Feast of Friends
For three hours I'd navigated through the snow-covered roads. The remains of a cold diner coffee and the buzz from the No-Doz kept me alert, or so I thought. The headlights danced against the white veiled crags, the granite glistening. Four miles of loose dirt roads and another thirty to go. I reached for the radio, expecting no more than static. A sonorous jazz routine emerged from the speakers; reminiscent of Bourbon Street or Toulouse in the wee hours of a blurry neon. As I reached to adjust the volume the woman appeared from nowhere. The gravel road left no leeway for pedestrians.
I yanked the wheel to the left. The tires sputtered on the ice. I pulled back towards the road and the car spun; the first time, missing the rock wall – the second time, whirling into it. A piercing throb erupted from my skull as it rebounded off the windshield. Dazed, I climbed out of the side door staggered across the snow and ice, looking to check on the mysterious walker.
I walked back to where the car slid from the road. The falling snow wasn’t heavy enough to cover her tracks, yet I could find no sign of her; not a single footprint. I know what I saw. She wore a dark coat with a hood; plodding through the snow with just a small flashlight illumining her path. The most consuming green eyes shone beneath her hood, sending a freeze down my spine. As hard as I looked there were no signs of her.
Drops of blood fell from my head as I trudged back to the car. I put my hand to my forehead and a sharp pain lanced between my eyes. I watched with agony as snowflakes fell into the crimson streak on my palm.
I wrapped the wound with a 3x3 and gauze, and went for a closer look at the damage to the car. The front end collapsed into an amalgamation of metal upon impact. My blood filled the cracks of the spider-webbed windshield. The engine wouldn't turn. The headlights flickered for a second, blinked, and went dark. Eddie told me to take advantage of the solitude. So far it had taken advantage of me.
It made little sense to wait with my car. Barter Lake had a reputation for its isolation, more so during the winter. It might be days before another vehicle passed. I grabbed the duffel I had packed for the cabin and started down the road; ice and gravel crunching under my feet. To my left, the obsidian sheen of Barter Lake glimmered in the starlight. A barn owl hooted. Wet pine infused the night breeze. Blood continued to drip to the snow as I walked; the bandage too thin to contain it.
I put on an extra sweater and followed the gravel road around the perimeter of the lake. The moon reflected off the sheen surface of Barter Lake. When the glint became too mesmerizing, I watched my feet fall, step after step. Between the frigid temperature and the blood I’d lost, the wintry night gnawed on my bones. My fingers felt brittle, their skin cracking around the handle of the duffel bag. Every other mile or so, a dirt road jutted between Barter Lake and its circling cabins, each sitting dark and quiet on the snow-kissed hilltops. Again and again I watched my feet disappear into the snow in front of me.
"Enough solitude for you Eddie?" I yelled into the vastness.
"Hoo" the barn owl answered.
Just as I reached the point of fatigue, I spied a cabin with windows glowing. The unpaved road to the cabin weaved up a gentle hill. I knocked at the door and a young woman answered. When the firelight crossed her eyes they shimmered with that haunting green I’d seen by the roadside. Behind them was a depth unlike any other. Her stare extended past my exterior and into my soul, penetrating into something raw.
A warm wave of heat from the hearth within ran over me. I suspect it was then that I fainted, for the next thing I knew I was coming to on a couch. The fire burning in the hearth cast a sunset glow over the cabin walls. Outside, the moon drooped over the trees. The young woman who answered the door stood stirring at the back stove; the air rich with pepper and spices.
"Um miss," I said, ashamed to have not even gotten her name before passing out.
She turned from the stove, the verdant glow of her eyes muted but still present. “Oh good you’re awake. You had me worried for a bit there. If you can walk okay, the washroom is back there. You’re up just on time to join me for dinner."
