"Ashlee, if you are attempting to kill your brother, you are doing a phenomenal job," I yelled as loudly as I could from under my pillow, endeavoring to pamper myself with ten extra minutes of sleep. Restaurant work is formidable, and the prospect of staying in bed on my day off tends to escape my fortune no matter how I try. "Kids will be kids," I ponder before screaming again, "Ashlee, Christian, come here!" The brother and sister duo whispered a few words of concern to one another before a mad dash to my bedroom. Ashlee comes to a screeching halt while her brother does his best before bumping into the short-tempered redhead. She gives him a look that reminds Christian he'll be paying for that later. Like two tiny well-rehearsed cast members from a sitcom, they immediately descend into character to depict their best blend of remorse and apology.
"I sure can't stay mad at you two. It's too bad you can't say the same for each other," The kids look down to conceal their grins unsuccessfully. "Hop up here, and I'll tell you a story." Christian lays beside me with his piece of cloth that was an entire blanket at one time and sucks on it along with his fingers. Ashlee decides a little distance is best and sits up with her legs crossed toward the foot of the bed. Storytime is special because God knows the seventy-hour work weeks never allow me to take these moments for granted. There've been occasions where I've spoken to or performed in front of hundreds of people, maybe more. But I'd erase it all from my memory if I could hang on to the sensation of sharing my tall tales with my audience of two. They're at the age where they'll believe anything, and if I can make stuff up to get them away from the tv for a few minutes, I'll do it every time.
"Dad, tell us about the time you saw the Bell Witch," Ashlee asked.
"I wanna hear about you shootin' Franky with the BB gun," is Christian's request.
"How about a new story?" I suggested. "It's one you'll never forget, but you'll both have to make me a promise before I share it with you. A remarkable friend gave me permission to tell the story to a couple of people I trust, and I trust my kids more than anyone else. If you can promise me that you'll keep the secret, I will tell you what happened." After a brief lull, they eagerly approved the conditions of my proposal. "If you have to go to the bathroom, go now," I suggested, but neither of them budged and urged me to continue. "Okay, this is what happened to me on my eleventh birthday."
That July heat was no joke on the sixteenth in 1982. When you live in a house with no air conditioning, the best time to sleep is somewhere between midnight and an hour or so before the sun makes its way past the horizon. A fan in the window felt pretty good whenever I'd turn over on my stomach. When the wind hit the sweat on my back, it provided a fleeting moment of relief before I'd have to move around again for the same sensation on the opposite side. Sizzling summers and frigid winters were all I knew, so I didn't think much about it. The smell of chocolate cake invaded the house and took my mind off the discomfort anyway. I ran into the kitchen to get a good whiff and maybe a frosting sample before the days' adventure.
"Get your finger outta there, Christopher," Mom demanded before grabbing the bowl of sticky excellence.
"I think I'm gonna go exploring for a little while before my party, Mom."
"That's fine but don't be gone long if you want to have cake and ice cream later."
"I won't," is all I said before tearing through the screen door and escaping into the woods in the backyard.
A peculiar chill caught me off guard as I pushed my way through the trees into the river bottom. It was especially strange because the sun was as radiant as ever, and the previous shade was several yards behind me by now. An eerie waft snuck up behind me and carried that cool sensation along for a ride, but I trekked on, making my way to the Cumberland River. The best thing about growing up on a farm is that you never have to plan an experience. Spectacular possibilities unfurl if you know where to search. It is, however, wise to let a little caution tag along because I'd seen more than a few water moccasins around the slough.
A tame breeze transformed into a violent gust, followed by another squall, and the temperature steadily dropped. Something in my stomach recommended that I needed to run toward the river, so that's what I did. Sometimes instinct is all we have, and I decided to trust it wholeheartedly. The faster my legs moved, the more challenging it was to dodge the enormous hail hurled down at me by some fantastic phantom force. White clouds descended from the sky to the earth, forming an impossible fog making my sprint more perilous. The rough ground didn't help, and I found myself face-first in the dirt every few feet. The sun was too afraid to show her face and offered her stool to the darkest sky I'd ever encountered. If the hole in front of me had been a cottonmouth, it would've bitten me because I fell right in and decided to hunker down to try and outlive the bombardment.
Fighting the impulse to peek, I sat in the pit with my face covered, waiting on the silence to signal a safe getaway. My mind eased as I remembered waking to the smell of a fresh birthday cake and the comforting sight of my mother. Even after the welcomed calm, my paralyzed body refused to cooperate until I sensed an icy kiss on the back of my neck. "It couldn't be," I thought before opening my eyes. A snowflake settled on my knee while more hovered around the space and ultimately decorated the crater. Climbing my way out, I had every intention of flying home as quickly as I could manage, but the universe had other plans.
"What do you guys think about moving storytime to the front porch?" I asked my frustrated children.
Christian's wide eyes fluttered, "You can't stop right there! What happened?"
"I'll tell you outside on the porch. Get dressed and meet me out there."
Ashlee encourages her brother, "Come on, Christian! The faster we get dressed, the faster we'll hear the rest."
