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This Side of Death Ch. 01

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Ch. 1 A Rude Awakening

I had arrived at a time in my life of which I had long time forgotten. It was my own “u-catastrophe” as Tolkien explained the phenomenon. Rudely ousted from a job of thirty years, I had lived –strike that. I had existed in the proverbial tempest in a teapot for the last seven. Meaning. Purpose. Friends. Family. All those things were cast into question. For a time I struggled with the loss of those “things” like anyone else would have. However, a slow crescendo of realization eventually extruded me through the threshold only to find that, once on the other side, you realize that you can’t really lose what had never really existed. The willful suspension of unbelief is short lived.

My wife had returned to college after the kids had grown and moved out. In a half hearted jest I remember her once recounting in the car that one of her teachers had mentioned in a meeting that his dream was to move out into the deep woods, miles from everybody or everything, not knowing exactly what he would find there. She had shouted out the answer, “My husband!” Funny how things like that have a way coming full circle.

In the process of returning to the land of the living I decided to do just what the ex’s teacher friend had only dreamed about. Moving cross-continent and out of country I came to rest at ocean’s edge, “miles from anybody or anything.”

They say that hindsight is 20/20. I only know now, looking back on it all, that I would have never, on my own, severed myself from that life draining leach of a job. Divine providence intervening? Who knows the source of our course through life? All I know is that I was now finally able to move forward; one step at a time; one day at a time. That the life of scratching out a living, seeing that everyone else was cared for (everyone except for me) had, in the end, institutionalized me without my even being cognizant of it. For half of those thirty years I had become the great slayer of fire breathing dragons, a savior to all those who refused to crack a manual. In that delusional world I delighted in the fact that my job provided me with a respectful answer when asked, as men are always apt to do, “So, what do you do?” But like the ever-faithful party in a good marriage gone bad, I had to be handed a writ of divorce before awaking out of my shadow land.

It was five and twenty past the hour, as me mum was once so fond of putting it. The moon was nearing the end of its last quarter as clearly witnessed just off to my left. The air was warm but no longer still. A gentle off shore breeze had been picking up steadily as the day waned. Old but not yet quite dead, my consciousness was reminding me of a soon-to-come rain now mingling its scent with that of salty seawater. Murphy, the local television weatherman, had predicted it the night before. However, of late his wayward predictions had fallen on deaf ears -fool me once, shame on you. A single frayed ribbon of white silk slithered across the darkening western sky from north to south. I was being warned to call it a night, play it safe and begin to head my way back to camp.

Fear of wind or waves were things of forgotten memory. For twenty years I had paddled deserted waters almost always alone. I had grown comfortable with it. Open water kayakers remained a rare breed. Even now, with all the high tech companies spitting out milk carton shells as fast as Detroit spit out milk carton caskets, to greet a fellow paddler out on the open water remained an uncommon occurrence. Yet despite the years and the experiences of time, there were still two things that frightened the hell out of me. The first was large ocean going vessels. The second? Lightning.

I had setup camp on a lonely crag that looked out over a small, narrow inlet. Beneath the ridge was the only patch of sand I had seen in nearly seven hours of paddling. Maps would have been wise but I was ever the optimist. From the wreckage of driftwood, I knew that setting up camp on that little inlet beach was a fools nightmare. Somewhere I had once read magazine stories of night time terror as campsites washed out to sea. I had no interest in writing my own tale of whoa. Earlier, in the warm and bright noon day sun, I found and followed a rocky path which led me to the summit above. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had found my base camp for the long weekend away from all signs of humanity.

A well rehearsed routine. I had my kayak unpacked, my tent pitched amidst a thick mat of pine needles, firewood gathered, and enough pine cones and grass for kindling to last me for much longer than my intended stay. I had purposefully set my tent as close to the rocky crag’s edge as possible, set between two trees which set their roots deep into rock and sand. They had withstood many tests of shoreline storms. I was sure they would last one more weekend. No camper could not have hoped for more. High and dry, the storms of life could beat themselves silly against the rocks below while I in my cap would sit comfortably sipping tea above.

