THE MAGIC CIRCLE: The Knot (excerpt)

Alexander, finding himself unable to untie the [Gordian] knot, the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it, cut it asunder with his sword.

The secret of the Gordian knot seems to have been a religious one, probably the ineffable name of Dionysus, a knot-cipher tied in the rawhide thong....
Alexander's brutal cutting of the knot, when he marshalled his army at Gordium for the invasion of Greater Asia, ended an ancient dispensation by placing the power of the sword above that of religious mysteries.
--Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

It was nearly three a.m. when I turned on the taps of the big claw-footed tub, praying that the pipes hadn't frozen, and watched with relief as the hot water splashed into the bath. I dumped in some salts and liquid bubbles, stripped, and climbed in. The tub was so deep, the water went up to my nose, and I blew the bubbles away. Lathering up my road-wrecked hair, I knew I had lots of thinking to do. But my brain was engaged in fuzzy logic--not surprising, given the week's events and the trauma of my trip home.

As I soaked there, the bathroom door swung open on squeaky hinges and Jason came strolling in unannounced--which probably meant Olivier, my landlord, had also returned. Jason barely gave me a glance with those penetrating green eyes. He sauntered over and regarded with disdain my soggy silk undergarments on the floor. He started to paw at them, as though he thought my long johns would make a nice litter box, but I reached over and yanked them out from under him.

"Oh, no, you don't!" I said firmly.

Jason jumped up on the wooden rim of the tub, stuck out his paw, and batted at the bubbles. He looked at me inquisitively. This was my hint to douse him. Jason was the only cat I knew that loved water--any kind of water. It was normal for him to turn on a sink tap to fetch himself a drink; he preferred a toilet to a litter box; and he was known to jump into the Snake River below the falls to retrieve his favorite little red rubber ball. He could swim in current as well as any dog.

But tonight--this morning, rather--I was too tired to dry him, so I flicked him off the side of the tub, got out, and toweled myself instead. In my big fluffy bathrobe, my hair wrapped in a towel, I padded to the kitchen and heated some water to make myself a hot buttered rum before bed. I picked up a broom and banged on the ceiling to let Olivier know I was back--though my car abandoned on the road should have been his first clue.

"Dearest one," Olivier's voice soon came floating down the stairway, with his recognizable thick québecois accent. "I snowshoed in from my Jeep, but I wasn't sure it was proper to send the little argonaut down to you yet--you might already be sleeping. And what about me?"

"Okay, come down and join me in a quick buttered rum before I crash," I called back up. "And let me know what's been going on at work."

Olivier Maxfield and I had met some five years back, when we were assigned to a project together. He was a strange amalgam: nuclear engineer and gourmet chef, devotee of Yankee slang and cowboy bars, and unrepentant "Jack" Mormon. He'd been born a French Canadian Catholic in a household devoted to la cuisine fran¨aise, and now as a latter-day culinary genius himself, those no-alcohol-no-caffeine dietary restrictions of the Latter-day Saints hardly mixed with Olivier's nouvelle persona.

The first time he met me, Olivier told me he'd already known I would soon enter his life, for I'd just appeared as the Blessed Virgin in a dream involving a pinball competition between myself and the prophet Moroni. By the end of the first week that we'd worked together, Olivier received a sign that I should be offered cheap rent to move into his downstairs apartment. The actual pinball machine upon which I, as the Virgin Mary, had beaten the prophet had miraculously appeared as a new acquisition of the cowboy bar down the road from our very office.

Perhaps it was the result of my kooky upbringing, but I found Olivier refreshing at a nuclear site stacked with engineers and physicists, all of whom brown-bagged their lunches and went home by five o'clock so they could watch wholesome TV reruns with their children. I went all the time to parties at the homes of "site families." In summers they barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs in the backyard; in winters it was spaghetti, salad, and prefab garlic bread in the family room. It was as if no one here in this remote high desert had ever heard of any other manner of dining.

