So, I finished my report on threats to my spot in the woods and what I can to to counter those threats. Identifying threats was relatively easy--climate change, acid rain, various invasive species and pathogens, the possibility that the land really could change ownership and be damaged, and on and on.
Coming up with a list of what I can do about it was much harder. The first time I tried, I came up with a bunch of solutions, like a cap-and-trade policy for climate change, turned in my report to Charlie, and he sent it back almost immediately covered in red pen scrawls.
"WHERE ARE YOU IN THIS?"
Of course, I'd come up with ideas best enacted by an amorphous "someone." Charlie suggested I start each solution with "I, Daniel Kretzman, will...."
So that took a while to figure out.
But eventually I got my report finished and Charlie took me through the only actual ritual he's ever had for me. I mean, I know he sings or whistles to campus every evening, and that's kind of a ritual, and I know he prays before the full moon, and probably at other times, and when I asked he told me what prayers he uses. I know he has little ceremonial bows or phrases that he uses at certain times and I have adopted some of them. When I've needed to say a few words he has sometimes provided them. But he's never before taken me through a ceremony I did not explicitly ask for.
When he gave me my bone-handled knife after we killed that deer, he simply said "here," and handed it to me.
He didn't explain what the ritual was for, nor did he tell me what we were going to do. He just looked at me, a day or so after I'd given him my report, looked at me very carefully, and said "It's time." I must have looked rather frightened and confused, because he laughed and said "Don't worry, it won't hurt, much," and asked if I had the afternoon free. I did.
He asked me to gather wood--at least a couple of twigs, preferably dry--from every species of woody plant on campus and to meet him by the sugar maple trees near the main entrance. We often end up there when we meet for lunch, because it's a pretty spot, with a good view of much of campus, but it's out of the way. Nobody's likely t bother you, or even necessarily notice you there. There's no reason for anybody to be on that end of campus, most of the time.
Gathering the wood took me over an hour, though of course I knew exactly where all the plants I needed to find were. I know all the trees and have for years, and by now I know the shrubs and vines pretty well, too. But it's a big campus and it takes a while to walk all over it.
By the time I got back, Charlie had set up a kind of portable fire pit made of an upside down trash can lid filled with sand. He also had a couple of dry oak branches about as thick as his wrist, to keep the fire going long enough to make sure all the twigs I brought, even the green ones, burned.
So, we build a fire and watched it and fed it. It didn't seem right to talk, so we mostly didn't. The fire wasn't very large, and couldn't have taken very long to burn down, but it felt like a very long time.
When all the wood I'd gathered was ash and the flames leaped only on the remnants of the wood Charlie had brought, he spoke, very seriously.
"If you do this, you'll never be able to leave. Not psychologically."
I thought for a moment about what Allen had said, about how you have to be able to leave if you're going to come back, but decided that the two statements belong to different systems of paradox and don't necessarily intersect.
"I'm not going to be able to leave, anyway," I told him, and he nodded, as though that were the right response.
Then he directed me to heat the blade of my knife in the fire and then let it cool, without wiping the soot off. The soot, as I already knew, would be sterile. And he showed me how to make a cut in my arm where it wouldn't do any actual damage, a shallow cut, leaving a thin flap of skin. And how to use my knife to scoop up a little of the warm, mixed ash and inset it there under that flap, under the skin. It's a primitive tattoo, a little gray blob-shape, that I'll have for the rest of my life. Hardly anyone will ever notice it, and no one will know what it means, but I will.
Charlie helped me bandage the new tattoo with a very modern-looking gauze pad and medical tape, though he used lavender oil, rather than antibiotic cream, on the gauze, and told me not to wash the area until it healed, and to let him know if I saw any signs of infection. There was nothing to be said about the ritual. Saying anything would have cheapened it.
So, I stood there rubbing my bandaged arm a bit (yes, it hurt).
"So, are we done?" I asked. "I mean, are we finished...overall?" As usual, I wasn't making a whole lot of sense. I can write, but that doesn't mean the words always come out right when I speak. I meant that, since my entire relationship with Charlie had been based on his being my master, and that process seemed to be complete--it felt complete--were we done with each other. I didn't want to speak that possibility out loud, but I really didn't know and I had to find out. That reluctance to say what I was talking about accounts for my garbled words. But Charlie understood.
"Why would you think I'd want that?" he said, and smiled.