Sunlight. I never knew a celestial object so far away inflicted so much pain. The rays stung like flames, forcing me to slam my eyelids close and my sight back into darkness. My eyelids pulsed as the heat of the sun felt like it was burning through my skin. Forcefully I blinked the landscape back into vision still blurry and watering, partly because of the brilliance of the sun, but mostly draining away years of physical damage and irreparable emotional wounds that insisted on playing back in my mind every time I closed my eyes and allowed the darkness back into my mind.
Attempting to ignore the anger toward myself for being so unappreciative of the sun’s brilliance, my small barely tan hands tore tear the tears from my vision. There was not enough time to allow my eyes time adjust to the brightness of the light completely. I knew I would again savor the comfort of the sun’s rays, but not right now. Being in the deep recesses of the earth, the worst hell for a person who has grown up with the distinct aroma of Ponderosa pines, the songs of chatty magpies, and glimpsing the quick movement of deer, I sighed seeing how much color my hands lost after being away from natural light for so long.
Pushing aside thoughts of self-loathing, I began removing all the despicable remnants reminding me of my captivation. The priceless bracelets, gold earrings encrusted with diamonds, a bulky silver embellished necklace that felt more like a collar than jewelry adorning my body, and the restricting gold pins in my hair. The priceless stones piled on the ground.
Liberation began to fill into my body like air filling up a balloon. My body was empty with all the jewelry glittering on my body, lifeless and deflated. Once the precious stones fell to the earth, I began to fill with life again. I no longer bore the definition of someone else’s concept of beauty to loom over me any longer; I could identify it on my own now. I was never one to be modest and when I was forced to wear those despicable pieces of cold rocks, it felt like my natural beauty was not enough. I was not enough. That idea was what I had to brush aside everyday those jewels were attached to my pure body. Pride defines worthiness and if it is lost, we grasp for any shallow concept to give life meaning. I refused to give up my pride. I will let “them” use the jewelry to fulfill themselves, but I refused to submit to their world of inanimate objects dictating worth. I was, and still am, worth more than any piece of fine gems they deemed as more valuable than every human life they sacrificed.
I tore off the bottom half of my expertly stitched gown that had already ripped during my short escape. The dress must be what royalty wear, reminding me of a time in my past, before the abduction, when I went to a designer’s trunk show and felt similar soft but strong foreign material that only filled walk-in closets of those with obscene amounts of discretionary income, wearing the gowns once and then pushing them aside for another fine quality piece for the next special outing. At this point, I wanted to take every repugnant residue from that place off of my body, but the rest of the scarlet dress would remain until I found another article of clothing to replace the deplorable gown.
All I could envision myself resembling with the jewelry and the way too formal gown was the uncomfortably posed boarding school Indian children. With their hair chopped off, girls in dresses, boys in finely starched outfits, and all imposed with new non-Native names, assembled, where their defeated faces were captured for all the world to applaud their transformation from heathen to civilized. I knew their struggles—an individual forced into an existence of savagery that is championed as refinement. But no longer. I escaped the contradiction and was returning to a home free of the brutality of society.
Whether I needed reassurance that I was finally out of the darkest days of my life or there was a grotesque craving to view the house of my entrapment for one last time, I turned around to face the dilapidated structure from where I just emerged. The site of the rundown building was puzzling especially as I knew the contents inside this shell before me now. Inside was a pristine specimen of wealth and power. The servants kept the building spotless. Every inch was built with the finest of craftsmanship. The marble floors, elaborate wood engravings, and meticulous decor all were without flaws. I could not understand how the inside of the house could be so perfect with the outside a windstorm away from caving in on itself. There was not a hint of the walls falling into themselves from inside. They were as straight and as strong as the organization seeking refuge in its fortress. There was no site of weakness when trapped within the walls of the Manor.
The outside Manor may have been a magnificent specimen in its prime but now, the whole building appeared to sag, giving in to centuries of constant pressure from the sky towering above the structure. Noxious vines dominated the Roman beams and paint-chipped walls as nature appeared to be reclaiming the tired building. From a distance, it was likely that the Manor could not be even distinguishable because of all the overgrowth from the pine forest despite \ the building planted on one of the highest rises in the immediate area. In its day, McCabe Manor would have stood as a beacon of power for all in the region to admire and fear.
I was uncertain what color the Manor used to be. My best guess was white because of the smoldering gray visible between the suffocating vines and caked on mud. While the Manor no longer symbolized supremacy as originally intended when it first emerged from the ground, the walls inside still contained a thriving organization. The camouflaged Manor may actually be more powerful now than when the structure was first built. Inside remained secret and if no one knew that the Manor even existed, the secret persisted. The rituals, killings, and forced acts all continued because the outside was oblivious to the contents inside of the broken down house that few, if any, knew even existed. If they knew about the evils being committed on the hill, rampant fear would necessitate action.
Grabbing the jewels along with a mix of dirt, pine needles, and grass, I hurriedly placed them on a red gown-kerchief, tied the opposite corners together, and clasped the cloth with my left hand.
The house, falling in on itself, was on the highest hill in the area. I could see at least 40 miles away from this precipice. The terrain was dotted with high-rising hills or low-rising mountains, depending on how you viewed the elevation landscape. With all the tops below timberline and minimal rocky cliffs on most ridge tops, I tend to see this region of the San Juans as hills. It was all in between 7 to 9 thousand foot elevation. The forest was still dominated by Ponderosa pines and not lodgepole like in the higher mountain peaks. The mixture of yellow to dark- green needles with variations of red bark Ponderosas dotted the landscape like porcupine quills, abundant, layer upon layer stretching over the endless ridges. There were occasional yellow-brownish barren spots amongst the pine forest that were likely green valleys in the spring and snowfields in the winter. The brightest fall colors were isolated patches throughout the panoramic view.
As I took in mental notes of the different tops of the hills, some with green pine covered domes, others with small cliffs eroded from wind and water, displaying the inner rock layers of the ridges, and others were just elongated ridges that disappeared behind other hilltops, I attempted to gather my bearings of all the natural features surrounding me. As the ridge tops went off into the horizon, they began to blend together, appearing like one continuous ridge with bumps across the tops silhouetted by the deep blue cloudless sky.
While I needed to be as aware of the forest around me, the gaze across the landscape also allowed me to mentally escape the self-deprecating thoughts I held inside. I was never going to allow any of the McCabe household to see me as vulnerable when they held me against my will. However, I could not dismiss the feeling of shame, which angered me. I did not give myself away every night. I fought every single time he tried to touch me. I never did win, but I would not permit him access without a battle. How could I feel shame from that? Shame came from being used as a utensil to meet a need, someone else’s need, and I could not do anything about it. I was not strong enough to dictate my life. I was there for someone else’s pleasure. Shame is when you exist for someone else’s entertainment.
Exhaling, I physically tried to expel the dark thoughts still lingering inside me from the Manor. Spotting the densest part of the forest to my right from the house’s splinter of a doorway, I determined my pathway off of McCabe Hill. Pulling my now free-flowing onyx hair from my face, I ran into the protection of the thicker part of the forest and veered away from the wide-open sparsely vegetated blue-gray shale ridges to my left.
My five foot petite frame moved well threw the canopy of pines and sporadic underbrush of gamble oak and quaking aspens. Unaware of the direction, I only knew that I needed to get as far away as possible before nightfall.
After years of little physical exertion, each one of my muscles screamed as they were forced to do what they are naturally supposed to perform. My will wanted me to move faster, but my body was weak from years of idle servitude. The bountiful pine needles that covered the forest floor shattered as my delicate feet, absent from callouses that were formed in my youth from when I proudly walked barefoot on a similar forest floor, crunched through the dry needles. The skin on my feet split and small painful cuts added to my already aching body.
While getting as far away as possible was necessary because of the immediate danger, I also knew that there was another threat that was just as life-threatening. The grass had long since browned and had laid flat to the ground blending into the tan hue of dried out pine needles. The groves of aspens boasted their brightest yellows and some fluorescent orange. It wasn’t long before those colors would also fade to brown and begin falling on top of the pine needle bed. The gamble oaks’ leaves were their reddest hue and just about ready to rest amongst the needles and grass. Some of the soft leaves had fallen and actually offered my feet some comfort as I dodged denser and denser vegetation.
Fall had arrived and in the San Juan Mountains, the short season of autumn promises that winter will follow shortly once the trees shed their leaves. Winter can occur even before the leaves fall dead and never hit the ground. Even before the plummeting winter temperatures and threat of snowfall, nights will still be cold. I knew I would not last long in the elements. It may still be fall, but I had little to protect myself from whatever the weather decided to throw at me. I could not survive for too long alone, with little to no gear, and so late in the season.
The autumn yellows, reds, and oranges glistened in the early November sun, uncharacteristic for this late in the year. Normally these explosions of color last until, maybe, mid-October, seldom (if ever) into the month of November. I reminded myself that this forest was in close proximity to probably one of the most evil places on earth. These woods played by its own rules, written not by nature but someone or something far more irrational.
I could not help but feel unwelcome as I journeyed further into the unnaturally dark woods. Normally, I am at home where the sky is the dominate fixture and plants sprout up to feel the eminence of the sun, but now, I felt like an outcast amongst this forest. Perhaps I had been removed for far too long from the natural environment and my body was not accustomed to such an open world. I used to wander the woods around my home to get away and experience a living, breathing place that did not need me but enjoyed that I was there. This forest emitted disgust, maybe even hatred, towards the foreign being trespassing on its private soil.
The woods of my youth were inviting and the creatures of the forest were welcome company. I did not feel alone now either, but the company was less inviting and actually began pelting me with hostility. Whispers were coming at me from every angle. At first, I thought that the inhabitants from the Manor realized I was no longer entombed in the house and were chasing after me. I glanced several times over my shoulder, seeing only the crumbling house fall further and further behind me.
As the forest grew darker, the whispers grew louder. In the denser trees, the voices began to thunder, forcing me to tie the knapsack of jewels to my left thigh and place my hands over my ears as I propelled my throbbing body through the limbs, branches, and hollers being emitted from the vegetation themselves.
I was dizzy dodging branches that appeared to be slapping me as I passed. The rough bark pierced my skin in multiple locations as the branch slide down my arm, leaving white marks and thin lines of blood from the deeper penetrations from the impact. Pinecones began to drop from the tops of the towering Ponderosa’s. They pelted my skin where blotches of red immediately appeared and a purple outlay already began to become visible as bruises grew into welts right before my eyes. Acorns stung like little ice balls as they pummeled me from the right when I accidentally came too close to a cluster of gamble oak.
From the ground, pine needles stabbed the bottom of my feet with tiny needle-like incisions feeling like hundreds of splinters being embedded into my skin with every step. Twigs on the ground jumped up like they were in a popcorn kernel cooker, slashing my ankles where the pine needles were not able to reach. I no longer felt the pangs of exhaustion. The assault from the forest took over any other sensations my body was feeling. It was like every organism in this forest was infected with a gene to inflict pain. From the living trees to the dead pine needles, every specimen was drenched with the same darkness inside McCabe Manor. Even the sunshine could not cleanse the evilness deeply imbedded in this haunted land.
After escaping the house that could be decisively named the bowels of hell, it made sense that the forest rooted in such an evil abyss would be just as malevolent as the cape-shrouded organization tunneled below the earth. Whether it was the trees, hidden creatures, or the forest itself assaulting me, I had to find a way to get away from the pummeling. It would be disappointing to finally escape the Manor to only be killed by the forest surrounding the house. My hope was that once I was out of its walls, I would be free. That was not the case. Not yet, at least. I forced myself to look forward to find someway out of this abuse. Ahead looked like a possible clearing and more sunshine where the woods opened up to allow the rays to hit the forest floor. I focused on the clearing promising my body I could escape the bombardment if I could reach that point. I truly did not know if the clearing would actually be refuge from the violent woods, but I needed a goal in order to keep my body moving.
As the clearing began to get closer and closer, the forest became much more violent, small nicks on my body began to look much more substantial gashes. I worried about the blood trail I was leaving, but there was nothing else I could do but continue to run from nature’s wrath.
Stumbling from one attack to another, the warmth of the sun kissed my skin and the mugging stopped. I reached the clearing. I cautiously looked up and blinked several times to verify the unbelievable sight before my bruised and bloody skin.