Dead Sleeping Shaman

Chapter One

Monday, October 12, 2009
15 days until the end of the world

I figured the colorful woman under the scraggly jack pine was sleeping off a drunk. She lay propped against the rough tree trunk with her large straw hat drawn over her face. Her hands were crossed in her lap, her legs stuck out straight, the toes of her black shoes pointing skyward. I had no intention of disturbing her. Not that it wasn’t odd, that she slept there at the entrance to Deward, an abandoned logging town, but the last thing I wanted, on this, a very happy day for me, was to have to talk to a stranger, share my good news with anyone, or do anything more than sit on my happy letter, which I mean literally since I’d struck it in the back pocket of my jeans.

You see, this is the sad and pathetic picture of me when I am ‘happy’. Emily Kincaid, 34, divorced, running out of money, living alone in the backwoods of northwest Lower Michigan, trying to sell a mystery novel nobody wanted, but just that day hearing from a New York literary agent interested enough to ask to see the entire manuscript. Most writers would find such an event thrilling and worthy of a party or at least a few happy phone calls to friends. The friends might want to take me out to a wonderful place for dinner, share a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and share dreams of when I would be famous and mysterious and sought after by conference coordinators and universities which would vie to be the repository of my papers when, and if, I should ever decide to die.

Not me. But then I’m not ‘most’ writers.

It was a long time since I’d had anything to celebrate so I guessed I wasn’t doing it very well, walking alone in the sunny autumn woods on my way to do a feature piece about ghost towns for an October special section of the Traverse City newspaper, the Northern Statesman. I was a stringer there, doing occasional stories for the editor, Bill Corcoran; working for next to nothing.

What I’d really wanted most after Madeleine Clark’s letter came that morning was to hide inside my little golden house on my little wild lake with Sorrow, my ugly, black and white, young dog. I wanted to lock the door behind us, take the phone off the hook, and laugh my head off. But it seemed I had little talent for happiness left in me. Being at Deward, where a noisy, dirty, ragged lumber camp once stood at a horseshoe bend in the Manistee River, was probably perfect. A normal woman would want to laugh and wave the letter at new friends in Leetsville, the small town closest to where I lived—all those people who’d given up on my ever being a real writer; people who smiled their sad smiles when I mentioned a new book I intended to write and, instead, brought me plots they’d seen on old “Murder, She Wrote” episodes. Their version of pearls before . . .

Anyway, a cult-like, End of the World group had moved into Leetsville, according to my friend, Deputy Dolly Wakowski, one of Leetsville’s finest. They expected the end of the world to begin right there—around the 45th Parallel, and very soon, if I was to believe what Dolly said. She was the one who called to warn me to stay out of town, if I could. “Goin’ crazy here. Givin’ out tickets left and right.” To Dolly that meant true happiness and she was one who actually knew what made her happy.

I kicked along the sandy trail, going over and over the letter; the agent’s words circling in my brain, twisting, fluttering, bowing and giving an uppity sniff . . . fetching characters . . . deep knowledge of your place . . . very interested in seeing more . . . but taking pleasure in being alone, too, hugging my news to myself.

That’s when I came on the sleeping Gypsy-looking woman.

She seemed comfortable enough under the tall pine with that big straw hat covering her face, thin hands clasped in her lap against the cheap fabric of a wildly colored skirt of bilious greens and shocking oranges. Picture of pastoral innocence, I thought. Well, gaudy innocence, in her bright purple silk blouse and that wild skirt laying in precisely drawn folds around her. Her long-fingered, beringed hands were still and graceful, one on top of the other in her lap. Sketchy dark shadows of bare jack pine under-branches traced the skirt down over her hips and her legs to end at those crossed-at-the-ankles feet in narrowly pointed shoes.

I grumbled to myself. No time for some drunken lady needing rescuing. What I wanted was to get passed her without a word since I didn’t have a word to share. I had to go to the place where the lumber town once stood, take my photos, make my notes, and be as quiet as the breeze barely ruffling the tree branches.

A turkey buzzard sat, like a Christmas ornament, at the very top of the tree where the woman slept. Below him were three noisy crows, hopping from branch to branch, staring out at me with their beady, bright eyes and giving me a caw or two.

I stopped in the middle of the weedy path, giving the crows a chance to get bored with me and shut their pointed beaks. The woman didn’t stir. It must have been peaceful for her, stretched out so comfortably, the way she was.

I put one finger to my lips to hush the crows, pushed my hands down into my corduroy jacket pockets, one hand on my digital camera, one hand on my notebook, and sniffed. I’d get by the woman and keep my back turned if I heard her waken. My hunched shoulders would let her know I was in no mood for conversation. My uncombed, striped blond hair, caught at the back of my head by a red, rubber band, would scream I was a woods woman who any sane person should stay far away from.

I followed the path through tall and browning grasses around to where the old sawmill once stood, up on a high switchback of the meandering Manistee, a river so clear and tranquil the few grasses at the bottom lay sidewise, unmoving in the pent current. Color burst from everywhere—blue sky in the lazy river, rainbowed clouds dressing up the water, greens and yellows and reds of trees thick along the shore, and bright gray tangled branches bowing into the river, creating eddies doing slow swirls before moving on. I snapped photo after photo. Man-made vees of logs, built to separate the timbers, still cut the river out from shore—the only evidence that men had worked in this place. I made my notes, recorded impressions, and took photographs.

