WHITED SEPULCHERS IN THE WILDERNESS
I am like an owl of the desert. I watch,
and am as a sparrow, alone upon the
housetop." Psalm 102:6-7
The sun was still rising above the edge of the naked tree line on Crater Lake as Bill shifted from foot to foot in the cold fall air. It was bright and smelled clean and the wind wasn't too cold, an almost perfect morning, he thought. Bill took a deep breath and blew into his duck call again and again, in short, rapid bursts as he walked slowly along the edge of the lake towards the cove with the tall, deep reeds. He watched as Klina, his Irish setter, moved gently and silently along beside him. He had been careful to remove Klina's tags because of the noise they would have made, and now, he was glad he had done so. Klina was up ahead of him on the path, when suddenly, Bill turned and looked directly into the eye of a huge bird. At first, it looked almost too big to be real, but as his eyes adjusted to the size of it, he realized that it was indeed real, and staring intently back at him. The thought occurred to him to shoot it, but he knew that it wouldn't be right to shoot a bird that wasn't in flight. Bill studied its grey blue back and long, thin neck. Although he had never seen one, Bill knew it was a Great Blue Heron.
He had read and article on them in National Geographic once, about how they were pretty rare, and often thought to be in danger of extinction. He didn't think they were found in this part of the country, which made him wonder even more what this bird was doing here. The bird continued to stare at him. For a moment, time seemed to stop. Bill, and the dog and the bird all watched one another. He could hear his breath moving gently in his chest, his heart beating slowly, and steadily. Klina too, was poised, and alert, sensing the tension. Bill raised his rifle very, very slowly up to his shoulder, never taking his eye off the great bird. Then, just as he fixed it within his sight, the bird turned, and in one powerful motion, thrust its long legs upward, dropped its wings open, and flew out across the lake. Bill and his rifle moved as one, following the Great Blue Heron out across the flat calm surface of the lake. If you don't pull quick, it will be too late, he thought, but there was something within him that could not do it, that could not pull the trigger and fire the shot. He watched in silence as the great bird continued to fly slowly over the water, gracefully flapping its huge wings, effortlessly moving farther and farther away. Once again, time seemed to stand still, and everything seemed to stop. And then, the bird was gone.
Bill sat back on an old dead log and looked out across the water. He argued back and forth with himself as to whether on not he should have shot the bird, whether or not he had done the right thing, or simply been a coward who froze. It was almost as if it was the Great Blue Heron that was in control of the situation, and not me, he thought. As if the bird had some kind of power, or, .........I need to keep moving, he thought.
Bill got up and raised his duck call to his lips again, but this time, he continued walking, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. He spent the rest of the morning trying to figure out where the bird had landed, but he could find no trace of it. As the day wore on, he found himself getting hungry. He had packed a lunch, but Klina had eaten most of it, and that was hours ago, so Bill began the long walk back to his cabin in the woods.
Scientists had said that Crater Lake had been formed by a huge meteorite hitting the earth thousands of years ago, deep in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. The Indians had another story however, about the Great Spirit carving out a sacred spot for her children to bathe in. Bill wasn't sure which story he believed, but there were times when the landscape of jagged grey peaks and deep firs and pines seemed to whisper to him in another language, telling stories of things long since passed. In a way, it made him feel sort of uneasy, but he could usually push through the feeling by going hunting, or taking Klina on a long hard walk.
As he approached the clearing where his cabin was, he took out his key. He always kept the door locked, even though he lived nearly four miles over unpaved roads from the nearest house in Union Creek. You can never be too careful, he thought. Especially since half the people from here to Klamath falls had heard about him after that article in the paper. It had been quite a news item for a couple of days when he had left the Digital Spectroscope company in Klamath Falls.
The article said he was making "an ameliorative retreat to the wilderness in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau." In reality, it had nothing to do with Thoreau, but the paper hadn't found out about the nineteen year old Christian nihilist he had been dating. That would've caused quite a scandal since he had been twenty-seven at the time. They were very compatible sexually, but always argued about the direct intervention of God in human affairs. Despite their arguments, Bill had fallen deeply in love with her, before she left him for an authentic Indian mystic with a sacred word on the license plate of his BMW. But he hadn't told the paper about that. The official reason typed on his resignation form was "job fatigue". Bill could still see the look Mr. Ryffsnyder's face as he read the form and said, "You must be pretty damn fatigued to give up fifty-two thousand dollars a year."
Bill was startled by a loud rapping at the door. It was dark now, and no one ever came out this far after dark. Bill walked slowly over to the door and barked out: "Who's there?"
"Sorry to bother you, but I'm lost", a muffled voice said through the door. Klina was barking at the door now, and Bill couldn't hear what the voice was saying. He picked up his rifle from the rack near the fireplace and pulled the door quickly open. Bill peered into the darkness at the small, thin man who stood in the doorway.