Olivier, by contrast, had lived in Montreal and Paris and had passed a summer workshop in the south of France with Cordon Bleu. Though perhaps a tightwad about providing landlordly services such as heat and driveway clearing, he did have assets. While mincing, dicing, mouli-ing, and clarifying butter in his enormous industrial kitchen upstairs to prepare the designer meals he cooked for Jason and me at least once a week, he regaled me with tales of the great chefs of Europe, interspersed with the latest fads on the cowboy bar scene. He was, as the French say, "such a one."

"What was this huge emergency that called you away?" Olivier's handsome, dimpled smile appeared around the half-open door from the steps, as he ran his fingers through his curly mop of brown hair and regarded me with large dark eyes. "Where did you disappear to? The Pod was asking after you every day, but I knew nothing."

"The Pod" was the widely used nickname of my boss, the director and general manager of the whole nuclear site. It was used behind his back, for though his actual name was Pastor Owen Dart he was anything but shepherdlike. Indeed, the monogram was recognized also as his description: the Prince of Darkness.

I'd like to argue that this moniker was inappropriate to my boss. But to be perfectly frank, of the ten thousand employees working at the site--or even among the industry muckety-mucks in Washington he hobnobbed with--I was the only one I knew who hadn't been scalded by the man. At least not yet. The Pod seemed genuinely to like me, and had handpicked me for my job while I was still in university. As a result of this unexpected affinity, not all my colleagues trusted me--another reason why Olivier, the dashing Québecois Mormon cowboy gourmet, was one of my few close friends.

"Sorry," I said to Olivier, pouring hot water over the mush of brown sugar, butter, and rum in the two glass mugs and handing one to him. "I had to leave suddenly. There was an unexpected death in the family."

"Oh gosh, no one I know, I hope?" said Olivier with a gallantly supportive smile--though we both knew that he knew no one in my family.

"It was Sam," I said, trying to wash down the stick in my throat with the buttery hot liquor.

"Heavens! Your brother?" said Olivier, sinking onto the sofa near the fire.

"My cousin," I corrected. "Actually, my stepbrother. We were raised as brother and sister. In fact, he's more of a blood brother. Or I mean, he was."

"My goodness, your family relations are somewhat complex," Olivier said, mocking my own retort whenever anyone inquired about my family. "Are you quite certain you were related to this fellow at all?"

"I'm sole heir to his estate," I told him. "That's enough for me."

"Ah--then he was rich, but not really close, is that it?" Olivier said hopefully.

"A bit of each," I told him. "I was probably closer to him than anyone in my family." Which wasn't saying much, but Olivier didn't know that.

"Oh, how dreadful for you! But I don't understand. Why have I never heard of him, then, except for the name? He's never been to visit, nor called that I know of, in the many years we've worked together and shared this humble abode."

"Our family communicates psychically," I told him. Jason was slaloming around my legs as if he were trying to braid a maypole all by himself, so I picked him up and added, "We have no need of satellites or cell phones --"

"That reminds me," interrupted Olivier. "Your father's been calling here for days. Wouldn't say what he wanted--just that you must phone him at once."

Just then the phone rang, startling Jason, who jumped out of my arms.

"They must be psychic to pick up our vibes at this hour," said Olivier. As I reached for the phone, he finished his drink and headed for the door. "I'll make you some pancakes before work, as a welcome home," he tossed over his shoulder. Then he was gone.

"Gavroche, darling" were the first words I heard as I picked up the phone.

Good lord, maybe my family members had suddenly become psychic. It was my uncle Laf. I hadn't heard from him in ages. He always called me Gavroche: French for a Parisian street urchin.

"Laf?" I said. "Where are you? You sound a million miles away."

"Just now, Gavroche, I am in Wien," meaning he was at his big eighteenth-century apartment overlooking the Hofburg in Vienna where Jersey and I used to stay--and where it was now eight hours later than it was here, or eleven a.m. his time. Apparently Uncle Laf had never gotten the hang of differing time zones.

