'The Spotted Beast' Chapter 1: A High Value Target, Continued

Michael H. Varhola

I was drifting up through a thick black soup, which dissolved away to reveal a dimly lit room. A vague shape loomed threateningly over me. I swung reflexively, the knuckles of my fist connecting with bone — but there was no force in my blow.

“Charloe, cool it man! It’s OK.”

It was Cox.

I just stared at him in confusion. "Was the battle over?" I wondered.

I wanted to ask about Lieutenant Conrad, but I didn’t want to hear what I already knew. The Lieutenant had to be dead, and if I had been in that room right behind him, he’d maybe still be alive — or maybe not. Had I frozen? It had all happened so fast.

I reached my hand out to Cox.

“Help me up, man,” I started to say — but no words came out.  There was something shoved down my throat. I reached for it, but someone grabbed my wrist and pushed my hand back.

Now I was scared.

“Can’t extubate without the doc’s say-so.  Don’t know what kind of damage you took.

My head turned in the direction of the unfamiliar voice. That’s when I first noticed the odor of disinfectant, which almost, but not quite, masked the smell of bed pans. It dawned on my foggy brain that I was I was no longer on the floor of the house we were clearing. I was on his back in a bed!

Where was I? I wondered. The FOB? A hospital?   

I looked at my right arm, then my left. There was a plastic tube taped to the back of my left hand. My eyes followed it up to a clear plastic envelope bulging with some colorless liquid and hanging from stainless steel rod.

Where was I? Evidently a hospital, but where?  It was so cold! I began to shiver. “I’m cold,” I wanted to say, but the tube in my throat prevented that. I closed my eyes and gratefully slipped back into the black soup.  It was warm.

* * *

“Do you think he can hear us?”

“Jake, we love you.”

I opened my eyes and turned my head in the direction of the voices.

“Mom? Dad? How’d you get here?”

The tube was gone and my throat was raw, but I could talk.

“We caught a flight to Germany as soon as we heard.”

“Germany?”

“You’re at the Army hospital in Landstuhl. Soon as you’re strong enough they’ll send you home — to Walter Reed. They’ll teach you to . . .”

My mother’s voice trailed off.

“Lieutenant Conrad?”

“He didn’t make it, Jake,” my mother said.

“Alvarez?”

“He’s fine. You took the blast. They’re putting you in for a Bronze Star.”

That was my father talking now.

“We’re proud of you, Jake . . ."

“A Bronze Star? For what?  I . . .”

“Gallantry in the face of the enemy. You saved your buddy’s life.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t think I deserved a medal for knocking Alvarez down as I tried to get out of that room.

My parents stared down at me.  I could see their eyes were red and swollen. Neither of them spoke. They had obviously been crying, but why? I was safe in Landstuhl now, and I was alive. Cry for Lieutenant Conrad and his family, I thought. Had I failed him? I knew that if anybody deserved a medal, it was the lieutenant, not me. He is the one who went. He was the living embodiment of “Follow Me” – but not living anymore, I corrected myself.

I started shivering again, and I couldn’t keep his eyes open. I was so tired. I slipped back into that warm black soup. It was strangely welcoming, and a comforting darkness engulfed me.

* * *

I lay on my back in the hospital room, his hands clasped on his chest.  The room was lit only by diffuse glare from the hallway. My parents were gone. A stack of books lay on the table to my right. They were from my grandfather. How I knew that, I wasn’t sure. Maybe my father told me, although he didn’t particularly approve of his father and his role in my life.

As I looked around the room, I noticed in the far corner of the room, barely visible in the shadows what appeared to be the shapes of three people. I couldn’t tell at first if they were men or women. But I somehow I was sure they were not my parents. Strangely, they seemed familiar somehow. One of them started to rise and I caught a faint whiff of wood smoke and strange herbs, all mixed with body odor.

“Grandson, give ear! Come help us.”

It was a male voice, but it wasn't my grandfather. There was a hint of a familiar accent, but it was not my grandfather's country twang. Anyway, my grandfather was back in Pennsylvania, in his cabin on the Brokenstraw.

I wanted to ask them who they were, but I found myself slipping again. I fought to keep his eyes open, to bring these figures into focus, but the blackness intervened, and then it closed around me.

* * *

“Jake, we love you! Don’t leave us. Please, please, don’t leave us, Jake.”

That was my mother. I opened my eyes to see her standing by my bed; her eyes were red and glistening. In the far corner of the room, he could see his father spread out in an easy chair and snoring softly. Behind my mother were those three dark figures again. I could not quite bring them into focus. Were they really there or was it a trick of the shadows?  As my mother spoke, they receded into the darkness, and then faded from sight.

* * *

I awoke to a now familiar voice.

“Grandson, give ear! The Snakes set upon us. We were surprised. The killed many. They burned our towns. The burned our harvest. They burned stone town of the stranger. We fled Gahoendoé. That is what they told us to do. But it was not wise. We have no corn; we have no fish. The lake is frozen. We will die.”

I turned in the direction of the voice and vague shapes swam into focus. I could make out three old men staring down at me. They were dressed in thick furs and tanned hides.  Their gray-streaked dark hair hung long and unkempt. There was a dusting of snow on their heads and shoulders. The room reeked of the same strange odor of herbs, intermingled with wood smoke and unwashed bodies.

The nurses had been giving me regular shots of morphine for the pain in my legs. Was this what it did? It was so real, particularly the smell. I once heard that there was no sense of smell in dreams. But maybe it was different for morphine-induced hallucinations.

“Grandson,” the one in the middle said. “Give ear. We learned of you in our dreams. Our hearts soared to hear of you. We bring sad news. Wendakie is no more. We are dying. Your people are dying The dreams say you are Tsawenhohi, the one who sees. You must lead us! We give you this tobacco. Take it. It is good.”

I could see him more clearly now. I could see that the man had horizontal streaks of black above and below his eyes, and a single bronze-colored feather dangled from a knot in his hair. He reminded me of my grandfather. He had the same aquiline nose, the same protruding lower jaw, the same piercing black eyes. But this was not my grandfather.  This man's face was pitted with small-pox scars. No, he was not my grandfather. He looked like the worst of the reprobates he had seen on the rez in Oklahoma, but somehow I knew that that was not what this was about.

The other two were standing to either side of the speaker, and slightly behind. They were similar in appearance and were chanting softly in a language that I could almost, but not quite, understand. “How could that be?” I wondered. Their whole being conveyed a deep and terrible sadness. I could not understand their words, but I could understand their meaning:  they were losing their world!

Etionnontatie ehen  Trakwae ehen. Wendakie ehen!”

“Grandson,” the old man continued. “We called out to our ancestors to advise us. We made offerings to Areskoui, and to Sky, who sees all. We entreated Hawendio, the Great Voice of the strangers. We dreamed dreams and smoked tobacco. We are now in this strange place. 

The old man stepped closer, hesitantly, almost fearfully, and placed what appeared to be dark brown leaves tightly twisted into a cylinder onto my chest.

"Here is some tobacco for you," he said. "Help us."

I stared in fascination. Again I wondered. Is this what morphine does?  Is this what my grandfather calls a "bad trip?" I tried to sit up. I couldn’t. I tried pushing with my legs, but nothing happened. I had no feeling there.

Using my arms, I managed to leverage myself into a sitting position. My back rested on the cold metal rods of the headboard. I stared at the plug of tobacco. It seemed so real. I could feel it; he could smell it. I felt sure if really wanted to, that I could even taste it. My gaze shifted from the tobacco to my legs — or where my legs should have been. There was nothing between the sheet and the bed. “Oh God!” I screamed. "Where are my legs?"

To be continued