Once eryaman escort bayan the tent had been raised, next came tying off of a line between the trees over which one of two tarps packed for the journey was cast over and tied off. Double protection during off shore cloud bursts had been a necessity learned the hard way only the year prior. A second line was tied between two more trees just off to side of my tent. It served the purpose of protecting the makeshift kitchen and a much needed dry wood storage area.

My little protected and secluded cove and camp was roughly twenty miles from the nearest human being. Out here, it would be just me, God’s canopy of stars and my sparkling seaside fire for four relaxing days. Only briefly did I pause to gather in the serenity of lofty wind sculptured trees and the sound of surf below, while watching a bright but an all too soon to set sun stationing itself over and behind one of the many gulf shore islands opposite my little sandy bay. It was Friday. The camp had been struck. All provisions were provided and accounted for. I had secured an eight hour lamp to a tree which hung precariously out over the ridge of my chosen campsite.

All that was two hours ago. It was a paddling holiday. Even after spending seven hours paddling to arrive at my little hideaway and another hour and a half to set everything up, I had made my way back down to the slender ribbon of sand below before slithering back into my stiletto of blue and white fiberglass and launching myself back out into the open waters for a bit of reconnaissance and a whole lot of adventure. If my luck continued to hold, I might even land something worthy for my dinner. But first came fun and then (hopefully) came fish.

And so it was that I now found myself out in the middle of a lost world ocean as the sun slowly began to sink behind the long line of wooded isles not more than three, maybe four miles off from shore. I set out to visit the nearest of islands while there was still enough light of day to see the hidden reefs as I got closer to their shores. Being alone in that big ocean give me little concern for the swells were small and the forecast predicted no great monsoons.

Wandering where my paddles would lead me, I put myself close to yet another rocky shoreline. It was in the ebbing light of my first day of utter solitude that I caught the occasional glimpses of florescent orange, day-glow green and mellow yellows beneath the slow gliding boat. “The ocean is a desert with its life underground,” came to mind.

I watched pink clouds in the west turn into shades of red and purple as I aimed myself back toward the mainland and into a bay which I estimated a mere mile to the north of my own little cove and sandy beach. I was sure that long after sunset there would be enough light left to let me paddle the shoreline until till catching sight of my eight hour flashing lighthouse hanging out over camp’s edge.

The rhythmic chime of the buoy outside the bay’s inlet led me to believe this was what the locals referred to as Witch Candle Bay. It was a narrow bay that ran far enough back inland to have a bridge erected across it at woods edge. The cast iron and rivets bridge was a product of depression era money and craftsmanship. It now was left setting on a lonely stretch of road which came from and went to nowhere. I imagined it hadn’t seen a traveler in months. I was sure that its original intent had been to ease the harvesting, or should I say slaughtering, of virgin wood. But of course, that purpose had waned long ago.

I stretched out a bungee cord and fixed myself to an exposed bit of re-bar on the third and middle most foundation pillar of the bridge. It was time to catch my supper. Rock cod had long been the staple I had grown use to in this area but occasionally, when luck was with me, my line would sing salmon. “One of those would do me kindly,” I petitioned the great Fisherman in the sky.

Tied up this far back into the bay, the sounds of ocean were distant and faint. I was enjoying the quiet calm about everything when a sudden rip of line sang out. Sitting back up right, I soon realized that even though I was reeling furiously, the line was still spooling out. Resetting the drag, the tip of my pole strained as I began to fight for my supper.

Born and raised in the midwest, I had grown accustomed to having only a very small list of possibilities of what could be expected on the other end of one’s line. But northwestern salt water possibilities were positively daunting.

My rig was small as just about everything packed into a kayak had to be. Strung with twenty pound test and no leader, I had no longing for some big time catch. Three hundred pound flounders were not a kayaker’s cup of tea. If I couldn’t get it in with what I had, I didn’t want it. Living the simple life meant just that.

In less than ten minutes, I had a nice ten or twelve pound salmon pulled up along side of my boat. It was larger than my net but some how I managed to get in underneath it and pulled ankara escort up on top of my spray skirt. Quickly, with knife in hand, I cut the line, broke the tackle down and stored it behind me. An exhausted, dark glassy eye stared back up at me. I would be merciful, making the end of its life as quick and painless as possible. Two filets for me, the remainder sacrificed to the gods of the sea. And that’s what would have happened if the sounds of that peaceful silence had not been suddenly violated.