"I was so sorry, Gavroche, to hear about Sam," he told me. "I was wanting to come for the service, but your father, of course--"

"That's okay," I assured him, not wanting to open that can of worms. "You were there in spirit, and so was Uncle Earnest, even though he's dead. I found a shaman who did a little ritual at the ceremony, then the military gave Sam honors, and Jersey fell into the open grave."

"Your mother fell into the grave?" Uncle Laf said with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old. "Oh, but that is marvelous! Did she plan it, do you think?"

"She was drunk, as usual," I told him. "But it was still fun. I wish you could have seen Augustus's face!"

"Now I am really sorry I was not able to attend!" Laf said with more tickled enjoyment than I would have believed a man of his age, pushing ninety, could muster.

There was no love lost between my father, Augustus, and my uncle, Lafcadio Behn--perhaps because it was with Laf, my grandfather's stepson by a previous marriage, that my own grandma Pandora had run off when she'd abandoned my father at birth.

This was the thing my family never spoke of, in public or private. Well, at least it was one of the things. It suddenly occurred to me that I could probably make a fortune--if I hadn't just inherited one from Sam--by designing an entirely new model of complexity theory, based solely upon my family's interactions.

"Uncle Laf," I said, "I want to ask you a question. I know we never talk about the family, but I want you to know that Sam has left everything to me."

"Gavroche, this is just what I expect of him. You are a good girl, and everything good should come to you. I have plenty of comfort on my own--do not you fear for me."

"I'm not worried about you, Laf. But I want to ask you about something, something involving the family. Something maybe only you know about. Something that Sam apparently also left to me--not real estate or money."

My uncle Laf was so silent, I wasn't sure he was still on the line. At last he spoke. "Gavroche, you do understand that international telephone calls are recorded?"

"They are?" I said, though in my profession I knew it very well. "But that doesn't affect our conversation," I added.

"Gavroche, there is the reason why I called," said Uncle Laf in a voice that sounded very different than a moment ago. "I regret I could not attend the funeral of Sam. But by coincidences, I will be quite near you on the next weekend. I will come to the big hotel at the Valley of the Sun--"

"You'll be at the Sun Valley Lodge next weekend?" I said. "You're coming from Austria to Sun Valley?"

I mean, the routing from Vienna to Ketchum was probably not ideal under the best of circumstances--but Laf was almost ninety years old. In fact, what with high mountains and erratic weather, it was hard enough just to get there from the next state. What on earth was he thinking?

"Laf, much as I'd love to see you after all these years, I don't think that's a very sensible idea," I told him. "Besides, I've missed a week of work already because of the funeral. I'm not sure I can get away."

"My darling," said Laf. "The question you want to ask me--I believe I know what it is. And also, I know the answer. So please be there."

Just as my eyes were about to close, I remembered something I hadn't thought of in years. I remembered the first time Grey Cloud cut me. I could see the thin line of beaded blood, like a necklace of tiny rubies on my leg where he drew the sharp blade. I didn't cry, though I was very young. I recall the color: a beautiful, surprising red--the lifeblood leaving my body. But I was not afraid.

I hadn't dreamed the dream even once since childhood. Now, as I drifted off into a troubled sleep, it came upon me unexpectedly, as if waiting all along in the shadows of my mind....

I was alone in the forest. I had lost the way, and the dark, dripping trees closed in about me. From the steamy forest floor, smoky moisture was rising and swirling in the few remaining shafts of light. Damp pine needles formed a spongy carpet beneath my feet. I was only eight years old. I'd lost sight of Sam, then I had lost the trail. It was growing too dark to follow his markings as he'd taught me. I was alone and frightened. What was I to do?

I'd waited up for dawn to arrive that morning. My small back- pack was already packed with all I knew to take along: granola, an apple, and a sweater against the cold. Though I'd never been on a serious hike, or more than backyard camping overnight, I was filled with eager excitement about following Sam secretly on this, his first day of tiwa-titmas.

