As promised, dear readers, my first weekly installment from my latest novel Blood Roots. I will upload the new chapter(s) each week. Like it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc… Pass it along on social media. I’m excited to begin our journey together.
“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”
Robert Lewis Stevenson The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
She was not alarmed when he placed the burlap bag over her head. She did not fight him when he pulled her arms behind her and tied the ropes tight. No, all of this was expected, an endgame with a razor’s edge of finality. How many nights had she imagined this scene, there in the abandoned stone church, in the darkness of her stone cell, austere, a wooden table, a straw-stuffed mattress, a single window. And now like some determined, sacred prophecy the actions played out before her, and she need only follow what had been predetermined. This time she would succeed. Not for the old man, no, he was an instrument used to train her. She would succeed for something else: to silence the fears, silence the doubts, silence that part of her that hoped for something else.
She smelled Lake Erie as she walked through the long grass, then the cold, hard rocky shoreline. She stepped into the familiar boat, and she even pulled her knees up to her chest to make room for the old man while he crouched for the rudder, hoisted the sail, a sudden thrust as the wind pushed the boat from the rickety dock, a small exhalation of breath. Summer was leaving, and the coolness of Fall, even though it was still late August, had begun to pull the warmth from Ohio, drag it out into the Great Lake and into the Canadian jet stream.
The wind picked up, she huddled to conserve her body heat, for she knew she would need it, and for but only a moment – a sudden flurry of released emotion almost immediately contained – she longed for the old man to speak. Of course he did not.
A half hour passed, the sound of the water rushing under the hull, the rhythmical motion of the boat knocking her knee against the wooden side. The wind bit deep, even through the special clothing the old man had made for her, dark, tanned sealskin pants and shirt, fitted tight down to her ankles and wrists. But even with the cold, she could feel the perspiration collecting beneath the hide, gathering then leaking down the creases, dripping into her folds of skin below. The boat slowed and drifted, the mainsail down. She sensed the movement of the old man, heard the bone handle of his enormous bowie knife knocking and scraping the wood while he secured her legs with the rope, while he positioned himself for leverage.
And then she was sinking, her body tightly balled, legs instinctively pulling through the loop of her bound arms. The hood slipped off and floated toward the surface. She straightened out stiff like a needle piercing the viscous universe. Down. Down. Down, forever, the cold numbing her hands, her feet. Her fingers worked the knot, picking, pulling. Down, down, down and then the sandy bottom of the lake. She sensed the subtle impression of panic, pushed it back and subdued it. Her mind cleared, eyes still closed. Routine, mechanical, step by step. Begin.
The old man had tied the rope tight – why wouldn’t he – and it was not until she had reached the bottom that she had freed her wrists. She stooped to untie her bound ankles, and as she did, her body arched, then like a buoy slowly drifted toward the surface. The clock ticked in her head, the effort on the ropes nagging at her, a low buzz in the background. Not this time. She would not fail this time. Her fingers pecked at the rope, pecked, stabbed, pulled. The knot held fast.
She reserved her energy, stiffened and sank back to the bottom. She could sense the darkness just beyond. It was slow, methodical. Soon her limbs would be useless, mind black, one great inhalation, and then the void. Again, she bent over the rope. Again her body arched and drifted upward. Once again, she picked at the knot. Yes, there was the weak spot. Hadn’t the old man taught her that: everything has a weakness. Find it, exploit it. She pulled the band of rope, unraveled it from her legs, and she opened her eyes. The gray, cloudy world of water gave her no comfort. She looked up for direction, but it was evening now, and the light had faded, faded but not disappeared completely. The blackness was ever-present, the chaos and panic clawing its way out of its prison. She stiffened again, sank to the bottom, her knees like steel springs, bent metal pulled to breaking, and she launched herself toward the surface.
Her legs kicked, great swooping arcs with her arms, hands flat like paddles. Up, up, up she went, eyes strained open, the panic so controlled now freeing itself within her. Up, up, up. One hundred feet. Fifty feet. Yes, this time. Yes, she was ready. Twenty feet to go. The darkness pulled at her now, like powerful hands from the deep, pulling her legs, her arms, pulling them down, draining their life. Ten feet. She could not see the image of the boat. Five feet, the water like an enormous, heavy lid shutting her out, the great deep below now so strong. Her mind grappled with the unthinkable: just give up. Just give in. NO!
