When the sun reached the top of the trees, the man returned just as he said he would. With him he carried a simple pack full of food, herbs, and supplies to set up camp right there by the hollow beach tree. While he soaked my ankle in a warm tea of herbs he told me his name was David, and that he would stay with me until I could walk again. Then he grilled fresh meat over the fire and sat down to eat with me.
“So, are there others?” I asked when my hunger had been satisfied.
“A lot of others?” I persisted.
“I don’t know how many,” he equivocated. “Why does it matter?”
“I just didn’t know there was anybody out here at all, until a few days ago.” I explained. “Actually it was only yesterday. . . a lot has happened.
“What happened yesterday?” David asked with real interest.
“I rode my bike out to the edge of the forest, early in the morning, and some Protectors followed me. I hid from them in the trees and heard them talking. They thought I was “one of the forest people.”
“Did they follow you into the trees?” David asked sharply.
“No,” they stayed on the road,” I answered, and then added, “when can I go to your city? Or do you have a city?”
“No city,” David laughed. “Every man has his own place, his own land. It’s up to you to raise your own food out here.”
“No stores?” I asked worriedly. I didn’t know how to garden.
“Well, people do barter and trade. Do you have any skills?” He asked curiously.
“Uh. . . I’m a decent photographer,” I said, wincing. “But I guess that wouldn’t feed me.”
“It might help,” David said. “There is a weekly newspaper one family puts out. Anything else?”
“I’m good programmer and I’m a fast runner. I guess none of that is really useful.”
“Somebody will want you,” David assured me. “A lot of the smaller farms could use a hand. If you’re a good worker, you can earn yourself some land of your own and a cow or two.”
“A cow or two?” I echoed.
“But first we gotta get you clean,” David said, reaching into his pack for a small machete. “Were you ever vaccinated for Ostrich bites?” He asked.
“Yeaaah. . .?” I answered hesitantly. He rolled up my right sleeve and prodded around my arm.
“Feel that?” he asked. I squeezed and poked my right forearm with my left hand. There was a lump under the skin near an old scar. I nodded, eyeing the machete in his hand.
“It’s a chip,” he said. “A tracking device.”
“No way.” I said. “My dad’s a doctor. He would have known if I was chipped.”
“Before you can come out any further,” David said, “I have to make sure you’re safe for the others.”
“Not with that, you’re not,” I said and picked up the biggest stick within reach.
David looked puzzled and then began to laugh. He tossed the machete away and it stuck upright in the dirt. I lowered my club, unsure of exactly what was going on. Was he crazy?
When David got his breath he explained.
“I’m going to make a sweat lodge. I have to cut some branches to make it. I’m not going to cut off your arm!”
“A sweat lodge?” I echoed, trying to smile along with his laughter. It just wasn’t that funny to me.
“It’s an old native American way of cleaning the body of toxins, parasites, and disease. We’re going to raise your temperature and keep it up long enough to kill anything you’re carrying. The heat will fry the chip too.”
I didn’t answer. I was thinking about the life I had left behind. About Kara and Mom. I wondered what Dad had told them. What I was about to do wasn’t just for me. It was for them. I was testing the waters. Seeing what the other side was like so I could go back and tell them, or maybe help them escape too.
“Hey.” David said, looking at me with sober contrition after his burst of laughter. “Are you okay with this? Because you don’t have to do this. You can go back to the city if you want. I’ll help you to the perimeter, and the wolves will find you there.”
“I know they will,” I said grimly. “Make your sweat lodge and heat it up. I’m ready.”
The heat was almost unbearable, but David joined me, and as long as he could bear it, I had to bear it too. We sat there, in the smothering heat around a pit of steaming rocks over which he poured water and herbs, and he answered my questions and asked a few of his own.
“You have more resolution than the average seeker,” he said during our initial stint in the sweat lodge. “Why?”
I didn’t answer right away and he gave me time to think. What if I told him I intended to go back for Kara and my mother? Would he let me go?
