Dead cedar tree, Chocowinity Bay

Vine of Souls

Friday, March 18

“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” Sully said.

The old man—Sully assumed it was Winsome Clapanhoo—stood, put away his pocket knife, and folded his camp stool. “Who might I have mistaken you for?”

Winsome leaned his stool against the concrete and pissed against the wall. He turned his head and spoke over his shoulder to Sully. “Discourages the tourists.”

Sully realized it wasn’t a pedestrian underpass but a massive concrete casement, an artillery battery. He knew the Strait of Juan de Fuca was fortified with artillery batteries built during World War II to defend Puget Sound from a Japanese attack that never came. He had never actually seen one.

The steel doors were removed. Only the hinges set in concrete remained.

“I don’t know, someone you were expecting?” Sully said.

“I was expecting whoever showed up.” Winsome zipped his fly, recovered his camp stool, and, without further explanation, walked through the black hole in the concrete and vanished.

Sully hurried after him. It was black as a cave. He was blind. Bats lived in caves. That’s what comes from chasing strange men into dark places, Sully scolded himself. Bats in your hair.

Winsome turned on a flashlight. Sully’s fear of bats was replaced by anxious wonder. It seemed his vision of the night before captured on concreate walls smelling of urine.

The walls were painted in Paleolithic art—wolves and bears, cougar and elk, eagles and ravens and breaching whales. With a few spare lines, the artists had captured the spirit of the animal in motion. It would have sold handsomely in any art gallery on Occidental Street in Pioneer Square, Seattle. It seemed more powerful here in the darkness, animated by shadows.

Sully hurried to keep pace. There was a crack in the far wall twice the height of a man and half the width. Winsome slipped through it sideways. Sully rushed to follow the vanishing light.

Winsome was already several steps down a stairway made of stone. The steps were worn smooth by generations of feet. Sully could touch both walls with his arms extended. They were rough and dry.

The steps descended steeply. The old man was spry. Sully had to focus on his footwork to keep up. He counted the steps to estimate how far they descended from the surface but lost count after 47 when he tripped and almost pitched headfirst down the stairs.

“Mind the gap,” Winsome called from below.

The ambient light became brighter than Winsome’s flashlight. The last step ended on the floor of a cave.

Sully caught his breath. A hundred feet further the cave opened to blue sky and white gulls soaring on the updraft. Surf thundered against sea cliffs. The mouth of the cave framed sea stacks with crests of wind-knotted cedar.

Winsome set the camp stool beside a pile of gear, pumped pressure into a Coleman stove, and put a kettle on the flame. By the time Sully pulled himself away from the view, Winsome was cutting slices of cheese on a wooden board. He offered the board to Sully. “Gruyere?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure I know what’s happening here.”

“Of course, you’re not. The cheese really is good. Have some.”

“I don’t know who you think I am. I’m Sully Marlybone.”

“Of course, you are.”

“Have we met?”

Winsome shrugged. “To the best of my knowledge, no, but I might not have been myself or you might not have been who you are now.” It was an artfully ambiguous answer.

“Why were you waiting for me?” Sully asked.

“I was waiting for whomever the universe placed in my path.”

“The universe.” It was a lot to assimilate. “How did you know it was me?”

“I didn’t. Until you arrived. And then I did.”

“So what does the universe expect of me?”

Winsome looked at him with green eyes that seemed unnaturally bright in the subterranean light. “What do you expect of yourself?”

Sully took a deep breath and a piece of cheese. The conversation was a bit too Zen-like. He started to explain what he saw—what he thought he saw—at Tse-whit-zen and ended explaining far more. It was like pulling a single thread that unraveled his entire life.

Winsome listened without interruption. He busied himself mashing something with a pestle in a stone mortar. By the time Sully finished explaining himself the water was boiling in the kettle. Winsome removed two wooden bowels from a plastic bin, added the ingredients he had ground to a powder, and poured boiling water into the bowels. “Tea?”

Sully accepted the bowl. Perhaps the Makah didn’t use cups, he thought. A cultural thing. There was a thin scum floating on the surface and what looked like a twig. Sully was an avid tea drinker but didn’t recognize the heady scent, the smell of freshly turned earth and cut grass.