Sam, only four years older than I, had started these journeys when he was the age I was right now. So at age twelve, this journey would be his fifth--and all with no results. Everyone in the tribe was praying that this time it would be successful, that he would have the vision. But few had real hope. After all, Sam's father (Uncle Earnest) was a white face from afar. And when Sam's mother, Bright Cloud, had died so young, the father had taken the child from the reservation at Lapwai, so he'd been unable to receive the proper training by his own people. Then the father had done the unspeakable: taken as his new wife an Anglo woman (Jersey) who drank too much firewater. No one was deceived when she showed up with a daughter of her own, stopped drinking, and insisted in a spirit of generosity that both children spend each summer with Sam's grandparents on the reservation. No one was deceived by tricks like these.

The tiwa-titmas was the most important event to a Nez Percé youth. It was his or her initiation into life and the universe. Strong measures were taken to ensure that one could receive the vision--hot baths, steamings in the mud hut, purgation with birchbark sticks inserted in the throat--especially if the vision was a long time in coming, or if it took many trials.

Sam had grown up in these mountains, and was able to greet each rock, brook, and tree as if it were an individual, as if it were a friend. Furthermore, having been on four such quests before, he knew how to find the place by himself whether in darkness or blindfolded--while I, bloody little idiot that I was, couldn't even find the trail.

So here I was: deplorably lost, soaked through from a sudden mountain shower, cold and hungry and weary and footsore and small and young--and terrified by my own stupidity. I sat on a rock to consider my situation.

The sun hovered at the lip of the far range, barely visible through the thick fringe of trees. When it set, I'd swiftly find myself in total blackness, ten miles or more, as near as I could guess, from the place I'd left this morning. I had no sleeping bag, waterproof clothes, matches, or extra food. If I'd brought a compass I wouldn't know how to use it. Worse yet, I knew that when the sun vanished, there would be rodents and snakes and insects and wild beasts moving in the darkness beside me. As the sun sank lower the temperature dropped quickly and the damp chill began to penetrate my bones. I started to cry--huge, hot sobs of unleashed fear and anger and desperation.

The only skill I had, which Sam had taught me, was to send and receive coded messages as the Indians had always done: by smoke signals or flashing mirrors against the sun. Now that it was nearly dark these talents were useless. Or were they?

I gulped back my sobs and peered through my tears at the bicycling reflector strips on my little backpack. Wiping my eyes with my hand, my nose with my sleeve, I stood on wobbly legs and looked around.

Through the darkening forest mist I saw that the sun was not yet gone. But it soon would be. If I could get up high enough before the last beams departed, I'd be able to see a great distance. I could scan the hilltops for the kind of place, the high place, that I knew Sam himself must reach before sunset: the magic circle. It was a wild scheme, but it seemed the only chance I might have to reflect a message from the last light, to send my code into the heart of the magic circle. Forgetting how tired and frightened I was--forgetting that Sam had told me it was more dangerous above timberline at night than here in the protection of the wood--I raced on my little legs uphill, high into the rocky crags that rose above timberline. I raced against the setting sun.

In the dream, I hear the sounds of the forest closing around me as I scramble frantically over rocks, cut by twigs and grasses, the crunch of something large moving behind a tree. In the dream, the forest grows darker and darker, but at last I reach the high ground and clamber to the very top of the highest point. I flatten myself to crawl to the edge, and I peer out across the mountain peaks below.

And there on a mountaintop beneath me, across a wide abyss, is the magic circle. At its very center is Sam. In the dream, he sits on the ground in his fringed buckskins, his hair tumbling loose about his shoulders, his legs and arms folded in meditation--but his back is to me! He is facing the setting sun. He can't see my signal.

So I shout his name aloud, over and over, hoping an echo will bring it back to him. And then the shout turns into a scream. But he is too far, too far....

Olivier was shaking me by the shoulders. I could see light coming through the high windows of my dungeon, which meant that some of the snow covering the windows had melted. Just how late in the day was it? My head was pounding. Why was Olivier shaking me up and down?