"Name's Jean Paul Schroeder", he said extending his right hand. "Glad to meet you."
Bill hesitated, and then, slowly took his hand and gave it a slight tug. "Sorry t' bother ya, but I was out walking and it got dark on me."
"Where'd you start from?"
"Oh, I'm not from around here. Just visiting some friends down in the Falls."
"You didn't walk up here from the Falls, that's nearly twenty miles."
"Oh no, I got a ride out as far as Union Creek and I walked from there. Wanted to see the National Park and all while I was around here. I didn't realize how far I'd gone when the sun started to set on me. Went down a lot faster than I thought."
"Not too smart walking in the woods without knowing where you are or what time of day it is. People have died out here."
"Well, thank God I saw your light. You got electricity out here? I didn't see no wires."
"Underground", Bill snapped. He didn't like the idea of anyone knowing he had electricity in the cabin. That was why he had dug the ditch by hand and buried a wire running from the nearest utility pole which was almost a half mile away.
"Not bad. Not bad at all", Jean Paul said as he stepped up inside the main room of the cabin. There was only one old easy chair near the fireplace. The wide wooden floor was bare, except for a refrigerator in the corner, and an old wooden table with the legs wired together and a clean blue sheet over it. The door to the other room was closed.
"I hope I'm not interrupting your dinner", Jean Paul said as he glanced down at the now empty plate on the floor next to the chair.
"No, just reading", Bill said dryly.
"I read some myself", Jean Paul said as he walked around Bill and held his open palms out at the fire.
"Starting to get pretty cold out there", he said. "I'm sure lucky I found you here."
"Yeh", Bill mumbled as he walked over to the fireplace and put his gun back in the rack. He realized now that there would be no getting rid of Jean Paul until the morning. Bill had no car, and he was in no mood to walk the four miles to Union Creek with Jean Paul only to walk back home again. No, Jean Paul would have to spend the night, he thought. There was no way around it.
"Well, I guess you may as well make yourself comfortable. You'll be here all night."
"Why that's very kindly of you. I guess I was right lucky."
Bill picked up his book from the old easy chair.
"Have a seat."
"Thanks. The Tao of Physics? What kinda book is that?" he said as Bill put the book on the mantle.
"You a scientist or somethin'?"
"Sort of. I was a mathematician."
"Mathematician? What's a mathematician doin' way out here?"
"I said I was. I'm not anything now. I'm just here. That's all."
"Sorry. Didn't mean t' stab a sore spot."
"No sore spot. I was just saying.....", his voice trailed off. Bill was beginning to feel uncomfortable, but he knew there was no way to avoid the situation so he decided to try and make the best of it.
"I've got some whiskey in the next room", he said. "Care for a drink?"
"Don't mind if I do. That'd be right nice about now."
Bill opened the door to the other room just a crack, slid through the opening, and closed it quickly behind him. A moment later, he returned with a large clear bottle in one hand and an old cane backed chair in the other. He set the bottle and the chair down next to Jean Paul and walked over to the cupboard. He only owned three pans, and two of them were still dirty, so he took the clean one out and headed for the door.
"I'm going to the well for some water."
When Bill returned, Jean Paul had taken his sneakers off and moved closer to the fire. He was a smallish man, and appeared to be in his mid thirties. His black hair was thinning on top, but this was only noticeable from above. Bill noticed that his feet were quite small, almost too small for the sneakers he had been wearing. Bill took two coffee cups out and poured some whiskey into them. He set the pot of water between them and said "Help yourself to the water."
"Thanks", Jean Paul said, as he picked up the pan. Bill watched Jean Paul as he carefully tilted the pan and filled the cup in one fluid motion, before handing it to Bill. It was still quite heavy, and Bill moved forward in his chair uneasily as the water sloshed from side to side in the pan. He tried to pour it quickly, but some of it splashed out onto the floor, and he was forced to start again. The whiskey tasted good as he felt it warm him. First his mouth and then his throat and chest. He sat back in the chair and stretched his feet out at the fire.
"Where you from?", he asked.
"Don't know exactly. My folks never stuck around long enough to tell me. Been in homes mostly. All over. What about you?"
"I'm from Roseburg originally. Went to school in California and grad school in Arizona, but I guess you can't stay away forever."
"I never made it t' school. Had t' work."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"Oh, a little bit of everything I guess. Odds and ends. Small jobs. Good with my hands. I'm sort of an artist really."
"Really? What kind of work do you do, drawing or painting or what?"
"Well........,it's not really like that. It's more in the way I do things, the way I live."
"Well, like in my everyday life. I do things because I want to, not because I'm worried about what everyone else'll think. That's where we're different, me and you. You're caught up in what everyone else thinks, 'stead of what you think." Jean Paul took a long drink and finished the whiskey in his cup.
