It wasn’t such a great idea after all. In trying to kid-glove a psychological powder keg, I had put myself in an awkward situation. If I lost my footing or balance, I would most certainly plunge to my death. I would have no one to blame but myself. Nevertheless, I blamed Stanton for my predicament.
Stanton was in one of his strange moods, and I had learned that there was nothing I could do to distract him, or assuage whatever psychic pain he was suffering. I just had to wait it out. Unfortunately, his mood struck at a time that it was not very easy to wait it out. I would do my best, nevertheless.
Perhaps if I probed the area around the small farm where he had lived with his mother and brother shortly before the divorce, I would gain some insight into his situation. If nothing else, it was picture postcard perfect, with thick, tangled prairie grasses, wildflowers, and trees in a rocky land where sinkholes betrayed the secret caves and underground rivers that typified karst topography. Three Horses River was in flood after a week of storms and my plan to cross over it on the little rope bridge and explore the cluster of stone cabins nestled in a small grove of honey locust, persimmon, sweet gum, and box elder trees seemed dangerous at best.
The mood had started after we left the convenience store where we had breakfast, when we drove down the cobbled streets of Yahweh Springs and approached the square we had probed at night. The morning was overcast, with storm clouds speeding across the sky on the edge of a front. The air was clammy and strangely electric.
Stanton’s lips formed a line, his eyebrows looked oddly wooden. He was going somewhere in his mind and I was not welcome to accompany him.
“Here it is,” he said. He pulled into a driveway overgrown with weeds, and a small house constructed of the characteristic Yahweh Springs style of interwoven rows of rounded native stone and blocky squares of pink Tishomingo granite. “This is where we lived. This is where we need to look.”
Without waiting for my response, he parked the Suburban, leapt out, and walked with heavy determined strides to the sagging front porch. His muscular legs were like springs catapulting him along, and one could almost see the hyper-tense energy emanating from him. My stomach sank. I knew I was not going to be able to ask questions or do anything productive until his mood lifted.
As much as I wanted to solve the mystery of what drove his father to think that this is where and why he became God’s Hostage, or, alternatively – according to my theory – where the precious green-pink jade statue of the most revered female Boddhisattva, Tara, that Stanton’s dad had smuggled back from Laos was lost. It was, correspondingly, where Stanton’s dad lost his mind. He was convinced that the monks from the Buddhist Temple of the same name – God’s Hostage – were pursuing him in order to retrieve their property. Later, Stanton’s dad was convinced that the Laotian yakuza-mafia were also involved. He said that Chinese drug smugglers and opportunistic Americans had desecrated the temple by using it as a warehouse for heroin. They had even had the nerve to steal the elaborate jigsaw puzzle pink jade Mandala, which was comprised of a thousand small, elaborately carved jade pieces. I liked to think of it as a large puzzle resembling a large Chinese checkers, but instead of round marbles, each was an elaborately carved rounded figurine. But, all had disappeared. All 144 of them. The implications were grave.
Seeing the lives it had destroyed, it seemed to me that “God’s Hostage” signified a great deal more than a statue or a Buddhist temple. Whoever began to crave possession of the smooth, iridescent green, flashing pink jade skin of the lovely Tara, was driven to desperate acts – acts that would set them on a path to absolute ruination. It was the path for oblivion seekers. It was the path for those who would do anything to forget, to escape consciousness without paying the physical consequences of extreme dissipation or addiction.
As Stanton stood sat down on the edge of the crumbling porch, I decided to follow the red stone pathway to a small cliff overlooking the raging torrent that was Three Horses River, in flood.
The grass on the edge of the cliff was slippery, and the stones had been dislodged by the force of the rains and the waters cascading down after each fresh torrent. Although was not raining now, the ground was soft. I made my way tentatively to the small rope bridge, seduced by the roar of the water, the spray, the sweet promise of oblivion. I stepped onto it, holding the sides of the bridge with my hands, moved forward ten, twenty, thirty feet.
Below me, many feet below, the water crashed, boiled, and taunted me with its raw, insensitive force.
My right shin began to ache, and I looked down as I took my first step onto the rope bridge. Sweet-smelling moss and slime covered the lower edge of the rope, and as I stepped onto it, I heard a creaking groan as the wet fibers stretched to the breaking point. The place beneath an old scar on my leg began to ache in a strange way, reminding me of things I had utterly forgotten – the canoe accident on the Mulberry River, just across the border in Arkansas, where Stanton and I had tackled the river, never expecting it to have so many submerged tree roots and trunks. The impact of my leg against the metal of the canoe was so intense it split my skin apart, and my bone ached for a month.
So this was kinaesthetic memory. My leg remembered – it responded to the situation, the context, the circumstances that were so much like the time of the original injury.
Losing my focus for just a second, I slipped on the rope bridge, my body falling through the airy gap between rungs. I had the presence of mind to grip the rope, but even so, it wasn’t enough.
The rope bridge snapped – first on one side, and then, on the other, plunging me down, down, into the waters. My leg and my shoulder tangled in the rope.
Miraculously, instead of plunging to probably concussion and drowning in the middle of Three Horses River, I swung like a small girl on a tire swing, smack into the muddy 20-foot high cut bank. My breath was knocked out for a few seconds, but when I recovered, I was able to use the rope to make my way up over the small, muddy cliff to safety.
Scrambling up the edge, I clung to the slippery limestone cobbles, the clay, and heaved myself onto the prairie grass on the small bluff overlooking the river. I was filthy, but alive. It was a vaguely repellant condition, but the brush with death made me feel weirdly euphoric.
In the distance, I heard a male voice shouting my name. I wondered if Stanton had seen anything. I stumbled across the grass toward the small walkway. As I ran, my leg suddenly gave way, and the ground seemed to give way, as though I were trodding on a sinkhole, or a collapse doline. Next to a bush, I saw what seemed to be a shadow, except the overcast skies precluded any sort of shadow. Moving closer, I could see what it was.
It was the entrance to a cave.