Winsome smiled and drank from his bowl. Sully, wanting to be polite, mimicked him. The tea tasted of dirt and chocolate and cardamom.

“I guess it comes down to this,” Sully said. “I want to know what’s real.”

“The vine of souls will tell you.”

“The vine of souls?”

“It’s also called the vine of the dead,” Winsome said, “but that sounds unnecessarily ominous. You probably know it as ayahuasca.”

“I’ve heard of it but I don’t know that I’m in the right frame of mind for psychedelics.”

“You’d best change your frame, then. You have about 15 minutes.”

“What? The tea? It’s ayahuasca?”

“Did you think it was Earl Gray?”

“I didn’t ask for this. I’m not ready.”

“Get ready. The universe won’t wait.”

Sully had taken enough drugs in his life to ask the right questions. “What kind of a trip is it? Head, heart or gut?”

Winsome looked at Sully as if he were a misbehaving child. “It’s not a recreational drug. It’s a journey of the soul.”

Sully changed tack but continued steering into the wind. “What should I expect? How will I know when it’s begun?”

“You’ll know.”

Sully knew when he saw a snake emerge from the dirt floor of the cave and coil around his left ankle. It sinuously encircled his leg, advancing toward his crotch. Another wrapped around his right leg. Suddenly he was frightened they might devour his cock. Instead they coiled around his body and themselves, rising toward his head. He felt his body dissolving as the snakes advanced. His feet and legs were the first to vanish. When the snake’s tongues licked his cheeks, his body was nothing more than rising mist.

He felt carried by a sea wind across a vast expanse of ocean. Below he saw alternating storms and sunlight as massive pressure waves swept eastward across the planet. Eventually he came to the far shore where a city as white as bone rose above the headlands. There were spires and towers delicate as filigree connected by a lace of bridges and elevated walkways. It seemed like a city that defied gravity built by a people with no fear of heights.

From a distance, he saw large birds soaring among the towers. As he drew closer he saw they were vultures. There were hundreds of them riding the scent of death down from the sky to the streets and towers of the city where corpses lay in awkward postures, cramped by pain and fear as they died. There were as many vultures feeding on the ground as circling in the air.

Sully descended to the city streets. The vultures looked up and then immediately returned to tearing strips of flesh from the bodies to get at the meat beneath. One bird had its entire head buried in a man’s ribcage likely broken by convulsions at the time of his death.

There were puddles of dried vomit near many of the bodies. These people died hard, he thought, and all together. Like Tse-whit-zen, death overtook them suddenly. There was no one to care for the dying and no one to bury them. They lay where they died, unattended and unmourned.

“Why am I here?” he asked aloud.

“To learn.” It was Winsome’s disembodied voice.

An animal’s scream echoed down the streets of the city. It sounded like a big cat. “Run,” Winsome said. “Now.”

He ran without questioning why he now had legs and feet. He ran, always choosing the downhill path. He ran, his heart pounding and lungs gasping. The cat sounded closer. He glimpsed the reflection of a huge black jaguar in a plate glass window. He ran deep into the city until the daylight faded to twilight. He ran, expecting any moment to feel the weight of the cat knock him from his feet and its teeth grip his neck, severing his spinal cord. Then he realized it had happened already.

He was laying with his face pressed to the pavement. He could smell dust and feel the hot breath of the jaguar on the back of his neck. He couldn’t move his body or even feel the weight of the cat pinning him. Blood trickled down his neck and pooled in the dust. He was dying. And then he was dead.

He stood up and looked at his body. The black cat sat on its haunches staring at him, not his broken body but his disembodied self. There was a deep rasping in the cat’s throat. Sully began walking again, always downslope. The jaguar walked beside him.

Eventually, they came to a broad river that flowed through the roots of the city. They stood on the bank of the river, unable to cross. He thought he heard wisps of a song from downriver. It resolved into the chanting of a dozen paddlers in a snake canoe. The canoe was the body of a giant boa constrictor. It raised its head and turned toward Sully. Its eyes were the green of uncut emeralds, the same color as Winsome’s eyes.

“They’ve come to take us to the headwaters,” the jaguar said. Its voice sounded deep and vibrant.