"What gives you that idea?"
"Look at your bedroom. You've got enough stuff in there to run a department store, but it's all hidden away and covered up cause you're afraid of what people'd say if they found out."
Bill was speechless. No one had ever seen the inside of his room before, and yet, Jean Paul was right. Under his bed were over two hundred record albums and in the closet were a stereo and a color t.v.. The only things that weren't hidden were the books. Bill had taken all of his four hundred and seventy two books up to the cabin when he moved there, but he was sure no one knew about it. There were only two windows in the cabin, and he always kept them covered with dark green shades.
"It's all right", Jean Paul said softly, his tiny black eyes shining in the firelight. "There's nothing wrong with it, it's just the way you hide it."
"I'm not hiding anything", Bill said weakly, but as he said it, they both broke into a laugh. Bill poured them both another cup of whiskey. It was beginning to go through him now, but it felt good and warm and racy.
"You see, nothing really matters", Jean Paul began. "Except for how you live. It's all in what you think and know is right for you. It's what they call in them books the symbol of absolute separation. It's what's right in the eyes of God", he said as he finished what was in the cup. Jean Paul handed the pan to Bill.
"Damn it", Bill said as the water splashed onto the floor. Jean Paul smiled at him.
"I guess I'm not as agile as you are", Bill laughed.
"I've had a lot of practice, remember, I work with my hands", he said as he held his hands up in front of Bill's face, fingers outstretched and palms down.
"Why'd you come out here anyway?" "How do you know I wasn't born here?" Bill said smiling.
"You tell me."
"Well, I guess I just got fed up with the city, and the way things were up there. I just needed to get away from it all. There's no pressure out here. It's all so big and open and honest. This is where I think God is, you know?"
"That depends on how you look at it. I've seen God in some pretty strange places, you just have to look harder for him."
"Maybe. You'd know what I meant if you lived out here. You can't live out here and not know there's a God. All you have to do is open your eyes." Bill finished what was in his cup and poured himself another.
"Last one and then we'll call it a night."
"Sounds good", Jean Paul said, as he lifted his cup as if to toast.
"Here's to freedom. The freedom to do what you know you have to." They both drank off what was in their cups and stood up.
"You can sleep here, by the fire", Bill said.
Bill opened the door to the bedroom and turned on the light. "I know I've got an extra blanket in here somewhere", he said as he fumbled through the closet.
"Ahhh, here it is", he said as he handed it to Jean Paul.
"Thanks again. I'm much obliged to you."
"No problem", Bill said as he turned out the light. "I'll see you in the morning."
The sun had already made it's way up over the tree line when Bill woke up. He knew it was later than when he usually woke up. He sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his arms out above his head. Jean Paul was already awake, sitting at the kitchen table by the window.
"Morning", he said.
"How long you been up?"
"Oh, not too long."
"I'm going out hunting today, so I'll walk you out in the direction of Union Creek."
"Sounds good", he said as he stood up.
"I'd offer you something to eat, but there's not much around", Bill said apologetically.
"That's all right. You've done enough already. Besides, I'm not much of a morning person anyway."
Outside, the air was cold and crisp and clean against Bill's skin. He watched as Klina disappeared up ahead of them.
"Did you see the Lake on your way by?"
"No. I think I came from the other direction. I didn't realize it was so bare in the darkness.
"Yeh. Won't be long before winter's here."
They walked in silence up the path towards the lake. Bill slowed as they neared the cove with the tall reeds.
"Walk softly. I want to show you something", he said as he carefully approached the reeds. He felt a tug at his sleeve and turned as Jean Paul pointed off to their left. There, in the shallow water, stood the Great Blue Heron, looking sideways at them with one cold white eye. They watched as it drew up its wings and took off out over the Lake. Bill was beaming with excitement.
"Did you see it? Did you see it?" He whispered.
"Yeah", Jean Paul mumbled under his breath. "Yeah."
"I told you. You could never see that in the city. Never." "You're right about that."
"C'mon, let's go see where it landed."
"Listen, I've got to get back. You go on ahead without me. I'd just be in the way anyway."
"Yeah. I've really got to go. Besides, you've done enough for me already."
"Well, Union Creek is only a few miles from here. Just follow this path to the big rocks and then go left on the dirt road."
"Thanks", Jean Paul said as he extended his hand. "Thanks a lot. I'm really much obliged."
"No problem. I hope you make it back all right."
"I will. And thanks again."
Bill hadn't been walking that far along the path when he heard a crackling noise. He stopped and listened.
"Don't move", a voice said from behind a group of rocks. Men began to appear from everywhere, but he was too surprised to notice that they were policemen, sheriffs and marshals. "Lay that rifle down slowly."
"That ain't him Timmy. He's too tall."
"Eyes are blue too."
"You got any I.D. on you?" the first one asked.
