Amongst the most uneventful of my years was that time I spent in the coastal mountains of Oregon Country. Nestled in a forested mountain draw which spilled out into the thunderous Pacific, the tiny enclave which I maintained for several years was home to the quietest spell of my life. The utter isolation of a life hard lived on the extremities of the earth tends to bring a man close to God. And monsters.
Being, as I was, deep in Indian territory, I had seen my share of uncivilized humanity. Like to the white man, there were those Indians who would give you the furs off their back in a pinch, and many who would sooner take your furs and leave you naked in the wilderness. Some would find this basic integrity preferable to the one who would sue the furs off you in a court of law back in Missouri. I'd prefer to leave the pretension of civility aside myself but the worst inhabitants of those woods were no different from their city-dwelling brethren; they would sue you into Sheol too if a judge were more handy than a spear.
I settled, then, between two verdant ridges which spent most of their time looking out over the ocean and little time watching the goings on in my camp. As I lay on my cot at night watching the mist slide down their slopes, I wondered how detached they truly were. Did they see the brilliant death fires dancing on the waves tonight? Did they remember Cook's white sails gliding by on the horizon? Did their roots still drink the blood of a thousand years of fallen war bands? These ancient giants hid their secrets well.
From my home between the hills, a three hour walk would find me in a Nestucca village, the shortest trek I could make to hear human voices. These were some of the less hostile Indians I had come across and provided I brought beaver pelts, they were happy to feed me smoked lamprey and even let me sit in their lodge while they wove fish traps and ground herbs. On occasion, I would find myself tagging along on foraging expeditions and even making myself useful with a net in the creek.
These particular Indians seemed to have regular encounters with pioneering white men aside from myself. They could often be seen wearing articles of clothing that were decidedly not of Indian make. Jewelry, too, would their women wear made of gold links and cut gems, adornments which they themselves were not known to produce. Never did I see another trapper or expansionist enter the camp but the French and British were said to have forts and settlements to the north, and as I didn't recognize the language carved into the rings the women wore, it was likely they dealt with the French.
My own cabin, I constructed after careful study of their lodge. A long, thick beam I hoisted into place and shingled the roof with overlapping planks that kept the Western rains at bay during the long winters. These people knew their land well and I would be loath not to heed the wisdom of their ancestors. My pelts stretched out over the fire in front of my lodge, a visitor would not have expected to find a white man residing there. By necessity, any man, savage or civilized, living in the untamed wilds of Oregon Country was close to the earth.
We all took our food from that earth, our water where it bubbles it through the mossy ground. It yielded up stones for grinding, trees for chopping, pushed up the mountains and cupped the lakes to keep them from spilling out. Even that humming earth though, that hid my home from the uninvited, that exuded the fog in the lowlands on cold mornings, that earth harbors secrets that will haunt me to my end.
And it was a chill on the breeze that morning that carried me off down the deer trail toward that isolated Nestucca settlement. A pack of furs I bore, heavy and hot against my neck, insulating me from the nip of the wind and staggering me when I needed to stop and sit on a rock. The trail wound around knolls and cut across hillsides; the deer that carved it with their black hooves tended to change elevations slowly. But the seeming aimlessness of their route was the most efficient way to the Indian camp. North I trekked along the path, through the ancient forest on its ancient hills fed by ancient streams. Again I stopped and lit my pipe. The wind rustled that canopy overhead, like a whispered prayer to gods with no temples, and shadows fluttered about me as I sat resting. The wilderness offered respite on a rare whim.
When at last I enjoyed the shade of the longhouse roof, my feet were sore in my leathers and I longed for the sweet spring water that was being passed around in a goblet. Another prize won in trade with the white traders. To see such a vessel used to hold contents as pedestrian as water in such humble hands seemed to me a very odd sight indeed. Sapphire and gilded mother-of-pearl would have made for a king's ransom in the old world but here it was making a water cup for forest-dwellers. The characters making up the wording relieved on the goblet were simply not recognizable. And not only were they foreign to me, they didn't seem to fit in any typical form with any written language I had seen. Not the French I had assumed from quick glances at the women's jewelry.