When she broke the surface, she nearly screamed, would have screamed if her mouth did not instinctively gulp in the air around her. The water pulled her down again, and she kicked with what energy was left, eyes desperately searching for the old man and his boat. He was gone; only darkness and the sound of the wind across ever moving surface.
She rolled to her back, controlling her breath, spitting out the water as it splashed over her face. Her hands floated at her side, useless limbs. She had thought of everything, controlled everything, but she did not think of this. Fifteen minutes passed, she pushing the panic back into that secret place. She controlled her breathing: one, two, three, four, five. And again. Longer inhalations, longer exhalations, eyes closed. A half hour passed. She opened her eyes and stared up into the vast expanse above her. She smiled. It took her a moment to find the pinprick of light above, set it into the pattern so ingrained in her imagination: in the woods, the water, in pitch black, completely disoriented – none of it mattered if the night sky was without clouds. She used her arms as oars, orienting herself toward the south, toward the shoreline. She breathed in deeply, exhaled, then, arms and legs like leaden rods, she moved slowly in that direction.
In her seventeen years of training, even after all the strange and seemingly impossible tasks the old man had forced upon her – even after all she had overcome, she had nothing to compare to her present situation. By the time an hour had passed, she could not think any longer about her goal, her mind relentlessly falling back into doubt, her body a water bug pulling against a terrible riptide. Why had she come so far, to be so close to obtaining her goal, just to lose it all at the very end? This fueled such a rage in her, starting in her chest, then her limbs, and she found a sudden strength: You will not break me. She even said out loud: “When I return, and I will, old man, I will kill you.” These thoughts so consumed her that she did not realize another hour had passed. She did not realize that if she had quieted the voices in her head, she could have heard the waves crashing upon the sandy shore two hundred yards away. She did not realize that her body was shutting down, that her legs were useless now, that her arms were barely moving. She sank beneath the surface still thinking how she would cut the old man’s throat. She sank and drifted down, water rushing into her lungs. She did not even notice the horrible burning sensation in her chest, or that this was her last thought into oblivion.
And then she awoke, a baby thrust naked into the world of light and sound. She felt the pressure on her chest: Pound! Pound! Pound! Thunderous, violent. She vomited and coughed, her insides on fire, her eyes ablaze with light and heat. And when she rolled over, the cool sand under her back, under her hands, the heels of her feet – she recognized the old man’s face hunched over her own. The light from the campfire was like noonday sun. She squinted. His features established her presence into the land of the living: creased brow, thin veneer of skin covering his jowls, crows feet in the corners of his eyes, his white mustache drooping over his upper lip, the shadow of whiskers covering his cleft chin.
“Now, you are ready,” he whispered into her ear. “Now, you will not fear death. I have brought you back from the grave. Now there is only blood for blood.”
Mira thought of the old man as long in years, but she did not know how old he actually was. He had never spoken of it directly, only alluded to it by the stories he told. His hair was pulled back, a thick straw, iron gray. His face was worn, like parched hide, lean and unshaven, a gray mustache. But that appearance, his calm demeanor hid something ferocious. His muscles like cables, he was quick and violent, and in a moment’s notice could break a neck or sever a limb or throat with the enormous bone-handled bowie knife he kept at his side. He had been a colonel in his past, of what army and when, she did not know. He had been trained in the secret art of war and had experienced violence on levels she could only imagine in those long nights in the stone cell.
But there was a sadness about him, glimpses of deep loss, those days when he withdrew from the world, the strap, the syringe, his pale eyes reddening, the weariness when he awoke like a satchel of rocks had been placed upon his back, stooping him toward the earth, his steps uncertain, motions cautious. She had noticed it when she was quite young, the withdrawal to some secret space, and as a naive girl she had tried to comfort him. She would learn from such a mistake by nearly losing her life. He was a predator, a tightly wound coil, and his thirst for blood and vengeance had no bottom. Something unleashed was how she explained it. Something chained that when released must exhaust itself. At those moments she would lock herself in her cell and listen through the heavy wooden door. The shouts followed by guttural sounds, low groans of deep sorrow and rage. He would storm the abandoned church like a terrible wind, smashing, upturning, pounding on the walls, on her door, and then the old man would disappear into the surrounding woods for days. She found him once saturated with blood and gore, weak from his abandonment, pupils dilated so that no border remained. She had learned what to do over the years – the strap, the needle, the small glass jar he kept with hundreds of other small jars in the cool of the church wine cellar, all labeled in neat blocked lettering: Pueraria Montana. This was the herbal tincture of his addiction. She had seen the great drying racks in one of the observatory rooms. She had secretly watched him grind the seed pods and foliage into powder and distill with alcohol through copper tanks and glass tubing into a clear liquid. And it was this liquid that brought him back to the present, bound the animal within, sometimes through the radial vein, sometimes with a stab into his chest cavity directly into the heart: a gasp, a seizure as if all the muscles contracted at once, then released.