They scurry away while I slip some shorts over my boxers and head out to the porch swing my cousin Herb made for the new house. Within seconds the entranced spectators take a seat on the ground while I relaxingly glide back and forth. These moments are invaluable, and the older I get, the fact that my memory will wither inspires me to snap a picture. After talking them into posing on the steps at the front door, we decided that was enough. "Now that I've forced you both to wait an astonishing three minutes, it's time to resume," I said playfully before picking up where I'd left off.
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My eyes first settled on the top of the bluff overlooking the river bottom. It's typically where I'd see the only home I've known for the last decade, but to my wonderment, it was not there. For a flash, the only logic I could make out of my dilemma is that the storm took the old structure and body-slammed it while I hid away in a hole. Before I had time to trouble myself over the well-being of Mom, something else caught my eyes. The entire landscape morphed into a downright different portrait set in an entirely separate time. A village of miniature homes made of slender trees packed with mud adorned the hillside above the flat ground. The once-mighty Cumberland appeared to have shrunk and frozen solid enough to pass on foot. Snowfall enhanced my surroundings and etched an unforgettable panorama into my brain. While I'd never seen such splendor, my bare legs quickly reminded me I was freezing, and shelter was my only hope.
As hysteria started to consume me from the inside, I heard a compassionate voice and turned.
"I'm Minco. We knew you'd be here today," were the first words my new friend spoke before offering a warm blanket made from animal hide. "Follow me," he recommended, and I did without delay.
As we walked closer to the hillside, I introduced myself, and a conversation sparked. "I'm Chris; it's a pleasure to meet you, Minco."
"You are not very smart, Chris. You would have died out here dressed like that without my help." Before I could explain, the Native American carried on. "I know why you're here."
"Do you mind telling me why I'm here then?"
"I'll show you a few things, but it's up to you to figure out your reason for the visit, Chris." His words made little to no sense, but I smiled and consented before he invited me into his Choctaw winter home. The inside, warmed by a fire in the center of the room and insulated by various furs, looked cozy. Deerskins hung from the rafters to dry in the rising heat. The comfort level had my room beat by a long shot in frigid weather. Minco handed me a clay bowl full of dried meat and vegetables before we sat to talk.
"Where's your mom and dad?" I asked.
"They'll be back soon, but we have a few minutes before you leave."
"Leave? I just got here, and I have a lot of questions."
"Chris, my father said, 'most answers will surface naturally in time, and curiosity often leads down a path less attractive than where we started.' We have a short period. Maybe we should relish in good company and eat together before you go. It'll give you a chance to take something back more valuable than an explanation."
"What's that? What's more valuable?"
"The experience, Chris."
His words clicked, and I allowed myself the luxury of forgetting about it all and simply existing for the remainder of my stay. The young boy placed wood onto the fire, and I noticed his hands. They were as rough and callous as my uncles, who'd worked hard his entire life. I knew how they felt without even touching them. Minco's feet seemed equally as tough, and I imagined him walking over rugged landscapes barefooted without missing a beat. Everything from the painted robes to the river cane lining the walls took effort. Nothing came leisurely for his family. It wasn't like they could plan a trip to Walmart for supplies. Many of the belongings I'm awarded could take them days or even weeks to obtain. I watched Minco take a piece of jerky from his bowl and bite into it. He struggled to tear it with his teeth and eventually sent a morsel flying onto the hot embers accidentally. We laughed together at his mishap and returned to the comfortable silence.
Serenity broke to the sound of a faraway drumbeat as we finished the meal. "What's going on?" I pleaded. Minco urged me to find out for myself.
"Chris, before you follow the sound, I need to tell you something. If you ever want to visit again, you'll have to go a different route." Minco placed his index finger on my forehead and explained. "Use your imagination anytime you need to stop by. It's the most helpful guidance I can offer and the only way back. Things will get complicated, so remember your eleventh year when they do. Existence was never supposed to be painless, so escapes are necessary, and that's the best we can hope for in this life. Don't be afraid, though, because the journey itself is a reward beyond understanding. One more thing, I ask that you tell no more than two others you trust profoundly about what happened. This land is peaceful, and we'd like to keep it that way because ghosts can't survive otherwise. Go!"
My investigation began without a second thought, and my grand adventure abruptly ended. Summertimes sweltering heat seized me by the throat and forced perspiration down my face and into my eyes outside the dwelling. I looked around once to confirm my suspicions, and the house I'd just examined was gone. Just like that, I was back. Soon I'd return to find a completed cake ready for eleven candles. My cousins would arrive after a much-needed shower, and we'd celebrate my birthday.
"That's it! How about we head over to Don's for some donuts? What?" I asked, knowing there would be questions.
Ashlee loses her mind and speaks. "I don't understand."
Christian follows with an inquiry. "Why were you there?"
"He never told me, but I figured it out before going to bed that evening. My Choctaw friend wanted me to know they lived on that land way before I did, and my ancestors were wrong for pushing them away. Minco's message is that it's important to respect what we have because it won't last forever. You and Ashlee spend all of your time fighting over silly toys when you should be thankful for the bond only a brother and sister will experience. One day you'll both grow up and have to raise families of your own. You'll miss these moments and wish you could re-live them over and over when things get tricky. At least you'll be able to visit up here," I place my index fingers on each of their foreheads before a few final words. "And that's the best we can hope for in this life."