~ 1 ~

I have always wondered why they picked Tel Aviv.

Even then, back before the real problems started up again, it was not a place that you would think a person would chose to abduct someone. Or, as Kari would say, to steal someone. All things considered, stealing someone inside Israel doesn't make very much sense.

But I'm beginning this search into my own past precisely because we do things that don't make sense. And as Kari pointed that very first day, 'the absurdity of the story will ensure that the authorities, should you report it to them, will dismiss it completely'. Or something like that. It's hard sometimes to capture the nuance of his rather formal English.

Maybe he picked there and then because I was so far from home. Even as an absurdly independent and self-sufficient (or so I was certain at the time) young woman of just a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday, being so far from your family and friends and usual world can bring a powerful sense of isolation. I had only been there a couple weeks, no time at all to start to feel comfortable in a place that was so different from any place I had been before. Perhaps he knew that the strangeness of location that I was already dealing with would be a good setting for the strange story that he wanted to tell me.

Maybe he knew that if I did believe him it would be that much easier to get me to the forest from there.

Possibly, and most likely, that's just where I happened to be when he found me. Or when Jess found me. Or whichever of them it was.

I've never bothered to ask Jade. I doubt he'd know. That's not the type of thing he cares much about. He'd give Kari a hard time about hauling his ass to the Middle-East on short notice and about the how much crazier the logistics would be in such a volatile place, but he wouldn't ask, ' Why there?' Or 'Why then?'

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. I was there at that time, and that was the time that Kari decided we needed to talk.

The memory is still so clear. I had woken very early - as I'd been doing ever since arriving at the hostel where I was staying - and had gone for a long run along the beach. I started and ended my run at the same places I had on each of the previous days. A pattern. I'd know better now.

After my run I cut through the middle of an apartment block, cooling down on the way over to the Levinsky Market. On my second day there, I'd found a place that sold a good selection of fruit along with their excellent selection of spices and had been going there each day since.

I bought a couple bananas and oranges for my breakfast, the usual, and left the market by its quiet east side. The sun was just cresting the horizon. There was enough light to see by, but not enough to pull much color from the brick and stone all around. Everything was that light grey-blue, the same color as twilight in a city. Quiet and still; not even the sound of the surf fairly close behind me.

I clearly remember thinking how completely alone I was on that street, how I felt safer here, in that solitude, than I had often felt in Atlanta or even Cambridge. I remember, too, that as I stepped from the street onto the sidewalk of that last block a cat broke the stillness, crossing my path and darting into the narrow alley next to a cobbler's shop. It was a tabby cat, missing half its tail.

I was in the middle of that block as the white van came up even with me. A couple other vans had passed me that morning; bread trucks, flowers, the usual early morning traffic - so this one didn't make me think twice. As I've said elsewhere, I can't be sure whether the white van had pulled far enough ahead for me to notice the open side door. Even if it had, and even if I did, I did not react.

At that exact moment the pain exploded in my gut, and Jade pushed me into the van.

~ 2 ~

I’ve always assumed that there was no one else in the van’s driver’s compartment with Kari. If there was they never said anything. I only know Kari was up there because he called back at one point asking if everything was okay. Whenever I think back to that day I always imagine Kari driving the van, but that’s an assumption on my part.

There’s no question, though, that it was Jade with me in the gutted passenger compartment. He had come up silently behind me; whether on foot for some distance or slipping from the van just behind me, I can’t be sure. All things considered, I think he must have been on foot for a while. I know now, first hand, that silence like that is possible.

I still think it was more shocking - more disorienting - to realize that a person was right next to me where it was ‘impossible’ for someone to be. It was that haunted house shock, one that literally makes you jump and gasp. That threw me off balance much more than the punch to my solar plexus. But it was the punch that doubled me over, and it was my own jack-knifing momentum that he directed into the van.

By the time my gasping had subsided enough that I could have screamed for help the van’s panel door was closed, my hands and ankles were cable tied, and, in the faint light of the passenger bay (the only windows were the small ones in the rear doors and they were tinted almost opaque), Jade had smile his completely sincere and very happy smile and said, “Sorry about that.” - the overall effect was so odd that the scream stopped somewhere in my chest.

His tone was completely conversational, exactly as if he had just accidentally jostled me while getting on an elevator. “You okay?” he said. “A shot like that can feel like getting kicked by a horse if it lands right. But I guess that’s the point, huh?”

And he chuckled. Not like some sort of half-wit, though, just even more like a polite guy in an elevator. “You’ll be fine in a second. If you’re not already. Would you like to sit up? Lean back against the side of the van? Sorry about the lack of seats. Makes it easier, you know.”

That was about as much as I could take. My breath was back and the pain had faded out, so I went with the first thing that came to me, “Easier to do what?! Fucking kidnap people?!” And I went with it loud.

He looked down at me with that look, the one I’ve mentioned before, the one where he truly wonders about your sanity, and he said, “Well, yes, obviously.” He thought for a second and then added, “You’re perfectly safe. No one is going to hurt you…”

“What about my goddamn stomach!”

