“…it's kind of like that say'n that you've heard so many times... well there's just no place like home."
I was exhausted after the long drive and all the miles I'd hunted, and my mind drifted. Memories of dreams and certain events in my life were drawn across the hazy vastness of South Dakota, toward a heavy sun, low on the horizon.
I shivered to remember those dreams; startled by the images and intrigued by what was within me that needed to be released. When they reoccurred the images seemed less important than the message; and the knowledge that I was helpless to control or stop them. My only solace was that, in these dreams I was out of my body, and hovered over the scene as an observer. In this detached state, it seemed that what I saw was happening to someone else, even though I knew that it was my flesh.
The dreams came when they wanted, often on consecutive nights, and then left me alone for months, only to return again. They were always the same, and I'd almost reached the point where I was able to dismiss them because of their redundancy. Then, they changed.
In the new dreams, I wasn't a detached observer; I was naked, and laying face down in the snow. Although I needed desperately to breathe, I was afraid to lift my head and take air because of what I might see. Each subsequent dream carried me further and further away.
My wandering mind remembered when the dreams had begun. I was in my twenties, and worked as a counselor with kids and their families in south Minneapolis. My best friend at the time was an Oglala Sioux, and he interpreted the dreams as his grandfather had taught him. While Andy rarely showed emotion, his concern was apparent after he listened to me recount the most recent one.
"This is bigger than me," he said. "You need to see an elder."
"Yeah, an elder. You know, a teacher. A medicine man?"
"Do you really know one?"
He narrowed his eyes. "He'll be in town next week. Those few that are left have to travel to see their people."
Andy had made the appointment, and told the elder that he had a friend, a "Washita", that was in need of help. He explained to me that I should bring a gift of tobacco, and pay whatever I could afford.
On the appointed day I drove to the address he'd given me, and was met at the door by a Native American woman. When I said hello she simply nodded toward the living room, and it was there that I met Cletus.
"This is for you," I said, handing the old man a bag of tobacco.
"The name's Cletus," he smiled.
I told Cletus about the dreams; my back covered in boils that swelled as I watched, and then burst in a rush of blood and puss. From these holes nematode like creatures crawled, trailing amniotic sacks. I told him that the dreams had begun to include me laying at the edge of a frozen, windswept river and that I was afraid to lift my face from the snow to take my next breath. Cletus seemed to be asleep.
"What do you see now?" Cletus asked as he opened his eyes.
I heard myself describe the scene before me for the very first time.
"There is a wolf on the other side of the river, and a raven in a tree between us. The raven looks from the wolf to me, and back again. Then the wolf howls, and the raven flies away. When the raven flies away, the wind stops.”
"You have gone as far you can in this life," Cletus told me through half closed and hooded eyes. "You must give up everything to go on. You are like a hawk that looks the wrong way. You have the ability to see clearly, and for long distances, but you search in the wrong direction."
"What's he mean 'give up everything'?” I asked Andy the next day.
"He means that you need to have a 'give away'. You invite everyone that's important to you, and this includes the spirits of those who have gone before. Then you feast, and give away everything that you don't need for your journey."
"Really? I've got to do that?"
"Yeah, you do," Andy said with a grin. "Did he tell you anything else?"
In my trance state, I smiled recalling what had happened in the weeks after meeting Cletus. After a frustrating day with a client, I'd sent a letter to the owner of an Alaskan fishing lodge and asked for a job. To my surprise, I was offered a job and I resigned my position at the treatment center. When I considered what to pack for the journey, and what to do with what was left, I had an epiphany. I'd have my give away.
All of my friends, both present and past were in attendance, and I gave away everything that I thought might be of importance to them. We feasted and laughed, remembered good times together and celebrated my new life. They wished me luck on my journey.
I blinked and found myself back in the truck. Mac, my Gordon setter, had his head in my lap, and he twitched and whimpered chasing pheasants across the prairies of his mind. The conversation in the front seat had to do with the day's shooting and where we'd hunt in the morning. It seemed distant. The hum of the tires, and the glow of the dashboard were hypnotic.
I drifted back to memories of my journey, and the new life I'd found. It was everything I could have wanted. I guided in Alaska during the summer and in Argentina during the winter. In between I lived in Minnesota where I painted. My artwork was selling, I'd married, bought an old home to fix up, had a couple of kids, trained a good bird dog. Life was good, and I imagined that I'd continue down the same sunny path for the rest of my life.
I was content and thought it fortunate that I'd had my "give away" while I was still young, before my life had fallen into place. I couldn't conceive what it would be like to give everything away again, and I secretly doubted that I'd have the courage to do it a second time.
The divorce took care of that decision for me. I didn't really have a choice.
"You've gone as far you can in your life." Cletus' voice said from somewhere in my past. "You must give up everything to go to the next."
Like the first “give away” the second one forced me to look at my life and decide what was really important for the journey ahead. I found that the things I needed the most were inside of me. This epiphany made the process easier to bear.
Every birth is painful, and so it was with my rebirth. Once reborn, however, I'd never felt so free and happy. My children loved me. I had a much clearer perspective on who I was and wanted to be, I'd found out who my friends really were, and I was, for the most part, unencumbered by the material things that most people think are important. Eating off of plastic plates for a while seemed like a small price to pay for such insights into my life.