"No huntin' license?"
"It's back in the cabin, I live just over there", he said pointing over his shoulder. All of the men were around him now, and several more were coming up the path with dogs.
"You seen anyone around here at all?"
"No. No one. Except for the guy I was just with. Didn't you see him walking on the path toward Union Creek?"
"Some guy. He got lost last night. I sent him back towards Union Creek."
"What'd he look like?"
"He was smallish, about five six, dark hair, dark eyes."
One of the men held up a black and white photograph of a man with a beard. Bill studied it carefully before he realized it was Jean Paul.
"Was that the guy?"
"Yeah. But he didn't have a beard."
"Timmy, grab Ryan and Mike and head back down that path. You boys take the dogs and loop around the other way."
"Don't you watch the news boy?" the older man said as he turned back to Bill.
"No. I mean, I don't have a t.v.. I mean I...."
"That's Jean Paul Schroeder, the biggest criminal in the state of Oregon. He just escaped from the jail. Seventh time. We had him in a cell on the fifth floor. Somehow, he got out a window that was 16 inches by 10 inches. 16 by 10. You tell me. How'd he do that one? Climbed down the side of the buildin' with his bed sheets, and still was up twenty-five feet. Must have wings or somethin'."
Bill stared blankly back at the officer.
"You sure you never seen him before?" another one asked.
"Yeah. I'm telling you, he just came up on the cabin and said he got lost. I've never seen him before in my life."
"Well, you best hope you never see him again", the first man continued. "You're lucky t' be alive. Man's a killer. He'd kill ya just as soon as look at ya. He's wanted for anything you can name, murder, rape, robbery, assault, grand theft, prison escapes....."
"They never got him for no rapes", one of the other officers said quickly.
"Shut up Earl. They never got him for none, don't mean he never did none. You know as well as I do he was hanging out in peoples houses when they wasn't there, going through their clothes and stuff."
"That don't make him a rapist."
"What do you mean he was hanging out in peoples houses?" Bill asked.
"That's what he was known for. He had a reputation as bein' sort of a cat burglar, but he'd hang out in your house, and go through your stuff, maybe cook himself some dinner, clean up, and then leave. Sometimes, he wouldn't even take nothing. Other times, he'd just take one thing, and people wouldn't even notice it. They wouldn't know they'd been broken into until months later. That was his big thing, leaving no trace. That and being good with his hands."
"Listen, we're wasting time standing here, let's keep moving."
"I can help you track him if you want, I'm pretty good with a gun, and I've got Klina here."
"No, you just sit tight, we'll send someone back to get a statement from you. Besides, we don't want anyone getting hurt if this thing turns ugly."
The police and marshals and sheriffs and their dogs all began to head out in different directions, leaving Bill and Klina alone with a short fat man in a ranger's uniform.
"Well, I'll need to fill a form out on this", he said to Bill
"How long's he been on the run?" Bill asked.
"Schroeder? His whole life I suspect. He's been wanted for so many years now, I lost track. This last time he escaped he stole a white van, and spray painted purple swirls on it for camouflage. Can you believe that? It's the Pacific Northwest, this place's as green as you can get........ what was he thinking? He's sort of a hero in these parts though, that's what makes it tough. Some people actually help him out, cause they think he's some sort of noble outlaw. He says he's an artist, and that he only does it for a game, to see if he can get in and out without getting caught, and leave no trace. Says that the things people don't miss, they don't need anyway. Can't be too important to ya if ya don't even know it's been stolen."
"You got that right", Bill said laughing.
"Still, the law's the law", the man answered quickly. "Nothing heroic about breaking the law."
Bill ran through the whole story with the man several times, and then finally, he was alone. Slowly, he started back down the path toward the lake, running through the events of the past day in his mind. It had all swirled so quickly. It seemed like another lifetime. He hadn't even seen anything around him as he passed through the fir trees on the damp rocky path. It was only the fact that Klina had stopped that made him come to. There, in front of him on the path lay the body of the Great Blue Heron. Bill froze. He waited for a moment, as if to check its breathing, but then realized what he already knew, it was too late. He knelt down, and gently rolled the bird over. There was a trickle of blood coming from its long thin neck, where a mark had been made by some kind of wire. It's been strangled, he thought. His mind collapsed in upon itself, and he dropped to the ground.
After what seemed like hours, Bill took off his shirt and with a stick and his hands, he began digging in the dark moist earth. The smell of the ground drifted up at him, cooling his face as his sweat began to drip into the hole. He placed the Great Blue Heron in his shirt, and wrapping it gently, he lowered it into the ground. He stood over it for a moment, and then gently laid his rifle beside it. With his boot he slowly began to cover the wound he had made in the earth, and when he was finished, he took the key from his pants pocket, dropped it on the mound, and walked back up the path towards Union Creek with the Klina.
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