“Winsome, am I dying?” he asked. There was no reply.

“There’s nothing to fear,” the Jaguar said. “You’re dead already.”

The snake lowered its head onto the bank. Sully and the Jaguar walked across and took their places in the stern of the canoe. The crew back paddled and then resumed their chant, pulling upriver. Sully tried to speak to the nearest paddler. He touched the man’s shoulder to get his attention. When he turned, Sully realized the man was a corpse. The skin was sloughing from the bones of his face.

They paddled close to the left bank. The river was so broad he couldn’t see the other side. The water was chocolate brown and turgid. Tree trunks and bloated bodies drifted downstream, the bodies of water buffalo and capybaras and people, the gas produced by decomposition swelling their bellies like a bladder. The river narrowed and both banks grew close together, thick with jungle. Huge butterflies floated on the humid air and lay on the river like lily pads. The canoe cut through them like a scar that healed in its wake.

Troops of howler monkeys followed them on either bank. They sounded outraged. They threw fruit and broken branches which the crew ignored. The monkeys suddenly fell silent as the snake turned toward the shore. The crew rested on their paddles. The canoe grounded on the bank. When Sully and the Jaguar walked ashore, the canoe and crew faded like fog in morning sunlight.

They stood in a circular glade surrounded by shadowed jungle. A stone slab occupied the center. The body of a young boy was laid on the stone. He was dressed in a Sea Hawks t-shirt, blue jeans worn white at the knees, and scuffed tennis shoes. It was odd, Sully thought; Sea Hawk branding had reached the underworld.

A shadow flowed out of the jungle and enveloped the boy’s body. It rose up and formed a human shape, a woman’s shape but oddly distorted as if the parts didn’t fit as intended. The shape extended her arm toward Sully. He felt compelled to approach her despite his desperate resistance. Her arms encompassed him. He felt himself being consumed, digested, as if in the shadow’s belly. He screamed but couldn’t hear himself. He heard the jaguar roar. The sound shook the earth.

He woke on a cot in Winsome’s cave. He tried to speak but only croaked. Winsome dipped a cup into a pool fed by a spring that dripped down the cave wall. The cold water felt like fire in his throat. “What happened?”

“You tell me,” Winsome said. “It was your vision.”

“I saw an impossibly beautiful city full of dead people. And a boat made from a water snake. I saw a dead boy on an altar. And a shadow that might have been a woman. It felt like she devoured me. And why am I so damned hungry?”

Winsome offered him the gruyere on the cutting board. It had a hard, dry rind. “You’ve been gone for a while.”

“What day is it?”

“Sunday.”

“Holy shit. I’ve missed work. They’ll fire my ass.”

“A job is the least of your worries,” Winsome said. “Something has marked you as its own.”

“What do you mean, something? What?”

“I don’t know. Something powerful.”

“You’re not reassuring me.”

“It was not my intention to reassure you.”

“I need to get home,” Sully said.

“You need be careful where you go now, what you do, who you see. You are vulnerable, more than when you were completely ignorant. The abyss has also into you. You must learn how to survive. Come back as soon as you’re able. I’ll be waiting for you.”

Sully was so distracted he didn’t remark on the oddity of an old Makah Indian quoting Nietzsche to him.

It was mid-morning when Sully returned to the van. There was only a pathetic clicking when he turned the key in the ignition. He had to climb under the engine and bang the solenoid with a tire iron before the starter would engage. He drove through the forest both irritated and afraid and excited. His world had abruptly pivoted. He had flown across oceans and ridden in a spirit canoe! Then there was that bit being consumed by a shadow. And Winsome’s cryptic warning was worrisome.

He wrestled with the steering as the worn springs of the Dodge bottomed out on ruts in the road. He almost ran over the man before he saw him. Gray hair and a bushy mustache, sports coat and muddy slacks, standing in the middle of the dirt road. The Dodge came to a stop in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes a few feet short of bowling the man over.

Winsome had said the universe placed Sully in his path. This guy couldn’t be more in Sully’s path without driving over him. He leaned across the cab and rolled down the passenger window manually. He waved the dust away from his face. “Need a ride?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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