The following chapter was written as a prologue to the novel “The Surgeon’s Sin.” Luke, a secondary character in the novel, is on the Appalachian Trail battling through hid dark night of the soul. Ten years later, Luke, in chapter 14, page 121 of the print version, refers to the prologue events as he tries to explain the revolution in his life to Dr. Peter Jenson, our main character.
I cut it from the novel after trusted advisors felt that the events were too distant and Luke’s character not dominant enough, and the plot took too long to get to the point where the prologue narrative made sense to the reader.
Still, what I like about the abandoned prologue is that it vividly describes that watershed in Luke’s life where everything before meant one thing and everything after meant something else. It also introduces a character, Joshua, who never makes it into the novel. He’s still important though, because he is the evangelist, the carrier of the faith. I believe that faith is not so much discovered as it is passed on through a long line of saints extending all the way to Jesus. In this case, from Joshua to Luke to Peter.
Enjoy the story! Comments, as usual, welcome.
Luke in the Wilderness, a Prologue
Silence. It was the same every night, always ending in silence. Luke had this conversation over and over, but as long as nobody listened, nobody knew he was crazy. The wilderness offered a cushion for his madness. Each night he hoped for a different ending, a happy ending. Or, if not happy, then at least not painful.
He stared into the rain and darkness beyond the small halo of warmth and light provided by the fire in the Appalachian Trail shelter. In the darkness beyond, he conjured the thin, small form of Jane, her sad blue eyes and face surrounded by a tight ring of blond curls.
“It must be cold out there,” he said. “Couldn’t you come closer?”
No. I couldn’t. I’m fine. Really.
“I’ve missed you.”
I know. You told me.
“Tell me why you left.”
You know why I left.
“Yes. But I needed you”
And I needed you.
“But then, why? We could have done it together.”
You weren’t there.
“I tried. Well, I would have tried, Jane. Really. I would have.”
Outside the firelight, rain poured down into the darkness that was as black as the space between the stars. Luke directed his side of the conversation to that point in the night where he saw Jane’s apparition. Wind brought mists swirling at the edge of the firelight, and the air smelled of pine, wet grass, and decaying leaves. Sometimes the a gust blew through the little fire, and acrid smoke rose into Luke’s face, and his eyes filled with tears.
He gave an involuntary start, sorrow giving ground to fear, as Jane’s ghost took form. A hooded person burst through Jane and closed fast toward the fire. Luke stood and took a step back. Though he could converse with Jane the ghost, he was not prepared to deal with her resurrected from the dead.
A hiker stepped into the firelight under the roof of the three-sided shelter and threw off the hood of his poncho. Droplets of water hissed into the fire and dripped onto the packed earth. His dark beard and ponytail startled Luke, who still expected Jane’s blond curls. The hiker looked about the empty shelter. One pack, one sleeping bag, one pair of boots, and one man.
“Who’s Jane?” he said.
Luke willed himself back from the edge of madness. He again sought those behaviors that govern human contact. But his heart regretted losing his hallucination.
“Sorry,” Luke said. “Didn’t see you coming. Must’ve been a strange welcome.” As long as he could hide his grief and anger, he could appear sane.
“Joshua,” he said. “Folks call me Josh.” He held out his hand.
Luke hesitated even at the small touch a handshake would require. He steeled himself not to flinch. “Name’s Luke,” he said, taking the stranger’s hand.
Josh found a hook for his dripping poncho and shucked off his pack. His eyes met Luke’s, and stayed fixed and friendly. Luke had become accustomed to strangers seeing him with a gaze that glanced off quickly, usually followed by a step back, or at least to the side. He understood. He felt restless and unsettled at best, maybe full-bore psychotic at times. His face must give him away. He would never be a good enough actor to disguise his insanity.
Josh found a seat on the edge of the bunks and unlaced his boots, slipping his feet into a pair of sandals. He pulled his food bag from his pack and lit a stove. He looked at Luke’s hollow cheeks and asked, “Eat yet, Luke?”
Luke thought for a moment. “No. I guess not. Mighta forgotten.” He looked at his pack. “I already hung up my food bag, out there on the bear cables.”
“Well,” said Josh, “that’s good bear management, but it truly sucks as a nutrition plan. You may be the first hiker I ever met that plum forgot to eat. Hell, that’s half the reason to hike–so you can eat as much as you can get your hands on. I consider forgetting to eat a sign of just plain craziness.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe so. Craziness.” He got that part right. Luke may have been starving but he hadn’t been hungry until Josh spoke.
Josh put on a pot of boiling water. He looked again at Luke who had resumed his seat by the fire. He seemed to be weighing and measuring something beyond the ingredients in the pot. Finally he said, “I have enough for two. No sense you going out in the rain one more time to retrieve your food bag. We’ll split this, half and half.”
“Thanks,” Luke replied, “but it’s too big a gift.”
Josh nodded. Food was precious on wilderness trails, traded frequently but rarely given away. Food had value not only as intrinsic needed energy, but from the work required to pack it in over hard trail miles. Hikers earned what they ate, and ate what they earned, and did not expect to feed, or be fed, by other hikers.
“Uh huh. Which way you going tomorrow? North or south?” asked Josh.
“North,” Luke replied.
“Me too. Let’s do this. We share my food tonight, we walk together tomorrow, we eat your food tomorrow. Deal?”
Luke hesitated. It was a fair deal, one he could live with, but he was deeply sunken into his solitude. Hiking with someone else meant hiding his anger and grief for a whole day, something he hadn’t been successful at without heavy doses of drugs and/or alcohol. Escaping human contact had been the only way he’d been able to escape substance-induced oblivion.
On the other hand, he really was hungry. “Deal.”
“Deal it is then,” said Josh, pouring boiling water into a foil envelope of freeze-dried food. “And, as a special treat, I have a bottle of wine, which I’m not planning to carry one more step, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve had fresh bread,” Luke said, really worrying more about the wine. “Sounds good.”
“So, who’s Jane?” asked Josh.
“She was my wife.”
“Ah,” Josh said. “Was.” He fished in his pack, brought out a couple of metal Sierra cups, emptied a packet of cocoa mix into each one, and stirred in the remainder of his heated water. He handed one cup to Luke.
Luke took it and stared into the dark liquid. He knew he should elaborate, but where could he even begin? And he sure as hell didn’t know where to end.
“Past tense,” Josh said. “But you’re still talking to her.” He looked around the shelter. “Kind of.”
“Yes. I loved her from the day I met her until the day she put a bullet in her brain.”
“Ah,” said Josh. “I’m sorry.”
“Our relationship is a bit more complicated now,” Luke said. Shut up. Shut up now. “But I can’t seem to get out of the habit of talking to her.”
The darkness encroached on the halo of light around the dying fire. The rain tattooed the shelter roof, as death and betrayal twisted into Luke’s memories.
Josh put another log on the fire, and opened the foil envelope, giving the contents a stir before sealing it up again. “Five more minutes.”
They sipped the cocoa in silence. Luke figured Josh was already regretting the shared meal and the promise of the shared walk. Finally he said, “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
Josh laughed. “Yeah, I kinda do. I can’t eat all this myself, I don’t want to carry it on my back tomorrow, and I am not going out in the rain to bury it tonight. So yes, hell yes, we’re gonna do this.”
The laugh startled Luke. He hadn’t heard anyone laugh for a long time. He shrugged. “I wanted to give you an out. It’s not like I don’t know I’m crazy.”
Josh gave the packet contents one more stir, this time leaving it open. An aroma of rice, cashews and chicken filled the shelter. “They say if you know you’re crazy, you’re not.”
“They say lots of stuff. Most of it total bullshit.”
“Can’t say I disagree.” He produced two plastic bowls and emptied the contents of the foil packet into them, handing one to Luke. He pulled a loaf of French bread and a bottle of screw-top red wine out of the packet.
In defiance of night and rain and death and betrayal and insanity, Luke’s body reacted to the sight and smell of this feast with visceral joy. His mouth watered so hard he nearly drooled. He pulled his titanium spork from his shirt pocket and poised it above the bowl of cashew chicken and rice. But just before the spork dropped, Josh spoke.
“Father, thanks for food, shelter, and company. Amen.”
So Josh was one of them, a grown-up religious nut. Harmless usually. And not too annoying if they could manage to keep their religion to themselves. Luke wondered if tomorrow’s hike would be a day-long lecture in obscure theology. But his worry was brief, his hunger great, and the food good. They both fell to eating. Josh broke the loaf in two and handed half to Luke. Then opened the wine, took a swig, and passed the bottle to Luke.
“Body and blood,” he said with a wink.
Luke had just enough religious training to realize this was some kind of inside joke about communion or mass or whatever it was they called that ritual.
As they mopped the last morsels of food from the bowls with the last crusts of bread, emptied the cocoa cups, and took the last swig from the wine bottle, Josh added another log to the fire and stirred the coals into an encore of heat and light.
“It’s not crazy to grieve,” Josh said.
“It feels crazy.”
“Sure it does. Because nobody ever tells you that the day will come when you will lose everything you ever loved. No one tells you that you will fail, someone will betray you, your best friends will disappear, and everything you thought you were working toward disappears in a puff of smoke.”
No, Luke knew, he hadn’t cornered the market on suffering. Bad things happened to good people. But in his heart he knew that his own decisions had pushed Jane over the edge. He was at least partly the cause of his own misery. But Josh sounded like he was talking about himself now.
“Sounds tough,” said Luke, hoping that would end the discussion. He wasn’t really interested in anybody else’s problems.
“I could see it coming and I spent a night sweating blood, hoping it would all go away. And it didn’t.”
“You think you were like me?” Luke asked.
Josh turned away from Luke and looked into the darkness. He said, “I think I was–maybe still am–like Jane.”
“Jane was desperate.” A gust of wind swept into the fire. Sparks flew and the smoke came back at him. Luke stood and rubbed his eyes. “Ethan was so miserable. And I was so stupid I thought it would be better after he was gone. I thought she would be better after he was gone. Stupid.”
Luke paced around the fire, rubbing his eyes.
“Ethan?” asked Josh, kneeling by the fire under the smoke.
“Yeah. Ethan, our son. He got leukemia when he was four. The kind that doesn’t go away with four-drug chemotherapy. The kind that doesn’t go away with bone marrow transplants. The kind that isn’t kind. He was dead by the time he was six. Two years of misery for the poor kid, and a lifetime of heartbreak for us.”
Josh said nothing.
“Then he was gone and there was this big emptiness. He wasn’t there to love. He wasn’t there to comfort. He wasn’t there to talk about, worry about and cry about. We couldn’t get together and rack our brains for a better treatment plan. He wasn’t there, and we looked at each other and didn’t know what to say.” Luke continued to pace and clench and unclench his hands, but the smoke seemed to follow him.
“You couldn’t comfort each other?” Josh asked.
“Not very good at it, I guess. Partly ‘cause I was gone a lot. I was a neurosurgery resident, so I wasn’t home much. But also because we had the same despair.” Luke resumed his seat, knuckles clearing the tears from his cheeks.
“No goddamn hope. No god, no heaven, no reason for the misery, no purpose. I mean, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion: life’s a bitch, then you die.”
Luke paused to look into the fire. “I coped by working. As long as I kept moving, I didn’t have to think. As long as I concentrated on other people’s pain, I didn’t have to deal with mine. That worked for about six weeks, until I came home and found Jane dead.”
“Seems like it’s all still raw,” said Josh.
“Yeah. It was about three months ago. I’ve been mourning, I’ve been drinking, now I’m just walking. Trying to figure out the next step, one step at a time.” Luke stood up suddenly and covered his face with his hands. “This goddamn smoke.”
Josh stood next to him and lightly placed his arm across Luke’s quivering shoulders. “You’re a brave man, Luke.”
“I don’t feel brave,” he said, keeping his face down. The stranger’s gentle hug shocked him before it comforted him. No one had hugged him since the funeral.
“We are held to this earth only by tethers of love, and fear of what lays beyond. Just to keep breathing after the tethers are cut is an act of courage.”
They stood together until the quivering stopped, standing in a shelter on a long trail that starts on a mountain and ends on a mountain. Some say the trail starts in the middle of nowhere and ends in the middle of nowhere; some say it starts and ends on holy ground.
“Just sleep,” said Josh. “When you wake up in the morning, we’ll walk and talk. You are not alone.”
Sleep had eluded Luke for months, maybe years. His restless nights had been filled with excruciating memories and nightmares. “Sleep would be great.”
Josh withdrew his arm from the embrace and put his hand on Luke’s forehead, almost like he was checking for a fever. The smoke cleared and Luke inhaled the scents of fresh rain, pine and wet grass. He felt his muscles start to relax–first his shoulders, then his hands, back, legs. He realized his muscles were sore, his joints ached. His body became heavy. When Josh lifted his hand, Luke crawled into his bag and immediately slept. In the morning, he knew he must have dreamed because he remembered Jane’s face. She was laughing with her head thrown back, crazy blonde curls flying in the sunlight.
Imagine that. Laughing.