It happened that while I was gazing intently at the cup in the hand of the wrinkled old woman next to me, that she became acutely aware of my interest as evinced by her gaze which mine met only after a subconscious embarrassment at having been caught overcame me. A quiet and indecipherable conversation between the old lady and her husband followed. Side-eyes and sharp syllables followed for several moments. The husband and their boy got up and consulted with a number of other braves in hushed tones before the band shuffled to the door and motioned me along. I left my pack of furs which had not yet been traded, and gulped down the water the woman handed me as I made to follow the men.
Bows and spears were retrieved from where they lay. The arrows they choose were not tied with arrowheads made for hunting rabbits and coyotes, these were long and serrated, like weapons of war. Pipes were smoked in preparation as weapons were gathered and before I could get a good bead on what was happening, we were headed west. Women and children followed as well so I can't say I was particularly worried about the implications of our match but something uncomfortable paced from one side of my mind to the other, wearing a path into the floor of my thoughts like the hooves of a deer.
The earth dropped low as we walked, coastal mountains giving way to a wide and ominous swamp. Not truly a swamp, but a vast delta which fed into a great bay; still, a swamp it could be called. Mosquitoes swarmed around us and brackish water lent its pungent odor to the air, multiplying the effect of the swamp gases on my mind. I was dizzy and a little disoriented which might have been the death of any American settler if not for a band of keen-eyed and sharp-minded Nestucca blazing the trail. What was our destination though? Never had I been enjoined to accompany the tribe when they carried war weapons and I certainly I never imagined I would be accompanying an armed band this far from their home.
Several of the children laughed and played as we went along, helping to temper any disharmony I may have been experiencing. They too seemed eager to show me wherever waited at the end of our path. They hid behind logs and threw pine cones at each other, just the way we used to do back on the farm. The adults seemed largely to ignore the youths until they began tripping over them at which point the children would get a stinging slap on the rear from a bow or spear shaft. That would keep the little ruffians out of the path of the adults for a moment or two before they slowly began encroaching again on their elder's space. A few short seconds later and one of them would end up under the feet of a wizened man and subsequently, at the business end of walking staff.
Mist lay low and late at the grass. Milky fog obscured the meandering channels as winding streams leaked into sickly pools of dark water. Here and there, a copse of eldritch pines towered imperially over the swamp. These cyclopean gargantua stretched from the northwest passage down to mexico and stood as eternal titans, a testament to the indomitable West. The oldest of them took a minute and a half to walk around and the tops could not be seen on a cloudy day. I reckoned these cedars of Lebanon would outlast my kin, the expansionists, the Indians, maybe even the mountains they grew on.
And there it was that we stopped, under the watchful eye of those primordial sentries. I could see nothing to indicate that this stagnant pool was any different from any other stagnant pool we had left behind in the past hour. The quiet breeze was stained with salt and I figured we must be close to the bay though its green waters were not yet visible to the west. Gnarled and stunted spruce ringed us all round and the always-grey overcast promised a light drizzle incoming. What a dismal destination these Nestucca had chosen.
All were quiet, reverent almost, as several of the warriors unslung wooden devices from their backs. These devices they lashed together with leather strips into some kind of conglomeration of...well, I didn't quite know. The sting of smoke hit my nose as morsels of venison were freed from a wrap and stuffed away within the wooden device. The sudden realization that it was a trap made me question how that fact had escaped me until now. There were loops of supple leather around the circumference of the device and it seemed that when a rope was pulled from above, the snares would pull taut. The whole concept seemed so abstract and unexpectedly ingenuitive. Was an Indian expected to hide in a tree and wait for a bear before pulling the rope up? But a bear was surely too heavy to be pulled up a tree by one man or even two or three. My questions were about to shift in tone and direction though.
Into the glassy pool went the contraption. The mire quickly swallowed it up as the rope uncoiled. And the rope continued to uncoil. I realized as I watched that I could see the bed of the pool just inches below the surface. Like a viper wiggling its way into a burrow, the rope was sliding down into the muck quicker than it ought and with greater implications. Seeming to float through the mist hanging in the grass, an elder Nestucca glided to the edge of the pool and cast a handful of dust and seeds into the water. The ripples emanated toward the banks and disappeared as the rope stopped advancing abruptly.
