“Haystack” formerly “Alone At Last”-Part 1

Reader–the whole story (all 5 parts) is here if you want to read all the way through–otherwise you can just read the parts one day at a time (with a new picture each day) as they are posted.

I guess a big pile of bales of hay all neatly stacked up would be considered a”haystack.” It’s not like the cartoon images we’ve seen or those old European paintings that idealized rural life where the loose hay is simply heaped into a mound with pitchforks.

The stack I’m remembering from 1969 was almost a perfect cube—probably 18 or 20 feet on each dimension—made up of the old, small rectangular bales—not the newer cylindrical bales we see silently waiting in mowed fields in recent decades as we motor through the countryside.

Out in the middle of nowhere on the Colorado plains—at the intersection of two dirt & gravel ranch roads—it had a kind of monolithic nature—a sort of fleeting monument to nowhereness. Across the intersection—“caddy-cornered” my mom would have said—was an old abandoned country school house.

White-painted and clap-boarded, some of the windows were broken but otherwise the school house was in pretty good shape—the metal roof had a fresh coat of paint. Inside the rooms were stacked full of more bales of hay—the rancher was using it for a barn. An old calendar hanging on an interior wall was 31 years out of date.

Sometime in the late fall of ’69 I ran across it while exploring a short cut between two major highways that ran through that part of the state. A girl I was dating back in those days showed me the shortcut when we were driving back to the college we attended after spending a weekend in Estes Park, Colorado. The old Stanley Hotel resort in Estes Park  by the way, is where the 1980 Jack Nicholson movie—“The Shining,” was filmed.

The pile of bales really caught my eye as we drove by on that blue-sky fall afternoon. The surrounding land was gently rolling—almost flat—as it wandered off to the horizon on three sides—on the forth—the western side—the snow-capped Rockies rose like a ragged white saw to the sky.

I hit the brakes—skidded to a halt on the loose gravel. As the dust floated slowly across the windshield I sat staring at it for a minute. The girl had been asleep—she woke up—asked why we were stopped—said she had an afternoon class she had to make. I pulled away but about 2 weeks late I came back by myself.

The weather the day I returned was also beautiful—a perfect brilliant crisp fall day. I parked on the shoulder and climbed up to the top of the stack. I had brought a thick blanket and wrapped up in it. Even though the sun was shining the breeze was still chilly—especially if sitting still. There was a slight tang to the air—you could almost smell snow approaching. I sat looking in one direction for 5 or 10 minutes then turned 90 degrees and looked off in that direction for another 5 or 10 minutes and so on. I decided I liked looking at the mountains best. I must have lay there for close to an hour watching plumes of snow blow off the higher summits against an electric blue sky.

It seemed like a great place to meditate but I just couldn’t keep my eyes off the view and I felt a curious sense of hyper-alertness—my vision seemed sharper, my thoughts clearer and I felt a very slight tingling in the middle of my forehead. I also came to sense this place exuded a profound feeling of incompleteness or irresolution that somehow both comforted and made me uneasy. It began to get dark so I threw my blanket into the car and headed back to campus.

A month later we’ve had a couple of light snows that melted after a few days. It is another brilliant, clear afternoon—a Friday—and I’m sitting in the student union looking out of big windows that face west. You can see the snowy Rockies standing resolutely along the horizon but they look somewhat smaller from this vantage point.

The union is almost deserted—everybody is gone—home, on road trips, off to other schools, concerts or dates in town or Denver. The girl who’d spent the weekend with me in Estes Park was now going with some other guy—guess she thought she could do better. I saw the guy—I could see why she might feel that way.

Anyway—I’m sitting there trying to decide whether to go to a local college pick-up bar or have supper with a friend who just happened to be a girl (she was engaged to a guy in the service and was being faithful, dammit) when a very attractive “older woman” (late 20s or early 30s—but really only a year or two older than me) walks in looking about as lonely and depressed as I felt. The room is huge and wide open—you can see from one end to the other over the tables, couches, upholstered chairs etc. She looks familiar.

