Saturday, August 2, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Eighteen: A Varnished Nebula

Buy the book at Amazon Kindle.


For several weeks, the clandestine meetings stayed pretty much the same, helped greatly by the expansion of Scott’s business. BankNet was paying the price of success, facing a continual shortage of trained personnel and constantly fighting to keep up. There was always some sticky issue, some snag in negotiations necessitating the president’s personal touch.
He expected trouble from his wife, but was pleasantly surprised to find her amiable, even friendly, upon his returns. He surmised that he had been silently forgiven, that Juliana had settled into the idea that business would continue to dominate her husband’s life, at least for the next few years.
Given this kind of free rein, Juliana was able to see Scootie once each weekend and once or twice during the week. They grew comfortable with their arrangement, but not comfortable enough to leave the safety of Room 14. For his part, Geoffrey was doing his damnedest to accommodate. He refused to rent out the room to others, and filled the interior with his most precious imports: brass candlesticks from India, a crystal vase from Belgium, and a stylized wooden fertility god from Kenya. Juliana brought vanilla tapers for the candlesticks, Scootie filled the vase with flowers, and the base of the fertility god was a handy place to keep the condoms.
Geoffrey came to think of the room as his own presidential suite, blessed as it was by the lovemaking of Hallis’s two most charismatic beings. He refused remuneration until Scootie reminded him that the wife of the King of ATMs had no shortage of cash. Juliana even considered renting it on a monthly basis, but wanted to make sure the transaction would be untraceable.
The lovemaking showed no signs of letting up; the two had a world of variations to explore. Once, Scootie entered to find Juliana in a buckskin jacket, cowboy hat, boots and chaps, facing the bathroom with her bare bottom cocked invitingly to one side. Another time, Scootie embroidered a comforter with a hundred tiny bells, every small motion bringing a new wave of sound.
Juliana continued her oral explorations as well, with a Heinz variety of toppings: whipped cream, honey, chocolate, tartar sauce, cream cheese and some wild blackberries she had discovered next to a creek behind Blaze Hill.
Despite all this pleasurable distraction, Scootie felt the walls of Room 14 bearing in on him, and settled on a plan of action for the out-of-doors. In mid-July, he got Juliana’s OK for a Saturday afternoon, and placed the following message at the hooves of Pan: Touch the tail of the big white bird and turn around. Find the alligator and take 500 in the direction of its snout. When you find the baby scarlets, clap your hands three times and listen for the cuckoo.
Juliana slept in, treated herself to a breakfast of bagels and lox, then dug up the nicest hiking clothers she could find and headed for the Swan Theater, taking a back trail to stay out of view. She emerged from a grove of pines, placed a hand on the Swan’s back wall, and took a 180. Scootie’s alligator turned out to be a fallen pine, its bark resembling the scaly lumps of a gator’s tail. She found the snout at the far end, where the trunk had snapped into a long, sharp triangle, and followed it into the woods until she found a little-used trail.
Fifty feet further, she spotted carved initials in the trunk of a big-leaf maple – M.B. y F.E. – and knew she was on the right track. She made a further assumption that Scootie meant 500 steps along the trail, and not straight ahead, since the latter would take her into a patch of poison oak.
The trail wound to the left, slanted upward through groves of tan oak, then back through a rising straightaway of chaparral. Her steps sent dozens of parchment-colored lizards scooting into the undergrowth. The end of the straightaway took a sudden dip into a dark wood, and as he eyes adjusted she found a grove of young redwoods. Baby scarlets. She took her 500th step and clapped her hands three times. Scootie answered with a high-pitched “Cuckoo!” Its origin was hard to locate, but she kept climbing as the cuckoos grew louder.
She found a pile of sungray deadwood where someone had tried to block a path and stepped over, ducking under some branches to emerge into a sudden clearing. At the center stood a circle of bay laurels, dropping like fishing rods toward the Pacific. She peeked between their trunks to locate her smiling accomplice. He let out a final staccatto cuckoo to serve as “hello,” then jumped up to meet her with a self-satisfied kiss. Pulling her into the bays, he revealed a picnic buffet worthy of royalty. He had covered the level surface of a stump with a green checkered cloth, and lain out a round of sweet French bread with honey-butter, multicolored cheeses, a fresh pineapple cut into chunks, a jar of red caviar, and a bottle of Chenin Blanc with two glasses.
After eating heartily, and applying the caviar to Scootie’s favored body part for dessert, Juliana settled against a freckled trunk and let out a sigh.
“It’s a good thing we’re hiking downhill on the way back. I’m stuffed.”
“Funny. You look real.”
“Hah ha, Mister Wit.” She leaned her head against Scootie’s chest. Scootie wrapped his arms around her waist, enjoying the new smell of her, the small scents of dirt and sweat away from the clean interior of Room 14. Juliana craned her neck for a kiss, then took a whiff of the air. “God, the smell of these trees is just...whuff!”
“Very. I picked a bunch of the leaves once and wrapped them around a salmon for cooking.”
“No!” said Juliana. “I want some right now.” She watched the sun winking through the marquis-cut leaves. “So how’d you find this place?”
“I’m an inveterate wanderer, blessed with an immunity to poison oak. I was up here about a year ago, recovering from a wicked bulk mailing, when I spotted that break in the trail – that pile of deadwood – and couldn’t resist. Imagine what this place looks like shrouded in fog.”
“Heaven,” said Juliana.
They stayed for ten minutes, taking in the library mutter of wind and leaf, still Scootie stood and pulled Juliana to her feet. “Come. I want to show you something else.”
He took her downhill to another grove of redwoods, gathered at a seam between the hills. “Our Mr. Fetzle had a decent sense of ecology for a tree-killer. When he saw how scalded these hills were, how ineffective the grasses at holding back erosion, he sent out troops of workers to plant seedlings. That’s why these groves look strangely... neat. All the trees are exactly the same age. Now let me see...Oh, here it is.”
Scootie pushed aside a clump of sword ferns, revealing an uneven block of nutmeg-colored marble.