“As I said I’m sorry about that. Just to distract you. Won’t happen again. Seriously.”

Not “I promise”. Not “I swear”. Just “seriously”. That’s about as solemn as it gets with him, and I’ve come to realize over the years that when he says that he means “I swear” more than anyone else I’ve ever met.

“Friend of mine just wants to talk with you,” he said.

“What about! Who are you! Who are you with!” I was still yelling these outbursts. It felt good.

“You really should sit up. That can’t be comfortable.” He leaned over, taking a multi-tool from his belt, and clipped the plastic band from around my wrists. He picked up the little piece of plastic and put it in the cargo pocket on his left thigh. I considered launching myself at his throat or eyes. I was no martial artist then, but my dad had sent me to a couple of basic self defense classes and I knew enough to go for the important targets.

But I didn’t do anything.

I still don’t know for certain why I didn’t, but obviously, in some strange place in my mind, I believed him. I accepted the possibility that something odd was going on but that I wasn’t in danger. And in some other place in my mind, maybe not so strange, I knew without a doubt that any attempt to hurt him would be futile. So I simply sat up and leaned against the side of the van.

“My name’s Jade,” he said as he took a new cable tie from his belt (just a formality, he said), “as for your other two questions, you really don’t want to hear that from me.”

~ 3 ~

Time doesn't mean much, when you're tied up in the back of a van. It seemed like we drove for about an hour. It could have been much shorter than that, but it probably wasn't a lot longer. Jade didn't try to make too much more conversation (probably figured that I would keep screaming), but he did snip my hands free once more and offer me a two liter bottle of water from a black bag in the rear of the van. I wouldn't take it at first, but he tossed it at my head and I caught it. I drank about half of it and threw it back.

He fumbled it and it flew back and landed on his pack. He laughed at that and said, "Geez, it's been a long 5 days." Then he tied my hands back up.

When we arrived at the house I heard the garage door close, then I heard Kari get out of the van. Jade clipped the tie around my ankles and helped me out and up the stairs. The garage was completely bare. And grey. The stairs up from the garage opened directly into the room. It was just one big space, about 40 by 40, like a loft. Nothing in it but a white table and two white, wooden chairs.

Kari was in the process of pushing the table away from the wall; not centered, still closer to the East-facing windows. He stopped as we came into the room and looked at me, and smiled one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. Beautiful because it was sincere and happy, but also beautiful because he is. He slid one of the chairs around the table as Jade took the multi-tool off his belt and clipped the cable-tie around my wrist. He - Jade - told me to have a seat. I just stood there while he closed the door, then he sat down on the floor next to it, back against the wall, feet folded up under him in that odd way he does sometimes. He closed his eyes, but I could tell he was still paying attention.

"Please," Kari said, his voice not at all what I expected; not deep, but the kind of voice that fills a room, that carries even in a whisper. "do take a seat."

"Please," I said, as conversationally as I could, "do go pound sand up your ass." It was something my father said occasionally. I didn't know what it meant, and I still don't, but it was the only thing that came to me, and I remember thinking even at the time that it didn't work.

I was still scared, but they were both so...I don’t even know what they were...that I was also simply pissed off - but I didn't know what to do. There was nothing to do, I suppose.

Kari laughed that laugh, then, and sat himself down and spread his hands on the table. I stood there and stared at him while he stared back. I turned and looked at Jade, who appeared to be asleep. I'll never know why, but I pulled the chair a good three feet away from the table and sat down.

Then he told me his story.

No - I always forget this part - first he told me that he was going to tell me a story. A story that would ultimately have something to do with me, but that would at times seem far-fetched and even ridiculous. And by ridiculous, he said, he meant very ridiculous.

He also said that I was free to go at any time. That if I was not the kind of person who could deal with this situation, or who would care to try to deal with it, then they would be happy to take me back. "I fully expect that you you will go to the authorities," he said, "but, in the light of the unique nature of this situation, I am confident that they will laugh you on your way."

Sounded pretty good to me. So I stood up and walked to the door. I fully intended to walk out, and walk back to my hotel if I had to, and I really didn't care if he was lying about letting me go. No one made a move to stop me, though, so I kept going.

But when my hand touched the doorknob I couldn't turn it. I think because it was real. Real and solid; cool brass with a big dent right on the top. It, the door knob, was so real, but there I was, barely an hour after these two had snatched me off the street, and now they were saying I could just go. It was all completely crazy.

And I couldn't leave.

Because of that one comment; maybe I wasn't the kind of person who could deal with it. At the bottom of everything, these strange people had made me feel that there was something wrong with me if I walked out. Everything I was at that time in my life was based on the premise that I could handle anything. Graduating young from high school. Scrapping my way into a scholarship to a good art college. Traveling all around God knows where because I was tough and smart and because my parents, far from not caring about me or wanting me out of their hair, truly believed in me. Had complete faith in the fact that they had raised me to be able to handle just about anything.

None of it made sense. That was the point. That was why they stole me in that way, to mess with my reality, to prime the pump for dealing with the even weirder stuff that followed. I didn’t understand their method then, but it worked just the same.

So I turned around and walked back to the chair and sat down. Then he told me his story.

"Long ago," he started, "beyond the edge of history, there lived a tribe of people in the far north of what is now considered Europe. They were fair and beautiful, lithe and full of joy, with amber-colored eyes and voices like song. They were of the forest and they..."

"Hold on," I said, louder than I intended, "you can't seriously be about to tell me a fairy tale?"

I could tell that Jade was trying not to laugh, back there behind me, but he clearly wasn't trying all that hard.

~ 4 ~

“...With amber-colored eyes and voices like song. They were of the forest and they were not human. They were not human in the exact way that a wolf is not a dog."

That is not how Kari told it. As far as I know, Kari has never spoken that particular line when he slips into the preamble of this, his fundamental story. And honestly, I don’t think Kari believes that. At least not in that way.

No, the first time I heard that telling of the story was soon after the first time I met Feyn. That one line defines him. It justifies everything that he is and does, in his own mind, at least.

Everything changed, that first day in the white room with Kari and Jade. I heard the whole tale. I asked my questions and made my arguments. I protested and I almost walked out. Twice. But in the end I stayed.

It’s easy now, with the years that have past and the things that I have learned, to rationalize that first day as a textbook case of cult indoctrination; the shock, the violence and pain of my abduction, the disorienting movement to an unknown location, the disconcerting friendliness of my captors, and, ultimately, the semi-fantastic frame story with the pseudo-scientific foundation. Knowing what I know now, I could almost make the case that by the time they were done with the whole show it would have been odd if I had not gone with them.

But that justification would be a lie, and the whole purpose of this is to look honestly and deep into everything that has happened.

In the end I just wanted to believe him. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be different in a way that brought with it a unique imperative, that gave my life an entirely new meaning.

Isn’t that what everyone wants?

There was one thing, though, that made it possible for me to believe this thing that I wanted to believe, to truly accept that I had become involved in something that was beyond what I could argue against or find explanations for. In the course of telling me his story Kari told me something about myself that was impossible for him to know. I’m not using that word lightly now, just as I didn’t discount the meaning of it then. I had never, ever told another person. I had never written it down or even drawn a picture of my experience of it.

It was impossible, but, even so, Kari knew about The Sorrow.

~ 5 ~

The Sorrow is what I called it, up until that point, anyway. For most of my life that was the only word I had for it. We all had our own words, before we met Kari. Jade says that he still usually thinks of it simply as The Fit.

It is my very first memory. Me as a five-year-old little girl, playing alone in the back yard of our house outside Charlotte, North Carolina. The soft murmur of the leaves above me and the too-blue of the sky above that. A September day (it is the only one whose exact date I don't know) sitting in the grass, and the grass is soft and yielding as it is in the long shadow of Summer. My mom always called days like that ‘sweater weather’, when the breeze brought the chill down from the Smoky Mountains, and I had one on, bright red with yellow cuffs.

It is no easier to describe that first time than any of the others. There are the tears, of course, which are so much a part of the strangeness and which cannot in any way be controlled. They don't come on fast, but when they do come they are real and hard and there is nothing you can do about them. The tears, though, are just the physical part. The part that you can see.

The thing that is so shocking is how suddenly it hits you. How literally 'out of the blue' it comes. Always a perfect day, a day when everything is just right, and it is the incongruity of it, more than anything else. It's not as if you have spent the whole day sliding into a personal darkness over your boyfriend or your life or even the generally sad and scary state of the world (if you happen to believe that). That would make perfect sense and the tears, when they came, would be an expected and welcome release. No, the first punch is how out of place it seems at the time.

But the bright and shining sadness itself is the second punch, and it just knocks you on your ass. It feels like the loss of every single thing you have ever loved and, at the same time, the crystal memory - sweet and beautiful - of everything that made you love it in the first place. But worse, it is the pure understanding that even the things you haven't lost yet are only going to last for so long.

By the time I was ten I knew that something strange was going on. Enough years had come and gone for me to see the pattern. Although I had never mentioned it to anyone, I had kept my ears open and I knew by then that either none of the other kids felt this thing or it was something that absolutely no one mentioned. Ever.

By fourteen I was pretty sure that it wasn’t a little kid thing that I was going to outgrow. Veiled sleep-over talks with quite a few friends had made me almost certain that no on else in the whole world had ever felt The Sorrow, as I had started thinking of it by then.

By around seventeen I had accepted the mystery of it and had more-or-less come to terms with dealing once a year with another of my life’s small anomalies. But right around then is when I got dropped into the biggest anomaly of all.

The funny thing is that this ‘thing’ on that one day of the year is just about the only time that I ever felt anything like real sorrow. Or sadness. For all my seriousness and independence and devotion to my art (and science) I was never a gloomy or moody girl. I knew plenty of people like that, some of my friends, an older uncle, a couple of my teachers; people who just tended toward sadness as their default state. But I never felt that dark weight. And I still don’t.

As far as I can tell - and this may be another of the common oddities that I think we all puzzle over occasionally - we are all that way. Jade and Jess and, believe it or not, even Feyn (in his own way); fundamentally content. Happy. (I think I would stop short of joyous, though, especially in the case of Feyn.) Even with everything that has happened over the past several days, I am still not swamped in sadness. Or sorrow. Confusion, maybe; but that’s what this is for.

So, the thing that tipped the scale that day, the thing that I was able to grab hold of and hang on to while so many other things kept saying ‘get away from here as fast as you can’ was the simple fact that he knew. And that he was able to give it a name.

Autumn.

~ 6 ~

If it weren't for that one thing, the strangeness of it and it's consistency and the fact that he knows everything about it down to the color of the sky; if not for that, I know the rest of it would not have been enough.

The left-handed thing made no impression at the time. As a matter of fact, I'm not entirely sure he even mentioned it that day. I noticed it. I had noticed that both he and Jade were left-handed – I always noticed things like that, even then – but that, on its own, wasn't anything. I'd had a small study group in my junior year where six of the eight people in the group were lefties. Big coincidence, but that kind of thing happens sometimes. It wasn't until later, after I had met Feyn and Jess and the others that I have met in person, that I realized that we ALL are. Odd, sure, but no kind of proof.

This one's sketchy anyway, though, because from what I can tell we are all very comfortable with our off hands. I've seen Jade do that thing he does with his credit cards when he is bored, the one that always reminds me of David Bowie in Labyrinth, equally well with either hand. I do things like that sometimes, often without even thinking about it. Maybe we're all just very ambidextrous – but I guess that wouldn't be any less odd.

More interesting, but still no kind of proof, is our eyes. Like I said, I've always noticed little details. I’d noticed Jade’s eyes right off, from the time he leaned over and said, “Sorry.” Light brown. Golden. But again, lots of people have eyes the same color as mine.

You cannot not notice Kari’s eyes, and probably least of all for their color. You hear people described as having sparkling eyes - and yes that’s just an expression - but if anyone comes close, he does. So much life. So much joy. Even when he is being deadly serious, even in light of everything that has happened (assuming that everything is true). Sparkling and golden; like the color of mine and Jade’s, but more so.

Maybe I gave it a thought before he started with the story, but it was like nailing your funny-bone when he got to the line about ‘amber-colored eyes’, because that was the very first thing that tied everyone in the room together; the thing that linked us all to whatever craziness he was about to say. The craziness that had the cadence and tone of a fairy tale.

I don’t think I had ever used the words ‘amber-colored’ to describe my, or anyone else’s, eyes, but like so many words that Kari uses, once I heard them I knew that was just what they are. And that something about them brought me into that story.

It’s stranger than simply being left-handed, I guess, but still within the realm of what we currently know about genetics. Both my parents have brown eyes, much darker than mine, but that happens. Jade’s dad has bright blue eyes, but his mother’s are hazel, so nothing too crazy there.

I think I’ll see what I can find out about the others. Maybe I’ll get lucky and both of Jess’s parents will have brilliant sapphire eyes (although that would be more likely to raise questions of fidelity than to bring me closer to any conclusions about my own situation). I’d ask Feyn, but he would just shake his head and walk away.

~ 7 ~

Feyn.

He’s walked into this a couple times now and, as is so often the case with him, he walks right back out again. No indication that he’s coming and no tracks once he’s gone.

It’s like trying to hit him, this attempt to pin him down in words. I try to get ahold of him, to grab him and get some meaning from him, but he just slips away. He moves one inch to the left, but somehow, through his own peculiar brand of magic, he ends up 60 feet away. Completely out of reach.

That is figurative, of course. There is probably no magic involved, but the effect is no less beguiling. Even now, as I sit here and try my damnedest to get something about him written down, to try to glean something of myself in him, I run up against that wall. The one image that keeps looping through my head is of me, on my back, gasping for breath because all the air has been knocked from my lungs when I hit the ground hard (and wrong), yet again. He flows through the rest of the movement, the technique that caused me to be on my back again, and as his body completes the perfection I see the disappointment in his eyes. Mingled with just a touch of distain.

Over and over again, in real life and in my memory.

No hand extended to help me up (as Jade would do), no explanation or illustration of the form (which is common with Kari), just stillness and silence and calm (with that flicker of contempt) as I pick myself up and brush myself off. It’s infuriating, and I’m honest enough with myself to admit that most of my anger is directed at me.

Even within the framework of what we do, what we are all able to do, he is special. He is the most like Kari in so many ways; his looks, the way he moves, the way he fights. All the physical aspects. And I think it is because of that, the fact that he is so close to being what Kari is, that Feyn hates, all the more passionately, the parts of himself that remind him that he is NOT what Kari is. The human parts. The parts that, even if he is very lucky and lives to a natural end, will die all too soon. The parts that are, as he would say, more dog than wolf.

No family. No real friends. Something like acceptance (with that touch of distain) for us; for me and Jade and the rest, because we are almost like him. Close enough. But for the rest, for everyone else who is not one of us, he has no use at all. Actually, it is much worse than that.

His entire world - even more so than Kari, I think - is the Forest and the hunt and the fighting.

In that last, the fighting, I see that he and Jade have something in common. But where I am starting to understand that Jade revels in it to feel alive, to be in that eternal moment as much as he possibly can, Feyn just wants to dominate. To prove to himself that whatever he is truly is better than everything he faces.

Whereas I just want to be able to keep myself alive through all this. I know there will be another envelope eventually and, for better or worse, I know what I’m going to do when it comes.

I need to start pushing myself like I used to. I need to call Jade, like I said I would.

Tomorrow.

~ 8 ~

I've wandered a bit from my little white room, haven't I? That's easy to do when you are thinking about dreams. Just like when you wake up from a really vivid one, full of color and warmth and memories of things that have never been. An entire world in your pocket, and all you want to do is hold it and remember it and lock it in your head so you always have it with you.

But it fades. For me it does, anyway. It fades even while I am still holding it, tying to close the lid on whatever mental box would allow me to keep it. It's a little like that with the first day. I can always start down the road, see the morning-lit buildings of Tel Aviv, hear the surf when the breeze turns to the city, feel the pain in my stomach, but by the time I am in the room, with Kari talking and Jade sitting behind me on the floor, things just start to slip into mist and shadow.

In my memory Kari says something that would easily make sense - "...like so many ancient cultures that were decimated from without, especially those with no established written tradition, there is no good record. For countless years the only way those stories survived was through oral retelling, from one generation to the next..." - then, before I know it, the thought has travelled down the path to a place where nothing makes sense.

Similar to what I keep doing here. Except that I tend to step back as I get too close to the edge of the cliffs of unreality.

But this is my thing, by me and for me, and I still believe that there is insight to be had in the act of exploration. Insight beyond the 'facts' that I want to set down. My little white room will always be there. It may slip in and out of shadow once I sit down across the table from him, but I can go back to it any time I like.

My call to Jade does not leave me thinking about the white room.

Of all the strange things that were discussed that day the physical aspects of what we are, the hunting and the fighting, those did not have a large part in the conversation. Good thing, too. If it had been obvious, that day, that the road I was starting down would take me to a world where normal people, for no reason at all, go stark raving crazy, destroying everything they love (destroying just everything, really) and where people like me are able to do things that we simply should not be able to do...well, all I can say is that I hope I would have walked out. If I had known.

But I'm sure Kari knows that. If this is true, then he has had a very, very long time in which to figure out what he should (and shouldn't) say. Hell, if this is true then he can probably "feel" what he should (and shouldn't) say. I don't know much about how Jade was stolen, but I can easily imagine Kari talking with Jade for the first time. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Kari just said, "If you come with me I'll let you fight to your heart's content. You can plan and execute abductions all over the world, act as my agent in challenging and dangerous situations, train people to do all the things that you do well, and at the end of the day you can rid the world of true, black evil by destroying it with a magic knife."

I can just hear him say, "Where do I sign up!" - although he probably would've been wary (just a little) of the magic knife bit.

I wonder what Kari did say to him? I wonder if Jade would tell me? We'll see.

For me, though, real talk of the true nature of what we are came later. In the Forest. In a small clearing ringed by evergreens, with a fairly young oak tree in its center. There was nothing at all special about that particular clearing, or that particular oak. Over the course of my time in the Forest there were many clearings and countless trees. But that one was where it all started. Where I began to understand what might be possible.

~ 9 ~

One pull-up.

I would say that this is one of the craziest sentences I've written, but it isn't even a sentence. A noun and a modifier.

One.

There is something special and powerful about the word 'impossible'. It allows us to deal easily with ideas that would otherwise cause us real problems. (Six million? Impossible.) It allows us to not waste precious time and energy speculating about nonsense. (Atavism? Throwbacks to some extinct race? Impossible.) It allows us to believe in who we think we are. (Kill someone? Me? Impossible.) And it can keep us locked in the box of our own unrealized potential. (Pull-ups? Impossible.)

Not plural, though. Just one.

Let's define it. Impossible is, quite literally, hanging from the strong, young branch of a solitary oak in the midst of a clearing encircled by evergreen trees. Impossible is how bad it hurts, the burning pain - deep and real pain because you are stubborn even in the face of impossibility - all along your fingers and into your palms as the knobby bark bites hard into your uncalloused, soft, suburban hands. Impossible is using every single ounce of your strength, every bit of will or grit or determination or whatever you chose to call it to make your goddamned body move, even one inch, toward that branch. Because right now it is the most important thing in the world to prove to him that you can.

But you can't. Not even once. Not even an inch.

Impossible.

"OK, that's cool," Jade said. "Just let go and drop down. It's only a couple feet. Remember to give a little in your knees when you hit, though."

"I can't," I was able to gasp.

"I know," he said, "that's the point. Now drop."

I let go, but I didn't move my hand away from the limb as I fell so a small knob scratched a good cut along the pad just below my right index finger. I hit the ground badly, too, landing mostly on my left foot, which jarred my back.

"Do you mind telling me what the hell that was all about?" I said, because he hadn't said much earlier.

"It's about you absolutely not being able to do that."

"Do me a favor and ask next time, because I could have saved you the trouble." I wasn't in bad shape then. All things considered, I was probably in pretty good condition for a normal young woman from America. I was still running regularly, even while I was traveling and I had played soccer in school, but like a lot of women I had never done much of anything for upper-body strength. I'd messed around on enough playgrounds growing up to know that I probably couldn't do any pull-ups.

"Have you ever hung from a tree before and REALLY tried to do one?" he asked. "Given it everything you have? Made your hands bleed?"

"No," I said.

"See. There you have it. Now you know."

"Know what?"

"That it is truly impossible."

I probably couldn't have sounded much more petulant, "And why is that so important?"

"It is so important," he said, happy little smile in place, "because it's really fun to remember HOW impossible it was when you can do them next week."

"Kiss my ass," I said. "I can't even get up to that limb without you helping me."

Which was true. When we had walked into the clearing that morning there hadn't been any discussion or preamble about the tree, which, I was to learn over the coming weeks, was the way things usually went. We'd been trading small talk, mostly, mixed with asides about the protocols of being in that place, when he stopped by the young oak.

"I want you to try to do a pull-up using that limb up there, the lowest one that sticks straight out," pointing to a branch far beyond my reach, even with a strong jump.

"Why?" I asked.

"I'll tell you later," he said. "Now, I just want you to do it. And I want you to promise to really try."

Honestly, I thought I could tough one out. I knew it'd be a stretch, and I had no illusions about the possibility of doing more than one, but I was so pissed by his obvious certainty that I wouldn't be able to do even one that I was determined to show him up. At that point in my life, I don't think I had ever failed at something that I was determined to do. "Don't worry, I'll try," I snipped. “How do I get up there?"

"Jump," he said.

"You're kidding."

"Yeah," he smiled. "For now." So he twined his fingers together, like someone helping an old lady onto a horse, and offered them for me to step on. I stepped down hard, just to be jerky, but he didn't seem to notice. I already knew he was stronger than he looked, but I was still surprised by how easily he lifted me up to the point where I could reach the branch. I grabbed on and the rough bark immediately dug into my flesh.

"You don't happen to have any gloves?" I said, looking down at him.

"Save your breath. Do a pull-up," he said.

But, as I've already said, it was impossible.

So there I stood, hands bleeding, arms shaking from the muscle failure that came from not being able to do even one, and him telling me that by next week this particular brand of impossible would somehow no longer be. It was too stupid to even bother with a smart-ass remark, so I just glared.

"No reason not to show you one way to do it," he said. Then he took one step away from the tree before launching himself not straight up, but more-or-less right at the trunk. Planting his left foot, he used that and the momentum he had already generated to redirect himself up to the branch. I still remember thinking, right then, that what he had just done was impossible. He grabbed with both hands, stabilized himself, executed a couple tight, slow pull-ups, then dropped to the ground precisely where he had started.

It was like watching a giant squirrel, and I told him so.

"Yeah? Squirrels are okay," he said, "but you have to watch out for the really big ones around here, the dark brown ones with the darker forelimbs. They'll grab your nuts." He immediately realized what he'd said and blushed a little, the first time I'd seen him do so, "Steal them! Steal them, I mean. Anyway, time to start."

"Start what?"

"Doing pull-ups."

"But I can't."

And that was the first time that I ever got the look. It wasn’t even a full-bore look, because he knew that no one had told me yet, but it was still heavy and I knew he was dead-on, no bullshit serious.

“You only get to say that once. You already did a couple minutes ago, and it was true then, but that’s it. From now on you can scream and tell me how much you hate me and what a dick I am, whatever, but you don’t get any more ‘I can’t’s'. Because the truth is you can. All of it. Seriously.”

Then he twined his fingers again and leant over for me to step into his hands. He lifted me up and I screamed when I grabbed onto the branch. I hung there, almost crying, not so much from the pain but from knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Then I felt him wrap his arm around my calves and lift, just a little. Just enough. I don’t think I’ve ever tried so hard to do anything. And with his help I did it.

He eased me back down and then helped me do one more, but that time he had to do almost all the work. At two my hands just gave out and I fell. He helped control my fall, but I still landed on my ass.

Eleven days later, on the Thursday of the next week, after he had helped me over and over again (each time with just a little less support, but each time pushing me until my arms literally stopped working), I did one all by myself.

He still helped me up to the branch - for a little while longer, anyway - but once I was up there I could do it.

Eleven days to redefine ‘impossible’.

The first time.

~ 10 ~

The most recent bit of impossible, though, didn't seem very much like what I have been able to make myself do. Not like silence or not being seen or the map reading or even the fighting. I've come to believe that those things, and almost all the rest of it, can be done by just about anyone.

If, that is, they have the proper framework.

It's the other stuff that I wish there was some way to figure out. Like the things that Jess appears to be able to do. Or the night-black, howling, 220 shock of that thing touching me. Or 'Seeing' the sound of Piiska and Sääksi in that way that wasn't seeing and certainly wasn't hearing.

What could cause something like that? Other than, as Jade suggested, some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion. Could the stories that we hear in the Forest be that powerful? Do they get in there, primed and set by the isolation and the exhaustion and even the diet, and percolate until the time comes?

Maybe.

But why?

~ 11 ~

When I say “why?” I don’t mean “why would that work?”.

I’ve come to accept the techniques that allow people to believe and do strange things. The role that Boot Camp plays in the creation of effective soldiers would be a good example of this. Maybe I’ll come back to whether I think that those techniques could account for what happened when I touched that thing. But maybe not. I still shudder whenever that comes up from my memory.

No, when I say “why?” what I am really wondering is “why would anyone do all this?”.

But if this is true (as Jade is fond of saying, referring to the grand story that we find ourselves a part of), then I can almost understand it. If this is true, if Kari is what he says he is, then it makes sense that he would spend every single moment of his long life doing what he does; finding us, finding them, and making us into something that has a chance against them.

If this is true, then who wouldn’t do exactly what he is doing. What would one of the very last Maasai do if he found that there might be others of his people out in the world somewhere, even if they were far from their home? Wouldn’t the last Inuit do everything in her power to recover some of the relics of her people, if she had a way to find them? Wouldn’t a Sámi grandmother want to teach her granddaughter the songs of her people, even if the old woman’s daughter had chosen to forget them all?

I think so.

If it’s true then his motivations make perfect sense, even if most of the particulars are still bat-shit crazy.

~ 12 ~

But what if it is not true?

If it’s not true - and if we are 100% honest with ourselves we know that it absolutely cannot be true - then there is simply no way to rationalize him and what he does. Or, more accurately, what he doesn’t do.

For instance, he does not ask for money and he does not try to sleep with any of us. Not with me any way, and as far as I know he has not made advances toward any of the others, either. As a matter of fact the level of propriety that he maintains can be a little disconcerting (but I think that is a topic best left for later).

These two points alone - his lack of interest in sex and money, at least as far as we are concerned - tell me right away that he is not your average, everyday cult leader trying to build his own new religion. The pattern with these is always the same, and there are none of the elements of that pattern with him. He does not ask for worship or position himself so that we must be dependent on him. Just the opposite, as a matter of fact. He seems to go out of his way to ensure that we do not ‘need’ him or come to idolize him, especially with those who might be most inclined to try to turn him into some sort of god (i.e. Feyn).

Thinking through that, it’s interesting to note that all the cults that I can think of - and sects and even accepted religions (not going to get into that now, either) - are the product of one person, usually a man, often a lunatic, with a story. And in a surprising number of cases that one person is able to get enough people to believe his story to set himself up, at least for a while, as the thing that he thinks he is, or that he thinks he should be. Every time I think to myself, “how the hell can you still be here, thinking this nonsense, doing these things, for him, for a stupid story”, I remember Jonestown or that goofy-ass TV commercial with the volcano and all that expensive real estate over in Clearwater and I realize it could be much, much crazier.

But it just doesn’t feel like a cult. More often than not he seems resigned to his calling, not the enlightened author if it or a zealot touched by a new cosmic truth.

No, the complete absence of the trappings of the modern ‘cult’ points more to a big, bureaucratic (i.e government-sponsored) program. What the late-night talk show wackos would most certainly call a ‘conspiracy’ in 72 point Courier type.

For the record, I’ve never understood the concept of the ‘conspiracy’ as it is often presented these days. As far as I can tell, there are simply ‘secret programs’. Some programs have successfully remained secret, in which case no one, except those who are supposed to, knows anything about them. And some programs have bled, in whole or in part, into the public, in which case people are prone to speculate about the details of the program. The fact that these programs are strange or kooky or illegal makes perfect sense to me. If they weren’t they wouldn’t need to be secret. Do these people really expect the CIA to send a liaison to the Washington Post saying, “Just thought you guys would want to know that we’ll be slipping some of that new-fangled LSD to a few hookers and their Johns this weekend over in San Fran.”

Yes, I know that the wackos are freaked out by the ACT not the SECRET, but come on fellas WAKE UP. We’re talking about a really big government here, of and by a hell of a lot of PEOPLE. Human People. What do you expect? Top marks for optimism, but please.

(I wonder what brought that on? Rarely have I sounded so much like Feyn.)

But even though this feels more like the type of thing that I EXPECT the government to be involved in, I can’t for the life of me figure what they could be getting from it. I have to assume that they’ve continued doing mind control experiments of various sorts for a long, long time - and this seems like it would be somewhat inefficient, even by government standards. I’ve never bought the unwitting, brainwashed assassin or manchurian candidate stories, as there would be absolutely no reason for them with so many willing candidates lining up for those types of jobs.

The only type of program that could make a little sense to me - realizing full well that there are all sorts of scenarios in which the nature of the experiment requires me to have these exact thoughts and work through them in just this way as a means to further the program - is one that is trying to determine which type of ridiculous story (fairy tale, sci-fi, alien, conspiracy, etc.) different segments of the population are most susceptible to, and just how far the test subjects are willing to go in the service of that story. (Although you’d think that the administrators of this program could just go to church or to an Anime convention to do all the research they want.)

I am fully aware that if my entire life is just a government program then, in all likelihood, I will never know it and I will never get any ‘real’ answers. Just as I don’t believe in half-assed talk show ‘conspiracies’, I also don’t believe in half-assed government programs. If they do things like this (and I bet they do, just not this stupid) then I think they are very good at it; no loose ends, no unfinished business, no surprise revelations. If I am a lab rat, then I expect to have a similar end.

But I don’t believe that it’s a government program any more than Jade does. In the words of my pal Gibson, faultily remembered, I’m sure, “Motive. Real motive problem.” There is just no good reason at all for anyone to be doing any of this.

Unless it’s true.

~ 13 ~

Where has this gotten me?

At best I am at just about the same place I was when I started. More likely I am a couple steps back from there, which puts me right back up in a tree talking with a crazy man.

That's probably not fair, and I have to admit the irony - and maybe the arrogance - of continuing to think that he's the craziest of us specifically because he appears to be so damned sane. Maybe it's simple jealousy and I just don't want to accept that a person CAN deal with all this without it tearing their world apart.

He's the only one of us - that I know of, anyway - with something like a normal family life. If you call living a stone cold lie every single day of your life with a big happy smile on your face normal. But who am I to judge? We're all messed up in the family department. Feyn has no one by choice. Kari has no one as a function of the story. I'm not sure about Jess, but I think I heard that only her mom is still alive and I can't imagine she sees her often, doing what she does. Who knows about Andi.

And I have no idea what to do about my own situation. Things would probably have been a little strained by now anyway; mid-twenties, no husband, no grand kids, no skyrocketing career, not even any big achievements - all mixed up with several thousand years of guilt.

But the bigger issue is on my side, in the part of me that, even if I don't always believe all of it, wonders if I am fundamentally different from my parents. Not in the emo, self-absorbed way that almost all kids feel at some point in their teens, but literally different. I can't get away from the fact that these changes that have made me into something closer to what Kari says I am have also taken away much of who I was when my parents let me go off on my own. There is a distance between us now, and I can't wade through it.

Since I'm generally pretty honest with myself about this part of it, the truth is that I haven't tried very hard to get back to them.

I know they love me. And I know they did everything in their power to help me become a strong and independent and good and moral person, but as screwed up as it sounds, it hurt a little that they believed in me enough and trusted me enough to let me go.

I know why, and I understand why, but it still hurts.

And it hurts more that I feel that I let them down by running off in pursuit of a fantasy. By not becoming what they knew I could become because I've been too busy becoming something else.

I know there are thousands, probably millions, of people in the world today who feel very much as I do, and not because of a myth that walked into their lives when they were still young. People in the military or in other jobs that require you to become something very different from the person you would have otherwise become. You start to believe new things, you DO things that you can barely accept, and even if you end up stronger and smarter and, on some level, better than you were or would have been, you are different. And your family can't really ever understand.

So you go home and you light the candles and you eat the food and you hear the stories that feature a you that doesn't exist any more and you make small talk with your cousins and the whole time you think about the body lying face down in the shallow water. Or you think of the forest, so perfectly silent that you can hear, literally, the snowflakes falling through the mist.

~ 14 ~

As strange as it's all been, and painful in many ways, there have been some really good times.

Whenever he was at the Forest, Kari always liked to have a good fire at night; outside if it was warm enough (which to Kari could include temperatures pretty close to freezing) or in one of the huts that had a fireplace when things got really cold. My family didn't camp when I was a little girl, so I don't have much to compare to, but I swear that man can kindle a fire out of a pile of rocks and a cup of sand.

I learned a ridiculous amount about those types of skills (you can't help it when you are plopped down in the middle of a forest and told that it would be in your best interest to learn - quickly - how to survive), but this is another of those small things that have an extra spin of 'odd' with Kari. Odd, but useless for my purpose of trying to get a better understanding of the oddness.

We'd work all day, or all night, and then we'd break for a rest and food (if we weren't doing things that kept us going for longer periods at a stretch) and Kari would build a fire. If we were eating something that was better cooked we'd cook it, and even if we weren't we almost always made coffee. Kari loves coffee. They all do. Even I do now, and I didn't like it all that much before I got there. But the coffee there, especially when Kari made it, was the best I've ever had. And we made it with nothing but an old pot, water, coffee and gravity. I still do.

He even has a story about how he first encountered coffee, in what is now Lithuania, not long after the Battle of Vienna; which, if this isn't true, is just more crap. But he has stories like that about everything; crazy things he's seen and done, stories from his family stretching back to before history, little magical tales about talking animals and wondrous treasures and charmed swords.

I used to love it when Kari would tell me stories, sitting around a fire, drinking his perfect coffee. Not necessarily the big stories that didn't really make sense (and that tended to involve me more directly than they should have), but the ones that were more like 'normal' fairy tales.

Maybe I should jot a few of those down.

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