She glances around as she goes through the snack bar line. She buys a serving of fries and a coke—looks around some more then starts moving my way through a shallow ocean of empty furniture and floor. I’m thinking to myself—“Looks like I’m the only game in town girlie.”

Then it hits me like a cannonball who she is.

End part one

Her hair was a different color from the last time I saw her. Previously it had been much darker—auburn I think. Now it was blond—that’s why I didn’t recognize her at first. She asks if she can sit with me and I jump up to pull out a chair. Her name was Sally and a few semesters earlier I had fallen in love with her.

She was a teaching assistant to a prof. I’d had an anthropology class under 2 semesters before. She was in an Ethnographic Anthropology doctoral program and was an ABD. She was writing a thesis on a subject area I knew a great deal about—coincidentally enough. It was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” situations. I fell in love with her as she lectured on Colin Turnbull’s work and I knew (or had known) Dr. Turnbull.

“Sally—hi—haven’t seen you since Dr. Blanchard’s class,” I said, trying not to be too obvious. I held out my hand and squeezed hers.

“Yeah,” she responded with a little smile of tentative recognition—you could tell she was pleased—almost relieved—to run into someone familiar but only half remembered me. “I remember you. Jim—isn’t it?”

She was just guessing at the name. I said “no”—“I was the guy that sat in back of Jim.” We both laughed—a little awkwardly. It was one of those moments when two people—wandering through the randomness of life—have an encounter knowing full well what each wants from the other—but not quite sure how to make it happen.

“She’s the girl—she put herself on the line coming over to my space,” I’m thinking. “I’m the guy—the ball is in my court.”

The next 5 minutes would decide if the weekend would be a bust or become a sweet, beautiful memory for both of us. The trick, I’m reminding myself, is to be confident and interested but unaffected—an attitude of, “I’m attracted to you but there are 20 other girls right behind you if you’re not interested in me.”

She offered me some of her fries—I declined saying I had supper plans for later.

“How’s the thesis going?” I asked, “I apologize—I can’t remember what your subject was.”

I knew she hadn’t told me but in fact I did know—very well.

I had been trying to hatch a way to get to know her when she was helping with the class. I was a good student—often made comments and asked questions—so Dr. Blanchard liked me. I had learned he was Sally’s thesis advisor so one day after class I simply told him I was trying to figure out a way to get to know Sally and asked what her thesis topic was. He laughed and said he couldn’t discuss that with me but told me to read an article she had written for the anthropology department newsletter a few months before.

I did. The subject of her paper was, “The Molimo as transgender symbol and resulting trans-personal psychological implications for both the Elima Celebration and the Nkumbi initiation of the Mbuti people of Zaire.” Turnbull was one of the acknowledged authorities on Mbuti ritual and ceremony. I decided I was seriously taken with this girl and started preparing a multi-faceted strategy—doing a lot of reading for example. Then she just disappeared. Again I asked Dr. Blanchard what had happened and again he said he couldn’t discuss that but this time there was no article for me to read.

Colin Turnbull’s partner Joseph Towles wrote a paper on the Asa origin myth of the Mbo people of the Ituri (who interacted with the Mbuti and shared some common history) which Turnbull annotated. The paper was not published until after Towle’s death quite a few years later but was quoted in Turnbull’s 1959 book on the Ik people.

During the several years Turnbull taught at Virginia Commonwealth University  I was a student there for 2 semesters and took a few classes under Turnbull. For all of one semester and part of the other I was a research assistant for him and read a number of his papers including Towle’s paper on the Asa Myth.

Sally nibbled at her fries, told me what her topic was and said she had run into a snag—she was having trouble tracking down reliable translations of Dauguerre’s 1960 field notes on the Mbo and their interactions with the Mbuti.

“You may not want to rely too heavily on translated notes,” I said. “Almost any dissertation committee will have members that speak French and will tear your defense to shreds based on your application and interpretation of Dauguerre’s material.”

She nodded sadly. This was something she had thought about but the way her thesis was argued she had no other sources of material. But her interest in me was piqued—I could see that. She had not expected me to know about these things.