                        Virginia Ivens Chappell
            Those who visit this place, please remember our dear lost daughter, who desired nothing more than to walk the beauty of these woods.

Juliana ran a finger along the letters. “What does it mean?”
“Aggie’s a member of the Hallis Historical Society, so I asked her. She dug up a clipping from the Gazette, along with some details from old-timers. Virginia was a local kid, something of a maverick. She loved the woods, and was always disappearing on long hikes. Her parents said she spent more time in the woods than out of them – and sometimes got reckless. She occasionally lost her way, and had to camp out overnight. But she would show up the next day, none the worse for wear, and casually dismiss any concern for her well-being.
“In the wilderness of high school, however, she was not so well-adapted. She was plagued by a crippling shyness; the kids liked to pepper her with unflattering attentions, just to watch her turn red and run away. Her parents were very concerned about this, and considered it a major victory when they convinced her to attend a school dance during her junior year.
“When Virginia arrived at the dance, she immediately went to the back of the auditorium and occupied herself by drinking glass after glass of punch. Jerry Decker and Steve Makovitz, two football players who made a regular habit of tormenting Virginia, spotted her and decided to have some fun. Jerry would come and ask her to dance, then Steve would sneak up to the table with a bottle of whiskey and pour some into Virginia’s punch. Then they would disappear to the other side of the hall, wait for Virginia to pour a fresh glass, and return to pull the same gag. Virginia was so unsettled by Jerry’s attentions that she failed to see any pattern. After three drinks, she began to feel dizzy. In the middle of drink number five, as Jerry was kneeling to deliver a mock proposal of marriage, she passed out. Jerry managed to catch her mid-collapse, and, with the rest of the students occupied with a Beatles dance medley, to drag her out the side exit without anyone noticing.
“Despite her social isolation, Virginia was a very attractive girl, and this gave Jerry Decker some wicked thoughts. He and Steven took her to his car, drove her down to Hallis Beach, and took turns raping her while she was still unconscious. Afterwards, they dumped her in a field two blocks from her home. If it weren’t for the hardiness of her constitution, built up by those long walks in the woods, she might have died from exposure. As it was, she managed to drag herself home in the morning, very sick and having no memory of the night before.
“When she started bleeding, her parents took her to the doctor and found out the horrible truth: it was the result of repeated and forceful intercourse. They immediately assumed the worst – that she had tried to fend off her shyness by getting drunk, and had ended up going off with some boy – and reacted with accusations, lectures and a grounding.
“Torn apart by the prospect of trying to disprove her parents’ assumptions, not to mention going back to a school where there was a boy, or boys, who had done this, Virginia snuck out of the house, came to this spot, and slit her wrists. They found her body two weeks later, and the truth came out a week after that, when a guilt-riddled Steve Makovitz confessed to the principal.”
Scootie knelt beside Juliana, wiped a tear from her cheek and placed it on his own. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you sad, but I thought you’d want to hear the story.”
She took Scootie’s hand and kissed it. “And they say nothing bad happens in small towns.” She stood and reached her arms around his neck, looking over his shoulder to picture a 12-year-old Virginia in cuffed jeans and a yellow gingham shirt, skipping up the trail in a cloud of dust. Instead, she saw something else. “My God, Scootie. What is that?”
Scootie turned around. “What?”
“Over that boulder, up in the branches. That big clump of brown.”
“Damn!” said Scootie, in a hushed voice. “You know what that is?” He took a few steps and squinted. “A great horned owl. See the face, the ears?”
Juliana stood behind him and peered over his shoulder. The great bird stood on the lowest limb of a Douglas fir, near the trunk, looking more like an outcropping of limestone. She began to notice the subtle slope between head and torso, the small notches of the ears, light markings around the eyes. The markings flashed open to reveal two bright circles of yellow.
“Shh! said Scootie, laughing. “We don’t want to spook him.”
“Well, did you see that?”
“Yes, I did. He’s probably still mostly asleep, so maybe we can sneak up closer.”
He took her hand and stepped forward, but it was too late. The owl shot from the tree with a thunderous rustle, retreating into the woods with a swoop. Scootie watched him carefully as he tracked behind a clump of branches and came out the other side, perching on another Doug fir 200 yards back.
“You think we could try again?” asked Juliana.
“I don’t know. Judging by his reaction, he’s pretty unused to humans. And there’s a lot of poison oak back there.”
“Well, hell, Scootie. What else is there to do?”
“Well, I did have my notions.”
“Later,” she scolded, and started off through the woods. The combination of noisy undergrowth and poison oak made their pursuit a winding one – it took them a solid ten minutes to get close. Twenty yards away, Scootie failed to notice a thick branch, breaking it with a loud crack. He was surprised to find the owl still in his place. Soon they stood ten feet from the treet, gazing at a massive block of sleeping bird only fifteen feet above them.
“It must be nap time,” Juliana whispered.
“Very odd, the way he’s ignoring us. I’ve never been this close to one before.”
The owl blinked and fixed them with a stare. Scootie anticipated another retreat, but the owl remained stock-still, unfazed.
“Talk to him,” said Juliana.
“You do a cuckoo, Mr. Audubon – do a great horned owl. My voice isn’t low enough.”

