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Koan

It was getting a bit chilly for camping. In retrospect, Damien had made some poor choices. referring to his current situation as camping was probably the least of them. It had been an emotional experience. They had been trick or treating and his kids had not been paying attention, so they had gone on ahead while Damien had struggled to adjust his cloak. It had gotten caught on a thorn bush and he didn’t want to rip it. His wife had made it for him a few years back. That was the year they were Jedi. Then he had been Robin Hood, and this year, he was a wizard. Stupid. So, when he had caught up to his kids, he was already irritated about the thorn bush, and them not staying with him. They were young and small for their age. It had only been a minute, less than that, surely. These kids were so excited about Halloween that they wouldn’t listen to any instructions. All evening this had been a problem. They didn’t realize how dangerous it could be. He was constantly worried something was going to happen. They were his whole world. How was he going to protect them if they wouldn’t stay with him? And now, here they were, being shaken down for their candy by some older kids.

Well, by the time they got home, the kids were crying, they couldn’t get the story out coherently to their mother. He tried to explain, but she seemed to reach her own conclusions before he could get the words out. “Not the first time,” she had said. It rang in his ears. It reminded him of just before he had gotten sober, how the incidents seemed to beget each other, as if he were caught in some spider’s web, some thorny bush!

He wasn’t a violent person. He didn’t think of himself as one anyway. Not the first time.

She asked him to leave right then. For the children’s sake. She was concerned for their safety. Not the first time.

He had still been wearing the costume. the wool cloak, the boots, the dagger, the staff, the whole nine yards. He grabbed the tent, and the camping pack with all the gear in it, the speckled cookware, the lantern, and stove, bedroll, sleeping bag tied to the bottom and took off. He just set out walking. He didn’t want to take the car, she would need that. He didn’t want to spend money on a motel, they couldn’t afford it. Maybe he was punishing himself. His heart was beating harder than it was during the incident. Was he being a martyr? Probably.

Damien had made some very quick, very rash decisions at that point. If he couldn’t be around his kids, he was done. He was done with the rat race, done with civilization, done with hiding who he was.

Maybe he wasn’t wearing a costume. Maybe this is who he was.

Those older kids weren’t with their parents. They weren’t wearing costumes. They were teenagers and they hadn’t wasted a moment to bully a couple little kids who had gotten away from their dad for a second.

“Give us your candy, you little turd!” one was saying as he pulled on Damien’s daughter’s arm.

The memory seemed to actually sear Damien’s brain. He walked on. Lowami woods shouldn’t be far. He had never walked it before. Maybe He should have headed for Memorial off of Garden Home… There were plenty of wooded areas right in the midst of SW Portland. He was sure he could find a spot to pitch his tent, even if it was illegal. He wasn’t sure. One night, surely would be ok. Then he could figure it out tomorrow. He didn’t want to join the homeless in a patch by a freeway onramp. This was Oregon. Why camp in civilization? He’d see whether that dagger was just for show or not. Maybe catch a rabbit, they were everywhere. Damien had picked up the medieval replica at one of those cutlery stores in the mall. The kind that had pocket knives, kitchenware, and swords. Of course, he had wanted a sword, but he had been unable to bring himself to spend the money. This 2ft miniature had been considerable more money than the hunting knives, but he had suspected it was just for show. He had displayed it on the wall when he was a bachelor, but married with kids, it stayed in a box in a drawer until Halloween.

Now he could concentrate on becoming one with nature. Get away from the concrete jungle and be more spiritual. He could finally learn to control his Chi, let it flow through him, instead of building up inside and exploding out… That’s what he was being guided to do, right? Of course, this kind of behavior, this kind of thinking would not play well in a custody hearing. The rational, right thing to do, would be to go to a motel, and seek counseling. Where did spiritual people get counseling? Was there a priest of Chi? Where can you find a Shaolin temple when you need one?

Then, there in the concrete jungle, just as the drizzle began, came the neon glow of the sign he was seeking.

Damien entered the little house and a bell rang as the door struck it. He had been by this place dozens of times, driving to Target. He had never thought to visit before. Who goes to places like this? Now that he was here, he worried maybe it would cost more than a motel. He had a twenty on him and had vowed an hour earlier not to use his debit card tonight. The rain picked up in earnest outside. Portland.

Dimly lit, ambient music played in unseen speakers. This part of the house had been converted into a lobby, deep red walls, with purple wall hangings. Batiks, abstract, soothing. Well worn carpet, a couch against the wall to the right. No one in sight. Who comes to places like this? Not the first time.

Damien removed his hood and shook out his graying, windblown hair. Curly enough to never look combed. His middle age was beginning to show on his lanky frame. The dim light made his eyes seem to recede into their sockets. His mustache and beard needed trimming. He needed a shave. Portland.