“You could just drop Dauguerre’s material,” I said as she sipped her coke, “except to beef up your footnotes—and shape your position around Towle’s paper on the Asa Myth and how it expands and illuminates the Molimo ceremony.”

Her eyes grew wide and she almost choked on her drink.

“I thought you were an undergrad student,” she said visibly, but pleasantly surprised.

And how did you know about Towle’s paper?—it’s never been published—only quoted. Most people thought it was lost.”

“I know,” I said, “Turnbull quoted it in the 1959 Ik book and it has not been lost. I know about it because I read it. Colin loaned it to me and asked for my comments.”

I figured this would shake her up—I was right—she looked like a bomb had been exploded in her face.

“You know Colin Turnbull?” she asked incredulously, “You read Towle’s paper?”

“Yes and yes,” I said with mischievous smirk on my face and in my voice.

End part two

She sat staring at me like I was a god descended from the havens. Suddenly I was no longer an undergrad student she had lectured to nor was I some guy to chat with on a lonely Friday night but an incredibly valuable resource. I told her about being a student at VCU and working for Turnbull.

“Yeah—I’m just an undergrad.” I said, “but I get around and I read a lot. While I was in the Army I took classes at the University of Alaska. Ask me sometime about Tlingit hunting songs.”

“I want you…” she said, then blushed and caught herself, “I mean I would like for you to talk about these things with me. Since you knew and worked with Turnbull I could cite you as a source.” She hesitated a second looking a bit like a little girl wanting a second helping of ice cream. “Do you have the paper?” she said shyly.

“No,” I said, “But I can get a copy for you. I know who has a copy and can have her send it. And if you like I can get copies of Mason-Carter’s field notes on the Mbo interactions with the Mbuti from her and her husband’s 1957 visit to Zaire. It seems the Mbo had a ceremonial trumpet similar to the Molimo at one time in their history. It appears they stopped using it sometime in the mid 1800s—some sort of influence by Christian missionaries. Mason-Carter taped an interview with an elder who related the entire oral tradition of the Mbo to her and mentioned what we could call a Molimo—except they called it Nmilom.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks she looked at me with utter disbelief. She mumbled she didn’t even know about the Mbo “Molimo.” I gave her my vulnerable “little boy,” smile.

It was humbling and at the same time I got a guilty thrill out of having this much power over this beautiful woman who I so admired—the tables had been turned. There was in her eyes that look all men hope for—the hunger-wanting look. She was looking at me as an authority and—more importantly to me in that moment—as a man. I didn’t want to overplay my hand—didn’t want to seem opportunistic or obvious.

“Sally,” I said, “I have to go—someone is fixing me supper tonight and I don’t want to keep them waiting. But I have tomorrow afternoon free if you want to get together and talk more. I know a beautiful, quiet place—it’s kind of special to me—a great place to talk, think or just be at peace. I mean—if you’d…”

“Yes—yes,” she interrupted. Her eyes were wide, fixed on me and she was almost salivating.

***

Around ten the next morning I met her at the front entrance to the old dormitory on old campus. Built shortly after World War One, it was a sober, brownstone Victorian structure that had been renovated and turned into apartments for faculty who were single or just young and not needing anything except a place to sleep.

I had told her to dress casual and warm. She came out wearing jeans that looked like they’d been sprayed on and an incredibly cute peasant blouse that sort of clung to her breasts and accented them.

“Hi Jim,” she giggled—knowing full well my name. After that I was, “Jim,”—our first “private joke.”

Once again—the morning weather was crisp, bright, sunny but clouds moving in by early afternoon with the likelihood of snow by late afternoon. As she walked down the front steps smiling at me I noticed she was carrying a small backpack—not a purse.

On the drive to the haystack I told her I had been in touch with the archives secretary for the VCU Anthropology Dept at who remembered me and would mail the papers and a copy of the Mason-Carter tape to me in the next few days. Sally was very pleased.