I tried to shake the fog as I headed in the direction of the washroom. Every aspect of the cabin had an Arcadian simplicity to it that predated modern conveniences. The washroom consisted of a closet sized vestibule, with a wide water bowl set atop a small wooden cabinet. On the wall behind, an antique mirror hung, the frame had an elegant pattern of intertwined leaves. I unwrapped the gauze and peeled back the bandage to get a better look at my forehead. At the middle of the contusion, the skin was split and crusted black. I dipped my hands into the warm water bowl and began to wash away the blood, wincing as the water in the basin turned a darker red. I rejoined my host as she brought bowls from the wood-burning stove to the table.
She pulled out a chair for me at the dining table.
“That looks pretty bad” she said.
"I can't thank you enough,” I said. “Martin. Martin Allen.”
"I’m Katrina. Katrina Leigh if we’re being formal. What happened to you?”
“I was driving to my cabin and I thought I saw something, and had an accident.” I hesitated, “You weren't out walking earlier were you?"
"You'd have to be crazy to go out walking in this weather. Why?"
"I thought I saw someone. That’s why I swerved."
She placed two bowls of mixed meats and rice and vegetables onto the table, and sat across from me.
"My Aunt's gumbo recipe. If anything will warm you up this will. Who’s Eddie?” she asked.
"Eddie?" How could she…
"You were talking in your sleep. I thought I heard you say Eddie a few times. Is that your wife?” Her eyes shifted from my hands to my face.
"Eddie is my editor. It was his idea that I come back to Barter Lake."
"We… I have a family cabin here, past the boathouse. It's been a while since I've been here." I crammed the gumbo into my mouth as if I hadn't eaten in days. ''This is very delicious.''
"Thank you. The meats are smoked in the shed out back. It does a lot for the flavor."
"You're an excellent cook."
"Learned from my Auntie, she loved to cook." She had a slight accent with a musical tone to her dialect. “She raised me. For as long as I remember she was always fixing something with food. Felt sick; she had a recipe, broken heart; she had a recipe." There was a sweet lilt to her voice as she spoke fondly of her Aunt.
"So is this the recipe for self-inflicted concussions?"
"Oh hush. It’s to warm the bones.”
The meats were so tender you'd have expected it to be fresh delivered that morning. After a second bowl of the delicious gumbo, I sat content, and my bones were warm as promised.
"Don't you get lonely here all alone?"
"I have a few visitors, but they don’t often stay too long.” She paused. I was afraid I may have brought up a sore subject. “But I've got everything I need. It's warm, I have a beautiful view, I have my garden in the summers, and plenty of books to visit with.”
A log crackled in the fireplace, then a sizzle of sap dripped from the log onto the embers. The fireplace sat central to the cabin. There were small iron doors in front of the fireplace to direct the heat into any of the surrounding rooms.
After dinner, Katrina showed me her reading room. Bookcases lined every wall area, wide enough to hold each unique book from the next, as if gathered on a coast-to-coast tour of antique and thrift shops. Burgundy drapes framed the one windowed wall. The moonlight reflected off the snowy ground and dripped in through the frosted glass. I walked around admiring her collection. As I looked closer, I noticed that each case had a different theme or genre represented. Poets, romantic and modern. Transcendentalists, philosophy, and psychology. Near the fireplace there were darker cases dedicated to stories macabre. The smell of aged paper intoxicated me like a pheromone.
She opened the iron doors of the fireplace and the room filled with tangerine effulgence. Katrina stoked the logs in the fireplace. I wandered the room enamored by all the books. Holding a book of poems by Byron, absorbed in the verse, I did not hear her cross the room, and startled when she whispered in my ear.
"In solitude, where we are least alone." Her voice addled me with a siren-like quality.
"Where are you from?" I asked. Our conversations had yet to render any clue.
"The past," she said. "Where we all come from."
I couldn’t argue as she spoke the truth, yet still she didn’t answer. Katrina went to an armoire in the corner and opened the glass doors. Inside were several rows of lightly dusted bottles.
“Une aperitif monsieur?" Her liquor assortment comprised a collection of spirits, all having a specific relation to an author; be it their favorite poison or a reference to a story or poem. Absinthe, Belvenie, Bitters, Chartreuse and so forth. "All out of Chianti," she chuckled. Every one of my senses were being seduced. We agreed on Chartreuse, as it followed well as a complement to the gumbo. I thought it apropos, as it matched so well to the eyes of my host. Katrina set two chairs in front the soothing embers, and from there we talked and talked. We talked as if we’d known each other the entirety of our lives. No agendas. Only giving each other the chance to be heard. Somewhere around the fourth glass of Chartreuse I began to question my seaworthiness. The waning fire hypnotized me with its dance.
She offered me use of her couch for the night and a ride to my cabin come daylight. “It’s been a long night,” said Katrina. “I’ll get you some blankets.”
I staggered back to the couch, doing my best to dismiss my intoxication.
“Sleep well, my friend,” she said as my head slumped to the pillow. She retired to her room, and the metal latch clicked. Within moments, the wraiths of sleep held me tight within their grasp.
Late in the morning I woke up to a rapping on the tempered glass of the cabin window door. A large diesel engine idled near the roadway. Katrina opened the door. A large man with a beard and Cartharts with a nametag bearing Dan, filled the door frame. On the back of his flatbed sat my car, cracked windshield and all.
After he confirmed me as the driver, Dan got on his radio and asked Alice to pass along a message to Sheriff Baker. He said they could stop searching the snowdrifts for a body.
The tow truck driver left and Katrina stepped outside. I went to the bathroom to freshen up. The bowl of bloody water had been emptied and replaced with clean water. The contusion on my forehead looked better, but a new ache from the alcohol the night before left me squinting in the daylight.
Katrina set down a breakfast of biscuits and gravy and strong coffee at the table.
"Hope you're hungry."
I couldn't remember the last time I sat for a breakfast. After Helen and Roy died, sitting by myself at the table left me feeling lonesome. I often took my meals standing at the counter or hunched over the sink.
I thought about getting back to the cabin. I thought about the solitude waiting; the desk beneath the window, typewriter before me, staring out at Barter Lake trying to summon the dark muse. It hadn’t finished a story in three years. There were beginnings, but I never followed through.
It had been a Saturday. Helen rushed around the kitchen making pancakes. In his room, Roy had just finished putting on his baseball uniform. As usual I sat in my office staring at a blank screen and the vexatious blinking cursor.
"Roy! Pancakes are ready," Helen would yell.
Roy came thundering down the stairs.
"What did I tell you about those cleats in the house?" I had yelled.
Helen came into the study. "We've got to leave for the game in about 15 minutes."
“I’m not going,’’ I said, refusing to turn from the mocking cursor on my screen.
"Martin it's the last game of the season. You promised."
"What, you think this book is going to write itself?"
"Damn it Helen," I had said, angry as hell.
The office door slammed behind her. I heard her say something to Roy about not disturbing me, and 15 minutes later they pulled out of the driveway. According to the police report, Helen must not have noticed the delivery truck trying to beat the red light, probably driving with tears in her eyes. The truck t-boned Helen’s car, and pinned it against a telephone pole. By the time the ambulance arrived, both Helen and Roy were pronounced dead on arrival.
It was months before I could even think about writing again. I couldn’t move past the guilt after Helen and Roy died, and every time I sat down to write, my remorse sat down beside me. And so came Eddie’s suggestion to return to the first place I started writing, Barter Lake.
I offered to take care of the breakfast dishes for Katrina, and she directed me to the outside waterspout. The metal handle squeaked as it raised and lowered until the icy water began to flow. I saw the neighboring smokehouse, resembling a primitive outhouse with a stone foundation. A fishing pole leaned against it. I envied the Arcadian simplicity of Katrina’s life.