"Are you all right?" he said when he saw my eyes were open. He looked frightened. "You were screaming, you know. I heard it all the way upstairs. The little argonaut crawled under my refrigerator when he heard you."

"Screaming?" I said. "It was just a dream. I haven't had it in years. Besides--it didn't really happen that way."

"Happen what way?" said Olivier, looking puzzled.

But then it suddenly dawned on me that Sam was really dead. The only way I could see him again was in a dream, so even if the dream was an incorrect memory, that was all I had. Shit. I felt as if I'd been kicked in the head by the mule of karma.

"The pancake batter's all ready," Olivier told me. "I'm making you buttermilk flapjacks, with gallons of chicory coffee and some of those cute, disgusting little pig sausages--enough cholesterol to plug your pipes permanently--and just for good measure, eggs over tenderly--"

"Over easy," I corrected Olivier's Yankee slang, a pastiche of patois. "Exactly what time is it, landlord?"

"Time for brunch, not breakfast," said Olivier. "I waited to give you a ride to work. I'm afraid that your car has been buried by the snowplow."

I decided to put on some warm clothes and thick gloves after brunch and dig out my car before checking in for work. I needed physical exercise after two days of driving. And sometimes, after a melt like this one, we'd have a deep freeze, which would mean a month of hacking at automobile glacé. But also, I needed the time to be alone, to make the mental transition from funeral to factory.

So I dragged out my "ghetto blaster" portable radio and took it outside where, surrounded by sparkly snow dunes and icicle-tinseled houses, I hand-dug the slush from my little Honda to the rhythm of Bob Seger cranking out The Fire Down Below. And I thought about the various kinds of tissues we choose from which to weave our dreams and our realities.

The truth was, I never had found Sam in those woods, he had found me. In the real story--not the dream--I got up above timberline, where the air was too thin for trees to survive and where no animal, so they say, ever chooses to sleep. There was a full moon and I stood atop a rock, bathed in the bright white light. The sun had long gone, and the sky was a purple-black spangled with stars. Thick, dark forest circled me below on every side.

I don't think I've ever known terror like that, standing alone in that milky white light, staring up at the whole universe. I was too terrified to remember my pangs of hunger. Too terrified to cry. I have no idea how long I stood unable to move, knowing that--whatever the danger to a small animal like me, being exposed and defenseless up here--any move I made would be a move closer to that black and impenetrable forest full of night sounds from which I'd just escaped.

Then he came through the wood, in the dead of night, to find me. At first, when I saw a movement at the forest fringe, I backed away in fear. But when I saw the flash of Sam's white buckskins, I raced across the vast space and threw myself into his arms and wept with relief.

"Okay, hotshot," Sam said, pulling me away to look at me with eyes turned a silvery grey by the moonlight. "You can tell me later what gave you the crazy idea to follow me like that. You were lucky I doubled back on my own trail and found your tracks. But I hope you realize you've interrupted my very important meeting tonight with the totem spirits. And here you are, above timberline, where I thought I taught you never to go at night. Didn't my grandfather, Dark Bear, ever tell you why even the wolf and the cougar will never spend the night above timberline?"

I shook my head and gulped tears as he tossed one arm around my shoulders and picked up my backpack from the ground. We went back into the wood. Sam took my hand and I tried to act brave.

"It's because the totem spirits themselves live above timberline," said Sam. As we moved through the dense foliage I could hear the padding squish of his moccasins on the damp ground before me. "Animals sense that the spirits are there, even if they can't see or smell them. That's why if you want to meet the spirits, you must wait in a place where not even trees can live. But the place where I'm going is protected by great magic. Since it's too late to take you back, you have to stay up there with me tonight. So I guess we'll do our tiwa-titmas together, you and I. We'll wait up there in the circle for the spirits to enter us."

Although I was flooding over with relief at being rescued from a night alone on Bald Mountain, I wasn't sure about this business with the totem spirits.

"Why do we want the spirits to ... enter us?" I found it hard even to ask.