“Scootie did as instructed, trying to recreate the haunting murmur he’d once heard from the courtyard. His call drew an immediate response, impossibly deep.
Juliana shuddered. “Whoo! That boy’s got cojones.”
“Three tones lower than death,” said Scootie.
“He seems to like you.” She ventured into full voice and addressed the bird directly. “Anything else you’d like to tell us, Mr. Owl?”
The owl responded with two long, low hoots, then blinked his eyes and turned his head sharply to the left.
“He’s looking at something.” Scootie followed the owl’s gaze and began to make out something, a dark cone-like shape rising from the forest floor. He paced toward it and came upon a pile of smooth river rocks, four feet high, carefully mortared together. He ran his fingers down to where the rocks ended, then dug away branches and needles to uncover the base, a long gray boulder with a rough surface. Its face bore a surprisingly defined inscription in six-inch letters. Juliana caught up with him as he sounded them out.
“Vil-la Ca-li-fa.”
“Wow,” said Juliana. “Another memorial.”
“Sounds more like a gate marker, or an entrance to an estate.”
“Way out here?”
Scootie rose and scanned the woods. Let’s see. If this really was an entrance, and the marker’s facing this way...” He squatted down and dug into the forest floor, through a bed of needles, twigs and humus. Ten inches down he found a rock, smooth like the ones in the gate marker. “Say...” He dug forward, finding a stripe of mortar, and another rock, then onward till he had uncovered five stones, evidently the edge of a path.
“It seems to be heading for that mound over there. Come on, Juli, let’s do some exploring.”
He took her to the top of the mound, instructed her to pick a spot and dig, and if she didn’t find anything to try somewhere else. Juliana considered her freshly manicured nails, then said the hell with it and piled in. Scootie did the same, ten feet away. She was on her fourth attempt. beginning to lose feeling in her fingertips, when she found something.
“Scootie. Come here a second.”
Scootie dashed over. “What is it?”
“Maybe nothing – but isn’t this some kind of hardwood?”
Scootie swiped the soil at the bottom of Juliana’s dig to find the surface of an oak branch, still clothed in thin gray bark. He searched in one direction, then another, then stopped.
“Not only that. This hardwood has a nail in it.”
“Yes. Let’s follow it and see what happens.” In ten minutes they had uncovered another five feet of oak, sloping in a straight line down the face of the mound.
“It’s a ridgeline,” said Scootie. After two more feet, he found a juncture, a thin cross-pole that appeared to mark the edge of the roof. Beginning to gather an image of the structure, he followed the eaves to where he imagined the front entrance would be, then dug downward to discover the corner of a door-frame, a straight-hewn board with a thick coat of varnish.
“It’s a house!” said Juliana.
“Not just a house,” said Scootie. “It’s Villa Califa.”
Within an hour, though weary of limb and ruined of fingernails, they had managed to dig down to a doorlatch of wrought iron – similar, thought Scootie, to the one on Fetzle Mansion’s front entrance. He pushed on it, but it wouldn’t budge. He found a good-sized redwood limb, then placed the limb against the latch and pounded the other end with a rock. Three strikes later, the latch clicked and the door swung inward, amazingly mobile on its old hinges.
“Good thing it’s an innie and not an outie,” said Scootie, smiling. “After you?”
“No way in hell,” said Juliana. “Although you might want to take this.” She handed him a keychain with a small safety light.
“Thank you, o pioneer. Well, here goes.” Scootie set himself on the edge of the soil, dangled his legs into the opening and slid down, landing on some sort of solid surface. He aimed the flashlight at his feet and discovered a tile floor, covered with must and debris but clear enough to reveal a checkerboard of terra cotta and white.
