Sunday, August 21, 2005

Devil's Redemption


The thin, young devils wore skinny black ties, black wrinkle-free slacks, snow-white short-sleeved cotton shirts and carried New Testaments in their shirt pockets. They stood at the opening of the Cave of Whispers where I knew, now with utter certainty, that Stanton’s dad had stored the jade artifacts he had smuggled back from his tours of duty in southeast Asia. I needed to get out of the cave, and there was no way to get past the two young men who had shouted what could have been interpreted as a greeting or a warning.

They moved toward us, and, without quite knowing why, my heart started beating fast. They looked innocuous enough - like the bicycle-propelled missionaries one would see in many parts of the world. I was not so convinced.

“You can keep all the mandala carvings. They’re the small, roundish jade ones,” I said. Stanton turned his head quickly and looked at me, eyes wide with surprise. “But the statue of the woman belongs to Stanton. Or, more precisely, it belongs to his father.”

“Are you sure you should be saying this?” asked Stanton in a low voice that could not be heard over the sound of rushing water.

Droplets dripped from the roof of the cave, and I could hear the roar of the river behind us, as it emanated up from the large, round hole that had been created by the collapse of a block of limestone. Anyone not paying close attention would fall many feet down into the turbulent waters of an underground river, a tributary into the larger river raging a few yards away.

Even though I did not grow up in Yahweh Springs as Stanton had, and I did not explore the wilds of karst and Three Horses River, I could feel his attachment to the place. The Yahweh Brethren were interlopers at best. At worst, they might have established a cult of criminality or even suicide.

“God’s Hostage,” I said back to him, my voice low. “It’s the only way to break the spell.”

There was something about the Yahweh Brethren that made me skeptical. There was no way that they could support their compound by selling organic food and operating the local Speedie Trip, no matter how wonderful the cooking might be, or environmentally friendly the products. They had to obtain money from outside sources. Many such groups were able to pry large donations from members. Others promised healing and safety to lonely elderly citizens who listened to the radio and television programs. Still others operated criminal scams, ranging from credit card fraud to trafficking in drugs, illegal documents, even artifacts.

Judging by their non-responsive expressions, the two young missionary types did not seem to have heard what I was saying. Perhaps they were not Yahweh Brethren. I was not taking any chances.

“We saw you go in and worried that maybe you had gotten hurt,” said one of the young men. He looked to be about 19 or 20.

“We’re okay,” I said. The cave floor was wet, the air was cool, and my soggy Nikes squished as I made my way toward them. Stanton did not move.

“This is public land. It’s part of the River Conservancy,” I said. “So, I guess that it means that anything anyone finds here has to be turned in to the government. Do you know anything about rare jade carvings being found around here?”

The slimmer of the two looked excited. “No, but I’ve always thought there might be something. A couple of months ago, we used to see lights coming from here. I wanted to check it out, but Brother Cyrus said we had to finish our reports for the home office.”

“Only because you procrastinated and we were about to miss the deadline,” said Cyrus. “Elder Minnis was getting seriously chafed about it.”

“What’s in here?” he leaned his mountain bike next to the cave entrance. “My name’s Dan.”

“Nice to meet you, Dan. I’m Ophelia. That’s Stanton,” I said, extending my hand. “Are you part of the Yahweh Brethren? You aren’t quite dressed like the people I saw at the Speedie Mart.”

“No. We’re LDS. We’re on our one-year mission trip. We got lucky and drew the Righteous City – Yahweh Springs district,” said Dan.

Cyrus snorted a laugh. “Sure. Sounds good on paper. Lots of things to do on the weekend if you like mountain biking and kayaking. But the Yahweh Brethren are pretty resistant to our message. They keep to themselves.”

“Yeah, I even bought hemp soap for my sisters for Christmas. I was doing anything I could to strike up a conversation,” said Dan. “My parents were so worried that I had gone “Yahweh” that they had a couple of elders visit us.”

“Do you think the Yahweh Brethren are doing any sort of other business?” I asked.