She sat on the bench seat of my car half way between the door and me. Once we were out of town traffic and into the countryside I reached over and put my arm around her—she immediately scooted over and snuggled up next to me. Crossing the plains headed west the land around us grew open and vast under a timeless sky stretching to the horizons—a patient emptiness waiting to enclose and embrace us. As we sped toward the mountains I would stroke the nape of Sally’s neck with my right hand while driving with the other.

We crossed the new concrete bridge over the Cache la Poudre River, ten minutes later we crossed the South Platte—both rivers broad and flat winding between banks braided with Narrow leaf Cottonwood and Quaking Aspen. Ahead of us the ragged snow-capped Rockies  rose higher and higher into the western sky now starting to change from blue to a wispy gray.

End part three

As we slowed and turned off the highway onto the gravel ranch road that led to the haystack, I briefly stopped the car and without a word put the car in park, turned and kissed Sally. She eagerly returned my kiss—her tongue seeking mine. I slid my hand up under her blouse—she did not resist.

By the time we got to the haystack a wall of clouds was advancing across and consuming the near peaks of the Front Range. The trinity of Long’s Peak, Mount Meeker and Mount Lady Washington—which normally rose above the range—was now lost in the grey silence 50 miles away.

I parked off the shoulder as I did the last time and got out. As we approached the haystack Sally had the window down and was looking hard at the hay monolith. I had intended to go around and open the passenger’s door but Sally was out of the vehicle standing in the gravel road staring at the stack—which for some reason seemed a bit larger than the last time I was here.

I stepped around to her side and watched her face while she first fully took in the huge cube then slowly turned to take in the 360 degree view. I could tell she was not just looking at the scene but feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling the setting. The temperature was dropping, brief gusts of wind sent little puffs of dust up from the road, the Rockies  were fast disappearing into the wall of thickening gray. Overhead the blue sky was quickly turning the color of silent stone.

“It’s like the Kaaba,” she said softly—in a slightly reverent tone—“the first building, built by Adam.”

I thought about what Sally had said. I looked at my pile of hay bales—momentarily comparing it to the most holy site in all of Islam. I had always thought of the Kaaba as achingly mystical, timeless, transcendently sacred—beyond the understanding of mortal men. My haystack just wasn’t quite on that level but I could easily see how an intelligent, sensitive person like Sally might experience it that way. It was a very special place and structure.

I stood behind her and put my arms around her.

“For me it’s an ‘Aleph,’” I said snuggling my nose into her fragrant hair.

“The first letter of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet?” she said a bit puzzeled.

“It is,” I responded, “but it’s also the element of air in Jewish mysticism and begins the three words that make up God’s mystical name in Exodus—“I am that I am.” It’s also found in many mystical amulets and formulas.”

“It’s in the Tarot deck too—I think,” she returned, “isn’t it?

“The magician—number one of the major arcana,” I responded.

“”What does the name mean for you—in this instance?” she said, “it sounds like a stipulative term.

“More along the lines of an idiosyncratic or personal mythology construct, “I explained. “just a thing I cooked up to give a name to a private experience.”

“How so?” she came back as she stood further taking in the moment, “are you comfortable sharing it?”

“Sally I thought you’d never ask,” I said as I slid my hands up onto her breasts, gently squeezing and fondling them.

She caught her breath slightly and leaned back into me a bit.

“An Aleph, for me,” I went on, “is a place where you can step back from the physical and social world. A place where you can see the entire universe and be apart from the normal press of life, time, experience and even—the self (with a small “s”) that is a slave to that world. It’s a place of quiet, healing rest, comfort and sometimes even—of redemption.”

She nodded silently—it seemed to me she was in her mind—blending my presence and the power of this place. She brought up her hands, placing them on mine and gently pressed them deeper into her breasts.

I threw a couple of blankets up onto the top of the stack. We climbed up, made our way to the center and settled down wrapped in the blankets.

As she sat there with me she was restless. She was looking around and glancing up at the sun—now a silver-gray disk in the sky. I could again sense that hyper-alertness and could tell she was feeling it too.

“Do you feel that?” She said, “a tingling in the third eye—the Ajna Chakra.”

“The enlightenment chakra,” I returned. “Yes I do—I felt it before when I was here. Is your vision suddenly clearer?”

“It is,” she said, “and are your thoughts sharper?”

I said they were.

“Jim,” she exclaimed turning around to face me. “We’re at the convergence of two Ley lines. Do you know what they are?”

“Psuedo-scientific Earth energy grid lines,” I responded, “do you believe in that stuff?”

“I didn’t think I did,” she replied again looking up at the sun. “And did you know that school house and this cube of hay bales are oriented perfectly with the four points of the compass. Jim—this is a power spot.”

For perhaps half an hour we the watched the weather turn the surrounding plains dark and melancholy and snuggled together while light snow blew around us. I couldn’t see it but Sally said she could actually see the energy of the wind—almost like an aura. I sat with my arms around her and found myself empathizing with the wind in its unending journey. The nameless, searching wind that blew across this land before the coming of man and will blow after he is gone, indifferently buffeted us, bits of straw around us quivered and blew away. I kept my arms wrapped around her under the blankets as we both gazed into the evaporating distance—the emptiness and solitude bringing us deeply together.

There were moments when Sally had her eyes closed—at first I thought she was sleeping but later came to realize she was drinking in the endless silent energy—drinking from some unfathomable spiritual reservoir. It occurred to me that this was not really my Aleph—or Kaaba—or power spot—but hers—and I was only an escort whose function was to bring her here.

“I love this place—it’s sacred,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been journeying toward this spot my entire life—like I was always meant to come here. But as much as I love this I’m getting hungry—and cold,” she said as she peeked over the blanket—covering her nose to keep it warm against the wind, “and I’m starting to get a headache.”

“I know a place we can go that’s nice and warm,” I said in a soft, teasing voice, “where we can lay down and rest our third eyes,” and kissed her neck.

“Another Aleph?” she smiled.

“No,” I said. “A motel—about 30 minutes from here—if you’re OK with that. It has a great view of the Thompson River Valley and the Front Range.”

“I thought you’d never ask Jim,” she smiled coyly.

End part four

We climbed down from the haystack. By now the light snow had turned to flurries and was beginning to stick to vegetation—the surrounding vastness turning white under a spreading gray sky. The road surface was clear for the moment.

I drove to the paved highway further west and headed for Estes Park. By the time we reached the town—at a bit over 7500 feet elevation in the Front Range—the snow was falling thickly and at least 6 inches covered the ground. We checked in at the motel and went to a great little pizza place on Lumpy Ridge where in clear weather there’s a great view.

The place was empty except for one other couple about our age—students at another Colorado  university about 40 miles from our school. The restaurant, which catered mostly to summer visitors, had the usual huge, fieldstone fireplace with the requisite roaring fire. We pushed two tables together in front of the fire place. The owners—a very likable middle aged husband and wife you could tell remembered well what it was like to be young—brought out the pizzas and beer and we insisted they join us.

We didn’t have to argue very much. We talked, laughed and watched the logs in the fire blaze and crumble—orange sparks rising up the chimney. The other male student had a guitar and we sang Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell songs until midnight.

The snow had almost stopped by the time we headed back to the motel, the roads recently plowed—in mountain towns like Estes Park  the local snow crews really know how to move snow.

Back at the motel Sally and I showered together and fell into bed. The sex was incredible if a bit brief—we were both exhausted.

An hour or two before dawn I suddenly woke up completely alert and reached out for Sally. Her side of the bed was empty. I sat up abruptly looking around the room—the clouds had cleared and moonlight filled the room flooding through the big, sliding glass doors that faced the white Front Range rising in towering massive stillness into the starry sky.

Sally stood naked in the moonlight looking out through the glass doors at the snow-covered mountains gleaming silver and white on the other side of the Big Thompson River Valley.

I sat momentarily stunned at what I was seeing—bathed in the gleaming moonlight she looked like a marble Greek statue with the exception of her long blond hair which in that light looked like flowing silver.

I sat up and walked over to her. I stopped a few feet away and stood staring—she was the eternal woman—every curve of her perfect body echoing the timeless mystery of the female presence in the universe.

She turned away from the astonishing view and glanced at me briefly, looking down at my body then with tears standing in her eyes turned back to the view across the river valley below.

“So much—so incredibly much—I’ll miss. So much,” she whispered more to herself than me. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

I had no idea what she was talking about but didn’t say anything. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Finally I found my voice…

“I love you Sally,” I said. I felt like I was every man who had ever lived speaking to every woman.

She never took her eyes off the view. The tears continued to flow—her lips quivering.

“I’m dying Jim,” she said. “That’s why I went away for those two semesters—tests, evaluations, second, third, fourth opinions—trips to special clinics in Europe. I have Pancreatic cancer. There’s no cure—nothing they can do. My own father is a doctor—an oncologist—there’s nothing he can do. This is my last winter. By this time next year I’ll be gone—I’ll be dead.”

She turned, her cheeks were wet but the tears had stopped. She looked directly into my eyes. “You’re my last lover, Jim. Thank you.”

***

Sally worked on her thesis completing it even as the symptoms of her cancer made the effort almost intolerable. Dr Blanchard and I helped her as much as we ethically could. I made several trips to her home in Bristol, Connecticut  and stayed with her at her parent’s house. Her father explained a great deal about her illness to me and how I could help her be as comfortable as possible. Her parents and I liked each other immediately—we got on quite well. In those final months of her life, Sally’s parents and I became quite close.

On the day of her defense she sat in a wheel chair 30 pounds under weight looking withered and exhausted but her eyes sparkled with a defiant fire. Her parents, Dr. Blanchard and I had front row seats in the conference room.

Facing the 5 member panel from the Anthropology Department she glared at them. Everybody in the department and most of the university knew about her situation. She had heard things about the upcoming defense—that it was a shoo-in. “Poor girl—trying to earn her doctorate even as she is dying—poor girl.” You could see the pity in the eyes of each panel member.

She glared at the panel—looking briefly, directly into the eyes of each member. A rigid chill went through the room. Through gritted teeth she almost hissed,

“I’ve heard the crap going around. Don’t you dare go easy on me, you bastards,” she pronounced.

In fact the panel did start out lobbing softballs but as Sally hit them out of the park the questioning soon became brutally difficult—the panel members leaned on her hard and turned the screws but Sally beat back every assault making several members look foolish at times. You could see the looks of respect bordering on intimidation—in the eyes of the board members as Sally crushed their best efforts. Her parents, Dr Blanchard and I—all of us sat with tears streaming down our faces—we were so proud.

The panel was very impressed with Sally’s sources, some of which most experts thought were no longer extant. The decision was immediate and unanimous—her dissertation was accepted.

Sally was right. She was gone before the first snowfall the following year—in Connecticut or Colorado. In her final days of lucidity she talked several times about “our” Aleph or power spot there on the lonely plains of eastern Colorado. Though we were there only once for less than an hour it was in some mystical way, a defining moment for her during that final stage of her life. The more she reflected on that event the more significance it took on for her and the greater the clarity and peace it imbued her final days with.

She regarded “our” Aleph as a very personal if not secret thing—she never even told her parents whom she adored. In one of the last conversations we had, she asked me to promise to never take anyone else there. I did and I never have.

Her parents and several others—including 2 members of her defense panel—put together a scholarship in Sally’s name.

A few days after Sally died I returned to Colorado to continue my studies—something else Sally made me promise to do. A few days after I returned to the university her father called and asked me to meet him at the airport in Denver the next day. I asked if I could book him a room at a hotel—he said no—he would only be there briefly.

When I met him the next day at the airport he wasn’t carrying even an overnight bag—just a box about half the size of a loaf of bread.

It was Sally’s ashes. He handed them to me, embraced me briefly and said before she died Sally told him to give them to me.

He said she told him I would know what to do with them.

End part five. End story.

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