“Is it safe?” asked Juliana. “Have you been eaten by spiders yet?”
“I am unconsumed,” he reported, extending a hand. “Come on down.”
“We-e-ell, okay, I guess.” Juliana leaned on his forearm and eased herself down. “Wow. Nice floor. Any clues yet?”
“For one thing, the doorway is very short, about five feet.” He aimed the light behind her to illustrate. “Also, if you’ll notice, your head is almost brushing the ceiling.”
“Goodness.” She ran a finger along the wood inches above her head.
Scootie took her hand and ventured further, scanning the walls with the flashlight. “The interior is all hardwood, nicely varnished, cut’s a little rough but look at the seams! Smooth as Juliana’s behind, and pieced together with wooden dowels. And take a look at... ouch!”
“What’s the matter?”
“I believe I’ve located a table,” he said, rubbing his kneecap.
“It’s a flashlight, honey. Use it.”
“Thanks. Well, well...”
He ran a hand over the tabletop, removing a layer of dust to reveal a varnished nebula, grains of rose and chocolate rising through the gloss. “Redwood burl. Very nice. Let’s see here...”
He discovered a chair the size of a kindergartner’s, pieced together from knobby limbs of blond wood, the arms marked with a rough-cut network of triangles. The solid back bore a figure, a tall, muscular woman draped along one side, unclothed but for armored cuffs on her forearms, a bow in one hand, a quiver of arrows around her shoulder. The carving was done in bas-relief, about an inch out from the background. Beneath the woman’s hand he found the name “Barran,” inscribed in letters similar to those on the gate marker.
He showed the carving to Juliana, then followed the table to the far end, where he found a normal-size chair, constructed of a dark gumwood and adorned at either shoulder with stylized Germanic eagles. Scootie swept the light to the corners of the back wall to find ornately carved griffins – half-eagle, half lions of European myth. He knelt at the back of the chair and discovered another name, this one in barbed Tudor lettering. Then the lights went out.
“Damn!” He whacked the keychain against his palm.
“Scootie,” said a nervous Juliana. “Unless you’re toying with me – which I can tell you right now is not a good idea – let’s head back out.”
“But I saw another name. If I can get just a second of light out of this...”
“Honey, there’s not much we can do about it right now. Why don’t we just come back another day?”
“Wait. Maybe I can feel the letters with my...”
“Scootie! Get me the hell out of here!”
Scootie knew the voice of authority when he heard it. He took Juliana’s hand and felt his way along the table, then across the tiles to the fading square of light at the door. He climbed out first, scooting backward on his butt, then reached down to pull out Juliana.
“Thank you,” she said. “I am not fond of dark places.”
“So I gathered.”
“Scootie. What exactly have we found here?”
“I don’t know, but it definitely calls for further investigation.”
“Should we tell someone? The Historical Society? UC Santa Cruz?”
Scootie eyed the cave-like entrance, and followed imaginary ridgelines to the top of the mound. “Call me selfish,” he said. “But I’d like to keep it our little secret for a while, at least until I do some research. I’ll start on it tomorrow.”
“Besides, I’ve always wanted a place in the country.”

            They returned to the clearing and made love in the circle of bays as the sun sank into the trees. Juliana came to after a brief nap, feeling worn out from the day’s discoveries, and propped herself on an elbow. She scanned the clearing, spotting a square of nutmeg marble under the ferns, and came away with a startling thought. “Scootie? Do you suppose Virginia knew?”
Scootie woke from a dream of owls, eagles and griffins, doing bloodless battle in a Grimm Brothers forest. He didn’t hear Juliana’s question, because he had a thought of his own. “Fetzle,” he said. “It was Fetzle.”

Photo by MJV

No comments: