"Here, drink this.” Rose handed Jolie a cup of hot tea. “Can you hold it?” It was a solid clay mug, the kind that felt satisfying to wrap your hands around. Jolie nodded. “I’m going to leave you here by the fire while they get the stones ready,” Rose went on. “You can sit up, or lie down, or whatever you need to do. If you need to eat something now, I’ll get you something easy to digest, but if you can make it, I’d rather you broke your fast in the lodge when we bring you back.”
“I don’t think I could eat,” Jolie rasped. “Bring me back from where, Rose?”
“You’ve been missing for four days and nights, Jolie. I guess Spirit had a plan. It seems to have sent you on a bit of a walkabout. We’re going to bring you back into the world in a lodge.”
“There seems to be a lodge for everything.” Jolie tried to joke.
“All the important things anyway,” Rose agreed. “Just sit here and drink your tea. It’s medicine, so drink it all, even if it tastes funny.” Tears brightened the kind woman’s dark eyes. “We’re so very relieved that you’re safe.” She gave Jolie a quick hug and hurried into the house.
Jolie watched the fire dance, hearing it talk in crackles and hisses. She heard other people talking somewhere nearby too, though they were trying to keep their voices low.
“But how did she get here?” someone that sounded like Yanna Maria asked. Jolie began to shake. She did not want to see the fortuneteller, not yet. She wasn’t ready.
“Apparently, she walked,” Rose answered the woman.
“From Mount Potosi?”
“Almost. They found the truck she was driving on the highway about fifteen miles west of the pass.”
“All those people looking for her and she just walks into Calico Basin?”
“She’s a strong girl,” Rose said, her admiration clear.
“Does she know about her mother?”
“I haven’t asked,” Rose’s voice suddenly became tight. “And don’t you go saying anything about it either, Yanna. Jolie’s got more than enough to deal with already without that.”
Someone stepped into Jolie’s line of sight, adding a log to the fire.
“Nothing can hurt you here. This is a safe space,” he said, not looking at her.
Of course, there was a fireman, Jolie realized. She was not really alone. She peered out from inside the blanket that was pulled up like a hood over her head.
“Don’t talk, Jolie,” Sifu commanded her. “You are still in the spirit world. Just rest.”
“I don’t want her here,” she told him. “Yanna Maria; can you send you away?”
“Of course.” He lay a second blanket on the ground, using a third to make a pillow for her head then gently guided her to where she could lie down by the fire.
But Mom isn’t. Jolie retreated into the cocoon of the wool blanket, hiding her face.
Spider-Jolie confidently stepped onto the shimmering web stretched out before her in patterns of lines and circles. She did not look down, her spider eyes focused forward as she gracefully navigated the sticky threads that glowed brightly against the dark dreamscape, climbing the universe from the gloom of despair into the winking light above.
Whatever demons lurked below would remain there. She was beyond their ken, a brave blinding spirit from which their greed must shrink. Not hounded, not chased, or ridden by fear, Jolie set aside confusion.
Sloughing off the spider form, she once again became a girl, climbing from the darkness of her fears into the light of her future.
Sensing movement near her, Jolie opened her eyes. Iris sat next to her.
“Rose said to make sure you drank this--all of it.” Iris held the cup to Jolie’s lips. Tru and Marty slipped quietly in through the gate, their hands linked. They sat down on the plank bench, trying not to look at Jolie, challenged by the idea that they must treat her as if she weren’t there. Jolie reached over and grasped their hands in hers, exchanging quick tearful smiles.
Rose came out, carrying four wooden bowls: one with the corn dish, wasna, one with berries, one with buffalo, and one with water.
“We’re ready.” She set them gently on the little mound outside the lodge door. Hoke crawled out of the lodge.
“Okay, let’s bring her in. When she comes back out you can talk to her,” he explained to Jolie’s friends. “But she will still be very weak and in transition, so choose what you need to say, speak slowly, and don’t expect too much.” Jolie’s friends nodded, their faces shifting between worry and relief.
“Come with me, Jolie.” Hoke helped Jolie to her feet, then led her into the lodge. The others followed, with coaching from Rose.
Inside, Hoke told Jolie that she could share what she wished about her experience and keep secret what she did not. He passed the bowls of food and water to her, instructing her to break her fast and begin the process of returning to the physical world.
“The things we have here: corn, buffalo, berries and water, fire and shelter, are all we need to live,” Hoke spoke humbly. “Everything else are only things we want.” He poured a gourd ladle of spring water over the glowing hot stones. The steam rolled out in a cloud and Jolie raised her face to embrace the wet cleansing heat. “Our relative has returned to us. Welcome back, Winyan Sapa Sunsunla: Black Burro Woman.” Jolie could hear him smile.
When the lodge door opened and they came out, the sun was rising over the eastern edge of the Basin, painting it in glorious color.
Jolie’s friends clustered around, hugging her, declaring how happy they were that she was safe, and how much they’d been worried. Rose stepped forward.
“I have a surprise for you, Winyan Sapa Sunsunla.” A pathway opened and Remy was there. Jolie stumbled into his arms.
“We had to sneak him out of the hospital, but he refused to stay away,” Hugo said, coming out from behind his friend.
“Pilamaya. Thank the spirits, you’re safe.” Remy held Jolie close.
“I was so afraid that we’d lost you,” she mumbled.
“That couldn’t happen, not with you and Madison working together.”
“Welcome back, Jo,” Madison was standing awkwardly to one side.
Jolie let go of Remy and hugged his sister.
“Thank you for saving my brother,” the blond girl whispered.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Jolie replied.
“I’m not sure that’s true.” Madison stood back, wiping her eyes. “But two stubborn girls are pretty hard to stop, I guess.”
Hoke was next for hugs, followed by Iris, Tru, Marty, Hugo, and an extra long hug for Rose.
“There’s a feast inside,” Rose announced as she finally let go, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I’m sure you’re all hungry. I know some of you’ve been out with the search parties and probably haven’t had a decent meal in days.”
“I haven’t had one. I’ve been being tortured with hospital food,” Remy joked.
“There’s special food for you to break your fast, Jolie,” Rose instructed her as everyone began to trickle into the house, talking about Jolie’s extraordinary journey, and congratulating Remy on being alive.
Sifu, stayed by the fire, cleaning things up. Jolie went back.
“Thank you, Sifu,” she said, handing him back the blanket.
“The hardest part may not be over, yet,” he warned her with surprising tenderness.
“I’m a Boulette. Every time they push me down, I get back up and I’m stronger.”
Sifu leaned on his pitchfork. “I hear you’re a pretty good fighter. Maybe you know this, but I have a school.” He smiled, something Jolie had never seen the stern Taoist do before. It didn’t suit him. It was like someone took a picture of Batman and re-drew his mouth with a big cheesy smile stolen from the Tick.
“I did hear something about that.”
“I could teach you if you wanted.”
Jolie nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
A car pulled up in the driveway, and Cliff Wrangler sidled up to the gate.
“Welcome back,” he greeted Jolie as Sifu went into the house. “Everyone’s talking about your amazing journey. How are you feeling?”
“I’m alive,” Jolie replied. “So, pretty good, considering.”
“Look, Jo, I don’t know what you’ve been told but--”
“It’s okay. I know about Mom.”
“I’m sorry, kid. You said that you didn’t have any family here?”
“Sure, I do. I have lots of it.” She indicated the crowd inside.
“But legally, there’s no one I can send you home with tonight, right?”
“You can send me home with Iris. She’d be happy to have me.”
Wrangler took a deep breath, then let it out. “The thing is, Jolie, Iris is not legally your family and she’s not an approved foster parent either, so she can apply to become a foster parent, and request that you’re placed with her, but there are no guarantees. I can’t let you go with her right now.”
“But she’ll want me,” Jolie protested. “She’s just inside. Go ask her.”
“I know what you’re saying, but there’s a procedure we have to go through with these things. It’s the way the courts are set up. You’re an orphan now, Jo. That makes you a ward of the court. You’re going to have to go to Child Haven until we can get you into a foster home.”
Jolie felt the strength that had returned to her drain away. “You’re not serious?”
Wrangler shook his head. “I wish I weren’t.”
“I shouldn’t have come back,” she muttered.
“Don’t say that. We can work this out. It may take a little time, but it will be okay.” Wrangler put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
“I hate it when people tell me that.” Jolie shut the valve on her escaping courage and lifted her chin. “Keep your sunshine and rainbow bullshit for the little kiddies, I know what’s what, Wrangler.”
Wrangler looked embarrassed. “Look, there’s no hurry. You can eat dinner, say your thank yous, and all that.”
Jolie gazed through the window at the happy people inside.
“No. Let them have their celebration. They’ll figure it out soon enough. Let’s just go.” When she got into the probation van, she rolled down the window and leaned her arms on the door, letting the wind feather over her face.
The old black jack stood across the road, watching her. Their eyes met and Jolie remembered how she had really gotten down the mountain and across the valley to Rose’s.
“Thank you, my friend,” she whispered.
“We will be waiting for you to come home, home, home.” The black jack let out a mournful bray as he watched the car drive Jolie away.
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