It had the deep rumble of an American V-8 to it. Big block, I thought. Five would get you ten that is was a pick-up truck. They were staple in these parts of the world. It was well tuned and had the guttural rumble of custom exhaust. That was not so likely in these parts.

Docked thirty foot below Witch Candle’s bridge, the dark silence etched a picture of locked tires skating across crumbling concrete. A squeaky door opened and a voice was heard. Male. Angry. Late twenties perhaps and well versed in four letter speech. I listened quietly to the voice as it wandered near and far. It seemed bent on having an argument with itself. The ebb and tide of good John Doe arguing with bad John Doe seemed to last for an eternity -in fact it probably took less than two minutes before being joined by another voice, muffled and muted though decidedly female. It seemed that a certain Lady John Doe was the brunt of Mr. John Doe’s verbal wrath. A sudden thunder of angry fists falling across a metal hood ended the argument. Quieter and more restrained, I heard Mr. Doe’s Spanish accented, sing-song voice settle itself down into educated English.

“What am I suppose to do now, missy?” My ears were straining to the point of hearing only my own tinnitus. In my mind I was picturing a tall dark haired man standing with hands held high in ultimate frustration.

“The timing for this is all wrong,” he continued in a misgiving voice. “Six more months. Maybe eight. And I would have loved each and every one of them. But I simply cannot risk it all on account of you my sweet.” Again, silence returned to the bay.

I heard the abrasion of his shoes and the squeak of yet another door opening. No sooner had my mind pictured him leaving as noisily as he had arrived than did it imagine a muffled feminine objection. It was one of those Hitchcock moments where imagination is thrust forward into the horror of reality. It was feminine and it had the definitive ring of terror to it.

Far above me I could hear the scuffling of feet on loose gravel. Though I never heard him speak another audible word, I sensed that Mrs. John Doe got in one last good punch or kick before his anger subdued her and threw her off into my pool of glittering diamonds thirty feet below. All at once life went into one of those hurried slow motion dramas.

For a long moment time halted as I sat paralyzed watching in silence as she fluttered down into the icy waters feet first. Everything registered on the canvas of my mind. Black high heeled shoes, the type of which have a strap at the ankle. White panties loosely flared at the leg openings. White linen dress flowing up high yet not high enough to cover the thick mat of black hair trailing behind her like a descending meteor trail. She fell into the icy pool with her back turned to towards me.

If the tide had not been rising, falling that close to the rock-lined pedestal would have assuredly killed her. A light from above searched briefly before panic set in and a peeling of rubber sent Mr. Doe back into the direction from which he had come.

All in one motion I discarded my catch of the day and cut the elastic ribbon that fastened me to the bridge. Pushing off while retrieving my paddle, I aimed the little craft in the direction of her disappearance. Before managing to make it half way out to her, I caught glimpse of a dark haired bobber erupting back atop the water. Surprisingly, I heard no cries or gasping for air before disappearing once again beneath that pool of ink. Shadowed by tall trees standing guard atop even taller cliffs, only in the dead of summer did the sun make its way this far back into the cove. But it wasn’t summer and it wasn’t a noon-day sun. It was early spring with a quarter moon now hidden behind a storm front headed our way. It was in that dimming light which I prayed to the good God in heaven that the dark haired bobber would surface once again in those midnight waves.

I knew from experience that the channel of water was both deep and cold. Without thinking it, I also knew the woman would become crab fodder before the night was over if I couldn’t get to her in time. Drawing closer to where I imagined her to be, an unseen muffled cry of terror was heard. In her turning, I suddenly spotted a black rag mop lunge out of the water once more like a surfacing whale. Drawing closer, I watched as she surfaced and rolled over on to her back while kicking her feet. Something terrible became apparent.

Mr. Doe had either not taken the time or had been unimaginably sincan escort bayan cruel. Losing sight of her once again, I cried out to the dark sea to give her back to me. Almost immediately my prayer was answered as Mrs. Doe surfaced not twenty feet off my starboard side. She was a fighter, laboring to stay afloat with only her feet. I saw no signs of hands and heard no more cries of alarm. She was alone in the darkness struggling in vain to remain this side of death.