Sam didn't reply, but pressed my hand to show he'd heard as we began again to climb through the dark forest. After what seemed a very long time, we came at last to the circle. It was still dark here within the woods, but up there a shower of white moonlight fell upon the place, lighting the bare, domed crest and the circle of rocks. It looked like the amphitheater where Jersey had once performed in Rome.

Side by side and hand in hand, Sam and I stepped out of the wood. Something strange happened as we entered the circle. The moonlight had a different quality here: sparkling and shimmery, as if bits of silver were hung suspended in the air. And a slight breeze sprang up, bringing with it a chill. But I was no longer afraid; I was truly fascinated by this magical place. I felt that, somehow, I belonged here.

Sam, still holding me by the hand, led me to the center of the circle and knelt before me. He untied the satchel on his belt, and from it he pulled out things I knew must be talismans--brightly colored beads and "lucky" feathers--and, one by one, he tied them into my hair. Then he arranged logs and branches at the center of the circle and swiftly built a fire. As I stood there warming my hands, I suddenly realized how horribly cold I was--wet and chilled to the bone. Hot flames licked the sky as sparks leapt into the blackened night, mingling with the stars. I heard autumn crickets in the brush, and above I could make out the Big and Little Dippers.

"We call them the Large and the Small Bears," said Sam, following my gaze. He sat cross-legged beside me on the ground and stirred the fire. "I believe the bear may wind up being my own totem spirit--though I've never seen her face to face."

"Her?" I said, surprised.

"The bear is a great female totem," said Sam. "Like the lioness, the female protects the young--sometimes even from threats by the father--and she gets their food."

"What happens when your totem spirit ... enters you?" I asked him, still worried about the process. "I mean, does it do anything to you?"

Sam smiled his ironic smile. "I'm not sure, hotshot. I've never been 'entered' myself--but I think we'll know if it happens to us. My grandfather, Dark Bear, has told me that the totem spirit approaches you softly, sometimes in human form and sometimes as an animal. Then the spirit determines whether you're ready. And when you are, it speaks to you and gives you your very own secret, sacred name--a name that no one else will ever know but you yourself, unless you decide to share it with somebody else. This name, my grandfather says, is each brave's own spiritual power, separate from, and in many ways more important than, our eternal soul."

"Why hasn't your totem spirit ever entered you and given you your name?" I asked him. "You've been trying so hard, and for so long."

Sam's jet black hair, hanging in a shimmering fall to his shoulders, shaded his eyes as he stirred the fire, so that I could only make out his profile: dark lashes, strong cheekbones, straight nose, and cleft chin. All at once, in this light, he seemed much older to me than just my twelve-year-old big stepbrother. All at once, Sam himself seemed like an ancient totem spirit. Then he turned to me. His eyes in the firelight were as clear and deep as diamonds, and he was smiling.

"Do you know why I always call you 'hotshot,' Ariel?" he asked me, and when I shook my head, he said, "It's because, even though you're only eight years old, the age that I was when I went on my first tiwa-titmas, you're much smarter than I was then. Maybe you're still smarter than I am now. And that's not all; I think you're braver than I am, too. The first time I came to these woods by myself without a guide, I already knew every stick and stone on the path. But you weren't afraid just to launch out all alone today, to trust blindly in what would happen to you. That's what my grandfather calls the necessary faith."

"I was following you," I pointed out. "And I think maybe I'm just stupid!"

Sam threw back his head and laughed. "No, no. You're not stupid," he said. "But maybe, hotshot," he added with his wonderful smile, "just maybe your getting yourself lost in the woods and nearly killed will be some kind of a talisman to me--my lucky rabbit's foot." He yanked my pigtail. "Maybe finding you will change my luck."

And it did. That was how Sam became Grey Cloud, and how our totem spirit blessed us with the light, and how I became part Indian, by the mixing of our blood. From that night forward, it was as if a knot had been untied inside me, and my path through life would be forever straight and clear.

From that night until now, that is.

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