A door opened and a woman appeared. What had he been expecting? She had a scarf on her head and hoop earrings. She had a bunch of jangly bangles on her wrist. She had a vest over a paisley blouse that gathered at her wrists.

He had on a damp woolen cloak.

He had completely forgotten he was wearing a costume. He even still had the staff. A branch from their parking lot. It had broken off during a windstorm and landed on the car.

Maybe this is who you are.

Jesus Christ, what was he thinking?

“Come in,” she said. He walked through the lobby into the room she had just come from. Another dimly lit room. The most electricity the place used was the sign outside: “Psychic.” “I’m Marla.” she said. She looked at slightly sideways, waiting.

“I’m Damien.” he said. He felt ridiculous. He was sure he was as red as a beet.

“Have a seat, Mr. Damien.” she said. In the middle of the room was a table. it was wooden and had a tasseled table cloth in deep red paisley over it. There was room for a tarot reading, or a crystal ball. Neither was on display. He sat down. “What can I do for you, on this Blessed Samhain?” She asked. She pronounced the word “Sowen” He knew it was the Wiccan word for Halloween, the night that the great goddess slept or died, and the horned god reined for the dark winter months. How did he know this? He had studied. Damien had taken a comparative religion course in college.

“Blessed be.” he said, making blessed two syllables. He had never heard the phrased aloud.

“Blessed be, indeed.” she said. one syllable. Was she correcting him, or did it matter? He decided it didn’t matter.

“I need direction.” he said. “I’m lost.” he cast about for where to begin.

She smiled. “You are not lost. For the first time, maybe in your entire life, you’re home.” This was exactly what he wanted to hear, but he suspected she knew this. She stood up and went to a shelf against the wall. Were these walls black? It was too dim to be sure. She came back with a pitcher and a cup. A chalice, really. Really? A fucking chalice.

“The chalice with the palace has the brew that is true.” invaded his memory. A Danny Kaye movie.

She poured.

“I’m sober.” he said. “I don’t drink.”

“It’s not that.”

“Or drugs. I’m sober.”

“It’s not that.” she repeated. “It’s the cost of your visit.” she said.

What the hell? He hadn’t been to a meeting in years. Tonight would have never happened if he had. He took a sip. It was like an herbal tea, but fortified somehow. Thick.

Just then, the bell rang. She did not look surprised, but her smile left and her jaw set. She stood. She didn’t say, “Just a minute,” or “I’ll be right back,” she just went to the door. Her stride was different. Defiant. She opened the door to the lobby. His back was to it. He couldn’t see. As he turned, she blocked his view. She was diminutive, but he was seated. What was in the tea?

“Ah, Marla. There you are. Look at you, dressed like a Gypsy for Halloween. How apropos.”

She’s wearing a costume? thought Damien.

“You are not welcome here.” she said. She spoke with authority that Damien found surprising. He stood up. Huh, any effect of the tea had been ruined by this interruption. He felt normal again. In fact, he felt calm, detached.

“Marla, you need to rethink your situation. You’re in no position to give orders.” Damien came up behind her and saw that there were four large men in the small lobby. They wore black. They had slicked back hair. The leader had a black blazer. Were they dressed for Halloween too? If so, the main guy was missing a fedora.

Marla was barring the door. Damien understood why he was there. “let me through.” he said. She looked up at him, unsure. He wasn’t much bigger than her. “I’m who you asked for.” he said. She looked at him, this costumed dad, out of place everywhere. He would have to do.

Damien stepped into the room.

The men chuckled. “Ok, Gandalf, we don’t want any trouble.”

“That is simply not true, is it?” said Damien. The men smiled.

The main guy shook his head, chuckling. He couldn’t bring himself to say the words. It would sound like an old episode of Batman or something. He didn’t have to say anything. They spread out along the walls of the small room. They had no idea.

It came up through from the ground through his feat, an energy that was warm. It gathered in his chest and he swung his arms in a kind of Tai Chi motion, which culminated as if he were striking the two outermost men, even though they were about five feet away each. A beat later they each slammed against the walls hard, their faces looking like they were experiencing mach 2 G force. Taking his staff in both hands, he pointed at the guy coming at him from his left and hit him with it, end first like a spear, knocking him back. The last guy was going for his gun and had it out fast, pointed at Marla. Without thinking, Damien pulled the dagger from its sheath at his belt and flung it. It embedded itself in the crook of the man’s arm, causing him to drop the gun as it went off, spoiling the shot.

The main guy’s eyes were wide but recovering. His mouth was set in a closed line. He and Damien faced off across the room. thirty seconds had passed. The guy looked at Marla but didn’t speak. He shook his head and left. The others all followed warily out the door, bleeding and leaving the thin weapon behind.

Damien turned back to Marla. She smiled. “Welcome home.” she said.

 

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