Sea kayaks are not designed with open water rescue in mind and mine was no exception. Made of fiberglass, eighteen foot long and only twenty-two inches wide, though all but impossible to sink with sealed bulkheads fore and aft, it was however, easily tipped. A terrified drowning woman would make it a daunting task to stay upright. Skimming across the water I drew the slender craft up silently behind her before reaching out and grabbing a handful of hair. One terror replaced another.

About to flip me over, the woman’s horror stricken response forced me to release my grip. Wide-eyed and wild with demand, Mrs. Doe disappeared back into the black. I cursed my clumsy attempt of rescue.

Time has no reckoning during moments of panic and terror. With only the distant clanging of the channel buoy and the gentle lapping of surf against my boat, I found myself all alone in that giant pool of hellish black. Surrounded by doubt, muddled in a sea of confusion, my mind began playing tricks on me. A large fish surfaced before rolling back into its bed of darkness. Was that all I had seen? Denial. It was one way of coping with loss. It hadn’t happened. I hadn’t blown my chance to save another human being. I had merely caught a fur seal by surprise. Life quickly took on that shade of surrealism where retreat seemed better than reality. Run away! Run away! Rabbits on the run.

Closing my eyes hard, focussing on balance and sound, I concentrated to regain the moment. It had not been an illusion. I knew in my mind that I was not playing a part on one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s operatic stages of life. This was real -and I felt helpless. I knew not who she was or what she had done. I only knew that no one deserved to die like this.

Bobbing back up on my port side I made note of her eyes. Immediately I threw my paddle into the water, straining to put every fiber of my being into figure eight swirls to bring the fiberglass stiletto in close next to her, bracing myself for her hysterical response. But it did not come.

Like the waves about her, she merely washed up against the tiny boat like a piece of driftwood. Slow in cognition, I finally drew to the realization that her hands had been tied behind her and a silver strip of duct tape had been splashed across her mouth. Her large dark eyes and wide heavy brows etched their detail into my brain. I could tell she was nearly spent. No longer offering resistance, the mysterious woman allowed me to capture her. Gently I turned her eyes away from me as I brought her up close against the boat, securing her with an elbow beneath her chin.

“I’ve got you now. Stop kicking your feet or you will tip me over. Do you understand?” Her feet continued to mechanically kick weakly away beneath her, giving her slender torso some needed buoyancy. Something inside me knew that if I let her slip away this time, it would be the last. A terrible swimmer myself, I knew I didn’t have it in me to leave the safety of the boat to search her out in the frigid deep below. But she had not yet turned off the panic button. Again I asked for her cooperation. Again she answered by continuing to struggle to survive. Loosing my hold around her throat, I gave her the ultimatum.

“STOP KICKING! OR I WILL LET YOU GO!”

Deep efforts to gain breath through her nose were now mixed with tears of desperation and servitude. Finally, exhausted more than obedient, her struggle to survive limped to an end.

“Can you float?” I questioned my sea companion.

No longer having to struggle to keep her head above the waves, the angle of her recline soon changed. The white linen dress which had flown up over her face during descent, now floated freely in the surf about her milque-toast torso. Captured by the shutter of my mind, one of the black shoes that I had seen earlier, was now missing. Lifting her up ever so slightly to rest her head upon my spray skirt, the wet dress clung to her frame. The tide was changing and the weatherman’s forecasted overnight shower was coming ashore sooner than I had expected.

If I had been alone, I was sure that I could have easily made it back to base camp before anything serious had reached the shore. Luckily, for both of us, Witch Candle Cove was narrow and had a long narrow island directly across from its mouth. Never really measuring it before, I guessed it less than three hundred yards wide at the inlet and we were no more than one hundred yards from its eastern most shore. But like the shoreline I had followed that morning, it was all quite inhospitable to fiberglass landings even in the gentlest of seas. There was also now the no small matter of dealing with the in rushing tide. Though this was no Fundy Bay with thirty-five foot ebbs and flows, having to battle what current there was was just one more detail my mind began racing to calculate.

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