Quietly and slowly, the elder began his throaty, warbling chant. It was something otherworldly to hear the primal ululations of a man with whom I shared little. They say that human language began as music, the way dogs howl and pigeons coo. If this is the case, perhaps the old man and myself could have sung our meanings to each other like they must have before the schism at the ziggurat in ancient Babylon. I was convinced for all the world that the man's wailing was exactly that language that could convey all meaning to all people although my ear had lost the means to hear its truths.
A dance emerged as first his right foot left the ground, then stamped down before his left foot rose. More fervent grew the utterances of the ghost in the mist as his feet picked up pace and carried his body effortlessly through a pattern evidently honed over a long life well lived. Breath left his mouth as smoke from the fire in his voice as he whirled and waved and wrapped the world around him. He blazed on for many minutes as the tribe watched him intently, seeming more a party to the spectacle than mere observers. And I too watched and waited, and felt the dance and the song, and I feared it.
For as they warned in St. Louis, the Indians were part of these woods. That's why we called them savages after all, it means "people of the forest". Truly they were close to nature, but for all of its providence and bounty, nature also is the mother of all that is strange and unknown.
Several braves took up the rope and began to draw it forth from the quagmire. The firestorm continued to turn and twist and sing as they pulled in unison, the swollen tether pulled taut and vibrated in their hands like a piano string humming to the beautiful, dreadful music. Cubit by cubit, the murky pool disgorged the rope until the sediment began to stir and distend. The top of the rudimentary trap pierced the silt as the hunters withdrew it and with a wet slap, the trap itself followed, caked in mud and drawing out with it the miasmal fetor of the underworld.
Onto the bank they drug the stinking mass as the rapturous elder ceased his appeal. The smell overwhelmed me and I staggered back another several steps. Then every soul in the swamp, save myself, advanced on the trap as, to my horror, something all too natural began to squirm and struggle within the sludge. Spasmodic twitching and gurgling screams followed as the Nestucca hunters took hold of the thing from below.
Ravenously, they tore into the trap and its flailing captive. From my distant vantage, I heard primarily and smelled as well the creature caught in the snare. This both for the score of bodies that crowded around the vile scourge and for the discordant odor now stifling the swamp. Its cries weren't hard to distinguish from the exultant exclamations of the Nestucca. Bewildered fear rang out sharply between growls of frenzied bloodlust. Such a spectacle of frenetic ecstacy had the hills that kept my home never seen. After a moment that lasted far too long, the gluttonous orgy subsided and I turned my eyes back from where I had hidden them as the commotion died away.
A sharp but not entirely hostile command came forth and I recognized it to be that of the elder. As I fixed my gaze on him, he beckoned me and repeated the command in his mellifluous voice. Though delving the deepest reservoirs of my courage, I could find no resistance to offer and found my legs, against the strength of my will, forcing me hence. Step by trepid step, I drew nearer the captive and the waiting hunters. The antediluvian pines and spruce gazed down on my encounter with this denizen of the deep and mumbled to one another in the silence. Nearer and nearer I came until the smell and the fear were overwhelming. Still, in time, reached the waiting band of Indians and their prisoner.
Indicating the fetid thing with a gesticulation that left margin neither for misunderstanding nor refusal, the elder signaled his expectation. Slowly, and against my better judgment, I stretched out my hand toward the slimy thing. A lilting, arcane moan came from the quivering mass as my hand drew nearer. Something familiar in the beast's groans clenched my psyche as my hand clenched something solid within the muck. Something too natural, too familiar I gripped for a brief moment; a tick of the second hand, a human hand. Instinctively, I knew what the tribe expected, and even as I reflexively withdrew from the slime, I ran my fingers along the fingers of the ensnared and slipped a ring from the finger of the man from beneath.
In the years that followed, I found myself many a time contemplating that day beneath the hills and the trees. How for a year and a day afterward, I couldn't wash the stink from my hand. How I washed the ring I had withdrawn from the ichorous cocoon and recognized the now familiar symbols there inscribed. How just before the Nestucca had heaved the body back into the pool, I had seen upon that body the eyes of a man like myself. And how, for a brief moment in time, I was jerked abruptly from my world into a place where another was torn from his, and the illusion of a conquered globe from which all secrets had been wrung was shattered.