I turned my back to the river, hugging my arms across my chest. There was a small breath of cold coming from the water; the kind of dampness that gets on your skin and lays there like mold, as if it would become a permanent part of you. I shivered, then turned to walk slowly up the path leading to where rows of tar-papered shacks once stood. As I slouched along, I told myself that I should be grateful to have at least one of my books considered worthy. Any sane writer would be standing drinks for everyone at the Skunk Saloon in town about now. Couldn’t I just see Dylan Thomas being carried out of a Welsh pub the night he learned he would be a famous poet? Do not go gentle into that good night . . . I’m sure they carted him home and then he drank some more, the drink leading him like a siren’s song into what wouldn’t be a good night after all,

With such a bad example before me, the last thing I wanted was for anyone to know that I was three years pregnant with possibility, and the elephant I was expecting might very well be stillborn despite a New York agent. Happiness was a prelude to misery, as my Irish ancestors would have told you. Laugh in the morning, cry by night.

The only reminder of the row on row of shacks where families had lived were rectangles and squares of reindeer moss outlining what once were brick foundations. I dug into the moss and came up with half a brick stamped W.W.CO. I’d missed the time of reindeer moss in bloom, tiny red flowers almost microscopic they were so small, and perfect. That was in July. This was early October—with the trees fired into a kind of celebration I no longer welcomed, knowing that winter was coming, always sooner rather than later.

I stepped into the woods to walk the outlined shacks. Behind one I bent to pick up something white against the moss. A piece of china, carefully curved; the graceful bend of a soup tureen. I held it in my cupped hand and thought of the poor woman who had cherished this lone piece of elegance; the woman who one day broke this—her pride and joy, the bowl she set carefully before her family, lifting the lid to let the aroma of her soup flow out and around the people she loved. I could almost see her holding the broken bowl in her worn hands, taking it to the dump behind the rows of houses, setting it there—in irretrievable pieces, and turning back to her tar-papered shack, no room left in her for even a single tear.

So, OK. I set the piece of china back under the moss. This was my ‘happy’ day and I sure as hell wasn’t going to end up mourning the soup tureen of a woman crammed, every winter, into a shack with a dozen kids and a husband who could be flattened by a falling tree at any moment. Talk about the failure of hope; that skittish thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson well knew; a thing you couldn’t really trust and can’t hold on to. Maybe Emily meant hope was like a bird in the hand, but everybody knows the mess a bird in the hand would leave behind.

I headed back up the path toward the entrance to the town, and home.

First I had to get passed the sleeping drunk again. If I wasn’t going to see friends, on this happy morning, I certainly didn’t want to talk to somebody I didn’t know. Especially a stranger who looked as if she could pop up, put her hand out, and demand I give her money in a wheedling voice. There’d been a gypsy on the Greek island of Rhodes, where Jackson, my cheating ex-husband, and I had gone to walk the medieval street of the Knights Hospitallier and the Knights Templar, back in happier times. The young, steamy woman had swayed her way to Jackson’s side, stuck her hand into his pocket, and leaned her head against his shoulder, flirting up at him. I think she got a dollar and a lecture since Jackson wasn’t one to splurge, especially on Gypsy women of no interest. I remembered that Jackson told her to go back to her own homeland and she had asked, “And where is my homeland, Sir?” That answer grew huge to me when I sought out my own homeland; alone, divorced, and seeking an answer to who I really was—when my academic degrees, a good job on an Ann Arbor newspaper, and an abortive, forever, love were all stripped away.

As I got close to the woman I tiptoed, as if the sandy, rutted trail allowed for noise. She hadn’t moved. The long, pale hands were arranged exactly as they had been arranged. The folds of the skirt were as perfect as before. I thought of spiders and ants; all things that fly and crawl and leap and could land on your skin if you slept on the ground. The thought of insects creeping into my nose and ears, tickling my arm hairs, and maybe nesting in some shaded part of my body, made my stomach lurch. And wasn’t the ground damp? And autumn chilled?

I metaphorically gave a tip of my hat to the sleeping lady—braver woman than I—and put a finger to my lips, shushing those crows again. I was going to pass on by. I was going to take my wild glee at success—of a sort—home. But a thought stopped me. There had been no car out on the two-track leading in. This place was miles from a main road, miles from any houses, back in the forest on land the DNR managed. How had she gotten here? Maybe she’d been dumped, too drunk to know where she was.

Maybe she was sick. Those hands were certainly pale and marble-looking; the nails—now that I really looked—broken. The slightest twinge of conscience hit me. I cleared my throat to see if she would waken. Nothing. I squatted and balanced myself on a splay-fingered hand dug into the sand, then reached out and touched one of the woman’s shoes. I gave it a gentle shake.

She slept on.

Quietly, I said, “M’am? M’am? Are you all right?”

The straw hat slid, more from the foot shaking than from any movement the woman made. I waited, holding my breath, sure she’d snap awake and demand to know what the heck I was doing shaking her foot.

“M’am!” I shook her shoe harder. If she was really sick, or unconscious, this was no time to be delicate.

The straw hat slid again. In slow motion, it moved off to the left, down and across her face. The rigid hands in her lap didn’t spring up to catch it. The toes of her shoes remained pointing sternly at the fall sky.

The hat moved on, exposing part of the woman’s pale cheek. It moved again, until one open blue eye peeked out; one fixed blue eye rimmed heavily with red. The eye didn’t blink or focus. I looked at the dead blue eye with horror, falling away from her, scrambling back, breath catching in my throat.

I squatted there and tried to think. Something had to be done. I had to move.

As I watched, still hoping she would wake up and stumble to her feet, a huge black fly crawled from the side of one wide-open, staring eye. It made its way across the pale, almost waxen, cheek to stop, in that dead-still way of autumn flies, to bring it’s forefeet up, to settle back, and begin to groom its shiny, bottle-green head.