“Time to scrub,” he interrupted my thoughts. He helped me to my feet and supported me down to the water where he handed me a handful of wet sand. It was cold from the stream and felt great rubbing against my skin. He scrubbed my back with sand while I scrubbed my arms and chest.
“This is amazing,” I admitted. “It’s miserable and awesome at the same time.”
“Now lay in the steam and let it all wash away,” he instructed. “I’ve got to go build up the fire again for the next shift in the sweat lodge.”
“How many times are we going to do this?” I asked, sitting down awkwardly in the clear, shallow water.
“Three times,” David answered. “Then you will sleep like never before. And when you wake up, you’ll feel brand new. Your ankle will heal much faster too.”
“It already feels a lot better. . . and itchy,” I admitted.
I laid in the stream, and the cold water flowing over me was a relief. Gratitude and strength flowed over me at the same time. I was convinced the choice I had made was better than the alternative. Whatever lay ahead of me - it was already better than the life I had left behind.
During the third hour in the makeshift sauna I answered David’s question. It was sweated out of me along with all of my fears and guilt.
“I have to go back for my sister and my mom. They’re counting on me to discover the truth,” I said, and then wondered why I had betrayed my plans. I hadn’t meant to. “This sweat lodge thing is like a truth serum,
I complained, panting in the miserable heat.
David was quiet and I got nervous.
“I should have made a plan to get us all out. I was scared. Like a little kid. I was scared of the forest. I guessed the truth, like, in my mind, but I still doubted. And I was scared of my dad’s disapproval. I’m the only son, and he’s disappointed in me. I wanted him to be proud of me. And I thought I should be able to take care of my mom and sister. So I waited and waited. . . But now I know. I KNOW the wolves are not protectors — they’re predators! And the people that empower them are predators too! My own dad is turning into a predator! I saw it with my own eyes. . . his teeth, his ears. . . I have to go back and get them.”
I must have sounded a little hysterical, but I was aware of David’s compassionate expression. He was letting me empty it all out. Whenever I fell silent, he would hum or sing a song of thanks about the beauty of the world, or the good things in life. But his song wasn’t intrusive and I relaxed, searching inside of myself for any last fears or doubts.
After cooling down in the stream again and drinking all I could hold, I hobbled back to the sweat lodge of my own accord. My ankle felt a lot stronger, and so did my mind.
“I think that’s enough,” David said, smiling at me. “You did three hours. And you’re clean. You’re clean all the way through.”
“Three hours?” I said. “I thought it was only a few minutes.”
“The sweat lodge does funny things to time,” David agreed.
He laid in the stream and I sat on the bank, finally quiet and at peace. I couldn’t remember everything I’d said, but I didn’t care.
David sat up in the water and flung his head back and forth, flinging water outward.
“If you’re going to go back,” he said, looking over at me, “you should go now.”
“Now?” I asked, surprised.
“Well, tomorrow. But, in any case, I can’t take you into the mountains until you are here to stay.”
We were silent for a few minutes, and I observed the sun was setting. The day had come and gone. My first day of freedom and my last day of fear.
“Can you give me any advice?” I asked. “How to be invisible in the city? How to get back out?”
David left the water and sat on the bank beside me.
“There are a couple of pretty consistent truths,” he said. “One is that the poor are invisible. Look homeless, retarded, or handicapped.”
“The second is . . . well, just an extension of the first: remember that money is proof. . . it is the scent of a man. If you leave a money trail, someone can follow. Use only cash or trade. Eat out of the dumpster if you have to.”
“I hope I won’t be there long enough to need money,” I said. “I hope to be back by the end of tomorrow.”
I noticed David didn’t acknowledge my hope as likely or even doable.
“The third is hard. . . hard to accept,” he went on, sighing heavily, as though with memory.
“What?” I asked.
“You can never really free someone else. They have to choose it for themselves. They have to fight to be free and walk across that line because they want it so badly they are willing to risk everything.” He turned to look at me with pain in his expression. “If you take someone out—if you “save” them—they’ll end up going back and it will be worse for them than before.”