Mac moaned and shifted in my lap. I scratched him between his ears and trailed my finger down the bridge of his muzzle. He sighed and wagged his tail weakly.
"You've had a tough day." I said softly. "You need to be hunted more."
A road sign flashed past the window. It read, EPIPHANY 7 MILES.
"Hey, lets go to Epiphany," Tim said to Alan. "We can have beers and dinner at the Coon Hunter."
"Bob, you're going to love this place," Alan said, turning around in his seat. "It doesn't look like much on the outside, but it's the real deal inside." "They have this big silver box..."
"Yeah, the magic silver box!" Tim said. "Bob, you're gonna love the silver box! I've never seen anything like it before. It's like magic. You order what you want from the menu, they put in the top, and it pops out of a chute at the bottom when it's done. It's incredible!"
We came to Epiphany from the north. There were a few older homes, a gas station and a boarded-up building or two. One of the darkened storefronts had several cars in front of it, and we parked across the street. As we opened the door a shaft of warm light and laughter spilled out onto the porch to greet us. The Coon Hunter was as inviting and friendly a small town bar as I've ever been in, as light and cheery on the inside, as it was dark and nondescript from the road. I think it safe to say that everyone there was a regular, and that after a beer or two, we would be too. It was easy to imagine that we'd gone back in time fifty years, and I wondered what the local brew had been in 1954.
We walked past the bar and took a table, as guests in unfamiliar taverns are likely to do, and ordered pitchers of beer. Two cold, quick glasses went down before I noticed Tim grinning at me. When he caught my eye, he nodded towards the bar. There on the back counter, blocking a considerable bit of the mirror was the object of Tim's rapture, the magic silver box.
"What d'ya want to eat?" he asked, sliding me a menu. "You can get any fried thing you want."
The usual bar food was well represented, as well as some things I'd never seen before; fried turkey gizzards for example.
"The gizzards for me," I said, adding my selection to the growing list.
"Cool!" Tim said. "More pitchers?"
The magic silver box was now the center of our attention. Pre-portioned bags of battered delight were poured into a short hopper on it's top, and just minutes later, removed from a chute at it's bottom, perfectly prepared. There were no switches, indicators, nor gauges, nothing but smooth stainless steel; as efficient in form as it was in function.
One after another, we started to yawn. It was time to pay our bill, say goodnight to our new friends, and head back to camp. On my way past the bar, I noticed a glint of light from the corner of the box, and leaned over the counter to have a closer look. There, in the lower left corner of the magic silver box, in the smallest of raised script, was a name. It read, "Cletus".
"You 'ok' to drive?" Alan asked Tim, as we climbed into the truck.
"Sure, you bet," he answered, bright-eyed and alert.
Jeeze, I wish I were that age again. I thought to myself, as I willed my legs into movement and climbed into the truck with an audible moan. Mac raised his head just enough to let me sit down, then flopped it back into my lap. He hardly even raised an eyelid when I produced the last gizzard from my pocket.
The weather would change. It had been unseasonably warm, but the wind had swung around, out of the north, and the temperature had dropped.
"Frost in the morning," Alan said with a yawn. "We can sleep in, the birds ought'a sit tight till it warms up."
On the drive back to camp, a gust of wind rocked the truck, and seemed to speak to me; it came as a friend and told of new times and a new journey. I thought of Lisa. I'd met her in the autumn after the divorce, and within a short time, discovered that when I was with her, I was the man I wanted to be. She was offered a job at the lodge in Alaska the next summer, and it was there that I asked her to join me in this new life. We were married, there at the lodge, the following summer.
Again, my new life was more than I could have ever asked for. I'd found a friend, soul mate, and lover. She adored my children, and they her. We worked together all summer in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and traveled to Argentina during the winter months to fish with friends. I was painting well and the studio thrived under our partnership. Now, I imagined, I've found the course for the rest of my life. That is, until we decided to have a child.
Unlike before, this decision didn't require that I give up everything to find a new life. It did necessitate some major adjustments, however. We no longer work in Alaska during the summer, I took a long hiatus from guiding, and we didn't travel together to Argentina and fish with our friends for a few years. Still, everything in life is a trade; I'm painting and writing for a living, we have a big garden, the old home still needs plenty of repairs, and I get to see more of my friends.
Lisa is still my best friend and the most beautiful woman I know. The older children are now teenagers and better off for her guidance and love. We continue to work together all summer in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I'm painting better than ever, and despite difficult times, the studio continues to pay our bills. Most importantly, we have a new life, and a daughter named Tommy. Now, I've finally found the course for the rest of my life.
Here are a few things that I've learned on the road to Epiphany.
- Life is just like the magic silver box; there are no directions, you can't turn it off or on, and you get back exactly what you put into it.
- Going somewhere new is never hard, it's leaving where you're at that's difficult.
- You never lose by giving things away.
- Sometimes the least important thing about a hunting trip is the hunting.
- I still see very clearly, but often in the wrong direction.