense I couldn’t see over or through it. The light was dimming fast, dark clouds tumbling overhead. I tried to put one foot in front of the other on the narrow path, but I kept losing my balance. Thorns snagged my long-sleeved knit top and leggings, puncturing holes, scraping and scratching and gouging my skin, but none of that mattered. The poor, defenseless, lost kitten, that was all that mattered.
The marshy, moss-covered ground squished beneath my moccasins. Even on the best of days, it made for wobbly maneuvering and poor visibility. I’d ventured here many times, just not in fall or winter. I had been warned not to go into the woods during the fall and winter; I was told the woods would swallow me up, and I wouldn’t ever be found. A warning I had heeded until now. I had ventured many times in daylight, in the bright summer sunshine. I knew these woods: the brambles with their lush berries, the soft, moss-covered trails I made as I ventured on my own to find a space to contemplate, to write my stories. And now, in the dusk, in the late fall, here I was in the middle of the woods. The visibility was definitely marginal, the cold wind blowing rain on my face, making it almost impossible to see. The icy rain was building up on my long eyelashes, and so cold my eyes felt like they were freezing shut. I couldn’t let that happen, at least not before I found the source of meowing—the kitten.
The urgent meow beckoned me deeper and deeper into the woods. I had to rescue that poor kitten, who was lost and alone. I knew that feeling. I was often left alone with my grandfather, who slept most of the time. Most evenings and weekends my parents were gone, and when they were home, I was sent to stay with my aunt, passed off like a new toy that had lost its appeal. Even at the age of three, I knew that no human, no animal should feel that way.
Deep into the ten acres, a crowded mass of white birch trees, I felt myself watched, followed, within a frightening abyss. From the freezing rain my hands grew numb, and I could no longer feel my feet. Like the thrust from a powerful jet engine, the wind whipped my hair into a frozen, frizzy mess, strands sticking to my face and poking into my eyes. And now my eyelashes were freezing to my cheeks. I tried to navigate, through my small slits of my eyes, forward toward the mewing, now barely audible above the howling and whistling of the wind through the trees. I knew from the whimpering, weak meows that the kitten was frightened too. I had to find him. In synchronized whispers the trees murmured, echoing the meows, reaching a crescendo, a fevered pitch that made it difficult to hear the kitten at all. I followed one way and then another, going in circles, finding myself back in the same place again and again. When I could catch the faint sound, it was a shrill, fast, panicky yowl.
All at once the air quieted, as if I were in the calm, peaceful eye of a hurricane. As a gentle breeze wafted over me, a plaid wool Pendleton blanket warmed me. I heard a soft, reassuring voice, and then, out of nowhere, a grandfatherly image appeared, an elder—an Indian—his long, salt-and-pepper gray hair braided into two pigtails interwoven with golden eagle feathers. He wore a buckskin shirt that I later learned was called a wamus. The wamus was embellished with delicate, colorful beading in a chevron design and two large, turquoise, oval stones the size of sand dollars, one on each side, approximately breast high. Long, straight fringe dangled from the underside of his sleeves; his pants were made of the same material with fringed side seams. His beaded moccasins sported very short fringe.
His left hand stretched out, motioning me to follow. He looked exactly like the man in the painting my aunt had given me. It hung on my bedroom wall, the word “Sage” scribed like a signature in the lower right-hand corner. My aunt had explained that “sage” meant someone wise.
I trusted him. As my hand reached for his, I spoke, calling out, “Sage.” He handed me the kitten and smiled, acknowledging the name. I had planted sage in my little garden that very day. I understood that he had come to lead me toward safety, toward home, with the kitten held close to my heart. As a child of three, rarely fearful, I trusted and loved him, as I did almost everyone.
That was our first encounter—me, a child of three years, lost and alone in the brambly, swampy woods as I tried to find my way to a lost kitten. That kitten would be my refuge from aloneness for many years.
Skeptics will say that Sage was a figment of my childish imagination. If so, it was and is one heck of an imagination. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a feeling, a sixth sense, of the presence of someone close, protecting, watching over me. I now know Sage as a Shaman who many times has led me from danger, disappearing into a sunset or over a hillside, carrying danger away, leaving me calm, rejuvenated, and feeling protected and safe. Other times he disappears in a curl of luminescent, pearl-gray smoke that rises high into the clouds. Maybe that is why I often look toward the sky.
I never feared Sage, whom I understood as a wise thinker and adviser. Over the years he never aged. I grew inquisitive about his world. Why had he come to me? Why could I see him and no one else could? In a soft, reassuring tone, he explained that he was my guiding, protective spirit.
One morning my mother, drunker than normal, lashed out, hitting me with a wooden, paddle-style hairbrush across the back of the head—so as not to leave a visible mark. She wished she’d never adopted a daughter, she said. Brokenhearted, I disappeared into the thicket once again. This time I was not alone. My kitty, also named Sage, followed me. If I got lost, I knew that Sage, the Shaman, would help us find our way.
When I was older, soccer practice relieved me of having to go straight home after school. Most of my teammates carpooled, but I wasn’t included—my mother didn’t drive and my father was either at work or drinking in a tavern. Even as winter approached and darkness fell early, the three-mile walk home gave me time to think about life.
On a particularly wet and gusty night, the walk home along a branch-littered, unlit country road reminded me of that time long ago when the trees bent almost to the ground. The darkness deepened. I wasn’t prepared for the weather. The winds howled and blew angrily. Ferocious gusts nearly blew me away as they whistled through the trees. Branches cracked, crashing to the ground as power transformers exploded, throwing sparks, live power lines dancing and dangling like agitated snakes, ready to strike at any who dared come near. The freak windstorm on Columbus Day, 1962, the most powerful storm to strike the Pacific Northwest in that century, would become known as “The Terrible Tempest of the Twelfth.”
Dressed in a tee shirt, shorts, and white Converse slip-on tennis shoes, I threaded my way through the twisted and tangled mass of debris. I couldn’t distinguish tree limbs from trash or more dangerous debris such as live wires. With every snap, crackle, and boom, I shielded my head with my arm as if that could somehow protect me from harm. Trees more than a hundred years old splintered into pieces resembling firewood and matchsticks. Growing more frightened with each chaotic moment, I climbed over asphalt shingles, wood siding, and shards of glass that must have once been a large picture window. When I looked up into this darkest of nights, there was Sage, hand outstretched. He helped me navigate safely through the debris, down the littered, cluttered road, and onto my front porch.
There were other times. I was thirty-eight years old when a rogue wave turtled my sailboat, turning it upside down like a toy boat in baby bathtub—only it wasn’t a bathtub, it was the Pacific Ocean. Tethered to the helm and the safety lines and hanging on for dear life, I braced for the whiplash that would follow as the boat rotated one hundred eighty degrees to right itself. Upright and catching a breath, I surveyed the massive damage. The carbon fiber mast had snapped, the two ends dangling from the twisted wire rigging. Worse, the waves were dragging the boom overboard, the sail still attached.
Without electronics, engine, mast, or sail, I struggled to remain calm. When I felt Sage’s hand on my shoulder, I knew he would guide me over twelve miles of tempest toward the harbor and safety. Like the hood ornament on a car, he stood proud on the bow of the boat, showing me the way to safe harbor.
Now this young girl, this young woman, grows old. As we all must, she faces the inevitability of death, though without fear, because she is not alone. From a precipice high above the ocean, she feels settled, radiating calm. Hand outstretched, the Sage who has guided her through life assures her that she is equipped for one final journey, trailing him into the clouds.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing