WORMWOOD ~ BY D.H. NEVINS: CHAPTER 2
Tiamat was not someone I could easily forget. I could picture the day I met him very clearly, though it was a full ten years ago.
At the time, I was guiding an ill-prepared corporate group along the vast network of trails that veined through Pinecrest National Park. I had led many parties of this type through the woods; their employers so determined to stay ahead in the race, they would happily sign up for almost any initiative that could improve their employees’ team-work and productivity—for a reasonable price, of course. Yet even though I grumbled to myself about this particular clientele a little more than was strictly necessary, I tried to have most visitors leave with at least a small appreciation of their wild surroundings.
“The rock under your feet right now is really just the tiniest exposed bit of a much larger rock formation. Amazingly, this formation covers an area that spans thousands of square miles, sometimes buried deep under the soil, but there all the same.” I used my loud guide-voice so that Sarah and Mike, a babbling pair of gregarious customer service reps who were always lingering near the back of the group, could hear me. “If you look closely at the rock’s surface here, you’ll see the striations made from the passage of the glaciers,” I continued, leading the group along the ancient ridge of exposed igneous rock.
After I finished giving them their abridged history of the area’s terrain, I lead them back to the path that meandered toward a wide stream; the site of their last official team challenge for the day. My eight charges fell into their tired, quiet stride behind me. Two straight days of hiking in the bush turned out to be more grueling than most of them expected it would be.
After not ten steps, I could hear someone pushing his way through the hikers, their muffled curses signaling his closing approach. I cringed in frustration as Brian, a middle-aged sales rep for Logistar, wormed his way to my side yet again.
I knew I wasn’t beautiful, though I realized that others sometimes considered me to be pretty. Yet I had been trying to look as plain as possible on this particular outing, due to Brian’s unrelenting sleazy approaches. I was wearing the most utilitarian of camping attire: my old hiking shirt, its armholes frayed from the sleeves being ripped off during a previous muggy summer, and my khaki shorts, which had big, practical pockets that bulged unattractively with various useful knickknacks. My long brown hair, streaked with bronze, was tied up into a very sensible ponytail, and probably needed a good wash. For good measure, I reached down and swiped my hand along the tread of my boot. Straightening, I pretended to brush a loose strand of hair from my face, deliberately smearing a streak of muck across my cheek. It wasn’t enough.
“For someone that’s probably just a sophomore in college, you know a lot of useless information about this area. Is geology your major at…? What’s the name of that University, sweetie?” he wheezed, trying to match my fast pace. His legs were long, but he was sorely out of shape, and beads of sweat were forming on his high, balding forehead.
“First of all, Brian,” I said, trying to keep a cool head, “this information is not at all useless. If you would care a little more about…”
“Hold on, sweetheart, stop. I’m only making small talk, nothing serious, so let’s hold off on the lectures, alright? Not everyone cares about that tree-hugging stuff.” Brian flashed me his sleazy version of a flirtatious smile. He was walking far too close for comfort, purposely brushing his sweaty, sticky body against my bare shoulder as he over-dodged low-hanging branches.
I glared back at him before picking up my pace a little more.
“There’s no need to be such a cold fish, darling. So tell me again,” he said as he lightly touched my arm, sending shivers of revulsion through me, “which college did you say you went to?”
He is such a creep, I thought. Despite the fact that I never told him my age, it was pretty obvious I was way too young for him. And the numerous times I bluntly expressed that I wasn’t interested didn’t appear to deter him either.
“I didn’t say, Brian.” I retorted. “And I’ve never been very good at small talk, so if you want to remain ignorant about your surroundings, I don’t have much else to say to you.”
I was so sick of his advances, which were getting progressively worse as time wore on. Damn, I thought, it’s not my fault that I can’t possibly be civil to customers like this. But being rude doesn’t frigging work! Maybe if I started singing some ‘hippie tree-hugging’ song, he would go away, I stewed. If only I knew any… or perhaps a good glob of snot…
Caught up in my brooding, I almost missed the fork in the path that twisted its way down to the rocky stream bed. Turning abruptly, I crashed right into Brian, who caught me solidly under the elbows and swiftly pinned me against a tree. Quickly, he slid his hands under my arms and up my back, holding me in a close, stomach-turning embrace.
“See, I knew you couldn’t resist me, honey.” He purred, leering at me. “Maybe you’d like me to pin you down tonight as well.”
Disgusted, I pushed him away from me forcefully, causing him to stagger backward in surprise. Abruptly turning away from him, I stomped my way down the path. I could feel my face burning scarlet as I hunched my shoulders against the dart-like sniggers coming from select members of the group behind me.
When I reached the rushing, but shallow stream, I examined the five flat stepping-stones that I had left in a pile on the sandy shore. The group was to use these in their team challenge to step on in an attempt to get everyone across to the other side—without getting wet. I considered the stones for a moment, before picking one of them up and flinging it into the bushes. Petty perhaps, but it instantly made me feel better.
“This is our last challenge of the trip, folks.” I said when they had all gathered on the stream bank. “Your campsite is set up for you on the other side of this stream. Just get across it and then follow the path over there that leads back up into the woods. You’ll notice the site at the top of the ravine.”
I pointed the large stones out to them. “You’ll need to use these four rocks as stepping-stones to get everyone across the stream. It’s shallow, but as you can see it’s fairly wide, so you’ll all need to work together try to stay dry and figure out how to get everyone to the other side.”
Their pathetic, sodden struggles were, so far, the highlight of my day.
Once they finally managed to get everyone across, if a little sodden, I called out my final instructions across the babbling water. This was the point where they had to fend for themselves, I reminded them, filtering water, building a fire safely, cooking their own dinner and breakfast, and finally packing up all their gear in the morning. I told them that I would meet them here one hour after dawn tomorrow to lead them along the rest of the hiking loop, finishing the trip. To respond to their queries about getting back across the stream, I happily revealed the two long planks that I had stashed in the bushes, which I used for a makeshift bridge. I refused, however, to leave the planks spanning the stream, and insisted that they stay on their side of the water until tomorrow.
“But you have the planks, and these four rocks will barely get us halfway across. What if we have an emergency, like if we really need you for something tonight?” Sarah asked, alarmed.
Brian, smirking at me suggestively, muttered something to Mike, who burst out laughing. Chuckling, he leaned over and punched Brian jovially on the shoulder, shaking his head.
It’s not about me, it’s not about me, I chided myself, thankful all the same that there was a wide stream between me and Brian tonight. I took a calming breath before answering her. “I’ll be sleeping right here on the other side of the stream, Sarah. If there are any problems, remember that the point of this excursion is for you to figure things out yourselves through teamwork.” I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “However, I’ll be around if you need me for an emergency. If I’m not here, then I’m off on a hike, but I’ll never be gone for too long, okay?”
“Hey, don’t you worry about us. We’ll be just fine, chief,” Mike chirped as he steered Sarah up the path to camp. “We’ll see you in about 14 hours!” The rest of the pack trailed in fairly good spirits, as though primed by the thought of proving their tenacity.
I warily watched them go, as a mouse would intently watch a cat depart, before I could fully relax. Most members of the party seemed reasonably decent on their own; it was the single rancid personality that soured my opinion of the group. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Brian was more than just creepy; he made me extremely nervous. I stared at the empty path for some time before the tension slowly eased from my body.
After I set up my own camp and had some dinner, I went downstream and hastily washed my face and my hair. The group was leaving first thing in the morning, and I could stand my layer of grime no longer. I tied my hair up again as I made my way back to my tent to change into clean clothing.
Throwing on fresh shorts and a t-shirt and finally feeling human again, my long-anticipated sunset hike could begin. I soaked up the quite solitude as I made my way through the lengthening shadows of the trees. The quiet rhythm of my muted footsteps on the forest floor was soporific and soothing while I made my way unerringly along the winding paths. Eventually, the trail began to lead me steeply upward, ever closer to the most sublime viewing area for sunsets in the entire park. Experiencing a sunset was always the same for me here: from my favorite vantage point, I would silently watch the sun slowly disappear on the horizon, any stresses from the day fading into insignificance under the ignited sky.
It had been far too long since I was last at Lookout Peak. For more than a month, the groups I had been guiding were based out of the park’s south-east gate, which was almost as far as one could get from this cliff top. The forest to the south was beautiful enough, with its sharp, rocky hills and sparkling lakes, but it lacked the familiarity of these woods. Walking along these trails again felt like a homecoming.
The climb to the Peak’s top was invigorating. There was nothing like the feeling of a little exertion out in the rapidly cooling evening air to refresh my mind and work the stress from my body. I slowed when I reached the end of the path, breathing deeply more from a desire to experience the cleansing air than from the exertion of the climb. When I did so, I noticed that there was the scent of wood smoke drifting in the breeze. It couldn’t have been smoke from Brian’s group that I detected, this smell was much too sharp to be coming from anywhere other than Lookout itself.
I was disappointed when I realized the smoke meant someone else was likely using the site, and I would be intruding if I barged into their camp simply so I could watch the sun set. There were a few other places on The Peak from which I could watch the sinking sun, but their views weren’t nearly as spectacular as the one from here.
I walked slowly around the rock blind, guiltily hoping that whoever had used the site had already moved on, and that they were simply irresponsible with a campfire.
And that’s when I saw him.
His image struck me instantly as something beautiful and sad, like a statue I once saw in an old cemetery. True to the likeness, he stood absolutely motionless on the edge of the cliff, staring plaintively up at the stunning sky, which was streaked with fiery oranges as they slowly bled into a deep crimson wash. The entire vision pierced me with unexplainable melancholy. Perhaps it was the unexpected beauty of the scene, like the feelings that can sometimes well up when contemplating truly inspiring art. Something permeated and ignited deep within me, leaving me moved and shaken.
Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself slowly approaching him, circling widely so that I could see him in profile. He was quite tall, with rumpled-looking dark hair and an overall youthful but elegant appearance that was difficult to place; perhaps it was in the way he held himself. He was dressed plainly, in regular hiker’s attire: cargo pants and a rough cream button-down shirt. His hands, I noticed now, were balled tightly into fists at his sides, and his stance appeared rigid with tension. I was surprised that I did not see this before. Had his entire demeanor changed from a moment ago without me noticing it, or was I just detecting his tension now that I was closer?
With a surge of panic, I again took in his location at the very edge of the cliff, now alarming in light of the overall mood the man appeared to be in, and I instinctively went closer to him. Though he didn’t appear to notice me at all, I was careful to steal toward him slowly and smoothly, terrified that I would startle him into a jump or a fall off the edge. I looked over at his face and took in his staring blue eyes that were still fixed upon the bleeding sky, and I wondered at the root of the apparent anguish that twisted across his handsome features.
“What have you done?” I blurted out in a horrified whisper, before reason was able to stop me. Stupid, stupid, stupid thing to say to a man who may be about to fling himself off a cliff! I scolded myself, as he slowly lowered his eyes to look over at me.
He didn’t look surprised to see me there, and he held my gaze for a moment before answering. I was transfixed. The unnatural blue of his irises was like nothing I’d ever seen before; it was an incredibly vivid azure, like the color of back-lit sapphires, with each iris rimmed in black. His eyes were remarkable, and I found I was unable to break my gaze.
“It’s not what I have done. It’s what I must do.” His deep, penetrating stare was unnerving, but he spoke with a soft, quiet voice that had the slightest hint of amusement in it. “I must admit, I’m not the most sociable person so perhaps I’m wrong in this, but isn’t your question a little direct? Could you not have started with ‘Hello’?”
“Oh. Hello,” I replied lamely, at last breaking off my stare to glance down at my feet.
When I braved a look back up at him, he smiled at me, if a little sadly, and moved to sit down with his back against a large boulder, facing out over the view. Below us, swaths of model-sized trees blended together into a lush, bumpy green carpet, spreading out under a brilliantly colored sky. He looked over at me and raised an eyebrow inquiringly, flicking a glance at a rock near to him.
I slowly sat on the smooth, sun-warmed rock that he indicated, watching the man warily. He had a kind face, but something about his demeanor seemed dangerous; the haunted look behind his eyes or the determined set of his jaw, perhaps. Yet he doesn’t seem menacing like Brian does, I thought with disgust as I remembered Brian’s lecherous stares.
“It’s a stunning sunset tonight,” he said, gazing once again toward the skies, “This is why you came up here, is it not? To watch the sun set?”
“How did you know that?” I asked suspiciously.
His initial gaze was frank, but his mouth twitched into an amused smile. “You arrived here shortly before nightfall devoid of any camping gear, so you must be spending the night somewhere nearby. Obviously, you are simply up here to watch the light show. Am I wrong?”
“No. You’ve pretty much got it exactly,” I admitted sheepishly. “What about you?” I asked, glancing back at his gear and tent. I recognized the look of a site that had been used for several days. “How long have you been camped here?”
“A while—a little over a month, in fact.”
“Over a month? In this same spot?” I asked, surprised.
“I had some… issues… that I needed to reconcile myself to. This cliff top is…” he paused again, as though searching for the right word, “…inspiring.” He shifted his gaze from the surrounding site and stared down at his rigid hands. “I have not had an easy month, to be honest, so it is refreshing to have someone help me get my mind off things for a bit.” He appeared so incredibly wretched when he said this, looking dejectedly down at his clenching hands that my heart immediately went out to him.
Yet I found myself at a loss. What would I say to comfort a complete stranger—a person who is tormented by something completely unknown to me?
“Whatever it is you said you must do,” I ventured, “is it possible that it’s not worth all the pain it’s causing you?”
“Your answer is already in the question. This is something I must do. Personal anguish is irrelevant and simply a state I must learn to shoulder—my cross to bear, if you will.”
“So then do it,” I said, as I watched the last of the sun disappear behind the distant hills. “If your feelings have no bearing either way, it does you no good to stress over it. Just do what you need to and stop obsessing over things you can’t control.”
He looked at me strangely for a very long moment, holding my gaze steadily. “You have no idea what you are advising me to do.”
I shivered as icy waves rippled along my spine, but I stayed the course. “My lack of information doesn’t change the fact that you have no choice in whether you do this thing. If you truly have no other options, then our discussing it and you tormenting yourself over it is pointless. I would still advise you to do it.”
“Even though you don’t know what you’re telling me to do?” he asked harshly.
“Would it make a difference?” I countered.
“Then my advice is the same.”
He turned and looked at me with great interest, studying my face intently. When he responded, he spoke with a gentle voice, but it was firm and insistent. “I want you to understand that this task I must do is already written. I cannot change it. Your advice to me today has no bearing on it and did not make me decide to go through with it. There never was a decision to be made. Do you understand this?” He asked cryptically.
I nodded in response, my head swimming with unformed questions.
“However,” he continued, his voice now soft and rich, “you have helped me deal with this more than you could ever know. Thank you for speaking with me.” And at this he turned away and resumed watching the colors fade from the sky.
“You’re welcome,” I answered quietly, conflicted by his warm tone and wondering at his apparent dismissal. “Do you want me to go?”
“You really should,” he answered bluntly. “I try not to be around others, if I can help it. It just makes my task more difficult. But…” he paused, looking at me again, “to be honest, I like you being here. Meeting you today was a gift.”
After an eternal time, he broke his gaze and looked back out at the scenery as twilight fell. I worked to slow my heart as I concentrated on the shift from day to night, watching the first stars shine softly through the haze of waning light. Probably against my better judgment, I enjoyed being with him too, and found that I was very curious about this bizarre stranger. Yet I knew it was more than just that. I was also attracted to him, and not only to his looks, though they were extraordinary. It was his intensity and his apparent morality; his anguish about having to do something that obviously went against some internal code, which drew me like a moth to a flame. Don’t be an idiot. You don’t even know him, I told myself. With an effort, I pushed my whimsical musings roughly aside, and focused again on the speckled evening sky.
“My name is Tiamat,” he said hesitantly, as if he wasn’t entirely sure about divulging this information. Giving me a half-smile, he added, “Tiamat La’anah,” and he lifted his water bottle for a drink, scrutinizing me over the wide rim.
“I’m Kali Michaels,” I replied, smiling as he raised his eyebrows in response to my first name. It was, after all, a common reaction in people who had heard of the Hindu goddess I was named after. “My Dad has a sick sense of humor,” I laughed, “I was a bit of a surprise to him.”
Water spewed and he snorted as the realization hit him, probably imagining what may have transpired for a man to name his baby after a goddess of destruction. His bottle had upended all over his shirt, and his coughs turned to laughs as he tried to clear out the water he inadvertently snorted. I couldn’t help the mirth that bubbled out of me as a result. And as we sat there on the cliff top, two strangers both hooting together in the pale half-light, any tension from our earlier conversation was swept entirely away.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Kali,” he said with sincerity, wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes.
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