Curiosity got the better of me and I opened the smokehouse door. Charred hay lined the floor in a stone fire ring. A small table held a bowl filled with coarse salts and green herbs. Sundries hung from small hooks and chains suspended from the ceiling. In addition to fish, there were other small game hanging; an identifiable rabbit, and a not so identifiable larger piece. Katrina came to the smokehouse carrying a small bushel of hay. I stepped out of the way as she spread it around the smokehouse floor and set fire to it. She closed the door and the smoke crept out the tiny vents into the morning sky.
Soon after, we were in Katrina's pick-up truck headed for my cabin. The truck bounced down the winding road with ease as her green eyes were fixed ahead. I looked at her and at Barter Lake as we drove beside it. The water sat motionless. When we pulled up to the cabin, I didn't want to get out. Each second I waited made the silence all the more awkward.
"Good luck with the writing," she said.
We reached and hugged goodbye. Let go Martin, I told myself. Before I did, she kissed me gently on the neck. Her lips lingered as if to taste. Once again I felt drawn into her eyes.
"Don't be a stranger," she said.
I carried my duffel bag up to the steps, and looked back with longing as she drove away through the trees. The hug left the scent of jasmine on my jacket collar. I breathed deep of it, smiling. I settled my bag in the bedroom and stood listening to the empty silence of the cabin. I went room to room gradually settling myself in. I started the electric heaters and opened up the water pipes in the kitchen and the bathroom. At last, I shuffled to the desk, sat down at the typewriter and loaded a fresh sheet of paper. The noon sun was high over Barter Lake.
I pulled the blind down just a bit, and as if by instinct began to write. The pernicious mind of a serial killer soon came to life on the page.
With a short stack of pages face down beside the typewriter, I peered out at the sun setting over Barter Lake. I thought of Katrina sitting in front of her fireplace reading Percy or Poe, and went to the kitchen for a drink. I gazed at the shed behind the cabin where we kept the ATV’s, then looked back at the small stack of pages on the desk. My thoughts were elsewhere. Not even a day had passed and already I missed her company. I put on my coat and boots, and headed out to the shed. It took a few tries to get one of the ATV’s started, but finally it did, coughing out a cerulean cloud of smoke.
The sun had almost set as I came upon Katrina’s cabin. Smoke was still drifting up from the smokehouse. Scents of salt and fish and venison wafted through the air as I approached. I stopped first at the smokehouse but Katrina wasn't there. Beside the wooden structure sat an old metal drum. Inside at the bottom a heavy fabric smoldered, the nametag visible, charred but not yet consumed.
I crept to the window and saw Katrina in the kitchen. The silver knife shimmered in her pale fingers, covered in red as she hacked into the carcass. The limbs were removed, leaving Dan’s head atop his torso, as she sculpted the flesh from around his ribcage. A fountain of vomit and bile erupted and splattered at my feet. My legs wavered. I ran as fast as I could back towards the ATV. The cold air burned my lungs. In my haste, I misjudged a rock, and landed face down in the snow.
I came to, while being loaded into the back of an ambulance. A law officer shone a flashlight in my eyes. "All right sir you hang tight. We're gonna git you to the hospital right quick, so they can stitch up that head of yours. Hope the ride's not too bumpy.”
The flatbed of a diesel truck banged down against the chassis. My car perched on top, the front end crushed, the windshield shattered.
One of the ambulance attendants tightened the strap holding me to the gurney. "We're all set Sheriff Baker."
All I could see were those green eyes staring out of the night.
Sheriff Baker blinded me with the flashlight again.
"Were you going to see Katrina Leigh? Guess on account of that goose-egg you got you've got a bit of amnesia. Ms. Leigh has been dead going on 8 years now."
The ambulance doors slammed shut. Out the back window, the red and blue lights of the ambulance reflected off the rock wall and out across Barter Lake. I closed my eyes. Her green eyes appeared, piercing my soul, and in my ears that lilting voice whispered,
"In solitude, where we are least alone."