“You mean like artifact smuggling?” asked Dan. “Wow. That would be cool.”

“No it wouldn’t, you dimwit,” said Cyrus. “We would probably be shot for getting too close to some sort of hideout. It would be as bad as the meth lab we ran into that day.”

“Oh yeah. Don’t remind me,” said Dan. “If we hadn’t climbed up into the tree, their Rottweilers would have torn our throats out. I think the dogs were insane.”

“Very likely,” I said. “I’ve heard that they are bred to be really aggressive, and the owners grind up methamphetamine and put it in their dog chow.”

“Hey, there’s a business opportunity,” said Dan. “My dad has a feed store and people are always looking for new mixes of dog food. Maybe a new blend, Guard Dog Chow.”

“Personally, I don’t think so,” said Cyrus. “They stay in their compound and they are busy filling envelopes and sending out stuff to people who send in donations. If you donate ten dollars you get a hemp bracelet. If you donate more, you get a Yahweh Peace and Love medallion, and so forth.”

“How do you know that?” asked Dan.

“Do you remember Melody?” responded Cyrus. “She told me all about it.”

“Then she went back home to her parents. I thought we had a chance with her. She was this close from coming to our services,” said Dan. “You blew it. You started talking to her about her family and her cats.”

“I’d like to ask the leader of the Yahweh Brethren anyway. Or, just talk to him or her,” I said. “I think that perhaps some of the people at the top could have an interest in artifacts.”

Stanton suddenly moved from the shadows where he had been standing noiselessly.

“Look, Ophelia. You’re shivering. You’re going to get pneumonia if you don’t change out of those clothes,” he said, wrapping his arm protectively around my waist. “This can wait.”

“Yes, sir,” said Cyrus. “Sorry to keep you. If we can help you look in caves, just let us know. Here is our card. You wouldn’t be interested in attending a church service, would you?”

Stanton took the card and shook their hands. “If it will help you somehow, we’ll definitely attend. We’re at the motel at the edge of town. My name’s Stanton Harville. You can just ask for our room.”

Stanton half-pulled, half-carried me out of the cave entrance and into the sunlight. It had gotten cloudy and threatened rain.

“Sorry to be in such a hurry, but I’m worried about my wife,” he said. Dan pulled his mountain bike out of the way, and Cyrus moved some of the brush out of the way to make room for us.

“Perfectly understandable, sir,” he said.

“What’s going on, Stanton?” I asked. Stanton did not respond. He grasped me tightly around the waist and, half-jogging, we covered the distance between the cave and the old house where he had lived as a boy, and where the truck was parked.

Once at the truck, Stanton pulled me inside. The wind had changed and was blowing cool, moist air from the north. Dark, low-lying clouds started to move toward us.

“Is it because it looks like it’s going to rain?” I asked.

Stanton replied with a terse “no” and proceeded to pull me toward him, his hand on the small of my back, pushing my hips into his. His lips searched for mine, and he kissed me, the image of blue flames replacing his eyes, his hands, dark, scorching, hungry.

“You just don’t understand, do you?” he said. On the driver’s side, he held my hand with a grip I had never felt before. It was the hand of a person holding onto a frayed, wet rope or a slippery rock as they dangled above sharp rocks and raging waters.

Once in the motel room, he peeled my wet, muddy clothes from me. “You’re ice cold. You have to get out of these,” he said.

“Is that what this is about?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He covered my mouth with his, blocking out any words of question or protest that I might have. His hand pulled back my hair, and he massaged my shoulders and my neck as he held himself tightly to me. I found myself warming, from the deepest nether regions of my being. My core burned for him.

Later, warmed by intimacy followed by a long, steamy shower, I sat on a small vinyl chair next to a round table. Stanton walked to the small closet that contained hangars and ironing board. On the floor was what appeared to be a pile of blankets. It turned out to be something else.

He pulled a Pendleton blanket off a wooden box, slid the oak top to the side, revealing a mound of curling paper excelsior. Through the shreds of paper, I could catch glimpses of the content. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“I would do anything to have you back,” Stanton said.