She had only known one person in her seventeen years: the old man. It was the old man who trained her, constantly placing her in outrageous situations, showing her how to be patient, calm, controlling the pulse, controlling every muscle group, controlling the adrenaline rush as it swarmed over her. It was the old man who had stripped her of emotion and longing and fear, daily, weekly, yearly for as long as she had memory. She had been trained to stalk and kill her own food, make her own shelter, survive for weeks on nothing but root and insect until she was starving, until the old man found her, fed her, forced her to do it again. It was the old man who molded and shaped her to be a weapon, silent, violent, no remorse, no empathy. It was the old man who had strategized, calculated and prepared her for one thing: kill the Blood Clan leader. And that moment had finally come, or so she thought.
“In two nights,” he said. She watched him gather the leather bag containing the glass jars, the strap and the needle. “Prepare yourself.” And he walked down the stairs and into the labyrinth of tunnels below the decayed stone building.
It happened during this time, a month after the drowning, and on one of her “observation walks,” walks where she would become like the fallen leaf, the scampering squirrel: silent, observant, crouching for hours in one spot, eyes wide with any movement, sound, markings – a scratch in the bark where the deer had played, a small path from the rabbit, the dried bone left from the fox, the discarded turtle shell still wet from separated tendons. It was, indeed, on this day that she discovered the object hidden in the walnut tree. The tree was a large knotted thing with enormous arching branches sweeping out, the leafy tentacles now drooping with ripe fruit, clustered and green. She was watching a squirrel tend the harvest, pushing on the large seeds, scampering to the next branch to do the same, some falling to the ground to be collected later. It was as she followed the squirrel that she first saw the knot and the sparkling object within.
She did not move. She watched the tree, the shimmer of light, something metallic, but her mind was only focused on one thing: trap! She stooped lower, head just above an incline, a lazy creek below her footing. She scooped mud from the creek and rubbed her arms, her hands, her face and neck, eyes blinking open. An hour passed, watched the landscape searching for any sign, left, right, back to the glimmering object in the walnut tree. She had passed this way many days, many nights. She knew that knot in the tree, and never had there been any object there. Her mind raced for solutions, logical implications: a crow perhaps had stolen it, hiding it in its nest as many do. No nest, she would have seen it. A squirrel? Rarely had she seen such a thing. A raccoon perhaps? Perhaps, but again, no nest had been built there, and she would have seen it. But the angle of the object to the sun, the careful placement to refraction, distraction….This could not be chance. This was something much, much more diabolical.
From her earliest memory, the old man had warned her of the outside world, the civilization beyond the woods, the terrifying evil that had infiltrated it. He had told of mechanized horses, or mysterious forces called electricity. He told her that one day she would be seduced by it, one day she would be tested, but that day had never come. Many times after he had been drinking, the old man would tell her stories a sinister race, the Blood Clan, an ancient race from the beginning of time, before humans, a race that strategically, methodically had grown, like a disease. He spoke in whispers, a deep anger just below the surface, of a leader – half human, half Blood Clan – how he had escaped the old man’s grasp and now was organizing, breeding, a snake writhing and expanding to the ends of the world. And they (the old man and her) the only ones left to cut off its head. This is all she knew. This is why she had been born, trained, she a special child, a sacred child, the avenger for all lost humanity.
All day she watched the landscape for movement, but only woodland animals appeared. The light faded into gray, then darkness, and still she did not move, the clay on her face and neck cracking and peeling as it dried. She stayed motionless, a part of the forest until the rays of morning appeared through the trees, and still no sign of a human’s presence.
And then she crept to the tree, snatched the object and darted back to her secure location near the creek. Her heart pounded, and she steadied her breathing, hands closed in a fist. Slowly, she opened her fingers. There in her palm was a small locket attached to a thin gold chain. She stared at it for meaning, for context: nothing. She turned it over in her hand. It was a tarnished golden oval, no inscriptions. And then she pried it apart and caught her breath. There on one side, a thin border of gold holding it in place: a picture of a woman. She fisted her hand, placed it in her pocket and hurried back to the stone church.